Nuns Ablazing: Sister Act at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

“Farrah Fawcett as thou art in heaven!” This is a good time to dust off your “F. M. boots” and shake your groove thing right on down to our local Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. You know, F as in Funky and M as in, well, Mary, Mother of Grace.  Or, FM as in radio, tuned to the station that gives you Diana, Donna and … Deloris.  Deloris Van Cartier, honey, the diva that dreamed of a wearing white fur and ended up in a nun’s habit.  Yes, it’s Sister Act, the musical. The one about the convent where the mother’s superior and the sisters supreme.
In this production, Mother Superior is played by Lori Haley Fox, whom I previously saw perform here in Chess and Hairspray.  There is a bit of Velma Von Tussle in Mother Superior—but her Sister Act character has some depth, which comes across in Fox’s rendition of “Here Within These Walls.” You don’t just get to hiss and laugh at her, but get to understand her struggle to restore the order that wasn’t meant to be a reformed one. It’s a fight against the trivialization and exploitation of her beliefs.  To be sure, it’s a tall order to deliver such conviction in a play so invested in that very trivialization. But if there are false notes in this musical, they are not coming out of Fox’s mouth.  Nor out of Jenny Fitzpatrick’s, for that matter, who is great in the wear-your-Jackal-and-hide part of Deloris “Sister Mary Clarence” Van Cartier, a diamonds craving tramp with the proverbial heart of gold.  Or a golden larynx, anyway. And Fitzpatrick sure got that, and soul besides. Make that Philly soul.  After all, the scene is set in Philadelphia, the town to which the bastard of Disco can trace some of its heritage.

My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.

I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan.  I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks.  Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong.  Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that.  And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent.  Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.

Brother, it must be tough for any man to assert himself in a place where all those rapping and von Trapping sisters are doing it pretty much for themselves (and the Almighty); but Robert Grose as Curtis Jackson and Aaron Lee Lambert as Eddie Souther are giving it their best shot—and I’m using the metaphor advisedly.  Grose is at his smarmiest best singing “When I Find My Baby,” a creepy number worthy of Sweeney Todd and likely to give you the heebie-Bee Gees. Meanwhile, in “I Could Be That Guy,” Lambert makes a transition that rivals the costume change endured by Deloris – albeit from plain to fabulous, so that the twain can meet somewhere in between—and he doesn’t get a phone booth or even a Hong Kong Phooey filing cabinet to do it in. So, props to him! Then again, why call props when Velcro and virtuosity will do?
There are echoes of Kiss Me, Kate in the trio of thugs—The Three Degrees of separation from the baboon—who are making apes of themselves for our amusement in “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Never mind Earth and Fire; these guys are pretty much all Wind. That said, Andrew Gallo as Joey has more moves in his eyebrows than most wannabe Travoltas have in their polyester-clad hips. George Ray as TJ does four-eyed cute as well as Rick “Suddenly Seymour” Moranis ever did. And Ricardo Castro is just bueno as Pablo in a Brüno kind of way.  Meanwhile, for those who prefer their eye candy unwrapped, there are a couple of highly distracting boy dancers, competing though they were, temporarily, with an audience member in front of me who insisted on noisily unpacking her own treats. Sure, Toffifee is retro, but a flask is more discreet.
Dancing boys and their legs apart, this is still a play in which the sisters have the upper hand; and glorious Jodie Jacobs as Sister Mary Robert and fierce Andrea Miller as Sister Mary Lazarus prove that “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” So what if Sister Act’s pastiche.  Why reinvent the Disco Ball? I, for one, am glad to be having the sisters “Here Within These Walls” of Aberystwyth Arts Centre to “Spread the Love.”  I’ll be back for another audience with them—and that adorable Pope—just as soon as I get the platforms redone on the F. M. boots I wore out tapping along. “Fabulous[,] Baby”!

She Said It in English: Olympe Bradna (1920-2012) on Men, Mikes and Milk

Cover of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Cinegram No. 60
“Olympe Bradna is a diplomat of the first rank!” So declared the editors of Cinegram in an issue devoted to Say It in French.  In that now largely forgotten romantic comedy, Bradna co-starred as a French student who impersonates a maid to be close to an American lover (played by Welshman Ray Milland) expected to marry a millionaire’s daughter (Irene Hervey) to save his father’s business.  Maybe that sounded better in French, in which the comedy was first staged under the title Soubrette. Never mind.  The “petite morsel of feminine allure,” so the Bradna legend goes, had “only been kissed by two men during her whole lifetime”—that lifetime amounting to eighteen years back in 1938.  One year into her brief Hollywood career, Bradna had overcome her “anxiety and embarrassment” and forgotten about her vow that she “would never kiss” at all, “either on the screen or off, until she had a ‘steady’ beau.”  Having been teamed with both Milland and Gene Raymond (in Stolen Heaven), the actress was “all in favour” of on-screen romance; but, when asked whose lips she preferred, the teenager refused to kiss and tell. “If I did that, it would be, how do you say? ‘propaganda.’” In the context of European pre-war clamour and the business of Hollywood glamour, the word choice is peculiar, especially since Cinegram was a promotional effort aimed at British audiences.  It is a telling statement, too, as it suggests Bradna’s questioning of the role she was expected to play in the propagation and exploitation of her own image.
Far from naive, the French-born performer knew all about the real world of make-believe, which is why, in her future pursuit of “real romance,” she was determined to “go outside the show business.”  In the early 1920s, her parents, Jeanne and Joseph Bradna, had a successful bareback riding act at the Olympia Theater in Paris, after which venue Olympe was named and where she made her stage debut when she was not quite two years old.  Hence, I suppose, her expressed need for security: “[A]ctors are fellows with uncertain jobs.  They’re generally honest, gay, intelligent and interesting, but they lack that quality of stability that is so important to a girl who wants to establish a home.”
Autographed portrait of Olympe Bradna from the pages of Cinegram 60 (1938)
Bradna in Cinegram No. 60
Presumably, she said all this in English, rather than in her native tongue.  When she first set her dancing feet on the United States as a member of the Folies Bergère and subsequently performed at New York’s French Casino, she was so dismayed at her “lack of English that she determined to learn to speak the language properly.  She succeeded so well,” Cinegram readers were told, “that when it came to making this new picture she had to put in several weeks of hard work under a French tutor to get her French back to standard.”  A Hollywood standard, that is.  After all, in romantic comedy, a French accent was as desirable as a maid’s uniform.
Bradna’s language skills were put to the ultimate test when, on 14 November 1938, she went behind the microphone for the Lux Radio Theater production of “The Buccaneer,” co-starring Clark Gable as French pirate Jean Lafitte; but her part was suitably Old-World, and all over the map besides, to account for any foreignness in her speech.  Bradna assumed the role of Gretchen, which had been played on screen by the Hungarian-born cabaret artist Franciska Gaal.  “Oh, I don’t know how I sound, Mr. DeMille,” Bradna said to in the nominal producer of the program during her scripted curtain call, “a Dutch girl with a French accent in an American play.”  Supported as she was by Gertrude Michael and Akim Tamiroff, both of whom enriched American English with peculiar accents and inflections, she hardly stood out like a sore tongue.
Back page of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland
Not that Bradna, who appeared on the cover of the 27 July 2 August 1938 issue of Movie-Radio Guide, was a stranger to the microphone.  According to the March 1938 issue of Radio Mirror, Paramount Pictures “put her into five consecutive radio guest-spots for a big build up—but without giving her a nickel.”  Perhaps, DeMille would not have given her a nickel, either, for the privilege of making it into a Lux-lathered version of The Buccaneer, one of his own productions, nor given her an opportunity to promote her latest picture, Say It in French, had he known what British Cinegram readers gathered by flicking through their souvenir program for Say It.  Bradna, they were told, had “startled experts by announcing that the secret of her facial complexion [was] a daily buttermilk massage.”  The maker’s of Lux Toilet Soap could not have been pleased at Bradna’s insistence, fictive or otherwise, that buttermilk was “all” she needed: “My skin may be ever so parched and dry before the routine, but afterwards it is as fresh and smooth as I could want!”
Wally Westmore, Paramount’s make-up chief, reputedly explained that the “secret”—an age-old French recipe for a youthful complexion perhaps not quite so difficult to achieve at the age of eighteen—lay in the rich oil content of buttermilk, which had the same “softening and freshening effect upon the skin as the most elaborate and expensive preparations used by the stars.”  That, of course, was just the claim Lever Brothers were making each week on the Lux Radio Theater, which might explain why Ms. Bradna was never again heard on the program, whose stars were handsomely remunerated for their implied or stated endorsement of the titular product.  Perhaps, Bradna was not “a diplomat of the first rank” after all . . .
Olympe Bradna died on 5 November 2012 in Lodi, California.

Smoke Gets in Your Ears; or, What Price “Butch" and "George”?

A keepsake that hasn’t been looked after
The other day, Bob and I drove down to Leominster, England.  The objective was to pick up a painting at a local auction house; but we made a day of it, during which we discovered Leominster to be a great town for antiquing.  Now, when it comes to treasure hunts, my definition of “priceless” is “unvalued,” a label (or stigma) attached to objects that somehow don’t matter much and therefore sell for next to nothing.  It is to those less prized items that I tend to be drawn—provided they have something to do with the undervalued performance art of radio.  So, for about one hundredth of the cost of our latest oil, I took home a complete if somewhat tatty album of cigarette cards dating from 1934.  Since it was issued in Britain (by W. D. & H. O. Wills), the “celebrities” displayed in it are all folks heard on the BBC at the time—and rarely heard of thereafter.

Unlike their American counterparts, whose voices or musical talents are preserved on recordings anyone can readily retrieve online, most of these BBC personalities would be truly forgotten today if they had not made a name for themselves in other media.  Yet even if we remember the performer we are likely to be ignorant of the performance that brought them fame on the air.

A few years ago, Telegraph columnist Christopher Howse happened upon the same album now in my hands and remarked that the “world seen in [it] is as unfamiliar as the clipped tones of the celebrities it contains.”  Flicking through these pages means facing indifference and neglect.  How can we presume to know the 1930s if we can’t recall the names that then were household words, let alone put a voice to them?

Radio Celebritiesan oxymoron, perhaps?

Back then, the reverse was to be accomplished by those cigarette card collectibles: to put a face to the unseen visitors that millions welcomed into their homes.  No doubt, the chief purpose was to sell tobacco products—but aside from fueling an addiction these albums satisfied the need to turn word to flesh and hold on to fleeting sound by way of printed image.  “For many years,” the “Radio Celebrities” album reminded the purchaser, anno 1934, “broadcasting artistes, announcers and speakers remained rather mysteriously aloof—in the air, as it were!” No more.  The “Wireless” and their personalities were becoming “increasingly popular”; and the portraits to be collected and appreciated in this way were meant to “add a personal touch to names” that were already so “familiar to listeners.”


From time to time, I shall return to this album to report on the radio careers of Clapham & Dwyer, “Butch” and “George,” Jeanne De Casalis, and the forty-seven other “Radio Celebrities” that hit it big on the Beeb.

Some Like it . . . How? Youth, Vampires, and Marilyn Monroe

Del Coronado mirage
There I stood, in the shimmering sands of Coronado Beach, California. I had come, of course, to see the famous Hotel—and to share the views once taken in by Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Marilyn was here. Now I was. Footsteps. Sand. The old hourglass. I won’t indulge in such clichés here; but there is something pathetic about this kind of out-of-sightseeing, this belated catching up and impossible reaching out to which I am prone. The inclination to seek out what is long gone is more than morbid curiosity: it is an approach to life as a retreat from living in which even the here-and-now becomes dreamlike and chimerical. How did this get to be my way of not facing the world?

Marilyn Monroe died before I was born; yet her life and times became a fascination of my teenage years.  Mine were not erotic fantasies.  I did not long for her body.  Nor did I think of her as being gone.  She was never absent for long from the television screen, ever present on the iconic posters I pinned onto the wall above my bed.  Records spinning on the old turntable, her voice filled my room. I had no regrets about never being able to meet her in the flesh; rather, it was a relief.

The wonder of her incorporeal existence made living in the body I loathed more tolerable; and it made the physical relationships I dreaded easier to contemplate in the abstract.  Marilyn—and we call her by her first name because she is more familiar than famous, more girl than goddess—was not some facile paradox: “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love” she sings in the same movie, expressing the hurt and hunger that are far from mutually exclusive.

Our teenage selves are preoccupied with the demands that both nature and society make on us, propositions and impositions captured in that horrible phrase haunting and taunting us until death: “grown up.”  As a response to and rejection of the implied threat—the finality and premature stunting of our infinite potentialities—Marilyn’s afterlife was as much a reproof of society as it was a society-proof alternative: a twilight life, expired and undying, bright though snuffed out, a fragile, indomitable spirit-presence in whose shadowy glow I could luxuriate, just as many a young person nowadays revels in the gothic gloom inhabited by zombies and vampires, except that my imaginings transported rather than dispirited me.

No doubt, this twisted bent of casting myself into times preceding my birth is born of a desire to bring forth alternate selves of mine without having to bear the vagaries of the present or the uncertainties of the future.  Like a life presumably squandered in reverie, bending the past to our will is a testament to a vestigial will power—or would-be power—in which the retrospective becomes invested with the prospect of an ever glimmering what if . . .

So Long, Onslow

Onslow? Why not!
One of my too few regrets in life is that I did not manage to inspire any of my fellow students to make up a nickname for me when I was in high school. Not counting “Battle of the Sexes,” that is. That was more of a cut than a nick, and all because I didn’t seem quite ready to shave—or perhaps even to be beyond shaving—at least not where man folk is supposed to. It was much later in life that I earned a moniker, one that didn’t make me feel I should be called Monica, and without having to do much or make an effort to look like much to deserve it, if deserve it I do. Onslow’s the name—a name that, to millions of television viewers, conjures up an image of a lazy slob in what is dead commonly referred to as a wife beater, a bad name given the kind of shirt I tend to don when the point of dressing up beats me, when reaching for a respectably casual shirt seems a waste of time, especially of daylight savings. Is it that shirt, or perhaps the silvery whiskers to the swift removal of which I do not always see soon enough now that I got them, at last? Else, it might just be those extra few pounds around my waist that just scream handle, luv! Handle, nickname, dishonorific, or what have you. It’s a name only an uppity so-and-so like Hyacinth Bucket would call a sobriquet.

That I learned to live with—since that is so much easier than having to live up to anything else—can be readily demonstrated by the above shot taken on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star thus honored is, in truth, character actor Onslow Stevens; but I put my foot down to give the underachieving Onslows of this world their due, especially since I had already shed my shirt in the midday sun and was undressed for it.

Onslow, of course, was, like Ms. Bucket, a character in the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances, and Geoffrey Hughes was the actor who played the part, filling that undershirt better than I could ever hope or fear to do. Hughes died at the age of 68. And while I only knew him as Onslow—or Twiggy on The Royle Family—the fact that his passing topped news about the Olympics on the BBC website well before fatigue about that event set in even among High Jump (or Canoe Slalom or Trampoline or Water Polo) fanatics shows just how big a name he made for himself.

Blind Man’s Stuff: Alec Templeton in Time and Space

Last night, I had the good fortune to hear the music of Alec Templeton. Live and by proxy—and right here in town. Templeton’s compositions, among them barrier-obliterating and class-unconscious numbers like “Bach Goes to Town” and “Debussy in Dubuque,” were performed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips was ably assisted by Templeton himself, whose voice and ways on the keyboard were heard in a variety of radio recordings from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Why here? Why now? Well, Templeton was a Welshman by birth, a fact that seems to have eluded most of the Welsh who pride themselves to be a nation of song. So, last night was as good and as high a time as any for his countrymen and women to acknowledge Templeton’s remarkable against-almost-all-odds career, even if the will to embark upon it took the composer-pianist as far West from the West of Britain as Hollywood. The countrywoman who did the acknowledging was Rhian Davies, teller of Templeton’s life in words and images. Davies, who generously acknowledged as well all the support and assistance her project received from broadcasting buffs and music lovers around the inter-networked world, has known about Templeton practically all her life. Eager to share her readily transmitted enthusiasm, she brought home to us, the assembled audience, that it is always Alec Templeton Time.

Templeton’s life is the stuff of legend. Born blind, he developed an ear so keen and a wit so sharp that he was destined to play tunes made for the cutting of rugs. That he was an expert at middlebrow musical culture has a lot to do with the fact that the eyes beneath his brows saw nothing and that his ears saw nothing but potential. Others, left in the dark yet accustomed to light, might have seen an insurmountable impediment.

The mind’s eye of Alec Templeton saw no such manifestations of doubt. He saw, say, Lower Basin Street . . . and took it. It may be that sightless people, who sense space by feeling their way around and listening intently, are not so much impressed by the walls facing them as their seeing contemporaries, not so much concerned with apparent boundaries, be they cultural or national.

“I understand,” a writer for Radio Guide remarked in 1936, “why his friends, when you start glooming about his sightless eyes, smile superciliously and say: ‘Save your sympathy for someone who needs it.’”

The stuff sighted folks concern themselves with is so much nonsense to a man like Templeton. Sensing a universe where others might imagine chaos, he crossed the waves and made a home for himself on the airwaves, authoring an etherized existence.

“Radio,” Templeton reportedly said, “is to me the greatest miracle of man’s ingenuity. My ears are my eyes, and I tune in at every opportunity, listening to everything from Vic and Sade to Toscanini.”

Hearing Templeton’s music performed live and seeing his career celebrated was a thrill. Yet as pleased as I was that all this happened in the little Welsh town where I now live, I wonder what claim Wales has to her native son. After all, the place of his birth, like his blindness, was not of his choosing. Indeed, he chose to unfurl his pinions, take to the air, and come to live for all willing to be all ears, in a medium whose art is not limited by space but that is instead the stuff—the no-matter—of time.  Make that Alec Templeton Time.

“The lady of the house speaking”: A Bucket for Myra Hess

Eve Arden is Our Miss Brooks. Joan Collins is Alexis. Estelle Getty, Sophia. Whatever else these ladies did in their long stage, screen and television careers, they have become identified with a single, signature role they had the good fortune to create in midlife. Grabbing their second chances at a second skin, they experienced a regenerative ecdysis. The character or caricature that emerges in the process obscures the body of work thus transformed. Another such anew-comer coming readily to mind is Patricia Routledge, who, for better or worse, makes us forget that she has ever done anything else before or since she took on the role of Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances back in 1990. Would she forever keep up the charade, or might she yet have the power to make this our image of her disappear? Could she spring to new lives by kicking that Bucket? Those questions were on my mind when we drove up to the ancient market town of Machynlleth, here in mid-Wales, where Ms. Routledge was scheduled to make an appearance in a one-woman show.

Well, it was bucketing down that afternoon, which, had I been metaphorically minded at that spirit-dampening moment, I might have taken as an omen. Not that the rain had the force to keep the crowd, chiefly composed of folks scrambling to make the final check marks on their bucket list, from gathering in the old Tabernacle. Here, the stage was set for Admission: One Shilling. Not much of a stage, mind; there was barely “room for a pony.” Piano, I mean. But little more than that piano was required to transport those assembled to 1940s London, where, for the price of the titular coin, wartime audiences were briefly relieved from the terror of the Blitz by the strains of classical music . . .

The music, back then, was played by British concert pianist Myra Hess who, though much in demand in the United States, put her career on hold to boost the morale of her assailed country(wo)men. Hess did so at the National Gallery, a repository of culture that, at the outbreak of war, had taken on a funereal aspect when its paintings were removed from the walls and carted to Wales to be hidden in caves for the benefit of generations unborn and uncertain.

Meanwhile, those living or on leave in London at the time were confronted with a shrine that held none of the riches worth fighting for but that instead bespoke loss and devastation. From October 1939 to April 1946, Hess filled this ominous placeholder with music; much of it, like her own name, was German—a reminder that the Nazi regime and the likes of Rudolf Hess had no claim to the culture they did not hesitate to extinguish if it could not be made to serve fascist aims.

Taking her seat on the stage, the formidable, elegantly accoutred Ms. Routledge seemed well suited to impersonate Dame Myra as a woman looking back at her career in later life. It mattered little that Routledge did not herself play the piano while she reminisced about the concerts she had given. Selections from these performances were played by accompanist Piers Lane, who filled in the musical blanks whenever Routledge paused in her speech.

Writing that speech posed somewhat of a challenge, considering that Hess never published a diary. According to her great nephew, who created this tribute, the script is based on press releases and radio interviews. Indeed, the entire affair comes across as a piece made for radio, if it weren’t for those occasional darts shot at no one in particular from Ms. Routledge’s eyes, frowns that remind you of irritable Ms. Bucket’s priceless double-takes.

Perhaps, it does take a little more—and a little less—to pull off this impression. On the air, we could hear Dame Myra Hess at the piano. If the performance were more carefully rehearsed, or edited, we would not have before our mind’s eye the script from which Routledge reads throughout. We would not require the distractions of a screen onto which photographs of the wartime concerts are projected. We would not be as distanced from the life that yet unfolds in Hess’s own sparse words.

Never mind that Admission: One Shilling has about as much edge as a Laura Ashley throw pillow. What got me is that I felt as if I were attending one of Ms. Bucket’s ill-conceived candlelight suppers, whose decorous make-believe remains ultimately unconvincing. I found myself hoping for something undignified—a pratfall, even—as if I had come to see this woman but not come to see her succeed. Such, I guess, is the lasting legacy, the curse of Hyacinth Bucket that, as I exited, I was wondering what Sheridan might have done with the money . . .

The Touchables

The folks who proved that they had made their mark in Hollywood by leaving it in the cement slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had one thing in common. Besides having the stature of a movie star or Tinseltown personality, I mean. They could all stand up, bend down, and exert whatever pressure is required to produce those imprints. Even Charlie McCarthy, apparently. I always thought that it might please the supposed untouchables to be commemorated in a medium that is not as telltale about our inescapable senescence as a photograph or moving image. Many of us can stand up far longer than we can stand looking in the mirror.

Then again, the moving hands of time are readable in our footprints. Shirley Temple’s tiny imprint reminds us that, on 14 March 1935, she was at the height of a career that diminished as she increased in size. Still, the prints are meant to bespeak immortality. We don’t get to see the tracks of Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair, for instance. Nor is Zsa Zsa likely to be given the honor now to join those ladies in cement. These prints are all solid, no matter how much the concrete crumbles. The stars have bodies—and they are able and sound . . .

There is something reassuring in that solidity—if it weren’t for those cracks, and the puzzled looks I come across in the crowd gathered here to take pictures, mainly of themselves in front of a Hollywood landmark. Who was Rudy “My Time Is Your Time” Vallee, anyway? Norma Talmadge, who’s she? What were the Ritz Brothers all about? And who was that Sid fellow for whom they left those cryptic messages?

I got the space to myself as I have my picture taken with Marion Davies’s dainty indentations (dated 1929), my palm covering the hollow. No one is likely to pull a Lucy now; the Duke is still standing. Most walk right past—no, over—Ezio Pinza, whose block of concrete has become a mere steppingstone. Not a soul stoops to Monty Woolley. He’s the actor to whom my dog owes his name (I’m telling no one). I, too, I am out of touch.

There is one imprint, though, that keeps impressing after nearly sixty years. You can tell from the grime in the handprints of Marilyn Monroe just how many visitors have bowed down to approximate her posture, crouching over to show that they still look up to her. Screen partner Jane Russell’s palms are eloquently untainted by comparison. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name in recognition of her vulnerability—would be dead within ten years after being immortalized at Grauman’s. Our reaching out to her now is a belated, selfish gesture. You can’t expect rectitude from a crowd bent on lowering themselves for a photo opportunity. Remaining upright here means to be indifferent.

“Wipe your mucky paws,” I want to cry out. Yet these cultural touchstones are unlike other memorials to the untouchables. Here, we touch what we deem worth preserving. We bestow genuine stature with our own hands. We grasp at the chance to grease the Hollywood machine with our grubby palms, to fashion destinies with our filthy fingers. Since greatness does not rub off, most of us leave little more than a smudge. There is humanity in the residue of perspiration.

A Voice in the Wave: Carl Brisson at the Golden Oriole

“42 Men Killed Every Week,” the headline read. Those who had already heard as much on the radio would likely have felt the impact of this crime wave; but, unless they were pining for the likes of Rudy Vallee, they would have relished it as well. Religious leaders, child psychologists, and a few popular entertainers aside, hardly anyone would have been the least bit alarmed. After all, the headline appeared in the 27 July 1946 issue of Billboard and the tally of fatalities was not meant to reflect the hebdomadal wrongdoings in one of America’s urban jungles. Instead, it referred to the “[l]opsided preponderance” of crime dramas that, after the killings at the front had come to an end, hit the airwaves so hard as to wipe out much of the competition.

Perhaps, “swallow up” might be a better way of putting it, as the zingers and songs previously heard elsewhere were subsumed by thriller programs that, in a desperate attempt not to sound cookie-cutter, were becoming increasingly kooky. Take Voice in the Night, for instance. Mentioned in the Billboard report as a contributor to the body count—yet rarely ever mentioned elsewhere or thereafter—it was one of the most baffling mysteries ever devised for the sightless medium, all the more so for having been green-lighted to begin with.

Folks tuning in to Mutual on Friday nights back in the summer of 1946 were told that Voice in the Night was something new under the moon—“a musical mystery story starring the internationally famous stage, screen and supper-club star Carl Brisson.” Never mind the hyperboles, the fact that Brisson had not appeared on the screen in well over a decade. At the time, he was indeed a successful act on the hotel circuit, although even favorable reviews would point out that “his pipes [were] no longer the same” and that he suffered from “a lapse of memory” (Billboard 30 March 1946). Indeed, such setbacks may have made crooning behind a mike with sheet music in his hand sound like an attractive alternative to the middle-aged baritone.

Not that Brisson would have appreciated being called an “Engaging Grandfather”—as a less than subtle Newsweek review had done two years earlier; but, if his voice or appearance did not suggest as much already, there was that prominent son of his (Rosalind Russell’s husband), then in his early thirties. Such telltale signs could be airbrushed away with the aid of a microphone. On the radio, by which even seasoned voices in the night penetrated many a chambre séparée, Brisson could yet be Carl Brisson, a detective who sang for his private suppers.

True, Brisson had experience playing romantic leads, having starred in two melodramas helmed by Alfred Hitchcock; but that was in the silent era, when his Danish accent posed no obstacle to a career in British or American film. In 1934, he had even mixed music and mayhem and “Cocktails for Two” in Murder at the Vanities (pictured above); but a duet with Kitty Carlisle could not have prepared him for the challenge of carrying anything other than a tune, least of all a dramatic radio series of his own. For, no matter how many times he would perform his signature song “Little White Gardenia” (“You may wear it if you care / Or toss it away”), a crime had to be related and solved within each half-hour allotted to Voice in the Night. And on this night, 14 June, in 1946, it was a case involving the theft of a necklace that “once cost two men their lives.”

We meet Carl Brisson at the Golden Oriole, a nightclub where he takes requests and performs standards like “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings” to an appreciative proxy audience, sit-ins for the listeners at home, some of whom would have seen Brisson in person and may well have resented being drawn in by the performer only to be short-changed as he, having invited the diegetic (or built-in) crowd to stand up and dance, walks over to one of the tables for a tête-à-tête with a female and no doubt attractive newspaper columnist whom he feeds his stories of crime and romance.

Old-time radio encyclopedists John Dunning and Jim Cox, who merely quotes and paraphrases the former without giving him proper credit, would have you believe that Brisson dashes off to solve a crime before resuming his nightclub act. Don’t take their word for it, though. In the only two extant episodes, at least, he merely takes a break to relate one of his adventures.

“You’re never more beautiful than when you’re angry to me,” Brisson tells his private listener. Now, I am not sure whether the script or the interpreter is responsible for the way this comes out, whether, as the linguists put it, the problem is structural (beautiful . . . to me”), or lexical (“angry at me”); but the performance is riddled with such incidents, which become rather distracting. Indeed, forget the largely frisson-free mystery of the stolen “neggless.” It is Brisson’s delivery that will puzzle you. Perhaps, Mutual had hoped for a second Jean Hersholt; but Brisson, though closer in age to his fellow countryman than he would admit, was not called upon to play another Dr. Christian here. Nor would he have been content to be a kindly old Mr. Keen with a trace of a hard-to-lose accent. The romance-filled mysteries were meant to be fast-paced—but the “Great Dane” kept tripping over his tongue.

Having performed “Bells of St. Mary” for a lovely young “corple” at the club, Brisson admits that he “may have lost Mary Morgan”—but the one he was supposed to pursue was a guy named Larry. Perhaps, it was that “lump on [his] head like the size of an egg” that caused Brisson to fluff his lines or else to render them all but unintelligible.

A few weeks later, an episode titled the “Case of the Worried Detective” self-consciously worked what was problematic about the program into a rather more light-hearted script. “I placed you by your accent immediately,” Brisson is told by a hotel clerk. “You are that new long distance runner from Sweden, aren’t you?” A “long distance singer from Denmark,” Brisson corrects. Neither fame nor ready money could get him a room, though, what with the post-war housing crisis going on. “Not even if I promise not to sing?” the performer inquires. If only he had promised not to speak.

While the tongue-in-cheek approach somewhat improved on the tedious double-cross romance contrived for the earlier episode, Brisson was less convincing as a wit than he was as a womanizer. He simply could not get his tongue around certain English words, at least not quickly enough to deliver snappy one-liners.

Besides, anyone alerting the “Voice in the Night” to his glossal obstacle may have received a response similar to the one Murder at the Vanities director Mitchell Leisen got when he tried to correct Brisson’s diction. The singer-actor “was supposed to say ‘She’ll’ and kept pronouncing it ‘Seel,’” Leisen told David Chierichetti.

I thought he was having language problems, so I enunciated it very carefully for him. He said, “Oh, I know how to say it, but don’t you think it’s cuter the other way?”

Rather than being called upon to talk sense or crack wise, Brisson should have been permitted to give his target audience—“the fair, fat and 40 trade,” as Billboard (5 April 1947) called them—what they really wanted, which is just what he did when he returned to his successful club routines. His Voice in the Night was an early casualty of radio’s post-war crime wave, the riding of which tempted and drowned many a hapless performer.

Hush, Hush, Charlotte Greenwood

You’re sorry?” That was the rather pitiful catchphrase devised for a certain “lovable lady of stage, screen, and radio”—Miss Charlotte Greenwood, who, having done well for herself on stage and screen, added “radio” to her resume in June 1944, when the Charlotte Greenwood Program was first broadcast over NBC’s Blue network as a summer replacement for Bob Hope. Actually, Greenwood had been Mrs. to Mr. Martin Broones for nearly two decades; but whenever another character in her serialized situation comedy addressed her as Mrs.—an assumption based, no doubt, on her far from youthful appearance—and apologized after being duly corrected, Greenwood replied in the fashion of a frustrated spinster by letting off the above retort.

Sorry, indeed. In the fall of 1944, when Hope returned to the airwaves, Greenwood was presented with a vehicle that—after the disappointment of not starring in Oklahoma!, in a part written expressly for her, no less—must have been as thrilling to her as walking off with the unclaimed favors from a cancelled party. It sure wasn’t a surrey with a fringe on top. There’s no way you could confuse that fabulous Broadway hit with the miss that was The Charlotte Greenwood Show (1944-1946), even though the compiler of one Encyclopedia of American Radio did just that, claiming the lovable one was starred “as eccentric Aunty Ellen [sic] from Oklahoma.”

Instead, Charlotte Greenwood was playing Charlotte Greenwood—an actress preparing for her next movie role as a reporter by womanning the desk in the local room of a small-town newspaper. So, for about two and a half months, Greenwood talked long-distance to her manager in Hollywood or had some confrontation or other with the city editor.

Greenwood should have spent more time talking to the show’s head writers—Jack Hasty, who, as stated in the April 22-28 issue of Radio Life (from which the above picture was taken) had previously fed lines to Al Pearce and Dr. Christian, and Don Johnson, who had been one of Fred Allen’s gagmen. Else, she might have had a heart-to-heart with her real-life manager, who also doubled as her real-life spouse. And they all should have had a word with the sponsor, or, rather, the advertising agency handling the Halls Brothers account, since their executives insisted on having a card like Greenwood dispense sentiments as hackneyed as anything printed on cardboard bearing the Hallmark label:

“Friends,” she addressed the listening public in November 1944, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving,

for most of us, these busy days are filled with big jobs to be done, big problems to be solved. There’s so little time for the tiny, little everyday things. The neighborly chat, the letter to an old friend. And yet, in this swiftly moving world, friendship need not be forgotten. A few words that say “I hadn’t forgotten” may mean more than you know to someone, somewhere. There’s an old saying I think all of us should remember: The way to have friends is to be one.

More offensive than such platitudes is the opportunism apparent in advertising copy urging home front folks to drop a line to those on the frontlines, like this reminder from October 1944:

Friends, there has never been a time when so many families were disunited, separated by thousands of miles from those they love. Our top-ranking officers have told us again and again, there’s nothing so important to our boys and girls as mail from home. So, look around you today. Think of some boy or girl out there who would like to hear from you—and do something. Send something [. . .]

It was left to announcer Wendell Niles to suggest that the “something” in question ought not to be just anything, at least not if listeners truly “cared to send the very best.”

Quite early on in the program’s run, there must have been some debate about its appeal and prospects. As the year 1944 drew to a close, Charlotte Greenwood’s fictional film career came to an abrupt end—as did her musical interludes that had enlivened proceedings—when her character claimed an inheritance that convinced her to retire. The enticement? The Barton estate, replete with a trio of orphans now in her charge.

“You mean, to have three children, all I have to do is just read and write?” Greenwood exclaimed on 31 December 1944. “Oh, judge, isn’t education wonderful!” Perhaps, producers counted rather too much on the lack of education among the viewers. The advent of the minors sure wasn’t a belated Christmas miracle—and the retooled Greenwood vehicle was no immaculate contraption.

Softening the quirky Greenwood persona by placing three orphans in Aunt Charlotte’s lap, the sponsors may well have hoped to win the ratings war by riding the wave of popular sentiment as the all but certain victory in Europe had public attention shift from defeating the enemy and supporting the troops to dealing with the underage casualties of war.

For the remainder of the program’s run—another year, to be exact—Greenwood had do deal with the problems of two teenagers (played by Edward Ryan and Betty Moran) and their prepubescent sibling (Bobby Larson), who, on this day, 3 June, in 1945, gave his Aunt Charlotte some slight grief by being late from school.

Actually, the kid’s temporary waywardness was little more than an occasion for the writers to string together a few cracks about spanked bottoms (“[H]ow can you get anything into a child’s head by pounding the other end?”) and double entendres involving the meaning of “play.”

Not sure whether to punish young Robert for having stayed out “with some boy,” as his sister suggests, Aunt Charlotte remarks: “I know a girl who’s spend her whole life trying to find some boy to play with. Mr. Anthony [the Dr. Phil of his day] called her ‘The Case of Miss C. G.’ It was very touching.” To which she adds for our but not her niece’s amusement: “And what’s more, thirty thousand privates picked her as the girl they’d most like to see marooned on a desert island with their top sergeant.”

Without a consistent tone, let alone situations consistent with the talents of the beloved comedienne, the program’s legs were far shorter than Greenwood’s interminable gams. Apparently, the figures added up as the laughs per episode, which is to say, not. “Well, I’m no expert on arithmetic either,” Charlotte’s on-air alter ego told the nephew she could not bring herself to spank. “If I knew anything about figures, would I keep the one I’ve got?”

Those who did the accounts decided not to keep what they got—and that despite the fact that the series earned Greenwood a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Instead, as Billboard correctly predicted on 22 December 1945, the Charlotte Greenwood Show would “fold as soon as cancellation [could] take effect”—well before the end of the second season—after the sponsor had decided to take over the Reader’s Digest program from Campbell’s.

Charlotte Greenwood left radio, returned to the screen—and, in 1955, she did get to play Aunt Eller after all. You’re sorry?