On This Day in 1951: A Radio Sitcom Is Cited by the Chamber of Commerce

Well, I can’t say that I have been, lately. Well, I mean. My digestive system is on the fritz, and my mood is verging on the dyspeptic. So, if I am to begin this entry in the broadcastellan journal with “Well”—as I have so often done these past six or seven months—it must be a brusque and slightly contentious one, for once. My jovial, welcoming “Well,” by the way, was inspired by Paul Rhymer’s Vic and Sade, a long-running radio series whose listeners were greeted by an announcer who, as if opening the door to the imaginary home of the Gook family, ushered in each of Rhymer’s dialogues with expositions like this one:

Well, sir, it’s a few minutes or so past eleven o’clock in the morning as our scene opens now, and here in the kitchen of the small house half-way up in the next block we discover Mrs. Victor Gook industriously bending over her ironing-board. Tuesday is the time usually given over to this task, but the holidays have more or less thrown Sade off schedule. And so she irons. But there’s a newcomer approaching apparently . . . because the back door is opening. Listen.

Writing my introductions, I chose to omit the gendered address; but I hope to have retained the friendly, casual tone of the interjection.

Now, Vic and Sade was one of those shows that did not successfully transition to the radio format that became such a staple of television entertainment: the situation comedy or sitcom. Rhymer was a raconteur, not a dramatist; he allowed his characters to reveal something about themselves through their words, rather than their actions. If you, like me, enjoy the Golden Girls, imagine Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia sitting around the kitchen table, telling stories about St. Olaf, the old South, Brooklyn and Sicily—without the dramatized flashbacks. The situation comedy became popular in the mid-1940s; and it did away with the old vaudeville routines, the minstrel shows, and the quietly funny Americana in which Rhymer excelled.

On this day, 2 May, in 1951, one of the finest American radio sitcoms was being honored in Washington, where the cast performed before members of the Chamber of Commerce. The program, which had just received the prestigious Peabody Award, was the aforementioned Halls of Ivy, and the cast was led by Ronald Colman (as William Todhunter Hall, the president of an imaginary American college) and his wife, Benita Hume (as the academic’s refreshingly non-academic spouse, a former stage actress). What made The Halls of Ivy worthy of such accolades was writer-creator Don Quinn’s ability—and the sponsor’s willingness—to tackle a number of social problems, whether topical or universal.

In the spring of 1951, that problem was the Korean War and the resentment with which the draft was greeted by college students who believed to have had their future mapped out for them and now found their careers derailed, their very lives in danger. On Halls of Ivy, the resulting campus unrests were dealt with in a rather tentative and sentimental manner; but Quinn’s sophisticated prose—peppered with smart puns, metaphors, and literary allusions no other radio or television sitcom can hope to rival—make this a worthwhile entry in the annals of Ivy.

Asked to speak before the members of the Chamber of Commerce, Colman had this to say about his radio role (which he later performed on television):

I want to thank you for being such an appreciative audience and for accepting me as a college professor. Come to think of it, I can’t be too bad at that because, I believe, I am probably the only college professor in the country that can take a difficult problem and solve it in exactly half an hour. More that this, I can do it every week.

Highlighting the strength of the program, Colman was also pointing out its weakness. Today, in the post-Seinfeldian era of social irresponsibility in entertainment, the problem sitcom strikes many as simplistic and hypocritical. Of course, most of us fail to express our cynicism and anti-social rants nearly as eloquently as any of the makeshift wisdom shared by The Halls of Ivy.

Realism may lie well beyond the scope of witticisms and sentiments—but the monosyllabic insult and the actions-speak-louder-than-words approach to problem solving contribute even less in the shaping of a better reality for us all.

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