It's an important night for Jack Benny and, a few years later, a special premiere night for Mr. and Mrs. Radio . . .
Tonight is the night for which CBS, the American Tobacco Company, the star himself, and industry insiders have awaited with a combination of the proverbial baited breath and an equal case of nerves: Jack Benny's CBS premiere.
Although there were business considerations for Benny making the move—primarily CBS chieftain Bill Paley being willing to buy Benny's show as a package from Benny's Amusement Enterprises, Inc.—the actual impetus may have been more personal.
NBC chieftain David Sarnoff had never met Benny at all, never mind during negotiations that might have kept Benny on NBC. That might have been endured, however, had Sarnoff not authorised for NBC's negotiating team a sort-of staff attorney who had an extremely unpleasant history with the genial comedian.
Sarnoff practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing to negotiate with Benny in the first place, considering his attitude about Amusement Enterprises and other similar star-formed production companies. But authorising John Cahill as one of the team proved an extremely expensive mistake for NBC.
Cahill had been a federal prosecutor (he brought, among others, the first of the convictions that would bring mob legend Lepke Buchalter to the electric chair) who prosecuted Benny on a nebulous jewelry smuggling charge in 1939. Benny and George Burns, buying jewelry for their wives on a European jaunt, were seduced by a man promising to get the jewels to the U.S. through diplomatic channels, the better to save on onerous duties, but the man turned out to be a con and a professional smuggler—to the two comedians' shock.
It was Cahill's in-court treatment of Benny in particular during the subsequent trial that broiled Benny. Cahill took every opportunity to dress Benny down as a common crook, almost as though trying to drive Benny into prison for no crime more grave than trusting the wrong man. Benny and Burns ultimately paid a fine in the case, but Benny never forgot Cahill's over-the-top treatment. When he saw Cahill on the NBC negotiating team in 1948, he simply refused to have anything further to do with the network.
Which probably shocked anyone who knew Benny: there was probably no more loyal individual in show business.
But Bill Paley didn't get his man merely because of a negotiating insult. Paley convinced Benny he believed as Sarnoff didn't: that people don't tune their radios to networks first, they tune them to hear whom or what they want to hear, the network be damned, more or less. That all but sealed the CBS deal.
The lone remaining obstacle was the American Tobacco Company, for whose Lucky Strike Benny's been making a small fortune. They were nervous about any revenue loss should Benny's rating on CBS come in any lower than his NBC ratings. Paley daringly agrees to indemnify American Tobacco if Benny's Hooper on CBS comes in lower than his best Hooper on NBC in 1947-48—to the tune of $1,000 per rating point lost, if any were lost.
No one needs to worry. Tonight, Benny will haul down better than his best NBC rating and average higher for the rest of the season on CBS than he averaged in the first half on NBC. Benny will finish the season with a 22.9—making for CBS's first Sunday night winner since Eddie Cantor a decade and a half earlier. He'll also yank Amos 'n' Andy—the first defection in Paley's talent raid a year earlier—a little higher in the top ten, since Benny proves their lead-in.
And Benny's CBS success will enable him to convince Paley to continue luring other NBC stars across the bridge, including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Red Skelton, and Burns and Allen . . . not to mention luring Bing Crosby and (for the time being) Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life from ABC.
Long lagging in comedy ratings, CBS now has breathing room to continue shepherding the in-house comedies they'd already launched, until they, too, prove formidable ratings champions even as radio ratings overall begin losing, little by little, to television. No matter. The Benny crossover will help CBS become the early television power in the bargain, and David Sarnoff's cavalier stances would cost NBC millions in revenues.
And Jack Benny will spend the rest of his life as a broadcasting regular on CBS, continuing his singular radio show until 1955 while overlapping to television, where he'll be a CBS fixture until his unceremonious dumping—by notorious CBS television president Jim Aubrey—in favour of Gomer Pyle, USMC in 1965.
So how does Benny spend his first Sunday night on CBS? Recapping the ride to the studio in the first place, during which Benny is a nervous wreck who can barely admit it, the Maxwell (Mel Blanc, who also plays the CBS doorman) can barely go twelve miles an hour before Benny fumes about speeding, Bill Paley replaces Hedy Lamarr in Benny's dreams, the car is pulled over by a particularly gloating police officer (Frank Nelson), and Amos and Andy themselves (Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll) wish him luck. (“Jus' like I told you, Amos—he ain't nothin' without Rochester!”)
CBS western division chief Donald Thornberg makes a guest appearance. Cast: Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Herb Vigran. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra, the Sports Men. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.
Network radio still has a decade to go before its corpse is laid to rest at last; arguably, the patient dies somewhere between 1951 and 1953, when the big advertising budgets fall almost completely toward television. The irony is that some of the best old-time radio will be created, produced, and performed between 1953 and 1962, mostly because many of the medium's best such creators stay aboard because they love it deeply enough.
Two of those—husband and wife since 1943, occasional co-workers over the same period—work up one of the best, and shortest-lived, dramatic anthologies. On Stage is the formal title, but it airs as Cathy and Elliott Lewis On Stage, and the air designation seems only too appropriate.
It is not for nothing that the Lewises have earned an inside nickname of Mr. and Mrs. Radio. Both have made reputations as versatile actors capable of playing just about any character in any mode, from leading characters to psychopathic stooges and back to quiet supporters, with singular flair. Elliott Lewis has also made a reputation as a deft producer and director, not to mention playing the comic role of a lifetime as the drink-a-minute solvent Frankie Remley on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, while Cathy Lewis also holds a regular slot as sensible Jane on My Friend Irma.
When the Lewises conceive On Stage, Elliott Lewis is also producing and directing Suspense and Broadway is My Beat, and the couple begins creating their Haven Radio Productions (after their Beverly Hills home) to deliver once CBS gives them approval in late 1952. They draw upon their fellow Radio Row performers in southern California for support, and engage Broadway is My Beat's writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin, plus E. Jack Neuman and Shirley Gordon, to write scripts anchored in male/female interaction in which each partner has particular strength.
The good news is that On Stage will garner some of the best reviews of the Lewises' careers, both in the show's own too brief era and through historical retrospective, such as that of John Dunning:
On Stage was a groundbreaking dramatic series capping the radio careers of Cathy and Elliott Lewis. It came in what might have been a watershed era but was instead radio's last hurrah . . . People still wanted to work in radio: they remained because it was a dear first love, terminally ill, and soon to disappear . . . people who loved what they were doing: some would mourn its final loss so deeply that they spoke of it reluctantly even two decades later. It was in this time that the Lewises produced On Stage, by some accounts the best radio anthology ever heard.
The bad news is that you won't be able to know it by the show's precise rating. Because the show was aired on a sustaining basis, with no commercial sponsor, Neilsen kept no track of its performance. (It can't have helped that the show would shift nights back and forth, between Thursday and Wednesday, for the nine months it airs.) And, unless recordings unearth in due course, it will appear that only twelve episodes will survive for hearing by 21st Century listeners.
The worst news will be the Lewises' marriage ending three years after On Stage does (though their careers will continue apace, even into television), and ten years before Cathy Lewis will die of cancer at 50. Elliott Lewis will re-marry, to radio veteran Mary Jane Croft (who performs roles in On Stage, among numerous other radio credits), until his own death of heart disease at 72.
Tonight: A New York wife (Cathy Lewis) proud of the attention women give her advertiser/pianist husband (Elliott Lewis) lures him into remembering how they romanced in the first place—and wearing the string bow tie that helped bring them together on an earlier advertising shoot—until a jealous husband (Sheldon Leonard) kidnaps them on the way to a New Year's Eve celebration.
Mrs. Bailey: Mary Jane Croft. Woman on Subway: Martha Wentworth. Additional cast: Vivi Janiss, Byron Kane. Announcer: George Walsh. Music: Lud Gluskin, Fred Steiner. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writers: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.