Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bing Crosby on Radio, Pt. 7

Reprinted in the August, 2008, Old Radio Times.

Bing Crosby – The Radio Directories
(out of print)
compiled by Lionel Pairpoint

On the 7th December 1941, the radio networks flashed the news to a stunned American nation that they were at war.

The first Command Performance was broadcast almost exactly three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, under the aegis of the Office of War Information. Its success paved the way for the creation of the Armed Forces Radio Service in May 1942, under the command of Colonel Tom Lewis. Time magazine described Command Performance as being, “the best wartime programme in America.” This dallied a little with the truth, as very few listeners in the United States ever heard it and it would appear that the Christmas Command Performance of 1942 was the only programme of the series to be broadcast to a general audience. In Britain, we were more fortunate, as the BBC Forces programme had been transmitting the series, on Monday evenings, virtually since its inception.

All talent was donated, including production staff, gratis and the major networks allowed free use of their studios for the shows. On Command Performance no. 162, an all star cast including, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Jimmy Durante, the Andrews Sisters and others, spoofed the popular comic strip, “Dick Tracy” in a sixty minute operetta. It was estimated that the total bill for this assembly would have run to well over $100,000 - an enormous sum for the time. Requests from homesick G.I.’s kept the sound effects men on their toes, entrusting the microphone to deliver “a sigh from Carole Landis,” “foghorns on San Francisco Bay,” “Errol Flynn taking a shower,” (I’ll bet he didn’t!) “a slot machine delivering the jackpot” and “Bing Crosby mixing a bourbon and soda for Bob Hope.”

At the outset, the AFRS was short waving the shows but obviously, lacking the modern marvels of today’s satellite links, the reception was often distorted or spoiled by fading and static. They had also overlooked that many servicemen had no access to a short wave receiver. These problems were resolved when the Armed Forces Radio Service sought permission from the four major networks to record favourite programmes on 16" transcription discs. As many as seventy of these programmes were recorded and produced each week, especially for the armed forces, together with Command Performance, Mail Call, G.I. Journal and various other series. At the peak of the war, around 21,000 transcriptions were being shipped to troops in Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific and over 800 radio stations, operated by servicemen and for servicemen, were set up to cover all theatres of war, in order to provide music and laughter from home. The United Kingdom boasted 44 of these AM stations and a great deal of “dial twiddling” was employed by an enthusiastic population in pursuit of their favourite American bands and vocalists.

Positive identification and dating of Command Performance can pose difficulties, largely due to inconsistencies on the part of the AFRS. The regular weekly broadcasts were normally allotted thirty minutes of air time and although numbered consecutively, they were not necessarily issued in that order. Whereas, programmes designated as “Specials” were unnumbered (apart from the same general matrix) and again, but not always, may have been of a different duration to those of the regular series.

Some shows are politely described as “assembled,” being composed, either entirely or partially, of so -called “wild” tracks, probably lifted from the domestic radio series. Remembering that this was before the advent of magnetic tape, the shows were produced and transcribed with some expertise. To this day, any “joins” are remarkably unobtrusive and untutored listeners would have harboured few doubts that, at the very least, they were hearing a bona fide recording of a live show. It may well be that these huge incursions into the previously “no go” area of transcribed radio programmes may have been fundamental in fostering Bing’s own interest and later involvement with the process.

Precise details of some programmes are still incomplete but it has been established that, including special Command Performance shows, Bing Crosby was featured in at least forty of the shows, frequently as Master of Ceremonies and a glance at the index will reveal that during the series he sang (including medleys) in excess of a hundred songs, rarely repeating a title.

Mail Call was heralded as, “a letter written by the folks at home to a serviceman abroad” and the first of these thirty minute programmes was recorded on 11th August 1942, at the CBS Studios in Hollywood. In the beginning, the series included sound track excerpts from current movies and in fact, Bing Crosby’s first appearance on Mail Call No. 11, recorded on the 4th November 1942, was with Fred Astaire in a potted version of “Holiday Inn.” However, after three months, this format was abandoned in favour of the combination of music, songs and comedy routines that had ensured the success of Command Performance and again, servicemen were encouraged to write in with their requests.

Occasionally, Command Performance episodes were given a particular theme, such as, an all western program or an all female program or they were specially dedicated: “A Tribute To The British Army” or “A Tribute To Walt Disney,” etc. Mail Call became even more embroiled with this procedure, choosing American states for their dedications and it will be appreciated that, once started, this theme would have been difficult to conclude before running the whole gamut. Bing took part in a number of these dedications and there will be many who cherish the famous outtake from Mail Call no. 73 when he encounters a few problems with Meredith Willson’s new song, “Iowa.”

G.I. Journal made its appearance almost a full year after the advent of Mail Call and was described as “a newspaper of the air.” The first “edition” was recorded on 29th June 1943. The M.C. was known as the Editor and for the first year, this post was filled, variously, by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Kay Kyser and Jack Carson. Perhaps the cast lists were not quite so star -studded as those of Command Performance or Mail Call but the journalistic staff were portrayed by regular appearances of Rochester, Jerry Colonna, Ish Kabibble, Arthur Q. Bryan and Mel Blanc, who found more or less permanent residence as Private Sad Sack.

There were more than a hundred of these programmes. The presence of Bing has been traced to nineteen of them but again, as with the Command Performance and Mail Call series, details are sketchy or incomplete for many of the shows, so there may be more. A particular feature of Bing’s appearances was that the closer for the programme was a community sing of a perennial favourite, incorporating the cast and audience such as “Down By The Old Mill Stream,” “Daisybelle,” “In The Good Old Summertime” etc.

Special thanks are offered to George O’Reilly whose generosity and tenacity of purpose allowed access to many shows that otherwise I might never have heard.


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