Saturday, March 1, 2014

Melody and Madness

By Chet Williamson 

Among his many claims to fame – and more than a few of infamy -- Worcester’s Robert Benchley was a card-carrying member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table. 

This coveted perch literally gave him a seat – along with a select group of authors, humorists, critics, wits, and other raconteurs – at the table of the best and brightest of his generation, known as the Jazz Age.

Artie Shaw was quite simply one of finest jazz clarinetists ever to play the instrument. This post is a snapshot of the time when these two historic characters worked together on a nationally syndicated radio show called, "Melody and Madness."


The time frame is the winter of 1938 into the following snows of ‘39. In addition to Benchley and Shaw, the show starred vocalists Helen Forrest, Richard Todd, and the Four Clubmen. It premiered at 10 p.m. on Sunday, November 20, 1938 on CBS and was sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes.


According to On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio by John Denning, this musical variety show was first designed as a “vehicle for Robert Benchley, nationally known as a cerebral comic, who was much ballyhooed in this his first radio series.” At the time of the broadcast, Benchley already had more than 40 short films to his credit and been a columnist at The New Yorker for more than a decade. And more importantly, he was widely recognized as one of America’s best-known humorists.

In her book, Flappers: A Guide to an American Subculture by Kelly Boyer Sagert, the author offers this portrait of Benchley: Born on September 15, 1889, in Worcester, Massachusetts, to Charles and Maria Jean (Morin) Benchley, Robert did not recall a happy childhood, remembering bee stings, feelings of terror during 4th of July fireworks, and more …. In 1898 tragedy struck the Benchley family as Robert’s older brother, Edmond, died in action in the Spanish-American War."
Harvard grad, Benchley

Benchley attended South High School from 1904 through 1907 before transferring to Phillips Exeter Academy, "thanks to the influence and funding of the woman who had been Edmond’s fiance, Lillian Duryea," Sagert said. "At this academy, Benchley joined the drama club, acting in plays, and he created illustrations for its publications. Duryea then helped Benchley to get accepted to Harvard University, where he served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon. During his senior year, he wrote a daily column at the Boston Journal.

Moving to New York, Benchley began participating in the Algonquin Round Table, and working for Vanity Fair, Life, and The New Yorker; he wrote drama columns for The New Yorker through January 1940. In 1935, a short-film How to Sleep, won an Academy Award for best short subject. In November 1938 he and bandleader Artie Shaw begin their radio show, Melody and Madness, on CBS Old Gold program which lasted 3 years. Benchley also guest starred on other radio programs including Bing Crosby’s show. Benchley's most famous quote may be “It took me 15 years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Benchley roaring

In describing Benchley's comic appeal and popularity, Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring said, “This comic representation of himself as a bumbling, insecure, somewhat neurotic, middle-class American male challenged to comprehend, cope with the rapid social and technological changes of his time was central to his popular appeal, as both a writer and a performer.”

Like Benchley, Shaw was also courted for “Melody and Madness.” In his book, Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times, author Tom Nolan reports that when the producers of “Melody and Madness” first came calling, the bandleader was booked into the Blue Room in the Hotel Lincoln in St. Louis from October to January of 1938. Shaw’s manager at the time was Joe Shribman, a Boston-based promoter, who along with his brother Charlie, booked a variety of showcases and ballrooms throughout New England, including Sun Valley in Northboro.

Artie Shaw and licorice stick

He hadn’t been there more than a month, Shribman said of the clarinetist, “when he got one of the biggest plums in the business: The Old Gold radio show. And they came looking for Shaw.” Nolan noted that Old Gold had sponsored big bands in the past, most notably, orchestra leader Paul Whiteman. Now they were organizing a new show where Benchley would provide the madness and Shaw the melodies.

Denning describes the show as having a fairly basic format where Benchley would do three monologues, and Shaw would then play three song selections. “That was the weekly format of ‘Melody and Madness,’” he said, “but the show caught the Shaw band on the upswing, perhaps two pieces short of greatness. When Shaw hired Georgie Auld on reeds and Buddy Rich on drums in December of 1938, the orchestra bloomed into a swing giant. The band burst into 1939 with a free and happy sound: heighten by the trumpet of Bernie Privin, the trombone of George Arus, Shaw’s clarinet and the vocals of Helen Forrest it captured its moment as vividly as a photograph.”

Shaw may have been a meteor, but Benchley’s star was also shining brightly in the firmament. In his column, "The New York Radio Studios," Jack Sher wrote, "Once in awhile someone in a studio audience will throw a fit of a hysterics because of something a comedian says. It doesn't happen often enough, according to some comedians, but when it does the results are sometimes disastrous. Recently at Robert Benchley's 'Melody and Madness' show, a woman went into gales of uncontrollable laughter because of one of the gags in Robert’s 'Bounding Broomstick Skit.' She just couldn't stop laughing. 

"When the program was over and the last fanfare had died way she was still laughing. Only a strong solution of spirit of ammonia brought her around. The CBS house manager was upset, Benchley was quite unperturbed. 'She probably just caught on to one of a Fred Allen's gags,' he said."

As far as interaction between Benchley and Shaw, in her book, Robert Benchley: His Life and Good Times, Babette Rosmond shares this: Benchley didn’t write his own material, but he was himself; so it was a funny show. He had his own little mock company for five-minute skits and the orchestra was led by young Artie Shaw, who was very much the radical in those days. 

In fact, Artie Shaw would try to get Benchley to discuss Marxist economic systems, realizing that Benchley was an Establishment Intellectual. ‘I can’t even keep my check book balanced,’ Robert would say kindly.”

On paper, the pairing of Benchley and Shaw was a perfect match. The reality is that it was doomed from the start. A few uncomfortable social circumstances along with Shaw’s disposition and attitude about popular music helped end it.

First, Billie Holiday, the singer in the band, was black and according to numerous sources, Shaw was forced to ask her to leave the band because of the color of her skin. It was reported that neither the sponsor nor the network wanted any controversy – typical Jim Crow-segregationist practices of the time. Singer Helen Forrest, who got the gig, says, “A lot of people including [Art’s] manager, booking agents, and producers, put pressure on him not to use [Billie], and [Shaw] used her less and less as time went on. He had it in his mind to do right by her, but his skull was caving in from the pressure.”


Shaw and Holiday
Shaw claims there were other factors which led to the decision not to hire Holiday. “She quit because some guys got a hold of her and promised her the sun, the moon and the stars,” Shaw said. “And by that time she was becoming well known. My band just got over, and pow! – we were stars; and so she was a star, right away. And people got their hooks into her, and they wanted her to do a single.”

According to Nolan, Holiday never blamed Shaw for the situation. He quotes the singer saying, “There aren’t many people who fought harder than Artie against the vicious people in the music business or the crummy side of second-class citizenship which eats at the guts of so many musicians. He didn’t win. But he didn’t lose either.”

Another consideration for Shaw’s departure was his health. Author John White wrote: “The physical strains of an exhausting schedule also took their toll. In addition to recordings, personal appearances, and broadcasts from the Lincoln Hotel, Shaw was musical master of ceremonies on the CBS ‘Melodies and Madness’ program, sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes. In the spring of 1939, the Shaw band opened at the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood – where, four years earlier, the Goodman orchestra had made its sensational breakthrough. 

"On the opening night, Shaw – who was already suffering from a sore throat collapsed on the bandstand and was rushed to the hospital. Unconscious for five days with a form of leukemia, diagnosed as leucopenia or agranulocytosis, with a temperature of 105 degrees, he was not expected to live. Confounding medical opinion, he made a slow recovery and remembers that on first gaining consciousness, he saw his friend, singer/actress Judy Garland, sitting at his bedside.”

The other reason for Shaw’s departure from “Melody and Madness,” was his public announcement that he did not particular like playing popular music. Back in New York, he made a miraculous recovery from his illness and returned to the bandstand. 

According to Nolan, in early fall of ‘39, Shaw began receiving a great deal of negative publicity for criticism of the “jitterbug generation.” And as it happened, Old Gold used the phrase: “Modern as a ‘jitterbug” to pitch its Double-Mellow cigarettes aimed at young consumers.

The September 26, 1939 issue of the New York Post read: "Band Leader THINKS."
In an interview with Post columnist Michael Mok, Shaw announced: ‘I hate the music business. I’m not interested in giving people what they want. I’m interested in making music.” Nolan says that following complaints from outraged fans, the cigarette company canceled its sponsorship of Shaw’s radio show.

Publicly speaking, Shaw said he was okay with the decision. “The show was built all wrong for me,’ he told Metronome. Besides, it was on a weak network, thus killing its rating … . When I asked for a one-week vacation because I was so tired, and they wouldn’t give it to me unless I quit the show entirely, I quit the show entirely.” Nolan says Old Gold and its ad agency had a different take: “He asked for a week’s rest, so we gave him seven.”

George T. Simon, who also interviewed Shaw, shortly after the Post comments. “I don’t like jitterbugs,” Shaw said. “I don’t like the business angles connected with music. I can’t see autograph hunters. I thought the Old Gold program was lousy for my music. Frankly, I’m unhappy about the music business. Maybe I don’t belong in it. I like music – love it and live it, in fact – but for me the business part plain stinks.’”

The interview turned out to be prophetic. On November 18, 1939, while in performance at the Cafe Rouge in the Pennsylvania Hotel, Shaw did just that; he quit the business. Although it was short-lived, the bandleader would eventually leave his music business for good at the height of his career. “I walked off the bandstand, went up to my room, called my lawyer and told him I was leaving,” Shaw said.

Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on May 23, 1910. He died in Thousand Oaks, CA on December 30, 2004. For more on his life and times, see: http://www.biography.com/people/artie-shaw-9480862


Benchley died in New York on November 21, 1945. For more, see: http://www.robertbenchley.org/sob/

For sound samples of the “Melody and Madness, see: – http://www.emusic.com/album/artie-shaw/old-gold-melody-madness-shows/11028576/



Here’s a clip of Shaw playing his theme song “Nightmare” from the show – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngY85zMjsgA

Here’s a clip of Shaw with Helen Forrest singing Worcester songwriter Charlie Tobias’ “Comes Love” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8JoCSoOcPM

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com
Thank you.

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2 comments:

  1. Thanks! I never knew about that show--what a meeting of minds! Will track down that Shaw bio to see how it complements THE TROUBLE WITH CINDERELLA, one of the autobios I've read.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it. Hey, I have a project that I would like to talk with you about. Could you send me a hello to my e-mail address? at: chromatic@charter.net

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