A personal memoire from MORRIE GELMAN
I DREAMED of radio. Is it an odd thing to be dreaming about? Not so odd. Radio is my Rosebud. I don’t guess I’ll mutter the single word radio as life squeezes out of me. I’m not Charles Foster Kane. But I can dream my Rosebud, can’t I?
Radio, like Citizen Kane’s childhood sled, represents to me the security and innocence of my youth. I’ve yearned to recapture that elusive feeling all the rest of my life.
I remember back to 1937. Most nights, and unfailingly on Sundays, our family of eight would gather in the living room around the Philco console. We’d listen in on the world. What did we care about the significance of this electric cabinet of sound. We didn’t know about federal regulations, the formation and power of networks, complaints about commercialization.
All I knew is my father bought our Philco on time payments from the Ludwig Baumann furniture store and it was like bringing home a thing of magic. I enjoyed our radio more than any other leisure time activity. I loved movies on Saturday afternoons and our occasional beach outings in the summer, but radio was there all of the time and in the home. It was so personal.
Please, dear God, I used to pray silently to myself, help pop keep up the payments so Ludwig Baumann doesn’t take the radio back. Life would be colorless, devoid of adventure and mystery without our radio.
I once interviewed Dan Blocker who played the character “Hoss” on the enormously popular TV western, “Bonanza” of the 1960s and 1970s. He had just come back from campaigning for California Governor Jerry Brown. It had been a disappointing effort for him.
People didn’t want to hear him talk about politics, Blocker complained. Instead, they said, “Hoss, how are your brother Little Joe and your father, Ben? Why does Little Joe always get the girl?”
Blocker, to his chagrin, found the public totally identifying with the characters on the program, thinking of them as real people in real situations. Better to be totally enmeshed in the fortunes of the Ponderosa Ranch family members than face the reality of everyday living.
That’s the way it was with radio and me. When I listened to radio I forgot for a time that a bowl of green peas topped with a slab of salty butter was supper for the night and if pop didn’t get a job shoveling snow for the city tomorrow there wouldn’t be any money to go on the school excursion.
Radio’s people were real to me. Jack Benny was a cheap guy but he really seemed to care about the others on the show. “Rochester,” Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone were family to him and to me.
Fred Allen was a grouch but his wife Portland Hoffa was so bubbly she made up for him. I loved when he visited Allen’s Alley, knocking on the doors of Titus Moody, Mrs. Nussbaum, Ajax Cassidy, Falstaf Openshaw and, especially, Senator Claghorn.
Edgar Bergen seemed like such a nice, mild-mannered guy, unlike his funny wisecracking dummy Charlie McCarthy. Like kids who believe in Santa Claus, to me Charlie was a real boy. When Charlie traded barbs with the caustic-tongued W. C. Fields he seemed to me a precocious adolescent not a ventriloquist invention.
Years after the Bergen-McCarthy Hour was a distant memory, I had the opportunity to interview Bergen. He brought out Charlie for me to touch. I can now vouch that Charlie was made of wood and could only talk when Bergen did.
I found Bergen was pretty much playing himself on radio. He wasn’t dynamic. He was gentle, somewhat distant, and a little absent-minded. He preferred to talk about his then young daughter Candice than himself.
It was thrilling to be sitting face to face with him. Why thrilling? Reporters tend to suffer from an excess of exposure to famous people. It’s difficult to become excited about doing your everyday job. But Bergen and Charlie McCarthy came into my home every Sunday evening along with their regulars Don Ameche, announcer Bill Baldwin, orchestra leader Ray Noble. They were treasured guests. I grew up with them. It was a boy’s dream come true to be touching Charlie and talking to his sort of father.
Bergen didn’t necessarily seek to touch the heartstrings. Eddie Cantor, one of most indelible radio comedians, certainly did. He was all sentiment a mile wide. When Cantor sang “I’d Love to Spend Each Wednesday With You,” I believed him. Some of the regulars on his show like “The Mad Russian” and “Parkyakarkas” were not only funny but endearing. I was always sad when Cantor was signing off because it meant saying goodbye to people I really cared about.
“Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” was my favorite after-school listening. I made it a point to learn the show’s theme song: “Wave the flag for Hudson High, boys, show them how we stand; ever shall our team be champions, known throughout the land.” Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions, was the sponsor. I was constantly after my mother to buy some. To his day, I’m tempted to pick up a box off the supermarket shelf. I know, though, from experience I must not be a champion because Wheaties is not for me.
Tom Mix Straight Shooters was another afternoon favorite. I liked the premium offers and actually sent off to Tom Mix, Box 808, and St. Louis, Missouri for a whistling badge and ring. I had to send in a box top from Shredded Ralston cereal and a dime.
“The Shadow,” who really was Lamont Cranston, made Sunday afternoons in the winter a deliciously warm time cuddled up with my imagination. Blue Coal was the perfect sponsor. The name was so mysterious. What did Blue Coal look like? I wondered. Was it really blue? I used to walk around repeating softly to myself, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…Ha-Ha-Ha.”
The opening of “The Witch’s Tale” was the signal for turning the lights down not only low but off. Better to be scared all the way then to chicken out with half-light.
The opening set the mood: “Welcome to “The Witch’s Tale! The Fascination of the Eerie! Weird, Blood-Chilling Tales.” I listened with my brothers and sisters. Nobody left the room by themselves. We did everything together the rest of the night, afraid to be alone. “The X-Files” came along on television some 60 years later. Aliens, genetically altered beings, psychic phenomena all were done with greater impact in the mind’s eye provided by radio.
Nothing, though, topped “Lights Out” for me. It had the very best, chilling opening. Only “The Twilight Zone” later on TV could equal the sound of chimes followed by: “It…Is…Later…Than…You…Think! Lights Out…Everybody!!!” The voice, that of producer-writer-director Arch Oboler, was dead calm, resonant. The opening was only a hint of the vivid, often frightening audio techniques Oboler used.
“Lights Out” featured original, stories, several of which stuck to my memory like clotted blood. There was Frankenstein himself, Boris Karloff, turning his wife into a cat. It was called “Cat Wife” and ever since, though not afraid of spiders, snakes, scorpions, and other formidable creatures of jungle, swamp, and oceans, I have feared cats.
“Chicken Heart” was about a tiny organ that grew steadily until it consumed the world. The thump-thump-thump sound of the organ kept me awake for many nights afterwards.
Who was this weird guy telling me “It…Is…Later…Than…You…Think?”
Flash ahead to August 19, 1986. I meet a late-70s old man in a nondescript office building on Sunset Boulevard. He was a short, stocky, shaggy-looking man, obviously not in the best of health. Unimposing was the operative word about his appearance.
The man I was meeting was Arch Oboler, hardly looking like “master of the macabre,” as he was sometimes billed. Yet there was something compelling about the man. Maybe it was his intense manner, his probing eyes. When he spoke it was apparent attention must be paid to this guy.
Yes, there was something macabre about him. He started our conversation talking about “the theater of the mind” and how the curtain for our meeting should open with my saying, “I’ve asked you to come here this afternoon not to be interviewed but for me to kill you.” To my startled look he explained, “that’s the beginning of the theater of the mind and your imagination takes the story forward from there.”
It was a strange meeting. Our conversation meandered from his early days with Wyllis Cooper who created “Lights Out” for WENR, a local Chicago station, to writing original plays for the “Rudy Vallee Hour,” “The Irene Rich Show” and “Grand Hotel.” He talked about developing his stream of consciousness technique form of narration and striking use of sound effects. I asked about an especially grisly effect, one about turning a man inside out. He said it was done by soaking a rubber glove in water, turning it inside out while a berry basket was crushed in the background.
He grew up in Chicago. His boyhood ambition was to be a naturalist. Instead he became a virtual renaissance man, writing novels, also represented on Broadway with theatrical plays “The Night of the Ark” and “The Dark”.
More than 40 years before the movie “Kinsey” emerged on the nation’s motion picture screens to rave reviews, Oboler was executive producer, writer, director of “One Plus One,” a film exploring the Kinsey Report.
He didn’t only want to be “the master of the macabre,” Oboler assured me. Little known yet of great importance to him was his serious radio drama project “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” These were original plays covering the days before, during and immediately after World War II. Among the distinguished performers in these plays, produced by Oboler, were Kathryn Hepburn, Raymond Massey, Norma Shearer, Olivia De Havilland, Bette Davis, Lloyd Nolan, Paul Muni, Ingrid Berman and Jimmy Stewart.
Oboler mostly wanted to talk about 3-D and 4-D. He spent 16 years and some $3 million of his own money to gain acceptance of these motion picture depth processes. He produced what may have been the first three-dimensional film, “Bwana Devil” in 1952 and came away with a busted bankroll and heart. The 3-D process may have proved to be economically unsound, he argued to me, but it was “aesthetically, artistically right.” Of those other than himself who tried, “90 percent were con men,” Oboler claimed.
I realized as our conversation continued this might be an old man well beyond his prime yet he was very special. I hadn’t met many his equal. I wanted desperately to do him right by my article.
There was little hard news that came out of our long talk. Oboler was a hard sell to editors, most of who were not even born when he was among radio’s elite.
“Arch who?” I was asked. “Forget it. Who cares what he has to say,” I was told. I managed to squeeze out a usable story. It was about the discovery of some 850 recordings of his radio plays on 16-inch disks found in Oboler’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in the Santa Monica Mountains. My piece ran 10 days after our more than two-hour interview on page 12 of “ Daily Variety”.
I was hugely disappointed in myself. It hardly said anything about the unique personality of Oboler and his immense contributions to radio. It was a pedestrian story about anything but a pedestrian man. It deserved back of the paper treatment.
Oboler didn’t contact me after the story ran. His PR guy didn’t call to acknowledge the exposure for his client. Once in the army, during a training mission, I fired a bazooka for the first time. I was expected a loud explosion or at least a significant bang. Instead, there was nothing. My shell was a dud. That’s the way it was with the aftermath of my meeting with “the master of the macabre,” a 20th Century renaissance man, the lesser-known Orson Welles of radio.
Almost to the day, seven months after our meeting, Oboler died after a stroke. He was taken from his longtime mountain residence to the Westlake Community Hospital, a mile from my home.
If radio is my rosebud, I kind of think Oboler, too, may have died thinking about that vanished, wonderful time when almost everyone sat by a radio to listen to his plays and nary a word was profane.