Our Neighbors In Wistful Vista
("Well, I wonder who that could be?" "It's gotta be Gildersleeve or the litttle girl, unless they've rung in a new character on us."--10/8/40)
Important notice (5-15-09): I've been notified that Yahoo will be closing Geocities on October 26, 2009, meaning that this link will most likely disappear on or after that date. While I figure out my options, the information on this page has been relocated to Google Sites. Each of these biographies now has its own page there. Please redirect your links accordingly.
(This is a work in progress, with cast and crew listed roughly in order
of first appearance.)
Jim and Marian Jordan --as Fibber McGee and Molly
Don Quinn --writer, co-creator
Isabel Randolph --Abigail Uppington
Bill Thompson--Nick Depopolus, Horatio K. Boomer, Old Timer, and Wallace Wimple
Billy Mills --Orchestra leader
Hal Peary-- Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve
The King's Men --vocal group
Gale Gordon-- Mayor LaTrivia, "Foggy" Williams
Arthur Q. Bryan--Doctor Gamble
Ransom Sherman--Uncle Dennis Driscoll, Mr. Wellington
Marlin Hurt-- Beulah
Gene Carroll-- Lena
Richard LeGrand-- Ole
More cast members coming soon!
In an entertainment world where all too often the face a headliner presents doesn't extend past the stage, the story of Jim and Marian Jordan is refreshing. By all accounts, they were as warm as they were on the radio, and their success can be largely rooted to the idea that their characters had some basis in who they really were.
Jim Jordan (1896-1988) was born on a farm five miles west of Peoria. Jim studied voice in his spare time, and it was while he was singing in St. John's Church that he met his future wife, Marian Driscoll (1898-1961). Marian was drawn to the stage at an early age, a notion her parents didn't care for. Nevertheless, she appeared in amateur theatricals and studied voice, violin, and piano. On August 31, 1918, Jim and Marian were married; five days after the wedding, Jim was drafted, arriving in France just in time for the Armistice. He toured with a performing troupe in postwar France, then returned home to a string of menial jobs, but the theater beckoned, and finally Jim and Marian decided to have a go as a team.
The next four years were spent slogging through the bottom end of the Vaudeville feeding chain, during which their two children, Kathryn and Jim Jr., were born. Eventually the money ran out, and the Jordans went home...for awhile, anyway, because the stage kept calling to them.
On Marian's initiative, they became part of a travelling musical revue ("a concert company", as the Current Biography profile referred to it) that toured the midwest for four years before disbanding. The Jordans considered reforming the company and taking it to China on the impetus of Jim's sister and brother-in-law. They were impresarios in China and were sure it would really take off, and Jim and Marian seriously considered the offer. Then they received a second letter warning them not to bring the children, since fresh milk was hard to come by there, and that was the end of that.
1924 was the year when their radio careers effectively began, and like many others in the crystal-set-and-cat's-whiskers era of broadcasting, the first break occurred by chance. The Jordans were visiting with Jim's brother in suburban Chicago and the set was tuned to WIBO. The story goes that they listened to the singer murdering the song over the air for awhile when Jim said words to the effect of "Marian and I can do better than that." Somebody had $10 that said they wouldn't. The Jordans didn't have a ten-spot at the time, so off they went to the station. They made it to the station and got on the air, singing Can't You Hear Me Callin', Caroline? and Knee Deep In The Daisies, and when the performance was over they were offered their first regular radio work with a once-a-week slot for Oh Henry Candy at $10 a week for six months as the O'Henry Twins.
By the late 1920's, Chicago and New York were the main points of origin of network broadcasting--the west coast didn't enter the picture in a signifigant way until the mid-'30s--so the Jordans managed to stay quite busy, working several local and national shows, including the highly popular Breakfast Club and Kaltemeyer's Kindergarten. Most importantly, in 1931 they began Smackout, a weekday national outing from WMAQ (first for CBS, then NBC Blue) for a "fibber" character inspired by a real-life Missouri store proprietor and tall tale spinner. Between the two of them, Jim and Marian played 145 different parts over the four year run, including a fully realized Teeny. As a presage of things to come, there were also 120 "silent characters" who were talked about frequently but never appeared.
Meanwhile, the executives at Johnson's Wax had taken to the notion of using unknowns in their next show and allowing the program to find itself on the air. One of them was referred to Smackout, and soon enough Don Quinn was writing a spec script for them he called Fibber McGee and Molly.
The earliest Fibber shows were rough, to say the least. Tied to the concept of Fibber and Molly as "humbugs of the highways," most of the material was woefully thin, although some bits hinted at what was to come. Eventually, as the story goes, Marian put her foot down; from that point on, whatever couldn't happen in Peoria wouldn't happen on their show, and once this "policy" was fully implemented, coupled with the discarding of the more burlesque elements of their characters, the show blossomed.
Health reasons kept Marian off the air for 18 months beginning in 1937, during which the show became Fibber McGee and Company and moved to Hollywood. On the coast, and after Marian returned, the show caught fire, climbing to the number one spot in the ratings by 1943.
The phrase "Peoria scale" is frequently mentioned in relation to how the Jordans lived after hitting the big time in radio. The first house they owned after clearing four figures was a replica of the $70 a month house they had rented before their success, even being built on the lot next door to the old one. They eventually settled in Encino on a 3 1/2 acre tract which was described in Newsweek as "not magnificent but nice". Jim was elected to a few terms on the Encino Chamber of Congress, was an air raid warden during the Second World War, and had a few lucrative sidelines going to boot--a company that made sandblasting equipment, a realty company, and the Kansas City bottling plant for Hires Root Beer.
The final shows
were recorded at a home studio for NBC's Monitor weekend service.
After Marian's passing, Jim slipped into semiretirement, returning for
guest spots in the 1970s on radio drama revivals such as CBS Radio Mystery
Theater and voice work in the Disney cartoon The Rescuers. On December 21st, 1983, the years on the radio were rewarded with a Fibber McGee and
Molly star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with most of the surviving cast
members in attendance. The star is located at 1500 Vine Street, once the location of the NBC radio studios.
Don Quinn (writer)
In the modern days of comedy by committee, it may come as a shock that one would write a comedy show by himself. Although he did eventually take on help in the writing department, the course and tone of FM&M was for the most part decided by a single vision.
The man behind the pen was Don Quinn (1900-1967), a commercial artist and aspiring cartoonist who, according to one account, found that the magazines to which he submitted were tossing his drawings but keeping his captions. The Depression necessitated a turn to radio, and began frequenting WENR in the evenings. There he met his future partners Jim and Marian Jordan, and they got along famously. The Jordans would stop by Quinn's place before they got to the station, and if Quinn didn't have anything for them they'd wing it instead.
By the beginning of FM&M, he was a full partner with the Jordans, and in 1941 they were splitting a $6,000 paycheck three ways. Quinn shared with the Fibber character a love of wordplay that informed everything he did, and it didn't hurt that Jim Jordan could toss off Quinn's complicated tongue twisters so effortlessly. Quinn also developed a sense of the gently absurd humor shared by daytime radio denizens Vic and Sade and Lum and Abner, which both started around the same time as Smackout. According to Paul Henning, who worked with him for awhile, Quinn's writing habits weren't always of the type that were easy to emulate. He would put off writing until the last minute, then "get a big pot of coffee and two cartons of cigarettes and he'd sit up all night."
As Gale Gordon remembered years later, Quinn would often send jokes off to other radio comedians and writers if he came up with something he thought they might be able to use. Also, like many other comedy writers of the time, he wasn't beneath slipping some occasional off-color bits into his scripts that weren't intended to air--just to get a rise out of the censors.
an end to his involvement with FM&M. Although he had always
enjoyed a happy partnership with the Jordans, he felt the need to try something
new. That something was The Halls of Ivy, a program starring Ronald
and Benita Colman that lasted a season and a half. In addition, he created
the Beulah Show, another Fibber spinoff (although Phil Leslie
wrote the actual series).
Harlow Wilcox (announcer)
Leaving a sucessful career as an electrical equipment saleman, Harlow Wilcox (1900-1960) became one of the most recognizable pitchmen in the annals of radio. As a Chicago staff announcer, first at CBS, then NBC, Wilcox had been established in radio for nearly six years when he became the announcer for FM&M, starting with the first show and staying through the end of the half-hour shows in 1953. Like the musical components, he was "inherited" from the show Fibber and Molly were replacing, Tony Wons' sentimental House By The Side Of The Road. On Fibber, Wilcox was one of the masters of the integrated commercial, a technique that was popularized on Ed Wynn's and Jack Benny's shows. Instead of stopping the story for the mid-show commercial, Wilcox would just show up and work his plug into the plot, much to Fibber's consternation. Fibber tagged Wilcox with the nickname "Waxy" for his ability to turn any conversation topic to Johnson's Wax, and coupled with Don Quinn's "kid the pitch, not the product" philosophy to ad copy, the approach was so popular that well after the end of their sponsorship, the home office in Racine, Wisconsin kept an almost continuous collection of shows from 1939 to 1950.
Wilcox was also commercial spokesman on such prominent shows as Truth or Consequences, Amos and Andy (the early half-hours), and Suspense (the Autolite years), among many others.
Isabel Randolph as Abagail Uppington
A former Broadway actress, Isabel Randolph (1889-1973) found her way into radio at NBC Chicago through soap operas such as Dan Harding's Wife and Mary Marlin. Her stock in trade on comedy shows were society matrons such as the one she played on FM&M, Abigail Uppington. Apparently, Uppy's main purpose in life was to get holes poked in her thin skin by the lowbrow McGees. Randolph played a similar society role, albeit to a different effect, as Mrs. Piddleton during the later years of Duffy's Tavern.
Following a move to Hollywood in 1939, Randolph appeared in several Westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. She also played Dick Van Dyke's mother in his first TV series.
Bill Thompson as Nick Depopolus, Horatio K. Boomer, Old Timer, and Wallace Wimple
From the days in Chicago, Bill Thompson (1913-1971) was with the Fibber show for the long haul. His parents were in musical comedy and vaudeville, and Thompson had joined as a mimic by age five. During Chicago's Century of Progress expo, he auditioned for NBC with a sketch called "An International Broadcast", a performance involving no less than ten different languages. At NBC, he joined The Breakfast Club, where his Wallace Wimple voice was perfected, and was often called upon to do animal noises.
Thompson was a valuable addition to the cast, eventually developing four major characters in addition to playing various bit roles. When he left the series in 1943 to serve in the Navy, it triggered a character crisis on the show; between that time and his full-time return in 1946 he and his characters reappeared on the show only once, during a program from Chicago. It was explained during that show that Wimple joined the Navy too, as a Physical Culture Specialist (of all things!). To top that, the Old-Timer signed on with the Seabees.
Thompson had his on series briefly in 1946, and also did extensive cartoon voice work for Disney (notably Sleeping Beauty, Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan), M-G-M (you probably knew he was Droopy Dog, but that's him as Droopy's arch rival Spike, too), and Hanna-Barbera (he was Touche Turtle to Alan Reed's Dum-Dum). Once you're familiar with his voice, you'll find Bill Thompson's fingerprints all over the Cartoon Network schedule, so to speak.
Thompson left show business in 1957 to pursue a business career with the Union Oil company. A tireless crusader against juvenile delinquency, he also served as the President of the southern California area Boy Scouts of America.
Billy Mills (orchestra leader)
From existing recordings, it's apparent that the music provided by FM&M's bandleaders (such as Rico Marcelli and Ted Weems) were definitely from the "sweet" end of the big band spectrum. Beginning January 17, 1938, Billy Mills (1894-1971) took the baton and the outfit lightly swung the FM&M airtime until 1953.
Spike Jones was a member of this aggregation c. 1940-43, while the band known as the City Slickers was beginning to fall into place. Also, notable exponents of swing such as Red Nichols are known to have sat in with the Mills orchestra on the broadcasts. Maestro Mills also wrote the show's '40s theme tune ("Wing to Wing"), which first opened the show when an ASCAP boycott of the radio broadcast of members' songs forced the dropping of "Save Your Sorrow 'Til Tomorrow" from the program.
Maybe it's just a fluke of fate that the advent of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve coincided with the upswing of FM&M's audience, but it seems that Fibber's character needs another strong personality to scrape against to really come into his own. Although his residency at 83 Wistful Vista was relatively short, Gildy (and the man who played him) was a strong enough character to carry his own series, one of the first spinoffs in broadcasting history.
Harold ("Hal") Peary (b. Harrold Jose de Faria, 1908, d. 1985) was the son of a Portugese immigrant who first broke into radio at KZM, Oakland, in 1923. At NBC San Francisco in the late '20s, he was featured as The Spanish Serenader, featuring a singing voice that would be used frequently in the Gildersleeve program.
Over the space of a few years, Peary had played several characters named Gildersleeve, along with other voices. When he approached Don Quinn about a more substantial role, Peary had in mind a pompous blowhard whose wind could be matched only by Fibber himself. And so, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve became the McGees' neighbor on September 26, 1939, and would stay on board through the end of the 1940-41 season.
Quinn gave Gildy considerable mike time, involving him more directly in Fibber's foibles than most of the other characters. One episode was built off a water hose duel, and what seemed to be building to a violent resolution turned into an epic checker game that lasted until the next week. Underlying all this was the implication that Fibber and Gildersleeve were good enough friends that any wounds to pride and vanity were only temporary. So went the battle of wills on the Wistful Vista front, so it was with a tinge of sadness that Gildersleeve left for a show of his own.
On August 31, 1941, The Great Gildersleeve opened as a Sunday afternoon feature for Kraft, and the next time Peary would be heard in Wistful Vista was to say goodbye to his longtime neighbor (and ask for his lawnmower back one last time). Under the guidance of Gildersleeve's first writer, Leonard L. Levinson, the pieces of the new show fell into place, becoming an all-time classic of the air. A series of Gildersleeve B-movies with Peary followed for R-K-O.
The trip to Summerfield which Gildy warned his employees at Gildersleeve Girdle Works might take several days lasted in one form or another until 1957. However, in 1950 Peary announced that he was leaving Gildersleeve, and that fall starred in a new show called Honest Harold. While Gildersleeve continued on with Williard Waterman in the title role, Peary's new show fizzled, lasting only one season. By 1954, Peary was a disc jockey at KABC, but eventually turned up on television as well. In the TV version of Fibber, Peary was the sole cast member who had worked on the radio show, although he played a different character (Mayor LaTrivia) for the small screen.
(Note: A lot of wags have noted that Gildersleeve was married in Wistful Vista, but was suddenly a bachelor in Summerfield. A few theories have been proposed about what became of Mrs. Gildersleeve--or more to the point, where the body was buried. The best excuse I can suggest is that it was much easier to get away with continuity gaffes in the era before repeat broadcasts.)
The King's Men (vocal group)
Led and with musical arrangements by Ken Darby (1909-1992), the King's Men (tenors Bud Linn and John Dodson, baritone Rad Robinson, and Darby on bass) joined the Fibber show in 1940 to sing mostly novelty numbers and, during the war, patriotic songs. They also backed Jerry Colonna in some of the memorable Disney cartoons based on American folk ballads ("Casey Jones" and "Casey at the Bat") while Darby was choral arranger and musical director at Disney.
The quartet was formed by Darby in 1928 as The Ramblers, Robinson replacing original baritone Joseph Galkin in 1929. They were renamed the King's Men during a stint at Hollywood station KFWB and sang at various stations in the area until an offer of stage appearances with Paul Whiteman prompted a move to New York. From there, they were featured on several network programs, including their own NBC show in 1936. They returned to Hollywood in 1938.
The group were heard on the soundtrack of several films, some as early as 1929, and appeared onscreen in several Hopalong Cassidy movies.
Darby was also a composer, creating the musical arrangement of "The Night Before Christmas" that became an annual Christmas presentation on FM&M and was released as part of a Fibber and Molly 78 rpm album for Capitol. In addition to his Disney work, he supervised the music for several films at 20th Century Fox, including Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe films, and won three Oscars for scoring M-G-M musicals. He also created the sped-up Munchkin voices for The Wizard of Oz, and performed the voice of the Munchkinland Mayor. His biggest claim to fame for a non-OTR audience was writing the score for Elvis Presley's first movie Love Me Tender, including the title song (credited under his wife's maiden name) which became Elvis' fourth #1 record on the Billboard singles chart.
Singers that preceded the King's Men in the musical slot included the Four Notes, Donald Novis, Jimmy Shields and Perry Como (who you might have heard of). Martha Tilton, who was a regular vocalist with Benny Goodman, also sang for the show briefly at the beginning of the 1941-42 season.
Gale Gordon as Mayor LaTrivia and "Foggy" Williams the Weatherman
Although he once played radio's Flash Gordon, the bread and butter radio work for Gale Gordon (1906-1995) by the '40s was in playing stiff-necked officials who seemed to beg for their goat to be gotten. As Mayor LaTrivia, a free-wheeling sendup of New York Mayor LaGuardia, he would weekly enter into a battle of wits, which usually ended with himself on the bad end.
Gordon began his radio career in 1926 playing the ukelele. His professional debut was in 1933 on a KFWB series called English Coronets, for $3 a show (minus a 10% commission to the station for "finding" the actors jobs). While this was going on, he also moonlighted on the Edgar Rice Burroughs-directed Tarzan series, again as an English lord. He had become one of the highest paid Hollywood radio actors of the time. Following Mary Pickford's program to New York in 1935, he began a two year stint in what was the hub of broadcasting at the time. Also notable in this period was a stint on Death Valley Days, where he met his future wife. They were married in 1937.
Gordon began his association with FM&M at the end of 1939, playing Molly's former beau Otis Catwallader, coming back for bits over the next few years. Apparently, Jim Jordan was a bit apprehensive about using a "dramatic actor" for the part, although by this time Gordon had landed a few comedy roles. Gordon turned up in various roles on FM&M until Don Quinn created the Mayor LaTrivia role in 1941 especially for him. Quinn referred to Gordon as "the writer's actor".
Following the death of LaGuardia, the character of LaTrivia sat out a season, with Gordon playing a markedly different character as "Foggy" Williams the weatherman. Williams was a bit more soft-spoken and, consequently, didn't have the staying power of the more popular characters. The mayor returned for the next season.
Gale Gordon was never at a loss for work, also being featured in Our Miss Brooks as Principal Conklin (joining the show for the second broadcast after the first actor didn't quite work out), the Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show (a departure as Mister Scott), and My Favorite Husband, where he first became associated with Lucille Ball. Gordon moved easily into television, first in the video version of Our Miss Brooks, later as Mister Wilson on Dennis the Menace (replacing the late Joseph Kearns), and spent most of the 1960s memorably as a foil for Lucille Ball on The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy.
In personal life, Gordon was not a blusterer when he was angry, but enjoyed it nonetheless for how people (both audience and fellow actors) reacted to it. He also said he was his own worst critic, and that the desire to always do it better next time and a willingness to look beyond a surface portrayal is what helped him get far. His philosophy on the comedic characters he played, as he said in a SPERDVAC interview in 1990, was, although the abrasive element was necessary, "A character on radio or television can not be unkind and be liked, and when you blow up and be angry with someone, you have to be able to stop before you get to that point where it sounds as if you might mean it."
Arthur Q. Bryan as Doc Gamble
To most boomers and post-boomers, Arthur Q. Bryan (1899-1959) is forever connected with that divine cartoon simp, Elmer Fudd. On Fibber, however, he went to the opposite side of the street as Doctor Gamble, the latest in the line of Fibber's "friendly enemies" filling the space of the temporarily departed Mayor LaTrivia. The Doctor was cast in a rather cynical mode, his favorite rejoinder to Fibber's latest flight of fancy being a weary "Take off your shirt" (since any burst of pep and energy from Fibber was considered to be a sign of illness).
Bryan was also featured as Floyd the barber (no relation to Howard McNear's role on The Andy Griffith Show) on The Great Gildersleeve and also various other roles across the dial. He broke into radio in 1924, gaining announcer's stripes in 1929 as an unexpected fill-in, his pre-network career culminating in a writer-producer-actor stint at Philadelphia's WCAU in 1932.
Ransom Sherman as Uncle Dennis and Mister Wellington
For Fibber, Ransom Sherman (1898-1985) took on two strikingly different types of characters; as Molly's often-mentioned but previously unheard Uncle Dennis, he was the stereotypical Irish drunk, albeit with a bit more character than you'd likely hear from a lesser player. The eriudite Mr. Wellington, the manager of Wistful Vista's movie theater, affected a more intellectual pompousity. Apparently his work was respected enough to be one of the few cast members to get a credit line at the end of the show.
Although he was well-admired among critics and other radio comics, Sherman had a bit of trouble getting a show of his own off the ground, although he tried frequently. What he probably is best remembered for is at best a footnote contribution to broadcasting; during his stint on Club Matinee, he shared the show with a young man named Garrison Morfit and ran a "Name the Morfit" contest to choose a more radio-ready name for the young newcomer. The name that stuck was Garry Moore, and as Garry Moore he later costarred with Jimmy Durante in a successful comedy-variety show and also made a name for himself as the longtime host of To Tell The Truth.
Marlin Hurt as Beulah.
Marlin Hurt (1905-1946) never failed to bring down the house with his entrance as Beulah, the McGees' good-natured black maid. Standing with his back to the microphone when McGee yelled for Beulah, he would suddenly whirl around and shout "Somebody bawl fo' Beulah?" in a falsetto dialect. The effect on the audience was always riotously the same.
Hurt said he patterned his characterization after a black woman who cooked for his family. He worked on imitating her voice in hopes that he might be able to use it in show business someday. Performing for 13 years as part of a stage-and-radio act called Tom, Dick, and Harry, Hurt occasionally got to use his dialect on the air. When one of the members died in 1943, Hurt went solo, and it was during one of these performances that he caught the attention of Don Quinn. With Hurt, not only did he find a talented character, but, at age 39, was beyond the reach of the wartime draft.
So popular was the character that it was reported "Beulah" received letters from black GIs proposing marriage. As with Gildersleeve, the character was popular enough that The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show was spun off in 1945, written by Phil Leslie (Quinn's Fibber cowriter). The new series was off to a fine start, and was almost near the end of its first season when Hurt died suddenly of a heart attack, bringing an early end to the first run.
When the Beulah series returned in 1947, it was with Bob Corley, another white man, in the title role. It wasn't until that fall that Beulah was first played by an African American.
Gene Carroll as Lena the maid
Gene Carroll (1889-1972) had a long history with his Lena character when "she" made her FM&M debut in 1947. Carroll first used the voice on a late '20s Tony Wons broadcast, which another announcer proclaimed was "just like Jake" and invited him and his "girl Lena" back sometime. As Gene and Glenn, he and his partner Glenn Rowell were heard on and off throughout the '30s, ending up with a three year, six night a week quarter hour on NBC. Gene played, in addition to himself, both Jake and Lena, and was very adept at switching between his normal voice and Jake and Lena.
The Gene and
Glenn partnership ended in 1943. Carroll went back into local radio in
Cleveland until the Fibber role brought Lena back to national prominence. From 1948 to 1971, Carroll was a Cleveland television fixture, hosting kids shows (as "Uncle Jake") and The Gene Carroll Show, a Sunday afternoon amateur hour which spawned many local celebrities, over WEWS.
Richard LeGrand as Ole, the Elk's Club janitor
Best known to classic radio fans as Peavey the Druggist on The Great Gildersleeve, Dick LeGrand (1882-1963) became a regular with the Fibber program on February 15, 1949 as Ole, the janitor at the Elk's Club. He stayed with the show through the 15-minute days.
Born in Portland, Oregon, LeGrand first stepped on the stage as a substitute for a missing actor--LeGrand had been working the artificial snow before then--and moved on to musical comedy, tent shows, and vaudeville. A dramatic actor as well as a dialectician, he was frequently heard on One Man's Family and the Hollywood version of I Love a Mystery
LeGrand also appeared as Peavey in three of the R-K-O Gildersleeve movies.