“Who Are [These] People?”: The Mediations of A. L. Alexander

“What do you think of a husband who has given a woman eight children and lived with [her] for twenty-four years and in front of his children denies that he is married to her?” No one hearing the question—an estimated twelve million Americans—could have been particularly interested in the response. It was the story that thrilled, the common, raw and true story that was 1438C, one of three cases put before A. L. Alexander and his Mediation Board on this day, 28 June, in 1943. As told in the words—and the accents—of ordinary if not ordinarily quite so communicative contemporaries, it turned anyone tuning in to a father confessor, a judge of manners, morals and mental states. Placing the unexceptional and non-exemplary on a national rostrum, the Mediation Board, like the tabloid talk shows that dominated the daytime schedules of American television networks during the 1990s, was a readily available and gratefully ingested nostrum, a dose of quack medicine designed to comfort the listener rather than cure the speaker . . .

According to an article in the October 1945 issue of Tune In, “most” of the folks who wrote in to appear on the program—without receiving any compensation other than a few kind or cautionary words—were “working-class Americans who have never heard of psychoanalysts, or [would] find the cost of a divorce prohibitive,” and—the occasional “prankster” who would “invent some complex and chaotic problem” aside—turned to Alexander (pictured above, second from the right) and his rival John J. Anthony “with an intensity and devotion that [was] almost god-like.”

Case 1438C was the story of forty-year-old woman who, at the age fifteen, left her parental home, where, according to her, she had been shown “no affection whatsoever,” to live with the man, then also a teenager, who eventually fathered her eight children.

Having been presented with a wedding band, she assumed herself to be legally married; but, by the time their first child was born, she came to realize that this was not the case, an illegitimacy that did not stop her from bearing him seven more. “I want my husband to marry me,” the woman now demanded, and that despite her suspicion that her partner was also a bigamist.

Unable to confront this accusation, her agitated “husband,” who had agreed to join her on the program, nearly stormed out of the WOR, New York studio from which A. L. Alexander’s Mediation Board emanated and broadcast nationally over the Mutual network. “There’s no such a thing as love,” he exclaimed, suggesting that the couple’s care for their offspring—among them “three lovely sons in the service”—was not reason enough to keep them together and legalize their relationship after nearly a quarter of a century.

To this, the Mediation Board members—priest William C. Kernan, executive director of the Institute of American Democracy, rabbi James G. Heller, and Paul Dawson Eddy, member of the Council for Religious Education and president of Adelphi College—had very little to say. Their words of warning or compassion merely sanctioned the dramatic she says/he says showdown, giving it an air of respectability and creating a sense that the program was living up to FCC standards.

Apart from its culturally diverse and reputable panel, Alexander’s Mediation Board responded to detractors by suggesting that its relevance and service in the public interest lay in the presentation of domestic problems “arising out of restless wartime conditions” in the alleviation it strove to assist, presumably as part of the war effort, however questionable it might have been to penetrate the home front in order to air its sundry grievances, thereby demonstrating it to be less than sound and far from self-disciplined.

Alexander had not always been able to defend his cashing in on the mental anguish and the at times morbid curiosity of his fellow Americans. Some six and a half years earlier, in December 1936, he was forced to shut down his popular Good Will Court, which, according to the 3-9 January 1937 issue of Radio Guide, had commanded network radio’s “fifth largest listening audience” until the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of those who argued, as Alexander put it, that “the consideration of legal problems on the radio was ‘unethical.’” By turning legal matters into spiritual and psychological concerns, Alexander managed to return to the airwaves and riding them, on the strength of the flotsam and jetsam with which his program was awash, for another decade.

After all, as Tune In pointed out, staying on the Board “proved to be one of radio’s most lucrative businesses,” especially considering Alexander’s credentials, or lack thereof, as a former “prize debater in public school” who had no “training in psychiatric social work.” Having studied for the ministry and served three years at a Cincinnati theological seminary, he

became infatuated with the vast potentiality of listeners that radio could provide, took several routine announcing jobs before the idea for his program crystalized in his mind.

During his involuntary and prolonged hiatus, Alexander explored the similarly vast financial “potentiality” of publishing by compiling Poems That Touch the Heart (1941), a volume of human interest poems that became a tie-in for his latest radio venture when selections were read at the conclusion the weekly Mediation Board meetings. Heard on the 28 June 1943 broadcast, for instance, was “Who Are My People?” by Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni (not identified by name), a poem that emphasized comforting commonality while mitigating against what, in the unscripted words of the quarrelling couples, might come across as dead common.

In search of “my people,” the speaker senses “no kinship” toward fellow worshippers and feels estranged from the native old world, only to find the question “Who are my people?” answered by an encounter with one of the plebs:

Last night in the rain I met an old man
Who spoke a language I do not speak,
Which marked him as one who does not know my God.
With apologetic smile he offered me
The shelter of his patched umbrella.
I met his eyes. . . . And then I knew. . . .

Few folks now know A. L. Alexander; but the man who made a nation’s tattered nerve and moral fiber his umbrella—and who so shrewdly stitched the profane to the sacred cover he found for it—still has his name on that volume of the poetry he did little more than piece together. In print to this day, Poems That Touch the Heart still credits Alexander, however meaningless the reference may now be, with being the “Creator and Conductor” of the Good Will Court, the “original” Mediation Board, and The Court of Human Relations. Patching, joining, and thriftily recycling for the ostensible public good—it was all part of the A. L. Alexander technique.

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

Carl Brisson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hush, Hush, Charlotte Greenwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Blind Justice; or, ‘1000 for Verdicts’

“It does not matter whether your verdict is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ If your reasons for it are good enough you will share in the prizes.” With this peculiar invitation, millions of Americans were lured to their radios, tuned in to WJZ, for a trial in which they, the listening public, were called upon to act as jurors. As previously mentioned here, it all began on this day, 25 November, in 1930. The judge in the case was none other than New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, lending gravitas to a spectacle that was, in more sense than one, a trial broadcast: Would the listeners find society beauty Vivienne Ware guilty of the murder of millionaire architect Damon Fenwicke, a crime for which she could be sentenced to the electric chair? And would they leap out of their armchairs to boost not only their own circulation but that of their local paper be rereading what they heard on the air?

“It is no part of your duty to decide whether or not she shall die,” Senator Wagner insisted. That, he told the listeners,

is the function of the Court and the Law. But you must remember that in endeavoring to secure a conviction of this young and beautiful defendant the District Attorney is but pursuing the business to which you, the people of this State, have set him. You will consider carefully all the evidence as it is presented for you from the witness stand.

Whether or not their voices could kill, those tuning in nevertheless derived their thrills from the importance of the interactive role granted to them. Tune in, have your say, all for a chance to win a substantial amount of dough—what’s not to love!

Leave it to a Hearst paper to conceive of a reality show like The Trial of Vivienne Ware—a trial that sold papers and bought the jury. Those who caught up with the daily broadcasts from the courtroom and read transcripts and analyses in their daily Hearst paper were rewarded for being informed enough to arrive at the verdict they were invited to mail in. No attendance, no deliberations with fellow jurors required. All that was needed, aside from a radio set and a few cents for daily tabloids, was curiosity, rhetoric, and greed.

You might say it was just fiction, this fictional call for justice; but the Hearst press, known to have started a war with mere words, was doing its utmost to make the trial seem as real the joined media of radio and the press could make it, all with the aim at a very real boost in sales through a cleverly manipulative marketing campaign.

More than a radio serial, The Trial of Vivienne Ware is one of the most fascinating media events ever staged. All that remains of it now are a number of newspaper articles and a book touted as “an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds”—the “first radio novel.”

To be sure, Kenneth M. Ellis’s “novel”—a combination of faux news reportage and courtroom dialogue—has none of the thrills of the original experience. Its failure to excite and convince convincingly argues the power of the media to create a sense of reality through the realities we glean from sensation.

“Whoops,” There They Went

No, I am not referring to the millions of dollars and pounds that have vanished into thin air during the current stock market upheaval. I am just concerning myself with thin air. You know, the kinds of programs and personalities that kept folks from falling into a great depression of their own in the months following the collapse of the stock market back in 1929. Movies and magazines aside, radio was the chief source of entertainment during those bleak days; yet whereas periodicals are generally well archived and films of the period are receiving attention from scholars and pre-code aficionados alike, few of the shows then on the air can still be appreciated today. As a lover of the old cat’s whiskers, I often resort to rivalling media to get an earful of network radio’s earliest offerings.

In September 1930, Theatre Magazine started to acknowledge radio as a source of dramatic entertainment; in his column “Listening Room Only,” novelist Howard Rockey set out to explore the still new medium in its relation to the stage. According to Rockey’s opening remarks for the October edition, the “début” of “Listening Room Only” had repercussions in the “broadcasting studios. “Apparently,” Rockey remarked, “it has been discovered that at least a percentage of the radio audience is possessed of more than moron intelligence.” Although “radio-drama is still at a low ebb, its accomplishments and its potentialities are claiming the serious attention of those who rule the destinies of the microphone.”

So, what were tuners-in destined to receive back in the fall of 1930? Aside from The Rise of the Goldbergs, few names will sound familiar even to those intimately acquainted with radio dramatics. Producers of radio entertainment still had a lot to learn, particularly since getting shows on the air frequently meant transporting them there from other media. The transfer was often unsuccessful and the results at times unintelligible, as was the case with The Whoops Sisters (pictured above), a comedy sketch “based on a cartoon by Peter Arno—whom Rockey calls the “author of the first radio flop dictated by an audience that could not understand him.”

Rather more successful was Forty Fathom Trawlers. Rockey commends it as

a breathless continuation of sea-tales by James Whipple, a writer commandeered by radio from Hollywood’s script factories. Some of these incidents are original, while others are adaptations of famous nautical stories. Stirring adventures are related about the captain’s table by Brad Sutton, a veteran actor whose stage career goes back to the days when he appeared with Lillian Russell. In the interests of greater realism, one of these instalments was actually broadcast from the cabin of a schooner at sea. The dialogue was sent ashore by short wave, picked up by Columbia and rebroadcast from coast to coast. But so cleverly is the essential background obtained with artificial sound effects that it has been found more effective to play these dramas on a studio stage.

Little remains of Forty-Fathom Trawlers, aside from a couple of scripts (available here) and Whipple’s own comments on the program. Not that any of Whipple’s many other radio efforts ring a bell these days. For NBC, he wrote Dutch Masters Minstrels, The Fortune Teller, The Melodrama Hour, Romance Isle, and Neapolitan Nights; for CBS, he wrote and produced, in addition to Trawlers, series titled Close-ups, Mrs. Murphy’s Boarding House, Around the Samovar, and The La Palina Club Smoker. As news commentator Lowell Thomas remarked in his Foreword to Whipple’s How to Write for Radio (1938), its author wrote and produced “more than two hundred radio programs.”

Forty-Fathom Trawlers must have been an exciting bit of ear-play. While the broadcasting schedules of the networks were awash with such experimental programs, few bothered to preserve them for later generations who find it increasingly difficult to fathom that drama could come flooding into your mind unseen, without having to pass inspection. Ever since television ran the good ship radio aground, those with a passion for the airwaves have had to grab at any bit of flotsam and jetsam coming their way. Reading columns like Rockey’s, I realize that I am barely knee-deep in those waves . . .

A Fine Kettle of Fish

My visit to Canajoharie

These past few days, I’ve been trying to keep my eyes shut—as if the medication had not already made it well-nigh impossible to keep them open. The more they are watering, the more inflamed they get. And what with all this gasping for air, I hardly feel in my element. Allergies. My mother used tell me they are just a state of mind as she insisted that I mow the lawn—which is one reason I have not laid eyes on her in about two decades. State of mind, my bloodshot eye! Anyway. If I am not reaching for tissues or fishing for the inhaler, I am digging into my library of radio recordings, which I am spending an inordinate amount of time cataloguing. Otherwise, I would simply lose sight of what I have yet to hear.

Our Freedom’s Blessings was one of the titles to which I never gave a thought, let alone lend an ear. Lending a hand in its return to the air—or its turning up on the internet—turned out to be somewhat of a headache. So be it. After all, there is little use and less joy in going on about something without giving anyone else at least half a chance to follow.

My visit to Canajoharie

Little is known about Our Freedom’s Blessings, other than that it was produced by the New York State Department of Commerce. No recordings of it are currently available online. So, I set up a new site for the sharing of programs [now defunct]. Since the crash of my last Mac back in November 2007, I have been unable to edit my old pages; and, itchy eyes notwithstanding, it is only now that I can face the prospect of starting from scratch. You might well argue that an episode of Our Freedom’s Blessings titled “The Little Jars of Canajoharie” was not worth all this effort. Ah, but have you been to Canajoharie?

As Uncle York, the narrator of Our Freedom’s Blessings tells us, Canajoharie is an Indian name meaning “the kettle that washes itself.” The “little town with the funny name,” we learn,

lies smack in the middle of the Mohawk valley.  In 1890, Canajoharie was hardly more than a crossroads, still half country.  Well, it was a leisurely kind of life, quiet days of wagon wheels on dirt streets, the tingling smell of hickory smoke in a cow crossing in the main part of the town.  But Canajoharie folks wasn’t asleep.  Far from it.  Couple of fellas that smoked their own hams and bacon started to sell them to other folk.  And before you knew it, there was a full-fledged little company operating, one that took for itself a homespun kind of name: Beechnut.

Well, we did not listen to Uncle York on our travels through upstate New York when we happened upon Canajoharie—after an unwelcome detour—and that despite the fact that the Mac on which the recording is stored went along for the ride. Had we done so, we might have learned a little something about the fortunes of the town. We did insist on seeing the “kettle,” not heeding the warnings of a local that it was little more than a hole in the ground.

Equipped though we were with hand-drawn map handed to us at a tourist information booth that suggested we were not the only ones eager to seize the opportunity to gawk at a pothole, we did not encounter anyone else on along the way on that warm June morning. We got lost, passing derelict factory buildings and warehouses that bespeak the town’s heyday, the days of which Uncle York speaks.

When I came across the name of “Canajoharie” in my recordings library, I just had to tune in. Never mind that “Little Jars” turned out to be little more than a juvenile infomercial about the makers of baby food. Somehow, whatever flotsam drifts toward me on the airwaves seems to belong in my life. It is never an altogether different kettle of fish.

You’ve Got Mail, Herr Hitler

As of this writing, various episodes of The Shadow have been extracted some four-hundred thousand times from that vast, virtual repository of culture known, no, not as YouTube, but as the Internet Archive. This seems encouraging. At least, the most famous of all radio thrillers is still being remembered or rediscovered today, in part due, no doubt, to the misguided efforts of bringing Lamont Cranston back to the screen that cannot contain or render him. It is rather disheartening, though, that what is being so widely regarded as classic radio, perhaps even representational of American culture, is not the kind of non-matter likely to induce anyone to consider the aural arts as . . . art. Sure, The Shadow has provided material for quite a few cultural studies, including this journal, and no history of popular entertainment in the United States ought to be called comprehensive, let alone complete, without at least a mention of this conceptually inspired if at times dramatically insipid neo-gothic phenomenon. Still, an injustice is done to a generation that had more on its mind and in its ears than vicarious thrills.

Few who rummage for old-time radio in the Archive appear to have been sufficiently intrigued by an item curiously labeled Dear Adolf. I, for one, was excited to find it there, having read the published scripts and discussed them in my dissertation without having come across those recordings. I argued against reading in lieu of listening; but, in the case of Dear Adolf, it would have been a mistake not to make a compromise and consider what I deem ersatz for ear play. The series, after all, was written by the aforementioned Stephen Vincent Benét, a once highly regarded American poet who has long fallen out of fashion. While it did not do much damage to the name of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the writing of radio propaganda may have discredited Benét, along with his insistence on telling stories or retelling history, rather than being lyrical, experimental, or elitist.

Dear Adolf is unjustly neglected by those who enjoy such ready access to recordings from radio’s so-called golden age. The six-part program, tossed into the hole left by shows on summer hiatus back in 1942, was commissioned by the Council of Democracy and designed to turn detached listeners into active contributors to the war effort. As the title suggests, Dear Adolf was a proposed as a series of open letters to the enemy, written, we are to imagine with the help of seasoned performers from stage, screen, and radio, by ordinary Americans seizing a rare opportunity to communicate their fears, their hatred, and their defiance to the German dictator.

On this day, 12 July, in 1942, it was Helen Hayes’s task to portray an American “Housewife and Mother.” Well known to millions of listeners, the previously featured Hayes was one of the few theater actresses to embrace radio early on, if mainly, by her own admission, to be able to devote more time to her family and her rose garden. The war suggested more urgent reasons for stepping behind the microphone, and the airwaves became a passage through which playwrights, poets, and performing artists could exit their ivory retreats and present themselves to the broader public for a cause worth the tempering of high art with an appeal to the lowest common denominator—the need for a clear image of what America stood for and was up against during a war whose objectives, it seems surprising today, were not appreciated or understood by a great many of its citizens. Their support—their money—was needed to provide the funds for a war of uncertain duration and, initially at least, less certain success.

Without becoming an outright fascist tool in a democratic society, radio needed to function as a unifier. In doing so, it had to address and engage a populace rather than assuming it to be homogenous. As I pointed out in my study, “Letter from a Housewife and Mother” is particularly interesting in this respect. Playing the part of a homemaker and part-time First Aid instructor, Hayes is meant to be—and her character insists on being—representative of free women everywhere. Rarely questioned, much less contested, in network radio, her white voice is being countered by that of a black woman, who protests:

Free women? What of me?
What of my millions and my ancient wrong?
What of my people, bowed in darkness still?

Despite her awareness that the enemy would further drive her people back to the “old slavery of whip and chains,” the speaker expresses her disillusionment with American democracy:

And yet, even today, we find no place
Even in war, for much that we could do
And would do for—our country.

However manipulative in its attempt to calm such unrest, the play is remarkable for its acknowledgment of such dissatisfaction with the status quo among those who felt themselves to be disenfranchised. It is a rare moment in American radio drama, far removed from the popular exploits of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which depended for its success on the general acceptance of conditions it refused to problematize. Minds not clouded by crowd-pleasing commercial fare like The Shadow might appreciate Dear Adolf as an experiment in leveling with the marginalized rather than assuming or declaring their differences leveled. While in the business of pleasing everybody, radio did not always reduce difference to the aural stereotypes of regional and ethnic accents.

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.

On This Day in 1930: ‘”Mystery Gun” Disappears As Lights Go Out’ in Invisible Courtroom

I don’t suppose I shall ever get used to it. The Welsh weather, I mean, the nocturnal roars and howlings of which I often drown out by listening to the familiar voices of old-time radio, reassuring and comforting voices like those of Harry Bartell or Elliot Lewis, both of whom were born on this day, 28 November, in 1913 and 1917, respectively. Storms are part of the Welsh soundscape, much like the bleating of sheep on the hills. If such climate conditions were faced by the people of New York, among whom I numbered for some fifteen years of my life, I wager that the local television newscasts would report little else. To be sure, last night’s storm did make headlines, being that a tornado wreaked havoc in a village just a few miles from my present home.

Thanks to some well-chosen radio thriller, I managed to sleep through it all, losing myself in dreams that, once radioactivated, tend to become particularly vivid. I often wonder just how much my mind, conscious or not, is influenced by the popular culture I consume by listening in. Sometimes, though, it is what we hear about, and not what we perceive, that stirs our imagination. There are a few listening experiences I can only dream of, plays I have only read or read about and consequently fascinate me no end. One such unheard soundplay is the serial The Trial of Vivienne Ware (previously mentioned here and discussed at some length in Etherized, my study of American radio dramatics). Pulled by the Hearst press and propagated on the air by station WJZ, New York, it was a spectacular publicity stunt designed to promote Hearst’s less than reputable papers.

Those tuning in did not only get to hear the proceedings, but were cast as jurors. They stood a chance of being awarded $1000 for coming up with the most convincing verdict (be it “guilty” or “innocent”), thus making it unnecessary for the author of the story—one Kenneth M. Ellis—to determine upon a reasonable conclusion and the fate of his titular character.

From the 25th to the last day of November, the fictional trial was broadcast live, with eminent figures of law and politics, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner and prominent attorney Ferdinand Pecora, heading a cast that included noted stage actress Rosamund Pinchot. Here is how the New York American, the Hearst paper sponsoring the series, described the session of 28 November 1930:

It was almost at the close of the session that the lights suddenly were extinguished and the court plunged into total darkness. Women’s screams, the shouts and bustle of court attaches, and the hammering of the gavel filled five or six black seconds with sound. Then the lights came on again—but the .38 caliber revolver which George Gordon Battle, chief counsel for Vivienne Ware, had just introduced as evidence had disappeared from the table where it lay.

Now, that’s a melodramatic conjuring act fit for the airwaves. It probably wouldn’t do much good during a stormy night, though, since such interactive thrills—let alone the pondering of the verdict, and what to do with the prize money—are, unlike much else that was presented on American radio with comforting predictability, anything but soporific.