Even by the quietly eccentric standard to which all Vic & Sade characters seem to have been held, never mind that all were heard of but never heard, Uncle Fletcher—whether through the mouths of Vic, Sade, or Rush; or, through the live presence of Clarence Hartzell, who played him—was in a class by himself. John Dunning (in On the Air) may isolate it best, or at least with the least amount of clumsiness:
He talked through people, hearing little (or at all) that was said; his feelings were easily bruised one moment and impenetrable the next. He rambled on about friends who had once lived in Sweet Esther, Wisconsin, moved to Dismal Seepage, Ohio, and later died. He responded to the greeting “Say, Uncle Fletcher” with “Certainly” or “Fine.”
. . . In one program Uncle Fletcher identified a Vermont State Home for the Freckled, an Oklahoma State Home for the Mistaken, a Kentucky State Home for the Suspicious, and a Nebraska State Home for the Nice-Looking. His landlady alternately pleased and annoyed him. He was annoyed when she went on a week-long trip and laid out his meals in advance, all over the house. “Saturday’s dinner is on the numbskull sideboard. Sunday’s dinner is on a tray in the lame-brain nitwit pantry. Monday’s breakfast sits on my dresser up in my bedroom. And Monday’s dinner is perched like a numbskull parrot on the doggone fathead piano stool!”
Uncle Fletcher was forced to go from merely heard-of to heard himself when Art Van Harvey suffered a heart attack that necessitated writing stolid, bemused Vic out of the show while the actor recovered. Hartzell would tell Dunning many years later that Bill Idelson (Rush) by then couldn’t remember his own audition for the show but that he never forgot Hartzell’s. Neither, of course, could Hartzell himself:
Fact of the matter is, I never heard of Uncle Fletcher. Vic & Sade had been a favourite show of mine, but I had never heard of the character of Uncle Fletcher . . . Ted McMurray was a producer and director for NBC at that time, and he said, “What are you here for?” and I said, “I don’t know, I’m called in for an audition.” He said, “You don’t know what it’s for?” And I said, “I didn’t know.” He said, “Well, let me tell you. It’s for Vic & Sade.” I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding. What’s on Vic & Sade?” He says, “Well, they’re going to bring in the part of Uncle Fletcher.” And I said, “Who’s Uncle Fletcher?” And then he began to tell me . . . “Uncle Fletcher is Sade’s uncle that, uh, lives out in Iowa or something, I think, and he’s the kind of a fella that one Christmas he wrote Sade that he was sending them his Christmas present and it was a piano, and the keyboard would be dropped off by a friend of his who had a pickup truck, and the legs of the piano were in a barn on a farm out in Iowa somewhere, and the strings the fella said he had ‘em in their garage” . . . so that gave me some idea of what an eccentric guy he was. But Fletcher was a character that everyone has in his family. He does stupid things, but he’s loved.
He certainly was loved, even before Hartzell joins the cast: By 1938, he was so popular despite never being heard that the character received the most mail of any of the off-mike Vic & Sade characters.
Uncle Fletcher would merely become the best-loved and best-remembered character of Hartzell’s career, a career in which his youth would not prevent him from being cast effectively as old men. Which proves to be pretty damn good for a young man who had to beat out a character actor named Sidney Ellstrom for the role, and may have gotten his break only because Idelson and Bernadine Flynn (Sade) championed him incessantly.
On-air mother and son would be proven right, of course. So much so that when Van Harvey is able to return to the show, Hartzell is kept aboard to recur as Uncle Fletcher until the show’s demise. After which Hartzell migrates to Lum & Abner, as the somewhat similar Ben Withers, but by then Lum & Abner are so far removed from their years as quiet dialogicians that Hartzell as Withers will seem a wasted presence. He’d have been far more effective in the years when Lum & Abner, like Vic & Sade, was a quiet little exercise without the trappings and entrapments of what situation comedy would become.
Tonight: Whether his landlady Miss Keller joins the Thimble Club seems to be uppermost in Uncle Fletcher’s (Hartzell) mind, to the point of wondering whether Sade (Flynn) actually will extend the invitation.
Rush: Bill Idelson. Announcer: Vincent Pelletier. Writer/director: Paul Rhymer.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Gets His Draft Notice (NBC, 1941)—For the wrong war, yet, which almost figures. Molly/Teeny: Marian Jordan. Gildersleeve: Harold Peary. Mrs. Uppington: Isabel Randolph. The Old-Timer: Bill Thompson. Himself: Harlow Wilcox (announcer). Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.
The Great Gildersleeve: The Laughing Coyote Ranch (NBC; AFRS rebroadcast, 1945)—That’s where Leroy (Walter Tetley) thinks an obviously overworked Uncle Mort (Harold Peary) ought to repair the family for a good vacation, and the big man has no intention of going . . . until he realises Leila (Shirley Mitchell) happens to be rather friendly with the ranch’s proprietor. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Peavey: Richard LeGrand. Additional cast: Unknown. Announcer: John Laing. Music: Claude Sweetin Orchestra. Director: Frank Pittman. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
The Old Gold Comedy Theater: A Lady Takes a Chance (NBC, 1945)—Randolph Scott and Gene Tierney step coolly into the John Wayne and Jean Arthur roles in this terse condensation of the 1943 vehicle about a city girl on a bus tour West who allows a rodeo cowboy to put her benign city suitor out of her mind for awhile. Announcer: Bob Williams. Host/director: Harold Lloyd. Music: Carl Hoff. Adapted from the screenplay by Robert Ardrey and Jo Swerling.
The Mel Blanc Show: Two Loves Has Mel (NBC, 1947)—If nothing else, spring turns a young man’s fancy about 720 degrees if he’s not too careful, which Mel (Blanc) isn’t, after Betty (Mary Jane Croft) coos about their would-be-forthcoming June wedding, her father (Joseph Kearns) celebrates only the savings once she moves out of his house, and her man-crazy cousin from New York (Elvia Allman) cores Mel’s apple practically upon arrival. A little more of this kind of material and performance and this show might have lived longer than a single season. Additional cast: Hans Conreid. Announcer: Bud Easton. Music: Victor Miller Orchestra, the Sports Men. Writer: Mac Benoff.
Fort Laramie: The Beasley Girls (CBS, 1956)—Quince (Raymond Burr) hopes to rescue two young women captured by a Sioux tribal division by swapping a captured Sioux chieftain, who’s shown him a wary civility, rather than risk a lopsided battle with an undermanned company—a deal whose consummation is ruined by a particularly roguish, reckless Laramie soldier (Sam Edwards) who’s already outraged Quince with previously dangerous behaviour. Harrison: Lawrence Dobkin. Siebert: Harry Bartell. Doggett: Jack Moyles. Additional cast: Lou Krugman, James Nusser, Lillian Byeff. Announcer: Dan Cubberly. Music: Amerigo Moreno. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Sound: Bill James, Ray Kemper. Writer: Kathleen Hite.