Saturday, 21 May 2016

Before He Talked to Mr. Ed

Alan Young will always be Scrooge McDuck to a certain generation. To a generation before that, he’ll be Wilbur Post, the architect who unwitting bought a talking horse along with his new home on Mister Ed. To a generation before that, he was the star of a network radio show that included Jim Backus as a terribly wealthy man who used the same characterisation more than 15 years later on Gilligan’s Island as Thurston Howell III.

But to a likely very small number of people today, Alan Young was a young man who appeared on local radio and stages in Vancouver.

Many people in Vancouver radio back then sought fame and fortune elsewhere. Announcer Arch Presby was one. Director Fletcher Markle was another. But Young was the first who achieved huge, lasting fame.

By now, you’ve probably read the obituaries for this nice, gentle man, who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 96. But you may not have read about his early, early days.

Young’s father was a shipbuilder who moved from England to West Vancouver (newly connected with the city thanks to a bridge high over the First Narrows of Burrard Inlet). Young’s professional debut was at age 13 when he earned $2 doing a monologue for the Caledonian Society of Vancouver. Actors tried to pick up a bit of money—accent on “a bit”—on the radio. Young landed at CJOR, tied in with one of two CBC networks (the one consisting of non-government owned stations). Here are a couple of stories that look like CBC handouts, published in the Sherbrooke Telegram. By this point, Young had gone from Vancouver to Toronto (he was on 44 stations for Buckingham cigarettes) to New York, thanks to the man who discovered Dinah Shore, Frank Collins, dialing the wrong show when he was trying to find Fibber McGee and Molly. The first story is from January 4, 1945.
Heralding the meteoric rise of Canada’s own comedian, 24-year-old Alan Young, to the pinnacle of radio stardom, it was announced recently that he has been voted “The Most Promising Star of Tomorrow.” The poll, covering radio programs on all United States networks, is an annual concensus of opinion taken by Motion Picture Daily Fame poll of radio editors.
Alan Young, a native of Vancouver, is star of his own Blue Network broadcast, the Alan Young Show, heard every Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. (E.W.T.) Appearing with Young is Peter Van Steeden’s orchestra, featuring Diane Courtney, vocalist. It will be broadcast regularly over the Dominion Network of the C.B.C. commencing January 2.
Born in England, Alan Young came to Canada when he was a child and first went on the air in Vancouver at the age of 14 with a small “sustaining” program which he wrote himself. He has been on the air ever since.
Acting as Master of Ceremonies of the Saturday Night Stag Party, a Vancouver production very popular in the west, he built it up until it obtained national recognition as a C.B.C. Trans-Canada Network feature and was used on the C.B.C. – N.B.C. International exchange.
He left Stag Party to replace Johnny Wayne and Frank Schuster, a Toronto comedy team, who had made a hit before being drawn into the army. He played two seasons successfully and was expected to reach new peaks in his third when his manager obtained a summer replacement for him in New York. Eddie Cantor was taking leave from time owned by Bristol-Myers Company between July and October and Young was asked to fill his place. When his summer engagement ended he had won such a following that he was given his own show on the Blue Network, starting October 3, and has been successful enough to merit “Most Promising Star of Tomorrow” vote.
Young is probably almost unique in that he writes practically all of his own scripts, although assigned three script writers. Falling back on the days when it was a necessity to write his own scripts, he has drawn on sources of originality which made his show noted for its lack of threadbare situations and mouldy gags.
Recently, Alan Young offered $100.00 to all United States high school students who could write humorous situations suitable for his program. Scripts submitted were to feature humorous circumstances on which his program could be based rather than clever gags. He has personally visited numerous high schools in eastern United States to instruct students in writing for radio comedy and to consider their work and make suggestions.
At 24 Young, Canada’s first top-flight comedian, is on the threshold of the radio following which has made millionaires of many internationally-known radio stars.
This story ran on March 25, 1945 but seems to have been written a few months earlier.
A few years ago a young Vancouverite with a keen sense of comedy made Canadian radio audiences sit up and take notice: New York talent scouts took notice, too, and in no time at all this young Canadian, Alan Young, was replacing Eddie Cantor on the latter’s 1944 summer show. He clicked—and in the fall was given his own half hour program. Starting January 2nd and every Tuesday thereafter at 8:30 p.m., EWT., the Alan Young Show will be heard in Canada over the CBC Dominion Network.
Alan is a slight, blondish man with sort of a sad eyes that remind one of a cocker spaniel. He was born in England but his family moved to Vancouver when he was a small child. His acting ability asserted itself when he was in his early teens. Alan and his sister Harriet were putting on shows for the neighbourhood kids as well as singing and dancing in school entertainments.
When he was 15 he went to a local radio station and was hired to do a 15 minute show once a week, for which he was paid all of $2.50 a week. Alan says he found that he wasn’t able to work for the little he could spare from the $2.50 so he doubled for sometimes as many as a half a dozen people in the course of the program.
Alan stuck with the program for 28 weeks and then felt a raise was in order—asked for it and got it—50 cents a week increase. Along with this stage of his career fan mail began arriving for him and he went to the station owner [George Chandler] and demanded five dollars a week. He was fired.
He thrust his radio career behind him and with sister Harriet formed a vaudeville team. The pair were really just beginning to get somewhere when sister Harriet decided that keeping house and having children was a little more secure than being half of a vaudeville team so she left brother Alan high and dry and got married.
Alan returned to the fold of radio and attained a pretty fair success in the role of master of ceremonies on several shows. By this time he had developed his own style and a short time later he was signed as em-cee of a cigarette show emanating from Toronto. The show was an overnight success. Alan met and married a Seattle, Washington girl and is the proud father of a 20 months old daughter.
Despite the promising talk, Young was never part of the “A” list of network radio stars. His shows put him in the role of the earnest-but-a-little-befuddled young man. There were plenty of those in radio. The man who had hired him at CJOR, Dick Diespecker, sniffed in his radio column in The Vancouver Province that Young had been turned into just another American radio comedian. But that wasn’t Young’s biggest problem. He faced the same two words as every other comic actor when television rolled around—“Now what?” (When Young landed his first TV show in 1950, his father back in West Vancouver thought his son was making up the idea of television. It didn’t exist in Canada back then). Young couldn’t crack the “A” list yet. Here’s an Associated Press story from 1954.
Alan Young Launches Yet Another Chapter By BOB THOMAS
HOLLYWOOD, June 16 (AP)—This Saturday night, Alan Young launches yet another chapter in his amazing up-and-down career in show business.
The bright, youthful Canadian comic will be the guest star on NBC-TV's Saturday Night Review, and he'll appear eight times on the show this summer. He'll be doing what he does best—sprightly sketches of a well-meaning man caught in the web of circumstance.
This fall he may be back with a regular show, for which NBC has high hopes. It's tentatively called "That's Life," and Young plays a bumbling Mr. Fixit. He also has plans for his own show, in which he and a stock company would play comedy sketches.
And so his star is again in the ascendancy. He has been in Hollywood exactly 10 years this month and now can view his hectic career with some candor. "I've never been out of work since 1938," he reflected, "but my career has certainly had its highs and lows."
Born in England, he started out in show business as a monologuist in Canada when he was 13. He became a top radio comedian on the Canadian network, then was lured by offers from the United States.
"I came to New York and nobody knew me," he recalled. "I remember sitting at a little orange juice stand and listening to a broken-down radio while Eddie Cantor announced that next week the great Canadian comedian, Alan Young, would be on the show."
Young caught on with radio audiences in this country and came to Hollywood. He landed a contract with 20th Century-Fox and scored a success in "Margie." But after a couple of so-so films he was dropped by the studio. He also went off the air.
"So I worked up an act to play theaters," he said. "That was fine, except that I played four and that's all there were. I was very discouraged when I was playing Detroit, and I went up to Canada to scout the possibilities of going back there. I had decided to return when I got a call from my agent that CBS was interested in having me for a TV show. He talked me out of going back to Canada."
The CBS deal jelled, but Young had one more date to play in New York. The picture on the bill was poor, Young got second billing to a child pianist and audiences were surly. A comedian had stolen Young's gags in Detroit and used them in the same New York house on the previous bill. "Change your act!" the manager demanded.
"But these things didn't bother me," said Young. "I had high hopes for the CBS deal."
His hopes were justified. The TV show was a smash from the start. Again the movie offers poured in. He was signed by both RKO and Paramount. He was riding the crest.
Oops, it happened again! His TV show, a variety format, ran dry of material—"You just can't sustain a vaudeville show every week." He made two films, one a mediocre epic (“Androcles and the Lion”), the other a colossal flop (“Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick”). "The actor is the one who gets blamed," he sighed.
He came back with a situation comedy TV series, but it went awry. The reason: He allowed himself to be made a "schnook." This is a Yiddish term for a harmless dope.
"You can't win an audience that way," he commented. "You can play a poor fellow who is plagued by circumstances, but you can't be ineffectual. You have to show some manliness. The greatness of Chaplin was that he'd threaten to kick the villain. He might not do it, but the threat was there."
The musical Gypsy exhorted that you’ve got to have a gimmick. Young finally found one or, rather, had it handed to him by shrewd producer George Burns. Gracie’s husband took the idea of Francis the Talking Mule, hired the producer of the Francis films, and made Young an earnest-but-a-little-befuddled young man—with a talking horse (though the series was actually based on Walter Brooks’ stories in the Saturday Evening Post). The gimmick worked in first-run for six seasons and the show still works today. You can’t help but like Young’s pleasant Wilbur Post. And, as it turned out, several generations liked the pleasant Canadian man who played him.

If you want more about Young’s early career, read this interview with fellow ex-Vancouver resident Kliph Nesteroff HERE.


  1. RIP, Alan... "that Young man who is Young today and Young forever..."

    Sherwood Schwartz and his brother Al were writers on Young's radio show... and George Wyle was its musical director later on. (Sherwood would tap Wyle to help him compose the "Gilligan's Island" theme song.)

    Young would later give voice to Carl Barks' great creation Uncle Scrooge McDuck, in Disney's "DuckTales" TV series.

  2. Though in my opinion, DuckTales wasn't funny outside Scrooge (Huey, Dewey and Louie got tamed down for 80s TV a la another triple threat, Alvin and the Chipmunks). So I'll be the type that remembers Mr.Ed more fondly and I'm familiar with reading of the l;ate 1930s when Alan Young (who would REALLY have been young, in his very early 20s) and Jim Backus, about 5 yrs.older,, were on Alan Young's radio show..):)

  3. He came back with a situation comedy TV series, but it went awry. The reason: He allowed himself to be made a "schnook." This is a Yiddish term for a harmless dope.
    "You can't win an audience that way," he commented. "You can play a poor fellow who is plagued by circumstances, but you can't be ineffectual. You have to show some manliness. The greatness of Chaplin was that he'd threaten to kick the villain. He might not do it, but the threat was there."

    That could explain Young's initial reluctance to do "Mr. Ed" since a lot of the basis of the comedy comes from Wilbur Post's life being controlled by the actions of his horse. Not very manly, though on the other hand, having Connie Hines are your wife on the show kind of made up for that.....

  4. Well, that and the Francis movies were big successes. I'm sure by 1960 Young wouldn't have minded a chance at a similar success.