Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Attention, Mr. and Mrs. United States . . .

Walter Winchell isn't quite known to have inspired the ancient crack about your not requiring enemies with friends such as he. But he began with his near-invention of keyhole journalism cauterised in what his biographer Neil Gabler called "his already well-defined puckish persona," first in newspapers and then on radio.

In due course, that puckish persona became the overcoat worn by a pusillanimous punk to his critics. He became caricaturable for his drumroll speaking style and his image as a squashed-hat, rumple-coated reporter, who was in too big a rush to get the story (or his trademark telegraph key striking) first to bother much about getting it right. As a gossip that made him merely a ribald nuisance. As a serious newshawk it made him dangerous, even when he stood on the side of the angels.

And yet . . . and yet . . . there were those spare lucid moments when Winchell slowed down, toned down, removed his eye from the keyhole, and played it sober. If an enemy had not been lanced or a friend laminated, it didn't matter in such isolated hours. In these, Winchell sounded what his enemies would have called impossible and even his friends would have called improbable. He sounded human.

I take you now to the editorial room of The Jergens Journal, as the announcer so often trumpted Winchell's most successful radio program every Sunday night. You may indeed consider something not quite right. Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and All the Clippers and Ships at Sea have been kept out of the loop this night, for the first three minutes and twenty seconds, anyway. He paused often, too. Some of the pauses were pregnant enough that the babies might have been septuplets.

WINCHELL: Attention, Mr. and Mrs. United States. The Russian delegation has lost its fight to have the United Nations pass a resolution to jail all warmongers. Instead--the United Nations agreed to denounce and condemn warmongering.

What is a . . . warmonger? Was Paul Revere--a warmonger? History doesn't call him that, although if Paul hadn't made his ride that night, in 1775, there certainly wouldn't have been any fighting. There wouldn't have been any United States, either.

The rest of this, ladies and gentlemen, is respectfully addressed to Mr. Trygve Lee, and the others of the United Nations, who merely, every Monday morning, request copies of my remarks of the night before. It is very important to me that they . . . listen carefully . . . because I may be denounced and condemned by the United Nations for what I will now say.

Your Excellencies, and members of the U.N. assembled at Lake Success. When did I stop being a reporter and an American and become a warmonger? If some potential enemy or unfriendly foreign visitor is planning to hurt my country from the air, or underground, and I know it, should I forget it, or risk being held up for scorn and public ridicule by you of the United Nations?

You may say to me, "No, don't forget it, just send what you have along to Washington. To someone you know in Congress, the Senate, the White House, the State Department, or the Department of Justice. But Walter, don't get so excited, and frighten the people of forty-eight states by telling them . . . the truth."

Well, Your Excellencies, I guess you'd better start practising . . . your very first warmonger condemnation. Because I am going to tell what I hear and know to the American people, and not to anybody in official Washington. I'm tired, and I'm done taking the five minute bath at four o'clock every morning, New York to Washington train without sleep, to report things against the security of our country. I did that for a dozen years. And I tell you, most of the time nothing ever came of it, because . . . there are too many men and women in and out of the White House, the State Department, Congress, and the Department of Justice, who are either left, right, or indifferent. Therefore, I shall continue to report directly to the people, and let the people take it from there.

Mr. and Mrs. North and South America, and all the ships at sea, is this news, or warmongering?

SFX: [rapid telegraph keying].

WINCHELL: Let's go to press . . .

From there Winchell returned as gradually to his customary rat-a-tat delivery as Winchell could, something like trotting up short steps before running at full speed. An American admiral told a U.N. magazine the Soviet Union now had actual or alleged bacteriological/biological weapons, and the Soviets were preparing to make then-undivided Korea undividedly Communist within a month. The State Department was concerned for Polish and Yugoslav culture representatives touring the United States; the Swedes bet on such an economic horse as to need American help to fill Soviet orders. Molotov told Russians The Bomb was no longer a secret, Zakalov told a COMINTERN audience in Belgrade the U.S. still held the atomic monopoly, and both proved no Soviet monopoly on tall tales. And if Russian students really believed the sun should be renamed for Stalin because Stalin was the sun, the question before Winchell's house was, "Sun of a what?"

Five minutes shape-shifting the world yet again. Life in 1947, through the eyes that once sought no revelation more enlightening than who on Broadway was pffft! or who in Hollywood was infanticipating with whom. Winchell had been seduced by and a quasi-populist for Franklin Roosevelt but rebuked and mocked by Harry Truman. He began devolving from a puckish Peek's Blab Boy (a self-description, from his very first radio broadcast as a host) to a punkish puncher, the scold losing his slim enough distinction between political and personal wars regardless of which he happened to enlist.

Winchell's radio ratings had long enough been "an almost infallible index of how nervous we all are," as influential New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby wrote. (Crosby had once said people told him often enough that listening to Winchell tied to "a definite feeling of guilt.") "When the country is worried Winchell's [rating] soars; when it relaxes it drops."

But there was buried a single sensible shard that shunted the schtick to the side. And for one night in 1947, at least, its mortician allowed it to speak from the dead, allowing character to interrupt his caricature.


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