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Struts and FretsBy Harry Bartell
The influence of my mentor Sylvester Gross extended all the way to Los Angeles and it is a very fortunate thing that it
did. When all the glowing notices and introductions from Houston had failed to impress the Hollywood moguls and I was
toiling away at the Pasadena Playhouse I used my last intro. I went to see Jack Gross, Sylvester's older brother. Jack was
either Program Director or Sales Manager, I can't remember which, at KEHE the Blue Network outlet in Los Angeles.
I say that as though one just hopped over to Los Angeles from Pasadena but it wasn't quite that simple. This was before
two things: a car and a freeway. I didn't have access to either. One reason was that there was no freeway. The Arroyo
Freeway from Pasadena to Los Angeles was the first in Southern California but it didn't open until several years later. In
1937 the pilgrims made their tortuous way through the metropolises of Eagle Rock and Glendale by car or took The Red
Car, an interurban trolley to downtown LA. Then there was another trolley to Vermont and First streets where the
combined facilities KFI and KEHE were located. Later, but before we were married, Bev and I did form a partnership. She
provided the purchase funds and I managed the upkeep on the car we bought for $75. It was a 1930 Model A Ford touring
car we naturally named The Bathtub. There was no top. It worked fine until the rains came. Then, discretion became the
better part of valor and we traded it in for a 1931 Model A Ford coupe. It cost $150 but we got our original $75 for the
Bathtub in the trade-in. When I went to New York we sold the coupe to a friend for $75 because Bev didn't drive. For the
next 63+ years if we went anywhere by car I did the driving. I was used to it. When I grew up in Houston, Texas didn't
require a driving license and I started driving at age 13.
It was still trolley time when I first went to see Jack Gross. Jack was very kind. He introduced me to a man named Howard
Esary who was one of the associates at Allied Advertising Agency, a local outfit which had offices about a block away
from the station. At this stage of my life I was still possessed of a marked Texas accent. Falling back on it years later on
Gunsmoke was quite an asset but at the time stage directors kept insisting that the word was not "keeyow" it was "cow"
and things like that. At the moment it was a handy tool. I was hired (a wonderful word) to do spot announcements for a
furniture outfit calledand you have to believe thisThe Dixie Hospitality Store. I was paid $2.00 a session and I was
now a professional actor. Needless to say, this was before AFRA.
And there was more. Howard was also involved in making electrical transcriptions of dramatic programs. They were
recorded at the Macgregor studio and the process was really something. So was Mr. Macgregor. He had a certain reticence
about paying actors who worked there. The recording turntable was big. The recordings themselves were done by a stylus
head cutting grooves in a big plate of wax at the speed (if I remember correctly) of 33 1/3 rpm. Each wax plate was about
an inch or so thick and polished absolutely smooth. After the sound was recorded on wax it was transferred to a metal
negative and pressings were made from that for distribution. The first show that I did had a large cast. There must have
been about ten of us including at least two names I remember: Jack Mather and Bob Lemond. The reading went smoothly
and the recording went smoothly with one small exception. It ran 14 minutes and 45 seconds. We had 15 seconds more
show than we were supposed to have. That meant hauling out a new wax and starting over again . We were going great
guns until one of the actors blooped. New wax. Next time we went perfectly for 14minutes and 15 seconds before a
different actor fouled up. There was a little harsh language from the director, Mr. Esary, and we started again. By now a
sort of hysteria had attacked the cast. Different actors made mistakes and everybody got a little tense. It took fourteen tries
before we finally got a clean recording. Through it all the recorder, Paul Quan, was wonderful. We ran out of clean waxes
and had to stop while they were resurfaced. He never made a complaint. At the end of the day we had each earned $2.50
including rehearsal time. That was very good because with a large cast like that the budget sometimes offered only $2.00
Electrical transcriptions had an important place in my life. Years later, when I was on staff at KWKW an ET was involved
in a big decision. During the time I had been with the station I had some differences of opinion with the owner. I think he
was a candy manufacturer and the radio station was either a hobby or a tax deduction. This was 1943, right smack in the
middle of World War II and there were warnings all over about loose lips and other dangerous statements. It was my job to
open the station at 6 or 6:30 in the morning and after making a station identification, connect to Radio Central. That was a
broadcasting center that could simultaneously release programs by wire to the small local stations in the Los Angles area.
We certainly qualified under the small heading. I don't know the exact wattage of our signal but the studios were in the
basement of the Pasadena Athletic Club and I think we could be heard all the way to the top floor. Radio Central was very
big on "religious" programs most of which featured frequent requests for funds to keep their great mission moving forward.
One morning the speaker lumped Russia with Germany and Japan as beastly enemies of the US of A which was all right
except for the fact that Russia was our ally. I put a disclaimer on the program: Opinions expressed on the preceding
program are not necessarily those of the management.
I didn't think anybody listened to those broadcasts but at least one person did. I had hardly switched programs when the
phone rang and some madman was screaming about the idiot who had said that bit about "not necessarily." I allowed as
how it was station policy and he should speak to the manager later. Which he did. Apparently at some length. Which
involved a conference with the manager. It has been so long ago that I don't recall the owner's name but I do remember
that he gave me the impression of being politically somewhere right of Genghis Khan. I retained my job by pointing out
that even if he agreed with the "pastor" that it wasn't expedient to put station sponsors in that camp.
It was some weeks later that I was on an afternoon shift, sitting in the small announce booth. I was almost listening to the
electrical transcription I had started but was essentially just sitting. As I mentioned, the studios were in the basement. The
announce booth was placed directly in front of the parking lot. This also made the air conditioner strategically located to
access exhaust fumes. Before the end of the ET I had gone into the owner's office and given two weeks notice.
It was all very exhilarating to have taken advantage of Mr. Lincoln's Emancipation Act but on the way home it occurred to
me that my three-year job as a DJ had ended; I had terminated my connection with an advertising agency and actually I was
without a source of income. This was in July and our baby was due in November. Great planning! How do I tell Bev?
When I got home, I kissed my wife and then in a very bright, cheerful voice said, "Guess what!" And she said, "You quit
your job." Aren't women wonderful?
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.