Compared to seeing, listening is a solitary experience. What is going on in your head while you take in sounds is between you and your ears—a private world removed from the public place where noise, music, and talk are produced. True, you may be overhearing what those around you are saying while a performance is in progress; yet, unlike that frown you may want to bestow on those who won’t shut up, you cannot make ear-contact.
The sense of isolation—the remoteness against which producers of radio programs fought by placing live audiences in the studio to create an approximation of a shared experience for those tuning in at home—is especially pronounced when you put on your earphones to take in a recording of an old radio program, seventy years after those watching it have vacated the studio. So, it is good news when you, feeling quite apart, hear the voice of someone who has been there, a fellow in the audience whose response you are invited to share. Good News is the name of the show; and so is having an expert in the business of radio entertainment right there with you, eager to report.
On this day, 14 April, the Maxwell House Coffee-sponsored Good News of 1938 featured Judy Garland, who had yet to star in The Wizard of Oz, child actor Freddie Bartholomew, as well as veteran comedians Frank Morgan and Fannie Brice (whom you may hear in this recording of the program, retrieved from the indispensable Old Time Radio Catalog).
The word “show” a rather unsatisfying when applied to performances designed to be heard, not seen; but in this case I imagined BBC radio drama department head Val Gielgud watching the broadcast spectacle. As Gielgud noted in his diary (excerpted in his Years of the Locust, aforementioned), Gielgud went to the “El Capitan to see the Maxwell Coffee Hour broadcast with the Metro stars.” Comparing it to British radio entertainment, he called the program a “slicker, more gilt-edged version of our shows from St. George’s Hall.”
Not surprisingly, the “advertising inserts” seemed “silly beyond belief” to the visitor from Britain when, particularly when “read out by an announcer in front of a vast audience.” He was not immune, though, to Robert Taylor, who “comperèd with much charm,” and pointed out that “young Bartholomew stood up well to an interview with some aged editor [Bernarr McFadden] who was presenting him with a gold medal [for his performance in Captain Courageous, and fluffing horribly on his script.”
Gielgud marvelled how “all these stars” remained so
surprisingly amiable in their attitude to perfect strangers, who must as a rule bore them no end. It may be part of “the act,” but they seem quite without pretentiousness, while their manners are quiet and charming: Fannie Brice . . . Florence Rice . . . Judy Garland . . . and that amiable actor Frank Morgan.
Completing his radio day, Gielgud went to the Cocoanut Grove to see broadcast favorites Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (“in terrific form”). So, Gielgud barely took note of Garland, who sings the duet “Why? Because” with Baby Snooks.Nor did he mention designer Adrian, who was interviewed on the program. Most surprisingly, perhaps, no mention was made of the play heard on he broadcast—“The Hebrides” by noted radio dramatist turned Hollywood director Irving Reis, with whom Gielgud would soon work on a production of the Columbia Workshop.
To be sure Gielgud was on somewhat of a whirlwind tour of Hollywood, and rather impressed by a certain leading lady. Once again in the company of Anna May Wong, Gielgud may very well have forgotten the birthday of his famous brother, John Gielgud, who was born on this day in 1904. At least, he was too distracted to make any mention of it.