1943---Just days after he suffers a heart attack on the air---right in the middle of a CBS round-table book discussion, The People's Platform; scrawling (according to radio historian Gerald Nachman) I AM SICK on a slip of paper---Alexander Woollcott, the dandyist (some might have said "elitist" or "smarty-pants spoiled brat" in his early years with The New Yorker) who became a household name with old-time radio's The Town Crier (Mutual, then CBS), dies in New York City at age 56.
It might seem that an elitist like Woollcott was an unlikely radio star, but the flip side of this flowery, cape-wearing Wildean snob was his firmly held belief that, despite his shameless name-dropping, he was a man of the people. Perhaps it was merely another hue in his performer's coat of many colours, but Woollcott was a good enough actor to make audiences buy his populist pose, quite the opposite of his scathing print personality as withering cosmopolitan critic . . .
Woollcott was a one-man show who case his web wide enough to dragoon friends and colleagues from the worlds of theater, literature, society, politics, and films, all of whom considered an invitation to share his microphone an honour. He dropped names in his gabby reports on the Great White Way, but he later produced them in the studio. For anybody on Broadway, at the mercy of Woollcott's whim as New York Times drama critic, a request to appear alongside Woollcott himself amounted to a command performance. At the show's peak, six million people tuned in each week.
---Gerald Nachman, from "Wise Guys Finish First," in Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998; p. 132-133.)
I saw in him a unique personality. He had a quality I felt would appeal to a mass audience.
--William S. Paley, chairman, CBS, as cited by Nachman.
Woollcott is sometimes credited with launching the Marx Brothers as major stars practically overnight, thanks to his glowing review of their early, slapdash stage show, I'll Say She Is, in 1924. The review also launched a lifelong friendship with pantomomist Harpo Marx, who recalled among other things in his memoir (Harpo Speaks) the period in which Woollcott was banned from certain Broadway productions* for a period thanks to his caustic reviews.
He appeared in a number of films in blink-of-an-eye cameos in the 1930s and 1940s, though he is also known to have played a character he inspired, Sheridan Whiteside, in a traveling revue of The Man Who Came To Dinner, in 1940, during the height of his radio career.
A member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table
, he wrote or compiled fifteen books, though there seems to be the sense that his prose style was so overly ornate as to render him unreadable by contemporary audiences. Yet his Shouts and Murmurs
(1922), a collection of his theatre writings, provoked The New Yorker
to give his weekly column the same name, and the magazine revived the name in the 1990s for a section of humour.
Enchanted Aisles (1924) was a second such anthology. Perhaps the books to find are 1946's The Portable Woollcott, which binds up the absolute better of his written work; or, Morris U. Burns's 1980 anthology, The Dramatic Criticism of Alexander Woollcott.
As for his radio work, almost none of it seems to have survived that I've seen, beyond the 6 October 1933 broadcast of The Town Crier
(CBS) and the 31 January 1941 edition of Information, Please
(NBC, on which he was joined by humourist/screenwriter S.J. Perelman). His opening monologue on the surviving Town Crier
shows that, for all his prior image as a self-fashioned upper-echelon dandy, Woollcott had a self-deprecating side, to say nothing of a side that could and did question his earlier elitism to a particular extent:
SFX: (distant ringing hand-held bell)
MALE VOICE (calling out): Hear, ye! Hear, ye!
ANNOUNCER: Alexander Woollcott, the Town Crier. The sound of his bell is the signal that he has taken up his stand once more at the great crossroads of the world. Ladies and gentlemen . . .
ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT: Tonight, your old Town Crier has something on his mind, such as it is. I know it's my job to tell you the news as I note it in the passing crowd; to talk of people I've seen, plays I've just attended, books I've just read, jokes I've just heard. But tonight, for a change, I've a pilgrimmage to propose. I jingle my bell in the hope that all who feel as I do about such things, all who find solace in the remembrance of things past, will go with me. I want to make a little journey in opposition to that mysterious and relentless factor we call time.
The other day, the bottomless pit of learning named H.G. Wells dug up a new book. It's the product of his prophetic soul, entitled The Shape of Things to Come. It's a guess at the future. Now, my soul is not prophetic. Your Town Crier is no gypsy queen like Mr. Wells. You can cross my palm with silver, or even paper, and hear no news of tomorrow. It's hard enough, heaven knows, to see the shape of things past. But we can try.
Tonight I'm inviting you to come along with me back through the years. Of course, you've read what A. Edward Newton of Philadelphia describes as "the greatest little book in the world." It was written ninety years ago, by Mr. Dickens, and is called, A Christmas Carol. If you belong to that vast community which loves the Christmas Carol, I don't have to tell you how that mean old man named Scrooge encountered one night a ghost, the ghost of Christmas past, who took Scrooge back through the years, and through the windows of a miserable schoolhouse let him see, sitting on a bench, the hungry and lonesome little boy he used to be.
Why don't we go on such a journey tonight? Come on. Are you ready? I seem to hear the music of an earlier day, coming faintly down the wind. Are you ready? Let's go. Back through the years. Back through depression, back through the boom, back through that smug time that someone had the impertinence to call "normalcy." Back through the armistice, back through the war. 1915, 1914, 1913. Here we are, December 1913, November, October, twenty years ago this month. Twenty years ago this minute.
Now we are standing, you and I, on a high platform---outside of space, outside of time, onlookers of the universe, watching the world as it used to be. Do you hear the music of that day, the songs we used to sing, the measures to which we danced, the bunny hug and the turkey trot, and the grizzly bear? October nineteen hundred and thirteen.
We're looking through the window of a building in New York. It's the hive from which The New York Times emerges. Up on the third floor, a bespectacled young man of twenty-six is banging away on a typewriter. I hardly recognise him. His name is Alexander Woollcott. He doesn't know much. I look at him and think of all the time he's going to waste in the twenty years ahead, and all the pounds he's going to put on. Things that will be commonplace to any child of 1933 are miles and years outside his knowledge.
Think of the things he knows nothing about, this 1913 reporter. Why, he's never heard of Calvin Coolidge. He's never heard of midget golf. He's never seen or heard a radio. He's seen a Ford, but never heard a Ford joke. To him, it's inconceivable that a civilised nation would ever send bombing planes across its frontier to rain destruction on helpless homes. Why, the poor, incredulous wretch will live to see submarines deliberately sinking passenger ships in mid-ocean. He'll live to see the incompetent rulers of the world out-Herod Herod by killing ten million of the world's youth.
But as you watch him there, in 1913, he doesn't know it. He never dreamed of the transatlantic telephone. He's never seen a concrete road, or played a game of Mah-Jongg, or worked a crossword puzzle. He has a lot to learn, this poor schlemeil. October 1913, October 6. Not merely twenty years ago this month, but twenty years ago this very night. What's happening?
Well, up in Albany, we're impeaching the governor of New York. In a few days, we'll throw him out.** On their way to Boston are two thousand bankers gathering for a convention . . . A mild measure called the Owen Glass bill is on the carpet in Congress. These banker chaps will denounce it as "confiscatory." They'll call it downright socialism, bless their heart.† If we can go to their convention and tell them what's really ahead of them, they'd die of apoplexy.
Up at the Polo Grounds, the first game of the 1913 World Series has just been played. It's the Athletics against the Giants. This afternoon, the Athletics won the first game, 4-2, thanks to Frank Baker, who hit a curve of Marquard's and knocked it for a home run. He brought Eddie Collins in, too.
On the other side of the world, in the Russian town of Kiev, the Beilis trial is on.†† It's another chapter in the ancient story of the Jews, a chapter which some of us have thought of as closed in the Middle Ages. Here in America we shake our heads and say, "But what can you expect of darkest Russia?"
Who can dream, on this 1913 night, that twenty years later an ultramodern country, under the spell of a mean neutrotic, will revert to such barbarism as poor old Russia never dreamed of? But over in England, England that was when Russia and Germany were not, England that will be when they no longer exist, over in England the 1913 gossips are saying that Sir Rufus Isaacs will be made Lord Chief Justice. And the gossips are right.
While we're in England, let's look around us. What's this that's been going on down at Wimbledon? Why, the Davis Cup has just been won by a young Californian named McLaughlin. The English are a good deal upset by this. They say it isn't fair to serve as hard a ball as McLaughlin does. They say it isn't cricket. And, of course, when you come right down to it, it isn't. It's tennis. Up in London, an American mining engineer whose work has carried him to many parts of the world has now taken a house in Bruton Street and settled down as a resident of England. He intends to spend the rest of his life there. But he is miscalculating. Something will happen to prevent it. His name is Herbert Hoover . . .
From there, Woollcott ("sometimes known as Dorothy Parker's Fat Chance") goes to a few more historical items before tipping his pince-nez glasses and top hat toward two decades' worth of popular music, in a pleasant if sometimes jarring outing when all is said and done. Considering his earlier snobbish reputation, the broadcast is downright low-keyed, modest, and even plebeian on Woollcott's terms.
On the day Woollcott's heart stopped him cold on the air, one of his guests was mystery writer Rex Stout. Stout, according to Nachman, "later said he knew it was serious because otherwise the persnickety Woollcott would have written I AM ILL."
CHANNEL SURFING . . .
1937: IN AN OCTOPUS'S GARDEN
---In Honolulu under assumed names, Speed (actor unknown) and Barney (John Gibson) rescue a girl who mentions their real names, forcing them to deny their identities to protect their assignment of catching the Octopus---who sends a note warning the boys to turn back, on tonight's edition of Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police
Uncle Clint: Howard McNear.
1944: DOES LEROY NEED A MOTHER?
---Six months after his wedding plans with Leila collapse, still hesitant about romancing randy nephew Leroy's principal Eve Goodwin (Shirley Mitchell), Uncle Mort (Harold Peary) wonders whether Leroy (Walter Tetley)---whose solicitousness of late seems a shade suspicious until he finally takes his report card out of its three-week hiding---isn't missing something without the maternal touch, on tonight's edition of The Great Gildersleeve
Marjorie: Lurene Tuttle. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
1945: DEATH IS AN ARTIST
---A police reporter (Lee Bowman) has a once-in-a-lifetime story interrupt his cribbage game with a precinct officer: a barge dweller who slaughtered his own cats before slitting his own throat, on tonight's edition of The Inner Sanctum Mysteries
Additional cast: Unknown. Host: Raymond Edward Johnson. Writer: Frederick Mayfield.
1949: THREE TO DIE
---"Great oaks from little acorns grow. And before this one was over, the acorn grew into a large, large oak," pronounces Dan Holliday (Alan Ladd) upon a vague letter, from a major builder whose tunnel project has been hit by accidents he thinks are inside jobs . . . and who fears publicity if he complains to the police, on tonight's edition of Box 13
Suzy: Sylvia Packer. Kling: Edmund McDonald. Additional cast: Unknown. Writers: Richard Sandhill, Russell Hughes.
1949: HEAD OF THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT
---Connie's (Eve Arden) hope to head the English department ramp up when the pregnant incumbent retires . . . until she remembers exactly who
makes the official recommendation to the school board that has to approve the appointment, on tonight's edition of Our Miss Brooks
Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Walter: Richard Crenna. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Boynton: Jeff Chandler. Miss Enright: Mary Jane Croft. Writer: Al Lewis.
1949: TRUMAN'S INAUGURAL
---The mixup resolved, Phil (Harris) leads his band to President Truman's inaugural after all, on tonight's edition of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show
Remley: Elliot Lewis. Little Alice: Jeanine Roos. Phyllis: Ann Whitfield. Willie: Robert North. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
---His wife's incessant dissatisfaction moves an English professor (John Beale) to give in---fatefully---to the temptation to walk out of his own life and into that of a friend forced to retirement on doctor's orders, on tonight's edition of The Whistler
Blanche: Betty Lou Gerson. Additional cast: Mary Lansing. The Whistler: Bill Johnstone. Announcer: Marvin Miller. Writer: Bob Wright.
1952: MEDAL OF HONOUR
---The Halls (Ronald and Benita Colman) and Merriweather (Gale Gordon) try to help Ivy's ROTC captain (Kirk Bartell) reconcile his snobbish girl friend (Alice Backus) to her modest father (possibly Jess Kirkpatrick), whose popular campus hot dog stand is putting her through Ivy in the first place, on tonight's edition of The Halls of Ivy
(NBC; rebroadcast: Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.)
Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Writers: Don Quinn, John DiGrassio.
PREMIERING TODAY . . .
1893---Franklin Pangborn (actor: Screen Guild Theater), Newark.
1898---Randolph Scott (actor: Academy Award Theater; Campbell Playhouse), Orange County, Virginia.
1907---Dan Duryea (actor: The Man From Homicide), White Plains, New York.
1910---Django Reinhardt (guitarist; leader of the Quintette of the Hot Club of France: numerous radio broadcasts), Belgium.
1913---Max Smith (singer, with the Sports Men: The Jack Benny Program), Des Moines, Iowa.
1919---Ernie Kovacs (comedian/host: WTTM), Trenton, New Jersey; Millard Lampell (singer, with the Almanac Singers: Treasury Star Parade), unknown.
1923---Florence Halop (comedian/actress: The Jimmy Durante Show; Duffy's Tavern; The Henry Morgan Show), Jamaica Estates, New York.
1925---Lyn Osborn (actor: Space Patrol), Wichita Falls, Texas.
1933---Chita Rivera (as Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero; singer: WOR Diamond Jubilee), Washington.
* -- Specifically, from the Shubert productions, after Woollcott reviewed one of their shows as "not terribly amusing."
** -- This was Gov. William Sulzer, a Democrat. He was impeached, in fact, after a mere ten months in office, for diverting campaign funds to his own personal use. There are those who believed, then and now, that Sulzer---a product of the notorious Tammany Hall organisation---lost Tammany support when he refused to accept Tammany instructions on political appointments and sough primary elections over conventions, instead, making an enemy of Tammany leader Charles Murphy, and thus instigating the maneuvering that led to his impeachment and removal from office.
Sulzer did recover enough to run for and win election to the New York State Assembly (where he had served previously, before becoming a Congressman and then governor), representing Greenwich Village for a single term. He later tried another, unsuccessful gubernatorial run, and a sort-of try for the presidency on a third-party ticket, before moving to Alaska (whose home rule he'd championed as a Congressman) for a period, and eventually dying penniless in 1941.
Sulzer's impeachment was alluded to in October 2006, by the Albany Times-Union, during a time when New York Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco (R-Schenectady) called for the impeachment of state comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat, on charges comparable to those under which Sulzer was impeached. You can read the entire item on the newspaper's Capitol Confidential blog.
† -- One of Woollcott's close friendships was with Walter Duranty, the notoriously pro-Soviet New York Times correspondent known long enough---thanks first to Malcolm Muggeridge's recollections (Duranty, fumed Muggeridge, was "the greatest liar I have ever known in journalism"; Muggeridge and others had defied travel restrictions to report eyewitness to the Ukraine famine that Duranty dismissed as mere anti-Soviet propaganda) and Robert Conquest's scholarship; then, to a scrupulous biographer, Sally J. Taylor---as Stalin's Apologist (the title of Taylor's book).
In due course, the committee that confers the Pulitzer Prizes debated whether to revoke the Pulitzer Duranty won for his reporting as the Times's Moscow correspondent. The prize wasn't revoked but Duranty's reputation has been.
But Woollcott himself had suggested something of Duranty's truth when, after diplomatic relations were established between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1933, he wrote Duranty received such a role in the formal recongition celebration dinner that "one quite got the impression that America, in a spasm of discernment, was recognising both Russia and Walter Duranty."
†† -- Menachem Mendel Beilis, a Ukraine Jew, was accused of kidnapping and murdering a Ukrainian boy, Andrei Yushchinski, on his way to his religious school. In spite of a few months of murderous comment in the Soviet press that included accusations of blood libel and ritual murder, Beilis was acquitted at his 1913 trial when a lamplighter on whose testimony the case rested, largely, admitted he'd been confused by secret police into saying he had seen a Jew kidnap the boy.
Andrei Yushchinski turned out to have skipped school to visit a friend on the day he disappeared, according to several sources. I have seen nothing as yet that indicates whether the boy's actual murderer was ever known or found.
An all-Christian jury acquitted Beilis; Kiev Theological Seminary professor Aleksandr Glagolev told the trial Mosaic law "forbids spilling human blood and using any blood in general in food." Fearing reprisal regardless, Beilis and his family first emigrated to Israel, then under control of the Ottoman Empire, before settling in the U.S., where he died in 1934. Beilis's story inspired Bernard Malamud's novel, The Fixer, made into a popular 1968 film starring Alan Bates and Dirk Bogarde.