Huck Finn with a Brogue
Radio’s multi-voiced John Drainie is equally at home as Mort Clay or the Duke of Wellington. And when he plays a Chinese lover he actually manages to look the part
OVER THE CBC last winter a 33-year-old radio actor who looks like a younger Frederic March played, among many other roles, the part of an upper-class Englishman in Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” and the part of a New Yorker in Hugh MacLennan’s “The Precipice.” A few days later one of his best friends was called a liar twice— first by an Englishman for denying that the actor was English, second by a New Yorker for denying that he was a native of NYC.
The man who fooled them was Canada’s hardestworking radio actor, John Drainie. Many people who should know what they’re talking about call him the best in Canada; some don’t stop at the border.
Drainie’s voice has been heard by just about every Canadian old enough to twist a radio dial.
Devotees of “long hair” drama catch him regularly on the Sunday night Stage Series or on “CBC Wednesday Night,” playing anything from Huckleberry Finn to Richard II. Followers of the comedy serial “Allan and Me” suffer with him as Mort Clay, the middle-aged much-abused father of the family. Those who prefer their drama fast and light hear him starring on Canada’s top commercial drama shows “Buckingham Theatre” and “Ford Theatre.”
But most listeners never know they are hearing Drainie. His radio voice has never become well known over the airways like that of Bernie Braden, for instance, because he has no radio voice. His voice is the voice of the character he is playing. Even close friends and producers often can’t spot him.
Frank Willis, who has directed Drainie in hundreds of shows, said recently, “He is the only actor who can fool me.”
Another producer explained, “Drainie has the
most flexible voice I know of. Braden’s voice, for instance, has an edge to it; Budd Knapp’s has a mellifluous quality—these things always give them away. But Drainie’s voice has no peculiarities.”
But it is not all voice. Around actors in any medium you hear a lot about the “Stanislavsky Method.” Stated oversimply this is a method “by means of which an actor can become in fact the person he is playing.” Drainie, the experts say, is the greatest Stanislavsky actor in radio.
He doesn’t play a character; he is the character. Sandra Scott, who played opposite him in Len Peterson’s play, “Maybe in a Thousand Years” (about a Chinese boy who married a white girl), relates that at one tense moment in the script Drainie actually looked Chinese.
In a profession where backbiting and jealousy are not exactly unknown Drainie seems to be universally liked and respected. Most actresses prefer working with him because he “gets so completely into the spirit of Continued on page 26
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the thing that it carries over to everybody else in the studio.”
Tommy Tweed, no slouch in front of a mike himself, put it this way: “Drainie is the only actor who can make me cry.”
Andrew Allan, who has directed Drainie more than anyone else, stated recently, “I don’t know of a better radio actor anywhere, and I know of very few better actors in any medium.”
Drainie is one radio actor who will have nothing to fear from television. He possesses a sort of boyish attractiveness and a friendly manner. He has an abundance of brown hair trimmed long, broad forehead, regular features, a fairly substantial mustache and a fine sensitive mouth.
There is nothing arty about Drainie. He doesn’t wear a beard like his good friends Lister Sinclair and Tommy Tweed, nor do his clothes resemble rejects from Bundles for Britain. He usually dresses in a conservative business suit.
In and out of the studio Drainie is constantly studying different types of people wherever he sees them, listening to them talk, trying to talk like them.
Scribbles on His Scripts
The best way to talk like another person, he says, is to try and feel like him. You must consider his temperament, his character, what part of what country he comes from (Drainie can do almost every accent and dialect), his age (the voice is higher pitched in youth; breathing is affected around the age of 50), his build (fat men usually have higher voices than thin men).
Drainie attended 11 showings of the movie “The Prisoner of Zenda” just to find out what it was that C. Aubrey Smith muttered as, choked with emotion, he watched Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., ride off into the sunset. Finally he concluded that the mumblings were completely indistinguishable. But by that time he was able to do a perfect imitation of the bit. Tommy Tweed later wrote a scene into a play just so that Drainie could do his imitation on the air. That’s one way radio plays are bom.
Recently, while playing the part of Julius Monk in R. S. Lambert’s “For the Time Is at Hand,” Drainie aged from 16 to 85 in an hour's time.
The first step in getting a radio play on the air is the read-through. Actors and producers sit around the studio on collapsible metal chairs and read the script. To some this is just a quick getacquainted-with-the-story session. Not Drainie. Right off he begins studying his lines.
Drainie is the greatest script marker in the business. Script marking is a contentious point among radio people— some swear by it; others scorn it. Drainie’s marks consist mostly of underlined words. When you ask him what the underlines mean he scratches his head and says, “Well uh
it means different things at different times.” Then there are a series of pothooks, check marks, question marks, dashes and just scratches—all of which also mean different things at different times.
“The pencil,” Drainie says, “is the bridge between the cold print and me. By means of it I develop an affinity with the script. It becomes part of me.” He explains further that he never likes to be taken by surprise by anything in the script.
On one broadcast last season he was taken badly bj surp"!^. The story is
still told with awe around the CBC. It was the play “Hoghead’s Last Run,” one of the Len Peterson series, “Men At Work.”
Drainie was playing an engineer who was being retired after 40 years’ service. He said good-by to his wife in the morning and came home again in the evening. The main body of the play consisted of flashbacks of his years of railroading.
The actress playing his wife got confused somehow and thought she was all through after the first little scene. Halfway through the show she got permission to leave from Frank Willis, the director.
Came Drainie’s big scene. He returned home to his wife after his last day, full of memories and feelings.
The sound man opened the door.
Drainie said, “Hello, dear I’m
No answer. No actress!
Without losing a second Drainie made a switch. “Hmm,” he mused. “Nobody home. She must have gone down to the comer.” Then he began to improvise a soliloquy to replace the dialogue written on the script. Not only the words had to be changed, but the mood as well.
Willis dashed from the control room into the hall, grabbed the first actress he saw (Beth Lockerbie), gave her a script and shoved her into the breach. So now Drainie had to make up more lines to get his wife back into the scene. He did it without the listeners ever suspecting a thing.
“It was the quickest bit of thinking I’ve ever seen in radio,” says Willis.
This sort of thing sometimes happens during broadcasts. Actors turn over two pages at once, drop pages, lose their places, and so on. It calls for quick thinking.
Once Drainie, who is at times absent-minded, was the goat instead of the hero. When his cue came in a Stage 46 show he simply wasn’t there. The situation was saved by Fletcher Markle who was sitting in the front seat of the auditorium. He leaped to his feet and read Drainie’s lines.
After this Andrew Allan insisted Drainie buy himself a watch. John did and wore it dutifully. But the hands came off and for a while he was wearing a watch with no hands. However, now he has a proper watch and has not missed a cue since.
A Nickel in Your Eye
But to get back to the production of a radio show. After the read-through the director gets busy. He may say, “This line at the top of page 6 . .1
want you to do a Thing there.” The word ‘Thing” means that intangible something an actor does with his voice to create an impression. For instance, Allan tells of Drainie working in the Wednesday Night show, “Portrait of a Year,” in which, incidentally, he did six parts.
Two of the characters Drainie had to play were the Duke of Wellington and Prince Metternich—both old men of about the same age, both conservatives of a similar nature. And, worst of all, they were using no accents on that
“It was a most remarkable achievement,” Allan says. “Somehow—I
don’t know how—John made you think of the retired victor of Waterloo when he was doing Wellington and of the cynical Viennese prince when he was doing Metternich.” That is a Thing.
One reason Drainie excels at this is that he works hardest at it. During the breaks when neophytes are sitting in the CBC cafeteria chatting artily Drainie is probably off by himself somewhere going over and over his lines, trying to
get them perfect. The only time he ever loses his temper in the studio is with himself when he cannot get a line to suit him.
But sometimes, too, when he has a small part Drainie has time to kill in the studio. Last spring, for instance, while playing the valet in the hourand-a-half Restoration comedy, “The Way of the World,” Drainie was in front of the mike for less than 10 minutes. For this bit he put in over 13 hours rehearsal and was paid $72 —the same as the actor with the heaviest part.
A Bungle in a Bulletin
Times like this Drainie usually fools around with Tommy Tweed. They work out little acts together. Or they experiment with sounds—the sound of spittle falling into a canyon; the sound of the bell over a grocery store door (“It sounds something like the grocer talks”) and so on.
Nor is it all fooling. Both men have television very much on their minds. They have doped out some tricky acts. Like, for instance, the telephone act with Drainie as the telephone. Tweed drops a nickel into Drainie’s eye and Drainie goes “tink ting,” exactly like the coin going down. Tweed dials his face and Drainie makes the dial noise. Then he comes up with a busy sound, followed by a returning coin.
“I’ll never need to worry about television as long as I have Drainie to work with,” Tweed says.
Drainie has been acting for as long as he can remember. Like many other Canadian radio stars (Bernie Braden, Alan Young, Fletcher Markle) he grew up in Vancouver. Drainie was born on April 1, 1916. His father once played the piano professionally and an Aunt Stella painted better than average pictures of flowers. Outside of that there was nothing artistic about the Drainie family.
John’s first real acting job was at 8 when he played Alan-a-Dale in a school play. In North Vancouver High School he was president of the dramatic society and of the High Y Club; organized a Major Bowes amateur hour; wrote, directed and acted in numerous skits and plays; and sang baritone in a quartet.
After graduating from high school he jumped onto the stage with both feet. He joined the Vancouver Little Theatre group, later the Community Playhouse.
During this period Drainie was picking up all the radio acting jobs he could get. For one of his earlier serials, “Tom Sawyer,” he received $1 for a half-hour show with unlimited rehearsals. Even as late as 1938 he was paid only $3 for half-hour shows on the CBC.
The Association of Canadian Radio Artists has put an end to all that. Now the least any actor can be paid for a half-hour show is $17.50. Drainie’s highest rate is $62.50 for starring on “Buckingham Theatre.” He is making upward of $10,000 a year.
Success didn’t come easy to Drainie. After a short, swift and fruitless poke at Hollywood in 1939 he joined the staff of Vancouver Station CJOR as an announcer, technician, sound man, actor, writer and what-have-you.
A radio announcer isn’t considered bona fide until he’s made at least one bad flub. Drainie remembers a honey. While plugging n “fascinating display of new spring apparel” for a dress shop, he said—“Come down and feast your eyes on these exciting new virgins , . „ er . versions.”
Then came what Drainie calls the turning point in his career. He met up with, and came under the influence of. radio producers Fletcher Markle and
Andrew Allan. Soon most of Drainie’s work was connected with either or both of the masters.
In the “Baker’s Dozen” series, which Markle wrote and produced for CBC, and which, according to some, was the beginning of big things in Canadian radio drama, Drainie announced the show, did the sound effects and acted.
In the fall of 1941 Drainie moved over to the CBC station, CBR, where he did announcing and sound effects. The following April he married Claire Murray, a talented actress who had worked with him on many shows. Mrs. Drainie is still in radio and is best known to Canadians as Aunt Mary in the serial “John and Judy.”
Drainie recalls that he had much trouble with newscasts. His great ambition was to read one from beginning to end without a flub. One night he almost made it. He sailed right through a newscast, including the weather, without even clearing his throat. Right up to the final line, that is, when he purred, “This is Bill Herbert speaking.” That’s what was written at the bottom of the script.
Drainie went to Toronto in February of 1943 as a CBC staff announcer. Six months later he was free-lancing. Now he figures on averaging about $200 per week the year round.
He does as much legitimate theatre as he can work in, mostly with the New Play Society and the Earle Grey Players, for which he gets no pay. He has taught acting and sound effects at the Academy of Radio Arts and he acted as dialogue director for the Canadian-made movie, “Bush Pilot.” Last year both he and his wife worked in a Film Board production called “Family Circle.”
Claire Kills the Climax
When they have time John and Claire Drainie collaborate on writing a play. Their latest was “Flow Gently Sweet Limbo,” which was produced on Stage 48.
The Drainies have three small children (girls three and four and a boy eight months) and no regular help. So, when mother is away acting, father is baby sitting.
During the odd times their schedules allow them to be home together the Drainies play chess (mother usually wins), listen to music (Drainie likes classical and bebop) or listen to recordings of thenow-extinct radio serial “Vic and Sade.” Drainie has 38 of these records and sometimes holds “Vic and Sade” parties.
Drainie likes good talk and especially a good argument on any subject from politics to the fine points of Greek tragedy. He is an ardent raconteur and usually does imitations of each character who enters the story. Like most wives Claire helps his stories along by sometimes stepping in just before the pay-off in time to ruin the carefully built-up climax.
For a half hour every Sunday evening at 6 Drainie becomes Mort Clay, the somewhat stumblebum father in the family serial “Allan and Mo.” According to Willis, the producer, Drainie has many of the “same lovablo qualities and failings ns poor old Mort.” Drainie and wife are inclined to agree.
Liiter Sinclair, who is exceptionally fond of Drainie and to whom Drainio goes for help with his Shakespearean roles, tell* of Drainie phoning him at home one Tuesday to say he’d be over at 4 for tea. The following Thursday at 4.30 he phoned again to say he’d be a little late.
“His mind just got off on something else for a couple of days, you see,” Sinclair explains. ir