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.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Nattie, You're a Nice Boy": The Way It Was, 20 January

1896---Dorothy Birnbaum will put her ninth child in his place well enough as he grows up, with a witheringly faint praise his eventual wife and partner will adopt likewise but also in comfort: "Nattie, you're a nice boy." Of course, Mrs. Birnbaum has little notion that her nice boy Nathan will grow up to become---as George Burns---perhaps the single greatest straight man in old-time radio or most twentieth century comedy history.

And for all his arch self-kidding about his own life and career, there would prove at least one truth he was always willing to tell without arching a brow or exhaling a typical punctuation mark stream of cigar smoke.

I loved being in radio more than any other part of my career. Radio was that place where performers who couldn't do anything except talk, could talk.

---George Burns.

The relaxed, no-sweat nature of both the Jack Benny and Burns and Allen radio shows---as opposed to the boisterous tone of Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, and most other TV-born comedy shows---worked beautifully in the early years of television, where nobody had any better ideas, anyway, and TV was either "radio with pictures," as they used to say, or, in the case of the variety shows, videotaped vaudeville or photographed musical revues. You almost didn't have to watch Benny's or Burns's TV shows at all; it was possible to face away from the set and get just about everything.

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

I had the talent off stage. Gracie had it on stage. I was able to think of it and Gracie was able to do it. And that's what made us a good team.

---George Burns, explaining the secret to critic Leonard Maltin.

And he'd think of and do an awful lot more to make us laugh before he would go at last---and at age one hundred---to meet the Maker he would play with such memorable drollery on film, years after his radio become pleasant memories turned to enduring art.


1954: "WHETHER TO EASE QUIETLY INTO THE MAINSTREAM"---Chicago advertising figure W. Leonard Evans founds the first black-oriented American radio network, the National Negro Network, which begins with forty stations and a potpourri of programming, including the first black soap opera that also featured an all-black cast, including a Tony award-winning singer-actress and a future Emmy-winning actress.

Evans has planned the project carefully, with the staggering enough growth of black-oriented radio stations from 1943 (only four stations in the United States) to 1953 (the number by then was 270), according to Time.

Evans has also made it clear enough that while his network plan hooked aroud black-oriented programming, it would not be a segregated enterprise in the least. So much so that he was actually uncertain whether to emphasis the network name in programming sign-offs.

. . . Evans is not yet sure whether he will use "This is the National Negro Network" as a sign-off line: "The question is whether to ease our programs quietly into the mainstream of U.S. radio or to set them apart as Negro shows, thereby perhaps driving off potential white listeners."

Evans, 39, a husky (6 ft. 2 in., 195 lbs.) Negro graduate of the University of Illinois, will have an interracial board of directors, but he is operating in the interest of efficiency, not tolerance ("Experience has shown that stations with black and white staffs are the most successful in reaching the Negro market"). By next fall he plans full network coverage of Negro sports, news and public affairs. Says Evans: "We're starting small, but we're going to wind up big."

---Time, 28 December 1953.

The National Negro Network’s earliest programming includes a musical variety show, Tan Town Jamboree, hosted by disc jockey Nat D. Williams. But its best-remembered program, arguably, will be the popular soap, The Story of Ruby Valentine---which graduates from a long-running CBS soap, We Love and Learn (born As the Twig is Bent in 1942).

In 1955 the locale was changed from a dress shop to a Harlem beauty parlour, and the show became the first Negro "soap opera" (quotation marks in the original) with an all-Negro cast in radio.

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

The Story of Ruby Valentine stars in the title role Juanita Hall, once a blues singer who became a stage singer-actress and won a Tony as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Bloody Mary in South Pacific, a role she will repeat in the film version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. She becomes familiar for playing multiple non-white races on stage and in film, including Madame (Auntie) Liang in another Rodgers & Hammerstein-based film, Flower Drum Song (1961).

The Story of Ruby Valentine also features future Emmy winner (Best Supporting Actress, Miniseries or Movie, 1991, for Decoration Day Ruby Dee. Departing from the usual tradition of organ music, this soap’s music is provided at the piano by Luther Henderson, a respected if too-often uncredited jazz arranger, who becomes credited in due course for helping shepherd some of Duke Ellington’s more ambitious compositional efforts in the 1940s and 1950s, before working for television offerings such as The Bell Telephone Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, and stage productions such as Flower Drum Song, No, No, Nanette, and Ain’t Misbehavin’.

The bad news proves to be that the National Negro Network---perhaps inevitably, certainly sadly, given its time and place---will have little if any fortune attracting major advertisers and will fold before very long.


1950: TO TELL THE TRUTH---Liz's penchant for exaggeration ("Liz, as long as we're bringing these things up, I never did believe you swam the English Channel") almost gets George (Richard Denning) fired, but Liz (Lucille Ball) telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth does almost as much damage---until an embarrassing business secret is exposed inadvertently---on tonight's edition* of My Favourite Husband. (CBS.)

Iris: Bea Benaderet. Atterbury: Gale Gordon. Additional cast: Sam Hearn, Hal March. Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr.

* -- For reasons unknown, the file will come up with the title "Liz and the Green Wig." Beware: A green wig is mentioned nowhere in the episode, not even in jest.

1956: THE RICARDO AMERIGO MATTER (CONCLUSION)---A car hauled from a Philadelphia swamp, a missing body, and the violin by which the man became one of the world's top virtuosi, has the arch insurance investigator (Bob Bailey) puzzled---especially when he accidentally discovers a violin identical to the one found in the swamp, on tonight's edition of tonight's episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. (CBS.)

Additional cast: Harry Bartel, Lawrence Dobkin, Victor Perrin, Barney Phillips, Forrest Lewis, Eric Snowden, Herb Vigran, James McCalleon. Writer: Jack Johnstone.


1878---Findlay Currie (actor: BBC Home Theatre), Edinburgh.
1896---Rolfe Sedan (actor: Escape; Suspense; Mystery in the Air; Lux Radio Theater), New York City.
1898---Tudor Owen (actor: Pat Novak for Hire; Alias Jane Doe), Wales.
1899---Joseph Buloff (actor: House of Glass), Vilnius, Lithuania.
1900---Colin Clive (actor: Hollywood Hotel), St. Malo, France.
1903---Leon Ames (actor: Earplay; Screen Guild Theater; Screen Director's Playhouse), Portland, Indiana.
1907---Speed Riggs (as L.A. Riggs; auctioneer: The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny; Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge), Silverdale, North Carolina.
1914---Roy Plomley (announcer: We Beg to Differ; One Minute, Please), Kingston-upon-Thames, UK.
1920---DeForest Kelley (actor: Suspense), Atlanta.
1922---Connie Haines (singer: The Abbott and Costello Show; Rhapsody in Rhythm), Savannah, Georgia.
1926---Patricia Neal (actress: Hollywood Star Preview), Packard, Kentucky.


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