Monday, February 15, 2016

Radio in Fahrenheit 451

Reading makes you smarter. Decades ago when I first read Fahrenheit 451, I overlooked a radio reference in this classic American text. In in the Ray Bradbury book, the character, Beatty,a fire captain, makes a speech about their profession burning books; and concludes it with the following words:
"I must be going. Lecture's over. I hope I've clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is that we're the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought."

Online I found a dozen bunkum explanations about symbology and pseudo-happiness, and most of them miss the point. Bradbury was making a pop culture reference back in 1950. But so much time has passed that it has ceased to make sense without foot notes. The Happiness Boys and the Dixie Duo were musical groups form the 1920s and 1930s. By 1950 both would have already been considered an "oldies" groups. Today, over half a century later, they're utterly obscure.

Around 1919, an American songwriter and ragtime and jazz pianist, Eubie Blake, joined Noble Sissle, a jazz composer, singer and playwright, to become the "Dixie Duo." They performed in variety shows around America. In 1951 Blake actually came out of retirement to play USO shows. But they weren't radio stars, they played Broadway and even appeared in some talkies and even the classic 1927 silent Al Jolsen film, The Jazz Singer. Being black, they had a tough time breaking into radio prior to the 1950s.  But in coming from vaudeville and theater, they had an angle...

In 1922, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle showcased their single “Shuffle Along” on Boston's WNAC-AM during the Boston Radio Exposition.  In 1941 Noble narrated a part of the program "Freedom's People." In January of 1954, WMGM-AM in New York hired Sissle as a disc jockey. His program focused on African American artists and jazz of course. His one-hour program "Rhythm of America" ran six days a week, Monday thru Saturday starting at 1:00 PM. He is reputed to be the station first black DJ. His program was on the air for abtou a year. Eubie Blake didn't go into radio but he was still alive in 1980 to be interviewed about vaudeville. More here.

The Happiness Boys on the other hand were huge radio stars. I've written about them before. [HERE] They were "Hobo" Jack Turner and Thomas Ernest Hare. Like other acts of the day they borrowed branding from the products that sponsored them. The insecticide Flit underwrote them and they were the Flit Soldiers. They performed as The Interwoven Pair on WJZ to hock Interwoven Socks and eventually as The Happiness Boys for Happiness Candy Stores a small chain owned by Irving Fuerst. Those radio spots started in 1923 on WEAF. In 1933 they were still together but using the name The Taystee Loafers, from yet another sponsor, the Taystee Bread Company this time on WOR. In 1936 they were still in radio but now The Gillette Gentlemen, promoting razorblades on the CBS network. By the time Fahrenheit 451 was in print, both had been dead for a decade.