The Passing Parade: A Fat Tuesday Hangover

Perhaps I should not have been quite so surprised; nor pleased, for that matter. For twenty-four hours or so, broadcastellan ceased to be practically invisible—and it was all due to my tribute to video star Don Knotts. In an effort to be timely, for once, I dispatched the previous post before sunrise on Monday morning while those across the big pond still clung to what was left of their weekend. When next I checked for signs of life on this blog, I noticed a dramatic increase in the number of visitors, nearly three times as many as on an average day. Most of them found their way here through a topics exchange rather than the common traffic generators on which many e-diarists rely. Now, I won’t stoop to pinning my hopes of boosting my low voltage scribblings on the passing of aged celebrities with more or less marginal careers in old-time radio. Still, waking up to a Fat Tuesday hangover after this intoxicating surge in circulation, I decided that I’d rather give up cocktails than topicality for Lent.

Though it should not take an actor’s death to make others alive to a neglected dramatic medium, a revival of interest cannot take place if the world is dead to the subject you go on about. So, in effort to adhere to my own dictum, I must keep on trying to relate the presumably out-of-date to our present everyday. Not enough of this is being done elsewhere. As a result, radio drama is mostly appreciated as a font of nostalgia or camp.

In my current poll I ask, not for the first time, just why old-time radio drama does not enjoy the status granted to old movies. Even as video stores are slowly being replaced by online libraries, the shelves of the major DVD retailers are still stacked with copies of classic Hollywood films and, increasingly, not-so classy television fare. Saunter over to the CD section and try to find the radio plays of Norman Corwin. You might as well be browsing for recorded mating calls of the dodo, despite the fact that Corwin’s seminal works are the subject of one of the documentary shorts nominated for an Academy Award this year.

Sure, there is less demand for non-musical, non-visual dramatics; apparently, people would rather gawk at a giant squid on display than pay a few quid to take in a well-directed audio play; but, as we all know, demand is being created and kept alive through advertising, and old-time radio, with its uncertain copyrights and complicated commercial ties, has little chance at being thus promoted. Or is it just that much of radio ain’t any good?

As I am trying to push my own study on radio—and to push it forward—I am at times as disillusioned as the anti-hero of Frederic Wakeman’s best-selling novel The Hucksters (1946). “There’s no need to caricature radio,” he opined. “All you have to do is listen to it. Or if you were writing about it, you’d simply report with fidelity what goes on behind the scenes. It’d make a perfect farce.” I am going to refrain from scoffing, however; encouraged by the ongoing podcasting revolution, I defiantly if cautiously concur instead with Mr. Corwin, who, some sixty years ago, observed: “Seems Radio Is Here to Stay.”

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?

On a Note of “Relevance”; or, What I Learn from Fellow Bloggers

Well, I had this particular spot reserved for two; but, as you will see, it got considerably more crowded here. Watching the Joan Crawford melodrama Possessed last night, I noticed in the opening credits that the screenplay was an adaptation written by playwrights once well known for their work in radio: Ranald McDougall and Silvia Richards. I had come across McDougall’s name only yesterday, when his propaganda piece “The Boise” reached me by mail (between the covers of Erik Barnouw’s Radio Drama in Action).

McDougall’s plays for the series The Man Behind the Gun are notable for their effective use of second-person narration, an addressing of the listener as a character in the drama to follow:

You’re a chief bosun’s mate aboard the “Boise”—a gun pointer—the guy that points and fires the fifteen big guns of the cruiser. Right now you’re standing by for action [. . .]. You’ve sighted the enemy, and your eye is jammed into the telescopic gun sight, searching for a target. [And] now, very dimly, you see a light-gray spot on the lens . . . then another . . . and another—five of them. It’s them! You can see them plainly.

As those listening to old-time radio shows know, the technique was later used to announce each upcoming episode of Escape). McDougall’s collaborator writing the screenplay for Possessed was Silvia Richards. I assume that is the Sylvia Richards who wrote scripts for the thriller anthology Suspense. At any rate, I was going to discuss the influence of radio writing and technique on the structure of Possessed, a film noir that also makes use of radio’s voice-altering Sonovox, readers interested in which Google occasionally refers to broadcastellan.

The second topic on my mind was the narrative genre of soap opera, which occurred to me after misreading the date marking the demise of four long-running radio serials back in 1959, the anniversary of their silencing having been 2 January, not 1 February. I occasionally contribute a definition to Waking Ambrose and was interested in redefining “soap opera” for myself. It is a word that has become rather too loosely used, but might actually fit certain commercial blogs.

So, this is what I had planned to write about today; but technorati made me reconsider all that. After posting my essays here, I often go in search of other online journals discussing subjects similar to mine. Not infrequently, this leads to some follow up on my part. The other day, for instance, having written about the radio promotion for Cecil B. DeMille’s Four Frightened People, I searched for recent mentions of that title elsewhere. And what did I learn? That the film is going to be released as part of a DeMille DVD anthology. Both the Alternative Film Guide and Trouble in Paradise will tell you as much. That’s another product of popular culture recalled from obscurity. Unfortunately, my similarly obscure journal had little to do with it; but bloggers are doing their share by spreading the word and signalling interest in or demand for such films.

Yesterday, having just mocked the “relevance” of the Academy Awards, I came across an entry in the Popsurfing blog, shared by someone who, unlike me, took time to look at the entire list of nominees. And what is nominated in the documentary (short subject) category? “A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin,” a film honoring the foremost exponent of American radio dramatics. How relevant (to me, the broadcastellan blog, and readers in popular culture) can an Oscar nomination get? The next question on my mind was not a rhetorical one: how can I get my hands on a copy of this film?

By sharing all this I meant to comment on the enriching interactivity of the blogosphere, on the flow of information (correct, false, relevant or not) that can sweep past, engulf, or uplift you, if only you bother to keep surfing. “There will be time later” (to quote a line from Corwin) to retreat into that world between my ears. Right now, I’m eager to look around and partake . . .

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.

On This Day in 1949: My Favorite Husband Comments on “individual liberties”; and Present-Day Politics

Government radio is a cross between a museum and a religious school, dispensing classics and credo, but not especially concerned with new works. Commercial radio is a department store, carrying in stock a few luxury items, a lot of supposedly essential commodities and perhaps too many cheap brands of goods. The radio [as imagined and desired by some who write for the medium] is an artist’s studio, dedicated to creation alone. As such, it is not yet able to stand on its own, and its product must be exhibited in the museum or the gallery of the department store.

This is how America’s foremost radio playwright, Norman Corwin, summed up the problems of writing for the theatre of the mind. While its sets are being created collaboratively by writers, actors, directors, sound effects artists, musicians, and audiences, radio plays must nonetheless be staged to be realized—and 1940s network radio was hardly a public access forum. 

After World War II, even Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish found it impossible to gain access to the broadcasting boards under the department store conditions of commercial US radio. He had to take his play “The Trojan Horse” to the “museum” of the BBC’s Broadcasting House (pictured above) to give it an airing. A hollow victory indeed.

Well, today I’ve been both to the museum and the department store, each time for some decidedly conventional fare. I gave Mike Walker’s 20-part adaptation of David Copperfield another try, after recording installments six to nine (the tenth having had its premiere this evening). I think that, as much as I like the quiet dignity of a museum, I’ve still got a department store ear.

Unlike Dickens, Walker does not seem to have a mind for either a dramatic or a proscenium arch. How anyone can manage to follow this adaptation while tuning in on a day-to-day basis is beyond me. It is all very pleasant, mind you, but I cannot quite piece it together, especially since Walker’s narrator makes little effort to help us make sense of it all. Instead, he suffers—and I along with him—from an identity crisis, now being an omniscient nobody, now a self-conscious author.

So, I took refuge again in the department store and listened to a Christmas-themed episode of My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball. As much as I like Ms. Ball, this is only the second or third sample I took of this I Love Lucy precursor. The premise, as stated in the introduction of each episode, holds little promise. Where is the drama if a couple like Liz and George Cooper “live together and like it”? As is often the case in the realm of situation comedies, a stereotypical mother-in-law can be counted on to create the requisite domestic friction. And George’s busybody of a mother is downright Dickensian in her prissy hypocrisy—a match, to be sure, for Clara Copperfield’s sister-in-law, Jane Murdstone.

Making another visit on this day, 16 December, in 1949, Liz’s mother-in-law is at her belittling and bickering best, complaining about the lack of cleanliness in her son’s home and mocking Liz’s efforts to knit a sweater for George (“why are you holding that dirty old dust rag?”). After getting Liz all frazzled, she finally takes off, but not before unravelling her daughter-in-law’s handiwork. The last word on meddling, however, comes from the program’s announcer:

Ladies and gentlemen, the Christmas and New Year holiday season is a period of neighborly getting-together and renewing community ties. It’s a time when every American should be even more aware of the individual liberties he enjoys in the United States. And this freedom demands that each of us fulfils our duties as a citizen: to vote, to serve on juries, and to participate in community, state and national affairs. By making our form of government work better here, we strengthen democracy everywhere. We provide an example of a free government, which preserves the rights and the dignity of the individual. So, remember: freedom is everybody’s job.

Not quite the announcement you’d expect to emanate from a department store loudspeaker, is it?

“A symmetry of unborn generations”: A Guernica for Radio

One of the many attractions of Madrid I will make sure not to miss is Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the most famous 20th-century painting in the Reina Sofía collection. A report from the commonplace-turned-combat zone, Guernica is a piece of anti-totalitarian propaganda commemorating the world’s first civilians-targeting air attack: the 26 April 1937 raid on the busy market town of Gernika-Lumo, masterminded by General Franco and carried out by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany.

For a long time, the painting was kept out of Spain and was mostly on display at the MoMA in New York City, where, during the Vietnam War, it became a site for vigils held by members of the peace movement, one of whom went so far as to deface it with red spray paint. It was Picasso’s wish that Guernica be returned to his homeland only after the reestablishment of democratic rule. A swiftly executed and brutally manipulative commentary on modern warfare, it invites comparisons to the three best-known American verse plays for radio, Archibald MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Murder of Lidice,” and Norman Corwin’s “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease.”

MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” in contrast to Picasso’s painting, overtly implicates the civilian population, including his radio listeners, castigating them for their supposed ignorance and inertia. As in “The Fall of the City,” MacLeish attacks those falling rather than sentimentalizing their plight. His are bold performances, but his cruel warning turns listeners eager for news into silent partners of war who are asked to “stand by” as they tune in while women and children, refusing to heed warnings of an impending blitz, are being attacked and annihilated:

You who fish the fathoms of the night
With poles on roof-tops and long loops of wire
Those of you who driving from some visit
Finger the button on the dashboard dial
Until the metal trembles like a medium in a trance
And tells you what is happening in France
Or China or in Spain or some such country
You have one thought tonight and only one:
Will there be war? Has war come?
Is Europe burning from the Tiber to the Somme?
You think you hear the sudden double thudding of the drum
You don’t though . . .
Not now . . .
But what your ears will hear with in the hour
No one living in this world would try to tell you.
We take you there to wait it for yourselves.
Stand by: we’ll try to take you through. . . .

Millay’s “Murder of Lidice” recalls the innocent lives of those slain by Richard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, in Lidice. Artistically, the play is indefensible and shockingly inept in its bathos. In Millay’s Grand Guignol of Nazi terror, Heydrich the Hangman, whom the villagers have assassinated, is heard, from the beyond, planning his revenge:

He howls for a bucket of bubbly blood—
It may be man’s or it may be of woman,
But it has to be hot, and it must be human!
Oh, many’s the sweet warm throat he’ll suck.

In “They Fly Through the Air,” Corwin’s narrator goes in search of a language appropriate to the negotiation of art and propaganda. As I point out in Etherized Victorians, the play is a response to the perversion of poetic diction by the fascist cause. Viewed from above, Mussolini reportedly remarked, exploding bombs had the beauty of a “rose unfolding.” Throughout the play, metaphors are at war with plain speech, both in the service of motivating the masses:

What words can compass glories such as we have seen today?
Our language beats against its limitations [. . .].

Our rhythms jangle at the very start.
Our similes concede defeat,
For there is nothing that can be compared to that which lies beyond compare.
You see? We are reduced already to tautologies.
It’s awe does that.
The wonder of it all has set us stammering.

What is the language of war? How does it differ from the idiom of peace? And how shall war—often furious but not always futile—be rendered, recorded, and remembered in words or images? When I look at Guernica this week, I will ask myself these questions. Quite possibly, I will shiver when exposing it to the limitations of my shrinking lexicon.

“God and Uranium”: Corwin, VJ Day, and the Disorientation of American Culture

Today, August 14, marks the 60th anniversary of VJ Day—the supposedly glorious day ending the second World War, a day of triumph in the wake of terror and devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On US radio, Norman Corwincommemorated the event with this hastily composed script:

Congratulations for being alive and listening. 

Millions didn’t make it. They died before their time, and they are gone and gone, for the Fascists got them. . . .  

Fire a cannon to their memory!


God and uranium were on our side.

And the wrath of the atom fell like a commandment, 

And the very planet quivered with implications. 

Tokyo Rose was hung over from the news next day 

And the Emperor, he of the august stupid face, prayed to himself for succor. 

Sound the gun for Achilles the Atom and the war workers: Newton and Galileo, Curie and Einstein, the Archangel Gabriel, and the community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Jubilantly joining the concept of God and the reality of uranium as if blessing the killing of thousands of civilians by the US and their allies, the celebratory broadcast titled “14 August”—expanded and rebroadcast five days later as “God and Uranium”—is one of Corwin’s few artistic misfires; insensitive, smug, and crudely patriotic in its derision of the “stupid”-looking emperor and his nuked subjects.

Did Americans really need to commemorate the dead by “[s]ound[ing] the gun,” by firing yet another cannon? After all, it was US weaponry, not “the Fascist,” that “got them” over in Japan. Unlike the subdued “On a Note of Triumph,” “God and Uranium” is an unquestioning sanction of total warfare, of nuclear means justifying the end—the end of a culture: “The Jap who never lost a war has lost a world: learning, / This too is worth a cheer.”

The “very planet quivered with implications,” all right, but the broadcast does not acknowledge the potentially terrible consequences of nuclear armament. These days, the implications continue to make themselves felt as more and more nations join the “community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee” and aspire to becoming atomic superpowers.

Instead, rather too sure about a peaceful future, Corwin’s salute to the victors asserts that the “peoples have come a long way since the time of Cain.” He claims that, “[e]ffective 15 August, peace, its care and handling, becomes our ward.” It appears that the US still fancies itself to be such a “ward,” imposing its views onto the world, jeopardizing the lives of thousands of civilians in a quest for a Western-centric conception of peace.

“14 August” was “written overnight, alas,” Corwin remarked somewhat apologetically shortly after the war; it was a project he did not want to accept at the time. A mere two and a half months later, on October 29, 1945, he offered far more sobering reflections of atomic power with “Set Your Clock at U235,” a broadcast that contributed to the appearance of his name in Red Channels:

Now we are in it together:

The rich with their automatic comforts, and the family bunkering seven in a room. 

The highly trained, who understand the poems and the engines; and those whose culture measures five hundred words 

across the middle: Old people tired of wars and winters, and children who do not yet know they are made of matter: 

The famous face in four colors, nationalized on the cover of the magazine; and the crowd face, the background face, gray, nameless, out of focus: 

Now we are in it, in it together.

The secrets of the earth have been peeled, one by one, until the core is bare:

The latest recipe is private, in a guarded book, but the stink of death is public on the wind from Nagasaki: 

The nations have heard of the fission of the atom and have seen the photographs: skies aboil with interlocking fury, mushrooms of uranium smoke ascending to where angels patrol uneasily.

As if coming to his senses after having toasted victory rather too shrilly, Corwin encouraged listeners to “reset the clock.” No longer was 15 August believed to be a ringing in of peace, but the beginning of a new age of terror. As such it now behooves us to consider the legacy of VJ Day—the ticking of the atomic clock, the spiral of retaliatory actions, and the fallacy that a war well waged could end all wars. 

After all, we are still “in it together. . . .”

The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: Fantasy Metamorphosed, from Corwin’s “Curley” to Burton’s “Charlie”

When I dipped my toe into the cool Irish Sea yesterday afternoon, I thought to myself “How detached I am from the enveloping present, how remote from the surrounding world.” Sure, I dip into the currents of culture now and again, but little of what is current seems to have any grip on me. I just shake my mind like that wet toe and retreat. Not that the beach was any more comforting for being terra firma. I was chilled by a feeling of rootlessness, intensified, no doubt, by my relatively recent transplantation to the west of Britain. And yet, here I am, nowhere and anywhere, tending to my journal. Well, according to Technorati, there is one born every second.

Not permitting myself to become wistful, I slipped into the darkness of a movie theater to take on the latter-day mongrel that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  What a reassuring experience it turned out to be. Once again, I know where I am—and why I am there and loving it. The “there,” of course, is nothing but the sanctuary of my confirmed biases.

Tim Burton’s re-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 story is a mongrel indeed. It is a cautionary tale for children playing itself out as a computer game. Curb your greed, your arrogance, and your precociousness, it tells children, or you will suffer the fate of obnoxious brats like Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike. Obey your elders, even a deranged manchild like Willy Wonka, and your humility will be amply rewarded. The eponymous kid is too much of a goody-two-shoes to make a compelling hero (and, given the lesson learned by Wonka himself, retaining the title of the 1971 adaptation would have made more sense).

The trouble with Charlie is not its muddled message about innocence and purity, however; it is that, in its now treacly, now quirky delivery, in its very conception, there is too much of Augustus Gloop and Mike Teavee to render it sincere.  Charlie is a self-conscious if diverting botch. It is eye candy with a cavity built in; it is at once a celebration and a negation of fantasy. Does not Dahl’s description of Augustus Gloop sound like a critique of Hollywood blockbusters, of the spirit of Disneyfication? Listen:

How long could we allow this beast
To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast
On everything he wanted to?
Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!
However long this pig might live,
We’re positive he’d never give
Even the smallest bit of fun
Or happiness to anyone.
So what we do in cases such
As this, we use the gentle touch,
And carefully we take the brat
And turn him into something that
Will give great pleasure to us all . . .

It is telling that Burton’s movie very nearly drowns out these words in its lavish production numbers. In time it will metamorphose into DVDs and computer games, into the videodorous playthings of Mike Teavee. Conveying the warning about being a guy like Burton’s movie once again drowns the message by dreamcoating it in Technicolor:

The most important thing we’ve learned,

So far as children are concerned,

Is never, NEVER, NEVER let

Them near your television set—

Or better still, just don’t install

The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,

We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.

They loll and slop and lounge about,

And stare until their eyes pop out.

(Last week in someone’s place we saw

A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)

They sit and stare and stare and sit

Until they’re hypnotised by it,

Until they’re absolutely drunk

With all the shocking ghastly junk. . . .










And what else, other than reading, “used the darling ones to do?” in the days “[b]efore this monster was invented?” Well (you may have guessed it, coming from me), they listened to the radio, that forgotten generator and amplifier of fantasy. Long before colorful butterflies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dazzled kids with a flutter of images, there was “My Client Curley,” Norman Corwin’s madcap adventures of a boy, Stinky, and his dancing caterpillar.

Stinky has to learn what Charlie seems to know and Burton doesn’t quite remember: money talks so loudly at times, it threatens to mute happiness and muffle the imagination. Unlike Burton, who clutters his film with pointless references to popular culture (Busby Berkeley, Psycho, the Beatles), Corwin offers a poignant mass media satire, of a world of commerce, sensationalism, and mediocracy.

Throughout it all, the dancing caterpillar comes vividly alive without uttering nary a syllable. There he is, in all his terpsichorean splendor. I’m there, too, knowing why I love old-time radio. Not because it is past, but precisely because it is present whenever I put my mind to it. So, to appropriate Dahl’s words for a plea for the theater of the mind, “please, oh please, we beg, we pray, / Go throw your TV set away, / And in its place you can install /A lovely [radio] on the wall.” Well, okay, keep the TV—but do give Corwin’s “My Client Curley” a try.

A Soundscape of Britain?

A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?

In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.

A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).

While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.

Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?

Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .