The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show
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The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, a comedy radio program which ran on NBC from 1948 to 1954, evolved from an earlier music and comedy variety program, The Fitch Bandwagon. Singer-bandleader Phil Harris and his wife, actress-singer Alice Faye, became the earlier show's breakout stars, and the show was retooled into a full situation comedy, with Harris and Faye playing fictionalized versions of themselves as a working show business couple raising two daughters in a slightly madcap home.
- Alice Faye: "Oh, Phil, are you ready?"
- Phil Harris: "Darn, you made me swallow a bobby pin!"
In 1946, they were invited to co-host The Fitch Bandwagon, a musical variety and comedy show that had been a Sunday night fixture on NBC since 1938, featuring such orchestras as Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Grier, Harry James, Freddy Martin and Jan Savitt and Harry Sosnik. In The Big Broadcast 1920-1950 Frank Buxton and Bill Owen wrote: "Even though many people thought that The Fitch Bandwagon was lucky to be sandwiched in between Jack Benny at 7pm and Edgar Bergen at 8pm on NBC, the [show] pioneered Sunday evening entertainment programming, because prior to its appearance most broadcasters felt that Sunday programming should be of a more religious or serious nature."
The growing popularity of the Harris-Faye family sketches turned the program into their own comic vehicle by 1947. When announcer Bill Foreman hailed, "Good health to all... from Rexall!" on October 3, 1948], The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show launched its independent life under Rexall's sponsorship with a debut storyline about the fictitious day the couple signed their sponsorship deal.
The show was a quick success and its position in that powerhouse NBC Sunday lineup didn't hurt. Playing themselves as radio and music star parents of two precocious young daughters (played by actresses Jeanine Roos and Ann Whitfield, instead of the Harrises' own young daughters), Harris refined his character from the booze-and-broads, hipster jive talker he had been on the Benny show ("Hiya, Jackson!" was his usual hail to Benny) into a slightly vain (particularly about his wavy hair and the dimpled smile that always hinted mischief) and dunderheaded husband who usually needed rescuing by Faye as his occasionally tart but always loving wife. References to his hair and vanity became a running gag.
Harris often passed wisecracks about buddy Frank Remley's taste for the spirits, a contrast to Harris' former Benny character. The show's writers, Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat, also used Faye's experience making the ill-fated film Fallen Angel as a source of gags, to say nothing of setting up situations in which Harris was recognized (if at all) as her husband or "Mr. Alice Faye." In the closing, Foreman said, "Alice Faye appears through the courtesy of 20th Century Fox." Gerald S. Nachman (Raised on Radio) and other radio historians believed that was a conscious jibe at the studio, since Faye's contract had been torn up when she walked out rather than abide Darryl Zanuck cutting her scenes in favor of Linda Darnell.
Harris's radio character was also scripted as an occasional language and context mangler, six parts Gracie Allen and half a dozen parts Yogi Berra. ("Why, The Mikado never would have been written if Gilbert didn't have faith in Ed Sullivan!") The sardonic humor that laced the show was far beyond the gentility of that other show which featured a bandleader and his singing wife, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
"Good health to all from Rexall"
Legendary character actor Gale Gordon appeared frequently as Mr. Scott, the slightly pompous and withering fictitious representative of actual sponsor Rexall. Each show was bookended by a serious Rexall commercial, narrated by a sonorous, sober-sounding "Rexall Family Druggist," played by veteran film supporting actor Griff Barnett. One running gag involved Scott's affected disdain for Harris, wondering just how he and Rexall had consented to sponsor this philistine who should have been paying Rexall to appear on the show and not the other way around. Another involved Harris's continuous misidentifications of the Rexall brand (naming the company's trademark colors as pink and purple, rather than their familiar blue and orange, for example)---when he remembered them at all.
Rexall didn't mind the jokes that referred to the company or brought the company briefly into a full scene. It didn't even mind that the Scott character himself could be seen as satirizing the company more than promoting it. This was rare in an era where sponsors didn't always enjoy being zapped on the programs they were paying to produce and sometimes were accused of influencing the content of the shows they sponsored heavy-handedly.
Rexall sponsored The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show through 1950 (then moving to rival CBS' The Amos 'n' Andy Show that fall). After a self-sustaining period, RCA Victor picked up the show through the end of 1954. That didn't stop Gordon (who was also a regular as the vain, blowhard high school principal who bedeviled Our Miss Brooks) from continuing his recurring role as Mr. Scott---this time representing RCA Victor and with the same satirical edge.
The sponsorship switch to RCA also brought the Harrises a family pet, a dog---named, naturally, Nipper, a la the familiar terrier (with an ear cocked to a Victrola horn, in the famous painting "His Master's Voice") that served as RCA's logo for many years. Sometimes, Harris would address the dog with a backhanded allusion to the famous painting: "Sit, boy. Listen to your master's voice."
Harris's character was often led into trouble by his buddy, guitarist, Remley. Frank Remley was the real name of a musician from the Jack Benny Show band, who was often the butt of references to heavy drinking, but in the fictional version played by Elliott Lewis, Remley was portrayed as a cheerful, amoral, incredibly dumb woman-chaser, essentially the kind of character Harris had played on the Benny program. "What would you do without me, Curly?" Remley might ask Harris, who would shoot right back, "The same thing you're doing with me - be a moron!"
When Benny moved his show from NBC to CBS in 1949, rights to use references to Remley went with him. However, it wasn't until the new season of the Harris show began in the fall of 1952, when the character "Frankie Remley" suddenly became the character "Elliott Lewis", possibly because the real Remley was beginning to appear in the televised Benny shows. Since the two radio shows ran consecutively, Benny at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, 8 p.m. Eastern, and Harris at 5:30, and since Harris was on both shows, and both were aired live, once Benny switched networks Harris had to run or hop in a waiting car and fight traffic for the two blocks from CBS's studios on Sunset Boulevard at Gower Street in Hollywood to the NBC studios at Sunset and Vine. In the fall of 1951, the series moved to 8 p.m. Eastern Time. During the final season, it aired on Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.
Child impersonator Walter Tetley played obnoxious delivery boy Julius, who had sarcastic one-liners for Harris and Remley and a crush on Faye---at least, until he married sponsor rep Scott's daughter. Tetley did a similar role as spunky nephew Leroy on another radio hit, The Great Gildersleeve. Rounding out the show's usual cast were Robert North as Faye's fictitious deadbeat, humorless but somewhat down-to-earth brother, Willy. John Hubbard appeared as Willy during the final season. The couple's two daughters, 'Baby' Alice and Phyllis, were played on radio by Jeanine Roos and Anne Whitfield.
Few episodes went without two music interludes, usually an upbeat or novelty number by Harris in his friendly baritone and a ballad or soft swinger by Faye in her affectionate contralto. Occasionally, they switched musical roles, Harris taking a ballad and Faye taking a hard swinger. Walter Scharf was the program's musical director.
Though their on-air personae were that of a stumbling husband whose wife sometimes wanted to throw up her hands every time she had to rescue him from himself, Harris and Faye's genuine love for each other was evident on the show. Harris often rewrote song lyrics to work in a reference to Faye. Their marriage, a second for both, lasted 54 years until Harris's 1995 death.
Co-writer Ray Singer told Nachman that he and his partner Dick Chevillat thought they had a "writer's paradise" working for Harris and Faye: "Phil was the kind of guy who loved living, and didn't want to be bothered with work or anything else. He left us alone. We never had to report to him. He never knew what was gonna happen. And it was left in our hands. It spoiled us for everybody else."
Harris and Faye stayed with NBC rather than succumb to the CBS talent raids of the late 1940s that began when Benny was lured to CBS and took a few NBC stars (including George Burns and Gracie Allen) with him. NBC offered the couple (as well as Fred Allen) a lucrative new deal to stay, though occasionally Harris would allude to Benny's network switch on the Harris-Faye show. (Typically, Harris would crack an odd joke and then say, "I gotta give this one to Jackson! It might bring him back to NBC.") Despite the network conflict and a grueling schedule, Harris continued to appear on Benny's show through 1952.
While several radio programs were being transferred to television during the show's lifetime, one episode ("The Television Test") comically exaggerated how terribly the audience would receive Phil on the small screen:
- Producer 1-"Do you think it's wise to let the public see what Harris looks like?"
- Producer 2-"Oh, he doesn't look that bad."
Harris and Faye were not averse to appearing on radio outside their comic personae. At the height of their radio show's popularity, the couple made a memorable appearance on the CBS mystery hit, Suspense, in a 1951 episode called "Death on My Hands." This performance was something of a family affair: Elliott Lewis was also the main director of Suspense during this period. The title alluded to an accidental shooting local people assumed to be murder. Harris played a touring bandleader playing a high school dance and accosted back at his hotel by an autograph-seeking girl. As she reached for a photo in an open suitcase, the suitcase fell to the floor, and a pistol inside discharged, shooting her to death and provoking a local lynch mob. Before the dance, he'd bumped into Faye as his former band singer; after the dance, she sought to help him convince the town of the truth.
Harris and Faye also did the occasional stage tour during their radio years, including a tour with Jack Benny in the early 1950s. Nachman and other old-time radio chroniclers have noted the couple shied from television mostly because the pace and complexities of working the new medium would have been too time consuming; radio allowed them, in effect, to work part-time while raising their children full-time.
Just wild about Harry
When Harris and his band were invited to perform at President Harry S. Truman's inaugural in January 1949, the Harris-Faye writers scripted a show in which Harris the character steamed over a lack of invitation to the Inaugural Ball. His character wasn't exactly thrilled to hear his wife warbling a Truman-friendly version of "I'm Just Wild About Harry," either. But at the show's end, Harris--who often shed his radio character to speak soberly promoting worthy causes (such as Big Brothers of America, which he saluted at the end of a 1950 show)--spoke humbly about how honored he was to have received the actual invitation, inviting the show's full cast and crew to join him for the festivities.
- Jack Benny and Joan Benny, Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story. (New York: Warner Books, 1990.)
- Frank Buxton and Bill Owen, The Big Broadcast 1920-1950. (New York: Avon, 1970.)
- John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
- John Dunning, Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio 1925-1976. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1976.)
- Leonard Maltin, The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio's Golden Age (New York: Dutton/Penguin, 1997).
- Gerald S. Nachman, Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)
- Arthur Frank Wertheim, Radio Comedy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).