Sunday, April 4, 2004

“Ah-ah-ah-ah! Don’t touch that dial!”

It’s a comic strip that has endured in America’s “funny papers” for nearly seventy-five years now; the domestic saga of Everyman Dagwood Bumstead and his ever-patient wife, Blondie. Created by Murat Bernard “Chic” Young on September 8, 1930, Blondie's popularity is such that it appears daily in an estimated 2,000 newspapers worldwide.

In the strip’s early days, it concentrated on the exploits of a dizzy “flapper” named Blondie Boopadoop and her boyfriends—one of which was wealthy playboy Dagwood Bumstead. The comic strip was pretty much floundering until Young decided to have the two fall in love. Dagwood was determined to marry Blondie, despite the protests from his father, railroad magnate J. Bolling Bumstead—so Dag went on a hunger strike (that might explain his fondness for the “Dagwood sandwiches” all these years) until his father relented. But the millionaire Bumstead cut off his son without a penny, and on February 17, 1933, the two newlyweds faced an uncertain future, particularly at the height of the Great Depression.

Marrying Dagwood and Blondie was the best thing that ever happened to creator Young—his comic strip increased in popularity to the point where it became one of the public’s favorites. The strip took on a domestic focus, with Blondie settling into the role of responsible wife—and mother, with the birth of their son Alexander (April 15, 1934) and daughter Cookie (April 11, 1941). The children matured pretty much in the same way as the people in the Gasoline Alley comic strip; that is until Young decided in the 1960s that if the kids got any older, the flavor of the family strip would be lost.

The comic strip made its debut on the silver screen with Blondie in 1938, and the picture was such a smash that a total of 28 B-pictures were churned out by Columbia Studios between 1938-50. Starring in the roles of Blondie and Dagwood were Penny Singleton—a redhead who soon became a bleached blonde—and Arthur Lake, a vaudevillian of whom practically everyone has said was born to be Dagwood. Shortly after the first film’s release, Lake and Singleton made their radio debut, guest starring on The Bob Hope Show broadcast of December 20, 1938, which in turn, led to a Blondie series less than a year later over CBS beginning July 3, 1939 as a summer replacement for Eddie Cantor. (When Cantor failed to return in the fall, Blondie became a full-time series, broadcast over CBS, Blue, NBC and ABC until July 6, 1950.)

Arthur Lake would continue as Dagwood through the entire run of the radio series (he even starred in a television version in 1957 with Pamela Britton as Blondie), but Penny Singleton left the show in 1949, and was replaced by several different actresses: Florence Lake (Arthur’s sister), Ann Rutherford, Alice White and Patricia Van Cleve (Mrs. Arthur Lake in real life). Among those who appeared as Alexander were Tommy Cook, Larry Simms (who played the part in the Blondie films), Bobby Ellis and Jeffrey Silver. “Baby” specialist Leone Ledoux (who also played baby brother Robespierre on The Baby Snooks Show) portrayed Alexander in his infant stage, and did the same for sister Cookie as well. When Cookie got older, Marlene Aames, Joan Rae and Norma Jean Nilsson all got a crack at the role.

A hardy cast of radio veterans ably supported Lake and Singleton, most notably Hanley Stafford, who played J.C. Dithers, Dagwood’s tyrannical boss (“Bumstead! I’ll run your little finger through the pencil sharpener!”), and Elvia Allman, who was Mrs. (Cora) Dithers. Frank Nelson essayed the role of next-door neighbor Herb Woodley (also played briefly by Hal Peary), and Arthur Q. Bryan and Harry Lang played yet another neighbor, Mr. Fuddle. Others in the cast included Dix Davis (as Alvin Fuddle), Mary Jane Croft, Veola Vonn, Lurene Tuttle and Hans Conried.

If you’re familiar with any of the Blondie feature films; then the radio series won’t bring anything new to the table; the program captures the flavor of the movies extremely well, though it tends to be a little more on the manic side. I listened to two broadcasts last night, beginning with an AFRS show dated June 18, 1944, “Dagwood’s Icy Challenge,” in which Dagwood does a little creative tall-tale embroidery:

DAGWOOD: Well, every spring I was always the first fellow to go swimming in the river…
BLONDIE: Dagwood…
BLONDIE: Is that the truth?
DAGWOOD: Oh, it’s…er…eh…um…well, not every year…
BLONDIE: I thought so…
ALEXANDER: So you weren’t the first guy every year, huh, Pop?
DAGWOOD: Well, no—remember, my first two years I wore a diaper…but I was the first one in swimming each year as soon as I was old enough to dress myself…
BLONDIE: How old were you? Twelve or fourteen?
DAGWOOD: Eh…aw, Blondie, take it easy on me…I was ten…every year, while it was still plenty cold, I’d ride out to the old mill on my bike and change clothes and climb up to the second story window and…then while my friends watched, I’d dive…hah! And crack, splash!—and Bumstead had done it again…
ALEXANDER: Crack splash, huh?
ALEXANDER: I understand the splash, but—what’s the crack?
DAGWOOD: Well, that’s just my head going through the ice…hah hah hah hah hah…
BLONDIE: Now, Dagwood—did you really go in when there was ice in the river?
DAGWOOD: Yep! Even if I had to bring my own ice…hah hah hah hah hah…

Alexander brags to a local reporter (Frank Nelson) about his father’s “feat,” who in turn writes it up as a human interest story in the paper—the crux of which has the paper challenging Dagwood to repeat it this year, which Dagwood’s boss has already accepted on his behalf. Dagwood tries to back out of it, but the story has become an event and he even allows Dithers to goad him into it. Needless to say, the episode ends in typically wacky sitcom fashion—though if that AFRS date is correct, I can’t quite fathom what river would have ice on it in June. (Perhaps their famed residence of “Shady Lane Avenue” is located somewhere around the Arctic Circle.)

In the second broadcast, originally heard over NBC February 9, 1949, Alexander finds himself on the horns of a dilemma over which one of his girlfriends deserve a Valentine’s Day card. Dagwood asks his boss for advice (I was amused when Dithers remarks that he wants to help out “the little Bumlet”), but of course, it’s Blondie to the rescue when she suggests that Alexander give every girl in his class a card. I enjoyed this one more than the first, due to its network origination—including commercials from sponsor Super Suds, with its “magic ingredient” Pyray (sic). (I’m not exactly sure what that does, but then again, I haven’t even figured out Rinso’s “Solium” yet, either.)

I have a handful of Blondie shows in my collection—mostly for the novelty value since it’s pretty much average sitcom material—and extant broadcasts of the series are scarcer than hen’s teeth, though the Library of Congress apparently has quite a few broadcasts from the 1948-49 NBC season. Still, they remain amusing time capsules of those wonderful years of the Golden Age of Radio, which has sadly passed us by.

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