Radio Pioneers of the Algonquin Round Table

The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide coverOur friend Kevin Fitzpatrick, chronicler of all thing Dorothy Parker, has a new book out that we think will be of great interest to many of our readers. The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide allows the reader to “explore the shadowy speakeasies, majestic hotels, glittering theaters, and other locations frequented by the legends of the Algonquin Round Table.”

We’re pleased as punch to have this guest blog from Kevin. We think his new book is terrific and we’re confident you’ll find it an entertaining and engaging read.

When I was compiling the material for my new book, The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide, I was struck by the group’s versatility. I’d originally believed the group, which met from 1919 to about 1927, was the realm of newspaper and magazine writers. However, by researching the biographies of all thirty members, it became clear the group had their fingers in every form of mass entertainment and media.

It turns out that there were members with careers that stretched from silent pictures to live television, such as actresses Margalo Gillmore and Peggy Wood. Robert Benchley made the first all-talking short, The Treasurer’s Report, released in March 1928 by Fox. Marc Connelly and Dorothy Parker both wrote captions and scenarios for the silents, then later jumped into writing plays and talkies.

But if there is one format that most of the members drew paychecks from after the Round Table ended, that’s radio. Many members of the group appeared as guests, commentators, writers, or actors. Benchley and Parker had their short stories adapted for dramatizations. Harpo Marx whistled his answers on-air. Others made the transition from newspapers to microphones, trading on their popularity as writers.

The book has more than 100 locations around the New York area tied to the lives of the “Vicious Circle” that met at the Algonquin Hotel on West Forty-fourth Street. Here are three spots from their radio days, all within walking distance of the Round Table.

NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin P. Adams on Information PleaseFranklin P. Adams was a veteran newspaper columnist with 35 years’ experience when his services were no longer needed. Radio saved him, and a quiz show was the last hurrah of his brilliant career. In 1937, the Herald Tribune didn’t renew his contract. With an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and trivia and a family of five to support during the height of the Great Depression, the offer to be a regular panelist on a radio quiz show came as a blessing.

The format of Information Please was simple but brilliant. Listeners mailed in questions. If the question stumped a panel of experts, the listener won a small cash prize. The show was unrehearsed and conducted before a live studio audience. The 30-minute program moved like lightning, and experts and guests had to answer quickly. On May 17, 1938, Information Please debuted on the NBC Blue Network (later ABC). Clifton Fadiman, a literary critic who wrote for The New Yorker, was master of ceremonies. The show was an overnight success, and more than 25,000 questions poured into the studios.

One question put to F.P.A. in 1938 was to finish the Joe Miller gag, “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” To which he replied, “There are two answers: That was no lady, that was my wife. And the other is that was no lady, that was your wife.” The show continued for ten years, mostly on NBC. Over time, just about every Round Table member appeared as a guest.

NBC has always been associated with Rockefeller Center. John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil, owned the land and helped create the landmark. The area bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues from 48th to 51st streets contained numerous speakeasies before demolition in 1930. NBC has called 30 Rockefeller Plaza home since the building was completed in 1933, spanning corporate ownership from General Electric to Comcast. More than a dozen buildings form the complex today, with “30 Rock” as centerpiece. Radio studios were the original tenants (hence Radio City) and now television studios. The Art Deco buildings are landmarks inside and out.

CBS, Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue
When radio networks became national broadcasters in the late 1920s, some of the live programming was classical music. Symphonies and orchestras dominated as networks tried to reach upper class listeners. William S. Paley signed the New York Philharmonic to CBS in a major coup and gave the network enormous prestige.

Deems Taylor, composer Sigmund Romberg, and Alexander Woollcott in the studio, circa 1935Beginning in 1936, Deems Taylor served as commentator during intermissions. Already a star composer and conductor, he had been a newspaper music critic but never a broadcaster. His role at CBS was an enormous success, and Taylor found himself giving weekly music lecturers to a huge audience during Sunday afternoon concerts in Carnegie Hall. He helped listeners understand what they were hearing and helped a generation appreciate classical music. Taylor also introduced listener questions, interviewed orchestra members during intermissions, and brought the whole experience of classical music into the nation’s living rooms. A broadcaster for more than ten years, Taylor became the country’s best-known authority on music.

The building was saved from a wrecking ball in 1960 and underwent multi-million dollar renovations in recent years. Today the Isaac Stern auditorium, the main performance hall, seats 2,800.
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Times Square Tintypes: Elmer Rice

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Elmer Rice.
 

ELMER THE GREAT

THE 1929 Pulitzer prize play winner: ELMER L. RICE. He was born September 28, 1892. The locale: Madison Avenue near 106th Street. Until he was twenty-six he lived within a radius of two miles of his birthplace.
Caricature of playwright Elmer RiceHe has red hair. Shaves at least once a day. However, he has to be told to take a haircut.
He likes to go for long walks, wander through museums and look out of windows.
Graduated from public school. Went halfway through high school. He has no recollection of learning anything there of value to him. Later studied law. When he was admitted to the bar he quit the profession.
He is married and has two children—Robert, aged twelve, and Margaret, aged nine.
Hates to get up in the morning. His friends know enough never to disturb him before ten-thirty.
When he finished writing Street Scene he was critically ill. His wife peddled the play, bringing it first to the Theatre Guild. They rejected it and so did John Golden, Jed Harris and Arthur Hopkins. The news that Street Scene had been rejected by these producers was kept from Rice until he recovered from his illness. An agent sold the play to William A. Brady.
He has never been to a night club and never intends going.
Doesn’t care for the theater. He attends about three times a year and then sees musical comedies. Recently, because he has to cast two plays next season, he has been going to the theater three or four times a week. He has yet to see the third act of a play this year.
His name was Elmer L. Reizenstein. The L is for Leopold.
He owns some bum oil stocks.
The first time he ever went to the theater was when he was eighteen years old. Three years later he wrote his first play. It was On Trial. Similar to Street Scene, it was rejected by almost every producer, and then was a big hit when finally produced by Arthur Hopkins. William A. Brady was one of the many who rejected it.
Is especially fond of fat German pretzels and beer.

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Celebrating a Century of Gloria Stuart

Gloria StuartWe don’t know how we let it sneak by us, but Monday, July 5, was the 100th birthday of the wonderful Gloria Stuart, best known now for her work in James Cameron‘s Titanic, but a woman who’s led a remarkable life and was a pretty big movie star in the 1930s, to boot.

In 1999, when she was just a kid of 89, we got to interview Gloria on the occasion of the publication of her memoir, I Just Kept Hoping. The interview was conducted over the telephone, though we did get the chance to meet Ms. Stuart when she came to NYC for her book party.

We considered it quite a thrill, we don’t mind telling you, to get to interact with Ms. Stuart. After all, this is the women who starred opposite Claude Rains in James Whale‘s The Invisible Man, who appeared with Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton in The Old Dark House, who worked with greats such as Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, Pat O’Brien, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Nancy Carroll, Frank Morgan, Paul Lukas, Edward Arnold, Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting, and dozens more.

So, to mark her centennial (a few days late, alas), we thought we’d share with the Cladrite Radio Clan the interview we did with her in 1999. Enjoy!

It’s been a long, eventful life for former and current movie star Gloria Stuart. She had her first go-around at stardom in the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s and ’40s; then, after taking off 30 years or so to pursue painting, travel, and political activism, she again began to act in the 1970s, eventually garnering a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in Titanic. Still going strong today at the age of 89, Stuart has now added authorship to her list of achievements. Her candid memoir, I Just Kept Hoping, is peppered with anecdotes about such memorable figures as Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. I spoke to Gloria about her life, her two careers in the movies, and her secrets for living so long and so well.

An Interview with Gloria Stuart

Gloria StuartYou made three films with director James Whale: The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House, and The Kiss Before the Mirror. What can you tell us about him?

I’m very happy I was in those films. You know, James is a cult figure in England. There are a lot of James Whale fan clubs. Actually, right after I had read for Jim Cameron for Titanic, I had booked a month in London. I went right away, and there were two wonderful James Whale organizations that I met with. He’s getting his due now, thanks to Gods and Monsters.

What did you think of Gods and Monsters? Was it, in your view, an accurate portrayal of Whale?

Oh, yes, it was. Ian McKellan captured James’s elegance, the beautiful manners, the beautiful tailoring, the precision, the whole thing. Of course, no one could be James, but he came awfully close.

The special effects in The Invisible Man hold up remarkably well today for a film that was made in 1933.

Yes, people who see it today—it runs every so often—they say, gee, it’s not an old hat movie at all.

I’m wondering—did the processes that went into creating those special effects slow down the pace of moviemaking at all?

It was never evident. Only James and the cameraman and I guess all the process people at Universal—the rest of us never had any inkling of what was going on. We did do a lot of shooting in front of black curtains. Now, I wasn’t on the set when the bandages came off or anything like that, so I have no idea about that. But it was very, very secret. I wasn’t on the set when they were finagling the bandages off, and so forth.

That would’ve been fun to see.

Humphrey Bogart and Mayo MethotYes, it would’ve! Claude [Rains] may have known [how it all worked] but he never said so.

You and your second husband, Arthur Sheekman, were good friends with Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot, his wife at the time. What can you tell us about Bogie that we might not know?
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