Well, this will sound like a familiar story. A small house (halfway up in the next block, say) is being torn down after its long-established and well-liked owners cave in to some corporate big shots who want to get their hands on a valuable piece of property that seems just ripe for redevelopment. The transformation achieved proves agreeable enough to all; but to those who remember the neighborhood and used to stop by at the old house, there is something missing in the bright new complex that has taken its place.
No, this is not the plot of Vic and Sade, the popular American radio series that ended its run on this day, 29 September, in 1944. As discussed previously, Vic and Sade had no such socially relevant plots. In fact, it didn’t have any plot at all, which is precisely what distinguished it from the soap operas and situation comedies that came to define American storytelling on radio and television.
You might say (or let me just do it for you) that Vic and Sade was being done in by plot developers—by those who were eager to streamline dramatic storytelling into a solid row of daytime serials and evening sitcoms. In the early 1930s, soaps and comedies had been far from antithetical. Weekday serials like Amos ‘n’ Andy or Lum and Abner told continuing stories whose prevailing mood was cheerful rather than somber. Eventually, however, savvy producers in search of reliable and lasting formulas determined to strengthen such modes of storytelling by separating the slow tease of the serial from the quick repartees of situation-derived comedy, thereby turning daytime sudsers into murky melodramas that thrived on an atmosphere of present gloom and dark forebodings.
Having no future in washboard weepers, radio vaudevillians, including long-established acts like Burns and Allen, felt compelled to revamp their comic routines to meet the demand for this new kind of zinger and laughter punctuated two-acter. Vic and Sade, which was not performed before a live audience and which depended neither on one-liners nor on storylines for its lasting appeal, was least likely to adapt successfully to the new situation in comedy. It told stories, all right, but it did not rely on plots. It created characters by letting them go on about something or nothing at all, by reminiscing and gossiping, laughing and lamenting.
Imagine the aforementioned Golden Girls never leaving their kitchen table and forever sharing stories about St. Olaf, the Old South, about Brooklyn and Sicily. That’s pretty much what Vic and Sade Gook, son Rush (later, adopted son Russell) and Uncle Fletcher were doing, day after day, year after year.
What kept listeners coming back to the “Small House” was that writer Paul Rhymer kept on delivering anecdotes about certain colorfully named individuals who were often heard of but never heard, thereby creating the illusion, for faithful listeners, at least, of becoming part of a comfortingly stable family and their large circle of odd friends and acquaintances. It mattered little that some of those folks Uncle Fletcher delighted in talking about sounded as if they had been brought into being in the very process of animated yarnspinning. They—and good old Uncle Fletcher along with them—came to life for the audience in that manner anyway.
When, in the summer of 1946, Rhymer did adhere to the trend and refashioned Vic and Sade into a weekly, half-hour situation comedy, the charm and wit of the small house talks was lost. Gone was the intimacy of the living room chats or porch meetings as some of those odd friends and neighbors began to step inside, filling the house with needless noise and disturbing our image of them. Equipped with the cartoonish voices of sitcom stock characters, they did not become any more real, but a great deal more irritating.
Not surprisingly, the relocated Gooks disappeared after less than three months. It was a plot that the developers of radio’s new and rigid storytelling had dug for them.