Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Hope of Radio

The tide of television slowly washed radio out of the living room in prime time. In the 1949-50 season, all four U.S. TV networks were finally offering evening programming seven nights a week. More shows made the jump from radio: “The Aldrich Family,” “The Life of Riley,” “The Voice of Firestone” and Ed Wynn among them. It was a matter of time—and TV sets in more North American homes—before most of the big prime time radio stars joined them. Milton Berle’s phenomenal success made it a matter of “when,” not “if.” TV had to be in the back of their minds as they once again trudged into the studio to read their rehearsed scripts in front of radio audiences.

TV was in the front of the minds of radio writers. By 1949, it had become a big enough part of pop culture to make jokes about it; certainly Fred Allen had done so before he ended his radio show in spring of 1948. That brings us to syndicated columnist John Crosby, who seemed to feel the whole radio industry had accepted its inevitable fate and was half-heartedly going through the motions. His example was Bob Hope who, oddly enough, never succumbed to the idea of a weekly show like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton and others eventually did. Hope survived for decades (thanks to an astute long-term contract with NBC) doing occasional specials, eventually racking up 64 years on radio and TV.

This column ran September 30, 1949.

Radio In Review

Absent-Minded Comedians
BOB HOPE, the nation’s favorite radio comedian, devoted about half of his opening show of the season to wisecracks about killing radio.
“But radio so much more to offer things—like money,” he exclaimed with some wistfulness. There ensued a skit in which he was thrown out of his own studio by a television crew, then a gag about Milton Berle.
“You know Berle made a picture out here this Summer. I don’t know if he stole anything but the studio is now called ‘Warner Brother’.”
There was even one of those telegrams.
“Miss Ryan, ever since your face has appeared on bar-room television, our place is crowded every night. (signed) Alcoholics Anonymous.”
I don’t know who stole what from who, but Berle had his telegrams on the air an hour earlier the same night.
WELL, TELEVISION certainly is fair game for the comedians and we can expect a good many jokes on the subject this season. But I don't know whom the joke is on, exactly.
The opening of the Hope show, as well as the openings of a good many other big, popular radio shows this season, indicates that the comedians don’t think television is as funny as they are making out.
While these old-time radio favorites don't sound precisely alarmed, they do sound a little absent-minded, as if they were turning over their own television plans in their minds even while they were making jokes about the medium.
Radio may be with us for a long time to come—I certainly believe it is—but it seems to be in a state of paralysis. Most of the big shows that have reopened this season have a tired, frayed air about them.
THE WRITERS appear to have dished out their old, old material by some sort of involuntary spastic action that didn't involve the cranium at all. Their minds, like those of the comedians, seemed to be on other things.
The Hope show in particular emphasized that the nation’s favorite comedian is going to be a lot hotter on television than he is on radio. It opened, as it always has, with more noise than a circus, the audience trying to outshout the orchestra and succeeding very well.
The nation's favorite radio comedian came aboard and told three jokes in rapid succession about the outstanding romances of the Summer. “Boy, is Rita’s baby going to be healthy. I can just hear Rita saying: ‘Go ahead, Junior, eat your emeralds!’ And this Summer Jimmy Stewart got married. It was a novel ceremony. The bride said: ‘I do.’ And the groom said: ‘Oh, shucks!’”
There was another one about Stromboli, something to do with Miss Ingrid Bergman. I missed it.
THE BROADCAST ended with Mr. Hope, as some instinct told me he would, diving into the English channel and wisecracking his way to the white cliffs of Dover. Shirley May France is getting more publicity by missing her big chance than she would if she’d made it (Take note, press agents. The gallant failure hasn’t begun to be exploited).
Mr. Hope is assisted, as he was last season, by Doris Day, who sings prettily enough; by his announcer, Hy Averbach; by a Stooge named Jack Kirkwood whose trademark is the line: “Put something in the pot, boy” and who is quite a handy man for Hope to have around; and by Irene Ryan, a professional hypochondriac, whose act has worn a little thin.
As for Hope himself, I still think he’ll be a great man in television even if there isn’t any money in it.

Considering Doris Day’s huge career in movies, recordings (and, to a lesser extent, television), it’s odd seeing her in a supporting role rather than starring. But she wasn’t the only female vocalist who went on to bigger things than kibitzing with a radio comedian before and after songs; Dinah Shore (Eddie Cantor) and Peggy Lee (Jimmy Durante) did the same thing.

And it’s odd seeing Irene Ryan’s name in any context except Granny of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Though she had been in vaudeville with her husband Tim, she certainly wasn’t an old crone by the time she was cast as a member of the Clampett kinfolk. Hy Averbach later went on to a prolific directing career when TV graphics virtually killed the concept of show announcers.

You can hear an example of the Hope show from the 1949-50 season below. Jack Benny is the guest star.


  1. General Motors' Frigidaire division first approached Bob in early 1950 about doing a TV special. But he wasn't willing to make the transition, declaring, "They couldn't pay me enough to star in one of those!". They persisted, asking his agent, James L. Saphier, exactly how MUCH he wanted to do one. "$50,000 dollars", Bob snapped back, figuring that would end it, as no one was willing to pay ANY performer that much to star on ONE TV show at the time. They made him another offer- $40,000 for one special, and $150,000 for four additional specials. Hope couldn't refuse that kind of money, and made his first national TV appearance for Frigidaire on April 9, 1950 {"The Star Spangled Revue"}....that was the beginning of his TV career. He continued to appear on his weekly radio show through April 1955.

  2. Tim Ryan (Irene's onetime vaudeville partner and husband) appeared in three of the final six Charlie Chan films with Roland Winters as the brilliant Oriental detective - "Shanghai Chest," "The Golden Eye," and the very last, "The Sky Dragon." His character was Lieutenant Mike Ruark, whom Chan kept addressing as "Lieutenant Mike."