Final farewells and a grisly revelation: Old-time radio listening, 15 April

FDR's funeral train steams along the Hudson River toward his burial at his Hyde Park home. (Photo: National Archives.)

FDR’s funeral train steams along the Hudson River toward his burial at his Hyde Park home. (Photo: National Archives.)

A nation, if not a world choked with grief, says final farewells and offers tributes to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They include, and we begin with, a soon-to-be nationally famous broadcast entertainer whose later reputation for petulance and off-mike tyranny will astonish those who know him on air as the folksy, almost neighbourly type—who turns out to have been far more beholden to FDR than anyone knows at the time.

But on the same day as Roosevelt is buried, the signature reporter of World War II delivers a harrowing—and never to be forgotten—revelation from the ruin of the Third Reich.

 

14 APRIL 1945

Arthur Godfrey: “I can see the horses drawing the caisson . . .” (CBS, 14 April 1945)

Arthur Godfrey is already a noted morning time radio performer, when he delivers this striking description of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s departure from Washington to the transportation that will take him to his Hyde Park, New York home and his final rest.

There is a backstory: An avid flier who sought to fly for the Navy in World War II after launching his radio career in earnest (he has become a popular morning personality after early work that included a short-lived turn as Fred Allen’s announcer), Godfrey was able to do so in the first place only because of Roosevelt’s intercession.

Godfrey suffered serious hip injuries in a 1931 automobile accident that occurred while he was driving to a flying lesson. When he applied for his Navy commission, the matter somehow went all the way to Roosevelt’s desk in a marvelous stroke of fate: Godfrey himself was still strictly a local Washington radio presence . . . but FDR himself turned out to have been a regular listener.

According to eventual CBS historiographer Robert Metz, Roosevelt is said to have asked about Godfrey, “Can he walk?” Told yes, the president barked back, “Well, give [the commission] to him. I can’t walk and I’m the commander-in-chief!”

Godfrey’s inability to forget that debt will be rivaled, in due course, only by his soon enough notorious inability to forget any slight or any defiance, actual or alleged. But now, observing the Roosevelt caisson proceeding slowly from Capitol Hill, past the Treasury Department building, Godfrey cannot hold his emotions for very long. Quite literally, he goes to pieces—but manages to stay with it.

It is the single most moving moment in a career that this broadcast will yank from local Washington phenomenon to nationwide popularity. Godfrey’s neighbourly way and genuine emotion here will move CBS to send him national, beginning with a popular morning show known as Arthur Godfrey Time . . .

15 APRIL 1945

Various Artists: Our Hour of National Sorrow (NBC, 1945)

This afternoon, there is white snow on the mountains that view Hollywood from the distance. The sun shines brightly, the sky is blue, and the air is warm with spring. It might be any day in California, for nature neither knows nor cares about the trials and tribulations of man, whom she both fights and serves. She looks upon life and death as one, for she has long fashioned either from the same material. And just as the one is interchangeable with the other, so in nature’s book is each indestructible . . . Life is eternal; death is eternal. Today, in Hollywood, we in the entertainment unite to pay tribute to one whose death, as is nature’s work, will likewise prove eternal.

Thus does film and future radio star Ronald Colman open for a small phalanx of film and old-time radio stars, rounding up in a sometimes mawkish, sometimes wishfully wistful, often-enough moving, music-wrapped farewell to President Roosevelt.

The stars also include Jim and Marian Jordan (in character as Fibber McGee & Molly and Teeny), Ginny Simms, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (who created and play Amos ‘n’ Andy but speak as themselves), Bette Davis, Robert Young, Harold Peary (The Great Gildersleeve), James Cagney, Jack Benny, Ingrid Bergman, Shirley Roth, and others.

 

FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING, 15 APRIL: AN EXPOSITION OF HORROR . . .

Edward R. Murrow: “I Pray You to Believe What I Have Told You About Buchenwald” (CBS, 1945)

Murrow. (Photo: CBS.)

Murrow. (Photo: CBS.)

[T]his is no time to talk of the surface of Germany. Permit me to tell you what you would have seen, and heard, had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what the Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio, for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last . . . [L]et me tell this in the first person, for I was the least important person there, as you shall hear.

Escorted by German, English, Czech, and other surviving prisoners, including the one-time mayor of Prague, Peter Zenkl; and, a German expatriate from Joliet, Illinois, who returned to Germany for a visit only to be snatched by the Nazis; Edward R. Murrow—arrived at Buchenwald with Allied forces—manages to bring himself to report the lingering stench of death, and the mute horror of its survivors, the freshly-liberated camp, four days after his staggering visit to the camp still containing 21,000 prisoners after the SS abandons it.

Long after tonight’s broadcast, and long after his eventual death, there will still exist examples enough of what made his reputation as a larger-than-life journalist with the gift of prose poetry. You may be able to say Murrow will yet improve. But you may not be able to say that he will get better, after you hear his “rather mild” report from the extermination camp. And you will need almost no visual evidence to know the grotesquery of which he will report. You won’t even need to accept his near-apology. (If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry.)

Almost. Murrow’s understatement is only too vivid.

 

. . . FURTHER NEWS AND VIEWS . . .

World News Today: “Now, even the muffled drums are quiet” (CBS, 1945)—A report from Hyde Park conveys the graveside service and morning burial of FDR on the grounds of his primary home. Also, a dispatch from the United Nations’s founding conference in San Francisco and a retrospective of recent Pacific Theater war coverage; the liberation of Wiemar; from Paris, further reaction to FDR’s death, further European war advances, and last-ditch Nazi resistance despite the Third Army’s continuing, breathtaking plunge; and, thoughts on the possible makeup of the newborn Truman Administration. Correspondents: Chris Coffin, Eric Sevareid, Bill Shadell (who telegraphs Murrow’s soon-to-come Buchenwald report), Charles Collingwood, Larry LeSeur, Bob Evans. Anchor: Robert Trout.

A New World A-Coming: In Memory of FDR (WMCA New York, 1945)—A touching broadcast focusing on Roosevelt’s impact upon African-Americans, part of this remarkable series co-produced by New York’s WMCA and the Citizen’s Committee of Harlem, a series focused on the social and military lives of New York African-Americans during World War II. Featured: William Franklin singing “The Requiem” (Homer); Dr. Channing Bishop (Selective Service board member, African-American leader) on Roosevelt Administration measures and laws signed by Roosevelt that benefitted African-Americans; soprano Muriel Smith sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”; Canada Lee, reading the prayer FDR wrote and delivered to American and Allied forces on the launch of the D-Day invasion in 1944; Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-Harlem) in a tribute you could call “The people’s chieftain has fallen”; and, from St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Harlem, the Rev. Sheldon Hale Bishop delivers a benediction for the late president, followed by a musical take of “The Lord’s Prayer” the church’s choir.

 

. . . ETC. …

Comedy

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: Hiding Easter Eggs (Three Guesses, 1960)—On “One Fella’s Family,” they are: Book Ex Eye Eye, Chapter Vee Eye, among other tender mercilessness. Writers, so they’ve been accused: Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding.

 

Crime Drama

Nick Carter, Master Detective: The Cat Brings Death (a.k.a. The Missing Person; Mutual, 1944)—Already pressured by a rash of unsolved jewel robberies, the last thing Lt. Riley (Humphrey Davis) needs is a dowager (Bryna Raeburn) demanding her missing and possibly stolen expensive Persian cat be returned post haste. Carter: Lon Clark. Patsy: Helen Choate. Writer/director: Jock MacGregor.

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