Many Happy Reruns: Marilyn Monroe at Eighty

I have been accused, at times, of exaggerating matters; but this just about proves it: radio, as a storytelling medium, is dead. I’ve conducted searches on Google and Technorati this morning, using the keywords Gelbart and Abrogate. The result: only 28 mentions in well over 40 million blogs! And no more than 444 via Google, the first entry of which refers searchers to broadcastellan. Considering that thousands of web journals are devoted to American politics and thousands more to the media in general, the lack of publicity a broadcast satire about the Bush administration has been receiving is remarkable.

I am referring, of course, to M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart’s “Abrogate,” a recording of which is still available on the BBC homepage. Had Barbara Bush been levitating on television (as she is in Gelbart’s utopia), had her son been denounced as the spawn of Satan (as he is in the fictive senate hearing of “Abrogate”), had Condoleezza Rice, Lynn Cheney and Ms. Bush been likened to the three hags in Macbeth (an image suggested by the radio play), there sure would have been some noise about it.

Radio used to popularize products and people, plays and personalities; now it appears to be the black hole of the multi-media universe. A few weeks ago, I recalled how Marilyn Monroe was being sent on the air to promote her studio, Fox, which had so little use for the young contract player during the late 1940s. She got flustered and faltered, delivering her few lines with less than confidence.

Her radio debut on 24 February 1947 (previously discussed here) was less than auspicious. The play presented that night on the Lux Radio Theatre was an adaptation of the costume drama Kitty. Marilyn was not in it, but was heard instead during a commercial break, peddling soap and plugging the latest film of Betty Grable, her future co-star. She had just been subjected to her first Technicolor screen test, but would remain limited to walk-ons in lesser black and white fare for years to come.

Such rare broadcasts reveal something about the personality of a performer that can be obscured on the screen. On live radio, unlike in the movies, there were no second (or twenty-second) takes. There was the microphone, demanding and daunting. There was the crowd of spectators, gawking at the performers in the studio. And there was Monroe, a nervous young woman, not yet twenty-one, clutching the script she had been instructed to read.

Monroe would have become an octogenarian today; not a pretty picture, perhaps—at least to those who see the aging process as a series of cumulative imperfections. How would the girl formerly known as Norma Jean have matured as a performer? Were she alive and among us now, would she be appearing in television dramas? Would she be discussing her latest autobiography with Larry King? Or would she be hiding from prying eyes, living in seclusion and hoping instead to be recalled as young as she was when Fox finally revealed her charms in Technicolor and Cinemascope? Given Western culture’s obsession with youth, she might now be embracing the microphone she once feared.

Recalling her not as she was or was made out to be, but calling her forth as she is to me, I am going to close my eyes now and listen to Marilyn as she returned to radio on 13 December 1952, with somewhat more assurance and considerably more box-office draw. By then she was being romanced by Charlie McCarthy, the first voice thrown into a ring littered with neglected hats.

Going on the air with Edgar Bergen’s wooden friend was risky business, considering what that chip of a chap had done to the broadcasting career of Mae West (as reported here). Not satisfied with fantasizing about her, Charlie was determined to woe and wed her, taking her home on behalf of us. Theirs was a short-lived engagement. Mine is a lasting passion . . .

2 Replies to “Many Happy Reruns: Marilyn Monroe at Eighty”

  1. Wanted to thank you for pointing me to Abrogate. I usually check BBC plays, but hadn\’t caught this one.I am not fully surprised that the blogs have not picked it up, though it is a shame. While I have never been accused of representing American public opinion, I wonder if part of it is not due to changing opinions in my country as to Bush and Iraqi policy. (Finally).Gelbart\’s wit has always been fine tuned, I suspect honed in his days with Sid Caesar\’s productions in fifties television comedy.

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  2. I\’m glad you got to hear it. I was prepared for some dismissals of the play; but instead the aural medium was being ignored again. Had this been on television, you\’d find it discussed everywhere.

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