Wednesday 6 August 2014

Flame War, 1950-Style

You see it on web forums, Twitter, comment sections on news sites, and Facebook—people getting into angry discussions, sometimes with perfect strangers. Bible verses are flung, flag-waving patriotism is invoked, finger-wagging comparisons to Mr. Schicklgruber’s other name are shot back. Yet this sort of thing wasn’t the invention of social media or the internet. It goes back to the days of that quaint concept, Letters to the Editor.

Quaint, as well, is the idea that someone would get hyperbolic about seeing a low neckline of a dress on a fuzzy black-and-white picture tube. But that was the uptight 1950s for you. Mind you, there was that Janet Jackson thing a few years ago that caused the Offended-for-the-sake-of-being-offended crowd to rise up and cluck furiously. Meanwhile, back in 1950, this horrible, scandalous sight was broadcast by the casual, ukeleke-strumming redhead, Arthur Godfrey. What happened so unhinged the population of Racine, Wisconsin (home of Aero-Wax, by the way), that it became front-page news.

So here is the 1950 version of an internet flame war from the Racine Journal Times of October 20th that year. No picture of the salacious, sinful neckline in question was published.

Godfrey TV Show Stirs Racine Critics

Is Arthur Godfrey, star of radio and television, vulgar?
That question has raised a tempest in a teapot in Racine.
It all started when a Racine woman wrote a letter to Godfrey in which she censured him for showing a picture on TV of a woman in a low-neck dress. She termed it indecent, and sent a copy of the letter to "Reading a Columnist's Mail" in the Journal-Times.
Other letters followed. Some defended Godfrey; others pointed the finger at him.
Clicked in 1945.
Nearly everywhere TV viewers gather in Racine—in home or tavern—Godfrey and his programs are being discussed with the viewers arguing his merits pro and con.
Who is Godfrey?
The 47-year-old Arthur Godfrey left high school in Hasbrouck Heights, N. J., when he was a sophomore and started out on a hit and miss career of odd jobs. The first was office boy to a New York architect for $10 a week. Coal miner, rubber plant worker, Navy radio man, taxi driver and Coast Guardsman followed. He got his start in radio, in 1929, but it was not until 194S that he really clicked. Fellow Coast Guards egged him into a Baltimore radio station where amateurs were welcome.
He was signed by a pet shop that sold bird seed, and billed as Red Godfrey, the warbling ban-joist. The pay was $5.
What has easy-going Godfrey got?
The boys in radio and show business would like to know. As Richard Kleiner, NEA writer, put it, "He sings, but he isn't a serious threat to Crosby. He tells pleasant little jokes but nobody dies from excessive laughter. He emcees three shows, but spends most of his air time talking about his airplanes and his Virginia farm."
Has an Audience.
According to the radio crowd, Godfrey's got absolutely nothing—except a large audience, many of whom will jump down the throat of anyone who says anything against him.
CBS may not care what he's got, but it is aware that this year Godfrey will account for some $7,000,000 of the radio and TV business Columbia Broadcasting System brings in.
Two decades after Godfrey received his $5 a performance, reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission show that the radio and TV star was paid more than $440,000 by CBS alone—more than CBS vice presidents get.
Godfrey's speaking voice is a rusty rumble, often described as sounding like a bull frog, a bassoon or north wind whistling over a pile of rusty bath tubs.
He is known for the impudent manner in which he handles commercials, making his sponsors wince.
Once, for example, he described lipstick and was telling the price and size of the brand:
"For two bucks they'll probably pipe the goo right into your boudoir."
Discussing a shampoo which had eggs and milk as ingredients, he said:
"And if your hair is clean it makes a fine omelet."
Often he will stop right in the middle of a commercial with a "Nuts to that," or "What tripe."
Doesn't Use Script.
Godfrey doesn't use a script, and only his television program has any semblance of preparation. And he changes that at his whim, driving his production staff and performers daffy.
Godfrey believes his own success lies in what he calls personalized broadcasting—he figures people like to feel they are part of a conversational group, friends, not "ladies and gentlemen" in a crowd to be addressed.
Whatever Godfrey's got, he causes violent reaction, such as the Racine woman who called herself "Disturbed", and wrote the original letter criticizing him.
Some excerpts from his critics and defenders follow:
Disturbed - Your TV show of Oct. 4 must have pleased the devil. I know he enjoyed the magazine cover you flaunted before the eyes of the public ... I was glad my children were not at home to see the half-naked girl . . . The girls who wear those plunging neck' lines on your programs and on others are no inspiration for good. ... Give us a clean program.
Bible Is Quoted.
North Side Father-You seem to take an evil view of the human body. Read the Bible, Book of Genesis, Chapter 2-25th verse: "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." My advice to you, Disturbed, is to live in the current century. Not the previous one.
LaSalle Streeter-Tune In a different station . . . That's what those knobs on your set are for.
Determined - Godfrey's programs have always been on the naked side and very vulgar. Just to listen to A. G.'s voice is enough to realize what the rest of the program will be-one vulgarism after another.
Bible Reader-North Side Father quotes the Bible (Genesis 2 V 25) that "they were naked and not ashamed," meaning Adam and Eve ... It was before they had sinned. Chapter 3 V 7 (after they had disobeyed God) "And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons."
Student of Logic-(North Side Father) is guilty of contradictory statements by first justifying the nude TV picture as sex instruction, and then stating his children will know about sex "not from books or pictures." ... He advises Disturbed to live in the current century. Northside Father has violated his own principle when he advises Disturbed to disregard anything but what is of the present moment. If Disturbed’s argument that nudity in TV is immoral is valid then it would be immoral in any century. Please, Northside Father, be logical. Another North Sider—It’s funny how many people enjoy the trash Godfrey puts out, when there are so many good programs on the air.
Hits Shop Jokes.
West Side Miss—Some people make me sick. I would like to know just what vulgarisms Arthur Godfrey displays on his programs. I’ll be a top of men and women have seen a lot more vulgarisms going on right before their eyes. What about some of those rotten jokes their husbands bring home from the shop?
North Side Mother—I never miss a (Godfrey) program if I can help him. To me he is a great entertainer and a good American. Now don’t get the idea that I like vulgar radio programs. I imagine a few things he says could be taken in different ways. I never noticed. But then I have a clean mind.
Disgusted Too—I like his (Godfrey’s) program very much, but since when did this country lose their freedom? . . . It’s getting pretty bad when we start judging other people.
Disgusted (in rebuttal to North Side Father)—There is nothing wrong with sex when it is kept clean. Why, Mr. North Side Father, did you think of sex as soon as you read about a half-clad (not nude) woman? I believe your doing so proves my point...If wanting to be a good mother makes me old fashioned...I hope God will keep me that way.

One of the letters actually contains the best advice. If you don’t like something on TV, don’t watch it. If you don’t like this post, well, we’ll be back to old cartoons again tomorrow. Old radio and TV returns next Wednesday.


  1. Very good article...! I'd known of Arthur Godfrey as (aside from the infamous Julius La Rosa firing in 1953 of course) a friendly old uncle then later knew of his shenanagans, but this article is really interesting..enjoyed his recvordings..SteveC

  2. Racine, WI is the home of S.C. Johnson and their products...Aero-Was was marketed by one of the divisions of American Home Products.