A Thanksgiving Cornucopia of Old Time Radio Shows

First off, I apologize to everyone for being late with this week’s post. The flu struck. But I wanted to be sure and get out a nice Thanksgiving offering to all our readers.

The Holiday marathon from November to December often requires a lot of travel. Many people travel to see their friends and family during this time. Sometimes this means that people spend hours stuck at airports or crammed into cars. If you are very unlucky, like those poor people snowbound in Buffalo, New York, a few unpleasant hours can transform into days.

To help turn long hours of boredom into something a bit more festive, I have gathered together a few of the comedy greats and their Thanksgiving radio shows.

The Jack Benny Radio Show

First up we have The Jack Benny Radio Show. Jack is “widely recognized as one of the leading American entertainers of the 20th century”. He was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, Illinois on February 14, 1894. Jack began playing the violin when he was six years old and by age seventeen, he was “playing violin in local vaudeville theaters for $7.50 a week”. During World War II, Jack joined the Navy and often played his violin to entertain the troops.

During his time in vaudeville, a succession of legal protests from other entertainers resulted in a slow name change for Jack. When he performed as Benjamin Kubelsky in a musical duo with a lady pianist, another violinist, Jan Kubelik was afraid his reputation would be damaged. Kubelik sued and Benjamin Kubelsky became Ben K. Benny. As Ben K. Benny, Jack performed a “Fiddle Funology”. But another fiddle and patter performer, Ben Bernie, did not like the similar names and sued. So Ben K. Benny became Jack Benny.

Funny how these long forgotten performers were so worried that Jack’s performances would hurt their reputations.

Eventually Jack Benny made it into the movies and onto radio. In 1932, Jack was invited to a guest spot on Ed Sullivan’s radio show. Jack opened his first radio appearance with:
“This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say “Who cares?”…”

Later that year, Jack got his own radio program on NBC radio. That lasted until 1948 when his show moved to CBS radio. Jack’s show ran on CBS until 1955.

For our Cornucopia of Thanksgiving Radio Shows, we have Jack Benny’s program from November 19, 1939. Jack’s programs featured a “loose show-within-a-show format, wherein the main characters were playing versions of themselves”. Jack played himself as “a comic, vain, penny-pinching miser”. He was joined by a variety of regulars and semi-regulars including his announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day playing a naïve and rather silly young man, real-life wife Mary Livingstone playing a “Mary Livingstone” character that changed from show to show, band leader Phil Harris, and Eddie Anderson as Jack’s valet and chauffeur Rochester.

This Thanksgiving program centers around Jack’s plans for Thanksgiving dinner, Mary’s Thanksgiving poem, and Jack’s unusually large “turkey”. The program’s sponsor at this time was Jell-O (Jack’s program was so popular and so good at selling Jell-O that when sugar was in short supply during World War II, Jell-O had to stop its commercials on The Jack Benny Show because they could not keep up with consumer demand).

Besides the comic patter between the characters, the show also included a song by Dennis Day and musical selections by Phil Harris’s orchestra. In this program, Dennis sings “I Dream of Genie with the Light Brown Hair” and Jack and company slide in a few jokes about Jack’s hair. Mary’s Thanksgiving poem is titled “Thanksgiving, You’re a Little Mixed Up, Aren’t You, Kid?” and ends with “What’s the difference? What the heck? The turkey’s the guy that gets it in the neck.” Jack, the cheapest person to ever live, boasts about his turkey, “I’ve got the biggest, fattest, juiciest turkey you ever saw.” Don asks, “Where’d you run over it?” Don is right to worry. There is something suspiciously wrong about the “turkey”. Rochester exclaims that every time he goes to check on the turkey “She sticks her head in a bucket of sand”. What kind of turkey does that?

The Burns and Allen Show

Our second Thanksgiving radio show stars one of the great duos of comedy: George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen. George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1896. He was the ninth of twelve children. When his father died during the influenza epidemic of 1903, little George went to work to help support his family. By age seven he was working as a syrup maker in a local candy shop and he and his three young co-workers were also singing on street corners as The Pee Wee Quartet. He took the stage name “George Burns” when he started working on stage in vaudeville.

In 1923, George met, and immediately fell in love with, a young Irish Catholic lady named Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen. They launched a comedy partnership that lasted for the rest of their lives. George always valued his wife and partner; he is quoted as having said, “And all of a sudden, the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent – and I was married to her for 38 years”. They started out with George playing the comic and Gracie the straight man but Gracie, with her high-pitched voice, was getting much more laughs. George switched their roles and started to play straight man to Gracie’s hilarious “illogical logic”. The change was hugely successful. They married in 1926 and later adopted a daughter and a son.

George and Gracie started their radio careers as comedy relief on bandleader Guy Lombardo’s show. They got their own show on February 15, 1932. At first, their show centered on their flirtation, as they played unmarried singles. But eventually George realized their ratings were slipping and they changed to playing versions of themselves as a married couple who were also stars of their own radio show. After the change, their ratings soared and their show “received and maintained  a Top 10 rating for the rest of its radio life”.

The Burns and Allen Radio Show started out on NBC radio. In 1949, after 12 years on NBC, George and Gracie, as well as Jack Benny and other radio stars, moved to CBS radio. In 1950, their radio show moved to CBS television.

George and Gracie’s Thanksgiving radio show from November 17, 1942 is titled the “Hat Box Hostage”. The show was sponsored by Swann’s Soap and begins with George complaining about the family budget. He does not understand how they spend so much money especially on milk for cats when they have no cats. Gracie quickly explains, “No, but we have mice.” “Well, I don’t get it,” says George. Gracie gives her “logical illogic” explanation, “Well, if I put bowls of milk all around the house the mice will think we have cats and they’ll be afraid to come out of the hole.”

They are visited by one of their regulars, a very depressed postman, and then by their announcer Bill Goodwin. Bill turns the patter between the characters into a Swann’s Soap commercial that fits right into the storyline. Like Jack Benny’s show, there is a song, “When the Lights Go On Again” by singer Jimmy Cash. Then it’s back to the story with Gracie shopping for Thanksgiving dinner. To save money, Gracie buys a live three pound turkey to fatten up themselves. George is not too happy about it, “He isn’t very friendly. He looks like he’s thinking of biting my nose off.” Gracie responds, “Well, look what you’re thinking of doing to him!”

Gracie’s pet duck, Herman, is not very happy about the presence of the turkey – at least at first. Herman the duck and the turkey first fight then fall in love. George says, “Get this – love comes to Herman Burns.” A little later, Gracie tells George he can not eat the turkey, “George, I won’t let you touch that turkey. It would be inhuman, that’s what it would be.”  “What would be inhuman?” asks George. Gracie explains, “To eat our son’s fiancé for Thanksgiving dinner!” The show features another musical number and Bill Goodwin comes back to turn the story into another Swann’s Soap commercial. Finally George and Gracie come up with a solution for their turkey problem.

The Abbott and Costello Radio Program

Our final Thanksgiving radio program is the Abbott and Costello Radio Program from November 25, 1943. William (Bud) Abbott and Lou Costello (born Louis Francis Cristillo) were “an American comedy duo whose work in radio, film, and television made them one of the most popular teams in the history of comedy”.

Abbott and Costello began their comedy partnership in vaudeville in 1929. Abbott played straight man to Costello’s “bumbling, wisecracking man-child”. In 1938, they were signed for a series of appearances on Kate Smith’s radio show and they were a big hit with their vaudeville routines. In 1940, they did a summer replacement radio show for Fred Allen’s show. On October 8, 1942, Abbott and Costello launched their own radio show sponsored by Camel Cigarettes on NBC radio. In 1947, their radio show moved to ABC radio where they also did a Saturday morning children’s radio show, The Abbott and Costello Children’s Show, featuring a little girl vocalist and a little boy announcer.

Abbott and Costello’s regular radio program featured many guest stars. On this Thanksgiving program, the guest star was actress Jane Wyman. Abbott claims he will not be hosting Thanksgiving dinner, “You’ll get no turkey at my house.” So Costello has an idea, “OK, make it duck.” “Duck?” “Yeah,” Costello explains, “Duck, You know. That’s chicken with snow shoes on.” Abbott is very condescending and claims he only eats the finest cuisine with the “snotty set” and Costello is not quite good enough, “Why, I couldn’t even ask my butler to serve you for dinner.” Costello misunderstands, “Serve ME for dinner? What kinda people come to your house? Cannibals?” “No, no, no, no,” assures Abbott. Costello is still suspicious, “Dracula? Frankenstein?”

Abbott wants to have Thanksgiving dinner at Costello’s house and he wants Costello to cook Costello’s pet turkey Ingrid. Costello is appalled and so is the turkey who makes a break for freedom. Like our other two radio programs, Abbott and Costello’s program has breaks for musical numbers, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”, and songs, “Shoo Shoo, Baby”. And there are commercials for Camel Cigarettes sprinkled throughout.

Of course, the best thing about these three funny Thanksgiving programs is that they are all FREE in the Public Domain.

All three of our radio programs have been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. All three of these recordings can be downloaded or listened to online at the Internet Archive. All three are crisp and clear and very funny. Especially keep your ears open for a guest appearance of Bugs Bunny on the Abbott and Costello Radio Program. And the quackings of Herman Burns the Duck on the Burns and Allen Show is hilarious. Enjoy!

Please click this link to listen to or download The Jack Benny Radio Show for November 19, 1939: “Jack Buys an Ostrich for Thanksgiving”.

Pease click this link to listen to or download The Burns and Allen Show for November 17, 1942: “Hat Box Hostage”.

Please click this link to listen to or download The Abbott and Costello Radio Program for November 25, 1943: “Turkey Dinner”.

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