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Struts and FretsBy Harry Bartell
On Sylvester Gross
There is no doubt that my inauguration into the world of dramatic radio caused quite a splash. It is only coincidental that I
was the splashee.
What happened was this: somewhere along the line I had met Sylvester Gross, the chief announcer at station KPRC in
Houston. Sylvester was a fascinating guy. He had a beautiful, rich voice and usually a marked stammer, but with a
microphone in front of him he could ad lib or read copy for an hour and a half and never miss a beat. One of the perks for
me was going with Sylvester to the Hollywood Club in Galveston which had very lenient ideas about Prohibition and
gambling but hired bands like Phil Harris and the Dorsey Brothers. Sylvester did the live remotes. And the club provided
I was in college at Rice but my real interest was as producer-director-and naturally star of dramatic productions in the
theater, or social hall as it was sometimes called. These were honest-to-goodness plays using Samuel French scripts
although I can't remember corresponding with them about royalties. We had sets and lights with coffee can spotlights and
Sylvester played in a couple of these and since he had seen me in action decided to include me in a new radio program he
was starting. MGM sent out tabloid radio versions of their current productionssort of a Reader's Digest treatment of a
ninety minute film. I can't remember the title of my first effort but I have a vague memory of it starring Nigel Bruce
among others. If that is true it is really ironic that I should meet him fifteen years later. The actors were paid with tickets
to the movie: 25 cents.
KPRC studios at that time were on the top floor of the Shell Building. Rehearsals went swimmingly, "British" accents
and all (I wish I had a recording of those Texanized British accents) and we had gotten almost to the end of the dress
rehearsal when the crisis popped up. The whole plot hinged on the poison in the scotch and soda. Soda meant siphon:
seltzer bottle. We didn't have one and we were about ten minutes to air time. The director-announcer-soundman-star, Mr.
Gross, started to panic.
As the former proprietor of a sidewalk soda water stand I suggested that if we had a bottle of Coca-Cola we could punch a
hole in the top and shake it to make the necessary fizz. Sylvester dashed to the elevator, down the twenty-odd floors to the
newsstand in the lobby and returned triumphantly with a bottle of Coke, punched a hole in the top with an ice pick and we
hit the air right on schedule.
As the climactic moment with the scotch and soda approached, Sylvester and I were playing on opposite sides of a ribbon
mike. He had his script on a music stand so that he could hold the Coke bottle in one hand and the glass in the other.
While reading his lines he started vigorously shaking the bottle with his thumb over the hole in the top. He must have
built up about a thousand pounds of pressure. When the magic moment arrived, while following the script carefully, he
lifted his thumb, held up the glass, missed the glass, hit the microphone, hit me in the eye on the other side of the
It becomes a little vague after that. We got off the air. The engineer may have been deafened for life. I had my clothes
cleaned. And I was now a Radio Actor.
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.