By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 23, 1935
“Mike fright,” said Jimmie Frise, “seems a silly thing to me.”
“It’s like stage fright,” I explained.
“But stage fright is understandable,” said Jim, “facing thousands and thousands of people, row on row. But mike fright, that’s silly. Imagine being frightened of a little round instrument about the size of a turnip or a tin of gingersnaps!”
“It’s the unseen that frightens you,” I further elucidated, “the unseen, the unknown.”
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” cut in Jimmie.
“Yes, but you do know,” I said. “You know that there are thousands, maybe millions, of people listening to you. They are not at your mercy, sitting in theatre seats, all more or less obliged by good manners to sit and say nothing. On the air you picture all those people, thousands, millions, sitting in their own homes where manners do not exist. Some millions of them are reading the newspaper. Other millions of them are sitting talking together. Very few of them are actually sitting in rows in front of the radio listening to you as they would listen to you from the stage.”
“Ah,” said Jim, seeing the point.
“Yes, I went on. “The unseen, the unknown. As you step up in front of that little round microphone the first thing you imagine is that about ninety-nine million out of the billion will promptly, at the first sound of your voice, jump up angrily and turn you off. They can’t do that in a theatre. Or in a public meeting. But that’s what you imagine. You say to yourself, “How can I speak so gently, how can I be so immediately interesting that everybody in the world, with a loud Anarrrhhnnn, won’t jump up and rush over and cut me off?’ That’s how you get mike fright.”
“The reason I ask,” said Jim, “is that Bill Berry has to speak over the air to-morrow night. And he’s nearly crazy.”
“Who, Bill?” I exclaimed. “I didn’t think he’d be fazed by anything in the world.”
“He’s nearly nuts,” said Jim. “He’s been in, to see me the last three nights at the house and walked the floor and rehearsed his speech for me. He’s nearly nutty.”
“The poor chap,” said I.
“I drove him down to work this morning,” proceeded Jim, “and dear old blatherskite Billy sat there like a man in a trance. He never spoke all the way down, except to moan a few times.”
“The poor fellow,” I agreed.
“I’ve seen Bill Berry,” stated Jim, “meet notables and millionaires and statesmen as if he were their buddy. I’ve seen him the life of a hundred parties. He has the nerve of a canal horse. At hockey games he stands up and roars and yells like a bull in a barn and thinks no more of the stares and “sit-downs” of the mob than if they weren’t there. But this morning Bill Berry was worse than a bride with the hives on her nuptial morn.”
Scared By Remote Control
“How did he ever get himself into this jam?” I inquired.
“Oh, some service club,” said Jim. “Some service club is putting on a fifteen-minute appeal. And nobody but Bill Berry could put over the right gusto, the right hail-fellow, the right life of the party. And Bill admits he was kind of tickled at first with the idea of talking over the radio. It was just four or five days ago that he got mike fright.”
“He shouldn’t have mike fright yet,” I cried.
“He’s got it,” said Jim. “Mike fright, by remote control. Every hour it gets worse. It’s worse than buck fever. It’s worse than waiting for the day of your execution. Last night he didn’t sleep a wink. Do you know what he did last night?”
“He just sat in a rocking chair all night and rocked.”
“Oh, dear,” I said.
“I wonder what we could do to help him?” asked Jim. “You’ve often talked over the air. Can’t you think of something?”
“Could somebody else make the speech for him?” I suggested.
“I told him that,” said Jim, “but he’s too proud. He won’t hear of it.”
“Maybe we could get a doctor to give him some dope,” I thought, “some sleeping pills, something that will dull him down for the remaining twenty-four hours.”
“He’s full of aspirin now,” said Jim. “And sleeping powders.”
“I am sorry for him,” I said, “but I can’t see what’s to be done about it. A guy undertakes to talk over the radio, he’s got to take what comes with it.”
“How would you like to come with us?” asked Jim. “I said I’d drive him to the studio to-morrow night. You’re a good hand at cheering people up. Come with us.”
“Sure I will,” I agreed.
The next night Jim picked me up at the house about 7.30. In the front of the car beside him sat Bill Berry.
“HUL-lo, Bill,” I cried, in my best service club manner. “Howsa boy?”
Bill did not answer. He just settled a little deeper into his coat collar. In a swift glance, I saw how he had failed. His derby, instead of being on the side and somewhat on the back of his head, was set primly on the centre. It seemed a little too big for him. His face had shrunk. It was pallid and expressionless, and there was a dull look in his eyes.
“Well, well, so we’re making our radio debut?” I cried, opening the back door and stepping in.
Rusty was there. Jim’s Rusty, an Irish water spaniel of advanced age, a dear old dog, but somewhat fallen from his natural estate. Rusty was bought eleven years ago by Jimmie to be a retriever of countless ducks that Jimmie was going to shoot. Rusty comes of a noble breed that fears not the roaring wave nor the icy water, but will plunge in where polar bears would fear to tread, after wild ducks.
But Rusty had two paths to take, and he took the lesser. He became, in a few weeks, a house dog, a guardian of children and property rather than a noble beast of the chase. During the past ten years, any time Jim takes Rusty into the duck blind, poor Rusty just sits there emitting whines in a hoarse Irish voice, demanding to be taken back to terra firma, and houses and property and children, his chief interest.
“Hullo Rusty,” I said as I got in beside him and he grudgingly gave me a bit of the seat to sit on.
A Very Strict Rule
Jim drove rapidly downtown. I could see Bill Berry’s head, with that incongruous bowler sitting so stiff and straight on his head. His neck seemed shrunk. His head looked shaky and his ears stuck out forlornly in a way I had never noticed before.
I tried four or five starts at conversation. I tried the Rotary, then the Kiwanis, then the Lions and finally the Young Men’s Board of Trade manner on him.
None of them worked.
“Bill,” I said, “how would you like me to sub for you? They’ll announce you, and then I’ll step up and imitate your voice so that even your own wife wouldn’t know it wasn’t you?”
“No, no,” said Bill hollowly. “I’ll see it through.”
So I spent the rest of the ride scratching Rusty and talking to him.
“You can’t leave Rusty in the car,” I remarked to Jim. “What was the idea of bringing him?”
“My nights belong to Rusty,” said Jimmie. “Where I go he goes.”
“But he goes frantic if he is left alone in the car,” I reminded Jim.
“We’ll take him inside and tie him up to a radiator in the hall or something,” said Jim easily.
At the studio, we both had to help poor Billy Berry out of the car. He had gone stiff. His legs wouldn’t bend. In his right hand he clutched a wad of paper that was his speech. It was just a wad.
We got him out and stood him there, like an invalid, while Jim put the leash on Rusty and handed it to me.
I held Rusty on the leash and Jim and I each took an arm of Bill and led him slowly down the street and into the radio broadcasting station door.
His feet dragged, he was breathing in short gasps and you could hear a slight moan with every third or fourth breath.
As we went through the door, he leaned his weight on us and stumbled.
“Here, here,” I hissed. “Bill, this won’t do at all.”
In the lighted entrance. I saw his face. It was white and beaded with moisture. His eyes had a glassy look and his lips were muttering. I caught a few words:
“… now altogether, with one heart and voice, let us say…”
“Wait till you get into the studio,” I said, patting his back.
We were ushered upstairs into a waiting room with wicker chairs. We lowered Bill Berry into the biggest one. A few ladies in evening dress stared at him coldly and unsympathetically, and one man in a dress suit played faint trills on a piccolo across the room.
“Is this dog going to take part in any program?” asked a very young man who had come into the waiting room.
“No,” I said. “He’s just an onlooker.”
“Sorry, you’ll have to take him out,” said the young aristocrat, pleasantly. “There is a very strict rule.”
Jim winked at me.
I started out with Rusty, who dragged back on the leash. Rusty knows his nights are for Jimmie.
“Put on That Smile”
Jim caught me in the hallway.
“Walk around here and there,” said Jim, “and at two minutes to eight sharp, come up here. Hide Rusty under your coat.”
“Under my coat?” I expostulated, “Him weighing fifty pounds?”
“I always said that coat of yours was for you and who else,” said Jim. “Stuff him up under your coat, walk in here at the right minute and then push in with the rest of us.”
“No, Jim.” I protested. “I hate trouble. You take Bill inside. I won’t need to go.”
“Listen, you come,” declared Jim. “He’s better, just having you near. I can see it. You sit in the studio where he can see you. Put on that smile. You know the one. The smile that means ‘great stuff, fella.'”
“Now do it for me.”
“Why didn’t you leave Rusty at home?” I demanded.
“I should have,” said Jim. “But he knows he goes where I go at night. I couldn’t disappoint him.”
“I can readily understand why he isn’t a bird dog,” I said, giving a yank to the leash.
So Rusty and I went out and walked around the street for six or seven minutes, and then, by the clock, I started sneaking back in. We took the stairs up. We went slowly. I watching the wrist-watch, and Rusty anxiously sniffing his way back up to Jimmie.
At exactly one minute to eight o’clock, we were at the top step of the stairs of the studio floor. I reached down and put Rusty under my arm and draped my large English-style overcoat over him. In the hall, as I came through, the party to which Bill belonged was thronged at the doorway of the studio.
All was hushed and “hissed.” Young officials of the studio were signalling with eyes and fingers and forming soundless words with their mouths.
I drew alongside the throng of artists and speakers. Jim mode way for me so that I was in the middle of the group.
The studio door opened and out came sounds of final, triumphant, signing-off music. I heard a quiet voice announcing the end of a program. Our party was ushered, like a herd of cows for the slaughter, into the studio. Its hushed atmosphere was slightly broken by the rising and departure of a horde of shirt-sleeved musicians tip-toeing out. The quiet voice again speaking, and as the outgoing throng made way, we crept anxiously to chairs and benches. There were curtains on the walls and curtains dependent from the ceiling There were wires and cables on the floor and strung across the room itself in midair.
All was hushed and disorganized, yet strangely organized. Rusty was wriggling under my coat and I patted him.
The men on the box, who was talking in the quiet voice, signalled toward Bill Berry and Jim led him forward. A lady was already playing the piano and a short fat man in a dress suit suddenly burst into loud baritone song. Rusty struggled fiercely under the coat, so I let his head out and he glared about the room until he saw Jim. Then he sagged comfortably.
In the Awful Silence
I sat down to one side, where Bill could see me. Jim was holding Bill’s arm, they were seated side by side, and Bill’s face was as white as death. He was listening with intense interest and an expression of surprise, to the man singing. Other officials of the service club were grouped around, most of them looking quickly at Bill and then looking quickly away again.
It was all very swift. Time flies in a studio. On hushed wings it flies.
“It is now my pleasure,” said the announcer up on the box, with an easy and jolly manner, and common gesture toward Bill, “to introduce to you, ladies and gentlemen, one who is known throughout the city and, indeed, throughout the country as a whole, as a great fellow, a great organizer, a great leader, a great worker in many noble and worthy causes, who will put, in a nutshell, the meaning of this campaign in the behalf of an underprivileged section of our great community, Mr. William Berry!”
He said it the way Joe Penner’s announcer announces Joe.
Bill was on his feet. He was in a trance. Jim was whispering in his ear, trying to get him to take a step forward. But Bill’s legs were locked, apparently.
I had to act quick, if I was going to act at all.
I slid Rusty down on to the floor. I stood up. I started toward Bill and Jim.
And under my foot, in that awful hushed silence, I felt Rusty’s tail go squnnch!
“Ki-yi-yi-yi,” yelled Rusty. “Ki-yi-yi-yi! … oooowww!”
“Here, here!” I rasped. But Rusty was crouched down, scrambling out of the way of all big feet, under chairs, looking over his shoulder in terror and letting out a staccato stream of
The room was in a panic. Announcers rushed from side to side signalling madly but all in that awful hush in which Rusty’s incredible yowling and ki-yi-ing filled and blasted the air. Frantic faces appeared at windows looking into the studio. Five of six of us were now sprawling on the floor trying to quiet Rusty, but the more we struggled the worse Rusty yelled, and chairs fell over and finally –
“Cut!” roared the announcer.
At that loud call, Rusty and I were like two worms tossed into a flock of chickens
The hush was broken with a babble of voices as officials rushed in and seized Rusty and me and everybody else out the studio, except Jim and Bill.
I stood outside explaining to a mob of infuriated radio experts for only a half a minute until out came Jimmie, leading poor Bill, who was now just one complete quiver, head, knees and all.
They grabbed their coats. We went in a body down the stairs.
“What happened?” I asked Jim. “Did he speak?”
“He couldn’t speak,” said Jim, quite simply. “So the announcer said, ‘You have just heard a few remarks by Mr. William Berry, that well-known worker in behalf of the underprivileged of this great city.'”
“So Rusty made the speech? I cried.
“That was him,” said Jim.
We drove Mr. William Berry back home to his astonished and waiting wife.
Editor’s Notes: Greg did speak often on the radio, he even considered giving up newspaper work in the late 1930s to become a radio announcer. He participated in a series called “Let’s Face the Facts” in 1940, where speeches by notable Canadians commented on different aspects of the war effort. This was accumulated in a single volume in 1941.
Joe Penner was a popular radio comedian at the time.