Monday, August 07, 2017

Samuel Beckett’s Radio Plays

Samuel Beckett was born in 1906, lived most of his early life in Ireland, with stops in London and a long well-hidden stay in the South of France in WWII, before settling in Paris. He is remembered best for his avant-garde fiction, and in particular an absurd play titled Waiting for Godot. (But if you think that was absurd you should read How It Is.) Beckett is not remembered for his works written for radio, but there were several and all worthy of note. Some of his radio plays are not considered  to be radio plays in formal bibliographies on dubious grounds. I'll explain. More here.
  • All That Fall (broadcast 1957) 
  • From an Abandoned Work (broadcast 1957) 
  • Molloy (broadcast 1957) 
  • Embers (broadcast 1959) 
  • Words and Music (broadcast 1962) 
  • Cascando (broadcast:1963)
  • Krapp's Last Tape: 1972
  • Rough for Radio I (published 1976) 
  • Rough for Radio II (published 1976) 
In 1955 the BBC saw some appeal in the then young playwright, Samuel Beckett was getting for his new play Waiting for Godot.  At the BBC he was championed by Donald McWhinnie, Barbara Bray, Martin Esslin, and John Morris. The BBC invited Beckett to write a radio play to be broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. Beckett was hesitant, but wrote to his friend Nancy Cunard:
"Never thought about radio play technique but in the dead of t’other night got a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging of feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something."
Over the next 20 years, his cartwheels ultimately led to five plays specifically intended for radio, and arguably a few others.  His radio debut was in 1956 All That Fall. You can hear it here. The play was written in English, specially for the BBC well after he began to write primarily in French. The piece was directed by his drinking buddy, Don McWhinnie. This is well described in the book Directing Beckett by Lois Oppenheim. It was first broadcast on the BBC Third Programme, January 13th of 1957, It featured actors Mary O'Farrell and J. G. Devlin. Patrick Magee and Jack MacGowran had minor parts. (It was later broadcast as Tous ceux qui tombent on RTF/ORTF in Paris, on February 25th, 1963.) A "modernized version" was broadcast on June 4th, 1972. Directed by Donald McWhinnie.

That play was followed by From An Abandoned Work, which had been previously published in the Trinity News, June 7th 1956. [SOURCE] The play began as a novel he started in 1954 but had abandoned.  It was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Third Programme on December 14th, 1957 together with a selection from his 1951 novel Malloy.  The first person narrative was delivered by Patrick MacGee, directed by McWhinnie. In later listening to a rebroadcast, Beckett was so taken with MacGee's performance that it inspired him to write what he then called "MacGee's Monologue". This later became the play Krapp’s Last Tape, a work sometimes even described as a "meditation for radio." Inexplicably, most bibliographies do not consider Krapp's Last Tape to have been a radio play. This is likely because it debuted in Theater, then moved to BBC2 television.

Also written in 1957 was Embers, but it wasn't broadcast until June of 1959. McWhinnie directed again and the protagonist was played by Jack MacGowran, for whom the play was specially written. Supporting case included Kathleen Michael and Patrick Magee. It was First broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on June 24th, 1959. You can hear it here. The play won the RAI prize at the Prix Italia awards later that year.

A decade passed before Beckett returned to the radio medium.  Rough for Radio I is a short radio play written in in French in 1961 as as Esquisse Radiophonique and first published in Minuit, issue 5 in September 1973. Its first English publication as Sketch for Radio Play was in 'Stereo Headphones' issue 7, in spring 1976. Plans for a BBC production, with Humphrey Searle providing the music amounted to nothing in the 1960s, but a French version was produced by ORTF in 1962.

Rough for Radio II was also first published in Minuit, this time issue 16, November 1975. It was written in French in 1961 as Pochade Radiophonique and published in Minuit 16, November 1975. The BBC beat RTE to it this time and Beckett translated the work into English for its debut broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on April 13th, 1976, his birthday The program also included Dante and the Lobster from his collection of short prose More Pricks than Kicks and a variety of live recordings from the National Theatre: From an Abandoned Work, Malone Dies, Murphy, Watt, Malloy, Still, The Unnamable, Cascando, First Love, Texts for Nothing and a selection of his poems.

Also written in the 1960s was his radio play, Words and Music assumed to have been written between November and December of 1961. It was recorded and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 13 November 1962. It was acted by Patrick Magee and Felix Felton. His cousin, John S. Beckett provided
music.

Most lists completely exclude The Old Tune from Becketts radio resume. After Embers, but before Rough for Radio, Beckett translated and re-wrote Robert Pinget’s 1960 play La Manivelle for the BBC. Its first radio broadcast was August 23rd, 1960. Barbara Bray directed and actors Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee voice the parts. It's worth noting, as his interest in radio came in distinct phases. The lone exception being a 1972 recording of selections from How It Is, probably taped  at the same time as the Krapp’s Last Tape BBC sessions. It was released as a 7-Inch by J&B Recordings.

His last work for radio was Cascando, a radio playwritten in French in December of 1961. It is subtitled 'Invention radiophonique pour musique et voix.' It was first broadcast on France Culture (RDF) on October 13th 1963 with actors Roger Blin and Jean Martin. The first English-language production was on October 6th, 1964 on BBC Radio 3 with Denys Hawthorne and Patrick Magee (of course).

Shortly before his death in 1989, the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, including productions of all of Beckett's extant plays for radio, was recorded and produced at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988. It was distributed  in the U.S. by APR (American Public Media). It was intended to be broadcast in it's entirely on his 80th birthday, April 13th 1989. It was carried on NPR, Pacifica,  RIAS, ZDF and  other networks. Hopefully the life-long, iconic pessimist was at least moderately pleased.

The year 2006 was the 100-year anniversary of Beckett's birth. A complete run of all Beckett’s radio plays was presented by RTE Radio 1. Also notably BBC Radio 3 revisited Krapps Last Tape, and then Embers in 2006 with a new cast under director Stephen Rea. The productions were rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on May 16th 2010 as part of a double bill.

The question remains why are his radio works so obscure?  In Katherine Worth's essay, 'Beckett and the Radio Medium' she explains "The plays Beckett wrote for radio have had considerably less attention than his stage plays. No doubt this is largely as Martin Esslin suggests, because there have been few opportunities to hear them." The book Samuel Beckett and BBC Radio by David Addyman, Matthew Feldman, Erik Tonning goes a step further quoting a 'tirade' by Beckett himself "If we can't keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we might as well go home and lie down."

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sixteen Sepia Spielers

I've never found the original article, but it's referenced in a few books and one very notable Billboard article by Nelson George in November of 1985. Over half a century later I have no way to vet their stats but it's all too believable. The key claim is as follows "In 1947, there were three thousand disc jockeys in the country, but only sixteen were black."

It appeared on page 44-47 in their December 1947 issue. Four years later Mr. George wrote a book The Death of Rhythm and Blues and the book appears again in the works cited. But it also was cited in Doowop: The Chicago Scene by Robert Pruter, Nothing but Love in God's Water by Robert Darden, African Americans and the Media by Catherine Squires. (For the record DJs had been called Spielers since at least 1939.) Their definition of a Spieler is unclear but we can infer much from the list itself (below) we can exclude one-shot performers. These are DJs with a music program, not news programs.

DJ CALLS CITY
Ed Baker WJLB Detroit, MI
Al Benson WJJD Chicago, IL
Bill Branch WEAW Evanston, IL
Ramon Bruce WHAT Philadelphia, PA
Jessie Burks  KXLW St. Louis, MO
Jack L. Cooper  WSBC Chicago, IL
Van Douglas  WJBK Detroit, MI
Jack Gibson  WCFL Chicago, IL
Bess Harris  KING Seattle, WA
Eddie Honesty  WJOB Hammond, IL
Harold Jackson  WOOK Washington D.C.
Sam Jackson  WHIN Providence, RI
Emerson Parker  WQQW Washington D.C.
Sam Price  WPEN Philadelphia, PA
Norfley Whitted  WDNC Durham, NC
Woody Woodard  WLIB Brooklyn, NY

I've written about most of these DJs at one time or another. So perhaps that is why Major Robinson for was not included for his NBC radio column was back in 1948... but he was also one year too late for the article. Mary Dee Dudley, the first black woman to be a radio DJ misses the list by one year. Holmes "Daddy-O'Daylie of WMAQ misses the mark. Even the great Bill Hawkins at WHK misses by just a few months. This was only a list of black DJs active in 1947. The year was very early in the struggle for civil rights so it's certain that the list is short.  But some of the omissions are notable: Bill Cook at WAATDan Burley at WWRL, and Lavada Durst at KVET to name a few... but only a few.

But I should comment on math and veracity:  The number 16 is very specific and allows me to suggest possible omissions. The number 3,000 is clearly an estimate. According to a November 1947 report by the FCC there were only 142 commercial radio stations operating in the U.S. in 1942.  Radio researcher Jeff Miller was able to add 6 non-commercial stations [LINK] to that tally for a grand total of 148.  So that 3,000 number is assuming 20.27 DJs per radio station, and considering the number of part time radio stations in that era, is actually plausible. But it also means that 0.533% of all DJs in 1947 were black or that 99.46666% of all DJs were white. So adding a few names to this list changes exactly nothing.

Friday, July 28, 2017

DJ Major Robinson


It starts on page 23 of the 33⅓ book, Live At The Apollo by Douglas Wolk. The historic arguably epic James Brown album was ostensibly recorded the night of October 24th, 1962. But in reality it is definitely edited, and probably contains takes form different shows that week. Brown rented the venue for the week for the purpose of recording the live record. This stretched from Friday October 19th through Thursday October 25th in 1962.  Thursday October 18th was spent rehearsing in New York. They played 4 to 5 shows per day that week. So When a little-known DJ pops up in the story, you know it's arcane.
"Traditionally, the the outgoing and incoming shows would have a Thursday-night "wrap-party" at the Palm Cafe, a bar and restaurant down the street from the Apollo; between Midnight and 3 AM, Major Robinson would broadcast over WWRL from the Palm, although the 18th was his final night there." 
So there was a live broadcast at the Palm the night of their rehearsal. Major Joseph Robinson was there on the 18th, but not the 25th. The question becomes.. did James Brown appear on WWRL-AM that night? It seems unlikely, the man did coin the phrase "kill 'em and leave." But Major Robinson remains an interesting radio personality.

The caption on the image is from February of 1962, and Interestingly The North Carolina Times called Robinson a "Nationally known columnist" in March of 1962. Notice that he stands taking notes beside WWIN disc jockey Maurice "Hotrod" Hulbert. Clearly, Hotrod is the news, Robinson reports it. So notwithstanding that national renown,  Robinson's radio show ran nightly from midnight to 3 AM, so this is more of a "night mayor" kind of renown. But Robinson was also writing for Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine from 1953 to 1962.

Born in New York, his most high profile writing appeared in the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier Newspapers back to at least 1941. (These were both black-oriented papers of that era.) Robinson crossed color lines early. In 1948 he landed a weekly radio column with NBC. A Billboard article at the time noted that Robinson was already syndicated by Carter-Johnson to papers in 74 cities.

Robinson continued to write for the Courier through at least 1967. But for the Courier he wrote mostly celebrity gossip. The Defender was real news. But he began diversifying his career before 1960.  Sheldon Music signed him as a talent scout in 1958. In 1968 he was appointed director of Community Relations for Atlantic Records.

That was probably his career peak. He became involved in politics in the 1970s. Robinson worked on U.S. Senator Jacob Javits’ [R] Advisory Citizens Comittee, and had was a PR advisor for Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. [D]. Robinson.  He was still active in music as late as 1978, managing the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers. In 1981 he attended the Jack the Rapper convention in Atlanta listed by Billboard as working in Public Relations. When he died in 1988 at the age of 70, he was still working in PR, and still writing a column for the Amsterdam News.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

DJ Cat Olsen


A version of this story even appears in the Hank Harrison book The Dead. In their October 23, 1975 issu, Jet magazine published an article as well.  I have read three versions and the three are so different that they could be construed as separate events. So what was the truth about the Cat Olsen incident? What really happened at 1130 WNEW-AM in 1975? So let's start with the evidence.  In the archives at the Paley Center for Media is a 30-minute tape made in September 14th, 1975 at WNEW-AM. They list a summary that understates the unusual nature of this tape.

"This radio program features an on-air telephone conversation between disc jockey Scott Muni and a man named Cat Olson, who is in the process of holding up a bank. Olson called the radio station during Muni's regular program and demanded to talk to the disc jockey about the robbery and the hostages he is holding. Topics discussed include the following: the reason the bank alarms are not being turned off, despite Olson's request for peace and quiet; the reason he released some of the hostages; the number of people that are still being held inside the bank; Olson's other requests; the reason he has withdrawn from society and refuses to trust anyone; Olson's greetings to people via radio; whether the bank robber wants Muni to be a negotiator between the police and other officials at the scene; Olson's desire to speak with a woman named Mouse; Muni's decision to go down to the bank to meet Olson and try to talk him out of the hostage situation; Mouse's insistence that Olson give himself up; and Muni's departure from the radio station before the end of his shift so he can meet the bank robber face to face. The program concludes with a news, weather, traffic, and sports report. Includes a commercial."
All of the above is true but incomplete. A man named Ray "Cat" Olson (spelled Olsen in the Harrison version and NY times) took hostages at a bank and demanded airtime on WNEW with DJ Scott Muni. Jet magazine identifies the bank as Bankers Trust Bank in Greenwich Village, in New York City.

Hostage situations aren't covered in broadcasting school. And nothing in his resume at WAKR, WMCA, WORWABC or Radio Guam prepared him for this. But much to his credit, Muni kept his cool. In his 2004 New York Times obituary, they summarized the incident in one sentence. "In the early 1970's, a bank robber named Cat Olsen, who was holding hostages at a bank, demanded to speak to Mr. Muni and hear some Grateful Dead. He helped defuse the situation." The Grateful Dead?  Well yes. This reference largely corroborates the Harrison version of events. Published in 1980, some five years after the incident, Harrison wrote:
"Naturally, the police, when they finally arrived on the scene, asked this rather disheveled man wearing bright floral pattered shirt, sneakers, and an army jacket, what his demands might be. He replied, not money, not power, not any of the normal things a normal bank robber asks for; instead good old Cat wanted only to hear three consecutive hours of Grateful Dead music played on the AM radio with an additional three minutes allocated to he, himself, for his message."
Against all odds, the demands were met. Olsen spoke at length with Scott Muni on air about the Grateful Dead, about Jerry Garcia, Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army and also about the plight of blacks in America and about James Brown. The Harrison version skips this part but Jet was all over it. Olsen asked to speak with James Brown. Brown was contacted and he did offer to fly from Los Angeles to help the police. But before Muni, or Brown, or Jerry Garcia ever spoke with Olsen, the police fulfilled another demand.

Olsen swapped 10 hostages for a six-pack of beer. He drank it all, and took a nap and was then easily subdued by his captives. After 31 years on WNEW, Muni was fired in 1998 as part of a veteran DJ purge. Brown cancelled his New York flight and instead appeared on the Johnny Carson show that night as scheduled. Olsen went directly to Rikers.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Jazz Man Radio Show

I read the book Hot Jazz For Sale: Hollywood's Jazz Man Record Shop by Cary Ginell and by page 8, I found myself googling an arcane possibility. The founder of the Jazz Man record shop, Dave Stuart, had hosted a Los Angeles radio program featuring rare records from his private collection. His shop and subsequent record label were  actually named for his on-air name "The Jazz Man." Frustratingly, nowhere in the book does Ginell identify that radio station. I reached out to Mr. Ginell and he responded quickly "No, I could never find a listing for his program. Checked the radio listings in the LA Times, but nothing turned up."

The store was founded in 1939 and it's first address was 8960 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069, and the book tells me that at that time he lived in nearby Glendale, CA. The Jazz Information newsletter referred to his "daily broadcast" and also let the world know when the shop relocated to 1221 N. Vine street in 1940.  Then in 1941 it moved to 6331 Santa Monica Blvd. Regardless of the moves, Stuart was rooted in LA. So the question becomes... how many radio stations might have been airing jazz daily in and around Hollywood in 1939?

The answer is more than a few. But as you turn the clock back to cusp of 1940, the options thin out.  Dave Stuart recorded some area jazz bands and their discographies bear a lot of call letters. 1940 the Dawn Club (operated by the Yerba Buena Jazz Band) opened near Union Square in San Francisco, at 20 Annie Street. Friday night broadcasts begin on radio KYA hosted by Hal MacIntyre.  In 1942, the same band records five sides at at the studios of KFRC. Disc two of the complete Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band Good Times Recordings are all recorded at KYA in August 1942... but those are all San Francisco call letters. They cannot be the home of the Jazz Man radio show.


So who was airing jazz in LA?  The DJ Alex 'Sleepy' Stein, worked at 1250 KFOX in LA, then he started 97.9 KNOB, reputedly the first all-jazz radio station in the world. But KLON didn't debut until 1950, and KNOB not until 1957. Options in 1940 included: 780 KECA-AM, 1360 KGER-AM, 1300 KFAC-AM, 1120 KFSG-AM, 1000 KFVD-AM, 640 KFI-AM, 950 KFWB-AM, 1200 KGFJ-AM, 570 KMTR-AM, 900 KHJ-AM, 1050 KNX-AM, and in nearby Beverly Hills 710 KMPC-AM. But we can whittle that down. KFSG was all religious talk and the big outlets like KFI, KNX and etc. weren't big on leasing time. Then I found a solid reference. [SOURCE] The San Bernadino County Sun lists the program on KMTR in issues from roughly December 22nd, 1939 through February 28th, 1940.
  • KMTR-Jazz Man, San Bernardino County Sun Dec 22 1939
  • KMTR-Jazz Man, San Bernardino County Sun Jan 6, 1940
  • KMTR-Jazz Man, San Bernardino County Sun Jan 12, 1940
  • KMTR-Jazz Man, San Bernardino County Sun Feb 8, 1940
  • KMTR-Jazz Man, San Bernardino County Sun Feb 27, 1940
Once I found a reference, I found it everywhere. The program even appears in Volume 11, issue number 33 of the Movie Radio Guide, published for the week of May 23-29 1942. But there is a problem, it's also on a different station... this time in San Francisco.
  • KSFO-Jazz Man, Oakland Tribune May 12, 1942 
  • KSFO Jazz Man, Santa Cruz Sentinel May 19, 1942
  • KSFO-Jazz Man, Oakland Tribune June 1, 1942
In 1940 the transmitter and Blaw-Knox tower for 560 KSFO-AM was located on an 11-acre complex at Islais Creek on the Bay Shore. (This was also the site of the KWID shortwave transmitter in WWII) The station's studios were in the Palace Hotel at 2 New Montgomery St. in downtown San Francisco. Clearly this must be an unrelated program. But here's the weird thing, it aired at the same time of day as the KMTR program. That mystery, I have not solved.