Loud Voices In The Forum


We decided roughly—this was my formula which never was official of course-that we would have four people at every broadcast. We had first a big name. That was to get newspaper publicity and keep the thing before the public. The second person besides a big name was somebody who knew something about the subject, which was not at all necessarily the same as the first person. The third necessary element was a woman. I thought there should always be at least one woman, and she was chosen for various reasons. Sometimes she, too, was a big name; sometimes she knew a lot about the subject; sometimes she was just chosen because she was articulate and represented that segment of public opinion. And then the fourth person had to be—in our first years this was very scrupulously maintained—somebody from the street. He had to be a cab driver or a shoe clerk or a small bookkeeper or somebody. And on a number of occasions we went out and deliberately dragged somebody in off the street and said, “You’re going on a broadcast” which was a very daring thing to do in those days.

In Philadelphia one time, however, we went out and dragged a man out of the seat of a private automobile, a fellow in chauffeur’s uniform, and said, “Come on in, you’re going to discuss the third term for Presidents with some people on the air.”

He said, “Me? Who, me?”

“Yes, you.”

As a matter of fact, he was very good. He just had one thing to say during the whole discussion. We had a professor, a Philadelphia lawyer, a club woman and this fellow. He only said one thing, and he said it about seven times. “Well, if Mr. Roosevelt wants to run and the people want him, let’s elect him.” That’s all there was to it. He just failed to see that there was any question involved at all, which I suppose was the real opinion of the man in the street.

What we tried to do was to get a degree of informality, of unselfconsciousness, of directness, of earthiness into these discussions that the other discussion groups didn’t have.

We once had a very famous actress, Tallulah Bank-head, on The People’s Platform . Her press agent came around and asked if she couldn’t be on. She wanted that kind of attention. She wanted to discuss sports. She has always been a great baseball fan. So we got Bill [Martene W.] Corum, Ford Frick, president of the National League, one other sports writer, and Tallulah to come and discuss the place of baseball in American life. It was to be a serious discussion, but it turned out to be a good deal of a riot.

Tallulah wanted to talk, and she didn’t care whether anybody else talked or not. As we had the thing set up at that time, she was sitting across the narrow table from me. She didn’t ever stop talking. She just went like a streak and the others, if they had anything to say, had to say it against the obligato of Miss Bank-head’s continuous flow of words. So I began to stare her in the eye. I had developed a good deal of a basilisk glare by that time; and she saw that she was being a bad girl. She’s an old trouper, of course, and she couldn’t quite stand my minatory glance, so she turned away from the table, swung her chair clear around, almost out of range of the mike, so she wouldn’t have to look at me, and went right on talking.

Rolf Kaltenborn, Hans’s son, was one of the associate directors at that time, and he was in charge. When we went off the air, he came in the room. He was in hysterics. I remember he said, “That’s the only real dinner party ever put on the air—some blankety-blank woman talking right straight through it without a break.”

Then we proceeded to have a real riot. I don’t know where the people came from. There must have been twenty or thirty people that crowded into that little dining room. I never did find out who any of them were, but they all seemed to be friends and acquaintances of Tallulah. By this time she was just putting on a show and, after pictures had been taken and we’d had some brandy around she decided that she wanted to go out to the World’s Fair and see the baby panda. That gives you something of the quality of the evening.

This is one of the more raucous incidents. I could give you many. After all, eight years represented some four hundred programs. There is the usual tale, of course, about the light not working and my demanding in profane tones why we couldn’t get any signals from the engineers and discovering afterwards that we had been on the air for two minutes. That happens to everybody. That’s standard, and it does happen.

One of our most notable performances was on the mezzanine floor of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston during a meeting of the American Legion. At the time we went on the air, there was an artillery salvo being fired every three minutes in the street just under the windows. In the general lobby of the hotel, into which the mezzanine looks, there were a fife and drum corps and a bagpipe corps having a contest to see which one could play the loudest. We had artillery on one side, just one story down, and the fife and drum and the bagpipe corps just under us. We just had pandemonium. We had to broadcast in the midst of that.

Louis Johnson, afterwards secretary of defense, was the main person in that broadcast. He was the only one who ever showed up at a broadcast with an unidentified person whom he didn’t introduce to me but who got right into the discussion on the air in no time. He came just before we went on the air. At no time did I have the slightest idea who this other fellow was. I don’t know to this day.