Thursday, December 18, 2003

”Hi, girls and boys! Here we go again—‘cause there’s NO SCHOOL TODAY!!!”

If you go down in the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise/ If you go down in the woods today you’d better go in disguise/ For every bear that ever there was/ Will gather there for certain because/ Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic

The children’s classic “Teddy Bears Picnic” provided the memorable opening theme of No School Today, a Saturday morning favorite broadcast “for the younger generation and the young at heart” during the Golden Age of Radio. It premiered over ABC on February 18, 1950, although it had been heard much earlier on a local Cincinnati station around 1947.

The host of the ninety-minute program was a young man named Jon Arthur—known as “Big Jon” to the listening audience. Arthur, a Pennsylvania native, had begun his radio career in West Virginia in 1939. He created the program’s star, a sprite named Sparkie—“the little elf from the land of make believe who wants more than anything else in the world to be a real boy.” Arthur provided the voice of the little elf through the radio magic of speeded-up recording, similar to what David Seville later did with his 1958 No. 1 hit—starring Alvin, Simon and Theodore—“The Chipmunk Song.” The format of No School Today consisted of stories, riddles, and songs geared toward the younger crowd, and this Christmas broadcast that I sampled last night is pretty much in this vein. (I don’t have a date for this show, by the way—but it would appear that it was broadcast over AFRS on a Christmas Eve in the 1950s.) To kick off the program, Mayor Plumpfront and Ukey Betcha, the cab driver, get into an argument over which one of them will decorate the Christmas tree for the No School Today party. Arthur also provided the voices for these characters, and although I can’t be sure if Clarence Hartzell—Uncle Fletcher of Vic and Sade and Ben Withers on Lum and Abner—ever listened to the program I think he could have sued the Ukey Betcha character for vocal plagiarism.

Arthur entertains the listeners from some Christmas record selections, one of which is a particular favorite of mine entitled “The Boy Who Sang For a King,” told in story and song by The Jack Benny Program’s Dennis Day. (Day performed this tale on his spin-off series, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, on the December 25, 1946 broadcast.) We also get to hear a recorded version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is pretty standard save for some great narration by the one-and-only Charles Laughton. Arthur introduces a group called “Gilhooly Mahoney and His Internationally Famous Invisible Leprechaun Marching Band” who “perform” the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky—this one made me a smile a bit because the recording starts out at the wrong speed, necessitating it to be “potted” down and corrected.

Little Sparkie—the Frank Sinatra of the elven world—belts out a couple of tunes: “Christine the Christmas Tree” and a version of Clement C. Moore’s famed holiday poem “The Night Before Christmas.” Big Jon also takes time to advise the children in the listening audience to mind their mothers and get ready for bed when she tells them because “Santa’s very busy, and you’ll just get in the way.” He also decides not to use his “magic spyglasses”—an apparatus he would employ to look into listeners’ home to report on misbehaving kids—because he rationalizes that the tiny tots have best on their best behavior so as not to disappoint Santa. (I find this John Ashcroft-like device mildly disturbing.)

No School Today was also broadcast as a weekday feature (this version was known as Big Jon and Sparkie) beginning in 1950; first as a half-hour, then scaled back to a quarter hour in 1951 before closing up shop in 1954. The Saturday show lasted quite a while longer; although it left ABC in 1958 it continued—according to John Dunning—on shortwave years after its network cancellation. There is a great nostalgic, misty-eyed fondness for this program among OTR collectors, by the way: Fred Berney of Satellite Media Productions even devotes some of his website to the show. While I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t knock anyone down to collect any more of the shows, I was entertained by the Christmas broadcast—it is, at best, an interesting curio from Radio’s Golden Age.

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