Monday, September 17, 2018

Louise Brooks and Radio: a fascinating discovery

In the United States, radio was a new and somewhat primitive medium in the 1920s. It was also exciting. Early stations, some of them experimental, were started by just about everyone - from local newspapers and local businesses to small communications companies and Hollywood movie studios - even department stores got in on the act.

The first commercial broadcasts in the United States were thought to have taken place in 1920 (there is some debate on who exactly was first). According to Wikipedia, in early 1922, there were fewer than forty commercial stations broadcasting in the country. But by mid-1922, when the so-called "radio craze" began, several hundred new stations took to the airwaves as thousands of Americans bought or built their own radio sets. In a sign of the times, President Warren G. Harding had a radio installed in the White House.

By the mid-1920s, radio and the motion picture industry (then other dominant form of popular entertainment) came to intersect. Movie stars, especially those with musical talent, appeared on radio programs, while a few shows were given over to talking about the movies. Over the years, I have found a couple of such intersections involving Louise Brooks. And now, I have come across another.

More than a few years back, I came across a small article in a small New York City newspaper mentioning that Adolphe Menjou had been a guest on WGBS, the Gimbel Brothers radio station located in atop the Gimbel Brothers department store in NYC. The article states that while the 1926 Adolphe Menjou - Louise Brooks film, A Social Celebrity, was playing at the Rivoli theater in New York, Adolphe Menjou was heard on WGBS, the Gimbel Brothers radio station in NYC. According to this newspaper report, Menjou spoke about the film and the scenes shot locally on Long Island. 

In 2016, I came across an intriguing letter to the editor published in Variety in 1937. In the letter, E.M. Orowitz states that Brooks was one of a number of film stars who appeared on the radio in the 1920s. Orowitz doesn't state when, but I would guess it was most likely in 1926, while she was still a resident of NYC. (It's possible she appeared on the radio in 1927, or even 1928, as Brooks was known to criss-cross the country during that time, and may well have taken the time to do a bit of publicity -- and appear on Emo's Movie Broadcast.) Here is that article.

Added to those two earlier discoveries is a new find (shown below), a listing for a December 1926 radio show out of New York City based on the First National production, Just Another Blonde. That film starred Dorothy Mackaill, Jack Mulhall, William "Buster" Collier Jr., and Louise Brooks. I don't know much of anything about this show except that it aired.... I don't know if Brooks was involved, or if the show was about the film (like Menjou's appearance on WGBS to talk about A Social Celebrity), or if it was a dramatization of the Just Another Blonde story. My bet is on the latter.

The show, which usually ran thirty minutes, was called "Voices of the Silent Drama." I could find very little about it except that it first aired on Thursday nights starting in January of 1926, and seems to have focused on First National films. A Baltimore, Maryland newspaper described the show to its readers as a "radio presentation of a forthcoming photoplay." Malcolm La Prade and Col. C.T. Davis worked on the adaption of screen scenarios, and someone named Gross was credited as announcer.

In looking through newspapers of the time, I also found listings for programs devoted to Subway Sadie, Ladies at Play, Puppets, It Must Be Love, The Blonde Saint, and Ella Cinders, the latter famously starring Colleen Moore. Most listings I came across simply stated that the program was a "First National Presentation." The listing for The Duchess of Buffalo added "cast," which is intriguing as that film starred Constance Talmadge. In January of 1927, the show moved to Friday nights, and then suddenly disappeared.

Though broadcast out of New York City, "Voices of the Silent Drama" had a large, regional audience. The listings I found came from newspapers scattered across the Eastern seaboard, from Hartford, Connecticut to Boston, Massachusetts -- from Wilmington, Delaware to Baltimore, Maryland. I even found listings further afield: "Voices of the Silent Drama" on WJZ was seemingly being picked up in Indianapolis, Indiana and Green Bay, Wisconsin, as well as Lincoln, Nebraska and Miami, Florida. The listing depicted above, mentioning Just Another Blonde, is from Montreal, Canada. WJZ could also be heard in Ottawa. ("Voices of the Silent Drama" was also "hooked-up," or syndicated, over two other stations, WGY (out of Schenectady, New York) and WRC (out of Washington D.C.)

Just Another Blonde opened under the title The Girl from Coney Island at the Strand Theater in New York City on December 12, 1926. Four days later, WJZ broadcast its radio show on the film. Was Brooks involved? We don't know, and may never know, but it is possible. Louise Brooks was in New York City at the time. In fact, she was present at a ceremony laying the cornerstone of the new Ziegfeld Theater in New York on December 11th. According to newspaper reports from the time, Will Rogers acted as Master of Ceremonies, and Billie Burke officiated. Also present among a crowd estimated at 1,500 were William Collier Jr. (named next to Louise Brooks in an article), Lois Wilson, Thomas Meighan, Mary Brian and others.

Radio was an exciting new format in the 1920. Newspapers across the country ran listings for stations scattered across adjoining states, suggesting transmissions were heard far and wide. There was so much interest that some newspapers even carried radio columnists, while others reported on what their local correspondent could pick-up on any given night. Check out this front-page item from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It begins with what the local reporter heard the night before, and concludes with a paragraph on "Voices of the Silent Drama," evidently a popular show.

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