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Though radio is becoming an increasingly segmented stopgap to fill the silences television cannot reach, there was a time when it was a unifying agent, as powerful a mass-cultural force as perhaps America has ever seen. This period, from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s, truly was the "golden age" of radio. Film authority Maltin, a regular on Entertainment Tonight, has a sharp eye for telling details, revealing anecdotes—and is never in such a hurry he can't stop for an amusing digression or aside. While his subject is enormous, he provides enough range and breadth of information to make any reader sound knowledgeable at a cocktail party (although he doesn't discuss the advent of FM radio). Actors, directors, sponsors, musicians, sound effects, and more all get their own tidbit-filled chapters. Radio began as a substitute for telegraphy, a way, most notably, for ships at sea to communicate with shore. But others began tuning in, the price of sets came down, and soon the idea of creating regular programming took hold. Maltin ably captures the excitement and seat-of-the-pants style of early radio, when almost everything was live, leaving little room for mistakes. Though there was enormous room for creativity and innovation, sponsors quickly came to exert substantial influence over the shows aired under their aegis (no mention allowed, for example, of the word "lucky" on shows sponsored by a tobacco brand other than Lucky Strikes). After WW II, as television—and its unremitting literalism—became an increasingly serious challenge, live shows were replaced by tape, more stars were trotted out, and audience segmentation increased, but nothing could stem radio's slide from the popular consciousness into background noise.
A warm, engaging valentine to a bygone art form and era.
It wasn't the climate that brought big-time network radio to Los Angeles, as it had the moviemaking pioneers. It was access to Hollywood's most prized commodity: stars.
At first, radio was considered The Enemy by Hollywood's power brokers (who felt the same way about television a generation later). For a time, studio-contracted stars were forbidden from appearing on the upstart medium, lest those appearances diminish their box-office value at the neighborhood Bijou. As late as 1940, some exhibitors complained to the studios that allowing stars to appear on radio was giving away for free what theater owners were trying to peddle for a price.
But, as with television, Hollywood eventually made its peace with radio. Movies and radio not only established peaceful coexistence, they helped to support one another, as radio shows promoted new movie releases and actors' careers. Movies eventually provided a substantial source of radio fodder as adaptations of hit movies became a staple on the air.
The first person to break down the barriers of studio control was syndicated newspaper columnist Louella Parsons. In 1934 she launched Hollywod Hotel, a variety hour hosted by Dick Powell and featuring Parsons herself, conducting interviews and imparting the latest celebrity news. Louella was so powerful at that time, with a column read by millions in the Hearst papers every day, that no one could afford to snub her -- and she knew it. She used that clout to get the biggest stars in Hollywood to appear on her show -- for free -- in return for generous plugs of the star's latest film. In many cases, those stars appeared in twenty-minute versions of those films on her program. Parsons wasn't above using a not-very-subtle form of blackmail to corral stars for her show. Organist Gaylord Carter vividly remembers overhearing Parsons telephoning a recalcitrant Olivia de Havilland to persuade her to appear on the show. "And I heard her say, 'Now, Olivia, you get down here or I'll tell a hundred million people what a rotten actress you are.' I heard her say this." Some years later, Carter met de Havilland and mentioned the incident; the actress remembered it well and told Carter, "She was really after me."
Nor was Louella shy about dealing with the stars once they arrived. Child actress Marcia Mae Jones appeared with Bonita Granville and Miriam Hopkins in an adaptation of the 1936 movie These Three, and remembers that Hopkins complained about the children having a disproportionate amount of dialogue. When a satisfactory answer was not forthcoming, she stalked away in a huff; Parsons, without missing a beat, called for an understudy to take Hopkins' place on the broadcast, and the actress quickly returned.
Just because they showed up didn't mean they were going to "go over." Arch Oboler was then a writer-for-hire who'd been engaged to prepare a play for Hollywood Hotel. He remembered his first experience: "The very first broadcast, my star, so to speak, the man I wrote for, was Gary Cooper, who was certainly a top star at the time. And Mr. Cooper was terrible; he was a terrible actor for radio. There weren't any retakes; this was live radio. I listened to Mr. Cooper massacre my play, and I couldn't take it. Finally, I went to the director and said, 'Please, the man has no concept of radio. He doesn't realize that it's a different medium, that you're as close to the listener as he is to the microphone; it's an intimate thing. Please, talk to him.' The director said, 'You talk to him. You direct him.' Glory be, I was going to be a director. So I went up to Gary Cooper and introduced myself as the author, and we sat down in a quiet place on the stage. From the part of my heart that was reserved for that part of writing I told him my thinking, and when I got through with my peroration Mr. Cooper, who had listened very carefully, looked at me and said, 'You know, Arch, I've been thinking, if I raised the sight on my rifle when I'm deer hunting about a "quart," I'll bet I could get the deer about one hundred yards further.' That man had never even heard all the talking I'd done."
The studios may have had their misgivings about the show, but ironically, it wasn't studio opposition that killed Hollywood Hotel. It was the burgeoning Radio Guild (eventually known as AFRA) that protested the idea of actors appearing in any context without pay. The show breathed its last in 1938.Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., a Pearson Company. Copyright © JessieFilm, Inc., 1997