Wednesday 12 September 2012

Adults Say The Darndest Things

Mel Blanc related in his book how the American Tobacco Company had someone prowling the radio studio of “The Jack Benny Program,” ensuring that anyone who was smoking, was smoking a Lucky Strike. Even other American Tobacco brands were verboten.

Mel tended to exaggerate but the story has the ring of truth, as others who worked in the old days of network radio shows tell similar stories of how ridiculous the sponsor’s stranglehold got to be.

The situation occasionally, and quite unexpectedly, leaked out onto the air. I’m sure it got a laugh every time, especially from radio people who were glad someone broke the stupid taboo. Here’s columnist John Crosby, no fan of giveaway shows, on November 11, 1947. And he unexpectedly griped about one of his radio favourites.

Radio In Review
Quiz Answers Boost Competitors Goods

The other day a pair of surprisingly conscientious urchins were seated on the curb in the small town near where I live, rehearsing the spelling they had apparently just acquired in school.
“Spell ‘kid’,” said one urchin. “T-H-E,” said the other. The first one nodded gravely. “Now spell ‘the’,” he said. For some reason this reminded me strongly of the contestants in radio quiz contests.
Now and then a quiz master trying desperately to provoke a contestant into emitting exactly the right word will get instead exactly the wrong one. On Guess Who, a quiz sponsored by the National Dairy Products Company, the master of ceremonies, Happy Felton, likes to ask questions which call attention to his sponsor’s line of work.
“What cow,” he asked the other night, “started the Chicago fire?”
“Elsie?” said the contestant inquiringly, the way those people do. Elsie is not only the wrong answer but is a name never mentioned even in whispers on that program. Elsie is the pet cow and chief advertising device of one of National Dairy Products’ foremost competitors—the Borden Company.
TRYING TO work the sponsor’s products into quiz questions is always a bit hazardous and the results are frequently unexpected.
Bob Hawk, another quiz emcee, once asked a girl to name something beginning with the letter M which you need to make mayonaise.
“Mother,” said the girl.
However, when you don’t want a product—particularly somebody else’s product—the contestants come right out with it. On the Give and Take show, the master of ceremonies asked the name of the author of The Razor’s Edge.
“Gillette,” said the man.
I’m not making these answers up. People said them with every evidence of sincerity. The innocence of all knowledge of quiz contestants has driven the producers of quizzes to incredible lengths of ingenuity. They frame questions in such a way that no mental activity of any sort is required beyond the fairly routine impulse from the brain needed to open the mouth. Still the contestants miss. Last season on Hollywood Jackpot, Kenny Delmar asked a girl: “What does yatata yatata yatata mean? Is it a Siamese word or is it a slang word meaning too much talk?”
IN OTHER words, the girl was not expected to strain her intellect thinking up definitions. The definitions were provided, one of them wildly implausible. Still, the girl was floored. There was a period o£ painful silence. “Will you repeat the question?” she asked finally. She got it right after a little coaching.
The quiz profession in radio is a nice way to earn a living but it is fraught with all sorts of perils. One of the worst of them was experienced just the other day by Walter O’Keefe, the emcee on Double or Nothing. O’Keefe was chatting with an ex-war nurse about her experiences in the late conflict. Carried away by the memory of those virile days, the girl began speaking a'pure Anglo-Saxon popular with .soldiers and with Hemingway but never, never, employed on the air.
O'Keefe shouted: “I hope you win the grand slam prize,” and hustled her away. At Columbia Broadcasting System, the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree with calls from complaining listeners. Hadn’t been anything like it since Orson Welles staged his invasion from Mars in 1938. I bring it up here only because the same company, Campbell Soup, which doesn't have very good luck on these things, was the sponsor both of the Welles show nine years ago and the Double or show.
EVEN THE amateurs have trouble with other amateurs. Recently Sadie Hertz, the Brooklyn woman who has been winning prizes on quiz shows for 10 years, was made guest emcee on Daily Dilemmas on WOR in New York. For the first time, Sadie was on the other end of the questions and on the wrong end of the gifts. One of the first persons to face her was an ex-GI.
“Ya married?” asked Sadie.
“Any children?”
“Yes, one.”
“How long ya married?”
“Fifteen days.”
Speaking of stunts that didn’t come off as planned, I might as well report on the opening performance for the season of the Fred Allen show. The guest was Jay Jostyn (Mr. District Attorney). Just as a gag, Allen opened his show with Mr. District Attorney’s theme song instead of his own. Several dozen National Broadcasting Company stations around the country, figuring something was amiss, pulled their switches and threw the program off the air. Countless listeners, including this one, just turned off the radio.

Crosby must have been stewing about the Allen opener. It happened a month before this column appeared in print. The premise, and it was solid from a satiric standpoint, was the characters from “Mr. District Attorney” were hunting for Allen on a charge of murdering radio comedy. The show was sponsored that season by Tenderleaf Tea. Allen might have guaranteed himself some laughs if he blurted out his character was named “Lipton.”

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