Wednesday, 24 May 2017

No, It's Not Ted Collins

Silliness? Really bad puns? Parody? It was all wrapped up in one radio show that hopped about among various networks in radio’s Golden Age.

The show was “It Pays To Be Ignorant.”

It seems I write about this cockeyed quiz programme every two years. You have no doubt read posts from May 2013 and May 2015. So here’s another one.

My big lament is that most of the versions of the show circulating on the internet have poor audio quality or are AFRS copies that don’t have network IDs and commercials. And it’s not a show I’d recommend for binge listening (which, to be honest, I don’t recommend to begin with). But it’s fun to groan along with, and it’s enjoyable to find a show that doesn’t take itself seriously. Neither did the sponsor, at least in the days on Mutual. The show was picked up in 1942 by Piel’s Beer. Broadcasting magazine revealed “Ignorant”... being promoted by Piel salesmen this month, who are making their calls wearing large paper dunce caps. In the spirit of the show also, the brewing company's commercials are based on the "apologetic theme", stating that the program "is the best the company could find" and Piel's "hopes its listeners won't be offended", etc. Agency in charge is Sherman K. Ellis & Co., New York.
Here’s an article about it from Radio Life magazine of February 15, 1944. There are brief biographies of the panel and host as well. Oddly, the show was on two networks at the time, but it left Mutual for Columbia at the end of the month, replaced with the Army Air Forces Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Harry Bluestone, and taking the place of “The Philip Morris Playhouse” on CBS.

It Pays To Be Ignorant
By Shirley Gordon

Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
WHO SAYS there's nothing new under the sun?
If you are one of that growing group of radio dialers who is beginning to be worn ragged by the endless barrage of quiz programs that prove to be poor imitations of "Information Please," you will find just what you're looking for in "It Pays to Be Ignorant," the new half-hour comedy show heard each Tuesday night on KHJ, and also being featured indefinitely as a part of CBS' popular Friday night "Kate Smith Hour." It's a quiz show to end all quiz shows.
Burlesquing the usual programs of this type, the cast of this new laugh spot includes interlocutor Tom Howard and a trio of judges, George Shelton, Lulu McConnell and Harry McNaughton. Their routine runs very much as follows:
Curtain opens on board of experts in the midst of deep intellectual discussion:
1st Expert: "What d'ya think he did—he tried to pass off a lead half-dollar on me!"
2nd Expert: "The dirty crook!"
3rd Expert: "What did you do with it?"
1st Expert: "I bought this tie."
This week's literary offering from these noted educators:
"Little Bo Peep
Has lost her sheep
And don't know where to find them . . .
Leave them alone
And they'll come home.
. . . Lamb chops!"
Dean of Misinformation, Mr. Tom Howard, submits the question of the evening to the board:
"What great president was the city of Washington, D. C. named after?"
The board of experts, with furrowed brows and drumming fingers, sinks into deep concentration of thought.
"No help from the audience, please!" Mr. Howard exclaims hastily with a warning gesture. "Now, let's all concentrate," he urges his experts.
The experts look dubiously at one another.
"Would you kindly repeat the question, please?" they finally request of Mr. Howard.
Mr. Howard obliges.
The board remains puzzled.
D. C. or T. C?
"Did you say D. C. or T. C.?" they question.
"Could it be Ted Collins?" one suggests, Mr. Collins being a prominent figure on the Kate Smith show.
"He wasn't president during my time," a co-expert points out.
"Why did you put that D. C. in the question?" another expert asks of their interlocutor. "You're trying to confuse us!"
"D. C. stands for District of Columbia," Mr. Howard patiently explains.
"Oh, then it's something about Christopher Columbus!" exclaims one enlightened expert in delight.
"Why wasn't he president?" asks another.
"He must have been a Republican," opines the third.
The board once again emerges into the deepness of thought. There is a period of suspenseful silence; then one of the esteemed experts clears his throat to speak.
"What was the question again, please?" he asks.
"Why was Columbus made president?
As one can readily see, "It Pays To Be Ignorant" is a reverse of the orthodox procedure on question -and-answer shows. The judges are as much baffled as the audience, as they try not only to answer the puzzlers but also to find out what the questions were in the first place.
Such profound inquiries as "What great American general lies buried in Grant's Tomb?" and "What radio singer with initials K. S. has a theme song called 'When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain'?" are gravely pondered by the learned foursome.
The questions they will or will not answer, depending on their mood of the evening, are submitted in writing from the audience instead of in person, as previously done on their own show.
When interlocutor Howard asks "What comes over the mountain?", the answer he gets is "Hillbillies!" When Howard persists, and patiently hints, "What comes over the mountain at night?", the reply comes readily: "Drunken hillbillies!"
All four members of the cast of "It Pays To Be Ignorant" are veteran performers. Tom Howard, born in County Tyrone, Ireland, has a theatrical career that goes back to 1905 when he decided that vaudeville acting was nice easy work paying fine dividends. He started at the Dreamland Theater in Philadelphia for the munificent salary of $15 a week, playing a dozen performances a day. That led to other engagements which finally brought him to Broadway in the "Ziegfeld Follies," Joe Cook's "Rain or Shine," "Greenwich Village Follies" and "Keep Moving."
Then Howard found a partner in George Shelton, to form the team of Howard & Shelton, a standard vaudeville act for many years. The team also made a number of motion picture shorts, some 55 in all, which brought them nationwide attention and fame. With the advent of radio, the team went on the air, appearing on many programs for the past decade.
Shelton, born in New York, started his career with a tent show in Iowa. He had worked out an act featuring a Dutch accent, but soon learned he had to broaden his repertoire by reason of doing a different act each night. Turning to blackface with a Southern drawl he encountered difficulties, for the Dixie drawl came out with that same old Dutch dialect.
From the tent show Shelton went on tour with a repertory company for five years, and then saw service in World War I. After the war, he toured Germany with a show, then returned to America for vaudeville dates. He replaced Bobby Clark in an act called "The Merry Wives of Windsor," and after that ran into Tom Howard and decided to team up.
The other two expert "ignoramuses" have had equally long careers in the theater. Lulu McConnell, the only woman in the show, has been on the stage in one capacity or another since she was four years old. Born in Kansas City, she was an established musical comedy star by the time she was sixteen, and has been featured in a number of successful Broadway shows, both in stock and in musicals. She takes some pride in having discovered Jack Oakie. Celebrities she appeared with included Eddie Cantor, George Jessell, Lillian Russell, Anna Held, and Willie and Eugene Howard. She says she likes answering the questions put to her on "It Pays To Be Ignorant" because it gives her a chance to use some of the same old jokes she has been using for years. "And," say Lulu, "they still get laughs!"
Harry McNaughton, best known to radio audiences for his seven-year run as Phil Baker's English butler, "Bottle," is the only member of the "Ignorant" cast bearing the distinction of having been a prisoner of war. In World War I he was captured by the Germans and so badly beaten he still bears facial scars.
Currently celebrating his 25th anniversary in show business, McNaughton comes of a long line of English theatrical artists. His father was lessee and manager of the Adelphi Theater in London, and his uncles were music hall favorites for many years. His Broadway career includes appearances in more than 30 productions.
In 1929 he was making a film at the Pathe Studios in New York when fire broke out. McNaughton jumped out of a window with a helpless chorus girl in his arms, both of them escaping with minor injuries although several people were burned to death in the blaze. The chorus girl, now a distinguished actress, was Constance Cummings.
And in case you still want to know who's buried in Grant's Tomb, ask them and they'll doubtless reply, "We don't know; we don't go to funerals."


  1. Of all things, though, the staid and starchy BBC picked up the show, with an all-Brit cast, and called it "Ignorance is Bliss." It ran for a good few years in the late 40s and early 50s. The one clip I've seen online makes it very clear what the source material was.

  2. I thought the "who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" question originated on "You Bet Your Life."

    I've heard a few "Ignorant" episodes - it plays like a cross between "Information, Please" and "Can You Top This?" Most of the jokes directed at Lulu made fun of her size.
    Most interesting item in that article was Harry McNaughton's story, especially that he had been a POW. Seems like Harry, like his countryman Arthur Treacher, had been typecast as butlers; I heard his 1951 summer series "It's Higgins, Sir," where he played a butler who gets "inherited" by an American family. (11 years later, it came to TV as "Our Man Higgins," with Stanley Holloway in the title role.)

    1. No, it did not. I suspect it came from a Joe Miller book or something like that.
      From the script of Yip Harburg for "The Mayor of Hogan's Alley" on the Everready Hour, WEAF, Feb. 19, 1929:
      Inspector—What great general is buried in Grant's tomb?
      Immigrant—General Motors.

      Here's a 1928 version from a newspaper column edited by J.P. McEvoy:

      FIRST CITIZEN: What famous General is buried in Grant's Tomb?
      SECOND CITIZEN: Let me see . . . has it got five letters in it?
      SECOND CITIZEN: Does it start with G?
      FIRST CITIZEN: I think so.
      SECOND CITIZEN: Don't rush me (thinks deeply). It isn't Hannibal, is it?
      FIRST CITIZEN: No; but you're close.
      SECOND CITIZEN: I give up.

    2. Thanks. Some jokes will never die...