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, October 30, 2006

All Checks, No Balances

Once upon a time (in 1940, to be precise) Gracie Allen ran for the presidency. "Gracie and I were at home in Beverly Hills with our children," recalled George Burns long after the fact, when half out of the blue his wife continued, 'I'm tired of knitting this sweater. I think I'll run for president this year'."

Ninety percent out of the blue and the other half out of her mind? Maybe. Maybe not. Though you ponder the possibilities if she'd picked Jane Ace as her running mate.

As I all these trusting and loving faces . . . tears come into my eyes . . . and if you must know why . . . it's because my girdle is killing me.

All the other candidates are making speeches about how much they have done for their country, which is ridiculous. I haven't done anything yet, and I think it's just common sense to send me to Washington and make me do my share.

I stand before you tonight a simple, plain woman . . . which is not my fault, but the beautician can't take me till tomorrow.

Keep up your morning exercises, because every politician must be able to keep both feet on the fence with his ear to the ground.

This used to be a government of checks and balances. Now it's all checks and no balances.

The brief but brilliant series of Burns and Allen Shows that carried the "Gracie for President" gag to its illogically logical conclusion remains engaging radio. But it's kind of a shame she didn't live to run for the Presidency in 2008. We still have a government with all checks and no balances. And, at least two thirds of the time, no sense of humour.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Jane Wyatt, RIP: Humane, Not Caricature

She made her most enduring name (and won three consecutive Emmy awards) on the television version of Father Knows Best; the original, radio version featured the future Wilma Flintstone (Jean Vander Pyl) in the Margaret Anderson role that soon became Jane Wyatt's property alone.

That didn't keep Wyatt, a likeable film actress before she became a likeable television star, from a classic radio presence. Most of it appears to have come by way of roles on Family Theater (Mutual): one guest shot in 1947, one in 1948, two in 1950 (including "The Lady With a Lamp," with Claudette Colbert and Robert Ryan), one in 1951, two in 1952, one in 1954, and one in 1955.

Wyatt, who died Friday in Bel-Air (her husband of 64 years died six years ago) played those roles with the affectionate dignity for which she became known as Margaret Anderson, neither overacting nor flattening them. In essence, she graduated from the well-bred ingenues of her early stage and film career into something more approachable without becoming something less humane.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

We Consent to Yet Another Word From Our Sponsor

In gratitude for their consent to leave us in peace and quiet for a fortnight at least, we consent to bring you yet another word from our sponsor.

ANNOUNCER: Macrocephalous

And now that he's confessed to the content of his character, our sponsor returns you cheerfully to your regularly-scheduled programming.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Between Innings

Somewhere in the middle of watching and recording baseball's postseason revues (the Detroit Tigers kicked the Oakland Athletics to the curb and down the manholes; the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals have no intention of going that gently into that hard day's night), I managed nevertheless to catch up with a little classic radio listening. Enough to jot down a few random thoughts between now and my next serious logic chop.

▲ I'm still trying to determine the point at which Judy Canova became somebody's brilliant inspiration for The Beverly Hillbillies. When all was said and done, she was genuinely funny. (She was also, if you took a second look, a very attractive lady.)

▲ There seems no sensible reason for Milton Berle's broadcasting career, if you don't count how many people who finally made him a television hit forgot his schtick was even less intelligible than their imagination.

▲ There seems as much reason for anyone to have thought Red Skelton belonged on radio, when much is said and much is done. He was actually very good on radio, more often than not, but television was made for him. You could add that Skelton outlasted Milton Berle, but that would compare to a musician outlasting Arthur Godfrey.

I'd say some more nice things about Red Skelton, but he hated giving writers credit. And as a writer I resemble that.

▲ Anybody who bought records by Kenny Baker had no business questioning Johnnie Ray's musical credentials. Come to think of it, anybody who bought Johnnie Ray's records had no business questioning Elvis Presley's.

▲ Anyone who bought Guy Lombardo's records had no business calling Wayne King the Western Hemisphere's monopolist of schlock.

▲ Between them, moreover, Guy Lombardo and Wayne King were the best evidence (if you don't count Henry Morgan) for the defence of Spike Jones.

▲ Warner Brothers should have been hauled before the Kefauver Committee for freezing Kenny Delmar out of his right to perpetuate Senator Claghorn without their express permission.

Mel Blanc's short-lived radio sitcom made one drastic mistake above all. He'd have been more believable as a salesman, not a repairman.

Ozzie and Harriet weren't half as funny on their own sitcom as they were renting a room to Fred Allen.

▲ I agree. The Hummerts should have been tried by jury for murder if they were the ones who insisted on turning Lorenzo Jones from a comic serial into the unintended founding father of the type of exaggerated doom-crime-and-disaster soap personified by General Hospital come the 1980s.

▲ There is still something missing in the world when Red Barber is no longer on this island earth to call a baseball game, or talk about his garden, or anything about which Bob Edwards saw fit to ask. And there's been no valid reason to give NPR's Morning Edition the proper time of day since Mr. Barber went from our catbird seat to God's.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Virtual Girl Friend

There's nothing like baseball's postseason, about which I write for my own baseball blog and a sports Website or three, to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming here. So with profound apologies to my readers here (all four of you), it is back to the business of classic radio pleasure. Which is something along the line of what a Texas lady transplanted to Dayton via Hollywood sought to deliver five nights a week for a few years between the late 1940s and the very early 1950s.

I was damned lonely in Dayton. So I just hooked into this idea and talked about my loneliness. And, you know, I found out there are a lot of lonesome people in this world.

---Jean King, classic radio's Lonesome Gal, to Time, 26 June 1950.

Sweetie, she began, typically, in a voice that sounded six parts temptress and half a dozen parts as isolated as the audience she imagined, no matter what anybody says, I love ya better than anybody in the whole world.

Missing no beat, she began to croon, over a muted sweep of electric organ. And if you were one of the lonely men who fastened tight to her nightly, fifteen-minute romancings for a period between the late 1940s and early 1950s, perhaps you couldn't help noticing that there was at least a pinch of mothering to this dream girl friend.

Lonesome/I'm a real lonesome gal
I can't stop feeling lonesome/Heaven knows when I shall . . .

A softly punched, single-note piano line picked up the melody where her croon left off as she addressed you once again, this time leaving just about all the implicit mothering pinch all the way out of her delivery.

Hi, baby. This is your lonesome gal. And I don't know why, but if you don't stay and visit with me I'll be the unhappiest girl in the whole world. I wonder how that could be possible. While I'm wondering, light up a pipe of Bond Street now. You know I love you

And, once again, barely having made even a non-smoker hunger for a small load of her sponsoring tobacco, she crooned.

Who knows what tomorrow can bring?
I wonder whether I'll know/why my heart wants to sing.

The piano took over the melody once more, fading slowly behind the unseen lady with the smoky voice. She spoke as if she were taking your hand, holding it warmly between hers, and locking your eyes onto her own, expecting to keep you within her power until she was good and ready to release you, if you really were as lonely as she portrayed herself to be.

Lover, did you ever stop to think how you'd react to sudden wealth? I think most women who suddenly inherit a million dollars would probably buy lots of clothes and furs and jewels. As to how a man would react to such an inheritance, I only know of incident to recite:

There was this cute little old man who for years walked the streets with his popcorn machine, selling peanuts and popcorn to all those kids in the poor neighbourhood. One day, a rich old lady, who'd been rather eccentric, left him all her money. With that money he adhered to his greatest desire, he bought a big black limousine and hired a chauffeur. But for two months before the car ever drove off the premises of his home, he practised all day long getting in and out of the car gracefully. I hear that, sometimes, he even repeated that practise in the still of the night.

Habitually, she crafted her little pattering monologues to end in a line that just so happened to be the title of the song she'd instructed her engineer to play next. For the most part, these would be recordings of arrangements that plunged deep enough into swollen sugar, once in awhile with a chorale that could have been rented right from the sentimentalistic division of the Disney studios---the take she used of "In the Still of the Night" (not to be confused with the eventual rock and roll hit of the same name) sounded like a discard from Pinocchio's soundtrack. Once in awhile, however, they'd be more of the burry, atmospheric, jazz-overtoned style refined soon enough into art by Nelson Riddle charting Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and others.

Whether a sugar-swollen weepie or a jazz-undertoned soft swinger, her prelude aimed to send you lost in the thought of her tugging you up off the sofa for a quiet dance or a balcony caress, her hands never far from yours, perhaps her face leaning against your shoulder, interrupted only to sip a cold drink or exhale a smoke, before she might turn to face you after putting your arms around her and hers around yourself. She did the talking and if she had her way you were in little enough position to object.

Sweetie, did you ever wonder about the things that last, the things that endure? The good things that were put on this earth for us to share and to enjoy? The beautiful sunset that we watched today will be just as beautiful a hundred years from now. The song that was lovely in Shakespeare's time is just as lovely now. And, Angel, the deep, rich, wonderful pleasure of smoking mellow Bond Street tobacco is another experience that will never change . . .

She was hard pressed to make personal appearances, the demand for which appears to have been profound enough; some surviving accounts say she preserved her mystique at such dates by wearing a cat-eye-shaped mask. Then, in 1950, the mask was lifted by Time. The magazine described her as a tall, slender woman with a resemblance to Rosalind Russell, who'd tried to make it in Hollywood (she sang, she appeared in a few of the Tarzan films and as a guest performer on radio's I Love a Mystery) before ending up in Dayton, somehow, and talking her way into a gig on WING radio.

At first that voice, weaving from smoky to honeyed and back to flickering temptress and around again to hopeless romantic, must have sounded as though she were waiting for him, whomever he was, to walk through her door, or greet her in a cafe, with a warm, insistent hug, a lingering kiss, and a promise never to leave her alone for too long again. In short enough order Lonesome Gal became phenomenon enough out of Dayton---fifty regional stations picked her up, and her income approached six figures, according to she decided to return to Hollywood and try to break it nationally.

In a plot that could have been a dream enunciated in one of her between-song mini-fantasies, she met and married a Dragnet co-producer, William Rousseau, and it was his influence that landed her sponsored syndication on several hundred local stations. She even developed the practise of keeping regular touch with chambers of commerce wherever her show aired, the better to keep current on locations, activities, and people, so she could tailor her broadcasts specifically to those locales. She recorded over three hundred such versions a week of her fifteen-minute romancings to satisfy that tailoring.

She also had to contend with what Time called being misunderstood by her fellow women. "Some girls think I'm trying to steal their guys," she told the magazine, "but I'm not. I just say things a lot of girls don't have the nerve to say to their men. I never say more than 'I'd like to kiss you on the end of the nose'---something impersonal like that. I might tell a guy how nice it would be to spend a weekend in a small and charming hotel---but I always add: 'If we were married'."

Angel, sometimes I get to sitting here wondering just what I ought to do about you. I'm in pretty deep, you know, 'cause you're definitely a part of my life. You're the greatest part of all my dreams and plans. What if I made up my mind to stop seeing you, to forget you, I ask myself. But that's an impossibility, my dream, because your smile is imprinted happily and joyfully in my mind. Your eyes laughing and saying unspoken words are firmly attached to my sentimental side. And you, Angel---all of you, every tiny hair on your head, every wrinkle on your brow, every mood you know, make me realise that it's too late now.

This was virtual seduction filtered through a kind of sly sentimentalism, years before anyone even thought of telephone or cybersex, stopping well short of prurience.

A generation and a half of men, whose postwar domestic lives may have been less than their dressings made them appear, from bewildered singles and awakening widowers to disillusioned husbands and shamed ex-husbands, lost themselves for fifteen minutes a night in the dream of so undemanding a lover, whose actual loneliness made their own seem lighter, if not necessarily more bearable.

Maybe her worst mistake was letting Time in, to even the small extent that she allowed. The magazine acknowledged she wasn't exactly that anxious to reveal the woman behind the virtual lover, and she may have been right. Within short of two years following Time's gentle exposure, as best as I can determine, Lonesome Gal slipped off the air almost as unobtrusively as she had first slipped on, becoming a pleasant if very distant memory almost as swiftly as she had become a radio date.

Well, Angel, there comes a time and this is it. Saying “so long” is not of my doing, but I relent on the condition that I can be with you again tomorrow night. And I’ll be back thanks to Bond Street Tobacco. But meantime, keep one thing in mind: Your Lonesome Gal loves you better than anybody in the whole world.

(singing) Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
I wonder if I’ll know when my heart starts to sing.
If you have love to spare, lips to share,
why don’t you be a pal
and share them with your lonesome gal?

(speaking) Good night, baby.

She died quietly 19 August 1993 in North Hollywood. Presumably, her real-life marriage lasted as long as the quiet memory her audience kept of the half-decade-plus she was their virtual girl friend.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Author! Author!

In which your correspondent rounds up a few choice thoughts by and about the men and women without whom our vintage radio stars would have had little to say no matter how well they didn't say it.

[S]ix of the happiest years of my life. They're wonderful people, and it was a writer's paradise, because Phil was the kind of a guy who loved living, and didn't want to be bothered with work or anything else. And he left us alone. We never had to report to him. Dick and I would work out the premise and write the script. Phil and Alice lived in Palm Springs; they'd come in on Friday. And we rehearsed, we'd do a rewriting on Saturday and do the show Sunday and they'd go back to Palm Springs. He never knew what was gonna happen. And it was left in our hands, which is a wonderful thing to do; and it spoiled us for everybody else.---Ray Singer, co-writer (with Dick Chevillat) for The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

Often people would ask . . . how he was able to turn out a daily show by himself. He always found the query irritating and answered that he was a writer and so it was his business to write. They probably had their own busines which they tended every day? Only once did he seem to admit that all those years of writing against a deadline had been exhausting. It was when he said to me, "Do you know that I have written more words than Dickens?"---Mary Frances Rhymer, widow of Vic and Sade's creator and writer, Paul Rhymer.

One day I wrote about something that happened at home, the kind of thing that isn't funny when it happens but makes good dinner table conversation if you want to be amusing. And I got several fan letters; it all went to my head, but it also went to my common sense. I realised that I didn't have to sit down and knock myself out every minute to try to think of something funny. All I had to do was look around me.---Peg Lynch, creator and co-star of Ethel and Albert.

[His] argument against giving writers credit was, he said, "We will lose an illusion; they think we are really making this up as we go along."---Sol Saks, a staff writer for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. (Saks also said Ozzie Nelson had this in common with Ed Gardner, the creator-writer-star of Duffy's Tavern: "After [Duffy's Tavern] was off, we found out [Gardner] was a terrible, terrible writer on his own. Ozzie Nelson was the same way. On his own show, he was a good editor. He could not write when he tried to write for anything else.")

He killed himself by his work habits. Don would postpone and procrastinate until the very last minute. Then he would get a big pot of coffee and two cartons of cigarettes and he'd sit up all night. All night. And I admired him so much that I began to think that that was the way to write, so I tried it, but I couldn't.---Paul Henning on his boss, Fibber McGee and Molly mastermind and chief writer Don Quinn.

A good play, a good radio show, or a good television program is a marriage of the talents of performer and writer. But if the bride never sees the groom and the marriage is never consummated---well, you know what that makes the brainchild.---Goodman Ace.

[He] was suspicious of anything new and didn't always underatand the humour of it right away. He might have to mull it over for a couple of weeks or perhaps months. Later, he'd pull it out of the joke file and offer it as something he'd just originated and put it in the script, and then say, "Now why can't you guys come up with something like that?" If any of us dared to say we already had, he'd blow his stack.---Ben Freedman, a radio writer for Red Skelton.

No one came between Jack and his writers.---George Balzer, a staff writer for Jack Benny.

[A comedian] has to assign writers to produce certain material and then he must have enough knowledge to order rewrites and to know what to expand and what to cut. At least sixty percent of a show's effectiveness depends on this.---Jack Benny.

When I was fourteen, in the summer of 1934, I saw George Burns out in front of the Figueroa Street Playhouse, which is now the Variety Arts Club, and I asked George if he'd take me into the broadcast with a friend of mine. He said yes, and the curtain went up and Burns and Allen did their radio show for the two of us. They started using audiences six or seven weeks later. I began to write scripts for George and Gracie, and every Wednesday night, I'd turn in a new script to them. I would type them in the typing class at Berendo Junior School behind my teacher's back, so she wouldn't know what I was doing. And of course they were lousy, but George pretended they were okay. He was very kind. They actually used one of my routines, I think it was February of 1935.

About 1982, I went to an awards ceremony at the Cocoanut Grove to give an award to Steven Spielberg and in the middle of the awards, I looked over in the corner and here's George Burns; I haven't seen him in thirty years, forty years or so. And I told the story, and when it was all over, George rushed over to me and said, "Was that you? Was that you? I remember you!"---Ray Bradbury, who later wrote episodes of Suspense.

I used to write 'em in one day. I'd come home from work and it was sandwiches and my typewriter. I'd write all night, when the house was quiet and the kids were asleep. I had already plotted the damn thing for a week or two, driving to and from work. So I knew where I was going, and dialogue came relatively easy.---Ross Murray, a CBS radio soundman who became a writer for Suspense in the 1950s.

I didn't write about little men arriving from another planet, monsters with dripping talons and grotesque faces from the special effects department walking down streets and looking for prey. I wrote about the terror we each have in us. The woman who let us down, the man who left us, the boss we hated, the opportunity that we missed, all the terrors, the monsters within each of us. That's what I wrote about. And things don't change.---Arch Oboler, writer for Lights Out . . . who also wrote the infamous "Adam and Eve" sketch for Mae West's scheduled appearance with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

I got letter that were more beautifully written than the program.---Norman Corwin, writer of We Hold These Truths (a classic commemorating the Bill of Rights's 150th anniversary, whose 15 December 1941 broadcast was planned before Pearl Harbour).

I was a melodramatist, he was a poet.---Arch Oboler, on Norman Corwin.

You gentlemen, the authors.---Tallulah Bankhead, the hostess of The Big Show, addressing her writing staff for the first time.