The Story of A Storyteller

by Jeanne Belovitch

Even in conversation, there's no escaping the rapture in the voice of Bill Cavness. Upon hearing it, you know this voice has the power to take you away...even to reduce you to tears.

And that is exactly what this gentle man has been doing for 25 years as host of Reading Aloud, the oldest reading-on-radio program in existence. Reading Aloud airs from 7:30-8 p.m. on WGBH-Radio, Sunday through Thursday. Cavness is a 28-year veteran of the station and a 12-year resident of the South End.

He and former general manager Jack Summerfield created the program in 1958. Summerfield had recruited his University of Texas classmate to WGBH two years earlier, which probably had been no easier for him than it would have been for a Texas cowboy to corral a restless herd of Aberdeen-Angus. Cavness is a fifth-generation Texan.

His mother, one of five children, was born on the legendary King Ranch, then the largest private land holding in the world. Cavness' grandfather was the foreman of the Headquarters Division of this sprawling operatin in which most of New England could fit.

The richness, depth and warmth of his childhood experiences are evident in his voice and dramatic characterizations. The oldest in his family, Cavness admits, "I can't ever remember a night being put to bed without reading a while." He recalls sitting on his mother's lap, listening to vivid stories. Then, mother's lap was given up to the next child who came of listening age, the older siblings gathered by her side. Also influencing his love for reading aloud was Cavness' close association with a variety of people around whom he grew up in San Antonio ---blacks, Hispanics and people of German-speaking ancestry. "I remember listening to folk literature from all these friends," he said.

As a reflection on youthful experiences as well as the joy of reading aloud to children, Cavness' 86 year-old mother, Addie Word Cavness, joined her son to celebrate his program's 25th anniversary this past Thanksgiving Day, November 24th. Mrs. Cavness read from a piece she wrote, entitled "An Old Family Custom" as well as from excerpts from her book "La Puerta de Aqua Dulce," which translates into English as "The Gates of Sweet Water".

She also recalled for Reading Aloud listeners what people did before zippers and clothespins were invented; how peanut butter tasted when it first was marketed; and how a rare treat of chewing gum rolled in powdered sugar melted in the mouths of its chewers.

"You lick off the sugar and if you're lucky enough, put the gum in a safe place, then come back and roll it in more sugar," she described.

Relating these experiences is what keeps Cavness' more than 7,000 listeners glued to their radios as he brings alive novels, poetry, children's stories, and short works.

The first work Cavness ever read on the air was Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago. It aired shortly after the author declined the Nobel Prize for Literature. Cavness remembers that Pantheon Press, the American publisher of the book feared so much that the broadcast would cut into the sales of the book's fifth printing that the company tried to get an injunction prohibiting him from reading the book. However, since the copyright law was enacted in 1909 and experimentation in radio began a year later, there was no mention in that law of reading books on radio, Cavness explained. "There was not precedent for a single voice reading aloud and not done for commercial purposes." He, therefore, was able to devote many of his half-hour shows to the reading of that classic.

So, Dr. Zhivago launched an incredible array of literary works to which Cavness has treated his listeners. He read Tolstoy's War and Peace in 143 half-hours, and Sandburg's in 154 half-hours. Not all his readings are of such magnitude and length, however. Another subject matter has included the hilarious, the macabre, the serious, the tragic, and the adventurous.

Cavness is so adept at reading that praise often comes from the authors of the works, themselves.

"The publishier and his wife and the writer and his wife of one of the books I've done recently said when it came to the final chapter, they all found themselves in tears," he said.

Another author told him that after listening to his interpretation of his characters on Reading Aloud, Cavness' "readings were the definitive ones. "For a man with a literary heritage as rich as Cavness', these comments are the supremest of compliments.

"I relate to so many characters in these books," explained. "I apply what I hear in my mind's ear, adapting as need be."

Besides Reading Aloud, Cavness said he "manages to keep a hand in acting." Recently, he played a couple of parts and did the staging for the presentation of "The Dreadful Dining Car," based on the works of Mark Twain. He has commentated for most Boston area concert orgainzations as well as for such historical events as the first Martin Luther King Freedom March, congressional hearings and many electoral events. In 1979, he hosted the live broadcast of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," broadcast direct from Salzburg via sattlite to the United States and Canada.

As senior producer at WGBH-Radio, Caness' many talents have been responsible for some of the station's most successful and interesting programming, including Morning Pro Musica, the Creative Mind and Method series and Chamberworks.

How does Cavness compare radio with television?

"When I listen to a play on radio," he explained, "I design the sets, I design the lighting, I design the costumes, I design the faces of the characters, the staging, and all of this inside my own head. When I'm watching on TV, someone else designs everything. Radio demands the use of the imagination. Television very often prevents it by frequently being too literal, and I like to keep my imagination exercised."

When Bill Cavness reads to his listeners, he said he is "addressing one or two individuals that I know. "THis way I can keep the kind of intimacy that makes every listener, I hope, feel part of that small group.

"Charles Dickens," Cavness said, "was so scucessful an actor that at several of his dramatic readings, people were fainting or roaring with helpless laughter." When you tune into Reading Aloud, be prepared for a similar effect.

Source: South End News, Boston, MA; 1983