Gil Somner, a hefty, retired master sergeant, perches his bulk against a table and stretches his right arm toward one of the informally dressed men circled around him. A music soundtrack fades, and Somner points his index finger, letting his wrist fall. "The narrator" begins the first line of a Damon Runyon story. As other speakers get Somner's cue, Mary Jo Douds points a portable mike in their direction.
The setting is the dayroom of a therapeutic ward at the Veterans Hospital on Irving Street NW. In time what the men are reading will be broadcast through the public address system of the 703-bed hospital for the entertainment of fellow patients.
That the half-hour story will be genuinely entertaining is one thing. More important is the involvement the men will feel during the two hours or so of rehearsal, taping and playback. They will be thinking, not of themselves or their troubles, but of the Characters they are playing, the rightness - or wrongness - of their own earlier casting sessions and the camaraderie that comes from working with a common aim - giving as good a reading as they can.
This weekly event is one of scores that occur nationwide on "The Bedside Network." Civilian volunteers here, gathered up by Mary Jo Doubs, are familiar with how radio plays are directed. Les Blattner, a weekly volunteer who jokes of himself as "the wind man," manipulates knobs on his taping machine. A female role in Runyon's "The Leopard's Spots" is swiftly rehearsed and acted by Argerie Hoty, who did some college acting but earns her living in an office. Priscilla Mertens, chief of therapeutic records at the hospital, sees to it that equipment needed for the script is ready. The cast is formed from the patients, males from their early 20s to their early 60s.
This night seems special, rather like a fraternity-house gang during rush season. Recently revived, the Irving Street Bedside Network operates under local Volunteer Services, for which Jinx Murray is chief.
The idea was born on a winter night in 1948 when Jean Tighe (now Jean Tighe Lehn, has been with a group of entertainers in a ward at Halloran Hospital on Staten Island. Forgetting her sheet muse after the performance, Tighe returned to the ward to find silence, the men staring at the ceiling. "If only these men could make their own entertainment," she thought.
Learning that most hospitals had a public actress system, she wondered: "Why not use that to carry prerecorded entertainment by the patients themselves?"
She took the idea to broadcaster A. Carl Rigred and some of the people she'd worked with on hospital entertainment. Within a week, they had founded VHRTG, the Veterans Hospital Radio and Television Guild, in which broadcasting, sports and entertainment figures are active.
Using borrowed equipment, the first effort at Halloran was iffy, self-conscious. But response to the playbacks was swift. Next session the patients were more relaxed. From solo and group songs the idea expanded to written scripts, which now are contributed by broadcasting networks.
Actress Nancy Andrews, who reached Broadway stardom in "Plain and Fancy" and now acts in both dramas and TV commercials, has been active in VHRTG almost since its start and her start in "Touch and Go." Now on its board as national affiliate chairman, Andrews recalls a patient named John:
"I'd seen him regularly, living in his own world of loneliness. Week after week, he'd been brought to the recreation room by an aide. He was one of those we could never reach. He would just sit silently and stare ahead.One snowy evening, John's spirit broke through. He responded to my greeting. When asked if he'd join in the program by singing a song, to my great surprise he nodded. When his turn came, he timidly came up to the mike and, in a tremulous small voice, sang 'God Bless America.'
Pianist-composer Baldwin Bergersen recalls a similar incident in the Lyons, N.J., Veterans Hospital, "I'd been playing accompaniment to patients for some weeks. One was in a complete catatonic state, I'd been told just to let him be. Somehow I drifted into that old ballad, 'I Know Where I'm Going,' and to everyone's astonishment, he began singing it. Later I learned those were the first sounds he'd uttered in the eight years since leaving Vietnam."
Andrews' present concern is to revitalize the volunteer programs across the country: "People seem to think that since we're not at war that the cases have ended. But they're still in the hospitals, these men. Their wars never will end.
"The only real source of income we have is the annual Anniversary Ball at the Waldrof. Next spring's will be the 30th. From the tickets and program ads come most of our budget for small staff, mailings and equipment.
"In cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles we have a wide range to tap for volunteers. Only a job ever keeps me from Wednesday nights at Montrose. Our group drives out together and after our session we go dutch for dinner. There's a real feel of comradeship."
Invaluable to a recent taping session was director Gil Somner, who spent most of his career with Armed Forces Radio. Now retired, he devotes Wednesday nights directing whatever playlet the men have chosen. By the time the group gathers, the men will have done their own casting. At first Somner listens while they read through their scripts. After a break and some individual coaching, he refines what's been done, accenting salient speeches. At the taping his hands become those of a conductor, urging forward, pulling back.
"Funny thing," Somner says, "the old radio scripts work better than the new television ones, which carry their vivid visual memories. Radio scripts allow the men's imaginations to roam free. That's what we're really about out here."