The Hands of Time
Twenty years ago tonight, my parents and I took up our customary positions in the living room to watch the first two episodes of a new comedy series called Remember WENN. Set at a Pittsburgh radio station in 1939, it was American Movie Classics' first foray into original programming.
I don't remember just when it became clear that the show was something special. Perhaps it was when the resident diva observed that the slightly gauche new intern had arrived "while all her enthusiam is still unhampered by diplomacy or tact." Or when the Man of a Thousand Voices inadvertently described a baseball game in a French accent. Or when the sound effects artist, called upon to mimic the sound of a river on short notice, flushed a toilet on mic. Or when the intern demonstrated to a dubious station manager that sometimes silence is the sexiest sound of all.
As the intern (soon to be the station's only writer), Amanda Naughton was irresistible. John Bedford Lloyd and Kevin O'Rourke played the station managers who vied for her attention. Melinda Mullins's diva kept her tender heart well concealed, while Hugh O'Gorman swaggered along as her "voice of tomorrow" husband. (Or was he really her husband...?) Mary Stout and Carolee Carmello traded off as the organists. Christopher Murney probably had used a thousand voices by the time the series ended. The late Margaret Hall and George Hall played, respectively, the sharp-tongued receptionist and the addled elderly jack-of-all-trades. Tom Beckett made a vivid character of the sound effects artist without uttering a single word.
Across four seasons, the main characters' lives reflected and were reflected by the programs they performed for their unseen "passionate listeners." The married couple enacted a daily travesty of their real lives on the air. The Man of a Thousand Voices tried to hide behind one of them. A grieving writer took solace in writing nothing but happy endings. The creator of superheroes became a spy.
And I, a college student majoring in music and English, wondered how I could go back in time to become a radio organist. The series was being written almost singlehandedly by the Broadway composer-librettist (and former pop singer) Rupert Holmes—who, naturally, also provided the original songs and the majority of the underscoring. The sophisticated harmonies of Holmes's music challenged my ear. In transcribing songs like "Christmas Is Waiting" and "And Then Some" I learned many of his tricks from the inside out. Since then I have scarcely written a note, as composer or arranger, that doesn't owe something to Remember WENN.
But more than that: in 2003, I met Holmes at a reading of his musical adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It became clear that in addition to being a superb musician and a rollicking good writer he was also a ridiculously nice guy. I was to work with him twice: as a pianist on the CD accompanying his novel Swing, and as the music director for a starry concert adaptation of his musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
People I met working on those gigs hired me for others, who introduced me to yet others who subsequently hired me, and so on . . . to the point that Rupert is indirectly responsible for almost half of my career to date. As I sat down to write this, I realized suddenly: even the memorable job that took up most of my time last month would not have happened if my parents and I had not sat down twenty years ago to watch a new comedy on American Movie Classics.
To say that Remember WENN changed the life of this passionate listener is not an exaggeration.
(P.S.: There has never been a commercial video release of Remember WENN, but most of the series is available on YouTube. I'll meet you then...)