I had the good fortune of being born into the first generation of a European family in America. A bazaar of languages cascaded through our household and our foreign cultural traditions kept us, for a time, ostracized even insulated from the everyday red-white&blue that bullied us to join the herd. It also meant that we were usually among the last to have the latest, newest "hep-ist", "hip-ist" stuff that defined the promises of the good life... like television. (Witness: my long-pants cuffs didn't fashionably reach my shoe-tops until I was fourteen.) But we did have radio... that wondrous window of audio alchemy that vibrated a body from coccyx to fontanel. Radio was our "Starship Enterprise."
The focus of our living room was a huge four-feet tall (or was it two feet?) fine-finished wood, floor-console RCA Victor radio that gave us almost every major station in the U.S. and many from around the world on shortwave. Every non-summer day, from as far back as I can remember, when the Northern light at 4pm began to darken with eerie gray shadows, I'd hook my feet underneath the bottom of that 'ship' and lie back to journey out into the world. There was "Captain Midnight" and "Sky King" and "Jack Armstrong" and "The Shadow" for adventure. There was news, the reassuring reports of local voices who spoke about 'what's what' like an uncle visiting with the latest gossip. There was the important and irrefutable news from shortwave BBC, heralded by the chimes of Big Ben without commercials and spiced with short fifteen-minute side trips to "Hummingbird Haven" and "Puddings Are You". There was music... Russian, French, Greek, Spanish, Chinese and orchestral, symphonic, so-called classical.
And there was… opera, live from the Met sponsored by a big-hearted, shadow-government: the Texaco oil company. And dance, that's right, classical ballet on the radio with music and narration for the theatre of the mind. And there was NO talk radio… no one gave a damn about the chit-chat opinions of their neighbors outside the local barber shop.
Every night, in our living room 'theatre' or in the kitchen, the family's activities centered around the airwaves. The beauty of it was that you could do so many other things while you listened... homework, sewing, cards, crayoning, baking, smoking, drinking, and all of those private little games that kids play by themselves while their mind's 'eye' is journeying somewhere else. Even after television spread across the country, radio still provided big-time entertainment for a while. All of the stars had radio shows.
When I was ten, I was gifted with my very own radio-set carefully enshrined in my little bedroom upstairs. It was an instrument of privacy and independence, like a first bike or a first auto. So many weekdays it was 4pm downstairs on the main stage and afterwards, upstairs in the "black box", an intimate world because I imagined and believed that the voices speaking just for me were there, somewhere alive inside the tubes and down along the wire (which they were since so much of radio was live!). Just the way I came to believe that speaking to someone on the telephone took you down the wire where you sat in a pitch black tube facing the person you were talking with... unseen, untouched but sensually and completely present. How magnificent and true it was to be a child and how difficult and perplexing it is to preserve that natural beauty.
We lived close enough to the Canadian border to receive the clear signal of one of the great radio networks in the world, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting). They not only presented fully developed variegated programming, but they also served a full menu of the world's greatest radio theatre – BBC. There was the Royal Theatre, hosted by Laurence Olivier, which produced classical as well as modern drama, uninterrupted, uncut. They also produced adaptations from literature... I first discovered H.G. Wells in a Royal production of The Country Of The Blind, narrated by Olivier himself. Cervantes joined my life with a broadcast of Don Quixote. CBC offered its version of the "Royal"... imagine, a three-hour broadcast of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under The Elms, again, uninterrupted, uncut. No time for popcorn or peeing: a nifty piece of character-building for an energetic little boy.
On the American side, radio theatre was in abundance. Nothing, to this day, can compare to lying in a dark room and listening, imagining, staging somewhere down the wire the chilling, thrilling, nose-dripping joyful fear of Lights Out!, Inner Sanctum, Suspense... all scary, weekly radio theatre shows with original scripts, guaranteed to keep you awake long past your bedtime. Film and television grab you and hold you, but radio, as it was, is a secret-sharer that enters the private world of your mind's theatre and designs the acting, the directing, the staging to fill your own inner world. Only reading comes close to that.
There were also the showcase radio theatres. The Lux Radio Theatre was the most famous, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille. It was primarily a marketing opportunity for Hollywood but it was grand piece of entertainment. They actually adapted movies and produced them on the air often with the original stars. There was Humphrey Bogart and Tyrone Power and Greer Garson and Shirley Temple and a bevy of big names doing it with only a microphone. Sometimes, the films had already been in the movie-houses, sometimes they were currently at your neighborhood "Cameo", sometimes they hadn't been released yet. No matter... it was for you, one on one, for you.
Radio theatre had a rich tradition beginning in the 1920's when the crystal earphone gave way to the loudspeaker. It was a special art form that required special writers like Arch Obler (find and read one of his scripts, you'll see why). And it required special actors and directors like Orson Welles and his magical Mercury Theatre. Without scenery or costumes or makeup or lighting, it drew on one major instrument, the voice. Like great musicians, great radio actors were able to paint and move the images in your head in a way that was as powerful and memory-spawning as any purely visual experience. They did it with their voices, with their breathing, with their timing, and with your willing embrace.
There has never been a radio actor to match the ear, the eye and the breathtaking talent of Orson Welles whose voice was a gift from birth, untrained, self-trained, un-trainable.
The auditory experience is unique in the way it embeds itself in the memory. The realm of those experiences remain in my memory as crystal, vacuum-tubed clear as when they first appeared. I can replay those treasured "tapes" in my mind at will, and, at will, I can dance again in the dark.