Wednesday, 1 February 2023

The Long-Time Residents of Wistful Vista

If Fibber McGee and Molly consisted solely of an overcrowded closet gimmick, it never would have lasted almost 2½ decades.

The series featured ordinary people in ordinary situations that came across as completely plausible. Certainly listeners must have known an ill-informed braggart like McGee or a woman who put up with her husband’s foibles like Molly.

Jim and Marian Jordan don’t seem to have talked a lot about the show during its heyday. After WW2, the only newspaper articles I’ve found unvolve the Jordans, and the show’s timeline.

Here’s an example from the Tampa Tribune of April 17, 1949. It has a quote from Jim Jordan about the programme’s success.

Fibber McGee and Molly On Radio For 15 Years

Most of the radio stars you heard 15 years ago are gone, because that's a long, long time in this comparatively new entertainment medium.
The few who are still on the air include Marian and Jim Jordan who as Fibber McGee and Molly have steadily increased in popularity through the years. As they celebrate the start of their 15th year next Tuesday night over WFLA and WFLA-FM, The Tribune stations. Fibber and Molly stand in the number one spot as radio's most popular comedians.
Their steady rise in popularity is credited to strict adherence to what is known as "the Fibber McGee and Molly program formula."
"First on our list of ‘musts’ is kindness," explains McGee. "Beyond skirting such subjects as serious infirmities, races and religions, which simply is a matter of good taste and good judgment, we extend the taboo to any material which strives for laughs with nasty innuendo or acidulous comment. We can take and dish out insults, but if they are not intrinsically good natured, we don't want them."
Jim Jordan and Marian Driscoll met during choir practice in their home town, Peoria, Ill. He was 17, she was 16, and it was love at first sight. Several years passed and then, on Aug. 31, 1918, they were married. Five days later, Jim went to France for Army service in World War I.
Jim returned from overseas in the Summer of 1919 and the Jordans launched their theatrical career. Their act was a success and a long vaudeville tour followed. They toured until two months before their second child, Jim, Jr., was born in the Summer of 1923. Marian remained In Peoria and Jim tried it alone without luck. After six months, the two teamed up again, but their act failed to click and they went broke 50 miles from home.
After a series of odd jobs, Jim returned to Chicago and became the tenor part of a singing team. During a visit to his brother, the Jordans were listening to a radio broadcast when Jan [sic] declared, "we could do a better job of singing than anyone on that program."
"Ten dollars says you can't," answered his brother.
Thus, on a dare two shaky people started a history making radio career. After an audition, they were signed for a commercial show at $10 a broadcast once a week. A few years later they met Don Quinn, cartoonist turned radio writer. The combination turned out Smackout, a five-a-week serial, and their first network show.
Fourteen years ago, the Jordans made their debut as Fibber McGee and Molly, the Tuesday night program that has become an American institution.

The same paper, on Sept. 11, 1949, quoted Jordan further:

"To us, comedy is merely a risible distortion of circumstances and attitudes. Mostly, of course, a distortion by exaggeration, which we think is the American type of humor. And as for construction we simply take an ordinary humorous incident, dilly it up, broaden its scope, throw in a couple of non-sequiturs, hide the denouement behind a few inconsequentials, indicate a glass crash, and pay it all off with a word twist."

Few radio stars, it seems, reached such heights that the network cleared time for a special broadcast to honour them. Jack Benny was one in 1941 (though it seems some back-room sponsor politics might have been involved). And Jim and Marian Jordan were another.

This plug was one of a number. It was in Alice G. Stewart’s radio column in the Latrobe (Pa.) Bulletin, Sept. 13, 1949.

The greatest names in radio will help Fibber McGee and Molly celebrate their 15th anniversary on NBC in a special, hour-long program this evening at 9’clock.
Such "newcomers” as Bob Hope, Dennis Day, Phil Harris and Alice Faye and others will join an old Wistful Vista neighbour, Harold ("The Great Gildersleeve") Peary in paying tribute to a program and a comedy team which have made radio history.
The anniversary program will be written by Don Quinn, who has been head writer since Fibber and Molly started on the air, and Phil Leslie, who has been his assistant for the past five years. It will be produced by Frank Pittman, regular Fibber and Molly producer.
Jim and Marian Jordan started playing Fibber and Molly in 1935 and have since become so identified with their fictional counterparts that they are accustomed to being addressed as "Mr. and Mrs. McGee." Back in 1935, however, not too many people had heard of the Jordans, who were doing a program called "Smack-out” from NBC’s Chicago studios. Fortunately for them, one of the people who did hear and enjoy them was Jack Louis, vice president of Needham, Louis and Brorby, Inc., the advertising agency for Johnson's Wax. When the Johnson people decided to sponsor a new radio program, Louis remembered "Smackout," which was being written by Don Quinn. Out of many conferences involving the Jordan’s, Quinn, the agency and sponsor came Fibber McGee and Molly.
The public's reaction was slow at first—but not for long. The McGees steadily won public favor with their original situation comedy. By 1937 they had been called to Hollywood to make "This Way, Please" for Paramount. In 1938 they moved to their present Tuesday-night spot on NBC from the Monday time they had originally occupied. The ratings of the program at first by Crossely [sic] and in recent years by Hooper, have shown them to be the most consistently popular program on the air.
In their climb to success, the Jordans brought others with them. Don Quinn, of course, is one of the top writers in the radio business. Harold Peary, whose "You're a hard man, McGee," became a national byword has been the star of his own successful program "The Great Gildersleeve," since 1941. One year the McGees had a maid named Beulah, played by Marlin Hurt. Beulah, too, became a star and still is, despite the fact that Hurt, who created the role, has since died. Perry Como once sang during the pleasant musical interludes of the Fibber and Molly program, filled now by the King's Men and Billy Mills' orchestra. And the former drummer in the Mills band was none other than Spike Jones, now also a star In his own right.
Announcer Harlow Wilcox started with the McGees when they first went on the air back in 1935 and is now one of the most sought-after announcers in radio. His reading of Don Qulnn's announcements is always the winner in polls of the most commercial. The other members of the cast—Bill Thompson as the Old Timer and Wallace Wimple, Arthur Q. Bryan as Doc Gamble, and Gale Gordon as Mayor LaTrivia—have earned places in the national consciousness and national heart second only to that large spot occupied by the McGees themselves.
Fibber McGee and Molly are as popular in sophisticated Hollywood as they are in the Jordan's home town, Peoria. The entire radio and motion picture colony turned out to honor them on the occasion of their 10th anniversary in 1944. The same stars will be on hand to wish them well on tonight when they begin their 15th year on the air.

The first show appeared on NBC on April 16, 1935 and moved from Monday to Tuesday on March 15, 1938. Johnson Wax of Racine, Wisconsin was the long-time sponsor through the ‘30s and ‘40s. But then television started siphoning off the advertising money that used to go into radio. Johnson dropped Fibber, who picked up some new sponsors. Soon, it was shed of its orchestra, studio audience, and some secondary supporting players, becoming a daily, transcribed, 15-minute show on NBC from 1953 to 1957. Harlow Wilcox was replaced by John Wald. After that, it was a shell of itself. Jim and Marian Jordan recorded some short dialogues for NBC’s “Monitor” programme before being shoved out the door. The Jordans avoided television; a Fibber and Molly TV show with Bob Sweeney and Cathy Lewis never found an audience.

Marion Jordan died in 1961. Jim followed in 1988.

Quinn looked at the show after its demise and stated that it was vague in a lot of areas on purpose. “We preferred to let the audience paint its own scenery,” he told wire service writer Bob Thomas. “It seems to me television doesn’t give enough credit to the audience’s I.Q.—imagination quotient.”

Imagination was not only what Fibber and Molly was about. It was the keystone behind old radio itself.

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