Sunday, 24 June 2018

Domestic Life With Phil and Alice

One of the great ground-breaking characters of radio was Phil Harris.

When he arrived on the Jack Benny show in 1936, the writers completely miscast the bandleader in an argumentative role with Benny. Then, thanks partly to the Buck Benny sketches in the second half of the show, they changed him. They made him a fun-loving tippler, braggart and playboy, expanding it further to make him really larger than life. When Harris left the show in 1952, there was no replacing him.

Benny and his writers had to tread carefully. NBC censors weren’t very high on glorifying drinking or sexual escapades. But Phil’s character was so over-the-top, no one could take it seriously.

Harris used the fame from the Benny show to spin off his own successful radio series with his wife Alice Faye. It’s therefore appropriate on the 114th anniversary of Harris’ birth to pass along this lengthy feature story from the Radio-TV Mirror of February 1948. Fan magazines can exaggerate and be loose with the facts, so I wonder if the Harris’ real grocery boy was named Julius.


I HAVE two lovely children — Alice, aged five, and Phyllis, aged three — an Encino ranch home — and a broadcast to do every week for the Bandwagon show. Wouldn't you think that was enough problems for one woman? But, as every wife can tell you, it's only the beginning! Bringing up a husband is a career all in itself.
(And just about the time I'm congratulating myself I've put a fast one across and Phil is seeing the error of his ways — I find the tables have been turned — I've been out-maneuvered — and I'm left wondering who's bringing up whom.)
With my girls I can usually count on the arithmetic table, the Golden Rule, and patience seeing me through; but bringing up a husband is something no book can explain and no rule help out. It's strictly catch-as-catch-can and keeping your eyes wide open for traps.
And do you know, Phil as you hear him on the Bandwagon show very much resembles the real Phil at home!
Take the other morning, for example.
Phil is anything but lazy, but lying in bed mornings is his idea of the natural way for a human being to live. He was orchestra leader, with his own band, at the Cocoanut Grove and the Wilshire Bowl in Los Angeles for so many years that to him the day never begins before noon and should always end at four a.m. Now that our hours are more normal ones, with the Bandwagon show and the Jack Benny show both early on Sunday evenings at the National Broadcasting Company studios, we can live the way I've always wanted to — like other people —
But it's hard to break a habit.
"Phil—" I call to him— "it's time to get up. Breakfast is ready." There's a slight stir from the bedroom. "Hmmmph? Oh, yeah, breakfast. Sure. Sure," he mumbles. Then there is silence again.
"No, Phil — you don't understand." I'm still being sweet and patient at this point. "Breakfast is on the table. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. Alice says you promised to mend her wagon this morning. And you said last night you wanted to paint Wanda's doghouse today. It's time to get up."
I peek in the bedroom door just in time to see him shudder. "Aw, honey — it's the middle of the night — only eight o'clock!"
"Okay — okay, sugar. Be right out." And with that he flops over and buries his nose again in the pillow.
I count up to ten.
"Do you want us to pretend we're Indians, like we did yesterday morning, and we're going to scalp Daddy?" Little Alice and Phyllis ask eagerly.
"Not this morning. This time I'm going to try psychology. Phil — oh, Phil — " I call, softly — "the grocery boy will be here any minute and you know what Julius always says about you."
There is wary silence from the bedroom and then a yell of outrage. "What does that little rutabaga say about me?"
"We — ell, he says you're a— no, I can't tell you. I can't bear to repeat it."

Sounds of threshing about of bedclothes and a resounding thump as feet hit the floor; then the master of the house strides into the kitchen, belting his robe around him. There is fire in his eye.
"Why, that fugitive from a potato patch! I'll tell him a coupla things! Just because he's nuts about you he doesn't haff to be goin' round telling things like that about me. Trying to separate a man and his ever-lovin' little wife — that little grapefruit squirt! Why, honey, you know I'd never do anything like that!"
"Like what, Phil?"
"Like — like — well, whatever he said about me. Look at me, honey. I'm a good husband! I'm a good provider! I'm the best father our kids have! Maybe I can't spout poetry at you like that Julius, but I'm handsome and clean-livin' and — and — and — well, handsome." He snorted once more, but then his attention was diverted. "What's this — waffles? Hmmmm, man — I do like waffles."
And he settled himself at the breakfast table and the day began. The wonderful good humor which is such a prominent quality of Phil's asserted itself and when Julius, our teen-age grocery boy and friend, did appear a few minutes later the insults they exchanged were as harmless as they were good-natured.
Afterwards he went with Alice to fix the wheel on her wagon. Anything more complicated than that, my daughters have learned to get repaired elsewhere — Phil has an insatiable desire to take machinery apart and he just hasn't the knack of putting it together again. It keeps me busy trying to anticipate when things are about to break down in the house — I want to be very sure to have the plumber or the carpenter or the clock-repairer on hand before Phil sees the trouble and starts to tinker with it, himself.

It's still amazing to me to see how domestic and home-loving Phil has become. Orchestras, night clubs, tours, one night stands — these were standard equipment to him once, but for the past five years he's been a stay-at-home and he loves it as much as I do.
"Imagine — " he marveled to me the other day — "having one whole room just for eating and another for cooking and one just for sitting down. And green grass outside, without any 'Keep Off' sign on it. I've lived in apartments and hotels and train compartments so long I'm still not used to this home-life stuff."
Used to it or not, Phil takes to this 'home-life stuff' with all the enthusiasm of an explorer arriving in the promised land. In fact, most of my job of bringing-up my husband consists of holding some of that enthusiasm in check, or else every time he saw something new for the house we'd have it — if it were anything from a new kind of rose to a new kitchen gadget, he'd be lugging them home by the bushel basket.
He even likes the household chores — when he remembers them. He cheerfully exercises Wanda and Kip, our dogs, putters around the garage, willingly obeys the gardener's orders to trim the garden walks, arranges, rearranges, polishes and oils his collection of guns and fishing tackle in the den. And in the evenings when we aren't broadcasting he much prefers to invite some of our friends over to sit around the fire and talk or listen to the radio, than to go nightclubbing.
I don't think it was my doing, either. I think we were both ready, after our separate and hectic careers, to settle down. To do things together. To make plans for the future that would insure permanence and stability in our lives. But motherhood, somehow, has made the change easier for me; Phil has had to make a few of the adjustments the hard way.
It seems strange to me that I should so passionately love being a homemaker — when in years past I was just as passionately anxious to let nothing interfere with my career as an actress. While I was in the George White "Scandals"; when I travelled with Rudy Vallee and his orchestra, singing; and all the while I was making motion pictures, acting — being a star — were the only worthwhile things in the world.
The change was an abrupt one. With marriage to Phil Harris and with the coming of little Alice and then Phyllis, a career seemed suddenly unimportant. Keeping our family together and keeping them happy came first, and being an actress came second. But I didn't really want to give up the last — not entirely . . . and Phil agreed.
Then along came the Bandwagon show, to star Phil and me, and there simply was no problem any more. I found I enjoyed radio work. And rehearsals and broadcasts take up very little out of the week; the rest of the days I can concentrate on bringing up Alice and Phyllis — and Phil.
It's that boyish quality that I so like in him, that can also be so exasperating. He goes headlong into a new experience or a new hobby or a new job with an impulsive eagerness which can sometimes land him flat on his face. At times like these, the women of his family stand by to help.

THERE was the time he decided to build a brick barbecue in the patio at the back of the house.
The first I heard of it was when a man came to the door.
"Lady, where do you want them put?" he demanded.
"Put what?" Then I saw them — a whole truckload of new, shining red bricks. "Phil! Did you order all these bricks?"
He came rushing out from the garage — proud and happy. "I sure did, honey. I'm goin' to build us the best and the biggest barbecue in the whole of Encino."
The truck driver sniffed. "Whattya expect to roast in it — a jumbo elephant? You got enough bricks here to build the Chinese Wall."
"Okay, wise guy — you just wait and see. I don't fool around with no piddlin' little handful of bricks when I set out to do a job. This is going to be a biff barbecue."
It was a big one. When it was finished it was immense — also, it had a slight slant to windward and a tendency to billow out clouds of black smoke everytime it was used. But that was unimportant. What did worry me was the huge pile of bricks left over and still sitting on the edge of the patio.
"Now what?" I asked Phil. "What do we do with those?"
He sighed. "Yeah, I guess there are a few extras. Tell you what! Alice and Phyllis could use a few to pull around in their toy trucks."
"They'll use all of two or three bricks," I said, witheringly. "Or do you expect them to build a house?"
"There must be something."
"There certainly is. I've always wanted a brick walk down to the incinerator and the incinerator itself is falling apart and I'd like a brick wall all along the driveway and We could have a nice circular seat under that pepoer tree made of bricks and — "
"Hey, wait a minute. Aw — honey — "

And from then on, everytime Phil gets these large expansive ideas with too much of everything, all anyone needs to do around our house is to say 'bricks'! That stops him.
Of course, one of the first things I tackled in this business of bringing up a husband was the matter of Phil's language. The way he drops his g's and says 'ain't' and his murdering of the King's English was not the best example for the children to follow. I tried very hard at first to change this. Put I soon stopped trying.
Because Phil doesn't want to speak correctly — and there's a reason and I respect that reason. He knows good grammar, but as far as he's concerned it's only a nodding acquaintance and that's the way he wants it. It comes from his hatred of stuffed shirts and his horror of putting on airs. He is the most democratic person alive and his bad grammar is his way of thumbing his nose at social la-di-da conventions. I'd much rather have him that way and know that Phyllis and Alice will grow up with his same easy tolerance of the world, than have him be their model for pure English. They'll learn not to copy his language; they've already learned to understand his true evaluation of people, regardless of their manners or money.
When Phil first organized his own orchestra with some other boys from Nashville, Tennessee, he found himself knocking around the country wherever the "Dixie Syncopaters" could get jobs — barnstorming in small joints and dance halls, before they graduated to the big time in the Princess Theatre in Honolulu. It was a tough, rough education, this barnstorming, and Phil had to hold his own against the kind of drunken, unthinking insults some fellows on a dance floor always direct to a man singing on a bandstand. At first he handled these insults with his fists. But later he learned to out-talk and out-insult the insulters — and by singing and talking in the slangy way he has developed. No one then could accuse him of being a sissy . . . even with that southern accent of his.
And one of those instances where I wonder today "who's bringing up whom?" was the matter of our library. When we were first married it seemed to me as if Phil's reading matter consisted solely of hunting and fishing magazines, so I stocked the library shelves with the best of the classics and the latest of good modern fiction and non-fiction. Then I began to plan my campaign of introducing them to Phil.

THE campaign backfired. Somehow — between taking care of the children and taking care of the house and rehearsing for broadcasts and all the rest of it — I find I have very little time left to read and Phil is always about five laps ahead of me! It's very disconcerting to plan to be teacher and find myself audience, instead. "You really oughta read this, Alice," he'll say to me, reproachfully. "This professor guy knows all about neuroses and things like that. If you don't read it, howdya know you ain't got a complex?"
I know I almost did have a complex over Phil's determination that I should be an athlete. He is an enthusiast over sports of any kind: baseball, fishing, hunting, golf, horseback riding. And he wanted me to share that enthusiasm.
It was on the subject of horses that we crossed swords. He had long ago given up hope that I might be induced to wade around icy streams over slippery stones to catch a fish — when I couldn't even put a worm on a hook without shuddering. Or shooting when I'm terrified even of the unloaded guns in the racks of our den. But he still thought he could make a horsewoman out of me.
Little did he know. At that time a horse was just a huge, ferocious beast to me, with large, hungry teeth that would bite if I came within two feet of him, and a back that was made of sharp bones for my own personal torture.
"Come on, honey — " Phil would beg — "just try it, once. If you don't like it I'll never ask you again."
I shuddered, but this seemed like a good opportunity to settle it once and for all. Just once — and that would be the end of horses and I would have some peace. So I agreed.
At the stables, when they brought out the tame, gentle creature I was supposed to ride, I felt like a lamb led to the slaughter. They hoisted me onto his back. With my eyes closed I hung on for dear life.
"Whoa! Phil — make him stop! He's jogging up and down — "
"It's all right, Alice. He's gentle. And you're doing swell. You've got a fine seat."
"Don't g — get s-so-so personal!" The jogging was making my teeth chatter and old Pinto seemed made of nothing but a hard, unresistant spine. We started down the bridle path.
AND then Phil really went to work — that sweet-talking husband of mine! "Gee, Alice, you're doin' wonderful. And you sure do look pretty in that get-up." (I should have known this was blarney, but I was too weak to resist.) "You know, sugar, very few women can wear those rompers — "
"Jodhpurs, Phil."
"Okay, jodhpurs . . . but honestly, very few gals can wear them and look like anything in them. You look like a million dollars. Just like one of those ads in those fancy magazines of yours."
What woman could be impervious to that? I began to sit up and take notice; old Pinto and I were beginning to get together on our ups and downs and the saddle — while it was still no rocking-chair — wasn't quite so uncomfortable as it had been. Or perhaps I just wasn't aware of it.
"No kiddin', you ride that horse like you was raised in a padlock, Alice. Why, in a week you'll be jumping him; you'll be riding in horse shows!"
"I will?" I was weak enough to say.
"Certainly. And gosh, honey — you sure do look pretty. This kind of exercise puts the roses in your cheeks and your hair bounces up and down — "
"It's me bouncing up and down. My hair can't help it." But by this time I was a goner. His blandishments had had their effect; I had visions of myself seated on a horse, lightly springing over steeplechase obstacles, showing off on a tanbark.

I've been riding ever since. And the other day I suddenly realized that somehow or other Phil has even inveigled me into going on hunting trips and fishing expeditions. Didn't I say, in the beginning, I had to watch out for traps?
But I have had my innings, too. There's one problem in bringing up a husband which I'm sure every wife has to face, sooner or later. Breathes there a man who hasn't said to his wife, sometime "Women drivers! There isn't a woman born who has any sense about a car — don't know their left hand from their right!"
This matter of the family automobile is the perpetual male-vs.-female battle. Phil never came right out and said I wasn't to be trusted behind a wheel, but I always figure a hint is as good as being hit on the head. I knew what he thought. For the first few years of our marriage we got along all right; I had my own little car and even though I think my husband suspected the motor vehicle department of astigmatism when they gave me my license, he limited his worrying to just a few little coaching remarks every time I backed out of the driveway.
But just recently we bought a brand-new station wagon. And, since this was neither my car nor his car, but our car, it looked as if trouble was brewing.
Of course it was all settled in Phil's mind. As he told me, this was not the proper car to pack groceries in — this was the perfect car for hunting and fishing trips. That was his way of telling me I couldn't be trusted to know how to drive this brand-new lovely station wagon.
I waited. And said nothing.
"It's just too much for you to handle," he said to me one morning patronizingly. "It's a man's car."
So that very same day he drove off to a baseball game with a few of his friends — and came home that night with the right front fender of the car ripped completely off!
"It's all right, Phil," I assured him. "Don't worry about it. It's just the right thing, now, for packing in groceries." And I've never heard another word about my driving since.

IT'S impossible really to quarrel with Phil. He can flare up quickly; he will pretend that I have hurt him deeply, but all the time we both know he's kidding. On the few times when he believed I was really angry, he went to such absurd lengths to make things right again, that I just couldn't hold out. Like the time he brought me so many boxes of flowers we all came down with hay fever.
We're both neighborly. We both like lots of friends and we like having them drop over evenings. But it's taken me some little time to teach Phil that food has to be ordered and prepared in advance for a houseful of people; that a refrigerator is not inexhaustible. To bring him to the point of giving me some warning.
A typical day for Phil goes something like this:
He takes the children for a walk or a ride in the morning.
"Good morning, Mrs. Jones — " he calls to a neighbor — "where you been keeping yourself? Me and Alice were talkin' about you only the other day, wishin' you would come over." (And that's perfectly true: we were.) "How about tonight?"
Later he goes to the recording studio and after the recording session is over:
"Look, guys — how about bringing the platters over tonight and we'll play them back and see how they sound. Okay?"
Still later, at the Bandwagon rehearsal:
"Why don't you-all come over and we'll relax over some pretzels tonight?" ("You-all" means cast and orchestra!)
And so they all come and I love having them and it's fun for me, too — except for those frantic moments all housewives know towards the end of the evening when they are mentally counting on their fingers the number of times the ham is going to have to be sliced to be sure there are enough sandwiches to go around — and shaking the coffee tin hopefully, estimating whether there will be enough coffee for everyone.

PHIL has learned a home isn't like a hotel, where you just ring for room service if you want anything. And now he lets me know, in advance, so I can stock up at the grocery store.
Though we may not always see eye to eye on some things, raising our two little girls is a joint responsibility for Phil and me. We agree on all matters of discipline and training. "None of this rough stuff" is the way Phil puts it, and we've never found that spankings were necessary. We want Alice and Phyllis to have a normal childhood, with freedom for playing, but a sense of duty, too.
Wanda, our dog, is their playmate, but they have already learned that Wanda has his rights, too. If his ears are pulled, he's going to growl at them. They will never, as I've seen some children do, torment an animal, because they know that if a cat or dog scratches them we don't scold the animal — we explain to Alice and Phyllis that it's their responsibility not to anger the pet and to realize he has only that method of protecting himself.
Their sense of responsibility extends even to themselves. Alice looks after Phyllis with great maternal pride. This always surprises me — or perhaps it's a clue to Phil's character, too — because Alice, who looks very much like me, has all the personality of her father . . . impetuous, bubbling over with good humor, quick to catch on and a twinkle in her eye that shows she understands more than she lets on; Phyllis resembles Phil in looks, but she has my quieter, more reserved temperament.
We have deliberately kept them from having any consciousness of the lime-light that goes with radio or motion pictures in the family. We want them to grow up free of any publicity-tainted childhood — to look upon the work Phil and I do as just another job and not something glamorous to brag about to the neighbors' children.
We'll do it. As Phil says: "This bringin' up a family's a cinch as long as you got a sense of humor. And an inflexible will."
"A what kind of a will, Phil?"
"I pronounced it, didn't I? Do I have to know what it means, too?"
And that's my husband — Phil Harris.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, though I suspect that Alice had some help from the show's and the Mirror's writers... ;D