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Happy Birthday, Harry Von Zell!

It’s now one of the best-remembered and oft-told anecdotes of radio history. A young CBS announcer born Harry Rudolph Von Zell in Indianapolis, Indiana on this date in 1906 manages to mangle the name of the 31st President of the United States during a live radio broadcast in 1931. “The next voice you hear will be that of our new president, Hoobert Heever,” intoned Von Zell with a spoonerism so unforgettable that sponsors later started requesting Harry to be the announcer for the programs on which they bought time. “They thought everybody would listen to see what I would do next!” Von Zell mused many years afterwards.

“I walked out of that studio—we were on the twenty-third floor of the Columbia Broadcasting System building—and fortunately, the windows were not operative,” Harry Von Zell told old-time radio historian Chuck Schaden in 1975. “They were fixed windows or I would have jumped out!” I should interject here and point out that contrary to what some have been led to believe, President Herbert Hoover was not being introduced by Von Zell at the time of the famous goof. It was all part of a scripted birthday tribute to Hoover being read by Harry, who pronounced the President’s name correctly no less than 20 times during his lengthy spiel. The notorious (I think it’s appropriate to use this adjective) Kermit Schafer, producer of a few popular “blooper” albums in the 1970s, did a little “doctoring” on one LP to make listeners think Harry’s verbal boo-boo was done in Hoover’s presence. (“We weren’t even in the same city,” Harry always joked.)

A Hoosier by birth, Harry Von Zell and his family moved to Sioux City, Iowa after he graduated from high school and then relocated to California where he studied music and drama at UCLA. Harry was already working at a variety of jobs when an opportunity to work in radio presented itself—a few of his friends goaded him into performing on a radio program, and offers to work at other stations soon started pouring in. “If you could perform in any way, average or perhaps a little above average, you could get work,” Von Zell explained to Schaden. “If you were average, you worked for nothing.” Fortunately, Harry could carry a tune and was able to obtain gainful employment at a number of West Coast stations (including KNX, where he earned $25 a week) before a successful audition for Paul Whiteman (Harry beat out 250 other announcers) landed him the announcer’s job on The Old Gold Hour. At the end of the program’s run, Von Zell would follow “The King of Jazz” and his band back to the East Coast and soon sign on with the Columbia Broadcasting System as a young staff announcer.

At CBS, Harry Von Zell worked as an announcer on such shows as The Feenamint National Amateur Night, The Gulf Headliners (with Will Rogers), Joe Palooka, The Socony Sketchbook, and Summer Stars (starring Joe Cook). It was not unusual for him to work close to 20 shows a week; Harry was the announcer for Bing Crosby’s inaugural radio broadcast, and worked for such stars as Phil Baker, Ben Bernie, Eddy Duchin, Stoopnagle and Budd, ”Whispering Jack” Smith, and Ed Wynn. One of Von Zell’s most high-profile assignments was as one of the announcers (along with Ted Husing and Westbrook Van Voorhis) on CBS’ The March of Time (Harry was the original “Voice of Time”). Von Zell was with CBS for four years before being hired by Young and Rubicam to work for their clients. That’s how Harry started announcing the adventures of The Aldrich Family weekly in 1939 and how it kicked off a good working relationship with Fred Allen beginning in December of 1935 with Town Hall Tonight.

Harry Von Zell’s longest-running radio relationship began in the fall of 1940, as the announcer/comic foil to Eddie Cantor on It’s Time to Smile. (Von Zell had worked on Smile’s summer incarnation, hosted by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.) Harry would serve in the second banana capacity until 1949 and became so identified with “Banjo Eyes” that in his 1947 Columbia comedy short Meet Mr. Mischief, he falls to his knees upon seeing a large photo of Cantor and begins to “salaam” his “boss” in an amusing in-joke. Von Zell would also work as announcer on Dinah Shore’s program Birds Eye Open House (Eddie liked to claim credit for “discovering” Dinah) and was prominently featured on two summer replacements for Cantor’s show, Quizzer’s Baseball (in 1941) and Wednesday With You (in 1945).

Harry Von Zell was also second banana (among a rather big bunch) on Joan Davis’ program (Joanie’s Tea Room/Joan Davis Time), memorably opening that show by singing “Poor Joan ain’t got nobody/She’s nobody’s sweetheart now” and following it with a maniacal, unsympathetic laugh. Harry was romantically pursued on the program by Verna Felton’s character (“Rosella ‘Hippy’ Hipperton III”), who often greeted him with an enthusiastic “Why, Mr. Von Zellllllllllll!” Von Zell also portrayed “Welby” on Frank Morgan’s The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy and in 1946, got his own starring syndicated sitcom The Smiths of Hollywood which co-starred Brenda Marshall, Jan Ford (a.k.a. Terry Moore), and Arthur Treacher.

Harry Von Zell could also be heard as either the regular announcer or special guest (he did the occasional fill-in, like on Duffy’s Tavern or Fibber McGee and Molly) on the following programs: Al Pearce and His Gang, The Amazing Mr. Smith, Behind the Mike, Bright Star, The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, The Columbia Workshop, The Frank Fontaine Show, Fun In Print, The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, Happy Meetin’ Time, The Jack Benny Program, The Jimmy Fidler Show, The Life of Riley, The Music Box Theatre, Truth or Consequences, We The People, and Your All-Time Hit Parade. Harry also contributed his announcing talents to such AFRS entertainments as Command Performance, Mail Call, and Sound Off; he’s among the all-star cast of Performance’s legendary February 15, 1945 operetta “Dick Tracy in B Flat or, For Goodness Sakes, Isn’t He Ever Going To Marry Tess Trueheart?”

For an individual closely associated with radio comedy, one will get a pleasant surprise from Harry Von Zell’s none-too-shabby turns in dramatic motion pictures like The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), and The Saxon Charm (1948). There’s plenty of comedy in Harry’s cinematic resume, too; plum roles in two funny Bob Hope vehicles, Where There’s Life (1947) and Son of Paleface (1952) and an interesting curio in How DOooo You Do (1946)—which also features Von Zell’s fellow Eddie Cantor Show stooge Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon in an attempt to cash in on their radio popularity. Harry eventually received the opportunity to get “star billing” with a series of two-reel comedy shorts (eight in all) he made for Columbia between 1946 and 1950. “I was not enthused by the idea, but when [Columbia shorts department head Jules White] explained that he was prepared to assign me a staff of expert comedy writers and $500 per subject, I changed my mind,” he recounted in Ed Watz and Ted Okuda’s The Columbia Comedy Shorts.

Harry Von Zell later credited the exposure he received in those two-reel shorts for his long-running gig as announcer-foil on George Burns and Gracie Allen’s television show. It wasn’t the first time he’d worked with George & Gracie, though; he had toiled briefly as their radio announcer in the mid-40s. It was also not Harry’s first small screen foray—before taking over for Bill Goodwin on the Burns’ show in 1951, Von Zell served as the pitchman for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on TV’s The Life of Riley with Jackie Gleason (Harry was doing similar duty on William Bendix’s radio version). Harry would later appear on The George Burns Show (the one sans Gracie) and his other boob tube appearances include Bachelor Father (a recurring role as “Frank Curtis”), The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, McHale’s Navy, Perry Mason, The Tall Man, and Wagon Train. Harry Von Zell passed away in 1981 at the age of 75.

Here at Radio Spirits, we believe there’s no finer way to celebrate Harry Von Zell’s natal anniversary than with a purchase of Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud; Harry was working for Fred at the time…though he usually tried to remain neutral when it came to verbal slugfests with Fred’s nemesis. Von Zell can also be heard on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Duffy’s Tavern: Irish Eyes, Great Radio Sitcoms, Jack Benny: Days of Our Lives, and The Life of Riley: Blue Collar Blues. In our digital downloads store, check out Harry on The Aldrich Family, Bright Star, Burns & Allen: Beverly Hills Uplift Society and Keep Smiling, and The Life of Riley: Lovable Lug. Happy Birthday, Harry!

One Comment

  1. Dario Witer says:

    Von Zell, it should be noted, did commercials here in the Southern California area for Home Savings & Loan for years; as a ’70s kid, his commercials were on every L.A. TV station, especially on KTTV Ch. 11, the longtime home of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1958 to 1992.

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