Two portentious anniversaries: Old-time radio listening, 2 May

The Brandenburg Gate after fighting in the Battle of Berlin; Berlin falls at last to the Allies today in 1945 . . . (Photo: Wire services.)

The Brandenburg Gate after fighting in the Battle of Berlin; Berlin falls at last to the Allies today in 1945 . . . (Photo: Wire services.)

As anniversaries go, 2 May will prove a portentious fall for a world at war, and a portentious premiere for a seemingly non-descript master of ceremonies making his first such radio turn, unaware that he’s taken his first step toward becoming a broadcasting institution in his own right.

 

WORLD WAR II

News Bulletin: “Splendid News from Moscow” (BBC, 1945)

Just one day after the news of Adolf Hitler’s death has broken, Stuart Hibberd again breaks a bulletin the world has waited to hear—Berlin falls to the Allies. The rump government of Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, headquartered (as was his former U-boat command) in Flensburg near the Danish border, now has a life (such as it is) measurable in days. If that long.

 

AN INSTITUTION PREMIERES . . .

The Canada Dry Program: “Unemployed and Getting Paid for It” (NBC Blue, 1932)

Jack Benny (left, with Mary Livingstone) begins his ascent to radio immortality tonight in 1932 . . . (Photo: NBC.)

Jack Benny (left, with Mary Livingstone) begins his ascent to radio immortality tonight in 1932 . . . (Photo: NBC.)

A radio show with a name is as dry as the soft drink it hawks wouldn’t necessarily rate more than a passing mention, if any, regarding its premiere. Especially if the soft drink’s maker is so dry it would can the master of ceremonies a year after the premiere—because he made just a few too many soft jokes at the product’s expense. Except that The Canada Dry Program‘s exception proves to be quite an exception.

Mostly a showcase for popular song hits performed, seemingly, with as much ornate excess as feasible, the show’s host only seems barely beyond a master of ceremonies. But he just so happens to be the man who will become radio’s rarely-challenged kingpin in due course. And, not coincidentally, there are hints enough, in his first turn of the persona through which he and his will become just about the standard against which most radio comedy will be measured.

Uh, thank you, Mr. Thorgeson, that’s pretty good from a man who doesn’t even know me. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking, and making my first appearance on the air professionally. By that, I mean I’m finally getting paid, which of course will be a great relief to my creditors.

I, uh, I really don’t know why I’m here, I’m supposed to be a sort of a master of ceremonies, and tell you all the things that will happen, which would happen anyway. I must introduce the different artists, who could easily introduce themselves, and also talk about the Canada Dry made-to-order by the glass, which is a waste of time if you know all about it. You drink it, like it, and don’t want to hear about it.

So, ladies and gentlemen, a master of ceremonies is really a fellow who is unemployed and gets paid for it.

Benny’s premiere as a host in his own right also just so happens to fall on the fortieth birthday of his number one writer of the time, a man Benny himself would come to call the greatest natural gag man of them all.

Numerous vaudeville and radio comedians were believed to be earning enough of their keep on the gags he provided even before Benny would hit stride to stay after a season or two of just trying to round himself into the shape by which millions would come to know and love him. But Al Boasberg does not confine himself to Benny or radio alone.

He has already written Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, The General. He is more or less on the threshold of writing major portions of the Marx Brothers’ comeback masterpieces, A Night at the Opera (including and especially the famous stateroom scene) and A Day at the Races. You’ll have to have been on the inside of the latter to know it, however: the ever-familiar “personality conflict” between Boasberg and the producers lead to Boasberg’s name being erased from the credits. Rather sorry, that, considering A Day at the Races will be his idea in the first place.

(Boasberg will not be the only one suffering such a conflict on that film. Irving Thalberg, who brings the Marx Brothers to MGM in the first place, and convinces the studio and the brothers alike to road-test the stuff that would make the films’ cuts before shooting will begin, will die during the making of A Day at the Races . . . and become a non-person in the closing credits as well. Only in Hollywood can death become a personality conflict.)

Will you hear and remember the routine (“Lamb Chops”) that really made George Burns and Gracie Allen’s career? That, too, was Al Boasberg. As is Myrt & Marge, a film destined to be remembered not for the radio soap ladies whose celluloid premiere it is, but for the concurrent premiere of a trio known as Moe, Larry, and Curly.

Boasberg is not without his actual idiosyncrasies. As he graduates to being a script doctor, he develops a preference for working while sinking into a warm bath in a huge tub, dreaming up jokes and recording them by Dictaphone. But he will have helped Jack Benny develop and refine—from the very few hints suggested in the aforequoted monologue—the air persona that would graduate him from suave amusement to comic legend soon enough, the vain skinflint whose paradox is that he’ll let his entire cast and company get laughs at his, shall we say, expense.

The exponential sorrow is that Al Boasberg—whose last known lines to be written for a Jack Benny program will be the first known lines to come from the mouth of Eddie (Rochester) Anderson—will die the day after he signs an absolute dream contract, a kind of unemployment and getting paid for it, if you wish to see it that way: $1,500 per week from Benny (who was as generous beyond belief in real life as his character was the opposite) merely to be on call if and when needed to punch up a Benny script.

No one has ever proven that getting that kind of deal was enough to give the man the heart attack that would kill him at 45. Even if it might sound just a little like a signature Boasberg gag.

So, in 21st century America, we will say happy eighty-first birthday to what will become known as The Jack Benny Program; and, happy 141st birthday to the one-of-a-kind Al Boasberg.

 

NEWS AND VIEWS . . .

Fireside Chat: The Coal Crisis (All networks, 1943)

With John Llewellyn Lewis’s United Mine Workers on strike against major American coal mines, President Roosevelt uses his twenty-fourth Fireside Chat to announce the federal takeover of the mines.

I want to make it clear that every American coal miner who has stopped mining coal — no matter how sincere his motives, no matter how legitimate he may believe his grievances to be — every idle miner directly and individually is obstructing our war effort. We have not yet won this war. We will win this war only as we produce and deliver our total American effort on the high seas and on the battlefronts. And that requires unrelenting, uninterrupted effort here on the home front.

A stopping of the coal supply, even for a short time, would involve a gamble with the lives of American soldiers and sailors and the future security of our whole people. It would involve an unwarranted, unnecessary and terribly dangerous gamble with our chances for victory.

Roosevelt also uses this Chat to reach out to prospective allies during his continuing feud with Lewis, who broke with the president in 1940 and backed Republican challenger Wendell L. Willkie over what Lewis feared to have been Roosevelt’s intention to bring the United States into active involvement in World War II. The United Mine Workers signed a formal no-strike pledge once the U.S. was drawn into the war, following the Pearl Harbour attacks, but the dictatorial Lewis has broken the pledge often enough, with the 1943 break the most significant of the breaks.

The federal mine seizure proves the most vivid move convincing many Americans—even those customarily sympathetic to organised labour, but also those wary of swelling federal power—to demand tougher legislation regulating the unions, demands that would be met when the UMW stoppages concurrently outrage Congressmen who are already wary of big labour.

 

FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

The Henry Morgan Show: Married Life (NBC, 1950)—The pitfalls of a wife’s (Minerva Pious) old girl friends (Doris Holden, Jane Seabrook) coming to call . . . and her failing to tell her husband (Henry Morgan) until the next-to-last minute. Also: Jokes for the show’s foreign listeners; Gerard (Arnold Stang) resents not being invited to the circus he doesn’t really like; and, Oscar (Art) Carney, the East Coast’s bowling champion; and, other unusual news. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Bernie Green, Milton Tatum Orchestra. Writers: Henry Morgan, Aaron Ruben, Joe Stein, Carroll Moore, Jr.

 

Crime Drama

Broadway is My Beat: The Margaret Royce Murder Case (CBS, 1953)—Leila Royce’s (Norma Varden) missing elder sister Margaret’s apartment has been ransacked as though the intruder knew exactly what he sought, then Clover (Larry Thor) meets a young man (Sam Edwards) who became a kind of escort to the missing woman . . . who turns up dead in avacant lot leaving further questions behind. Additional cast: Martha Wentworth, Jerry Hausner, Hal Gerard. Tartaglia: Charles Calvert. Announcer: Bill Anders. Music: Alexander Courage. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writers: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.

 

Fantasy

Quiet, Please: A Very Unimportant Person (ABC, 1948)—Should it turn out that a kid named Stephen King keeps this one in the back of his mind, when conceiving and writing The Langoliers, try not to be surprised: An aviation worker (Ernest Chappell, who also narrates), his wife (Nancy Sheridan), and—to their surprise—a now-former VIP (James Monks) with a surprising secret, escape narrowly by air, as the world is destroyed in a series of seemingly unplanned atomic explosions. Additional cast: Frank Thomas. Music: Albert Buhrmann. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.

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