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Page Last

Sat, Feb 28, 2004
01:46:11 PM EST

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

In Celebration:
Harry Bartell

Struts and Frets
By Harry Bartell

On Auditions

The word "Audition" is enough to strike terror into the heart of the bravest performer. It is a double-edged sword which can either literally open the door to a new career or kill a dream and leave the actor muttering imprecations on the idiots who don't appreciate his talents. The only people who are not adversely affected are those who have lots of money in the bank and all kinds of future employment commitments. The solution that worked for me was to consider my appearance as a donation under the heading of public relations, knowing that I would not get the part so I couldn't be disappointed.

Actually, there were at least three kinds of auditions involving the radio actor. The so-called open auditions were held by some producers or directors at which the actor could, by appointment, come into a studio and present a few minutes of his own material at the microphone. This allowed private rehearsal and polish but also contained a booby trap. If the producer was simply doing a talent search there was no problem. If he was looking for comedy and the auditioner had very dramatic material he might just as well have stayed at home. The answer to this problem, of course, was to do everything from Aristophanes to O'Neill in a minute and a half.

The second variety of audition was for a certain part in a script. This usually consisted of a short scene with another actor, or a long speech alone. If the director had a specific style in mind he might give the actor a quick idea of what he was looking for. On the other hand, I have known from personal experience that sometimes the director wasn't sure of how the character should be played and would listen to half a dozen actors' readings to see which he liked best and then cast accordingly.

Then there was the audition in which the actor had been cast and the whole show was a trial balloon for the network or a sponsor. This was the least stressful for the actor. The nail-biting in this case was done by writing and production personnel. Persistence could pay off. Gunsmoke was auditioned twice with different scripts and cast before it finally went on the air.

Weird things could happen as a by-product of an audition. I read for a producer who had done Lux Radio Theater but was now on another project. The result was unusual. He called me aside after I read and explained that I wasn't right for the part but that he would give me a note to take to his successor at Lux which was produced by J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Sure enough, I received a letter that was a rave review of my audition saying that I was the best juvenile voice he had heard in years. I was already mentally cashing the checks when I took the letter to JWT. I never worked for J. Walter Thompson the entire time I was in Radio.

There were a couple of auditions in which I have more than a passing interest and both of them were freaks. The first occurred in 1945 when I was on my way to a rehearsal for a show at CBS and there was a strange sight in the foyer.Usually there were a few actors hanging out there either waiting to snag a passing producer for a job or explaining why somebody else's performance the night before was simply awful. This time, the foyer was crowded with announcers. You could tell that they were announcers because they all wore suits and looked at each other suspiciously. I had never seen a herd of announcers all gathered in one place especially announcers with big names so I asked what was happening and was told that they were auditioning for Sherlock Holmes. It was just a matter of idle curiosity that I asked who was doing the audition, figuring that there might be some work there in the future. The answer was Edna Best. I liked Edna. I had worked with her on programs in which she was an actress and had great respect for her ability. She was never as well known as her former husband Herbert Marshall, but she was fun and funny.

So, on a whim, the next time the secretary came out of the studio to call the next applicant, I asked her if I could duck in quickly to say hello to Edna. She agreed and I tore into the studio, walked up to the microphone and said, " Hi, Edna. I haven't seen you for a long time and just wanted to say hello." And I started to leave. From the control booth she said, "Aren't you going to read?" I told her no that I hadn't been called. She said, "As long as you're here grab a script." Which I did, read the copy cold, and the next day I was the announcer for Sherlock Holmes.

Sixteen years later I was in big trouble. In 1959 radio was taking to its deathbed, but I had a very good year in television. In 1960 there were back-to-back strikes with Screen Actors Guild and The Writers Guild or the Directors Guild. Whichever it was I was not working. When television production started up again I found out that parts I had been playing were going to name film actors and I couldn't buy a job. I had reached a pretty high level of franticity when I came home one day and Bev said, "You won't believe this, but you had a call for a radio audition tomorrow at CBS." Now I knew this was an error of some sort because there was no radio at that point.

Whatever it was, I figured it would be a recorded voice test and I ambled over to CBS dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. I ran into a replay of the Sherlock scene with all the suits and big names and immediately knew that I was in big trouble. I was introduced to a little lady done up in mink who turned out to be Dear Abby. We recorded some copy. She didn't read very well, the material was stiff and I had already written this off as a very poor afternoon. She told me somewhat later that she didn't think much of the audition and I don't know to this day why I was hired.

We worked together for twelve years.

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.