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.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Boss Wants Another Traffic Report

So, here’s our traffic report. If it's overnight, the roads are empty. Except for two winos crossing the street and parallel parking in front of the police station, and one street sweeping vehicle the driver of which keeps losing his revolving curb brushes in front of Hooters.

If it's morning, the roads are at a standstill. Even the bikers who usually stop to flash you that smug grin because they can thread between lanes and you in your big cars can’t. So now’s your time to flash them the smug grins you owe them, knowing they can’t dismount to give you a chain whipping because every third car stuck in these jams is a squad car that can’t change lanes.

If you want to call it midday, you can. If they can call Pluto a non-planet, I suppose you can call the hour anything you want. But if you are calling it midday, the roads are still at a standstill. That’s because both directions are tied up. And that's thanks to a case of road rage that involves someone using a spontaneous automatic window tinter the better to keep the highway voyeurs from watching him having phone sex with the brunette two lanes to his left.

But if you prefer to call it afternoon-evening rush, I’m sorry. This is not Maxwell House Masochism Time.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

"How Does The Pennant Look This Year?"

Among other things, Tallulah Bankhead was a rather passionate New York Giants fan. (That's the baseball team, which moved to San Francisco in due course.) The head writer for her NBC variety blowout, The Big Show, Goodman Ace, was a Giants fan married to a Yankee fan. ("Get a hit, Yogi darling!" Jane Ace was wont to holler, when watching a game on the living room telly. In terms of domestic bliss, of course, it could have been far worse---and would have been, had Mrs. Ace been a Dodgers fan.)

Combine the foregoing to Giants manager Leo Durocher's first appearance on The Big Show, 4 February 1951, and the following was the net result.

TALLULAH BANKHEAD: Well, darlings, we have just finished thirteen weeks of The Big Show. And each show an hour and a half. Now, you won't believe this, I'm sure, but I just found out there are shows on radio that are only one half hour each. (Pause.) I knew you wouldn't believe me, darlings. But on this show it takes a half an hour just to mention the names of the stars. Well, as a matter of fact, we thought we would save time by just referring to our stars just by their initials, you know, like, uh, Durante, Allen, and Holliday would be, uh, D-A-H. But we gave that up because, on next week's show, we were thinking of having Cantor, Berle, and Sinatra. (Pause; laughter.) I waited for you, darlings. So, you can see why using intials is out!
LEO DUROCHER: Out?! Whaddya mean, "out," ya ner---he was safe by a mile!
BANKHEAD: Leo Durocher! (applause.) OK, Durocher, simmer down, simmer down, you're not managing the Giants now at the Polo Grounds.
DUROCHER: Well, I'm sorry, but you said, "Out!" And certain . . . words in baseball, why, they upset me and I lose my head.
BANKHEAD: Yeah, I know . . . a word like ummm-pire, for instance. I think it's perfectly awful the way you treat the umpires.
DUROCHER (mock astonishment): Me? I don't bother the umps.
BANKHEAD: oh-ho-ho-ho, not much you don't. Why is it the minute the umpires walk out before every game, you make everybody at the Polo Grounds stand up and sing, "Oh, say, can you see . . . ?"
DUROCHER: Well, you know me, Tallulah. Baseball's in my blood.
BANKHEAD: Yeah, I thought you were rather lumpy. Now tell me, Leo, we Giant fans have been waiting fourteen long years, now. How does the pennant look this year?
DUROCHER: Ah, looks the same---it's powder blue, it kind of tapers off to a point, and I, uh---
BANKHEAD: Leo, I know what it looks like, darling. I've seen plenty of pennants at Ebbets Field. (Laughter, applause.) And, I'm going to see one flying over the Polo Grounds this year, am I? (Applause.) (Inaudible.)
DUROCHER: Well, Tallu, just give me one more good long ball hitter, and we'll win that pennant quicker than you can say "Jackie Robinson."
BANKHEAD: We can use him, too. No, but honestly, Leo, don't you think hoping to win a pennant this year is aiming, uh, too high---
DUROCHER (shouting, slightly backstage): Too high?! Why, that ball was right o---whaddya mean, "Too high"?!
BANKHEAD (mock sheepishness): Oh, darling, I'm so sorry I used another word that upsets you. Down, boy . . . easy, now . . . eeeeea-sy.
DUROCHER (returning to mike): Look, Tallulah, I'm not interested in talking baseball. This is my racket---that's what I'm interested in, acting.
BANKHEAD: Hah! Acting---you?
DUROCHER: Just a minute! Why the emphasis on you? This may surprise you, but I'm booked to star in my first play this summer. And it's gonna be a hit.
BANKHEAD: Oooh, your first play, and it's gonna be a hit.
DUROCHER: Yes, and then I'm going into my third play.
BANKHEAD: And you're going from your first play to your third?
DUROCHER: Sure. With a hit anybody can go from first to third.
BANKHEAD: So you're an actor. Does Laraine know about this?
DUROCHER: Laraine who?
BANKHEAD: Laraine Day, your wife.
DUROCHER: Oh---that Laraine Day.
LARAINE DAY: Yes, that Laraine Day. You remember me?
DUROCHER: Aw, hello, honey. (Applause.)
BANKHEAD: Laraine, darling, what is this routine about Leo wanting to become an actor?
DAY: Yes, I know. Leo B. Mayer, we call him around the house. Do you know what he does, Tallulah? He won't let me go to many ballgames. He makes me stay home and catch him on television. So I can tell him how good his acting was when he went out on the field to argue with an umpire.
DUROCHER: I'd like to see Dr. Kildare do as well.
BANKHEAD: Uh, tell me, Laraine---do you get upset, darling, when you see Leo go out to argue with an umpire?
DAY: Oh, no, not anymore. The minute I see him walk out, I start getting dinner. I know he'll be home early.
BANKHEAD: Baby, you must have early dinners quite often.
DAY: Well, when the Giants play a doubleheader, we . . . sometimes have dinner as early as . . . two o'clock in the afternoon.
DUROCHER: Now, wait a minute, Laraine---don't go giving the impression that I fight with all the umpires.
DAY: Well, no, not all of them. Much to my surprise, Tallulah, one night last week Leo came home with an umpire after the game. We had him for dinner.
DUROCHER: Yeah. Served on a platter with a baseball in his mouth. Boy, was he tasty.
DAY: Yes. That was the first umpire that ever agreed with Leo.
BANKHEAD: Laraine, it must be very exciting to be married to a man in baseball.
DAY: Well, it's like being married to a man in any other business. I talk to the players' wives and they tell me what kind of day their husbands had. Like Eddie Stanky's wife. She calls me very proudly and says, "Eddie had a very good day today. He walked, he singled, he tripled, and he was hit in the head by a pitched ball."
DUROCHER: Aw, I wish the women would stay out of my baseball business. They always talk a good game, I'd like to see them out there playing it.
BANKHEAD: If that's an offer, you can sign me now.
BANKHEAD: Why the em-pha-sis on you?!
DUROCHER: You wouldn't even know what to do. Now, look---if you were on third base and we needed one run to win, and it's the last of the ninth, there's one out, Lockman bunts, the pitcher comes in for the ball. Now, how would you get home?
BANKHEAD: Well, the same way I always get home, darling---I take a taxi.
DUROCHER: Ah, pretty smart, darling. Well, this'll stop you---suppose it's raining'n ya can't get a taxi.
BANKHEAD: Well, this'll shock you, Buster---when it rains, they don't play ball.
DAY: That oughta take care of him. Thanks, Tallulah, it's good to see somebody win an argument with Leo for a change.
BANKHEAD: Well, I must say, Laraine, that being the wife of a stormy baseball manager doesn't seem to have changed you very much. You still have that fresh, lovely, scrubbed look.
DAY: Why shouldn't I look scrubbed? Every time we have an argument, Leo sends me to the shower.

They little knew just how soon a National League pennant would fly above the Polo Grounds once again, and at whose heartbroken expense following a thriller of a pennant race.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Another Week---Another Word From Another Sponsor

SPONSOR: Viradigenous.

You have just read another word from our sponsor. Or, it was a hint that another financial report is due.

If it is, the financial report is that we still don't get paid for this. If it isn't, with sponsors like this you have a pretty good idea why we still don't get paid.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Dystemper of the Times

Margaret Truman has as much business in this space as I have in the Oval Office. But she did turn up as a frequent enough guest on The Big Show, whereas I never wanted to become President of the United States when I grew up. (I wasn't brought up to become the chief executive of the nation's largest organised crime family.)

She probably had that much business in show business, too. As a vocalist, which was her first ambition, she sounded as though she had to drop out of voice training to care for a dystempered elder parent.

It turned out that that’s exactly what she had, too, at least when the Washington Post’s Paul Hume (a distinguished music critic, and the paper’s music editor from 1947 until his retirement in 1982) reviewed her Constitution Hall recital of 5 December 1950. She performed before an audience that included said dystempered elder parent and wife in the company of such hoi polloi as the British prime minister, and Mr. Hume did his best to be polite about it.

Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality. She is extremely attractive on stage. Yet Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time---more so last night than at any time we have heard her in past years.

It is an extremely unpleasant duty to record such unhappy facts about so honestly appealing a person. But as long as Miss Truman sings as she has for three years, and does today, we seem to have no recourse unless it is to omit comment on her programs altogether.

Miss Truman did her best to be polite about Hume, calling him a very fine critic with the right to write as he pleased. Clearly the young lady was borne of greater horse sense than her dystempered elder parent.

Mr. Hume:

I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay."

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.


Hume proved too much a gentleman to challenge dystempered elder parent to bring it on. He also proved too trusting a soul in mentioning the letter to the music critic of the then-rival Washington News, Milton Berliner within hours of its delivery.

The Post’s editors decided, discretion being the better part of valour and probably no part of dystempered elder parent’s makeup, not to publish or publicise it. The News ordered up a story that hit the wires running and provoked an uproar about dystempered elder parent’s grotesque rejoinder against a distinguished practising music critic who was well within his right to review any public performance by even the music careering daughter of the President of the United States. (The Post was compelled to run its own story but ordered its writers only to quote from the News in the doing.)

Dystempered elder parent thus conveyed a sheepish reply that he had acted and written as a loving father and not a working President oblivious to the prospect that he might resemble an ass.

In entertainment terms, Margaret Truman was probably suited best to comedy, so long as she wasn’t expected to carry the sketch. Her Big Show appearances display her with a gentle knack for a soft punch line and a sportiness as a straight woman. The latter was presented best in a hilarious sketch, from the fifth show of the series, in which Fred Allen presided over The Margaret Truman Show and proceeded—-for his own part and that of such participants as Mindy Carson, Joan Davis, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Phil Silvers, and Meredith Willson—-not to let her get a word in edgewise. The former was presented in such routines as this, from the final show of the first season.

MARGARET TRUMAN: Hello, Fred. Do you remember me?
FRED ALLEN: Why, of course I do. I was on the show the last time you were on. Why, I even remember the song you sang, Margaret—“Love Is Where You Find It.” And I even remember that dress you wore. It was a green bouffant taffeta, caught at the neck with a Hershey bar.
BANKHEAD (high laugh).
ALLEN: Am I right?
TRUMAN: That’s remarkable, Fred.
ALLEN: Ohhhh, I have a memory like a jackass.
TRUMAN: You mean a memory like an elephant, don’t you?
ALLEN: Well, you vote your way and I’ll vote mine.
BANKHEAD: Margaret? You’ve met Portland Hoffa, darling.
TRUMAN: Certainly. Hello, Portland.
PORTLAND HOFFA: Hello . . . Excellency.
BANKHEAD: Margaret, it’s so nice to have you on our last show of the season. We’re disbanding for the summer, you know.
TRUMAN: Yes, I know. Where are you going to spend your summer, Tallulah?
BANKHEAD: Well, I haven’t quite made up my mind. I have a beautiful place in the country, but I had such a bad experience there last winter, when I went there for a weekend. I slipped on the ice and was laid up for two weeks . . . and how my foot ever got in that glass, I’ll never know.
ALLEN: Say, Tallulah.
ALLEN: Why don’t you pack your mink sleeping bag with the rhinestone zipper and come to visit us this summer? We have a very nice place in New Hampshire.
HOFFA: We’d love to have you, Tallulah. It’s beautiful country. On a clear day, you can see the Alps.
BANKHEAD (astonished): The Alps in New Hampshire?!
HOFFA: George and Betty Alps. They live about a mile down the road.
TRUMAN: I’d love to have you come with me, Tallulah. I’m thinking of going down to Key West for some sailing and fishing.
BANKHEAD: Oh! Key West—I’d adore that, I adore the ocean. And I’d like nothing better than to get up every morning at the crack of noon and go sailing.
TRUMAN: That’s good. I might even take some singing lessons down there.
BANKHEAD: Oh, but that’s wonderful, Margaret. Maybe I could take a few lessons, too. Oh, that sounds entrancing, sailing along Key West and singing.
ALLEN: That’s for you, Tallulah—singing off-key West.
BANKHEAD: Ah-hah-hah—isn’t he unemployed. (Pause.) Well, Margaret, how about a song from you?
TRUMAN: But Tallulah—I thought if I came on the program I could do some acting. I’m an actress now. Did you hear me on the radio with Jimmy Stewart in Jackpot?
BANKHEAD: Oh, I never listen to those quiz shows, dahling.
TRUMAN: No, it was a dramatic program. I acted a part. That’s what I think you can use on this show. An actress.
BANKHEAD (drops her voice an octave, mock indignance): Let’s not have any of that nonsense here, Maggie.

Mr. Hume, who died in 2001, was equally sporty about dystempered elder parent’s diatribe. “I can only say,” he said in a public statement at the uproar’s crest, “that a man suffering the loss of a friend (Charles Ross, the White House secretary, whose death coincided with the fateful recital, as it happened) and carrying the burden of the present world crisis (the Korean War, which now included Chinese Communists) ought to be indulged in an occasional outburst of temper.”

In due course, the critic called personally on the by-then retired dystempered elder parent, who played both his home office pianos, from which point the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Miss Truman, meanwhile, exchanged show business for a marriage to a New York Timesman and a literary career of her own, mostly as a ghostwritten political potboiled mystery novelist. By that time, dystempered elder parent (whom she biographed, in fact) wasn’t alive to write nastygrams to literary critics he deemed fit for new noses, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps supporters below.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

New York Mugs, Nice Mugs, Sweet Mugs

“The people on that show,” remembered Abe Burrows, “were New York mugs, nice mugs, sweet mugs, and like [Damon] Runyon’s mugs they all talked like Ladies and Gentlemen.” None more typically so than the malapropping manager who opened that show, almost invariably, by picking up the phone after a tinny ring or two and purring in a subway-shone monotone, “’Ullo, Duffy’s Taven, wheddyaleet meet ta eat, Archieda manageh speakin’, Duffy ain’t here—oh, ‘ullo Duffy. . . .”

At least once, however, Archieda Manageh deviated from the customary script, proclaiming, “Duffy—isn’t here.”

—Yeah, Duffy, I said “isn’t”. . . Well, “isn’t” is correct, ain’t it? . . . Well, look, I got to watch me diction. We’re having here of Mrs. Pendleton and a Lord Byron Ladies Literary Society . . . Literary Society, Duffy. It’s a club, y’know, where people who don’t know how to read listen to lectures by people who don’t know how to talk. Kind of a moron’s coffee klatsch. Well, da ladies is meetin’ here tonight for an open forum. It’s kind of a public discussion, y’know, this forum, where, uh, you know, if ya don’t agree with another speaker’s opinions, you—state your objections in a friendly, logical, intelligent manner, an’ then you clunk ‘em ovada head with a bun starter.

High, low, and middlebrow alike relaxed with this bittersweet farce, implanted within a Third Avenue dump whose ambience (the food was what you served your worst enemy, the drinks were watered down with flattened week-old seltzer, the furnishings were probably older than the owner) and monkey business management (the owner never bothered showing up, and Archieda Manageh barely found the kitchen without a map or a health inspector) produced classic radio’s most imaginative insult wit and most humane glimpse of working class folk—Irish in name, New York in mind—who were probably just competent enough to get fired before qualifying for unemployment insurance.

Duffy’s Tavern was founded by Ed Gardner, once the producer of So This Is New York (CBS). For that show he created Archie’s prototype, whose mission seemed to be driving composer/music critic Deems Taylor and company to drink. Naturally, Gardner—a writer, director (credits including Burns & Allen and Believe It . . . or Not), one-time saloon pianist, and reputed perfectionist, who auditioned half a score before deciding his new Archie was no further away than his mirror—should open his own radio saloon.

And at last he had cast right. Gardner fit Archieda Manageh as faulty neon or having a little screwdriver with your glass of ice fit his newly-established dive, a scheme-and-dream malaproprietor falling flat on his face, invariably, over this dream date, that dream moneymaker, the other dream glory, even the yonder dream fatherhood, as evidence this from a memorable 1950 Father’s Day.

ARCHIE: ’Ullo, Duffy’s Taven, wheddyaleet meet ta eat’n drink Blatz beer*, Archieda manageh speakin’, Duffy ain’t here—oh, ‘ullo Duffy. . . eh? Well, I’m fixin’ up th’ joint fa Fodder’s Day . . . Yep. The one day’n th’ year when Pop gets a slap onda back insteaduva kick’n th’ pants . . . Whaddam I gonna do on Fodder’s Day? Thanks t’you—nuthin’ . . . How come? Well, it’s simple logic, Mr. Duffy . . . On th’ lousy fifteen bucksa week y’pay me, I can’t afford t’have a steady girl. Oigo, the steady girl I can’t afford t’have certainly ain’t gonna become a wife I can’t afford t’keep. So if this steady girl I can’t afford t’have won’t become a wife I can’t afford t’keep, she soitenly ain’t gonna have no kids I can’t afford t’support. Therefore, I bid you good day, homewrecker!

Archieda Manageh’s very irregular regulars included the libidinous daughter of the dive’s never-seen owner, played first by his real-life first wife, Shirley Booth, then by five more actresses who found it futile enough to equal Booth’s virtuoso Brooklynese tartness. Miss Duffy (her first name was never disclosed, so far as I can tell) impressed as on the stout side physically, though not without a certain implicit shapeliness, and through her oboe-register nasal voice she seemed uncertain whether her time was spent best chasing men or deflating Archie’s withering dismissals of her amorosity. Archie’s, or anyone else’s, sometimes one of guest stars numerous enough (including Abe Burrows—who guested five years after he first worked as one of Duffy’s Tavern’s writers) who clamoured for a turn at the tap.

MISS DUFFY: Ah . . . say, Archie . . . uh . . . (stifling a giggle) . . . introduce me to Barry Nelson?
ARCHIE: Uh . . . oh, ok . . . Barry Nelson? Man with my face, meet Miss Duffy . . . who’s stuck with hers.
BARRY NELSON: How do you do.
MISS DUFFY: I’m happy to meet you.
NELSON: The pleasure is mutual, I’m sure.
MISS DUFFY (sighing): Gee, you’re cute.
NELSON: Thank you.
MISS DUFFY (sighing again): And you have such a manly face.
NELSON (awkward but courtly): Thank you . . . I—may I say the same for you.

When they weren’t swapping shots over her amorosity and his self-delusional romanticism, Archie and Miss Duffy yielded to a mutual if strained empathy, sometimes when their dreams left them both on the rocks, but usually when zapping her unseen father a few good ones without crossing the line that divides mere sarcasm from shameless nastiness.

ARCHIE: Oh, ‘ullo, Miss Duffy.
MISS DUFFY: I wanta getcher opinion. Whaddya think about this tie?
ARCHIE: Tie? Ah, for Fodder’s Day.
MISS DUFFY: (giggles) Yeah. D’ya think it’s good enough for ‘im?
ARCHIE: Yeah. I think it’ll serve him right.
MISS DUFFY: Whaddya think I should get ‘im to wear with it?
ARCHIE: A long beard. (Pause.) Miss Duffy, d’ya always hafta buy ties?
MISS DUFFY: Well, I dunno what else to buy. Papa’s so hard to please.
ARCHIE: ‘E’s hard to please, hah? Well, uh, whaddabout some cards, or maybe some poker chips?
MISS DUFFY: Mama won’t let Papa gamble.
ARCHIE: Oh. (Pause.) Then, how ‘bout a boxa cigars?
MISS DUFFY: Mama won’t let Papa smoke in the house.
ARCHIE: Oh, uh . . . then how ‘bout a nice—umbrella?
MISS DUFFY: Mama won’t let Papa outta the house.
ARCHIE: Guess yer right. Yer fodder is a pretty hard guy to please.

Playing Eddie the waiter and banter partner, with an occasional malaprop of his own, Eddie Green gave Duffy’s Tavern classic radio comedy’s only continuing male black character other than Eddie Anderson as Jack Benny’s valet/ego deflationist Rochester. (The ladies were pretty well represented, albeit in domestic help characters for the most part, though once in awhile there’d be one who transcended the pigeonhole, such as The Great Gildersleeve’s empathetic and occasionally wiseass housekeeper, Bertie.) Eddie was only slightly more subservient yet slightly more subtle than the raspy, ebullient Rochester, enough so that he landed Duffy’s Tavern a Peabody Award for how it treated such a black character in an era when black characters were either invisible or subordinate on the non-black air.

EDDIE: ‘Ay, Mister Archie?
ARCHIE: Aw, don’t disturb me now, Eddie.
EDDIE: But this is important! The roof is leakin’ again!
ARCHIE: Howdya know?
EDDIE: A customer just finished the same bowl of soup three times.
ARCHIE: Well? So what? Is the guy complainin’?
EDDIE: Naturally! He didn’t mind the first time, when it was tomato soup, or the second time, when it was consummate. But now they ain’t nothin’ in that bowl but water.
ARCHIE: Well, if ’e squawks again, tellim it’s a finger bowl.
ARCHIE: Yeah, Eddie, I been doin’ a lotta thinkin’ lately. I been taking inventory of meself.
EDDIE: Uuhhh, how much you short?

And then there was Charlie Cantor’s Clifton Finnegan; the character’s name was alleged to be a dig at Information, Please host Clifton Fadiman (radio historian Gerald Nachman noted Gardner’s alleged feud with Fadiman at the time), and whose personality anticipated Frank Fontaine’s off-center Crazy Guggenheim. (Come to think of it, Jackie Gleason—on whose Saturday night screamfest Fontaine as Guggenheim became a favourite, in the Joe the Bartender sketches—probably owed more than a little to Duffy’s doings and undoings.) Soft hearted and soft minded, sharing with Archieda Manageh a malaproper talent for mixing metaphors light years ahead of that for mixing Manhattans. But Finnegan’s genius for trying things and being places beyond sense and redefining nonsense was absolutely singular.

ARCHIE: Whaddya doing with them two candles stuck in yours ears?
FINNEGAN: Ehh? I’m sorry, Arch, I can’t hear ya. I got two candles stuck in my ears.
ARCHIE: Well, takem out.
ARCHIE: Takem out.
FINNEGAN: I’m sorry, Arch. I can’t hear ya. I got two candles stuck in my—
ARCHIE: Well, read my lips.
FINNEGAN: OK. Go ahead.
ARCHIE: Take-dose-two-candles-outa-your-ears.
FINNEGAN: I’m sorry, Arch, I just remembered—I can’t read.
ARCHIE (removing the candles himself): How come you had two candles stuck in your ears?
FINNEGAN: Well, I wuz standin’ waist deep in water. Where else could I puttem?

Gardner had a fine array of partners; his co-writers included Burrows, future Laugh-In co-conspirator Dick Martin, and a high school kid whose father was Gardner’s barber; the kid was future M*A*S*H writer/producer Larry Gelbart.

If you’ve read sufficient classic radio histories, you’ve been hammered with the geneaology that aligns Duffy’s Tavern to at least two subsequent television comedies, both of which aligned around neighbourhood taverns. Those among either establishment’s proprietors, staffers, or paying (we presume) customers who could have cut the ten-year-old mustard in Archieda Manageh’s arterial were one blind visionary punch-line drunkard (Mr. Van Renssalaer, of Archie Bunker’s Place), one cultured but uptight psychiatrist (Frasier Crane; small wonder he high-tailed it home to Seattle and twelve years on radio to recover from ten years’ bellying up to the bar at Cheers), and one short Italian waitress (Carla Tortelli, also from Cheers) whose tongue could have sliced Miss Duffy’s and anyone else’s baloney in one swipe, but whose hands and heart would have reassembled it just as swiftly, even if she didn’t squeak Brooklynese but drawled Chowdspeak.

They would have survived wheddya leet meet ta eat because in Duffy’s Tavern dreamers-—forever unrequited, forever unremarked, equal in their separate private hells of false hope—-were allowed to laugh at themselves in hand with each other, landing softly, deflated more gently than the occasional building inspector fell through the floor to get his first glimpse of the hole in the roof.

Where Duffy's demimonde didn’t survive was on television. Three years after Duffy’s Tavern closed on radio, Gardner and company tried bringing it to television, shooting at the vintage Hal Roach studios. Staff writers not named Gardner despaired of convincing Archieda Manageh that he needed to do more on camera than sit behind or astride the bar waiting for his jokes. Leave us face it. The nice, sweet mugs in broadcasting's original Archie's place were probably left best where the grime shone best, anyway.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"I Forgot to Mention That the Band Was Here"

A collector of classic radio inevitably trips upon a generous helping of classic music. Classic radio after all opened its microphones to live performances of music of various brows: high, middle, low, Kay Kyser. If you can dismiss the frequency of worn or scratched or badly modulated sides among the recordings that survived the pre-tape era, you can fatten yourself into a terrific music sub-library to accompany what you already own of some of the men and women who made the music.

Duke Ellington, for one example. You'll take the maestro where you can get him, whether by way of a grainy half-hour recorded during a Cotton Club performance for Fitch is On the Air in 1937, a crisply taped performance from Union College's annual Gridiron Ball in Schenectady, New York, and a 1952 date at Chicago's Blue Note.

The Fitch show has the smokiness of the Cotton Club's once-heralded jungle ambience and a highlight in a rather early, churning version of "Caravan" that seems to tease with promises of future pleasures that it's just too soon to reveal without blowing the whole thing. It also features performances from Ivie Anderson, the singer against whom all future Ellington ladies were judged in front of the mike, a lady whose melodic and rhythmic grip turned even a throwaway novelty such as "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" into a credible item. And it has one of the earlier times in which Ellington at the piano drummed out a solo introduction to "Rockin' in Rhythm" that eventually became the regulation "Kinda Dukish," a minute-long resume of Ellington's personal early piano influences from rag to stride through the blues and back.

The second show (NBC, 6 November 1948), with a later Ellington organisation, has highlights from an early live turn by Cat Anderson, Ellington's legendary high-note specialist in the trumpet section, and a vocal turn by the bluesy baritone, Al Hibbler, with the band being pretty much the one that performed the last of Ellington's four 1940s Carnegie Hall winter concerts. But the Blue Note show (also NBC, 6 August 1952), however, does what the earlier ones didn't: it allowed Ellington himself to make the introductions in his usual half-puckish, half-earnest manner, and allowed the Ellington organisation concurrently to have their more adventurous head.

"We start tonight with our high-note trumpet king, Cat Anderson. Now, for this time, he comes down into the medium, middle, and melodic register, to play 'The Eighth Veil'," he winked---and Anderson lived up to the billing, blowing broad notes over a roller rhythm and gusty horn washes. "In the opening statement," Ellington teased, when the number was finished, "I forgot to mention that the band was here."

A pause. "'How High The Moon,' of course, has a lot to do with the band's galloping about the Blue Note, but right now, uh, the piano player will go in and attempt to steal the show." So said the piano player and he almost does it, tapping machine-gun runs before the band shouts its way in and bridges its way to freshly-minted tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and what sounds like a trumpet duel between, presumably, youngblood Clark Terry and veteran Ray Nance, before reedmen Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope pick up their clarinets for a little chase, before the finale in which Anderson returns to his customary habitat through the ceiling of the register).

Then Ellington announces another leadoff by the piano player, sliding neatly into a take of his venerable "Solitude" that accelerates its usual ballad tempo a few degrees into a kind of strolling swinger, with buttery horns, to set up a quivery vocal by Jimmy Griffin. Hamilton and bassist Wendell Marshall followed in a feature duet, about which says Ellington, "In spite of their great difference apart as far as register and technique are concerned, they've managed to establish a wonderful, beautiful amount of unity, in a duet titled 'Duet'." Hamilton opens atop woolly horn support with a feathery clarinet, playing a chorus or three that surely suggested Ellington was already right in emphasising his clarinet over his saxophone (and Hamilton was an excellent saxophonist), before the ensemble ebbed in favour of Hamilton and Marshall's finish, Marshall taking slow steps and quick skips beneath Hamilton's spidery closing flight.

Scat specialist Betty Roche stepped up after "Duet" to deliver a take on the remade "Take the A Train" that highlighted Ellington's Uptown album---a written lyric verse, an improvised line or three, and a cheerful scat, with only Ellington, Marshall, and drummer Louis Bellson for support, and they kept it to that, rather than extending to the slow-grind telegraphing the quadruple-time finale of the album cut.

Maybe they were itching to get to "Caravan." This one far more crisp and sensual than its early incarnation, from the slow boil of the percussion to co-composing valve trombonist Juan Tizol playing the theme with six parts sinuous leer and half a dozen parts longing, from Hamilton arriving with a little more wood in the clarinet, Nance forsakes his horn for his dry violin, and Tizol reprising over the returning ensemble like a stranded gypsy in search of the lost soul.

They finish with Ellington introducing Nance and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, with the latter introduced as playing "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" and the former "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Carney's bold interpretation of "Song," with a velvet response from a saxophone-clarinet tandem (presumably, Gonsalves and Hamilton), feeds cleanly into "Anymore" and its sensitive vocal turn from Griffin, from which the Ellingtonians slide into something you can't discern properly.

That's because the network announcer wraps up the broadcast at precisely that moment. Were it not for the availability of one or two other such Blue Note broadcasts, you'd feel properly enough as though your own Ellington theme should be "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

Monday, August 14, 2006


LES PAUL: Hello, hello everyone, this is Les Paul speaking, and with me I have mawife Mary—


PAUL: —and my git-tar. Uhhh . . . for the benefit of any new listeners who may have just tuned in, I’d like to mention that this program comes from our home, and that I have a room here just loaded with electronic gadgets—amplifiers, echo chambers, transformers, six L-6s—

FORD: Let me tell ‘em, Les, you’re a genius.

PAUL: Aw, don’t say that—

FORD: Oh, yes, you are—

PAUL: You’re embarrassing me—a

FORD: Anyone who can take one guitar and make it sound like six is a genius.

PAUL: Any guy can do the same thing.

---From The Les Paul Show, 11 July 1950, NBC.

Never mind whether the couple was scripted or winging it, and the chances were pretty good that it was half and half.

FORD: Oh, no one else can even play like you, much less make it sound like six people.

PAUL: Well, I—all I like to do is get on the floor with a screwdriver and some tools and tinker around.

FORD: Aww, but you’re really a genius.

PAUL: No, I’m just a big tinker.

FORD: O-K, you’re just a big tinker.

PAUL: Oh. (Pause.) I shoulda quit when I was ahead.

Any guy could do the same thing assuming a) he could play a guitar in the first place (for the uninitiated: L-6s refers to the Gibson guitar Paul played and modified in 1950), and b) he paid close enough attention after Les Paul showed any guy that you could make yourself a guitarchestra in the first place, never mind how to do it in the first place.

In broadcast terms, Les Paul and Mary Ford are probably remembered better for seven years’ worth of television’s Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home than one or two year’s worth of The Les Paul Show. A little prowling reveals the radio show ran two years with much of the second (1950) snaking around in mp3 files (and an episode or three included on the Capitol Records boxset anthology, The Legend and the Legacy). A little listening reveals a lot of gently off-the-wall fun and a passel of music that was futuristic at the time, remains intriguing even today, and often sounds years beyond its time still.

On the show transcribed above, it went from that homey little exchange to a Paulist take of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Paul had created a system known puckishly as the Les Paulverizer, a recording machine that essentially multiplied what it was fed, enabling Paul to dub himself on the spot if he chose to do so, within reason. “Sweet Georgia Brown” got a multitracking treatment not dissimilar to the treatment through which his earlier version of “Lover” became a futuristic hit record, complete with recording acceleration pressing a pre-cut guitar harmony into a speed-of-light arpeggio flying counterpoint above the chorus, before a deceleration that had the feel of a roller coaster nudging the brakes gently rather than slamming them down from the final drop.

PAUL: Mary, I got a hunch that if I could take one guitar and make it sound like six guitars, I can make your voice—my wife—sound like six people.

FORD: That sounds like my husband—he eats like six people.

PAUL: But I’m your husband.

FORD: Which reminds me—if you don’t get a screwdriver and put that plug back in the electric stove . . . well, no cookin’.

PAUL: Oh, you don’t mean that all I’ve go—

FORD: I can’t give you anything but love.

PAUL: Well, that’s our cue for the next song.

From which point Paul would flip on the Paulverizer and turn Ford—--who bore an unsophisticated but pleasant voice, and could hold her own with any pop singer of the time--—into a harmony group. Here her take of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was calmly affecting in front of her husband’s sympatico guitars. (The couple divorced in 1963; the wedge, apparently, was her wish to back away from work and his need to keep working.)

Paul in the 1940s had a tandem reputation as a clever country picker (he did morningtime country broadcasts as Red Hot Red early in the 1940s) and a fluid, bluesy jazz improvisor (he was brought in, last minute, to the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, in 1944, and swapped solos nothin’-to-it-folks with the like of Illinois Jacquet) even before Bing Crosby put him on the air (supporting Crosby’s own show) and on shellac (that was Paul’s distinctive chord-and-run backing Der Bingle’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” among others). His Les Paul Trio recordings of the era (recently remastered/reissued) stood up to any other guitarist’s, including Charlie Christian’s.

Remove his technological toying and all you would have left is a remarkable musician anyway. You can’t dismiss him as merely Mr. Wizard. Not even his most transdimensional experiments obscured Les Paul’s swing, whether he sent himself into outer space or fifty fathoms beneath the waves—and his treatments often put him into both places at once. “Little Rock Getaway,” whether the version he cut as a Capitol single (with one alternate guitar line treated to resemble a staccato harpsichord) or the version he produced for the 26 May 1950 Les Paul Show (without the staccato-harpsichord treatment), only begins to illustrate the point.

Paul and Ford on the radio presented warmly; if their humour today seems somewhere between cornpone quaint and off-guard stiff, there’s still a humanness to it even when it resembled a kind of obligato in return for getting to deliver their futuristic music their way once a week on the air. (And, if Paul wanted to make a case for "Nola" as one of his favourite songs---he led off the audition show and two regulation installments with the song. Good thing his rendition is so charming, though if I were going to choose a threepeater I'd have gone for his ripsnorting version of "The Carioca.")

Separate the songs from the banter and create a terrific Les Paul and Mary Ford album (you can treat the material into which they made hits as worthy alternate takes); leave it all alone and have a pair (or trio, whenever percussionist Eddie Stapleton joined up) of guitarchestra-packing, warmhearted houseguests whose only lack is better comedy writers.

PAUL: Hi, folks.

SFX: (workshop sounds--tapping, hammering, etc.)

PAUL: Mary, would you hand me that pipe wrench?

SFX: (ringing clank)

FORD: Here.

PAUL: Uh, that's my wife, Mary.

FORD: Thanks.

PAUL: All right, stand back. I'm gonna turn it on.

SFX: (small whooshing gas jet)

FORD: That letter from the gas company sure started something . . . (SFX: continuing small hissing gas jet) . . . Of all the guitar players in the world, I had to pick someone who isn't satisfied with an electric guitar. He has to build the first gas guitar.

SFX: (continuing small hissing gas jet)

PAUL: Say, would you hand me the screwdriver?

FORD: Here's a screwdriver

PAUL: Uh---oil rag?

FORD: Oil rag.

PAUL: Monkey wrench?

FORD: Monkey wrench.

PAUL: Match?

FORD: Death certificate.

The regular writers must have had the night off.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Equal Time

I’ve been handed a letter postmarked from the cloud of E.B. White. Actually, it was an odd little dream from a few days ago. He demanded equal time after I gave James Thurber all that free publicity.

Well, Mr. White is lucky. I have in my library his 1942 book, One Man’s Meat. OK, I have the 1983 reprint. A mere technicality.

I don’t know why Mr. White was so indignant about equal time with Mr. Thurber when taken in context. For Mr. Thurber my context was his six rules of humour. Mr. White doesn’t have any rules of humour, at least nowhere in the pages of One Man’s Meat.

But he does have a questionnaire of a sort. At least, he got one from the draft board in 1942. And he was surprised at first that writing wasn’t considered a profession or an occupation. Not like scarfers, riggers, glass blowers, architects, historians, or metallurgists. And Mr. White thought that’s the way it should have been, proving the draft board was more perceptive than you might have thought.

Writing is not an occupation nor is it a profession. Bad writing can be, and often is, an occupation; but I agree with the government that writing in the pure sense and in noblest form is neither an occupation nor a profession. It is more of an affliction, or just punishment. It is something that raises up on you, as a welt.

You can get plenty of proof that the government was right. All you have to do is read what the government writes. Don’t try writing what they can read. You’ll end up with the world’s largest blank journal.

A paragraph or three later Mr. White got nailed when he saw his second profession listed. He happened to be half a writer and half a gentleman farmer. The draft board offered farmer: dairy, and farmer: other, as choices. And since he wasn’t going to have a cow until the following year, he thought it was something in this life to be farmer: other.

Now, Mr. White imagined the draft board wasn’t in the mood to meet a man who dared to be a farmer and a writer at once.

It doesn’t have a clean-cut sound. It is Jekyll and Hyde stuff, lacks an honest ring. In war it is better to be a clean-cut man: a hammersmith plain, a riveter simple, a born upholsterer, an inveterate loftsman, a single-hearted multipurpose machine operator. To be farmer and writer suggests a fickleness of character out of key with the war effort. To produce, in a single week, seventy dozen table eggs and a twenty-six-hundred-word article sounds confused, immature, and smacks of divided loyalty.

I still can’t tell if he beat the draft.

A little further on, Mr. White wrote that under “Job For Which You Are Best Fitted” he wrote “Editor and writer” and, under “Job For Which You Are Next Best Fitted,” he wrote “Poultryman and farmer.” And this is the last time I give equal time with one dead New Yorker writer to another dead New Yorker writer, because it isn’t E.B. White who’s laying the eggs in this space.

As matter of fact, four months after he laid his eggs with the draft board, E.B. White had a cow. To prepare for it, he wrote, “My first move was to purchase fifteen sheep and a case of dynamite. The sheep, I figured, would improve my pasture, and the dynamite would keep me out of mischief in the meantime.”

E.B. White’s way of staying out of mischief in 1942 would have gotten him arrested for terrorist activity in 2006. You explain to some official who’s seen one too many terrorist training films that you needed that couple of gross of dynamite to blast open a properly founded seed bed for your cow-to-be’s grazing grass.

Well, as I wasn’t going to say, One Man’s Meat is another cannibal’s entrée.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A News Editor

On television, the longtime anchor of Douglas Edwards with the News (the predecessor of The CBS Evening News) resembled an overworked businessman taking a break to read the newspaper for the second half of his half-hour dinner break. On radio, the almost-eternal anchor of The World Tonight sounded exactly the way he didn’t on camera: a solid, no-nonsense, and reliable news editor.

Until he retired in 1988, you had an easy time thinking Douglas Edwards was born somewhere inside a CBS facility. By retirement time he seemed as much a ghost as a working journalist, but perhaps that was just the memory of his television years at play. He was pleasant looking and lacked the ominous dramatic voice, and he wasn’t exactly of the Murrow school as a phrasemaker; it didn’t necessarily sound as though the fate of the free world hung in the balance of what he did or didn’t say about it.

Edwards did have a rather full schedule even if you didn’t factor Douglas Edwards with the News. He hosted television’s Masquerade Party from 1952-58 and Armstrong Circle Theater from 1957-61; he even kicked off the daily radio soap Wendy Warren and the News by reading a couple of minutes of news before handing off to the title heroine.

But at least when Douglas Edwards with the News signed off every night, you weren’t tempted to make fun of him signing off. You saved that for John Cameron Swayze and his signoff after hopscotching around the world (well, a map) for Camel News Caravan headlines: “That’s the story, folks—glad we could get together.” Eba-dee, eba-dee, eba-dee, eba-that’s all, folks!

You can read no few histories of CBS News and conclude that Edwards had all the urgency of a bowl of bland oatmeal. Particularly when those rapscallions Huntley and Brinkley finally bumped themselves right past Edwards. A jack-of-all-trades who seemed to squeeze in the news can withstand only so long the onslaught of full-time Serious News in a package of wit, Beethoven’s ninth, and good night David, good night Chet kisses.

Radio was Edwards’s seat and meat. (He even landed a Peabody Award to prove it, thanks to his impeccable spot report from a small plane overflying the sinking Andrea Doria.) He sounded precisely as he really was, a solid reporter turned news editor knowing just which weight to apply to which stories, and knowing equally when to get the hell out of their way and let them speak for themselves.

Edwards was sober and magnificent at 9 a.m. Eastern War Time, 6 June 1944, signing on for CBS World News and striding right into “the last-minute details” of D-Day’s launch in northern France.

Allied air reconnaissance fliers have returned to the scene of a battle which began on the northern French coastline early this morning to report that several beachheads have now been established. Allied forces are splashing their way inland from these beachheads, according to reconnaissance photos. At the same time, Allied parachute troops dropped behind the enemy lines last month are disrupting enemy defence systems and waiting to join forces with the troops pouring ashore on the beaches.

Prime Minister [Winston] Churchill told [the House of] Commons that more than four thousand ships, together with many thousand smaller craft, are transporting the invasion force across the channel. Churchill declared that the invasion is proceeding, and we quote, according to a plan---and what a plan.

At Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, it’s reported that German destroyers and U-boats are rushing into the operational area off the northern coast of France, and no doubt are being dealt with by the Allies. Incidentally, the initials of these headquarters are SHAEF. And you’re going to get mighty familiar with them.

An Allied military commentator at SHAEF declared this morning that H hour for the invasion ranged from six to eight a.m. European time. Another report from that same source revealed that American battleships are supporting the Allied landing, with United States Coast Guard units also participating in the operation.

The British bombing command send more than thirteen hundred of its heaviest bombers roaring across the channel last night, and this morning, for a saturation attack on the invasion area.

And now, here are some last-minute bulletins: Allied troops have landed on the channel islands of Guernsey and Jersey, according to a German broadcast. The same enemy source says Allied tanks have landed midway between Cherbourg and Lahava, but that the greatest concentrations of landing craft have been observed off the two ports themselves. Earlier enemy broadcasts said Cannes was the focal point of the entire attack, and that the drive inland is aimed at the city of Paris.

And, just a few moments ago, this news came from Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces: Casualties among Allied airborne troops on France have been light. We’ll repeat that, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces: Casualties among Allied airborne troops on France have been light.

Edwards then quoted Franklin Roosevelt’s comment, four hours before German radio announcements of the invasion, that the fall of Rome to the Allies “came at an opportune time” for D-Day’s launch, followed by a brief prayer from the president for the success of the troops making the invasion. After which Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, hit the air to speak to western European people about what was about to begin, with Edwards quoting Eisenhower’s announcement and warning against “preliminary uprisings” before the orders for “great battles ahead” could be given.

From there, Edwards recapped dispatches from pool correspondents Richard C. Hottelet (from London; a remarkable item from that moment between preparation and launch, and from his flight aboard “a British marauder” as it joined the early rounds of the invasion), Herbert N. Clark (via a Combined American Networks pool, on how the Nazis were likely outguessed as to where the invasion might begin: “The master race has fallen down again”), James Willard (also via CAN, on the thousands of Allied aircraft working the night before “softening up” the invasion coast), Wright Bryan (reporting “scattered, small-arms fire from the field” greeting one early flight of Allied paratroops, as well as an Eisenhower visit to their camp the day before), and Stanley Richardson (an eyewitness, shipboard account of naval action opening the paths to the landings: “It was all too incredibly easy”).

After reviewing the bristling overnight newsroom activity (CBS’s Ned Calmer airing an Associated Press dispatch on a German announcement of the invasion’s beginning, though emphasising it was an unconfirmed enemy statement), Edwards made room enough for a quiet reminder that, D-Day though it was, there was still business at hand on the flip side of the planet. A young girl in London told CBS’s Charles Shaw (“he practically was town crier for the city . . . which was largely unaware in the early morning that the invasion had begun”), “Thank God.” Japanese radio in a German language broadcast beamed to Europe expected the landers would be “quickly annihilated by the courageous German army.” Australian radio gave invasion news “the right of way . . . but there’s not much external excitement.”

Here in our own country, reaction from coast to coast was similar. People kept on working overnight shifts in shipyards and other factories, and went to work as usual this morning. But everyone seems to be more serious, and many stopped in their tasks long enough to offer prayer for the success of the Allied effort.

Perhaps most dramatic of all was the ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The ancient bell was struck six times, as Philadelphia’s mayor Bernard Samuels read the famous inscription, ‘Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.’

And what of reaction in the heart of the Axis?

Well, German propagandists asserted today that, despite the invasion of Western Europe, life continued normal in Berlin, no excitement, no additions, no special radio announcement. But a part of these assertions, obviously, were rather false. From the time of the first landings, a constant stream of broadcasts came from the German transmitters, many of them carrying more than an indication that Hitler’s defences along the western coast had been caught napping.

Edwards was no less flappable eight months later, anchoring CBS World News Today around a series of reports from Corregidor, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Europe. MacArthur struck toward Manila, Nimitz eyed Tokyo and Yokohama, Montgomery eyed the knockout blow in central Europe, and the First Ukrainian Army had two German cities under its shells.

Then came the handoffs, to Charles Collingwood from Paris (the U.S. Third Army and the First Canadian Army’s remarkable, arduous push to the Siegfried Line), Bill Downs in Belgium (with the U.S. First Army, halted in heavy rain, quoting a coffee-sipping GI, “What are those guys out in the Philippines going to think of us, if this keeps up?” and observing, “Simply standing in a chow line is almost becoming an amphibious operation”—before reporting German replenishment aimed at an anticipated major battle west of Cologne), Eric Sevareid (following a commercial for Admiral refrigerators; in London, from Parliament, where members were likely to ask after the protocols for an unconditional German surrender and dismantling of the Nazi military and political-economic administration), and Tim Lenhert (from Pearl Harbour, monitoring Pacific dispatches, interviewing an Army Air Force B-29 radio operator on missions over Tokyo and Iwo Jima: “They have learned that our firepower is quite effective, and more than a match for theirs”).

It’s probably unfair to compare a latter-day The World Tonight with a serving of the 1940s or 1950s. The elder Douglas Edwards didn’t have Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hotlette, Bill Downs, and the others to hand off. But he still had his surety. Fox News likes to say of itself, “We report. You decide.” Rest assured that those who passed that suggestion had to have heard Edwards on the radio at least once.

If anyone deserves to have the last laugh, Edwards is he. He had to be dragged to television something just short of kicking and screaming, fearing television was destined to be a dead end. He was right only in regard to the high profile of his television life (he spent years doing a five-minute midday television news update).

But it’s also something of a shame that Edwards went to his reward sixteen years ago. As of 4 November, the evidence of his radio rightness will include Edwards’s induction into the Radio Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bacon and Beans Revisited

That was then: We hold the distinction of being the first nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile. We been so busy in the last few years getting radios and bathtubs and facial creams and straight eights that we forgot to see if we had any bacon or beans.---Will Rogers, 1931.

This is now, if you believe about half of what you read or hear: We hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse in two cars. Some of those cars have television sets in them, yet. And half of those cars still manage to attract attention from those always ready to tell us what business we don't have driving them. That is, when they aren't telling us what right we don't have driving them.

Either we're depressing the local economy by helping to block new mass transit routes and jobs; or, we're making the world further unsafe for plant and animal life no one's ever heard of and fewer would miss if and when extinct. It's still a tossup.

And if you still believe about half of what you read or hear, we also hold the distinction, now, of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse on a choice of fifteen or twenty airlines two-thirds of which didn't exist fifteen or twenty years ago. Not to mention with the Internet at home or on portable computers that not four decades earlier lots of people thought would be, if they came at all, evidence of some new plot---Communist, capitalist, My Favourite Martian. A plot to destroy what was left of nobody really knew precisely what, of course. But it was going to be destroyed, by jingo, if the computer was allowed anywhere beyond five feet off the property line at the cheeseball sci-fi B-film studio.

As for the bacon or beans, forget it. We've been told for so many years that they're going to kill us with cancer that forgetting them means nothing. Besides, whatever we're not eating on our way to the poorhouse today, there'll be someone ready at all times to tell us we have no business eating it, anyway. That is, when they aren't telling us we have no right to eat it.

He Designated the Chairman

If you're my age, you grew up in or around New York City, and the radio was one of your parents' frequent companions, William B. Williams was your daily houseguest.

If you forgave him his wary view of rock and roll, Williams was the one easy listening radio host you could handle in the age of the Beatles. You might even tell yourself it was okay if Mother and Dad had control of the car radio while he was on.

For one thing, he didn't seem to mind playing the Beatles once in awhile. For another thing, he didn't seem to care who thought it was too much to play Frank Sinatra at least once an hour and maybe more. And, for a third thing, he was the smoothest sound aboard the late WNEW-AM in that time and place. Five minutes in The Make-Believe Ballroom was worth five hours anyplace else when it came to taking a break from rock and the blues.

Williams could make you tolerate the sappiest music on earth if it happened to be him playing it next. Patti Page asking how much was that doggie in the window sounded one hell of a lot less insulting upon human intelligence when William B. introduced and backsold it than when anyone else did.

And when he introduced something with meat---say, Count Basie's "April in Paris," or Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train," or Benny Goodman's "Jersey Bounce," or Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started"---he did it with a delivery so pleasant you could practically see him nodding you toward that rather charming and lonely young lady by the rolling bar who'd rather be dancing with you than kissing a glass of wine.

Martin Block merely invented both the disc jockey and The Make-Believe Ballroom, a few years after he got the clever idea of playing records during breaks in coverage of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Once Williams was handed the show after Art Ford was dismissed in 1958, he turned it into a necessity. Especially for Frank Sinatra.

When Mitch Miller wasn't jamming barking dogs down Sinatra's ailing throat, Sinatra's voice itself was cracking toward delayed maturity, and Williams was insisting that Sinatra transcended fad and phenomenon. And, since Benny Goodman was the King of Swing, and Messrs. Ellington and Basie had their own regal titles, such a Sinatra required a title in his own right.

And, Williams gave him one. To the day Williams left the air there was no such thing as a show without at least one and at most three or four playings of the Chairman of the Board. Say what you will about Frank Sinatra but loyalty was in his eternal top five. If Williams wanted to name him the Chairman of the Board, you'd better not let Sinatra hear you call Williams a mere disc jockey. Never mind that William B. didn't mind.

Call it opposites attracting. Sinatra, subtle as a trainwreck, and Williams, about as boisterous as a midnight breeze across a ballroom balcony. "On the air at WNEW, he would sometimes stand behind the microphone with his hands in his pockets," the critic David Hinckley has written, "leading some regular listeners to say they could hear him jingling coins in his pocket as he spoke."

My parents would have him on in the afternoon when I was growing up, and at the drop of "April in Paris" I could picture a mellow fellow in an alpaca sweater with a pipe in one hand and the other waving as if conducting the Count and his men.

This was a man who got fired from WNEW in the 1940s for being, allegedly, too aggressive as a union shop steward, but got himself re-hired in 1953, after station-hopping that is said to have included a comedy show on WOR. "Hello, world!" was his breezy sign-on, and if you could lose count of the kernels of corn bouncing off those three syllables as the years went by you'd have wondered what was wrong if he'd ever surrendered it.

They gave him a gala for his 40th anniversary on the air and Frank Sinatra re-arranged his schedule to host it. Two years later, leukemia compounded by colon cancer silenced him on this island earth forever. Sinatra couldn't rearrange his schedule to be at his funeral, but about seven hundred others were there---including Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Woody Herman, Arthur Prysock, and Duke Ellington's sister. But the Chairman sent a letter along to be read. It mentioned Williams's inability to say no to a benefit. Far as the Chairman was concerned, he was the most charitable man he ever knew.

Five years after William B. went to his reward WNEW went into Bloomberg Radio's possession and signed off the air forever, in favour of WBBR, which is all business and don't mean a thing because it ain't got that swing.

They've just elected William B. to the Radio Hall of Fame, with Douglas Edwards (once a signature of CBS News, from his reporting days on the World War II edition of The World Today to his longtime anchoring of CBS Radio's The World Tonight), Christopher Glenn (Edwards' successor on The World Tonight before taking the morning CBS World News Roundup), and Scott Shannon (give him the blame for the morning zoo style).

There'll be two things missing at the 4 November induction ceremony. One is Williams, and two is Sinatra. It would have been worth every record Williams ever introduced on the air, every syllable of patter from smooth to sugary, if both men had been granted to this island earth long enough that the Chairman of the Board could have inducted the chairman of The Make Believe Ballroom.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Traffic Report

ANNOUNCER: If this is overnight, the roads are empty. Except the usual ambulance chasing tow trucks, getaway cars, and highway patrolmen in search of the lost donut.

If this is morning rush, the roads are heavy. There isn’t even any room for the bikers to ride between lanes smiling smugly over what suckers you are in your cars and trucks.

If this is midday, there have been five accidents due to lunch in the car. There have been two accidents due to cell phone text messaging during the tie-ups for four other accidents. And, there’s been one case of road rage. An angry motorist finally decided enough was enough. He dynamited the car pool lane.

If this is afternoon-evening rush, please refer to the morning rush. Substitute two accidents due to dinner for five due to lunch. Substitute four accidents due to phone sex for two due to text messaging. And, there’s been one case of road rage. This one involves an angry pedestrian. He Uzied the taxi that splashed him with the leftover gutter water from last week’s thunderstorms.

Now, a word from our sponsor.

SPONSOR: Obnubilation.

ANNOUNCER: That was a word from our sponsor. Or, a weather update.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Word From Our Sponsor


"I Figured I'd Better Shut Up While I Was Ahead"

A quarter century after school let out forever for Our Miss Brooks, Eve Arden was introduced to new filmgoers playing that with whom her most famous alter ego usually butted heads---a high school principal (in the Grease films) just as clueless but only half as incendiary as pompous Osgood Conklin.

A KNUS (Denver) radio host and eventual classic radio encyclopedist, John Dunning, hooked up with Arden as the veteran actress/comedienne planned a house party combining castmates from Our Miss Brooks and her later television exercise, The Mothers-in-Law. She acknowledged fans still tended to tie her earlier film roles to Connie Brooks; they likely identified the more familiar image of Arden as the wisecracking best friend to the put-upon heroine. But in the same patient movement she dispelled the tie, as gently firm as Connie might dispel Conklin’s bombast or bashful biology teacher Philip Boynton’s indifference.

"I did a lot of pictures that were off the beaten path," Arden said. "I did Dough Girls, in which I played a Russian, I played Night and Day and played a French actress in that . . . Dark at the Top of the Stairs. A lot of things that were quite far." She also played Peerless Pauline in At the Circus, having the honour of telling Groucho Marx's J. Cheever Loophole, "I've waited so long to find someone like you," to which she had the honour of Groucho's Loophole retorting, "Oh, someone like me---I'm not good enough for you, eh?"

So, Dunning asked, just whence hailed Miss Brooks? "I think Miss Brooks was closer to being an extension of me than anything," Arden replied. "I can't explain that too well, except that when I grew up I knew a lot of teachers, they were friends of my aunts, and I think that had a lot to with what Miss Brooks became." They must have been transcendent of time, place, and remuneration; Shirley Booth had the first crack at auditioning for Our Miss Brooks and flunked---as producer Harry Ackerman noted, she couldn't see past the era's underpaid teacher to find and have fun with the character.

Dunning steered Arden toward David Shipman's book, The Great Movie Stars, a chapter of which was devoted to Arden, whom Shipman credited with saving many a film; her first appearance on the screen, Shipman had written, “always caused an appreciative buzz" sincet she "could do more with a glance, suggesting surprise, disapproval, distaste, all at the same time," as Dunning transcribed Shipman's assessment.

That proved news to Arden, who couldn't bring herself to see her own film work until much later in her life. "I had a great complex because I had an extremely beautiful mother who had been in the theater for just a short time," she replied, "and I grew up thinking I was some kind of monster, because people would say, 'Isn't it too bad she doesn't look like her mother?' So I had a rather bad feeling about myself, and I couldn't stand to go and sit at rushes, or go to premieres, you know. Only when the studio forced me did I go to one."

Arden was never unattractive. Bob Hope sang "I Can't Get Started" to her in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (the song eventually became ill-fated jazz virtuoso Bunny Berigan’s calling card); she looked like she might have been itching to get to the Rainbow Room because you were finally going to work up your nerve to ask her to dance. Two decades later, as a TV Guide solo cover (she’d also done a cover with Gale Gordon, who played Conklin on radio and television), Arden resembled Lucille Ball’s more commonsensible but no less anxious sister. (A nice irony, that: Lucy herself turned down Our Miss Brooks to stay with My Favourite Husband--—but she recommended Arden for the part.) And, somewhere between Follies ’36 and TV Guide, there lurked sets of Arden among the movie star paper dolls in many a young girl’s collection.

What a difference several decades made. "I'm beginning to see these pictures, occasionally on The Late, Late Show," Arden crooned. A half wry, half shy chuckle. "And, of course, now it's quite pleasant. I think, 'Well, that gal isn't that bad at all. She looks rather lovely'."

At the time she spoke to Dunning, Arden was struggling to finish her eventual memoir (The Three Phases of Eve) while working on theater tour with her husband, Brooks West. (They married while both debuted on series television, he in My Friend Irma--—also birthed in radio--—and she on Our Miss Brooks.) "Every place we played, people brought me little cassettes of the radio show," she said. "And of course I adored doing the radio show." Between recordings of the radio version and the film copies she kept of the television version ("That wasn't really work; we actually did Miss Brooks for TV in two and a half days"), her four children got to know their mother's signature role after she had departed it.

For all that she kept the show close to her heart, Arden needed time enough before she became comfortable with Our Miss Brooks as her eternal signature. Dunning at the outset asked about it, and Arden didn’t flinch, considering she had left the comely, witty teacher behind when Grease and Grease 2 fans were barely alive.

"Well, I'll tell you," she said, staccato chuckle punctuating the cadence. "I originally loved the theater. I still do. And I had always wanted to have a hit on Broadway that was created by me. You know, kind of like Judy Holliday and Born Yesterday. And I griped about it a little. And someone said to me, 'Do you realise that, if you had a hit on Broadway, probably a hundred or two hundred thousand people might have seen you in it, if you'd stayed in it long enough. And this way, you've been in Miss Brooks, everybody loves you, and you've been seen by millions.’ So, I figured I'd better shut up while I was ahead."

Revealed at last. Connie Brooks’s real prize pupil.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Suds, Stage, and Myrt and Marge

I think that I shall never see a soap opera overview lovely as James Thurber's. Alas, it had to wait just long enough for Thurber to reveal Ezra Adams, the Iowa husband who smashed the family radio the better to silence one of his wife's such daily afternoon requirements. It cost him a ten dollar fine and a date in divorce court. "I have no way of knowing," Thurber mused, "how many similarly oppressed husbands may have clapped him on the back or sent him greetings and cigars, but I do know that his gesture was as futile as it was colourful."

Imagine the man in the higher times of the television soaps. His need would have begun with orthopedic surgery; the television set would have fallen under nothing less than a sledgehammer. And his date in divorce court would have been punctuated by restraining orders. I write with some authority on the subject. My first marriage was to a wife who considered spousal abuse to be any day on which I dared forget to set her daily soap opera dosage for videocassette recording.

"He had taken a puny sock at a tormentor of great strength, a deeply rooted American institution of towering proportions," wrote Thurber of poor Mr. Adams. Somewhere in the twentieth century, deep rooting came to need a mere twenty years. That was the time between the opening of what became Amos 'n' Andy to what became The New Yorker's publication of Thurber's five-part "Soapland." Amos 'n' Andy? Well, yes. It qualified as a soap opera in all ways but two. It ran in prime time, as we've become more deeply rooted in calling it since. And it was a comedy.

Few think of soap operas as comedic, necessarily, unless there's a decent parody on the loose. We haven't had one of those since Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran away with the police officer. We didn’t have one before, not full length, anyway. (There was, of course, Bob and Ray's murderous skit, "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife.") But you can credit or blame Amos 'n' Andy for making the soap operas possible in the first place, as Thurber observed once he got underway in earnest: "It was a comedy program, of course, and the [soap] pioneers didn't want that; it had created, in George (Kingfish) Stevens, a character worthy of a place in the fabulous line of rascals that extends from Sam Slick to Donald Duck, and the pioneers didn't want anything as difficult and wonderful as that; but [Amos 'n' Andy] proved that Americans like a continued story on the air, fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, and the pioneers did want that."

It also proved that they liked funny continued stories on the air, fifteen minutes a day, up to five days a week, and some beside the hard soap pioneers wanted that, too. Gertrude Berg wanted it both ways; she made it difficult to know whether her creation, The Goldbergs, was a comedy or a soap opera. (It was both.) Paul Rhymer, the absurdist virtuoso who created and wrote Vic and Sade, wanted and got funny stories on the air; he made it difficult to know whether his creation was really a serial. (It wasn’t, exactly.) In between both (The Goldbergs in 1928; Vic and Sade in 1932), Goodman Ace was asked to put funny stories on the air three times a week at least; Easy Aces was his answer, in 1930, becoming the second purely comedic serial and truly serial comedy on radio.

And then there was Lum and Abner, who were so tranquil they made Vic and Sade resemble The Bickersons. They were a kind of stretch serial in that a story might take three months to tell. Like Just Plain Bill’s barbershop, Lum and Abner’s Jot ‘Em Down Store was an establishment in which a customer almost never sauntered in. This allowed the pair time enough to wobble in and out of one after another hairbrained scheme (usually at the mercy of a hustler named Squire Skimp), in motion slow enough that you imagined they treated the horse and buggy like a traffic-busting big city taxicab.

Thurber sat down to write "Soapland's" five movements after spending a year listening to and observing the phenomenon. In a sense he had a simpler assignment than if he'd set about it a decade earlier. Several of the original long-life radio serials had collapsed during World War II, including nearly all the comic ones; several of those had committed suicide by graduating themselves from gentle fifteen-minute exercises that let the humour unfurl calmly to weekly half-hour exercises that brought in the audience, forced themselves to belly up the laughs, and usually lasted a year or less worth of grad school.

Since 1940, Thurber noted, "[m]ore than a score" of the older soaps had become history. And building an accurate record was a challenge.

It waited fifteen years for serious researchers, and it has had few competent critics. Almost none of the serial writers has saved his scripts. If the more than four thousand scripts (eight million words) of Just Plain Bill, the oldest serial now on the air, had been saved, they would fill twenty trunks, and the entire wordage of soap opera to date, roughtly two hundred seventy-five million words, would fill a good-sized library.

Thurber included "Soapland" in The Beast in Me and Other Animals: A New Collection of Pieces and Drawings About Human Beings and Less Alarming Creatures (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948). "This country," he wrote of “Soapland” in the book's foreword, "is so vast and complicated that the lone explorer could not possibly hope to do it full justice." Not even if he has audiences with some of the radio soaps' primary co-conspirators, if you will. All of a sudden I began to think my former wife wasn't so mad. (And her addiction didn't include a Joyce Jordan who took about eight years to finish her girl internship.)

Thurber’s rumination on the minds of the city fathers of Ivorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg, and Crisco Corners (as he called some of the soap towns and, in fact, the second movement of his suite) deserves more attention from me than the plenty he paid Frank and Anne Hummert, the General Motors of Soapland, and their Cadillac writer, Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews, once a Chicago Daily News reporter and soon enough the single most voluminous and prolific soap scripter of the breed. (“For a long period, he kept seven radio shows going, and he rarely had fewer than five, most of them soap operas . . . He averaged well over a hundred thousand words a week for years, and his sprint record was thirty-two thousand in twenty hours . . . He kept at [Just Plain] Bill until October 1942. This was his last radio stint. He has written, alone or in collaboration, forty-five movies in the last twelve years . . . [He] answered a brief telegraphic query of mine some weeks ago with a letter, no doubt written between teatime and the cocktail hour, that ran to eight thousand words. In it, he advanced an astonishing explanation for giving up the writing of radio script. “I just got tired,” he said. Why, Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews!”)

Blame it on Myrt and Marge. An acquaintance on a favourite online forum sent me a small pile of radio show files that turned out to include about fifty surviving episodes. Thurber had mentioned Myrt and Marge in the same breath as Vic and Sade for “differ[ing] from most serials in that it was basically humourous.” But I had also noticed that none of my other books addressing classic radio refer to the show in any great comic or satiric context; Gerald Nachman’s Raised on Radio doesn’t mention the show at all, not even in a full chapter about the soaps, though it does mention Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, which inspired Bob and Ray’s routine but was no satire of its own. So I downloaded the entire pile of Myrt and Marge from my unexpected cache and decided to listen for myself.

The show was born in 1931, the creation of a former chorus girl named Myrtle Vail, who had happened into Chicago with husband and children and, according to a few sources, was hit with a brainstorm while unwrapping a piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint. The only thing I’ve ever been hit with while unwrapping a piece of gum is relief from bad breath. But Ms. Vail noticed Wrigley sponsored no radio show, so she reached to her chorus girl past and dreamed up a behind-Broadway serial, casting herself as Myrtle Spear and her real-life daughter, Donna Damerel Fick, as her younger protege Marge Minter. You can take the surnames and put one plus one together without my help.

The oldest known surviving episode dates 2 November 1931, the show’s original premiere. There’s little enough in it to suggest the humour to which Thurber alluded, except maybe the genteel plays on Florenz Ziegfeld’s splashdowns. There’s nothing much funny about a mousy sixteen-year-old aspirant named Margie Minter close to collapsing from starvation as she introduces herself to Myrtle Spear in the next-to-last rehearsal before opening night. But there’s something droll enough in the (ahem) Hayfield Pleasures, led by Francis Hayfield, for whom the reasonably seasoned Myrt and the reasonably green Marge perform as part of the Hayfield precision chorus, the Chic Chicks. And it is to laugh hearing the house organist playing the show’s chosen theme, “Poor Butterfly,” in funereally soapy tone, especially if you’re familiar with Billy May’s breathless, swelling 1968 chart behind Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington.

A second surviving episode probably survived because a CBS outlet in Washington, WJSV, decided to record their entire broadcast day come 21 September 1939. The world behaved momentously enough that day as it was: Reinhard (Hangman) Heydrich went to Berlin to discuss “the final solution to the Jewish question,” while a pro-Nazi contingent of Romania’s Iron Guard assasinated premier Armand Calinescu. Preserving the full broadcast day couldn’t possibly have been prompted by Margie Minter’s seedy foster brother Jimmy paying her a visit, the ladies beginning a new show, Myrt hoping it pushed failed suitor Lee Kirby out of Marge’s mind, and Marge wary over a new prospective suitor named Bellarton White. By now, too, Myrt and Marge also did the opening commercial spots for Super Suds (superceding Wrigley's as their sponsor), which claimed “floods of suds for dishes and duds,” presumably not including the dud that slogan was.

It is from a period between April Fool’s Day 1946 and early-to-mid June of the same year that we find the bulk of surviving Myrt and Marge episodes, including a remade/remodeled version of the original debut, and with Helen Mack as Marge. (Donna Damerel Fick died in childbirth in 1941; sixty actresses auditioned in due course for the part Mack won.) As radio soaps go these are decently written and played. There seems to be a sense that neither of the title characters’ portrayers take it all too seriously; they wisecrack just enough through the requisite soap ingredients of love, betrayal, and a little semi-organised crime, considering Marge’s kidnapping and rescue and Myrt’s efforts to keep it hushed up before April ended. But they would have sounded grotesque playing for laughs a plot line involving Myrt’s would-be beau, Ray Hunt, saddled with a shrewish wife faking disability to keep him, before he turned up dead and Myrt turned up among the suspects.

Myrt and Marge isn’t exactly the kind of character humour you find in such absurdist masterworks as the urbane Easy Aces, the genteel Vic and Sade, or the later, quietly cheery Ethel and Albert. For yielding a certain taste of Broadway’s bustle before, between, and after the show, without the deconstruction of its Walter Winchells, the show forged a soft niche. (Indeed, Myrt’s periodic despair of quelling gossips in company and in print was a semi-recurring sub-theme.)

But early in Myrt and Marge’s life, its popularity secured reasonably, Vail and Damerel Fick took their characters to a 1933 Universal film, also named Myrt and Marge, directed and co-written by Al Boasberg. “After studying their respective talents for more than an hour,” wrote New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall in January 1934, “one is apt to conclude that they are peculiarly suited to radio entertaining.” The three reasons this otherwise disposable film survives were cast as helpers to their original leader, Ted Healy. Their names were Moe, Larry, and Curly. They survived, too.