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, October 27, 2007

The Secret Word is "Success," At Last: The Way It Was, 27 October

1947: SO WHO WAS BURIED IN GRANT'S TOMB?---After several previous old-time radio stabs that failed for reasons ranging from dubious scheduling (Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel) to dubious premises (Blue Ribbon Town), Groucho Marx---hosting a quiz show that is far less a quiz than a congenial excuse to let the man do what he did best: his swift and often salacious ad-libs---hits the air one more time, over a month after its audition show is recorded . . . and this time, the air doesn't hit back.

And in one way, Groucho would owe his getting the gig in the first place to Bob Hope.

[You Bet Your Life was] a life preserver thrown by [creator/producer John] Guedel to Groucho Marx in 1947 to save the great comic's slowly-evaporating career. Despite great success in films and on stage, Marx had flopped in previous radio shows . . . [Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel] was a cult hit that [sponsor] Esso was not amused by. Other shows shied away from using Marx as a guest, so he was in a creative funk when Guedel heard him on a car radio freely ad-libbing with Bob Hope on a special that broke up the audience when Hope dropped his script. "I didn't know Marx was such a good ad-libber," recalls Guedel. He shrewdly drew on Marx's verbal spontaneity---the very reason Groucho hadn't done well in radio before: He had a risky habit of veering from scripted material, which, while fun for the audiences, drove directors berserk and gave him a reputation as a maverick comic who couldn't be controlled.

Groucho was only fifty-five when his screen career seemed over after the last Marx Brothers film, The Big Store, failed loudly. He was dubious about starting over in an alien medium, and going it alone for the first time in a long career frightened him. Guedel remembers, "I figured he'd be great working with people out of an audience. When the people were being funny, Groucho could be the perfect straight man; when the people played it straight, Groucho couldn't miss with his own comedy. With Groucho, I figured we'd be covered from both sides.

. . . Contrary to some accounts, Guedel claims that Marx didn't balk at playing a lowly quizmaster, bottom man on the showbiz totem pole. Newsweek said assigning Groucho to a quiz show was like sending Citation to a glue factory. He was further chastened by the fact that earlier he had actually auditioned for Take It or Leave It and failed. What clicked was the fact, unrecognised at the time, that Groucho was an antidote to every vapid, sugary quiz show MC on the air---he was radio's first uncongenial quizmaster.

---Gerald Nachman, from "Minds over Matter," in Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

Elgin Watches, the original sponsor, buys the show because their chieftain has no idea Groucho had been a radio flop in the past; amiable George Fenneman was brought aboard as Groucho's Ed McMahon prototype; the master himself found himself completely in his element and beyond as he could now establish himself as a wit entirely of his own making, following a few early missteps; and, You Bet Your Life---which becomes the first quiz show to win any kind of award . . . and a Peabody Award at that---goes on to live a ten-year old-time radio life and an overlapping, eleven-year life on television.

And there will be an argument to make, when it's done at last, that You Bet Your Life does what even the best of his film and stage work could do only part of the way: it finishes graduating Groucho Marx from titan to legend.


1946: MARY'S "CHISS SWEEZE" SANDWICH FLUFF---One week after the show's classic parody of The Whistler proves a hit, and after Jack (Benny) revels in the sketch's success, nervous Mary (Livingstone)---whose chronic stage and mike fright may remain unknown for many more years to fans---uncorks one of the greatest bloopers in old-time radio history, on tonight's edition of The Jack Benny Program. (NBC.)

Additional cast: Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Don Wilson. Waiter: Frank Nelson. Music: Dennis Day, the Sports Men. Writers: Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, George Balzer, John Tackaberry.

1953: THE PINT-SIZED PAYROLL BANDIT---Just what Rocky (Frank Sinatra) doesn't need, when he's sent to a job at an all-night hamburger stand: a nine-year-old kid ordering a burger . . . and carrying a shoebox full of stolen money under his arm, on tonight's edition of Rocky Fortune. (NBC.)

Additional cast: Richard Fields, Lily Janis, Eddie Fields, Frank Richards, Barney Phillips. Writers: George Lefferts, Robert Senadella.


1890---Bob Becker (commentator: Fireside Chats About Dogs), Terryville, South Dakota.
1908---Josephine Antoine (singer: The Contented Hour), Boulder, Colorado.
1910---Jack Carson (actor/comedian: The New Sealtest Village Store; The Jack Carson Show; The Big Show), Carmen, Manitoba.
1911---Leif Erickson (actor: My Friend Irma), Alameda, California.
1918---Bill Ballance (host: Feminine Forum; The Bill Ballance Show), Peoria; Teresa Wright (Muriel Teresa Wright; actress: Lux Radio Theater), New York City.
1920---Nanette Fabray (as Nanette Ruby Bernadette Fabares; singer/actress: The Adventures of Ellery Queen; The MGM Musical Comedy Theater), San Diego.
1923---Ruby Dee (as Ruby Ann Wallace; actress: The Story of Ruby Valentine), Cleveland.
1933---Floyd Cramer (country music pianist: Country Music Time; Country Style, USA), Samti, Louisiana.


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