Saturday, April 14, 2007

Paul Winchell On the Air!

Before he became early television's number one ventriloquist, Paul Winchell spent many (mostly) thankless years in radio, the medium that discovered him. In 1936, Paul, only fifteen and eager to convince his mother of his talent, made his public debut on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour, ultimately winning the competition with an incredible impression of Edgar Bergen (who had made his own radio debut on December 17th of that year). Winchell, painfully shy and nearly overcome with stage fright, froze up before being urged on by the Major, but once he kicked into his Bergen impression, the audience was with him from the start. If his mother wasn't impressed (she wasn't, reportedly), Bowes certainly was and hired Paul to tour with a number of other Amateur Hour winners, giving the young comic some much-needed stage experience. In November, 1943, Paul Winchell was given his own series on the Mutual network. Although John Dunning claims in On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio that Winchell was riding "the crest of the Charlie McCarthy wave", The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show bears little resemblance to Edgar Bergen's hit NBC series, both in format (standard issue sitcom complete with Beulah-esque maid) and laugh quotient. If anything, the sole existing episode sounds like a forerunner of Peter Brough's Educating Archie, with Paul cast as Jerry's mostly humorless surrogate father. It's also interesting to note that Winchell's technique in this July 10th, 1944 episode, while technically excellent, hasn't yet fully matured. Sorely absent are Paul verbal takes to Jerry's comments that would later make their "interaction" so remarkably convincing. Paul Winchell's last regular radio gig actually began the year he first broke into television, 1948. The show, a telephone music quiz on New York station WOR, was apparently begun by famed morning host John Gambling and Paul stepped in as a substitute on July 5th (a July 2nd audition disc exists). Paul must have made a minor hit with the quarter-hour quiz show because the August 26th transcription has its own sponsor, Coronet Magazine. The untitled quiz (Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Calling?) simply consists of Paul, alone in a studio, making calls and playing records. The contestants on the other end of the phone are not wired through so Paul literally holds the program on his own. It's good fun, and Winchell's ventriloquism skills are finally in full bloom here. Since it was transcribed, it seems that someone at WOR may have intended to syndicate the little show, although I wonder if it ever did play outside NYC.

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