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.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Decently Veiled: The Way It Was, 23 March

1940---Reality programming's great-great-great-grandfather, of which fans would speak in terms of plain old mad fun and critics would speak of plain old madness, premieres on NBC. Created and hosted by jovial journeyman CBS announcer Ralph Edwards*, Truth or Consequences---an idea he has derived from the forfeits game he played during his farmland childhood---becomes either a national habit or a national guilty pleasure, depending upon how you take the show.

The fact that Edwards and company deliver this weekly festival of prankishness to a home audience that can't see but can only hear the insanity---the consequences for failing to answer certain questions ran the gamut from being ordered to cry like a baby for its bottle to being ordered to bed with a seal . . . in the middle of Hollywood and Vine---doesn't faze him or his sponsors in the slightest.

Well, as a certain television network will come to make its catch phrase, we report . . . you decide, whether or when T & C, not to mention its assorted progeny, jumps the proverbial shark or decides the shark didn't even exist.

Our show has keen insight into the taste of America. It's the kind of show that could easily go off key. To use a four-bit word, it could have its empathy destroyed, if we didn't know exactly how far you can go. We have a perfect feeling between the artists---you should excuse the expression---and the audience.

We have a husband and wife in the act, say. One pushes a pie in the other's face. But the important thing is that it all works out well in the end. The audience has to feel that the husband and wife got together again before it's over. It just can't be one of them pulling a gag on the other.

---Ralph Edwards, to John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune, 7 August 1950. Republished in John Crosby, Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.)

Edwards doesn't exactly make it easy for the poor schnooks who got stuck suffering the consequences, either: as he admits to Crosby, the fellow who got stuck in bed with the seal at Hollywood and Vine found he had three very familiar faces among the crowd walking by with jaws dropped: his wife, his boss, and his preacher. They asked variations on "What on earth are you doing here?" The poor fellow couldn't answer, Edwards says, without forfeiting his prize money.

We had him groveling, but it was all right with the audience because they knew it had been explained to the preacher and the boss that it was all a gag. People worry about gags involving anyone's boss. They wouldn't like it a bit if the boss wasn't in on it.

Or, if the preacher wasn't. Put a guy in bed with a seal even for laughs and prizes in some places and you're liable to find enough among the outraged demanding to know why the preacher wasn't delivering the poor schnook a stern sermon against bestiality. Come to think of it, in some of those places, too, there might be calls for the preacher's head on the collection plate if they did know the preacher was in on the gag.

There will be some classic stunts in which listeners (or viewers, when the show moves to television) might ponder whether there wasn't a little more premeditation than even Edwards and his staff let on. To find a man willing to face the consequence of hitting a golf ball from coast to coast (I couldn't make that up if you paid me the highest comedy writing fee in town), the show sends tickets to various golf clubs to make sure they'll find a golfer who might be free for a week in the first place.

According to Crosby, Edwards and company even take medical precautions in must mount a pogo stick and race twenty miles from Los Angeles Airport to City Hall. His race opponent is an airplane.

He got to be so good on that pogo stick, he could have gone on to New York. He did the last mile without ever getting off the thing. He'd stop at red lights and bounce up and down. He beat the airplane (which took a circuitous route) by a day and a half.---Edwards, to Crosby.

When T & C moves to television at last, Crosby won't be among the amused, exactly.

The radio version . . . was the ultimate in silliness, but at least it was decently veiled. Its television counterpart is a monstrosity of vulgarity. It reminded me strongly of Bedlam, the first English lunatic asylum, whose inmates provided amusement to throngs of spectators.

The shrieks of laughter from the studio audience were enough to drive the children from the room gibbering with fright. New York children, of course, are well inured to bloodshed in all its most devilish forms. They're not yet accustomed to lunacy. The quality of this laughter---if that's the word for it---is quite different from that at even the dizziest comedy show. You'll find traces in it of embarrassment, of sadism, and of drooling idiocy. It's a frightening noise, and to be sure you can see it as well as hear it, the cameras are frequently turned on the audience while they are in labour.

The visible Mr. Edwards is a pop-eyed gentleman with a wolfish grin who acts and even looks a little like a maniacal Bob Hope. The participants are indescribable except to someone with the gifts and the space of Charles Dickens. Their appearances are not helped much by the fact that this horrible operation is on kinescope, which is murky enough to malign them and not quite dark enough to obscure them entirely.

---John Crosby, "Sixteenth-Century Lunacy on Twentieth-Century Kinescope," New York Herald-Tribune, 12 December 1950; republished in Out of the Blue.

Thus begins the bloodline that, leave us face it, begets Punk'd, Fear Factor, and their brethren and sistren, as a certain barkeep might phrase it.

* --- Edwards's announcer for the original radio lunacy should not go unacknowledged. He was born Melvin Israel but becomes far more famous as Mel Allen. Especially to fans of the New York Yankees, a baseball team to whom insanity will mean nothing until a few generations hence.


1943: THE FLAME---There was more than just a passion for fire compelling Arnie Douglas, at the height of his career and on the threshold of his wedding, to find the spirit he believed fire housed---as Douglas himself reveals in retelling the story from the afterlife itself, on tonight's edition of Lights Out. (NBC.) Writer/host/producer: Arch Oboler.

1949: ARCHIE'S BANK ACCOUNT---"Nothing like having a little dough put aside---I quit smokin', stopped goin' to the movies, quit buyin' fancy clothes, been keepin' away from dames, yeah---for the first time I'm really enjoyin' life," warbles Archie (Ed Gardner), before taking an hour off to make a ten-dollar bank deposit. The problem: He doesn't have a bank account and needs to find a bank he can trust (his words, not ours), barely aware that half the banks in town need to feel they can trust him, on tonight's edition of Duffy's Tavern. (NBC. Blooper alert: Listen to Ed Gardner stumble on his customary introduction and shake it off with a laugh.) Additional cast: Charles Cantor, Eddie Green, Florence Halop. Writers: Ed Gardner, Larry Rhine.


1905---Joan Crawford (as Lucille Fay LeSeur; actress: Lux Radio Theater, Arch Oboler's Plays, Screen Guild Theater, Everyman's Theatre), San Antonio, Texas.
1910---Paula Winslowe (actress: The Life of Riley, The Joe E. Brown Show, Silver Theater, Our Miss Brooks), unknown.
1912---Francis De Sales (actor: Mr. and Mrs. North, King's Row), Philadelphia.
1916---Grant Richards (actor: This is Nora Drake, Against the Storm), Raleigh, North Carolina.
1917---Oscar Shumsky (violinist: The Voice of Firestone), Philadelphia.
1920---Maurice Marsac (actor: Our Miss Brooks), La Croix, France.


Blogger Andrew Godfrey said...

It is a shame so few episodes of Truth or Consequences exist. One of the few shows that did survive was the show that had a soldier in VA hospital getting to hear from friends and family in a hookup with his hometown. Then to make it extra special program his mom and dad and girlfriend were flown to California to see him in VA hospital

10:29 AM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

A long enough time ago, I read of the T & C edition you describe. I'd love to hear the actual show, since what I read of it was very touching . . .

10:42 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home