Saturday, January 24, 2004

”…where the elite meet to eat…”

To the strains of a barroom piano playing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” week after week listeners stopped by for a cold one at their favorite radio bar, Duffy’s Tavern. A beloved Third Avenue dive located in downtown Manhattan where—according to John Dunning—“the food was bad but the service was lousy,” it served as the backdrop for one of the Golden Age of Radio’s classic comedies, beginning a ten-year run March 1, 1941.

The bar was owned by one Patrick J. Duffy, but he was rarely seen or heard from. Duffy left the day-to-day activities up to manager/bartender Archie—no last name, just “Archie”—who kicked off the program every week by answering a ringing telephone: “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat—Archie the manager speakin’, Duffy ain’t here…” A larcenous soul with a talent for insult and a gift for mangling the English language (“Do unto others and you will find the bluebeard of happiness yourself”), the role was played by a most unlikely actor named Ed Gardner.

Gardner didn’t start out to be an actor. Early in his career, he was a hustler-promoter, employed by theatrical stock companies to do everything from directing to painting the scenery. He broke into radio as an agent for the J. Walter Thompson ad agency, and became a director for several shows, including those of Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, and Burns & Allen. It was while working on a short-lived CBS series, This is New York, that he discovered what was to be the origin of Archie the genial bartender—Gardner was auditioning several actors to play the part of a bartender, with little success. “Can’t nobody talk like a bartender?” he asked those assembled in the sponsor’s booth. When the writers and producers of the show all pointed to him in unison, he realized that he was perfect for the part.

Duffy’s Tavern made its first appearance on CBS’ Forecast on July 29, 1940Forecast being the same summer audition series that launched Suspense. Seven months later, the show officially went on the air for CBS for Schick Razors, and then moved to the Blue network in 1942. Two years later, it found a home at NBC, where it remained until its cancellation on December 28, 1951. The comedy show quickly became a critical darling and an audience favorite as well—the inmates of San Quentin, for example, voted the show their favorite program.

Though Duffy was pretty much a non-presence at his own place of business, his daughter—Miss Duffy—was usually around to keep an eye on both the bar and Archie. A lovably dizzy gal who was a member of the same man-chasing sorority as her sisters Joan Davis, Cass Daley, and Vera Vague—she didn’t hesitate to mince words with the bartender:

ARCHIE: Oh, good evenin’, Miss Duffy…and how are you this evenin’?
MISS DUFFY: Why don’t you keep your big mouth shut?
ARCHIE: About what?
MISS DUFFY: About that advice that you gave Papa on the telephone…
ARCHIE: All I told him was to be nice to your mother…what was wrong with that?
MISS DUFFY: Plenty…in tryin’ to be nice, he sneaked up behind Mama and put his arms around her…that’s what started the trouble…
ARCHIE: Uh…how come?
MISS DUFFY: She hollered “Papa, come quick! There’s a strange man in the house!” So, one word lead to another and Papa wound up with a cracked skull…
ARCHIE: Well…words can’t crack a guy’s skull…
MISS DUFFY: They can when they’re in a 2,000 page dictionary…

During the early years of Duffy’s Tavern, the part of Miss Duffy was played by Mrs. Ed Gardner—who was better known to theatre and stage fans as Shirley Booth (pre-Hazel). Booth and Gardner had married in 1929, and Gardner later admitted that, being unknown at that time, he didn’t handle his wife’s success too well. Although the role was tailor-made for her, she quit the program in 1943 (they divorced in 1942) and left a void on the program that Gardner desperately tried to fill. Booth was replaced by actress Florence Halop (many years away from St. Elsewhere and Night Court), who played the part from 1943-44 and 1948-49, but Gardner never really was satisfied with any of the Miss Duffys after Booth’s departure. Among the replacements were Sandra Gould (who had the role the longest, from 1944-47), Doris Singleton, Sara Berner, Gloria Erlanger, and Hazel Shermet.

Archie was aided and abetted at the tavern by Eddie the waiter—played to perfection by the wonderful (and woefully underrated) Eddie Green, an African-American comedian who would later find fame as the ethically-challenged "Stonewall the lawyer" on Amos ‘n’ Andy. To some small fashion, Green played “Rochester” to Gardner’s “Jack Benny,” but it was his sly, cunning delivery of his lines that often produced many of the program’s biggest belly-laughs:

ARCHIE: Eddie, uh…get me a pail of hot water and a mop, will ya?
EDDIE: What for, you gonna take a bath?
ARCHIE: No, I’m gonna mop up the place…now, uh…lemme get to work here…
EDDIE: You? Going to work?
ARCHIE: Is it such a surprise?
EDDIE: Well…up to now, it’s been one of your hidden talents…
ARCHIE: Oh yeah? Well, that’s all been changed, Eddie—I’m even gonna help you do your work…now, hand me the mop…
EDDIE: Okay, but don’t get too close to me…
ARCHIE: Why not?
EDDIE: Whatever you got, I don’t wanna catch it…look, how come you suddenly wanna do my work?
ARCHIE: Eddie…just because a guy wants to help people, do you have to be suspicious?
EDDIE: If the guy is you, and the people is me…yes!!!

Upon Green’s passing in 1950, he was replaced on the show by Ed “Fats” Pichon—but for me, Duffy’s Tavern just wasn’t the same after that. Pichon lasted a few episodes, and then was replaced by Bert Gordon (a.k.a. “The Mad Russian”) as a waiter named Sacha—and even Arthur Treacher played Archie’s sidekick on a few occasions.

Of the many denizens who made Duffy’s Tavern their home away from home, by far and away the most popular was the lovable dimwit Clifton Finnegan, played by veteran comic actor Charlie Cantor. Cantor, who created a similar character for Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley” named Socrates Mulligan, was also no slouch in dramatic roles, having often appeared on shows like The Shadow and Dick Tracy. Finnegan’s arrival at the tavern was usually announced in this fashion:

ARCHIE: …I never could stand that guy…always thought he was such a big shot, just because his old man owned his own pushcart…always walkin’ around with his nose in the air, like he was smellin’ somethin’ bad…
FINNEGAN: Duhhhhhh…hello, Arch!

This surefire comic device was later appropriated by The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (with Maynard G. Krebs’ “You rang?”) and later still, for the arrival of Lenny & Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. Finnegan, whose name was a sly parody of Clifton Fadiman, host of Information Please, was an amiable dunce whose SAT scores ranked right alongside those of Clem Kadiddlehopper and Mortimer Snerd’s:

ARCHIE: …the guy the yearbook said was the most likely to succeed…hey, wait a minute…I wonder if I still got that yearbook here in the safe?
FINNEGAN: Uh…good ol’ P.S…uh…P.S…uh…
EDDIE: Four?
FINNEGAN: Yeah…yeah, four…oh, wonderful school, Eddie…what memories it brings back…
EDDIE: Them were the good ol’ days, huh?
FINNEGAN: Yeah…they don’t make days like that no more…
ARCHIE: Well, here we are, Finnegan…our old yearbook…hey, look at this picture here…remember these guys?
ARCHIE: You don’t?
FINNEGAN: No, that was the graduatin’ class…

Other characters that appeared on the program included Wilfred—who was Finnegan’s “kid brother,” and was played by Dickie Van Patten (who later shortened his first name and became immortalized on TV as the patriarch of Eight is Enough). Actor Alan Reed also played a gallery of characters, but was usually featured in the role of Officer Clancy, the neighborhood cop on the beat.

Duffy’s Tavern was once referred to by comedy writer Parke Levy as “a helluva show…the best written radio show ever.” Many of the program’s writers, among them Larry Gelbart and Bob Schiller, relate some interesting and fascinating anecdotes about both the show and Gardner in Jordan R. Young’s The Laugh Crafters. For the first four years of the program, the head writer was Abe Burrows—who later went to Broadway with the hit shows Guys and Dolls, Silk Stockings, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. (I always found it interesting that Burrows’ son James co-created one of modern-day TV’s comedy classics in Cheers, yet another famous bar.)

There are close to 100 episodes of Duffy’s Tavern still in existence for today’s audiences—but unfortunately, most of them are from the 1949-51 years which for me, is when the series “jumped the shark,” so to speak. Gardner took advantage of a 12-year tax holiday in Puerto Rico and moved the show there in order to save some money, recording the weekly program via transcription. The series took on a “canned quality,” and of course with the loss of Eddie Green, the show lost a great deal of its luster. Last night, however, I listened to a pair of 1949 broadcasts—the first, dated February 9, 1949, is a funny show that contains the can’t fail everyone-is-convinced-Archie-has-only-three-days-to-live plot. The second broadcast is from the following week (February 16), in which an old school pal named Willie Gundig (played by Ken Christy) is planning on stopping by to see Archie:

ARCHIE: You remember him…remember the guy who was always punished for puttin’ the girls’ hair in the inkwells…tyin’ the cans on dogs’ tails…puttin’ tacks on the teacher’s chair…?
ARCHIE: Well, uh…Willie Gundig was the guy who always squealed on me…

If you’re interested in a little more background on Duffy’s Tavern, Martin Grams, Jr. has a nice little article (complete with log) here. (Just click on “OTR Articles,” then “Martin Grams Jr.”)

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