14 Gay Street: NYC, Myself and Eileen

An Argosy find

I had walked past this place many an evening on the way to Ty’s, my favorite Greenwich Village watering hole.  This time, though, it was mid-afternoon and I turned left, leaving Christopher for Gay Street.  I had come here specially to take a picture of number 14, the former residence of two sisters who, for about a quarter of a century or so, were household names across America.  Ruth and Eileen McKenney had been on my mind ever since I saw that production of Wonderful Town on a visit to Manchester, England—and the gals, whose misadventures are tunefully related in said musical, seemed determined to stay there.  On my mind, that is, not up in the Salford docklands; though, judging from their experience way down here on Gay Street, they might not have minded the docks.

A few days earlier, I had happened upon a copy of Ruth McKenney’s All About Eileen (1952) in the basement of the Argosy, one of my favorite antiquarian bookstores in town.  I hadn’t even been looking for it at the time.  In fact, I had been unaware that such an anthology of McKenney’s New Yorkerstories existed.

Eileen was lying there all the same—prominently if carelessly displayed, draped in a flashy, tantalizingly torn jacket that stood out among the drab, worn-out linen coats of a great number of unassuming second-hand Roses about to be put in their place—waiting to be picked up.  I don’t flatter myself.  My company was of no consequence to Eileen.  If I was being lured, it was no doubt owing to an itch Eileen had to get out of yet another basement.

Not straight ahead

Thinking of the case I had to lug to the airport before long—and the less than commodious accommodations that would await Eileen in my study—I had hesitated and walked out alone; but I soon changed my mind, returned to the Argosy, and, to my relief, found Eileen still there, though shifted a little as if to say “I’m not thateasy” and to make me suffer for waffling.

14 Gay Street
And here I was now, a week later.  14 Gay Street.  It’s an unassuming walk-up, next to a scaffolded shell of a building that, a friend told me, had been on fire a while ago.  Walk-up! More like a step-down for Ruth and Eileen. The two had been naïve enough to rent barely-fit-for-living quarters below street level, unaware that the construction of a new subway line was going to rattle their nerves and rob them of what one of their first visitors, a burglar, could not readily bag: their sleep.
“[W]e lived in mortal terror falling into the Christopher Street subway station,” Ruth recalled, making light of her darksome days in their damp “little cave.”

Every time a train roared by, some three feet under our wooden floor, all our dishes rattled, vases swayed gently, and startled guests dropped drinks.

Wisteria on Gay Street
From the outside, at least, 14 Gay Street looked perfectly serene on that quiet, sunny afternoon.  I was not the only one stopping by, though.  I walked up to what I assumed to be a fellow admirer of Eileen’s; as it turned out, he was oblivious that the very spot had given rise to such lore as was retold on page, screen and stage.  He only had eyes for the wisteria that had taken its chances—and its time—to sidle up to and ravage a neighboring property.
Imposing as that looked, I had my heart set on those small dark windows peering from behind the pavement like a pair of Kilroy peepers.  Eileen was here, I thought, and was glad to have seen what seemed too little to look at.  Indifference, after all, is in the passerby’s eye.
I wonder now: How many sites of the city—fabled but forsaken—are daily escaping the sightseer’s gaze?

Of “historical value”: Hitler’s “Best” Straight Talk and Other Continuity Types

As soon as I decided to make radio plays written in the United States in the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s the subject of my doctoral study, I set out to scour New York City University libraries for scripts published during that period. My degree is in English, and I was keen not to approach broadcasting as a purely historical subject. The play texts and my readings of them were to be central to my engagement with the narrative-drama hybridity that is peculiar to radio storytelling. Whenever possible, I tried to match script with recording—but, to justify my study as a literary subject, I was determined to examine as many print sources as possible. One text that promised to provide a valuable sample of 1930s broadcast writing was Radio Continuity Types, a 1938 anthology compiled and edited by Sherman Paxton Lawton.

Back in the late 1990s, when I started my research, I was too focused, too narrow-minded to consider anything that seemed to lie outside the scope of my study as I had defined it for myself, somewhat prematurely. Instead, I copied what I deemed useful and dutifully returned the books I had borrowed, many of which were on interlibrary loan and therefore not in my hands for long. It was only recently that I added Radio Continuity Types to my personal library of radio related volumes—and I was curious to find out what I had overlooked during my initial review of this book . . .

Radio Continuity Types is divided into five main sections: Dramatic Continuities, Talk Continuities, Hybrid Continuities, Novelties and Specialties, and Variety Shows. Clearly, the first section was then most interesting to me. It mainly contains scripts for daytime serials, many of which I had never heard of, let alone listened to: Roses and Drums, Dangerous Paradise, Today’s Children. There are chapters from Ultra-Violet, a thriller serial by Fran Striker, samples of children’s adventures like Jack Armstrong and Bobby Benson, as well as an early script from Gosden and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy taken from the period when the program’s format was what Lawton labels “revolving plot drama.”

Aside from a melodrama written for The Wonder Show and starring Orson Welles, I got little use out of Lawton’s book, mainly because I concentrated on complete 30-minute or hour-long plays rather than on serials I could only consider as fragments. Besides, I was not eager to perpetuate the notion of radio entertainment as being juvenile or strictly commercial.

Anyway. Looking at the book now, I am struck by Lawton’s choices. Never mind the weather report on page 346 or Madam Sylvia’s salad recipe. How about the editor’s selection of “Occasional speeches”? Historically significant among them are Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural, a “Welcoming” of Roosevelt by Getulio Vargas, President of Brazil, as well as Prince Edward VIII’s announcement of his abdication.

No less significant but rather more curious are Lawton’s “Straight Talk” selections of fascist propaganda by Benito Mussolini, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler: “Long live the National Socialist German Reich!” and “Now and forever—Germany! Sieg Heil!” Surely, such lines draw attention to themselves in a volume promising readers “some of the most successful work that has been done in broadcasting.” What, besides calling Goebbels’s “Proclamation on Entry into Austria” and Hitler’s “I Return” speech (both dated 12 March 1938) “straight” and “occasional,” had the editor to say about his selections? And what might these selections tell us about the editor who made them?

In a book on broadcasting published in the US in 1938, neutrality may not be altogether unexpected, as US network radio itself was “neutral”; but Lawton—who headed the department of “Radio and Visual Education” at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri—seems to have beyond mere representations of “types.” Introducing a translation of Hitler’s speech, which comments on the reluctance of “international truth-seekers” to regard the new “Pan-Germany” as a choice of its people, Lawton argued it to represent “some of the best work of a man who has proved the power of radio in the formation of public opinion.” There are no further comments either on technique or intention. No explanation of what is “best” and how it was “proved” to be so. No examination of “power,” “public,” and “opinion.” It is this refusal to contextualize that renders the editor’s stamp of approval suspect.

The “continuity” Lawton was concerned with was of the “type” written for broadcasting—not the “continuity” of democracy or the free world. When he spoke of “historical value,” the editor did so as a “justification for a classification” of the kind of “continuity types” he compiled (among them “straight argumentative talks” by Senator Huey Long and Father Coughlin). And when, in his introduction, he speculated about radio in 1951 (“when broadcasting [would] be twice as old” as it was then), he did not consider what consequences the “best” and “most efficient” of “straight talk” might have on the “types” that were still “in common use” back in 1938.

Given its definition of “historical value,” it hardly surprises that Lawton’s anthology was not in “common use” for long. There was no second edition.

“The terror of the unforeseen”; or, Missing The Plot

While not entirely lacking in fancy or imagination, I generally avoid speculating about roads not taken, avoid taking in prospects retrospectively by asking “What if . . . ?” What if I had never gone to America? What if I had not left again some fifteen years later? What if what I had left had not been a country whose majority had just re-elected George W. Bush? While I would not go so far or sink so low as to substitute that “What if” with a nonchalant “So what,” I much rather ask “What now?” or justify whatever decision I made with a defiant “So there!”

I suppose dismissing the value of such speculations by arguing that any alternate of myself would not be myself at all is a way to avoid accusing myself of not always having chosen the best or most sensible path. Perhaps, a little foresight might have worked wonders greater than could ever be performed by getting myself worked up wondering, in hindsight, what I might have been; but to compound the failure to see the future with the failure of facing up to the past as is strikes me as perversely self-destructive . . .

Now, this is not about me sighing for what might have been. Since I don’t ask “What if,” such regrets rarely present themselves—itself ample justification for not indulging in morosely remorseful constructions of alternate biographies. This is about the alternate history I took with me on that trip back in early November 2004, when I left America for a new life in a part of the old world I had never seen let alone set foot on. The book in my hand luggage was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—which, I thought, was just the volume for the occasion, just right for the moment of leaving behind what had been home to me and what, owing to the hysterical war-on-terror politics in the shaping of which I had no right to take part, had felt increasingly less like the freest, the friendliest, much less the only place to be.

In The Plot Against America, Roth considers what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to become President, largely on the strength of a persuasive if false—and unfulfillable—promise of “an independent destiny for America.”

Roth conceives of an alternate 22 June 1941, five months after Lindbergh’s inauguration, while yet adhering to the historical fact that it was the day on which the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was broken when the former nation embarked upon Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer the latter.

On that 22 June in AR (Anno Roth) 1941, Lindbergh, as President, addresses his countrymen and women by expressing himself “grateful” that Hitler was waging a war against “Soviet Bolshevism,” a war that “would otherwise have had to be fought by American troops.” Listening with dread to that address over the radio are the central characters of Roth’s nightmarish revision, a Jewish family from New Jersey who are terrorized by the thought that the pursuit of an ostensibly “independent destiny for America” means the alignment with a regime engaged in the Holocaust, that putting America first means putting an end to their civil liberties, which means “destroying everything that America stands for.”

“The terror of the unforeseen,” Roth writes, “is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” Good histories, including alternate ones, may yet provoke terror by not swaddling in the paper logic of hindsight causalities what, however palpable, is yet uncertain and unascertainable as events unfold, and by reminding us not to mistake the unforeseen with the unforeseeable.

I remember opening The Plot sitting at a New York airport named after another American president and finding myself distracted by a German family visibly disquieted by the book’s cover art. There, staring at them was a swastika, the symbol of the terror that could have been foreseen. I was so self-conscious of this act of provocation that I was unable to read on; and once I had arrived in Wales, I was too absorbed in my own altered state—the detachment from what I had known and been—to have much use for any engagement with any alternate past one.

This week, for no particular reason, I picked up the book anew, and I read it as a commentary on two historical pasts—1941 and a 2004 (mis)informed by 11 September 2001—that somehow seems too comfortably remote, the anxieties that had given rise to its creation and my purchase of it being past as well. I can now amuse myself by pointing out that the day I read the abovementioned passage in Roth’s book coincided not only with the anniversary of that imaginary radio address but also with the birthday of Lindbergh’s spouse Anne; I can appreciate references to popular radio programs (“You should be on Information Please”) and personalities like Walter Winchell that render The Plot verisimilitudinous, conveniently to extract them for the sake of yet another cursory entry into this essentially escapist journal whose raison d’être was the sense of homelessness and estrangement I felt when I arrived in Britain on the eve of Guy Fawkes, that celebrated plot against King and Parliament.

What if I had not mislaid—and not even missed—The Plot all these years? What if I had avoided the impulse of discontinuity, of creating for myself a virtual space and time capsule of extra-historic hence fictitious isolation and had made more of an effort instead to participate in the real debates that are shaping my future? By refusing to ask myself “What if . . .?” as I belatedly re-enter The Plot I seem to be defusing Roth’s argument, fully aware that, by doing so, I may well expose myself to—rather than becoming exempt from—that certain “terror” of not foreseeing.

Listen, Learn, and Log

I am hardly the go-getter type. My goals are even more modest than my needs, which is to say that a full and fulfilling present day matters more to me than any future success for the prediction and preparation of which I lack the foresight. Among my few ambitions is it to amass volumes enough to have one of the most comprehensive private libraries devoted to turning the volume up—to American and, to a lesser degree, British radio and to the dramatics of the air in particular: published scripts, contemporary criticism, and latter-day assessments of the so-called “golden age” of radio.

Until now, matters were complicated by the fact that I never had my own shelves on which to store such records of radio’s past. Well, I’ve got the bookshelves set up in my room at last. Nearly five months after moving into our new old house, I once again enjoy ready access to the appreciable if generally unappreciated literature of the air.

Back in November 1923, a critic of Radio Broadcast magazine observed that since libraries and radio have similar aims, it was

surprising that they have not cooperated nearly as fully as they might. Much of the radio broadcasting is instructive and entertaining; and so is it with the books on the library shelves. Radio is ever improving the musical and literary tastes of thousands of listeners-in, who, having their interest aroused, may find increased pleasure from music or literature—and the libraries can supply the latter.

Some twenty years later, what there was of radio literature hardly reflected the programs enjoyed by millions on radio. Calling it a “sad observation,” Sherman H. Dryer remarked in Radio in Wartime (1942) that

in the twenty-five years of its life few serious or critical books have been written about radio. The literature of radio is divided into two main parts: anthologies of “best” broadcasts, or vocational texts—How to Write for Radio, Radio Direction, How to Become an Announcer.

To these two kinds of books, Dryer—among a few others like Robert Landry, Francis Chase, and Charles Siepmann—added a small number of critical studies on radio broadcasting; and, two decades later, there emerged a market for nostalgia and history.

As Max J. Herzberg put it in Radio and English Teaching (1941), radio “need not be a substitute for the library; it can result in more and not less frequent use of books.”

I find that, tuning in, I not only turn to books on radio, but go in search of related material, original sources and histories. In other words, radio does not merely compel me to set up a shelf for books devoted to the subject; it continues to educate me about Western culture, the histories in which it dealt and out of which it arose. Looking at the faces of long forgotten performers and reading about their once famous acts tells me a lot about the boundaries and hazards of any pursuit of happiness defined by popularity and the statistical apparatus relied upon for its measurement.

The by now unpopular culture of radio dramatics has proven an academic and professional cul-de-sac for me; but my interest in and commitment to its study has remained nearly undiminished. As I said, I am not very ambitious—which is precisely why I feel free to continue the pursuit of what doesn’t seem to get me anywhere . . .

This, by the way, is my 701st entry into the broadcastellan journal.

They Also Sell Books: W-WOW! at Partners & Crime

Legend has it that, when asked what Cecil B. DeMille was doing for a living, his five-year-old grand-daughter replied: “He sells soap.” Back then, in 1944, the famous Hollywood director-producer was known to million of Americans as host and nominal producer of the Lux Radio Theater, from the squeaky clean boards of which venue he was heard slipping (or forcefully squeezing) many a none-too-subtle reference to the sponsor’s products into the behind-the-scenes addresses and rehearsed chats with Tinseltown’s luminaries, lines scripted for him by unsung writers selling out in the business of making radio sell.

No doubt, the program generated sizeable business for Lever Brothers; otherwise, the theatrical spin cycle conceived to bang the drum for those Lads of the Lather would not have stayed afloat for two decades, much to the delight of the great (and only proverbially) unwashed. For all its entertainment value, commercial radio was designed to hawk, peddle and tout; and although the spiel heard between the acts of wireless theatricals like Lux has long been superseded by the show and sell of television and the Internet, old radio programs still pay off, no matter how freely they are now shared on the web. In a manner of speaking, they still sell, albeit on a far smaller and downright intimate scale.

Take W-WOW! Radio. Now in its fourteenth season, the opening of which I attended last month, the W-WOW! Mystery Hour can be spent—heard and seen—on the first Saturday of every month (July and August excepting) from a glorified store room at the back of one of the few remaining independent and specialty booksellers in Manhattan: Partners & Crime down on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village. The commercials recited by the cast are by now the stuff of nostalgia, hilarity, and contention (“In a coast-to-coast test of hundreds of people who smoked only Camels for thirty days, noted throat specialists noted not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels“); but the readings continue to draw prospective customers like myself.

Whenever I am in town, I make a point of making a tour of those stores, even though said tour is getting shorter and more sentimental every year. There are rewards, nonetheless. Two of my latest acquisitions, Susan Ware’s 2005 “radio biography” of the shrewdly if winningly commercial Mary Margaret McBride and John Houseman’s 1972 autobiography Run-through (signed by the author, no less) were sitting on the shelves of Mercer Street Books (pictured) and brought home for about $8 apiece. The latter volume is likely to be of interest to anyone attending the W-WOW! production scheduled for this Saturday, 3 October, when the W-WOW! players are presenting the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of Dracula as adapted by none other than John Houseman.

As Houseman puts it, the Mercury’s “Dracula”—the series’s inaugural broadcast—is “not the corrupt movie version but the original Bram Stoker novel in its full Gothic horror.” Indeed, Houseman’s outstanding adaptation is a challenge worthy of W-WOW!’s voice talent and just the kind of material special effects artist DeLisa White (pictured above, on the right and to the back of those she so ably backs) will sink her teeth into, or whatever sharp and blunt instruments she has at her disposal to make your hair stand on end.

Rather more run-of-the-mill were the scripts chosen for W-WOW!’s September production, which, regrettably, was devoid of vamps. You know, those double-crossing, tough-talking dames that enliven tongue-in-cheek thrillers like The Saint (“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much” or “The Alive Dead Husband,” 7 January 1951) and Richard Diamond (“The Butcher Shop Case,” 7 March 1951 and 9 March 1952), a story penned by Blake “Pink Panther” Edwards and involving a protection racket. The former opened encouragingly, with a wife pretending to have killed a husband who turned out to be yet living, if not for long; but, as it turned out, the dame had less lines than any of the ladies currently in prime time, or any other time for that matter, Sure, crime paid on the air; but sex, or any vague promise of same, sells even better.

That said, I still walked out of Partners & Crime with a book in my hand. As I passed through the store on my way out, an out-of-print copy of A Shot in the Arm caught my eye and refused to let go. Subtitled “Death at the BBC,” John Sherwood’s 1982 mystery novel, set in Broadcasting House anno 1937 and featuring Lord Reith, the dictatorial Baron who ran the place, is just the kind of stuff I am so readily sold on, as I am on browsing in whatever bookstores are still standing offline—if only to give those who are still in the business of vending rare volumes a much-deserved shot in the open and outstretched arm.

Related writings
“Shoes Across the Table”
“Murder in the Backroom; or, No Place for a Lady”
“Mary Margaret McBride, Commercial Correspondent”
“Orson and the Count: The Man Cast as The Shadow as the Man Who Cast None”

Related recordings
“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much,” The Saint (7 January 1951)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (7 January 1950)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (9 March 1951)

In a Cornfield West of Denver, Calling Hogs

It is almost “like a bride’s outfit”; in it, there’s “something old, something new, something borrowed”—although rarely anything “blue.” That is how media critic Gilbert Seldes described the language of broadcasters, the jargon used by those behind the scenes of television, with which the American public was just getting acquainted (rather than walking down the aisle). Seldes’s remark can be found in Radio Alphabet (1946), a lexicon more concerned, at the title implies, with a poor relation of television. Let us say, a wealthy and powerful relation that was about to be abandoned by her suitors and cheated out of her fortunes.

Despite its inclusion of TV terminology, the Alphabet was compiled at a time when radio was at the height of its influence on American culture, shortly before it was reduced to playing the nation’s jukebox and serving as a source of patter. It not only spouted words—it begot them. Hence the publication of Radio Alphabet, the latest addition to my library of books on broadcasting (also available online). Before it, along with everything else, is being shoved into a box, awaiting a new home, I am going to pick it up and . . . have a word.

Radio Alphabet is prefaced by “an introductory program”—a foreword as broadcast script featuring the voices of many important figures in charge of operations at the Columbia Broadcasting System. Among them, Douglas Coulter, vice-president of the network; William B. Lodge, director of general engineering; William C. Gittinger, vice-president in charge of sales; William C. Ackerman, director of the network’s reference department; Elmo C. Wilson, director of the research department; Howard A. Chinn, chief audio engineer for CBS; and radio drama director Earle McGill. All of them are announced and quizzed by a “Voice”—a sort of mouthpiece for broadcasting (or CBS, at any rate).

Like any good announcer, the “Voice” knows how to sell:

Not since Gutenberg’s press has any instrument devised by man added more promise to the dimensions of man’s mind, or more altered the shape of his thinking. The press enabled man to speak his mind to man through a code of letters on paper: radio enables man to speak his mind by living voice. This expansion, under the somewhat imperative tempo of the radio art, has forced up a new, raw, essential working vocabulary which is steadily spilling over into wider understanding and usage.

Radio’s new operating tongue speaks now and then with fresh if familiar economy and color. In the air a pilot on the beam is on his course; on the air an actor or director or conductor on the beam is making his most effective use of the microphone. Bite off, bend the needle, west of Denver, soap opera, dead air, old sexton . . . these are new and useful and happy twists of the infinitely flexible mother tongue.

By now, the items in the Alphabet are largely useless; the unhappy twist is that radio’s tongue is tied, its jargon obsolete. However vivid the expressions in this glossary, consulting it makes you aware not only of the life of the medium but of the mortality of words. Although many of them linger in our vocabulary, they are figures of speech whose meanings have become arcane, whose uses are imprecise. These days, for instance, “soap opera” denotes melodrama, regardless of its financing or commercial purposes. It’s an expression on life support, a ghost of a word removed from the machine that created it.

Turning the pages of this handsome little volume is not unlike tuning in to those old programs and putting one’s impressions about them into words. There is that sense of being superannuated and abstruse; but there is also the thrill of rediscovery and the joy of being, in a word, conversant—at least with the subject.

So, what does it mean to have been in a “cornfield,” “west of Denver,” “calling hogs”? I’ll let the Radio Alphabet explain it all:

CORNFIELD: A studio setup employing a number of standing microphones.

WEST OF DENVER: Technical troubles which can’t be located.

HOG CALLING CONTEST: A strenuous commercial audition for announcers possessed of pear-shaped tones of voice.

Related writings
“Radio Listeners Get a ‘Primer’ on Their Favorite Pastime”
Old-time Radio Primer: A Stands for Audience
Cowcatchers and Hitchhikers: The Technique of Radio Writing

Together . . . to Gaza? The Media and the Worthy Cause

The British Broadcasting Corporation has had its share of problems lately, what with its use of licensee fees to indulge celebrity clowns in their juvenile follies. Now, the BBC, which is a non-profit public service broadcaster established by Royal Charter, is coming under attack for what the paying multitudes do not get to see and hear, specifically for its refusal to broadcast a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for aid to Gaza. According to the BBC, the decision was made to “avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story.” To be sure, if the story weren’t “ongoing,” the need for financial support could hardly be argued to be quite as pressing.

In its long history, the BBC has often made its facilities available for the making of appeals and thereby assisted in the raising of funds for causes deemed worthy by those who approached the microphone for that purpose. Indeed, BBC radio used to schedule weekly “Good Cause” broadcasts to create or increase public awareness of crises big and small. Listener pledges were duly recorded in the annual BBC Handbook. From the 1940 edition I glean, for instance, that on this day, 29 January, in 1939, two “scholars” raised the amount of £1,310 for a London orphanage. Later that year, an “unknown cripple” raised £768, while singer-comedienne Gracie Fields’s speech on behalf of the Manchester Royal Infirmary brought in £2,315. The pleas weren’t all in the name of infants and invalids, either. The Student Movement House generated funds by using BBC microphones, as did the Hedingham Scout Training Scheme.

While money for Gaza remains unraised, the decision not to get involved in the conflict raises questions as to the role of the BBC, its ethics, and its ostensible partiality. Just what constitutes a “worthy” cause? Does the support for the civilian casualties of war signal an endorsement of the government of the nation at war? Is it possible to separate humanitarian aid from politics?

It strikes me that the attempt to staying well out of it is going to influence history as much as it would to make airtime available for an appeal. In other words, the saving of lives need not be hindered by the pledged commitment to report news rather than make it.

Impartiality and service in the public interest were principles to which the US networks were expected to adhere as well, however different their operations were from those of the BBC. In 1941, the FCC prohibited a station or network from speaking “in its own person,” from editorializing, e.g. urging voters to support a particular Presidential candidate; it ruled that “the broadcaster cannot be an advocate”; but this did not mean that airtime, which could be bought to advertise wares and services, could not be purchased as well for the promotion of ideas, ideals, and ideologies. The broadcasting of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats or his public addresses on behalf of the March of Dimes and the War Loan Drives did not imply the broadcasters’ favoring of the man or the cause.

On this day in 1944, all four major networks allotted time for the special America Salutes the President’s Birthday. Never mind that it wasn’t even FDR’s birthday until a day later. The cause was the fight against infantile paralysis; but that did not prevent Bob Hope from making a few jokes at the expense of the Republicans, who, he quipped, had all “mailed their dimes to President Roosevelt in Washington. It’s the only change they get to see any change in the White House.”

A little change can bring about big changes; but, as a result of the BBC’s position on “impartiality,” much of that change seems to remain in the pockets of the public it presumes to inform rather than influence.

Related recording
America Salutes the President’s Birthday, currently in my online library
My library of books on radio

Related writings
Go Tell Auntie: Listener Complaints Create Drama at BBC
Election Day Special: Could This Hollywood Heavy Push You to the Polls?

The Sound of Second-Hand Clapping: In Town To-Night

I enjoy spending time by myself. It’s a good thing I do, considering that I am pretty much on my own in my enthusiasm for old and largely obscure radio programs, especially those that I only get to hear about. Listening, like reading, is a solitary experience; to share your thoughts about what went on in your head can be as difficult and frustrating as it is to put into words the visions and voices of a dream. Besides, unless you are talking to somebody who gets paid to listen, your dreams and reveries are rarely as stimulating to others as they are to yourself. This isn’t exactly a dream, much less one come true—but it’s a jolly good facsimile thereof.

A few weeks ago, I walked into a second-hand bookstore in Hampstead, London. Second hands down, a used bookshop is the place to be initiated into worlds you cannot experience firsthand, no matter how deep you dig or vigorously you claw. The volume I had my dusty hands on was a signed copy of In Town To-Night, a truly forgotten book promising, as the subtitle has it, “The Story of the Popular BBC Feature Told from Within.” In other words, a close-up of something quite out of reach.

The compendium was published in 1935, at a time when dramatics had not yet come to the fore on American radio. According to a 1938 study by William Albig, a researcher who compiled data to establish the percentages of airtime devoted to various types of programs on nine American radio stations between 1925 to 1935, dramatic broadcasts (including plays, sketches, and serials) were not a significant aspect of programming, even though they had increased considerably in frequency during that period, namely from 0.13% in February 1922 to 8.85% in July 1934. Radio plays were even less frequently heard on the BBC; nor were there any signs of change. Dramatic programs constituted 2.14% of the BBC’s offerings in February 1925, as compared to 2.04% in July 1934.

So, what kind of program was In Town To-Night? “[A]s every one knows,” the blurb on the dust jacket reads, it is what the BBC called a “feature,” a highly inclusive term for a series of broadcasts produced or written by the same team or featuring the same host. While rather more formulaic, Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight came to mind, as did many of the hour-long variety programs broadcast in the US during the mid- to late 1930s.

In Town To-Night prided itself on being a program of many voices. Whatever the sound produced by such friction may be, it was on this feature that chimney-sweeps were heard

rubb[ing] shoulders with film-stars, and cat’s-meat merchants with peers of the realm. Poets, down and outs, playwrights, pearly kings and queens, and interesting people from all parts of the world have been gathered within its framework.

J. C. Cannell, the author of the book, was a talent scout for the Saturday night feature, which, at the time of publication, was in its third season; his role was to ensure a “queer medley” of personalities,

chosen with haste, though with care. A mixed lot, picked as though from a lucky dip, surprising because listeners did not know beforehand whom they would hear, and nearly always, I think, delightful for some reason or other.

Heard on this rehearsed and scripted variety program were many familiar voices from Broadway, Hollywood, and the West End; among them Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Merle Oberon, Ethel Barrymore, Paul Muni, Johnny Weissmuller, Vivien Leigh, Polly Moran, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Ida Lupino was interviewed by her actor-father Stanley; and Hermione Gingold was heard in conversation with her dresser.

Jimmy Walker, formerly Mayor of New York City, was featured, as were movie director James Whale, author Algernon Blackwood, and Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who was “anxious to talk about his constant search for interesting screen personalities.”

Cab Calloway performed, as did Leonard Hawke, the first man ever to sing on a BBC program, along with assorted groups of Welsh miners and Swiss yodelers. Wilhelm Grosz, composer of “Isle of Capri,” played a medley of Strauss waltzes he had discovered in a bookshop in Venice.

The greater attractions, though, were the real folks and the curious ones telling their stories, many of which are retold in Cannell’s illustrated account. As the program found its voice, the stars made way for the stories of everyday—or not so everyday—folk, their struggles and successes. There was Pan The Ming, for instance, who stopped by while touring the world on foot (apart from brief intervals on his bicycle); there was a singing laundryman, a woman detective, a one-armed parachutist, as well as “one hundred grandfathers from the Upper Holloway Baptist Grandfathers’ Club”; Molly Moore, a knocker-up from Limehouse; Mrs. Wheelabread, “The Chocolate Lady” from Kensington Gardens, and Jack Morgan, “The Boy with the Large Ears.”

And then there was a visit from Clayton “Peg” Bates, the one-legged tap dancer who inspired listeners with his philosophy when he urged them to “forget” their “self-pity and go right ahead and do as other men do.”

In Town To-Night sounds like a program to stay in for—not just for the stories, which Cannell can recount, but for the voices that he cannot. Say, what is the sound of second-hand clapping?

"Ain’t dat sumpin’?"

“Don’t gimme no back talk, now. Do what I tell yo’ to do. I is de president o’ dis comp’ny.” That’s what Andy told his pal Amos when the blackface comedy team of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll was first heard on network radio back in 1929. The Presidency in question was that of the Fresh Air Taxi Company of America, Incorpulated; and its fictitious head was thick, black, and halfway in the clouds. Millions of Americans followed the adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy on their wireless sets each weekday, laughed at their then celebrated brand of English and their audacity to believe that, given their perceived and actual limitations of ethnicity, intellect, and education, they could succeed in their enterprise:

Yo’ see, Amos, no matteh whut bizness you is in, de business is gotta have a head man to tell ‘em whut to do and when to do it. So dat’s de way ‘tis wid us. I strains my brain an’ figgehs out whut you gotta do. Yo’ see de brain work is de most reportant thing.

They certainly were no role models, which is what made Amos ‘n’ Andy such a popular and financial success: Andy Brown and Amos Jones did not inspire blacks to achieve nor cause whites to perspire at the thought that they might. The status quo was never at stake.

On the eve of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration, as Arthur Frank Wertheim reminds us in Radio Comedy, Amos, Andy, and the Kingfish all expressed their confidence (or the confidence of their financially secure creators) that “ev’rything goin’ be alright pretty quick” with Depression-stricken America. To which Amos added,

Tonight ‘fore I go to bed I’se gonna pray dat Mr. Roosevelt will even do more fo’ de country dan he’s promised to do.

Amos and Andy never dared to pray for a black President; they were, after all, not the children of a utopian imagination. They were dreamed up before Martin Luther King Jr. had and expressed the dream “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” That dream, long deferred, is looking more like a reality today than ever before. Now, that really is “sumpin’”!

" . . . within the limits": Radio and the Code

“Will radio writing always be in demand? What will television do to radio writing? Why should anyone learn a new technique in writing when some unexpected development might wipe out the demand for this sort of work almost overnight? Is radio broadcasting basically sound? Will it endure and develop?” Such is the battery of questions with which readers eager for pointers on How to Write for Radio were being confronted upon opening one of the earliest books on the subject. The co-author of this 1931 manual, Katharine Seymour, was an accomplished radio playwright whose work was heard on prestigious programs such as Cavalcade of America. On this day, 12 January 1941, Seymour talked to announcer Graham McNamee about her experience entering the broadcasting business in the mid-1920s, back when it bore little resemblance to the confident, respected, and efficient medium it had become by the late 1930s, by which time Seymour had co-written another book on Practical Radio Writing.

Many such how-to guides followed throughout the 1940s, a testament to the vastness of the industry, its demand for written words and for talent familiar with the codes and regulations to which they were expected to adhere. In the 1920s, when Seymour tried to promote herself from typist to writer, she was told by her boss at WEAF, New York, that “no radio station will ever need more than one script writer,” to which shortsighted remark McNamee, himself one of the old-timers, responded with a resounding “Wow!” The days of largely unchecked improvisation were over. Being obliged to keep their word, broadcasters had learned that the spoken word needed to become copy (that is, text) and that every dramatic dialogue had to be played by the book the FCC would otherwise throw at them.

One of the latest addition to my library, Albert R. Crews’s Professional Radio Writing (1946), acquainted readers with what was known as the NAB code. As the author, then production director at NBC, explained, the code was a measure of self-censorship undertaken by the National Association of Broadcasters and adopted on 11 July 1939 to outline the “handling of children’s programming, controversial public issues, educational programming, news, [and] religious broadcasts,” as well as to set down the “acceptable length of commercial copy and its content.”

In keeping with this code, the National Broadcasting Company developed its own guidelines for “continuity acceptance,” “continuity” being anything read on the air. Anyone learning how to write radio drama with the view of hearing it produced had to keep in mind, for instance, that “[w]hite slavery, sex perversion or the implication of it may not be treated in NBC programs” and that the “fact of marriage must never be used for the introduction of scenes of passion excessive or lustful in character, or which are clearly unessential to the plot development.”

In the treatment of crime, the “use of horrifying sound effects as such” was “forbidden.” According to the code, no character was to “be depicted in death agonies,” nor could the “death of any character be presented in any manner shocking to the sensibilities of the public.” The very “mention of intoxicants” had to “be held to a minimum” and “suggestive dialogue and double meaning” was “never [to] be used.”

Responding to the hullaballoo over CBS’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast, NBC also stipulated that

[f]ictional events shall not be presented in the form of authentic news announcements. Likewise, no program or commercial announcement will be allowed to be presented as a news broadcast using sound effects and terminology associated with news broadcasts. For example, the use of the word “Flash!” is reserved for the announcement of special news bulletins exclusively, and may not be used for any other purpose except in rare cases where by reason of the manner in which it is used no possible confusion may result.

Was it any wonder that, as Crews put it, there had been a “tendency on the part of many outstanding writers in [the US] to scoff at radio as a possible medium for their talents”? Such talent-repelling strictures notwithstanding, he found it “heartening” to note just

how many writers of importance radio has itself created. There are dozens of highly skilled dramatic writers who are, for the most part, completely unknown to the public, but who each day do distinguished work in their field. The anonymity of such writers is no measure of their skill or their success.

It is with the efforts of those mostly unheard of and almost entirely forgotten writers that I shall continue to concern myself in this journal; writers who skillfully interpreted the code and somehow managed to subvert it, or who at least found leeway for play “within the limits” set down for them; writers whose works, to take up one of Seymour’s questions, have endured in recordings even if American radio drama, as an art, has largely ceased to develop further. Having lost their purpose as instruction manuals for an essentially defunct business, books like Professional Radio Writing nonetheless instruct us how to read the plays that went on the air, to account for their limitations and appreciate their qualities.