The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention from Sept. 12-14 offered a glimpse into American popular culture of the mid-twentieth century. The event’s emphasis is primarily on television shows, radio programs, movies, comics and novels from the 1930s through the 1980s.
Held in Hunt Valley, Maryland at the Hunt Valley Delta Marriott, the convention featured opportunities to meet a variety of celebrities from yesteryear, from Loni Anderson of “WKRP in Cincinnati” and Loretta Swit of “M*A*S*H.” Guests enjoyed symposiums on popular movies and radio shows of the past, participated in recreations of radio dramas (this reviewer was given the stage to voice a skit by the 1940’s radio comedian Fred Allen!) and purchased retro films and memorabilia.
One unusual vendor we met, Mike Riehl, was hand-painting Christmas tree ornaments of logos and images of television shows and vintage Saturday morning cartoon characters. There were screenings of Saturday morning cartoons and on Friday night, monster movies!
Cosplay, or dressing up as famous characters in popular culture, was also well-represented. We met Tylar Schafer in costume as Woody in “Toy Story” and Iron Knight Cosplay (who also goes by “Joe”) segueing between costumes for motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. Other dressed-up characters included Saturday matinee space idol Buck Rogers, the crime-fighting Green Hornet and the Hornet’s great-uncle, the Lone Ranger of the Old West.
This fun and informative annual convention is organized by Martin Grams Jr., a cultural historian born in the late 1970s who has written reference books on TV shows such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Twilight Zone.” He also wrote books on radio programs of a similar spine-tingling nature including “Suspense” and the “CBS Radio Mystery Theatre.”
This year’s event placed a special focus on the “Dragnet” franchise, which debuted in 1949 and is now celebrating its 70th Anniversary. The series set the tone for police shows on radio, and later television, for generations.
The “Dragnet” symposium reviewed the show’s various versions and incarnations: first as a radio drama and then as a cult TV show in the 1950s, which was revived almost iconoclastically as a voice of reassurance in the turbulence of the late 1960s.
The iconic “Dragnet” TV theme was a hit record from swing performer Ray Anthony, and comedian Stan Freberg hit comedy gold with satires such as “St. George and the Dragon Net.” Saturday Night Live veteran Dan Aykroyd later played Sergeant Joe Friday (the show’s lead character) in the 1987 movie homage/parody of the show while a revamped version of “Dragnet” with Ed O’Neill aired on network television in 2003.
It is a testimony to the staying power of “Dragnet” that the original radio series with series star and creator Jack Webb still airs regularly on Washington’s WAMU 88.5 FM on Sunday nights.
Yet, “Dragnet” is perhaps the very show to illustrate that nostalgia can be problematic. On the one hand, Webb worked closely with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to ensure ground-breaking realism in terms of sound effects, dialogue and police terminology then unknown to the public. In recent times, some have criticized the series for an implicit endorsement of all actions of the LAPD and a general avoidance of acknowledging the complex causes of crime while presenting instead a simplistic good vs. evil dichotomy.
While tacitly acknowledging such criticisms, Michael Hayde, author of a book on the show and president of the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club, disputed the view that “Dragnet” completely ignores problems on the police force such as bad cops.
To prove this point, the club’s members performed a very effective recreation (in retro clothing) of a lost 1951 “Dragnet” radio episode in which Friday (portrayed by Hayde) and his partner Ben Romero (voiced by Jack French, wearing a fedora) learn that a policeman has been collaborating with a burglary ring.
At the end of the episode (ironically called “The Big Cop”), Friday intones that “the police officer who betrays his trust as a public servant to work hand-in-hand with the criminal (is) equally as dangerous (as the armed thug)…He becomes the very person he has sworn to hunt down and apprehend…a common criminal.” Edgar Russell III, who played the bad cop in this episode, called this a “Jesus speech” commonly delivered by Sergeant Friday, especially in the late 1960s television version.
Aside from showing how past entertainment can also serve as a springboard for discussions in the present day, some members of the audience experienced live radio drama for the first time through the recreated “Dragnet” episode. They were especially curious upon seeing the sound effects “Foley artists” at work. Rarer still was the opportunity to hear live cigarette commercials as they were officially banned on U.S. radio and television since the early 1970s. “Dragnet” was long sponsored by then-popular Fatima cigarettes: “king-size . . . extra mild . . . pleasing . . . a much better flavor and aroma” intones first the announcer, and later the authoritative voice of Joe Friday himself!
The annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention presents a unique opportunity to remember fondly (or experience for the first time) the entertainment of a past era – either of our youth or that of our parents and grandparents. It also provides an interesting perspective on popular culture today, while serving as a stimulus for meaningful social discussion of current issues.
For more about the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, please visit: https://www.midatlanticnostalgiaconvention.com/.