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Struts and FretsBy Harry Bartell
Among those of whom I stand in awe- people who understand computers, golfers who don't slice, men and women who
can repair automobiles- are those high on the list who can write dramatic material for any medium. The idea of turning out
a half-hour drama weekly is simply overwhelming, especially when limited by the confines of a given format.
John Dunkel, who wrote a great number of shows especially on CBS said, "It's really very simple. You put your hero up
in a tree and throw rocks at him." thereby creating tension and conflict which is the essence of drama. Of course, the
"rocks" could be either mental or physical. It isn't really that simple. But when it is done right the result is something
Any radio show, however skilled the personnel, is going to come up with a clinker or two. The idea is to keep from
having clinkers every week. No matter the sentimental ties one might have about the shows of his youth, a lot of them
were pretty dreadful. They were loaded with contrived plots, cardboard characters and dialogue never spoken by homo
sapiens. But, to the actor running into a script in which the characters really talked to each other in situations with a sense
of reality it was a joy. Except for shows like Lux where movie stars were involved, writers were seldom seen at rehearsals
or broadcast but after a while it was possible to make fairly accurate guesses about the author of the script without looking
at the title page. A script for a given show was going to include the regular characters, usually in the same setting, but the
"feel" of the show was different with different writers. A good example is Gunsmoke. John Meston had a tendency to
write hard-edged, gritty scripts. Les Crutchfield provided a very real sense of time and place. Kathleen Hite emphasized
human contacts, particularly with women.
With Dragnet however, there was less room for variation. I can't recall whether Dick Breen wrote the first story but most
of the early scripts were done by Jim Moser, supervised closely, as you can well imagine by Jack Webb. He set a mold
which was comparatively rigid and when former sound man John Robinson took over the writing, the change was not too
noticeable. The limitations of language and style were firmly established and woe to the transgressor who wandered afield.
Anthology shows imposed fewer restrictions. Many of the programs were adaptations from other sources and original
stories didn't suffer the comparison test with last week's script. Before the term "hyphenate" came in vogue there were
directors or producers who also wrote scripts for their shows. In both cases I think Bill Robson and Jack Johnstone were
better directors than writers and yet Robson adapted Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge for Escape, and Johnstone wrote
Johnny Dollar. I have a soft spot for Occurrence. It was my first Escape (1947) and one of my favorite performances. I
can't very well knock Johnny Dollar. I did the show well over 50 times and that many checks have a tendency to cast a
rosy glow over the scripts. But, in the cold hard perspective of 50 years later, the show was formulaic, carried by the
personality of the leading character.
Another, perhaps stranger addition to this group was Cy Howard who, like Harfield Weedin, the nominal producer of Dear
Abby, had worked in the advertising department of a Houston newspaper. How Cy became (a) a comedy writer, (b) a
producer-director, (c) the progenitor of My Friend Irma and Life With Luigi I don't know. He was always immaculately
dressed, including pipe, and exuded the air of a lot of money which may or may not have been true. Cy was one of the few
people I have known who could swagger sitting down. In retrospect, I think he was not the most popular director at CBS
but there is no denying two hit shows that were definitely his creations. I never got over the irony of casting J. Carrol
Naish, an Irishman, as the prototype Italian but who is to argue with success?
Cy Howard brings up the subject of comedy writers as a species. I always got the impression that those I knew had a
lifetime commitment to topping the other guy's joke. If they were sitting around in a group and one told a truly hilarious
story someone else might emit a flat-toned "Funny." If the joke turned out to be a real howler, the response might be
"Funnee!" As an actor, I was nearly always bothered that the high comedy I had known in the theater so seldom appeared
in radio which is a stupid attitude from someone whose heroes were Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.
Comedy writers as a group had one common enemy: censorship. The networks maintained that there was no such thing.
However, tucked away somewhere in the back rooms, each had a department called Continuity Acceptance. CA's job was
to prevent any incipient blush among the tender listeners. They were most diligent in their efforts to maintain moral
rectitude, finding threatening words or phrases in lines that the average civilian wouldn't. A woman might be expecting but
she couldn't be "pregnant."The nit-picking was sometimes amusing but mostly ridiculous. In hindsight, most of the
"objectionable" material was so inoffensive that one might wonder what all the fuss was about. Cuts from Continuity
Acceptance were a natural target for comedy writers. Historically, jokes have tended toward the ribald, at least from the
times of the ancient Greeks, and the trend continues. One technique that was frequently employed to protect a line or
phrase was to precede it with a joke that was so blatant the writer knew it would be cut. In the haste to cut the offender, the
next line would be overlooked. It didn''t always work but it was successful often enough to give it a try.
There was another form of censorship exercised by the advertising agencies. The aim was to protect their shows from
possible publicity for a competitor. This applied all types of programs For example, on a show advertising Chesterfield
cigarettes a man might be "fortunate" but not "lucky". If a show sponsor happened to be selling shaving cream, a character
could not use an electric shaver. It is difficult now to place one's self in the social attitudes of half a century ago. If the
protectors of audience sensibilities then were suddenly exposed to some of today's television programs, the result would be
I don't know to what extent-if any- writers were typecast. I always looked forward to shows written by Dave Friedkin and
Morton Fine because I knew the dialogue would be bright and colorful. Frank Burt and Robert Libbott were great story
tellers. Milton Geiger's scripts were always soundly structured. Gil Doud was great for hip dialogue. I am not a criticfor
which I am duly grateful. These impressions are from the perspective of one who is given some words and told to translate
them into people. Only once was I on the other side of the page.
Vic Perrin and I wrote two scripts for Gunsmoke. It was rather late in the series run and a lot of plot ideas had been used
up. We submitted story lines to Norm Macdonnell and they were accepted. We worked the plot lines together and then he
wrote dialogue for one, I the other. Then we exchanged scripts for each to correct. I can't remember how Vic and I became
friends. He was an announcer at ABC before he started acting. Our voices were frequently confused although I never
thought we sounded alike. When we worked the same shows he always maintained that the guy who read first got to
choose the voice range, high or low, in which to play his character. Over the years we became more personally involved.
One of his weddingshe was married three timeswas held in the living room of our house.
Vic was not adept at finding names for his characters. When we were laying out plots he called everybody in the story
"Winthrop". Many years later, 1989, we had moved to Oregon and I hadn't seen Vic for a long time. In June, my wife was
recovering from hip surgery in a hospital in Santa Barbara. I left her to go to Los Angeles to record introductions for a new
Sherlock Holmes collection and returned early evening. When I arrived at the hospital I was told to call Vic Perrin at once,
it was very important. It was about 9 o'clock when I got to a phone. Vic's wife answered. She brought the phone to Vic.
He said, "Hi, Winthrop! I wanted to say goodbye." His voice was slurred and his speech slow but he managed to tell me
that he and Rita had finally managed to take a cruise in Europe and he had a wonderful time. And then he said, "I can't
talk any more. I'm awfully tired..." He went into a coma that Saturday night. On Tuesday he was gone.
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.