Avatar is still on my must-see list, but last week Victoria and family friend Robert Lowell allowed me to accompany them to a screening of Shrek: The Final Chapter. The movie is a top-drawer entertainment experience with animation and 3D effects that make you wonder if there is anything computers can't do. Wearing RealD glasses with thick black frames similar to the ones I wore in high school, I was fascinated by the detail in Shrek: the tiny fibers and stitches of clothing, billowing bouffants of hair, the convincing illusion of depth, all went far beyond my Mcluhanesque expectations for media absorption.
But was the 3D experience as fantastical and transforming as I had so long anticipated?
Oddly enough, not quite. I won't say I was disappointed by the experience, but Shrek left me with a nagging feeling, like a dim memory, that there were more profound and more absorbing media experiences to be had.
Then last week, my memory was jogged in a sad way. The New York Times reported the death of Himan Brown, possibly the greatest creative spirit of the golden age of radio, at the age of 99.
Most people haven't heard of Hi Brown, and most of those who have are in their 60s and older. He was the creator of such radio dramas as "The Adventures of the Thin Man," "Dick Tracy," and "Inner Sanctum Mysteries" known for the sound of a creaking door that unsettled millions as they listened to the show in their dark living rooms. The reason the eerie sound was unsettling is that it was filtered through the ears and imaginations of a million brains that tapped the darkest recesses of individual souls to create images so personally horrifying that even Lon Chaney, Sr. couldn't duplicate them. When "Inner Sanctum" signed off with a sardonic male voice intoning, "Pleasant Dreams," thousands lay awake for most of the night.
Hi Brown believed that the human mind was the best medium for creating the images that move the soul. Radio, he said, would always be far more effective than cinema or television for putting complex, unfilmable, undrawable pictures -- beautiful, erotic, horrifying or devastating images -- into persons' heads. The brain is capable of creating images that surpass computer-created high density 3D on a screen.
"I am firmly convinced that nothing visual can touch audio," Himan Brown said when I interviewed him for American Baptist media in 1974. "I don't need 200 orchestra players doing the 'Ride of the Valkyries,' I don't need car chases, I don't need mayhem. All I need to do is creak the door open, and visually your head begins to go. The magic word is imagination."
Be that as it may, the golden age of radio drama faded with the advent of television in the 1950s, and no one who has viewed Avatar will see the sense of listening to a radio drama. And perhaps the human brain is losing the wiring necessary to appreciate audio tales. Child psychiatrists used to worry that color television with vividly formed and richly colored characters like Big Bird and Sponge Bob Square Pants may be robbing children of the facile imagination their grandparents used to be inspired or terrified as they read fairy tales or listened to radio drama.
Certainly the effects of radio drama on our minds cannot underestimated. Jack Benny, whose schtick was to pose as a tight-wad, had a bit on his radio program in which he would lead visitors to the money vault beneath his house, perhaps to get a quarter to pay the paper boy. Security measures along the way to the vault included a moat filled with splashing, growling, snapping alligators -- hilarious in the minds of imaginative radio listeners, but disappointingly lame when it was recreated on television.
Another popular television program that originated on the radio was Gunsmoke. On the radio, it didn't matter that Marshal Dillon was portrayed by short, morbidly obese William Conrad because the actor's rich baritone swelled listeners' ears and created the image of a tall, athletic lawman. On television, it took the six-and-a-half foot tall James Arness to complete the picture. And who can forget that the bookish, bow-tied Bud Collyer, host of television's To Tell the Truth, was completely convincing as the man of steel on radio.
Another convincing argument for the superiority of audio communication came from humorist Stan Freberg, who produced a brief demonstration to convince advertisers to spend money on the radio. Freberg demonstrated that the mind responds to radio more creatively than to the big screen:
Hi Brown continued to produce radio dramas into the nineties. From 1974 to 1982, he produced the nightly CBS Radio Mystery Theater, complete with the creaking door effect. Some time during that period, I had the privilege of doing a telephone interview with Mr. Brown to promote the program among listeners of Vita, the erstwhile American Baptist weekly radio program. We had a nice long chat, during which I became completely convinced that audio will always create more vivid images and profounder ideas in the brain than television or film -- or HD 3D.
I rarely missed an episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater after that. And today I count my half-hour conversation with Hi Brown as one of the great human encounters of my life, up there with shaking hands with Jonas Salk at an American Baptist meeting or sitting in Joe DiMaggio's warmth when he left his seat at a gate at National Airport.