Thursday, April 30, 2015

Radio Greats: Butch Minds the Baby (The Damon Runyon Theatre)

Damon Runyon was one of the great short story writers of the twentieth century. His stories are humorous tales of the Broadway area of New York, and are all about gangsters and men of less than entirely reputable character, murderers and thieves and the like, who are nonetheless highly articulate and very courteous murderers and thieves. Runyon is most famous for the fact that the musical Guys and Dolls is based on his work, but he was much more widely known, and there was an entire radio series devoted to his tales, The Damon Runyon Theatre, one of the comic crown jewels of the Golden Age of Radio. (The radio series was also converted to a TV series, a medium somewhat less suitable to it, although the TV series did quite well.)

The short stories are always told from the viewpoint of an anonymous narrator who seems to know everybody and be known by everyone despite always only being a bystander; in the radio series, he is given a name, and, indeed, the only suitable one: Broadway. The language, which is one of the great things about a Runyon short story, is a mix of extraordinarily formal and very slangy. Almost everything is told in present tense, and there are no contractions. So we get curiously musical passages like the following, from a story called "Tight Shoes":

He is a very big guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet into a violin case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a cello.

It's a kind of comic poetry. And with the right voice, it works wonderfully on the radio. And John Brown, a great comic radio actor, delivers Broadway's narrative lines almost perfectly in a Lower East Side accent that manages to sound completely practical even while saying the most absurd things.

Every episode is good, so it's hard to pick one. After some back-and-forth, I decided on "Butch Minds the Baby", in which a bunch of thieves (and Broadway, who tries unsuccessfully to wiggle out of involvement at every turn) run into some complications due to the fact that their safecracker, Big Butch, doesn't have a babysitter for his son, John Aloysius Ignatius, Jr. Big Butch has to mind the baby or his wife will put the blast on him....

You can listen to "Butch Minds the Baby" (Episode 9) at the Internet Archive, as well as all the other episodes.


  1. MrsDarwin1:44 PM

    Oh, I am so delighted to see this, because just on Monday I was at the library wandering the stacks, and I came across a collection of Runyon's stories, and I spent all week immersed in his narrator's voice. Once you've spent enough time with it, you find yourself thinking with his syntax, and adding "personally" and "at that" to all your sentences. I saw "Guys and Dolls" once a number of years ago, and it mostly rolled off my back, but now that I know the infinitely more interesting source, I'm curious to go back and see what I think.

  2. branemrys7:01 PM

    Now that's a more than somewhat serendipitous coincidence.


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