Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Vallee, the King, Santa and Ozzie

John Crosby wrote four columns a week for the New York Herald Tribune and its syndicated papers and below you’ll find a week’s worth from 1949. It makes for lengthy reading so I don’t want to take up your time with much of an introduction.

A couple, directly or indirectly, deal with the aftermath of Jack Benny jumping from NBC to CBS at the start of the year. Benny was replaced on NBC by bandleader Horace Heidt. Crosby wasn’t too impressed. Never were listeners. Heidt was moved from the spot after mid-April. The change also planted Ozzie and Harriet as the lead-in to Benny. I’ve always thought the radio show was a little too contrived but Crosby seems to have liked it. And, of course, it stayed on the air until 1966, having moved to television years earlier.

Crosby talks about Rudy Vallee’s appearance on what we know today as the Ed Sullivan Show; Vallee was probably the first huge radio variety star in the late ‘20s. And he has some odds and sods as well.
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January 7, 1949
The Vagabond Lover Is Back
Shades of 1928, look who’s back on Broadway. Rudy Vallee, matured, but looking much younger than a man of 47 has a decent right to, drifted out on the stage of “Toast of the Town,” the C.B.S. television show (Sundays 9 p.m. E.S.T.), and set the place ablaze. It must have come as quite a shock to everyone except Vallee who has always possessed over whelming self-confidence.
It certainly came as a surprise to me. I have rather idly kept track of Mr. Vallee's acting career for 20-odd years now with diminishing hope. I sat through his early movies, a painful experience; I have before me Brooks Atkinson's review of Vallee's stage appearance in The Man in Possession (1939): “He is reported as willing to spend considerable time to learn the profession. To judge by his acting last evening, the apprentice period is going to be long enough to try the patience of his friends,” wrote Mr. Atkinson.
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Just two years ago I wrote sorrowfully of Vallee's lamentable radio program: “Bandleaders just aren't comedians and never will be. Mr. Vallee still approaches a comedy line with the enthusiasm and innocence of a barroom acquaintance telling you what Bert Lahr said last night.” Well, I take it all back. In his more recent movies, Vallee seems to have caught the hang of the thing. The apprentice period, as Mr. Atkinson predicted, has been long enough to try the patience of a saint, much less a critic. But it's over now, and Vallee is entitled to great praise for perseverance alone.
On “Toast of the Town,” this new, highly polished, and extremely self-possessed Vallee walked out on the stage, exchanged pleasantries with Ed Sullivan, the emcee, displayed a dry and fetching humor and sang a whole roster of his old favorites. He dwelt a little too long on the hardships of his early career, which couldn't really have been so severe since he was making hatfuls of money before he left college.
The songs—“Deep Night,” “I'm Just a Vagabond Lover,” “Kansas City Kitty,” “Maine Stein Song,” “If You Were the Only Girl in the World,” “Betty Coed”—took me back 20 years more rapidly than I care to travel. Vallee's voice is still thin, nasal and almost non-existent but it has picked up authority. The voice doesn't really matter much any more.
SOMEWHERE IN his long, long apprenticeship, Vallee has learned the mystery of stage presence. He has a lot of charm and the advancing years have greatly improved his looks. (His face seems somehow shorter and his forehead has lost much of that tortured look.) He'd make a fine emcee of a television variety show of his own. Since Mr. Ed Sullivan, the emcee of “Toast of the Town,” has just written an essay deploring writers who try to take jobs from other writers, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not recommending Vallee as emcee of “Toast of the Town.” I just think he'd make a good emcee somewhere or other on television. Everyone straight on that now?
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The original Vallee radio show which started on NBC in 1929, when radio was not much more advanced than television is now, was an hour-long variety show almost identical to those television is now spawning. Toward the end of its 10-year run it got pretty thin, but it was a wonderful show when it started. On that program Vallee launched an imposing roster of radio stars—Edgar Bergen, Burns and Allen, and Bob Burns, to name only a few.
He appears to have a talent for that sort of thing, and television could sure use it right now. At the conclusion of his act incidentally, he'll be back there next Sunday night too—Sullivan predicted that Vallee would be “even bigger in television than you ever were in radio.” It's one of the rare times when Mr. S. and I agree.

January 10, 1949
I was one of the minority that hung around the No. 1 Spot in America the other night to hear the debut of Horace Heidt. (No, children, the No. 1 spot in America isn’t the White House any more. Guess again). Mr. Heidt moved into Jack Benny’s sacred niche on N.B.C. to the accompaniment of a thunderous roll of drums from the N.B.C. drum-beating staff, a hard working outfit, and heralded by full-page ads from coast to coast.
“H-Hour will arrive on the National Broadcasting Company network Sunday, Jan. 2, at 7 p.m., E.S.T.: wrote one of N.B.C.’s war correspondents under a White Plains dateline.
All this breast beating, though well intentioned, was actually a handicap to the bandleader. His show—it’s called the “Youth Opportunity Program”—is good enough in its way but it wasn’t worth all the fuss and feathers, and I imagine there were some severely disappointed listeners. Not too many, though. H-Hour on the No. 1 Spot in America got a Hooper of 11.7, a drop of 5.6 over his previous rating, while Benny opposite him on C.B.S. got the highest Hooper of the year, 27.8. (And incidentally, Phil Harris, who has always leaned pretty heavily on the Benny show just in front of him, dropped from 19.4 to 14.5 for his low of the season).
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The Heidt show is just another talent show with a few unusual features. The emphasis, as they never tire of telling you, is on youth. Most of the contestants are in their teens, nearly all of them are singers or musicians and, I’m ready to admit, there are very talented kids—if you like trumpet players.
Heidt must have studied the methods of the late George Washington Hill pretty closely. His show is loud, fast and on the beam. It moves, in fact, like greased lightning and is punctuated frequently by police whistles and bells to be sure we’re all still awake, as if any one could get to sleep under such circumstances.
The first contestant on the opening show on the No. 1 spot was a saxophone player—his name sped past me a little too rapidly to catch—who played “Dizzy Fingers.” That’s an appropriate name for what turned out to be a finger exercise played at supersonic speed and it was performed with extreme agility—if that sort of thing is one of your enthusiasms.
“Look out, Benny Goodman!” shouted Mr. Heidt when it was over. Heidt makes a habit of warning older members of the profession to keep an eye on their laurels in the face of these young kids. (“The Andrews Sisters—look out!” “Look out, Harry James!”) The pandemonium that greets these efforts is beyond description. Heidt’s show plays, not in small studios, but in auditoriums around the country to as many as 6,000 excitable people and they can make a whale of a lot of noise. Frequently they start making it in the middle of the number, obliterating the rest of it.
“Terrific!” shrieks Mr. Heidt. “Listen to that applause! I can’t stop it! I can’t control the crowd!” Actually, the crowd doesn’t get that far out of hand though the intensity of its enthusiasm is sometimes mystifying.
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All told there were six acts on that opening No. 1 spot, all but done at breathless speed. Speed apparently counts heavily. The winner played “Twelfth Street Rag” on a banjo and you can imagine what that was like; the youngster could get around that banjo faster than any man I’ve heard since Eddie Peabody. However, Heidt, who works hard at it, has dug up some extremely talented kids. It’d be better, though, if they’d be permitted to slow down a little and if the audience were kept out of the act. He has enlisted the support of quite a few prominent people and of civic organizations, thus giving the program an air of public service respectability. On Dec. 19, Vice-President Alben Barkley appeared on it, spoke of the great contribute Heidt was making to the youth of the nation and gave him an award from the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Robert P. Patterson appeared Jan. 2, congratulating the program for developing America’s youth and gave Heidt another trophy.
In spite of these weighty tributes, I don’t think Jack Benny has much to worry about from the No. 1 spot in America. The pace is a little too breathless over there.

January 11, 1949
Indignities on the Illustrious
A number of interesting indignities have been committed recently by or on celebrated individuals on the radio, a medium which has little respect for privacy. Here are just a few.
King Peter of Yugoslavia was interviewed on the television version of “Meet the Press” the other night. King Peter may or may not be the first monarch—if he still is one and he says he is—to confront the intrusive press in front of a television camera. But he's unquestionably the first king I’ve ever seen in an uncomfortable position. First crack out of the box one of the reporters asked:
“Do you prefer to be called king or mister?”
His former majesty blinked a moment; then admitted candidly: “I prefer king.”
The shy, rather charming and surprisingly intelligent young man was battered for several minutes by questions concerning his relations with our State Department, with Tito and with the Yugoslav people; then came another of those direct questions the American press more or less specializes in:
“How are you financing yourself now that you're not in the business of being king any more?”
Peter was momentarily dum-founded: “That's a very embarrassing question,” he said finally. “I could ask you the same thing,” “I'm working,” snapped the reporter.
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GEN. JONATHAN WAINWRIGHT has contributed one of his personal swords as part of the loot on a "Stop the Music" jackpot. The sword is not, as has been reported, the one he wore at Bataan. Still it's associated with Wainwright and consequently with Bataan and with a painful moment in United States history. There has been no attempt by the American Broadcasting Company to disassociate it from our history and it would have no particular significance on a give-away program if it hadn’t such an association.
Wainwright is national commander of the Disabled American Veterans and his gesture was made to call attention to the plight of disabled veterans and stimulate contributions for them at Christmas time. Granting all this, it seems a poor way to do it. Giveaway programs are one of the most disputable manias of our time: they have repeatedly courted respectability by sidling up to charity organizations; now they are wooing national heroes; next thing you know they’ll throw in General Grant’s Tomb, ostensibly to stimulate contributions for research on the black plague and only incidentally to get a little publicity and a higher Hooperating for the program.
In the future, I hope the generals avoid the giveaways. Pershing didn't enter dance marathons, did he?
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Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,”—better known by its opening line, “ ‘Twas the night before Christmas”—was impersonated on a Philco television commercial, happily praising Philcos. An actor dressed in the fashion of 100 years ago was led around from one Philco to another gushing a parody of one of the most famous verses of all time. This one was called “The Night After Christmas” and, of course, it was heavily studded with references to the beauty of Philcos.
The performance was one of the less touching memorials to the shy parson who died in 1863. It took 21 years for Dr. Moore to screw up his courage to the point where he admitted authorship of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which was first published in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823. Thought it was too frivolous for a clergyman. It would take, I imagine, several thousand years for the scrupulous person to become reconciled to the parody of his verse dedicated to selling a radio set. The indorsement of the living, I think, ought to be enough. Let's let the dead stay out of this.

January 12, 1949
Nice Family With a Housing Problem
One of the chief casualties from the rearrangement of Sunday nights is the Ozzie and Harriet program, which has an unfortunate habit of moving from one place to another at the worst possible time. For years the Nelson family roosted at the 6:30 p. m. time Sunday nights on C.B.S., a very nice time except that people in those days—gee, remember way back when—used to kept their radios tuned to N.B.C. on Sunday nights.
Then C.B.S.decided it was foolish to try to throw one of their best shows against N.B.C. Sunday and moved it to Friday nights. Well, nobody seemed to listen to the radio Friday nights. A projected all-star Friday line-up on C.B.S. fizzled and Ozzie and Harriet were worse off than ever. This year it looked as if everything would be just dandy. The Nelsons moved to N.B.C. at 6:30 Sunday nights just ahead of Jack Benny, heading a very popular line-up. After all these migrations, the Nelsons seemed permanently settled. Their Hooper was around 13, not good enough for the first fifteen but good enough. Everything was lovely. Then Benny moved to CBS. Ozzie and Harriet's Hooper on the first show dropped to 8.2. Again it seems the neighborhood is not right and they may have to move again.
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This is a shame because Ozzie and Harriet are the nicest young married couple on the air and one of the most human. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”—that's the full name of the show—is the least hyped-up program I know. Nelson, who writes it, has an irreproachable feeling for good taste, a rare commodity in radio. In the trade his show is known as situation comedy, and undoubtedly that's what it is. Ozzie gets himself into some odd (though credible) situations: yet you never find a blonde in the bathtub at the climax.
There are darn few bromides—you can't expect there won't be any—in Nelson's comedy. He meets a girl on a bus who shows an uncommon interest in him: he gets the idea she's pursuing him; she isn't: she just wants back the bundle he inadvertently took. That's about as far into adventure as Ozzie ever gets—in other words, no further than the rest of us—and out of such slender material he fills a half hour with more honest laughter than seems possible.
HIS WIFE, an understanding female with a sense of humor, picks up after him patiently. Occasionally she pokes a little discreet, though not unkind, fun at him. Once in a while she upsets his routine, which isn't much of a feat. She served fried eggs one morning in place of the boiled eggs sacred to Ozzie's breakfast. He was, of course, upset.
“How come fried eggs?”
“You didn't like them?”
“Well I ate them.”
“You didn't smile.”
“I never smile when I'm eating eggs.”
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THE NELSONS' dialog never gets much fancier than that—no gags about capital gains or Truman’s piano or Cukamonga. The Nelson family is also distinguished for having two of the most winsome children in radio—Rickie and David. In fact they're the only two I can abide. They look upon their father with a nice blend of affection and skepticism and are the only children anywhere who consistently under play their lines.
There are other characters—Ozzie’s close friend Thorney, Harriet’s mother and a bobby-soxer with the usual collection of abverbs. They’re all nice people, but the real attraction is Ozzie, whose personality and intelligence hold the show together. It’s a one-man operation, which may be why it is so consistently good. Now if someone would just find it a good spot and keep it there.

1 comment:

  1. In the very early television episodes of Ozzie and Harriet, Janet Waldo continued playing the next door neighbor bobby-soxer she played on the radio version. She would later fill others roles in the series, sales clerks, PTA President, and one of Harriet's " Women's Club " friends cleverly called...Janet. There was one inside joke in an episode where Harriet answers the phone and tell's Janet " Your husband..Mister Lee in on the phone ". A mention of real life husband-play write Robert E. Lee.