Well, it wasn’t exactly business as usual on this day, 7 December, back in 1941. Mind you, lucre-minded broadcasters tried hard to keep the well-oiled machinery of commercial radio running. There were soap operas and there was popular music, interrupted in a fashion rehearsed by “The War of the Worlds,” by updates about the developments of the attack on Pearl Harbor (previously commemorated here). Unlike on the day now known as 9/11, when advertising came to an immediate standstill to make way for propaganda and regular (that is, commercial) programming ceased for hours and days to come, radio back then was slow to adapt. There was no precedent; and, having ignored the signs of the time, not much preparation.
Minding the business of its sponsors, broadcasters had no master plan for a response to the masterminds behind the plans for the master race and its allies. It was, however briefly, overmastered; or flummoxed, at least. For an industry relying on minute timing, the attack and subsequent declaration of war were most inopportune. Big business was, for the most part, not behind a war that would translate into major financial losses.
Until that day, broadcasters had counted on being inconsequential; it was the commerce stimulated by the sales talk punctuating the chatter and musical interludes proffered “in the public interest,” that mattered.
The Screen Guild was fortunate. After previous crowd pleasers like “Penny Serenade” and “If You Could Only Cook,” the Gulf Motor Oil sponsored Hollywood-rehash factory had scheduled a play that just fit the bill. For that fateful night it had prepared a live production of Norman Corwin’s “Between Americans,” previously staged in June 1941. “By one of those mystic and infallible arrangements between the zodiac and Orson Welles,” the playwright would recall, this broadcast was the
first uninterrupted half-hour on the CBS network after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. All afternoon the news had come pounding in—comment, short-wave pickups, rumors, analyses, flashes, bulletins. Programs of all kinds were either brushed aside or so riddled by special announcements that they made no sense. But by 7:30 PM EST all available news on the situation was exhausted, and the Screen Guild, which had long ago scheduled “Between Americans” and Welles for this date, was given clear air.
According to Corwin, the greatest living American radio dramatist, indeed the greatest radio playwright of any time anywhere (whose 97th birthday I celebrated here), the “staggering news of the previous hours made the show far more exciting than it had any right to be.” The studio audience reacted enthusiastically, a response the playwright attributed to the moment, rather than to anything of moment in his play.
A war only four hours old is an emotion, an intoxication, a bewilderment [. . .]. People felt reassured by it. They heard the piece as a statement of faith. They were moved; they laughed extra loud; they applauded like mad when the show was over. I am certain it was Pearl Harbor that made the show so electric that night, and not so much the work of Welles, Corwin, or Harry Ackerman, who directed it.
“Between Americans” had not been prepared for the day; indeed, it had been produced five months earlier, with actor Ray Collins (whose voice Welles regarded as the best in the business) as narrator. According to Corwin, who is none too fond of the play, there were some 22,000 requests for scripts and rebroadcasts. No wonder, with lines like these:
You ever asked yourself what America means to you? Does it mean 1776? “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”? Big business? The Bill of Rights? Uncle Sam? Chances are it means none of these things. Chances are it means something very personal to each of you. Something close to your heart, which you’d miss like the very blazes if you were stranded abroad. It might have nothing to do with quotes from Madison or Acts of Congress. It might be just the feeling of crisp autumns in New England and the smell of burning leaves. It might be the memory of the way they smooth off the infield between the games of a double-header. It might be a thing as small as your little finger [that is, a cigarette].
“Big business” and personal memories. They merge at the moment of listening. Big business counted on that.
The 7 December 1941 program is a fascinating record of an industry coming to terms with the role it was called upon to play. The commercial structure remained remarkably intact; but the play was being shrewdly exploited as “one of the most timely programs ever heard on the Gulf Screen Guild Theater:
Broadcast at any time, we believe this program would make every American’s heart beat a little faster, make him hold his head just a little higher. But since the tragic and foreboding news that came today, this program, “Between Americans,” now becomes an American Odyssey. In just a moment, our story will begin.
“But first,” listeners had to hear the words from the sponsor, who had this topical message prepared for the occasion:
Right. And here is an easy way to change from a pessimist into an optimist. If you are wondering now how long you may have to keep your present car, and wondering too if it will last, if it will stay in good condition, just look on the bright side of the picture. Remember, when you give the wearing parts of your car good protection that helps it stay young and act young a long, long time. So, give your automobile the modern method of lubrication . . .
Yes, radio was a well-oiled machine . . . until the rationing of its parts set in.