Henry Ford, ABC, NBC, and CBS inadvertently band up to put paid to the radio career of one of its most legendary satirists, and the entire megillah begins on tonight’s date in 1948.
Ford had to die in 1947, of course, to perform his inadvertent share of the damage. Until then, the automaker bearing his name stayed out of commercial radio for the most part, for many years. Part of it was because of the war. (What the hell was Ford supposed to advertise for listeners at home to buy during the war, the B-24 Liberator bomber?) Most of it, seemingly, was because Henry preferred to throw his money at such fare as the respected but low-rated Detroit Symphony broadcasts. Not to mention the Greenfield Chapel Children’s Choir and a forgotten chestnut called Early American Dance Music.
But when Ford dies, the automaker bearing his name suddenly feels liberated to reach out to more popular taste. When Standard Brands pulls out of sponsoring The Fred Allen Show for Blue Bonnet Margarine and Tender Leaf Tea, the Ford Motor Company jumps right in to pick it up. (In short enough order, tellingly, “Allen’s Alley” will be shifted to Main Street as Allen is depicted pulling up in his new Ford, a name change that telegraphs troubles to come.) Ford also drops the Detroit Symphony, which wasn’t pulling much in the way of Sunday night ratings in its 8pm time period. And, later in 1947, it began Ford Theater, a bid to compete with Lux Radio Theater for popular prestige in a dramatic anthology that was hampered by a lack of star power, by underfunding, and most of all by presenting beaten-to-death chestnuts despite the quality presentations.
Dropping the Detroit Symphony, however, leaves ABC (the former NBC Blue) in dire need of something snappy and inexpensive to produce for the time slot. And they get one, in the form of a game show fashioned by bandleader Harry Salter and Quiz Kids mastermind Louis G. Cowan and hosted by future Miss America pageantmaster Bert Parks, already familiar to radio audiences as the host of Break the Bank.
The game was simple. Popular and traditional songs were played by Salter’s orchestra or sung without title identification by singers Kay Armen and Dick Brown who would hum over titles in lyrics. Parks would break into songs shouting, “Stop the music!,” which indicated he had a contestant on the line whose telephone number had been picked at random. If the contestant correctly identified the song, a single prize was awarded—plus the opportunity to identify the jackpot’s “Mystery Melody,” usually a vaguely familiar folk or classical selection with an obscure title. Every incorrect answer added another prize to the jackpot.
—Jim Ramsburg, in Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012)
Some will say in retrospect that Stop the Music symbolises the kind of giveaway programming that secures network radio’s coffin, if not hammering in the final nails, even if it takes another decade and a half to put the corpse into its grave at last. And it comes about because Ford wants in on more popular programming, and ABC wants nothing more than to break the NBC banks known as Allen and, opening the hour, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, who’ve ruled the 8pm hour on Sunday nights for long enough.
The telephone will be the show’s prime gimmick, with callers picked at random, purportedly, from a random bank maintained by show operators. So the myth will go. The actual fact is that prospective contestants are reached well enough in advance of showtime, and wait long hours willingly to get the call.
Stop the Music and similar giveaways were radio’s version of the desperate “bank nights” that movie theaters held to lure people away from their TV sets in the mid-1950s, handing out cheap sets of dishes between double bills. What fueled the giveaways was a simple trade-off in which items doled out were plugged with an elaborate description of the product that amounted to scores of free commercials within each show. This practise led to prize brokering by companies—Prizes, Inc., V.I.P. Services—that were set up as legal fences to distribute the swag to quiz shows, raking off a tidy surcharge for every “donated” prize. The odds were 25 million to one that you’d be called. The FCC pondered hard the philosophical question of whether the shows were, in fact, lotteries before deciding that they were not . . .
. . . Stop the Music (“Starring YOU, the people of America!”) handed out far fancier prizes than most giveaways—diamond rings, steamship cruises, thousand-dollar savings bonds, fur coats, pianos, and cars. America in 1948 was clearly on a postwar spending binge . . . The crafty Cowan recognised the show’s potential. ABC . . . took a chance and, within a season, sent both major comics scurrying for shelter.
—Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio (New York: Pantheon, 1998).
The new show doesn’t make a ratings dent until June 1948, and its maiden half season shows nothing better than a 12.6 Hooper as the 1947-48 season ends. But it gives one sign of the shape of things to come. With Bergen/McCarthy taking an early summer break, Stop the Music gets a crack at Fred Allen in its second half-hour without Bergen’s powerful lead-in. And it shoves Allen to a sinking 9.4 rating for June 1948, light years beneath Allen’s season-long 22.7.
But in 1948-49 Stop the Music will become a Sunday night top ten entry. Bergen/McCarthy’s return will throttle it in the first half hour, keeping its seasonal 15.4 rating far behind Bergen/McCarthy’s 20.1. In the second half hour, however, Stop the Music will batter Allen (12.5) back to a ninth-place tie on the night. Midway through the season, however, the soon-to-be-infamous CBS talent raid does Stop the Music its biggest favour yet: Bergen takes McCarthy and company to CBS and breaks up the formidable Bergen/Allen Sunday hour.
That’s when NBC makes yet another mistake: moving Allen head-to-head with Stop the Music, after signing Allen to a lucrative new package to keep him aboard NBC. Allen’s health, of course, will have slightly more to do with his departure from full-time network radio at the end of 1948-49, but clearly the master satirist is under siege. In December 1948 his monthly rating will be 20.0; at season’s end, he’ll be in the ratings tank with a mere 5.8 for June.
Allen won’t exactly be averse to a fight at first, of course. He will use the giveaway rise overall as fodder for a a clever satire or three, but Stop the Music itself provokes a direct counterattack, introduced by his announcer Kenny Delmar to open the 24 October 1948 broadcast:
Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned to The Fred Allen Show. If within the next thirty minutes you or any listener in the continental United States answer a telephone call from any giveaway radio program, and because you are listening to this show you miss an opportunity to win any gift then being offered, Fred Allen guarantees to make good by furnishing an equivalent gift; or, its value up to five thousand dollars. National Surety Corporation guarantees that Fred Allen will perform this agreement, up to a total of fifty thousand dollars. Notice of any claim under these guarantees must be mailed to Mr. Fred Allen by registered mail, care of the National Broadcasting Company, Radio City, New York, and postmarked not later than midnight, October 25, 1948. Relax. Enjoy The Fred Allen Show.
The bad news is that Allen’s clever retaliation proved too clever by half, according to Allen biographer (Fred Allen: His Life and Wit) Robert Taylor.
[I]t was a tactical misstep. The announcement, a latter-day restatement of the ingenious ploys Allen practised in vaudeville, received massive publicity, but the scheme backfired. Obviously, the audience had to hear Stop the Music in order to know what it was losing; and radio critics quickly pointed out that fighting giveaways with giveaway offers undermined the aims of protest. The insurance offer spawn fraudulent claims and Allen canceled the bond after a few weeks.
John Crosby reported the only dispute in which the claimant may have had a case. In Ravenna, Ohio, a seventy-six-year-old farmer named MacDonald admitted to police that he had shot and killed a sixty-eight-year-old farmhand after a wrangle over whether the pair should listen to a giveaway program or to Jack Benny. The giveaway fan held the field until his disgruntled employer returned with a gun. Presumably old MacDonald then settled down for a therapeutic laugh. Allen remarked to Crosby, “Things have come to a pass indeed when a man in Ohio has to shoot his way to the radio to get at Jack Benny.”
Would but that Allen’s health would allow, he might survive if he can hang in: Stop the Music finishes 1948-49 in a tie for eighteenth place overall with Mystery Theater (CBS) at 15.2 . . . but in 1949-50, Stop the Music will lose 40 percent of its rating against the CBS comedy piggyback of Bergen and Red Skelton, and fall out of the Top Fifty for the full season entirely. By 1952, Stop the Music will be stopped.
And it all happens because Allen’s own sponsor creats a need to find something to fill an hour he helped dominate for several years, after its founder’s death. With possibly no such intention, Henry Ford inadvertently kills Fred Allen as he shakes off his own mortal coil.
TUNE IN TONIGHT . . .
So why not stick it right back to Ford with another Henry, from an installment arriving a year after this Henry’s old friend and mentor Fred Allen took a hike from full-time network radio?
Tonight: The disorder in the court addresses marital problems, more or less. Also: Helpful hints on treating colds as spring arrives; Gerard (Arnold Stang) takes up painting; rising boxer Sailor (Art) Carney as Man of the Week; Morgan’s Movie News covers an ironworker strike negotiation and other tidbits. Morgan’s customary semi-sanity.
Additional cast: Pert Kelton, Ed Herlihy. Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Milton Tatum Orchestra, Norman Cottier, Billy Williams Quartet. Writers: Henry Morgan, Joe Stein, Aaron Ruben, Carroll Moore, Jr.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Burns & Allen Show: George the Genius; or, Keeping Rita Company (CBS, 1944)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Rita Hayworth, Elvia Allman, Mel Blanc, Jimmy Cash, Bill Goodwin, Lawrence Nash. Gracie bumps into Rita, who’s afraid to spend the night alone with new hubby Orson Welles away on business, but Gracie tending Rita puts her in a quandary because her genius is also afraid to sleep at home alone. Yep.
You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “Coat” (NBC, 1951)—Groucho Marx, George Fenneman. A doctor and a housewife, a door-to-door bakery salesman and another housewife, and a dollmaker and an eight-year-old girl strike for a shot at a then-high $4,500 grand prize pot, once Groucho gets finished with his usual deft drollery.