Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Are you not Entertained?

 What follows is a copy of an essay that was rejected by my History of Theatre Instructor here at BCC. She has since moved on to live in New York so she can mingle with a large crowd of actors who are waiting to be discovered waiting tables. I wish her well, and hope she has found happiness. This paper was rejected because it contained materiel that went outside of the box and because I failed to follow all of the guidelines that she had established.  Never the less, it was my attempt to make her understand how I view "theatre" today, being an A/V geek and former IATSE Projectionist and all. Since the majority of people who are going to live plays today are either your 1% ter's , or are retired personal, or work in the industry, as I once did, this was my attempt to connect with the subject material. If you have ever seen the movie "Radioland Murders", you will get it. With that being said...       .


During the early 1880s until the early 1930s, there once existed a  theatrical genre of variety    entertainment in the United States  that became known as Vaudeville, with performances made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts who were grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, dancers, comedians, and “magicians” with trained animals and impersonators, and one-act plays or scenes from plays.  Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, and dime museums, the 1st of which had been established by P.T. Barnum as far back as 1841!  Called "The Heart of American Show business," Vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America .
Well, as luck would have it, in 1926, Warner Brothers had bought the old Vitaphone Studio’s in Brooklyn, and was going to produce short films with sound. The advantage they had was, because of its location, there was a stream of Broadway and Vaudeville actors, who, unlike their Black and White Silent Film Star counterparts, were use to speaking on stage. So Sam Warner unitized them in his short “Talkies”, which are now historically considered a record of the last years of Vaudeville.  It’s ironic that by allowing themselves to be recorded, they were contributing to their own decline
The exception to this was perhaps Burns and Allen, an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, worked together as a comedy team in Vaudeville,  and achieved great success over four decades.
In the 1952 American comedy musical film,  Singin’ in the Rain,  offers a comic depiction of Hollywood  during that era, and its transition from silent films to “talkies”, and is  frequently described as one of the best musicals ever made. It’s main character, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a popular silent film star with humble roots as a singer, dancer and stunt man. After a rival studio (in reality, Warner Brother’s) has an enormous hit with its first talking picture, 1927's The Jazz Singer, (which is historically accurate, which is why some may think this movie is a documentary)  made using the “Vitaphone” process by the Victor Talking Machine Company,( a system of interlocking the sound recording turntable with the camera, and the reproducer turntable with the film projector so that 'lip synch' could be achieved)  the studio heads decide to convert the new Lockwood film, The Dueling Cavalier, into a talkie. The production is beset with difficulties that reportedly reflect what actually took place during the early days of talking pictures, like when the record would skip, and throw the audio out of synch during a film’s playback, and most importantly, voice coaching for the silent screen actors!
             At about the same time, another American inventor, Lee De Forest (August 26, 1873 – June 30, 1961), considered one of the fathers of the “electronic age”, helped to develop a competing technology.  De Forest had invented the Audion, a vacuum tube that takes relatively weak electrical signals and amplifies them.  In 1919, De Forest filed the first patent on his sound-on-film process recording sound directly onto film as parallel lines using light.  These lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. This system, which synchronized sound directly onto film, was used to record stage performances (such as those in Vaudeville) and musical acts, was the prototype of things to come.
He was also involved with the development of another upstart technology at the time, one called  Radio. which started popping up in the late 1920’s and assaulting the American public. People became fascinated with this sound that was coming over the air. That’s really what primed the pump for sound in film and helped opened Sam Warner eyes and ears to an increasing opportunity and Warner bought KFWB.

According to a book I just read, "Radio had a way of breaking down the boundaries of both distance and economics. Besides delivering the nightly news, it brought the fun of the best acts into America’s living rooms, because these acts were now no longer restricted to city theatres and restricted by expensive tickets. One could now hear not only the best comedians and vocalist, but the best of everything, including “dramas” like “Dragnet” and “thriller” programs like “Suspense” and “The Inner Sanctum.”
         The major networks even adapted plays and movies for radio, with productions like, The Screen Guild’s Theatre, The Director’s Playhouse, and The Lux Radio Theatre, originally hosted by none other than future master filmmaker Cecil B. Demille in 1934, where, in its 9:00 pm Monday night time slot, with its major guess stars like Clark Gable, the show commanded a huge weekly audience of 40 million people! That was almost a third of the entire population of the country at that time. Since the shows were broadcast live, mistakes were prevalent. Just the thought of having an audience of millions terrified many big name stars, and actors like  Ronald Reagan and Bogart goofed frequently, calling each other by their real names instead of their characters names as written in their scripts. Once a famous actor forgot he was on live coast to coast radio (back then, everything was broadcast on AM) and when he misread his line he burst into a string of expletives that shocked the country.
         If one listens to these early programs today, they seem to have the ability to almost act like a self contained time machine, transporting the listener to another time and place, one where, if you were to turn off the lights at night, and sit in a dark room, aided by only actor’s voices and sound effects and sometimes a little music, the theatre of the mind’s eye could fantasize and create anticipation and chills far better than even a live stage show or a movie ever could hope to, opening doors to whole new worlds that was part of the story that was radio. Such was its power. It had the ability to keep someone’s imagination always working.
            And oh my how it succeeded on the night of October 30th, 1938. For what had been intended as mere Halloween entertainment proved to be too much for its audience and caused millions of Americans to panic in fear, believing that indeed a devastating attack and possible invasion was underway. They had failed to hear the program’s introduction that had stated this was CBS’s The Mercury Theatre on the Air production of an H.G. Well’s Science Fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds”, as presented by Orson Welles. For this adaptation used a different approach: repeated interruptions of a program of dance music with a series of “simulated” news bulletins. The listening audience never questioned the plausibility of the “news reports” they were hearing on the radio that night, and why should they? For radio, up till then, had been a trusted family friend whose credibility was unquestioned. (T. luckenbach)
            What followed is hard to believe. Spellbound listener heard an official sounding voice of the secretary of the interior urging everyone remain calm as “evacuation instruction” where now given for Newark. Urgent bulletins followed, with a “final report” coming from an on-the-spot reporter who was silenced. Listener deserted their radios in droves as some run out into the streets; others ran to pray, or to jump into their cars in an attempt to escape. Telephone lines became jammed as frantic people tried to call the authorities or family members or loved ones. According to Martha Baxley, people fled New York City in mass chaos, which caused the then new Holland Tunnel to “become a solid traffic jam of hysterical people screaming, fainting and uncontrollably sobbing in utter fear.”  This overreaction forced Welles out of character to announce on the air that the whole “Martian Invasion” had been nothing more than a holiday prank. Radio left so much to one’s own imagination.
              That era is gone. But I had the rare honor, privilege and opportunity to experience “audio theatre” first hand as a child, when , in 1981, almost some 40 years past radio’s Golden Age hay day , National Public Radio’s Earplay series produced, along with Studio M in St. Paul, and KUSC FM Los Angeles, “The Star Wars Radio Drama” by Brain Daley.  This was a Six and half hour adaptation of the original George Lucas film done in 13 parts, and it generated the largest response in NPR’s history, with an average audience of over 750,000 listeners per episode. Two years later, I remember listening to Empire my portable “boom box” at night while hiding in the my walk-in closet with the door closed so my parents, who were watching TV down the hall, wouldn’t hear , (no, I didn’t have a set of headphones) because  the program sometimes “aired” in my market (Clemson, SC) so late.  There, alone in the dark, the entire Galaxy from “A long time ago….” existed entirely in my head.   
            Anthony Daniels, interviewed for the production, explains, “I actually feel this is one of the most creative mediums there is, because it works in the mind. The problem with other mediums is that you are presented with whatever the director, or some cases, the camera man, have chosen for you to see, I mean, you have no choice. In radio, you can make the scenery how you want it to look like completely inside you head, and therefore it is stimulating . Therefore, the amount of enjoyment you get is directly related to the amount of effort you put into it. People asked me how can you do “Star Wars” with all those visual effects on Radio? In fact, they miss the point, that in some way it will be better on radio, because the sound effects will be stunning.   Sound effects are rather like smells, the very evocative. You remember smells, and you remember sounds.  According to Program director John Madden,  “Anybody who’s ever listened to radio drama will testify to the fact that a play you hear will remain in your mind- twelve years later you will remember it vividly. The reason you will remember it is because you’ve done the work, because it lives in your imagination.” The entire program has been available through HighBridge audio books since 1993.       
            The only radio program that I can think of that still exist today that mixes both “tongue and cheek” radio dramas with a variety of stage acts not possibly unlike those that were once found in places like Vaudeville is  Garrison Keillor’s  A Prairie Home Companion, ( their main Sound Effect man,  Tom Keith,  just passed away) which is a radio variety show that runs on Saturdays from 5 to 7 p.m. Central Time, and originates live in front of an audience from the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, Minnesota, although the show is now frequently taken on the road.  Some common road venues include   the Greek Theater in LA, and the State Theater in Minneapolis.  There is also a show each year at the Minnesota State Fair.  It is known for its musical guests, since music is a main feature of the program; the show is a significant outlet for American folk music of many genres, especially country, bluegrass, blues and gospel, but it also has guest performers from a wide variety of other styles of music, including classical and opera, It’s also known for  Keillor's own fictitious storytelling segment, "News from Lake Wobegon", which is backed by many of the Show’s  fictitious “sponsors” , like  "Powdermilk Biscuits".
            The show has a long history, existing in a similar form as far back as the mid 1970’s. It is distributed by American Public Media, and is most often heard coast to coast on National Public Radio .  Approximately 3.9 million U.S. listeners tune in each week. The program is also carried around the world by the American Armed Forces Radio Network as well as America One. Sirius XM Satellite Radio carries the show via its XM Public Radio, which is where I first heard the program. And why yes, the show even now has a Facebook Page.0
            In 2006,   A Prairie Home Companion: The Movie was produced.  The movie was a fictional representation of behind-the-scenes activities at the long-running public radio show which was in danger of being canceled by new owner of the theater from which the show was being broadcast.  The film takes place on the night of the show's last performance and pooled the talents of four Oscar winners including Meryl Streep.  Thankfully for future Companion performers, the show was not cancelled in “real life”, and so this cast and crew did not suffer the same ironic fate as their Vaudeville counterparts of so many years ago.  Just goes to show, that “there’s no business like show business.”
            This is my kind of theatre. Consisting of fables from the realm of the mind’s eye, it’s one that directly involves the listener, and forces them to create what the “scene” “might” visually look like.
            I don’t even have to dressed, or “socialize” with others if I don’t feel in the mood. No, I can just sit there, in my bath rope, in my lazy boy chair, alone in the dark, listening, while being transported away to another place, another time, “through another dimension, into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination”, with nothing more than a drink in one hand, a good cigar in the other, and perhaps, maybe, if I’m lucky, only the dog to keep me company, as things “go bump in the night.”