Wednesday 3 October 2012

Al Pearce

The West Coast spawned two hugely-popular radio showed before the truly big-name stars moved in from New York in the mid-1930s—“The Blue Monday Jamboree” and “Al Pearce and his Gang.” Once people like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and so on decided to come to West to rake in movie money, the networks decided they’d better find a way to make it feasible to broadcast their radio shows live from Los Angeles. Soon, there wasn’t a need for home-grown variety shows like “The Blue Monday Jamboree,” which died in May 1935.

Pearce was a little more durable. He got national exposure but as the ‘30s became the ‘40s, his show’s popularity faded until few noticed it was gone.

San Francisco was where Pearce first went on the air with “The Happy Go Lucky Hour” on KFRC. Among Pearce’s gang on the show was a comic named Morey Amsterdam. The show migrated south to KHJ Los Angeles in 1932. But something happened. Pearce and the “northern contingent” left the show in February 1933. Pearce announced he was going on a personal appearance tour of the western states, but then showed up with his gang on KFI on March 6 with an hour-long network show weekdays at 2 p.m.—opposite “The Happy Go Lucky Hour.”

It’s a wonder Pearce survived so long. Like Joe Penner, he pinned his series on an eventually-tedious catchphrase uttered on every show by Pearce’s laconic salesman character, Elmer Blurt. Pearce, as Pearce, was only a tad more energetic. If you’re interested in some of the dialogue, and there appear to be more of Pearce’s scripts on line than shows, click here for a PDF from January 31, 1941. Blurt is joined in the gang by C.B. Kitzel (Artie Auerbach), Waymond Wadcwiffe (Arthur Q. Bryan) and Dick Lane, Margaret Brayton and Mel Blanc; a far cry from Tizzie Lish and Arlene Harris.

The Oakland Tribune, which had covered Pearce in his KFRC days in the ‘20s, published a full-page spread on Pearce on January 30, 1938, wherein he explains his radio philosophy.

Main Figure of “Watch the Fun Go By,” Transcontinental Program, In His Character of Elmer Blurt Coined When He Worked as Salesman
“I HOPE, I hope, I hope . . .”
Hopelessly, with a gently reproachful look in his mild blue eyes, a chubby young insurance salesman mumbled the phrase over and over one day as he found himself facing a slammed door. The insurance salesman’s name was Al Pearce. The slammed door was an annoyed prospect's somewhat emphatic way of declining to take out insurance. It was one case where hope was not sandwiched between faith and charity. There was no optimistic ring to that mumbled refrain. It was more like an echo of despair.
The chubby young man on the doorstep turned and retraced his steps to the street. This was not the first door that had been slammed in his face. Life at that moment seemed little more than a long succession of closed doors.
Perhaps, he reflected ruefully, there was something wrong with his approach. Perhaps there was something symbolic to that closed door. Perhaps he should seek some other portal to success.
It may be that if Al Pearce had persisted he would have eventually become president of the insurance company he was at that time representing with such indifferent success. How much of a gain this would have been to the insurance company I shall not venture to guess. This much I can state with certainty: It would have been a distinct loss to the laughter-loving dialers of America.
“I hope, I hope, I hope . . .”
That despairing phrase, born on a doorstep that had never been graced by a welcome mat, survived the buffetings of Al Pearce's lean years.
Today it echoes in the loud speakers in millions of homes. Closed doors mean nothing now to the erstwhile insurance salesman who used to be left cooling his heels on the doorstep.
Al is a better insurance salesman now than he was in the old days. He has a natural flair for handling his present line — insurance against the doldrums.
WHEN Al went into radio he took his “I hope, I hope, I hope” with him.
The first person Al ever mimicked on the air lanes was himself. He christened the character Ebenezer Biggs Jr. and launched him upon the ether in the old “Happy-Go-Lucky Hour.” In this role Al mumbled into the mike the now celebrated phrase he used to mumble to a closed door. The phrase caught on and was taken up by Al’s “Elmer Blurt” when Elmer succeeded Ebenezer.
Here is Al’s own account of how the “I hope” phrase came into being: “I got that ‘I hope' straight from life. In the early days I’d just about be starting my selling spiel and I’d just get to the point where I'd be saying ‘I hope. Madam, you’ll take advantage of this wonderful offer,’ when the housewife would get bored and suddenly slam the door on me. And I’d be left mumbling ‘I hope, I hope, I hope,’ out on the front doorstep.”
Dialers in this ear area take a more or less personal pride in Al Pearce’s climb to Nationwide fame via the kilocycles, for it was out here on the Pacific Coast that he made his start in radio with his “Happy-Go-Lucky Hour.”
Al’s achievements in the past nine years have been neatly summed up by an alert and able publicity man in the East in the following terms: “He has produced more than 400 air shows in studios, theaters and town halls all over the country, under all kinds of circumstances and most of the time without the aid of a script. Yet today he is in the very top-notch class of radio entertainers and heard in a prize evening spot on Tuesday nights over the CBS network.”
The “gang” idea as Al considers it did not blossom forth suddenly with his entry into the field of radio. Al has had a “gang” of his own ever since he was a small boy. His first “gang” was made up of youngsters who lived in his neighborhood. Al used to round them up regularly and take them home, where he would treat them to apples, bread and jam, cookies, generous slabs of pie and other things dear to the “inner boy.”
AS TO how he applies the gang idea in his radio work, Al says: "No matter how the dictionary may define a gang, my idea of it is that it’s a group of people who get together because they enjoy each other. Out of their being together comes a lot of hilarity and humor. That's the principle of our show.
“We always try to put on a broadcast that has the spontaneity and natural humor of a family party. That’s why we have only one rehearsal and even it is seldom serious. If we watch and worry too far ahead about what we’re going to do, we sound forced. But if we get up and act natural we sound as though we were having a good time ourselves—and that communicates itself to the audience.”
Thus does Al Pearce set forth in his own words his philosophy of showmanship.
The method he favors may not work for all entertainment projects, but there is no doubt about its being the ideal one for the type of show exemplified in “Watch the Fun Go By” where the informal family idea is paramount.
Two words in what might be termed Al Pearce’s entertainment platform constitute an all-embracing formula for histrionic success. That formula is “Act natural.” Bombast, silly artificiality and a tendency to “act all over the place” are marks of the rankest of rank amateurs. Such futilities and falsities are automatically barred from the Al Pearce Show. They invariably come a cropper when they attempt to clear the “act natural” hurdle.
I have at hand a communication from a sympathetic but keenly critical observer who likes to take radio top-flighters apart and put them together again, just to see how they work. Here, in part, is his analysis of Al Pearce and his “act natural” idea:
"Al’s formula isn’t really simple. It takes a heap of brains, personality, showmanship and shrewd personality to ‘get up and act natural’ in front of millions of people. And many elements have gone into the seeming informality of an Al Pearce Gang. Al’s own personality is one of the most important of these elements. Without trying to, without being a back-slapper or a mere ‘good-time Charlie,’ he just naturally attracts people. . . He is the epitome of Western good humor and he makes friends wherever he goes.”
ANOTHER important ingredient in Al’s “act natural” formula is the varied experience that has gone to make up his background. The selling of insurance is far from being the only formative experience in his past. He sold diamonds, too.
Of Al’s experience as a diamond salesman there is but little information immediately available. Whether or not he used his “I hope” approach when trying to swing a deal involving precious stones, Al does not say. Since Koh-i-nurs and Great Moguls are not ordinarily peddled from door to door, this phase of Al’s career as a salesman was probably carried on over a counter. Of course, knowing “Elmer Blurt” as we do, we can readily picture him standing on an otherwise deserted doorstep holding the Koh-i-nur in one hand and the Great Mogul in the other, while he mumbled his familiar “I hope, hope, I hope.” We can even imagine Elmer’s trying to sell locomotives to housewives.
Al did not confine his activities to insurance and diamonds. He tried other lines, such as roofing and carpet sweepers. He even worked as a waiter in a Reno restaurant.
"Elmer Blurt" is a lifelike caricature based upon those experiences of Pearce’s. But in case Elmer Blurt’s blurtings have broadcast the impression that Al Pearce was not a top-flight salesman in his commercial prime, I hasten to set the world right in this matter. Make no mistake about it, Al was right up there among the best sellers. His natural ability to make friends made his ultimate success as a salesman a foregone conclusion. Succeed he did, to the point where he was on the verge of making a fortune out of real estate in San Francisco when the depression came along and knocked the spokes out of the wheel of fortune.
The wheel of fortune, it turned out, was only temporarily put out of commission. It was soon turning again for Al. His genial temperament and pleasing personality, coupled with his flair for mimicry, convinced the manager of one of the San Francisco radio stations that Al had what it took to become an air lane attraction. He was “singing” in a real estate glee club at the time with his brother Cal, who was the real warbler of the family.
Vocally Al was a crow, but he covered his vocalistic shortcomings by clowning. And he really could play the guitar.
DIALERS in this ear area still remember the old Blue Monday Jamboree, on which Al and Cal made their radio debut.
But it was not until the “Happy-Go-Lucky Hour” became a part of the daily dialing fare with Al Pierce as pilot that Al really struck his gait. Since he hit his stride on that program he has forged steadily ahead to the point where his “I hope, I hope, I hope” has become a National watchword. Another necessary quality Al possesses in generous measure is his instinct for selecting the right people to make up the personnel of his gang. He has a small “inner gang” of tried and true dependables and his permanent group is augmented by other artists from time to time.
Give ear to Al on this subject:
“In the gang we always have a kind of central nucleus—a special little gang of people who have been with us a long time. The inner gang is really the heart of our big general gang. It’s composed of people who will do anything on the spur of the moment—who know radio backwards and forwards, and the spirit of the show.
“The rest of the gang is changing. We usually have about four other entertainers shift from week to week. They may not be used to our style. So it’s up to ‘the nucleus gang’ to gag around with them and act crazy enough to put them into the mood we think is necessary.”
Currently this inner gang consists of three persons. These three are Monroe Upton, famed for his “Lord Bilgewater” characterization, but now active chiefly behind the scenes as Al’s right-hand man; Arlene Harris “the Human Chatterbox” and “Tizzie Lish” who is Bill Comstock in real life. Ken Roberts is heard as announcer, and Madge Marley as the housewife in the Elmer Blurt routine.
This in brief is the secret of Al Pierce’s success as a radio showman. His admirably practical formula has carried him and his gang to the top and will keep them there for a long time, I hope, I hope, I hope.

Pearce was off and on the air with different times, formats, networks and casts through much of the ‘40s, finally retiring to run a prune farm. His last show was a Saturday morning broadcast on ABC on October 18, 1947. He quickly became a punch line about radio’s past. When Jack Benny made his highly-publicised move to CBS on January 2, 1949, Herb Vigran played an engineer on the premiere show who complained “With all this fuss they’re making, you would think they were getting Al Pearce.”

But CBS came calling. Television gobbled up talent and went looking for more. It looked on a prune farm. Part of the old gang returned as Pearce debuted on TV in February 1952. But it wasn’t a big nighttime extravaganza. It was a morning variety show starting at 8:45. The show died by October. Pearce hated the hours. The network affiliates hated the show. Only six agreed to open up the airtime when CBS wanted to move it to the afternoon. The two parted company and Pearce retired again.

Pearce made millions from radio and millions more from real estate. He died June 2, 1961 from complications after an operation for an ulcer. His Associated Press obituary claimed he paid $50 in 1928 to a couple of actors from Chicago to do their first show under a new name. They went farther in broadcasting than Pearce or just about anyone else. They were Amos ‘n’ Andy.