Laddie of Burlesque: David Hyde Pierce Steps Through Curtains

This one seemed strangely familiar. It felt as if I had seen and heard it all before—which is not to say that the déjà vu was an unpleasant sensation. I am referring to Curtains, the final Kander and Ebb collaboration now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (pictured). Time Out New York called it ”your grandmother’s musical,” which bit of sexist ageism suggests dentures rather than bite. It so happens, I’m with grandma when it comes to a grand night out. At the theatre, that is. I take in musicals to be charmed rather than provoked, to be tickled or wowed rather than indoctrinated. Give me showtunes I can recall and perhaps even attempt to hum (at Marie’s Crisis, say, the Village piano bar where we spent a few hours of merry sing-along on Tony’s night). Besides, I’ve got a mirror for warts ‘n all.

So, Curtains is really my kind of show, if only it weren’t so obviously and deliberately steeped in Broadway musical history as to evoke other and unquestionably superior ones. A backstage murder mystery, Curtains is set in the late 1950s, which is a fine excuse for pastiche, as is its show within a show construction. Most of its songs are echoes of the period (“Show People” is something you’d expect to be belted out by Ethel Merman), even though the show being rehearsed seems to date back to the 1930s and the sentimental “I Miss the Music” recalls the to me well-nigh intolerable Andrew Lloyd Webber, especially in the earnest interpretation by the to my ears miscast-for-comedy Jason Danieley. That the show is being tinkered with as its cast is being knocked off seems an excuse for the repetition of an inferior number like “In the Same Boat.”

Curtains, of course, offers its own response to captious reviewers “What Kind of Man?”:

What kind of putz
Would squeeze your nuts like that?

Musicals aside, what the show brought to my mind was The Lady of Burlesque (1943) starring Barbara Stanwyck, which I saw earlier this year (for an itemized list of my movie diet, turn right). In that comedy-thriller, a show must go on while a killer is on the loose and an investigation underway. In the case of Curtains, though, it is not the leading lady but the detective who takes center stage and—despite the obvious handicaps of lacking a leading man’s looks or voice, not to mention a convincing Boston accent—takes it in strides at that.

I happen to have been at the Hirschfeld on the day that the show’s male lead, Tony-winning David Hyde Pierce, lifted the curtain on his private life and came out of the closet at last; on stage, he was busy turning a double life into a single one (negotiating his love for musicals with the business of solving crime), and being single into a happy double (by teaming up romantically with one of the suspects). It might be “your grandmother’s musical”; but its leading man is finally breaking with conventions that seemed out-of-date two decades ago.

Shutting Private Eyes; or, the Day Spade Kicked the Bucket

When is it ever the right time, the moment to call it a day after all those years and retire that greasy old trenchcoat—or whatever fashion-defying trademark you might have worn out long before your welcome? Who’s to say, or decide? Peter Falk, apparently, is having a tough time convincing executives that he’s still kicking anything but the bucket. He simply can’t get them to greenlight another Columbo mystery, not even one that closes the book on the four-decades old franchise. I was reminded of the booted gumshoe when, walking around Pest (as in Budapest), we came across that dive in the doctored snapshot.

Columbo is a legend, all right; but to those with an eye for fresh blood, that’s just a fancy way of saying “past it.” Those bags under your eyes sure can get you sacked. These days, wrinkles don’t give a guy character; they take it away from him. And unless you can pass yourself off as Miss Marple, your days in the business are numbered if you can still manage facial expressions.

It wasn’t a matter of putting a stud out to pasture, though, when Sam Spade was kicked out of the radio branch of his office on this day, 27 April, in 1951, after solving what those who got paid to put words into his mouth called, “for obvious reasons,” the “Hail and Farewell Caper.”

Spade wasn’t too old, see. Just ask his secretary, Effie, who would have loved to straighten more than his tie. Besides, on radio you’re as old as your voice can make others imagine you are; and tough-talking Spade was a good enough egg to make you think hardboiled rather than rotten. It was his father who got him axed. Dashiell Hammett, I mean, who got blacklisted for being so un-American as to exercise his right to a political position. After Washington started to dig and got red dirt on Hammett, no broadcaster dared to touch his Spade. That’s when they got out the axe.

There was some retooling, initially. But dropping Hammett’s name just wasn’t enough to appease the network, just as giving Spade a new voice (Stephen Dunne taking over for Howard Duff) did little to please prospective sponsors, the old one (Wildroot Cream Oil) having defected. What was left of Spade after the blunt instruments in the business of commercial broadcasting had operated on his larynx just wasn’t enough to convince listeners, who had fought to get their favorite detective back on the air and lift Spade’s two-month suspension in the fall of 1950.

Radio was a queer racket in those days. You could be a a Communist for the FBI, but not a pink private eye. As I said, a new agenda called for a new kind of scouring agent. It mattered little that Hammett had nothing to do with the writing of the show (he just collected the royalties, which is pretty good business sense for a Commie), or that the Spade on the air was about as red as the greenbacks he was after but always short of.

At the close of the “Hail and Farewell Caper,” Spade makes a final sales pitch, a word to prospective advertisers; but, being that it wasn’t yet time for the obligatory summer hiatus, during which executives decided the fate of radio heroes, the plea sounds out of place. If you ask me, it was a ruse intended to quiet listener protest by leaving some hope for a commercially sponsored resurrection, a denial of the politics behind the show’s death warrant. It was the spirit of the age that dug Spade‘s grave.

Earwitness for the Prosecution

Being that this is the anniversary of the birth of Guglielmo Marconi, a scientist widely, however mistakenly, regarded as the inventor of the wireless, I am once again lending an ear to the medium with whose plays and personalities this journal was meant to be chiefly concerned. Not that I ever abandoned the subject of audio drama or so-called old-time radio; but efforts to reflect more closely my life and experiences at home or abroad have induced me of late to turn a prominent role into what amounts at times to little more than mere cameos. Besides, “Writing for the Ear” is a course I am offering this fall at the local university; so I had better prick ’em up (my auditory organs, I mean) and come at last to that certain one of my senses.

The English lexicon amply documents the western bias against listening, generally “seen” as being secondary to sight. Compared to the commonly used “eyewitness,” for instance, the expression “earwitness” sounds rather unusual. What’s more, it is rejected by my electronic dictionary and, when typed in defiance, promptly marked as a spelling error. That is perhaps the victorious eye thumping its nose at the once superior ear, which, prior to the invention of the printing press, played a greater or at any rate more respected role in the sharing and absorption of information than it does in this our age of gossip and hearsay. If the always favored ocular proof cannot be discovered, it is the eyewitness report that carries more weight than the overheard.

I am going to refrain from channeling McLuhan, however, and concentrate instead on a notable fictional witness whose testimony was brought before an audience in the strictest sense of the word. I am referring to Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom melodrama initially conceived as a short story and subsequently adapted, albeit not by Dame Agatha herself, for US radio, whose early experiments in courtroom dramatics have been previously discussed here.

According to the Wikipedia, the “very first performance of Witness for the Prosecution was in the form of a live telecast which aired on CBS’s Lux Video Theatre on 17 September 1953. Now, this is accurate only if Witness is meant to denote Christie’s stage play, rather than her story. The latter had already been dramatized nearly four and a half years earlier. Produced by NBC’s Radio City Playhouse, it was broadcast on this day, 25 April, in 1949.

Such a hold has visual storytelling on our imagination today that it is difficult to approach this audio performance of Witness without seeing before one’s mind’s eyes the features and the legs of the legendary Marlene Dietrich (of whom I have seen quite a bit this year [see my movie lineup on the right] and to whose voice I intend to devote my next podcast). Then there is that prominent scar in the face of the titular character, more prominent still than Ms. Dietrich’s invaluable German accent. Can a sound-only adaptation without access to Dietrich’s features or voice succeed in rendering Christie’s cheeky deception?

Unlike the character of Leonard Vole, the accused, whose innocence is laid on rather too thickly by David Gothard in the Radio City Playhouse production to escape the listener’s suspicion, the mysterious woman who comes to his aid (ably portrayed by theater actress Lotte Stavisky) might just manage to pull the wool over your ears. The radio dramatization handles the challenges of duping the audience, both the listeners at home and in the fictional courtroom, remarkably well, the scar being made audible in the gasp of its beholder. Like the members of a jury, when called upon to examine accusations and protestations of innocence, the listener deals with interpretations of reality, on someone’s word taken for an otherwise unknowable “it.”

I confess, though, that, as much as I value my hearing, I frequently feel compelled to see for myself; which is why, on the anniversary of Dame Agatha’s birthday, I went up to her room at the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul last fall and had a look. There wasn’t much to see, really; not so much as an air of her presence. And, after paying the concierge who escorted us up to room 411, which the enterprising management has shrouded in a mystery of its own, I felt as if I were getting a box on the ear for not having had more sense.

Many Happy Reruns: John Dickson Carr

Well, it has long been an ambition of mine to write a whodunit. Red herrings, fishy alibis, a murky pool of slippery suspects, and a case so deep it would have kept even the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and Hercule Poirot angling for clues, chapter after chapter, much to the delight of an equally confounded readership. Take my word for it, I have tried. Otherwise, I submit to you this piece of evidence, which I dug up from where it rightly belongs and promptly edited for the occasion:

“I am going to kill somebody, tonight,” was written on the invitations. Glossy, who had sent them, was dressed for the part, greeting the crowd that had come for the killing. She looked marvelous, her dress and body the result of careful design, a shrewd calculation in fabric and flesh [. . .]. 

It was my sister Veronica who had arranged the party. I had stayed out of it. After all, I am merely a party chronicler. Or so I thought.

“Why, it’s simply deranged,” I heard Glossy squealing, surrounded by a throng of professed admirers; it was a favored expression of hers, which she employed almost universally, except to describe her own behavior. She was sober enough to observe the crowd of friends and colleagues she had drawn toward her in an effort to gain control in a moment of crisis. Tonight, she wanted to be seen in order to see for herself. To see them all, at once. She scrutinized the scene as carefully as her condition allowed. I, for one, knew that her noisy enthusiasm was nothing but an act. Glossy had confessed as much to my sister: she feared that the days of her reign as the queen of daytime drama were numbered and suspected that someone had already planned a ruthless regicide. So, being the center of attention was not just vital for her ego, but for her alter ego as well. Glossy was on the lookout for the conspirators, and I guess the fact that she knew most of the guests provided hardly any comfort at all. . . .”

Perhaps you should have taken my word for it. It’s best to leave such murderous plots to the masters and mistresses of the craft. Experts like John Dickson Carr, for instance, who was born on this day, 30 November, in 1906. Throughout the 1940s, his plays were often heard on American and British radio, on series like Suspense, Cabin B-13 and Appointment with Fear, all of which were designed to showcase his writing. He also served as host and narrator of the mystery anthology Murder by Experts, for which services his latest novels were being duly promoted.

“Mr. Carr brings to his radio work the same superlative craftsmanship and high integrity that distinguish all his novels and short stories,” Messrs. Ellery Queen contended in their anthology Rogues’ Gallery (pictured above), prefacing Carr’s play “Mr. Markham, Antique Dealer,” which was produced by Suspense and broadcast on 11 May 1943.

Having discussed Carr’s work at length in my dissertation and on several occasions in this journal, I have come to the conclusion that the whodunit, especially when combined with the “how’sitdone”—the locked room puzzle in which Carr specialized—was best suited to the printed page, where it can unfold gradually and be appreciated at a pace determined by the reader, rather than the merciless clock of the broadcast studio.

Now, clocks feature prominently in “Mr. Markham.” One of these old-fashioned chronometers is set up to hold a clue, but their ticking is more effective in setting the scene, creating the atmosphere of the antique dealer’s establishment, and reminding the listener that time might be running out for at least one of the characters. In the one-dimensional, that is time-only medium of aural storytelling, suspense is far more effective than surprise. While not devoid of suspense, Carr’s plays attempt—and often fail to—startle the audience with a final twist that, rather than being dramatized, is tagged on in a cumbersome and less than thrilling epilogue.

Is Carr’s brand of whodunit a radiogenic genre? You may judge for yourself by listening to the British as well as the American version of “Mr. Markham.” It is hardly fitting to celebrate someone’s birthday by opening fire. Then again, there’s Glossy, lying in a pool of blood.

Where Silent Partners Join for Noisy Crime

White trousers may be out of fashion; but there are still a lot of ways to tell that summer is officially over. And I am not even talking about the mist rolling in from the Irish Sea this afternoon. After all, I am reporting from New York City, even though my reports are filed a few weeks late and some three thousand three hundred miles away.

In the United States, the summer season traditionally ends on the first weekend in September, a time when millions of college students abandon beaches for bookstores and a certain band of players reclaims its space behind the shelves. Unlike those students I used to teach during my ten years of adjunct lecturing in the metropolis, the W-WOW! troupe only frequents one exclusive—if academically less than sound—venue: the Partners & Crime bookstore in the West Village.

Ever since the mid-1990s, when the city that presumably never sleeps still bore a slight resemblance to the bawdy and raucous town it had been before naps (and a lot else) became mandatory or derigueur, the W-WOW! players have been gathering on the first Saturday of each month (summer excepting) to re-enact the cases of Sherlock Holmes, Harry Lime, Philip Marlowe, and The Shadow as they were heard on US radio during the 1940s and early 1950s. You know, those days when the city had so much character to spare that a shadier one of it could be knocked off and tossed into the East River without causing more than a RIP-ple. Those days when the city was divided into distinct and clashing neighborhoods rather than being homogenized for the purpose of corporate milking. Those pre-television days during which keeping ones eyes shut to the world to share an imagined one was a national pastime rather than a geo-political hazard.

Anyway. Partners & Crime is a terrific store, one of the few sites that somehow managed to withstand the pressures imposed by chains like Borders or Barnes and Noble. One day, when the millennium was still very young and terrorism something that, from an American perspective, happened mainly to people in Europe and the distant Middle East, I discovered that Partners & Crime had become somewhat of an old-time radio institution—without ever going on the air. In short, it was an intriguing anachronism in a town about to trade in its past for clean facades and the promise of crime-free streets. I’d rather look at the scar above my left eye, dating back to a nightly stroll anno 1989, than walk what now goes for 42nd Street. But, back to fictitious felonies . . .

I was probably browsing for an old copy of Seven Keys to Baldpate or some such chestnut brought to light in my dissertation, when, much to my astonishment and joy, I spotted a microphone at the back of the store. As it turned out, there was an entire studio in the tiny, windowless backroom, a space modelled after station WXYZ in Detroit, as the playbill informed me.

I don’t suppose the goings-on behind the shelves do much for the sales at Partners & Crime. I, for one, immediately forgot all about the volumes around me and inquired about the microphone and its purpose. I was thrilled to learn that it was not set up for a reading of a contemporary crime novel, but for some old-fashioned radio mystery, to be performed for the benefit of a small group of theater-of-the-mind goers who eagerly squeezed into this nook beyond the books. I joined them, of course.

The W-WOW! players recreate old-time radio thrillers—commercials ‘n all—by placing their audience inside the make-believe Studio B of the equally imaginary W-WOW Broadcast Building. It may not further or elevate the art of radio drama and be done largely for camp (a way of misreading I can do without); but watching the performers as audiences once watched live broadcasts over at Radio City is nonetheless an enjoyable experience, particularly if you happen to eye the sound effects artist eager to elicit a few laughs while playing to the onlookers.

It is unfortunate that the W-WOW! troupe, unlike the Gotham Radio Players, do not go on the air to put their skills to the ultimate test of prominent invisibility. Theatrical training insures that some of the voices are fit for radio; and the actors are passionate even when the scripts are ho-hum. One among them, a certain Darin Dunston, not only appeared in a production of Under Milk Wood, but was the lead in Radioman, an award-winning student film about drama.

For a mere five bucks (less than one tenth of the cost of a half-price theater ticket), you may still take in a double feature of thrillers, transcribed from original recordings. Never mind that most of those in attendance at Partners & Crime seem more interested in the corny sales talk than in the plot of the mysteries or in the history of radio dramatics. I, for one, often listen to audio plays to get lost in sound instead of bothering to find much sense in them; and the noise made in the back of that West Village bookstore is quite in keeping with the shots, thuds, and wisecracks heard on US radio during the 1940s.

Maureen O’Hara Sounds Matter-of-fact about Murder

I can’t seem to get through this romance. It is tempestuous, steeped in mystery, and features a fierce heroine who bears a vague resemblance to Jane Eyre. Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, I mean, one of the novels I picked up to set the mood for my trip to Cornwall. That was in April—and I am still not done with Mary’s adventure among the smugglers. I do like Mary, though. She is not the fainting kind, despite the danger she’s in:

A girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realised she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his a hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.

Now, the woman who portrayed her Hitchcock’s film version of Jamaica Inn, Maureen O’Hara (pictured above, during the production of the 1938 film), was a few weeks from turning twenty-three when she played another character of that mettle. On this day, 6 July, in 1943, she was heard on the US radio series Suspense in a thriller titled “The White Rose Murders.” An adaptation of a story by Cornell Woolrich, it is the sort of yarn Suspense came to be famous for.

“You’ve been reading too many of those romantic stories,” Virginia tells her fiancé, a police officer with so little self-esteem that he thinks he needs a promotion to deserve a well-to-do debutante like the young woman who’s so devoted to him, she sets out to get what he thinks is in the way of their connubial bliss. This woman is serious about marriage. You might say that she’s dying to get hitched. To achieve just that, she sets out to catch the White Rose murderer, a serial killer who strangles young women, apparently incited or inspired by the “Beer Barrel Polka” (also known as “Rosamunde”). As a token of his perverse affection, he leaves behind the bud of a white rose, the symbol, Virginia explains, of “purity, loyality, devotion.”

Virginia carefully dresses to resemble the victims and “tours the low dives,” searching in each “dingy bar” where “Rosamunde” plays, hoping to attract the man the police has been looking for in vain. As it turns out, the tune is practically everyone’s favorite, just as roses prove popular with the men she encounters. She has to smell a lot of red herrings before she meets the one who is eager to offer her that certain rose. It’s the one she least expected, of course, who is out to do her in.

Despite the names attached to this project—O’Hara, Woolrich, and composer Bernard Herrmann—”The White Rose Murders” is less lurid than it is ludicrous. The situation is suitably creepy—the kind of tale of entrapment and prolonged peril fully deserving of the label Suspense. Even the cheerful “Rosamunde” begins to sound ominous as, in the mind of the listener, it becomes associated with impending horror. Yet instead of relying on a suspenseful mood, the producers of the series insisted on adding an element of surprise—a last minute twist meant to startle the audience. It is a surprise, all right, but one that is psychologically so unconvincing as to reduce the play to mere melodramatic claptrap.

Nor does O’Hara fit her voice to the performance. Perfunctory in her reading of the script, she sounds very much like a sophisticated businesswoman out to get a job done. Perhaps, Virginia’s only adventure was to put an end to all thrills by going through the mill of matrimony. Perhaps, O’Hara had “been reading too many of those romantic stories” not to know which ones were played strictly for the money.

Ship Surgeon Opens His "Cabin" to Spill Some Blood

There is an air of mystery about the house. The atmosphere is charged with criminal endangerment, and the sounds are clews to the nature of the offence that threatens harm. The rustle of leaves, distant rumblings, the shiver of the umbrella under which I had sought shelter from the sun. I am sentenced to retreat indoors; and before I lose the wireless connection that allows me to communicate with the outside world, I am going to report a murder. Dr. Fabian told me about it. He is a ship surgeon of a luxury liner docked at Southampton. Alone on the ghostly vessel, he has opened his cabin—Cabin B-13—to air his memories of bygone crimes.

Cabin B-13 was the creation of noted mystery writer John Dickson Carr. An anthology of radio thrillers produced by CBS, the series had its premiere on this day, 5 July, in 1948. Carr had been writing plays for the wireless since the beginning of the Second World War, first in England, where he had moved from the US in 1931, and then in America, to which he returned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like many storytellers, Carr was called upon to contribute to the war effort by writing propaganda plays for radio; most of the thrillers he wrote or adapted for Suspense in late 1942 and early 1943 tempered escapism with indoctrination.

Cabin B-13 borrows its title from one of the plays heard on Suspense; it might very well have been an extension of the latter series. Like many of Carr’s wartime stories for Suspense, which emphasized the alliance between the two nations, “A Razor in Fleet Street” features a team of American and British characters. An American married to an Englishwoman, Carr frequently explored the relationship of the two cultures—the supposedly old world and the new. The thriller that opened Cabin B-23, was no exception, even though the story is set prior to the war and was produced thereafter. You might say that it stages the revenge of nostalgia.

Bill, an American diplomat, visits London with his British wife, Brenda. He is fascinated by this aged metropolis, which, to him, conjures up memories of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu, of “Hansom cabs rattling through the fog”—”It’s put a spell on my imagination ever since I was a boy so high.” There is even an old barrel organ under the window of their hotel room, which doesn’t seem to have been refurbished since the 1860s. Brenda is amused by this attitude toward her native country. “[O]f all the Americans I have ever met, you have the most absurd and fantastic ideas about England. You don’t really expect to find Scotland Yard men in bowler hats trailing you every step—now, do you?”

Yet Brenda, too, is looking at her birthplace with the eyes of a romantic. “When you think about it, just remember the barrel organ: safe, stodgy, comfortable—that’s London,” she insists. Such romantic notions soon turn into some very real for the young couple, who become caught up in a murder plot right out of Sweeney Todd, that Victorian thriller about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Bill is not too keen on facing “one of those bowler hats in real life”—but that is precisely what happens when Scotland Yard informs him that he is the spitting image of a “ripper” (a killer who “uses a razor . . . and likes it”) now on the loose in that “safe, stodgy, comfortable” town.

It is a solid opener for the series, even though, like most of Carr’s work for the aural medium, it is not altogether radiogenic. Generally, Carr was rather too ambitious in his dramatic works for radio, most of which were mysteries that not only asked “whodunit,” but “how was it done.” The results are often confusing or disappointingly simplistic. The ear is not attuned to complex puzzles; unlike the reader, the listener back then could not turn back the pages or close the book to consider the clews at leisure. Nor does the scope of a 20-minute play match that of a mystery novel with its assortment of suspects and red herrings.

After Carr left Suspense in 1943, the series fared very well with plays more deserving of the term; cat-and-mouse thrillers like the aforementioned “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which prolonged their thrills by building tension rather than counting on last-minute surprises.

“A Razor in Fleet Street” improves on those puzzles by casting Bill in the role of the wrong man, an innocent if imprudent adventurer in pursuit of his doppelganger, the criminal he will be accused of murdering. Granted, the idea of the doppelganger is rather wasted on radio; and the case is solved by an onlooker who, unlike the listener, can describe in detail how the crime was committed. How promising, by comparison, is the title of the subsequent thriller: “The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed.” That fellow has not be captured on recordings, either; so, like most of the tales told on Cabin B-13, his story remains locked in the memory of Dr. Fabian . . . or some archive yet untapped.

On This Day in 1943: Peter Lorre Gives Voice to "A Moment of Darkness"

Well, I am generally slow to catch up. As the broadcastellan maxim—”Keeping up with the out-of-date”—suggests, I am forever belated in my response to the news of the world, food for thought I tend to chew more slowly than the dinner on my plate. Having just learned from a fellow web-journalist that the mind of ousted American Idol finalist Mandisa might be considerably less broad than her frame, I thought of other occasions on which the message of a voice seems out of tune with the messenger, moments in which timbre and text, sound and image, appear to be at odds. One such occasion was “A Moment of Darkness,” a radio play by noted mystery writer John Dickson Carr that aired on this day, 20 April, in 1943.

“A Moment of Darkness” is one of Carr’s ambitious but far from satisfying attempts to make up for the inadequacies of the medium by complicating the kind of plots that radio is least successful in rendering: the “whodunit.” The murder mystery is a genre best suited to novels, page-turners that permit the confounded to do just that: turn the pages, forward and back. On the air, such puzzles are often marred by a lack of pieces, or red herrings, due to the limited number of suspects and clues a listener can be expected to tell apart and pick up within the short time allotted for the drama.

In the fall of 1942, when Carr became the head writer for a fledgling US radio program titled Suspense, he devised alternate ways of mystifying his audience, of casting doubt about the outcome of his thrillers.

As I discuss it in Etherized Victorians, my study on so-called old-time radio, Carr not only asked listeners “whodunit,” but “how done,” by presenting posers involving locked rooms, less-than-obvious weapons, as well ingenious acts of committing and concealing crime. Unlike the reader, the listening audience is rarely equal to this double challenge of guessing the “who” and “how,” considering that there is no chance to recap or retreat in order to evaluate the (mis)information provided. The likely response is that of utter dumbfoundedness, a puzzlement of the least intellectual sort that, in turn, may trigger feelings of exasperation or indifference.

Later Suspense dramatists well understood and expertly solved this problem by emphasizing the “most dangerous game” of the manhunt or exploring the mental state of criminal and victim. Determined to trick his audience with surprises rather than tease them with suspense, Carr decided to heighten the element of doubt and suspicion, to exploit the prejudices of the listener in ways that sounded entirely radiogenic: foreign accents suggesting fiendish acts. In “The Moment of Darkness,” as in Carr’s “Till Death Do Us Part,” such a foreign-tongue twist was delivered by the enigmatic Peter Lorre.

During World War II—and for many years thereafter—harsh Germanic tones often sufficed to taint or undermine a speaker’s message, to make listeners question the sincerity of the utterance or the motives behind it. His Teutonic tongue made Lorre a formidable wartime villain; and his voice, which could be disconcertingly oleaginous, sly, or sinister, inflected with hysteria and madness, only fueled the imagination of Americans prejudiced against foreign influences.

Given the diversity of US culture, however, the networks did not altogether endorse the exploitation of accents—particularly European accents—as reliable signposts of a certain, unmistakable nationality, a mother tongue bespeaking the fatherland of the enemy. Radio writers like Carr were advised not to use voices as a means of identifying—and disqualifying—a speaker as un-American. According to the logic of pre-Political Correctness, Lorre’s character, a sham shaman, is not at all what he sounds, a vocality/locality mismatch that not so much teaches the audience to question their prejudices but to distrust their ears altogether.

There is no such thing as accent-free speech, of course; but those, like me, whose first language is not the one in which they primarily speak are often self-conscious about the sound of their voice, or at least keenly aware of the doubt and derision it might provoke.

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.