Have you taken the broadcastellan quiz yet? I’ve got a few more laudable larynxes lined up to commemorate women in American radio dramatics. There is certainly a renaissance of old-time radio underway, an iPod regeneration infinitely more satisfying than my phrasing here; after all, just how long can a birthing or rebirthing process take? It’s the nurturing that matters now. And while some of those names on my list of leading ladies no longer ring the proverbial bell, they sure spelled “stardom” when radio took center stage in American living rooms. Perhaps, “star” isn’t the word for being it on the radio. Stardom requires visibility, screen close-ups and paparazzi snapshots that define an individual’s status as being removed enough from the crowd to demand admiration and near enough to encourage our approach. A broadcast voice can make an actor; but it is the circulated image that makes a star.
Unlike print and film, radio merely creates a desire to see. Spread long and often enough in magazines or on the screen, the image turns the disembodied speaker, the nobody, into a certified somebody. Quite clearly, the above picture has not remained in wide enough circulation over the past five decades or so to keep alive the memory of the sitter. Her name is Lurene Tuttle; and, however obscure today, she once was the First Lady of American radio drama.
How prominent was Ms. Tuttle in her day? According to the records kept at the RadioGOLDINdex, she was downright ubiquitous. An impressive 722 entries document the broadcasting career of this once highly regarded, stage-trained performer. Her resume includes roles, starring and supporting, on notable drama anthologies like Columbia Workshop, Lux Radio Theatre, and Suspense. She was a regular cast member of comedies like The Great Gildersleeve, Mayor of the Town, and Blondie, as well as episodic melodramas like Dr. Christian.
As an article in the August 1949 issue of Radio and Television Mirror sums it up, “there’s scarcely a radio program on which Lurene hasn’t been heard.” She was much sought-after by radio drama producers like William Spier for her “ability to play almost any kind of feminine role. Whenever the script call[ed] for a gun moll, a slinky confidence woman, a grandmother, an adventuress, [or] a Main Line debutante,” Tuttle could be relied upon to fit the role.
On this day, 9 February, in 1951, for instance, she was heard as Effie Perrine, Sam Spade’s trusted secretary. While generally not part of the action, she did more than just type Spade’s reports, as listeners are reminded in “The Sure Thing Caper.” Her occasional malapropisms notwithstanding, she fleshes out each story and reinvests them with the language of crooks and thugs—and probably with greater zing or realism than the censors-wary writers of the program ever dared. She also ends up in Spade’s arms and gets to caress his hair, kept so healthy and shiny by the Wildroot Cream Oil people who footed the bill for the Sam Spade series. It sure adds double meaning to Spade’s “Goodnight, Sweetheart,” the words and serenade that ended each show.
Speaking of meaningful doubles, many radio actors had to double as small casts in cost-cutting productions crowded around studio microphones; but Tuttle could make you believe that she was a double without resorting to vocal trickery or voice-altering filters. As radio historian John Dunning points out, Tuttle was once called upon to portray identical twins—with identical voices—who fight over the same man and confront each other in a deadly struggle (in “Death Sees Double,” a Whistler thriller broadcast on 20 November 1944). The evil twin had even her clueless lover fooled as she assumed her sister’s place.
And just how unwell remembered is Ms. Tuttle today, even by those who ought to know (her) better? A book by a noted radio historian, for instance, refers to the actress as one “Earline Tuttle”—further proof that, no matter how often your voice is heard and your name is pronounced on the air, you’re expected to stay in print to make a proper name for yourself. Yet, whatever the state or nature of her fame, Tuttle’s a great gal to come home to . . .