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.

“Could She Kiss and Kill . . . and Not [Be] Remember[ed]”

Well, it had been a few years since the movie-going public lined up for a helping of The Egg and I (1947), the back-to-the-farm comedy that proved to be Claudette Colbert’s last major screen success. Still in print today, the non-fiction bestseller by Betty MacDonald on which the franchise-hatching hit movie is based has just been selected as BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime (for a 1947 radio drama version starring Ms. Colbert and her co-star, Fred MacMurray, click here). Considerably less enthusiasm was generated by Mel Ferrer’s The Secret Fury (1950), a box office egg that, even upon delivery, was anything but farm fresh.

In 1944, Colbert left Paramount, the studio that had shaped and protected her image—spirited, smart and sophisticated, after initial siren turns in DeMille features. Despite being a shrewd businesswoman, the by then middle-aged actress stumbled from one middling project to another, playing roles emblematic of an identity in a state of crisis and a career in uneasy flux: a crime-solving nun, a terrorist-beset Planter’s Wife, a Texas Lady. Even her outstanding performance in Three Came Home (1950), for the ordeal of filming which she lost her chance at starring in All About Eve, had gone largely unnoticed.

The Secret Fury, the hysterical melodrama she starred in next, was filmed at a time when audiences were being swept away by a new wave of crime stories that were tough, gritty and low on frills. Unconvincing and anachronistic, it is an irritatingly contrived variation on one of those neo-gothic mysteries in which newlywed heroines distrust their brain much rather than those who stand to gain from addling it.

As if to compensate for the mediocre material or to suit her acting to the overwrought plot, the refined and often reserved Colbert was, for once, woefully overacting. Two years earlier, she had played a similar role in Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love (1948)—the thrills-promising poster for which I acquired last fall—and audiences had reason to be less than embracing of mature (if immaturely acting) women who put their lives and careers in peril by marrying into the wrong families or listening to the advice of their Hollywood agents.

When The Secret Fury was sold to theaters in Britain, it was promoted with the help of the Exhibitors’ Campaign Book pictured above. The latest artifact to have made it into my collection of Colbert memorabilia, it affords a fascinating glimpse at the industry’s marketing machinery. Aside from offering cinema displays and providing advertising copy to be fed to the press, it encouraged exhibitors to adopt various strategies of getting a potential audience excited about the motion picture. Suggested activities were contests in which audiences were asked to match Colbert’s eyes, to share their wedding pictures, or accurately to recall recent events in their lives (something Colbert’s character struggles to do in the film).

Another “stunt” to create interest in the film was this “Visualised Brain Test Reaction, followed by the instructions:

Make an enlarged copy of this graph to serve as a teaser display in the theatre foyer, along with an explanatory caption and film credits. Lead off with a display caption: “Did these brain waves reveal the truth of her mysterious week-end?”

Meanwhile, my own head is gradually clearing after a recent fever; no longer content to feast on television sitcoms, I am going to take in one of Colbert’s earlier comedy triumphs . . . the wintersporting romantic triangle I Met Him in Paris (1937). As DeMille pointed out in his introduction to the radio adaptation another Colbert comedy, The Gilded Lily (produced by the Lux Radio Theatre on this day, 11 January, in 1937), the actress had been somewhat of a “starmaker.” Those who were allowed to throw their arms around her became leading men in their own right, as had Charles Boyer and Gilded Lily co-star MacMurray. Back then, Colbert had her pick of roles and other halves, and brains enough to go for the right ones.

Impractically Mine

Well, I have returned from New York and am off to London in the morning. In between, I celebrated Christmas in Wales. It was during this period of gift giving that I was presented with the fedora pictured here. Now, I am not one to don fedoras; nor am I a connoisseur of millinery craftsmanship. The giver is nonetheless someone intimately familiar with my fancies and foibles, someone who knows just how to press all the right soft spots. According to the certificate in the hatbox, the piece of felt in question, of Italian manufacture, was once in the personal collection of Claudette Colbert. Not in her heyday, mind you, but during the mid-1980s, about the time she appeared on stage in the revival of Aren’t We All? in London and New York.

What is the history of that hat? Did Colbert ever sport it? When, where, on what occasion? I am not generally among those who gawk at garments or marvel at the sight of items that may or may not have been in the possession of a noted so-and-so. My immediate, more prosaic question is: what am I going to do with it? The fedora is no doubt the most peculiar item in my collection of Colbertiana, which, a few Christmas ornaments and paper dolls aside, consists chiefly of photographs and posters (the one shown here being the most recent addition). The task of mounting them notwithstanding, prints like this one are far easier to showcase than a hat, the sight of which causes me a slight unease, lest I should be wrongfully accused of having gone as mad as a hatter in my enthusiasm for its ostensible wearer. And yet, I am suffering from an acute shortage of walls to hang pictures from or bang my bare head against. I refuse to put the fedora back in its box, though. There is no joy in keeping from view what gives me pleasure to have about me even if it might give others the wrong idea about me . . .

Since He Went Away; or Ten Came Home

I could have gone on. I enjoy going on here about whatever comes to my ears or opens my mind’s eye; and even the realization that too much else is going on to warrant such going-ons generally won’t stop me from sharing it all in this journal. What did stop me (from going on about my recent trip to Prague, I mean) was our phone line, which is just as unpredictable as the Welsh weather—and apparently under it whenever it gets wet. Once again, we have been without phone or internet, owing to wires that seem to have been gnawed at by soggy sheep or are otherwise rotting away where the valley is green with mold.

What with our satellite TV on strike as well and my partner away overnight, it has been quiet here in our Welsh cottage. Just Montague and I (and an academic paper on pottery and communism I had agreed to edit some time ago). Listening to the blustery wind, the mailbox flapping in it with nothing for me in it, and the dog barking at it just made me feel all the more cut off from the world, as if being around had been postponed because of rain.

Anyway. That was yesterday. In the meantime, life has returned to the old cottage. I got to hear from a former colleague who happened to Google me after over a decade of silence; thank a friend for returning me to Prague by recommending The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the first chapter of which I read today, and was presented with this set of Ross Filmsterne, miniature photographs of my favorite leading lady, Ms. Claudette Colbert. I thought I’d spread them out here before adding them to my Colbert page. And I thought I’d share as well (and for once) just how much glad I am to be in the presence of the slyly (mis)leading man who came home and surprised me with those pictures today.

Now, had I been online yesterday, I might have noted the minor anniversary of Ms. Colbert’s participation in an all-star promotional broadcast titled “Movietime, USA,” a Lux Radio Theater special aired on 24 September 1951, ostensibly designed to commemorate the opening of a movie theater in downtown Los Angeles some fifty years earlier.

“Movietime, USA” features Colbert and co-star Ann Blyth in a scene from Douglas Sirk’s Thunder on the Hill, which had its premiere that month. Producer-host William Keighley sets the scene, which contains one of my favorite lines in movie melodrama:

This is England. The countryside near the North Sea. For two days now, an angry flood has engulfed the lowlands, and the villagers have fled to the only place of safety, the convent and hospital of Our Lady of Reims. Among the new arrivals are a woman and a girl . . .

That girl is rain-drenched Valerie Carns (Blyth), who doesn’t seem to care much about catching cold. When one of the nuns, Colbert’s Sister Mary, expresses her concern, the young woman explains that she was on her way to the gallows. She bursts out hysterically: “Can you see the notices. Hanging postponed . . . because of rain!” Never mind that some folks just can’t seem to find that proverbial silver lining. I settle for a working phone line.

A Week with Radio and Television Mirror (August 1949)

This being the 100th birthday of Lurene Tuttle, former “First Lady of Radio” (previously celebrated here), it behoves me to return to my favorite subject. So, all week I am going to flick through the August 1949 issue of Radio and Television Mirror to dig up what I hope to be noteworthy or just plain curious items.

My copy of the old Mirror is getting a bit tatty, having been cherished more for its content than for its potential trade value. The issue contains a short article about Ms. Tuttle, an Indiana native gone Hollywood: “There’s scarcely a radio program on which Lurene hasn’t been heard,” it says, “but she’s no radio Cinderella. She came to radio as a stage actress seasoned by seven years of trouping in stock.”

Cover of Radio and Television Mirror, August 1949

There is an article by Anna Roosevelt, writing about her mother, another former First Lady, wife of the President who first took such great advantage of the new medium of radio; at the time, Anna and Eleanor were heard Monday through Friday afternoon on ABC. Singer Kate Smith, broadcasting daily at noon over the Mutual network, shares recipes and shows readers around her summer residence, Camp Sunshine.

Louella Parsons, the “First Lady of Hollywood,” describes her experience in broadcasting (as illustrated here). She gossiped each Sunday, 9:15 pm over ABC, but was on her summer vacation that August. Kit Trout describes “tag[ging] along” with her husband, NBC reporter Bob Trout (whose Who Said That? was both heard and seen each Saturday at 9 pm); and Jo Stafford, heard Thursday evenings at 9:30 pm over ABC stations, relates what happened during her first audition.

Mary Jane Higby, in character as Joan Davis (the heroine of daytime serial When a Girl Marries) answers reader mail concerning marital problems, while the aforementioned Terry Burton, heard daily in The Second Mrs. Burton continues her own column in the role of “Family Counselor.”

And then there is Blondie (or, rather, Ann Rutherford), telling readers how she relates to her famous radio and movie character:

Radio’s Blondie on a page from Radio and Television Mirror

The letters we get from people who listen to the show often say that the Bumsteads help them to laugh at their own troubles.  When they laugh at the Bumsteads the laughter carries over to their own lives.  It works for us too. In fact it’s often one of us who furnishes the incident from real life. 

The Bumsteads are not only the couple next door to us on the show, we are the Bumsteads, and yes, Blondie is real to me.

In radio and on television, as in its Mirror, fact and fiction merge, making it difficult to tell one from the other. Reading this monthly is like stepping through the looking glass into a reality show, anno 1949. Sanctioned, streamlined or sanitized, what kind of story is history anyway?

I’m Not a Fan

Well, I’m not a fan of . . . anything. That is to say, I am not a fan of the word. Fan, fanatic, fanaticism. Those lexical expressions of inflexibility, those dictionary indicators of obduracy ought to be reserved for folks who are determined to blow themselves up for what they believe to be their beliefs, for the indiscriminals who are prepared to take the lives of others around them for the sake of an idea or an ostensible ideal (I’ve got Glasgow and London on my mind). No, I am not inclined to go quite so far in my devotion. It does not follow, however, that I am incapable of getting passionate or downright pigheaded, even when such fervor goes against my better judgment.

Permit me to opine for the sake of defining. For instance, I strongly disliked Britain’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, simply because I could not stand his grin and his (to me) mannered way of speaking; never mind his policy in Iraq, which was reason enough to disdain him. I have nothing yet to say about Gordon Brown, who mercifully abstains from mugging. I am opposed to Britain’s newly enforced smoking ban, no matter how many lives could presumably be saved by such a curtailing of pleasure. I refuse to visit my native country of Germany, along with Switzerland and France, and have choice words for those who turn down a nice cut of meat in favor of bean sprouts or tofu.

Unlike notions, opinions are never vague. Voicing them—a hazardous prerogative these days—is a retreat into what lies past caution, beyond apprehensions of censure known as political correctness, adjustments in expressed thought commonly disguised as reason, or, at any rate, as what is reasonable. Uttering what you can barely get away with can be a welcome getaway from the sincerity-divested shelter of platitude to which the mealy-mouthed have chosen to confine themselves. That goes only for the intelligent and open-minded; the unthinking, who can do nothing but opine, have no use for such relief, which makes them far more dangerous than any strongly voice opinion could ever be.

Meanwhile, I much rather rave than rant. I prefer to reserve my energy—and this little nook in the web—for things I look upon with uncommon fondness (such as radio, whose neglected virtues I extol in this journal) and people I adore in a manner that I, an atheist, refuse to label idolatry. A few decades ago, I decided that, while not fanatic, I fancied a certain leading lady of Hollywood’s aureate days. The lady in question is Claudette Colbert. French-born, no less. My latest acquisition—above poster for the 1947 thriller Sleep, My Love—arrived today and awaits a spot on whatever wall remains to display it. Space, by now, is at a premium; only yesterday, I made room for this announcement for Colbert’s 1941 vehicle Skylark. It is probably not what you’d expect to find in a Welsh cottage—unless, that is, you knew me and knew I had come to live there with someone so willing to humor my foibles and fancies.

So, what is the difference between a fan and a fancier? The fan cannot see; the fancier has a selective gaze. The fan discriminates; the fancier is discriminating. The fan is dead to the rest of the world; the fancier is alive to the idiosyncrasies of his or her passions. No, I am decidedly not a fan . . .

Lance Sieveking, “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth”

Let me be the first to admit my ignorance. The world being largely ignorant of me, I simply cannot depend on anyone else to do so. That said, I might as well turn the keeping of this journal (complicated as it was today by internet-disrupting hailstorms) into occasions to pick up a little something rather than disperse whatever scraps of knowledge I may already lay claim to after years of study (or intellectual loafing).

One such occasion might be the birthday of British radio and television pioneer Lancelot Sieveking, born, as the Internet Movie Database informed me, on this day, 19 March, back in 1896. Sure, I had come across his name during my research for Etherized Victorians; but, concentrating my efforts on American radio dramatics, I had conveniently overlooked Sieveking’s accomplishments. Even the folks over at the Database have yet to catch up with this man of all media; at least, his death (back in 1972) has thus far escaped them.

It is no overstatement to say that the author of The Stuff of Radio (1934) is a neglected figure today; his name has most recently been dropped in connection to Disney’s first entry in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Narnia author C. S. Lewis had approved of Sieveking’s radio dramatization but dismissed the idea of a film adaptation. During the first season of BBC2 television’s Oxford English Dictionary challenge Balderdash and Piffle, there was some debate about the origin of the phrase “back to square one,” which was argued to lie in an eight-squared drawing meant to assist BBC radio’s football commentators back in 1927. That design, as it turns out, was Sieveking’s.

Fellow BBC radio drama producer Val Gielgud had this to say about the “not altogether fortunate” Sieveking: “He was perhaps over much influenced during his most impressionable years by G. K. Chesterton, and by the theory of that master of paradox that because some things were better looked at inside out or upside down such a viewpoint should invariably be adopted. Talented and imaginative beyond the ordinary, his eyes gazing towards distant horizons, he was liable to neglect what lay immediately before his feet.”

In other words, Sieveking was an audio-visionary, a trier of radiogenic techniques at whom actors and colleagues would “gaze with a certain dumb bewilderment” as he “exhorted them to play ‘in a deep-green mood,’ or spoke with fluent enthusiasm of ‘playing the dramatic-control panel, as one plays an organ.'” There was not much use for such an one in radio. As Gielgud put it, even British radio broadcasting, “provided him with no laboratory in which experiments could be carried out.”

In 1930, when radio drama was still in its protracted infancy (despite earlier trials-by-air like the aforementioned “Comedy of Danger”), Sieveking found a “laboratory” in the still newer medium of television. He collaborated with Gielgud in bringing to British television “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth.” An adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s short play L’uomo dal fiore in bocca (1923), it aired on 14 July 1930.

Little remains today of Sieveking’s work in sound and images, aside from its blueprints—long-out-of-print scripts and theories. Now, I live in a town with a five-million-volume copyright library (which celebrated its 100th anniversary today); but for a snippet of sound, you might as well saunter over to tvdawn, where you may hear Sieveking’s spoken introduction to “The Man.”

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.