Monday, March 30, 2009


High school operettas, as far as I've found thus far, generally fall into three very distinct categories. First, you have the shows like UP IN THE AIR and ROSE OF THE DANUBE, which are charming enough and sufficiently well written to merit another look for production.

Then you get the mis-fires like CARRIE GOES TO COLLEGE and BETTY LOU: works so astoundingly awful in that train-wreck kind of way that you wonder what the authors really had in mind, and yet they sit there daring you not to keep reading.

Then you get the ones that are really neither here nor there because they're so vacuous. There's no story to speak of, no real characters, no score — in other words, the kind of work that has "contractual obligation" all but painted across everything with a 3" brush. So it is with THE RADIO MAID (1930) by VM and CR Spaulding.

The story, such as it is, is a weekend in the country for a crew of college students, three young ladies who serve no other purpose but to provide a little vocal variety. They have no names. They're always together. Apparently they're friends with Robert, the son of their hosts, but, as with so much else in this work, that's a guess because the script never says one way or the other. The curtain comes up, everyone appears in car coats and luggage, the hosts sing a song of welcome, and we're off.

But one guest coming later is Robert's girlfriend (maybe? or maybe she's just a schoolboy infatuation?) June, who sings on a radio show that will be broadcast that night. They pick up the signal, and there's June, singing everyone's favourite song, "Just a Cottage for Two":

Just a wee little home
I can call my own
That's the dream I long to see
Just a cottage for two
With a pal like you
And life would seem so dear to me

Next we meet Joe and Mabel, the farm's "hired hands", who've had a long-running, somewhat tempestuous relationship. He wants to "propose", but she'll have none of it -- and in this context, "propose" doesnt mean propose, it means something else entirely. Take a wild guess. A really wild guess. The fact that you can see through this in such short order is indicative of the level of depth RADIO MAID aspires down to. To top it off, this is a running gag, and it wears out its welcome in pretty short order.

June finally shows up — I gather the radio station was down the street someplace because it takes her all of three pages to arrive behind everyone else — and Robert doesnt waste a moment getting close to her. They have a little love song and they're just about to kiss... when our chorus bursts in and sing a spirited little anthem to their friend-maybe-classmate-maybe-adored-star. And with that, Act One ends. Okay, so all the story threads seem resolved... well, with the exception of the Joe/Mable one, but that's hardly enough reason to return for the second act. Nevertheless, there is one, so you return your seat, hopeful that something interesting will happen.

But nothing does. Everyone's been out for just the most wonderful walk to a neighbouring farm, and there's a few giggles and winks at Robert making sure June is accompanied every step of the way. Meanwhile Joe's headed out to the cornfields in advance of the husking bee planned for the evening to find a red ear of corn, which gives him the right to ask anyone for a kiss. But again, Mabel turns him down, even more adamantly than before (What does it take for this guy to get the hint?).

June and Robert return and, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, sing a reprise of "Just a Cottage for Two". The kids leave. His parents sing a little song about when they were young. The kids come back, with the information that Robert found a red ear and (shockingly) kissed June. Everyone dives into the finale, at the end of which Joe brings Mabel on and shouts "WE PROPOSED!" And the curtain falls.

The authors say this little gem runs an hour and a half, but I'd bet more like an hour, even taking in account applause and an intermission, which itself seems gratuitous considering the work's brevity. But "pointless" really sums up this work: there's a song, then a dozen lines of dialogue, all of it exposition laid on with a shovel: everything just this side of the French maid picking up the ringing telephone and telling the caller (and us) who everyone is and where they are and why things are so... 'ow you zay, screw-ee... At the end of this, one wishes there was a French maid, just for a little comic relief. There's nothing funny or even vaguely humorous in RADIO MAID. At the end, we're no closer to knowing who these people are than we were at the beginning, and the songs they sing are so meaninglessly vapid that you simply dont care. You cant even call this Chekovian-style minimalism: it's not really much of a slice of life so much as it is a few crumbs. And you really dont want a second helping.

About the time this was published, there were maybe four companies providing these works, with Raymond A. Hoffman and Willis commanding the pack. Witmark was close behind, but Ditson, the company that published RADIO MAID, just never seemed to get the concept. Ditson also provided us with the previously mentioned GYPSY TROUBADOUR, but that work seems to have been an anomoly, because everything else out of this company in my collection is as simple-minded and thin as RADIO MAID. Most of it appears to be one-shots by writers and composers who went nowhere after this one kick at the operetta can, which suggests that Ditson was the equivalent of a pulp-novel printer.

There's also something peculiar about the cover art, which looks like it was taken from something else and chopped off to fit. The trellis, for example, just stops, and the artist didnt even try to trim it off with any symmetry. I'm not sure who the woman in the middle is supposed to be or why there are two couples shown, since the play is really only about one (Joe and Mabel, being black, dont figure into this graphically). My guess is that this was intended for something else and then cobbled onto this work at the last minute, but that's only a guess.

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