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Sound Salvation

On "Unshackled!," radio theater veteran Jack Bivans creates characters yearning for redemption. After a long and complicated life, it isn't that much of a stretch.

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Jack Bivans's voice was raw with anguish. "I slapped my wife...and my children. I drank..." As Bivans rasped the litany of sins, it was easy to forget that he was acting--that the torment he was struggling with was borrowed from the life of a stranger. For a half century Bivans has been a cast member of Unshackled!, a radio drama taped live before a studio audience every Saturday at the Pacific Garden Mission on South State Street. On the air since September 1950, Unshackled! claims to be the longest-running dramatic series in American broadcasting. Throughout its tenure, the program has relied on the same simple production formula: all scripts are based on personal accounts of tribulation and salvation submitted by listeners. Unshackled!, explains Bivans, tells "the stories of alcoholics, addicts, wife beaters, and bums--all kinds of people who have had their lives thrown right down into an emotional gutter."

Bivans, 77, was already a seasoned radio actor when he came to Unshackled! in March 1951. He'd made his debut at the microphone at age 14, had been a regular cast member of the juvenile adventure series Captain Midnight since he was 16, and had played more than a thousand occasional parts on dozens of soap operas and dramas. He never imagined that of all his gigs, Unshackled! would last the longest.

"Having grown up in the business," he says, "and seeing many shows come and go, many of them because their sponsors gave up on them, I wouldn't have believed it. But God works in mysterious ways, and for some reason He wants to keep this program going." Apparently He wants it widely heard too: broadcast locally on WMBI (90.1 FM), the radio station of the Moody Bible Institute, Unshackled! is carried by 1,112 other stations in the U.S. and can also be heard in some form or another on 440 stations in 147 countries on six continents--that's counting regional adaptations in Spanish, Arabic, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Korean, and Japanese. It can also now be heard via the Internet at www.unshackled.org.

Born in Evanston in 1925, Bivans came of age at a time when Chicago was a major center of radio program production. A middle school teacher was the first to spot his potential. "When I was about 13 I was in a play at Hayt Grammar School on Granville in Chicago," Bivans says. "Afterward, the teacher told my mom, 'Jackie seems to have a talent for this kind of thing. Maybe Mr. Bivans and you should look into getting some kind of professional teaching.'" Bivans's parents enrolled him at the Jack and Jill Players, a downtown drama school for children.

The school's owner, Marie Agnes Foley, was well connected. "She had a reputation among the radio directors for having bright kids that they could use on their soap operas and kids' shows," Bivans says. "They would ask her for kids to audition for parts." After honing his chops for a year and a half, Bivans joined Foley's casting roster. In March 1939 he came out of acting class to find his mother visiting with Foley. Their conversation was interrupted by a telephone call. "We could overhear Marie Foley's side of the conversation," Bivans recounts. "She said, 'I've got another boy here who will be just terrific for you. I'll send him right over in a cab.' I'm looking at my mother and my mother's looking at me." Foley hung up and told Jack's mother to take him directly to the World Broadcasting studios, where another kid had failed to show up.

Although the clock was ticking, Foley took a moment to give Bivans a crash course in microphone technique: "She told me to stand about a foot from the microphone and not to project like you do when you're on the stage. 'Just talk like you talk.'" A quick study, Bivans landed the job--doing a radio spot for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, advertising vacation trips to Yellowstone. Cued by the sound of an erupting geyser, Bivans gave a boyish reading of his first professional line of dialogue: "Gee, Dad, there she goes." The next day he skipped school to obtain his union credentials from the American Federation of Radio Artists.

Foley soon signed Bivans, through his parents, to a three-year contract, taking a 10 percent cut of his earnings. On Foley's advice, Bivans and his mother began putting in face time at local production centers, even staking out the lobby of the Merchandise Mart, where NBC had its Chicago offices. "I was to introduce myself and ask if they had parts coming up on whatever they were working on at the time," says Bivans. He took naturally to the hustle: "I'd pester them enough so that when they had an audition coming up, they would include me on the audition for their soap operas."

In 1941, at the age of 16, Bivans began the first of two stints on Captain Midnight, a popular serial that chronicled the adventures of Red Albright, heroic leader of the Secret Squadron, an elite aerial force dedicated to combating evil the world over. Created at WGN in 1938, the program was picked up for national distribution by the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1940 under the sponsorship of Ovaltine, whose proof-of-purchase labels could be exchanged by mail for secret decoder badges, miniature spy scopes, and other Captain Midnight premiums. The convention in children's programming was to include a boy or girl in the cast of characters. "That way," Bivans explains, "the kids listening in could go along vicariously with them." Bivans played Chuck Ramsey, the teenage sidekick.

As Chuck, Bivans assisted Captain Midnight in fighting the evil Ivan Shark, leader of a global criminal network. Outside the studio, the United States was at war with the Axis powers, and Bivans was getting old enough to worry about the draft. At 17 he enlisted for cadet training with the U.S. Army Air Corps, a move that afforded him some control over his fate. "The deal was they wouldn't call you at the age of 17, but they would call you in any month you would select up to six months past your 18th birthday. I picked the sixth month because I was making so much money on the soaps and kids' shows." Between Captain Midnight and five other regular radio gigs, Bivans was making $500 a week--"big money at the time"--but was spending it as quickly as he earned it. "I went through it just like many of these movie stars do today," he says. "It was just like, 'Well, this is never going to end.'"

But it did come to an end, or at least a hiatus, in February 1944, when Bivans was called to active duty. His ambition was to become a pilot, but by the time he was called up, he says, "they were up to their ears in pilots." Instead he was sent to gunnery school, and then assigned to the 393rd Bomb Squadron, 509th Composite Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps--a self-contained, secret force created in September 1944 to serve as the delivery arm of the Manhattan Project.

Bivans and his fellow crew members were never explicitly told that they were going to drop atomic bombs on Japan. But when group leader Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets called the entire corps together to tell them they were working on something that "might end the war earlier than you think," the men had a pretty good idea what he meant.

As a member of the 509th, Bivans was retrained as a flight engineer, then subjected to a seemingly interminable regimen of high-altitude bombing exercises. After 18 months, the crew was growing restless. "We wondered why we were continually going over the training," recalls Bivans. "We later found out it was because the bomb had not yet been built."

For a month the men were stationed at a Cuban airbase from which they made round-trip flights of up to 13 hours, taking B-29 bombers to New York, Chicago, or Minneapolis and "camera bombing" the cities. "When we'd come back," Bivans explains, "the film was developed to determine whether, if it had been a real bomber, our pilots had been on target."

Life in the 509th was distinguished from the ordinary army grind by the ubiquitous presence of security personnel in civilian clothes. On one occasion, remembers Bivans, an officer was rousted from bed by security agents in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. The scuttlebutt was that he'd been shooting off his mouth about the atomic bomb in a bar near the base and that he had been punitively reassigned to an airfield in Alaska.

In the spring of 1945 the 509th was relocated to Tinian Island in the Marianas chain in the South Pacific, and from this base the company began making long-distance bombing runs over Japan, dropping 10,000-pound TNT bombs on assigned targets.

An hour past midnight on the morning of August 6, Bivans and eight other crew members were taxiing for takeoff. The craft they were flying, the Straight Flush, was a B-29 modified to serve as a weather plane; its task was to fly over Hiroshima and radio back a meteorological report for the bombers behind them. As far as the crew knew, this was a routine mission, although Bivans sensed that something extra-ordinary was afoot when he looked out his window and saw a crush of cameramen and journalists surrounding Tibbets's plane, the Enola Gay. The runway, says Bivans, was "lit up like a Christmas tree" by klieg lights and flashbulbs.

At seven in the morning the Straight Flush reached Hiroshima. "We looked down on the city and it was clear as a bell," says Bivans. "It looked like Chicago, with the rivers running through it. We were flying at 30,000 feet. We radioed back in code, 'It's clear here.' So Tibbets, who was about an hour behind us, went on into Hiroshima. If we had said, 'You can't see the city,' and the guy at Nagasaki, the secondary target, said he could see that one, they would have gone there for the first atomic bomb drop."

Not until the following day did Bivans learn the true purpose of the mission, when it was announced on the radio to all the world by President Harry Truman. The news, he says, "made me sick inside my stomach. That's because whenever we would go to drop regular 10,000-pound TNT bombs, we were told not to ever change our mind and drop it on any of six cities, one of which was Hiroshima. They said the reason for that is that our prisoners are stashed there." This, he later learned, was "a story they gave to the air crews so that when the bomb was ready and dropped they could measure the total destruction of a pristine city that had never before been bombed."

About six weeks after the bombing, Bivans and crewmate Al Barsumian, also from Evanston, were given a 45-day furlough stateside. Local celebrities as a consequence of their participation in the Hiroshima raid, the two were asked to take part in a war bond drive and received a hero's welcome wherever they were sent. While giving radio interviews during the halftime show of a Bears game, Bivans and Barsumian fell in with two Broadway stars, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, in town with a production of the racy musical farce Hellzapoppin. Also in town was the legendary Tallulah Bankhead, who was appearing, along with two of her ex-husbands, in a revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives. Olsen and Johnson introduced the two airmen to her, and she invited them to be her guests at her next performance. "She told us to bring dates," says Bivans, "so Hal and I brought a couple of gals and afterward we were invited backstage to meet with Tallulah. Then she asked us to come down to the Stevens Hotel where she was staying. We spent the whole evening from about 11 PM until four the next morning with her and her two leading men. She asked me what I wanted to do when I got out of the service. I said, 'I want to be a movie star.' She asked me if I could act, and I told her I was a good actor. She said, 'In that case, I think I'll invite you to meet with my agent.'"

A few days later the phone rang at the Bivans home in Rogers Park. It was Bankhead making good on her word. "My mother answered and got all excited because it was Tallulah Bankhead," says Bivans. "I took the phone and she said she had made an appointment for me at the William Morris Agency. She said to be there at ten and to tell the receptionist that you're the person Tallulah Bankhead sent. When I got there, you'd have thought I was the Pope walking into the Vatican. She was making $5,000 a week then on that show, and she was one of the biggest theater stars in America."

But despite the reception, the interview was less than encouraging. "I met with the manager of the office and he said that the bottom line was that, like me, all the major players in movies were coming back from their stint in the service," Bivans says. "So the climate to develop new talent was not as hot as it was a year or two ago." The manager offered to arrange a screen test but told Bivans he would have to pay his own way. He declined.

With Hollywood out of reach and his real-life top-secret adventures behind him, Bivans resumed the role of Chuck Ramsey on Captain Midnight. When the series was canceled in late 1949, he joined another aerial adventure program, Sky King, about an ex-FBI agent turned crime-fighting cowboy-aviator. Bivans played Sky King's nephew, Clipper King--"Chuck Ramsey all over again," he says. He also took roles in soaps (Ma Perkins, Road of Life), crime melodramas (The Shadow, Lights Out), dramatic anthologies (Author's Playhouse), and of course Unshackled!

The maturation of television spelled doom for radio serials, though Captain Midnight and Sky King were reborn as television series in the 50s. Unshackled! outlasted Bivans's other radio gigs because it didn't depend on commercial sponsorship. But it didn't enable him to support his family. "After 1955," he says, "I had to go straight." For the next 46 years, Bivans worked a variety of jobs in broadcasting, usually in commercial time sales. He continued to perform on Unshackled! every weekend.

Although he'd always considered himself a Christian, Bivans was not particularly religious in his youth, and for years he regarded Unshackled! as just another acting job. But in his personal life Bivans was as troubled as some of the characters he portrayed on the radio. He first married in 1948, but the union was unhappy and ended in bitter divorce ten years later. The second of Bivans's three sons, Scott, was diagnosed with polio in 1953, just months before the discovery of the Salk vaccine was announced. Bivans had acquired a taste for alcohol in the service; by 1950 he was drinking heavily and steadily. Although he dismisses the suggestion that his wartime experiences had anything to do with his drinking, he volunteers that another member of his flight crew suffered a crisis of conscience that led to a serious breakdown and eventual institutionalization.

In 1975 Bivans hit bottom. He had remarried in 1962, but his drinking was contributing to the destruction of that relationship. "My family life began a downward spiral and my emotional world started crumbling around me," he says. Then Bivans's life imitated his art for the second time. "The lives of the people whose true stories I had portrayed on Unshackled! began to hit home," he says. "One day, following a taping, I was driving home alone and felt the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit within me. I changed. I was drinking, and sometimes too much, and so I gave it up." It took another five years for Bivans to put the bottle down for good, and he says he never would have made it had he not been born again. Since then, Bivans has weathered a number of crises--a second divorce, the loss of his son Scott to pancreatic cancer--without resorting to drink.

Retired from the business end of broadcasting since 2001, the resident of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, still performs on Unshackled!, but to preserve his voice and conserve his energies he limits himself to a job every two months or so. He still loves it. "It makes me feel wonderful," he says. "There's a live audience there, up to a couple of hundred people, many of them from the street, and others who just hear about it and want to come see it when they're on vacation in Chicago. The cast is on a stage and there's a sound effects man and an organ player. It's like an old-time radio show. A lot of people have never seen one." Bivans still can negotiate a wide range of characters. "I've played a lot of different parts. Sometimes I'll play a young man, 17 years old, then narrate a story and take him all the way through his 50s, 60s, and 70s. I have the ability through all these years of experience to raise the level of my voice and not dig as deeply into my chest for those low tones."

The one role he's shied away from tackling is Jack Bivans. From time to time the producers of Unshackled! have proposed an episode based on his own life, but Bivans has always demurred. "The story," he explains, "doesn't have an ending."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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