One of the interesting tidbits that I came across in Chuck Schaden’s latest book, Speaking of Radio, was an interview with Alice Faye who—along with her bandleader husband Phil Harris—starred in one of old-time radio’s most hilarious sitcoms, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Faye reveals to Schaden that during the show’s run: “I wasn’t too happy, but I enjoyed it.”
I didn’t particularly like to work with my husband. I don’t believe in wives and husbands working together, but that’s just my opinion. I worked with him, but we didn’t hit it off too well while we were working together. He’s a little rough.
Since Harris and Faye’s comedy show is among my personal favorites, I was genuinely surprised to learn this—but at the same time, I can sort of understand why she felt this way. The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show really should have been called “The Phil Harris-Frankie Remley Show”, since
was usually shut out of the program's shenanigans, forced to play straight-woman to her husband and his left-handed guitarist sidekick. Alice
Phil Harris had been appearing on The Jack Benny Program since 1936 as the show’s bandleader, but his comedic talents and timing are what really made him a mainstay. His brash, obnoxious personality—a flashy, vain Southerner who loved fast cars, fast booze, and fast women—provided a hysterical counterpoint to the Benny character, who liked to think of himself as a ladies’ man although the reality was very much the opposite. Harris had married actress-singer Alice Faye in 1941—Faye was a major motion picture star who specialized in musicals, and many of the films she had made for 20th Century-Fox (On the Avenue, Alexander’s Ragtime Band) were huge hits at the box-office.
In 1946, Harris was offered his own program on Sunday nights, in the prime time-slot after Jack Benny and before Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The F.W. Fitch Shampoo Company, observing that domestic comedies like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were gaining inroads among listening audiences, pitched the idea of a similar comedy to Phil and Alice. On
September 29, 1946, Phil Harris and Alice Faye became the official headliners of NBC’s The Fitch Bandwagon. Since Harris’ show followed the Benny program, the show often began with Phil saying, “So long, Jackson!” and would follow him on his way home from work, concentrating on many of the wise guys he would meet on the way. Most of the show’s action, however, concentrated on Harris’ home life with his wife and two daughters (Alice, Jr. and Phyllis).
For Harris’ new show, his hard-drinking playboy image was toned down somewhat; I assume it was due to the fact that he was now playing a father figure (of sorts) and that that type of carousing behavior would be frowned upon by blue-nosed listeners. Phil instead became sort of an illiterate stumblebum, and his former Jack Benny traits manifested themselves in the form of his best friend Frankie Remley—a character who was in actuality a real person, a guitarist with Harris’ band. Remley had been frequently joked about on Jack Benny’s show but never actually appeared on the program, and during the development of the Harris-Faye show, the real Remley was to originally play himself. It was quickly determined that this arrangement was not working, and so actor Elliott Lewis was brought to portray Remley.
Lewis was no stranger to radio, in fact, he had made many appearances on The Jack Benny Program (although, strangely enough, none as Remley). The comedic timing between Lewis and Harris was simply sensational; a rare magic that, as Schaden mentions in his book, was very similar to the chemistry between Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in The Honeymooners. Remley was sort of a Cosmo Kramer for the 1940s—half-entrepreneur, half-con artist—who generally managed week-after-week to get Phil up to his neck in hot water as a result of some lunatic, half-baked scheme.
So it shouldn’t be too surprising that
felt like a third wheel on her own program—although, I really should amend that to fourth wheel. Sometime later on the program, another character was introduced—a smart-mouthed, wisecracking grocery delivery boy named Julius Abbruzio, played by actor Walter Tetley as sort of a tougher, Brooklynese version of the Leroy Forrester character Tetley did on The Great Gildersleeve. Julius more generally than not found himself a patsy in Phil and Remley’s schemes and the interaction between the three characters was the recipe for top-notch comedy. Alice
At the beginning of the 1948-49 season, the show’s title became The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, as the Harrises had switched to a new sponsor, the Rexall Drug Company. They had also, by this time, obtained two new writers—Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat—who reached new highs in comedy dialogue with an obnoxious, sarcastic approach that still remains fresh to contemporary ears. The Christmas show I listened to last night, originally broadcast over NBC on December 25, 1949, has Alice praising the girls on their good behavior:
: I hope so, Mommy… ALICE
ALICE: …and as for you, honey, you’ve been just as good as Alice…you’ve been going to bed early, putting your toys away, and eating all your food…the only thing is, you…you haven’t been drinking all your milk…
PHIL: Well, I try, but you know how that stuff gags me…
goes into the next room to see where her sister has wandered off to, and finds Phyllis struggling with her inner demons: Alice
: Phyllis…Phyllis! Mommy wants you to come and…Phyllis! What are you doing with those crayons? ALICE
PHYLLIS: I’m going to draw a picture on the wall…
: Don’t do that…you know we gotta be good until tonight… ALICE
PHYLLIS: But I’ve been good for three weeks now…
, it’s an awful strain… Alice
: I know…but it’s only a few more hours…don’t crack up now…you’ve been so good for so long… ALICE
PHYLLIS: I know…but as Daddy always says, “It ain’t been easy,
The girls ask Phil and Alice for permission to stay up on Christmas Eve in time to watch Santa Claus arrive; Phil—perhaps a bit hastily—gives them the okay:
PHIL: But they’re gonna see him…’cause I’m gonna dress up like Santa and come down the chimney…they won’t be able to tell me from the real one…
(from the other room): Daddy…!!! ALICE
PHIL: Yes, dear?
: Don’t you dress up and make believe you’re Santa like last year…boy, was that corny… ALICE
PHIL: Hmm…you know somethin’,
…I still can’t figure out how they knew it was me last year…what did I do that was wrong? Alice
PHIL: I did!
After much discussion of the topic,
suggests that they get Jack Benny’s announcer Don Wilson to play the part of Kris Kringle, but Remley is none-too-excited about that plan: Alice
PHIL: Oh, she’s inside callin’ Don Wilson—you see, the kids want to see Santa Claus tonight, so…we’re askin’ Don to play it…
REMLEY: Why are you gettin’ Don Wilson to play Santa?
PHIL: Well, what else am I gonna do?
REMLEY: Well, let them stay up and see the real Santa Claus…
PHIL: Yeah, but I don’t know what time he’s comin’ and (pause)…can I have that again, Herman?
REMLEY: Why don’t you let the kids see the real Santa Claus?
PHIL (after a pause): You better get some sleep, kid…
REMLEY: So, you’re another one of those cynics, huh…a wise guy who don’t believe…
PHIL: You do?
REMLEY: Of course…just because you’ve never seen him don’t mean he’s not there…you must realize, Curly, that there are some things in life that are inexplicable…there exists certain psychic phenomena that are ethereal and beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals…don’t you agree?
REMLEY: Curly, you can take my word for it…the real guy will show up…I see him every Christmas…
PHIL: That don’t prove nothin’…that proves absolutely nothin’…you see a lot of things nobody else sees…
PHIL: Hello, Santa Claus!
JACK BENNY: Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas and where’s my ten dollars?
(SFX: door closes)
—what are you doin’ here? Jackson
JACK: Well, Don Wilson happened to mention that you were in the market for a Santa Claus, and you were paying fifteen dollars…so I thought I might as well pick up the twenty and…
PHIL: Wait a minute, wait a minute! The fee is ten dollars…but,
…since when do you have to go around playin’ Santa Claus for money? Jackson
JACK: Oh, Phil, please…I’m not doing it just for the money…there are other reasons…I’m doing it because…uh…well, then there’s…uh…oh, I could go on naming reasons like that all night…
When Jack discovers that he’s doing the Santa bit for the children’s benefit and not Phil’s, he decides to be charitable and do it for only $7.50…then he decides he’ll settle for just a nice Christmas gift, “anything that Alice can afford.” But Phil has his doubts about whether his boss can pass muster as St. Nick, and decides to put him to the test:
REMLEY: This impersonation is preposterous…Santa Claus won’t like this…besides, you’ll never be able to fool the kids…
JACK: Oh, I don’t know…with this costume and bag of toys over my shoulder, I shouldn’t have any trouble…
PHIL: No, but it would be awful if you wouldn’t…if you don’t fool them, Jackson, and they…aw gee, if there was only some kid we could try you out on just to see if you could fool them, and…
JULIUS (from other room) Miss Faye, where are ya? I brung something for youse…!!!
PHIL: Julius…! Hey, Frankie, that’s just the kid we need (to Julius)…Hey, come on in here, Julius! (to Jack) Now look,
…if you can fool this kid you can fool anybody… Jackson
JACK: Ah, don’t worry, Phil…I’ll just sit in this chair here and you watch his reaction when he sees me…
PHIL: Okay, Dad, and I certainly hope…
JULIUS: Whaddya want, Mr. Harris…I come over to…hey, Mr. Harris…don’tcha feel a little chilly?
PHIL: No, why?
JULIUS: You left your red flannels lyin’ on that chair…
PHIL: Julius, don’t you recognize Santa Claus when you see him?
JULIUS: This is Santa Claus?
JACK: That’s right, son…I’m
Old St. Nick…
JULIUS (yelling): They can’t do this to us little kids! In the name of juvenile humanity, I protest this flagrant disregard…
JACK: Oh shut up! Now sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas or I’ll break every bone in your body! (ad-libs) That’s the kind of a Santa Claus I am…
JULIUS: Get away from me, you impostor you! You’re nothin’ but a fake!
JACK: I am not!
JULIUS: Oh no? What would I find if I lifted up that white wig?
JACK: A brown one!
Phil is not discouraged by this test run, though, declaring that Julius is too old and too much of a wise-guy to be fooled by Jack, and so Phyllis and Little Alice are brought downstairs for a meet-and-greet with Santa:
JACK: Ho-ho-ho…Merry Christmas and…hello again, this is Santa Claus talking…come here, children and tell me how you like ol’ Santa…
: We like you fine, Santa…you’re just like we pictured you… ALICE
PHYLLIS: Yes, but…Santa…?
JACK: What is it, my child?
PHYLLIS: You look awfully old…
JACK: Ho-ho-ho…I am, little girl…after all, I’m Santa Claus and I’ve lived for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years…
PHYLLIS: How old are you?
Jack-as-Santa passes out gifts to the Harris children, and makes a dramatic exit (Remley: “The big ham…”)—though Phil and Alice are chagrined to find out that the two girls knew it was Benny the entire time (Phyllis: “I expected him to take out his violin and play ‘Love in Bloom’.”). Phil is forced to admit to the kids that Santa will probably be arriving too late for them to see him, and he starts to tell them the story of “The Night Before Christmas” as consolation. While reciting the poem, Phil begins to hear sleigh bells, as do Alice and Remley. The children are delighted to see Santa Claus arrive, although the adults are unable to see him—in fact, Phil begins to doubt his sanity until he notices that the milk and cookies Remley put out for St. Nick have mysteriously disappeared…
In her chat with Chuck Schaden, Alice Faye laments the fact that The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show never made the leap to television, a sentiment that I, for one, also share:
Phil wouldn’t do it. I’m sorry, I think that’s one thing I really am sorry for, that we didn’t go into television. He didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t see another family show on TV.
But fortunately for us, the series lives on through the magic of old-time radio; particularly due to the fact that long-time OTR dealer-researcher Terry Salomonson was able to acquire all of the Harris-Faye transcriptions through their estate. I had the good fortune to chat with Terry via phone a few months back, and he was telling me about all the “goodies” he was able to obtain—not only all of the Fitch Bandwagon and Harris-Faye programs, but those shows on which Phil and Alice guest starred, and of course, the appearances Phil made on The Jack Benny Program. Terry is in the process of digitally restoring these shows, and even has a few of them for sale on his website. As a person who’s bought a few, the audio is simply incredible—and the wit and sarcasm of this fine show continues to entertain today.