How Ed Wynn Spent His $5,000-a-Week Radio Salary

Photo of radio comedian Ed Wynn alongside a shadow that looks like his The Fire Chief character
Radio comedian Ed Wynn, star of The Fire Chief

It certainly looks easy. All you have to do is walk into a studio, tell a few jokes, or sing a few songs, and walk out with five thousand dollars. Think of it: $5,000 for a half hour's work. Pretty soft!

But is it? Is this business of being a radio star as easy as it looks? Is that whopping big weekly fee just so much pure gravy -- or does it take a lot of time and money to get up to the table, and is a lot of the gravy spilled on the way back?

Well, let's find out. The thing to do is to take some top-ranking stars in radio and see what it costs to stay on top. Probably we're due for some surprises. There aren't many stars in that charmed circle who receive $5,000 per broadcast -- which is just about the highest regular salary in radio -- but, anyway, we'll scramble up to the top and take a look around.

How would you like to take over Ed Wynn's expense account, for instance? The good old Fire Chief is generally credited with being the star who established $5,000 a week as a salary for top attractions, and he is also credited with being the man who started the present overwhelming vogue of comedians on the air.

Wynn maintains on his personal payroll a full-time business manager, a full-time secretary and physical trainer, and a secretarial force of three persons. These are high caliber people on Wynn's personal staff, and their combined salaries total just about $550 per week.

Wynn writes his own scripts, with the help of some highly expert research assistants, who maintain his reference library and dig up facts and humorous situations for him to make quips about. This costs him $250 per week and, even so, the figure is far below that paid by other comedians who must buy their scripts from outside sources.

Once you start whittling down a salary in $550 and $250 weekly chunks, you begin to see where the money goes! Here comes another $200 weekly item -- the cost of answering fan letters and sending out photographs. A fully equipped rehearsal studio for rehearsing and trying out program ideas costs $100 per week; insurance, replacement and maintenance of costumes costs $100; and telephone, telegraph and taxi bills (radio time waits for no man) take up another $100 per week. A star, to keep his position, must do a certain amount of obligatory entertaining (on a star's scale) and at even the most informal restaurant meal or club evening he must always be ready to grab the check. These items, frequently irksome but always necessary, some times run as high as $150 in a week.

Once the decks are supposedly cleared, then comes the worst blow of all, the nightmare that haunts the sleep of every star in radio -- the income tax. The bigger the salary, the higher the tax, and a good estimate of what Wynn must pay for his federal, state and local taxes would be $1,500 per week. If you are following the arithmetic of these computations, you will find that at this point approximately $3,000 of the $5,000 is already gone!

That much is gone before you even start on Wynn's personal expenses, his rent, his food, his clothing, money for his family and the maintenance of his son in college, and his constant and heavy contributions to charity, about which he says nothing.

Wynn IS one of the grandest and best loved characters in radio; and, far from rolling In wealth, as his salary might indicate, it is not likely that much more than a small part of his earnings actually filter down to him for his own use.

Well! After going through a set of figures like those we begin to realize that even top salaries in radio can melt away as fast as snow in April. It is the ancient story of the amusement world -- the star of today is the bit player of tomorrow -- and radio stars differ from the stars of the theater or the movies only in that, generally speaking, radio stars are a little more like homefolk, a little more friendly and neighborly, and a little more likely to try to put some money aside to take care of them in their old age.

One heavy item of expense that most people don't think of is Wynn happens to be a lucky one. He acts as his own agent; but the stars who are booked through the artists' service of the National Broadcasting Company or the Columbia Broadcasting System must pay 10 percent of their weekly salaries as commissions. This is the lega1 figure, and if a star is booked through one of the numerous independent booking offices, the weekly commission, possibly arranged as a legal partnership agreement, sometimes may go much higher.

All you have to do is to compute 10 percent of $5,000 and you see that a slice of $500 comes off the salary before any other expense even starts.

Guy Johnson in Tower Radio, March 1934

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