A mismatch made short of heaven: Old-time radio listening, 28 June

The Martin & Lewis Show: Guest—John Carradine (NBC, 1949)

Martin & Lewis, who really didn't belong on radio. (Photo: NBC.)

Martin & Lewis, who really didn’t belong on radio. (Photo: NBC.)

The CBS talent raids of 1948-49 have lured NBC bellwethers Amos ‘n’ Andy and Jack Benny (with a small host of performers following Benny) over the bridge. NBC’s retaliation has been, thus far, to launch its own talent hunt. Barely was NBC in Benny’s rear view mirror when the network announced to one and all that it sought fresh, younger comers to bring to its radio and television networks.

At 1949′s beginning, or near enough to it, one NBC executive happened to be in a New York nightclub catching the act of a pair who’d been working as a team for a few years, with a reputation among industry insiders as possibly the hottest (and likely the wildest) comedy act to come down the pipe in several years.

The straight-man-with-stooge wasn’t necessarily a new concept, on radio or elsewhere, as anyone with memories of vaudeville, or of Ed Wynn, the Fire Chief and Wynn’s second banana Graham McNamee on NBC over a decade earlier, or of Abbot & Costello contemporarily, could affirm. But few straight men had Dean Martin’s singing voice, whatever you think of his style, and no stooge was as crazed as Jerry Lewis. Between them, the pair made Wynn, Abbott & Costello, and Milton Berle resemble the comatose.

The only problem with Martin & Lewis seems to have been that it was the industry insiders who knew more about the pair than the general public did. But their nightclub act has drawn rave reviews from everyone who’s seen it, mostly, which should have made the team a television natural, for awhile, anyway. On radio, alas, there’s very little if any groundbreaking. John Dunning (in On the Air) would eulogise it appropriately enough:

NBC offered a contract, the pair moved to Hollywood, and their show was concocted over the next three months. Expectations were high for the April premiere. The budget was huge, reportedly $10,000 a week, and this enabled the producers to hire top guests (Lucille Ball for the first broadcast). But the show was unexciting, and the critics said so . . . Like Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis was a visual comic, dependent on mugging. It was standard variety fare: an opening song by Martin, some verbal slapstick, a guest spot, more Lewis antics, and a closing number by Martin.

Despite the lack of success, NBC wanted it back after a short season, upping the fall ante to a reported $12,000 a week. Maestro Dick Stabile became one of Lewis’s main foils, but Lewis was screechy and shrill, and the show closed at the end of the season. Martin & Lewis went into movies, but returned to NBC in the fall of 1951. Martin was billed as “master of ceremonies.” Lewis inevitably arrived “late,” turning up at the end of Martin’s song, which he (Lewis) continued to sing in that terrible screech. But it was more of the same, a short season and an uninspired encore.

And, uninspiring ratings. Martin & Lewis on radio aren’t even a topic on Sunday nights at 6:30pm. In fairness, by the time they premiered the big topics on Sunday night were (and would remain) Jack Benny’s maiden half-season on CBS following his defection from NBC; and, Fred Allen’s elbowing-to-one-side by Stop the Music at 8:00pm. Between that and a still-powerhouse competition—in which Amos ‘n’ Andy, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Walter Winchell (who actually squeezes in between Benny at the top and Bergen-McCarthy in third place on the night), and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show are Benny’s fellow heavyweights (though none, of course, with quite his punching power)a—Martin & Lewis may not have stood a chance even with a better vehicle, even if they could have translated to radio what’s making them a nightclub hit.

Why does NBC lack the foresight to put them right to television, even allowing the network might be using its radio network by now as a kind of testing ground for possible television hits? Not only will Martin & Lewis prove a hit in films for awhile, they’ll be a hit when they’re part of Ed Sullivan’s maiden Toast of the Town. They’ll be the hottest comedy team in the business for a spell of the early 1950s. And they’ll make NBC look even more foolish over its very own air, making numerous successful appearances (including the 1950 premiere) on its own television hit, The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Not as foolish, alas, as Martin & Lewis will make themselves look with their acrimonious split in 1956. Martin will tire of the films that seem more and more, to him, to be excuses for Lewis’s antics. Lewis—whom critics genuinely believe the real talent in the team—will be bewildered by Martin’s rising unease. (Not to mention Martin’s own foolish tongue, infamously lashing out to his partner, “You’re nothing but a f—king dollar sign to me!”)

The pair goes on to separate successes and, contrary to popular mythology, to have a few scattered surprise, informal reunions, until mutual pal Sinatra brokers their formal reconciliation in 1976. It won’t restore their professional partnership, but it will help the two men restore their friendship, which lasts until Martin’s death in 1995.

Tonight: Our heroes have separate plans for the evening—Dean (Martin) has a theater invitation from guest John Carradine, Jerry has a date with the studio secretary and plans to buy a toy for Carradine’s nephew (Len Dale)—a child who turns out to be something of a whiz kid—plus the usual Martin croonery and Lewis shrillery.

Additional cast: Paul McMichael. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Dick Stabile Orchestra. Director: Robert L. Redd. Writers: Dick McKnight, Ray Allen.

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13 Responses to A mismatch made short of heaven: Old-time radio listening, 28 June

  1. Jerry Lewis was like Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, who needed to be seen and not just heard and went on the television stardom.

    • Jeff Kallman says:

      Andrew—He was hardly the only such one. But unlike the others, Martin & Lewis came to radio right out of the nightclubs; they didn’t have Skelton’s, Berle’s, and Ball’s film resumes to give them slightly larger radio audiences (though not exactly by all that much in Berle’s and Ball’s cases) when NBC first noticed them. It made more sense to stay with them on radio (Skelton was always a reliable ratings performer on radio, even if he didn’t quite have the power of, say, Jack Benny, or Bob Hope, or Fibber McGee & Molly) than it did with Martin & Lewis.

      • D.M. Yowp says:

        Skelton certainly didn’t need to be “seen” any more than Jack Benny did. He had a top radio show based on the aural aspects of his characters. Lucy was successful enough on radio that the network wanted to move her show over and we know what happened there.
        Dunning’s comparison with Berle is apt. Berle was getting ink just prior to his TV success for his nightclub work, not for films or radio, NBC may have gone to the well twice and figured if clubs can spawn a wildly successful comedian once….
        I’ve never considered Martin and Lewis a straight man-stooge set up. Abbott existed solely to set up Costello. Martin didn’t. He sang. He got a solo spotlight, something that didn’t happen to straight men. He and Lewis were equal partners in the act, something neither wanted in time.
        How soon we forget *Graham* McNamee.

        • Jeff Kallman says:

          D.M.—I note the point about Skelton while adding he was probably even more effective on television and did rely on his visual abilities quite a bit more than Benny did.

          If Lucille Ball was “successful enough on radio” to cause CBS to move her to television based on that, the actual ratings reflect another picture entirely. My Favourite Husband premiered midway through the 1948-49 season as a replacement for mr. ace and JANE—and landed exactly half the rating its predecessor landed for the season (6.1), not even close to a top ten finish on Friday night, never mind the top fifty on the season as a whole. Neither did My Favourite Husband finish in the top ten on its night in 1949-50 or top fifty on the season that year. Not until 1950-51 did My Favourite Husband finish top fifty on the season—in a whopping three-way tie in the bottom ten, with A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and This is Your FBI. Moved to Saturday nights for that season, and granting that Saturday night wasn’t a radio powerhouse any longer, My Favourite Husband finished tied for fifth with the Day exercise at an 8.8 rating, well enough behind (in ascending order) The Judy Canova Show (9.4), Hopalong Cassidy (9.8), Gangbusters (10.1), and Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch (10.2).

          In fact, you could argue that My Favourite Husband enjoyed its only top ten on the night rating and top fifty on the season rating that year because a) Dennis Day’s show was switched to a variety format midway through the season and helped continue Day’s ratings slide, and b) Gangbusters airing a half hour before My Favourite Husband was giving Lucy a better-than-average lead-in. She actually ditched the radio show before the season ended to take the gamble that resulted in getting I Love Lucy onto television that late spring and summer. But she was clearly enough not so powerful a radio presence that you could argue with evidence that CBS would be willing to gamble with her on television based on her radio performance. Unless, perhaps, whatever the show’s studio audience saw and what the radio listeners heard were different enough, and incomplete enough, that CBS might have figured Lucy and radio were a mismatch but Lucy and television might be a prospect worth pursuing. The talent was clearly there, but someone had to have seen something in studio that listeners at home simply couldn’t. Listening today My Favourite Husband does seem as much a laboratory for Lucy to pull a writing team and a kind of concept together, especially considering how many of the show’s better scripts would be re-tooled into very effective I Love Lucy episodes, but that’s about the best you can say for the show. It was funny at times, and other times you wondered where the joke got choked, and you had to wonder what the studio audience was seeing that the radio listeners didn’t get.

          (Which reminds me that Red Skelton may have had something similar to commend him to television: Skelton was far better served on radio than Lucy was, but the word is that Skelton’s studio audience hung around after the show because Skelton put on a post-broadcast performance that was big stuff around the audience and the industry; Dunning and others have recorded that plenty of people were trying to cop tickets to Skelton’s broadcasts almost specifically to catch Skelton’s post-air act. He’s said to have pulled out every stop he could think of and delivered post-show performances that were even funnier and deeper and more absurdist than what you got to hear when he was on the air. Who’s to say CBS brass weren’t among those catching that post-broadcast act and finally doing some serious thinking toward the picture box medium on his behalf?)

          Martin got his solo singing spots, but when he wasn’t singing he certainly was turned into the setup man for Lewis’s antics, whether or not that was the way either of the two men might have wanted it in the beginning. (Obviously I wasn’t alive to see it, but I’ve read where the nightclub act that first attracted attention to them was precisely an equal balance between the two even if Martin wasn’t yet the solid comic persona in his own right that he’d become in the post Martin & Lewis years.) That it worked out that way seems to have been as much an offshoot of their film work as anything else. I’m still convinced NBC should have sent them right to television and forgotten about them on radio entirely. For all we know, things might have developed very differently if they had, for the network and for the two partners alike. It might have been more difficult for filmmakers to orient the scripts that much toward Lewis if the pair had established their actual nightclub act on television where you could really see the best of each man. We’ll never know.

          Funny thing about Graham McNamee: For years I knew him as having been a sportscaster, particular for groundbreaking work doing the 1926 World Series. I didn’t become aware of his other radio work, with Ed Wynn and elsewhere, for many years. I’ve tried without success to find some of his other sports work, but Carl Smith has written well of him in Voices of the Game . . .

      • I agree nightclub acts don’t have the national recognition factor, that movie stars like Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Lucille Ball had. Skelton was meant for television, since he relied so much on sight gags.

        • Jeff Kallman says:

          Andrew—Skelton was good on radio. But he was indeed better on television. I say again, you wonder whom among the CBS brass caught Skelton’s legendary post-broadcast studio audience performances and figured that prospect out, too.

          • Correct me if I am wrong, but think Skelton worked for NBC, before his 14 years with CBS. Regardless of that it was a smart person to see his potential for television. A Freddie the Freeloader sketch would never have worked on radio.

          • Jeff Kallman says:

            Skelton was on NBC radio from 1939-1949, with a break from January 1940-September 1941 and, again (when he was drafted in World War II—which critics questioned because he’d already done a boatload of entertaining for servicemen), from March 1944 through September 1945. (Skelton suffered a nervous breakdown in Italy around June 1945, I think, and was hospitalised three months before his discharge.) He moved to CBS in October 1949, two years before CBS put him on television.

          • My mistake…thought you were talking about TV when he started with NBC then wound up later with CBS.

  2. NBC would have loved to have sent Dean & Jerry directly to TV and kept them there. In fact, the first thing the network did after signing them was put them on three consecutive broadcasts of WELCOME ABOARD, Admiral’s first TV venture (one year before THE ADMIRAL BROADWAY REVUE that birthed Caesar & Coca). However, radio was still the major home entertainment medium in ’48, and M&L’s manager, Abby Greshler, insisted that any network contract include a starring radio series. It was a status symbol, pure and simple NBC sank over $100,000 into M&L’s radio series, all 41 weeks of it, and even after it failed in January 1950, CBS was dangling a contract in front of Greshler’s eyes. NBC won out by promising another series to the pair after building them on TV; hence the 1951-53 series.

    I strongly disagree with Dunning that the latter show was more of the same. The original M&L radio program was a pseudo-sitcom, with the pair placed into weekly plots and complications from which they needed to be extracted. The 1951-53 series was a variety show, much like Crosby’s, with an emphasis on songs (Dean generally gets 3 solos per show), and a sketch with a guest star. At times it’s like a tape recorded version of the COLGATE COMEDY HOUR; not surprising since it was written by their TV writers: Ed Simmons & Norman Lear, and later Austin “Rocky” Kalish & Arthur Phillips. By then it was possible for the home audience to visualize the pair, given their movie success if not their COLGATE appearances.

    Finally, if you want a taste of their nightclub act, simply cue up the last 15 minutes of any COLGATE show (except their very first, for which they ran overtime) from the first two or three seasons, and watch these guys have the time of their lives.

    Michael

    • Jeff Kallman says:

      Michael—I’ve seen some of those Martin & Lewis Colgate entries here and there. They’re a far better representation of the team, to be certain, but from what I’ve read even those were somewhat tame and fragmented compared to their original club act, which I’ve read was genuinely something to behold. (You know about bootlegging of assorted well-reputed concerts in music? You kind of pray that someone had the prescience to capture even a fraction of Martin & Lewis’s original nightclub acts somewhere . . . ) If you’re right and their manager insisted on the radio series (and how many managers elsewhere have absolutely insisted on things that weren’t all that good for their clients?), that manager made a terrific mistake. Martin & Lewis were simply not a good radio fit no matter who was working with them.

      • Someone DID film their nightclub act, at Jerry’s request: February 3, 1954 at the Copacabana: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLS1gPo0VFA

        It’s not as “wild” as legend would have it, but it is a bit more risque than would have been permitted on TV back then. Ironically, the two were just a few weeks from their first big blow-up, which I wrote about here: http://betterlivingtv.blogspot.com/2010/02/martin-vs-lewis-round-one-march-1954.html

        • Jeff Kallman says:

          Michael—That’s a terrific clip, but I was hoping someone had caught them in the act in the mid-to-late 1940s, before they hit radio, the bits that made them comers in the first place. Kind of like wishing you’d been there when Elvis Presley was first hitting the Louisiana Hayride circuits and B.B. King was breaking out of Memphis for the first time . . . Meanwhile, I liked your essay on the first big Martin & Lewis blow-up. Personally, I’l go to my grave believing they were never as good without each other as they were with each other.