'Radio Days' 25th Anniversary: 25 Things You Didn't Know About Woody Allen's Nostalgic Classic
With "Midnight in Paris," Woody Allen's comic look at nostalgia and its limitations, having earned four Oscar nominations last week (including nods for Best Picture, Allen's direction and his original screenplay), it's a good time to take a look back at Allen's 1987 comedy "Radio Days." Another comic take on nostalgia, "Radio Days" is now officially a golden oldie itself, having been released exactly 25 years ago, on January 30, 1987. A fond look, filtered through memory, of a 1940s New York childhood, the radio broadcasts that captivated audiences back then, and the behind-the-scenes gossip about the performers who voiced them, "Radio Days" may be best known today for launching the career of Seth Green -- then a 12-year-old who played the Allen-like narrator as a boy. But there's also a wealth of little-known true stories behind the film, some of them from Allen's own life, some from classic radio lore, and some from the real-life old-time radio performers Allen cast in his film. Stay tuned for the "Radio" dish...
1. Allen's encyclopedic knowledge of pre-1950 pop and jazz, evident on most of his film soundtracks, was the inspiration for "Radio Days." "It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory," the filmmaker recalled in the book "Woody Allen on Woody Allen." "Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone."
2. Though an unseen Allen narrates the film -- and though skinny, red-haired Green looks a lot like what we imagine Allen looked like as a boy -- the film is not strictly autobiographical. (For one thing, Green's character's name is Joe.) Nonetheless, many events are loosely inspired by Allen's own childhood memories, and Joe's family members are caricatures of Allen's own relatives. "I think of 'Radio Days' basically as a cartoon," Allen said. "If you look at my mother, my Uncle Abe, my schoolteacher, my grandparents, they were supposed to be cartoon exaggerations of what my real-life people were like."
3. As in the movie, Allen's real-life father was secretive about his odd jobs, and Allen did discover that one of those jobs was driving a cab when he encountered a taxi on the street and saw his father behind the wheel. He and his friends did go to the beach during World War II to see if they could spot German planes and submarines. He was also punished for dyeing his mother's coat. (Allen recounted these and other incidents from his childhood that made it into "Radio Days" in the book "Conversations With Woody Allen.")
4. Unlike in the movie, Allen's parents did not shift from punishing him to embracing him after hearing the tragic news story on the radio about a little girl who dies after falling down a well. But the "Radio Days"story of "Polly Phelps" was based on a real incident, in which a three-year-old named Kathy Fiscus fell into a well in California in 1949. During two days of rescue attempts, Americans nationwide were indeed riveted to their radios (and a few to their newfangled televisions) for on-the-spot news coverage. Like Polly, Kathy died before rescuers finally reached her and recovered her body.
5. Also based-in-fact: the horrific story of ballplayer "Kirby Kyle" that's broadcast on a sports show. The apparent inspiration for the Kyle tale is the story of Monty Stratton, the 1930s White Sox pitcher who lost a leg in a hunting accident but eventually returned to the mound as a minor-leaguer. He was the subject of a movie, 1949's "The Stratton Story," starring Jimmy Stewart as the wooden-legged pitcher.
6. The interruption of Aunt Bea's (Dianne Wiest) disastrous date by the radio report of an apparent Martian invasion is based on the most famous (or notorious) of all pre-World War II broadcasts, Orson Welles's 1938 newscast-style adaptation of H.G. Wells's "War of the Worlds," which many listeners mistook for an actual report of an apocalyptic alien invasion.
7. Sally White (played by Mia Farrow), the cigarette girl who becomes a celebrated radio gossip, draws from the real-life story of Hedda Hopper, who went from Broadway chorus girl to one of America's most famous gossip columnists. Based in Hollywood, she also had her own popular radio show in the 1940s.
8. In the movie, fellow radio gossips Roger and Irene name-drop Broadway playwright Moss Hart. Hart's real-life widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart, appears in "Radio Days" as a singer. Fifty years earlier, she had been a singer on radio, stage, and screen (most famously, opposite Allen's idols the Marx Brothers in "A Night at the Opera"). In the 1960s, she found a new career as a celebrity panelist on such TV game shows as "What's My Line?" and "To Tell the Truth." But until Allen cast her in "Radio Days," she hadn't been in a movie in 43 years.
9. Don Pardo, who plays the game show announcer in the opening segment, was also a period radio veteran. His booming voice had been familiar to radio audiences (and later, TV audiences) since 1938. By the time he appeared in "Radio Days," he was best known to contemporary audiences as the announcer of "Saturday Night Live," a job he'd held for all but one year since the show launched in 1975. (It's a job he continues to hold today, at age 93, even though he officially retired from NBC in 2004 after 60 years with the network.)
10. Jackson Beck, who voiced the breaking-news reporter, also had a long history in radio, going back to 1931. His famous hard-boiled delivery had been at the center of Woody Allen's directorial debut, as the narrator of the 1969 mockumentary "Take the Money and Run."
11. A lot of people think "Radio Days" takes place in Coney Island, since Allen famously grew up not far from the famed Brooklyn amusement-park beach (as shown in "Annie Hall"), but actually, it takes place in Rockaway, in the neighboring borough of Queens. It was shot near the old Playland amusement park, which was torn down shortly after "Radio Days" wrapped production.
12. Joe was the first prominent role for future 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Austin Powers" franchise star Seth Green, but it wasn't the 12-year-old's first movie. He'd already appeared in 1984's "The Hotel New Hampshire" with Rob Lowe and Jodie Foster, as well as such forgotten movies as "Billion Dollar Brain" and "Willy/Milly." Later in 1987, he's appear as Patrick Dempsey's kid brother in "Can't Buy Me Love." The following year, he had a role in "My Stepmother Is an Alien," co-starring Alyson Hannigan, for whom he'd serve as a love interest a decade later on "Buffy."
13. Among Joe's posse of pals is a boy named Andrew, played by Fletcher Farrow Previn, Mia Farrow's son by Andre Previn.
14. Joe's ranting communist neighbor is played by a pre-"Seinfeld" Larry David. 22 years later, David would land the lead in Allen's "Whatever Works."
15. Yep, that's Tito Puente (blink and you'll miss him) as the Latin bandleader.
16. "Radio Days" is the only movie that features both Allen's 1980s girlfriend/muse (Farrow) and his 1970s girlfriend/muse (Diane Keaton). The latter appears as the singer at the end of the film who delivers a poignant rendition of Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To." "I wanted to make sure, since Diane was making one little appearance in the picture, that the song was potent," Allen explained.
17. Allen has always been prolific, having directed 41 features since 1969, but "Radio Days" came in the middle of an especially productive streak in his career. From 1985's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" to 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Allen managed to release six features (a new one every 11 months) and one short film (the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of 1989's "New York Stories").
18. With its lavish period production design and dozens of song permission clearances, "Radio Days" cost an estimated $16 million to produce, making it one of Allen's most expensive films up to that time. It grossed $14.8 million in U.S. theaters (this less than a year after "Hannah and Her Sisters" grossed $40 million and became the biggest hit of Allen's career until last summer's "Midnight in Paris").
19. For all its meticulous and costly attention to period detail, the movie contains at least one slip-up: a shot featuring a pack of Camel cigarettes that has a UPC barcode on the side, something that obviously didn't exist in the 1940s.
20. Critics generally applauded the movie, even though many felt it was slight (especially compared to the philosophical musings of the previous year's "Hannah and Her Sisters"). Many critics saw the film as one of several Allen had patterned after various Federico Fellini movies. If "Stardust Memories" had been Allen's "8 1/2" (and if Allen's later "Celebrity" was his "La Dolce Vita," and "Sweet and Lowdown" his "La Strada"), then "Radio Days," with its anecdotal and often fantastical reminiscences of the director's childhood, was Allen's "Amarcord."
21. Oscar voters liked "Radio Days" as well. They nominated it for two Oscars: Best Original Screenplay and Best Art Direction.
22. "Radio Days" didn't win any Academy Awards, but it did better at the BAFTAs. The British Academy voters nominated it for seven prizes, including Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Dianne Wiest), Best Editing, and Best Sound. It won the awards for Best Costumes and Best Production Design.
23. "Radio Days" led to a mini-revival of Kitty Carlisle Hart's film career. In 1992, the singer/socialite played a grande-dame Manhattan party hostess much like herself in "Six Degrees of Separation." In 2002, she played herself as a "To Tell the Truth" panelist in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." Well into her 90s, she was still performing her cabaret act in New York nightspots. She died in 2007 at age 96.
24. When the film was released in early 1987, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum observed, of the sequence showing listeners from all over tuned in to the reports of the Polly Phelps tragedy, "Clearly Allen is getting at something about the national experience of radio here, and expressing a keen sense of loss that this kind of experience is no longer available to us." Yet just a few months later, in October 1987, the nation was indeed united in its attention to TV reports of a similar incident, the rescue of Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old toddler who fell into a well in Texas. Fortunately for "Baby Jessica," after more than two days of efforts, she was rescued safely.
25. Today, Seth Green and his "Radio Days" mother Julie Kavner can both be heard during Fox TV's Sunday night animation lineup. Kavner, of course, voices stalwart mom Marge Simpson on "The Simpsons," while Green voices dimwitted son Chris Griffin on "Family Guy."