I was a weird kid. One of those weirdness was that, although I loved TV and movies, I had a deep nostalgia for a time I had never lived in. In a sense, I still do. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I would much rather have seen a black and white film from the ’30s than almost anything new that was coming out when I was a teen. (Of course, in our house, they were all in black and white – my parents didn’t have a color TV until the early ’80s.) I’ve watched “His Girl Friday” (and many much worse movies) dozens of times; I’ve never seen “Jaws” or a single Star War. I was certain that those old entertainments were just better. That applied to radio as well.
It seems weird that a kid growing up in the ’60s would have had an affinity for radio drama, which in fact was almost entirely gone by the time I was growing up, but I did carry the conceit for some time that radio was “theater of the mind,” that well-crafted radio drama could be vastly more entertaining and believable than movies, because they didn’t need to try to show the story. You just had to listen and it would appear in your mind.
That was pretty true at the time, too – there were some real limits in cinematic storytelling, stories that couldn’t really be made believable on screen. Ironically, I love those, too – I love giant spider movies, movies that try so hard and just utterly fail to convey something fantastic or magical. But I did believe, around the time I was 10, 12, 14, that the best way to tell such stories was radio.
What I based that belief on would be hard to say. It wasn’t like radio stations were playing old dramas from decades before. There were some record albums of old shows, but not many and that was an expensive way to go. There were collectors who had tapes of old shows – I particularly remember going to a presentation at the Schenectady Library’s McChesney Room one evening to sit with other nerds and listen to a radio presentation of “Them,” the story of an invasion by giant ants.
But my main introduction to radio drama was through a contemporary series that played on WGY starting about when I was 13: “CBS Radio Mystery Theater,” hosted by E.G. Marshall. A new show five nights a week, opening with the creepiest, creakiest door sound effect imaginable. The plays went well beyond mystery, and were acted by names and voices that were quite familiar – at least if you were the kind of person who spent as much time watching old movies from the ’30s and ’40s as possible. I was. The first season’s actors included Agnes Moorehead, Kim Hunter, Mason Adams, Ruby Dee, Jack Gilford and Julie Newmar, among many others.
Those evenings spent listening to old radio drama really set me up for what The Firesign Theatre was putting down, so when I found out about them at 16, it was like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist (as they said, on this record).
“How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All” is from 1969 — if someone knows Firesign Theatre only casually, this is probably the album they know. (My copy is from a spree of Firesign buying that summer of ’77.)
The A side is a surreal journey that starts with a used car sales spoof, then introduces the idea that the climate control of the car can transform not only the climate, but time itself, shifting the scene to ancient Egypt, which somehow segues into a parody of a patriotic pageant that climaxes in a musical film, “Babes in Khaki,” playing on late night television, followed by some channel surfing commercials and closing with a return to the used car sales spoof, except that the salesman is now peddling marijuana, and closes the side with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from “Ulysses.”
Among key lines from this side that pop into my head unbidden:
“Can I get Duluth on it?” [meaning on the car radio] “Duluth, bucko! You can get Tierra Del Fuego!”
“…but the sun is going down!” “Oh, no, no! You are confused! The horizon is moving up!”
“He’s no fun. He fell right over!”
“Just remember — Abraham Lincoln didn’t die in vain. He died in Washington, D.C.”
The B side is the one nearly most people who barely remember Firesign Theatre are still familiar with. This is a fairly straightforward parody of film noir and detective fiction, leaning heavily on Raymond Chandler and “The Maltese Falcon,” complete with a Peter Lorre character named “Rocky Rococo.” It’s “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” featuring Nick Danger, Third Eye. It has the femme fatale with a dozen names (whom “everyone knew as Nancy”). While not nearly as surreal as their other works, it still plays very much with the listener’s perceptions of space and time, and, when someone is incorrectly trying to start a flashback, includes the brilliant line, “No, no, no, you don’t understand how radio works.”
“We’re going to Greece!” “And swim the English Channel?”
“Where’s the fire?” “In your eyes, Lieutenant Bradshaw.”
“What’s all this brouhaha?” “Brouhaha? Ha ha ha…”
“I had to shake the cornstarch off my mukluks” (referencing the sound effects)
“Are those my cues?” “Yes, and they must be dry by now.”
“May I take your hat and goat?”
“How did you get in here? You don’t have a key!” “No, only half a key . . . I had to split it with the sound effects man.”
“Get me out of these ropes and into a good belt of scotch.”
And just far, far too many other little nuggets that pop up in my brain every day.
The whole side is complete and familiar and real, so much like genuine old radio. And it definitely both plays with and makes fun of the genre. There are inside references to sound effects and transitioning tricks, as well as a tremendous “deus ex machina” that so many of these stories seemed to feature when they couldn’t work out how to end the story.