Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Direct Approach

It's a testament to the allure of radio's golden age that one of the very best books about the era was the work of a self-identified "child of the TV generation" who missed out on radio the first time around. Leonard Maltin's The Great American Broadcast is perhaps not comprehensive the way books like John Dunning's Tune in Yesterday and On the Air aspire to be, yet it many ways it paints a much more richer portrait than those encyclopedic works. Rather than a purely chronological approach, Maltin explores the period by focusing on the people whose work made the programs what they are.

Among the actors, sound-men, writers and directors, Maltin gives us a look at quite a few people who did more than one of those things during their careers. One of these figures was, of course, Jack Johnstone and Maltin offers some interesting details about his life and work, both on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and other programs. One of these anecdotes about Johnstone's approach to directing hints at why Johnstone may have found TV an unappealing option when radio drama finally left the air.

Even though Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was a transcribed program, using relatively new tape technology that permitted editing, Johnstone avoided doing so. In order to get the best possible performances out of his cast, he insisted that each fifteen-minute episode be recorded from start to finish in a single take. If an actor made a mistake in the middle of the taping, the whole team would go back to the beginning and start again. Despite initial resistance on the part of some actors, Johnstone's live-to-tape approach ultimately won them over because "everybody [being] on his toes" resulted in better performances. While this very particular approach to perfectionism made Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar one of radio's best dramas, it seems unlikely it would have translated to the very different production demands of television, assuming a sponsor would even have allowed Johnstone that level of control.