Texaco Star Theater Became Radio's Biggest Hit Show

Publicity photo of Texaco Star Theater radio host Fred Allen at an NBC microphone
Fred Allen, host of radio's Texaco Star Theater (sometimes called Texaco Star Theatre)

How many persons throughout the United States wonder what has become of Theda Bara, most glamorous of the movie sirens of more than a decade ago? And how many others are intrigued by the idea of hearing the bewhiskered Santa Claus of Hollywood's famed Santa Claus Lane on the air; or George McManus, creator of the popular comic strip dealing with the doings of Jiggs and Maggie; or Tom Mix, hero of a thousand cinematic gun battles and now a famed rodeo star?

With shrewd showmanship, producer Ed Gardner, who directs the Hollywood half hour of the Texaco Star Theater, has taken advantage of the public's curiosity about celebrities whom they have never heard on the air, combined it with human interest, gentle ribbing and fast-moving comedy to make the show one of the most popular on the national networks.

Gardner strives for the unusual in the matter of guests on the program. One week it may be a famed film star who has dropped from sight. The next it may be an author of a bestseller. Among the guests he has had on the show, in addition to McManus, Mix, Bara and Dale Carnegie are Mack Sennett, father of the custard pie comedy; Mae Murray of The Merry Widow fame; Bela Lugosi, whose role of Dracula is outstanding among the screen and stage horror performances; Basil Rathbone and many more.

"The public is tired of hearing from the big names in films today," says Gardner. "What it wants is human interest. Everybody wonders what has become of the old timers. Everyone is curious about celebrities who are seldom heard on the air."

"We think we've got the answer. Naturally, a cut-and-dried interview would be dull, but combine it with laughs and you've got something."

Credit for the idea goes to Gardner, who took over the show this fall. Believing the guest star business to be overdone, Gardner sought a substitute -- one that was unique and yet combined all the good features of the guest star idea with greater human interest and the present Texaco show is the result.

Emceeing the program is wisecracking Ken Murray who works with Gardner and the writers on the comedy. A former screen and vaudeville actor and for several years a nationally syndicated humorous columnist, Ken fits perfectly into the writing picture and works hand in glove with the production staff.

Between Ken and Gardner, they decide upon guests, evolve the idea of the evening's skit and work out the fast-moving comedy dialogue.

A new addition to the cast of the program is Irene Ryan, the wisecracking, slightly hard-boiled young damsel who keeps Murray in line on the show by her caustic remarks whenever Murray's ego threatens to get the better of him. She never fails to bring down the house with her vitriolic interruptions.

Irene recently came to the coast with her equally well known husband, Tim, with whom she trouped for many years under the team of Tim and Irene. And no sooner did Gardner hear of her arrival than he signed her as a regular member of the cast.

Musical interludes of the program are supplied by Frances Langford and Kenny Baker, top ranking singers in the radio field, who are also being used in the comedy skits since Gardner took over the production reins.

Baker is cast as a naive, slightly dumb young fellow, while Frances, as Francie-Lou, wins the audience with her typically Southern accent -- a holdover from her childhood days in Florida.

Furnishing the musical background for Frances and Kenny's songs are David Broekman and his band, while commercials are deftly handled by the suave Jimmy Wallington, veteran announcer of the show.

From Radio Varieties, January 1940

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