|Oct/Nov 2011 Nonfiction|
Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins
After Mom read to me, she would dial up Dad's voice on the radio atop the bookshelf in my bedroom. As Mom fine-tuned that black box, the static and beeps and squeals gave way to an announcer, followed by my father. "That's Daddy," Mom would say, love in her blue eyes. She'd stay a few minutes before she tucked me in, kissed my cheek, and walked away, her heels click-clicking on the hardwood floor and her dress playing against what adults called her shapely legs. A trace of her perfume lingered after she turned off the light and closed the door, leaving her only child to listen to Gerald Mohr.
During the first four years of my life, my father played Philip Marlowe. Now that makes me proud. Then I just wanted him home more often. I was too young to appreciate the hardboiled plots, and even if he was in the house, Dad rarely came into my bedroom to explain them. The radio orchestra's crescendo told me when something was about to happen, because I was not too young to absorb the logic of the music under the tough words of noir.
Nor was I too young to recognize authority in a voice. Dad's may have been disconnected from a body, but it was always in charge. Just as it did to me when he actually was home, angry at I no longer remember what, Dad's baritone voice could intimidate an audience: "Get this and get it straight," he snarled. "Crime's a sucker's road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison or the grave." His voice could exude sarcastic skepticism in the "Mmmm's," and "Oh really's?" that defined Philip Marlowe's reaction when his client spun a tall tale. The voice could soothe when Marlowe said, "Tell me about it, baby." "Baby" was a staple in Dad's vocabulary, and for good reason: coming from him, it endeared.
But during those little boy nights when Dad's voice glided across the room to my bed, it failed to comfort. One Christmas episode called for him to console a sick little girl who had received no presents. She wept and my father cooed to her. It was the first time radio made me cry, which I did—alone, under the covers. I got plenty of presents that Christmas, but not enough of Dad. The radio star was not yet comfortable playing the role of a parent.
Dad's close friends were his radio colleagues, and their kids populated my childhood. Robby Rubin, two years my senior, taught me baseball (Robby's father Jack wrote scripts for The Hallmark Playhouse). Pat Woodruff (Frank Woodruff was a director for Lux Radio Theater) and I played hide and go seek. Stephanie DuBob (Paul DuBob acted on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe) was daring, probably because her father kept two cheetahs in the backyard. I think I played with them more than I did with my father.
But Dad's 20-year radio run was peaking when I entered his life. The Adventures of Philip Marlowe lost a few more listeners with each Philco television set that entered a household. And while Robby, Pat, Stephanie, and I had fun on the swings, our parents tried to enter this cool new medium. Although we were oblivious to it, their vocational retraining must have been intense. Radio actors read their lines standing at a microphone. Television actors had to work with props and master movement—space work is what they called it. Dad never knew what to do with his hands, which may be why he became a chain smoker. Radio scriptwriters had to create good dialogue, but little more. Their stage instructions could be limited to sound effects like "MUSIC... DOWN AND UNDER" and "SLAP... CRY OF NEWBORN BABY." Screenwriters had to describe the characters in motion. Radio could invite its audience into an alternative universe with cheaply created cues. Television had a camera, wrote Paddy Chayefsky, and the audience expected it to show them something real. Chayefsky's essay on this topic appeared in an English textbook that by the 1960s, we L.A. kids were expected to read and know.
I did not mean to be disloyal to my father when I abandoned radio in favor of television shows like Howdy Doody and Sheriff John. Buffalo Bob and Sheriff John spoke to me, not to criminals and adults down on their luck. They made me happy, and their shows were not broadcast in the dead of night.
I felt nothing when Philip Marlowe went off the air. I was only four. But with radio's fadeout, Dad and his friends no longer worked steadily. At one point between my fourth and sixth birthdays, I remember Dad not working at all. I didn't miss the noir, and Mom read to me a few minutes longer at night. But I continued to miss Dad. He slept until noon. Opening his bedroom door before that hour risked the wrath of a beast, roaring at me to stay away. Sometimes the door was still closed at two when I returned home from kindergarten. Once awake, Dad grumbled about the house, starting in the kitchen with coffee and then drifting to the dinette—a circular space with a wooden bench along the periphery and an octagonal table that sat up to ten. There he read the newspaper and ate fried eggs with burnt bacon and burnt toast. After his second cup of coffee, he moved to what he called "my chair," a green, highback in the living room that was positioned so that Dad could sit with his back toward our television set. Whenever he looked up from his book, he could see the fireplace near the bay window straight ahead, and to his right, a natural wood coffee table and our long couch against the north wall. If he sat in either of the other two armchairs facing him, Dad would have had to look at the object that was strangling his career.
With Dad not working, dinner became a silent meal. The sole sounds were the clink of forks against knives and coffee cups on saucers, stopping only when Dad lit his Virginia Rounds cigarette and Mom, a Camel. Dessert was a spoonful of vanilla ice cream and a Nabisco cookie. We started having hamburgers regularly, and I remember wondering why, because one of my earliest images was Dad's wide eyes and big grin whenever Mom cooked filet mignon, and she used to serve it often. "Baby, no restaurant cooks it better than you," he would say. Dad said nothing when she made hamburgers.
Even if Mom served something expensive, I sensed no joy in our dinette. One night when I asked what we were eating, Dad said, "We're having duck." As in, "Get this and get it straight. We're having duck."
"Ducky wuckie," my grandma, who lived in a flat behind our house, said into the hush. Her rhyme amused no one, including me.
The tension was confusing, and so I turned to my comfort food: "Ballard OvenReady Biscuits." The dough Mom pulled from its cylindrical package cooked in nine minutes. I doused my Hot Biscuits in butter, and this warm goo slipped gently down my throat. I'd eat them until Mom and Dad ordered me to stop.
The word "afford" joined my vocabulary, and I learned to associate it with money. One day when I heard Mom and Grandma saying they could not "afford" something, I asked, "Want me to give you some of my money?" Mom hugged me and said they didn't need my weekly allowance, so into the piggy bank went my silver quarter. I was never scared. I still had my wooden train that I pulled along grooved tracks that I could snap together and lay out across my bedroom floor. Mom kept her Plymouth and Dad, his Ford. The living room furniture remained. So did the Kelvinator refrigerator and the O'Keefe and Merritt stove with the vanishing shelf/cover.
The transition was slow, and while Dad as a movie and television actor never matched his radio reputation, at least he worked. And we inched closer to each other. Before cruising out the door early in the morning, he hugged me goodbye with the happy words, "Now I gotta go make a buck." We hiked in Vasquez Rocks, the location of one of his westerns. He took me to sound stages, which were the opposite of radio because they were all about lights—lights everywhere, along the walls and suspended across the ceiling. We went to a party for "the children of the stars" at the hillside home of Uncle Bernie, owner of the Beverly Hills toy store of the same name, famous for its lemonade tree. He took me to a celebrities-only night at Pacific Ocean Park—a seaside cluster of scary rides just south of Santa Monica. He even let me sit with him in his favorite chair while he read scripts and studied his lines.
"How would you like to go on television?" Dad asked when his friend Al Gannaway wanted me on Half Pint Panel, a children's talk show he was producing. Dad's voice brimmed with happy excitement, not a trace of resentment. He was accepting television into his life, and at the same time, although perhaps not as fast, he seemed to be accepting me into his life.
Years later, after I turned 13, old enough to understand and Dad was old enough to reminisce, he began telling me about his past. By then we had become "pals"—his word. He called me Pal when he was happy. He called me Tony when I did something wrong.
Dad's eyes sparkled when he described his radio days. He had started in New York. One night when he was sent to cover some event in Times Square, he had invented a melee complete with rocks and bottles and knives, boosting the ersatz violence until he was shouting into the mike, "Times Square is running with blood." If he lost his job or got disciplined, he never said. He moved to Hollywood. He got parts. Then bigger parts. He said that Humphrey Bogart had been charming to work with in radio's version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. After broadcasting live, Dad and the rest of the cast repaired to the deep chairs of the Brown Derby, where their caricatures hung on the walls and they could "have some laughs" into the night.
Several years before I was born, a magazine had named my father "Best Male Actor on Radio." Dad performed in some 500 shows—radio plays, as they were known. Besides Philip Marlowe, he was the globe-trotting detective Bill Lance. He appeared on The Whistler. He was a regular on Orson Welles' Mercury Theater Company, Lux Radio Theater, The Hallmark Playhouse, and forgotten series like Nero Wolfe, Front Page Drama, and Dr. Christian. They called him "The Iron Duke" because he never missed a line.
I listened, but even as a teenager, my father's radio roles seemed as distant as he once had been. The details had already faded from memory until they had become little more than feelings stitched together by hard-boiled sentences and musical passages I couldn't hum. But the one stubborn fact I never forgot was that during the opening years of my life, Dad's role had been little more than a voice I heard in the dark.