Anyone raised on television will think of Gale Gordon as a self-important blowhard picking on poor Lucille Ball, sometimes with justification. Lucy never tired of Gordon’s characterisation and stuck it in every one of her shows after “I Love Lucy” moved into Lucrative Rerun Land. No doubt she realised having a “bad guy” put the audience’s sympathy on her. It was a good way to make sure people still loved Lucy.
By then, Gordon had been playing pompous bellowers for so long, people likely forgot he had once been a dramatic actor; he even starred as Flash Gordon at one time. Yet Gordon felt the bellowing wasn’t what made his character. It was the way he reacted before the shouts of annoyance, he believed, that provided the comedy that kept him constantly employed at a high salary. Here he is talking about it to the Associated Press in a radio-TV column published in 1951, when his only appearances with Lucy had been on radio.
Radio Actor Makes Money By Keeping Quiet
By JACK QUIGG
While Bob Thomas is vacationing, guest writers will conduct his column.
HOLLYWOOD, July 11. (AP)—Silence is golden, especially if you can keep as mum as artfully as Gale Gordon.
Mr. Gordon, a handsome, fortyish gentleman with a Clark Gable mustache and the trace of a British accent, earns as much as a lot of movie stars simply by keeping his mouth closed—at the right time.
One of Hollywood’s top radio actors, he is known in the trade as “The Master of the Eloquent Pause.”
If you don't quite place his name, you undoubtedly know him by voice if you’re any kind of a radio fan—he appears regularly on seven big network programs. Gordon is:
Mayor Latrivia on the “Fibber McGee and Molly” show; bank president Rudolph Atterbury on “My Favorite" Husband;” school principal Osgood Conklin on “Our Miss Brooks;” Mr. Scott, head of RCA, on the Phil Harris-Alice Faye show; Mr. Merryweather, Ronald Colman’s rich friend on “Halls of Ivy;” Mr. Bullard, the next door neighbor, on “The Great Gildersleeve,” and the girl friend’s father on the Dennis Day show.
“These characters are all of a type,” says Gordon, “pompous, stuffy, opinionated and loud. Therefore, it is easy to make them humorous if the script writer is skillful.”
What is the eloquent pause? Here is an example from, say, the Fibber McGee show:
McGee says something insulting or aggravating. Gordon, as Latrivia, should properly reply with anger or frustration—something quick and sarcastic. But he doesn’t.
“I wait. There is a long pause. I am trying to control my temper. The audience knows this and it is going over all the possible answers I may give.
“Then, at last, I come out with a very flat remark. Maybe something as simple as the one word, ‘yes.’ It is doubly funny because everyone listening knows that you fought off a temptation to explode into something more violent.”
Gordon says the technique is so effective he frequently gets laughs before he makes his comeback. The secret, he says, is knowing how long to keep silent before replying.
“It’s instinct, really,” he says. “The ear helps a little, but the eyes never. I have one infallible rule—never look at the audience. I build up the silence by showing frustration, exasperation. But you can’t hold it too long.”
Gordon readily admits he’s typed, but he doesn’t mind. “I am paid very well, well enough so I’m not struggling to get out of the rut,” he says.
Some might consider his work very easy indeed. He devotes less than two and a half hours to each show, including air time. That’s only about 20 hours a week.
But besides his regular appearances, he is in demand for mystery and drama programs in which he capably plays a variety of roles.
New York born, his father, Charles T. Aldrich, was a vaudeville headliner for many years. His mother, Gloria Gordon, sang in musical comedies and is still active as the Mrs. O'Reilly of “My Friend Irma.”
Schooled in England—which accounts for the British accent—he broke into show business on Broadway and was a leading man in stock companies before settling in Hollywood in 1926.
His eloquent pause being such a laugh-getter, why haven’t more actors tried it?
“Several have,” says Gordon, “but they didn’t have the nerve to keep still long enough.”
There’s a big difference between Mayor LaTrivia and the various characters Gordon personified on the various Lucille Ball shows on TV. LaTrivia would finally explode because both Fibber and Molly kept, stupidly and somewhat illogically, misinterpreting what he was saying until he became tongue-tied. LaTrivia was sympathetic in his own way; you could understand he had a good reason to be frustrated. He wasn’t a naturally nasty, sour character like Gordon played opposite Lucy, and Eve Arden before her. For me, the routine got wearying. Audiences didn’t agree until 1986, when “Life With Lucy” served up the same old comedy stew for eight episodes before the Ball-Gordon kitchen was closed for good. By then, Gale Gordon was 80. He had carved out a steady, high-profile career with paycheques that even Theodore J. Mooney and Uncle Harry Carter couldn’t gripe about.