Newspaper stories behind a September Song


Knickerbocker Holiday (Theater Guild on the Air, Dec. 1945).
The hit song remained, but the “journalist” character disappeared in the radio adaptation of the musical “Knickerbocker Holiday” — one of many films that were presented in radio versions. The radio version actually is closer to the script of the original 1938 play by Maxwell Anderson, with no newspapers or journalists in the plot.
In fact, Anderson himself had been a newspaperman, but both the stage musical and radio version are true to the story’s historical setting in 1647, when a town crier’s trumpet and “Oyez” or “Hear ye, hear ye…” were as close as things got to “Extra! Extra!”

“No news by land. No news by sea. Absolutely no news whatsoever.” — Town crier
“That’s what he thinks. I’ll give him news to report… even if I have to make the news up, it’ll be there.” — Washington Irving

Still, some watchdog-press issues are central to the play.
Its scene-setting narration is about the task of writing historical fiction, voiced by early American author Washington Irving, whose 1809 book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, is  the inspiration for the play. In his book, Irving even mentioned the lack of newspapers in 17th century New Amsterdam.

However, a 1944 film adaptation made the romantic young troublemaker in the plot, Brom Broeck, into a journalist. Played on screen by Nelson Eddy, he was a “crusading newspaper publisher,” according to Turner Classic Movies. “Printer and pamphleteer” might be a more accurate description, since newspaper publishing didn’t come to New York until the 1700s.

In this radio version, David Brooks plays Broeck as simply a man willing to speak truth about the powerful — pointing out hanging-offenses committed by the New Amsterdam Council members. And he’s willing to go to jail over his right to free speech, as well as suffer for his inability to take orders from anyone. In the end, his philosophy is, “Let’s keep the government small and funny.”

Those leading-man troublemaker qualities sound enough like a journalist to suggest where the screenplay authors got the idea — and to include the broadcast here.

However, although he plays the tyrannical Governor Peter Stuyvesant, not the troublemaker, Walter Huston gets the star billing and steals the show, singing the musical’s biggest hit — “September Song.” (The mature old governor offers the “It’s a long, long way from May to December…” song to persuade a much younger girlfriend of Brom Broeck to share Stuyvesant’s “vintage years.” He loses that battle, but gets another chorus later — to another girl — for a happy ending all around, with the help of some deus-ex-machinations by Washington Irving.)

Connections and Coincidences

Huston, incidentally, was married to a newspaperwoman, Rhea Gore Huston, mother of director and actor John Huston. Rhea was a reporter for the sensational 1920s tabloid, the New York Evening Graphic, as was her son, if only briefly. Rhea also helped mentor a young Graphic reporter named Samuel Fuller, according to his autobiography. Fuller went on to write a novel (The Dark Page) and screenplays (Power of the Press) about newspapers, and to direct the classic newspaper movies “Park Row” and “Shock Corridor.”

Coincidentally, the original Brom Broeck when “Knickerbocker Holiday” opened — at Hartford’s Bushnell Memorial, then on Broadway — was played by actor (and later producer) Richard Kollmar, who later married a second-generation journalist named Dorothy Kilgallen. Among their other on-air activities, the couple hosted the popular radio morning show, “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick.”

Revivals

The original play was revived briefly in 1971 and was presented as recently as 2011 in concert form (preserved on CD by the Collegiate Chorale). See the Playbill article, with photos of the original 1938 principals and another with more discussion.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, adaptations, free speech, historical figures, movies, New York City, tabloids. Bookmark the permalink.

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