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Title Quiet Please articles
Message Text Syndicated radio and television columnist John Crosby devotes back-to-back columns to our good friend Wyllis Cooper.



[September 5, 1949 Oakland Tribune]

Writer Puts Unique Tone In Air Plays

By JOHN CROSBY

Wyllis Cooper, who looks like a cross between a gnome and Alexander Woollcott, is an arresting and, in one respect, almost unique figure in radio. He is one of the few writers whose own personality is impressed on listeners more vividly than that of the actors.

He is the author of "Quiet Please," now off the air, and of a short-lived television program. Any single drama on either of those programs was instantly recognizable as the handiwork of Cooper, whose mind works in strange ways. In almost all Cooper scripts a sense of dread, of imminent catastrophe, hangs over the characters from the outset to about one minute before the closing commercial. Yet nothing much happens in the half hour. There are long, long pauses, so long sometimes you wonder if your radio has gone on the blink. Networks are horrified at the amount of dead air they purchase along with Cooper. (A half hour Cooper script played at ordinary tempo would run about ll minutes.)

ALWAYS SURPRISE END

A Cooper story always ends with a surprise, a twist of some sort, many of them unexplained. The supernatural figures strongly, though in strange ways. Supernatural characters in Cooper's dramas are not terribly sinister. Many of them are more likable than the humans in the script and some of them are just ridiculous and a little poignant. They are likely to pop in unexpectedly. You'll see (or hear of) a couple of guys at a bar drinking beer and suddenly become aware that one of them has four arms and hails from the moon.

A Cooper story starts so slowly you can hear your heart beat, sometimes with a satiric twist right at the beginning. There was one about a private eye to whom nothing had ever happened. He'd had no adventures at all. And his secretary was no glamor girl, but a battleaxe, roughly 112 years old. Then a man walked in to discuss a murder. "Who was murdered?" asked the private eye. "I was," said the man, rather aggrieved about it.

EXCELS IN CHARACTER

Some of these twists are a little too elfin to stand analysis, but then Cooper is not long on plot anyhow. His gift is for mood and character. The listener gets so wrapped up in a Cooper character, wondering who he is, what he's doing there, and how it's all going to come out, he'll sit on the edge of his chair for half an hour. And at the end of half an hour, he may still be pretty fuzzy about what happened, depending on how explanatory Cooper feels at the moment.

Like Henry Morgan, Cooper has no respect for or interest in listeners who are doing the dishes or who drop out to the icebox for a beer during his stories. He never repeats himself. "Why should I make concessions to an audience that doesn't pay attention?" he says. As a matter of fact, he doesn't make very many concessions to the people who do pay attention. At the end of half an hour they may be just as baffled as the dishwashers.

Cooper's Holinshed, at least his principal one, is the Bible. "Quite a source book," he explains. Cooper loves to lift stories from the Bible and then wait around for the mail to see how many people recognized the source. Biblical stories are put into modern dress and sometimes re-arranged rather dramatically to suit Cooper's peculiar point of view. In the Cain and Abel story, for example, it was all Abel's fault. Abel was such a nasty character he provoked his brother into what Cooper considered justifiable homicide. (A lot of people wrote in to say they agreed.)

USES NARRATIVE FORM

There are few characters in any Cooper script, two or three or sometimes just one, and he uses more straight narrative than almost anyone. Besides insisting--against all the rules--on long stretches of silence, Cooper frequently has two people talking at once--again, against all radio rules. In ordinary conversation, says Cooper, everyone talks at once and they appear to understand one another, so why not in radio?

While unquestionably a rare and entertaining writer, Cooper has some strong faults. He avoids cliches with such intensity that he's creating his own. Some of his characters, surprising as they are, bear as much resemblance to human beings as a baby in a bottle at Harvard. His tricky but obscure endings sometimes seem an easy way for a writer to get out of a bad hole.

In his single invasion of television Cooper's crotchets were as individual and startling as they were on radio. But that will have to wait until tomorrow.


[September 6, 1949 Oakland Tribune]

Writer of Eerie Stuff Tries Video

By JOHN CROSBY

Wyllis Cooper, a writer of eerie, sometimes incomprehensible though remarkably literate radio and television dramas, looks as if he'd stepped out of one of his own scripts. He's a short, bespectacled man, broad of brow and sweeping of girth. His double chin is an expanse of incomparable grandeur. He works, hunched over a typewriter like an intelligent spider, in a large office in the Hotel Brittany behind drawn blinds. The drawn blinds, he explains, are to protect him from street noises, which is the sort of contradiction he loves to use in his radio plays.

After his single brush with television, a six-program series on ABC-TV entitled characteristically Volume 1 (Nos. 1 to 6), he is brimming with theories about television, most of them heretical. Television, he says, is neither a movie nor an illustrated radio show. Too much television, he feels, is just a bad adaptation of Hollywood techniques with cameras running wild all over the place.

WINDOW IN ROOM

Television, says Cooper, is really a window in your living room and should be treated that way. In his own series, Cooper tried to get the home audience to forget all about the cameras, to become eavesdroppers. The audience was told, in the first of the plays, that it was seated behind a mirror. The audience could see every move of the characters; the characters, of course, could see only their own reflections in the mirror.

Into the room--a hotel room--crept a man and a woman who had just robbed a bank and were using the place as a hideout. The camera never budged throughout the half hour. The woman would tidy her hair in front of the mirror--which was your television screen--then walk away. The man would stamp out a cigarette on an invisible bureau over which the mirror hung. An ordinary kitchen chair was the only prop. There was no scenery. The room was black as a cave except for spots illuminating the actors.

Gradually, the couple became aware there was something very fishy about the hotel room. The bellhop, the only other character, seemed to know all about their crime and to pity them for it. Their money disappeared. They couldn't get food or, a more desperate need, cigarettes. And they couldn't get out of the room. Finally--if my interpretation of the convolutions of Cooper's brain is correct, and I wouldn't swear to it--they realized they were doomed to spend eternity in that hotel room with a neon light flashing off and on, off and on, outside the window and a jukebox playing the same dreary tune downstairs. It's a torment I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

TYPICAL OF STORIES

That is typical of the stories Cooper tells and also of his methods. He used no scenery in four of his six plays and only rudimentary scenery in the other two. The purpose was not to save money. The television screen is so small, he says, that the viewer can't absorb the scenery and also see what the people are doing. He uses small casts because he thinks too many characters clutter up the action. As in radio, he was spare with dialogue. Cooper feels there is too much chatter in television. Yet the first script totaled 74 pages, two-thirds the length of a two-and-a-half-hour play. Most of it was stage directions.

Cooper is trying to establish in television the intimacy that was radio's peculiar distinction among dramatic forms. He admits it's difficult, but he says that the imitation of movie technique is the wrong way to go about it.

"The movies can go into great detail," he points out. "In television, we can't. We haven't the time, the clarity, the size, or the audience stimulation." (Audience stimulation: people in an audience stimulate one another. Two people in a living room don't very much.)

On the other hand, television has an urgency and a freshness that can't be duplicated by the movies. Cooper used to write his little vignettes and throw them in front of the camera--three one-hour reading periods, six hours of rehearsals--before he had time to grow cold on them. He still insists his series was not experimental and was wildly indignant when ABC press releases listed them as such.

PROVED THEORIES

"I had some theories about television and I proved them--to my satisfaction at least." The main rule, says Cooper, "Don't try to do what you can't do. You can't do 'Gone With the Wind' on television. Why does anyone want to do it anyway?"

His brief experience with television left him unbowed--he'll undoubtedly be back--but he admits it [wearied?] him a little.

"I never heard 'You can't do that' so many times in my life," he says.

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Submission Date Aug 23, 2005

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