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Old-Time Radio In Review
by Elizabeth McLeod
When you first hear "old time radio," whether you're rediscovering a lost part of your youth or you're discovering a form of entertainment you never knew existed, there's a real sense of excitement. But what happens when the "newness" of OTR wears off. Can these fifty or sixty year old programs really stand up as entertainment?
That's the question I hope to tackle in this monthly column, posted to the new OldRadio Mailing List and The Nostalgia Pages. I'll be considering many different shows, some familiar, some obscure -- but all of them available to modern listeners. I'll try to put the programs into some sort of historical perspective -- and I'll offer my candid opinions on whether they've stood the test of time. You may agree -- or not. Either way, I encourage you to listen for yourself -- and discover the world of Old Time Radio.
Thoughts on the Genius of Paul Rhymer
Thoughts on the Genius of Paul Rhymer
He died thirty-five years ago.
Few today outside the world of OTR have any idea who he was.
But for those of us who *do* know Paul Rhymer, there can be no doubt.
He was the most *inspired* writer radio ever knew.
And his creation -- "Vic and Sade" -- was one of the great literary accomplishments of the twentieth century.
Strong words to describe a deceptively simple little fifteen minute dialogue program which spent most of its run buried among the soap operas and sustaining music shows that constituted the ghetto of daytime radio during the thirties and early forties. But even its own time, "Vic and Sade" stood out. Listeners who would never admit to tuning in any other daytime program avidly followed the doings of Vic and Sade and Rush and Uncle Fletcher.
That's the best, simplest answer I can come up with.
There's really no way to properly explain what made "Vic and Sade" such a unique experience. There were many other fifteen minute comedy-dialogue shows in its time, and "Vic and Sade" was nothing like any of them. It never had the compelling, dramatic plots of "Amos 'n' Andy," or the urbane wit of "Easy Aces," or the broad comedy of "Lum and Abner." You didn't tune in "Vic and Sade" to find out how the characters would get themselves out of a difficult plot wrinkle -- Rush was never put on trial for murder, for example, or sued for breach of promise -- and you never fell on the floor laughing at the Gook family's Wacky Antics.
"Vic and Sade" wasn't really about any of these things. In fact, when you really think about it, "Vic and Sade" wasn't "about" anything. It was the original "show about nothing."
People didn't have adventures in "Vic and Sade." They didn't have escapades. They just *lived.* The daily experience of life on Virginia Avenue was the focus of the program -- an odd, stream-of-consciousness ramble thru the existence of a lower-middle-class midwestern family, as written by a man who had lived that life himself. Paul Rhymer knew the nuances of midwestern speech like Mark Twain knew the cadences of the Mississippi or like Dickens knew the speech of Victorian London -- and his dialogue captures the way real people sound. Real people don't always talk in complete sentences. Real people don't always clearly express their ideas. Real people don't always make sense.
But even as Rhymer was able to capture the banality of real-life speech in his dialogue, he had the gift for turning that banality into something approaching poetry. His dialogue, at its best, can be appreciated not just as radio humor - but in a very real sense as a surreal sort of free verse.
"we use brickmush regular.
but we wouldn't ever in the wide world
use that horrible stingeberry jam
why it churns
in the bottle!
in the bottle!
Words worthy of an e. e. cummings or a Don Marquis, but they come from a "Vic and Sade" radio episode, dated 11/11/43, broadcast that one day and tossed aside.
No appreciation of "Vic and Sade" is complete without a nod to the cast. Art Van Harvey, Bernadine Flynn, Billy Idelson, David Whitehouse, and Clarence Hartzell were uniquely skilled in translating Rhymer's words into sound. They sensed the music -- they sensed the rhythm. They understood.
Had Paul Rhymer worked in a medium more permanent than radio, he would be hailed as a master -- required reading in American Lit classes. As it stands, he's known and remembered only by those who have taken the time to seek him out, to laboriously gather the bits and pieces that survive of program recordings.
There are OTR buffs who really dislike "Vic and Sade." There are also people who really dislike progressive jazz, or modern art, or blank verse. There are those who feel that music should always be melodic, that paintings should always look like something, and that poetry should always rhyme. And, of course, that comedy should always have lots and lots of jokes.
Such ones will never get "Vic and Sade." It has nothing to do with intelligence -- and everything to do with mindset. If you're the literal-minded type, if you think everything has a place and everything has to be in its place, if all the little cards on top of your desk are lined up in perfect four-square rows, you'll never get "Vic and Sade." Don't even try -- you'll just get aggravated.
But if you believe that a very big part of reality is its sheer absurdity -- if you hear the music in everyday speech -- if you can listen to Dizzy Gillespie without wondering why his horn is bent, then give "Vic and Sade" a listen.
And don't be afraid of stingeberry jam.
Elizabeth McLeod is a journalist, researcher, and freelance writer specializing in radio of the 1930s. She is a regular contributor to "Nostalgia Digest" magazine and the Internet OTR Digest Mailing List, maintains a website, Broadcasting History Resources, and is presently researching a book on Depression-era broadcasting. Elizabeth is always looking for 1930s radio recordings in all formats -- uncoated aluminum or lacquer-coated discs, vinyl or shellac pressings, or low-generation tape copies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org