Monday, October 10, 2011

Guest Sarah Cole answers all sorts of OTR questions

I first "met" Sarah Cole via Twitter.  I instinctively knew she was someone who appreciated old-time radio and someone from whom I would benefit from "following" on Twitter.   Turns out I was correct.

I'm very happy to have her join me in this interview.   I'll be  you will agree as she explores many various topics dealing with old-time radio.

OTR BUFFET: I'm not going to ask your age but can you tell me how you first got involved in listening to what we now call, "old time radio?"

Sarah Cole: My parents, who were educators, grew up during the Depression, and had many fond associations with dramatic radio broadcasts.  In the early 1970s, that venerable powerhouse of the airwaves WGN was broadcasting some short programs of "old time radio" – though the oldest of the programs was barely in its thirties: hardly "old!" – and my family enjoyed them. Later, we bought a number of LPs of the programs, which were just coming out in that format.  Finally, in the mid-1980s, we discovered, on one of the local stations, the weekly broadcasts of Radio Hall of Famer Chuck Schaden, which featured four hours of those wonderful programs, along with commentary from him, his guests, and his constant friend and aide, the lovely Ken Alexander – Oops!  Just make that Ken Alexander!

From then on, I've been hooked, and an amateur collector of those radio programs.

It occurs to me, though, that my inclination toward audio drama started even earlier.  Back before Disney began selling video recordings of its animated features, they sold albums of the films' songs, connected with narration.  I think I wore out three Cinderellas, and at least one Finocchio.  My brother and I just loved them.  (In fact, as far as Cinderella goes, I think I preferred the album to the film!)  The point is that I don't recall a time when we DIDN'T have non-visual, audio drama available.  So, in a way, a fondness for audio drama was my destiny.

OTR BUFFET: Which real character on Vic and Sade is the most-interesting to you and why? And out of all of the unheard characters, which one do you think is the most intriguing and why?

Sarah Cole: (You may laugh, but when I first read the question, I thought you meant which of the actors interested me the most.  That question is harder to answer than the one you are asking: all of the original cast members have surprising twists to their personal and professional lives.  Of the actors, I suppose Billy Idleson interested me the most, because of his dramatic intelligence, and his later career in broadcast writing and performing.)  As far as the main characters go, it will probably come as no surprise that Rush Gook is the one I look forward to the most.  His striving for the respect due the adult he was becoming, his idealistic whimsey in the ways he would try to do it, yet his patience with the status quo is very funny, yet very touching.  In one episode, the young man is in a rage at the neighbor boy, who has passed the word among his friends that Rush eats with a baby knife and fork.  As it turns out, Rush DOES eat with baby silverware, because that's what Sade has always put by his plate, and he didn't want to make a fuss about it.  His struggle is the struggle we all face, or that remind us of what our children are confronting.

As for the unheard characters: pick any of Uncle Fletcher's acquaintances.  There's a collection of intriguing people!  The funny thing is that the listener DOES know the unheard characters pretty well, after hearing a few of the broadcasts.  Well, Rooster and Rotten Davis are an interesting pair.  The episode in which a two-story porch falls off a house, and Rotten pretends he tore down the house himself, is strikingly funny, because of the pair's whimsical response to a public nuisance.  Rush's Sunday School teacher, who is beefy enough to take the place of a whole road crew, intrigues me, too.

And one does wonder about anyone named Robert and Slobert Hink!

OTR BUFFET: In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be able to read every Damon Runyon story. I feel that the Damon Runyon Theater is one the most-overlooked shows in old-time radio. Have you read Damon Runyon and would you tell me your feelings about the show?

Sarah Cole: I have read many Damon Runyon stories, and just love them!  They describe a magnificent, barbaric world, in plain sight, yet virtually unrecognized by the civilized world whose space it shares.  The (then) modern adventures are told with a cool directness that force the readers to exercise their imagination to fill in details, and, in doing so, brings them into the stories.  Then, when the stories end with a surprise, the readers are knocked free of that fantasy world, yet, because of the splendid shock, not likely to forget that place.

The radio version of the stories are reasonably faithful to Runyon's text.  They lack the narrative's directness, which is to be expected when in a drama with multiple characters, but "Broadway" the narrator's stilted grammar and dispassionate observations, help restore the feel of the written stories.

They aren't all happy, but they're memorable.  A couple of my favorite episodes are "Lillian" and "A Neat Strip." Oddly enough, one of my favorite Damon Runyon radio plays WASN'T on The Damon Runyon Theater.  One Christmas, the series The Whistler dramatized the story "Three Wise Guys."  John Brown appeared as the narrating character in that episode, and, later, created the role of "Broadway." While I don't know for sure, I suspect that episode was the inspiration for The Damon Runyon Theater.

OTR BUFFET: Until I found the joys of Vic and Sade, The Six Shooter was easily my favorite show. It's different than any Western on radio (even the so-called 'Kiddie Westerns')
because the show almost always tries to be non-violent. It's even less violent than Frontier Gentleman! Tell me your feelings about the show?

Sarah Cole: I have enjoyed both The Six Shooter and Frontier Gentleman (though, for whatever reason, find myself preferring Have Gun, Will Travel).  The Six Shooter, like Gunsmoke, was a "new" Western, in the vein of High Noon.  It didn't glamorize violence, though it didn't flee it, either. It wasn't above humor, such as the episode in which Britt Ponset is forced to be judge in a preserve-making contest between two sisters, which has divided their town.  (His approach to this problem was inspired!)  But the neuroses of the settlers does get a little wearing, so, although a Six Shooter episode or two every so often is always rewarding, a marathon can prove tiresome.

OTR BUFFET: Imagine you were the producer of The Six Shooter and Jimmy Stewart was unable to play the part. You have an unlimited budget and everyone but Stewart is available to you. Who would you cast as The Six Shooter?

Sarah Cole: One of the interesting things about the Six Shooter was that, though the scripts had been written for Stewart, and he was the main draw for listeners, the stories themselves don't rely on any of Stewart's vocal or personal characteristics.  Any actor, whose voice was not particularly distinctive and could sound uncluttered, and whose manner was reassuring , could play that part.  It doesn't require a big name.  Everett Sloan or Ben Wright might give interesting performances.

OTR BUFFET: I haven't listened to much of Henry Morgan, but anyone who knows you from Twitter knows you are a big Henry Morgan Show fan. Tell us what you like about the show and what we are missing?

Sarah Cole: (Between us, I'm not THAT big a Henry Morgan fan, but I do enjoy his radio performances; even the one on Suspense – a real hair-raiser!)  I was once told that I have a tendency to look at things sideways: to look at things in a way no one else does.  Henry Morgan's humor is that way.  In his first broadcast, he featured a demonstration of how a BBC broadcaster unfamiliar with the game might describe a baseball game, and a visit to modern New York as if it were an archaeological expedition.

Another episode made fun of Readers Digest, people who read Readers Digest, the contents of the magazine, the types of features that were condensed, the politics of Georgia, Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, and the whole process of condensation itself!  Henry Morgan didn't let convention and social protocols get in the way of pointing out often uncomfortable truth.  But because the truth was presented in a funny way, the listener need not take offense.  As W.S. Gilbert said through the inimitable Jack Point, "When they're offered to the world in merry guise, Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will; For he who'd make his fellow creatures wise Should always gild the philosophic pill!"  (The Yeomen of the Guard) Some of Morgan's inspiration may have been bitter, but his humor was always golden.

OTR BUFFET: Where do rank Henry Morgan as far as old-time radio comedians?

Sarah Cole: I don't know.  As a humorist of his time, he may not rank high.  As a comedian and satirist, period, I'd say he was in the top fifty of the 20th century.

OTR BUFFET: Do you think Jack Benny is special because he's Jack Benny or because he had great casts?

Sarah Cole: Jack Benny's program was special because Jack had wonderful comic sense, and some of the most insightful writers available.  He could have been just as funny with a different cast, though it would have funny in different ways.  What made the Benny program funny was how well the characters were able to fit with each other, and because their material suited them so perfectly.  It is theoretically possible to have done the same with a different cast, but it would have led to a differently-situated program. 

OTR BUFFET: Can you tell me why the jack Benny Show is so special to you?

Sarah Cole: At the end of 1945, the program held a contest: "Why I Can't Stand Jack Benny." (A very funny sequence, by the way).  In fifty words or less, contestants had to state why they couldn't stand Jack.  The winning entry was probably the most deserving winner to any contest of this nature I have ever seen.  I have to agree with winner Carroll P. Craig, who wrote: He fills the air with boasts and brags, and obsolete obnoxious gags. The way he plays his violin is music's most obnoxious sin. His cowardice alone, indeed, is matched by his obnoxious greed, And all the things that he portrays show up my own obnoxious ways.

OTR BUFFET: Everyone seems to like Fibber McGee and Molly. Tell me why they are so special to you?

Sarah Cole: The combination of crazy comedy, witty patter, clever music, exaggerated but familiar neighborhood characters, and genuine domestic affection is what made Fibber McGee and Molly the beloved program it is.  It, and The Halls of Ivy are the two most romantic radio programs ever written.  Anyone in a durable intimate relationship will tell you that love isn't adventure and wild passion: it's having your life partner get sick, and being able to clean up after him or her with a smile.  As Molly responds when Fibber expresses surprise that she doesn't tell him everything she thinks, it's because she HASN'T always told him what she thought that they are still married.

OTR BUFFET: Arch Oboler was famous for his horror stories but there was another side of Arch Oboler that was prolific in anti-war and pacifist stories and also strange and humorous fantasy. What do you think of when you think of Arch Oboler?

Sarah Cole: Arch Oboler was the best radio writer the United States ever produced.  Carlton E. Morse and Norman Corwin are fine WRITERS – they write well in multiple genres – but Oboler's greatest skill was in writing in innovative ways for audio drama.  His script "This Lonely Heart," about the relationship between Tchaikovsky and his patroness, is the finest one I've ever read.

It's odd you should describe him as a pacifist writer.  His pre-war, and World War II dramas are exposés of fascism in general, and Nazism in particular.  I believe the play is This Precious Freedom (in ), about a man who comes back from a camping trip to find the United States taken over by the Nazis.  It is brilliant, and terrifying.  Another fine play, set in postwar Europe, features an American family going to one of the military cemeteries to being their son home (I think it might be "V Day").  Oboler was not a saber-rattler, but he clearly loved liberty, and understood that there are things, liberty in particular, worth dying for.

OTR BUFFET: When I first tried listening to the Halls of Ivy, I really didn't like it. Then a friend prodded me into listening again (months later) and I found that Halls of Ivy was a very special show that had a deep, rich meaning - probably a far deeper meaning than any show I had ever come across. I love the show now. What are your feelings on the show?

Sarah Cole: The Halls of Ivy is what you get when you mix Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Fibber McGee and Molly.  Don Quinn, one of the writers for Fibber McGee, wrote, then later oversaw, the scripts. The stories use the witty wordplay and distinctive characters of Fibber McGee (though, in this case, the characters are not so exaggerated), to explore the significance of issues that arise among young adults; and to showcase another genuinely affectionate couple (President Hall and Victoria Cromwell-Hall/Ronald Colman and Benito Hume-Colman).  Its topics range from the humorous (getting out of a board meeting) to the serious (students afraid of the Draft), but they are approached in a gentle, straightforward, yet non-threatening way.  It also used dramatic techniques that only work in audio drama, and integrated them beautifully: flashbacks of President Hall's earlier life were used regularly to explain or illuminate the situation the Halls currently faced.  It is the finest comic-drama program of the Golden Age of Radio.

OTR BUFFET: Who do you think are the 5 most important old-time radio figures and why?

Sarah Cole: That question will take a lot of thinking, partly because the important people aren't going to be the 3 [most] famous people.  They would be the people who enabled radio drama to become great, and I don't know (or remember) enough about the history of radio to know who they are.  Some of the names I think of at this moment are the head of WXYZ, who enabled The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and The Challenge of the Yukon to be produced, Charles Atlas, who oversaw all the work that was done at WGN, General Sarnoff, who understood the progress of broadcasting; and others like them.

Two of the most important were Ed Wynn, who introduced the live audience, and Bing Crosby who normalized pre-recorded programming.

OTR BUFFET: What are your 5 most favorite shows? Which show brings you the most pleasure?

Sarah Cole: A lot depends on how I feel at the time I'm asked, but, at the moment, my favorites are: Jack Benny, The Halls of Ivy,  Fred Allen, Vic and Sade and it surprises me to say it, but I think the fifth is Bob and Ray.

The Halls of Ivy is the most satisfying "listen", Jack Benny makes me laugh the most, Fred Allen is the cleverest program, and Vic and Sade and Bob and Ray share a genial absurdity that is refreshing and reassuring.  If you ask me again sometime, I may have a different answer; but, at the moment, these are my favorites.

OTR BUFFET: In 20 years, will people still be listening to old time radio?

Sarah Cole: I'm not sure whether they will or not, though it won't be because they aren't listening to narrated art.  Podcasts, audiobooks, and recorded speech are more popular now than ever, because people are too busy or impatient to read a lot of text.  One problem with vintage radio is the topicality: some of the jokes about events and personalities that were important at that moment are lost on modern listeners.

On the other hand, those references are part of what make the broadcasts valuable.  About a year ago, heard someone complaining how we don't know what it was like to live through World War II.  We DO know what it was like, because we can hear how the characters in radio serials and series "made do" in those days.  We also have the "non-fiction" programs of advice and such, which give more details about what daily life involved.  Vintage radio is a time capsule: it brings into the present the lives of the past.   To appreciate it as such requires research; but enough of the material speaks to the general human condition that listeners can still enjoy most of it, even without completely understanding the context.

OTR BUFFET: Sarah, I could easily ask you 10 more questions but I don't want to burden you and take up all of your time. Would you join me in the near-future again for another interview?

Sarah Cole: Certainly!  It's always delightful to talk about vintage radio!  Thank you for the opportunity!

OTR BUFFET: Thanks for answering my questions. I really had fun coming up with things to ask you!

Sarah Cole: My pleasure.

©Jimbo 2010/2011

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