Yesterday, standing before a small group of professionals at a writing seminar conducted by yours truly, I introduced myself by listing my credentials (a slight record, to be sure) and . . . accounting for my diction. I always feel that I ought to do so, rather than letting my voice speak volumes for itself and raising the eyebrow of doubt in the process. There I was, in that conference room in Mid-Wales, teaching English imported from America but first gathered at a German high school. However smooth, my spoken English is like a lumpy couch. You can tell where it came from, but there are obvious dents and tears suggesting a few uneasy relocations. Plenty of people have left their impression on it. It has been patched up a few times, but never properly upholstered. No matter how many adjustments have been made to it, for the comfort and convenience of others, it never quite fits into any place. Unfortunately, it is too old now to be traded in for another model.
What I wouldn’t give to sound like Halls of Ivy-leaguer Ronald Colman (last overheard here); or like Milton Cross, perhaps, the famed radio announcer born on this day, 16 April, in 1897. A former tenor, he was originally known to listeners as AJN, such acro-pseudonyms being the convention when he started out in broadcasting back in the early 1920s. By the mid-1920s, though, announcers had made a name for themselves. They were as familiar as the brands they were paid quite handsomely to praise. Cross’s voice, for instance, became associated with prestigious NBC programs like Information, Please (on the air on this day in 1940) and the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (which, on this day, in 1938, was introducing thousands of listeners to Tristan and Isolde).
The closest I ever got to announcing was being a voice-over recordings reader in New York City; but the texts I read were in German, my native tongue having softened over the years so as to have lost some of its screen villain edge. Apparently, my sought-after melting pot blend was smooth enough not to evoke Stalag 17. Now, I have tried said tongue at podcasting; but it probably would have been unwise for me to pursue a career in network radio during those aureate days of broadcasting in the 1930s and ’40s. Listeners might have thought me a second-rate Baron Munchausen (“Vas you dere, Sharlie?”). Sure, I could have attended Everett Mitchell’s announcer school (above picture of which I found in an issue of Radio Guide for the week ending on this day in 1938). Designed to give students a chance at that $100/week job, the course included lessons in elocution and script reading.
Forget it. There was only one Cross, and I’ve to bear it. I’ll just sit back and listen to the second half of this Recollections broadcast, which features a recording of a speed-reading contest between Cross and fellow announcers Graham McNamee and Ben Grauer, with Rudy Vallee serving as referee. The script: stanzas from the aforementioned “Walrus and the Carpenter.” The tongue workout aside, it is an appropriate choice, given the Walrus’s advice to the men behind the mike called upon to say very little very swiftly, slickly to sell you anything:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
Zo, vhen do the picks get zer vings? This is Harry Heuser, signing off on a sunny afternoon half-way up in the Welsh hills.