I can remember clearly as a child listening to my favorite radio program "The Great Gildersleeve," starring Harold Perry as the outrageous small town water commissioner Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. He had a unique voice and a highly dramatic delivery and my "mind's eye" told me what he looked like. Then I had a chance to see "Gildy" in a movie and was shocked to see what he looked like. Obviously, my own mental image of the man who went with the voice was quite different than the real thing.
After I had seen this character in real life I substituted that image for my own. It was as if my own image of the man had disintegrated somehow. In fact, I could not even call it to my mind any more.Most of us have the same experience whenever we listen to anyone on the radio. For some reason a voice does not seem to have solid, predictable characteristics that can be matched scientifically with a face. All of us must have a different impression of what voice SHOULD match a certain face. It undoubtedly has much to do with the people we regularly know and associate with. If we know a person who is overweight we may identify his voice with that type of person. A certain pretty girl's voice may make us think that other pretty girls should sound the same. At least that is my theory.
Now that the radio does not dominate our lives any more, it is more likely to be the telephone that confuses us. Last week I took a trip to Maryland to fulfill a speaking engagement and met the person I had talked with several times on the telephone. It almost seemed that I should know her on the basis of our conversations, and I had a certain mental image of her. When I met her I was surprised, because she really looked nothing like I had imagined. Marti said the same thing. This woman had invited us to come, arranged for plane tickets, updated us on schedules, and we formed a certain image that fizzled when we met her.
In other words, impressions made on the radio or the telephone can be deceiving. Not necessarily disappointing, just different than we thought, and so we feel disoriented. No longer do we feel that we know this person. In fact, sometimes the face we finally see seems entirely opposite to the image we conjured up in our minds. I have recently concluded, for instance, that men with rich, deep baritone voices are never tall and robust, but always small and mousy looking. Similarly, a woman's voice that sounds nasal and reedy, suggesting a bland, plain appearance may in fact belong to a gorgeous woman!
Even though I am a historian, I only recently realized that Martin Luther King Jr., known for his rich, resonant baritone voice that commanded attention wherever he went and became his vehicle for attracting support in his great cause of civil rights, was only 5 feet 7 inches tall! When people saw him for the first time in person they were often shocked, even as he appeared at a rostrum, because he seemed too small for his incomparable oratory.
That suggests that even when we see people's faces, on television or in a crowd, we often see an illusion instead of the real person. When people see Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for president, in person, they are often surprised to see what a small man he is. His confident appearance and speaking style seem to make him appear taller. Robert Redford, the actor, appears tall and commanding on the screen or on television, but in person he is small and wiry. The same can be said for Paul Newman.
Television also has a tendency to make people appear heavier than they are, so that actors that we see regularly may look very different in person. The media manages to keep illusion alive, even when we are seeing people's faces without any need to use our imagination. I saw a poster once that said, "IMAGINATION IS BETTER THAN KNOWLEDGE." Maybe our imaginations created more desirable actors and performers and politicians than the real thing.
In any case, we see the world today filtered through a diverse media, making it difficult to keep in touch with reality. It would probably be a lot more exciting if we could just revert to those living rooms of yesteryear where the radio left all images up to the individual imagination. The result would be more creative minds who were less likely to be disappointed with their discoveries.
-- Dennis Lythgoe is a professor of history at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.