The Green Hornet was produced in the 30s and 40s at WXYZ in Detroit, and it’s an example of the lost art of radio drama. Michael Byers (M.F.A. ’96), an associate professor in the Department of English and director of LSA’s M.F.A. program, is trying to revive this neglected genre with a class on the subject, including sound effects. Byers actually built a wind machine in his driveway with his son’s help. I’ll let him describe it.
Michael Byers: We have a rotating barrel made of two wooden disks of about 14 inches across. They are held in a barrel shape by small wooden ribs that are about a foot long. So this thing kind of looks like a big birthday cake on its side. And I have a handle attached to it, which I use to turn it. And it’s all sitting in a big frame made of IKEA shelving—repurposed IKEA shelving, I should say.
Now, also attached, there’s about a four-foot length of canvas, which is attached to part of the frame and which I now drape over the drum and the ribs. The idea is that when you spin it, it sounds like wind.
If it works, this is better than a canned sound effect, I think, because you can change the pitch, tone, and speed of the supposed wind at will to go along with your radio play.
Slow wind…speeding up a little…really blowing out there now! Watch it, Ma! Bring the cows in! You won’t get ’em in before they die! They’re blowing—There goes one now! Bessie’s all—She’s floating away! I’ve never seen this before! Goodnight, Mother!
That’s my wind machine.
(LEFT) The wind machine from the short film Back of the Mike (1938) on which Byers based his model. (RIGHT) Byers’ wind machine.
I have an interest in this lost art, and I’m teaching a course in the English Department. So what we’re going to be doing is reproducing some of the old shows, listening to them, writing them, and probably acting them, we’ll see.
The thing that awakened it originally, I think, was listening to a satellite radio channel dedicated to old-time radio. I had heard it before, kind of accidentally, here and there over the years, but I’d never listened to it in such volume. And I was actually very impressed, often, by the artistry and the strangeness and the complexities of the stories and the storytelling.
Dragnet, for example. It’s a cop show and the hero, of course, is Sergeant Joe Friday and his various partners, and they go solve crimes in Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s. That’s what they do, that’s what the stories are about.
But, you know, more often than not, the show will start with something like a five-minute conversation between Joe and his partner about their lawn sprinkler system or their grandmother who is coming to visit or whether Joe wants to go to the dance with somebody.…
It’s not what you’re expecting when you think, “Alright, I’m going to listen to Dragnet.”
That’s what Dragnet actually was. It was a groundbreaking show in a lot of ways and marked a moment in the form where it began to mature. It began to be able to do things that art can do, which is to surprise, to illuminate, and to make something new out of old forms.