THE VOICES OF SANTOS ORTEGA

Posted by on December 29th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Alone in a crowd,

The man of a thousand voices

Talking perfectly loud

The Beatles

During the last 30 or so years of radio’s sovereignty as a dramatic medium, his gently sonorous, nasal baritone sent shafts of reality through the mists — sometimes swirling, sometimes stagnant — of radio drama. The sardonically patient intelligence of his detectives and police chiefs; his small town sheriffs; his petty crooks and police informants: wheedling, insinuating. He was a virtuoso — I forebear the adjective “minor” — though some of his best performances, amid the droning anarchy of much commercial radio drama, were interjections of moments’ duration. On an aural level, his artistry (amid a throng of others) resembled that of an expert cartoonist. One-line remarks as pen strokes, lending nuance to an implicitly conventional portrait.

Certain dramatic series empowered his craft’s flourishing. Though by no means imitative, his small town medic, “Dr. Carvel,” in the long-running soap opera Big Sister, carried the mellow sagacity seasoned, but not eroded — of Lionel Barrymore’s Dr. Gillespie (in the earlier Kildare years). He acquired some atypical flamboyance for Nero Wolfe, in a not-too-long-lived radio adaptation of Rex Stout’s epicurean sleuth. Adeptly foiled by Joseph Julian’s Archie Goodwin, Ortega’s Wolfe was modeled more on Sidney Greenstreet’s wheezingly jovial rogues than on Stout’s regal-mannered autocrat. But Ortega/Wolfe’s wheezing chuckle — adapted into the musical score’s opening bars — lent the series a (mightily) needed graphic signature. Later on, Ortega would reprise his vocal bonhomie for the Wolf imitation (even shorter-lived) Peter Salem.

Along with, I presume, numerous other one-time radio followers, I have wondered why Santos Ortega, unlike such radio virtuosi as Richard Widmark (who cozened elderly ladies’ fantasies as radio newsman “Front Page Farrell,” prior to terrorizing them in Kiss of Death) did not shift his undeniable talents of portrayal to the screen. I have found, among photographs of radio actors, only two of Ortega. Sturdy, middle-aged facial profiles: leaving one, in short, with the identical wonderment and (worthless) speculations. And the hope that, along with the major and minor performances already mentioned, his innumerable “bit” roles as wheedling, slyly insinuating snitches and stool pigeons may be somehow preserved — other than in Radio Valhalla.

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