What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Shelley Winters (1920-2006) on the Air

The recent passing of Academy Award winning actress Shelley Winters compelled me to inaugurate a new column, a recurring feature I shall call “What Those Who Remembered Forgot.” The title is meant to suggest that the obituaries of people active in Hollywood during the 1930s, ‘40s, or early to mid ‘50s, often omit references to their work on radio—the single most important source of home entertainment in the United States prior to the ascendancy of television. The BBC’s obituary of Shelley Winters is no exception. It informs readers that Winters’s “television appearances spanned several decades,” but has not a word to spare on the actress’s radio performances, eleven of which are listed here in David Goldin’s invaluable database of recordings.

From Mary Pickford to Marilyn Monroe, every actress who made a name for herself in Hollywood made use of the promotional facility of radio to keep that name on the minds and lips of American moviegoers. Winters’s radio credits include appearances on notable dramatic programs such as Screen Director’s Playhouse (5 June 1949), Stars Over Hollywood (22 November 1952), and the Lux Radio Theatre (5 January 1953). In comedic turns, she was heard as a guest on the Martin and Lewis program (16 November 1951) and played an unlikely Valentine for Archie on Duffy’s Tavern (16 February 1950).

In what appears to be her first dramatic role in a piece written especially for radio—Family Theater‘s “Throw Your Heart in the Ring” (27 April 1949)—Winters plays Maggie, a city nurse who proudly claims never to have broken a rule, but at last breaks her own record when she finds herself torn between acting by the book and following her heart.

Told about a man in need of her assistance, she comes to the aid of an aloof, gun-carrying stranger apparently hiding from the law. He might be a killer; but Maggie decides to violate regulations by not reporting the case while she treats the initially ungrateful patient secretly in his hotel room. As the two get to know each other, and as she learns the truth about him, she manages to convince the disheartened man to face his own responsibilities.

A forgettable play? Perhaps. Yet it is the medium we are apt to forget along with such performances, thereby denying ourselves not only access to a marginal aspect of an actor’s career, but the appreciation of her craft as it unfolds beyond her physical presence. Here, Winters is all voice; and so strong is the hold images have over most of us that we find it difficult to engage in this disembodiment, as if a voice without a body were somehow not the real thing, artistically insubstantial—in a word, immaterial.

Five and a half years after the Family Theater broadcast, Winters participated in what may be labeled an assault on the integrity of audio drama by recreating the part of Mrs. Stevenson in “Sorry, Wrong Number”—the most famous of all American radio plays—for the competing medium of television. It does not follow, however, that her contributions to the aural arts should be entirely silenced in the process.

On This Day in 1949: My Favorite Husband Comments on “individual liberties”; and Present-Day Politics

Government radio is a cross between a museum and a religious school, dispensing classics and credo, but not especially concerned with new works. Commercial radio is a department store, carrying in stock a few luxury items, a lot of supposedly essential commodities and perhaps too many cheap brands of goods. The radio [as imagined and desired by some who write for the medium] is an artist’s studio, dedicated to creation alone. As such, it is not yet able to stand on its own, and its product must be exhibited in the museum or the gallery of the department store.

This is how America’s foremost radio playwright, Norman Corwin, summed up the problems of writing for the theatre of the mind. While its sets are being created collaboratively by writers, actors, directors, sound effects artists, musicians, and audiences, radio plays must nonetheless be staged to be realized—and 1940s network radio was hardly a public access forum. 

After World War II, even Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish found it impossible to gain access to the broadcasting boards under the department store conditions of commercial US radio. He had to take his play “The Trojan Horse” to the “museum” of the BBC’s Broadcasting House (pictured above) to give it an airing. A hollow victory indeed.

Well, today I’ve been both to the museum and the department store, each time for some decidedly conventional fare. I gave Mike Walker’s 20-part adaptation of David Copperfield another try, after recording installments six to nine (the tenth having had its premiere this evening). I think that, as much as I like the quiet dignity of a museum, I’ve still got a department store ear.

Unlike Dickens, Walker does not seem to have a mind for either a dramatic or a proscenium arch. How anyone can manage to follow this adaptation while tuning in on a day-to-day basis is beyond me. It is all very pleasant, mind you, but I cannot quite piece it together, especially since Walker’s narrator makes little effort to help us make sense of it all. Instead, he suffers—and I along with him—from an identity crisis, now being an omniscient nobody, now a self-conscious author.

So, I took refuge again in the department store and listened to a Christmas-themed episode of My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball. As much as I like Ms. Ball, this is only the second or third sample I took of this I Love Lucy precursor. The premise, as stated in the introduction of each episode, holds little promise. Where is the drama if a couple like Liz and George Cooper “live together and like it”? As is often the case in the realm of situation comedies, a stereotypical mother-in-law can be counted on to create the requisite domestic friction. And George’s busybody of a mother is downright Dickensian in her prissy hypocrisy—a match, to be sure, for Clara Copperfield’s sister-in-law, Jane Murdstone.

Making another visit on this day, 16 December, in 1949, Liz’s mother-in-law is at her belittling and bickering best, complaining about the lack of cleanliness in her son’s home and mocking Liz’s efforts to knit a sweater for George (“why are you holding that dirty old dust rag?”). After getting Liz all frazzled, she finally takes off, but not before unravelling her daughter-in-law’s handiwork. The last word on meddling, however, comes from the program’s announcer:

Ladies and gentlemen, the Christmas and New Year holiday season is a period of neighborly getting-together and renewing community ties. It’s a time when every American should be even more aware of the individual liberties he enjoys in the United States. And this freedom demands that each of us fulfils our duties as a citizen: to vote, to serve on juries, and to participate in community, state and national affairs. By making our form of government work better here, we strengthen democracy everywhere. We provide an example of a free government, which preserves the rights and the dignity of the individual. So, remember: freedom is everybody’s job.

Not quite the announcement you’d expect to emanate from a department store loudspeaker, is it?

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 . . .

Avian Flu Threats and “The Birds” on the Wireless

“What’s on the wireless?” he said.
“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here, it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”—Daphne du Maurier, “The Birds” (1952).

Lately I have been eyeing our bird feeder with considerable apprehension. Not because I am anticipating some sort of Tippi Hedren incident while taking care of my feathered charge, but because of the recent news about the deadly avian flu that has been spreading in the east. Some time ago, a UN health official warned that a pandemic “could happen at any time” and might “kill between 5 and 150 million people”. Today, the EU decided to “ban all Turkish live bird and feather imports,” after as many as sixty people had succumbed to the disease in Turkey and Romania. Should I banish the feeder from its prominent spot to some remote corner of the garden? Should I stop treating the local tits and finches to their daily allowance of choice peanuts? Back when Daphne du Maurier conjured up ornithological horrors with her short story “The Birds,” at least, the threat was posed by bills and beaks instead of bacteria.

Long before Alfred Hitchcock trained them for his big-screen spectacular, “The Birds” came to US radio in two noteworthy productions by the Lux Radio Theatre (20 July 1953) and Escape (10 July 1954). Unlike Hitchcock’s thriller, both radio versions were remarkably faithful to du Maurier’s simple tale of (wo)man versus nature. The 1953 production, starring Herbert Marshall, was probably one of the most imaginatively soundstaged melodramas ever to be presented on the Lux program. The terror generated by an imaginary army of shrieking birds was a veritable tour de fowl in sound effects engineering. Even Marshall had to admit that he was “scarcely the star of the piece when you consider the gulls and the gannets. Villains that they were, they ran the whole show.”

The story of a family under attack in an avian air raid on a remote farmhouse was rendered more intense by the fact that the terrorized characters, like the listener at home, had only the radio to keep them updated to the minute about the world around them. In du Maurier’s “Birds,” tuning in became disquieting, the wireless a source of anxiety to a public dependent on and attuned to the comforting predictability of the precisely timed broadcast schedule:

. . . they’d been giving directions on the wireless. People would be told what to do. And now, in the midst of many problems, he realized that it was dance music only coming over the air. Not Children’s Hour, as it should have been. He glanced at the dial. Yes, they were on the Home Service all right. Dance records. He switched to the Light programme. He knew the reason. The usual programmes had been abandoned. This only happened at exceptional times. Elections, and such. . . .

At six o’clock the records ceased. The time signal was given. . . . Then the announcer spoke. His voice was solemn, grave. . . .

“This is London,” he said, “A national Emergency was proclaimed at four o’clock this afternoon. Measures are being taken to safeguard the lives and property of the population, but it must be understood that these are not easy to effect immediately, owing to the unforeseen and unparalleled nature of the present crisis. . . . The population is asked to remain calm, and not to panic. Owing to the exceptional nature of the emergency, there will be no further transmission from any broadcasting station until seven a.m. tomorrow.” 

They played the National Anthem. Nothing more happened. . . .

Here, as in “The War of the Worlds” (the fictional acount of a war won by airborne bacteria, no less), the silencing of the relied-upon media is even more alarming than the tumult and the shouting it carries into our homes. . . .

Case Closed? The Piano Man, Olga Chekhova, and the Pleasures of Uncertainty

Well, the case of the “Piano Man” has been solved, it appears—and another mystery disappears. The denouement could hardly have been more disappointingly prosaic. It tends to be so with mysteries: unraveling them means to explain them away. “Mystery,” as I discovered when I looked up the word in my etymological dictionary, has its roots in muein, “to close the eyes,” as well as mu, a “slight sound with closed lips; of imitative origin.” Mystery is a condition, a state in which the people and things we perceive remain unclear; it is the temptation to discover and the pleasure of delaying the solution.

To “love a mystery,” as I put it in Etherized Victorians, suggests a delight in suspension rather than solution—a reveling in the act of unravelling in which what matters is a good yarn, not the clew one walks away with when it’s all done, or undone. It is a precarious and wondrous state of twilight and hushed voices, of bewilderment and speculation. That the biographical impulse to shed light on and make sense of things are at odds with the mysterious was conclusively demonstrated by a documentary I caught on BBC2 last night.

It was Antony Beevor’s account of his endeavor to tackle the The Mystery of Olga Chekhova, a book I picked up a few months ago after having attended a screening of the silent movie Moulin Rouge, starring the alluring Ms. Chekhova. Niece of the playwright Anton Chekhov, major film star in Nazi Germany, and a spy for Russian intelligence, Chekhova sure is an intriguing personality; but little of that came across in the matter-of-fact sleuthing to which Beevor subjected her story.

In the documentary, we see him peeping through windows and rummaging through files in hopes of finding compelling evidence of her espionage activities; we hear him in conference with his translator, piecing together fragmentary data to forge causal relationships and force romance into patterns of logic. It was a dull display of diligence, only occasionally brightened by glimpses of his enigmatic subject.

The book itself, to be fair, is rather superior to the documentary, even though it nearly drowns the subject in heaps of historical detail surrounding her existence. As David Edgar remarked in his review, “somehow [Chekhova] seems smaller than her story, and it’s tempting to wonder what she would look like in the hands of a writer who could indulge in more speculation and extrapolation than the historian can allow.”

In search of truth, Beevor dismisses Chekhova’s brazen autobiographies as spurious. Factual lies, such embellished memoirs may tell so much more of the writer’s desire to be the author of her own life, to obfuscate and overwrite, to put pen to paper and eraser to past.

Over the years, “[r]umours about her mysterious life continued to grow,” Beevor writes in the concluding paragraph of his book. To me, the chief merit of his investigation is that it might give rise to further wonderings, that the rumors have not been quelled but quickened as a result. Grateful to the historian for having given me hooks on which to fasten my imaginings, I continue to dwell between the lines, where mystery lingers.

Right now, I am picturing Chekhova as a chameleonic adventuress, someone like the heroine of Top Secret, a radio series of spy thrillers starring “gorgeous Ilona Massey” (as she was tantalizingly announced). Here, as in Beevor’s documentary, mystery lies beyond tired phrases and contrived storylines; here, it is the allure of Ms. Massey’s voice that draws me in, just as Chekhova’s image captured my imagination when I saw her in the silent Moulin Rouge. Perhaps mystery is the willingness to take leave of at least one of your senses. Ahh, to be closing my eyes again . . .

The (T)error of Their Ways: Conrad, Hitchcock, and the Aftermath of the London Bombings

He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the image of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Thus ends Joseph Conrad’s long-in-the-works novel The Secret Agent. First published in 1920, the story had been conceived decades earlier, inspired by the terrorist bombings that took place in London during the 1880s and 1890s. In particular, it was the infamous 1894 attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory that served as a plot for Conrad’s narrative.

While based on events that occurred well over a century ago, the above passage could describe any suicide bomber today. Of this—Conrad’s The Secret Agent and its obvious connections to the recent acts of terror in London—I was forcefully reminded when I screened Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 thriller Sabotage last night. I had not seen this film in years and, being unprepared, was startled by its up-to-dateness.

Even though Hitchcock was not particularly pleased with it, Sabotage is one of his most mature earlier thrillers. It has none of the adventure or intrigue of his better known pre-Hollywood films, such as the seminal but perhaps overrated caper The Thirty-Nine Steps; nor does it have the romance and humor of his lesser efforts, such as Rich and Strange or Young and Innocent. Instead, it offers a portrait of a terrorist so stark, so dark, so nearly naturalistic that it remains startling today.

Hitchcock claims to have regretted the scene in which the innocent young boy, Stevie, the brother of the terrorist’s young wife, is blown up while unknowingly delivering a bomb as instructed by his stepfather. Compared to the inane Hollywood endings we are still expected to endure—such as the infuriatingly contrived reunion of Tom Cruise’s character with his teenage son in The War of the Worlds—Hitchcock’s Sabotage comes across as relentlessly true-to-life. According to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, characters with whom we identify are not generally blown to bits—especially not children.

The reality of our everyday, however, does not heed such conventions. The innocent are victimized without remorse, either by indiscriminate terrorists or their persecutors, as the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, wrongfully shot as a terrorist suspect, forcefully drove home in recent weeks; his story continues to unfold as the probing into his death lays bare some of the criminal errors of anti-terrorist actions.

Hitchcock always enjoyed telling the story of The Wrong Man—innocent people unjustly pursued by the authorities the director had dreaded since childhood. During the chase that is essentially the Hitchcock experience, our sympathies are more often directed toward the hunted than the hunter, encouraging us to reexamine established roles of criminal and persecutor, to question our definition of justice.

Sabotage tells the story of flawed and guilty people—the saboteur, who risks a boy’s life to carry out his mission of destruction, and his young wife, sister of the victim, who ends up stabbing her husband in revenge, despair, or sheer confusion (this is being left ambiguous). Even the boy—whom we catch early breaking a plate and filching a bit of food—is not altogether innocent; his tardiness and negligence contribute to his death. Killer, victims, and hapless messenger alike are sentenced to death brought on by ruthlessness and ignorance. Only a combination of knowledge and ethics, of smarts and decency, can save those caught in the web of terror that is our everyday.

In Pursuit of Echoes; or, the Vagaries of Coveting Nothing

What attracted me to live broadcasting to begin with is its transient nature. Radio plays are being played out in time rather than space. They pass through your mind, where they might well linger; but the sounds proper are gone as soon as they are heard. After World War II, when producers of radio plays in the US increasingly resorted to transcriptions, that is recorded sound canned for later broadcast, listening in lost much of its intimacy and immediacy.

The actors were no longer performing live and radio was no longer the immediate medium that brought absent listeners into the presence, the not-here-but-now of the speaker. The age of the rerun had begun; performers were becoming less engaging, less careful in their readings, and recording and editing technology presented those in charge with more opportunities to control and censor what was being uttered.

In the years between VJ-Day and the Korean war, commercial radio was more clamorous and importuning than ever. It had lost its lure, however, its hold on the American imagination. As in the myth of Echo, the living voice was tamed, became petrified, repetitive, and ultimately inconsequential. It was stillborn, already past before being presented. Recordings took the live—the life—out of radio.

Today’s technology has made it easier than ever to capture sound, to retrieve and release it, encouraging us to become ever less attentive, ever more in need of external memory, of megabytes, databases, and hard drives. Yet, as I was reminded last week, sound waves resist being shored; however preserved, they remain fleeting, that is, being fleeting, refuse to remain.

As a result of some carelessness on my part I damaged my computer and lost my entire library of recorded plays; some 7250 of them, gone. For months I was in pursuit of thin air and, with one shock to void a thousand voices, ended up with nothing. Storing radio ephemera, cataloguing plays neatly and listening to them with proper knowledge of their precise broadcast date, of their place in time, has been an obsession of mine for years.

When I began to write about the time art of radio dramatics I realized, time and again, just how much of what is preserved and available online is incorrectly or inadequately logged. It had been my aim to serve aural art by preserving it; but, having been thwarted in my efforts, the paradox of live recordings makes itself keenly felt. I was in pursuit of Echo, but now feel more like Narcissus staring into the mirror of his own folly. If only I could remember, re-member the missing pieces now almost beyond recall. . . .

Well, almost. The machine might have given up the ghost, but the aftermath isn’t the last act of Hamlet; “the rest” will not have to be “silence.” The pursuit continues, and I am forever catching up with the elusive echoes of sound’s past.

Listening Away; or, Sound and Soli[ci]tude

Well, I missed Live 8 this weekend; or it missed me, rather. These days, I seem to be catching up with the world instead of living in it. Images of the present are all around me; but they flicker in a sphere of some remove, while the sounds of the past, close up and intimate, continue to envelop and move me. The world of today often appears to be a realm apart, not a reality that is part of me. Even if it calls out to me, I can barely be reached for comment.

So, the spectacle of Live 8 has passed me by. Of course, mass-mediated fund-raising efforts and public appeals are nothing new; they certainly precede television. There was good old Kate Smith, for instance, who raised millions for defense on US radio during the war loan drives of the 1940s. US programs like the Treasury Star Parade staged plays expressly for the purpose of raising awareness—and plenty of dough. Not long after VJ Day, public service announcements encouraged listeners to assist financially in the rebuilding of Europe, to give to those who, not too long ago, were to be thought of as adversaries, as evil incarnate.

War and peace propaganda aside, radio audiences were often urged to contribute to their communities and be socially responsible; they were reminded that careful listening meant responding and interacting, even though the actions to be taken were dictated to them. Undoubtedly, Live 8 is creating the greatest gathering of people in need of a latter-day Borrioboola Gha—an entire continent deserving of their aid, providing said far-away and its miseries will remain distant.

I recall the Band Aid efforts of 1985; I was enjoying the idea of being part of a great musical bloc party, but never thought much about the cause behind it nor made any contribution other than showing up. Today, making a spontaneous donation is as easy as pressing a button on your mobile phone; but can the televised images of spoiled pop stars and starving children assist in making Africa become more familiar, in making millions elsewhere matter here?

Can an image say more than a thousand uttered sounds? Supposedly, the fleeting sounds of live radio appeal to the emotion much more than print or visual media, which encourage closer scrutiny and permit reexamination—the remove of reason. Radio, it has been argued by McLuhan and his followers, is a fascist medium; it unifies by infiltrating the mind and by stirring each listener singly. It is the great sonic leveler—browbeating, cajoling, indoctrinating.

The aural medium strikes me as a more immediate, more readily suggestive propagandistic tool than other mass media. Sure, television or computer screens, too, can reach the multitude-as-individuals with whatever messages are being conveyed; but the eye, opening up a world, keeps it at a distance. We look on, stare or gawk at something other than ourselves; even our own image, once televised or screened, becomes strange to us.

Unlike the eye, my ear brings the world home, making even the infinite seem intimate. Whatever “eager droppings” spill over the “porches of my ear” melt into me, become me. I take sound in, am taken in, and, thus taken, carried away—by force and by choice—from the image empire of today. I am listening, away.