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Page Last

Sat, Feb 28, 2004
01:47:09 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 Interpretation

My grandfather was a gentleman of the old school -- the very old school. He was born in New York in 1856, a shocking 147 years ago, and always said that as a boy he had seen the Lincoln funeral train. He and I had no major disagreements until I was about five years old. So far as I have been able to determine, his family came to this country from Cracow which is again in Poland but which seems to have been in almost every country in Europe at one time or another. I can't establish whether he may have accidentally inherited some Prussian genes or whether he was heavily influenced by Erich von Stroheim silent films but there were elements of both in his behavior.

I couldn't provide a comeuppance but my grandmother did. She preceded Superman with the X-ray eyes bit. They played two-handed pinochle or dominoes almost every evening of the more than fifty years that they were married and I think her win-loss percentage was something like 80-20. She had the uncanny ability to know where every card or every tile was located and I often dreamed of sponsoring her in Las Vegas.

But to get to the reason I started this in the first place, Grandpa was always singing bits and pieces of Gilbert and Sullivan shows, not too well as I recall, especially H.M.S. Pinafore. One of his favorites was the line "Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream..." and then there was something about jackdaws strutting in peacocks' feathers. This came to mind in connection with what was intended and what was perceived in the arts.

Presented with a role which he has never read, or seen performed, the actor, in conjunction with the director builds a character piece by piece to present a person who has no particular strengths or weaknesses. That is his version of what the script indicates. Two friends, sitting next to each other in the audience at a performance on Tuesday disagree strongly about what they saw. To one, the character seemed devious, sly, untrustworthy. To the other, he was somewhat dim-witted, pleasant, helpful. Neither of the friends' judgments corresponds to what the actor had in mind. Wednesday night, a man and his wife watch a performance of the same show and decide that the character had no particular strengths or weaknesses. How does this happen?

Anyone who has ever appeared on stage in a production that ran for more than one performance knows that audiences, for some mysterious reason which I have never heard nor seen explained, vary like individuals. Why hundreds of people reacting in concert seem to develop a persona is beyond me but I know it happens. And it is equally true that the actor is going to vary from night to night no matter how disciplined he is or how hard he tries not to. That still does not account for the phenomenon of totally different perceptions of a performance on a given night.

The visual arts are subject to the same variations in perception. Suppose, for example, that as a photographer you are walking along a stream and come across a spot where the light and shadow on a rock makes a pleasing arrangement. You stop and shoot the scene. Some critic will see your print and go into ecstasy over your portrayal of the rushing life force battling against all barriers. Or a splash of color against a white wall looks nice. You shoot it, and the critic decries your promotion of violence in a world already too frequently exposed to violence.

The only conclusion I can draw from these examples is that when it comes to art forms there are no absolutes. It's a case of one man's meat, etc. Each of us sees, hears, and reacts tightly enclosed in a cocoon of self. You play all the parts in the show. You don't like the kind of person the actor is portraying, ergo his performance changes color. You like sexy jokes so Lum and Abner is a dumb show. You like big band music so Bruce Springsteen is just a lot of noise. So, you and I don't really see or hear the same thing because we're not the same person. And, by the same token we are each not the same person over time. As we age, society changes and we change with it, at least to some extent. Vincent van Gogh never sold a picture in his lifetime. His work was considered undisciplined junk. Now some of his so-called minor works sell in the millions. The pictures haven't changed a bit. Perhaps, over time, intention and perception have grown closer together. It may be that the artists and their audiences need that kind of separation in order to understand one another.

If that is true, the newcomer to hearing and collecting Old Time Radio has a distinct advantage. He or she hears a show from a different perspective, unhampered by the personal tastes, experiences, and manners of fifty years ago. Some radio shows stand the test of time. Others don't. It is interesting to speculate on how much a production starting with the same premise would resemble the original if it were done today. Re-creations might approach the original but then we run into the same problem as in the theater: normal variations in the performer and the audience. At any rate, today's listener probably comes closer to being in synch with the intention of the performers than did those listening to the live broadcasts. And, I have one advantage over most of the listeners. I know what the intent was. Now I can tell whether it was achieved.

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.