Making the Waves
donnie l. betts has a dream. Actually, betts, a longtime figure on Denver's theater scene, has several. He's setting his sights on future stage productions--such as one jazz-lover's fantasy about Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington meeting in heaven--and hopes to make inroads on television with a proposed local entertainment-magazine format he hesitates to call a variety show.
But just now, his strongest focus is on radio. Yes, radio. betts's dream is all wrapped up in that old, musty aural entertainment medium left in the dust decades ago by encroaching technologies. He's hell-bent on reviving author and radio scriptwriter Richard Durham's Destination Freedom program, an unprecedented black-history series that aired weekly on WMAQ, an NBC affiliate in Chicago, from 1948 to 1950. The resulting new productions, restaged complete with an artist providing sound effects, celebrity guests and a studio audience, air live every third Sunday from public radio station KUVO's in-house performance space, where thirty spectators can watch--and listen to--the action.
Durham was one of radio's most accomplished yet unsung masterminds. Local radio historian John Dunning, who interviewed Durham before the scripter's death in 1984, says of the shows: "I found them electrifying. There was nothing even remotely like them on radio at that time."
According to Dunning, Destination Freedom marked the first time in radio history that black cast members held major roles while white actors played subordinate parts. "The unspoken rule in radio was that blacks did not play lead roles," he says. "Instead, they were impersonated by whites--what were called dialecticians." But Durham's show featured a recurring ensemble of African-Americans, with occasional white contributors, including Studs Terkel, Dave Garroway and Hugh Downs, sitting in. The stories often revolved around black historical figures who overcame adversity.
Dunning cites one of his favorite Durham scripts, a biography of black singing star Lena Horne, for its brilliant execution in a difficult medium. Horne, he says, was depicted at the end walking into a diner where her own rendition of "Stormy Weather" was playing on the jukebox. "At the counter, there was a freckle-faced, redheaded kid," Dunning recalls. Horne orders a sandwich from the boy. "And then you hear the door to the kitchen slam," Dunning continues, "and this ugly woman says, 'Freddy, get back in here.' The kid goes, 'Aw, ma,' but she keeps on scolding him: 'You know we don't serve nigras in here. Tell her if she wants a sandwich to go around to the back door.'" Lena isn't hungry anymore. Wearily, she says, "The voice on the jukebox is mine, the face on the magazine stand is mine." And though the freckle-faced boy tries to soothe her, she leaves.
"You kind of hear the music fading," Dunning says. "Then the door slams open again and the kid runs out with a Look magazine and goes, 'Miss, you're Lena Horne. Will you sign my magazine? I think you're the most beautiful woman in the world.' Lena signs it and he goes back, and then you hear her footsteps go off into the night." Dunning can't hide his admiration for that scene.
It demonstrates perfectly how, in its golden age, radio was all about imagination and the moment. The set design of every drama was in the listener's mind, as were the characters' features and emotions. Re-creating that experience has to be done both spontaneously and with great care. "I thought it would be simple," betts says. "After all, I've directed a lot over the years." But he respectfully acknowledges that the challenge in conveying a strong mental picture is easier said than done: "Timing is the difference. In radio, a sound makes the emotion for you--not a facial expression or body language, but the intonation of the voice. It's like a play, only more so--you have to make the slapping noise exactly when the person is slapped or it won't work."
betts also has a new appreciation for the beauty of Durham's research and writing skills, the finished product of which he refers to as historical fiction. The scriptwriter's widow, Clarice Durham, who still lives in Chicago, recalls how her husband had to pull new stories together weekly. "Looking back on it, I don't how he did it," she says. "It was quite a taxing job. He'd spend about half the week doing research and the other part crafting the shows. And he always looked for some interesting or novel angle to use in presenting each character."
Though he remained true to the intent of the figure being profiled--and that could have been anyone from underground-railroad heroine Harriet Tubman to jazz legend Louis Armstrong to heart surgeons Daniel Hale Williams and Ulysses Grant Dailey--Durham exercised creative license in engaging ways. In one show, Clarice Durham remembers, he personified the slums, building his story around an alderman who proposed an ordinance to do away with them. And his Jackie Robinson tribute Rime of the Ancient Dodger is written all in verse, just like the epic poem whose title it mimics.
That episode, along with bios of journalist Ida B. Wells, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, is forthcoming on betts's agenda. This Sunday he'll broadcast Tales of Stackalee, a kind of musical odyssey based on a folk hero immortalized by early bluesmen. For authenticity, betts says, musicians Lionel Young and Roy Hightower will join the cast and crew. Also forthcoming are plans to stage original productions in the same vein, some based on African-American figures important in Colorado, and eventually a bid for syndication.
For the time being, though, betts is working show to show, ironing out the kinks. Of his first shot at riding the airwaves, last month's The Heart of George Cotton, betts says, "I was nervous. Everything has to be synchronized." But just like in the old days, mistakes can happen, though most aren't drastic enough to be noticed. "And if they do, it's life," he says. "That's the beauty of live radio."
Destination Freedom/Black Radio Days: Tales of Stackalee, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 21 on KUVO-FM, 89.3. For information on becoming a studio audience member, call 399-1908.
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