Hush, Hush, Charlotte Greenwood

You’re sorry?” That was the rather pitiful catchphrase devised for a certain “lovable lady of stage, screen, and radio”—Miss Charlotte Greenwood, who, having done well for herself on stage and screen, added “radio” to her resume in June 1944, when the Charlotte Greenwood Program was first broadcast over NBC’s Blue network as a summer replacement for Bob Hope. Actually, Greenwood had been Mrs. to Mr. Martin Broones for nearly two decades; but whenever another character in her serialized situation comedy addressed her as Mrs.—an assumption based, no doubt, on her far from youthful appearance—and apologized after being duly corrected, Greenwood replied in the fashion of a frustrated spinster by letting off the above retort.

Sorry, indeed. In the fall of 1944, when Hope returned to the airwaves, Greenwood was presented with a vehicle that—after the disappointment of not starring in Oklahoma!, in a part written expressly for her, no less—must have been as thrilling to her as walking off with the unclaimed favors from a cancelled party. It sure wasn’t a surrey with a fringe on top. There’s no way you could confuse that fabulous Broadway hit with the miss that was The Charlotte Greenwood Show (1944-1946), even though the compiler of one Encyclopedia of American Radio did just that, claiming the lovable one was starred “as eccentric Aunty Ellen [sic] from Oklahoma.”

Instead, Charlotte Greenwood was playing Charlotte Greenwood—an actress preparing for her next movie role as a reporter by womanning the desk in the local room of a small-town newspaper. So, for about two and a half months, Greenwood talked long-distance to her manager in Hollywood or had some confrontation or other with the city editor.

Greenwood should have spent more time talking to the show’s head writers—Jack Hasty, who, as stated in the April 22-28 issue of Radio Life (from which the above picture was taken) had previously fed lines to Al Pearce and Dr. Christian, and Don Johnson, who had been one of Fred Allen’s gagmen. Else, she might have had a heart-to-heart with her real-life manager, who also doubled as her real-life spouse. And they all should have had a word with the sponsor, or, rather, the advertising agency handling the Halls Brothers account, since their executives insisted on having a card like Greenwood dispense sentiments as hackneyed as anything printed on cardboard bearing the Hallmark label:

“Friends,” she addressed the listening public in November 1944, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving,

for most of us, these busy days are filled with big jobs to be done, big problems to be solved. There’s so little time for the tiny, little everyday things. The neighborly chat, the letter to an old friend. And yet, in this swiftly moving world, friendship need not be forgotten. A few words that say “I hadn’t forgotten” may mean more than you know to someone, somewhere. There’s an old saying I think all of us should remember: The way to have friends is to be one.

More offensive than such platitudes is the opportunism apparent in advertising copy urging home front folks to drop a line to those on the frontlines, like this reminder from October 1944:

Friends, there has never been a time when so many families were disunited, separated by thousands of miles from those they love. Our top-ranking officers have told us again and again, there’s nothing so important to our boys and girls as mail from home. So, look around you today. Think of some boy or girl out there who would like to hear from you—and do something. Send something [. . .]

It was left to announcer Wendell Niles to suggest that the “something” in question ought not to be just anything, at least not if listeners truly “cared to send the very best.”

Quite early on in the program’s run, there must have been some debate about its appeal and prospects. As the year 1944 drew to a close, Charlotte Greenwood’s fictional film career came to an abrupt end—as did her musical interludes that had enlivened proceedings—when her character claimed an inheritance that convinced her to retire. The enticement? The Barton estate, replete with a trio of orphans now in her charge.

“You mean, to have three children, all I have to do is just read and write?” Greenwood exclaimed on 31 December 1944. “Oh, judge, isn’t education wonderful!” Perhaps, producers counted rather too much on the lack of education among the viewers. The advent of the minors sure wasn’t a belated Christmas miracle—and the retooled Greenwood vehicle was no immaculate contraption.

Softening the quirky Greenwood persona by placing three orphans in Aunt Charlotte’s lap, the sponsors may well have hoped to win the ratings war by riding the wave of popular sentiment as the all but certain victory in Europe had public attention shift from defeating the enemy and supporting the troops to dealing with the underage casualties of war.

For the remainder of the program’s run—another year, to be exact—Greenwood had do deal with the problems of two teenagers (played by Edward Ryan and Betty Moran) and their prepubescent sibling (Bobby Larson), who, on this day, 3 June, in 1945, gave his Aunt Charlotte some slight grief by being late from school.

Actually, the kid’s temporary waywardness was little more than an occasion for the writers to string together a few cracks about spanked bottoms (“[H]ow can you get anything into a child’s head by pounding the other end?”) and double entendres involving the meaning of “play.”

Not sure whether to punish young Robert for having stayed out “with some boy,” as his sister suggests, Aunt Charlotte remarks: “I know a girl who’s spend her whole life trying to find some boy to play with. Mr. Anthony [the Dr. Phil of his day] called her ‘The Case of Miss C. G.’ It was very touching.” To which she adds for our but not her niece’s amusement: “And what’s more, thirty thousand privates picked her as the girl they’d most like to see marooned on a desert island with their top sergeant.”

Without a consistent tone, let alone situations consistent with the talents of the beloved comedienne, the program’s legs were far shorter than Greenwood’s interminable gams. Apparently, the figures added up as the laughs per episode, which is to say, not. “Well, I’m no expert on arithmetic either,” Charlotte’s on-air alter ego told the nephew she could not bring herself to spank. “If I knew anything about figures, would I keep the one I’ve got?”

Those who did the accounts decided not to keep what they got—and that despite the fact that the series earned Greenwood a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Instead, as Billboard correctly predicted on 22 December 1945, the Charlotte Greenwood Show would “fold as soon as cancellation [could] take effect”—well before the end of the second season—after the sponsor had decided to take over the Reader’s Digest program from Campbell’s.

Charlotte Greenwood left radio, returned to the screen—and, in 1955, she did get to play Aunt Eller after all. You’re sorry?

That “mental brain from the radio”; or, He Does Duffy’s, Doth He?

It wasn’t just the “usual gang of crumbs” gathering at Duffy’s Tavern that evening. Otherwise, Archie would not have replaced the “Watch Your Hats and Coats” sign with one saying “Maintain Scrutiny of Thy Chapeaux and Hats.” Nor would Mrs. Duffy, who wasn’t exactly an authority on high classical authors, have been dusting off the Dostoyevsky, which Archie struggled to classify as animal, mineral, or vegetable. Such categorical impediments aside, there were tell-tale signs that Duffy’s was closer than ever to living up to what Archie always pronounced it to be: a place “where the elite meet to eat.”

To be sure, back in its heyday as the most valued source of news and entertainment, American radio was far from elitist; it was too popular—and too important as a commercial and propagandist medium—to risk being either offensively vulgar or alienatingly esoteric. Still, if it meant reputable or established, you couldn’t be more “elite” than Clifton Fadiman, the “mental brain from the radio.” Known to millions of listeners as host of the intellectual quiz program Information, Please, Fadiman was scheduled to pay a visit to the beloved neighborhood Tavern on this day, 1 June, in 1943. What’s more, he was to give a literary talk there.

If that impressed Archie any, he didn’t let on. How smart did you need to be to ask questions, especially questions submitted by the audience? In fact, Archie had written the Fadiman lecture himself. And why not, pray? Archie could talk poetry with the best of them. He knew all about the Bard from Stratford Avenue and, as he told Duffy’s regular Finnegan (Clifton Finnegan, that is), he was well versed in “cubic centimeter” and other such poetic matters.

Archie may not have been the proprietor of Duffy’s Tavern but he sure was its resident malaproprietor. And what could be greater lexical fun than getting it wrong just right? Not only do you get to enjoy a play on words, but you also get to indulge in the Schadenfreude of hearing someone lose it.

Nowadays, though, catching up with 1940s radio comedies like Duffy’s can be as scholarly a pursuit as the study of the literary greats, considering that some of the lines in Duffy’s Tavern are so topical, they require footnotes.

For instance, there is Duffy’s confusion as to the identity of guest Kip Fadiman. The unheard tavern owner, whose talks with manager Archie open each half-hour visits at Duffy’s Tavern, assumes that the famous quiz show host is the man who asks questions like “Madam, what is your problem?” on his program. “No, Duffy,” corrects Archie, “you’re thinking of Mark Antony.”

Archie, who has Shakespeare on his mind, is getting all confused. The guy he had in mind was John J. Anthony, a spurious, self-styled marriage counselor who enjoyed popular success on radio’s Goodwill Hour.

Then there is uppity Mrs. Piddleton’s confession that she was forced to take the subway because her limousine was hors de combat, or “out of action.” Archie, unfamiliar with the expression, suggests OPA as an American equivalent meaning “out of gas.” In light of all the propaganda that comedy writers were expected to build into their routines, this was a welcome moment of letting off steam. The OPA was the Office of Price Administration, whose wartime rationing forced dames like Mrs. Piddleton to leave their private conveyances behind and join the real folks underground.

Then and now, listening to programs like Duffy’s Tavern is a thoroughly respectable divertissement. Back then, you could revel in the fact that you had to be Archie’s intellectual superior to get the jokes made at his expense; today, it is the occasional effort you have to make to catch Archie’s drift that makes hanging out at Duffy’s a pleasure far from guilty.

“That radical thing”: The Rise and Risibility of Broadcast Reception

“What is the future of the radio business in the United States? Is it to be like the telephone, the automobile, or the phonograph business, a thing that will rise suddenly to almost universal acceptance by the public and support great manufacturing plants?” These aspects of the “Commercial Side of Radio” were mooted back in May 1922, when they were raised in the first issue of Radio Broadcast. Clearly, broadcast reception was not simply a matter of technology. It required the establishment of a new industry devoted to giving receptive audiences something to receive and to making their reception a favorable one. There was room yet for doubt that radio was here to stay and take pride of place in the parlor.

Enter the satirist, ready to poke fun at enthusiasts and skeptics alike. Among those who could not pass up this opportunity was one Harry M. Doty, who, in 1922, wrote and published “Tiddville and the Radio,” a “Rural Comedy in One Act” involving a group of yokels who gather to take in their first radio broadcast, a demonstration—or wireless reception—prepared for them by a young “radio fan.”

As much as Mrs. Simpson, his mother, regrets that “[t]here’s no such thing as getting any work out of him around the house or farm nowadays,” there is some comfort to be gleaned from the possibility that “some day or other he may be a great electrician like Mr. Edison or Mr. Marconi who invented the wireless telephone.”

Those assembled in Mrs. Simpson’s sitting room are representatives of the older generation, folks somewhat behind the times and, whether resisting change or willing to catch up, do not quite know what to make of or do with the newfangled apparatus.

There is uncertainty as to the nature of broadcasting, whether or not the receiver is a telephone capable of transmitting the voices of the audience. “Why,” exclaims one concerned listener, “if this sort o’ thing keeps up, a body won’t dare to do a thing because if they talk, them air waves or whatever scatter it all over creation for folks to listen to.”

Another is having a peabrainwave. “That radical thing” (“It isn’t a radical, it’s a radio,” the boy corrects) was capable of carrying messages from places thousands of miles away, it should also be possible to carry them “straight up” and communicate with those dearly departed we hope to have gotten there.

“I never heard of one of these machines getting messages from above excepting from an airship,” the young radio fan remarks. Besides, the “government allows only a few of the larger stations to send messages. All I can do is to receive ’em.”

Anxiety and puzzlement give way to grumbling: “Do you mean to tell me that when you’re usin’ that thing, all you can do is to listen to what somebody else is sayin’ and never have a chance say a word back?” Who would put up with such “one-sided conversations”?

Not those present, all of whom voice their objections. An academic is concerned that staying at home to be entertained—rather than entertaining—would mean an end to social gatherings such as Tiddville’s choral club, whereas the local pastor is troubled by the thought that, if sermons were broadcast, local churches would have to close, leaving one member of the party to wonder about the future of community “strawberry festivals and oyster suppers.” And what of wedding ceremonies, if couples could not make their vows be heard?

By the time the receiver picks up the transmission of a prizefight, everyone’s had enough of “that machine,” even though they condescend to tuning in a concert so that a latecomer to their gathering may partake of this demonstration.

However crude, this sketch perfectly mirrors the radical changes brought about by the radio: the decline of local theatricals, the shift from a culture of making home entertainment to one of consuming what was centrally produced, and the demise or marginalization of the amateur broadcasters to whom radio telephony had been something other than a one-sided conversation.

Doty, who wrote a number of plays for amateur performers, might well have been among those who had reason to be wary of broadcast entertainment. He may not have aligned himself with the rustics, but he understood and accommodated them. In the Note that prefaces his comedy, he states:

A radio outfit is not absolutely necessary for the presentation of this play although one may be used if it can be obtained. With one or two small boxes, wires, receivers, or horn, etc., a representation of the radio apparatus can be easily made.

A comedy about radio reception without a radio receiver? It wasn’t that, anno 1922, radios were mere oddities; if they were not fast becoming commodities, Doty’s topical comedy would be pointless. Still, radios were hard to come by. As stated in the aforementioned issue of Radio Broadcast, ever since broadcasting stations like KDKA, Pittsburgh, were providing entertainment “for public consumption,” thereby giving consumers a “reason to buy radio telephone receiving sets,” manufacturers had

never been able to catch up with the demand. The manufacturers of radio receivers and accessories are much in the situation that munition makers were when the war broke. They are suddenly confronted with a tremendous and imperative demand for apparatus. It is a matter of several months at best to arrange for the quantity production of radio receiving apparatus if the type to be manufactured were settled, but the types are no more settled than were the types of airplanes in the war.

Whether it meant war for amateur players and hobbyists, whether it was ammunition for lampoonists or opportunists, radio broadcasting had arrived. Eventually, even Tiddville rubes would buy Cunningham tubes, and from small hayseed homes antennae would sprout. The era of streamlined, national broadcasting was yet several years off, but “[t]hat radical thing” had surely arrived.

The House That Jack Sat

“Frankly, I’m a little worried,” comedian Jack Paar confided in announcer Hy Averback on this day, 17 August, in 1947. He was, after all, merely a “summer replacement,” a “fellow who broadcasts during the hot weather to give the other actors time to count the money they’ve made all winter.” For the past twelve weeks, Paar had been sitting in for his first-namesake, skinflint Jack Benny, and had held warm that cozy place on the summer sun dial quite nicely at that. Still, while the reception had been far from icy, his “brief summer career” was fast coming to an end as radio was “getting ready for the winter again.”

Unintelligible as they might seem to most of today’s readers, there were tell-tale signs: Edgar Bergen “repainting Charlie McCarthy,” Fibber McGee “waxing Harlow Wilcox,” and Phil Harris switching to “antifreeze, with an olive.”

Resigned as he was to his autumnal fate, the soon-to-be displaced replacement did not go gentle into the night; instead, he took it upon himself to find his “winter replacement” by staging a talent contest.

The first applicants auditioning for Paar are a midget sister act. The sisters do not impress Paar much, even though his assessment suggests that he was not quite at home in the non-visual medium. I mean, having bags under his eyes didn’t send Fred Allen packing; nor did being a trifle wooden hurt Charlie McCarthy’s career.

PAAR. Aren’t you a little tall for a midget?

ACT 1. I’m standing on my sister.

PAAR. Well, if you don’t mind, you’re not very attractive.

ACT 1. I don’t mind. My sister is on top this week.

The gals perform “Heartache,” after which rendition your ear won’t feel so good, either. No greater is the Gallic prestidigitator:

PAAR. Maybe I was listening wrong. Did you say you do card tricks with mice?

ACT 2. Yes. Here. Pick a mouse.

PAAR. [ . . .] Don’t you do any of the conventional magician’s tricks, like, maybe, sawing a woman in half?

ACT 2. Oh, but monsieur, I shall never saw a woman in half again. I was never so humiliated. I was on the stage of the Orpheum Theater, you see . . .

PAAR. You mean, something went wrong with the trick?

ACT 2. Oh, yes. I don’t know how it happened, but I was sawing this woman in half when, all of a sudden, I heard . . . blup, blup, blup, blip . . .

PAAR. Poor Simone Simon.

The third act is somewhat more promising or, at any rate, more familiar. It is, don’t you know, Jack. Benny, that is, “comedian and violin virtuoso.”

“I was the original Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” Benny insists as he lists his spurious radio credentials. “When you were a boy, we didn’t have all of America,” Paar retorts. To prove that, until his season ended some twelve weeks ago, he was “one of the funniest men in radio,” the self-important Benny reads some lines from one of his scripts. So convinced was he of his own genius, that he did not bother to fill in the blanks left by his absentee sidekicks:

Thank you, Don. Well, hello Mary. Phil, you gotta do something about that band. Sing, Dennis. Rochester, answer the door. Yikes. Well, what do you know, it’s Ronnie and Benita. But I think. But I. But. But. But. Bu . . . we’re a little late. So, good night, folks.

Whether boasting Benny looked in on his replacement to give the latter a boost or to let listeners know that the spot was still his, I don’t know; but rarely has a reminder of being replaceable made a comedian on hiatus sound so incomparable.

Meanwhile, just to remind myself that summer ain’t over yet, even though it sure feels like autumn here on the Welsh coast, I booked a trip to visit the old place. Yes, hold your wax, Harlow, beginning next week, I am back in New York. It’s a neat trick, considering that the new place we’ve been doing up still demandss so much of our attention and time. Displacement activity, you say? I should be scratching paint rather than scrape pennies and scram? Aw, go pick (on) a mouse!

Related recording
Jack Paar (17 August 1947)

Another Man’s Ptomaine: Was “The Undertaker’s Tale” Worth Exhuming?

Bury this. Apparently, it was with words not much kinder that the aspiring but already middle-aged storyteller Samuel Clemens was told what to do with “The Undertaker’s Tale.” Written in 1877, it was not published until this year, nearly a century after the author’s death. The case of the premature burial has not only been brought to light but, thanks to BBC Radio 4, the disinterred matter has also been exposed to the air (and the breath of reader Hector Elizondo). So, you may ask after being duly impressed by the discovery, does it stink?

To be sure, even the most minor work of a major literary figure is deserving of our attention; and “The Undertaker’s Tale” is decidedly minor. It derives whatever mild titters it might induce from the premise that one man’s meat is another man’s poison or, to put it another way, one man’s dead body is another’s livelihood.

“We did not drop suddenly upon the subject,” the narrator ushers us into the story told to him by his “pleasant new acquaintance,” the undertaker, “but wandered into it, in a natural way.” We should expect slow decay, then, rather than a dramatic exit—and, sure enough, there is little to startle or surprise us here.

There isn’t much of a plot either—but a lot of them. The eponymous character—one Mr. Cadaver—is a kind-hearted chap who cheers at the prospect of an epidemic and who fears for his family business whenever the community is thriving. To him and his lovely, lively tribe there can be no joy greater than the timely demise of an unscrupulous vulture (some simulacrum of a Scrooge), which—death ex machina and Abracacaver!—is just what happens in the end.

In its time, “The Undertaker’s Tale” may have been dismissed as being in poor taste; what is worse, though, is that it is insipid. To bury it was no doubt the right decision as it might have ended Clemens’s literary career before it got underway by poisoning the public’s mind against him. A death sentence of sorts.

It may sound morbid, but, listening to this unengaging trifle, I drifted off in thoughts of home. My future home, that is. No, I am not about to check out; but within a few days now I am going to move to a town known, albeit by very few, as Undertaker’s Paradise.

Back in 2000, the Welsh seaside resort of Aberystwyth served as the setting for a dark comedy thriller with that title. Starring Ben Gazzara, it concerns an undertaker rather more enterprising than Mr. Cadaver in the procuring of bodies. Like Twain’s story before it, the forgotten film is waiting to be dug up and appreciated anew. Unlike Twain’s story, it has no literary pedigree to induce anyone to pick up a shovel. Shame, really. It’s the better yarn of the two.


Related writings
“Mark Twain, Six Feet Under”
“What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Don Knotts (1924-2006) on the Air”

“The Canada Dry humorist”: Jack Benny’s Radio Debut

“Well, he won’t last long.” That is what I thought, back in April 1993, when I tuned in to witness Conan O’Brien’s debut as host of Late Night. Gawky and twitchy, the comedy writer turned performer was so ill at ease he made me jittery. It felt like watching the rehearsal for a cancellation notice, the curtain rising and falling on a production staged by Bialystock and Bloom. I might have had a similar response if, on this day, 2 May, in 1932, I had I tuned in to witness the debut of Jack Benny as master of ceremonies for the Canada Dry Program: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking, and making my first appearance on the air professionally. By that I mean I am finally getting paid, which of course will be a great relief to my creditor.”

Listening to that stiltedly casual preface, the creditor must have been anything but relieved. It was a mere five weeks earlier that the seasoned vaudevillian had first stepped behind the microphone on a program hosted by Ed Sullivan, who, as Arthur Frank Wertheim points out in Radio Comedy (1979), thought that his guest comedian was as “nervous as a goat.” Apparently, the idea was to conceal the lack of confidence by scripting it as self-deprecating humor.

Benny’s famous persona, a vain skinflint rather too sure of himself (or too insecure to let on), was not yet in place; and without his inflated ego, Benny comes across like Harold Lloyd without his trademark glasses. To be sure, an MC does not get much to do besides introducing the acts, and Benny’s act was to confess as much:

I, er, I really don’t know why I’m here; I’m supposed to be a sort of a master of ceremonies to tell you all the things that will happen, which would happen anyway. I must introduce the different artists who could easily introduce themselves, and also talk about the Canada Dry made-to-order by the glass, which is a waste of time since you know all about it. You drink it, like it, and don’t want to hear about it. So, ladies and gentlemen, a master of ceremonies, is really a guy who is unemployed and gets paid for it.

Even the commercials, as delivered by Benny—rather than an announcer—were self-conscious, which, however awkward it may sound today, was a novel approach to advertising back then. A huckster with humility: “I suppose nobody will drink it now,” Benny quipped after one of his attempts to promote the product.

Two years and several sponsors later, Benny was still not quite tops among radio’s leading personalities, trailing Joe Penner, Bing Crosby, and Eddie Cantor (according to a Radio Guide reader poll published in March 1934). More appreciative than the public were the national radio editors, who voted him the best comedian on the air. Considering Benny’s inauspicious debut, the comedian’s rise to fame and well-deserved popularity is quite remarkable. Partner Mary Livingstone (pictured opposite Benny above), who did not appear on the program until several months later, would have found in this broadcast ample material with which to cut Benny down to size. Back then, though, there was not much to cut.

“Er, that, ladies and gentlemen,” Benny concluded the 2 May 1932 broadcast, “that was the last number on our first program on the 2nd of May. Are you sleepin’, huh?”


Related writings
“’. . . that same young man in that same brown suit’: A ‘Jackass’ Takes a Bow” (Benny’s seventh anniversary)
“How Jack Benny’s Gagmen Lost Their Typewriter”

"Milkman" in the Attic

“Look, sonny, we’re up here for work. We’ve put this attic off, and put this attic off. Now that we’re here, let’s make every minute count.” That was the voice of reason Rush Gook—and several million radio listeners besides—heard on the day (18 August 1942, to be precise) that mom Sade decided it was time to tackle that stuffy space under the roof of the “small house half-way up in the next block.” As anyone familiar with Paul Rhymer’s Vic and Sade could guess right off, there was more room for doubt than reason that the task would be accomplished, and that, when the brief visit with the home folks was over, said space would be no less disorganized than it was before the job got underway. You could expect more order, method and sanity sticking your head in Fibber McGee’s closet.

Now, I’m not being etymologically sound here, but it is probably no coincidence that attics are just a single consonant removed from antics—and that is just what you should expect to find while up there, even if it is antiques you’re after.

Our new old house has not one but two attic spaces—and in the smaller of these we found ourselves confronted with some kind of time capsule. Only, it wasn’t quite the right time.

The graffiti on the wall suggests that construction was pretty much completed by September 1896, which was probably the last time the roof space was clutter free. Not that I wanted it to be barren of memories, mind.

Given the age of the house, I was kind of hoping for a family skeleton. Romantic novels of the Victorian age suggest that the darkest secrets are best kept just below the roof, rather than being crammed into the proverbial closet. Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason comes to mind, and that seminal study on the subject (Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic).

Instead, we were treated to “Benny Hill Sings ‘Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West.’” Not exactly a Victorian treasure—but at least Ernie’s story has the proper romantic ingredients: lust, rivalry, and premature death (a “stale pork pie caught him in the eye and Ernie bit the dust”); even revenge from the beyond as the milkman’s “evil-looking” successor, Two-Ton Ted from Teddington, is denied the pleasures of his wedding night:

Was that the trees a-rustling? Or the hinges of the gate? / Or Ernie’s ghostly gold tops a-rattling in their crate?

The cleanup sure slowed down once I came across that discarded collection of vinyl, the highlight of which, to me, is a curiosity labeled “Memories of Steam.” The locomotives on the cover could not deceive anyone into expecting the tell-all record of an inveterate Lothario; but I was thrilled nonetheless, transported back to the days when, as a boy, I was given an album of collected noises that led me to stage my own audio dramas—signifying nothing to anyone else, but chock-full of sound and fury. Come to think of it, that one record may well have laid the tracks that, long and winding though they were, earned me a doctorate . . . just the kind of certificate to relegate to the space I had just visited.


Yep, even a climb up to an attic filled with the leavings of previous inhabitants leads me no further than some dim corners of my own memory. Unlike Sade and Rush, I do not have to wait for crazy Uncle Fletcher to disrupt the tasks at hand with one of his dubious recollections (“Sadie, do you remember Irma Flo Kessy there in Belvidere?” She was a “peevish woman” who “used to have a little habit of slappin’ her husband’s face in public”). I can count on my own past to traipse close behind and creep up on me.

This time, though, the detour into those mental crevices was a welcome and trouble-free one. Down below, rooms hung with ghastly wallpaper were waiting for a hand attached to my aching body . . .


Related recordings
“Cleaning the Attic,” Vic and Sade (18 August 1942)

Related writings
“The Home Folks Are Moving In”
“Home Folks Lose Ground to Plot Developers”

Hand a Swellhead a Pin and He’ll Make It His Scepter

Personally, your editors don’t like Mr. Welles. He is the seven-year-old kid next door who has a vocabulary twice his size. He is the good-looking young man who walks off with your best girl. He is the braggart who says impossible things and then does them. Your editors are average people. That’s why they personally are not fond of the man who is too good and knows it and shows it! . . . Your editors don’t like him because everything he does is perfect, from movies to radio plays. But he’s good, drat it, he is!

That is what the readers of a May 1941 issue Movie-Radio Guide were being told about the most talked about man in radio—Orson Welles.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this backhanded compliment had been dictated by the erstwhile Wunderkind himself. However uneven his career, however fickle his fortunes in Hollywood, the kid from Kenosha kept the conceit of his genius alive on the radio, which, immediate and expedient, proved just the medium for putting on airs.

In March of 1943, when comedian Jack Benny was unable to carry on with his weekly broadcasts, Welles was chosen to fill in for “old sniffle snoot.” The format of the Grape Nuts Flakes Program remained intact, and Jack’s gang was at hand to become foils—or fodder—for the theatrical showman-thespian.

Now, Benny had pretty much perfected the comedy of deflation by creating the persona of a pompous, vain, miserly and slightly delusional performer at whose character flaws listeners felt at ease to laugh even if the act held a distorting mirror to them by accentuating their own failings. It was not so with Welles, for whom self-deflation seemed to have been just another means of boosting his ego.

Whereas Benny presents us with a caricature whose features are not unlike some of our own, Welles’s persona was always larger than life, and as such untouchable. “I have spent years inflating the balloon that is Welles,” the guest tells Benny regular Dennis Day: “Please do not puncture it.” Fat chance, really.

On the 21 March 1943 broadcast, Welles was not so much filling in for Benny as he was filling up the studio with his aura, dimming the sunny atmosphere by shrouding it in layers of Orson. It might be a gas—but, aside from Welles’s hilarious take on the Grape-Nuts commercial—it isn’t quite nitrous oxide. As Simon Callow puts it in Orson Welles: Hello Americans,

[p]art of the problem is that, unlike the Jack Benny character, which is preposterous and bears no relations to the real man, this “Orson Welles” is uncomfortably close to the real one: are we laughing at or with him?

Indeed, the “balloon” act seems “self-serving,” an advertisement for what could be too readily taken for the man himself. Aided by Benny’s writers, Welles in his grandeur does not have to suffer one scratch from Mary Livingstone’s barbs (“Gee, I like this guy”) or Eddie Anderson’s retorts (“Mr. Welles, working for you is paradise”). Being that the entire act revolves around him, none of his fellow players gets an opportunity to cut him down to any size other than super. The familiar casting skit, in which Welles rehearses a scene that gives none beside him a chance to get a word in, works far better on the Fred Allen Show, where one genius was pitted against another, where the war of the words and the battle for a line becomes a genuine sparring match.

“Orson Welles is a genius,” Don Wilson concludes the broadcast, “but this program was written by Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin.” That remark, drowned out by the applause from the studio audience is about the only jab at Welles, who was known for taking all the credit. No, the “balloon that is Welles” was not in danger of popping, “prick” being a noun in this case. If only Welles had permitted himself—or been permitted by those who helped to fashion and fix his persona—to accept the pin without turning it into a scepter.


Related recordings
Grape Nuts Flakes Program, 21 March 1943

Related writings
“Orson Welles Lures Fred Allen into the Sewers”
The Shadow Gets a Voice-over”

East If With Eagle

For the reward of a single dollar, readers of Movie-Radio Guide used to send in “boners”—fluffed or unintentionally funny lines they had caught on the air. On 29 Feburary 1940, for instance, Olive Doeling of Petaluma, California, tuned in to station KGO and heard Benny Walker (Benny Walker?) say: “Wish you could see her, folks. She’s lugging a saxophone almost as big as she is behind her.” Another buck went to a listener from Jackson, Mississippi, who reported the following exchange between Major Bowes and a contestant on his Amateur Hour broadcast from 7 June 1936:

CONTESTANT. I was a dressmaker’s model and then I married.
MAJOR. Wholesale or retail?

Reading lines like these makes me want to tune in the original program, to find the recording and hear for myself.

The other day, when I read that Mary Livingstone was supposed to have giggled “Jack, I’ll never forget the look on that ski house when it saw your face,” I wondered whether that was indeed what she had said and how her husband, the cast, and the studio audience had responded. Listening to a recording of the 25 February 1940 broadcast of the Jell-O Program, I heard no such fluff. “I’ll never forget the impression on your face when you crashed in the ski house,” Livingstone said instead. Had J. N. Lawrence from San Diego earned that dollar? Was the “boner” bona fide or bogus?

Well, before accusing any of those tuners-in, I had to remind myself that many of the live programs of the past were staged twice—once for the East Coast, then for the West. What J. N. Lawrence had picked up on California was not what anyone living East could have heard—or anyone listening to a recording of the East Coast broadcast.

How different the two broadcast could be was demonstrated on 20 March 1940, when a certain Mr. Ramshaw caused a riot on the Fred Allen Show. Mr. Ramshaw was a celebrated Golden Eagle who toured the US with his British trainer, falconer Captain C. W. R. Knight. The Captain was encouraged by Allen to let the Mr. Ramshaw fly around in the studio; but, as it turned out, he had little success in convincing the bird to return to him as rehearsed—and not until he had left his mark on the members of the audience assembled in studio 8-H, Radio City, New York.

Actually, as Allen recalled in Treadmill to Oblivion, Mr. Ramshaw had narrowly “missed the shoulder of a student who had come down from Fordham University to advise [Allen] that [he] had won a popularity poll at the school.”

Responding to a complaint from the vice president of NBC, a less than apologetic Allen remarked: “i thought i had seen about everything in radio but the eagle had a trick up his feathered colon that was new to me,” to which he added: “i know you await with trepidation the announcement that i am going to interview sabu with his elephant some week.”

There was no getting back to the script that evening; and the commotion that ensued was another forceful reminder that, for all his talent as a writer, Allen was in even finer feather when he did not have to stick to the ink from his mechanized quill. Now, winging it, or flying by the seat of one’s pants, was not condoned by those who footed the bill of comedy-variety programs and kept an eagle eye on their production. Everything had to be performed as scripted—and strictly within the time allotted for each number, sketch, and broadcast.

So, when Allen had to repeat his program three hours later—at midnight—for the West Coast audience, the spokesperson of Young and Rubicam, the advertising agency working on behalf of the show’s sponsor, did not permit Mr. Ramshaw to make an encore. The segment was out, and, as Stuart Hample (author of “all the sincerity in hollywood” told Max Schmid in a 4 November 2001 interview over WBAI, New York, Allen was forced to revise the script and remove the offending segment.

Allen defended his feathered guest by claiming that Mr. Ramshaw had resented the censor’s “dictatorial order” and, “deprived by nature of the organs essential in the voicing of an audible complaint, called upon his bowels to wreck upon us his reaction to [Mr. Royal’s] martinet ban.”

The feather “l’affaire eagle” added to Allen’s cap never got to tickle his West Coast listeners. Network radio programs may have had a coast-to-coast audience; but, be it an eagle, a turkey, or a lark, some of what took off or managed to escape in the East could never fly or land in the West.


Related recordings
Fred Allen Show, 20 March 1940

What You Might Find While Down in the Mouth

If I’ve been keeping my trap shut lately, it’s on account of some festering crumbs in my cake hole. Sure, I can jaw away about most anything, but I’ve got to have the mind and the mandible to do so. For days now I have been plagued by mouth ulcers that are putting a muzzle on my spirits—not the kind of oral culture I generally engage with in this journal. My gums are following economic trends, making me feel ever longer in the tooth. My left cheek, in turn, might lead you to believe that, in an effort to dodge the downturn, I managed to squirrel something away for a day on which I may mercifully hide my mug under an umbrella. Meanwhile, my taste buds have started to sprout and my lower lip, Angelina Jolied out of all proportions, is suggestive of a law suitable botch or a risk taken by the likes of Maxie Rosenbloom.

Always one to self-diagnose and over-the-counter medicate rather than to seek the professional opinion of someone who, like a satirist with a stethoscope, makes a career out of scrutinizing us at our most unsightly, I have been pondering my condition and its causes. Though I cannot rule out trauma resulting from vigorous brushing recently recommended by my hygienist, I am not inclined to blame my current state on the stress produced by our impending move; if I were quite so readily distressed, I would hardly have survived my previous transplantations. Besides, I have always resented being thought of as a mere tangle of nerves in need of careful rewiring.

I have a long history of allergies, though; and given that my symptoms began to occur following a dinner outing last week, it might well be that my sores are a reaction to something passing my lips that night. Heretofore, my catalogue of allergens has been limited to felines, grass, and dust. Now, that hasn’t kept me from cat-sitting, of which you can make a career in New York City, or from relocating to one of the grassiest spots on the planet; and it certainly did little to convince me to take out the feather duster more often than the snot rag or the inhaler.

I was told early on by the still extant half of the temporary connubial unit responsible for my coming into being—and for getting the heck away from whence I hail—that allergies are an aberrant mental state and that cycling to school through the cornfields or mowing the lawn were activities I could handle if I only put my mind to it. True, I have always been mildly allergic to physical labor; but that was in part due to the damage I saw it inflict on the body, the mind, and the spirit.

My father’s religion was social Darwinism, in the practicing of which he drank himself to death. It would have been futile to convince him that an undistilled grain could be as lethal as a distilled one and that what doesn’t kill you instantaneously does not necessarily make you any stronger in the long run.

I had not planned on delving into my personal history, medical or otherwise. As is often the case, such memories are squeezed out of me by the mere twisting of the dial. Listening to Fred Allen’s 1937 St. Patrick’s Day broadcast, I was reminded of the kind of book I would have liked to have thrown at certain parties aforementioned.

Fred Allen is always good for a few laughs, however painful their elicitation. Annotating his quips can prove more rewarding still. Well before the hosts of our present day chat shows, satirist Allen raided the daily news for his weekly radio programs. In his Town Hall News (“sees nothing, shows all”), Allen commented on the goings-on in New York City, on politics, the economy, on culture high and low. Here is the first of the 17 March 1937 Town Hall News bulletins:

New York City, New York. Dr. R. P. Wodehouse, speaking at the American Institute of General Sciences, claims that hay fever and asthma are increasing in this country. Dr. Wodehouse says clearing up of native vegetation and its replacement by alien plants will add to number of victims.

Allen’s reading of this news item is followed by a skit demonstrating the wide-ranging effect the predicted rise of allergic reactions might have on the afflicted urbanite. This time, though, I was more interested in Allen’s source than in his take on it. My curiosity being immune to ulcers, I soon caught up on R. P. (no relation to P. G.) Wodehouse and his endeavors to “win the secret of a weed’s plain heart” (a quotation prefacing his 1945 study on Hay Fever Plants).

I wish R. P. Wodehouse had been a household name where I grew up; but, as the good doctor reminds me, by quoting John James Ingalls, “grass” is the “forgiveness of nature.” I’ll have to learn to let it grow over my own family plot—and concentrate instead on finding out how to avoid another catastrophic invasion of my oral flora. To cure my foul mood, a generous dose of Fred Allen is indicated . . .