6 March: Aces in the hole

Goodman and Jane Ace in 1948. (Photo: CBS.)

Goodman and Jane Ace in 1948. (Photo: CBS.)

It is often said that there are those who like to bite the hand that feeds them, and that there are the likes of Henry Morgan who like to bite off the entire arm. Goodman Ace is a man who prefers nibbling at the hand that feeds him. But that doesn’t mean the victim or one of its representatives will take it any more gently.

For fourteen years Easy Aces was what future eras would call a cult hit—never a ratings champ, but owner of a solid enough audience. The quiet, dialogic serial comedy that tended to hopscotch around the time periods and switched networks once or twice before securing itself on CBS became one of radio’s most respected comedies, largely because of Ace’s knack for word play as well as wife Jane’s delicious flair with malaprops her husband swore were part of her everyday speech.

When Frederick Ziv first hit upon his idea of mass syndication, he chose reruns of Easy Aces among his first offerings. The Aces habitually recorded their live broadcasts onto shellac discs and sold Ziv 1,200 episodes, though only 250 would survive for future generations’ listening and collecting. To everyone’s surprise, Easy Aces performed better in that Ziv package of syndicated reruns than it ever had in first-run performance. The deal also turned a nice dollar for the couple and provoked CBS to lure them back to regular series radio with a half-hour, sitcom-styled update of their classic approach.

What CBS didn’t realise was that they were inviting a quiet war of nerves. The real reason the original Easy Aces first disappeared was a tussle between sponsor Anacin and Ace, over musical bridges Ace began using to transition between scenes. When an Anacin spokesman told Ace he didn’t like some of the bridges, Ace answered likewise: he didn’t exactly like Anacin’s packaging, calling its switch from tin to cardboard boxes was a “gyp.”

That was in 1944. Ace wasn’t necessarily wounded deeply. Not only was he now one of radio highest-earning comedy writers (various sources estimate he earned as much as $3,500 a week in that role, including a short term heading the team for The Danny Kaye Show), but CBS hired him in 1946 as a kind of overseer of comedy and variety including financing a kind-of workshop for budding comedy writers. (Future hit playwright Neil Simon was one of his proteges.) He also managed to create what would become CBS Was There/You Are There—that classic exercise in history re-enacted as contemporary radio reporting—though he wasn’t given official credit for the idea for years to come.

But in 1948 he succumbed to CBS’s invitation and returned to the microphones with Jane. As mr. ace and JANE. (The spelling was his idea.) And, with a very unlikely sponsor: the U.S. Army and Air Force Recruiting Service. Who bailed when a congressman (his identity long since lost to history) began badgering the Service for promoting “disrespect for the judicial system” (John Dunning’s words) after a pair of mr. ace and JANE episodes were set in local courtrooms with Jane stripping the wheels of justice and tangling with eccentrically addled judges in her usual style.

Exit the U.S. Army and Air Force Recruiting Service, enter General Foods, who don’t mind taking on another comedy for Jell-O especially in the wake of losing Jack Benny to Lucky Strike cigarettes. Naturally, they wouldn’t be thrilled when Ace—who established himself in the new format as an advertising maven (he’d been a realtor on the original Easy Aces)—zaps one after another advertising industry foolery, especially the episode in which he will be tasked to develop a campaign for a baby food whose flavour is such that he can’t imagine any self-respecting kid going into a restaurant and ordering the stuff.

In due course, General Foods dropped the show, midway through the 1948-49 season. The Aces decided to call it a career so far as performing was concerned, except for a brief bid to turn the original Easy Aces into a television exercise (on the Dumont network) and Jane’s sporadic stabs at disc jockeying in the 1950s.

So what did General Foods find to replace the Aces? Lucille Ball’s My Favourite Husband. And, unlike the Aces, unapologetic iconoclasts in their way, Lucy is a slightly safer bet to put on the air without fear of advertising itself being zinged every other week.

Believe it or not, Lucy couldn't beat the Aces on radio. (Photo: CBS.)

Believe it or not, Lucy couldn’t beat the Aces on radio. (Photo: CBS.)

The problem is that Lucy isn’t really Lucy just yet. Oh, she’s got the timing cold and the material well tuned as she goes along, but radio just isn’t the medium on which she can let her complete range flourish. The Aces were well-honed radio veterans who could do a purely aural comedy in their sleep but they were no muggers or slapstickers. Lucy, who isn’t exactly a radio neophyte, is a slapsticker par exellence when allowed to be, but radio just isn’t the place for her to put her entire package together.

And it will show in the ratings. My Favourite Husband won’t rate half as well as the Aces were doing when they were executed. In fact, My Favourite Husband would finish the 1948-49 season out of both the nightly Top Ten and the seasonal Top Fifty, while mr. ace and JANE enjoy their only Top Ten nightly and Top Fifty seasonally. More striking, My Favourite Husband will never earn a higher rating then 10.0 for the entire three seasons it will be on the air.

Lucy will have the last laugh, of course; what Fibber McGee & Molly is to radio, Lucy will be to television’s first two decades. But in radio, as Jim Ramsburg would observe, you could only imagine Jane Ace snickering at the sponsor and network who cashiered the Aces while they enjoyed their best ratings ever, in exchange for a more conventional and less successful exercise: “You certainly hit the nail on the thumb with that one!”

 

TUNE IN TONIGHT

mr. ace and JANE: Talent Hunt for Radio Show (CBS, 1948)

Tonight: (Goodman) Ace has 24 hours to help develop a radio show for a mattress manufacturer (whose potential customers he can’t advise to go down to the corner, since the factory’s in the middle of the block) who likes the idea of a music program.

He may begin wishing he had a mere 24 hours to live, when the newsboy (Edwin Bruce) for whom Jane (Ace) babysits—a newsboy who won’t associate with radio people—impresses her enough with his singing voice that, when the boy’s singing lulls her to sleep, she dreams of getting him a big entertainment business break while touring Hollywood. A dream which may or may not turn into Ace’s worst silent nightmare when the kid flinches at featuring on the new radio show.

This is a slightly re-imagined take on a three-part classic from the original Easy Aces days. But it still has its charm, especially as a zap at radio strategising, as just about anything the Aces touch does, during this short-lived series.

Himself: Ken Roberts (announcer). Additional cast: Eric Dressler, Allan Melvin, John Driggs, Bobby White. Music: Morris Fisher. Writer/director: Goodman Ace.

 

FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

The Hinds Honey & Almond Cream Show with George Burns & Gracie Allen: Hats Off to Gracie (CBS, 1940)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Frank Parker, Truman Bradley. Apparently, Gracie wasn’t even close to kidding: she really is running for the White House, and people are already telling her that they have half a mind to vote for her, but now she needs a spot for the Surprise Party convention. Surprise!

The Bob Hope Show: Bob Meets the Right Stuff (NBC, 1951)—Bob Hope, Hy Averback, Connie Haines. The Hope aggregation performs at Chuck Yeager’s home base, Muroc (eventually Edwards Air Force Base), and Yeager has plans for Hope: flying supersonic with Yeager himself, after which Hope will need partial resuscitation from Ava Gardner. Bango!

 

Crime Drama

Broadway is My Beat: The Andrew Jenkins Case (CBS, 1949)—Anthony Ross, Charlotte Holland, Frank Butler, Jean Carson, John Forsythe, Maurice Gosfield, Tom Hoyer. A woman asks Clover to help find her missing husband, who disappeared after buying her an expensive watch, but he’s found bound and gagged in a hotel over the timepiece. Not quite the bolder, louder, more realistic show Elliott Lewis will steward when it moves to Hollywood, but the potential is here.

Dragnet: The Big Evans (NBC, 1952)—Jack Webb, Barney Phillips, Vic Connor, unidentified additional cast. A boarding house manager may be trying to frame a police officer on assault charges, after the officer arrested three drug user/dealers at the house. Straight, no chaser.

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7 Responses to 6 March: Aces in the hole

  1. I was surprised that My Favorite Husband didn’t do better in the Hooper ratings. I list each show I listen to and I am already on my second filler notebook paper page. I have listened to many Easy Aces shows and liked the way Jane got her words mixed up. So I really liked both shows.

    • Jeff Kallman says:

      My Favourite Husband in hindsight seems to have been a kind of final training ground for both Lucille Ball and the writing team who followed her to television. The talent is there; the timing is there; the core of the character is in place. They have a basic picture but they’re looking for the final shadings to fill it out, the right frame into which to slide it, and the right hook on which to hang it. To say nothing of Richard Denning not quite being the co-star Lucy really needed to be Lucy; he just wasn’t as strong or as well fitted to her as Desi Arnaz and (on The Lucy Show) Vivian Vance proved to be.

      • Richard Denning was no Desi Arnaz. I liked him better on Hawaii Five-O as the governor of Hawaii. I can’t see Richard Denning fitting in on I Love Lucy. Like you wrote the show was a training ground for Lucy and the writers.

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