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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Biggest of All Game: The Way It Was, 31 January

1936---Nocturnal crimefighter The Green Hornet---the guise of Britt Reid, a playboy heir turned crusading newspaper publisher, played by Al Hodge---premieres on WXYZ, Detroit, the station that launched its legendary cousin show, The Lone Ranger, three years earlier.

Both shows are the creation of George W. Trendle and his writer Fran Striker. Britt Reid is revealed in due course to be the great-nephew of John (The Lone Ranger) Reid. The younger man plays a slight twist upon the Lone Ranger's style, however: the Green Hornet infiltrates underworld operations or challenges them for rackets as if an underworlder himself . . . the better to break up those rackets, even if it means allowing himself to be seen as a wanted major criminal by authorities, an image he uses as a crimefighting weapon in itself.

Reid at first tells no one of his double life beyond his valet, Kato, who is portrayed first as a Japanese-American, then as a Filipino-American (following Pearl Harbour), and finally as a Korean-American. Or, was he?

Kato, Britt Reid's faithful valet, was an Oriental, a distinction of some consequence after the Japanese drew the USA into World War II by launching a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. From this era arose the legend that the character of Kato was originally identified as being Japanese, but after Pearl Harbor his nationality was abruptly changed to Filipino.

Was there a change? Some people insist there was, others claim that Kato was an Oriental of unspecified nationality prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the "Filipino" aspect of his character was emphasized afterwards (understandably leaving some listeners with the impression that a change had occurred), and yet another group asserts that Kato had been explicitly Filipino all along. In this case we defer to the expertise of John Dunning, who notes in his comprehensive encyclopedia of old-time radio that although Kato was voiced by an actor of Japanese descent (Tokutaro Hayashi, later "renamed Raymond Toyo by director James Jewell for professional reasons"), he was "described as a Filipino of Japanese descent at least two years earlier" than the events of 7 December 1941. The "Japanese descent" part of his character may have been downplayed thereafter, but he had indeed been identified as a Filipino well before 1941.

In due course, however, the radio Green Hornet will be exposed inadvertently by a woman and, from there, share his dual identity with the police commissioner.

The Green Hornet will become a network radio offering on Mutual, NBC Blue, and ABC before expiring in the mid-1950s. A decade later, it will air for a single season on television, with Van Williams as Britt Reid and Bruce Lee as Kato (who is now Chinese-American); Reid’s dual identity this time is known to his secretary, Lenore Case, and to district attorney Frank Scanlan.

The radio Hornet carries no weapon other than a non-lethal gas gun and his jiu jitsu-trained valet, not to mention a high-powered black automobile, the Black Beauty, that can get him from point A to point B faster than any police cruiser. (The television Hornet, of course, will add a retractable electronic laser, or "sting," through which he can cut through thick layered steel and iron, and a Black Beauty affixed with short-range rockets and gas shells and a deployable electronic aerial scanner.)

Within its first few seasons, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover will take a troublesome interest in the radio Hornet. Hoover will object to the show’s introduction ("He hunts the biggest of all game: public enemies that even the G-men cannot reach") because he's offended at the implication that there are criminals beyond the FBI's competence to stop; he'll prevail upon the show producers to substitute a less offencive but somewhat more cartoonish introduction. ("He hunts the biggest of all game: public enemies who try to destroy Our America.")

The original cast of The Green Hornet is Al Hodge as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet, Raymond Hayashi as Kato, Lee Allman as Lenore (Casey) Case, Jim Irwin as Mike Axford (a Daily Sentinel reporter with a robust Irish brogue and a past as a police officer whose service is implied to have ended in less than honourable circumstances, entirely), and Jack Petruzzi as reporter Edward Lowry.

Rollon Parker plays the unidentified newsboy who ends virtually every episode with a street corner holler selling Daily Sentinal "extrys" following the Green Hornet's latest crimebusting---always ended with the line, "Green Hornet still at large!" Within a decade, however, he'll serve double duty, becoming the second Kato, before handing that role off to Mickey Tolan.

Al Hodge will play the Green Hornet through 1943. Donovan Faust and Bob Hall will play the role in 1943, with Hall continuing until 1946. His successor and the final radio Green Hornet will be Jack McCarthy, later the host (known as Captain Jack) of local children’s programming in New York City and the annual anchor for WPIX-TV coverage of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Allman and Petruzzi are the only actors to keep their roles for the life of the radio series. The show's announcers will include Fielden Farrington, Robert Hite, Harold Neal, Charles Woods, and future 60 Minutes founding co-anchor Mike Wallace.


1940: EMPHASIS ON THE "BOOM"---If you can forgive him for trying to make a jazz swinger out of "Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay" (in a just world it would get you tried by jury for attempted murder---of jazz), you can have a pleasant time listening otherwise. A half hour's worth of Gene Krupa and his Orchestra playing the Meadowbrook (on the Newark-Pompton Turnpike in New Jersey, the same pike that once provided Charlie Barnet with a secondary theme for his band) is broadcast tonight. (NBC.)

1943: THE CONFESSION---An underworld gambler who killed a rival in self defence romances a young woman whose father---a successful defence attorney who prides himself on rejecting guilty clients---has just rejected him as a client. But his scorned former lovers include her stepmother, who finds one way to get even with him---so it seems---on tonight's edition of The Whistler. (CBS.) The Whistler (narrator): Bill Forman.


1872---Zane Grey (writer: The Rudy Vallee Show), Zanesville, Ohio
1892---Eddie Cantor (as Israel Iskowitz; a.k.a. Adrian Cantrowitz; comedian/singer/actor: The Chase & Sanborn Houw, Time to Smile, The Big Show), New York City.
1902---Tallulah Bankhead ("the glamorous, unpredictable" host: The Big Show), Huntsville, Alabama.
1905---John O'Hara (writer: Information Please), Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
1906---Edith Adams (actress: Those Happy Gilmans), West Union, Iowa.
1908---Connie Desmond (sportscaster: play-by-play partner with Red Barber for the 1940s-1950s Brooklyn Dodgers), Ohio.
1909---Walter Coy (actor: Lone Wolf), Great Falls, Montana.
1913---Maurice Manson (actor: One Man's Family), unknown.
1915---Garry Moore (as Thomas Garrison Morfit; host: Take It or Leave It, Beat the Band; comedian: The Durante-Moore Show, The Garry Moore Show), Baltimore.
1921---John Agar (actor: The Big Show), Chicago; Carol Channing (singer-actress: Arthur Godfrey Time, Stagestruck), Seattle; Mario Lanza (operatic tenor: The Mario Lanza Show), Philadelphia.
1923---Joanne Dru (as Joanne Letitia LaCock; actress: Lux Radio Theater), Logan, West Virginia.
1929---Jean Simmons (actress: Lux Radio Theater), London.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"I Should Have Run. But I Didn't."

So you thought Jane Ace was a mouthful of strangled eggs and Gracie Allen was logically illogical? Then you haven't met Irma Peterson, the transdimensional airhead around whom My Friend Irma---derived rather explicitly from the stage and film hit My Sister Eileen---hooked for seven radio years.

Played by Marie Wilson, with Cathy Lewis as her befuddled but sternly affectionate best friend and roommate Jane Stacy, Irma lets you know what Jane Ace (the character) must have been as a single young woman, and Jane (Stacy, that is) lets you know what Marge Hale (Jane Ace's Easy Aces best friend) must have gone through trying to comprehend and clean up after the messes into which the future Mrs. Ace's cerebral calamity got them.

The bad news is that Irma is a stereotypical dumb blonde, and it causes you to wonder why it was that nobody ever thought to flip the type and cast Wilson (in real life a rather fetching blonde who didn't exactly look or sound like a ditz) as the sensibly befuddled half and Lewis (the comely actress wife, at the time, of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show sidekick/Suspense director Elliott Lewis) as the scrambled half.

But the scrambled half is Irma regardless. When her dubious (to Jane) boyfriend Al (John Brown) calls her by the endearment "Chicken," you're left to wonder if his suggestion is half affection and half missing the appendage, " . . . with its head cut off."

It still seems a little on the unfair side, as cleverly as the show is written and as deftly as it is acted. I've met blondes who belong in astrophysics programs, I've met brunettes to whom astrophysics involves the Houston Astros in spring training calisthenics. (I've also met redheads who've gone either way, but you know what they say about a redhead's tempter.)

And My Friend Irma almost met stillbirth in court, according to head writer Parke Levy.

I was writing some show and I got a call from a guy named Cy Howard. I went over to talk to him; this frenetic guy Howard was dancing around. He says, "Here's a script, will you read it?" When I finished reading, he said, "Well, do you think you could write this show?" I said, "I don't see why not, it's already been written. This is My Sister Eileen." He says, "Shhh. Don't say that. They're talking about suing us." I said, "Look. You indemnify me and I'll write it. But I'm telling you right now, I don't want to be any part of this thing, because you're going to be sued some day."

. . . [Howard] didn't create [My Friend Irma]. The guy that created My Sister Eileen* created it. Cy Howard couldn't write his name.

. . . There was a big lawsuit. And of course CBS did pay off in the end; it cost them a lot of money.

---Parke Levy, to Jordan R. Young, for The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV's Golden Age. (Beverly Hills: Past Times Publishing, 1999.)

Levy brought a better than respectable pedigree to the show's writing staff. He had made his bones writing for Joe Penner, who may or may not be well remembered now---except, perhaps, as the Egghead character who evolved somehow into the original Elmer Fudd---but whose manic 1933-1935 radio show ("You wanna buy a duck?" "Oh, you naaaaaaaaaaa-sty man!") was phenomenally popular, until he was undone by two developments. One was the lower-keyed, situational style of Jack Benny; the other was Penner's ill-advised attempt to shift his style accordingly, alienating his most consistent audience: the kids who tuned in raptly with and perhaps more so than their parents.

[Benny] became kind of the new in guy, and Joe resented this. And he said to me, "Maybe you can get me a little more sophisticated, like this fellow Jack Benny." And I said, "Joe, when you lose the kids, you lose everybody. You're the kid's comic." He didn't like that too much.

. . . I think he understood [what made him successful], but I don't think he thought that they were indispensable, let me put it that way. He thought he could still be a big star without the children. And he was wrong in that respect."

---Levy, to Young.

Levy's forward movement from their took him to radio writing for musician Ben Bernie (He would come tearing in from the track and come right into the rehearsal booth where the sponsor was sitting---and he would read the script---and read so poorly that we would grit our teeth), Al Jolson (May he rest in peace, that prick), Bert Lahr (He would ask people in elevators if a joke was funny, that's how nervous he would be about his material), and Duffy's Tavern. (Head writer/editor/star Ed Gardner was a very good editor. Between screwing and editing he kept pretty busy.)

And then there were Abbott & Costello.

I wasn't with them very long. They settled my contract for a lot of money. I insisted on that 'cause they refused to do new material . . . Monte Hackett, the very prominent agent who got me the assignment, came to me and said, "The boys are afraid to do new material, Parke. I didn't know that." He said, "Do you want to get out?" I said, "Of course, I want to get out." So he gave me a few thousand dollars; that's what they did in those days.

---To Young.

And as CBS was rounding up to give more than a few thousand dollars to preserve it, My Friend Irma hit the air as a regular series 11 April 1947. The recording of its audition show seems to be lost, but it's reasonable to assume that with a little nip here and a little tuck there, the script was performed as the premiere episode, known variably as "Irma Meets Jane" or "A Dinner Party for Jane's Boss." Jane would probably prefer the former title.

The Sportsmen (yes, the singing group employed by Jack Benny) opened with "Friendship," the show's chosen theme song, off which Jane began her destined to be seven years old story.

JANE: Sure, it's something to sing about. And they can sing about it, maybe, because they haven't any friends. But I'm singing the blues about it, because I have a friend---my friend Irma. Now don't get me wrong---I love that girl, most people do. It's just that Mother Nature gave some girls . . . brains, intelligence, cleverness. But with Irma? Well, Mother Nature slipped her a mickey.

SFX: (footsteps; bumping crash)
IRMA: Oh, excuse me, I just never look where I'm going. I just keep walking with my head high (she takes a deep breath), and just like the doctor told me, taking deep breaths inhaling and exhaling like this---(she takes a deeper, slightly louder breath)---and I keep counting to myself, one, two, three---
JANE (a little flustered from her fall): Look, miss, willya stop counting long enough to help me up?
IRMA (politely): Ooh, of course. You must be unconfortable on your knees.
JANE (mock pleasantry): Noooo. Oh, noooo, not at all, honey, I'd love it down here---if I was Al Jolson.
IRMA: Did you see that picture, The Jolson Story, I just loved it, I cried and cried---
JANE (tartly): Fine. Fine. Now would you please help me up?
IRMA: Oh, certainly. Give me your hand---oooh, my, what a beautiful ring. You know, my--my boyfriend, Al, he was gonna get me one just like that (she gasps) we had it all figured out, only you know what happened?
JANE: It wouldn't fit your nose.
IRMA: It wasn't for my nose, it was for my finger, it wouldn't fit my nose.
JANE: I wish it had---I could have pulled myself up.
IRMA: Oh. Oh, you wanta get up, don't you?
JANE: (friendly tone) Yes, if you please, I can't make much time crawling.
IRMA: I can't either. I always walk. Well, ah, here we go . . . upsie-daisy . . . oh, careful, your dress---
SFX: (ripping)
IRMA: (short soft gasp) Oh. (short embarrassed breathless laugh) We ripped it, didn't we?
JANE: (sarcastically friendly) Yes. We did.
IRMA: Oh, but you know something? They're wearing slips across New York this year.
JANE: Yeah, I know. But not all the way up to the neck.
IRMA: Say, uh, we haven't been introduced yet. My name is Irma. What's yours?
JANE: Goodbye.
IRMA: Oh, what an unusual name---what's your last name?
JANE: Forever.
IRMA: That's a pretty name---Miss Goodbye Forever.
JANE: Oh, Ir-ma!
MUSIC: (bridge)
JANE: That's when I should have run. But I didn't. Apartments are hard to find these days and Irma, bless her heart, is really a sweet kid. So I moved in with her in that one-room, furnished freight elevator she called home.

So what did she expect when the downpayment was a ripped dress?

She didn't expect her friend Irma to scramble their way into hosting a dinner party for Richard Rhinelander III (Leif Erickson)---toward whom Jane has ideas about romance and Irma has ideas about a double wedding, Jane and Richard, and Irma and Al---in that one-room, furnished freight elevator she called home.

MUSIC: (fluttering crescendo of reed instruments)
JANE: (To the listening audience.) That was my blood pressure rising. (Music fades.) She would mention his name. You see, Richard Rhinelander the Third is my boss, and I'm his private secretary. I'm in love with him, but I have no chance to marry him, because he's Richard Rhinelander the Third and I'm Jane Stacy the First.

Oh, I've tried everything to impress him. I've even told him I live in a very intellectual atmosphere, and that my roommate is a promising, young novelist. (Pause.) Oh, Stacy, you fool, you! If he ever finds out how you live and what a mental midget Irma really is, you might end up right between the eight, nine, and ten balls.

Gee. I'd love to marry him.

JANE (to Irma): Irma, wouldn't it be wonderful if I wound up being Mrs. Richard Rhinelander the Third?
IRMA: Well, sure, but what good is that if he has two other wives?

Irma, after all, couldn't marry a wealthy man and have to go to the opera because she doesn't know a thing about Shakespeare.

The accidental dinner party avoided being a disaster, but listen and you will hear the fun turning out to be in the avoidance. And, in the point of Irma doing for the single working woman of her time what her elder Jane Ace had done for the housewife of hers: enabling one and all of her peers (assuming we can say she has peers in the first place) to identify with her . . . and to feel superior to her. Especially if their ne'er-do-well boyfriends made their livings selling merchandise slightly above rip cords.

The show also did a big favour to a future television show that decided to become a radio show while it was still growing up. It provided a sign-off line. Each week, the harried widower finished the daughter-instigated mayhem with a shrugging, eyebrow-arching, resigned smile, and a flustered, "Well, that's my little Margie." The old fellow must have had a secret crush on Jane Stacy. Her exit strategy after each week's half-hour bedlam was a similar (if only implicit) shrugging, eyebrow-arching, resigned "That's my friend Irma!"

You couldn't tell whether she was thanking God for survival or for stopping her from killing the girl.

* -- Actually, there were two guys who created My Sister Eileen: Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, who adapted Ruth McKinney's original stories in The New Yorker into the 1940-1943 stage hit, and then adapted that to the 1942 film hit starring Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen. Tragically, the real-life Eileen was killed before the play opened---with her husband, novelist/screenwriter Nathanael West . . . the day after his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack.

Hi-Yo, Gold Mine! The Way It Was, 30 January

1933---The overture finale for Rossini's operatic interpretation of William Tell's story isn't exactly remembered half as much for introducing that operatic interpretation as it is for introducing classic radio's all-time most remembered Western. And The Lone Ranger* hi-yos Silver for the first time tonight, on the three-station hookup of its creator, George Trendle, but within four years the show's popularity spreads it nationwide and instigates the formal creation of the Mutual Broadcasting System.

George Stenius plays the title role for its first four months, director James Jewell and actor Jack Deeds will play it for an episode each, Earl Graser will assume the role until he's killed in a 1941 automobile accident, and---after five episodes in which the Ranger himself is bedridden, injured, and barely able to whisper (faithful companion Tonto, played by John Todd, carries much of the storytelling)---Brace Beemer, originally the show's narrator in 1941, will play the Silver Bullet Man for the rest of his radio life.

Within its first four years, however, The Lone Ranger's success will spread it to nationwide broadcast and provoke directly the formation of the Mutual Broadcasting System---"an outgrowth," historian Gerald Nachman will record in due course, "of the half-dozen stations that originally signed on to air the hit Western."

The Lone Ranger may have been the first "adult Western," a phrase that began to be heard in the 1950s to describe movies like High Noon and Shane, not to mention the 1950s radio program often cited as the first grown-up horse opera---Gunsmoke. Gunsmoke was decidedly better written and acted, but The Lone Ranger was mythic---the first such show to employ a loner hero and moody effects, a kind of noir Western.

The Lone Ranger shows sound no less hackneyed today than others of the era, yet something elevated the program above more ordinary sagebrush series with Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Red Ryder, Roy Rogers (anointed "King of the Cowboys"), and his slick rival Gene Autry . . . Other heroes wore masks . . . and others bent the law for their own purposes . . . but none in Western lore had near the appeal of a "lone ranger." That was the show's basic grabber, along with the fact that . . . the Lone Ranger was modest almost to a fault, so pathologically shy that he refused to stick around for even a simple thank-you . . .

What ennobled him was that he seemed aloof and above the fray---a snob, almost, who, rather than hang around to take his bows after he'd brought the bad guys to justice, beat a hasty retreat. He was utterly humourless---no comic sidekicks for him---and had no time for obsequious thank-yous and small talk. Was it humility, boredom, timidity, or arrogance? He disliked having grateful townsolk slobbering all over him, that was clear, but it seemed impolite for him to exit so quickly. Yet you never tired of the famous fade-out: "Who was that masked man, anyway?" "Why, don't you know? That was . . . the Lone Ranger!" As if there were lots of other cowboys on white horses sporting black masks who handed out silver bullet mementoes and had Indian assistants . . .

In some ways, it was just another schlock Western, but to those who refused to miss a single chapter, The Lone Ranger took on the aura of art. Not even the fairly faithful TV version had the hypnotic power of its radio predecessor.

---Gerald Nachman, in "Saddle Sore," from Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon, 1998.)

Trendle has softened the original character sketch from his writer Fran Striker, whose vision of the Ranger as "a laughing macho Robin Hood" (Nachman) is transformed into the sober, occasionally soapboxing formal guardian angel, "the embodiment," Trendle is quoted as saying, "of granted prayer."

* -- Just in case you might have forgotten (some do) or never have known (some don't, believe it . . . or not), the Lone Ranger is lone in the first place because he, John Reid, is the only survivor of the Cavendish Gang's wipeout of a troop of Texas Rangers (no, silly, we're not talking about a pitcher named Cavendish who no-hit the hell out of a certain baseball team), and Tonto, the Indian who brought him back to health, tells him the bad news about his fellow Rangers, punctuating it with, "You only Ranger left. You lone Ranger now."


1949: THE PHILANTHROPIST---A semi-hobo piques Dan Holliday's (Alan Ladd) interest with a small note written on the back of an old handbill and his unkempt appearance when meeting Dan in the park. It's when he asks Dan to try his idea for finding his traveling pal, after being separated during one railroad hop, that Dan gets a different view of the down-and-out, on tonight's episode of Box 13. (Mutual)

1950: BATTLE OF THE CENTURY---That may be what they all say, but this happens to be part two of the so-named eighteen-part Carlton Morse Western tale in which Jack Packard (Russell Thorson) and Reggie York (Tony Randall) agree to help a rich rancher's runaway daughter (Mercedes McCambridge) bent on marrying a poor farmhand, on tonight's episode of I Love a Mystery. (Mutual.)


1896---Joseph Gallicchio (music: Amos 'n' Andy, Music from the Heart of America), Chicago.
1907---Lois Wilson (actress: numerous programs, including The Jack Benny Program), Iowa.
1911---Hugh Marlowe (actor: Ellery Queen, Brenda Curtis), Philadelphia.
1914---John Ireland (actor: MGM Theater of the Air, U.S. Steel Hour), Vancouver, B.C.; David Wayne (actor: Eternal Light, Lux Radio Theater, Stars in the Air), Traverse City, Michigan.
1915---Dorothy Dell (actress: Stars of Tomorrow), Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
1925---Dorothy Malone (actress: Lux Radio Theater), Chicago.
1931---Conrad Binyon (actor: Mayor of the Town), Hollywood.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"We Just Got A Little Mixed Up There": The Way It Was, 29 January

1945---The Mutual Coast to Coast program presents fifteen minutes worth of a vigorous performance by Count Basie and His Orchestra from the Hotel Lincoln Blue Room in New York City.

Earle Warren, a Basie saxophonist who also sang with the band here and there, gets the first feature with "Just After Awhile"---or does he? The band must not have heard the Mutual announcer, because they kicked into "Together," and the vocal was Basie mainstay Jimmy Rushing, preluded by a creamy round of trombones leading the first chorus over knitted reeds and (muted) trumpets and a clarinet solo backed by floating (on Basie’s earthy terms, anyway) saxophones.

Rushing’s exuberantly pleading reading acquits the somewhat trite lyric, but this number isn't exactly one of the blues in which Rushing specialised. He yields to a closing chorus that begins with one of Basie’s signature minimalistic piano statements, hands off to a holler of horns, hands back to Basie for a couple of bars, and back to the horns to close.

"Aw, thank you, Jimmy Rushing---we just got a little mixed up there on that opening," says announcer Jack Scanlan sheepishly. (Listen carefully and, somewhere in the middle of the opening instrumental round, you can hear Scanlan's slightly astonished realisation that it's Rushing and not Warren stepping up to the lead microphone.)

Then comes "Just After Awhile," with Warren resting his saxophone and opening his mouth, and if he isn’t exactly the most distinguished balladeer on a jazz bandstand his earnest delivery isn’t exactly a liability, and he gets empathetic support from the Basie horns. But this band came to swing, first and foremost, and "On the Upbeat" does exactly that. You have a good idea of how acute 1945 radios weren't for picking up the full ensemble in a crowded ballroom, however, but Basie’s brass swing so relentlessly---even in the quiet passage that sends nearly punctuative saxophones behind a husky muted trumpet solo---that you almost don’t miss being able to hear the nonpareil rhythm section anchored by guitarist Freddie Greene and drummer Jo Jones until Basie’s brief solo punching.

The treat: the brief tenor saxophone solo, apparently by Lester Young, that telegraphs the full brass finale. A titan of the tenor saxophone, who prevailed to show jazz there was more than Coleman Hawkins's full-throated sound to be drawn from the instrument, Young here is actually playing slightly past his customary moody style during a time when he has returned to the Basie band for a brief period. His short but sassy line suggests something of what he's been learning on 52nd Street and elsewhere, moonlighting among the original bebop experimenters.

The broadcast portion of the band’s evening finishes off with "One O’Clock Jump." (You'd prefer to think the broadcast was timed to go for the absolute final fifteen minutes of Basie's evening; you'd hate to think it isolated fifteen minutes in the middle, compelling Basie to interject his theme a little earlier than customary and leaving you feeling as if you'd been teased a little unfairly.)

It isn’t one of the better versions of their customary theme but it isn’t bad, either. Basie’s introductory, sometimes teasing piano passages start almost in the far background before rolling forward, calmly but affirmatively, to hand it to his men for a few choruses of blues in which the trombone solo and Basie’s second piano solo (he manages, if this is possible, to make his first sound like a stream-of-consciousness schpritz) are the obvious highlights.

If only the network hadn’t employed a fadeaway finish, because the beginning of the high-note trumpet turn that begins to ride the song’s theme riff suggests a bristling, hunger-for-more finish.


1944: OLD CLAWFOOT AGAIN--- in "The City of the Dead," the first serial in the series, as San Francisco investigators Bart Friday and Skip Turner continue helping their fathers---the mayor and the town's most prominent doctor---fight a continuing grave-robbing epidemic, on tonight's episode of Adventures by Morse. (Syndicated.) Stars: Elliott Lewis, David Ellis, Russell Thorson. Writer: Carlton E. Morse (also renowned as the creator-writer of One Man's Family).

1951: SPEAKING OF ONE FELLA'S FAMILY---Sorry, Bob & Ray, couldn't resist. But it just so happens that it's time for Book LXXXII, Chapter XXI, of the real thing. And the new Harper and Barbour real estate partnership's experiencing growing pains, with Harper (Marvin Miller) questioning Clifford's (Barton Yarborough) drive until Henry (J. Anthony Smythe)---whom Harper's thinking of selling his half the business---cautions Harper not to mistake Clifford's casual style for business listlessness, while Clifford has misgivings about a successful deal, on tonight's chapter of One Man's Family. (NBC.) Writer: Carlton E. Morse.


1874---Owen Gibson (writer, The Gibson Family, Pulitzer Prize Plays), Portland, Maine.
1880---W.C. Fields (William Claude Dukenfield; comedian-actor: frequent guest, The Chase and Sanborn Hour/The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show), Philadelphia.
1902---Florence Rinard (panelist: Twenty Questions), unknown.
1915---Victor Mature (actor: Hollywood Star Playhouse), Louisville, Kentucky
1916---Bill Lawrence (reporter: ABC), Lincoln, Nebraska.
1917---Lloyd Perryman (singer: The Sons of the Pioneers, The Roy Rogers Show), Ruth, Arkansas; John Raitt (actor-singer: MGM Musical Comedy Theater), Santa Ana, California.
1918---John Forsythe (actor: NBC Star Playhouse), Penns Grove, New Jersey.
1923---Paddy Chayevsky (writer: Theater Guild On the Air), Bronx, New York; Martin Ragaway (writer: The Abbott and Costello Show, The Milton Berle Show), unknown.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Hall of Poison Ivy

Leave us face it. Even classic radio was all sweetness, all light about half the time. The comedians who got America to laugh its way through the Great Depression by sticking barbs into its craw never kidded themselves that the Depression itself was to laugh. Franklin Roosevelt was good for punch lines, his own and the radio stars’, except you’re left to wonder how many of them ever figured out Roosevelt wasn’t kidding.

Fiorello La Guardia wasn’t kidding about reading the Sunday funnies to the kids who missed their papers thanks to a big strike, but La Guardia had a better sense of humour no matter what he thought privately about the strike. Hitler and Stalin were good for punch lines, too---if you were on American or British and not German nor Russian radio. On their turf, Hitler or Stalin punch lines were good for only as long as it took to round up the authors and anyone caught laughing for a few summers and no few winters at Camp Concentration.

Remember: At least half the reasons for classic radio becoming classic in the first place had to do with disaster, destruction, and crime. Herb Morrison wasn’t exactly doing standup at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and neither were Gabriel Heatter at the Bruno Hauptmann trial or Dwight Eisenhower at the D-Day launch. The London Blitz didn't exactly refer to a newfangled defencive scheme making a splash around the NFL. (Come to think of it, the NFL wasn’t exactly making a splash, either, unless you counted the mud on the rainy days when the jerks went out and played, anyway.) And Pearl Harbour didn't exactly refer to the lovelorn heroine of the newest soap opera.

Orson Welles didn’t become a radio superstar because he put the country in stitches over that Martians in New Jersey looney tune. Well, let’s amend that. Orson Welles became a radio superstar because he had some of the country in stitches. Hospital stitches, depending on the extent of their injuries during the big panic.

But the most recalcitrant nostalgist won’t pretend that picking the all-time classic radio calamities is simple business, either. The choices are probably more voluminous than the pages of a single bill in Congress, even if they’re simpler and less offencive to read and comprehend. And damn near everyone who’s responsible for the classic radio era’s oversteps, missteps, and malsteps is dead at the present time. What can we do to them if we could hold them to answer for their flubbery? (Wait a minute. All things considered, we could revoke their right to vote. You have a better way to punish the dead---short of eternal damnation by the loop of the silvery Stop the Music---I’m listening.)

We can put them into the Hall of Poison Ivy, that’s what we can do. (With apologies to Ronald and Benita Colman and their charming comedy of manners, The Halls of Ivy, of course . . . )

By "bloopers" we don't mean the Hoobert Heever type of actual or alleged on-the-air funny by which Kermit Schaefer made a living and, in one case at least, hung at least one dubious suspect with an unfair reputation killer, either. (Oops. I think I’ve just written the language for his Hall of Poison Ivy plaque. Considering how many of his once-famous bloopers weren’t the real thing but just re-recordings with impersonators that caught an awful lot of people with their pants down, he’s probably overqualified. And those people didn’t get half the laughs out of their pants falling that Jack Benny got out of his.)

The famous Harry Von Zell "Hoobert Heever" hee-hee really did happen. It just didn’t happen the way Schaefer presented it. The slipup had nothing to do with a live address by the then-President and everything to do with a birthday tribute recording for which Von Zell was reading a recap of Mr. Hoover’s life, times, doings, and undoings. Schaefer simply couldn’t resist re-creating the more sensational version of the stumble. In a later generation Schaefer would have made a terrific NBC Dateline producer. For exploding truth he was almost peerless.

Enough diversion . . . though in one sense we are talking about that kind of blooper. (Kermit Schaefer’s, not Harry Von Zell’s.) The kind that involves programming decisions (Schaefer kind of fits under that rubric), career moves, contract moves, stupid moves, blind moves, censorial moves, hirings and firings, joinings and unjoinings, everything that isn’t just attributable to human error. The kind of move that leaves the protagonist(s) not with new riches and rewards but with cheese omelettes on his, her, or their grilles. (You'll understand whence the cheese anon. Trust me.)

Remember: we’re talking about classic radio here. When NBC, CBS, ABC, and Mutual were radio, not television, never mind that there might be some nominations having one or another tie to the picture box. This isn’t the place to throw Howard Stern under his weekly bus or to try Mancow's Morning Madhouse for letting the inmates become the asylum. This isn’t the place to sentence Opie and Anthony to dinner, dancing, and a hotel reservation with Lorena Bobbitt; or, to arrange a black bag job for the purpose of breaking into KDND and getting the water coolers out of there before their disc jockeys get any more bright contest ideas.

This is the place, however, to try such stumbles, bumbles, and rumbles as the two or three that follow. And these are just the opening nominees. We’re going to continue adding to the nominees until a) we figure out which ones should become the charter inductees and when ("we" means myself and my readers . . . all seven of them); or, b) one or all of us get sick and tired of regurgitating them in the first place. ("Us" means . . . myself and my readers, all seven of them.)

You may have wondered if the pronouns in the preceding paragraph mean that the nominees will not be nominated by myself alone. Well, if you have your own ideas on worthy nominees whose misdeeds will be remembered longer than their protagonists hoped to forget them, I’d love to see them. If your nominees and their scarlet Ks (for knuckleheads) measure up, they will become official nominees to the Hall of Poison Ivy, with all wrongs reserved and all credit conferred.

If they don’t, well, this was my idea and I’m claiming the right of first refuse. Besides, I don’t have the slightest idea as to where we should build the Hall of Poison Ivy. I know only that we ought to build one. If only in our minds, out of which we have yet to be driven---much.

Without picking a likely position (poll or otherwise) or daring to guess who garners the most votes (dead or alive) when induction time comes, here are the opening nominees, in no particular order except that of chronology.



At the height of his radio career, Ed Wynn---the manic, giggly Perfect Fool, clowning star of The Fire Chief Program---began to wonder whether he had that much future left as a radio star. He wanted a business legacy for his family. So he had a grand idea in 1933: a new radio network.

He had no idea, however, of what he was getting himself into when he picked Hungarian violinist Ota Gygi as his partner. Gygi seems to have had a genius for alienating any and everyone whose support the new network might have needed to survive more than the five weeks it lived on the air. This meant, in essence, alienating any and everyone who didn’t work for The New York Times. And Wynn was in no position to stop him. The comedian was in Hollywood working on a film when ABS launched 25 September 1933.

Gygi was an old-school European, a man of strong and rather snobbish opinions---and his influence on the policies of Amalgamated was significant. At a stroke he managed to alienate almost the entire New York City press corps by announcing at a kickoff press conference that he was only interested in what the New York Times thought of the project and had no use for any of the other papers---especially not the tabloids. As it happened, one of the city's most powerful radio critics was Ben Gross, of the tabloid Daily News---and Gygi's attitude ended up costing the new network any support Gross might have given it. Other radio critics followed Gross's lead, their comments on Amalgamated running from dismissive to snide.

But even more damaging was Amalgamated's attitude toward advertisers. The new network treated them as a necessary but distasteful evil, wrapping itself in proclamations of "public service" and enforcing a policy of no direct commercial announcements on any of its programs. Advertisers would be allowed mentions at the opening and closing of programs, but no direct sales talk. This sort of policy had dominated radio during the twenties, but had been abandoned both NBC and CBS by the turn of the 1930s---and by returning to such a rule, Amalgamated was in effect cutting its own throat. Few advertisers were willing to pay top dollar rates for less freedom than they could get from the established chains---and without big-money advertisers, Amalgamated had no chance of offering top-quality programming. Without top quality programming, the network could not attract powerful affiliates. And without powerful affiliates, the network had no hope of attracting advertisers. If one had tried to deliberately craft an operating plan predestined for failure, it would have looked very much like the plan adopted by Amalgamated.

Wynn disassociated himself from the network not long before it signed off for the final time, but he’d sunk his life savings into the project and vowed to repay every last investor. That amounted to at least a $300,000 repayment commitment, which Wynn repaid in full. But the ABS collapse, accordingly, started a long low period for the comedian. The Fire Chief Program was cancelled in 1935. A new show in 1936 lasted only a single season. His marriage collapsed under the pressure; his divorce became a public mess. And the Fire Chief finally suffered a nervous breakdown.

Wynn's salvation proved to be his son, Keenan (in due course a distinguished actor in his own right), who shepherded him through his recovery and his long, slow, but respected show business comeback. But ABS had been a good idea regardless of how Gygi invited its crib death. Exactly one year after ABS collapsed---and with former ABS affiliate WXYZ (Detroit) on board as a charter member---a similarly arrayed, cooperative-ownership network launched for the long haul: the Mutual Broadcasting System.



Bad enough: NBC refusing to buy Jack Benny's show from Jack Benny's production company, the better to let Benny keep a little more of the fruit of his labour in the years when the still-in-place wartime tax structure meant 90 percent of Benny's earnings going to Washington. Worse: NBC took the attitude that radio listeners tuned in to the network first and the performers secondarily.

But while negotiating a new deal with Jack Benny in 1949, NBC brought something to the table that was all but guaranteed to alienate their number one comedy star: the man who'd prosecuted him as a smuggler, nastily and abusively, just a few years earlier.

Short version: Benny and George Burns, having bought some jewelry for their wives on a European trip, bumped into a fellow named Chapreau, who offered to save them duty taxes by bringing the jewels to America via the diplomatic pouch for a small fee, the fellow claiming to have diplomatic connections. (That kind of penny pinch would have been in character for Benny's radio persona but not Benny himself, whose personal generosity, like Fred Allen's, was legend.)

The only thing Chapreau had was chutzpah, not to mention a profession of smuggling, and the two comedians were busted and tried. Benny and Burns got off with slaps on the wrist (read: fines), but U.S. attorney John T. Cahill treated Benny like a common criminal in court, refusing to accept that the genial entertainer might have done nothing worse than trust the wrong man with no criminal intent. When NBC brought in Cahill as one of its negotiators, the comedian (whose loyalty streak was deep and who agonised over possibly leaving NBC) realised once and for all that NBC really was insensitive to the performers who brought in the audiences. (NBC charging Benny and other performers to park in their studio parking lots was merely a petty hint.)

Benny made the jump to CBS---and encouraged his friends at NBC (including and especially Burns & Allen) to follow him, which many did. NBC wised up enough to offer lucrative new deals to keep The Fred Allen Show and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, but the Benny-led defections decimated NBC's audience share for time enough, including and especially the share that made NBC the Sunday night radio champion long enough.

In fact, Benny's sponsor asked for and got an indemnification from CBS against the chance that Benny's Hooper rating might fall below his NBC peak. As if. Benny's first CBS show, 2 January 1950, pulled down a Hooper rating that beat his best rating on NBC. No wonder Bill Paley didn't mind working through Benny's production company or backing Benny all the way to the Supreme Court when the government tried and failed to prove the company was really a tax-shaving holding company.

Benny had his "keeping money" and Paley had his star. One other thing: Bill Paley made sure that Jack Benny never paid a dime to park in the CBS lot.

---Robert Metz, from CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye.



The talent raid under which CBS landed Jack Benny and a few other signature NBC stars actually hurt one of the big fish in the CBS catch: The Great Gildersleeve himself. But it also left his sponsor looking a little foolish when all was said and the wrong thing done.

Harold Peary had made stentorian but softhearted Gildersleeve his own, and in more ways than one. His character virtuosity and the show’s cleverly blended cast and writing made it broadcasting’s first genuine spinoff hit. (The character had evolved into a next-door nemesis on Fibber McGee and Molly from a few earlier variations on that show. On his own, Gildersleeve shared a few things with Peary's actual self: Peary in real life was raising a niece and nephew, with a live-in black nurse to help care for them; unlike his on-air alter ego, however, Peary was actually a happily married man.)

Like Benny, Peary was represented by the MCA talent agency, and from that vantage he could pay close attention to the Benny case. And his MCA handlers made him aware enough of his role in The Great Gildersleeve's staying power that he wanted a piece of its ownership, not to mention a little extra mike time for his passable singing voice.

He had two problems, however. One was the show's sponsor, Kraft Foods (formerly Kraft Cheese Company), which owned the show and rebuffed its star on both those issues. The other was his MCA handlers convincing him the show had no life without him. When his latest contract expired, he was ready for a CBS offer to change channels lucratively enough, and with the kind of capital-gains advantage that network had allowed for Jack Benny and company when Benny led the original NBC exodus.

Peary learned the hard way that Kraft had no intention of moving The Great Gildersleeve from NBC and every intention of proving to him that if he wanted to jump, they weren't going to ask him how high and off which bridge. And the chosen agent for such proof turned out to be an old friend of Peary's from earlier Chicago radio days: Willard Waterman, who once succeeded Peary as the sheriff in Tom Mix, Ralston Sharpshooter. Waterman had since paid his dues with roles in a few soap operas (including The Guiding Light), a variety offering here (Chicago Theater of the Air), a situation comedy (Harold Teen, Those Websters) there.

Waterman also looked and sounded as though he could have been Peary’s brother, though to his credit Waterman refused to adopt the famous Gildersleeve laugh---that half-leering, half-embarrassed, giggling diminuendo. His superficial resemblance to Peary must have made it seem to Kraft as if The Great Gildersleeve’s transition would be seamless enough.

The new Gildersleeve survived five years, but that was really a kind of slow death: the protagonist now seemed unable to choose between being a family man or a ladies’ man, before choosing the latter a little too much so for listeners’ tastes. (And, viewers’, in the show’s short and unlamented television guise.)

But Peary, in Gerald Nachman’s locution, had "outsmarted himself and lost the role of a lifetime." He and CBS scrambled to make a new vehicle and came up with The Harold Peary Show. (It’s often called Honest Harold---mistakenly. Honest Harold was actually the name of the fictitious local radio show on which Peary’s new character starred.) This show was a little better than its historical reputation and might have survived, if it hadn't sounded a little too much like The Lite Gildersleeve while the real (if re-cast/remodeled) thing was still on the air.

The new show lasted a single season. Its flop ended Peary’s career as a major radio star. He went from there to a long and worthy career as a character actor on television and in film, and also became a valued voice actor in animation roles for Rankin-Bass, Hanna-Barbera, and other animators. But he never returned to anything even close to his former fame. The wealth of surviving transcription recordings leaves little doubt if any about who the great Gildersleeve was. And, what a grave mistake Harold Peary and his MCA handlers made when they sneezed over Kraft's dumb one.


Thus our first nominees to the Hall of Poison Ivy. The floor is hereby thrown open to further nominations. Your correspondent will make one or two more within a fortnight, but if you have your own ideas of bloopers and blunders that ought to be dishonoured, feel free to scratch them up. The calamine lotion is on the house.

"Folks, Listen For the Boom of the Ol' Bass Drum": The Way It Was, 28 January

1940---With Garry Moore as the host, Ted Weems (with whose band Perry Como---part of the show, too---first becomes a singing star), Marvel Maxwell also doing the singing, General Mills (promoting their new corn cereal, Kix) as the original sponsor, and Ford Bond as the original announcer, Beat the Band premieres out of Chicago on NBC.

Listeners receive ten dollars if their question is used on the air, and the answer is always the title of a song. If they can beat the band they land twenty dollars and a case of Kix, with the musicians who miss the answer having to “feed the kitty”---tossing half dollars onto the bass drum, with the musician scoring the most points answering the listeners’ questions getting to take the money home.

Folks, listen for the boom of the ol’ bass drum---that means the question beat the band.---Country Washburn, bassist with the Weems orchestra.

There is, of course, more, as explained by Moore on the 7 April 1940 broadcast, after explaining the twenty dollars and case of Kix.

But, now, that sum may be much more, because we have a hundred dollar bonus which is divided equally among those who beat the band. For example, if four persons beat the band, they receive twenty-five dollars, plus ten for the question. However, if only one person beats the band, that person receives the full one hundred dollars, ten for the question, and the case of Kix.

Beat the Band will expire in 1941, but it will be revived in 1943, out of New York, with "The Incomparable Hildegarde" (Walter Winchell hung that tag upon the famed cabaret/supper club singer) as hostess, Harry Sosnik joining Ted Weems in handling the music, Marilyn Thorne joining Marvel Maxwell in the singing, and a slight change in the rules, tied to the new sponsor, Raleigh cigarettes.

Listeners sent in musical questions and it was up to the band to identify songs from a few clues. Prizes of twenty-five dollars and a carton of the sponsor’s cigarettes . . . went to contestants whose questions did not beat the band. If the question did beat the band, the contestant received fifty dollars and two cartons of cigarettes, and the boys in the band had to throw a pack of cigarettes "on the old bass drum for the men in service overseas."

---Frank Buxton and Tim Owen, The Big Broadcast 1920-1950. (New York: Avon, 1971.)

A typical musical question might be something such as, "What song title tells you what Cinderella might have said if she awoke one morning and found that her foot had grown too large for the glass slipper?" (The correct answer, by the way, is, "Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?")

A classic question, all things considered, will be this from a listener in Hopkins, Minnesota, also on the 7 April 1940 show: “If Joe DiMaggio hits sixty-one home runs this summer, what would Babe Ruth’s present mark represent?” The correct musical answer: “Broken Record,” then a novelty hit.

The second Beat the Band expires in 1944. But in one sense it will have a kind of afterlife, by way of Hildegarde's catch-phrase, "Give me a little traveling music, Harry." Jackie Gleason will appropriate the phrase for his popular Saturday night television show: breaking off his opening monologue and calling to his bandleader, Sammy Spear, "A little travelin' music, Sam!"---before dancing crazily enough from center stage to the left rear wing, where he claps once and thrusts a hand away from his girth, hollering, "And a-waaay we go!"


1948: THE RADIO SHOW---Looking for a second income because his regular job isn't paying him quite enough, Dennis (Day) mulls a chance to write and perform in a radio show, on tonight's edition of A Day in the Life of Dennis Day. (NBC.) Also starring: Barbara Eiler, Bea Benaderet, Dick Trout, John Brown.

1948: THREE GOOD WITNESSES---Alone and unarmed crossing Turkey on the Taurus Express train, a State Department oil investigator (Morgan Foley) eager to return to return home to California has more than he can handle eluding a nonchalant killer, on tonight's edition of Escape. (CBS.) Adapted by John Dunkel from a story by Harold Lamb. Additional cast: Jack Webb (as Tom Hetfield), Jeanette Nolan (as Mary), Harry Bartel (as Kiborkian).

1953: A STUDY IN OILS---The FBI can't back Matt Cvetic (Dana Andrews)'s latest Party assignment---softening a wealthy, anti-Communist oilman out of some of the yield from government-land oil leases---until he learns more about why the Party really needs the oil. Adding to his dilemna: Comrade Horstin sending him to meet the oilman with an odd oil painting as a kind of introduction, on tonight's episode of I Was a Communist For the FBI. (Syndicated.)

1954: TRASH CAN LIDS---They've been crushed once too often by careless neighbourhood garbagemen for Jim's (Robert Young) taste. That's why being interrupted by Bud's (Ted Donaldson) sudden interest in telepathy isn't have as frustrating as the sanitation representative blaming the Andersons for the problem, on tonight's episode of Father Knows Best. (NBC.) Also starring: Jean Vander Pyl (the future Wilma Flintstone), Rhoda Williams, Norma Jean Nilsson.


1882---Richard Barrows (actor: Death Valley Days, Ellery Queen, Second Husband), Buffalo, New York.
1910---Arnold Moss (actor: Against the Storm, Big Sister)
1911---Donald Briggs (actor: The Adventures of Frank Merriwell), Chicago.
1912---Monty Masters (actor-producer: The Mad Masters; actor: Candy Matson), New Haven, Connecticut.
1914---Nelson Olmstead (actor: Bachelor's Children), Minnesota.
1935---Nicholas Pryor (actor: CBS Radio Mystery Theater), Baltimore.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

New Worlds, One Brave: The Way It Was, 27 January

1927---A concert violinist turned talent agent, Arthur Judson, and his partner George Coats launch United Independent Broadcasters, Inc. Within less than two years it will become William S. Paley’s Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)---and the story will prove anything but simple. We bring you now to invaluable radio historian Elizabeth McLeod.

. . . [T]he more you look at [Judson's and Coats's] activities during this period, the more you have to wonder how they managed to stay out of jail, let alone how they managed to stay in business.

Judson was originally less interested in starting a radio network than in finding a new outlet for his roster of musical artists.* His first venture in this direction was the Judson Radio Program Corporation, formed in 1926. His idea was to act as a middleman between sponsors and networks -- an independent packager of radio programming, using talent under contract to the company. He approached David Sarnoff with this idea in the fall of 1926, but was shown the door almost immediately---the better for Sarnoff to help himself to the idea, and use it as the basis for the NBC Artists Bureau.

Judson and his associate Coats then decided to try to start a network of their own, and they had everything they needed to do it except money, radio stations, and any knowledge of the broadcasting business. So they went right ahead and had certificates printed for stock shares in United Independent Broadcasters and divided them up among themselves -- and then without the slightest idea of how to start a radio network, Coats hit the road to find affiliates. The idea was that UIB would pay each affiliate a flat rate of $500 for a guarantee of ten hours per week of broadcast time---and most stations of this era being shoestring operations, most of them jumped at the chance---even though the network didn't exist anywhere but on paper. With nothing but promises, Coats signed up a dozen affiliates---but still didn't have any way to deliver on the promises.

The big problem was raising the money to lease the network lines from AT&T---and this was where Coats got lucky. In the spring of 1927, Coats managed to convince the president of the Columbia Phonograph Corporation to buy $163,000 worth of time on the new network---and pay cash up front for it. The idea was that Columbia Phonograph would then resell this time, in ten-hour units to other clients. The Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Company was set up as a paper corporation to handle this work---with its stock divided up among a number of additional investors, none of whom had anything to do with Judson, Coats, or UIB. The only link between the two corporations was the contract for Columbia to buy the time from UIB.

Columbia handed over the money with no guarantee that Coats and Judson would ever get the network off the ground, but they were able---perhaps with a bit of political arm twisting---to get AT&T to lease the necessary lines. Meanwhile, Coats and Judson finally realized they knew nothing about broadcasting, and sold Major J. Andrew White 200 shares of stock in UIB in order to get access to his expertise. However, even White was unable to do anything meaningful in the way of lining up clients because of the clumsy arrangement with Columbia---no sponsor wanted to share sponsorship credit with another company for its programs. It was perhaps because of this that "Phonograph" was apparently not used on air.

When the new network finally signed on, there were three corporations involved---Judson Radio Program Corporation, which assembled the programming; United Independent Broadcasters, which arranged for the network lines; and, Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Company, which fronted the cash and made its contract talent available for broadcasting. None of these three corporations had any control over the others, and all were most concerned with their own interests. Columbia Phonograph lost $100,000 on the project over the first month of the project, sold no sponsors whatsoever, and dropped out. That cut off the cash flow before the network was a month old. They did, however, leave their name behind---figuring any advertising is good advertising---and also retained the block of time they had bought, to be used for their own "Columbia Phonograph Hour," at that time the only sponsored program on the chain.

It was here that George "Kingfish" Coats saved the network. With a mountain of debt, no source of income, no future prospects, and no assets other than a pile of essentially worthless stock certificates, Coats sold a Philadelphia millionaire named J. H. Louchheim an interest in the company and got him to agree to put up the money to keep it running. Loucheim then pooled his shares with a minority interest Coats had sold to the Levy brothers---owners of WCAU---and took a controlling interest in UIB, with Judson and Coats retaining most of the rest of the stock, as well as control of the Judson Radio Program Corporation, which had a five-year contract to produce programs for the network. A few sponsors signed on---very few---but the losses continued to mount.

Over the next eight months, Louchheim flushed a fortune into UIB, and lost it all---although he got plenty of additional stock certificates to show for his investment. Finally, in September of 1928, Loucheim---by this time ready to kill Coats on sight---jumped at the chance to dump the whole soggy mess into the lap of a snappy-dressing 27-year-old millionaire whose family's company---Congress Cigar Co.---was one of the few Columbia sponsors. William Paley then convinced his father and several of his uncles to join him in the venture---and took a three month leave of absence from the cigar business to see if the new purchase was worth anything.

One of the first things the new owner did was clean up the messy corporate structure. The Columbia Broadcasting Company was dissolved, but its name was kept---and on 1/3/29, United Independent Broadcasters officially changed its name to Columbia Broadcasting System Inc. Judson and Coats retained Judson Radio Program Corporation, along with their minority interest in the new CBS---but from here on, Paley was in control. The network lost over $380,000 thru the end of 1928, but it would never have another losing year.

1956---Thirty-nine years to the day that CBS's UIB predecessor was founded formally, the first of a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley's futuristic tale of benign tyranny, Brave New World---with Huxley himself as the narrator---launches The CBS Radio Workshop.

The series will live for two years but it will earn respect as one of the most ingenious programs in radio history, regardless of the fact that it arrives as classic network radio is, so to say, rounding third and heading for home.


1948: HIT AND RUN---An insider about to expose the commission's involvement in a liquor smuggling racket he wants to leave is run down and killed by a potentially stolen taxicab---the moment he crosses the street from the Daily Sentinel offices, after exposing the racket to Britt Reid (Jack McCarthy) and Lenore Case (Lee Allman), on tonight's episode of The Green Hornet. (ABC.) Also starring Raymond Hayashi (as Kato), Gil Shea (as Mike Axford).

1950: WELLMAN'S NOSE AND THE CHARTER DAY CEREMONIES---The professor and Victoria (real-life husband and wife Ronald Colman and Benita Hume) can't just shake off the mishap of board of governors chairman Wellman's broken nose as a dinner guest: he's the key man for Ivy's Charter Day ceremonies the day after. Meanwhile, Victoria can't just shake off a magazine reporter assigned to the festivities who can't help reminiscing to her about what her film-days visit to the troops on Anzio meant to them, on tonight's edition of The Halls of Ivy. (NBC.) Also starring: Herbert Butterfield, Gloria Gordon, Willard Waterman.

1950: JUNIOR IS IN LOVE---Riley (William Bendix) and Peg (Paula Winslow) learn the hard way that it wasn't Junior (Scott Beckett) in his bed early every night this week. The evidence they misinterpret includes a bracelet he inadvertently left among the bric-a-brac he used to fake his sleeping form, but they also misinterpret the manner in which he acquired it---and why---on tonight's edition of The Life of Riley. (NBC.) Also starring: Sharon Douglas, Conrad Binyon.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Jesus Christ, Radio Star: The Way It Was, 26 January

1947---The Greatest Story Ever Told---a radio series presenting dramatisations of the stories, sayings, and parables of Jesus Christ---premieres on ABC, sponsored by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, and starring Warren Parker as Jesus.

The series is based on the best-seller by Fulton Oursler (an editor of the original Liberty magazine), and it will enjoy a ten-year life, with its first Christmas episode, "No Room at the Inn" (first broadcast 19 December 1947) becoming its annual Christmas episode, and the final series broadcast airing 30 December 1956.

During its tenure on the air this program featured most of the regular New York dramatic radio actors; the only continuing role is that of Jesus. The sound effects were particularly unique. Instead of modern footsteps, for instance, the sound of sandals had to be employed; and, unusual door effects had to be devised since there were no doors with modern latches and hinges in Biblical times.

---Frank Buxton and Bill Owen, The Big Broadcast 1920-1950. (New York: Avon, 1971.)

Henry Denker writes the show’s scripts in an understated yet firmly dramatic style and co-directs the episodes with Mark Loeb. Terry Ross handles the sound effects, and Jacques Belasco directs the music (a small orchestra and sixteen-voice chorale).

Goodyear’s sponsorship, however, is announced only once a program---at the end of each episode, by announcer Norman Rose: "The Greatest Story Ever Told has been brought to you by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company." That’s it. There is no commercial advertisement during any episode of the series otherwise.

At least 46 episodes have been known to survive, including "The Prodigal Son," "The Parable of the Lost Coin," "And Her Name Was Mary," and "Ye That Are Heavy Laden." Several of these, however, survive by way of Armed Forces Radio Service transcription discs.

Warren Parker will make a few more radio appearances during the final decade of network radio as it was known, including "A Gun For Dinosaur," an episode of the science fiction series X Minus One.


1941: PEN PAL---A misinterpreted newspaper ad moves a female pen pal to congratulate Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! (Ezra Stone) on his nonexistent marriage. And Henry fears answering the letter---as Alice (Kathleen Raht) and Sam (House Jameson) insist he do---will cause even more complications . . . especially with his actual girl friend, on tonight's edition of The Aldrich Family. (NBC.)

1944: THE MATRIMONIAL AGENCY---Which is what Lou's (Costello) rhapsodising over his cousin Hugo's wedding ("Just think: his ration book . . . her ration book . . . side by side . . . ") inspires Bud (Abbott) to suggest as an investment for Lou's $75 in savings, on tonight's edition of The Abbott & Costello Show. (NBC.)

1953: THE BLACK FIGURINE OF DEATH---The figurine figures disturbingly, after a neglected old man---who thinks his niece and nephew care nothing about him---dies after warning them inheriting his estate is something they'll regret . . . which they might, when they learn the condition of their inheritance and discover a corpse whose murder was unsolved, on tonight's edition of The Hall of Fantasy. (Mutual.) Stars: Richard Thone (who also created, wrote, and directed the series), Eloise Kummer.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Light Unto Daytime: The Way It Was, 25 January

1937---The Guiding Light, a serial drama anchored around the family of a preacher named Rev. Dr. John Ruthledge (Arthur Peterson) in the fictitious Chicago suburb Five Points, launches on NBC. In seventy years it will celebrate an anniversary as the longest-running soap opera in broadcasting history, and the only continuously-airing program left on American television with roots in classic radio.

The new Duz brings you . . . The Guiding Light, created by Irna Phillips.---The show’s simple introduction.

The show's name carries a double meaning. On the show, the title light alludes to a lamp in Rev Ruthledge’s study that his family and neighbours might see as a sign for them to find the guidance they need; for Phillips’s part, it alludes as well to the spiritual solace she found listening to a Chicago radio preacher’s sermons (the Rev. Preston Bradley of the People's Church of Chicago) after giving birth to a stillborn baby.

Phillips, radio lore has it, was allegedly mistaken for an actress during a tour of a Chicago radio station while on vacation and was offered a job---without pay. She went back to Dayton instead but, on a later trip to Chicago, auditioned for a script-writing job and wrote one herself that she starred in, Today’s Children, which became a staple.

In time, Phillips created three huge hits that later were transferred to television---The Guiding Light, The Right to Happiness, and Road of Life, plus a hospital drama, Woman in White. She was able to write three scripts a day---or, like [Pepper Young’s Family creator-writer Elaine] Carrington, dictate them. Phillips, who prided herself on creating more realistic stories, liked to act out the parts as she paced the floor and recited the lines, upward of sixty thousand words a week. Under deadline conditions, often scripts wold be torn from her typist’s hands and, still wet from the mimeograph machine, rushed to waiting actors in an adjoining studio.

. . . Les White, a former soap opera writer, credited Phillips with creating the soaps’ first amnesia plots, first kidnapping, first illegitimate child, and first trial. He added that she paid lawyers for synopses of their trial cases and then filled in fictitious names; she even hired lawyers to write scripts.

---Gerald Nachman, "The Soap Factory," in Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

The Guiding Light’s radio cast will include some of broadcasting’s most recognizable and distinguished performers, including future Academy Award winner Mercedes McCambridge (as Mary Ruthledge), Marvin Miller (as the third Ellis Smith, "Mr. Nobody From Nowhere"; he will later announce for The Bickersons and play the narrator-secretary in television’s The Millionaire), Willard Waterman (the future second Great Gildersleeve, as Roy Fencher), Bret Morrison (the future successor to Orson Welles as the longest-serving Shadow, as Clifford Foster), Betty Lou Gerson (a soap and romance mainstay until voicing Cruella de Vil in the original 101 Dalmatians, as Charlotte Brandon), Raymond Edward Johnson (your future host of The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, as Gordon Ellis and the fourth Ellis Smith), and Clayton Collyer (as Bud Collyer calls himself at the time; The Adventures of Superman is in his not-too-distant future, and Beat the Clock meets him in the early television era) as the serial’s announcer, a job he also does for The Goldbergs.

Known in due course as the "Mother of the Soaps" (a title she could also be seen as earning on television, with The Guiding Light the first television soap), Phillips is known already as the creator-writer (and star, for a time, as Mother Moynihan, the family matriarch) of such soaps as Painted Dreams, often considered radio’s first genuine soap opera, to which scripts she lost the rights when Chicago’s WGN and its owner, the Chicago Tribune, claimed ownership of the entire enterprise and prevailed.

She will exercise the lessons learned in that instance (she brought Today's Children to NBC post haste; it was, as Elizabeth McLeod noted, "a thinly-disguised version of . . . Painted Dreams) and secure ownership of everything she creates in the future, including and especially The Guiding Light---but that will not stop NBC’s Chicago promotion manager, Emmons C. Carlson, from suing for an accounting of her income from the soap.

A lower court decided in favour of Miss Phillips, but a superior court, on appeal, reversed the decision, and Mr. Carlson received a large amount of money in a final settlement of the case. The sponsors of The Guiding Light at the time the suit was filed were General Mills, but they subsequently dropped the program. [William] Ramsey grabbed the show for Procter & Gamble. In 1945, Miss Phillips returned to Northwestern [University], where she had studied for a year, to teach classes in the writing of radio serials on the side, and shortly afterward she moved to California. Her serials have been described as vehicles of evil and also as documents sincerely devoted to public welfare. Miss Phillips now writes only The Guiding Light for a thousand dollars a week.

---James Thurber, from "O Pioneers," part one of "Soapland" (The New Yorker, 1948).

At one time, in the same decade in which she created The Guiding Light, Phillips was believed to have earned as much as $250,000 a year in some years.

Coincidental to her move to California, The Guiding Light will shift its locale from a fictitious Chicago suburb to one near Los Angeles, called Selby Flats. The show also shifts focus from the Rutledge and Holden families to the Bauer, Roberts, and White families. In due course, the locale shifts to a fictitious suburb of New York---and the show will move to television on CBS in 1950, born there as a fifteen-minute offering before graduating in due course to half an hour and, finally, an hour.

Phillips will give up writing The Guiding Light in favour of her protégé---future One Life to Live and All My Children creator Agnes Nixon (who trained under Phillips in writing for Woman in White)---in 1958, to become the head writer for a new CBS television soap, As The World Turns.

Phillips will also adopt two children, a son and a daughter, while never marrying. (Depending upon which sources you believe, Phillips does or does not a love affair with a man who refuses to marry her when he learns she can conceive no longer. She is also believed never to have fallen in love again.)

Professionally, her future will also serve as a creative consultant to the prime-time serialization of Peyton Place and a story editor for daytime soap Days of Our Lives before her death in 1973. She will also mentor William J. Bell, the creator of the long-running CBS-TV soaps The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful.

Daughter Katherine, will grow up to create her own soap, A World Apart, based somewhat on her mother’s life---the short-lived (ABC, 1970-71) soap’s lead was a woman who wrote soap operas for a living while raising two adopted children. The show has a unique tie to soap opera’s radio past: its two lead actors, Augusta Dabney and William Prince---whose characters married as their apparent inspiration did not, prodding storylines about the tension between middle-aged spouses and their children---were a real-life husband-and-wife who appeared two decades earlier on Young Doctor Malone.

In due course, The Guiding Light’s radio era will survive in the form of a handful of episodes available to classic radio collectors. As for the other Phillips radio soaps, the last to leave radio will be Road of Life, in 1959---on the same day that two longtime soap mainstays also die, Mary Noble, Backstage Wife and Our Gal Sunday.


1944: YOU DON’T SAY "WHAT ARE THEY," YOU SAY "WHO IS HE?"---And he is Deems Taylor, the composer and music critic whom Archieda Manageh flummoxes into hearing his minor masterpiece of musical mangling, "Leave Us Face It" (Dinah Shore has already had to suffer singing it), on tonight's installment of Duffy’s Tavern.* (Original broadcast: CBS; rebroadcast: Armed Forces Radio Network.)


* -- Or, Duffy’s, as the show is compelled to present itself formally, in 1943-44. That is after an unknown busybody in the sponsor’s promotions department convinces the sponsor rep to insist on the name change, claiming protests that the original title overpromotes "the hobby of drinking." The claims are proven exaggerated soon enough (the show's fans and reviewers continued called the show by its given name), and the nameless nanny, one presumes, was told in due course to peddle her Puritanism elsewhere . . .

1954: CITIZEN X REVEALED---And at least one Wistful Vista denizen will not necessarily be amused, on today’s installment of the serial version of Fibber McGee and Molly. (NBC.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"I'm Just Laughing---There's a Law Against That?": The Way It Was, 24 January

1942---Abie’s Irish Rose---sponsored by Drene Shampoo, and based on the earlier (1922-1927) Anne Nichols Broadway hit about a Jewish boy from a well-to-do family who marries a poor Irish Catholic girl, with both families feuding as it was, prompting bride and groom to try keeping their marriage a secret for awhile---premieres on NBC.

The show will air for two years and feature Richard Bond, Sydney Smith, Richard Coogan, and Bud Collyer (then known as well for the Superman radio serial and eventually famous as the host of television’s Beat the Clock and To Tell the Truth) as Abie; and, Betty Winkler, Mercedes McCambridge, Julie Stevens (later to succeed Virginia Clark and Betty Ruth Smith in the title role of The Romance of Helen Trent), and Marion Shockley as Rose.

At least three complete episodes and perhaps a few other fragments of Abie’s Irish Rose will survive for 21st century radio collectors.

Abie’s Irish Rose wasn’t exactly a hit with the critics in its earlier life---one was known to have suggested its characters were "painted with a brush a mile wide" and about as full of finess as a comic strip---but The New Republic’s Jenna Weissmann Joselit, reviewing Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Andrea Most) in 2004, will suggest subtlety wasn’t exactly early Broadway’s strength, anyway.

Everything was on the surface, immediately accessible: broad sighs, mighty guffaws, mangled English, heaps of sentiment. But that was the point. While critics squirmed in their seats, the men and women in the audience were thrilled to see their recognizably humdrum lives and conflicts dramatized---and happily resolved---on the American stage. Audiences came to be entertained, of course, but they left feeling heartened, welcomed, even affirmed. As one eyewitness observed, they were "warm and happy every minute they're in their seats."

The play inspired one controversy well before its adaptation to radio. Nichols sued Universal Pictures over the film The Cohens and the Kellys, about feuding families who just so happened to be Jewish and Irish. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held, however, that copyright protection didn’t extent to "stock" characteristics in a character or characters no matter the medium, and Nichols lost the case. Her creation itself was made into a 1928 film (Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll in the title roles), and it will be made into a second film in 1946 (Richard Norris, Joanne Dru).

A second controvery will come almost three decades after the second film, when Abie's Irish Rose is updated into a promising television comedy with one twist. Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS, 1972-73) stars Meredith Baxter and David Birney (the couple married in real life after the show was cancelled) and flip the lead characters. Bernard Steinberg (Birney) is the son of modest, delicatessen-owning Jewish parents, driving a taxicab, aspiring to playwriting; Bridget Fitzgerald (Baxter) is the daughter of wealthy Irish Catholic parents, falling in love with and marrying the aspiring playwright.

Bridget Loves Bernie's plotline will hook as much around the couple's differences in social status as around their religious differences. But the latter inspires pressure from both Jewish and Catholic groups that leads CBS to cancel the show after a single season---despite its placing in the season's top five ratings. There went the arguments that the earlier 20th Century was just so unenlightened.

(Some sniff that Bridget Loves Bernie's high ratings belong almost entirely to its placement between CBS's two Saturday night monster hits, All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore show. But while M*A*S*H finds its stride in the time slot the following season, before moving on to its own night, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers---starring the understated comedian as a lovelorn Boston Symphony bassist---flops in the timeslot in 1974-75, suggesting Bridget Loves Bernie earned its ratings on its own merit, though the Sand vehicle will be seen later as having been too highbrow, perhaps, for even the audience All in the Family led its way.)

The hook around status differences in young marrieds doesn't really die, perhaps suggesting the most durable legacy of Abie's Irish Rose. From 1997-2002, the status hook receives a contemporary twist when a young, composed, Ivy-educated attorney (Thomas Gibson) from a Social Register-type family marries the freewheeling daughter (Jenna Elfman) of unrepentant hippies (on their first date, in Reno, yet) and withstand their families' mutual near-animosities, on ABC's Dharma and Greg.


1946: MY DEAR NIECE---A widow (Dame Mae Witty) working as a home-based publishing secretary writes her niece about the murder plot that sprang out of her agreement to host a promising new author secretly, on tonight's episode of Suspense. (CBS.) Also starring Wally Maher.

1950: TREASURE, INC.---John and Gwen Bagney turned a tropical island retreat into a laundromat for greed, until John (Frank Lovejoy) rethinks everything including Gwen, on tonight's episode of Escape. (CBS.)

1951: A STAR FOR HELEN---It isn't always easy to honour thy father or mother, as tenement janitor Ed Branagan (Walter Brennan) learned from a favourite tenant's (Betty Lynn) growing pains around her widowed mother's burial in the bottle, on tonight's episode of Family Theater. (Mutual. Created and written by Fr. Patrick Payton.)

1951: A SHOWER FOR MARJORIE---The 21st episode of the show's second (read: post-Harold Peary) era finds Uncle Mort (Willard Waterman) tricking a neighbour (guest Cathy Lewis) into tossing niece Marjorie (Mary Lee Robb) a baby shower, on tonight's installment of The Great Gildersleeve. (NBC.) Also starring: Walter Tetley, Earle Ross, Lillian Randolph, Gale Gordon.

1953: THE OLD LADY---Widow Ellen Henry (guest Jeanette Nolan) fires on Matt (William Conrad) and Chester (Parley Baer) when they stop to water their horses on the way back to Dodge, surprising them with her bitterness until they learn too much about her shiftless son---and herself, on tonight's episode of Gunsmoke. (CBS.) Written by Kathleen Hite.

1954: GETTING TO KNOW BOBBY LOGAN---That's what Ben and Liz Marriott (Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy) are doing, particularly since Bobby (William Redfield) is Emily's (Denise Alexander---the future Dr. Leslie Webber on the television soap General Hospital) boyfriend, and a slightly nervous type at that, who's wrangling over his post-graduation life, on tonight's episode of The Marriage. (NBC.)