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Spin-off Radio Show Reached Stardom:
An OTR Article by Read G. Burgan
Published In RADIO WORLD June 26, 1995:


Read G. Burgan

If you think that The Great Gildersleeve was a radio series about a water commissioner played by Willard Waterman, . . .you're wrong. Then again, . . . you're right. Confusing? No more so than the life of radio's most infamous blowhard and lover, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve.

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.

The Great 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 Spanish Serenader.

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 new series.

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 spelled out.

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 playing.

Niece Marjorie 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 Summerfield.

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 best.

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 organization.

The Great 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 puke.

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? Wrong.

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 . . . .

-- The End --

Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at rgb@chartermi.net.