Sometimes The Show Doesn’t Go On

Carole Lombard death causes grieving Jack Benny show cancellation (Jan 16, 1942)

There has been plenty written on how the Hollywood community came together to aid their nation when America became embroiled in World War Two. The attack on PearlHarbor touched everyone, and later generations have every reason to be proud of the way the Greatest Generation reacted.

We have heard the stories of the stars who put their careers aside so that they could wear the uniform of their country. Those who couldn’t join the service contributed where they were able. Whether sharing their talents for entertaining the troops, working hard to sell War Bonds, or spreading the message from the rationing board, it seemed that the entire entertainment industry had been mobilized.

Like any other segment of the population, some from the Hollywood community paid the ultimate price in the War Effort. The following is the story of what the Hollywood Victory Committee recognized as the first star to give their life for their country in the war effort.

Carole Lombard was an incredible screen presence and had the power to absolutely entrance men, both on and off the screen. In 1931, she was married to her sometimes costar William Powell. Friends were convinced that they could not overcome the sixteen year difference in age, but they were sure they could be happy together. The marriage only lasted 28 months, but they remained friends and coworkers. Powell even insisted that Lombard costar in his 1936 hit My Man Godfrey.

Carole Lombard starred with Clark Gable in No Man of Her Own (1932) while she was still happily married to Powell. Lombard and Gable renewed their acquaintance at a costume party in 1936, and soon fell in love. Unfortunately, this time Gable was married. When he was offered the role as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, part of the deal was a bonus that would cover the expense of Gable‘s divorce.

Carole Lombard was an ideal mate for Gable. She had all the glamor of the movie queen she was, but she also outgoing and enough of an outdoors woman to be a real “pal” to the active Gable. They were married during a break in the production of Gone With The Wind in 1939 and settled on a 20 acre ranch in Encino.

Carole Lombard

Lombard’s career took a bit of a setback about the time of her wedding to Gable; she took a number of dramatic roles that audiences found difficult to accept. She found success in comedies again in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). She rode the career boost into one of her most successful films, To Be Or Not To Be with radio’s Jack Benny.

The film was a satire set in Nazi occupied Poland. Jack Benny played a “ham” actor who bears a resemblance to Adolph Hitler. Carole Lombard played his suffering wife with a wandering eye. Lombard and Benny struck up a strong friendship during production.

The film was in post production when Pearl Harbor was attacked and Hollywood mobilized. Clark Gable was made the chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, and one of his first acts was to send his pretty movie star wife, along with his press agent and her mother, on a War Bond drive tour of her home state of Indiana.

The drive was very successful, raising more than $2 million and hit a high point in Indianapolis, where Carole Lombard exhorted the crowd to “join me in a big cheer- V for Victory!” In a hurry to get back to her husband, Lombard convinced her party to board TWA flight 3, which flew from New York to Burbank, with Indianapolis being one of the stops.

Carole Lombard

When the flight stopped in Las Vegas, the Carole Lombard party was in danger of being bumped for military passengers, but Lombard”pulled rank”, claiming the having sold $2 million in war bonds, she deserved some consideration. 32 miles from the airport, the DC-3 slammed into a cliff on Potosi Mountain. There were no survivors.

Clark Gable was understandably distraught at the loss of his wife and friend, so much so that he joined the Army Air Corp and flew on B-17 missions from England. But first he had to bury Carole Lombard. The Army offered to honor her with a military funeral. Gable choose to respect her wishes, giving her a simple, private funeral at Forest Lawn. He also bought two adjoining burial plots, one for Lombard’s mother, and another for himself.

Lombard’s friend Jack Benny was so broken up over the loss of his friend that he was not able to perform his regular program on Jan 18, 1946. Instead, he had Don Wilson host an all music format. Neither Carole Lombard or the plane crash is mentioned on the broadcast.

Hear the Jack Benny Show from Jan 18, 1942:

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To Be Or Not To Be was initially a disaster. Between the depressing war news and the tragic loss of the film’s star, moviegoers were not much in the mood for laughter when the movie was released. The Screen Guild Theater performed a radio adaptation of the movie exactly a year after Jack Benny‘s music format broadcast. Benny’s role in the radio adaptation was played by Carole Lombard’s first husband, William Powell.

Enjoy The Screen Guild Theater‘s 1943 broadcast of To Be or Not To Be:

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A and P Gypsies Old Radio Show from the 1930′s

Before there was Walmart, before there was Target, before there was Safeway, PigglyWiggly, Krogers, or even Sears and Roebuck, there was the A&P.

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company began in 1859 as a small chain of coffee and tea retailers in the New York City area, which had national sales through mail order. The tea and coffee business expanded, opening their first Chicago store after the Great Fire, and moving as far south as Atlanta. Around 1880 the government placed heavy tariffs on coffee and tea, so the firm began adding sugar, condensed milk, butter, and other sundries to it’s line to make up the lost income. This expanded line-up would be the basis of the modern grocery store.

By 1930 the A&P had become the largest retailer in the nation, twice as large as Sears. There were a few dark clouds on the horizon, however. On both the east and west coast the new concept of the “Supermarket” began to make inroads into the retail market; and there was always a backlash that the powerful retail chain was driving local concerns out of business. Nonetheless, because A&P had not borrowed to facilitate their expansion, the change was in a good position to whether the Great Depression.

The biggest expansion of the A&P was during the same period that Commercial Radio came to be, and the grocer was quick to use the new medium to attract shoppers to their stores. When band-leader Harry Horlick’s family escaped Russia at the beginning of WWI, Harry chose to stay behind, and he wound up as a prisoner of war. Working behind the scenes through the American consul, his family was able to get him released and he came to the US. He began playing in cafe’s around New York with a six piece ensemble, eventually landing an unsponsored spot on WEAF. In 1924 an A&P exec was touring the studio, and heard the group. Horlick was arranging what ever the audience wanted, but he specialized in the Gypsy Music he had learned traveling in Eastern Europe. Thus the A&P Gypsies were born.

The A&P Gypsies radio show was a regular Monday night on-air attraction for many years. In 1933 A&P was part of the Chicago World’s Fair, featuring a large canopied board-walk where tea dances were held, the company providing samples of coffee and tea while the crowds danced to the music of the Gypsies. The attraction was incredibly popular with the program’s legion of loyal fans.

A&P Gypsies can be heard in Old Time Radio’s collection of Random Rarities #6:

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Why I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Contest of 1945

Jack-benny-cbs-mikeWhen We Couldn’t Stand Jack Benny – A running gag series on the Jack Benny Program where radio listeners and special guests shared the many ways they couldn’t stand Jack Benny. The winner received $10,000 in American Bonds.

No one has ever accused Jack Benny of being a visionary (except, maybe, Jack Benny). However, Jack and his merry band managed to raise radio comedy from its vaudeville roots to what many reviews feel is “the quintessential radio comedy show.”

The Jack Benny Show was always a team effort, even if Jack’s character would never admit it. Jack Benny was a comic genius, and no one could have played the character he created as well or duplicated his timing and delivery. The true genius of Benny’s program was always letting the other players shine. Taking a different direction from other vaudeville veterans in radio, Jack never depended upon the technique of heckling his audience or fellow players. In contrast, Jack was usually the butt of his cast’s jokes. How much of this was Jack’s creation and how much can from his writing staff is hard to say. Jack rarely, if ever, gave an interview without acknowledging his writers, even when he disagreed with them.

_jackbennyOne bit that Jack wasn’t happy with at first was the “Why I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Contest”. When the writers originally presented the concept to Benny, the contest was “Why I Hate Jack Benny”, but that was a little much, even for Benny’s iron-tough self-deprecation.

The contest began on the first December broadcast of 1945, after a series of running gags involving Jack getting robbed of $10,000. It turns out the robbery was a publicity stunt, and the stunt continues in the contest. Through the weeks of the contest, the program
has several unique episodes and guests, including the first appearance of Ronald and Benita Colman as Jack’s neighbors, and a visit from Louella Parsons.

Jack Benny’s character is even more beside himself with the thought of giving away $10,000 than having been robbed of it. The prizes are various denominations of Victory Bonds. The worst part for Jack is the contest’s “Supreme Judge”, no other than his nemesis, Fred Allen.

Fred Allen takes positive delight in announcing the winners, but probably not as much as Ronald Colman does the following week, when he reads Carrol P. Craig’s winning entry:

Jack Benny
He fills the air with boasts and brags
And obsolete obnoxious gags.
The way he plays his violin
Is music’s most obnoxious sin.
His cowardice alone, indeed,
Is matched by his obnoxious greed.
In all the things that he portrays
He shows up my own obnoxious ways.

Enjoy this Jack Benny broadcast from 68 years ago today, Dec 30, 1945:

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Christmas Movies during the Golden Age of Radio

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1947 was a banner year for Christmas Movies. It was a significant time for several reasons. The country was enjoying a phenomenal economic recovery after the austerity of WWII, and the beginnings of the post-war baby boom meant there were many new stockings for Santa to fill.

1947 may have been the ultimate White Christmas; the Great Blizzard of 1947 blanketed the Northeast, dropping 26.4 inches of snow in Manhattan’s Central Park on Christmas Day and the day after. It was also the year when the first Hollywood Blacklist was created, one of the opening acts of America’s Cold War.

Three of the greatest Christmas movies of all time are 1947 films; It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop’s Wife. The factors that came together to put Hollywood into such a Christmas spirit are open to debate. No one really knows if it was the Post War optimism, or simply a happy coincidence of studio scheduling. What is known is that although all three are 1947 films, their genesis began months, even years before their release.

downloadFrank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was originally scheduled for release in January 1947, but the premier was moved forward to qualify the film for the 1946 Academy Awards (not an auspicious move for the film, future critics point out that there would have been less Oscar competition in ’47). the film was inspired by a 1939 short story, The Greatest Gift, which author Phillip Van Doren Stern had used as a Christmas Card. Cary Grant‘s agent had seen the story, and felt it would have been a marvelous vehicle for his star. The agent convinced RKO to buy the rights to the story, but the studio’s writers were unable to make anything of it. Grant went on to star in The Bishop’s Wife, and RKO was very happy to unload The Greatest Gift when Capra became interested.

The film opened to mixed, but generally favorable reviews although Capra felt the film was largely dismissed. The film was unsuccessful at the box office, but because of confusion concerning the copyright status (due to a clerical error, the copyright was allowed to lapse) the picture became a Holiday staple on Television during the 70s and 80s. This also gave critics a chance to reacquaint themselves with the film, which raised it to the classic status it holds today.

miracle is a film that should not have done as well as it did. 20th Century Fox considered the project a B film, although they gave the project Maureen O’Hara as a star. Everyone involved in the film consider it to be one of their most enjoyable experiences in movie making (6 year old child actress Natalie Wood was convinced that Edmund Gwenn was indeed Santa Claus, and was notably shocked when he appeared at the Wrap Party without his beard).

Scheduling was tight for Miracle. The director was insistent that actual footage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade be used, so the production moved to New York to capture those images with the Stars, as well as crowd scenes of actual Macy’s Christmas shopping. Many interior scenes were shot in the store after hours.

The film was complete by spring of 1947, and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck decided to release the Christmas film in May. Although Zanuck felt that more people go to the movies in the summer, there remained the problem of promoting a Christmas movie in springtime. The answer was the radical step of using a trailer that did not show any scenes from the movie.

At a time when most films had an expected two or three week run in theaters, Miracle continued showing until after the Holiday Season. The simple and appealing story has been remade several times, as well as being colorized, but each new version serves to only deepen the public’s affection for the original black and white version.

the-bishops-wifeIn The Bishop’s Wife, Samuel Goldwyn brings a powerhouse cast together in search of movie magic. Archie Leach used Vaudeville as an escape from a troubled childhood. About the time his friend Fred Allen was going into radio, Leach moved to Hollywood and changed his name to Cary Grant and became a movie legend. David Niven was an actual “officer and a gentleman” and eventually the inspiration for the James Bond character. Beautiful Loretta Young was brought in nearly at the last minute to play the title role.

Casting for the film went through a few revisions before the magic combination was set. Dana Andrews was to set to play the Bishop, with Teresa Wright his wife and Niven as Dudley the Angel. Wright was forced to bow out due to pregnancy. Goldwyn was forced to lend Andrews to RKO in order to borrow Loretta Young.

Grant was one of the first major stars to work outside the Star System (he did not renew his Studio Contract, which allowed him to choose his projects), and had been interested in an early version of It’s A Wonderful Life, but The Bishop’s Wife was to become his Christmas role. When filming began, Goldwyn was dissatisfied with both the script and director William A. Seiter. After rewrites and putting putting Harry Koster in the director’s chair, a further decision was reached to swap Grant and Niven in the Bishop and Angel roles.

Lux Radio Theater, The Screen Guild Theater, and more adapted It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop’s Wife and other great Christmas Movies on the radio often using the original cast.

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Charlie McCarthy Premiers on Royal Gelatin Hour

Seventy seven years ago, on Dec 17, 1936, Edgar Bergen brought his companion, Charlie McCarthy, to the radio waves for the first time.

The show was The Royal Gelatin Hour hosted and directed by Rudy Vallee. Better known as The Rudy Vallee Show, the program was going through a barely noticeable shakeup of its own. From 1929 Tuesday nights were dedicated to Rudy entertaining radio audiences and pushing Fleischmann’s Yeast. Rudy Vallee was one of the earliest “crooners”; his voice wasn’t really strong enough to fill theaters before electric amplification, but he was able to use the microphone to create an intimate and appealing (to young women) sound. NBC head of programming, Bertha Brainard, pushed for Vallee to host the show, explaining that “only a woman would understand the appeal of Rudy Vallee’s voice.” Both Fleischmann’s and Royal Gelatin were both products of Standard Brands, so there really wasn’t that big of a change for the show.

The Dec 17, 1936 show was pretty typical for the variety show. It begins with a number by Vallee’s orchestra, The Connecticut Yankees, followed by Vallee interviewing professional party giver, Elsa Maxwell. Soon we hear the Royal Gelatin can give us wonderful Strawberry flavor in December, some more music, and a small drama, “Three Diamond Bid”, featuring Douglas Montgomery and Shirley Booth. After the NBC Chimes at the program’s midpoint we are treated to a rendition of “Old Man River” by Bass John gurney, who is soon to make his debut with the Metropolitan Opera, which leads into a toe tapping number, “Riding High” featuring the Swing Kids Quartet.

In the 38th minute of the program Rudy tries to answer the question that has been bothering us since the intro: Why put a ventriloquist on the radio? Rudy explains that Bergen depends more on his Fred Allen like wit that the “believe it or not” elements of the ventriliqual craft. He also shares that Bergen was very well received at one of Ms. Maxwell’s recent parties.

Bergen begins by asking Charlie about his marvelous top hat and tails. Charlie explains that he is from the Other Side, of the tracks; er, the pond. Of course he goes grouse shooting every fall as part of the upper crust. Bergen doesn’t buy it, and it soon comes out that the young man is plain old Charlie McCarthy. Bergen reads Charlie’s future, telling him there may be a job in store for him-

Edgar: There will be a small starting salary.

Charlie: But it will start?

Edgar: It will start, yes

Charlie: Could you tell me how small?

Edgar: No, I can’t say that.

Charlie: Oh, they don’t make money that small!

Edgar: Well, I’m sure they will pay you what you are worth.

Charlie: Well I wouldn’t be interested in that kind of money!

The act was a big enough hit that Vallee wanted to book them for rest of the season. Unfortunately Bergen only had three weeks worth of material prepared!

The sponsor was just as impressed as the audience. Standard Brands also sponsored The Chase and Sanborn Hour, which began to feature Bergen and McCarthy in the 1937 season. The radio ventriloquist would have an 11 year run with the coffee program. One of the most infamous broadcasts was on Dec 12, 1937, when Mae West performed a version of Adam and Eve written by Arch Oboler. The Sunday School story had such a risqué slant that Miss West was black-listed from radio for many years.

In 1949 Bergen would move to CBS for The Charlie McCarthy Show sponsored by CocaCola.  Edgar Bergen is honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6425, 6766, and and 6801 Hollywood Blvd. 

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Bumbling Humor and The Great Gildersleeve

The Great Gildersleeve premiered on August 31, 1941 on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio network. Sponsored by Kraft Foods, the show was actually a spin-off of another popular series, Fibber McGee and Molly. Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve, or Gildy as he was called, first appeared on the Fibber McGee and Molly show on October 3, 1939. Gildy was the pretentious, pompous and humorous next-door neighbor of Fibber McGee and Molly . Actor Harold Peary’s interpretation of the character was so successful and popular that by 1941, NBC created a show based on Gildersleeve.

During the character’s run on the Fibber McGee and Molly show, he sometimes made remarks about his wife; however, the new character was transformed into a bachelor on The Great Gildersleeve. Nevertheless, the bachelor uncle comedy became a hit. In an unusual move for the times, The Great Gildersleeve series centered on Gildy’s life as a bachelor with two young wards. The show took a lighthearted, comedic look at the life of a single man suddenly thrust into the role of parent. Along the way, the characters continued to mature and grow up without losing sight of the humor.

Harold Peary continued to play Gildersleeve until 1950, when a network change prevented him from taking the character to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network. On September 6, 1950, Willard Waterman took over the role of Gildersleeve; however, by this time the show’s popularity was steadily declining. The networks of the 1950’s began to compete for headliner talent, while television began to overtake and replace the popular radio shows. In 1954, the series dropped from a thirty minute broadcast to fifteen minutes, where it remained until its final broadcast in 1957.  The series featured many great guest appearances from stars including Kay Starr and Mercedes McCambridge.

The Great Gildersleeve did enjoy popularity as a short television series, airing thirty-nine episodes during the 1955-56 season. The writers of the popular radio series also left a legacy that would continue on television. Co-writer of the series was John Whedon. His son, Tom Whedon would go on to write for the Electric Company and the Golden Girls series. Later, his grandson Zach Whedon would pick up the pen to become the scriptwriter of Deadwood, while his brother Joss became the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Please feel free to enjoy The Great Gildersleeve episode Christmas Caroling at Home:

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Mysteries of Old Time Radio

One of the charms of investigating Old Time Radio shows is the element of mystery that often crops up. We aren’t talking about Mystery Programs necessarily, (although they can be a lot of fun in their own right) but mysteries about the surviving shows them selves.

Much of the mystery comes from the nature of surviving OTR shows. In some cases, beloved shows are well preserved because some one directly involved with the program thought to hold onto recordings of the show. This is the reason that Fibber McGee and Molly has survived; the sponsor, Johnson Wax, made it a point to keep a recording of each show they sponsored.

It needs to be remembered that for most of the radio era, audio recording was rather primitive. Shows that were put into syndication had to be recorded in a robust media, like a vinyl disk, but for the most part, if a recording was made, it would usually be made on a fragile acetate disk. Not only were they fragile, but they were relatively bulky, and when storage became scarce they were often destroyed or disposed of. In a few cases an enthusiast manged to get their hands on the recordings before they were destroyed, but even when this occurred, there may have been little or no information about the recording except for a small note scribbled on a faded label.

Recently I enjoyed listening to what appears to be a syndicated serial from the mid 1930s, Omar, the Wizard of Persia. Most sources make note of the popularity of Omar Khayyam as a symbol of oriental mysteries. But there is very little information about the show itself. One source says that it played for 200 installments over the Mutual Network. The recordings that are known to exists have the sound of a syndicated production; chiefly the long musical interludes at the beginning and end of each episode. The last of the known recordings appears to wrap up the story, ending with “Our mission is complete!” But there are a lot of unanswered questions, and the story had only progressed from the US to a bazaar in Damascus, not Persia, where it would have been expected to go.

I have a theory but unless there is an OTR enthusiast out there with more information, I don’t think I will be able to prove it one way or the other. My guess is that scripts for Omar were written for a 200 episode run, and they may have been performed over Mutual under the sponsorship of Taystee Bread. And the program may have been popular enough to try to sell in syndication. But it would have been difficult to sell a total of 200 episodes, so the 13th episode “quick close” was put together so that the smaller package could be sold.

Similar tactics have been noted for programs like Cruise of the Poll Parrot, which was designed to sell as an advertising vehicle for individual shoe stores.

If you have any further knowledge about Omar, Wizard of Persia, we’d love to hear from you

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