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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1954 The Year of the National Negro Network

W. Leonard Evans organized the first radio network devoted to airing programs that reflected Black life and music. On January 20, 1954, the National Negro Network (NNN) claimed forty founding affiliate station members. While programming was aimed at a Black audience, network staff was composed of both Black and White employees. Evans maintained that a “mixed” or “interracial” staff performed better and was more successful in bringing in revenue.

Evans believed the time was right for a Black network and Black programming. His plans included the broadcasting of Black sports and Black news. Initial programming included musical variety shows and soap operas. The soap opera, The Story of Ruby Valentine was very popular. It was an adaptation of the long running Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network’s soap, We Love and Learn.  The Story of Ruby Valentine starred Juanita Hill, Ruby Dee and Terry Carter. Other programs included Black college concerts, Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters productions and independent programming from the affiliate stations. Sponsors Philip Morris and Pet Milk were on board from the beginning.

A graduate of the University of Illinois and accomplished advertising executive, W. Leonard Evans was no stranger to the importance of sponsor financial support. He had witnessed the rise of Black stations, going from only four in 1943 to almost 300 by 1954. Unfortunately, he could not foresee the impact television would have on radio. Nor, could he have predicted that Black music would soon become part of the popular American culture. The popularity of Black music with the White youth help to integrate musical styles played on the urban radio stations.

The ongoing civil rights movements and legal actions also helped to integrate youth through African-American rooted music. Thus, dissolving segregation signaled the demise of Black only oriented broadcasts. In 1955, only one-year after its formation, the NNN dissolved. Sponsorship dried up as sponsors began to target the more affluent integrated listening audience. Young listener, both Black and White were better off economically and tended to spend more money during the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Sadly, the NNN could not financially compete with the larger audiences.

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Doris Day

Doris Day, one of the most influential and prolific actresses to ever grace the silver screen, was born Doris Mary Ann Von Kapplehoff to a immigrated German family in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1924. As a child, she was always a playful little girl, wanting what other girls wanted, which was to become a typical ballerina. She loved to dance, sometimes dancing by herself, for hours at a time, but soon her dreams of becoming a dancer were shattered by a horrific automobile accident. Grace smiled upon her again when, at the age of 16, Doris discovered that she could sing, and sing WELL!

Doris DayDoris began singing with local bands and on one separate singing occasion, Doris met her first husband, Al Jorden, whom she married shortly afterwards in 1941, at the age of 17. The marriage was short-lived because of Jorden’s obsession with violence. In 1943, the couple divorced. After another failed marriage, that did not last even a year, Doris’ agent urged her to take a screen test for motion pictures. It was the mega movie moguls Warner Brothersthat caught on quick to Doris’ talent, and their pursuit for the perfect face for their pictures was well worth the journey. After a lofty contract signing, Doris went on to star in over 20 films from 1948 to 1953. Some of her most famous films of this period were Calamity JaneLucky MeMy Dream is YoursThe Man Who knew Too Much, and Pillow Talk.

Her soaring movie career helped her sell her musical album, and further increased her stardom. It was during this time that she met Marty Melcher, her future husband. They were wed in 1951, and in 1953, they adopted a child. Doris’ success took her through over 50 smash movie hits, her own show, countless other television appearances, and gold records. Even at the young age of 75, Doris runs a foundation for the proper care of Animals in the town of Carmel, California.

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George Raft in Old Time Radio

Most of America likes to imagine Hollywood as a fantasy land where a pretty girl or a handsome young man came make it on their own merit. It is true to a certain extent, but it ignores the fact that the Movies mean big money, the sort of money that can’t help but attract an undesirable element. The big studio moguls and mafia crime bosses came from a similar background, European Jews or Sicilians who had a history of protecting themselves from the outside world.

Like the most notorious Mafiosi, the Big Studio heads were a law unto themselves, with the ability to make problems “go away” for the stars working for them. How much money the Mob invested in Hollywood is hard to measure, but it is well known that organized crime wove its way into the very fabric of the Movie Colony.

Only two film stars were known to be mob insiders, Frank Sinatra, and George Raftraft. Raft was born to German immigrant parents, probably in 1901 (records are unclear). He grew up on the streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and was childhood pals with Bugsy Siegel and Owney Madden. George was a talented dancer and a snappy dresser who would have made it in show business without mob connections.

As a young man, George danced in many of the same nightclubs frequented by Rudolph Valentino before Valentino became a movie star. Flamboyant speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan took Raft under her wing for a while during prohibition and helped to find him work on Broadway, but he had mostly chorus-boy roles. He made the move to Hollywood in 1929, and his big break came as Paul Muni’s coin-flipping sidekick in the Howard Hughes production of Scarface (1932), which was loosely based on the life of Al Capone.

Raft went on to be one of the big three gangster actors of the Thirties, along with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. His mob affiliation became an open secret (when one of Gary Cooper‘s romantic indiscretions put him on a gangster’s hit list, Raft supposedly made a phone call and got the contract canceled). It is said that Raft’s fashionable Hollywood roles “taught the mob how to dress”. He campaigned for Paramount to hire his friend Texas Guinan for Night After Night (1932), thinking that the film (which was based on Guinan’s experience as a speakeasy operator) would launch her movie career. Instead, Mae West got the role, and her star began to rise.

George Raft topped Humphrey Bogart in box office clout through the Thirties, but when Raft turned down the lead in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Bogey made the move from supporting player to major Hollywood force and Raft’s star began to fade. There are rumors that Raft also turned down the role of Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), but internal Warner Bros memos fail to substantiate this.

In 1942, James Cagney was elected to head S.A.G., and he led the Guild’s fight to get the mob out of the movie business. Cagney alleged that a contract was put out to eliminate him by dropping a heavy movie light on his head. Raft picked up the phone again, called in a few favors, and the hit was canceled. Although Raft still managed to fill leading man roles through the Forties, the quality of the films steadily declined. By 1950, he was reduced to working as a greeter in a mob owned casino in Havana.

During the summer of 1951, Raft stepped into the role of Rocky Jordan on CBS Radio. Jordan had a more than passing similarity to Casablanca‘s Rick Blaine. He was a nightclub owner in Cairo, and in each episode Rocky encounters a “crime, a mystery, a beautiful woman, or a combination of all three”. Raft assumed the role created by radio veteran Jack Moyles in 1948. In 1952, Moyles began starring in Douglas of the World for AFRS. Raft was set for a comeback when he satirized his gangster image in Some Like It Hot (1959), but the comeback never materialized.

George Raft died from leukemia on November 24, 19george_raft_motion_pictures80, in Los Angeles, he was 79 years old. Mae West had passed away two days earlier, and their bodies were stored together in the same mortuary. Raft’s personal effects were sold in 1981 for $800 through a classified ad in Hemming’s Motor News. Two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are dedicated honoring George Raft, at 1500 Vine St for contributions to Television and at 6159 Hollywood Blvd for Motion Pictures.

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