"I’ve been around, it’s been well advertised": Among the Radio Stars of Today

Wanting to put a face to a name—that is a widely exploited weakness common to radio listeners. Studio broadcasts, picture magazines, and touring shows supplied what those tuning in were led to think of as being in need of supplementation. There is thrill and satisfaction in getting the picture, in finding out whether it matches the one a voice imaged forth. Another one of my recent additions to my library of books on so-called old-time radio is such a supplement to our mental portrait galleries, a catalogue of all those radio personalities with whom Americans were so intimately acquainted in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Robert Eichberg’s Radio Stars of Today (1937), on which I first laid my greedy hands while researching my dissertation at Hunter College in New York City, is rich in photographs of those luminaries now dim who used to brighten the days of millions during the years of the Depression and the Second World War: The Easy Aces, Fred Allen, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Jack Benny, Major Bowes, Bob Burns, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Jessica Dragonette, Nelson Eddy, Helen Hayes, Guy Lombardo, Lily Pons, Dick Powell, Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, and Irene Wicker are among the household names Eichberg dropped and placed into captions.

Passing the likenesses of Walter Damrosch, Lowell Thomas, and Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley, my wandering eye was arrested by the sight of Virginia Verrill (pictured, left, next to her mother, erstwhile Vaudeville actress Aimee McLean). The name did not sound any chimes. “Vee,” as Eichberg informs us, “made her debut at the age of three, singing with [orchestra leader] Paul Whiteman,” who was a “friend of her mother’s.” By the age of thirteen, she was heard on local broadcasts and, a year later, was “doubling for Barbara Stanwyck.”

What readers back then could not have known, even an altered hairline did little to secure her leading lady status in Hollywood. Her film career, begun at the age of sixteen, did not take off; producers noted that Verrill “screened too much like Myrna Loy.” They noted, too, that she could “double” for those in need of a dubbing. It is hardly a path conducive to fame.

Loy’s looks and Hollywood’s trompe l’oreille may have stood in her way to stardom on the screen; but the largely invisible Verrill nonetheless made a name for herself on radio, to which her inclusion in Radio Stars attests. Verrill was heard on 1930s programs like Socony Sketchbook, Wonder Show and Log Cabin Jamboree. Just today, two of her Socony performances were brought to our ears courtesy of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and their latest contribution to the Internet Archive.

Airing on 14 June 1935, the very first Socony Sketchbook broadcast features teenaged Verrill’s rendition of “Reckless.” Songwriter-composer Johnny Green did not hesitate to give Verrill the credit due to her:

Hollywood made that tune famous through the picture of the same name starring William Powell and Jean Harlow. Virginia Verrill did her part to make it famous, too, for it was her singing voice you really heard in the film.

“Gee, Johnny, you shouldn’t have mentioned that,” Verrill adds coyly before performing her number. Yet, as those in radio knew, it pays to be “well advertised” (to quote a line from the song). Nor does it dull the Milky Way when one star washes the hand of another. A week later, on the 21 June 1935 broadcast, Verrill got the chance to return the favor by reminding listeners that her latest song—”How Can I Hold You Close Enough?”—was “written by the pianist-composer Johnny Green.” I might as well give them both a hand before I return to flicking the pages of Radio Stars, especially since Green passed away on this day, 15 May, in 1989.

Notes on a “Note”: Milton Allen Kaplan’s Radio and Poetry

“If radio literature is worth study and analysis, it must be filed, classified, and catalogued accurately. The variety of programs would necessitate an intricate library system in order to permit a student to find such categories as poetry, music, historical drama, documentaries, readings, adaptations, and discussions.” Thus remarked Milton Allen Kaplan in his 1949 study Radio and Poetry, one of the most recent additions to my library of books on American broadcasting. To this day, such catalogues remain inaccurate and incomplete, at best, even at the Library of Congress or the broadcasting museums in New York and Chicago. Radio verse plays, in particular, are an immaterial thing—a nothing—of the past; they are almost entirely forgotten or ignored, especially in the teaching of literature and drama. Literary critics seem to assume that, since radio was chiefly an advertising tool, the spoken yet scripted words that aired had only the most tentative connection to the arts. The study of what presumably were mornings with Stella Dallas, afternoons with The Lone Ranger and evenings with Jack Benny should be left to cultural historians whose trade it is to dig into the trash heap of Western civilization.

When Radio and Poetry was published, network radio was pretty much dead as a medium for verse. Even the most distinguished practitioners, Norman Corwin and Archibald MacLeish, found the networks less than accommodating. Corwin, of course, had come under suspicion by the House un-American Activities Committee and, in 1949, left CBS to write and produce plays for UN Radio instead. Only a few short years earlier, his works had been heard by tens of millions and were deemed vital to the war effort.

As Kaplan points out, Corwin was “the first poet brought up with radio,” as opposed to being among the “notable poets who turned to radio.” While not recruited, he was often importuned to write occasional verse, to speak to and for the nation, to erect aural monuments in commemoration of the momentous. On this day, 13 May, in 1945, Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” was once again produced; the aforementioned play had originally been heard on V-E Day (8 May), which it was expected to celebrate. “Coming as it did at a climactic moment in our history,” Kaplan remarks, the play “won nationwide attention, and was rebroadcast, published, and transcribed.”

Corwin did not altogether embrace his role as a national chorus in the theater of war; and the “Note” he struck was hardly a positive one. Instead, it is cautiously optimistic, daring to consider the future rather than seeing victory as a happy ending to a drama staged with a cast of millions. The “Note” was also one of Corwin’s last major plays; the “triumph” of peace gave way to the whispers of anti-Communist hysteria and further war cries in Korea, the conflict that would not trigger any poetic responses on US radio. “So they’ve given up,” the play opens. “. . . on radio,” Corwin might as well have added after V-J Day.

Norman Corwin, who recently turned 98 (and whose 97th I commemorated here), is hardly unheard of today. His V-E Day broadcast was subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (2005). Still, his name is not frequently uttered among those whom Kaplan sought to engage, the literary scholar and educators whom he encouraged to consider radio plays as aural art. Indeed, Kaplan’s study, long out of print, is just about as triumphant as the medium upon whose life it depended. Radio verse being a dying art back then, Radio and Poetry was doomed to be buried alongside it. The author’s enthusiasm seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

“Today,” he concluded in a passage sounding very yesterday,

we have many aspects of poetry on the air—the advertising jingle, the popular song, the cadenced prose of the announcer, the verse play, the radio opera. Tomorrow, as our audiences comes to demand more and more of the medium and as that medium changes, what new aspects will be revealed, what new alliances effected, what new forms developed?

Heard any new “radio opera” or “verse play” lately? Apparently, those jingles and popular songs are the notes triumphant . . .

"You Boig?"

“I don’t have much respect for biographers,” I once told John N. Hall, noted author of Trollope: A Biography and Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life. I was being mischievous, knowing my professor to have a sense of humor that makes him just the man to examine the lives and fictions of the humorists who attract him. Indeed, I have rarely met an academic whose mentality was better suited to his subjects. I was not merely being facetious, though. I was also being honest. I don’t read biographies; not cover to cover, at least. I am too impatient to go through a series of incidents designed to trace the traits and career of a famous so-and-so to great-grandparents who were semi-literate peasants from Eastern Europe, to illustrate what impact the childhood agony of losing a balloon during a rainstorm had on an artist’s psyche, or explain what it really means to be a supposed nobody before becoming an alleged somebody.

You might say that I am not easily impressed by facts and downright doubtful of them; that I am unconvinced a life can be told by means of sundry scraps of evidence culled from contemporary sources or the recollections of contemporaries whose lost marbles are dutifully dredged from the gully of memory lane. It’s all that; but I would like to think that respect has something to do with it as well—respect for a creative mind expressing itself in a work of art by someone who might not be willing or able to open up otherwise. In other words, I take what an artist is willing to give, even if the limited supply of such works are dictated, to some extent, by market demands. Nor do I believe that being told about traumas and toothaches ought to compel me to regard an artist’s works as the product of such ordeals. Nothing is more tedious than arguing that a character who slips on a banana peel was destined to break his neck because his creator was terrified of the tropical fruit a health-conscious aunt was trying to shove down his three-year-old throat. If I want a story or a picture to be a mirror, the reflection I find therein should be my own.

Autobiographies are a different kettle of fishiness altogether. They are the storied self, the persona an artist has decided to display in a public performance. (Dr. Hall, by the way, has since written his own memoir titled Belief [2007].) I accept them as such, which does not mean I am any more patient as I am being subjected to the courtship of an artist’s maternal grandparents, to Ellis Island flashbacks or dim impressions from the cradle. There is some of that in the aforementioned Molly and Me (1961), the autobiography of Gertrude Berg (pictured here in a photograph freely adapted from the March 1943 issue of Tune In).

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Berg was the creator of the radio serial and subsequent television sitcom The Goldbergs, as well as the lesser known House of Glass, about which I got to read in Radio and the Jews by Siegel and Siegel, a volume I picked up at the Jewish Museum in New York during my last visit to my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Molly and Me may be short on the drama of radio, for which I initially picked it up, and lack the to researchers indispensable index, for which omission I immediately put it down again. I need not have been quite so prickly, though. Berg’s memoir, like her writings for the air, is alive with Dickensian characters, a conversational style, and challenges to literary theory that tickle the wayward scholar. Let me give you a for instance:

Well, I saw [New Orleans]. There were hot, wide streets, charming Old World houses—all hot—wonderful hot restaurants, and lovely, well-decorated, hot hotels. In the evening, when the sun goes down, the heat goes down also but the humidity goes up. It’s no wonder that Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner write such good tragedies. With air conditioning maybe there’ll be a change in our Southern literature.

This passage, my favorite in the entire book, makes me wish Berg had been the ghost writer of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies:

The Lyceum [a New York restaurant her father managed] was a huge place that could take care of fifteen hundred people [. . .]. It was not only big, it was gemütlich, it was where people came to laugh, and it was before publicity men talked about atmosphere. The ceilings were high and absolutely guaranteed not soundproofed. The whole idea was to have fun and not to be quiet. In those days silence was for funeral parlors, not restaurants. There were chandeliers that were chandeliers—all cut glass with teardrops and draped strings of little glass balls, not straight pipes with blisters on the end or holes in the ceilings that drop light on you. I’m not saying that those were the good old days. It’s just that there was something about bigness that was friendly. Today if it’s big, it’s a bank or Grand Central or a cafeteria where you go in fast and come out fast. There’s no place to relax any more except at home—and with the foam rubber they put into everything today, who can relax?

“You Boig?” an agent once addressed the writer at the beginning of her career. I can just see him there, facing her. I can hear him, too, thanks to Berg’s writerly gifts and a long exposure to actors like Allen Jenkins. She’s “Boig” all right. I feel that I got to know her as she wanted to be known, a woman who tells her audience not to expect the story of someone who “divorced three husbands, became a drug addict, and finally, after years of searching, found the real meaning of Life in a spoonful of mescalin.” So what if there’s more Molly than “Me” in this production. I’m not going to tear up the cushions Berg arranged for me in hopes of finding a needle in what is too comfortable to be foam rubber . . .

"A two-headed Zulu could do it": Irwin Shaw and the Radio

This being the birthday of novelist Irwin Shaw (1913-1984), I dusted off my copy of The Troubled Air (1951) to pay tribute to a radio writer who successfully channelled his anger and frustration by feeding it to the press, a rival medium that was only too pleased to get the dirt on broadcasting. Like his previously mentioned short story “Main Currents of American Thought,” published in 1939, The Troubled Air is a blistering commentary on the business to which Shaw was introduced by radio writer-producer Himan Brown, for whom he penned the aural comic strip The Gumps. For details on the novelist’s experience in radio, I refer you to Michael Shnayerson’s insightful 1989 biography; here, I am drawing on a few passages of The Troubled Air to document a hack-turned-published author’s urge to let off steam at a time (the McCarthy era) when the old radio mill seemed on the verge of blowing up.

Clement Archer, a former history teacher with hopes of becoming a playwright, enters radio after being persuaded by one of his students that a “ two-headed Zulu could do it. As long as you can type fast enough, you have nothing to worry about.” Archer has his doubts:

“My natural prose style,” he [tells his student], “is something of a cross between Macaulay and the editorial page of the New York Times, and my idea of how people should behave in fiction comes mostly from James Joyce and Proust. And I never had Bright’s disease and I never tried to seduce a twenty-year-old immigrant, and I actually believe that the innocent always suffer and the evil always prosper in real life. So I can’t say I feel boyishly confident about my equipment on a Monday morning when I sit down and know I have to write five fifteen-minute heart-breaking episodes before Friday. I have a lovely idea for next week. Little Catherine (the name of the program was Young Catherine Jorgenson, Visitor from Abroad) is going to California and she’s going to get caught in an earthquake and be arrested for looting when she goes into a burning building to rescue an old miser in a wheelchair. Ought to be good for ten programs, what with the arrest, the examination by the police, the meeting with the cynical newspaper reporter who is reformed by her, and the trial.

In fact, life in radio’s fiction factory turns out to be “murderously hard work.” After years of it, Archer gets a break at last when he becomes the producer-director of University Town, a series of anthology drama under the sponsorship of a drug company. When his actors and musicians are accused of Communist affiliations by Blueprint, a “belligerent” and “mysteriously” financed magazine “dedicated to exposing radical activities in the radio and movie industries,” the advertising agency in charge of the program gives Archer two weeks to find out from the five people involved—a Jewish immigrant composer, an aging actress, a gorgeous ingénue, a black comedian, as well as Archer’s best friend and former student—whether the accusations are false.

When asked by Archer why drastic measures such as the firing of his composer were deemed necessary, the agency representatives responds by arguing that radio

is not at the moment in a strong position. In fact, it is not putting it too vigorously to say that the medium is fighting for its life. A new form of entertainment, television, is gaining enormous momentum, capturing our clients and our audience; the economic situation of the country is uncertain and advertisers are retrenching everywhere—the old days when we could do anything and get away with every—are gone, perhaps forever.

Being supportive of his creative team, Archer is denounced as a Red sympathizer, even though the communists denounce him equally. His phone is tapped, his career is finished, his marriage in turmoil and a friendship exposed as a fraud.

Shaw was hardly alone in denouncing the industry in which he had worked; but, unlike former gag writer Herman Wouk (from whose satire Aurora Dawn I quoted here), he could not bring himself to make light of the experience.

Bookshelf Cowboy

Well, howdy. His handsome mug is before me whenever I grab a book from my shelves. Randolph Scott, Series two, Number 385 of Zuban’s “Bunte Filmbilder” (a German line of cigarette cards, issued in 1937). I caught a glimpse of Scott this afternoon when I turned on TV, switching channels for an update on the stock market, the Heath Ledger autopsy, and whatever else made news today. Rage at Dawn (1955) was playing on Channel 4. Checking the Internet Movie Database, I realized that it might have been shown in commemoration of Scott’s birth, on this day, back in 1898. Now, my frequent encounters with him in my library notwithstanding, I rarely come across his appealing phizog. This is mainly because I don’t care much for the genre in which Scott made his mark. Stagecoach aside, which to me is more of a small-scale Grand Hotel on wheels, I rarely watch Westerns (even though a certain—if unlikely—Texas Lady is prominently displayed in my bedroom). True, Scott co-starred in My Favorite Wife and played opposite Marlene Dietrich on two occasions; but otherwise, there isn’t much on his extensive resume that appeals to me. So, I am once again twisting the dial, the ether being Hollywood’s parallel universe.

Sure enough, apart from recreating his roles in Pittsburgh and Belle of the Yukon, Scott can be heard co-starring aforementioned Texas Lady, Claudette Colbert, in an adaptation of Preston Sturges’s ”Palm Beach Story” (15 March 1943), filling the shoes of Joel McCrea. He was to do so again, a few months later, when McCrea did not appear, as scheduled, on the Cavalcade of America program, starring in the propaganda drama ”Vengeance of Torpedo 8” (20 September 1943).

While he did not get much to do or say in the rather dull rehash of Palm Beach Story, Scott was given a chance to prove his comedy skills on a number of occasions. Opposite Gene Tierney, for instance, he was cast in “A Lady Takes a Chance” on the Harold Lloyd hosted Old Gold Comedy Hour (unfortunately no longer available in the Internet Archive). For more laughs, Scott joined Paulette Goddard for a parodic “Saga of the Old West” on Command Performance (21 June 1945). Assigning the parts, Goddard declared: “Randy, you play yourself. A real, two-gun cowboy.”

Turns out that Scott got a chance to play the Ringo Kid, after all. On 4 May 1946, he took on John Wayne’s role in the Academy Award production of Stagecoach. Sharing the microphone with him to reprise the role of Dallas was Claire Trevor, radio’s original Lorelei Kilbourne of Big Town (whom I recently saw in Born to Kill).

To me, the more intriguing performances were Scott’s curtain calls, during which he got to address the audience. Having delivered his lines in the digest of “Palm Beach Story,” the actor was called upon to put his southern charm to work for the war effort, reminding the women on the home front that

it’s men like your own sons and brothers, your husband or sweetheart whom the Red Cross is serving. This year, don’t measure by ordinary standards. Make your contribution to the Red Cross War Fund just as generous as possible.

“For most of us the war is a distant terror,” he told listeners of the Cavalcade broadcast, “until it is brought forcefully home by those very close to our own lives. Let’s match their effort at the front with ours at home. Back the attack with War Bonds.”

Of course, Scott’s commitment to the war effort went further than those appeals; he was, after all, a veteran of the first World War. And, like many of his fellow actors, he went on tour with the USO (an experience he shared with listeners of Hollywood Star Time).

Meanwhile, the gentleman from Virginia has gone back on the shelf. I shall see him again soon enough, as I reach for another volume on old-time radio. For this spur-of-the-moment tribute to him, Scott made me round up Cavalcade of America and Radio Drama by Martin Grams, as well as John Dunning’s On the Air.

In My Library: Emlyn (1973)

Like the man in the old Schlitz commercials says, “I was curious.” So, earlier this week, I went to the local second-hand bookstore in search of George, an autobiography of actor-playwright Emlyn Williams. It had been recommended to me at the recent Fflics film festival here in Aberystwyth as the insightful source of The Corn Is Green, a play and movie about the relationship between a Welsh student and his English teacher. The shelves of Ystwyth Books (shown here in a picture I found on flickr) are well stocked with titles on Welsh history and culture. Not that titles about Hollywood or radio are wanting. In fact, the first purchase I made in this country shortly after moving here in November 2004 was made in that very store. It was a book on radio writing that had just come out (new releases can be found downstairs). Radio writing? In 2004? There was a chance, I thought, that I might feel at home here, eventually.

Anyway, there was no sign of George. The shop’s new proprietor offered to descend into the basement to check the inventory with which he is as yet not entirely familiar. After a few minutes, he emerged with Emlyn, subtitled a “Sequel” to George. Would I want it, not having been introduced to George (Williams’s other first name)? I opened the book, and it seemed to speak to me and anticipate my doubts:

“I don’t think I’ll read this—it says it’s a sequel and I didn’t read the first one so I’d feel out of it from the first page . . .” 

And even if you did read “the first one,” your mind needs refreshing. It is up to me to ensure that the reader need know nothing of George by supplying rapid salient information about my life up to April 1927.

An author so forthright and accommodating deserves to be given a chance, I thought. Then I read on, sensing that what I wanted to learn from and about the playwright of Night Must Fall (and He Was Born Gay) was something he might not wish to share:

Before I do so, one thing: at the moment when I embarked on the “first one” I decided I would travel no further than the age of twenty-one, feeling that while a writer’s first two decades might be of interest, the third must present a formidable task. Can he be as honest about it? 

I knew that without honesty the story would deteriorate into a parade of professional ventures interspersed with cautious anecdotes. The alternative must be a marriage between Candour and Taste, with the continuous likelihood of one partner pushing the other out of bed; even then, it would have to be a different book.

A “different” book. That is just what I expect from a self-conscious gay Welshman with a penchant for serial killers. Will he be honest about “it”? Will he lie in bed with Candour or lie about his bedfellow with Taste? Is this autobiography apologia or play-acting, an author-actor’s chance to don masks of his own design? We think of truth as being naked; but the act of self-exposure, the dropping of guises, the whole tease of the strip itself is performance.

Now, Emlyn, subtitled A Sequel to George, is one of those memoirs whose author is kind enough to provide an index, allowing those as impatient as I am to extract from the text what interests them most without having to go to so many parties, rehearsals, and opening nights. The first thing on my mind was not the open secret of Williams’s private life, but anything relating to Night Must Fall, the thriller I had seen on stage during the centenary of Williams’s birth back in 2005.

Williams recalls how the play came about and how, during a party at the house of fellow actor-playwright Frank Vosper, he discovered that his host appeared to be writing a similar thriller, also involving the case of murderer Patrick Mahon. Vosper’s play was titled Love From a Stranger, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s story “Philomel Cottage.”

Murder must out. Must Mr. Williams?

In My Library: Radio Drama and How to Write It (1926)

The man behind the counter looked none too pleased when I handed over my money. This one, he said, had escaped him. The item in question is a rare little volume on radio drama, written way back in 1929, at a time when wireless theatricals were largely regarded, if at all, as little more than a novelty. In his foreword, Productions Director for the BBC, R. E. Jeffries, expressed the not unfounded belief that its author, one Gordon Lea, had the “distinction of being the first to publish a work in volume form upon the subject.”

Nothing to get excited about, you might say. I know, it is not exactly a prize pony, this old hobbyhorse of mine. Few who come across it today care to hop on, let alone put any money on it, particularly now that it has been put out to the pasture known as the internet, the playing field where culture is beaten to death. So, should not any bookseller be pleased to part with Mr. Lea’s reflection on echoes? Not, perhaps, when the money exchanged amounts to no more than a single pound coin. History often comes cheaply; it is the price for ignoring it that is high.

I had been on the lookout for Radio Drama and How to Write It while researching for Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on old-time radio in the United States. After no volume could be unearthed in the legendary and much-relied on vaults of the New York Public Library, let alone anywhere else, I gave up the search, comforted by the thought that Mr. Lea was, after all, a British hobbyhorse fancier, far removed from the commercial network circus in which I had chosen to study that ill-treated bastard of the performing arts.

It helps to take the blinders off. After all, I spotted the obscure volume last weekend, on another trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh bordertown known the world over (by serious collectors, at least) as the “town of books.” Now, I am always anxious to put my loot on display. And so, rather to let it sit on my bookshelf, I shall let Mr. Lea’s pioneering effort speak for itself:

It is asserted that no play is complete until it has an audience. This is untrue. One might as well say that a tragedy of emotion between man and wife, enacted in the privacy of their own drawing room, is not a tragedy, because the general public are not invited to watch it. A play is complete when once it is conceived by its author. But, inasmuch as this fallacy is still popular, playwrights still construct their plays with an audience in mind.[. . .].

Thus, Lea reasons, the stage play

must be such as can appeal to a crowd, as distinct from the individual. This is a difficult thing to do, but such is the power of crowd-psychology, that if the play appeals to a section of the crowd, the disparate elements can be conquered and absorbed into the general atmosphere. An audience may, at the beginning of the play, be a company of individuals, but before long hey are by the devices of stage-production welded into one mass with one mind and one emotion. If the play is incapable of this alchemy, it fails to please and becomes a thing for the solitary patron. 

There, then, are the conditions which govern the production of the stage-play, and [ . . .] within the limitations of the theatre are wonderfully efficacious. 

But, is it necessary to accept these limitations? Is there no other medium more flexible?

In stage drama there is “always the problem of the fourth wall,” the solving (or dissolving) of which lead to intriguing if unsatisfactory compromises. In a production of The Passing of the Third Floor Back, for instance, the footlights were turned into an imaginary fireplace. “[V]ery ingenious,” the author quips,

but the effect is that, when the players sit before the fire, you have the spectacle of people staring straight at you, and, unless you imagine yourself to be a lump of coal or a salamander, you don’t get the right angle.

I was reminded of my experience seeing What Every Woman Knows at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, which thrust me into a similar hot spot I did not relish.

Sure, sound-only drama can readily break the barriers of convention. Yet when Lea dreams of the new medium and its potentialities, he has technology, not commerce or politics, in mind. Whether state-run or commercially sponsored, radio was never quite as free and free as the air. The audience, its size and sensibilities, always mattered more than the voice of the single speaker.

Nor am I convinced that a play is a play without playing itself out before or within an audience, whatever its number. A thought must be communicated to mean, and indeed to be. It is for this reason that I air out my library from time to time, to dust off those forgotten books and share what I find there in this, the most flexible medium of all . . .

Cheerio, Helen Keller!

Well, I’m not exactly a “shut-in”; but being visited by a late bout of seasonal allergies and looking out, red eyed and slightly hung over, at what has been declared the rainiest June on record, I sure can relate to The Story of Cheerio, a copy of which 1936 autobiography I picked up at the rare books room at Manhattan’s legendary Strand earlier this month. According to the cover, Cheerio is the “intimate story of radio’s most beloved character who has dedicated his life to the spreading of cheer, hope and kindliness. With inspiring human stories from the homes of his radio audience of ‘shut-ins.”

Seems like someone shut up this hero of the homebound, Charles K. Field, whom former president Herbert Hoover applauded for his “altruistic” use of the radio, but of whose fifteen years in broadcasting little survives today. A vintage recording of Cheerio in action can be heard at the close of the 19 September 1956 edition of Recollections at Thirty. Now, I’m not sure how much sentiment I can take on a biliously rebellious stomach; but I’m glad I decided to leaf through this as yet unread volume yesterday, when I came across this letter from Helen Keller, who was born on this day, 27 June, in 1880. It is a birthday letter, no less, read on the air on her 55th birthday. “Dear Cheerio,” it reads,

this is my birthday message. Please tell them I like to think God has made his shut-ins special transmitters of hope to the world. It is our lofty duty to defy the seeming omnipotence of Fate. To love. To endure. And to create, from our own wreck, the thing we desire. If we succeed in growing the sweet flowers of happiness among the rocks and crannies of our limitations, others will be inspired to nobler achievement. This alone is compensation. This is joy and victory! As I stand at the doorway of a new birthday, with its new opportunities and new tasks of faith and courage, may I ask my handicapped comrades to rejoice, with me, in that inner vision which makes us superior to outward circumstances and enables us to be one with all great ideals, all heroism, all deeds of beauty. Sincerely yours, Helen Keller.

Though not able to listen to the wireless, Keller was no stranger to the airwaves. When the story of her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, was dramatized on the Cavalcade of America program (on 2 March 1938), Keller stepped behind the microphone for a brief message to the multitude. Cheerio, Ms. Keller, for making me come back to my senses on this shot-through-gauze, shut-the-blinds, best-slept-through Wednesday afternoon.

"Panic" Shopping at the Argosy

Sure I love books; but even more than reading, I enjoy hunting them down. It must be an instinct stronger than intellect that makes me want to sniff out volume after volume, many of which remain unread. Last Friday, for instance, en route to Birmingham International Airport to pick up two old friends from Germany who came to visit me for the first time here in Wales, we spent some two hours at Sunnycroft, a late-Victorian suburban villa once owned by a well-to-do, upper middle-class family.

As is often the case on such National Trust properties, there was a second-hand bookstore on the premises, however small and dingy. The piles of paperback romances did not bode well; and still I could not resist and stepped inside what, if I read the map right, was formerly the Sunnycroft boiler room. For something amounting to less than a dollar, to be left in a basket standing in for a salesperson, I snatched up a bound volume of The Snow Image, a British edition of some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales, probably as old as Sunnycroft itself. Here it lies, next to me, waiting for some wintry evening by the fire or such time I deem fit for its perusal.

Nineteenth-century treasures like this one aside, I am thoroughly modern in my choice of books, my library consisting chiefly of texts on that mid-20th century phenomenon known as radio drama. And while I do much of my shopping online nowadays, I still prefer walking around town—be it New York City or Hay-on-Wye—in search of well-worn volumes on my favorite subject.

On the Upper East Side in Manhattan, just around the corner from Bloomingdales, one such supplier of old books on film, theater, and radio is the aptly named Argosy. As I mentioned in the comments section of a previous journal entry, the store is run by the wife of Stuart Hample, whose all the sincerity in Hollywood is a fine introduction to the wit of radio comedian Fred Allen.

On my tour of the Manhattan’s fast disappearing used and antiquarian bookstores a few weeks ago, I was pleased to discover that the Argosy had one of its themed sales, the theme being drama and television. Among the $3 items displayed in front of the store, I found a 1944 copy of Behind the Microphone by one John J. Floherty, a prolific writer of supposed non-fictions like Inside the FBI, Your Daily Paper, and Board the Airline. I expected neither insights nor entertainment; this, I thought, was merely one for the collection. As it turns out, Mr. Floherty was quite the storyteller. Listen to this Daphne du Maurier rivalling introduction to the miracle of Marconi, whose Poldhu station I failed to visit during my Cornwall trip earlier this year:

The State Troopers’ lodge at Montauk Point on the easternmost tip of Long Island stands on one of the loneliest spots along this seaboard. Rolling sand dunes and high bluffs, at which the Atlantic has gnawed for centuries, stretch drearily westward to Montauk village nine miles away. 

It was here that Captain Flynn of the New York State Troopers had me enthralled one stormy Sabbath night with tales of the early days in the lumber towns on the Canadian border, when troopers and lumberjacks fought it out with the accepted weapons of the period and place—bare knuckles. 

Outside the night was storm mad. A sixty-five mile gale machine-gunned rain pellets with battering force against the windowpanes. The pounding surf on the beach a few steps from the door vied with the thunder that came in frequent peals. The crackling fire of driftwood gave the room a coziness for which I was thankful on such a night. 

The captain was in the middle of a story when the door was flung open violently and a woman, tall and blonde, hurled herself into the room in an onslaught of rain and wind. At that hour, on such a night and in such a place, it was as if she had been flung from another planet. She was drenched and dishevelled. Terror was in her eyes. She tried to speak, but gasped instead. She was followed presently by a bedraggled wisp of a man and a thoroughly frightened boy. 

“What’s all the excitement?” the captain said, as calmly as if he had been asking the time. The intruders stared at him for a moment with popping eyes. The woman spoke. “Haven’t you heard, Captain!? Haven’t you heard!!? Thousands of people are being killed in New York and New Jersey. Twenty of your troopers have been murdered. People are jumping into the Hudson River and drowning like rats. It’s a gas or something? Our children are in Brooklyn—do you think they are safe? Do you think the soldiers, or whatever they are, will attack over there?”

I have never read a more melodramatic—yet supposedly authentic—account of the “War of the Worlds” panic. I am glad the industrious Mr. Floherty had enough zest to spin such a yarn, which surely deserves a mention in Etherized, my study on old-time radio. And I am glad I returned to the Argosy, which, after some eighty years, is still afloat in a sea of corporate sameness.

Up to My Eyes in Dog-eared Books

This is one of those rare, lugubrious days of landscape-swallowing fogginess on which you might as well retreat, brandy in hand, into the confines of your small but reassuringly familiar study. My thought being as opaque as the wintry sky, my mind as obnubilated as the mist-shrouded hills, I have put aside all semi-intellectual or quasi-artistic endeavors for the moment. Instead, I busy myself cataloguing the books in my radio drama library, another four dusty volumes of forgotten plays having arrived by mail yesterday. During my years of researching so-called old-time radio in New York City, I had access to several excellent public and academic libraries, however deficient my own.

While a vast number of recordings have been preserved, there are some plays you can only find on paper, among them rare pieces by noted American authors like Sherwood Anderson, who died on this day, 8 March, in 1941. Writing my dissertation, I was determined not to discuss at length any play I had never set my ears upon. The page seemed to be a poor substitute for a performance. Who, I ask you, would claim to know a movie having only read the screenplay? I thought. And yet, once your eye is becoming accustomed to the language of radio, you can almost hear the plays as they might have been produced.

Distrustful of my less than reliable memory, I used to photocopy much of what I read and carefully filed away each text for ready reference. After I had earned my doctorate and decided, propelled by romance, to move to the United Kingdom, I took those thousands of sheets out of their assigned ring binders, boxed them up, and posted them, along with most of my belongings, to be shipped overseas.

Upon my arrival in Blighty, I was not only confronted with stacks of paper (relieved to find them there), but with the problem of making a new and orderly home for them. Little did I know when I decided to be economic by dumping the old binders that the paper sizes in the UK differ from those in the US, that British sheet protectors are too narrow for American paper, and that such incompatibilities would spell many a tedious hour punching holes or cropping paper. Eventually, I resigned in frustration from such labors and resolved to ditch some of the copies in exchange for the originals, however obscure.

Tossing another photocopied script into the bin this morning, I noticed that the play thus preserved was broadcast on the first anniversary of Anderson’s death on this day in 1941. The piece in question is “The Test” by radio dramatist Joseph Ruscoll, and I have not yet come across a recording of it.

Produced by the Columbia Workshop, it concerns adolescent lovers Janet and Joseph who, thirty years after parting, are nothing but joyful memories and pangs of regret to one another. They separated as the result of a dare—the eponymous “test”—that was to prove Joseph’s love for Janet: would he give up his harmonica for their harmonious union? No, he would not stoop to accepting the challenge—and the two were twained no more. Through the miracle of the pre-cellular phone wireless, a radio commentator interviewing both brings about a reunion of sorts. After all, radio was, as Gerald Nachman put it, “yesterday’s internet”:

Narrator: And you never spoke to him again, Janet? 

Janet. Never. (Sorrowfully)

Narrator: Or you to her, Mr. Pike?

Joseph. I had my pride. 

Narrator: Or you to her, Mr. Pike? 

Joseph. I had my pride. (Lowly)

Narrator. (Sighs) And that was thirty years ago?

Janet. (Flaring up.) Pride! If he had really loved me, he wouldn’t have had any pride!

Joseph. (Flaring up in turn) And if she really loved me, she—what about her foolish pride?

Janet. (Indignantly) Foolish?

Joseph. (Crying out) Foolish! Foolish!

Janet. What do you think, Mr. Narrator?

Narrator. (Sadly) I think you were both very, very foolish.

Perhaps, we’d better put our keyboard to some special use tonight by searching for old friends or else put it aside altogether, seeking instead the company of neglected loved ones rather than dwelling in the sheltering obscurity of our inconsequentiality or sweltering in the ersatz heat of emboldening internet anonymity. I write for myself and strangers—but I live for a hug and a smile.