Monday, June 23, 2014
Our Favorite Radio Programs of 1949
It’s hard to believe, but I never saw an image on TV screen until my early teens. That happened in a hotel on a family trip to Chicago around 1951. Menominee didn’t get television until WBAY debuted in Green Bay in 1953. I was in the tenth grade. WBAY was only the second TV station in the state of Wisconsin, and there weren’t any stations yet in the U.P. My friend Sally H’s parents got a TV set that year, though my parents, who seemed to regard television as some newfangled, sinister force, didn’t buy a set for another three or four years. It didn’t matter much because we were hooked on the programs that our local radio station, WMAM, broadcast. Steve, Peter, Vicki, and I would gather on the window seat in our living room nearly every evening and listen to our favorites on our family radio, especially the Sunday night lineup of Fred Allen and Jack Benny. I’ve listed below what I remember to be our ten favorite programs from 1949. I was 12 that year, Steve was 8, Peter 4, and Vicki 2. Steve and I took in every word. Peter and Vicki, I’m not so sure. But those were the days.
No. 10. Our Miss Brooks. We liked Our Miss Brooks because it was about an attractive high school teacher and her funny students. Eve Arden played the witty Connie Brooks, an English teacher at Madison High. Other characters included Osgood Conklin, the blustery school principal; Walter Denton, a goofy student who drove Miss Brooks to school; and Philip Boynton, Miss Brooks’ shy romantic interest. Audiences ranked Eve Arden the number one radio comedienne for 1948-49.
No. 9. Burns and Allen. George Burns and Gracie Allen had been vaudeville performers before they moved on to radio. Gracie was totally dizzy, while George played her straight man. Other regulars included Meredith Wilson and the Sportsman Quartet. In a series of 1940 episodes Gracie ran for U.S. president as the candidate of the Surprise Party ticket whose platform advocated more nonsense. When the election was over, supposedly the citizens of Menominee, Michigan, invited Gracie to be their mayor, but she respectfully declined, saying she couldn’t live in two places at once.
No. 8. The Aldrich Family. The funniest kid on radio was Henry Aldrich, a good-hearted but bumbling teenager. Every show began with Henry’s mother calling, “Hen-reee! Hen-ree Al-drich!” Then Henry would call back “Com-ing, Mother!” The show dealt with Henry’s misadventures with girls and various friends. It was sponsored by Jello -- J-E-L-L-O.
No. 7. The Shadow. We listened to comedies the most, but there were exciting mystery and adventure programs too. Our favorite was The Shadow. Each episode began with the lines, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” The Shadow had the hypnotic ability to "cloud men's minds" and thus be invisible to them. Episodes dealt with the Shadow's crime-fighting adventures against evil masterminds. The Shadow's real name was Lamont Cranston, a "wealthy young man about town." Cranston's romantic interest was socialite Margo Lane who was able to see through the Shadow's mind-clouding abilities.
No. 6. Duffy’s Tavern. Curiously, tavern-owner Duffy never was actually heard on this program. Instead each episode began with Archie, the tavern’s manager, answering the phone and saying, “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin’. Duffy ain’t here – oh, hello, Duffy.” Archie was constantly engaged in some sort of comic misadventure with his man-crazy daughter, Miss Duffy; waiter-janitor Eddie; or kooky patron Clifton Finnegan.
No. 5. Fibber McGee and Molly. Fibber and Molly were played by a real-life couple, Jim Jordan and Marian Driscoll. The McGees lived at 79 Wistful Vista where Fibber was regularly involved in hare-brained schemes to make money while his common sense wife would comment, “T’ain’t funny, McGee!”. Other players included blowhard Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, the hard-of-hearing Old Timer, a precocious little girl named Teeny, Mayor LaTrivia, and Beulah, the McGee’s black maid (in fact played by a white male).
No. 4. The Great Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve graduated from the Fibber McGee and Molly show to a series of his own. He was the water commissioner of Summerfield and also kept busy bringing up his orphaned niece Marjorie and nephew Leroy. Gildy’s friends included Judge Horace Hooker, pharmacist Richard Q. Peavey (“Well, now, I wouldn’t say that!”), and Floyd Munson, the neighborhood barber. Gildersleeve was usually engaged in awkward romances, including H.S. principal Eve Goodwin, Georgia widow Leila Ransom, and Leila’s cousin Adeline Fairchild. Gildersleeve was masterfully played by Harold Peary.
No. 3. The Life of Riley. William Bendix played Chester A. Riley, a riveter at a California aircraft plant. Riley’s life attitude was caught by his favorite expression, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” Riley’s everyday problems were typically made worse from advice from his nextdoor neighbor Gillis, though the friendly undertaker Digby (Digger) O’Dell would show up to “help him out of a hole.”
No. 2. The Fred Allen Show. Though he’s not as well-known today as some of his contemporaries, I think some of the driest and wittiest humor on radio came from Fred Allen. The heart of each show involved Fred’s stroll with his wife Portland Hoffa down “Allen’s Alley.” There they would run into and discuss the issues of the day with poet Falstaff Openshaw, Jewish housewife Pansy Nussbaum, New England Farmer Titus Moody, and loudmouth Southern senator Beauregard Claghorn. All of these characters were beloved.
No. 1. The Jack Benny Show. Jack Benny was the master comedian of the day, and he and Fred Allen maintained a make-believe running feud with one another on their respective shows. The Benny show featured Jack as himself, his valet and chauffeur Rochester, emcee Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, Jack’s love interest Mary Livingston (his actual wife), hip bandleader Phil Harris, and Mel Blanc who played lots of crazy characters. The program usually opened with a number by the band, Jack’s chatting with the regulars about the news of the day, a song from Dennis Day, and then a funny sitcom episode. I can still listen to or watch Jack Benny for hours on end.
APPENDIX: OTHER SHOWS WE LIKED IN 1949:
The Adventures of Sam Spade
The Adventures of the Thin Man
Amos 'n' Andy
The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show
Inner Sanctum Mysteries
Jack Armstrong the All American Boy
The Judy Canova Show
Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge
Lum and Abner
Mr. and Mrs. North
Ozzie and Harriet
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show
The Red Skelton Show
The Sammy Kaye Show
Truth or Consequences
You Bet Your Life
Your Hit Parade
Sources: 1940s.org (OTR-Radio); Old-Time.com (The Original Old Time Radio); Otrsite.com (The Vintage Radio Place); Wikipedia; Google Images (for photos)