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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Pickled Flute: The Way It Was, 31 March

Such is the extracurricular brainchild of music-minded faculty who hope Dr. Hall (Ronald Colman) and his pickle flute---which amuses Victoria (Benita Hume Colman) when his attempts to serenade her are interrupted constantly---will join their founding ranks.

Additional cast: Gloria Gordon, Alan Reed, Frank Martin, Cliff Arquette. Writers: Don Quinn, Walter Brown Newman.


1915: A BARB IS BORN; OR, GOOD MORNING, MR. AND MRS. VAN OST---HERE'S MORGAN---It may prove the last time old-time radio's eventual most shameless iconoclast ("If Fred Allen bit the hand that fed him," historian Gerald Nachman will recall in due course, [he] tried to bite off the whole arm") gets any kind slap without even thinking about slapping back.

Neither, alas, is the newborn's birthcry, "Good evening, anybody, here's Morgan."

For one thing, he is born Henry Lerner van Ost, Jr. For another, he will require a quarter century at least before Kate Smith annoys him enough to hit her "Hello, everybody!" back with that tagline, after having a snippet of her theme song played on something made to sound like a circus calliope.

I'd like to clear up something before Mother's Day, something that's been bothering me for about twenty-five years---it's Mother. M-O-T-H-E-R, Mama. I met a kid one day when I was a moppet, and he said something about waiting for his mother. We were standing on the street corner. That was the first I realised I wasn't the only squirt with a mother. Since I'd always called my mother, "Mother," I couldn't understand how this strange kid with a funny hat could have Mother, too.

---Henry Morgan, "Clearing Things Up Before Mother's Day," Here's Morgan, 7 May 1942.

He was a masochist, a neurotic man. When things were going well for him, he would do something to destroy himself. He just couldn't deal with success. He'd had an unhappy childhood that warped him a little and gave him a sour outlook on life.

---Arnold Stang, second banana on 1946-49's The Henry Morgan Show.

---He was ahead of his time but he was also hurt by his own disposition. He was very difficult. He was so brilliant that he'd get exasperated and he'd sulk. He was a great mind who never achieved the success he should have.

---Ed Herlihy, veteran old-time radio announcer and a longtime Morgan friend.


---Telegram sent to the comedian through ABC, 27 November 1946.


1908---Les Damon (actor: The Adventures of the Thin Man, The Falcon), Providence, Rhode Island; Red Norvo (as Kenneth Norville; jazz xylophonist/vibraphonist: Bughouse Rhythm, The Mildred Bailey Show, The Woody Herman Show), Beardstown, Illinois.
1918---Charles Russell (actor: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar), New York City.
1922---Richard Kiley (actor: The CBS Radio Mystery Theater), Chicago.
1928---Lefty Frizzell (as William Orville Frizzell; singer: Grand Ole Opry, Louisiana Hayride), Corsicana, Texas.
1933---Anita Carter (singer, The Carter Family: Country Music Time, Grand Ole Opry), Maces Springs, Virginia.
1934---Shirley Jones (singer/actress, Calling All Hearts), Smithton, Pennsylvania.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Guitarchestra: The Way It Was, 30 March

The virtuoso guitarist and recording technologist auditions what proves to be a short-lived---musically memorable, otherwise often-enough lacking---fifteen-minute radio program featuring himself, his then-wife Mary Ford (vocals), and their collaborator Eddie Stapleton (percussion, occasional bass). With a factual correction here and there, what follows is a review of the show I wrote in late 2006:


LES PAUL: Hello, hello everyone, this is Les Paul speaking, and with me I have mawife Mary—--
PAUL: —--and my git-tar. Uhhh . . . for the benefit of any new listeners who may have just tuned in, I’d like to mention that this program comes from our home, and that I have a room here just loaded with electronic gadgets—--amplifiers, echo chambers, transformers, six L-6s—--
FORD: Let me tell ‘em, Les, you’re a genius.
PAUL: Aw, don’t say that—
FORD: Oh, yes, you are—
PAUL: You’re embarrassing me—--a
FORD: Anyone who can take one guitar and make it sound like six is a genius.
PAUL: Any guy can do the same thing.

---The Les Paul Show, 11 July 1950, NBC.

Never mind whether the couple was scripted or winging it, and the chances were pretty good that it was half and half.

FORD: Oh, no one else can even play like you, much less make it sound like six people.
PAUL: Well, I—--all I like to do is get on the floor with a screwdriver and some tools and tinker around.
FORD: Aww, but you’re really a genius.
PAUL: No, I’m just a big tinker.
FORD: O-K, you’re just a big tinker.
PAUL: Oh. (Pause.) I shoulda quit when I was ahead.

Any guy could do the same thing assuming a) he could play a guitar in the first place (for the uninitiated: L-6s refers to the Gibson guitar Paul played and modified in 1950, before he and Gibson developed the model that has since borne his name), and b) he paid close enough attention after Les Paul showed any guy that you could make yourself a guitarchestra in the first place, never mind how to do it in the first place.

In broadcast terms, Les Paul and Mary Ford are probably remembered better for seven years’ worth of television’s Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home than one or two year’s worth of The Les Paul Show. A little prowling reveals the radio show ran two years with a decent share snaking around in mp3 files (and an episode or three included on the Capitol Records box anthology, The Legend and the Legacy). A little listening reveals a lot of gently off-the-wall fun and a passel of music that was futuristic at the time, remains intriguing even today, and often sounds years beyond its time still.

On the show transcribed above, it went from that homey little exchange to a Paulist take of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Paul had created a system known puckishly as the Les Paulverizer, a recording machine that essentially multiplied what it was fed, enabling Paul to dub himself on the spot if he chose to do so, within reason. “Sweet Georgia Brown” got a multitracking treatment not dissimilar to the treatment through which his earlier version of “Lover” became a futuristic hit record, complete with recording acceleration pressing a pre-cut guitar harmony into a speed-of-light arpeggio flying counterpoint above the chorus, before a deceleration that had the feel of a roller coaster nudging the brakes gently rather than slamming them down from the final drop.

PAUL: Mary, I got a hunch that if I could take one guitar and make it sound like six guitars, I can make your voice—my wife—sound like six people.
FORD: That sounds like my husband—he eats like six people.
PAUL: But I’m your husband.
FORD: Which reminds me—if you don’t get a screwdriver and put that plug back in the electric stove . . . well, no cookin’.
PAUL: Oh, you don’t mean that all I’ve go—
FORD: I can’t give you anything but love.
PAUL: Well, that’s our cue for the next song.

From which point Paul would flip on the Paulverizer and turn Ford—--who bore an unsophisticated but pleasant voice, and could hold her own with any pop singer of the time--—into a harmony group. Here her take of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was calmly affecting in front of her husband’s sympatico guitars. (The couple divorced in 1963; the apparent wedge was her wish to back away from work and his need to keep working.)

Paul in the 1940s had a tandem reputation as a clever country picker (he did morningtime country broadcasts as Red Hot Red early in the 1940s) and a fluid, bluesy jazz improvisor (he was brought in, last minute, to the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, in 1944, and swapped solos nothin’-to-it-folks with the like of Illinois Jacquet) even before Bing Crosby put him on the air (supporting Crosby’s own show) and on shellac (that was Paul’s distinctive chord-and-run backing Der Bingle’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” among others). His Les Paul Trio recordings of the era (recently remastered/reissued) stood up to any other guitarist’s, including Charlie Christian’s.

Remove his technological toying and all you would have left is a remarkable musician anyway. You can’t dismiss him as merely Mr. Wizard. Not even his most transdimensional experiments obscured Les Paul’s swing, whether he sent himself into outer space or fifty fathoms beneath the waves—--and his treatments often put him into both places at once. “Little Rock Getaway,” whether the version he cut as a Capitol single (with one alternate guitar line treated to resemble a staccato harpsichord) or the version he produced for the 26 May 1950 Les Paul Show (without the staccato-harpsichord treatment), only begins to illustrate the point.

Paul and Ford on the radio presented warmly enough, though their humour today seems of a place between cornpone quaint and clumsy off-guard stiff. But there's a humanness enough to it even when it resembles a kind of obligato in return for getting to deliver their futuristic music their way once a week on the air. (And, for Paul perhaps trying to make a case for "Nola" as one of his favourite songs---he led off the audition show and two regulation installments with the song. Good thing his rendition is so charming, though if I were going to choose a threepeater I'd have gone for his ripsnorting version of "The Carioca.")

Separate the songs from the banter and create a terrific Les Paul and Mary Ford album---you can treat the material into which they made hits as worthy alternate takes. Leave it all alone and have a pair (or trio, whenever percussionist/bassist Stapleton joined up) of guitarchestra-packing, warmhearted houseguests whose only lack is better comedy writers.

PAUL: Hi, folks.
SFX: (workshop sounds--tapping, hammering, etc.)
PAUL: Mary, would you hand me that pipe wrench?
SFX: (ringing clank)
FORD: Here.
PAUL: Uh, that's my wife, Mary.
FORD: Thanks.
PAUL: All right, stand back. I'm gonna turn it on.
SFX: (small whooshing gas jet)
FORD: That letter from the gas company sure started something . . . (SFX: continuing small hissing gas jet) . . . Of all the guitar players in the world, I had to pick someone who isn't satisfied with an electric guitar. He has to build the first gas guitar.
SFX: (continuing small hissing gas jet)
PAUL: Say, would you hand me the screwdriver?
FORD: Here's a screwdriver.
PAUL: Uh---oil rag?
FORD: Oil rag.
PAUL: Monkey wrench?
FORD: Monkey wrench.
PAUL: Match?
FORD: Death certificate.

Assuming they had regular writers, they must have had the night off.


1922---A pair of radio stations hit the air running today, both with foundations in the religious community---KGY in Olympia, Washington, whose call letters are received formally a month later by Benedictine monk Sebastian Ruth, and whose life begins as a small St. Martin's College operation before moving to formal studios in 1925; and, WWL at Loyola University of New Orleans, where the Jesuits at the university were required to obtain Vatican approval before they could operate a radio station, and whose first known program is a piano recital.

Both stations become national network affliates in 1935: KGY to Mutual Broadcasting System, and WWL to CBS.


LUX RADIO THEATER: STABLEMATES (CBS, 1941)---An adaptation of the 1938 film based loosely on the famous Hollywood Gold Cup race won by Seabiscuit, in which Doc Perry (Wallace Beery)---up against would-be race fixers to treat a stricken thoroughbred---finds his self-respect again with the help of earnest exercise boy Jimmy Donnelly (Mickey Rooney). Mrs. Shepherd: Fay Wray. Donovan: Noah Beery. Beulah: Verna Felton. Track Announcer: Lou Merrill. Host/producer: Cecil B. De Mille. Adapted from the screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Leonard Praskins, from a story by Reginald Owen and Wilhelm Thiele.

FIBBER McGEE & MOLLY: VOTING FOR A CONGRESSMAN (NBC, 1954)---The incumbent's been picked for the state Supreme Court, leaving Wistful Vista to a special election to pick his successor . . . and Molly (Marian Jordan, who also plays Teeny) asking Fibber (Jim Jordan) to elaborate on the four candidates. (And, deliver a classic definition of "filibuster.") Doc Gamble: Arthur Q. Bryan. Writers: Phil Leslie, Ralph Goodman.


1892---Ethel Owen (actress: Against the Storm, Mary Noble, Backstage Wife), Racine, Wisconsin.
1893---Dennis Hoey (actor: Pretty Kitty Kelly), London.
1913---Frankie Laine (as Francesco Paolo LoVecchio; singer: The Big Show), Chicago.
1919---Turhan Bey (actor: The Notorious Tarique), Vienna.
1926---Bill Farrell (singer: The Bob Hope Show), Cleveland.
1927---Peter Marshall (as Ralph Pierre LaCock; actor: Hollywood Radio Theatre), Huntington, West Virginia.
1929---Richard Dysart (actor: We Hold These Truths), Augusta, Maine.
1930---John Astin (actor: Zero Hour), Baltimore.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Rocky Beginning: The Way It Was, 29 March

Caroline Giles's (uncredited, but possibly Mercedes McCambridge) first night in her new husband's (Everett Sloane) home proves a rather unsettling one, especially when rocks are thrown through windows, and the mayor and police chief tell her things about which she isn't especially happy to learn---including the killings for which her husband was acquitted two years earlier.

Host: House Jameson. Additional cast: Uncredited. Writers: Uncredited.


1924: THREE NOT-SO-LITTLE LETTERS---Having assumed operating control of Chicago radio station WJAZ the day before, and shifting the frequency from 670 AM to 810 AM, the Chicago Tribune changes the call letters to WGN and begins broadcasting as such today.

According to a well-composed timeline of WGN history, the first day's schedule under its new call letters includes Chicago Mayor William E. Dever, opera star Edith Mason, and jazz by Ted Fio Roto conducting the Oriole Orchestra, not to mention a five-hour experiment---pre-arranged to be heard in Australia and New Zealand.

Before the 1920s finish, however, WGN will have launched one of the most successful old-time radio programs in history---though its stubbornness will prevent it from reaping the major share of that success. Fool enough to lose it to rival WMAQ (owned by newspaper rival the Chicago Daily News---and an NBC affiliate in the bargain), when it denies the show's creators their request to syndicate it over a series of stations around the Midwest, and to refuse the creators the rights to the show's actual name, WGN misses the big bonanza when a slightly revamped Sam 'n' Henry relaunches on WMAQ---as Amos 'n' Andy.

WGN will not lack for other successes, however, launching American old-time radio's first known soap opera, Painted Dreams, created by WGN staff actress Irna Phillips, in 1930.* WGN and other Chicago stations, in fact, will help make Chicago the major home of radio soaps---and, at least as profoundly, the national launch site for no few classic comedies, as witness Easy Aces, Vic & Sade and Fibber McGee & Molly, to name merely two---until World War II concludes.

And, in 1934, a decade after signing on as WGN, the future radio and television independent and superstation will become a co-founding station of the Mutual Broadcasting System.


VIC & SADE: NO TRIP TO CHICAGO (NBC, 1940)---Speaking of classic radio shows launched nationally from Chicago, it looks as though fidgety, giggling Vic (Art Van Harvey) isn't even close to going to Chicago, if Sade (Bernadine Flynn) can help it, not even on business---she thinks his day's jaunt is an angle to get out of going to the Stembottoms' little house party. Rush: Bill Idelson. Writer: Paul Rhymer.


1888---Earle Ross (actor: The Great Gildersleeve), Illinois.
1890---Joe Cook (comedian: Shell Chateau, House Party), Evansville, Indiana.
1891---Warner Baxter (actor: Lux Radio Theater), Columbus, Ohio.
1899---Clifford Goldsmith (writer/creator, The Aldrich Family), Aurora, New York.
1902---Onslow Stevens (actor: Great Plays), Los Angeles.
1905---Philip Ahn (actor: Lux Radio Theater), Los Angeles.
1906---E. Power Biggs (classical organist: The Organ Program), Westcliff, U.K.
1914---Phil Foster (comedian/actor: What's With Hubert, The Big Show), New York City.
1918---Pearl Bailey (singer/actress: Kraft Music Hall), Newport News, Virginia.
1919---Eileen Heckart (actress: Cloak and Dagger, The CBS Radio Mystery Theater), Columbus, Ohio.
1924---Ginger and Jean Dinning (singers: The Dinning Sisters, The Eddy Arnold Show), Braman, Kentucky.

*--- WGN would prove with Irna Phillips what it didn't learn from Sam 'n' Henry. Phillips, too, hopes to syndicate her soap to several Midwestern stations, and WGN likewise will tell her no. Phillips, however, will claim herself the owner of the show and take the station to court, winning her argument by 1938. In the interim, she leaves WGN and creates a none-too-subtly-disguised new version of her first creation, a soap called Today's Children. The home of her new creation? None other than NBC affiliate WMAQ.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Returning the Favour; or, You're a Siiiiiiiii-iiiiiiiiiiick Man, McGee: The Way It Was, 28 March

Before moving to Summerfield, to serve second as the town water commissioner and first as the estate executor and guardian for his orphaned niece and nephew, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve was an old-time radio hit as the sparring next-door blowhard buddy of self-deluded, alliterate blowhard Fibber McGee.

Now, paying a visit while waiting for a train change during a Wistful Vista layover, Gildersleeve (Harold Peary, who'd created and made spinoffable the role in the first place) and spunky nephew Leroy (Walter Tetley) get their own surprises when they decide to surprise the McGees at home.

Said surprises merely begin when Gildy and Leroy are greeted by Beulah (Marlin Hurt) instead of either McGee. They only continue when, for once in its life, the infamous Closet is opened by someone too young to be suffocated under the clattering bric-a-brac ("Is that the one you was tellin' me about, Unc?")---including the Brownie camera Gildy loaned McGee several years earlier to photograph President Calvin Coolidge during a visit.

And they don't even begin to climax, when the traveling Gildersleeves (well, a Gildersleeve and a Forrester) learn exactly what kept them from greeting Gildy's old "little chum" at home, even as Gildy enjoys seeing some other old friends and sparring partners and Leroy enjoys a living glimpse into his uncle's past.

Dr. Gamble: Arthur Q. Bryan. Alice Darling: Shirley Mitchell (who plays Gildersleeve love interest Leila Ransom on The Great Gildersleeve). Himself: Harlow Wilcox (announcer). Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King's Men. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.

THANK YOU FOR LISTENING TO FIBBER McGEE AND MOLLY TONIGHT . . . WITHOUT FIBBER McGEE AND MOLLY---So says Harold Peary at the broadcast's conclusion: co-star Jim Jordan (McGee) was recovering from an attack of pneumonia, and wife Marian Jordan (Molly/Teeny) stayed absent with him until his health returned. (The Jordans were back in action a week later, as things turned out.)

Jordan's illness gave Peary a grand chance to return a favour---just over a year earlier, the McGees visited Gildersleeve's Summerfield, in a memorable Great Gildersleeve in which Gildy wanted none but himself to tell McGee he was engaged, a wish staying true for only so long as it took McGee to walk into Peavey's (Richard LeGrand) drugstore to replace his toothbrush.


THE CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW: CARLOS McCARTHY RETURNS (NBC, 1943)---He's back from his "international jaunt," and perhaps Dale (Evans) can bring him back to his actual or alleged senses, with a little help from Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. With Edgar Bergen. Music: Ray Noble Orchestra, the Sportsmen. Writers: Possibly Carrol Carroll, Joe Connelly, Bob Mosher, or Roland MacLane.

ESCAPE: SHIPMENT OF MUTE FATE (CBS, 1948)---Launched from a sleepy Venezuelan harbour, a cruise ship is compelled to carry a dangerous piece of cargo---a lethal snake whose presence causes shipboard complications for the museum staffer (Harry Bartell) who was charged with capturing one, and the captain (Barry Kroeger) who agrees to keep the crate in his cabin. Additional cast: Unknown. Writers: Les Crutchfield and John Dunkel, from a story by Martin Storm.


1890---Paul Whiteman (bandleader: Kraft Music Hall, The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show), Denver.
1892---Philip Loeb (actor: The Goldbergs), Philadelphia.
1907---Jon Dodson (singer, with the King's Men: Fibber McGee & Molly), Richland, Missouri.
1912---Frank Lovejoy (actor: Night Beat, Mr. and Mrs. North), The Bronx.
1913---Lucille Fletcher (dramatist: Columbia Workshop, Suspense, The Inner Sanctum Mysteries), New York City.
1925---Jerry Walter (actor: Island Adventure), Illinois.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Relatively Speaking: The Way It Was, 27 March

In every man's life, there are three women: his mother, his wife, and his secretary down at the office. What happened to me last week I blame entirely on my mother. Mother should have told me I would someday marry Jane, and Jane would make me hire her cousin, Miss Anderson, as my secretary.

It isn't that (Goodman) Ace wouldn't mind canning his barely-competent secretary (Florence Robinson) . . . but he would, and does, mind boss Norris's (Eric Dressler) orders to dump all relatives out of the advertising firm---while trying to jam one of his relatives down Ace's throat, under pressure from Mrs. Norris (Evelyn Varden), who resents that none of her relatives have ever been hired at the ad firm . . . until Jane (Ace) schemes to maneuver the new Norris relative right back where she came from.

Himself: Ken Roberts (announcer). Writer: Goodman Ace.


1899: LONDON TO PARIS, PARIS TO LONDON---Guglielmo Marconi demonstrates the first known international radio transmission, between England and France, two years after he founds a telegraph company introducing international wireless service to the general public, and two years before he achieves perhaps the first known transoceanic radio transmission.

1930: OVER THE SEA? LET'S CALL, MEN!---Exactly thirty-one years to the day after Marconi's England-to-France radio transmission, the first known American ship-to-shore radio broadcast occurs.

1943: BLUE RIBBON BOMB---Just over a decade after the engaging Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel dies following a single season*, and four years before he will find his radio metier at long enough last, Groucho Marx takes a shot hosting a semi-variety show, Blue Ribbon Town, which premieres tonight on CBS.

Surviving episodes of Blue Ribbon Town show some good material---and some memorable guests, including Jack Benny, Gene Tierney, and Charles Laughton---but the missing ingredient remains the material's inability to leave room enough for Groucho's salient ad-lib ability.

Accordingly, Blue Ribbon Town will last a single season. Groucho will return reluctantly to films (The Big Store will prove a rather loud commercial flop), but he will continue to make guest appearances enough on radio still.

Those guest shots pay off handsomely, in due course, after a producer named John Guedel---who's already struck motherlode enough as the co-creator of Truth or Consequences and House Party, among others---hears Groucho ad-libbing with Bob Hope ("I didn't know [he] was such a good ad-libber"), realises it's what he does best but hasn't been formatted to do on radio before, and sets him up as . . . well, let's just say the secret word is antiquizmaster . . .


THE ADVENTURES OF SAM SPADE: THE LOVE LETTER CAPER (CBS, 1949)---Spade (Howard Duff) gets a delivery that's a dangerous kind of special: an inscribed photograph and matching, passionate love letter from a woman (Cathy Lewis) who wants to escape her controlling---and possibly murderous---uncle, though she may have some explaining to do when Spade's accused of robbing her. Additional cast: Lurene Tuttle, June Havoc. Writers: Gil Doud, Bob Tallman.

THE PHIL HARRIS-ALICE FAYE SHOW: VACATION PLANS (NBC, 1949)---Phil (Harris) has plans for a manly fishing vacation with Remley (Elliot Lewis) . . . until Alice (Faye) decides to join up with plans for a romantic second honeymoon in Palm Springs, Willie (Robert North) announces she invited him to join up with his own ideas for a vacation, Remley himself has another plan, and everyone gets a rude surprise when Phil tries to settle a parking ticket before going. Julius: Walter Tetley. Music: Walter Sharp, Phil Harris Orchestra. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.

QUIET, PLEASE: A TIME TO BE BORN, A TIME TO DIE (ABC, 1949)---A man (Ernest Chappell, who narrates) who worked his way from rock bottom to a company presidency, wishes he could change what he thinks has been a life that spiraled beyond his control. Edgar: Edgar Stehli. Marilyn: Joyce Gordon. Julia: Helen Choate. Reader: Athena Lord. Music: Albert Buhrmann. Writer: Wyllis Cooper.


1898---Gloria Swanson (actress: Suspense; panelist: Hollywood Byline), Chicago.
1904---Hal Kemp (bandleader: The Good Gulf Program, The Phil Baker Show, Lady Esther Serenade), Marion, Alabama.
1907---Mary Treen (actress: Lux Radio Theater), St. Louis.
1914---Richard Denning (actor: My Favourite Husband, Mr. and Mrs. North), Poughkeepsie, New York; Snooky Lanson (as Roy Landman; singer: Your Hit Parade, The Snooky Lanson Show), Memphis.
1916---Howard Merrill (writer: The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, Leave It to Mike, Secret Missions), New York City.
1921---Fletcher Markle (actor/director/producer: Columbia Workshop, Mercury Summer Theater), Winnipeg, Manitoba.
1924---Sarah Vaughan (singer: Your Rhythm Revue), unknown.

* --- Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel---which premiered as Beagle, Shyster, and Beagle 28 November 1932 (an attorney named Beagle threatened legal action if the name wasn't changed)---ended 22 May 1933. The show actually drew better ratings than The Shadow, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Al Jolson, and Kate Smith, but the rating was a little deceptive when you factor the show's 7:30 time slot---Fortune estimated only forty percent of the nation's radio owners were listening at that time, while The Texaco Fire Chief Program drew a huge rating at 9:00 p.m., prompting Standard Oil, which sponsored Flywheel for Esso gasoline and Essolube motor oil, to drop Flywheel.

For more, see "Hello, We Must Be Going: The Short, Happy Life of the Marx Brothers on Radio," by Michael Barson, his introduction to the delightful collection Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel: The Marx Brothers' Lost Radio Show. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.) Likely to be found in used book stores now, the book includes all but one of the show's scripts (they turned up preserved in the Library of Congress) and a charming essay by Groucho Marx that was published originally in Tower Radio, July 1934; and, the editor's interview with Flywheel co-writer Nat Perrin.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rent Party: The Way It Was, 26 March

. . . and they may or may not necessarily be thrilled at the satirical grilling and chilling they're going to get, even if they're second up after (Henry) Morgan, Arnold (Stang), and company wonder whether or not to assume "real" characters for themselves.

Additional cast: Betty Garde, Charles Irving, Madaline Lee. Music: Bernie Green Orchestra. Writers: Henry Morgan, Carroll Moore, Jr., Aaron Ruben, Joe Stein.


1907: MARRIAGE AS HE'LL KNOW IT---Writer Philip Rapp is born today. Whether his signature old-time radio creation will be considered the opening salvo of the liberation of realism or the first broadcasting stink bomb thrown into the ideal of matrimony will depend almost entirely upon the viewpoint of those who listen to it.

He will already have sent radio its meanest widdle kid (developing her out of a semi-regular routine performed by a woman old enough to be her mother in the first place) when his own marital squabbling finds a tension release in his creation of the couple who become, arguably, broadcasting's patron saints of connubial cannibalism: John and Blanche Bickerson.

Radio couples have not exactly been immune to the periodic spat by the time these two arrive, at first, as a sketch on The Chase and Sanborn Show. Jane Ace's malapropping meddling has driven her husband to distraction if not to drink on numerous occasions. There's a reason why another popular radio wife earns the sign-on line, "That's Molly Goldberg, with a place in every heart---and a finger in every pie." The Rileys aren't always blunt sweetness and light---not whenever oafish but bighearted husband Chester can't keep from trying to improve things by making them worse before they get better. Even Wistful Vista's McGees are known for the occasional spat, usually ending when yet another of McGee's hair-brained ideas requires a trip back to earth guided by patient wife Molly.

Along come the couple John Crosby will tag immortally as the bickering Bickersons, first on The Chase & Sanborn Show (hosted by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy), then on Drene Time (nominally a variety show), and finally on their own fifteen-minute slot. (The tag will fit so properly that people will come to think that's actually the name of the show.) Technically, their sum radio life is barely beyond two years (they're not exactly a regular showing), but aesthetically they far outlive their air time. And they'll make Jiggs and Maggie, the air couple to whom they're compared most often in their day, resemble Ozzie and Harriet.

Blanche, played very capably by Frances Langford, is one of the monstrous shrews of all time. She makes her husband Don Ameche take two jobs, a total of sixteen working hours, in order to bring in more money which she squanders on minks and the stock market. Meanwhile, he can't afford a pair of shoes and goes around with his feet painted black. In the few hours he has to sleep, she heckles him all night with the accusation that he doesn't love her. Her aim appears to be to drive her husband crazy and she succeeds very nicely. The harassed John's only weapon is insult, at which he's pretty good . . . Bear in mind that this is 2 a.m. and John is trying throughout to get to sleep.

---John Crosby, "The Bickering Bickersons," New York Herald-Tribune, 25 May 1948, republished in Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.)

"There was so much sweetness," Philip Rapp will say in 1980, decades after his signature creation leaves the air, referring to the success of such affirmative radio couples as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Jim and Margaret Anderson on Father Knows Best, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Ethel & Albert, the Rileys to a point, the McGees to a greater point, and even George Burns and Gracie Allen, if you thought about it hard enough. "This was not marriage as I knew it."

How he knows marriage will get, perhaps, its best short summary from his own son, Joel, in due course: "I've hidden under a lot of tables in my day." (Joel Rapp will add that his father would rush to the typewriter as soon as he could after such squabbles ended.)

The idea of suave Don Ameche and sexy, honey-voiced singer/actress Frances Langford paired up as a couple whose sole life's passion is domestic blitz seems just as absurd as the premise that a young enough married couple, who aren't otherwise mired in the working poor's rut, have, apparently, nothing much in common save a taste for trying to see just how long a hassled husband---whose trademarks include a chainsaw-volume snore punctuated by a fluctuating series of whimpers, whines, whoops, and giggles---can stand it before he finally knocks his hassling wife into the middle of next year.

To that crime no jury, even in politically correct times and extremes, will claim him unjustified, so long as even one recording of John and Blanche's overnight debates (and we use the term with extreme looseness) is played in evidence before the court.

BLANCHE: I keep thinking how nice it was before we were married.
JOHN: Mmmmm-hmmm!.
BLANCHE: You were so different then. You used to plead with me for a little kiss. Now, you don't even think of it. Why?
JOHN: A mouse in the trap loses his taste for cheese..


BLANCHE: I'm a nervous wreck. I've got crow's feet around my eyes. My forehead's all wrinkled, my chin is sagging, I'm beginning to look like an hold hag. (Pause.) It's true, isn't it?
JOHN: (quietly) I wouldn't say that.
BLANCHE: Why not, John?
JOHN: I'll be awake for the rest of the night.
BLANCHE: You do think it's true, though, don't you?
JOHN: What's true?
BLANCHE: I'm beginning to look like an old hag.
JOHN: You are not beginning to look like an old hag.
BLANCHE: Why do you emphasise "beginning"?
JOHN: All right---you are not beginning to look like an old hag.


BLANCHE: You used to be so considerate. Since you got married to me, you haven't got any sympathy at all.
JOHN: I have too. I've got everybody's sympathy.

Thus the inspiration for such future television tusslers as the Kramdens, the Bunkers, and the Bundys, all of whom owe more than some of their vituperation to the dissatisfied wife whose life work seemed to be keeping her husband from obtaining a decent night's sleep without at least three hours' warfare launched at two every morning.

Perhaps the only true crimes of The Bickersons are two, when all is said and done:

1) Because it is, essentially, barely more than a one-note can of domestic whoopass that often recycles particular punch lines (as opposed to the running gag), The Bickersons isn't destined to a very long air life, even if it is destined to a long afterlife in the hands of radio collectors.

2) One of the better (and underrated) big band singers of the 1940s, whose honey contralto is underwritten by a suggestive sense of swing, is doomed to be remembered barely for her music and almost entirely as America's biggest nag this side of the horse on which she was fool enough to bet with the rent money. Perhaps appropriately, the horse wins the race---but she thinks Disqualified is his name.


BOSTON BLACKIE: PIERRE THE DESIGNER (SYNDICATED, 1946)---A fashion designer wants Blackie's (Dick Kollmar) help proving his innocence of the theft of his IOU and cash from a creditor's safe---a theft Faraday (Frank Orth) is convinced Blackie alone could have pulled, especially when Mary (Jan Miner) turns up with six new dresses from the designer's collection. Writers: Kenny Lyons, Ralph Rosenberg.


1894---Will Wright (actor, Fibber McGee & Molly, My Little Margie), San Francisco.
1908---Hank Sylvern (conductor: Beyond Tomorrow)
1916---Sterling Hayden (actor: We the People), Montclair, New Jersey.
1918---William Hardcastle (newscaster: The World at One), Newcastle, U.K.
1923---Bob Elliott (comedian: Matinee with Bob & Ray, Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network, The Bob & Ray Show), Boston.
1924---Marcia Van Dyck (actress: It's The Barrys), Grants Pass, Oregon.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Trial and Error? The Way It Was, 25 March

Enhancing an apparent Lux Radio Theater habit of airing Christmas-theme shows a month or three after Christmas, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray reprise their hit film roles as shoplifter Lee Leander (Stanwyck), whose prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) postpones her trial, rather than let it clash with Christmas, getting a break when he helps arrange her bail . . . and they fall in love, potentially compromising the coming trial.

Additional cast, also repeating their film roles: Elizabeth Patterson, Beulah Bondi, Sterling Holloway. Host/producer: Cecil B. De Mille. Adapted from the story and screenplay by Preston Sturges


1943: THE BRUSH CUT MEETS THE OL' SCHNOZZOLA---A gravelly singer-comedian with a cheerfully anarchic stage act, a gleefully unapologetic genius for turning the King's English (not to mention the Queens, the Bronx, the Staten Island's, and the Manhattan's) into the most magnificent menagerie of malaprops this side of Jane Ace, and a slightly fading image (believe it or not), gets a huge break when Camel Comedy Caravan producer Phil Cohan teams him with a genial young comic who's hosted a couple of game shows (Beat the Band and Everything Goes in particular)---and the pair clicks almost from the moment they premiere on NBC tonight.

Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore prove viable enough (with Moore himself providing a decent share of the show's writing) that---long after the show's name is changed to The Durante-Moore Show---they split only when Garry Moore leaves to take over as the host of the popular Take It or Leave It in 1948, launching him toward hosting his own more successful Garry Moore Show on radio and television.

Some will suggest Durante never has it better on radio (at least, until he becomes a semi-regular guest on Tallulah Bankhead's The Big Show, including its premiere edition) than when he had Moore's easygoing style (Dat's my boy what said dat! becomes a near-instant catch phrase) as a contrast to his tough-but-tender malapropriety and music and self-mocking style. ("I got dat note from Bing---and, boy, was he glad to get rid of it!")

When Moore leaves to strike back on his own, Durante's sidekick will become the less effective Alan Young---and Durante's career as a radio host in his own right (the show's name is changed to The Jimmy Durante Show) doesn't last much longer den dat.

His legend, however, is something else entirely . . .

Durante was pure, complete, unabashed entertainer, a man possessed with the desire to please at all costs; and he aged beautifully, unlike many entertainers, never wearing out his welcome. The very idea of a man who sounded like Durante actually singing, in that ramshackle voice, was enough to make anybody laugh . . . Even now, especially now, he seems like an unlikely and wholly remarkable character, a Bowery leprechaun who captivated every audience he ever faced---or didn't face. The critic Gilbert Seldes got it about right when he wrote that Durante "offers himself where others exploit themselves. [He] communicates so unfailingly the laughter that rises out of love." Nobody was ever remotely like him.

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

. . . He's dynamite in his sleep. On the stage, before the sound cameras, in front of the mike, he is a clown without peer. And he carries his artistic madness beyond those regions where it means money in his kilts . . .

Jimmy talks and behaves off stage in the helter-skelter fashion he performs before a theater audience. He strides up and down and flails his arms about. He mispronounces words as words have never been mispronounced before. And when he suddenly meets up with some famous personality whose greatness borders on sacred he is a lady monkey on wheels.

One day Jimmy stepped into the elevator at the Astor and found himself in the august presence of Arturo Toscanini. The Beak of Broadway removed his hat, bowed from the waist, and said:

"Masstro, howja do! My name's Schnozzola Durante, an' I'm in show business too."

Toscanini acknowledged this unusual self-introduction with a slight bow and no words.

"Facta th'matter is," continued Jimmy, unabashed, "I wrote me a song about you, Masstro."

"Good?" asked Toscanini.

"Dynamite!" Jimmy assured him. "It's gotta title, 'Toscanini, Stokowski, an' Me'."

"You compare us?"

"Compare us!" roared Durante. "Soitenly, I compares us. I compares you two boys ta me, an' I comes out best."

Toscanini seemed amused, so Jimmy gave out with a few lines from his song---the part where he picks up da paper' and sees a pitcha of Toscanini, Stokowski, an' himself an' immediately exclaims: "Who is dem two guys, anyway, gettin' mention wid me?"

---H. Allen Smith, "All Nose," from Low Man on a Totem Pole. (New York: Doubleday & Doran, 1941, 1944.)


LUM & ABNER: LOSING MONEY ON THE CIRCUS (CBS, 1935)---Listening to Squire's mistaken crowd predictions and trying to finance it by way of the store teaches Lum (Chester Lauck, who also plays Grandpap) a hard lesson, after the circus's grand opening shows a forty-dollar loss and Abner (Norris Goff, who also plays Squire) may have miscounted some of the circus opening's tickets. Writers: Chester Lauck, Norris Goff.

OUR MISS BROOKS: MR. BOYNTON'S LAND DEAL (CBS, 1951)---Frustrated that their Easter break dates involved the zoo and little else, Connie (Eve Arden) is surprised when Boynton (Jeff Chandler) proposes a partnership that provokes cheerfully romantic confusion---among everyone else in their circles---after the pair heads off to inspect the details, and Walter (Richard Crenna) gets the wrong message when calling the number they left behind. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Bob LeMond. Writer: Al Lewis.


1867---Arturo Toscanini (conductor: The NBC Symphony Orchestra), Parma, Italy.
1887---Raymond Gram Swing (commentator: CBS News), Cortlandt, New York.
1892---Andy Clyde (actor: Hopalong Cassidy), Blaingowrie, Scotland.
1901---Ed Begley, Sr. (actor: The Aldrich Family; Big Sister; Charlie Chan; The Fat Man; Richard Diamond, Private Detective), Hartford, Connecticut.
1903---Binnie Barnes (panelist: Leave It to the Girls, Breakfast with Binnie and Mike), London.
1908---Philip Reed (actor: Society Girl, David Harum), New York City.
1916---Jean Rogers (actress: Those We Love), Belmont, Massachussetts.
1919---Jeanne Cagney (actress: Movietone Radio Theatre, Suspense), New York City.
1921---Nancy Kelly (actress: Cavalcade of America, Suspense), Lowell, Massachussetts.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Campus Affair: The Way It Was, 24 March

That's what the Egyptologist's wife hopes Hall (Ronald Colman) can help her determine ("I just want that sweet old goof of mine to stop making an idiot of himself"), when her husband is keeping late hours away from campus, but when Vicki (Benita Hume Colman) suggests Hall ask the local barber---the town's prime gossip conductor---the answer leads Hall to a widow's (Florence Walcott) home, a romantic reverie . . . and a jarring but sweet revelation.

Anne Whitfield (Phyllis on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show) has a charming guest turn as Christine. Gerhart: Hans Conreid. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Writers: Don Quinn, Walter Brown Newman.


1932: TRAINTIME---Popular stage, film, and radio singer Belle Baker---who introduced such standards as Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" on stage (in the Ziegfeld production of Betsy) and Cole Porter's "All of Me" on records, and was a periodic guest on radio's first known variety show (The Eveready Hour)---becomes the first American performer ever to broadcast on a moving train, hosting a variety show on New York's WABC (a CBS affiliate at the time) from a New York-bound train originating in Maryland.

1935: THE IDOL'S GREAT-GREAT GRANDFATHER---The old-time radio great-great-great grandfather of American Idol takes his signature creation network today, on NBC, following a swift enough showing as a localised phenomenon on New York's WHN.

Major Edward Bowes (the rank comes from his claim to have served in military intelligence in World War I, though he may actually have been a reserve officer), once a local theater producer and film distributor, refines the apparent national craze for amateur nights (they've already sprung up nationwide, and over many local radio stations, leaving it open as to who actually invented the idea) and becomes the most identifiable amateur-night host for that reason alone* in radio history.

For a man who entered show business in the first place by using some of his real estate profits to buy a Boston theater, and ended up building the once-formidable Capitol Theater in New York (his original radio show was called Major Bowes and His Capitol Theater Family), Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour's success will prove remarkable enough. Within a year, and possibly less, Bowes himself will become as much an American institution as the programming his success confirms as viable, though no one will do it to his success level.

Last year . . . Major Bowes's hour had become Radio's No. 1 commercial broadcast, worth $7,500 a week to Standard Brands to advertise Chase & Sanborn's Coffee over 60 National Broadcasting Co. stations. Last week, when it was announced that beginning in September a new sponsor, Walter P. Chrysler, would pay him a reputed $15,000 a week for program rights alone, Major Bowes graduated clear out of show business, was a big business in himself.

Contrary to the opinion of many an interested adman who thought that Radio's top attraction had thus successfully culminated a campaign for a merited raise, Major Bowes blandly announced:

"Major Bowes's relations with his present sponsor are of the happiest. There has never been a single instance to mar a completely harmonious association; nor has there ever been any discussion whatever as to compensation. Major Bowes and Walter P. Chrysler are old and intimate friends, and Major Bowes has such admiration for the man and his achievements that to represent him and his products on the radio will take on an added pleasure and satisfaction."

If Major Bowes should care to incorporate, the books of Bowes Inc. would show by September a weekly gross of some $30,000. For the famed Bowes gong now reverberates far beyond his radio audience, in a half-dozen lucrative side lines. There are Major Bowes highball glasses, decorated with pictures of cat & dog amateurs; Major Bowes cotton fabrics, also decorated with amateurs; the Major Bowes alarm clock which rouses sluggards with a gong; the 25¢ Major Bowes' Amateur Magazine; the weekly Amateur Writers Page in Bernarr MacFadden's Liberty ; a parchesi-like Major Bowes Game; two monthly movie shorts; and 14 traveling shows or "units' of amateurs who have appeared on the radio program, playing theatres all over the U. S. Over head of Bowes Inc. would include $5 weekly to 14 or 15 amateurs, $10 to those who "get the gong" (are hustled off the air when Bowes rings a bell), salaries of 35 personal employes, and $40 to $60 weekly, plus transportation, to the unit members.

It is Bowes who first strikes a gong to cut short a performer who meets defeat; it is Bowes who first plays to his audience by cheerfully insulting performances he doesn't much care for himself (you didn't really think Simon or The Gong Show invented the tactic, did you?); it is Bowes who first sends into the vernacular that routine about the wheel of fortune and 'round and 'round she goes and where she stops---well, you get the idea . . .

But some of the price that may be paid on behalf of (depending on your point of view) the human enough craving for celebrity, or (in Time's words) the human instinct of amusement at the embarrassment of others, will be a little too steep, according to some future recollections.

. . . small-time entertainers who had wowed the local Lions Club were encouraged to sell their homes, pack up their banjos, tap shoes, washboards, and cowbells and, like showbiz Okies, head east in pursuit of theatrical fame and fortune. Some ten thousand people wrote in each week seeking auditions with Bowes. The list was then whittled down to about twenty, leaving the remaining out-of-work yodelers and wineglass virtuosi out on the street. When Newsweek reported that during a single month of 1935 some twelve hundred stranded entertainers needed emergency aid, Bowes ruled that only people from the New York area were eligible.

---Gerald Nachman, Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

Bowes will continue his weekly amateur nights---on NBC and CBS---until his death in 1946, after which his subordinate and occasional stand-in Ted Mack will take over the show (which moves to ABC during this tenure) and bring it to television.

Of the thousands of amateurs who petition, never mind make the stage, on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour, a very few will find actual fame as entertainers. Two such were a pair of opera immortals: Robert Merrill and Beverly Sills (known then under her birth name, Beverly Weinstein). Others included pop and jazz singer Teresa Brewer (a decade before she shot to chart stardom); comedian Jack Carter; and, perhaps the most successful of the very few enduring breakout stars of the Bowes exercise, a kid whom Bowes would team with an otherwise nondescript singing trio known as the Three Flashes but renamed the Hoboken Four.

A kid named Frank Sinatra.


LUX RADIO THEATER: FLIGHT COMMAND (CBS, 1940)---Robert Taylor, Ruth Hussey, and Walter Pidgeon reprise their 1940 film roles** as a Navy flier (Taylor) who seems romantically interested in the widow (Hussey) of his partner, killed testing a new fog-landing device, which alienates the flier's squadron mates . . . until his commander's (Pidgeon) crisis enables him to show his mettle. Additional cast: Unknown. Host/producer: Cecil B. DeMille. Based on the story by (Cmdr.) Harvey S. Haislip and John Sutherland and screenplay adaptation by Haislip and Wells Root.

THE DANNY KAYE SHOW: THE GREAT DIAMOND ROBBERY (CBS, 1945)---Opening night approaches for the dream theater Danny (Kaye) bought a week ago, and he's got a small pocket of problems mounting its first play, including Lionel (Stander)'s publicity ineptness and an amorous building inspector (Eve Arden), on tonight's edition of The Danny Kaye Show. (CBS.) Additional cast: Ken Niles (announcer). Music: Harry James and His Orchestra. Writers: Goodman Ace, Abe Burrows, Sylvia Fine.


1867---Harry Neville (actor: The O'Neills), Launceston, Tasmania.
1885---Joseph Granby (actor: We Were Always Young), Boston.
1902---Thomas E. Dewey (attorney/politician: The Jack Benny Program, Racketbusters' Roundtable), Owosso, Mississippi.
1906---Julian Funt (writer: Young Doctor Malone), unknown.
1910---Richard Conte (actor: Theater Guild On the Air, Hallmark Playhouse, Hollywood Star Playhouse), Jersey City.
1915---Bill Bivens (announcer: The Fred Waring Show, Vox Pox), Wadesboro, North Carolina.
1928---Vanessa Brown (panelist: The Quiz Kids), Vienna.

* --- In the same decade, Fred Allen was almost as familiar for introducing amateur talent on his weekly, hourlong satirical soirees as he was for his comic genius. To his credit, however, Allen presented them as serious aspirants without avoiding a little mad fun, but he tended to avoid the kind of carnival atmosphere that was thought so often to underpin the Bowes and other amateur shows' presentations.

Allen often deployed his amateur finds as part of his comedy sketches in addition to showcasing their core talents, mindful that they may not have been real comic talents and thus enabling them to join in as they were, as opposed to as a fanciful programmer might have forced them to be.

** --- Among the original film cast, as Lt. Mugger Martin, was a popular MGM contract player (usually in comedies) who was a rising radio star with his own weekly show: Red Skelton.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Low Finance, Low Brows: The Way It Was, 23 March

The Sage of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) has appointed himself to do the neighbourhood collecting for the drive---one side of the street, specifically---and, while Molly (Marian Jordan, who also plays Teeny) is only too willing to help, she's concerned as to just how much he might or might not raise so soon after income tax time, not to mention some of his financial ledgerdemain in achieving it.

Mrs. Uppington: Isabel Randolph. Mail Girl: Possibly Bea Benaderet. Himself: Harlow Wilcox (announcer). Wimpole: Bill Thompson. McDonald: Possibly Arthur Q. Bryan. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King's Men. Writer: Don Quinn.


1940: DECENTLY VEILED---Reality programming's old-time radio great-great-great-grandfather, of which fans would speak in terms of plain old mad fun and critics would speak of plain old madness, premieres on NBC.

Created and hosted by jovial journeyman CBS announcer Ralph Edwards*, Truth or Consequences---an idea he has derived from the forfeits game he played during his farmland childhood---becomes either a national habit or a national guilty pleasure, depending upon how you take the show.

The fact that Edwards and company deliver this weekly festival of prankishness to a home audience that can't see but can only hear the insanity---the consequences for failing to answer certain questions ran the gamut from being ordered to cry like a baby for its bottle to being ordered to bed with a seal . . . in the middle of Hollywood and Vine---doesn't faze him or his sponsors in the slightest.

Well, as a certain television network will come to make its catch phrase, we report . . . you decide, whether or when T & C, not to mention its assorted progeny, jumps the proverbial shark or decides the shark didn't even exist.

Our show has keen insight into the taste of America. It's the kind of show that could easily go off key. To use a four-bit word, it could have its empathy destroyed, if we didn't know exactly how far you can go. We have a perfect feeling between the artists---you should excuse the expression---and the audience.

We have a husband and wife in the act, say. One pushes a pie in the other's face. But the important thing is that it all works out well in the end. The audience has to feel that the husband and wife got together again before it's over. It just can't be one of them pulling a gag on the other.

---Ralph Edwards, to John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune, 7 August 1950. Republished in John Crosby, Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.)

Edwards doesn't exactly make it easy for the poor schnooks who got stuck suffering the consequences, either: as he admits to Crosby, the fellow who got stuck in bed with the seal at Hollywood and Vine found he had three very familiar faces among the crowd walking by with jaws dropped: his wife, his boss, and his preacher. They asked variations on "What on earth are you doing here?" The poor fellow couldn't answer, Edwards says, without forfeiting his prize money.

We had him groveling, but it was all right with the audience because they knew it had been explained to the preacher and the boss that it was all a gag. People worry about gags involving anyone's boss. They wouldn't like it a bit if the boss wasn't in on it.

Or, if the preacher wasn't. Put a guy in bed with a seal even for laughs and prizes in some places and you're liable to find enough among the outraged demanding to know why the preacher wasn't delivering the poor schnook a stern sermon against bestiality. Come to think of it, in some of those places, too, there might be calls for the preacher's head on the collection plate if they did know the preacher was in on the gag.

There will be some classic stunts in which listeners (or viewers, when the show moves to television) might ponder whether there wasn't a little more premeditation than even Edwards and his staff let on. To find a man willing to face the consequence of hitting a golf ball from coast to coast (I couldn't make that up if you paid me the highest comedy writing fee in town), the show sends tickets to various golf clubs to make sure they'll find a golfer who might be free for a week in the first place.

According to Crosby, Edwards and company even take medical precautions in must mount a pogo stick and race twenty miles from Los Angeles Airport to City Hall. His race opponent is an airplane.

He got to be so good on that pogo stick, he could have gone on to New York. He did the last mile without ever getting off the thing. He'd stop at red lights and bounce up and down. He beat the airplane (which took a circuitous route) by a day and a half.---Edwards, to Crosby.

When T & C moves to television at last, Crosby won't be among the amused, exactly.

The radio version . . . was the ultimate in silliness, but at least it was decently veiled. Its television counterpart is a monstrosity of vulgarity. It reminded me strongly of Bedlam, the first English lunatic asylum, whose inmates provided amusement to throngs of spectators.

The shrieks of laughter from the studio audience were enough to drive the children from the room gibbering with fright. New York children, of course, are well inured to bloodshed in all its most devilish forms. They're not yet accustomed to lunacy. The quality of this laughter---if that's the word for it---is quite different from that at even the dizziest comedy show. You'll find traces in it of embarrassment, of sadism, and of drooling idiocy. It's a frightening noise, and to be sure you can see it as well as hear it, the cameras are frequently turned on the audience while they are in labour.

The visible Mr. Edwards is a pop-eyed gentleman with a wolfish grin who acts and even looks a little like a maniacal Bob Hope. The participants are indescribable except to someone with the gifts and the space of Charles Dickens. Their appearances are not helped much by the fact that this horrible operation is on kinescope, which is murky enough to malign them and not quite dark enough to obscure them entirely.

---John Crosby, "Sixteenth-Century Lunacy on Twentieth-Century Kinescope," New York Herald-Tribune, 12 December 1950; republished in Out of the Blue.

Thus begins the bloodline that, leave us face it, begets Punk'd, Fear Factor, and their brethren and sistren, as a certain barkeep might phrase it.

* --- Edwards's announcer for the original radio lunacy should not go unacknowledged. He was born Melvin Israel but becomes far more famous as Mel Allen. Especially to fans of the New York Yankees, a baseball team to whom insanity will mean nothing until a few generations hence.


LIGHTS OUT: THE FLAME (NBC, 1943)---There was more than just a passion for fire compelling Arnie Douglas, at the height of his career and on the threshold of his wedding, to find the spirit he believed fire housed---as Douglas himself reveals in retelling the story from the afterlife itself. Writer/host/producer: Arch Oboler.

DUFFY'S TAVERN: ARCHIE'S BANK ACCOUNT (NBC, 1949)---"Nothing like having a little dough put aside---I quit smokin', stopped goin' to the movies, quit buyin' fancy clothes, been keepin' away from dames, yeah---for the first time I'm really enjoyin' life," warbles Archie (Ed Gardner), before taking an hour off to make a ten-dollar bank deposit. The problem: He doesn't have a bank account and needs to find a bank he can trust (his words, not ours), barely aware that half the banks in town need to feel they can trust him. Blooper alert: Ed Gardner stumbles on his customary introduction and shakes it off with a laugh. Additional cast: Charles Cantor, Eddie Green, Florence Halop. Writers: Ed Gardner, Larry Rhine.


1905---Joan Crawford (as Lucille Fay LeSeur; actress: Lux Radio Theater, Arch Oboler's Plays, Screen Guild Theater, Everyman's Theatre), San Antonio, Texas.
1910---Paula Winslowe (actress: The Life of Riley, The Joe E. Brown Show, Silver Theater, Our Miss Brooks), unknown.
1912---Francis De Sales (actor: Mr. and Mrs. North, King's Row), Philadelphia.
1916---Grant Richards (actor: This is Nora Drake, Against the Storm), Raleigh, North Carolina.
1917---Oscar Shumsky (violinist: The Voice of Firestone), Philadelphia.
1920---Maurice Marsac (actor: Our Miss Brooks), La Croix, France.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

One Night to Forget, One Night to Remember: The Way It Was, 22 March

One actor (Ernest Chappell, who narrates) in a supernatural radio show becomes spooked when he begins taking his work to bed with him---in dreams involving his own death.

Additional cast: Al April, Lon Clark, Polly Cole, James Monks, Kermit Murdock, Jack Tyler. Writer: Wyllis Cooper.


1948: FIRESTONE'S CROSS-BAND TWO-FER---For the first time, AM and FM radio simulcast a commercial radio program. The show chosen for the groundbreaker: The Voice of Firestone, which premiered on NBC in 1928 and enjoyed one of the longest lives of any classical or semi-classical music program in old-time radio history, perhaps giving thousands if not millions of listeners their first hearings of such music, until its radio life ended in June 1957.

Led by conductor Howard Barlow and vocalist John Charles Thomas (radio historian Gerald Nachman has called him "the Pavarotti of radio"), though it featured many more vocalists over its long life, The Voice of Firestone will enjoy another simulcasting highlight a year after its AM/FM double-play: the premier of its television version (NBC, 5 September 1949) will simulcast on NBC radio, and the simulcasts will remain until the radio version ends.

The Voice of Firestone will enjoy over a decade on television (it ended in 1963), though not entirely without criticism. "Long on musical value but often short on television production value, the show was faulted occasionally for its somewhat stilted visual style, its pretentious nature and its garish costume choices," writes Joel Sternberg for the Museum of Broadcast Communications. "In time, however, the series drew critical praise and a consistent audience of two to three million people per broadcast."


SUSPENSE: HEART'S DESIRE (CBS, 1945)---Telling his story to a dockside streetwalker may be a bigger mistake for former bank messenger and incurable dreamer Henry Doyle (Lloyd Nolan) than the memory lapse that's keeping him from reclaiming a large sealed envelope from a pawn shop---an envelope containing the never-recovered bank money he hid before his imprisonment for theft. Additional cast: Unknown. Writers: Robert Richards, Arthur Laurentz.

YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR: THE JOLLY ROGER FRAUD MATTER, PART FOUR (CBS, 1956)---When a suspicious insurance claim adjuster and a Coast Guard lieutenant are killed, after questioning the story behind a luxury yacht burning and sinking, Dollar (Bob Bailey)---convinced the yacht's owner burned and sank the yacht himself, after his overseas accounts are frozen---fears the owner's comely secretary, who's helping Dollar solve the case, may be next on the hit list. Writer: Jack Johnstone.


1886---Chico Marx (as Leonard Marx; comedian: Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, Hollywood Hotel), New York City.
1893---Tio Vuolo (actor: The Goldbergs), Italy.
1895---Joseph Schildkraut (actor: Hollywood Hotel, Columbia Workshop, Intrigue), Vienna.
1913---Karl Malden (actor: The Aldrich Family, Our Gal Sunday, Theater Guild On the Air), Chicago; James Westerfield (actor: Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel), Nashville.
1917---Virginia Grey (actress: Lux Radio Theater), Los Angeles.
1920---Ross Martin (actor: Janice Grey), Grodek, Poland.
1924---Bill Wendell (announcer: Ten Troubled Years, Biography in Sound), New York City.
1931---William Shatner (actor: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation productions), Montreal.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Genius, One and Another: The Way It Was, 21 March

Gracie (Allen) bumps into Rita Hayworth---freshly married to Orson Welles---and Hayworth, afraid to spend the night at home alone with Welles away on business, invites Gracie to spend the night---putting Gracie into a quandary, because her genius (George Burns) is also afraid to sleep at home alone. Additional cast: Elvia Allman, Mel Blanc, Jimmy Cash, Bill Goodwin (announcer), Lawrence Nash. Music: Felix Mills Orchestra. Writers: George Burns, possibly Hal Block, Paul Henning.

1948---Eventual game show emperor Mark Goodson directs, game show semi-pioneer Louis G. Cowan produces, Harry Salter leads the band, Kay Armen and Dick Brown sing, and Break the Bank's third host, Bert Parks, hosts here as well.

And Stop the Music---which some say symbolises the giveaway programming that many believe secures old-time radio's coffin with its final nail, though it would take another decade and a half, almost, to get the corpse into its grave at last---premieres on ABC, a network desperate for something (anything) to break the bank known as Fred Allen and Bergen & McCarthy's domination of the eight o'clock hour Sunday nights.

The show's format (as described in Buxton and Owen's The Big Broadcast 1920-1950) involves musical selections played in-house, with the vocalist (if the song is sung) humming rather than singing the title (assuming the title is part of the lyric), while a telephone is dialed---and, when a connection is made, a loud telephone-like bell sounds with Parks shouting, "Stop the music!" Should the contestant on the other end name the song correctly, he or she wins a prize and a shot at guessing a "Mystery Melody" for a huge jackpot.

The telephone will be the show's prime gimmick, with callers picked at random, purportedly, from a random bank maintained by show operators. So the myth will go. The actual fact is that prospective contestants are reached well enough in advance of showtime, and wait long hours willingly to get the call.

The show is---if you'll pardon the expression---the brainchild of bandleader Salter and Your Hit Parade conductor Mark Warnow, "devised . . . as a way to blend big bands and big bucks into the biggest radio bang-for-the-buck of all," according to historian Gerald Nachman.

Stop the Music and similar giveaways were radio's version of the desperate "bank nights" that movie theaters held to lure people away from their TV sets in the mid-1950s, handing out cheap sets of dishes between double bills. What fueled the giveaways was a simple trade-off in which items doled out were plugged with an elaborate description of the product that amounted to scores of free commercials within each show. This practise led to prize brokering by companies---Prizes, Inc., V.I.P. Services---that were set up as legal fences to distribute the swag to quiz shows, raking off a tidy surcharge for every "donated" prize. The odds were 25 million to one that you'd be called. The FCC pondered hard the philosophical question of whether the shows were, in fact, lotteries before deciding that they were not . . .

. . . Stop the Music ("Starring YOU, the people of America!") handed out far fancier prizes than most giveaways---diamond rings, steamship cruises, thousand-dollar savings bonds, fur coats, pianos, and cars. America in 1948 was clearly on a postwar spending binge . . . The crafty Cowan recognised the show's potential. ABC . . . took a chance and, within a season, sent both major comics scurrying for shelter.

---Gerald Nachman, Raised on Radio.

Scurrying for shelter is polite phrasing to some people. Fred Allen had had the top-rated comedy show of the previous year; Stop the Music will send his Hooper rating from a high of 28.7 right down to 11.2. Though his health more than his rating will drive him from full-time radio by June 1949, Allen was under siege clearly enough.

The giveaway rise as a whole will provoke him to a clever satire or three, but Stop the Music itself provokes a direct counterattack:

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned to The Fred Allen Show. If within the next thirty minutes you or any listener in the continental United States answer a telephone call from any giveaway radio program, and because you are listening to this show you miss an opportunity to win any gift then being offered, Fred Allen guarantees to make good by furnishing an equivalent gift; or, its value up to five thousand dollars. National Surety Corporation guarantees that Fred Allen will perform this agreement, up to a total of fifty thousand dollars. Notice of any claim under these guarantees must be mailed to Mr. Fred Allen by registered mail, care of the National Broadcasting Company, Radio City, New York, and postmarked not later than midnight, October 25, 1948. Relax. Enjoy The Fred Allen Show.

---Kenny Delmar, announcer for The Fred Allen Show (and, by the way, the man who brought Senator Claghorn to life in "Allen's Alley"), opening the 24 October 1948 broadcast.

The bad news is that Allen's clever retaliation proved too clever by half, according to Allen biographer Robert Taylor.

[I]t was a tactical misstep. The announcement, a latter-day restatement of the ingenious ploys Allen practised in vaudeville, received massive publicity, but the scheme backfired. Obviously, the audience had to hear Stop the Music in order to know what it was losing; and radio critics quickly pointed out that fighting giveaways with giveaway offers undermined the aims of protest. The insurance offer spawn fraudulent claims and Allen canceled the bond after a few weeks.

John Crosby reported the only dispute in which the claimant may have had a case. In Ravenna, Ohio, a seventy-six-year-old farmer named MacDonald admitted to police that he had shot and killed a sixty-eight-year-old farmhand after a wrangle over whether the pair should listen to a giveaway program or to Jack Benny. The giveaway fan held the field until his disgruntled employer returned with a gun. Presumably old MacDonald then settled down for a therapeutic laugh. Allen remarked to Crosby, "Things have come to a pass indeed when a man in Ohio has to shoot his way to the radio to get at Jack Benny."

---Robert Taylor, in Fred Allen: His Life and Wit. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.)

It could be worse. Mr. Allen, wherever he is, might be grateful not to have lived long enough to have cause for assault against the sour stench of success as some define "success" early in the 21st Century. Except that we who have lived to see it might wish to have had him to raise a stink over it.


JUNGLE JIM: THE BAT WOMAN (CONCLUSION)---THE WEDDING IS INTERRUPTED; OR, LIFE OR DEATH? (SYNDICATED; RCA TRANSCRIPTION, 1936)---Having survived a gun duel with Jacques, who has since procured a high-powered rifle, Lil (France Hale) forges ahead with marrying Jim (Matt Crowley) until Rev. Chalmers finds one or another reason to delay the ceremony---and she's felled by a gunshot as the ceremony is about to begin at last. Additional cast: Unknown. Writer: Gene Stafford.

YOU BET YOUR LIFE: THE SECRET WORD IS "COAT" (NBC, 1951)---A doctor and a housewife, a door-to-door bakery salesman and another housewife, and a dollmaker and an eight-year-old girl strike for a shot at a then-high $4,500 grand prize pot, once Groucho Marx gets finished with his usual deft drollery. Announcer: George Fenneman.


1908---Vincent Pelletier (actor: This is Life, Calling All Detectives), Minneapolis.
1911---Henny Backus (as Henrietta Kaye; actress: Romance), Philadelphia.
1912---Suzanne Kaaren (actress: Lux Radio Theater), Brooklyn.
1918---Cliff Norton (actor: Terry and the Pirates, American Novels), Chicago.
1919---Lois Collier (as Madelyn Jones; actress: Dear John, Boston Blackie), Salley, North Carolina.

Friday, March 20, 2009

High Haunting: The Way It Was, 20 March

They're not necessarily sweet, for a one-time distillery worker (Ernest Chappell, who also narrates) haunted by the night the high wines' fragrances overpowered him---when he also found a desk worker dead. Writer: Wyllis Cooper.


1935: THE HOME OF THE HITS---Making its own survey of best-selling records, best-selling sheet music, and most-often-played jukebox selections, then performing them weekly with a small host of singers and musicians, Your Hit Parade premieres on NBC, launching an old-time radio life whose height will end when first television and then rock and roll make it seem quaint and corny at least, and irrelevant at worst.

For fifteen years, its rotating cast of regular singers and musicians, led memorably (beginning in 1943) by Frank Sinatra at the height of his and its popularity, Your Hit Parade presents itself as an accurate call on American popular musical taste in spite of its reluctance to disclose details as to just how it makes the determinations once they get the results from their weekly tabulations.

The Chairman of the Board will be only the most famed and successful of the performers who put in time on the show, or whose careers were boosted if not made by it. Other Your Hit Parade vocalists will include pop, stage, film, and jazz stars such as Bonnie Baker, Buddy Clark, Doris Day, Georgia Gibbs, Dick Haymes, Giselle MacKenzie, Johnny Mercer (also a songwriting titan), Lanny Ross, Andy Russell, Dinah Shore, Martha Tilton (who became a singing star through her work with Benny Goodman's jazz orchestra), and Bea Wain.

Bandleaders who led the show's Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra (named, as if you hadn't figured it out for yourselves, for the show's sponsor) will include several classic radio mainstays, such as Al Goodman (in due course Fred Allen's music director), Freddie Rich (in due course Abbott & Costello's radio band), and Peter van Steeden (who will do music for Fred Allen and Duffy's Tavern in due course).

Another Your Hit Parade bandleader will be Axel Stordahl. What a surprise: Stordahl and Sinatra meet while Sinatra is Tommy Dorsey's featured singer and Stordahl one of Dorsey's house arrangers; when The Voice bolts the Dorsey organisation for a shot at a solo career, signing with Columbia Records, Stordahl---whose signature (but not exclusive*) style is rich, fluffy strings and slow, slower, slowest tempo---becomes his chief arranger.

Lucky Strike chieftain George Washington Hill will exercise long-term and strict control over the show's music, from personal approval of songs to be played on the show (perhaps regardless of their survey position beyond the top three) to how they will be played, including their tempo and their sound, which leads a few to accuse the show of homogeneity.

Hill's control could be and will be interrupted only by a performer of unquestioned popularity, such as Bea Wain (the show's breakout singing star from 1939-44; she insists that ballads be played at their accurate tempo) or Frank Sinatra. (When he returns in 1946, following a brief hiatus and teaming at times with Doris Day, he takes control over any material he's assigned---until 1949, when he leaves after producers try forcing him to sing novelty songs that nauseate him, an argument similar to the one that helps end his relationship with Columbia Records in due course.)

The Sinatra period will also provoke another change: ticket scalping to his hysterical bobbysoxer fans will become rampant enough---and their studio screaming will annoy listeners just enough---that Hill imposes a policy of restricting tickets to those 21 and older.

Known rarely if at all for between-song patter, Your Hit Parade will break the pattern a time or three during its peak radio years, particularly in 1938, when the show features brief comic sketches teaming W.C. Fields with radio stalwarts Hanley Stafford (Baby Snooks), Elvia Allman (numerous roles, numerous shows), and Walter Tetley (Town Hall Tonight, The Great Gildersleeve, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show).

Wain (whose husband was the show's announcer, Andre Baruch) will also cop to one of Your Hit Parade's legends: the show is secretive about how it tabulates the actual standing of the songs featured each week, but especially does it keep the top three songs of the week from the singers and musicians until practically showtime.

Not even we on the show ever knew what numbers one, two, and three would be. They were legit surveys. We weren't told until the dress rehearsal that day.---Bea Wain, to historian Gerald Nachman.

Your Hit Parade will manage to stay on radio until 1959, nine years after the show moves to television.


LUM & ABNER: LUM GIVES UP THE TRAPEZE ACT (NBC, 1935)---Rounding up a working circus after partner Abner (Norris Goff) blundered his way into a stableful of animals enough to produce one is one thing, but Lum (Chester Lauck) doesn't exactly float through the air with the greatest of ease, after he lets shifty Squire Skimp (also Goff) talk him into giving it a try as the none-too-daring, none-too-young man on the flying trapeze. Writers: Chester Lauck and Norris Goff.

BOX 13: 113.5 (MUTUAL, 1949)---Dan (Alan Ladd) seems to be going in circles over a nervous woman (Lurene Tuttle) who wants her brother found before someone can kill him, and a dubious private investigator whose licence was revoked and also wants the brother found only too fast. Suzy: Sylvia Packer. Kling: Edmund McDonald. Additional cast: Alan Reed, unknown. Writer: Arthur Bolling.


1890---Lauritz Melchior (vocal tenor: Magic Key, Metropolitan Opera Broadcast, Voice of Firestone, Texaco Star Theater with Fred Allen, Duffy's Tavern, The Fred Allen Show, The Big Show), Copenhagen.
1903---Edgar Buchanan (actor: Lux Radio Theater, Suspense), Humansville, Missouri.
1906---Ozzie Nelson (as Oswald George Nelson; bandleader: The Red Skelton Show; actor, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Fred Allen Show, The Big Show), Jersey City.
1908---Stuart Metz (announcer: Pepper Young's Family, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons), Buffalo, New York; Kermit Murdock (actor: Whisper Men), Pittsburgh.
1912---Sarah Burton (actress: Mrs. Miniver, Against the Storm), London.
1913---Judith Evelyn (actress: Mrs. Miniver, Helpmate), Seneca, South Dakota; Kenny Gardner (singer: The Guy Lombardo Show, Your Hit Parade), Lakeview, Iowa.
1914---Wendell Corey (actor: McGarry and His Mouse), Dracut, Montana.
1918---Marian McPhartland (jazz pianist: Marian McPhartland's Piano Jazz), Stough, U.K.
1918---Jack Barry (actor: It's the Barrys; announcer: Uncle Don; M.C.: The Joe DiMaggio Show, Juvenile Jury, Life Begins at 80), Lindehurst, Long Island (New York).
1922---Carl Reiner (comedian: The Curse, Sounds of Freedom), Bronx, New York.
1922---Ray Goulding (comedian: Matinee with Bob & Ray, Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network, The Bob & Ray Show), Lowell, Massachussetts; Jack Kruschen (actor: Broadway is My Beat), Winnipeg, Manitoba.
1924---Philip Abbott (actor: Family Theater), Lincoln, Nebraska.