This review is from Jen Barr. Jen is an over-educated wonk who likes writing cool real-life stories and reading cool made-up stories. To her surprise, she currently lives in Denver, but will always be a Californian at heart.
As the weather cools and the evening comes earlier, at the end of the day, I like to pour a cup of tea, grab my latest cross stitch project, and tune in to old radio shows from the past.
Something about the crackly sound, the unironic self-narration, and the satisfaction of a good mystery always screams AUTUMN to me, and so I’ve worked my way through a host of fascinating characters and tales through the magic of the internet.
The mysteries of the “Golden Age of Radio” of the 1920s to the 50s in the US starred a pantheon of (white, male) heroes: tough talking Sam Spade; clever and playful Ellery Queen; and the “modern day Robin Hood,” the Saint.
Many of these names are still familiar. Almost forgotten though, is one of the only woman leads of the detective genre: Candy Matson, private investigator, of the show Candy Matson, Yukon 2-8209.
Sidenote: Last year, they considered making another movie of The Saint. It was supposed to star Regé-Jean Page, whose face is the opposite of made for radio.
In many old radio shows, women are usually relegated to being victims, recalcitrant witnesses, femme fatales, or perky secretaries.
In marked contrast, Candy Matson brings sass and smarts:
FX – PHONE PICKED UP
CANDY: Yukon 2 8209.
VOICE: (Filtered) Candy Matson?
CANDY: Well I wasn’t sure when I looked in the mirror this morning.
VOICE: Had a rough night, eh?
CANDY: Oh, there have been rougher ones. Look, voice, before you get caught with my receiver down, who are you and what do you want?
VOICE: As to who I am, you’ll find out very shortly. What I want is you.
CANDY: How romantic. And over the phone yet.
VOICE: Let me finish. What I want is you to lay off that cable car business.
CANDY: Oh, that. Well, I’m afraid I can’t. You see I was sitting beside the man when they discovered his transfer had been punched…sort of permanently.
Candy is a clever, sharp-talking and confident private eye, solving mysteries in 1950s San Francisco with a gun in her purse, a fabulous wardrobe, an eye for detail, and a sharp wit that gets her both into trouble and out of it.
Strong Miss Fisher vibes, for fans of that TV show.
Candy is often joined by her best friend, Rembrandt Watson, a photographer and former navy man with a droll humor and an abstruse knowledge base. Her love interest, Lieutenant Ray Mallard of the Homicide Squad, trails after Candy’s quick investigations with playful affection, mild exasperation, and monumental obliviousness to her hints of marriage.
Candy’s variety of peculiar mysteries balance drama, action, and banter. In “The Devil in the Deep Freeze,” Candy is called to investigate a dead body dressed like a devil found in an Italian restaurant’s freezer.
In “The Cable Car Case,” Candy is riding the cable car next to a man she thinks is a drunkard, but turns out to be dead.
In “Symphony of Death,” a brilliant composer is slowly losing his mind. (The scripts have no official titles, but the Old-Time Radio Researchers have settled on the titles used here.)
Candy Matson, Yukon 2-8209 was created, written and directed by Monty Masters (1912-1969), an actor, director, and writer who would later work in film. Masters wanted to write a San Francisco take on the popular private eye story.
Originally, he wrote the main role for himself. Then, purportedly, his mother-in-law convinced him that he should instead write the role for his wife, Natalie Masters, an accomplished actress in her own right.
Natalie Masters’s performance helped the show to become one of the most popular west of the Mississippi.
Candy Matson’s audition show, “The Donna Dunham Case”, was first recorded in April 1949, then picked up by NBC. The first national broadcast debuted on June 29, 1949. The show had a short run and went off air in 1951 after it failed to procure a sponsor. While over 90 episodes were made, only 14 survive.
While Candy was a pioneer in many ways, the character of her best friend Rembrandt Watson was perhaps even more so: he was very clearly coded as gay. Rembrandt Watson is a single, middle-aged photographer. Watson can read Egyptian hieroglyphics; he’s good in a fight; he’s a terrible cook and a great host because he always keeps the liquor cabinet full. Watson was voiced by Natalie Masters’ real-life uncle, Jack Thomas. Thomas brought a wry quality to the character and an effeminate manner.
One of the highlights of the series is the warm playful banter between Candy and Rembrandt:
Candy: I just had a thought.
REM: Bully for you. So few people have them any more.
(From “Black Cat”, which doesn’t have an audio version that has survived)
Rembrandt Watson is a former serviceman in San Francisco. At the time the show was airing, San Francisco was starting to become a hub for LGBTQIA+ organization and community. During World War II, a number of military personnel in the Pacific were dishonorably discharged for their sexual orientation. Many of them moved to the Bay Area.
After the war, many gay veterans remembered San Francisco as welcoming and returned. However, prevailing prejudices and stigma continued to force many of the (mostly White) men to live double lives and hide their identities.
While the show was progressive for its time, it is still very much of its time. Most episodes begin with the announcer (voiced by Dudley Manlove) cringingly rhapsodizing about Candy’s appearance:
Know of any good murders you want solved? We’ve got just the girl for you. Her name is Candy Matson. Mighty cute too. She fills out a size 12 suit to just the right proportions. Soft blonde hair, two sparkling blue eyes, and all in all, she looks as though she might have stepped right off a [unintelligible] calendar. And what’s more, she’s a private eye! (“The Devil in the Deep Freeze”).
Spoilers for the end of the series
In the final episode, Lieutenant Mallard proposes to Candy, then immediately demands that Candy stop solving cases, and Candy agrees.
Portrayals of anyone not considered White are straight up problematic caricatures, from the crafty Italian restaurant owner in “The Devil in the Deep Freeze” to the sly Egyptian cult leader in “The Egyptian Amulet.” An entire book could be written about the portrayals of the subservient Mexicans (with accents just as terrible as you would guess) contrasting with the benevolent friars in “San Juan Batista.” You might consider avoiding those episodes, depending on your tolerance for old-timey overt racism.
Two of my favorite episodes are “The Eric Spaulding Concert” and “The Movie Company.”
In “Eric Spaulding,” Candy is commissioned to figure out why the San Francisco orchestra keeps missing a note during a symphony, in what the conductor insists is sabotage. The highlights of the episode are the banter between Candy and Rembrandt, and Rembrandt calling going to Los Angeles a “fate worse than death.” (I’m from LA–I’m allowed to hate it.)
In “Movie Company,” a hangman prop for a movie turns out to not be a prop. This one stands out for Candy teasing Lieutenant Ray Mallard and for a peek into Candy’s past as a movie actress.
Overall, it’s a forgotten jewel of old radio shows and an interesting historical artifact. You don’t have to listen in any particular order, although if you start with the “Donna Dunham Case,” you should know this was the audition episode for the show and doesn’t have great continuity with the others.
You can find them on the Internet Archive, various YouTube channels, or in podcast form on Down these Mean Streets or Great Detectives of Old Time Radio.
Thank you for this guest recommendation, Jen! What about you? Have you listened to old radio programs? Have you listened to Candy Matson?