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Happy Birthday, Harlow Wilcox!

If real life were like an old-time radio comedy program—and my gosh, don’t you think it should be?—I can’t think of any other individual that I would want to handle the announcing chores from week to week…and to feel free to literally enter my house and plug the sponsor’s wares with all the enthusiasm they could muster.  I’m referring, of course, to announcer Harlow Wilcox, born on this date in 1900 in Omaha, Nebraska. His longtime association with The Johnson’s Wax Program with Fibber McGee & Molly provided so many memorable moments, “making himself to home” at 79 Wistful Vista to extol the virtues of Johnson’s Glo-Coat or Carnu.  The integration of commercials into the comedic content on Fibber McGee & Molly became one of the series’ trademarks…though it did create a problem or two when the Armed Forces Radio Service had to do judicious editing to remove any unnecessary plugs for the troops overseas.

It was a foregone conclusion that Harlow Wilcox would eventually embrace a career in show business.  His father played cornet for the Ringling Brothers circus, and later became a bandleader (with young Harlow as “band boy”).  Wilcox’s sister Hazel was a concert violinist, who also performed in vaudeville.  Harlow, as a youth, aspired to be a musician (he wanted to play “hot trombone”), and after graduating from Omaha High School he embarked on the Chatauqua and Lyceum circuits for a two-year period.  Wilcox soon learned, to his disappointment, that the life of an artist is frequently a starving one—so when he was offered a job as a salesman for an electrical equipment firm he accepted.

Harlow Wilcox’s life as a salesman wasn’t a particularly fulfilling one.  He kept his hand in performing by engaging in amateur dramatics, but Harlow would eventually decide that combining that with the salesmanship he had been engaged in over the years, radio announcing would be ideal.  It took a little time for Wilcox to get into radio—stations were usually reluctant to hire anyone without experience…and you can’t get experience if they don’t hire you—but eventually he landed a job at a small Chicago radio station in 1929.  A gig as announcer for comedian Charles “Chic” Sale would be the impetus for Harlow’s burgeoning career, and soon his baritone voice was one of the most recognized on-air in Chicago—first as a CBS staff announcer (on shows like Myrt and Marge), then NBC.

Harlow Wilcox had a relationship with the Johnson’s Wax organization almost since he got his break in radio.  He was the announcer on The House by the Side of the Road in 1934, a Johnson’s sponsored program that featured radio personality Tony Wons (“Are you listening?”). When the company rolled out Fibber McGee & Molly on April 16, 1935 over NBC Blue, Harlow was made the announcer on that show as well.  It marked, as Humphrey Bogart remarked in Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Wilcox was so determined to get in his spiel as he dropped in to say “hi-dy” to the McGees weekly that Fibber jokingly nicknamed him “Waxy.” (During the Pet Milk years of the show, Fib referred to Wilcox as “Milky.”) Harlow would be a mainstay on Fibber McGee & Molly until the half-hour version of the program closed up shop on June 30, 1953. When Jim and Marian Jordan went on vacation in the summer, Harlow stuck around and performed announcing chores for such Fib & Molly replacements as Attorney at LawMeredith Willson’s Musical RevueHap HazardThe Victor Borge Show, and King for a Night (featuring The King’s Men).

Throughout his long radio career, Harlow Wilcox worked for such leading lights as Ben Bernie, Phil Baker (The Armour Hour), Rudy Vallee (The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour), Major Bowes, and Charlie Ruggles.  In addition, Wilcox had an interesting association with Frank Morgan and Fanny Brice: first, on Maxwell Coffee House Time when Morgan and Brice were the stars, and then on a single season of Coffee Time when it was solely Morgan’s preserve.  Harlow would work with Fanny when she began her own Baby Snooks program in the mid-40s.  When Amos ‘n’ Andy expanded to a half-hour in the fall of 1943, Wilcox was the announcer on that program for a few seasons, left and then returned in 1951 to finish out the show’s run in 1955 (Harlow was also heard on The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall as well).  Other programs on which he worked include The Adventures of Frank MerriwellArnold Grimm’s DaughterBlondieBoston BlackieThe Curtain of TimeThe Grennaniers Variety Show, Hedda Hopper’s HollywoodHollywood PremiereMail CallThe Mayor of the TownThe Nash-Kelvinator Showroom (starring the Andrews Sisters), Niles and Prindle (Ice Box Follies), The Princess Pat Players, and Truth or Consequences.

From 1948 to 1954, Harlow Wilcox’s other high-profile gig was on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”—Suspense, where he was the commercial spokesman for Auto-Lite.  Harlow was just as enthusiastic about spark plugs as he was about the floor wax from Racine, and on the program’s classic February 3, 1949 broadcast “Backseat Driver,” Wilcox welcomed his bosses Fibber and Molly as they stepped before the Suspense microphones for a most memorable dramatic half-hour.  On TV, Harlow’s small screen resume was a short one, appearing on installments of Science Fiction Theatre and You Are There. His work on the larger screen was even more brief, including only a handful of theatrical shorts (Bah WildernessThey’re Off) and an interesting turn as “Mr. Collins” in the 1941 Bergen & McCarthy/Fibber McGee & Molly feature Look Who’s Laughing.  Harlow Wilcox left this world for a better one in 1960 at the age of 60.

In the 1950s, Harlow Wilcox was the executive vice president of Rockett Pictures, a Hollywood film production company.  Maybe it’s us, but we just can’t picture our birthday boy seated behind a desk and smoking a stogie.  We’ve decided to remember “Waxy” for what he did best: beseeching folks to purchase the finest of floor wax in our Fibber McGee & Molly collections of Cleaning the ClosetGone FishingToo Much Energy, and Wistful Vista.  You can also listen to Mr. Wilcox in Fibber McGee & Molly episodes in our potpourri compendiums of Comedy Out West and Great Radio Comedy, and selected broadcasts on Amos ‘n’ Andy: Radio’s All-Time Favorites.  Finally—because if we’ve learned anything from Harlow it’s “You’re always right with Autolite!”—our Suspense collections of Ties That Bind and Wages of Sin allow him ample opportunity to strut his announcer stuff.  Happy birthday, Harlow!

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