Monday 11 July 2016

Birds of the Radio

Network radio quickly became part of popular culture in the early 1930s and radio stars were parodied or caricatured everywhere—in feature films, on stage, in newspapers and magazines (the great Al Hirschfeld comes to mind) and even on radio itself. There seemed to be a number of mimics in the dying days of vaudeville appearing in theatres and trying to wow an audience with their approximations of Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor and so on. The Brown Derby had drawings of the stars on its walls.

Cartoons got in on the fun, too. One rarely-seen example is The Big Birdcast, a 1938 Color Rhapsody released by Columbia. The impressions aren’t exactly the greatest at times but there are enough catchphrases and screen references that just about anyone watching the cartoon back then would get the references.

The cartoon opens with the song “Sing, Baby, Sing,” and cuts to a short of a canary (?) boo-boo-boo-ing the lyrics. Who else could it be but Bing Crosby? Suddenly, a rooster pops up and screeches out a scat to the melody. If you didn’t get it from the vocalisation, he leans into the camera and squawks “Hi-ya, Buck!” Yes, it’s Andy Devine. In 1938, he was best known for greeting Jack Benny the same way before taking part in a Buck Benny Western parody sketch. Devine, by the way, actually did squeal Sing, Baby, Sing on the Benny radio show.

Rudy Vallee’s hair and megaphone are recognisable in the next scene. The megaphone gets a solo.

Violin? Town Hall? Yes, it can only be a send-up of the Jack Benny/Fred Allen feud (Allen’s show at the time was called Town Hall Tonight). Composer Joe De Nat tosses in a joke of his own when the soundtrack plays the Jell-O signature when the Benny bird is introduced (Benny was sponsored by Jell-O then), followed by a scratchy version of Love in Bloom, Benny’s theme song. Says the Allen worm: “One more lesson and I’ll play The Bee.” The radio feud began over a 10-year-old violinist’s performance of that composition by Schubert, followed by a crack by Allen about Benny’s musicianship. The worm then launches into the composition after splitting up into, well, bees. The Benny bird escapes into a hollow tree and emerges in a cowboy costume as “Buck.”

The other radio feud—Ben Bernie (“the old maestro and all the lads”) and gossip columnist Walter Winchell (“this is Mrs. Finchell’s boy Walter” “with lotions of love”—Winchell was sponsored by Jergen’s Lotion).

Eddie Cantor (the bird version fits in a reference to Ida and that putt-putt-putt noise the real Cantor used to make on the air). The large bird with the tuba has a Greek accent, meaning he’s Parkyakarkus, a character on Cantor’s show played by Harry Einstein (I’m presuming the talking microphone is supposed to be Cantor’s announcer, Jimmy Wallington, though it doesn’t sound anything like him).

Ed Wynn, Joe Penner (with Goo Goo the duck), and the NBC chimes all make appearances with some more obscure parody caricatures.

Danny Webb shows up on Columbia’s doorstep to do the same Penner impression you hear in Warner Bros. cartoons. He does a number of the other voices as well. Manny Gould receives the sole animation credits.


  1. Eric O. Costello11 July 2016 at 16:52

    The very opening of the cartoon features Wendell Hall (the Red Headed Music Maker), in a role similar to that which he played on "The Gillette Community Sing" (also parodied in Tashlin's cartoon "The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos" for WB).

    Ed Wynn at 4.35 -- a bit unusual, since in many respects he'd fallen way down in the league tables from when he was a huge figure in radio as the Texaco Fire Chief. Query if the Graham is a reference to "The Perfect Foil," Graham MacNamee.

    "Primo Canary" is likely a play on Primo Carnera, who had been a heavyweight boxing champ a few years before.

  2. I discovered another old radio parody today. Remember "Prissy" the old-maid hen in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons? She would say "eeYESssss" in a rather deep voice, answering Foghorn's questions. On the Milton Berle radio show he had a loudmouth friend (Alan Reed in full Fred Flinstone voice), and that character had a wife who only ever said "eeYESsss" in exactly the same way! Available to hear on The Internet Archive.

  3. "The Woods are Full of Cuckoos"(directed by Frank Tash, 1937) ,WB/Schlesingeror "Who Killed Cock Robin"(directed by?,193?), UA/Disney, are THE old-time era cartoons with stars, esp. radio, as most would think of, when it comes to birds with these. (After all, the Colkumbia cartoons have been long out of distribution).

    Greg, Keith Scvott already discovered that,one, Perk Kelton (who did a version of the Honeymooners as Alicve, the very same studio that the Flintstones was baSED ON). I can very easily imagine Alan Reed doing WB cartoon voices (the Flintstone voice, Greg, as you describe for all of the Daws Butler/Jackie Gleason voices), and nstead of Tedd Pierce for that dumb "Hare Force" dog, I can TOTALLY imagine Alan Reed's dumb voice (as when Fred got conked on the the second time in the series, Season 5's "Monster Fred" after the first season's "Split Personality"), being used for that "Sylvester" dog, not to mention the "Frederiuck" voice from the season 1 Flintstone amnesia epic I mention above.

    Dirty rotten shame that Warners, not even Robert McKimson, whose own unqiueness often manifested ITSELF with using unqiue choices for voices pun intended) like SHeldon Leonard et al, never considered Alan Reed, or the voice Greg mentioned, who is Pert Kelton, in McKImson;'s own Foghorn Series, suprised Kelton was not used for Prissy, maybe East coast based (same reason Kenny "the original Foghorn" Delmar wasn;'t used), also competitive with the actual radio characters being spooed. SC

  4. Oh--and of coruse ALAN REED's dub voice was used for Touche Touche (JUB,1962), buddy, Dum DUm, who was a dumb dog who the similiar voice as the dog Bugs raN Afoul of in 1944's "Hare Force' who was actually Tedd Pierce..