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, February 19, 2007

Vaudeville Made the Radio Star: The Way It Was, 19 February

1922: A DECADE LATER, THE PROGRAM'S GONNA BE DIFFERENT---Somebody has to do it: Vaudeville star Ed Wynn (born Isaiah Edwin Leopold; he adapted his middle name into his stage name, reputedly, to spare his family the embarrassment of having a mere comedian in the family) becomes the first such performer to sign a radio contract. Perhaps naturally enough, the clown known as the Perfect Fool signs to perform in a show called The Perfect Fool for Newark, New Jersey station WJZ.

The effort unnerves him enough that he avoids the medium for the remainder of the decade. But a decade later---after a certain oil company lured him back with a reported $5,000 per week salary---the Perfect Fool will become one of the United States' major radio stars with The Fire Chief Program, sponsored by Texaco and featuring music by ill-fated piano virtuoso and orchestra leader Eddy Duchin.

In the ten years since the ill-fated Perfect Fool experiment, Wynn's mike fright had only escalated, and he approached the opening broadcast in a cold sweat. It was [announcer/second banana Graham] McNamee who calmed him down each week, McNamee who gave him the courage he needed to face that forbidding black enamel box. The two men became close friends---and McNamee's regular-guy enthusiasm acted on the air as the perfect complement to Wynn's manic comedy. But even with McNamee's friendship, support and encouragement, Wynn was still frightened, still insecure about his ability to perform as a radio comedian -- and to help him get thru each week's program, the show was made to be as much like a stage performance as possible. The Fire Chief Program was aired from the rooftop stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre---former home of the Ziegfeld Follies---before an enormous live audience. Wynn appeared in full costume---scooting out onto the stage each week on a toy fire engine, wearing a tiny Texaco Fire Chief helmet, and proclaiming "I'm the Chief tonight, Graham! Tonight's the program's gonna be different!"

But it really wasn't that different from what Wynn had been doing on stage for more than twenty years. The program was a series of short exchanges of revue-type jokes, broken up by musical interludes performed by Don Voorhees' Orchestra. During the musical numbers, Wynn would dart backstage and quickly change his costume---each outfit more outlandish than the last. But unlike Eddie Cantor, Wynn was able to keep the visual joke of his appearance separate form his verbal comedy---he didn't refer to his costume gags on the air, didn't make them part of the show targeted at listeners at home. In short, the theatrical trappings were there only to keep Wynn from panicking and freezing before the microphone. With the costumes, with the audience, he could pretend he was still in the theatre, and forget all about that frightening little box. Although "The Fire Chief Program" quickly became one of the most popular new shows of 1932, Wynn never overcame his terror of broadcasting, and it was a constant psychological struggle to face the microphone each Tuesday night.

However, Wynn's early, terrifying experience will not dissuade radio from inviting vaudeville's best to cross over. The door he opens will not close until the like of Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Stoopnagle and Bud, and numerous others have crossed from vaudeville to radio with historic results.


1947: THE RADIO PROGRAM BLOOD TEST---Well, the man never exactly denied he was out for blood, did he? But first he proposes some money-saving ideas for the government after examining the new national budget. That'll teach him, on tonight's edition of The Henry Morgan Show. (ABC.) Cast: Arnold Stang, Florence Halop, Art Carney, Madaline Lee, Alice Pearce. Writers: Henry Morgan, Carroll Moore, Jr., Aaron Ruben, Joseph Stein. Music: Bernie Green Orchestra.


1893---Sir Cedric Hardwicke (actor: BBC Home Theatre), Stourbridge, U.K.
1895---Louis Calhern (actor: Radio Reader's Digest), New York City.
1896---Eddie Jackson (comedian: The Jimmy Durante Show, Mail Call, The Big Show), unknown.
1901---William Post, Jr. (actor: John's Other Wife), unknown.
1915---Dick Emery (comedian: Educating Archie), London.
1915---Fred Frielberger (writer: Suspense, Family Theater), New York City.
1922---Sandy Becker* (as George Sanford Becker; actor: Young Doctor Malone, Backstage Wife; announcer: The Shadow), New York City.
1924---Lee Marvin (actor: Dragnet), New York City.

* -- This is, indeed, the same Sandy Becker who went on to teach and charm a generation or two of metropolitan New York area children with what proved a gift for verbal, physical, and even silent comedy (ask such children even now about doubletalking DJ Hambone or silent, stumbling Norton Nork) and a knack for puppeteering---all spun, reputedly, from the manner in which he entertained and taught his own three children at home.

After helping to found legendary Sunday morning learn-and-laughfest Wonderama (he was the show's first host), Becker handed that show off to Sonny Fox and created his own daily (even twice-daily) learn-and-laughfest, The Sandy Becker Show. Developing characters and themes out of his home skits, Becker---a movie-star handsome young man but with a gentle, accessible manner---became one of New York's most popular children's comedians while earning a parallel reputation for treating the children who watched him exactly the way he once said he set out to do: the way their own parents might if they, too, were on television.

Becker became respected especially for introducing children to news through puppeteering the lighter side of the news but, also, for the poignant yet non-maudlin manner in which he told them about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Becker retired from on-camera work in 1968 but became a mentor and puppetmaking teacher to new children's hosts in the years until his death in 1996. The bad news is that most of Becker's own telecasts died as well. He did the show live every day and almost no kinescopes or videotapes were known to have been made.


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