A Doctor in Spite of His Shelf

They are gone. I’ve finally done away with them all. My compact disks, I mean. As of last night, I placed all twelve thousand or so audio files in the iTunes library of my new MacBook (which I only dropped once thus far). Not that past experiences have made this an easy decision for me, given how vulnerable such digital memory is to erasure.

This time around, I backed up everything onto an external hard drive. Sure enough, just after completing this weeklong task (which, the exceptionally fine spring weather here in mid-Wales aside, accounts for my now broken silence), nearly two thousand of those imported files could not be played. Last night, I had to retrieve them, very nearly one by one, from some hidden folder and return them to the library so as to have them at my fingertips once more.

Such ready access is making it easier for me to get my ears on notable broadcasts and celebrate the anniversary of certain radio plays and players. “Train Ride,” for instance, a melodrama “written especially for Joan Crawford” (by Charles Martin, then producer of the aforementioned Silver Theater) and broadcast on this day, 7 May, in 1939. Crawford’s mike fright (already remarked upon here) made such live dramatics rare events indeed. In “Train Ride,” Crawford gets to play a role with which many a radio listener can readily identify: an unhappily married woman who falls in love with a voice other than her husband’s. It is a fantasy fit for a wife who is told to “go to bed with a book of love stories and a box of chocolates.”

Indeed, the two wire-crossed lovers vow never to meet unless the other is about to die. “Each of us has an illusion,” the voice tells her. “Why destroy it for the other?” So, when the two finally get together, the meeting is hardly a moment of unadulterated bliss. After all, her platonic lover, who turns out to be the speech writer for her politically ambitious husband, tells Mary that he working on a “more humane method of electrocution,” the kind of hot love seat he seems certain to take one day.

BIZ. Telephone rings. Receiver is picked up.

Voice. Hello Mrs. Crane.

Mary. Hello.

Voice. Why, you’re crying. What’s the matter?

Mary. Nothing.

Voice. Haven’t you got anybody to talk to? Your husband?

Mary. He hasn’t the time.

Voice. Talking is a medicine for sick souls. I’ll listen.

Mary. I can’t talk to someone I don’t know.

Voice. Why not try getting acquainted? I still promise never to see you.

However unsound the vehicle, Crawford’s flawless script reading and suitably emotive voice make this a smooth “Ride,” one that runs as scheduled without betraying the actress’s much talked of microphobia. “I loved your voice, and I wanted to hear it again” her soon-to-be soul-only mate tells her. “You see, it’s been . . . well, it’s been like a lost chord vibrating in my memory.”

Memory. Lost chords. Vibrations. That brings to mind my own uneasy radio romance. When I set out to research so-called old-time radio for my doctoral study (Etherized Victorians), I was apprehensive about writing on non-print matter. I was torn between the concrete and the intangible, the alleged permanence of script and the inconstancy of the spoken. It felt like an adulterous relationship whose boundaries I could not get in writing.

I was, after all, a student of literature, not performance; and compared to the activity of reading, listening sounded like cheating. Having studied the Victorians for so long, I found it difficult to conceive not having my nose stuck in a three-decker.

These days, my shelves are largely virtual. The plays and narratives, while scripted, exist only in sound. Let’s hope my library won’t deny me access and yield plenty of immaterial matter to go on about . . .

2 Replies to “A Doctor in Spite of His Shelf”

  1. \”You\’re a braver man that I am…\” taking another step toward digital living. While I digitize a lot of my old LPs, its been very difficult to let go of that piece of vinyl despite knowing the amount of space it occupies.


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