ROBERT DONLEY (AN APPRECIATION)
by Derek Tague, © 2004
(From Radio Recall, April 2004)
Within two days of each other, American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) lost two of its veteran Talking Book narrators in January 2004. First, Harry Fleetwood, who read a couple of titles in the 1970s, and then, Robert "Bob" Donley.
About one month before I attended my very first FOTR convention in October 1989, I became employed by AFB Talking Books. In hindsight, I considered myself fortunate to have started this job at that juncture being that I came in at the tail end of the "old-time radio" era. I got to work with several actors whose careers dated back to Radio's "Golden Age." Among the NYC actors of which I speak were Earle Hyman, who at that point was enjoying a semi-regular stint as Cliff Huxtable's father of "The Cosby Show;" NYC stage actor Helen Harrelson, whom I had heard did some OTR; Ralph Bell, on whose last book I worked on (it was an A.J. Liebling book about boxing); and the indomitable Robert Donley.
Bob was a quite healthy and robust septuagenarian rumored to be "pushing eighty' when I first started working with him in 1989. On first inspection, he appeared to be a curmudgeonly but lovable grouch. He and another reader, Edward Blake were known for commandeering the proofreading room as their own personal lunchroom. The two of them would tell stories and jokes while all the time filling the room with the smells of thick tobacco smoke and the odor of the NYC deli sandwiches rife with onions and all other kinds of pungent adornments Bob would bring in.
Part of my job requires working in a recording studio one-on-one with an individual reader/narrator. I had seen this "Donley" guy with his cowboy shirts and bolo-string ties. At first, he seemed intimidating to a novice like me, but I was advised by another engineer, who was something of a goldbrick, that if I ever got posted to work with "Donley" that the best way to get out of having to do any actual recording work would be to get Bob talking about the old days. My colleague assured me that Bob would start a story with "Ah, back in the day--you weren't even born yet..."
The only problem is that I was genuinely interested in any of his stories about his career during "the old days," and that if I attempted this slacker trick, I really wanted to hear the stories and that I wouldn't be just humoring the gentleman.
Bob Donley was quite the character. He told great stories. There was one thing he was notorious for and it was his expression, "Slow down, g-----mit! Your going too g------n fast!" which he would bark out whenever a recording engineer needed him to do a punch-in pickup dub-edit and the engineer only played for him the last word of the previous take. Bob preferred more leeway and wanted about three seconds of the immediately foregoing material.
One day when I was starting a session with him, Bob--like Alexander Scourby and some of the other old-school Talking Book narrators--began to do some warming-up vocal exercises. His exercises sounded like some sort of rabid dog. Upon completion, he'd say to me:
“Ready when you are, Maxwell.”
I’d reply: “The name's Derek.”
His retort: “Anything you say, Maxwell.”
Unfortunately, as Talking Book narrators get older, book assignments become harder to come by. Although Bob's T.B. career dated back to the 1940s, I only remember having had worked with him for about a year. He went into semiretirement at his home in Connecticut with his much younger wife. But, I did, on occasion, follow that slacker's advice and became more acquainted with Bob by inquiring about his days in OTR.
It seemed that although he appeared in hundreds--if not thousands--of radio episodes, the only regular role that got him mentioned in Buxton/Owen was his role as Lieutenant Carpenter in "Front Page Farrell." At the time I befriended Mr. Donley, I had in my possession about five extra copies of the yellow hardback edition of "The Big Broadcast," and brought a copy in to show him his listing. Bob ended up buying this copy from me. I didn't have the heart to mark the price up and sold it to him for the $10.00 I had paid for it.
I then preceded to tell him about the Friends of Old-Time radio convention and how Jay Hickerson and its other organizers were always on the lookout for new OTR-era guests to attend, etc., etc. I was greatly disappointed when Bob told me he really wouldn't be interested in that kind of thing. Still, I didn't pressure him. I just thought we had another Mercedes McCambridge on our hands [It was highly rumored that Miss McCambridge was one of those OTR performers who couldn't abide reliving the old days].
About a year later, I had met Florence Williams, also of "Front Page Farrell." at an FOTR convention. We were seated at the same banquet table. I brought up Robert Donley's name to her and she was so pleased to hear about him. She was equally disappointed to hear that Bob wasn't interested in attending OTR conventions and asked me to send him her regards the next time I saw him.
After about a two-year absence at Talking Books, Donley was brought back to read a science-fiction book (the title of which I have since forgotten). This book was a sequel to something Bob had previously read and it's customary to assign the same reader in such a situation. I think this was around 1992. At the time, Bob told me he had an audition for Tony Randall's new theatre company (I believe he ended up playing a judge in Randall's production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible.”) This S-F was Bob's last book with us and I'm proud to say that I had the honor of working on it.
Contemporaneous with this, Robert appeared in a memorable "Seinfeld" episode. If you're reading this and you wish to get an impression of the Robert Donley I knew, look for the ubiquitous reruns and you'll see him in the episode where Jerry, George, and Elaine join a program where they each befriend an older person. Jerry gets paired up with a paranoid old man named Sid Fields (an obvious Seinfeld-esque tip o' the hat to the "Abbott & Costello" TV sit-com) who possesses a valuable collection of jazz LPs which Kramer and Newman manipulate in procuring. George/Jason Alexander's new buddy is an elderly gent played by Bob Donley; it seems George is more afraid of dying than this man of advanced years.
Upon reading about Bob's passing on the OTR Digest, I mentioned it to a colleague who has been working here at AFB almost as long as I have. He didn't seem to remember him until I affected a gruff Jackson Beck-like voice and yelled "Slow down, g----mit! You're going too g----m fast!" Instant recognition.
Here's to you Bob Donley. I'm glad you took your own advice by slowing down and giving us 92 wonderful years. I'm going to miss you.
"These Books Are Made for Talkin'!"
About the Author: Derek Tague is a leading OTR researcher whose rates are quite reasonable [firstname.lastname@example.org]. He has worked in the blindness field for eighteen years, with the past fifteen in the production of Talking Books for the blind.