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, July 31, 2006

Attention, Mr. and Mrs. United States . . .

Walter Winchell isn't quite known to have inspired the ancient crack about your not requiring enemies with friends such as he. But he began with his near-invention of keyhole journalism cauterised in what his biographer Neil Gabler called "his already well-defined puckish persona," first in newspapers and then on radio.

In due course, that puckish persona became the overcoat worn by a pusillanimous punk to his critics. He became caricaturable for his drumroll speaking style and his image as a squashed-hat, rumple-coated reporter, who was in too big a rush to get the story (or his trademark telegraph key striking) first to bother much about getting it right. As a gossip that made him merely a ribald nuisance. As a serious newshawk it made him dangerous, even when he stood on the side of the angels.

And yet . . . and yet . . . there were those spare lucid moments when Winchell slowed down, toned down, removed his eye from the keyhole, and played it sober. If an enemy had not been lanced or a friend laminated, it didn't matter in such isolated hours. In these, Winchell sounded what his enemies would have called impossible and even his friends would have called improbable. He sounded human.

I take you now to the editorial room of The Jergens Journal, as the announcer so often trumpted Winchell's most successful radio program every Sunday night. You may indeed consider something not quite right. Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and All the Clippers and Ships at Sea have been kept out of the loop this night, for the first three minutes and twenty seconds, anyway. He paused often, too. Some of the pauses were pregnant enough that the babies might have been septuplets.

WINCHELL: Attention, Mr. and Mrs. United States. The Russian delegation has lost its fight to have the United Nations pass a resolution to jail all warmongers. Instead--the United Nations agreed to denounce and condemn warmongering.

What is a . . . warmonger? Was Paul Revere--a warmonger? History doesn't call him that, although if Paul hadn't made his ride that night, in 1775, there certainly wouldn't have been any fighting. There wouldn't have been any United States, either.

The rest of this, ladies and gentlemen, is respectfully addressed to Mr. Trygve Lee, and the others of the United Nations, who merely, every Monday morning, request copies of my remarks of the night before. It is very important to me that they . . . listen carefully . . . because I may be denounced and condemned by the United Nations for what I will now say.

Your Excellencies, and members of the U.N. assembled at Lake Success. When did I stop being a reporter and an American and become a warmonger? If some potential enemy or unfriendly foreign visitor is planning to hurt my country from the air, or underground, and I know it, should I forget it, or risk being held up for scorn and public ridicule by you of the United Nations?

You may say to me, "No, don't forget it, just send what you have along to Washington. To someone you know in Congress, the Senate, the White House, the State Department, or the Department of Justice. But Walter, don't get so excited, and frighten the people of forty-eight states by telling them . . . the truth."

Well, Your Excellencies, I guess you'd better start practising . . . your very first warmonger condemnation. Because I am going to tell what I hear and know to the American people, and not to anybody in official Washington. I'm tired, and I'm done taking the five minute bath at four o'clock every morning, New York to Washington train without sleep, to report things against the security of our country. I did that for a dozen years. And I tell you, most of the time nothing ever came of it, because . . . there are too many men and women in and out of the White House, the State Department, Congress, and the Department of Justice, who are either left, right, or indifferent. Therefore, I shall continue to report directly to the people, and let the people take it from there.

Mr. and Mrs. North and South America, and all the ships at sea, is this news, or warmongering?

SFX: [rapid telegraph keying].

WINCHELL: Let's go to press . . .

From there Winchell returned as gradually to his customary rat-a-tat delivery as Winchell could, something like trotting up short steps before running at full speed. An American admiral told a U.N. magazine the Soviet Union now had actual or alleged bacteriological/biological weapons, and the Soviets were preparing to make then-undivided Korea undividedly Communist within a month. The State Department was concerned for Polish and Yugoslav culture representatives touring the United States; the Swedes bet on such an economic horse as to need American help to fill Soviet orders. Molotov told Russians The Bomb was no longer a secret, Zakalov told a COMINTERN audience in Belgrade the U.S. still held the atomic monopoly, and both proved no Soviet monopoly on tall tales. And if Russian students really believed the sun should be renamed for Stalin because Stalin was the sun, the question before Winchell's house was, "Sun of a what?"

Five minutes shape-shifting the world yet again. Life in 1947, through the eyes that once sought no revelation more enlightening than who on Broadway was pffft! or who in Hollywood was infanticipating with whom. Winchell had been seduced by and a quasi-populist for Franklin Roosevelt but rebuked and mocked by Harry Truman. He began devolving from a puckish Peek's Blab Boy (a self-description, from his very first radio broadcast as a host) to a punkish puncher, the scold losing his slim enough distinction between political and personal wars regardless of which he happened to enlist.

Winchell's radio ratings had long enough been "an almost infallible index of how nervous we all are," as influential New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby wrote. (Crosby had once said people told him often enough that listening to Winchell tied to "a definite feeling of guilt.") "When the country is worried Winchell's [rating] soars; when it relaxes it drops."

But there was buried a single sensible shard that shunted the schtick to the side. And for one night in 1947, at least, its mortician allowed it to speak from the dead, allowing character to interrupt his caricature.

Friday, July 28, 2006

One Hundred Words From Our Sponsor

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CUSTOMER: It's about having a fit about valuable room for the extras. It's about being well and caring about sharing. It's nature calling words for changing the baby, and it's about time because it's about when he's gotta go.

ANNOUNCER: It's about time we returned you to The Ivorytown-Rinsoville Crisco Corners Journal, where we ask the questions nobody answers because nobody bothered to write them into the script.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Riddle Me This

Q: What do you get when you place five bowling pins, five golf clubs in a golf bag, four slim hardcover books, three coffee cans, two detachable roller skates, two shoes, one baseball bat, one fireplace dustpan, one glass-and-wood washboard, one pewter serving tray, one wicker basket, and one footlocker on four portable stairsteps?

A: Fibber McGee's closet.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Original Syntax; or, Aces High

Regular readers of this journal (all three of you) may figure its name announces your servant's affection for a) the seminal serial comedy Easy Aces; or, b) stud poker. Here's a hint. I haven't played any kind of poker in a few years. But I've played every available episode of Easy Aces, (and its briefly-lived, expanded revamp, mr. ace and JANE) at least twice since I had the fortune of drawing them. You take it from there. Jacks or better to open.

I've done likewise with Goodman Ace's Ladies and Gentlemen--Easy Aces (New York: Doubleday, 1970; 211 pages) since I landed a copy through's booksellers. At least, I began doing it once I recovered from the shock of reception. The copy I obtained was so pristine it still reposed in its original-issue shrinkwrap. It still contained its original-issue soft-vinyl record affixed to the inside front cover. And, it still contained eight vintage scripts Ace composed for that singular comedy, spliced with extracts from Saturday Review essays Ace had written for that journal for most of his post-radio life.

Born in 1930, Easy Aces had two lives, both of which were scripted by the droll Goodman Ace. Its original life was fifteen years as a fifteen-minute absurdist serial, written and delivered in a key low enough to let you think you were eavesdropping upon your vaguely screwy neighbours, in this case Ace the mild-mannered if harried realtor and his big-hearted, language-molesting wife, Jane, whose best friend Marge provided the laugh track at the drop of a malaprop.

Dealing in terms of the surviving episodes, you eavesdropped upon the Aces pushing shiftless brother-in-law Johnny into working at long enough last, in spite of marrying an heiress; adopting an overage orphan with a sleep-inducing left hook and a mind that seemed half asleep; surviving a film director's sweep for local talent and Jane's self-sweep into thoughts of a film career; stumbling into and out of destitution on the wrong end of a crooked politician's crooked real estate deal; enduring and then marrying off a particularly snooty live-in teenage niece; upending the corrupt orphanage from whence their "adopted son" came; Jane's hilarious career as a professional bridge partner; and, how to succeed in business once you've succeeded in keeping your spouse from meddling.

You learned that home wasn't built in a day and Congress was back in season (no bag limit, presumably), a wife should take the bitter with the better since time wounds all heels, there was no use crying over spoiled milk, and that the way things were going those days a girl had to play hard to take. All from a lady who'd have the coffee ready in a jitney if you were sitting on pins and cushions waiting. And if you were up at the crank of dawn to put your nose to the tombstone, well, you could have knocked her over with a fender. (Mmmmmm, her droll husband drawled, there's an idea . . . ) Did I mention she was also a member of the weeper sex who could strangle an egg after taking a year of domestic silence?

The show's second life tried to grow it up from a fifteen-minute absurdist serial to a half-hour weekly absurdism, with a few new twists on a few time-tested devices. Ace became narrator as well as droll foil to Jane's malapropriety, not to mention moving from real estate to advertising and, as John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune pointed out, "us(ing) his program to take a few pokes at radio, the newspapers, and the world in general," and engaging announcer Ken Roberts "whose function is to kid all the commercials on the air." Ace's real estate partner Neff was supplanted by advertising boss Norris, whose gruffness was matched only by his satchelful of slogans. The satchel rarely escaped without a few arrows from Ace's finely tuned bow.

ACE: Mr. Norris talks like a copybook. He believes a man's best friend is his motto.
NORRIS: Don't put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
ACE: He's been married three times.
NORRIS: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
ACE: But in spite of his corny talk, I like Mr. Norris. He's a lonely man, he has no children.
NORRIS: If at first you don't succeed---
ACE: Uh, yes.

Jane's shiftless brother Johnny was overthrown by her shiftless brother Paul, whose occupation was observing construction activity through the most available peephole in the wood fencing. And snooty niece Betty was replaced in Ace's office by indifferent cousin Sally. ("Happiness is relative," Ace drawled. "The fewer relatives, the more happiness.")

And where the original Easy Aces was delivered in a crowd-less studio room, with microphones under the table, the better to let the cast sound like people and not performers, the new mr. ace and JANE ended up in front of a live audience, with a few of the old situations and malaprops remodeled. The remodeling was a smarter idea than the live audience, it turned out. The Aces worked best when they kept it quiet, if only because the clever urbanity with which Ace wrote the show wasn't supposed to be taken with a belly laugh.

Compare the audition episode, an early version of series opener "Jane Gets a Loan for Brother Paul" (called "Paul Tries to Borrow Two Hundred Dollars"), to the series edition. The longtime theme song, "Manhattan Serenade," was played by a solo pianist, who also provided the edition's music punctuations, and with no live audience the Aces and company shone in their conversational style. Picked up as a series, the theme was now played ballyhoo style by full band, and the hollow of the full audience studio made it sound like . . . anything else on the air in 1948. Accordingly, the Aces and cast sounded like the thing they'd first tried their best to avoid. They sounded like actors, and it compromised the best of Ace's wry deconstructions and Jane's original syntax.

Ladies and Gentlemen--Easy Aces (the title, of course, was taken from the original serial's standard introduction) actually binds up the non-serial scripts deployed in mr. ace and JANE, perhaps because to pick and choose from serialised material might have been even more arduous. They afford a chance to read and hear them in the voices without the audience or the studio hollow, perhaps with a solo piano chiming between scenes, leaving exposed the show's not-so-dirty little secret: dearly though it's remembered for Jane's malapropriety, Ace's narratives and rejoinders sometimes wring at least as many laughs and occasionally more.

As a matter of fact, some of the Saturday Review mulctings with which Ace forged the narrative of the chosen scripts could have made classic episodes themselves. I'll offer you this one, which I took the liberty of forging into a script. I'm sure that wherever he is Mr. Ace will look upon this, smile, and warble, "Isn't that awful?" Of course, it was his fault. He had to quote Jane after telling her there would be a picture or three used with the book. That'd teach him.

JANE: I'd like to use my favourite picture--the one I was going to use when I thought of going on the stage and being a big Broadway star, but you wouldn't let me. I'll go get it. I'll be back in a jitney.
SFX: (footsteps leaving the room).

ACE: While she's gone, I should fill you in on that stage bit. That was in the early days of radio when success went to Jane's head, where it had plenty of room to bounce around. As I recall, it went something like this:

MUSIC: (to flashback).
JANE: What do you think about my going on stage?
ACE: As what?
JANE: As a star. I can become famous and rich.
ACE: Oh, no. Not that routine again.
JANE: Yes, you will.
ACE: Look, Jane, let's face facts. You've never been on the stage, you can't read lines, you don't know how to project, and above all you have no talent to become a famous star and rich. Now do you understand how I feel about you and a stage career?
JANE: Yes. You're afraid that when I become famous and rich, I'll divorce you.
ACE: Promises, promises.
JANE: OK, I promise I won't, even if I become a big dramatic star, or even in musical comedy, because my friends say I sing like an angel.
ACE: Sure, like an angel. But can't you wait till you get up there?
JANE: I've waited too long already, just laying around the house.
ACE: That's 'lying.'
JANE: No, it's the truth.
ACE: Jane, listen, what qualifications do you have to become an actress?
JANE: Not much, I haven't. I've always had the smell of goose grease in my blood. I've always dreamed of seeing my name up in tights.
ACE: OK, Gypsy, I give up. You're going to be another Sarah Bernhardt.
JANE: Or bigger. Of course I'm going to start small. I play a maid in this play. That's what I've been trying to tell you if you'll stop shouting yourself hoarse in the face.
ACE: Whoa. Back up. What play is that?
JANE: It's a play our club is putting on. The W-O-M-A-N.
ACE: What's that stand for?
JANE: Woman.
ACE: Oh, of course, how stupid of me.
JANE: I forgive you, dear. In this play I'm the maid, and I have one line. I come in and I say to Mabel--she plays the leading part--I say, 'Your coat, madame.' That's the one line I have.
ACE: And from that you expect to be discovered?
JANE: What discovered? I'm already here. They'll see me when I say, 'Your coat, madame' and I hold it while she puts it on and I walk off, and when the audience applauds I take a bow.
ACE: Applause for holding a coat?
JANE: Well, you're going to be in the audience. You can start it. You know how people are. Don't they always yawn when somebody else yawns? And so can you.
ACE: Yes, I can do that all right.
JANE: Thank you, dear. And don't you worry about the divorce. I wouldn't ever leave you.
ACE: Why not?
JANE: You're welcome. Now, there's one problem. Well it's not exactly a problem, because I can always use it.
ACE: How's that again, I'm afraid to ask?
JANE: Well, we each have to bring our own costumes. So I want to look my best, and my best would be in a mink coat.
ACE: A maid wearing a mink coat?
JANE: No, I don't wear it. The coat I hold up for Mabel.
ACE: You're kidding.
JANE: You don't expect me to hold up my three-year-old Persian lamb, do you? To say nothing of my raincoat.
ACE: Jane, if your stage career depends on a mink coat, forget it.
JANE: Forget the stage? Why any girl would give her right name to become a star. And I'm going to be on Broadway or my name is Maude. Where are you going?
ACE: I'm going to buy two tickets and applaud you on opening night, Maude.
JANE: Oh, thank you, dear--two tickets? Who are you going with? I see--when the cat's on stage the mouse will play.

MUSIC: (out of flashback).
ACE: And so on. Although she had hitched her wagon to a star, Jane finally settled for a microphone--thank heaven. As for the mink coat, you know how that was solved? Since I was adamant about it, Jane suggested to the play committee that the first act be played with thunder and lightning offstage to simulate a rainstorm. Mary Babs Moore, eminent electrician of all the WOMAN plays, naturally loved the idea. So the coat that was held up for Madame was Jane's raincoat.

Actually, the mink coat was also solved in "Jane Thinks Mink," another of the eight scripts bound into this charming little book. That solution wasn't half as simple as drawing an Ace-straight high. But it may have been simpler than Jane on a jury. ("If he's nice enough to pay me three dollars a day to be his jury, the least I can do is recuperate and say he didn't break the gum machine, doesn't it to you?") Or, diddling with astrology. ("You have no idea what a lonesome feeling it is to look across the breakfast table in the morning and not see that newspaper staring me in the face--even if he is only a Capricorn.") Or, going into the Christmas card business--in May. ("Profit is the money you make and loss is the money you don't.") Or, Jane's mother coming to visit. ("Oh, she says in the next sentence--'please excuse the shaky handwriting because we have just left Kansas City and the train is going real fast'.") Or, going to a psychiatrist. ("Well, I'm certainly not gonna sit there boring him for a full hour every day. So tomorrow I'm going to make up a story out of whole wheat." This, by the way, is the episode from which extracts were drawn for that soft-vinyl record included with the original book.) Or, finding Mother a new husband. ("That's the thanks you get from parents--staying out till all hours of the night--worrying their children--some times I don't think it's worth having them.")

Well, you could have knocked me over with a fender, too--no trump.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Our Miss Booth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Majesty Over Melodrama

You could see the prematurely craggy grille squeeze just so to amplify the empathetic severity in the voice, as Lionel Barrymore's Mayor Russell tried to reason with his friend, Judge Jim Williams, whose son decided to enlist in the Navy as World War II ramped up toward the bristling battles of the Pacific.

"He's got plenty of time ahead for fighting," father pronounced. "Right now, he's gonna finish law school."

"The boy feels it's his duty to go, and he's right," the mayor rejoined.

"Wellllll," replied the father, "he shall go, someday, if necessary---but not yet." It was an exclamation more than a declaration. "Not just yet. Let him finish school."

"Aaaaaugh," began Barrymore's mayor, in a groaning but not necessarily exasperated sigh. And then he sank into his homilitic persuasion.

Do you remember the Cummins boy who used to deliver groceries? Well, he's gone. Charlie Jackson's son from Harvard, and the young D.A. in your own court? Why, confound it, man, this is a last, desperate war for survival. The country has to be defended and held at any cost. Oh, I'll grant you raised the boy well, Jim, you taught him pride in country, pride in himself. Today, you should say, 'Thank God. Thank God for this son who's got enough honour and honesty to face the facts that his country is in a death struggle and needs him.

Then the mayor asked the judge whether he would have less courage than his son, to which the judge replied he would go himself, if he could. "It's easier to die yourself than to see someone you love die." After which the son and his bride-to-be persuaded the mayor to marry them post-haste. "We're the ones making the sacrifices," cooed the bride-to-be (played by Lurene Tuttle, freshly minted as niece Marjorie in The Great Gildersleeve), "and we have the right to whatever happiness we can get."

The mayor married them. A newsboy ballyhooed a midnight extra detailing a big Naval battle a few months hence, after which came a telegram to the mayor's office, leaving Barrymore's mayor the harrowing job of telling three town families their sons died in action in the Coral Sea. Including and especially the son whose father the judge Mr. Mayor had so recently convinced to let his duty-driven son go off to war.

Thus began Mayor of the Town, which spent four episodes on NBC before moving to CBS a month after its 1942 premiere. It's been classified a situation comedy, but with more situation than comedy it anticipated such coming radio and television exercises as Father Knows Best, where the laughs if any were the doing of the laugh track more than the often mawkish script. Except that The Mayor of the Town at its best was lower on the artificial sweeteners and slightly higher on the elemental believability scales, even if creator and primary writer Jean Holloway seemed prone enough to dulling the line between small town reality and Hallmark card surreality.

Barrymore's casting probably did the most to overcome that dulling, even if you've probably bypassed The Mayor of the Town running straight to snap up any of his various annual radio turns as Scrooge in someone's interpretation of A Christmas Carol. (Usually, but not exclusively, it would be Orson Welles's.) He brought precisely the weary dignity to Mayor Russell that you might have expected of a man who made a film with Joan Crawford and lived, and he kept even the most soap-operatic passages from sinking too deep into the suds.

But one only guesses at the thespian separation Barrymore made to play his Mayor Russell in the face of a Judge Williams lain soul deep by the death of the son he intended his professional heir. "How is it possible that you don't understand how this has gone with me?" Russell rejoins to Williams's seething, accusatory grief. "Why, I taught Tom how to hold his first baseball bat. I taught him to swim. A few months ago I officiated at his wedding."

"Yes, you officiated at his wedding," answered Williams, in a low voice through implicitly clenched teeth. "And tomorrow you will hold further ceremony for him, and his comrades. You will make a speech about patriotism and expect to fill our hearts with your words." A pause, before a half-shouted cry. "Well, the devil take your words! Couldn't you even leave me in peace in my sorrow? Did you have to impose even on my grief?"

"I thought we were almost brothers," answered the mayor, Barrymore's voice in a battle between wavering and whittling. "I thought what came to one of us came to both." The following day, after having endured a comparable searing of gried from the widowed young bride, he did indeed deliver the speech of which he was accused of preparing. And you heard Barrymore's voice amplify enough from a well to which a microphone is only an echo.

Believe me, I know the personal grief of each and every one of you. I who have no sons of my own blood have shared the lives of yours. I've known the progress of teeth and broken legs, and baseball teams and romances. I've heard them sing at football games and insult the baseball umpires. And now I've seen them march away to play a deadlier game. Still singing, still insulting, some of them are not to return.

Some of them have already given their lives in the name of America. And you who saw them go ask me, 'Is it right? Why did they go? What did they die for?' And I must answer you in this manner. They died for Patrick Henry. Nathan Hale, and John Paul Jones. They died for schools and movie houses and summer picnics, country roads, woods in Maine, the lakes in California, for the right to say what they like, and to like what they like, and debunk what they don't like, all those things that became suddenly sacred to them when they were threatened.

A plea for the nobility of some childrens' deaths, spoken through the actor's craft by a father whose own two children fell to disease, not in battle, before they were even old enough for school. It's as impossible to know which rends a parent more deeply as it is to know whom beside Lionel Barrymore could have kept such a homily from substituting melodrama for majesty entirely. (He had, in fairness, a certain augmentative training a year earlier: he was part of Norman Corwin's landmark We Hold These Truths, commemorating the Bill of Rights's 150th birthday. Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles joined that party.)

But the widowed bride took the old mayor's arm to escort him home, and the grief-shorn judge congratulated him for a fine speech, before harrumphing his way into a checkers invitation. And the widowed bride saved it from bathos by asking permisson to watch, "just to see that you don't cheat." Both of them.

Mayor Russell may have had no sons but he had a widowed daughter, Margaret (Bea Benaderet, I think), whose first appearance in the second show came by way of an anxious telephone call from Philadelphia. Seems the mayor's granddaughter, en route to Grandpa by train (Agnes Moorehead as secretary Marilly was dispatched to meet her), had plunged full into the old tradition of the weekly crush. "It was all right when it was Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor," warbled Mom, "but last week she was going to elope with the insurance man."

Barrymore's mischievious two-syllable snicker said what the script didn't put into his mouth. It could have been worse.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

June Allyson, RIP: Occasional Radio

June Allyson, who died 8 July of pulmonary respiratory failure and acute bronchitis, wasn't entirely a stranger to classic radio. Somewhere between making 1944's Music for Millions and 1945's Her Highness and the Bellboy, she joined Reginald Gardiner and Don DeFore in the last show of the short-lived Old Gold Comedy Theater (hosted and directed by silent screen legend Harold Lloyd).

As Janie, she played a telephone operator longing first for and then beyond a handsome local millionaire, in "Tom, Dick, and Harry," aired 6 June 1945. Allyson was exactly as film audiences were becoming accustomed to knowing her: the sweet girl with just enough soft tartness to transcend the temptresses and stand calmly above their pursuers. (You saw how many obituaries saying the GIs ogling Betty Grable's pin-up still wanted to come home to June Allyson?) She seemed bewildered enough on microphone alone at the outset, but she shed her discomfort as the program progressed and became her usual persona with deceptive effortlessness.

Allyson made a few more radio appearances while her film career took off in earnest. Her unusual voice (it has been called cracked and smoky at once, as if her persona had had to be bad to learn how to be good) and knack for unaffected left-field punch lines would have made her a fine radio career if she'd chosen to make one. But owning the near-perfect wife or girl friend franchise on celluloid was her destiny, for a decade, anyway.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Another Word From Our Sponsor

PHARMACY CUSTOMER: What do you have if I’m feeling the pain of neuralgia.

PHARMACIST: We can’t relieve the pang of nostalgia.

SFX: (doo-wop NBC chime notes.)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Banjo Eyes Rap

“A star more than an actress, a personality more than a star.” Such was the manner in which the critic Robert Gottlieb described Tallulah Bankhead, in a 2005 New Yorker piece. His valedictory (upon publication of her seventh biography), was that she “substituted personality for technique and eccentricity for effort” in one of the twentieth century’s saddest talent squanderings, one that reduced the actress to spending her last twelve years longing to die. “And since she was intelligent,” Gottlieb added, “she must have been aware of the waste. No wonder she despaired.”

Tallulah probably left her pure talent on stage in The Little Foxes and on film in Lifeboat. (You would be very hard pressed to find anyone comfortable referring to her by her surname even now.) But she did find one outlet, neither stage nor screen, where substituting personality for technique and eccentricity for effort actually did her a huge favour. Even, dare say, to the extent of making her likeable, in human terms, because in no small part it shaped hers into a kind of comic image, and because she was smart enough not to think it beneath her to succumb.

The Big Show (the title notwithstanding, calling it an extravaganza may have been an understatement) began on NBC radio in 1950 as an instant hit with critics and listeners, even if its most effective valedictory referred with cruel wit to the primary target it couldn’t arrest; it was, wrote the New York Times critic Jack Gould, “good enough to make one wish he had seen it.” But, when television wasn’t keeping people from caring much about this Sunday night spectacular of the mind’s eye (“you could almost hear the sequins,” the critic Gerald Nachman has written), Jack Benny (and other former NBC stars who had followed him jumping to CBS a year or so earlier) was. The show was probably lucky to live two years.

Throwback and forward pass at once; The Big Show revived the earliest successful radio style of the music-and-mirth variety---not for nothing, perhaps, did such far earlier radio stars as Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn turn up---and introduced a kind of pilot fish for Ed Sullivan’s weekly television variety spectaculars, even if The Big Show wasn’t going to go far enough in absurdism to follow an operatic aria with an animal act. Here was a star at least sensible enough to know it was best to make her own fun of her diva-eccentric image, with a writing team (led by the redoubtable Goodman Ace) that knew how to make the inversion fit, for herself and in her badinage with performers as diverse as Fred Allen, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Barrymore, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Jose Ferrer, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Rex Harrison, Groucho Marx, Ethel Merman, Robert Merrill, Laurence Olivier, Claude Rains, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, and even a New York Giant or Yankee. (She actually had Leo Durocher and “Old Reliable” outfielder Tommy Henrich as guests on one or another installment.)

So who knew Tallulah’s Big Show would prove an unintentional laboratory for Eddie Cantor’s unintentional possible co-invention of rap?

Cantor has been remembered in terms far less flattering than the ignobility of an imaginary rap curlicue. The song-dance-and-joke man was anything but a consciously forward-looking performer when first he slipped from stage and screen through American living room furniture. It is reasonable to ask how many among the millions who adored his in-character niceness each week couldn’t admit they had no idea, oftentimes, what was so funny about Ol' Banjo Eyes. “On none of his various shows . . . did Cantor exhibit an especially funny delivery or voice,” Nachman has written of him, in Raised on Radio, “but he made up for it by projecting himself with a mechanical freneticism. Despite the liberal use of guests and wacky burlesque relief like the characters of the Mad Russian and Parkyakarkus, or a comic violin virtuoso named Rubinoff, Cantor was caught in a comic time warp, yet he lasted until he moved over to TV in 1949.”

Nor did he exhibit an allergy to pilferage, if you take the word of his one-time supporting cast member Arnold Stang, who told Nachman that Cantor had the habit of rehearsing his radio shows before live audiences, stealing the other performers’ best laugh lines, and rewriting the script to give those lines to himself, whether or not the lines had actually been written to Cantor’s on-air persona. Said Stang, when leaving the Cantor show, “I’m not going to keep breaking in your material for you.”

Cantor’s first slot on the 19 November 1950 edition of The Big Show (the third of the series) involved either a little unintentional irony or head writer Ace slipping him a fast one. (Ace probably knew more inside business than you might have gleaned if your only experience with him was the quietly absurdist Easy Aces.) Behind Tallulah’s ironic enough opening monologue about stage egos, Cantor led a campy little kvetchfest (the other participants: Mindy Carson, Perry Como, Jimmy Durante, Jose Ferrer, and Ray Middleton) over whom among the cast was getting how much love in terms of which performance slots and what level of salutary adjectives, beforeTallulah brought him directly to face the audience and asked why he’d put on the sulk.

CANTOR: All I know is I’ve been in show business forty years. I have never been treated as badly as I have been here today. Not even by Milton Berle. Why, when I went on his show he not only stole my best jokes but he stole my glasses so I couldn’t even read the bad jokes he gave me. (Laughter.) That’s Berle.

BANKHEAD: You mean you don’t like the jokes you’re supposed to tell? The last one just got a laugh.

CANTOR: Yes, but who got the laugh? Berle . . . (muted laughter) . . . See? That’s two for him.

Cantor in short order reeled off a little routine recalling his radio career, singing a bit from his sugary signoff theme (“I love to spend this Sunday with you . . .”), spinning one or two of his better jokes, and including one of his customary gags about his five unmarriagable daughters. “But a comedian, no matter how funny, is dependent entirely upon his material,” he purred. “Night after night you go to bed hoping to dream up a new gag, a screamingly funny line, there’s no sleep—no sleep for any of us.”

Then Meredith Willson’s percussionist rumble-rolled a slightly tribal-sounding drum pattern, and Cantor warbled, “always, there’s a pounding, pounding in your brain…,” before slinking rhythmically into half-chant, half-holler:

Who, who—
was, was—
Who was that lady I seen you with?
Jokes, jokes, pounding in my brain again
Jokes, jokes, riddles to explain again
Farmer jokes, drummer jokes,
These are cold, those are hot
Winter jokes, summer jokes
Summer jokes, some are not
When the program has been done
Another program has begun
Jokes, jokes, find a subject, start to kid it
Soon you find that Wynn did it
Durante did it
Even Danny Thomas did it
Groucho did it, Hope did it
The guy who’s selling soap did it

If you hit on something good
They grab it up in Hollywood
Harris, funny fellow, does it
Learn that Abbott and Costello does it
Then it’s kicked from coast to coast
Refusing to give up the ghost
Soon it’s dead, out of date,
No one dares to do it—wait!
Who’s just found a novel twist
That the other minds have missed
So it’s polished up, and then
The vicious cycle starts again
Wynn does it, Durante does it
Even Danny Thomas does it
Groucho does it, Hope does it
The guy who’s selling soap does it

Gags, puns, kids today are reared on it
Jokes, puns, each one has a beard on it
Find a new one, pull a killer
Someone hollers, “That’s Joe Miller.”
Jokes, puns, quips, gags
Comics, critics, stooges, wags,
Laughs, laughs, laughs, laughs
But from now on I’ll be tough
On guys who want to steal my stuff
And to my fellow comics
This challenge I hurl
Let’s go steal our jokes back
From Mr. Milton Berle!

If Arnold Stang and Gerald Nachman were right, Eddie Cantor rapping about guys stealing his stuff compared to studying tolerance under Mao Tse-tung. (If a lot of people were right, Cantor mistook frenetic for funny, made enough people fall for it to make a career, and probably did his vaudeville and film act--nutjob costumes included--in front of a live radio studio audience because watching him was funnier than listening. As a radio comedian Cantor would have made a terrific television act, if television was up and running two decades sooner.)

But if rap’s foundations in due course were as much expropriated as excavated, then Ol' Banjo Eyes inadvertently proves a worthy if unintended seed. It's not quite as far as you think from "Jokes! Jokes!" to "Rapper's Delight," even if Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Danny Thomas, Groucho Marx, and Bob Hope weren't quite in the Sugar Hill Gang's 'hood.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Just Mad About Saffron

You can exhaust yourself thinking about the various people demanding one or another kind of official quash upon things despised for no reason better than what is feared burrowing through the soil from which grows political correctness. The weeds face left and right alike, with both sides protesting the other side's doing it worse.

They should have been there 29, 30, and 31 July 1946, when those days' editions of the New York Herald-Tribune hit the streets. Therein was a John Crosby mini-series of columns examining a particularly revealing censorship tally over much of one fourteen-year period. Ponder the following that at least one radio network thought unsuitable for American ears.

The adjective, "saffron." Saffron is either a spice derived from the saffron crocus flower or a food ingredient that can make some food rather richly yellow, thanks to the cartenoid dye known as crocin contained therein. Our network in 1946 decided saffron had a different kind of spicy connotation. It required a prompt dictionary examination to convince said network that saffron had little if anything to do with sex. At least, not until Donovan's cheery 1966 hit, "Mellow Yellow." ("I'm just mad about saffron . . . ")

Cracks about heaven. One such in one script, about a judge recently deceased and going to a higher court, was stricken because you just can't clown about heaven.

Cracks about the wedding ceremony. There would be no bride promising to love, honour, and lump it till death did she part from her lawfully-wedded husband on that network. In fairness, this was still a few years before hapless John Bickerson, fed up yet again with his shrewish wife's wee-small-hours harassment, recalled their marriage vows: "I said, I do, and you said, Oh, no you don't."

Cracks combining marriage and death. Don't even think about it. There would be no wounded feelings among the nation's morticians inspired by anything rung in by those chimes. Not after some crack about a girl who could have found a better husband at the cemetery. The writer-performer in question, Mr. Crosby noted, "got the line cleared only after pointing out that cemeteries have been topics for comedy since the time of Aristophanes."

Fictitious people. No society matron named Mrs. Biddle Pratt, nor United States Senator named Guff from Idaho, would be allowed over that network's air until or unless it was proven, incontrovertibly, that no such society matron or U.S. Senator actually existed.

Real society people. Permission from notorious debutante Brenda Frazier's family was required first before our writer-performer could say on the air how she never looked lovelier at the time of her wedding.

Fictitious first mates on British ocean liners. Not if they were endowed with Cockney accents in comedy routines. After all, the actual first mate on the actual Queen Mary was believed to be a rather cultured man in his own right. He might have taken umbrage.

Fictitious towns. No fictitious town of North Wrinkle could be a sketch subject because there just might be a real town of North Wrinkle and it just might be real offended.

The legendary Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast of War of the Worlds---yep, the one for which Orson Welles tried to horn all the credit*. It was one thing for the original broadcast to scare half the East Coast out of its actual or alleged minds; it was another barrel of Martians altogether to poke even a little mad fun at those who ran around looking madly for the space invaders. The only surprise seems to have been that the script in question didn't include something mad fun about the invaders. But then our network might have pronounced that we weren't about to give any prospective real invaders any reason to think about a real invasion.

All the foregoing involved one man, Fred Allen, who managed regardless to shoot his arrows into the hierarchs at intervals regular enough, particularly in his final seasons as a host comedian. I hereby promise to refrain from mentioning him awhile, since I've done it often enough in this journal's first week of life, but if you've built a library of his broadcasts, and have a generous volume of 1945 forward, you know now the source of his frequent barbs at network vice presidents.

But then applying the phrase strip tease crag to Bear Mountain, along the Hudson River, required hours of persuasion, Mr. Crosby noted, before the network was satisfied there was nothing salacious about the context. It isn't known whether the Allen script in question was written during a week when one of those legendary Catskills resorts pondered trying Gypsy Rose Lee on the bill. Or, a production of Lysistrata.
* Under Welles' direction, Howard Koch---the future co-writer of Casablanca---wrote the preponderance of the radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's novel. Koch was compelled in due course to sue for his rightful recognition. And, he won that suit.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Rule Six

James Thurber's sixth rule of humour enjoins against comic stories about plumbers mistaken for surgeons, sheriffs terrified by gunfire, psychiatrists driven crazy by women patients, doctors fainting at the sight of blood, adolescent girls knowing more about sex than their fathers, and midgets who become the parents of two-hundred-pound wrestlers.

Suppose we reverse the clauses in Thurber's Rule Six? Uh-oh.

The swelling of malpractise insurance and litigation can leave you wondering how many surgeons have been mistaken for plumbers. The swelling of celluloid libidinism since then can leave you wondering how many women have been driven crazy by psychiatrists and how many fathers know more about sex than their adolescent children. And the swelling of political correctness probably means nobody parents a midget, never mind two-hundred-pound wrestlers.

Reversing the sheriffs and the gunfire is a challenge. But I wonder sometimes whether a vampire would faint at the sight of a doctor.

A Word From Our Sponsor

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SFX: (bass trombone sounding foghorn notes).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Sweet Tart of Sigma Delta Chi

Henry Morgan suffered neither fools nor sponsors gladly; to him they seemed interchangeable. ("Schick injector blades are educational . . . Try the new Schick injector blades. That'll teach you.") And it may explain a lot about why there were those who got nervous when Morgan accepted an invitation to address the 1950 edition of Sigma Delta Chi's (the national journalist's fraternity) New York chapter's annual dinner.

"It lasted all of a minute and a half," noted New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby, "a fine length for a speech, and it was a fine speech." Why, Henry practically behaved himself even in his barbs. You'll have to exhume Mr. Crosby's Out of the Blue (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952; 301 pages) to read his introduction to a full transcription of Bad Henry's address on the then-current state of the press. I share that transcription happily.
I was asked here this evening mainly because it's common knowledge that I am an authority on this stuff. A number of people here work on newspapers. That isn't nearly as bad as what I do. I have to read them. Some people produce radio programs. I have it much worse than they do. I work for them--newspapers and radio--the two greatest influences of our time, I figure. You see before you the creature you have made. I am the average warped man.

Because of you people in this room, I believe Owen Lattimore is a Communist. I also believe he is not a Communist. Because of you people I believe F.D.R. was a genius and also that he ruined the country. I believe that there is more crime in this country than ever before and that our police are the best in the world. I believe that Eisenhower would make a great President except that I have read that military men don't make good Presidents and, besides, he will run if enough pressure is brought, he will not run, he can't run, he refuses to run, he doesn't want the job, you can talk him into it, he's trying very hard to make it look as though he doesn't want it, he's happy at Columbia, he's miserable, he's got a cold, he feels great.

You have made it possible for me to take five cents and buy, in one package, a new picture of President Truman, my horoscope for the day, fifteen comic strips, and the stock market reports. And I've read some terrible things about you. You work for money. Advertising dictates your policy. The department stores dictate your editorials. Don't you think you'd be happier with some other system? Wouldn't it be nicer to have a bureau of some kind supervise your work? Then, if the bureau didn't like it, you could adjust or get killed.

Still in all, it's better than having people point at you and say: "There's a man who works for money." Somehow it's getting to be very un-American to work for money. It's also un-American not to work and to live on unemployment insurance. It's un-American to have social security and it's un-American to have such a small amount of social security. I strongly suspect that this is all your fault.

In short, you people in this room have put me, the average man, in a peculiar position. I now have to make up my mind for myself. As long as you keep doing that, as long as you keep forcing the man in the street to make up his mind for himself, that's as long as we'll have the only working definition of democracy that's worth a damn. Thank you.
One up for Bad Henry. And today we gaze upon the press (William Safire: "When you like us, we're the press; when you hate us, we're the media") and think we're not being left to make up our own minds. Today we also gaze upon the media (Ibid.) and think we're being left with no minds to make up, whatever the media makes up. We don't think a bureau of some kind supervising the press would do much good, we don't think a bureau of some kind supervising the media would do much harm. We still think it's un-American to work for money, we still think it's un-American to un-work for money.

We're not unlike some Presidential candidates and other, higher life forms that way.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


“Whether or not he knows it, the successful comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion,” wrote Fred Allen, toward the finish, giving his first memoir its rhythmic and arresting title. “When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished, he slinks down memory lane into the limbo of yesterday’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter, and some receipts from the Treasury Department.”

To see it in printed words is harrowing enough, even with the punch line. To hear Allen say it, as he did to Tex McCrary (columnist) and Jinx Falkenburg (his model-actress wife) on a dank 24 November 1954 midday, is to feel the damp chill under his umbrella as he slipped toward the Waldorf-Astoria for that day’s New York Closeup broadcast, the chill of a man refusing illusion but wishing in one recess of his soul that his words could be proven a lie.

“Everything that’s true is sad in a way,” said the man who turned pretenses into laughs and extracted laughs from truths for eighteen years as a radio star. That and two more years as a guest so frequent he could have been the unofficial guest host of Tallulah Bankhead’s The Big Show.

“Echoes of forgotten laughter,” Falkenburg repeated, from the book, apparently as then-U.N. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge strolled by with a wave. This stroll Jinx couldn’t resist giving a low-keyed plug. The timing would have been exquisite if there had been a verifiable record of laughter coming out of the U.N. in the first place, echored or otherwise.

Better left unsurmised is the timing of a promotional spot Jinx delivered for a contest the winners of which would receive three months’ free worth of the Cascade Diaper Service, on condition that either parent predicted their child’s iminent birth correctly while only one in these pre-sonogram days could predict the iminent child’s gender.

“You know, my book looks well in a diaper,” Allen purred at the finish of the Cascade contest spot. “I’ve never seen it but I imagine it would if you have no children.” Good thing Jack Benny was in Hollywood and weaning himself from radio to television.

The day’s news was enough to make a reading of Allen’s valedictory resemble a revivalist sermon. Thirteen Americans sent behind bars for four-to-life on spy charges by Mao Tse-tung’s China, whose public security ministry announced 124 quote American spies captured and 106 killed since 1951, a paltry per decapita even granting the Communist style of veracity. A former U.S. Commerce Department worker in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary killed by fellow inmates just days before Alger Hiss was to be released, with the prison saying the one had nothing to do with the other.

Thomas E. Dewey’s widowed mother died in Michigan. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s namesake son, a Congressman who had just lost his bid to become New York’s attorney general, spurned an offer to join Governor-elect Averill Harriman’s quote team, a quote offer Harriman’s quote team denied making. Malek arrived in New York to pinch-hit as the Soviet ambassador to the U.N., a day or two after the body of Vyshinski, who died far more gently than his government compelled of millions of his empiremen, began its journey home for a state funeral. New York’s planning commission actually said no to Robert Moses for a change, spurning a seven million dollar plus outlay for six new recreation centers.

“There are probably going to be some fireworks before the sun goes down tonight,” McCrary drolled. Then he crooned the bad news of continued dreary rain and Falkenburg swiveled back to their guest. And there were almost going to be fireworks before the next topic of conversation arose in bloom.

“I’d like to ask you, Fred Allen, author of Treadmill to Oblivion, if anything—” Falkenburg began. Pop! “Oops!” she squeaked, before a blushing laugh. “Ooooh . . .”

“Can you describe what happened?” McCrary asked Allen, in an attempted deadpan.

“Why, I thought it was a burlesque show starting here, it looked like a striptease,” Allen deadpanned back. “You can’t depend on these . . . what is it, a zipper, a snap?”

“Usually, I can’t depend on zippers," Falkenburg replied, "but this is just a snap.”

“You’d better get a stronger zipper,” Allen said, “or go on a diet.”

“As I started to talk to you, you see, I put my hands on my, uh, hips, and I was sort of pushing my, um, flexing, pushing my shoulders back,” Falkenburg continued, “and with that the top of my dress just popped, just snapped open.”

“Fortunately, this is still radio,” Allen drawled. “Saved the day.”

“And, fortunately,” Falkenburg purred, “I’m very well equipped below.” You could hear Allen arching his wry New England brow before referring Falkenburg to her husband for confirmation. “In the way of clothes,” Falkenburg recovered with a saucily emphatic laugh.

“The choice of adjectives could be better here,” Allen rejoined.

It had to have been better than those McCrary cited at the show’s beginning. “I’m afraid I’m about to libel our guest today,” he said. “He’s been described as, quote, a sour-faced man with saddlebag eyes, and a voice that sounds like he’s filing his teeth.”

“That’s not true, Tex,” replied Allen, the becalmed Waldorf atmosphere a considerable distance from the swollen reverb of his Sunday night barbs. “I never file my teeth, I keep them in my mouth at all times, morning, noon, and night. And if I did file them, I’d file them under ‘T’.”

Treadmill to Oblivion bound up a memoir of Allen’s radio life with a particularly choice selection of his vintage radio scripts. “I called it that because any successful person, especially a comedian who gets involved in the mechanised version of the entertainment world, has to compete with the machine,” he told McCrary and Falkenburg. “And, of course, he has to lose the battle, because the machine is gonna survive.”

He said subsequently that his editor, Ed O’Connor, at the time a Boston Post journalist, had enjoyed the Allen shows as a collegian, “so he thought it was a shame to have them all disappear or have no records of them,” and suggested the book to the Atlantic Monthly’s publishing arm at Little, Brown. O’Connor chose the scripts and Allen wrote the memoir.

Oops. Neither comprehended that the machines through which Fred Allen thought himself sentenced to oblivion might turn out to sentence him, instead, to immortality. Above and beyond the dreary midday on which he oversaw Jinx Falkenburg’s wardrobe malfunction, and nobody thought to sic the Federal Communications Commission on them.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Late, Great Goodman Ace

Attributed to Goodman Ace, by Robert Metz (in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye), a relative wired him: "Send $10,000 or I'll jump from the fourteenth floor of my building." Ace is said to have replied, "Jump from seven—I’ll send $5,000." Some might imagine that answer changing the relative's mood from suicidal to homicidal. Others might imagine that answer had the relative laughing hard enough to fall out the window anyway, landing cartoon style on or through an awning or a trash heap.

Is Ace is remembered much today, beyond radio nostalgists who have succeeded somehow in passing the affliction to their children and grandchildren? Beyond television nostalgists, who remember him as Perry Como’s head writer? (About that, he once observed it was strange getting paid to write, “Ladies and gentlemen, we take you now to exotic Brazil.”)

Once, in his newspaper days, as film and drama critic for the ancient Kansas City Journal-Post, Jack Benny invited him to send a joke or three. Then a vaudevillian, Benny loved the jokes and wired Ace a $50 check, saying, “Your jokes got a lot of laughs. If you have more, please send them.” Ace wired back the check with his own message: “Your check got a lot of laughs. If you have more, please send them.”

As it happened, he slithered into radio comedy by mistake. During his newspapering days, he landed a radio gig reading the Sunday comics on one slot for Kansas City KMBC, added another slot reading his Journal-Post and other reviews. He drolled merrily along until the 1930 night his wife, Jane, turned up at the station with him, but the fifteen-minute show scheduled to follow his program didn’t.

That left Ace to fill in the air time. He started ad-libbing about a bridge game he and his wife played the previous weekend, interjecting chatter about a local murder case said to have begun with a row over a bridge game. (Jane: “Would you like to shoot a game of bridge, dear?”) KMBC listeners hardly missed the regularly-scheduled program for laughing at the Aces. And KMBC hardly missed the message, inviting the critic to develop his own regular new fifteen-minute domestic comedy.

He wrote and cast himself as a put-upon realtor and his wife a deceptively scatterbrained language molester ("That was a story, not like this book. ‘Moving forces abroad in the world today’—what kind of talk is that for a fella with a girl, especially when they're alone?"). This low-volume, conversational, serial absurdism would provoke laughs enough that times would surely come in the following decade and a half when more than a few thought it appropriate that Easy Aces’ longest-serving sponsor was Anacin.

In due course Goodman Ace (his non de plume was an altered inversion of his first pseudonym; he was born Goodman Aiskowitz) became an employably respected writer for others' radio and television exercises; Tallulah Bankhead’s The Big Show, Jack Benny (for whom Ace, having struck a friendship with that ancient packet, wrote jokes on the house for years), Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Perry Como, Danny Kaye, Robert Q. Lewis, and Bob Newhart were among Ace's actual or reputed victims. So was Ace himself, apparently, as he once described from somewhere amidst his later long service as a Saturday Review columnist.

For fourteen years long years I was a cobalt addict. My television set was on from the moment I came home from work . . . I watched ten or twelve shows every night. The effect was an exhilaration that defies description. I floated on cloud two and four and five and seven and nine and eleven and sometimes thirteen . . .

Then came the great awakening . . . The drabness of the entertainment had begun to seep throgh even to my befogged mind. But strangely enough color was the catalyst that brought on my agnonizing period of withdrawal. Color did not change one stilted line of the dialogue we heard or wring one twist to a predictable plot we watched. Color only pointed up their shoddy banalities . . .

. . . Racked as I was, a Machiavellian plan obsessed me. I could beat this set at its own game. I quickly turned on Channel 3. No program. Just a light. And I sat to read a newspaper. One nefarious notion leads to another. I turned to the amusement page. Movie ads were in full bloom. I made a list of the current pictures in the cinema theaters—The Ipcress File, Dr. Zhivago, Life at the Top, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, That Darn Cat. Opposite this I listed the TV fare for that evening—Gilligan's Island, My Three Sons, Donna Reed, and the ever-popular Mona McCluskey. It wasn't even close. I went to a movie.

Switch "cable" for "colour" and you have the likely scenario if Goodman Ace lived today. Unfortunately, switch Doom, Jarhead, Bee Season, Saw II, or North Country for The Ipcress File, Dr. Zhivago, Life at the Top, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and That Darn Cat, and you might be tempted to stay home for That 70s Show, How I Met Your Mother, My Name is Earl, and the ever-popular Joey. Tempting Jesus Christ of Ol' Splitfoot himself wasn't that satanic.

The aforequoted column ("Where the Reaction Is," granted that the pun is comprehensible to few beyond Sixties brats who insisted upon watching any and everything with Dick Clark's name on it) survived long enough for collection in The Fine Art of Hypochondria, or How Are You, one of a pair of collections (The Better of Goodman Ace is the other) on which I pounced when spotting them side by side, in a favourite used book store, the asking price six dollars each. If you don’t count the negative blood test, they were the funniest reading I had last summer.

Any man can treat a sacred cow as though it is worth but one thing (steak). Any man can treat a contemporary obsession as though it ought to be curable and the sooner, the better. Ace treated the sacred cow as due for a cure and made mincemeat of the contemporary obsession, with the fact of the cow or obsession once or then signing an Ace paycheck entirely coincidental.

"I run into a lot of people who say they were in their doctors' offices the other day and while waiting they picked up a copy of Saturday Review and read this or that column of mine," he wrote, in "What's Old?", precise date unknown, the particularly annoying 1960s practise being that collections of newspaper or magazine columns often as not lacked the columns' publication dates. "Of course, that's one way to subscribe to Saturday Review, the cowardly way."

Not so simply, Ace understood the absurd sides of his profession and his customary employers, and he understood concurrently that exposing them was more survivable if you did it without becoming a harrumphing troll.

Newspaper television critics seem to have a morbid and unfriendly preoccupation with money. "Is it true," they invariably ask, "that you get ten thousand dollars a week for writing that program?" And in their eyes you read the rest of the question: " . . . And they're not eating in Cambodia?" . . . [A]s I swim through this Sargasso Sea of TV critique of our program last week, I notice that with some cleverly conceived convolutions the writer always winds up with the money question. Harriet Van Horne, who writes a distinguished column for the New York World-Telegram & Sun, did it most gently: "Surely television's highest paid writer could have come up with a better finish for the sketch." There is, of course, an assumption here that the same finish would have seemed better if the writer hadn't been paid so much."

I can guess reasonably enough that Ace wrote that passage between 1963 and 1965, and surviving those years certainly required good humour to dissolve bad blood. In those years Lee Harvey Oswald turned John F. Kennedy from charismatic incompetent into God, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson turned Barry Goldwater into the Creature from the Black Lagoon, civil rights got turned into nanny largesse, and a non-existent military attack got twisted with a lost less fun than Johnson twisted any arm not attached to Whitey Ford during a long career making Capitol Hill his personal ranch club.

Neither did it hurt to have a sense of humour when dealing with the subsequent fooleries of the post-Kennedy/Johnson era. Let Richard Nixon think aloud about what was right with America (however constipated he looked doing it, even as Ronald Reagan looked completely natural doing it), and all Goodman Ace could think about was that he was dreaming the implausible dream, as it was put in the name of a column collected in The Better of Goodman Ace.

Maybe dreams worked in early America. So I went back to my early American Dream. What was right about America those days was Josie—the girl in high school. What is wrong about Josie these nights is that she is still quite contradictory and antagonistic to my own particular American Dream.

That may be the perfect dream to dream, when you spend the previous night dreaming of a hijacking from between Paris and London to Lester Maddox's restaurant—the one that preferred serving a Negro an ax handle upon his head instead of a chicken dinner upon his tongue. Not to mention a session of Congress and a visit with your banker. (I suggested that 25 percent [interest] was a little high. "But wait," he said, "you haven't heard the best part. Every American has dreamed that someday he would own a toaster or an alarm clock. We offer you a freedom of choice—free—a toaster or an alarm clock." I chose the toaster. I wouldn't need an alarm clock to wake me out of that one.)

And, after having as much fun with name-yours liberation movements as you could get away with, before political correctness made fun subject to grievance hearings and bills before the House Committee on Kissing the Bruises and Binding Them With Booty, Ace opened his none-too-small satchel of spare snickers for the liberation of a group of second class citizens to which he was himself a pledge.

. . . the elderly who are fighting for more day- and night-care nursing homes for the aged and struggling for a haven during the time of life that is euphemistically referred to as "When you reach December."

A cruel metaphor. Men and women, aged seventy, would be better served, and better able to cope with the frightening and eroding processes, if they were referred to as having reached September. Psychologically, they could better survive if they have reached October at eighty, November at ninety, and December at 100. In January, they are on their own.

That would make sixty August and fifty July, so as of 18 November 2005 you could call me July, and since this is now July you can call me, period.

Before then I was busy reading Ace's analysis of newborns, the kind too many thought were born geniuses and made it manifest from the moment they wrapped the cords around their mothers' necks and slapped the doctors, the better to shut them all the hell up and listen to their translations of "Howl."

Infants aren't born with a gift for comedy. I have known four- and five-week-olds who couldn't ad-lib a burp after a bottle of formula without being savagely pummeled on the back. As for those who, now and then, do come up with a big yak, I'm of the opinion that they have writers.

You wish Ace had lived long enough to meet today's four- and five-week-olds. He would miss only his wife (she died eight years ahead of her husband) more than he would miss the days when the little cherubs merely came out, wrapped their mother's necks, slapped the doctors, and started reciting their translations of "Howl." It would be a huge improvement over what today's four- and five-week-olds are probably reciting, with or without Death Row Records recording contracts, and probably after a drive-by guerney shooting. If any of them came up with a big yak, Ace would figure that the Writers' Guild of America had a new president for life—Figaro.

The funniest reading I have this summer belongs thus far to two more Ace drolleries: The Book of Little Knowledge: More Than You Want to Know About Television, a 1955 anthology of his earlier Saturday Review television criticism; and, Ladies and Gentlemen—Easy Aces, his 1970 anthology of eight choice scripts from what Jane would have called that impeachable domestic calamity. I’d write about them now but I thought it would be a splendid idea to read them first.

Personally, I have always hoped that that relative laughed hard enough to fall out the window, anyway, landing to find a stray $10,000, left behind forgotten by some gangster with more important things on his mind—like his back-alley execution.

In slightly altered form, this essay first appeared in January 2006.