I started writing this during a power outage; so, in commemoration of this event, I’ll try [and promptly failed] not to be quite so long-winded this time. I didn’t relish the experience of sitting alone in the dark without the comfort and convenience of electricity, especially since darkness is the very stuff of radio drama, the sound pictures that are stored on my computer or waiting to be snatched out of the world wide web. For a while I tried to fill the void with my own voice, reading out loud by candlelight, enacting the parts in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the book at hand. The flicker illuminating the pages began to irritate me; and when I caught a glimpse of the shiny surface of my laptop, I couldn’t resist to drain its precious battery power by popping in a CD and listening to one of my favorite situation comedies of old-time radio, Don Quinn’s witty and endearing Halls of Ivy. Besides, I had already decided to write about the 27 September 1950 broadcast of that show—an episode OTR enthusiast Jerry Haendiges argues to be “probably the best of the series.”
Among the smartest comedies of its day, the series had long escaped my notice, since “its day” was the early 1950s, a time when radio was already experiencing a decline in talent, audiences, and sponsorship. When setting up the research boundaries for my dissertation, I initially dismissed such late-comers, sound unheard, assuming them to be lacking in literary merit and production values, deficiencies owing to conservative—that is, money-starved—programming as a result of dwindling advertising accounts. The Peabody Award winning Halls of Ivy (1950-52) sure proved me wrong.
The program was greeted as a sign of radio’s maturity, not its senility and obsolescence. In the May 1952 issue of Theatre Arts critic Harriet Van Horne, who had previously lamented radio’s adolescent fare, recommended Halls of Ivy as a “literate” treat, arguing its writing to be “often much better than the dialogue you encounter in some Broadway shows.” Set in a liberal college, the series delicately addressed and eloquently expressed a number of social concerns, the fictional campus being a playground on which to act out matters of race, class, and gender. Sentimental without being saccharine, it was edifying without getting snooty about it. I mean, come on, the show was sponsored by the makers of Schlitz—the “beer that made Milwaukee famous.”
On this day in 1950, Halls of Ivy presented a study in prejudice. Penned by Don Quinn and Cameron Blake, the story for the evening involved a high-toned mother of a dead soldier who vows to make a $500,000 donation to Ivy College after finding a picture of her son in a newspaper announcing the award given to the student who painted his portrait. When college president Dr. Hall (Ronald Colman) hears about this proposed endowment, a “girdle” to bring the institution back into shape, he fears that “this girdle is the old-fashioned kind. You know, the kind with strings.” Sure enough, the benefactress stipulates that the money “must absolutely not be used to provide scholarships for . . . well, for certain races and creeds.”
The donation is refused. Adding to the irritation of the narrow-minded society lady who offered it, the Halls receive a visit from the student artist who captured the likeness of the son from whom she had been estranged. As it turns out, the painter is of a “certain race” himself. After this exposure—a confrontation with and a laying bare of her bigotry—the strings are removed and the money can change hands, a moral lesson delivered with such skill and grace that even the contrived ending does not come across as awkward or trite. Summing up the dramatized lecture, Dr. Hall remarks that “life itself is a little like a college. You don’t learn much by attending only one class.”
Not to be outdone my the fictional donation, Schlitz announced at the close of the program that, having been given the okay from the Eisenhower administration, it would ship 600,000 cans of beer to the American soldiers then fighting in Korea. It’s a rather tacky coda—but sponsors aren’t exactly classy when it comes to touting their wares.
Once the power was restored in my abode, I set out for another trip to Ivy College—because “you don’t learn much by attending only one class”—and watched a 1955 episode of the TV adaptation of Halls of Ivy, also starring Colman and his wife, Benita Hume (along with the wonderful Mary Wickes as their maid). Well, sometimes it is nice to let someone else do the picturing for you, particularly after having been forced to spend two hours in near darkness.