Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Guys and Dolls and Radio

A funny thing happened to radio’s rising new comedian—he became a hit on Broadway instead. As a writer.

You don’t think of radio when you think of Abe Burrows. You think of “Guys and Dolls” or “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” two of the best comedy-musicals ever to appear on the Great White Way. But Burrows started to make his name about ten years before that writing for radio, then moved in front of the microphone.

Burrows wasn’t a big star on radio, and his show wasn’t a blockbuster, either. His first show debuted July 26, 1947 and began as a 15-minute, late Saturday night affair featuring accordionist Milton DeLugg, a pianist, a guitarist, no guests and no sponsor (Listerine picked up the tab in September). The show consisted of Burrows shouting song parodies in his Brooklyn accent, an up-tempo number by DeLugg’s merry group and a parody of some aspect of radio programming. Two years later, he co-starred with George S. Kaufman and Clifton Fadiman on “This is Broadway” and had his own summer show called “Breakfast With Burrows” (appropriately broadcast at 9:30 Monday nights). This one had a big enough budget for guests, a vocal group and a few more pieces for Milton DeLugg on top of the musical satire. When he wasn’t on his own show in 1949, Burrows was putting his tongue in his cheek on Bing Crosby’s show.

Critics love clever wordplay that doesn’t talk down to the audience, so the critics loved Abe Burrows. Dick Kleiner of the National Enterprise Association profiled him in his five-part series of radio/TV funnymen. This appeared in papers on February 5, 1950.

Bald Pate, Moon Face, Voice of Gravel, Sharpest Wit of All—That’s Abe Burrows

NEW YORK—(NEA)—One of the phenomena that keeps radio young and virile is the fact that a bald, bespectacled, hoarse-voiced, unimpressive-looking guy like Abe Burrows can become a star.
Abe has a couple of good points that make people forget that he looks like a druggist and sounds like a cab driver—he has possibly the sharpest wit on the air, he has a personality that creates lasting friendships in a twinkling; and he has a knack for satire that bites but doesn't chew.
Among radio comedians, Abe's path to popularity is a unique one. Where most funnymen are alumni of vaudeville, burlesque or the stage, Burrows graduated from accountancy, a rather infrequent contributor to humor.
He did post-graduate work in Wall Street and as a salesman for maple sirup and labels. It was the career of a traveling salesman that undoubtedly prompted his next jump. He began writing for radio comedians.
AMONG RADIO WRITERS he was—and still is—unusual. He believes that humor is a little something more than simply mentioning such names, as Le Brea Tar Pits or Azusa.
He prefers a real fun-bodied gag like this:
“Oh, she was beautiful. She was sweet 16. And kinda chubby. Weighed 180. She was 5 feet tall—in any direction. But she was a wonderful girl to know at school.
‘Cause the way she was built, no matter where I sat in the classroom I was right next to her.”
But it wasn't his gag-ability that pushed him ahead. It was his songs.
Strictly for his own amusement, Burrows had long written parodies on Tin Pan Alley's standard-type songs.
He'd write both words and music for love-type songs like “Click-Click-Click, Rap-Rap-Rap, You're Playing Ping-Pong With My Heart” and anniversary-type songs like “Oh, How We Danced on the Night We Were Wed, I Needed a Wife Like a Hole in the Head.”
THE WORD OF BURROWS and his wacky ditties got around. He began to be invited to parties, and they laughed when he sat down at the piano and started banging out his type-tunes. Burrows became a featured player at Hollywood's better-type brawls.
Burrows' brand of burlesque ballads is still the high spot on his programs. Most were originally ad libbed in his party-going days.
He never wrote any of them down until he became a performer, and many of the 150 are still galloping loose through his head.
HERE'S A SAMPLE. This one is a Hawaiian-type song:
Sweet (GULP)—ua—my lovely hula maiden
In my dreams each night you shake lot me.
Sweet (GULP)—ua—my grass-skirted flower
How I long for you and Hawaii—i-i-ee-ee.
We fell in love on the beach at
But our love could never come to pass
Because you were a hula maiden
And I was allergic to grass.
So it was Aloha, sweet little (GULP)—ua
But some day I'll come back
To ask for your forgiveness
And I hope and pray that you will answer (GULP).

The combination of those lyrics set up a dreamy typical Hawaiian-type melody and rendered—that's the right word—in Burrows' hoarse bass-soprano has sent the Brooklyn-born comic's star soaring.
Burrows now has a new television show, the Abe Burrows Almanac, and the sight of his bald pate, moon face and studious expression should make him even funnier on that medium.
BURROWS WRITES all his own material, although he admits that he's trying to “break in” two writers to his style. At the moment, however, he's his sole source of supply, and it's a big job.
He spends all week jotting down ideas, snatches of gags, pounding out his type-song; then he'll sit down one evening and write the program out in longhand. He says he works better that way.
Here's a Burrows’ definition:
Hooper ratings —- It's a telephone survey . . . really remarkable . . . they tell you the exact size of your audience . . . they told me mine was a woman five feet tall.
Burrows, you see, is far from a typical comedian. His jokes have that strange quality of being funny. And he writes them himself.

Burrows had fingers in a lot of pies. He had an exclusive deal with CBS as a writer-producer-performer (through June 1951) but seemed to end up being on more panel shows than anything. He recorded for Decca. But once “Guys and Dolls” became a smash, any thought of Burrows being a TV star ended. In 1951, he mounted “Two on the Aisle” and his focus became Broadway. Of course, it was a safe haven for someone who testified to the TV-career-killing House Un-American Activities Committee he hung out with Communists.

If you want to hear some of Burrows’ songs, the wonderful WFMU Blog is the place to go.

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