Recently I had the great pleasure of interviewing Linda Jay, a Petaluma-based writer and editor, about what it was like to have family friend Rod Serling around the house as a child, and how she managed to inspire the formation of the Petaluma Radio Players. – RR
Christopher Fisher: I’m talking today with Linda Jay, who founded the Petaluma Radio Players in 2015. The Petaluma Radio Players helped revive radio drama in our area last year with two live performances of The Shadow that were originally written for and broadcast on the radio from New York City in 1944. How did you inspire the PRP performances at the DeCarli Trolley Barn Theatre, Linda?
Linda Jay: Well, the first thing I want to mention is that the two Shadow episodes were written by my parents, Verne and Helen Jay. The titles were Flames of Death and Death in the Tomb.
PRP – the Petaluma Radio Players – didn’t exist until last year, when I started going to WORKPetaluma, which is a place where people can rent a computer or work space for meetings. On Tuesday mornings, there is something called Coffee Social. You never know what’s going to be discussed, and it’s very interesting, because the people there are entrepreneurs and techie-types and creative folks from various fields like music, art, computers.
So around March of 2015, I brought in copies of the Shadow scripts, kind of shyly put them on the table at Coffee Social and said, “Maybe a few coworkers might be interested in reading these scripts aloud some evening in the library here. These are vintage radio scripts, the real deal!”
I certainly did not realize that we would end up a few weeks later with the Petaluma Radio Players. I think it was Ralph Scott, our Supervising Producer, who came up with that name. Now we have actors and actresses, sound effects and lighting folks, people who create original music, and playwrights from all over the U.S. are sending us their scripts to review for possible performances.
We wanted to produce the Shadow shows in live performances in the Petaluma area. The big problem was that the rights to many vintage radio shows like The Shadow are owned by a New York company, Conde Nast. The writers never owned the rights to the shows they wrote. So if you want to perform those shows, you have to contact the Conde Nast Legal Department or their lawyers can come after you with “cease and desist” letters.
Fortunately, Steve Lubliner, one of our actors and writers, is an attorney. He dealt with Conde Nast for months, and we got permission to perform the shows, but we couldn’t make a podcast or charge money for the performances. So we did them as a benefit for the Trolley Barn Museum, at Halloween in 2015. We had sold-out crowds [she said with a laugh] for three nights. Fire regulations limited the audience to 35.
CF: That leads to the next question. Your parents were both writers. What was it like growing up in a writing household?
LJ: Dad was always a writer; he had a burning desire to be a playwright. A farmboy from Iowa, in his senior year at Cornell College in Iowa, he won first prize for a play in a national contest sponsored by the New York Times. It was sort of a science fiction story and was produced in East Coast theaters in Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Dad moved to New York during his last college semester.
He was always taking notes on yellow legal pads for plays he wanted to write, always thinking about plots, scenes, characters. My parents were forever batting around dialogue – “How about this?” mother would say. She was a Boston kindergarten teacher with a strong interest in theater. They met at the Joy Street Barn, a little theater in Boston, in 1932, when both were acting in a play.
Dad was kind of shy and introverted, whereas my mother was more outgoing and mischievous. They were actually a good balance for each other. She was Jewish, he was Methodist; they were completely entranced with each other for the more than 50 years they were married.
One interesting thing about growing up with them for parents was that they rehearsed the sound effects for the many radio murder mysteries they wrote, in the kitchen of our apartment in Washington Heights, outside Manhattan. They’d be enthusiastically imitating gunshots, blood-curdling screams, bodies falling, strange vaults opening and closing, as they read the dialogue aloud. They also wrote for Mr. and Mrs. North, Famous Jury Trials, Grand Central Station – famous radio shows of the day.
Well, the apartment walls were thin, and the neighbors were curious about all the strange sounds emanating from the Jays’ apartment. They would knock at the door. My mother would walk over dramatically, open the door very slowly, and ask, “Yes?” The neighbors would say, “Is everything all right?” and mother would say, “Ah, come on, we’re just rehearsing!” I was four years old, and thought this was normal behavior for parents. Later, I found out it was rather strange! [Laughter.]
My parents lived a great deal in their imaginations, and sometimes didn’t have a good understanding of the ways of the world. One time my father said, concerning the process of buying and selling a house (in fact, we always rented), “Oh, I see, it’s kind of like a business deal.”
CF: So he had an exceptional ability to live within and work with his imagination?
LJ: That’s right. In my files, I have letters about Dad’s excellent talent from the producer Elia Kazan, actors and actresses, the writer Norman Corwin, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of the movie Diabolique. Dad had the talent, but he wasn’t a self-promoter. He never reached the upper echelons of fame.
CF: So that leads me to Rod Serling. How did your family come to know him?
LJ: Around 1948, my Dad was hired as a staff writer by WLW, the big 50,000-watt NBC radio-television station in Cincinnati. A year or so later, an unknown named Rod Serling was hired as a staff writer at WLW. He and his wife Carol had just graduated from Antioch College. I later went to Antioch for a while, because Rod encouraged me to go there.
Rod and my Dad became good friends, and co-authored a mystery, “A Walk in the Night,” that aired on The Philip Morris TV Playhouse in 1954. That was the only time Serling had a coauthor for a TV show. Back then, we called television “The Magic,” because it was so new and, yes, magical. Rod and Dad often talked about the fine points of writing for television. Dad was 25 years older than Rod, and already had TV writing experience.
Sometimes we’d go with the Serlings to dinner at a nearby HoJo (Howard Johnson’s). Rod would be chain-smoking and furiously writing ideas for TV scripts on a yellow legal pad. He wanted to hit the big time, and a couple years later, he did. They moved to Connecticut so he could be close to New York. A few years later, they moved to Southern California to be near Hollywood.
CF: In an article you wrote for the online site of the Association of Transformative Arts, “Rod Serling: On the Way to Fame,” you describe Serling as “one of the most idealistic, outspoken and iconoclastic writers of television’s Golden Age.” Many of us who grew up watching Twilight Zone or Night Gallery only know that side of Serling.
LJ: Well, Rod wrote some very famous TV shows, some of which were made into movies, before his fame for Twilight Zone. One was called Patterns, broadcast on the Kraft Television Theatre in 1955. It was about the corporate life and how vicious it can be, how it affects idealistic people.
In 1956, his show Requiem for a Heavyweight was performed on Playhouse 90. That was made into a movie with Jack Palance playing the lead; Burgess Meredith was also in it. About an aging prizefighter on the downward spiral.
Another TV show that really spotlighted Rod’s idealism was A Town Has Turned to Dust, also broadcast on Playhouse 90. The topic was racial prejudice, and Rod ran into a storm of censorship about the show. I have several letters that Rod wrote to my Dad at that time. One letter was about this show. Rod wrote, “Town got wonderful notices in New York and rather mixed around the country, but one thing is did create was talk about prejudice. It was rough in spots. Some of the problems had to be flanked rather than hit head-on, and some of the issues had to be cloaked.”
Rod commented to a newspaper reporter that “by the time the censors had gotten to it, my Town script had turned to dust. We’re developing a new citizenry, one that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won’t be able to think.”
CF: Wow, that’s a whopper of a quote.
LJ: Yes, he wrote that in 1958.
CF: Were Serling, or your parents for that matter, outspokenly political?
LJ: No, I don’t think so.
CF: Serling certainly seemed to have a moral compass and issues he wanted to explore. Were Serling or your parents adversely affected by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s? Particularly given what you’ve just mentioned about his desire to explore actual issues of the day?
LJ: I don’t know. I never heard that Rod Serling was ever targeted or brought before Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee.
In my Dad’s brief memoirs, he said that when he and my mother lived in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, they were communists, as were many of the people they knew in the theater world. Cell meetings were held in friends’ apartments. They were idealists, not wild-eyed radicals.
We suddenly moved out of New York to Iowa around 1946, and I never found out why. It could have been because Dad wasn’t getting enough work, or it could have been that he was concerned about Joe McCarthy. After I saw the movie “Trumbo” recently about the blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo, I was thinking about our hasty exodus from New York again.
CF: Let’s talk about your career in writing.
LJ: I was always an English major, and always the newsletter editor/reporter for whatever organizations I’ve belonged to. I like to get the story and tell the story. Not sure I’ll ever write a book, but I’ve written many profiles and feature stories for national magazines, and I could see writing blog posts about my adventures.
I really love working with authors as a book manuscript copy editor. It’s very thrilling and satisfying for me to help an author make his or her manuscript the best it can be, and I truly do understand writers. I specialize in copyediting genres from business to novels, memoirs, spirituality, fantasy such as vampires and zombies.
Right after graduating from college I went to Boston, where my mom was from, and became an advertising copywriter at Little, Brown Publishers, in the trade book department. I always knew I had the talent to survive in that situation, where most of the employees were from Ivy League colleges. I learned to write back jacket copy for books (which I’m still doing), press releases, magazine ads.
In more recent times, I’ve been writing website text, blog posts, and this year, I’m going to ghostwrite a book for a business person in London.
CF: Now that you’ve had several careers in and around writing over several decades, what aspect do you love best? Conversely, is there an aspect that you’d rather not do?
LJ: I do love finding out what makes people tick and what is intriguing about them through writing profiles and feature stories. Some of the national magazines I’ve written for include: TV Technology (20 articles), The Artist’s Magazine, Woman Engineer, U.S. Banker, BusinessWoman. Video Computing, from Florida, was a newspaper, and my late husband and I were West Coast co-editors and reporters.
I’m very fast at writing headlines and captions, and I like that, as well as coming up with puns and wordplay, using my imagination.
Best editing catch I’ve made so far: when I was copyeditor of a Silicon Valley-based academic magazine, Syllabus, an article ended with this phrase: “…and we will stand on the toes of those who have gone before us.” No, no, no – stand on the shoulders, the shoulders! [Laughter]
What would I rather not do? Anything of a technical nature. And, I’d rather not work with “difficult” authors where it’s obvious you’re not compatible, or that their minds are not open to editing suggestions.
CF: What about quality writing today? Does it exist as much in television, for instance, compared to the “Golden Age” you described earlier?
LJ: Well, sure, there are well-thought-out, meaty programs on television, and excellent journalists in the magazine and newspaper world. I must say, however, that I do not understand tweets. Just don’t see the point.
CF: Communicating anything meaningful in 140 characters or less is a bit of a challenge. Do you ever use texting lingo in your speech?
LJ: Sure. Sometimes I’ll say LOL, BRB, or something like that.
CF: How do you happen to call Petaluma home?
LJ: I moved here in January 2014 from 18 years in Marin after a divorce. It’s a lot friendlier here! Before that, I lived 22 years in Silicon Valley with my late husband. Hewlett-Packard transferred us to California from Boston in 1972.
CF: This last question is one I looked forward to asking. Is there a recent career project that you thoroughly enjoyed, and something you would be thrilled to do but haven’t done yet? Maybe a subject you’d like to cover?
LJ: I’ve worked on such diverse books recently as a copyeditor, and really liked every one of them: children’s fairytales, a memoir, a science-fiction novel, a business book. I wanted to try my hand at ghostwriting, and now I will be doing that. And I would like to write more magazine profiles and feature stories. And humorous pieces, with puns, rhymes, wordplay.
I’d be thrilled to write a poem like my favorite genius poet, Ogden Nash, who once ended a poem with the word “a.” The poem is called The Clam, and the last two lines are, “When you are lolling on a piazza, It’s what you are as happy as a.”
I’d like to write more about my parents, but there’s sketchy information in many areas of their life. So that’s why I’m tickled that the Petaluma Radio Players are evolving. I started that group to honor my parents.
Christopher Fisher is a Petaluma journalist and the Outreach Coordinator for Petaluma Community Access, the parent of KPCA radio, which is coming soon to the southern Sonoma County airwaves. He has written for Civil Eats, Grist, Truthout, Z Magazine and www.TheRaucousRooster.com.