Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Bill Idelson, RIP: The Last of the Home Folks

The last surviving resident of the small house halfway up in the next block died New Year's Eve. Somehow it seems unfair that even one of that wonderful, understated company of "radio's home folks" should have gone to his reward on so festive a day.

But then you get the sense that, knowing mastermind Paul Rhymer, there might always be a shuddering chuckle to be found in the thought that even one of his gently offbeat Gook family should go on such a day.

Television fans, of course, remember Bill Idelson first as the nebbish, mama's-boy, semi-steady boyfriend, Herman Glimscher, of amorous comedy writer Sally Rogers (The Dick Van Dyke Show); and, later, as a respected writer (The Andy Griffith Show; The Twilight Zone; The Bob Newhart Show; M*A*S*H; others), and it credits him that he was given to work for the better among the medium's offerings.

But perhaps it was the aesthetic, the understatement, and the gentle skill under which he was allowed to develop on Vic & Sade, that informed Idelson in his post old-time radio years. His Rush Gook seemed never quite to have been the stereotypically dopey radio teenager, displaying an unpolished intelligence and absurdism that would have left the Henry Aldriches, Archie Andrewses, and Brewster Boys of the time lost in their malt shops needing maps to get from the soda fountain to the boys' bathroom, never mind to where the girls were.

"I think I knew, right from the start, that Vic & Sade was something very special, very wonderful, and I believe I did appreciate the humour right from the beginning," Idelson told Richard Lamparski, in an October 1971 radio interview, his voice even then retaining enough of Rush's slightly nasal roll, while advancing the book that became The Story of Vic & Sade, the affectionately sober book he wrote about the show.

SADE: Baseball’s just a game ain’t it?
RUSH: Well, yes an’ no. It’s kind of a business, too. Professional baseball players go down to the diamond after dinner just like Gov goes down to the office. They got wives an’ children an’—
SADE: Guess the argument’s just about over. Here comes Gov toward the house.
RUSH: He acts like Mr. Drummond got the best of him. See the little quick steps he takes an’ the way his face is?
SADE: [giggles] Uh-huh.
RUSH: That’s the expression he gets when he comes home an’ you tell him you’ve made arrangements for you an’ him to go with Mr. An’ Mrs. Stembottom to the Bijou an’ see Gloria Golden.
SADE: [laughs] Yeah.
RUSH: Let’s knock on the window and give him a jolly wave of the hand.
SADE: You just want to aggravate him some more?
RUSH: [chuckles] No.
SADE: [giggles] Ya do to. Lands, baseball. What is there to it to get so upset about?
RUSH: Oh, there’s thousands of ins an’ outs.
SADE: Maybe for kids. But grown-up men like Gov an’ Mr. Drummond—what do they care?
RUSH: You just don’t comprehend the National Pastime, Mom.
SADE: I guess I don’t.
RUSH: See, it’s the Big Leagues that interest Gov an’ Mr. Drummond. Here we got a bunch of large cities all represented by baseball team. New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia—--
SFX: [Door slams.]
SADE: [raises voice] Hello there, mister.
VIC: [cheerily enough] Hi, everybody. How’s tricks?
SADE: All right.
RUSH: [as door closes] I must of missed ya along the alley some place, Gov. I got home about two minutes before you did.
VIC: Drummond an’ I saw you up ahead. We didn’t holler an’ ask ya to join us because we were in no mood for crude company.
RUSH: I see.
VIC: [to Sade] Paper come yet?
SADE: I doubt it. Boy very seldom shows up this early. What were you an’ Mr. Drummond havin’ such a to-do about?
VIC: When?
SADE: Just now by the garbage box. We saw you through the window.
VIC: What makes ya think we were havin’ what you are pleased to call a “to-do”?
RUSH: Never saw so much arm wavin’ in my life.
VIC: The arm wavin’ you saw through the window will in no way unbalance the equilibrium of the world. Life will go on as before.
SADE: No, but a person watchin’ would get the idea you fellas were about to have a fight.
VIC: That may come to pass one of these days. [to himself] The big boob.
SADE: Who--Mr. Drummond?
VIC: Yes, Mr. Drummond.
SADE: Are ya mad at him?
VIC: I wouldn’t exactly condescend to get mad at a creature so handicapped. Mr. Drummond is short the normal quota of brains. Mr. Drummond moves helplessly in a fog of stupidity. Mr. Drummond, in short, is a halfwit.
SADE: [giggles] Did you tell him that?
VIC: I intimated as much—an’ more—only I couched my barbs with such subtlety they went over his head like soft summer clouds.
RUSH: Baseball, huh, Gov?
VIC: How’s that?
RUSH: You an’ him were discussin’ baseball?
VIC: One could hardly refer to it as a discussion. I’d vouchsafe a thoughtful opinion an’ Drummond’d come back with a splatter of meaningless words boorishly strung together.
RUSH: But it was baseball you were talkin’ about?
VIC: Yes.
RUSH: [chuckles] See, Mom?
SADE: I was just askin’ Rush, Vic, how grown-up men can work theirself into a frenzy about such stuff.
VIC: Am I worked into a frenzy?
SADE: You acted like you were worked into something out by the garbage box just now. You an’ Drummond both.
VIC: What did Mr. Rush reply when you quizzed him?
SADE: [giggles] He said he didn’t know.
VIC: That would be his rejoinder when quizzed on any topic, I believe.

---From Vic & Sade, "Sade Thinks Baseball is Just a Game," 1938.

For The Story of Vic & Sade, Idelson took his own trekking to the University of Wisconsin to read some five thousand of the first five years of the show's scripts. "Paul Rhymer is one of the great geniuses who ever lived, in show business," Idelson told Lamparski, "and I think it's just unfortunate that his work was done mainly in radio, which was such an ephemeral sort of medium, and thath is words went out over the air and then sort of disappeared. This is, really, the big reason I wrote the book, I would like to bring back some of the great writing this man did, and I would like people to be able to see it and appreciate it."

"Some 7,000,000 radio fans," wrote Time in late December 1943, "would find life harder to bear without Vic & Sade."

They would also find it difficult to explain why. It is a soap opera in which nothing much ever happens. But it is as American as doubletalk. Vic, a typical, unpretentious bookkeeper for a kitchenware company, and Sade, his natively bright, homebound wife, in eleven years have built themselves considerable prestige as symbols of U.S. small-town living.

They spend 15 minutes a day five times a week dramatizing the failure of the butcher to deliver the meat, the business of buying a Christmas present for the boss, the question of closed barbershops on Sunday, etc. They, plus their adopted son Russell, plus Uncle Fletcher, an absentminded, somewhat deaf, minutely anecdotal citizen, are the chief characters in the show. But the actors who play these four talk about an odd assortment of town characters who never appear.

They include Mr. Buller, Vic's business associate, who pulls his own teeth; R. J. Konk, founder of Vic's lodge, the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way; Ruthie Stem-bottom, a family friend; Godfrey Dimlok, who invented a bicycle that could say "mama"; the Brick Mush (Vic & Sade's favorite breakfast food) salesman, who cries almost all of the time; Bluetooth Johnson; Cora Bucksaddle; Ole Chinbunny; Rishigan Fishigan of Sishigan, Michigan; Smelly Clark, and others.

HOW DOES HE DO IT? How these characters manage to convey reality to radio listeners is something of a mystery even to Author Rhymer. He does not know how he does it, and is inclined to give the credit to actors Bernardine Flynn, a fugitive from Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, and Art Van Harvey, ex-grain broker, advertising man and vaudevillian, who have played Sade & Vic Gook from the beginning. Says Rhymer: "They could read aloud from the telephone directory and sound entertaining."

Idelson was hired for the show originally after Art Van Harvey (Vic), who often visited the Prohibition blind pig saloon run by Idelson's father, suggested the boy would be right for playing Rush. He also performed in six other radio series based out of Chicago, Vic & Sade's original home base, including Uncle Walter's Doghouse, Secret City, and playing Skeezix, when the venerable comic Gasoline Alley got a first crack on radio.

"They're getting fewer and farther in between," said Idelson, a little sadly, when asked whether people still remembered him, in 1971, for Vic & Sade. "I think the obituaries are grabbing them off now."

You can take Paul Rhymer away from the performer, but you can't really take the performer away from Paul Rhymer. About the only thing that did, in Idelson's case, was a tour in the Navy during World War II, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals.

Idelson and his wife, actress Seemah Wilder, raised four children, one of whom, Ellen, became a distinguished television comedy writer in her own right (The Nanny, Boy Meets World, Will & Grace), before the obituaries grabbed her off, prematurely, four years ago.

"Live radio is something else," mused Idelson, who might as well have been doing it live when Vic & Sade was recorded on transcription discs. "There was a tension connected with live radio that I don't think ever has been duplicated in any other medium. You knew that any breath you took, or anything you said, was heard by millions of people out there and, once said, could never be retracted. And at one point or another, I think every radio actor became suddenly, and terribly, aware of this phenomenon. And it spawned something known as mike fright, and I don't think any radio actor was ever free of it."

The mike fright didn't drive Idelson away from acting; the income did. He found himself getting more work writing than acting and, seemingly, found himself making the transition as seamlessly as Vic, Sade, and Rush transitioned from Mr. Chinbunny's ice cream cravings to Rush's bid for a Bijou lifetime pass. He also earned the admiration of Norman Corwin, who introduced The Story of Vic & Sade

He was a luminary. He stood out among the radio comedians, and he stood out because of very good writing by Paul Rhymer and very good acting by himself. I had nothing but admiration for this fellow.

---Corwin, to the Los Angeles Times

Too many Vic & Sade discs were lost when a sponsor clearing clutter destroyed them without a thought, but many enough managed to survive or turn up unexpectedly, perhaps prodded by Idelson's own volume. That effort went far enough to ensure that Vic & Sade, its cast, and its author, have not been sentenced to ephemera, after all. They remain beyond time and place. If the core belonged to its writer and mastermind, in the hands of a different company of performers it might have quite a different telephone book from the small house halfway up in the next block.


In memory of Bill Idelson . . . and, of course, Bernadine Flynn (Sade), Art Van Harvey (Vic), and Paul Rhymer (writer/creator).

1939 (ACTUAL BROADCAST DATE UNKNOWN): SADE VOLUNTEERS RUSH FOR A PAGEANT---Rush can't sleep and comes downstairs to talk to his mother---he blames her for getting "a rotten, dirty deal" in volunteering him for a local club pageant's "tableaus," without bothering to ask him first.

14 NOVEMBER 1939: TEARING DOWN A THREE STORY BUILDING; OR, RUSH GOOK, HOUSE DESTROYER---You usually expect your teenager to tear your own house apart, but then your teenager isn't Rush, who flies in from an after-school round of basketball slightly excited about a proposition from Mr. Gifford . . . to tear down an old brick building by himself, "something I can brag about all my life."

27 FEBRUARY 1940: DEEP CURRENTS OF HIGH SCHOOL GOSSIP---Sade's alarm over modern high school gossip may not be assuaged by her son---"High school, Mom," he counsels, amusing his father in the process, "is a hotbed of politics. Wheels within wheels. Crossed wires."

17 DECEMBER 1940: A BIJOU LIFETIME PASS---Sade thinks the park doesn't need more than two baboons after reading the park plans to buy a third, while ("Talk about your wild animals, here's yours now," drawls Vic wryly) Rush thinks appealing to Vic's meticulous sense of figures and projections will convince the old man to let him raid his bank book for the fifty dollars for a lifetime pass to the movie house.

20 NOVEMBER 1942: SMELLY CLARK, THE BARBER---Rush has reason enough not to remove his hat in the house---and, to seek help for the butchery performed on his head without quite giving Vic the details if he can help it.

And, never end our visits to the small house halfway up in the next block.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks fo the sweetlook back at Bill Idelson and "Vic and Sade." For readers who don't know about this, there is a very large group of Vic and Sade shows available for listening or for download at

10:01 AM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

Anon---Indeed there are; those are the shows to which the Vic & Sade link will take people who want them.---Jeff

11:47 AM  
Blogger Goldenpossum said...


What a thoughtful tribute to Bill Idelson (and the rest of the folks in the small house halfway up the next block). I stand with you, athwart nostalgia, in shouting "Art!"

--Ray Hoffman, WCBS Newsradio 880, New York -

12:02 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

Mr. Hoffman---My tribute was nothing compared to how thoughtful you were in your kind words to me. If ever I have the fortune to return to radio, I hope I'll have at least some of the spirit that animated Vic & Sade and the thoughtfulness of someone such as you.---Jeff

4:15 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home