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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"I'm Just Laughing---There's a Law Against That?": The Way It Was, 24 January

1942---Abie’s Irish Rose---sponsored by Drene Shampoo, and based on the earlier (1922-1927) Anne Nichols Broadway hit about a Jewish boy from a well-to-do family who marries a poor Irish Catholic girl, with both families feuding as it was, prompting bride and groom to try keeping their marriage a secret for awhile---premieres on NBC.

The show will air for two years and feature Richard Bond, Sydney Smith, Richard Coogan, and Bud Collyer (then known as well for the Superman radio serial and eventually famous as the host of television’s Beat the Clock and To Tell the Truth) as Abie; and, Betty Winkler, Mercedes McCambridge, Julie Stevens (later to succeed Virginia Clark and Betty Ruth Smith in the title role of The Romance of Helen Trent), and Marion Shockley as Rose.

At least three complete episodes and perhaps a few other fragments of Abie’s Irish Rose will survive for 21st century radio collectors.

Abie’s Irish Rose wasn’t exactly a hit with the critics in its earlier life---one was known to have suggested its characters were "painted with a brush a mile wide" and about as full of finess as a comic strip---but The New Republic’s Jenna Weissmann Joselit, reviewing Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Andrea Most) in 2004, will suggest subtlety wasn’t exactly early Broadway’s strength, anyway.

Everything was on the surface, immediately accessible: broad sighs, mighty guffaws, mangled English, heaps of sentiment. But that was the point. While critics squirmed in their seats, the men and women in the audience were thrilled to see their recognizably humdrum lives and conflicts dramatized---and happily resolved---on the American stage. Audiences came to be entertained, of course, but they left feeling heartened, welcomed, even affirmed. As one eyewitness observed, they were "warm and happy every minute they're in their seats."

The play inspired one controversy well before its adaptation to radio. Nichols sued Universal Pictures over the film The Cohens and the Kellys, about feuding families who just so happened to be Jewish and Irish. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held, however, that copyright protection didn’t extent to "stock" characteristics in a character or characters no matter the medium, and Nichols lost the case. Her creation itself was made into a 1928 film (Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll in the title roles), and it will be made into a second film in 1946 (Richard Norris, Joanne Dru).

A second controvery will come almost three decades after the second film, when Abie's Irish Rose is updated into a promising television comedy with one twist. Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS, 1972-73) stars Meredith Baxter and David Birney (the couple married in real life after the show was cancelled) and flip the lead characters. Bernard Steinberg (Birney) is the son of modest, delicatessen-owning Jewish parents, driving a taxicab, aspiring to playwriting; Bridget Fitzgerald (Baxter) is the daughter of wealthy Irish Catholic parents, falling in love with and marrying the aspiring playwright.

Bridget Loves Bernie's plotline will hook as much around the couple's differences in social status as around their religious differences. But the latter inspires pressure from both Jewish and Catholic groups that leads CBS to cancel the show after a single season---despite its placing in the season's top five ratings. There went the arguments that the earlier 20th Century was just so unenlightened.

(Some sniff that Bridget Loves Bernie's high ratings belong almost entirely to its placement between CBS's two Saturday night monster hits, All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore show. But while M*A*S*H finds its stride in the time slot the following season, before moving on to its own night, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers---starring the understated comedian as a lovelorn Boston Symphony bassist---flops in the timeslot in 1974-75, suggesting Bridget Loves Bernie earned its ratings on its own merit, though the Sand vehicle will be seen later as having been too highbrow, perhaps, for even the audience All in the Family led its way.)

The hook around status differences in young marrieds doesn't really die, perhaps suggesting the most durable legacy of Abie's Irish Rose. From 1997-2002, the status hook receives a contemporary twist when a young, composed, Ivy-educated attorney (Thomas Gibson) from a Social Register-type family marries the freewheeling daughter (Jenna Elfman) of unrepentant hippies (on their first date, in Reno, yet) and withstand their families' mutual near-animosities, on ABC's Dharma and Greg.


1946: MY DEAR NIECE---A widow (Dame Mae Witty) working as a home-based publishing secretary writes her niece about the murder plot that sprang out of her agreement to host a promising new author secretly, on tonight's episode of Suspense. (CBS.) Also starring Wally Maher.

1950: TREASURE, INC.---John and Gwen Bagney turned a tropical island retreat into a laundromat for greed, until John (Frank Lovejoy) rethinks everything including Gwen, on tonight's episode of Escape. (CBS.)

1951: A STAR FOR HELEN---It isn't always easy to honour thy father or mother, as tenement janitor Ed Branagan (Walter Brennan) learned from a favourite tenant's (Betty Lynn) growing pains around her widowed mother's burial in the bottle, on tonight's episode of Family Theater. (Mutual. Created and written by Fr. Patrick Payton.)

1951: A SHOWER FOR MARJORIE---The 21st episode of the show's second (read: post-Harold Peary) era finds Uncle Mort (Willard Waterman) tricking a neighbour (guest Cathy Lewis) into tossing niece Marjorie (Mary Lee Robb) a baby shower, on tonight's installment of The Great Gildersleeve. (NBC.) Also starring: Walter Tetley, Earle Ross, Lillian Randolph, Gale Gordon.

1953: THE OLD LADY---Widow Ellen Henry (guest Jeanette Nolan) fires on Matt (William Conrad) and Chester (Parley Baer) when they stop to water their horses on the way back to Dodge, surprising them with her bitterness until they learn too much about her shiftless son---and herself, on tonight's episode of Gunsmoke. (CBS.) Written by Kathleen Hite.

1954: GETTING TO KNOW BOBBY LOGAN---That's what Ben and Liz Marriott (Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy) are doing, particularly since Bobby (William Redfield) is Emily's (Denise Alexander---the future Dr. Leslie Webber on the television soap General Hospital) boyfriend, and a slightly nervous type at that, who's wrangling over his post-graduation life, on tonight's episode of The Marriage. (NBC.)


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