Wednesday 19 June 2019

Henry Morgan, the Lobster

On came several announcers, proclaiming that they were a Schick Eversharp pen. When the commercial ended, on came Henry Morgan, childishly mimicking that he was a Schick Eversharp pen. Morgan’s audience broke into sustained laughter over the ad-lib.

Morgan hated ridiculous radio advertising which sponsors insisted on, and was prepared to go to any length to show how ridiculous it was. Morgan had a whole fan base that agreed.

One of Morgan’s fans was columnist John Crosby. They were kindred spirits. Crosby had little good to say about the banal, inane and predictable nature of a lot of radio programming. This column comes from June 12, 1946.
Man on a Street Corner
Henry Morgan is one of the strangest phenomena in radio. In a quiet way, he has built up a small band of devoted followers who consider him the greatest man in broadcasting. I know a number of people who keep their radios tuned exclusively to WQXR until 6:45 p. m. Then they switch to Morgan for fifteen minutes and immediately thereafter return to WQXR.
That’s what the Federal Communications Commission would call unbalanced programming, but I can’t persuade these people to do otherwise. And, incidentally, I have several acquaintances who read this column every day but, so far as I know, they never listen to the radio. I think it was Katharine Brush who once remarked that New Yorkers read the book reviews but never read the books. Reading a radio review when you never listen is I suppose just a modern twist to that strange habit.
*    *    *
But let’s get back to Morgan. I hesitate to recommend him because Morgan is a special taste like lobsters. You either love lobsters or you can’t stand them. There is no middle ground on Morgan, either. Many, many persons can’t understand Morgan at all and are at a loss to explain why any one wants to listen to him. In case you never heard him, Morgan just pops on the air and starts talking about anything that’s bothering him at the moment.
“I’ve been worrying about words,” he will say. “People are always getting to a pretty pass. Doesn’t any one ever get to an ugly pass? That’s a fine how-do-you-do. What’s the matter with a fair how-do-you-do? Restaurants always feature prime ribs of beef. What do they do with all the secondary ribs—ship ‘em?”
Whenever he runs down for a moment, Morgan yells to the engineer, who turns on a record, and Morgan has the dizziest collection of records anywhere. You’re likely to hear “The Moonlight Sonata” played on bagpipes.
*    *    *
A moment later Morgan is back to tell you the story of Gilda Thermidor. “Gilda is happy today because her husband, Lieutenant Phosphorus, is coming home with a wonderful brand of volcanic soap which sponsored their marriage. But Lieutenant Phosphorus has picked up a severe case of red rash. What will happen now? Tune in again next week.”
I first heard Morgan years ago when he had a sustaining program at 10 a. m. At that time he used to give a daily weather report, which was sheer wishful thinking. “Weather report—tidal wave,” he would declare hopefully. Morgan had no sponsors then, but he has picked up a great many since then. Too many, in fact. Morgan kids his sponsors, but a commercial is still a commercial, and they chew up too much of his time.
In one respect Morgan is unique in radio. Now and then he simply runs out of things to say. For a minute or two the air is full of lovely silence, and all the vice-presidents of the American Broadcasting Company turn purple at the thought of that precious, wasted time.
“Why don’t you people tune in on C. B. S.?” Morgan will mutter savagely. Remarks like that are not calculated to endear Morgan to the executives of A. B. C. either.
At other times, Morgan is likely to say: “Would you mind just sitting there for ten or fifteen seconds? I’d like to light a cigarette.” And for ten or fifteen seconds nothing comes out of your radio but the sound of a flaring match.
“Now, where were we? Oh, yes, advertising. I think we ought to be grateful for all those advertisers who took ads to tell us how much money they made during the war and are now talking ads attacking the O. P. A. because they can’t make more money.
*    *    *
You have to listen to Morgan for a long time before you discover the sense behind his nonsense. Morgan is a wit with a sharp eye for the ridiculous, but he doesn’t explain his jokes. He expects you to understand them. He recoils from any form of showmanship like a minister from sin. For that very reason Morgan will never be on the top of the Hooper ratings.
The Morgan program, I’m forced to add, is also extremely uneven. Like the little girl in the jingle, when he’s good, he’s very good; when he’s bad, he’s awful. Five times a week is too many times a week to be funny. I wish Morgan would get a full-size show with other entertainers on it which would come on just once a week. I also wish he had one big sponsor instead of a lot of little ones.
If you care to listen, Morgan “will be on the same corner in front of the cigar store at the same time” tonight. The cigar store is WJZ, and the time is 6:45 p. m.
I’ve been trying to post Crosby’s columns beginning at the start of his career reviewing radio shows. Here’s the rest of the week that the Morgan column appeared. June 10, 1946 looks at a D-Day anniversary broadcast on NBC with correspondent John McVane, who later moved over to ABC and was still working for them on radio and TV in the early ‘70s.

The June 11th column reports on both pianist Alec Templeton and the Frank Morgan summer show; yes, the same Frank Morgan who played the title role in The Wizard of Oz.

The June 13th column looks at the husband-wife morning show phenomenon (one that Fred Allen and Tallulah Bankhead ridiculed, prompting Crosby to post chunks of the dialogue in his column). See who Crosby picks as the best of a bad lot on New York radio.

June 14th is about The Incomparable Hildegarde, who was still performing in the 1980s and died at the age of 99. She was once quoted as saying Miss Piggy of the Muppets stole the idea of long gloves from her, though they were part of ladies formal wear long before Hilde tapped a keyboard.

You can click on each column so you can read it better.

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