Voices of the Street
If Victor Packer's sound poems are lasting literary creations, his man-in-the-street
interview shows may well be the most irresistible part of his radio legacy.
Recorded between 1937 and 1942, they are a passport to New York's old Jewish
neighborhoods, with one of Yiddish broadcasting's most peculiar figures as the
Shtimes fun di Gas (Voices of the Street) is radio's premier use of
the man -- or, more often, woman -- in-the-street format. Its conceit was simple.
Every Monday and Thursday, Victor Packer traveled to a different Jewish grocery
store in Brooklyn or the Bronx with a huge transcription disc-cutting machine
and asked ordinary housewives their opinions on various vital issues. After
hearing them out, Packer would offer his enthusiastic approval and reward the
respondent with a box (if he really liked her, two) of his sponsor's products,
like Foremost Milk or Sterling Kosher Salt.
In the five years Packer conducted the show, he demonstrated a distinct preference
for sententious questions like "What is a good man?" or "What
is more important: brains or beauty?" The more banal the response, the
happier and more approving Packer seemed to be. Inversely, nothing appeared
to throw Packer more than when one of his questions hit home. (Witness the episode
of Feb. 24, 1939, when Packer inquired, "What scares you most?")
To keep things jaunty, Packer often asked his interviewees to share their favorite
recipes for beloved dishes like bread pudding and calf's foot jelly. What most
often ensued was a charming if impossible-to-follow torrent of ingredients,
measurements, and techniques, concluding with a promise of complete satisfaction.
Packer's intrepid reporting usually gave more cause for bemusement than culinary
delight. But in either case, his novel broadcasting style lets us share a laugh
with a few dozen housewives in a neighborhood and world that has long since
ceased to exist.