On This Day in 1942: Death Upsets the Pudding Trade

Only a few days ago I commemorated my 100th entry into the broadcastellan journal by going in search of fellow old-time radio bloggers. Not a week later, the subject has become considerably more prominent among bloggers with an entire classroom of neophytes posting their thoughts on radio’s “imagined community” and reviewing individual programs selected by their instructor. It remains to be seen whether the thought-sharing extends beyond the virtual college annex, or just how long the on-air engagement with “yesterday’s internet” (as Gerald Nachman called the radio) will last. “Tired of the everyday routine? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all?” Just hop over to technorati and type in “Three Skeleton Key,” the title of the first radio play on the group’s listening list.

Speaking of “everyday routine,” it was hardly business as usual on Jack Benny’s Jell-O program on this day, 18 January, in 1942. “Jack Benny will not be with us tonight,” announcer Don Wilson informed those tuning in for some fun and laughter. Instead, the half-hour was filled with song and band music, with the reassurance that Jack would be back on the following Sunday to entertain America. Was the beloved comedian out sick, as he would be for five weeks in 1943, when George Burns and Orson Welles guest-hosted the show?

No, it was the violent death of glamorous, 33-year old motion picture actress Carole Lombard, Benny’s co-star in the Lubitsch comedy To Be or Not to Be, then in post-production. Lombard’s death on 16 January—and Benny’s cancellation of his scheduled performance two days later—were solemn reminders how the war, into which the US had just entered in December, would alter the everyday lives of all Americans, service(wo)men, celebrities, and civilians alike. The Academy Award-nominated actress had been returning from a War Bond Drive in Indianapolis when her plane crashed and killed all passengers on board. For her contribution to the war effort, Lombard was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

To be sure, there were no references to Lombard’s death during the 18 January broadcast, news unlikely to have a favorable impact on the sale of gelatine puddings, the manufacturers of which sponsored the popular program. On the following Sunday, Benny’s writers even found humor in dealing with the comedian’s fictive car crash. For one night, though, Benny’s conspicuous absence spoke volumes louder than this speech in Hamlet, the play from which Lombard’s last movie borrowed its title and which presented the miser from Waukegan in a preposterous impersonation of the miserable prince (pictured above). Asked to explain just what “seems” to be the matter with him, Hamlet replies:

‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, [. . .],
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, not the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show—
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Comedy can do only so much to combat grief, solemn speeches so little to capture it. Beyond the domain of the airwaves, the rest is silence.

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