The Best Radio Plays of Paul Rhymer
Foreward by Jean Shepherd
Mary Frances Rhymer - Editor 1976 Seabury Press
One day when I had to stay home from the Warren G. Harding School because of some Kid problem like a sty or a case of diarrhea and everything was quiet in the house in the Northern Indiana steel-mill town where we lived, half-way up in the next block on Cleveland Street, I suddenly heard my mother laughing uproariously in the kitchen. I struggled out of bed to see what was going on. There she was, sitting at our white enamel kitchen table, wearing her rump-sprung Chinese Red chenille housecoat, her hair festooned with aluminum rheostats, laughing her head off.
"What's up, Mom?"
She waved weakly at me. She giggled again.
"What's happening, Mom?"
She wiped tears away from her eyes with a soggy dishtowel.
"Walter's kneecap is acting up again."
"Huh?" I asked in the best Rush Gook style.
"Go back to bed. Can't you see I'm listening to the radio?" She was indeed. She had a white plastic Sears Roebuck Silvertone radio with a cracked plastic cabinet, badly repaired with adhesive tape, on top of our beloved Hotpoint refrigerator. It was her constant companion. It hummed and gave her shocks continually, but out of its imitation gold speaker grill flowed her secret world of fantasy and entertainment. She was one of millions of lucky and discerning housewives who had the good fortune to actually hear 'Vic & Sade'. They are, naturally, a decreasing band, the lucky ones, but they all, to the last one, remember whole episodes and places, people, and the Chicago and Alton freight yards. Paul Rhymer was unknown to most of them, as he is to most of the civilized world today. There is just no one to compare him with. As far as I know, no one working in the mass media has ever created such a complete and flawless world, peopled with characters so fully realized.
Most work done for the mass media is highly perishable by its very nature. Unfortunately, also by the very nature of mass media, the mediocre and the banal tends to outlive the truly creative and original. The 'Lone Rangers' and 'Green Hornets' are forever dredged up as examples of "The Golden Age of Radio," while unfortunately the true gold is mentioned rarely, if it all.
My memory of the actual show as broadcast is episodic because 'Vic & Sade' was a daytime show. Radio, in those days, as television does to this very day, reserved its night-time prime hours for the "important" shows. Daytime hours were packed with things designed for "housewives", usually a term tinged with slight derision in network offices. Therefore, not only was the great work of Paul Rhymer burned up by the nature of mass media itself, it was doubly cursed by being cast among the quicksand shoals of the world of Soap Opera. It's as though "Death of a Salesman" or "Our Town" had debuted on a typical Wednesday afternoon between "As the World Turns" and "Against the Storm", followed by "The Hollywood Squares".
Being a kid at the time, daytime was spent going to school, or outside just fooling around, but on the few times that I did hear 'Vic & Sade', Blue-Tooth Johnson, Rooster Davis, Third-Lieutenant Stanley and Mr. Gumpox's horse Howard became firmly embedded in my subconscious--forever. I remember nothing of 'The Lone Ranger' except "Hi Ho, Silver!", which is not much of a line when you think of it. All I remember of Fred Allen is his phony Chinese accent when he was playing a detective, but Smelly Clark's Uncle Strap taking his lady friend to Peoria for a fish dinner somehow got me where I lived. Maybe it was because Paul Rhymer created TRUE humor. He did not deal in jokes, but human beings observed by a sardonic, biting, yet loving mind.
Rhymer has been compared to Harold Pinter by some, Mark Twain by others. Personally I feel that Rhymer was a complete original. Curiously enough, Rhymer READS better than any of the so-called "serious" writers of his era. The 'Vic & Sade' scripts are not only still fresh and funny, but are absolutely recognizable as an authentic picture of American life which persists in millions of homes today. Yamilton's Department Store, Peoria, the peanut machine at the Depot, Consolidated Kitchenware, Plant Fourteen, The Sacred Stars of the Milky Way were never touched by Steinbeck or Odets. The Okies are a quaint period piece, but Gloria Golden is still playing at the Bijou. Her name may be Faye Dunaway or Raquel Welch. Rush's complaint "All they ever have in movies is Love, Love, Love. Boy, they sure are boring" could have been said yesterday afternoon.
Another thing that amazes me is rhymer's wild and subtle imagination. Wild in the sense of being totally unpredictable, and subtle in that he touched at all times on the faint vein of madness that runs through all of us. He rarely went for the obvious; hence he preceded the Theater of the Absurd by decades. In fact, it is my opinion that in some ways he is far closer to Ionesco in spirit than he was to Thornton Wilder, who sentimentalized American life in a way that Rhymer's sense of irony refused to allow. For example, "The Washing Machine is On the Blink" combines the American Do-It-Yourself syndrome, Masochism, and the continual breakdown of modern technology in such a totally nutty way as to be completely logical in the way a Marx Brothers scene involving a grand piano, a stuffed duck, a bolt of lightning and an out-of-work Fire Chief does. In some twelve minutes of inspired dialog, Rhymer convinces us that two otherwise sane human beings, down in the basement trying to fix the washing machine, begin to enjoy electric shocks, experimenting with various electric shock techniques, finally conspiring to lay one on an unsuspecting mother, all the while cackling maniacally in ecstatic pleasure. There are very few minds that could possibly conceive of the electric shock as pleasure, but that's Rhymer for you. I, personally, am curious just what your average nice, hard-working housewife of the period thought when she heard that one. I suspect more than a few crept down into the basement covertly and tried sticking their fingers into hot AC outlets while standing in puddles.
Another example of Rhymer at his surreal best is the little gem called "Caramels on a Hot Day", in which we find Rush, as he puts it, "stirring up a little excitement" by sitting on the front porch, making round balls out of square three-for-a-penny caramels. Think about that for a moment. A hot day, caramels, and boredom. This is exactly what a kid does do, squatting on a front porch in the heat of summer, but who thinks to build a fifteen-minute drama to be broadcast to millions out of that dynamic situation? Better yet, who but Paul Rhymer could pull off such a feat, or would have the courage to do it even if he could? Rhymer obviously was very sure about his work in a medium where that kind of security and self-knowledge is almost non-existent.
In a way it 's too bad that Paul Rhymer never wrote for the more recognized media. Great reputations exist in the theater or the novel on far less profound and effective work than Rhymer 's. In fact, he probably wrote more funny lines in one month of daily scripts than the combined output of five of the leading playwrights of modern times. Not only that his characters were truer, more consistent, and far better realized. Remember, reading these scripts in published book form is barely skimming the thinnest surface of the body of Vic & Sade. These works were written to be performed, and yet in spite of that they come alive, snapping and crackling, off the page. One reason, technically, is that Rhymer created a vast cast of unseen and unheard people who were every bit as alive and interesting as Vic, Sade, Rush, and Uncle Fletcher. Fred and Ruthie Stembottom and their continual snaillike drives in Fred 's old automobile to Chenoa, Illinois, and Ruthie's "scared rabbit" smile; Mr, Ruebush, Vic 's boss at the plant; Ike Kneesuffer 's indoor horse-shoe set in his basement; Miz Husher 's continual peevishness, and, of course, Vic 's beloved lodge brothers in the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way - Robert and Slobert Hink, Y. Y. Flirch and H. K. Fleeber, are all part of the well developed cast of millions.
Not all of Vic & Sade 's episodes were pure fun and games. In fact, they rarely were. Practically every episode had little shafts of insight, and often sadness, that would come and go like the brief hints of darker things we all have in our own lives, Sade 's tenderness over poor old Uncle Fletcher 's wandering mind; Vic 's understanding of Rush, and his obvious love for Sade, comes through in a beautifully written and subtle episode called "Vic Confides in Rush about Mothers." It contains hints of the inevitability of death, references to the "Empty Nest" syndrome (Rhymer was thirty years ahead of psychiatrists on this one), overlaid with a beautifully realized treatment of masculine relationships. In addition, he managed to be funny. Rhymer must have been a hell of an interesting man to know.
Perhaps one of the things that Rhymer did best was to illuminate and dramatize lightly, effortlessly, and without at any point lecturing, the vast gulf that exists between types of people. I have never read a better short story touching on the smothering boredom, yet natural concern we feel in the presence of close relatives than in "Vic Reviews a Vacation Week with Bess and Walter in Carberry." Poor Walter and Bess, trying so hard to entertain Vic, and Vic trying so hard to be entertained, while Sade all the while blithely chatters on with her sister Bess, never realizing that Vic 's only vacation for the year is going down the drain. This episode, by the way, points out another quality in Rhymer 's work. He never ridiculed or put down people merely because they are what they are. However, he is razor-sharp when it comes to blasting the fraudulent and the inane. "Vic Is Elected to the Congress of Distinguished Americans" is a classic example of Rhymer putting another one right in the bull 's-eye. This particular con has been around for a long time, and there are countless walls in dens all over the country upon which hang framed scrolls proclaiming 'officially' the profound and notable greatness of the yahoo who pays the rent. In fact, it was only last week that I received, personally, three notices in the mail informing me that I had been selected 'to be signally honored' by outfits with names very much like The Congress of Distinguished Americans. I remind you that this particular episode was aired 'way back in the Thirties.
Some of Rhymer's funniest stuff dealt with that all-pervasive goofiness of the moth Century - the movies. Vic, particularly, was great on the subject. In fact, in "Stembottom's Invitation to Drive Thirty-five Miles to a Double Feature" we find Vic emitting 'low, painful groans' for three full pages of dialog when faced with the nightmare of attending a double feature of two pictures he had already seen, and hated the first time around, and which he describes as "rotten, rotten, rotten." Nobody in today 's situation comedies is ever remotely as honest about a fellow medium. Does Archie Bunker ever blast the movies, or even mention them at all? Does Mary Tyler Moore? Never. That 's the thing about the characters in Vic & Sade. They lived in the real world, where people really do say such things as movies are rotten, or Yamilton 's Department Store is throwing another one of "them phony Sales."
Judging from his scripts, if Rhymer were alive today he would probably snort in derision at the pompous tone of this foreword, but I also suspect he would secretly have enjoyed it. Rhymer was an artist, and no artist who ever lived ever turned down a tribute to his work. I think I should point out a few techniques that Rhymer used that everybody tries but few master. Most contemporary writers for mass media simply feed a series of one-liners to their characters, go for the cheap laugh, and hope that no one is the wiser. Rhymer, in contrast, wrote dialog; succinct, spare, yet with an absolutely true ear for the rhythms and inRections of American speech. This is much easier to talk about, or discuss in class, than to accomplish. Obviously, Rhymer was a very gifted listener. A few brief examples:
SADE: Sounds like somebody 's trying to knock our front door in.
RUSH: That stug cookin ' on the gas stove okay, Mom?
RUSH: Makin ' a gurgling sound like it needed water.
Now that 's nice. People talk like that. This, if you wish to read the rest of the dialog, which gets better as it goes along, can be found in "Manual for Wives of Sky Brothers in the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way." There is also some very nifty Latin, a language not often heard on mass media. No pun intended.
Finally, I should point out that the announcer was also an integral part of the daily drama. My mother, for one, loved him. I think his name was Bob Brown. His subtle, confidential style set the tone for the daily session of eavesdropping in the small house halfway up in the next block. My mother to this day tells about the time, not more than five minutes into the episode, the cast, including the announcer, got to laughing so hard over some nuttiness that Rhymer had come up with that the entire show was a shambles. They just laughed and chuckled until finally they gave up trying to be Vic and Sade and Rush and Uncle Fletcher and went off the air, hooting and hollering and leaving millions of listeners in kitchens everywhere doing the same thing. When I was just beginning in the business, I had the rare honor to meet the fine actress who played "Sade." She looked just like Sade should look. She looked, well, like Sade. The series was long off the air, but was rapidly growing as a legend. I asked her what was the hardest thing about playing Sade on a daily basis, year in and year out. Naturally, I figured she 'd say something like "endless rehearsals," how tough the grind was, and so on.
"Well, son, I'll tell you," she said, sounding exactly like Sade about to straighten out Rush on some fine point of life. "The hardest thing was to keep a straight face. Sometimes those scripts were so funny that we had to fight all the way through the show just breaking up, And the more we rehearsed, the funnier it got. Why, I remember one day having to turn my face to the wall while Uncle Fletcher was telling me about a trip he took to Cairo, Illinois, in the company of one of his friends. The engineer was on the floor, the announcer had to leave the room, and I can tell you it wasn 't easy."
What better compliment can an actor pay a writer?
I have one practical suggestion for those of you who have had the great sense to pick up this volume of scripts. Read them aloud. Get three or four good friends together and decide who 's going to play Vic, who will be Sade, and finally Rush and poor old Uncle Fletcher. You can call in your next door neighbor to do the announcing. Ten to one you'll be doing VIC Br SADE episodes until five in the morning. Have fun. That 's what Paul Rhymer and Vic & Sade are all about.