Thursday, June 5, 2014

Never too much information

I recently finished a lengthy series of binge-listening to radio's Information Please through the resources of (pages found here, here and here). Although I had enjoyed the episodes I'd listened to in the past, listening to them in order back-to-back is an interesting exercise as the earliest episodes didn't have the formula entirely locked down.

Information Please (1938-1951) was a quiz show hosted by the smooth-voiced Clifton Fadiman, who would ask questions to a four-person panel of experts. The questions came from listeners who would be rewarded for each question used on air and given even greater prizes if their question stumped the panel. The winnings began as mere pocket change, but by 1945 you could earn a tidy $57 + an Encyclopedia Britannica set for your trouble.

Virtually every episode featured John Kieran (an expert on plays, poetry and nature) and Franklin P. Adams (a humorist skilled mostly in poetry, sports and musicals). The other two chairs would rotate; frequently Oscar Levant attended the panel, being an expert primarily on subjects from his own vocations (music and the movies); Levant would often be quizzed on pieces of music and could often identify them from hearing only a few bars; they would also quiz him by playing a piece incorrectly and challenging him to identify the mistake, or by sitting Levant behind the piano and challenging him to play pieces from memory.

Information Please is so much more entertaining to hear than I could ever describe. What makes it engaging are the personalities sitting on panel; when I first sought out episodes, I cherry-picked to get the great celebrity appearances: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Gracie Allen, Groucho Marx, Boris Karloff, Fred Allen - all of those episodes are wonderful (I think Fred Allen was particularly fine - he appeared several times but I would have been happy to have heard him every week - and I say this as someone who doesn't really enjoy Allen's own program). But regardless of who's on the panel, it's the quick banter between Fadiman & the panelists which makes the show endearing and enduring.

It helps that the questions are usually about art, current events or history; outside of questions about nature (almost always answered by Kieran), the show generally kept away from scientific topics. Further, the intellects of the panelists never intimidate you as a listener; yes, Kieran, Adams & Levant were very intelligent men, yet when you hear Kieran's street-level Bronx accent or Levant's Brooklyn patois, you think of them as being merely a couple of average New Yorkers (with amazingly above-average scopes of knowledge). There are also all manner of flubs on the show - Levant's are frequently the best as I found he would often begin to hurriedly answer a question then halfway through realize he was wrong and with an "uh-oh" try to back out! Adams, being a humorist, seemed often incapable of taking the program seriously, frequently offering deliberately incorrect answers (or answering with a pun). Another thing I picked up from this marathon: the panelists truly don't know their Peter Pan as it seemed every time a question related to Barrie's work came up, they would get it wrong.

Kieran & Adams both being adept with poetry, it's quite something to hear them quote famous poems from memory; from our vantage, poetry is practically a lost art - I certainly didn't learn much of it in my school days and I'll wager the current generation of kids are learning even less. Yet, here was a time when men could be expected to quote Kipling, Poe, Wordsworth and Byron! In general, it's impressive to consider how well the panel was versed on the arts - that they could speak intelligently about music, literature, poetry, opera, plays and movies which were contemporary or classical; today we produce so much media in those areas it would be astonishing to meet someone who could speak authoritatively on those subjects in the contemporary, to say nothing of the classical! In music alone, one would have to study the medium constantly to stay on top of the wealth of material.

Other frequent panelists on the show included Deems Taylor (composer) and Jan Struther (author) and they were both welcome personalities; Taylor even filled-in for Fadiman on a few occasions and was a decent moderator (although none of the replacement moderators handled the show with Fadiman's ease - his ability to react quickly and intelligently to the panelist's answers is a huge part of why the show is still fun).

Having first learned of the program through John Dunning's book On the Air: the Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, I entered the era where the show was sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes with some interest; Dunning relayed a story of how the incessant chanting of "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" by the commercial announcers caused Information Please's producer Dan Golenpaul to quarrel with Lucky Strike and eventually get out of their contract. As it turns out, this is almost what you hear on the show.

The Lucky Strike sponsorship began on November 5, 1940 and lasted until February 5, 1943. Knowing how acrimonious the show became toward Lucky Strike and knowing from my own experiences listening to the Jack Benny Program, I was braced for some pretty bad commercials and wondered how they ever lasted more than two years under Luckies. I mean, if you haven't heard a Lucky Strike commercial from the 40s or 50s then CONGRATULATIONS! They are the most insufferable of all radio commercials; some pitchmen in radio's golden age could make even the most banal items fun to hear about; other cigarette manufacturers (Chesterfields, Camels) had a bit of fun promoting their product. Lucky Strike's theory was to either lecture their customers into buying the product, or pummel them into submission by repeating their dull slogans ad nauseam.

However, at first there was nothing too terrible about Information Please's unholy alliance with tobacco; Milton Cross, who had been the product spokesman on the show for Canada Dry, remained through the Lucky Strike years and kept up the same back-and-forth with Fadiman as before. Every now and then the panelists would crack a joke about their sponsors, but largely, nothing had changed (except for the standard Lucky Strike nonsense like their auctioneer Speedy Riggs making appearances in the advertisements).

What's amazing is that you can pinpoint the very episode where everything went wrong: the debut of Lucky Strike's "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" promotion on November 6, 1942 (available at here). Although the phrase would be repeated again and again until Lucky Strike finally left, it's only in this first broadcast where the commercial is genuinely disruptive (whereas Dunning gives the impression the show suffered for two full months). It's definitely a typically terrible Lucky Strike ad (this page reports on how a 1943 survey named it the least popular commercial of the year), but after November 6th it was used mainly to sandwich Cross' commercials.

Not so, however, on that November 6th broadcast - it really has to be heard to be believed. At various intervals during the show, "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" is repeated in what the spokesman assumed to be lulls in the show. Each time you can hear Fadiman react with some chagrin, his teeth virtually on edge over the disruption. Dunning's book relates how Golenpaul angrily quarreled with Lucky Strike in public and it must have begun immediately because the remaining two months scale the irritating catchphrase back; too late to save the sponsor's reputation, but at least the show's integrity was salvaged for those months. Sadly, it was the end of announcer Milton Cross' tenure on the show - he had been a feature since before they had a sponsor and it's sad to think this Lucky Strike promotion ended his association with the show.

In retrospect, of course, one wonders "what were Lucky Strike thinking?" But you could say that of any of their ads. As I said, their ads either bore you or torture you. In this instance, to judge by Fadiman's reactions on November 6th it seems the sponsors had given instructions to their pitchmen which neither Golenpaul nor Fadiman knew about, it being easier to ask forgiveness than permission, I suppose. Given how publicly stormy Lucky Strike's relationship was with Information Please, one also wonders why Jack Benny sullied his near-perfect program by taking them as his sponsor (although at least Jack never had to put up with the tobacco men talking over his dialogue - but the Lucky Strike years of Benny are nowhere near as funny as his Jell-o years, IMHO). Heck, Frank Sinatra had his troubles with them too; there's got to be a good book waiting to be written about Lucky Strike in the 40s and the battles they waged against the very people they were sponsoring.

Anyway, Information Please: quite a lot of fun. Enjoy, won't you?

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