Forecasts in Hindsight: Wrongly Predicting the 1948 Presidential Election

As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat.  Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.

Many articles in Crosby’s column made it into this 1952 volume, which is on my bookshelf. The item discussed here did not.

I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time.  Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance.  Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately.  “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:

‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’  Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there.  As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.

‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’  To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’

Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’  

Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’  Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.  

A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.

Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’  Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’  Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.

Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism,  provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’  Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.

‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’  The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.

The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’  Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.

Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’

Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future.  And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness.  As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.

That’s No Lady. That’s an Executive: Robert Hardy Andrews’s Legend of a Lady (1949)

Dust jacket of my copy of Legend of a Lady, which I added to my library in June 2020

In “‘Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?’: Exits and Recantations,” the final chapter of Immaterial Culture, I briefly discuss how creative talent working in the US broadcasting industry during the 1930s and 1940s tended to recall their experience upon closing the door to the world of radio in order to pursue careers they deemed more lofty and worthy.  Few had anything positive to say about that world, and their reminiscences range from ridicule to vitriol.

Within a year or two after the end of the Second World War, attacks on the radio industry became widespread and popular; most notable among them was The Hucksters, a novel by Frederic Wakeman, a former employee of the advertising agency Lord & Thomas.  Between 1937 and 1945, Wakeman had developed radio programs and sales campaigns for corporate sponsors, an experience that apparently convinced him to conclude there was ‘no need to caricature radio.  All you have to do,’ the author’s fictional spokesperson sneers, ‘is listen to it.’

Such ‘parting shots,’ as I call them in Immaterial Culture, resonated with an audience that, after years of fighting and home front sacrifices, found it sobering that Democratic ideals, the Four Freedoms and the Pursuit of Happiness were being reduced to the right – and duty – to consume.  After a period of relative restraint, post-war radio went all out to spread such a message, until television took over and made that message stick with pictures showing the latest goods to get and guard against Communism.

Following – and no doubt encouraged by – the commercial success of The Hucksters, the soap opera writer Robert Hardy Andrews published Legend of a Lady, a novel set, like Wakeman’s fictional exposé, in the world of advertising.  Andrews probably calculated that like The Hucksters and owing to it Legend would be adapted for the screen, as his novel Windfall had been.

Unlike in The Hucksters, the industry setting is secondary in Legend of a Lady.  Andrews has less to say about radio than he has about women in the workforce.  And what he has to say on that subject the dust jacket duly proclaims: ‘Legend of a Lady is the story of pretty, fragile Rita Martin, who beneath her charming exterior is hell-bent for personal success and who tramples with small, well-shod feet on all who stand in her way.’  The publisher insisted that ‘it would be hard to find a more interesting and appalling character.’

I did not read the blurb beforehand, and, knowing little about the novel other than the milieu in which it is set, I was not quite prepared for the treatment the title character receives not only by the men around her but by the author. The Legend of the Lady, which I finished reading yesterday, thinking it might be just the stuff for a reboot of my blog, opens intriguingly, and with cinematic potential, as the Lady in question picks up ‘her famous white-enameled portable typewriter in small but strong hands’ and throws it ‘through the glass in the office widow,’ right down onto Madison Avenue, the artificial heart of the advertising industry.

This is Mad Women, I thought, and looked forward to learning, in flashback, how a ‘small but strong’ female executive gets to weaponise a tool of the trade instead of dutifully sitting in front of it like so many stereotypical office gals.  Legend of a Lady is ‘appalling’ indeed, reminding readers that dangerous women may be deceptively diminutive, that they are after the jobs held by their male counterparts, and that, rest assured, dear conservative reader, they will pay for it.  In the end, Rita Martin, a single mother trying to gain independence from her husband and making a living during the Great Depression, exists an office ‘she would never enter again.’  Along the way, she loses everything –spoiler alert – from her sanity to her son.

The blurb promises fireworks, but what Legend of a Lady delivers is arson.  It is intent on reducing to ashes the aspirational ‘legend’ of women who aim to control their destiny in post-war America.  The world of soap opera writing and production serves as mere a backdrop to render such ambitions all the more misguided: soap operas are no more real than the claim that working for them is a meaningful goal.  As a writer of serials for mass consumption, Robert Hardy Andrews apparently felt threatened and emasculated working in a business in which women achieved some success in executive roles.  In a fiction in which men big and small suffer deaths and fates worth than that at the delicate hand of Rita Martin, Andrews created for himself a neo-romantic alter ego – the rude, nonchalant freelance writer Tay Crofton, who refuses to be dominated by a woman he would like to claim for himself but does not accept as a partner on her own terms, presumably because she cannot be entrusted with the power she succeeds in wresting from the men around her without as much as raising her voice.

Devoid of the trimmings and trappings of Hollywood storytelling, without glamor or camp, without gowns by Adrian or brows by Crawford, Legend of a Lady serves its misogyny straight up – but it couches its caution against ‘small’ women in spurious philosophy by claiming that, for men and women alike, there is life outside the proverbial squirrel cage that Andrews relentlessly rattles for his agonizing spin on the battle of the sexes.

Immaterial Me

My study Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929-1954 has just been published.  So, as well as explaining the subject matter of the book and the objectives of its writer, I decided to devote a few journal entries to the story behind its production, to its birth and life in relation to my own journey.  There is also the small matter of its afterlife, a matter to which no parent, proud or otherwise, can be entirely indifferent.
Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here.  No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle.  And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.
Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct.  The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken.  Words that create images or match stored ones.  Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought.  Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.
That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it.  After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss.  I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles.  Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.  Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse.

Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …

Air and Grouses; or, 180 Seconds to Mark 90 Years

“Give’m that off-the-air smile”

When Radio Times magazine announced a few weeks ago that its 10-16 November issue would celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the Corporation largely in charge of the medium to which the pages of said venerable British weekly are nominally dedicated, I was very nearly all ears.  That I wasn’t ears entirely is owing to the skepticism I have developed when it comes to the wireless and its status in today’s mass-mediated society.  Sure enough, the Radio Times celebration fell as flat as my introductory sentence.  The promised “Anniversary Special” amounted to little more than a few pages of pictures designed to demonstrate that radio—or, strictly speaking, BBC radio—is very much alive.  Clearly, I haven’t kept my ear to the ground, as most of the personalities depicted are no more familiar to me in appearance or voice than the radio stars of yesterday whose images I put on display here to suggest that commemoration and oblivion are not mutually exclusive and that what is being marked by the “Anniversary Special” is not so much the birth or infancy or longevity of radio but its presence and relevance today.

“Remember what I said?”
“Print, they say, is dying,” news presenter Eddie Mair opens his commemorative Radio Times article, and television programs nowadays are “watched by a fraction of the numbers who used to tune in.”  The wireless, on the other hand on the proverbial dial, he argues to be in “rude health,” ninety years after the BBCs mics first went live” on 14 November in 1922.
No doubt, those words are meant to be eulogistically reassuring, albeit less so to the publishers of an ailing print magazine, in deference to whom Mair distances himself from his opening statement by injecting “they say.”  I might add—and shall—that if “they say” radio is thriving, then why isn’t there a radio on the cover of that ‘anniversary’ issue? It isn’t radio’s age, surely, that made editors decide against a shot of an historic wireless set, a glistening microphone, or any number of radio personalities, living or dead.  After all, the editors chose Sir David Attenborough as their cover boy—and he, at 86, is nearly as old as the BBC.
“Just who do they think we aren’t?”
Why Attenborough? Well, he, too, has a broadcasting anniversary worth celebrating; and, apparently, his sixty years of television are worth more to the BBC than its own ninety years of radio broadcasting, marked in the pages of Radio Times with a slim timeline of scant microphone highlights so miniscule that it, like the fine print in advertising, makes you feel what is really wanting is a microscope.  Could it be that the Corporation toned down its self-glorification in light of the scandal surrounding desanctified saint Jimmy Savile and the efforts to cover up or deal with his posthumously emerging history of pedophilia? While this may not be the time for airs and graces, it does not follow that any self-reflexive, critical history the BBC airs disgraces.
Sure if your face is red, you are not inclined to parade it in public; but that does not quite explain, let alone justify, the way in which the wireless anniversary is scheduled to unfold sonically this afternoon.  At 5:33 PM precisely—the exact time of the first BBC radio broadcast back in 1922—all BBC stations jointly air a newly commissioned composition of music and sound bites, the latter to be contributed by listeners.  However thrilling and noteworthy, the whole rather self-defacing event lasts about three minutes, less time by far than commercial television sets aside for a single block of advertising.
Not quite believing my eyes at the sound of that announcement, I flicked through the pages of Radio Times in search of further commemorative programming.  Alas, it is, for the most part, business as usual.  And even though the “usual” is usually quite satisfactory, the extraordinary sure has a deflated air about it.

She Said It in English: Olympe Bradna (1920-2012) on Men, Mikes and Milk

Cover of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Cinegram No. 60
“Olympe Bradna is a diplomat of the first rank!” So declared the editors of Cinegram in an issue devoted to Say It in French.  In that now largely forgotten romantic comedy, Bradna co-starred as a French student who impersonates a maid to be close to an American lover (played by Welshman Ray Milland) expected to marry a millionaire’s daughter (Irene Hervey) to save his father’s business.  Maybe that sounded better in French, in which the comedy was first staged under the title Soubrette. Never mind.  The “petite morsel of feminine allure,” so the Bradna legend goes, had “only been kissed by two men during her whole lifetime”—that lifetime amounting to eighteen years back in 1938.  One year into her brief Hollywood career, Bradna had overcome her “anxiety and embarrassment” and forgotten about her vow that she “would never kiss” at all, “either on the screen or off, until she had a ‘steady’ beau.”  Having been teamed with both Milland and Gene Raymond (in Stolen Heaven), the actress was “all in favour” of on-screen romance; but, when asked whose lips she preferred, the teenager refused to kiss and tell. “If I did that, it would be, how do you say? ‘propaganda.’” In the context of European pre-war clamour and the business of Hollywood glamour, the word choice is peculiar, especially since Cinegram was a promotional effort aimed at British audiences.  It is a telling statement, too, as it suggests Bradna’s questioning of the role she was expected to play in the propagation and exploitation of her own image.
Far from naive, the French-born performer knew all about the real world of make-believe, which is why, in her future pursuit of “real romance,” she was determined to “go outside the show business.”  In the early 1920s, her parents, Jeanne and Joseph Bradna, had a successful bareback riding act at the Olympia Theater in Paris, after which venue Olympe was named and where she made her stage debut when she was not quite two years old.  Hence, I suppose, her expressed need for security: “[A]ctors are fellows with uncertain jobs.  They’re generally honest, gay, intelligent and interesting, but they lack that quality of stability that is so important to a girl who wants to establish a home.”
Autographed portrait of Olympe Bradna from the pages of Cinegram 60 (1938)
Bradna in Cinegram No. 60
Presumably, she said all this in English, rather than in her native tongue.  When she first set her dancing feet on the United States as a member of the Folies Bergère and subsequently performed at New York’s French Casino, she was so dismayed at her “lack of English that she determined to learn to speak the language properly.  She succeeded so well,” Cinegram readers were told, “that when it came to making this new picture she had to put in several weeks of hard work under a French tutor to get her French back to standard.”  A Hollywood standard, that is.  After all, in romantic comedy, a French accent was as desirable as a maid’s uniform.
Bradna’s language skills were put to the ultimate test when, on 14 November 1938, she went behind the microphone for the Lux Radio Theater production of “The Buccaneer,” co-starring Clark Gable as French pirate Jean Lafitte; but her part was suitably Old-World, and all over the map besides, to account for any foreignness in her speech.  Bradna assumed the role of Gretchen, which had been played on screen by the Hungarian-born cabaret artist Franciska Gaal.  “Oh, I don’t know how I sound, Mr. DeMille,” Bradna said to in the nominal producer of the program during her scripted curtain call, “a Dutch girl with a French accent in an American play.”  Supported as she was by Gertrude Michael and Akim Tamiroff, both of whom enriched American English with peculiar accents and inflections, she hardly stood out like a sore tongue.
Back page of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland
Not that Bradna, who appeared on the cover of the 27 July 2 August 1938 issue of Movie-Radio Guide, was a stranger to the microphone.  According to the March 1938 issue of Radio Mirror, Paramount Pictures “put her into five consecutive radio guest-spots for a big build up—but without giving her a nickel.”  Perhaps, DeMille would not have given her a nickel, either, for the privilege of making it into a Lux-lathered version of The Buccaneer, one of his own productions, nor given her an opportunity to promote her latest picture, Say It in French, had he known what British Cinegram readers gathered by flicking through their souvenir program for Say It.  Bradna, they were told, had “startled experts by announcing that the secret of her facial complexion [was] a daily buttermilk massage.”  The maker’s of Lux Toilet Soap could not have been pleased at Bradna’s insistence, fictive or otherwise, that buttermilk was “all” she needed: “My skin may be ever so parched and dry before the routine, but afterwards it is as fresh and smooth as I could want!”
Wally Westmore, Paramount’s make-up chief, reputedly explained that the “secret”—an age-old French recipe for a youthful complexion perhaps not quite so difficult to achieve at the age of eighteen—lay in the rich oil content of buttermilk, which had the same “softening and freshening effect upon the skin as the most elaborate and expensive preparations used by the stars.”  That, of course, was just the claim Lever Brothers were making each week on the Lux Radio Theater, which might explain why Ms. Bradna was never again heard on the program, whose stars were handsomely remunerated for their implied or stated endorsement of the titular product.  Perhaps, Bradna was not “a diplomat of the first rank” after all . . .
Olympe Bradna died on 5 November 2012 in Lodi, California.

Figured Speech: De-monstrating Lord Haw-Haw

When I picked up this slim and curious volume, Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen (1939), at an antiquarian bookstore in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, I was puzzled, to say the least.  I mean, I had heard about—and had listened to recordings of—the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, the fascist broadcaster whose role it was to demoralize the British, to make them turn against their own government by convincing them that to side with the so-called Third Reich was the safest, surest way to march forward.  Yet here was a book—written pseudonymously by a journalist calling himself Jonah Barrington and cartoonishly illustrated by an artist who went by the name of Fenwick—that turned propaganda into satire by lending form and features to a voice of terror that was infiltrating the home front.
Yes, it is a curious performance—a biographical act of deflating a windbag, of knocking the stuffing out of a nameless, disembodied operative whose dangerous air of mystery was just plain hot by the time Barrington had laughed off the threat by calling it “Haw-Haw.”  Those in Britain who, like Barrington, had caught the bizarre broadcasts from station Zeesen in Germany began to speculate about the speaker.  In the absence of evidence, Barrington created a character that, to him, had already “become real”; and out of the polemics that “nightly pollute[d]” the British air, the journalist set out to weave “silly fancies.”
“Let me make one point perfectly clear,” Barrington added:
Although Fenwick and I have use our imagination in building up the home life and background of Haw-Haw and his fellow propagandists, the actual speeches credited here to them are given verbatim—exactly as broadcast from the stations Hamburg, Cologne and Zeesen (D.J.A).
Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen defused a crisis by giving a ridiculous shape to uncertain things to come, by making preposterously concrete what had been potentially persuasive or at least dangerously ambiguous hearsay.  Filmmakers and journalists had parodied Nazi figures before—but the task of turning rhetoric into a figure of ridicule is a rather more complex strategy of counter-propaganda, especially since, in this case, print was rendering fictive what it had made definitive:
Haw-Haw in print needs stage directions, scene-setting and local colour.  And Fenwick needn’t thing he’s going to sit back and do nothing, either.  You want the best of Haw-Haw, and we give it to you—drawings and all.
Best or worst, readers of Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen were meant to get the better of him.

". . . he has an air": Floyd Gibbons, Wireless Adventurer

“Have voice, will travel.” That was the line my history of broadcasting professor Frank Kahn used to advertise his vocal services in the trade papers of yesteryear. And a voice for radio he did have, even though what he said and how he brought it across was appreciated by next to no one at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he ended up teaching in the cable TV age. Kahn was out of touch and, no doubt, keenly aware of it, incapable or unwilling though he was to do anything about it. “Have voice, will travel”? I mean, who among his students even got this sly reference to a time when the medium of radio was being challenged by sharp-shooting television? “Have voice, will travel.” The line came to mind when, some time ago, I read Douglas Gilbert’s biography Floyd Gibbons: Knight of the Air (1930). You don’t have to be out of touch to appreciate it, though it sure doesn’t hurt any if you catch up with someone whose fifteen minutes of fame (and airtime) was up nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
“There is no one in the world who can talk like Floyd Gibbons,” his biographer marvelled:

He speaks at a maximum speed of 245 words a minute and at an average speed of 216 words a minute and every word is clearly pronounced, completely enunciated, readily understood.  He dramatizes his speech, just as he dramatizes the news.

Gilbert, in turn, “dramatizes” Gibbons’s career.  Indeed, he melo-dramatizes it.  The biographer seems determined to turn the journalist into a swashbuckler and to imbue with romance what, on the air, was down-to-earth and up-to-date.

“He could, and often does, wear any sort of costume,” Gilbert says about Gibbons, “and when he does, he has an air.  It is a negligent and yet perfect air.” Shown with his signature patch (Gibbons lost one eye while, as a newspaper journalist, he was reporting from French battlefields during the First World War), the so-called “Headline Hunter,” then middle-aged, certainly has that “air” of romance about him.

According to Gilbert, Gibbons was through being a roving reporter at the age of forty.  His latest book, The Red Napoleon, which he was in the process of completing back in 1928, was a “prophesy of the next world war and the part radio was to play in it.”  To make such a prophesy, Gibbons consulted NBC president M. H. Aylesworth; and out of his luncheon with the radio executive there “developed the ‘Headline Hunter’ and the ‘Prohibition Poller’ and news gatherer that ma[de] the Literary Digest’s fifteen minutes over WJZ a radio ‘front page.’”

At 40 through with roving? Today at 42 he’s just begun—roaming for fifteen-million persons—their vicarious vagabond of the air, satisfying the gypsy lust of those of us who have never traveled.

“He’s radio’s knight errant,” Gilbert insists, “the listener’s passport to uncharted harbors; their open sesame to Cathay; their vista of a world whose only boundaries are the poles.”

For his audition, performed in front of an “unseen audience of Aylesworth and other NBC officials,” Gibbons recounted his “most exciting experience”—being aboard the Laconia when she was torpedoed.  The event had taken place over a decade earlier, on 25 February 1917; but Gibbons managed to bring it to life and to lend it urgency through the power of his voice. 

Back in 1917,

Gibbons had had a hunch, a newspaper man’s hunch when he took the Laconia.  He had been ordered to France as war correspondent.  He refused to go on the ship on which Von Bernsdorff [German ambassador to the US] was sailing because he knew no harm would come to that ship from the Germans.  He chose the Laconia, having a hunch she would be sunk and that he would escape and file a story of the sinking.

In the late 1920s, there was no indication that radio, too, was a ship under fire.  As Gilbert suggests, Gibbons would have gotten aboard anyway, had he known just how much danger lay ahead.  Not many people beside Gibbons imagined in 1930 that radio would become the medium most called upon for up-to-date accounts of warfare.  Had he been born a decade or two later—and not died in 1939—Gibbons would have gone straight into the thick of it and brought his spitfire delivery to a medium to which his voice was so adequately equipped.  Living too early, living too late? All we can hope is that our voices will travel some distance once we are convinced we have something to say . . . 

“. . . a dam’ good shake-up”: Death at Broadcasting House

“Snobbish nonsense!” says one shabbily dressed young Londoner to another as they observe a man in a starched shirt and dinner jacket enter Broadcasting House.  The man, they reckon, is an announcer about to go on the air, unseen yet meticulously groomed and attired.  At the sight of which pointless and paradoxical propriety they sneer: “That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up.”  A “dam’ good shake-up.”  That, in a coconut shell (to employ the most sound-effective nut in the business of radio dramatics), is what Val Gielgud and his collaborator Holt Marvell (the fanciful penname of fellow broadcaster Eric Maschwitz) set out to perform in Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a murder mystery set in and temporarily upsetting the reliable, predictable and frightfully proper BBC.  Although I had know about it for quite some time, I just finished reading it;  turns out, it’s a “dam’ good” page-turner, and a compelling commentary on the marginality, the relative obscurity of radio dramatics besides.

“There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole place.  Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting!” one of the above sidewalk critics of the tried and generally trusted institution declares.  It is clear, though, that Gielgud and Maschwitz did not side with the two self-styled “communists.”  The authors were BBC employees and not about to stage a revolution.  The “shake-up” was strictly a matter of maracas, a means of making some noise for their own undervalued accomplishments rather than spilling the beans without which those maracas would become utterly useless as instruments of ballyhoo.

Sure, broadcasting plays—minutely timed, meticulously rehearsed and intensely scrutinized—were far more mechanic than any other form of dramatic performance.  Yet, as Gielgud insisted in one of his many articles on radio drama, “[i]n spite of [its] machine-like qualities” and “in spite of the lack of colour and applause, the work has a fascination of its own.” That the multitude for whom these performances were intended showed so little gratitude was frustrating to an actor-director like Gielgud, who sarcastically remarked a few years earlier that dismissive reviews in the press suggested, at least, that the broadcast play had “passed the first and most depressing stage of development—the stage of being entirely ignored.”  By 1934, it had clearly not advanced to a stage that could be deemed legitimate.

What better way to gainsay those naysayers than to spill some of that “good red blood” or to stir it properly and to make it run hot and cold by turns.  “A killing! In Broadcasting House, of all places! Good God!” is the response of General Sir Herbert Farquharson, the corporation’s fictional Controller.  He has just been informed that an actor was done away with during the production of a live broadcast.  “My god, sir,” the director of that play exclaims, “do you realize that everyone who heard that play must have heard him die? That makes it pretty unique in the annals of crime.”

That most folks tuning in thought little of it—that they believed it to be part of the drama—is owing to the fact that the murder was committed right at the moment when, according to the script, the character played by the victim was scheduled to breathe his last.  A crime at once prominent and inconspicuous—like most radio dramas, performed as they were without a studio audience.  After all, even the Controller, at the time of the murder, was attending a variety program staged in the specially designed Vaudeville Studio instead.

Death at Broadcasting House is the self-conscious performance of two radiomen, Gielgud and Maschwitz, fighting for the recognition that, for the most part, eludes those working behind the scenes—especially the folks behind the scenes of a largely invisible business.  Their book, as they so slyly state, was “dedicated impertinently … to those critics who persistently deny that the radio pay exists, has existed, or ever can exist.”  Radio plays existed, all right, but, for the most part, they died as soon as they were heard, if they were heard at all.

Unless, of course, they were blattnerphoned. “Blattnerphone?” the puzzled inspector exclaims.  “Yes,” the BBC’s dramatic director, Julian Caird, explains:

“It’s a way of recording a programme on a steel tape so that it can be re-transmitted.  We have to do a good deal of it for Empire work.” […]

“You mean we can hear that actual scene over again?”

“We can hear that scene,” said Caird, “not only over again, but over and over again.  As often as you like.  I wonder if the murderer thought of that?”

Probably not.  Unless he numbers among the initiated few, folks like Caird—and Gielgud—who have their fingers at the controls, conjurers who don’t mind revealing some of their tricks to demonstrate just how powerful they are.

“The curious thing about the case what that it was both extremely simply and extremely complicated,” the inspector wraps up the business of detection.  “It was extremely complicated only because it took place under very remarkable conditions—conditions which you wouldn’t find repeated anywhere else, and for which, of course, there was absolutely no precedent.”  The same applies to Gielgud and Maschwitz’s fiction. However witty and engaging, the whodunit is entirely conventional. It is the setting, the broadcasting studio, that makes it unusual.  The setting, thus, becomes the star of the production—a star without whose presence the show simply could not go on.

Indeed, the crime depends on the complexity of British radio production to be in need of detection.  In American broadcasting, by comparison, all actors gathered in the same studio, a congregation that would render the unobserved strangling of one of them not only improbably but impossible.  At the BBC, however, plays were produced using a multiple studios, a complex approach Gielgud’s stand-in explains thus:

[T]he chief reasons why we use several studios and not one, are two.  The first is that by the use of separate studios, the producer can get different acoustic effects for his scenes….  Secondly, the modern radio play depends for its “continuity” … upon the ability to ‘fade’ one scene at its conclusion into the next.  You can see at once that there must be at least two studios in use for these “fades” to be possible.  In an elaborate play, therefore, the actors require as many studios as the varying acoustics of the different scenes require, while … sound effects have a studio of their own, gramophone effects one more, and the orchestra providing the incidental music yet another separate one.

Anyone who has ever listened to an American radio play of the 1930s, such as the ones produced by the Columbia Workshop, knows that no such complex arrangements are needed for the effective use of multiple fades and changes in acoustics.  Death at Broadcasting House is a defense of the British system.  It turns the multi-studio approach into something to be marveled at—an arcane system fit for a mystery, a puzzle whose solution requires the expertise of the initiated and thus vindicates the existence of the men masterminding the business with their hands firmly on that most complex of all pieces of broadcasting equipment: the dramatic control panel, which, Gielgud enthused elsewhere, enabled the director “to move at will, both in time and space, as simply as if he were travelling on the fabled magic carpet, and to take his audience with him.”

Smoke Gets in Your Ears; or, What Price “Butch" and "George”?

A keepsake that hasn’t been looked after
The other day, Bob and I drove down to Leominster, England.  The objective was to pick up a painting at a local auction house; but we made a day of it, during which we discovered Leominster to be a great town for antiquing.  Now, when it comes to treasure hunts, my definition of “priceless” is “unvalued,” a label (or stigma) attached to objects that somehow don’t matter much and therefore sell for next to nothing.  It is to those less prized items that I tend to be drawn—provided they have something to do with the undervalued performance art of radio.  So, for about one hundredth of the cost of our latest oil, I took home a complete if somewhat tatty album of cigarette cards dating from 1934.  Since it was issued in Britain (by W. D. & H. O. Wills), the “celebrities” displayed in it are all folks heard on the BBC at the time—and rarely heard of thereafter.

Unlike their American counterparts, whose voices or musical talents are preserved on recordings anyone can readily retrieve online, most of these BBC personalities would be truly forgotten today if they had not made a name for themselves in other media.  Yet even if we remember the performer we are likely to be ignorant of the performance that brought them fame on the air.

A few years ago, Telegraph columnist Christopher Howse happened upon the same album now in my hands and remarked that the “world seen in [it] is as unfamiliar as the clipped tones of the celebrities it contains.”  Flicking through these pages means facing indifference and neglect.  How can we presume to know the 1930s if we can’t recall the names that then were household words, let alone put a voice to them?

Radio Celebritiesan oxymoron, perhaps?

Back then, the reverse was to be accomplished by those cigarette card collectibles: to put a face to the unseen visitors that millions welcomed into their homes.  No doubt, the chief purpose was to sell tobacco products—but aside from fueling an addiction these albums satisfied the need to turn word to flesh and hold on to fleeting sound by way of printed image.  “For many years,” the “Radio Celebrities” album reminded the purchaser, anno 1934, “broadcasting artistes, announcers and speakers remained rather mysteriously aloof—in the air, as it were!” No more.  The “Wireless” and their personalities were becoming “increasingly popular”; and the portraits to be collected and appreciated in this way were meant to “add a personal touch to names” that were already so “familiar to listeners.”


From time to time, I shall return to this album to report on the radio careers of Clapham & Dwyer, “Butch” and “George,” Jeanne De Casalis, and the forty-seven other “Radio Celebrities” that hit it big on the Beeb.

Sweetness and The Eternal Light

My bookshelf, like my corporeal shell, has gotten heavier over the years. The display, like my waist, betrays a diet of nutritionally questionable comfort food—of sugar and spice and everything nice.  Now, I won’t take this as an opportunity to ponder just what it is that I am made of; but those books sure speak volumes about the quality of my food for thought.  There is All About Amos ‘n’ Andy (1929), The Story of Cheerio (1937), and Tony Wons’s Scrap Book (1930).  There is Tune in Tomorrow (1968), the reminiscences of a daytime serial actress, There’s Laughter in the Air (1945) and Death at Broadcasting House (1934). There are a dozen or so anthologies of scripts for radio programs ranging from The Lone Ranger to Ma Perkins, from Duffy’s Tavern to The Shadow.

My excuse for my preoccupation with such post-popular culture, if justification were needed, has always been that there is nothing so light not to warrant reflection or reverie, that dismissing flavors and decrying a lack of taste is the routine operation of the insipid mind.  That said, I am glad to have added—thanks to my better half, who looks after my dietary needs—a book that makes my shelf figuratively heavier rather than merely literally so.

The book in question is The Eternal Light (1947), an anthology of twenty-six plays aired on that long-running program.  It is a significant addition, indeed—historically, culturally, and radio dramatically speaking.

In the words of Louis Finkelstein, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, under whose auspices the series was produced, The Eternal Light was a synthesis of scholarship and artistry, designed to “translate ancient, abstract ideas into effective modern dramatics.”

In his introductory essay “Radio as a Medium of Drama,” Morton Wishengrad, the playwright of the series, defended broadcasting as a valuable if often misused “tool.” He did so at a time when, in the disconcerting newness of postwar opportunity and responsibility, radio was increasingly—and indiscriminately—dismissed as the playground of Hucksters, to name a bestselling novel of 1946 whose subject, like Herman Wouk’s Aurora Dawn (1947), was the prosperity and self-importance of the broadcasting industry in light of the perceived vacuity of its product.

“An automobile does not manufacture bank-robbers,” Wishengrad reasoned,
it transports them.  It also transports clergymen.  It is neither blameworthy because it does the first nor is it an instrument of piety because it does the latter.  It is merely an automobile, a tool.
 What the medium needed—and what the times required—were writers who had “something to say about the culture.”

According to Wishengrad, there was “nothing wrong” with the techniques of radio writing.  He noted that serial drama, derided and reviled by “demonstrably incompetent” reviewers, had great storytelling potential:
Here are quarter-hour segments in the lives of people which could transfigure a part of each day with dramatic truth and an intimation of humanity instead of presenting as they now do a lolly-pop on the instalment plan.
A “lolly-pop on the instalment plan”! To paraphrase Huckster author Frederic Wakeman’s parody of radio commercials: love that phrase. Wishengrad is one of a small number of American radio dramatists whose scripts remain memorable and compelling even in the absence of the actors and sound effects artist who interpreted them.  Of the latter’s métier Wishengrad wrote: “Sound is like salt.  A very little suffices.”  He cautioned writers, in their “infatuation with its possibilities,” not to “drown” their scripts in aural effects.

Wishengrad’s advice to radio dramatists is as sound as his prose.  “Good radio dialogue,” he held, should come across “like a pair of boxers trading blows, short, swift, muscular, monosyllabic.”  Speeches, he cautioned, ought not to “be long because the ear does not remember.  There is quick forgetfulness of everything except the last phrase or the last word spoken.”

While Wishengrad made no use of serialization in The Eternal Light—as much as the title suggests the continuation and open-endedness of the form—his scripts bear out what he imparts about style and live up to his insistence on substance.  Take “The Day of the Shadow,” for instance.  Produced and broadcast over NBC stations on 18 November 1945, the play opens:
Listen.  Listen to the silence.  I have come from the land of the day of the shadow.  I have seen the naked cities and the dead lips.  Someone must speak of this.  Someone must speak of the memory of things destroyed.
The abstract gives way to the concrete, as the speaker introduces himself as the “Chaplain who stood before the crematorium of Belsen.”
I have buried 23,000 Jews.  I have a right to speak.   I stood the last month in Cracow when “Liberated” Jews were murdered.  I have no pretty things to tell you.  But I must tell you.
The “plain, and written down, and true” figures—appropriated from the “adding machines of the statisticians”—tell of the silenced.  But, the Chaplain protests, “[l]et the adding machines be still,” and let the survivors—the yet dying—speak; not of the past but of the continuum of their plight, of the aftermath that comes after math has accounted for the eighty percent of Europe’s Jewish population who were denied outright the chance to make their lives count.

At the time The Eternal Light was published, radio drama, too, was dying; at least the drama with a purpose and a faith in the medium.  To this date, it is a body unresuscitated; and what is remembered of it most is what is comforting rather than demanding, common rather than extraordinary.  Shelving the candy, resisting the impulse to reach for the sweet and the obvious—the lolly-popular—I realize anew just what has been lost to us, what we have given up, what we have forgotten to demand or even to long for . . .