Sunday, June 17, 2007

“Wake up, America! It’s time to stump the experts!”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this a time or two in the past, but one of the nifty benefits of being involved in the First Generation Radio Archives and purchasing ten or more of their Premier Collections is that…well, “membership has its privileges.”  For starters, you are recognized as a “Friend of the Archive,” and on the fifteenth of every month you receive a newsletter pointing you toward other OTR programs offered by the FGRA, including discounts on special collections and access to their “Bargain Bin” and Low Generation CD library, where you can often pickup CDs for as low as $2 a pop.  Though you can certainly make a strong argument that I need more CDs for the dusty TDOY holdings like a moose meets a hat rack, I couldn’t resist picking up a 10-CD set of twenty broadcasts from the quiz show favorite Information Please—one of June’s specials and a program of which I’m become fonder and fonder with each listen.

If you’re unfamiliar with Information Please outside of the yearly almanac, you should check out this book by the Isaac Asimov of old-time radio publishing, Martin Grams—but if you’re in a hurry, allow me to crib a quick description of the program from the latest “Friends of the Archive” newsletter, composed by Director Tom Brown and Preservation Manager Harlan Zinck:

Both of us have always been fans of the more obscure shows from radio's past. We enjoy the mainstream shows like The Jack Benny Program, The Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show, and The Shadow of course -- but it's the lesser-known programs that really strike our fancy.

One that really delights Harlan is Information Please, the bright and witty quiz program hosted by Clifton Fadiman and featuring a "brain trust" of quick-witted panelists like Franklin P. Adams, John Kieran, Oscar Levant, and guests ranging from Basil Rathbone and Groucho Marx to Alexander Woollcott and Alice Duer Miller. Though at first glance, it would seem that such a program would be of primary interest to intellectuals and literary enthusiasts, those who have taken a chance and listened to a few programs have been pleased to discover that the shows were and remain highly entertaining for modern day audiences.

The very concept of the program - turning the usual game show concept backwards by making the experts, rather than the average man or woman, answer the questions - made it an early success with audiences ranging from truck drivers to college professors (particularly when none of the panelists could answer a relatively simple question). Likewise, the experts chosen to participate in the quiz, though all knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, were not eggheads or dull researchers; Levant, for instance, made a career out of being a piano prodigy playing and composing both classical and popular pieces, as well as by being a popular character actor in the movies. John Kieran was a well-known sports columnist while Frank Adams, or 'FPA', as he was best known, had for many years authored the popular "Conning Tower" column in various New York newspapers, documenting the words, phrases, poetry, and goings-on of the Manhattan theater and literary scene. Despite their knowledge and memories, all of the regular panelists - as well as many of the guests - frequently demonstrated a very low-brow love of bad puns, old jokes, and word play -- and it was common on many a broadcast for the entire group to break into iffy barbershop harmony and perform a vocal rendition of some old-time favorite!

I am in 100% agreement with both Tom and Harlan on the merits of Information Please—and not just because they can get me work.  You see, one of the broadcasts in this CD set (from June 20, 1939) features a guest appearance (on the panel) from George Burns’ better-half, Gracie Allen—who, contrary to previous accounts, doesn’t completely abandon her “dumb Dora” persona (you gotta love Gracie—she never broke character) but at the same time demonstrates she’s got plenty of Moxie on the ball by holding her own in answering questions.  (I listened to this particular show last year for a project that is currently in limbo right now.)  So I’m really looking forward to hearing to the rest of the shows: these 1939 broadcasts include such notables as Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe’s creator), Russel Crouse, John Gunther, H.V. Kalterborn and Lillian Gish.  There’s also a February 7, 1939 broadcast featuring a young Michigan University student named Myron Wallace—whom OTR fans might remember as an announcer-performer (The Green Hornet, Sky King) and others as a celebrated investigative reporter for the CBS television network on shows like 60 Minutes (I think he was answering to “Mike” by that time).

And while I’m on the subject of the First Generation Radio Archives, just a quick reminder that you still have plenty of time to enter their Adventures by Morse contest, which will award one lucky winner a rare test pressing—a one-sided, white vinyl disc containing program #40, “Land of the Living Dead” (Chapter 1, Part 2).  All you have to do to enter is purchase one of the two Premier Collections (or both if you want two chances to win) this month, Volume 3 of Adventures by Morse or Volume 2 of The Chuck-Wagon Jamboree (hosted by Ken “Now, Matthyoo…” Curtis)…or if your tastes learn toward NTR (new-time radio), either (or both) Volume 10 or Volume 11 in the Twilight Zone radio series.  So don’t miss out—order and enter today!

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