This past semester I've been teaching American humor to a group of 11th and 12th graders who have been brought up on Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Sure, they've seen Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen and they remember Jack Benny and Groucho Marx. But Jack Carson? Judy Canova? Joe Penner? Fred Allen? Wasn't he the coach of the Red Sox?
Well, being a OTR freak,I had to set these kids straight on just who the best comedians of the 20th century were!
I played a Jack Benny show, a Jack Carson show, a Judy Canova show, a Fibber McGee and Molly and an Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show.
Here's what they had to say about these folks:
Cindy Brown, senior: "I really liked Edgar Bergen's Mortimer Snerd. I liked the line when he was at the carnival and he looked in a mirror in the funhouse and he thought he looked better than in real life."
Botsy Ross (no kiddin'), junior: I think Edgar Bergen was so successful because he gave the dummies personalities of their own. And it really sounded like there were two people talking instead of one. Charlie, Mortimer and Effie are real people. Effie was vivacious in that she loved men and everything to do with them."
Joyce Nutt, junior: Charlie gets hurt easily; he acts like a child, but he is lovable. He has a personality that makes you feel for him. I guess you could call Effie a 'dirty old lady.' She believes every man should be married whether he likes it or not."
Jim Nichols, senior: "Mortimer is not playing with a full deck! And Charlie -- people try to be nice to him, but he'd turn around and tell them to get lost. And for how old Effie is, she has a lot of spunk. I I also liked Fibber McGee and Molly because of the way they worked together as a team; they would crack each other up all the time."
Ted Williams (another no kiddin'), junior: Mortimer is a dumb dummy, but he's so dumb you have to laugh at him."
Dannette Hyer, junior: "Charlie is funny, but also brash. He says things that most people wouldn't say to others, but he thinks nothing of it."
You might have noted something among these comments -- most of them had to do with Edgar Bergen and his characters. Most of the class felt, of all the comedy shows I played for them, Charlie, Mortimer, and Effie were the best.
Probably Bergen's comedy did appeal to the teenagers of the '30s, '40s,and the '50s more than the others used in my classes. Maybe someone reading this may have access to a poll taken during the Golden Age that would either refute or agree with this assumption.
Anyway, Charlie, Mortimer and Effie will live forever as long as those of us in OTR can let others hear them once again.
Hy Daley in Illustrated Press, April 1980
A series of accidents led Roy Knapp Into the life of a professional musician. Of course, Knapp had been reared in music. His father was a violinist, and from his earliest days Knapp was taught to play the violin. Then he broke his left arm in such a way that, even after it healed, it was impossible for him to finger the strings of the violin.
So he took up the trumpet. His father wanted Knapp to be a farmer, and several times Knapp was put on a farm to learn agriculture. But Knapp's real ambition was to become a professional baseball player and he spent most of his spare time in the sandlots slugging balls. Knapp says now that if he hadn't broken practically every bone In his body, he would never have given up his ambition to play ball.
After he graduated from high school, he learned the painting trade. Knapp's father had just opened the first motion picture theater in Waterloo. Iowa, their home town. During the day. Knapp was working as a painter and in the evenings he was playing his trumpet at the theater, running the movie reels by hand and making posters to advertise forthcoming attractions. For recreation he slept. He still wasn't considering music seriously as a career.
Then one evening the drummer in the theater orchestra became suddenly ill and was unable to play. It was up to Knapp to take over his job, and from then on Knapp began to take his music seriously.
His first symphony engagement was with the Minneapolis Symphony orchestra when it was directed by the late Emil Oberhoefer. Since that time Knapp has played with a number of symphony orchestras and at one time played with Victor Herbert, the famous composer.
Knapp came to WLS seven years ago and has been a regular member of the concert orchestra, as well as one of the Cornhuskers. He has played on more network shows than he can remember and is at present in the orchestras heard on the Contented Hour with Morgan Eastman, on the Northerners program, and in the Edison Symphony concerts. in addition to the NBC-WLS barn dance every Saturday night. He is also one of the red-coated members of Uncle Ezra's Silver Cornet band.
When Knapp plays in an orchestra, he is completely surrounded by musical instruments. He plays the traps, chimes, xylophone, vibraharp and tympani.
In his work at the NBC studios, Knapp has met many famous singers, including Nelson Eddy, Lawrence Tibbett and Ernestine Schumann-Heinck.
The last few years he has spent much of his time in teaching students the percussion instruments and he takes pride in the fact that many of his pupils are playing in the leading orchestras of the country.
To look at Knapp you'd never believe that he is a sentimentalist at heart. You'd have to look at his collection of pictures to believe that. He has old faded pictures of his sister and brother in baby clothes, a highly prized picture of his mother who died when he was only 8, old-fashioned pictures of the orchestras he has played in since he was a youngster, and a number of childhood pictures of his daughter, who is now 23, and his son, who is 17.
Then, too, Knapp likes animals -- horses, dogs. cats and even snakes, and has brown eyes and brown wavy hair that he tries to keep straightened out. He is 5-foot-8. His birthday is October 26. Tucky, Knapp's little Boston bull pup, is a frequent visitor to the studios and waits quietly in Knapp's office while he is on the air.
From Standby, July 18, 1936
In the past 20 years, American humor -- accelerated by radio -- has come out of the barnyard. It has been cleaned up, perfumed and sparked by those unsung heroes, the gag writers. Today, the ether is so full of good gags that even the ghosts have hysterics.
I will go out on a limb to say that radio has done for American humor in 10 years what it would have taken vaudeville 50 years to reach. I feel no heartaches over vaudeville's passing, when I think of the way the old-time comic used to get his laughs. Gags were in their infancy then. They were as unsteady as a baby -- and had to be changed just as often. A comedian used to throw a gag at a vaudeville audience with a swing and a prayer, never knowing whether it would roll 'em in the aisle -- or roll up the joint. He might get howls with a certain gag at one show, and at the next the audience would look at him as though he had just read from page 26 of the Zanesville, Ohio, classified directory.
As a result, he desperately needed some sort of "gag insurance." He had to get laughs -- or else. His formula for this was pat. First, he pitched his opening gags across the footlights. If nothing happened, he tossed them his vary best gag, just to make sure that the audience was still there. Then -- if nothing but cigar smoke came back -- he played his trump card. A concealed tug at his belt, a deft wiggle ... and his pants fell down.
That was always sure for a laugh -- until, with dozens of comics doing the same thing all over the country, even this trick grew stale. So new tricks were added. I remember one comic who got thrown off the circuit because his underwear lit up and played "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Gags have grown up since then, and radio methods are quite different. Just contrast the old vaudeville routine for insuring gags with what we have today. Our gag insurance doesn't rely on slapstick but upon what we call a "topper." We then get a topper to top a topper -- and perhaps one to top that, as illustrated by the following dialogue used by Mary Livingstone and Rochester on our program:
Mary: You say you just got in town, Rochester. What took you so long ... was the train late?
Rochester: What train? I was out on Highway 99 freelancing.
Mary: You mean you hitchhiked. Why?
Rochester: Well, instead of a train ticket, Mr. Benny gave me a road map.
Rochester: And a short talk on the generosity of the American tourist.
Mary: You mean that's all Mr. Benny gave you?
Rochester: No ... he also gave me a white glove for night operations.
There you have three toppers, all on the same gag. That's the kind of insurance that you, as a comedian, can feel safe with. It's like holding a ticket on every horse in the race. It's safer, more dignified -- and saves a lot of wear and tear on your pants.
Some people think that comedians and gag men are responsible for bringing American humor out of its giggly youth to manhood. While it would be nice to take the credit, our overtaxed consciences won't stand the strain. No, it's the audience who shoved the "little men" up to voting age.
The clamor for something better and still better has made necessary the same strides in gags as in automobiles and planes. When your gags and routines start lying around on the stage like old eggs from the same tired basket, and your audience reacts to your stuff as though they had lockjaw ... brother, you'd better start looking for better material -- or a rich widow!
The public today demands more of its humor than "a laugh at any price." It resents too much insulting, too much cynicism In short, the public likes good comedy, but it likes good taste even better. I have found that a gag line with too much sting is about as funny to people as a trial fitting for the electric chair.
You've probably noticed that nobody ever gets hurt on our program. Of course, I am subjected to quite a little shoving around -- I'm supposed to be a braggart, I'm supposed to wear a toupee, I'm supposed to be stingy -- but it's all in the spirit of fun! We try to follow one simple rule: "If it hurts, it isn't funny." (Naturally, however, I reserve the right to modify this, in the case of Fred Allen.)
Basically, our show is built on a foundation of real people -- not burlesque characters, but ordinary, everyday people. I'd be willing to bet that there are very few of you who don't know people exactly like Mary, Phil Harris and Rochester, as they are represented on our program. Yes, and there are lots of others who are just as dumb as Dennis Day was on our program (though I'm apparently having a tough time finding one dumb enough to work for the same money as he did.)
We feel that, to a certain extent, we represent the audience. In us, they see themselves. It would be foolish for us to knock each other around, because then we would be knocking the audience around ... and when you start doing that -- well, your sponsor had better be your own brother-in-law.
However, one of America's greatest national characteristics is our ability to laugh at ourselves. When the audience sees themselves through us, they get a special kick out of the jokes that seem to fit them personally. If someone pulls a gag on me about my having false teeth, 98 percent of those in our audience who have false teeth will laugh heartily. (The other two percent would laugh, too, but their gums are still sore.)
Throughout, we try to have things happen to us which would happen to anyone -- things which will be interesting and also, above all, funny. That's why so many of our routines and gags come from what we see around us -- like all that water, when we were coming from Vancouver to Seattle by boat.
We were all on the top deck enjoying the beautiful scenery ... all, that is, except Phil Harris. Harris was down in his stateroom asleep. He isn't very interested in water -- thinks there's too much of it to give it any value. I know this because, once when I was talking to Phil about the earth and how it was three-fourths covered with water, he said, "Yeah. You know, Jackson, I think the Creator slipped up a little there. He could have just as easy made it bourbon!"
Well, we were talking about all that water and started throwing a few ideas around, finally coming up with: "Harris was mad when he saw all that chaser with nothing to go with it." We weren't satisfied, but we knew we were on the track of something. We worked it over some more and then tried another version: "It made Harris mad to see all that water and nothing to break the trail." It still didn't have the snap it needed until my writers switched and changed it to: "Harris was mad when he saw all that chaser -- with nothing to break the trail."
That was it. Why, I don't know. But it was. It may sound like a simple idea and, on paper, look as though very few changes had been made, but the audience roared when we served it up on the program. If we'd tried that in vaudeville 20 years ago, without the split second timing that we use on the air today, it would only have died a quick death on the other side of the footlights. Perhaps audiences, too -- as well as gags -- have grown up.
Let me bow out with this piece of advice. Since you, the listener, are responsible for the present high level of our humor ... keep it that way. Don't let us comedians slip back into the "easy way." Keep writing those letters telling us what you like, what you don't like, and what you want. You're the boss and I'll get it for you -- even if I have to keep my writers up all night to do it!
Jack Benny in Tune In, April 1945
One rarely thinks of an organist as being a much-traveled man or one whose activities would run from virtually dawn to midnight. But WBEN organist Nelson Selby is currently providing the musical backbone of Breakfast at Laube's Old Spain five mornings a week, playing at the Hotel Lenox six evenings a week, and airing a Sunday afternoon organ program on WBEN. He also is heard frequently on Sundays at Buffalo's leading churches.
Selby can hardly remember the time when he wasn't in love with organ music. It started when he filled in as church organist on Sundays. After high school graduation he studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and later attended the University of Buffalo. But it was long before that -- at the age of seven -- that he began his musical studies.
Curiously, Selby attracted early attention for his accordion playing as much as his artistry on the organ. Two decades ago he teamed with Mickey Sullivan, the leader of television's famous Mad Hatters band on WBEN-TV. As the Boys from Melody Lane, he and Sullivan broadcast from WGY, Schenectady and for two summers sang at famed Saratoga.
For his morning Breakfast programs Selby utilizes the Hammond organ at Laube's but on Sunday afternoon he plays the huge WBEN organ at the station's studios. At the Lenox Hotel he has his own equipment -- Hammond, celeste and chimes. He also is a consultant and salesman of Hammond organs at a local music house.
Selby has three children -- Dick, seventeen; Judith, eight and Diane, four. Dick is preparing for MIT.
From Radio and Television Mirror, July 1949
When Bing Crosby changed from "live" radio shows to transcribed ones, it was because he felt that better programs would result when they could be assembled and produced with the care and control that transcribing allows -- you can't change a song or a comedy line once it's gone on the airways, but you can always "edit" a transcription. Besides, having to show up for rehearsals and broadcasts at set times every week was working a hardship on the very busy Crosby. Transcribing, he could do his shows at his convenience.
But the rumor hounds bayed, "He can't trust his voice any more! Not hitting the high notes these days! And he's getting awfully husky, haven't you noticed?"
Says Troy Sanders, Paramount music director, who has worked with some of the biggest voices in the country: "As Bing has gotten older, his range has moved down a whole third. We feel he has developed a much richer tone. As for high notes, Bing can still produce wonderful high notes with perfect vocal technique whenever they're needed, and hold them as long as he wants. I know his range is much greater than he ever uses.
Asked if it were true that Crosby can't read music, Sanders laughed. "That's ridiculous. He reads like a flash. But I used to believe that rumor myself. Years ago I asked him, 'Why do you always want to see the music before the lyrics if you can't read music?' 'Well,' said Bing, 'I just like to see the notes go up and down.'
"I wish I could read them as well myself! In a few moments he has the music down cold -- then he concentrates on the lyrics. His interpretation of songs is by no means something he accomplishes casually -- even if the result seems so simple that everybody and his brother think they could sing a song as he does. He's developed a technique in popular songs as great in its way as that of any operatic star. Bing milks a song dry of every meaning it has."
"But isn't he awfully lazy?" I asked.
"Absolutely not! The thing is -- he's a quick study. Give him two-and-a-half pages of fresh script and he'll disappear for 15 minutes. When he comes back, he has it letter-perfect. You can pick out a song you know he hasn't sung in 20 years and he can sing it with all the words right. ... Recently we were sitting around the set of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court when Sir Cedric Hardwicke tossed off a line of Hamlet. Bing picked it up and spoke the rest of the lines not only perfectly, but movingly. After a moment's silence, Sir Cedric cleared his throat and said, 'When did you have time to learn all that?' Bing laughed and answered, 'Oh, back in my school days I was quite a thespian.'"
Frances Clark in Modern Screen, October 1949
An honorable mention-winning entry in the KDKA Radio Memories essay contest:
About two years ago, a week before Christmas, I was putting up the Christmas decorations in my room and decided to listen to the radio. A little tired with the music on the FM band, I switched it over to AM. After twiddling around with the dial, I came upon KFKA and heard someone yell with what seemed like anger, "Leroy!" Which was followed by a little kid's voice angelically answering, "Yeah, unc?" And so I was then wrapped up into the world of The Great Gildersleeve. So wrapped up that I forgot about my Christmas decorations.
Every week I tuned in to hear The Great Gildersleeve, The Shadow, Musical Memories and many others. I am also into the historical snippets. My father is a history teacher at the university and it's really cool to hear those variations of major events. The shows also give me an idea of how life was in the '30s, '40s and early '50s. I am interested in that period of time, when radio played a major role in people's lives. It gave them news, weather and entertainment. It has given me memories now, such as sitting on a cold Sunday night, bundled up in my room listening to The Shadow, or hearing about an old baseball game in the summer. The program gives me a feeling of relaxation that I can forget everything for the time being and listen to the actors as they make a story come alive in my head. I look forward to it every week and will for years to come.
Jacquie Welsh in Return With Us Now, May 2002
A few Sundays ago, a young and unknown radio producer sat down to a telephone in the War Department in Washington and called Leopold Stokowski, in New York. "Mr. Stokowski," he said, "I want you and your orchestra to appear on my radio program two weeks from today." Stokowski -- who won't lift a baton for less than $4,000 -- gasped. But before he could hang up, Glenn Wheaton, radio producer for Uncle Sam, explained.
"We want you to appear on Command Performance. Command Performance isn't heard in the United States. It's Uncle Sam's show for men in the armed forces serving abroad. They ask for what they want. We give it to them. We've had a bunch of requests for classical music and we'd like you to answer those requests."
"Tell me where you want me to be and when. I'll be there." It was as simple as that. By V-mail, letters and cables, requests pour into Washington from American lads serving from Alaska to the Antipodes.
The letters, themselves, provide a magnificent collection of Americana, a cross-section of the soul of America, and a wistful study in nostalgia. Good, bad, or indifferent, these men on foreign soil ask only for the America they left behind.
Command Performance is a remarkably well-produced show. There are no corny pep talks. The Army feels that fellows out in Guadalcanal and Africa know why they're there. Neither are there commercial announcements on these shows. Nearest thing to a commercial runs about like this:
"Just tear off the top of a Stuka or Zero and write us what you want on the show: We'll give it to you." And the boys have done just that. One bomber squadron stationed in England has a working arrangement with Judy Garland. She'll sing a song for them in return for each Nazi plane they shoot down. To date, Garland owes the boys two songs. A request that the world's best and worst violinists do a program together found Jascha Heifetz and Jack Benny working as a team. Brenda and Cobina brought the rubber shortage on the home front close to the boys by describing how the girls are retreading their girdles. Perhaps the most unusual request was from a sailor at Pearl Harbor. "Would Carol Landis step up to the microphone "and just sigh -- that's all?" She would and did.
Command Performances were once the prerogative of royalty. Now every soldier's a king, his command an order of the day.
The Radio Branch originated Command Performance nearly a year ago. The shows are broadcast 36 times weekly by shortwave beamed at different parts of the world and at different hours so that wherever American soldiers are on duty overseas, it will reach them during their waking hours. Having proved its power as a morale builder, on December 15, it was transferred to the Army's Special Service Division, in charge of welfare and entertainment of U. S. Troops -- with Wheaton remaining as its guiding genius.
Chief of the Radio Branch is chocky, active, sandy-haired Lt. Col. E. M. Kirby. Kirby operates from a half-finished office cluttered with uncovered telephone cables in the Army's new and fantastic Pentagon Building in Arlington. He is a red-tape-cutter; and few men know their way around in radio better than he. For years, he directed the National Association of Broadcasters, knows problems of broadcasting and programming intimately. Before Pearl Harbor -- when only ostriches and those who were blind and would not hear failed to perceive the war clouds then brewing -- Kirby went to the Army as a civilian dollar-a-year man to direct the then-new Radio Branch. After Pearl Harbor, he was commissioned and has been doing a terrific job.
Command Performance was born of a sports broadcast the Radio Branch cooked up. Boys in the field wanted to know how the baseball games were going, and Kirby arranged to broadcast the games by shortwave.
But the boys in far places then began to write in and ask why -- if they could have the sports broadcasts -- couldn't they have the good entertainment shows being broadcast in America? Kirby knew that the entertainers of America were more than willing to do their part. So were the radio stations. The result was Command Performance. Presented by a commercial sponsor, Command Performance would have a weekly talent cost of not less than $50,000. For Uncle Sam, there are no charges.
From Tune In, March 1943