Wednesday 5 June 2019

How Harry Von Zell Became a Character

Quick—name the announcer on “Peter Arno’s Whoops Sisters.”

The correct answer is Harry Von Zell.

The “Whoops Sisters” wasn’t quite the highlight of Harry’s career. It aired in 1930, in the days when Harry was a staff announcer at CBS, one of a number working the night shift. The same evening as the “Whoops,” by the way, Von Zell announced “Ted Fiorito and His Hollywood Gardens Orchestra,” “The Columbia Male Chorus,” “Gold Medal Fast Freight” (with the Wheaties quartet and Gold Medal organist), “Will Osborne and his Orchestra” and “The Cotton Club Band.” In between were other shows announced by Don Ball, David Ross, Bradford Browne and George Beuchler.

It’s hard to say what the highlight of his career was. He announced for Fred Allen in the ‘30s, starred in a series of comedies for Columbia in the ‘40s and appeared on television with George and Gracie in the ‘50s. The lowlight was probably the night he mangled President Herbert Hoover’s name on a special network broadcast; at least that’s the most famous one.

Von Zell was an assistant paymaster for a railway when he fell into radio at age 16. He sang and played instruments on a number of Los Angeles-area stations starting in 1922, managed an outlet called KMTR in the late 1920s and moved to KGB San Diego in 1928. He soon had a stroke of fortune that changed his career.

Here’s a feature story in the Long Island Press of Sunday, July 18, 1937, outlining Von Zell’s radio career (although skipping the Whoops Sisters) to date.
Radio's Handy Man
Meet Harry Von Zell, Who Made Even Allen Laugh

FOR years the sportswriters have made a point of getting together at the close of the major league baseball season for the purpose of awarding honors to various players.
Although popularity polls are frequent enough, radio has never seen fit to honor its best all-around man. But most critics, if their writings are to be taken seriously, appear to favor the nomination of Harry Von Zell as the air's foremost candidate for general utility honors.
If Harry were suddenly to start calling himself "Mr. Versatility" or "Man-About-the-Mike," few would be justified in disputing his prior claim to such a monicker. The man not only can, but does, everything. He writes, sings and arts; he announces, directs, produces, performs as master-of-ceremonies; he is an expert judge of talent, a powerful yet pleasing air salesman and glib ad-libber. He's practically a one-man show.
This season, for the first time, the radio moguls have taken cognisance of Von Zell's diversified abilities and have given him the opportunity to stage his own programs; run them from A to Z. It's the opportunity he has been waiting for. Seldom, if ever, under the present-day system of network programming, has there been a show which so completely bears the stamp of one individual, for he has been given absolute free rein to present his Sunday night half-hours over the Columbia network as he sees fit.
The fact that he first got into broadcasting in the days when three not-too-widely separated stations constituted a network and a speaker could fill the air for 20 minutes gave this ex-collegiate football star and one-time professional prizefighter a chance to learn radio thoroughly. Before anyone heard of Major Bowes, Harry made his microphone debut on an amateur program conducted by a small station in Southern California. The station had put out calls for ambitious singers, and friends of Harry's at the bank where he was employed kidded him into entering his baritone voice in the contest.
THE station officials didn't think much of his vocalising, and to this day he has managed to evade contracts from the Metropolitan Opera. But they did like the rich timbre of his voice and offered him an announcer's post.
In those days, of course, an announcer did a little bit of everything—helped out by playing the piano while the circuit that was to pick up the dance music from the hotel was being repaired, chatted aimlessly to fill up the gap while the soprano from the local music school was primping in the corner so she could look well to the unseen audience which probably consisted of her pupils and three guys named Herman, sat at the controls if the engineer decided that he had a previous date with his girl and couldn't be bothered coming to work.
If Paul Whiteman had not decided to go to Hollywood and make the picture, "King of Jazz," the chances are that you would never have heard of Harry Von Zell. The roomy dean of American music was under contract for a coast-to-coast commercial series at the time. Ted Husing, his regular announcer, had made the cross-country trip with the Whiteman organization, but other duties prevented his staying in what is jokingly referred to as the land of perpetual sunshine, for the entire shooting period. So they had a series of competitive auditions which Von Zell seemed to have had no trouble winning.
But when Whiteman was finished with his cinematic chores and was getting ready to come East, Von Zell balked at the idea. He was happy in California and doing all right, thank you. He finally wilted under the pressure of Paul's weighty arguments.
IT WAS only after he became nationally famous as an announcer that Von Zell again received an opportunity to renew the development of his other talents. For several years he was one of the aces of the Columbia announcing staff and his many regular assignments on important programs and special events kept him pretty well tied down. In the fall of 1935 he was offered a post with an advertising agency. He accepted the job and from then on, freed of routine activities, he was able to expand his all-around usefulness.
Through an odd twist of what for lack of anything else your correspondent calls fate, Harry became one of the air's outstanding characters. A voluble individual, he gets a terrific kick out of telling stories. He likes himself best when he has a chance to use dialect or do impersonations. One noon back in 1935 Harry was doing his stuff to a tableful of musicians, production men and other studio attaches in the Radio City drug store. Gloomy-faced Fred Allen was paying for his daily supply of aspirin. A series of hearty guffaws hit his ears. Since laugh-making is his business, he cast a searching eye on the noisemakers and picked out the interloper. Von Zell had just gotten off his punch line.
Allen made a mental note and when Von Zell appeared at dress rehearsal a couple of days later to read his commercial announcements on Town Hall Tonight, he found that Fred had written some lines for him. Harry was reticent—not too reticent, mind you—to turn thespian, but he did so with a slight amount of sarcastic pressure from the lanky Yankee. Von Zell soon became a regular member of that unappreciated band of actors, those scare-crows in the fertile field of drama, the Mighty Allen Art Players.
IT WAS Walter O'Keefe and later Phil Baker who developed Von Zell into a surprisingly effective comedy foil. During Baker's rehearsals at the CBS Playhouse on Sunday mornings, Von Zell frequently sent the cast into chuckles by reading a serious line in a ridiculous manner. For a while nobody did much about it but last October Harry suddenly introduced a new voice. It struck Baker's fancy. Phil's ability to spot potential stooge material is a show-business legend.
The following week Baker's writers penned lines to fit the hilarious intonations Von Zell had exhibited and the amazing character of Professor Eggplant was born. He is a daffy old duffer next to whom a crazy-man is as rational as a Harvard professor.
When Jack Benny was in New York to settle the "Bee" feud with Allen, he promised to drop in on the Colonel and Budd's program. The day he planned to come over to their studio to exchange cracks with them he was having the Mayor of Waukegan as a guest on his own show. They planned to do a schoolroom skit, reminiscing about their boyhood days. It was the week-end that the terrible school tragedy occurred at New London, Tex.
BENNY decided that any reference to schools, no matter how general, had no place on a comedy show then. He had to cancel his projected visit with Stoop and Budd in order to rewrite his own script. Which emergency left Colonel Stoopnagle with about half a script to write and almost no time to do it. Harry Von Zell saw his opportunity. In his spare time he had composed a little gem entitled "Murder on Honk Street," a typical Stoopnaglian script. He offered it and it was accepted. But it was too long to do in one show, so the Colonel decided to present it as a two-part serial. Well, you know the rest. It made such a hit with listeners that "Honk Street" ran for 10 weeks. Harry had to write it every week, and for the first time in seven years Stoopnagle was using material prepared by someone else.
AND that singing voice we were inclined to make a sport of is really not so bad. As a matter of fact we witnessed an audition that Harry gave for an important national advertiser several months ago. The show features Von Zell, the Vocalist. The prospective sponsor liked it a lot, but the deal fell through because the only available time for the new show conflicted with one of Harry's previous assignments, a commitment he could not fall down on.
When Phil Baker's patrons were looking around for a show to replace the accordion-squeezing jester while he spent a summer vacation frolicking in front of Sam Goldwyn's cameras, an imposing list of headliners was presented to them. Over and above these they chose Harry Von Zell to stage his own program during the warm-weather.
Of course, Harry is on the spot. But he loves it. It's a rare opportunity for him because the responsibility of the show is entirely his—writing, direction, production, securing guest talent, announcing and serving as master of ceremonies. Radio Row is particularly heartened. The trend in recent seasons has been for sponsors to raid Hollywood and the Broadway stage for their headliners; and the microphone regulars—the boys and girls who are on day in and day out and who really constitute the backbone of the whole radio industry—are pulling for Harry this summer. If he succeeds, it means that they may not always be the forgotten men and women of the air.
In the 1960s, Von Zell spent a lot of his time stirring up fears of Socialism and Communism in front of Republican and various community groups, as well as being active on the AFTRA board. He was still on camera periodically; he even hosted the Tonight show in 1968, and slid into commercials for a savings and loan company in the ‘70s. Von Zell died of cancer on November 21, 1981 at the age of 75, still remembered as one of the great announcers and foils of network radio.


  1. I vote for Mr. Von Zell's two reelers, produced by Jules White! It's a hoot to see the mild-mannered Harry slammed and banged around sets and plastered with seltzer and falling ceiling tiles.

  2. Harry made a far better foil for George and Gracie than Bill Goodwin, because of his ability to act befuddled by Gracie's actions (Goodwin seemed too confident of himself to really be pulled into one of Gracie's schemes or to be browbeaten by George). Right after the show ended, one of his more unusual roles was as a supporting player and writer of an episode of "Wagon Train" that starred Lou Costello, in one of his final roles.

  3. I'm with Mark! What I've seen of Harry's two reelers for Columbia look pretty funny to me.

  4. I've only seen a bit of one, Dave K, but I should take Mark's advice and seek out some. And I agree with J.L. Harry and Goodwin were two completely different characters and both had their strengths but I prefer Harry. I liked Harry with Fred Allen a lot, though Kenny Delmar was the best.