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Program Pioneered Radio Techniques:
An OTR Article by Read G. Burgan
Published In RADIO WORLD June 14, 1995:

Read G. Burgan

On January 12, 1926, radio history was made. Two white men, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, stepped before a WGN microphone in Chicago and slipped into character as two black men. The series was called Sam 'N' Henry. What makes this program important to radio history? And who were Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden?

In 1926, radio was an infant. While many sensed its potential, few knew what to do with it. Sam 'N' Henry pioneered a whole knew genre -- character comedy. The program was a comedy serial based on the day-to-day situations that evolved in the lives of two black men. The program showed that radio could sustain an audience using a story that was continued from one show to the next.

Correll and Gosden not only created the characters on the Sam 'N' Henry program, but they personally wrote all of the dialogue and acted all of the parts in an ethnic dialogue that was so convincing many thought black people were actually playing the parts.

The Amos 'N' Andy radio series had three distinct periods. The first period began in 1928 on the Chicago Daily News station WMAQ where Correll and Gosden moved after two successful years and 586 episodes on WGN.

But there they faced a problem. They wanted to continue doing the same kind of program they had done on WGN. But WGN owned the rights to the Sam 'N' Henry program. Undaunted, the two men set out to develop a new program that would build on the experience they had gained in the old program.

After considerable study, they settled on the names of Amos Jones and Andrew Brown as their key characters. The Amos 'N' Andy show debuted on March 19, 1928 on WMAQ. Like their earlier program, this one was also a comedy whose humor was based on black characters and the situations they faced in depression America. The program's basic premise was simple. Two black men move from Atlanta to Chicago to make their fortune. They found the Fresh-Air Taxicab Company of America, Incorpulated on one asset -- a broken down car with no top or windshield. Each episode revolves around their attempts to stay solvent, Andy's philandering, the activities of the lodge the Mystic Knights of the Sea, and a host of characters that eventually exceeded 500. A typical episode included nine or more characters.

During this first period, Correll and Gosden wrote all the scripts and played all of the characters. This required skill in character development, an understanding of microphone techniques and great care in developing the script. Part of the character differentiation was through the pitch of their voices. Correll, who played Andy, used a low pitched voice to portray his character as boastful and domineering. Gosden played Amos with a thin, excitable high pitched voice. But in addition, Correll added depth to his character by working the microphone only an inch a way from his lips. Gosden on the other hand played his character from nearly two feet away from the microphone. When they played the other characters on the show, they would alter the pitch of their voices, the distance from the microphone and the dialect in which they spoke. To enable them to make the necessary position changes required, the scripts had to be carefully constructed.

During these early years, they did not rehearse their program. In listening to recordings of this period, one is impressed with how skillfully Correll and Gosden slip from one character to another, matching pitch of voice, dialect and distance from the microphone flawlessly and effortlessly.

At the same time, these episodes are fairly dull by contemporary standards. Much of the comedy is based on word play. "The weather was abdominal." "She was enstrangled from her husband." "'You tell him that 'n' you're gonna antagah the man, make him mad.' 'Aunt Tagah? I've had a lot of aunts, but never one named Aunt Tagah!'" Since Correll and Gosden played all the parts during this period, no female voice was ever heard, even though the plots often involved women. The women are discussed but never heard. If they communicate, it's over the telephone or by letter.

Correll and Gosden were meticulous in their attempts to develop credible black characters. They spent a considerable amount of time among black people and were respected by black leaders at that time for their sensitive treatment of blacks. Each time they developed a new character, they carefully honed a personality and dialect that would be distinct and faithful to people they knew.

While the caricatures they developed dripped with flaws, the program was never mean spirited or demeaning in its portrayal. While Amos was gullible, he was a hard worker whose ideas often got Andy out of his many scrapes. Andy was full of hot air and lazy, but he always protected Amos from anyone else who might dare to take advantage of him.

The comic flaws that characterized Amos 'N' Andy were not based on race. No one would ever have concluded that Amos, Andy, Kingfish, The Widow Parker or any of the other myriad of characters on the show were typical of black people, anymore than one would have characterized the dimwitted Chester Riley (The Life of Riley) or the loudmouth Fibber McGee as typical of white people. They were funny characters who happened to be black.

At WMAQ, Correll and Gosden pioneered in another way. They wanted to expand the program to other stations. To do this, they developed what they called, the "chainless chain." Until the late 1970's, radio networks fed their programming to affiliated stations on dedicated telephone lines. A network web of stations was called a "chain", since they were tied together by the interconnecting telephone line.

But many stations, WMAQ included at this time, did not belong to a network. Correll and Gosden decided to record the program on phonograph records and distribute the program to affiliated stations by that means. This put added pressure on them since the scripts had to be written at least six weeks in advance to allow for the recording, pressing and distribution of the transcriptions to the affiliated stations. Eventually forty five stations carried Amos 'N' Andy in this manner. In addition, the Chicago Daily News introduced an Amos 'N' Andy comic strip which was written but not drawn by Correll and Gosden.

In 1929, NBC offered Correll and Gosden one hundred thousand dollars a year to bring the program to their radio network. The first fifteen minute network episode of Amos 'N' Andy was aired on August 19, 1929 on NBC under the sponsorship of the Pepsodent Company. The program was heard Monday through Fridays at 7:00 pm until 1943. When Amos 'N' Andy moved to NBC, the Fresh-Air Taxicab Company moved to Harlem and Correll and Gosden moved to Hollywood.

How popular was Amos 'N' Andy? Many movie theatres postponed the start of their evening movies until 7:30pm. Others advertised that the evening episodes of Amos 'N' Andy would be piped into the theatre. Without these concessions, their patronage dropped dramatically. In some cities, you could walk down the street on a warm summer's night and never miss a word of the popular comedy, because everyone in the neighborhood was listening and the dialogue wafted to the streets below from the open windows.

But nothing lasts forever. By 1943, the program's ratings had slipped to sixtieth place. The program was in trouble and Correll and Gosden knew it. In February of 1943, the final fifteen minute program of Amos 'N' Andy was aired. Multitudes of listeners were shocked when the program disappeared from the airwaves for nearly eight months and never returned in its daily fifteen minute format. Gosden was 43 and Correll 52. What would come next? After nearly twenty years of the same format could they change?

The second period for the Amos 'N' Andy program began on October 8, 1943 and continued until 1954. In this new phase, the basic story and characters remained the same. But instead of a daily fifteen minute series, the program was aired one evening a week for half an hour. No longer did Correll and Gosden do all of the parts. Oh, they still did up to ninety percent of them, but now they had a whole cast of actors. Women were actually heard on the program. Staid announcer Bill Hay was replaced by exuberant Harlow Wilcox. Sam Pierce became one of the show's producers. Professional writers Bob Connolly and Bill Moser did the writing. The program included a live orchestra and sound effects personnel.

Perhaps the most important change was the status of Amos. As the half hour program developed, the Kingfish became the regular foil of Andy, and Amos all but disappeared. The program might well have been called Andy 'N' Kingfish. But of course it wasn't. Amos was just too subtle for this 1940's version and had to make way for someone with more substance.

These were dramatic changes but they did the trick. Once again the program returned to the top ten radio programs and remained there for several years.

But radio itself was changing in the 1950's, and in 1954 the Amos 'N' Andy program entered its third and final era. It returned to a daily Monday through Friday format, as a fifteen minute show called the Amos 'N' Andy Music Hall on CBS, where it had moved in 1948.

Many of their fans were disappointed with this format, in which they played current popular records, engaged in short dialogue and interviewed a guest entertainer. But if some fans were disappointed, this program is noteworthy because it pioneered some new techniques. Correll and Freeman had reached the point where they wanted to have more time for personal pursuits. Sam Pierce who produced this series for them recalled the events fondly.

"They asked me if there was any way we could do a show without laughter and still have it play. I said I didn't think so. We pre-taped five shows with the cast and played the first one on the air at CBS.

"We received a call from the head of CBS, Bill Paley, who said 'That's a terrible show!' It really wasn't a terrible show. He just missed the audience. So I said, 'I'll tell you what I'll do. If I can put laughter in the show that you will buy, will you go for it?' And he said, 'No! I don't believe in any of that trick stuff.' Now this was before there had been any laughter added to any shows. I said, 'Let's just see what we can do. Maybe we can get an audience and we'll see how the show plays.'

"I took the next show and got a marvelous editor, Jack Laddie, who deserves all the credit for that show as far as putting laughs in. We spent the whole night adding laugh tracks that we took from old Jack Benny shows. We developed a whole new technique of rolling laughter in an editing room with three tape machines. We played that on the air the next night and Mr. Paley called and said, 'Well you got an audience and the show is now right!' From then on, the Amos 'N' Andy Music Hall never had an audience."

That sometimes created a problem for Pierce. "A client would call and say, 'Listen, we've got some people coming out who want to see a show. Can you get us tickets?' I'd have to say, 'I'm sorry. The tickets are all gone for this whole week. We can't get any."

Listening now to those broadcasts, it's easy to detect the canned laughter. But for better or worse, it ushered in a whole new approach to broadcast comedy. But Pierce and his crew took the art of tape recording even further in an attempt to minimize the time necessary for Correll and Gosden to do the program.

"Freeman and Charlie would work one day a week on five shows. They would come in the studio, read the lines with the cast and tape it. When it came to the guest part, I would read the guest to Freeman and Charlie, and they would react as Amos and Andy to the guest. Then I would take portable equipment and an engineer and go to wherever the guest was -- at a studio shooting a picture, at his home, wherever they were. We had guests like Jimmy Stewart and Jack Benny, so we were not fooling around. They were top people.

"Then I would play Amos and Andy to them, and they would read back against my Amos and Andy. Then I would go back and take my voice out of the original tape track and put the boys' voices in against the star. We developed a system where it took about one full day's work to do one fifteen minute show, just to get that inner cut and the laughs in."

The Amos 'N' Andy Music Hall survived until 1960. In the interim, an attempt was made to move the program to television. Since Correll and Gosden were white men playing black roles, the very stars of the program had to be replaced. By this time, some of the radio actors on the program were blacks and they were integrated into the new series.

The program was not a success. The entire southern loop of the television network refused to carry it. In addition, the rising self consciousness of black America caused many to resent the stereotypes represented by Amos 'N' Andy. While the program was run in syndication for several years, it was not popular and subject to much criticism.

What were Correll and Gosden like when out of character? Sam Pierce describes them this way: "You had one very, very stern serious man who was the brains of the whole thing, and that was Freeman Gosden. He used to scare me to death. When I first went to work for Freeman Gosden, I was one of the most upset guys you'll ever know. We finally had it out one time and from then on Freeman and I became close friends and good friends.

"Freeman was serious, Charlie was a heavier, lighthearted sort of guy who knew he had it made -- he had all the great parts. Charlie wasn't as concerned with life and government or anything else. Freeman was a serious man in terms of everything. He took his place in the world seriously. He was a great friend of President Eisenhower's and worked very hard on the campaign to get Ike elected."

In retrospect, Amos 'N' Andy was a period piece. One had to be a part of that period to really appreciate how two white men playing two black men could hold a nation entranced. Its creators were gifted men who pioneered many techniques now taken for granted. Broadcasting owes a great debt to the role they played in maturing radio into a true entertainment medium.

-- The End --

Author's Note: The quotations from Sam Pierce are from a one hour recorded interview made by the author at the Voice Of America studios on March 24, 1975.

Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652.