‘They Heard You In Cape Town!’

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Dorothy Gordon has had a distinguished career in radio, both in the field of music and with children’s programs. She founded youth forums and is director and moderator of the New York Times Youth Forum. Here she describes some of her earliest experiences in broadcasting.

 

I started my concerts in 1923 over WEAF. At the station there was a glass window that separated the studio from a sort of waiting room outside.

My announcer was Graham McNamee. We were having a great deal of fun together before I went on the air because I was so frightened of this thing. There was this little tiny round instrument in front of me. I said, “Well, what happens?”

He said, “Well, you just stand right there—and you just sing.”

I said, “Oh no, I just can’t. There’s no audience, no people.”

I think a stage person always needs that relationship between audience and artist.

I was frightened to death—scared as scared could be, and I said, “But nothing will happen. Don’t tell me that I sing into this thing, and then it goes out and someone hears it!”

He laughed at me. He said, “Of course you will be heard. You’ll be heard by more people than you realize.”

All I could think of was that my boys, little youngsters, were up in our apartment with wires across the whole ceiling of the nursery and earphones on their ears desperately trying to listen to me. I didn’t know at that time what they got. I found out later. They said they heard nothing but squawks and curious sounds that didn’t sound at all like mother.

Suddenly I saw a great deal of excitement outside of the glass window which separated the studio from the waiting room. People running back and forth and signaling to one another. Graham McNamee, who wanted to know what it was all about, opened the door and went out. Being an artist I knew the show must go on so I went right on singing this soft beautiful little Brittany lullaby. All the time I was wondering what in the world was going on—whether the place was on fire. My accompanist got worried but I went on nevertheless.

Out there in the waiting room was my husband whose face would sort of light up, and he had a grin from ear to ear, so I knew that there was no catastrophe of any kind. Something very pleasant seemed to be happening.

When I finished and got off the air, Graham McNamee walked in and said to me, “I have a very interesting thing to tell you. We had word that they heard you in Cape Town.”

That did something to me which has never left me . . .

As I traveled about the country, the various radio stations would invite me to sing and to perform in relation to my concert program. I wasn’t paid. I would just go to a station and sing fifteen minutes or so and talk about the concert that was coming. I did that in a number of the cities throughout the country.

I have tramped up more stairs and gone into more old buildings and I became increasingly more and more astonished at the crudeness of some of these places—and to think that in spite of that, music personality could come out on the air, it was quite amazing!

I remember one of these stations—in Richmond, Virginia. It was very hot when I was there and we came into the station to rehearse. The station was in a very poor neighborhood of the city, sort of—almost—a slum neighborhood. There was a whole block of two- or three-story buildings which were stores. We had to go through a store and up back stairs to the second floor—winding old stairs—and there was the studio, an old, unkempt-looking sort of place.

On this terribly, terribly hot day they attempted to air-condition the room. They brought in a huge, great big barrel which was filled with ice. They had a fan radiating this ice so that the cool air would come through this thing and go into the room. In rehearsal it was quite all right. Then we went on the air, and when we were on the air, the ice began to melt. We would hear these loud reports—of course in those times we weren’t thinking in terms of atomic bombs—but it sounded very much like that. Every time I would try to sing a very soft phrase—wham! crack went this ice. We were hysterical! I don’t know how I ever finished that broadcast!