Andy Rooney and Arthur Godfrey

Monday, 07 November 2011 06:18 AM Written by 

Much has and will be said about Andy Rooney's history, including—in passing—one area: his work for Arthur Godfrey.  Truth be told, several generations have never heard of Godfrey. It's a safe bet no one under the age of 55 has a clue about the man, and then only if  they're into the ukulele, only a tiny part of the story.  It's still a tale worth exploring, as much for Godfrey as for Rooney.

In 1949, Rooney, a WWII veteran, had been an Army reporter for Stars & Stripes, the military newspaper, covering the War in Europe.  Back in the states he returned to freelance writing in his hometown of Albany, New York. Finding it rough financially, he wanted a job with CBS. After not being hired by Edward R. Murrow, who made the reputation of CBS News during the War, Rooney  ran into Godfrey in an elevator and asked for a job.

A former U.S. Navy radioman, Coast Guardsman, laborer, coal miner and cemetery plot salesman turned Baltimore radio announcer, Godfrey became the biggest radio personality in Washington DC in the 1930's, President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt among his local fans.  He was renowned for doing away with the stilted formality required of old-school radio announcers and talking as if he were just addressing one person. His irreverent approach to live commercials, making fun of the sponsor or the product ended up bring in more business to his DC sponsors.  His on-air free-form monologues were like a cleaner, 1930's version of Howard Stern.

In 1945 Godfrey took his show to CBS as Arthur Godfrey Time, and it quickly became the most popular morning radio program of the Postwar era, a time before most women were in the workforce. As housewives, with the Baby Boom underway, they and much of America embraced Godfrey's warm, folksy irreverence. His on-air setup--desk, microphone, announcer-sidekick and live band essentially created the TV talk show structure we know today from the first Tonight Show to Letterman, Kimmel, Conan and Fallon.

By the time Rooney joined in 1949, Godfrey hosted the morning CBS show and two prime-time shows: Monday night's Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (a forerunner to American Idol) and Wednesday night's variety show Arthur Godfrey and his Friends, featuring his regular cast and guest stars.  Both programs, like the morning show, were simulcast over CBS radio and TV. Both were also in the Top Ten, putting Godfrey on the air at least nine hours a week. It didn't matter. Americans couldn't get enough of Godfrey and they trusted him implicitly.

Among future stars first seen on Talent Scouts: Tony Bennett, Don Knotts, Diahann Carroll, Roy Clark, Lenny Bruce, the Wilburn Brothers, Marilyn Horne, Wally Cox, Patsy Cline and Don Adams.

On the morning show, listeners and viewers (it was simulcast on radio and TV) enjoyed the cast of largely unknown singers and vocal groups he presented, a loose aggregation nicknamed the "Little Godfreys" that included at various times, the Chordettes, the McGuire Sisters, Janette Davis, Frank Parker, Marion Marlowe, the Mariners (an integrated barbershop quartet), Julius LaRosa and announcer Tony Marvin.  The McGuires and Chordettes had been Talent Scouts winners.

With America triumphant after a horrific war, Godfrey's relaxed, cool approach scored with the entire nation. Here's how he opened his morning program. The theme is the pop ballad "Seems Like Old Times." This Godfrey Time opens with an ad for Frigidaire refigerators.

In later years, Rooney often talked of Godfrey's importance and the fact he'd been so utterly forgotten.  Here's a way to hear those specific comments from his 1999 interview for the Archive of American television.

For the Godfrey sections, look at the right, click on the "people" tab and look for "Arthur Godfrey. " Click on it and it will show you just the Godfrey sections and it will pay the relevant sections.  Rooney is his usual opinionated self.

Godfrey was a true original.  On the air he commented on topics (provided by Rooney and the other writers) and bounced the dialogue back and forth between the always-unctuous Little Godfreys.  Occasionally he spiced things up with double-entendre wit and got away with it.  He also took some fairly gutsy steps. When the presence of the integrated Mariners brought angry complaints from racist Southern politicos and Southern CBS affiliates, Godfrey publicly rebuffed them with some scathing remarks.  He later became an outspoken  environmentalist.

Readily admitting he was no great musical talent, some of his awful novelty recordings ("Too Fat Polka") sold in the millions. He often sang and strummed his uke as he did singing this old ditty on this January 28, 1953 Godfrey and his Friends installment

Godfrey's impact on American commerce was immense. Why? Because he was a virtuoso commercial pitchman with massive influence over what Postwar America drove, wore, ate, drank, smoked, cleaned with and what appliances they purchased. He achieved all that by his flair for delivering live, unscripted commercials. 

In those days ad agencies carefully prepared ad scripts, penned by the Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons of that time. The folks on the air, be they stars or announcers, were expected to read the scripts precisely, adding the right amount of feigned sincerity. 

Rooney noted Godfrey's infusion of humor into commercials but that doesn't begin to explain it. The star often mocked the prepared scripts, delivering them sarcastically, disrespecting the agency and copywriters ("aw, who wrote this stuff?"). After tossing aside the script, he'd launch into an improvised commercial more effective than any ad copywriter's. He already knew his products, refusing to advertise anything he hadn't personally used and approved of.  In an interview late in life he said, "I wasn't on the sponsor's side. I was on your side."

Check this unscripted pitch for Lipton's instant Chicken Noodle soup on a Talent Scouts broadcast. Tony Marvin serves him the soup. Note his smart remarks and wisecracks about the lack of visible freeze-dried chicken, consistent with Rooney's recollections.  Also listen to the way he praises the product while simultaneously poking fun at it.

Did Lipton, Godfrey's first on-air sponsor, care? Nope. Neither did his other sponsors when they saw his sales figures. They quickly realized the more he smarted off, even if he threw in occasinally raunchy (for that time) asides, the more more they sold.  It allowed CBS to charge top dollar for Godfrey ad time, which was booked up.

By 1951, ad revenue from Godfrey's shows were bringing in 12% of CBS's gross profits. Godfrey's cut of that made him so wealthy he flew his own DC-3 airliner (he was an expert pilot) between New York and his 2000 acre farm near Leesburg, Virginia. Fiercely protective of his staff, Rooney recalled Godfrey defending him twice when something he wrote had CBS ready to fire the young writer.  Godfrey had the media of that time eating out of his hand.

One measure of Godfrey's power was a 1953 idea Walter Cronkite (Cronkite then worked at CBS in Washington) gave Godfrey when Holland was inundated with severe flooding.  Rooney wrote it up.  Note his skills of persuasion.

Within days of this pitch, American Airlines offices were literally packed floor to ceiling with donations, so much so Godfrey had to ask his loyal, obedient listeners to back off.

What fans and the news media didn't know was that behind the scenes, the lovable  "ole red-head" as he called himself was an arrogant, foul-tempered, bullying control freak, known for his blatant womanizing and raw antagonism toward top CBS brass including Chairman William Paley.  Fully aware how much money he earned the network, he'd bait executives on the air, knowing they dared not retaliate.  Rooney, who enjoyed this side of Godfrey, made it clear that few of the CBS upper echelon had any use for their top star on a personal basis.

Rooney was present in 1953 when Godfrey provoked the first live broadcast scandal.  In 1950 a young singer and Navy radioman named Julius LaRosa was a guest. Godfrey offered him a job when he left the Navy. A middling, inexperienced singer in the Tony Bennett mode, LaRosa became a Little Godfrey in 1951 and quickly morphed into one of the show's top stars. In 1953 he had two big hit singles and in those pre-Elvis times, a fervent following among teen girls. On October 19, Godfrey cheerily fired LaRosa on the air.

Here's the story of that and Godfrey's downfall, with color commentary from a  younger, healthier Rooney, LaRosa and Larry King, who considered Godfrey a friend and role model. 

In its day the LaRosa controversy was as huge as the Charlie Sheen flap. Rooney stayed two more years. The ones that followed didn't help. In 1955, Godfrey fired more producers, cast members and three of his four writers. Only Rooney remained. Burned out writing for all three shows, he signed on with a much nicer CBS host: Garry Moore (who later brought Carol Burnett to network TV). In 1959, Godfrey beat a grim lung cancer diagnosis. After surgery and radiation, he returned to the air but only radio. He did occasional TV specials.  The morning show ended in 1972. He died of emphysema in 1983.

Rooney of course later stirred his own controversies, putting his foot in his mouth and for a liberal, making a number of ill-advised comments about race and ethnicity that got him in trouble with CBS during his 60 Minutes days. Despite his ability to satirize others, he could take umbrage at being spoofed, expressing irritation about Joe Piscopo's SNL sketch mocking "A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney." But he also saw through Sacha Baron Cohen doing one of his facetious interviews for HBO's Da Ali G Show.

I take my hat off to Andrew Aitken Rooney. He was a supremely gifted writer and a genuine American wit. And I'm glad he never quit reminding the world about Godfrey, the good, the bad and most of all, about the man's shamefully-overlooked importance.




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