Sunday, 20 July 2014

He Had Problems With Ginger Ale

His claim to fame in radio was reporting from Normandy Beach on D-Day, but George Hicks was a newsman who got the facts wrong about his own career.

Hicks claimed he was the first announcer on the Jack Benny radio show but that wasn’t the case. In fact, he technically wasn’t even the second. Ed Thorgersen was the announcer on the debut show on May 2, 1932 and for a number of weeks thereafter. Jimmy Wallington announced a few broadcasts as well. Like the two of them, Hicks was an NBC staff announcer and he was assigned to the show starting in early August. He was gone three months later because the programme moved to another network.

No recordings of any of the 1932 shows but the premiere exist, so we have no aural indication of Hicks’ work with Benny. But he did reminisce about it in later years and it appears he was the first announcer who kibitzed with Benny, much like Graham McNamee did with Ed Wynn.

Here’s an unbylined story which ran in the Niagara Falls Gazette of February 9, 1958.

Benny's Birthday Reunites Pals
A mild-mannered man with a deep, resonant voice and graying temples, who shared with Jack Benny the creation of some of the Waukegan Wit's famous gimmicks—the character facets that moulded Benny as he is known today—will help Jack celebrate his 40th birthday on CBS Television's "Shower of Stars" Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on Chan. 4.
George Hicks was Benny's first announcer on the old Blue Network, from May to October in 1932. In those days Benny played second fiddle to George Olson and his band ("Love in Bloom" hadn't been written yet). Jack was virtually unknown except to vaudeville, audiences and the Broadway musical comedy theater, and Hicks was Jack's foil as the comedian developed the character traits that make up Jack Benny as he is known to millions today.
Still one of broadcasting's best-known announcers and narrators (he does the commercials on CBS Television's "United States Steel Hour" and the narration on "U.N. in Action"), Hicks will be flown from New York to Hollywood to appear with a cavalcade of Benny old-timers on the hour-long "Shower of Stars" broadcast Feb. 13, when Benny will—very reluctantly—take leave of his thirties and become a 40-year-old.
And George Hicks, like many others at the party, will swap old times with the peerless comedian.
Hicks was a rather shy, naive youngster from Tacoma, Wash., when he broke into radio in 1928.
He started as an assistant to the late Graham McNamee in sports broadcasts, then became a newscaster of considerable stature by himself. He covered the first undersea broadcast from a submarine, the arrival of the Graf Zeppelin in New York on its round-the-world trip, and—during World War II—the invasion of Normandy, broadcasting from the attack force command ship Ancon off Omaha Beach.
But back to the early thirties men like Hicks were general announcers, in addition to pioneering newscasters, and George, when he wasn't backstopping Graham McNamee, was given other microphone chores. That's how he came to do the Canada Dry stint.
"The show paid no commercial fee and we had an old-fashioned carbon mike which required a deep voice," Hick recalls. "That's probably why they picked me for the assignment.
Ed Was There
"Benny was just making his start in broadcasting in those days. He had been on a show titled "Broadway's Greatest Thrills," emceed by Ed Sullivan, on the station that is now WCBS in New York, on March 29, 1932. As a result of his appearance (in which he introduced himself by saying "My name is Jack Benny. There will now be a short pause while everyone says, 'So What?'"), Canada Dry signed him to do a show titled "George Olson and His Famous Band, With Ethel Shutta, also starring Jack Benny."
Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, Rochester, and the others identified with Jack weren't to come for many years, Hicks notes.
"Mary was just as close to Jack as she is now," he recalls, "but she wasn't in the cast. She used to drop around between rehearsals and we'd go out for coffee and cake. Ethel Shutta had the role Mary takes now—Jack was always trying to date her up. She was Mrs. George Olson, you may remember, and she always turned Jack down as George grinned overbearingly at him."
He Was Shy
Hicks himself was a combination of Don Wilson and Dennis Day, as their characters were later developed, on Benny's show. Being young, he was a little shy working with a famous bandleader and a big star, and his awe sometimes overcame him. As a result, the commercials didn't always come out of his mouth the way they were written in the script. He faltered or stumbled, lousing up the timing, and sometimes mixed up the words.
"Jack had a lot of fun with me on this score," he recalls.
"But our greatest laughs came when we kidded the commercials. Later in radio and television other comics were hailed as having a fresh approach when they kidded the commercials, but it was Benny's show that actually started it."
The president of Canada Dry at first protested the liberties that were being taken with his product, but when he learned that both the critics and the public liked it—and were buying the product he relented.
Hicks left the show when the series left the Blue Network, on whose payroll he was, and went to CBS. On CBS the program remained until January 1, 1933, when it was shifted to NBC, where it stayed until Benny returned to CBS Television in 1948.
Hicks lives today in Jackson Heights, a suburb of New York City. He is a grandfather and paints as a hobby.

Hicks stayed with the Blue Network, later renamed ABC, doing a Thursday night, five-minute look-back-at-the-news programme until the start of June, 1949. He ended up back at NBC News broadcasting a daytime news summary. The network used him in publicity literature but harkened on his radio work during the war. Radio was fading away, television had taken over, and a new guard was coming in. Hicks ended up back at ABC in 1953-54. He died of cancer at his home in Queens, New York, on March 17, 1965, age 60.

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