On This Day in 1930: "’Mystery Gun’ Disappears As Lights Go Out" in Invisible Courtroom

I don’t suppose I will ever get used to it. The Welsh weather, I mean, the nocturnal roars and howlings of which I often drown out by listening to the familiar voices of old-time radio, reassuring and comforting voices like those of Harry Bartell or Elliot Lewis, both of whom were born on this day, 28 November, in 1913 and 1917, respectively. Storms are part of the Welsh soundscape, much like the bleating of sheep on the hills. If such climate conditions were faced by the people of New York, among whom I numbered for some fifteen years of my life, I wager that the local television newscasts would report little else. To be sure, last night’s storm did make headlines, being that a tornado wreaked havoc in a village just a few miles from my present home.

Thanks to some well-chosen radio thriller, I managed to sleep through it all, losing myself in dreams that, once radioactivated, tend to become particularly vivid. I often wonder just how much my mind, conscious or not, is influenced by the popular culture I consume by listening in. Sometimes, though, it is what we hear about, and not what we perceive, that stirs our imagination. There are a few listening experiences I can only dream of, plays I have only read or read about and consequently fascinate me no end. One such unheard soundplay is the serial The Trial of Vivienne Ware (previously mentioned here and discussed at some length in Etherized, my study of American radio dramatics). Pulled by the Hearst press and propagated on the air by station WJZ, New York, it was a spectacular publicity stunt designed to promote Hearst’s less than reputable papers.

Those tuning in did not only get to hear the proceedings, but were cast as jurors. They stood a chance of being awarded $1000 for coming up with the most convincing verdict (be it “guilty” or “innocent”), thus making it unnecessary for the author of the story—one Kenneth M. Ellis—to determine upon a reasonable conclusion and the fate of his titular character.

From the 25th to the last day of November, the fictional trial was broadcast live, with eminent figures of law and politics, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner and prominent attorney Ferdinand Pecora, heading a cast that included noted stage actress Rosamund Pinchot. Here is how the New York American, the Hearst paper sponsoring the series, described the session of 28 November 1930:

It was almost at the close of the session that the lights suddenly were extinguished and the court plunged into total darkness. Women’s screams, the shouts and bustle of court attaches, and the hammering of the gavel filled five or six black seconds with sound. Then the lights came on again—but the .38 caliber revolver which George Gordon Battle, chief counsel for Vivienne Ware, had just introduced as evidence had disappeared from the table where it lay.

Now, that’s a melodramatic conjuring act fit for the airwaves. It probably wouldn’t do much good during a stormy night, though, since such interactive thrills—let alone the pondering of the verdict, and what to do with the prize money—are, unlike much else that was presented on American radio with comforting predictability, anything but soporific.

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