Wednesday, 18 January 2017

More Than Norton

It shouldn’t be, but it’s still a little surprising to learn Art Carney regularly appeared on radio and television before he was Ed Norton on The Honeymooners. He was a cast member on one of Henry Morgan’s radio shows as well as Morey Amsterdam’s variety series on the DuMont Network.

Before that, he was known more as an impressionist than a straight actor, a talent he never really got to exercise once he got locked into the Norton role. When Carrney died years later, it was revealed Franklin Roosevelt’s office had once asked a radio producer if Carney could stop doing his impression of FDR so people wouldn’t think the President of the U.S. was actually on the show.

Here’s a piece from Tune in, a magazine based, like Carney, out of New York. It’s from the May 1946 edition. The story is unbylined, so perhaps it’s from the CBS publicity department.


ART CARNEY is a young man with a job that many a free-lance actor would give his eyeteeth and ten years of his life to have. It is the only position of its kind existing in any of the four large networks. Art is the only actor who is a regular salaried staff member of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
As anyone who has gone through the exhausting throes of becoming a radio artist can tell you, the hardest part of attaining prominence is getting established with the network producers. It is a long tale of auditioning, getting interviews with producers and directors, and beating out a shoe leather symphony between advertising agencies and network offices. After some small encouragement, you spend all your time and ingenuity reminding the producers that you do exist and are available for a little work. When you are in demand there is a vast amount of dashing about to be done to cover your assignments at the networks. You worry about your publicity or lack of it. In some cases, an expensive item in your budget is a publicity agent who gets a fat fee for keeping your name in print.
That, in brief, is largely what the radio artist faces as he strives for success. Only Art Carney of all the legions of actors has succeeded in by-passing all that struggle.
Art has a seven year contract with CBS which requires him to appear on any of the network's sustaining programs (that is, unsponsored shows) as he is needed. For this, he is paid a regular weekly salary, In addition to this, his contract permits him to accept and be reimbursed for any roles on CBS commercial shows as long as they do not conflict with his assignments on sustainers.
So he has not only the regular weekly paycheck of which all actors dream, but also a chance to make extra money and an assurance that he will be heard with enviable regularity on the radio.
How did he get this way? Well, the secret of Art's success lies in his versatility. First of all, he is a first class mimic. His impersonations of Roosevelt, Willkie, Eisenhower, Fred Allen, Winston Churchill are masterpieces. He can master a voice imitation in as brief a space as half an hour. He actually had to do this once with a recording of Elmer Davis' voice for a role on "Report To The Nation." Then, he is a competent straight actor—from the beginning of his career—a natural for radio. He is accomplished at dialects and character roles.
How does he do financially as compared with free lance artists? Better than most of them, not quite as well as the top-flight ones. But don't forget this point—there are very few at the top and even those few have no definite static income. After all, everyone has slow weeks. Art can have a slow week and still bring home the bacon. If he does a lot of commercial shows in a week, he says, "It's just gravy for me."
Art began his career in high school. His excellent imitations merely amused his classmates but gave an elder brother Jack, a radio producer, the idea that this young fellow was meant for show business.
Jack had him audition for Horace Heidt in 1937, soon after Art was graduated from high school. He toured with the band for about four years with his own comedy act. The next two years he spent in announcing for the "Pot O' Gold" program and acting in vaudeville and the theatre in and around New York.
CBS gave Art his big break when he was hired to do an imitation of Roosevelt's voice on "Report To The Nation." Following this initial appearance, the CBS directors formed the habit of using him regularly on various shows. One October day in 1943 the attractive seven year contract was flashed before him and he wasted no time in signing it.
One of his frequent assignments was on the program called "Man Behind The Gun." Coincidentally, a man behind a gun was just the role the Army had in mind for him too, and in January 1944 he landed in the infantry. He returned to civilian life and his unique contract in November of the following year.
"Columbia Workshop," "School Of The Air," and "Behind The Scenes at CBS" are a few of the sustainers which keep Art busy. When not broadcasting he is making recordings which are put to good use in his study of voices. Newsreels, movies, and radio shows are also used as references to perfect the Carney impersonations.
Art is a fairly happy man. Only once in a while (perhaps because all actors have roving souls) does he cast a mildly envious eye at the fat roles that free lance actors can land by being available to all four networks. At present, though, he's content to be a familiar part of the CBS scene and enjoy the rare security he has attained.

1 comment:

  1. I read long ago about his radio work...:)SC