As New York’s sometimes irascible and often authoritarian mayor between 1939 and 1945, Fiorello H. La Guardia would provoke no less than Edward R. Murrow, recording the landmark audio history I Can Hear It Now, to call him a human three-ring circus, posthumously.
Murrow may not have been entirely complementary. “La Guardia,” a biographer would observe in due course, “represented a dangerous style of personal rule hitched to a transcendent purpose. People would be afraid of allowing anybody to take that kind of power today.” There have since been no few American politicians, President and otherwise, whose election and re-election might put the lie to that epitaph.
The three-ring circus analogy did fit La Guardia in one more pleasant way. In some ways a Big Kid, for better or worse, and sometimes both, La Guardia let it manifest best when New York was hit by a newspaper delivery strike at the end of June 1945, as World War II careened to its finish.
For long enough La Guardia conducted a weekly, Sunday morning radio program on city-owned WNYC, Talk to the People. It’s fair to call it nothing less than New York’s own version of Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary, periodic Fireside Chats. Come 1 July 1945, as the delivery strike entered day two (the only newspaper the drivers would transport was PM, the leftist daily), LaGuardia had a little bombshell to drop.
“Now, children,” the Little Flower warbled, toward the end of this edition of Talk to the People, “I know you’re all disappointed that you didn’t get the funnies.” He wasn’t about to offer a commentary about those nasty striking drivers depriving New York’s kiddies of their Sunday amusements. “Aahhhhhhhhhhhhh—here’s Dick Tracy! Let’s see what Dick Tracy is doing . . .”
La Guardia proceeded to read and interpret, live on the air, that week’s Tracy adventure, cleverly figuring a way to tell it toward a particular moral (Dirty money never brings any luck!), usually tied to whatever official bugaboo was bugging the mayor at that moment. He did likewise with Little Orphan Annie on other subsequent broadcasts (this when the famous moppet was on trial for murder), and with one or two other strips. He swore from the outset he’d read the kids their Sunday funnies until the strike ended, and he was as good as his word.
It didn’t help La Guardia all that much in the city’s political picture—he’d be all but forced to give up any ideas about running for an unprecedented fourth term (and La Guardia was already New York’s unprecedented third-term mayor as it was)—but it did add irrevocably to his legend. A legend that became larger than life when the diminutive mayor died of pancreatic cancer in 1947.
What La Guardia didn’t know, and it might have amazed him if he’d lived to see it, was that his old Sunday comic warbling became the inadvertent inspiration for the syndicated radio series The Comic Weekly Man.
The title character was a cheerful fellow, abetted by a boy played by himself in tandem, and a girl, “Miss Honey,” who’d start each show with a riddle, would be reading Hearst’s Puck the Comic Weekly, complete with real radio sound effects (which LaGuardia didn’t have and probably wouldn’t have brooked) every week between 1950 and 1953.
Only after the show ended its brief but unforgettable enough life did it come forth that the Comic Weekly Man was none other than respected radio actor Lon Clark, known otherwise (and perhaps best) as radio sleuth Nick Carter, Master Detective, after years enough making his bones among Norman Corwin’s regular company of performers and interpreters. Clark would be surprised enough to discover he’d be much more than the lead actor on the quirky series.
I came in and they handed me a script and I took it home. It was written by a very good writer, but he apparently didn’t have a feel for childhood stuff and what kid’s would like. So I went home and re-wrote my own version of the script and took it back to Mildred Fenton the producer and I said I think this is the way the script should be. Read it and call me back. She called me back and said “I’ve read the script and you’ll be writing it, too’”
Eventually she got married and moved away and they engaged me to be the producer of it as well during the last two to three years. I had three different girls who played Miss Honey. There were just the two of us who did that show. It was quite a versatility job for both her and me. I had a lot of fun with it. I really, really did.
So said Clark to Radio World‘s Read G. Burgan, in 1997 . . . a year before his death at 86.
Tonight: Little Miss Honey appreciates meeting the film voice of Alice in Wonderland. The comics—Hopalong Cassidy, sending news mountaineers agree to let workmen build a telegraph line despite Black John’s tricks; Prince Valiant, blocked at Sir Gawain’s by a pair of knights; Flash Gordon, fighting Martians with a space platform low on oxygen; Blondie, whose hapless Dagwood deals with a complaint about the dog chasing the neighbour’s cat; Roy Rogers, captured by outlaws led by the banker he only thought was his friend; Alice in Wonderland, growing unconscionably to the doorknob’s laughter until she nearly drowns in her own tears before floating to a beach and a strange parade; Dick’s Adventures, in which Dick rides shotgun with Washington on the former president’s plantation before the Father of His Country is stricken fatally; and, Rusty, whose eavesdropping helps prove the real farm saboteur.
You kind of miss La Guardia forging a moral at the end of each installment. Kind of.
Miss Honey: Unknown. Music and sound: Unknown.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
The Milton Berle Show: Salute to Radio (NBC, 1947)—A year before he becomes Mr. Television, the nation’s Uncle Miltie-to-be delivers a good-natured satire of the medium on which he’s actually known as its biggest failure . . . because the home listeners can’t see three quarters of what makes him in the first place: his maniacal mugging, literally big mouth, and outlandish constumery (he uses it for the studio audience, something he can’t surrender long after his vaudeville died), which won’t work until, perhaps inexplicably, he conquers television, though not for all that long in the proverbial larger scheme of things. Cast: Arnold Stang, Pert Kelton, Jack Albertson, Mary Shipp, Arthur Q. Bryan, Ed Begley. Announcer: Frank Gallop. Music: Ray Bloch Orchestra, Dick Forney. Writers: Nat Hiken, Aaron Ruben.
You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “People” (Season premiere; NBC, 1953)—And the people helping to launch the show’s seventh season, not to mention launching their host’s infamous ad-libbing, include such teams as a housewife and a police officer; a Russian immigrant furniture dealer and an Oklahoma woman descended from Poland and Lithuania; and, a West Point cadet and a young art student. Host: Groucho Marx. Announcer: George Fenneman. Music: Jerry Fielding. Director: Bernie Smith. Writers, presumably just in case: Ed Tyler, Hy Freeman.
The Whistler: The Brass Ring (CBS, 1946)—Carnival dancer Babe Logan (Doris Singleton) has eyes for a heavy-tipping regular visitor whom she marries largely for his fortune, unwilling to admit carnival barker Duke (Eddie Maher) was right about her avarice until she chafes under her husband’s tony existence and hankers to return to the midway—at just about any cost. Detective: William Conrad. Additional cast: Unknown. The Whistler: Bill Forman. Announcer: Vic Wells. Music: Wilbur Hatch. (Whistling: Dorothy Roberts.) Director: George W. Allen. Writer: David Gillespie.
Words at War: Since You Went Away (NBC, 1943)—Based on her Dayton Journal-Herald newspaper column, “Letters to a Soldier from His Wife,” which the future television writer/story editor wrote to her own husband deployed in Europe, Margaret Buell Wilder’s novel is treated with surprising understatement considering its potential for soapish melodrama: Anne Hilton is determined to keep her two daughters on an even keel while coping herself with her husband’s war deployment, an often heartbreaking home front, her loneliness, her edginess about going to work herself, and her wariness about a bitter divorcee who has befriended her, among other things. Cast: Unknown. Announcer: Jack Costello. Music: Morris Mimorsky. Director: Joseph Lozee. Adapted for radio by Nora Sterling.
World War II
Special Report: War of Words (Czech European Radio , 1938)—The Nazi propaganda machine ramps up over the Sudetenland crisis despite President Benes’s reluctant martial law order having restored a fair semblance of order, according to this news report by an unidentified English-speaking reporter.