Drama is enjoying a comeback on public radio. It stimulates our imagination and demands participation. Radio drama demands highly visual storytelling. My family did not own a television set until the mid ’50s. Imagine the disappointment when I saw what characters like The Lone Ranger and Tonto, The Green Hornet and Cato, Amos and Andy, Boston Blackie or The Fat Man looked like. It destroyed the fantasy. Similarly, in the mid-seventies, I designed a calendar based upon the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Readers wrote letters criticizing the artists’ renditions. They preferred to use their imaginations. On the radio Amos and Andy were played by two white men who wore black face when they performed although no one could see them. Charlie Chan the great Chinese detective was played by Caucasian actor Ed Begley. Children were usually played by adult actors. Women were sometimes played by men. Boys were played by women. Sound effects geniuses created wonderful illusions like the sound of someone being turned inside-out.
Children are excellent at spontaneous storytelling until well meaning caretakers burst the bubble of play insisting they be more productive and grown up. Watch children play together when you turn off the television and hide the video games.
When I was a boy Saturdays were filled with creating. I’d start by listening to my favorite radio programs, Jack Armstrong — The All-American Boy, Archie Andrews, Henry Aldrich, and The Buster Brown show hosted by Smilin’ Ed McConnell with Buster Brown, his dog Tige, Froggie the Gremlin, Squeaky the Mouse, and Midnight the Cat. Smilin’ Ed narrated stories that usually dealt with one of four heroes: Baba, an Arabian boy with a horse, Ghangi, an Indian boy with an elephant named Teelah, Little Fox, a Native American boy, or Kulah, who had a jug genie. They were as real to me as my brother.
At noon my gang would get together. We’d flip baseball cards until we decided what we would play — guns, war, cowboys, cops and robbers. One week I would be a good guy. The next a crook. We knew what it felt like to be a horse galloping across the plains. We ran with one arm held in a kind of rabbit paw posture simulating a rider holding the reins and the other slapping our sides to create the sounds of hoof beats. Sometimes I would be shot with a pointed finger which was as good as any toy gun. I’d roll on the ground and die dramatically. Moments later I’d be back on my feet saying, “I’m a new guy now.” Storytelling allows us to recall the uninhibited days of our childhood and to get back in touch with the spontaneous child within.
Spontaneous storytelling is not necessarily about creating high art. It’s like cooking a meal without a recipe. You take little of this and a little of that. Improvise. You will make some mistakes, but the stew is usually edible. Sometimes it’s tastier than another, or more subtle, or mysterious. It is always heartwarming. Don’t worry about getting it right. Mistakes lead to new discoveries. Woody Allen said, “If you get it right too much of the time, you must be doing something wrong.”