rob"o*rant, n. A roborant drug; a restorative or tonic.

Dragnet Radio Show

This entry is part of a series called: Radio Shows

Dragnet has to be one of the most famous radio programs of all time. The dum-de-dum-dum theme by Walter Schumann is known to people who have never heard the radio shows or seen the television series and the phrase "just the facts, Ma'am" is part of our culture. At its height, it was one of the top-rated shows on the radio. It won awards from viewers, critics and even the Mystery Writers of America. In 1951 and 1952, it was the number-one rated show on the radio, a television show and a comic strip.

There are a number of online biographies of Jack Webb, so I'm not going to dwell on that too much here. He was apparently a very smart, hard-working man who also loved music, particularly jazz music. According to a story in "TV People" magazine from October 1957, Jack Webb actually built an apartment for himself into the building he built to headquarter his Mark VII Ltd production house. That way he saved the commute and had everything he needed at hand to work any time of day or night. You have to wonder if he might not have been just a leeetle bit the workaholic.

Jack Webb got a part in the 1948 movie He Walked By Night; playing the role of a forensic scientist (he wasn't bad in it, either – the movie is pretty good). The semi-documentary style of the movie gave him the idea to do a radio show based on real-life cases from the LAPD files. After some work, he was able to interest the LAPD and NBC, using the endorsement of Chief William H. Parker.

The show always started the same way: "The story you are about to hear is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent." Often, there was also a dedication to a slain officer or some police organization. Here's an example:

Dragnet Introduction DragnetIntro.mp3 (470 KB)

Each episode also starts with a brief introduction by Webb, noting the time, place, weather, department and boss. Something like, "It was Tuesday, the eighth of February, it was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the night shift on the robery detail. The boss was Captain McFadden." Interestingly, the weather was always a single adjective. It was never "hot and dry" or "cold and windy". It was always one word, "cold", "raining" or whatever. I guess he wanted to keep it simple and make it sound like a documentary. Mentioning the department and boss served to set the stage, I suppose.

The deadpan delivery of the actors was done, of course, on purpose. I suspect that Jack Webb just wanted to keep the cops unemotional so that they would seem professional and so that the victims and criminals would stand out in comparison. I also suspect that, after a while, the deadpan delivery became natural to them and they almost forgot it was there. This led to some bizarre scenes. Here is an example where it got totally out of hand. Friday's partner, Ben Romero (played by Barton Yarborough) has been shot and they talk over the case while the doctor is removing the bullet. Ben never never shows a hint of emotion:

Ben Romero gets a bullet removed DragnetBullet.mp3 (2.2 MB)

I love Yarbourough's soft drawl. He was a long-time radio actor in roles on "I Love A Mystery" and "Adventures By Morse". Yarbourough died unexpectedly in December of 1951 at the age of 51 (Webb also died young, at 62, of a heart attack. Smoking? You have to figure). In the space of a eight days between Yarbourough's death and the air date of 27 December, they incorporated his death into the show, in an episode called The Big Sorrow. Nor was he forgotten later episodes would refer back to Ben Romero, how everone missed him and how he had taken Friday on as a brand new rookie and showed him the ropes. No later partner of Friday would be as much of a whole character as Romero. The partners that followed would just be cops, even when they brought in a kid who was supposed to be Romero's nephew.

Webb was apparently a stickler for detail. If a phone sounds at the police station, it makes the ring or buzz that the actual phone in that office makes. If Friday refers to "Room 42, homicide", then you know that the homicide squad of the LAPD is really based in room 42 of the police station. Even footsteps seem distinctive for different characters, men versus women, for example. Later, for the television program, Webb would recreate entire office suites from the LAPD on sound stages.

On the radio, Dragnet went to great effort to include extensive sound effects as part of the program. Where most other shows used only a few sounds per episode, Dragnet had several per minute, all as accurate as possible. The sound effects were apparently mixed in after the voice tracks were laid down (that's the only way I can imagine that they added in the background music). Many episodes were obviously "taped" on location – there's one scene in one show that was obviously taped in a hen house and another was taped live during a fireworks show (you can hear the crowd ooh and ahhh in the background while the fireworks explode overhead). This was not common of most radio shows at the time: you can tell that they are performed live. This allowed them to be very realistic. If Friday and Romero are interviewing someone in the interogation room, you hear the sounds of the wooden chairs on the concrete floor. If they're interviewing a woman who is sewing, you hear the familiar (to some of us, anyway) sound of the sewing machine. In one episode, Friday and Romero have to row a boat out to an anchored yacht in San Diego harbor so they can interview a man. Here's what it sounded like as they left to row back:

Detectives in a rowboat DragnetRowboat.mp3 (1.1 MB)

So, we not only have the sound of the water splashing around the boat, but also the squeak of the oars in the oarlocks and the sound of the oars swishing through the water. Very nice. You also get a whiff here of another of Friday's trademarks: the quip at the end of a scene. Friday will look at a criminal and say, "I'd say he paid full price." The criminal would say, "Huh?" Friday would shoot back, "He paid with his life, that's all." There are at least one or two of these in every episode. Just for fun, here's another quip:

Friday's Quip DragnetQuip.mp3 (630 KB)

I'll bet he kept all the other cops in stitches at the bar after work. Well, no, Friday was too much the straight arrow to be going to bars after work. In a couple of episodes it comes out that he lives with his widowed mother. Ben Romero is married, but rather henpecked and usually worried about paying for something for his family. He's always being tasked with bringing home grocery items and in one episode he gets chewed out by his wife for forgetting to order a birthday cake for one of his kids.

The show often covered leading-edge aspects of police work. In several of the radio shows, the officers make use of the "stats office", where "computers" tally up stats for them. We even get to hear the primitive card-sorters thrashing through the punched cards.

Computer Sounds DragnetComputer.mp3 (630 KB)

There are lots of interesting cultural references from the 1950's that wouldn't qualify as common knowledge now. For example, Friday and Romero usually don't have a radio in their police car. It's pretty funny, these days, to think of two officers of the law having to stop at a drugstore and use a pay phone to call into their office. In real life, I imagine that a radio in the car would have been such a giveaway that unmarked cars didn't have them because everyone would have realized that they were cop cars by the radio antenna. In a couple of episodes, Friday makes a long distance phone call. Making a long-distance phone call was so expensive that he had to get clearance from the business office to make the call. Then, he had to wait while a squad of operators across the country completed the call. It takes nearly two and half minutes to get connected:

Friday makes a call DragnetPhoneCall.mp3 (2.4 MB)

The show's longest-running sponsor was Fatima cigarettes. Strangely –or not, depending on how you think about these things– the now-defunct Fatima cigarettes have their own wiki page. In some episodes, Jack Webb comes on to talk about Fatimas. Usually, however, they used this fairly stupid line about how Fatimas were selling in ever-increasing numbers all over the country. They were selling, selling, selling and you had better start buying yours now –and if your dealer didn't have them, why you tell them to order some now! As I said, it was pretty silly. Later, they switched to Chesterfields. The LAPD supposedly had a clause in their deal with the show that gave them some say in sponsorship (can't have our valiant men in blue associated with girdles or something) and it tells you something about the time that cigarettes were considered fine, upstanding, family-friendly products. It's even more bizarre when you consider that Webb and Yarbourough both died young of massive heart attacks. Mix in the fact that several episodes depict marijuana as deadly and you have some real irony. Here's an example ad:

Fatima ad DragnetFatima.mp3 (1.1 MB)

Like many shows of its time, Dragnet had merchandise for the kiddos. In addition to the squirt gun depicted here, there was a plastic Dragnet whistle and several different badge tie-ins. These things always make me wonder. I mean, it isn't easy to cast plastic, even now. You have to make a mold, which can be expensive, and some engineer has to produce working drawings for the mold to be made from and you have to plan on a run of many thousands if you're going to recoup your cost. Someone had to think, "wow, I'll bet kids would get a real kick out of a Dragnet squirt gun, let's put up a few thousand dollars to make one and see if it sells." Who thinks things like that? I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't be able to come up with this stuff.

There's lots of trivia around the web associated with Dragnet: Friday carries badge 714, which, in real life, belonged to Sergeant Dan Cooke. Cooke worked closely with Webb as technical director for many episodes and originated some script concepts. When he retired, it was arranged that his badge would be used for the series. The badge was donated by Cooke's widow and now sits in the LAPD Police Academy Museum. The Mark VII Ltd stamp that is struck at the end of the TV episodes was actually held in Webb's hands. The name of the dum-de-dum-dum theme song is "Danger Ahead" and is similar to Mikl? R?sa's score for the 1946 film version of The Killers.

Jack Webb was smart enough to realize that the real world is full of drama as good as anything that people make up. In a real sense, he invented the "reality show" concept. He used actors, but the scripts were built around real incidents (some of them – such as a woman who can't have children of her own who steals the children of other couples, holds them in her arms for a few hours, then gives them back – are almost to weird to have been invented. He would later branch out to reality-based shows about patrol car officers and rescue workers. Odd to think that "Survivor" owes a debt to Jack Webb, but it does.

Jack Webb died at the age of 62 of a massive heart attack. He was buried with full honors by the LAPD, even though he had never been on the force. The radio shows, since they are out of copyright (or, more appropriately, I don't think anyone in 1950 ever thought to copyright something so ephemeral as a radio show in the first place) are freely available. On any given day, they are for sale (quite cheap) on CD's and DVD's at Ebay and there are free downloads here and there on the internet. The Dragnet radio shows will continue to be around as long as western civilization lasts, partly because there is nothing so whacky that someone, somewhere isn't fascinated by it and partly because the shows are a fascinating time capsule from our past. They're still entertaining, too.

Prior to the 1960's the police in the United States had acquired a reputation for dishonesty, favoritism and laziness. Pejorative terms like "flatfoot" and the association of police with doughnuts have lasted well into the twenty first century and this reputation was no doubt deserved in many locales. By the 1960's reform efforts all over the country were turning policemen into professionals but their public image hadn't changed to reflect this. Webb had great respect for professionals who served the public by putting their own lives in danger and he tried to use his radio program (and later his TV shows, including Adam-12 and Emergency 911) to boost their image and display their professionalism. His characterization of cops as stoic and unflinching may have been a little over the top, but I think it started moving things in the direction he wanted. "First responders" have never had better reputations than they have today (although you probably can't include the LAPD in that blanket statement).

Here's a whole episode (but a short one, only 23 minutes) called The Big Tomato. This is a classic, all about the incredible evils of marijuana and how it will kill you. This episode aired on the 25th of January, 1951. Listen online or download to your iPod:

The Big Tomato DragnetBigTomato.mp3 (5.3 MB)

Note: this entry is part of a series called: Radio Shows which contains the following entries:

Dragnet Radio Show, The Men From the Ministry, Old Time Radio Shows, Lux Radio Theater, "Arch Oboler's Plays", click any entry for more on this subject. Link to this entry.