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.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"Well, Portland!": The Way It Was, 25 January

1910: "SHE MAKES MY LIFE LIVABLE"---Long Island optomestrist Frederick Hoffa's penchant for naming his first two daughters for the communities where they happen to have been born will prove a natural to help attract old-time radio's master satirist in due course---Dr. Hoffa's second daughter, Portland, is born today.

She will become a rather comely chorus girl and comedienne, in which lines of work she will meet comedian Fred Allen during backstage during The Passing Show of 1922, though Allen will court her for four years before marrying her at last and, in time, making her his indispensable comic sidekick, whose high-pitched "Mis-ter Allll-llennn!" will be as much a signature of his radio shows as his clever satires and ad-libs.

Theirs will be a love to endure until Mr. Allen's death in 1956.

When Allen's radio contract ran out [likely in the years of Texaco Star Theater---JK.], it was always [a certain advertising agency vice president]'s distasteful job, in broaching the subject of renewal, to relay the . . . sponsor's suggestion that Portland Hoffa be dropped from her featured comedienne role on the program. Allen invariably refused outright, usually with sarcastic reference to the comedy expertise of oil-company executives. One year, however, the sponsor must have insisted on it and [the ad executive] reluctantly raised the point again.

Allen was never one to suffer indignities meekly---what self-respecting star ever was---and this time he blew his stack. The adman said later that he'd never seen Allen so angry. The comedian declared he would discuss dropping Portland from the show only after the oil company president divorced his wife.

"You tell him that Portland is my wife, that she makes my life livable, and that her presence on the show is not a matter of negotiation. We're a family and we work as a family. If he doesn't want Mrs. Allen, he doesn't want Mr. Allen. I'm telling you and you tell him---never mention this subject to me again."

---Hobe Morrison, eventually a Variety staff member, but then employed by the ad agency in question, to Robert Taylor, for Fred Allen: His Life and Wit. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.)

Portland Hoffa---who will up the correspondence that became the published, posthumous collection of Fred Allen's letters, a decade after his death---will also live to enjoy a rarity: remarried to bandleader Joe Rimes, Hoffa and Rimes will live long enough to enjoy a silver wedding anniversary, the second Hoffa will celebrate in her lifetime.

But it will be the love between herself and Fred Allen, obvious even in her on-air guise as his follower, that will mark her in life and in work.

"Portland's presence," Taylor will write, "assumed an importance on par with Fred's. During the forties, she often cued in the program's guest star, but her commentary also ranged over broader themes, from frozen foods to the United Nations. The March 14, 1948 show found Allen asking her to take over---an inconceivable request during the thirties. On the final show, June 16, 1949, her nonsense touched upon Gregory Peck, socialised medicine, Milton Berle, and Halloween. It is innocent commentary, of course, and topical, but comedic light-years away from misspelling Schenectady. The little-girl, dumb-Dora aspects of the character fade away, and listeners follow the progress of a stereotype into an identiy. Fred Allen, like George Burns or Goodman Ace, doesn't fit the popular concept of a romantic figure, but even the opulent Tchaikovsky theme music of Lux Radio Theater could not match the Maytime duets of Fred and Portland. American radio of the period offered few more enduring romances."

PORTLAND HOFFA: Mister Alll-llennnn!
FRED ALLEN: Well, Portland! (applause) Well, Portland, pull up an old rejoinder and sit down. What's new?
PORTLAND: Mama says President Truman has taken over all the coal mines.
FRED: Does your mother need coal?
PORTLAND: Yes. Mama's calling up the White House tomorrow and ordering two tons.
FRED: Oh, that's fine. Do away with the middleman, go right to the top. Well, if she needs any wood the President could sit down at the piano and give her a couple of chords, I imagine. (Ad-libs to the audience.) Not good, huh? Can I help it? A man crept in here and did something to the script tonight. I won't mention any names.
PORTLAND: Mama says the world today is a bowling alley.
FRED: The world is a bowling alley?
PORTLAND: Every time you turn around, there's a strike.
FRED: Well, I'm glad---(ad-libs to the audience) anything you don't understand, applaud, it's perfectly all right. That's what they do in Hollywood: people come in, just applaud, and get warm and go home. (Returning onto script.) Well, I'm glad the trains are running again, Portland.
PORTLAND: Yes, if the railroad strike lasted one more week...
FRED: Yeah?
PORTLAND: The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe would have been off the Hit Parade.
FRED: Oh, that would have been terrible. Well, I think I'll run along, Portland. I have to get my magnifying glass and worm a crabapple.
PORTLAND: Mama says Friday is your birthday.
FRED: That's right.
PORTLAND: How old are you?
FRED: Nobody knows, Portland. I was born before the Decca company started, so there weren't any records in those days.
PORTLAND: (laughing) Mama says last---
FRED: (Ad-libbing.) Now, don't you laugh, don't you start up, if you're going to establish a precedent in here I want to know about it.
PORTLAND: Mama says last year when the candles on your birthday cake melted down . . .
FRED: Yeah?
PORTLAND: There was enough grease to wax the floor at Roseland.
FRED: Oh, I'm not that old, Portland.
PORTLAND: Mama says, if you were a piece of furniture, you'd be an antique.
FRED: If I was an antique in radio I'd be Duncan's other fife. Well . . . Well, that's life I guess, Portland.
PORTLAND: Mama says life is like the Australian fig bird.
FRED: The Australian fig bird?
PORTLAND: It lives on the seeds in figs.
FRED: But there areen't any figs in Australia.
PORTLAND: The Australian fig bird dies at birth.
FRED: And the Australian fig bird has nothing on our jokes, let me tell you.

---From The Fred Allen Show, "King For a Day" (NBC, 26 May 1946).


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. Seventy-one years later, it will remain the longest-running soap opera in broadcasting history, and the only continuously-airing program left on American television that was born in old-time 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.


1941: BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL WALLPAPER---Such are the patterns from Mr. Erickson that Rush (Bill Idelson) shows suspicious Sade (Bernadine Flynn), who thinks they're just so much shoddy trash, on today's edition of Vic & Sade. (NBC.)

Vic: Art Van Harvey. Writer: Paul Rhymer.

1944: YOU DON’T SAY "WHAT ARE THEY," YOU SAY "WHO IS HE?"---And he is Deems Taylor, the composer and music critic whom Archie (Ed Gardner) flummoxes into hearing his minor masterpiece of musical mangling, "Leave Us Face It," on tonight's edition of Duffy’s Tavern.* (Original broadcast: CBS; rebroadcast: Armed Forces Radio Network.)

Miss Duffy: Florence Halop. Finnegan: Charles Cantor. Eddie: Eddie Green. Music: Peter Van Steeden Orchestra. Writers: Ed Gardner, Abe Burrows, possibly Larry Marks, possibly Lew Meltzer.

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

Molly: Marian Jordan. Doc: Arthur Q. Bryan. Wimpole: Bill Thompson. Writer: Phil Leslie.


1874---Somerset Maughan (writer: The Somerset Maughan Theater), Paris.
1878---Ernest Alexanderson (engineer, and possibly the first human voice ever heard on radio), Uppsala, Sweden.
1901---Mildred Dunnock (actress: Theater Guild on the Air), Baltimore.
1916---Les Crutchfield (writer: Gunsmoke; Escape; Fort Laramie), unknown.
1920---Roy Rowan (announcer: Escape; Gunsmoke; Rogers of the Gazette; Young Love), unknown.
1923---Rusty Draper (singer: Dude Martin's Radio Ranch), Kirksville, Missouri.
1924---Speedy West (as Wesley Webb West; steel guitarist: Grand Ole Opry; The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show), Springfield, Missouri.

* -- 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 . . .


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