By now scattered, clumsy-minded, but bighearted Fibber McGee and his salt-of-the-earth, sweetly acid, patiently loving wife, Molly, have settled at 79 Wistful Vista. It’s probably easy to forget what old-time radio’s crown couple (if they’re not, they’re at least among the top three finalists) did before they got here.
Jim and Marian Jordan didn’t just show up at 79 Wistful Vista full-blown and seasoned correctly—it has taken over a decade for the couple to find their radio security in the first place. They hit the medium crawling a little bit following several earlier years slogging the vaudeville backwaters and floodwaters. At least once both their parents had to wire them the money to come home; once upon a time, Jim Jordan went to work in a department store selling toys, something he couldn’t afford to buy for his own children.
Their first taste of radio success came in 1924, in Chicago, when the Jordans answered a bet from Jim’s brother that they couldn’t sing better than an act they were hearing on the radio. Somehow, it is said, they talked a programmer into letting them have a crack at it, anyway—and sang their way into a weekly nighttime slot for Oh! Henry candy, known then as The Oh Henry Twins and staying that way for three years.
From there, they became Marian and Jim in Songs, again out of Chicago, and slowly beginning to work comic chat into their show, while spontaneously appearing in a children’s show known as The Air Scouts. The latter show will become something of a watershed in Fibber McGee & Molly history: it is there that Marian Jordan first lets fly the little-girl voice that she would develop into the unforgettable Teeny. The couple developed a host of voices for that show, to the point that, by the time they become involved in Fibber‘s direct forebear, Smackout, the Jordans between them would have up to 145 voices for 145 different parts including their own.
By 1929, after several more shows, the Jordans make the liaison that will prove the critical straw to stir their drink—writer Don Quinn. After several more radio shows in which Quinn and the Jordans advance and perfect their absurdist crafts (historian John Dunning will note they are all fans of those master absurdist exercises, Vic & Sade and Lum & Abner), they finally bring the nascent Fibber McGee & Molly to the air.
It hasn’t impressed many in the beginning, considering the Jordans are still yet to wring the vaudeville out of their veins, but little by little a big break the couple and their henchman receive—from Johnson Wax, which is willing to try a near-unknown team of talents and let them come of age on the air, which is exactly what the McGees are doing—has turned them into a burgeoning radio presence.
And, a classic case of a bad break turned immortal: Johnson didn’t like the name Fibber McGee & Molly at first, preferring Free Air—considering that, at birth, the McGees are married travelers popping in and out of small and medium towns along the American byways—until they learn Sinclair Lewis has used the name for a short story and wants a mere $50,000 for the rights to use the name.
They’ve been traveling Route 42 for their first few months, allowing Smackout to expire quietly in August, until Fibber McGee gets perhaps the one big contest-or-rich-quick-scheme in his life that does work—he buys a raffle ticket and wins the houseat 79 Wistful Vista.
And, to those who marveled at Molly McGee’s tough-crone deflation of her husband’s withering ego, something about assured domesticity sure will take a lot of the toughness out of the lady, turning her into perhaps the most empathetic and honey-natured wife on the air, which meant in reality that Molly McGee had finally become the woman (if you don’t count her sad battle with alcoholism a few years later) who would play her on the air for two and a half decades plus.
And you will experience a shock of familiarity tonight, when McGee (Jordan) trips into a mousetrap, crosses the wrong wire, longs for his own gong to ring away amateur handymen, and otherwise hunts any and every other excuse to duck the back porch scrubbing for which Molly (Marian) has hankered long enough.
Sounds like the template for the McGee to come? That’s exactly what it is. And in any hands other than the Jordans and Quinn, it would be exhausted within two years. That it will not be exhausted even in almost thirty years says more for the Jordans, their scrivener, and his eventual proteges (most notably Philip Leslie) than anyone ever needs to say to bring foolish Fibber back to earth with the thud broken by his wife’s hug.
Includes a special appearance by the then-president of show sponsor Johnson’s Wax, Herbert F. Johnson, Jr., about to embark on a South American expedition for his company. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Rico Martelli Orchestra; Lynn Martin; the Three Kings. Writer: Don Quinn.
Tune in Today, Continued . . .
Avalon Time: Asking for a Raise (NBC, 1939)—Red Skelton, Del King, Curt Massey, Edna Stillwell, Janette Davis. Passable example of Skelton’s earliest bid to translate his unquestioned visual virtuosity to the invisible medium, though he wouldn’t hit stride in earnest until around 1942. Writers: Unidentified, but including Edna Stillwell.
My Favourite Husband: The Attic (CBS, 1949)—Lucille Ball, Richard Denning, Ruth Perrott. Desperate measures to cure both George’s breakfast table newspaper reading and Liz’s habit of discarding old belongings pre-emptively. Is the cure worse than the disease? Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr.
Words at War: They Shall Not Have Me (NBC, 1943)—Les Damon, Maitie Christians, Virginia Ralph, John Berry, Peter Kappell, Lon Clark, Joe DeSantis, Tom Hoyer, Norman Lloyd, Herbert Ratner, Maurice Tarplin. French abstractionist painter Jean Helion’s memoir of his escape from a Nazi prisoners’ ship, including one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the Nazis’ prison camps. Writer: Kenneth White.
Suspense: The Most Dangerous Game (CBS, 1943)—Orson Welles (launching a four-week stand as series star), Keenan Wynn, Joseph Kearns. Adapting the Richard Connell story of a crack New York hunter becoming the hunted of a Russian aristocrat after swimming to Caribbean safety following a fall from his yacht. Taut. Writer: Jack Anson Fink.
Fort Laramie: The Woman at Horse Creek (NBC, 1956)—Raymond Burr, Virginia Christine, Vic Perrin, John Dehner, Barney Phillips, Harry Bartell, Jack Moyles. With Shawshone tribesmen thought raiding adjacent homesteaders, a newly-widowed young woman refuses shelter at the fort, but also refuses to think of returning east, where her family spurned her upon her marriage, until the troops take up a collection to help her travel. Writer: Kathleen Hite.