OTR Buffet: Thank you, Lee for joining me and doing this interview. I really appreciate it. I wanted to talk first about your website. You have done a terrific job and it's so "clean and crisp" - I wish my blog was that nice-looking at your site.
Lee Shackleford: You're very kind -- I wish I'd had the plain common sense that you have in building your site as a blog! It would be so nice to get comments and shared links from site visitors on each page. As it is, if anybody who wants to say anything, good or bad, about content on my site, they have to leave the page they were looking at and go to my CONTACT page.
And my recent attempts to streamline the site create an odd effect: if you start with the "Inspirations" page (gulliver.cc/inspirations.htm) it looks like there isn't much that inspires me! But that's only because I just started rebuilding the various sections and these were my top priorities. But note that the OTR sub-section, small though it may be, is still the biggest, with three sections: one each on FIBBER, THE GOON SHOW, and the Mercury Theatre's notorious WAR OF THE WORLDS. It probably says a lot about me that I would pick those are my "top three" to devote web pages to. Apparently what I value most about classic radio is the opportunity for Fun with Language... certainly those three shows exemplify that trait, don't you think?
OTR Buffet: Please tell us how you got involved with OTR, early memories of radio Fibber and Molly and why you started the website.
Lee Shackleford: I was born at the tail end of the "baby boom," so I missed experiencing the Golden Age of Radio "live and in person." (I don't count CBS Radio Mystery Theater because it was an attempt at revival.) But my mom and dad grew up in those days so their daily speech was often peppered with catch-phrases that I begged them to explain. Even better, they owned one of the many gorgeous collections of LPs that came from the Longines Symphonette Society, a multi-record set hosted by Jack Benny preserving many of the greatest moments in radio: news, sports, and (best of all, to my mind) the weekly comedy and drama shows. There were short clips of many shows, but the longest segment was devoted to FIBBER McGEE AND MOLLY -- it was the entire first half of the April 27, 1948 show in which Fibber thinks he's seen a passenger pigeon (despite the birds being extinct). The fact that the recording only shared the first half of the show was a brilliant tease -- it set me on a quest to hear how the episode ended!
Then when I was a teenager, two wonderful things happened. One was that I got a job that required me to drive a half-hour before dawn to get to the work site, and that drive coincided exactly with a local Christian radio station's daily airing of McGEE. (Actually, I could have gone in an half-hour later, but I got up and drove in earlier so my commute WOULD align with the radio show. So you can tell I was already hooked.) The other miracle was the airing in April-June of 1974 of the radio documentary GOOD OLD DAYS OF RADIO -- hosted in character by Jim Jordan and written by Phil Leslie. (The sponsor was Chrysler Air-Temp air conditioners, so McGee called the spokesman "Breezy," the way he used to call Wilcox "Waxy.") Hearing Jim Jordan doing the McGee character in the 1970s (!) gave me the feeling he'd come back especially for me.
Well, that was it. I started collecting McGEE episodes any way I could, and thanks to the awesome collections of the Digital Deli (www.digitaldeliftp.com), today I have -- and have heard repeatedly -- every surviving episode from 1936 through 1953.
I'm sure I'm like most of your other readers in that an interest in one Golden Age show led to an interest in many others. With McGEE, of course, you're led right away to THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE and to BEULAH ... and if you get started collecting THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM you find yourself getting Phil Harris and Dennis Day's shows too ... on and on it goes.
But my heart always belongs first and foremost to Fibber and Molly, and I've now spent the better part of thirty years scrutinizing each and every episode and learning all I can about that amazing show.
One of the happy consequences of this is that I started writing radio drama and comedy, mostly just to see if I could do it. The little radio station where I deejayed in college was very obliging about airing my early efforts, and I kept on writing even when there was no hope of the scripts being produced. I was so envious of the lucky dogs who got to write for the great shows of that day! I wished I'd been born earlier so I could have had a shot at it (forgetting, for the moment, what looking for work in the mid-1930s was actually like!). So imagine my delight when I was approached about writing and producing an original radio drama serial! This was at my beloved alma mater where I now teach scriptwriting, the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The show would have the hidden agenda of raising the audience's awareness about risks for heart disease. BODYLOVE ran for four years and is now available for purchase in its entirety from the official site. (Sneaky plug.)
OTR Buffet: First I'd like to go back to the early days. I just found out recently that Jim and Marian Jordan were on the Kaltenmeyer's Kindergrten program, starting in about 1935. I have read this is where they first came in touch with Isabel Randolph and Harold Peary. Is there anything you can tell us about the show and their time there?
Until I saw the photo you posted of Jim and Marion on that show, I wasn't aware of this. So you know more about it than I do!
OTR Buffet: Ha! I only did find this out until last week or so! Can you tell us a little about the early Jim and Marian Jordan show, Smackout?
Lee Shackleford: I think you know more about SMACKOUT than I do. I've only been able to find bits and pieces of recordings ... are there any whole episodes surviving? Your readers will know, I think, that the concept was very similar to that of LUM AND ABNER (more on that later!) in that Jim Jordan ran a general store and each episode's action revolved around the customers who came and went in the course of a day. The title referred to the (rather weak) joke that no matter what customers were after, the store was currently "smack out of it." (That's a slice of early 1930s slang that hopelessly dates the show, too -- "smack out" and "slap out" didn't stand the test of time ... I think "fresh out" is the variation that survived.)
OTR Buffet: Molly left the show for 18 months or so in the late 1930's due to an illness. According to XM Radio's Greg Bell, her sickness disease was alcoholism. Is this true?
Lee Shackleford: I've heard this for years and have mixed feelings about it. It's certainly the kind of thing that a family show would want to keep secret, so the fact that the rumor surfaced seems to give it automatically credibility. And some alcoholics are brilliant at hiding the traces, even when they're under the microscopic scrutiny of public performance. (Try to find traces of drink on Dick Van Dyke in his classic TV show, for example.) But here's what always strikes me: about the time Molly came back, Don Quinn starts ramping up the "Uncle Dennis" jokes. Can you imagine the tight-knit little family of that show committing themselves to making "drunk gags" week after week with a fragile alcoholic standing before the microphone with the nation listening?
OTR Buffet: Now see, this is why you are here as the one being interviewed! That's a really good point about the whole Uncle Dennis thing. Something that I have never heard or read before. How much influence on the show was exerted by Johnson Wax? How did they deal with Molly's absence?
Lee Shackleford: One of the many ways in which I envy the writers of Golden Age Radio is in their relationships with sponsors. With very rare exceptions, the sponsors seems to have had the attitude that the writers know their business best and should be left along to do their jobs. Not quite the relationship we often have with sponsors on today's TV shows and movies. But the concept of Harlow Wilcox as a fanatic who can't stop talking about Johnson's Wax was genuine genius and the folks at Racine knew it. As long as the show was properly called "The Johnson's Wax Program" they didn't much care what words followed that title. To them "Fibber McGee and Company" sounded just as sweet as "Fibber McGee and Molly."
OTR Buffet: Cliff Arquette once played "Wallingford Tuttle Gildersleeve" on the show. Was this character the forerunner to the "Old Timer?" Or was he the forerunner to "Throckmorten P. Gildersleeve" or was he none of them?
Lee Shackleford: I need to listen to a lot of the earlier shows again ... I know Cliff Arquette played several characters before "settling in" as the Old Timer. In the same way, Harold Peary appeared on the show as various characters (who were all of a type -- almost exactly the way Frank Nelson and Sheldon Leonard always turned up on the Jack Benny shows) until officially coming aboard as the windbag next-door neighbor. Then Gale Gordon started playing all the various doctors and lawyers and so on that Harold Peary had played -- until HE gained a continuing role as Mayor LaTrivia (and for a while, out of respect for LaGuardia's passing, Foggy the Weatherman). If only the show's closing announcements had always included full credits!
OTR Buffet: Another Arquette question, as this has been gnawing at me for some time. Did he used be on Smackout?
Lee Shackleford: No idea. Like I say, I've only heard bits and pieces of SMACKOUT.
OTR Buffet: Any idea how close Fibber and Molly were to Harlow Wilcox? They were on the show together for a long, long time.
Lee Shackleford: From what I've heard -- and this carries about as much weight as the accusation of Marian being alcoholic -- Harlow could be a bit of a pill. A little like the character he played except instead of Johnson's Wax, his favorite topic was himself and how he should be getting more money and how every show he was on was automatically better than it would have been otherwise. But if you know show business folks, you know that all he'd have to have done was complain once about something, and from then on some people would say he was "difficult." But the bosses in Racine did love him and that was all that mattered -- he was gonna be on the show forever whether the Jordans liked him or not! (I prefer to think they were all good friends who cheerfully shared the ride to success and were as happy with their work as they ought to have been.)
OTR Buffet: Fibber talked a few times about Lum and Abner on the show, in different ways. (One those ways is here.) Once, Lum talks about a Mr. Fibber McGoo. It seemed as though they were playfuly sending messages to each other. Do you know if they were good friends?
Lee Shackleford: I've always wondered about that too. Molly never missed a chance to refer to LUM AND ABNER as her favorite radio show -- I can't imagine that wasn't an affectionate shout-out to personal friends. Since LUM AND ABNER was on every network at one time or another, it'd be interesting to track down every time Molly spoke highly of the show and figure out what network LUM was on at the time ... if they were anywhere besides NBC then the reference would have been remarkable indeed!
OTR Buffet: I have actually thought about doing this several times but #1, I am so busy all the time and #2, I keep forgetting to do this. But one day I am going to do this and make notes and I will let you know! Whose idea was it for Molly to perform the Teeny character?
Lee Shackleford: They were doing skits with the character in vaudeville, so I imagine it got started the way most vaudeville acts did -- somebody discovered they had a unique gift and somebody else said, "Hey, you should go on the road with that act." There were lots of adult actors who did "baby voice" acts so the idea wasn't original. (Did Fanny Brice ever do "Baby Snooks" as part of a Ziegfield show? If so, it's conceivable that the Jordans might have seen that.) My understanding is that it's really the root of the McGEE show: Marian would do the Teeny character and Jim played a "grumpy old man" vexed by the precocious tyke -- and that "grumpy old man" was the prototype of McGee.
OTR Buffet: I've always liked the Mrs. Wearybottom character that Marian did. She, like many other characters of that same FM&M era, just disappeared! Any idea what was up with that? And along those same lines, do you have a favorite chracter out of the ones who disappeared (Fuey, the Chinese launderer, Geraldine and McGee's man servant [I forget his name] who was there when Molly was missing for 18 months.)
Lee Shackleford: I venture what I hope is an educated guess: Don Quinn had to keep a balance of talent working in his scripts, so he figured out quickly that he needed to always make room for each of the show's regular characters to come pounding on the door (or, after Christmas 1941, ringing the bell) at 79 Wistful Vista -- AND be sure that McGee always got to talk with Myrt on the phone, AND reel off a long alliterative tall tale, AND open the closet ... I think it just made sense to start streamlining. In which case, I think he trashed the right characters -- especially the "dumb darky" -- whose name, to make matters worse, was "Silly." Even at a time when it was common for mainstream shows to be racially insensitive, I think if the show had kept Fooey and Silly it would have been a very different program, and one that I think the Jordans didn't want to do.
Marian also did a high-spirited kind of Granny Clampett character sometimes too -- I don't know if she ever had a name -- but I kinda wish we'd heard more from her. On the other hand, she was basically a female version of the Old Timer, so I can see why she didn't make the cut!
OTR Buffet: I seem to recall that character now that you say that! Was Johnson's Wax the first advertiser to have commercials incorporated into the show's plot?
Lee Shackleford: If not, they were certainly among the first, at least to my knowledge. Jack Benny's writers did similar things for Grape-Nuts and Lucky Strikes, but those were both well after Don Quinn was folding the Johnson's Wax plugs into the McGEE plotlines. I'd love to hear an earlier example of this tactic -- which today we call "product placement" and it's usually done in a blunt, ham-fisted way that annoys the audience. I think most folks looked forward to Harlow's mid-episode appearance on McGEE, even though we could already repeat the product's slogans by heart.
Only partly related: don't you love how Harlow sometimes encourages you to go out and get some Johnson's Wax "tomorrow"? Not today, not tonight, not right-this-operators-are-standing-by-minute. Tomorrow. It was a different age!
OTR Buffet: You can't wax your car at night! That's when the moon is waxing (or unwess it's cwoudy and it's waning.....) I know, I know, TAINT FUNNY MCGEE!
Lee Shackleford: Hee hee ... that's pretty good, Johnny -- but that ain't the way I heerd it. The way I heerd it, one fella says t'other fella, "Sayyyy," he says, "I see where OTR Buffet's gonna ask you why Johnson's Wax used to sponsor the Fibber McGee program." "Yep," says t'other fella, "And I'm gonna says it's because Johnson's Wax can bring out the beauty of any kind of wood -- even an old chestnut."
(And now you see why I get hired to write radio drama -- not radio comedy...)
OTR Buffet: But seriously, I listen to Jack Benny too and while they "kind of" incorporate Jell-o, not quite like Harlow does Johnson's Wax and Car-nu. At any rate, Harlowe was one of the first two, anyway I believe. While the show wasn't loaded with guest stars over the years, they did have a few (Zasu Pitts filled in for Molly several times, Walter Tetley and Shirley Mitchell before she became Alice Darling just to name a few.) Do any come to your head?
Lee Shackleford: You mean like Gracie Allen? She made a surprise appearance halfway through the show on March 5, 1940 as part of her run for the Presidency. (Molly says Gracie's got her vote; she's always thought there should be a woman in the White House. McGee says "What about Mrs. Roosevelt?" Molly replies "Mrs. Roosevelt's never IN the White House." Only funny if you know Eleanor was constantly traveling in support of New Deal causes.)
That March 5, 1940 broadcast was quite the momentous episode already: about four minutes into the show, Molly opens the door to the hall closet and the result is a avalanche of accumulated junk. She gets buried alive and the audience loves it. Thus began the show's most famous running gag...
OTR Buffet: Can you give us any background on Bill Thompson?
Lee Shackleford: The two most interesting things I've learned over the years are both on Wikipedia now so perhaps this isn't news to anybody -- but he was only 21 when he started appearing on a regular coast-to-coast show -- a remarkable feat for a voice actor in those days when the competition was insanely stiff. Typically the only voice actors who could distinguish themselves from the herd at such a young age were boy tenors (like Dennis Day, who was 23 when he started playing the 19-year-old version of himself on Jack Benny's shows) and others specifically cast for their youth -- even Shirley Mitchell was 24 when she was cast as FIBBER's resident teenager Alice Darling. So Thompson's uncanny range of distinct voices caught the ears of the right people early on, thank goodness.
The other thing is that he later married the legendary "First Lady of Radio" Mary Margaret McBride! I bet they made a cute couple -- they actually kind of resembled each other. But she's somebody I admire tremendously -- the sheer moxie of making a name for herself as an insightful on-air interviewer in such a male-dominated age. And she worked for every network at one time or another, always with sponsors she screened herself -- she wouldn't do the show unless she approved of the products her show was hawking. Not many people at her level of access have had such integrity ... which I suppose is as good a place as any to end this!
Thanks for the chance to carry on at length about one of my favorite topics!
OTR Buffet: Thank you, Lee! (Lee has agreed to join me in the future to do another interview about Fibber and Molly. There are many more questions to ask. Be on the lookout for it!)