Jan 1: Happy Birthday, Dana Andrews!

andrews-1946_optThe melodramas that were later labeled “film noir” needed a special sort of actor. The genre depended upon pathos, overwrought emotion and moral polarization (extreme good vs extreme evil). Noir stories are often related to Hard Boiled Detectives, but the characters were usually not so hard boiled. They were ordinary people doing the best that they could in an indifferent world.

Dana Andrews has been called the “face of Noir”, and he worked in some of the greatest examples of the genre. Like the characters he played, Andrews faced his share of personal demons. Through the strength of his character, he was able to defeat them.

Dana Andrews on CBS

Carver Dana Andrews was born in Don’t, Mississippi, one of the local Baptist minister’s thirteen children. He studied business administration and landed a job in the oil industry, but when the Great Depression hit he began to question if there might be more to life. Armed with what he thought was a winning baritone voice, he packed a grip and lit out for Hollywood. The movie industry was already over-flowing with attractive singing leading men, and Andrews wound up pumping gas in Van Nuys.

One of his employers was well enough impressed with Andrews to sponsor his studies at the Pasadena Playhouse. The Playhouse was an old fashioned drama school where the players were expected to start at the bottom and earn their way to better roles. At this time, Andrews chose to drop “Carver”, feeling that Dana was a snappier stage name (some biographers, recognizing that Dana could be a masculine or feminine name, have questioned this decision. Would Andrews have known more success as “Carver Andrews, scourge of the Pacific”?)

Andrews finally landed a contract with MGM,but his first job had little to do with acting. The studio was planning to shoot Raffles(1940) starring the dashing David Niven, but Niven was holding out for more money. Sam Goldwyn assigned Andrews with the job of wearing a tuxedo and being around Niven. Seeing Andrews photographed in Raffle’s costumes was enough to intimidate Niven into signing.

Andrews finally made it to the screen in a series of supporting roles such as The Westerner(1940), The Lucky Cisco Kid(1940), Kit Carson(1940), Tobacco Road(1941), Berlin Correspondent(1942), Crash Dive(1943) and others. His role in The Ox-Bow Incident(1943) as the victim of a lynching is considered one of his best.

Playing an obsessed detective in Laura(1944), Andrews became the Noir star we remember him as. In the 1946 post-War classic The Best Years Of Our Lives, he played a bombardier trying to return to a world which has changed beyond his understanding while he was at War.

As a preacher’s son during Prohibition and a budding young businessman, Andrews had rarely, if ever, touched a drop of liquor. However, when he got to Hollywood, he found that booze was an important social lubricant. Deals and career moves were negotiated and sealed over drinks. It was a way for actors and crews to unwind after endless hours on the set, and it was a prominent feature of the night-life where reputations were made and preserved. Eventually, the gentle relief that a drink provided became an obsessive need for Andrews. Knowledge of his drinking problem spread through the movie industry, and producers began rolling their eyes when his name was mentioned.

The movies were not the only way for a hard working actor to pay the bills, and radio syndicator Frederic Ziv was willing to take a chance on Andrews’ All-American persona. Andrews had appeared on Lux Radio Theater and other shows in support of his movie. Ziv was offering steady work.

I Was a Communist For the F.B.I. began as a series in the Saturday Evening Post chronicling the case of Matt Cvetic, the informant who would provide the FBI with information on the inner workings of the Communist Party in America and eventually testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. The Post stories were developed as a movie for Warner Brothers, released in 1951 starring Frank Lovejoy.

Ziv realized that there was more mileage to be found in the Cvetic tale as the era of McCarthyism was beginning. Frank Lovejoy was busy with other radio and movie projects, but Dana Andrews carried the right combination of sincerity and toughness for the role. 72 episodes were recorded for syndication, each with Andrews’ ominous tagline :”I walk alone”.

Andrews’ alcoholic reputation continued to dog him with movie casting directors. In a magazine interview soon after Ronald Reagan gained the Presidency of the United States, Andrews revealed that it was Reagan’s example which helped Andrews defeat the bottle. While Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, Andrews knew him as a man who “knew when to say when”. Andrews was determined to show the same strength of character, and was also elected president of SAG in 1963.

Dana Andrews continued to act into the 1980s, but spent the last years of his life at the Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Los Alamitos. In 1992, Andrews succumbed to congestive heart failure and pneumonia at the age of 83.

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December 7: Happy Birthday Arch Oboler

It is interesting that Pearl Harbor Day is also Arch Oboler‘s birthday. Interesting, but probably not significant. Arch would be105 years old in 2014, so it is interesting to wonder how he must have spent his 32nd birthday.

Ronald Colman‘s daughter said that Oboler was an “eccentric Hitler hating truth stretching flashy writer” who “wrote and directed in dirty dungarees, no socks, thong sandals, and a hat with a grease stained band”.  TIME called him a “horn-rimmed half-pint scrivener”. Oboler was no stranger to confrontation. Though assuredly as horrified as the rest of the nation at the audacity of the Japanese: Arch was probably thrilled at the thought of taking part in the scrap.

Oboler was the precocious child of poor, but cultured Jewish immigrants in Chicago. Young Arch was a voracious reader and had been taught to appreciate fine music. He sold his first short story at the age of ten (a story about an amorous dinosaur) and he continued to write through his teen years. Possibly hoping to shake the image of being a nerdy kid, Arch was also an accomplished boxer, in contention for a Golden Gloves championship. The writing was a better course to follow after getting expelled from the University of Chicago, even though it was his confrontational manner that earned him the boot.

Arch saw terrific potential in radio as a storytelling medium, even if it was being “wasted” on radio Soap Operas. In 1933, he wrote his first radio play, which NBC thought was impressive enough to include in the dedication program for the new Radio City headquarters. The show was a success, but the writer took some flack about lampooning the slogan of American Tobacco. At the time, the feelings of sponsors were considered sacred by the network, and it was far from the last time Oboler would ruffle feathers, corporate and otherwise.

For the next few years Oboler was kept busy with “Potboilers”, but in 1936, he wrote a short play for the Rudy Vallee Program which won him a 52 week stint writing bits for Don Ameche on the Chase and Sanborn Hour. Of course, it was doomed to end poorly; Oboler wrote a small play with Mae West in the Garden of Eden which did not go over well with the sponsors.

By this time,  Oboler had taken over Wyllis Cooper’s Lights Out!, and was beginning to make it his own show. When he first drew the assignment for Lights Out!, it was with less than enthusiasm. Midnight on Tuesday was hardly a glorious time slot, but he soon realized that he was hidden from sponsors and censors, so there was a chance to experiment with story and content. Not the mention an opportunity to circumvent NBC’s neutrality policy and smuggle in the occasional anti-Fascist message.

Arch-Oboler-Norma-Shearer-radioIn 1939, Oboler used his own money to record his script “The Ugliest Man In The Universe” and presented it to the Network. Fortuitously, NBC was desperate to come up with something similar to CBS’s Columbia Workshop.

Oboler was given a green light for the new project, and until a sponsor was found, it even carried his name. Arch Oboler’s Plays was stuck opposite Jack Benny on Sunday nights, but still managed to attract some impressive talent, including Bette Davis, James Cagney, Ronald Colman and Edmond O’Brien. When Proctor and Gamble came on board, the show became Everyman’s Theater for 1940-41. Arch soon tired of having to disrupt his show to put a commercial in the middle, and quit.

After Pearl Harbor, the anti-Fascist shows that Oboler used to receive flack for were suddenly in demand. He took no fee for writing Plays For Americans, but the program was eventually shut down for Oboler being too inflammatory. Oboler continued with other propaganda efforts, including Everything For The Boys, a collaboration with Ronald Colman. Unfortunately, the actor and the writer never got along.

Oboler was ready to make the jump to scripting and directing movies, but it seems uncertain whether the movies were really ready for Oboler. His movie career is most notable for his experimentation with the earliest 3D films.

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Aviation in Old Time Radio

The sleek designs, the light construction, the spray of white light from the propellor: the fighter plane captured the hearts and minds of millions of American
boys in the 1930’s and 40’s. Piloting an elegant craft and achieving flight was a dream that was part of the fabric of wartime Americana, and the fearless technicians skilled enough to do so were role models.

The pilot was the focal point of many radio series in the 30’s and 40’s, especially in Juvenile air adventure stories.

The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen

jimmie_allen_1Jimmie Allen was one of the teen pilots on the airwaves in the golden era. The character’s premise is that he worked as a telegraph messenger at a Missouri Airways station when a hijacking (in the show’s debut episode) embroiled him in an ongoing partnership with the veteran pilot Speed Robertson. The two of them would embark on dizzying 15-minute adventures, often of a crime-fighting nature.
The role of Allen was played by John Frank, not a young actor, but a director in his 40’s who felt up to the challenge of the vocal gymnastics required to convincingly sound like a teenager. Robert Fiske played Speed.

The show went out over WDAF from Kansas City, and was the brainchild of two former pilots, Bob Burtt and Bill Moore. That two WWI dog fighters both ended up in media jobs in Kansas City was a considerable coincidence that would prove fortuitous both for radio and for aviation.

Though the show was originally produced in KC, during its long life from 1933 to 1947, it would originate in studios in some of the U.S.’s big show biz towns. The show’s focus on a relatable, youthful character who went out and did the right thing made it irresistible to the intended demographic of young boys.

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capt_midnightCaptain Midnight

This, the longest-running airplane show in radio history, Captain Midnight also ascended from the minds of Burtt and Moore, creators of Jimmie Allen. The protagonist was a WWI Army pilot, christened with his irresistible, just-right name after returning from a mission at exactly guess what time.

Midnight was the head of a paramilitary organization called the Secret Squadron, which fought espionage. Once World War II began, the show, aired from 1938-1949, shifted focus to war battles for the Secret Squadron. They faced characters clearly based on real war figures: Admiral Himakito, Baron von Karp. The key villain before and after the war was Ivan Shark.

One of the program’s claims to fame and contributions to popular culture was the decoder ring, which it sent off to listeners in exchange for their Ovaltine labels. It also offered other premiums, a kitschy delight of years now gone by.

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tailspintommyTail-Spin Tommy
Tail-Spin Tommy is interesting and illuminating as a way of studying aviation’s place in Americana. Not only was it a radio show, but it began as a comic strip in 1928, thus demonstrating how Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earheart had caused aviation to enter the popular lexicon. A film version came out in 1934, and the radio show debuted in 1941.

Like the young Jimmy Allen, Tail-spin–Tommy Tomkins–started with stars in his eyes and then worked his way from mechanic to pilot. Like many on-air fly-boys, he soared with a crew, in this case his girlfriend Betty Lou and his pal Skeets Milligan.

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Hop Harrigan

When it came to bringing the exploits of fighter pilots to the airwaves, Burtt and Moore weren’t half-hearted. Hop Harrigan was the third flight-oriented program the partners brought into being. In this case, the two didn’t invent the character. Rather, HH was the protagonist of a comic book series, and B & M thought if the public liked Tail-Spin Tommy on the air, why not adapt another comic book pilot?

This program aired from 1942-1948 and took listeners into WWII theatres in Germany and Japan. Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airways, had as big a retinue of sidekicks as any of the other radio barnstormers. His girlfriend was Gail Nolan, and his flying partners was Tank Tinker.

The title role was played by Chet Stratton, a stage and screen actor in addition to being a radio star.

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terry_pirate_hdrTerry and the Pirates

Terry and the Pirates was yet another radio program based on a comic strip. Its protagonist, Terry Lee, a precocious whipper-snapper from “The Orient,” whose circle of acquaintances was wide enough to accommodate Connie the coolie, Burma and Elita, Pat Ryan, Flip Corkin, and Hotshot Charlie, freelance Nazi fighters. Not surprisingly, zest for the show began to recede after the war, and it ended an impressive eleven-year run in 1948.

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captain-frank-hawkCaptain Frank Hawk’s Sky Patrol

Before Michael Jordan and Paris Hilton, Captain Frank Hawks understood how to turn success in one area into an all-encompassing brand and money-making machine. He was a WWI dog fighter turned celebrity pilot turned man of many endorsements and author. He was also a radio host.  This program, including an organ of Capt. Hawk’s fan club of the same name, involved many radio premiums like belt buckles and brass rings.

Other Aviation Programs

Other flights of fancy to be heard over the airwaves included The Flying Family, Anne of the Airlines, Phantom Pilot Patrol, Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police, Howie Wing, and Smilin’ Jack.

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Our Miss Brooks’ Halloween Party

evearden2Halloween is about letting the kids have some fun. Of course, just because the kids get a little older they don’t seem to outgrow the desire to have a little bit of haunted fun! What about the grownups? Should they be denied a bit of Halloween fun? Not according to Eve Arden as Our Miss Brooks.

To be fair, Principal Osgood Conklin, played by Gale Gordon, may not agree with those sentiments. We must remember that Mr. Conklin has been under an enormous amount of strain lately. Who wouldn’t be with the responsibilities that a high school principal faces? When you add that to the trials of raising an attractive teenage daughter like Harriet, well… What Mr. Conklin needs is a quiet weekend up at Crystal Lake where it is quiet and soothing. Thank goodness Halloween falls on Saturday so that he can get away from all that silliness.

Luckily for Harriet, her friends Walter and Stretch decide to hold a Halloween Party on Friday night. The only problem is where to have the party. What would be wrong with having it at Miss Brooks’ house? Everything! At least, until Miss Brooks discovers that the good looking biology teacher, Mr. Boynton (played by Jeff Chandler), is coming. Then a party at Connie Brooks’ house is a wonderful idea!

When Connie hears what a hard time Mr. Conklin has been having, having the party at the Conklin’s house seems like an even better idea! What could possibly go wrong? Listen Here to the old time radio classic Our Miss Brooks halloween broadcast find out:

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Fibber and Molly Go To Gildersleeve’s Halloween Party

FMcG&MThe holiday at the end of October was actually the lead into All Saints Day, November 1, and All Souls Day, Nov 2. The religious feast is a time to remember those Saints who don’t already have a feast day of their own, and then to remember the recently departed. In ancient times they often said Feast when what they really meant was sitting in church for hours praying. Not an appealing prospect for kids who realized that the harvest was in and there would be precious few nice days left before the hardships of winter set in.

To help burn off some of this youthful energy, wise parents and community leaders began to encourage the celebration of All Hallows Eve, what we now know as Halloween. What they may not have counted on was that the kids are not the only one’s who enjoy an evening of autumnal merriment.

It is hard to find a supposed grown up who is a bigger kid than Wistful Vista’s own Fibber McGee. In 1939, Fibber and Molly receive an invitation to the party next door at the Gildersleeve’s house.

For those of you keeping track of Beloved Characters, The Great Gildersleeve first appeared before the Johnson’s Wax microphone in June of 1939, when Howard Peary appeared as a dentist treating Fibber’s tooth ache. The dentist in the episode is Dr. Wilber Gildersleeve, sowe can see that writer Don Quinn was still developing the character (some have raised the theory that Dr. Wilbur may in fact have been Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve’s brother).

By Halloween, Throckmorton had established himself as the McGee’s pompous neighbor. If there was anything that the Fibber McGee and Molly crew loved as much as watching Fibber go through the motions as town busy body, it was deflating pomposity. As we will see, sometimes even the most pompous can get the last laugh on Fibber.

great-gildersleeveThe evening starts out innocently enough, with Fibber enjoying a fine cigar, which Gildersleeve must have meant for his guests to enjoy. After all, he left them sitting in the bottom of his dresser drawer where anyone could find them! The evening is filled with traditional Halloween games and activities, like Mrs. Uppington telling fortunes and Harlow Wilcox telling a ghost story (you get three guesses to determine whether or not the ghost walked across a floor treated with Johnson’s Glo Coat).

Halloween would not be complete without a prank or two. What is Fibber doing in Gildy’s garage? Surely it is harmless fun… Wait, isn’t Gildy’s car at the mechanics? Where is Fibber’s car? Would some one have moved it off the street for safe keeping? Listen here to learn more :

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“If You Frighten Easily…”: Lights Out Old Time Radio Show

CASTOne of the most enduring images of an old time radio fan is the youngster, awake long past his bedtime, in bed with the sheets pulled over his head, listening to a late night horror program.

Listeners who are new fans of OTR can be forgiven for thinking that horror radio shows were the dominant program during the Golden Age of Radio. They were not, in fact there were relatively few of them. However, those that survive are some of fans favorite series.

No genre is as uniquely suited to radio as horror. We can escape horror on the printed page by simply looking up from the book and see that it is all just fantasy. The fantasy of horror on the screen depends upon the director’s use of special effects to create the terrifying images. No special effects can create as intense images of horror as a good script writer can put in our minds, and even if we shut our eyes, the terror is still there, waiting and daring us to quit listening.

That school yard dare was one of the few campy elements of radio’s most effective horror programs, Lights Out. The tongue in cheek horror hosts and creaking doors would come later, perhaps to make the programs better suited to a wider audience.

The announcer’s voice ominously tells us “Lights out, everybody!” and a gong tolls thirteen times, punctuating the warning “It… is… later… than… you… think!” these Lights Out stories are definitely not for the timid soul, so we tell you calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.”

Of course, no listener can resist a dare like that, although they may wish they did.

Wyllis CooperAt 17, Wyllis Cooper was a bugler with the 131st Illinois Infantry in WWI, chasing bandits on the Mexican Border. His unit was shipped to France and he was gassed in the Argonne. After mustering out, Cooper got into the advertising game, eventually heading the continuity departments at CBS and NBC in Chicago. Some of his earliest dramatic include scripts for NBC’s pioneering dramatic anthology, The Empire Builder, sponsored by the Great Northern Railroad. On of his stories took place in the copper mines of Butte, MT. Cooper actually traveled to Butte to get a feel for the mining industry, an indication of the level of detail which would mark his later projects.

Late in 1933, Cooper began toying with the idea for “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour.” Most of the competition was just playing music at this hour, so perhaps thinking he could do little harm that late, WENR gave Cooper 15 minutes on Wednesday midnights beginning in January, 1934. The serial format was dropped in favor of an anthology of supernatural and crime thrillers, and Lights Out was successful enough to grow to a half hour in April.

Few, if any recordings of these early Lights Out episodes exist, but several of the scripts were used when Lights Out were brought back as a summertime revival during the forties. These scripts show that Cooper was experimenting with stream of consciousness writing and first person narration long before Orson Welles and Arch Oboler popularized them.

Lights Out radio showCharacters in these stories could expect to be decapitated, eaten alive by a giant amoeba, vaporized in a ladle of molten steel or beaten to a bloody pulp. Chicago actor Sidney Ellstrom joked that he had “died a thousand deaths”, most of them unspeakably violent. Studio technicians spent many hours in pre production, devising just the right sound effects for heads being removed from shoulders, thousands of skulls being crushed and cannibalistic plants consuming their victims.

Cooper rode the success of Lights Out to Hollywood in 1936 to work on movie scripts, including The Son Of Frankenstein(1939). He never completely left radio, giving us several scripts for The Campbell Playhouse, The Army Hour, and one of radio’s most creative shows, Quiet, Please.

Although it was without a sponsor because of its late hour, Lights Out was too popular to let die, so it was turned over to another rising talent in NBC’s writing pool, Arch Oboler.

Oboler was the scion of poor but cultured Latvian Jews. Born in Chicago, he was a precocious child, a largely self taught intellectual and amateur boxer. He became fascinated with the possibilities of radio as a storytelling medium and disgusted that the potential was being wasted on soap operas.

NBC saw potential in Oboler’s talent (he would be seen later as NBC’s answer to CBS’s Norman Corwin), but had no real outlet for him. He was assigned to several “potboilers” until the helm of Lights Out became available. The lack of sponsorship and the late hour kept the program out of the censor’s attention, and Oboler thrived creatively.

While maintaining, perhaps even elevating the level of gore from Cooper’s days, Oboler’s stories were often more deeply psychological thrillers. Although NBC policy was to remain neutral in regards to the Nazi’s during the Thirties, Oboler managed to sneak in a few anti-Fascist messages. For most OTR fans, Oboler’s tenure with Lights Out is a high point in radio horror.

There is a story about one of Oboler’s most famous episodes being rebroadcast over AFRS during the War. The battle hardened troops, who knew they would face the Germans the next day, were relaxing in their barracks, listening to the radio. Just as the expanding chicken heart was about to engulf the world, the camp gener

The actor at the microphone is Sidney Ellstrom, but the “corpse” on top of the pile of bodies appears to be Harold Peary, who would later star as The Great Gildersleeve.

The actor at the microphone is Sidney Ellstrom, but the “corpse” on top of the pile of bodies appears to be Harold Peary, who would later star as The Great Gildersleeve.

ator went out and the barracks was plunged into darkness. The combat veterans scrambled like Girl Scouts from around a campfire!

By 1938 Oboler was ready to leave horror behind, but those thirteen gongs reverberated throughout the rest of his career. In 1942, Oboler reopened Lights Out on CBS, with a sponsor and a prime time slot this time around. There were few new stories, however, using scripts from the NBC series and some of the more psychological fare from Arch Oboler’s Plays.

The 1945 and 46 summer revivals of Lights Out brought back Cooper’s old scripts, but did not go over in 1947, as the sponsor felt the stories too gruesome for the modern audiences. Lights Out was briefly adapted to experimental TV broadcasts in 1946, and became a regular series in 1949. However, there was no way that TV could replicate the vivid imagery of Lights Out on the radio.

Besides, TV really loses its effect when you have the sheets pulled up over your head.

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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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