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

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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year's Radio Eve


Think what you will otherwise about the progress, regress, or buttress of the war. For me, the first thought when the news arrived was a line attributed to Clarence Darrow: I have never wished a man dead, but I have read a great many obituaries with a great deal of pleasure.

But surely it was not the perverse pleasure by which Saddam Hussein read his victims' obituaries over long and grotesque years. Only formally was he executed for one massacre (150 at Dujail). Extraterrestrially, he was executed for thousands whose crimes when all was said and too much done were demurring from his manner of policy and prosecution.

You can prowl the cyberspace arterials and find terrestrial celebrations scaling from sober to extravagant, from shuddering to exuberant, and pray only that the exuberance respects a) a line between Darrovian pleasure and blood dancing, and b) the memory of those whose inconvenience Saddam liquidated.

And you can return to earth reminded that there are those among us who actually find some kind of moral equivalence between the butcher and his executioners. Assume the following might have been brought to formal justice, to any percentage, then ask whether there could be moral equivalence between their executioners and Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Amin. No respondent of even elementary decency should be stuck for an answer.


You need not imprison yourself with television's usual bill of unfare this New Year's Eve. You need not even imprison yourself in the clink for the night, should you run afoul of the sobriety checkpoints. All you have to do, on my invitation, is round up your party, stay inside, break out the booze, and crank up the computer speakers to turn them into the old Philco for a few rounds of auld lang syne as they once did it on the air.

You need not even do it for any reason other than the sake of just plain good entertainment. Remember: If you seek nostalgia, move along, nothing (much) to see here. If you seek art (I leave it to you whether it is highbrow or Lowenbrau---forgive me, I'm a St. Pauli Girl man myself, in terms of an occasional beer), you have arrived at the right party.

The Jell-O Program with Jack Benny, "Goodbye 1938, Hello 1939"---The title is Mary Livingstone's warbling, satirical poem, the conclusion of which seems to please Jack.

Elsewhere and otherwise: Don Wilson couldn't dance at the Coconut Grove New Year's Eve because his wife left her shoes at the cinema. Jack "had a fairly good time" taking Mary to the Wilshire Bowl to hear Phil on New Year's Eve. "I was so far away from the bandstand I couldn't even see the circle under your eyes," Jack groused to Phil the day after. Mary embarrasses Jack with the truth about the pole behind which he thought they sat.

JACK: This being the New Year I was gonna give you all a raise in salary, but the way you've been acting I'm not gonna do it.
PHIL: I'd be satisfied just to get my regular salary on time.

It goes from there, with the usual (and singular) Benny aplomb.

(Original broadcast: NBC, 1 January 1939. Writers: Ed Beloin, Bill Morrow, Sam Perrin, Arthur Phillips, Howard Snyder, Hugh Wedlock, Jr. Music: Phil Harris and His Orchestra, Kenny Baker. Sponsor: General Foods.)

Fibber McGee and Molly, "Fibber Finds a Gold Watch"---And, advertises for its owner. It’s tempting to think that this was one time finders-keepers should have applied, all things considered. Almost.

(Original broadcast: NBC, 31 December 1940. Stars: Jim & Marian Jordan. Co-stars: Harold Peary, Bill Thompson. Writer: Don Quinn. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Sponsor: Johnson’s Wax.)

The Great Gildersleeve, "New Year's Eve"---The day before New Year's the big man lets his niece and nephew talk him into ice skating. It puts a little bit of a chill in his New Year's Eve plans. Only a little, as Hooker ropes him into a mock trial putting 1944 itself into the dock.

(Original broadcast: NBC, 31 December 1944. Star: Harold Peary. Co-stars: Walter Tetley, Lurene Tuttle. Additional cast: Richard LeGrand, Lillian Randolph, Earle Ross. Sponsor: Kraft Cheese Company.)

Lux Radio Theater, "Bride By Mistake"---A clever radio compression of the 1944 film remake (of 1934's The Richest Girl in the World) that gives the Cyrano story a feminine and economic twist: a rich shipyard owner (Laraine Day, recreating her film role) who has a married friend double for her at outside functions, until she fears a captain she has fallen in love with will propose to her friend for the millions instead of to her for herself.

(Original broadcast: CBS, 1 January 1944. Co-stars: Marsha Hunt, John Hodiak. Writers: Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Sponsor: Lever Brothers.)

Lux Radio Theater, "Pride of the Marines"---A second smart Lux compression, this one of the 1945 film that took more than a few liberties in telling the story of USMC Sgt. Al Schmid (John Garfield, re-creating his film role), blinded in battle during the Guadalcanal campaign, rehabilitating himself back home with the help of the wife who married him despite his attempts to break their engagement because his blindness, he believed, left him less a man.

(Original broadcast: CBS, 31 December 1945. Co-stars: Dane Clark, Eleanor Parker. Sponsor: Lever Brothers.)

■ Various Artists, The New Year’s Eve Radio Dance Party, 1945-46---By remote hookup American servicemen still stationed around the world as 1945 ended got to hear a rotation of some of the biggest names in jazz and popular music, live from their various New Year’s Eve hotel/ballroom engagements: Harry James (the broadcast’s leadoff hitter, with an exuberant "Sad Sack"), Count Basie (a ripping "One O’Clock Jump"), Louis Armstrong (an exuberant "Ac-cen-tu-ate The Positive"), Jimmy Dorsey (a breakneck "I Got Rhythm"), Artie Shaw with guest trumpeter Roy Eldridge (a shivery "Little Jazz"), Stan Kenton (a rousing "Tampico," featuring his near-signature vocalist June Christy), Benny Goodman (a snappy "Gotta Be This or That"), and Duke Ellington ("Let The Zoomers Zoom," an Ellington rarity---I don't think a studio recording by Ellington and his men was ever released, if they cut it at all, though I could be wrong) were merely the highlights of the show. (Ellington fans will perk up immediately when Cat Anderson, Ellington's high-note specialist, boots it home in his usual style.) Guy Lombardo ending it with (what else?) "Auld Lang Syne" was merely its punctuation.

(Sole broadcast: Armed Forces Radio Network, 31 December 1945. Other performers: Les Brown and his Band of Renown, Carmen Cavallaro and his Orchestra, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd, Henry King and his Orchestra, Gene Krupa and his Orchestra, Freddy Martin and his Orchestra, and Louis Prima and his Orchrstra. Note: You'll have to prowl around to find it, since my edition of ccPublisher seems to have had a personality crisis and three attempts to rip and reinstall a fresh version produced no results, leaving me unable to upload the show to Internet Archive. Sorry.)

The Fred Allen Show, "New Year's Eve Plans"---You could play this and dedicate it to those who made their plans in advance, whatever their plans may be. And you can have your own fun with the denizens of Allen's Alley musing on the most important scientific advances of recent years, before Fred receives a telegram confirming his New Year's Eve reservation at a swank Eighth Avenue night club, the Carnival.

As president of the Jack Eiken Fan Club, Fred decided the Carnival beat the living daylights out of Hamburger Heaven, the choice of last year's president. The confirmation was the easy part. Getting the reservation in the first place might have been, too, if not for bumping into club headliner George Jessel the previous Thursday.

(Original broadcast: NBC, 14 December 1947. Additional cast: Portland Hoffa, Kenny Delmar, Peter Donald, Parker Fennelly, Minerva Pious. Guest star: George Jessel. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the DeMarco Sisters. Sponsor: Blue Bonnet Margarine, Tender Leaf Tea. This is the final surviving Fred Allen Show sponsored by Blue Bonnet and Tender Leaf; the Ford Motor Company would sponsor the show for its final two seasons.)

Quiet, Please, Rain on New Year’s Eve---In which a Hollywood screenplay writer---working overtime on a horror film, having enough trouble imagining what runs through the soul of a monster whose power lives for just the final hour of the year, as a cold rain falls outside---gets an auld lang he didn't syne: his director wants him to remake the script and feature two monsters for the price of one.

I don't know about you, but in that situation, on that night, I'd need more than just a champagne toast, and well before midnight, too . . . I'd need a few drinks . . . )

Who says it has to be all bells and resolutions on New Year's Eve? And if you're going to diversify for even one half hour, you may as well diversify with a sample of maybe the best-written, best-presented psychological drama in radio history, not to mention a sample of the show you could easily consider the father of The Twilight Zone.

(Original Broadcast: Mutual, 29 December 1947. Narrator: Ernest Chappell. Writer: Wyllis Cooper. Music: Albert Berman. Sponsor: Sustaining.)

Matinee with Bob & Ray, "New Year's Eve Day"---You may want to think about playing this one first, if you plan to line up a small passel of New Year's Eve/New Year's Day-tied classic radio, since the show was an afternoon offering in Boston at the time. It's a treat for fans of the duo's usual low-keyed, slow-rapier satire, especially listening to the duo recap some of their choice high, low, middle, and off-the-chart lights of the year about to end. And it only begins with clumsiness in trying to spell "juxtaposition"

(Original Broadcast: WHDH, 31 December 1949.)

The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, "Phil Takes Singing Lessons" (a.k.a. "The Concert Stage")---A fan letter saying his voice is the only thing wrong with his radio show plants the idea. That’ll teach him---the writer, that is.

(Original Broadcast: NBC, 1 January 1950. Co-stars: Elliott Lewis, Jeanine Roos, Ann Whitfield, Walter Tetley, Robert North. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat. Music: Walter Sharp conducting the Phil Harris Orchestra. Sponsor: Rexall.)

The Big Show, , New Year's Eve edition of 1950-51---The highlights: Madame Tallulah's customary bitchcraft banter, this time with Margaret O'Brien (picking up where they left off on the previous week's Christmas Eve proceedings, for all intent and purpose) and Gloria Swanson; Sam Levine in a smartly-compressed scene from Guys and Dolls, in which he was then starring on Broadway; Jose Ferrer and Swanson in a torrid scene from the revival of 1931's Ben Hecht show Twentieth Century; and, a rousing show-ending medley of the year's signature Broadway song hits.

(Original broadcast: NBC, 31 December 1950. Remaining cast: Vivian Blaine, Ken Murray. Music: Meredith ["Yes, sir, Miss Bankhead!"] Willson and the Big Show Orchestra and Chorus. Writers: Goodman Ace, George Foster, Mort Greene, Frank Wilson. Sponsors: RCA Victor, Anacin, Chesterfield.)

Friday, December 29, 2006

Gerald Ford, RIP: A Certain Decency

The mourning is for a pretenseless man asked to perform the impossible, managing in the long run to satisfy us that we’d settled for the reasonable while he performed it, and bearing one or two discomfiting variations.

But we bear in mind that defining “reasonable” has been arduous business in his and our times alike. In office he was damned for failing to perform the impossible; in retirement he was revered for performing the reasonable, all things considered, and then walking quietly off into the thirty-year sunset of a life content in modesty.

We can do an awful lot worse than Gerald Ford has done for an epitaph, and there are those who try to make his an awful lot worse. The Pardon still seems the defining hour of his presidency-by-default if you reference the obituarists’ keyboards when the news broke upon his death the day after Christmas.

It was an hour about which Mr. Ford himself wrote in a tone that makes a fair reader picture him spiritually exhausted until the moment in which he actually made the decision. If definitions of courage include ardent soul struggle that instructs you to obstruct a lynch mob obedience to whom would send your approval ratings through the ionosphere, Gerald Ford’s image will appear next to the text.

Subsequent hours under Mr. Ford's aegis straddled between inspiration and infuriation with a gait as uneasy as his own seemed to be, at times, when you saw stroll the White House greenery. In one hour he could and did instruct one of history's most grotesque murder parties that a failure of will in Vietnam was not to be mistaken for a failure of strength when they seized an American freight ship under no military flag. Not even the randiest comedian performing the most deft of pratfalls at the expense of Mr. Ford's alleged, later-life physical dissemblage, could have denied that in that hour he was a man of impeccable coordination in the most imperative faculties.

But in another hour Mr. Ford could and did expose himself as a kind of rhetorical if not spiritual klutz. He could and did instruct the Communist homeland that nothing should stand between the United States and the Soviet Union in pursuit of the disingenuous arms pact, not even a Nobel laureate whom Mr. Ford turned from the White House door on the specious (and not exactly true) grounds that he was following his Soviet expulsion with an American tour whose primary purpose was commerce.

[Aleksandr I.] Solzhenitsyn became a nuisance to Gerald Ford when AFL-CIO president George Meany invited Solzhenitsyn to Washington to give a speech in which he reiterated his low opinion of detente, as the United States practises it. He believes this policy reduces the United States to craven, degrading reticence about slave labour, concentration camps, and other problems of human rights in the Soviet Union.

. . . [M]ere truthfulness does not redeem politically inconvenient speech, and Solzhenitsyn carries free speech to inconvenient conclusions.

. . . Press secretary Ron Nessen, keeper of the presidential image, explained that Ford could not see Solzhenitsyn because of a "crowded schedule." Nessen added: "For image reasons the President does like to have some substance in his meetings. It is not clear what he would gain by a meeting with Solzhenitsyn."

---George F. Will, "Snubbing Solzhenitsyn," The Washington Post, 11 July 1975; republished in The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Sobering Thoughts (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

Solzhenitsyn, if one has not read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or The First Circle, or [The] Gulag [Archipelago], is like Shakespeare if one has not read King Lear or Hamlet: a mere evocation. I earnestly hope and pray that Gerald Ford has never read a work by Solzhenitsyn. If it were confided to me that he had done so, and even so refused to greet Solzhenitsyn in the White House and count that moment his most intimate contact with the divine circuitry of the human spirit, he should ever after be despised as a philistine . . .

If added strength were needed to communicate [Solzhenitsyn's] message, Ford has given it. The only good Russian is the lockstep Communist. On this Ford and Brezhnev are agreed. We call it detente.

---William F. Buckley, Jr., "On Refusing to Greet Solzhenitsyn," National Review, 12 July 1975; republished in A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts. (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.)

Some commentators review Mr. Ford's lack of adventurism, but the lack wasn't necessarily terrible until accosted circumstantially. It was not his fault a few unnerving economic indicators poked their noses out of their holes just days before he might have earned a term in office in his own right. But people rubbed their eyes and ears for weeks beyond Election Day after he suggested the satellite for whose capital the Warsaw Pact was named was not then dominated by Moscow. "[L]ost in the labyrinth of peculiar thinking and rhetoric that went with detente," is how Mr. Will described it retrospectively.

To what extent it was lost may be debatable, if you ponder the American Enterprise Institute's Steven F. Hayward at National Review Online. The suggestion, he writes, "arose from a clumsy attempt to preserve the latitude of the Helsinki Accords that were widely reviled on the right, but which in the fullness of time served their intended purpose of undermining the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and emboldening anti-Communist dissidents. Amidst the enervating fog of detente at the time, this was impossible to foresee, even if Ford had phrased his argument more deftly. In hindsight we can now appreciate that Ford served us very well."

In one sense can Mr. Ford's clumsiness, be traced to a certain decency about which Robert Novak wrote quietly enough: "He was the only President in my experience who entered the Oval Office wanting to shrink rather than expand powers of the office. In a conversation with him as Vice President, Ford recommended to me The Twilight of the Presidency by George Reedy---an indictment of monarchial pretensions. Ford told me all recent presidents, including his hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, were guilty."

His concern for shrinking rather than expanding the powers of his office tied to no known concern for shrinking rather than expanding the powers of the State. "He did not understand the prairie fire signaled by the California tax revolt, and did not see it roaring east," writes former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. "He did not fully understand how offended the American public was by endless government spending and expanding federal power. He did not see the growing estrangement between Republicans on the ground and a leadership they saw as tax collectors for the welfare state."

He had shown what he didn’t see in an arduous 1976 primary at the end of which Mr. Reagan had nearly overthrown him for the Republican presidential pennant. "He remains a long way," observed Murray Kempton, in a Harper's convention analysis and postmortem (November 1976 issue), "from ceasing to remind us of Kafka’s image of the candidate about whom it was no longer possible to tell whether he was outlining his program or crying for help."

But it is Mr. Kempton’s subsequent observation that we might review even more acutely. "We may have been brought, by the distortions worked by the urge to be great upon the characters of so many who came before him, to an exhaustion where we can hardly conceive of believing again in a President we dare think of ourselves as needing; if Mr. Ford survives, it will be because he is so patently a President who needs us."

As a sitting President Mr. Ford did not survive beyond the coming general election. His successor would epitomise effrontery as Mr. Ford epitomised discretion, long enough after their combine produced what even an ironist as gifted as Murray Kempton couldn't see on the threshold of the one handing off to the other, a President we dared to think of ourselves as needing.

What Mr. Ford could and did see was at least one explosive on the nation’s floor. Peggy Noonan wrote merely through an eye as sober as she called Mr. Ford’s mind when she remembered that "at that terrible time, after Watergate, he picked up the pieces and then threw himself on the grenade."

Time has been kind enough to name Mr. Ford a kind of hero, perhaps knowing the fraternity’s majority is men of sobriety enough to make him look transcendent of his pretenseless plainness. It’s a look Mr. Ford might dismiss through a shaft of smoke from his straight pipe, and a smile flashed only by a man whose soul search left him more at home in his own skin than was his country in its own the moment he ended the search with a bellyflop upon the Watergate grenade.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"Anything You Can Do To Help Me Earn an Honest Living . . ."

Those among us whose classic radio libraries include The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show must have been surprised and charmed to discover additional treats with about half the episodes available from the show's final season: the tapes were rolling, apparently, from the moment announcer Bill Forman introduced Phil Harris to warm up the show's studio audience for about ten minutes prior to the actual transcription performance.

Written in part, presumably, by longtime show writers Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat (the team left the show during 1953-54, succeeded by a group headed by Ed James), the Harris warmup varied only in tiny places throughout the season. Given that, it's reasonable to wonder (I have yet to see formal documentation) whether there was a rule (either the show's or NBC's) that you could get tickets to only one show performance a season.

The warmup---Forman's standard introduction suggests Harris only became the audience warmup during that final season---wasn't exactly aimed at transcending comedy. But it was a pleasant routine in which you could hear Harris (ordinarily a soft-spoken, comparatively modest man, according to radio historian Gerald S. Nachman) rounding himself into his on-air persona.

Based on the surviving show recordings, and following the cast (Harris, Faye, Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield, Walter Tetley, and Elliott Lewis) introducing announcer Forman, here is the Phil Harris audience warmup, beginning with Forman's introduction.

BILL FORMAN: First of all, I'd like to welcome you good people here on behalf of our sponsor. We are one of the few remaining radio shows that's lucky enough to have a sponsor. So, if you enjoy yourselves during the next half hour, you can do us all a big favour, if you would, and that is, sometime this week, stop by your neighbourhood RCA Victor dealer and pick up a 27-inch television set, or a record changer---something! Because we'd like to be working up here next year at this time.

I don't know whether you know it or not, but this year, in every place but Los Angeles, we are now heard following Bob Hope on Friday nights. And, of course, as you know, this year Phil is on his own, so what do you say we all get together and give a real warm welcome to the man who discovered the South---Phil Harris! Let's hear it---

MUSIC: (over applause; extract from "Rose Room," the secondary theme of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show)

PHIL HARRIS: Good afternoon, everybody. I can't tell ya how much it means to me to have me come out here, after all these years, all by myself, and you're all applauding and got those smiles on your faces, you're glad to see me, and I just want to tell you I love you for it because I need it.

I was with Jack Benny for sixteen years, and there ain't no money connected with that job. All he does on Saturday is take you into a dark room, give you one fast chorus of "Love in Bloom," and you've had it, dad. So anything you can do to help me earn an honest living, I'm ready.

I got off to a bad start because they told me when I married Alice that she had money, but I'll be damned if I can find it. I've looked everywhere. They told me her brother might have it, I lived with him for two weeks---nothin', ain't got nothin'.

I'm awfully happy that you're here this afternoon, but I do wantcha to laugh, if you will---for God's sake, laugh, because I've seen myself in television and, uhhh . . . uhhh . . .

And I'm happy to see all you fellas here in uniform. And I want you to know that anytime we got guys from the service here, we're very happy, because we're partial to 'em. They're a great audience, and they have a lot of fun, especially you guys in the sailor suits, because I've got to go with you. Because I was in the Navy during the last war myself. And I'm with you, Mac. I fought the Battle of Catalina . . . you're laughin', but we lost eight lobster traps over there.

They had a very unique way of selecting their enlisted men when I went into the Navy---according to what they'd done in private life. I thought it was very cute. For instance, I went in with a couple of buddies of mine. One of them was a street cleaner and they put him on a minesweeper. Another guy was a construction guy, he tore down buildings and everything, he took 'em off, and they put him on a destroyer. How I ever wound up on a ferry boat . . .(laughter drowns out the finish) . . . Now, that's the way you're supposed to laugh! Now we're rollin'.

Hey, did you hear the story about the guy who walked up to the barber shop, a guy walked up to the barber shop and said, 'How many ahead of me?' The barber says, 'two.' The guy went out and never came back. So the guy came in the next day, said, 'How many ahead of me?' Barber says, 'three,' the guy walked out.

So now the barber's goin' nuts. You know, them guys stand around on their feet all day, them scissors clinkin' . . . so the guy's gettin' a little irritated. He goes over to the bootblack and says, 'Every day a guy comes in, wants to know how many ahead, I tell him, he goes out, he don't come back.' He says, 'If he does it tomorrow, follow him, I wanta know.'

The guy came in the next day, walked up to the barber, he says, 'How many ahead of me?' The barber says, 'three.' The guy went out, the bootblack followed him, and the bootblack came back in about twenty minutes. And the barber says, 'Where'd he go? Where'd he go?' And the bootblack says, 'To your house.' (Laughter.)

You can take the cage away---I made good.

Here's a story about a drunk that fell out of this twelfth-story window. This guy's blind drunk, he falls outta this twelfth-story window---boom! He's on the ground, a big crowd comes around, he got up, brushed himself off, some fella walked up and says, 'What happened?' And he says, 'Damned if I know, I just got here!' (Laughter, applause.) Now, we're goin', now we're rollin'.

Two drunks walkin' down the railroad tracks---blind. Oh, they're whiffin' it down . . . two wine jobs . . . and they're goin' down like this . . . (Harris apparently imitated a staggering drunk step) . . . and one of them looked at the other one and said, 'Man, this is the longest staircase I ever came down in my life!' (Laughter.) The other one said, 'I don't mind that, it's these low bannisters!'(Laughter.)

You know somethin', ladies and gentlemen, you're a nice audience. Just stay that way, will ya? Don't put me in television!

From which point Harris would slide toward acknowledging key members of cast and crew, including certain musical personalities who might have been working in the Harris band (led on the show by Walter Sharp; at one point, steel guitarist and former big bandleader Alvino Rey and Dixieland cornet virtuoso Red Nichols sat in with the band), and invariably introducing diminutive Walter Tetley as "the little fella who steals our show every week."

Needless to say, he had a special introduction for Alice Faye. Without her, it wouldn't be possible. I'm not going into a big eulogy. I'm just going to tell ya I've been married to her for twelve years, we have two wonderful children, she's not only the most beautiful gal in the world but this kid's got talent, too.

You can take the cage away. He made it good.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Yule Tides with the Masters

'Tis the night before the night before Christmas, and all through the house, there are creatures stirring---creatures from radio's master blasters themselves, whom your chronicler has saved for last on the principle that the best most certainly should be saved for last. And if you plan to spend a holiday with classic radio Christmas, you simply cannot spend it without they two kings.


Town Hall Tonight, “Santa Claus Sits Down” (a.k.a. “Santa Will Not Ride Tonight”)--—Precious enough: Any surviving Christmastime or Christmas themed installment of any Fred Allen show, considering how few of them have survived among the truckload of surviving Allen shows. Precious more: Jack Benny as his guest, for this installment of Town Hall Tonight, done from Hollywood while Allen was in town to make a film. After the opening round of Town Hall gags and one-liners and a brief music selection, Benny and Allen exchanged rapiers in the slot where Allen would normally begin the show.

JACK BENNY: Jello again, this—
BENNY: —is Jack Benny talking.
ALLEN: Go away. Go away, boy.
BENNY: Oh, all right, gee, right away y—
ALLEN: Get away from this microphone here. (Pause.) Good evening. We must get a weather strip put on this floor.

And—--after a cleverly low-keyed “Town Hall News” segment zapping the cold spell of the day, another smartass break-in by Benny, an interview with Warner Brothers backlot lunch cart operator Willie King (“I’ve invited him to jump out of his frying pan and into our fire tonight”), a jivey musical number about a riveter (bear in mind that this was before World War II), a segment with Radio Guide photographer Eugene Lester (who’d been shooting Burns and Allen, Phil Baker, Allen, and Benny) in a little Christmas caroling (“I do a lot of singing in the darkroom, where nobody can hear me”), an Ipana toothpaste commercial, some bars of music that went unheard during the station break (a typical Allen zap at radio administrators), a segment with Portland Hoffa (his wife and second bananette), Benny (“I didn’t expect to get paid for this, I haven’t any more right to take money for working on this program than you have”), and Benny’s Maxwell (phat-phat-bang!), and a spot for Sal Hepatica laxative—--the Mighty Allen Art Players perform a clever routine around Santa going on sit-down strike.

You’ll have to listen to rediscover why, kiddies.

(First broadcast: NBC, 22 December 1937. Cast: John Brown, Charlie Cantor, Minerva Pious, Walter Tetley, Harry Von Zell. Guest: Jack Benny. Writers: Fred Allen, Arnold Auerbach, Herman Wouk—--yes, children, that Herman Wouk. Sponsor: Bristol Myers.)

Texaco Star Theater, "Santa Claus Sits Down"---Essentially, a re-enactment of the 1937 sketch, following an early "Allen's Alley" segment reviewing a newspaper strike and a shimmering performance of "Ave Maria" by Metropolitan Opera diva Risa Stevens. And, following a riposte between Allen and Hoffa. (Hoffa: "On account of the silk stocking shortage, Mama's hanging up her slacks over the fireplace. Do you think Santa Claus will fill Mama's slacks?" Allen: "Not like your mother does.") Not to mention a cute wisecrack about Lionel Barrymore's once-ubiquitous appearances in radio enactments of A Christmas Carol.

The Texaco Star Theater version has a slightly different cast and a few slight alterations in the script but it's just as enjoyable as the original Town Hall version.

(First broadcast: CBS, 20 December 1942. Cast: Kenny Baker, Wynn Murray, Minerva Pious, Alan Reed, Jimmy Wallington. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, Hi-Lo Jack and the Dames. Sponsor: Texaco.)

The Fred Allen Show, "Suing to Return Fred's Cuckoo Clock"---This was also the final Allen show sponsored by Blue Bonnet Margarine and Tender Leaf Tea as his sponsors, ending a four-year relationship. (Ford Motor Company would sponsor him for his final two years as a radio host.) And, after a smart "Allen's Alley" sketch in which the Alley denizens are asked their take on 1947's outstanding event, Allen asks Hoffa about a used fragrance---which she's wearing, thanks to the perfume "Fight Back" her mother gave her for Christmas.

Upon which Allen ruminates on Christmas gifts from radio friends like Mary Margaret McBride (a wicker muffler with her sponsors' names on it), Jack Eigen (a potato), and a cuckoo clock whose bird comes out backwards. The trouble began when Allen tried to exchange the clock. It only continued when he bumped into Monty Woolley, doing his Christmas shopping after Christmas and bragging about listening to A Christmas Carol so he could hiss at Lionel Barrymore. The laughs don't stop there.

(First broadcast: NBC, 28 December 1947. Co-stars: Kenny Delmar, Parker Fennelly, Portland Hoffa, Minerva Pious, Alan Reed. Guest: Monty Woolley. Writer: Fred Allen. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the DeMarco Sisters. Sponsor: Standard Brands.)


The Jell-O Program with Jack Benny, “An Old Fashioned Christmas.”

JACK BENNY: Gather around, everybody, it’s my turn to play Santy Claus. I’ve got a little surprise for most all of you. Here’s a little gift for you, Kenny—a beautiful red silk necktie.
KENNY BAKER: Aw, thanks, Jack.
BENNY: Isn’t it pretty?
BAKER: (giggles) Gee. (Pause.) Y’know, this looks like the same tie I gave you last year.
BENNY: Well, it isn’t. It’s different.
MARY LIVINGSTONE: Yeah—--it’s got spots on it now.

That’s only a clever interlude, midway through the show. But it’s as genial a way to introduce (or re-introduce) you to Jack Benny’s kind of Christmas program, especially when it’s hooked around his supporting players’ gifts to him and a genially dopey yuletide squeeze of Don Wilson’s infamous Jell-O commercial interjections.

(First broadcast: NBC, 20 December 1936. Co-stars: Kenny Baker, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson. Writers: Ed Beloin, Al Boasberg, Bill Morrow, Sam Perrin, Arthur Phillips, Howard Snyder, Hugh Wedlock, Jr. Music: Phil Harris and His Orchestra, Kenny Baker. Sponsor: General Foods.)

The Jell-O Program with Jack Benny, “Christmas Shopping”---Everyone’s being effusively nice and flattering to Jack as Christmas approaches. “You know, folks, it’s funny how the yuletide season can put wings on a rat,” warbles the Big Cheese. But of course. And then along comes Mary . . .

MARY LIVINGSTONE: (singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way---
JACK BENNY: Oh, hello, Mary.
LIVINGSTONE: Hello, honeybunch.
BENNY: Honeybunch, huh? Well, I suppose I’m a swell guy, you’re glad to see me, and I look like a million dollars.
LIVINGSTONE: You took the words right out of my hint.

Kenny Baker finds the courage to buy silk stockings for his girl for Christmas. Mary reads a letter from her mother. (“I received your letter, and thanks very much for the check. It would have come in handy, but the landlord grabbed it on the first bounce.”) Then Jack and Mary go Christmas shopping at one of Hollywood’s biggest department stores. “Pardon me, sir,” Jack warbles to a clerk, “I’d like to buy a chain.” Replies the clerk: “Dog, watch, or daisy?”

You didn’t really expect me to spoil it from there, did you?

(First broadcast: NBC, 12 December 1937. Co-stars: Kenny Baker, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson. Writers: Ed Beloin, Al Boasberg, Bill Morrow, Sam Perrin, Arthur Phillips, Howard Snyder, Hugh Wedlock, Jr. Music: Phil Harris and His Orchestra, Kenny Baker. Sponsor: General Foods)

The Jack Benny Program, “Jack Meets Frank Sinatra in a Drug Store”---It begins with Rochester thinking how lucky he is to work for a man like Jack.

ROCHESTER: Now, you take my friend Sam. He works for one of the stingiest men in the world. Why, last year for Christmas, all he gave Sam was three little hanka-chiefs.
JACK BENNY: But, Rochester, I don’t think that’s such a bad present.
ROCHESTER: I’ll never forget Christmas day. Down on Central Avenue, everyone was showin’ off their new wristwatches, ‘n’ gold cigarette cases, ‘n’ diamond rings, ‘n’ there was Sam with those three little hanka-chiefs.
BENNY: Aw, that’s a shame.
ROCHESTER: Yeah. It really embarrassed poor Sam when people asked him what his boss gave him for Christmas and he had to pull out those---three little hanka-chiefs.
BENNY: How can a---how can a man be that cheap?
ROCHESTER: It’s possible, boss! It’s possible!
BENNY: Well, Rochester, you don’t understand the spirit of Christmas. The important thing is that you’re remembered. The gift itself is nothing.
ROCHESTER: I know. That’s the kind of propaganda I’m tryin’ to overcome.

On the way to Mary's house, Jack bumps into Frank Sinatra, who reminds him he's guesting on Sinatra's radio spot the following night---and into a pair of swooning autograph hunters. ("Well, how do you like that? I only spoke to Frankie and I got some of it on me!") Then, Jack and Mary make for the department store. You tell me whether you think the store recovered after all these years or before its demise---whichever came first.

(First broadcast: NBC, 17 December 1944. Co-stars: Eddie Anderson, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Frank Nelson, Don Wilson. Guest: Frank Sinatra. Music: Phil Harris and His Orchestra, Larry Stevens. Writers: George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry. Sponsor: American Tobacco Company.)

MORE JINGLE BENNY: "Christmas at Jack's" (25 December 1938), "Christmas Shopping Horseradish" (14 December 1941), "Trimming a Tree" (24 December 1944), "Armed Forces Radio Service Christmas Special" (25 December 1946).


The Big Show, Christmas Eve Program---This installment kicked off with a slight variation on the standard introduction that simply had to be a grabber from the outset.

TALLULAH BANKHEAD: To the men and women in service all over the world on this Christmas Eve, through the cooperation of the Associated Services of the Armed Forces, you are about to be entertained by some of the biggest names in show business. For the next hour and thirty minutes, this program will present in person such bright stars as . . .

As custom on this last-gasp, big-bucks variety offering, the stars introduced themselves: Jimmy Durante. Bert Lahr. Robert Merrill. Margaret O'Brien. Edith Piaf. Fran Warren. Ed Wynn. And, music director Meredith Willson. And, following that soaring theme music around and behind Ed Herlihy's introduction, back came Madame Tallulah.

BANKHEAD: A safe and Merry Christmas, darlings, to all our Armed Forces, wherever you may be. And to you here at home, I hope all your stockings are hung, and that you find in them all the things you wished for. I know what I'm going to find in mine---a run! I always do on this show!

But when I heard that one of our guests today would be Margaret O'Brien, I decided to make it my business to see that this child has a Merry Christmas away from her home. After all, it's only been a few years since I was a child, heh heh heh. (Laughter.) Those darling writers---they'll stop at nothing for a Christmas present. And that's exactly what they're getting.

But to make sure little Margaret has a wonderful Christmas, I invited three of the theater's greatest clowns---Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr, and Ed Wynn.
JIMMY DURANTE, BERT LAHR, and ED WYNN (in unison): Hello, Tallulah! (Applause.)
BANKHEAD: Hello Ed, Jimmy, Bert. Hello Bert, Ed, Jimmy. Hello Jimmy, Bert, Ed. Well, now that I've given you all equal billing, we can get down to our problem. We've got to arrange a wonderful Christmas party for this little girl. Anybody have an idea what to give her?
LAHR: I've got an idea, Tallulah.
BANKHEAD: Uh, huh.
LAHR: Something that's very popular this time of the year.
BANKHEAD: Oh, really, darling? What is it, Bert?
LAHR: How about givin' her a Christmas present?
BANKHEAD (lowers voice smugly): Uh, now, isn't that brilliant?

From there the foursome swapped gags about Christmas bed jackets, horses, and John Dillinger, before Lahr reprised "If I Was The King of the Forest" from The Wizard of Oz (with a little help from O'Brien, of course); before Durante suggested a toy-spangled Christmas tree and found a way to sing "Isn't It A Shame That Christmas Comes But Once A Year"; before Wynn and company try to prove Santa Claus; and, before some stunning music from Warren ("Look to the Rainbow"), Metropolitan Opera star Merrill ("O Holy Night") and the tragic French chanteuse Piaf. (A beautiful "Autumn Leaves.")

There was also a gentle message from Army Gen. Jonathan Wainwright at Camp Breckenridge (Kentucky). The message could be deployed today without losing a beat or a drop of relevance.

I'm happy to join with all your folks at home in bringing a Christmas greeting to you, my comrades of the armed forces, wherever you may be. We have shared the joy of other Christmas days together, and we look forward as a united people to that time when peace on earth and good will to men may again prevail. May God be with you.

And I didn't even stop to mention the soaring, caroling almost-finale. But I'm leaving you to hear it for yourself.

(First broadcast: NBC, 24 December 1950. Writers: Goodman Ace, George Foster, Mort Greene, Frank Wilson. Music: Meredith Willson. Sponsors: RCA Victor, Anacin, Chesterfield.)


Duffy’s Tavern, “A Christmas Program”---“You remember Woolley, Duffy---the wise old actor with the sage old brush.” Thus Archieda Manageh informs his employer that Monty Woolley is in line to play Santa Claus at the dive’s Christmas party. Needless to say, nobody bothered to ask Woolley aforehand. Needless to say, there’s a hilarious piece of Yuletide iambic malaprop tripping early from Archie’s tongue:

Merry Christmas to yez all
be of right cheer and joyous.
Leave us yule a log on da fire
and leave not naught annoy us.
Come lift yer beakers and quaff us a stool
Kris Kringle’s abroad in the snow.
I quaff, lad. And, laugh, lad—
ha ha, hee hee, ho ho.

EDDIE: It’ll go beautifully wid dat cracked mirror.

And, needless to say, you'll have to listen to discover how Archie blunders his way into and out of this one, as usual.

(First broadcast: CBS, 21 December 1943. Starring: Ed Gardner. Co-stars: Charles Cantor, Eddie Green, Florence Halop. Guest star: Monty Woolley. Writers: Ed Gardner, Abe Burrows, Parke Levy, Sol Saks. Original sponsor: Bristol-Myers. Repeated as an Armed Forces Radio Services broadcast.)

The Old Gold Comedy Theater, “Bachelor Mother”--—What began as a pleasant idea didn’t quite work out as it should have, lasting only one season (1944-45). Old Gold Comedy Theater seems to have aspired to be a sort-of Lux Radio Theater of comedy, re-staging film comedies for radio under the hand of silent screen comic legend Harold Lloyd, whose problem wasn’t his own ability or that of the performers who acted in these works, whether they re-created their screen roles or took the roles anew. (The performers included: Fred Allen, June Allyson, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ralph Bellamy, Gary Cooper, Linda Darnell, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Burgess Meredith, Dick Powell, and Gene Tierney, to name a mere few.)

Lloyd's problem was how to distill feature film comedies into half-hour exercises without draining too much marrow out of the bones. At its best, Old Gold Comedy Theater did approach the standard of the show it seemed most to emulate. Taking on and delivering its version of Bachelor Mother, a 1939 film whose writing was nominated for an Academy Award, was one example of how good the show could be, with very little of the story's meat drained away in the compacting and acting as realistic as you could expect a mid-1940s comedy to be.

The story: Polly Parrish has clerked at Merlin’s Department Store, selling ducks, until the day before Christmas, when general manager David Merlin cans her for reasons obscure at best. That’s nothing compared to the Christmas surprise Polly receives on her doorstep, the buttinski social worker (we think) who sees it and concludes Polly’s a mother abandoning her baby because of losing her job, and the Merlin---bent on keeping presumed mother and presumed child together---who rehires her after hearing the social worker’s story.

The problem for the purists: Reconciling Brenda Marshall (as Polly) and Louis Hayward (as David Merlin) in the roles originated by Ginger Rogers and David Niven. The solution: Sit back and relax. Marshall and Hayward bring it off with appropriate understatement, notwithstanding an occasional and perhaps unintended histrionic here and there.

(First broadcast: NBC, 24 December 1944. Stars: Brenda Marshall, Louis Hayward. Supporting cast: Unidentified. Director: Harold Lloyd. Sponsor: Old Gold cigarettes.)

The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, "Getting a Christmas Tree in the Mountains"---'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, Alice is hanging holly and Phil is hanging the mistletoe. ("Ah, Philip, the many girls whose toes you've curled under this little sprig of greenery!") Or, as he tells his daughters, "Smooching spinach." Did Daddy ever play the game?

PHIL HARRIS: I was All-American twelve years in a row.
LITTLE ALICE: You mean, if a fella gets a girl under the mistletoe, he kisses her? That sounds like a silly game to me.
PHIL: Don't knock it 'till ya try it, gal. And don't try it until you get my permission.
LITTLE PHYLLIS: Daddy, before you married Mommy, did you have many girl friends?
PHIL: Oh, I had a few. (smug self-mocking tone) I say, a few!
PHIL: Well, I don't remember. When I got married, I fired the scorekeeper. You know something, I probably had more girl friends than you could im---
ALICE FAYE: Phil, what are you doing?
LITTLE ALICE: Daddy's telling us about all the girls he knew before he met you.
BIG ALICE: Oh, them. That should make for some nice dull conversation.
LITTLE PHYLLIS: Mommy, did you know Daddy used to go out with other girls?
BIG ALICE: Aw, of course I knew he went out with other girls. (chuckles; smug self-mocking tone) I say, girls! (Normal tone.) Why, he never knew what a girl was supposed to look like until he met me!

Oops. Sorry they asked.

Not half as sorry as Phil seems to be when wastrel brother-in-law Willie laments the lack of Christmas tree in front of City Hall this time around. When he decides to challenge City Hall on it, Alice agrees the family should join in. "I dunno if I'm in favour of this," moans Phil. "Gee whiz, in order to put a tree up, you gotta chop one down."

Then they beard Hizzoner in his den. One round with this bunch and that's one City Council that'll never forget to make the annual community Christmas tree appropriation again . . .

(First broadcast: NBC, 18 December 1949. Stars: Phil Harris, Alice Faye. Co-stars: Elliott Lewis, Robert North, Jeanine Rouse, Ann Whitfield, Walter Tetley. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat. Music: Walter Sharp. Sponsor: Rexall.)

So have yourselves a merry little classic radiyule . . .

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sid Raymond, RIP: Spirit Trumping Stardom

This is not to suggest that having yourself a Duffy's Tavern mini-marathon is a terrible thing, but listening end-to-end to every known available episode from 1950 through the show's finale in search of the missing credit can be slightly less arduous than one or another comely female having to wriggle away from amorous Archie's malaproper advances.

Such is true, as well, in listening to every known available episode of the show prior to 1950, above and beyond Ed Gardner and/or the evening's particular guest star(s). If the cast credits were ever announced you could miss it as readily as you might miss the sentence for which Archie could not have been tried by jury for raping the Queen's English.

For the obituaries' claim that he took the role on, we are left with no sourcing beyond our ears that Sid Raymond---whose death at age 97 seemed to stun those close enough to him in light of his reputation for unsapped energy---succeeded the estimable Charlie Cantor as the quick of mangle and slow of wit Finnegan.

And our ears require us to play a shaft of post-1950 Finnegan against a shaft of Baby Huey, the outsized duckling for whose voice Mr. Raymond seems remembered best, concluding that the earshot match of cadence, inflection, and duerrrrrrr! bewilderment shared between Finnegan the barfly post-1950 and Huey the baby from post to Pablum could not have been plotted by separate palates.

FINNEGAN: Hey, waiddaminute, Misteh Hahdwick, derr-I got an idea!
CEDRIC HARDWICKE: Well, shake your head, and maybe it'll go away.
FINNEGAN: Look, deh, I'm wonderin'--deh, ain't there a spot for a guy like me in Hollywood?
HARDWICKE: No, I'm afraid not. We have enough producers
FINNEGAN: Welp---deh, if there's ever an opening---
ARCHIE: If there's ever an opening it'll be in ya head.

---Duffy's Tavern, from "Renting a Room" (a.k.a. "The Roommate." Original broadcast: CBS, 10 November 1951)

You can do likewise between Finnegan post-1950 and Katnip---the witless cat outwitted almost as a profession (Hellllp! Uncle Hoiman! his “nephews” invariably hollered) by a mouse named Herman, whose voice resembled Curly Stooge but whose smarts (Herman did tend to telegraph his rejoinders and counterattacks) only looked that way compared to Katnip's clumsy mouse trapping.

Duerrrrrrr, that was him, all right.

Surely it is sweeter to recall Mr. Raymond as the slow-but-sweet Finnegan, but it is also right to recall him as Heckle and Jeckle, the talking cartoon magpies who resembled crows more than magpies. And, to recall that he was one of the hardest working vocal men you almost never heard of.

An inspiration for anyone who has ever clung to a passion, Sid Raymond concedes that, as an actor, he was never a star. But in the context of an enduring spirit, fame seems somehow beside the point.

---Howard Weinberg, producer of Sid at 90.

There are worse things than a passion to which to cling.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I Don't Know What This Has To Do With Classic Radio, But . . .

Somewhere in the middle of a rather arduous week, enough to have kept me from my regular musings, I couldn't shake off a thought. Since the 2000 elections, and the long-familiar map of red and blue states, areas thought to be Republican strongholds are known as Red areas and areas thought to be Democratic strongholds are known as Blue areas. What a difference fiftysomething years makes. Republicans have gone from believing better dead than Red to better Red than dead. And the Democrats, Capitol Hill majority on the threshold of being sworn in, seem bent enough on inspiring enough of us to start singing the blues. Or, swearing a blue streak.

This has been a none-too-special bulletin from the newsroom of WARP. We return you now to your regularly-scheduled deprogramming.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Two Thanks

Two of the blogosphere have bathed your chronicler in kindness in recent weeks, and the return favour is slightly overdue.

Bather number one is Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. the author-proprietor of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, in which he affords equal shrift to vintage radio and television with equivalent affection and wit. He is also adept at culling genuinely forgotten veins, sifting between what deserved forgetting and what deserved remembering but deploying verve and not vitriol:

(The Doris Day Show)'s fourth season attempted to copy the single working gal concept popularized the year before by The Mary Tyler Moore Show--—so in order to do the same for Doris they had to make her single, too . . . and did so by rubbing out both of her kids and then administering a series of mind control experiments in which she forgot she had them. (You think I’m making this up, don’t you? It’s true—--those damn kids were never mentioned or heard from again. They’re probably pictures on milk cartons now, for all I know.) Poor Doris…season by season, her father . . . her kids . . . her friends…all of them disappeared.

---From "What a Difference a Day Makes," 4 December 2006.

Mr. Shreve did what some Happy Days fans (himself included, perhaps) might have thought impossible: with one swell foop (thank you, Mrs. Ace) he found that which out-grotesques Happy Days's whacking and disappearing eldest son Chuck Cunningham without even a DNA print to trace him. (Mr. Shreve has yet to exhume any suggestion that Chuck Cunningham ran secretly in circles squared by Jimmy Hoffa, but this is television, of course . . . )

He is no less affectionate to classic radio and strains to kindness toward the oftentimes horrible takes given some radio vintages on film. "Darkness, death, and dementia!", 3 December 2006, is a genteel re-examination of films derived from The Inner Sanctum, some of which actually prove on fresh viewings to have afforded more respect to their radio root than critics over time have allowed.

Mr. Shreve and I have had an occasional point of dispute but he is, on the evidence, one of those gentlemen to whom the occasional dispute enhances rather than emaciates the fellowship. Enough to the point that it would probably be some enchanted evening to break out the bourbon, light up, and swap good talk, soundtracked perhaps by Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman as any one of their vintage radio performances presented them---spiked with Fred Allen.

Which turns me to my second bather in kindness, a British gentleman naming himself after the Sage of Summerfield Himself and exercising a pleasant stream of commentary running the spread from British media today to British broadcasting from era to age and back, with sprinklings enough that it isn't just we Americans who savour our vintage radio. (And, in fairness, it isn't just he and his fellow Britons who savour England's vintages, too.)

Exactly why he chose the URL name of "ragtag" escapes, because Random Jottings of Gildersleeve is as anti-ragtag as a niche blog can become. He instructs, he delights, and he thinks aloud in unpretentious terms. He ponders the prospective mischief and majesty alike in such developments as British radio making room for "Smooth FM" (8 December 2006) while not entirely certain what does or doesn't constitute "easy listening"; he laments whether listeners today would get Fred Allen's topicality. (Hint: They would, if you consider that the topic isn't necessarily the thing above and beyond what it inspires. Especially when the topic is the reductionism toward which classic radio seemed to turn, heavily enough, during Mr. Allen's final three or four years as a host in his own right.)

Radio will tell you and pay tribute to many artists alongside today's performers and say about their place in musical history but then rarely play anything by them. Of course you have to promote and bring on new talent but there has to be room to appreciate the great performances of the past.

---From "Like a Virgin," 4 December 2006.

If you can argue with such as that, you're a better manperson than I, Gunga Din.

I really do believe that radio entertainment could've survived alongside television if the broadcasters and commercial companies could've stayed with the medium and had looked further ahead, he writes in his 9 December entry. Big "if," bearing in mind a few admonitions from the period in which classic radio's burial was no longer a question of "if" but "when."

[B]e mediocre . . . safe, routine, unspectacular . . . be willing to curb your imagination. [Radio now] is a trade outlet, not an art; it's a living.

---Norman Corwin, in The Writer, 1951.

---By 1948, critics had begun to despair of the creeping grayness that pervaded much of radio, and left it ripe for television's takeover. Suddenly it seemed that everybody was piling on. John Crosby expressed a growing exasperation when he wrote, "Radio's social position remains low---lower even than the movies, which is about as far down as the social ladder goes." James T. Farrell accused radio of producing a "counterfeit" mass culture and of siphoning off "a large portion of the literary talent in America" to produce soaps and sitcoms, a charge long leveled against movies and TV. Ring Lardner's radio columns in The New Yorker, often written from a hospital bed, regularly ridiculed radio's worst excesses.

---Gerald S. Nachman, Raised on Radio.

Radio is no longer guided by research; it's enslaved by it . . . It has always seemed to me an imposition on the listeners to determine what is broadcast. The responsibility of providing good radio programs belongs to the professionals in the industry, not the amateurs outside it. No amount of slavish obesiance to public taste and no amount of complicated machinery will produce a good radio program or even a popular radio program.

---John Crosby, "Research and Hysteria," New York Herald-Tribune, 16 December 1947.

Now take the rating system. That's the stupidest thing I ever heard of. What do you think would happen if a drama critic said Finian's Rainbow was a good, solid 10.4?

---Goodman Ace, to Time, 8 September 1947.

I hope the fine won't be too expensive . . .

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Of Christmas Ducks and Christmas Conspiracies . . .

'Tis still the season to be seeking relief from the usual onslaught of yuletide parades, football, weepie TV movies and specials, and relentless debates whenever this joker decides that piece of holiday spirit is someone else's offencive weapon. I think that's the way the arguments have gone for the last couple of decades. On a stupid scale of one to ten, I'd rate those arguments off the chart.

Fair disclosure: I'm Jewish. I've got no problems with Christmas. Why shouldn't a nice Jewish boy say "happy birthday!" to a nice Jewish boy? He'd say "Happy Hanukkah" to me, wouldn't he? (Although he might draw the line at one gift for each of the eight days, on his salary. And, now that I think of it, I can't remember if Hanukkah became an actual Jewish holiday before or after Mr. Pilate reached for the Ivory.)

I have no desire for plenipotentiary political power. But if I had it for five minutes with a choice of one sweeping ruling to hand down, I'd decree that any and every town voting to stick Christmas in the back of the shack should have their public address systems hacked to play nothing but those insufferable yapping dogs yapping the single most insufferable version of "Jingle Bells" ever devised by the singularly insufferable.

For everybody else, I'd decree that the P.A.'s should be performing the public service of giving citizens such alternatives to the annual invasion of drivel, dreck, and decking the halls with boughs of dopey with . . .

Well, let's admit it. A lot of classic radio Christmas fare was just as drivelous, dreckable, and dopey as a lot of television Christmas fare is. But at least with radio you don't have to look. Just listen. And laugh, if you must. (I think I've said it before, but since I wasn't able to post for over a week it doesn't hurt to refresh the memory of my readers---all five of them.) Here, now, a few more Christmas cullings from the ghosts of radio past.

The Aldrich Family, "Christmas Program"---Yes, it's beginning to look a lot like a pain in the rump roast to find a few too many classic radio holiday episodes called, "Christmas Program" or "Christmas Show."

Never mind. Here, 'twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, Father thinks Henry's solicitous of late carries an ulterior yuletide motive; Mother thinks Father's being too suspicious for his own good; and, Hennn-reeeeeeeeeeeeee! really is maneuvering for a particular Christmas present---unsuspecting that Mother and Father think he's angling for something else.

(First broadcast: NBC, 23 December 1948; starring Ezra Stone, House Jameson, Katharine Raht. Writer: Clifford Goldsmith. Sponsor: Jell-O.)

The Burns and Allen Show, "Santa and the Wicked Pirate"---Two days before Christmas, while trimming the tree, Gracie fears her favourite duck, Herman, is missing. Until he returns home after eluding Akim Tamiroff's hands around his neck, Tamiroff tiring of the duck's poaching his goldfish. But will Herman quack up listening to Gracie telling him a Christmas story?

(First broadcast: CBS, 22 December 1942; starring George Burns and Gracie Allen; co-stars: Elvia Allman, Jimmy Cash, Lawrence Nash; announcer: Bill Goodwin; music: Paul Whiteman. Sponsor: Swan Soap.)

Fibber McGee and Molly, "Mailing Christmas Packages" (first broadcast: NBC, 10 December 1940) and "Gildy's Radio Phonograph" (first broadcast: NBC, 24 December 1940)---First: Fibber's mood drops when he learns Uncle Dennis is going to be staying for the holiday. That's almost nothing compared to how hard it is to get the packages to the post office before somebody else knocks on the door. And it only begins when Gildersleeve wants Fibber to get him some four-cent stamps.

Second: Gildersleeve's new radio-phonograph combine is delivered---to the McGees, by mistake. And they get a bigger shock when they plug it in and play it . . .

(Stars: Jim and Marian Jordan; co-stars: Arthur Q. Bryan, Harold Peary, Bill Thompson; announcer: Harlow Wilcox; music: Billy Mills. Writer: Don Quinn. Sponsor: Johnson Wax.)

The Henry Morgan Show, "Christmas Story (The Day After Christmas)"---The cheerfully cantankerous comedian's opening monologue did a pretty good (and subtly racy) job of setting it up:

Not so many Christmases ago, we broadcast a little Christmas story for children. And, ah, it was definitely for children, but we heard later that a number of grownups sneaked out of bed and listened.

Welllllll, you know how parents are, kids. Just when you think they're asleep, they come out of the bedroom with all kinds of excuses. They want a drink of water . . . or, uh, there's a tiger in the room . . . or, their blanket fell on the floor, or something. So this year, ah, we might as well let 'em stay up and listen.

But parents---no snickering. We're not gonna stand for a lot of grownups listening to the radio and shaking their heads doubtfully, as though we were making the whole thing up. Now, kids, if you notice your mommy or your daddy saying things like, um, "ohhhhh, nonsense! or, uh, "Well, that couldn't happen," just look 'em in the eye and say, "I find this story thoroughly credible!"

Of course, I don't have that kind of trouble with my parents. If they say "oh, nonsense!" to me, I just don't give 'em tickets to my show.

Then, he presents the story, which begins the day after Christmas. Little Joey sits examining the ruins of an electric train "that took a dozen graduate engineers to put together" . . . and which his father wrecked when the kid let the old man fool around with it until he came up with a theory about how to make it run different. "What's a theory?" asks little Norman. "I dunno," answers Joey. "Something ya father has when tells ya to hand him a screwdriver." All little Norman had to worry about was getting Santa into the house---because they had not a chimney but radiators.

What the kids had to worry about was being careful what they wished for. Especially if they were audacious enough to ask Congress for it. For details, you'll have to listen.

(First broadcast: ABC [former NBC Blue], 25 December 1946; star: Henry Morgan; co-stars: Arnold Stang, Pert Kelton, Fran Warren, Ben Brower, Art Carney, Jack Albertson, Joan Gibson, and children Butch Cabell, David Anderson, Joan Laser. Writers: Henry Morgan, Carroll Moore, Jr., Aaron Ruben, Joseph Stein.)

Norman Corwin's Words Without Music, "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas"---The first work Corwin wrote for CBS in the late 1930s, a broadcast repeated often enough and set in hell, and delivered in verse (some of it, admittedly, is a little on the awkward side but the archness of the delivery and the quality of the bulk makes up for it).

In sum: Some of history's most notorious villains through that point convened a meeting to plan Christmas's demise. First, however, they've got to quell this little, ahem, family squabble.("Sit down, Haman---for I am Ivan the Terrible!" "Brother Ivan is a demagogue/with the brain like a fly and the manners of a hog") Also in on the plot: Lucrezia Borgia, Caligula, Medusa, and Nero, among others. I'll tell you only that Caligula has visions of men hanging from Christmas trees and let you take it from there, Nero's a little snippy ("Today I note with a bitter shrug/They've made Scheherezade a jitterbug"), and the ayes have it for Dame Borgia's idea . . .

(First broadcast: CBS, 1939; stars: Will Geer, as the devil; House Jameson [The Aldrich Family,] as Santa Claus; other cast may have included Orson Welles, but I'd be grateful to anyone who can provide the rest of the original cast. Writer: Norman Corwin.)