Showing posts with label John Crosby. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Crosby. Show all posts

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

TV Firsts

Ah, TV trivia! Where would we be without it?

Perhaps the first concerted effort to keep track of TV trivia in the modern age (1948 and later) was on page 39 of Weekly Variety of July 26, 1950. The cockeyed information caught the eye of syndicated columnist John Crosby, who took it easy in his August 1st newspaper piece and simply summarised what he read in Variety. That may have been a first, too.

One of the things mentioned in the Variety column that the writer felt would make a nice surprise in a refrigerator commercial would be “Ed Sullivan frozen in a block of ice.” I couldn’t help but think of the 1961 Paramount cartoon “Cool Cat Blues,” featuring an ersatz Sullivan frozen in a block of ice. Did the great Irv Spector, who wrote the cartoon, see the Variety piece and file it in the back of his head for future use?

Alas, the frozen Sullivan (how would anyone know he wasn’t?) suggestion didn’t make the cut in Crosby’s column. Neither did something Variety recorded that was on television at the time—the TV camera that drank a glass of Schaefer beer between innings of the Brooklyn Dodger games. I’d like to have seen that commercial.

Radio In Review
BY JOHN CROSBY
Variety Salutes Television
VARIETY'S current issue contains its annual salute to television, roughly 14 pages of complaints, criticisms, predictions and assorted laments about TV contributed by the deep thinkers of the R.C.A. building and Hollywood. I hurriedly skip over the large-scale observations, which are too sweeping for my small-scale intellect, and pass along to some of the more minute perceptions.
H. Allen Smith, for example, reports that he has watched 3,212 icebox doors open, only 3,210 of which were subsequently closed. Two were left standing open. Mr. Smith suggests that they get a little suspense into it. When a door swings, there should be some sort of surprise—a copperhead poised for the kill or Groucho Marx leering from behind a beer bottle.
THIS IS such a fine suggestion I'm afraid it will be adopted. Not the copperhead, though. There will be four bottles of beer there, singing that old folk song, "Piel's Light Beer of Broadway Fame" at you. Then a can of Hunt's Tomato Sauce, doing a soft-shoe dance in the deep-freeze unit, will tell you what it does to a flounder. The possibilities are endless.
Some one score years ago, George Bernard Shaw used to complain that about two-thirds of the average movie consisted of opening and bedroom doors. But the movies matured. The actors graduated from the boudoir and began opening and closing taxi doors, shouting "Follow that cab!" Now, we are in the icebox door age, but already there are rumblings of change. The automobile door is getting the play. ("Notice the easy finger-tip action, the vibromatic swing of this fine, all-steel hydro-active door, exclusive with the Blodgett.")
For my money, the best door-opener in the business is Miss Betty Furness, the Westinghouse Girl. When she opens a frigerator, she gets her whole body into it, not just her wrist. She's also the most polished oven-door opener now operating. Another year and she'll be ready for a Cadillac door.
ANOTHER Variety essayist, Hal Kanter, of Hollywood, scripted a little ode to television's unsung pioneers. Milton Berle, Mr. Kanter points out, is the first man—Hey Nonny, Nonny—to kiss his own hand in front of a television camera. Mr. Berle is also credited by Mr. Kanter with launching the "Check your brains and we'll start even" joke on TV, a notable first.
Ed Sullivan, says Mr. Kanter, blazed another trail when he showed the industry "you can entertain an audience at home by photographing audiences in a theatre. Mr. Kanter, a diligent historian, also salutes the first technician to walk in of a camera at the most dramatic moment of the play; the dress designer who designed the TV neckline, thus adding a new dimension to the industry; and the first English film, "Tiffin on the Thames," to be seen on TV. This picture, he pointed out, may be seen tonight on Channel 2, the following night on Channel 6 and twice on Sunday on Channel 11.
Another noted Hollywood scholar, Manny Mannheim, contributed easily the most exhaustive paper yet written on the subject of scratching and shaking on TV; (Mr. Mannheim first won renown with his searching study of cigarette choreography on TV.) Ken Murray, Mr. Manheim points out, is a top-of-the-head scratcher, an action that comes just before the straight line and just after Mr. Murray has flicked his cigar.
WHENEVER Ed Sullivan is momentarily at a loss, (Mr. Mannheim continues) he scratches his right eyebrow. Mr. Sullivan, he notes, is a switch scratcher. Equally adept with either right or left hand. Milton Berle is another eyebrow scratcher, but a delicate one, just a flick of the finger. Mr. Berle is also a back-of-the-neck man. Bob Hope,a television novice, seems to be troubled in the same areas as Mr. Berle--back of the neck and eyebrow, whereas Ed Wynn, the itchiest man on TV, is an all-over man. Close behind Mr. Wynn comes Abe Burrows, who scratches his forehead, top-of-the-head and back-of-the-neck.
As for handshakers, Berle, Mr. Mannheim notes, is the warmest host. He shakes hands both before and after the girl sings a song. Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Murray shake hands only afterward. They're all put in the shade, says Mr. M., by a Chicago m.c. who shakes hands before and after, pummels the guest in the intervals and occasionally kisses them.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

TV Cliches

There’s a reason TV sitcoms of the ‘60s featured a wife who was a witch, a Martian crash-landing in suburbia, an astronaut with a genie and a car that had been someone’s mother. Everyone was tired of what had come before on TV and radio, over and over and over again.

I’m afraid I’m not a fan of most situation comedies from radio’s Golden Age. Plots are contrived. Characters don’t react the way anyone really would. There were exceptions, of course. The best shows manage to avoid or overcome those faults, generally through great acting and dialogue.

Critic John Crosby was no fan of radio’s (and, later, television’s) triteness and he apparently found a kindred soul in one of the industry’s writing fraternity. He summarised some all-too-familiar basic sitcom plots in his column of July 3, 1955.

Comedy Writers Deserve Spanking
By John Crosby

NEW YORK—I read in “Variety” that Lou Derman, a comedy writer, has told off his fellow comedy writers, and high time, “The lush days of comedy writing that began with radio and carried over into television are approaching their zenith—and why?” asks Derman plaintively.
And then goes on to answer his own question. “We deserve a spanking, the whole pack of us. We've allowed our shows to become unbearably dull, repetitious, predictable, wild and sloppy. We've ignored the public mood. A public that's tired of watching story in and story out about—
“Bringing the boss home to dinner and forgetting about the wife's birthday and getting into this disguise so husband won't recognize me and is my wife killing me for her insurance policy? And did he forget my anniversary? And the old boy friend and the girl friend and let's make him think he's going crazy and bringing the boss home to dinner.”
Well, of course, that's by no means all the situations. There's the other one—and how could Derman have forgotten it—about bringing the boss and the boss's biggest enemy home to dinner the same night and having to serve them in separate rooms, husband and wife dashing back and forth, eating like crazy.
Or how about the guy who takes a potential customer to lunch, the potential customer being a very pretty girl, and pretty soon the news is all over Oakdale that Jim Hughes was seen with . . . Could we conceivably do without the matchmakers—the husband and wife who are trying to pair off old Uncle Jim and the widow next door who makes such good humpelfingers?
Or how about the wife who cracks up the car and is trying desperate stratagems to keep her husband from finding out. Or the husband who wants to go on a fishing trip with the boys and the wife decides she's going to go along this year. Or the guy next door who has bought his wife a mink coat and good old Jim hides it in his closet and then Jim's wife finds it and thinks Jim bought it for her and . . . . Or the wife who wants to learn how to play poker and wins all the money.
Or the father playing baseball with his son and he breaks the neighbor's window and runs like a thief. Or the teenage girl who wears mother's diamond clip to the school prom and loses it and . . . . Or 13 year old Johnny whose superior intelligence bails his father out of that mess at the country club. Or the idiotic secretary who by sheer imbecility traps the most dangerous bank robber in the whole world.
Or ... well, that's enough. Anyway they are going to be tough to get away from those old situations. The decline in comedy writing or, at least, its sameness, has driven NBC to attempt a nationwide search for new comedy writers. More than 1,000 aspiring young comedy writers leaped to the call and submitted comedy material. At least 30 writers were considered to be promising enough to have been asked for additional material.
If they unearth one Robert Benchley, NBC will have done very well. Maybe even that is asking too much. If they could unearth just one situation comedy format in which the husband and wife don't even know the people next door and have no intention of meeting them, it will have been worth while.


By the ‘60s, producers got the idea that if you start with an outrageously ridiculous premise, like seven castaways with endless amounts of clothes on a desert island, the audience will accept any kind of plot and characterisation, if the writing is clever. That attitude brought some of the best-loved TV of a couple of generations ago.

Monday, 17 March 2014

A Portrait of Fred Allen

When Fred Allen died on March 17, 1956, there was a great outpouring of respect for his work—and a few attempts to tell the story of the “real” Fred Allen.

Allen didn’t have the reputation as a warm man. He wasn’t someone audiences could really identify with like Jack Benny, or, rather, the character on radio Benny played. People tuned in to Allen to hear him turn a phrase or stick it to deserving targets, like politicians and radio management.

Radio columnist John Crosby was a great admirer of Allen’s, perhaps they both hated the triteness, phoniness and incompetence of the radio industry, both on and off the air. Both were based in New York. Crosby interviewed Allen a number of times and got to know him pretty well. Here’s his tribute to Fred Allen, the person, in his column of March 21, 1956.

Tribute Paid To Kindness of Fred Allen
By JOHN CROSBY

NEW YORK, March 21-- Under a dour exterior, Fred Allen was the kindliest man imaginable. Swarms of out-of-work actors descended on him regularly for handouts which were never refused. There was one actor who put the bite on him every Sunday after church. One Sunday the guy didn't show up and Fred got so worried he went looking for him.
The radio feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen was legendary, but actually the two men were close friends and their admiration for each other was boundless. But this didn't prevent them from heckling each other unmercifully on stage. Once Benny was appearing on the Paramount stage and Allen sat in the front row and hurled one witty insult after Another at his old friend. After one quip, Benny, non-plussed, waved a $20 bill at the audience and offered it to anyone who could top Allen's last gag. Instantly Allen was on his feet, topped his own gag with a better one, and walked up and claimed the $20.
Fred was a wit's wit. There is not a humorist alive who did not admire him extravagantly, but none imitated him because they couldn't. His was a wonderfully original and well-stocked mind and he had the gift of bringing two frightfully irrelevant things into the same sentence. It was the humor of the ludicrous and a very penetrating wit it was but it does not reproduce well.
His humor was very much of the moment. I remember having lunch with Fred once just after the first atom bomb had gone off at Bikini and had proved to be a bit of a dud. I asked him if he'd heard the broadcast and he said, "Yes, nothing disappeared but the OPA." Well, the OPA had gone out of existence that weekend and it was a very funny remark then, but it doesn't make much sense today. I bring it up only as an example of the way Fred could take two totally unrelated subjects and combine them into one fast quip.
Even his prose style defied imitation. He had a horror of cliche and every sentence that came from his lips hid a newly minted freshness that was unique, even among very literate men. To him, even "hello" or any other ordinary salutation was a cliche and he avoided any form of routine greeting. He'd greet you, on say, a hot day with: "It's so hot out I could take my skin off and sit around in my bones."
In his early days he billed himself as the world's worst juggler and he just about was. He'd keep dropping the Indian clubs and to cover his confusion he'd make wisecracks that would convulse the audience. Actually, Fred was the last of three great American humorists who started the same way. The other two were W. C. Fields, who was a little better juggler than Fred but still no world beater, and Will Rogers, whose rope act was pretty fair, but not much better than that. All used wisecracks to cover their inadequacies with the props and grew into national institutions.
Fred's death came as a particularly terrible shock to me because he took such very good care of his health. He didn't drink or smoke and his diet was of such austerity that rabbit would find it dull. In fact I always thought he'd live to be 103. He had high blood pressure and he had consulted so many doctors and read so many books on the subject he knew more about it than they did.
Any sort of new medical fad would receive his most earnest attention. Once in Florida he stumbled on a cult that believed in fasting as a cure-all for everything. People subsisted on nothing but distilled water for weeks. Fred was fascinated by the project and its effect on the patients.
He was a very simple liver. For decades, although he was a millionaire, he lived in a little apartment on West 38th St. He used to eat lunch every day at the corner drugstore. He never owned a car and never learned to drive. It wasn't parsimony; it simply that luxury didn't mean anything to him. He never got away from the common people and he had a wide acquaintanceship in his little neighborhood with delicatessen store proprietors and local cops.
His kindliness was fabulous. Once a delicatessen store proprietor, a friend of his, lost his liquor license because gamblers had been hanging out there. Fred bought the place, got a liquor license in his own name and turned it over to his friend to run. At the time of his death he was working on his autobiography and he kept looking up old friends of his vaudeville days for material. Every time he found one of these old chums, most of them down on their luck, it cost him the price of a new suit. He loathed sham of any sort and he considered the broadcasting industry, which made him famous, full of it. He always regarded network executives as overgrown office-boys and he was incessantly battling them.
"If the United States can get along with one vice-president, I don't know why NBC needs 26," he once said. Among his other pet dislikes were Hollywood and Southern California. "It's a nice climate," he remarked of California, "if you're on orange."
He also took a dim view of agents and he once remarked of his agent: "he gets 10 per cent of everything I get except my blinding headaches." Years ago Fred was a pretty good drinker, averaging a bottle a day. The day prohibition was repealed he stopped drinking entirely, claiming that he'd drunk so much poison that the good stuff would probably kill him.
The end was sudden. As John Huston remarked after the death of his death: "He was too good a man to be sick. When the time came, he just died."


NBC took a bit of time for their own tribute to Allen. It came on the hour-long sustaining programme “Biography in Sound.” It was first broadcast on May 29th then rebroadcast on December 18th. You can hear the later broadcast by clicking on the arrow. It was written by Earl Hamner, who later created “The Waltons.” I believe the staff announcer giving the ID at the end is Mel Brandt.








Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Gagging on Gags

Imagine one week you’re starring on your own show, and the next week you’re a supporting player on a show that’s taken your time-slot and sponsor. That’s what Louise Erickson had to endure.

It was no surprise, though. Billboard announced in its August 21, 1948 issue that Tums had purchased Alan Young to replace Erickson’s “A Date With Judy.” Judy’s contract ran until January 4, 1949. On January 11th, the Young show made its debut on NBC, costing $8,500 to produce, compared to $4,700 for “Judy.”

In a way, it wasn’t a debut. It was another in a series of shows featuring Young as a clutzy, eager young man with a girl-friend hinting at romance one minute and exasperated at his antics the next. Erickson joined Doris Singleton and Jean Gillespie on the list of actresses playing his suitors. It was a concept that was neither new to Young, nor to radio. Young was already busy. He was co-hosting a variety show with Jimmy Durante, having walked from “The Texaco Star Theatre” in March for not giving him enough air time. And he found time to get married to singer Virginia McCurdy in Tijuana during the run of the show.

How long Erickson stayed on the show is buried in newspapers or radio columns I haven’t uncovered. Broadcasting of March 22nd reported she had rejoined the cast of “Meet Corliss Archer.” The New York Times radio listings for April 26th list Shirley Mitchell in Young’s cast instead of Erickson. “A Date With Judy” returned to the air in the fall on another network (initially without a sponsor). George O’Hanlon took over July 12th as Young’s summer replacement. But Young never returned. The Times’ TV listings grew slowly over the course of 1948 and 1949, with new stations and longer programming days, as well as expanded networks. That’s where the stars were going and that’s where Young went.

Newspaperdom’s best-known radio critic may have been John Crosby, and he got to the bottom of what was wrong with Young’s radio show, which was written by Dave Schwartz, Artie Stander and Joe Young (Bob Fisher joined the staff in March). The column appeared in papers beginning April 18th. You’ll note the sly reference to Don Wilson’s best-known sponsor of the day. Young’s competition, by the way, was “Mr. and Mrs. North” (CBS), “America’s Town Meeting” (ABC, simulcast on TV) and “Share the Wealth” (Mutual). He was the lead-in for Bob Hope.

RADIO IN REVIEW
By JOHN CROSBY

NEW YORK—The Alan Young show (NBC, 8:30 p.m. EST Tuesdays) is described in NBC press releases as situation and gag comedy, which is exactly what it is.
The situations aren't bad. The gags are awful. That doesn't mean necessarily that Young is batting .500. Some of his shows are almost all gags and his average sinks to .019. Others are almost all situation comedy in which case his batting average is more respectable.
Young plays the part of harassed, earnest, dewy-eyed young man, a sort of contemporary Harold Lloyd, who wants to be an actor and hasn't got anywhere. He has an agent named Ed Brady who steals his clothes and gambles all his money away on the horses. (The starting gate usually comes in ahead of Brady's horses.) He has a girl, Betty, who adores him but whose parents don't. She has a small, cynical brother who views his sister with the detachment of small, cynical brothers. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't, it? Well, it is.
The one original note in the Young show is struck by Jim Backus, who plays the part of Hubert Updike, the biggest snob in radio. Updike, a wealthy young man whose accent is a parody of Harvard's, gives away all his folding money because the creases spoil the pictures, and likes to stroll in his garden to give his flowers a chance to smell him. He has blue jaundice. (You can't get it in this country. He had to send abroad for it).
Over the years Updike has developed a number of other eccentricities. He had to sell his new Cadillac because the tune played by the horn fell to No. 3 on the Hit Parade. And once he knocked a pedestrian 250 feet and had him arrested for leaving the scene of an accident.
Backus, who plays this highly flavored young man, is easily one of the best stooges in the business. I just hope they don't make a featured comic of him. You have to take Updike in small doses.
I'm also rather fond of the young brother, a perceptive little brat. Once when Young was scheduled to leave town and wailed that this would remove him from the sight of his girl friend's beautiful face, this youngster informed him that her eye lashes came off, her red cheeks came off, her lips came off. "I can put it in a box and ship it to you," he said.
There are a couple of other stooges—Nicodemus [Stewart], a colored man who sounds like his name, and Mr. Beagle, a nasal New England type who sounds like all the other nasal New England types! Young, in fact, is in danger of being overwhelmed by his own stooges. He's a personable and likable young man, but in this show he has surrounded himself with so many spicy characters he is easily the dimmest member of the cast. As to those terrible gags, if you want don’t want to take my word for it, here are some samples:
“Gamble all my money in a plumber’s shop? Oh, I couldn’t. I’m no plunger.”
“What do you want to be an actor for? One day you’re making love to Betty Grable, the next day you’re a has-been.”
“Yeah, but look where you has been.”
That’s enough for everyone?
One last word. Tums, which used to have the world’s worst commercials, no longer has the world’s worst commercials. Tums has Don Wilson in there pitching now and Wilson’s mellow voice—so round, so firm, so fully packed—is probably the only one in existence which can take the curse off all that chatter about acid indigestion.


Both Updike and Young went onto better things. Young won two Emmys for his early TV show, but later gained fame co-starring for six seasons with Mr. Ed and had a fine cartoon voice acting career. Updike was given a new name by a chap named Sherwood Schwartz and placed on an island with six other stranded castaways. And there he remains in endless reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” to this day.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Kinescopes Aren't Wynn-derful

Technology has supposed to have come far even within the last few years but, in some ways, it hasn’t. Just go to any video sharing site on the internet and you’ll find someone who taken their cell phone, pointed it at their TV monitor and recorded something. They used to do that in the 1940s, too. Except they used something called a kinescope.

Without getting into an involved history, Eastman Kodak came up with an invention in September 1947 to record images from a TV screen. There was no coast-to-coast circuit then and no videotape. Until both were developed in the ‘50s, any TV show that had been performed live and was re-broadcast was recorded on a kinescope. Network TV began in New York, meaning many shows were kinescoped there and shipped to stations in Los Angeles and elsewhere. For the record, the first show kinescoped in Los Angeles and shipped to New York was Ed Wynn’s CBS variety show. It was aired on kinescope on 14 stations in the east two weeks after the live broadcast on KTTV (still a CBS station at the time).

Wynn had seemingly been around forever when he landed on television; his first monster hit in vaudeville was “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1914.” He was hugely successful on radio in the early ‘30s and was so widely listened to, he begat legions of Ed Wynn imitators (Howie Morris was doing a Wynn-type voice in commercials as Mayor McCheese four decades later). The early TV industry liked Wynn; he won an Emmy in 1949. But his show wasn’t a hit. It changed sponsors from Speidel to Camels before the year was up and moved to a new time slot. The quality of the kinescope was blamed for the failure; Billboard reported viewers in the Midwest complained about the lousy picture. Wynn moved to NBC the following season.

Everyone’s favourite acidic radio critic, John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune, took a look at Wynn’s show soon after it signed on. He was kind to Wynn, whose routines must have been corny even when this review first appeared on October 25, 1949. Crosby was not so kind to Eastman Kodak’s recording device.

Radio In Review
By JOHN CROSBY

Perfect Foot, Imperfect Kinescope
Kinescope, or television recording, the process of filming a television show off the receiving tube, is almost never put on the air in New York where there are more live shows than sometimes seems necessary. Therefore, the arrival of the Ed Wynn show, the first kinescope entrant from the West Coast, was awaited with bated breath. Well, we all can unbate our breath now. Kinescope, to put it mildly, needs work.
On your home television screen, kinescope resembles a particularly decrepit Western or one of the old, old silents. But it’s not silent. The Wynn show, at least, is all-singing, all-talking, all-dancing, as they used to say of pictures back in 1928 when sound was new. There are only two shades on the Wynn show—black and white. There’s nothing in between. Also the film jerks unexpectedly in spots. Or else Ed Wynn has arthritis.
AT STAKE here is something much larger than the Wynn show itself which we'll get to in a minute. A lot of people, who are fastened by golden strands to Hollywood and pictures, would like to get into television via kinescope. Kinescope, if it ever gets any better than this, will mean that any city with a television station can enjoy first-rate shows, coaxial cable or no coaxial cable. It’ll mean that Hollywood with its hordes of entertainers and magnificent technical equipment can become capital of the television world as it is capital of films and radio. On the basis of the Wynn show, that day is pretty far away.
APART FROM its technical limitations, the show is as pleasant a half hour as you’ll find in television. It's nice to have Mr. Wynn’s extraordinarily disheveled profile, manic eyes, quavering voice and boneless, expressive hands in full view again. So many people have been helping themselves to Wynn’s material in recent years that he appears at times to be imitating himself. However, I'm happy to report that Wynn seems more at home with his own material than any of the other comedians.
His show is a remarkably unpretentions affair, consisting largely of Mr. Wynn. He tells those foolish stories, crackling with puns; he ogles the pretty girls; he drifts around aimlessly in his clownish hat.
While it doesn’t produce the boffolas of the Berle show, you’ll find it a good deal more restful and, in the long run, it may wear better.
LIKE THE WYNN shows of old this one abounds in sight gags. A man asks for a long-playing record and Wynn rolls out something the size of a wagon wheel.
“It ought to play about a month,” he explains.
Wynn gets tangled up in a phone booth, a comic bit too intricate to reduce to English. He confides to the audience that he is appearing this evening through the carelessness of his sponsor and that television, like crime, does not pay.
A lone guest star lurks about the premises every week. One of them was Carmen Miranda, whose exuberant countenance I find hardly credible even under the rest of circumstances. On kinescope, Miss Miranda looked as if she had just been disinterred.
ANOTHER GUEST was Mel Torme, the velvet fog, who came off somewhat better. Torme’s personality, incidentally, appears to have been completely redecorated in Hollywood.
When he left New York, he was a gangling youth, resembling an adolescent bullfrog. On television he was a poised, attractive kid and, most surprisingly, his face seems to have been redesigned from chin to hairline. Perhaps he just grew into it.
The Wynn show as a whole probably will please the old Wynn addicts, but I doubt it’ll create any new ones. Mr. Wynn is stacking the cards against him by appearing on kinescope.
I can’t quite understand why, either. Of all the entertainers in Hollywood, he is probably the most footloose and he easily could have come to New York and done the show live.


Television changed during the ‘50s. Variety was out. Wynn made the switch, too, faltering after 16 episodes of “The Ed Wynn Show” where he played a wily widower raising two granddaughters in a show that was part drama, part light comedy. But anyone who thought Wynn was just a giggling baggy-pants comic was truly mistaken. Wynn may even have shocked himself with his fine dramatic performance in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” on “Playhouse 90,” which led to his Oscar-nominated role in “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1958).

Wynn died of cancer in 1966. The kinescope died before that. Wynn’s death was mourned. The kinescope’s may not have been but perhaps it should be. The kinescope captured and preserved many television broadcasts we, today, would never have had the chance of viewing. Including Ed Wynn’s.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Playing With Dynamite and Other Games

If Aaron Ruben is remembered today, it’s for writing and producing “The Andy Griffith Show.” Like many writers in the first decades of television, Ruben came from radio. He’d written for Fred Allen and Milton Berle.

Ruben was brimming over with comic ideas, some of which wouldn’t quite work on radio or TV. So he sent them in as jokes to noted syndicated TV columnist John Crosby. Crosby wasn’t exactly a fan or quiz or audience participation shows, though there were a few off the beaten path like “You Bet Your Life” and “It Pays to Be Ignorant” that he reviewed favourably (a critic would be taking his life into his hands bashing Groucho Marx in print). So here’s Crosby’s column from March 22, 1954 where he passes on Ruben’s brainstorms and a funny exchange from the Groucho show. For whatever reason, Crosby didn’t reveal Ruben’s identity, though he must have known who Ruben was.

Readers Suggest Choice—Though Slighty Dangerous—New Shows
By JOHN CROSBY
My waggish readers, who brood over the plethora of panel shows, have been writing in suggestions again. In case you think there aren't enough panel gimmicks on the air, here are some ideas that haven't quite got on yet.
A man named Aaron Ruben, who has a strong streak of Charles Addams in him, has suggested a fine ghoulish game called “Up You Go.”
“This is a program in which you have a permanent panel of dynamitologists and bomb experts. A contestant is chosen from the audience and asked to disassemble a bomb. As the contestant goes about his task the members of the panel observe carefully and call out instructions. If the contestant ignores the instructions—‘Up You Go!’”
In case that game isn't exciting enough, Mr. Rueben has another one called “Out You Go” played in a studio at least 20 stories high. The contestant is shown a series of windows—one of them, the real thing, the others papier mache. If he is unfortunate enough to dive through the real one, the next of kin pay for the broken window. If he doesn't, he gets many handsome prizes.
Mr. Ruben, for the more intellectual crowd, has another on called “In You Go,” a thoughtful game in which lawyers and income tax experts closely quietly question the contestant about his personal life. If the experts are any good at all, they should be able to pin a criminal rap on him in no time. He gets to choose the federal pen he prefers.
Then someone else—I forgot who—submitted “Name You Mate.” This would be a rather highly specialized fame in which the contestants would be selected entirely from such folks as Tommy Manville or Barbara Hutton or other much-married folk. The idea would be to see whether they could identify some of their earlier mates, three or four marriages back. This one ought to be jolly fun, especially if—as is highly probable—they can't.
If you think these games are a little rough on the contestants, you just don't realize how durable contestants are these days. Not so long ago, for example, on the “People Are Funny” program, they pitched a contestant in a tank of water, threw live crabs in the water, and then threw lighted firecrackers at him. Just good clean fun. And down in Philadelphia, on a program called “Stop Look Listen,” Tom Moorehead, the emcee, just as a gag gave a startled woman contestant a live 4-foot alligator.
It's awfully hard to find anything a contestant won't do these days.
The surface has barely been scratched in the capabilities of contestants to bare their souls or their bodies to public gaze in order to win the free cruise to Bermuda where presumably the sun will heal any wounds left by the firecrackers.
And, of course, you just never know what a contestant is going to bare when he starts unlimbering his life story. Not long ago, Groucho Marx stumbled on 97-year-old Ed Ryan, a contestant on “You Bet Your Life,” who confessed that he was a technical survivor of Custer's last stand.
He had, he said, been left behind on that historic occasion to care for a sick buddy. Disgusted at being left behind and thereafter having avoided massacre, he deserted the Army and never went back.
“In other words,” said Groucho, “you've been AWOL for seventy-five years.”
Mr. Ryan allowed that this was true.
“If I were you,” Groucho told the white-bearded ancient, “I'd sneak back into that camp and keep my mouth shut. Of course right at this minute 200 colonels in the Pentagon are getting dizzy thinking of your back pay.”

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

More George and Gracie

George Burns and Gracie Allen were among the radio stars who jumped into television. They did it successfully, remaining on the air until Gracie had enough and retired in 1958.

There were a few changes when the show became visual. Harry Von Zell replaced announcer Bill Goodwin, son Ronnie played a role, and George chatted with the audience as if he were on a stage with his “life” going on in the background. But the show still focused on Gracie’s mangling of logic as the characters around her—as well as the audience—stopped to think “What did she just say?”

Syndicated columnist John Crosby had a look at the TV show—and he wasn’t all that happy with it. Then he took another look and felt a little better about it.

The first story appeared in newspapers on November 3, 1950.

More In Sorrow Than In Anger
Television makes me nervous from time to time and, in trying to track down this particular neurosis, I have reached something approximating a conclusion.
At least this is as close to a conclusion as I ever get. I get particularly jumpy when the old entertainers approach television for the first time. I sit there, palm sweating, hoping they’ll be good.
I consider this an imposition on my good nature. It’s really none of my business whether the old entertainers, the ones who were world famous in radio, are worth their salt (a word meaning $7,000) in television. Still checking around my small circle of friends, I find they do this too.
Radio is such an intimate medium that these performers become friends of the family. When they embark on TV, you feel pretty much as if they were your small son undertaking the Gettysburg address at commencement.
You hope to God he remembers his lines, that he doesn’t fiddle with his necktie and that he doesn’t fall flat on his face when he makes his exit.
I was struck with this nervousness particularly sharply by the Burns and Allen television debut. Now, George Burns, despite all evidence to the contrary, is one of Hollywood’s wittiest citizens.
Their opening show, I’m told, was three months in preparation. And I can’t understand what happened to all that time and all that intelligence. Not that it was a bad show.
In fact, it was a pretty good one. But it didn’t seem up to all that travail. The jokes were all on what you might call the middle level, as if Mr. Burns was afraid of going over our heads.
They were also, I’m afraid, familiar jokes, and here again I got the feeling that this was deliberate, as if Mr. B. felt that old jokes are soothing to old customers, that a new joke might upset our digestions.
If this is the approach Mr. Burns is using, I would like to register strong disapproval.
I feel affronted when I am treated like a backward child, and I have a hunch other listeners do too. The Burns and Allen television show is a carefully done replica of the Burns and Allen radio show.
In fact, the Burns and Allen radio program has been treated with a reverence generally accorded only to the restoration of public buildings.
As a gesture toward the visible aspects of television, the Burns had fragmentary settings of their house and the house of their next door neighbors who were, and always have been, important parts of the Burns and Allen plots.
However, the goings-on in these houses are exactly as they were in the old days. Gracie still befuddles door-to-door salesmen with her terrible innocence of all matters practical. George’s badinage with his announcer, Bill Goodwin, has not changed a syllable.
A lot of it was very amusing, but none of it seemed to belong on television.
One thing I’ve noticed about virtually all the old radio comics, newly transferred to television. They all talk too much. George Burns even acts as narrator on his show.
Well, of course, one had to have a narrator on radio to inform us that Gracie had just got back from the grocery store. But on TV, we more or less assume that Gracie has been shopping when she walks into the living room with a bagful of groceries.
Still, George insisted on telling us these plainly visible things. The only explanation I have for this strange behavior if that George Burns doesn’t really believe that television actually exists, that he doesn’t believe a picture is being transmitted, that he thinks the whole thing, in short, is a monumental hoax.
I say all this more in sorrow than in anger because I think Burns and Allen are two very gifted and charming comedians. And anyone who has ever talked to George Burns for 10 minutes will tell you that he is a very funny fellow.
I just wish he wouldn’t supress his wit so skillfully on the air.


And this is Crosby revisiting the show. The column is from May 8, 1951.

Small Apology And A Few Posies
I took a pretty dim view of the original Burns and Allen television show. Now I’m prepared to take it back. Well, some of it anyhow.
It struck me originally that Mr. Burns and Miss Allen showed entirely too much reverence fortheir radio show. In fact their TV show departed not at all from the old formula which the Burnses have lived on successfully for so many years.
These complains still are entirely valid. The Burns and Allen show (CBS-TV 7 p.m. alternate Thursdays) still resembles their radio show to a remarkable degree.
But I’m afraid it works rather well, much as I hate to admit it. George still opens the show with a bit of narration, setting the scene, as it were, just as if it were a radio show despite the fact that the scene is all set for him.
Still, he’s a pretty funny monologist and this little patch of radio is not at all hard to take.
Miss Allen always has been a favorite of mine because of her social and magnificent gift for feminine irrelevance.
Irrelevance, of course, is not confined entirely to Miss Allen, all women being pretty gifted in this direction. But Miss Allen is especially comforting to male listeners who have been drive nuts from time to time by their wives’ habit of wandering about a mile away from the point.
After listening to Gracie for a bit, you breathe a sigh of relief and reflect that the old girl isn’t THAT bad.
Most of Gracie’s gags are as visual as possible on the TV show.
Gracie, for example, reading a cookbook: “For best results, frankfurters should not be cooked long.” So she chops them up short.
Gracie is a menace whenever she dips her nose into a cookbook. Once she read that fairly familiar line: “Roll in cracker crumbs.” She rolled in them.
What, what can you expect from a girl who drives with the emergency brake on so as to be ready for any emergency? Or one who says: “Oh, that’s too bad. I hope he didn’t die of anything serious.”
Of course, a good deal of Gracie’s nonsense comes perilously close to horse sense. Gracie, for example, bedeviling a tax expert: “Where does the money go?”
“Well, for example, it helps pay your congressman.”
“Why not just list him as a dependent? You mean Republicans help pay Truman’s salary?”
“Yes, they do.”
“That’s certainly rubbing it in, isn’t it?”


Louella Parsons broke the story on February 19, 1958 that Gracie was retiring at the end of the TV season. Burns went it alone for a year with a revised situation. A heart attack claimed Gracie Allen six years later. Her humour still holds up, and will so long as you can turnaround words in the English language.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Lie Detector

A hundred years ago, people played parlour games at home. So what’s wrong with doing the same thing on television?

That’s the question I probably would have put to syndicated columnist John Crosby.

On radio, there were noisy game shows that were unnecessarily hyper and showered a cascade of goods on contestants who didn’t need to be too clever. Crosby somewhat sourly pointed out the shows’ lack of wit in several columns, much like Fred Allen was doing on his radio show as it played out the string. But Crosby did the same thing with at least one quiz show on television and I don’t necessarily agree with him.

Crosby aimed his disdain in his column of May 25, 1960 at “To Tell the Truth,” somewhat suggesting something more enlightening should be broadcast in its stead. But “To Tell the Truth” is just like an old-fashioned parlour game where people can use their own sense of logic to deduce an answer. What’s wrong with a pleasant little diversion involving a bit of mind-power?

Perhaps Crosby wanted a panel show akin to “Information, Please” with queries on fine arts mixed with popular culture. That show may have been a little more intellectually rarefied but always came across to me as dry; even a wit like Oscar Levant drones out his drolleries too much of the time for my liking. I’d rather take guessing games like “What’s My Line” and “To Tell the Truth” which feature interesting people and friendly interaction amongst the various panellists who are neither too urbane nor too low-brow.

Crosby’s critique does present something besides disregard. He gives us a little insight into talent screening on “To Tell the Truth.” However, his analogy involving Diogenes isn’t quite apt. While the lamp-bearing Greek continually failed to find an honest man, staff at Goodson-Todman found a truthful person in one of three contestants every time.

Television And Radio
By JOHN CROSBY

Chief Ingredient: Lying

One of the increasingly lucrative professions in what Walter Lippmann calls our purposeless society is time wasting. The great merchant princes of time wasting are Goodson & Todman, who have expanded time wasting into a commercial empire.
One of the flowers of this great empire is “To Tell the Truth,” which is the very model of a quiz show. That is: Empty-headed.
It requires nothing of the observer but the temporary exercise of his eyeballs. It’s cheap. That means it can sell cigarettes and beauty products at a marvellously small cost per thousand.
And it occupies a splendid half hour of prime evening time on an important network, thus successfully preventing that half-hour from being put to any important use, which is the highest aspiration of the time wasting profession.
Ah, when you think of 30 million pairs of eyeballs fixed on “To Tell the Truth” successfully getting through another half hour of eternity without a flicker of thought of a motion of the use of a muscle you realize the suburb achievement of the Messrs. Goodson & Todman in the fine 20th century profession of wasting other people’s time and charging them money for it.
Quiz shows, in the opinion of some philosophers, have supplanted the chewing of gum as the great nirvana of the masses.
Now then, the chief ingredient of “To Tell the Truth” is lying. That is, three people are gathered together, two of them to lies about who and what they are, to a panel consisting of Kitty Carlisle, Polly Bergen, Tom Poston and Don Ameche.
The Liemeister for the show is a man named Willie Stein, associate producer of the show. Years ago, before Congress took a dim view of the matter, we had schlockmeisters who gathered loot for the giveaway programs. Now we have liemeisters who gather liars for “To Tell the Truth.”
I don’t know what posterity is going to say about this—that a grown man could earn his living looking for liars.
Just as Diogenes went through the streets looking for an honest man with a lantern, Stein goes out looking for liars; but whereas Diogenes couldn’t find any honest men, Stein finds a lot of liars.
There’s a commentary on our civilization in there somewhere, but I haven’t time to look for it. Goodson & Todman have murdered time as Macbeth murdered sleep.
Anyhow, Mr. Stein was queried the other day about his curious profession, the procuring of liars. He’s an unlikely guy to be in such a job—an unassuming gentleman with a raging honesty.
“I hate dishonesty, although I teach liars,” he said. “I was always taught to tell the truth, because sooner or later the lies would catch up with me.
“We keep a file on all the people who want to be on the show. I got a wonderful letter two years ago from a woman who said her husband was the most wonderful man in the world—intelligent, handsome and a former Olympic champion.
“Today for the first time I had the right spot for him, so I called her. ‘We’re not married any more. You can call the bum if you want to. He’s not very smart.’”
Stein shook his head at the changeableness of women.
“Women are better liars than men,” he said. “We made a list of statistics and the women’s average is 65 per cent and the men's is 50 per cent. Children are the best liars.
“Some people are so intent on playing the game they forget who they really are. Now we give each guy a card with his real name on it. Twice already, people at the end of the show couldn’t think of their own names.
“I feel anyone can be taught to lie. I hate to say this, but I think the best educated people are the best liars. It’s not only what they’ve been taught, but what they’ve accumulated.
“We had a man on the show who had to pretend to be president of the Republic of Panama. By show time he knew more about the Panama Canal than the president of Panama.
“The worst liars are men and women between 40 and 50 years of age. They’re home life, their own reality, must be too important to them. They’re the worst imposters.”
Mr. Stein was asked how he felt about the state of television when so much creative energy went into creating such triviality as “To Tell the Truth.”
He said: “It’s sad. It’s hard to tell people just how much work and how much ideas you have to put into a panel show.
“I call my mother after each show and ask her how she liked it. She usually says, ‘It was o.k.’ It kills me when I think of the work I do just to make it o.k.”


“To Tell the Truth” has a nice, long jog on the airwaves. It debuted on December 18, 1956 and carried on until September 6, 1968. Then it returned in daytime syndication the following year and ran through most of the ‘70s. If millions of people wasted their time on it, they must have enjoyed doing it.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Hope of Radio

The tide of television slowly washed radio out of the living room in prime time. In the 1949-50 season, all four U.S. TV networks were finally offering evening programming seven nights a week. More shows made the jump from radio: “The Aldrich Family,” “The Life of Riley,” “The Voice of Firestone” and Ed Wynn among them. It was a matter of time—and TV sets in more North American homes—before most of the big prime time radio stars joined them. Milton Berle’s phenomenal success made it a matter of “when,” not “if.” TV had to be in the back of their minds as they once again trudged into the studio to read their rehearsed scripts in front of radio audiences.

TV was in the front of the minds of radio writers. By 1949, it had become a big enough part of pop culture to make jokes about it; certainly Fred Allen had done so before he ended his radio show in spring of 1948. That brings us to syndicated columnist John Crosby, who seemed to feel the whole radio industry had accepted its inevitable fate and was half-heartedly going through the motions. His example was Bob Hope who, oddly enough, never succumbed to the idea of a weekly show like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton and others eventually did. Hope survived for decades (thanks to an astute long-term contract with NBC) doing occasional specials, eventually racking up 64 years on radio and TV.

This column ran September 30, 1949.

Radio In Review
By JOHN CROSBY

Absent-Minded Comedians
BOB HOPE, the nation’s favorite radio comedian, devoted about half of his opening show of the season to wisecracks about killing radio.
“But radio so much more to offer things—like money,” he exclaimed with some wistfulness. There ensued a skit in which he was thrown out of his own studio by a television crew, then a gag about Milton Berle.
“You know Berle made a picture out here this Summer. I don’t know if he stole anything but the studio is now called ‘Warner Brother’.”
There was even one of those telegrams.
“Miss Ryan, ever since your face has appeared on bar-room television, our place is crowded every night. (signed) Alcoholics Anonymous.”
I don’t know who stole what from who, but Berle had his telegrams on the air an hour earlier the same night.
WELL, TELEVISION certainly is fair game for the comedians and we can expect a good many jokes on the subject this season. But I don't know whom the joke is on, exactly.
The opening of the Hope show, as well as the openings of a good many other big, popular radio shows this season, indicates that the comedians don’t think television is as funny as they are making out.
While these old-time radio favorites don't sound precisely alarmed, they do sound a little absent-minded, as if they were turning over their own television plans in their minds even while they were making jokes about the medium.
Radio may be with us for a long time to come—I certainly believe it is—but it seems to be in a state of paralysis. Most of the big shows that have reopened this season have a tired, frayed air about them.
THE WRITERS appear to have dished out their old, old material by some sort of involuntary spastic action that didn't involve the cranium at all. Their minds, like those of the comedians, seemed to be on other things.
The Hope show in particular emphasized that the nation’s favorite comedian is going to be a lot hotter on television than he is on radio. It opened, as it always has, with more noise than a circus, the audience trying to outshout the orchestra and succeeding very well.
The nation's favorite radio comedian came aboard and told three jokes in rapid succession about the outstanding romances of the Summer. “Boy, is Rita’s baby going to be healthy. I can just hear Rita saying: ‘Go ahead, Junior, eat your emeralds!’ And this Summer Jimmy Stewart got married. It was a novel ceremony. The bride said: ‘I do.’ And the groom said: ‘Oh, shucks!’”
There was another one about Stromboli, something to do with Miss Ingrid Bergman. I missed it.
THE BROADCAST ended with Mr. Hope, as some instinct told me he would, diving into the English channel and wisecracking his way to the white cliffs of Dover. Shirley May France is getting more publicity by missing her big chance than she would if she’d made it (Take note, press agents. The gallant failure hasn’t begun to be exploited).
Mr. Hope is assisted, as he was last season, by Doris Day, who sings prettily enough; by his announcer, Hy Averbach; by a Stooge named Jack Kirkwood whose trademark is the line: “Put something in the pot, boy” and who is quite a handy man for Hope to have around; and by Irene Ryan, a professional hypochondriac, whose act has worn a little thin.
As for Hope himself, I still think he’ll be a great man in television even if there isn’t any money in it.


Considering Doris Day’s huge career in movies, recordings (and, to a lesser extent, television), it’s odd seeing her in a supporting role rather than starring. But she wasn’t the only female vocalist who went on to bigger things than kibitzing with a radio comedian before and after songs; Dinah Shore (Eddie Cantor) and Peggy Lee (Jimmy Durante) did the same thing.

And it’s odd seeing Irene Ryan’s name in any context except Granny of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Though she had been in vaudeville with her husband Tim, she certainly wasn’t an old crone by the time she was cast as a member of the Clampett kinfolk. Hy Averbach later went on to a prolific directing career when TV graphics virtually killed the concept of show announcers.

You can hear an example of the Hope show from the 1949-50 season below. Jack Benny is the guest star.







Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Hollywood in New York

Radio stations in the Golden Age of the ‘30s and ‘40s had three sources of programming. They could create their own, of course. They could work out a contract to affiliate with a network. Or they could buy transcription discs containing full or partial programmes from a production company.

Production values on a syndicated programme weren’t generally anywhere close to something you’d hear on NBC or CBS simply because the production companies didn’t have big money sponsorship like the networks. But one company gave it a try by ponying up the cash for the occasional ‘A’ list guest.

Kermit-Raymond Corporation came up with a show in 1944 called “Hollywood’s Open House.” Originally, it was in conjunction with Motion Picture magazine. Two parted company apparently in 1948 but the show carried on for a while after that. “Hollywood’s Open House” was good enough to land a Thursday night slot on the flagship NBC station in New York City from December 1947 through May 1948 opposite Henry Morgan on ABC and Bob Crosby on CBS.

Syndicated programming rarely caught the attention of Herald-Tribune syndicate radio writer John Crosby, but he took a look inside “Hollywood’s Open House” in a column published on April 6, 1948. He seems to have had a little trouble with its title.

Radio In Review
By JOHN CROSBY

A Bit Of Everything
“HOLLYWOOD OPEN HOUSE,” a transcribed syndicated program is on all counts rather difficult to explain.
In the first place it hasn’t a great deal to do with Hollywood. It is produced and transcribed in New York at a CBS theater.
In the second place, it is heard in New York over WNBC, which with superb disregard for the facts that it was “transcribed earlier specifically for presentation over WNBC at this time.”
The program is heard over 203 other stations at a variety of times.
In the third place, you never know from week to week whom you will run into on this Hollywood house party which takes place in New York at CBS for broadcast over an NBC station.
“HOLLYWOOD House Party” is a variety program on you may hear almost any combination of acts short of performing seals. The only steady contributors are Jim Ameche, brother of Don Ameche (who sounds just like him), and Ray Bloch's orchestra, a terribly noisy aggregation.
Jim introduces, Ray accompanies. The rest of the show is provided by the guests, who may be—depending on what week you’re listening—Jack Benny, Bert Lahr, Zero Mostel, Roddy McDowell, Hildegarde, Marlene Dietrich, Basil Rathbone, Freddie Bartholomew, Martha Scott, Rolond Young, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Jack Pearl or a bunch of people not nearly so well known.
NATURALLY with such diverse talents no two of these programs sound much alike. Here is a summary of one of them which I don't claim as typical:
Zero Mostel delivered one of his comic monologs, and a very good one, on the relationship of the brain with the rest of the organism. (That’s as close as I can come to describing it.)
Freddie Bartholomew, the former child actor, then into a tragic scene from David Copperfield. Mr. Bartholomew, as I recall, played the child David in the movie years ago and it’s nice to see he has been graduated to the adult role. It’s a bit difficult under any circumstances and particularly difficult following one of the zaniest comedians in the business.
This program was rounded out by Monica Lewis, a very gentle singer, complaining of the heart-break caused her by the man she loved. As I remarked earlier, this is a variety show.
ANOTHER Hollywood Open House consisted almost entirely of Bert Lahr’s engaging nonsense.
“Eight goes into 50—no, it doesn’t. I must have missed a hypotenuse. According to statistics, people would be better off if they’d never been born, but that seldom happens to people.”
Still another one comprised of an elfin drama about the ghost of a man who had been murdered hundreds of years earlier presumably for whimsy.
As a matter of fact, it’s pretty good variety, though I’m not sure it’s pretty good radio. The only constant ingredient in Hollywood Open House is surprise.
TWO SMALL EVENTS of elusive significance:
1.—The Ogden Nash influence creeping into singing commercials has produced:
“Call for Cuticura.
It’s fragrant. It’s purah.
2.—A juvenile quiz and information program called “Mind Your Manners” has replaced “Coffee with Congress” at 9:30 a.m. Saturdays.


If you’d like to hear an episode of the show, here’s one courtesy of Rand’s Esoteric OTR, a fine web site with many old syndicated radio programmes. One of his listeners found this show was heard on WNBC on December 18, 1947.







Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Atsamatter With Luigi

Radio situation comedy in the ‘40s was filled with befuddled or bullheaded men, long-suffering wives, ditzy dames, earnest would-be suitors, boy-crazy teenaged girls and snooty neighbours. Characters in two or more of those categories would be mixed and matched in contrived stories that often bore no resemblance to reality. The best shows were able to rise above it through clever dialogue and good acting. But far too many relied on one-note or broad characters and done-too-many-times-before plots.

And to that recipe, ethnic stereotypes.

In radio’s Golden Age, there were still listeners who grew up with parents or grandparents who were new to the U.S., who still carried with them the accent and habits of the Old Country. Because of that, audiences identified with characters like that on radio, no matter how over-the-top they might have been. Well, not everyone in the audience. Some chafed at the clichés, no matter how well intentioned.

That brings us to “Life With Luigi,” a comedy based around a new Italian émigré to the U.S. It was a success on radio, lasting five seasons as the medium sputtered and coughed. The creators evidently realised a half-hour of “atsamatter-for-you” would result in eye-rolling (or worse, radios switching to another network) so they came up with a solution: bathos. One minute, the characters would be engaging in fat jokes. The next, Luigi would be summoning up patriotism in his listeners by almost-tearfully waxing about the Great United States in a letter to his sainted mother who he missed oh-so-much. You’ve have to be un-American to hate that. Or a radio critic.

The astute John Crosby nailed the problems with the show. He reviewed it, first when it appeared on radio, then television. Here’s his radio review from October 14, 1948, via the Oakland Tribune.

Luigi Discovers America
By JOHN CROSBY

“Life with Luigi,” a new CBS show at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, may not be the best radio idea in a decade or so but it is well up there and I’m sorry it had to come along in what I stubbornly think of as radio’s twilight years.
Luigi Basco, the hero of this radio comedy, is an Italian immigrant. The derivation of his last name is fairly obvious—I’m happy they didn’t call him Christopher Bolumbus anyhow—and supplies a pretty good idea of the show.
Liugi, in short, is an explorer. He is discovering America and he finds the place a delightful though puzzling place to live. He looks at American with the fresh eyes of an immigrant and, in his naivete, he reveals to the rest of us, the older inhabitants here, some of the wonders we have long since taken for granted.
Most of these dazzling discoveries are incorporated in a letter to Moma Mia, who is still in Italy. “In America,” writes Luigi, “when couple has three children they call it triple play. Right away they go on radio program.”
When you come right down to it, America teems with curious customs which, when viewed with the innocence of a newcomer, are just as quaint and possibly even more revolting than the practice of head-shrinking in the upper reaches of the Amazon.
Luigi, to get on with this, takes up residence in Chicago and I heartily approve of his choice. Radio has too many small towns on its agenda, enough New York City locales, and far, far too many Hollywood settings for its comedy shows.
The Windy City is a lovely and refreshingly new spot to locate Luigi. He runs an antique shop jammed to the rafters with Americana. “Everything in da shop is old,” he explains. “I’m da youngest ting in da place.”
In most respects, Luigi approves of Chicago and the United States but there are some things he doesn’t like and doesn’t understand.
When, for example, he names a price for one of his precious antiques (and he’s not at all anxious to sell any of them), he expects the customer to explode into wrath and name his own price, preferably around one-tenth of his Americans, he discovers to his dismay, simply write out a check without haggling.
It isn’t fair, he explains passionately to one American lady, to deprive a storekeeper of his right to wave his arms around and call the heavens to witness. How is a man to get his exercise if a customer won’t bargain with him?
While the aims and much of the execution of “Life with Luigi” excite by the warmest admiration, I have a number of small reservations which better be expressed forcibly right now before these defects become irrevocably imbedded in the show. For one thing, the little immigrant’s patriotism had best be confined within reasonable limits.
Luigi, to take a recent example, explained to an American insurance man why he felt so strongly about a Winston-Salem chair, expounding on the early history of Winston-Salem to the accompaniment of soft, patriotic music in the background.
That sort of thing—Luigi better find out about this before he’s been in this country another fortnight—is known here as corn. Corn, Luigi. Avoid it.
We like the local citizenry to be proud of the place, old man, but we are inclined to be suspicious of the guys who start beating their breasts about how much they love it—especially to the accompaniment of violins in the background.
Reservational No. 2, a minor complaint, concerns a certain vaudeville air that creeps into the proceedings now and then. Luigi and his friend, Pasquale, are made occasionally to sound like burlesque pantaloons and too much of this will rob the little immigrant of his dignity.
On the whole, though, Luigi is a fine idea. Cy Howard, who dreamed up CBS’ highly successful “My Friend Irma”, is also responsible for “Life with Luigi.” According to a press release, Howard spent months in Italy digging up local color for this show; at least, that’s what he told the accounting department, who, I suppose, had to have some reason to justify the expense account.
J. Carroll Naish, an excellent actor, plays Luigi with just enough accent to be amusing and not enough to be incomprehensible.


“Luigi” came to television on September 22, 1952. It was a dismal failure. The show left the air on December 22nd, returned on April 9, 1953 with a new cast and vanished for good on June 4th. Variety of September 24, 1952 praised its “warmth.” The Associated Press talked to the man who came up the show, who championed it for not being full of loud, vaudevillian physical comedy (words like “Lucy” and “Berle” were diplomatically omitted) and for showing people of various ethnic origins working in harmony. Here’s that interview, published in the Tribune.

‘Luigi’ Presents New Comic Technique for Screen Fans
By HAL HUMPHREY

HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 27—(AP)—TV viewers watching the first “Life With Luigi” show on their screens this week must have been slightly baffled by the proceedings, if they had never met up with Luigi on radio. A video program billed as a comedy but having none of the equipment typical of TV’s funnies is as rare as a seven-inch screen.
Luigi, played by Irishman J. Carrol Naish, throws not pies, squirts no seltzer, and generally acts as an immigrant with his background might be expected to act.
To a host of fans who have pushed “Life With Luigi” into radio’s “top ten” during the past four years, Luigi and his friends (Schultz, Horowitz, Olson and Pasquale) are funny yet believable characters. Only the next few months will tell if they can gain the same fame on TV. The constant striving for the big boff (laugh) on TV has conditioned most viewers to a type of humor built on rapid-fire gags and side-splitting situations. Most comics on TV make you believe it’s funny by mugging into the camera.
This kind of diet does not prepare the video viewer for the show and more painstaking chuckle-type of humor which Luigi dispenses. There is more warmth and a touch of pathos where the little Italian immigrant is concerned.
Mac Benoff, writer and producer of “Luigi” is confident, however, that he and Naish can sell their brand of comedy on TV as they have on radio.
“I don’t believe,” says Benoff, “that humor has to be based on man’s inhumanity to man. Humor with a tear can be just as funny as being hit in the face with a pie.”
Both Benoff and Naish are convinced they are making the “Luigi” show a mission in life. “We’re keeping it honest, and I believe we’re doing more to break down racial prejudices than any other program on the air,” Benoff adds.
As a comedy writer of long standing, Benoff has formed some definite ideas about his craft. When he was first approached on doing “Luigi” for radio, his reaction was more or less negative, because he never liked dialect comedy.
He decided to do it as a challenge and to prove dialect could be done without making the characters look like clowns or fools. “Viewers won’t find Luigi in exaggerated physical situations and yelling ‘botcha galupe.’” Benoff states.
A two-man mutual admiration society developed between Benoff and Naish. Each claims he wouldn’t be able to do the job on “Luigi” unless he had the other to work with.
“The minute I saw Naish on the TV monitor as Luigi, I knew we were in,” says Benoff. And Naish wouldn’t think of doing “Luigi” without Benoff’s dialogue.
All they have to do now is convince TV viewers there are other ways of making people laugh than having a comic pull his hair over his forehead and throw his face out of gear.


Cue magazine didn’t buy any of that. Its summary: “‘Life with Luigi’ is back, and it's transparently evident that the vacation has not dulled its capacity for being one of the phoniest, unfunniest sessions around.” That assessment was shared by John Crosby, who also took exception to Benoff’s heart-tugging and “Hurray for America” flag-waving. This column was published September 30, 1952.

Luigi Discovers America
By JOHN CROSBY

“Life With Luigi” has just been transposed from radio to television where its manifold imperfections are terribly visible as well as audible. The trouble with “Luigi,” I’ve decided after long and profound thought, is that it’s almost completely phoney.
A comedy about the misadventures of an immigrant is not a bad idea. In fact it’s a very good one. But not when it’s conceived, written, directed and acted by a lot of Hollywood wiseacres whose concepts of immigrant life in this country are heavily larded with grease paint. “Life With Luigi” was dreamed up by Cy Howard, the creator of “My Friend Irma,” who has been described aptly by one of my friends as CBS vice president in charge of malaprops.
Like “Irma,” “Luigi” is loaded with malaprops, some of which will make your flesh crawl. (“That remark is incompetent and irrelevant,” a lawyer shouts. “You’re an incompetent elephant too,” retorts one of the characters).
Luigi struggles helplessly not only with the language but with every aspect of American life from bus travel to banking. Walking into the Case National Bank, he asks to see Mr. Case. “Mr. Case is dead.” “I’d like to see Mrs. Case.” “Mrs. Case is dead.” “Everyone’s dead. Whosa watching the business?”
Well, I don’t know. They have banks in Italy and Luigi must have seen one before.
That’s my chief objection to “Luigi.” There is hardly a credible line, or situation or character in it. Everyone is trying too hard, from the writers to the actors. There are beads of sweat on virtually every line of dialogue. “O ho,” says Pasquale, who is the comic villain of the piece, “what a monkey I gonna throw in his wrench!” And he winks at the audience like the villain in an 1890 melodrama. Both the line and its method of delivery are an insult to my intelligence.
J. Carroll Naish plays Luigi on the radio (where it still remains) and also on television and is described in a rather hysterical press release at my elbow as “one of the greatest actors alive,” a rather too extravagant estimate.
Naish is a good actor when he doesn’t overplay, but the type of material thrust on him requires him to act from hell to breakfast. So does everyone else.
The first installment revolved around Luigi getting his first citizenship papers. Three of the characters were his classmates in a citizenship class, each of them so horribly picturesque they made me faintly ill.
All the characters are similarly overdrawn. Rosa, for example, Pasquale’s daughter, is the bane of Luigi’s existence. Pasquale keeps trying to thrust Luigi into matrimony with her, a project Luigi strenuously resists. It’s not a bad comedy idea, but Rosa’s simpering, mincing, smirking demeanor belongs in nothing later than Restoration comedy.
This stanza ended in a courtroom where it looked for a moment as if Luigi would not only be denied citizenship but might, though the machinations of Pasquale, land in jail.
His three picturesque classmates showed up, spouting broken English, everyone talked at once and had a good cry and the scene ended with a pledge of allegiance to the flag, a bit of sentimentality which drove me to the kitchen in search of strong waters.
I suppose that in all fairness I ought to add that these sour opinions are not shared by just everyone. “Life With Luigi” was and is astonishing popular on radio and I’m afraid it looks as if it will repeat its popularity on television.
A Trendex survey in 10 cities gave the opening program a husky 42.6 rating which is frankly pretty terrific. I prefer to believe the citizenry was too paralyzed with astonishment to turn the darn thing off.
I’m not automatically against all immigrant comedy. “Mama,” another CBS operation—CBS-TV is getting to be one big immigration course—is playing the same side of the street. But then the original of “Mama” was written by the daughter of immigrants who plainly knew whereof she spoke; it’s a good deal more honest drama and the people in it, while drenched in sentiment, are fairly plausible.
Even in “Mama” though, I find that whining monotone of a Scandinavian accent wearisome. Does everyone in Scandinavia talk in that monotone?


Interestingly, while tastes in situation comedy were changing, one top show of the 1960s—crafted by former radio writers—had some similarities to ‘Luigi.’ The starring characters were immigrants of a sort, having packed up and moved to where they tried to figure out their new neighbourhood. They had stereotypical accents and a clichéd lifestyle. But people set aside the unbelievability of it all and embraced them, even when critics didn’t. They were the Beverly Hillbillies.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Phil's Not So Bad

Phil Harris had a great head-start when he and Alice Faye launched their sitcom in the 1946-47 radio season (under the guise of “The Fitch Bandwagon”). Harris had been on Jack Benny’s top-rated show for so long, he was like an old friend.

The problem the show’s writers faced was to take Harris’ drunken, ladies’ man character from the Benny show and adapt it as a family man. Fortunately, Benny’s writers had endowed Harris with enough characteristics (illiteracy, poor musicianship, a love of awful puns and a rambling Southern song) that they had enough to play with while making Harris a doting and lovey-dovey husband.

Renowed radio critic John Crosby hated the domesticity. We posted a 1946 review HERE. But shows evolve and fine-tune if they’re given the chance. And the Harris-Faye sitcom evolved in the right direction as far as Crosby was concerned. Here’s what he had to say in his newspaper column that appeared beginning January 30, 1950.

Phil Harris Show Hits New Stride
By JOHN CROSBY

Probably no show in radio ever started out less auspiciously than the Phil Harris-Alice Faye operation back in the fall of 1946. Radio critics everywhere shuddered in rare unison. Looking back through my yellowing clippings on this program, I discover the first few episodes were largely kissing games, which simplified the task of the writers. Either Phil was kissing Alice. Or both of them were kissing the children.
What little dialogue there was revolved around this osculation, more or less reviewing it. "You ain't giving, honey," Mr. Harris would mutter, a bad notice for Miss Faye. Or he'd exclaim--there's no more exclamatory comedian in the business than Harris--"You beautiful bundle of dynamite. Put your arms around me and tell me how much you love me!"
While not exactly opposed to domestic felicity, critics--not just this one, either--muttered that it was a rather slim pretext for a radio show. Even as late as 1948, I find myself complaining that the Harris show was loud, crude and in questionable taste.
Well, all that is in the past. Great changes have been wrought in the Harris household. The writers, for one thing, have been put to work dreaming up something besides stage directions for kissing sequences. The children, while still in existence, are largely kept in the back room safely out of mischief, especially at the microphone. Miss Faye, who is not the most vivid of radio performers, has been pepped up a bit and, at the same, her role has been abbreviated, a wise measure. Above all, the flame of love that once lit up the countryside for miles around has been dimmed to something approaching connubial candlepower. Miss Faye and Harris appear to have got used to having one another around the house.
The writers have happily turned Mr. Harris loose with his pal, Frankie (Elliott Lewis), a character as innocent of book learning and as full of pool room wisdom as Mr. H. himself. These two raffish, ingenious hoodlums are wonderfully funny together, grappling with Harris' home life, something Harris only vaguely understands, or trying to pound some sense into Harris' carefree band.
The best way I can describe the Harris band is to point out that Harris is unquestionably the intellectual superior of any member of it. When he explains that he and the band are about to go into television and are there any the questions, the guitar player speaks up and says, "Yes. What's television?"
Several new characters have been added to fill in the spaces left by the absent children. One of a lad named is a Julius, a pugnacious boy with a fierce disdain for both Harris and Remley. Another is Miss Faye's brother Willie, a fey lisping character who represents culture as opposed to Harris and Remley who are pure animal. Culture, in this case, has grounds for a libel suit. Mr. Harris addresses this creature in what may be described as verbal pirouettes.
"I hope your upside-down cake turns right side-up." It's pretty bad and I wish they'd quit it. And I'm not referring simply to Harris. All these fey characters on comedy programs have become not only tiresome but just a little indecent.
Miss Faye's personality has been substantially rearranged so that, instead of being required to flame like white fire, she is now asked to be an all-wise mother to her husband-child. This is an impossible role for any woman but, well, there isn't too much of Miss Faye any more.
The Harris program is unabashed farce not susceptible to close examination but at its best when, for instance, Remley and Julius are lousing up an auction, it is hilarious fun and I'm sorry I said all the harsh things about it that I once did. It was the show that changed, though, not me.


Unless I haven’t paid attention, Crosby’s mistaken on one thing. Walter Tetley’s Julius Abruzzio began appearing on the show in 1947. Radio was full of annoying children. But Tetley’s Julius is almost a parody of them. He’s so over-the-top, so disdainful, so almost evil that he’s a treat to listen to.

There are some things about the later Harris shows I don’t like—Philsy and Remley/Elliott are just too unbelievably dumb sometimes—but generally, it was one of the better sitcoms on radio as television was slowly taking over the living room. And, in many ways, the takeover was not for the better.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Radio's Failure is Television's Success

Many of the top stars of radio made the jump to television, so it seems a little odd that TV’s first big star—“Mr. Television,” they called him—was not one of them. It was Milton Berle.

Granted, Berle did on TV what he couldn’t do on radio. He took advantage of the visual aspect of the medium by wearing outrageous costumes and occasionally getting physically abused by his stooges. On radio, he was just a comic trying to get above the B-list. Billboard editorialised in 1947 that he was hamstrung on radio because he couldn’t resort to what made him a success in New York City nightclubs—using ad-libbed off-colour material when things started falling apart. But he wasn’t able to do it on television, either, and became a huge success.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying that Berle didn’t leap into the top ten-rated radio shows. There was talk in August 1946 that the Biow Agency was going to use him to replace Phil Baker as the host of “Take It Or Leave It” after his latest quiz show failure, a CBS sustainer called “Kiss and Make Up.” Instead, he was worked in to a typical variety show format which debuted March 11, 1947 for Philip Morris. Nat Hiken and Aaron Ruben were hired to write, Pert Kelton, Jack Albertson and Arnold Stang performed character parts (Stang without credit on some early shows) and Frank Gallop was cast as an announcer who felt it beneath his dignity to appear with Berle. Biow cancelled the show in April 1948, deciding Berle didn’t appeal to the target audience. Texaco then picked him up for a similar show that debuted on radio the following September. Oh, it appeared on TV as well. By November, the “Texaco Star Theater” set viewer records (an 80.7 rating) and the following month Berle’s overnight success was featured in a photo spread in Life Magazine. Mr. Television was born.

Well before making his mark on television, Berle had a reputation as “the thief of Bad Gags.” It would seem undeserving as far as the Philip Morris radio show was concerned, given the writers came up with Berle’s material. But Herald-Tribune syndicate critic John Crosby trotted it out in his review of the programme, published March 2, 1948. Crosby’s surprise with Berle as a woman is ironic considering what happened later on TV.

Mme. Berle’s Waxworks
By JOHN CROSBY

Milton Berle, who by his own admission is one of the great kleptomaniacs of show business is stealing only from the very best sources lately.
This is a great advance over the old, undiscriminating Berle who used to steal material from just anybody—burlesque shows, taxi drivers, even radio comedians.
The new judicious Berle won’t lift anything until it has won critical approval, until it has established itself as worth of his attention. Recently Berle was mixed up in a sketch about a man who got a ticket for overtime parking, an offense which normally would cost him $2.
An overzealous friend persuaded him to fight the charge rather than pay the fine and—well, you must have heard the rest of it. Before Berle got out of this, the national guard had been called out to search for him and he was up to his ears in capital crimes.
I don’t know where the darn thing came from originally. Peter Stuyvesant, I’m told, first heard it from the Indians in the seventeenth century but even the Indians considered it fairly dated. Its most recent revival was in a movie.
Victor Moore played the part of a man who was persuaded by an overzealous lawyer to fight a $2 fine for spitting in the subway and wound up facing a murder charge. It’s a very comic idea; it is indisputably a classic among such routines; and it gives you some idea just what Berle is up to these days.
Just last week Berle played the part of a woman—yes, a woman—who enters a bar and announces she seldom touches the stuff and wants something light. Like a triple Martini. She has several triple Martinis, gets plastered and is pretty funny in the process.
The same thing was done with infinitely greater authority by Billy de Wolfe in a movie whose name I’ve forgotten. It hasn’t quite the patina of age on it as the “Pay the $2” gag, but it’s getting there.
I even recall the night—my eyes mist over with nostalgia at the memory—Berle revived that one about the man in a hurry who drove into a gas station for five gallons of gas and was overwhelmed with service which delayed him for hours.
It’s as old as the model T and I was fearful it had been forgotten. But Berle hasn’t forgotten. Berle never forgets.
The way I look at it, Berle is doing his best to preserve out most cherished comic traditions. He is the Smithsonian institution of comedy, the Eva la Gallienne of his own special field. Sooner or later the old and beloved routines of Ed Wynn, Fred Stone and Joe Cook will be preserved for posterity in Mme. Berle’s waxworks. These things shouldn’t be lightly forgotten.
In addition to Mr. Berle’s encyclopedic memory, the Berle show offers an announcer named Gallup who is monstrously rude to the star, a breezy character named Harrison with a raucous laugh who gets Berle into a succession of embarrassments, and Harrison’s wife who to my knowledge has said only one word since the program started, though she’s repeated it many times since.
The word is “yes,” pronounced “yee-uss.” It was pretty funny at first, but the humor has palled greatly.
In spite of the easily-traced lineage of its jokes, the Berle show is not at all bad comedy. While I disapprove of Mr. Berle’s methods in principle, I find that I laugh at them in practice, which makes me an accessory after the crime.
There was a time when Berle was viewed with suspicion not only by his fellow comics but by critics everywhere. However, somewhere in the last couple of years he has approached if not quite attained respectability. He is a very hard-working and skillful comedian whose success, I should say, is a triumph of sheer will power.
One last word on him. Some time ago Mr. Berle was persuaded by some inscrutable impulse to play the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” over WNEW in New York. He was going to play it straight, the announcer reported grimly, and, brother, he did.
He was the straightest Romeo in my memory; he attacked that balcony with such undeviating singleness of purpose I feared at any moment it would fall on him. The experience apparently went to his head, because he later incorporated the balcony scene into his own show, this time playing it for laughs.
Well, I don’t know. On the whole, I think Berle had best leave the preservation of this particular classic in other hands. He has enough to do as curator in his own distinctive department.


Crosby reviewed Berle a number of times over the course of his career and the only real pan came in this assessment at the start of the 1949-50 TV season, appearing in papers beginning September 26, 1949. He based it around the opinion polls almost a year earlier which picked Republican Tom Dewey to defeat Democrat Harry Truman for the White House. Of course, the poll was wrong. It should be noted Hiken wasn’t involved with the writing of the TV show. It shows. Berle goes for the obvious.

Second Favorite Comedian
By JOHN CROSBY

Milton Berle is the nation’s second favourite comedian, according to George Gallup, the poll man. And Gallup ought to know. He’s a world recognized authority at picking second bests. Second favorite presidential candidate. Second favorite comedian. He’d be a great man to have around a race track. A fellow could make a fortune betting Gallup’s choices to place.
Anyhow, the nation’s second favorite comedian, a title that bears equal rank with the second-best dressed woman in the world and is one grade higher than a channel swimmer who misses by six miles, returned to the NBC television network last Tuesday at the usual time (8 p.m., e.d.t., as if you didn’t know). The beating of drums that preceded this magnificent re-entrance was louder than the gnashing of teeth in Brooklyn after that 1 to 0 ball game in St. Louis last week. The Radox television rating in Philadelphia was the highest ever recorded. The show cost $42,000, also a record for television.
It was lousy.
Berle’s opening appearance, to get specific about this, was big, as they say in the trade. He came on in top hat and tails, the influence of Hollywood, I presume, and warmed up an audience that appeared to be composed exclusively of Texaco dealers and their wives, with the old experience.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my bankbook,” he said, bowing to the tumultuous applause. “It’s really a financial pleasure.” Then he read those telegrams, an act I dimly remember having heard on another Berle show. “You can have your Bob Hopes, your Red Skeltons, your Jack Bennys. We want you. (Signed) Woodlawn Cemetery.” “If you’re the worst comedian in the world, I’m the mayor of New York. (Signed) O’Dwyer.” The only part of the hour-long show that had anything like the old Berle flare [sic] came well at the opening of the program. Here Berle and Phil Silvers, a very funny man, teamed up in a bit of comic monkey-shines that defies any rational description. Among other things this bit was noteworthy because Silvers succeeded in breaking up Berle, an exceedingly difficult thing to do. In fact, he stole the act; virtually an impossible thing to do. Silvers must have been rehearsing all summer to accomplish this.
After that the show began to come apart. June Havoc, of the films, did a song and dance number. I find on my notes the single word “egg,” which, I believe, covers everything adequately. Then there transpired a skit on the South, a burlesque of the old school. Very old school. Silvers, Berle and Miss Havoc, enough talent to stock a $2 million movie, participated in it and still that word “egg” crops up again.
Then there was a skit involving Bob Smith and Howdy Doody. I can think of no reason for this one unless Berle owed Howdy Doody some money. Duke Ellington played the piano stylishly, but hardly well enough to save the show. Also I worked up a tepid enthusiasm for some muscular young men in leopard skins (or something) who hurled a young lady, also in leopard skins, from here to there in what I consider the best pitching on television since Rex Barney’s one hitter in Chicago.
These exhibitions always entrance me, because I see no purpose in them whatsoever. Still, I think performers deserve some commendation for developing so useless an art to such a high degree of skill.
If Mr. Berle—or Mr. Television, as Variety dubbed him last Spring, or the second favorite comedian, or the $42,000 comedian—is to deserve any of those titles or that salary, he’ll have to be better than this. Fact is, Berle was perhaps a little too good last year.
Also, I see evidence of some strenuous thinking in the production, especially in those sketches, and this, I feel, is a bad mistake.
Miltie is much funnier when the antics are entirely brainless. They ought to get rid of the intellectuals.
In case you’re interested, the man who placed first among comedians in that Gallup poll is Bob Hope, who thus won a distinction that would make me very nervous.
Mr. Hope, meet Mr. Dewey. You two have a lot in common.


Uncle Miltie signed a huge, long-term deal with NBC, only to see audiences quickly tire of his antics. By 1960, he was reduced to hosting a bowling show that had already been on the air for three years. But you’ve got to hand it to Milton Berle. He kept popping up on TV until he reached the age where he could be considered a Legend of Comedy. Even if the comedy wasn’t his own.

Here’s an episode of Berle’s Philip Morris show from September 16, 1947. It’s running a bit off-speed so you may not catch an actor using his natural voice as NBC’s Mr. Genzel. He’s probably better known to you as someone who tried to shoot a wascawwy wabbit. You’ll also hear Arnold Stang and Pert Kelton. And the commercial announcer at the end should be familiar to radio and Popeye cartoon lovers.