“heigh-ho, Everybody!”


I’ll give you the grand climax! About six months after we started broadcasting, I managed to get a four-day booking for the Connecticut Yankees at Keith’s Eightyfirst Street Vaudeville Two-a-Day Theatre, in Manhattan. The Keith Theatre booking agent, Bill McCaffrey, offered us a measly four hundred dollars, but I didn’t argue because I knew what was going to happen. I plugged the Keith Eighty-first Street Theatre opening on all our broadcasts from the club, and, sure enough, on opening day there were lines around the block. They pushed the manager out of the lobby, and on certain songs they cheered and threw things in the air! I don’t think Broadway had ever seen such a theatrical explosion. Before the first night was over I was asked to play the whole Keith chain. I stupidly settled for fifteen hundred dollars a week for fourteen weeks. They would have paid us ten or twelve thousand dollars!

Fame brought you wealth.

And lots of headaches. Personal and professional. I inherited the great gift of sensing the undiscovered spark of greatness in almost anything, but particularly in songs and people. The songs I’ve introduced, the shows I’ve picked or put together, the people I’ve introduced—my record speaks for itself. During my decade with the Fleischmann radio hour, we introduced so many of the performers who went on to stardom that I honestly can’t remember all their names—people like Kate Smith, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Alice Faye, Edgar Bergen, Frances Langford, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, the Mills Brothers, Dorothy Lamour, Orson Welles. I didn’t get them all, of course. The J. Walter Thompson advertising agency had some very perceptive men. But I recognized their great talents and encouraged them, and on the air I was able to help them relax on their first try.

I later managed Alice Faye, Frances Langford, and performers like Victor Borge, who, at the time I met him, had been turned down by every agency and network in Hollywood and was working in a Beverly Hills gas station to support himself. His wife told a Twentieth Century Fox executive, the night I took them to dinner at the exec’s house, that they hadn’t eaten in a day and a half!

But in financial decisions my judgment hasn’t been as consistent. I never had the guidance that Crosby and Hope always had. For instance, I worked for two years for nothing at the Villa Vallée, a supper club that enriched everyone except me. Yes, my boys were well paid. I saw to that. But at the height of my fame I worked for nothing! I didn’t think I needed to read the small print in the contract or have a lawyer do so. Another time, I learned to my sorrow that the NBC executive who handled my finances had disregarded my explicit instructions and invested me heavily in the stock market just before the big crash in 1929. I seldom was paid what I should have been getting in those early years.

Did you have the usual problems with sponsors? For instance, did they dictate the Jormat or content of your radio programs?

No! But I did encounter “creative interference” from the New York Police Department once. My first sponsor in 1928 was the Herbert Jewelry Store in Harlem—one hundred dollars for the eight of us on WMCA Sundays at 2 P.M. for an hour. To attract attention to the store I made up what may have been the first too-believable commercial in radio history. It began with a clock striking midnight, then some gun shots and a policeman’s whistle. The commercial message was contained in some sparkling dialogue between an Irish patrolman (me) and his sergeant (our first violinist) praising Mr. Herbert’s jewelry as so dazzling they couldn’t blame the thieves for wanting to steal it. You see, I was just ahead of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds.” Once was enough for the New York police, who complained to our sponsor.

There was—and still is—a lot of sponsor pressure on entertainers, but I have always been extremely grateful to Standard Brands, the makers of Fleischmann’s Yeast, for the artistic freedom I was given during our long association. Nobody, not even the J. Walter Thompson Agency, ever tried to tell us what songs or what tempo to play, and no sponsors’ wives ever contributed any “helpful” suggestions, and there weren’t any creep executives looking over our shoulders. Considering that our first broadcast for Standard Brands was made two nights after Black Tuesday, when the stock market crashed in 1929, the absence of any interference from our sponsor had to have been unusual, and we stayed on the air—every Thursday night on NBC, from eight to nine, Eastern Standard Time—for 520 consecutive weeks—ten solid years!

At first they paid us $2,500 a show, and we were the top sensational show of the air, which left me $1,200 after paying the band and commission. For the first two years we concentrated on our music, my vocals, and one guest artist, like Jeanette MacDonald, who performed in three “spots” during the hour. Later we broadened the format into a variety show that included comedians, excerpts from Broadway shows and plays, and interviews which I conducted with different types of persons. One week I would talk with Sherman Billingsley about running the Stork Club; another time I had a sandhog tell how his faith in God gave him the courage to work under the Hudson River on the Holland Tunnel. And we did unusual things, too, such as presenting Fred and Adele Astaire tap-dancing on radio.