In Bed With Orson; or, How I Got the Wandering Ear

What I didn’t get to tell in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral dissertation, is how I love to cuddle up with a good voice. Aside from being rather too intimate an aspect of my passion for old-time radio to be shared in an academic paper, the sensuality and sway of the human voice, regardless of the words it conveys—seemed to be decidedly beyond the boundaries of my vocabulary.

I am hardly one to shy away from lexical experimentation; but I felt that I could not approach the subject—the mystique—of the vocal with the clarity and precision I aim for in all my linguistic playfulness. How, for example, could I describe the lush, seductive performances of Ann Sothern (as Maisie) and Natalie Masters (as Candy Matson), the sinister melancholy and paroxysmal fury of Peter Lorre (on Mystery in the Air, for instance), or the tender, tattered quavering of Gertrude Berg (matriarch of The Goldbergs) as I listen to them burble, groan, hiss and whimper, as I hear them snarling at or whispering to me? How could I intellectualize the suave and mannered cadences of Vincent Price as the Saint or the hammy bluster of Orson Welles as Harry Lime? Some passions are not to be explained, to be argued out of existence. They are to be reveled in, secretly, in the shelter of darkness.

There are many such pleasures to be had listening to recordings of US radio broadcasts of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a period during which voices were trained for and attuned to the special demands of the microphone. For me, they can be found and felt when encountering a friendly and well-groomed speaking voice of an announcer like Harry Bartell; a distinguished, eloquent recital like Ronald Colman’s (as in his D-Day reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army”); a tough, noirish delivery like Joseph Cotton’s (on Suspense); an unsentimental everymanliness like Joe Julian’s (on Corwin’s An American in England); a glamorous, sultry purring like Marlene Dietrich’s (as the peripatetic adventuress of Time for Love), Ilona Massey’s (as a spy-catching baroness in Top Secret) or Tallulah Bankhead’s (in her memorable role as hostess of the Big Show); a warm, avuncular drone like Nigel Bruce’s (as Sherlock Holmes sidekick and narrator Doctor Watson), a smart and charming lilt like Claudette Colbert’s (frequently heard on the Lux Radio Theater; above, in bed with Welles and etiquette maven Elsa Maxwell) or a queer pomposity like Monty Woolley’s (in his role as the Magnificent Montague).

Quite often, these voices had to convey lines better left unspoken, words unworthy of the actor’s talent. Yet through the magic of timbre and intonation, gifted performers could imbue almost any line with feeling, subtlety, or sly innuendo. And I’m not even talking about the suggestive reading Mae West lent to her characterization of Eve that got her banned from the airwaves. Last night I went to bed with Dane Clark. I didn’t quite get through his performance of John Andrews in a NBC University Theater production of John Dos Passos’s “Three Soldiers,” but his voice still lingers in my mind’s ear this morning.

Ever since I got my first radio, as a child, I have gone in search of voices, soothing, thrilling, enticing. I was eavesdropping on a hidden realm the passage to which was the canal of an eager ear pressed close against the speaker. It was my keyhole to the world about which I knew yet little, a world to which I did not yet belong. It was a levitating grown-up table, an off-limits chamber made of air and furnished by my imagination. Today, these disembodied voices come to me mainly by invitation. Whom, I wonder, am I going to take upstairs with me tonight?

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