You can file this under your “Who knew?” department. But moving My Favourite Husband to open in 1949 on Friday nights at 8:30 p.m. EST meant that CBS first had to take “radio’s original comedy couple” off. And it was CBS who’d talked them into returning to live radio after a three-year hiatus in the first place.
Veteran comedians in 1948 have had a difficult enough time on Friday nights as it is. The Baby Snooks Show has been off the air because of star Fanny Brice’s illness, but Art Linkletter’s People Are Funny is moved to Tuesday after proving a Friday night flop; It Pays to Be Ignorant, that randy send-up of the tonier quiz programs (Information, Please in particular), is cancelled altogether following five seasons; and, NBC’s bid to pack Friday night with some of radio’s veteran comic highlighters—including Eddie Cantor, Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante, and William Bendix’s vehicle The Life of Riley—would have been a powerhouse . . . about four seasons earlier.
The lone apparent exception to the Friday night comedy flops has been the revamped Easy Aces, into the half-hour mr. ace and JANE, after CBS brings Goodman and Jane Ace back to the fold, following an absence during which a syndicated package of some of their classic mid-1930s serial comedies has become a slightly larger cult hit than the original first-runners were.
Mr. Jim Ramsburg, in his 2012 book Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953: A History of Prime Time Programs Through the Ratings of Nielsen, Crossley, and Hooper (North Carolina: McFarland and Company), would take it from there:
Jane continued to earn her title, the Queen of Malapropisms, uttering such lines as “We’re insufferable friends,” or “Familiarity breeds attempt,” or, “We’re all cremated equal.”
Goodman portrayed her patient and long-suffering husband. Although he actually wrote her material, he muttered asides to the listener in response to her lines like, “Isn’t that awful?”
[mr. ace and JANE] was a quiet little program from which the industry didn’t expect much. The Aces had the last laugh—finishing for the first time ever in a night’s Top Ten and the season’s Top 50.
Nevertheless, General Foods cancelled [mr. ace and JANE] at mid-season to make way for a new sitcom from which great things were expected—My Favourite Husband, starring Lucille Ball.
Lucy’s radio predecessor to her television classic could only score half of [the Aces'] ratings.
As Jane might have said of the network and sponsor that cancelled her show, “You certainly hit the nail on the thumb that time!”
mr. ace and JANE finished with a cumulative 12.2 rating for the year, with their highest monthly rating the 13.4 they earned in their final month. My Favourite Husband would finish 1949 with a cumulative 6.7 for the year and no monthly rating higher than the 7.9 it earned in January, its first month.
Why would CBS and General Foods deep-six a higher-performing show, even if the lower performer does help pave Lucille Ball’s path to gigastardom? Most likely, because Ace—who shifted his character from real estate to advertising for the mr. ace and JANE revamp—liked too much to tweak the very profession he protrayed on the show. (One non-broadcast Ace zap that cost the original Easy Aces their sponsor of fourteen years: an Anacin representative complained about one musical bridge in 1944, and Ace answered with a complaint about the aspirin’s switch to cardboard boxes from their original tins.)
Ace wasn’t half as brutal as, say, Henry Morgan; Ace was the rapier, not the bludgeon. That didn’t stop the Army and Air Force Recruiting Service, the revamp’s original (and perhaps unlikely) sponsor from backing out halfway through its single-year’s run, after a congressional complaint that the Army Air Force promoted disrespect for the judiciary following a pair of episodes in which Jane tangled with eccentrically befuddled judges.
Apparently, it didn’t stop General Foods from pulling out, either, though just why the Jell-O makers backed away becomes lost to time. One possible, reasonable guess: General Foods may have lived to regret ending its long-time, profitable sponsorship of Jack Benny (Jell-O didn’t really catch on until Benny began signing on with his once-familiar “Jell-O, again, this is Jack Benny talking . . .”) and, concurrently, may have wanted something slightly more conventional on Friday nights at 8:30 than the Aces.
So GF took up My Favourite Husband, not exactly an unconventional offering, for Jell-O. The show earn no cumulative year’s ratings at 10.0 or higher for the entire three seasons it would spend on the air with Lucille Ball. Even if Lucy’s comic timing is already apparent. Even if listeners could hear the show’s writing team (Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr.) jelling little by little into the seamless machine that would flourish when Lucy herself—who’s probably meant for television, anyway, radio offering her (as would prove true with Skelton, Cantor, and especially Milton Berle) barely half what she needs to display her complete package, since she, too, is a good mugging slapsticker—moves to television in 1951.
The Aces will just have to settle for being remembered as what later generations would call a cult hit. Which begs the question of just what to call Lucy’s lesser-rated exercise.
Tonight: Liz (Lucille Ball) gives Katie (Ruth Perrott) a break from serving breakfast because she wants George (Richard Denning) to grant her one lit-tle favour, which ought to be the tipoff to trouble right then and there—when she may have to rehearse for an amateur play on the sneak, and it drives George to the couch. Additional cast: Unknown. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Director: Jess Oppenheimer. Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn Pugh.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Town Hall Tonight with Fred Allen: Once an Amateur (NBC, 1935)—Allen returns from his summer vacation (a working vacation, considering his making a film) and the Town Hall News (“sees nothing, shows all”) presents a door-to-door survey of listeners Allen questions anonymously (har, har), setting up a delightly round of self-deprecation aided and abetted by Portland Hoffa, before the Mighty Allen Art Players (Minerva Pious, John Smart, Roy Atwell, Tiny Ruffner) perform “Once An Amateur, Always an Amateur, but Never a Bride,” aimed in part as a hillbilly-hooked satire of the rising Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. It will not be the final time Allen—friendly to amateur talent himself, presenting some in the final half-hour—takes a poke at what was soon to become an American radio institution. Announcer: Tiny Ruffner. Music: Lennie Hayton Orchestra, the Town Hall Quartet. Writers: Fred Allen, Harry Tugend.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Welcoming La Trivia Home from the War (Season premiere; NBC, 1945)—The real-life discharge of Gale Gordon from his World War II Coast Guard service inspires this installment: McGee (Jim Jordan) can’t be dissuaded from two things: climbing back into his World War I uniform, as La Trivia (Gordon) comes marching home from the Pacific; and, giving the welcome-home speech at the big reception Wistful Vista plans at the railroad station—despite not being on the committee making the decision. Molly: Marian Jordan. Alice Darling: Shirley Mitchell. Doc Gamble: Arthur Q. Bryan. Mrs. Carstairs: Bea Benederet. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Director: Max Hutto. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.
Our Miss Brooks: Rival Football (CBS, 1949)—Conklin’s (Gale Gordon) bitter rivalry with Clay City High principal Jason Brill (Frank Nelson) reaches fever pitch during Madison’s annual football fever—because said rival is angling to convince Madison football star Stretch (Leonard Smith) to transfer after learning the big hulk has moved to an address that makes him eligible to attend either school. Mooney: Leif Erickson. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Walter: Richard Crenna. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Remley Borrows Phil’s Chartreuse Car (NBC, 1949)—Or, would you buy a used car for this man? The answer is one Phil (Harris) and Alice (Faye) may yet live to regret, what a surprise. Willie: Robert North. Julius: Walter Tetley. Storekeeper: Herbert Vigran. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Suspense: The Story of Markham’s Death (CBS, 1947)—Kirk Douglas plays Phil Martin, a once-prolific mystery writer whose unfathomable writer’s block leads him to London, a bombed-out home said to have belonged to Edgar Allan Poe once upon a time, and a box among its ruins that provokes him to an equally unfathomable new idea. Ann Fleming: Cathy Lewis. Additional cast: Jerry Hausner, Raymond Lawrence, Wally Maher. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: William Spier. Writer: Robert Platt.