Things Eve Peabody Taught Me

Well, it is the “Little Paris of Middle Europe.” At least that’s how our newly arrived Eyewitness Travel Guide introduced me to the city of Budapest. Since I am about to visit the Hungarian capital, I’ve been flicking the pages to get acquainted with the place, its people, and its language; but whenever I find myself in need of cultural initiation I go about it in a roundabout way, with a stopover in Hollywood. Or Paris. You know, the really big Paris to the West of Middle Europe.

You can really learn a lot from old Hollywood movies, as long as you don’t get taken in or turned off by fake sets and phony accents. Take Mitchell Leisen’s 1939 screwball romp Midnight, for instance, and profit from the experience of American adventuress Eve Peabody (as portrayed by Claudette Colbert, whose career was the recent topic of an Alternative Film Guide discussion). Eve’s story, the gist of which you can follow in this recording of a Lux Radio Theater adaptation broadcast on 20 May 1940, will teach you a thing or two about traveling on a budget of little more than a centime with a hole in it, about crashing a society party with a pawn ticket, and about the perils of unwittingly impersonating a Hungarian baroness—practical stuff not generally covered by Baedekers.

Now, as the previous entry into this journal will tell you, I have just been in the company of a true Hungarian baroness last night, one with an accent to prove at least the Hungarian part of her past. The misleading lady Eve, on the other hand, has to work somewhat harder to hoodwink her way out of the hood (in her case, the Bronx). After suffering a “nasty accident” in Monte Carlo (“The roulette system I was playing collapsed under me”), down-and-out Eve is forced to depend on little more than her wits, her sex appeal having gotten her into too much trouble already.

She takes the name of the first person she met in Paris, one Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a Hungarian cabbie who’s been rather too eager to chauffeur her around town in her futile attempt to land a gig as a nightclub singer. “I guess, mine is strictly a bathtub voice,” she concludes, and makes a swift exit before Tibor can make good on his offer of taking her home. “No woman ever found peace in a taxi. I’m looking for a limousine.” However much she really likes the guy, it’s dough, not romance, that this dame is after.

At the swanky soiree onto which she happens when dodging those driving forces (the Hungarian, the rain, and the subconscious), the Czerny handle proves somewhat of a liability. The assembled high society assumes Eve to be one of the Czernys—a baroness, no less. And while it proves a breeze for Eve to slide around the foreign angle by alleging to be a Czerny by marriage, not birth, she slips on a treacherous bit of trivia and soon blows her cover.

When asked about that “most enchanting” city of Budapest, where she claims to have left her ailing husband, the baron, she is dealt a trick question about the town’s famous subway. “Did they ever finish that?” a guest at the dull get-together she’s managed to infiltrate inquires. “The streets are still a little torn up,” she responds, rather flustered. Her inquisitor did not need to hear any more to know this Eve from Adam. The Budapest metro, after all, is one of the oldest subways in the world, and Miss Peabody is little more than an impersonatrix eager to get away from a past that involved being squeezed each day into the Bronx local.

According to Hollywood justice, Eve gets away with it all . . . and walks away on the arm of Czerny to boot. In fact, having gotten it wrong works out all right for her. History, geography, facts and figures—none of that matters, Midnight suggests, as long as you’ve got beauty, charm and moxie. Considering that I still know so little about my destination, and a gold lamé gown like Eve’s does so little to enhance whatever charm I might have, I’d better cram plenty of moxie into that duffle bag of mine.

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.

Larks, Turkey(s), and the Not-so-friendly Skies

Well, Jell-O again! To me, these past four weeks offline seemed like a summer hiatus, except that they were unscheduled and open-ended. Still sustaining and not in pursuit of a commercial sponsor, I am less certain than ever of an audience (save those lost souls who happen upon these pages in hopes of finding some dirt on—or salacious images of—Lois DeFee, a lesser-known burlesque queen I once mentioned in passing). I wonder who took my place during the interim and whether I will succeed in reclaiming my none-too-prominent slot. Just what has kept me so long (I hope that someone set apart from the apathetic might ask)? Here is the long and very nearly short of it.

After some two-and-a-half weeks of playing broadbandit in New York City, piggybacking rather than coffee-shopping for internet access to so little avail as to manage to file only a single report while on location, I returned to Wales to find our wireless network collapsed, the router having given up the proverbial ghost during a summer storm. And now, just as things are sliding back into their groove, I am taking off again for a weeklong trip to Istanbul. Not that air travel, let alone to Turkey, is a particular delight these days of tourism-targeting terrorism.

Air travel has always been rather uncomfortable; present security measures are even less comforting. Despite several checks and hassles, I still managed to board with a bottle of mouth freshener, which, much to my embarrassment, I discovered at the bottom of my hand luggage while fishing for my generally dormant cellular phone. I sunk into my seat feeling like a felon in flight, at least until I settled down to an episode of Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show a New York pal of mine had shared with me.

It is with some delay, therefore, that, starting tomorrow and leading up to the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, I carry on with my NYC impressions as they relate to old-time radio, including accounts of my tour of various second-hand bookstores, landmarks and museums, a review of the rather radiogenetic musical The Drowsy Chaperone, assorted remarks about the construction of the Second Avenue subway and the current state of Yorkville (my old neighborhood in Manhattan). The news, such as they are, won’t be altogether current; but then again, I am forever catching up with the out-of-date and my own life need not be an exception.

Indeed, I find it difficult to gather experience and gather my thoughts at the same time. It is far easier when the experiences about which I write are lived vicariously, through radio plays, books, or movies; I gather, it is easier to gather thoughts along with dust. The time is ripe for some house cleaning and perhaps even some reventilating of the old broadcastle I am keeping here. Not only will I catch up with some of my favorite internet journals, but I will also make a few long overdue additions to my mossy blogroll.

The above image, meanwhile, constitutes the latest addition to my collection of Claudette Colbert memorabilia. While in New York City, I purchased the Cecil B. DeMille Collection, containing three of Colbert’s films (one of which, Four Frightened People, I reviewed for the Internet Movie Database earlier this year). And, more than two decades after discovering and losing sight of Mitchell Leisen’s Hands Across the Table (mentioned here), I could once again soak in the bubbles of this frothy charmer, along with Leisen’s Big Broadcast of 1938 about which I will have more to say in the none too distant future.

All this by way of reintroduction. However small the interstice until I take flight again next week, it sure feels good to spend some time sweeping the dust out of my cyberspatial niche . . .

We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Life

It has been a week of local excursions here in Wales, days spent sunbathing and splashing in the radioactive sea, bookhunting in Hay-on-Wye (the world-renowned “Town of Books”), dining al fresco, stargazing outdoors and on screen, playing with Montague, our unruly terrier, and being among friends (even after having been critiqued with the candor I reserve for those who matter to me). The occasion of it all was a weeklong visit by my closest if mostly long distance friend, the fatherland I haven’t set foot on for seventeen years. It is to him that I owe the wonderful book pictured above, a splendid addition to my collection of Claudette Colbert memorabilia.

Whenever I venture out to Hay, I return home with a few treasures. This time, I added a book on Harold Lloyd (my favorite silent screen comedian, whose films The Kid Brother, The Cat’s Paw and Girl Shy we screened during the past few days), as well as a coffee-table topper on screwball comedies (a book which I had previously gifted to abovementioned best pal, but with which I was pleased to get reacquainted). However convenient and economic it might be to browse and shop online, the thrill of the hunt (as previously described here), is something a carnivore of a booklover like me does not like to go without.

Now, the people of Film Pictorial, a British publication, are full of it. Legend, I mean, which is a term I much prefer to trivia when it comes to describing pieces of nothing from which to weave whatever your mind is up to at the moment. Trivia is for the mercenary; legend for the mercurial. I shall raid said volume from time to time here on these virtual pages. Where else might you learn whether or not you have a “Film Hand” from a writer who examines the “long little finger on the hand of Katharine Hepburn” or the “thickish fingers” of John Boles and Warren William to tell their temperament and acting skills?

The book also contains longer articles on “The Gallant Life of Norma Shearer” and takes readers to the homes of stars like Harold Lloyd, Bette Davis, and . . . Gordon Harker? Robert Montgomery, meanwhile, debates, along with Jeanette MacDonald, “At What Age Are Women Most Charming” and Myrna Loy reveals her “Own Ideas.” It’s all glossy but telling gossip, which I am looking forward to sharing, along with old news from , over the next few days.

Of course, my week was not without pain and what there is of sorrow in my life, among which my tumble down the slippery steps to my room and the breaking down of our car are the most dramatic examples. My lower back and my left toe still ache; the car might not be salvageable at all. In a matter of weeks, I reckon, such woes—which led to dipped feet in cooling springs and a ride through Wales in an Auto Club truck—will be nothing but cheerful anecdotes to be shared among chums. For now, they are inconveniences, at most.

As I have mentioned before, the weeks to come will be somewhat less than regular. On 7 August, I shall return, however briefly, to my old home in New York City. In the meantime, I resume my journal, hoping it will be appreciated by those who make it a habit to keep up with someone as gleefully out-of-date as yours truly, broadcastellan.

Up Frenchman’s Creek; or, How (Not) to Prepare for a Vacation

Well, I’ve been home barely twenty-four hours and already I am packing my suitcase again. After a weekend up north in Manchester, I’ll be off tomorrow on a weeklong trip down south to Cornwall. Instead of flicking through my travel guides this morning, I started reading Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Now, there’s a description of scenery you wouldn’t get from your travel agent:

[There] was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the windows of the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren soil. No trees here, save one or two that stretched bare branches to the four winds, bent and twisted from centuries of storm, and so black were they by time and tempest that, even if spring did breathe on such a place, no buds would dare to come to leaf for fear the late frost should kill them. It was a scrubby land, without hedgerow or meadow; a country of stones, black heather, and stunted broom. 

There would never be a gentle season here. [. . .] 

Not much more hospitable is the seascape depicted in the opening chapter of du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek:

When the east wind blows up Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores [. . .].

The long rollers of the Channel, travelling from beyond Lizard point, follow hard upon the steep seas at the river mouth, and mingling with the surge and wash of deep sea water comes the brown tide, swollen with the last rains and brackish from the mud, bearing upon its face dead twigs and straws, and strange forgotten things, leaves too early fallen, young birds, and the buds of flowers.

Perhaps reading du Maurier’s Cornish romances is not such an ideal way to get into the spirit of things, especially not when one is hoping for spring and renewal. At least their author was familiar with the locations described. Listening to the 10 February 1947 Lux Radio Theatre version of Frenchman’s Creek, I got no sense of the locale at all; nor, for that matter, much sense of the story. There was too little of it left to suggest the illicit passion of a married woman for a dashing pirate.

The radio version is not so much an adaptation of the novel, but of radio dramatist Talbot Jennings’s screenplay for Paramount’s 1944 technicolor production, which cleaned up du Maurier’s act in accordance with Hollywood’s production code. Mitchell Leisen’s film, of course, was not shot in Cornwall either, but in Jenner, California, which also stood in as Devon in The Uninvited, an old-fashioned ghost story featuring the novelty of a sun rising in the west.

I don’t suppose Alfred Hitchcock’s reworking of Jamaica Inn is any more useful as an introduction to Cornwall; I’ve always confused it with Under Capricorn, another one of Hitchcock’s misguided forays into period piece froufrou (although I confess having enjoyed his Waltzes from Vienna). And since there is little time to dip into the poetry of John Betjeman, I think I’d better get back to my travel guide after all—and finish packing. I will try to relate my impressions upon my return next Wednesday—provided I can find a radio drama angle.

"This . . . is London": Florence Foster Jenkins, Again

Well, it doesn’t always take “practice, practice, practice” to get to Carnegie Hall. Sometimes, delusions of grandeur—and a few thousand gawkers in search of the proverbial train wreck—will do. If you are among those who still marvel at the American public’s decision to include Kevin Covais among this year’s American Idol finalists, consider the career of a tone-deaf diva who brought the William Hung-factor to classical music: Florence Foster Jenkins, a coloratura-blind soprano so astonishingly awful that audiences are still pricking up their ears in disbelief some sixty years after her silencing. Call it “Schadenfreude schöner Götterfunken.”

When last I was in New York City, I went to see Souvenir, a “fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Judy Kaye (and reviewed it here). A few weeks later, I was surprised to discover that another not-so-musical portrait of the miss-most-notes notable was on display in London, where it can be taken in at the Duchess Theatre until the end of April. Of course, I had to see and hear for myself how La-la-la Jenkins was being treated overseas, so far from the famed hall she brought down in the fall of 1944, within weeks of her exit at age 76.

As conceived by Peter Quilter, patched-together from what little he could find about the performer in print, Glorious is the sort of guilty theatrical pleasure few people permit themselves these days, given the exorbitant ticket prices that make the legitimate stage a recycle bin for acknowledged classics and crowd-pleasing musicals. Glorious doesn’t quite live up to its title. It is unambitious, trivial, and decidedly silly. Maureen Lipman, whom I had previously seen opposite Sir Ian McKellen in a rather chintzy reproduction of the pantomime Aladdin, delivers the broad jokes and broader slapstick with pitch-perfection. Only too rarely, when addressing us as Jenkins’s audience, does she become as captivating or “glorious” as the original herself must have been to 1940s concert-goers.

Unlike Souvenir‘s Judy Kaye, Lipman does not go far beyond shtick, not being required or encouraged to do so by Quilter’s cartoonish script, which at times seems little more than an assortment of rather ho-hum puns, few of which you would get away with even in intoxicated company.

Unlike Ms. Kaye—who was just and judiciously supported by a pianist-narrator based on Jenkins’s own accompanist, Cosme McMoon—Lipman is being surrounded by a host of sitcom characters: an irascible Hispanic maid, a womanising admirer, a ditzy confidante, and a society lady appalled at her caterwauling. The situations derived from these fictional foes and associates are far less inspired than the close-up of Jenkins at her self-delusional best.

And, unlike Ms. Kaye, Lipman is unable to end on the moving high note both Quilter and Stephen Temperley (the writer of Souvenir) chose for their flourish. Both playwrights attempt to bring home Ms. Jenkins’s blissful ignorance of her tone-deafness by letting us hear the dulcet tones the performers assumes to be producing. Musical star Judy Kaye gets an opportunity to sing “Ave Maria,” while Lipman merely lip-synchs to a recording. The audiences of Souvenir are offered a glimpse, at least, of the diva’s doubts and fears, while those seeing Glorious will encounter a consummate mis-performer sheltered by a stupefying lack of self-awareness.

“[I]t was certainly rather wonderful living in the head of this unique woman,” Quilter remarks in his notes on the play. Unfortunately, we get to enter neither his mind nor hers. Instead, we are being treated to two hours of Will and Disgrace.

"This . . . is London": Approaching Edward R. Murrow

I have returned from my latest London trip; my stimulated mind is filled with assorted impressions that I now ready for recollection in relative tranquility. Rather than pouring out those impressions like the content of an overstuffed suitcase, I shall meet the challenge of assembling them into a sequence of composite portraits, portraits not so much of myself but of the experience of gathering ideas and collecting thoughts. You might call this manipulation of the everyday a form of “method living”: a mental aligning and creative channelling of life’s vast, fleeting, and potentially overwhelming influences into something resembling a design of my own making.

There is to me nothing more thrilling than the tracing of a pattern in the patched-up fabric of the everyday. Granted, I often impose such a design by snipping off too many of the loose ends and by choosing that to which I expose myself with rather too thorough discrimination, by excluding the ill-fitting piece or neglecting the odd thread. Yet the satisfaction of finding sameness where others might only detect difference is not necessarily the program of a narrow mind. I try to do as much stitching together as I do selecting or cutting away. Atropos, Clotho, and Lachesis—I intend to do the handiwork of all three fates.

One of the threads I chose to follow during my wanderings through the maze that—compared to the comforting simplicity of New York City’s map—is sprawling London was the career of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. In his late 1930s broadcasts from London, Murrow had encouraged Americans to connect with world affairs by bringing the hardship of those under Fascist attack home to radio listeners who, in the confines of their living rooms, might have imagined themselves immune to such devastating influences. Later, he exposed fascism of another kind in his commentaries on misguided patriotism and undemocratic perversions of unity.

After a brisk two-hour walk from South Kensington, across Hyde Park, I arrived at Murrow’s former residence in Marylebone, not far from the British Telecom tower. I took a few photographs and walked on. I experienced no great stirring of emotions, let alone a spiritual connection. Yet the site itself, along with the act of finding, approaching and appropriating it pictorially became part of a design, enforced by the screening of Good Night, and Good Luck. my mate and I attended a day later. It had not been altogether planned that way; indeed, I was surprised to find the film to be still in such wide circulation.

The quietly impressive motion picture and my altogether unremarkable photographs do not so much amount to a biographical composite sketch of Murrow, a man who shaped history by recording it. Rather than capturing his past they suggest his presence—or our need for it.

Much of what Murray reflected upon in his broadcasts—even in reminiscences such as this one from 3 December 1944—is anything but dated, if only you permit yourself to look beyond the names of places and persons and weave his expressions of hope and fear into the fabric of our current wars and crises:

You remember those mean streets in London where so many died; the men stretching canvas over holes in roofs and walls, trying to patch things up before the winter comes, anything to keep out the rain and cold. At the airfield you remember that it was just here you watched Mr. Chamberlain descend from his plane when he came back from Munich, waving his written agreement with Hitler and talking about peace in our time. That was such a long time ago. And you wonder when there will be peace again and what it will be like. . . .

You recall all the talk of a better world, a new social order, a revolution by consent, that marked the desperate days, and you realize that talk of equality of opportunity, of equality of sacrifice, of a peace based on something other than force, comes more readily to the lips when disaster threatens. There isn’t so much of it now [. . .]. 

Europe for a long time will be concerned with the urgent problems of day-to-day existence. The fundamental economic and social conflicts will not have been settled by this war. [. . .] 

For years after this war Europe will be in torment and [ . . . ] you wonder what part America will play in it all.  In battle and in production we have been magnificent.  We have delivered the planes, tanks, guns and ships and the men to fight with them.  The evidence of our strength can be found all around the world.  We’re not as tired as the others.  Our industrial plant is undamaged.  Our homes have not been blasted. We enjoy security and relative comfort and our responsibility is frightening, for Europe will look to us—not for charity, advice or admonition, but for an example.  Democracy hasn’t been very fashionable over there in recent years and there are many who doubt that it can survive the strains and stresses of peace. . . .

Is democracy still “fashionable” anywhere? Is it the gear of choice or an imposed uniform that ceases to be fashion by resembling fascism? Has the current war on terror (or the terror of war) done much to preserve it? Are we still talking about a “peace based on something other than force”? The patterns we discover when engaging with the so-called past are often disturbing rather than reassuring. And yet, to ignore them, to refuse recalling them into our everyday, might be more disturbing still—a wilful refusal to connect that, far worse than passivity, is a violent act of tearing apart the fabric along with its flawed design.

“This . . . is London”: Departures for, of, and at the Theater

Well, I’m afraid this journal entry is going to be all over the place—like my luggage, as I am preparing for tomorrow’s trip to London. I would have enjoyed sharing one of my “What Those Who Remembered Forgot” obituary footnotes to commemorate the radio career of Oscar and Tony winner Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006); but I could not find any recordings of her performances heard on Best Plays, a US drama anthology that premiered on 8 June 1952 with a production of Winterset. Nor have I come across Stapleton’s guest appearances on radio’s Quiz Kids program. So, after some searching, I had to give up on the tribute and continued to plan my theatrical entertainments for the days ahead.

I have yet to see a truly great stage production in London, most of the plays I attended during my previous visits having been less than scintillating. Let’s see, there were the lackluster revivals of The Philadelphia Story and Once in a Lifetime, starring Kevin Spacey and David Suchet, respectively. While colorful and quirky, Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Edward Scissorhands (discussed here) was choreographically far less impressive than his Swan Lake.

Rather more to my liking was the staging of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which, as discussed here, offered few surprises (being faithful to the novel), but a genuinely creepy finale.

Then again, I’ve always been fond of unabashed melodrama, even though, at today’s prices, theatrical thrillers are a decidedly rare and guilty pleasure. Gone are the days when everyday people flocked to the theater for some choric hissing of villains in plays with titles like The Worst Woman in London or The Ugliest Woman on Earth. I’d settle for a production of William Archer’s The Green Goddess, but doubt whether our politically correct climate—in which even a cast member of South Park balks after discovering his scientologically reconstituted conscience—still allows for the blossoming of such vulgar delights, now relegated to that slowly deteriorating hot house of popular culture, the movie theater.

Imagine a scene like this—as described by Charles Dickens—at one of today’s West End temples of drama:

We were a motley assemblage of people [. . .] . Besides prowlers and idlers, we were mechanics, dock-labourers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and byways. Many of us—on the whole, the majority—were not at all clean, and not at all choice in our lives of conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted, and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening’s entertainment in common. [. . .]
Between the pieces [a pantomime and a melodrama], we almost all of us went out and refreshed [. . .]. The sandwich—as substantial as was consistent with portability, and as cheap as possible—we hailed as one of our greatest institutions. It forced its way among us at all stages of the entertainment, and we were always delighted to see it; its adaptability to the varying moods of our nature was surprising; we could never weep so comfortably as when our tears fell on our sandwich; we could never laugh so heartily as when we choked with sandwich; Virtue never looked so beautiful or Vice so deformed as when we paused, sandwich in hand, to consider what would come of that resolution of Wickedness in boots, to sever Innocence in flowered chintz from Honest Industry in striped stockings. When the curtain fell for the night, we still fell back upon sandwich, to help us through the rain and mire, and home to bed.

Perhaps I could have done without those assorted noises and scents after all; but I sure enjoy an evening of unpretentious theater. Unfortunately, both Jerry Herman’s silent-screen musical Mack and Mabel and Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, starring Judy Dench, won’t open until April.

Instead of such revivals, I might be singing the Resurrection Blues. There is Robert Altman’s production of Arthur Miller’s play of that title, of course; but I have never been particularly fond of Miller, mostly due to his denunciations of radio, the medium that not only sustained him during the lean 1940s, but that influenced the mind-as-stage explorations attempted in plays like Death of a Salesman and After the Fall. I’d much rather see Altman’s latest movie, A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor’s own adaptation of his popular radio series.

I’ve still got my eye on Glorious!, that other play about the odd career of vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins, one version of which, titled Souvenir, I enjoyed when last I was in New York City. Well, we shall see what tickets I can manage to snatch up at the half-price booth. Next week, at any rate, I hope to share some souvenirs from what I trust will amount to a glorious time in the metropolis.

"This . . . is London": Getting Ready to Take in the Sounds Again

Broadcasting House, London

Well, it has been a rather gloomy weekend, a few hours of which were spent finding a publishing house and home for Etherized, my doctoral study on old-time radio. I have been slow to send out proposals but am aware that I cannot rest on my laurels until they begin to smell. The fresh air being too damp, cold, and swiftly circulated, I sought shelter by the fire and found pleasant company in an unflappable adventuress by the name of Eve Peabody. Surely you’ve met Eve Peabody, the blues singer whose voice, by her own admission, is strictly of the “bathtub” variety? You know, the gal who once crashed a ritzy social gathering with a pawn ticket for an invitation. Yes, that Eve Peabody—the gold-lamé garbed, Bronx Local-hardened heroine of Mitchell Leisen’s deucedly clever screwball comedy Midnight (1939).

There’s much to be learned from an urbane charmer like Eve (as portrayed with pitch-perfection by Ms. Claudette Colbert). Lessons in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again, I mean. Having escaped a Monte Carlo disaster—a failed system that left her practically penniless at the roulette table, with the exception of that one French coin with a hole in it—Eve takes a gamble by hopping on a train to not so gay Paris.

Alighting none too delightedly with damp and dreary prospects before her, she inquires with sarcasm, rather than incredulity: “So this, as they say, is Paris?” Not altogether reassured by the conductor, she wryly remarks: “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” I might find myself saying something not unlike this when I step out of the train in London this Wednesday. The forecast is not promising; but, like Eve, I am determined to make the most of my stay.

Perhaps, my idea of a good time differs from that of most visitors, but, aside from the shops and a West End show or two, Edward R. Murrow’s house in Hallam Street is right up there on my list of must-see attractions. As I reported a few weeks ago, a blue plaque has been placed on the façade of Weymouth House earlier this year, commemorating the contributions of its former resident, Murrow, to bringing the terrors of the London blitz home to American radio listeners, many of whom may have otherwise been indifferent or downright hostile to the British, quite willing even to let my Nazi ancestors have their way with them.

“This . . . is London,” of course, was Murrow’s famous introduction to his blitz broadcasts. His reports made a distant fight for survival seem real and urgent—unlike that picturesque firework display that stood in for the air raids in the recent Judy Dench-starrer Mrs. Henderson Presents. After all, radio can produce terrors far more immediate than video or photography, provided you have mind, heart, and guts enough to translate dreadful sounds into horrible images.

Walking through London again, I might do what I used to do when I first came to New York City, which is, besides taking in the sights, to take in the sounds as well. When the broadcastellan journal was still in its infancy, rather than its present adolescence, I contemplated the soundscape of Britain. For, surely, London has one of the most distinct sonic designs of any Western metropolis, the chiming of Big Ben being its most memorable earmark. So, as an exercise in getting in tune with said town, I will tune in again to “A Portrait of London” (20 July 1956), a CBS Radio Workshop tour conducted by Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah, who took American listeners right into the bell tower of Big Ben.

“So this, as they say, is London, huh?” I might find myself saying on Wednesday as I step out onto the platform at Euston Station: but, hearing the inimitable sounds of the big city, I am unlikely to add “Well, to me it sounds an awful lot like a rainy night in the Welsh hills.”

A Soundscape of Britain?

Princess Diana Memorial Fountain,
Hyde Park, London

A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?

In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.

A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).

While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.

Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?

Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .