What do you get when you combine four badly-worn Brunswick bowling pins; three pairs of shoes at minimum; two baseball bats; one wood tennis racket; one large pinewood box; one washboard; and, one wicker basket full of miscellaneous bric-a-brac, including but not limited to a fireplace poker, a metal platter, a steel box, and a few odd kitchen implements; not to mention a reputed snowshoe, two muffin tins, one metal baking tray, two coffee cans (with or without is anyone’s guess), one slender golf bag with three or four clubs, and a large footlocker at the top of the mount?
The answer: Fibber McGee’s closet.
The foregoing array, mounted on a makeshift four-step portable staircase, was the brainchild of Fibber McGee and Molly sound chief Bud Tollefson. His name isn’t one you might recognise immediately, of course. But seventy-four years ago tonight, Tollefson shoved the footlocker at the top of the steps over for the first time. And it kicked off the single most memorable sonic running gag in radio history—and on a night when Gracie Allen slips in for a brief appearance as part of her own “Gracie for President” stunt, yet—and sent the clutter in the McGees’ hall closet rolling and tumbling into a clattering clash across the floor of 79 Wistful Vista.
Punctuated, of course, with the tiny tinkle of the bell that provoked its squire to mutter, “Gotta clean out that closet one of these days.”
The squeaky spring gag on a rival program long since lost to memory triggered the whole thing in the first place. McGee mastermind Don Quinn and co-stars Jim and Marian Jordan went a-hunting for a sound gag that could and would meet the spring at least and beat it at most. They’d get what they wanted and a generation and a half more with Tollefson’s creation, when Tollefson’s sonic partner effected the door opening at which sound Tollefson shoved the footlocker.
The Closet in turn prompted many to try meeting and beating the McGee’s clutter. Perhaps the most successful of those would be Jack Benny’s subterranean vault alarm, when he introduced it a few years later. But Tollefson and the Jordans were so successful with The Closet—perhaps because they were smart enough not to try opening it even every third episode—that Fibber McGee & Molly probably got some of its biggest laughs merely suggesting that either Fibber or his long-suffering, long-loving spouse were even thinking about opening it.
McGee’s half-sheepish, half-bemused “Gotta clean (or straighten) out that closet one of these days” became the predictable if classic punctuation to the crash. The Closet became an American vernacular euphemism for just about any kind of household or office clutter, in or out of a closet.
The cascade of rubbish that came tumbling down, usually on Fibber’s head, was the soundman’s challenge and his worst nightmare . . . the soundmen fretted throughout the run that it might come down before its time.
—John Dunning, in n the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.
It never came down before its time. It continues coming down beyond its time, however. It still gets a big laugh even if it’s not opened but merely mentioned, or hinted.
And it just enhances the ratings. Fibber McGee & Molly will finish the 1939-40 season at the top of the Tuesday night heap, pulling down a 24.8 Hooper rating at 9:30 that proves a big bump to Bob Hope as well—the McGees’ lead-in yanks Hope up fifty percent higher than his previous season’s rating, giving him the first of ten consecutive top five finishes.
It also yanks them both into the seasonal top five overall. The McGees finish as the nation’s number three radio show and Hope finishes as the nation’s number five. If you’ll pardon the expression, they closet Lux Radio Theater in fourth place and trail only Jack Benny at the top and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy at number two.
TUNE IN TONIGHT
The whole shebang (emphasis on bang) begins when McGee (Jim Jordan) is asked by Molly (Marian Jordan)—who also uncorks (as Teeny) a charming census joke in there, somewhere—to define a word in a newspaper story about the commodities market, asks the whereabouts of the family dictionary, which she thinks might be in “that closet of yours,” and Fibber quakes at the mere mention of the closet for fear of its disorder. (“Ohhhhhh, no, you lay off the stuff in that closet. I got all my stuff arranged in there just the way I want it!”)
The problem is that he can’t find the key in the middle of his equally-cluttered key ring. The real problem is that Molly discovers—the hard way—that the closet isn’t locked. The best news is that The Closet wasn’t and never became the essence d’essence of the show. Without The Closet, Fibber McGee & Molly transcended radio comedy. With it, of course, they merely spread a charming icing across their comic cake.
So what was that word which prompted Molly to think about opening The Closet for the first time? Here’s a hint—it’s damn near what happened to Molly when she twisted the door handle . . .
The Old-Timer: Bill Thompson. Mrs. Uppington: Isabel Randolph. Gildersleeve: Harold Peary. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Director: Cecil Underwood. Writer: Don Quinn.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Raleigh Cigarette Program: What Happened to the Neighbourhood Theater? (NBC, 1946)—Red Skelton, Anita Ellis, Verna Felton, GeGe Pearson, Lurene Tuttle. Clem Kadiddlehopper is a little (!) taken aback when he can’t get into the local movie house into which he sneaks regularly. There are times when you think Skelton’s complete talents are wasted on radio, but this one may not be one of those times.
The Henry Morgan Show: Broadcasting Radio Shows Back to the Russians (ABC, 1947)—Henry Morgan, Arnold Stang, Art Carney, Florence Halop, Madeline Lee. Morgan wonders what the Russians would think if the State Department broadcast to them what Americans really listen to on the radio. Uh-ohhhhhh . . .
Our Miss Brooks: A Letter From the Board of Education (CBS, 1950)—Eve Arden, Gale Gordon, Richard Crenna, Jane Morgan, Leonard Smith, Jeff Chandler, Gloria McMillan. Prank-loving Walter finds an old letter threatening the job of Conklin’s predecessor . . . and doctors it to make it look as though Conklin is about to be canned. Oh, brother . . .
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Saving Marjorie from Her Lover (NBC, 1950)—Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Gale Gordon, Elliott Lewis, Louise Erickson, Walter Tetley, Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield, Robert North. Sponsor Scott’s dressing down the band (again) is nothing compared to his asking Phil, Alice, and Remley to pry his daughter from an older man she dates—and her succumbing instead to obnoxious Julius. Hold it, Clyde!