Monday, May 22, 2017

“Well…how-dee do!”

Rick Mitz, author of The Great TV Sitcom Book, once joked that Amos ‘n’ Andy constituted the “two dirty words” of American broadcasting (and he even thought the “’n’” suspect).  I myself refer to the program as “the third rail” of old-time radio, insomuch as the medium’s first true phenomenon has been clouded with controversy ever since its premiere over Chicago’s WMAQ on March 19, 1928 (the show went national over NBC’s Red network in August of 1929) and stayed with the show long after it left the airwaves on November 25, 1960.  Created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two vaudeville performers who had a talent for black dialect, the long-running serial/sitcom began as Sam ‘n’ Henry over rival Windy City station WGN in 1926; the two men left the following year after a dispute with the station…and since they were unable to use the “Sam ‘n’ Henry” name (it was still owned by WGN) they changed the name of the characters to their better known alliterative association.

Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll
Amos ‘n’ Andy was one of the Golden Age of Radio’s most durable programs in addition to most popular.  In its early years (1928-43) it was a comedy serial, and its history is documented in a first-rate McFarland book penned by my fellow Radio Spirits scribe Elizabeth McLeod, The Original Amos ‘n’ Andy.  (McLeod has always championed that the serialized Amos ‘n’ Andy presented its characters in a sympathetic fashion—that it was only when the show adopted its sitcom format that the racial stereotypes became more blatant.)  From 1943 to 1955, it was presented as a weekly half-hour sitcom, and from 1954 to 1960, the show played out its waning radio years as The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall—a weeknight program with Gosden and Correll performing skits as their characters while spinning records as disc jockeys.  Amos ‘n’ Andy made the eventual transition to television (casting African-American performers in the title and supporting roles, of course) in 1951 but CBS-TV would cancel the series two years later despite its popularity, under protest from organizations like the NAACP…and in 1966, CBS completely removed Amos ‘n’ Andy from its syndication package.  (The Wikipedia entry for Amos ‘n’ Andy notes that Rejoice TV, “a small independent television and Internet network in Houston,” reran the show in 2012…though there’s scant mention as to whether CBS, which purchased the rights to the series from its creators in 1948, brought in their team of attorneys.)

With the cancellation of The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll weren’t quite ready to abandon the characters that made them famous…and with the prompting of ABC, anxious to duplicate the success of their hit animated series The Flintstones, they came up with an idea that would allow them to continue the show in cartoon form.  It was not a new idea; a cartoon version of Amos ‘n’ Andy had actually been attempted as far back as 1934 at the Van Beuren Studios but after two entries (The Rasslin’ Match and The Lion Tamer) the series was abandoned.  This time around, Freeman and Charlie would lend their characterizations to a pair of anthropomorphic animals…and Calvin and the Colonel was born.

Charlie & Gos with their cartoon counterparts
The “Colonel” was Colonel Montgomery J. Klaxon (voiced by Gosden), a crafty Kingfish-like fox who ostensibly ran a real estate firm but more often than not was involved in any number of get-rich-quick schemes.  Like his radio counterpart, the Colonel possessed a streak of larceny and many of the Calvin and Colonel episodes would find the character cooling his heels in the cartoon animal hoosegow.  The “Andy” of the series was Calvin J. Burnside (cartoon characters seem awfully fond of “J” as a middle initial for some reason), a dimwitted bear (Correll) who, depending on the situation, either served as the Colonel’s patsy or confederate in whatever scheme Klaxon had cooking on the burner.  Calvin and the Colonel didn’t really have an “Amos” character (though Andrew “Grover” Leal has posited that that function was fulfilled in the minor character of “Gloria,” Calvin’s manicurist girlfriend voiced by Gloria Blondell) but by the time Amos ‘n’ Andy had reached its radio sitcom stage the character of Amos Jones had started to take a backseat to the Kingfish-Andy shenanigans anyway.  (An acquaintance of mine who had just started listening to the radio show once asked me: “Why isn’t this series called Kingfish ‘n’ Andy?”)

The Colonel had a Sapphire-like spouse in Maggie Belle (voiced by Virginia Gregg)—although her name is spelled “Maggi Belle” in the show’s closing credits, I’m going to go with “Maggie.”  Instead of having to put up with a mother-in-law like the Kingfish, Colonel Klaxon suffered under the domineering thumb of Susan Culpepper (Beatrice Kay)—Maggie Belle’s sister, affectionately known as “Sister Sue.”  The character of Maggie Belle is not one of Ginny’s finest thespic hours, mostly because of the severe limitations of the role (she’s there to be a constant scold to the Colonel and little else) …but Kay doesn’t come off that much better (though I do giggle when she calls The Colonel an “old foof”).  I believe this can be explained by the fact that the radio counterparts of Sapphire and “Mama” were also rather thinly written…yet I wish they had considered letting Ernestine Wade and/or Amanda Randolph perform the Maggie Belle/Sister Sue roles to give their cartoon counterparts a little more oomph.  (I can certainly understand the reluctance to do this, though.)  The remaining character on Calvin and the Colonel was “Judge” Oliver Wendell Clutch (Paul Frees)—a shady lawyer (appropriately portrayed in weasel form) who the Colonel was always asking for advice (Clutch was the show’s Stonewall/Algonquin J. Calhoun counterpart).

Bob Mosher & Joe Connelly
Calvin and the Colonel was produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher through their company Kayro Productions…and if it seems a little odd that the two men responsible for Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters would get involved with a project like this, it’s because Connelly and Mosher not only wrote many of the original half-hour Amos ‘n’ Andy radio scripts but the TV ones as well.  Many of the Calvin and Colonel teleplays are credited to Joe and Bob, mostly because they dusted off a lot of their earlier Amos ‘n’ Andy efforts and recycled them for their “funny animals.”  Even though Amos ‘n’ Andy earned a fair share of criticism for promoting unflattering racial stereotypes, there was never any real malice in the program’s content—you could read the scripts without the black dialect and still enjoy a fitfully funny sitcom…which is why Calvin and the Colonel works so well, in my opinion.  The only thing that gave me pause about the animated series was that Calvin seemed to have an eye for a lot of females who were not of the ursine persuasion (I chortled at the thought of fundamentalists having a field day with this dating “outside of his species”) though he does get engaged to a female bear in “Calvin’s Glamour Girl.”

My interest in Calvin and the Colonel was stoked by the recent purchase of three volumes of the show released by Alpha Video.  I’d previously watched an episode or two at YouTube, but the more episodes I tuck under my belt the more I enjoy this pleasurable little series.  I’ll state right off the bat that this is due in large part to my familiarity with the source material, but as someone who loves old-time radio I think like-minded folks will follow my lead.  It’s quite hooty hearing the voices of Kingfish and Andy emanate from a fox and a bear, and in addition to the regular cast you’ll hear OTR/character favorites (in various episodes) like Joe Flynn, Jesse White, Frank Nelson, Barney Phillips, Will Wright, June Foray, Howard McNear, Hans Conried, Charlie Cantor, Frank Gerstle, Marvin Miller, Elvia Allman, Forrest Lewis, Olan Soule, and Peter Leeds.  (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing.”)

It’s television animation, of course, but despite the limited budget the style of Calvin and the Colonel is reminiscent of that in the creations of Jay Ward (Rocky and His Friends) or Total Television (King Leonardo, Underdog).  A 2006 post at Michael Sporn Animation notes that the company who produced Calvin was TV Cartoons/Creston Studios (who also did the non-Jay Ward version of Crusader Rabbit), and the roster of talent that cranked out the installments included Chuck McKimson, Norm Gottfredson, Lee Mishkin, Phil Roman, John Sparey, Ben Washam, Tom McDonald, Volus Jones, Dave Weidman, Jim Davis, and Bob Bemiller—“They were more WB & Disney people unlike the Hanna Barbera shows which initially seemed to use more of their MGM cohorts.”

That post also observes that Calvin and the Colonel was the “second prime time show to premiere” after The Flintstones—which I don’t think is entirely accurate if The Bugs Bunny Show is worked into the equation (you can argue that the animation on Bugs had already appeared in motion picture theatres…but the segments that introduced the cartoons had not).  (Television Obscurities notes that CBS Cartoon Theater even predated The Flintstones by four years—though like Bugs, the show featured shorts previously unspooled in theatres.)  It is accurate to say that the success of that “modern Stone Age family” ushered in a slew of prime-time cartoon efforts in the 1961-62 season, with Calvin joined by the premiers of The Bullwinkle Show (okay, technically a continuation of Rocky and His Friends), The Alvin Show, and Top CatCalvin only lasted two months in its 8:30pm Tuesday slot (stiff competition from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) before it returned in January of the following year to a Saturday time slot (7:30pm) to fulfill its obligation to sponsor Lever Brothers.  It then made Saturday a permanent home—mornings, that is—for another year before fading from the small screen landscape.

Calvin and The Colonel working for the sponsor.
Though produced in color, Calvin and the Colonel originally aired in black-and-white…which is why so many of the prints you’ll find at YouTube and elsewhere are presented in monochromatic form (most of the sources I’ve consulted question as to whether the series was ever syndicated), except for the program’s inaugural episode, “The Television Job”…

…which I will graciously share here with you until some hoser pulls the YouTube plug.  “Job” (the black-and-white version), “The Polka Dot Bandit,” “Thanksgiving Dinner,” and “The Costume Ball” are featured on Alpha’s first volume of the series, while Volume 2 includes “Sycamore Lodge,” “Wheeling and Dealing,” “Sister Sue’s Sweetheart,” and “Nephew Newton’s Fortune.”  (“Wheeling” is one of my favorite Calvin outings—The Colonel is under orders from the women in his life to ship Nephew Newton’s car to him out on the West Coast…but he and Calvin have a mishap that results in Newton's ride being filled with cement.  It’s an unusual episode in that The Colonel emerges victorious in this one—at the end of the show, he breaks the fourth wall as he enjoys breakfast in bed: “I know I didn’t earn all this love and affection, but…I’m a married man, so I’m gonna take what little I can get.”)

But if you’re like me and there’s often too much month at the end of the money, Volume 3 is the Alpha Calvin and the Colonel collection is the one you should get—it features four color episodes in “The Colonel’s Old Flame,” “Sister Sue and the Police Captain” (this one was an episode I watched on YouTube—in color!—but it has apparently been yanked), “Calvin’s Glamour Girl,” and “Colonel Out-Foxes Himself.”  This last one is very funny (it’s the one on which I heard Conried and Cantor), as The Colonel attempts “The Pocketbook Swindle” after it’s been pulled on him…with unsuccessful results.  Animation history king Jerry Beck calls the show “illustrated radio” …which is certainly fair, though I’ve heard the same term applied to much of the Hanna-Barbera product as well, and Calvin and the Colonel can certainly hold its own with Huck, Yogi, and the rest of my childhood heroes.

I told Grover I'd only buy these dolls if one of them said "Holy mackerel, Calvin!"

Dell Comics published two Calvin and the Colonel comic books in 1962 (one of which was in their “Four Color” series, which is why the second issue was labeled “#2”) and Milton Bradley released a board game to capitalize on the (non)popularity of the program (Leal also notes that there were “Calvin” and “The Colonel” dolls available for purchase—they talk, too!—and Beck has published this image of a C&C coloring book)—you can find the board game/comic books on eBay, if you’re curious.  I’d settle for a DVD release of the complete series only because I believe it’s much better than its reputation and it doesn’t deserve its current obscurity.


Unknown said...

Noticing that you didn't mention what was (my opinion at least) the most memorable part of Calvin and the Colonel - the theme music.

George Bruns was a Hollywood musical stand-by for many years, mainly at Disney.
My favorite credit of his - one that the C&C theme brought sharply to mind - was as the relief man of The Firehouse 5 + 2, the Disney animators who moonlighted as a Dixieland band for many years (and many good-selling LPs from Good Time Jazz). Many of the FH5+2 had regular work schedules that got in the way of band bookings; when one or another couldn't get away, George Bruns would step in on piano, tuba, or whatever else came to hand.

The Calvin theme, with a slightly more varied chart, caught my pre-adolescent fancy, which made ABC's early bailout hurt just a bit.

Anyway, I just thought I'd mention it ...

glynis37 said...

You left out the cringe-worthy Check and Double Check (1930), with Gosden and Correll in blackface.

rnigma said...

Whenever I see Elizabeth McLeod on shows such as "History Detectives," she's always dressed in 1940s clothing. Is this an eccentricity, or can she not afford newer clothes?

True, when A&A went to its sitcom format, it could have been called "Kingfish & Andy." The only time Amos had any prominence by then was on the Christmas show, when Amos interpreted the Lord's Prayer for his daughter (also done on the TV version).

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

rnigma did some channel surfing:

Whenever I see Elizabeth McLeod on shows such as "History Detectives," she's always dressed in 1940s clothing. Is this an eccentricity, or can she not afford newer clothes?

I'm tempted to make a joke about how both of us work for Radio Spirits...but I want to continue working for Radio Spirits.