Fibber And Molly’s Lasting Appeal

Twenty four years is a long time to do anything, especially to have America come visit you at home every Tuesday night. That is just what Jim and Marian Jordan did from April 1935 until Sept 6, 1959, playing the beloved Fibber McGee and Molly.

In the TV world, a show that lasts more than four seasons is considered a classic. The characters on such a classic will have evolved dramatically in that time, but the Fibber who was still getting laughs at the twilight of his career on NBC’s Monitor had not changed all that much from the Fibber who drove his jalopy to the seashore on April 16, 1935.

As much as any situation comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly found a workable formula and pretty much stuck with it. Some of those elements changed in the later years of the run, which reflected the real lives of the players. The successful formula took a while to be fully developed, but when it did come together, it was one of the most successful in radio.

For the audience, the foundation of that success was Fibber and Molly themselves, played by real life couple Jim and Marian Jordan. A marriage bond as strong as the one enjoyed by the Jordans, especially in the pressure cooker world of show business, will strike us as exceptional today. Jim and Marian’s success, both in marriage and show business, are reflections of their mid-western values.

As important as the characters and the actors who play them are to the success of a comedy program, they would not last without great scripts to work from. This was important enough that from the beginning the fees paid for Fibber McGee and Molly were split three ways- a share apiece for Jim and Marion, and the third full share for their writer, Don Quinn. Quinn was not the most disciplined of writers; often he would wait until the last minute before actually writing the script, and in the final hours would lock himself in his office with a typewriter, a big plate of sandwiches, a big pot of coffee and two cartons of cigarettes. What emerged was usually comic genius, rarely in need of revision.

For most of the years Fibber and Molly were on the radio, the program stuck to a regular framework in its half hour format. The show never forgot that Johnson’s Wax was paying the bills. To that end, Quinn became a genius at working the sponsor’s plug into the storyline. Announcer Harlow Wilcox became more than the guy who introduced the show and read the commercials, he was an important character who always had a comment for Fibber’s foible of the week. For Fibber’s part, he was always amazed at Wilcox’s ability to sneak a plug for the Wax Company into any conversation, and commiserated with the audience who knew the commercial was coming.

Fibber McGee and Molly followed a format that lent itself to running gags. Some of these were the supporting characters themselves, most of whom could get a laugh just by walking up to the microphone. These included Mr. Old Timer, whose amazing powers never quite matched his aged persona, Wallace Wimple who lived in constant fear of his wife, Mayor LaTrivia who Fibber would reduce from civility to a near nervous breakdown on a regular basis, and pompous neighbor Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve who proved popular enough to get his own show. Another spinoff from Fibber and Molly was Beulah, who started as the McGee’s maid; Beulah always got a laugh in the studio, not just for her character, but because she was played by a white male actor.

Fibber McGee and Molly are more than a reflection of a simpler time. They were part of a world which never existed but which we all know as well as we know our own home town. How else could Fibber have gone 24 years with no job other than town busy-body? The time we spend in Wistful Vista is more than a visit home, it is a time to laugh and forget about the trouble of the real world.

 

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Murder By Experts: Origins of a Classic Old Time Radio Show

Murder By Experts was a commercial. By itself, that is not a bad thing. After all, radio itself was built as a means of marketing. The empires of the huge networks were based on selling things. So the last thing on my mind is to berate Experts for being a commercial. In fact, the purpose of this post is to praise it for being such a subtle, yet effective one.

screamPart of the subtlety came from the fact that Murder By Experts was broadcast over the Mutual Network. NBC and CBS programs were more disciplined, in that they usually had sponsors of their own, or they were sustained by the network until they could find a sponsor. Many Mutual programs were syndicated, meaning that the local broadcaster would insert the local commercials. Because they were syndicated, Mutual programs had to be good enough to sell themselves to the local stations. A show on another network may have been written to appeal to the audience in the big eastern cities, but it was still heard by affiliates in the rural Midwest.

There was little worry about the appeal of Murder By Experts. It was put together by one of the most successful writing teams in radio, David Kogan and Robert A. Arthur. Kogan had grown up on radio drama and pulp fiction stories, and wanted to create stories of his own. While attending class in writing for radio at Columbia University, he met Arthur. Arthur was a world traveler, having grown up in an Army family, had a master’s degree in journalism, and a compulsive need to tell stories. The pair began collaborating on programs for Mutual affiliate WOR.

Ellery_Queen_NYWTSTheir first effort was Dark Destiny, which set their working relationship. Generally, they would begin with a brainstorming session where plotting and characters would be developed. One partner or the other then sat before the typewriter and put the script together, and Kogan would usually finish by directing the show. After Dark Destiny, the duo went on to create their signature program, The Mysterious Traveler, and they also worked on The Sealed Book, Master Detective, Nick Carter and others.

Murder By Experts was a departure for the writing team, but that was the ingenious subtlety of the program. Rather than inventing new plots, they would adapt the recommendation of an “expert”, another writer of thriller fiction. The subtlety was that each program would gain attention for three different mystery writers. The first would be the show’s host, John Dickson Carr. By the time of the broadcasts, Carr was already a well recognized name in the Mystery fiction game, but his latest project got a nice plug in each episode (the same would be true of his replacement, Brett Halliday after Carr left the series in mid-1950).

CN 012464Along with the host, the guest “expert” would get a plug for his latest story as well as giving a plug to the author whose tale was presented in that episode. With their own success seemingly in hand, Kogan and Arthur were willing to do what they could to help other writers to make a living. In fact, it may have led to their demise. Murder By Experts is included in the list of victims of McCarthyism; Kogan and Arthur were involved in the Radio Writers Guild, a labor union which fell under the spotlight of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By then, Experts was already the victim of Mutual’s lack of sponsor support.

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Good Night Lauren Bacall

She was only 19 when she turned what could have been a rather mediocre film into one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic classics. The film was also the starting point for one of Hollywood’s greatest romances. It also launched the career of a young woman who would become one of the biggest stars of all time.
When Lauren Bacall asked Humphrey Bogart “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow” audiences fell in love. Of course, so did Bogie. Bogart was trapped in an unhappy marriage to Mayo Methot. Methot and Bogie enabled one another’s alcoholism, but Mayo was a mean and violent drunk. The couple were nicknamed the Battling Bogarts. By the time Bacall came along, Bogart had enough, and divorcing Methot and starting a relationship with a girl 26 years his junior was the most natural thing in the world.

Humphrey-Bogart-and-Lauren-Bacall-on-their-wedding-day-May-21-1945-01Born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, Bacall became very close to her mother after her parents divorced. Her mother began using her maiden name and put her daughter through private school while working as a secretary. Betty often played hookie to to watch her idol, Bette Davis, at the movies. She took acting lessons and worked as a theater usher, but had better luck as a fashion model.
Howard Hawks’ wife saw a small picture of Betty in a magazine, and insisted that the director give her a screen test. Hawks’ secretary sent her a ticket to Hollywood by accident (her instructions were to find out more about the model), and Hawks put her in To Have and To Have Not (1944).
During the screen test, Betty was so nervous that the only way she could keep from trembling was to tuck her chin to her chest and tilt her eyes up toward the camera. This became “the Look”, Lauren Bacall’s trademark. Hawks changed her name to Lauren, and the nicknames “Steve” and “Slim”, those of Hawks and his wife, were used by the characters in the film.
Married to Bogie, Lauren Bacall became “den mother” to the Holmby Hills Rat Pack. Bogie was smitten with his glamorous young wife, who inspired him during one of the richest periods of his career. The couple starred in a number of classic films together. Betty joined Bogie in Africa while he was filming The African Queen (1951), where they became good friends with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Bold Venture Radio Show starring Bacall and Bogart

Upon their return from Africa, the Bogarts went to work taping the syndicated radio program Bold Venture. A recording studio was set up in their home, and profits from the project were earmarked for their son’s trust fund. The characters and situations of Bold Venture were loosely based on some of their most popular movie roles, especially To Have and Have Not and Casablanca where Bogie played a fiercely independent American hotel owner.
After Bogie passed away, Bacall was briefly engaged to Rat Pack leader Frank Sinatra. She was married to Jason Robards (Lauren Bacall is the only Oscar winner to have been married to two other Oscar Winners). She also starred in several pictures, including The Shootist (1976), John Wayne‘s last picture (Wayne and Bacall became great friend despite their “significant political differences”). In 1999, the American Film Institute selected Lauren Bacall as one of the 25 most significant female movie stars in history.
Ms. Bacall kept a residence at the Dakota on Manhattan’s Upper West Side since the early Sixties. Her passing on August 12, 2014, was announced on a Twitter message from the Bogart Estate. She was 89.
Good Night Lauren Bacall, say Hi to Bogie for us.

Enjoy this 1952 broadcast of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall appearing on Bing Crosby’s variety show:

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Cigarette Advertising in Old Time Radio

smokingLight ‘em if You’ve Got ‘em Jack Webb Fatima Ad
Many OTR fans will tell you that Jack Webb’s Dragnet is as close to a perfect Radio Drama as you can find. The show makes great use of Audio Branding. From the ominous four note theme music (titled “Danger Ahead”), to the catchphrase “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, to Jack Webb’s terse and direct narration style, there is no doubt in the listener’s mind that they are enjoying another exciting episode of the prototypical Police Procedural Drama.

This strong audio branding may be part of the reason that cigarette company Liggett & Myers was such an enthusiastic sponsor of the show from the  18th episode forward. In fact, the one complaint that many modern OTR listeners have about Dragnet is that after listening to an exciting episode, they are nearly overcome by the desire to light-up a refreshing Fatima, “the best of All Long Cigarettes”.

A strong testimony of Radio’s effectiveness as an advertising medium during the Golden Age is that modern OTR listeners can feel this desire for a cigarette brand which was beginning to be seen as “old fashioned” in the 1950′s and discontinued from the market since 1980!

Different Times, Different Values

Racist Cigarette Ad

Racist Cigarette Advertisement Example

Radio’s relationship with the tobacco industry is one of OTR’s “dirty little secrets”, not unlike the racial stereotyping which made shows like Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy not only possible but popular. Although the programs were and are comic masterpieces, their subject matter makes the skin of a modern listener crawl. Although no modern producer or sponsor would condone the material, ignoring it will deny hours of fun listening.

When the federal government first began licensing broadcasters, there was an effort to keep radio free from commercial advertisement. This sentiment was short-lived as radio’s marvelous potential for advertising was seen. The business model developed by the networks and the advertising agencies differed from print advertising. Newspapers and magazines sold “space” in their publications to the advertisers. The ad agency was responsible for filling the space while the publishers filled the rest of the page with their own content.

Commercial Radio Means CommercialsborngentleL
On radio, the advertising agency was sold a block of time, and it was the agency’s job to fill the time for their clients. Since “dead air” would have been unacceptable, blocks of airtime that could not be sold to a sponsor or ad agency were filled with programs which were “sustained” by the network.

As the networks began serving a nationwide audience, airtime blocks which would reach the greatest number of listeners became very profitable, and therefore, only affordable to the richest advertisers. During the years we call the Golden Age of Radio few businesses were as large of as profitable as the Cigarette Industry.

Smoking Through The YearsEarly Cigarette Ad During the 17th century, tobacco became the first and most important cash crop for England’s North American colonies. Cigarettes, which means “Little Cigar” were developed as an alternative smoking device to pipes or their larger cousin, the cigar. Making a cigar requires a large, high quality tobacco leaf in which the rest of the tobacco is rolled into a tube for smoking. Wrapping flakes of tobacco in a paper tube allows the use of lower quality tobacco (flavor is maintained by blending tobaccos).

Cigarettes can to the English speaking world when soldiers in the Crimean War began wrapping Turkish tobacco in scraps of old newspaper for smoking, and it was not long before finer papers for rolling came on the market. In 1865,Washington Duke of North Carolina began rolling cigarettes to sell, and 1883 James Bosnak founded the American Tobacco Company on the basis of the machine he invented which could roll thousands of cigarettes a day.tobacco_cards_gypsy_queen

By the end of the 19th century, factory made cigarettes were marketed across the US in paper packs. The packs often contained a card to protect the smokes. The card was often imprinted by the cigarette manufacturer to make their product even more attractive, and were some of the first trading cards. Cigarettes were part of soldier’s rations in both World Wars, often provided to the government at a deep discount or even free but the tobacco companies. The first World War was followed by the Jazz Age. After seeing so many dashing Veterans light up, it was natural that cigarettes became as much a part of the flapper’s image as bath-tub gin.

American Tobacco and The Jazz Singer 1928 Al Jolson Advertisement
Radio and Talking Motion Pictures grew up together and fed off one-another’s success. The American Tobacco Company, makers of Lucky Strikes, gained notoriety in the late twenties with a print and radio campaign built around The Jazz Singer himself, Al Jolson. In the ad, Jolson claimed that the toasting of Lucky Strike Tobacco eliminated the throat irritants and that a singer could maintain his shape by reaching for a Lucky rather than a fattening sweet.

American Tobacco was notorious for taking advantage of marketing psychology to find new ways to promote its product. One of the more infamous was the claim that the green print on Lucky Strike packs at the beginning of the Second World War was being changed in support of the War Effort. In actuality, the color change was part of the effort to remove the stigma of women smoking in public. The white pack had already been planned as more appealing to feminine sensibilities, and the War Effort rumor was just a happy coincidence.

Another fortunate War-time break for Lucky was the loss of Jack Benny‘s longtime sponsor, General Foods’ Jello. With Wartime sugar rationing, the company was having a hard enough time keeping its product on the shelves, let alone support a popular radio program. A switch to Grapenuts cereal was tried, but eventually it was more expedient to let the tobacco company begin writing the checks. The cast singing “J…E…L-L…Ooo” was more musical and friendly than “LS/MFT” (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”, but even with the addition of a pair of tobacco auctioneers, it was pretty much the same Jack Benny Program.

Infamy Of Other Brands Benny Goodman and his Orchestra
Camel Cigarettes came on the market in 1913 and were very popular with the doughboys of WWI. On the radio during the Thirties, they sponsored Blondie on Monday nights, The Dixieland Music Shop on Tuesday, and Tommy Dorsey, “the King of Swing” on Saturday’s Camel Caravan. The catch-phrase “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” is thought to be as old as the brand itself, but the assertion in the late 1940s that “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette” was easier to trace. CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow supposedly smoked as many as 4 packs a day of Camels, making the cigarette a personal trademark.

Liggett & Myers, producers of the Fatima Cigarettes which sponsored the early Dragnet programs, also brought a series of music programs to the air to promote Chesterfields, at the time their flagship brand. Chesterfield Time featured “music from the movies” while The Chesterfield Supper Club took listeners to a swanky nightclub for an after dinner smoke. The Supper Club was a nightly 15 minute broadcast, hosted by Perry Como on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jo Stafford on Tuesday and Peggy Lee on Thursdays. The Chesterfield Show was a much simpler affair featuring the number one swing band, Benny Goodman’s outfit before the war, and the number one trio, the Andrews Sisters. When Fatimas began to fade, Chesterfields took over the sponsorship of Dragnet. Chesterfields also put the smoke in Gunsmoke.

The Simpler Times Conundrum
Tobacco Advertising on Television and Radio has been outlawed in the US since the early 70′s, which is part of the reason hearing the ads on OTR is surprising to new listeners. In a time when smokers are forced to walk to a “designated smoking area”, often several yards away from the activity they are a part of, it is hard to imagine a world where almost everyone carried matches or a Zippo Lighter and there was an ashtray on every workbench, desk, nightstand and dining table.

Before the health dangers of smoking were widely known, any objection to smoking was for “moral reasons”. The real genius of cigarette advertising in the Golden Age was overcoming these social stigma. This success is seen in the movies of the time- how many times do we see the romantic leads of a film making eye contact through a swirl of cigarette smoke?

When the health dangers did become known, cigarette advertising was effectively doomed. The efforts of the industry to overcome the warnings of the medical profession are documented and dramatized extensively. However, it should be noted that truth turned out to be stronger than entertainment.

 

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Patriotic Radio: The Founding Fathers

No study of American Patriotismwould be complete without looking at the determination and sacrifice of the Founding Fathers.From the perspective of modern times it is hard to fully appreciate the risks taken by these men who pledged to each other ?our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.?Cavalcade of America tells the story of Thomas Paine whose pamphlets gave voice to the desire for Liberty. American Portraitsintroduce us to Benjamin Franklin, ?The Doctor at Home?, and the struggles of John Adams, the patriot whose belief in justice was so strong that he had to defend the British soldiers who fired in the Boston Massacre.Cavalcade of America also gives us the? Patriot With Chestnut Curls?, the story of Sally Townsend. The Townsend home was taken as the headquarters of the Queen’s Rangers, commanded by Lt Col John Simcoe. Sally must overcome her resentment at the Redcoats, not only for the safety of her family, but so that she can do her part to further the cause of Liberty. She finds herself in a position where she can overhear the plans made by Simcoe and his visitors. Unfortunately Sally finds herself falling in love with the dashing Lt Col. Where will her loyalties lie?

The CBS Educational Drama, You Are There, takes us to the Philadelphia State House (Independence Hall) on July 4, 1776. The program’s premise was that a modern radio newsroom would be transported through time to historic events. In this episode, reporters interview Adams, Jefferson, and John Dickinson. Dickinson was a dissenting voice against the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson was a Patriot who represented Pennsylvania in the first and Second Continental Congress, but felt that Independence should not be declared until the Articles of Confederation were complete. Dickinson was forced to leave the Congress for not signing the Declaration, but took up arms as a Brigadier General in the Pennsylvania Militia. Midway through the broadcast a dispatch arrives from General George Washington that the British Fleet has arrived in New York in overwhelming numbers, led by General Howe. General Washington exhorts his troops and the nation to stand firm by their cause. The vote proceeds and the Declaration passes. The Declaration begins:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

 

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Top Secret, “The Admiral’s Strange Identity”

Ilona-Massey-hair-42Whether the role of lady spy Baroness Karin Geza in Top Secret was created for Ilona Massey, or if Miss Massey was created for the role is open for debate. There can be little argument that it was one of the most successful castings of early 50′s radio. Supposedly, the real-life inspiration for the Baroness Geza character was a “close friend” of Miss Massey’s who actually worked as a spy for the Allies during WWII and its aftermath. The scripts were adapted from stories the friend related to Massey.

Top Secret failed to gain sponsorship, and NBC was notorious for being unkind to sustained programs, especially when it came to scheduling. Listeners who may have wanted to follow the show would have found it difficult, because sustained programs were often bounced all over the weekly broadcast schedule.

In this second installment of Top Secret, the Allied spy masters intercept a transmission that the top Nazi Spy in New York Admiral Stroesser, has requested a female assistant with very specific height and weight requirements. Of course, it turns out that Baroness Geza meets the description, and she travels to New York in place of the German lady agent. Allied agents in New York know that Stroesser is readying his escape, and they would rather kill him than let him return to Germany with his secrets. The Baroness insists that it is too important to find out what those secrets are and takes her place as Stroesser’s assistant. She finds out that the reason for the particular size requirements are so that the Admiral can impersonate her after he is smuggled aboard a German liner in a coffin!

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Good Night Ruby Dee

ruby-dee2Actress Ruby Dee passed away quietly in her home in New Rochelle, NY, on June 11, 2014, surrounded by family. Praised for her contributions to stage, screen, radio and civil rights, Ms. Dee was 91.

Ruby was born in Cleveland in 1922, and raised in the Harlem, New York. Her father was a porter and her mother a school teacher. After graduating from Hunter College with a  degree in Romance Languages she apprenticed with the American Negro theater, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Hilda Simms. She gained national attention for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, and in 1965 she became the first black actress to perform in leading roles at the American Shakespearean Festival.

Ruby’s earliest existing radio appearances were on WMCA’s New World A’ Coming, in the story of the ANT and other African American stories which took place in New York City. With her acting career well established by the late 1950′s, she appeared on programs such as X Minus One and the CBS Radio Workshop. In the mid Seventies she made several appearances on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Although radio drama was thought to be a dying art form at the time, CBSRMT often showcased respected actors.

Ruby married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941 and they were divorced in 1945, although she continued to use his name on stage. She married actor Ossie Davis in 1948, and the marriage lasted until his death in 2005. The couple was well known for their work for the cause of civil rights and they were close friends to Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

Ruby was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, and won in 1990 for her role in the TV movie Decoration Day.  She and Ossie were awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1995 and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. In 2007, Ruby became the second oldest Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role in American Gangster.

Ruby Dee’s remains are to be cremated and her ashes will share the same urn as Ossie Davis. The urn will bear the inscription “In this thing together”.

Goodnight, Ruby Dee.

 

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