Radio has always promoted other media, despite the competition it faced from print and screen. To some degree, this led to its decline as a dramatic medium. Producers made eyes at the pictures, neglecting to develop techniques that would ensure radio’s future as a viable alternative to visual storytelling. Television had been around the corner virtually from the beginnings of broadcasting; even in the 1920s, radio insiders were expecting its advent. So, the old wireless was often seen as little more than a placeholder for television, an interim tool for advertisers eagerly awaiting the day on which they no longer had to spell out what they could show to the crowd.
One of the last big hurrahs of radio during the early 1950s was The Big Show, a variety program hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead (last revisited here). Sure, Bankhead promoted the movies—but on this day, 29 April, in 1951, she doubtlessly had something else in mind when she expressed herself “privileged to hear a portion of a truly great new Warner Bros. picture, starring Frank Lovejoy.”
According to Joel Lobenthal’s biography of the actress, Bankhead had a “phobia about communism,” largely owing to her Catholic upbringing. Yet, as George Baxt, a theatrical agent involved in booking talent for the program, tells it in The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case, a mystery set during those Big Show nights, her show struggled as a result of this anxiety and the forms it took.
Not Bankhead’s anxieties—the measures taken by fierce anti-Communists to blacklist (or at least graylist) allegedly subversive players. By the early 1950s, even comedienne Judy Holliday was considered suspicious, which did not stop Bankhead from welcoming her on the Big Show on several occasions.
By playing a scene from a soon-to-be-released spy thriller titled I Was a Communist for the FBI, Bankhead fought for the life of the Big Show, now that even she, the fierce anti-Communist, had come under attack. As Bankhead pointed out, I Was a Communist was a dramatization of the Saturday Evening Post stories based on experience of counterspy Matt Cvetic, whom Lovejoy “deem[ed] it an honor” to portray.
“It certainly brought home to me the patriotic devotion and the sheer guts that Matt needed to take that nine-year beating.” At this point, a voice is heard, off-mike, telling Lovejoy that “someone had to do it.” That someone, speaking to the listening audience, was none other than Matt Cvetic:
Well, Frank, maybe we’d better wait until the job is done before we start taking bows. The job is far from finished. We’re just beginning to fight back against the deadly, ruthless, highly organized Soviet-controlled conspiracy. So, we’ve got a lot of fighting yet to do before we can rid ourselves of this greatest threat to the world of free men. We’ve got to fight. All of us. All the time.
“Amen to that,” Bankhead responded enthusiastically as the crowd in the studio applauded. Threatened by the blacklisters and the menace of television, Ms. Bankhead knew she had to fight—for the good of the country and the good of her show. The Big Show went off the air a year later, just as the aforementioned radio version of I Was a Communist began its syndicated run . . .