Film sheds new light on old scandal
This is a tale about celebrity, salacity, moral outrage and the public airwaves, all brought under the same umbrella by a young Triad filmmaker with a wink and a nod.
To fully appreciate it you’ve got to set your mental parameters back to the early days of radio, 1937, the year Amelia Earheart disappeared high above the Pacific, the Supreme Court allowed that minimum wage laws applied to women as well as men and the Hindenburg dissolved in a fiery crash at a New Jersey airfield. These juicy bits of copy came across the airwaves along with dramas like ‘“The Shadow’” (a character who in that year was voiced by a young Orson Wells), soap operas like ‘“The Guiding Light’” (yep, the same one that airs on CBS today) and reformed vaudeville stars who brought their campy brand of comedy to sketch shows and variety hours.
The most popular radio personality of the time was Charlie McCarthy, and it is relevant to note that he was a ventriloquist’s dummy voiced by Edgar Bergen and that the dummy got top billing. It’s a punch line these days, but back then people apparently didn’t care if you could see Bergen’s lips moving or not.
McCarthy and Bergen were the main draw on the ‘“Chase and Sanborn Hour’” on NBC, the same radio network that fired Howard Stern in 1985. The show was hosted in 1937 by Don Ameche, the old guy from Cocoon. ‘“Chase and Sanborn’” was a precursor to television programs like ‘“The Ed Sullivan Show’” and ‘“Saturday Night Live,’” broad vehicles for music and comedy with frequent celebrity guests.
On Dec. 12, 1937, Mae West made an appearance on the show to perform a skit with Ameche based on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, and also to drum up publicity for her new movie, Every Day is a Holiday. The broadcast would live forever in radio lore.
Fast forward to present day Greensboro. At the Scene on South Elm the lights are dim and the captain’s chairs are stacked on the stage at the rear. A three-man crew arranges grasses at the base of an idyllic apple tree and erects a three-sided wrought iron fence around it. Patrick Horne, director, wades through the sea of bodies with a bag of apples in his hand.
A ponytailed crewman in a black leather vest catches his eye,
‘“Patrick, you need anything else?’”
‘“I need a rope tied to the left side of the platform.’”
‘“Your left or my left?’”
Horne, a member of Page High School’s Class of ’97 and a graduate of Ohio University’s School of Film, thinks for a second.
From the dressing room comes the urethane smell of rubber cement mixed with makeup, hairspray and old clothes. James Rainey, AKA the drag queen Emon-e Stylez, sits in the chair and allows a platinum wig to be placed atop his head. He’ll be playing the role of Dorothy Lamour in the short film based on the infamous broadcast, and he’ll stand about 6-foot-8 in his black ball gown with the heels and high hairdo. In the film, as in the radio show, Ms Lamour will open with a song.
‘“Patrick,’” the current Ms. Lamour asks, ‘“what’s the name of the song?’”
‘“Every Day’s a Holiday,’” he says.
John Say, who will reprise Ameche’s role as master of ceremonies and the part of Adam in the sketch, holds up his costume, a tiny G-string adorned with leaves. He shakes his head.
‘“I swam all through high school,’” he says. ‘“I’ve been in front of a lot of people with little clothes on. I’ve never done a fig leaf’….’”
Leanne Bernard, who is in the process of channeling Mae West, drops the bodice of her skin-tight, sequined red dress and accepts a brassiere loaded with two-sided tape. With her cleavage hoisted and her hair spun into a tight corona of curls, she dons a broad-brimmed hat ‘— ‘“Mae was notorious for her hats,’” she says ‘— and a red feather boa, it’s likely her own children wouldn’t recognize her.
‘“Mae’s already checked out of the Garden of Eden,’” she says. ‘“She’s decked out in her party dress just waiting for Adam to get out of Dodge.’”
There was no footage taken of the original radio broadcast, no still photography and most of the principle players are dead. So when Horne decided to make a film about it he had to rely largely on his imagination and the documented history of radio to fill in the blanks.
‘“I was preparing for another play,’” he says, ‘“and I was checking out some old radio shows for inspiration.’” It was in a compilation of broadcasts from the ’30s that he came across this gem.
‘“I listened to it and became obsessed with it,’” he says. ‘“I would play it now and again for a chuckle. I kept imagining the scene, all those people in that room.’”
Now, three years later, he’s re-creating the scandalous show that got Mae West, indeed any mention of her name, banned from NBC.
So what went down on that Sunday in December with America’s reigning sex queen on the country’s favorite radio program?
By current standards, it was nothing remarkable ‘— during the live broadcast, recorded in front of a studio audience, Ms. West ad-libbed a few of her lines in her pussycat drawl and accentuated them with her famous form. Listening to a recording of the program today it’s hard to find something to be offended about, but you can hear the uncomfortable laughter on the soundstage after she purrs lines like, ‘“I feel like doin’ a big apple,’” and, ‘“I’m the first woman to have her own way and a snake’ll take the rap for it.’” She also makes reference to Adam’s ‘“floating rib’” and, one can assume, made use of her assets to comic effect.
It was scandalous. The network was flooded with a thousand or so angry letters and FCC Chairman Frank McNinch, after reading a copy of the script, protested the ‘“objectionable character’” of the sketch. NBC President Lenox H. Lohr, six days after the broadcast, blacklisted West from all NBC productions. She didn’t appear on radio again for another 31 years, after a couple of ill-advised rock records she made in the late ’60s got some play.
‘“I almost got thrown off the air for life because of that skit,’” Ameche said years later.
Using the script and a recording of the original show, Horne’s goal is to re-examine the controversy.
‘“There are these points in the broadcast where there would be four seconds of silence and [then] you’d hear the audience laughing,’” Horne says. ‘“I said to the actors, ‘You figure it out.””
At the Scene on South Elm he pokes his head into the dressing room.
‘“Ms. Lamour, are you ready for your close-up?’”
James Rainey, in his full-length black gown and opera gloves, goes through the paces of the song, lip-synching to a recording of the original radio broadcast, shuffling between a silhouetted crowd and prancing about during the chorus. Horne, standing on a boarded hand truck that acts as the dolly for camera two, assays the lighting, the costumes, the scene.
They roll. Seven takes later they’ve got it in the can, and everybody in the room can sing at least part of the song.
‘“I don’t ever want to hear it again,’” Rainey says.
The meticulous re-creation of the scene on film is a far cry from the seat-of-the-pants days of radio.
‘“It’s not just monotony,’” says cameraman Adam Balevic. ‘“There’s a lot of hurry up and wait. Getting 90 percent there is easiest. It’s the last 10 percent that takes a long time.’”
They get the next scene, Kevin Chamberlain as announcer Wendell Niles, in six takes. A 10-second dance bumper requires five more, with the choreography changing a bit for each.
After lunch they’re ready for West and Ameche. The actors Say and Bernard take their spots and perform along with the recording of the broadcast. Say holds back and lets Bernard take the spotlight for the scandalous climax.
‘“I wanna hold you closer. I wanna’….’”
‘“You wanna what?’”
They embrace and lock lips and Bernard mouths the words to the tag line.
‘“That was the original kiss!’”
After a couple months in the editing process, Horne says his film will be ready for viewing, probably as part of a live event at the Scene with bands and some other short films and then possibly as a submission to film festivals and then cable networks like Sundance and IFC that are always looking for shorts and have a keen taste for Hollywood legend.
‘“This was an interesting space in time,’” he says, ‘“a cool little moment in 1937.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.