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Old-time radio, 14 April: Up and down with "The Aldrich Family"

Katherine Raht (left) and House Jameson, also known as Henry Aldrich's radio parents. Her weekly opening bellow was an old-time radio trademark (and nightmare for gullible teenage boys) for over a decade.
Katherine Raht (left) and House Jameson, also known as Henry Aldrich's radio parents. Her weekly opening bellow was an old-time radio trademark (and nightmare for gullible teenage boys) for over a decade.
NBC

When Kate Smith swatted Rudy Vallee out of 1938-39′s seasonal top ten, it was Vallee’s first such ratings tumble ever in his radio life. The Kate Smith Hour bagged fourth place (14.5 Hooper rating) on the night, pushing her just ahead of Vallee’s 14.4 on a night that was dominated on the season by hour-long variety offerings.

Smith’s variety included a pair of comic slots. One was held by a former burlesque pair named Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, on the threshold of stardom in films and, in time, their own radio series. The other was a series of family sketches written by Clifford Goldsmith (who’d invented the clan by way of the stage show What a Life) and featuring a family likewise on the threshold of radio institutionhood.

The irony: Ted Collins—Kate Smith’s producer, partner, and some said Svengali—had heard both Abbott & Costello and The Aldrich Family as features on the Vallee show a season earlier. No matter. They helped Smith defy the radio gods the following season when she moved to Friday nights.

Under ordinary circumstances, schedule switchings tend to backfire on the switchers. Smith proved a notable exception in 1939-40. She won the Friday night ratings battle, which wasn’t all that competitive to begin with, her 16.8 outpointing First Nighter (15.4, though the light dramatic anthology’s star, Barbara Luddy, would be named favourite actress of the season in a Radio Mirror poll), Lowell Thomas’s news and commentaries (14.5), the Russ Morgan orchestra (12.6), Grand Central Station (11.9), Professor Quiz (11.8), Amos 'n' Andy (10.8), What’s My Name (also a 10.8 for the lighthearted, celebrity-oriented quiz show that helped make a broadcasting fixture out of Arlene Francis), I Love a Mystery (10.6), and Lum & Abner (10.4).

This time, Kate Smith triumphed in spite of losing one of her drawing cards: The Aldrich Family graduated from a mere Smith show sketch to a separate series of its own. Placed on NBC Blue on Tuesday nights at 8:00 pm, the newly-minted half-hour situation comedy finished ninth on the night—crowded out in its own time period by Big Town, The Aldrich Family hauled in a respectable enough 12.2 rating on a night when audiences were waiting for that powerhouse NBC 9:30 hour of Fibber McGee & Molly (first place, 24.8) and Bob Hope (second place, 23.1)

Respectable doesn’t quite equal an institution in the making, ordinarily. But General Foods, sponsoring The Aldrich Family for Jell-O, decided to move the clan from Blue to NBC, furthering the impression that NBC tended to use its Blue Network (before it was forced to spit the network off in an anti-trust action) as a testing ground for prospective Red Network offerings. General Foods also moved the show to Thursday nights, where the Aldrich clan once triumphed in Kate Smith’s company.

It paid off handsomely enough, especially with Fanny Brice & Frank Morgan as their lead-in. The Aldrich Family buried the competition on Thursday night in 1940-41, finishing a runaway first place (22.1) ahead of Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, Brice & Morgan, Kraft Music Hall (with Bing Crosby), Rudy Vallee, Lowell Thomas, H.V. Kaltenborn, Vox Pop, Amos 'n' Andy, and Lanny Rose.

It proved the first of four straight number one finishes on Thursday night, not to mention four straight seasonal top tens overall, plus some number ones when it was moved to Friday nights in 1944-45 and 1945-46. In the latter of those two seasons, the Aldriches (now on CBS) found themselves in the sadly ironic position of being unable to deliver a solid lead-in to Kate Smith; the hefty singer followed the clan at 8:30 pm and had no prayer (10.1) against Duffy’s Tavern (NBC; 12.7).

All good things come to an end and so it was with The Aldrich Family‘s ratings peaks. Moved back to NBC and Thursday nights in 1946-47, the clan fell to fifth on the night despite a rating not far off the evening’s winner (Burns & Allen). By tonight, the clan will be further down in the top ten and barely making the overall seasonal top fifty.

What may escape some people is just how on earth the show even survived, never mind became an institution of a kind. It wasn’t exactly designed as a highbrow offering in the first place, of course, but The Aldrich Family was too much of its own time and place. Never really the pinnacle of domestic humour in the first place, the show simply sounds as though it were dated the day after each episode aired.

Were people really that gullible that they could believe a putzy kid, who left people unable to decide whether to love him or kill him (sometimes in the same sweep), had parents who sounded old enough to be his grandparents?

Did people really look forward to hearing Katherine Raht’s (as mother Alice Aldrich) spine-calcifying show-opening bellow (“Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!”) every week?

And who was the genius who thought this would play well on television (where you got to see a slender but still-whiny kid whose father—House Jameson brought his role as father Sam to television and was practically the only member of the cast who wasn’t part of a revolving door—now looked old enough to be his great-grandfather, almost), which The Aldrich Family sort of did for four years after its radio life pretty much dissipated?

What a life . . .

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

The Aldrich Family: Henry the Shortstop (NBC, 1949)

Alice (Katherine Raht) and Sam (House Jameson) think the good news is Henry (Ezra Stone) bagging the highest grade on the history exam, but Henry has other ideas about what makes good news.

Most assuredly for fans only.

Homer: Jackie Kelk. Kathleen: Jean Gillespie. Agnes: Judith Abbott. Willie: Norman Tokar. Mr. Bradley: Bernard Lenrow. Announcer: Dan Seymour. Music: Jack Miller. Sound: Bill Brinkmeyer. Writers: Norman Tokar, Ed Jurist.

Trivia: Yes, it’s the same Norman Tokar who eventually went on to direct and write for Leave It to Beaver among other television exercises, before making a successful career directing comedies for Walt Disney Studios . . .

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Comedy

Fibber McGee & Molly: Spring Festival Parade (NBC, 1942)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Isabel Randolph, Bill Thompson, Gale Gordon, Harlow Wilcox. Almost by default, since he’s the only one in town with access to a white horse, guess who thinks he’s going to be the parade’s grand marshal? More than enough McGeeing for everyone.

Crime Drama

The Whistler: Maid of Honour (CBS, 1947)—Bill Forman (the Whistler), Lurene Tuttle, Mary Lansing. Radio actress Elaine Brand has to convince the sister of the bride to stand as maid of honour despite her disapproval of the groom-to-be . . . before she learns the bride is dead. Not as soapish as it sounds.

Mystery/Thriller

Lights Out: The Little People (NBC, 1937)—Cast unidenfitied but possibly including Sidney Ellstrom, Tex Maxwell, Raymond Edward Johnson, Templeton Fox. An anthropologist may take a little too much pride in his otherwise well-received film and specimens of an unusual Brazilian headhunting tribe for his own good . . . particularly after specimens of the tribe’s gift for shrinkage, displayed only too vividly, begin talking to him. Typical of the series, and that’s not a terrible thing.