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Let’s have another cup of coffee…

No less an authority than TV Guide declared Father Knows Best to be “the quintessentially comforting 50s sitcom.”  A generation of dedicated couch potatoes never missed a weekly visit with the Anderson family—comprised of wise patriarch Jim (Robert Young), nurturing mother Margaret (Jane Wyatt), and the three Anderson offspring: Betty (Elinor Donahue), Jim, Jr., a.k.a. “Bud” (Billy Gray), and Kathy (Lauren Chapin).  Even when the show officially left the airwaves after a six-season run from 1954 to 1960, it continued in prime-time reruns until 1963…and then settled permanently into The Old Syndication Home afterward.  Father was critically acclaimed by numerous family, church, and civic organizations, and described by boob tube historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh as spotlighting “truly an idealized family, the sort that viewers could relate to and emulate.”

That may have been the case on television…but it was a different story on radio, when Father Knows Best debuted over NBC on this date in 1949.  The audio Anderson clan was a bit more dysfunctional than their small screen counterparts, though star Young later attributed the zaniness of the radio program to the fact that “it had to have laughs…I wanted a warm relationship show.”  The actor eventually got his wish…but for those of us who resented that the Anderson siblings were a little too perfect (those kids never fell into giant soup bowls or hung out with beatniks, for example), the early broadcasts of the radio Father Knows Best are a respite from the blandness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm the TV adaptation.

Some of that blandness can be attributed to the show’s star, who began his motion picture career with a credited role in the 1931 Charlie Chan vehicle The Black Camel (after bit parts in two other films).  Robert Young would soon establish himself in movies as a charming and likable leading man in such vehicles as The Guilty Generation (1931), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and The Wet Parade (1932).  Young’s characters were predictably unthreatening, only occasionally demonstrating a dark side in the likes of Secret Agent (1936—a Hitchcock film where Bob’s the villain!) and The Mortal Storm (1940).  Robert could rise to the occasion with superior performances in such movies as Northwest Passage (1940) and Crossfire (1947), but for most of his nearly 100-film career, he was good ol’ dependable Bob.

Young’s exposure in motion pictures would follow a natural progression into radio, where adaptations of the movies he appeared in would be tackled on such anthologies as The Gulf Screen Guild Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre.  In April of 1938, Robert would become a host on the Good News program, where he joshed with the likes of Frank Morgan and Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks) while extoling the virtues of Maxwell House coffee.  Young continued his association with that sponsor when he played Morgan’s foil on Maxwell House Coffee Time from 1944 to 1945, cutting up alongside Cass Daley.  In between, Bob was the star of 1943’s Passport for Adams, a Norman Corwin-produced wartime drama that cast the actor as a newspaperman who trekked around the world.

Though Father Knows Best was created by writer Ed James, the project really came to fruition due to the partnership that Young had with Eugene B. Rodney.  The actor had met Rodney in 1935, and the two later teamed up to form a company: Rodney-Young Productions.  Father premiered in the form of a December 20, 1948 audition recording.  It was a funny, if manic, production that suggested “Father Knows Best” might have been a bit of sarcasm.  June Whitley played Margaret in the audition (the family’s last name was “Henderson”); her role would later become the responsibility of Jean Vander Pyl, a talented veteran who had previously appeared on the Alan Young and Joan Davis shows.  As for Bob Young…well, his “Jim Henderson” comes off as a bit of a numbskull—only slightly smarter than, say, Ozzie Nelson.  The “Henderson” kids are also not the role models of the later TV series; Betty is a bit on the spoiled and shallow side, and Kathy is an obnoxious brat.

When Father Knows Best was picked up as a regular series by NBC in August of 1949, they reworked the Jim Anderson character, though he still came across occasionally as—in the words of author Jim Cox—“a rather awkward bungler…guilty of mangling even the best of intents.”  Many of the flaws of the radio Jim can be attributed to creator James, whose approach to the show was to present a funhouse mirror exaggeration of family life (many of the early broadcasts weren’t shy about presenting Jim and Margaret as a frequently bickering couple—though never to the degree of The Bickersons, created by non-Father Knows Best fan Phil Rapp).  As the series progressed, writer Paul West “de-squabbled” the program’s content, and shows from 1953 and 1954 are more reminiscent of the TV version.

Father Knows Best would reunite Robert Young and Maxwell House—Bob inherited the General Foods’ sponsorship from George Burns & Gracie Allen, and the sitcom would also feature commercials hawking Post Toasties, Instant Postum, etc.  (I often wondered what Maxwell House had to say about the actor’s commercials for Sanka in the 1970s.)  In fact, the show would memorably open with a plug for the sponsor’s product, along the lines of young Kathy singing out: “Mo-ther…are Post 40 Percent Bran Flakes really the best-tasting cereal of them all?”  “Well,” Margaret would reply, “your father says so…and Father Knows Best.”  Announcer Marvin Miller (and later Bill “The Whistler” Forman) would then invite listeners to check in with “a half-hour visit with your neighbors, the Andersons” to the strains of Waiting (for Love to Find You)—also referred to as the “Father Knows Best Theme.”  (The show’s opening theme was the 1932 Cole Porter tune that I cleverly appropriated as the title for this post.)

Rounding out the radio cast were Rhoda Williams as eldest daughter Betty (affectionately known to Jim as “Princess”), Ted Donaldson as Bud (Bud had the show’s catchphrase, “Holy cow!”—which he apparently appropriated from Meet Corliss Archer’s Dexter Franklin), and Norma Jean Nilsson as Kathy (“Kitten” or “Angel” to Jim, “Shrimp” to Bud).  (Helen Strohm replaced Nilsson in the show’s later run.)  Other actors who appeared on Father Knows Best included Eleanor Audley and Herb Vigran, who played Elizabeth and Hector Smith—the Andersons’ next-door neighbors.  (Sam Edwards portrayed their son Billy…and since Sam was best known for playing Dexter on the aforementioned Meet Corliss Archer, I’m curious as to whether he and Donaldson ever had a “Holy cow!”-off.)

By the time of Father Knows Best’s radio premiere, the aural medium was slowly starting to transition to pre-recording broadcasts for “later broadcast at a more convenient time.”  Father would adopt the practice, too…but it’s interesting to note that before transcriptions, Robert Young’s co-stars would arrange to join him in whatever city he happened to be in whenever he performed in a play (Bob apparently wasn’t going to let a weekly series tie him down).  The radio Father Knows Best would eventually close shop on April 25, 1954, and after a tryout on The Ford Television Theatre (telecast on May 27, 1954) with a production entitled “Keep it in the Family,” Father would successfully transition to the small screen that October.  TV’s Father Knows Best would be even more successful than its radio counterpart; in its final season, it was still in the Top Ten (#6 that year) when Young decided to call it quits.

“We never intended the series to be more than a weekly half-hour of fun and entertainment,” declared Robert Young in later years when challenged about the show’s reluctance to tackle serious issues…and on that score, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t succeed.  The TV series continues to entertain new generations of fans in reruns (all six seasons of the show have been released to DVD) and its radio sibling is also a solid favorite with old-time radio devotees.  Radio Spirits offers two fine collections of vintage Father Knows Best broadcasts in Father Knows Best and Maple Street (a reference to the Anderson family’s address of 607 Maple Street in the fictional town of Springfield), and our Radio’s Christmas Celebrations compendium includes a nice December 24, 1953 episode with a heartwarming Yuletide theme.  “Margaret!  I’m home!” was Jim Anderson’s familiar refrain after returning from a tough day at the office.  And after listening to a few shows from this timeless classic…you will be, too.

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