Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Explaining Godfrey

Arthur Godfrey has gone down in history as the friendly, relaxed guy who was neither, a man who audiences eventually rejected because they felt duped. After all, he was the man who insisted on honesty in advertising while plugging countless products, so many of them that the sheer volume was the subject of radio satirists.

At one time, Godfrey was all over the CBS schedule in a real-life role as the network’s huge cash cow. No doubt that’s why National Enterprise Association columnist Dick Kleiner included him in his “funnymen” series of newspaper features even though Godfrey wasn’t a comedian. Old red-head Arthur punctuated his patter with random observations, some of them mildly amusing. Kleiner tried to dissect why audiences went for Godfrey, almost four years before the TV host fired Julius La Rosa on the air and opinion changed. This column is from January 28, 1950.

What’s Godfrey Got? Nothing—But Fans
By Richard Kleiner

NEW YORK (NEA)—The boys in the radio business would like to know the answer to one little question: What has Arthur Godfrey got?
He sings, but he isn't a serious threat to Crosby. He tells pleasant little jokes, but nobody dies from excessive laughter. He emcees three shows, but spends most of his air time talking about his airplanes and his Virginia farm.
According to the radio crowd, Godfrey’s got nothing, absolutely nothing—except a large, loyal audience who’s cheerfully slit the throat of anybody who says anything against him.
What makes that audience so large and so loyal is Godfrey’s knack of making friends over the air. He's a male Mary Margaret McBride, in that he can make himself sound like he’s right in the parlor, sitting in the best chair, gabbing with the folks.
• • •
His commercials are perfect examples of his man-next-door technique. Nothing high-powered, nothing persuasive, nothing flowery—just an easy-going, tongue-in-cheek discussion.
“We’re offering this pot, he’ll say, talking about a gift offer one of his sponsors is making. “All you gotta do is send 50 cents and a boxtop and we’ll send you the pot. You wanna know why we’re making this offer? The factory is short of boxtops, that’s why.”
His actual material, what there is of it. is delivered in the same style. It is sometimes difficult to tell when the commercials stop and the program begins. Which is Godfrey’s diabolic scheme to get people to listen to commercials. It works—and the audience is happy and the sponsors are delirious with joy.
• • •
His easygoing manner isn’t a pose. He is a friendly, relaxed, informal man. He’s got a big grin that spreads over his face in the morning and doesn't set until he goes to bed. He might even sleep with it on. He's easy to talk to and likes to shoot the breeze with anybody.
“I never want to become one of those stuffed shirts who hides from his public,” is the way he expresses it himself.
While his restful pace is a delight to his listeners, it is—or, at least, it was—a pain in the kilocycles to the radio industry. By now the writers and producers and technicians are used to it, but it still gives an old-style radio man the willies to watch Godfrey at work.
In the first place, up until the moment he goes on the air. Arthur Godfrey has just the foggiest notion of what's going to happen. In the second place, he gets deep satisfaction out of driving the control room insane with impromptu bits of drollery, such as simply shutting up for 15 seconds while the control room frets over what it thinks is dead air.
• • •
Godfrey doesn’t work from a script. He has a staff of writers who cull the newspapers for odd items and funny ads. They also make up jokes. All these things are typed on separate sheets of paper, and Godfrey is given a pile of them. He may, or may not, use any of the writers' contributions. The jokes run something like this:
“That makes me think of the man who called the manager of a bar and asked what time the bar opened. The manager told him one o’clock, A little while later the same guy called again and asked what time the bar opened. The third time, the manager said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t break the rules and let you in before one.’ The man answered. ‘Who wants in? I want out!’”
“It’s colder than a maiden aunt’s kiss this morning,” is a typical Godfrey ad lib.
That sort of stuff, told in Godfrey’s deep voice that can be described as sounding like a bullfrog, a bassoon or a north wind, whistling over a pile of rusty bathtubs, makes listeners roar. So do his ad-libs, which average, roughly, 75 percent of his program.
• • •
There is no rehearsal for his daytime shows, except for the musical numbers. But there is a bare minimum of rehearsal for his hour-long television night-time show.
For one show, Godfrey had hired two table tennis professionals. Up until three hours before airtime, however, he didn't know what they were going to do on the program. Then he ambled slowly onto the rehearsal stage, picked up a paddle, and called out to his orchestra leader, Archie Bleyer, “Hey, Archie, did you ever play this game?”
The two of them played table tennis for 15 minutes, knocking the ball back and forth and under the table while 50 high-salaried persons made cracks about their ability—or lack of it. And, as he played, he outlined the night’s stunt, when it came on, later that night, it was a polished performance.
That’s Godfrey, and, be the good Lord willin’, he'll be around for quite a while.

Godfrey dismantled his show piece by piece. Bleyer was let go in what was seen as a move of petulance. After winning praise for hiring a quartet of black and white singers, Godfrey was castigated by the Baltimore Afro-American for sending them on an extended vacation. Long-time announcer and loyal foot-soldier Tony Marvin was finally told in 1959 there was no place for him on the Godfrey show.

Even during the height of his popularity, there was a little bit of controversy about Godfrey. We’ll go into that next week.

1 comment:

  1. When my dad was working for the old New York Herald-Tribune, he had to deal with Godfrey once during the 1950s. Which is why whenever Arthur come on TV when I was young, it would inevitably lead to a string of borderline invectives from dad. Other than hearing about the Julius LaRosa kerfuffle (he later ended up as a DJ on WNEW radio, so the firing story was being re-told into the late 1960s) I didn't find out until adulthood about Godfrey's other people problems.