Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Piece of Celebrity Culture from the Golden Age of Radio

I featured an actual scrapbook last week, so I'm going to continue in the scrapbook theme and look at a published version that takes us back to the golden age of radio. When I was in middle school, I had a fascination with 1930s and 1940s radio shows; for a long time, before I started really collecting books, I would collect cassette tapes of my favorite shows -- Abbott and Costello, the Mercury Theater on the Air, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Duffy’s Tavern, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and a number of others. I loved the personal intimacy of the medium.

Somehow the comedy, the drama, the suspense, and the action seemed more vivid and alive to me when I heard it than when I saw it on TV, because it was happening in my imagination and I was able to make it personal to my own vision of the story. Today there are few comparable radio shows on the air; NPR has Prairie Home Companion and a few other creative shows, but their roster is filled mostly with news and nonfiction productions. Interestingly, however, with the rise of podcasting, it seems that audio drama is beginning to make
a gradual return via the Internet.

This week’s book was written -- or, rather, assembled -- by an early radio personality with whom I was previously unfamiliar. He seems to have been, however, quite the celebrity on CBS in the 1920s, ’30s, and into the ’40s.

The book is
Tony’s Scrap Book, 1942-43 Edition, by Anthony Wons (1891-1965). It was published by The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago. It is bound in blue cloth with black decorative titling on the front and spine; the pages measure 14cm x 21cm and are of a firm, machined stock that has been deckled (perhaps to give the book a more homemade, scrapbook-like feel). A decorative black-and-white illustration of various scrapbooking materials adorns the running titles on the top of each page. The contents run as follows: blank flyleaf; half title; illustrated frontispiece (photograph of Tony Wons); title page, with copyright on verso; two-sentence foreword; the content of the book (runs 111 pages); two blanks at the end. The pagination is rather peculiar: in the outside corner, at the bottom of each page, the numbering is written out in full words (for example, “Page One Hundred and Fourteen”, “Page One Hundred and Fifteen”).

I’ve never seen such a cumbersome style of pagination before and I can’t imagine why it struck the publisher as a good idea. Also, oddly, the main content begins with “Page Thirteen”, even though -- if all of the preliminary content were included (and frontispieces and half-titles are rarely included in page counts) -- it is actually the eleventh page. I suspect, therefore, that my copy is a second issue (there was no second edition of the book) and that the preceding version had an additional page of preliminary content; the publisher, for some reason, omitted that page in this issue, but did not bother to alter the cumbersome pagination.

The main content of the book consists of collected anecdotes, jokes, poems, aphorisms, news stories, and quotations around a wide range of eclectic topics. As one dealer puts it, the book is “jam packed with little snippets of classic literature mixed with folksy wisdom”. As a product of their time, they can often veer towards the sexist and even racist -- particularly in regards to material that is "folksy", rather than from "classic literature". The general focus is on humor and morality, but there is no real organization or system to the order in which the material is assembled; most, but not all, have headings and nearly all are attributed. The content was all read by Wons on the air for his much-loved Depression/WWII-era radio show, which was underwritten (not surprisingly) by Hallmark Cards (sadly, apparently only two episodes were recorded and are
still available).

The story behind Wons’s scrapbooking appeared in the February 8, 1932 issue of Time magazine:

U. S. publishers last year brought out 10,307 new books, more than in any previous year, Publishers' Weekly announced last week. In most cases publishers are happy to count their sales in thousands of copies. One volume, however, called Tony's Scrap Book had sold 225,000 copies, was still going fairly strong last month when Publishers Reilly & Lee issued Tony's Scrap Book No. 2. These, along with another published last November with the title 'R' You Listenin'?, are the product of Anthony ("Tony") Wons, a radio performer who has broken all records of Columbia Broadcasting System for sustained fan mail (2,000 letters a week). Self-styled a "peptomist," Wons is regarded by a shuddering minority as the most offensive broadcaster on the air. To his enormous radio following, principally in rural regions, he is a comforter of rare understanding who drops in for a friendly chat. To his critics he is an intruder who slithers out of the loudspeaker, puts his arm across his listener's shoulder and assures him that "all is well."

Broadcaster Wons' books are collections of odds & ends which he recites alternate mornings in the "Tony's Scrap Book" period, and every evening on the Camel Quarter Hour between Morton Downey's ballads. The two called Tony's Scrap Books are anthologies of noble thoughts, snatches of homely humor, tributes to beauty, diligence, nature, perseverance, motherhood, home, etc. Some are from Edgar Albert Guest, Dr. Frank Crane, Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Many, of unknown origin, are favorites of listeners who send them in. Here and there are a few lines from Shelley, Browning, Whitman, A. E. Housman. Wons puts them through a microphone in a voice hushed, saponaceous, insinuatingly folksy, with an ingratiating "Are yuh listenin'?" or "Isn't that pretty?" 'R' You Listenin'? is a book of extracts from "Tony's Own Philosophy," sermonets which he sometimes broadcasts.

Typical excerpt: ". . . But at night when you come Home, you are King to those kids of yours and to the little wife, and they would not trade you for any other Dad on earth."

Anthony Wons, whose last name is Polish for "whiskers," became a scrapbookman while in a hospital for two years convalescing from War wounds. He spent his time in reading inspirational essays and verse and pasting up his favorite items. Also he continued an early hobby of memorizing Shakespeare's plays. Seven years ago he persuaded Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s WLS in Chicago to let him broadcast some of the plays, taking all parts himself. The broadcasts were popular and next year he began radio readings from his scrapbooks. That was a far greater success. Listeners everywhere began sending in bits they wanted "Tony" to read, even their own scrapbooks. (He has more than 200. The one which he currently uses is 27 in. thick.) Also over WLS he conducted a period of nondenominational devotions called "The Little Brown Church in the Vale." After a short career with Cincinnati's WLW, Wons joined Columbia in Manhattan. His income, including book royalties, is estimated near $2,000 per week.

While his normal speech is less ghostly than his microphone manner. "Tony" is the "
peptomist" outside the studio as well as in. He looks much younger than his 40 years, lives with his wife (childhood sweetheart) and 11-year-old daughter in a Long Island apartment, has a summer cottage in Wisconsin near his birthplace.

I find this story compelling. A World War I veteran, resting in hospital after the war, begins to assemble bits of inspirational wisdom. Eventually, he’s able to translate that hobby into a celebrated career on the radio and in print. I’m also drawn to the role Shakespeare played in his career. The semester has just begun at my university and I’m currently a teaching assistant on the Shakespeare course; and, of course, those of you who know me know how important Shakespeare is in my life. The course has begun with
The Merchant of Venice and so, too, did Wons’s work on the radio; in a 2004 article in the magazine Radio Recall, a member of Wons’s extended family recalls Wons’s own version of how he began in radio:

“It was 10 years ago. There were no chain programs when I wandered into WLS with a book of Shakespeare under my arm.
“I would like to broadcast,” I said to the program manager, Edgar Bill. “I can read Shakespeare.”
“Well, how much time do you want to do Shakespeare on the radio?” he asked.
“Give me an hour and I’ll be satisfied, and so will you when I get through.” I told him confidently.
"I’ll give you 45 minutes. See what you can do in that time.”
So the program was arranged. The time came, and I found myself standing before a microphone for the first time in my life, with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and an organist to play background music. Trembling, I stood, knowing that upon this one program depended my success or failure in radio.
(When the show was over) an assistant came rushing in, saying: “Hey, the big boss wants to talk to you on the phone.” I went to the phone (and heard): “That was great. Can you come in once a week with other plays by Shakespeare?” Since those days at WLS I have spent much time in radio stations over the country, but WLS is the home where I had my birth.

Wons issued his scrapbooks in published form beginning in the late 1920s, at first self-publishing them from Cincinnati in the form of little stapled paper pamphlets. His intent was “to create greater living poets and writers, as well as to keep fresh the memory of those who are gone.” It reminds me, in a way, of Garrison Keillor’s
Writer’s Almanac. Subsequent issues appeared every year or two throughout the 1930s and 1940s and became major sellers, as the Time story explains.

There is no marginalia in my copy, though one page (17) has been dog-eared. Inside the front cover there is a stamped name, “Elizabeth J. Morris”, along with an ex libris bookplate with Morris’s name and the year 1944 handwritten in. The design of the bookplate includes a musical note; someone -- perhaps Morris -- has hand-colored the plate in pink and green. The name, alas, is too common to make it possible for me to discern precisely who the previous owner was; clearly, though, from the dating, she was most likely the book’s first owner.

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