You know you’ve got money to spare when you can afford to hire someone to do the sneezing for you. Save your nostrils, keep the tissue! Just call Hildegarde Halliday. That is what NBC did back in the 1930s and ‘40s, when Halliday was the Durante of sound effect artists. Radio actors were fortunate to have their proboscis blown by proxy whenever the script demanded the feigning of a common cold or an attack of hay fever. On this day, 20 October, in 1940, stage actress Halliday demonstrated her skill on Behind the Mike, a weekly half-hour that promised to take listeners inside the studio to reveal some of the tricks of the radio dramatic trade. Billed as “radio’s own show,” the aforementioned Behind the Mike dramatized and promoted the business by telling audiences what was involved in putting together a national broadcast, in selling it to a sponsor, or in prepping a studio audience.
“We’ve had many people on this program who make their living from radio in strange ways” announcer Graham McNamee opened the 20 October 1940 broadcast, referring to assorted animal imitators and baby criers (like my fictional Aunt Ilse). “But our next guest makes her living in radio in a way that tops all of them.” Halliday claimed to have “done all kinds of sneezes,” making herself heard on the variety programs headed by Rudy Vallee and Robert Benchley, as well as on daytime serials like Aunt Jenny.
“Oh, I can sneeze like all get-out if I just imagine very hard that I have a cold and chill,” the jovial Halliday tells the host (pictured above). To illustrate the afflatus the afflicted are to her, Halliday enacts in monologue a scene at a cocktail party she attended. Listeners are treated to a severe allergy attack, the sounds of which I know only too well. The sufferer lets out a few terrifying atchoos (a rather feeble onomatopoeic substitute, as it turns out), along with some choice words of political wisdom.
“I hope he doesn’t get besmirched,” the none-too-ladylike sneezer tells her friend, the wife of a congressman. “I always say politics are so common, what with letting everybody vote. No, I don’t know a thing about politics, but I do know what I like.”
Such sentiments are uttered more frequently than “Gesundheit,” no doubt, which is why elected governments are rarely as healthy and sound as they ought to be. And however poorly we are represented due to our lack of care at the sickbed of our democracies, we cannot rely on someone like Hildegarde Halliday to perform the suffering on our behalf . . .