Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It's Stupendious! It's Colossal!!

If you've ever wondered what attending a Broadway musical comedy in the 1930s was actually like, The Jumbo Fire Chief Program is probably as close as you'll ever get. In 1935, Billy Rose leased the financially failing 5,200 seat New York Hippodrome for his circus-cum-musical comedy extravaganza Jumbo starring Jimmy Durante. As a way to allay the enormous costs of the production as well as drum up publicity for a show that hadn't yet opened, Rose signed a deal with Texaco to produce a radio serial based on the play that would be broadcast each week live "from the sawdust ring of the New York Hippodrome" and starring all of the principals, right down to the show's numerous specialty acts (because there's nothing like listening to a trapeze act over the radio). The Jumbo Fire Chief Program, which premiered on October 29th, 1935, was a replacement for Ed Wynn's recently cancelled Texaco show and the contrast was stark. Instead of two performers cracking vaudeville gags, a small band, and a close-harmony quartet, the new program was simply the biggest thing on radio, ever, with a budget of $15,000 per episode, a cast of twenty-two, the 35-piece Adolphe Deutch Orchestra, Henderson's 32-voice Singing Razorbacks, the seventeen Allen K. Foster showgirls, and Big Rosie, "Jumbo" herself. Even today, the show manages to capture some of the wonder that still surrounded the medium in 1935; a full 30 minute musical comedy, with dialogue by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and a Rodgers and Hart score, broadcast live from New York to your home every Tuesday night at 9:30. Cutting somewhat into the ambiance was the initial insistence on the part of the producers that the audience of 4,500 neither applaud nor laugh so that the listeners "may better enjoy the program". This meaningless rule happily fell by the wayside and the audience was at least allowed to laugh from the second broadcast onward, probably to Durante's great relief. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, between the live animal acts, trapeze artists, 35-foot puppets, and the Great Depression, Jumbo opened in the red and continued to leak money until it closed six months later. The Jumbo Fire Chief Program, with its low ratings (beaten by far by Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny) and absurd overhead, vanished from the air on January 14, 1936, three months before the close of Rose's super-show. I've uploaded a zip file containing all twelve episodes to this link; that's six free hours of pure vintage Schnozzle goodness! You can thank me by clicking on some of the Terribly Inconspicuous Ads in the sidebar.

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