No, I am not referring to today’s publication of the Academy’s chosen nominees for this year’s Oscars; nor am I going to circulate information about some future event of alleged significance. The kind of announcement of which I speak was made seventy years ago, to the day, back when announcing was both a business and an art. Whether they served as barkers or featured as sidekicks, whether they peddled toilet soap or introduced those nine out of ten stars who condescended to claim they used it, announcers heard on network radio were respected and highly-paid professionals. Celebrities in their own right, they had come to prominence in the 1920s, well before they had many big names to drop.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, NBC’s Chicago headquarters even ran an announcer school. According to the 16 April 1938 issue of Radio Guide, the school offered classes in “pronunciation, writing and reading script, speaking extemporaneously, reading three-minute announcements in town and four minutes, and other tests designed to simulate an announcer’s actual experience.”
About those actual experiences: as I perused the radio listings for Sunday, 22 January 1939 (which, along with hundreds of such published broadcast schedules, have been made available at this invaluable site), I became rather wistful about the printed announcements of so many fine or worthwhile programs I may never get to hear. Claudette Colbert’s visit with Charlie McCarthy, for instance, or Jane Cowl’s performance in an adaptation of Schiller’s Maria Stuart. And how about Mayor La Guardia in a “Two-Way Transoceanic Talk” with the Lord Mayor of London—from a police car no less!
Rather than getting carried away in an ode to faded echoes, I studied the listings to verify the broadcast dates for some of the recordings that are in my library. Of Carole Lombard’s Presidential prediction and Cary Grant’s singing in The Circle presided over by Ronald Colman I have found occasion to write previously; but the really big announcement was made on a March of Dimes spectacular (shared here), an announcement even greater than the cast assembled in the fight against infantile paralysis.
And what a cast! It isn’t often that you get to hear Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Rudy Vallee, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Frances Langford, Bob Burns, and Fanny Brice in a single broadcast, and find them joined to boot by film stars Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power, recording artist Maxine Sullivan and tenor Frank Parker, as well as teenaged Mickey Rooney performing one of his own compositions, “Have a Heart.”
Not that what they had to say or sing was all drivel, either. Eddie Cantor, who was an outspoken anti-fascist when it was not yet de rigueur or prudent to be one, had the best line of the evening when, commenting on the popularity of swing music, he remarked:
A lot of people say that maybe these children shouldn’t be worshipping at the shrine of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, as a father and as a citizen, I’d much prefer to have these children hailing band leaders than heil-ing bund leaders.
Still, what, above all, distinguishes this March of Dimes broadcast from any such extravaganzas is its opening announcement:
The thirty-seven voices to which you are now listening represent the combined personnel of announcers employed by Mutual, Columbia, and National Broadcasting Networks in Hollywood. Tonight, we speak as one voice, a voice which reflects the sentiment of an entire nation when it says: infantile paralysis must go.
On the air, nothing could bespeak radio’s commitment to a cause more forcefully. I wonder whether the NBC announcer school prepared its students for choric recitals.
The Circle (22 January 1939)
Related writings and images
My album of radio stars, featuring Eddie Cantor and Frank Parker
Carole Lombard and Cary Grant on The Circle
Mickey Rooney live, December 2008
Mayor La Guardia’s response to Pearl Harbor