When a little six-year-old kid named Betty Lou Gerson stopped the show back in Birmingham eighteen years ago during an amateur performance, the home folks predicted that someday she'd blaze her name along the footlight trails. And they might have been right about this child of the southland -- except for the fact that radio snatched her up before she had her feet firmly planted on the theatrical stage.
For more than four years now, this attractive brunette starlet has been talking back to a microphone.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 20, 1914, Gerson moved with her parents to Birmingham, Alabama, when she was two. Her father was president of the Southern Steel and Rolling Mill there and Gerson learned her readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic at the Margaret Allen School. Later she studied at Loulie Compton Seminary, also in Birmingham, and then went down to Miami, Florida, to wrestle with a curriculum offered at Miss Harris' School for Girls.
Whenever there was a school play, the lead automatically fell to Gerson -- and that none of the other girls resented it is a tribute to the dramatic talent she showed at even an early age. Acting came as naturally to her as purring to a kitten.
As soon as her school days were over, Gerson made her first excursion into the northland, heading for Chicago and its renowned Goodman Theatre. It wasn't long before she had graduated from the role of student -- and was teaching dramatics herself.
Instructing other aspiring young actresses in the technique of the theater was fun for awhile, but Gerson soon discovered that it wasn't what she wanted for a steady diet. It was merely a sublimation of her own desire -- this teaching other aspirants the means of accomplishing what she herself was secretly hungering to do.
Just about that time, opportunity beat a tattoo on her door. A playwright friend of hers asked her to read a sketch over the air. The letter applause resulting from this single appearance was so encouraging that Gerson decided the time had come for a concentrated attack on the radio front.
She gained an audition at the NBC Central Division Studios in Chicago in 1934 -- and from then on, her story has been one of sensational success. Her versatility -- she is equally proficient in roles calling for French, English or southern dialects, as well as in straight ingenue parts -- was an important factor in her speedy rise to stardom. Most recent of her stellar successes is her role in Arnold Grimm's Daughter, a daytime dramatic program heard daily over the NBC Network, in which she plays the lead part of the daughter, Constance Grimm Tremaine.
In private life Gerson is Mrs. Joe Ainsley, wife of a Chicago advertising agency radio production man, whom she married in 19365, two years after she had entered radio. Five feet four and a half inches tall, Gerson tips the scales at 112 pounds. Her curly hair is dark brown -- as are her enormous eyes.
Boating and swimming are her favorite hobbies and a camping trip is her idea of the perfect vacation. She hopes some day to be able to live in the country, preferably near a lake, and with a stable full of horses and a kennel full of dogs.
Edythe Dixon in Rural Radio, October 1938
Under one roof: a house for everybody, and for everybody a house of his own.
This is Mary Livingstone's recipe for a harmonious family life, and it works like a talisman -- even in Hollywood where (despite the well-paid efforts of half the psychiatric brains in the country) more marriages explode in the headlines than go on year in year out in a sort of a miraculous serenity.
Of course, if you're living in Quonset hut with your bride and her mother and planning to put Junior in the dresser drawer, a description of the Jack Bennys' serene and well-roofed existence will only hasten your trip to the divorce court, or to Washington to have the heads of the housing expediters.
But even in such dire straits as that you will be thinking and planning for your dream home of the not too distant future and a look-in at a housing system which is different -- and which works -- may come in handy.
As any good architect or builder will tell you, you must start planning your house by thinking hard about the way you live, about what sort of people your house must provide for, and what sort of work and play and rest and hobbies make up their lives.
For work is not just work -- nor rest just rest, etc., etc. And people -- and if you're living in a Quonset hut you have found this out -- are not just people. Every individual has a way of living all his own, and if it is blocked and thwarted too long by the external conditions of his life, he will explode with as much noise and almost as much release of radioactive poison matter as did the atom bomb over Bikini.
Mary Benny knew this when she planned her house, and she planned carefully for lebensraum for three as disparate human beings as ever found shelter under a single rooftop.
First of all, of course, the house had to work for Jack Benny. More of the sweat and toil which produces the Benny radio show every week goes on at the Benny home than in Jack's office or at NBC studios -- so Jack's lebensraum had to provide for working space, shut off from the noise and confusions of the rest of the household. As for Jack's recreation -- if there is work to be done, he doesn't get any. His rest, ditto -- if the script is in trouble Jack Benny can get along with catnaps, spending more of the small hours awake and at work than pounding the pillow. His hobbies -- well, unless you count golf and gin rummy and seeing his friends (which he gets around to during the radio season only when Mary insists that he leave the woe to the writers for a spell) , his hobbies are more work. Jack's housing needs, then, are simple: quiet, privacy, the right to turn on the lights in the middle of the night -- a room of his own.
Then there is Joan, the Bennys' daughter -- twelve years old, healthy, active and gregarious. Her work -- the teachers at El Rodeo School pile on the home work, to hear Joannie tell it -- so there must be a place to study. Her hobbies are horseback riding, swimming, playing the phonograph and the piano with the more friends around the merrier. Her rest -- black out! The sort of exhaustion Joan's life promotes is not like her father's; it makes for good, sound sleep, nine until seven, with no interruptions. Her needs; a place for hollering -- alternating with sleep -- preferably far away from her father's retreat and suitably soundproofed, i.e., a room of her own.
Mary's own habit patterns seem distinctly normal -- humdrum, even -- after a glance at the rest of the family, but on closer inspection they, too, make for a bit of planning. From long years in the theater, Mary has appropriated the custom of going to bed very late. This does not mean that she must be up and doing until dawn. The up-staying is just as pleasant if you're propped up in bed with plenty of pillows and a cigarette and some new books. But it means compromising on the other end of the night. Mary's maid knows that Mrs. Benny will want her breakfast tray before noon only if she has a vital business appointment. So Mary, too, needs a room of her own.
As a result the second floor of the Bennys' spacious Georgian home in Beverly Hills is laid out in three suites -- so different in character and equipment that they could be three separate apartments, in three never conflicting worlds.
"Never?" As Gilbert and Sullivan put it, "Well, hardly ever."
Even with Mary's meticulous planning, Hard Working Jack and Hard Playing Joan sometimes manage a head-on collision.
At these moments, Rule No. One of family policy is invoked: "Daddy, if he is working, is always right."
Recently, Jack's producers and writing staff were working at the house with the boss. They were up against a knotty script-cutting problem. Down the hall with her door ajar, Joannie was practicing her piano lesson. She plays very well, but anyone's practicing has a tendency to become monotonous. And besides, the counting -- one-two-three-four -- was distinctly audible, and distracting, in the script session.
Jack sent Producer Bob Allen [Ballin] to Joannie's suite with a message.
"Your daddy," he said, "wants you to practice downstairs."
Joannie sighed, Junior Miss Aggrieved.
"I thought he would," she said. Unsaid was Career Woman's age-old complaint. "And my work, I suppose, has no importance around here."
But she went.
Mary Benny often sits in with the writers and Jack on the radio conferences.
So, as a matter of fact, does Joan.
What's more, Joan isn't afraid to criticize her Daddy's jokes -- and her Daddy isn't too proud, sometimes, to accept her criticism. Once recently, however, when Joan objected to a particular boffola on the grounds that it was "corny" her father overruled her. "Keep it in," he ordered. "It may be corny but it's funny."
"That's what you think," Joan -- not easily abashed -- argued. "But you should be in my shoes. On Mondays, I have to face my friends!"
The joke was blue-penciled.
Jack's big room is a sort of bed-sitting room with a desk almost as big as the bed, with shelves for scripts and reference books, and big, bright working lights, comfortable chairs, man-sized tables at the bedside with sharpened pencils and paper, books and the inevitable box of sleep-promoters. The colors are masculine and unbedroomy -- brown and beige. The suite includes a dressing room, done in brown leather, a porch overlooking the garden, and Jack's bath �" where he may leave the top off the toothpaste tube if he feels like it.
Joan, who is the smallest member of the family, rates the biggest suite -- because her activities are so varied she needs plenty of room to blow off steam.
Her "apartment" has a big bedroom -- with two beds, one for her frequent overnight guests -- a dressing room with one whole wall of perfume bottles, a private bath, and a huge playroom, this room farthest away from the family. The playroom is the heart of the place. It has the phonograph and record collection, the spinet piano, Joan's collection of dolls and toy horses, her books, the photographs of her friends, the clutter which goes with being young and alert and busy. Joan's governess, Julia Vallance, who has shared her life for five years, is the sort of calm, imperturbable woman who likes children and doesn't mind messes and who can provide efficiently for a little girl's health and safety without imposing too rigid a set of rules. As Joan would put it, "She doesn't go around saying no and shushing you all the time."
Joan prefers to think of Miss Vallance as her "secretary." Not many of her schoolmates at public school can afford the luxury of a "governess" and Joan thinks the whole custom a little snobbish.
Mary Benny's personal rooms, in noticeable contradiction, are never cluttered, and they certainly are the prettiest rooms of all. The bedroom, in soft blue, rose and white is Victorian in feeling -- without being stiff. The fireplace of black marble is for real fires -- friendly and inviting. The chintz draperies and upholstery are in a cheerful floral pattern, which is repeated in the wall paper on two ends of the room. The blue-tufted oversized bed is pure feminine heaven, where a substitution of fat pillows for flat ones makes it easily as inviting for staying awake as for dropping off to sleep. Mary has, in addition, her private mirrored dressing room where vast cedarlined closets house what Howard Greer has called the smartest wardrobe in favorite bath oils and perfumes.
With such a plan, it is plain to see, there need never be any conflict of personalities -- any reason for any of the members of the household to be uncomfortable for the sake of any of the others. A reconnaissance flight over the Benny home at any eleven A.M. -- which caught Jack hard at work on a script, Joan practicing for her piano lesson, and Mary blissfully asleep -- would prove incontrovertibly that planning makes perfect. Planning makes freedom, too, complete freedom for every member of the family to do what he likes, when he likes -- to be himself. And that makes for an adjusted, happy family.
The rest of the house is planned just as systematically for living happily together -- and don't think for a moment just because the upstairs levels are designed as they are that the Bennys live in complete isolation with no traffic from one "apartment" to another. It is here that Mary's impeccable butler, Oscar, has his innings. Oscar is the perfect butler, English, proper, and -- and this is unusual -- always affable. Oscar is always smiling. (He doesn't know, fortunately, that Jack's writers with typical lack of reverence for the Way Things Are Done refer to him always as "Smiley.") And here, too, the rooms have as many moods as there are occasions which the Bennys enjoy as a family.
The drawing room is quite formal, its furnishings handsome, some of them rare and priceless since the Bennys have not had to consider a strict budget in planning their home. Mary Benny would be the first, however, to concede that a formal living room can be just as lovely without real antiques, without Chinese jade lamp bases, and real collectors' items among the objets d'art. She has gone to a great deal of trouble, as a matter of fact, to detract from the museum aura of such fabulous pieces by doing her upholstered pieces with her first thought for comfort, and by a subtle use of color -- pale green, rose, and ivory, and a real fire's happiest companion, brass.
It is in this room that the Bennys welcome guests at their more elaborate parties. The drawing room's complement in character and style is the formal dining room, a beautiful room done in grey and gold, with a long table which comfortably will seat twenty, with massive silver pieces from old England and a crystal chandelier. These two rooms, along with a panelled library with dark blue oriental rugs and a Dutch tile fireplace are among the show spots of Hollywood.
A pair of rooms all three Bennys like much better, and live in much more, are the big, rambling playroom which faces on the garden and a sunny yellow and pale grey breakfast room in which green vines in silver urns bring the garden indoors.
The playroom is the keynote room -- if there is such a thing in a house. It expresses life as the Bennys like it -- when convivial friends are about, and the pressure of work is off, and one can relax and play games, sit by the fire in winter or wander in and out of doors on a warm summer night. It is the gayest room in the house, with a huge brick fireplace taking up half of the wall, the walls paneled with mellow walnut and the sofa and big chairs upholstered in a splashy red and white apple print. In front of the fire are two deep chairs, also one in the apple print, and a massive red ottoman on which people can sit without crowding. The big rag hand-braided rug also is predominantly red. There are the inevitable card table and chairs and some early American Windsor pieces. As in all California homes the outdoors is part of the living space -- background for many of the family's happiest hours. The house is set well forward on a commercial acre so there is room at the back of the house for a gently sloping lawn, swimming pool, cabana and terrace and a barbecue and complete outdoor kitchen and bar.
The drawing room and the big dining room get very lonely during the good weather, which in California is a good part of the year -- for all of the Bennys enjoy having their friends for al fresco suppers which they help to cook themselves. If the fog comes in -- as it will, despite all the pull of the All Year Club -- it is but a step to the playroom and a warm fire. And any movie fan who could find his way into that room would reap a harvest of autographs -- Barbara Stanwyck and Bob Taylor would probably be there, and the Tyrone Powers, Annie Sothern, the Bill Goetzes, George Burns and Gracie Allen, plus a noisy crowd of Joannie's school friends.
And if the unexpected callers were invited to stay they'd have a wonderful time and go home raving as Hollywoodians do about the Bennys' wonderful, cheerful house and Mary Benny's subtle understanding of what it means to be a good hostess. Mary understands the role very much as she interprets her job as the woman in the house -- it is to let everyone do what he wants when he wants to, to be himself.
The system needn't be restricted to the Bennys -- or to the sort of people anywhere who have money and leisure space. For the system is a product of good thinking, and good thinking can be done in Hollywood, or North Platte, or Wichita Falls.
Polly Townsend in Radio Mirror, November 1947
Aunt Jenny: All kinds of people pass before Aunt Jenny's experienced, understanding eyes as she surveys the lives of her neighbors in the small town of Littleton. But seldom has she known a personality like Sam Cutler, who deliberately set out to ruin his sister-in-law because she had defied him. What happened to Sam made the unexpected climax of this story one of those recently told by Aunt Jenny. 12:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, CBS
Backstage Wife: As the wife of famous Broadway star Larry Noble, Mary Noble has often had to cope with the artistic temperament of Larry's fellow actors -- and actresses. And she is well aware that Larry's charm collects as many admirers on the working side of the footlights as it does among matinee audiences. But even Mary is frightened at the passionate determination of a new attempt to take Larry away from her. 4 p.m., NBC
The Brighter Day: Althea's return from Wyoming stirs up the Dennis household as only the beautiful, restless Althea can do, and this time her young daughter Spring is with her to complicate matters even further. Rev. Richard Dennis is certain that some startling crisis brought her back home. Will he learn what shadow looms over Althea's future in time to do something to help? 2:45 p.m., CBS
Front Page Farrell: Covering another sensational murder case for his newspaper, The Daily Eagle, David Farrell and his wife Sally become involved in a series of situations so strange that the key to the crime almost escapes them. An almost unbelievable motive helps the killer to conceal the truth, and finally only David's quick-wittedness leads him to it in time to avoid becoming the murderer's second victim. 5:15 p.m., NBC
The Guiding Light: Resigned and almost hopeless, Kathy Grant knows that her own dishonesty has driven her husband into the willing arms of another woman. Dick, hesitating on the brink of divorce, is himself uncertain of his desires, but in the meantime, the meeting between Kathy and Dick's colleague, Dr. Kelly, has an unexpected result. What strange effect will the man called Dan Peters have on the lives of people he scarcely knows? 1:45 p.m., CBS
Hilltop House: Julie Nixon's long experience in handling a houseful of orphans as matron of Hilltop House makes her certain that young Len Klabber is not entirely the bright, friendly boy he tries to seem. Trying tactfully to discourage Babs' friendship with Len, Julie herself does not realize how true her instinct is, and how much she and the town are soon to learn about the problem of juvenile delinquency. 3 p.m., CBS
Just Plain Bill: A widower for many years, happy in the affection of his daughter Nancy, Bill Davidson rarely remembers the long-ago struggle of his dead wife's aristocratic family to keep Nancy away from him. But Nellie Davidson's family has never forgotten that she married a small-town barber, and Thelma Nelson makes strange capital of that story when she comes to Hartville. What threat does she hold over Bill? 5 p.m., NBC
Life Can Be Beautiful: The marriage of Chichi and Mac is very young, but already Chichi has had cause to wonder how much misunderstanding a marriage can survive. There is another question coming up for her -- the question of how much misunderstanding it should survive. For, if each week brings new doubts, new hurts and troubles, how can the future look anything but threatening? Can Papa David throw a different like on that picture? 3 p.m., NBC
Lorenzo Jones: To Lorenzo, the lovely actress Belle Jones is a charming woman to whom he is strangely drawn. The amnesia which months ago separated him from Belle prevents him from recognizing her as his wife. But Gail Maddox, fearful that Lorenzo's memory may return, allies herself with actor Wade Emery's spiteful plans to create havoc for Belle. Can Belle win Lorenzo's love all over again? 5:30 p.m., NBC
Ma Perkins: Anyone in Rushville Center would be quick to say that, for understanding, tolerance and an honest look at facts, Ma Perkins is the person to talk things over with. But money -- the possession of it or the lack of it -- has a strong way of confusing issues. Even the strong, simple values by which Ma has taught her family to abide come in for a searching test when such confusion enters the picture. 1:15 p.m., CBS
Our Gal Sunday: Though she has had many years of secure happiness as Lord Henry Brinthorpe's wife, Sunday has never forgotten his family's disapproval of his marriage to a simple mountain girl. When his impoverished but aristocratic aunt, Lavinia Thornton, comes to Black Swan Hall, Sunday is gripped by a fear she has never know before. Can her position as Lord Henry's wife really be attacked? 12:45 p.m., CBS
Pepper Young's Family: Pepper and Linda cannot really blame Pepper's father for going ahead with the plans for extracting oil from the property around their farm, which is supposed to have such a rich potential. The prospect of so much wealth would dazzle almost anyone. But Pepper and Linda are unhappy over the project, and not only because it mars their beloved view. Is their suspicion justified? 3:30 p.m., NBC
Perry Mason: If pretty Kate Beckman had not hitched her wagon to a star, she might have avoided a lot of trouble. Determined to succeed as a dancer, Kate turned down a safe job in lawyer Perry Mason's office to accept a glamourous offer from nightclub owner Gordy Webber, ignorant of Webber's plans to ruin her father, Ed Beekman. Can Perry save the misguided girl before her stubborn self assurance plays into Webber's hands? 12:15 p.m., CBS
The Right to Happiness: Annette Thorpe has always been a successful woman, with money, position and a sharp set of wits to work with. She cannot quite understand why her careful plan to break up Governor Miles Nelson's marriage has so far failed. If she knew Carolyn Nelson better, would she understand that she has perhaps met her match? Will Carolyn be able to bridge the chasm Annette has dug between her and Miles? 3:45 p.m., NBC
Road of Life: Sybil Overton Fuller's ruthless selfishness leads her to set a trap in which she herself appears to be caught. Sybil now knows that her only hope of inheriting from her dead husband's family lies in the child she went to great lengths to conceal and give up. In her dangerously tense emotional state, her hatred of Jim and Jocelyn increases. How will Armand Monet's interest in Jocelyn fit into Sybil's schemes? 1 p.m., CBS; 3:15 p.m., NBC
The Romance of Helen Trent: Designer Helen Trent finds new stimulation in her increasingly important job with the Jeff Brady studios. She now has as assistant Loretta Cole, a girl who begged to be allowed to work with her. In Helen's private life, too, new interests have entered with Brett Chapman and his young son Richard. Helen's friends hope for happy developments in this relationship. Will the future prove them right? 12:30 p.m., CBS
Rosemary: Trouble and pain are no strangers to the Roberts household, but as Rosemary prepared for the birth of her long-awaited baby she felt that at last she and Bill stood on the brink of a future so bright that nothing could seriously mar it. She never dreamed of the direction from which tragedy would strike -- or of the way her efforts to help others through the Boys' Club would in the end help her. 11:45 a.m., CBS
The Second Mrs. Burton: For the first time in her life, Stan's sister Marcia seems headed for a bright future as she and Lew Archer, in spite of their different backgrounds, manage to iron out most of the problems that might disturb their marriage. But is there one big problem both Marcia and Lew have underrated? What will happen to Stan's emotional sister if this last chance for happiness slips through her fingers? 2 p.m., CBS
Stella Dallas: Stella has always anticipated trouble from her daughter's aristocratic mother-in-law, Mrs. Grosvenor, and it materialized when the charming Englishman, Stanley Warrick, innocently gave Mrs. Grosvenor a chance to accuse Laurel of indulging in a cheap flirtation. With Laurel's disappearance, which follows on the slanderous attack, Stella comes close to despair. Will her daughter's marriage survive this new trial? 4:15 p.m., NBC
This is Nora Drake: Before nurse Nora Drake's horrified eyes has unfolded the full story of a teenager's degeneration. But Nora is too much involved personally with young Grace Sargent to see in this desperate daughter of Dr. Robert Sargent anything but a girl who must somehow be saved from the worst consequences of her instability and ignorance. Can Nora do anything, or is there no future for Grace at all? 2:30 p.m., CBS
Wendy Warren: Even since the failure of Mark's last play, Wendy has known that her brilliant, unstable husband was headed for another psychological crisis. But even though she herself cannot help, she feels that Mark's willingness to confide in Dr. Weber is an important step. Meanwhile, the strange personality of Mr. Magnus casts its shadow over several lives. How will he affect Wendy's? 12 p.m., CBS
When a Girl Marries: Ever since Clair O'Brien came into her life, Joan Davis has discovered that she herself is capable of stern, almost ruthless actions which she would never have dreamed of if she had not been forced to defend herself against Clair's wickedness. Even if Joan's sister Sylvia escapes the net cast by Clair's lies, can Joan's life ever be the same as it would have been if Clair had never touched it? 10:45 a.m., ABC
The Woman In My House: The more the Carter family changes, the more it remains the same. As the children have grown up and widened their interests, somehow the family's interests have widened along with them. Instead of going outside the family as they make new friends, or as they marry, the Carters have brought their friends and spouses into the group. But is it an unmixed blessing for family feeling to be so strong? 4:45 p.m., NBC
Young Dr. Malone: Ever since Tracy Adams first appeared in Three Oaks, Dr. Paul Browne has felt that she would have an important impact on the life of his friend, Dr. Jerry Malone. Paul doesn't know if good or bad will eventually come of it, but Jerry's confusion troubles him greatly. Meanwhile, Sam Williams and his daughter-in-law Crystal face a curious, and dangerous, situation. 1:30 p.m., CBS
Young Widder Brown: Though she concentrates desperately on her tea-room and her children, Ellen Brown cannot forget the heartbreak of losing the man she love, Dr. Anthony Loring, to another woman. Memories of Anthony prevent her from turning to Michael Forstyle, an eligible bachelor who admires her. Ellen struggles hard for her outward composure. What will happen to it when she must meet Anthony and Millicent as man and wife? 4:30 p.m., NBC
From Radio-TV Mirror, March 1953
Criminals, bop-heads, panhandlers and other breeds of down-and-outers of New York's Bowery have combined with one of radio's best-known characters to present a series of programs over National Broadcasting Company networks, hailed as one of the unique broadcasts of the year.
America's radio audience demanded variety, and Phillips H. Lord, 28-year-old creator of Seth Parker and His Jonesport Neighbors, supplied it.
In a dingy, smoke-filled basement room, whiskey tenors blend in harmony with muggled baritones, and the unwashed of New York's rickety district forget their plight when Phil Lord stages a party and a Bowery broadcast.
Lord dropped the role of Seth Parker, the kindly old philosopher, when he went to the Bowery in an effort to aid some of the deserving in the street of lost men. Instead he was the natural athletic young man of 28, dressed in worn clothes and wearing a cap pulled to the side of his head. He acted as tough and rough as the best of the 300 men who crowded into the narrow basement room which once housed the notorious Tunnel saloon.
It is a strange sight, the crew of motley men who crowd into that dingy room under the sidewalks of a Bowery street. It is a spacious room to most of the Bowery visitors -- so much better than many are accustomed to, who sleep under stairs or in the open. Over the rumbling of their voices can be heard the scream of an occasional police car, and the roar of the elevated trains overhead.
Men and women, who sit in the quiet of homes over the United States hear only a bit of the pathos, can sense little of the grime, nor know nothing of the wrecks of humanity which Lord gathers there and aids.
His "studio" is a dirty, smelly place -- reeking with unwashed bodies, the stench of cheap liquor, and canned heat which Bowery sots consume for lack of nothing better to drink, or nothing better to do. The microphone and the smiling face of Polly Robertson, who plays the organ in the Seth Parker and His Jonesport Neighbors programs, usually are the only bright things in the room. Polly, as the hoodlums call her, is the goddess of the old Tunnel crowd.
Even Lord's face betrays a certain grimness as he leads the men in singing. One can scarcely wonder at that, however, after you look from the tiny platform across the 300 faces, betraying as many types, and as many emotions.
These men, who frequent Lord's mission, and who take party in his NBC Bowery broadcasts, are more often than not rough men -- tough men -- desperate for food, liquor, narcotics, and capable of almost any passion. Some of them are known to have served long prison sentences. Many come to the old Tunnel saloon hopelessly under the influence of narcotics.
The sordid atmosphere of the crowd is lessened only as the air in the low, unventilated room becomes filled with smoke from the cigarettes that Lord always gives the men. Then the gray smoke shrouds the harsher aspects.
Lord acts as master of ceremonies only -- the men stage their own party. He sings only when he is leading the singing. Solo numbers, quartets and other features are presented by the men. As the singing gets underway, and such songs as "When Good Fellows Get Together," ring through the room, more often out of than in harmony, the "guests" begin to smile -- toothless smiles, crooked and leering.
Whether Lord is broadcasting his parties or not, he proves himself the natural showman. The men are at ease as soon as they enter the room. It is impossible for him to rehearse for a Bowery broadcast and be certain that the participants will be on hand the following night to take part. It is necessary for him to draft new "artists" at the last moment. The original artists too often do not appear, or when they do, are too intoxicated to participate.
It is, however, a surprisingly orderly aggregation of hoodlums, drunkards, thieves and down-and-outers, when one considers they eat only when they can beg or steal a meal, and spend their nights in Bowery flophouses or on the streets. Perchance it is the novelty, or perhaps husky Don Murphy, self-appointed bouncer for Lord's Bowery parties, that keeps them under control.
Murphy, who has a criminal record, is the life, as well as the terror, of the gatherings. His wit brings laughs from all, and his frown with a curt "cut the gab" brings silence. Murphy thinks Lord's name is typical of the sort of fellow Phil is.
During one of the broadcasts a man, drunk and cursing, insisted upon talking into the microphone which was sending the program over a nationwide NBC network. Lord was forced to knock the man into the aisle. Murphy, who had reached the platform, nodded his head for the man to leave. Soon Murphy and some of his aides disappeared. When he reappeared Murphy confided to Robertson, in a matter-of-fact way, that "the bozo was beat up and wouldn't bother no more."
The Bowery likes Lord -- as the visitor can see in a moment's glance across the crowded room of black and white faces as he enters. He has proven himself a swell guy, to their way of thinking, because he provides a meal ticket, a pass to his show, and small change each time they gather.
Their banter at Bowery parties is good-natured. When one of their number stands before them to sing, or recite some of his poetry, the performer can deduce after a moment whether he will be able to finish. If it pleases they are quiet. If they are not pleased the only reason rotten cabbages are not tossed is because not are available.
Charlie, the toothless Chinese baritone of Doyer street, is one of the Bowery's most popular entertainers. When he sings "Jesus Loves Me," in broken English, tears come to the eyes of his listeners, and if he is broadcasting, one can count on a heavy fan mail. He has proved one of Lord's most popular finds.
The Tadpole, who with his musical saw has toured every civilized country in the world, is another whom Lord can usually depend upon to be on hand for a broadcast. Tadpole has the Driftwood orchestra which consists of three pieces, his saw, a violin and a guitar. It is hard, he admits to Lord, to keep so many men together, especially now that the spring is here.
Chatham Square has its Harry Lauder. He is Sunny Scotty and sings ditties which were popular in his native heath when he was a boy. He still sings well but his Bowery audience often interrupts with comments regarding Scotty's read nose -- which easily betrays his failing.
The talk of the evening usually is delivered by Dan O'Brien, King of the Hoboes. He just closed the New York Hobo College, of which he is dean, for the season -- mostly because, he admits, the students felt the urge of wandering feet.
O'Brien uses the language of the pedagogue in speaking, but at all times appears in the uniform of the hobo.
"The Bowery has talent," O'Brien said. "These men are ambitious, they are proud. We have great singers, great musicians, and great dramatists among us. What we needed was the chance Lord is giving us."
Because of the Depression, O'Brien explained a new course in the art of panhandling has been introduced at the Hobo College.
The theme song of the Bowery broadcast was written by Jack Sellers, a Bowery poet and melody maker, who in better days served his country in the United States Navy.
"What would you like now, boys?" Lord asked as he drew his party to a close.
"Ice cream and onions," was the reply as if but one giant voice had answered; sure sign, according to Lord, that the party "went over."
Barry Holloway in Radio Digest, June 1932
The velvet drop concealing the skinny legs of marimba said "Marian and Jim Jordan," and the names sparkled with all the fine, phony brilliance of a dancer's exit smile. The act on stage in this small-town theater was a harmony team -- the girl at the piano, the man leaning debonairly against it and singing a pleasant tenor to the girl's contralto. The keynote was a jaunty good cheer. They sang "When You're Smiling," and a comedy number called "She Knows Her Onions." They followed with a little piece of musical sunshine called "Bridge O'Flynn." And as always, they closed with "Side by Side," which said, toward the end:
Oh, we don't have a barrel of money,
Maybe we're ragged and funny,
But we're rolling along, singing this song,
Side by side
Then, with a big smile for the audience, these two radiant personalities bowed off to make room for the No. 3 act on the bill. There is no oddity in anything they did, but there was great restraint in what they didn't. For at those words, "We don't have a barrel of money," they might very well have broken into wild laughter. And it would have been appropriate to have torn that marimba block from block, grab a handful of bass notes apiece and chase the audience out of the theater with this pretty kindling.
For where Jim and Marian Jordan were going to stroll, side by side, was down the main stem of this Central Illinois town, and their next appearance would be in the Western Union office, and send the forlorn message: "Went broke in Lincoln, Illinois. Please wire carfare home."
That was in 1924. Just now, Jim and Marian Jordan do have a barrel of money, and while not ragged, they are certainly funny. An estimated 20 million Americans draw up chairs to hear them every Tuesday night; they are Fibber McGee and Molly, two of America's favorite comedy characters. In fact, having out-Hoopered all rival programs last year to establish their show as the country's No. 1 favorite, they are now pretty much the king and queen of radio. They are riding high in the form of entertainment that killed vaudeville -- and if it killed one vaudeville theater in Lincoln, Illinois, they could be pardoned for greeting the news with one short, dirty laugh, side by side. That was the low point in their career.
A lot of radio stars are former vaudeville headliners -- Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Fred Allen were big timers who didn't fiddle with radio until five or six years after Fibber McGee and Molly went to work before a mike. The Jordans can't bandy stories with them about long runs at the Palace. They never got within V-bomb range of that queen of the vaudeville houses. But the two who set out from Peoria so hopefully a quarter of a century ago can match vaudeville bruises with the best of them. "In the big league, you played better football, yes," they can say, "but in that league they wear shoes."
The Jordans play their roles in their natural voices now, and manage to make those characters exceedingly real. In many a small town they sound like neighbors, if the neighbors could provide as many laughs, and in many a big city apartment they sound like the folks back home.
They are like their radio characters, too, in one important respect. They are not the type people, to use one of Fibber's favorite expressions, to whom things happen in those neat little epigrams of fact found in so many biographies. They type people they are, if Ziegfeld had been out front one night, he'd have been lost, to begin with, and the Jordans would have had laryngitis.
Take their advent into radio. That makes a pretty impressive tale, if you don't go into the details. They first sang into a mike on a bet, and the very next day they had a sponsor. The full story is far more plausible, if less flashy.
The Jordans were visiting Jim's brother Byron in that section of North Side Chicago called Rogers Park. The two couples were killing time listening to the radio. They heard some singing and Jim remarked, "We could do better than that."
"Ten bucks says you can't," said his brother, meaning "Let's see you." But Jim is not the type guy who, when he makes a bet, backs down on it if he is pretty sure he can win, and all hands drove downtown to the radio station. "We are singers," Jim explained. Radio was pretty much off the cuff in those days, a good deal of the talent wasn't paid at all, and the manager of station WIBO may have held the general view that one harmony team sounds very much like another harmony team.
"Go ahead and sing," was his unexcited reply. So they did -- "Can You Hear Me Calling, Caroline?" -- and next day they had a sponsor. But as usual in real life, if not biographies, there was a catch in it. The sponsored show ran only once a week; the revenue was $10. Maybe you heard them, but the odds are against it. They were the O'Henry Twins, and lucky, in those days, that they didn't get paid in candy bars.
Robert M. Yoder in the Saturday Evening Post, April 9, 1949
Don Ameche armed himself with some letters of introduction, and set out. He wasn't afraid of New York. "I didn't have enough sense to be afraid," he said, with a wry grin.
He delivered all the letters on his first day in New York, and like most letters of introduction, they didn't do any good. He was turned away politely, instead of brusquely; that was all. On his third day of job hunting, he met another young actor on the street. They struck up an acquaintanceship.
"He told me he was playing with Fiske O'Hara in Jerry for Short, and that they were letting a player go. He suggested I put in a bid for the part. I did, got it, and had my first Broadway job three days after my arrival."
This time a total stranger had proved himself a friend. Ameche thought he was on the way to uninterrupted success. But the fickle gods of fame were snickering up their sleeves.
When Jerry for Short closed, he played in stock in Greenwich, Connecticut, for two weeks. Then he won the juvenile lead in the road company of Illegal Practice -- and wound up broke after nine weeks.
He had to borrow money to get back to New York. Between February and June, he had two weeks of work; namely, a vaudeville engagement with Texas Guinan. Came June, and he couldn't hold out any longer so he wired home for money to get back to Kenosha, Wisconsin.
There, another friend came to his rescue. "Bernadine Flynn, of the radio team of Vic and Sade, knew me in the stock company in Madison. She heard that I was back in Kenosha, and called me from Chicago. She wanted me to make an audition there for a radio program called Empire Builders.
"If it hadn't been for her, I probably wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't have known about that audition. I wouldn't have taken it. I wouldn't have gone on the air that fall of 1930. Or ever, probably."
And he wouldn't have had the chance to go on the First Nighter program in the spring of 1931 -- the program that made him famous as a radio personality -- and on which he still appears, every Friday.
In the fall of 1932, another friend played a memorable part in his life. "This friend called up one evening and asked what I was doing. If I wasn't doing anything, I could have a date with a pretty girl from Dubuque, visiting in town. I asked who the girl was; I might know her; I had gone to school in Dubuque. Honore Prendergast was the name that came over the phone. 'Let me talk to her,' I practically shouted.
"We went out together that night and ever night after that while she was in Chicago. Then she had to get back to her work. She was a dietitian in Dubuque. That was the first part of September. After that, every weekend, I covered the 170 miles to Dubuque to see her. In the last part of November, we were married. Father Sheehy came back from Washington to marry us."
A fast worker, this Don Ameche.
James Reid in Modern Screen, February 1937
Thousands of women all over the country know Frances Lee Barton and her broadcasts from the General Foods Cooking School of the Air.
Heretofore, Barton's broadcasts have dealt entirely with baking, cooking demonstrations, menu making, proper use of recipe ingredients, kitchen hints and the related material that has made her Cooking School of the Air programs of invaluable service to housewives everywhere.
From now on, however -- beginning with the broadcast of January 4 -- Barton will present not only her regular cooking service but, in addition, a delightful program of smart, musical entertainment.
The new half-hour programs will be broadcast every Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, over a coast-to-coast network.
Barton, star of the Cooking School of the Air, is presenting the all-star entertainment program as superlative in quality as the delicious cakes that come from her oven.
This savory musical recipe will be served up piping hot by handsome young Warren Hull, who will be Barton's assistant chef, or in other words, master of ceremonies.
In Hull's musical recipe will be quality ingredients -- Frances Langford, charming southern songstress who has created an outstanding radio success; James Wilkinson, baritone, and Al and Lee Reiser, whose piano duets over the air have placed them in the very front rank of radio performers. Al and Lee are cousins. Al specializes in popular music and Lee in the classics, so that their programs offer varied musical fare to please all tastes.
Remember every Friday afternoon. Listen in and hear this new, unusual combination of practical cooking information and delightful entertainment. It's a well-rounded menu -- spicy, appetizing, substantial and wholesome -- served by Barton and Hull, and topped off by all the sweetness that Langford, Wilkinson and the musical Reisers can bring you in their appealing music and song -- a unique half hour that will bring you the utmost in enjoyment and practical cooking help.
From General Foods Broadcaster, January 1935