And Now the Radio Actor (1927)

And Now the Radio Actor

Wherein a Thespian Describes For Us The Sensation of Acting on the Air

by Leslie Howard

In the March issue of Vanity Fair I delivered myself of an epoch-making pronouncement. I asserted that the next theatrical reform would be the production of plays from which the actor would be entirely eliminated. And, furthermore, I gave an example of an actorless play which, apart from one or two little difficulties, was most convincing. At least I thought so. I liked it myself. But some of my friends seem to have thought I was trying to be funny. They didn’t take me seriously at all.
Now I happen to be English, and my friends all happen to be American. The result is that when I think I am being funny, my American friends take me very gravely, and when I am in dead earnest they regard me as a perfect scream. Whereas I think they are funny all the time. Thus it is between the English and the Americans.
So I was very much hurt when my friends laughed at my remarks about the actorless theatre. But I was more hurt when, on my insisting that I was in earnest, they said “Then it’s a lot of nonsense.” I was terribly upset for some days–till I suddenly got an offer to act on the radio. And that changed my entire attitude. My friends were right. It was a lot of nonsense. It was, in the vernacular, the bunk. I don’t wonder they thought I was being funny. You cannot get rid of the actor.
Change of mind being a sign of greatness, I here expound a directly reverse theory about the actor. I assert now that, far from being a waning force, the actor’s profession will never die. The theatre may collapse, the films may grow from infancy into advanced senility, the phonograph and the radio may be superseded, but the actor will go forever–and all thanks to the Radio.
The moving pictures have always been regarded as a great menace to the theatre. They may be, but they are certainly not a menace to the actor. There are ten thousand more actors in existence now than there were before the films were invented. And think of the hundreds of great artists who were never properly appreciated on stage who have at last found an outlet for their genius in the expansive and expensive art of the motion picture. And now comes the radio, rich in opportunities for many more misunderstood stage performers. Here is an entirely new career open to the Thespian. A great many actors are already pursuing it and making regular incomes at it.
To the uninitiated the great mystery always is: since the radio audience get their entertainment free, who is the philanthropist who pays the actors and the other very considerable expenses connected with the performance? Of course that’s the catch. One is never quite sure. But one thing is certain. The whole thing is publicity. The actor is advertising somebody’s product–whether it be a chewing gum, an automobile tire, a tooth paste, or a night club. A big business man once said to me, “Actors are parasites on the community–they don’t prodooce nothing.” But not the radio actor. He is helping to “prodooce” all manner of things.
My solitary radio appearance (or should I say audition) was most exhilarating. I was engaged by a very charming gentleman who called himself, somewhat mysteriously, “the director”. With him I signed a contract, a real contract–beautifully worded, in which I pledged my exclusive services for a certain evening between the hours of nine and ten, in fourteen different cities all at the same time. That was uncanny enough on the face of it. I was to play opposite a famous actress in a scene from an equally famous play.

Accordingly, at the appointed hour I presented myself at the studio. I was pleasantly surprised at once. There was none of that depressing stage-door atmosphere that prevails at the regular theatre that makes one wish one were selling bonds instead of acting. Instead I entered a luxurious reception room, dimly lighted. A number of ladies and gentlemen were standing and sitting around, elegantly smoking and chatting. At first sight one would have hardly taken them for actors, musicians, etc. They just looked like ordinary people. A very small man, who carried his head permanently on one side, advanced and shook hands with me and trusted I was well. He wasn’t much to look at, but he had a rich and resonant voice. (Voices are everything here.) He said he was our Announcer, as he handed my hat and coat to a boy. He said, furthermore, that we were due to be “on the air” in five minutes, which frightened me dreadfully. I looked through into the two adjacent studios. They were strictly soundproof, and through their glass doors I could see people whose mouths opened and shut, but from which no sounds seemed to issue. I could see the members of a large orchestra in their shirt sleeves working violently in apparently complete silence.
Suddenly the little man with his head on one side seized me and thrust me into one of the studios. I found myself in a brilliant glare of light and in the midst of an intense activity. The orchestra was tuning up, singers were humming through their songs, my Announcer friend was marching up and down with his head more on one side than ever, having a little private rehearsal in addressing an imaginary audience, officials were coming and going. The place seemed packed with people. It was all most bewildering and the noise was simply indescribable. Suddenly an official popped in and called out loudly “Three minutes.” To which nobody paid the slightest attention, the general activity continuing undisturbed. A little later, “Two minutes.”
This again had no effect. Rather nervously I glanced through the manuscript, and wished I had learned my part by heart. Still the audience couldn’t see me reading it.
“One minute.”
Just as much noise. I was beginning to get very frightened when the famous actress with whom I was to act, leaned over and screamed something in my ear. At the tops of our voices we had the following conversation.
Famous actress: All right?
Me: What?
F.A.: You all right?
Me: I think so.
F.A.: I’m going to cut that line about New York being a big place.
Me: What line?
F.A.: Well, there’s only one. I’m going to cut it. It’s no good and you can’t tell whether they’re laughing anyway.
Me: Sure.
F.A.: And don’t forget to wait for the thunder.
Me: What thunder?
F.A.: Don’t be a fool. All the thunder. And can you imitate the dog barking?
Me: (Horrified) Good God, no.
F.A.: (With a giggle) Well, pull yourself together.
Me: All right, Laurette.
The Official Voice again, “Thirty seconds”.
More noise than ever.
Then, very loud, “ON THE AIR.”
Absolute dead silence! Every single sound stops. You feel you ought to apologise for your noisy heart. Your audience has arrived. Seven millions of them, form fourteen large cities–according to official figures. They are practically in the room with you, seven million of them. They can hear every sound. But that is the only way one exists for them–in sound waves. Apart from that they might be seven million blind people. But they are very definitely there. One feels their presence most oppressively.
At the far side of the room the Announcer was now whispering confidentially into a solitary microphone. Wondering why he went so far to do this, I moved nearer to hear what he was saying. He was discussing some mysterious disease from which, according to his statistics, four-fifth of the human race are suffering, and which can only be checked by a liberal use of Borham’s Tooth Paste. For a moment I wondered what connection this mysterious disease could have with our impending performance.
But only for a moment.

I realised by the gentleman’s next words that this was “Borham Hour”, and that we were part of the “Borham Tooth Paste Repertory Co.”, and would be assisted by the “Borham Tooth Paste Symphony Orchestra”, and by the Mesdames So-and-So and So-and-So of the Borham Tooth Paste Grand Opera Company.
I had not realised until that moment who my august employers were, but the discreet way in which their representative avoids tainting one’s art with commercialism by advertising their product delicately through another microphone as far from the artists as possible, commended my employers very dearly to me.
The entertainment was now on in earnest. The Announcer raised his head from his instrument (I realised now why his head was permanently on one side), the Tooth Paste orchestra struck up, and the Tooth Paste singers broke into song. As I had been sitting next to them throughout this, I jumped to my feet politely when the song was over, and cried lustily, “That was simply marvellous–I bet that will wake the farmers up.” At which a horror-stricken official leapt at me, and, with an agitated finger to his lips, reminded me that seven million people could hear my every remark. Everyone giggled silently at my gaffe, when somewhat abashed, I found myself standing up next to the Famous Actress before a couple of microphones, the manuscript shaking in my hands.
As the performance opened with a love scene, I did my best to forget the microphone, and addressed my remarks affectionately to the Famous Actress, who drew appropriately near me in response. I was just getting nicely warmed up when the official gestured that I must speak my hear out into the microphone. Accordingly I tried to ignore the existence of the Famous Actress and poured out my soul into the instrument. Immediately the official gesticulated that I was too close and was speaking too loud. This rather flustered me, and I spoke my line “Dearest, listen to that ominous thunder” before I realised there hadn’t as yet been any thunder. Of course this horrified the official, who signalled violently to the drummer, who in turn thumped vigorously on his drum. The Famous Actress started to giggle a little and I myself was so put out that I turned over two pages by mistake. This produced a dreadful result.
The Famous Actress had just said “Good night Mr. Jones–I’m going to bed now.” The leading man’s correct reply to this was “Oh, please don’t go yet”, whereas what I actually said was “Splendid–I’ll come with you”. The Famous Actress went into a gale of laughter, and I hastened nervously to explain, out loud, to the world in general, “Oh, hell I’ve turned over two pages, I’m all of a dither.” This quite finished the Famous Actress and very nearly produced a catalepsy in the official, whose almost superhuman gesticulations plainly indicated, “You confounded fool, have you forgotten that there are over seven million people at the end of this thing, four million of whom have probably got pyorrhea?”
Realising suddenly that a great part of the tooth paste market was trembling in the balance, I pulled myself together, and, avoiding the Famous Actress’s eye, addressed myself again to the “mike”. The Famous Actress, I regret to say, was still very unbalanced, but then women have no presence of mind. Thus, somehow, we got through.
I am afraid I have made it all look rather complicated, but I assure you that acting for the radio is really a most inspiring art. And, as I say, it is going to be a wonderful outlet for the dramatic profession. I already know the names of all the actors who are working regularly for tooth paste manufacturers, cigarette manufacturers, candy makers, motor companies, oil companies, chewing gum firms, ladies’ underwear makers, and a host of other enterprising business concerns.
All which convinces me that the actor is eternal. If one doesn’t want to see him and hear him simultaneously, as in the theatre, one can see him without hearing him, as in the movies, or hear him without seeing him, as on the radio.
In the old days the cry of the stage was “Brains, brains.” Discarding the latter the movies came and cried “Faces, faces.” And now comes the radio with the cry “Voices, voices.”
And it is always the actor who responds.

(Vanity Fair, April 1927)