Friday, February 27, 2004

“…dedicated to man’s imagination…the theater of the mind…”

Those last four words have often served as shorthand to explain radio drama, both old-time and new—I’m uncertain as to where it originated; I’ve often believed that it was attributed to comedy writer Hal Kanter (a Savannah, Georgia native) who once cracked: “Radio is the theater of the mind, television is the theater of the mindless.” In any case, there can be little doubt that the phrase accurately describes and defines one of the finest programs of Radio’s Golden Age: The CBS Radio Workshop.

The program was pretty much an update (though there are those who believe it to be superior) of what is generally considered the father of experimental radio drama, CBS’ Columbia Workshop (1936-42, 1946-47). Here, noted playwrights like Archibald MacLeish and Norman Corwin were given free reign to build their reputations, on a program not only sustained by the network but encouraged to be as such. (CBS chairman William S. Paley believed that the series added a necessary touch of prestige to his network.) In the words of John Dunning, “Even in its failures, it was interesting—the people behind it seemed to know that to be good an artist must have the freedom to be bad.”

Nearly a decade after its cancellation, a decision was made to revive the concept under a new title, The CBS Radio Workshop. Radio was, by this time, on life support, and yet there was still a demand from its small, determined listening audience for serious, high-quality, adult drama. William Froug (who acknowledged that Norman Corwin was a “hero”), a vice-president at CBS, proposed the new show to his boss, Howard Barnes—who gave him a thumbs-up on the project. Froug’s idea for the show’s premiere broadcast (January 27, 1956) was to produce a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic 1932 novel, Brave New World—which I so conveniently listened to in this morning’s wee a.m. hours.

Froug arranged for Huxley to narrate the two-part broadcast, and I know there was some dissension in the ranks here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear questioning the degree of Huxley’s participation. (In listening to both parts one and two, I agree that most of it is a dramatization but Huxley does break in from time to time with what I would certainly classify as “narration.” Dissenting opinions are always encouraged.) The show tells in unnerving detail of a futuristic society that demands conformity, prescribes a drug called “Soma” for unhappiness (Prozac, call your office), and replaces reproduction with an assembly-line “hatchery” that breeds and cultivates human beings artificially. The sound effect of the hatchery was created by blending and recording a ticking metronome, the beat of a tom-tom, bubbling water, an air hose, a cow mooing, repeated “boings,” and three different glasses clinking against one another—then playing it backward with a slight echo effect. It lasts only 30 seconds, but it required three sound men and an engineer to create the effect over a period of five hours.

Author Huxley begins the production with an effectively chilling narrative observation:

Brave New World is a fantastic parable about the dehumanization of human beings. In the negative utopia described in my story, man has been subordinated to his own inventions. Science, technology, social organization—these things have ceased to serve man; they have become his masters. A quarter of a century has passed since the book was published. In that time, our world has taken so many steps in the wrong direction that if I were writing today, I would date my story not 600 years in the future, but at the most, 200. The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.

“Brave New World” is a simply superb production, produced, directed and adapted by Froug, with music by the one-and-only Bernard Herrmann. The supporting cast is a literal Who’s Who of radio acting: Parley Baer, Herb Butterfield, Sam Edwards, Gloria Henry, Bill Idelson, Byron Kane, Joseph Kearns, Jack Kruschen, Charlotte Lawrence, Vic Perrin, Doris Singleton, Lurene Tuttle and William Conrad—who also handled the series’ announcing chores.

The broadcast was indeed an auspicious debut for the series, but the best was yet to come, as producer Froug recalled: “Everybody on the second floor of CBS Radio at Columbia Square was excited about the show. Every day guys were coming to my office pitching ideas. Bill Conrad had a show idea; so did [composer] Jerry Goldsmith. I had never seen such excitement in my nine years at CBS.” This excitement soon spread to CBS’ studios in New York, as those staffers demanded the opportunity to participate as well (the program was initially broadcast from the West Coast). A rotating schedule was soon set up, alternating between East Coast (produced by Paul Roberts) and West Coast productions (Froug).

Once again, the directors behind these productions reads like yet another Who’s Who of old-time radio: William N. Robson, Jack Johnstone, Norman Macdonnell, Antony Ellis, and Elliott Lewis—who was told by a network vice president: “Do whatever you want. You have a half-hour.” Lewis took his advice and wrote, directed and starred in one of my favorite Workshop productions: “Nightmare” (5/5/57), about the terrible dreams of a man in a coma. (Director Antony Ellis also participated in another fave of mine, this time with a rare on-mike appearance in June 1, 1956’s “A Matter of Logic” with William Conrad.)

The CBS Radio Workshop was, I truly believe, radio drama at its zenith—a program that often served as a back-and-forth pendulum between the traditional and the offbeat: one week, an “interview” with Shakespeare; an adaptation of a Robert A. Heinlein story (“The Green Hills of Earth”) the next; a analysis of satire by Stan Freberg after that. Sadly, the series came to an end on September 22, 1957 after 87 episodes—all of which are apparently extant today in fine sound—of creative, cutting-edge radio drama. What continues to fascinate me is that it ever got on the air in the first place—as CBS’ Barnes remarked in an interview with Time magazine: “We’ll never get a sponsor anyway, so we might as well try anything.” Can you imagine anyone expressing a similar opinion in today’s broadcasting, where the bottom line is everything? Nope…I can’t, either.

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