I Was a Communist for Tallulah Bankhead

Memento Park, Budapest

Radio has always promoted other media, despite the competition it faced from print and screen. To some degree, this led to its decline as a dramatic medium. Producers made eyes at the pictures, neglecting to develop techniques that would ensure radio’s future as a viable alternative to visual storytelling. Television had been around the corner virtually from the beginnings of broadcasting; even in the 1920s, radio insiders were expecting its advent. So, the old wireless was often seen as little more than a placeholder for television, an interim tool for advertisers eagerly awaiting the day on which they no longer had to spell out what they could show to the crowd.

One of the last big hurrahs of radio during the early 1950s was The Big Show, a variety program hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead (last revisited here). Sure, Bankhead promoted the movies—but on this day, 29 April, in 1951, she doubtlessly had something else in mind when she expressed herself “privileged to hear a portion of a truly great new Warner Bros. picture, starring Frank Lovejoy.”

According to Joel Lobenthal’s biography of the actress, Bankhead had a “phobia about communism,” largely owing to her Catholic upbringing. Yet, as George Baxt, a theatrical agent involved in booking talent for the program, tells it in The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case, a mystery set during those Big Show nights, her show struggled as a result of this anxiety and the forms it took.

Not Bankhead’s anxieties—the measures taken by fierce anti-Communists to blacklist (or at least graylist) allegedly subversive players. By the early 1950s, even comedienne Judy Holliday was considered suspicious, which did not stop Bankhead from welcoming her on the Big Show on several occasions.

By playing a scene from a soon-to-be-released spy thriller titled I Was a Communist for the FBI, Bankhead fought for the life of the Big Show, now that even she, the fierce anti-Communist, had come under attack. As Bankhead pointed out, I Was a Communist was a dramatization of the Saturday Evening Post stories based on experience of counterspy Matt Cvetic, whom Lovejoy “deem[ed] it an honor” to portray.

“It certainly brought home to me the patriotic devotion and the sheer guts that Matt needed to take that nine-year beating.” At this point, a voice is heard, off-mike, telling Lovejoy that “someone had to do it.” That someone, speaking to the listening audience, was none other than Matt Cvetic:

Well, Frank, maybe we’d better wait until the job is done before we start taking bows.  The job is far from finished.  We’re just beginning to fight back against the deadly, ruthless, highly organized Soviet-controlled conspiracy.  So, we’ve got a lot of fighting yet to do before we can rid ourselves of this greatest threat to the world of free men.  We’ve got to fight.  All of us.  All the time.

“Amen to that,” Bankhead responded enthusiastically as the crowd in the studio applauded. Threatened by the blacklisters and the menace of television, Ms. Bankhead knew she had to fight—for the good of the country and the good of her show. The Big Show went off the air a year later, just as the aforementioned radio version of I Was a Communist began its syndicated run . . .

Songs, Lies, and Audiotape: Margaret Truman Daniel (1924-2008) on the Air

Having just learned of the passing of Margaret Truman Daniel, the former US President’s only daughter, I am going to conjure up her voice by listening to some of the radio programs on which she was featured. Truman made her broadcasting debut in Detroit, back in 1947; she started out as a pianist, then turned to singing.

Fade to black: Margaret Truman Daniel

To most Americans, of course, she was, first and foremost, the First Daughter. Could she pull off a career on the strength of her vocal chords, people wondered, or was it all a matter of pulled strings? Fully aware of this debate, Truman was often in on the joke, an act that made her a welcome guest on what, in the early 1950s, was the biggest show on radio. Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show.

On 3 December 1950, Truman faced the acerbic Bankhead for the first time. “I suppose you’re all a-wondering how we were able to get such a prominent personage as Miss Truman to be guest on our program,” quipped the celebrated hostess. “Well, really, all it took was a telephone call. I called a certain party, and that party called another party, who in turn called another party. Uh, naturally, these were all democratic parties.”

On the same broadcast, Truman was also confronted with Fred Allen. Sharing the microphone with the seasoned if semi-retired radio wit proved quite a challenge for the still inexperienced Truman.

Truman. How do you do, Mr. Allen?

Allen. Well, how do you do? It’s certainly a pleasure. But, please, don’t call me Mr. Allen. Call me by my given name.

Truman (imitating Bankhead). All right, Daaahling!

Bankhead. This girl has the makings of a Milton Berle.

Truman. Fred, I’ve been an admirer of your radio program for a long time.

Allen. Well, thank you. But where were you when my option came up back there in 1948?

Truman. In 1948, we were busy with an option problem ourselves.

Allen. Yes, but that option was renewed for another four years. You were lucky you didn’t have a quiz show running against you. And, by the way, Miss Truman, I’m surprised you don’t have a radio program of your own.

Truman. Oh, I can’t do anything well enough to have my own program.

Allen. Oh, on radio that’s no handicap.

When Allen insists that Truman ought to have her own variety program, Bankhead feels threatened:

Allen. Say, uh, this might be an idea, Margaret. Now, how about doing a big variety show, about an hour and a half program, and get the biggest names in show business. Why, you could be the mistress of ceremonies.

Bankhead. Just a moment! That’s my program. I don’t mind standing here without any lines, but I simply refuse to stand here without a program.

Truman. Oh, don’t worry, Tallulah. I wouldn’t dream of doing a program like that.

Bankhead (at her huskiest). And why not, Daaahling?

Truman. Well, I don’t think I’m old enough.

Bankhead. Whaaaaaaat!

Three months later, on 4 March 1951, recent Time magazine cover girl Truman was back on the Big Show. “Aren’t you Charlie’s Aunt,” Allen’s wife and sidekick Portland Hoffa inquired, mistaking Truman for the sister of Britain’s reigning monarch. “Love Is Where You Find It,” Truman trills after a confrontation with Ethel Merman, then learns about the harmonica from Herb Shriner.

“I’m an actress now,” Truman declared upon her return to the Big Show on 6 May 1951. A week earlier, she had played opposite James Stewart in a Screen Directors Playhouse production of Jackpot (26 April 1951), a satire on the excesses of commercial radio. Bankhead condescended to give Truman the title role in “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” a dramatic sketch based on a story by Dorothy Parker. Yet the emphasis was decidedly on the “Advice” and the one proffering it, not on the “Girl”; as the young woman’s “older, wiser, and oh-so-understanding confidante,” Bankhead devoured the scene.

Sharing the microphone with experienced performers, Truman was not so much propped up as shown up by them. The following year, for instance, the successful recording artist was called upon to sing opposite Gordon MacRae on the Railroad Hour in the operetta “Sari” (17 March 1952), an adaptation of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet. The words “Pretty boys, witty boys, you may sneer” come to mind. Perhaps, Truman, or Bankhead’s script writers, had been right. She did not quite have it in her to be a radio personality. Guesting five times on the Big Show, however, she proved herself a genial team player.

Being shown up by your hostess is bad enough; worse still is when you are the hostess and the guests don’t show up. This misfortune befell Truman on the premiere of her next radio venture. Along with Mike Wallace, the gal from Missouri was to host Weekday, a six-hour, five-day-a-week daytime variety program also starring Martha Scott and Walter Kiernan. Imitating the successful Monitor, Weekday promised drama, music, and chat.

On the opening program, back in 1955, Truman announced Eddie Fisher, her “star companion” for the day. “Hi Eddie!” she opened; but Fisher did not respond. As Slate and Cook recall in It Sounds Impossible (1963), the chats were partially recorded. That is, Truman did not get to talk to her guests, but was expected to simulate her scripted interviews, with the control room feeding her a recorded voice, an experimental technique called “‘stop-start’ taping.” Eddie was not stuck up; he was just a tape getting stuck.

Such difficulties notwithstanding, Truman stuck with the show until 1956, picking up a regular television assignment nearly a decade later. She may not have hit the Jackpot, but she maintained her media presence long after her father and his party had been voted out of office.