I enjoy spending time by myself. It’s a good thing I do, considering that I am pretty much on my own in my enthusiasm for old and largely obscure radio programs, especially those that I only get to hear about. Listening, like reading, is a solitary experience; to share your thoughts about what went on in your head can be as difficult and frustrating as it is to put into words the visions and voices of a dream. Besides, unless you are talking to somebody who gets paid to listen, your dreams and reveries are rarely as stimulating to others as they are to yourself. This isn’t exactly a dream, much less one come true—but it’s a jolly good facsimile thereof.
A few weeks ago, I walked into a second-hand bookstore in Hampstead, London. Second hands down, a used bookshop is the place to be initiated into worlds you cannot experience firsthand, no matter how deep you dig or vigorously you claw. The volume I had my dusty hands on was a signed copy of In Town To-Night, a truly forgotten book promising, as the subtitle has it, “The Story of the Popular BBC Feature Told from Within.” In other words, a close-up of something quite out of reach.
The compendium was published in 1935, at a time when dramatics had not yet come to the fore on American radio. According to a 1938 study by William Albig, a researcher who compiled data to establish the percentages of airtime devoted to various types of programs on nine American radio stations between 1925 to 1935, dramatic broadcasts (including plays, sketches, and serials) were not a significant aspect of programming, even though they had increased considerably in frequency during that period, namely from 0.13% in February 1922 to 8.85% in July 1934. Radio plays were even less frequently heard on the BBC; nor were there any signs of change. Dramatic programs constituted 2.14% of the BBC’s offerings in February 1925, as compared to 2.04% in July 1934.
So, what kind of program was In Town To-Night? “[A]s every one knows,” the blurb on the dust jacket reads, it is what the BBC called a “feature,” a highly inclusive term for a series of broadcasts produced or written by the same team or featuring the same host. While rather more formulaic, Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight came to mind, as did many of the hour-long variety programs broadcast in the US during the mid- to late 1930s.
In Town To-Night prided itself on being a program of many voices. Whatever the sound produced by such friction may be, it was on this feature that chimney-sweeps were heard
rubb[ing] shoulders with film-stars, and cat’s-meat merchants with peers of the realm. Poets, down and outs, playwrights, pearly kings and queens, and interesting people from all parts of the world have been gathered within its framework.
J. C. Cannell, the author of the book, was a talent scout for the Saturday night feature, which, at the time of publication, was in its third season; his role was to ensure a “queer medley” of personalities,
chosen with haste, though with care. A mixed lot, picked as though from a lucky dip, surprising because listeners did not know beforehand whom they would hear, and nearly always, I think, delightful for some reason or other.
Heard on this rehearsed and scripted variety program were many familiar voices from Broadway, Hollywood, and the West End; among them Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Merle Oberon, Ethel Barrymore, Paul Muni, Johnny Weissmuller, Vivien Leigh, Polly Moran, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Ida Lupino was interviewed by her actor-father Stanley; and Hermione Gingold was heard in conversation with her dresser.
Jimmy Walker, formerly Mayor of New York City, was featured, as were movie director James Whale, author Algernon Blackwood, and Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who was “anxious to talk about his constant search for interesting screen personalities.”
Cab Calloway performed, as did Leonard Hawke, the first man ever to sing on a BBC program, along with assorted groups of Welsh miners and Swiss yodelers. Wilhelm Grosz, composer of “Isle of Capri,” played a medley of Strauss waltzes he had discovered in a bookshop in Venice.
The greater attractions, though, were the real folks and the curious ones telling their stories, many of which are retold in Cannell’s illustrated account. As the program found its voice, the stars made way for the stories of everyday—or not so everyday—folk, their struggles and successes. There was Pan The Ming, for instance, who stopped by while touring the world on foot (apart from brief intervals on his bicycle); there was a singing laundryman, a woman detective, a one-armed parachutist, as well as “one hundred grandfathers from the Upper Holloway Baptist Grandfathers’ Club”; Molly Moore, a knocker-up from Limehouse; Mrs. Wheelabread, “The Chocolate Lady” from Kensington Gardens, and Jack Morgan, “The Boy with the Large Ears.”
And then there was a visit from Clayton “Peg” Bates, the one-legged tap dancer who inspired listeners with his philosophy when he urged them to “forget” their “self-pity and go right ahead and do as other men do.”
In Town To-Night sounds like a program to stay in for—not just for the stories, which Cannell can recount, but for the voices that he cannot. Say, what is the sound of second-hand clapping?