Sunday, 20 August 2017

She Knew the Walking Man

Jack Benny was a proud cheapskate on his radio show. In real life, he was generous. But he was only indirectly involved in one of the nicest give-aways in radio history—a windfall to a lonely widowed senior citizen.

Truth or Consequences was a show where people performed demeaning stunts on stage in front of a chortling crowd to win prizes. But it also conducted a few contests where listeners could win a cascade of goodies by correctly identifying a sound from new clues every week. In one famous series of broadcasts, footsteps were heard made by “The Walking Man.” The Walking Man turned out to be Jack Benny. And the contest winner was a widow from Chicago. To make things more heart-tugging, the whole thing was tied into a publicity campaign for the American Heart Association.

The winning phone call was placed on T or C’s March 6, 1948 broadcast to Mrs. Florence Hubbard. (You can view a very nice roundup of the preceding events on Martin Grams’ blog). What happened next? The June 1948 edition of Radio and Television Mirror magazine had an in-depth report, supposedly written by Mrs. Hubbard herself. The photos below accompanied the article.

We wrote about the contest on this blog five years ago. She died in Dallas on November 30, 1977.

I Walked into $22,500
For Radio Mirror, the year's favorite Cinderella tells the story behind those famous words that named The Walking Man

By MRS. FLORENCE HUBBARD
THAT day — the day that will always in my mind be "that Saturday" — no dramatist could have set the stage for sharper contrast.
Chicago's weather (and I can assure you that even the natives, though they put up a good front, suffer from it) was really going full blast. That biting wind, carrying rain and snow in from Lake Michigan — how it cut!
And, I must confess, even before I finished my day's work at Carson Pirie Scott and started out to fight the weather on my way home to the Chicago suburb of Austin, I was tired. Saturday's the big day at any department store, and after all, I'm 68! But it wasn't so much physical tiredness as . . . well, just weariness. The salesgirls in the casual clothes department, where I worked as a checker, were many of them just youngsters and the vitality with which they rushed off to their weekend fun, after the hard day's work they'd put in, made me the more tired by contrast.
And Saturday night, after the bustle of the day, is a pretty lonely time. When my husband was alive, even after the 1929 crash, there had been friends to see, guests in the house, plenty of exclamation points to brighten up a week or a weekend.
I scolded myself as I climbed to my little two-and-a-half-room apartment at 48 North Waller Avenue. I still had friends, good ones and enough of them; I had my work— and if I hurried a little I could be out of my wet clothes, through with a steaming hot bath and ready to hear Truth or Consequences by the time it came on. That was enough excitement for anyone— for surely tonight would see the end of the Walking Man contest. It had been going on for ten weeks; everyone was talking about it. I had already sent in thirty contributions with my twenty-five word reason for supporting the American Heart Association, and if need be I could think of thirty more reasons. I have a special interest in the Heart Association, you see it was a heart attack that took Dr. Charles from me, thirteen years ago.
I just about had time to fix myself a plate of chop suey and turn my radio to WMAQ, before Ralph Edwards came on. I don't remember whether or not I ate; I guess not, because just the excitement of hearing Ralph Edwards lead up to the phone call was very bad for digestion! As I waited and listened, it almost seemed as though I could feel everyone around me listening too— people in the next apartment, upstairs, down the street. I guess half the country was listening, at that, for the tension as Mr. Edwards began to make his call seemed to come from all around, to be right in the air and not just in me. . . .
And then, like a scream of excitement, my own phone rang.
People have told me what happened next. I knew my own name, thank goodness, well enough to tell Ralph Edwards when he asked me. And I certainly gasped "Jack Benny" when he asked me to name the Walking Man. But I can't remember another thing, though everyone else heard Mr. Edwards say, "You're not going to cry on me, are you?" and I must have answered something to that. About all I really recall is the shriek my neighbor gave: "Mrs. Hubbard won! Mrs. Hubbard won!" It came through the walls at me. And it was like a signal for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and an old-fashioned election night rolled into one.
Austin is a quiet little suburb of Chicago, and my street is a quiet little part of it. But not that night. Neighbors, reporters, photographers, friends, and a couple of thousand complete strangers seemed suddenly to have fallen from the sky. In fact, inside of twenty minutes the Austin police sent around two squad cars of officers to try to keep the strangers at least from breaking down my door. I wanted the neighbors there. And who could possibly have kept the reporters and photographers away?

MY LITTLE apartment buzzed like a hive and seemed about to burst its seams. On and on rang the telephone; someone would answer it, and then off it would go again Flash bulbs popped, hands moved me from chair to phone, sat me down, stood me up — "Just one more, Mrs. Hubbard. Smile now. That's right — show you're excited. Are you going to Hollywood? What difference will this make in your life? Are you going to keep it all? How're you going to pay the $8,000 income tax on the stuff?"
Do you blame me for being just a bit flustered?
My heart was beating like mad. I guess I even cried a little, I don't remember. They told me later I'd gone on saying "It's wonderful. I never expected it. Nothing like this ever happened to me before!" That was true — I never had expected anything so wonderful, ever. And when I began to make sense out of what I had won, I knew nothing like that had ever happened to anyone before. Just look! —
A home laundry, consisting of washer, drier and automatic ironer.
$1,000 diamond and ruby watch.
New four-door Cadillac sedan.
Gas kitchen range.
16mm. motion picture sound projector and screen, with a print of a current film to be delivered every month for a year.
Two-weeks vacation for two at Sun Valley, Idaho, all expenses paid.
$1,000 diamond ring.
Vacuum cleaner with all attachments.
RCA-Victor console FM and AM radio-phonograph combination and television set.
Gas refrigerator.
All-metal Venetian blinds for every room in the house.
Paint job for the house, inside and out.
Complete wardrobe for every season of the year.
15-cubic-foot heavy duty home or farm freezer filled with frozen foods.
All-metal Luscomb Silvaire standard 65 airplane.
Installation of ceramic tile in kitchen and bathroom.
Furniture to fill dining room and two bedrooms.
Deluxe trailer coach with modern kitchen and sleeping quarters for four.
Typewriter.
$1,000 Persian lamb coat.
Aluminum boat complete with outboard motor.
Piano.
Two years' supply of sheets and pillow cases for every bed in the house.
Choice of $500 worth of electric home appliances.
Electric blanket for every bed in the house.
Three suits apiece for every man in the immediate family.
Desk console electric sewing machine.
One thing, though, I was sure of. I was Cinderella, and this was — what else could it be? — a fairy-tale, but I knew that essentially my way of living would go on being the same. I'd be at the store, if they wanted me, on Monday. And Hollywood? Only if I could be spared from my job.
It was Mr. Pirie himself, John T. Pirie, descendant of one of Carson's founders, who gave me the answer to that question. He outwaited that ringing phone, and sometime — it must have been very late — he got through to me, and said that I absolutely was going to Hollywood to meet Ralph Edwards and be on the show, and with Carson's blessing.
Oh, how tired I was when I finally closed the door on my last visitor. And oh, how happy! Someone, somewhere, had certainly waved a wand over me. How different this weekend was from the one I'd toiled my way home to!
Sunday was really a most thrilling day. Out of everywhere, out of nowhere, came old friends to see me, people I'd been out of touch with for months, sometimes for many years. They had heard the program and came to congratulate me, and we talked on and on about old times and had ourselves a wonderful time. The relaxation was a welcome let-down after all the excitement.

AND Monday, with one detour, I went downtown to the store as usual. The detour was to see an eye specialist, for the exploding flash bulbs had left me with "Kleig eyes." Like a Hollywood celebrity! But I found when I got to the store that there was no question of work. All my friends were lined up and waiting, and you can't pretend the kind of happiness they all felt for my good fortune. I knew every one of them rejoiced with me. I knew, when they said "Mrs. Hubbard, we're so glad for you," that they meant it from their hearts. And my own . . . well, my own was pretty full.
Then came one of the biggest thrills I've yet had. The store gave a big, glamorous, exciting luncheon — for me! With Bruce MacLeish, Mr. Pirie, and the other executives, as well as my co-workers, all sharing my good luck with me, I felt like more than Cinderella I felt like a queen. And then, as a really final answer on whether or not I was going to Hollywood, Carson's gave me new luggage and a complete, wonderful trousseau for my trip. Now I had to go!
By the time I'd fought my way through the crowds — and some more thousands of people had turned up to jam Carson's just as they'd crowded my apartment the night before, so that special police had to be called again — I knew I was really tired. Thanks to my nephews, I escaped in time to get a little rest. They took me to a hotel, and rest and relax I did. Also I did some planning for the big adventure ahead — my three-thousand-mile trip to Hollywood.
Never having been West before, I decided not to fly but to go by train, to see as much of the country as possible. And to make it last as long as possible, and arrive as rested as possible, not just any train, I discovered, would do for me. No indeed; my covered wagon was to be the dazzlingly famous Santa Fe Super Chief! And luckily, I'd have company on the trip. Virginia Marmaduke, Chicago Sun-Times reporter who seemed by this time like an old and dear friend, had been assigned to come along with me, and I was told that I could have a traveling companion of my own choice as well. I chose Mrs. Albert C. Dodds, the daughter of my dearest friend.
"Rested" wasn't, after all, exactly the word for the way I felt when I stepped off the Super Chief. I'd had time to rest, it's true — time to rest, to chat with Virginia Marmaduke and with all the nice people on the train who were so excited and happy for me. But I was too excited to be really rested. Besides, I kept turning over and over in my mind one thought: "Florence Hubbard, you've got to be practical about this! Just exactly what are you going to do with all those prizes? What are you going to do with two rooms of tile work, for instance? Or an airplane, for goodness sakes! Somebody's sure to ask you, so you'd better make up your mind what you want to keep!"

I THOUGHT there'd been excitement enough in Chicago to last a normally quiet-living woman like me for the rest of my life, but I just didn't know what excitement was until we got to California. Just like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, it was, but don't think I didn't enjoy every minute of it just the same! I wonder, looking back on it now, where on earth I got the energy, the get-up-and-go it took to do everything they had planned for me, but I certainly had a reserve of it stored up somewhere — and I tapped that reserve right down to the dregs!
When I got off the train, there was a big crowd of people, and everyone shook hands and congratulated me and everyone introduced everyone else so fast I couldn't possibly get any of the names, until I felt as if my head might begin to whirl 'round and 'round and eventually fly right off. But fortunately I was rescued — there was a big and shiny limousine waiting — with a chauffeur to drive me! — and I was whisked into that and we drove away.
"Where are we going now?" I asked Virginia.
"To a very famous Hollywood restaurant," she told me, "to have lunch with Ann Daggett and Mac St. Johns — they're the Hollywood editor and managing editor of Radio Mirror Magazine, and they're going to help us get together the Hollywood part of your story for Radio Mirror."
About that time we pulled up in front of the restaurant, and I found out that it was called L'Aiglon. That sort of made me feel at home, because we have a very nice L'Aiglon restaurant in Chicago, too. Somehow it was extra nice to have my first luncheon in Hollywood there — bridged the gap between the known and the unknown I told Ann and Mac, when I met them.
They were as nice as could be to me, and explained they'd help me all they could with my story, because they knew even better than I did how busy I was going to be in Hollywood.
Right after lunch, "Next stop, Ralph Edwards' Truth or Consequences office in Hollywood," Virginia told me, "to get all the arrangements made."
"What arrangements?" I asked.
"Well, there's your appearance on Truth or Consequences tomorrow night," she said, ticking them off on her fingers, "and you're going to be on the Jack Benny Show Sunday, and — "
"Will they tell me what to say?" I asked anxiously.
I needn't have worried. Mr. Edwards made everything so clear about my part in the program the next night that I began to have the feeling that I'd been in this business a long time, too! And then, when the arrangements were all made, there came that question I'd known was coming.
"Mrs. Hubbard," he asked me, "have you made up your mind what disposition you're going to make of all those prizes? Of course, there'll probably be some you can't, or don't want to use. What do you think?"
I found that, somewhere along the line, I had made up my mind — at least about most of the prizes.
"I'm not going to take up flying at my age," I told him, laughing. "So I guess I'll sell the airplane. And the Cadillac, too. And the sound projector and screen — none of those seem to fit into life in a two-room apartment in Chicago. As for those two rooms of tile work — "
"We can fix that up for you," Mr. Edwards said. "Let's solve that problem by sending you a check for the labor costs of installing the tile. As for the tile itself, you can dispose of that any way you see fit."
"My nephew, Eber Hubbard, will know what to do about that," I told him. Honestly, I don't know what I would have done without Eber! It's a mighty handy thing to have a lawyer in the family, I always say, and when the lawyer is a good businessman, too — well, that makes it doubly handy!
"The fur coat," I told Mr. Edwards, "I'll certainly keep. My old one has seen better days, and those Chicago winters of ours really call for a fur coat! And I'll keep the television set — now I'll be able to watch the fights, and I love them. And the electric blanket will come in handy on cold nights."
I suppose a lot of people feel the way I did about radio programs — everyone sounds so relaxed and pleasant on the air that you're likely to get the idea that putting on a big network program is a simple business. What a completely wrong idea that is, as I found out on Saturday!
Not only did we rehearse for the Truth or Consequences program, but for the Jack Benny Show the following day as well. We rehearsed and rehearsed — but everything went off well, I think. At least, both Ralph Edwards and Jack Benny said it did. In fact, after the broadcast on Sunday Mr. Benny paid me the nicest compliment ever.
"You performed just like an experienced trouper," he told me. "In fact, you almost stole the show!" Pretty strong words from a man like Mr. Benny to a rank amateur like me!
I had a lot of fun on that program, and everything was so well-planned that it made answering the questions easy. For instance, he asked me if I were thinking of getting married again, now that I had all these things that go to make up a home.
"No, now that I have all this, I don't feel that I need a husband!" I told him.
"But won't you be lonely?" he wanted to know.
Right there I remembered one of the phrases they had used earlier in the program, and I answered back, "Lonely — but loaded!" and had the wonderful experience of hearing the studio audience roaring with laughter.
After the program, Mary Livingstone put her arm around me and told me that everyone was so happy that such a nice person had won the contest. "Chicago couldn't have a better representative," she declared.
I felt tears start into my eyes, and what I said to her in answer came straight from my heart. "Everyone has been so wonderful to me! I don't believe this fairy story could come true in any other country but America, do you?"

I WENT, right after the broadcast, to Ralph Edwards' beautiful home. We had tea before the fire in the Edwards' lovely early American living room, and I met Mrs. Edwards — she immediately insisted that I call her Barbara, and brought the three charming children in to meet me, too. Christine is five, Gary two-and-a-half, and baby Lauren just eighteen months old. Christine surveyed me solemnly and I apparently passed muster, for she broke into a big smile and assured me that she was "awfully glad you guessed the Walking Man!"
The rest of the time spent in California was hectic but absolutely wonderful. On Monday, for instance, I was taken over to the Paramount Pictures lot. I met a very charming blonde girl there and we snatched a moment to sit down and chat. I told her how tired I was from all the rushing here and there and the excitement, and she was as sweet and sympathetic as could be. In a few minutes she said she was pretty busy herself, and had to leave. After she was gone, I asked, "Who was that?"
And what do you suppose the answer was? "Veronica Lake!" I guess she is pretty busy!
Tuesday I did something I'd been promising myself I'd do — something I thought of myself, and wanted to do with all my heart. I drove down to the Long Beach Naval Hospital and saw and talked with some of the veterans. Believe me, an experience like that makes the other things that happen seem pretty trivial to you.
Later in the week, San Francisco was on the itinerary. Then one day in Los Angeles for a round of goodbyes — and I really felt as if I were taking leave of old friends.
As for that Sun Valley vacation — two weeks with all expenses paid — that was one of the prizes, as I told my nephew, "I've gone so many places and seen so many things, I think I'll postpone that for a while, until going someplace will be a real treat to me again, and I can enjoy it to the fullest."
So now I'm back in Chicago — back to my old life, my old routine — but perfectly contented and happy with it, let me assure you. Somehow, I don't think I'll ever be lonely again. I've learned that people are good and kind and wonderful, and I have too many things to live over in my dreams, too many delightful experiences to remember, ever to have time for loneliness again!

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