Friday, December 2, 2011

Five Brief Book Reviews

Looking for something to buy this Christmas?

The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV's Golden Age
by Jordan R. Young

For an oral history of radio drama, interviews are far and few considering most of what's been recorded is now in circulation. Unpublished interviews are a treat and I suspect that there are other individuals who conducted interviews with celebrities and are still sitting on them. And for historians, assembling a biography or history on the genre, with no first-hand accounts to rifle, collected interviews are a writer's bets friend in his research. Word to the wise: take everything spoken with a grain salt. Hal Roach, telling colorful stories for Kevin Brownlow's Hollywood documentary, was lying through the seat of his pants. One director of radio programs from the Golden Age of Radio attempted to twist the truth one day, when I was interviewing him on the phone, and discredit an actor who certainly had more credentials than the director gave him. So when people like Jordan R. Young compiles a book of exclusive interviews he conducted over a period of years, I welcome such a tome with open arms. 

Instead of interviews with the celebrities, his book focused on the script and gag writers for such luminaries as Bob Hope, Ozzie and Harriet, Ed Gardner, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Jack Parr and many others. Sol Salks recounts his days working for Red Skelton. Larry Gelbart held nothing back when talking about Duffy's Tavern and Command Performance. Hal Kanter recalled how he write a joke about a milk bath for Joe Penner, and three weeks later, heard the same joke delivered on The Judy Canova Show. He was furious about it. His friend gave him good advice. "Don't be. Just be flattered that somebody's taken your joke. If it's the last joke you can think of -- then worry."

Bob Weiskopf revealed a darker side of Eddie Cantor. Irving Brecher talked extensively about The Life of Riley and his relationship with the Marx Bros. Parke Levy worked with all the greats, Jack Pearl, Joe Penner, Ben Bernie, Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, and Abbott and Costello. But besides the funny stories, the stiff competition between gag writers, the difficulty of getting paid what they were worth, the benefits to graduating from script writing (Hollywood and Television careers), how the gag writers never got credit on most programs (that was reserved for the star of the show) and more importantly, for historical purposes, how they got into show biz. I really wish there were more books like this. Each interview spans between 20 and 30 pages. A number of interview books have come out over the years and while I acknowledge those efforts, the interviews were too short, lasting between three and six pages. I always suspected the authors wanted to cram as many interviews into the book as possible, but I prefer lengthy interviews that divulge much more. Heck, I'd rather buy three books with 18 lengthy interviews than one book with 18 short interviews. Good job, Mr. Jordan.

Well! Reflections on the Life and Career of Jack Benny
edited by Michael Leannah

This collection of rare and delightful essays and personal reminiscences on a great comedian reveals his impact on the world of entertainment, through cartoon spoofs, the Benny-Allen feud, the women in his life and his Hollywood career. Recollections and stories from people who Benny personally are always enjoyable. Frank Bresee recalled a great story how Jack Benny saved the career and job of Johnny Grant, honorary mayor of Hollywood. 

The authors of each chapter knew their subject and each of them certainly did their research. Philip G. Harwood wrote a great chapter about Jack Benny's Hollywood career. Pam Munter explored Benny's vaudeville career and until I read her piece, I never knew at the time of his death in 1974, Benny was slated to play one of the leads in The Sunshine Boys. Noell Wolfgram Evans covered the Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud, recounting some of the funniest one-liners including: "The only time Benny ever left a tip was when he couldn't finish his asparagus."

A reprint of an essay written by Jack Benny from the November 1935 issue of Radio Stars magazine reveals the comedian's attempt to be funny without script writers. Marc Reed explored Mel Blanc's friendship with Jack Benny. Michael J. Hayde and Derek Tague explored Jack Benny, the cartoon star. Revisiting the classic animated gems that spoofed Jack Benny such as I Love to Singa (1936) and Duffy Duck and the Dinosaur (1939), explanations for jokes referring to specific radio broadcasts are a plus. 

Example of how plucking photos off the web isn't a great idea.
My only complaint is the photographs. They vary from the covers of vintage comic books, movie posters, vintage advertisements and scans of celebrity autographs. While this certainly is plus, a number of them were plucked from the internet. One photograph on page 156 has a camera icon on the bottom right corner, suggesting it was plucked from an eBay auction. I am not sure who supplied the photos to the publishing company, but this resulted in some of the photographs appearing pixeled when enlarged. Personal comment to add: I once asked on a forum if anyone had photographs of a particular radio actor. I received a dozens of replies with photos people plucked off the internet -- none of which I could use (not because of the minimal pixels) but because I didn't know who originated them. It's a sad commentary to add but in this day and age, only a handful of people are reliable to supply scans of glossy photographs that I can seek legal clearance for publishing. The photographs in this book, as you can see when flipping through the pages, is evident why it's not a good thing to pluck pictures off the internet.

Flashgun Casey, Crime Photographer: 
From the Pulps to Radio and Beyond
by J. Randolph Cox 
and David S. Siegel

Any book written by Cox or Siegel gets my attention and regardless of the subject, I buy it. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered there was a book co-authored by the two experts of rare books, pulp magazines and old time radio. And if you enjoy Flashgun Casey, also known as Casey, Crime Photographer, you'll find everything here under one cover. A unique evolution of popular culture hero from the 1930s pulps to radio. 

By the spring of 1934, a pivotal new talent was being showcased in Black Mask: George Harmon Coxe, dubbed "the professional's professional." Coxe created one of of crime fiction's most colorful and enduring characters: photographer Jack "Flashgun" Casey, who appeared in 24 issues of Black Mask, into 1943. 

Coxe was asked where he got the idea of making a series hero out of a crime photographer. "In those days, everybody else seemed to be writing about tough reporters and hard-nosed private detectives," he told the interviewer. "I was an amateur photographer myself, and I'd worked on papers, and knew a lot of news photographers. Seemed a natural idea to use one as a pulp hero. And it worked out very well."

The crime series evolved into a successful radio program, movies, six published books and finally, on television. This book covers the literary life of George Harmon Coxe, a chapter of recollections from Coxe's daughter, a reprint of a short story titled "Return Engagement," a history of the movies, a history of the radio program, reprints of two radio scripts, and the same coverage of the television program, comic books, stage play and more. There's a great photo of Cox sitting with Coxe from August 1971.

The part of the book that appeals to collectors of old time radio programs is the radio log. Featuring broadcast dates, episode numbers, writer writers and script titles, the log helps accurate date the episodes known to exist in recorded format. Sadly, Siegel's log has been copied and pasted on a number of radio web-sites without giving due credit, or worse, the web-site owners altered the log briefly and claim they did most of the work. The first to do the log was Raymond Stanich, circa 1981, and Cox and Siegel fixed the errors Stanich unintentionally created. Those corrections are carried over onto those web-sites I referred to, verifying the source of their material and the hard work and effort of Cox and Siegel. Since the main emphasis of the book is the radio years, this appealed to my interest. And it should appeal to yours as well, considering very little has been written about the program. Buy this book and support J. Randolph Cox and David S. Siegel. You'll enjoy the scripts and fascinating tid-bits in the history.

Don Ameche: 
The Kenosha Comeback Kid
by Ben Ohmart
with a foreword by John Landis

Contrary to popular belief, Don Ameche did not invent the telephone. He did, however, captivate several generations of moviegoers, radio fans, TV addicts and Broadway patrons in an astounding, prolific career which stretched from the 1930s to the 1990s. Part of the glamorous studio system, with 20th Century Fox, he starred in some of the most popular films of old Hollywood: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), In Old Chicago (1937), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and Heaven Can Wait (1943).

He was one of radio's most versatile voices, moving effortlessly from drama to comedy, having entered the industry when radio was still an infant. He never left it. Who cannot forget his role as John Bickerson or the numerous First Nighter programs? 

He was a Broadway star, appearing in Cole Porter's last stage musical, Silk Stockings. He was the dashing master of ceremonies for television's first great circus series, International Showtime. He made the greatest of all comebacks by starring as half of those nasty Duke brothers in Trading Places (1983). He won an Oscar for his performance as Art, the break-dancing geriatric filled with a renewed vigor in Cocoon (1985), which only underlined his own amazing resurgence.

Ben Ohmart did what most people should do with biographies. He convinced the family to support his efforts with photographs and interviews. The very generous nature of the Ameche children offered Ben access to the Don Ameche clipping collection, from which helped support many facts and put everything into a chronological perspective. Frances Langford, John Landis, John Dunning, Jay Hickerson, Laura Wagner and others were gracious enough to devote some of their personal time to Ben's devotion. And the result is not another Mommie Dearest or the kind of book Bette Davis's daughter wrote. And it's not one of those biographies (I've seen a few) where the author simply put all the clippings into chronological order and then wrote a book laced with trade paper reviews and facts such as "In 1936 she starred in such-and-such film," which is nothing but a compilation of facts and plot summaries. It's a behind-the-scenes, touching biography about Ameche as a person, the numerous charities he assisted, his opinions about his career over the years, quotes from interviews with people who worked with him, and his family life. This is one of a number of books published by Bear Manor Media, a rising force in the publishing industry, and a great book at any price. 

(Personal note: The Don Ameche book was one of a number of free giveaways at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention for pre-paid attendees two years ago. Free books don't come along much so if you were among the lucky few who got your copy and never got a chance to read it, it comes with my recommendation.)

Encyclopedia of Black Radio in the United States, 1921-1955
by Ryan Ellett
As the title suggests, this volume profiles about 300 African American  performers (Lena Horne, Eddie Anderson), organizations (NAACP) and series (Destination Freedom, Jubilee) broadcast during the Golden Age of Radio. Earlier this year I was asked by Ryan to look over the manuscript and offer any tid-bits of info that could be added, and I made a trek to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and the Billy Rose Theater Collection in New York City, to help out. During my diggings, to my surprise, I discovered that NBC kept track of radio programs and actors in separate files as "the Negro files," segregated in the legal and program files. Gasp! One of the biggest surprises this year. But history is history and we cannot hide the fact that at one time such things were common even in the broadcasting field.

It only took a couple minutes to discover that this was a reference book shaped like a Jim Cox encyclopedia, and I have no doubt that Jim would feel proud that the old adage still rings true: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." It's a format that works and for this book, works very well. Every radio program and radio personality is listed in alphabetical order. Programs now regarded as essentials when referring to this subject, such as Amos and Andy, are given more extensive coverage, but with original treatment and not a reprint of what has been published in prior encyclopedias. Good job, Ryan.

If I had a complaint, the difference between the network and an affiliate is not clarified. Example: For the entry on The Good Time Society, it's referenced that the series was broadcast "for at least two years over WJZ and the Blue network." WJZ was the flagship station of the Blue network so no mention of WJZ should have been mentioned (unless the author wanted to state the program originated from WJZ, the flagship station of the Blue network, where it was broadcast across the country). Instead of saying the program was broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System, the author says it was broadcast over WOR, again no mention of WOR should have been made unless the series was heard only over the flagship station and not on a national basis. Most references to WEAF should be NBC. In other words, a clarification of whether the series was broadcast locally or nationally, could be understood by clarifying the network versus the single radio station coverage. But this is a minor gripe, and the only one I noticed.

The publisher, McFarland, chose a retail price of $95. For a book 182 pages thick (not counting the bibliography or index), that's a bit steep. We all know the publisher focuses on sales to college and university libraries, which are used to paying high ransom prices for reference books. The fact that this is the only book devoted solely about African Americans on radio, probably lend itself credence to the theory that a lot of libraries will be wanting a copy. There's a lot of material here that has not yet been covered in any other reference book, a plus for those who like to purchase and own one of every reference book about old-time radio. The suggested retail price is no fault to the author, it was a publisher decision. In fact, I feel sorry for the author because you can tell a lot of time and effort went into this well-researched book and it deserves everyone's attention. But seriously, at the $95 price tag, the book sales will be handicapped and I recommend shopping around and getting a lower price. Perhaps the newly-created Coverout.com that seems to be offering hundreds of books about old-time radio will, in the near future, offer a nice price we can all afford.

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