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 24, 2009

A Star for Helen; and, Radio on the Dimes: The Way It Was, 24 January


Credit the entire company in general, and Walter Brennan in particular, with applying just the right understatement to prevent its devolving to maudlin cliche, as a tenement janitor (Brennan) learns how easy it isn't to honour thy father or mother, a lesson he learns from a favourite tenant's (Betty Lynn) growing pains around her widowed mother's burial in the bottle.

Writer: Fr. Patrick Payton.

This edition's title is what Ben and Liz (Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy) are doing, particularly since Bobby (William Redfield) is Emily's (Denise Alexander---the future Dr. Leslie Webber on the television soap General Hospital) boyfriend, and a slightly nervous type at that, who's wrangling over his post-graduation life.

Announcer: Bob Denton. Writer: Ernest Kinoy.

POSTSCRIPT: It's the way the broadcast ends, as well as the performance itself, that makes this edition of The Marriage signficant enough: as with many radio shows of the period, it ends with a public service announcment for the March of Dimes's campaign against polio, one year before Jonas Salk's vaccine---will prevent most polio complications but not the core infection entirely---is tested and released; and, seven years before Albert Sabin's oral vaccine is endorsed by the U.S. Public Health Service, provoking its prompt release and the virtual end of polio in the United States.

What you probably don't know: the March of Dimes was actually born as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 and has an old-time radio connection of a sort in its root: the group has conducted an annual January fundraising event since its founding (many of the nation's old-time radio stars joined other entertainment stars in supporting and promoting the campaign), in which they have asked every American citizen to contribute a single dime toward polio research.

But the name of the fundraiser doesn't come from the Foundation---it comes from vaudeville, stage, film, and old-time radio legend Eddie Cantor, who couldn't resist alluding to the popular newsreel series The March of Time and (though, knowing Cantor, it was probably one of his often-uncredited writers who was really responsible) coins a pun from that title and the Foundation's distinctive campaign.

Twenty years after its founding, the March of Dimes---which had supported both Salk and Sabin financially---turned its attention, now that polio was en route eradication, toward mothers and babies and preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality. (If you're my age, you may remember radio and television spots referring, for a long enough period between 1958 and 1965, to "the March of Dimes Mothers' March.")

But you probably didn't know or remember this, too: it would be forty-one years after its founding before the March of Dimes---whose Cantorian nickname stuck that profoundly in the public mind, to the point where its birth and longtime official name were probably long forgotten---adopted its nickname as its official name.


1942: "I'M LAUGHING---THERE'S A LAW AGAINST THAT?"---Abie’s Irish Rose---sponsored by Drene Shampoo; based on the earlier (1922-1927) Anne Nichols Broadway hit about a Jewish boy from a well-to-do family who marries a poor Irish Catholic girl, with both families feuding as it is, prompting bride and groom to try keeping their marriage a secret for awhile---makes its old-time radio premiere on NBC.

The show will air for two years and feature Richard Bond, Sydney Smith, Richard Coogan, and Bud Collyer (then known as well for the Superman radio serial; eventually famous as the host of television’s Beat the Clock and To Tell the Truth) as Abie; and, Betty Winkler, Mercedes McCambridge, Julie Stevens, and Marion Shockley as Rose.

At least three complete episodes and perhaps a few other fragments of Abie’s Irish Rose will survive for 21st century radio collectors. In its own time, however, the show isn't exactly a hit with the critics ---one is known to have suggested its characters are "painted with a brush a mile wide" and about as full of finess as a comic strip"---but The New Republic’s Jenna Weissmann Joselit, reviewing Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Andrea Most) in 2004, will suggest subtlety wasn’t exactly early Broadway’s strength, anyway, perhaps implying that what it sends to radio usually goes likewise.

Everything was on the surface, immediately accessible: broad sighs, mighty guffaws, mangled English, heaps of sentiment. But that was the point. While critics squirmed in their seats, the men and women in the audience were thrilled to see their recognizably humdrum lives and conflicts dramatized---and happily resolved---on the American stage. Audiences came to be entertained, of course, but they left feeling heartened, welcomed, even affirmed. As one eyewitness observed, they were "warm and happy every minute they're in their seats."

The play has inspired one controversy well before its radio adaptation. Nichols sued Universal Pictures over the film The Cohens and the Kellys, about feuding families who just so happened to be Jewish and Irish. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held, however, that copyright protection didn’t extent to "stock" characteristics in a character or characters no matter the medium, and Nichols lost the case. Her creation itself was made into a 1928 film (Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll in the title roles), and it will be made into a second film in 1946 (Richard Norris, Joanne Dru).

A second controvery will come almost three decades after the second film, when Abie's Irish Rose is updated into a promising television comedy with one twist. Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS, 1972-73)---starring Meredith Baxter and David Birney (the couple married in real life after the show was cancelled)---flip Abie and Rose: Bernard Steinberg (Birney) the son of modest, delicatessen-owning Jewish parents, driving a taxicab, aspiring to playwriting; and, Bridget Fitzgerald (Baxter) the daughter of wealthy Irish Catholic parents, falling in love with and marrying the aspiring playwright.

Bridget Loves Bernie's plotline will hook as much around the couple's social as well as religious differences, but it will be the latter that inspire pressure from both Jewish and Catholic groups that leads CBS to cancel the show after a single season---despite its placing in the season's top five ratings. There went the arguments that the earlier 20th Century was just so unenlightened. (Some will sniff that Bridget Loves Bernie's high ratings belong almost entirely to its placement between CBS's two Saturday night monster hits, All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore show. But while M*A*S*H finds its stride in the time slot the following season, before moving on to its own night, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers---starring the understated comedian as a lovelorn Boston Symphony bassist---flops in the timeslot in 1974-75, suggesting Bridget Loves Bernie earned its ratings on its own merit, though the Sand vehicle will be seen later as having been too highbrow, perhaps, for even the audience All in the Family led its way.)

The hook around status differences in young marrieds doesn't really die, perhaps suggesting Abie's Irish Rose's most durable legacy. From 1997-2002, the status hook will receive a more contemporary twist when a young, composed, Ivy-educated attorney (Thomas Gibson) from a Social Register-type family marries the freewheeling daughter (Jenna Elfman) of unrepentant hippies (on their first date, in Reno, yet) and withstand their families' mutual near-hostilities, on ABC's Dharma and Greg.

As for Abie's Irish Rose, the radio version, it will bequeath one further legacy: Succeeding Virginia Clark and Betty Ruth Smith, Julie Stevens will become the third and final title character of The Romance of Helen Trent, portraying the love-willing, commitment-shy designer on the popular CBS soap for the rest of the soap's radio life.


SUSPENSE: MY DEAR NIECE (CBS, 1946)---A widow (Dame Mae Witty), working as a home-based publishing secretary, writes her niece about the murder plot that sprang out of her agreement to host a promising new author secretly. Additional cast: Wally Maher. Announcer: Truman Bradley. Writer: William Spier.

ESCAPE: TREASURE, INC. (CBS, 1950)---A couple has turned a tropical island retreat into a laundromat for greed, until Eddie (Frank Lovejoy) rethinks everything---including wife Amanda (Mary Lansing). Clyde: John Hoyt. Brewer: Harry Bartell. Additional cast: Eileen Flint, Paul Frees. Music: Del Castillio. Writer: Les Crutchfield, from a story by John and Gwen Bagney .

THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE: A SHOWER FOR MARJORIE (NBC, 1951)---The 21st episode of the show's second (read: post-Harold Peary) era finds Uncle Mort (Willard Waterman) tricking a neighbour (guest Cathy Lewis) into tossing niece Marjorie (Mary Lee Robb) a baby shower. Leroy: Walter Tetley. Hooker: Earle Ross. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Additional cast: Richard LeGrand, Gale Gordon. Writers: Paul West, Andy White.

GUNSMOKE: THE OLD LADY (CBS, 1953)---On their way back to Dodge, stopping to water their horses, Matt (William Conrad) and Chester (Parley Baer) are fired upon by an embittered widow (guest Jeanette Nolan), surprising them until they learn too much about her shiftless son---and herself. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Doc: Howard McNear. Writer: Kathleen Hite.


1883---Estelle Winwood (actress: Theater Guild On the Air), Lee, Kent, UK.
1902---Walter Kiernan (host/commentator: Sparring Partners; Weekend), New Haven, Connecticut.
1909---Ann Todd (actress: Those We Love), Hartford, Cheshire, UK.
1918---Oral Roberts (Granville Oral Roberts; evangelist: Healing Waters), Tulsa, Oklahoma.


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