Fred Allen and his Friendly Feud with Jack Benny

It is impossible to chronicle the birth of the Fred Allen-Jack Benny feud without going into the life and background of Fred Allen. At the age of fourteen, Fred Allen opened a book that would forever change the course of his life. Working as a stock clerk at the Boston Public Library, he picked up a book on the subject of humor. Not only did this literary work put him on the path of comedy, it also sparked a passion that culminated in a book collection. By the time of his death, Fred Allen’s personal library contained thousands of volumes written on the subject of comedy.

Beginning his career in vaudeville, Allen soon learned that his comedic skills greatly outweighed his juggling ability and he decided to use the juggling act as an anchor for his comedy. He also appeared in a few short films, before getting his break on radio. At the age of thirty-eight, Fred Allen landed a job, as host of The Linit Bath Club Revue. The show premiered on October 23, 1932 on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network. By 1933, the program was moved to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network and renamed, The Salad Bowl Revue, to plug its new sponsor, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. The show went through two additional name changes, before becoming the famous, Town Hall Tonight show in 1935.

Allen was convinced that the new radio medium should dispense with the old, weary, worn-out gags and skits common to vaudeville. Instead, he worked tirelessly to bring fresh comedy into the homes of his listeners. Town Hall was a success and Allen used this platform to launch one of the longest running gag feuds in history.

On December 30, 1936, Fred Allen fired his first volley at fellow comedian Jack Benny. A ten-year old violinist appeared on Allen’s show to play, Flight of the Bumblebee. Allen took this opportunity to poke fun at Benny’s violin playing skills. Benny often listened to Allen’s show and after hearing the joke, the game was afoot.

Fred Allen and Jack Benny had been close friends since their days in vaudeville. Benny knew the attack was a great way to increase ratings on both shows. Shortly thereafter, Benny launched his own assault on Fred Allen. Thus, it was the beginning of a radio feud that would outlast sponsors and persist for nearly a decade.

The audience loved the feuding comedians and soon, the number of listeners increased exponentially. In 1937, Allen appeared on Benny’s show for a face-to-face confrontation. The feud took its place in history, drawing in more listeners than another program, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.

In 1940, Fred Allen returned to CBS with a new sponsor and Town Hall Tonight became the Texaco Star Theater. By 1942, the network demanded that Allen cut the hour-long program down to thirty-minutes. The shortened format and the network’s preference for amateur guests took a toll on Allen. While other comedians were known to work with teams of writers, Allen insisted on creating his own material with the help of a few occasional assistants. Diagnosed with high blood pressure, Allen took time off to recuperate. He returned with the Fred Allen Show on NBC, in 1944.

Further success incurred when Allen added “Allen’s Alley” as a skit on the new show. The alley had been a creation of his, during his early radio days. Allen’s Alley was a fictional location occupied by several eccentric residents. Residents included Senator Beauregard Cleghorn, Ajax Cassidy, Titus Moody and Minerva Pious. Each represented a slice of American society and ethnicity. However, Allen was often at odds with censors, who deemed some of his material might cause emotional injury. At one point, Allen was not allowed to make fun of cemeteries, because he might upset cemetery owners or morticians.

The move to the Fred Allen Show did not detract from the long running feud. Jack Benny even had his own version of Allen’s Alley, called “Clown Hall Tonight.” Over the years, each would occasionally appear on the other’s show. On May 26, 1946, Benny appeared in Allen’s skit, “King for a Day,” poking fun at the rising popularity of radio game shows. Behind the scenes, it was protocol to give the guest comedian the best lines.

Unaware of their personal friendship, many listeners truly believed that the two were bitter rivals. Benny later revealed in his memoirs that while the feud began in an instant, both comedians later met to plan strategy of the imaginary ongoing feud. In addition, Allen and Benny occasionally appeared together in Hollywood films.

By the late 1940’s, CBS talent raids directly affected Fred Allen’s show. CBS was constantly on the prowl for recognizable talent, who could be tempted into joining the CBS Sunday night line-up. The combination of talent raids, big money game shows and television signaled the end of Fred Allen’s radio career. Allen’s last radio show aired on June 26, 1949.

Allen went on to become a regular on The Big Show, which aired for two seasons. Although Allen thought little of television, he did make guest appearances on several popular programs. Before his death, Allen wrote “Treadmill to Oblivion” a chronicle of his radio years and a regular newspaper column. Fred Allen died on March 17, 1956, but he will forever be remembered for the laughter he wrought out of an imaginary feud.

Sample a taste of this famous feud at:

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Charlie and His Orchestra: Nazi Jazz Music from WWII

joseph-goebbels-liebesbriefe-auktionThe highly feared Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels was one of the most intelligent and best educated of the Nazi elite. He completed his PhD at the University of Heidelberg, writing his thesis on 19th century Romantic drama. Goebbels was both anti-Communist, recognizing the fundamental fallacies of Marx’s theories, and anti-Capitalist, which he viewed as being Jewish at the core. Goebbels learned of the early Nazi party soon after leaving University, and became a Party Member within the year. He quickly rose in the Party, and used his propaganda skills to recruit the proletariat core of the hated Communist party into the Nazi fold. When the Nazi’s seized power in 1933, Goebbels was appointed Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. One of his first acts as Minister was to supervise the infamous book burnings.

The Propaganda Ministry held ruthless control over media and the arts, and did everything it could to put done anything that did not ring of “Aryan Purity”. Restricting entartete musik, or Degenerate Music received special effort. Degenerate Music referred to Jazz. Degenerate-Art-The-Nazis-vs.-Expressionism-

There were many reasons for the Nazi’s to dislike Jazz. It represented the freedom of American ideals, and it came from what the Nazi’s saw as the lowest manifestation of America, the rising status of the African-American community. The syncopated beats of Jazz were contrary to the steady rhythms of German music. It was also the preferred music of the Berlin Cabaret scene, a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment.

These factors make it amusing to consider that Goebbels would turn to Jazz Music as a weapon of war.charlie and his orchestra

The idea was to turn the Degenerate Music, which was so unsuitable for decent Germans, against the Enemy who had created it. To wield this weapon, Goebbels chose promising tenor saxophonist Lutz “Stumpie” Templin. Although Templin was not a party member, he was far from reluctant to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Nazi rise. The group that would eventually become the Lutz Templin Orchestra broke ties with its Jewish bandleader in 1935 to secure a recording contract with Deustche Grammophon.

The full genesis of the notion to beam Jazz Music to British and American Troops with a Nazi Message is lost to history. It appears that British turncoats William Joyce, the infamous Lord Haw Haw, and the traitorous Norman Baille-Stewart had a hand in feeding ideas for lyrics to Karl Schwedler, the former public servant hired to be the frontman for Templin’s band.

charlieSchwedler, who took the name Charlie for the propaganda project, wrote English lyrics for Templin’s Jazz numbers which promoted the Nazi message. Mostly, this was the same message pushed by Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally- that the Allied Troops faced an impossible task, their leaders were willing to sacrifice the lives of their troops and that their girlfriends were running around on them while they were risking their lives.

By all accounts, the message was seldom taken seriously, especially in the later stages of the War. However, consider the blow to the morale of a Mother living on the East Coast of America, whose son may have been serving on a freighter carrying War Supplies to Britain, when a happy, Jazzy song comes over the radio, and the second verse happily sings about “Cherman Zubmarines”. Winston Churchill, who was lampooned in many of the numbers, was an enthusiastic fan of Charlie and his Orchestra and laughed heartily at the songs.

Experience the History of WWII, both on the Homefront and the Front Lines, the way that many of our Grandparent did- through the messages, shows, and information that came to them through their radio speakers. Find out about propaganda from both sides, and hear genuine reports of the Conflict’s progress in our WWII Collection. Visit OTRCat.com today!

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Espionage in Old Time Radio

third manHardboiled Detectives and Spies are some of the most appealing of characters from the Golden Age of Radio (1920’s – 1959). Of course they have a lot in common, but they are, or should be, fundamentally different types of individuals. They will encounter the worst of humanity in their adventures, so they are both entitled a degree of cynicism. But despite their earned cynical view, Spies and Dicks are essentially hopeful people, who feel that their success will make the world somehow a better place. dangerous assignmentThe Spy and the Hardboiled Detective make great Radio Drama because Danger is in the very air that they breathe. The Detective is chasing Bad Guys, and Bad Guys are Evil; that almost defines Bad Guy. For the Spy the opposition is a Sovereign Nation or their Representative. And that Nation may or may not be friendly to that of the Spy. The stakes will be high for the Detective; some of their antagonists do have designs on “World Domination,” but for the most part the price of their failure will only be paid by themselves and their client. A much bigger stack of chips falls if the Spy fails. The secrets that they are pursuing or defending will could precipitate war between nations, or endanger the nation’s military. the third man

The fictional and Radio Spy is usually a loner. It seems that the more popular often have a loose grip on morality, but like the most beloved cowboys and detectives, he will have a strong sense personal code of honor. Not that he will let it come between him and the charms of a beautiful woman- especially when the pretty lady is part of the enemy. The Spy in fiction is often a lot more colorful than his real-life counterpart. A real Spy living and working in the jaws of the enemy will do all he can to avoid attracting attention. Radio producers and audiences expect a bit of gun play and dramatic chase scene.

As nations compete in reality, the fictional Spy becomes grist for the propaganda mill. The changes in the antagonists of Radio Spy Drama over the years are interesting and educational. During the late 1930s rumors of War were swirling from Europe. Agent K-7 Returns deals with American agents in Europe. The agents K-7’s people face are enemies of Democracy, but not positively identified as Nazis.

Lux Radio Theater presents the story of a young couple in love as WWII descends during “A Winter in Paris.” The young lovers are both spies, and are in danger of discovery by both German and Russian agents. David Harding, Counterspy chases Nazi Agents during the Second War, but after the War the enemy becomes black-marketeers, drug smugglers, and Atomic Competitors. True stories of the OSS are dramatized in Cloak and Dagger, occurring in both the European and Pacific Theater. The minions of the Soviet enemy within the US are a very real Cold War Enemy in I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. communist for the fbi lobby

Radio matured both as a technology and dramatic form during WWII and the opening of the Cold War, but Espionage Radio has been around much longer. Listeners will find the Spies between the Wars to be much more melodramatic than is fashionable today.

Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 was a Dick Tracy copy in both the newspaper comics and radio. Tracy would chase fanciful inner city hoods, but Dunn concentrated on enemies set on Global Domination, or at least sabotaging American Defense.

Agent K7 Returns is from the time between the World Wars, and America is not officially involved in Europe. However Agent K7, a “former United States secret agent who operated in 22 countries” presents stories that take place in Europe. The stories are generally of other highly fictionalized agents, B-9 and Agent Z and their lovely sidekicks. Many of the stories seem as though they could have come from modern headlines- poison gas, defense secrets, and suicide ships. The stories themselves seem somewhat simplistic, but are very effective when presented in a 15 minute time frame.

The long running radio anthology series, Lux Radio Theater started by adapting Broadway plays for the radio, before turning to Hollywood movies. Espionage was a favorite of movie makers. “British Agent”, broadcast June 7, 1937, tells the story of an agent who is left behind when the British Embassy in Moscow is abandoned during the Russian Revolution. Frustrated with inactivity, the agent, played by Erroll Flynn falls in love with a lovely Bolshevik.

Ned Jordan, Secret Agent (1940?) was a short-lived, FBI inspired series from the pen of Fran Striker, one of the creators of The Lone Ranger, and The Green Hornet. Jordan is a Federal Agent who foils the assassination plans of a secret society that tries to draw the US into war, works with a scientist developing a light for Blackouts, and protects Army plans from terrorists. Ned Jordan starred Jack McCarthy and featured future newsman, Mike Wallace as announcer. In another episode Jordan has to protect an Army Tank expert who is the target of the Fifth Column.

Philip H. Lord, creator of Gang Busters, also gave us David Harding, Counter Spy. In one broadcast a German Spy who has rowed ashore is captured by residents of a small Maine community. David Harding is called in and manages to capture the Spy’s submarine on the surface with the aid of local fishermen. In another adventure a Spy has embedded himself in a Defense Plant, and murders his wife to throw off suspicion, but doesn’t count on David Harding who finds that the spy network is larger than it first appears.

Of course the rest of the Nation is doing their duty and watching out for potential spies, even Fibber McGee and Molly. At one point Fibber is nervous about a stranger who follows him around taking pictures, click-click-click! Is he a spy, or is it a reporter doing a story about a small town busy-body?

Armed Forces Radio Service presented a series in 1953 called Douglas of the World. Brad Douglas is a newspaper correspondent with an international beat, always tackling the tough stories, and usually getting involved with a pretty girl. In “Double Trouble” he becomes wrapped up in a kidnap plot while covering a Dutch referendum for the unification of Europe. Another time he covers Iranian Premier Mossadegh, just prior to Mossadegh’s actual overthrow by the CIA. In the final episode of the series Douglas sings the praises of the United Nations while covering the threatened suicide of a disabled Korean War Vet.

This just begins to touch the surface of Espionage Stories from the Golden Age of Radio. We hope you will enjoy many hours of enjoyable listening. But it might be a good idea to keep your disguise on while you’re listening. And watch out for that beautiful lady in the corner booth. Wasn’t she the one from Tangiers? Or perhaps it was Singapore? Is she after the Secret Formula too?

Visit Old Time Radio for more tales of espionage and suspense and visit the OTRCAT.com extensive library of recordings from the golden age of radio.

 

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Cuckoo for the KUKU Hour

The KUKU Hour premiered January 1, 1930 on the NBC Blue Network. In 1929, while writing for NBC, Raymond Knight was approached by Bertha Brainard. Brainard, a programming executive for NBC and radio pioneer in her own right was looking for something comedic and fresh. She asked Knight to come up with something “cuckoo” for the NBC Blue Network.

Raymond Knight had a talent for turning the mundane aspects of everyday life into comedy. Knight was an unusual fellow. Born in 1899, he initially sought a career in law. He attended Boston University law school and passed the bar exam. Shortly thereafter, he fell ill and was bedridden. During this time, Knight began to contemplate a career change. After his recovery, he began to study theater and writing.

In response to Brainard’s request, Knight came up with the KUKU Hour. Actually, the show ran only thirty minutes, but that did not distract from its audience appeal. The KUKU Hour was an invented broadcast from a fictional radio station with the call letters, KUKU. One of his characters, Professor Ambrose J. Weems entertained the audience with his sarcasm and humor. The professor and his sidekick, Mrs. Pennyfeather engaged in discussions surrounding current events of the day. Ambrose had a propensity for drifting off topic and into a tangent, before he wound his way back on track. Mrs. Pennyfeather also had her quirks. She ran a Personal Service for Perturbed People, in which she offered disturbing and nonsensical advice on everything from household chores to cooking.

The show enjoyed success, because it was not tainted by the popular and overdone vaudevillian comedy. The material was fresh and funny. Although the show switched back and forth between the Blue and Red Networks, it never lost its comedic and appealing edge. The last show aired on March 9, 1936. Raymond Knight enjoyed future success in radio and on the stage until his death in 1953.

This rare “Cuckoo Program” is available on Random Rarities #6

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Good Morning! Breakfast Old Time Radio Shows!

breakfastThe Norman Rockwell picture of America sitting around their radios, listening to adventures of “Rin Tin Tin” and “The Jack Benny Show” in the evenings, personifies what most older folks remember. Dad finishing his dinner, then getting comfortable in his easy chair with his pipe and paper; mom clearing the table to join the children already on the floor anxiously awaiting what was being piped out of the NBC and CBS studios. The pre, during and post WWII scenario was indicative of how the country was being fashioned into their family entertainment.

However, during the 1930’s a cultural shift was beginning to take place in how America listened to radio and the programming that was available. Everyone loved the evening adventures and comedy, but people were wanting more in other parts of the day. Breakfast was a perfect time to turn on the box and catch-up with the latest news or have a chuckle with the the crackle of their cereal and orange juice. Breakfast shows had the potential to reach a new demographic, while drawing in their current batch of late day listeners. vintage kitchen

Another reminder of the value for early day radio concerned the many people of Christian faith wanted that spiritual time, and those that loved a day that began with music and melody, and the ones that eagerly awaited news of the day. The value for radio programming was becoming a staple to the faithful followers and wanted to have their sunny morning dosed with the very thing that completed their evenings. 4186-1956

One individual that personified the start of the day radio voice was Don McNeil. McNeil was kind of an unknown personality that made his presence known when he was given a relatively common placed variety show called The Pepper Pot. The minds that shaped programming thought he might have the wherewithal to create something out of this program that had no sponsor. At the reigns of this show, he changed the name to the Breakfast Club and gave it varied and distinctive scripting.

Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” June 1933-December 1968 BreakfClubBlue
The heart of the Breakfast Club was it had no particular regiment. It was a mix of humor sketches, music, talks with the studio audience and topics of interest. Don McNeill turned a happenstance show with no great following and developed into the first program of its kind. Along with the humor, music and talk, The Breakfast Club initiated time for quiet prayer. The morning program allowed the audience an opportunity to experience a radio variety format. The breakfast Club started its broadcast out of NMC’s Merchandise Mart, and later moved to an ABC studio.

The program allowed a relative unknown performer, Fran Allison, to gain her start as Aunt Franny in one of the comedy bits that became popular on the show. For the next couple of decades, The Breakfast Club was a hit with ABC radio and maintained a vast following until its end-run in 1968.

Don McNeil and his talent for randomness began a genre that others would soon try to ride on the bandwagon with their breakfast programs.

Breakfast in Hollywood 1941-1948
NBC, ABC and the Mutual all carried this early morning variety program during its 7 year run. Hosted by Tom Breneman, and  its founder, Breakfast in Hollywood was another unscripted travel into the public mind. The show contained considerable audience involvement along with a wide mix of celebrity talent that would visit the program. Breneman got the idea for the show when in 1940 he realized that Hollywood was a perfect venue for an early morning radio broadcast. The program name changed a couple of times, but Breakfast in Hollywood was its trademark persona. people loved the exchanges of comedy and the celebrity feel. Many of the big companies wanted to sponsor the show, from Aunt Jemina to Ivory Soap. A movie script of the same came out, inspired by Breneman, in 1945 and carried some top talent in its cast.

Breakfast in Hollywood was an inspired success.

Breakfast with Binnie and Mike 1946-1947binnie2
What made better sense for a breakfast morning program then one that showcased a family…at breakfast. The Breakfast with Binnie and Mike was a show classing the family conversation around varying topics, always with mirth, around the family children, dog , maid and anything else that came out. The show was a hit because it brought a simple family into the hearts and homes of average Americans. Although it was scripted, the feeling was genuine as mom and dad sought to converse with the country while talking to each other and the ones they loved. Binnie was actress Binnie Barnes and Mike was her husband/producer Mike Frankovitch.

Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick 1945-1963
Another of the early morning genre that showcased a husband and wife tea, this time from their actual home. Hosted by actress/columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and her husband/actor Richard Kolmar, Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick came out of their New York apartment home and had serious topics blended with varied entertainment. The show went from being a standard fare of entertainment, to more commercialized as sponsors had the couple endorse their products while at their own table. Spontaneity gave way to script, but the format never failed to bring a solid audience fan base.

Tex and Jinx Show late 1940’stex and jinx
Tex McCrary was a journalist and his wife, Jinx Falkenburg an actress and together they hosted this celebrity talk/ issues of the day format. The romance history and fame of these two personalities added to the attraction many held for their radio morning show. Whether it was about the United Nations or disease, the couple never failed to tackle topics that mattered to Americans.

Wake-up Ranch (with Cliffie Stone) 1940’scliffie_stone
Country music was not forgotten as a breakfast programming favorite. Cliffie Stone hosted the The Wake-Up Ranch with heaped out a healthy dose of Grand Ole Opry flavor from Califor-i-a.

The son of comedian, Herman the Hermit; Cliffie Stone would bring his bass, humor and down home love of country music and please the morning radio listeners.

The Breakfast programming genre for old time radio included other shows that would cross-match to please segments of society. Thanks to the work of people like Don McNeill, the early morning breakfast stretch inspired entertainment to start the day with.

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Wally Maher in Old Time Radio

Maher-Wally-2
It could be every mother’s nightmare. Her darling boy leaves home, meets with early success, and then moves out West to Hollywood where he is killed.

In Wally Maher‘s case, getting killed may not have been the most appealing thing he could have done, but it kept him working in pictures! During his career, he was chewed on by alligators, gassed, electrocuted, attacked by vampires and shot. It wasn’t always like that for Wally, he said that he had never played a bad guy until he moved to California, in fact, his specialty had been a light comedy. He joked that he had been killed more times than any other actor working in radio. In the 127 pictures he made, he had a light comedy role in perhaps half a dozen, in the rest he was the heavy.

On the radio, he was Everyman, and Everyman was a busy man! Producers look for definite “types” when they are casting a leading role, even more so when they are looking for someone to fill a character/sidekick role. But what about all those voices that fill the background of the story? The hotel clerk, the cop on the corner, the gas station attendant, the waiter who brings the leading man and his sidekick their soup, all of these are real people who are needed to move the story along. You don’t want them to stand out too much, but they have to be believable in what they are doing or the whole broadcast suffers.

As an Indiana native, Wally Maher was about as Midwestern as could be. Born in 1908, he got his start as a baggage clerk for the Southern Pacific. This may not seem like acting training, but it exposed Wally to people and dialects from all over the place. He was also good at mimicking what he heard, a useful talent that helped him land a job on the dramatic staff at WLW Cincinnati, “The Nation’s Station”. Sensing that he was capable of bigger things, he moved to New York and established himself as a reliable character actor. In 1935, he moved to Hollywood to get into pictures.

The  heavyweights of network radio were making the move to the West Coast about the same time Maher did. On June 1, 1936, The Lux Radio Theater made its first broadcast from Hollywood, and Wally Maher was there. As he was the next week, and the next. Maher would be in Lux’s acting company for at least 43 episodes.

With a history of respiratory problems, Maher was listed 4F and watched while so many of his contemporaries shipped out. Undoubtedly, Wally would have found work on his own merit, but with the shortage of talent his 4F status put him in high demand. In addition to playing “Everyman”, shows like Cavalcade of America began to press him into service as sailors, airmen, soldiers, doctors, engineers, War correspondents, merchant seamen and factory workers.

Maher’s versatility helped him to become a regular player on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”. He starred in one of Suspense‘s most frightening episodes, “Dead Ernest”, a tale about a man who suffers from catalepsy, a condition where the patient goes into a fit making him appear to be dead. The story follows Ernest into the hospital, the morgue, right to the embalmer’s table.

Given the huge variety of roles he played, Maher is best remembered on radio for his portrayal of Michael Shayne, Private Detective. On the surface, Shayne was just another of the dozens of hard-boiled private eyes filling the airwaves, but Maher put his own touch on the role. Shayne had a more relaxed style, seeing the humor in situations without degrading into sarcasm or self-parody. Wally played Shayne from 1945 until 1947, when his health forced a hiatus. Jeff Chandler took over the role when Maher was forced to step down.

Wally was not out of the game for long, returning in 1948 as police lieutenant Riley, doing his best to keep George Valentine in line in Let George Do It. He filled a similar role opposite Dick Powell in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and had a more legitimate law enforcement role on This is Your FBI.

Maher’s most impressive police role was as Sgt Matt Greb in The Lineup, opposite Bill Johnstone as Lt Ben Guthrie. Wally’s health was failing quickly at this point, however. He had a lung removed just before the program began the 1950 season in the hope of clearing some of his respiratory issues. He managed to soldier through, but Raymond Burr had to take over the role on a number of occasions. Wally Maher died on December 27, 1951, at the age of 43.

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Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Debut on The Royal Gelatin Hour

The first thing to keep in mind is that Rudy Vallee was not enthusiastic about having a ventriloquist act on his program. On the August 6, 1936, episode of The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, he stated on the air “…ventriloquism hardly makes good radio.”

That night was the radio debut of noted comic and ventriloquist Frank Gaby (according to our sources, it was Gaby’s only credited radio appearance). Not surprisingly, he flopped. Gaby had been a successful vaudevillian, and to be fair, when he appeared on Fleischmann’s he was forced to use Rudy as his dummy because everyone knew that ventriloquism would not work on radio.

Ventriloquism comes from the Latin root meaning “belly noises”. It is a visual trick where the artist “throws” his voice so that it appears that his dummy or doll is talking. There is a pretty obvious disconnect between radio and visual tricks, so Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards ventriloquists is understandable.

Johan and Nilla Bergren’s boy, Edgar, learned ventriloquism from a pamphlet at the age of 11. A few years later, after developing his skill, Edgar hired Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack to fashion the head of his life-long side-kick (Edgar made the body himself). The likeness was based on a precocious Irish newsboy. Bergren entered Northwestern University, performing with Charlie McCarthy to pay the bills. Soon he was doing Vaudeville full time and changed his name to the easier to pronounce Edgar Bergen.

The Vaudeville circuit eventually drew Edgar and Charlie to New York. “America’s Premier Party-giver”, Elsa Maxwell, saw the act at a party for Noel Coward and helped Bergen to land a gig at the Rainbow Room. While rubbing shoulders with the well-to-do, Charlie adopted his trademark top hat, tuxedo and “Esky” monocle (for the Esquire magazine’s cartoon mascot). One of the “swanks” who saw the act at the Rainbow was Julian Field, an executive at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Part of Field’s duties was to find talent for the firm’s client’s radio shows, The Royal Gelatin Hour in particular.

Given Rudy Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude about ventriloquists, it was surprising the Edgar and Charlie made it on the show at all, let alone into what was essentially the headline spot. Guest wise, it was a pretty slow night for Rudy.

The program featured a scripted and long-winded interview with Elsa Maxwell, mostly about how wonderful it was to be Elsa Maxwell. Cornelia Otis Skinner gave a humorous monologue about Christmas, Sleepy Hall introduced the electric banjo, and there was a dramatic sketch by Shirley Booth and Douglas Thomas best described as “forgettable”.

Edgar was introduced right after the mid-show commercial break, traditionally the head-line slot. Charlie got his first big laugh on the radio when Edgar asked why he was so nattily dressed. “Well, its a long story… and a dirty one!”

The listening audience was both shocked and delighted! Although very tame by today’s standards, this was a bit ribald for 1936. However, Charlie could get away with it because he was a young boy. A boy made of wood at that! Later there is an exchange where Charlie claims “I never have more than, ah, four or five scotch and sodas….” “Goodness, four or five scotch and sodas would make you awfully drunk!” “Yeah, well, it helps!”

The shock of such adult musings with a little-boy voice was a hit with audiences and sponsors. Standard Brands fell over themselves to sign Bergen as the show’s featured comedians. When that 13 show contract was up they offered man and dummy their own Sunday night show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour.

Charlie went on to become one of the most revered personalities on radio. Naturally there was a flood of Charlie McCarthy merchandise, from dolls to boardgames to teaspoons. He was no stranger to scandal; his exchange with Mae West was considered so racy that the sex symbol was banned from NBC until 1950.

Although he would create other dummies for his act, Charlie remained the one audiences wanted to see when Edgar Bergen performed. Bergen appeared on television both with and without his wooden side-kick. He played Grandpa Walton in The Homecoming and appeared with his daughter Candice on You Bet Your Life (Candice claimed to be jealous of Charlie, he had a bigger bedroom!)

Charlie remained a precocious little boy until Bergen’s death in 1978. He is now on display as an American icon in the Smithsonian Institution.

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