Not Every Tome, Dick, and Harry; or, How to Approach Claudette Colbert

It had been two decades since last a biographer was given the chance to shed light on the life of a woman whose name was written in the bright lights of Broadway and whose radiant presence lit up the silver screen. Considering that the radiant one is my favorite actress, I was eager to clap eyes on Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a promisingly scholarly tome by Bernard F. Dick. Not that the title inspires clapping, Byronic, bastardized, and bromidic that it is. It sure gave me the first clue, though: whatever it was that Colbert walked in—beauty, grace, wit—was being thoroughly trampled in a clumsy and inept performance that brings out the lambastard in me.

As I advised students attending my seminar in Effective Academic Writing yesterday, a gaffe can be so distracting as to drown out an argument in guffaws and undermine a reader’s trust in a professional writer. Dick’s editors left us with ample occasions to titter and groan. I put down the book often enough just to get some fresh air; but I had not gotten past page two when I was confronted with “the Prince of Whales.” That’s a fine kettle of mammals, I thought.

Not that the royalty thus referred to has anything to do with Colbert; Edward VII, along with Oscar Wilde and Theodore Roosevelt, is merely listed as one of the admirers of Lily Langtry after whom Colbert may have been named. Cumbersomely piled up, trivia like this slows the plodding, meandering account of how She Walked down to a crawl. However thorough a detective, Dick is unable to fashion the evidence he compiled into any cohesive—let alone compelling—narrative. Instead, he rehearses the biographer’s role of examining data:

Without school records, it is impossible to verify whether Claudette was still at Washington Irving in February 1919 [ . . .]. Although she told Rex Reed that she appeared in Grammar in December 1918, she could have graduated at the end of the fall term, in January 1919. Initially, Washington Irving, which opened its doors in February 1913, did not observe the traditional September-June school year. Then, too, there was the matter of Claudette’s missing at least four months of school, and possibly more, in 1916, which would also have affected her graduation date.

The “matter” in question was an accident that very nearly crippled his subject. It is commendable that Dick resists being melodramatic; but his idea of bringing an event like Colbert’s immigration to life for us is to check the records revealing that, “for the end of November, the temperature was a comfortable 45 degrees.” It is difficult to warm to such storytelling.

Fortunate for those who have not burned the book to beat the chill, She Walked gathers momentum once Colbert makes the move from stage to screen. Having watched virtually all of her films, Dick can fill in many of the blanks people are likely to draw when they try to remember any of the films in which Colbert starred before or after It Happened One Night. Most of these movies are not classics; and Dick does not pretend that they are. He nonetheless succeeds in offering a thorough overview of a career that might have been brighter had Colbert not been such a shrewd businesswoman. One of the highest paid actresses, she generally chose projects based on their financial worth to her rather than on their artistic value to us.

Demonstrating that her film career declined in the late 1940s, Dick is faced with an anticlimax that cannot be countered by references to stage performances to which we no longer have access. So, he holds back with the gossip some might have expected from him: was Colbert a lesbian or what? Once again, her biographer lays out the facts with admirable restraint. There is no evidence, besides her childless marriages, the fact that she did not so much as share a house with her first husband, that she had female live-in companions, and that she enjoyed being around gay people. No evidence, in short.

Dick confuses our desire to speculate about an artist’s gender orientation with untoward curiosity. Does it matter whether Colbert (whom Dick refers to as Claudette throughout, while according last names to her male co-stars) ever derived sexual pleasure from the company of another woman? Are those who, like me, are not born heterosexuals, inappropriately trying to appropriate another luminary by pushing her into the dark corner of our longings?

I have often wondered just what attracts me to Colbert, to whose Academy Award-winning performance I was introduced by my grandmother. Even as the pre-adolescent I was then, I sensed that I was gay. It would take nearly two decades more to make me feel cheerful about it. During that time, I rejected most of the gay icons to come out of Hollywood. In the dignified, understated performances of Claudette Colbert I seemed to detect something understood. Her sexuality was not threatening to a boy troubled by the realization that he could not get aroused at the sight of feminine beauty. To me, Colbert was a woman who charmed when others seemed to chide.

When I speculate about Colbert’s intimate life, I do so not with the intention of outing her, but in the hope of learning something about myself. She Walked is designed to put such speculations to rest. Yet no matter how many facts we can gather about others, even those close to us, we never stop wondering about them and our love for them. Once we have people all figured out, they tend to be more dead to us than alive. Such is the effect of setting a queer record straight.

Writing a speech about Colbert in college, I concentrated on her career, of which my fellow students knew little and for which they could not have cared less. That I mentioned the mystique in which her sexuality was shrouded did not seem to have bothered either Colbert or her secretary/companion much. Weeks after sending the only copy of my speech to Colbert’s home in Barbados, I received the autographed image shown here. While I would have liked to engage in conjecture, it was mainly to come out to my own audience, an autobiographical act I ultimately rejected as self-indulgent. A biographer’s predilections and prejudices must not get in the way of the project.

This, I felt, was precisely what kept She Walked from taking flight. Never mind the fanciful title with which Dick tries to evoke the romance he never found or instilled in his subject. Approaching biography with the mind of a bureaucrat, the scholar falls short of meeting the creative challenge at which he balked in duty.

As a failed opportunity to revive interest in someone who, to my great relief, is alive and well in films like the aforementioned Midnight and The Palm Beach Story, She Walked may well put an end to future studies. Yet even if an open-minded publisher can prevent this from being the last word on Colbert, Dick’s eulogy stands out as an act of unpardonable bumbling. Just how graceless a performance it is can be demonstrated by these two consecutive paragraphs, which I have mercifully abridged:

The end came on 30 July. Claudette, barely breathing, said, “I want to go home,” pointing upwards. O’Hagan stayed with her until the end [. . .]

Claudette was fortunate to have a friend in Helen O’Hagan, a celebrity in her own right. Widely known as the voice of Saks, she numbered the leading designers among her circle. In 2000, she hosted a retirement party for Bill Blass at the Waldorf, where she presented a slide show of his career, followed by a luncheon consisting of his favorite foods: meat loaf and oat meal cookies.

Not even if such culinary treats had been served at Colbert’s wake do I want to hear about them, especially not in the wake of the deathbed scene. If “The end came on 20 July” brought a tear to my eye, “oat meal cookies” made me choke—an unpleasant sensation that even the imminent conclusion of book could not alleviate. “A film actor’s life is a palimpsest,” Dick remarks in his Preface; She Walked in Beauty qualifies as an effacement I would like to see overwritten.

He Calls Them As He Hears Them: Joseph Julian Remembers

“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.

The Lilt of the Lilliputian

The cover of Adventure in Radio, from my collection

A few years ago, walking home from graduate school one afternoon, I stopped by at a second-hand bookstore in my old neighborhood of Yorkville, Manhattan. Judging from the window display, the shop seemed to specialize in children’s books and memorabilia. While this did not deter me, I hardly expected to make any significant acquisition of a volume on the subject to which this journal is chiefly devoted. I mean, I was not looking for a decoder ring or some such souvenir from the bygone age of radio dramatics. I was, after all, researching my dissertation. There was on the shelves a beautiful copy of Adventure in Radio (1945). Subtitled “A Book of Scripts for Young People,” it may be expected to include juvenile playlets written for the medium, although not necessarily produced on network radio. On such compilations, of which there are many, I was not inclined to waste money or time.

Spiting my assumptions, Adventure in Radio not only contains a number of broadcast scripts from programs like Jack Armstrong and Let’s Pretend but also propaganda plays and wartime commentaries geared toward an adult audience. In addition, it offers insights on the production of radio plays, on sound effects, announcing, and “radio language.” It took a little salestalk from the owner of the by now long closed store, but I was soon convinced. Where (I did not know much about eBay back then) would I ever find such a book again? And how could I claim to be serious about old-time radio if I did not snatch up this copy? So, I handed over my $40 (it was the price tag that made me hesitate) and walked off, eager to continue my studies . . . and determined to find the recordings to match the published scripts now at my fingertips.

That often proved quite difficult; but I had made up my mind that I was not going to write about words divorced from performance. I wanted to hear what was being done with those scripts, how they were edited and interpreted. Take the NBC University Theater’s production of “Gulliver’s Travels,” for instance. It was broadcast on this day, 24 September, in 1948. My appreciation of the challenges of soundstaging the play grew after reading the comments with which Frank Papp, a director of radio drama for NBC, prefaces the script, originally written for the series World’s Great Novels. Papp points out the “unusual problems” Frank Wells’s adaptation posed in production:

In the matter of casting, the Lilliputian was the most difficult.  Here was needed a voice which gave the illusion of a tiny man.  A trick voice in itself would be only a caricature.  What was required was a voice that created a picture of a real human being of Lilliputian size.  After extensive auditioning, an actor was found whose talent and vocal capabilities fulfilled these requirements.

The actor portraying Gulliver was placed in an isolation booth, Papp explains, “so that the Lilliputian’s voice would not spill over into his microphone” and the two voices could be miked separately, with a volume reflecting the size of each character. The voice of the King of Brobdingnag, meanwhile, was “fed” both through an electronic filter to amplify its base quality and through NBC’s largest echo chamber to create the illusion of a giant.

The 24 September 1948 presentation of “Gulliver’s Travels,” starring Henry Hull in the title role, does not quite live up to the expectations raised by Papp’s introduction. Under the direction of Max Hutto, child actor (Anthony Boris) is cast in the role of the Lilliputian, a choice that infantilizes the character and renders pointless the effects achieved by the sound engineer. While Wells’s script downsizes Swift’s story and diminishes its bitterness and bite, it is the production that contributes to a sense that Gulliver’s Travels is, at heart, a juvenile fantasy, despite its airing on the ambitious if misguided NBC University Theater, a program that linked listening to such bowdlerizations with courses in distant learning. I may have been able to match the script with a production, but it was not the one described in Adventure in Radio.

Squeezed as I am into the isolation booth of my preoccupations, it is my mind’s voice that supplies the lilt of the Lilliputian . . .

As Jane Airs; or, Going KUKU

My copy of Jane Woodfin’s novel Of Mikes and Men

“Jane Woodfin has worked for a West Coast radio station, in practically every known capacity, for more than twenty years—a period which almost spans the life of modern radio.” That is pretty much all I know about the wit that penned Of Mikes and Men, a narrative promising the “humorous inside story of early radio, when announcers doubled as soundmen and microphones went dead once a program.” I should not be quite so petty or perplexed—but the broadcast historian in me still doesn’t know quite what he’s reading.

At least, “humorous” is an entirely appropriate tag for Woodfin’s tale, that, tall or not, was published in 1951, when radio was still the source of mystery, romance, and adventure, but only in a programming sense. Otherwise, it was a big business, a well-oiled if somewhat past its prime machinery that bore little resemblance to the “anything goes”—or “nothing quite works”—broadcasting of the 1920s recalled by Woodfin.

Of Mikes and Men, which I picked up at a bookstore in Dryden, New York (aforementioned), opens like a prequel to Remember WENN. You know, the nostalgic sitcom set in a broadcasting studio, which aired on AMC during the mid-to late 1990s. Woodfin’s narrator, presumably the author, relates how she, penniless and none too skilled, got a job at a radio station in Portland, Oregon just after Wall Street laid that infamous “Egg.” Perusing the want ads, the young woman applied for the only position offered to female job searchers—that of “continuity writer” at station KUKU.

Not that she had any idea what a “continuity writer” was. She beat out a number of applicants and, being paid partly in cash, partly in the goods the station’s sponsors tried to peddle, was expected to deliver not only advertising copy and chatter (the so-called “continuity”) but also her own cooking program. That Jane, as her friend and neighbor points out, would be lost without a can opener, was something she kept to herself, until the audience, trying to follow her recipes, found out as much while gazing at the indigestible mess sticking to their pots and pans.

This is all rather jolly and preferable to leafing through I Hid It under the Sheets, the at times exasperatingly ungrammatical and disorganized reminiscences of journalist, sports writer, and radio listener Gerald Eskanezi, which I mentioned previously. At least, Woodfin knew how to turn a phrase and tell a story. So, why am I not just sitting back and enjoying that story?

For one, I am wondering just whose story it is. I mean, is it based on actual experiences? Is there anything between the covers that might tell me something factual about what it was like working in broadcasting before radio reached what is generally referred to as its “golden age”? Or is it a calculated, well timed antidote to the run-of-the-mill radio of the post-war years with whose Hucksterism Americans became so thoroughly disenchanted?

Playing it sly, Woodfin dedicates her book to those who presumable worked with her by stating:

To my dear friends and co-workers in early radio who will attempt in vain to find themselves in the pages of this book.  You aren’t here. I couldn’t put you in because you are normal.  But you may recognize some of the screwballs we both knew.

Station KUKU? I assumed Woodfin’s book to be an account of an early radio comedy of the same name. It was created by Raymond Knight, one of whose later Cuckoo programs you may find in the Internet Archive. According to the aforementioned Messrs. Gaver and Stanley, Knight began broadcasting on 1 January 1930 and distinguished himself by being one of the first radio satirists to poke fun at the medium. Groucho Marx reputedly thought him to be “the best comedian on the air.”

Turns out, Of Mikes and Men does not concern Mr. Knight, who broadcast from the East Coast. Nor have I come across any names that I recognize as referring to an actual radio pioneer. Still, leafing through Woodfin’s book, wondering whether Jane ever aired, I feel not unlike the earliest reader’s of Jane Eyre, who assumed the novel to be a biographical account of a governess in love with her master.

That Woodfin loved the radio, and knew it well, I do not doubt. I was just hoping for a bit of dirt I could trace to some of the real men and women behind those carbon mikes; but then I remembered my Aunt Ilse, the baby crier, bit my captious tongue, and let Woodfin keep hers firmly lodged in her unblushing cheek. Besides, those distinctions between fact and fiction, well nigh incomprehensible to today’s reality-TV audiences, went out of fashion in the days of the Spanish-American War . . .

Bookshelf Cowboy

Well, howdy. His handsome mug is before me whenever I grab a book from my shelves. Randolph Scott, Series two, Number 385 of Zuban’s “Bunte Filmbilder” (a German line of cigarette cards, issued in 1937). I caught a glimpse of Scott this afternoon when I turned on TV, switching channels for an update on the stock market, the Heath Ledger autopsy, and whatever else made news today. Rage at Dawn (1955) was playing on Channel 4. Checking the Internet Movie Database, I realized that it might have been shown in commemoration of Scott’s birth, on this day, back in 1898. Now, my frequent encounters with him in my library notwithstanding, I rarely come across his appealing phizog. This is mainly because I don’t care much for the genre in which Scott made his mark. Stagecoach aside, which to me is more of a small-scale Grand Hotel on wheels, I rarely watch Westerns (even though a certain—if unlikely—Texas Lady is prominently displayed in my bedroom). True, Scott co-starred in My Favorite Wife and played opposite Marlene Dietrich on two occasions; but otherwise, there isn’t much on his extensive resume that appeals to me. So, I am once again twisting the dial, the ether being Hollywood’s parallel universe.

Sure enough, apart from recreating his roles in Pittsburgh and Belle of the Yukon, Scott can be heard co-starring aforementioned Texas Lady, Claudette Colbert, in an adaptation of Preston Sturges’s ”Palm Beach Story” (15 March 1943), filling the shoes of Joel McCrea. He was to do so again, a few months later, when McCrea did not appear, as scheduled, on the Cavalcade of America program, starring in the propaganda drama ”Vengeance of Torpedo 8” (20 September 1943).

While he did not get much to do or say in the rather dull rehash of Palm Beach Story, Scott was given a chance to prove his comedy skills on a number of occasions. Opposite Gene Tierney, for instance, he was cast in “A Lady Takes a Chance” on the Harold Lloyd hosted Old Gold Comedy Hour (unfortunately no longer available in the Internet Archive). For more laughs, Scott joined Paulette Goddard for a parodic “Saga of the Old West” on Command Performance (21 June 1945). Assigning the parts, Goddard declared: “Randy, you play yourself. A real, two-gun cowboy.”

Turns out that Scott got a chance to play the Ringo Kid, after all. On 4 May 1946, he took on John Wayne’s role in the Academy Award production of Stagecoach. Sharing the microphone with him to reprise the role of Dallas was Claire Trevor, radio’s original Lorelei Kilbourne of Big Town (whom I recently saw in Born to Kill).

To me, the more intriguing performances were Scott’s curtain calls, during which he got to address the audience. Having delivered his lines in the digest of “Palm Beach Story,” the actor was called upon to put his southern charm to work for the war effort, reminding the women on the home front that

it’s men like your own sons and brothers, your husband or sweetheart whom the Red Cross is serving. This year, don’t measure by ordinary standards. Make your contribution to the Red Cross War Fund just as generous as possible.

“For most of us the war is a distant terror,” he told listeners of the Cavalcade broadcast, “until it is brought forcefully home by those very close to our own lives. Let’s match their effort at the front with ours at home. Back the attack with War Bonds.”

Of course, Scott’s commitment to the war effort went further than those appeals; he was, after all, a veteran of the first World War. And, like many of his fellow actors, he went on tour with the USO (an experience he shared with listeners of Hollywood Star Time).

Meanwhile, the gentleman from Virginia has gone back on the shelf. I shall see him again soon enough, as I reach for another volume on old-time radio. For this spur-of-the-moment tribute to him, Scott made me round up Cavalcade of America and Radio Drama by Martin Grams, as well as John Dunning’s On the Air.

On This Day in 1930: ‘”Mystery Gun” Disappears As Lights Go Out’ in Invisible Courtroom

I don’t suppose I shall ever get used to it. The Welsh weather, I mean, the nocturnal roars and howlings of which I often drown out by listening to the familiar voices of old-time radio, reassuring and comforting voices like those of Harry Bartell or Elliot Lewis, both of whom were born on this day, 28 November, in 1913 and 1917, respectively. Storms are part of the Welsh soundscape, much like the bleating of sheep on the hills. If such climate conditions were faced by the people of New York, among whom I numbered for some fifteen years of my life, I wager that the local television newscasts would report little else. To be sure, last night’s storm did make headlines, being that a tornado wreaked havoc in a village just a few miles from my present home.

Thanks to some well-chosen radio thriller, I managed to sleep through it all, losing myself in dreams that, once radioactivated, tend to become particularly vivid. I often wonder just how much my mind, conscious or not, is influenced by the popular culture I consume by listening in. Sometimes, though, it is what we hear about, and not what we perceive, that stirs our imagination. There are a few listening experiences I can only dream of, plays I have only read or read about and consequently fascinate me no end. One such unheard soundplay is the serial The Trial of Vivienne Ware (previously mentioned here and discussed at some length in Etherized, my study of American radio dramatics). Pulled by the Hearst press and propagated on the air by station WJZ, New York, it was a spectacular publicity stunt designed to promote Hearst’s less than reputable papers.

Those tuning in did not only get to hear the proceedings, but were cast as jurors. They stood a chance of being awarded $1000 for coming up with the most convincing verdict (be it “guilty” or “innocent”), thus making it unnecessary for the author of the story—one Kenneth M. Ellis—to determine upon a reasonable conclusion and the fate of his titular character.

From the 25th to the last day of November, the fictional trial was broadcast live, with eminent figures of law and politics, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner and prominent attorney Ferdinand Pecora, heading a cast that included noted stage actress Rosamund Pinchot. Here is how the New York American, the Hearst paper sponsoring the series, described the session of 28 November 1930:

It was almost at the close of the session that the lights suddenly were extinguished and the court plunged into total darkness. Women’s screams, the shouts and bustle of court attaches, and the hammering of the gavel filled five or six black seconds with sound. Then the lights came on again—but the .38 caliber revolver which George Gordon Battle, chief counsel for Vivienne Ware, had just introduced as evidence had disappeared from the table where it lay.

Now, that’s a melodramatic conjuring act fit for the airwaves. It probably wouldn’t do much good during a stormy night, though, since such interactive thrills—let alone the pondering of the verdict, and what to do with the prize money—are, unlike much else that was presented on American radio with comforting predictability, anything but soporific.

Up to My Eyes in Dog-eared Books

This is one of those rare, lugubrious days of landscape-swallowing fogginess on which you might as well retreat, brandy in hand, into the confines of your small but reassuringly familiar study. My thought being as opaque as the wintry sky, my mind as obnubilated as the mist-shrouded hills, I have put aside all semi-intellectual or quasi-artistic endeavors for the moment. Instead, I busy myself cataloguing the books in my radio drama library, another four dusty volumes of forgotten plays having arrived by mail yesterday. During my years of researching so-called old-time radio in New York City, I had access to several excellent public and academic libraries, however deficient my own.

While a vast number of recordings have been preserved, there are some plays you can only find on paper, among them rare pieces by noted American authors like Sherwood Anderson, who died on this day, 8 March, in 1941. Writing my dissertation, I was determined not to discuss at length any play I had never set my ears upon. The page seemed to be a poor substitute for a performance. Who, I ask you, would claim to know a movie having only read the screenplay? I thought. And yet, once your eye is becoming accustomed to the language of radio, you can almost hear the plays as they might have been produced.

Distrustful of my less than reliable memory, I used to photocopy much of what I read and carefully filed away each text for ready reference. After I had earned my doctorate and decided, propelled by romance, to move to the United Kingdom, I took those thousands of sheets out of their assigned ring binders, boxed them up, and posted them, along with most of my belongings, to be shipped overseas.

Upon my arrival in Blighty, I was not only confronted with stacks of paper (relieved to find them there), but with the problem of making a new and orderly home for them. Little did I know when I decided to be economic by dumping the old binders that the paper sizes in the UK differ from those in the US, that British sheet protectors are too narrow for American paper, and that such incompatibilities would spell many a tedious hour punching holes or cropping paper. Eventually, I resigned in frustration from such labors and resolved to ditch some of the copies in exchange for the originals, however obscure.

Tossing another photocopied script into the bin this morning, I noticed that the play thus preserved was broadcast on the first anniversary of Anderson’s death on this day in 1941. The piece in question is “The Test” by radio dramatist Joseph Ruscoll, and I have not yet come across a recording of it.

Produced by the Columbia Workshop, it concerns adolescent lovers Janet and Joseph who, thirty years after parting, are nothing but joyful memories and pangs of regret to one another. They separated as the result of a dare—the eponymous “test”—that was to prove Joseph’s love for Janet: would he give up his harmonica for their harmonious union? No, he would not stoop to accepting the challenge—and the two were twained no more. Through the miracle of the pre-cellular phone wireless, a radio commentator interviewing both brings about a reunion of sorts. After all, radio was, as Gerald Nachman put it, “yesterday’s internet”:

Narrator: And you never spoke to him again, Janet? 

Janet. Never. (Sorrowfully)

Narrator: Or you to her, Mr. Pike?

Joseph. I had my pride. 

Narrator: Or you to her, Mr. Pike? 

Joseph. I had my pride. (Lowly)

Narrator. (Sighs) And that was thirty years ago?

Janet. (Flaring up.) Pride! If he had really loved me, he wouldn’t have had any pride!

Joseph. (Flaring up in turn) And if she really loved me, she—what about her foolish pride?

Janet. (Indignantly) Foolish?

Joseph. (Crying out) Foolish! Foolish!

Janet. What do you think, Mr. Narrator?

Narrator. (Sadly) I think you were both very, very foolish.

Perhaps, we’d better put our keyboard to some special use tonight by searching for old friends or else put it aside altogether, seeking instead the company of neglected loved ones rather than dwelling in the sheltering obscurity of our inconsequentiality or sweltering in the ersatz heat of emboldening internet anonymity. I write for myself and strangers—but I live for a hug and a smile.

On This Day in 1930: Murder Trial Broadcast Summons Millions to Court

Well, it is Black Friday here in New York—the stores are opening at preposterously early hours and shoppers are lured away from their leftover turkey with promises of early bird specials and nest egg busting savings. Too lazy after a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal, I am not partaking of any 5 AM bargain debasements. Instead, I am going to celebrate yet another milestone in radio drama history—The Trial of Vivienne Ware, which opened on this day, 25 November, in 1930 and ushered in a new age of cross-promotional multimediacy.

“There’s murder in the air,” the New York Times had announced in its Sunday radio section, predicting that The Trial of Vivienne Ware would “occupy the attention of listeners over WJZ’s network for six consecutive nights beginning Tuesday.” Considerably more enthusiastic was the New York American, which declared the six-part serial to be “one of the most stirring mystery radiodramas ever presented,” quoting NBC president M. H. Aylesworth as saying that its script “established a new standard in the creation of radio plays. The simplicity and fidelity of the theme, together with the colorful word and character pictures, stand out in this new field of adaptive writing.”

The New York American—the Hearst “paper for people who think”—had good reason to eulogize the as yet unaired serial as “one of the best radio dramas ever written,” given that the program had been conceived by one of its own feature writers.

Every effort was made to prevent the program from appearing like a cheap marketing ploy and to convince WJZ, New York—the flagship station of NBC’s Blue network—to produce the series in its glass-curtained Times Square studio atop the New Amsterdam Theatre and to broadcast the event locally instead of making the required six half-hour spots available to national advertisers.

Certain to impress NBC executives was the fact that—along with Ferdinand Pecora, Assistant District Attorney of New York, and prominent New York attorney George Gordon Battle—none other than US Senator and Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner had agreed to participate in the mock trial by assuming the role of the presiding judge. The titular heroine was played by Rosamund Pinchot, a stage actress who had appeared in Max Reinhardt’s celebrated staging of The Miracle, and the entire spectacular was supervised by well-known Broadway producer John Golden.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Radio Jury,” Wagner addressed the audience during the inaugural broadcast:

You have been called to one of the most trying tasks which befalls the lot of a citizen. You are to try a fellow being on a charge of first degree murder.  It is the more difficult for you in that this defendant has everything which would make life for any young woman most desirable.  Yet it may become your solemn duty to deprive her of her enjoyment of that life.

Standing to gain cash prizes for the most convincing verdict, readers of the New York American were advised to prepare themselves by taking in the published “information” daily, since they might miss “important loop-holes” if they did not “carefully follow the testimony and the evidence” as presented on the radio. “By reading the New York American every morning” throughout the trial and by “tuning in on WJZ each night at the specified time,” readers should be able to form their verdict as to Miss Ware’s guilt or innocence—“just like any other juror.”

According to Radio Digest, verdicts, letters of congratulations, and demands for a sequel were received from places as remote as Canada and Virginia, as well as from ships at sea; an estimated 14,000 listeners eventually acquitted the fictional heroine on trial, with about 2000 arguing the “society girl” to be guilty. More significant for the publisher was that the serial had increased the circulation of the New York American “far in excess of expectations,” as a result of which Hearst papers in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and Omaha sponsored the trial with different casts of local luminaries.

A follow-up trial involving the murder victim’s less privileged “friend,” nightclub singer Dolores Divine, was staged a few weeks after the acquittal of the first defendant. A generic version of the radio scripts for both serials, prefaced by excepts from the printed reports and concluding with the audience verdict, was subsequently published by Grosset and Dunlap, which marketed Kenneth M. Ellis’s The Trial of Vivienne Ware as the “first radio novel, an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds.”

Unfortunately, no recordings of this interactive multi-media event seem to have survived. I sure would have enjoyed tuning in . . .

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Fifteen): Radio Is a Deserted Home

Well, Heavenly Days! This morning, I caught a glimpse of the Great Gildersleeve and the McGees (Fibber and Molly, that is), who were featured in a triple bill of radio-takes-the-pictures comedies on Turner Classic Movies. Of course, radio always takes the pictures, provided the audience has a mind’s eye keen enough to develop them. Soon I’ll head out to pay a visit to the Museum of Television and Radio. As I noticed yesterday, the bookstores, second-hand or otherwise, are not exactly well stocked with radio-related publications; the late-1990s resurgence of interest in radio dramatics and pre-TV broadcasting here in the US seems to have died before it could mature as an independent, sustained, and regenerative field of study.

My own study on the subject of old-time radio, Etherized Victorians, doesn’t have much of a chance in a market that caters to people with short memories or nostalgic longings, instead to those who, like me, think of audio drama as alive if largely abandoned.

Today, my rather unsuccessful attempt at creating enthusiasm about Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery must come to an end. On this day, 18 November, in 1949, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” stopped bawling at last.

In his fifteenth and final chapter of “The Thing,” Morse keeps on postponing the prosaic business of making sense, until he eventually explains away the mystery of the voice without a body and solving the case of the name without a face.  Not that Jack Packard, one of Morse’s trio of adventurers, finds pleasure in lifting the veil.

“The House of Martin has fallen,” he concludes, soberly; the collapse has proven too devastating and deadly to call for celebration.  The story of a house under the corrupting influences of Hearst and Hollywood, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” is also a chapter in the history of radio, the medium for which Morse chose to write. Exposing the double life of the not-so-sweet Charity, the secret career and inglorious demise of a radio voice and its bodied double, Morse turns ventriloquism into a metaphor for the depersonalizing business of commercial broadcasting and its body of tongue-tied artists and scribes who, generally barred from speaking their mind and forced to mind their speech, stomached ignominy while devising various modes of indirection.

The dark art of casting voices, narrowly or broadly, is exposed as a duplicitous act, an impersonation in whose impersonal nature we can descry the corruption of communication and the unwholesome fragmentations of modern life.

Thus concludes my adventure in radio listening. Had it met with a more favorable reception—or just more of a reception, for that matter—I might have fixed my mind’s eye on a longer serial, such as Chandu the Magician. Instead, I will listen to the sounds of the city for a while as I mingle with the more tangible multitude. Perhaps you’ll be here when I return.