Windy Kilocycles

Arch Oboler's Analysis of Radio Drama in Chicago

(Including Some Thoughts on Chicago Television)

CURATOR'S NOTE: The article reproduced here appeared in the July, 1951 edition of Theatre Arts magazine. Oboler, probably best known for his bone-chilling Lights Out dramatic series, sees a clear connection between the Chicago style of radio drama developed in the 1930's and the 'Chicago School of television' that briefly flourished in the late 1940's and early 1950's (and that was, in fact, on pretty much its last legs when this piece was written).

Radio drama (as distinguished from theatre plays boiled down to kilocycle size) began at midnight, in the middle thirties, on one of the upper floors of Chicago's Merchandise Mart. The pappy was a rotund writer by the name of Willys Cooper, and the godfathers were an ex-instructor for a small Indiana university by the name of Strotz, and an ex-salesman by the name of Trammell.

Chicago radio gestated other entertainment forms indigenous only to radio. Among them were the Soap Opera, that endless serialization of feminine woes wherein Helen Trent and Bachelor's Children, and variations thereof, dripped True Story type literature and Proctor and Gamble soap commercials into the American kitchen.

The informal coffee klatch type variety show also had its beginnings in the early Chicago radio scene. Ransom Sherman and Pat Barnes and East and Dumke were the precursors of today's Godfreys and Garroways.

But it was in the play especially written for radio that Chicago had its greatest national influence-- -there was created, by trial and many errors, a new art form that began with Don Ameche and the frothy First Nighters, and went through the horrific Lights Out until it had matured to the point where, as a radio playwright, I was given the precious network time to produce, write, and direct this new type of play written for the ear and the listener's imagination alone.

New York radio was rarely able to break loose of the pattern of plays written for the theatre; Hollywood was too screenplay conscious; Chicago alone, free of old influences, worked on this new art form wherein the listener, in his own mind, built up pictures evoked by the sounds of words, and effects, and orchestral accompaniment.

There was no one stale out of Broadway, or weary out of Hollywood, to say No!' to the experimental playwright or director; anything went on Chicago radio; from actors, to directors, to writers, to executives, this pioneering spirit was a daily lift, and benzedrine was still a thing of an older, tired future.

Everything was at least tried in Chicago. The experiments ranged from speaking choirs, to poetry with orchestral backgrounds, to hour long dramatic ventures performed in actual sets. Let me lower the lifting of eyebrows by explaining the latter experiment; someone had an idea that if, instead of clustering around a microphone in the usual manner, the actors performed on set, going through actual doors, and opening actual windows, the acoustical effect would be closer to the real thing. Of course, it was an experiment doomed to failure, since the controlled effect is always more effective than the ad libbed one (as many a suffering director is now learning in television).

But this expensive experiment is indicative of Chicago's willingness to try in those days of its radio ascendancy. Of course there was a dollar and cents sign behind all this radio freedom; since Chicago was feeding the networks with a large percentage of commercial shows, the Chicago radio executives were able to demand an equally large share of sustaining time for the experimentalist; even as with other art forms, the radio found itself in the actual doing, not only in the performance but in the audience and critical response.

Chicago radio also became the focal point of a new breed of actors-for-radio; the mushrooming Soap Opera needed a large supply of voices. They came from all areas and sectors of show business; from stock company character veterans to morning-glory-eyed college play hopefuls, they were attracted to this Blackett, Sample & Hummert honey-pot of actors needed daily, all week, pickup-your-experience-as-you-go-along, short rehearsal hours, no make-up, bring along a facile tongue, an equal facility for quick characterizations, and the ability to hold a script and read on sight with never a flub, a fluff, or a fumble.

Mercedes McCambridge, Betty Winkler, Ann Shepherd, Betty Cain, Joan Blaine, Ann Seymour, Betty Lou Gerson, Virginia Clark, Templeton Fox, Bess Johnson---these were some of the queens of Chicago's dramatic stock companies; their counterpart im the actor sector were Don Ameche, Les Tremayne, Raymond Edward Johnson, Ken Griffen, Harold Peary, Arthur Peterson, Cliff Soubier, Hugh Studebaker.

I can see the purists of the profession shaking their collective heads and asking, This was acting?' Yes, this was acting---of a very specialized, very difficult sort. There was no time for soul- searching or Stanislavski---there was the script, and there was the director behind glass, and there was the opportunity; you did well at once or you lost your place at the microphone and one of a hundred others collected your check. And tricks of up-thrust bosom or hip-waggle, or smirk, or belch, or eyebrow waggle couldn't help; the blind microphone revealed only the characterization portrayed by the thinking voice.

It is fascinating, now, to see history repeating itself in this new dimension of sight that has been added to blind radio. For while Hollywood rushes to film, and New York frantically tries to force the theatre through the cathode tube, Chicago almost alone has recognized a new art form for the television medium. The Chicago Garroway variety television show stands out in sharp contrast to the frantic Berle imitation of the Palace two-a-day; it recognizes the relaxed intimacy of the television viewers attitudes. Where Chicago radio discovered that the listener was as close to the performer as the microphone was to the performer (hence the projection of the New York theatre-type acting made for listener discomfort) so Chicago television underlines a similar truth---that the television viewer is only a handful of feet from the performer, intimacy, again, is the keynote.

Nothing, either on Hollywood's TV films or New York's extravaganzas, has the simple realism, for example, of Chicago TV's Studs' Place. New York's dramatic extravaganzas, with their ingenious set changes, rarely tugs the heart as does the simple, underplayed intimacy if this minutely-budgeted Chicago effort.

Again, this Chicago pattern is slowly permeating itself into both West Coast and East Coast television, From Fred Waring , to Fred Allen, to Burns and Allen, the Chicago way of relaxed intimacy, of TV as TV, is being carbon-copied.

I remember the cold winds that blew down Michigan Avenue around CBS's Wrigley Building, and Mutual's Tribune Tower, then whistled upriver toward NBC's Merchandise Mart. It was a wind that brought a new approach and execution.

It is good to look at Chicago television (even through the fog of kinescopes that reach us here in California) and know that those winds of experimentation and independent, unstudied action still blow refreshingly through Mid-western skyscraper canyons.

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
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