Old Time Radio 101: Popular Sitcoms and Game Shows

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Amos and Andy

There are few shows from the Golden Age of Radio that have generated more controversy than Amos and Andy, as the two main characters were Black men, but voiced by white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. In addition, there were claims that the show reinforced negative racial stereotypes. Others take a more nuanced view of the radio program and television show by pointing to a universal aspect of its humor and characterization, particularly as the series went on.

There’s a lot that’s debatable about the series, but there’s also quite a bit that’s undeniable. Gosden and Correll pioneered the techniques of radio acting, transitioning from broad methods of playing scenes used by stage actors to more subtle modulations. They worked together in a small studio and weren’t playing to a studio audience. The series was also undeniably popular and long-lasting. It began airing as a daily serial in 1928 and continued until becoming a weekly sitcom and finally a daily program that mixed skits and music called The Amos and Andy Music Hall, which left radio in 1960. Only a few dozen of their 15 years of serialized stories are in circulation, with the bulk of episodes coming from that sitcom era.

Lum ‘n Abner

Two Arkansas childhood friends named Chester Lauck and Norris Goff had established a blackface act that garnered them an audition for a local radio station. Sensing the glut in such acts after the success of Amos and Andy, the two created a new hilbilly act where they played two rural shopkeepers. The characters of Lum and Abner ran the Jot ’em Down Store in the then-fictional town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas. Lum ‘n Abner was a comic soap opera with serialized misadventures keeping listeners tuned in for their homespun humor. Like Gosden and Gorrell, Lauck and Goff were the only ones heard in the studio, although Lauck and Goff voiced even more characters and kept up the practice for most of the program’s serialized run. The serials ran with few interruptions from 1931-48. During the ’30s, its popularity led to the unincorporated Arkansas community that inspired Pine Ridge being renamed from Waters to Pine Ridge, and three other unincorporated communities being renamed after the show.  Unlike Amos and Andy, Lum ‘n Abner‘s transition from daily serial to half-hour weekly sitcom didn’t work, and the weekly series was cancelled after two years in 1950, but Lum ‘n Abner would return for a final serial run for more than a year in 1953. They continued to enjoy popularity, as evidenced by gatherings held of fans from around the country into the twenty-first century through the Lum ‘n Abner Society and also the Lum ‘n Abner Museum and Jot ‘Em Down Store that closed just this year.

Fibber McGee and Molly

Fibber McGee and Molly began in the Depression, but its influence extended for a quarter of a century. The series premiered in 1935 and starred husband-and-wife vaudeville team Jim and Marion Jordan as the titular characters. The show’s lines became part of the culture of the era. It centered around the schemes and exaggerations of Fibber McGee and the trouble it got the pair into. Throughout its run as a 30-minute weekly program, the series boasted a rotating cast of entertaining characters that inhabited the McGees’ hometown of Wistful Vista, such as Mayor LaTrivia (Gale Gordon), Doc Gamble (Arthur Q. Bryan), and of course, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary). The series’s great running gags, such as Fibber McGee’s closet, and repeated lines like, “You’re a hard man, McGee” and “Tain’t funny, McGee” became recognized parts of pop culture. The series was vital to morale on the homefront during World War II. In 1953, Fibber McGee and Molly became a daily serialized program, until 1956 when it became a series of short vignettes on NBC’s Monitor program, which lasted until Marion Jordan passed away in 1959.

The Great Gildersleeve

The Great Gildersleeve was the first great sitcom spin-off.  Gildersleeve began as a character on Fibber McGee and Molly as a foil for Fibber McGee. The character was popular enough to get his own series. So in 1941, he boarded a train from Wistful Vista to Summerfield, where he would take charge of the business affairs of his young adult niece and pre-teen nephew, becoming a surrogate father and eventually a pillar of the community. He would become the town’s water commissioner in Season 2, and be involved in various civic projects and misadventures. Gildersleeve’s family, along with their cook Birdie (Lililian Randolph), and Judge Hooker (Earle Ross), would form the nucleus of the series and a community that would become just as real to listeners as Wistful Vista. The series recast the lead when star Peary was lured away to CBS in 1950. Willard Waterman proved an able replacement. Yet, the series suffered the decline typical of many comedies of the era, with long-term characters disappearing, a 1954 reformat as a serialized comedy, and then going off the air for good in 1958.

Burns and Allen

George Burns and Gracie Allen were a husband-wife comedy team that worked together going back to vaudeville in the 1920s and films in the 1930s. They had their first radio appearance for the BBC in 1929 and began working in radio in the 1930s. There are quite a few circulating radio episodes of their 1930s and early 1940s show, which was a lot of sketch comedy and comedic patter. These programs aren’t bad. In fact, they came up with some clever ideas, like the “Gracie for President” stunt in 1940. But a change was needed, as they were doing the same sort of boy-girl comedy sketches they had done in their twenties and they were both over forty-five. In the fall of 1941, they would move to a sitcom format that centered around George and Gracie playing themselves as a married couple. It was a brilliant, crazy ride. During one period of the show, there was the “Happy Postman”, played by a depressed-sounding Mel Blanc; Gracie had a talking pet duck named Herman who talked like Donald Duck; and Gracie also had her women’s auxiliary, The Beverly Hills Uplift Society. The series had recurring ideas such as Gracie believing George to be the most talented singer to walk the face of the Earth, and announcer Bill Goodwin being a major heartthrob and wolf. Gracie succeeded in drawing a universe of Hollywood stars into whatever craziness was going on, whether it was Alan Ladd, Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Frank Sinatra or Herbert Marshall, and their often against-type performances added to the program’s comedy. The series left radio for television after the 1949-50 season.

Duffy’s Tavern

Duffy’s Tavern starred Ed Gardener as Archie, the manager of the titular tavern. Duffy’s Tavern was promoted as a future series on the 1940 CBS Radio pilot series Forecast, with the series making it to air in 1941. The owner, Duffy, was never seen or heard, but we got Archie’s side of regular phone conversations. The tavern was inhabited by regular supporting characters like Eddie the Waiter (Eddie Green) and Finnegan (Charlie Cantor). Like many other old time radio comedy protagonists, Archie would generate most of the plot with one crazy scheme or another, often leading to the involvement of a celebrity guest. The series left the air at the end of 1951.

Our Miss Brooks

Our Miss Brooks was the most notable role of Eve Arden’s amazing career, as she played Connie Brooks, English teacher at Madison High School. She was doted on by teacher’s pet Walter Denton (Richard Crenna), and constantly found herself at odds with authoritarian principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon), while vying for the affection of “bashful biology teacher” Philip Boynton (Jeff Chandler and later Robert Rockwell).  Unlike other protagonists, Miss Brooks didn’t always cause the craziness around her, but found herself having to deal with the dictatorial whims of Mister Conklin or some overzealous or foolish action by Walter. The series premiered over radio in 1948, it moved to television from 1952-56, and even was turned into a feature film in 1956, but also continued over radio until 1957.

You Bet Your Life

You Bet Your Life was a quiz show hosted by Groucho Marx. The basic gameplay involved Marx asking two contestants a series of questions to win money. If they said the Secret Word of the day, a stuffed duck that had a mustache like Groucho would descend from the ceiling and give the lucky pair $100. The details of the gameplay changed quite a bit over the course of the show’s fourteen-year run, but no one really cares about those details more than sixty years later. The appeal of the series is listening to one of the greatest comedians of all time interview ordinary people and come up with hilarious lines on the spot. The series came to television in 1950 and would continue to be broadcast simultaneously over television and radio until 1960. There have been numerous attempts to revive the concept, most recently with Jay Leno as host in syndication from 2021-2023.

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