Sunday, August 30, 2009

Radio Memories: The Sound Of Teamwork

Back by popular demand: our Sunday offering of Radio Memories, a weekly recollection of the dearly-departed artistic medium of radio drama… the theater of the mind.

This week I need some laughs, so we’ll be tuning in to the delightful comedy series Fibber McGee and Molly.

Husband and wife vaudeville team Jim and Marian Jordan appeared on radio, in one capacity or another, from 1924 through 1959. Their run as the big dreamer Fibber McGee and long-suffering wife Molly was one of the highest-rated shows of its day, a fact I feel able to vouch for anecdotally, since every time I’ve chatted with seniors about their memories of old radio drama, they all fondly remember listening to this program, often citing it at the top of their list of favorites. If I condensed all their memories into one single remembrance, it would go like this:

“He would have a closet filled with junk”, they would explain to me, “and when it opened you would imagine all the crazy mess as it tumbled out. Your mind did all the work, you see.”

The ingenuity of sound effects maestros like Frank Pittman (who started the closet gag) and Virgil Reimer (who turned it into an art form all its own) would be tested by this running gag like never before, a test of their patience as much as it was of their imagination. A collection of boxes, cans and increasingly varied objects would be precariously perched on a makeshift mount best described as stairs; on cue the sound effects man would give the top shelf a calculated nudge, and one pile would fall upon the next, and the next, and the next, creating audio chaos. A weekly terror gripped the sound effects technician, however:

What if the delicately staged apparatus accidentally fell on its own, before the proper time??

I remember reading in Robert Mott’s memoir, Radio Sound Effects, that Virgil Reimer turned the closet sound effect into a visual gag as much as an audio one, creating a moment of surreal performance art on stage for the sake of the studio audience assembled for the broadcasts; the preposterously decorated stairs of bric-a-brac prepared for the closet gag would be given prominent space on display for the audience to see, and savor. And what a sight in must have been: the conclusion of the effect would frequently be greeted by the audience with approving applause in addition to laughter..!

This sharing of comedy glory was not at all a common approach to working with sound effects; quite often comedians would fret about being upstaged by the audience’s fascination with the prosaic work of the sound effects crew, opening fake doors, closing gimmicked windows, ringing phones and all the other busy work they had to do each program. Reportedly the more insecure comedians on other programs even hid their sound effects technicians behind a curtain, in order to hog all the live audience’s attention for themselves. I can sympathize with why they felt the threat; when I was 12 I got to attend a radio broadcast of Canada’s comedy show The Royal Canadian Air Farce, and the lone sound effects man off on stage left was as riveting to follow as the four comedians as they bobbed and weaved at their microphones on stage right. The sound effects man could pull out an eggbeater or some strange device to provide the son juste, and it would completely overshadow all the clever dialog and funny timing in evidence at the other end of the stage.

No such fragile egos or insecurities from Fibber McGee and Molly, aka Jim and Marion Jordan. Their biographies reveal a reassuringly normal married couple from the Midwest, who kept their success in perspective even when theirs was the top show in the ratings; they never “went Hollywood”. I have a fun old book on radio comedy published in 1945, “There’s Laughter In The Air”, by Jack Gaver and Dave Stanley, that suggests the Jordans kept themselves busy off-stage, so that the temptations that came with stardom would not dominate their lives:

The Jordans live now on a modest ranch near Encino, California, a few miles outside of Hollywood… Jordan served two terms as president of the Encino Chamber of Commerce. He owns a thousand acres of grazing land near Bakersfield, California, where he raises blooded Polled Angus cattle. He also owns a firm that makes sand-blasting machinery, and a bottling plant.
Not bad for “mere” comedians..!

An unsung hero of this series has to be its prolific writer/director, Don Quinn. In an era when radio comedians often leaned on teams of four or five writers, Quinn wrote each half-hour show by himself. (Well, almost: he relied on his wife to correct his terrible grammar...) From the same 1945 book quoted above, we who struggle with our writing skill can read with envy how he approached crafting each week's Tuesday night broadcast:
Quinn and the players usually get together Friday afternoons to discuss the next show. On Saturday he plays around with whatever idea is decided upon and then on Sunday really gets down to writing, usually from 9 pm through the night until dawn. The cast has first reading Monday, and it had better sound good to Quinn because if he doesn’t like what he’s written he’ll toss the whole thing in the wastebasket and sit up all Monday night fashioning a new script.
“I will not willingly sell a bad show,” he says.

But he's also quick to point out the real secret of the show's success... the shared sense of mission:
“The reason for the success of the Fibber McGee and Molly show – and I can call it successful because of the Hooper and Crossley surveys – is that everyone cooperates. There is no bickering. There are no jealousies. The sponsor gives us an almost free hand, even in the writing of the comedy commercial…”
The supporting actors included Harold Peary, whose character Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve made radio history by becoming the first spin-off show in 1941, eventually giving the original show a run for its money at the top of the ratings. (Gildy started our Radio Memories series last Christmas, which you can listen to here.)

Peary is gone by the time of the April 7th, 1942 broadcast I've selected as this week's offering, but in his place is a character performed by Bill Thompson, who cast a much longer cultural shadow, albeit through indirect means. His mushy-voiced henpecked husband character named Wallace Wimple, showing up after the middle commercial in this episode, is recognizable to audiences today, perhaps, due to the similar voice he lent to a long-running theatrical cartoon character. When radio drama began to be eclipsed by television, Thompson found steady work supplying voices for all kinds of cartoon characters, especially for Disney.

Judging from the available behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the McGee show was one where there was room for everyone to make a contribution; therefore I thought it would be ironic to pick an episode centered around an historical event where the opposite happened; an unfortunate occurrence that shows what inevitably befalls us when "experts" decide they know what's best, deliberately snubbing the potential input of people with practical experience but few officious credentials.

In early 1942 the Germans' Operation Drumbeat sank so much American shipping that it caused a gasoline and rubber shortage on the East Coast. Rationing went into effect for that region, and President Roosevelt's bloated New Deal-era bureaucracy so bungled its implementation that it spelled electoral doom for the Democrats in that year's mid-term elections. Shortages were exacerbated when the Japanese effectively cut off 90% of the US' rubber supply, through the conquest of Malaya in the outreaches of the Pacific. The alphabet soup of agencies had not gotten around yet to properly inaugurating the US's own synthetic replacements for rubber; the resulting shortage was severely damaging to the war effort.

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (whose son later served in the Clinton White House), grandly declared that one million tons of rubber could be salvaged from American garages, backyards and attics. Despite sotto-voce assurances to the contrary by such figures as Arthur Newhall, a former rubber manufacturer then working for the War Production Board (WPB), a very public and patriotic campaign was launched to collect the nation's scrap materials (as you can hear from this week's Fibber McGee and Molly show, embedded below), but unfortunately to little effect. As recounted by Thomas Fleming in "The New Dealer's War: FDR And The War Within World War II":

The drive was a fiasco. At the end of five frantic weeks, in which the president made a statement and Ickes ran around like an out-of-control windup toy, the nation had collected only 335,000 tons of scrap rubber. Ickes was reduced to trying to confiscate the rubber mats on the floors of the Interior Department buildings. The Public Buildings Administration blocked him, saying it would lead to an epidemic of broken hips when people started falling on the slippery marble floors. In a last gasp, Ickes was caught stealing a rubber mat from the White House. Compounding the petroleum czar’s folly was his apparent ignorance of the fact that rubber mats were made from recycled rubber and were useless in the production of tires.

[pages 141-142]

As a result of his investigations into the handling of the rubber shortages, a somewhat obscure Missouri Senator named Harry S Truman [ghost]wrote an article in American Mercury magazine provocatively entitled, "We Can Lose The War In Washington". As chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate the War Program, he was infuriated by the self-defeating maze of bungling bureaucracy erected by the White House. By his own party. A true team player, he put the nation's interests ahead of petty partisanship, and endured a lot of criticism for his integrity. This was the public's first real glimpse of the man who would soon inherit all this mess when he is propelled from the vice-presidency to the office of President of the United States of America in early 1945.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, and possibly losing the spirit that sparked this post. That's a sign that it's time to dim the lights and sharpen the mind, to the sounds of one of radio's most humble, and successful, teams: Fibber McGee and Molly.

A list of our previous Radio Memories offerings may be found here.

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