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Struts and FretsBy Harry Bartell
Radio directors came in an assortment of flavors. Some were exciting to work with; some were mere mechanics. Some
gave the actor a feeling of confidence; some seemed to take the attitude that they were paid to work with actors and would
accept that burden only under the influence of money. I have always felt that there was an element of frustrated actor in
many of them although that would be ridiculous in the case of someone like Elliott Lewis who was a fine director and a
pleasure to work with. On the other hand it might well apply to Dee Engelbach. Dee was a small man with a strong sense
of command. Directing a show from the control booth he had special lighting effects on his position in the center. I can't
attest to this but I have a hunch that he stood on what the film crews refer to as an "apple box", a low, two- foot square
platform. Dee performed cues with gusto, especially if the show was playing in an audience studio. One night he gave an
opening cue that was thrown like a "Hail, Mary" pass into the end zone. It was very effective except that he hit the glass of
the booth window and broke his cue finger.
Bill (William N.) Robson was in love with radio and a great contributor. He never seemed to attain the stature of Norman
Corwin but he was responsible for many program innovations. Even after radio drama was gone Bill was active in the
medium running the Voice of America programs from a closet in the basement of some government building in
Washington. Bill was a master of the mechanics of radio. The first time I worked with him was on an episode of Escape
in 1947, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. He took the script apart almost letter by letter and put it back together with the
greatest precision, paying special attention to the complicated sound. Although he was the starting director of The Man
Called X which was obviously a commercial venture, more importantly he introduced high quality sustaining programs
which added to the luster of CBS. In all fairness I have to note that working with Mr. Robson sometimes involved a
certain ingenuity from the actor. He might spend so much time working with the first act of a show that the only work on
the balance of the script came in the form of a dress rehearsal. Somehow, it always seemed to be all right on the night.
I wish I had had more contact with Norman Corwin. The only radio script I kept besides the one in which my entire role
consisted of a wolf whistle on an Irene Rich commercial was On a Note of Triumph. That was quite an experience. It had
a big cast and a big orchestra and it played twice on VE Day and it was all very exciting. Although my experience with
Norm was limited he displayed a technique which I have never forgotten. We were on the air after what must have been a
troubled dress rehearsal and although I didn't know it we were running very long. Out of the corner of my eye while I was
at the microphone I saw Norman come out of the booth, walk quietly to where I was standing. He reached over and
thumbed through the script I was using, pulled out a page, did the same thing with the other actor I was working with and
walked back to the booth. Now that was a way to make cuts!
Jack Johnstone was a personal friend and that makes judgment of his abilities very difficult, especially since he called me
for 85 appearances on The Man Called X and I don't know how many on the various versions of Hollywood Star
Playhouse. Jack directed in the studio wearing a large set of headphones with his script on a music stand right in the
middle of the action. From this vantage point he had a clear field for cuing the actors, sound, and music. This had more
advantages for Jack than it had for the actors. First of all, he acted out every syllable of the script, not loud enough to be
picked up by the microphone but disconcerting to the actors who heard muffled noises along with the dialogue. His
proximity also presented a physical hazard. He once threw a wild cue and hit the actor right in the nose. Jack, in all the
years I knew him, never displayed any particular knowledge of music but on his master script he would write five or six
musical notes to indicate when he would cue actors or fade music. That he could locate those notes in the midst of a long
music cue with full orchestra was a miracle to me and I never knew another director to do it
Jack was the only director for whom I acted inside a piano. He did a show called Somebody Knows! a sort of forerunner of
TV's Unsolved Mysteries. The show opened with a very mysterioso reading of the show title and the effect was amplified
by the sound of the vibrating strings. So was my head but it was a good effect. It is unfortunate that another Johnstone
project which was really excellent never hit the air. There was a convention of airline pilots in Los Angeles and the guest
of honor was Brigadier General James Stewart. Jimmy had obtained a tape of conversation between the LA tower and the
pilot of a United Airlines flight that was in big mechanical trouble. They couldn't get their landing gear down. While the
airplane was in the air they tried all sorts of things to no effect and the pilot finally brought the airplane in on a belly
landing. It was the first time foam was used on a runway to prevent fire. Stewart played the pilot and I did the dispatcher.
Jack converted the tape into a radio script and it was a beauty. Unfortunately it was played only in the hotel ballroom for
the pilots. However, not all was lost. Years later I was called to do a Johnny Dollar. I played an airline dispatcher in
Alaska and Johnny had to take over the flight of an airplane when the pilot was disabled. But there was trouble with the
plane. Jack had stolen his own dialogue and plot.
Norman MacDonnell was a joy to work with. When I first met him he was a page at CBS. He later became an assistant
director and then a director-producer. He was very quiet but he had a kind of innate courtesy and dignity. Other directors
threw cues. Norm seemed to just let them roll off the ends of his fingers. He had great taste and a wonderful way of
dealing with actors and writers. I have a hunch that it came in handy in working with John Meston who wrote almost all
of the earlier Gunsmoke episodes. John was capable of some bizarre and occasionally very gritty subject matter. Norm
guided actors and sound effects into a whole new channel of reality while maintaining dramatic tension. Characters on
Gunsmoke sounded like people, not actors, because he took the time for them to do it. A character could not cross the
street in two seconds. As a result of this treatment, a Gunsmoke script was about half the length of a Dragnet script which
forced tempo in the other direction. Rehearsals were always easy and fun. There was a feeling of mutual trust among the
personnel on MacDonnell shows and I think it contributed strongly to a sense of unity in the finished product. That feeling
held true on Escape and Fort Laramie as well as Gunsmoke.
It seems that I have spent a large part of my life defending Jack Webb. I guess my defense wasn't really necessary. He did
all right without it. The main bone of contention had to do with the accusation that everyone on Dragnet spoke in the
same monotone and that is patently not true. Jack's Sergeant Friday spoke very rapidly and his voice range is quite
limited. The tempo of Dragnet as a whole was very rapid which means that the actors didn't have the flexibility of choice
they might have had with the same dialogue in another show. The only restriction Jack placed on his actors was that he
didn't want them to project. He felt that brought a false note to what was almost always an intimate setting. If one listens
closely, he will find a great deal of color and variety in the delivery of supporting actors and, in cases where it is called for,
a lot of shouting. It was more of a problem in TV than in radio, but Jack's personal movement and speech was sometimes
very mannered. What was for him quite natural didn't always fit other people at all. We sometimes differed on the reading
of a line, a fact which he was quick to point out. Sometimes I won. Mostly I couldn't argue with his statement: I'm not
saying this is the only way to read the line or even that it is the right way. What I'm saying is that it is the only way to
read the line on this show! End of discussion.
I must include a director named George Allen. Over the period of a year or more he directed two long- forgotten fifteen
minute shows at CBS. One was called It Couldn't Happen and the other was That's A Good Idea. Each contained
several short episodes involving a wide variety of people and I liked working on it which I did almost every Saturday. It
was a great place to discover and experiment with voice doubles and I played all sorts of characters. The general ambience
of the show was a gentle shambles. Despite his own opinion, George was not a great director. One of the regulars on the
show was Lew Merrill. Lew was basically a nice, kindly man but he could get very prickly at times. One day, after he had
stopped after every sentence to give "directions" George made a strategic error. He tried to give Lew a line reading. Lew
flatly refused to read it that way and the atmosphere heated up considerably. In an attempt to smooth things out George
said, "Well directors have to make a living, too". To which Lew replied, "Yes, but they don't have to do it all at one time
and in one place". At any rate, after some time George was promoted to directing The Whistler and I suddenly noticed
that I wasn't getting any casting calls. I went up to his office to inquire about this strange condition and was greeted with
one of the stupidest statements I ever heard. With all seriousness he said, "Well, you're just not the right type for The
Whistler." You can't win 'em all!
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.