". . . it’s been a good day": A Cake for Mr. B

Yes, it’s been a good day. Yes, sir, a good day. Started out that way. When I woke up, the warm, friendly smell of breakfast was drifting upstairs, and the blossoms of my cherry tree were tapping against the windows. Mmm. Lying there, I felt seventeen. Until Marilly’s voice bolted upstairs . . .

Mayor, aren’t you ever coming down to breakfast? It’s gonna be stone cold!

. . . and my years were upon me again as Marilly’s voice called me back.

Thus opens a wistful episode of The Mayor of the Town, broadcast on this day, 28 April, in 1943. The sentimental comedy starred the aforementioned Lionel Barrymore in the title role and Agnes Moorehead as his daydream-terminating housekeeper Marilly. Moorehead’s voice (last remarked upon here) sure could shatter illusions. None tuning in could have mistaken Barrymore for a teenager, though. While the microphone withheld much that a camera could not hide, Barrymore sounded as if the road of his life had seen better days and that, along the way, loads of dust and rubble had gotten lodged in the traveler’s voice box. The actor’s vocal chords not only bespoke the age we insist on calling true but also befitted the part of a man with plenty to look back on through the rear view mirror of his mind.

During the course of his “good day,” the Mayor encounters many a youngster—an inquisitive boy, a lovelorn adolescent, a young husband, and a father-to-be—whose doubts and cares recall to him the challenges faced by his former self. A whole life is condensed into the span of a few hours, further compressed to fit the time slot allotted for a single broadcast.

Yes, it’s been a good day. I kept seeing myself over and over in those kids. But what man doesn’t see himself in every real boy? And then, at noon, I performed a wedding, and I saw myself again. Young and in love and full of ideals . . .

Leaving his housekeeper well out of earshot in the company of her suitors (among them, another Lionel, the gravel-voiced Stander), the Mayor drifts in and out of reflections on youth and age as the goes about his daily business in Springdale. “My, how things do repeat themselves,” he muses, as he recalls bidding farewell to his love to go into battle, just like those thousands of young men and women who where then going out into the theaters of war.

“Too much nostalgia isn’t good for anyone,” the Mayor checks himself as he, a widower now, is reminded of his wedding anniversary. “I could stand a little vinegar to mix with all that honey.” Yet just as his character tells his housekeeper to “get out the sulphur and molasses,” the cast and crew of the show break into “Happy Birthday.” A cake was being brought in, the announcer explained to those listening at home. Yes, all along, while the Mayor reminisced, the actor who brought him to life with his well-worn voice was celebrating an anniversary of his own.

“Mr. Barrymore” Moorehead addresses the star of the program,

we of the cast of The Mayor of the Town want to give you our best wishes on your sixty-fifth birthday. We’re especially pleased your birthday falls exactly on our broadcasting day, for we’d like all our listening audience to join in our celebration. Springdale and its people are very real to us, and very near to our hearts. But nearer to us is the one who represents it all: our dear friend, Mr. Barrymore. So, Mr. B., we offer you our thanks for the many pleasant hours we’ve had with you and wish you many happy returns of the day.

Then paying his respects to Mr. B is the year’s Academy Award winning “Best Actor” and president of the Screen Actor’s Guild—the <a href=" http://broadcastellan.blogspot.com/2007/05/yankee-doodle-went-to-town.html
” target=”_blank”>aforementioned James Cagney—who reminds us that this was not only the anniversary of Barrymore’s birth, but also the “fiftieth anniversary” of his

first appearance on any stage; because, friends, fifty years ago today, one of the most loved actors of stage, screen, and radio made his debut in Kansas City appearing in The Rivals, with his grandmother, the great actress Mrs. John Drew.

After such sentiment and cheer, the broadcast—itself as old as Lionel Barrymore was then—concludes with the “sulphur and molasses” supplied by the makers of Rinso, sponsors of the program, whose spokesman was called upon to bring home the realities a gentle comedy like The Mayor of the Town could only gloss over. The announcer reminded listeners that it had not been such a “good day” elsewhere, that many a celebration had to be scaled down or postponed for the duration (“save waste kitchen fats”—”yes, those homely meat drippings make explosives”), and that many a youth, such as the “American flyers executed by Japs” that day—would never get a chance to wax nostalgic . . .

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