He Calls Them As He Hears Them

“The small but rich body of radio literature, which [Norman Corwin] brought so lovingly to life, lies languishing in a few libraries and second-hand book shops, under the titles Thirteen by Corwin and More by Corwin—a great shame and deprivation for the present generation!” My sentiments, entirely. Not my words, though, which is why I had to slap quotation marks on them. The man who said so was Joseph Julian, a once highly acclaimed and sought-after radio actor who starred in a number of plays written and directed by Corwin during the early-to-mid 1940s. Today, Julian’s memoir, a copy of which I recently added to my own library of out-of-print books on broadcasting, is one among those “languishing” volumes, a forgotten voice from a medium whose dramatic potentialities have remained largely unsounded since the late 1950s.

This Was Radio came out in the mid-1970s, a time widely deemed ripe for a reassessment of the aural medium and its derelict theater of the mind. Rather than waxing nostalgic—thereby squeezing the last few bucks out of a defunct business which, back then, most American adults still recalled experiencing first-ear, and fondly at that—Julian takes readers on a trip down memory lane that leads into neighbourhoods they would not get to hear about on an official tour.

His Corwinian class acts aside, Julian appeared on thriller programs like The Falcon, The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Mr. Keen, Broadway Is My Beat, and The Mysterious Traveler. He was first heard on The March of Time, but as an also-ran-off-the-mouth, in re-enactments that called for crowd scenes. Briefly, he served as a sound man, during which stint he learned what noise a human body produces when it is turned inside out.

I can imagine just what kind of sounds emanated from Julian when he learned that the same thing was happening to his career. An established actor by the early 1940s, Julian remained highly successful throughout the decade, until, in 1950, his name appeared in Red Channels. His career as a radio actor declined rapidly; by 1953, his annual income had dwindled to a mere $1630.

Barred from work at CBS, Julian fired back by filing a lawsuit for libel. Character witnesses during Julian’s 1954 trial were Edward R. Morrow (last talked of here) and the aforementioned Morton Wishengrad. It was “an ugly period in American life and in mine,” Julian comments. His “urge” was “to skip over it”; but he felt a

responsibility as a victim to record some of what [he] went through. A whole new generation hardly knows that such a thing ever happened. But the fact is it could easily happen again if we relax our vigilance in defending our freedoms. Control of broadcasting is one of the first major objectives of those who would take them away.

His lawsuit was dismissed; thereafter, Julian virtually unemployed until William Fitelson, a theatrical lawyer and executive producer of the Theater Guild’s US Steel Hour television series staged one of the actor’s own plays in December 1954. Julian’s fortunes changed as quickly as they had declined; and he once again “getting calls for radio acting jobs.”

Without bitterness, Julian tells it as it is. About Myrna Loy, for instance, he remarks that, “if she had to win [her radio] role in a competitive audition with radio actresses, she wouldn’t have been there. Her voice, isolated from her other attributes, was dull and flat. She was selling her name, not her art.” More problematic still was it to perform a dramatic scene with Veronica Lake, who had such a weak, wispy voice” that the sound engineer could not get her and Julian “in proper balance.”

Lake was handed a “separate microphone across the stage” so that the engineer could “could mechanically raise her voice level to mine.” However effective for listeners at home, her faraway whispers had Julian straining to hear his cues. “Especially since they had her facing front so the audience could see her famous peek-a-boo hairdo. Hardly the way to play an intimate love scene with a lady!”

Of the notorious Hummerts, who “grimly dominated their empire” of soap operas, Julian remarks:

There was something darkly foreboding about [them]. Their stiff presence always evoked a sense of insecurity. And with good reason. They had a reputation for firing actors who incurred their slightest displeasure. And authors. When Mrs. Hummert once told a writer that she wanted “God” on every page of a script, and his answer was “Who will we get to play Him?” he was fired on the spot. And whey you were fired from one of their shows it was a catastrophe. It meant being banned from all their nine or ten others that might be on the air at any given time.

Call him fortunate or not, Julian continued to act on the air well into the medium’s decline. On this day, 4 October, in 1959, he was heard on Suspense, one of radio’s last remaining drama anthologies, in the routine thriller “Room 203.” It is a far cry from Julian’s greatest work; but these days, almost any cry uttered on radio seems distant.

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