Old Time Radio Related Articles
Radio Show Reached Stardom:
As radio programs
go, The Great Gildersleeve was hardly a pioneering show. When it first
appeared on August 31, 1941, radio was well beyond its infancy. But it broke
new ground in at least one area -- the spin-off, where a new program is
created by spinning off a program based on one of another program's
characters -- and gave radio listeners one of its most enjoyable programs
for nearly 18 years.
Gildersleeve was the brain child of Harold Peary. Peary, whose original name
was Harold Jose Pereira de Faria, was a Portuguese immigrant. He began his
career in radio in the late twenties, using his abilities as a character
actor and singer in a variety of roles on both the west coast and in
Chicago. In San Francisco he was featured on an NBC program called The
While in Chicago he
joined the cast of the Fibber McGee and Molly program. At first he played a
number of fairly anonymous roles, but eventually began playing a character
called Gildersleeve. For a while the character was fairly amorphous, hardly
being the same from one program to the next. But with Peary's urging and
help, the character began to take shape.
By the late 30's,
Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve had moved next door to Fibber McGee and Molly
in Wistful Vista. McGee and Gildersleeve were cut from the same bolt of
cloth. Both were boastful, abrasive and quick tempered. For nearly two years
they traded insults and looked for ways to do each other in. Gildersleeve
was one of the few characters on the show that was a match for the obnoxious
McGee. His stock phrase was, "You're a haaaard man, McGee."
But Peary had
ambitions beyond Wistful Vista. In 1941 Kraft Foods cast Peary in his very
own show, The Great Gildersleeve, originating in NBC's Hollywood studios and
airing on Sunday evenings from 6:30 - 7:00 pm. Peary was 35 years old, had
curly hair, a dark mustache and weighed in at 220 pounds when he began his
The early episodes
created a detailed snapshot of Gildersleeve, including the fact that he
graduated from Princeton with the class of 1914. Assuming he was 22 years
old when he graduated, that would have made him 49 years old in 1941. But
network news releases in 1943 listed Gildersleeve as 42 years old! As the
series progressed, these kinds of details faded into the background.
In the transition
episode aired on August 31, 1941, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve boards a
train to leave Wistful Vista and travel to Summerfield to assist his nephew
Leroy and niece Marjorie who have been orphaned. When he leaves, he tells
the staff of his Gildersleeve Girdle Works (Our motto, "If you want a
corset, of course it's, ...Gildersleeve") that he will only be gone a few
days -- "... at least three days, or maybe the end of the week".
For the rest of the
1941- 1942 year, his employment status is in limbo. While he frequently
makes reference to his Girdle Works company, he never returns. In later
episodes he comes and goes from his office, but we are not told what he does
aside from managing the affairs of his nephew and niece -- and these are not
It goes without
saying that Harold Peary was the Great Gildersleeve. His voice was perfect
for the part. His trademark was a laugh that's been described as hefty,
lecherous, and dirty. The truth is, however you describe it, Peary's laugh
was the one all consuming identifying trademark of the Great Gildersleeve.
His most frequent exclamation was, "This is going to be one of my baaaaad
days." Peary's size paralleled that of Gildersleeve, who was described as
portly. Many episodes included jibes about his girth.
During the first
year, the episodes were written by Leonard L. Levinson. From the very first
episode, many -- but not all -- of the characters that became a part of the
series were present. Nephew Leroy, an outspoken brat who had the measure of
his uncle "Mort" and was quick to deflate his pompous ego with his classic
response: "What a character!" Much to the chagrin of parents everywhere,
Leroy gave the kids of the forties several cliches including, "Are you
kiddin'" and "For Corn Sake." Walter Tutley began the role in 1941 when he
was 18 years of age but looked and sounded like the twelve year old he was
played a softer role. She served as a buffer between Leroy and his "Unk",
while fending off Leroy's jabs at her boyfriends. Lurene Tuttle played the
role for the first three years. Lillian Randolph played their black maid,
Birdie Lee Coggins. While Birdie was a stereotypical role, Lillian Randolph
gave the character life and joy. She never hesitated to contradict
Gildersleeve and often had the last word.
The last of the
early characters that were to stay with the show was Judge Horace Hooker,
played by Earle Ross. "Gildie" runs afoul of the judge while on the train to
Summerfield and begins a lifelong feud with the "old goat." In point of
fact, Ross makes Hooker sound like an old goat. His high pitched nasal
rattle of a laugh was unmistakable.
But the first year's
episodes were flat. Most of the time was spent with his nephew and niece,
and although it made for pleasant listening, it just wasn't great stuff.
In 1942, John Whedon
took on the writing, and was later joined by Sam Moore. Almost immediately
two changes were made. One was the introduction of Peavey, the local
druggist. Peavey was reminiscent of Wallace Wimple of Fibber McGee and
Molly. Both were henpecked. Peavey was played by Richard LeGrand who began
the role at 60 years of age. LeGrand had played in vaudeville since 1901,
and in radio since 1927. People couldn't wait to hear him say dryly, "Well,
now, I wouldn't say that."
The second major
change was getting Gildersleeve appointed as the water commissioner of
Summerfield. This gave him status in the community, a real job that people
could relate to (Although one wonders why he didn't go to work until 10
am!), and real problems to deal with. For the next sixteen years,
Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve would be known as the water commissioner of
The process by which
Gildersleeve became water commissioner introduced a third change --
serialization. It took three episodes to have Gildersleeve appointed water
commissioner. In the past, each of the episodes had been complete in
themselves, with little link to one another. From then on, there often would
be running themes, frequently with cliffhanger endings to keep the audience
in suspense until the following week.
In later years
several months were required to resolve the plot when Gildersleeve ran for
mayor or when he found himself engaged to both Leila Ransom and Eve Goodwin.
Perhaps the most famous of the Gildersleeve serials was the finding of a
lost baby. A nationwide contest was held in which listeners wrote in their
suggestions for the baby's name. Thousands responded. It was radio at its
Whedon and Moore
also took the edge off of Gildersleeve's character. On the Fibber McGee and
Molly show, he was a foil for McGee. But there was no McGee in Summerfield.
While Gildersleeve remained pompous, a blowhard, and a
stretcher-of-the-truth, he became more mellow and warm.
On most radio shows,
romance was left to the young. But as Summerfield's most eligible bachelor,
Gildersleeve became a first class lover, albeit by 1940's standards.
Throckmorton dated Summerfield's most beautiful women, wrote them poetry,
stole their kisses and wooed them with his beautiful baritone singing voice.
Later one more
feature was added to the Gildersleeve mix -- the Jolly Boys. The Jolly Boys
was a social club consisting of Gildersleeve, Peavey, Judge Hooker, and two
additional regulars, Floyd Munson, the barber and police chief Gates. Floyd
was played by Arthur Q. Bryan, Gates by Ken Christy. Ironically, Bryan later
joined the cast of Fibber McGee and Molly as Doc Gamble, helping to fill the
void created when Peary left that series.
The Jolly Boys was a
loosely defined group who met in the hall above Floyd's barbershop. Unlike
the Rotary or Kiwanis Clubs, it had little purpose other than to provide a
place for the boys to play games and sing. Their motto was: "One for all and
all for one." More often than not their meetings turned into a free-for-all.
The Jolly Boys provided a natural setting for Peary to showcase his baritone
voice, and sing he did -- both as a soloist and as a member of the Jolly
Boys quartet. In later years, entire broadcasts were devoted to
Gildersleeve's attempts to revive interest among the members of that lagging
Gildersleeve appeared in several movies during the forties, including Look
Who's Laughing (1941), where he appeared with a number of radio stars,
including Fibber McGee and Molly and Edgar Bergen. Two Gildersleeve movies
were released in 1943, The Great Gildersleeve and Gildersleeve On Broadway.
While these films gave Gildersleeve fans a chance to actually see their
hero, they disappointed many because with the exception of Lillian Randolph,
none of the other Gildersleeve regulars were featured (Richard LeGrand does
appear in a delightful portrayal of Peavey in the second film). Leroy was
played by a soprano singing angel faced boy who'd have made Walter Tetley
After nearly ten
successful years as the Great Gildersleeve, Harold Peary grew tired of the
role and quit. The last program featuring Peary aired on June 14, 1950. With
the originator of the role gone, you'd expect the program to die. Right?
The program resumed
on September 6, 1950 with Willard Waterman in the lead role. Waterman's
career had paralleled Peary's. He began in radio in Chicago in 1936 and went
on to play numerous roles on network radio. His voice so closely resembled
Peary's, that most people never noticed the difference. And one has to admit
that there is something singularly appropriate about a man named Waterman
playing a water commissioner.
Like other radio
programs, The Great Gildersleeve began to fall on hard times in the mid-50's
as television gradually eclipsed radio. In 1954 the program became a daily
fifteen minute series. In 1955 it returned to a weekly half hour program in
which form it continued until 1958.
Harold Peary died in
April of 1985 at the age of 76. Willard Waterman died this year on February
1, 1995 at the age of 80. Fortunately recordings of most of the Great
Gildersleeve series have survived. This slice of radio's golden age will
undoubtedly garner a whole new generation of followers in the years ahead.
One can almost hear
Peavey saying, "Well, now I wouldn't say that." With Leroy adding, "Are you
kiddin?" Followed by Gildersleeve's, "Leeeeeeeroy!" And then an all knowing,
self-satisfying laugh . . . .