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
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