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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"I Should Have Run. But I Didn't."

So you thought Jane Ace was a mouthful of strangled eggs and Gracie Allen was logically illogical? Then you haven't met Irma Peterson, the transdimensional airhead around whom My Friend Irma---derived rather explicitly from the stage and film hit My Sister Eileen---hooked for seven radio years.

Played by Marie Wilson, with Cathy Lewis as her befuddled but sternly affectionate best friend and roommate Jane Stacy, Irma lets you know what Jane Ace (the character) must have been as a single young woman, and Jane (Stacy, that is) lets you know what Marge Hale (Jane Ace's Easy Aces best friend) must have gone through trying to comprehend and clean up after the messes into which the future Mrs. Ace's cerebral calamity got them.

The bad news is that Irma is a stereotypical dumb blonde, and it causes you to wonder why it was that nobody ever thought to flip the type and cast Wilson (in real life a rather fetching blonde who didn't exactly look or sound like a ditz) as the sensibly befuddled half and Lewis (the comely actress wife, at the time, of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show sidekick/Suspense director Elliott Lewis) as the scrambled half.

But the scrambled half is Irma regardless. When her dubious (to Jane) boyfriend Al (John Brown) calls her by the endearment "Chicken," you're left to wonder if his suggestion is half affection and half missing the appendage, " . . . with its head cut off."

It still seems a little on the unfair side, as cleverly as the show is written and as deftly as it is acted. I've met blondes who belong in astrophysics programs, I've met brunettes to whom astrophysics involves the Houston Astros in spring training calisthenics. (I've also met redheads who've gone either way, but you know what they say about a redhead's tempter.)

And My Friend Irma almost met stillbirth in court, according to head writer Parke Levy.

I was writing some show and I got a call from a guy named Cy Howard. I went over to talk to him; this frenetic guy Howard was dancing around. He says, "Here's a script, will you read it?" When I finished reading, he said, "Well, do you think you could write this show?" I said, "I don't see why not, it's already been written. This is My Sister Eileen." He says, "Shhh. Don't say that. They're talking about suing us." I said, "Look. You indemnify me and I'll write it. But I'm telling you right now, I don't want to be any part of this thing, because you're going to be sued some day."

. . . [Howard] didn't create [My Friend Irma]. The guy that created My Sister Eileen* created it. Cy Howard couldn't write his name.

. . . There was a big lawsuit. And of course CBS did pay off in the end; it cost them a lot of money.

---Parke Levy, to Jordan R. Young, for The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV's Golden Age. (Beverly Hills: Past Times Publishing, 1999.)

Levy brought a better than respectable pedigree to the show's writing staff. He had made his bones writing for Joe Penner, who may or may not be well remembered now---except, perhaps, as the Egghead character who evolved somehow into the original Elmer Fudd---but whose manic 1933-1935 radio show ("You wanna buy a duck?" "Oh, you naaaaaaaaaaa-sty man!") was phenomenally popular, until he was undone by two developments. One was the lower-keyed, situational style of Jack Benny; the other was Penner's ill-advised attempt to shift his style accordingly, alienating his most consistent audience: the kids who tuned in raptly with and perhaps more so than their parents.

[Benny] became kind of the new in guy, and Joe resented this. And he said to me, "Maybe you can get me a little more sophisticated, like this fellow Jack Benny." And I said, "Joe, when you lose the kids, you lose everybody. You're the kid's comic." He didn't like that too much.

. . . I think he understood [what made him successful], but I don't think he thought that they were indispensable, let me put it that way. He thought he could still be a big star without the children. And he was wrong in that respect."

---Levy, to Young.

Levy's forward movement from their took him to radio writing for musician Ben Bernie (He would come tearing in from the track and come right into the rehearsal booth where the sponsor was sitting---and he would read the script---and read so poorly that we would grit our teeth), Al Jolson (May he rest in peace, that prick), Bert Lahr (He would ask people in elevators if a joke was funny, that's how nervous he would be about his material), and Duffy's Tavern. (Head writer/editor/star Ed Gardner was a very good editor. Between screwing and editing he kept pretty busy.)

And then there were Abbott & Costello.

I wasn't with them very long. They settled my contract for a lot of money. I insisted on that 'cause they refused to do new material . . . Monte Hackett, the very prominent agent who got me the assignment, came to me and said, "The boys are afraid to do new material, Parke. I didn't know that." He said, "Do you want to get out?" I said, "Of course, I want to get out." So he gave me a few thousand dollars; that's what they did in those days.

---To Young.

And as CBS was rounding up to give more than a few thousand dollars to preserve it, My Friend Irma hit the air as a regular series 11 April 1947. The recording of its audition show seems to be lost, but it's reasonable to assume that with a little nip here and a little tuck there, the script was performed as the premiere episode, known variably as "Irma Meets Jane" or "A Dinner Party for Jane's Boss." Jane would probably prefer the former title.

The Sportsmen (yes, the singing group employed by Jack Benny) opened with "Friendship," the show's chosen theme song, off which Jane began her destined to be seven years old story.

JANE: Sure, it's something to sing about. And they can sing about it, maybe, because they haven't any friends. But I'm singing the blues about it, because I have a friend---my friend Irma. Now don't get me wrong---I love that girl, most people do. It's just that Mother Nature gave some girls . . . brains, intelligence, cleverness. But with Irma? Well, Mother Nature slipped her a mickey.

SFX: (footsteps; bumping crash)
IRMA: Oh, excuse me, I just never look where I'm going. I just keep walking with my head high (she takes a deep breath), and just like the doctor told me, taking deep breaths inhaling and exhaling like this---(she takes a deeper, slightly louder breath)---and I keep counting to myself, one, two, three---
JANE (a little flustered from her fall): Look, miss, willya stop counting long enough to help me up?
IRMA (politely): Ooh, of course. You must be unconfortable on your knees.
JANE (mock pleasantry): Noooo. Oh, noooo, not at all, honey, I'd love it down here---if I was Al Jolson.
IRMA: Did you see that picture, The Jolson Story, I just loved it, I cried and cried---
JANE (tartly): Fine. Fine. Now would you please help me up?
IRMA: Oh, certainly. Give me your hand---oooh, my, what a beautiful ring. You know, my--my boyfriend, Al, he was gonna get me one just like that (she gasps) we had it all figured out, only you know what happened?
JANE: It wouldn't fit your nose.
IRMA: It wasn't for my nose, it was for my finger, it wouldn't fit my nose.
JANE: I wish it had---I could have pulled myself up.
IRMA: Oh. Oh, you wanta get up, don't you?
JANE: (friendly tone) Yes, if you please, I can't make much time crawling.
IRMA: I can't either. I always walk. Well, ah, here we go . . . upsie-daisy . . . oh, careful, your dress---
SFX: (ripping)
IRMA: (short soft gasp) Oh. (short embarrassed breathless laugh) We ripped it, didn't we?
JANE: (sarcastically friendly) Yes. We did.
IRMA: Oh, but you know something? They're wearing slips across New York this year.
JANE: Yeah, I know. But not all the way up to the neck.
IRMA: Say, uh, we haven't been introduced yet. My name is Irma. What's yours?
JANE: Goodbye.
IRMA: Oh, what an unusual name---what's your last name?
JANE: Forever.
IRMA: That's a pretty name---Miss Goodbye Forever.
JANE: Oh, Ir-ma!
MUSIC: (bridge)
JANE: That's when I should have run. But I didn't. Apartments are hard to find these days and Irma, bless her heart, is really a sweet kid. So I moved in with her in that one-room, furnished freight elevator she called home.

So what did she expect when the downpayment was a ripped dress?

She didn't expect her friend Irma to scramble their way into hosting a dinner party for Richard Rhinelander III (Leif Erickson)---toward whom Jane has ideas about romance and Irma has ideas about a double wedding, Jane and Richard, and Irma and Al---in that one-room, furnished freight elevator she called home.

MUSIC: (fluttering crescendo of reed instruments)
JANE: (To the listening audience.) That was my blood pressure rising. (Music fades.) She would mention his name. You see, Richard Rhinelander the Third is my boss, and I'm his private secretary. I'm in love with him, but I have no chance to marry him, because he's Richard Rhinelander the Third and I'm Jane Stacy the First.

Oh, I've tried everything to impress him. I've even told him I live in a very intellectual atmosphere, and that my roommate is a promising, young novelist. (Pause.) Oh, Stacy, you fool, you! If he ever finds out how you live and what a mental midget Irma really is, you might end up right between the eight, nine, and ten balls.

Gee. I'd love to marry him.

JANE (to Irma): Irma, wouldn't it be wonderful if I wound up being Mrs. Richard Rhinelander the Third?
IRMA: Well, sure, but what good is that if he has two other wives?

Irma, after all, couldn't marry a wealthy man and have to go to the opera because she doesn't know a thing about Shakespeare.

The accidental dinner party avoided being a disaster, but listen and you will hear the fun turning out to be in the avoidance. And, in the point of Irma doing for the single working woman of her time what her elder Jane Ace had done for the housewife of hers: enabling one and all of her peers (assuming we can say she has peers in the first place) to identify with her . . . and to feel superior to her. Especially if their ne'er-do-well boyfriends made their livings selling merchandise slightly above rip cords.

The show also did a big favour to a future television show that decided to become a radio show while it was still growing up. It provided a sign-off line. Each week, the harried widower finished the daughter-instigated mayhem with a shrugging, eyebrow-arching, resigned smile, and a flustered, "Well, that's my little Margie." The old fellow must have had a secret crush on Jane Stacy. Her exit strategy after each week's half-hour bedlam was a similar (if only implicit) shrugging, eyebrow-arching, resigned "That's my friend Irma!"

You couldn't tell whether she was thanking God for survival or for stopping her from killing the girl.

* -- Actually, there were two guys who created My Sister Eileen: Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, who adapted Ruth McKinney's original stories in The New Yorker into the 1940-1943 stage hit, and then adapted that to the 1942 film hit starring Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen. Tragically, the real-life Eileen was killed before the play opened---with her husband, novelist/screenwriter Nathanael West . . . the day after his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home