Friday, April 20, 2018

Kasell’s On The Air – What Radio Voices Mean to Us

The passing of former First Lady (and presidential mother) Barbara Bush has got me thinking. Mrs. Bush was not among my favorite First Ladies, but I still have a vivid picture of her: the “silver fox” hair, the sensible blue dresses, the three strands of faux pearls. For a politician (or perhaps especially a politician’s wife), a distinctive look is all-important. Just think of Mamie Eisenhower pink, Nancy Reagan red, Hillary Clinton’s pants suits, Michelle Obama’s toned arms, or – I suppose – Milania’s cheekbones and stilettos. 

Another person we lost this week is unforgettable to me, but until now I hadn’t the slightest idea what he looked like. I’m talking about Carl Kasell, the public radio newscaster who just died at the age of 84. That’s the thing about radio personalities. It’s the voice, not the face, that makes all the difference. Which leads, of course, to the familiar adage that some talented performers have “a great face for radio.” Surely Garrison Keillor, who looks to me something like a bullfrog with a gland disorder, could have built his career in no other medium. Once we all grew accustomed to his sonorous voice and the whimsical way he delivered the news of Lake Woebegon, we were ready to accept his appearance and find it endearing. (At least, we did until the #MeToo movement gave us another picture to consider.)

I guess in the old days of Top 40 radio, DJ’s made enough personal appearances that their faces became known. Some ended up on TV: Bob Crane (before his bizarre and tragic end) moved from a top-rated L.A. radio station to the starring role in a popular TV sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. And one storyline in 1973’s American Graffiti involves a teenage boy barging in on his DJ hero, the real-life platter-spinner Wolfman Jack. Successful sports announcers like the great Vince Scully start out as friendly radio voices, but then segue into TV broadcasting. A few years back, I had to visit a dental specialist. When I emerged into the waiting room, I saw a seated man. He looked familiar, but it was not until he answered his ringing cell phone that I knew I was in Scully’s legendary presence. (He winked at me, obviously quite familiar with getting gasps of recognition as soon as he opened his mouth.) 

As a devoted NPR listener, I have my vocal favorites. Among them are Susan Stamberg and Terry Gross, but it was years before I knew what either of these ladies looked like. I also love to hear Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome. Is she a looker? I have absolutely no idea.
Starting in 1977,  Carl Kasell was the dignified disembodied baritone voice of authority that announced top news headlines on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Then in 1998 he unleashed his inner comedian when he became the official announcer and scorekeeper for a brainy but goofy NPR quiz show, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! On a broadcast whose centerpiece is the celebrity-centric “Not My Job,” it was Carl’s job to amuse listeners with outrageous impersonations of voices in the news. He also read limericks, smugly bantered with host Peter Sagal, and provided each segment with its top prize: “Carl’s voice on your home answering machine.” What I didn’t realize until now is that those answering-machine messages were impish comic gems. Here’s a quick sample: “Hello, I’m Carl Kasell from NPR. Jennifer and I have eloped. Please leave your message at the beep.” 

Peter Sagal insists that “Carl has always been the heart of this show.” And, of course, its voice. 

Here are some samples of Carl Kasell’s personalized voice-mail messages
Some "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" cast members, with Carl on the left.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Othello: More Thoughts About the Moor

This past week,  the Varsity Theater in the oh-so-arty town of Ashland, Oregon, played host to the Ashland Independent Film Festival. On Ashland’s main drag, intense-looking film lovers queued up for screenings, or gathered for pints and bites in local cafes. But Ashland is the rare American town where the focus is chiefly on live theatre, performed in repertory.

It all started back in 1935 when a local college professor of drama proposed staging two plays of Shakespeare as part of Ashland’s Independence Day festivities. The city fathers insisted that boxing matches be presented as well. As it turned out, the plays far out-earned the bouts, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was on its way to putting an old timber town on the cultural map. Soon Hollywood too was getting involved. Bing Crosby served as honorary festival director from 1949 to 1951, Charles Laughton volunteered to star in King Lear, and Stacy Keach made several appearances in the early 1960s.

By 1970, the festival had outgrown the outdoor Shakespearean stage that limited its performances to the summer months. A state-of-the-art indoor proscenium theatre was added in that year, followed by a flexible “black-box” for more experimental stagings. Today, OSF offers eleven plays in a season that stretches from February to November. There are always performances of plays by Shakespeare (including the most obscure of them), but new works are increasingly presented. On Saturday evening, I saw a world premiere of Manhatta, a striking new play that confronts the Native American experience both in the Manhatta of old and in today’s New York City. 

But of course the heart of the OSF lies in its Shakespearean performances. In recent years some have been gimmicky, with more gender-bending than audience members are willing to tolerate. I was lucky to see an Othello that was effectively staged and beautifully played on the indoor Angus Bowmer stage. Yes, there was some toying with contemporary elements. Othello and his men wore modern naval uniforms, communicated at times via cell phone, and played out one long stretch while lifting weights at a health-club. But the play’s tragic jealousy was still front and center, even while our awareness of racism then and now gave this Othello a modern edge. 

I’ve seen Othello on stage before, enacted by James Earl Jones, with Jill Clayburgh as his long-suffering Desdemona. But what really lingers in my mind is a filmed production that came out of England in 1965, starring (would you believe?) Laurence Olivier. In the early 20th century, it was not unusual for white actors to blacken their faces to play this fascinating role. Orson Welles had done it on screen back in 1951. But by the mid-Sixties, Americans were less comfortable with handing a black man’s role (and one of the best black roles ever written) over to a Caucasian. Olivier had played the part on stage, and the modestly-funded film (which also starred Maggie Smith as Othello’s beautiful young wife) was essentially a filmed play, attracting an audience of intellectual types. I remember the great Olivier as being even more astonishing than usual. He’d clearly put a lot of work into transforming himself, beyond the pigment of his skin. His Othello was barrel-chested, and  he spoke in a resonant voice far deeper than Olivier’s usual timbre. Naturally, many took offense, with some critics likening his performance to an Al Jolson “Mammy” routine.  I accept their point, but could never help cheering for the right of a great performer to try on a great role for size, even if it made him (understandably) uncomfortable in his skin.