The heyday of radio may be gone, but for Woody Allen’s generation, the golden age of airwaves was an important one.
“When I grew up, radio was all you had, and you turned it on the second you woke up,” Allen said.
The tried and true New Yorker was joined onstage by talk show legend Dick Cavett Tuesday night at 92Y, for a screening of Allen’s nostalgic comedy “Radio Days” and an hour-long talk moderated by Annette Insdorf, director of Columbia’s undergraduate film program.
The conversation stayed loosely tied to radio, often drifting into reminiscence—many of Allen’s anecdotes were variations or explications of scenes from “Radio Days.” In the autobiographical, Oscar-nominated film, Allen narrates life from the perspective of a younger self growing up in Rockaway Beach during the late 1930s. The plot is guided by the stories his family hears on the radio.
Both speakers marveled at the technical expertise of radio stars, and the challenges of being confined to sound. “For years, there was a sense that silent comedy was much harder to do. They didn’t have the benefit of sound, and so they had to work just with their bodies and props, and sound is much easier, but I always felt that it was much harder because you’re stuck with speaking and your voice,” Allen said.
For the biggest stars, this was no handicap. Allen joked about the contrast between physique and voice embodied in Jackson Beck. “He had this fabulous voice. He played a number of heroes on the radio, but he was this squat paunchy little man. But when you heard his voice, you thought you were saved by Superman.”
Before television and the Internet expanded media options, the radio was a central thread which united much of the nation, since nearly everyone could recognize the voices of radio stars such as Beck.
Cavett recalled the force of 1950s radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey’s voice. “Godfrey was the king of radio, so much so, when I was a kid … you could walk down the street in Lincoln, Nebraska on a hot day—we had no air conditioning and the windows were open—and not miss a word of Arthur’s show as you went from house to house to house.”
They often returned to the transcendent power of radio. “Sunday afternoon, 40s, my mother comes out to the yard, gets me and Mary, my little friend, and said, ‘You better come in and listen to the radio. This will mean something to you someday—the Japs have gotten us into the war,’” Cavett said.
Allen asked, “When we were kids, was there any more blissful thing than you pretended you were sick, you didn’t go to school, you faked an illness, held a thermometer over the radiator? You were in bed all day being waited on by subservient parents … You listened to the radio for 12 hours. It was just bliss.”
Though radio was the common experience that unified their America, Cavett and Allen were forced to admit that the comedies, mysteries, and talk shows that once enraptured the nation are extinct, replaced by other media. But Cavett argued that even new media sources are finding a place for older media.
“There is a vast amount, on the Internet, of old radio, tons of it,” Cavett said. “‘Little Orphan Annie,’ ‘The Lone Ranger,’ everything you’ve ever found, you can hear on there … There’s a lot of it there, so we can all go home and have a nice recollection of something we remember in the past.” Cavett paused. “It’s nice that it’s retained.”