Hollywood is full of stories about young hopefuls being discovered through talent scouts, beauty contests, chance meetings at drugstore counters, etc. Despite these get-famous-quick stories, many of Hollywood’s best actors from its earliest days through to the 1950s came from the theater.
Regional stock companies as well as Broadway provided a legion of terrific actors well grounded in art of acting before any screen tests brought their faces to the scrutiny of the studio heads. Some of these, like Fredric March, regularly returned to the theater in between film roles. Some, like John Garfield, found refuge in the theater in the late 1940s and 1950s when Hollywood blacklisted them. One regional theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse in California was founded by three movie stars: Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, and Mel Ferrer. Nothing, probably then or now, could match the income and fame of a successful film career, but even so for some stars, theater remained their first love.
Unfortunately for us, theater’s impermanence leaves us without a record. Once the set is struck, the play is over and the experience remains only in a few still photos and a playbill saved in a scrapbook. However, we do have a wonderful glimpse into the excitement and immediacy of a live theater performance in the recordings of the Theater Guild on the Air. Sponsored by US Steel, this radio show went on the air in September 1945, then moved to television in 1953 for another decade. Some of the finest stars of film and theater joined together to perform plays live on the air.
This blog has previously referred to movie stars’ appearances on such radio shows as Lux Radio Theatre, (see here). But Theater Guild on the Air was something apart from an adaptation of current films that Lux did so well. Listen to John Gielgud performing “Hamlet” in March of 1951, with Dorothy McGuire as Ophelia. It is something masterful and magnificent. Miss McGuire also appears in a striking performance as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in January 1947.
Listen to Canada Lee in “The Emperor Jones” in November 1945, or the theater greats Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “Elizabeth the Queen” the following month. Another theater couple, Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge play in “Cyrano de Bergerac” in October 1947. Gertrude Lawrence reprises her Broadway role in “Lady in the Dark” in 1950. Helen Hayes appears with Montgomery Clift in “The Glass Menagerie” in September, 1951.
Here is a link to Theater Guild on the Air, now in public domain, where you can listen to these broadcasts for free. There’s a list of shows to choose. Listen to the intensity of the performances, to actors using their trained voices like instruments, to actors performing before a live audience, to actors who clearly loved what they were doing.