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Jim and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly in 1937
|Home station||WMAQ AM|
|Air dates||April 16, 1935 to October 2, 1959|
|No. of episodes||1611|
Jim and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly in 1937
|Home station||WMAQ AM|
|Air dates||April 16, 1935 to October 2, 1959|
|No. of episodes||1611|
Fibber McGee and Molly is an American radio comedy series which maintained its popularity over decades. It premiered on NBC in 1935 and continued until its demise in 1959, long after radio had ceased to be the dominant form of entertainment in American popular culture.
The stars of the program were real-life husband and wife team James "Jim" Jordan (16 November 1896–1 April 1988) and Marian Driscoll (15 April 1898–7 April 1961), who were natives of Peoria, Illinois.
Jordan was the seventh of eight children born to James Edward Jordan and Mary (née Tighe) Jordan, while Driscoll was the seventh and last child born to Daniel P. and Anna (née Carroll) Driscoll. The son of a farmer, Jim wanted to be a singer; Marian, the daughter of a coal miner, wanted to be a music teacher. Both attended the same Catholic church, where they met at choir practice. Marian's parents had attempted to discourage her professional singing and acting aspirations. When she started seeing young Jim Jordan, the Driscolls were far from approving of Jim and his ideas. Jim's voice teacher gave him a recommendation for work as a professional in Chicago, and he followed it. He was able to have steady work but soon tired of the life on the road. In less than a year, Jim came back to Peoria and went to work for the Post Office. His profession was now acceptable to Marian's parents, and they stopped objecting to the couple's marriage plans. The pair were married in Peoria on August 31, 1918.
Five days after the wedding, Jim received his draft notice. He was sent to France and became part of a military touring group which entertained the armed forces after World War I. When Jim came home from France, he and Marian decided to try their luck with a vaudeville act. They had two children, Kathryn Therese Jordan (1920–2007) and James Carroll Jordan (1923–1998), both born in Peoria. Marian returned home for the birth of Kathryn but went back to performing with Jim, leaving her daughter with Jim's parents. After Jim Jr. was born in 1923, Marian stayed with the children for a time, while Jim performed as a solo act. Marian and the children joined him on the road for a short time, but the couple had to admit defeat when they found themselves in Lincoln, Illinois in 1923 with two small children and no funds. The couple's parents had to wire them money for their return to Peoria. Jim went to work at a local department store but still felt the attraction of being in show business. He and Marian went back into vaudeville.
While staying with Jim's brother in Chicago in 1924, the family was listening to the radio; Jim said that he and Marian could do better than the musical act currently on the air. Jim's brother bet him $10 that they could not. To win the bet, Jim and Marian went to WIBO, where they were immediately put on the air. At the end of the performance, the station offered the couple a contract for a weekly show which paid $10 per week. The sponsor of the show was Oh Henry! candy, and they appeared for six months on The Oh Henry! Twins program, switching to radio station WENR by 1927.
When it appeared to the couple that they were financially successful, they built a home in Chicago which was a replica of their rented home, complete to building it on the lot next door. For their 1939 move to the West Coast, the Jordans selected an inconspicuous home in Encino. Some of Jim Jordan's investments included the bottling company for Hires Root Beer in Kansas City.
Fibber McGee and Molly originated when the small-time husband-and-wife vaudevillians began their third year as Chicago-area radio performers. Two of the shows they did for station WENR beginning in 1927, both written by Harry Lawrence, bore traces of what was to come and rank as one of the earliest forms of situation comedy. In their Luke and Mirandy farm-report program, Jim played a farmer who was given to tall tales and face-saving lies for comic effect. In a weekly comedy, The Smith Family, Marian's character was an Irish wife of an American police officer. These characterizations, plus the Jordans' change from being singers/musicians to comic actors, pointed toward their future; it was here where Marian developed and perfected the radio character "Tini". It was also at WENR where the Jordans met Donald Quinn, a cartoonist who was then working in radio, and the couple hired him as their writer in 1931. They regarded Quinn's contribution as important and included him as a full partner; the salary for Smackout and Fibber McGee and Molly was split between the Jordans and Quinn.
While working on the WENR farm report, Jim Jordan heard a true story about a shopkeeper from Missouri whose store was brimming with stock, yet he claimed to be "smack out" of whatever a customer would ask him for. The story reached the halls of nearby Columbia College, and the students began visiting the store, which they called "Smackout", to hear the owner's incredible stories.
For station WMAQ in Chicago, beginning in April 1931, the trio created Smackout, a 15-minute daily program which centered on a general store and its proprietor, Luke Grey (Jim Jordan), a storekeeper with a penchant for tall tales and a perpetual dearth of whatever his customers wanted: He always seemed "smack out of it." Marian Jordan portrayed both a lady named Marian and a little girl named Tini, as well as accompanying the program on piano. During the show's run, Marian Jordan voiced a total of 69 different characters. Smackout was picked up by NBC in April 1933 and broadcast nationally until August 1935.
One of the S. C. Johnson company's owners, Henrietta Johnson Lewis, recommended that her husband, John, Johnson Wax's advertising manager, try the show out on a national network. The terms of the agreement between S. C. Johnson and the Jordans awarded the company ownership of the names "Fibber McGee" and "Molly".
If Smackout proved the Jordan-Quinn union's viability, their next creation proved their most enduring. Amplifying Luke Grey's tall talesmanship to Midwestern braggadocio, Quinn developed Fibber McGee and Molly with Jim as the foible-prone Fibber and Marian playing his patient, common sense, honey-natured wife. The show premiered on NBC April 16, 1935, and though it took three seasons to become an irrevocable hit, it became the country's top-rated radio series. In 1935, Jim Jordan won the Burlington Liars' Club championship with a story about catching an elusive rat.
Existing in a kind of Neverland where money never came in, schemes never stayed out for very long, yet no one living or visiting went wanting, 79 Wistful Vista (the McGees' address from show #20, August 1935 onward) became the home Depression-exhausted Americans visited to remind themselves that they were not the only ones finding cheer in the middle of struggle and doing their best not to make it overt. The McGees won their house in a raffle from Mr. Hagglemeyer's Wistful Vista Development Company, with lottery ticket #131,313, happened upon by chance while on a pleasure drive in their car. With blowhard McGee wavering between mundane tasks and hare-brained schemes (like digging an oil well in the back yard), antagonizing as many people as possible, and patient Molly indulging his foibles and providing loving support, not to mention a tireless parade of neighbors and friends in and out of the quiet home, Fibber McGee and Molly built its audience steadily, but once it found the full volume of that audience in 1940, they rarely let go of it.
Marian Jordan took a protracted absence from the show from November 1937 to April 1939 to deal with a lifelong battle with alcoholism, although this was attributed to "fatigue" in public statements at the time. The show was retitled Fibber McGee and Company during this interregnum, with scripts cleverly working around Molly's absence (Fibber making a speech at a convention, etc.). Comedienne ZaSu Pitts appeared on the Fibber McGee and Company show, as did singer Donald Novis. In January 1939, the show moved from NBC Chicago to the new NBC West Coast Radio City in Hollywood.
Fibber McGee and Molly was one of the earliest radio comedies to use regular characters, nearly all of whom had recurring phrases and running gags. These included:
Much of the show's humor relied on recurring gags, unseen regulars and punchlines that sometimes popped up here and there for years. The show would usually open the 29-and-a-half minute broadcast with the audience in full laughter with Harlow Wilcox announcing, "The Johnson Wax Program with Fibber McGee and Molly!" In the episode of December 19, 1944, "Fibber Snoops For Presents In Closet" (at 3:59 is a perfect example of the "Hall Closet," a running gag described in detail later in this entry), Jim Jordan can be caught at the end of his audience warm-up evoking the opening laughter by quipping, "10 seconds? Oh, we got a lot of.... Ooooo!"
For most of the show's history, the usual order of the show is the introduction followed by a Johnson Wax plug by Harlow then his introduction to Section 1 of the script (usually 11 minutes). Billy Mills usually follows with an instrumental (or accompanied by Martha Tilton in 1941). That musical interlude then segues to Section 2 of the script, followed by a performance by the vocal group, The Kings Men (occasionally featuring a solo by leader Ken Darby). The final act then ensues, with the last line usually showing the lesson learned that day, a final commercial, and then Billy Mills' theme song to fade. Later, Harlow would meet up and visit with the McGees and work in a Johnson Wax commercial, sometimes assisted by Fibber and Molly.
When McGee tells a bad joke, Molly often answers with the line "T'aint funny, McGee!" which became a familiar catch phrase during the 1940s. Molly's Uncle Dennis is one of the more common rarely heard regulars. He lives with the McGees, and is apparently an enormous alcoholic, becoming a punch line for many Fibber jokes and even the main subject of some shows in which he "disappeared."
There are numerous references and jokes about the fact that Fibber doesn't have a regular job. Mayor LaTrivia often offers McGee jobs at City Hall, and the jobs usually sound exciting when the duties are vaguely described, but they sometimes end up being very mundane. For instance, a job "looking in on the higher-ups at City Hall" turns out to be a window-cleaning job. Another interesting assignment was for Fibber to work in disguise for days at a time as the Wistful Vista Santa Claus.
McGee is very proud of past deeds, sometimes recalling an interesting nickname he picked up over the years. Each one of these nicknames is, as usual with Fibber, a bad pun. When someone told a man named Addison that McGee was a glib talker, McGee became known as "Ad Glib McGee." Or, when Fibber made expressions with his eyes, he was nicknamed "Eyes-a-muggin' McGee" (a play on the popular Stuff Smith swing tune "I'se A-muggin'"). From there Fibber jumps headfirst into a long, breathless and boastful description of his nickname, using an admirable amount of alliteration.
Mentioned for a time on the program was Otis Cadwallader, who was a schoolmate of Fibber and Molly in Peoria and Molly's boyfriend before McGee. Fibber has a long-standing grudge against Otis, making him out to seem like a self-centered, overblown hack, even though seemingly everyone else sees Cadwallader as a lovely, dashing man. Otis's feelings toward Fibber are never mentioned, giving the impression that Fibber's grudge is one-sided. As revealed late in 1942, Fibber's anger is actually a front to keep Cadwallader away, as Fibber once borrowed money from Otis and never paid it back.
The "corner of 14th and Oak" in downtown Wistful Vista was routinely given as a location for various homes, places of business and government buildings throughout the show's run.
Whenever someone asks the time it's always half-past.
McGee has a reputation for telling tall tales, and there are occasional jokes linking this propensity to his name "Fibber". In the episode "Fibber Changes His Name" (March 25, 1941), we learn that "Fibber" is his actual given name and not just a nickname. According to McGee, "I was named after my fourth cousin, Walpole J. Fimmer...but the minister who christened me had a cold in his head."
None of the show's running gags was as memorable or enduring as The Closet—McGee's frequently opening and cacophonous closet, bric-a-brac clattering down and out and, often enough, over McGee's or Molly's heads. "I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days" was the usual McGee observation once the racket subsided. Naturally, "one of these days" almost never arrived. A good thing, too: in one famous instance, when a burglar (played by Bob Bruce) tied up McGee, McGee informed him cannily that the family's silver was "right through that door, bud... just yank it open, bud!" Naturally, the burglar took the bait and naturally, he was buried in the inevitable avalanche, long enough for the police to apprehend him.
This gag appears to have begun with the March 5, 1940 show, "Cleaning the Closet." Molly opens the closet looking for the dictionary and is promptly buried in Fibber's "stuff" ("arranged in there just the way I want it.") Cleaning out the closet becomes the show's plot, inventorying much of the contents along the way: a photo album, a rusty horseshoe, a ten-foot pole. After repacking the closet, Fibber realizes the dictionary has been put away too — and he opens the closet again. This episode also features a cameo by Gracie Allen, running for president on the Surprise Party ticket. Toward the end the September 30, 1941 show, "Back from Vacation; Gildy Says Goodbye," next-door nemesis Gildersleeve --- who has moved to Summerfield to finish raising his orphaned niece and nephew (and already begun his successful spin-off show The Great Gildersleeve), but has come back to Wistful Vista to wind up his affairs there, in a farewell to the show that made him famous --- opens the closet to be buried in the usual avalanche.
On at least one occasion, the gag is flipped, and the closet is silent: in "Too Much Energy" (broadcast January 23, 1945), visiting Dr. Gamble makes to leave. Molly warns, "No, Doctor, not through that door, that's the hall closet!" As the audience chuckles slightly in anticipation, Fibber explains: "Oh I forgot to tell you, Molly, I straightened out the hall closet this morning!" This was certainly not the end of the gag, though, as the closet soon became cluttered once again, leading to many more disasters.
Like many such trademarks, the clattering closet began as a one-time stunt, but "the closet" was developed carefully, not being overused (it rarely appeared in more than two consecutive installments, though it never disappeared for the same length, either, at the height of its identification, and it rarely collapsed at exactly the same time from show to show), and it became the best-known running sound gag in American radio's classic period. Jack Benny's basement vault alarm ran a distant second. Both of these classic sound effects were performed by Ed Ludes and Virgil Rhymer, Hollywood-based NBC staff sound effects creators. Exactly what tumbled out of McGee's closet each time was never clear (except to these sound-effects men), but what signaled the end of the avalanche was always the same sound: a clear, tiny, household hand bell and McGee's inevitable postmortem. "Fibber McGee's closet" entered the American vernacular as a catch phrase synonymous with household clutter.
Each episode also featured an appearance by announcer Harlow Wilcox, whose job it was to weave the second ad for the sponsor into the plot without having to break the show for a real commercial. Wilcox's introductory pitch lines were usually met with groans or humorously sarcastic lines by Fibber. During the many years that the show was sponsored by Johnson Wax, Fibber nicknamed Wilcox "Waxy", due to Wilcox's constant praises of their various products, and during the years the show was sponsored by Pet Milk, Fibber changed the nickname to "Milky". In a style not unusual for the classic radio years, the show was typically introduced as, "The Johnson Wax Program, with Fibber McGee and Molly." Johnson Wax sponsored the show through 1950; Pet Milk through 1952; and, until the show's final half-hour episode in mid-1953, Reynolds Aluminum. Fibber sometimes referred to Harlow as "Harpo".
The show also used two musical numbers per episode to break the comedy routines into sections. For most of the show's run, there would be one vocal number by The King's Men (a vocal quartet: Ken Darby, Rad Robinson, Jon Dodson, and Bud Linn), and an instrumental by The Billy Mills Orchestra. For a short time in the early 1940s, Martha Tilton would sing what was formerly the instrumental.
Before and during America's involvement in World War II, references to or about the war and the members of the Axis Powers were commonplace on the show. Just after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Jim Jordan, out of character, soberly ended the Fibber McGee show by inviting the studio audience to sing "America". During the show of December 14, the Mayor is seeking a globe in order to keep up with current events. Molly tells him to buy one quickly, "--while Japan is still on it...", receiving thunderous applause from the studio audience.
Also commonplace were calls to action to buy war bonds (both through announcements and subtle references written into the script), and condemnation of food and supply hoarding. Though understandably part of the backlash reaction toward the Pearl Harbor attack, some jokes about the Empire of Japan certainly would be considered politically incorrect on today's airwaves. For instance, in the episode "Fix-It McGee", aired three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Fibber tells Mayor LaTrivia his "great slogan" for the war bond campaign: "Every time you buy a bond, you slap a Jap across the pond." The term "Jap" was in common usage in virtually all American media during this period.
On the other hand, the Jordans gladly cooperated in turning the show over to a half-hour devoted entirely to patriotic music on the day of the D-Day invasion in 1944, with the couple speaking only at the opening and the closing of the broadcast. This show remains available to collectors amidst many a Fibber McGee and Molly packaging.
When the shows were broadcast overseas by the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), all three commercials were eliminated from the program. Harlow Wilcox's middle ad was edited out, and the two advertisements at the beginning and end of the show were replaced by musical numbers, so that the show on AFRS would have two numbers by Billy Mills and the Orchestra, and two by The King's Men.
The Jordans were experts at transforming the ethnic humor of vaudeville into more rounded comic characters, no doubt due in part to the affection felt for the famous supporting cast members who voiced these roles, including Bill Thompson (as the Old Timer and Wimple), Harold Peary (as Gildersleeve), Gale Gordon (as LaTrivia), Arthur Q. Bryan (as Dr. Gamble; Bryan also voiced Elmer Fudd for the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, which also borrowed lines from Fibber McGee and Molly from time to time), Isabel Randolph (as Mrs. Uppington), Marlin Hurt (a white male who played in dialect the McGee's maid, Beulah), and others. They were also expert at their own running gags and catch phrases, many of which entered the American vernacular: "That ain't the way I heeard it!"; "'T'ain't funny, McGee!" and "Heavenly days!" were the three best known.
Fibber McGee and Molly spun two supporting characters off into their own shows. By far the most successful and popular was Harold Peary's Gildersleeve, spun into The Great Gildersleeve in 1941. This show introduced single parenthood of a sort to creative broadcasting: the pompous, previously married Gildersleeve now moved to Summerfield, became single (although the missing wife was never explained), and raised his orphaned, spirited niece and nephew, while dividing his time between running his manufacturing business and (eventually) becoming the town water commissioner. In one episode, the McGees arrived in Summerfield for a visit with their old neighbor with hilarious results: McGee inadvertently learns Gildersleeve is engaged, and he practically needs to be chloroformed to perpetuate the secret a little longer.
Peary returned the favor in a memorable 1944 Fibber McGee & Molly episode in which neither of the title characters appeared: Jim Jordan was recovering from a bout of pneumonia (this would be written into the show the following week, when the Jordans returned), and the story line involved Gildersleeve and nephew Leroy hoping to visit the McGees at home during a train layover in Wistful Vista, but finding Fibber and Molly not at home. At the end of the episode, Gildersleeve discovers the couple had left in a hurry that morning when they received Gildy's letter saying he would be stopping over in Wistful Vista.
Jim and Marian Jordan themselves occasionally appeared on other programs, away from their Fibber and Molly characters. One memorable episode of Suspense ("Backseat Driver," 02-03-1949) cast the Jordans as victims of a car-jacking; Jim Jordan's tense, interior monologues were especially dramatic.
The Jordans portrayed their characters in four movies. In the early years of the radio show, they were supporting characters in the 1937 Paramount film This Way Please, starring Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Betty Grable. Once the show hit its stride, they had leading roles in the RKO Radio Pictures films Look Who's Laughing (1941), Here We Go Again (1942), and Heavenly Days (1944).
The first two RKO films are generally considered the best, as they co-star fellow radio stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Harold Peary also appears in both as Gildersleeve, with Arthur Q. Bryan, Bill Thompson, Harlow Wilcox, Gale Gordon, and Isabel Randolph appearing in both their show roles and as other characters. Bill Thompson in Look Who's Laughing played two parts: The pushy sales-man, and the man who shouted "It's Hillary Horton". Gale Gordon played Otis Cadwalader, Molly's ex-boyfriend in Here We Go Again. Arthur Q. Bryan played the Mayor's aide in Look Who's Laughing. The Jordans' participation in Look Who's Laughing was set up in the Fibber McGee & Molly episode "Amusement Park" (6/17/41), in which Gale Gordon played an RKO pictures representative who followed the McGees around the amusement park and chose the McGees as a representative American couple to star in a movie with Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The day before the film's real-life premiere in San Francisco, the movie had its fictional opening in Wistful Vista during that week's radio episode, and Bergen and McCarthy made a guest appearance ("Premiere of Look Who's Laughing" (11/11/41)).
Look Who's Laughing has been released on VHS as part of the Lucille Ball Collection, and Here We Go Again has been released on VHS in rental format only. Look Who's Laughing, Here We Go Again and Heavenly Days have been shown on Turner Classic Movies.
Other films featured the McGees' neighbors. The first film was called Comin' Round the Mountain (1940) and featured the McGees' neighbors The Old-Timer (played by Bill Thompson) and Gildersleeve, as the mayor of the town. Gildersleeve's character was in many other films before The Great Gildersleeve show and movies. Abigale Uppington is in the film County Fair along with Harold Peary, and his future radio show co-star Shirley Mitchell (who also played Leila Ransom in The Great Gildersleeve).
An attempt at getting the McGees onto television came in September 1959, produced by William Asher for NBC (and co-sponsored by Singer Corporation and Standard Brands), with younger actors Bob Sweeney and Cathy Lewis in the roles. The show also featured Harold Peary as Mayor LaTrivia, rather than as Gildersleeve. The show was unable to recreate the flavor and humor of the original and did not survive its first season; in fact, it did not even last through January 1960. But the Jordans themselves had resisted television far earlier. "They were trying to push us into TV, and we were reluctant," Jim Jordan told an interviewer many years later. "Our friends advised us, 'Don't do it until you need to. You have this value in radio—milk it dry.'"
In 1953, Marian Jordan's periodic health problems necessitated the shortening of Fibber McGee and Molly into a nightly fifteen-minute program, recorded without a studio audience in single sessions, the better to enable Jordan to rest. This timing was sadly appropriate, as classic radio had entered its dying days. Still, the McGees remained favorite presences on radio even after the quarter-hour edition ended in 1956, appearing in shorts from 1957 to 1959 on the NBC's Monitor radio program as Just Molly and Me.
Radio historian Gerald S. Nachman has written that the Jordans anticipated renewing their contract with NBC for another three years when Marian's battle against cancer ended with her death in 1961. In the 1970s, Jim Jordan briefly returned to acting. An episode of NBC's Chico and the Man featured a surprise appearance by Jordan as a friendly neighborhood mechanic. Jordan also lent his voice to Disney's animated film, The Rescuers (1977). He died in 1988—a year before Fibber McGee and Molly was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Jim Jordan married Gretchen Stewart after Marian's death. Gretchen and the Jordan children donated the manuscripts of Smackout and Fibber McGee and Molly to Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications after his death in 1988.
The show has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to the NBC studios where the show was performed. The S.C. Johnson Company has preserved more than 700 shows it sponsored for fifteen years.
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