Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A John Crosby Roundup, January 1949

Radio columns in newspapers during the ‘30s and ‘40s consisted of puff profiles and “what’s on the air tonight” pieces. Any critical comment would, for the most part, would be found in the industry press.

Then John Crosby came along.

Much like Henry Morgan, Fred Allen and Bob and Ray, he thought radio was pretty inane at times, with too much bending over to sponsors, agencies and networks. While the aforementioned gentlemen satirised the situation, Crosby made his opinions known in a matter-of-fact column, sometimes dripping with ridicule and sarcasm, that was published across North American through the New York Herald Tribune syndicate. In fact, one radio station magazine in the Midwest subscribed to the service and printed select Crosby columns every month.

One of those things I’ve wanted to do on the blog is reprint full weeks of his columns. It’s difficult in that, sometimes, Crosby talked about specific broadcasts heard once when they aired, and that I haven’t found time to transcribe them. But we’ll do it today.

Crosby wrote four times a week. Below are the columns for January 3, 4 and 5, 1949; the dates were picked at random. I’m saving the January 6th column for later (to be honest, I thought I had already transcribed it).

By this time, the number of stations and programming hours was slowly, but steadily increasing, but much of America still had no access to television. Even in New York City, many people had to go to a bar or a friend’s place or pass by an electronics store if they wanted to watch something. Things changed, thanks to someone named Milton Berle. His Texaco Star Theatre on Tuesday nights became a sensation, and people who lived in an area where they could pick up an NBC signal rushed out to buy a set. Crosby’s January 4th column is a look at a bygone day, when people crowded a pub because it had—wonder of wonders—a television set. By the way, Dennis James was probably DuMont’s biggest star at the time, calling wrestling matches and hosting a giveaway shows for dear old mothers (similar to Tom Brenneman on the West Coast and Johnny Olson on ABC radio). Morgan’s sponsor pushed shaving blades with the slogan “Pull, pull, click, click.” Morgan didn’t hesitate to tell listeners how stupid that was. “Instant suds,” I think, is a reference to a product called Super Suds.

The January 3rd column examines the silliness of commercials (I presume either the dancing Old Gold cigarette packs hadn’t appeared on the tube yet, or escaped his notice). He also looks incredulously at what producers of a radio show called Hobby Lobby required.

The final column has Crosby being facetious about another New York columnist and adding a couple of brief items. He makes reference to the Fred Allen show’s on-air promise to pay anyone who missed a jackpot-winning phone call from Stop the Music! because they were listening to Fred (the two shows aired in the same time slot).

The fourth column, coming soon to a blog near you, involves a rebuttal against criticism of radio comedy writing.

January 3, 1949
Television Commercials Ridiculed

One of the things we'll have to get used to on television is the commercials. This will take some doing and don't think your experience in radio is going to be much help. Television is a new field, kiddies, full of limitless possibilities for assailing the eye and ear simultaneously.
On television they demonstrate the darn things—the magic start your car gets from the gasoline, the instant suds, the click-click pull-pull. The other day on Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald's new television program, they demonstrated an orange. I didn't think there was anything about an orange you can demonstrate, but there is. Something called a Hurdy Gurdy—I think that was the name—orange was squeezed in competition with another orange described by Ed Fitzgerald as a "nondescript" orange. Guess which won ?
THIS, I THINK, is going too far. In the first place I'm against brand-naming an orange. It's all very well to say one soap powder is 200 per cent soapier than another soap powder; it's quite another to start picking on a defenseless orange because it hasn't got a sponsor. An orange, even a nondescript orange, is one of God's little growing things and to say it has one-third less juice than a Super-Squeeze is a form of prejudice. Like saying the Italians sing better than the French. If an orange has a weakness—one-third less vitamin B, less locked-in goodness—let's for politeness sake refrain from mentioning it.
AS A MATTER of fact, I rather liked that nondescript orange. It didn't have as much in the bank—underprivileged orange, probably—but it had a meek and winning air. Bet it tasted better.
Another thing you'll have to get used to in television commercials is smiling. A smile isn't hard to take under normal circumstances but these aren't normal circumstances or normal smiles. The faces of girls almost break in half when they get their first glimpse of Hassenpheffer's Corn Starch. They behave as if they hadn't eaten in weeks. And the men are worse. You've never seen bliss until you've seen one of these television male models take his first whiff of a Philip Morris. Instantly he is transported. His eyes glaze with happiness. He smiles from his forehead to his elbows. Even marijuana, I bet, hasn't that effect. Not the first puff, anyway.
The sponsored smile, I predict, will lead to a decline in the popularity of unsponsored smiling. After an evening with your television set, you won't feel up to it.
A COMIC STRIP CARTOONIST who earns roughly $750,000 a year recently agreed to appear on the Hobby Lobby program to discuss his hobby, which, it appears, is the drawing of his comic strip. At the last moment he was handed a contract. Just a formality, the man said. It was quite a little formality, he discovered when he read it. The contract demanded that he cede to Hobby Lobby the use of his name and photograph and any material he handled on the program for use in any advertising or publicity used by the show or by the sponsor.
He was also asked to grant to Hobby Lobby the story of his hobby, or any references made to it, for publication purposes for five years.
The contract further demanded a copyright on any statements made by the cartoonist concerning his comic strip before, during or after the program and the right to use or publish them any way the producers of Hobby Lobby saw fit.
To put it briefly, the cartoonist was asked virtually to sign himself over to Hobby Lobby for five years. He didn't sign the contract or appear on the program. This particular cartoonist has appeared on about seventy-five radio programs and had never previously been asked to sign any such thing or, for that matter, to sign anything. I've been on quite a few myself and I've never been asked to grant any such rights.
What's going on, anyhow?

January 4, 1949
Research on Saloons

Television, possibly the greatest innovation in saloon life since women were allowed in the place, has had a calming though not necessarily uplifting effect on barflies. Fewer fights. Less boisterousness. Hasn't increased drinking noticeably pr decreased it either. But there's a funny thing. If the television sets disappeared suddenly saloon business would drop sharply.
These are not my opinions but those of Tom Galligan, a bartender on Third Avenue where television has spread like cancer. Saloon television is a different experience than home television and naturally there are different tastes. The barflies like some sports (not all, though) and variety show. They don't like movies or dramatic shows. Fact is, says Galligan, the drinkers like something they can watch or not watch. Dramas and movies demand sustained attention. Hockey isn't at all successful either. Too fast to follow. The kids like basketball but the grownups only tolerate it. Too much work on the eyes. Everyone likes boxing and the Friday night fights always bring out a good crowd. (Of course Friday is pretty good bar-night anyhow). There's a funny thing about fights, says Galligan. Television doesn't throw a hush over the bar except after a fight. Then, when the round-by-round decisions are announced, silence blankets the place. Most eyeryone's got a side bet and, of course, this is important business.
The Louis-Wolcott fight brought out the biggest crowds in Third Avenue saloon history. In one place, a woman fainted in the crush. Had to be carried out, says Galligan. Folks thought she'd been drinking too much. Fact is she couldn't get to the bar to get a drink. Probably been all right if she had.
Television has changed the patronage around a little, not necessarily for the better. More wives in some places, though not in Galligan's. More youngsters— the coke crowd—everywhere. Some spots a crowd of young kids who look as if they never saw the inside of a saloon troop in Tuesday nights to see Milton Berle—great favorite of all classes, by the way—and troop right out when it's over. One coke apiece is usually the limit for this crowd.
Galligan never heaves any one out because he doesn't drink. "This is a public place. People got a right to come in if they want to. It's like the tradition of the old inns where travelers were always welcome." He played host once to a couple of six-year-old kids during a fight. They behaved fine.
One thing celebrated in cartoon and story isn't true at all, says Galligan, Customers don't fight over what program they want to look at. Occasionally there's an argument between the wrestling crowd and the boxing crowd. Boxing crowd always wins by sheer numbers. Wrestling fans are still a minority (though a noisy one) and a good thing too. Mostly though, the barflies like and dislike the same things. They like Berle. They don't like Ed Sullivan. They like Dennis James. They don't like movies. Barflies, says Galligan probably never been in such complete agreement about anything since saloons were first opened.
You never quite know what s going to catch the popular fancy, either. The roller derby was a huge success with the drinkers. People who had never heard of a roller derby before were going around talking like experts after the affair was over. Another thing about television makes it completely different from radio or the jukebox. There's never been a program so bad the customers rise in a body and demand the damn thing turned off. "They like to get something for nothing, even if it's bad," Galligan explains.
Galligan is quite a television fan himself these days. When he's off duty, he likes to wander into other bars and watch the television. He doesn't have the time to relax and enjoy it in his own place.

January 5, 1949
Earl Wilson Plays Earl Wilson

Earl Wilson, who describes himself as a saloon reporter though you're likely to find him almost anywhere, took up acting the day. Wilson played himself on the “Boston Blackie” program (WOR 8:30 p.m. E.S.T. Wednesdays) and turned in a creditable, coherent though hardly brilliant performance as Earl Wilson.
He didn’t, for example, approach the Henry Kemble-Drew performance at Drury Lane in 1826, the most luminous Earl Wilson in my memory (which is longer than you think, Bub); he hadn't the emotional grasp of the Earl Wilsons which endowed the John Wilkes Beerbohm portrayal with such fluorescence at the Belasco in 1899. He even fell short of Otis Gielgud by about a foot and a half. (If the linesmen want to measure that, go ahead). Still, there haven't been any other Earl Wilsons nearly as good in years and, I should say, he’s a man to be watched. Don’t let him out of your sight.
The columnist didn’t just bob and out of this drama either. He stayed right in there on the spoor of the person who murdered Leila, most beautiful model in Christendom. (Murderer turned out to be the second most beautiful model in Christendom. Jealousy.)
In fact, Earl Wilson [photo to right] added the only note of suspense to as dreary a script as was ever written. Would he go up in his lines? Was he going to miss his cues? What was going to happen after the second most beautiful model in the world shot him in the end (Take ya dirty hands off that, copy desk.) How was "The New York Post Home News" going to explain that? Turned out all right though. He didn’t fluff anything and the model, it developed, was firing blanks.
Viewing the whole operation as judicially as possible, I’d say that it added a new and precarious element of suspense to detective fiction. You wonder at and worry about the performance of the columnist and who cares who done it? As a curiosity it wasn’t at all bad but I don’t think I’d like to see the idea spread. Competition being what it is in radio, we’d soon have all-star casts —Winchell barking at the D.A. (Danton Walker), Dorothy Kilgallen resisting strangulation, Hedda Hopper shooting it out with Elsa Maxwell. There hasn't been such an ominous trend in murder fiction since Gypsy Rose Lee started writing it.
Speaking of trends, a number of other small, alarming ones have appeared. Five hundred movie houses throughout the country have signed up for a big super-jackpot jingle contest—$100,000 a week in prizes—to lure back some of the customers who stay home waiting for a give-away program to call up. Betty Grable isn’t enough any more. Neither is Van Johnson. People aren’t interested in sex unless they get a Frigidaire along with it. Incidentally the movie houses are copying Fred Allen. They’re insuring movie-goers against the possibility of missing a radio prize when they’re at the movies.
Two small items were unearthed in a recent nation-wide survey by the Broadcast Measurement Bureau at great expense to advertisers and the broadcasting industry. Five million radio sets in the United States are out of order. Most exasperating fact and the hardest and most expensive to track down: In certain sectors of the rural South there are almost no radios.
A television movie of a fashion show now doing the rounds features ladies' hats with built-in radios. The girls can now do their shopping without missing a syllable.

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