History Listens: “The Fall of [No Other] City”

Page from the published script of Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City” (1937)

As the world awaits news from Ukraine and its people awake daily to the sounds of shelling, many of us, having survived the pandemic that at once isolated and united us, become alive anew to our connectedness to world events and to the urgency, the necessity, of connecting dots in plain sight, and of listening out for tell-tale signs, be it the rumble of tanks or the roar of tyrants.  We should have seen this one coming, we might suspect; but such hindsight provides no relief in the face of local destruction and global upheaval.  

I am reminded of the events that came to be known as 9/11 – an attack that did not, as some claimed and many felt, hit us ‘out of the blue’ on that bright September morning – and of feeling both helpless and useless in the wake of the terror that would shape history.  I was teaching writing in the Bronx, and I was researching radio drama of the 1930s.  None of that seemed to matter at a moment when digging in and digging up – literally and figuratively – was felt to be needed to uncover lives lost and recover the history that had gotten us to that point.  I kept on teaching writing, and I kept on researching radio – and I strove to find the usefulness and relevance of both.  That is, I did not carry on “regardless.”  

Instead of retreating into the past of broadcasts decades old, I tried to retrieve messages pertinent to the present.  And while we might think that messages are merely repeated rather than being heeded, we may also find that we did receive them and that we are capable of learning from history even as a world leader insists on repeating it.  

Take, for instance, Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City.”  First produced and broadcast in the US on 11 April 1937 – with a cast including Orson Welles and Burgess Meredith, and a score by Bernard Herrmann – it was a response to the rise of a dictator who, unchecked and unresisted, conquers a city despite warning voices from the past – the ancient and the dead.  In MacLeish’s allegory, the ‘conquerer’ is not a person: it is fear.  It is fatalism.  It is the surrender of freedom to fascism.

In “The Fall of the City,” a radio announcer (played by Welles in the 1937 production) serves as our eyes, an observer by proxy reporting from the scene of an unnamed city.  MacLeish’s plays – from “Air Raid” to “The Trojan Horse” – are never simply plays for the medium of radio but also plays about that medium – about tuning in from a distance, about mediation and reception, and about misinformation and deception.  The listeners are implicated, their role in the event of listening reflected upon in the shared act of telling stories and hearing histories in the making.

“The sun is yellow with smoke,” the announcer informs the audience, “the town’s burning….  The war’s at the broken bridge.”  It is impossible to listen to those lines now without seeing the cities under siege in Ukraine; and yet, “The Fall of the City” – which was broadcast just two weeks prior to the arial bombing of Guernica in April 1937 but written some months earlier, in 1936 – not about the reality of any particular invasion but about the real threat posed by evasiveness.  It caution against giving in to ideas and being enslaved by ideologies, for which it was criticised during the Second World War: “In these last years,” Randall Jarrell, himself a poet, wrote in 1943:

many millions of these people, over the entire world, have died fighting their oppressors.  Say to them that they invented their oppressors, wished to believe in them, wished to be free of their freedom; that they lie there.

Jarrell wrote this in the aftermath of air raids, and the war of ideas were not uppermost on his mind.

I do not know whether I am writing at a moment that future records might document to be days or weeks before the start of a Third World War.  I know I am writing it in wartime.  Unlike in the scenario envisioned by MacLeish, the world is not only watching the atrocities perpetrated by Russians in the towns and cities of Ukraine; it is responding, both to aid Ukrainian civilians (my sister in Germany has welcomed Ukrainian refugees into her home) and to avoid an escalation of military conflict.  Unlike the abstract “citizens” of MacLeish’s play, men and women are resisting.  Cities do not fall.  They are attacked.  They are defended. They are fought over.  And it is citizens – civilians – that are doing the fighting.

How different this fight is from the defeat as MacLeish conceived it.  “The city is doomed,” the Voices of Citizens in his play declare,

The age is his! It’s his century!

Our institutions are obsolete.

He marches a mile while we sit in a meeting.

Opinions and talk!

Deliberative walks beneath the ivy and the creepers!

His doubt comes after the deed or never.

He knows what he wants for his want’s what he he knows.

He’s gone before they say he’s going.

He’s come before you’ve barred your house.

He’s one man: we are but thousands!

Who can defend us from one man?

Bury your arms! Break your standards!

Give him the town while the town stands!

We know the price of such surrender.  Putin might have believed that his invasion would meet with little or no resistance, and that the global community, understood as a community, is powerless in the face of his aggression.  Putin’s methods date from the past; his mind, however made up it may be, was made up last century.  It is no match for what humanity can achieve if we – and that includes the people of Russia – put our minds and methods to it.  Right now, his thinking and his tanks, his misfiring strategies and his unwillingness to listen, are being answered by the rallying cries of the present that will help us secure a future.

Eyre Apparent: Adoption, Adaptation and the ‘orphan child of accepted literature’

The most recent item to enter my collection of ephemera is a somewhat tattered, unpublished radio script (pictured above).  It is held together by rusty staples that attest to the authenticity to which, as a cultural product, it cannot justly lay claim. I still do not know the first thing about it. When was it written? To whom was it sold? Was it ever produced?

Initial research online revealed at least that Hugh Lester, the writer claiming responsibility – or demanding credit – for the script, was by the late 1930s a known entity in the business of radio writing, with one of his adaptations (a fifteen-minute dramatisation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”) appearing in a volume titled Short Plays for Stage and Radio (1939).   Rather than wait to ascertain its parentage, I decided to adopt Lester’s brainchild after spotting it lingering in the virtual orphanage known as eBay, where the unwanted are put on display for those of us who might be enticed to give them a new home.

Getting it home – my present residence – proved a challenge.  After being dispatched from The Bronx, the script spent a few months in foster care – or a gap behind a sofa in my erstwhile abode in Manhattan – before my ex could finally be coaxed into shipping it to Wales.  I occasionally have eBay purchases from the US mailed to my former New York address to avoid added international postage; but the current pandemic is making it impractical to collect those items in person, given that I am obliged to forgo my visits to the old neighborhood this year.  I was itching to get my hands on those stapled sheets of paper, especially since I am once again teaching my undergraduate class (or module, in British parlance) in Adaptation, in which the particular story reworked by Lester features as a case study.

As its title declares, the item in question is a “Radio Serial in Three Half Hour Episodes” of Charlotte Brontë’s 1848 novel Jane Eyre.  It is easy for us to call Jane Eyre that now – a novel.  When it was first published, of course, it came before the public as an autobiography, the identity of its creator disguised (‘Edited by Currer Bell,’ the original title page read), leading to wild speculations as to its parentage.  An adaptation, on the other hand, proudly discloses its origins, and it builds a case for its right to exist by drawing attention to its illustrious ancestry, as Lester’s undated serialisation does:

Announcer: We take pride in presenting for your entertainment at the first chapter of a distinguished dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë’s world famous novel, Jane Eyre.

An interesting choice of phrasing, that: while the source is pronounced to be ‘world-famous,’ meaning popular, this further popularisation by radio is argued to be ‘distinguished,’ meaning, presumably, first-rate – unless ‘distinguished’ is meant to suggest that the child (the adaptation) can readily be told apart from the parent (source).  Is not Jane Eyre ‘distinguished,’ whereas the aim of radio serials, plays for a mass medium, is to be popular, if only temporarily? Clearly, Lester aimed in that announcement to elevate to an art the run-of-the-mill business of adaptation that was his line; and run-of-the-mill it certainly was, most or the time.

One expert on radio scripts, commenting in 1939, went so far as to protest that radio had ‘developed almost no writers,’ that it had ‘appropriated almost all of them, at least all of those who could tell a good story.’  The same commentator, Max Wylie – himself a former radio director of scripts and continuity at CBS – also called ‘radio writing’ the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’ To him, most radio writing was no ‘radio’ writing at all, at least not ‘in the artistic and creative sense,’ but ‘an effort in translation’ – ‘a work of appropriation whose legitimacy depends upon the skill of its treatment but whose real existence depends upon the work of some able craftsman who quite likely never anticipated the electrical accident of the microphone.’

Instead of approaching adaptation in terms of fidelity – how close it is to its source – what should concern those of us who write about radio as a form is how far an adaptation (or translation, or dramatisation) needs to distance itself from its source so it can be adopted by the medium to which it is introduced.  However rare they may be, radio broadcasts such as “The War of the Worlds” have demonstrated that an adaptation can well be ‘radio writing’ – as long as it is suited to the medium in such a way that it becomes dependent on it for its effective delivery.  It needs to enter a new home where it can be felt to belong instead of being made to pay a visit, let alone be exploited for being of service.

Jane Eyre was adapted for US radio numerous times during the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.  The history of its publication echoing the story of its heroine and their fate in the twentieth century – Jane Eyre was apparently parentless.  Brontë concealed her identity so that Jane could have a life in print, or at least a better chance of having a happy and healthy one.  In the story, Jane must learn to be independent before the man who loves her can regain her trust – a man who, in turn, has to depend on her strength.  Similarly, Jane Eyre had to be separated from her mother, Charlotte Brontë, because she could not trust the male critics to accept her true parentage.

On the air, that parent, Charlotte Brontë, needs to be acknowledged so that an adaptation of Jane Eyre does not become an impostor; at the same time, the birth mother must be disowned so that Jane can become a child of the medium of which the parent had no notion – but which is nonetheless anticipated in the telepathic connection that, in the end, leads an adult and independent Jane back to Mr. Rochester, the lover who betrayed her and must earn her trust anew.

Lester’s three-part adaptation retains that psychic episode in Brontë’s story:

Rochester: (In agony.  Whispering through a long tube) Jane! Jane! I need you.  Come to me – come to me!

In radio broadcasting, ‘[w]hispering through a long tube’ can be made to suggest telephony and telepathy – and indeed the medium has the magic of equating both; the prosaic soundstage instruction revealing the trick makes clear, however, that the romance of radio is in the production, that, unlike a novel, a radio play cannot be equated with a script meant for performance.

Being three times as long as most radio adaptations, Lester’s script can give Jane some air to find herself and a home for herself.  And yet, like many other radio versions of the period, it depends so heavily on dramatisation as to deny Jane the chance of shaping her own story.  One scholar, Sylvère Monod has identified thirty passages in which the narrator of Jane Eyre Jane Eyre directly addresses the audience.  And yet, the most famous line of Brontë’s novel is missing from Lester’s script, just as it is absent in most adaptations: ‘Reader, I married him.’ How easily this could be translated into ‘listener’ – to resonate profoundly that most intimate of all mass media: the radio.

Lester, according to whose script plain Jane is ‘pretty,’ is not among the ‘distinguished’ plays of – or for – radio.  Exploiting its source, by then a copyright orphan, it fosters an attitude that persists to this day, despite my persistent efforts to suggest that it can be otherwise: that radio writing is the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’

The “Invisible Rudolf”: Behind the Mike of a Radio Criminal

“As you know, in many countries in Europe the people are only permitted to hear what their government wishes them to hear through government controlled radio stations.” With that reason to be grateful for being an American, uttered on 8 June 1941, veteran announcer Graham McNamee introduced listeners who might have tuned in to Behind the Mike to hear the “sound effect of the week” or learn how radio series were readied for commercial sponsorship to a kind of broadcasting unlike anything heard over NBC, CBS, or Mutual stations. Despite imposed strictures, McNamee continued, there operated “within these countries or near their borders courageous men and women who, opposing the government, broadcast at the risk of their lives the truth as they see it to their fellow men.” Recusant, daring, and hazardous—such were the cloak-and-dagger operations known as “freedom stations.”

For anyone broadcasting—indeed, for anyone lending an ear to those broadcasts—the German government had a word: “Runkfunkverbrecher” (radio criminal). It also insisted on having the last word: a decree to silence those opposing the regime that would turn the cornerstones of democracy into gravestones.

Just how dangerous was it to turn off the Volksempfänger and tune in those secret stations instead? In Voices in the Darkness (1943), British historian Edward Tangye Lean (brother of film director David Lean), offered this piece of evidence from the Strassburger Neueste Nachrichten, dated 15 March 1941:

The Nuremberg Special Court has sentenced the traitor Johann Wild of Nuremberg to death for two serious radio crimes. Both before and after the coming into effect of the radio decree he behaved as an enemy of state and people by continually listening to hostile broadcasts from abroad. Not content with that, he composed insulting tirades whose source was the enemy station.

As Lean points out, propaganda minister Goebbels issued a “list of stations to which listening was allowed.” Along with their ration cards, German citizens received a “little red card with a hole punched in the middle of it so that it might be hung on the station-dial of a radio set.” The card read:

Racial Comrades! You are Germans! It is your duty not to listen to foreign stations. Those who do so will be mercilessly punished.

Warnings were not always heeded and what was “verboten” on the air became increasingly sought-after. So, the radio-savvy Nazis devised a method to catch “Rundfunkverbrecher” in the act. Explaining how that was done was one of the “criminals” who, along with McNamee stood Behind the Mike that afternoon.

Introduced as “Rudolf,” a “young man who [had been] in charge of one of these freedom stations,” the guest speaker, having first explained how such cloak-and-dagger operations were originated by stray Nazi Otto Strasser, went on to explain:

Well, the Germans would set up mobile stations in automobiles. These stations were on the same wavelength as the freedom stations. They would play loud records as they drove through the streets. If you were listening to a freedom station and the mobile transmitter playing loud records would pass your door, your radio would pick up their broadcast and blare. Following this mobile transmitter was another car, full of Gestapo, the secret police. They traced the blare and you’d be under arrest and in a concentration camp.

“Rudolf,” who now lived in the US, proudly announced that he was “becoming an American citizen”—a “citizen of a country that needs no freedom stations,” because “here,” he reasoned, “you can hear the truth.”

The United States would not enter the war for another six months; and even though commercial broadcasters were reluctant to embrace the kind of “important messages” that were not designed to hawk a sponsor’s wares, propagandists were gradually emerging from Behind the Mike—though it would be considered rather unorthodox to have the “truth” delivered in a Germanic voice.

Still, American broadcasters could learn a lot from “Rudolf”—if, indeed, McNamee’s guest was the man whom a British newspaper had dubbed “Invisible Rudolf—the Voice of Austria.” As a contemporary historian, Charles Rolo, describes him in Radio Goes to War (1942), Rudolf was an “ex-Viennese lawyer” whose gravest “Verbrechen” it had been to impersonate Hitler on the air, making the kind of Versprechen (promises) for which the Führer was best known around the world—those he had no intention to keep . . .

On This Day in 1944: Jack Benny, Urging Americans to Keep Their Wartime Jobs, Catches Rochester Moonlighting in Allen’s Alley

Well, last night I finally sat down to watch the first two episodes of the BBC’s current fifteen-part adaptation of Bleak House. While I certainly miss Dickens’s omniscient narrator, the intricacies of the plot and the interweaving of destinies are effectively translated into swiftly edited images and bathetic cuts. Most characters are quite as I recalled them or imagined them to be, with the notable exception of Lady Dedlock, who comes across as rather too contemporary. Saints, sufferers, or scatterbrains, Dickens’s women are notoriously two-dimensional and are most in need of a revision to suit today’s audiences.

As a result, however, they are no longer Dickensian, and bear more resemblance to the far more compelling women in the fictions of Dickens’s fellow novelist and friend, Wilkie Collins. So, when I caught my first glimpse of the secret-harboring and quietly scheming Lady Dedlock as played, icy and aloof, by Gillian Anderson, I felt that she was a potential Collins heroine trapped in a Dickensian plot. I sensed this to be an odd mixture of the sentimental (Dickens) and the sensational (Collins), not unlike, say, a clash between the humor of Jack Benny and the wit of Fred Allen—which is just what American radio listeners experienced on this day, 29 October, in 1944.

For years, comedian Jack Benny and satirist Fred Allen (pictured above, in my own humble attempt at portraiture) engaged in a mock rivalry, acted out on their respective programs, in print, on stage and screen. It was a well-orchestrated multi-media sparring match, fought with insults, wisecracks, and violins, which did much to further the success of both performers.

On said evening, the Jack Benny Program, whose comedy was increasingly serial and situational, slipped quite comfortably into the format that was a defining feature of the Fred Allen Show,: the topical, topsy-survey world of Allen’s Alley. Each week, Allen asked the denizens of his fictional alley a “question of the day.” Benny’s most urgent question was which singing talent should become the featured entertainer on his weekly program. On his way to the NBC studios, Benny runs into Allen, who invites his rival to take a poll in his famed Alley, the “cross section of public opinion.”

Among those answering Benny’s question that night are the huffy, opinionated Mrs. Nussbaum, who offers little assistance by insisting that there is no talent greater than a certain John Charles Shapiro, a crooner performing at Goldberg’s Delicatessen, “by appointment only.” His rendition of “Was You Is or Couldn’t You Possibly Be My Baby” made her swoon like no Sinatra tune ever would.

Somewhat more helpful is her neighbor, the pompous poet Falstaff Openshaw. After delivering a few of his choice verses (“The rose has gone from your cheeks darling, but your neck still looks like a stem” and “The Siamese twins are going screwy, one’s voting for Roosevelt, the other’s for Dewey”), Allen’s resident bard puts the reason for Benny’s difficulties into rhyme: “The reason you can’t get a singer, I’ll be frank, Mr. B., here is why: / A singer won’t just work for L-S-M-F-T [“Lucky Strikes means fine tobacco,” the slogan of Benny’s sponsor], you gotta pay M-O-N-E-Y.”

Allen and Benny are about to leave the Alley when the ode-toting Openshaw offers them a cup of tea. Whom did the two encounter in the poet’s abode but Benny’s butler, Rochester, who is supplementing his paltry salary by secretly churning out verse for Benny’s rival. Wit and humor blend well in this episode; escapism and reality, however, are once again at odds.

Having just caught one of his employees making some money on the side and having been unable to find a new regular for his program, Benny delivers a curtain speech in honor of Navy Day (27 October): “Our men are out there fighting while I’m talking to you now,” Benny addresses his audience, reminding them that “we here at home we must continue to back those men up by sticking to our wartime jobs and giving through the many channels at our disposal.”

Neither the stingy Benny nor his moonlighting valet Rochester were particularly good role models in that respect; but I’m sure their encounter in Allen’s Alley that night brightened the spirits in many a bleak house.

How a Picture Perfect Brief Encounter Dissolved into a Not-So-Still Life

Last night, when it was time to dim the lights, set up the screen, and decide upon a movie to take in, I could be convinced to leave Broadway and Hollywood behind to make it David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Mind you, it did not require much coaxing. I purchased a copy of the film a few weeks ago, but believed myself to be not deserving of experiencing it just yet. Some motion pictures are so grand that they demand not only our attention but our emotional receptiveness. I have always thought it possible, and indeed imperative, to approach art with a keen eye and an open heart, to feel it and to feel like thinking about it at the same time. To examine Brief Encounter without being enveloped by it would be tantamount to noting the ingredients of a great meal without taking time to savor it.

Only after I had dried the tears I was neither inclined nor able to hold back, did I go in search of another interpretation of the story—cinema reconstituted as radio drama. A while back, I did as much with Lean’s Blithe Spirit, but knew right away that, in this case, radio could not hold a candle to a portrait so delicately outlined and exquisitely lit.

When the Theatre Guild reworked both Brief Encounter and Still Life, the Noel Coward play of which the film is an adaptation, the show’s producers made a number of sensible choices. They managed to bring Ingrid Bergman to the microphone to assume the role of Laura Jesson, the married woman who inwardly rehearses the miracle and misery of her recent indiscretion rather than confessing it openly to the husband beside her. Subtle and dignified, Bergman is perfect for the part, her emotive voice well suited to capturing moments of dignity under the assault of passion.

At the time of the broadcast (6 April 1947), Bergman starred on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine, along with Sam Wanamaker and Romney Brent. Both her costars were heard in the Guild’s “Still Life,” with Wanamaker as Laura’s lover and Brent as her husband. Unlike Bergman, the two male leads do not quite communicate the vulnerability with which Trevor Howard and Cyril Raymond invested their parts.

Watching the film, I was under the impression that Laura was tormented by her overwhelming emotions, whereas the radio version suggested that she was torn apart by the two disparate men in her life, by the one wanting so little and the other demanding so much. What contributed to this impression was the way in which the adaptation by radio playwright and noted broadcast historian Erik Barnouw reframed Laura’s narrative without having access to a camera’s perspectival manipulations.

Lean’s film opens with the lovers’ last parting at the train station, a final farewell rendered furtive and mute by the sudden intrusion of one of Laura’s chatty acquaintances. Before the story of Laura’s affair unfolds in retrospect, the viewer already knows that something went terribly wrong for her, that the man who merely touches her shoulder has a stronger hold over her than she can permit herself to make public. Close-ups convey Laura’s grief, her isolation.

The radio version, on the other hand, opens with a scene of domestic life, as Laura’s husband struggles to control his two children who are unwilling to go to sleep before their mother returns home, presumably from a day of shopping. The listener is thus encouraged to prejudge Laura’s actions, to question the indiscretion of an inattentive mother who leaves her charge in the care of her husband while amusing herself with another man. Before she utters even one word of remorse, Laura is already a marked woman. In other words, whereas radio listeners are invited to accuse or pardon her, the film audience is given access to Laura’s own sense of guilt, her inner turmoil.

Generally, radio plays are quite capable of performing close-ups by means of whispered or closely-miked narration; in this particular cinematic challenge, however, the camera suggests so much more than unillustrated speech can express. When Laura acts on the impulse to end her life, her movements and features (pictured above) bespeak the horror that is her emotional imbalance.

In Barnouw’s adaptation, Laura merely talks in retrospect of having wanted to “throw [herself] under his [that is, her lover’s] train”—an unfortunate prosaic shortcut for the sweep and sway of Lean’s storytelling, aurally underscored images that reminded me, despite my love for the non-visual medium, what a sacrifice it can be to take leave of one’s complementary senses.

On This Day in 1953: Business as Bloody Usual on the “gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world”

Well, Broadway is no longer the stuff of romance; having cleaned up its act in the dull spirit of corporate greed, it no longer is the “gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world,” as it was once eulogized in hard-boiled and slightly over-cooked prose on the US radio thriller series Broadway Is My Beat (1949-54). Still, since I am returning to the Big Apple next month, having just booked my flight, I am going to rekindle my own romance with Manhattan by following Detective Danny Clover on his beat somewhere between or around Times Square and Columbus Circle.

On this day, 14 October, in 1953, Clover walked once again past “the hawkers, the gawkers, the ‘hurry up’ boys and the ‘slow down’ girls” to find himself confronted with some suitably sordid business of jealousy and murder—the “Cora Lee” case.

It’s “party time” on East 63rd. The shrill laughter of a drunken woman and the breaking of glass tells us at once that this ain’t a black tie affair. College graduate Cora Lee is in hot water; anyway, her head’s in a tub filled with it. The young woman very nearly drowned, and the bruise on her head suggests that she didn’t take the dive on her own free will. Now, the woman who reported the incident resents being thought of as a suspect. “You’re a stinker,” she tells Clover’s assistant. “And that’s the word I use in mixed company.” Cora comes to, eventually; but everyone around her, including her husband and her father, is too drunk to be of any use to her or the police.

A few days later, the “wild dame” celebrates her recovery with a few drinks in the company of husband and friends, party people who keep living it up while Cora is stretched out dead on the floor with a knife in her heart. Good-natured bunch, ain’t it?

“I was in college with Cora,” one of the drunken guests, a gal with feathers in her hair, tells Clover without a hint of compassion. “I knew her for two weeks, and I said to myself: there’s a classmate who’ll never see thirty. One way or another, she’ll never make it.” The deceased, she claims, was “the most, jealous, vicious, detestable, beautiful girl in the class of 1950.” Who might have killed her? Well, “anyone with a knife,” she sneers, especially the young woman who is so eager now to take Cora’s place as hostess of the merry gathering, offering highballs and sandwiches to the detective while threatening to do “damage” with her “high heel” if the feathered one doesn’t keep her mouth shut.

With all that talk going on, there isn’t time left to weave much of a mystery; but the thrill of listening to realist crime dramas like Gangbusters, Dragnet, or Twenty-first Precinct is not generated by suspense or surprise anyway. The criminal, whoever it happens to be, will in all likelihood be apprehended somehow. The excitement lies in going along for the ride, in the privilege of being in the presence of criminal elements, of witnessing the tawdry and treacherous, the vile and violent from a comforting distance.

With a dash of purple prose and a helping of humor, Broadway Is My Beat is as gaudy and violent as the formerly “lonesomest” mile it evokes in word and sound. As white as the Great White Way is nowadays, you just won’t get that kind of kick out of strolling past the Olive Garden or watching the out-of-towners going around on the Toys “R” Us ferris wheel. Let Detective Clover take you on a tour . . .

On This Day in 1937: “Saints preserve us,” Here Comes Mr. Keen

Well, I just attended a touring production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, a critique of which will have to wait until tomorrow; for tonight I am going to acknowledge, however half-heartedly, the anniversary of a radio program preposterous enough to be deemed food for foolery by noted on-air lampoonists Bob and Ray (pictured). I am referring, of course, to Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, whose melodramatic excesses were first endured on this day, 12 October, in 1937.

Sure, radio drama chronicler Jim Cox has devoted an entire volume to the story of the “kindly old investigator”; and considering that the program managed to stay on the air for eighteen years, it must have had its unfair share of admirers. Each week, Keen was unabashedly announced as “one of the most famous characters of American fiction” in “one of radio’s most thrilling dramas.” To me, however, the theme music—”Some Day I’ll Find You”—always seemed taunting, a hollow promise at best. Find that last missing person already and begone, old tracer!

Keen eventually changed his line of business, cornering criminals instead of countering disappearing acts. Still, whether apprehending miscreants or retrieving the missing, his methods of deduction rarely changed and were not of the most sophisticated sort. As Cox points out in his Radio Crime Fighters, Keen’s cases were poorly constructed, their solution relying on “minimal logic,” mere coincidences or abject slip-of-the-tongue-shodness.

None of this bothered me as much as the condescension with which the sanctimonious hero interfered in the lives of those who sought his help or came under his scrutiny. He was an officious, moralizing snoop who went about what was often none of his business at all.

I am usually not one to embrace camp, which, to me, is a cavalier act of willful misreading; but I was greatly amused when a recreation of a Mr. Keen episode—”The Case of the Inherited Fear”—was performed and greeted with irreverence at the 25th Friends of Old Time Radio Convention in Newark, New Jersey.

The case involved a young naval officer who, as the narrator puts it, “disappeared after he’d been discharged from the navy for medical causes. He was obsessed with a fear of being in confined places.” I could identify with the runaway right away, for what could be more stifling than being clap-trapped by old Mr. Keen?

The ever successful tracer manages to get hold of the claustrophobe in a mining town in Pennsylvania, engaged in an attempt to overcome his anxieties by toiling underground. Just when he is about to make his first descent, an alarm is sounded and his efforts are temporarily thwarted: a cave-in has occurred, endangering the lives of 140 miners.

Keen has “seized the occasion” to lecture the fearful man, insisting that he go below to rescue the workers. The old fellow single-handedly (or, make that, single-mindedly) unlocks the mystery of the ex-officer’s phobia by unearthing its true cause: “Your fear is nothing more than a symbol in your subconscious mind, a symbol of what happened the day you were locked in the closet with your mother.”

Well, such pop-psychological drivel could only trickle from the busy pen of radio melodramatists Anne and Frank Hummert, who decreed that, thanks to Mr. Keen, sanity be restored and social ties mended as the thoroughly rehabilitated young man rushes to the aid of the miners with the “same calm, untroubled expression” his mother has when she turns to her bible.

“Saints preserve us” (as Mr. Keen’s sidekick would put it), the aged tracer has done it again, dispensing another dose of sentiment when suspense might have sufficed. Now, if only we could stuff him into that closet . . .

A “revoltin’ development”; in The Life of Riley

Complaints about the excesses and irresponsibility of broadcasting are nearly as old as the first broken crystal set. During World War II, producers and sponsors of US radio entertainment were obliged to exercise some restraint for the sake of the ostensibly common good by making room for public service announcements and planting overt propagandistic messages into their melodramatic or comic offerings. Not long after VJ Day, though, it was high time for all in the radio game to accelerate profits and squeeze the most out of a medium that was rumored by some to be obsolete within a few years.

Radio was getting shriller, more vulgar, more profligate by the advertising minute, critics lamented in denunciations no less crass than the purportedly noisome programming. In September 1947, NBC made a token gesture in response to such bad press, half-heartedly vowing to ban thrillers from its early evening line-up. That did not stop NBC censors from permitting a gun to end up in an infant’s mouth, as the man living the Life of Riley turned babysitter in arms on this day, 11 October, in 1947.

“Now we’re in for a crime wave,” the father of Riley’s wife Peg declared when hearing the news about young Chester’s plan to become a copper. The story of this doomed undertaking unfolds in retrospect, as Peg tries to set the record straight for the benefit of a dinner guest who thinks about joining the police force after hearing Riley boast about his past exploits. Not only was Riley incapable of preventing a robbery in the store of Peg’s father, but downright criminal in his community disservice.

As ear-witnesses of Riley’s night beat, we follow the eager rookie as he picks up a few suspicious noises. The first is merely the sound of his own flatfeet on the pavement; but when he hears the bawling and choking of an infant, he decides to put his misplaced authority to some use. Entering the home from whence the wailings wafted, Riley finds himself in charge of a neglected baby. “No, now, now. You mustn’t touch my badge. It will stick you. We don’t want you to get hurt,” he gently admonishes the little one. “Oh, you want something to play with? Well, here. You play with this. Riley-Wiley’s nice pretty gun.”

At this point you can hear the women in the studio audience gasp and wriggle uneasily in their seats. Is this a laughing matter? Should Riley—or the producers of this show—get away with such behavior? “Aww, look at the cute little fellow, puttin’ the barrel in his mouth. He thinks it’s a bottle.” It is a disturbing moment that lasts just a little too long to be ignored, let alone tolerated. “Mustn’t pull the trigger,” Riley keeps cooing, “It’s loaded.” Those words, followed by a burglar alarm going off next door, rouse the doting gun-father and put an end to this disquieting episode.

Riley is forced to surrender his badge in the end and continues his bumbling search for a “permanent position”; only his friend Digby O’Dell, the undertaker, can “guarantee” his ultimate success in the matter. “I generally hit the nail on the head,” brags the morbid pal. Riley is tired of having dirt thrown in his face; but O’Dell assures him that it “happens to everyone, sooner or later.” It happens to sitcoms, too, once their short supply of puerile humor gets a bit long in the tooth—and O’Dell seems to have uttered the gallows humor of overworked, underappreciated radio artists faced with a hostile takeover by television.

Well, I think I’ll saunter over to Duffy’s Tavern. The wit is not quite as dim there. Unless you know of a more cheerful watering hole to which I could kilocycle when I am inclined to while away the odd half-hour . . .

On This Day in 1962: Suspense Ends As US Radio Invests Its Drama Dollar Elsewhere

She’s fiddling with the wrong knobs

Imagine flipping through the latest copy of Entertainment Weekly and reading about a psychological thriller starring Halle Berry and Colin Farrell, to be broadcast live from your favorite radio station. Imagine sitting on a train catching the opening of another season of Desperate Housewives on your iPod . . . with your eyes closed. Imagine what audio entertainment used to be and still could be today had radio not been “abandoned like the bones at a barbecue” (as comedian Fred Allen once put it). Instead of continuing the feast, we are starving our senses, having been given less to nourish our imagination and more to gawk at from afar, even as our television sets are being gradually retired in favor of cyber-age gadgetry.

Well, as anyone passionate about the half forgotten and much neglected culture of US radio drama will be only too keenly aware, today marks the anniversary of what is generally regarded as its official demise. The two last holdouts, the thriller anthology Suspense and the detective series Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar presented their final episodes on this day, September 30, in 1962. In an age when listeners were taking their transistor radios everywhere, radio drama was going nowhere.

Storytelling on US radio had been suffering a decade-long decline, even though, as one of my readers pointed out to me recently, there were still a few fine programs left on the air in the mid-to-late-1950s, including the long-running series mentioned above. There were attempts to revive radio drama in the 1970s and ’80s, as well; but since the old dial had been refitted with a new shorthand for aural art, the potentialities of the medium collapsed into music, talk, and news formats, leaving little space and fewer resources for the theater of the mind.

In the US, the radio play has always been looked upon as a makeshift art, a substitute or remedial form of entertainment for a public that was being told for ages that television was just around the corner. Television was supposedly the real thing, which in reality meant that the landscapes of the imagination were being walled in to fit the tiny screen before our sore eyes.

Getting the picture was a considerable loss; but our ocular preoccupations keep most of us from getting it, from making up for it by making it up all over again.

On This Day in 1940: Arthur Miller Unleashes a Pussycat

As it turned out, I had been listening to Jeremy Vine’s “Climate Change Special” on BBC Radio 2, in which discussions about global warming and environmental crises were interspersed with a series of fictive news bulletin from the future—the year 2035. After such spurious time-traveling, I retreated into the world of fantasy, a bit of old-time radio whimsy from the pen of none other than the late American playwright Arthur Miller.

Pardon my credulity, but yesterday, listening to the radio, I experienced my own “War of the Worlds” encounter—you know, an act of airwave fakery during which hearing becomes believing. Going about my daily affairs, I picked up a few words of what I assumed to be a news broadcast, it being preceded by the customary jingle of the oft relied upon BBC. “Much of East Anglia remains under water today after the latest North Sea storm surge,” newsreader Adrian Finnegan informed me, and “nearly a million people” had been evacuated from an area large portions of which might never be reclaimed from the sea. Why hadn’t I heard about this before, I wondered, still under the influence of telecasts from hurricane-battered New Orleans.

Yes, Miller does have a radio past, even though it is a less than illustrious one. So it is frequently, politely, and foolishly ignored, as if a half-decade of dabbling in the theater of the mind could not possibly have had an influence on the career of a writer whose 1964 drama After the Fall “takes place in the mind, thought, and memory” of its protagonist.

“I despise radio,” Miller told an interviewer in 1947; with a successful play on Broadway and a well-received first novel to his credit, Miller was ready to get out of what he referred to as “a dark closet.” He meant the melodramatic excesses of radio drama, but also complained about the limitations imposed by network executives and the sponsors that fed them. Well, let’s open that closet now to commemorate the broadcast anniversary of Miller’s “The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man,” a radio fantasy produced by the Columbia Workshop on 29 September 1940.

While not quite the man who had all the luck, Miller was rather fortunate to begin his career in radio, having his plays soundstaged by the sustaining (that is, commercial free) Workshop, a venue far more open to experimentation than the program he chose to recall in Timebends. His playful “Pussycat” is the story of an invisible trickster—a commentary on radio, therefore, and one that forced me to keep in mind the mind-game to which I had just been subjected.

The eponymous tomcat is a megalomaniac intent on going into politics and swaying the masses with his “lovely tenor voice.” Hidden from view behind a microphone, he convinces his audience of potential voters that he “must be a wonderful man,” until he is exposed as a fraud by an average Joe who threatens to drag him out into the open. “[I]f you want to know,” he sums up his tale, “a cat will do anything, the worst things, to fill his stomach, but a man . . . a man will actually prefer to stay poor because of an ideal.”

Clearly, Miller resented radio because he felt that it was making a pussycat of the manly expert he aspired to be. Yet he often overstated the strictures of network radio and eventually got too tired to resist them. Radio plays may not be the cat’s meow to narrow-minded intellectuals, but experts like Norman Corwin proved that they were hardly the litterbox of American culture.