Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cavalcade of America, A History In Pictures

I often consider network radio broadcasts of the 1930s and 1940s as "The Lost Hollywood." regardless of the numerous books written about old time radio broadcasts, very few books centering on Hollywood celebrities have received any kind of similar treatment. I rarely see biographies exploring a celebrity's radio career, which has either gone unnoticed or unexplored. With but few exceptions like Scott Allan Nolan's Boris Karloff book and Stephen Youngkin's Peter Lorre book, which truly documented a superb job of their radio acting credits, it's still disappointing to know that very few authors writing biographies about Hollywood stars are exploring this relatively important aspect of their Hollywood career.

A few books like Art Pierce's superb Lux Radio Theatre have documented programs that are strictly considered a Hollywood production. Stars appeared before the microphone to promote their latest motion pictures, and to reprise their movie roles, by request of the movie studios. My favorite happens to be The Cavalcade of America, which was among the more polished weekly productions -- and what I often use as an example when referring to the "unexplored Hollywood." 

Cavalcade began in 1935 when the Dupont Company began sponsoring the radio program by means of enhancing the company's image and bringing great events of American History to an audience of millions. This weekly program ultimately gained enough prestige to hire Hollywood and Broadway actors to play leading and supporting roles. Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Agnes Moorehead, Errol Flynn, Joan Fontaine, Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, John McIntire, Richard Widmark, John Lund and Bette Davis were just a few.

In what could be considered a high school project, I wrote a book about the program many years ago. Obviously, since then, I have acquired a wealth of additional material -- including photographs. I am including a number of them for your review.

Agnes Moorehead and Frank Readick
The earliest years (1935 to 1939) were broadcast over CBS. Any photograph with the CBS microphone, such as this one with Agnes Moorehead and Frank Readick, verify this to have originated from the first four seasons.

The program originated from a theater, allowing a live studio audience to watch the performance. Notice the curtain in the background, promoting the sponsor, Dupont. Notice Agnes Moorehead wearing a hat on stage. When I interviewed Raymond Edward Johnson many years ago, he told me that the program had such a prestige that it was a requirement that the cast and crew dress appropriately. Any radio broadcast with a live studio audience followed this rule.

The program went under a number of formats over the years. The first 39 often featured two separate dramas, portraying past and present events that lived up to the program's title. The cavalcade and pioneering of such motifs as bridge building, exploration of medical science, the humanitarian urge, railroad builders, and many others. One has to question the historical accuracy on many of these stories. No evidence has been found that most of them were based on actual news events of the past. More like dramas set in the time period we are familiar with. (The December 25, 1935 broadcast centered on child abuse, a little graphic for a holiday offering.)

Orson Welles
The photo above is Orson Welles. The exact date is unknown, but finding this among the 300 plus Cavalcade of America photos was an important find. When I was a guest on Radio Once More, discussing the Cavalcade program, I theorized that Orson Welles was among the supporting cast during the early years. There's a voice that sounds a lot like him, and Welles had not yet established himself as a name important enough to carry top billing. (The original scripts from 1935 to 1937 did not feature a cast list. However, I hope to check Variety in a couple weeks since they listed, weekly in their paper, the cast for radio programs, but only during the early thirties. Cross your fingers!)

During the summer of 1936 and 1937, the series centered on musical offerings. This allowed Dupont to spend less money during the months people were often on summer vacations. An orchestra or band was the major expense, with little or no actors needed for performances.

The photo above is one of many lobby displays Dupont created at their various plants and facilities. This one was from December or January 1940. After an 18 month hiatus, the program returned to the air on a new network, NBC. Here, the program would remain until it went off the air in 1953. Dupont began spending truck loads of cash to promote the series, and when the program gained prestige and momentum, the Hollywood stars flocked in.

For the majority that keep thinking Cavalcade of America was a program about American History, think again. During World War II, patriotic broadcasts dominated the weekly offerings. Carl Sandburg offered a poetic classic, one episode centered on modern-day songs that motivated troops and folks on the homefront, and Bob Hope dramatized a take on the USO tours.

Errol Flynn reprised his screen role for an adaptation of They Died With Their Boots On, three days before the New York City premiere. Fredric March starred in an adaptation of the stage play, Dear Brutus. Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin each contributed an episode, often dealing with fantasy.

June Havoc and Jeffrey Lynn

"The Reluctant Pioneer" (broadcast April 3, 1951), featured the story of the invention of the typewriter, and the development of the famous Remington Model #1. An explanation about photographs from radio broadcasts of the past: The photo above was taken for publicity. It was not uncommon for the sponsor or network to pay a photographer to take multiple photos during rehearsals, for inclusion in newspapers and magazines.
Carl Sandburg and Burgess Meredith

Even photos like the one above with Carl Sandburg and Burgess Meredith (for the episode "Native Land") was not taken during the actual broadcast. It was taken during the rehearsals. In fact, almost every photo you ever see for a radio program was taken during rehearsals. After all, the photographer would have been considered a distraction, and the sponsor would never have risked the exposure of the sound of the camera being picked up over the microphone. The text you see above was taped to the back of the June Havoc photograph. This is referred to as a press release, and often accompanied every photograph. It's also a clear indication that the photo you find is an original and not a "copy." Even the photo of Joel McCrea walking up to the microphone was taken during rehearsals.

Joel McCrea
After 1945, the program slowly reverted back to a weekly biography, highlighting some inventor, pioneer or inspiration for today's luxuries. Many times there was a tie-in to a product manufactured by Dupont.

The highlight of the program by this time was the Hollywood celebrities who flocked to the microphone. Ida Lupino, Robert Young, Henry Fonda, Loretta Young, James Stewart, Basil Rathbone, Thomas Mitchell, Bill Stern, Walter Hampden, Franchot Tone, Claire Trevor and many others. The broadcasts were often timed to the second and when the celebrities "relaxed" for an informal discussion about their personal life or Hollywood career at the conclusion of the broadcasts, these discussions were scripted in advance. For the Joel McCrea photo above, notice the floor mat to soften or cushion the sound as they approach the microphone. 

John Payne
The photo above was taken three days before the January 17, 1949 broadcast, titled "Secret Operation". It told the story of the mysterious operation performed by Dr. John Erdmann on President Grover Cleveland. The story of how this procedure to treat his cancer, prevented a panic. The real 85-year-old Dr. Erdmann appeared on the program after the drama, and this photo has John Payne shaking hands with the real Dr. John Erdmann. 

The photo above is during the rehearsals of "Children of Ol' Man River," broadcast from February 4, 1946. A biograph of the life of Billy Bryant on a Mississippi showboat at the end of an era. Janet Blair and John Hodiak are at the microphone. The old man sitting in the chair at the far right is Francis X. Bushman.

The photo below is a bit unique. John Lund is admiring a leather case holding two transcription discs, a copy of "Break the News" from July 12, 1948. The drama centered on the history of the Associated Press, told on its one hundredth anniversary. Dupont went to the added expense of having a transcription disc produced and presented to every Hollywood actor who made a guest appearance on the program. Dupont themselves retained a set of discs for their own collection.
John Lund

Thanks to the efforts of Neal Ellis of Radio Once More, those Dupont archival discs have been transferred digitally and are being cleaned up for collectors. Considering the fact that these are from the archival masters, Neal, once again, goes to the effort to consult the first-generation source and offer the best quality you can possibly get.

As a fan of Cavalcade, I cannot express in words the enjoyment I am getting from hearing crisp, sharp and superb sound quality. They are definitely the best quality on the market and upgrades from all the copies I have bought from collectors over the past decade. Another plus side I should point out from Neal's efforts: three "lost" episodes were among the collection (now available) and four of the five existing recordings that are not in circulation (stored in an archive) are also available. For an updated list of the lost episodes not known to exist, check out this link

The photograph on the left offers you a glimpse of what a transcription disc looks like. I cannot express the importance of collectors finding the "lost" episodes. More importantly, if you find a transcription disc, don't try to play it on your record player. It won't work on a standard LP record player. You need to send it to someone who has a transcription disc player who can make the proper transfer. Also to be taken into consideration is the necessity to have the recording cleaned up properly using a Cedar system, which eliminates most of the static and surface noise from the recording. For more information about the Cedar system, click this link.

With luck, I'll be able to feature the 300 plus photographs in an updated (revised) book about The Cavalcade of America, due for publishing in 2012. The original 500 page book was published in 1999, so it seems fitting that an updated and more definitive edition be available. If you have any photographs from the series that you think I don't have, feel free to contact me. I'm always on the lookout for high res scans (tif format) related to The Cavalcade of America.

I want to apologize to anyone who finds the watermarks on the photos a distraction. I agree that the use of a watermark degrades the experience. If I had my choice, I would not have done so. But the reason I chose to do it is because I spent a great deal of time and money getting copies of these photos scanned for my up-coming book and two web sites in particular have already established a track record of "lifting" such things off other people's web-sites and worse, claiming they were responsible for originating the photos. Since the photos are presented here for you to look at, you can be assured that preservation methods have been taken to ensure the untouched and unaltered photos remain intact. The watermark is applied only for this blog.