THE MEMOIRS OF GERALD NACHMAN
BEHIND THE COVER
Researching, writing and
selling the latest book
By GERALD NACHMAN
After all the minor pains and joys of researching, writing and editing, Raised on Radio, when it finally emerged in 1998 all of the previous agony was of course happily forgotten in the glee of the moment. I suppose it was just like childbirth.
As books go, mine was an almost totally angst-free enterprise, editing-wise, but it was the first book I had ever written that wasnt humorous or a collection. Raised on Radio was what I thought of as a book book, involving endless research in libraries and archives, a zillion phone calls tracking down people.
Piecing together such a detailed book about so sprawling a subject as old radio, which covered about 40 years, from roughly 1920 to 1960, was an enormously complex business, all new to me. Flipping through the finished book, nearly every fact and interview carries a certain nostalgic weight, as I can recall how this or that incident was learned and the circumstances of every interview--the house, the room, the weather, the sound of a persons voice, their dogs and clothes.
Like many authors, I have a love-hate relationship with research- hate the drudgery, love the Eureka! moments of discovery, when you stumble onto some incredibly fascinating factoid buried in the 26th paragraph of a magazine article youre skimming, or when someone youre talking to casually reveals a telling and compelling incident that suddenly explains everything.
The worst part were months spent in the stacks, hauling out massive bound volumes of old Life, Holiday and Saturday Evening Post magazines, which weigh a ton, and then hefting them up onto a copying machine. Many of the pages in those old magazines are too big to copy easily; you can only copy a quarter of a page at a time and hope you get it all. And the magazines are bound in such a way that often you cant copy the column of type next to the fold unless you press down very hard without breaking the spine.
Speaking of spines, lugging bound volumes around and pushing down the magazines to be copied requires sheer muscle; its physically exhausting work at 62. Then, of course, theres the dreaded microfiche machines, with their balky focusing gears that often dont render a page readable once youre printed it out. You have to squint to see the article on the screen and again when youre reading it at home; I got pretty good at deciphering fading and minuscule typescript.
I was such a novice at writing a nonfiction book that I sort of wrote Raised on Radio backwards, realizing midway through the research that I needed to talk to people still alive who were deeply involved in the shows I was writing about (duh!). In a way, it was like a gigantic feature story. It wasnt enough simply to discuss the topic with personal recollections, interesting only up to a point. Each major show was a unique entity with its own history that cried out to be told in full.
So about halfway into the book, after I found an actual publisher (Pantheon), I began tracking down people I needed to talk to--and badly wanted to talk to, all of those who were still alive. Not just the performers but the directors, producers, writers, announcers, sound effects guys, sponsor reps, even engineers, a vast network --a universe!--of long-silent old time radio voices of the past.
Without exception, they were all more than happy to talk to me--and without exception they were great folks, even the occasional curmudgeon. Most of them were in their 80s or 90s, onetime star players or movers and shakers who had been forgotten and were living quiet lives out of the limelight for the past 40 or 50 years. They all welcomed me like a long lost soul brother.
Much of it was legwork, and I identified many times with Joe Friday, combing through phone directories. I loved playing detective, trying to track down people I had to talk to, by phone or in person. What a surge of joy I felt whenever I finally got to a onetime radio star by telephone, hearing a voice still familiar to me after 40 years. The people I got to were living out their elderly lives in comfortable or expensive homes and condos, even though they hadnt worked in decades. Happily, I never located anyone in a trailer park.
The ones I recall most vividly now include: Irving Brecher, the creator of The Life of Riley, a crusty old guy residing in a fancy condo on Wilshire Boulevard, very sharp at 90; a onetime queen of the radio soaps, a sweet lady living in a tiny Lincoln Center apartment complex; the comedy writer Bob Weiskopf, who met me for lunch at his haunt in Santa Monica; longtime Jack Benny writer Sam Balzar, nearly blind but still game and full of stories; Bob Hope writer (and later Gilligans island creator) Sherwood Schwartz, in a study in his posh Beverly Hills home filled with Gilligans Island lunch boxes and other memorabilia from his most famous show; a shy, placid Jo Stafford, in an elegant condo in Century City, with her husband, bandleader Paul Weston, bustling about the place; persnickety Arnold Stang, still scrawny, who met me for drinks at the Algonquin Hotel with rich memories, not always rosy, of playing stooge for Henry Morgan and Milton Berle; and Hyman Brown, creator of Inner Sanctum and other shows, living in a posh apartment on Central Park West hung with original Monets and Matisses, recreating the sound of the famous creaking door and explaining how he invented it.
Many of the big radio names I only got to by telephone and a few I didnt quite get to in time. I had talked to Phil Harris by phone and he promised we could meet when he came up to Pebble Beach a few months hence for the Bing Crosby Tournament; Harris was the last major surviving member of the Jack Benny show, but he took ill not long after and died before we could meet. Likewise, when I called to confirm an in-person interview with Willard Waterman (he lived in nearby Burlingame), who played The Great Gildersleeve after Harold Peary left the show, his widow told me he had died that very morning. You have to work fast.
My favorite anthropological finds were digging up long lost announcers--the fabled Lone Ranger announcer Fred Foy; Ed Herlihy (the voice of Kraft cheese); Art Gilmore (also the voice of movie trailers for years); Ray Kemper, a Gunsmoke sound effects guy in Fresno I found through an ex-girlfriend whose mother knew him, and Charles Flynn, who played the iconic Jack Armstrong and still sounded hearty and invincible.
Unearthing and talking to these heroes of my boyhood was like revisiting an old dream. It made me melancholy to realize, once Id found them, that they werent still remembered or appreciated more, inspiring me to return them to the present in the book, to bring them out for one last bow. I was literally able to do that when the Smithsonian Institution asked me, after Id given a book promotion talk there, if Id be willing to host a symposium with some of the actual people in my book on stage.
I rounded up five major figures from old radio. Fred Foy and Arnold Stang, I've mentioned earlier. A third was Jackson Beck, who did The Cisco Kid and was the Superman narrator who intoned, Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive , etc. He also played many other characters). Then there was Shirley Mitchell, who was the Southern belle Leila Ransom on The Great Gildersleeve as well as Mabel, the wisecracking telephone operator on Jack Bennys show, among many other voices. Finally, I rounded up comedy writer Bob Schiller, a longtime radio hand who worked on the Fred Allen show, and went on to become a writer on TV's I Love Lucy and All in the Family.
Except for Stang, a bit of a fussbudget, they were all congenial folks. When Foy stood up to deliver perhaps the most famous opening in all of radio (Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear ), the hair on the back of everybodys neck stood up. Fred, about the worlds nicest guy, got a standing ovation.
That was probably the highlight of the Raised on Radio road show, which curiously didnt include New York City, home of nearly all the early programs. I was interviewed on the phone for rado station WBAI, but, alas, no Manhattan bookstore readings were arranged. Wendy, my girlfriend at the time, took snapshots of the great author posed next to his book at Barnes & Noble and Borders, where we secretly turned book covers so they faced outward on the shelves and I daringly smuggled a copy to the Staff Recommends section. You need to push every advantage.
Toward that end, I was a guest on a business TV show in Chicago, discussing how Paley and Sarnoff set up CBS and NBC; I chatted with Moira Gunn, host of NPRs TechNation, about radios technological revolution; I did a two-day Elderhostel seminar on old radio; I talked to blind twin brothers in Los Angeles who hosted an old time radio show. Id never thought about it, but many old radios major devotees are, of course, blind. Years later, I heard from a blind guy in Ohio who told me hed listened to my book on Recordings for the Blind, an unexpected honor; they even sent me the cassettes.
Back home, I peddled the book from my living room sofa, talking to scores of radio stations around the country. Some of the hosts were older guys with deep radio roots (and voices) who remembered all the shows, others were fast-talking young goofs for whom I was just the next item on the morning drive-time log (Hey, Gerard [sic], hows it goin this morning! Whats the weather like out there?). You do it all, you do anything. I spoke to a 10 a.m. Sunday morning Jewish book group attended by six people, none of whom bought a book. If Pantheons publicist had asked me to go door to door with my book, Id have asked, Where do I start?
©2007 by Gerald Nachman. The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. Reproduction of the book cover is courtesy of Pantheon Books. This special extract from a work in progress is published by special arrangement with the author. All inquiries about this work should be directed to the author by use of the Talkback feature below. This excerpt first posted here Oct. 29, 2007.
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