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.

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.


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