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Spotlight on: "Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?" by Avi

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Avi, "Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?"

One of my hobbies is collecting old radio programs from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s; I have a vast collection on LP, cassette, CD, and now mp3. In the days before television, home entertainment centered on the radio, where programs similar to today’s TV offerings were the source of delight to the majority of Americans. Comedies, dramas, mysteries, adventures, even soap operas (so named because the program’s sponsor was usually a soap company) were piped into every home with a Philco or Atwater Kent.

Big TV networks like NBC, CBS, and ABC got their start in radio and nearly everyone listened to the same programs. One show, Amos and Andy, was so popular that stores would broadcast it over their loudspeakers, and movie theaters would stop in the middle of the evening film to play the show for their audiences – a practice unimaginable now.

I mention this as background for "Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?", a terrific book by the prolific (he has written over 50 books) Newbery Medal-winning author, Avi. It takes place in 1945 and focuses on the effect that the radio shows of the time have on the life of sixth-grader Frankie Wattleson.

Frankie likes radio shows, too, especially those programs featuring The Lone Ranger, Buck Rodgers, Sky King, and other adventurers. He has even come up with his own character: Chet Barker, Master Spy. But Frankie is obsessed to the point that he neglects his schoolwork and becomes a general nuisance: to Mario, his best friend (who has to play his radio with the window open because Frankie doesn’t have one of his own); to his teacher, Miss Gomez; his parents; his brother, Tom; and their boarder, Mr. Swerdlow.

He conspires with Mario (via their aliases: Mario is sidekick Skipper O’Malley) to bring Miss Gomez and Tom together romantically while attempting to prove that Mr. Swerdlow is a “mad scientist” agent working for some fiendish underground criminal organization (because he has a skeleton in his closet, a real one). Meanwhile, he does everything he can to make sure he is near a radio when his favorite shows come on. Despite these unconventional methods, almost everything works out in the end, a credit to Avi’s skill at tying up loose ends.

"Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?" is an ingenious love letter to radio’s golden age: Avi includes excerpts from some of Frankie’s favorite shows in the text, divides the story into “episodes” instead of chapters, and tells the story entirely through dialogue with no descriptions – not even “he said” or “she said.” He captures the period beautifully while keeping his story accessible to modern readers in the hope that it will introduce a new generation to the excitement of the “theater of the mind.”

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Gardner News. Copyright 2006.

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