Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Shapeless as a Scrambled Egg

In a day when radio announcers still intoned, Arthur Godfrey didn’t. He was the most relaxed, informal guy you could listen to.

And it was all phoney.

It took until Godfrey fired singer Julius De Rosa on television in 1953 for people to realise the guy was a callous control-freak. They started noticing he fired an awful lot of his “Little Godfreys” whom he doted on when the camera light was on and there never was a good reason why. Still, Godfrey maintained a following, as well as a place on CBS schedule until 1972 when just about every non-information programme had long been cancelled.

It was a different story in 1946. Godfrey was low-key and observational and audiences at it up. So did noted cynic John Crosby. His opinion changed after The Firing. In his column of October 23, 1953, he quoted from the piece below and added “But that was long ago, before all that humility crept into the act,” putting Godfrey high on the list of celebrities “least aware of the meaning of humility.” (Godfrey told the media he fired La Rosa because the singer “lacked humility”). This column is from August 20, 1946 and Godfrey sounds very entertaining.

“The Barefoot Boy of Radio”
This seems to be my week to discuss redheads. Yesterday it was Red Barber. Today let’s take up Arthur Godfrey, whom Fred Allen refers to as the Huck Finn of radio, an apt description in some respects and not at all in others. Godfrey has a Huck Finn voice, the laziest in radio, but this vocal appearance is misleading. The red-headed master of ceremonies is easily the busiest man in the industry. He’s on the air twenty-two hours a week, or about five more hours than I like to listen during any one week.
Mondays through Fridays you’ll find his homespun comments emanating from your nearest Columbia Broadcasting System station from 11 to 11:30 a.m. in a program as shapeless as a scrambled egg, as informal as a naked child.
* * *
It’s a wonderful day for a wrong number,” he’ll remark in that barefoot voice. “You know there’s a new gadget on the market. It answers the phone for you, insults the party on the other end and then hangs up. It gives a Bronx cheer to wrong numbers. Frank Saunders, what have you got for us this morning?”
Mr. Saunders then steps up and sings something like “Mean to Me” or “Exactly Like You,” nostalgic, old numbers as restful as a second cup of coffee. Pretty soon Godfrey is back again.
“I have a news item for you. The United States government has bought 1,045 dead horses. The horses are—or were—ponies illegally seized from the Indians during the Sioux War. Well, Congress has appropriate money to pay for ‘em. But there are only a few Indians old enough to make a claim. Let’s see, there’s Bear With Black Body. He’s ninety-three. And there’s Daniel Grass Rope, eighty-four. But White Buffalo Leader. who is 103, can’t collect a dime. You see, he had a hand in wiping out General Custer and he’s still considered hostile.”
Godfrey is also likely to tell you about the 27,000 pigeon strait-jackets the government is trying to get rid of (paratroopers used them to keep pigeons quiet during jumps), or he will become engrossed in statistics on the number of girls who say yes the first time a man asks for a date and the number of marriages this leads to. (Only 8 per cent, in case you’re interested). Heaven knows where Godfrey digs up this zany comment on our civilization, he but he takes keen relish in telling about it. His voice gurgles with pleasure like spring water in the back yard pump. Sometimes he sings a parody on the whole art of singing, and I can think of no higher praise than to say he even makes “Five Salted Peanuts” likable or, at least, endurable.
At intervals, Godfrey brings on the Jubilaires—I think it’s a quartet though I can’t be sure—or Jeanette Davis to sing and the song is probably “Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet.” Even the singers seem infected with Godfrey’s easy going ways, so the tempo of the whole program is just plain lazy. First thing you know the half hour has slipped by and Godfrey is saying good by until tomorrow. As he fades off you hear him whistling like a small boy roaming down a dusty road with nothing on his mind but the joy of living.
I can’t speak as highly of Godfrey’s evening program—C.B.S., 9 p.m., E.D.T., Tuesdays. The purpose of this program is to give a break to promising but unknown singers, entertainers, piano players and the like. Talent scouts, some professional, some amateur, introduce these newcomers to Godfrey, who gives them a chance to do their stuff. It’s not a Major Bowes program, the talent is strictly professional. I applaud the aim of the program, but somehow it sounds rehearsed and Godfrey is better at ad lib.
One of the recent talent scouts turned out to be an explorer. “Aren’t you sort of unemployed,” inquired Godfrey. “I mean, is there anything left to explore?” a remark which indicates the kind of mind Godfrey has. The explorer explained that all you had to do to get along with the lady head hunters was to bring them beads and trinkets.
“Just like New York,” observed Godfrey.
There’s some pretty good talent among these unknowns. One night I listened as Godfrey introduced Hildegarde Halliday, a monologuist [sic], who rattled on in a devious and highly entertaining manner.
“I think politics are so common—what with allowing every one to vote,” she said. “That reminds me: I saw your husband last night with the most attractive woman—probably your sister.”
Oh, the talent scout program is worth listening to, all right, but, for my money there is too much talent and there are too many talent scouts. They blanket the Godfrey personality, certainly one of the warmest in radio.
* * *
In a lot of ways Godfrey is the nearest thing to a humorist we’ve had since the death of Will Rogers. His humor is free from malice; it has that searching tenderness I’ve missed since E.B. White went to Vermont to raise chickens. It’s difficult to convey that quality in print. Much of Godfrey’s humor is like those screamingly funny remarks you hear at parties. They’re uproarious at the time, but somehow lose their point when you repeat them the next day.
It puts me in mind of a statement once made by the late, great Percy Hammond. Hammond remarked once that he’d never left a J.M. Barrie play without feeling a revived and wondrous delight in being a human being. In this impassioned and jittery age Godfrey is doing his bit to restore our faith in the amiable and gentle characteristics of our high-strung civilization.

As for the columns for the rest of the week, Crosby sat in with the great Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber, a man with turns of phrases everyone (well, maybe not a Yankees fan) could enjoy. He related some of the play-by-play and ancillary chatter in his column of August 19th. On the 21st, Crosby had three topics, including a musing on the tables being turned by contestants on game show/audience participation show hosts. The next day he looks at a now-forgotten 15-minute medical show which aired on ABC, while the 23rd examined an episode of Inner Sanctum written by Ben Hecht. You can click on any of them to make them bigger.

No comments:

Post a Comment