Fame in the 30s, 40s and 50s

by Jim on 24 April 2006

71 years ago this month a historic radio sitcom premiered. Of course, this was before the days of TV – all the popular sitcoms were on radio.

The starring comedy team had some radio experience. In fact, in the past year they had been in two other comedies at the same time. But nothing that came before was going to have the incredible success of this new show.

Throughout the next 15 years, the popularity of the show grew. During the 1940s, the show was frequently the most popular in the United States. The comedy couple was often more popular than such familiar stars as Jack Benny and Bob Hope. For a while there was an ongoing rivalry as this show and Hope’s kept switching places in the ratings between #1 and #2, interesting considering they were vastly different types of comedy, and both were on the same station, one after the other.

In 1949, the show had an estimated 40,000,000 listeners in the United States. That meant that more than 1 in 4 people tuned in each Tuesday night! And unlike many shows in the last century, this comedy team cultivated a cross border relationship with Canada, even performing in Toronto at a packed out Maple Leaf Gardens, 31 October 1945.

Already, in 1937, the comedy team were in the first of a number of movies, which did generally well at the box office. They were featured on toys, their own comic book, and Milton Bradley came out with a series of four board games based around the characters. Many performers that later became famous got their big break on the show, including crooner Perry Como. Lucille Balle made one of her early appearances in one of their movies, long before her popularity as a comedian. The performing couple received honourary doctorates (of law), performed before presidents, and were honoured in many other ways by various groups across the country. Church groups honoured them as well, appreciating their clean comedy and solid values.

After an amazing run of 24 1/3 years, as a weekly and even 5-day-a-week show, as well as a shorter radio spot, the comedy team retired in August 1959. Their most popular show had almost 1600 episodes! Their contribution was enough to earn them a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The network wanted to turn the show into a TV sitcom. The actors were reluctant, feeling that the comedy worked best on radio. So without the actors and writers the network created a TV comedy, which lacked the spark and had a short run.

Characters from the show went on to TV and movies. One of the main characters went on to star with Lucille Balle. Another of the regulars was often featured in Disney movies, including Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Aristocats (1970). The regular music team was featured in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Even the leading man lent his voice to the cartoons as late as 1977 in The Rescuers, and appeared on the 70s TV sitcom Chico and the Man as a special guest.

Considering it was one of the most popular comedies of all time, it’s not surprising the show still has a following today. What is surprising is that more people haven’t heard of the couple. I’ve had occasion to ask audiences how many know their names, and very few do. Part of this may have to do with the weak health of the leading lady. It kept the pace slower than it might have been and, tragically, she died in 1961.

When many other comedy teams continued to make appearances throughout the 60s and 70s, her husband made only rare appearances after the team broke up. Other comedians went on – George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope – but the wild fame of this one brilliant comic team faded more quickly. With a few small changes in the timeline, they might still be household names today. And if I mentioned “That ol’ closet routine”, everyone would know that I was talking about Fibber McGee & Molly, made famous by Jim and Marian Jordan.

Of course, the obvious thing that comes to mind is how quickly fame can fade. I don’t want to undercut the contributions that the Jordans made – frequently promoting a number of worthy causes and promoting solid moral values, even keeping up the morale of the Allies during WWII. Still, its amazing how the craze of yesterday can become nothing but a whisper a generation later (or less!). How quickly we forget those who have come before us, thinking that we’re the only generation that matters.

Looking back 25, 100, 1000 years can give us valuable insight into today. Why is it that so often the things we want the most are the most temporary? What did I spend my time doing this past week? How did it contribute to long term goals? How did it impact eternity?

Jim Jordan died on my 15th birthday. He was 91 years old. A year later, the show was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

Download an episode of the Johnson’s Wax Program with Fibber McGee and Molly below, as an MP3 file, if you’re curious. Remember, this was aired live, and you’ll hear one of the problems that could create early on. The file size is about 5MB. Left clicking may play or download, depending on what plugins you have. Right click to save the file to your computer.

3 May 1949

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