Chris Elliottt Does Jay Leno On David Letterman

The post before this one has a Bob Elliott appearance on David Letterman. Bob Elliott occasionally did a pretty passable Peter Lorre impression – so here’s a great clip of Bob’s son Chris attempting to imitate another famous horror icon: Jay Leno.

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Bob and Ray On The Bicentennial

Here’s the audio from a Bob and Ray appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1976 – rescued from an old TDK audiocassette in my archive. It features:

- The historian for the Democratic party (a wonderful switch on the Komodo Dragon Expert routine)
- Wally Ballou on the Bicentennial civic project at Lost Canyon, Utah (a truly great sketch).

You can hear, as always, Carson laughing in the background… and the Tonight Show audience loves it! 11m

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House of Elliotts

Monday at 6 pm, I’ll be at The Paley Center for Media (the renamed Museum of Television and Radio) in NYC for a seminar/tribute to Bob and Ray (and Chris) hosted by Keith Olbermann and featuring a distinguished panel of Elliotts (Bob and Chris, whose novel The Shroud of the Thwacker is highly recommended).

In a recent NPR telephone interview, Bob’s voice sounds hardly different from the one we all grew up with.

I had the extremely good fortune to work with Bob and Ray on an industrial video taped at the old 23rd Street HBO studio, and in the run-up to the taping, I visited B&R in their office at the Greybar Building. I will never forget the sight: as you walked in, towards the back of the reception room was an open archway, beyond which was a wall jutting out perpendicularly which neatly bisected what had once been a single office. On the right side of the wall sat Bob, on the left side sat Ray, who could not see each other but could easily hear each other when speaking in a normal tone of voice. As the visitor, you saw both Bob and Ray; both Bob and Ray only saw you.

Butter ‘em on the far side and write if you get work.

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In The White Suit On The Treadmill To Oblivion

This post started out as a Bob and Ray video clip.

It’s an entertaining segment in which Messrs. Elliott and Goulding have a chat with Dick Cavett about two comedy heroes shared by all three men – Robert Benchley (in the white suit) and Fred Allen. The discussion is followed by a terrific Wally Ballou interview with one of Bob and Ray’s lesser-known characters, Mr. Wwqlcw.

Watching this clip sent me back to my Benchley books. My White Suit is a piece collected in My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew (1936). I also pulled Fred Allen’s Treadmill to Oblivion (1956) off the shelf and started reading bits and pieces at random. This led me to change my mind about… well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. First, enjoy the clip:

Benchley’s short film That Inferior Feeling (1940) is all about feeling ill at ease in situations where there are no real reasons to feel ill at ease. And despite the promises of the ask-your-doctor ads, no amount of Paxil or Prozac will alter the clothing-purchase experience for those who find it painful.

There are still many men who experience great relief each time they exit a store without being detained for shoplifting. Not because they have actually committed that heinous act, but rather because they sense in themselves an inability to appear nonchalant or non-suspicious looking as they meander toward the egress.

Those of us who admire entertainers of yesteryear often have a tendency to drift along with the undercurrent of melancholy that is the wake of the public’s fickleness in its never-ending search for new amusements. Younger fans who missed the heydays of their idols often make substantial efforts to seek out the portion of the work that survives, then use it to proselytize on behalf of their hero. They shake their heads sadly when few join them in their celebration of those who reached incredible heights of popularity in their own day… only to arrive at a near-total indifference and anonymity in ours.

Ray Goulding can’t understand why they don’t show Benchley’s short films on TV. Dick Cavett correctly believes that Benchley will be “…virtually unknown to the younger listener or viewer,” and suggests a trip to the library. Cavett’s bittersweet story about Fred Allen’s “fan club” portrays the radio star as an under-appreciated, nearly forgotten man at the end of his life.

Hero worship can be equal parts adulation and sympathy. Adulation and sympathy not just for the hero, whose greatness was once – but is not currently – recognized; but also adulation and sympathy for one’s self, as a person both blessed and cursed with the capability to perceive and champion criminally overlooked genius.

Yet Allen, for one, expected his fate. He finishes his 1954 book Treadmill To Oblivion with these words:

Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion. When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear’s happy hours. All the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.

Like Benchley’s man in a white suit who can’t help feeling ill at ease in non-threatening situations… like the law-abiding citizen worried about the security guard’s suspicions… there’s no good reason to feel bad for comedians and other successful entertainers who connected strongly with the audience of their day but are now largely forgotten. Neither should we feel sorry for those who can’t, today, appreciate an old Fred Allen radio show or Robert Benchley short. Few can. And we should never, under any circumstances, make it our mission to convert the heathens who will not acknowledge, let alone bow down before, the old gods some of us still worship.

Because truth be told, the treadmill never actually reaches oblivion. As in Zeno’s paradox, there’s always another halfway point ahead, a halfway point where fewer remember, fewer enjoy, fewer care.

Between 1932 and 1949, Fred Allen built up an average speed on that treadmill. As soon as he got off, that average speed started to decline. But it never quite reaches zero.

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The Tracer of Lost Persons is Keen

I was looking at the books in the vault of Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga Springs when I chanced upon the interesting volume at left. I was keen to find out exactly who this “Tracer of Lost Persons” was. Actually, that’s not quite correct. I wanted to find out if this “Tracer of Lost Persons,” printed in June, 1906, was Keen.

A little over 31 years after this book was published, a detective/mystery radio show debuted on the Blue Network: Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. The show was wildly popular, running from 1937 through 1955. But the show is always credited to Frank and Anne Hummert, whose forte was soap operas – Ma Perkins, Stella Dallas, and Mary Noble, Backstage Wife. Was this book the beginning of Mr. Keen? After all, the show opening said something about “the famous fictional character,” but the closing said the show was “based on the novel Mr. Keene.” Even so, this has to be him, right? Not the cover picture, obviously, but in the pages inside.

He was thirty-three, agreeable to look at, equipped with as much culture and intelligence as is tolerated east of Fifth Avenue and west of Madison. He had a couple of elaborate rooms at the Lenox Club, a larger income than seemed to be good for him, and no profession.

Page one, but the name “Mr. Keen” does not appear. The Hummerts paid writers little, churned out thousands of episodes of dozens of series, and and were hardly ever mistaken for creators of art… or even nice people. Did they rip off the idea for Mr. Keen from a 31 year-old book? Did somebody else? I’d never seen or heard of this tome before.

Gatewood, before the mirror, gave a vicious twist to his tie, inserted a pearl scarf pin, and regarded the effect with gloomy approval. “Say to Mr. Kerns that I am – flattered,” he replied morosely; “and tell Henry I want him.”

It’s page two. Still no Mr. Keen, although we have a “Mr. Kerns.” Were the Hummerts so lazy that they named their rip-off radio character by changing two lousy letters from the second name mentioned in “Tracer of Lost Persons?”

Page three. Gatewood meets Kearns. Nothing.

Page four.

“Besides, there’s too much gilt all over this club. There’s too much everywhere. Half the world is stucco, the rest rococo. Where’s that martini I bid for?”

No Mr. Keen on page four. No Mr. Keen on page 5.

“I never have seen my ideal,” retorted Gatewood sulkily, “but I know she exists – somewhere between heaven and Hoboken.”

I’m surprised that the Hummerts never created a soap opera called “Between Heaven and Hoboken.” Great title.

I plunge onward to page 6. The dandy Gatewood is now sprinkling French words and phrases into his utterances. OK, but…

Wait! Page 7:

“I don’t want you to; I don’t know anybody. All I desire to say is this: I do know a way. The other day, I noticed a sign on Fifth Avenue: Keen & Co., Tracers of Lost Persons.”

Sorry to have ever doubted you, Hummerts.

Mr. Keen himself does not show up until page 17:

Gatewood sat down and looked at his host. Then he said: “I’m searching for somebody, Mr. Keen, whom you are not likely to find.”

“I doubt it,” said Keen pleasantly.

I’m about 60 pages in by now, and so far, there is no physical description of Mr. Keen. I don’t think a description is forthcoming – the book is a series of vignettes more focused on Mr. Keen’s clients than Mr. Keen himself. We do not know how Mr. Westrel Keen (radio historians who say “we don’t know his first name” are wrong!) acquired his amazing ability to find lost persons. We do not know what he looks like, unless we credit the book’s illustrations. If there was a radio series based on this guy, it should have been The Shadow.

The radio series lasted forever, but very few people think it was much good. The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio describes it as “a prime-time mystery with serious soap opera trappings,” pointing out that “…the dialog was simplistic, identifying each speaker and subject fully in each utterance: ‘Before I open this door, Mr. Keen, let me tell you something. No one in this house right now had anything to do with the murder of young Donald Travers, my niece’s husband.’” Not until Judson Fountain came along were the Hummerts topped in dramatic character-based explication of the obvious (“See this? If you don’t know what it is, I’ll tell you. It’s a gun.”)

Listen to all or part of an episode of Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons (30m), because it will help you more fully appreciate the brilliant satire of Bob and Ray’s Mr. Treat, Chaser of Lost People (7m).

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