On the same day as Congress declares war against the Third Reich, in Pearl Harbour’s immediate aftermath and countering the Reich’s and Fascist Italy’s declarations against the United States, one of old-time radio’s most eloquent radio exercises in the aftermath comes from a series launched in Cincinnati more than a decade earlier. A series that became a radio legend despite the apparent disdain of the publishing titan whose signature creation inseminated it.
WLW station manager Fred Smith, in 1929, wanted to provide news but lacked the wire access and staff to do it. He hit on an idea festering long enough, seeking a partnership with Time, the weekly news magazine, in which WLW would air a solid weekly news program and Time would get more powerful name recognition and some advertising dollars out of regions listening to the program.
Smith pitched the idea just that way to the magazine’s circulation director, Roy Larsen. Larsen pounced without a second thought, almost. Thus did the original March of Time become a partnership in which Time provided the scripts and WLW, the voices.Born a simple, no-nonsense weekly news summary, with occasional commentary, the original March of Time became widely imitated once it became transcribed and syndicated to some one hundred stations.
That, in turn, gave Smith the idea that turned the show from a regional hit to a national radio legend a decade before the midget submarines and the Zeros plunged into Pearl Harbour. Smith decided The March of Time could become old-time radio’s first known newsreel: rather than continue as a mere weekly news summary, dramatise actual events in detail, scripting, directing, and acting them like a proper drama, but produce them on deadline with accuracy and impact the actual goals.
John Dunning would recall in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, that that idea almost didn’t happen:
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.
The first full season in which network radio ratings are known to have been recorded was 1932-33. Airing Friday nights at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on CBS, The March of Time scored a top ten finish on the night with a 15.3 Crossley rating and a 26th place finish on the season as a whole. In 1933-34, the show did even better, pulling down an 18.9 for a seventh-place Friday night and a 23rd place finish overall on the season.
But in 1934-35, The March of Time went blockbuster. Only NBC’s First Nighter (27.7) outrated its 21.5 on Friday night, and The March of Time finished in 17th place on the season overall. Then its masterminds got the idea of turning it into a fifteen-minute strip show for 1935-36 . . . and it proved the number four such show of the season, beaten only by Amos ‘n’ Andy and the news commentaries of Lowell Thomas and Boake Carter.
The strip idea was abandoned after that one season, and The March of Time fell into a ratings slide that won’t start to pick itself back up until the current 1941-42 season. A move to NBC and to Thursday nights seems to have done the trick. The show would finish its 1942-43 season back in the seasonal Top Fifty and in sixth place on Thursday nights with a solid 17.7 Hooper rating. It would finish comparably the following season. But come 1944-45, Time will make another network switch for the show—to the Blue Network now spun off NBC in an anti-trust action, and soon to be renamed ABC, in which Time holds a twelve percent stock stake.
The move will prove fatal. It will cost The March of Time half its audience or more for the second and final time in its life. Enough to knock it out of the top ten on Thursday nights, out of the top hundred (never mind fifty) on the season as a whole, and out of radio at season’s end: Time will cancel its groundbreaking docudrama and dump its ABC stock. An ignominious finish for a show that shook off its original barking-and-hustling style to become radio’s arguable first and certainly one of its most distinguished news programs.
Announcer Westbrook Van Voorhis’s oddly understated but booming voice (few would have believed he was only 29 years old when he began the job) became as familiar to American households as Time itself, and his invariable signoff—“Time marches on”—became a national catchphrase that would out-live the show by several generations.
The Don Voorhees Orchestra and, later, the Howard Barlow Orchestra, provided the show’s music. Succeeding Ted Husing and Harry Von Zell in the announcer’s chair, Van Voorhis proved so authoritative that he became known as the Voice of Time and, in due course, the Voice of Fate. And a roll of the top New York-based radio talent became a solid company for the show. That roll included but wasn’t (and won’t be) 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 (The Shadow, Suspense, Mayor of the Town), 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 impersonation of Franklin D. Roosevelt is striking), Jack Smart, Ted de Corsia, Jeannette Nolan, Arlene Francis, Nancy Kelly, Ray Collins, and Claire Niesen, just to name a few.
Those and all performers appearing on The March of Time 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 will ever really know 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.”
Henry Luce’s misgivings to one side, however, there have been real news reporters quaking over The March of Time‘s alleged hamming up of the news, even after it shed the overtly carnival-like atmosphere early on. But if you want an argument for its neutrality, the Communist Party’s organs have hammered The March of Time as fascist propaganda but William Randolph Hearst has denounced it as Communist propaganda. Hitler’s Third Reich has banned the show from being beamed in, but even Franklin D. Roosevelt himself is leery of it. It’s not that he’s objected to The March of Time’s content (he has, every so often), but he’s been leery because those performers portraying the President in shows where he figures heartily enough are so good, according to Dunning, “that they were diminishing the impact of his Fireside Chats.”
The March of Time has even inspired the renaming of a research and charity group formed by Roosevelt in 1938 with a group of scientists and volunteers, a group born as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in the middle of the polio epidemic that claimed among other victims the President himself in 1921.
Taking a cue from the foundation’s practise of annual Christmas boxes into which children were encouraged to drop dimes as contributions, the box drive and in time the group itself—on the instigation of radio comedy star Eddie Cantor, who couldn’t resist either the charity or the chance for a pun—became known as the March of Dimes.
TUNE IN TONIGHT . . .
The cast empathy is 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.
PEARL HARBOUR AFTERMATH, CONTINUED . . .
“There is the feeling that the expected has happened,” says the announcer, as 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 isolationists Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) pronouncing full support for the war effort and predicting a five-year war (he’d be wrong but not by much), and Sen. Gerald S. Nye (R-North Dakota, who’d previously exposed the influence peddle that exploded into the Teapot Dome scandal) speaking of a regrettable but needed declaration.
Also: Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur reporting a critical Japanese battleship sunk by Army Air Corps forces; and, Eric Sevareid comments and analyses the Senate and House votes on declarations of war.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Lux Radio Theater: The Scarlet Pimpernel (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1938)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Thinks He’s the Governor’s Pal (comedy; NBC, 1945)
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: The Baby Sitter (comedy; NBC, 1948)
Box 13: The Haunted Artist (crime drama; Mutual, 1948)
Our Miss Brooks: Game at Clay City (comedy; CBS, 1949)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Detective McGee (comedy; NBC, 1951)
Gunsmoke: The Cast (Western; CBS, 1953)