Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Tain't Funny, McGee"

One of the records I remember growing up with is THE LONGINES SYMPHONETTE PRESENTS REMEMBER THE GOLDEN DAYS OF RADIO with Jack Benny. I listened over and over again to Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Fibber McGee and Molly. It was my first introduction to old time radio.

One movie that pops up on Turner Classic Movies is OH HEAVENLY DAYS. ("Oh heavenly days," was an exclamation that Molly used when McGee did something outlandish; i,e,. she said it a lot.)

This 1944 B-picture is the last of a handful of Fibber McGee and Molly movies, and, from the description, is very much a WWII propaganda picture.

It's funny, but these old radio shows remind me of my childhood in the 1970s, since that's when I first heard the recordings. First, I listened to my Dad's Longines record set, and then I checked some records out of the library -- I think that companies like Radiola and Decca were releasing old time radio shows.

Remember those library "listening stations?!" I remember having to go to the librarian, filling out cards and pieces of paper and being told I only had an hour in the listening station, etc. And, in the stale-smelling listening station cubicle: those big great metal turntables that looked like they could survive an armed assault and the big clunky tone arms that would sometimes have about 8oz. of dust clinging to them. And those big, vinyl headphones you had to wear! Those big headphones always made me rather hot and itchy after about 5 minutes. They were definitely designed to be so ungainly that no sane individual would ever consider for a moment trying to steal them. And when you were finished, you had to walk back the librarian, and, standing there, s/he would take the records out of the sleeves, looking for any scratches. Always a serious visual inspection, both sides scrutinized for abuse, before being allowed to take my nerdly leave.

Jim Jordan, "Fibber McGee" himself, had a special radio series one summer (maybe in 1972 or 73) where he would play the old programs. There was this gimmick in the show. The deal was (and suspend about 20 tons of disbelief, OK?) that Fibber had his old Philco radio in the garage, and would tell the listeners that it was full of old radio shows that he hadn't listened to back in the day. These old shows were still inside the radio tubes, waiting to be unleashed and heard. I remember listening to these old comedies and thinking seriously -- maybe waay too seriously -- about the structure of the jokes, the wordplay, the puns, the way an actor could get a laugh just by the tone of his/her voice (Titus Moody, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, Baby Snooks, etc.).

Woody Allen's RADIO DAYS film had it right: all of these people, all of these beloved shows are dead because the way we listen to radio changed.

Oh, and Eugene Pallette in OH HEAVENLY DAYS. I love Eugene Pallette.

Many cartoonists and illustrators enjoy the old comedy, the ones we listened to on those old records. And as my pal, and fellow old time comedy fan, the award winning illustrator Sean Kelly, suggested to me: "That's why we're all so warped, today.... (Just like the old LPs!)"

Above Fibber McGee and Molly ad nicked from The Digital Deli. The uncredited color illustration is from this OTR download site.


Edited from a previously published blog entry from April 15, 2010.


Bob Buethe said...

I got hooked on old-time radio shows when I was in junior high in the early seventies. WRVR, a long-gone Long Island jazz station, ran them every weeknight at 7. Now I download shows from the OTR Archive to my cellphone and listen to them in the car.

Brian Fies said...

My story is similar to Bob's. I really discovered Jack Benny and Fred Allen in the early '70s on San Francisco AM radio station KSFO, which had a wonderful block of nightly programming during the week. IIRC, 8 to 9 was old comedy programs (Benny, Allen, Burns, Fibber McGee & Molly), 9 to 10 was drama (both old, such as "The Shadow," and newly produced "CBS Radio Mystery Theater" plays). 10 to 11 was comedy albums (Cosby, Newhart, Freberg, real Dr. Demento stuff).

I can't tell you how many nights I sat in my room listening to the radio. In retrospect, I think it must've worried my parents (seriously), but all that stuff was terrific! Very influential and important to me at a formative time.