Hear "What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have"

Well, they should have been slipped a Mickey Finn, for starters. Those boys in the back room scribbling gags for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, I mean. On this day, 15 October, in 1942, the comedy duo was called upon to accommodate Marlene Dietrich, who stepped behind the mike to promote what would turn out to be yet another dud: Pittsburgh. Like Hollywood’s film producers, the writers went no farther than to hark back to Dietrich’s image-revamping comeback Destry Rides Again, released three years earlier. Once again, Dietrich was heard singing a few notes of the raucous barroom number that had pre-war audiences “Falling in Love Again” with the formerly untouchable and largely humorless goddess.

Just a few notes, mind. After which promising introduction, the echo of good old Frenchy faded and gave way for the undistinguished lines of a Wild West sketch involving an alleged bank robbery, Bud and Lou going in search of the culprit, and Dietrich, taken as far from her German roots and world politics as the sound-only, accent accentuating medium would allow, emerging as the prime suspect. “What a fresh kid!” Lou exclaims. “What a stale plot,” the guest star is permitted to sneer.

Even without much of one, Dietrich could still rely on an asset as great as her “expensive pins,” of which bespoke and highly insured commodities the writers went through great length to remind the listener by having her talk of the “pin money” her character (“Marlene,” AKA “Black Pete”) had stashing away in her stockings.

Dietrich could read out the box office receipts that qualified her as poison and still make you swallow and like whatever “leperous distilment” (to class this up with some soundbites from Hamlet) oozed into the “porches” of the ear from that celebrated throat of hers. Hope lay at the bottom of her voice box. She could wrap you around her little finger with her vocal chords alone. Pardon the mixed bag of metaphors; this writer is having an off night, too.

Not that the censors were particularly awake that day. Discovering where Marlene is hiding her savings, self-confessed “baaaad boy” Costello, who earlier told his pal about being in love with a bow-legged cowgirl who had a “terrible time getting her calves together,” is invited to take a peek at the secret spot, exclaiming: “What a place to make a deposit!”

However tacky, getting any word in between those Camel commercials on the Abbott and Costello very nearly translated into money in the bank back in 1942, the year during which the show reportedly averaged higher Hooper ratings than Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fred Allen.

“The power of radio to help careers has never been better illustrated than in the case of the Rowdy Boys of Stage, Screen, and Airwaves,” contemporary commentators Jack Gaver and Dave Stanley remarked (in There’s Laughter in the Air! [1945]). In 1938, they got their break from vaudeville on Kate Smith’s variety show, which featured them until 1940. They landed a prominent time slot filling in for Fred Allen during his 1940 summer hiatus, by which time they were well on their way to movie stardom. In 1942, they topped the popularity poll conducted by the Motion Picture Herald.

Stars and studios could not afford to ignore the “power of radio,” especially when Manpower was not enough to draw in the crowds. Earlier that year (as reported here), Dietrich had been told to get into radio. Her advisor, comedian Fred Allen, whose team of writers were sly enough to peddle a dumb script as a spoof on the drivel that passed for melodramatic radio entertainment by offering Dietrich the lead in a soap opera titled “Brave Betty Birnbaum.”

“The jokes that Abbott and Costello use are not really too important,” Gaver and Stanley summed up. “Half of the battle is their loudness and a sense of constant turmoil.” Yes, brave they had to be, those leading ladies, when they were sent out into the cornfield of radio comedy. In Dietrich’s case, the 1942 harvest would be none too rich.

All the Way to the Grave: Radio Laughs at Television

What do you think is the greater challenge to traditional blogging: vlogging or advertising? Like many folks who value their time and their eyesight, I try to look past commercials; if that is impossible, I will avoid the program or web journal in which they are embedded or pose as entertainment. At least, I still have a fighting chance to escape advertising on television by zapping or zipping through the image blitz that makes a rubble of storytelling by blasting holes into it so deep and for periods so prolonged that sometimes I find it hard to pick up the pieces and recall what happened just a few minutes earlier.

Advertising (and our savvy to get around it) may very well have “killed” television as many of us knew it. Yet what might have given it life (in America, at least) was the public’s resentment of the radio hucksterism that flourished at the end of World War II after years of relative restraint. It was on this day, 5 December, in 1948, that broadcast wit Henry Morgan appeared on the Fred Allen Show to tell its host that radio had “killed itself” with all those giveaway programs and “singing jingles.”

Radio was “all washed up,” Morgan declared. That’s why he was pursuing a career in television instead. To prepare for his move to the new and ostensibly superior medium, he had enrolled in a course at “television acting school.” All the “big stars of television” were in his class; among them “two trained seals,” a “dancing bear” and Ed Sullivan. Graduates would receive a PhD—a “Picture of Howdy Doody,” that is.

The less than flattering picture Morgan painted in quips was Allen’s personal and much publicized view of commercial radio. His own program would soon become a casualty of commerce, greed, and the promotional forces behind it. However dismayed at the developments in radio, which he described as a “by-product of advertising,” Allen did not have much faith in television, either, let alone a blind one. Together with Morgan, Allen sent up the media upstart that seemed to be copying what one of their contemporaries labeled radio’s “seven deadly sins.” Turning the threat of television advertising into a laughing matter, the two radio comedians seemed to be laughing at matter itself.

“The radio tells you all about a lot of things that nobody sees,” Morgan grumbled. Unlike millions of Americans lured into swapping their wireless consoles for a very small screen, Allen sensed this to be the non-visual medium’s greatest gift: “With the high cost of living and the many problems facing him in the modern world,” Allen later wrote in his memoir Treadmill to Oblivion, “all the poor man had left was his imagination. Television has taken that away from him.”

And yet, that very broadcast of Allen’s Ford motor company sponsored show pointed up how successful radio was at killing itself. Contrasting radio and television thrillers and commercials in their sketch, Allen and Morgan had the studio audience in stitches, no doubt by pulling out all sorts of props for their demonstration of television’s pull: you just had to see it in order to be relieved from the burden of having to believe.

On This Day in 1950: Chain-smoking Belle Gives Radio Mouth-to-Mouth

Well, let’s get out the matches. It’s time for some festive display of pyrotechnics. No, I am not responding to the news that Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. It is Guy Fawkes Day here in Britain, celebrated with rockets and bonfires lit in commemoration of a rather more decisive victory against terrorism than could be claimed in the Middle East: the foiling of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London back in 1605. “Remember, remember, the Fifth of November”:

Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

As such inflammatory (and subsequently watered-down) rhymes suggest, this all occurred long before Islam came to define what many now so closely associate with terrorism. Then again, organized religion is never far from terror—and often the foundation or instrument, the cinder heap and match of it.

While no radical symbolism was intended, Guy Fawkes Day also marks the second anniversary of my move from the United States to Wales, which, in a symbolic act fully premeditated, was scheduled to coincide with the 2004 presidential election in the US: a leave-taking on a note of triumph or, as it turned out, a sorrowful singeing of bridges. But these political and personal anniversaries are rather beyond the scope of the broadcastellan journal, which breaks its never-on-a-Sunday tradition to salute a firecracker of a Southern Belle who knew how to make a display of herself, simply by lighting another Craven A, her cigarette of choice.

I have already cheered the tar-pitched voice of Tallulah Bankhead in my first podcast, a salute that was promptly answered by what struck me as a nod from the lady herself (as shared in the concluding paragraph of this entry); but another toast is quite in order, since it was on this day in 1950 that Ms. Bankhead made radio history with her debut as mistress of ceremonies for The Big Show, an unseen spectacular of unheard of proportions.

NBC’s Big Show was US broadcasting’s last major investment in aural entertainment. It was also an admission and a compromise: an admission that Americans did no longer take radio seriously enough to sit down for a longer piece of audio theater, and a compromise in the form of a ninety-minute variety program delivering songs, gags, and snippets of drama. The inaugural broadcast featured old pros like Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman, as well as newcomers including Danny Thomas and Jose Ferrer (in a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac). Also on mike for this premiere were semi-retired radio comedian Fred Allen, character actor Paul Lukas, and recording artist Frankie Laine. It was musical-variety gone hit-parading: a quick succession of acts introduced by an engaging and radiogenic personality.

This Sunday Night Live spectacular was well received by critic and audiences alike, even though it proved ultimately too extravagant to be at once effective in cost and consistent in quality in an age when money and talent were being siphoned into television, the new everyman’s home theater. Short-sidedness aside, I don’t see why a variety program like The Big Show could not work on radio nowadays as something you tune in on a long journey or a dull evening to be turned on by contemporary singers, stand-up comedians, and a gaggle of celebrities promoting their latest movies, albums, or books.

Of course, there is no one to take the place of the hot-tempered Ms. Bankhead, a seasoned siren who, aware of the futility, the profligate waste of starting over—Tallulah rasa, as it were—managed to make use of an outmoded medium that allowed her to draw on a life in the limelight while keeping her out of it in prominent invisibility; to send her image up in smoke while firing barbs at the luminaries around her; and to become a breath of fresh air while all along indulging in the excesses of a malignant and much maligned habit. So, if you got a match to spare, why not dim the lights, listen to the fabulous Tallulah, and spark up a candle (or a cigarette) in her honor!

Somebody, Please, Stop the Music!; or, There’s a Fly in My Diegesis

Well, I am feeling rather languid. I rarely take naps in the afternoon—but today I’m as supine as Montague, our terrier, who arose this morning with a pronounced limp. A limp, that is, pronouncing his exhaustion. Sunday’s outing on Cardigan Bay has taken its belated toll. Monty has been with us for less than a week now and I am not sure just how much exercise he can handle (or would that be pawdle?). Apparently, rock climbing and sea diving are new disciplines for the less than limber chap. Perhaps, I should not grumble at his temporary torpor. It has been a while since last I worked on my little play. My play for radio, I mean.

Watching the video clips of Montague frolicking on those rocks (clips I am editing for a potential webjournal of Missives from Montague) made me ask a question I had not considered before: the question of music. Pardon my synesthesia, but some of those images sounded as if they had been scored by Bernard Herrmann, the radio composer who went on to make it big in pictures. There was an abandon in the seascape, a pathos in the scene of small dog staring into the foamy waters from the doubtful perch of a slippery rock as a decidedly more daring dog plunged into the surf to leap for a small rubber ball as if his life depended upon it. From Montague’s point of view (or from my perspective imposed upon his), it was exhilaration tempered with anguish, a longing and lingering in a tempest of impulses.

No doubt, I will hear these pictures differently if I look at them again; perhaps they will be altogether soundless. Right now, this muteness would spell indifference. If I don’t hear anything while looking at them I fear that I might have lost the sense of replaying a personal memory, however excessive my indulging in sentiment may seem at presence. Is music theatrical—or, as the name implies, melo-dramatic—while natural sound and stillness are matter of fact? Are silent images any more objective than musically underscored ones? Am I not being manipulated by the picture, an image that seems to supply its own score?

I have been wondering about the soundscape of my play. Supposedly, there is something called extradiegetic sound. That is, music superimposed on a diegesis, the story as experienced by its characters. Now, if my play included a scene in which the old lady (one of the two main characters) played a musical instrument, that strain would be considered diegetic. Everything else—music not heard by the characters, but by the audience only—is understood to be beyond their senses. Sounds clear. But might not the distinction be rather too neat and exclusive?

Now, the old lady won’t be playing any instrument; she might know how to play the organ—and she would most certainly enjoy the harp. Old enough, she might even remember the Merry Macs (pictured above), tune trillers featured on Fred Allen’s radio program. Right now—that is, for the duration of the play as soundstaged—she is too busy playing with that young man, the stranger she has lured into her dark house or, rather, the darkness of her mind. How about the music playing in that mind, unsound but not necessarily unsounded? Might she be scoring the melodrama in which she has cast that strange man? Might the young man, gradually turning suspicious, begin to hear John Carpenter’s theme from Halloween (or some such Psycho score with which he is familiar), just as I mentally soundtracked my pictures of Montague?

Should I play around with such potentialities? Or should I tell myself to stop the music, despite the fact that its effective use has enriched scores of radiogenic performances, including the “glitter” of harps and strings heard on Norman Corwin’s “Odyssey of Runyon Jones”—a fantasy in which a harp, playing a harpy, “holds a conversation” with a boy in search of his late dog?

“Stop the Music”? That, of course, was the name of a popular quiz program often being blamed, and not unjustly, for the slow but certain death of radio playfulness. “Radio is the Marshall Plan with music,” quipped the aforementioned Allen, who, on this day, 27 June, in 1948, tried to stand up against the giveaway shows that prompted millions of his listeners to twist the dial in hopes of getting rewarded for waiting by the telephone: “The slogan of the quiz program is, ‘If you can’t entertain people, give them something.'”

To Allen, and anyone with a keen, uncommon sense for the aural medium, this was a dead giveaway that radio artistry was being slaughtered for commerce, that those in charge of broadcasting were ready to renounce the sounds of the imagination for the common sense of the “ka-ching.”

Considering today’s economy of radio dramatics, which advises against what is conveniently dismissed as old-fashioned or corny in storytelling, I will rely on the music playing in the mind’s ear of the audience. Perhaps, characters and setting will succeed in suggesting the soundtrack I had in mind—theirs and mine.

On This Day in 1949: At Quip’s End, Wireless Wit Calls It Quits

Well, I’ll probably laugh about it—eventually. Not a day in my life passes without mishaps, some major, some trivial, all vexing. Sure, I could blame it now on Montague, our new canine companion. After all, dogs are expected to be inept, to be indifferent to our technological comforts and headaches; but a few remaining bristles on that scouring brush called conscience go against the grain of my indolence and continue to tickle until I make a clean breast of it. The “it,” this time around, is a cordless phone plunged into the watery grave of a bathtub. The rest, as they say (in Hamlet) is silence.

I won’t be silent about the quietus of one of the great American radio comedians whose program left the air on this day, 26 June, in 1949. The comedian in question is Fred Allen, a mediocre juggler who discovered that playing with words attracted a larger audience. That is, until the quiz and giveaway craze of the late 1940s revealed the greed and idiocy of a public that was eager to leave radio behind for the promises of a few bucks, some gifts, and a little flickering picture in a box of tubes and wires.

Fred Allen was a satirist. Whereas Jack Benny relied on situational humor, Allen relished in timely wit. Benny got people to laugh by making a fool of himself on our behalf. His age, his musical shortcomings, his vanity and tightfistedness—they were as hilarious as they were endearing. Rival Allen, on the other hand, made fun of all and sundry. He was the court jester in the living room, sending up what got listeners down: New Deal bureaucracy, wartime rationing, postwar housing shortage—anything fit for banter in Allen’s Alley.

That Alley was Allen’s finest piece of airwaves architecture. It was just the airway to vent anger and open up debate. How unfortunate that, in his final months on the air, Allen stooped to driving around that lane—a broader and less angular Alley called Main Street—in a Ford vehicle, in keeping with the demands of his new sponsor and the greed rampant after years of sacrifice. It wasn’t television that ended Allen’s career, even though, as critics insisted, he had no face for it. That he had no voice for radio did not prevent him from excelling in that medium. It was commerce, plain and simple.

The sponsors kept giving him a tough time, demanding cuts or cutting him off. The giveaway programs cut him to the quick; he was smarting from the audience’s lack of loyalty. It was just a phase; but Allen, plagued by poor health, did not wait for it to end. On the final program, Portland Hoffa started things off “with a laugh” by telling a few intentionally corny jokes and supplying the laughter herself. “If I can keep up this pace, I’ll end up with my own program,” Hoffa declared. “The way radio is going, that is quite possible,” her husband retorted. It was Allen having the last laugh at the age of canned cheer. It was the gallows humor of a man at wit’s end.

There were jokes, too, about Milton Berle, the epitome of television humor, comedy that translated sharp lines into slips and gaffes, allusions into grimaces, and travesty into cross dressing. True, television could deliver verbal jokes—but it had to justify the image, however grainy or ghostly at first. An old vaudevillian who learned to tell jokes when his juggling hands failed to do the trick, Allen was not a lad of Berlesque. He made some attempts, as Alan Havig noted, but none succeeded, just as his film career had flopped while Benny and Hope stayed afloat.

On his last program, Allen confronted wit and humor by pairing fellow satirist Henry Morgan with humor triumphant—none other than Benny, the fall guy who would be back in the fall. Having overspent by buying into the installment plan scheme, Morgan, “flatter than something that has been stepped on,” is forced to go to a pawnshop. There, he is greeted by Benny, the broker, proudly showing off his cool, green vault and counting whatever money was coming his way. As it turns out, Benny was also the shyster whose loan got Morgan still deeper into his financial fix.

It paid to adjust, this final sketch suggested; and pinning your hopes on a medium that was being abandoned, as Allen put it in Treadmill to Oblivion, like the “bones at a barbecue” was no picnic. It’s no good to be good at something if it’s something the many no longer cares about. It’s the death sentence under the law of supply and demand. I know. I’ve been staring at that noose for years.

On This Day in 1942: Marlene Dietrich Receives Some Sound Advice

Well, they aren’t quite done with me yet. Yesterday’s remarks about barbarity and journalism, that is. The problem with expository writing, when approached in the conventional, western sense, is that essays are expected to make ideas fall into place even when the subject is utterly chaotic. This is the very paper logic I was going on about only to get trapped in it. There is something troublesome about getting frustrated by a long-winded “I don’t know” when a purposeful “That’s that” should strike us as so much more suspicious.

Anyway. Ending my day with the customary late-night movie, I was all prepared for a smallscreening of The Bad and the Beautiful, which aired last week on UK channel BBC2. Instead, I never got past the film to which it had been hastily and haphazardly appended: I Cover the Waterfront. So, I quite inadvertently—but rather fittingly—followed up The Front Page (and Are You Listening?) with another sordid tale of big news and small scruples. Like Hildy Johnson, no-name reporter Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is torn between a girl and a story; but in this case, the girl (Claudette Colbert) is the ticket to that byline-worthy scoop—and the determined newshound manages to get them both, even if it means doing away with his sweetheart’s father. How’s that for a lucky break!

Now, I’m not sure whether it was either a matter of luck or much of a break when, on this day, 10 May, in 1942, radio comedian Fred Allen announced: “[T]onight we have a scoop. One of Hollywood’s greatest stars.” The great one was German-born Marlene Dietrich, a leading lady willing to work hard—but being none-too successful—at remaining a favorite in the public’s eye. Stepping behind the microphone to prove her American patriotism was one of those attempts at salvaging her endangered career.

“You mean you brought me here to do a show just for you?” Dietrich confronted Allen, showing herself offended at his unpatriotic selfishness. “Where are the troops?” Dutifully pointing out that the star had been “touring the country for the Hollywood Victory Committee, giving shows at the various army camps and naval training stations,” Allen showed his appreciation by offering his guest “some fatherly advice about [her] movie career.” It wasn’t an offer the hits-missing actress could afford to ignore.

Dietrich assured Allen that she was perfectly “happy out in Hollywood,” to which the comedian replied: “Oh, but how long can it last, with those rough-and-tumble pictures you’ve been making?” During the shoot of her latest picture, The Lady Is Willing (released two-and-a-half months prior to the broadcast), Dietrich had tripped over some props and injured her leg; but Allen was referring to the star’s online slappings, administered by leading men like James Stewart, Broderick Crawford, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson.

“Give up pictures in Hollywood, Marlene. Come to radio,” Allen suggested, where you “can get beaten up and kicked around [. . .] and not even feel it”—the sound effects man “does everything.” Some noisy demonstrations of the soundman’s business followed. “Radio is wonderful,” Dietrich agreed and was promptly handed a script for a radio serial titled “Brave Betty Birnbaum.”

“Your part starts on page twenty-eight,” Allen informed his guest, who flicked through it in bewilderment: “But the whole script is only thirty pages.” “Well, I know,” Allen explained, “the first twenty-seven pages are a commercial.” At least the soundman was at hand when Dietrich was called upon to kiss her less-than-dashing co-star. “That’s radio, Fred,” she summed up her lesson.

Luckily for Dietrich, the big screen offers did not run out during the 1940s. Only a decade later, when she was getting rather too unsteady on her celebrated gams to keep kicking her screen partners around in scenes of rough-and-tumble glamour, she heeded Allen’s advice at last. It wasn’t exactly an act of desperation, considering that she was in the company of many Hollywood A-listers who found syndicated radio drama to be lucrative and convenient.

Still sultry and seductive in her 50s, Dietrich worked the magic of her vocal chords in the episodic adventure series Café Istanbul and Time for Love, proving that, with a little help from the soundman, it’s never too late for radio romance.

Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Minerva Pious, Alleyway Dialectician

Well, it is time to light the candles, open that bottle of champagne, and count the ways in which we love . . . Mrs. Living- stone’s husband? Comedian Jack Benny, I mean, who would have turned thirty-nine all over again on this Valentine’s Day. Americans may declare their love for the man by signing the Jack Benny Stamp petition. A licked backside! Now, that is more respect than the pompous miser got on his own show.

So, in keeping with this lack of reverence—and my commemoration of the dames, gals, and ladies of radio—I will give Benny the brush and stroll down Allen’s Alley, the imaginary neighborhood whose denizens were quizzed each week by Benny’s archrival, the partner of Mrs. Portland Hoffa. “Shall we go?” Portland used to ask, cheerfully, to which Fred Allen would reply something like “As the bathtub said to the open faucet: I think I shall run over.”

One of the people you’ll find on Allen’s Alley is Pansy Nussbaum, a Jewish housewife played with great zest by Russian-born actress Minerva Pious (shown above, with Allen, in a picture taken from Mary Jane Higby’s Tune in Tomorrow). Mrs. Nussbaum, whom Pious also impersonated on the big screen (in the 1945 comedy It’s in the Bag), was the “heroine of millions who listen to Fred Allen’s programs,” radio dramatist Norman Corwin remarked. Having cast her as a hard-boiled Brooklyn crime-solver in his comedy-mystery “Murder in Studio One,” Corwin was appreciative of Pious’s vocal versatility, adding that she could also be a “fire-spitting cowgirl, a “swooning Southern belle with six telescoped names,” or a “femme fatale from the Paris salons of Pierre Ginsburgh.”

In other “woids,” Pious was a first-rate dialect comedienne. And even though her heavy-accented caricature of a linguistically challenged, half-assimilated Jew was resented by some proto-politically correct critics, Pious brought so much heart and spirit to her weekly chats with Allen that her verbal stereotyping seemed good-natured, inoffensive, and indeed endearing to those who heard themselves in her laments and grievances.

As old-time radio aficionado Jim Harmon once put it, “Mrs. Nussbaum had less of the schmaltz and charm of Gertrude Berg’s Molly Goldberg” (discussed in the previous entry), and “more of Allen’s own sometimes acid wit.” Mrs. Nussbaum was no “Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog,” mind you; but, well past hearts, flowers, and Valentine’s cards, she did find considerable relief in complaining about whatever she was forced to put up with: wartime food rationings, the post-war housing shortage, or long-time husband, Pierre. Mainly, “mine husband, Pierre.”

When Allen knocked on her door exclaiming “Ahh, Mrs. Nussbaum,” the exasperated wife often had a smart answer revealing her Jewish state of mind: “You’re expecting maybe Weinstein Churchill” or “Turaluralura Bankhead,” or “Cecil B. Schlemil,” or “Mrs. Ronald Goldman?” A former beauty contest winner (“At Rockaway Beach, for 1925, I am Miss Undertow”), she claimed to have had her share of admirers who showered her with presents (“costume jewelry and coldcuts”). For a while, Pansy was torn between two playboys. What a “dilemmel”; but, long story short, after a weekend of deliberation at Lake Rest-a-Bissel she ended up with a “woim” by the name of Pierre.

Eventually, Pierre wormed himself into Pansy’s heart. Her marriage was by no means a loveless affair, even though it all began rather unconventionally, as a fluke. “Thanks to the telephone, today I am Mrs. Pierre Nussbaum,” she gushed during another one of Allen’s visits to the Alley. According to this account of her youth, she had been no catch: “On Halloween I am sitting home alone bobbing for red beets. Suddenly the phone is ringing. I am saying hello.” A “voice is saying, ‘Cookie, I am loving you. Will you marry me?'” And what did she reply? “Foist I am saying, ‘Positively!’ Later, I am blushing.” So, a confused Allen inquires, “why be so grateful to the telephone company?” “They are giving Pierre a wrong number.”

A telecommunications screw-up and a clueless suitor. Now, that’s as close to romance as Pansy Nussbaum—nee Pom Pom Schwartz—was destined to get. So, Valentine’s, Schmellentine’s! Minerva Pious was the one who lamented on behalf of all of us who have a Pierre of our own snoring on the sofa. We were expecting maybe Russell Kraut?

Oscar Announcements: One Supposedly Relevant, the Other Simply Levant

I was among those tuning in live today to catch the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. It was a surprising moment of up-to-date enthusiasm, considering that I have only seen one of the films competing in the major categories (and that being the less-than-timely Mrs. Henderson Presents). Not exactly riveted to the spot after Mira Sorvino had stepped to the podium, I promptly consulted the Internet Movie Database (which also posted my latest review today) to find out whether Ms. Sorvino’s career is now reduced to reading a list of now-factor names from a teleprompter.

I stood corrected (if not entirely convinced of her A-lister status), then sat down, caught a glimpse of a butterfly in the garden (in January?), and wandered off again into the generally shrugged-off as irrelevant realm of old-time radio. Fellow radio scholar Howard Blue, who wrote a highly informative book on radio propaganda and left a comment on broadcastellan earlier today, will probably not be among those shrugging.

Unlike in the allegedly relevant motion pictures of today, America’s wartime activities featured prominently on radio, whether in serious drama, juvenile adventures, or on comedy programs. On this day, 31 January, in 1943, radio comedian Fred Allen joked about the power of broadcasting in wartime. For instance, the Russian advance slowed down on account of “some mix-up” through which the “Russians army got four days ahead of [radio news commentator] H. V. Kaltenborn.”

The quiz show Truth or Consequences, Allen quipped, could solve the nation’s debt problem. A contestant on that program had just received thousands of pennies in the mail, sent in by empathetic listeners sorry that she answered a question incorrectly. Now, if only Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau could appear on that show and give the wrong answers! Also discussed was a ruling by the OPA (Office of Price Administration) that dining out constituted an “uplift for morale” and was thus exempt from rationing.

And then there was that other Oscar announcement, made by Oscar Levant (pictured above, in one of my humble attempts at illustration). The noted American composer appeared on Allen’s show that day to declare that he was all washed-up. Levant, who was also a panelist on the celebrity quiz program Information, Please!, complained that his reputation was ruined after he had performed at Carnegie Hall alongside Allen’s archrival, the notoriously dreadful violinist Jack Benny.

“We mustn’t go to itsy-bitsy pieces,” Allen tried to calm the discomposed musician. “You sound like an old kindergarten teacher I once I killed in Syracuse.” So, what kind of jobs were available for an over-the-hill composer and ex-radio celebrity? Leafing through the want ads, Allen finds demand for “steamfitters, plumbers, sandhogs, stevedores.” “You’ve got the wrong column,” Levant sneers, “That’s for women!”

Eventually, Allen suggests that Levant turn radio jingles into symphonies and “clean up” with the sponsors. It’s a living. Sure beats having to read a roster of your honored peers—unless you are too deluded to realize that you are no longer among them.

Going to the pictures is fast disappearing on the public lists of favorite pastimes; so, congratulating yourself on your own supposed relevance—rather than honoring potentially enduring cinematic excellence—is a desperate attempt at concealing your impending obsolescence. Forever keeping up with the out-of-date, I, for one, will never have to stoop to such measures.

Many Happy Reruns: Portland Hoffa and Les Crutchfield

“Mr. Aaaaallen!” I can here her none too dulcet voice now. Portland Hoffa, born on this day, 25 January, in 1905. Hoffa, of course, was the partner of radio comedian Fred Allen, on whose show she appeared as his Gracie-Allenish sidekick. Here is how Allen remembered their partnership in his autobiographical Treadmill to Oblivion (1954):

Portland and I started doing a vaudeville act together shortly after we were married. In vaudeville, when a comedian married he immediately put his wife in the act. The wife didn’t have to have any talent. It was economical strategy. With a double act the comedian could get a salary increase from the booking office. The additional money would pay for his wife’s wardrobe, her railroad fares and the extra hotel expenses. In vaudeville, the actor roams the country and the upkeep on the nonworking wife was an important item. Having his wife in his act enabled the comedian to know where she was all the time. This made it possible for him to concentrate on his comedy. . . .

When radio became a challenge [to vaudeville] we accepted it. We were married until death do us part and radio sure wasn’t going to interfere with this arrangement. Radio might hasten it but not otherwise thwart the overall deal. Our first concern was to create a character that the listener at home would associate with Portland’s voice. That was our problem. Over the microphone, Portland’s voice sounded like two slate pencils mating or a clarinet reed calling for help. I still don’t know whether it was the microphone that distorted Portland’s natural voice or whether an element of nervousness was involved. . . .

[With the exception of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, m]ost of the other radio couples . . .  used their marital status and their domestic experiences for comedy purposes. . . .

Portland didn’t seem to fit into any of the accepted categories. The more we heard her radio voice, the more we realized that a character, a small E-flat Frankenstein monster,
would have to be custom-made for her.

And custom-made it they did, even though Frankenstein was more the métier of another important figure in radio drama, Les Crutchfield, born on the same day in 1916. His work was frequently heard on the literary thriller anthology Escape, for which he adapted classics including Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Crutchfield’s scripts were also featured on Suspense, as well as episodic thrillers like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and the short-lived Christopher London, an adventure series conceived by Earl Stanley Gardner and starring Glenn Ford. Throughout the 1950s, Crutchfield contributed scripts to memorable radio westerns like Ford Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Six Shooter, and the highly successful Gunsmoke, with the long-running television version of which his name is most closely associated today.

As a radio playwright, Crutchfield made his auspicious debut on 25 August 1946, when his work—unlike the works of many anonymous broadcast writers—was not only featured on but heralded by the Columbia Workshop:

Since it first went on the air ten years ago last month, the Columbia Workshop has constantly sought to introduce new talent to radio broadcasting and to persuade established artists in other fields to lend their creative talents to radio. Today, in presenting “The Path and the Door,” a psychological experiment, the Columbia Workshop achieves both aims. “The Path and the Door” is the first radio play by Les Crutchfield, a young man who before the war was an explosives engineer and who, feeling that the world has seen enough of explosives in the last few years, now devotes his entire time to writing. The musical score, which is such an integral part of the play [. . .], was written by George Antheil, who has been one of the most controversial figures in modern music for the past twenty years. Mr. Antheil has many other interests besides music, however, one of them being psychology. One reading of Mr. Crutchfield’s script persuaded him to write this, his first radio score.

Besides being in the same business, these two share their birthdays not only with modern novelist Virginia Woolf, but with Romantic poet Robert Burns, whose famous admonition is entirely appropriate for this occasion: “Should old acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind?”

On This Day in 1937: Santa Claus Vows to Go on Strike

Well, it is high yuletide by now, but some of us are still not ready for the annual gift exchange. Finding the right presents for those we love or feel obligated to honor with more or less well-chosen stocking stuffers sure can be a challenge and a chore. It can also be a great joy—but that just doesn’t make for compelling drama or brisk comedy. On this day, 22 December, in 1937, US radio’s foremost satirist, Fred Allen, told listeners of Santa Claus’s own difficulties administering holiday cheer, experiences so disheartening that the man in the red suit threatened to go on strike.

Maybe sit-down Santa was a member of New York City’s Transit Workers’ Union. But that is just so 2005! The ever-topical Allen hardly requires any assistance from me, even though a few footnotes for his jokes might be in order after all these years. That December evening in 1937, Allen turned the gift-swapping season into an occasion for political commentary as he poked fun at the big government of the Roosevelt Administration. The play produced by the Mighty Allen Art Players, the comedian’s imaginary theatre company, was a “Christmas fable” titled “Santa Claus Sits Down; or, Jingle Bells Shall Not Ring Tonight.”

It dramatizes Santa’s misadventures in generosity, his life as a misunderstood and unappreciated, sack-carrying purveyor of joy. Some two thousand years ago, he presented Nero with a new lighter; you know what happened next. Even less fortunate was his encounter with young Bobby Burns, the aspiring Scottish poet, for whom Santa had a “rhyming dictionary” on his sleigh. While the young versifier was delighted to receive this highly useful tome, he simply could not accept it as a present. Instead, Santa was thrown in the “booby hatch” for the lunacy of giving away free stuff. Worse still was Santa’s meeting with Paul Revere, who fired shots at the jolly one for being a “Redcoat.”

All this lies in the past, however. Under the Roosevelt Administration, Santa’s woes are strictly of the bureaucratic kind. With charity and good will so thoroughly organized, he has become quite obsolete. Apparently working overtime, the head of the “Hummingbird Conservation Project” has just given away two million dollars for a “hummingbird community bird bath in Florida” when Santa drops in. The official doesn’t quite know what to make of the kind stranger with the bag: “Santa Claus? One of the Wagner Act Clauses?” No, Santa corrects him, “I’m a mystical creature.” The Hummingbird conservationist assumes him to be a “friend of Jim Farley,” one of Roosevelt’s closest political advisors, but insists that the old man’s services are no longer required.

So, why is there no use for good old Santa under Roosevelt? According to the one whose office is for the birds, “the government is Santa Claus today.” This slight sketch (which might have inspired Norman Corwin to pen “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas”) was Allen’s expression of public dismay at seemingly frivolous government spending during a time when most Americans were still recovering from the Great Depression. Big spending was suspicious to most—and hardly an option for the masses.

“Being Santa Claus is just one pain in the ermine after another,” the old man sighs. In the end, however, he decides to “giv[e] the world one more chance,” just as American voters would find it in their hearts to keep the forger of the New Deal in office until his death in 1945. Perhaps because many of them realized that, bureaucracy notwithstanding, they were at the receiving end after all.