Saturday, May 12, 2012

“Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear”: the Speaking of Radio website

For me, radio is a magic medium, one that is, to borrow Fred Allen’s phrase about his nemesis (television), “rarely well done” these days. The most famous radio comedians and actors were indeed larger than life and also had incredibly memorable voices, which, naturally enough, had to be serve as their signatures. The wonderful website Speaking of Radio offers literally dozens of interviews with these special (and mostly departed) entertainers.

The website is the product of several decades’ work by Chuck Schaden, a radio broadcaster (and major fanatic) in the Chicago area. Schaden hosted a radio show called “Those Were the Days” from 1970-2009 and was lucky enough to get interviews with most of the major figures from radio’s past. He nabbed a bunch of them when they were passing through Illinois doing summer stock productions, but also traveled to L.A. to speak to a number of them.

Since pretty much all of these folks are dead now, Schaden (right) has a wonderful archive of both radio and early TV history on the Speaking of Radio site. It notes on the site that he published the interviews as a book, which must’ve been a very thorough history of Thirties-Fifties media, but it’s something else entirely to hear the voices of these folks, especially when they’re talking about topics they deeply love — or are deeply bitter about.

So what does Schaden offer on the site? The audio files aren’t downloadable (that is available for a fee), but you can listen to them for free online. The guest roster, as noted, is insane. It’s easier to cite the people he *didn’t* get to interview (Orson Welles, George Burns) than it is to mention all the seminal folk he did get to talk to. I’ll give it a try, though, based on the 30 or so interviews I’ve listened to in the past month.

Even though Chuck often had a limited amount of time with the A-listers from the Golden Age of Radio (less than 20 minutes), he was able to glean ample amounts of fascinating information. For a brief sampling, I’ll quote the moments I was most impressed by:

— His confabs with radio and early TV superstars Jack Benny, Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Milton Berle.
— Harry Von Zell, the announcer who worked a hell of a lot on old-time radio (several shows simultaneously), describing how he delivered one of the first on-air bloopers ever, by nervously introducing President Herbert Hoover as “Hoobert Heever.”
— The people who were willing to recreate great radio intros and special moments on-air for Schaden, including Mel Blanc, Louis Nye, and Tony Randall.

— Brett Morrison, a very monotone-sounding interview subject, suddenly coming out with a terrific version of the beloved intro to The Shadow, which he played on-air for longer than any other actor. (“Who knows what evil lurks… in the hearts of men…?”)
— Vincent Price, talking about his love of the medium and also of his devotion to fine art, noting that he’s making a Dr. Phibes sequel because the first film really needed a sequel (and he’s not kidding — I love Vinnie).
— The ever-awesome writer-producer Arch Oboler describing what radio can do that other media can’t, by describing a monster (your own real-life worst enemy) creeping up behind you….

— Mike Wallace (right) discussing being the narrator for both The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger, and the ways in which actors made extra dough (by perfoming the shows three times in succession, for each U.S. time zone!).
— Mel Blanc and Jim Backus talking separately about overcoming health troubles that nearly killed them (in Blanc’s case it was a near-lethal car accident).
— Howard Duff on being blacklisted: “I wasn’t even a good liberal!”

A few riveting negative moments (proving the interviews truly were off-the-cuff):
— Sid Caesar insisting he’s “not bitter,” but going on and on about how bad TV got after the Fifties.
— Hans Conreid responding to one of Schaden’s customary last questions (“Do you ever think radio comedy and drama as we knew it could return?”) by noting that traditional radio programs are completely gone forever (for their part, Joseph Cotton and Howard Duff very much lament the loss).
— Tony Randall maintaining that he had VERY little fondness for old-time radio, as he thought it was mostly badly scripted (with the exception of a few shows — he cites Benny, Fred Allen, and the you-either-love-it-or-you-don’t Vic and Sade).
— Rudy Vallee (above) being utterly charming about his own relative lack of popularity (“My records never sold…”), and then offhandedly telling a story in which he calls comedian Pinky Lee “Jewboy”….

And my two favorites:
— One of my all-time, big-time character actor faves, Sheldon Leonard, talking about how to properly deliver Damon Runyon dialogue.
— And Edgar Bergen not only speaking in his familiar dummy voices for Schaden, but also discussing what it was like to collaborate on writing sketches with the one and only W.C. Fields.

Schaden did indeed make the most of his time with these radio legends. A few other names found in the archive: Kate Smith, Don Ameche, Agnes Moorehead, Ricardo Montalban, Morey Amsterdam, and Ginger Rogers.

I found it fascinating that he refers to what we now term “old-time radio” or “the Golden Age of Radio” as “the radio days.” This was no doubt because network radio programs really ended in the mid-Fifties, which was a mere 15 years before Schaden’s nostalgia program went on the air. It’s interesting to contrast that 20-year “jump” in comparison to our own current binges of “instant nostalgia,” where mediocre items from 5-10 years ago are already packaged in “yes, I remember it well” talking-head TV series. (And the music-video Eighties is deemed as distant as the era of silent movies.)

Sample Schaden’s chats and you’ll find yourself moving back to a simpler era when, yes, voices and imagination mattered. And, while show-biz egos were still of course *incredibly* large, there were very well-regarded nice guys like Jack Benny on the A-list, and the talent involved could justify such ego.

Thanks to Rich Brown for turning me on to the SOR site.

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