“. . . and all the ships at sea”: A Kind of Homecoming

This is not going to be one of those “the dog ate my homework” sort of posts, which are as much an excuse for not writing as they are a woeful excuse for writing anything at all. Besides, I could hardly blame Montague, our terrier, for keeping me from keeping my journal. Rather, it is the home work that has done the biting, gnawing and tearing at the hours I would otherwise earmark for sinking my incisors into stale pop-tarts—you know, those cultural marginalia with which I am wont to occupy my mind.

While I have rarely been all at sea when it comes to the leisurely pursuit of gathering and examining pop-cultural jetsam, my mind does not take to creative recycling when my limbs are aching after having performed some burdensome chore; and these past three months, my limbs have had quite a workout. We have been readying our late-Victorian house in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth for its present trio of occupants, only the four-legged one of whom appears to be as blithe and sprightly as of old, albeit saltier.

We have moved in at last; and even though much remains to be done to make and keep the place shipshape, especially now that the house guests are checking in and up on our work, the sofas and easy chairs are in place from which to let out a defiant “Later!” and take off instead in further explorations of the airwaves or some such neglected channel.

The waves! Even though you would have to climb to the top floor of our house to get a glimpse of the bay, the surf and the seagulls are very much part of the enveloping soundscape. I suspect that the sights and sounds of the sea are going to feature prominently in subsequent—and decidedly more frequent—entries. It was not quite so easy for me to work the business of scraping wallpaper into my reflections; but the sea is another kettle of fish altogether.

So, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea,” as famed newscaster and lexicon-artist Walter Winchell used to say—and which greeting I extend to Mr., Mrs., and Ms. Internet surfer the world over—“Let’s go to press . . .”

Related writings (featuring Walter Winchell or an Impersonator)
“Being But Blogmad North-Northwest”
“Amelia Earhart Is Late”
“Old-time Radio Primer: B Stands for broadcastellan

Does Every Cinderella Project Have Its Midnight?

Well (I am saying “well” once more, for old times’ sake), broadcastellan is entering its fourth year today. It all began on 20 May 2005, when I decided to keep an online journal devoted to old times, good or bad, to the culture that, however popular, is no longer mainstreamed, but, as I explained it in my opening post, marginalized or forgotten. Looking at broadastellan through the lens of the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine,” you will notice a few changes; but, overall, things are just as they were when I set out. Except that I am much more at ease and far less concerned about my online persona, its definition and reception, more fully aware of my status and the consequences of casting myself in the role of marginalien as I have come to accept and embrace it. No, it wasn’t this way right from the start.

Having earned my doctorate and relocated from New York City to Wales, I felt the want of continuity. I was reluctant to immerse myself in Welsh culture, let alone its language, for fear of not being able to recognize myself as the cosmopolitan I had impersonate with some success for most of my adult life. The dissertation was placed on the shelf; and my career alongside it. Still, I was not done with American popular culture as I had rediscovered it during years of research.

Not having been able to ride my hobbyhorse all the way to the bank, I thought I’d start parading it here on this busy commons. I sure wasn’t ready to put it out to pasture and wash my hands of it with the soap derived from its carcass. Initially, I might have been confused about the purpose of such a vanity production. I wanted this mare to be petted, even though I was prepared to take it out for others to deride. Nowadays, I am mainly writing for myself, for the kick I get out of being kicked by it into the thicket of research and the paths of (re)discovery.

Whenever I see a show, watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a radio program, broadcastellan encourages me to make it relevant to myself, to investigate and connect—and on the double at that. Right now, I have eight books before me, all designed to warrant my title. After all, it was the aforementioned Eve Peabody who declared that “[E]very Cinderella has her midnight.”

Eve Peabody, the self-proclaimed American blues singer who arrives penniless in Paris, posing as a Hungarian baroness, no less. I’ve always related to this Cinderella’s identity crisis—and admired the sheer ingenuity with which she made it all happen all over again. In the words of Ed Sikov, she proves “tremendously elastic,” a quality that prompted New York Times DVD reviewer Dave Kerr to remark on the “unpleasant degree” to which writer Billy Wilder was obsessed “with the theme of prostitution.”

“I thought that Eve Peabody was a very interesting character,” director Mitchell Leisen remarked. “You see, there’s a bit of good and a little bit of bad in all of us.” Yes, Leisen’s Midnight, like all proper Cinderella tales, has an edge; and, at last, it is being brought into digitally sharp focus. Earlier this month, the screwball comedy Elizabeth Kendall referred to as the “ultimate girl-on-her-own fairy tale” was released on DVD, perhaps in anticipation of the by me dreaded remake starring one Reese Witherspoon.

Since Britain has not caught up with this gem, it shall be one of my first purchases next week when I shall once again (and probably again and again) take the train down to J&R Music World. What with our UK DVD/VCR recorder refusing to accept my US tapes, I have long waited for this moment to catch up with what Ted Sennett has called “one of the best and brightest romantic comedies of the [1930s].” Of course, there’s always the radio.

On this day, 20 May, in 1940, stars Claudette Colbert (pictured above, in an autographed magazine cover from my collection) and Don Ameche reprised their roles in this Lux Radio Theater adaptation (>which you may enjoy by tuning in the Old Time Radio Network). Perhaps, though, the wireless is not the proper medium in which to appreciate a Leisen picture, distinguished as his work is for what James Harvey calls “that look of discriminating opulence.”

Still, you get to hear some of the best lines in romantic comedy, albeit soften at times to appease the censors. For instance, when confronted with a cabbie eager to take her for a ride, even though she confessed to having nothing but a centime with a hole in it to her name, she offers to pay him for driving her around town while she goes hunting for a job. “What kind of work do you want?” he inquires. “Well, look,” Eve replies, “at this time of night and in these clothes I’m not looking for needlework.”

Like Eve, I have gone round in circles (apart from the proverbial block). The ride may not amount to much to many, but this is not why I keep on mounting this hobbyhorse of mine. It is the sheer pleasure of taking my mind for a spin. And, to answer my own question, there is still time for a few jaunts. After all, it is not quite midnight . . .

A Case for Ellery Who?: Detecting Prejudice and Paranoia in the Blogosphere

Well, only a few short hours ago I was writing about the constitutional freedoms that US citizens enjoy and the appeal American writers like Pulitzer Prize winner Marc Connelly made to 1940s radio listeners of the The Free Company (and “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek” in particular) to cherish and defend such liberties. I suppose that includes the freedom to sever one’s connections to anyone we realize to be incompatible or determine to be objectionable, regardless of any interests or passions we might otherwise share. Now, I don’t wish to make a Brokeback Mountain out of a molehill; but I have to confess that I am rather dismayed at the length one of my former readers went to in order to disassociate himself from my ramblings, sentiments he previously appreciated and endorsed. Allow me to expound.

I am always eager to read about and hear from others who, like me, are interested in early-to-mid 20th-century American popular culture; they need not be like me in other respects or feel themselves to be other, like me. Now that I am outside the academy and live somewhat remotely, I am thrilled to communicate with those who are drawn to the neglected yet fertile fields of silent movies, pre-code Hollywood, and old-time radio. As may have become clear to the few who visit this site with some regularity, I am neither nostalgic nor flippant (or camp) in my approach to such marginalized topics. Nor am I a historian. The chief reason for keeping this journal is to share what I think matters to a few, regardless of how immaterial it may be to the many. Just who are these few, I sometimes wonder. And sometimes I get an answer that is disheartening if not, upon reflection, entirely uncommon.

Yesterday, I decided to add another online journal to my short list of links (see right). On said blog, I had left a comment about the sorry state of many old-time radio recordings, a remark that was kindly and publicly acknowledged, and received one in return regarding the career of actress Lurene Tuttle.

Pleased to have come across another old-time radiophile (I dislike lazy acronyms and refuse to stoop to letter combinations like OTR), I sent a message to the Tuttle expert, inviting him to be linked on my page. The response so startled me that I decided to drop today’s feature—much to my regret of disappointing an admirer of screen legend Kay Francis —and write instead about this sad case of blogophobia, the fear of being linked to and associated with someone as repulsive as myself.

I assure you, this is not a case of a bruised ego. I always assumed the most repellent aspect of broadcastellan to be its syntax and diction, its subject being merely inconsequential to most. It turns out, however, that the invitation was rejected as a direct response to . . . my blogroll. According to the e-missive sent to me, one of the sites listed on the right is so offensive that said Tuttle-tale decided not only to refuse the link, but to erase the two comments I had left on his blog, even if doing so meant having to delete the posts to which they were attached—one of which journal entries having welcomed my “intelligent” remarks (about Vic and Sade) and greeting me as the first reader to leave a response. However obliging, I won’t go so far as to delete my essay about Ms. Tuttle in order to assist in this erasure, an obliterating not only of the former association but of the prejudice behind its severance.

What has this to do with Ellery Queen, apart from the double entendre intended? Well, even during the McCarthy era, in which small-mindedness reached its peak in the US, programs like The Adventures of Ellery Queen encouraged listeners to be open and embracing of those whose constitutionally protected beliefs, creeds, and pursuits of happiness differed from their own. Here, for instance, is the message attached to “One Diamond,” first heard on The Adventures of Ellery Queen on 6 May 1948:

This is Ellery Queen, saying goodnight ’till next week, and enlisting all Americans every night and every day in the fight against bad citizenship, bigotry, and discrimination—the crimes which are weakening America.

Should you find this message offensive and the people I chose to include in my blogroll abhorrent, I ask you—kindly but resolutely—to turn away and divest yourself of any associations with broadcastellan you might have sought or tolerated until now.

Milestone Reflections; or, Who (Besides Me) Is Blogging about Old-Time Radio?

Well, this is my 100th entry into broadcastellan, a journal commenced, slowly and tentatively, one afternoon in May 2005, at which point in my life I decided to reintroduce myself to the world in the guise of “The Magnificent Montague.” Posting such a collection of essays over a period of eight months on matter I ventured to term (or perhaps mislabel) “unpopular culture” is not a particularly impressive achievement, to be sure, but one that might nonetheless serve as an occasion to sum up or, however uncharacteristic of me, look ahead.

Instead of going on about myself, however, I will lean against my soon to be toppled milestone to survey the so-called blogosphere in order to find out who else is blogging about these days.

According to technorati, there has been at least one mention per day of the term “old-time radio” for the past thirty days. During three of those twenty-four hour periods, more than ten posts have been devoted to some aspect of this comprehensive subject. While not the most impressive display of interest, there sure are enough listeners out there to get a conversation going. Listening, to me, has always been an intimate experience. I much prefer headphones over speakers, for instance, to take in the voices of comedy and the sounds of mystery.

Writing too, has long been a private matter, a momentary or prolonged exclusion of the world for the purpose of gathering thoughts and expressing ideas. While working on my dissertation, it took me years to compose something approaching a draft I felt confident enough to share. But now that writing and publishing happen almost simultaneously on the internet, I have become more eager to discuss and debate than to churn out a series of more or less engaging essays for the benefit of myself and the amusement of strangers.

Recent posts about old-time radio include the suggestion of listening to old mystery programs in the dark, reminiscences about a childhood enriched by the theater of the imagination, and an account of a first-time encounter with the Mercury Theatre‘s “The War of the Worlds.”

While other web journalists marvel at the dubious scientific advancement of breeding glow-in-the-dark pigs, this one describes the joy of taking The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and The Shadow for an airing on his mobile phone, and this one provides a link to an internet tv channel featuring radio shows like The Saint. Someone else relates how pleased he was to have made a small investment in order to download recordings of programs like Inner Sanctum from the internet; and yet another confesses her love for the voice of Gale Gordon.

For the most part, these listening experiences are merely shared in passim rather than at any great length; but perhaps this is going to change as radio plays are becoming more readily accessible and more a part of everyday culture again. I sure hope so. And now that my mouth is watering, I had better get some thriller or comedy streaming into my ears.

So, what’s on your iPod (or on whatever gadget you choose to catch up with old-time radio)?

In Bed With Orson; or, How I Got the Wandering Ear

What I didn’t get to tell in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral dissertation, is how I love to cuddle up with a good voice. Aside from being rather too intimate an aspect of my passion for old-time radio to be shared in an academic paper, the sensuality and sway of the human voice, regardless of the words it conveys—seemed to be decidedly beyond the boundaries of my vocabulary.

I am hardly one to shy away from lexical experimentation; but I felt that I could not approach the subject—the mystique—of the vocal with the clarity and precision I aim for in all my linguistic playfulness. How, for example, could I describe the lush, seductive performances of Ann Sothern (as Maisie) and Natalie Masters (as Candy Matson), the sinister melancholy and paroxysmal fury of Peter Lorre (on Mystery in the Air, for instance), or the tender, tattered quavering of Gertrude Berg (matriarch of The Goldbergs) as I listen to them burble, groan, hiss and whimper, as I hear them snarling at or whispering to me? How could I intellectualize the suave and mannered cadences of Vincent Price as the Saint or the hammy bluster of Orson Welles as Harry Lime? Some passions are not to be explained, to be argued out of existence. They are to be reveled in, secretly, in the shelter of darkness.

There are many such pleasures to be had listening to recordings of US radio broadcasts of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a period during which voices were trained for and attuned to the special demands of the microphone. For me, they can be found and felt when encountering a friendly and well-groomed speaking voice of an announcer like Harry Bartell; a distinguished, eloquent recital like Ronald Colman’s (as in his D-Day reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army”); a tough, noirish delivery like Joseph Cotton’s (on Suspense); an unsentimental everymanliness like Joe Julian’s (on Corwin’s An American in England); a glamorous, sultry purring like Marlene Dietrich’s (as the peripatetic adventuress of Time for Love), Ilona Massey’s (as a spy-catching baroness in Top Secret) or Tallulah Bankhead’s (in her memorable role as hostess of the Big Show); a warm, avuncular drone like Nigel Bruce’s (as Sherlock Holmes sidekick and narrator Doctor Watson), a smart and charming lilt like Claudette Colbert’s (frequently heard on the Lux Radio Theater; above, in bed with Welles and etiquette maven Elsa Maxwell) or a queer pomposity like Monty Woolley’s (in his role as the Magnificent Montague).

Quite often, these voices had to convey lines better left unspoken, words unworthy of the actor’s talent. Yet through the magic of timbre and intonation, gifted performers could imbue almost any line with feeling, subtlety, or sly innuendo. And I’m not even talking about the suggestive reading Mae West lent to her characterization of Eve that got her banned from the airwaves. Last night I went to bed with Dane Clark. I didn’t quite get through his performance of John Andrews in a NBC University Theater production of John Dos Passos’s “Three Soldiers,” but his voice still lingers in my mind’s ear this morning.

Ever since I got my first radio, as a child, I have gone in search of voices, soothing, thrilling, enticing. I was eavesdropping on a hidden realm the passage to which was the canal of an eager ear pressed close against the speaker. It was my keyhole to the world about which I knew yet little, a world to which I did not yet belong. It was a levitating grown-up table, an off-limits chamber made of air and furnished by my imagination. Today, these disembodied voices come to me mainly by invitation. Whom, I wonder, am I going to take upstairs with me tonight?

Charlie’s Chance; or, How Not to Blog

Blog like hothouse flower: Must blossom for anyone. That is how the incomparable might have expressed my present dilemma. I am not at all pleased with the previous entry into this journal. Rather than sharing what I love, I exhausted myself, and, no doubt, the good will of others in a tiresome, impersonal rant. I had wanted to make that in which I delight relevant to those unfamiliar or reluctant to catch on to it by availing myself of a prominent, topical hook; but instead of writing about the wit of satirist Fred Allen, my favorite US radio writer-comedian of the 1940s, I ended up going on about the latest foray into UK television by Jerry Springer, whom I despise.

It is quite easy to write a diary (if you have learned how to be honest with yourself and have come to terms with the level of intimacy you can handle when writing about your innermost thoughts); but once they are being made public, those private thoughts are expected to matter to others. They must have a purpose other than self-indulgent expression.

What I am still struggling to reconcile in this journal is the public and the private, being at once intimate and out there. That is, I have not yet assumed a persona I can trust at the microphone as I broadcast these thoughts from home. Those who seek fame or monetary gain are generally quite sure of themselves and their chosen medium. I, who have nothing to lose but face am less self-assured. Only of this I am certain: I want to write what I know best and love most. Do I care whether anyone else shares whatever views I express? Would I like any of those anyones to let me know? Sure I would. Still, the telling must come first.

“Little things tell story,” as Chan reassuringly put it. I am very fond of the man, whom I first encountered on German television when I was in my early teens. Back then, I felt envious of his No. 1 son (and all his numerous offspring). I did not have a close relationship with my father; so, the sleuthing, world-travelled Oriental with the gentle touch and a houseful of kids became a guardian to fantasize about.

Today, in this politically corrected and lawsuit-controlled climate, Chan doesn’t have much of a chance as hero and model. role model or heroic figure (a talked-about Lucy Lui project notwithstanding). In his prime, he was loved even by the Chinese, although no fellow countryman portrayed him on the screen. His wisdom, delivered in what is known as Chanograms, blossomed for anyone. Yes, Chan was once again on my mind this week when I came across and purchased the Chantology DVD set (pictured)—which is what makes my reference to him topical and relevant to me. Whether it matters to anyone else—whether anyone cares to know or share—is another matter, a mystery as yet unsolved.

I think I now know how not to blog. I am just not sure yet how . . .

Castles in the Air; or, No, No, Nostalgia

I am moving in.  At last I am beginning to feel more at home sharing my thoughts in this way. It seems somewhat daunting, at first.  If not altogether arcane, the internet as a communal space, an event in which to partake rather than a means for the taking or the taking in is still unexplored territory to me.  How can I file my claim in a land whose boundaries I do not yet grasp?

I am not calling this journal broadcastellan for nothing.  The past to me is not a dungeon cluttered with artifacts, nor a fortress to be taken.  It is a castle I am building with materials I gather while listening.  Tuning in, belatedly, to live broadcasts of the 1930s or ‘40s, I seem to be living on recycled air; but what I come across can still feel like a fresh current, not an atmosphere that is stagnant or miasmic.  Catching a reverberation of the past, I am breathing it in and breathe in it.  This stronghold is well ventilated.

I have always been suspicious of both history and nostalgia as motivations for looking (or listening) back.  History is the effort to make sense of the past, a figuring out—rather than a figuring forth—of it; nostalgia, by comparison, strikes me as an act of self-absorbed pillaging, a heedless appropriation.  If the former lacks creative freedom, the latter means taking liberties rather too freely.  In a review of a friend’s book I once called “nostalgia” the “fruitful reverie of a past whose text is a history of longing.”  Now, even I don’t quite know anymore what that might mean—but I can still feel it ringing true.

Nostalgia is a longing for an elusive and largely undefined bygone, while history is a longing for knowledge of what has truly been going on all along; but neither approach enables us to achieve a sense of belonging as we behold or hold on to the past.  Listening to historic broadcasts, I dwell on air; I do not linger in a vacuum.  I might be the creator of this castle, but its stuff—the found matter that is its foundation—has to be weighed, handled and shaped with care and understanding.

What is my place in this castle I am constructing? What is the responsibility of a broadcastellan—the present keeper of a home for live records of the past?

Unpopular Culture; or, the Return of the Magnificent Montague

Popular culture is generally understood to be the mass-market consumer culture of the present.  As the culture of the everyday it is especially vulnerable to obliteration.  What happens to the popular of the past, to the dime novels, movies, television programs or radio entertainment no longer of interest to a larger public, no longer deemed marketable or relevant? Does it become fodder for historians? Is it fuel for nostalgia? I am going to investigate this heap of discarded objects, review products of a by now “unpopular culture,” and relate them to my here and now.

This attempt at a blog is an unacademic continuation of my doctoral study Etherized Victorians. It will chiefly concern movies, television and radio programs that may have fallen out of favor or are favored by the few only but are still available to anyone using contemporary media (TV, radio, and the internet; as DVDs, mp3s or in plain old print).

Unlike my academic writing, this journal will allow me to broadcast my findings immediately upon discovery and to share my impressions with others who, like me, are passionate about presumably stale pop, whatever their cultural or educational background.  It also permits a more personal approach than did my dissertation, in which I never referred to myself in the first person singular.

My [initial] signature, “The Magnificent Montague,” [was] appropriated from a US radio sitcom of the same name (1950-51). In it, a hapless and proud thespian (portrayed by Monty Woolley) finds himself stooping to radio work to make ends meet. This obscure reference [was] meant to express the confrontation of cultures high and low, of trends and traditions, of personal predilections and public personae—confrontations broadcastellan will bring about in the months to come.

[As I became more confident writing about myself and saw the need to lay claim to my own words, the “Montague” cloak became cumbersome and worthless.  It was retired on 24 October 2005].