This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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SIGNS OF LIFE AT FOTR 36
by Mark Anderson © 2011
(From Radio Recall, December 2011)
The Friends of Old Time Radio rang down the curtain on the 36th and final convention on a cool and cloudy mid-October weekend in Newark. Host Jay Hickerson had been properly honored for his efforts all these years. As one fellow put it, to paraphrase: “…for thirty-six years Jay was determined that devotion to the cause would overcome the strife of putting it together.” As Jay wrapped things up late that Saturday night with piano renditions of “Thanks for the Memories “ and “We’ll Meet Again,” the crowd could only sing along and clamor for more. The question hung in the air: another song, or another convention in the future?
I had touched down in the lobby of the Ramada late on Thursday afternoon, and within minutes I was talking with conventioneers from Connecticut, New York, Virginia, and Florida. I was soon engulfed in a hallway-full of happy people, greeting and catching up. Over time, I would meet people from as far away as Germany, the British Isles, and Australia.
Earlier that afternoon, Dr. Mike Biel had given a memorial talk about Norman Corwin, the brilliant writer and producer of radio, who had died earlier in the week at 101 years of age. By all accounts the crowd was in thrall to Biel’s insight. His reflections, replete with audio clips were drawn from his friendship with Corwin and extensive research on his life and work. People acknowledged feeling “sad, but satisfied,” that Corwin had touched so many lives.
Thoughts of Corwin once again came to the fore on Saturday night in the form of an auction item. Michael Kacey, a filmmaker from Los Angeles, offered for bid a CD recording of a Corwin radio play called “The Undecided Molecule.” Kacey had directed the play in May of this year with a cast of industry veterans, including, from our midst, Richard Herd and Ivan Cury. The occasion was the convention of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC); the venue was the Grand Wilshire Hotel. That was also Corwin’s last public appearance.
Between those bookends of tribute from Biel and Kacey, convention activities carried on with grand style and zest. The dealers’ rooms were open; panels and presentations were well-attended. Often people had to scurry to a rehearsal or an interview.
My little quest was to ascertain that the interest in old-time radio was abiding, that groups would meet, scripts would be written and performed, even if people would no longer turn to October on their tire company calendars and scrawl “NEWARK” in block letters.
Yes, I found that the research will go on; the OTR niche in nostalgia is secure, in large part because fans and scholars already know that they must slide over and make room for that crazy little thing called TV. Like classic cars and (it must be said) baseball, new history will always be unearthed and will forever fascinate. The major difference, perhaps, is that now no one is quitting their day jobs to get in on it.
History is indeed great source material. So with great anticipation I headed for Friday’s double feature: presentations by Jack French (“The Best of the West”), and Martin Grams Jr. (“Researching Cavalcade of America.”) I hurried from the dealers’ room with my handful of Man Called X cassettes, and settled in to hear French’s presentation on three erudite Westerns from the Golden Age: Gunsmoke, Fort Laramie, and Frontier Gentleman. The scriptwriting in all three is robust and beyond compare. Pre-eminent writers such as John Meston (Gunsmoke) and Anthony Ellis (Frontier Gentleman) led the way with stories of risk, violence, and harrowing adventure on “the rim of Empire” to borrow that stirring phrase from the Fort Laramie introduction.
Importantly, but without much emphasis, French mentioned a key aspect of motivation in Western characters, which I believe applies in Western stories across the board: the fact that so many people moving west were “dealing with the residual pain of the Civil War.”
Biography, invention, and pivotal moments in American history were sure-fire topics for DuPont’s Cavalcade of America.. Martin Grams Jr. augmented his encyclopedic history of the show (1998) with an entertaining slide show of black-and-white photographs he has collected from the DuPont archives and other sources. His commentary added greatly to the backstage aura and the live audience road-show venues that made the show so popular and a weekly lesson about America.
I didn’t exactly faint when I found myself standing next to Simon Jones in a crowded hallway one evening. He’s a headliner, a true star, I thought to myself, accessible, for goodness sake, just hanging out! That was yet another signature of the convivial nature of FOTR. I gathered my senses and told him that I enjoyed streaming BBC Radio 4; and he agreed that it was heartening that so much good writing for radio is still being produced. He gave me that key to the future and then had to hurry off to get his script, because he was in the evening’s recreation.
New scripts as well as recreations were showcased over the three days and evenings. The annual script-writing competition was won this year by Michael Murphy. He wrote “King of the Beasts,” in the style of Escape, and it was given a wonderful reading. The Dave Warren Players marked their 25th anniversary of FOTR recreations. In the midst of his patter, Dave Zwengler dropped this nugget on us, regarding recreations” “It’s a matter of scripts, innovation, and the friendships you find there.”
Readers found their places and their voices. What a treat to hear the subtle, skewering naïveté of the actress who portrayed Jane Ace; and the Gotham Players fellow who announced their Lights Out episode (“The Giggler”) had a voice so deep you could swim in it.
Edgar Farr Russell’s original script turned to the World War II years and the Any Bonds Today series. Edgar called his episode “Radio Goes to War,” with the notion of hometown boys responding to dire circumstances overseas. His cast was so numerous that he had to maneuver a landing craft onto an isolated stretch of beach near the Pulaski Skyway, and his characters stormed the stage, streaming water from their boots. Russell used a parade of radio characters in a salute to addled youth, world leaders, and everyone’s mom and pop. We might add, “History sure is crowded!”
Mention of two rather entertaining panels will serve to augment the notion that FOTR indeed expanded its reach over the years to include the music industry and the world of comic artists. The “Funnies Friday” panel had well-known artists who gave us the lowdown about deadlines, knowing what was good, and slaving away in seeming isolation.
Editors were hated, it seems, right down the line, and were skewered, much to the delight of a packed room. It was their own fault, our artists maintained, starting when those guys gradually left the creative side (brainstorming stories, making suggestions) to go totally to marketing, like giving assignments and spending the rest of their time on the phone. I’m sure it was true.
Popular music held sway Saturday afternoon, as FOTR veterans Brian Gari and Stu Weiss hosted a panel of songwriters and singers. The ladies who sang as The Delicates, on radio and television, were honored by the panel. Also on hand was Tom Bahler, a great singer who did some quality work with Jan and Dean. But his enduring moments were acting in television commercials for Ford Motor Company. Those video clips carried the afternoon for me, the big garish Technicolor sets and dancers wearing outlandish clothes. Great car, too, I think!
Yes, boys and girls, the camel’s nose is really under the tent now. Where else are you going to see clips like that? Where else will the great threads of American culture and nostalgia be gathered up and put on display?
Try the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, August 9-11, 2012, in Hunt Valley MD, not awfully far from Baltimore. Martin Grams Jr. and his crew have for six or seven years now put together a wonderful blend of personalities, presentations and artifacts of American popular culture and nostalgia. MANC (I had to learn that one in conversation) has been heralded in the press, and is on the inside back cover of the FOTR 36 commemorative booklet. So when you get your 2012 Blue Coal wall calendar, turn to August right away, and mark it up!