Radio Review: The Fire Chief Show with Ed Wynn

Ed Wynn

Ed Wynn didn’t find film and television success until 1949, by which time he was 63 years old and would continue to take on memorable film and television roles in the twilight of his life.  His most famous roles included being the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney Alice in Wonderland and Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins.  His guest starring work on television would include The Twilight Zone, General Electric Theater, The Red Skelton Show, and 77 Sunset Strip.

However, this all occurred after Wynn’s 63rd birthday. However, Wynn had been performing since 1910. In the early 30s, Wynn began his career over the radio on the Texaco Fire Chief Program. His character was the perfect fool (a.k.a. The Fire Chief.)

The program was the first of three shows to be named after Texaco’s Fire Chief Gasoline. The gasoline was so named because it was certified by the government for use in emergency vehicles and Texaco’s selling point  to the public was its safety and reliability.

The product had little to do with the content of the show, which was pure Vaudeville.  Using announcer Graham McNamee as a straight man, Wynn fired off silly joke after silly joke in his oft-imitated voice. The show’s signature feature was Wynn “re-enacting” a famous opera like Carmen or HMS Pinafore. This would become Wynn’s long term gag and as his telling of Carmen had little bearing on the actual plot, he could re-enacted Carmen every week in later years. Another favorite spot was at the end, Wynn would answer (mostly likely made up) listener questions to hilarious results. In between, Donald Voorhees and his orchestra provide some wonderful musical bridges.

Wynn’s original Fire Chief Program, in my opinion, was not as good as many of the later radio comedy variety show, the Fire Chief of Program is worth listening to for historic reasons.

Most of the circulating episodes are from 1932 and early 1933, with a few from 1935. Old Time Radio from pre-FDR era is pretty rare and earliest episodes of the Fire Chief were recorded in the middle of Prohibition. In the opening of one show McNamee asked Wynn if he’d kept the Commandments this weekend.  Wynn replied, “Don’t be silly Graham, I always keep the commandments. My problem is with the Amendments.” (referring to the 18th Amendment.)

Secondly, Wynn’ s act is pure vaudeville.  Wynn insisted on performing before a live studio audience. Wynn was a consummate entertainer and performer. His son Keenan made the point that Wynn was not a comedian, but a clown, and that distinction shows. Thus, we shouldn’t compare to comedians like Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, or Burns and Allen.  However, as a clown, Wynn was one of the best there ever was. His radio years in the 1930s show him in his prime as a performer and pioneer,which makes this show worth a listen.

Rating 3.5 out of 5.0 stars.

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