12 November: Fanny Brice’s escape

Fanny Brice in a mid-1940s publicity still. (Photo: CBS.)

Fanny Brice in a mid-1940s publicity still. (Photo: CBS.)

In a medium over which there never seemed to be a genuinely bad seed, but a lot of obnoxiously unbearable kids regardless, Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks might have gotten the closest, making Red Skelton’s mean widdle kid Junior seem like a Boy Scout. (You might wonder and fear at times what would happen if Snooks and Junior had ever hooked up.)

Perhaps typically, Brice herself liked to say Snooks was “just the kid I used to be. She’s my kind of youngster, the type I like. She has imagination. She’s eager. She’s alive. With all her deviltry, she still is a good kid, never vicious or mean . . . I love Snooks, and when I play her I do it as seriously as if she were real. I am Snooks. For twenty minutes or so, Fanny Brice ceases to exist.”

She took that declaration seriously enough to appear for each week’s broadcast in a child’s dress and hair bow and to refuse to wear her eyeglasses for fear of spoiling the Snooks image, requiring her copies of each week’s script to be printed three times the normal type size. (She was also petrified of proper rehearsing. “I can’t do a show until it’s on the air, kid,” she once told producer Everett Freeman. “Don’t worry.”)

And for the seven-year run of The Baby Snooks Show as a stand-alone property (Brice had been playing Snooks in one or another variation for years since Moss Hart fashioned her prototype for a Ziegfeld Follies show), Brice proved a virtuoso at making the kid come alive without making her as obnoxious as she’d often be remembered in the generations to follow classic network radio.

It took a long time for Brice to establish any kind of radio foothold. One of her earliest exercises, a comedy-variety offering featuring her with the George Olsen Orchestra, finished ninth on Wednesday nights in 1932-33, which outpointed Kate Smith but came in behind Eno Crime Club at 8:00 p.m.

She did much better anchoring a radio adaptation of Ziegfeld Follies in 1935-36, her 10.9 Hooper rating on a night when the average rating was 8.3 giving her a fourth-place finish on a night (Saturday) then considered perhaps the worst for network radio.

During February 1936, however, she brought Snooks to the microphones for the first time. The following season, she replaced Alan Reed as Daddy with Hanley Stafford, and the duo clicked. Near-one-trick-pony though it was, the Brice-Higgins combination would spend fifteen years, three networks, and several shows otherwise until going top billing at last in 1944, delivering Snooks’s impish mischief, good enough for twelve seasonal top fifty ratings finishes and four top ten finishes.

 

Brice at work, though not yet in constume. (Photo: NBC.)

Brice at work, though not yet in constume. (Photo: NBC.)

It was probably just the tonic Fanny Brice needed to contend with and escape from her often nightmarish off-stage, off-the-air life. Thrice married and thrice divorced, Brice was victimised especially by gambler Nicky Arnstein, who drained her resources as she footed the bill for his defense in a Wall Street securities swindle and left her to face the press and the police when he went into hiding even while she delivered her second child.

It took Arnstein’s affair with an older, wealthier woman to pull the stars out of Brice’s eyes at last. The couple divorced in 1927, despite her standing by him while he served his stretch in Leavenworth. Brice married impresario Billy Rose two years later; some said Brice still carried an irrational torch for Arnstein, others said Rose’s ruthless personality and infidelities ruined the marriage. (Rose married swimming champion Eleanor Holm Jarrett almost promptly after the divorce.)

Brice would eventually call Rose the most evil man she ever knew—while lamenting that maybe she was too direct to keep any man’s attention very long.

Some might think it ought to surprise no one that, other than raising her own children and enjoying highbrow and middlebrow company alike during the rest of her career, Fanny Brice could and did lose herself as completely as she did in the character of a five year old kid. Right up to the moment she’d collapse and die of a cerebral hemorrhage 29 May 1951, when due to perform a Baby Snooks Show.

 

TUNE IN TODAY . . .

The Big Show: Baby Snooks and Diva (NBC, 1950)

 

Brice (center) goes over a script with Groucho Marx and Dame Tallulah . . . (Photo: NBC.)

Brice (center) goes over a script with Groucho Marx and Dame Tallulah . . . (Photo: NBC.)

Tonight, radio’s formerly meanest widdle kid has plans for Tallulah Bankhead on Tallu’s home turf: Snooks hectors Dame Tallulah for tips on how to become such a grand actress, once Groucho Marx gets finished (for the time being) with his customary opening ad-lib harassment.

A treat for old-time radio collectors: See if you can spot the vintage joke head writer Goodman Ace recycled effectively for Groucho. A not-so-treat: Does Willson have to make “Stardust” that splashy?

Additional cast: Ezio Pinza, Jane Powell, Hanley Stafford, Frank Lovejoy, John Agar, David Pierce, Jimmy Wallington, Meredith Willson. Music: Meredith Willson and His Orchestra, theBig Show Chorus. Director: Dee Engelbach. Writers: Goodman Ace, Selma Diamond, Frank Wilson.

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Jack’s Toothache (comedy; NBC, 1939)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber’s Black Eye (comedy; NBC, 1940)
Vic & Sade: Uncle Fletcher’s Packing Problem (comedy; NBC, 1943)
The Life of Riley: The Big Football Bet (comedy; Blue Network, 1944)
The Old Gold Comedy Theater: True to Life (comedy; NBC, 1944)
The Whistler: The Seeing Eye (crime drama; CBS, 1945)
Boston Blackie: Only One Way Out for Me (crime drama; Blue Network, 1946)
Fibber McGee & Molly: A Visit from Ronald Colman (comedy; NBC, 1946)
The Mel Blanc Show: The Lodge Invitation (comedy; NBC, 1946)
Escape: The Young Man with Cream Tarts (advenutre; CBS, 1947)
Escape: Maracas (adventure; CBS, 1949)
Our Miss Brooks: The Teachers’ Convention (comedy; CBS, 1950)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: “One Fella’s Family—The Neighbour’s Dog” (improviational comedy; your guess is as good as mine, 1959)
Suspense: The Impostors (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1961)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Wrong One Matter (crime drama; CBS, 1961)

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