Monday, January 05, 2009

Bing Crosby on Radio, Pt. 8

Reprinted in the September, 2008, Old Radio Times.

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

In March 1933, nine men met in the offices of the J. Walter Thompson Company. Their objective was to fashion a show to introduce a new product called “Miracle Whip” for the Kraft Cheese Company. This was at that time when advertising agencies wrote and produced radio shows for their clients. Those present at the meeting were, John U. Reber, Vice-President in charge of radio for the Thompson Company; Carroll Carroll, writer for the Burns and Allen/Guy Lombardo Show; H. Calvin Kuhl and Robert T Colwell, two more of the Company’s top producers; Abbott K. Spencer, producer of Eddie Cantor’s highly popular radio series for Chase & Sanborn; George Faulkner and Gordon Thompson who, together, created the Fleischmann Yeast Hour for Rudy Vallee; Robert A Simon, at that time, music critic for The New Yorker and musical adviser to the Thompson Corporation and Sam Moore, another successful writer of radio shows.

In order to incorporate the brand name of the product and to establish an identifiable locale for the listeners, they decided to christen the yet “unborn baby,” The Kraft Music Revue. The other prime decision made at the meeting was that the host should be Paul Whiteman whose orchestra and entourage contained sufficient talent and variety to sustain the show.

There was the up and coming young songwriter and comedy singer, Johnny Mercer; Ken Darby and The King’s Men (Jon Dobson, Bud Lynn and Rad Robinson), a quartet so -called because they appeared with Whiteman - “The King Of Jazz”; Johnny House, a ballad singer and Ramona (Davies) the popular pianist/vocalist. In addition, the orchestra featured some of the best musicians of the day, in the shape of Joe Venuti, Oscar Levant, Tommy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer, Roy Bargy, Mike Pingatore and Jack Teagarden.

To inaugurate the series and to ensure a smash send-off, a two hour show from the New Amsterdam Roof starring Al Jolson was planned for 26th June 1933. Typically, the egocentric Jolson was still going strong at the scheduled close of the programme, obliging the Thompson Company to hurriedly negotiate for a further fifteen minutes of air time. The series, featuring Whiteman together with special guest stars, ran successfully for two years from New York with the name being changed to The Kraft Music Hall in 1934. Bing made a guest appearance on 15th August 1935. Later in 1935, it was decided that the Kraft Music Hall would move to Hollywood, following the more popular radio stars who were heading West to fulfil screen contracts.

The new host was named as Whiteman’s former “Rhythm Boy,” Bing Crosby and on 2nd January 1936 the Kraft Music Hall was presented from Hollywood. The show was produced by Calvin Kuhl and written by Sam Moore until the Spring of 1936, when Moore left and Carroll Carroll took up the writing chores. Carroll Carroll publicly claimed on many occasions to have been responsible for the development of the personality, which the world would recognise as Bing Crosby. The much maligned but nevertheless, informative book, The Hollow Man by Don Shepherd and Robert F. Slatzer recounts the familiar story of “Bing’s reluctance to talk” and of how, “Guests were given ‘wild’ lines that were not in the script, thereby forcing Crosby to respond.”

Bing’s character has always been a matter of some contention, particularly since his death. In the 1940’s, there were those who were unkind enough so say that he never played anyone but the character that appeared in his first Mack Sennett short - a theory that time proved to be palpably untrue. Further quotes from the same book, however, offer some sharp contrasts to Carroll’s claims. For example, referring to the period when Bing was Master of Ceremonies at the Paramount Theatre in 1931, it notes, “his relaxed manner, together with his natural wit and humour were so popular that Paramount Publix extended his engagement for a further ten weeks and on his Chesterfield Show (“Music That Satisfies”), Bing began establishing a format that he would perfect later on the Kraft Music Hall, (pleasant banter, both written and ad –libbed; Bing was very sharp at ad-libbing) that would eventually make him one of the most popular radio personalities of all time.”

The musical accompaniment for the re -located Kraft programme was supplied by the recently formed Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and to counter -balance Bing’s role as the worldly, hyper-articulate host, the perfect foil was available in the hillbilly humour of Bob Burns, The Arkansas Philosopher. Burns has achieved a claim to immortality by appearing in both Webster’s and the Oxford dictionaries as the originator of the “bazooka,” a curious instrument composed of a few lengths of piping from which he extracted tones, more amusing than musical and which later gave its name to an anti -tank weapon first used in the Western Desert during World War II.

For a short period, Don Wilson announced the programme and there is also a mention of Roger Krupp but there is now, little doubt, that Ken Carpenter began performing this duty, much earlier than had been previously supposed. Carpenter’s contribution to the Hall’s popularity should not be underestimated. In addition to his announcing duties, he was, on occasions, encouraged to sing (never too seriously), played a wide range of characters in sketches and for the commercials, and became a student at Doctor Crosby’s imaginary KMH University which had been created by Carroll Carroll. The college’s colours were pomegranate and puce and the school poet was Edna St. Vitus Mitnick. Football games were contested with rival universities, rejoicing in such names as Tich Tach Tech and Pulse Normal. The school song, Hail, KMH, written by Carroll Carroll and John Scott Trotter, survived for many years as the closing theme of the show and could still be detected in the later series hosted by Al Jolson.

It was on 8th. July, 1937, that John Scott Trotter became the Musical Director for KMH and conflicting reasons are given for the departure of the Dorsey outfit. Dorsey’s own version is that he felt that he was losing his identity and a weekly radio show was not providing sufficient exposure for the band. However, this may have been inspired to offset the implied slur in the other reason given, that the sponsors considered the orchestra inadequate when handling the mandatory classical spots in the programme.

Among the criticisms that have been levelled at Trotter’s arrangements is that he was repetitive, and possibly there is some evidence which may support this. Students of Bing Crosby’s recordings may well be surprised when listening to the existing Kraft material to hear for the first time, arrangements to which they had become familiar, as the opening bars in the recordings of East Side Of Heaven, And The Angels Sing and You Lucky People You respectively, serving as introductions for, I Get Along Without You Very Well (March 2, 1939), Hurry Home (December 8, 1938) and My Mind’s On You (March 20, 1941) and there are other examples.

Others have denounced his work as unimaginative and it is true that one can detect slight acknowledgments to Rustle Of Spring in Sweet Little You (October 21, 1937) and more overtly, The Entry Of The Gladiators in Marie (October 28, 1937) but it would be naive to suppose that John Scott really intended to deceive with these tongue in cheek plagiarism’s. A few, unable to express their disapprobation more coherently, merely labelled his accompaniments hackneyed or corny, but his prodigious workload for the Kraft Music Hall series cannot be denied.It included not only arrangements for Bing but also for the Music Maids’ backgrounds, the various female singers’ vocals and, at times, some of the guests.

Perhaps it would be as well to leave the last words on this subject to the person who was in the best position to judge. Bing maintained an association with Trotter which endured for twenty years of broadcasting and recording without, it is said, any formal contract. At the commencement of this comfortable alliance, he is quoted as saying, “I just know he is very good and he has marvellous taste” - and towards the end, that opinion had not changed when he described John’s orchestrations as, “. . . never obtrusive . . . always in good taste.”

To add a little romantic interest to the proceedings, a regular place was found for an attractive chanteuse who, on occasions, dueted with Bing in addition to having her own solo spot. Among those engaged to fill this role were Connie Boswell (her adoption of the name Connee coincided with her departure from the Hall), Mary Martin, Janet Blair, Marilyn Maxwell, Eugenie Baird and Trudy Erwin.

During his radio career, Bing Crosby seems to have found somewhat more affinity with a backing group than some other solo performers. He would probably have said, “I like somebody to share the blame!” but it is a personal belief that Bing enjoyed this dueting, relishing the competition and at times, taking the opportunity to indulge in musical ad -libs and asides, thus enhancing the laid back quality of the performance, to the benefit of the listener.

Appertaining to this, the previously mentioned Trudy (Virginia) Erwin had graduated from The Music Maids, a quintet which joined the programme in February 1939, replacing the Paul Taylor Choristers who had been providing vocal support for Bing until that time. Apart from Trudy, the other four members were June Clifford, Dorothy Messmer, Alice Ludes and Denny Wilson. Inevitably, the personnel altered over the years and the group was eventually reduced to a quartet, later still to become, variously, The Music Maids & (Hal) (Phil) (Lee) (Men). Other combinations who filled this role were, The Charioteers, a coloured group, composed of Wilfred “Billy” Williams, Eddie Jackson, Ira Williams, Howard “Doug” Daniel and James Sherman (Piano) who were, ultimately, to be carried forward by Bing to his Philco Radio Time series and The Kraft Choral Club (Society) (Group), originally composed of 90 employees from Kraft’s home office in the East, who, invariably made featured contributions at Christmas and Easter.

Sometime scriptwriter and warm -up man for the Hall,Leo “Ukie” Sherin found some measure of permanence, for a couple of seasons, playing a buffoon whose general dumbness was only exceeded by his ambitions to be the star of the show. One of KMH’s outstanding discoveries was Victor Borge who came for a week and stayed for more than a year! On occasions, he hosted the programme, eventually progressing to his own, internationally acclaimed, one -man show.

Two other popular comics emerged from the ranks of the Trotter orchestra. Jerry Colonna, a trombonist, described by Bing as, “the only singer who started on his high note and then went up” went on to became an invaluable member of the Bob Hope troupe and appeared in several movies including two Road pictures. There was also Spike Jones who, together with John Scott and Perry Botkin, created the inimitable musical style of Spike Jones and his City Slickers, originally intended to accompany Bob Burns’ efforts on the bazooka.

While not necessarily being regarded as the supreme accolade, it was considered a reasonably prestigious compliment to make a guest appearance on the Kraft Music Hall and indeed, some stars actually asked to appear even though the remuneration was below that of other shows of similar standing. There were, however, benefits in the form of minimal time spent on tiring rehearsals and a bumper hamper of Kraft products from the sponsors. A perusal of the relevant index reveals that the guest list was nothing short of breathtaking. Stars from Hollywood and the concert hall, top sporting personalities, as well as literary figures and even politicians dropped in.

There appeared to be a tacit rivalry between the Fleischmann show and KMH as to who could come up with the biggest and the best. While Rudy Vallee rubbed shoulders with Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward, Eddie Cantor and Tyrone Power, Crosby chatted to Leopold Stokowski, Amelia Earhart, Spencer Tracy and John McCormack.

In the beginning, the show was to have no audience, due, it is said, to Bing’s reluctance to dress up and to wear his toupee but a compromise was reached when it was decided that an audience was needed to provide the essential laughter for timing gags. Members of the show were permitted to bring along friends who were allowed to laugh but not applaud. Very soon, On Thursday nights, these friends were forming extensive queues outside the NBC studios until, in the end, it became so difficult to prevent the audience from breaking into spontaneous applause that the rules had to be abandoned.

After Pearl Harbour and to some degree, even before, KMH became a typical wartime radio programme. Members of the armed forces and officials from government agencies were featured and in line with other leading radio shows, allocations were received from the Office of War Information. These allocations were in the form of broadcast appeals to the public to join in the war effort of the nation. The effectiveness of these propaganda plugs can be judged by the erroneous announcement (read by Bing), of a minimum age requirement which resulted in a flood of under -age volunteers having to be turned away on the very next day.

The musical content of the shows altered quite dramatically. To some extent, the more mawkishly sentimental songs were eschewed in favour of the rousing marching songs of the various branches of the armed services and the patriotic products of Tin Pan Alley, such as, Comin’ In On A Wing And A Prayer, Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition, Vict’ry Polka, The Bombardier Song, A Hot Time In The Town Of Berlin, Ridin’ Herd On A Cloud, etc., and musical invocations stressing the need to invest in War Bonds, as in The Road To Victory and Any Bonds Today?.

Possibly, the most poignant story connected with the show occurred very soon after the beginning of the war with Japan when General Douglas MacArthur and his troops were beleaguered by the Japanese invaders in the Philippines and a weary corporal in the Signal Corps felt lonesome for the voice of Bing Crosby. He sent a coded message requesting a short wave broadcast to the Philippines, “in order to divert our thoughts from the pressure of battle.” The request was transmitted by MacArthur to Washington which resulted in a personal telegram being sent to Bing, saying, “General MacArthur is specifically asking you to broadcast to the men in the Philippines on Bataan Peninsula” and thus on the 29th January 1942, the complete programme was dedicated to the fighting men in that far -off Theatre of Operations.

The end of the war roughly coincided with the commencement of hostilities which presaged Bing’s departure from the Kraft Music Hall. By this time, the programme was assured of its rightful place in the Golden Age Of Radio and this, surely, was also the Golden Age for Bing Crosby, when he was at the peak of his career, commanding a listening audience measured in excess of an astonishing fifty million!

Compiler’s Notes
From a personal viewpoint, the Kraft Music Hall radio programme has been always been the Holy Grail of Crosbyana, covering ten years during which an emergent crooner with an agreeable personality rose to be a Twentieth Century icon. Unlike the later Philco, Chesterfield or General Electric series of which complete copies exist, providing a perfect continuity and means of verification, the Kraft series (with the exception of some of the later shows) has no such continuity and relies on hearsay and (notoriously flawed) newspaper columns. Without being too critical of hearsay on which a great deal of the world’s history is based, it is an accepted fact that a great proportion of the programmes do not survive in complete form, making it impossible for anyone to be certain of their exact content.

It would seem that even regular participants in the shows are not immune to confusion. A quote by Trudy Erwin appears in the sleeve notes for the LP issue Spokane 23. “One of the songs Bing and I sang together was Stay As Sweet As You Are. Strange as it seems, when I was a senior in high school, I had harmonised that very same song with a record of Bing, in a little recording booth at the World’s Fair”. Discographers would be as delighted to find this record, as I would to find a place for the duet in this Directory! Or, is Trudy remembering, The Way You Look Tonight which qualifies on both counts and has some vague lyrical resemblance.

Fifteen years ago, I produced a very limited edition of twenty-five copies of a Directory for this series. At that time, I bemoaned the fact that I still had a list of guest stars who were supposed to have appeared and songs that were alleged to have been sung for which I could find no place. Further research has resolved many of these queries but some remain and I have little doubt that there are copies of shows in existence that I have not had the benefit of hearing. For example, there is evidence that a copy of the programme of the 18th April 1940 endures, featuring a Crosby duet of Alice Blue Gown with Anna Neagle. (Come on, own up. Who’s got it?). I am equally sure that there are those whose knowledge is greater than mine whocould add more detail to this Directory. In spite of these pitfalls, a strenuous effort has been made to avoid assumption and I have resisted including the names of even the most regular of the personnel, unless there is a modicum of evidence to support their inclusion.

There is no doubt that excerpts from the Kraft Music Hall were used in programmes generated by the Armed Forces Radio Service. The transcribed AFRS Music Hall series which was short-waved at noon on Sundays provides glimpses of shows which may no longer be available in their original form. Here the hazard to the researcher is that although they may have been based on an original Kraft programme, wild songs have been inserted, by Bing or others, from other shows in order to produce a full hour/half hour without commercials.

It is also an accepted fact that Kraft provided the source for many of the V -Discs that were issued during World War II. There is a school of thought which suggests that Bing performed the show twice, explaining the difference between the broadcast version of a song and that issued on V –Disc, but it has been established that many of these alternates were recorded from same-day rehearsals for the programmes. I would further suggest that these rehearsals were somewhat more formal than usual as it has been noted that, at a rehearsal, Bing might “la, la, la” his part, saving the lyric (and his voice) for the actual broadcast. Please note that I have chosen to link these V -Disc issues with either the original programme or its rehearsal, on occasions, pointing out the salient differences.

The 385 separate programmes, which comprise the Kraft Music Hall series, have been divided into seasons. Special mention is made because although the seasons may still, roughly, coincide with Bing’s annual vacations, compared with other series they were slightly more unpredictable. It should be pointed out, however, that the Kraft Music Hall was a year -round programme and during Bing’s absences, The Hall was hosted by other personalities, including Bob Burns, Mary Martin, Bob Crosby, Victor Borge, George Murphy, Frank Morgan etc.


At 9:21 AM, Blogger Macwilmslo said...

I think we ought to mention that most of this is taken from Lionel Pairpoint's book "And here's Bing". The full text of this can be found at (click on the radio link).

At 5:38 PM, Blogger Old Time Radio Researchers said...

Yes, you are correct. Pairpoint was cited in the initial post, but not subsequent posts. I'll change that. This used to be available online at a separate site from that you linked to but no longer. I did not know it was still online elsewhere. We received permission in 2007 to reprint his work in installments in the Old Radio Times.


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