Caption: Hector Chevigny, blind script-writer, is author and host for Plays by Ear, summer series which starts at 6 tonight on NBC-WIBA. He's shown here with his Seeing Eye pal, Wizard
Chevigny with his secretary Beatrice Dal Negro for a Scripto ad from 1946
Milton Katims provided the music for Plays by Ear
The daily grind of a Radio script writer can well be imagined by merely considering the plight of soap opera writers from the Golden Age of Radio. Those were the scriveners that arrived at their working desk each morning having to face yet another blank sheet of paper upon which to create yet another of the five day a week, 15-minute scripts for their supper--and their assistants' suppers. And by extension the supper of the production's five to ten casts members, the technicians, the director, the music director and his orchestra members, the production's announcer and/or spokesperson, and of course the sponsor and/or ad agency representatives attached to the production.
This was no mean feat by any measure. Nor was it necessarily the road to riches in Radio--least of all for the writers of the soap operas of the era. The better writers naturally remained in demand as long as they could keep churning out potboiler after potboiler on a daily basis for three to ten years at a stint. And hopefully the higher the demand, the higher the compensation.
Soap opera writers quite understandably were in the business of envisioning, creating, managing, expounding, emoting, and speaking for a wide variety of characters in each production. Soap operas by their very nature maintained their hold on their audiences by instilling a need in their listeners to return to a given production day in day out, week in week out, to follow a favored character and his or her developments. So it wasn't enough to simply depict yet another day--or a few minutes or hours--in those characters' lives. The soap writer had to leave each of his characters in some sort of anticipatory limbo until that character's next appearance in the production. And it had to be a compelling limbo at that.
Many soap writers of the era maintained elaborate notes or file card indices on the characters they created in order to maintain continuity for that character's imaginary life throughout a production. Some writers had a gift for simply being able to keep all of their characters' histories suspended in his or her own imagination from installment to installment--even being able to retrieve the imaginary history of those characters from events dating to the very beginning of the series. Others were blessed with secretaries or assistants that either maintained such notes for them, or were equally gifted in their ability to recall or retrieve every character's details and history at any moment's notice. And if they ever did fail to maintain that continuity, the network that aired the production could expect a flood of mail or phone calls citing even the most arcane or trivial breaks in continuity. Naturally such floods were frowned upon.
But perhaps the key operative word in the entire creative process is envision. And of course the ability to envision is for the most part a purely mental exercise--informed to one degree or another by life experiences. Easy enough for a man to be able to envision and write about the daily travails of a male character. Or for a female writer to do the same regarding female characters. But still keeping it fairly simple, either sex writer then had to envision not only the situations of a male or female their own age and experiences, but those of characters spanning as much as 30 years their junior to 30 years their senior.
And of course it was never that simple either. Every soap writer had to not only envision that which they had perhaps never experienced themselves but also those situations that were experienced by the sex opposite their own--and authentically so. Palpably so. Viscerally so.
I sense we've pretty much established our case for the challenge of that blank piece of paper, empty wire recorder reel, or empty wax cylinder facing the soap writer day in day out, month in month out, and year in year out.
Now imagine a highly successful scrivener of long-standing, having either long relied upon notes, previous scripts, or some form of record to maintain the continuity of his or her characters. Further imagine that the writer in question goes from being sighted one day to losing his sight completely the following day.
Taking one's life or skills or faculties for granted is simply human nature. All of us naturally experience disjointed moments of reflection upon our respective gifts or talents, but we rarely conotemplate a time when one or more of those faculties, skills or talents will no longer be available to us.
Such was the situation forced upon the extraordinarily successful author, playwright, and script writer Hector Chevigny.
NBC premieres the experimental radioplays of Hector Chevigny
Plays by Ear premiered on June 23rd 1947 as a sustained Summer replacement for Cavalcade of America, for which Chevigny had already written some scripts. Plays by Ear was billed as an experimental radio series of social fantasies. As with Norman Corwin for CBS and Arch Oboler for CBS, NBC, the Blue Network and MBS, NBC gave Hector Chevigny an eight-episode blank check to create a series stamped with Chevigny's artistic imprimatur. Chevigny had lost the sight of both eyes for almost four years by the launch of Plays by Ear. As such the comparisons offered in the TIME magazine of Monday, June 30th 1947 were entirely apt:
Radio: Story Teller
When such competent radio writers as Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler have been allowed to write without sponsors' restrictions, they have sometimes turned out radio plays that were worth hearing. This week another trained radio scripter was given his head. Blind, 42-year-old Hector Chevigny used it better, in some respects, than his better-known predecessors. His formula: "I'm just trying to tell a good story."
In Shower Thy Blessings (the first NBC show of an eight-week summer series of Plays by Ear, Mon. 8 p.m., E.D.T.), Chevigny succeeded. It was a neat little comedy about what happened when a backwoods preacher prayed for rain. A cloudburst drowns the village atheist's turkeys. The atheist sues the preacher for damages. The wire services make the trial a national sensation.
In the manner of the Scopes trial of the '20s, great legal eagles are flown in and the press comes to roost. The trial drags on as the lawyers find in a few inches of local precipitation the world issue of Religion v. Science. Crops go unsown, the town goes almost broke before the preacher gets the atheist to admit, on penalty of being shown "negligent," that he himself prayed for the rain to stop. Clearly then, says the preacher, it was prayer against prayer, and the case has already been judged in the Highest Court.
Most of the rest of Chevigny's summer scripts, he says, will be in the tall-story tradition. Tall stories come naturally to him: he is a native of Missoula, Mont., on the edge of Bunyanland. In 1943, after a successful career in West Coast radio, Chevigny lost his sight. He learned to dictate his scripts, which he once punched out on a typewriter, has since sold 550 scripts for the Morton Downey show, 97 for the U.S. Treasury, 15 free-lance scripts, five short stories, two articles. Betweentimes he wrote a book, My Eyes Have a Cold Nose (Yale University Press), which he calls a "psychiatric study of the attitude of the public toward the blind."
Chevigny expects to be "a going concern" as a radio writer "at least until television takes over." His skill is backed by a cold nose for the main chance: he sold NBC on his Plays by Ear, partly by the shrewd hint that a blind writer for an invisible medium makes not only good sense but also good publicity copy.
You're welcome to compare TIME's review of Plays by Ear with that of The Billboard magazine below in our details section. The Billboard was a bit more harsh--we feel, unjustly so. By all contemporary accounts, Chevigny's experimental radio fantasies were every bit the equal of contemporaries Corwin and Oboler. Arch Oboler had been not only a contemporary of Chevigny, but one of Chevigny's earliest mentors in Hollywood.
Hector Chevigny reportedly viewed his sight impairment as neither a disability nor as an enhancement of his writing abilities. And as must be clear from Chevigny's other thousands of radioplays, Chevigny's facility for creating compelling imaginary situations and characters was equally effective both prior to and after his loss of sight. In his 1946 autobiography, My Eyes Have A Cold Nose, Chevigny went out of his way to make a case for treating the sight-impaired as otherwise normal human beings.
But the situational fantasies that Chevigny spun with the eight installments of Plays by Ear were anything but 'normal situations.' Chevigny's fantasies included:
- The thought-provoking consequences of a preacher and an atheist praying for opposite changes in the weather
- Government regulation of romance
- A young man's invention of a way to ensure a comfortable income without any form of labor
- A young man who seeks--and obtains--freedom from all of society's rules, only to be harmed in the absence of society's rules
- A farmer's wife and her tortured options when a former suitor reenters her life flush with money
- A 50-year married couple find a book on happiness in marriage only to find that it almost destroys their happiness
- The ironic means by which President Pewter gained his Office
- The unexpectedly short career of a dictator
As must be apparent, the overarching frame and theme of most of Chevigny's fantasies could be summed up by the sage adage, "be careful what you wish for, or you might just get it." Chevigny was certainly well-equipped to opine on the subject.
From the July 4th, 1947 edition of the Canton Repository:
THE NATIONAL BROADCASTING CO., in a fit of artistic integrity, is presenting this summer a series of radio dramas called "Plays by Ear" (NBC 7 p.m. Mondays). The plays are written by Hector Chevigny, a blind writer, whose stories, it was explained, have been heard many times on well known programs. However, up to now, the writer has been playing second fiddle to the actors. In this show, Chevigny gets the credit and even appears briefly on the program. If this is a trend, giving the writers a little attention, it's certainly a healthy one. Radio writers have remained persistently anonymous for too many years.
"PLAYS BY EAR"--at least the story I heard--is a type of drama toward which radio authors gravitate almost inevitably. It was a drama with a twist, strong in ideas and story and weak in character development.
A half-hour radio show doesn't lend itself to character building very well; conversely, heavily plotted stories come across nicely.
This particular drama was a fantasy called "Complex for Millions," a satire of sorts on the 20th century preoccupation with psychoanalysis. The scene is Washington in 1980. Only one really impressive new structure has arisen in that time; it is the department of psychic health, presided over by a cabinet officer called the secretary for emotional behavior.
THIS NEW DEPARTMENT has gone to work with such horrifying zeal that there isn't a neurotic left in the country. Proudly the secretary tells a press conference that the nation is so emotionally well balanced that there isn't a single young man between the ages of 18 and 24 who isn't either married or engaged.
However, an enterprising reporter notices that the record isn't so good on the distaff side of the ledger. There is one girl who isn't married, a girl from Iowa, age 26, who refuses to get married.
The secretary for emotional behavior is properly mortified. The President of the United States gets wind of this disastrous failure and is highly upset. It is an election year and Senator O'Brien of the opposition party is sure to make political capital of the matter.
THE HERETIC is summoned to Washington where she airily tells the secretary she isn't married because she hasn't found the right man yet. She also speaks a lot of dangerous nonsense about love and romance, ideas that haven't been heard for years in this emotionally stabilized country.
At a hurriedly called cabinet meeting, the attorney general suggests the girl has been reading poetry; there is a lot of book-legging going on. Places right in Washington where a man could read all the Browning he wanted. And it was well known that smugglers were bringing in Keats over the Canadian border.
Well, the situation contains such elements of political dynamite that the secretary, whose emotional stability as never been questioned, begins to exhibit marked repressive symptoms. To settle his mind, the attorney general suggests a spot of poetry; he knows a little place where the best people are frequently seen.
THE SECRETARY FINDS himself reading love poems by Heinrich Heine and they don't help a bit. First thing you know he is displaying signs of marked anxiety, a symptomatic, possibly even subconscious, hostility.
Well, he finally catches on to the fact that he's in love, a state of emotionalism which he compares with the highest level of the manic-depressive cycle. He marries the girl himself and the defeat of his party is averted.
The story is possibly a little too pat and some of it sounds too much like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" but it certainly involved high level of imagination for radio. Next Monday, there will be another little twister, a story about a man who sold shares in his chances of inheriting a fortune. I've heard that one before, too, though I can't remember where. Still, I wouldn't mind hearing it again.