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.)
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.
THE AMALGAMATED BROADCAST DISASTER (1933)
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.
NBC TO JACK BENNY: DROP DEAD (1949)
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 GREAT GILDERSNEEZE (1949)
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
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
, 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.