Friday, March 30, 2012

Going Back to Summerfield with the Great Gildersleeve

When I was first introduced to the Great Gildersleeve so many years ago, I loved the show immediately. A local station in Seattle was playing old time radio shows late at night and the station would occasionally broadcast an episode of the series. There were also those crazy appearances Gildersleeve would make on the Fibber McGee and Molly program (another series the radio station ran even more frequently.) The specific programs I heard were hilarious and I became an instant fan. Then something happened. Many years later I became tired of the show or the character . . . or something. I no longer cared for the program. Admittedly, I wasn't even really listening anymore. I would turn on the program and it always seemed to be in the middle of Gildersleeve singing with the Jolly Boys -- again! My interest in listening to the programs had faded. Whenever it came on the air I would do something else. It's kind of a shame because now that it's ten years later I have to wonder to myself, what was I thinking? This is a great radio series! Having given the show a good listen again I have discovered that the writing is good and the characters are well developed. For this listener anyways, the town of Summerfield has a strong resemblance to Mayberry (the town featured in the Andy Griffith TV series a few years later). I found both towns very charming and places that I would actually visit if they were actually towns that existed. Gildersleeve was the water commissioner in the town of Summerfield but when we first got to know him he was a resident of Wistful Vista and a regular character on the Fibber McGee and Molly program. "Wistful Vista! Coming to Wistful Vista! the conductor announces as the train arrives in the small but very well known town.
"Oh Wistful Vista!" excitedly exclaims an older lady passenger as she inquires "where Fibber McGee and Molly live?" "Yes Madam" answers the conductor. "Oh My! You think I will be able to see them from the train window?" "No Lady, the McGee's are on their vacation" answers the conductor. Quickly realizing the disappointment of the passenger, the conductor point out to her., "But say, there's a next door neighbor of their's, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve . . . And so opened the first episode of The Great Gildersleeve broadcast on August 31, 1941. We are next introduced to Gilderlseeve standing on the train deck talking to his Gildersleeve Girdle works employees who have come down to the station to see their boss off. One employee is heard to ask "How long will you be gone TP? "Just till the end of the week" answers Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve was off to summerfield to adminster the Estate of his brother in law and the affairs of his niece, Marjorie, and nephew, Leroy Forrester. Marjorie was 19 or 20 and Leroy was 12. Gildersleeve would never make it back to Wistful Vista except for an occasional visit and the program would become one of the most popular radio shows on the air running until March 21,1957. But who was this Gildersleeve character who delighted radio audiences for so many years? Back in the 1930s Don Quinn, the creator of Fibber McGee and Molly, wanted a new character on the show and created Gildersleeve. Cliff Arquette played an early Gildersleeve character on April 13, 1936. On the broadcast of May 4th,1936 the character was given the first name of Cliff. It would be two years before the name Gildersleeve would be used again and would then be played by Hal Peary. Peary joined the show in 1937 and became a regular stooge on the McGee show. . He played many different roles before he started playing various characters all names Gildersleeve. He was Widdicomb P. Gildersleeve, president of the baby carriage factory on September 20, 1938, an optometrist, Donald Gildersleeve on April 25, 1939 and later a dentist, Leo Gildersleeve. Hal Peary came from San Francisco radio where he was a singer and an actor. Hal lived on a street called Throckmorton Place in Chicago at the time and writer Don Quinn took the name for the character. On October 17, 1939 the radio audience was introduced to Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve lived right next door to Fibber McGee and Molly. The relationship between Gildersleeve and Fibber was a mix of good old pals quickly turning into neighborly feuding and rivalry producing some of the funniest moments on the show. The famous Gildersleeve laugh came about on Fibber McGee and Molly also. Hal had used the laugh previously during his days in San Fransisco radio. On one McGee live broadcast when the show was running short, the director signaled the cast to "stretch" which means slow down or add dialogue. Noticing the direction, Hal added tehe "San Fransisco" laugh while reading opposite Jim Jordan. The laugh received a great response from the audience and Jim Jordan signaled for him to do it again. There was thunderous laughter and a signature laugh was born. Gildersleeve would become the main comedy foil to Fibber until 1941. At that time an executive of Johnson's Wax wanted to create a new summer replacement series for Fibber McGee and Molly and considered building the show around the Gildersleeve character. Johnson's Wax produced an audition in May 1941 starring Hal Peary with Harlow Wilcox as the announcer. It's basically the same script that was used on the first Gildersleeve show of August 31, 1941. One big difference was that the character of Marjorie was named Evelyn in the audition. The company, Johnson's Wax decided to go with Ransom Sherman for the summer time replacement instead. The executive who created the Gildersleeve show was upset and instead sold the program to Kraft Foods. Kraft would own the show until 1954. Hal Peary would star and stayed with the show until the end of the 1949-1950 season. During the famous CBS talent raids of the late 1940s a deal was made with Hal Peary to go over to CBS from NBC. Unfortunate for Peary, the Kraft company, who owned the show, did not want to leave NBC, thus Hal was left without a program. A new program was quickly developed for Hal Peary and began in the fall of 1950 on CBS titled Honest Harold. It sizzled quickly and only lasted and only lasted one year. Hal left Hollywood for New York where he became a Disc Jockey. ( ed note: All the "Honest Harold" shows are in the REPS CD library ). Willard Waterman took over the Gildersleeve part on September 6,1950 and remained until March 21, 1957. Willard was a Chicago based radio actor who worked on many shows with Hal Peary during the 1930s. In fact when finding themselves part of the same cast of a program they would get together before the program to decide which of them would use a high voice and who would use a low pitch. This was necessary so that they would not sound too much alike on a program so as not to create confusion for the listening audience. They sounded so much alike otherwise. This of course was an asset to NBC when Waterman took over the Gildersleeve role as many listeners never noticed that there was a change.

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