You know you’ve got money to spare when you can afford to hire someone to do the sneezing for you. Save your nostrils, keep the tissue! Just call Hildegarde Halliday. That is what NBC did back in the 1930s and ‘40s, when Halliday was the Durante of sound effect artists. Radio actors were fortunate to have their proboscis blown by proxy whenever the script demanded the feigning of a common cold or an attack of hay fever. On this day, 20 October, in 1940, stage actress Halliday demonstrated her skill on Behind the Mike, a weekly half-hour that promised to take listeners inside the studio to reveal some of the tricks of the radio dramatic trade. Billed as “radio’s own show,” the aforementioned Behind the Mike dramatized and promoted the business by telling audiences what was involved in putting together a national broadcast, in selling it to a sponsor, or in prepping a studio audience.
“We’ve had many people on this program who make their living from radio in strange ways” announcer Graham McNamee opened the 20 October 1940 broadcast, referring to assorted animal imitators and baby criers (like my fictional Aunt Ilse). “But our next guest makes her living in radio in a way that tops all of them.” Halliday claimed to have “done all kinds of sneezes,” making herself heard on the variety programs headed by Rudy Vallee and Robert Benchley, as well as on daytime serials like Aunt Jenny.
“Oh, I can sneeze like all get-out if I just imagine very hard that I have a cold and chill,” the jovial Halliday tells the host (pictured above). To illustrate the afflatus the afflicted are to her, Halliday enacts in monologue a scene at a cocktail party she attended. Listeners are treated to a severe allergy attack, the sounds of which I know only too well. The sufferer lets out a few terrifying atchoos (a rather feeble onomatopoeic substitute, as it turns out), along with some choice words of political wisdom.
“I hope he doesn’t get besmirched,” the none-too-ladylike sneezer tells her friend, the wife of a congressman. “I always say politics are so common, what with letting everybody vote. No, I don’t know a thing about politics, but I do know what I like.”
Such sentiments are uttered more frequently than “Gesundheit,” no doubt, which is why elected governments are rarely as healthy and sound as they ought to be. And however poorly we are represented due to our lack of care at the sickbed of our democracies, we cannot rely on someone like Hildegarde Halliday to perform the suffering on our behalf . . .
A few years ago, walking home from graduate school one afternoon, I stopped by at a second-hand bookstore in my old neighborhood of Yorkville, Manhattan. Judging from the window display, the shop seemed to specialize in children’s books and memorabilia. While this did not deter me, I hardly expected to make any significant acquisition of a volume on the subject to which this journal is chiefly devoted. I mean, I was not looking for a decoder ring or some such souvenir from the bygone age of radio dramatics. I was, after all, researching my dissertation. There was on the shelves a beautiful copy of Adventure in Radio (1945). Subtitled “A Book of Scripts for Young People,” it may be expected to include juvenile playlets written for the medium, although not necessarily produced on network radio. On such compilations, of which there are many, I was not inclined to waste money or time.
Spiting my assumptions, Adventure not only contains a number of broadcast scripts from programs like Jack Armstrong and Let’s Pretend, but also propaganda plays and wartime commentaries geared toward an adult audience. In addition, it offers insights on the production of radio plays, on sound effects, announcing, and “radio language.” It took a little salestalk from the owner of the by now long closed store, but I was soon convinced. Where (I did not know much about eBay back then) would I ever find such a book again? And how could I claim to be serious about old-time radio if I did not snatch up this copy? So, I handed over my $40 (it was the price tag that made me hesitate) and walked off, eager to continue my studies . . . and determined to find the recordings to match the published scripts now at my fingertips.
That often proved quite difficult; but, I had made up my mind that I was not going to write about words divorced from performance. I wanted to hear what was being done with those scripts, how they were edited and interpreted. Take the NBC University Theater’s production of “Gulliver’s Travels,” for instance. It was broadcast on this day, 24 September, in 1948. My appreciation of the challenges of soundstaging the play grew after reading the comments with which Frank Papp, a director of radio drama for NBC, prefaces the script, originally written for the series World’s Great Novels. Papp points out the “unusual problems” Frank Wells’s adaptation posed in production:
In the matter of casting, the Lilliputian was the most difficult. Here was needed a voice which gave the illusion of a tiny man. A trick voice in itself would be only a caricature. What was required was a voice that created a picture of a real human being of Lilliputian size. After extensive auditioning, an actor was found whose talent and vocal capabilities fulfilled these requirements.
The actor portraying Gulliver was placed in an isolation booth, Papp explains, “so that the Lilliputian’s voice would not spill over into his microphone” and the two voices could be miked separately, with a volume reflecting the size of each character. The voice of the King of Brobdingnag, meanwhile, was “fed” both through an electronic filter to amplify its base quality and through NBC’s largest echo chamber to create the illusion of a giant.
The 24 September 1948 presentation of “Gulliver’s Travels,” starring Henry Hull in the title role, does not quite live up to the expectations raised by Papp’s introduction. Under the direction of Max Hutto, child actor (Anthony Boris) is cast in the role of the Lilliputian, a choice that infantilizes the character and renders pointless the effects achieved by the sound engineer. While Wells’s script downsizes Swift’s story and diminishes its bitterness and bite, it is the production that contributes to a sense that Gulliver’s Travels is, at heart, a juvenile fantasy, despite its airing on the ambitious if misguided NBC University Theater, a program that linked listening to such bowdlerizations with courses in distant learning. I may have been able to match the script with a production, but it was not the one described in Adventure in Radio.
Squeezed as I am into the isolation booth of my preoccupations, it is my mind’s voice that supplies the lilt of the Lilliputian . . .
I’m fighting them any which way I can. Headaches! This time, though, nothing seems to work. And all the while, during a very nearly sleepless night, I’ve been torturing myself, thinking of the old Bromo-Seltzer train and its insistence that listeners to those Bromo-Seltzer sponsored programs “fight . . . headache . . . three . . . ways.” That meant taking care of stomach upset and jangled nerves into the bargain. Jangled nerves? I don’t know, but somehow that train whistle is the last thing you want to hear when you are under the weather (or whatever is firing up that blasted steam engine in my cranium these days).
The Bromo-Seltzer train was a menace, if you ask me; but it was also a marvel. It came to life through the magic of Sonovox, one of those fabulous if artistically insufficiently explored sound effects devices used in 1940s film and radio, where it was largely relegated to commercial duties. Its potential becomes no more apparent than in those insinuating drops of water dripping on A Letter to Three Wives (discussed here). As Time magazine described the invention in its 24 July 1939 issue, a recorded sound is “fed through wires to two little biscuit-shaped gadgets which are placed on each side of the throat against the larynx. These gadgets transmit the sound vibrations to the larynx, so that the sound comes out of the throat as if produced there.”
For comic effect, the novelty was used in the comedy-thriller You’ll Find Out (1940; mentioned here) and Disney’s Dumbo (1941). The Sonovox was also heard in The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943), and, rather more hauntingly, in the Joan Crawford-starring melodrama Possessed (1947; mentioned here). The swan song for the Sonovox appears to have been The Good Humor Man (1950), as a fellow web journalist shares it here, with a clip from the film.
The other day, I caught another glimpse of the Sonovox in operation while watching the The Reluctant Dragon (1941), a promotional tour of the Disney Studios filmed during the making of Dumbo, which was released early the following year. The proxy visitor taking the tour on our behalf is Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley (pictured).
Tonight, though, it had better be a silent movie. Why not a stroll in Hitchcock’s Pleasure Garden, (1925)? After all, it is Alma Reville’s birthday.
I am, in the words of a fellow webjournalist, “a child of television.” Being a latchkey kid, the TV set was a surrogate parent to me. It was around. It talked to me. And when it began to bore or annoy me, I had sufficient force in my little finger to evade its glare. True, during my early childhood, Germany had only two television channels (father and mother, you might say) and programming did not start until mid-afternoon; but it still came home earlier than my parents. At night, when I was assumed to be sleeping, I re-enacted what I had seen and played out stories with whatever I could lay my hands on. And those hands were greedy enough to grab at straws, or less.
When separated from my folks during a three-months stay at a sanatorium (I was a sickly child suffering from chronic bronchitis), I was so thirsty to satisfy my artistic impulses that I used saliva to draw images on the bed linen, for which offense I was rebuked by the nurses who, lacking both the imagination and the sense of humor to appreciate such spitting images, accused me of having wetted my quarters. I could have done that by crying; it was the only sound to penetrate the nightly silence.
Breathless as I was, I retreated into an inner world, imagining my ear to be a knob at the turning of which I could talk to the animals. Stuffed animals, that is. No sounds were made; we communicated without utterance. That way, I did not have to speak on their behalf, but could believe them to be responding without feeling quite so pathetically lonely. For the most part, my imaginings remained non-aural. I created motion pictures using rolls of adding machine paper my mother brought home from work; I invented cartoon characters and penned stories the moment I learned to make letters add up to words.
It was only after we moved into our own house, the house my father built for us, that I got intimately acquainted with that old-fashioned kind of television for which you supplied the picture. I got a radio. Not the enormous console that stood in my grandparents’ dining room, but a portable one with a built-in tape recorder. Soon I got carried away by sounds and thrilled to foreign voices.
I was not easily weaned off TV, though. Once in a while, when I was assumed to be sleeping, I attempted to watch television through my binoculars (ours was an L-shaped house, and from my window I could peep into the living room); but gradually I learned to make the most of the wireless. Before my English was good enough to understand what was being said, I tuned in to the British Forces Broadcasting Service; I intercepted citizens’ band radio conversations and went dxing in search of faraway stations.
Yet what really awakened my love for the drama of sound was not the radio at all—it was a gadget my father insisted on installing in our house. It was an intercom. Now, our bungalow was hardly large enough to warrant such a device; but Papa was a professional electrician and avid hobbyist, aside from being somewhat of a show-off. While we were certainly not above shouting at each other, the family had to have an intercom (and, come to think of it, we had it before we got our first phone). It did not make us communicate any better; but it was certainly an interesting feature.
One night, when the wallpaper in my room (my very own room!) had not yet lost the smell of incomplete attachment, my father was ready to put the talking machine to the test it. He went into the kitchen, the control center from which we could all be summoned to the table and, I became aware later, monitored in our doings, provided we weren’t hush-hush about them or dared to switch off, suggesting we had something to conceal. Then he pressed a button and started talking to me as I was lying in bed. We chatted for a while; but, knowing my father close by and not being used to holding longer conversations with him, the novelty of the exchange soon wore off . . . until Papa hit on an exciting idea.
He went “off the air” for a while, during which time he rummaged through the kitchen drawers. I could hear as much through the closed doors; but my ear was fixed on that cream-colored box on the wall. Then it went on again; and the next sound I heard was not my father’s voice, but . . . what? The splank of a spoon in a pot, the sploshing of water in a glass, the swooshing of a tea towel being flung through space? Sounds. Mundane yet suddenly magical. And while I was invited to guess their origins, I also imagined their destination. I heard a church bell where others saw a pot, found an ocean in a cup, and saw, not a tea towel, but a dragon spreading its giant wings.
It was this little sound effects quiz that brought home a new world to me. Once I realized that there did not have to be a single right answer to those sonic puzzles, there opened up a realm of noisy possibilities. Sounds divorced from their maker, ready to be imbued with a new, almost independent life. Sounds waiting to be taken in like stray kittens, to be dispatched like carrier pigeons. Those were the sounds of latchkey child longing . . .
I have celebrated a great many anniversaries here; and the birth of William Wordsworth, 7 April 1770, would sure be among the most deserving of my—or anyone else’s—taking note. Yet a far more intimate anniversary is on my mind tonight, hard-driven to distraction as I am in the fear that my old Mac is once again giving up the ghost after two reincarnations. This time around, the ghost-busted machine refuses to recharge, and, in a race against the time of its expiration, I am spiriting away whatever signs of my life might otherwise remain secreted within its juiceless shell. To paraphrase Dryden, I must pound the keyboard while it is still hot, but shall have to polish the issue at leisure, hardware permitting. So, what is the occasion for my ad hoc bowdlerization of one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems? On this day, 7 April, back in 1985, I first stepped into the noisy wilderness of Gotham, this “Tapestry” of sound that Norman Corwin and other radio experimenters captured or recreated for their virtual tours. Touring in the flesh, I, too, became engrossed in its soundscape, walking around town with a borrowed tape recorder and, having returned home, experience it anew in the quiet of the four walls that could no longer shut me up. Compared to the shiny, fenced in theme park it is today, Manhattan was still a fairly hostile jungle during those days, but all the more exciting for being dark and devious and full of unthought-of dangers.
Little did I know that within the course of three short weeks, my rather miserable adolescent existence would get such a kick in the well-ironed pants. How could I ever forget the delights and the dread that awaited the innocent abroad who was far too blasé for his own good? I had a lot to learn, and those twenty-one days were a crash course in survival, which I very nearly flunked: giving all the dough I had left for my trip to a team of confidence tricksters, being invited by a stranger on the street to see the Modigliani he claimed to have in his mid-town lair and not finding the promised masterpiece but myself violated instead, and, still capable of the love I had never experienced and the trust in humanity I nearly lost, falling under the spell of a charming young waiter at jazz bar on Spring Street who would turn my head and the mousy curls on it into something curiously yellow. The physical scar (previously scratched open here) was hidden from view; but those neon locks signalled to everyone back home that the boy who returned was not the one who had gone out into the world:
I wandered lonely in a crowd
That walked on by with dreads and frills,
When all at once I, too, stood out,
With locks like golden daffodils;
Beside the cabs, beneath the streets,
Alive and dancing (mercy, Keats!).
Indifferent as the stars that hide
Yet shimmer to discerning eyes,
They brushed in Harry’s new-found pride
Against the margin of their lies:
Ten thousand saw them at a glance,
When my head’s tossed, who’s got a chance?
The weaves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling pates in glee:
A fellow could not but be gay,
Show colors true for all to see.
I gleamed—they gawked—yet dreamed no more
What change those locks would have in store:
But now, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in somber mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the sight of solitude;
My older self to memory thrills,
And dances like those daffodils.
“Don’t tell me how to shpeak in dat microphone. For crying out loud, wasn’t I not in de show bisserness?” I had offended her and felt sorry. I could tell that she was offended because her English got a lot worse whenever she just about had it with people. Tante Ilse was right, of course. She had been in show business. And she sure knew how to handle a mike. After all, back in the 1940s and early ‘50s, her line of business had been radio. Radio drama, to be exact. An unlikely business for a woman like Ilse Hiss, who had come to New York in the mid-1930s—from Prussia, with no more than seven words of English and an utter disregard for dental fricatives. Anyway. This is her story; hers and Opa Heini’s.
To get that story, I had placed a small recorder under her nose. As you can see from my portrait of her, it was some schnoz. She didn’t mind the sketch, even though she was quick to point out that there was “something wrong” about that left eyebrow. There was something wrong about it, all right. She didn’t have any. Back in the ‘30s, Tante Ilse shaved, waxed or whisked them off to look more like the leading ladies of the day. You know, Harlow, Lombard, Dietrich. Marlene Dietrich was her brother’s favorite. What am I saying? Favorite! Heini was crazy about the “fesche Lola.” Crazy enough, in fact, that, when the star of the Blue Angel left Germany, Opa Heini packed his suitcase and headed for America. It wasn’t a political statement; he was pining. And although he never got to talk to Dietrich personally (he was too shy, I guess, and too busy making a living besides), his romance with America never ended. Unlike his American-born stepson (my louse of a father), Opa Heini was done with Germany, especially since his older sister had come over to join him. They were the best of friends, those two. And more, I sometimes thought.
Anyway. About that left eyebrow. It never grew back, and Tante Ilse pencilled it in every morning, right before breakfast. After half a century, her hand had become pretty shaky, which is why that arch began to resemble some kind of tribal design, a tattoo of a snake slithering desultorily along after a generous helping of mice. Maybe that’s why I made her nose look a little bigger than it actually was. To distract the eye. I had no intention to caricature or ridicule her. Not Tante Ilse.
So, there was that tape recorder with the built-in microphone under her nose now. It wasn’t the kind she had been used to. Tape recorder, listen to me. Gosh, sometimes I feel as ancient as Tante Ilse. This all took place in the early 1990s, the interviews and what followed. We had met for our weekly Kaffeeklatsch in the stuffy, keepsake brimming living room of her Upper East Side apartment, sipping, what else, coffee (with the “real” condensed milk she wouldn’t do without). In those days, Yorkville was still a very German neighborhood. Tante Ilse (“Tante” is German for aunt, even though she was, strictly speaking, my great aunt) was happy to talk about the past. There seemed to be no sad chapter in her entire life story, aside from the loss of her brother. But that would come a little later. And if you think that this serenity made her a boring person to talk to, you are very much mistaken. Tragedy doesn’t make you interesting; it’s how you manage to dodge it.
She had a giant scrapbook in her commodious lap, filled with clippings from newspapers and magazines, chronicling an age now thought of as golden. Come to think of it, it’s the book that gave me the idea. To interview her, I mean. I was going for my Master’s then, in Theater History. After taking a good and long look at that album, I surprised everyone in the department when I declared that, instead of transgender issues in Elizabethan comedy (or some such topic), I would be writing about the “theater of the mind.” That’s radio drama, in plain English. Back then, few people were talking about it, let alone study it in earnest. Maybe I wasn’t in earnest, either. Not about the degree, at least.
“For crying out loud,” she repeated, this time with a chuckle that made the fleshy folds below her chin resemble those of an agitated turkey. “What is it?” I asked, relieved that she had recovered her good humor. “I vas in the bisserness djust for that: for crying out loud!” How true, I thought. After all, Tante Ilse had been a professional “baby crier.” What kind of job is that, you ask? Believe me, it made me wonder, too.
“You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” I prompted her, teasingly, letting the tape run at last. And, after humming a few bars of the Crosby standard, she began telling it all as if I had never heard it before. Sure, I could have told it myself by then. But Tante Ilse told it best. What a phoney, I thought to myself, without the slightest sense of remorse. This wasn’t about research. This wasn’t about getting a degree. Why not admit it: I had come to be told a story . . .
Well, it has been particularly blustery of late; and, according to the BBC, Welsh coastal dwellers are to brace themselves for the fierce storms announcing themselves so boisterously. I am used to such noisy tidings by now. They are part of the seasonal soundscape of the Welsh coast, the otherwise quiet place to which I, romantically propelled, betook myself from the din of the metropolis.
Yes, I can take it now, the sound of the gales pushing against our cottage, the telling rattle of the letterbox long after the postal workers have made their rounds, the creaking of the beams and the lashing of rain against the glass drum of our conservatory, orchestrally augmented by the high-pitched screeching of the twisted willow branches scraping against the panes. Then there is that dictionary-challenging, onomatopoeia-defying shhhshing of the wind, as if nature were insisting on airtime, determined to shut me up, shut in as I am, surrounded by those ominous and still strange sounds.
Before heading out into that storm tonight, for company and a few drinks, I wrapped myself up in a sound cape of my own choosing, a blanket at once muffling and eloquent. BBC Radio 4 offered just that: “The Castle: A Portrait in Sound” (available here until 13 December). A portrait not unlike those produced by the Columbia Workshop in the 1930s and the CBS Radio Workshop in the ’50s (as discussed here), “The Castle” recalls the past of a Scottish stronghold rendered in spoken words, its present, the after-liveliness of its ruins, being captured by natural sounds.
When its palette is not muted by the welcome commentary that gives names to its noisemakers, the sonic portrait of “The Castle” reverberates with the spray of the sea, now stormy, now calm, with the buzz of insects and the chatter of swallows, of skylarks and kittiwakes, and the rather obscene squawks of the shags. The fabled invasion of Daphne du Maurier’s avian agitators (last heard here and currently being readied for another big screen attack) was brought vividly to mind.
If only the wind and rain were not messing with the wires again, making it difficult for me to sustain a wireless reception sound enough to get this “Castle” on the air . . .
Well, being that I am off to Cardiff on Thursday to see the touring Young Vic production of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, I thought I’d make this serial and comic strip week here on broadcastellan. “Blistering barnacles” and “Cushion footed quadrupeds”! I am smack in the middle of the “Funny Book War” as staged by Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; and even though my comic treats were generally of not of the superheroic kind (to which this recent portrait attests), comics are very much on my mind.
It so happens that the aforementioned (and by now controversial) boy reporter and his creator are also the subject of the BBC Radio 4 documentary “Tintin’s Guide to Journalism” (available online here until 23 November). In this broadcast, which also features the voice of Tintin creator Hergé, journalist Mark Lawson investigates cases of real-life reporters who were inspired to enter their profession by books like King Ottokar’s Sceptre. In my case, comics simply inspired imitation.
The Germans are said to have papered the way to the comics with the picture books of Wilhelm Busch (Max und Moritz), which is where I started out as well. After graduating from the Katzenjammer Kids inspiring Max und Moritz, I became an avid comic collector, spending virtually all of my Taschengeld (distributed as it was back then in Deutsch Marks) on weeklies like Fix und Foxi.
Sigh! My family could not afford to have me shod there; but I still sneaked into the Salamander shoe stores to browse just long enough to grab my copy of Lurchi, another treat being the stories of Mecki the hedgehog I clipped from the pages of the German radio and television magazine Hörzu. More inclined toward the buzz of Maya the Bee than to the “THWIP!” of Spiderman, my comic book phase ended as I entered my teenage years. Make that my “comic reading phase,” since I kept drawing them. My own creations often mocked those among my pubescent schoolmates who kept up with the exploits of guys like Superman or The Phantom.
It was only after I graduated from the comics that I discovered a connection between cartoon bubbles and comic speech, the kind of connection to which the Americans owe the serial adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy, the kind of affinity that made it possible for New York City Mayor La Guardia to read Little Orphan Annie on the air during the 1945 newspaper strike. Even though I had very little exposure to radio drama, being the walking TV Guide in my family, I created in the character of Inspektor Bullauge (Inspector Bull’s Eye) a comic for the ear. I made up the story as I played the parts, more interested in the sound effects I could use and record to bring my cardboard creation to life.
Zowie! Despite dedicating an estimated 300,000 words of this journal to popular culture (and radio dramatics in particular), I have never explored here the relationship between onomatopoeia and the equally imaginative world of sound effects . . .
How about taking that spoon out of your noodle soup for a tuneful interlude? Apparently, the Vietnamese get a lot of noise out of their flatware. Back in 1936, one woman, a BBC temp by the name of Marie Slocombe, set out to preserve such sounds, recorded for broadcast but to be discarded thereafter. This Saturday, I am tuning in to “Saving the Sounds of History,” a documentary about Ms. Slocombe and the origins of the BBC sound archive. There are rural dialects, the ancient harp of King David, and a bird song anno 1890 (more of interest, no doubt, if the captured talent had gone the way of the Dodo).
I have long been fascinated by natural and man-made sounds, endangered or representative, familiar yet fleeting. For years, I kept my own library of noise: New York City traffic in the age of breakdancing, the laughter of an old friend, the footsteps in the hallway of a former home—noises that conjure up scenes left out of pictures in an age before mobile phones and digital cameras.
Sean Street’s documentary perhaps overstresses the historical significance of “cupboard S,” in which Slocombe secretly stored the abdication speech of King Edward VIII, the recording of which the BBC did not wish to preserve. As Slocombe acknowledged in an interview, the speech (transcribed here), was available in the US, having been transmitted over shortwave throughout the world on 11 December 1936 and was rebroadcast in part on NBC’s Recollections at 30 back in 1956. As it was replaying in the US, it still sat hidden in Slocombe’s closet.
To this day, access to the BBC sound archives requires a trip to London; but “Saving the Sounds of History” at least creates an awareness of such treasures. Say, which sounds would you preserve? The spoons, if you ask me, are best kept in the bowl.