Saturday, February 25, 2006

Amos'n'Andy


One of the longest running and most successful shows in radio was "Amos'n'Andy." Not only was it one of the longest running, it may also be (though unintentionally) one of the most controversial.

The show really began in 1926 at the radio studios of the Chicago Tribune at WGN. The original intent was to create a "radio strip" very much like a comic strip; short and five times a week. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were assigned to develop this strip as as an on air version of the Tribune's popular comic strip: "The Gumps". Gosden and Correl, who had been performing together on the air in a musical act, thought they could do better by creating a strip based on the hardships encountered by the thousands of African-Americans who migrated to Chicago since the end of the Civil War. They came up with the characters of Sam Smith and Henry Johnson, Sam'n'Henry, in a week. Sam'n'Henry, which was the first regular show with scripted characters was about two young men who came to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama, and the hardships they endured. It wasn't an immediate success, but it built a large loyal audience very quickly. The success even surprised Gosden and Correll. Being creative,ambitious, and industrious, they had a revolutionary idea. In order to reach an audience outside of Chicago, why not record the programs on disc, and sell them to other radio stations? They had invented syndication. The Tribune, however, didn't share their vision, and wouldn't allow them to follow that track.

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When their contracts were up at WGN, in December 1927, Gosden and Corell went to WMAQ, with a large pay raise. The Tribune, however, maintained ownership of the characters of Sam'n'Henry. Gosden and Corell made a few changes: the characters now came from Atlanta, Georgia instead of Birmingham, and most importantly: the names were changed to Amos Jones and Andrew Hogg Brown...Amos'n'Andy. Amos'n'Andy premiered on WMAQ in March 1928. It continued it's format as a 15 minute, five day a week serial. And was syndicated across the country.

In these early programs, Gosden and Corell did everything themselves: wrote, directed,and acted ALL the roles. The female characters, though developed, were never heard. They would be talked about, or on the off-mic end of a telephone conversation. There was no studio audience. In fact, Gosden and Correll allowed no one in the studio with them at all in order to minimize distractions.

These syndicated programs grew in popularity. And, eventually, the major network (NBC) took notice, and bought the show outright. The first network broadcast of Amos'n'Andy was in August of 1929. And the shows' popularity continued to grow. It's estimated that in 1931, at the height of the shows popularity, it had as many as 40 million listeners. At the time, that was ONE THIRD of the U.S. population. It's legend how stores would pipe it through so that their patrons wouldn't miss a minute of the ongoing saga of Amos'n'Andy and the Fresh Air Taxi Company. It's been said that on a summer's day, you could walk down the street and not miss a second of the program due to the sound spill from the houses. It's success was completely unprecedented.

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Over time, the character of Amos gradually receded, and another prominent character developed. That of George "Kingfish" Stevens. The leader of "The Mystic Knights of the Sea" lodge. And, as the depression, and then the war drew on, ratings began to slip. By 1943, the show was in trouble. A new format was needed, and in October 1943, Amos'n'Andy became a half-hour sitcom. The themes of the show changed radically. Instead of the hardships of poor African-Americans, it changed to how many ways can Kingfish swindle and use Andy. Amos, of course, still remained; but his prominence in the stories lessened. Instead of a plot driver, he now became the paragon of common sense, and the wise voice of reason, always warning Andy to watch the Kingfish. In 1948, when William Paley raided NBC's talent pool, Amos'n'Andy went to CBS for Two million dollars. Where it ran as a sitcom until 1955. The characters continued on however, as hosts of a music program entitled: "Amos'n'Andy's Music Hall", until 1960.

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Today, Amos'n'Andy is often regarded as "politically incorrect." The major sticking point is that two white actors were portraying black stereotypes. Perhaps. But I think it's best to put these shows in proper historical perspective. In 1926 "black face" acts were still quite common in entertainment (Jolson's "Jazz Singer" was 1927.) Jim Crow was still in effect in the south. It was a much less enlightened time. Remember, the Civil War was only 60 years past. As recent as World War II is to us today. Gosden and Corell weren't necessarily racist; they were men of their time. It's easy to vilify social wrongs in a past time, and very unfair. In 1926, it wasn't viewed as wrong. And as the show grew, as Andy and Kingfish grew more ridiculous, Amos grew in wisdom and intelligence. It's often forgotten or overlooked that Amos personified the American Dream: hard work and conscientiousness lead to success and happiness.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Mr. President-- Washington

Mr. President-- Jefferson


This week’s choice was obvious: “Mr. President.” This show ran on fledgling ABC from 1947-53, and starred Edward Arnold as a different President of the United States every week. The gimmick, was that you would have to guess which one; the answer, not being revealed until the end. The stories were more anecdotal than any point of great historical significance, so it wasn’t always easy to guess (the names being changed [to protect the innocent]). To portray The Presidents, all of them, the producers looked for someone with “the aggressiveness of Teddy Roosevelt, the warmth and humility of Abe Lincoln, and the tenacity of Andrew Jackson.” And the result, Edward Arnold, played them all the same. He purposely did not try to play each one. But, rather created a generic “Mr. President.” The success of this show garnered Arnold several invitations to the real White House from the real Mr President, Harry Truman; who called Edward Arnold.... Mr. President!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Two Jacks

Valentine’s Day is not one of my favorite holidays. So, only one of this weeks offerings is a Valentine program. But, it has a twist. Fortunately, February 14th also provides us with the birthdays of two of my favorite stars: The Two Jacks; Benny and Barrymore.

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February 14, 2006 marks Jack Benny’s 39th birthday for the 73rd time. Born Benjamin Kubelsky in Waukegan, Illinois, he began his show in 1932 for Canada Dry. This show bears little resemblance to the more familiar programs of the late ‘30's-mid 50's. But it gradually evolved. His perfect ensemble cast being added one by one. Mary first, then Don, then Phil, then Rochester, and finally Dennis. By 1937, the ensemble was in place. And, Jack’s character was imbedded in the American consciousness. Jack’s career began in vaudeville, where he worked under various names and different acts. As we all know his career flourished and moved from vaudeville to radio to film to television. Today, most people think of Jack’s television performances first; and they were really just a continuation of his radio program. But, I think radio was really his strong suit. In radio he was able to apply a type of surrealism that couldn’t be applied on TV. The vault just didn’t work as well; Carmichael was an impossibility; just to give a couple of examples. Perhaps in today’s CGI world these things could be possible; but then, no.
If you were to meet someone like the character “Jack” that Jack portrayed, you probably wouldn’t like him. He was vain, egotistical, argumentative, and incredibly tight-fisted. Not every comedian could have made this character lovable. But audiences responded. I think this is because Jack’s true nature still shone through. By all accounts, he was one of the kindest, most generous stars in Hollywood. Which also accounts for why his ensemble was able to flourish so wonderfully, and create these radio classics.

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John Sidney Blythe Barrymore was born on February 14, 1882 in Philadelphia. He was the youngest of the three children of actors Maurice Barrymore (1847-1905) and Georgiana Drew (1855-1893). John was born into one of the most illustrious theatre families in America; but it wasn’t the Barrymore name that carried history, it was the Drew’s. Maurice “borrowed” the Barrymore name from a theatrical poster in England. His real name was Blythe.
John didn’t really want to be an actor, and came to it quite reluctantly. He would have preferred to be an artist. And he did work as an illustrator for a time. But the “family curse” as he called it, called him. It may have been frustration from this, or the pains of having two famous, yet absent parents (the children were raised more by their Grandmother Louisa Drew), sibling rivalry with two very successful actors or any number of other things that contributed to his destructive alcoholism.
Though John was the youngest, he probably left the greatest impact on Theatre. His “Hamlet”(1922) broke Edwin Booth’s record as the longest running Hamlet on Broadway and influenced future Hamlets, including Gielgud and Olivier who in turn influenced other Hamlet’s.
By the late ‘30's, The Great Profile was a burned out has-been who couldn’t stay sober enough to even remember his lines. He joined “The Fleishmann Hour with Rudy Vallee” as a second banana and parody of himself. Yet, sometimes you could still hear whispers of the great actor. Such as in this episode in which John is able to do scenes from “Richard III” with his older brother Lionel. Two Barrymores doing Shakespeare. It doesn’t get much better than that

Quiet Please--Valentine

I don’t really (as I said earlier) like Valentine’s Day. But this show is different. It’s not gushy. It’s more of a sentimental ghost story. There is a twist though, and you should be able to figure it out before the end. All the clues are there. I felt pretty silly when I didn’t. It’s really very obvious

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Elliot Lewis


One of the most multi-talented people in radio was undoubtedly Elliot Lewis. He was a great comedian, as demonstrated on "The Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show"; he could do action/adventure, such as on "Voyage of the Scarlet Queen"; write and direct, as demonstrated on many other shows, most notably on "Suspense", with which he was director for three years.

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The "Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show" featured Lewis as Frankie Remley; Phil's second banana, and the instigator of the plot driving schemes which usually got Phil in trouble with Alice. The real Frankie Remley (and yes, there was one!) was the guitarist in Phil's orchestra on "The Jack Benny Program". On the Benny show, he was often joked about (his carousing and shady exploits), but was never heard. And over time, a fully developed off-stage character actually developed, although he never spoke a word. When Phil began his own spin-off show in 1946, the character of Remley went with him. And, on the new show, he was finally given a voice by Elliot Lewis. After a couple of years, the real Remley began to protest the use of his name. So, the character's name was changed to...Elliot Lewis. The Harris show ran until 1954.

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On "Voyage of the Scarlet Queen", Elliot Lewis portrayed: Phil Carney, Master of the ketch "Scarlet Queen". I can't prove it, but I really got a hunch that Gene Roddenberry was familiar with this show. To me, it seems a lot like "Star Trek" on a sailing vessel.
The ship, which is every bit as much a character as the actors, is on a set mission with a charismatic Captain (Lewis) and a loyal first mate. And to top it off, every episode begins with the Captain reading a log entry!
Even though the show had a short life (1947-48), the "Scarlet Queen" completed her voyage, and the show wound up with no loose ends.

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"Suspense" was a long-running (1942-62), successful thriller series. Over its' 20 year run, it changed style and format several times. For most of its' run, it was a half-hour program. Though, for a short time, it was expanded to an hour. It was often a star vehicle, featuring such actors as: Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Peter Lorre or many other Hollywood stars. Elliot Lewis directed the show from 1951-54. During his tenure, he not only directed, but wrote/adapted, and starred in several episodes (including an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Othello"). During those three years, Lewis also brought comedy stars on to appear in atypical roles. Jack Benny, Phil Harris, and Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber and Molly) were some of the comedians who were able to stretch themselves in dramatic roles on this classic program
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