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Friday, June 11, 2010

What becomes a legend most?
Posted by Jill | 3:01 PM

That was an old slogan for Blackglama mink, but what else can you wonder when the world says goodbye to someone who, in a way most of us never even knew, was a visionary whose legacy has influenced entertainers today from The Firesign Theatre in the 1960's to to the writing staff of the late and lamented Morning Sedition radio program to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, which is probably the last bastion of radio theatre.

When I was a kid, I used to like to listen to old-time radio shows. I think they were on WBAI. My taste tended to run more towards comedies like Fibber McGee and Molly and Fred Allen and Jack Benny, and radio soaps like Backstage Wife, which my mother used to jokingly call "Mary Backstage, Noble Wife". The soaps were notable even by the time I was about ten for sheer snark and ridicule value, but the comedies were still funny. Was there anyone who couldn't visualize what was happening when Fibber McGee opened that closet door? Occasionally I'd listen to the adventure serials, but I don't remember much about them because if I recall correctly, WBAI used to not necessary play the whole series, which meant that much of what was broadcast was out of context. But I knew about Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates. I knew about the creaking door of the Inner Sanctum, a show which influenced everyone from Rod Serling to Zacherley.

While I don't remember any specific interest in The Inner Sanctum, I do remember hearing the show's infamous creaking door, and my parents referring to my room as "The inner sanctum", though Fibber McGee's closet would have been a more apt analogy.

I also remember listening to this particular WBAI program one evening and hearing what sounded like a detective story from old-time radio, except that it was punnier than most of them, with exchanges like:

If you're so smart, why don't you pick up your cues faster?

Are those my cues?

Yes, and they must be dry by now. Why don't you pull them out of the cellophane before they scorch.

The cellophane, of course, referred to what was used to create the sound of a crackling fire, but the meta-ness of the dialogue in this particular radio drama was very different from the old shows from the 1930's and 1940's that usually ran. This particular drama turned out to be "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger", from the How Can You Be In Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All album by the 1960's surrealist comedy team, The Firesign Theatre. The age of television may have been upon us, but there were clearly creative people still out there who cut their teeth on radio serials and knew how to do it.

Fast-forward now to 2005. Air America Radio is still in its relative infancy, with it's gonzo "Hey, kids...let's put on a radio network" energy. Many of the shows dip their toes into the radio drama waters, from the hourly intro bits on The Randi Rhodes Show to Al Franken's Oy Oy Oy Show. But it was the amazing writing staff at the aforementioned Morning Sedition who revived the art of the radio drama, delivered with snark for a new age, with "Morning Sedition Radio Theatre."

And that is where my familiarity with Himan Brown begins.

I never met the man. I would never even known who he was, were it not for the kind of nearly cultlike devotion that Morning Sedition fans had (and still have) for that program. I struck up an online friendship with one of them, a woman named Melina. I don't even know how we ever hit it off, with little life experience in common other than being staunch fans of Morning Sedition and Marc Maron's comedy, interests in writing and politics, and being products of crazy, dysfunctional Jewish families. But we did. Melina put a great deal of personal energy these last few years into coordinating the care for her ailing grandfather, who was already well in his nineties. It wasn't until much later that she told me about who her grandfather was and what he spent his life doing. And it wasn't until I read a more about him that I realized that all those years ago, when I listened to those old-time radio shows when I was a kid, it was because of "Melina's Grandpa" -- a man who over seventy years ago, realized the potential of what happened when you wrapped wire around an oatmeal box, added a crystal diode and capacitor, and put it together with nothing more than the spoken word, sound effects, and well-placed music.

When you think about how early television drama grew out of radio, and you examine the construction of shows like The Twilight Zone and Superman that many of us post-WWII babies cut our teeth on, it's mind-boggling how much of contemporary popular culture owes its structure to Himan Brown, who knew not just the power of the spoken word, but the endless potential of human imagination.

Himan Brown left this level of reality on June 4, 2010. As one of the speakers at the celebration of his life that took place today noted, the date of his passing was on the 109th anniversary of the granting by the U.S. Patent office of U.S. Patent RE11,913 to Guglielmo Marconi for his radio. The celebration of the life of this visionary pioneer of today's media took place on the 109th anniversary of Marconi's SECOND U.S. patent. The speaker hoped that somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, sentient beings are enjoying Terry and the Pirates and wondering what happens next. Here on earth, we can only hope that people like Garrison Keillor, and those who worked with and who still appreciate the work and legacy of Himan Brown, continue to foster the marriage of storytelling and human imagination that is radio theatre. And for Melina, the members of her family, and the friends who shared with the rest of us their tribute today to a man they knew as steadfast, loyal, tough, funny, kind, generous, inspiring, and yes, tough as nails, we offer our sympathies for the loss of this American original.

Other bloggerati and others paying tribute:

Radio Twit
Ivan G. Shrieve, Jr.
Abu Scooter
Feliks Banel
Classic Horror Film Messageboard
George Williams
Harry Heuser
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Blogger Melina said...
Thanks, my friend!
The best part of celebrating Hi's life was to look out and see those who loved him, and me, and to realize all of the support we had there in that room at, and the after-party, of course;-)
Thanks for being there and for supporting Hi and me all long this road.
Look for a proper public memorial in September.

Anonymous Charlie O said...
I lived in Japan from 1969 to 1972. Far East Network (DOD) played all the old radio shows every night at 9 p.m. for an hour. So although I was born in 1959, I grew up listening to the radio shows of the 40s and 50s. My favorites were the The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny, Have Gun, Will Travel and Gunsmoke. Different nights were for different genres. They played horror stuff like Lights Out and Macabre, cop shows like Dragnet or The Shadow. I listened to them all. Whenever I've got a rental car with satellite radio, that's the first thing I tune to, the station that has the old radio shows. Wish there as more of that on the radio today.

Blogger Barry said...
How sad. Listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater gave me some of the fondest memories of my childhood. I still carry around a ton of those old shows on my iPod.

Blogger Melina said...
to each his own Barry....
I still carry around some inner sanctums and morning seditions in my ipod...
But one thing I can say about Hi is that he would have absolutely hated your politics....and much of what he did during the red channels days behind the scenes went absolutely against the neocon ideals that I have seen you halfheartedly espouse during these years here...
just so you know...we're here to sell soap in the biz of show, and we're happy if you bought the sponsor's product, but for our purposes here at B@B, Hi was a real liberal...100% liberal.
hope you take that to heart when you're enjoying his work.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I am 84 and still call myself "a child of radio". I still love the old programs and occasionally get tapes of Baby Snooks and especially Jack Benny.
This was such a good and informative read for us old folks. Thanks much Hi!!

Thanks for the shoutout, gang...and apologies for "cross-posting" my comments:


Your grandfather was an important individual to me growing up. The CBS Radio Mystery Theater was an indelible part of my childhood, and when I got my first tape recorder I tried to duplicate that famous creaking door for my own amateur productions. When I mentioned your grandfather's passing to my own father, he related how he and his brothers were big fans of Inner Sanctum Mysteries...which is unusual in light of how he rarely talks about listening to the radio as a kid.

His absence will most assuredly be missed. Here's a piece I wrote on Sanctum back in my old blog neighborhood.

Blogger Jill said...
Actually, "Anonymous" (a.k.a. "Mom") you are a mere whippersnapper of 83...in 2 weeks. :-)

Blogger Melina said...
Yeah, Mom...at that age, Hi was a mere sprout and he actually didn't stop driving till he was 94 or 95, up here every weekend, busy in the city trying to get radio drama back on the air!...always writing down his ideas and taking meetings...

he never gave up.
The message from him would be to stay active!!