Stopping the comedy? Old-time radio reflection, 21 March

Before he made a career out of Miss America pageant hosting, Bert Parks was a quiz and game show host who helped knock Fred Allen out of the ratings box. (Photo: ABC.)

There he iiiiiiiiiiiis—Before he became Mr. Miss America, Bert Parks was a quiz and game show host who helped knock Fred Allen out of the radio ratings box. (Photo: ABC.)

21 March 1948—Eventual game show emperor Mark Goodson directs, game show semi-pioneer Louis G. Cowan produces, Harry Salter leads the band, Kay Armen and Dick Brown sing, and Bert Parks—the third host of radio game Break the Bank—hosts here as well.

And Stop the Music—which some say symbolises the giveaway programming that many believe secures old-time radio’s coffin with its final nail, though it would take another decade and a half, almost, to get the corpse into its grave at last—premieres on ABC, a network desperate for something (anything) to break the bank known as Fred Allen and Bergen & McCarthy’s domination of the eight o’clock hour on Sunday nights.

The show’s format (as described in Buxton and Owen’s The Big Broadcast 1920-1950) involves musical selections played in-house, with the vocalist (if the song is sung) humming rather than singing the title (assuming the title is part of the lyric), while a telephone is dialed—and, when a connection is made, a loud telephone-like bell sounds with Parks shouting, “Stop the music!” Should the contestant on the other end name the song correctly, he or she wins a prize and a shot at guessing a “Mystery Melody” for a huge jackpot.

The telephone will be the show’s prime gimmick, with callers picked at random, purportedly, from a random bank maintained by show operators. So the myth will go. The actual fact is that prospective contestants are reached well enough in advance of showtime, and wait long hours willingly to get the call.

If you’ll pardon the expression, Stop the Music is the brainchild of bandleader Salter and Your Hit Parade conductor Mark Warnow, “devised . . . as a way to blend big bands and big bucks into the biggest radio bang-for-the-buck of all,” according to historian Gerald Nachman (in Raised on Radio).

Stop the Music and similar giveaways were radio’s version of the desperate “bank nights” that movie theaters held to lure people away from their TV sets in the mid-1950s, handing out cheap sets of dishes between double bills. What fueled the giveaways was a simple trade-off in which items doled out were plugged with an elaborate description of the product that amounted to scores of free commercials within each show. This practise led to prize brokering by companies—Prizes, Inc., V.I.P. Services—that were set up as legal fences to distribute the swag to quiz shows, raking off a tidy surcharge for every “donated” prize. The odds were 25 million to one that you’d be called. The FCC pondered hard the philosophical question of whether the shows were, in fact, lotteries before deciding that they were not . . .

. . . Stop the Music (“Starring YOU, the people of America!”) handed out far fancier prizes than most giveaways—diamond rings, steamship cruises, thousand-dollar savings bonds, fur coats, pianos, and cars. America in 1948 was clearly on a postwar spending binge . . . The crafty Cowan recognised the show’s potential. ABC . . . took a chance and, within a season, sent both major comics scurrying for shelter.

Scurrying for shelter is polite phrasing to some people. Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy and Fred Allen had had the top-rated Sunday night comedy shows of the previous year (they were a mere .5 points apart), with Bergen finishing third and Allen fifth on the seasonal listings, sandwiching Bob Hope. But by June 1948, Bergen would go on early summer vacation, allowing Allen’s rating—without that potent Bergen/McCarthy lead-in—to drop from a season-long average 22.7 to a sinking 9.4 in June 1948.

Stop the Music isn’t exactly a rating buster in its maiden half-season. Not with a 12.6 it isn’t. But come 1948-49, it may not be able to beat the returning Bergen/McCarthy soiree’s 20.1 rating, but it will finish in the top ten on Sunday nights, showing a very respectable 15.4 going head-to-head with Bergen/McCarthy at 8:00 pm. It shoves Allen shoved back to a tie for ninth on the night with 12.5. Bergen will do Stop the Music a bigger favour when he takes McCarthy and company to CBS in the rush of the talent raid that already lures Jack Benny, and breaks up the formidable Bergen/Allen Sunday hour once and for all.

Allen might be staying aboard NBC, but NBC will make a huge error after Bergen departs: moving Allen head to head against Stop the Music. Allen’s health would have slightly more than his rating to do with his departure from full-time network radio by June 1949, but he’s clearly under siege enough. By the end of June 1949, Allen is in the ratings tank with a mere 5.8 for the month.

The cruelest irony of all: Allen’s final sponsor, Ford Motor Company, inadvertently planted the seed for their satire star’s demise themselves: they dropped their sponsorship of expensive and meager-rated Detroit Symphony broadcasts on Sunday nights at 8:00, getting away with it only because founder Henry Ford had died, leaving the automaker free to reach for more popular tastes and ABC with a gaping hole on its Sunday night schedule.

Before he leaves, however, Allen will use the giveaway rise as fodder for a a clever satire or three, but Stop the Music itself provokes a direct counterattack, introduced by his announcer Kenny Delmar to open the 24 October 1948 broadcast:

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned to The Fred Allen Show. If within the next thirty minutes you or any listener in the continental United States answer a telephone call from any giveaway radio program, and because you are listening to this show you miss an opportunity to win any gift then being offered, Fred Allen guarantees to make good by furnishing an equivalent gift; or, its value up to five thousand dollars. National Surety Corporation guarantees that Fred Allen will perform this agreement, up to a total of fifty thousand dollars. Notice of any claim under these guarantees must be mailed to Mr. Fred Allen by registered mail, care of the National Broadcasting Company, Radio City, New York, and postmarked not later than midnight, October 25, 1948. Relax. Enjoy The Fred Allen Show.

The bad news is that Allen’s clever retaliation proved too clever by half, according to Allen biographer (Fred Allen: His Life and Wit) Robert Taylor.

[I]t was a tactical misstep. The announcement, a latter-day restatement of the ingenious ploys Allen practised in vaudeville, received massive publicity, but the scheme backfired. Obviously, the audience had to hear Stop the Music in order to know what it was losing; and radio critics quickly pointed out that fighting giveaways with giveaway offers undermined the aims of protest. The insurance offer spawn fraudulent claims and Allen canceled the bond after a few weeks.

John Crosby reported the only dispute in which the claimant may have had a case. In Ravenna, Ohio, a seventy-six-year-old farmer named MacDonald admitted to police that he had shot and killed a sixty-eight-year-old farmhand after a wrangle over whether the pair should listen to a giveaway program or to Jack Benny. The giveaway fan held the field until his disgruntled employer returned with a gun. Presumably old MacDonald then settled down for a therapeutic laugh. Allen remarked to Crosby, “Things have come to a pass indeed when a man in Ohio has to shoot his way to the radio to get at Jack Benny.”

Would but that Allen’s health would allow, he might survive if he can hang in: Stop the Music finishes 1948-49 in a tie for eighteenth place overall with Mystery Theater (CBS) at 15.2 . . . but in 1949-50, Stop the Music will lose 40 percent of its rating against the CBS comedy piggyback of Bergen and Red Skelton, and fall out of the Top Fifty for the full season entirely. By 1952, Stop the Music itself will be stopped.

 

CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

The Burns & Allen Show: George the Genius; or, Keeping Rita Company (CBS, 1944)—Gracie (Allen) bumps into Rita Hayworth—freshly married to Orson Welles—and Hayworth, afraid to spend the night at home alone with Welles away on business, invites Gracie to spend the night—putting Gracie into a quandary, because her genius (George Burns) is also afraid to sleep at home alone. Additional cast: Elvia Allman, Mel Blanc, Jimmy Cash, Bill Goodwin (announcer), Lawrence Nash. Music: Felix Mills Orchestra. Writers: George Burns, possibly Hal Block, Paul Henning.

The Henry Morgan Show: J.J. Morgan’s Court of Inhuman Relations Clinic (NBC; Canada Broadcasting Company rebroadcast, 1950)—The disorder in the court addresses marital problems, more or less. Also: Helpful hints on treating colds as spring arrives; Gerard (Arnold Stang) takes up painting; rising boxer Sailor (Art) Carney as Man of the Week; Morgan’s Movie News covers an ironworker strike negotiation and other tidbits. Morgan’s customary semi-sanity. Additional cast: Pert Kelton, Ed Herlihy. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Milton Tatum Orchestra, Norman Cottier, Billy Williams Quartet. Writers: Henry Morgan, Joe Stein, Aaron Ruben, Carroll Moore, Jr.

 

Quiz

You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “Coat” (NBC, 1951)—A doctor and a housewife, a door-to-door bakery salesman and another housewife, and a dollmaker and an eight-year-old girl strike for a shot at a then-high $4,500 grand prize pot, once Groucho Marx gets finished with his usual deft drollery. Announcer: George Fenneman. Music: Jerry Fielding. Director: John Guedel. Writers: Ed Tyler, Hy Freedman.

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