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.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Our Miss Booth

Knowing Eve Arden was third choice to the role she made her own is one thing. Wait till you hear choice number one as Our Miss Brooks. Choice number two is lost to listeners only because Lucille Ball turned down the part without agreeing first to audition the show. But listen to choices one and three back-to-back, as did I when I burned both audition shows to a single disc.

Before Shirley Booth auditioned the role first, she was known to radio audiences as the tart daughter of Duffy's Tavern's absentee proprietor. (She was also known at the time as the real-life wife of Ed Gardner, who created and wrote the show, not to mention playing Archie the manager, who was always speakin' because Duffy wasn't there.) Miss Duffy had a purseful of putdowns for Archie and a head full of eyes for any unattached male who came to within ten city blocks of the sidestreet dive. Her first (and, in most ways, best) portrayer had a purseful of stage and film respect, not to mention a Tony Award (1948, for Goodbye, My Fancy), when Harry Ackerman persuaded her to give Connie Brooks a try.

The script by which she gave it the try exposed a flaw Ackerman himself conceded in due course. "All she could see," he told historian/critic Gerald Nachman many years later, "was the downside of the underpaid teacher. She couldn't make any fun of it." Listen to Booth jump right in at the head of the audition script. "You know, it's a funny thing--I'm always careful about standing in a dress. No matter how careful I am, I always get a pain in the neck teaching English 2."

No matter how careful you are to push aside your Miss Brooks for hers, you can't avoid the pain in the neck of a line that clumsy. Allow Booth that opening handicap and it's easier to acquit her making Connie Brooks resemble Miss Duffy as a frustrated show girl who took up teaching to pay the rent and fell two months behind on merit.

"Our Miss Brooks," intones the announcer after a short music bridge. "Have you met her yet? Maybe you think a schoolteacher's life is dull. Well . . . it is. But, there are moments when even Miss Brooks's life is as romantic and glamorous as a movie star's. It's when she's dreaming, and especially when she's dreaming about Mr. Boynton, the biology teacher." An actual English teacher could have that writer tried by jury for murdering the King's English; an actual dreamer could have accused him of trying to strangle Shirley Booth in her sleep.

The audition plot surrounded Connie Brooks's bustle on a day the new school board president was to meet South High, as the school was called first. The bustle got busted when Walter Denton---eventually, the awkward nebbish; here, scripted and cast a Dead End Kid going back to school under court order---plowed his alleged car into what proved the school board president's car. The punctuation included Boynton the indifferent biologist, whose loose diary page was mistaken for a mash note to the ever-willing Connie but proved to be a sonnet to one of his lab mice.

From end to end it's played as though the cast (uncredited except for Booth) can't decide whether they're playing genuine school-oriented characters or awkward sketch comedians before an audience that needs a lesson in how to laugh. Mrs. Davis, the landlady, whose eventual absentmindedness becomes one of the show's running gags, is cast here with a teenage daughter whose indifference to Denton's affection is equaled only by her affectation for French phrasing and Booth's inability to make Connie laugh at herself.

But you can blame the writing in large enough part. Some of it was committed by future Leave It to Beaver director Norman Tokar; his partners in crime were Don Ettlinger (the future head writer of television soap operas Love of Life and The Secret Storm) and Ed Jurist (future writing credits included Chico and the Man and Gimme a Break).
SFX: (car horn honking).
MRS. DAVIS: Oh, now there's Walter honking for you.
RUTH DAVIS: Oh, that worm can honk himself blue in the face
for all I care, and he knows---
MRS. DAVIS: He's waiting outside.
RUTH: Then I'm going out back. (Exiting.) Au revoir,
MRS. DAVIS: Oh, I don't know what to do with that girl.
CONNIE: Well, there's always (unintelligible)--look at the
time! I'll never make it.
MRS. DAVIS: Oh, Miss Brooks, aren't you finishing your
CONNIE: Mrs. Davis, it's a question of who's finishing
MRS. DAVIS: But it's nourishing, dear. Just roll it up and
take it with you.
SFX: (car horn honking)
MRS. DAVIS: Oh, dear, Walter came over all this way for
CONNIE: Oh, no he didn't. He may be expecting Miss Garbo in
bobby sox, but he's getting Miss Brooks in galoshes.

Send it to the script doctors. Triple bypass. How was the patient's recovery? Begin with the opening monologue handed to Eve Arden, no warming up in the bullpen, on the second audition show.
CONNIE: Teaching school can be a very rich life for a young woman. That is, if she happens to be a very rich young woman. Of course, I'm not rich, but I am rather young, and rather a woman, too. Which brings us to Mr. Boynton. He's the biology teacher at school, and a sweeter, kinder, more intelligent scientist never brushed off an English teacher to play footsie with a frog. But---he'll come around. Even a studious biology teacher must sooner or later get a little biological. Meanwhile---I can dream, can't I?
SFX: (dream music; down for)
ANNOUNCER: Yes, Connie Brooks can dream. It's a few minutes before seven in the morning. And Miss Brooks is fast asleep in the room she rents from Mrs. Margaret Davis. Fast asleep . . . and dreaming . . .
SFX: (dream music back up for)
CONNIE (dreaming): Oh, Mr. Darwell, this is too much.
MR. DARWELL: Miss Brooks, as principal of Madison High School, I
insist you accept.
CONNIE: But a diamond-studded ruler? For what, Mr.
MR. DARWELL: Because you have the nicest erasers in
CONNIE: Why, Mr. Darwell, I didn't think you ever noticed my
MR. DARWELL: I'm also giving you Mr. Boynton, the biology
CONNIE (sighing): Oohh, Mr. Boynton.
BOYNTON (romantically): Kiss me, Miss Brooks.
SFX: (knocking on door)
MRS. DAVIS: Miss Brooks? Miss Brooks, you'll be late.
CONNIE (in her sleep): Kiss me again, Mr. Boynton.
MRS. DAVIS: Miss Brooks, you have to go to school, dear.
CONNIE (awakening): For this I don't have to go to school--this
comes naturally!

The second audition script introduces Osgood Conklin as the incoming principal, after making him the school board president in the first trial; he would become one of the classic radio blowhards in Gale Gordon's repertoire. It also introduces such eventual running gags as Mrs. Davis's exotically incompetent breakfasts (Connie: "If I were the goat responsible for this concoction, I would hang myself by my own beard"), Miss Brooks's perpetually in-repair car ("I ran into a parked car"), and Walter Denton's (now his familiar nebbish self) perpetually malfunctioning jalopy, in which he dodges at least ten accidents before getting Miss Brooks to school within an inch of her life.

But it's also written closer to the style that would make the show such a staple, including and especially the sardonically literate Connie Brooks. Here was an exchange between Shirley Booth's Connie and the Dead End Denton, early in the first audition:
CONNIE: You see, Ruth doesn't appreciate yet that a man is a thing to be treasured.
WALTER: When will she appreciate that?
CONNIE: When she gets to be my age.
WALTER: Oh, I couldn't wait that long, Miss Brooks.
CONNIE (mock indignant): Now, wait a minute---how old do you think I am?
CONNIE: Walter!
CONNIE: Walter!
CONNIE: Walter, this isn't an auction.

Now, a similar exchange between Droopy Denton and Eve Arden's Connie, en route newly-renamed Madison High. This time, Mrs. Davis's huffy daughter has been purged, perhaps to study spiritual love at Jean-Paul Sartre's footstone, while Walter---who has yet to learn, still, how impolite it is to honk rather than knock for a lady---is trying now to conquer indifference from one Penelope Miller.
WALTER: All I want you to do is help me write her a letter, Miss Brooks. You see, she doesn't think I'm mental enough.
CONNIE: I can't understand it.
WALTER: And I figured, well, you being an English teacher, as well as a woman, well, you'd know how to make her think that I was brainy. You know, intelligent. I hate to trade on just my sheer animal magnetism. You know what I mean?
CONNIE: Walter, you are a little beastly in spots. But don't blame yourself. Penelope just doesn't appreciate yet that a man is a thing to be treasured.
WALTER: When will she appreciate it?
CONNIE: When she gets to be my age.
WALTER: Oh, I couldn't wait that long, Miss Brooks.
CONNIE (mock indignance): Wait a minute, Walter, just how old do you think I am?
WALTER: Er, 35?
CONNIE (mock horror): What??
CONNIE: Walter!!
CONNIE: One more bid and I'll throw you out of this auction.

Shirley Booth was made for two more Tonys (Come Back, Little Sheba and The Time of the Cuckoo) and one Oscar (for Come Back, Little Sheba), before she landed a pair of Emmys as television's Hazel. She just wasn't made to be an English teacher who was written realistically enough (in the context of that period) and played humanely enough that Eve Arden (who won an Emmy of her own soon enough) got awards from teaching associations, and even teaching job offers, at the height of Our Miss Brooks's eventual popularity.


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