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, February 14, 2009

Valentine Skinflint: The Way It Was, 14 February

1894---Whether or not it means romance takes a back seat---or the cheap seats---probably depends on your point of view. But thus is born on Valentine's Day old-time radio's classic comic skinflint fall guy: Jack Benny (as Benjamin Kubelsky, in Chicago), destined to reshape his art, probably the only man of his time who could get laughs merely by arching his brow, shooting a quick glance, or leaning upon his palm in a pause so pregnant it would mean sextuplets in the maternity ward.

Practically all the comedy shows owe their structure to Benny's conceptions. The Benny show was like a One Man's Family in slapstick. He was the first comedian in radio to realise you could get big laughs by ridiculing yourself instead of your stooges.

---Fred Allen.

O, Jack Benny; O, Jack Benny
you've had birthdays, but how many?
Is it 21 and more
or twice that much, and more and more?
Years ago, in old Waukegan
in the state of Illinois
A child was born unto the Bennys
and it wasn't Myrna Loy.
'Twas a boy, they called him Jackie
and even then, he looked quite whacky . . .

I see you, Jack, at the age of two
glowing curls and eyes of blue.
And then I see you three years old
with silver threads among the gold.
At twelve you said you'd run away
unless the fiddle you could play.
And when you got one, what do you think?
Were you good or did you 'tink?
(JACK: Tink?
MARY: Yeah---baby talk.)
O, Jack Benny; O, Jack Benny---
you've had birthdays, but how many?
So happy returns and all good wishes
from us and Jell-O, so delicious.

---Birthday doggerel, read by Mary Livingstone, on the broadcast of 12 February 1939.

As a matter of fact, Benny was a generous and appreciative audience for anyone else's wit. He was a fine performer, a funny comedian and actually a very skillful actor. He never missed praising his writers---people like Bill Morrow, Ed Beloin, Milt Josefsberg, and Sam Perrin. There was once a joke about Benny that went around. I don't know where it started but Jack himself used to quote it. He said: "Ad-lib? Me? I couldn't ad-lib a belch after a Hungarian dinner." However, witty or not witty, Benny was damned funny. Wherever the dialogue came from, no one else could have done what Benny did. He created the character he played, he was a skillful editor, and every one of his writers gave him full credit for whatever went over the air.

---Abe Burrows, Duffy's Tavern head writer, from his memoir, Honest Abe. (Boston: Atlantic Little, Brown, 1980.)

Almost as many years since his death as he claimed for his age, he will continue to inspire respect and affection. And, he will still get laughs with impeccable timing, nuanced understatement, and pauses so pregnant they'd mean sextuplets in the maternity ward.


1924: OVER TO YOU, MR. PRESIDENT---It is an era in which politicians are not universally anxious to use it. Some pols and a few influential journals (including The Nation, hardly the last time that journal was wrong about something) think it's a fad that's likely to be dead by decade's end. But President Calvin Coolidge isn't exactly allergic to radio. He becomes the first sitting American President to deliver a purely political speech on radio. (His predecessor, Warren G. Harding, had inaugurated a new, high-power RCA antenna with a broadcast speech three years earlier.)

The normally reticient Coolidge will take such a comfortable liking to radio that it will help provoke the image of the coming election campaign (Coolidge's first and only shot at seeking the White House in his own right) as "The Radio Election."

1924: IT WOULD KEEP GOING . . . AND GOING . . . AND GOING---While Silent Cal was being anything but on the air, the National Carbon Company was becoming the first major sponsor of a network radio program. Name the famous battery that was promoted on The Eveready Hour . . .

1949: "IT'S A MAN! HE'S COMING RIGHT AT US!"---The generally-accepted formal premiere of Superman, "Clark Kent, Reporter," is broadcast on WOR, New York City's Mutual Broadcasting System flagship. The star---whose identity is kept secret by, apparently, formal edict, at least until he steps into a Time interviewer's phone booth in 1946---is Clayton Collyer, familiar at the time as the announcer for The Goldbergs and destined to become famous as the host of television's Beat the Clock and To Tell The Truth.

The actual premiere of the series aired two days earlier. But it may be understandable why it isn't considered Superman's radio premiere: the episode covers the doom of his home world and his launch toward earth therefrom as a sleeping infant, an episode called "The Baby From Krypton."


I'm breaking the customary pattern and listing not so much shows that were aired on this specific date but some particularly amusing shows that had something---anything---to do with Valentine's Day at all. Even if it involved a couple to whom marriage could have been murder . . . if one or the other could have gotten away with it.

THE BICKERSONS MISSING IN ACTION (NBC, UNDATED)---Doesn't it figure that, on Valentine's Day, the usually snoring John (Don Ameche) isn't snoring . . . because he isn't even home from work yet? That leaves Blanche (Frances Langford) to fret on the phone, to her sister, Clara, until exhausted John finally makes it home from a long day---turning Blanche from worried to her usual sniping, shrewish self. Writer: Philip Rapp.

EASY ACES: ACE TELLS JANE ABOUT LOSING ALL HIS MONEY (ORIGINAL BROADCAST: CBS; SYNDICATED REPEAT: FREDERICK W. ZIV COMPANY)---It seems only appropriate to play this for Valentine's Day, even for harried, cynical Ace (Goodman Ace) and scattered but dreamy Jane (Ace): Ace finally screws up the courage to tell Jane he lost his business and his money, after sinking everything into a low-income housing deal he still doesn't know was a setup on the part of the local pol who owns the property in question. The part he still doesn't have the heart to reveal: Jane herself inadvertently torpedoed Ace's deal, when she landed big publicity for a women's group protesting on behalf of a different deal. Marge: Mary Hunter. Announcer: Truman Bradley. Writer: Goodman Ace.

THE PHIL HARRIS-ALICE FAYE SHOW: SOMEONE SENDS ALICE FLOWERS FOR VALENTINE'S DAY (NBC, 1949)---The trouble is, they're coming several times during the day, beginning with a dozen astertiums . . . and it isn't exactly forgetful Phil's doing. ("Good! Good! Dip 'em in butter and sautee 'em!"). Remley: Elliott Lewis. Little Alice: Jeanine Roos. Phyllis: Anne Whitfield. Julius: Walter Tetley. Announcer: Bill Forman. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.


1884---Grace Valentine (actress: Stella Dallas), Springfield, Ohio.
1900---Eddie Marr (actor: The Jack Carson Show, The Jack Benny Program, I Fly Anything), New Jersey.
1902---Stu Irwin (comedian: Phone Again, Finnegan)
1904---Jessica Dragonette (singer: Philco Hour Theatre of Memories), Calcutta, India.
1905---Thelma Ritter (actress: The Aldrich Family, Big Town), Brooklyn.
1908---Lonnie Glosson (musician, harmonica: Grand Ole Opry), Judsonia, Arkansas.
1912---Tyler McVey (actor: One Man's Family), Bay City, Michigan.
1913---Mel Allen (as Melvin Israel; announcer/play-by-play, New York Yankees; announcer: The White Owl Sports Smoker, Truth or Consequences), Birmingham, Alabama.
1921---Hugh Downs (announcer: The Dave Garroway Show; host: Doctors Today), Akron, Ohio.
1931---Phyllis McGuire (singer, with the McGuire Sisters: Arthur Godfrey Time), Middletown, Ohio.
1934---Florence Henderson (singer/actress, Coke Time with Eddie Fisher), Dale, Indiana.


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