Well, this takes me back. All the way to May 2005, when I made up my mind at last and set out to keep the broadcastellan journal. Apprehensive about disclosing my true identity (the name my parents pinned on me), I entered the blogosphere with the fanciful moniker “The Magnificent Montague.” It took me about five months to shove that nominal cloak into the closet and leap out, as it were, in the buff (or as near to that natural state as my virtual modesty permits). Some five months ago, I once again reached for that retired garment and passed it on to my dog. Such an act of questionable charity would doubtless have infuriated the original bearer of said name, who, on this day, 10 November, in 1950, made his radio debut in a sitcom aptly titled The Magnificent Montague.
Truth be told, I’ve got a thing for Monty Woolley, the man who played him. If he were The Man Who Came to Dinner—and if I did not already have both the man and the machine for the job—I might almost stoop to doing the dishes. Mr. Woolley was, of course, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and a lot of other compelling characters besides. Over the years, I’ve seen him in films like Midnight, Since You Went Away, As Young As You Feel, and the delightful if lesser known Molly and Me (opposite Gracie Fields). He also did a bit of campaigning for Roosevelt in 1944, as I found out when I heard him in a line-up of FDR supporters in a recently discussed radio special. Now, Mr. Woolley could almost talk me into anything—and talk he did. His voice was such an integral part of his persona—prickly, pompous, and proud—that it is not surprising he was talked into playing that sort of man in a weekly sitcom written for radio.
His is a beard you could hear on the air. I mean, Woolley was such an iconic figure in American culture that those tuning in did not require a picture. They knew exactly what Woolley looked like—and there was no need to create a new look for Edwin Montague, the character he portrayed. Montague and Woolley were one; or, let’s say that Montague was so ideally suited to the Woolley persona that it was easy to confuse the star and his role. One was an extensions of the other, so that Montague seemed at once caricature and lifelike portrait, as flat and vivid as a Dickensian character, a Mr. Pecksniff or Pickwick or Turveydrop.
Written and produced by Nat Hiken (who had previously worked for comedians Fred Allen and Milton Berle), The Magnificent Montague cast Woolley as an accomplished Shakespearean actor who, luckless of late (indeed, for nearly a decade), accepts a role in a sentimental daytime radio serial. However disdainful, the venerable thespian charms millions of listeners as Uncle Goodheart, a popular success he is anxious to keep from the members of the Proscenium Club who would be offended by such a shameful act of selling out.
It is a perfect setup for a radio sitcom, considering that broadcasting was generally frowned upon by serious or distinguished actors . . . unless, that is, they realized how much money there was to be made and how comparatively easy it was to make it. The Magnificent Montague was radio’s way of ridiculing highbrow culture, of deriding those who dismissed it as vulgar or trivial but were nonetheless envious of its tremendous pull.
In the 1950s, radio was no longer the live medium it had been prior to the development and widespread use of magnetic tape; for the most part, dramatic programs were being recorded for later broadcast, which meant greater flexibility and fewer scheduling conflicts for performers who would otherwise not have committed to a weekly series. Some of the great names in film and theater—Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, and Laurence Olivier among them—pulled an “Uncle Goodheart” during those days by becoming radio regulars (rather than being special guests whenever there was some promoting to be done).