An Iowa shampoo and soap manufacturer whose signature variety program has shifted little by little toward straight comedy, plus one of Jack Benny’s longtime sidekicks, give NBC its biggest win by a comparatively new program in the 1946-47 radio season. Except that the company’s win helps prove its own loss, kind of.
The F.W. Fitch Company dominated the shampoo business prior to World War II. Based in Des Moines, founded by a struggling barber who’d begun developing his own hair conditioning formulae, Fitch’s success helped secure that city’s image as one of the anchors of the American personal care products industry. Since 1929, Fitch has produced its own lines of soaps, shampoos, and other personal cleanliness products; by 1945, Fitch employed over four hundred workers.
It was World War II’s end that telegraphed the company’s doom, partially because of the expense of building a new plant, partially because of the concurrent hit taken with the end of its contracts with the Army, and partially because of the expense in producing The Fitch Bandwagon, the company’s once-popular variety series.
Born in 1938, The Fitch Bandwagon began life as a straight forum for band music. Such Big Band era stars as Freddy Martin, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Jimmy Grier featured prominently on the show, which held down NBC’s Sunday night 7:30 timeslot for its entire life under the Fitch Bandwagon title. The format was simple to the proverbial fare-thee-well: the featured band of the evening would play its record hits, and the finale would involve the leader’s musical biography.
The show was a ratings hit in its first season, pulling down a tidy 12.6 Hooper rating in 1938-39. This was a handy victory over CBS’s Screen Guild Theater at 7:30, on a night when Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy’s Chase & Sanborn Hour dominated both Sunday nights and the entire season with a whopping 32.2 rating that proved 15.6 points higher than the Sunday night average and just shy of 20 points over the national season average.
Between the shampoo business and the show, company founder Fred W. Fitch became a millionaire whose Des Moines spread became an unlikely but popular midwestern visiting stop for celebrities in music and from Hollywood alike. And The Fitch Bandwagon scored even higher in its second season with a 15.6 rating, again beating Screen Guild Theater at 7:30 but still far behind the colossus that was The Chase & Sanborn Hour and The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny.
Those two shows damn near equaled each other with, respectively, 30.9 and 30.7 ratings. Benny’s 7:00 pm lead-in to the Fitch show wasn’t necessarily doing the show that much good, however; and, Bergen following at 8:00 pm also showed that, while popular enough, The Fitch Bandwagon wasn’t exactly a giant. By 1940-41 The Fitch Bandwagon slipped to 14.4—behind Screen Guild Theater in the 7:30 timeslot for the first time, though they’d switch ratings 1941-42.
The season afterward, The Fitch Bandwagon no longer had the CBS show to kick around; CBS decided to move popular interview program We the People from Tuesday to Sunday night, at a time when wartime restrictions impeded the show’s once-familiar ad-libbing. By 1943-44, The Fitch Bandwagon was back down to 14.8 and still the weak meat in NBC’s Benny-Bergen sandwich.
During 1944, the show graduated to more of a musical variety format, with skits punctuating the musical offerings. The transitional hiccups showed in the 13.0 final rating for 1943-44, but it recovered to 14.8 in 1945-46, thanks to Cass Daley as the new host and a slightly more pronounced comic injection, with skits governing what the visiting bands might play. Still, the show had a huge problem: how to capitalise more profoundly from its powerful lead-in. Jack Benny’s 21.4 Hooper for 1945-46 still didn’t spill over into better Fitch Bandwagon ratings.
The answer turns out to be one of Benny’s popular cast and that cast member’s spouse.
Phil Harris has been Jack Benny’s smartass bandleader/layabout since 1936. He’s flourished in the role and become something of a comedy star in his own right, even while sustaining a respectable music career. His second wife, movie musical star Alice Faye, has been withdrawing from her film career following a series of unpleasant incidents that have soured her on the industry. Faye has done the (very) occasional guest shot on the Benny exercise, usually in a quick bounce with her husband. Fitch has heard something in those, enough to take a chance with the pair taking over The Fitch Bandwagon. The company has surely heard the sound of dollars ringing the cash register, too: what better way to inflate the Benny lead-in than with a Benny spinoff.
So Harris and Faye are spun into a new situation comedy. The music now serves as near-anonymous interludes by Walter Scharf conducting Harris’s own big band, and future Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters creators/writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher are enlisted to write the new show. (They yield early enough to Harris/Faye’s best writing team, Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat.) Young actresses Jeanine Roos and Anne Whitfield stand in for the couple’s real-life children. The Great Gildersleeve co-star Walter Tetley signs on as snide grocery store delivery boy Julius Abruzzio. Robert North joins up as Faye’s fictitious, fey brother Willie. And, in a genuine coup, Elliott Lewis—heretofore known for dramatic work as an actor and director—agrees to play Frankie Remley, cast here as a smartass band guitarist whose mission in life seems to be getting Harris into the ghastliest disasters and making any effort to relieve it worse.
The switch works. The new Fitch Bandwagon—Harris and Faye become its breakout stars, and it keeps the name until 1948—pulls down a 17.9 Hooper for 1946-47, the highest rating the name has pulled down to date. And in 1947-48, the rating will crack 20.0 or higher for the first time, finishing at 22.1—burying its timeslot competitor (CBS’s Blondie) and outrating Benny himself by .2 points while finishing just behind The Fred Allen Show‘s 22.3. Which proves just the problem for Fitch. For all the success the new Fitch Bandwagon has with Harris and Faye, it also means the cost to produce the show hikes enough that the shampoo maker’s cash flow bleeds in torrents.
Not only will Fitch surrender what becomes The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show to Rexall for the 1948-49 season, but Fitch will sell all its assets to Grove Laboratories by 1949. Founder F.W. Fitch will die in 1951. The once-fabled Fitch soap building and plant won’t die, however: by the 21st Century, it will be taken over and restored to full industrial use by the Exile Brewing Company. The plant that was once rescued and then inadvertently sunk by a radio character once renowned for a hard-drinking image would become rescued in the next century by a brewer.
TUNE IN TODAY . . .
The Fitch Bandwagon: Phil’s Band in High School (NBC, 1947)—Phil (Harris) had to turn down a request to play at Glendale High, but a flood of requests from the students changes his mind—and a specific request from Julius (Walter Tetley) gets Alice (Faye) to serve as a chaperone, to her husband’s none-too-slight chagrin, a chagrin inflamed no end by (you guessed it) Remley (Elliott Lewis).
Willie: Robert North. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Great Gildersleeve: Minding the Baby (NBC, 1941)—Harold Peary, Walter Tetley, Lurene Tuttle, Lillian Randolph. For an old friend, Gildy babysits and wards off creditors—not necessarily in that order. Writer: Leonard L. Levinson.
The Charlie McCarthy Show: Charlie v. W.C. Fields (NBC, 1942)—Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy Don Ameche. Guest: W.C. Fields. McCarthy is urged to apologise to Fields for previous insults. Riiiiiiiight. Writers: Probably Carroll Carroll, Dick Mack, Shirley Ward.
Duffy’s Tavern: The Poker Game (Blue Network, 1943)—Ed Gardner, Eddie Green, Charles Cantor, Florence Halop. Archie tries to rope Charles Coburn (guest) into fronting for the flea trap. Hoist a cold one. Writers: Ed Gardner, Abe Burrows.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Cleaning Doc Gamble’s House (NBC; AFRS rebroadcast, 1943)—Jim & Marian Jordan, Arthur Q. Bryan, Shirley Mitchell, Ransom Sherman. Guess who volunteers to rid Doc’s house of ants. And leaves a buggier mess behind. Writer: Don Quinn.
The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: Dark Passage (NBC, 1947)—Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Don Wilson, Frank Nelson. Spoofing the Bogart-Bacall noir classic in the inimitable Benny style. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.
The Great Gildersleeve: The Carnival (NBC, 1949)—Harold Peary, Marylee Robb, Walter Tetley, Lillian Randolph, Richard LeGrand, Cathy Lewis, Jane Morgan, Earle Ross. Gildy’s pursuit of Nurse Kathryn convinces him to attend a carnival in spite of himself—because she loves them and a well-heeled doctor is also pursuing her. Writers: Paul West, Andy White, John Elliott.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Trying to Catch the Phantom Burglar (NBC, 1953)—McGee (Jim Jordan) comes home early and in a panic from a night of bowling—there’s a prowler on the loose in the neighbourhood, he’s already hit Doc Gamble’s (Arthur Q. Bryan) house, and 79 Wistful Vista could be the next target. Molly: Marian Jordan. Announcer: John Wald. Director: Max Hutto. Writers: Phil Leslie, Ralph Goodman.
Dragnet: The Big Light (NBC, 1952)—Jack Webb, Ben Alexander, Whit Connor, Jack Kruschen. A film director is killed in an on-set accident involving a falling stage lamp, but Friday and Smith doubt it was an accident with the studio doctor absent after the victim argued with an assistant over a practical joke. Straight, no chaser, as usual for this show. Writer: John Robinson.
Suspense: The Statement of Employee Henry Wilson (CBS, 1943)—Gene Lockhart. Normally carefree Henry Wilson’s (Gene Lockhart) disgust with an upstart who’s overtaken him in the company ranks forces a showdown over a mistake the upstart plans to take to the boss. It’s not quite as trite as it sounds, which should tell you something about this series’ genius. Writer: John Shaw.
You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “Shoe” (NBC, 1949)—Groucho Marx, George Fenneman. An expectant father and a nurse and a hotel detective with a switchboard operator are among those trying to keep the host from putting his foot in his mouth. Fat chance.
Frontier Gentleman: Nasty People (CBS, 1952)—John Dehner, Virginia Gregg, Eddie Firestone, Parley Baer, Paula Winslowe, Vic Perrin. Kendall only thinks he’ll repose in Independence, Kansas when the family sheltering him seems too solicitous of him for another guest’s supernatural taste. Perfect example of why this show sometimes gets more respect than even Gunsmoke does, at times. Writer/director: Antony Ellis.
Gunsmoke: Old Man’s Gold (CBS, 1958)—William Conrad, Howard McNear, Ralph Moody, Parley Baer, Georgia Ellis, Harry Bartell. A traveler takes his gravely ill wife to Doc and asks Dillon to guard a suitcase of heirlooms attracting a rather demanding interest from her brother. Typically solid. Writer: Marion Clark. (Warning: Some interference in the recording.)