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.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Decade Later, the Program's Gonna Be Different: The Way It Was, 19 February

1922---Somebody has to do it: Vaudeville star Ed Wynn (born Isaiah Edwin Leopold; he adapted his middle name into his stage name, reputedly, to spare his family the embarrassment of having a mere comedian in the family) becomes the first such performer to sign an old-time radio contract. Perhaps naturally enough, the clown known as the Perfect Fool signs to perform in a show called The Perfect Fool for Newark, New Jersey station WJZ.

The effort unnerves him enough that he avoids the medium for the remainder of the decade. But after a certain oil company lures him back with a reported $5,000 per week salary, the Perfect Fool will become one of the United States' major old-time radio stars with The Fire Chief Program, featuring eventual foil (and future sportscasting legend) Graham McNamee and, in due course, music by ill-fated piano virtuoso and orchestra leader Eddy Duchin.

In the ten years since the ill-fated Perfect Fool experiment, Wynn's mike fright had only escalated, and he approached the opening broadcast in a cold sweat. It was [announcer/second banana] McNamee who calmed him down each week, McNamee who gave him the courage he needed to face that forbidding black enamel box. The two men became close friends---and McNamee's regular-guy enthusiasm acted on the air as the perfect complement to Wynn's manic comedy. But even with McNamee's friendship, support and encouragement, Wynn was still frightened, still insecure about his ability to perform as a radio comedian -- and to help him get thru each week's program, the show was made to be as much like a stage performance as possible. The Fire Chief Program was aired from the rooftop stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre---former home of the Ziegfeld Follies---before an enormous live audience. Wynn appeared in full costume---scooting out onto the stage each week on a toy fire engine, wearing a tiny Texaco Fire Chief helmet, and proclaiming "I'm the Chief tonight, Graham! Tonight's the program's gonna be different!"

But it really wasn't that different from what Wynn had been doing on stage for more than twenty years. The program was a series of short exchanges of revue-type jokes, broken up by musical interludes performed by Don Voorhees' Orchestra. During the musical numbers, Wynn would dart backstage and quickly change his costume---each outfit more outlandish than the last. But unlike Eddie Cantor, Wynn was able to keep the visual joke of his appearance separate form his verbal comedy---he didn't refer to his costume gags on the air, didn't make them part of the show targeted at listeners at home. In short, the theatrical trappings were there only to keep Wynn from panicking and freezing before the microphone. With the costumes, with the audience, he could pretend he was still in the theatre, and forget all about that frightening little box. Although "The Fire Chief Program" quickly became one of the most popular new shows of 1932, Wynn never overcame his terror of broadcasting, and it was a constant psychological struggle to face the microphone each Tuesday night.

But Wynn's early, terrifying experience will not dissuade radio from inviting vaudeville's best to cross over, or vaudeville's best from agreeing to the crossing. The door Wynn opens will not close until the like of Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Stoopnagle and Bud, and numerous others have crossed from vaudeville to radio with historic results.


1922: THE DOCTOR IS IN---The actor who will practise the longest on old-time radio's Irna Phillips-created soap opera Young Doctor Malone---after having begun as the show's announcer---is born George Sandford Becker in New York City.

He will land the role in 1947 and play the wise-beyond-his-years, periodically star-crossed physician until the day old-time radio fans will remember as Black Friday, 25 November 1960---the day Young Doctor Malone and five other classic radio soaps (The Right to Happiness, Ma Perkins, The Second Mrs. Burton, Whispering Streets, and The Romance of Helen Trent) air first-run episodes for the final time on network radio.

The good news will be that Sandy Becker won't exactly be lost for work---he'll already have begun earning his reputation as one of metropolitan New York's most clever children's television hosts, teaching a generation or two of metro New York children with a gift for verbal, physical, and even silent comedy (ask his fans even now about double-talking disc jockey Hambone or silent, stumbling Norton Nork) and a knack for puppeteering, all spun off the manner in which he entertains and teaches his own three children at home.

While starring in Young Doctor Malone, Becker will co-found legendary Sunday morning learn-and-laughfest Wonderama (he was the show's first host), handing off in due course to Sonny Fox and creating his own daily (even twice-daily) learn-and-laughfest, The Sandy Becker Show. Developing characters and themes out of his home skits, Becker will become one of New York's most popular children's comedians, earning a parallel reputation for treating the children who watched him exactly the way he once said he set out to do: the way their own parents might if they, too, were on television.

Becker will become respected especially for introducing children to news through puppeteering the lighter side of the news but, also, for the poignant yet non-maudlin manner in which he will tell his viewers about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Becker will retire from on-camera work in 1968 but become a mentor and puppetmaking teacher to new children's hosts in the years until his death in 1996. The bad news is that most of Becker's own telecasts die; doing his shows live each day, few if any were kinescoped or videotaped in their entirety. Not so, however, with his years as Young Doctor Malone.

The irony of his career: Sandy Becker will be a real-life pre-medical student at New York University, in the late 1930s, when he decides to audition for an announcing job at Queens, New York radio station WWRL . . .


THE JELL-O PROGRAM STARRING JACK BENNY: CARMICHAEL, THE POLAR BEAR (NBC, 1939)---Polyvocal Mel Blanc makes his show premiere as a polar bear given Jack (Benny) as a peculiar and slightly eccentric gift. Cast: Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Kenny Baker, Don Wilson, Andy Devine. Music: Phil Harris Orchestra, Kenny Baker. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Hal Perrin.

THE HENRY MORGAN SHOW: THE RADIO PROGRAM BLOOD TEST (ABC, 1947)---Well, the man never exactly denied he was out for blood, did he? But first he proposes some money-saving ideas for the government after examining the new national budget. That'll teach him. Cast: Arnold Stang, Florence Halop, Art Carney, Madaline Lee, Alice Pearce. Music: Bernie Green Orchestra. Writers: Henry Morgan, Carroll Moore, Jr., Aaron Ruben, Joseph Stein.

OUR MISS BROOKS: VALENTINE'S DAY DATE (CBS, 1950)---Unfortunately for Connie (Eve Arden), hers (Jeff Chandler) "isn't the most dashing person in the world, but what he lacks in ardent emotion he more than makes up for by his passionate lack of interest in romance." He does, however, have a knack for inadvertent lessons the hard way about buck passing, when she tries a ruse to get him to finance their Valentine's Day plans. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Walter: Richard Crenna. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Stretch: Leonard Lewis. Writer: Al Lewis.


1893---Sir Cedric Hardwicke (actor: BBC Home Theatre), Stourbridge, U.K.
1895---Louis Calhern (actor: Radio Reader's Digest), New York City.
1896---Eddie Jackson (comedian: The Jimmy Durante Show, Mail Call, The Big Show), unknown.
1901---William Post, Jr. (actor: John's Other Wife), unknown.
1915---Dick Emery (comedian: Educating Archie), London.
1915---Fred Frielberger (writer: Suspense, Family Theater), New York City.
1924---Lee Marvin (actor: Dragnet), New York City.


Anonymous Leonard Rosmarin said...

When I was a pre-adolescent growing up in Montréal, Québec, Canada, I listened assiduously to the show "Our Miss Brooks." The trouble she got herself into every week was mind-boggling. Too bad such shows don't exist any longer. I say this all the more sincerely because I think my new novel, "Getting Enough," would work well in the radio format. To find out more, please go to the following website:

1:52 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

Leonard---I had to wait until post-adolescence (not to mention, post-young adulthood and pre-middle age) to listen assiduously to Our Miss Brooks. Such a show can't exist today because kids don't respect their teachers today, although you have to admit there are enough about who P.J. O'Rourke was right: "Bring back corporal punishment to the schools---and use it on the teachers."

I'll have to give your novel a good pull. But now you've done it. I'll be reading it as if imagining Gale Gordon and Eve Arden among the characters, though without having even seen it yet I can't fathom a spot for Dopey Denton therein.

Yours cordially,

3:41 PM  

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