21 September: Radio ad absurdium

Karl Swenson, at the height of his renown as Lorenzo Jones. (Photo: CBS.)

Karl Swenson, at the height of his renown as Lorenzo Jones. (Photo: CBS.)

Of two charming programs airing tonight in 1948, one is a series premiere. Picking the leadoff between them here is something akin to choosing between lobster fra diavolo and chicken cordon bleu for dinner, so I decided to pick according to age.

There’s no question but that Frank and Anne Hummert are old-time radio’s king and queen of the soaps, with misery, disaster, melodrama, and heartbreak their quadruple specialties. But even they seem to have needed a little relief from the afternoon anxieties to which their usual audiences repaired. They forayed into musical programming now and then (the couple were passionate music lovers, though Anne Hummert won’t have time for further indulgence until she retires upon her husband’s death) and a prime-time crime drama here and there.

They even produced Goodman and Jane Ace’s quietly absurdist Easy Aces, a serial comedy nowhere near a soap, and left the Aces alone to do what they did best, though the show had been a cult hit before the Hummerts decided to take on the production and make the Aces themselves rather well-to-do. Perhaps as a cue from there, they also shepherded a comic soap named Lorenzo Jones.

This jewel rivaled Easy Aces, The Goldbergs (a serial that couldn’t make up its mind whether it was comedy or drama and usually obscured the distinction: it’s arguably broadcasting’s first dramedy), Vic & Sade (which wasn’t exactly a serial but was a tight, compact humour offering), and Lum & Abner (which wasn’t even close to soap or drama, though its down-home feeling made Vic & Sade resemble urban angst by comparison) for absurdism and cheerful insanity.

Decades after classic network radio dies, the premise might strike even stubborn nostalgists as crossing a line between absurd and asinine. But in its time Lorenzo Jones reflects and transcends the concept of the town eccentric. Played deftly by Karl Swenson, whose credits previously included The March of Time and Columbia Presents Corwin, Lorenzo may have an incurable bent doward dreaming up surrealistic inventions—usually to the detriment of his specified work in Jim Barker’s garage—but he sounds anything but the stereotypical local nutbag. He sounds only too normal, only occasionally betraying his wonderment, which probably makes him seem even nuttier to everyone not within his specific orbit.

Listeners never quite fathomed whether his dreams were inclined more toward wealth than just being able to say and prove he’d done the impossible. Such as they were, his inventions included a three-spout teapot (for weak, medium, and strong) and an outdoor vacuum system. But Lorenzo did catch the proverbial lightning in the bottle once: his automatic foot warmer sold for enough to enable Lorenzo and his patient wife Belle to buy the house they’d been renting for years. Which was quite a bit more of a delightful stretch than, say, Fibber and Molly McGee obtaining 79 Wistful Vista by winning a contest.

And now, let’s get ready to smile for awhile with Lorenzo Jones and his wife, Belle . . . We all know couples like loveable, impractical Lorenzo Jones and his devoted wife, Belle. Lorenzo’s inventions have made him a character to the town, but not to Belle, who loves him. Their struggle for security is anybody’s story, but somehow, with Lorenzo, it has more smiles than tears.—The show’s invariable introduction.

If there is a more dead-on appropriate introduction to any old-time radio show, especially sandwiching the show’s jaunty theme (a lively take of “Finiculi, Finicula,” played on the organ first by Don Lowe and then by Ann Leaf), that introduction has probably been lost.

If only the Hummerts would have left it all the hell alone!

Theodore and Mathilde Ferro performed a splendid job of fashioning and keeping Lorenzo Jones squarely in the absurdist camp. They made it the perfect interruption to the standard radio soap disaster fare. But for reasons mostly obscure, at least until I get to read any thoughtful history of the Hummerts themselves, the couple strong-armed a change to Lorenzo Jones rather late in its life.

Belle would take on a personality wavering between silly and frivolous. Hapless but humane Lorenzo would find himself falling into classically soapish crises, from kidnapping by jewel thieves to suffering amnesia when he awakens in a hospital he’s never heard of, from drifting in and out of various odd jobs and day labour while an amnesiac to almost getting himself married while his frantic actual wife moves heaven, earth, and a few ports between trying to recover him.

What a surprise, then, that Lorenzo Jones wouldn’t live even half as long under its Hummertising overhaul as it did when the Hummerts merely produced but otherwise kept their itchy fingers off. Under the latter condition, Lorenzo Jones was indeed one of radio’s comic greats.

What a surprise that the show won’t live even half as long under its complete Hummertising as it does when the Hummerts merely produce but otherwise leave it the hell alone. Under the latter condition, Lorenzo Jones was one of the genuine comic greats.

J. Carrol Naish, the innocently irrepressible Luigi Basco. (Photo: CBS.)

J. Carrol Naish, the innocently irrepressible Luigi Basco. (Photo: CBS.)

Meanwhile, anyone thinking black Americans were the only ones who couldn’t be protrayed “safely” on classic network radio except by white or other performers (The Great Gildersleeve’s brassily sensitive maid Birdie, in the warm hands of Lillian Randolph; and, of course, Jack Benny’s arch Rochester in Eddie Anderson’s deft hands, were notable exceptions among 1940s series regulars), may have forgotten Life with Luigi.

This oddly sweet exercise featured a stolid Irishman named J. Carrol Naish bringing the guileless immigrant of the title to life, heading a cast of non-Italian performers who made the show almost perfectly believable as a look at the fineries and foibles of lower middle class Italians making their way in a new country.

Born and auditioned as The Little Immigrant, Life with Luigi centers around a sweet, shy young man who dreams of becoming an American citizen, writes home to his mamma mia each week to recap his latest doings and undoings along that path, including but not limited to his humourous sharings with his fellow European immgrants in night school (especially Schultz, the German whose number one mission in life seems to be ridding himself of his persistent rheumatism) and his awkward attempts at romance, practically with any girl except the girl his pesky neighbour has in mind for him.

That neighbour would be Pasquale, who owns the building next to the one Luigi rents to open his antique shop. Pasquale is Luigi’s patron so far as bringing the young man to America in the first place, and his number one mission in life otherwise seems to be getting Luigi hitched to his daughter, Rosa—all three hundred, squeaky-voiced, giggling and belly-laughing pounds worth of her. (If there is a louder old-time radio fat-girl laugh than Rosa’s, it has not been recorded—or, it probably busted the capacitors on the recording equipment.) By hook or crook, and often the latter (blackmail a specialty), Pasquale wants the wedding as arduously as Luigi rejects it.

Life With Luigi makes a one-two punch of radio comedy success for mastermind Cy Howard: he’s also the shepherd (there is plenty of debate, justifiably so, as to just how much “creation” and “writing” he’s actually done in converting the stage hit My Sister Eileen) of My Friend Irma, a lower-brow comedy which is already a hit by the time Luigi arrives.

Remarkably enough, Luigi on air has an obstacle tougher than those through which a would-be American citizen must pass. He has to meet and beat Bob Hope, being scheduled right opposite him, but he does at least meet Ol’ Ski Nose within a year and will enjoy a six-year radio life.

 

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

Lorenzo Jones: Lorenzo Plans a Model Town
(NBC, 1948)

His published letter outlining a model town in draft gets Lorenzo (Karl Swenson) a visit from the mayor, which astonishes and dismays Belle (Lucille Wall, filling in for an ailing Betty Garde) at once . . . at first. A classic example of how unique this show was before the Hummerts turned it into just another one of their patented over-the-tops.

Announcer: George Putnam. Music: Ann Leaf. Director: Possibly Stephen Gross. Writers: Theodore and Mathilde Ferro.

Life With Luigi: Luigi Discovers America
(Series Premiere; CBS, 1948)

Freshly arrived in Chicago, antique-and-curio shopman Luigi Basco (J. Carroll Naish) is fascinated by his newly-adopted America (Some-a country when a Washington a-drive off in a Lincoln!), repelled by the fellow Italian (Alan Reed) who brought him over with one purpose in mind—to marry his fat, giggly daughter (Jody Gilbert)—and rather infatuated with his comely night school teacher (Mary Shipp).

Jimmy: Gil Stratton. Banker: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Director: William N. Robson. Writers: Hy Kraft, Arthur Stander.

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The General Tire Show Starring Jack Benny: School Days (Comedy; NBC, 1934 [truncated])
The Abbott & Costello Show: With W.C. Fields (Comedy; NBC, 1941)
Lux Radio Theater: How Green Was My Valley (Dramatic anthology; CBS, 1942)
Suspense: Bluebeard of Bellaco (Mystery/thriller; CBS, 1944)
Escape: The Fortune of Vargas (Adventure; CBS, 1949)
Duffy’s Tavern: Archie Buys a Radio Transmitter (Comedy; NBC, 1950)
Frontier Gentleman: Indian Lover (Western; CBS, 1958)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: The Bob & Ray Gourmet & Trophy Train (Improvisational comedy; don’t tell us, 1959)

 

WORLD WAR II . . .

Elmer Davis and the News: On This 21st Day of War (CBS, 1939)

“The talking was more important than the shooting,” begins the Hoosier radio news legend—hastening to add that that applies if you don’t count the murder of Romania’s anti-Nazi prime minister Armand Calinescu by the pro-Nazi Iron Guard.

Concurrently, President Roosevelt asks a special session of Congress for repeal the embargo provisions of the Neutrality Law, which isolationist Senators intend to fight, and upon which the president will call for Americans to stay out of known war zones; France’s premier accuses the Third Reich of planning to “dismember France” as they have Poland.

Davis’s deceptively calm report follows an earlier report to which he alludes during this one . . .

Kaltenborn Edits the News: Romania Installs a Military Government (CBS, 1939)

. . . namely, H.V. Kaltenborn’s, focusing on the military government installed in Romania, headed by Gen. Gheorghe Arghesanu, in the wake of the Calinescu assassination, “as strong a government as King Carol II can create,” which Kaltenborn cites as being deemed necessary by the king for strength against the likely coming Nazi onslaught and against a possible Soviet Union attempt to reclaim a territory claimed during World War I.

Little does Kaltenborn know that Arghesanu himself will be deposed after a week by the Iron Guard’s National Legionary State, after he orders the public display of Calinescu’s slain assassins, then imprisoned without a trial and killed during the Jilava Massacre in 1940.

Kaltenborn’s analysis includes a comment that the events in Romania could actually be telegraphing ultimate combined Nazi-Soviet intentions. Also: another analysis of Roosevelt’s hope for repeal of portions of the Neutrality Law addressing embargo provisions.

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