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Page Last

Sat, Feb 28, 2004
01:47:20 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 Fame

Fame, for an actor, generally has about the same life expectancy as an ice cream cone. Mention the names E.H. Southern and Julia Marlowe, Otis Skinner, Joseph Jefferson, Modjeska and you draw blanks. And yet these people filled theaters from New York to the gold rush mining camps in '49. I would venture to say that if you asked most people today to identify motion picture megastar Rudolph Valentino the answer would be that he is a mafia boss, yet more than 26,000 people attended his funeral in 1926. To some extent their present obscurity may be explained on grounds that they lived in the dark ages of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I got a real jolt when I found out that theater majors at college level could not identify Helen Hayes or Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.

The irony of all this is that it is the names of actors who in their time and in their wildest dreams never achieved that kind of renown are known and treasured today. The reason is obvious and two-fold. There is a product known as magnetic tape and a species known as collectors. Of course a play in a theater has a life of only hours and all the words written about it later can't really recreate it. The Paul Munis and the Louise Rainers won Oscars in motion pictures but films and projectors were expensive and not always available to the public. It is somewhat better now with the VCR but I am not aware of any 20,000 unit VCR collections. Although the theater is still very much alive with its main creative thrust in the regional playhouse; and there is still an outpouring of films, most of which shouldn't have been poured out, the entertainment medium with the shortest life span of its own has turned out to be the best historical file of all. Let's hear it for radio.

It is difficult to retain any kind of perspective on the radio I knew in view of the current approach to listening or collecting. We never dreamed that anyone would collect what we were doing just as we could not spend time analyzing one show too heavily because there was another that demanded our immediate attention. The only connection we had with tape is the sort of thing that Joe Kearns once did. He approached an actor, holding about ten inches of quarter-inch tape in his hand, handed over the tape and said, "I thought you'd want this. It's the fluff you made on the show last night."

Having a tape or CD in hand makes the listeners a great deal more knowledgeable about the details of a show or a series or a performance than the guy who perpetrated it 50 years ago. Answering some of the questions which I'm asked, I know I sound stupid, but it's the equivalent of my asking what you had for lunch two years ago last Saturday. And the same difficulty occurs when asked the most difficult question of all: "What was it like to work with....?" Within the time restrictions imposed on putting a program together, there was not often an opportunity for a great deal of socializing. It isn't as though the actor had time to leisurely go over religion, politics and sex with the star and in most cases there was no time for sitting around for a bull session, drink in hand. When we did repeat shows, the big name guest stars might have had dinner with the director or his agent but I can't remember any time one said " Hey, let's all go over to the Brown Derby for dinner." It was a good chance that the actor might not have been able to pay for the dinner even if invited.

The ultimate judgment always came down to the question of whether the guest star was any good. If the show fell apart every actor looked bad. The radio actor, especially as a beginner, couldn't afford to look bad because he always had in mind being called for another show in the future. If a movie star loused up, he was paid his $2,500 and went back to films. The actor received his $75 and started looking for another job. The only way he could audition for some of the advertising agencies which at one time controlled radio shows was to march up to the director-producer's office, say a most cheery "Good Morning" and ask the secretary to notify her boss that he was going to be on a show that night and ask that said boss listen. If he had worked for the director before but not recently it was the same march but a different message: "I just wanted to say hello." Which translated into why the hell hasn't he called me?

With all the satisfaction that radio afforded me, knowing that I had taken some marks on a piece of paper and made them into a unique human being, I could never overlook the fact that this was a means of making a living. There were no holidays. Radio worked on Sundays and holidays. It made for some tight situations at home when the family had planned an outing and Dad got a call which he couldn't turn down because he never knew when the next one would be and the rent had to be paid. Maybe that, among other reasons, is why almost every actor I knew was divorced. Fame had nothing to do with it.

I have my own personal Hall of Fame. I won't even attempt to name them all because I know I would forget too many. I could never forget Jeannette Nolan. She had the uncanny ability to sound absolutely authentic in whatever part she tackled, even on the screen where she projected the image of a bag lady or a queen with equal ease. In person she was warm and friendly, certainly not beautiful in the classic sense. For one thing she had spent too much time working on a Montana ranch with her husband John McIntire each summer. She had a natural dignity and a built-in kindness. There was also another side to Jeannette. She provided one of the great moments in my life as an actor. We were doing an episode of Crime Classics, Elliott Lewis directing. There was a scene in which the cast was to ad lib off-mike. Each actor had his own approach to that art form. Hans Conried usually said, "Well, here we are at the bottom of a well!" Others used "Hubba, hubba" or "Spinach!" In this case, the ad libs were a bit more organized. It was to be a mob yelling for the release of a prisoner. Jen was standing just behind my right shoulder. While I was shouting "Free him! Free him!" she cut loose in the wonderful old-lady voice of hers with "Hang the son of a bitch!" I fell apart.

Virginia Gregg was a joy to work with. It seems incredible that she started out as a bass viol player and I don't know how she made the transition to the actor she became. For many years, the only record I had of my work was an air check at 78 RPM of a show from 1943 in which we played sweethearts. I still treasure it even if I can no longer play it. Ginny was a giving person and it showed in her performances. Whether she played a shrew or a lover or a killer, when you stood on the other side of a microphone in a scene with her you always felt that she was protecting your performance as well as her own. It made for the kind of interplay that was exciting. In spite of the great strength of her performances Ginny was personally vulnerable to hurts she didn't deserve. The last time I saw her she was quite ill and radio had long since departed When we were comparing experiences she looked at Bev and said, "Yes, but there are the two of you." In spite of being married more than once and having three children I think Ginny never found the twoness she was looking for. But she was one hell of an actor.

I was extremely fortunate to be a part of two ensembles which contained many of the same actors. One was a loose company which played on Gunsmoke and the other on Dragnet. If anyone had a real pride in what he was doing there was always a tension brought on by limited working time no matter how often he faced a microphone. In a way that wasn't all bad. It brought a kind of energy to a performance. At the same time if he knew that he could depend completely on other actors if he got into trouble, it allowed him more freedom to listen to the other characters. And therein lay the secret: to listen. It is one of the hardest things to get over to a beginner. The great ones do more by reacting than they do by acting.

Being involved on a personal friendship basis makes it difficult to form an impartial judgment of an actor's ability. That is why there is nothing here about Elliott Lewis or Bill Conrad. It is much easier fifty years later when you can listen to long-forgotten performances and hear them fresh, frequently without knowing who played what until the end credits. Now I can take off my hat to a bunch which included, among others in no particular order, Larry Dobkin, John Dehner, Sam Edwards, Jack Kruschen, Vic Perrin, Herb Ellis, Ben Wright, Bill Conrad, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, and Lou Krugman.

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.