Sunday 29 December 2013

Radio's Bottle Beater

One of the great voices of network radio’s Golden Era belonged to Del Sharbutt. He announced many programmes; probably the best known is “Meet Corliss Archer” where he’d interact with star Janet Waldo. His deep baritone was also one of the anonymous voices pushing Lucky Strikes on Jack Benny’s radio show through the latter ‘40s. And he once credited himself with coming up with the phrase “Mm-mm-good!” when he was hired by the folks at Campbell Soups to read their commercials.

He partook in one of the long-favoured social activities of radio people after work—parking one’s butt at the local bar. Unfortunately, something can happen when one tends to spend too much time in the bar—they become addicted to alcohol. And that’s what happened to Del Sharbutt.

Fortunately, he admirably overcame his alcoholism. And, as best as I can tell, he was one of the earliest people to publicly discuss his battle with the bottle and champion Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve read several interviews he did on the subject but the most interesting one is Sharbutt answering questions from his own son, Associated Press movie critic Jay Sharbutt. The younger Sharbutt doesn’t get into a personal story of how the family was affected by his dad’s drinking. He asks some basic things. And they talk about the wonderful days when the radio was the centrepiece of the living room. This story appeared in the Odgensburg Journal two days before New Year’s Eve parties in 1978.

Father, Son Talk About Old Times
Associated Press Writer

PALM DESERT, Calif. (AP) — I suspect once again you won't be juicing on New Year's Eve. When did you realize you were an alcoholic, Pop?
A. In 1955. Our family physician called me an alcoholic and I said, "That's an awful thing to say to a friend." He said, "That's a diagnosis, not a putdown. It is a killer disease."
I haven't had a drink since that time, Haven't had any urge to drink. I'm what they call a recovered alcoholic.
Q. Tell me about the early radio days.
A. Well, I came to CBS in New York in 1934. I was 22 then, and the announcing staff had guys like Bert Parks, Harry Von Zell, Andre Baruch, Paul Douglas and Frank Gallop.
I was lucky, very successful right off the bat, used to do remotes at night with all the top bands — Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington.
Later, I did "Amos 'n Andy," Bob Hope's, first radio shows, the old "Hit Parade." Also did commercials on Jack Benny's show and worked with W.C. Fields and Robert Benchley.
Q. Is it true show business can drive a guy to drink?
A. Not show business alone. It's more the alcoholic culture we have that drives people to drink. We're dealing here with America's favorite social drug, alcohol.
And it is a drug. You're supposed to ingest it to have fun. And I believed it then, even though I didn't come from a drinking background. My father was a Methodist minister in Texas.
Q. But the early days in New York, they were the fun-drinking days?
A. Yes. Like with Bob Benchley. He was a great man, a great friend. Many was the time he took me on a tour of the town he wrote about in the "New Yorker."
But rarely did we get loaded. He was stimulating enough, a wonderful, funny guy.
Q. I take it, though, there were mornings you'd come in after a night of serious drinking, dragons in your head, mush in the mouth, and somehow have to sound sharp and alert on the air?
A. Oh, yes. And you were either a pro or not a pro. You pulled yourself together, and delivered, plain and all. And if you weren't a pro, you were soon out of the business.
Q. Engineer gives the signal, you rise from the ashes?
A. That's right. There were no excuses.
Q. And collapse afterwards?
A. That's right, too. You'd go down to Lebus, the CBS bar, and have a quick snort to put you a-right again. But the bartenders were very protective.
If you had more shows to do, they'd say, "Not until after work." After you finished, though, the bartender, he'd get soused with you.
Q. So not many on-air people drank before a show?
A. It was very rare. Hope never drank when he was working. None of the great talents did. But sometimes musicians, directors, producers, advertising men did. Because each show actually was two.
We all had three hours to kill between the first live show in the East, and the repeat show — also live — for the West Coast.
Q. The second show had hazards, then?
A. Oh, yes. Once, Andre Kostelanetz was conducting a music program for Chesterfield when suddenly the baton flew out his hand, right into the bell of Jack Jenney's trombone.
Jack was about half-loaded on brandy at the time and whispered under his breath, “Well, if that ain't throwing a cue, I'll kiss.”
You didn't hear the remark on the air. All you heard was the band falling apart, first the brass section, then the reeds. The band just disintegrated.
Q. Funny story. What about the sad ones?
A. Guy we knew did a 15-minute newscast at night. One night, a cold one in January, he came in loaded. The studio was warm and the booze hit him right away.
He couldn't say anything, his teeth got in the way. He had to battle his way through his newscast. He knew he'd blown it. And he walked right out of the studio and they never heard of him again. They didn't even know where to send his last paycheck.
Q. Tell me about W.C. Fields, who wasn't known to shun strong drink. He was an alcoholic?
A. No question. Towards the end, his tolerance went down. I did a show with him in Hollywood about that time. The premise was a gag letter asking him to drink a glass of water.
He was a sick man then, couldn't stand up. People were assigned to keep him sober, away from drink, until after the show. At rehearsal, he was in rare form, full of wild, funny ad-libs that made all of us fall apart.
But at show time, he was thoroughly smashed. We didn't realize he'd stashed his booze in this hollow cane he carried around. The show was a sad mishmash. It wasn't funny at all.
And he was totally confused as to why people didn't laugh. They didn't laugh because he was schnockered and couldn't read his lines.
Q. Is it possible to drink heavily but not be an alcoholic?
A. It is, for a while. But if the hard drinker keeps on being a hard drinker, he'll become, an alcoholic.
Q. Which is what happened to you in the Hollywood days, after the war, didn't it?
A. Yeah. I didn't know alcoholism was a disease then. My drinking was getting out of control. I nearly drank myself to death trying to have fun.
I knew it was not the real me. I was now drinking just to stay even, to function, survive, not to get high or have fun. But I still did it after work. I did hundreds of shows with hangovers.
It got to where not only was my work affected, but also my family. And that caused me great remorse, great pain.
Q. When you were drinking heavily, did it cross your mind it might affect your kids so much that one even wound up in journalism?
A. No. (Laughter) When you're in the grip of alcoholism, you're so self-centered with your own problems you don't want to talk to anybody about it.
The main problem at that point is just to function, to be able to bring money in and take care of the family, You don't say, "My God, what is this doing to my kids?" You do, but not out loud.
I got to the point where I didn't know what the hell to do about the blackouts, the inability to remember where I'd been the night before or how I got home. I thought maybe I was losing my marbles, even got these suicidal thoughts.
Q. Which is where the family doctor came in, told you that you were an alcoholic, that it's a disease?
A. Yes. And he steered me to some of his patients, recovered alcoholics. They started telling me about their drinking patterns and when drinking was no fun anymore. I said, "You don't drink?" They said, "No, we just try to stay sober one day at a time."
It was my association with these recovered alcoholics that enabled me to stop drinking nearly 24 years ago. My greatest joy since has been trying to help other practicing alcoholics do what I've done.
Q. What about Alcoholics Anonymous?
A. All the knowledgeable doctors in the United States now know A.A. is the most successful way for an alcoholic to get sober and stay sober.
It's primarily one alcoholic who's not drinking helping another alcoholic who wants to stop drinking. The whole premise is that, alcoholism is a disease. You can't cure it, but you can arrest it. It's highly treatable.
Q. Some well-known folks like Dick Van Dyke, Ralph Waite of "The Waltons," Doc Severinson and lately, Betty Ford, have publicly said they're recovered alcoholics and can't drink. Why go public?
A. The whole idea of going on the record is not to take glory for having recovered, but merely to point out that alcoholism is a disease, that you can recover from it, and that no stigma should be attached to alcoholism any more than to cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
Q. About show business: Does more drinking go on there than other lines of work?
A. I don't think so. This is a cultural blight that cuts across all areas — doctors, judges, schoolteachers, steelworkers. They can get this disease and they can recover.
Q. If alcoholism is a disease, Pop, is there any evidence it's hereditary? By the way, I went on the wagon last night just in case.
A. No one's positive of it yet, there's still a lot of research going on, but the simplest answer is: More and more evidence indicates it may be.
Q. Well, thank you for lousing up my New Year's Eve plans. Incidentally, did you ever get hammered on New Year's Eve in your drinking days?
A. Naw. That was strictly for amateurs.

Del Sharbutt died in 2002 at the age of 90.

I’ve known a number of people on the air who successfully battled addictions that affected themselves and their families, friends and careers. I’ve never pried into their personal stories but I can only guess they went through hellacious times and by sheer perseverance set themselves on the right path. Del Sharbutt made that journey. He was not only a great announcer. He was, and still is, a great example.

1 comment:

  1. A great story. What a relief to read real writing after plowing through the stuff-for-hire (press releases, political stories, etc.). I am VERY appreciative that you posted this; thank you.