Sunday, July 3, 2011

Interview about the Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (w/Toby)

The OTR Buffet once again welcomes "Toby" to the interview room.  You might remember that he turned out a wonderful interview for the Vic and Sade series.

This time, he tackles the funny Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

OTR BUFFET: Toby, glad to have you back on the OTR Buffet! I'm happy you have joined me to do an interview about the Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show.

TOBY: I'm happy to share my thoughts on one of the greatest shows in Old Time Radio.

OTR BUFFET: Phil Harris and Alice Faye were illegally married and there was a big PR disaster during the beginning of their whirlwind romance. I think it's kind of ironic that they wound up having their own radio show.

TOBY: I think that you are overstating the importance of the "illegal" marriage.  The fact that they had a marriage ceremony before Phil's divorce became final was a gossip column item among many that sank like a stone as it became apparent that their marriage was going to last. It happened five years before The Phil Harris/Alice Faye show started.

OTR BUFFET: What are your overall thoughts about the Phil-Harris/Alice Faye Show?

TOBY: It was as well written as the Jack Benny show, which is really saying something. The actors were fabulous as well.

OTR BUFFET: Was Alice Faye really that important to the show? Wouldn't a comedic actress have been better in the part - or is it that the fact that this was a real husband and wife team... was this what was important?

TOBY: Actually, Alice Faye was a bigger star than Phil Harris at that time. She made her last movie in 1945 at the peak of her popularity and the following year the radio show began.

OTR BUFFET: What do you think the key to the show was?

TOBY: Phil Harris's personality.  He had been on the Jack Benny show for ten years as the band leader, gradually working himself up to one of the important components of the comedic ensemble cast that made Jack Benny's show a perennial favorite. Benny's writers made a big deal out of Phil's marriage. His character was originally written as a lady's man, and they very effectively changed it to devoted husband and father. The writers for the Phil Harris show took Benny's writers' ideas and ran with them.

OTR BUFFET: The show featured 4 really good actors; Phil Harris, Elliott Lewis, Gale Gordon and Walter Tetley. Lewis really wasn't a comedian but he was moderately funny in the show. Would you talk a little about the 4 of them and comedy?

TOBY: Well, Gale Gordon was only on during the Rexall seasons of the show. He was not an integral part, in my opinion.  And I think Phil Harris was really more of an entertainer than actor. If you listen to the band before and after Harris on the Benny show and then listen to the band Phil led, I think you will be startled by how much better the Harris band performed. He really swung.  And his songs that he sand and recorded were tremendously successful.

As for Elliott Lewis, the man was simply a genius. Besides acting, he was a preeminent writer, director and producer of an amazing number of shows.  Old Time Radio would have been a much diminished source of entertainment without him.  And to think that the only comedic role he took on was that of Frank Remley on the Phil Harris/Alice Faye show! His timing was incredible. They say that Benny was a master of timing. Elliot Lewis was just about as good at knowing just how long to pause before delivering a great line of comedy.

And beside the wonderful Walter Tetley we need to mention Robert North who had so many funny moments in the role of Alice Faye's very prim and proper brother William. I haven't been able to find anything out about him. He doesn't appear to have been on other radio shows and such a common name makes it tough to research him.
I’d also like to mention Alice Faye’s acting ability.  Although she was already a movie star, she started out quite tentatively on the Phil Harris/Alice Faye show.  I’d say it took her a full season before she hit her stride. After that, she was just as funny as the others on the show.

OTR BUFFET: Do you think Tetley was funnier on the Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show or on The Great Gildersleeve? Can you detect any major differences in his comedy between the two shows?

TOBY: No comparison. Julius Abruzio on the Phil Harris/Alice Faye show was his greatest role.  He played the obnoxious lower class kid to perfection.  His role as the youngest member of the middle class Gildersleeve household was pale in comparison, yet he actually played that wonderfully as well. He had a much wider range of emotions to project on Gildersleeve.  For the Phil Harris/Alice Faye show it was strictly comedy.

OTR BUFFET: Do you have a favorite episode or two in this series and what makes them classic?

TOBY: Really there are too many to mention. But one that sticks out in my mind is the one in which Alice buys wallpaper for the house. Phil and Frankie decide to do the job themselves and take the wallpaper meant for the children's room and cover the living room (including windows and doors) with the wallpaper picturing various animals. Only after they are done do they notice that all of the animals are upside down!

Also there was a series of shows during the Rexall years in which Remley was fired and moved in with Phil, driving Alice nuts.  Phil tried everything to get Remley another job. In the beginning of March 1949, Phil and Elliott guest starred on a different NBC show every night of the week trying to get Remley a job on each show. Of course all attempts failed. Remley eventually won his job back by pretending to rescue a baby from a kidnapper in a Rexall store.

OTR BUFFET: Early on, Phil was doing the Benny show and his own show. How often did actors play two major parts on multiple shows at the same time?

TOBY: I don't know.  But I do know that radio required a lot less time commitment than TV or movies and so actors were able to participate in a great many shows at the same time. There are lots of stories of actors and actresses rushing from a live broadcast in one studio to another many blocks away and getting there just in time for the start of the show.

OTR BUFFET: Do you know the story about how Elliott Lewis landed the part of Remley on the Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show?

TOBY: Lewis has told the story in several interviews.  He was an occasional player on the Jack Benny show, where Remley worked as a guitarist in the band. Jack would often refer to Remley as an incompetent sot.  When the writers for The Phil Harris show decided to make Remley a central character, they offered the part to him. But Remley quickly found he was no radio actor, so he called Elliot Lewis and asked him to audition in his place. What a fortunate turn of events!

OTR BUFFET: Did Phil and Alice's real children ever play the part of their daughters on the show?

TOBY: No. Actresses were first used as daughters in the Benny program and the Harris show continued this practice.

OTR BUFFET: Anything else you like to add?

TOBY: We haven't mentioned the music at all. I first heard of Phil Harris when I was a kid because my parents had an album of Phil Harris songs. I loved that album, and I even memorized all the lyrics to "The Thing!"  Phil had a very good singing voice and Alice's was even better. Their repertoire wasn't that extensive and they sang the same song on several shows, but the material was first rate.


  1. Very good interview and I found it very interesting. I think that Tetley was better on the Gildersleeve. That is just a matter of opinion. I had a cousin who really enjoyed Phil Harris as a singer. Smoke, Smoke this Cigarette was a biggy for him. My cousin was a chain smoker. I enjoyed many of his songs as well. His songs were more on the humorous side than serious. I agreed what was said about Elliot Lewis. His humor on this show was great. I agree with Toby that his timing was right on. Although Alice was not that funny she did provide stability to the show. With Tetley, Harris, Lewis and Alice's brother being funny, someone had to provide stability.

  2. Regarding Gale Gordon. When the sponsorship of the series moved to RCA from Rexall, Gordon continued to play Phil's boss, Mr. Scott, except that he now worked for RCA

    These are the shows that Radio Spirits is currently releasing.

    Also appearing on the RCA shows on an almost weekly basis were Sheldon Leonard as Grogan and Hans Conreid in various roles.

  3. Thanks guys for the comments.

    I haven't heard that many of the RCA shows. But I did notice that Remley is named Elliott (Lewis) in those shows. It kind of shocked me...

  4. Somehow I do like using the name Elliot. Remy is the one that I am attached to. Must have been some sort of squabble over name useage.

  5. BB,
    you should check out the latest installment of my new AUDIO INTERVIEWS.

    There's a bunch there about Remley/Elliot.

  6. Great background on a show I have never listened to before. (Too many shows and too little time).


  7. Hi Gordon thanks for the comment!

    I relaly think you would enjoy the Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. You should find some time for it.


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