Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Old Time Radio Proves My Powers of Observation Are Acute

I admire a lot of old time radio comedy. The Life Of Riley, the Jack Benny Program, Fibber McGee and Molly all seem like perfect gems, finely honed and brilliantly executed. Our Miss Brooks too. But the one I simply cannot understand is The Great Guildersleeve.

If you haven't heard the show, it's a warm family sitcom about Throckmorton P. Guildersleeve, a bachelor who is raising his nephew and neice in a small town of which Guildersleeve is the water commisioner. He is bumbling and self-important. I've heard this show for years on KNX, a local news station which turns over an hour a night to stuff like this, and for years I've wondered why the hell this show was ever greenlighted. My biggest problem with it has been that Willard Waterman's Guildersleeve seems to be a lame version of a more interesting character. He should be a charicature, but he's been watered-down and warmed over and served as mild, bland fare. It's like My Three Sons starring Rip Taylor, only a straight Rip Taylor.

I finally did a little research into the history of the show, and my instincts were dead-on.

Firstly, the character is a spinoff. He was a regular visitor on Fibber McGee and Molly.

On Fibber McGee and Molly, Gildersleeve was a pompous windbag who became a consistent McGee nemesis. "You're a haa-aa-aa-aard man, McGee!" became a Gildersleeve catch phrase. The character was given several conflicting first names on Fibber McGee and Molly, and on one episode his middle name was revealed as Philharmonic.
So, a character designed to be on for two minutes a week. Hence the wacky name! I knew he was a spinoff from something. However the character was another step removed from its orgins in a way I hasn't anticipated - Willard Waterman didn't even orginate the character. The REAL Guildersleeve was Harold Peary, who played him all during the 30s and 40s. In the early fifties CBS orchestrated a talent raid and lured a lot of NBC's pricey stars to their radio network. They got Peary but they didn't get Guildersleeve. Peary was so identified with the character that his show flopped, though he did manage to make it onto the television version of McGee playing Mayor LaTrivia, the role originated by Gale Gordon on radio.

Waterman was a long-time friend of Peary who had a very similar voice, but when he took over the role he refused to do Peary's signature laugh, which is something to behold.

Poor CBS! Spending all that money on radio stars just as radio was sinking into unprofitability. 20 years later they did the same thing in reverse: they had great ratings with The Beverly Hillbillies and all those spinoffs but the demographics sucked (not enough young viewers) so they canceled them and got hipper new shows.
Anyway, show business history is littered with stories of lame-o spinoffs from popular shows, but this appears to be an early example. And it lasted for 15 years! No wonder they kept trying it.


  1. The show wasn't as bad as your take on it.

    Like Jack Benny, Guildersleeve was surrounded by others in the cast who kept him "level": Leroy his nephew & Beulah, the housekeeper/cook had some of the funniest lines. Peavey,the drug store owner, also had his "time" every week. Others added to the fray.

    Also, you might not remember it but "Guildersleeve" was also a short-lived TV Series.

    Many thanks for the site, you do good work !

    Jim/St. Louis

  2. Actually, Gildersleeve's maid was called Birdie. Beulah was the McGee's housekeeper