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With Fibber McGee And Molly:
FIBBER McGEE and MOLLY
Read G. Burgan
Jim and Marion Jordan were born and raised in America's heartland. They transported their mid-American values into the living rooms of America and became radio's number one comedy couple -- Fibber McGee and Molly.
James Edward Jordan was born in a farm house near Peoria, Illinois, on November 16, 1896. He and his three brothers and three sisters moved to the city of Peoria when Jim was twelve. He was raised in Catholic schools and sang in the church choir, where on a cold December day in 1915 he met Marian Driscoll.
Marian was born only a few miles away from the Jordan farm on April 5, 1898. Like Jim she had three sisters, but nine brothers. Marian displayed musical aptitude at an early age. She played piano and violin and sang. Jim, too, possessed musical talent and sang tenor in a male vocal trio that was popular in the Peoria area.
Jim and Marian put off marriage while Jim sought permanent employment. His heart was in show business and in the fall of 1917 he sang tenor with a vaudeville group called " A Night With The Poets." The group toured a regional vaudeville circuit in the United States and Canada before ending in the spring of 1918 after more than 200 performances.
Jim became a local mail carrier and married his beloved Marian on August 31, 1918. A week later Uncle Sam drafted the new groom. It was World War I. While in the service Jordan organized an entertainment group that toured military hospitals in France.
After his release from the army, Jordan tried a number of different jobs: mechanic in a machine shop, selling life insurance, clerking in a department store. None of these satisfied the restless Jordan and repeatedly he and Marian drifted in and out of the entertainment world as aspiring musicians. They did moderately well, but touring was incompatible with the kind of family life the Jordan's envisioned.
In the 1920's radio was in its infancy and Chicago was rapidly becoming one of the major production centers for the burgeoning radio industry. In 1925 radio station WIBO hired the Jordans for ten dollars a week to sing on a program called: The Jordans, Marian and Jim. She played piano and both sang. Neither spoke a word over the air during their initial six months on radio.
From 1925 to 1931 the Jordans appeared in a variety of programs on several Chicago radio stations. They continued to dabble in vaudeville and used their radio appearances to announce their vaudeville engagements. During this time the Jordans began to discover they had a talent for storytelling. Marian experimented with the characterization of a little girl; Jim with a character who told outrageous tall tales.
By 1931 the Jordans were in demand in the Chicago radio community. Both together and separately they appeared in several on-going series including Three Doctors, Mr. Twister, Mind Trickster and Kaltenmeyer's Kindergarten. They made guest appearances on The Saturday Night Jamboree, NBC's National Farm and Home Hour and Don McNeill's Breakfast Club.
Perhaps the most important step in their professional development was their new series Smackout, which began on March 2, 1931 on Chicago's WMAQ. This fifteen minute program was aired Monday through Saturdays. Here the Jordan's developed many of the characters which they later perfected on their Fibber McGee and Molly program. And here they began a lifetime association with Don Quinn.
Quinn was a cartoonist and joke writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He had a fertile imagination and was a gifted writer. It was the Jordan's and Quinn who together developed the concept for Smackout. In this series, Luke Gray (played by Jim Jordan) was the owner of a country store located at Smackout Corners. When customers came looking for an item, Gray was always "smackout" of whatever they wanted. The one thing he never lacked was an abundance of tall tales.
Marian developed the character of Teeny, Luke's precocious little friend. She also played a variety of other characters including Mrs. J. High Hat Upson, The Widow Wheedledeck and Bertha Boop. Before the series ended, Jim and Marian had portrayed more than 150 characters. McGee's famous utterances "Dat rat it!" and "Ah, pshaw!" were first spoken by Luke Gray on Smackout.
Two events combined to enhance the prospects of Jim and Marian Jordan. On November 1, 1931, NBC bought radio station WMAQ. And in 1934 the Tony Wons radio program sponsored by the Johnson Wax Company was discontinued. Looking for a new vehicle to promote their products, the Johnson Wax Company decided to give Jim and Marian Jordan their own network program.
The Fibber McGee and Molly program debuted on April 16, 1935 from NBC's Studio 8-H in New York. From the very beginning Don Quinn was hired to write the series, but the Johnson Wax Company insisted on having total control over both the program's story line and the commercials. Since the company's primary product at this time were auto polish products, the ongoing story line featured a middle age couple touring the country in their car.
After four weeks the program returned to Chicago and continued there until 1939. Fortunately in the fall of 1935 the Johnson Wax Company decided to promote its new line of floor wax products. On August 26, 1935 the McGees purchased a home in Wistful Vista thus setting the stage for the format that would characterize the program for the next 20 years. The McGee home and the constant flow of neighbors, friends and relatives became the focal point of the program. In a recent Old Time Radio Digest on the Internet, someone raised the question, "Was Wistful Vista a street or a town?" A good question since the McGees lived at 77 Wistful Vista. The answer is that it was both.
It's difficult to pinpoint what made the Fibber McGee and Molly show so successful. In part, because its success was synergistic, one in which the whole was greater than the total of its parts. But each of the parts played an important contribution. Not the least was the creative writing of Don Quinn who created a ever increasing stable of wacky characters.
The Jordans would meet with Quinn on Fridays to explore ideas for the next week's show. The process would continue through the weekend. On Mondays the entire cast would read through Quinn's script which was often accepted without change. On Tuesday evening, the cast would convene in a small conference room off the studio at 5:30 pm and read through the script one final time before going on the air for the half hour broadcast at 6:30 pm Pacific time. Occasionally last minute changes based on cast members' suggestions would be inserted in the script.
Jim and Marian Jordan were consummate performers. While the name Fibber suggested a character given to telling tales, McGee was much more. He was an inveterate braggart who felt he had the answer to any problem and who could invent devices destined to make him a millionaire while solving some of the world's most pressing problems -- like the time he invented an automobile ignition lock that ejected the key when it was turned off so that people wouldn't leave their keys in the car for teens eager to steal a car for joyriding. Jim Jordan had a wonderful ability to rattle off long silly alliterations that would have tangled the tongue of almost anyone else.
Marian, too, was a wonderful performer. She portrayed Molly with an ever so subtle melodious Irish brogue. She always had the measure of McGee and was quick to puncture his balloon or predict disaster when he embarked on one of his zany schemes. At the same time she quickly flew to his defense if anyone else attempted to belittle him.
Early in their radio career Molly became adept at portraying a wide variety of characters. On the Fibber McGee and Molly program most of the other characters were played by other actors, but Molly continued and perfected her portrayal of Teeny, the little girl from next door who regularly bedeviled McGee. As a general rule, the character of Molly was never present when Teeny appeared. There was no practical reason why Marian couldn't have portrayed both in a radio dialogue, but this helped to preserve the illusion that Teeny was in fact a real little girl with no connection to Marian or anyone else on the program. For some of us, the secret became known only when we saw Marian portray both in one of their motion picture appearances. In later years the subterfuge was carried even further when the closing announcement delineating the cast of characters stated, ". . . and Teeny was played by (pause) . . . Teeny." Even today Marian Jordan's portrayal of Teeny fools listeners. A recent posting on the Old Time Radio Digest asked, "Does anyone know who played the little twerp that badgered McGee with, "I betcha, I betcha."
It would be a simplification to say that Fibber McGee and Molly and Jim and Marian Jordan were simply extensions of each other. But their lives were curiously intertwined. Both couples were devoted to one another. At the end of each broadcast Jim and Marian would reach out and quietly hold each others hand. Off mic, they were very private and spent most of their time together at home, raising their children and engaging in favorite hobbies.
Over the years the Fibber McGee and Molly program was blessed with a wonderful cast of supporting actors. Bill Thompson was only 23 years old when he joined the Fibber McGee cast in 1936. He played several characters through the years including The Old Timer and Horatio Boomer. But he was best known for his milquetoast portrayal of Wallace Wimple, the classic hen pecked husband. Our current concern for spousal abuse blunts the humor of these sketches, but at the time his descriptions of his "big old wife, Sweetie Face" and her constant antics were hilarious. She was frequently throwing him against walls and ceilings while training the sheriff's department in self defense. Wimple's refuge was his bird book and Walter Mitty-like dreams of revenge on his terrible wife. Molly liked to say, "She may have all the brawn, but he has all the brains."
Whipple's wife Sweetie Face was one example of Don Quinn's ability to create characters who were described and talked about but never actually heard. Myrt the telephone operator was another. Almost every time McGee made a phone call he'd end up saying, "Oh, is that you Myrt? And how's every little thing?" Then he'd hold a one sided conversation with the imaginary Myrt.. She was a regular on the program who was played by no one.
Arthur Q. Bryan played the role of Doc Gamble beginning in 1943. He and McGee regularly traded good natured insults. Bryan also played Floyd the barber on the Great Gildersleeve program and the role of Professor Warren on the Halls Of Ivy series.
When Gale Gordon joined the Fibber McGee program in 1939, he was already 34 years old and an established radio actor. But up until this time he was known for his dramatic roles. The Fibber McGee program gave him his first experience in comedy, and he played the pompous, stuffed shirt to perfection. As Mayor LaTrivia he was forever being led into tongue twisting fits of rage. He later played weatherman Foggy Williams on the McGee series. His ability to play the pompous twit landed him many comedy roles in the decades that followed, including Osgood Conklin on our Miss Brooks, Mr. Wilson on the Dennis the Menace television series and numerous appearances on the later Lucy television series.
Even the announcer played an important role in the program. Fibber McGee and Molly was one of the first radio programs to successfully integrate the commercial messages right into the body of the program. Harlow Wilcox was more than the sponsor's spokesman, he was a regular character in the series and McGee would playfully refer to him as "Waxy". Listeners would wait expectantly and appreciatively to see how he would manage to slip the sponsor's message into yet another broadcast. On several broadcasts writer Quinn even made Wilcox the subject of an ongoing comedic situation when he could no longer pronounce "linoleum." How do you promote a product for waxing floors when you can't even pronounce a key word? It was good for at least two shows worth of laughs.
Music played an important role, too. In the beginning of their career, the Jordans sang and played, but did no talking. Once the Fibber McGee and Molly program took hold, the Jordans ceased singing and concentrated on comedy. In 1936 the studio orchestra featured the Ted Weems' band and singer Perry Como. Orchestra leader Billy Mills took over the musical responsibilities in 1938. The Mills orchestra included many talented musicians including Spike Jones and pianist Buddy Cole.
During the early years, the program featured a number of vocal groups, but in 1940, The Kings Men male quartet became a permanent fixture on the program. The quartet had been founded by Ken Darby while he was a student at Chapman College. Darby was a composer and arranger and his novelty arrangements for the group suited the McGee program well. The Kings Men and the Billy Mills orchestra each provided one number on nearly every show. At various times Darby was under contract to MGM, Walt Disney studios and 20th Century Fox.
McGee's closet was one of radio's longest running sound gags. People would wait expectantly for McGee to say, "I'll get it for you. It's right here in the closet." Followed by Molly's cry, "McGeeeeeee...., Don't open that closet." Too late. By the time the words were out of her mouth, the door was open and the fun had begun. For what seemed like an endless amount of time listeners heard almost every imaginable item tumble out of that closet. The studio audience knew the truth. McGee's closet consisted of an eight foot step ladder with all kinds of junk piled on each step. The sound man would sweep the junk off, one step at a time.
Don Quinn knew how to milk a joke for all its worth, when to subtly change it and when to let it lie dormant for a while. The program could go for several weeks without reference to the closet. Sometime he'd change it by having one of McGee's visitors open it and then it was McGee himself who would holler, "Don't open that door!" And on very rare occasions McGee would pull open the closet door to total silence. The proud McGee would then exclaim, "I just cleaned that thing out yesterday." Fortunately it didn't stay clean long.
The Jordans won many accolades for their portrayal of Fibber McGee and Molly. By 1949 an estimated 40 million people listened to their program. On April 15, 1948, St. Joseph's College in Collegeville, Indiana, bestowed honorary doctors of law degrees on the Jordans.
As radio began to lose ground to its one eyed rival television, The Fibber McGee and Molly program was altered from a once-a-week half hour show to a five-times-a-week fifteen minute show. The Kings Men quartet, the Billy Mills' orchestra and the studio audience were eliminated. The only regulars retained were Arthur Q. Bryan and Bill Thompson, supplemented by supporting guest actors. March 23, 1956 was the last regular broadcast of the McGee program.
However, in June of 1955 NBC inaugurated a bold new network radio service called Weekend Monitor. In its original form it ran from 8:00 am Saturday morning until midnight Sunday. Weekend monitor was a sort of free-form program containing a whole host of unrelated short features.
In 1957, Jim and Marian Jordan were invited to reprise their Fibber McGee and Molly program in a series of five minute sketches on Weekend Monitor. Five were aired on Saturdays and five more on Sundays. These programs were recorded at Radio Recorders Studio in California and shipped to New York. They continued these vignette versions of their program until September of 1959. Some of these sketches were re-aired in 1960 and 1961 over Weekend Monitor.
In 1960 NBC proposed that the Jordan's once again take up the Fibber McGee mantle for Weekend Monitor. But Marian Jordan's health had always been fragile. In the fall of 1937 her physician committed a critically ill Marian Jordan to a sanitarium and she didn't return to the program until almost two years later in April of 1939. During the beginning of that illness Jim Jordan concluded each program with a special message to his wife like, "Hurry back Molly" -- until the FCC pointedly reminded NBC that their regulations prohibited any point-to-point communication on any regular scheduled program on commercial radio frequencies. Reluctantly Jordan dropped his personal messages to his beloved Marian.
As the Jordan's pondered NBC's offer in 1960, a physical examination revealed that Marian had an inoperable ovarian tumor. Marian Jordan died on April 6, 1961. It's interesting to note the relatively short life spans of several McGee cast members: Marian Jordan, 63; Bill Thompson, 58; Arthur Q. Bryan, 60; Marlin Hurt (Played the maid, Beulah), 40; Harlow Wilcox, 60.
On the other hand, Gale Gordon died last year (1995) at the age of 90 and it seems poignantly fitting that Jim Jordan died on April 1, 1988, at the age of 91 -- Surely April Fool's Day is a fitting memorial to one of radio's greatest tellers of tall tales.
-- THE END --
For further reading: Heavenly Days! The Story of Fibber McGee and Molly, Charles Stumpf and Tom Price, The World of Yesterday, Route 3, Box 263-H, Waynesville, NC, 28786 1987.
Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at AH746@detroit.freenet.org.