4 April: The McGees didn’t always have it easy

The Jordans, at the height of their career. (Photo: NBC.)

The Jordans, at the height of their career. (Photo: NBC.)

At least twice upon a time the First Couple of 79 Wistful Vista and their nonpareil writers have been compelled to compensate on the air for a serious illness suffered by each partner. It speaks much that they were able to do it almost seamlessly, especially the first time around.

In 1937-38, about the most anyone associated with Fibber McGee & Molly felt compelled to say when Marian Jordan took a long leave of absence early in the season was that she suffered “nervous exhaustion.” As would be revealed only decades later, Marian Jordan—under enough pressure from the radio show, the frequent personal appearance demands, and trying to raise two children—suffered a long battle with the bottle, and at long last she surrendered and had herself hospitalised.

Husband Jim agreed to try carrying the show himself until she returned, not that it was simple for him. There’s no such thing as an ideal moment for any illness, but the McGees were moving to Tuesday night after a long spell trying and not exactly succeeding at overcoming CBS’s perennial powerhouse Lux Radio Theater on Monday nights.

The Jordans’ partner, nonpareil writer Don Quinn, began broadening the program’s scope. Little by little, in came some new characters who would stay with the show for years to come in one or another way, helping accent the odd jobs into which Fibber McGee would now find himself doing each week. Almost every week, Jordan would end the show with one or another endearment to his recuperating wife—who wouldn’t return until mid-April 1939.

As Fibber McGee & Company, Jordan and company managed to survive and prosper; the show finished 1937-38 as the number 20 show in the nation for the season as a whole and as the number four show on Tuesday night. Jordan proved to be more than capable of carrying an entire show, though close listenings should reveal that it wasn’t necessarily a pleasure for him to do so. He missed her dearly, at home and on the air, and it often showed in subtle ways on the air.

When Marian Jordan finally was able to return, the entire company moved the production from Chicago to Hollywood willingly to accommodate her health. Her return also put a shot of high-octane fuel into the show’s reception: they finished 1938-39 as the number one show on Tuesday nights (a 17.6 Hooper rating) and the number five show overall on the season.

Thus began a twelve-season run in which the McGees and Bob Hope battled for Tuesday night supremacy to NBC’s benefit; the network would own the top two Tuesday night ratings, by way of either the McGees or Ol’ Ski Nose, for the coming twelve seasons.

Hope finished 1938-39 in third place (Al Jolson on CBS sat between the McGee-Hope bread in that ratings sandwich), but in 1939-40 he came in second to the McGees (24.8) with a remarkable 23.1—helped unquestionably by his lead-in: Fibber McGee & Molly at 9:30 pm delivered him a lovely audience for his 10:00 pm exercise.

Hope wouldn’t knock the McGees off their Tuesday night high perch until 1942-43, but even then it’d be just a short knock, since Hope and Red Skelton tied for first place on the season overall and left the McGees in a mere second place. They’d repeat the feat in 1943-44, both on Tuesday and on the overall season, no mean feat considering World War II had lured a few McGee cast members and Quinn juggled (successfully, of course) to provide new foils/nemeses for the Sap of 79 Wistful Vista.

The Jordans, eventual fixtures on NBC Monitor. (Photo: NBC.)

The Jordans, eventual fixtures on NBC Monitor. (Photo: NBC.)

The Jordans manage to accomplish the 1943-44 feat despite another battle with illness—this time, a far shorter but no less serious one when Jim Jordan is stricken with pneumonia in March 1944. Somewhat miraculously, Jordan is down for slightly less than a fortnight. Unlike Marian Jordan’s far more grave illness of a little over half a decade earlier, Jordan’s can and has been woven into Fibber McGee & Molly storylines until he returns tonight.

Arguably old-time radio’s first couple, the Jordans will manage to keep it that way another decade and a half, nothing seemingly able to keep them away from the microphones—not television, not a 1953 shift to a daily, pre-recorded semi-serial format, not a 1958 transfer to five-minute segments on NBC’s legendary weekend Monitor audio magazine—until Marian Jordan’s later battle with cancer ends in her 1961 death.

In more ways than one, Fibber McGee & Molly may prove the all-time radio survivors.

 

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

Fibber McGee & Company: Antique Furniture (NBC, 1939)

The Saint of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) ponders whether to sell some of the McGees’ more valuable older furniture—and whether to antique it even further, which isn’t necessarily a question to which he should seek the answer. You’ll miss Molly, of course, almost as much as Fibber obviously does, but given that you’ll admire the troupers this cast really prove to be.

The Old-Timer/Depopolous: Bill Thompson. Mrs. Uppington: Amanda Randolph. Saleslady: Betty Winkler. Wallerbee: Harold Peary. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, Donald Nobis, the Four Notes. Writer: Don Quinn.

 

Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Returns from the Hospital (NBC, 1944)

This time, it’s Jim Jordan returning from illness, after suffering a bout of pneumonia that hospitalised its way into the show’s storylines.

The Sick Man of 79 Wistful Vista is home again, having broken the record (he thinks) for the shortest pneumonia bout on record, his loving spouse (Marian Jordan) is trying her best to keep him obeying doctor’s orders to take it easy, and he can’t seem to get a word in edgewise (shock!) about his hospital stay when their friends come calling.

Alice: Shirley Mitchell. Dr. Gamble: Arthur Q. Bryan. Beulah: Marlin Hurt. Himself: Harlow Wilcox (announcer). Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Adventure

Escape: Action (CBS, 1948)—Joseph Kearns, Luis Van Rooten, Joan Banks, Erik Rolf, Marta Mitrovich, Jeff Corey, Ray Lawrence, Berry Kroeger. Kearns has a tour de force as a mountaineer facing life as an invalid and wishing not to live that way, until two disabled climbers draw him to their aid and to rethink his plan and his life. What a surprise that this episode is often considered one entry in this series that outshines its source material.

 

Comedy

Lum & Abner: Lum Falls in Love with Zenora (CBS, 1935)—Norris Goff, Chester Lauck. Abner and Squire get a mild surprise when Lum suddenly wants to travel with the circus after all—thanks to a comely bareback rider who’s just joined the show. Which sort of figures.

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Back from New York (NBC, 1937)—Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, Phil Harris, Kenny Baker. Following a jaunt to New York and an anticlimax to his feud with Fred Allen, Jack and the cast marvel over spring in Los Angeles—except Phil, who snorts over Mary’s gardenings and seems to stir up other trouble with a little secret. Classic Benny.

Vic & Sade: Rush Must Make a Call (NBC, 1940)—Art Van Harvey, Bernadine Flynn, Bill Idelson. Rush is mildly antsy: he’s only going over to study algebra with a girl his buddies think is his big romance—and they’re scoping the house hoping to stalk the great lover. The Paul Rhymer virtuosity in full flower.

Fibber McGee & Molly: The Census Taker (NBC, 1950)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Bill Thompson, Elvia Allman, Richard LeGrand, Harlow Wilcox. That would be the Snoop of 79 Wistful Vista, who’s taken a temporary gig as one of Uncle Sam’s nose counters (“A census tells you what people do, and a censor tells them not to do it,” says his loving spouse, classically), but whose nose may get turned out of joint over the trouble he has getting cooperation. Classic Fibbering.

 

Mystery/Thriller

Suspense: Post Mortem (CBS, 1946)—Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Kearns, unidentified additional cast. Roused from a lavish bath run by her romantic second husband, a remarried former actress is stunned when the press barges in to tell her she has a winning sweepstakes ticket—bought for her by her late first husband. There are worse things to come your way from beyond the grave . . . aren’t there?

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