Already familiar (too much so, to his faculty and his students) as imperious blowhard high school principal Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks, Gale Gordon more or less kicks himself upstairs when he accepts a recurring role, quite on the side, in a show for which he’d originally auditioned as the program’s lead.
It might seem peculiar, considering his entrenchment as Conklin, but Gordon was actually considered for The Halls of Ivy‘s lead, when creator Don Quinn (Fibber McGee & Molly) arranged to cut an audition disc in 1949.
According to John Dunning (in On the Air), the original proposal attracted little enough interest, once it was clear Gordon couldn’t accept the role as Dr. William Todhunter Hall. That was when director Nat Wolff, whose wife Edna Best portrayed Victoria Cromwell Hall in the Gordon audition, suggested his longtime friend and client (as an agent) for the lead: Ronald Colman.
Colman and his actress wife Benita Hume landed the roles and, after a slight tightening up, the audition script became the series premiere. The Colmans’ previous recurring roles as Jack Benny’s politely embarrassed British neighbours convinced Wolff they had just the right understated flair for comedy. Playing the eruditely relaxed Halls if Gordon (and thus Best) couldn’t portray them would be perfect for the couple.
Gordon’s association with The Halls of Ivy wasn’t finished, however. For one thing, his mother, Gloria, held a recurring role as the Halls’ housekeeper and cook. But after the show’s first season, Willard Waterman would be forced to yield his support role as amiable Ivy trustee John Merriweather, and—ironically enough—for the same reason Gordon couldn’t accept the job as Dr. Hall: other commitments, up to his armpits, including his full-time role as The Great Gildersleeve as of fall 1950.
Re-enter Gordon, as Charles Merriweather, John Merriweather’s brother and Ivy board successor, for the remainder of The Halls of Ivy‘s radio life. Those accustomed to the Falstaffian Conklin might be surprised by his lower-keyed interpretation of the new Merriweather (Herb Butterfield already owns the blowhard role as Ivy board chairman Wellman), even if Gordon displays a dryer wit and less hysterical presence than Waterman’s original had done.
Merriweather may be a very secondary character, but an uneven or bumpy transition between secondary characters can affect a show’s continuing reception, too. This transition, however, is as seamless as the company could ask. And thus does this quietly urbane comedy of manners—which has in common with Fibber McGee & Molly Quinn’s knack for clever word play and punning, even if the Halls would be bemused (if not flustered) by the McGees—continue as one of the very few radio shows born in 1950 or beyond to increase its ratings each season it airs in first-run production.
The A.C. Nielsen Company, which has supplanted the Hooperatings service by The Halls of Ivy‘s birth (Nielsen bought the national rating service of Claude E. Hooper in March 1950, though Hooper shrewdly kept his local ratings service), shows it pulling into twelfth place (6.5) on Friday nights despite an abbreviated debut season (January-June 1950). It inches into eleventh place on Wednesday nights (6.6) in its first full season (1950-51). Then, in its second, final full radio season (1951-52), the show will reach the national Top Fifty (#37; 6.7) and the Top Ten ($7, 6.7) on Wednesday nights.
Gale Gordon? He wasn’t even close to being fired as Madison High’s harrumphing principal, just yet . . .
Tonight: Wellman (Herb Butterfield) fumes over anthropology student Thomas Finley, who wrote a gracefully blistering Bull editorial criticising student motivations and Hall’s (Ronald Colman) common touch with the student body. Wellman probably prefers Finley’s “expulsion, excommunication, and if he has his way execution,” but Hall prefers to swing the marshmallow hammer, inviting Finley to dinner for a discussion that yields more than a few surprises.
Vicki: Benita Hume Colman. Merriweather: Gale Gordon. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Henry Russell. Director: Nat Wolff. Writers: Don Quinn, possibly Walter Brown Newman.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Can’t Find His Hip Boots (NBC, 1944)—For once the Sage of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) is already in The Closet (yes, it feels like we wuz robbed not being there for the inevitable clattering crash), and needs the boots for his beloved fly fishing. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Molly/Teeny: Marian Jordan. Alice Darling: Shirley Mitchell. Dr. Gamble: Arthur Q. Bryan. Beulah: Marlin Hurt. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.
Quiet, Please: Beezer’s Cellar (ABC, 1948)—Three young thieves (Ernest Chappel [narrator], Lotte Stavisky, Warren Stevens) plan to hide their haul in the cellar of an old, abandoned home and return for it after a small amount of time—assuming they can escape the cellar at all. If there’s such a thing as a standard hold for this series, this installment displays it. Old Man: Charles Eggleston. Music: Albert Buhrmann. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.
Suspense: A Plain Case of Murder (CBS, 1946)—Returning from World War II in the Pacific, a former prisoner of war (John Lund) learns his girl (Cathy Lewis) jilted him for a wealthy husband—but now she’s interested in reuniting with him, thinking him a wealthy aircraft sales executive, which inspires him to trick her into a murder plot—and frame her for the crime. Cleverly played. Additonal cast: Hans Conreid, Jerry Hausner, William Johnstone, possibly Betty Lou Gerson. The Man in Black: Joseph Kearns. Announcer: Ken Niles. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Sound: Berne Surrey. Director: William Spier. Writer: Robert L. Richards.