Harvard radio theater, sponsored by the Harvard Friends of the Arts, will be returning to town March 25. Doors to Volunteers Hall at the library open at 7 p.m. and the production begins at 7:30. This year the staged reading is of “My Man Godfrey,” a comedy from 1936, directed and produced by Bob Eiland with music director and sound engineer Joan Eliyesil, starring local actors, both veterans and newcomers, and brought to you by Lux Flakes.
At a March 13 rehearsal, cast members, from left: Lynda Vernalia, Richard Steele, Didi Chadran, Dayle Ballentine, Pamela Kathleen Hill, Edie Hettinger (face hidden), and Bob Eiland. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)
Popular in the 1930s and ’40s, radio plays were weekly fare, adaptations of Hollywood movies, usually featuring the same actors, which had often, in turn, been based on Broadway plays. Traditionally they were broadcast live in front of small audiences. Two famous stars of the day, Carole Lombard and William Powell, played the leads in the movie “My Man Godfrey.”
Eiland, who grew up in radio and television studios and community theaters, said in a recent interview that what he loves about Old Time Radio Theatre is its historical importance. The commercials, costumes, and interviews with real people make the plays a good source of information about the values and interests of people in the 1930s and ’40s. We can learn that for a woman of those times, a run in her nylon stocking was a major catastrophe, and interviews with famous Hollywood directors and stars show how ordinary people loved glimpses into the lives of the rich and famous. The set captures the atmosphere of the time: a small radio studio with no props or scene changes where foleys produce sound effects that accompany action and show the passage of time, using techniques that now seem antiquated.
In describing the play, Eiland said that it is definitely of the “screwball comedy” genre, with zany characters, implausible coincidences, and multiple plot twists. But what’s different about “My Man Godfrey,” he said, is that it has serious undertones; it is, at its core, a play of social criticism. Set in New York City during the Great Depression, the play juxtaposes the selfish, frivolous lifestyle of the wealthy with the more altruistic and honest values of the penniless. Godfrey himself is the embodiment of the shallow, careless ways of the rich, but through a drastic change in status, he comes to realize how much kinder and more genuine are the “Forgotten Men” of the 1930s, among whom he has found himself. Eiland, who plays Godfrey, said of the character, “He is a man on the edge, looking for salvation.”
From left: Lynda Vernalia, Edie Hettinger, and Pamela Kathleen Hill rehearse an ad for Lux detergent.
Toward the end of the play, Eric Hatch, “My Man Godfrey” author and screenwriter, portrayed by Didi Chadran, says in an interview, “Comedy in my opinion must have a certain serious touch if it’s going to amount to anything. If the men who produce pictures happen to agree with me, then I believe this so-called trend will last indefinitely.”
But there’s no denying the comedy that the screwball characters bring to the play. Mrs. Bullock, the wealthy matriarch, played by Pamela Kathleen Hill of Ashby, is truly crazy. “She’s really not all there,” said Hill of her character. “She’s flaky; she’s happy all the time—maybe because she drinks all the time.” She fawns over Carlo, her Russian “protege,” to whose blatant lack of talent she is oblivious.
Carlo, played by Tim Clark, who has been in every past production of Harvard radio theater, is a moocher who stays on at the Bullocks’ house because Mr. Bullock finds it easier to indulge his crazy wife. Clark described Carlo as “a musician who doesn’t progress, a hack.” And he eats all the time, said Clark, likening his character to a Labrador at a buffet.
Mr. Bullock, played by Richard Steele, may disapprove of his wife’s and daughters’ spending habits, but he is ineffectual in his attempts to change them. Steele said his character would complain that “the women in my life think I’m Fort Knox or the Federal Reserve.” Little do they know.
Irene Bullock is the younger daughter, played by Dayle Ballentine of Bedford, a stage performer new to radio theater, who said she is really enjoying the medium. Ballentine, who clearly delights in her character, said of Irene, “She’s an innocent; she wears her heart on her sleeve, believes the best of everyone. There’s no artifice in her.” Irene is at the mercy of her older sister, Cornelia, and Ballentine admitted she likes those scenes where she can be nasty in a fight with her sister before returning to being sweet.
Lynda Vernalia, who lives in Westford, plays the churlish older sister who has always bested Irene at everything—until the high society scavenger hunt where it is Irene who finds the prized item. Vernalia said she usually plays The Mother, so it’s fun to be in the role of the villainous sister. “Cornelia has to win,” she said, “and when she doesn’t, she gets even.”
The commercials are a huge part of radio shows. In “My Man Godfrey,” Hill, Ballentine, and Vernalia, as well as Edie Hettinger, who, with great versatility, plays a Brooklyn maid, a detective, and a waitress in the play, team up to sing a commercial for Lux Flakes à la the Andrews sisters.
Because it’s a radio show, the sound effects are a vital part of the production. Judy Wong, electronics, and Bob Jarratt, manual, are the foleys who produce all the special effects. Their timing has to be impeccable to signal such events as approaching footsteps, dishes being washed, the shattering of a window, or the dropping of a mattress. Wong and Jarratt agreed that there are even more sound effects than in last year’s show and that they have had to be more creative. Wong said there’s been lots of trying things out, many hours spent in Jarratt’s basement “making noise.”
Whether or not you grew up listening to Lux Radio Theater, “My Man Godfrey” will be a nostalgic trip into the past. But its social commentary is deeply relevant to today’s society.