Wednesday, March 17, 2004

“Ah, I love dem kinds of carryings on…”

At one point in my life, I’m sure St. Patrick’s Day was a festive occasion for me. (I’m half-Irish, on me sainted mother’s side.) In recent years, though, I get a little melancholy around the 17th. One reason for this is that I live in Savannah—which apparently has the second-largest celebration on the East Coast, a drunken bacchanal we like to call “Mardi Gras in Chatham” around our household. (I’m not even certain that it’s the second largest, really—I know New York’s is the tops, but I would think Boston would rank #2.) When you work in a hotel and have to deal with a parade of miserable drunks all night, the novelty of second-biggest party wears off very quickly. 

But the real reason that I get the blues is that back on this day in 1956, the world lost a man that I consider the greatest of all the old-time radio comedians—John Florence Sullivan, better known, of course, as Fred Allen. So last night in the wee a.m. work hours, I decided to adopt “the wearin’ of the grin” and listen to some classic OTR comedy, with Fred as a starting-off point. An AFRS rebroadcast of a June 5, 1949 Allen program featuring guest Henry Morgan (another one of my comedy idols) kicked off the proceedings in high dudgeon. 

Allen left behind a legacy of memorable comedy quotes that are still in full use today, like: “Hollywood’s a nice place to live—if you’re an orange” and “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” In this broadcast, an exchange with wife Portland Hoffa produces one of my favorite (albeit lesser-known) Allen observations: 

FRED: Well, come on, Portland—what’s so interesting in that stationery store?
PORTLAND: This window’s full of greeting cards and mottos…
FRED: Mottos…hey, what’s that motto in the big frame there?
PORTLAND: It says:
“Live as though it is your last day on Earth—and one day you will be right.”
The question Fred asks of Titus Moody and Mrs. Nussbaum as he strolls along Main Street is “Does a child with a high I.Q. grow up to be a genius?” But Fred and Portland also notice a newcomer to the neighborhood: 

FRED: Say, look, Portland—this new place just opened on Main Street…
PORTLAND: Who is the man with the long black coat and the sad face standing in the doorway?
FRED: Say, he’s a stranger…perhaps I can help him, Portland…pardon me, sir—is there something I can do for you?
DIGGER: I am Digby O’Dell…the friendly undertaker
“Digger” O’Dell, the popular character from the hit radio sitcom The Life of Riley, gets quite a huge response from the studio audience, and he goes on to plug both the series and a feature film based on the show that was just being released by Universal-International at the time of this broadcast. O’Dell was played on the show and in the film by John Brown, a long-time colleague of Fred’s who was a regular on Allen’s program in the 1930s and early 1940s (he was one of the first “Allen’s Alley” denizens, everyman John Doe). Brown’s Riley co-star, William Bendix, was also one of Fred’s chums, having appeared with him in the 1945 feature film It’s in the Bag! I got quite a kick out of Digger’s appearance, because he blends in perfectly with the proceedings: 

FRED: Well, if you’re going my way…
DIGGER: Oh, no thank you…I’m going to a play this evening…
FRED: Oh, have you got tickets?
DIGGER: I’m sitting in a box…I’m looking forward to seeing this play…I know I’m going to enjoy it immensely…
FRED: What is the play?
DIGGER: Death of a Salesman…well, cheerio, Mr. Allen…I’d better be shoveling off
Fred also runs into New York Post columnist Earl Wilson (I wonder what Earl’s opinion of his paper would be today?) who bestows upon the comedian Radio Best’s monthly Silver Mike Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Radio or Television. After a great version of “Down by the Station” by the DeMarco Sisters, guest Henry Morgan joins Fred for a wacky take-off on the Lucky Strike commercial (“Hear...Fred...Allen!!! And feel your level best!”) and a spoof on the popular soap opera Just Plain Bill (“Just Plain Fred”). 

Next on the bill of fare, an AFRS rebroadcast of The Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore Show from November 9, 1945 featuring “the Nose” (Jimmy sings “The Guy Who Found the Lost Chord”), “the Haircut,” Elvia Allman, vocalist Jeri Sullivan (“Honey”), Roy Bargy and His Orchestra (“Carnival”) and announcer Howard Petrie in a half-hour of music and fun that allows “Schnozzola” to plug his latest film, Two Sisters From Boston (1946): 

DURANTE: Ah, yes…Two Sisters From Boston…what a picture! (To audience) Never too busy to advertise…but, Junior—it might interest you to know dat Louis B. Mayer of MGM called me dis mornin’ and made me a producer!
MOORE: Oh really, Jim? What did he say?
DURANTE: He said, “Durante—in your next picture either you produce…or else!”
MOORE: Jimmy, is that authentic?
DURANTE: Authentic? Sure! And some of it’s even true! What a picture I’ll make…I can see da billboards now…directed by so-and-so, written by so-and-so, music by so-and-so, and starrin’ so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so…
MOORE: I suppose your name will come first?
DURANTE: Of course! I’m da biggest so-and-so of dem all! I say dat with tongue in sandwich and mustard towards none…Junior—wait ‘til you see da parts I’m gonna give myself…drammer, nuttin’ but drammer…
MOORE: But, Jimmy—to be a great dramatic actor you’ve got to know suffering…and hardship…
DURANTE: Then I’ll do what Bing Crosby does…before he made Goin’ My Way, he stood out on the Lincoln Highway for two days and hitchhiked!
MOORE: But where’s the hardship in that?
DURANTE: Junior…wit’ four kids, it’s a long way between service stations…
This comedy caravan rounds itself out with a Superman spoof (“Superduperman”) and a sketch starring Jimmy and Garry in a saga from the Old West: “Durante and Moore Find a Skunk on the Range, or…Smellbound.” Ev’rybody wants to get inta da act! 

I cleansed my palate with an episode of Life With Luigi (starring J. Carrol Naish and Alan Reed) from June 6, 1950 that finds “the little immigrant” having difficulties with his party line. A suggestion from Pasquale snowballs into Luigi having his phone disconnected and two of them arrested for bookmaking. Finally, for dessert, an AFRS rebroadcast of The Fanny Brice Show (the AFRS title) with Brice as Baby Snooks, Hanley Stafford (Daddy), Danny Thomas, and Frank Nelson. Snooks finds herself in hot water when she spends the money Daddy gave her to buy a box of cigars on candy and sodas at the drugstore: 

DADDY: Snooks, it’s now a quarter past eleven…since when does it take you an hour and a quarter to go to Trumble’s drugstore and back?
SNOOKS: Since ten o’clock…
DADDY: I see…oh, by the way—did you bring my cigars?
SNOOKS: Your cigars?
DADDY: Yes…I sent you for them, remember? Where are they?
SNOOKS: I dropped ‘em…
DADDY (angrily) Oh, you dropped them…(calmer) I mean, you dropped them, huh? Well—and where, might I ask, did you drop them? (pause) Well, I’m waiting!
SNOOKS: Well—I’m thinking…
DADDY: Then think up a good one…where did you drop the cigars?
SNOOKS: I dropped ‘em off a tree!
DADDY: Now we’re up a tree…
SNOOKS: We are?
DADDY: Now, stop that! Now, how did you happen to be up this tree?
SNOOKS (tearfully) A big rhinoceros chased me!
DADDY: Oh, how quaint…I never thought we’d see a rhinoceros in Sycamore Terrace…
SNOOKS: It was a big surprise to me, too, Daddy…
DADDY: Tell me more about this rhinoceros…
SNOOKS: Well…there was fire and smoke comin’ out of his mouth…
DADDY: You saw fire coming out of his mouth?
SNOOKS: It was burning like a furnace!
DADDY: And it smoked…?
SNOOKS: Yeah…it smoked all your cigars!
DADDY: A rhinoceros, of all animals…what made you pick on a rhinoceros?
SNOOKS: He picked on me first…
DADDY (sharply) Snooks! I want the truth!
SNOOKS: All right—I picked on him first…
DADDY: Now this is the limit, young lady…you’ve been telling fibs ever since you first learned to speak…instead of getting better, it gets worse…what I’d like to know is, who put all these wild, fantastic ideas into your head???
SNOOKS: Who put ‘em in my head?
DADDY: You heard me!
SNOOKS: Well… (Thinks) I was walkin’ down the street…and two big witches
To cure her of her creative tall tale embroidery, Daddy takes Snooks to a psychiatrist (Nelson), with predictably hilarious results. It’s also entertaining to hear Danny Thomas first starting out—Thomas played a postman character on the show named Jerry Dingle who was easily intimidated by authority figures and only thought of appropriate snappy comebacks afterward: 

THOMAS: Big shot psychiatrist…what’s he got that I haven’t got? A brain? Well, I’ve got brains I haven’t even used yet…anybody can be a psychiatrist—all you need is a college education…I could’ve gone to college…if I’d-a gone to high school…if I’d-a gone to grammar school…he says, “You talk like a moron!” I shoulda said, “So what if I talk like a moron? I gotta talk like one so you can understand me!”
Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz was also a radio comedy writer, and in Jordan R. Young’s The Laugh Crafters, he described writing for Danny Thomas as “an unhappy experience,” complaining that his “I shoulda said” character was too “laid-back.” “That kind of comic doesn’t work. Or if it works it’s a rarity, let me put it that way.” Although Thomas would headline comedy-variety shows for ABC in 1942-43 and CBS in 1948, he must have realized somewhere down the line that Schwartz was right, for it wasn’t until he played the lovable-but-quick-to-anger Danny Williams on Make Room For Daddy (later re-titled The Danny Thomas Show) that he really hit his stride. 

All in all, it was a perfectly delightful and entertaining evening spent with some of the classic comedy shows of old-time radio—I bet you were expecting another round of Gunsmoke episodes, weren’t you?

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