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, September 18, 2006

Honest, Harold

Thinking of performers who walked off hit or threshold-of-hit television shows within their first couple of years isn’t as hard as thinking of why we bothered making some of them hit or threshold-of-hit shows in the first place.

It’s even easier to remember if you thought they were fools to do it, no matter what you thought of the shows. But maybe you didn’t blame half of them. As for the other half, maybe you thought they were about to get what was coming to them. Maybe you thought they were going to prove Jane Ace right. Well, forget taking the bitter with the better. Some of these folks had to take the bitter with the basement.

And a couple of them became punch lines at least the equal of the ones they once delivered. Thirty years after he walked away, thinking he’d punched a ticket to bigger and better after season one, Saturday Night Live’s original, pratfalling Mr. Weekend Update still has millions thanking God that he’s Chevy Chase and they’re not.

McLean Stevenson was sadder. First, after he went AWOL from M*A*S*H, they killed his character over the Sea of Japan on his way home, so he couldn’t even think of coming back. Then, he suffered four series bombs before any one of them lasted a year and a half. Finally, he had to hear a nationally-televised, half-kidding wisecrack from Gene Rayburn about what a series killer he was—right to his face, sitting on a Match Game guest panel. And a year later Match Game itself was dead, as if to prove it.

If you want to nominate theirs and others’ patron saint, one and all, maybe you’d like to consider The Great Gildersleeve himself. Harold Peary, radio’s first great spinoff star. He’d moved from a happy life bedeviling next-door neighbour Fibber McGee to an even happier life balancing between the ladies and raising his orphaned niece and nephew. The man with the booming voice and half-leering, half-sheepish laugh became almost as much of a radio institution as the show that birthed him in the first place.

Asking for and being denied an ownership stake in the show (in 1945) by sponsor Kraft Foods was one thing. By 1950, Peary’s agent, MCA, convinced him he was indispensable enough to keep the show from surviving without him. He probably paid close attention, too, when another MCA client was wooed away from NBC by CBS, after CBS offered better capital-gains terms that allowed him (and the other NBC stars he talked into moving with him) to keep more of his money in the high-tax postwar years. A client by the name of Jack Benny.

Thus did Peary and CBS reach out to each other; thus did Peary sign up, believing The Great Gildersleeve would follow its indispensable star. Kraft, however, shared at least one belief with NBC: the belief that nobody was replaceable and the property (or the network), not the performer, was the thing. And Peary learned the hard way just how replaceable he really was. Kraft merely brought aboard his old buddy Willard Waterman—who sounded exactly like Peary, who’d once before replaced Peary (in the earlier Tom Mix, Ralston Sheriff, during their Chicago days), and who even looked as though he were a blood relation to Peary.


Peary and CBS had to dream up something quick enough. Somewhere (Peary has received credit for helping conceive it) they came up with The Harold Peary Show. It situated Peary as small-town bachelor and radio host Harold Hemp, who had a calm but stubborn integrity and a knack for getting himself into and out of trouble because of it, especially with the obsequiously officious nephew of the radio station’s owner.

Harold Hemp hosted Honest Harold, the Homemaker and simply refused to plug any product he thought lived down to its ballyhoo. He didn’t mind fencing with nephew Peabody over it. Not even after he fielded listener complaints about a prominent shampoo that co-sponsored his show, tested them himself and found them valid, and announced he wouldn’t mention them on the air again.

SFX (telephone buzzing).
GLORIA: Good morning, station KHJP . . . what’s that, madame? After listening to Honest Harold, you’re pouring your Grandma Louellen’s Liquid Shampoo down the drain? . . . I-I’ll tell him . . . No, I don’t think it’ll hurt the drain . . . (laughter) . . . Thanks for draining—I mean, for calling.
SFX: (telephone buzzing).
GLORIA*: Hello, station KH—oh, hello, Rosemary. Little ol’ Gloria was just about to call you . . . Did you hear Honest Harold’s program this morning? . . . Well, he just went off the air. And between you and me, it’s liable to be for the last time . . . Boss Carruthers called his nephew, Mr. Peabody, and Mr. Peabody is going to call Harold, and—ooph. Here comes Harold out of the studio. I’ll call you back.
SFX: (approaching footsteps).
HAROLD: We-ellll, good morning, Glori. Did you hear my program this morning?
GLORIA: Yes I did, Mr. Hemp. Mr. Peabody heard it, too. He was eating his breakfast at the time.
HAROLD: Ohhhhh?
GLORIA: He choked on his yogurt.
HAROLD: He did, eh? Oh, my goodness—well, you know my policy, Gloria: I test all my products before I—(softly) hmmm, by the way, did you test that new product for me over the weekend?
GLORIA: Oh, yes. I spent the entire weekend sunbathing.
HAROLD: Good. How did that freckle cream work out?
GLORIA: Oh, just wonderful. I got a whole new crop of freckles.
HAROLD (a slight sliding chuckle in his voice): Gloria, you’re a fi-ine guinea pig!
GLORIA: Thank you, kind sir.
HAROLD: Well, see you tomorrow, same time, same station.
SFX: (departing footsteps begin).
GLORIA: I hope so.
HAROLD (away slightly): What?
GLORIA: Mr. Peabody wants to see you in his office right away.
HAROLD: Is he in there now?
GLORIA: I’m afraid so. I can hear him tapping his fingers.
HAROLD: I know what you mean. Well, that’s radio. Give and take. Only so far I haven’t found many who’ll take what I have to give . . . (laughter) . . . Eeeh-well, hold the phone and keep your lines crossed.
GLORIA: Don’t I always? Good luck.
HAROLD: Yeah, thanks.
SFX (footsteps—Harold walks the hall to Peabody’s office).
HAROLD (walking): Yes, she’s a nice kid . . . Eh-heh . . . (softly, to himself) . . . here goes nothing . . . maybe I was a little hasty canceling that shampoo account right on the air like that . . . I don’t know, though, my listeners objected to the stuff. Besides, I tried it yesterday and took all the wave right out of my hair . . . No sir, I did the right thing. And I’m gonna walk right in and tell Mr. Peabody to—(clears his throat)—(speaks quietly again) well, maybe I’d better peek through the keyhole first . . . but if big shot Stanley Peabody so much as raises his voice to me, I’ll—
SFX: (door opening, Harold stumbling).
HAROLD: Wwwwwoooh-hoooo . . . thank you for opening the door.
PEABODY: Well, drop in.
HAROLD: I almost did.
PEABODY: I’m glad you’re in such a jovial mood. It may help you digest what I’ve been discussing with my uncle, Mr. Carruthers. Sit down. Sit down.
HAROLD: Thank you. New furniture, eh? Niiiiice.
PEABODY: Yes. Look about you. This fine radio station. Thousands upon thousands of dollars were spent erecting these handsome studios.
HAROLD (to himself): Cheap cement.
PEABODY: The finest electrical engineers designed our transmitters. Mr. Carruthers even hired me at great expense to run the organization.
HAROLD (to himself): Rrrrelative.
PEABODY: And, you--you come along and nullify it all!
HAROLD (astonished): Nullify? Now hold on, Peabody.
PEABODY: You’re the one that had better try to hold on—to your job. You’re on probation.
HAROLD: Probation?
PEABODY: Yes! (Pause.) You’ve gone about as far as you can making the decisions around here. It’s got to stop. Stop! Do you year?
HAROLD: The only way I could hear it any better, chum, is if you were sitting in my lap.
PEABODY: This idea of canceling an advertiser without consulting the management of this station has got—to—stop!
HAROLD: I’m sorry, Stanley, but I must uphold my principles.
PEABODY: Your principles?! What about this radio station—what’s going to hold us up?
HAROLD: Not this cheap cement, brother.
PEABODY: You’ve done a lot of unconventional things in your time, but what possible justification did you have to cancel that shampoo account?
HAROLD: Well, my listeners complained about it.
PEABODY: And just what great fault did your listeners find with the shampoo?
HAROLD (beginning sheepishly): Well—as one little woman put it, there’s too much sham and not enough poo.
PEABODY: But if the product’s no good, why did you accept it in the first place?
HAROLD (sheepish again): Welllll—
PEABODY: We wouldn’t have accepted it . . . (tone as if talking to a misbehaving child) Honest Harold, you’ve made Mr. Carruthers very angry. You’ve made me very angry, too. You ruined my breakfast this morning.
HAROLD: I’m sorry you choked on your yogurt.
PEABODY (back to normal indignation): Please! Now, listen to me—Harold Hemp, if you must crusade, why don’t you go after something worthwhile? Such as lowering taxes?
HAROLD (sarcastic): Are taxes too high?
PEABODY: Or try to do something to better Melrose Springs.
PEABODY: I’ll give you an example—Mrs. Carruthers, my aunt, who you know is the political leader of the women of this town, is planning to run me for mayor. Now why don’t you convince your listeners that I should be their next mayor?
HAROLD: I thought you wanted me to do something to better Melrose Springs?

Small-town radio can be, and often is, at least as full of ego and fancy as big city radio. Small-town radio has just as many full-of-themselves operators. Small-town radio is still just as capable of making a damned fool out of itself as big city radio. Even if you may never know of a big city radio station sanctioning the deli around the corner trying to pass off the world’s longest end-to-end row of footlong hero sandwiches as the world’s longest single sandwich, in a bid to prove the home town should have placed higher than three hundred on a magazine list of the three hundred best places to live.

The show should have been a very effective satire of such small-town/small-city radio hubris. It was effective enough in its modest array and gently witty writing. If only they could have convinced Peary to leave Gildersleeve behind. It might have built more than a year's worth of indifferent audience. That sliding, leeringly sheepish laugh, that stentorian singsong speaking style, even the cantankerous insulting elder (known now as Doc Yak-Yak**, as opposed to Judge Hooker), just didn’t belong anymore. Honest, Harold.

*--Played by Gloria Holiday, who was also Harold Peary's real-life wife.

**--Played by Joseph Kearns, a veteran radio actor and later familiar on television as Dennis the Menace's Mr. Wilson.


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