1922 __ WGY and the Birth of Radio Drama
‣ Comment : How WGY Puts Across Scenes Without Scenery, Making Many a Home a Theatre. Queer Noise-Producing Devices that Help to Make the Drama Realistic to the Listener-in. — By C. H. HUNTLEY, General Electric Company. — The radio audience is, in effect, an audience of the blind. It is evident that if plays are to be presented by radio. The producer must keep constantly in mind that the appeal to the imagination can be made only through the sense of hearing. Merely putting it in touch with the stage of a theatre, therefore, is not enough. Until about a year ago, such attempts as had been made to broadcast plays were not particularly successful. Individual scenes from plays had been given occasionally, and "The Perfect Fool" and "Lightning" had been put on the air from the theatre in Chicago where they were presented. (That is to say, microphones were placed on or near the stage and the performances were heard just as given.) But the interludes were tiresome to the radio listeners; and the stage "business," visible to those in the theatre, was utterly lost on those who followed the play by radio. Edward H. Smith, an actor of professional experience, conceived the idea of adapting a play to meet the specific needs of play broadcasting and to solve the problems it presented. He suggested this to Kolin Hager, studio director of WGY, the General Electric Company's station at Schenectady. The idea appealed to Mr. Hager, who stipulated, however, that the play must not take more than forty minutes, as it was to be only one of several features of the program, and the interest of the radio public in such an effort was problematical. The play chosen was "The Wolf," by Eugene Walter. In cutting down the three-act drama to a play of forty minutes, the second act was taken as the basis, with parts of the first and third acts blended in. A special finale was written. Mr. Walter had insisted that the play be given with a complete cast, and the actors who had had actual stage experience were selected for it. Viola Karwowska played the part of "Hilda"; Frank Finch was "Jules Beaubien"; James S. B. Mullarkey was "Andrew Mac Tavish"; Henry Miller was "Huntley " ; and Mr. Smith doubled as " MacDonald " and "Ba'tiste Le Grand." Three of these actors had previously appeared in the stage presentation of this play. After several careful rehearsals, conducted as though on a real stage, the play was given. Then came the response, in the form of two thousand letters from appreciative listeners scattered throughout a territory within five hundred miles of WGY, expressing their thanks and approval. The section covered would doubtless have been greater had the play been given later in the season when the static was not such a handicap. Nevertheless, the screams of "Hilda" were so realistic in Pittsfield, Mass., as they issued from a loud speakerthere, that a policeman patrolling his beat hastened to the house from which the sounds came to find out who was being "battered and assaulted." This first presentation gave the actors some valuable experience. It taught them that the greater the volume of sound, the farther back from the microphone they had to be. As the play neared the end, the din increased to such an extent that the operators of the station tried to soften it by decreasing the amount of power used. The result was that the close of the play was almost inaudible to some listeners. From then on, as an actor raised his voice, he retired farther and farther from the microphone. So pronounced was the success of this first presentation that it was decided to make plays a regular feature of the WGY program, and to retain the group of actors who had given the initial performance. It was still considered necessary, however, to have plays brought within a forty-minute compass, made up of four episodes of ten minutes each. This time limit imposed considerable difficulty in some cases. For example, it took six weeks to reduce "The Garden of Allah," which consists of ten scenes and takes two hours for presentation on the stage, to the required length. After eight plays had been given, the popularity of drama by radio was plainly so great that the time limit was removed. Beginning with "The Garden of Allah," the presentation of a play became a part of the WGY program each week, and the WGY Players became a definite organization. In all, forty-three plays, both dramas and come dies, had been given up to the close of June, when the regular players gave way, through the summer, to understudies. They have resumed their work this fall. [...] The average theatre-goer has at least some conception of the back-stage apparatus used to help produce illusions the devices for simulating thunder, the roar of an approaching train, the sound of horses' hoofs, and so on. Probably few of the listeners to drama by radio have given much thought as to how the same effects are produced in broadcasting, where they are relatively much more essential because the success of the presentation depends on the appeal to the ear alone. How important the visual factor in dramatic entertainment is, is clear from the popularity of the "movies." What seem like odd expedients have become commonplace to the WGY Players. One of the most difficult propositions of this kind was met in preparing for the broadcasting of "The Storm." In this play, a forest fire culminates in the crashing of a burning log through the roof of a cabin. To provide the roar of the conflagration, it was at first planned to build a fire in the rear of the building containing the studio and bring microphones sufficiently near to catch the sound, but on experimenting, it was found unsatisfactory. Gasoline torches were therefore temporarily installed in an ad- joining room and provided a very efficient substitute. The crackling of ignited twigs was simulated by crumpling brittle paper in front of the microphone, and to produce the sound of falling limbs, a- heavy table was thumped on the studio floor. The final scene, with the collapse of the roof under the impact of the falling log, was made real to the audience by the simple expedient of having one of the actors jump from a table on to a packing case and crashing in the top. It required four men to work these various effects [Mr. Oliver is serving as property man, his job being to produce the rattle of the dishes, silver, etc. necessary to create atmosphere.]. The result was that, while not a word had been spoken to indicate what was happening, the illusion of a forest fire was perfect. A man in Nevada wrote that when the tree crashed through the roof, he ducked! Holding a folded newspaper against the edge of a moving electric fan makes a well-nigh perfect imitation of the droning whirr of an air-plane; the rattle of dishes and silver at once conveys the idea of dining; the clink of coins suggests the giving of a tip, and an empty bottle in a pitcher of water at once conjures up visions of ice water. And at the risk of killing the romance for some who have been thrilled by radio dramas, it may be admitted that in the love scenes, the hero plants a kiss not on the lips of the heroine, but on the back of his own hand. Indeed, the hero and the fair lady are often at opposite ends of the room. Infinite attention is given this matter of sound. If one of the actors is supposed to be talking while eating, he actually eats a sandwich. Wireless telegraph messages are real messages, sent by a bona fide operator by use of a spark set installed for the purpose. The clicking of a telegraph which the audience hears is that of a real sounder operated in the studio. Regulation thunder-making and other devices familiar to the stage are employed, and en- trances and exits are marked by the banging of doors. The members of the cast do not, of course, appear in costume. They read their parts from manuscript, which is typewritten on paper especially selected for its freedom from crackling sound when the leaves are turned, and each actor is furnished with a complete copy. Reading the parts instead of committing them to memory obviates any danger of forgetting, and makes the presentation smoother than it could possibly be otherwise. Each play is, however, very carefully rehearsed before it is given. In the case of "Madame X," there were four general rehearsals and numerous others for individual players as well. The care that is exercised is evident from the fact that during rehearsals, the 'players' director, Mr. Smith, is in another room from the rest of the cast when he is not acting a role, and hears the play through a receiving set just as it would sound to the great audience. He issues his directions through a loud speaker. Two microphones are used in transmission, one for men and one for women, this being necessitated by the difference in the quality of their voices. Voice quality is of the utmost importance in this work. According to Mr. Smith, the ideal voice for the purpose is of low rather than high pitch. The enunciation must be very clear, and naturally clear, as any stilted attempt at precision tends to spoil the effect. The value of pause is something that must be learned. The careful actor in this work shades the pauses to almost a fraction of a second. The volume is usually confined to that of an ordinary conversation. If the scene calls for more, the actor steps back from the microphone.Nervousness, of course, tends to raise the pitch of the voice, but nervousness is not a factor among the WGY Players. Stage fright, even among the amateurs who sometimes take minor parts to complete a cast, has not been noticeable. The whole atmosphere of the studio when a play is being given is one of congeniality, and a performance takes on, so far as the actors are concerned, something of the nature of a rehearsal, inasmuch as no audience is visible. The realization that thousands are listening does, however, spur the players to their best efforts. That illusion and atmosphere may be created by sound alone, the presentation of plays by radio has definitely established. In a letter received at the studio following the presentation of "The Green Goddess," a listener wrote: "I want to add my appreciation of The Green Goddess' broadcasted last week. It was superb. Maybe I enjoyed it more because I am familiar with the 'Hill Station' region of the Himalayas. You got the local color splendidly. The palace and social life of the Rajah were very vivid. The English 'resident' was perfect, as were also the Major and his wife. The Doctor was just the kind that appeals to all of us." The radio drama has an advantage over the movie drama in that it is carried right into the home, whether it be an isolated farm-house or a city apartment. Thus, it is available to those who are unable to go out for their entertainment. It creates a stage in every home equipped with receiving apparatus. Judging from the favor with which it has been received and the progress it has made in a single year, the radio drama will rapidly develop into a recognized branch of the dramatic art. (C.H. Huntley) — Description : WHAT KIND OF NOISE ANNOYS AN OYSTER?. — Tricks Used in Staging Invisible Shows. — This battery of noise-making devices looks as if it might annoy anybody, but the volume and quality of the sound is arranged so as to seem like the real thing to radio listeners. The players are, from left to right: Lola Sommers, Rose Cohn, Frank Oliver, Edward St. Louis, and Edward Smith. Between Miss Cohn and Mr. Oliver, on a stand, is the bell effect. Mr. Oliver is making it rain cats and dogs with his right hand, and producing the world's most terrifying thunder 'thunder-sheet" in background) with his left hand. On the table are dishes for what is picturesquely called smash effects." Mr. St. Louis is busy with the telephone effect, and Mr. Smith is coaxing the windstorm machine to the limit. (C.H. Huntley) — You might not have heard of Kolin Hager, unless you're from Schenectady. He was the program director and chief announcer at General Electric's station WGY in the early twenties -- and he could well be considered the Father of Radio Drama. In September 1922, Hager gives a forty-minute weekly time slot on WGY to "The Masque," a troupe of community-theatre actors from nearby Troy, NY, headed by one Edward H. Smith. Smith immediately went to work on an adaptation of a play by Eugene Walter, entitled "The Wolf." This three act drama was cut down to exactly forty minutes by focusing on the action of the second act, adding just enough of the material from the first and third acts to make the story comprehensible. In agreeing to allow the adaptation, the playwright insisted that the presentation be given with a full cast, and Smith selected several of his colleagues from "The Masque" to play the roles: Viola Karwowska, Frank Finch, James S. B. Mullarkey, Henry Miller, and Smith himself. The play was aired following several rehearsals in September 1922, and the station received more than two thousand letters from within a five-hundred mile radius. One letter from Pittsfield, Massachusetts claimed that the screams of the character "Hilda" were so real, that a policeman overhearing the program thru a window burst into the writer's home to stop the "assault." The success of the first production caused Hager to commission a series of plays, to be offered thru the fall, winter and spring of 1922-23. By the end of the season, a total of forty-three plays were presented, all featuring the same group of actors. All were adapted from well-known existing works, and included such titles as "The Garden of Allah," The Sign of the Cross," "The Green Goddess," and "Madame X." All of the plays were edited to fit into the forty-minute time alloted. As the "WGY Players," Smith's company offers condensations of recent stage plays -- forty-three of them in the first season -- and gain national attention for their efforts: the first regular dramatic series ever broadcast on American radio. Among the members of the group - a former stage technician named Frank Oliver: radio's first true sound effects man. The WGY Players are a fixture at the station for more than a decade, and in 1928 perform another historic first: the first play ever to be televised. (Elizabeth McLeod, 1998)
‣ Source : Fish, Richard L. (1998), “GENESIS AND RENAISSANCE: A Brief History of Audio Theatre”.
‣ Source : Huntley, C.H. (1923), “Tricks Used in Staging Invisible Shows”, In“RADIO BROADCAST”, Vol. IV, NOVEMBER, 1923, to APRIL, 1924, Garden City, N. Y., DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY, 1924, pp. 24-29.
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