Monday, 16 May 2016

Behind the Man Who Fired Julius LaRosa

It’s a pretty safe bet the word “fired” will appear in the first sentence of every newspaper obituary of Julius La Rosa. For La Rosa’s claim to fame is that he was canned on live TV. Songs? I’ve never heard one of his records on the radio (even in the ‘60s) and couldn’t tell you what he recorded. More than one newspaper editorial writer at the time admitted they had never heard of La Rosa until the ensuing kerfuffle after being axed by Arthur Godfrey.
The firing has been called by some “the beginning of the end of Godfrey.” It really wasn’t. Godfrey’s shows carried on through the rest of the ‘50s on CBS (and so did the firings). It wasn’t even the first time Godfrey’s down-home sincerity was questioned. But it was the 1953 version of the “one per cent”—the little guy undeservedly taking a fall thanks to the super rich and powerful.
The controversy caused the Associated Press wire service to take the unusual step of doing a feature investigative report on Godfrey and his mystique. It appeared in newspapers on November 15, 1953; La Rosa had been fired roughly 3 1/2 weeks earlier.

That Man Godfrey:
Is the ‘Loveable Redhead’ Really an Embittered, Dictatorial Monster? Some of His Co-Workers Say Yes---But to Others He's a Charming Guy

His Myth Falling Apart, Can He Repair Pieces?

Associated Press Writer

The question before the house is: What kind of man is Arthur Godfrey?
Is the "lovable Redhead" only a myth, now coming apart at the seams? What's it like to work for him? What does it mean to be a "little Godfrey?"
This inquiry was launched at time when most of the world seemed to be shaking itself loose and recovering from the fact that Godfrey fired Julius LaRosa.
My first stop was the Columbia Broadcasting System, where the emotional recovery from the La Rosa incident was not as great, say, as in the Lower Valley of the Nile or at the National Broadcasting Co. With his seven TV and seven radio shows a week, Godfrey is said to bring into CBS every year an estimated 17 million dollars, of which he reputedly keeps 10 per cent, before taxes.
Hanging on Every Word
At one of Godfrey's morning shows, I sat with the studio audience. The star and some of his performers seemed less relaxed than usual. But the women around me had a good time. They laughed uproariously at every joke. When Godfrey was serious, they hung on every word with a loving, motherly light in their eyes.
When the show ended and hired hands began passing out hot lunches to the audience, Godfrey left quickly, on crutches. I caught up with the McGuire sisters, the singing trio, and soprano Marion Marlowe.
But none of them could talk to me unless the interview was first "cleared" with CBS. Under the circumstances, that seemed to me impractical.
In the Godfrey headquarters at CBS, one of several network press agents said, "The kids in the cast won't talk. They're too scared."
As a matter of fact, the publicity men weren't feeling too well themselves. They thought, for example, it was "ill-advised" to have held the press conference at which Godfrey first breathed new life into the word "humility."
Personally, they said, they always liked the man. He was easy to work for—understanding, considerate, friendly, but unpredictable.
Quotation on Wall
On the way out, I noticed this framed quotation from Elbert Hubbard on the reception room wall in the Godfrey offices:
“If you work for a man, in heaven's name work for him . . . Speak well of him, stand by him and by the institution he represents . . . (If not) you are loosening the tendrils that are holding you to the institution and at the first high wind that comes along, you will be uprooted and blown away . . .”
At an advertising agency which represents one of Godfrey's sponsors and presumably has a big stake in his continued popularity, a man said we had better talk outside the office.
"Of course, you can't use my name," the man said. "Godfrey is an utter dictator. Disagreement is verboten. When he walks into a rehearsal studio, he demands absolute silence. You don't say hello to him unless he says it first. Otherwise, you get a big silence.
"Basically, he's a very embittered man. He doesn't know the meaning of humility. He's always absolute boss. His performers can’t have their own managers, press agents or lawyers. They have to use Godfrey's lawyer. Why? So he'll know from their income tax returns what they're making on the outside . . . "
The man said I should be sure to talk to Sylvia Dowling and Walter Murphy, both of whom, he said, were abused by Godfrey.
Nothing But Praise
But when I found Miss Dowling, who used to write commercials for Godfrey, she had nothing but praise for her former boss. "Oh, sure, he made fun of my commercials," she said. "But it was all part of the script. In one commercial, I wrote a jingle—'A-tisket, a-tasket, please read this before you throw it in the basket.'"
"Arthur did it charmingly. Sure, there were times he bawled me and other people out. But you could argue with him. And nobody took offense. It was part of the last - minute hysteria of getting shows ready.
“There’s a lot of nonsense about silence when he entered or not saying hello to him first. With the kids who perform for him, he was invariably kind, generous, thoughtful. He never forgot a birthday or anyone at Christmas.”
Under conditions of strict secrecy, I then talked with a man who used to be associated with Godfrey. We had to meet at a spot far from his normal habitat. He stipulated I could not use his name or even tell people in my office I had talked with him. This source was quite bitter:
"Until a minute before air time, Godfrey is a ruthless tyrant. A minute later, on the air, he becomes a charming Huck Finn. A minute after the show ends, he sheds stage personality like a cloak and rushes off in a rented limousine, without a word. . .
"Basically, he suffers from insecurity. As the highest paid informer in the world, he lives in constant fear of dropping all the way down to second place. . . "Tension overcomes a room when he enters. People are afraid of him. There's a CBS vice president who is in charge of Godfrey who is in charge of the vice president. . .
“He insults his writers. He’ll say, 'I'll do it myself,' and then pretend to ad-lib on the air when he is actually using other prepared material. . .”
Not a Monster
Another man, a performer, told me: "Don't picture Godfrey as a monster. He's just another guy with some faults. Maybe he acted up lately because of the physical and mental pain of the hip operation.
"I remember while he was in the Boston hospital he had a direct wire to the control room of his shows. He called frequently, raising hell over details, getting everybody a little crazy.
"But one morning he called and asked if the McGuire sisters had sung yet. They had. Arthur said he must have slept through it. Could they possibly sing again? Everyone thought that was charming. The girls sang again, for him.
"Godfrey honestly believes he has retained his basic humility. Of course, he hasn't. It would be impossible in the gold fish bowl he lives in. This is his idea of humility."
And the performer told about a visit he made to the 2,000-acre Godfrey farm in Leesburg, Va. On leaving, the performer said, Godfrey told him: "Look, it's all right to mention your visit down here on the air. If you want to, you can say you came down in my plane and swam in the pool. But don't talk about the luxury of the place."
A couple of nights later I caught up with the "abused" Walter Murphy, who used to be Godfrey's publicity man at CBS.
Still a Great Guy
Sure, Godfrey fired me," he said, "for reasons I won't go into. But I still think he's a great guy. I can't honestly think of a thing bad about him. He was always thoughtful and generous with everyone who worked for him . .
"Last year, he took the whole cast and staff—53 people—for a week of shows in Miami. He arranged the schedule so they'd have two workfree weekends there. The whole week cost $43,000 over and above the budget. Godfrey paid that out of his own pocket."
"Arthur Godfrey," said a woman who used to have dealings with him, "is the kind of guy who cuts you dead on Monday and on Tuesday hugs you and says, 'Long time away no see.' "
Lyn Duddy, who writes music for the Wednesday night show, “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” met me for an interview, which, as far as I could tell, had not been "cleared" first with CBS.
"Godfrey is no tyrant. He allows his performers to make outside appearances. He just wants to be sure those dates will be good for them and not hurt his own shows. What's more, he gets them 10 times more money for these outside dates than they'd get with their own manager and he plugs these dates on the air.
"Listen, he's gotten recording contracts for every member of his cast. This guy stays up nights thinking of ways to make things more pleasant for his people. When the cast has to watch a film of the previous week's show, they don't have to do it in some uncomfortable studio. Godfrey rents a hotel dining room and they watch and eat at the same time . . ."
Mad About Publicity
At this point in the interview, the three Mullen sisters, who sing in an eight-member group on the Wednesday night show, joined us. They were indignant. "We're mad," said Mary Mullen. "All this nasty publicity. It's time somebody spoke up for Arthur."
I said I had tried, without success, to talk to other members of the cast in an "uncleared" interview.
"Maybe they're confused," said Kathleen Mullen. "Maybe they don't know when to talk to the press. But we're ready. We've worked for other people. We know how nice Godfrey is.
"There's been so much nonsense written about the ballet lessons we have to take. There's a very good reason for them. Most of Godfrey's performers have come from radio. The dancing lessons help give them physical poise and a sense of movement.
"He's only doing this for his performers. He frequently tells us, 'Look, kids, I'm only doing this Wednesday night for you. For me, it means only six cents on the dollar. The rest goes for taxes. I'm only trying to get you to do it right. You're the ones who'll look silly. Not me.' "
How They Feel
Although I was never able to catch up with better known Godfrey performers for an informal interview, I did talk with other members of his organization. This is the substance of what they said:
The rule against individual press agents and managers was a good one to avoid "confusion, the wrong kind of publicity and the wrong kind of outside work;" they were free to choose their own lawyers; far from being an aloof tyrant, Godfrey frequently was available for help and personal advice;
When Godfrey said most of his performers lacked "real talent," his cast didn't resent it because they knew he was referring to lack of long experience, not talent; although Godfrey is the star, he is the last to rehearse his own numbers—"He's more interested in seeing that the kids look good;"
Godfrey has an "uncanny first sense" of what's good or bad about a number; the Godfrey "family" is really a happy family but what group of actors doesn't have fights now and then?"
By this time I felt I had spent a week umpiring a ping-pong match. Confused by conflicting opinions, I finally sought out Godfrey himself. Though he seemed under great strain, he limped all the way around his desk to shake my hand, firmly.
"I've been sick in my soul since the papers started kicking this thing around," he said. "Look, I have no talent, I've nothing in God's world, only integrity. I've always played it that way. Why are they kicking me around for that word 'humility'?
Explains 'Humility'
". . To me, it's a kind of a sacred word. When I say a man is humble I'm thinking of him now as an Abraham Lincoln or something like that. I wasn't being hypocritical . . . As long as people have it, to me it's greater than talent."
Does Arthur Godfrey have humility? His answer:
"As Walter Winchell says, when you think you have it, you have lost it. Do I have humility? I doubt it. I doubt it. . . But all I ever wanted was that these kids should not lose that certain something they had when they first came in here."
Godfrey said he was “shocked” and “broken-hearted” to learn that some of his people feared him. He told his cast:
"Why are you afraid of me? There's only one thing you need to be afraid of—and that's a bad performance. Get it out of your head. I'm not after your hide. . ."
In the excitement of rehearsals, Godfrey told me, he may bawl out "the big shots, the directors," but never "The little kids." He said he frequently finds he thinks of himself as "their father and frequently has to act like one."
He said he regards himself more as a developer of talent than a performer.
The thing that hurts him most, he said, is that he no longer feels like himself on the air, that he "untrue" to his audience.
"I have to go out there as though there were nothing rankling in my soul. I can feel those people out there asking me, come on, tell us what this is all about. But everybody around here (CBS) tells me to shut up, don't talk. Be careful.
"Why not talk? I haven't done anything wrong . . . Sure, I wouldn't fire the boy that way again. I know now that was wrong. But at the time I thought it was the right thing . . ."
Their Interests at Heart
Godfrey said his performers can have their own managers and make outside appearances. But he only wants to be sure they don't get slipped into "some cheap honky-tonk" or some "Communist- inspired benefit which would hurt them and hurt our show."
He said he never insisted that any one in his organization use his lawyer. The only reason La Rosa did, he said, was because he asked for help in preparing his income tax return.
I asked Godfrey if he had any idea why some people dislike him intensely. He thought a moment, and said:
"It all depends. Advertising people may hate me because I've been rough with the jerks who write the fantastic claims in commercials . . . Press agents sneaking around here for some phoney deal? Yeah, they hate my guts. Song pluggers? Yes, they’ll have met because I insist on picking songs myself. . .
Lost in Shuffle
"Maybe someone got lost in the shuffle . . .Maybe in a busy day, you step all over a lot of people without knowing it. But it was never done intentionally."
I was ready to leave when Godfrey said. "Just tell me this, if you will. Is there anybody working for me now who said those lousy things about, me?" "No," I said after some thought.
"You don't know what you've just done for me," Godfrey said. "It's wonderful. I feel like crying."
There were tears in his eyes.


  1. Shortly after he fired LaRosa, Godfrey also fired his musical director, Archie Bleyer (who signed Julius to his Cadence records contract almost two years before). By April 1955, he also eliminated Marian Marlowe, Haleloke, The Mariners, and three writers [including Andy Rooney] from his staff.

  2. LaRosa spent a lengthy period in the 1960s and 70s as a disc jockey on WNEW-AM in New York, which was the city's popular standards station, and whenever LaRosa was mentioned, the Godfrey story automatically followed. Didn't matter outside the NYC market, but since the NYC market (along with L.A.) tends to drive pop culture, LaRosa's history with Arthur stayed out there in the spotlight without turning into a mere footnote to Godfrey's career.

  3. Replies
    1. Kathy, with all due respect, I vote no for monster and yes for human being....

  4. It's actually been suggested that the Godfrey controversy may have inspiredthe 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd, as starred Andy Griffith as a small-time bum who gets recast into a "just-home-folks" type of radio and TV host, eventually becoming rather popular--but at a price, and with an ending calling to mind that Urban Legend about kiddie-show host "Uncle Don" letting slip some Bad Words on the air when he thought the microphone was switched off, eventually having to be let go.