'Frequency Hopping' Showcases Screen Siren's Smarts Actress Hedy Lamarr co-invented a secret communication method used to guide torpedoes. Her story is showcased in a new stage play. Writer and director Elyse Singer talks about her dark comedy based on the collaboration between Hollywood's glamour girl and a "bad boy" composer.
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'Frequency Hopping' Showcases Screen Siren's Smarts

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'Frequency Hopping' Showcases Screen Siren's Smarts

'Frequency Hopping' Showcases Screen Siren's Smarts

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Up next, the unique life of Hedy Lamarr. Now, if you are of a certain age or you just happen to like old movies, you have no doubt heard of Hedy Lamarr. She was born in Vienna and went on become an actress in American films in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. She scandalized Hollywood with one of the first ever nude scenes in a movie called "Ecstasy," and her career lasted much longer than any of her five marriages. She died in Florida in the year 2000 at the age of 86. But you may not realize that Hedy Lamarr was more than just fodder for Hollywood gossip. She was the co-inventor of something called frequency hopping. That's a method for communicating in secret.

It's a technology now used in modern in cell phones, and it's the title of a new play about Lamarr and her co-inventor and composer George Antheil. Joining me now to talk more about it is the play's writer and director, Elyse Singer. Ms. Singer is the artistic director of Hourglass Group. Her play, "Frequency Hopping," won the 2007 stage award and it's running now through the end of June at the 3LDR and Technology Center here in Manhattan. She joins us here in our New York studios. Welcome to Science Friday.

Ms. ELYSE SINGER (Playwright, "Frequency Hopping"): Thank you so much. I'm delighted to be here.

FLATOW: And I welcome you to joining the list of admirers. Those of us who've been talking about Hedy Lamarr for decades. When did you first discover her talent?

Ms. SINGER: I first heard about Hedy Lamarr's collaboration with George Antheil in 1997 on NPR's Morning Edition.

FLATOW: There you go.

Ms. SINGER: Actually, Weekend Edition, because it was a Saturday, and I heard a report that Hedy Lamarr was going to be the first glamour girl, cover girl of Invention and Technology Magazine and this was in connection with her winning the Boulby Award that was for her scientific contribution, and they talked about the patent.

And as I heard it described, as I heard their invention described, it immediately sounded to me like a metaphor for human communication, especially romantic communication, the idea of switching frequencies and sending hidden codes in your communication and the whole idea of a secret communication system just sounded metaphorical to me.

And I've had a very long fascination with iconic women. I've done plays about Mae West. I did a piece about Courtney Love that was called the "Love in the Void" that was - it's kind of been recognized as being the first play set in cyberspace and that was in 1995. And a lot of my work has involved women creating their own public identity through technology and also combining kind of an early American popular forms like burlesque or silent films and mashing it up against almost science fiction. So that's something that I've most drawn to that. So when I heard it described, I ran out, found the magazine and pretty much started work right then.

FLATOW: Talking with Elyse Singer, author and director of "Frequency Hopping" being shown here in New York on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. And the play has lots of different layers to it. And there are lots of messages in it, like you're saying it's about "Frequency Hopping," and I find it ironic, and I am sure, not by accident, that the music onstage is by the player pianos are all over the place, which is how George Antheil enters the picture, right?

Ms. SINGER: Right. Lamarr had been in married back in Austria to Fritz Mandl, who was of the top four worldwide munitions dealers, and was notorious for dealing with the worst of the worst. I mean, he was dealing with the Nazis, he was dealing with Mussolini, he ended up leaving and he was working with Peron. He, you know, he was unscrupulous.

FLATOW: He was a bad guy.

Ms. SINGER: He was bad guy. And she was a trophy wife and sat there at dinners. You know, she was only about 10 when she got married, and heard conversations between Mandl and actually some of the leaders of the German military about advances that they were making with radio-controlled technology. And she was listening in on how they were making progress in terms of jamming. And they knew all sorts of stuff about American and English, you know, where are Americans and where are the English were, and they already had plans how to jam it.

And she escaped that marriage and made her way to America, and I think, you know, part of she wanted to do something to retaliate. And hooked up with George Antheil who at that point really his biggest claim to fame was that he had written the "Ballet Mecanique" in 19 - he started writing in '23, but premiered '24,'25. And that was written for 16 synchronized player pianos which he was never was able to do.

The technology never existed when he was alive to actually synchronize them, but he was always working on it. And the idea of having multiple pianos playing exactly at the same time was a something that he had worked very hard to try to achieve. And his knowledge of the mechanics of player pianos was his major contribution to their patent. Their patent describes quickly shifting frequencies as a way to evade enemy jamming. And it uses a little slotted paper roll to control the shifting of the frequencies. And of course, that was in a way their downfall because...

FLATOW: It's too bulky and whatever get inside it ...

Ms. SINGER: It's too, they couldn't quite - they couldn't make the mental leap to say, you know, they Antheil kept saying, you could fit it on my watch. Little teeny paper roll and they were thinking like put a piano on a torpedo.

FLATOW: All right, let me stop you there because this is a great story, and we have to take a break. We'll come back and talk that's more with Elyse Singer of "Frequency Hopping." Stay with us, we'll be right back after the short break. I am Ira Flatow. this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You are listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. About "Frequency Hopping," a new play by Elyse Singer here in New York about the life and times of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil.

(Soundbite of music "Ballet Mecanique")

FLATOW: Elyse, what are we listening to here?

Ms. SINGER: That's an excerpt from "Ballet Mecanique."

FLATOW: And that's that was his signature piece that you use all through the play.

Ms. SINGER: Yeah, there's the siren.

FLATOW: And there are all these pianos playing at the same time.

Ms. SINGER: We have eight Yamaha Disklaviers that are controlled and run by midi-control. So it is all run by computers and sometimes we have all eight going together and sometimes they with all different combinations. We also, we are working with group called LEMUR, which is the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, which is a group out of Brooklyn, New York. And they have done the robotics for the percussion. And a gentleman named Paul Lehrman (ph), who is probably one of the foremost experts on George Antheil. And he is responsible for having actually done all the programming for "Ballet Mecanique." He put in all 23 minutes, and so many notes I don't even know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SINGER: Millions of notes, each one entered by hand. So that, in effect, we are doing a performance of "Ballet Mecanique" with the Fernand Leger film on Sunday night. This is a special added performance at seven o'clock on Sunday night. That's going to be followed by "Ballet Mecanique," it's only the second time that the film has been accompanied by the robotic orchestra which allows for the precise synchronization that Antheil envision back in 1924 and never was able to achieve.

FLATOW: Well, I have to say some of the genius of presenting a highly technical issue, and that is, how do you describe how to synchronized a torpedo, the genius they figure it out was using the piano roll idea though they couldn't get the piano roll in there, they came up with the idea of synchronizing these two objects, the torpedo and the plane that dropped it together. And you present in the play, and it really, genius way, using I think the third-party unseen players is this audio-visual mechanism that you came up with.

Ms. SINGER: Well, we didn't come up with that, but thank you for that compliment. But we are so lucky to be at 3LD because they have, I think, the only venue at least New York City possibly in America that has this technology called Eyeliner, which is a modern update on a very old technology actually called Pepper's Ghost. And it allows basically for holograms to appear on the stage with the actors. We use projected images. You could actually use projected objects or actual people.

FLATOW: So it looks like they're onstage, but they are just visual images on glass.

Ms. SINGER: It's a classic, but it's - yeah.

FLATOW: Whatever it is you add images of people. You have bathtub where they are talking about the submarine technology.

Ms. SINGER: Right, and that was very exciting to me. I mean, my projection designer Elaine McCarthy had come to a reading of a play about seven years ago and heard the stage directions, and she said, Elyse, the technology doesn't exist yet to do what you are describing.

FLATOW: Did you have to wait for it to develop?

Ms. SINGER: In a way, we kind of had to - it had to be invented so that we could do it in way that it was, you know, if it existed back then, there's no way we could have afforded it. But it didn't really exist, and when I hooked up with 3LD and found out about Eyeliners, I said, oh my God, that's perfect! Because what was in the play from a long time ago was the idea that Hedy and George were collaborating in almost, like, "The Matrix," you know, in a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's a good description.

Ms. SINGER: Yeah, in that space, that's kind of psychological, kind of psycho-sexual, you know, imaginative space where scientific collaborators, where artists, where people who are working really intimately and closely on something are able to envision it even though it doesn't exist yet. So visionaries, seers, are able to see something together and then create it. You know, a sculptor imagines the sculpture in their mind and then creates it. You know, I think for Hedy and George, you know, certainly they were doing lots of sketches on paper, but I think they were seeing it musically.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. And in fact, that's how he's able to describe in the play how it works. He actually uses a scale and they start singing together in unison, and we can see, well, I can understand how we can coordinate to distant objects in unison as if they sing together.

Ms. SINGER: Yeah. And that's the metaphor that we use in the play is that, I mean it is the same idea as spread spectrum frequency hopping which is in Bluetooth, it's in your cell phone. The idea of having the radio spectrum and hopping around the radio spectrum allows, you know, satellites and cell phones and everybody to maximize the use of the spectrum without just staying on one channel.

FLATOW: And that's the gift that they eventually gave us. They never made that torpedo.

Ms. SINGER: No. They didn't make - no, no their actual invention was never manufactured. It took until the 19 - late '50s, early '60s. I think Sylvania used electronics, not mechanics, you know, that they were able to kind of come up with something that used the same idea of just switching the frequencies very quickly and then it was - especially in the idea of having kind of a seemingly random pattern.

I think also was Antheil's contribution, the idea. That's why what I have is he composes the melody in fact that they can use for their play acting of what this invention - how this invention might work. But from the enemy's stand point, how would they ever guess that particular melody especially if it was seemingly random?

FLATOW: It's interesting, though, that the play opens on a sexual note. This play has (unintelligible) sex, electronics, and every geeky person or, you know, (unintelligible) has something in this play for you.

Ms. SINGER: Well, you know - thank you. I mean, if - two things. One, I think to see them just sitting around talking about, you know, modulators and transmitters, I think would be really boring. Early, from a very early part of the play's development, I liked the idea of modeling the play structure on the invention, the idea of hopping around. I also thought that their human relationship, that the story of their collaboration, it would be interesting to model it also on the structure that the patent took in a way.

They kind of come together, they - it climaxes and then in fact it has kind of an anti-climax. But one of the things that was very funny early in - early, early in the research I stumbled on all of these articles that George Antheil had written for Esquire. And they were about glands, which from all the research I've done that was the first conversation that Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil had was, you know, how to increase her breast size. Basically, that he was known for, you know...

FLATOW: This was his opening line?

Ms. SINGER: Yes, exactly. It was, you know, your breasts...

FLATOW: I can fix them.

Ms. SINGER: Yes, right. You don't need to take injections of, you know, post-pituitary. But I read all of his articles for Esquire, and what was fascinating was that in 1936, he wrote an article talking about know your glandular wavelength. So, in fact, he was talking about biological, physical, sexual frequencies and, you know, wavelengths for years before he met Hedy, and started talking about radio frequencies and that are almost, you know, the same thing as musical frequencies. So all of those, you know, trying to weave all of those ideas together was a challenge, but certainly, I think the more electricity between them, the more interesting the story would be.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. And the casting is terrific to say the least.

Ms. SINGER: Thank you.

FLATOW: I don't know where you found someone who looks just like Hedy Lamarr.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And was as sultry and statuesque.

Ms. SINGER: Thank you. Now we have two wonderful actors, Erica Newhouse and Joe Urla. And Erica is literally two weeks out of Juilliard, and our wig designers need a shout out of - and they did a terrific job. Jared and Rob did a great job with the wig. It's not actually the hair color, but Erica is fantastic and so is Joe. I mean, this was the hardest play to cast. Really, really difficult. And they needed to be - I mean, they need to sing, dance, there's a whole scene in German. And to be able to, you know, have that - be able to be - talk about science in a way that's sexy is not easy.

FLATOW: And was interesting how you're able to go back into her lifetime by flashbacks using...

Ms. SINGER: Using the projections, I think, helps, again, because, you know, some of the scenes we talked about how in, quote, "real time," it might have just been a moment the way somebody might say something and then in your mind, back in your memory of something that took place 20 years before and then you snap back and you're back in real time.

So, we do that in the play, where something may trigger a memory and we actually will let them go back in there and the projections are - we used projections on two surfaces. So, there's the Eyeliner surface and then there's also behind them. So, the actors are really surrounded not only by these images that are shifting and changing but also by the orchestra. Elaine also did the set design and I give her full credit for the idea of putting the orchestra as almost a frame around the set.

And there's a real - I mean, I'm very excited about how the piece mashes up old technology and new technology. I mean, the orchestra itself is pianos - player pianos, which have been around since the 19th century, bass drums, gong, siren bells. I mean they're not - they're certainly old tech.

Now, they were around when Antheil's writing the piece 80, 85 years ago. But they're controlled by computers, by the most advanced kind of - and the programs that we had to use. My crew is unbelievable. It was - when actually - this was very funny. When we were doing - when we were in tech, people would come in and they said it looks like NASA in here.

FLATOW: It does. It's - but it's a very intimate setting at the same time.

Ms. SINGER: Yes. It's a small venue, I mean, and - but it was a lot of technical know-how to put everything together.

FLATOW: I bet. So, glad of rehearsal. We're talking with Elyse Singer, author and director of "Frequency Hopping" on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. How much longer are you going to be running? And you know, we have a national program and not everybody can get to New York. Can you move it around, you know, the country at all?

Ms. SINGER: That's our hope. We were very lucky to get some funding from this loan foundation. Thank you.

FLATOW: They also fund our program.

Ms. SINGER: They are wonderful. We're still looking for other angels out there. And we're hoping that it will have another life in other venues outside of New York, outside of America, possibly at universities. What's also very exciting, I think, also, about this piece is that it has a cross-generational appeal. I think older audiences will remember Hedy Lamarr or remember that time are very excited by that little aspect of it. And they've never seen technology like this.

FLATOW: Right.

MS. SINGER: Younger audiences - I mean, I think, and this is my experience is that a lot of - there's incredible work out there in the theater community, in the multimedia community doing things that are very, very exciting with new technology but often at the expense of story, at the expense of good acting, at the expense of, you know, of that experience. And so one of my goals was to try to marry them in a way that was sophisticated that you could have a good story, you could have great characters and have amazing technology.

FLATOW: See if I can get a phone call in before I have to go. Adam in Tallahassee. Hi, Adam.

ADAM (Caller): Hi. It's a real pleasure to be a part of this discussion. How's everybody?

FLATOW: Fine, how are you?


ADAM: I'm doing very well. I'm a poet here in Tallahassee and interestingly I've written a short poetry - poem sequence called "Ballet Mecanique" about Hedy Lamarr and this technology that she invented. And one of the things that I found listening to you talk about the intimacy that she had with her co-inventor was that she also established a deep intimacy with the audience that she had on screen, perhaps because of the sort of hyper sexual aspects of her performances in places.

But also that's - not only did her technology go on to a help to invent guided-missile technology but it also went out to help invent cell phone technology. And that helps establish a distance if not similar intimacy between people. And I think that's one of the things that you try and do in theater as well. And I can't say how much I want to see this play.

Ms. SINGER: Oh, thank you.

ADAM: Because much of the form of my poem sounds very much like what you were trying to do with the play which is based - the form on the invention. And that's my comment. I just wanted to congratulate you and say how interesting this all sounds to me.

Ms. SINGER: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: And the play will be running until?

Ms. SINGER: The play is running until June 29th at 3LD Art and Technology Center. And our website is frequencyhopping.net. And tickets are 212-352-3101. And again we're doing "Ballet Mecanique," an encore screening of the Leger film with the full robotic orchestra on Sunday night, June 22nd. All of the information is on the website.

FLATOW: And hopefully you'll be able to take it around the country.

Ms. SINGER: We would love that.

FLATOW: If some people are listening...

Ms. SINGER: We would love that. People can contact us through the website.

FLATOW: Lot of equipment to move in this play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SINGER: It would, it would. It's not really - it's not that portable but it is only two actors.

FLATOW: It is two actors and they take up, I mean, literally, they occupy the whole stage very well.

MS. SINGER: Thank you.

FLATOW: And is there any other technology would love to have that isn't invented yet that you could incorporate into the play. I mean you know, you don't do - you know, what's interesting about the technology is it's new but it looks old.

Ms. SINGER: Yes.

FLATOW: It's not laser beam flying around on stage like they would have not been in those days?

Ms. SINGER: Sure. Well, that was actually - we try to use that as a rule in our design.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Ms. SINGER: Yes, it was to try to keep within what might have been available in their - at their time because, you know, certainly you can imagine things that don't exist yet but only to a certain degree.

FLATOW: So, you said we're not going to have anything like that kind of stuff to hang around? But no lasers, nothing like that? Thank you, Elyse, for taking time to be with us today.

Ms. SINGER: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: I really enjoyed seeing the play, and good luck with it.

Ms. SINGER: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Elyse Singer is artistic director of Hourglass Group. And she - you can catch her play, "Frequency Hopping," now until the end of June at the 3LD Art and Technology Center here in New York.

Greg Smith composed their theme music, who had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky, and Angie Hamilton Lowe and Patrick Murray at NPR West. Also you could surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com where we're podcasting and blogging and looking for your videos.

Send us some interesting videos that you have about science and technology and we'll come up on our website. We've got dozens of them and you can download them and watch them. Also we're podcasting and you can subscribe to our podcast there. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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