Speaking about the beginning of his career in radio in 1922, Harry Von Zell said "If you could perform in any way, average or perhaps a little above average, you could get work. If you were average, you usually worked for nothing. People who had the urge to sing or play or whatever they did, or recite, all flocked into those stations and offered themselves. If they were acceptable, they worked."
Except for some films and a few fictional accounts, what it was like to participate in the birth and growth of radio is mostly gleaned from historical treatise on the subject. What always seems to be missing is the human aspect - just what was it like to be a part of radio in those days? Long time radio announcer Don Wilson tells what it was like in 1925 "It was interesting. You opened up in the morning and swept out, and you appeared on the air. You wrote shows, you produced shows and appeared all during the day in whatever particular facet of the radio activity of that station was doing at the time."
These gems of the human side of radio appear in a new book by Chuck Schaden called Speaking of Radio: Chuck Schaden's conversations with the Stars of the Golden Age of Radio. Schaden is the producer and host of Those Were the Days running on radio in the Chicago area since 1970. The book is published by his own publishing company, Nostalgia Digest Press, which also publishes Schaden's six-times-a-year publication on nostalgia the Nostalgia Digest.
During the broadcasts of Those Were the Days Schaden has played "conversations" he has had with radio stars, writers, directors and producers from the "Golden Age of radio." These interviews were also intermixed with the classic radio broadcasts also heard on the show. His first interview was with Jack Benny when he was passing through the Chicago area in 1971. Other "conversations" followed whenever a former radio personality was in the area. Listener response was so great that eventually the author began traveling mostly to the west coast specifically to interview other former radio stars.
If you were not within listening range of the show, you missed hearing these wonderful interviews which provided rich detailed glimpses of the inside of the business of dramatic radio. Now with the publication of the book readers will be able to read the conversations - there are 46 different ones - and understand the human side of what it was like in dramatic radio during the twenties, thirties and forties.
Schaden is a master in getting these sometimes reluctant stars to describe their experiences. His interview questions flow from the comments of the speakers even though it is clear the author has an agenda of questions going into the dialogue. Sometimes interesting facets of personalities are revealed as with Rudy Vallee's shameless self-promotion of his role in "saving radio." "I did not only great things for the program [The Fleischman Hour], but we did a great deal to introduce a lot of personalities for their first coast-to-coast radio broadcasts - Eddie Cantor and all the rest - but also I think I probably saved radio itself from going downhill almost into oblivion..."
Throughout the book there are interesting little tidbits revealed such as Lurene Tuttle portraying the female role on Hollywood Hotel her first radio role: "Well, a big radio role was the part of Ginny.... I was chosen because I looked and sounded as if I could be the speaking voice of a coloratura soprano. Anne Jamison was chosen to play the singing role of Ginny opposite Dick Powell. She wasn't an actress, so I was chosen to be her speaking voice."
Each interview begins with the date and location and ends with the birth date of the actor, their age at the time of the conversation and their date of passing. Obviously, memories are not always perfect so if the interviewee has their facts slightly wrong, footnotes are included with the corrected information. Harold Peary mentions the period during which he portrayed the Great Gildersleeve but the dates are incorrect, so the footnote displays the correction. In another example Harry Von Zell cannot recall the name of the brother of Mark Warnow, which was "Raymond Scott" as the footnote indicates.
What becomes clear from these conversations is how magical dramatic radio was at the time. Edgar Bergen talking about the now infamous "Adam and Eve" sketch on the Chase and Sanborn Hour:
"Well, we rehearsed our script and it sounded cute, you know, but Mae [West] was holding back a little bit, not in anything she said but she says, 'Why don't you come up and see me sometime?' Well, when she says it, you know, you're right in the bedroom. And so, if she says 'Hello,' you know there's more to it than small talk! So we had some lines, such as, she says to Charlie, 'Why don't you come up and see me some time?' and Charlie said 'What do?' and she said, 'Oh, I'll let you come play around in my wood pile.' Well, that's kind of cute...till she said it!"
For fans of old time radio, the book will offer an inside view into the radio of the twenties, thirties and forties. For researchers and historians, what it was like to be right in the action as radio progressed comes clearly from the responses of the participants. While there are many books on the period, this book is essential in understanding the human side of being a participant in the "Golden Age of Radio."