Tuesday, February 3, 2004

”Coming, Mother!”

One Thursday night I was engaged in a discussion with some of the regulars on #oldradio on IRC, and if memory serves me correct, I conducted an impromptu poll on how they felt about The Aldrich Family, since I had recently listened to a couple of episodes from that show. The results strongly suggested to me that I was in the minority in my fondness for this family situation comedy, so I guess it’s what one would describe as a “guilty pleasure.”

The Aldrich Family made its weekly debut as a series on July 2, 1939 over NBC Radio, and for the next 13 years was one of radio’s most popular comedy shows. It certainly isn’t a gut-buster by any stretch of the imagination, just a warm, gentle chuckle-type program that focused on—as the show’s announcer usually termed it—“the troubles of Henry Aldrich.” Henry was a decent, geeky kid who had a penchant for turning the simplest of everyday situations into utter disaster and chaos. There wasn’t any malice to his mayhem, however; he was just a lovable, well-meaning…um, screw-up.

The character of Henry Aldrich originated in a 1938 Broadway play, What a Life, written by playwright Clifford Goldsmith. Henry started out as a relatively minor presence in what was originally a heavily serious dramatic piece, but the play’s producer, George Abbott, suggested to Goldsmith that he transform the material into a comedy. Even after doing so, the author had reservations about its success—to the point where he once contemplated selling half-interest in the property in exchange for a winter coat.

What a Life later duplicated its stage success on the silver screen as a 1939 feature film released by Paramount and starring child star Jackie Cooper as Henry. (The studio then released a second Cooper-as-Aldrich film, Life With Henry, in 1941, and then followed that success with a series of nine B-picture comedies from 1941-44 with Jimmy Lydon in the title role.) But before the movies, the Aldrich family appeared on radio, thanks to Rudy Vallee, who had seen Goldsmith’s play and asked him to write some skits for his Fleischmann Hour program. After that triumph, producer Ted Collins signed Goldsmith and the cast to a 39-week stint on The Kate Smith Hour, and then in the summer of 1939, The Aldrich Family graduated to weekly series status as a summer replacement for The Jack Benny Program before returning for General Foods in the fall.

Each week, Henry Aldrich’s comical misadventures would begin with the sound of his mother calling “Henreeeee! Henry Aldrich!” with the teen responding in his cracked, pre-pubescent voice: “Coming, Mother!” It’s an opening that most people who’ve never even heard the series remember. Then Henry and his friend-in-dorkdom Homer Brown would strike up a chorus: Oh, the big red letters stand for the Jell-O family/Oh, the big red letters stand for the Jell-O family/That’s Jell-O!/Yum, yum, yum/Jell-O Pudding!/Yum, yum, yum/Jell-O tap…ioca pudding, yes sirree!

The adolescent tones of Henry were originally done by Ezra Stone (who had played the part on stage), who remains the best-known actor in the role of the “typical teenage boy.” Stone gave up the part in 1942 when he received a letter from Uncle Sam (“Greetings!”) and Norman Tokar, who had once been Stone’s understudy in What a Life, took over from 1942-43. Tokar also got a letter from the same relative, and veteran child actor Dickie Jones (the voice of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio) did the Henry thing from 1943-44. Jones succumbed to the Henry-Aldrich-caught-in-the-draft curse after that, being replaced by Raymond Ives until Stone returned to the part in November 1945. With the exception of Bobby Ellis in the 1952-53 season, Stone made the role of Henry Aldrich his bread-and-butter from then on. He later had a successful career as a television director (among his assignments, the TV version of The Aldrich Family) and also served as director of the David Library of the American Revolution. His pal Homer Brown was played throughout most of the show’s run by Jackie Kelk, who doubled as Jimmy Olsen radio's The Adventures of Superman. Visually, Kelk looked more like a Henry Aldrich than Stone did; a passage in Raised on Radio quotes Kelk as saying: “It was a big shock to people who came to see the show in the studio, because I looked more the part; I was slight and skinny. Ezra was this little fat man in a vest who smoked cigars.”

The two Aldrich Family episodes that I selected to take with me to work last night originate from the show’s final season in 1952-53. In the first show, the season premiere (September 21, 1952), Henry (Bobby Ellis) and Homer (Jack Grimes) have joined the Centerville High School debate team, and their first assignment is to argue the “horse” side of the statement “Resolved—that the steam engine has contributed more to the progress of civilization than the horse.” As they say in Sitcomland, the wacky complications ensue when with only a half-hour before the debate, they discover that they were supposed to study and debate the “steam engine” side. In a second episode originally broadcast November 23, 1952, Henry and Homer’s families are involved in a dispute over the last Thanksgiving turkey left in the town’s grocery store. While the shows are amusing, I miss the presence of both Ezra Stone and Jackie Kelk—to me, they are Henry and Homer. Ellis was brought in on the program’s last season no doubt because he was already playing the part on TV.

The Aldrich Family ushered in a wave of wacky teenager comedies on radio, among them That Brewster Boy (1941-45) and Archie Andrews (1943-53, based on the famous comic book character), and on the distaff side, A Date With Judy (1941-50) and Meet Corliss Archer (1943-56). I love every one of these goofy shows (although Archie tends to grate after an episode or two), but I still think The Aldrich Family is by far and away the best; it’s dated and corny, to be sure, but if you listen to it as it really is—a charming period piece—I think you’ll fall under its spell as I did. While I was employed at a Savannah, GA radio station from 1984-86, I often amused my co-workers by writing and performing little programs poking merciless fun at the owners; I “borrowed” the Henry Aldrich voice for the part of the general manager (whose father owned the station) as he was sort of a shallow, callous playboy who didn’t seem to be all that enthused to be in charge. They were quite popular with the staff, and so I owe a debt of gratitude to the one-and-only Ezra Stone. Just remember: For desserts that are delicious/There is something you should know/They are made by famous…J-E-L-L-O…

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