Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Unpredictable Morgan

Henry Morgan was one of radio’s great satirists. Sometimes, you got the impression he was enjoying making fun of certain ridiculous aspects of his industry, such as his take on the Dr. I.Q. programme. Other times, you were left with the distinct feeling he didn’t have any respect or a lot of time for something—like the way he treated his sponsor’s advertising claims.

Fred Allen always seemed to me to be bitter and unhappy much of the time, but Morgan apparently topped that. His admiring co-workers, like the wonderful Arnold Stang, talked of how he always managed to implode and sabotage his own career. It’s too bad. But Morgan left us with an enjoyable, though brief, take on what he thought a half hour comedy-variety show should contain.

Here’s a piece from the August 1948 edition of Radio Best magazine, a fine publication with oodles of network publicity photos; it’s a shame they’re so low-resolution in the scanned version you see below. It may contain the best analysis of Morgan.

Henry Morgan: He’s So Unpredictable

THE ONLY excuse I can give for having liked Henry Morgan through about a dozen years of acquaintance is that the guy is funny, even if a bit difficult. Besides, there's something appealing in a fellow who has declared war upon the entire adult human race. You can't help feeling he's a mite heroic — even if he occasionally fires a few barbs of wit at you too. Henry included me in his personal vendetta from the first time we met — but he'd done the same with just about every one of our mutual friends and acquaintances.
On a summer day, back around 1935 or so, I dropped in at the 'Artist's Lounge' of the CBS Philadelphia outlet, WCAU, having just concluded a pleasant conference with the program director. In those days, the WCAU 'Artist's Lounge' was virtual clubroom for many later-famous radio people. Now the comfortable, modern room lies dark and deserted-looking back, so to speak, upon its past glories to some of the brightest names in show business, including a short period of serving as an office for conductor Leopold Stokowski. But in the thirties, it was the favored rendezvous for such (then) hopefuls as Lynn Murray, Charles Stark, Jan Savitt and quite a few others, including the inimitable Morgan.
On that particular day, I found the room relatively quiet and uncrowded. Announcer Mort Lawrence was playing the role of a Gypsy fortune-teller (with a hilarious accent) to Jan Savitt's vocalist. Charlie Stark was discussing the relative merits of his newly grown (and short-lived) mustache with Hugh Walton — an old hand at the hair-on-the-upperlip game. And several young actresses, whose principle activity seemed to be looking red and lovely, were occupied in looking nonchalant.
I said hello to the gang and gravitated to a spot next in line to have my future mapped out in dialect, when I became aware of a youthful, leering face off in a corner. He was about my own age, which is why his cynical expression interested me all the more. I moved around beside Mort Lawrence and nudged him to attract his attention.
"What is it, Infant? asked Mort.
"Who's the sulky-looking character?" I whispered.
"He's a new junior announcer the network sent us," replied Lawrence. "Name is Henry Morgan."
With mixed feelings, I studied the newcomer. Finally deciding I was pleased at finding a fellow juvenile in that hot-bed of sophistication, I gradually worked my way and the room until I found myself seated in the chair adjoining Henry's. After some minutes, he turned heavy-lidded eyes upon me-looking like a dissipated child-prodigy. Suddenly, he snapped, "What do you do?"
Being young, I was easily flustered.
"Why . . I . . well . . write script" Then, by way of reconciliation — "I'm probably not very good at it, though."
"If you can't write," sneered Morgan. "why do you?"
"Became I'm not stupid enough to he an 'announcer'," I replied with growing warmth. Henry's eyes lit up with the joy of a battle.
"Do much reading?" he asked, paternally. "Have you studied the classics? Do you read contemporary plays and stories?"
Although I was beginning to simmer, I tried not to show it. "I never read," I parried. "I write!"
Henry started to smile, caught himself, then launched into a long dissertation on the craft of writing, meanwhile outlining an impressive course of supplementary reading. At least it impressed me (it still impresses me). After a while, I realized that Henry wasn't only addressing his remarks to me. From time to time, he looked around to one if anyone else were listening — but apparently they weren't. Like a Tropical dawn, a great light broke upon me. Henry was just another kid like myself, and it was his way of trying to win acceptance. After about twenty minutes of addressing an audience of one (the room had slowly emptied) he gave up. We talked a while longer, slowly becoming friendly, and I ended by inviting him to go sailing with me my new boat. Henry smiled graciously and accepted.
"I'm so crazy about boats," he confided, "that I go riding back and forth on the Philadelphia-Camden Ferry boats."
Unfortunately, we never did keep that date. Henry was assigned to the night-time schedule, while I was busy days. I saw him occasionally, usually for only a few minutes at time, then came in one day to find Henry gone. He had gotten weary of the night-work and inserted the station manager's name in the regular, nightly missing persons broadcast! As he'd expected — it got quick action in relieving his late hours.
Henry had gone to New York, and from time to time, I heard about his escapades from mutual friends, or read about them in the trade press.
There was the time he worked for WOR and John Hays, the assistant program director, needed a fifteen-minute program for Saturday morning, but found he had no money in the budget for that purpose. Mitchell Benson, then the stations commercial program manager, was already a Morgan fan and urged him upon Hays. So Here's Morgan was born.
Like other radio people, I listened to the program every chance I got. As a matter of fact, from the first day it was heard, Here's Morgan was so popular with insiders; gag writers, engineers, executives and their secretaries, that Henry's program became one of the most talked about in the trade. He became a favorite of many radio listeners also, and the process began which has snowballed Henry Morgan into one of present-day radio's top comedians. It was on this program, that Henry pulled his classic gag. After a row with the execs of WOR (which he gleefully related in detail to his radio audience) he 'auctioned' off the entire network on the air, station by station, vice-president — president by vice-president, for $83 — including good will.
There were other evidences of the bad-little-boy technique — of straining like anything to be un-predictable. Lunching one day with several old acquaintances, Henry suddenly noticed that his watch had stopped running. "Well, what do ya know," he said, "the doggone thing's stopped." Ripping it off his wrist, he slang it across the restaurant floor and left it there!
When he left WOR for the Army, the first inkling the station had was his announcement over the air on his last broadcast before reporting for induction.
. . . And before the Army got him, there were his famous weather reports which almost made him a marked man with Uncle Sam. Samples: "High winds followed by high skirts, followed by me. Hail — followed by fellows well met. Squalls — followed by quickly changing mothers." When weather reports were restricted by the War Department, Henry still tried to sneak them in and didn't stop until he found himself threatened by serious trouble.
So you see, anything can happen with the guy — which is why I wondered if it would be wise to interview Henry in order to do a feature story.
Ordinarily, an interview is just a pleasant way of getting up-to-the-minute information for story, but the prospect of a formal interview with Henry gave me a pause. Henry can be quite difficult with reporters. If you pry, he bristles with wit and enjoys making up a story. One of his accounts once started off: "I was born of mixed parentage — man and woman — on the day before April Fool's day, 1915. That's Taurus — under the sign of the Bull. I had breakfast immediately ... "
No! I definitely wasn't going to expose myself to that sort of thing. I went into my editor's office. "Look, boss," I began. "About that Henry Morgan story ... "
"Now that's what I call good work," my editor beamed. "I only assigned the story a half hour ago, and you have it done."
"Uh ... not quite," I mumbled. "I was wondering whether I ought to interview him."
I was treated to a fishy stare. "You act as if you're afraid of Morgan."
"Well, frankly," I said, "I am. If I see him around and ask him one or two questions, he sometimes gives me straight answers. But a formal interview would be asking for trouble."
"Make it informal, then," growled the boss. "Make a date with him for lunch."
I went back to my desk and sat staring at my telephone for a long time, unable to decide whether to call Morgan. I didn't need to interview him, I argued with myself. I knew plenty about him. I knew he was born the son of a New York banker named Von Ost, got his early schooling in Manhattan, then two lonely, bitter years at Harrisburg Academy — where he made no friends. I knew Henry was mighty unhappy guy and had been all his life. Why interview him and call up tattered ghosts, old, wanted memories of how his parents had separated - or the recent hurt of seeing his own marriage follow a similar pattern? One of the reasons I'd always felt soft toward him was because I knew he was one of the loneliest persons I'd over encountered.
What could be added to the remembrance of him at the age of eighteen. making $19 a week as the youngest announcer in town? Wasn't it partly those days as young, underpaid staff member, virtually ignored by older radio folks, living in a strange city, that so greatly flavored his present defensive attitude? Now thirty-three, earning over a thousand a week, much sought-after and flattered, Henry still couldn't shake off an attitude of suspicion. That sharp, satirical wit is just a brave front to cover his immature sensitivity — a subject I had discussed with many mutual friends, including such perceptive artists as Norman Corwin and Fred Allen. How get anything more from a interview? Morgan would either off a few dozen jokes or, if he felt self-conscious, start his 'dutch uncle' routine.
Finally, I sighed and reached for the telephone.
When I met him at the restaurant, Henry was reading a borrowed copy of the trade-paper "Variety." Morgan explained that he read it in self-defense, because there was sure to be something in it that people would ask him about later in the day. We went in to eat and talk, and Henry got a fast start and spent almost the entire hour advising me on how to behave and write my features. I clearly remember only nice thing he said (I should remember, he repeated it about five times!) "Don't make enemies of the right people." The rest of the time he devoted to 'bon mots' such as — "Jack Eigen is the greatest no-talent in radio."
Just as in the first time we met, Henry seemed to he addressing a larger audience than his companion looking about from time to time. I didn't get a single thing worth quoting, but I didn't mind that so much. After all, it was not entirely unexpected. Morgan has dedicated himself to the task of contradicting people — if he can't surprise them, That's why he has fostered a reputation for 'being unpredictable.'
But he doesn't fool people who know him well. The interview turned out pretty much as expected. What really got my goat, was that the restaurant features buffet-style luncheons and Henry only went up for one helping! Not wanting to appear rude, I didn't go back for a 'second' and was hungry all afternoon.... So not only do I get an expected earbeating, but I suffer the pangs of hunger — all to interview a personality about whom I could write a book. And just because he wants to be known as 'unpredictable.'
As friend Arnold Stang would say (in his role as Gerard) — "Huh! What's not to predict?"

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy this stuff! For those of us around to remember, Morgan will always be one of those great purveyors of sophisticated humor/commentary that one could once find on TV. In his case it was the original I'VE GOT A SECRET. His snarly s.o.b. bit was fun, especially when being continually teased by way-cute Betsy Palmer.

    By the way, Morgan's straight acting in the gangster film MURDER, INC is well worth seeing.