It seems proper that a 21st century reviewer, harking back to old-time radio’s coverage when the war in Europe was announced to be done officially, should open with the signature broadcast of a man who once earned a compliment every last individual practising the journalist’s art should strive to earn.
“Thank God for Gabriel Heatter,” an admirer wrote the commentator once, during World War II’s peak. “He makes it possible for us to sleep at night.”
Especially now, the catch phrase by which the Mutual commentator is known best rings true. There’s good news tonight, all right: it’s time to pull the corks in earnest and let the party begin, no questions asked, for V-E Day.
And perhaps there is no more appropriate radio signature to launch or swing the party into overdrive than the mild-mannered Heatter. His ability to find reasons to cheer even amidst any and just about every known hardship will turn out to have masked a man who needs his own morale boosted almost more than his listeners do.
Years before any American ever hears the name Walter Cronkite, Heatter may be the most trusted man in America, or at least one of the top five. No, he didn’t hunker down on the rooftops during the London blitz. He hasn’t burrowed his way across the Pacific accompanying missions liable to get him (as happens to CBS’s Eric Sevareid) on the missing persons lists for days at a time. But this mellifluous man has come to serve as a kind of home front morale booster, much the way Edward R. Murrow has come to serve as a conscience of courage, even if some (reminded of Murrow’s blitz reporting or his habit of accompanying deep bombing runs) think the CBS titan has a death wish.
It must astonish Heatter himself. He is a bundle of phobias and insecurities, a man who admires courage he struggles to marshal for himself, only too well aware of the contradiction, saying at one point that by seeming to be able to pick up his listeners’ courage, he does likewise for himself. When admirers stop him on the street to praise him, he thanks them for their humbling flattery and often bursts into tears moments later. Those who savour his frequent news items involving heroic dogs would be amazed to know he quakes in the presence of dogs not his own. He is barely able to present himself at formal functions, so nervous that he carries a small sandwich in a specially lined jacket pocket because he can barely bring himself to eat what is served. For openers.
Heatter’s saving grace, above and beyond all but forcing himself to do what he does, is probably his wife, Sadie, and their two children, who love him deeply enough that they never wilt in bracing him when he needs it, which must be almost daily.
An indifferent school performer in his youth despite his voracious reading, Heatter began his public career as a Hearst reporter who made it into radio in the first place because a written debate (in The Nation) with Norman Thomas, over the Socialist Party (Heatter opposed it), impressed New York station WMCA enough to invite Heatter to debate a party functionary on the air. The functionary withdrew before the event, leaving the mike to Heatter and his gentle eloquence. It impressed listeners enough that, before long, he would be hired full-time by WOR, two years before it became Mutual’s flagship.
This deeply-haunted man made his bones covering the Bruno Hauptmann trial and execution, at the latter of which Heatter was forced to ad-lib coolly when the execution was delayed. His performance—keeping listeners informed and avoiding the sensationalism that all but smothered the case—earned him critical accolades and a broader audience. But he would also become a patron saint to millions of alcoholics whose lives are transformed by a certain pioneering self-help program: his 1939 report on the fledgling Alcoholics Anonymous was the first known national exposure the group received.
Heatter’s famous opening (“Good evening, everyone, there’s good news tonight!”) has come thanks to the sinking of a Japanese destroyer that prodded him, spontaneously, to open his nightly commentary by saying there was good news that night. It becomes his catch phrase and, alas, his caricature. He has become so good, so willing, to find the proverbial silver linings, no matter how grotesque the clouds, that he garners accusations of stretching too far. (Alexander Woollcott once composed a carping couplet in Heatter’s dishonour: “Disaster has no cheerier greeter/than gleeful, gloating Gabriel Heatter.”)
But there may be millions who can’t and won’t believe the war in Europe—or the Pacific, in due course—really is over until they hear it from Heatter. What would become Walter Cronkite’s image two decades later is probably Heatter’s reality tonight. Here, he ruminates on the moment the Nazi surrender becomes final and official, in fifteen becalming minutes, and puts it not into the formal terminology of news or battle but, rather, into and through the eyes, minds, and hearts of those with whom he identifies most.
In due course, Heatter will write an eye-opening memoir, There’s Good News Tonight, in which he reveals the full breadth of his inner turmoil, a turmoil that will seem to recede little by little as the years advance. “Age,” Irving Fang will write, (in Those Radio Commentators!), “gave this gentle, decent man a sense of serenity.” After his retirement and the death of his wife, Heatter will live quietly with his daughter, Maida (the much-honoured pastry chef and cookbook author), until his death at 81.
“Peace in Europe” may become almost the only one of his broadcasts to survive. Almost. It does become much anthologised, much reviewed, and much admired. But it will seem sad enough that more of Heatter’s work doesn’t survive for learning by the generations to come.
V-E DAY, CONTINUED . . .
“This is a Solemn but Glorious Hour” (NBC)—So says President Truman while cautioning against the complete celebration until the Pacific war is won, in an otherwise joyous if sober announcement delivered to Congress and carried live.
“Remember” (BBC)—Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British Eighth Army, whose triumph at El Alamein was a key turning point against the Axis, invokes those who died in action.
“An Atmosphere of Calm Thanksgiving” (NBC)—So says NBC News, Washington, opening a special broadcast that will include comments from, among others, Fleet Admiral William E. Leahy; Gen. of the Army George C. Marshall, the Army’s chief of staff; Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Fleet; Gen. of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander-in-chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force; Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean areas; Gen. of the Army H.H. (Hap) Arnold, commander-in-chief, Army Air Force; and, Gen. of the Army Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief, U.S. Army Pacific forces.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
The Hinds Honey & Almond Cream Program with Burns & Allen: Aunt Clara’s Kangaroo (CBS, 1940)—The trip to the Surprise Party convention will have to wait at least long enough to retrieve the train tickets—because the party’s presidential candidate (Gracie Allen) gave the tickets to a stranger who wanted to be at the broadcast . . . not to mention that she assured George (Burns) will tend Aunt Clara. Additional cast: Frank Parker, Truman Bradley (announcer). Music: Ray Noble and His Orchestra. Writers: George Burns, William Burns, Sid Dorfman, Paul Henning.
mr. ace and JANE: Baby Food (CBS, 1948)—Last week, they handed me a rather distasteful assignment at the advertising agency where I work: they asked me to prepare an advertising campaign for a brand-new baby food that was due to come out on the market. They sent me a sample of the stuff. It looked like strained moss. And I’m sure no self-respecting baby in his right mind would ever walk into a restaurant and order this stuff. So drawls (Goodman) Ace, on whose doorstep even a self-respecting baby might get himself left, the day Ace plans to bring a new baby food’s maker home for a softening-up dinner. Isn’t that awful? Herself: Jane Ace. Norris: Eric Dressler. Sally: Florence Robinson. Agnes: Beatrice Karns. Fischer: John Driggs. The Ga-Ga Baby (you’re not seeing things): Madeline Gibbs. Ken: Ken Roberts (announcer). Writer/director: Goodman Ace.
The Martin & Lewis Show: Mystery Show (NBC, 1949) —To please a potential new sponsor, Dean (Martin) and Jerry (Lewis) agree to try a mystery show—which seems impossible until they spot guest Peter Lorre’s theatrical opening and decide to try talking him into it, assuming they can get past his secretary. A slight change in detail (getting past the secretary by now is a joke older than Jack Pearl) and it would have been perfect. Additional cast: Paul McMichael, Roger Price, Ed Herlihy. Music: Dick Stabile and His Orchestra. Writers: Ray Allen, Dick McKnight, Roger Price, Jim Whitney.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Mother’s Day Present (NBC, 1949)—Phil (Harris) balks at buying Alice (Faye) a mink for Mother’s Day . . . until the six words guaranteed to send things from bad to worse—and jail—come out of Remley’s (Elliott Lewis) big mouth. Even if you can figure the rest from here, these pros make it work seamlessly. Little Alice: Jeanine Roos. Phyllis: Anne Whitfield. Julius: Walter Tetley. Additional cast: Unknown. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Suspense: Dead Ernest (CBS, 1947)—Cataleptic Ernest Bower (Wally Maher), whose condition causes him to appear dead should he suffer an attack, may not be salvageable when he suffers such an attack after nearly being run down by a car . . . and losing the medical bracelet and official letter detailing his malady. Additional cast: Verna Felton, Jerry Hausner, Elliott Lewis, Cathy Lewis, Jay Novello, Walter Tetley, William Wright. Annoucner: Truman Bradley. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Sound: Berne Surrey. Director: William Spier. Writers: Merwin Gerard, Cedric Lester.