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Page Last
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Contents and Source
Material Copyright © 2004,
L.O.F. Communications
All Rights Reserved

 
In Celebration:
Harry Bartell
1913-2004


Struts and Frets
By Harry Bartell

On Radio Acting

By the time I was twelve I knew I wanted to be an actor. That is the equivalent of eagerly looking forward to poverty. Almost every art form presents economic problems for those who become enmeshed but I think acting may be the toughest of all. Poets and other writers can always write; painters can paint and singers can sing but actors can't just act by themselves. I guess it may be argued that mimes can always work a good street corner and for that matter an actor can play Hamlet under the nearest tree. Somehow it's not quite the same without an audience. The first Greek dramas used a single actor which made getting cast in a play even tougher. There have been times though when I've doubted that.

Actors are essentially interpreters, not creators. Their finished product starts with someone else's words. I am now deliberately not considering one- person performers like the famous Ruth Draper who created her own characters and switched from one to the other with great ease and speed, seemingly filling the stage with a lot of people all at once. Starting out, actors almost universally overlook a fact of life: there are many, many more actors than there are parts. It comes with the territory. For a while I thought it was purely an American phenomenon but one day my wife and I were shopping in Harrod's, the famous London department store, and the young clerk hastened to let us know that he was not a permanent member of the staff; he was really an actor temporarily between engagements. So why does anyone in his right mind decide to be an actor?

I think that he is essentially unhappy. He is dissatisfied with who and what he is and wants to be somebody else. Many great actors turn out to be quiet, even dull people off-stage. This is not the same as the kid who says, "I'm going to be a movie star and have a Rolls-Royce and get married twelve times." I'm talking about the boy or girl who is willing to study and work and fail and start over again. The odds of success haven't changed a great deal but there is one big difference today. There are lots of universities offering training grounds. Schools like UCLA and Yale have fabulous facilities and professional instructors. Given talent and determination and the attainment of some success, I think that the actor who achieves emotional maturity and more stability also loses the pressing need to perform. But at the same time he may very well be a better, freer actor.

But let's talk about the actor in radio. The man who is supposed to have had the greatest influence on acting in the 20th century was a Russian named Constantin Stanislavsky. He was a great director and teacher, the inspiration for the Group Theater and The Method. And he wouldn't have lasted fifteen minutes in radio. His idea was to rehearse for six months until the actor had thoroughly blended the character he was playing with his own personality and emotions until performance was a simple, pure display. Of course, I'm oversimplifying but for now that will do.

When a freelance radio actor not playing a recurring role arrived at the studio he was given 25 to 50 mimeographed pages of script. Four or five hours later he was expected to give a finished performance of a role timed to the second and coordinated with music and sound effects. The only information that he had about his role‹or roles because he frequently had two‹was the name of the character on the front page. There was usually time to mark the script before it was read at the table and it was then that he started to pick up the first hints of what the character was about. Most of the time that was enough to provide a basic start. On rare occasions on Dragnet the show was recorded absolutely cold. No rehearsal at all. If he was doubling he also had to figure out how to differentiate between characters... A good radio actor was always reading one or two lines ahead of where he was speaking so he picked up bits and pieces before he actually said them.

The next stage was a microphone reading that incorporated sound effects, cues and mike perspectives. In some cases there were separate mikes used for filter effects such as a voice on a telephone or in a room that echoes. Or if there were several people working at one microphone there was the physical problem of getting into position holding a script, turning pages, backing out to let another actor in, and doing all of this silently. By this time the actor had a good idea of what the character looked like, how it was dressed, what the location looked like, how the character should sound and how to produce that sound. That might include the tempo of his speech and a check to see that another actor's speech wasn't the same. For the most part, the radio director did very little directing of the actor. He or she was mostly concerned with putting all the elements of the show together, especially filling the time slot exactly. There was a dress rehearsal with all the elements in place, cuts or changes were made before the broadcast. If a show ran long, a cut might make a huge difference to the actor. If he had based his idea of the character on a given speech and it was cut, he had to ask for at least partial restitution or change his whole performance. The script was timed by an assistant director with a mark every fifteen seconds during the mike reading. If any cuts or additions were made then or after the dress rehearsal it was back-timed or changed to reflect the additions or cuts. That way the director always knew within a few seconds how the performance was timing out on the air. If it was running short or long the actor had to change his character on the air to accommodate.

Like I said, Stanislavsky would have bombed.

Even with all the above demands actors developed individual styles and those changed over the course of years if the actor felt a certain type of delivery meant more work. Some actors became so mannered that everything they did began to sound alike. This was more obvious in television when physical appearance placed additional restrictions. I've often wondered whether casting actors was placed in the same category as buying a necktie. You either liked it or you didn't. Why did actor X work constantly for one director and never for another? If he was working at all he must have some talent or skill. Or why was he in demand at one advertising agency and never hired at another? I worked with Fred McKaye as an actor and I worked with him when he became a director but never when he was a director at J. Walter Thompson. 'Tis a puzzlement!

This may be pure speculation but I think networks had personalities. For reasons I cannot understand, I worked more at CBS than any other place. I know I liked CBS better than NBC, and Mutual more than ABC. The whole atmosphere when you walked into the building was different. The CBS layout was more open, the foyer which served as an informal hangout was easily available just to the left of the front entrance. At NBC everyone was funneled through a narrow gateway with a posted guard. It felt as though you had to carry a passport to get to the studios. The old Mutual studios on Melrose Avenue where we did Sherlock Holmes had one strategic advantage. It was only steps away from the Melrose Grotto which became Nickodell, the class B Brown Derby. Prior to Mutual the buildings had housed NBC but they built an entirely new building at Sunset and Vine about a block or so away from CBS. If an actor had a conflict, going back and forth between the two networks became a great deal simpler.

There was another intangible I should mention. There seemed to be differences in approach and attitude among the actors from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago probably reflecting the personalities of those cities. I admit to hating New York from my first visit in 1925 to the present but I don't think that colors my assessment of an acting style. Actors there seemed to adopt a presentation that was keyed into the genre of legitimate theater. Generalizing is dangerous yet it seems to me that radio actors there took a more "dramatic" attack with more projection and a quick tempo. Actors in Los Angeles tended to play more in the style of motion picture performance which took advantage of the microphone and the technique of the close-up. In my opinion that yielded a more realistic performance. Actors coming to the West Coast from Chicago frequently brought with them a tendency to play everything in the manner of a soap opera where a single word went a long way.

If my theory is correct, it makes sense that a director coming to Los Angeles from New York would be inclined to cast actors whom he knew and had worked with before. When that happened it partially explained some of the reasons why actor A worked for B and never for C. Otherwise, I suppose he was just the wrong colored necktie.


Harry Bartell maintains that his major accomplishment as a professional actor for forty years was to survive with his mind, morale and marriage intact.

Born in 1913 in New Orleans, he grew up in Houston and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University in 1933. After a stint at Harvard Business School and a couple of years forced labor in a department store he moved to Hollywood and stayed there for the next fifty-one years. Three seasons at the Pasadena Playhouse led to work in 185 radio series and 77 TV series plus a dozen or so properly forgettable motion pictures. He passed away on February 26, 2004.

These columns were originally written for the Internet Old-Time Radio Digest.