Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Have You Got a Couple of Penguins?

You could do lots of funny and grandiose things on network radio and about the only cost was the pay of the sound effects man.

Television was different. For the most part, you had to see the gag. So TV networks had to have a prop department. When the prop department didn’t have it, the show’s producers had to get staffers to go out and find what was needed, no matter how bizarre.

This was true in the early days of modern network TV (starting in the fall of 1948). Herald Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby related this tale in his column of July 8, 1949, during the first year when the four networks had full weekday evening schedules.

Radio in Review
Robert Wade, manager of television production facilities at NBC, and his assistant manager, Robert Brunton, always get the shudders when they hear a gag writer at a script conference say: “Wouldn't it be funny if...”
Television comedy in its present state of infancy is entranced with props which are to TV what the switcheroo is to radio. "Wouldn't it be funny if Joe opened that icebox door and two live penguins walked out of it?" That is a fairly typical example of how that "wouldn't it be funny if . . . " line is usually finished.
Everyone decides it would be hilarious and then it is up to Mr. Wade and Mr. Brunton to produce a couple of live penguins by next Tuesday.
As a matter of fact, they once had to produce two live penguins within four days for a show called "The Hour Glass." First they tried the local zoo. No penguins were available. Wade figured the United States Navy might have a couple of penguins lying around as pets and called Washington. The Navy said no, it didn’t have any penguins but suggested the Peruvian navy. The Peruvian navy graciously sent a couple of penguins in time for the Friday show.
The most prodigious dreamer-up of crazy props is, of course, Milton Berle, who drives the NBC production staff into fits every Sunday at rehearsals by thinking up improbable things that have to be on hand by Tuesday night. Among the props Berle has demanded and got are a sled with a full team of eskimo dogs, a trick piano that punched him in the nose, a 1903 automobile, a hansom cab with horse, a Good Humor tricycle and a truth machine that explodes. An article on television in the current "Fortune" observes that Berle would have an elephant on the show if he could get one into the NBC elevators.
Wade and Brunton have laid their hands on a Fifth avenue bus for the Olsen and Johnson show, a display of jewels from Cartier's worth $1,500,000 and a valuable Rembrandt. In a single week, Wade's department has to produce about 3,000 properties which range from a derby hat out of which a canary flies to authentic armor for a period play.
Every order is a rush Order—legitimate theater stage managers are appalled at the speed with which things have to be done in TV—and Wade depends heavily on his own memory or that of his staff to locate elusive items. In the case of the 1903 auto, one of the prop men remembered having seen one in a New Jersey town. He went out and got it.
Since they have to obtain props with a minimum of haggling and explanations, the production staff has built up contacts with zoos, ships chandlers, antique dealers, second-hand dealers, museums, hospital supply shops and gunsmiths. Gradually, these contacts are getting used to frantic telephone calls at 3 p.m. for sixteenth century muskets needed that night.
Large animals are borrowed or rented. Smaller ones must be bought. Then the staff has to get rid of them. A zoo took the penguins but nobody wanted a live goose. It wandered around the shop for days and became a pet. Finally, one of the prop men took it home for dinner.
As in the movies, many real articles just don’t look real on a television screen. Cheese usually has burnt sugar added to it to give it some semblance of reality. Oranges get a hypodermic of vegetable dyes to improve their looks. Rain has to have milk added to it. Snow has become a particular nuisance around the RCA building because the mice eat it. Snow, as in the movies, is a mixture of unbleached corn flakes, mica and punched paper, and the mice love it.
NBC has built sets representing every part of the world—the South Seas, the Arctic, Australia, Africa, everywhere, and every period of time. Again, the designers have no time to bone up on periods and places. They rely on memory and do pretty well. The most elaborate set NBC ever built was for “Street Scene.” This was a couple of tenements with two working levels and one suggested third story. It was 90 feet long and each room was individually decorated so the cameras could peer into it.
By movie standards, the “Street Scene” set was kids’ stuff, but the movie people wouldn’t have got it up as fast as NBC. It took two days.


  1. This post's title reminds me of one of my all-time favorite cartoons, "Jitterbug Follies." If you don't know what I'm referring to, watch it yourself.

  2. Berle eventually did get elephants on his show - and soon regretted it. While introducing the elephants, he was drowned out by the noise of the elephants' farting, and Berle shouted "Stop ad-libbing!" Then the curtain opened to reveal that the elephants had defecated all over the stage.