The fabled CBS talent raids of 1948-50 didn’t end happily for all the radio stars who jumped in the wake of Jack Benny’s famous 1948 leap. In fact, one of the CBS targets ended up burned, not burnished by the jump in 1950: The Great Gildersleeve himself.
Like Benny, Harold Peary was represented by the MCA talent agency. From that vantage, the veteran Gildersleeve star could and probably did pay close enough attention to the issues that drove Benny into CBS’s neighbourhood. Peary’s MCA handlers, for their part, made him aware enough of his full hand in Gildersleeve‘s staying power that he wanted a bigger piece of its ownership than he’d already been allowed by sponsor Kraft Foods, not to mention a little extra air time for his pleasantly passable singing voice.
Kraft rebuffed MCA when they tried negotiating a bigger stake in the show for their client. And while you’re at it, MCA, you can also tell Hal those occasional singing slots are just right and that’s that, since Gildy wasn’t supposed to be a singing part in the first place. While they were at it, moreover, MCA seems to have convinced Peary that Gildersleeve had no life without him even if Kraft wouldn’t budge on the bigger stake.
Peary will often be recalled as expressing “boredom” with Gildy by spring 1950, and he has chafed under Gildy’s typecasting in the past couple of seasons, but that may or may not be a negotiating ploy. What did happen is that CBS came knocking and Peary answered the door and invited them in, very attracted by their very lucrative offer. Stood to reason that if he wanted to move, Gildersleeve would have no choice but to move with him, no muss, no fuss, no loss.
The only problem with that thought was that Kraft had no intention or desire to end Gildersleeve‘s relationship with NBC. And they were only too well prepared to prove to Peary that if he wanted to jump that badly, they weren’t going to ask him how high or off which bridge. The chosen agent for that proof turned out to hit Peary right where he lived: Willard Waterman, an old friend from their earlier Chicago radio years, who not only looked as though he could be Peary’s actual brother but sounded like as dead a ringer for Peary as could have been imagined.
Small wonder Kraft thought they could transition from Peary to Waterman on their flagship comedy without so much as a bead of sweat. They even accepted that Waterman, out of respect for his old friend, refused to copy the famous Gildersleeve laugh, that half-leering, half-embarrassed, giggling diminuendo. So Peary jumped to CBS after the 1949-50 season of Gildersleeve was done, Waterman slipped almost quietly into the role for the coming fall season, and there would be bad news and worse news all around in the long term.
The bad news: The new Gildersleeve might survive almost seven more years, but it proves to be a kind of slow death, its protagonist now more unable to choose between being a family man or a ladies’ man, deciding at last the latter was the wiser choice, but often a little too much for listeners (or viewers, in the show’s short-lived television guise) who’d stuck by the show for over a decade. Gildersleeve‘s descent would be long and almost quiet.
The worse news: In Gerald Nachman’s eventual locution (in Raised on Radio), Peary had “outsmarted himself and lost the role of a lifetime.” Now, he and CBS had to scramble to find him a new vehicle, considering the network’s apparent fat investment in him. Peary has come up with The Harold Peary Show. (It’s often called Honest Harold—mistakenly; Honest Harold was actually the name of the fictitious local radio show starring Peary’s new character, Harold Hemp.) And with listeners indifferent (if not hostile) and critics dismissive (if not likewise), the new show flops, right onto its belly, expiring almost too quietly following its 38th episode on 13 June 1951.
Which may not have been fair. The Harold Peary Show will prove to be just a little better than its historical reputation will allow. It will be acted smartly and written cleverly enough, most of the time, with sensible direction and intelligently witty characters. If not for sounding from birth just a little too much like The Lite Gildersleeve while the real (if re-cast/remodeled) thing is still on the air (and Waterman, to his credit, makes a solid enough Gildy no matter how that show devolves otherwise), The Harold Peary Show might survive more than a single season.
But when it does flop, so flops Peary’s career as a major star. His future proves to be anything but bleak, happily enough, even if his headlining years are history. He goes from there to a long, worthy career as a character actor on television (including guest spots on The Addams Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Brady Bunch) and in film (his character roles will include one in the forgettable Elvis Presley vehicle Clambake), not to mention a valued voice actor in animated roles for Rankin-Bass, Hanna-Barbera, and other cartoon studios.
But he will never return to anything close to his former fame, unless you count an amusing television spot he will do (in the 1970s) for Faygo soda, before his death at 76, of heart failure, in 1985.
Tonight: Harold (Peary) is surprised enough to learn the big elm tree is targeted for elimination by the city, but he’ll find it difficult to keep a vow he’s made to quit joining “inconsequential” crusades when he learns boss Stanley’s uncle (Jack Moyles) wants Boomer Park re-named . . . for himself.
Evalina: Florence Robinson. Billy: Jerry Marron. Gloria: Gloria Holiday. Doc Yak-Yak: Joseph Kearns. Additional cast: Ken Peters, Will Wright. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Jack Meakin Orchestra. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writers: Gene Stone, Jack Robinson, Dick Powell.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
The Jack Benny Program: The Gold Rush of 1949 (CBS, 1950)—The cast (Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Don Wilson) commemorates California’s centennial in their singular style . . . aiming at the gold rush, surely close to the host’s fictitious heart . . . Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra, the Sport’s Men. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.
Gunsmoke: Indian White (CBS, 1955)—Matt’s (William Conrad) planned meeting at Dodge House is interrupted when he sees a boy (Sammy Ogg) mistaken for a Cheyenne youth whom some local people believe to be running weapons to the tribe . . . but whom Cheyenne renegades kidnapped from his white mother several years earlier. Chester: Parley Baer. Miss Cullen: Virginia Gregg. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Doc: Howard McNear. Additional cast: Joseph Kearns, Harry Bartell, John Dehner, Ralph Moody. Announcer: George Fenneman. Music: Rex Khoury. Sound: Bill James, Ray Kemper. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: Tom Hanley.
World War II
World News Today: Pressure Above the Dutch Rhine, but Advances on the Euro Front Otherwise (CBS, 1944)—The British Second Army fights across the Dutch Rhine in a bid to open some breathing room for key British airborne troops marooned on the river’s north banks; DeGaulle arrives on the French front to enthusiastic receptions amidst a French government reorganisation; the U.S. 8th Army plunges along the Po River pushing the Nazis back and building forces further for a second major plunge in southern Europe, while reporters along this front expect a rapid series of bulletins including Bulgarian restitution of certain pre-war Greek territories captured by the Nazis; the Soviet Red Army cuts off Nazi troops in Estonia; an eyewitness report of U.S. Marine pilot timing training; the Marines pushing through the Palao Islands, with a former Fox Movietone news camera director now a military communications commander reviewing the action; and, reaction in Washington to the Dutch Rhine airborne situation, including from three American airborne troops who partook in major European campaigns including D-Day.
Correspondents: Larry LeSeur from London; Winston Burdett from Rome; Lee White (Chicago Daily News) from Moscow; Bill Slocum, Jr. from off the Carolina coast; Tim Lemurk from Pearl Harbour; Joe McCaffrey from Washington. Anchor: Douglas Edwards. Announcer: Warren Sweeney.