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, August 25, 2009

The Sober Side of the Misery Game: The Way It Was, 25 August

It probably depends upon whom you ask, if you're of a mind to ask, but one of the most controversial trends of the old-time radio era was the quiz or game show whose theme was (to their producers) uplift or (to their critics, and there were many) exploitation.

These shows, perhaps paceset by Queen for a Day (if you are my age, you probably have at least one memory of the television version and host Jack Bailey, who migrated from the show's radio origin, signing off with his peculiarly trimphant bellow, "I'd like to make every woman queen . . . for every single day!"), have in common contestants---whether they apply themselves, or whether friends or family members apply for them---who seem at times to be competing to present the most heart-wrenching stories of personal horror imaginable.

There are those who believe this style of quiz or game is a grotesquely natural offspring of the soap opera. Even in 1998, historian Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio, would write, "If soap operas had made homemakers into domestic divas, game shows dragged them onstage to take part in gimmick-laden shows that---in the tear-drenched instances of Queen for a Day and Strike it Rich---tapped into the misery vein where Stella Dallas and Backstage Wife had for so long dwelt."

Needless to say, these shows become easy enough satire targets, perhaps represented best by what Fred Allen and Jack Benny---in a convenient peak to their legendary mock on-the-air feud---did to Queen for a Day on The Fred Allen Show in 1946. In at least one instance, they will become targets of a welfare commissioner, of all people---in New York, where such a commissioner will haul Strike it Rich into court, charged with unlicenced fundraising . . . a charge on which the show ("a weepy hybrid of Stop the Music and Queen for a Day, using the surprise phone call to reward misery via 'The Heart Line' from do-gooder listeners, who donated money or prizes of their own"---Nachman) was in fact convicted.

Perhaps the most sober of these shows---not at all lacking for laughter in the face of disaster, but neither is it angling overtly to exploit so much as to empathise, by way of its calm atmosphere---is this early-to-mid-1950s offering, which almost gives the back of its hand to the shows whose business was the unapologetic wringing of every last drop of suffering from its contestants, and the equally unapologetic wringing of every last drop of ghoulish curiosity from its listeners. (Nachman will describe Queen for a Day's popularity as "People listen[ing] to the show the way motorists gape at five-car pileups.")

Second Chance doesn't use the contestant's story as the end-to-end focus but, rather, allows the contestant to tell his or her story calmly, without once being prodded to wring it out all the way the better to raise the Kleenex index. Once told, he or she sets it aside to play a quick question-and-answer game---the "second chance" here is in three win-or-lose questions, with the contestant allowed two chances to bypass a question---in which the monetary prize (much like those on You Bet Your Life) isn't anywhere near the kind of big-money pots beginning to take hold on radio and television (and soon to reach their glittering---and, in the end, scandalous---apogee with The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One) but the idea is to play for a second chance at least symbolically equal to the second chance the contestant succeeded in seizing in his or her own life.

Today's contestants: A former American soldier, an emigre from India, who spent eighteen months in prison . . . on a somewhat trumped-up bigamy charge, stemming from his first wife's implicitly deliberate neglect in filing for the divorce she wanted after leaving him and taking their children, which ends up putting his second marriage into the deep freeze and himself behind bars; and, in perhaps a slightly daring tale to tell on early-1950s network radio, a Negro woman (no apology necessary for using the vernacular of the era), who is able to and did pass for white, to obtain necessary employment to help her husband raise their daughter, but discovered that her ruse blocked her from forging friendships among both races . . . and nearly ended her marriage, when her husband offered to step aside if it meant easing her pain.

These proceedings, as throughout the entire life of the show, are hosted empathetically but soberly, and with no hint at wringing every last teardrop out of every last listener or studio audience member, by Johnny Olsen---the same Johnny Olsen who will become ubiquitous on television, albeit in voice for the most part, as the announcer for The Price is Right, What's My Line, The Match Game, I've Got a Secret, and numerous other game shows . . . not to mention The Jackie Gleason Show. What will be forgotten too readily is that Olsen has already enjoyed a respectable old-time radio career (Ladies Be Seated, Johnny Olsen's Luncheon Club, and Break the Bank) before hosting this show.

Announcer: Fred Collins.


THE GOLDBERGS: SEYMOUR LOVES ROSALIE (CBS, 1941)---Bad enough: Jake (John R. Waters) is uncomfortable with "everyone . . . comfortable in my house except me." Worse: Seymour's (Arnold Stang) mother and sister make him uncomfortable with a visit, and what a surprise: they're hell bent on preventing him from making the kind of mistake they think has rent her family before . . . even if the mistake is falling for Rosalie (Roslyn Siber). Molly: Gertrude Berg. Mrs. Fingerhood: Possibly Florence Halop. Sammy: Alfred Ryder. Additional cast: Unknown. Writer/director: Gertrude Berg.

21st PRECINCT: THE BOOKKEEPER (CBS, 1953)---Following a Lion's Club luncheon at which he spoke of juvenile delinquency, and after visiting a First Avenue movie house currently bedeviled by that very problem, making its owner nervous enough to ask for extra police attention, Kennelly (Everett Sloane) checks into an optical company's payroll holdup, a first for the company . . . and discovers the company's bookkeeper (Elsa Barick) hasn't told police everything about her apparent doings around the time of the holdup. Waters: Harold Stone. King: Ken Lynch. Additional cast: Wendell Hall, Bill Smith. Announcer: Art Hanna. Writer/director: Stanley Niss.


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