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Page Last

Sat, Feb 28, 2004
01:46:45 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 Questions

There have been some questions and suggestions for Struts and Frets that I'll try to answer here - in no particular order, but it might be a good idea to start at the beginning.

It probably started at a campfire at a summer camp in the Berkshires, my being an actor, that is. I was 11. Possibly it was earlier. I have vague memories of reciting a Thanksgiving poem in the first grade and hearing audience applause. Although I had forsaken the piano because practice was involved, I had become fairly adept with a ukulele and that was the instrument of choice at the campfire. Before my voice changed I sang well and my portion of the entertainment at the campfire was the song Alabamy Bound. The singing led to parts in camp shows and that was it. I had found something I really liked to do. Later, after the Drama Club at Rice University and little theater in Houston, I discovered at Harvard Business School that finance and accounting were things I did not like to do. I was graduated from Rice in June 1933. The banks had closed in panic the previous March. Fortunately, my father ran out of money and I couldn't go back to HBS; but unfortunately, that meant I had to get a job. Two years later I had saved $1500 so I took off for California.

After several months of not immediately becoming a motion picture star, I landed at the Pasadena Playhouse courtesy of a radio actor named Berry Kroeger. This was a revelation: a whole world devoted to theater. It was really two units, a producing unit working on four stages, and a school. I came in as a player, cast by audition readings which were held every Sunday evening. It didn't take long to discover that discipline and hard work were demanded and that there was more to acting than sheer instinct.

I take no pride in the fact that I never had an acting lesson, per se. The lessons I learned came from watching, listening , making mistakes and trying to correct them. The directors at the Playhouse were professional actors and directors, most of them working between assignments in film or on Broadway, some teaching when not directing. In the theater, the director usually plays a large part in the creation of a character, especially with regard to pacing within a scene, intonation and color with relation to other actors. In radio, the actor was almost always entirely on his own. Unless he hit a discordant note, the director seldom gave him anything to do with character creation. His time was spent mainly in coordinating voice, sound. and music into a given broadcast period. The Playhouse directors' names were well known at the time. The only one widely recognizable now is Raymond Burr - young and thin if that can be imagined. In three years time I worked in 45 plays, the average run being one or two weeks. Later, when I spent an unsuccessful year banging on doors in New York, I discovered that that experience didn't mean a thing. One wasn't an actor if he had worked west of the Hudson River.

East or West, it is my belief that every serious actor works basically the same way. He does a survey of the character he is to play. How old is he? Where is he from? What was his family like? How does he move? From the lines he has to speak what kind of a voice might he have? Is he quiet? Boisterous? Likeable? Obnoxious? And then he figures out how to best coordinate these features into his own physical limits. On stage, and to a lesser degree in film, props, costume and makeup can help him. In radio, the audience does a large part of the work for him. Even so, the experience of stage training in selection of the elements of character construction are invaluable and they translate easily into radio.

One of the holes in my education as an actor is that I never had voice training. I had no trouble with enunciation, even when using different dialects. But I had to learn through trial and error about projection. Apparently that has no great importance these days when the microphone does everything, but when I worked in the theater, and this still holds true in theater schools, the actor had to project his voice so that he could be heard in the last row of the house. I can do it but I can't explain it. It is not shouting. I think it has something to do with placing the sound in the front of the mouth plus breathing from the diaphragm. Projection also became a topic of argument about Jack Webb and Dragnet. In a normal conversation there is almost no projection needed and that's the way he wanted his dialogue to sound.

The actor is really a three-part mechanism. There is the physical being, the character he is playing, and the mental control department that listens to and watches what is occurring during performance. It is that word "listen" that is most important. Some actors always sound "acty" or "dramatic". Usually that happens when they are not paying any attention to the dialogue before their own; they are simply waiting for a cue to speak. To bring a sense of reality to a performance he must take into account what the preceding line actually said. It may vary considerably from what happened in rehearsal and he must adjust accordingly. He should also listen to himself offstage as well. What does he sound like when he is tired, happy, excited? If he knows that , he uses that type of reading when the character experiences the same moods. And experience helps, not only in performing but in living as well. The more one learns by simply being there, the more he has to draw upon as an actor.

Actors in OTR came from all kinds of background. Most of those who succeeded had professional experience of some kind--vaudeville, theater, musical shows, even burlesque. There is a natural tendency to carry a style of play over into another medium but adjustment to the demands of a microphone and a studio gradually made changes. Then too, the events of daily existence as the people grew older had to have some effect on performance. As their personalities changed the way they worked changed.

There were some constants. Through the 1940's and '50's there were approximately 3000 member of AFRA (American Federation of Radio Artists) in Los Angeles. It was estimated that maybe 250 made a living solely from radio. This meant that job hunting in one form or another was a way of life. It was frustrating and demeaning and all too many nice men and women spent lots of time chasing a dream that never came true. Those who managed to find comparatively steady employment were always afraid it would stop. And it sometimes did. I don't think many actors ever gave any thought to retirement. They were too occupied with trying to stay employed.

The Jack Bennys and the Bob Hopes made thousands or tens of thousands per broadcast. Some were paid a lump sum to produce their own shows. Film folk who showed up as guest stars did all right as well. The freelance actor was almost always paid union scale which varied with the length of the program, the extent of the show's release, and whether it was sustaining or commercial. I can't recall exactly, but I seem to remember that a half hour commercial full network show paid about $75 and a sustainer $35. These are just ballpark figures but they indicate that one had to string a number of these together in order to support a family. There were a few plusses: there were no agents involved; and the actor was paid the same amount whether he played a bit part or a starring role. There were exceptions. A few players were contracted or able to demand more than scale, but not many.

I have been asked how actors marked their scripts. Some didn't - except to put their names on the front page so they could identify it. The script form looked like this:

Actor: This is a line of dialogue.

Second actor: Next line of dialogue

Sound: Footsteps

Music: Up and under

I put a ring around my character name and extended it to indicate the beginning and end of the speech. Some underlined their character name and every line of their speech. Some went berserk with word underlines, accented words, indicated pauses and other aids that made the script look, to me, completely unintelligible.

It goes without saying that no matter how the script was marked, the actor was supposed to say what was written in the dialogue section and there could be all sorts of input before he ever saw a script. If there was any sponsor influence on how a character was played, it was never apparent in the studio unless the character appeared in a commercial. Sponsors, having money, automatically became experts on line reading, thus making the performer sound like an idiot. It is quite conceivable that sponsors censored scripts before they ever appeared in the studio, but that was the province of the producer, director and writer, not the 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.