Remembering Gertrude Berg, that is. Having been to Fleischmanns last year (without spotting her tombstone there), I was thrilled to be catching Aviva Kempner’s much reviewed if ultimately unsatisfying documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan last week. After all, it is not a film you are likely to see in Europe (or, for that matter, in any US multiplex); and I doubt whether it will ever be released in Wales, my present home. Who, after all, remembers (or ever had the opportunity of) tuning in to The Goldbergs, or The Rise of the Goldbergs, as Berg’s program was initially called in the days before television?
Kempner’s filmic memorial to Berg and her creation—heard on radio and seen on stage, television and the movies—aims at countering the oblivion to which the writer-producer-actress and her signature character have long been consigned; but, judging from the elderly, Jewish audience among which I found myself, aside from my good friend, Brian, Mrs. Goldberg is not likely to find new admirers through Kempner’s polite and downright reverent re-introduction, however deserving she may be of praise.
“Why, for all her popularity and apparent influence, is Gertrude Berg so little remembered today?” Paul Farhi of the Washington Post asked back in July 2009. It is a question Kempner does not trouble herself to answer, other than with a resounding “Why indeed?” Predating but overshadowed by I Love Lucy, The Goldbergs come across as little more than a noteworthy, ethnic curiosity, a historical footnote, the stuff of nostalgia. At least, Kempner’s documentary, which New York Post critic V. A. Musetto called “fawning and formulaic,” did little to convince me otherwise—and I don’t need convincing.
“Ulleright, ulleright!” For all its shortcomings, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is still a welcome and overdue tribute to of a long overlooked icon of American popular culture—and an enterprising, emancipated woman at that; but it is also a rather perfunctory and historically questionable piece of bio-cinematography, replete with a poorly reenacted scene from Berg’s earliest radio script.
Except for a few tantalizing clips of Edward R. Murrow’s interview with Berg on Person to Person and those seemingly random excerpts from The Goldbergs kinescopes, the documentary, like most pieces of ocular proof, is at a loss to fill the screen, resorting to images only remotely related to the subject; or, else, to talking heads like Ed Asner’s and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who recalls being addressed as Mrs. Goldberg). Meanwhile, the snippets from Berg’s radio and television broadcasts are often unintelligible, if it weren’t for the subtitles. The result is about as funny as a translated joke—and certainly not remotely as amusing or charming as Berg’s glossy autobiography Molly and Me (1961).
Here, for instance, is how autobiographer Berg made the connection between her parentage and her wireless offspring. Those watching Kempner’s documentary never get to hear about it. To them, Molly is a kindly woman leaning out of a window, chatting to her neighbors—and an audience long since dispersed—or praising the miracle of Sanka Coffee, instead of yelling “Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” into a telephonic darkness just beyond her Bronx apartment:
My father was a special fan of the dumbwaiter and when radio was invented, he gave up the shaftway only because of the better coverage. But until that time it was through the dumbwaiter that he got to know everybody, not by their names, but by their locations. He predicted divorce for Mr. and Mrs. 5-D because of their nightly arguments; he knew that Mrs. 3-A’s son was going to leave home before even Mrs. 3-A. It didn’t take second sight; all it took was a good ear and a comfortable chair near the dumbwaiter door.
Kempner’s film is so reverent and nostalgic, it sentimentalizes the already saccharine confection of Mother Goldberg, whose Jewish Amos ‘n’ Andyisms enliven the early scripts for her radio serial, extant only in print, before the series-turned-daytime serial settled for at times “soap-operaish” melodrama.
“[E]verything about The Goldbergs changed but the theme song, ‘Toselli’s Serenade,’” Berg explains in Molly and Me. Those encountering Molly in Kempner’s documentary are unlikely to see Molly as an early Lucy, or, come to think of it, as a prototype for linguistically challenged immigrant Ricky Ricardo.
“So come down a liddle after,” Mrs. Goldberg once yoo-hooed to her neighbor, Mrs. Bloom, “maybe ve’ll go to a mofie—is playing de Four Horsemen in de Apoplexies.” Well, you almost got it, Molly. Apoplexies are the kind of movie theaters that leave you angry at your lack of choices. Too bad that even the exceedingly rare art house simplexes are not likely to rescue you from the fate of being trampled to death by the pale horse of apathy.
“It does not matter whether your verdict is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ If your reasons for it are good enough you will share in the prizes.” With this peculiar invitation, millions of Americans were lured to their radios, tuned in to WJZ, for a trial in which they, the listening public, were called upon to act as jurors. As previously mentioned here, it all began on this day, 25 November, in 1930. The judge in the case was none other than New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, lending gravitas to a spectacle that was, in more sense than one, a trial broadcast: Would the listeners find society beauty Vivienne Ware guilty of the murder of millionaire architect Damon Fenwicke, a crime for which she could be sentenced to the electric chair? And would they leap out of their armchairs to boost not only their own circulation but that of their local paper be rereading what they heard on the air?
“It is no part of your duty to decide whether or not she shall die,” Senator Wagner insisted. That, he told the listeners,
is the function of the Court and the Law. But you must remember that in endeavoring to secure a conviction of this young and beautiful defendant the District Attorney is but pursuing the business to which you, the people of this State, have set him. You will consider carefully all the evidence as it is presented for you from the witness stand.
Whether or not their voices could kill, those tuning in nevertheless derived their thrills from the importance of the interactive role granted to them. Tune in, have your say, all for a chance to win a substantial amount of dough—what’s not to love!
Leave it to a Hearst paper to conceive of a reality show like The Trial of Vivienne Ware—a trial that sold papers and bought the jury. Those who caught up with the daily broadcasts from the courtroom and read transcripts and analyses in their daily Hearst paper were rewarded for being informed enough to arrive at the verdict they were invited to mail in. No attendance, no deliberations with fellow jurors required. All that was needed, aside from a radio set and a few cents for daily tabloids, was curiosity, rhetoric, and greed.
You might say it was just fiction, this fictional call for justice; but the Hearst press, known to have started a war with mere words, was doing its utmost to make the trial seem as real the joined media of radio and the press could make it, all with the aim at a very real boost in sales through a cleverly manipulative marketing campaign.
More than a radio serial, The Trial of Vivienne Ware is one of the most fascinating media events ever staged. All that remains of it now are a number of newspaper articles and a book touted as “an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds”—the “first radio novel.”
To be sure, Kenneth M. Ellis’s “novel”—a combination of faux news reportage and courtroom dialogue—has none of the thrills of the original experience. Its failure to excite and convince convincingly argues the power of the media to create a sense of reality through the realities we glean from sensation.
I’ve been having sleepless nights recently, what with this cold and all the rest I am getting throughout the day. It is a testament to my restraint that you still don’t know the half of it. Since I’m not one to crochet or get crotchety, I generally substitute sound sleep for a generous if gentle dose of sound. There’s nothing like canned melodrama to fill the dark hours with images just mute enough not to clash with your pajamas. No thrillers like Inner Sanctum or Suspense, if you please. Too jarring by far! No Fred Allen or Vic and Sade to induce chuckles when it’s snores I’m after. No plays I’d be itching to follow, no tunes I’d be eager to hum. So, I kept my ears peeled for some pop-cultural flotsam that could send me adrift, and presto. The other sleepless night, I finally turned to the kind of fare I rarely try, particularly not when I am in fine fettle. My fettle being decidedly not fit to be in, I contrived to make a late night date with Mary Noble, Backstage Wife.
Backstage Wife belongs to that genre known as “soap opera,” defined by James Thurber as a
kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.
If you serve that platter past midnight, rather than at lunchtime, the sandwich appears to become more spicy than soggy. After all, what Thurber left out of that list of ingredients is the listener’s imagination, which tends to get saucier once you hit the sheets.
Fodder for radio satirists Bob and Ray’s “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife,” the “story of Mary Noble and what it means to be the wife of a famous star” was on the air for a quarter of a century. A small but sizeable helping of that run is readily available online, namely a storyline involving the scheming Claudia Vincent, a woman who fires shots at man to gain the confidence of another. That the other man is Mary Noble’s husband, Larry, makes Claudia Vincent’s obvious maneuverings all the more delicious.
Not that my taste buds can be trusted in times likes these, but the last thing I wanted was my mouth to start watering. Now my nights are spent wondering about Mary, Larry, Claudia and Rupert, knowing that I shall never hear the end of it, for want of extant chapters. Of course, serial dramas are not about endings. They, like all melodramas, are about the protracted middle, the main courses and the side dishes, about the precariousness of the status quo and all our attempts to stay as we are or get what is presumably owed us. For all its sensational scenes and rhetorical bombast, melodrama is truest to life, far more real, to be sure, than tragedy and comedy. In those aged and unadulterated models of drama, all endings are final; in melodrama, there is plenty of room for doubt, for turns and returns, for the “what ifs” that, I should have known, are keeping me asking for seconds and up for hours.
The current season of Desperate Housewives being so listless you cannot even claim it to have mustered energy enough to jump the shark, I am only too grateful for a bit of cheddar and ham as only those horrid Hummerts could slice it. Now pardon me while I dim the lights. It’s time for my sandwich.
They’re still after him, those producers of television drama. And they know that many of us are eager to follow and go after him as well. In a way, we can’t help being After Dickens, to borrow the title of a study on “Reading, Adaptation and Performance” by John Glavin. It’s a sly title, that. After all, we are belated in our pursuit; we don’t just try to catch up. We are bringing something to the most dangerous game that is the act of reading. We make sense and we remake it, too. This time around, Andrew Davies, the writer responsible for the award-winning dramatization of Bleak House, has tackled Little Dorrit (1855-57), one of the lesser-known works in the Dickens canon. Having greatly enjoyed the former when it first aired back in 2005, I am again drawn away from the wireless to go after what’s being shared out, a little at a time, by radio’s rich, distant relation.
Now, it has been some time since I last read Little Dorrit. During my graduate studies, the novel tantalized me with its perplexing nomenclature. Dickens’s uncrackable code of names and monikers inspired me to dabble in the dark art of onomastic speculation. The result of my academic labors, “Nominal Control: Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the Challenges of Onomancy,” is available online. While Dickens’s names still have a familiar ring to me, some of the faces, as interpreted and fixed for us by the adaptor, seem to have changed. Never mind Arthur Clennam, who is rather younger than the middle-aged man Dickens was so bold to place at the center of his novelistic commentary on the manners, mores and money matters of Victorian Britain. The character of Tattycoram is the one to watch and not recognize: a foundling turned changeling.
In the original story, Tattycoram (alias Harriet Beadle, alias Hattey—the act of naming is that complicated in Little Dorrit) is introduced as a “handsome girl with lustrous dark hair and eyes, and very neatly dressed.” As portrayed by Freema Agyeman, Tatty certainly fits the bill: a handsome girl with dark hair and eyes, and, my hat off to the costume department, neatly dressed. Hang on, though. The color of her skin has changed; and it is a change that really makes a difference. Has Tattycoram just “growed” that way? Or is this a case of revisionism?
It sure is not simply a case of equal opportunity, if such cases are ever simple. A black Tattycoram transforms the very fabric of Little Dorrit. It imposes an historical subtext on our reading of the story and the young woman’s part in it.
Adaptors, like translators, frequently engage in such updates, if that is the word for what amounts to anachronism. I was not bothered by the Lesbian characters the BBC insisted on sneaking into the staid mysteries of Agatha Christie, even though such reorientations seemed gratuitous and, in their treatment, out of place and time. The transformation of Tattycoram, however, is altogether more complicated.
True, slavery was abolished in Britain well before the story of Little Dorrit commences; but, in the Victorian novel, the black or mulatto figure remained largely invisible, or else was the brunt of derision. One such laughing-stock character is Thackeray’s Miss Swartz, the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” who parades through Vanity Fair being “about as elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day.” In Dickens’s Bleak House, sympathy toward blacks is dismissed as the folly of “educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”
The BBC revision of Little Dorrit comes across as an un-Dickensian, modern extension of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its sensitive and unsentimental treatment of the girl from Coram, the notorious London hospital recently revisited in Coram Boy. As a result, Tattycoram is less of a caricature than most of Dickens’s typically flat characters. Of the nearly one hundred personages we come across in Little Dorrit—which, according to the Radio Times, were reduced to around seventy-five in the process of adaptation—it is Tattycoram who now stands out as she struggles to emerge from her socially imposed conspicuous invisibility. It is an undue attention, warranted only by her transformation.
Showing a little skin, or skin a little darker, Davies’s retailoring may strike some of us acquainted with the genuine article as a bold new cut. To others, it seems that, in the process of giving the old Empire new clothes, the Dickensian fabric has gotten more than a Little Tatty. It got a new, postcolonial label that makes it seem like a knockoff.
They’re still after Dickens, all right. The question is: do they even try to get him?
Tickled by Canary Feather’s account of being an accompanist for silent movies, I was in the mood for another non-talkie. The term may be unhappy in its connotation of lack, yet seems preferable to “silent movie,” considering that, prior to the late 1920, the sound for motion pictures was supplied by those playing the piano or the organ; even sound effects artists and entire orchestras were not unheard. Having had my fill of non-talkie comedy of late, I chose a melodrama likely to wear out the most resourceful and nimble-fingered of pianists: The Master Mystery a 1919 thriller underscored by Stuart Oderman, whom I have often heard and seen playing the piano to movies screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Intolerance, Grandma’s Boy, and Caligari—Lillian Gish biographer Stuart Oderman has articulated them all.
In the case of The Master Mystery, the pianist must have been relieved that his accompaniment was being recorded, rather than performed live. However fragmentary, the film still runs an epic 238 minutes. With an attention span shortened by broadband and a clock ticking down the last minutes of the day, I was resolved to take in this thriller as it was conceived; that is, as a weekly chapter play.
From the first instalment, I expected little more than an exposition, an introduction of the main characters, and the obligatory cliffhanger. After all, The Master Mystery stars the famed escape artist Harry Houdini (previously encountered on a boat about to go over Niagara Falls).
Now, I pride myself in not readily throwing in the remote control; but The Master Mystery, with its secret identities, its corridors and hidden caves stalked by an pre-RUR automaton, and its cases of Madagascar Madness—proved too complex to master at that late hour. The opening title card should have been ample warning. The “Foreword” reads:
International Patents, Inc., is a firm whose vast fortune has been made by inducing inventors to trust the marketing of inventions to their care and after obtaining sole rights—they suppress the manufacture of these inventions—much to the financial gain of the owners of already existing patents.
However intriguing, this is hardly the most effective way of opening a chapter play. We have not yet been introduced to any of the characters, but are confronted instead with a corporation and with legalities not quite the stuff of melodramatic action. Equally frustrating is the introduction of characters by indirection, that is, as a name on a title card not referring to the character shown. The secretary of businessman Peter Brent, for instance, is identified as being “secretly in the service of Balcom,” before we are shown the latter.
My own shortcomings aside, was it writerly ineptitude that caused me to get lost in the muddle? Was it owing to the fragmentary state of the surviving print, segments of which have been “rearranged” to create the “illusion of completeness”? Or was it, perhaps, all part of a shrewd design? I was determined to fill in the blanks with whatever notes I could find. Notes? How about an entire book!
In May 1919, Masters of Mystery was published as a novelization co-written by Arthur B. Reeve, one of the scenarists credited as the “authors” of the serial. Yes, viewers lost in the maze from which only Houdini could extricate himself, were promised a key to it all in the form of a published book, replete with stills from the film. I wonder just how many resorted to a purchase in hopes of mastering this Mystery?
Here is how the opening title card is translated into some semblance of a narrative:
“I will see Mr. Brent,” insisted the new-comer, as he pushed past the butler. “Mr. Brent!” he cried, advancing with a wild light in his eyes. “I’m tired of excuses. I want justice regarding that water-motor of mine.” He paused, then added, shaking his finger threateningly, “Put it on the market—or I will call in the Department of Justice!”
Brent scowled again. For years he had been amassing a fortune by a process that was scarcely within the law. For, when inventions threaten to render useless already existing patents, necessitating the scrapping of millions of dollars’ worth of machinery, vested interests must be protected.
Thus, Brent and his partner, Herbert Balcom, had evolved a simple method of protecting corporations against troublesome inventors and inventions. They had formed their own corporation, International Patents, Incorporated.
Their method was effective—though desperate. It was to suppress the inventor and his labor. They bought the sole rights from the inventor, promising him glittering royalties. The joker was that the invention was suppressed. None were ever manufactured. Hence there were no royalties and the corporations went on undisturbed while Brent and Balcom collected huge retainers for the protection they afforded them.
Thus Brent Rock had come to be hated by scores of inventors defrauded in this unequal conflict with big business.
While the perfunctory prose suggests that the book is not always better than the movie, I was at least caught up with the story and prepared to follow Houdini as he gets in and out of scrapes to a score by Stuart Oderman . . . next week.
“Poor Old Helen Trent,” a fellow webjournalist exclaimed the other day. It is right and proper to join in this lament; not only was she single, middle-aged, and beset by troubles into which she was drawn each quarter hour to tease but never quite satisfy those members of the radio audience who had the morbid curiosity that is a requisite for serial listening. She now has very little to show for all those years of turmoil. While still recalled by many who used to follow her getting nowhere fast, she is very nearly silenced today, with only a few chapters of the long-running serial readily available to anyone desirous to catch up. Even worse is the fate of Stella Dallas (pictured), who does not get a single mention in Robert C. Allen’s Speaking of Soap Operas (1985), one of the books I consulted for the occasion.
When I began to research American radio drama and narrative (there is something dissatisfying to me in the term “radio drama,” considering the importance of the narrator in most of these fictions), I wondered whether I would ever get to hear the programs I had hoped to write about. In my recovery efforts, I went so far as to dig up MA theses and dissertations written during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, if only to marvel at the material accessible to a student tuning in back then. Sure, I could have asked some of the old ladies whose Manhattan apartments I was cleaning back then; but, my memory being less than elephantine, I have come to distrust the recollections of others and much rather consult contemporary sources. One such is “The Radio Serial,” an unpublished thesis by Stanley Robert Rowe, who received his MS in 1949 from Boston University. As Rowe puts it, his “treatise is based upon six weeks of regular listening in July and August 1948 to all the dramatic serials offered by the two radio networks which broadcast them [i.e. NBC and CBS].”
Can you imagine? Six weeks with Stella Dallas, Helen Trent, and Ma Perkins! These days, one has to make due with isolated chapters; and, in some cases, with less.
In the summer of 1948, over thirty daytime serials were being broadcast each weekday over CBS and NBC alone.
Beginning at 10:30 AM and concluding at 5:45 PM, NBC presented, in order of their broadcast time, the serials Road of Life, Joyce Jordan, MD, This Is Nora Drake, We Love and Learn, Lora Lawton, Claudia, Today’s Children, Light of the World, Life Can Be Beautiful, Ma Perkins, Pepper Young’s Family, Right to Happiness, Backstage Wife, Stella Dallas, Lorenzo Jones, Young Widder Brown, When a Girl Marries, Just Plain Bill, and Front Page Farrell.
CBS began airing its line-up of serials at 11:45 AM; by 3:15 PM, listeners could tune in to Rosemary, Wendy Warren, Aunt Jenny, Helen Trent, Our Gal Sunday, Big Sister, Ma Perkins, Young Doctor Malone, Guiding Light, Second Mrs. Burton, Perry Mason, This Is Nora Drake, Evelyn Winters, David Harum, and Hilltop House.
Now, why would anyone be willingly subjected to such programs? Why, to have something to say about them, of course. Stating his “reason for wanting to listen to all the serials,” Rowe explained:
First, I hoped to have as many examples as possible to substantiate and illustrate any conclusions I reached; and also, I wished to be able to write authoritatively about all the serials offered on a nation-wide network and determine the range and variety they represented. Far too much criticism is made of radio which is based on too little actual knowledge of the medium and its programs. In auditing all the radio serials, I hoped to be able to avoid sweeping generalizations which overlooked significant exceptions.
Yes, this is how writing about radio needs to start: with listening. Which, alas, is precisely why I have to remain silent about poor Stella Dallas and her sudsy sisterhood . . .
“I don’t have much respect for biographers,” I once told John N. Hall, noted author of Trollope: A Biography and Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life. I was being mischievous, knowing my professor to have a sense of humor that makes him just the man to examine the lives and fictions of the humorists who attract him. Indeed, I have rarely met an academic whose mentality was better suited to his subjects. I was not merely being facetious, though. I was also being honest. I don’t read biographies; not cover to cover, at least. I am too impatient to go through a series of incidents designed to trace the traits and career of a famous so-and-so to great-grandparents who were semi-literate peasants from Eastern Europe, to illustrate what impact the childhood agony of losing a balloon during a rainstorm had on an artist’s psyche, or explain what it really means to be a supposed nobody before becoming an alleged somebody.
You might say that I am not easily impressed by facts and downright doubtful of them; that I am unconvinced a life can be told by means of sundry scraps of evidence culled from contemporary sources or the recollections of contemporaries whose lost marbles are dutifully dredged from the gully of memory lane. It’s all that; but I would like to think that respect has something to do with it as well—respect for a creative mind expressing itself in a work of art by someone who might not be willing or able to open up otherwise. In other words, I take what an artist is willing to give, even if the limited supply of such works are dictated, to some extent, by market demands. Nor do I believe that being told about traumas and toothaches ought to compel me to regard an artist’s works as the product of such ordeals. Nothing is more tedious than arguing that a character who slips on a banana peel was destined to break his neck because his creator was terrified of the tropical fruit a health-conscious aunt was trying to shove down his three-year-old throat. If I want a story or a picture to be a mirror, the reflection I find therein should be my own.
Autobiographies are a different kettle of fishiness altogether. They are the storied self, the persona an artist has decided to display in a public performance. (Dr. Hall, by the way, has since written his own memoir titled Belief .) I accept them as such, which does not mean I am any more patient as I am being subjected to the courtship of an artist’s maternal grandparents, to Ellis Island flashbacks or dim impressions from the cradle. There is some of that in the aforementioned Molly and Me (1961), the autobiography of Gertrude Berg (pictured here in a photograph freely adapted from the March 1943 issue of Tune In).
<img alt="" border="0" height="200" id="BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5174000
7806445506″ src=”http://bp0.blogger.com/_1hLtw5adjT8/R8298uL7o8I/AAAAAAAABGE/RPmmBUdKahg/s200/Radio+and+the+Jews,+Siegel+and+Siegel.jpg” style=”float: left; margin: 0px 10px 10px 0px;” width=”131″ />Berg was the creator of the radio serial and subsequent television sitcom The Goldbergs, as well as the lesser known House of Glass, about which I got to read in Radio and the Jews by Siegel and Siegel, a volume I picked up at the Jewish Museum in New York during my last visit to my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Molly and Me may be short on the drama of radio, for which I initially picked it up, and lack the to researchers indispensable index, for which omission I immediately put it down again. I need not have been quite so prickly, though. Berg’s memoir, like her writings for the air, is alive with Dickensian characters, a conversational style, and challenges to literary theory that tickle the wayward scholar. Let me give you a for instance:
Well, I saw [New Orleans]. There were hot, wide streets, charming Old World houses—all hot—wonderful hot restaurants, and lovely, well-decorated, hot hotels. In the evening, when the sun goes down, the heat goes down also but the humidity goes up. It’s no wonder that Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner write such good tragedies. With air conditioning maybe there’ll be a change in our Southern literature.
This passage, my favorite in the entire book, makes me wish Berg had been the ghost writer of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies:
The Lyceum [a New York restaurant her father managed] was a huge place that could take care of fifteen hundred people [. . .]. It was not only big, it was gemütlich, it was where people came to laugh, and it was before publicity men talked about atmosphere. The ceilings were high and absolutely guaranteed not soundproofed. The whole idea was to have fun and not to be quiet. In those days silence was for funeral parlors, not restaurants. There were chandeliers that were chandeliers—all cut glass with teardrops and draped strings of little glass balls, not straight pipes with blisters on the end or holes in the ceilings that drop light on you. I’m not saying that those were the good old days. It’s just that there was something about bigness that was friendly. Today if it’s big, it’s a bank or Grand Central or a cafeteria where you go in fast and come out fast. There’s no place to relax any more except at home—and with the foam rubber they put into everything today, who can relax?
“You Boig?” an agent once addressed the writer at the beginning of her career. I can just see him there, facing her. I can hear him, too, thanks to Berg’s writerly gifts and a long exposure to actors like Allen Jenkins. She’s “Boig” all right. I feel that I got to know her as she wanted to be known, a woman who tells her audience not to expect the story of someone who “divorced three husbands, became a drug addict, and finally, after years of searching, found the real meaning of Life in a spoonful of mescalin.” So what if there’s more Molly than “Me” in this production. I’m not going to tear up the cushions Berg arranged for me in hopes of finding a needle in what is too comfortable to be foam rubber . . .
I don’t suppose I shall ever get used to it. The Welsh weather, I mean, the nocturnal roars and howlings of which I often drown out by listening to the familiar voices of old-time radio, reassuring and comforting voices like those of Harry Bartell or Elliot Lewis, both of whom were born on this day, 28 November, in 1913 and 1917, respectively. Storms are part of the Welsh soundscape, much like the bleating of sheep on the hills. If such climate conditions were faced by the people of New York, among whom I numbered for some fifteen years of my life, I wager that the local television newscasts would report little else. To be sure, last night’s storm did make headlines, being that a tornado wreaked havoc in a village just a few miles from my present home.
Thanks to some well-chosen radio thriller, I managed to sleep through it all, losing myself in dreams that, once radioactivated, tend to become particularly vivid. I often wonder just how much my mind, conscious or not, is influenced by the popular culture I consume by listening in. Sometimes, though, it is what we hear about, and not what we perceive, that stirs our imagination. There are a few listening experiences I can only dream of, plays I have only read or read about and consequently fascinate me no end. One such unheard soundplay is the serial The Trial of Vivienne Ware (previously mentioned here and discussed at some length in Etherized, my study of American radio dramatics). Pulled by the Hearst press and propagated on the air by station WJZ, New York, it was a spectacular publicity stunt designed to promote Hearst’s less than reputable papers.
Those tuning in did not only get to hear the proceedings, but were cast as jurors. They stood a chance of being awarded $1000 for coming up with the most convincing verdict (be it “guilty” or “innocent”), thus making it unnecessary for the author of the story—one Kenneth M. Ellis—to determine upon a reasonable conclusion and the fate of his titular character.
From the 25th to the last day of November, the fictional trial was broadcast live, with eminent figures of law and politics, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner and prominent attorney Ferdinand Pecora, heading a cast that included noted stage actress Rosamund Pinchot. Here is how the New York American, the Hearst paper sponsoring the series, described the session of 28 November 1930:
It was almost at the close of the session that the lights suddenly were extinguished and the court plunged into total darkness. Women’s screams, the shouts and bustle of court attaches, and the hammering of the gavel filled five or six black seconds with sound. Then the lights came on again—but the .38 caliber revolver which George Gordon Battle, chief counsel for Vivienne Ware, had just introduced as evidence had disappeared from the table where it lay.
Now, that’s a melodramatic conjuring act fit for the airwaves. It probably wouldn’t do much good during a stormy night, though, since such interactive thrills—let alone the pondering of the verdict, and what to do with the prize money—are, unlike much else that was presented on American radio with comforting predictability, anything but soporific.
Well, I am back from my three-day getaway to Manchester, my makeshift Manhattan. And what a poor substitute it has proven once again. The only bright spot of an otherwise less than scintillating weekend was the production of James M. Barrie’s comedy What Every Woman Knows at the Royal Exchange Theatre. While I prefer the traditional proscenium arch over an arena that to me suggests circus acrobatics or boxing matches rather than verbal sparring, I eventually got past the irritation of being dazzled by confronting stage lights, of having to watch the action through a fireplace or other obstructing props, and of looking into the faces of audience members opposite while the players turned their backs to me.
I was won over, tickled then touched by the excellent performances in this smart and sentimental piece, particularly by Jenny Ogilvie’s knowing portrayal of Maggie, whose “every woman” charm eludes the very man for whom she so devotedly works her magic: her clueless husband, that is. I will have more to say about Barrie’s play—and the hazards of adaptation—in a journal entry coinciding with its 2 March 1947 soundstaging by the Theater Guild on the Air, on which occasion Helen Hayes was heard as Maggie.
Hayes is one of the leading ladies mentioned in the first broadcastellan quiz; and whether or not she ever had her own radio program is something for you to ponder should you choose to join in before the answer is revealed on 24 February. Until then, I could not possibly let Ms. Hayes or her interpretation of Maggie take center stage. That spot is reserved today for “every woman” Mollie (or Molly) Goldberg and her creator Gertrude Berg, who also portrayed the role for decades on radio, stage, big screen and small. As vaudevillian-turned radio personality Eddie Cantor once remarked, Berg “captured the charm” of New York’s East Side, and “through her sketches runs the entire gamut of human emotions, from laughter to tears.” It was no charmed life on Pike Street those days, but surely one with whom many radio listeners could readily identify.
Jewish immigrants Mollie, her husband Jake, and her two children, Sam and Rosie, came to NBC radio on 20 November 1929, just a few weeks after Wall Street laid that proverbial egg. Recordings of those first broadcasts are not known to have survived, but the early struggle of the Goldberg family has been preserved in print, in a 1931 novelization of the scripts to accompany the popular series.
Mollie is introduced as a woman whose worries are largely domestic and sometimes imaginary. Anxious because her son, Sammy, is late from school, Mollie speculates that he might have gotten himself “runned over by a cabsitac”; after all, “[d]ey run around so fast like cackroachers.” Mollie, you see, lacked a formal education in American English—unlike her children, who were quick to correct her. “De chicks is loining de rooster!” Mollie exclaimed in exasperation.
Husband Jake, meanwhile, was clueless about Mollie’s desire to improve herself; he was too busy with his struggling business. “Oy, vat beezness!” Mollie sighed, “Saturday, Sonday, holledays. Plain talking all de time! Vy don’t you buy a bed and slip dere and finished! And dat’s beezness? It’s a slavery—jost like in Oncle Tom’s Cabinet!”
Sure, Mollie loved going to the pictures watching movies like “Oy, vot a fool I am,” by “Ruddy Kipland” or “de Four Horsemen in de Apoplexies.” She also marvelled at technological advances such as the newly installed telephone in her home (“Mr. Telephon Company, vhere do you put de nickels?”). Yet, like Barrie’s Maggie, Mollie was eager to learn even that which not every immigrant homemaker was expected to know. For that purpose, she enrolled in a reading and writing course at a neighboring night school. So, as much as listeners were invited to laugh at Mollie’s malapropisms, they were also taught to admire her courage and perseverance:
Ay, ay, Amerike, Amerike! Everybody vhat only vants, can become here a somebody. An education is like in de fairy story, ‘Open see-saw open.’ Vhen you got an education den everyting; all de doors from de vorld stands open far you. You could even understand yourself, and vhat’s more important dan dat, ha? You’ll vouldn’t be ashamed from your mama, ha, Rosiely?
Years later, Berg commented on the significant contribution of the serial to American democracy. The “daytime serial,” she said, “can be a very effective force in bringing to the American people a deeper understanding of the democratic way of life” since it was capable of “revealing the meaning of democracy in people’s lives,” and of doing so far more effectively “than any speech.” During the war, however, Berg agreed to address the radio audience in her own educated, if not nearly as charming, voice, imploring those listening to the Treasury Star Parade to be mindful of the fight for democracy, rather than wasteful of the material benefits deriving from it.
“Women like us fight with the bonds we buy, the rubber we save, the food prepare and the fat we save.” It’s what every woman needed to know back then. And who was more ideally suited to tell them than Gertrude Berg, the mother of radio’s surrogate mom?