Beginning in January 1928, the Globe and News Herald added radio broadcast schedules to their daily features. That year, the U.S. Commerce Department issued General Order 40, which classified stations as local, regional or clear. The “On the Air” column listed clear channel stations across the country with their nightly programs. There were no networks then, but some stations linked up to carry musical programs such as the Philco Hour or the Barn Dance.
By the 1930s, radio networks had formed, providing regular programming. Musical variety shows were common, as were comedy shows, initially in a 15-minute format, then growing to 30 minutes. For more than 20 years, Tuesday nights were set aside for national favorite “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
In Chicago, vaudevillians Jim and Marian Jordan began working for WENR in 1927 on two situation comedy programs: “The Luke and Mirandy Farm Report” and “The Smith Family.” Jim’s character told tall tales while Marian’s was a long-suffering wife. Those stock characters laid the groundwork for their later success.
When they moved to WMAQ in Chicago in 1931, they gained notice with “Smackout,” which ran until 1935. It revolved around a little country store with four characters, all voiced by Jim and Marian. The store’s owner told stories interspersed with vocal duets, which Marian accompanied on piano. Their signature gag was a customer asking for a product and the owner replying he was “smack out” of that. While “Smackout” was a local Chicago program, it made one significant fan — Henrietta Johnson Lewis. She was part of the family that owned the Johnson Wax Co. At the time the company was looking to sponsor a program on a national network.
In 1935, Johnson Wax sponsored a new program starring the couple who brought along their writer, Don Quinn. The broadcast was carried by the NBC network during its 21-year run. With a corporate sponsor the production company grew to include more actors, a studio orchestra and announcer.
The couple portrayed Fibber McGee and his wife, Molly, who lived at 79 Wistful Vista in a Middle American town. Fibber could be relied upon to get into all kinds of situations, including get-rich-quick schemes or by stretching the truth. Molly would attempt to keep him on the straight and narrow, usually after the fact. Stock characters made regular appearances and could be depended upon to help Fibber concoct a plan or to confound him.
For most of the series, Don Quinn was the sole staff writer. It began as a variety program of music and skits. Over time it evolved into a half-hour situation comedy. Quinn created running gags like those in “Smackout.” Audiences anticipated favorites. Fibber would use the phone and talk with the chatty operator, Myrtle. Conversations began, “Oooooh, is that you, Myrt? How’s every little thing?” and go on from there.
As the show moved toward the midshow commercial, announcer Harlow Wilcox would join the skit and use some part of the conversation to begin talking about Johnson Wax products. It became such a regular feature that Fibber talked about “Waxy” Wilcox, who could only talk about Johnson Wax products.
But the classic gag was “Fibber McGee’s closet.” It first ran on March 5, 1940, in an episode, “Cleaning the Closet.” When Fibber was hunting his dictionary, he remembered it was in the hall closet. Molly opened the door only to be buried beneath a mountain of stuff. For the sound man, it was the perfect vehicle to create a cacophony of crashes, bangs, booms, breaking glass, rattles and one last item falling just when it seemed to be over. They were careful not to overuse the gag. Over its 21-year run, it appeared 128 times. Each time Fibber would conclude, “I gotta clean out that closet one of these days.” However, the most shocking turn was on the March 11, 1947, program. Once more, the story led to the hall closet. It opened — to complete silence. Fibber had cleaned out the closet, though it grew cluttered again.
The verbal repartee between Fibber and Molly led to some expressions entering popular discourse, such as Molly’s rejoinder to Fibber’s exaggerations, “T’ain’t funny, McGee.” Conversations between the two often involved two-line jokes such as this: Molly tells Fibber, “That man winked at me as we walked by.” Fibber doesn’t miss a beat, “Well, we all make mistakes.” Deliberate misunderstanding of figures of speech were a regular feature when the McGees talked with Mayor LaTrivia, who would leave in a huff after trying to make the couple understand a phrase. When asked the time, it’s always half past.
The show became a national sensation by 1938, rated No. 1 for several years, often trading first place with Bob Hope’s show. Four movies were made in the 1940s with their characters also co-starring Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy as well as Lucille Ball and Mary Livingstone (Jack Benny’s wife). The program moved from weekly to a nightly 15-minute format in 1953 due to Marian’s ill health. The change also reflected the changing entertainment scene as television became available. Three years later, the 15-minute programs ended, though a five minute short lasted for two more years. NBC tried to create a TV show with a new cast based on the couple in 1959. It didn’t last a season.
Marian Jordan died in 1961. Jim made a couple of TV and movie appearances in the early 1970s and recreated the famous hall closet gag for an AARP ad. Jim died in 1988, at age 91. Jim and Marion Jordan were broadcast pioneers who entertained the nation and laid the foundation for the situation comedy format in radio and television.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.