Marching forward from Pearl: Old-time radio listening, 11 December

The March of Time: Pearl Harbour’s Aftermath: First Week at War (NBC Blue, 1941)

 

Van Voorhis, marching on . . . (Photo: NBC)

Fred Smith—station manager of Cincinnati WLW, with an idea festering in his mind since 1929—hit on an end-run around his lack of access to news wires (who do not service radio just yet) and his station’s lack of true reporting ability: seek and gain a partnership with Time, in which WLW will receive a solid weekly news program and the magazine will receive even more powerful name recognition and, just maybe, a few new advertising dollars from the regions which listen to the show.

Smith pitches it just that way to Time circulation director Roy Larsen, who pounces upon the idea. The original March of Time becomes a collaboration in which Time provides the scripts and WLW provides the voices.

Initially, this operation—a simple, no-nonsense weekly news summary with occasional commentary—becomes widely imitated once the program becomes transcribed and syndicated to a reported one hundred stations. Prompting Smith to the idea that graduates the show from a mere weekly news summary into old-time radio’s first known newsreel of a sort: Dramatised actual news events, scripted, directed, acted like a proper drama but produced on deadline with accuracy and impact as the tandem goals.

It almost didn’t happen, according to John Dunning (On the Air):

Larsen had qualms about the legality of impersonating living people in a nonsatiric format, in what would undoubtedly be taken by many as a serious news broadcast. Smith countered with this argument: it would be a serious news show; there would be absolutely no fiction, no words taken out of context, no doctoring of the actual statements of the subjects. How could the newsmakers object, unless they objected to what they themselves said?

Smith set up a closed-circuit audition and delivered it to a private gathering of CBS executives and Time editors, according to Dunning—not to mention broadcasting it directly to Larsen’s home, with CBS mastermind Bill Paley and Time publisher Henry Luce as guests.

Few in the assembled party liked the show, but plans continued for its premiere, which took place on a partial CBS hookup a month later. Luce remained uneasy about the show’s bellicose nature: it sounded like a midway event, with barkers and hustlers hawking the news. It seemed to fly in the face of journalistic integrity, causing many Time editors to remain skeptical even when it quickly caught on with critics and the public. The March of Time was a success whether Luce liked it or not.

By tonight, of course, the show has moved to NBC Blue and shed no few of its original barkings and hustlings, even if the customary signoff “Time marches on” become a national catchphrase.

The Don Voorhees Orchestra has succeeded the Howard Barlow operation in providing its music. Ted Husing, Harry Von Zell, and especially Westbrook Van Voorhis become its various narrators, known as the Voice of Time and, later, the Voice of Fate.

And a roll of the top New York-based radio talent has become a solid company for the show, including but not limited to Martin Gabel (Easy Aces), Karl Swenson (Lorenzo Jones), Orson Welles, Kenny Delmar (soon to become famed as “Allen’s Alley”’s Senator Claghorn and, concurrently, Fred Allen’s final and best-remembered announcer/foil), Agnes Moorehead, Bill Johnstone, Maurice Tarplin (a familiar character actor and due to become famed as the title narrator for The Mysterious Traveler, not to mention nemesis police sergeant Faraday to Boston Blackie), Peter Donald (the eventual Ajax Cassidy in the “Allen’s Alley” sketches), Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart, Bill Adams (whose impersonations of Franklin D. Roosevelt are striking), Jack Smart, Ted de Corsia, Jeannette Nolan, Arlene Francis, Nancy Kelly, Ray Collins, and Claire Niesen, just to name a few.

The performers have had to work harder than usual not to sound like actors. In fact, if any performer does sound enough like an actor, Time dismisses them from the show. As many as seven hundred performers are on call to provide the realistic voices and inflections of anyone from Abyssinians and Hoosiers to Swedes and Scots. And no one ever really knows just how many performers aspired to catch even a single break by way of even a single appearance on the show. Especially given one of the absolute most crucial abilities the show requires: an ability to jump in, right on the spot, if big news happens to break even a minute before the show is due to begin live.

Dunning would observe a phenomenon within the show’s company itself:

The actors bonded in strange ways to their real-life counterparts. Edwin Jerome impersonated King Alfonso of Spain so realistically that the king’s son thought his father was in the studio. Dwight Weist lived the life and death of Bruno Richard Hauptmann from his childhood to the bone structure of his head—bone, he told Radio Guide, affects voice. He attended the trial and, while loathing the accused killer of the Lindbergh baby, made himself feel what Hauptmann must be feeling until he could play the role with empathy. When the night came for the re-enactment of the execution, Weist felt frightened, sick, as if a part of himself had died in the electric chair. “I can’t explain it, but we all have it,” he said, “when something happens to the people we impersonate. Ted de Corsia had it too, when Huey Long was murdered. He’d been Huey for a long time.”

It must be doing something right above and beyond its dramatic virtuosity. Actual news reporters quake over its alleged hamming up of the news. The Communist Party’s organs hammer the show as fascist propaganda. William Randolph Hearst has denounced it as Communist propaganda, banning even its mere mention in his newspapers. Hitler’s Third Reich has banned the show from being beamed in. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt is leery of The March of Time—not because he objects to its content (which he does, every so often), but because the performers who portray the President on broadcasts in which he figures heartily enough in the week’s events are so good, according to Dunning, that “they were diminshing the impact of his Fireside Chats.”

Tonight: The cast empathy will be put to the big test once again, when the show re-enacts the Pearl Harbour attacks that have brought the United States into World War II at last, and the events immediately following those attacks. If it may sound a little hokey and a lot more pokey to a 21st Century listener, that comes only in isolated portions. If you’re looking for a near-seamless dramatised summary of Week One following the Pearl Harbour attacks, you won’t find much of anything that tops this. Even with the lingering unintended filtering noises on the surviving recording, which somehow punctuate rather than dissipate the cool command of this performance. That it airs on the same day as Congress declares war officially against Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy is even more jarring.

Cast: Unidentified on the air, but possibly including Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart, Martin Gabel, John Battle, Bill Adams. Narrator: Westbrook Van Voorhis. Director: Lester Veil. Writers: Fred Smith, Dwight Cook, Ann Barley, Bob Tallman, Jimmy Shute, John Martin, Bob Richards, Ruth Barth, Paul Milton, Richard Dana, Carl Carmer, Garrett Porter, Brice Disque.

 

WORLD WAR II . . .

Special Report: Congress Declares War on Germany (CBS, 1941)—Congress receives messages from the White House and declares war on the Third Reich, four days after Pearl Harbour is bombed by Japan, and in the wake of the Reich and Fascist Italy having declared war upon the United States earlier in the day.

The report includes references to former isolationist Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) pronouncing full support for the war effort and predicting a five-year war., and Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur reporting a critical Japanese battleship sunk by Army Air Corps forces. Also: Eric Sevareid comments and analyses the Senate and House votes on declarations of war.


FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Thinks He’s the Governor’s Pal (NBC, 1945)—The Ward Heel of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) offers to help Doc (Arthur Q. Bryan) get a new hospital wing by getting in good with the governor . . . whom McGee only bragged to have been the governor’s right hand, causing him a campaign of headaches when the town thinks it’s only true. Molly: Marian Jordan. Alice: Shirley Mitchell. Mrs. Carstairs: Bea Benaderet. La Trivia: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.

The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: The Baby Sitter (NBC, 1948)—That, God help us, would be Phil (Harris), with a little (we hate to use a four-letter word) help from, God help us further, Remley (Elliott Lewis)–they can’t find a babysitter for sponsor Scott (Gale Gordon), so they take the job on themselves . . . and mix it up and then some, when they botch the formula recipe Alice (Faye) gave them to feed the Scotts’ baby. Julius: Walter Tetley. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.

Our Miss Brooks: Game at Clay City (CBS, 1949)—All Connie (Eve Arden) needs to go to the game and its dance with Boynton (Jeff Chandler) is a ticket, or selection as a chaperone for the school trip—assuming she can convince Conklin (Gale Gordon) to choose her over shifty Miss Enright (Mary Jane Croft), who’s being suspiciously kind to her lately. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Walter: Richard Crenna. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.

Fibber McGee & Molly: Detective McGee (NBC, 1951)—The Sleuth of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) is engrossed in a mystery novel—which he can’t resist reading aloud—and the detective kit for which he sent away, using it to track what he thinks is a suspicious neighbour (Ed Begley). You don’t need me to tell you Sherlock Holmes he ain’t. Molly/Teeny: Marian Jordan. The Old-Timer: Bill Thompson. Doc Gamble: Arthur Q. Bryan. La Trivia: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Director: Max Hutto. Writers: Phil Leslie, Keith Fowler.

 

Crime Drama

Box 13: The Haunted Artist (Mutual, 1948)—A disbelieving troubled artist (Alan Reed), who fears his studio is haunted through something he didn’t add to one of his paintings, sends Dan (Alan Ladd) on a kind-of ghost hunt. Suzy: Sylvia Picker. Kling: Edmund McDonald. Additional cast: Betty Lou Gerson, possibly John Beal. Announcer: Vern Carstensen. Writer: Russell Hughes.

 

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Lux Radio Theater: The Scarlet Pimpernel (CBS, 1938)—Leslie Howard repeats his film role from the 1934 classic about the seemingly effete aristocrat who doubles as an avenger rescuing nobles and others from the Terror in revolutionary France. Lady Blakeney: Olivia de Havilland (in the Merle Oberon film role). Host: Cecil B. DeMille. Music: Louis Silvers. Adapted from the screenplay by Lajos Biro, based on the novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy.

 

Western

Gunsmoke: The Cast (CBS, 1953)—Dillon (William Conrad) has to stop doctor-hating Sheely Tucker (Sam Edwards) from killing Doc (Paul Frees), after Tucker’s wife dies during surgery after an accident while he was out of town. Chester: Parley Baer. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Announcer: Ken Peters. Music: Rex Khoury. Director: Norman Macdonell. Writer: John Meston.

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