|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