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.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Genius, One and Another: The Way It Was, 21 March

Gracie (Allen) bumps into Rita Hayworth---freshly married to Orson Welles---and Hayworth, afraid to spend the night at home alone with Welles away on business, invites Gracie to spend the night---putting Gracie into a quandary, because her genius (George Burns) is also afraid to sleep at home alone. Additional cast: Elvia Allman, Mel Blanc, Jimmy Cash, Bill Goodwin (announcer), Lawrence Nash. Music: Felix Mills Orchestra. Writers: George Burns, possibly Hal Block, Paul Henning.

1948---Eventual game show emperor Mark Goodson directs, game show semi-pioneer Louis G. Cowan produces, Harry Salter leads the band, Kay Armen and Dick Brown sing, and Break the Bank's third host, Bert Parks, hosts here as well.

And Stop the Music---which some say symbolises the giveaway programming that many believe secures old-time radio's coffin with its final nail, though it would take another decade and a half, almost, to get the corpse into its grave at last---premieres on ABC, a network desperate for something (anything) to break the bank known as Fred Allen and Bergen & McCarthy's domination of the eight o'clock hour Sunday nights.

The show's format (as described in Buxton and Owen's The Big Broadcast 1920-1950) involves musical selections played in-house, with the vocalist (if the song is sung) humming rather than singing the title (assuming the title is part of the lyric), while a telephone is dialed---and, when a connection is made, a loud telephone-like bell sounds with Parks shouting, "Stop the music!" Should the contestant on the other end name the song correctly, he or she wins a prize and a shot at guessing a "Mystery Melody" for a huge jackpot.

The telephone will be the show's prime gimmick, with callers picked at random, purportedly, from a random bank maintained by show operators. So the myth will go. The actual fact is that prospective contestants are reached well enough in advance of showtime, and wait long hours willingly to get the call.

The show is---if you'll pardon the expression---the brainchild of bandleader Salter and Your Hit Parade conductor Mark Warnow, "devised . . . as a way to blend big bands and big bucks into the biggest radio bang-for-the-buck of all," according to historian Gerald Nachman.

Stop the Music and similar giveaways were radio's version of the desperate "bank nights" that movie theaters held to lure people away from their TV sets in the mid-1950s, handing out cheap sets of dishes between double bills. What fueled the giveaways was a simple trade-off in which items doled out were plugged with an elaborate description of the product that amounted to scores of free commercials within each show. This practise led to prize brokering by companies---Prizes, Inc., V.I.P. Services---that were set up as legal fences to distribute the swag to quiz shows, raking off a tidy surcharge for every "donated" prize. The odds were 25 million to one that you'd be called. The FCC pondered hard the philosophical question of whether the shows were, in fact, lotteries before deciding that they were not . . .

. . . Stop the Music ("Starring YOU, the people of America!") handed out far fancier prizes than most giveaways---diamond rings, steamship cruises, thousand-dollar savings bonds, fur coats, pianos, and cars. America in 1948 was clearly on a postwar spending binge . . . The crafty Cowan recognised the show's potential. ABC . . . took a chance and, within a season, sent both major comics scurrying for shelter.

---Gerald Nachman, Raised on Radio.

Scurrying for shelter is polite phrasing to some people. Fred Allen had had the top-rated comedy show of the previous year; Stop the Music will send his Hooper rating from a high of 28.7 right down to 11.2. Though his health more than his rating will drive him from full-time radio by June 1949, Allen was under siege clearly enough.

The giveaway rise as a whole will provoke him to a clever satire or three, but Stop the Music itself provokes a direct counterattack:

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned to The Fred Allen Show. If within the next thirty minutes you or any listener in the continental United States answer a telephone call from any giveaway radio program, and because you are listening to this show you miss an opportunity to win any gift then being offered, Fred Allen guarantees to make good by furnishing an equivalent gift; or, its value up to five thousand dollars. National Surety Corporation guarantees that Fred Allen will perform this agreement, up to a total of fifty thousand dollars. Notice of any claim under these guarantees must be mailed to Mr. Fred Allen by registered mail, care of the National Broadcasting Company, Radio City, New York, and postmarked not later than midnight, October 25, 1948. Relax. Enjoy The Fred Allen Show.

---Kenny Delmar, announcer for The Fred Allen Show (and, by the way, the man who brought Senator Claghorn to life in "Allen's Alley"), opening the 24 October 1948 broadcast.

The bad news is that Allen's clever retaliation proved too clever by half, according to Allen biographer Robert Taylor.

[I]t was a tactical misstep. The announcement, a latter-day restatement of the ingenious ploys Allen practised in vaudeville, received massive publicity, but the scheme backfired. Obviously, the audience had to hear Stop the Music in order to know what it was losing; and radio critics quickly pointed out that fighting giveaways with giveaway offers undermined the aims of protest. The insurance offer spawn fraudulent claims and Allen canceled the bond after a few weeks.

John Crosby reported the only dispute in which the claimant may have had a case. In Ravenna, Ohio, a seventy-six-year-old farmer named MacDonald admitted to police that he had shot and killed a sixty-eight-year-old farmhand after a wrangle over whether the pair should listen to a giveaway program or to Jack Benny. The giveaway fan held the field until his disgruntled employer returned with a gun. Presumably old MacDonald then settled down for a therapeutic laugh. Allen remarked to Crosby, "Things have come to a pass indeed when a man in Ohio has to shoot his way to the radio to get at Jack Benny."

---Robert Taylor, in Fred Allen: His Life and Wit. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.)

It could be worse. Mr. Allen, wherever he is, might be grateful not to have lived long enough to have cause for assault against the sour stench of success as some define "success" early in the 21st Century. Except that we who have lived to see it might wish to have had him to raise a stink over it.


JUNGLE JIM: THE BAT WOMAN (CONCLUSION)---THE WEDDING IS INTERRUPTED; OR, LIFE OR DEATH? (SYNDICATED; RCA TRANSCRIPTION, 1936)---Having survived a gun duel with Jacques, who has since procured a high-powered rifle, Lil (France Hale) forges ahead with marrying Jim (Matt Crowley) until Rev. Chalmers finds one or another reason to delay the ceremony---and she's felled by a gunshot as the ceremony is about to begin at last. Additional cast: Unknown. Writer: Gene Stafford.

YOU BET YOUR LIFE: THE SECRET WORD IS "COAT" (NBC, 1951)---A doctor and a housewife, a door-to-door bakery salesman and another housewife, and a dollmaker and an eight-year-old girl strike for a shot at a then-high $4,500 grand prize pot, once Groucho Marx gets finished with his usual deft drollery. Announcer: George Fenneman.


1908---Vincent Pelletier (actor: This is Life, Calling All Detectives), Minneapolis.
1911---Henny Backus (as Henrietta Kaye; actress: Romance), Philadelphia.
1912---Suzanne Kaaren (actress: Lux Radio Theater), Brooklyn.
1918---Cliff Norton (actor: Terry and the Pirates, American Novels), Chicago.
1919---Lois Collier (as Madelyn Jones; actress: Dear John, Boston Blackie), Salley, North Carolina.


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