“Oh no he isn’t” (“Oh yes he is”): Mickey Rooney in Bristol

When I read that Boys Town dropout Mickey Rooney was to appear once again on the British stage, I resolved to adjust our vacation schedule accordingly and ring in the new year in Bristol, England. Why not cheer on the late-octogenarian trouper as he performs his way into the Guinness Book of Records, I thought. Rooney, who has been on the boards and in the studios for nine decades, can currently be seen as Baron Hardup in the pantomime Cinderella at Bristol’s old Hippodrome. Granted, I was not exactly panting for panto, unaccustomed as I am to that most British of holiday theatricals. The first one I caught, back in 2005, boasted Ian McKellen . . . in drag. It felt as if I had crashed a fancy dress party, with everyone around me too inebriated to permit me to catch up or on. The experience left me more bewildered than tickled. I failed to find amusement in such consummate waste of thespian talent on what struck me as a vulgar, charmless production of Aladdin at the Old Vic in London. I did not understand that vulgarity is the very charm of British panto—an outrageous spectacle befitting the topsy-turvitudinous twelve-nightly revels.

This time around, having just had my fill of Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (August: Osage Country), opera (Hansel and Gretel), and musicals (The Sound of Music and Carousel) in London, I was ready for something decidedly more lowbrow. Besides, the Hippodrome’s presentation of Cinderella presented us with the opportunity to meet up with friends, among them Michelle Collins (aforementioned), who was cast as the Wicked Stepmother.

We ended up spending quite some time backstage, then dined and partied with cast members after Mickey had slipped out of the theater. The superannuated Andy Hardy made it clear that he was not to be approached for signatures or photo opportunities; nor was he to be seen anywhere but onstage, not given to mingling with his British co-stars whose names can mean nothing to a Hollywood legend.

His exclusivity is a wise precaution, no doubt. Who, at his or any age, would relish the prospect of being badgered after a night’s work while stepping into the icy dark of a backdoor alley, being coughed and sneezed at by the occupational hazards that are autograph hunters, some of whom, if they had just come out of the show, were still somewhat musty after being shot at, as was my misfortune, with a giant water pistol fired by comedian Bobby Davro? Indeed, it was rather sporting of the hardy one to fulfill his contractual obligations, being that his eighth wife, Jan, who was slated to join him as the Fairy Godmother, had taken ill.

So, how was Mr. Rooney, you ask? Well, he was . . . there, or very nearly so. It appeared that only few members of the audience particularly cared. I doubt that many were quite aware just who this old fellow was. A couple seated in front of us, pointing at the oversized keepsake playbill, shook their heads at the sight of his picture, whereas the photograph of Ms. Collins triggered nods of recognition. It’s a long way from 1930s Hollywood to 21st-century Bristol, you know.

You might think that, with a name like Joe Yule, the man who made a name for himself as Mickey Rooney was born to spread Christmas cheer. Instead, as if finding himself on stage quite by accident, the distant star twinkled beyond the reach or ken of a high-spirited crowd eager to laugh at Buttons (Davro), hiss the Wicked Stepmother (Collins), or cheer the juveniles—that is to say, interact with the characters in traditional panto fashion. To the children, the action-slowing walk-ons of Rooney’s kindly grandfather figure must have been either inconsequential or else incomprehensible, lost within the noisy glare of the spectacle. Still, there he was, aware, no doubt, that showcases such as the pantomine are about the only opportunity left to an actor of his years to make what is little more than a stage cameo.

For all the fun of Cinderella (and jolly good fun it certainly was), there was something pathetic about yesterday’s Huck Finn being benched on the sidelines, looking on benevolently if slightly bewildered. Mr. Rooney, who had two short musical numbers, including a wistful rendition of “Smile,” spent most of his time seated to the left of the stage while nominally assuming its center. The tunes suited him, but were incongruous all the same with a production that relied heavily on contemporary pop music as if out to turn the fairy tale favorite into High Jinks Musical.

Not far from the Hippodrome, on the vast emptiness that is Millennium Square, there stands a forlorn statue of Bristol’s native son Cary Grant, unheeded by tourists (of which there were few) and locals (who may well shun the space) alike. Still, there it is, clutching the script for To Catch a Thief as if determined to catch the next flight back to California. Like small-statured Rooney, his stage presence and its reception, the statue brought to mind the quest (the questionable) upon which I had embarked when, feeling displaced and unsure of myself, I commenced this journal back in 2005: to keep up with the out-of-date as if rehearsing my exit in a state of conspicuous invisibility. Yet, here I am, forever behind . . . like a pantomime horse’s ass.

Mark Twain, Six Feet Under

“I have been trying all I could to get down to the sentimental part of it,” Mark Twain remarked on the “subject of graveyards.” Yet, he concluded, there was “no genuinely sentimental part” to the spectacle we make of the act of decomposing. “It is all grotesque, ghastly, horrible.”

Perhaps it takes a higher degree of sentimentality to find the romance in the morbid; but I am capable of just that. Whenever I travel, I enjoy visiting places of interment, particularly those large necropolises with their temples and statues erected in memory of mortals who, while above ground, played a vital role in the workings of our large metropolises.

Bankers and bigwigs seem to insist on occupying the largest dwellings in the cities of the dead. There must be some consolation in knowing that, even when six feet below, one can still get folks to look up in admiration. Writers, by comparison, often have modest graves. They, after all, leave their impressions by filling volumes that, however small by comparison to a mausoleum, are apt and ample monuments to their craft. Tombs are largely reserved for those who managed no tomes.

Mark Twain’s own grave is an encasement in point. Last summer, returning to New York City from a trip to Niagara Falls, we had a stopover in the town of Elmira. Since I was in charge of both the map and the guide book, I made sure it was on our way. After all, the humorist from Missouri is buried there. The first thing we did, after securing a room for the night, was to go in search of his final resting place, which we found, eventually, along with that of filmmaker Hal Roach (shown here). However impaired our sense of dimensions after beholding the Falls, the stone (pictured) is less than majestic.

Close to it, though, is a larger monument, about twice as high as the number of feet I presume him to be under, which is precisely the length denoted by the cry of “mark twain” from which Samuel Clemens took his name. The cleverness of the tribute notwithstanding, I wonder whether the writer so honored would have welcomed such a column. Resting assured that monuments are being perpetually erected in the minds of those who read, relish, and recite his words, Mark Twain may well have been better pleased with a more modest disposal, given his attitude toward burials as expressed in Life on the Mississippi:

Graveyards may have been justifiable in the bygone ages, when nobody knew that for every dead body put into the ground, to glut the earth and the plant-roots, and the air with disease-germs, five or fifty, or maybe a hundred persons must die before their proper time; but they are hardly justifiable now, when even the children know that a dead saint enters upon a century-long career of assassination the moment the earth closes over his corpse.  It is a grim sort of a thought.  The relics of St. Anne, up in Canada, have now, after nineteen hundred years, gone to curing the sick by the dozen.  But it is merest matter-of-course that these same relics, within a generation after St. Anne’s death and burial, made several thousand people sick.  Therefore these miracle-performances are simply compensation, nothing more.

Besides, he pointed out (quoting a member of Chicago Medical Society, who was an advocate of cremation), “[f]unerals cost annually more money than the value of the combined gold and silver yield of the United States in the year 1880! These figures do not include the sums invested in burial-grounds and expended in tombs and monuments, nor the loss from depreciation of property in the vicinity of cemeteries.”

Mark Twain was born on this day, 30 November, in 1835; he died nearly a century ago and, whatever his views on the matter of tombstones, has well earned his keep at Woodlawn. Here he immaterializes for us in “The Adventures of Mark Twain” (Cavalcade of America, 1 May 1944), the voice being that of Fredric March. In light of Mark Twain’s remarks, I believe he would have approved of the memorial services a cost-effective medium like radio can provide. Radio gets rid of the body but keeps the spirit alive.

Once More Round the Horne

I just got back from Brighton, England, the popular seaside resort that is pretty much the gayest town in all of Britain. So, to speak in the cheek-lodged tongue of Polari, I was bound to have a “fantabulosa” time. And how “fantabulosa” was it for an old “omi-palone” like me to have Round the Horne playing just round the corner at Brighton’s Theatre Royal. Considering that Round the Horne is a British radio series whose last original episode aired back in 1968, I could hardly believe my “ogles” when I read that it was on while I was visiting. I was thrilled to get my “lills” on a pair of tickets to “aunt nell” some of the wittiest comedy act never seen by millions.

Round the Horne: Unseen and Uncut is an ingeniously—if deceptively—simple production. It merely presents two of the sixty-six 45-minute broadcasts from this much-loved and well-remembered BBC program (1965-68), separated by an intermission that only the most humorless of stick-in-the-muds would take as an opportunity to make a hasty retreat. The scripts are taken directly from the original series. You would not want to tinker with lines composed by Barry Took (Laugh In) and his writing partner Marty Feldman. You certainly would not have to.

The second act (or half, rather) builds on the first, allowing viewers to pick up the rhythm of the show, pick up on the slight but clever variations, and pick their favorite among the recurring characters in a line-up including Fiona and Charles, an aging pair of actors who reprise their preposterously Cowardesque silver screen dialogues (“I know you know I know”) in that posh and most unnatural anti-vernacular of BBC English; folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo with yet another rendition of his Jabberwockian tunes; and, of course, Julian and his friend Sandy in all their Polari-riddled glory that was enjoyed by millions but understood and shared by only a few whose nature made them appreciate the subversiveness and desperation of such artifice. After all, homosexuality was still illegal at the time.

Of course, the production is not at all simple. The performers are called upon to impersonate well-known radio (and television) personalities, including Kenneth Horne (played by Jonathan Rigby), Kenneth Williams (Robin Sebastian), and Betty Marsden (Sally Grace). Standing behind a row of microphones, without any other props of scenery to speak of, the six cast members (not including the singers and orchestra members) have to sound the part and deliver their borrowed lines with an enthusiasm that is thoroughly rehearsed without sounding disingenuous. Along with the harmonizing quartet known as Not the Fraser Hayes Four, the seen voices of this stage show are fully deserving of a hearty cheer of “fantabulosa!”

However convincingly the experience of attending a live radio broadcast (or a recording session thereof) in a studio is being recreated, though, one aspect of such productions has been overlooked or obscured. Hidden from view were the indispensable sound effects artists whose presence would have completed the picture. I would have settled for an extra pressing a number of buttons while seated among the musicians who were in full view at all times. Instead, the recorded yet well-timed effects (from footsteps to horses hoofs) came from a loudspeaker, its makers or purveyors unseen and, a mention in the playbill aside, unacknowledged.

The production might also have benefited from a few glances behind the scene, with actors walking on, preparing for their roles or having a chat before each broadcast. No dirt, just an element of realism. Since Took’s widow serves as “script consultant” for this touring show, some insightful biographical notes might have been worked into this simulation. Kenneth Williams’s life, in particular, is worth exploring in a stage drama. According to the playbill, the “action takes place” at the “BBC Paris Recording Studios in Lower Regent Street, London”; but what there is of action hardly speaks as loudly as the words. This is “theater of the mind”; and once it is taken out of the wooden O of your cranium, you begin to wonder whether what you see is really what you get as you make an effort to wipe your “oglefakes.”

That said, I was glad for this chance to catch up with Round the Horne—and at such an opportune moment to boot. It so happens that, this Friday, 28 November, BBC Radio 7 is rebroadcasting the 7 March 1965 debut of the program, with subsequent episodes to follow sequentially in the weeks and months to come. My “aunt nells” are ready for it . . .

Seeing Jungle Red; or, Arthur Godfrey’s Sneeze

The Latvian National Opera had not yet reopened for the fall season. Little more could be said in our defense. Having enjoyed another organ concert in the Dome, followed by a Russian meal at Arbat, we once again made our way through the old town to pay a visit to the city’s Forum Cinemas, a multiplex boasting the largest screen in Northern Europe. By the end of our stay, we had pretty much exhausted its late-night offerings (the overrated Dark Knight, the enjoyably featherweight Mamma Mia, the horrific Midnight Meat Train featuring Lipstick Jungle’s Brooke Shields, the enchanting art house fantasy The Fall, and the daft but tolerable Get Smart). Not ready to head back to our hotel, situated none too conveniently in a remote spot of the run-down Russian quarter (seen above, beyond the cinema and the market, an area towered over by a block of bricks known as Stalin’s birthday cake), we decided to spend a few more Lats, the local currency, on . . . Disaster Movie.

Little did I know that what we were about to behold is now deemed the worst film ever made. Disaster Movie makes the average Saturday Night Live burlesque look like a penetrating commentary on the human condition. It is Airplane! operated by Alitalia. Bankrupt and ramshackle, it doesn’t just run on empty, it never gets off the ground into which it runs the genre. Without much hesitation, I added my lone star to the IMDb jury’s near unanimous verdict. Having paid to watch, I can hardly lay claim to standards. And yet, I am determined not to throw money at The Women, the long-in-the-works remake of the Cukor classic, a so-called update starring (if you can call it that) a line of Hollywood A-list dropouts including Annette Bening and Meg Ryan. Who, I ask, is content to substitute the nail-polished treat of a lifetime for what looks like a Lifetime treatment of same?

On this day, 21 September, in 1939, radio personality Arthur Godfrey was called upon to promote the original on the Sun Dial, a morning program originating from the studios of WJSV in Washington, DC. The at that time not so “Old Redhead” alerted listeners to a midnight screening of The Women. And “how about the women treating the men to this show?” Godfrey dutifully added. Glancing at the advertising copy before him, the antemeridian plate spinner continued in a drone suggesting somnolence and stupefaction:

It says, talking about style: wait till you see that gorgeous $250 nightgown that is part of the Technicolor fashion show in that new picture The Women. Fancy that, paying $250 for a nightie [. . .]. Mine costs a dollar and a half, and I bet I sleep better than she does, I bet you. [Chuckle]. Well, anyway, MGM has screened Clare Boothe’s malicious, delicious play that’s a riot of revelations about our own sex. You know, men is what I’m talking, men. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell head a 100 percent female cast.

That historic lineup was hardly anything to sneeze at. Yet Godfrey did just that—letting out what is a rare enough sound in radio. Perhaps he was allergic to women’s pictures or rebelling at the thought of touting what did not match his persona; perhaps it was merely the effect of sleeping in that five-and-dime nightgown, a garment out of which many of those tuning in on that Thursday morning were jumping at what was the most surprising and lively sound in Godfrey’s lazy chatter. Coincidence or commentary, what a time for a sneeze!

After all, Godfrey told listeners that he had a “hunch” he was being recorded. Indeed, he was. The 21 September 1939 broadcast emanating from or transmitted by CBS affiliate WJSV has been preserved in its entirety, providing today’s listener with the opportunity to experience the pastime of a past generation, from serial dramas like the Angelus Lipstick-sponsored Romance of Helen Trent (aforementioned) to news presented by the recently departed George Putnam.

No matter how nonchalant, Godfrey was aware that his words were being captured for posterity. As pop-cultural waste like Disaster Movie drives home, such knowledge does not translate into an effort to deliver memorable performances. Fast cash is more practical than lasting fame. Meanwhile, if another take on The Women is your fancy, stay put for Jack Benny’s 5 November 1939 send-up or listen to Tallulah Bankhead’s 7 December 1950 portrayal of Sylvia Fowler on The Big Show. Instead of settling for a bromide, you might as well “put some gin in it.” It’s a little trick I learned from the Countess De Lave.

Return to Radio Street

Writing this journal, I often think of myself as being on the verge of extinction. A sense of pastness pervades my present, delayed responses to the supposedly bygone, with modern technology determining (and potentially terminating) my virtual presence. In my largely inconsequential musings on popular culture, I am perched on the edge of both nostalgia and history, dreading the irresponsibility and the impossible responsibilities of such territories foreign to me. At best, I can represent myself—and that but feebly, squeezed in as I am by the marginalia, the marginality of my interests, intellect, and imagination.

A quest of self between the nowhere of nostalgia and the distinct there—and therefores—of history? Somehow, that is not unlike riding the retro tram that takes visitors to Latvia through the nation’s capital, Riga. No wonder. I recently returned from there.

The “Retro Tram” takes you to the Jugendstil district, where you will find the largest accumulation of art nouveau architecture in the world (a designated World Heritage site); it also takes you to Riga’s garden city, Mezapark and its nouveau riche . . . past the Latvian National Opera, the Riga Latvian Society, the National Library of Latvia, past and through a series of cemeteries, all the way to the Riga National Zoological Garden. National! That elusive, loathsome, longing-inspiring notion.

Even though it numbers among the world’s less-than-happy countries, if a recent survey is to be believed, Latvia strikes one—or struck me—as a young nation eager to find and define itself. Wars, occupations, repressions of native culture and language, and now the surge (or scourge) of Western commercialism have made this a difficult and perhaps impossible project. One such commercial enterprise, the Retro Tram, takes you—the tourist—past sites revealing German influences and bygone splendor, while much of the old town seems like a theme park—or the construction site for one—featuring new buildings meant to reflect one past while obscuring a more recent, the horrors of which are reenacted or displayed in some of the city’s museums (the Occupation Museum, for instance). Are these places representative of the nation or placeholders for a national identity lost in (or to) the spirit of European unity?

It seemed appropriate that the tram is departing from and returning to a street whose name bespeaks or proclaims the quest for such solidarity, for union and the voicing of uniting ideas in a language that unites: Radio, McLuhan’s “tribal drum.” As I am returning now to Radio Street, to the subject that is right up mine, I struggle once more to make the past my present while steering clear of both the headlongevity of nostalgia and the impossible burden—the hubris—of history. All I can offer is a splash in the shallow puddles of my own reflections as I make my way down what, to me, is anything but Memory Lane . . .

A Slice of Bacon . . . to Go

Stained glass likeness of Francis Bacon in our home

It seems I am going back to school.  If I take Francis Bacon literally, that is. Considering that his stained glass likeness greets me whenever I turn on the boiler or am induced by allergies to reach for the vacuum cleaner, it is high time I start quoting him now. According to the aforementioned essayist, “He that travelleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel.” A timely reminder, as we are off tomorrow on a last-minute trip to Riga, Latvia.

Es nerunāju latviski.  That is to say, I am a stranger to the native tongue (related to Sanskrit); and, having just gotten my hands on a couple of guidebooks, of much of the culture and history of the Baltic nation, even though German influences are pronounced—being that Riga was founded by Albrecht von Buxthoeven, a German bishop, and rarely enjoyed independence for long—and English, as in most larger Western cities nowadays, is widely understood.

Much could be gleaned, no doubt, from the journal of a local, that is Latvian, Francis, expatriate Renaissance man Francis Rudolph or Rudolf (1921-2005), some of whose paintings, drawings and diaries (shown below) were gifted a few years ago to the university here in Aberystwyth, the town where I currently reside. ‘Expatriate’ is too clinical a term: the latterly eccentric was forced to migrate during his youth, when Latvia was being invaded by the Nazis and the Red Army.  There he is, sticking his tongue out to us who are still largely ignorant of his world; yet it was he who put Latvia on the map for us and got us intrigued about Riga.

Richard Wagner and Sergei Eisenstein aside, there are few names in the Riga travel guides to which a journal devoted to US radio dramatics can readily relate.  Determined not to stoop to the sharing of random snapshots, I shan’t continue broadcastellan until the conclusion of my “scholarly” outing, which is preceded and followed by sojourns in familiar destinations in Wales (Cardiff), England (Manchester), and the Netherlands (Amsterdam). Technology permitting, I might file the occasional report.

It rather irks me to be silenced by the marginal character of my chosen subject.  What a failure of self-expression, what a missed opportunity a journal like this is if it cannot accommodate whatever its keeper happens upon, sees and undergoes; yet such is the curse of the concept blog.

“Let him keep [. . . ] a diary,” Bacon rightly advises.  I often regret my own strictures in this respect, as I imagine that my experiences may be rather more relatable to some than the dramatics of radio are to most.  Besides, an online diary is ideally suited to the recording of everyday observations.  As has been demonstrated rather conclusively by the dead air I left behind on past travels, I seem incapable of reconciling the peripatetic with the armchair reflective.  Still, I hope my experiences are going to enter into this journal somehow.  As Bacon recommends,

[w]hen a traveller returneth home, let him not leave the countries, where he hath travelled, altogether behind him [. . .].  And let his travel appear rather in his discourse, than his apparel or gesture; and in his discourse, let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories; and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners, for those of foreign parts; but only prick in [that is, plant] some flowers, of that he hath learned abroad, into the customs of his own country.

Now, I have long been confused as to what “his own country” might mean, being that I have not lived in what is presumably and legally “home” to me for nearly two decades; but, in lieu of on-the-spot reports, I shall endeavor to gather and display such “flowers” as may withstand the airwaves or can be securely propped against a microphone . . .

A Fine Kettle of Fish

My visit to Canajoharie

These past few days, I’ve been trying to keep my eyes shut—as if the medication had not already made it well-nigh impossible to keep them open. The more they are watering, the more inflamed they get. And what with all this gasping for air, I hardly feel in my element. Allergies. My mother used tell me they are just a state of mind as she insisted that I mow the lawn—which is one reason I have not laid eyes on her in about two decades. State of mind, my bloodshot eye! Anyway. If I am not reaching for tissues or fishing for the inhaler, I am digging into my library of radio recordings, which I am spending an inordinate amount of time cataloguing. Otherwise, I would simply lose sight of what I have yet to hear.

Our Freedom’s Blessings was one of the titles to which I never gave a thought, let alone lend an ear. Lending a hand in its return to the air—or its turning up on the internet—turned out to be somewhat of a headache. So be it. After all, there is little use and less joy in going on about something without giving anyone else at least half a chance to follow.

My visit to Canajoharie

Little is known about Our Freedom’s Blessings, other than that it was produced by the New York State Department of Commerce. No recordings of it are currently available online. So, I set up a new site for the sharing of programs [now defunct]. Since the crash of my last Mac back in November 2007, I have been unable to edit my old pages; and, itchy eyes notwithstanding, it is only now that I can face the prospect of starting from scratch. You might well argue that an episode of Our Freedom’s Blessings titled “The Little Jars of Canajoharie” was not worth all this effort. Ah, but have you been to Canajoharie?

As Uncle York, the narrator of Our Freedom’s Blessings tells us, Canajoharie is an Indian name meaning “the kettle that washes itself.” The “little town with the funny name,” we learn,

lies smack in the middle of the Mohawk valley.  In 1890, Canajoharie was hardly more than a crossroads, still half country.  Well, it was a leisurely kind of life, quiet days of wagon wheels on dirt streets, the tingling smell of hickory smoke in a cow crossing in the main part of the town.  But Canajoharie folks wasn’t asleep.  Far from it.  Couple of fellas that smoked their own hams and bacon started to sell them to other folk.  And before you knew it, there was a full-fledged little company operating, one that took for itself a homespun kind of name: Beechnut.

Well, we did not listen to Uncle York on our travels through upstate New York when we happened upon Canajoharie—after an unwelcome detour—and that despite the fact that the Mac on which the recording is stored went along for the ride. Had we done so, we might have learned a little something about the fortunes of the town. We did insist on seeing the “kettle,” not heeding the warnings of a local that it was little more than a hole in the ground.

Equipped though we were with hand-drawn map handed to us at a tourist information booth that suggested we were not the only ones eager to seize the opportunity to gawk at a pothole, we did not encounter anyone else on along the way on that warm June morning. We got lost, passing derelict factory buildings and warehouses that bespeak the town’s heyday, the days of which Uncle York speaks.

When I came across the name of “Canajoharie” in my recordings library, I just had to tune in. Never mind that “Little Jars” turned out to be little more than a juvenile infomercial about the makers of baby food. Somehow, whatever flotsam drifts toward me on the airwaves seems to belong in my life. It is never an altogether different kettle of fish.

The Earl Next Door

Montague, our Jack Russell terrier, had a visitor this morning. A sheepdog from the neighboring farm took time off from her daily chores and made her way up the lane to our cottage. A mere quarter of a mile—but what a giant leap into the lap of relative luxury. I wonder about the old lass. You can tell by her coat that she isn’t a pet; she’s strictly the below-stairs kind of gal. And that would be the front steps. No lounging around in the conservatory at all hours of the day, no ball games in the garden, no treats from the table, no trips to the beach. If she weren’t dead tired from doing her work, she might be daydreaming about how the other half lives. Perhaps, that is what did in the last dog who held the job. The poor thing was run over by the tractor under whose wheels it rested. Shades of Thomas Hardy.

I was reminded, too, of Norman Corwin’s “association” with Nick, an English setter who “lived down the hill,” but, having had a “falling out with his owners,” insisted on being taken care of and paid attention to elsewhere. That same “Grand Hotel of fleas” achieved the next best thing to immortality in Corwin’s radio play “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones.” Our neighbor’s sheepdog, on the other paw, was rather less demanding. After an hour’s visit, she went dutifully back down the hill. Now it is Montague’s turn to dream about that life beyond the fence. . . .

Entire industries are devoted to reminding us that the grass is greener elsewhere, to sowing the seeds of discontent and to suggesting we’d settle for a pair of binoculars and a box of weed killer to improve our lot. In this racket of showing us the other half and telling us that, with some slight and low-priced adjustments, our own ain’t half bad, the quarter-hours known as soap operas take the booby prize. Some fifty, sixty years ago—but at just about the time of day that Montague was entertaining his not-a-lady friend—a string of tangled yarns like Our Gal Sunday would roll into America’s kitchens and living rooms, or wherever radio sets were positioned and tuned in for that chance at a ready-made getaway.

“Sunday,” as James Thurber put it, “started life as a foundling dumped in the laps of two old Western miners” but managed to move on up to become the “proud and daggered wife” of “England’s wealthiest and handsomest young nobleman.” Was it safe on the other side? Was it wise to make that leap? According to Thurber, that was a question asked by most of the so-called washboard weepers:

Can a good, clean Iowa girl find happiness as the wife of New York’s most famous matinee idol? Can a beautiful young stepmother, can a widow with two children, can a restless woman married to a preoccupied doctor, can a mountain girl in love with a millionaire, can a woman married to a hopeless cripple, can a girl who married an amnesia case—can they find soap-opera happiness and the good, soap-opera way of life?

The answer, of course, was a resounding “no.” The denizens of “Soapland” remained “up to their ears in inner struggle, soul searching, and everlasting frustration.”

Sure, we’ve all got those. I’m never sure, though, just what the other half might be for me. It’s not that I know my place; I just came to know a lot of places. What is the use of an elusive realm of otherness to a squarely queer working-class boy with a PhD, a cottage in the country, and a suitcase that is always half full (or half empty)? I am either here or there, and the elsewhere is neither here nor there to me. I guess I’m just not prone to nostalgia.

Meanwhile, on this partly cloudy afternoon, my better half and I are off to spend a night at Powis Castle. We won’t flop in the recently restored state bedroom, mind you, but in the timbered cottage to the right of the Welsh fortress once known as “Y Castell Coch” (“The Red Castle”). Further to the right is where the present Earl of Powis resides. So, I am spending the night between the riches amassed by the aforementioned Clive of India and the home of a demoted nobleman. Our Gal Sunday and her kind can take a half-day . . .

Abiding Faith; or, Where’s the Caterer?

There was a sheet of paper pinned to each seat at the aforementioned Walter Kerr Theatre, asking patrons whether or not they had liked the current production and whether they would recommend the show. Now, I did not hand in my questionnaire. Who am I to caution theatergoers about a musical with such a wonderfully gifted group of players: Harvey Fierstein, who also wrote the libretto, Tom Wopat, whom I had previously seen, defenses down, in Annie Get Your Gun, and the glorious Faith Prince (last featured here on the cover of the playbill for Bells Are Ringing)? Obviously, enough people had come to the Walter Kerr on that Tuesday evening in early June to relegate me, chancing it by getting a last-minute ticket at TKTS, to a seat way in the back. Now, this might be all right when the stage is filled with a line of chorus girls making their way down a giant staircase, a set boasting an enormous showboat or an oil painting coming to life (as in the revival of Sunday in the Park with George I would see a few weeks later); but A Catered Affair is not that kind of a razzle-dazzler. It is a modest, earnest musical play; it examines characters rather than providing an opportunity for a series of show tunes. Modesty is its quiet strength, but, sitting in the back row, it still feels an awful lot like weakness.

I regret to report, however belatedly, that I did not warm to A Catered Affair, and not because its thin story felt somewhat warmed up. Sure, it is based on a 1955 television play by Paddy Chayefsky, himself not exactly a hot property these days; but then, most Broadway offerings are recycled nowadays. No, it wasn’t that. I was simply too far removed from the hearth—even further than Uncle Winston, the sidekick Fierstein insisted on turning what, back in the 1950s, could only be an outsider. I appreciated him being there, as a reminder that homosexuals where always in the picture, even when they were kept well outside the frame of the camera. Unfortunately, Winston’s moment in the limelight is “Coney Island,” dreadfully cliché-laden number in which he advises us to keep our eyes open as we ride the rollercoaster of life.

I had been told about the old stove, and that Ms. Prince actually prepared scrambled eggs during the scene. And that is a recommendation? Well, hand me a frying pan and start selling tickets! It rather reminded me of Gertrude Berg, who insisted on realism, and real eggs, even though The Goldbergs was a radio program. Yes, eggs were being prepared on the stage of the Walter Kerr that night, but I could not even smell whether they were rotten or not. An intimate play deserves an intimate theater, especially a play that depends on character far more than on plot, of which there is little, and that anticlimactic.

Indeed, A Catered Affair would have made a fine radio musical, if something like that were ever to be reintroduced into American culture. This is not to say that it is cheap or second-rate. It just means that it does not require visuals for its staging of a family in crisis, a particular brand of problem play you might call Miller Light, even though Rheingold or Schlitz were more likely to be found in the family icebox.

The Walter Kerr was once a radio studio; back in the late 1930s, the playbill informed me, Alexander Woollcott broadcast from here. I would have enjoyed closing my eyes and listening to Ms. Prince, who wowed me many years ago as Adelaide and who keeps delighting me whenever I play selections from the Guys and Dolls cast album. Having kept my eyes peeled on a faraway stage with little to see (not even the event promised in the title), I did not recall a single tune upon exiting the theater shortly before 9 PM, after 90 minutes of intermission-free drabness. Broadway does Family Tuesdays now, for families who can afford to spend money on the less-than-spectacular.

"But some people ain’t me!": Arthur Laurents and "The Face" Behind Gypsy

Gypsy again? I guess that is what many theatergoers thought when, only five years after the previous revival, the show opened on Broadway for the fifth time since its debut back in 1959. I have seen three of those revivals and, not inclined to wield my thumb, shan’t ponder publicly whether or not this might be the definitive production. It better not be, since I hardly mind seeing the play interpreted a few other ways, if only to get a chance to catch the old routines with “new orchestrations.” Still, be it stagecraft, performance, or my own very gradual process of maturity, I have not seen the dramatic finale of Gypsy staged any more movingly than in the current production. To be sure, I am opening to Arthur Laurents’s book differently now that I have completed my doctoral study on American radio drama since seeing the 2003 revival starring Bernadette Peters. I am reading between—not into—Laurents’s celebrated lines to find the former radio playwright’s “Face.”

“May we entertain you?” Laurents’s career in radio began in 1939, when the Columbia Workshop produced his first original play, “Now Playing Tomorrow” (30 January 1939), a fantasy concerning the doubtful advantages of gazing into the future. With such a high-profile debut to his credit, the young writer had little difficulties selling scripts to various network programs, including Hollywood Playhouse (1937-40), The Adventures of the Thin Man (1941-50), and This Is Your FBI (1945-53). “Commercial pulp, all of it,” he commented sixty years later; yet unlike fellow playwright Arthur Miller (one of whose wartime radio dramas I discuss here), Laurents was not dismissive of, let alone bitter about, his radio days. He had actively pursued such a career, attending an evening class in radio writing at NYU. Laurents did not feel that he was “faced with the art vs. commerce dilemma”; besides, he was “too flattered” being “wanted, too thrilled at being paid for being happy.”

“Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the headline! / Historical news is being made!” Contributing to the war effort by writing plays for a number of dramatic propaganda series kept the draftee from facing combat overseas and secured him an income of up to $350 per script. The Army arranged for him to work on programs like Armed Service Force Presents (1943-1944), Assignment Home (1944-46), and the Peabody Award-winning documentary drama The Man Behind the Gun (1942-44).

Toward the end of the war, Laurents had found his voice as a radio playwright—a voice strong and convincing enough not to be muffled by spineless industry executives. Drawing on personal experiences, he managed to explore themes similar to those he tackled on Broadway, where he made his entrance with Home of the Brave (1945), a play dealing with anti-Semitism in the Army. While Washington looked closely at his scripts after he had been accused of communist affiliations, Laurents not only managed to get a controversial play about black soldiers on the air, it (“The Knife”) even earned him a citation.

Like Gypsy and West Side Story, Laurents’s radio plays are personal records; their author arrived at a code that made it possible for him to share his own story, the story of an outsider. There is a bit of Louise in many of them. “The Face,” a Writers’ War Board “best script of the month” for April 1945, is no exception. “Do you love a man for his face?” the play asks of us, exploring the experience of a disfigured soldier dreading his reintegration into post-war society, a society, he knows to place great importance on appearances.

“Small world, isn’t it?” Like many of Laurents’s early works for stage and screen, from Home of the Brave to his screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), “The Face,” as I put it in Etherized Victorians, is a play of masked figures and figurative unmasking. Dreading the prejudices of post-war America, the disfigured Harold Ingalls and his fellow patients must learn to be strangers “joining forces”:

GOLDSTEIN.  When you get plastered . . . who do you go with?
INGALLS.  There used to be a fellow—but he was discharged last week.
GOLDSTEIN.  Was he—like us?
INGALLS.  Yeah.  So now I go alone.
GOLDSTEIN.  If—if I can get a pass . . . can—I go with you?
INGALLS.  Sure! You know it makes it good, when there are two of you.

“Together, wherever we go!” Rather than confronting his biological family, the mother and brother he’ll never quite “get away from,” Ingalls is eager to escape with his double, his secret sharer:

INGALLS.  You’re more of a brother than he is.
GOLDSTEIN.  Now that’s a real compliment.
INGALLS.  Oh you know what I mean.
INGALLS.  Well, I’ll get my mother over with quick and then we’ll beat it into town and really tie one on.  You and me.
INGALLS.  That’s the best way.
(Biz: Fade in MOTHER’s footsteps approaching slowly.)
INGALLS.  You and me.  That’s the— (He cuts as he hears the footsteps.  They are still off but coming closer, closer.)

Those footsteps are the sound of reality encroaching on oblivion and denial, of a past that Ingalls has to reconcile with his present. To move on, Ingalls needs the strength to let go of both by forging new relationships from or in spite of his state of effacement. “If Mama Was Married,” what might have happened to stripper-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister, June Havoc, who teamed up with a big name in radio? One stuck in infantilizing routines, the other in the rear of a cow costume, each fashioned a career out of a pipe dream of vicarious living.

When Ingalls is discharged, the Army psychiatrist reminds him that “every single day, people get slapped because of ignorance. They get slapped for religion, for color, for how they talk or what they look like.” She encourages him to “stand up to them and tell them they’re wrong!” The play ends with the wish that “this will be the beginning, the beginning of a world where the only thing that does matter is each man himself for what he is himself.”

“But I / At least gotta try [. . .].” While it may never be “Rose’s Turn,” the resilient Arthur Laurents—whose next project will be a revival of West Side Story—has long had a “wonderful dream” worth living, a vision of that “place for us, somewhere,” the voicing and realization of which is well worth the agony of uncovering the not always handsome face behind our masks . . .