Sunday, June 25, 2006

"Great Times," Chapter 1

Copyright 2006 by Terry F. Phillips Sr.

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

May 1947.

The two women were dressed alike. They wore hats and their best flower-print dresses. They pressed their way toward the auditorium with the rest of the people, obediently staying between the red-velvet ropes that guided the line, to get as many people as possible inside the radio studio.

The two were sisters. They were taking a holiday. Back home in Indiana, their husbands were already in bed. It was 9 p.m. Time and tide-and cows and pigs-wait for no man who raises them. Cows and pigs care not for trips of any kind or vacations in general. They must be cared for seven days a week.

But, Betsy had won an all-expense paid trip to Chicago. The trip included two nights in a fancy hotel, a site-seeing tour of the city and tickets to see the WXBR Beer Variety Hour in person. She won two tickets by correctly answering a question on a WXBR call-in radio show.

Knowing about the time, tide, pigs and cows, she knew her husband would stay home. So, she invited her sister to go with her.

The two were excited as they pushed their way through the foyer.
All was red and gold and luxurious. Far grander than the nicest movie house they had been to in Indiana. Soon they were at the doors and ushers stood on each side to assist the radio audience as they entered the theater.

The seats were luxurious. There was a giant clock on one wall with a huge second-hand. On the other wall was a plate-glass window. Behind it sat three men. Behind them could be seen other men who seemed to be busy twisting dials and making adjustments to something.

The stage was a bit disappointing. It was bare, but for music stands and chairs where the orchestra was sitting, a microphone in the middle of the stage and chairs lined up not far from the microphone.

The orchestra was paying attention to the conductor, a middle-age man with white shirtsleeves rolled up and a loosened tie. He would have them play a snatch of melody, make them stop and turn to another man wearing an earphone and telephone operator’s microphone.

It looks like my old headset when I was the New Ross telephone operator,” Betsy said to her sister.

The audience could not see and could care less about the young man waiting offstage. He was dapper - as dapper as any young man of his modest means could be - and as excited as any member of the audience could be.

He wore a white shirt, bowtie and dark suit with freshly-shined black shoes.

A few minutes before 8 o’clock the people in the orchestra took their seats and a red curtain closed between them and the audience.

A single microphone on a floor stand could now be seen more readily because it was in front of the curtain.

The audience became quiet.

Then, with great fanfare, an overweight man wearing a white coat, black pants, white spats and a red rose in the coat lapel stepped to the microphone.

Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, twisting the microphone stand to adjust the height.

The crowd quieted.

Please, ladies and gentlemen! I beg you to be quiet,” he said to the already still house. People in the front rows could see his jowls wiggle as he spoke.

The crowd was already quiet, so what was he talking about?

Ladies and gentlemen, I beg you. We are about to go on the air. PLEASE BE QUIET!”

He raised his hands above his waist for the first time and his pants fell down around his ankles. His boxer shorts were a bright, red hearts on white pattern. Only slightly brighter were his red suspenders.

After the initial gasp of disbelief, the crowd howled with laughter. The band began the show theme song and the red second hand swept past the 12 to indicate it was exactly eight o’clock and The Beer Hour, as it was usually called, was on the air.

The fat man in the white coat and pants still around his ankles sang into the microphone, “This week our special guests are Jack Benny, Mary Livingston and Rochester!

Now, here is our guest host - Eddie Cantor!”

The red curtain opened to uproarious applause as the band -- dressed in white coats and wearing red roses in their lapels like the announcer -- played The Beer Hour theme song.

The audience beat their hands red with applause. They were hooked and loved every minute of it.

Eddie Cantor stepped from the wings - old Banjo eyes - just as promised. He mouthed the words, "thank-you" over and over, though he could not be heard over the din and could not be seen past the third row.

Betsy shivered involuntarily as Eddie spoke his first words of greeting.
This was the same Eddie Cantor she had listened to on the radio in her own living room. The same Eddie Cantor she had seen in the movies in the Vanity Theatre in downtown Crawfordsville.

How exciting it all was!

For the next hour, the audience laughed as Cantor insulted Benny with “cheap” jokes, egged on by Benny’s real-life wife, Mary Livingston, and radio pal; and his radio butler and chauffer, actor Eddie Anderson, better known as Rochester.

The audience sighed as The Beer Hour cast members performed skits with the guest stars.

When Barbara St. James sang a love song with Eddie Adams, the women dabbed at their eyes with hankies.

Before the hour could possibly be over, Eddie Cantor was singing his network show theme song:

I love to spend each Thursday with you

As friend to friend, I’m sorry it’s through.

That’s how I feel.

I hope you feel that way, too.

And the show was over for another week.

As the crowd filed out of the studio, one of the most excited people in the theater waited in the wings. He was Ted Lane, a brand new staff announcer for WXBR radio. And he had just arrived in Chicago from South Bend that afternoon.