In a forgotten metal cabinet in the corner of his mother’s basement, Robert Nixon unearthed a script he had heard about all his life. Robert’s mother, Agnes Nixon, the famed doyenne of the soap opera genre, had written more than 20,000 hours of television. He was accustomed to finding scripts lying around her home.
But this was different. Held together with a rusty paperclip, inside a file labeled “Northwestern School of Speech,” was Agnes’ final Northwestern work: a radio play titled No Flags Flying.
“That file cabinet was our family version of King Tut’s Tomb, and I knew I was holding a treasure. I stood and read it right there and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible!’ ” said Robert Nixon, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. “I’ve wanted to produce it since that moment.”
With the help of Northwestern theatre and sound students, he finally did. Nixon, his wife, Sarah, two sons, and three filmmaking colleagues traveled to Evanston May 23 to record his late mother’s first significant work — the script that secured her a writing job and changed her life — using the talents and facilities of the place she held so dear.
“It’s been really emotional for all of us,” Robert Nixon said while on campus. “This is a dream come true.”
Agnes Nixon (C44) was the creator, writer, and producer of the soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live, and a trailblazer for women in television. Interwoven in her clever, audacious plotlines were serious discussions of taboo topics — interracial romance, AIDS, domestic abuse, same-sex relationships, the Vietnam War — that were broadcast into American living rooms, often for the first time. She held leadership roles at a time when very few women did, and enjoyed a lasting, stable career that remains the envy of the entertainment industry. The Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award winner passed away in September, just one day after completing her memoir, My Life to Live, which was published in March.
Nixon loved her alma mater. She married a Wildcat, with whom she had four children; donated reams of her papers to the University Archives; and, in 1980, established the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Festival, which launched the careers of John Logan, Lydia Diamond, and Laura Eason and transformed the way playwriting is taught at the University.
Nixon in a Northwestern Theatre production in the early ‘40s
Yet before her storied professional successes, she was an enthusiastic Theatre major engaged to a dashing Notre Dame track star named Hank Priester. Her fiancé enlisted in the Army Air Corps after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and in the spring of ‘44, Agnes received word that Hank’s P-38 fighter plane didn’t return after an attack on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. Agnes was shattered, but she had to complete her final for a radio playwriting class in order to graduate. She placed a photo of Hank behind her typewriter and banged out the 25-page script about a war pilot killed in a mid-air collision and the father left mourning him. She received an “A,” and the script landed her a job with Irna Phillips, a leading figure in radio soap opera writing and production. Thus began Nixon’s legendary career.
“It’s an American story of family love and first love that descends into Greek tradegy,” Robert Nixon says of the play, in which a father traverses his son’s life from happy childhood to combat in vivid detail and throwback vernacular. “It’s a beautiful, universal piece of work.”
Northwestern, Priester, and her experience writing No Flags Flying loom large in Agnes Nixon’s memoir. The radio play is its epilogue but, in recording the audio book version, the publishers and the Nixon children found that doing it justice would be a challenge. They were stymied.
“Aggie absolutely believed in an afterlife, and that ghosts were pretty much everywhere. So I’m pretty sure who was behind my waking up at 4 a.m. with the words ringing in my head,” Robert Nixon said. “ ‘Let the class do it.’ ”
Robert Nixon’s grand plan — by way of his mom — was to enlist Northwestern students of Theatre and the burgeoning sound program to act in and help produce the piece, which publisher Crown Archetype will add this summer to an updated version of My Life to Live’s audio book. Nixon flew out his go-to sound professional, Matt Cartsonis, to be the point person on the production side, and School of Communication faculty Laura Schellhardt, Mary Poole, and Neil Verma helped direct and coach the actors. Additionally, Nixon and his documentary filmmaking team of Damien Drake and Tommy Lawrence incorporated into the visit a radio and documentary master class. In two half-day increments, the entirety of the script was acted, recorded, and mixed in the School’s state-of-the-art sound studio in John J. Louis Hall.
Robert Nixon, second from right, among students.
“The students were just stunning,” Nixon said after the recording. “I was so impressed with how prepared they were and so grateful that right before finals they found time to bring this piece of history to life.”
The play, peppered with the banter, sounds, and cultural references typical of radio dramas of the Forties, begins with a father going through mementos and reminiscing about his son, Tim, whom the reader is led to believe might be away at school. The musings start in childhood, move through the years of driving cars and falling for a girl named Jeannie, and conclude with Tim’s enlistment and the fog-covered night that ended in his death.
To help the students, the Nixon family brought scrapbooks, photos, original scripts, and books to share, and before any recording began on the rainy Tuesday morning, they sat in a circle and talked about Agnes’ life and legacy, the autobiographical nature of the radio play, and how much this gathering would have meant to her.
“Who’s playing Jeannie?” an emotional Nixon asked the group. Freshman Hannah Hakim’s hand shot up. “You know you’re Aggie, right? Here’s a photo of my mom when she was a senior.” Hakim took the photo and beamed.
When it was time to begin, the dozen actors gathered around an omnidirectional microphone and read through the play — at first in full, as it would have been performed in 1944, and then in pieces. Sound students, largely from the new MA in Sound Arts and Industries program, monitored levels and recording in the control room. Nixon’s 15-year-old son, Jack, and Cartsonis stood in the studio’s sound booth creating the effects, which included plates clanking, a blender whirring, and the hum of an oscillating fan meant to replicate the propellers of a P-38 bomber. Robert and Sarah Nixon watched on with smiles. The exercise proved meaningful on multiple fronts.
“Radio acting is hard! The techniques take a bit to develop and were really exciting to learn,” said senior Theatre major Daniel Stompor, who played the announcer. “On a more personal level, I learned just how deeply affecting Agnes Nixon’s words could be, and how much her life as an artist touched the people around her.”
No Flags Flying is a pristine snapshot of a very different America: with all the “golly gees” and innocent fun of Tim’s youth, the uncomfortable subtext is that teenagers were routinely dying in faraway combat.
“The play may seem a little dated, but the circumstances are true and the characters honest,” says Mary Poole, senior lecturer of theatre, whose father was a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps. “My lucky dad came home, most of his flight class did not.”
“It was thrilling for them to revive Agnes’ play,” she added, “and perform what a student their age was thinking, feeling, and skillfully expressing 73 years ago, as she prepared to graduate and join a chaotic world of war and loss.”
Northwestern was a proud pioneer in the field of radio production and the originator of many of the formats, functions, and minds that shaped the medium. Additionally, a number of the Theatre students acting in No Flags Flying are interested in playwriting and pursuing voiceover work, and those studying sound are seeking opportunities in which to practice their craft.
“It was amazing to be part of an event that brought together Northwestern’s extraordinary legacy in audio media with its future,” said Neil Verma, assistant professor of Radio/Television/Film and associate director of the MA in Sound Arts and Industries. “The students were excited to make a traditional audio drama with the most modern techniques.”
And they, of course, simply relished the experience.
“I’ve never acted for radio before, but I would do it again in a heartbeat,” said Hakim, who played Jeannie. “Since the audience cannot see me, it forced me to rely on my voice to emote.”
“I really, really enjoyed myself,” she added. “I called my mom afterwards and just started praising the whole experience… It was so amazing to be in a radio play, let alone to play a part in keeping Agnes Nixon’s legacy alive and thriving.”
While in Evanston, Robert Nixon spent some time visiting his Agnes Nixon’s collection in the University Archives, and teared up while recounting the value of this full-circle nod to his mother’s beloved Northwestern.
“It was so thrilling to see how much Aggie has a presence here,” he said, “and how psyched the kids were to be a part of it.”