Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.
---broadcastellan.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Original Syntax; or, Aces High

Regular readers of this journal (all three of you) may figure its name announces your servant's affection for a) the seminal serial comedy Easy Aces; or, b) stud poker. Here's a hint. I haven't played any kind of poker in a few years. But I've played every available episode of Easy Aces, (and its briefly-lived, expanded revamp, mr. ace and JANE) at least twice since I had the fortune of drawing them. You take it from there. Jacks or better to open.

I've done likewise with Goodman Ace's Ladies and Gentlemen--Easy Aces (New York: Doubleday, 1970; 211 pages) since I landed a copy through abebooks.com's booksellers. At least, I began doing it once I recovered from the shock of reception. The copy I obtained was so pristine it still reposed in its original-issue shrinkwrap. It still contained its original-issue soft-vinyl record affixed to the inside front cover. And, it still contained eight vintage scripts Ace composed for that singular comedy, spliced with extracts from Saturday Review essays Ace had written for that journal for most of his post-radio life.

Born in 1930, Easy Aces had two lives, both of which were scripted by the droll Goodman Ace. Its original life was fifteen years as a fifteen-minute absurdist serial, written and delivered in a key low enough to let you think you were eavesdropping upon your vaguely screwy neighbours, in this case Ace the mild-mannered if harried realtor and his big-hearted, language-molesting wife, Jane, whose best friend Marge provided the laugh track at the drop of a malaprop.

Dealing in terms of the surviving episodes, you eavesdropped upon the Aces pushing shiftless brother-in-law Johnny into working at long enough last, in spite of marrying an heiress; adopting an overage orphan with a sleep-inducing left hook and a mind that seemed half asleep; surviving a film director's sweep for local talent and Jane's self-sweep into thoughts of a film career; stumbling into and out of destitution on the wrong end of a crooked politician's crooked real estate deal; enduring and then marrying off a particularly snooty live-in teenage niece; upending the corrupt orphanage from whence their "adopted son" came; Jane's hilarious career as a professional bridge partner; and, how to succeed in business once you've succeeded in keeping your spouse from meddling.

You learned that home wasn't built in a day and Congress was back in season (no bag limit, presumably), a wife should take the bitter with the better since time wounds all heels, there was no use crying over spoiled milk, and that the way things were going those days a girl had to play hard to take. All from a lady who'd have the coffee ready in a jitney if you were sitting on pins and cushions waiting. And if you were up at the crank of dawn to put your nose to the tombstone, well, you could have knocked her over with a fender. (Mmmmmm, her droll husband drawled, there's an idea . . . ) Did I mention she was also a member of the weeper sex who could strangle an egg after taking a year of domestic silence?

The show's second life tried to grow it up from a fifteen-minute absurdist serial to a half-hour weekly absurdism, with a few new twists on a few time-tested devices. Ace became narrator as well as droll foil to Jane's malapropriety, not to mention moving from real estate to advertising and, as John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune pointed out, "us(ing) his program to take a few pokes at radio, the newspapers, and the world in general," and engaging announcer Ken Roberts "whose function is to kid all the commercials on the air." Ace's real estate partner Neff was supplanted by advertising boss Norris, whose gruffness was matched only by his satchelful of slogans. The satchel rarely escaped without a few arrows from Ace's finely tuned bow.

ACE: Mr. Norris talks like a copybook. He believes a man's best friend is his motto.
NORRIS: Don't put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
ACE: He's been married three times.
NORRIS: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
ACE: But in spite of his corny talk, I like Mr. Norris. He's a lonely man, he has no children.
NORRIS: If at first you don't succeed---
ACE: Uh, yes.

Jane's shiftless brother Johnny was overthrown by her shiftless brother Paul, whose occupation was observing construction activity through the most available peephole in the wood fencing. And snooty niece Betty was replaced in Ace's office by indifferent cousin Sally. ("Happiness is relative," Ace drawled. "The fewer relatives, the more happiness.")

And where the original Easy Aces was delivered in a crowd-less studio room, with microphones under the table, the better to let the cast sound like people and not performers, the new mr. ace and JANE ended up in front of a live audience, with a few of the old situations and malaprops remodeled. The remodeling was a smarter idea than the live audience, it turned out. The Aces worked best when they kept it quiet, if only because the clever urbanity with which Ace wrote the show wasn't supposed to be taken with a belly laugh.

Compare the audition episode, an early version of series opener "Jane Gets a Loan for Brother Paul" (called "Paul Tries to Borrow Two Hundred Dollars"), to the series edition. The longtime theme song, "Manhattan Serenade," was played by a solo pianist, who also provided the edition's music punctuations, and with no live audience the Aces and company shone in their conversational style. Picked up as a series, the theme was now played ballyhoo style by full band, and the hollow of the full audience studio made it sound like . . . anything else on the air in 1948. Accordingly, the Aces and cast sounded like the thing they'd first tried their best to avoid. They sounded like actors, and it compromised the best of Ace's wry deconstructions and Jane's original syntax.

Ladies and Gentlemen--Easy Aces (the title, of course, was taken from the original serial's standard introduction) actually binds up the non-serial scripts deployed in mr. ace and JANE, perhaps because to pick and choose from serialised material might have been even more arduous. They afford a chance to read and hear them in the voices without the audience or the studio hollow, perhaps with a solo piano chiming between scenes, leaving exposed the show's not-so-dirty little secret: dearly though it's remembered for Jane's malapropriety, Ace's narratives and rejoinders sometimes wring at least as many laughs and occasionally more.

As a matter of fact, some of the Saturday Review mulctings with which Ace forged the narrative of the chosen scripts could have made classic episodes themselves. I'll offer you this one, which I took the liberty of forging into a script. I'm sure that wherever he is Mr. Ace will look upon this, smile, and warble, "Isn't that awful?" Of course, it was his fault. He had to quote Jane after telling her there would be a picture or three used with the book. That'd teach him.

JANE: I'd like to use my favourite picture--the one I was going to use when I thought of going on the stage and being a big Broadway star, but you wouldn't let me. I'll go get it. I'll be back in a jitney.
SFX: (footsteps leaving the room).

ACE: While she's gone, I should fill you in on that stage bit. That was in the early days of radio when success went to Jane's head, where it had plenty of room to bounce around. As I recall, it went something like this:

MUSIC: (to flashback).
JANE: What do you think about my going on stage?
ACE: As what?
JANE: As a star. I can become famous and rich.
ACE: Oh, no. Not that routine again.
JANE: Yes, you will.
ACE: Look, Jane, let's face facts. You've never been on the stage, you can't read lines, you don't know how to project, and above all you have no talent to become a famous star and rich. Now do you understand how I feel about you and a stage career?
JANE: Yes. You're afraid that when I become famous and rich, I'll divorce you.
ACE: Promises, promises.
JANE: OK, I promise I won't, even if I become a big dramatic star, or even in musical comedy, because my friends say I sing like an angel.
ACE: Sure, like an angel. But can't you wait till you get up there?
JANE: I've waited too long already, just laying around the house.
ACE: That's 'lying.'
JANE: No, it's the truth.
ACE: Jane, listen, what qualifications do you have to become an actress?
JANE: Not much, I haven't. I've always had the smell of goose grease in my blood. I've always dreamed of seeing my name up in tights.
ACE: OK, Gypsy, I give up. You're going to be another Sarah Bernhardt.
JANE: Or bigger. Of course I'm going to start small. I play a maid in this play. That's what I've been trying to tell you if you'll stop shouting yourself hoarse in the face.
ACE: Whoa. Back up. What play is that?
JANE: It's a play our club is putting on. The W-O-M-A-N.
ACE: What's that stand for?
JANE: Woman.
ACE: Oh, of course, how stupid of me.
JANE: I forgive you, dear. In this play I'm the maid, and I have one line. I come in and I say to Mabel--she plays the leading part--I say, 'Your coat, madame.' That's the one line I have.
ACE: And from that you expect to be discovered?
JANE: What discovered? I'm already here. They'll see me when I say, 'Your coat, madame' and I hold it while she puts it on and I walk off, and when the audience applauds I take a bow.
ACE: Applause for holding a coat?
JANE: Well, you're going to be in the audience. You can start it. You know how people are. Don't they always yawn when somebody else yawns? And so can you.
ACE: Yes, I can do that all right.
JANE: Thank you, dear. And don't you worry about the divorce. I wouldn't ever leave you.
ACE: Why not?
JANE: You're welcome. Now, there's one problem. Well it's not exactly a problem, because I can always use it.
ACE: How's that again, I'm afraid to ask?
JANE: Well, we each have to bring our own costumes. So I want to look my best, and my best would be in a mink coat.
ACE: A maid wearing a mink coat?
JANE: No, I don't wear it. The coat I hold up for Mabel.
ACE: You're kidding.
JANE: You don't expect me to hold up my three-year-old Persian lamb, do you? To say nothing of my raincoat.
ACE: Jane, if your stage career depends on a mink coat, forget it.
JANE: Forget the stage? Why any girl would give her right name to become a star. And I'm going to be on Broadway or my name is Maude. Where are you going?
ACE: I'm going to buy two tickets and applaud you on opening night, Maude.
JANE: Oh, thank you, dear--two tickets? Who are you going with? I see--when the cat's on stage the mouse will play.

MUSIC: (out of flashback).
ACE: And so on. Although she had hitched her wagon to a star, Jane finally settled for a microphone--thank heaven. As for the mink coat, you know how that was solved? Since I was adamant about it, Jane suggested to the play committee that the first act be played with thunder and lightning offstage to simulate a rainstorm. Mary Babs Moore, eminent electrician of all the WOMAN plays, naturally loved the idea. So the coat that was held up for Madame was Jane's raincoat.

Actually, the mink coat was also solved in "Jane Thinks Mink," another of the eight scripts bound into this charming little book. That solution wasn't half as simple as drawing an Ace-straight high. But it may have been simpler than Jane on a jury. ("If he's nice enough to pay me three dollars a day to be his jury, the least I can do is recuperate and say he didn't break the gum machine, doesn't it to you?") Or, diddling with astrology. ("You have no idea what a lonesome feeling it is to look across the breakfast table in the morning and not see that newspaper staring me in the face--even if he is only a Capricorn.") Or, going into the Christmas card business--in May. ("Profit is the money you make and loss is the money you don't.") Or, Jane's mother coming to visit. ("Oh, she says in the next sentence--'please excuse the shaky handwriting because we have just left Kansas City and the train is going real fast'.") Or, going to a psychiatrist. ("Well, I'm certainly not gonna sit there boring him for a full hour every day. So tomorrow I'm going to make up a story out of whole wheat." This, by the way, is the episode from which extracts were drawn for that soft-vinyl record included with the original book.) Or, finding Mother a new husband. ("That's the thanks you get from parents--staying out till all hours of the night--worrying their children--some times I don't think it's worth having them.")

Well, you could have knocked me over with a fender, too--no trump.

3 Comments:

Blogger Marsha said...

Four...four readers...why does everyone always forget about me?....Just kiddin. I'm writing this comment for no particular reason...except that I was here and had a free moment. Have a good day.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

I surrender, dear. Four readers. And thank you for the honour of your free moment!--EA.

11:28 PM  
Blogger uderhood said...

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10:57 PM  

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