Monday, January 23, 2006

"Tonight the show is gonna be different, Graham!"

I’ve written recently about Jack Pearl, “The Baron Munchausen of the Air”, one of the comedians who, along with Joe Penner, Eddie Cantor, and Ed Wynn, dominated American radio in 1932-34. While Pearl may have been a formidable talent, his rigid adherence to a limited characterization and format doomed him to obscurity in the same way that Joe Penner’s over-dependence on silly catchphrases made him the poster child for flash-in-the-pan celebrities. Ed and Eddie, however, fared much better over time. Unlike Pearl and Penner, both had been household names as Broadway celebrities before ever finding fame on radio. Well after the demise of their radio series, Wynn and Cantor found newfound fame on TV in the early 50s, and Ed Wynn even went on to carve out a new career for himself as a character actor. What they shared, and what Pearl and Penner seriously lacked, were stage personalities that came across to listeners as genuine and warm. In contrast, Jack Pearl and Joe Penner performed characters that were markedly artificial, burdened with self-conscious accents or verbal tics. Cantor, especially, eschewed performance gimmicks on radio, preferring to trade, rather, on his public persona as rags-to-riches underdog and incorporating specifics of his personal life into his act, something that made his listeners feel like trusted confidants. For audiences of the early 30s, Ed Wynn represented the best of both worlds; endearingly clownish and unreal and yet, at the same time, compellingly authentic. In actuality, Ed Wynn’s fluttery stage persona was as much a performance as Pearl’s arrogant German adventurer, but so consistent, well-realized, and attractive was Wynn’s “Perfect Fool” that whether or not he behaved similarly in real life was of little consequence to listeners. For the time, they needed to believe in him.

The catalyst for both the first great flowering of American radio and the tremendous popularity enjoyed by Wynn, Cantor, Pearl, et al, was the Great Depression. The nation’s seemingly insatiable hunger for escapist entertainment catapulted comics who specialized in “nut” acts to unprecedented heights of popularity. The sillier and the more outrageous the better, and none was sillier or more accessible than Ed Wynn. Starting in 1932, at 9:30 on Tuesdays, Wynn dominated the airwaves as The Fire Chief on the ultimate escapist radio series of the Depression. His half-hour show was sponsored by Texaco, and his Fire Chief ‘character’ (Wynn wearing a fire chief’s helmet) a tie-in with Texaco’s Fire Chief gasoline brand. There were no stories and, aside from Ed Wynn and his amiable announcer and straightman Graham McNamee, no recurring characters. What the show delivered were jokes and music. The format, which some critics have called crude and which I prefer to view as elegantly simple, consisted of alternating blocs of vaudeville-style patter between Wynn and McNamee and music from the Fire Chief Quartet and Donald Voorhees and the Fire Chief Band. At the show’s conclusion, McNamee would read joke letters to the Chief, asking his advice on anything from anything from the stock market to rare animals. The show, one of the earliest to be broadcast with an audience, began invariably with Wynn emerging from the wings and saying “I’m the Chief again, Graham, and tonight’s program is gonna be different!” It never really was, of course. As soon as the applause had died down, Wynn and McNamee would immediately launch into a routine.

McNamee: Chief, what did you do over the weekend?

Wynn: Oh, I took a vacation! I went down to the Atlantic Ocean, Graham. I had a room facing the ocean: the Pacific. I went on a two-day fishing trip, y’know.

McNamee: Catch any fish, Chief?

Wynn: Oh, well, the first day I was training the fish to eat off the hook, y’know..

McNamee: Any luck the second day?

Wynn: Well. I caught a flounder but I threw it right back, Graham.

McNamee: Why’d you throw a flounder back?

Wynn: (laughs) Well, I didn’t want a fish that had been stepped on, don’t y’see?

McNamee: The oyster season started down there last month, didn’t it, Chief?

Wynn: No, Graham, it started two months ago!

McNamee: You’re wrong, Chief. The oyster season begins in the first month that has an ‘R’ in it.

Wynn: That’s right.

McNamee: That’s September!

Wynn: No! What about R-gust?

McNamee: You can waste time catching your fish, Chief. I’ll buy mine in the market!

Wynn: Well, I’m glad you said ‘market’, Graham. Really, I’ve got a brand new song I want Don to play about the butcher… the market made me think of the butcher song... The name of it is “Butcher Arms Around Me”!

Ed Wynn, who also wrote the series, allowed it to develop organically. Unlike Joe Penner and Jack Pearl's catchphrases, the running gags and catchphrases on Wynn's Fire Chief program were usually the result of natural on-air flubs. Wynn's famous drawn out "so-o-o-o-o-o" line was initially a goof caused by mike fright that Wynn decided to retain because of the huge laugh it received. Likewise, Graham McNamee flubbed one of his Texaco sales pitches and referred to "Fire Chief gasoloon" leading to a long running gag. Also adding to the sense of naturalism on Wynn's show was his apparent impatience with McNamee's Texaco ads, a sentiment probably shared by most of the audience. Wynn would talk through the backgrounds of McNamee's Texaco pitches, interjecting comments such as "oh, there he goes again" and "You just said that, Graham!". Often, a joke would be worked into the sales pitch helping to make the ad more palatable and also to smooth over the transitions.

In 1933, at the peak of his popularity, Ed Wynn was being tuned-in weekly by nearly half of the nation’s total radio audience, numbers beaten only by Amos N’ Andy, also being broadcast by NBC. But by 1935, the series had been cancelled and, for all intents and purposes, Ed Wynn's radio career was finished. Wynn's downfall has often been ascribed to audiences' rapidly changing tastes in comedy. By the time his Fire Chief program ended, America was warming to the character-based situation comedies of Jack Benny which offered not only gags but stories and large casts of characters. Wynn wasn't exactly incapable of making such a transition as he would later prove, but it never even seems to have occurred to him. All three of his 1935-37 follow-up series, Gulliver, Ed Wynn's Grab Bag, and The Perfect Fool, recycled the Fire Chief format of vaudeville patter and music. But just as likely to have killed Ed Wynn's radio career was the then-unknown concept of media saturation. 1933, Wynn's ratings peak, was also the year MGM released the gruelingly unfunny The Chief, starring Wynn and 'based' on the radio series. It was a legendary box office bomb, one of MGM's all-time worst comedies (and that's saying something!). At the same time, Wynn was making news by attempting to start his own radio network to put unemployed actors and actresses to work, a noble cause killed by financial mismanagement. I find it likely that by 1934, changing tastes or not, people were looking for excuses to not listen to Ed Wynn. Eager for something new, they moved on. Ed Wynn, however, couldn't. For Wynn, the latter half of the 30s were the darkest years of his life. Rejected by his audience, his marriage in ruins, and his star descending on Broadway, Wynn sank into a deep depression. A 1944-45 radio series, Happy Island, was an improvement over his previous network failures as it featured stories and a recurring cast of performers (including a young Jim Backus), but it received poor ratings and was off the air after only twenty-six weeks. It would be another four years before Ed Wynn was finally 'rediscovered' by the new medium of television.

To hear an episode of The Texaco Fire-Chief Program starring Ed Wynn for free, visit here.

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