Tuesday, May 27, 2014

An informative interview with author John T. Hetherington

JIMBO - Mr. Hetherington, thank you so much for doing the interview. In the Preface of your book, you tell the story of your youth, lying in bed with headphones on, listening to old-time radio.  I did the same thing, in the same era you did (but on a different station, and in a different part of the country.)  Reading this, I felt a strong connection with you. The memories of those days - especially during the Winter when darkness came so early - my mind escaped into whatever the radio chose to play.  None of my friends or family listened to these shows.  Was it the same for you?

HETHERINGTON - Absolutely! Listening to those programs was something special, they transported me and captured my imagination in a way that television never had. I know exactly what you mean about darkness; I think it maximized the effect by helping to block out all of the distractions. In the dark I could be alone in this new world; one that, even though I had never directly experienced, I was, at least for that moment, living in. Like you, I didn’t know anyone who was listening to these programs and I think I liked it that way. It reinforced the feeling that I was entering into my own private little world when I listened to them.

JIMBO - You don't mention in the book how you came across the audio portion of Vic and Sade.  Do you remember how and when that happened? 

HETHERINGTON - I do remember, though, regrettably it isn’t the most interesting of tales. Vic and Sade was a relatively recent discovery for me. I actually came upon it back in 2000 when I was reading a book called The Serial: Suspense and Drama by Installment by Raymond William Stedman, and he was fairly rapturous about Vic and Sade. The humor he described sounded very close to my own, so I downloaded some episodes from a database that existed at the time. The first episode I listened to was the January 2, 1939 episode about Vic’s lodge regalia being on loan, while I liked what I heard, the program had been hyped so much by Stedman and others that it seemed a little anticlimactic to me. However, by the time I had finished listening to the episode in which Vic is dragged to the double feature in Hopewood – the second episode I listened to – I was sold!

JIMBO - You mention in the book that people either love Vic and Sade or they hate them.  I'll go a bit further - I think they either "get it" or they don't.  You fell in love with the show, as I suspect all who are reading this did.  What do you think it was that you found so enticing?

HETHERINGTON - I think that’s an excellent way to put it. I loved the way that Paul Rhymer injected so much irreverence and even absurdity into what were otherwise very mundane, everyday incidents. His sense of humor very much reflected my own, which some get and others do not. All comedy, after all, is subjective. I think I really identified with Vic who, like me, can be rather cantankerous but at the same time can be quite silly. I also loved the fact that Paul Rhymer populated the series with a full range of well-developed characters and entertainment. For example, the idea of having the adventures of a fictional character like Third Lt. Clinton Stanley compete for attention with the everyday events being depicted was brilliant! It was both true to life and also a reflection of the way the media—including Vic and Sade itself—compete with real life for the audience’s attention.

JIMBO - Perhaps the most surprising and refreshing thing about this book is the fact that were able to garner so much new material.  You obviously went to the Wisconsin Historical Society's library.  Could you tell us about your experience there, how much time were you able to spend there, were you able to photocopy documents, etc?  Also, what was it like to be handling Paul Rhymer's own notes?  Did you feel like you were in a library or did you feel like it was more like a museum?

HETHERINGTON - Although I did have somewhat romanticized ideas about the WHS before visiting, I really was conscious of the fact that I was in a library. I realized after the first day of my first visit that the collection was just too immense to sit and revel in, so I determined that my time and effort would be best used copying as many scripts as I could so that I’d have them to refer to rather than having to make do with hastily written notes. So, on the several trips that I made there, I really spent most of my time at the copy machine. That said, they do have an utterly fantastic collection of papers and scripts related to not only Paul Rhymer and his work, but also NBC radio and the library is housed in a beautiful building! Being able to handle Rhymer’s own notes is an honor and a privilege, and seeing his work and the handwritten marks and corrections creates a real feeling of connection to Rhymer and the past.

JIMBO - Early on in the book, you talk about how sad Sade was in the first week of the show.  I've always associated Sade with sadism (for clearly there are certain times that she enjoys torturing her husband mentally), but your book makes it occur to me that Sade is also associated (at least in 1932) with sadness, maybe even depression.  Can you talk a bit about this?

HETHERINGTON - Sade is definitely not a happy or secure woman in the earlier episodes. She is lacking the self-assuredness that I think we all take for granted in her. This is a woman who seems to feel very inadequate as a wife and homemaker as was illustrated in several episodes related to Mr. Ruebush coming to dinner in which she is so certain she will embarrass herself and Vic that she literally turns herself into a basket case! 

I think that, in many regards, the arrival of Rush helped to, among other things, give Sade a sense of security and confidence. At the very least, it took her mind off of obsessing about Vic and whether or not he was losing interest in her, which comes up early on.  In that sense, she stops being “Sad” and becomes the Sade we know from later on.

JIMBO - If Rush hadn't been added, how much longer do you think that boring drivel between Vic and Sade would have been allowed to go on?  I can't imagine anyone listening and liking that. 

HETHERINGTON - Ha! That’s an interesting question. The early scripts certainly weren’t the lively excursions that we tend to think of Vic and Sade as being, but at same time when the show first began, daytime radio wasn’t terribly entertaining, so it might have managed to hang on for a while. After all, on the day the show premiered, listeners to daytime radio in New York City, for example, were treated to Beauty Talk, Food Talk, Southern Authors and Poets, Graphology Talk, and Hillbilly Songs. By contrast, even a conventional drama might have been useful counterprogramming to all the talk shows.

JIMBO - You do not say this in the book per se, but you insinuate that the arrival of Bill Idelson as Rush completely overhauled the show.  You may not be able to answer this with any authority since we do not have any audio of those early days, but do you feel like the true hero here is Idelson and his acting or is it simply his character, Rush and the dynamics he was able to add to Rhymer's ability to write?

HETHERINGTON - Certainly the arrival of Rush invigorated things immensely! It didn’t just give Vic and Sade someone new to talk to, it opened up a whole new world of situations and, via Rush, new characters. It also helped to make them much more well-rounded individuals. It’s very difficult to answer the second part of your question. I don’t think any of us can imagine anyone else playing Rush; Bill Idelson was brilliant! However, short of casting a complete dud of an actor, the simple fact of giving Vic and Sade someone else to talk to and play off of couldn’t help but change the dynamics of the show.

JIMBO - How long did it take you to write the book?

HETHERINGTON - A lot longer than it should have! The book was written over the course of the last 3 ½ years, though I wasn’t able to work on the book continuously the whole time due to work and other obligations. Of course, I spent a good long while pouring over scripts and doing research into both program and the various cultural and historical topics that are examined, so the prep work took a long time just to get the material to figure out what to write about.

JIMBO - Why did you choose focus on culture of the times?  Did you consider other avenues to focus on and if so, which ones?

It struck me that Vic and Sade did an incredible job of both reflecting and critiquing popular culture of the period. This was a topic that I explored in 2007 in an academic journal article called “Critiquing Culture in the Small House: How Vic and Sade Brought the Mass Culture Critique to the Masses” in which I looked at some of the same areas I cover in the book, such as movies, leisure, and reading. In the article, I only had the recordings to work with, and that’s when I got the idea that I could expand it into a book if I examined the scripts and the broader context. And that helped to guide some of the choices I made in writing the book—while it does cover Vic and Sade, it looks at particular areas of interest and concern to the era’s intellectuals and culture critics, not necessarily the subjects most frequently discussed in Vic and Sade, to show the connection between art, culture, and criticism.

JIMBO - Do you think a combination Vic and Sade devotee and psychologist could write an interesting book about the dynamics between Vic and Sade?

HETHERINGTON - Oh, definitely! But I’m not sure how accurately Vic and Sade reflect specific psychological theories. After all, Paul Rhymer was first and foremost writing an entertainment program and a comedy. To that end, much of what we hear on the show is heightened and exaggerated for comedic effect. That said, there is definitely an interesting set of dynamics related to Vic’s self-perception as the smart one and the head of the family contrasting against Sade’s self-perception as unworldly and practical.

JIMBO - I've often spoke of the lack of affection between the couple.  Many have disagreed with me.  How do you feel about that?

HETHERINGTON - I can see why you would say that; they weren’t a couple who were terribly emotive, well, at least not in what would conventionally be described as affectionate. While they don’t go for mushy proclamations of love – which really wouldn’t have been that funny – I do think we can see a good deal of affection between the two. In the early episodes this affection seems to be reflected in Sade’s persistent worries that Vic will lose interest in her and, presumably, abandon her in favor of one of those “heavily bathed and greatly agitated” women that Vic suspected were after him. If there hadn’t been genuine love between them, I don’t imagine that Sade would have been all that bothered by the (perceived) flirtations of the women at the plant with Vic, and I definitely don’t think that she would have ever agreed to have participated in the Exalted Big Dipper Day rituals which were, frankly, rather demeaning. The same can be said for Vic, who yields to Sade’s will even when he probably doesn’t have to. Personally, I think there’s great affection every time he calls Sade “kiddo.”

Heck, from time to time Sade even allowed herself to be “playful” with Vic. In the October 9, 1933 episode, for example, she sits on Vic’s knee and tickles him in an effort to get the newspaper from him! I’m sure that they were up to shenanigans like that all the time; they just weren’t offered all that frequently in the short snapshots of their lives that we were given.

JIMBO - How do you feel about the lack of physical affection toward Rush and Russell from their adoptive parents? 

HETHERINGTON - Honestly, I’m less bothered by the lack of physical affection – which would be difficult to depict on the radio – than I am with the fact that Sade is generally unwilling to listen to either of them for more than a couple of seconds without either brandishing a dismissive “ish” or ignoring them to talk to Vic about something completely different. To tell the truth, this has always been my biggest issue with Sade and something that has caused me to grit my teeth and clench my fists on more than one occasion! That aside, I think both Vic and Sade do demonstrate their love for both boys in other ways, like the myriad nicknames Vic has for Rush and Russell or Sade’s sometimes over-the-top mothering.

There are, of course, times that we do see the boys receiving genuine affection from both parents, especially upon their respective arrivals at the Gooks’ home. Sade, for example, is particularly tender to Russell in his first two appearances. When he first arrives at the Gook house Sade wipes the tears streaks from his face and is quite maternal, despite being having initially felt that Bueller foisted Russell on them.

That said, I’m reminded again of the tickling episode I previously referred to. As Sade sat on Vic’s knee, Rush decided to join in the fun and hop on his other knee only to be rebuffed by Vic who informed him that sitting on his knee was a “privilege granted only to a select few. You get off” (10/19/33, p. 7).

JIMBO - The boys escape into their books - which is understandable, but then they often escape into the very mushy movies as well.  Does the fact that these films are (for the most part) on the overly romantic and dramatic side tell us a great deal about what they see lacking in their own home?

HETHERINGTON - Possibly, but to be honest I really think it made for some good humor to have the boys refer to these films. Having Rush bemoaning Donna Dreamerson movies as her “struttin’ around with no back on her underwear” (1/1/35, p.4) is good stuff!  Besides, it made them well-rounded boys, for that period of time. After all, in those days, movies had broader audiences, and people of both genders could be found at different types of films since they were a major source of entertainment. Presumably, Sade got to choose the film the family would see as often as Vic. Rhymer, of course, also knew who his audience was and that the largely female audience would be interested in humor based on the types of movies they were familiar with.

JIMBO - When dealing with WW II, you simply skipped over the fact that Idelson joined the Navy.  To me, that was definitely a way people spent their time, albeit, not exactly for entertainment.  I realize he has his own book(s) about the subject, but I do believe you missed a golden opportunity there to add to your book.

HETHERINGTON - My book focuses on the content of the program rather than the lives of the actors, but I do mention that he left for military service and even include a photo of him in his Navy uniform. However, Rhymer decided that he did not want the War to play a major role in Vic and Sade, and this is something that I address in the book. Rhymer was forced by NBC and the Office of War Information to include War messages in the show, but by and large he tried to keep Vic and Sade as an escape from the largest and most all-encompassing issue of the era. In the book, I discuss the tension this creates and how Rhymer made use of the characters on the show to create effective propaganda messages about the responsibilities of people on the home front.

JIMBO - You obviously tried to stay focused on the subject of your book, but you are bound to have come up with facts you uncovered that did not fit your subject.  We'd love to have those tidbits.  Care to share those?

HETHERINGTON - Considering that within every episode of Vic and Sade there are tons of very clever and funny things, there were lots of great little bits that didn’t make it in: Rush’s idea for shoes that work like an electric icebox (June 14, 1933); Rush planning a “fruit party” for his teacher with rotten fruit because it was less expensive than fresh fruit (November 17, 1933); Vic rhapsodizing about the “world of ecstasy” the word “beans” implies and prophesizing that he will be playing “beans, beans, beans” on his harp when he goes to meet his “reward” (February 9, 1934); a very charming scene between Sade and Rush at the animal house at the city park (February 13, 1934); the drama of Sade being subjected to a clerk at Croucher’s who was too chatty; all four of Fred Stembottom’s tires simultaneously blowing out (June 2, 1940); and many, many other things.

JIMBO - Was it surprising to you that Rhymer chose to make Sade and Ruthie Stembottom feel a need to keep the Thimble Club 'exclusive' and keep people out?   And what does it say about Rhymer that in the same episode, he made Mis' Appelrot feel the opposite way?

HETHERINGTON - I’m not sure what it, if anything, this says about Paul Rhymer; however, I think that the reason Ruthie and Sade wanted to keep the Thimble Club exclusive is because it was actually important to them. They valued the group and its members, whereas Mis’ Applerot, being Mis’ Applerot, was likely only concerned with her image and status and likely saw some advantage to bringing in new members.

JIMBO -  Do you have a favorite script?

HETHERINGTON - It’s hard to pick just one, but one that springs immediately to mind was the August 3, 1936 script which was set in “a brand new place” – the Union Railway Station. I love the interaction between Vic and Rush as they wait for Sade’s train to arrive. Rush is captivated by what he perceives as the “romance” of the train station with its “weary travelers” while Vic sees it as a “pretty desolate location.” Rush conjures up a romantic view of the train station from material gleaned from dime novels and movies, and his excitement and enthusiasm really shine through. Vic joins in, somewhat reluctantly, and can’t help but find it amusing to see the mundane through Rush’s excited eyes.

JIMBO - Did you see any scripts that you found particularly surprising that you did not share in the book?

HETHERINGTON - I think the thing that was most surprising to me was actually not a Vic and Sade script but rather an unusual draft script for an episode of The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air which I describe in the book. It’s a very dark and twisted take on Disney. In regard to scripts, I’m not sure that there was anything that was especially surprising, but there were some unexpected things like the fact that Rush had a job at Vic’s plant in 1935; I hadn’t been aware of that. In the end, one of the most surprising things is just how consistent and consistently funny and observant Rhymer was from the first episode to the last.

JIMBO - What is your opinion on the script that I call, "Vic Has a Sore Knee"?

HETHERINGTON – The episode is certainly unusual, and the opening does seem rather dark for a comedy. But death is part of life, and unfortunately in the Depression the death of a child was an all-too-frequent occurrence. Here Rhymer highlights some of the inappropriately humorous moments that arise even during dark times, particularly Rush’s misplaced efforts to be upbeat. The second half of the episode, dealing with Rush’s efforts to be kind to his friend Link and his brothers, reads somewhat uncomfortably for us today because of the terminology used—“colored,” “black giants” — and the stereotypes invoked about “lazy” black people. But for its time it is fairly progressive in that Rush more or less manipulates Vic into voicing acceptance of the African-Americans as fellow humans rather than as “colored” people. Paul Rhymer told interviewers that he got most of his details about daily life from his African-American maid Ethel, and perhaps this reflects Rhymer’s effort here to show Rush as more progressive and accepting than his parents.

JIMBO - What is your opinion about David Whitehouse as Russell?

HETHERINGTON - I liked David Whitehouse’s performance immensely! I think that some fans have been unfairly critical of him in their comparisons of him to Bill Idelson. I think that it’s important to keep in mind that Bill Idelson had been playing Rush for 5 years by the time of any of the existing recordings and, as such, must have been pretty comfortable in the role. Also, by the point I think that the character of Rush had had the opportunities to develop and grow, something that Russell really wasn’t afforded the opportunity to do. That said, I am very fond of David Whitehouse and his portrayal of Russell.

JIMBO - Did you attempt to contact Whitehouse for the book to seek his opinions? 

HETHERINGTON - I did exchange several emails with David Whitehouse and spoke with him on one occasion shortly before completing the book to get an update on what he’d been up to since Vic and Sade. I’ve sent him a copy of the book, but, as of yet, haven’t heard from him about it.

JIMBO - Is there any reason why there is so little written about Whitehouse in the book?  Why do you think it is that he is a 'forgotten figure' as his name is rarely brought up in the old audio interviews and he's virtually non-existent in the other three books on the Vic and Sade subject?

HETHERINGTON - It certainly wasn’t my intention to shortchange David Whitehouse. In fact, I didn’t write extensively about any of the individual actors as that really wasn’t the focus of the book. It’s probably very true that scripts featuring Rush were discussed more frequently than those featuring Russell simply because he was featured in so many more episodes.  I personally am quite fond of the character of Russell and think that he and David Whitehouse are well-deserving of recognition for their part in the series.

JIMBO - We know where Russell came from, but does the script that introduces him explain how his parents died?

HETHERINGTON - No, the script merely explains that Russell is Mr. Bueller’s nephew and that his parents were Chicago people. According to Vic, Bueller has taken “temporary charge of him until he can form definite plans.” And then he brought Russell there “because this is a medium size city with green grass and fresh air.”

JIMBO - Between the five characters, which is your favorite and why?

HETHERINGTON - That’s a tough one, but I I’d have to say Vic just because he’s a lot like me – kind of cantankerous, but with a whimsical side and can be decidedly silly at times. Vic responds to things in much the same way that I do.

JIMBO - Early on in the book, you hint that Vic associates his hat (in a very early episode of the show) with Mr. Ruebush.  In your opinion, is there any way that the whole Vic/hat thing (and the reason that Sade messes with him about it) all has to do with Ruebush?

HETHERINGTON - In the episode, Vic tries to tell Sade that Mr. Ruebush expressed interest in Vic’s hat, but Sade doesn’t let him finish. I’m not sure that there is an attempt to symbolize Mr. Ruebush as the hat, but there is an undercurrent that Sade sees the story as something associated with Vic’s work life and therefore sees it as less interesting to her than her own domestic concerns, which she keeps talking over Vic to bring up whenever he tries to start the story again.

JIMBO - After Idelson joined the Navy and eventually left the show, it seems several young actors were given guest spots for a week each, posing as his friends (we have two audio occurrences, for example, of Leland Richards at the Gook house.)  Did you see any other scripts with other of these friends staying at the Gook house?  If so, which characters were they?

HETHERINGTON- No, I didn’t. The only other guest part that I encountered, such as it was, was a brief speaking part for a Mis’ Wilcox on June 14, 1933. In that episode Vic has come home early and is hiding outside talking with Rush while Sade entertains the ladies inside. Rush has been avoiding Mis’ Wilcox for fear she would want to kiss him; however, his plan doesn’t work:
WILCOX: Your mother didn’t tell us you were out here. I came out in the kitchen to get a drink of water. Just happened to see you. My, what a big boy you’re getting to be. And cute, too. I just…
RUSH: My face is dirty, Mis’ Wilcox.
WILCOX: (LAUGHING) Oh, that’s all right. Here. (KISS) (LAUGHS).
RUSH: Thanks for the kiss, Mis’ Wilcox.
Interestingly, Mis’ Wilcox had several other lines in the script that had been crossed out.

JIMBO - In your estimation, what percentage of Whitehouse scripts are re-writes of Idelson scripts?  Are you aware of specific scripts that were re-writes?

HETHERINGTON- I’m really not sure of the percentage. I don’t think that there weren’t that many, though I did come across a couple. For example, one episode originally written for Rush circa 1939 about making time for homework as part of a scheme to get in his teachers’ good graces was reused with Russell years later.

JIMBO - Personally, I'm happy you focused on 1932-44 and avoided those horrid revival series. Could you tell us why you avoided "Series 2" and "Series 3"?

HETHERINGTON - I had originally planned to cover the entire scope of the series and I did sit down and dutifully make notes about the later episodes. However, the revivals were quite different in structure and content from the first run of Vic and Sade, and in many ways they were new, and less interesting, shows. I did discuss them briefly in the book, but as I noted, the inclusion of new characters with speaking parts and new situations really altered the dynamics of the show. In the modern sense, we might almost think of them like spinoffs—the Mayberry RFD or Joey to the original’s Andy Griffith Show or Friends.

JIMBO - Chuck and Dottie Brainfeeble.  Those names conjure up horror in most fans!  However, in an odd kind of way, they have become interesting to think about and discuss, because I know of no one who liked them.  Open up your heart and tell us what your feelings are about that whole time period there when there was such chaos on Vic and Sade, right after Idelson went into the Navy.

HETHERINGTON - I never identified with Uncle Fletcher as much as I did when he was forced to endure encounters with Dottie Brainfeeble. I cringed every time I heard Dottie or Chuck! It did make for an interesting dynamic in that particular relationship, though, since Dottie and Chuck seemed to be so oblivious to others in much the same way that Fletcher never seemed cognizant of how he was affecting others. I suppose it gave him a taste of his own medicine, but I’m not sure it was really worth it.

JIMBO - Fans will enjoy the many trivial bits you slyly wove into the book.  I know you are a true fan of the show, because you dropped these facts every few pages, such as what Nicer Scott's real name is, when the Daily Love Story (or as Sade often calls it, the 'Daily Little Love Story') began, how Willard is connected to Mis' Brighton and Sade, where the Crooper, Illinois talk came from, and more.

HETHERINGTON - Good! I’m glad my love for Vic and Sade shines through. Including little bits of trivia like that helps to connect readers to the show and also demonstrates how carefully Paul Rhymer thought out his fictional world, often down to very small details. But also, as in the case of Crooper, Illinois, it also shows how memories can get fuzzy and how what we think we remember about the show isn’t always the case. The identification of the Gooks’ hometown with Crooper apparently came from the 1957 television revival in a humorous reference to Sade’s gowns being provided by Yamilton’s of Crooper, but this caused some to misremember it as being in the original radio serial.

JIMBO - Speaking of Willard, I was so relieved to finally know who he is, as 'the Willard question' had bothered me from almost Day One.  Is this something that you were also curious about, or is it just a coincidence that you revealed this to us with the episode you provide?

HETHERINGTON - To be completely honest, I hadn’t really given Willard much thought until I saw the 1936 script written for the National Education Association that identified him as Mis’ Brighton’s brother. Sometimes it seems that there are too many characters to keep track of them all!

JIMBO - The series, as a reflection on small-town midwestern life, involved a lot of jargon.  Have you ever speculated, or identified, some of the odder references, like 'powdered rabbit' or 'beef punkles?'"?

HETHERINGTON - In many cases the references are intentionally absurd, combinations of various things that Rhymer stitched together to sounds both grounded and silly at the same time, like something you half-remember but are encountering in a new and funny way. In the specific case of beef punkles, the beef is of course real, but the punkles appear to be made up to sound like the kind of unfamiliar but vaguely plausible parts of the cow you might use to economize in a slow-cooked recipe.

JIMBO - Any idea how the book is selling?

HETHERINGTON - Not yet! The book was just released a few weeks ago, and it will be a few months before the publisher reports the first sales.

JIMBO - Was my website(s) at all useful to you in your quest to write the book?  If so, what parts of the website did you find the most useful?

HETHERINGTON - Indeed it was! You site has a wealth of information, including articles and scripts, and I perused many of the sections in doing background reading for the book. I’m sure you saw that I credited your site in the book for the 1936 script “Rush Brings Home a Dog” as well as Tim Hollis’s biographical sketch of Clarence Hartzell.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jimbo. Excellant job, and very much appreciated.


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