Recently, I heard from a very good source that radio-themed romances appeal perhaps exclusively to a dwindling aging audience. This is very likely true, but in my humble opinion these romances are equally as fabulous, if not more so, than other romances of the 1920s and 1930s era. I’m not a vintage radio novel collector, but rather I approach the radio romance as a sub-genre of the popular narrative of “girl from small town moves to big city to pursue a career in ___.” A bunch of these career paths have evolved over the course of the last eighty years: stenographer, dime-a-dance girl (perhaps we should adjust for inflation), silent film star, and yes, radio star. It is very fitting that change in popular demand and one’s attitude toward it are central to High Hat: A Radio Romance.
High Hat: A Radio Romance is one of Alma Sioux Scarberry’s many Grosset and Dunlap “sparking romances,” complete with Mach Tey dust jacket art. High Hat was published in 1930 and adapted into a 1937 film. Scarberry is one of the better documented romance writers of the time, with archival collections available for research at the Austin Public Library’s Austin History Center and the State Historical Society of Missouri. Scarberry had many occupations aside from romance novelist, the most relevant to High Hat being radio drama writer, radio journalist, singer, and songwriter.
The protagonist, Elanda Lee, moves from a small town in Georgia to New York City to become a radio opera star. Problem is, America prefers jazz. High Hat is all about attitude, and Elanda’s struggle to reconcile her perceived self with the reality of her situation. WWBC radio station immediately offers Elanda a job despite an uneven audition, but only because Elanda had recommendations from the right people. Elanda keeps being promoted to different shows and finally becomes the voice of La Paloma, but it is for her compromises and connections combined with her talent rather than solely her singing abilities.
Suwanee Collier is the hero of High Hat. His easygoing, unpretentious mannerisms, paired with his primary occupation of ukulele player, cause Elanda to dismiss Suwanee repeatedly. A credible character whose job it is to know Suwanee’s business, the WWBC journalist, flat-out tells Elanda that Suwanee is “only a uke player.” There is a bit of a bait and switch regarding Suwanee, but I’ll get to that later. His foil is Gregory Du Pont III, who is described as a nincompoop. Elanda likes the idea of Gregory Du Pont III, but feels lukewarm towards the man himself. This prompts a convoluted series of events that winks at a typical melodramatic plotline involving a jealous socialite nicknamed Whoopee and phony English Lord who refers to himself in the third person as “Old Dussie,” and sports a monocle.
One of the strong points about High Hat is that Elanda’s actions do not occur within a bubble. Elanda is not a perfect character. The characters surrounding her accept this and point this out. The women doing secretarial work at WWBC complain about Elanda as soon is she is out of earshot. Far from pretending not to see Elanda’s high hat ways, Suwanee calls Elanda out on it, commiserates about it with Elanda’s closest friend, and even writes a song about it titled “Snooty Cutie.” Elanda looks down her nose at popular music, and as a result finds her career and future success in jeopardy, which brings us to the morals of this story.
- “Being high hat doesn’t bring in the bacon, sister!”
- Compromising your artistic ideals guarantees overnight success. The book where the protagonist starts to broaden her musical scope only to barely scrape by with very modest success? High Hat is not that book. It is, after all, a 1930s romance novel.
- The sympathetic character who the reader should respect for his kindness, trustworthiness, and strong work ethic is all well and good but… he is also secretly a millionaire. Of course.
The radio aspect of High Hat includes a few interesting nuances. The technology of the time made higher pitched voices rather shrill, which makes Elanda’s mezzo voice praiseworthy for being low so as not to “blow the tubes out of the radio.” There are also a few descriptions of radio show recordings, such as Home Folks Hour. Elanda dresses up for her audio recording sessions, and various characters make unheard appearances to see and be seen in the studio.
High Hat reads like a fairly typical romance of the time. Elanda is put in her place while achieving success, Suwanee composes the most popular song on the air, and they both live happily ever after.