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, March 19, 2007

Two Immortals Come, One Immortal Goes: The Way It Was, 19 March

1928---After Chicago Tribune-owned WGN rejects their proposition to make a kind of syndicated feature out of their regionally popular Sam 'n' Henry comedy, refusing to let them record the show and offer it independently to various other stations in a kind of "chainless chain," Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll take the show to WMAQ, owned by the rival Chicago Daily News . . . and change the name, because WGN owns the name Sam 'n' Henry.

Which will show just what WGN didn't know, after Amos 'n' Andy---a serial comedy about a pair of enterprising black Chicago taxi company owners and their various friends and fiends---premieres today on WMAQ, beginning a life that will bring it network (via NBC's Blue Network) five months later and to national popularity and controversy during the height of the Great Depression and beyond.

Gosden and Correll write the serial, with Gosden playing Amos Jones, George (the Kingfish) Stevens, and Lightnin'; and, Correll playing Andy Brown and Henry Van Porter.

The show was an anomaly. Accidentally, Gosden and Correll had invented both the sitcom and the soap opera when they were the first fifteen-minute feature on the air and the first to broadcast six nights a week. Their show had the flexibility to be timely, which kept it fresh, and yet it retained the leisurely pace, tone, and continuity of a daily serial. The humour came both out of its rounded characters and off the front pages. As innocents, they were able to fold topical, social, and even political humour into their escapades, as when Andy called socialists "social-risks" who "puts ever'body in de same basin"---a little like Peter Finley Dunne's sage bartender Mr. Dooley.

The show was also a rare look inside black society, even if glimpsed through a comic white prism. Noted Mel Watkins: "The daily routines of ersatz black folks had never received such exposure and scrutiny in the media . . . until Bill Cosby's more realistic but ironically less representative Huxtables in the 1980s." For decades, in fact, Amos 'n' Andy were radio's only nonservile blacks. Fred Allen, radio's reigning sophisticated wit, wrote admiringly of Gosden and Correll that "their vocal changes, and the fading in and out of the characters as they come and go, are uncanny. Most people cannot appreciate the skill involved" . . .

. . .Whatever the show's artistic merits and national popularity, its premise divided blacks, especially black newspapers. As early as 1931, a group of black attorneys tried to get an injunction to have it taken off the air at the same time that a Harlem fund-raiser sent Gosden and Correll a telegram thanking them "for being friends of the Negro race." One called it a terrible example to black youth; another claimed it was one more example of whites' curiosity about the black demimonde. The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black paper, tried to get the FCC to yank it, accusing it of the "exploitation of Negroes for profit." The black Louisville News editorialised that, while it "yields to none in race pride," it was "unable to work up a sweat over Amos 'n' Andy. The respected Chicago Defender attacked the Courier and invited Gosden and Correll to perform at a picnic for thirty thousand black children.

---Gerald Nachman, from "A Voice of Another Colour," in Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

While minstrel-style wordplay humor was common in the formative years of the program, it was used less often as the series developed, giving way to a more sophisticated approach to characterization. Correll and Gosden were fascinated by human nature, and their approach to both comedy and drama drew from their observations of the traits and motivations that drive the actions of all people: while often overlapping popular stereotypes of African-Americans, there was at the same time a universality to their characters which transcended race.

Central to the program was the tension between the lead characters. Amos stood as an "Everyman" figure: a sympathetic, occasionally heroic individual who combined practical intelligence and a gritty determination to succeed with deep compassion---along with a caustic sense of humor and a tendency to repress his anger until it suddenly exploded. Andy, by contrast, was a pretentious braggart---obsessed with the symbols of success but unwilling to put forth the effort required to earn them. While Andy's overweening vanity proved his greatest weakness, he was at heart a poignant, vulnerable character---his bombast masking deep insecurity and a desperate need for approval and affection. The Kingfish was presented as a shrewd, resourceful man who might have succeeded in any career, had he applied himself---but he preferred the freedom of living by his wits. Other characters displayed a broad range of human foibles---the rigid, hard-working Brother Crawford, the social climber Henry Van Porter, the arrogant Frederick Montgomery Gwindell, the slow-moving but honest Lightning, the flamboyant Madam Queen. And still other characters stood as bold repudiations of stereotypes---the graceful, college-educated Ruby Taylor and her quietly dignified father, the self-made millionaire Roland Weber, the capable and effective lawyers and doctors and bankers who advised Amos and Andy in times of crisis. Beneath the dialect and racial imagery, the series celebrated the virtues of friendship, persistence, hard work, and common sense , and as the years passed and the characterizations were refined, Amos 'n' Andy achieved an emotional depth rivaled by few other radio programs of the 1930s.

Above all, Correll and Gosden were gifted dramatists. Their plots flowed gradually from one into the next, with minor subplots building in importance until they took over the narrative, before receding to give way to the next major sequence, and seeds for future storylines were often planted months in advance. It was this complex method of story construction that kept the program fresh, and enabled Correll and Gosden to keep their audience in a constant state of suspense. The technique they developed for radio from that of the narrative comic strip endures to the present day as the standard method of storytelling in serial drama. Storylines in Amos 'n' Andy usually revolved around themes of money and romance---Amos's s progress toward the goal of marrying his beloved Ruby Taylor stood in contrast to Andy's romantic fumblings, as the daily challenge of making ends meet formed a constant backdrop. The taxicab company remained the foundation of Amos and Andy's enterprises, but the partners constantly explored other ventures, including a lunchroom, a hotel, a grocery, a filling station, and a 500-acre housing development. Andy invariably claimed the executive titles, while Amos shouldered the majority of the work---until Amos's temper finally blazed and Andy was forced to carry his share of the load.

The moneymaking adventures of the Kingfish moved in and out of these plotlines---and through the Depression era, Amos 'n' Andy offered a pointed allegory for what had happened to America itself in the 1920s: Amos represented traditional economic values, believing that wealth had to be earned, while the Kingfish embodied the Wall Street lure of easy money. And Andy stood in the middle, the investor torn between prudence and greed. Although Amos 'n' Andy's rating gradually declined from the peak years of the early 1930s, it remained the most popular program in its time slot until 1941. Amos finally married Ruby Taylor on Christmas night, 1935, and in October 1936, their daughter Arbadella was born. Andy remained single, occasionally coming close to matrimony, but never quite following through. The craze might have long since cooled off, but Correll and Gosden and their characters had become a seemingly-permanent part of the American scene.

The early 1930s saw criticism of the dialect and lower-class characterizations in the series by some African-Americans, but Amos 'n' Andy also had black supporters, who saw the series as a humanizing influence on the portrayal of blacks in the popular media.

Amos 'n' Andy will remain a fifteen-minute serial comedy until 1943, when it will be expanded to a half-hour situation comedy format. Though the duo will remain a radio fixture until the mid-to-late 1950s, there will be those who swear that they were never better nor more vital than as a serial comedy whose success showed the way for such comedies to follow as The Goldbergs, Easy Aces (in 1930), Vic & Sade (in 1932, though it wasn't a true serial so much as it was a daily fifteen-minute offering that sometimes tied story elements from show to show), and even such comic soap operas as Myrt & Marge (in 1937) and Lorenzo Jones (also in 1937).

1987: IT WAS LATER THAN HE THOUGHT---For one of old-time radio's master dramatists, Arch Oboler, who dies at 77.

An unknown who had sold his first radio script while still in high school, Oboler's only known credits were some writing for Rudy Vallee's popular variety show and for the series Grand Hotel, when he took Lights Out over from creator Wyllis Cooper . . . and, according to Nachman, "pulled out all the remaining terror stops with supernatural tales filled with genuine horror and monsters, employing experimental sound effects and stream of consciousness."

He left in 1939, when the show went dark, and resumed it three years later . . . Oboler's first show drew thousands of letters of outrage from terrified listeners, which almost ended his career. "I forgot my responsibility," he later apologised. "Radio had an impact far beyond TV."

---Nachman, from "Radio Noir---Cops and Grave Robbers," Raised on Radio.

As, indeed, Oboler would learn with one of his periodic diversions into comedy writing: it was he who composed the notorious "Adam & Eve" sketch---performed by Mae West and Don Ameche on The Chase and Sanborn Hour, prior to a racy routine by West and Edgar Bergen's plywood alter-ego Charlie McCarthy---that helped trigger controversy enough to get West barred from network radio for as long as fifteen years, after the show aired in 1938.

But drama---especially of the experimental or the blood curdling kind---was Oboler's virtuosity. He is believed to have produced almost eight hundred dramatic works for classic radio, including his own series, Arch Oboler's Plays (1939-1949, revived for a time in 1964).

But it's Lights Out, which sounds even now like a perverse meld of horror and humour, for which Oboler's remembered best . . . or, depending upon your point of view, worst.

The stage was the biggest stage at NBC. The director would put the microphone in the center of the floor and there'd be a floor lamp there and a light by the piano. Here's this big, big studio and this one little floor lamp with actors huddled around it in the dark reading their lines. There was a real feeling of mystery about the whole thing. The sound man was in this umbrella of light off in the corner. They were very, very spooky shows.

---Macdonald Carey (yes, children: the longtime anchor of the television soap Days of Our Lives, whose career began as much in old-time radio as in B-movies, and who appeared in several episodes of Lights Out before it moved from Chicago to Hollywood), from The Days of My Life. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.)

Part of Oboler's genius was that, when "Chicken Heart" ended, you felt like laughing and throwing up at the same time . . . Radio, of course, is "the blind medium," and only Oboler used it so well or so completely.---Stephen King, whose New England childhood included listening to rebroadcasts of Lights Out.


1939: CAN THE DEAD TALK?---That's one question bedeviling Lamont (Bill Johnstone) and Margo (Agnes Moorehead), after a thought-transference artist proves he knows Lamont's alter ego---and reveals he's an infamous anarchist, kicked out of every European country, who didn't quite die in exile, has learned his own mind control powers, and has rather insurrectionary plans for those powers, on tonight's edition of The Shadow. (Mutual.) (Special feature: the recording includes a postscript: an appeal to listeners from Johnstone, Moorehead, and announcer Ken Roberts to write sponsor Blue Coal to keep the show on the air---which it did, returning The Shadow on 24 September 1939.)

1944: RUNNING FOR MAYOR---Whether or not local politics will survive becomes a very wide open question, when Judge Hooker (Earle Ross) puts a bug into Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) and the stentorian water commissioner ponders having a slow-burning whack at Summerfield's mayoralty, on tonight's edition of The Great Gildersleeve. (NBC.) Additional cast: Walter Tetley, Lurene Tuttle, Lillian Randolph, Richard Legrand, Shirley Mitchell, Bea Benaderet. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.


1889---Doc Rockwell (as George L. Rockwell; comedian: Camel Pleasure Hour), Providence, Rhode Island.
1907---Kent Smith (actor: NBC University Theater, Radio Reader's Digest), New York City.
1909---Louis Hayward (actor: Screen Guild Theatre, Old Gold Comedy Theater), Johannesburg, South Africa.
1912---Russ Case (bandleader: On a Sunday Afternoon, The Peggy Lee Show, Your Hit Parade), Hamburg, Iowa.
1916---Irving Wallace (writer: Have Gun, Will Travel), Chicago.
1923---Pamela Britton (actress: Breakfast at Sardi's, Lux Radio Theater), Milwaukee; Gordon Connell (actor: Hawthorne House), Berkeley, California.


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