Harlan Ellison and Quiet Please

Title Harlan Ellison and Quiet Please
Message Text 1. Excerpts from _An Edge in My Voice_ by Harlan Ellison (University of Michigan, 1985):

... It was in the late Forties. See now this kid, Harlan, thirteen or fourteen years old, riding in the back seat of his mom and dad's green Plymouth, on a Sunday late afternoon. In those days the family "went for a ride." Nowhere special, just out for a ride. Nowhere special, just out for a leisurely spin to buy an ice cream cone, to drive into Mentor, Ohio where a certain ice cream parlor carried comic books the kid couldn't get in Painesville. See them, the three of them, Mom and Dad and the kid, driving along a country road in Ohio ... listening to the radio. [...]

See then: this kid Harlan and Mom and Dad, driving down Mentor Avenue, on a Sunday afternoon early in the Forties. And the radio spoke: "Quiet, please." A pause, heavy with expectation. Then, again, "Quiet, please.

The voice of Ernest Chappell. One of the great radio voices. A sound that combined urbanity with storytelling wisdom. And the show was on the Mutual Network; it was, of course, the legendary Quiet, Please, created by Wyllis Cooper.

I begged my mother and father to leave it on, not to change over to one of the more popular Sunday comedy shows; and they left the dial where it was, and I heard something that I have never forgotten, something I will share with you now. Ernest Chappell narrated Wyllis Cooper's scripts. The programs were backed up by sound effects and music (the theme was the 2nd movement of Franck's Symphony in D Minor, a work I cannot listen to, even today, without being thrilled to my toenails), but essentially it was Chappell, just speaking softly. Quietly. Terrifyingly.

What I heard that Sunday afternoon, so long ago, that has never left my thoughts for even one week, through all those years, was this:

"There is a place just five miles from where you now stand that no human eye has even seen. It is... five miles _down!"_

When I heard that, and even now when I say it at college lectures, even when I simply type it on a page, a chill takes possession of my spine.

And the story was wonderful. (I'm sure if I were to hear it now, forty years later, it might be woefully thin and unworthy of the weight I have put on it ... but I've managed to obtain recordings of the five or six shows that are still extant, and they are superb... so memory, this once, probably serves me well.)

It concerned a group of men working in the deepest coal mine in the world. (Coal mine? It's been forty years; it may have been a tin mine, or a diamond mine.) And they break through the floor of the mine and it turns out to be the ceiling, the roof, of the biggest cave in the world. I mean _big_! So gigantic that even the most powerful searchlights can't be seen down there. It just goes down and down. A stone, dropped through the hole, keeps falling ... there is no sound of its having landed. So they rig up something like a bathysphere, and a couple of guys are lowered in it and ... they're attacked by pterodactyls before they can reach the bottom! Now that's all I remember of the plot; but tell me something, troops: How many stories you heard or saw or read fifteen years ago, ten years ago, even five years ago, do you remember that clearly today?

And I heard "Five Miles Down" at least forty years ago. And it's still with me.

Still with me to the extent that very soon now I will be writing a story titled "Down Deep," which will open with Wyllis Cooper's basic idea, and go from there. Still with me to the extent that I have always loved the sound of dramatic readings and have learned my lessons well from Orson Welles and Wyllis Cooper and Ernest Chappell.

2. Of course, there's no episode of QP with the plot Ellison describes. There's also no QP episode with the title "Five Miles Down." The closest thing is "A Mile High and a Mile Deep" which has a copper mine but features no pterodactyls attacking bathyspheres over bottomless pits, sadly.

Now, this is just speculation on my part, but there _are_ two episodes of that other spooky Mutual series "The Mysterious Traveler" called "Five Miles Down." They aired on Sunday 9 February 1947 and Tuesday 4 July 1950, according to Jerry Haendiges' and Terry G. G. Salomonson' online logs. Maybe that's what Harlan heard. But tell me something, troops: Would an Ohio family go out for ice cream in early February? Maybe young Harlan caught the July broadcast.

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Submission Date May 08, 2008