Radio scripts, 1939 – 1942


While browsing through the (unpeopled and lonely) stacks of the Providence Public Libraryrecently, I found a couple of gems: “The Best Broadcasts.” They are collections of the best radio scripts aired between 1939 and 1942.



Oh my god what nostalgia! George Burns and Gracie Allen (Gracie was running for President in 1940, as the nominee of the Surprise Party). Fred Allen, doing a spoof of Clifton Fadiman’s “Information Please” showDame May Whitty doing a grim little dramatic monologue written byW. H. Auden. Bette Davis as Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s sponsor / imaginary girlfriend. Clark Gable in a very funny romp about an adventurer marring a wealthy woman.

And Jack Benny!



(Now listen, Jack Benny was before my time, but he was still around in my childhood; he died when I was seventeen years old, and I remember feeling very solemn when I heard the news. I think I realized then, for the first time, that there was an older generation and a younger generation, and that one of these days I’d be promoted into the older generation. And then – uh-oh!)

The Jack Benny show had everything. He had his regulars – Don Wilson the announcer (who also read the commercials for Jell-O, which were part of the show, and are included in the script), and the young goofy singer Dennis Day, and Jack’s wife Mary Livingston, and Jack’s black butler Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and the singer / bandleader Phil Harris, who was too cool for words (in the 1960s he was Baloo the bear in Disney’s “Jungle Book” movie).  Also Jack’s polar bear Carmichael who guarded his safe in the basement, and his ostrich Trudy in the back yard, who ate all of the bills Jack received. (Rochester: “Trudy ate so many bills yesterday that she’s laying eggs in her sister’s name.” I don’t even know what that means exactly, but it’s pretty funny.)

Hysterical, right?

Then there was a radio script about childbirth, from 1939 or so. I was a little startled that it actually mentioned having a Wassermann test (for syphilis). And there was this tender dialogue after the birth of the child:

Mary: Hank, do you care that it’s a girl?

Hank: No, Mary, that’s swell, I don’t care a bit.

Also there’s some talk in the preface to the 1939-1940 book about “the German race” and “the British race” and (get ready) “the American race.” Is there such a thing as the “American race”? If so, I don’t know of it. But, you know, I dimly remember in my 1960s childhood hearing and reading that same expression.

The most sobering volume is the 1939-1940 book, which covers a period in which Europe was at war, but America hadn’t entered the war yet. It includes an FDR speech in which he talks about the need for neutrality and pacifism, but also the need to be prepared for – hm – eventualities. (There’s a note in the book about Senator Borah of Idaho, who said that FDR was too convincing when you listened to him live; Borah insisted on reading FDR’s speeches in the paper the next day, to get them unemotionally. I know what Senator Borah meant. I don’t like to listen to political discourse; I prefer to read it. It’s less inflammatory.)

Also in the 1939-1940 book was this note about why so many comedy shows were included in the text: “It is a hard year, and it is going to get worse.”

And it did.

But there were still comedies on the air.

Coming up next: “Fibber Magee and Molly”!

Learning to read again

I’ve written about rediscovering the Providence Public Library. I go at least once a week, sometimes twice. It’s quiet and lovely, especially the book stacks (most people go to use the computers, which are right in front; there’s also a nice first-floor children’s section, and the librarians are universally cheerful and funny).



I check out at least a book a week.



And, almost by accident, I have learned to read again.



Funny: I have a room full of books, literally lined with books. I am always pulling them down, looking up things, lending them to people. But I am not adding new books to the mix. (I do, of course; it’s a lifetime habit. But I buy books and put them on the shelf without reading. That’s terrible.)



But now I am checking out books I do not own from the library, and there is a date stamped in them, and if I do not return them by that date, I will be charged – I don’t know – five cents a day.



hate being late.



So I read. I read novels, and screenplays, and radio scripts, and short stories. I have put things aside because they’re not very good. I have reread things.



I’m beginning to fall into a routine: one weekend day (either Saturday or Sunday, whichever has the crappier weather), with a book and a glass of seltzer water. I lie down, and I read.



I’d forgotten how lovely this is.  I can turn pages as quickly or as slowly as I please. If a book bores me, I can throw it aside. I can speed through a chapter or a section if it’s not wonderful. I can linger over things. I can reread things a few days later!



And I can lie down while doing it!



I find that I now (more than recently) have ideas in my head. Now, where could those have come from?



I have been more relaxed lately, too. To be fair, it might be my medication. But books are medication too. I’d forgotten how consoling they can be.



As W. H. Auden said in “For The Time Being”: “You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.” 



It’s good to be back.



There was a nice article in the Sunday Times about Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (which is the best alliterative name I’ve ever heard, edging out Marion Mitchell Morrison). Deborah – Debo to her friends – is the last surviving Mitford girl. She is ninety years old, intelligent, charming, loves Elvis Presley, loves her chickens, and still takes care of her privacy (I admire the way she gently hints to the reporter that it’s time to end the interview).


I didn’t know any of the Mitford sisters were still with us. Sometimes I try to enumerate them, the way people try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves. Nancy the novelist; Jessica the Communist; Unity the Fascist; Deborah the duchess – who am I forgetting? I had to look. Pamela, who stayed home and raised poultry, and Diana, the beauty (also a Fascist).


The Mitfords were born into an upper-class family in England, and tumbled effortlessly through life. They did not struggle upward; they just floated up, up, up. Even when their politics were awful, they never seemed like awful people. They were funny.


Money doesn’t hurt, of course. Without money, there’s very little comfort to be had from life. But money came and went for Debo too, and now she has plenty of it again.


She reminds me of an Englishman I knew in Morocco. He was in his eighties in 1984, walked with great difficulty, had trouble breathing sometimes, but was very sharp-minded. We were both dinner guests at a friend’s house, and I accidentally quoted Jane Austen, and we were friends after that. He’d been in the British Foreign Service for decades. He had a much younger and very nice Senegalese boyfriend. He’d known Olivia Manning. He said no one liked her; she was always making furtive notes, as if she was going to write a book about you someday. Another day he pressed a copy of “The Towers of Trebizond” on me and said, “Rose Macaulay. Strange woman. But very good book.” I had a long funny letter from him, but I think I’ve lost it, and now I wish I’d been more careful about keeping it.


And there was a piece in the Sunday Times about the 94-year-old Eli Wallach, whom Tennessee Williams said “has discovered the secret of pissing people off,” and whose wife of 62 years, Anne Jackson, sometimes walks into interviews and announces that she wants a divorce, just to shake up the interviewer.


I think of Maira Kalman visiting Louise Bourgeois (“She is 96 and still works, for God’s sake!”) and Kitty Carlisle Hart (“She dated George Gershwin, for God’s sake!”). They both served Maira Kalman chocolate. It must mean something.


I think of Auden’s portrait of Voltaire in old age:


. . . He would write

Nothing is better than life.” But was it? Yes, the fight

Against the false and the unfair

Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilise.


We’d better get out there and cultivate our gardens, y’all. Time’s a-wastin’.




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