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Happy Birthday, Joan Banks!

In 1949, at the height of the success of radio’s My Friend Irma, actress Cathy Lewis—who originated the character of roommate Jane Stacy on the popular sitcom—was forced to briefly hand over the role of Jane while she recuperated from illness.  Filling in for Cathy as sidekick to the lovably ditzy Irma Peterson (Marie Wilson) was Joan Banks, a veteran radio thespian who had been a familiar voice to listening audiences since 1936, when she made her debut in front of a radio microphone (at the age of 16) with Walter O’Keefe.  Born on this date in 1918 in Petersburg, WV (shout out to a fellow Mountaineer!), Joan would move beyond radio to appear on television and in films, occasionally in tandem with her equally accomplished husband, Frank Lovejoy.

The daughter of Edith and Nelson Banks, Joan Banks attended a Russian ballet school where her performing talents were encouraged…and her hard work paid off in the form of a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Art.  Joan also attended Hunter College, but working in radio held an enormous appeal for her, and she began to get a great deal of work on various daytime dramas.  Her radio resume of “soaps” (she was once described as a “soapbox queen”) would go on to include such favorites as Aunt Jenny’s Real Life StoriesDeadline DramasHer Honor, Nancy James (she played Nancy’s secretary), A House in the CountryJohn’s Other Wife (as Roberta Lansing), Mary Foster, the Editor’s DaughterThe O’Neills (as Peggy O’Neill Kayden), One Man’s FamilyPortia Faces Life (as Arline Harrison Manning), Today’s Children (as Carlotta Lagorro), Valiant Lady (as Joan Barrett), Whispering StreetsYoung Doctor Malone (as Phyllis Dineen), and Young Widder Brown (as Camille).  In fact, it was while portraying Eleanor MacDonald on the CBS serial This Day is Ours that Banks would meet soul mate Frank Lovejoy, who joined the program’s cast in January of 1940.  Four months later, their love scenes on the radio would provide a textbook example of life imitating art. The duo tied the knot on May 31, 1940.  (The newlyweds couldn’t even make time for a honeymoon…because they both had to be back at work the following Monday!)

Joan Banks’ radio work wasn’t all soap suds, however.  She emoted on many of the medium’s popular anthology programs, among them The Bakers’ Theatre of StarsThe Columbia WorkshopDoorway to LifeThe First Nighter ProgramHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe NBC University TheatrePresenting Charles BoyerScreen Directors’ Playhouse, and Theatre of Romance/Romance.  Some of Joan’s earliest radio work was on the venerable Gang Busters, and she also made the rounds on such hits as The Adventures of Christopher LondonThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of the SaintBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBroadway’s My BeatEllery QueenEscapeInner SanctumThe Man Called XThe Man from HomicideNight BeatPursuitRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveThe Roy Rogers ShowThe Silent MenSuspenseTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIThe Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

As you can see, Joan Banks was one busy radio actress…and in the fall of 1948, she’d get even busier. This was when she received an emergency call from CBS while at her doctor’s office for an appointment.  Cathy Lewis, who played Jane on My Friend Irma, had collapsed during rehearsal and they needed Joan to take her place.  Banks was no stranger to performing comedy, having played Nora on a radio version of the comic strip Bringing Up Father (she had also worked on Mickey Rooney’s Shorty Bell).  She did run into some difficulties with her debut on the show, however – her automobile ran out of gas on her way to the studio (she had rushed home to change).  She had only a half-hour to look over the Irma script, and was as nervous as a first-time bride…but star Marie Wilson provided some helpful coaching, and the broadcast went off without a hitch.  Joan continued as Jane until Cathy Lewis was hale, hearty, and ready to return to work.  Banks’ other laughter-generating turns included appearances on The Adventures of Maisie and Meet Mr. McNutley.

Just as hubby Frank Lovejoy leapt into moviemaking with 1948’s Black Bart, Joan decided to try her luck on the silver screen with her motion picture debut in 1951’s Cry Danger.  She continued to make an impression in such films as Bright Victory (1951), Washington Story (1952), My Pal Gus (1952), Mister Cory (1957), and Return to Peyton Place (1961).  Banks was also constructing an impressive small screen resume with assignments on such shows as I Love LucyMake Room for DaddyThe George Burns and Gracie Allen ShowDecember Bride, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Joan appeared multiple times as “Sylvia Platt” on Ann Sothern’s sitcom Private Secretary, and made two guest appearances on her husband’s TV venture The Adventures of McGraw (a.k.a. Meet McGraw).  (Joan and Frank would work in tandem on two more occasions in presentations on Four Star Playhouse and The Star and the Story…and Joan made certain to be around when Ralph Edwards told Frank “This is Your Life” on an October 16, 1957 telecast of the popular program.)

Since their initial meeting on This Day is Ours, Joan and Frank often worked side-by-side on radio (on Today’s Children, Frank portrayed “Christopher Barnes”…and Joan also appeared a few times on Night Beat). The couple were appearing together in a 1962 production of the Broadway hit The Best Man (written by Gore Vidal—Lovejoy had appeared onstage in the original 1960 version) when tragedy struck as they were enjoying a night off: Lovejoy passed away in his sleep in their hotel room at the age of 50.  Joan would later remarry, but her interest in TV performing began to wane, with her only primetime credits being guest shots on Perry Mason and Bewitched.  Banks would later make multiple appearances on the 1970s radio revival of The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, indulging her fondness for the aural medium.  Joan Banks succumbed to lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 79.

Joan Banks Lovejoy’s role as Jane Stacy on My Friend Irma is present and accounted for in the Radio Spirits collection On Second Thought (with liner notes by yours truly), as well as a Yuletide Irma (from December 20, 1948) on our holiday compendium Radio’s Christmas Celebrations. We’ve also got plenty of Joan in such sets as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Lonely CanyonsNight TideSucker’s Road), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers), Escape (Escape EssentialsThe Hunted and the HauntedPeril), Inner Sanctum (Shadows of Death), The Man Called XThe Man From HomicideNight Beat (Human Interest), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead MenHomicide Made Easy), Stop the Press!, and Suspense (Wages of Sin).  Happy birthday, Joan!

“Personal notice: danger’s my stock-in-trade…”

While attempting to make a name for himself as an actor in motion pictures, Bob Bailey did a little freelancing in radio.  Though under contract to 20th Century-Fox, he discovered that he enjoyed performing in the aural medium.  “If you know how to handle your voice in radio,” Bailey once observed of the craft, “it’s almost impossible to destroy an illusion.”  That very skill would help the actor deliver his definitive portrayal of the titular insurance investigator on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  However, on this date in 1946, Bob began emoting in a different detective role — one that would become every bit as beloved as “the man with the action-packed expense account” — on a program called Let George Do It.

George Valentine didn’t start out as a private investigator.  In the early years of Let George Do It, he was just a guy willing to tackle unpleasant tasks on behalf of his clients.   In fact, his motto was: “If the job’s too tough for you to handle, you’ve got a job for me.”  (Hence the title of the series—a reference to the old idiom “let George do it.”)  Early audition records for the series introduced George as an ex-G.I. who got into the “problem solving” business to address the issue of his rapidly depleting bank account.  Let George Do It functioned, at times, as more of a situation comedy than the crime drama it eventually became.

George’s gal Friday, Claire “Brooksie” Brooks, was with him from the get-go.  She was “volunteered” to be Valentine’s assistant by her brother Sonny, who was working as George’s office boy.  The working relationship between George and Claire was an interesting one — he affectionately called her “Angel,” and she returned the favor with “Darling.” One might say that the two of them enjoyed an innocent Lamont Cranston-Margo Lane-type flirtation.  It was a bit one-sided, to be honest; Brooksie was seriously carrying a torch for her boss and was looking forward to a day when she might trade in her nickname for the title “Mrs. George Valentine.”  The object of her affection wasn’t quite ready to move into the proverbial little cottage with the white picket fence…and went to great lengths to change the subject whenever Brooksie hinted about “happy ever after.”

“A lady of initiative, courage, and foresight, whose efforts made her his partner, in all but name” is how author Jack French described the Brooksie character in his seminal old-time radio reference Private Eyelashes.  Jack identifies actress Lillian Buyeff as the first to play Claire, but fans of the show acknowledge that it was Frances Robinson who made the role her own.  Robinson would emote as Brooksie until 1949, when she turned the role over to Shirley Mitchell (who would be followed by Virginia Gregg).  Claire’s brother Sonny only appeared in the early episodes of Let George Do It, portrayed by radio veteran Eddie Firestone.  The same goes for the character of Caleb, an elevator operator and general jack-of-all-trades, essayed by Joseph Kearns.  Wally Maher played Valentine’s contact on the police force, Lieutenant Riley, and while there was a little antagonism between the two men (standard crime drama conflict, you understand) the chemistry in the Bailey-Robinson-Maher years was among radio’s best.  When Maher suddenly passed away in 1951, actor Ken Christy joined the show as Lieutenant Johnson.  (Johnson was a bit more hard-nosed than Riley, who often called his friend Valentine “chum-boy.”)

Let George Do It stood out from many of the shows broadcast over Mutual in a number of ways.  First, it attracted the sponsorship of Standard Oil (now known as Chevron) at a time when much of the network’s programming functioned on a sustaining basis (announcer John Hiestand did the company’s commercials).  George also boasted exemplary scripts from a team of scribes that included Polly Hopkins (who developed the character of Brooksie), Herbert Little, Jr., David Victor, and Jackson Gillis (who later enjoyed a long period of employment on TV’s Perry Mason as a writer and associate producer).  The performances on the show were also the very picture of professionalism; the crème de la crème of Radio Row worked steadily on George—familiar names like William Conrad, Howard McNear, Hans Conried, Jeanette Nolan, John Dehner, Betty Lou Gerson, Lurene Tuttle, Herb Butterfield, and Harry Bartell.

The list of radio actors above makes it obvious that Let George Do It originated from Hollywood…and this is why it’s been speculated that more people listen to the series today than when it was originally broadcast.  George, like The Whistler, was heard by West Coast audiences only — it wouldn’t reach the opposite coast until 1954-1955, when New York radio listeners were introduced to transcriptions of the series.  (That same New York syndicator also provided transcriptions to audiences in Canada…minus the Standard Oil commercials, of course.)  Listening to surviving episodes of Let George Do It reveals that it was a most underrated program, and it’s no surprise that a new generation of fans rate it highly among crime dramas of its type.  Some of that might be due to the presence of Bob Bailey, of course, who had Johnny Dollar waiting for him in the wings (Bailey left George in its last season, and was replaced by Olan Soulé), but however you slice it, George remains a most entertaining listen.

George Valentine made a good living as an investigator…but here at Radio Spirits, we’re in the entertainment business—and we’ve got a brand-new Let George Do It collection, Sweet Poison, ready for your edification with sixteen action-packaged broadcasts from the series.  To complement this, why not check out our earlier release Cry Uncle, another fine set containing sixteen episodes (and a liner note booklet written by yours truly) from your friends at Radio Spirits!

Happy Birthday, Jean Vander Pyl!

Universal Pictures brought a live-action version of the classic TV cartoon series The Flintstones to the big screen in 1994, and had the novel idea of casting Jean Vander Pyl (the actress who voiced Wilma Flintstone on the original show) in a small role. (Vander Pyl was the only surviving cast member of the Flintstones starring quartet, which also included Alan Reed, Mel Blanc, and Bea Benaderet).  Portraying Wilma in the live-action treatment was Elizabeth Perkins, who received this bit of advice from Jean: “To do Wilma, all you have to do is remember ‘Fred’ is a two-syllable word.”  (As in Fr-ed.)  Vander Pyl, born in Philadelphia on this date in 1919, originally had her heart set on becoming a theatrical actress…but circumstances beyond her control steered her into radio.  Fans who instantly recognize her distinctive voice from that medium — and a slew of animated cartoons that followed in its wake — are extremely grateful.

Born to John H. and Kathleen Hale Vander Pyl, young Jean moved with her family to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s, and by the time she graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1937 she knew she wanted to conquer Broadway.  (Winning a Best Actress award for portraying ‘Juliet’ in a citywide Shakespeare festival cinched her career plans.)  But an illness put the brakes on her stage ambitions, and she decided instead to look for work in radio while attending UCLA.  Juggling college and radio was difficult. (“My sorority sisters told me I either had to go to work or go to class,” she reminisced in 1989.) Vander Pyl chose radio, freelancing at any number of Hollywood stations. She gained exposure on network shows like Calling All Cars and The Lux Radio Theatre, and appeared as “damsels in distress” on various dramatic series.

By the 1940s and 1950s, Jean Vander Pyl was making the rounds on the likes of The Cavalcade of AmericaChandu the MagicianFamily Theatre, and Wild Bill Hickok.  Her vocal talents were much in demand playing characters on comedy programs starring Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee & Molly), Joan Davis, and Alan Young.  She also landed frequent roles on BeulahThe Halls of IvyMeet Mr. McNutley, and My Favorite Husband.  If Andrew Brown (Charles Correll) needed a girlfriend for that week’s broadcast of Amos ‘n’ Andy, Jean was usually pressed into service to play Andy’s latest romantic conquest.  The actress’ steadiest gig was emoting as Margaret Anderson, wife of insurance salesman Jim Anderson (Robert Young) on the popular NBC sitcom Father Knows Best.  As Margaret, Jean patiently acted as a sounding board to her husband, and doted on the three Anderson children (Betty, Bud, and Kathy) from 1949 to 1954.  (Jane Wyatt would portray Margaret on the TV version of the series).

Jean didn’t shy away from the visual mediums of movies and television, but has only one feature film to her credit, 1954’s Deep in My Heart.  She made guest appearances on TV hits like The MillionaireMedicLeave it to BeaverPlease Don’t Eat the Daisies, and Petticoat Junction.  But Jean knew that her voice was her fortune, and that she “lived without the burdens of stardom.”  “Then a few of us got lucky and got into cartoons,” she reminisced in 1989, and this was no exaggeration: she became one of the fledgling Hanna-Barbera studio’s most dependable thesps.  Vander Pyl voiced characters in their theatrical Loopy de Loop shorts, and also for TV’s The Huckleberry Hound ShowThe Quick Draw McGraw ShowThe Yogi Bear Show, and Top Cat.  When Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera developed the prime time animated series known as The Flintstones, Vander Pyl was hired to voice Wilma Flintstone.  The actress later said that the long-suffering spouse of bombastic Fred (Alan Reed) “had a great ‘housewife whine’ to her voice.”  (Jean also provided the voices of the Flintstone’s baby daughter, Pebbles, and the wife of Fred’s boss, Mr. Slate.) The Flintstones ran on ABC-TV from 1960 to 1966, and in countless Saturday morning incarnations to follow (Pebbles and Bamm BammThe Flintstones Comedy Hour, etc.).  There was even a feature-length cartoon based on the series and released in 1966: The Man Called Flintstone.

Wilma Flintstone was Jean Vander Pyl’s best-remembered work in the world of cartoons, but she also voiced such characters as Rosie the Robot on The Jetsons, Ogee (the little girl who always wanted to know “How much is that gorilla in the window?”) on The Magilla Gorilla Show, Winsome “Winnie” Witch (“Ippity-pippity-pow!”) on The Secret Squirrel Show, and Ma and Floral Rugg in the “Hillbilly Bears” segments on The Atom Ant Show and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.  She continued her long association with Hanna-Barbera throughout the 1970s on shows like Where’s Huddles?Scooby Doo, Where are You?Inch High Private EyeYogi’s GangHong Kong PhooeyDinky Dog, and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels.

By the 1980s, Jean Vander Pyl was still voicing Wilma in various Flintstones specials while occasionally appearing on such TV shows as Murder, She Wrote and Hardcastle and McCormick.  It would be no exaggeration to say that she may have been the most known unknown actress in the business (people instantly recognized her voice…and yet she was able to live in San Clemente for many years in relative anonymity).  As for the role that made her famous, Jean opted for a lump sum of $15,000 upon cancellation of The Flintstones (she made $250 per episode when the show was running in prime time) instead of receiving residual payments.  “If I got residuals I wouldn’t live in San Clemente,” she told an interviewer in 1995.  “I’d own San Clemente.”  Vander Pyl succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 79 in 1999.

By the way, the lung cancer that claimed Jean Vander Pyl’s life was the result of a lifelong smoking habit…and if you were ever curious as to why the Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble characters on The Flintstones laughed with what has been called “the closed-mouth giggle,” that’s your answer.  Jean’s son explained to author Tim Lawson that his mother and Bea Benaderet (the voice of Betty, until her work on Petticoat Junction dictated she relinquish the role to Gerry Johnson) were heavy smokers and that if they laughed out loud they’d succumb to a coughing jag.

Radio Spirits features classic Jean Vander Pyl performances on our two Father Knows Best collections, Father Knows Bestand Maple Street.  If you listen closely to our Chandu the Magician collection and our Amos ‘n’ Andy compendiums (Volume TwoRadio’s All Time Favorites), you’ll also hear today’s birthday girl, plying her trade at what she truly did best.  Happy birthday, Jean—yabba dabba doo!

Happy Birthday, Groucho Marx!

If comedian Groucho Marx—born Julius Henry Marx in New York City on this date in 1890—had achieved his childhood ambition of becoming a doctor…well, the world would know a little less laughter.  Fortunately for audiences who enjoyed the quick, insulting wit of the premier funnyman in movies, radio, and TV, Julius was “persuaded” to go into show business by his domineering mother Minnie, who believed that he and his brothers—collectively known as Leonard (Chico), Adolph (Harpo), Herbert (Zeppo), and Milton (Gummo)—were destined to conquer the show business world.  Although the term “stage mother” often conveys negativity, we owe Mother Minnie a debt of gratitude for riding herd on her “boys.”

Stories differ on just why young Julius was discouraged from pursuing a medical career; one account states that he was needed to supplement the family’s income (his father Sam—known to the family as “Frenchie”—never really achieved success in the tailoring business), while another puts the blame on his limited formal education.  Minnie herself had a tenuous connection to show business in that her father had once made a living as a traveling magician and her brother Al (Shean) Schoenberg was one-half of the popular vaudeville duo, Gallagher and Shean.  Julius’ first show business job was with a singing trio that paid a handsome $4-a-week.  Unfortunately, a member of that group made off with Julius’ salary and left him stranded in Colorado—he had to work a series of odd jobs to earn his fare back home.

Julius would have better luck letting Minnie run the show; in 1909, she put together a quartet consisting of Julius, Adolph (who changed his name to Arthur), Milton, and non-Marx brother Lou Levy.  Collectively they were known as “The Four Nightingales,” and for several years the brothers got by as an average vaudeville act.  It was only during a particularly dismal performance in Nagadoches, Texas when the Marxes discovered that they had a flair of comedy; they started heckling the audience giving them grief during their act…and the crowd ate it up.

The Brothers Marx took an old comedy routine from Gus Edwards, “School Days,” and refashioned it as “Fun in Hi Skule”—an act that they dutifully performed to appreciative laughter over the years until eventually they arrived at the Mecca of Vaudeville, The Palace Theatre, in 1919.  Along the way, the group started to develop their characters (Chico the phony Italian, Harpo the silent sprite) and their nicknames, bestowed upon them by fellow performer Art Fisher during a card game.  Julius would go by “Groucho” for the rest of his career, and the Marx Brothers went on to conquer Broadway with three smash stage hits: I’ll Say She Is (1924), The Cocoanuts (1925), and Animal Crackers (1930).

If those last two production sound vaguely familiar, it’s because they were the first two films featuring the Marx Brothers when they began making movies for Paramount in 1929.  The team would follow those successes with Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932)…and the film many consider to be their finest screen comedy, Duck Soup (1933).  All five of those films featured Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo (Gummo quit performing after he was drafted in World War I), and when the siblings were hired by MGM to make A Night at the Opera (1935), Zeppo had quit the motion picture business as well.  The three Marx Brothers followed the giant success of Opera with A Day at the Races (1937), and later made three additional films for Leo the Lion: At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941).  The three remaining movies featuring Groucho, Chico, and Harpo were Room Service (1938; RKO), A Night in Casablanca (1946; United Artists), and Love Happy (1949; also UA)—though Groucho’s participation with Chico and Harpo in this last production is rather fleeting.

In the Marx Brothers’ films, Groucho handled most of the verbal comedy; in his trademark glasses and greasepaint eyebrows-and-moustache, he’d sidle up to wealthy dowagers (generally played by favorite foil Margaret Dumont) and let loose with a barrage of rapid, cut-to-the-quick insults—in fact, his entire character was built on a foundation of defying authoritarian figures and deflating pomposity.  In 1932, he and Chico took a stab at radio with a comedy program over NBC Blue entitled Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (Harpo did not appear, owing to the silent nature of his comedy).  The series did well in the Hoopers, but sponsor Standard Oil was disappointed that it didn’t match the audience of Texaco’s The Fire Chief Program (with Ed Wynn), and pulled out after one season.

Groucho and Chico would later join the all-star cast (Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, etc.) of NBC’s The Circle in January of 1939, later described by the show’s writer Carroll Carroll as “radio’s most expensive failure.”  In subsequent radio ventures, Groucho went solo…without much success.  He was the host of CBS’ Blue Ribbon Town from 1943-44, a show that surviving broadcasts reveal isn’t quite as bad as its reputation (Groucho got solid support from regulars like Virginia O’Brien, Leo Gorcey, Fay McKenzie, and Kenny Baker—who inherited the program after Marx left in June of 1944).  Groucho was depressed that radio popularity eluded him despite getting appreciative laughs while guesting on shows headlined by the likes of Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and Dinah Shore (Marx was practically a regular on Dinah’s Birds Eye Open House).  Even his good friend Irving Brecher couldn’t create a hit for the acerbic funnyman; a pilot entitled “The Flotsam Family” flopped (though Brecher later refashioned it into The Life of Riley for William Bendix).

An appearance on a Walgreens’ special would be the catalyst for Groucho’s eventual radio success.  As Groucho and host Bob Hope deviated from a prepared script with some fast-and-furious ad-libs, producer John Guedel (the man behind People are Funny) was convinced he had the perfect radio format for Marx.  Groucho would host a quiz show—which eventually became You Bet Your Life—and exercise his talent for sharp wisecracks “interviewing” the contestants.  Marx was reluctant, to say the least; he believed that playing the role of “quiz show host” was a considerable comedown.  But as he gradually grasped that You Bet Your Life’s “quiz” was merely a backdrop for allowing him to do what he did best—improvised conversation—he enthusiastically embraced the project.  You Bet Your Life premiered over ABC Radio on October 27, 1947 for Elgin-American watches and quickly became one of the fledgling network’s big hits.  It later transitioned to CBS in October of 1949 for a season and then moved into its permanent home on NBC a year later.  Because of the simplicity of its format, You Bet Your Life was broadcast simultaneously on radio and TV (where it quickly made a nest in the Top Ten of the Nielsen ratings); the radio version bowed out on June 10, 1960, but the boob tube incarnation lasted one additional season (and was retitled The Groucho Show).

Before his death on August 19, 1977 at the age of 86, Groucho Marx continued to be a beloved TV presence, both as a guest on the medium’s many talk shows and appearances on variety hours like The Hollywood Palace and The Kraft Music Hall.  He’s revered by students of comedy for his take-no-prisoners wit, and his quotable lines (like “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”) are cherished by those who took pleasure in Groucho’s fearless mockery of society’s conventions.  Radio Spirits invites you to enjoy Groucho on radio in our Jack Benny & Friends collection, as the birthday boy trades quips with Jack on a February 20, 1944 broadcast.  The 3-DVD set Groucho Marx TV Classics presents the comedian at his finest with a compendium that includes telecasts from You Bet Your Life and The Hollywood Palace, and the Marx Brothers TV Collection not only features Groucho but brothers Chico and Harpo in clips from fifty rare and vintage television appearances.  Finally, we recommend you peruse the Radio Spirits bookshelf until you locate Marx & Re-Marx; written by Andrew T. Smith, it’s a fascinating history of Groucho and Chico’s “lost” radio show, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel—with the scripts from the original series and the story of how they came to be revived by BBC Radio in the early 1980s.  If Groucho were here, he might say, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

“Laugh a while/Let a song/Be your style…”

Though he had firmly established his persona as a flashy, hard-drinking playboy with an eye for exquisite female pulchritude on The Jack Benny Program, bandleader Phil Harris would find himself “domesticated” in 1941 after marrying singer-actress Alice Faye.  His home life with Faye started to work its way into the Benny broadcasts. For example, the episode from April 11, 1943 featured the following line by Phil: “Say, Jackson—I got a surprise for ya…Alice Faye, now appearing in Hello, Frisco, Hello, made a dozen doughnuts for you with her own little hands.”  (When Jack asks “Curly” where they are, Phil cracks: “Out in the car—I’ll get Rochester to help me carry ‘em in.”)

The marriage of Phil Harris and Alice Faye (it was the second for both) was truly a love affair—the couple remained together until Phil’s passing in 1995.  Though both were enjoying successful solo careers—Phil with his music and work with Benny, Alice a major star at 20th Century-Fox—the two of them eventually joined forces for one of radio’s last great situation comedies.  That series premiered on this date in 1946, as Phil and Alice became the headliners of radio’s The Fitch Bandwagon.

Alice Faye was one of Fox’s hottest properties…but after her marriage to Phil Harris, she expressed more interest in becoming a mother and homemaker after the births of their daughters, Alice, Jr. and Phyllis.  She cut her work schedule at the studio to one production a year, and in 1945 decided to retire from motion pictures entirely after her scenes in Fallen Angel ended up on the cutting room floor (studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was distracted by Fox’s newest “flavor of the month,” Linda Darnell).  Faye was enjoying “retirement,” but when she was offered the opportunity to work with her husband on a radio series, she warmed to the idea of reading a script for one half-hour weekly before calling it a day.  She agreed (after some initial hesitation) to start broadcasting alongside Phil for Fitch in the fall of 1946.

The Fitch Bandwagon had been on radio since 1938, and in its early years it functioned as a showcase for big bands frontedby the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.  In the fall of 1944, the program allowed Dick Powell to host and sing, and the following season Cass Daley inherited Bandwagon duties.  Sponsor F.W. Fitch, impressed by the popularity of radio’s The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, decided to propose a format change (situation comedy mixed with music) to Harris and Faye, and after a well-received July 10, 1946 audition Mr. and Mrs. Harris earned a berth on NBC’s Sunday night schedule.

The Sunday night scheduling was one of the reasons why The Fitch Bandwagon was so popular with radio audiences.  It was sandwiched between Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), a time slot any performer would have committed murder to get.  But it provided an additional benefit for new host Phil Harris; in the program’s early years, Bandwagon would begin with Phil bidding his boss a fare-thee-well as he headed home to the Harris household.  Alice would be waiting for him, of course, along with “Little” Alice (portrayed by Jeanine Roose) and Phyllis (Anne Whitfield).  Life at Rancho Harris was not all beer and skittles; Phil also had to put up with Alice’s annoying brother Willie—played to creampuff perfection by Robert North.

Frankie Remley was a left-handed (honest!) guitar player in Phil’s musical aggregation, and was often joked about (but never heard) on Jack Benny’s program.  It was decided to make Remley a regular character on Harris’ show because of Frankie’s well-established reputation as an imbiber (now that Phil had a family, the Bandwagon writers de-emphasized the drinking jokes that were a staple of Phil’s character in the Benny broadcasts).  It was thought at first that Remley would play himself…but an unsuccessful audition soon convinced the real Frankie he should stick to guitar playing.  In his place, actor Elliott Lewis was tabbed to play the fictional Remley…and the seed for classic comedy was planted.

In the early years of the Harris-Faye Bandwagon, Frankie came across like a dimwitted hoodlum…but with the hiring of writers Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat in the show’s second season, the Remley character began to take on the characteristics of the sardonic wisenheimer radio audiences would soon come to know and love—always willing to get his buddy (and boss) Phil into trouble.  Singer and Chevillat soon infused Phil and Alice’s show with a sarcastic sensibility that gives it a contemporary feel when listened to by modern-day audiences.  In addition, they beefed up the presence of the character of Julius Abbruzio (portrayed by The Great Gildersleeve’s Walter Tetley), a smart-alecky grocery boy who lived to make life miserable for his nemeses Phil and Frankie. (“Are you in trouble, Mistuh Harris?  Is there anything I can do to get you in deepuh?”).

After two years with Fitch, Phil and Alice got a new sponsor—Rexall Drugs—in the fall of 1948, and the show underwent a name change to the now-familiar The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.  Their ratings for Fitch had always been solid, owing to their Benny-Bergen hammock, but when Jack jumped ship to CBS in January of 1949 the Harrises lost their edge in the Hoopers.  It didn’t keep the program from being funny, however; the writing remained razor-sharp. With the addition of a new regular—a Rexall company representative portrayed by radio veteran Gale Gordon—the belly laughs continued even after a portion of their audience wandered over to the Tiffany network to check out what Jack and Amos ‘n’ Andy were up to.  Rexall wrote the checks for Phil and Alice’s show for two seasons before switching their allegiance to Amos ‘n’ Andy, and then RCA Victor became the show’s “angel.”  Though the audiences continued to dwindle with each passing year (blame television), The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show soldiered on until finally calling it quits on May 28, 1954 (they were still being sponsored by RCA…at a time when many programs were sustained).

Alice Faye observed in later years that while she would have been amenable to doing a television version of their popular radio sitcom, it was husband Phil Harris who put the kibosh on the idea.  Nevertheless…to paraphrase Casablanca, “we’ll always have radio.”  Radio Spirits has several collections of what I personally believe was one of the aural medium’s top comedy programs, beginning with The Fitch Bandwagon years in our latest Phil and Alice compendium, Buried Treasure…not to mention Stepping Out and A Song and a Smile (with liner notes by yours truly!).  The couple’s RCA years are represented by Quite an Affair and Smoother and Sweeter, and there’s a stray Bandwagon broadcast (from January 19, 1947) to be checked out on our potpourri collection, Great Radio Comedy.  Last—but not least—Phil, Alice, and the family spread a little holiday cheer in a December 26, 1948 Rexall show on Christmas Radio Classics—it’s a gift you definitely will want to unwrap first!

“Atsa funny thing—when I’m-a say it, itsa come out different…”

Describing himself at one time as “a reformed introvert,’ writer Cy Howard decided to get into radio after quitting a $70-a-week position as a salesman in Chicago.  He had a taste of success in that arena, working briefly as a scribe for Jack Benny, and upon being hired by CBS as a staff writer contributed gags to the likes of Milton Berle and Danny Thomas.  His idea for a situation comedy about two young women living and working in New York would hit the airwaves in April of 1947, and became a smash hit: My Friend Irma.  In show business, nothing succeeds like success…and Howard soon followed up Irma with another popular radio comedy series that premiered over CBS on this date in 1948.  He used his familiar Chicago environs as the setting for a show that chronicled a newly-arrived immigrant’s heartwarming attempts to adjust to his adopted country: Life with Luigi.

Life with Luigi began as a June 15, 1948 audition record originally titled “The Little Immigrant.”  The concept of the series was that Luigi Basco (J. Carrol Naish), an Italian émigré, sets up an antique shop at 21 North Halstead in the Little Italy section of the Windy City.  Luigi’s arrival in the U.S. was free of difficulty thanks to his sponsor/benefactor Pasquale (Alan Reed), a restauranteur who leased the space that housed Luigi’s burgeoning antique shop.  Pasquale was the proprietor of The Spaghetti Palace, an Italian bistro adjacent to Luigi’s business, and had paid for Luigi’s boat passage to his new country in the spirit of friendship.

Okay…that last part isn’t completely on the level.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Pasquale schemed in the manner of an Italian “Kingfish” and he had an ulterior motive: to marry off his hefty daughter Rosa (who tipped the scales at 300 lbs. soaking wet) to Luigi and become Mr. Basco’s father-in-law.  Much as My Friend Irma had a running gag with Al phoning his friend Joe for advice (“Hello, Joe? Al. Got a problem…”), Life with Luigi milked audience laughter with the anticipated entrance of Rosa on the program every week.  “Just so happen I’m-a bring-a my little baby with-a me…I’m-a gonna call her over,” Pasquale would declare.  “Oh Rooosssa…Rooosssa…ROSA!”  A squeaky-voiced female (portrayed by actress Jody Gilbert) would then reply: “You call me, Papa?”

“Say ‘allo to Luigi,” her father would prompt, and Rosa would respond with the boisterous laugh of a more-than-amply-proportioned gal before adding a high-pitched “Hello, Luigi!”  “Hello, Rosa,” Luigi would reply with all the enthusiasm of a husband beaten down by years of marriage (despite Luigi’s determined bachelorhood).  It was one of those moments that fans of the show came to anticipate weekly, and though it’s a bit repetitious when one listens to several Luigi shows back-to-back, occasional attempts were made to “shake it up” as evidenced in this exchange from a March 27, 1949 broadcast:

PASQUALE: Heh heh heh…where-a you think? I’m-a gotta just the girl…she also happens to be passin’-a by…
ROSA: Papa, you want me?
PASQUALE: Not-a yet! Wait ‘til I call-a you… (calls) Rooosssa…
ROSA: Now?
PASQUALE: No! (again) Rooosssa…
ROSA: Now?
PASQUALE: No! Canna you play hard to get? (third time) ROSA!
ROSA: Yes, Papa?

PASQUALE: Rosa—say ‘allo to Luigi…
ROSA (giggling): Hello Luigi!
LUIGI (resigned to his fate): Hello, Rosa…

The Life with Luigi broadcasts were framed around a weekly letter written by Luigi to his mother (“Dear Mamma Mia…”), as the character would relate his misadventures in the New World.  Many of the comic situations were derived from the main character’s determination to assimilate and become an American citizen.  To that end, he attended night classes to prepare him for citizenship test.  The class was taught by Miss Spaulding (Mary Shipp), on whom Luigi had a slight crush.  His fellow students were a melting pot that included Scandinavian Olsen (Ken Peters), Russian Jew Horowitz (Joe Forte), and a cantankerous German named Schultz, whose frequent complaint of “My rheumatism is killing me” also became a popular catchphrase.  Schultz was played by Hans Conried, who was already working for creator Howard on My Friend Irma as Professor Kropotkin; Alan Reed was also an Irma regular (he played Irma’s boss, Mr. Clyde).  There was quite a bit of cast crossover—in fact, when Cathy Lewis left Irma in its last radio season, Luigi’s Mary Shipp joined the Irma cast as Irma’s new roommate, Kay Foster.

Audiences soon fell in love with Luigi, and during its six-year-run on CBS (from 1948 to 1954) the series often gave its competition—Bob Hope on NBC—a run for its money.  The show later transitioned to television with much of its radio cast intact; the only exception being Conried, whose Schultz was played by Sig Ruman for the small screen version.  The TV Luigi didn’t enjoy the success of its radio counterpart; after its premiere on September 22, 1952 it lasted just three months before being cancelled due to sponsor concerns about its ethnic stereotypes.  Actor Alan Reed reminisced in a 1975 interview with radio historian Chuck Schaden that the show’s cancellation was connected to Jody Gilbert’s testimony before HUAC due to her political affiliations.  However, his memory was clouded by the fact that CBS resurrected the TV Luigi in April of 1953 with Vito Scotti, Thomas Gomez, and Muriel Landers in the Luigi, Pasquale, and Rosa roles.  It mattered very little; the TV Life with Luigi made its final bow in June of 1953…a few months after the radio incarnation called it quits in early March.  (Life with Luigi made a brief reappearance on radio in 1954 in a fifteen-minute strip-show format…and then closed the antique shop permanently.)

One of radio’s surefire laugh-getting devices was dialect comedy and the exaggeration of ethnic stereotypes; as author Fred MacDonald wrote in Don’t Touch That Dial!: “Some of the most important series in radio history, in fact, exploited ethnic humor.” (Amos ‘n’ AndyThe GoldbergsLum and Abner…just to name a few.)  Though Life with Luigi can seem controversial in these more enlightened times, there’s never any real malice in its presentation…besides, it allows listeners to enjoy Alan Reed in his funniest radio role (Pasquale is a great comic villain) not to mention Hans Conried (always sensational!) and “that celebrated actor,” J. Carrol Naish—a dialect master despite his Irish origins.  Radio Spirits offers an 8-CD collection of classic Life with Luigi broadcasts (including the September 21, 1948 premiere!) and there’s Luigi to be located on our potpourri sets Great Radio Comedy and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations.

“C’mon folks, these are the jokes!”

Mention “Milton Berle” to any baby boomer and chances are they’ll immediately think of the frenzied mirthmaker who entertained audiences Tuesday nights, in the newly inaugurated Golden Age of Television, as host of The Texaco Star Theatre.  Berle, once accurately described by Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio as “the manic comic who won’t shut up until you laugh,” became such a boob tube institution that he would forever be known as “Mr. Television.” “Uncle Miltie” was purportedly the reason why sales of television sets mushroomed from 500,000 in 1948 (his first year on TV) to over 30 million by the time he ended his initial run in 1955 with The Milton Berle Show.

But a goodly number of people—outside old-time radio fans, of course—aren’t aware that Milton Berle enjoyed a lengthy stint in the aural medium, beginning on this date in 1936.  Berle, a major vaudeville talent who had previously appeared on programs headlined by Rudy Vallee and Fred Waring, was the host of CBS’ The Gillette Original Community Sing, which ran until August 29, 1937 as a Sunday night comedy-variety program.  This program allowed Milton to patent his “machine-gun” style of comedy (very similar to the shtick practiced by Bob Hope) mixed with an element of radio slapstick that Radio Mirror remarked worked well “if he can keep it up.”  The show featured an audience sing-a-long led by “the Red Headed Music Maker,” Wendell Jones, and “Happiness Boys” Billy Jones and Ernie Hare.  (Actress Betty Garde was also a regular, as was future Eddie Cantor stooge Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon—who answered to “Mischa Moody.”)  Irving Brecher, who’d go on to create radio’s The Life of Riley, was the program’s sole writer; Berle would later brag that Brecher was the only scribe he knew “who wrote a radio program every week all by himself.”

Berle’s next radio venture premiered on October 7, 1939 for NBC:  Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One, a comedy panel show in which the members of the panel attempted to finish jokes sent in by the program’s listening audience.  Stop Me, sponsored by Quaker Oats, was similar to the more successful Can You Top This? (1940; 1942-54), and in fact, two of the Can You Top This? regulars—Harry Hershfield and “Senator” Ed Ford—worked on the Berle program at one time.  (Harry McNaughton, who was one of the bright minds on the later comedy quiz It Pays to Be Ignorant, was heard on the show as well.)  Stop Me left NBC on February 24, 1940 (it would later resurface on Mutual in 1947). Uncle Miltie experienced a brief period of radio unemployment, but he didn’t have to clip coupons, kids; his movie career was still in full swing and he made a tidy sum playing nightclubs. Berle returned to the air in September of 1941 with Three Ring Time for Ballantine Ale—the first major Mutual West Coast origination, and a show that Mutual had hoped would make them “a real competitor in transcontinental broadcasting,” according to old-time radio historian John Dunning.

Three Ring Time also featured Shirley Ross and Bob Crosby (and His Bobcats) as regulars, with Bill Goodwin as announcer…delightful!  But Milton didn’t get along with the program’s other big name, Charles Laughton.  Despite his reputation as an outstanding dramatic actor, Laughton had high hopes that Three Ring Time would, as Radio Life reported, “give me a chance to do what I really like to do—make people laugh.”  Charlie, however, didn’t want to lay them in the aisles at the expense of being his co-star’s “ego massage” (the term Berle used in his own autobiography) and the two stars soon began to openly quarrel, even after Three Ring jumped ship to NBC in December of 1941.  (Mutual would later sue NBC for $10 million, charging restraint of trade.)  Laughton asked for (and was given) his release in January, and for a time Berle welcomed a rotating series of co-hosts until the show left the airwaves on June 2, 1942.

Milton Berle tried radio three more times as a headliner: a brief self-titled series over CBS in 1943 for Campbell Soups; a 1944-45 “half-hour of slapstick” for Blue/CBS called Let Yourself Go (sponsored by Eversharp); and a summer series over CBS in 1946, Kiss and Make Up—a program (created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later of My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi) in which “judge” Berle presided over a mock court as the show’s hook.  By 1947, Berle was ready to roll the dice and gamble with The Milton Berle Show, which premiered on March 11 over NBC for Philip Morris as a replacement for Rudy Vallee’s show.  (We’re not kidding about the gambling part, either; Milton forfeited nearly $25,000 in cancelled nightclub engagements just to make The Milton Berle Show a success.)  The series, which ran until April 13, 1948, didn’t make much of a dent in the radio ratings (its Hooper was an anemic 11.6) but thanks to some first-rate scripts by Fred Allen Show alumnus Nat Hiken (the later creator of The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?) and Aaron Ruben (the man who enlisted The Andy Griffith Show’s Gomer Pyle in the Marines) new generations of fans have discovered an unsung gem, described by Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod as “one of the forgotten bright spots of postwar radio.”

Berle was aided and abetted on his program by an exemplary cast of “stooges.”  There was Arnold Stang, on vacation from The Henry Morgan Show, playing the same quarrelsome wisenheimer determined to have a verbal scrap with the star.  (Stang would later be a regular on Milton’s TV show.)  Pert Kelton portrayed a put-upon housewife (“Tallulah Feeney, I’m a homemaker…”) and gave voice to a woman who appeared in a series of skits entitled “At Home with the Berles” where her only dialogue was a drawn-out utterance of “Yessssss…”  (This gag was later appropriated for the “Miss Prissy” spinster hen in Warner Brothers’ Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.)  The “At Home” sketches featured Milton as an exasperated patriarch who encountered friction from his bratty son (Stang) and his too-understanding wife (Mary Shipp).  Other regulars on the Berle program include a pre-Chico and the Man Jack Albertson, Ed Begley, Arthur Q. Bryan, John Gibson, and Al Kelly—a second banana who specialized in double-talk and would be brought out as an “expert” in whatever subject was the topic of the show that week.

Milton Berle found his perfect foil in announcer Frank Gallop, a man who sounded like a funeral parlor owner letting his hair down for the first time.  Gallop would also migrate to the comedian’s later TV show, but in the radio years got big laughs through his condescending attitude toward the star.  (Berle: “Mr. Gallop, did you hear that? I just got four laughs in a row.” Gallop: “Yes, they’re all in the row your mother is in.”)  Gallop, Stang, Kelton, Albertson, Shipp and several other members of the Berle Show cast would follow Milton (along with writers Hiken and Ruben) to The Texaco Sar Theatre for ABC in the fall of 1948.  This was the comedian’s last gasp over the ether and described by Uncle Miltie himself as “the best radio show I ever did…a hell of a funny variety show.”  Theatre was pretty much a continuation of The Milton Berle Show, and some of the surviving broadcasts are falling-down funny; a young Jacqueline Susann (before she got into the writing novels thing) can be heard on occasion, and assisting Hiken and Ruben in the writing chores were two brothers just starting out in the business: Danny and Neil Simon.

The radio Texaco Star Theatre closed its studio doors on June 15, 1949; by that time, Milton Berle was wowing audiences on TV…even if he had to often don drag to do it.  At Radio Spirits, we think you’ll agree that while Uncle Miltie wasn’t the sensation on radio that he was on TV he was every bit as hilarious.  If you check out our Comedy Goes West collection, an October 7, 1947 broadcast of The Milton Berle Show (“A Salute to the Old West”) will back up our assertion that Berle could certainly bring the funny.  On The Voices of Christmas Past, the frantic funnyman continues with the laughs with a broadcast from December 23rd of that same year, “A Salute to Christmas.”  Milton thanks you…and his mother would, too, once she stopped laughing.

“What a character!”

In addition to Jim and Marian Jordan’s star turns as Fibber McGee and Molly on The Johnson Wax Program in the 1930s, the couple was aided and abetted on the popular comedy show by a talented cast of supporting players.  These included Hugh Studebaker (as handyman Silly Watson), Isabel Randolph (the snooty Abigail Uppington), Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet…and especially Bill Thompson, who introduced favorites such as Nick Depopoulous and Horatio K. Boomer before moving on to Wallace Wimple and The Old Timer.  Another talent on the program was actor-singer Harold Peary, who was a voice-of-all-trades before he persuaded the show’s writer, Don Quinn, to give him a meatier part.  Quinn wrote Hal the role of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve—Fibber’s nemesis and next-door neighbor, and the only individual pompous enough to challenge McGee’s windy tall tales.

After playing Gildersleeve on Fibber McGee and Molly for a couple of years, Peary wanted to move onto other pursuits…but NBC was anxious to retain his services due to the popularity of the Gildersleeve character.  So, the network approached Hal with the idea for a spin-off: the show would be called The Great Gildersleeve, and would move the supporting character from his Wistful Vista environs to the nearby town of Summerfield.  There, he would act as executor to the estate of Marjorie and Leroy Forrester, his heretofore unmentioned niece and nephew.  It was on this very date in 1941 that “Gildy” boarded the Summerfield Express, leaving his friends in Wistful Vista behind…and providing audiences (and later, fans of old-time radio) with an additional weekly half-hour of hilarity.

Harold Peary was very enthusiastic about The Great Gildersleeve; he loved to sing as well as act, and he felt that he’d have ample opportunity to do so on a show where he was the star.  In a May 14, 1941 audition record, Gildy bids the employees of his girdle company fare-thee-well and shuffles off to Summerfield.  The hope was that Gildersleeve would land the job as Fibber McGee and Molly’s summer replacement while they vacationed.  Johnson’s Wax, Fib and Molly’s sponsor, sadly took a pass and went with another show (a Ransom Sherman comedy entitled Hap Hazard)—but the Kraft Foods Company liked what they heard, and agreed to foot the bills for The Great Gildersleeve’s eventual arrival on NBC’s schedule.

On The Great Gildersleeve, Gildy was put in charge of the estate of niece Marjorie and nephew Leroy…though Judge Horace Hooker had reservations about their uncle’s reliability.  Hooker (Earle Ross) would be Gildy’s persistent nemesis throughout the show’s run, constantly involved in a running battle of wits and one-upmanship with “the Great Man” not unlike his old Wistful Vista neighbor Fibber McGee.  Like Fibber McGee and MollyGildersleeve spotlighted a cast of supporting characters that Throckmorton encountered each week.  For example, there was the neighborhood druggist J.W. Peavey (Richard LeGrand), whose catchphrase “Well, now…I wouldn’t say that” became one of the program’s most popular gags.  Floyd Munson (Arthur Q. Bryan) was Summerfield’s sardonic barber, always offering Gildy advice regardless of whether it was wanted (or sound).  Tom Gates (Ken Christy) was Summerfield’s police chief who, along with Gildy, Peavey, Floyd, and Judge Hooker, formed a fraternal organization known as “The Jolly Boys.” This quirky quintet would gather to sing and enjoy each other’s company.

On the Gildersleeve homefront, actress Lurene Tuttle portrayed Marjorie Forrester (the character went by “Eve” in the audition) for the show’s first three seasons. She handed the part off to Louise Erickson, who played Marjorie until the fall of 1948, when she relinquished the role to Mary Lee Robb.  When the show premiered in 1941, Marjorie was actually a twenty-year-old with a strong romantic interest in the young attorney handling the Forresters’ estate.  Somewhere along the way, Marj got hold of the same brew that kept Helen Trent thirty-five for so long…because the mid-1940s found her a few years younger and back in high school.  Marjorie would eventually mature a second time and marry high school sweetheart Bronco Thompson (Richard Crenna), eventually giving birth to a pair of twins in later seasons of Gildersleeve.  Her brother Leroy (played by Walter Tetley) also aged a little slower than most, but for most of the show’s run delighted in making mischief and deflating his “Unk’s” enormous ego whenever possible.  Helping Gildy out with the house and the children was housekeeper Birdie Lee Coggins (Lillian Randolph), an exemplary cook who had been taking care of Marjorie and Leroy long before Gildy even thought about relocating to Summerfield.  Birdie was delightfully outgoing, with a laugh that could rattle the rafters.

There were noticeable differences between the Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve that listeners came to know and love in Wistful Vista and the one who put down stakes in Summerfield.  On Fibber McGee and Molly, there was at least one reference to a Mrs. Gildersleeve…but by the time Gildy arrived in Summerfield, he had apparently become a bachelor.  (Old-time radio fans occasionally joke that somewhere at 83 Wistful Vista, there’s a body buried in the basement.)  Gildy played the field on his own program, dating any number of equally single women—the most famous being Leila Ransom, a flirty Southern belle memorably portrayed by Shirley Mitchell.  (In later seasons, Leila acquired a rival for Gildy’s affections in her cousin Adeline Fairchild—played by character veteran Una Merkel.)  Leila almost got manacled to Gildy in the 1942-43 season, but he managed to dodge that bullet.  He later dated school principal Eve Goodwin (Bea Benaderet), nurse Katherine Milford (Cathy Lewis), Ellen (Bullard) Knickerbocker (Martha Scott), and Paula (Bullard) Winthrop (Jeanne Bates), among others.  Making Gildersleeve single was a smart move by the show’s writers, allowing them ample material for comedic plots…particularly when Gildy had to compete with stuck-up Runsom Bullard (Gale Gordon) in romantic rivalry.  (Note that two of Gildersleeve’s “steadies” were related to Runsom…much to his dismay.)

But the big night-and-day difference between Fibber McGee and Molly and the spin-off was the tone of the two programs.  Fibber was verbal slapstick, getting king-size laughs via a vaudeville sensibility in which each broadcast’s “plot” was a loose peg on which to hang hilarious gags.  The Great Gildersleeve took a character-based approach to its comedy; we laughed at the broadcasts not because of the strength of the jokes, but because its characters were so vividly drawn and portrayed by a masterful cast.  As Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod once wrote: “Contrasted with Fibber’s cartoony approach, Gildersleeve was a show firmly grounded in the Real World.  Its characters were far more textured than Fibber’s supporting cast, and thus far more realistic.”  Elizabeth rightly characterized Gildersleeve as “the One Man’s Family of situation comedy.”

As one of radio’s finest sitcoms, The Great Gildersleeve had a longer shelf life than the Kraft products it so eagerly promoted.  Even when Willard Waterman took over for Hal Peary in the fall of 1950 (Peary had moved to CBS with the Gildersleeve-like Honest Harold), Gildersleeve managed to stick around as radio began its death march, only departing the airwaves on March 21, 1957.  The show remains a solid favorite with radio listeners of old and new generations, and the decision at the time of the show’s run to utilize a semi-serialized storyline each season is an immeasurable help when you consider that some of the series’ broadcasts have been lost to the ravages of time and neglect…and yet the show is easy to follow despite the missing installments.

Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve might be having “one of his bad days” …but here at Radio Spirits, every day with Summerfield’s water commissioner is like an idyllic afternoon spent at Grass Lake. Our newest Gildersleeve compendium, Family Man, features sixteen vintage broadcasts from the program’s inaugural season (1941-42), while For Corn’s Sake (liner notes by yours truly!) focuses on later shows with Willard Waterman in the Gildersleeve role.  You’ll find a hilarious June 14, 1942 broadcast on our potpourri collection Great Radio Comedy, and for my money—some of the all-time memorable Gildersleeve shows were the heartwarming broadcasts heard around the holidays; there’s Yuletide Throcky on Christmas Radio ClassicsThe Voices of Christmas Past, and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations.  Happy anniversary, Gildy!