Radio Pioneers of the Algonquin Round Table

The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide coverOur friend Kevin Fitzpatrick, chronicler of all thing Dorothy Parker, has a new book out that we think will be of great interest to many of our readers. The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide allows the reader to “explore the shadowy speakeasies, majestic hotels, glittering theaters, and other locations frequented by the legends of the Algonquin Round Table.”

We’re pleased as punch to have this guest blog from Kevin. We think his new book is terrific and we’re confident you’ll find it an entertaining and engaging read.

When I was compiling the material for my new book, The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide, I was struck by the group’s versatility. I’d originally believed the group, which met from 1919 to about 1927, was the realm of newspaper and magazine writers. However, by researching the biographies of all thirty members, it became clear the group had their fingers in every form of mass entertainment and media.

It turns out that there were members with careers that stretched from silent pictures to live television, such as actresses Margalo Gillmore and Peggy Wood. Robert Benchley made the first all-talking short, The Treasurer’s Report, released in March 1928 by Fox. Marc Connelly and Dorothy Parker both wrote captions and scenarios for the silents, then later jumped into writing plays and talkies.

But if there is one format that most of the members drew paychecks from after the Round Table ended, that’s radio. Many members of the group appeared as guests, commentators, writers, or actors. Benchley and Parker had their short stories adapted for dramatizations. Harpo Marx whistled his answers on-air. Others made the transition from newspapers to microphones, trading on their popularity as writers.

The book has more than 100 locations around the New York area tied to the lives of the “Vicious Circle” that met at the Algonquin Hotel on West Forty-fourth Street. Here are three spots from their radio days, all within walking distance of the Round Table.

NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin P. Adams on Information PleaseFranklin P. Adams was a veteran newspaper columnist with 35 years’ experience when his services were no longer needed. Radio saved him, and a quiz show was the last hurrah of his brilliant career. In 1937, the Herald Tribune didn’t renew his contract. With an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and trivia and a family of five to support during the height of the Great Depression, the offer to be a regular panelist on a radio quiz show came as a blessing.

The format of Information Please was simple but brilliant. Listeners mailed in questions. If the question stumped a panel of experts, the listener won a small cash prize. The show was unrehearsed and conducted before a live studio audience. The 30-minute program moved like lightning, and experts and guests had to answer quickly. On May 17, 1938, Information Please debuted on the NBC Blue Network (later ABC). Clifton Fadiman, a literary critic who wrote for The New Yorker, was master of ceremonies. The show was an overnight success, and more than 25,000 questions poured into the studios.

One question put to F.P.A. in 1938 was to finish the Joe Miller gag, “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” To which he replied, “There are two answers: That was no lady, that was my wife. And the other is that was no lady, that was your wife.” The show continued for ten years, mostly on NBC. Over time, just about every Round Table member appeared as a guest.

NBC has always been associated with Rockefeller Center. John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil, owned the land and helped create the landmark. The area bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues from 48th to 51st streets contained numerous speakeasies before demolition in 1930. NBC has called 30 Rockefeller Plaza home since the building was completed in 1933, spanning corporate ownership from General Electric to Comcast. More than a dozen buildings form the complex today, with “30 Rock” as centerpiece. Radio studios were the original tenants (hence Radio City) and now television studios. The Art Deco buildings are landmarks inside and out.

CBS, Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue
When radio networks became national broadcasters in the late 1920s, some of the live programming was classical music. Symphonies and orchestras dominated as networks tried to reach upper class listeners. William S. Paley signed the New York Philharmonic to CBS in a major coup and gave the network enormous prestige.

Deems Taylor, composer Sigmund Romberg, and Alexander Woollcott in the studio, circa 1935Beginning in 1936, Deems Taylor served as commentator during intermissions. Already a star composer and conductor, he had been a newspaper music critic but never a broadcaster. His role at CBS was an enormous success, and Taylor found himself giving weekly music lecturers to a huge audience during Sunday afternoon concerts in Carnegie Hall. He helped listeners understand what they were hearing and helped a generation appreciate classical music. Taylor also introduced listener questions, interviewed orchestra members during intermissions, and brought the whole experience of classical music into the nation’s living rooms. A broadcaster for more than ten years, Taylor became the country’s best-known authority on music.

The building was saved from a wrecking ball in 1960 and underwent multi-million dollar renovations in recent years. Today the Isaac Stern auditorium, the main performance hall, seats 2,800.
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Times Square Tintypes: The Marx Brothers

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles the Marx Brothers.

AH, NUTS!

THE MARX BROTHERS. They are known as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. Their real names are Julius, Arthur (formerly Adolph), Milton (editor’s note: Skolsky got this wrong: Chico’s real name was Leonard; it was Gummo who was named Milton) and Herbert. They were given their nicknames by a kibitzer at a poker game in Galesburg, Ill.
Caricature of the Marx BrothersThey always sign their contracts in green ink.
Three of them are married. Harpo, the unmarried one, has been on the verge of eight times. With eight different girls.
Have been known as “The Three Nightingales,” “The Four Nightingales,” “The Six Mascots” (in this act they were assisted by their mother and their other brother, Gummo, now in the cloak and suit business), and “The Four Marx Brothers.” The name of the act depended on how many of the family were in it.
Are nephews of Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean fame.
Groucho’s theatrical career started at the age of thirteen in a Gus Edwards “School Days” act. He was fired in the middle of the tour because his voice changed.
Harpo’s debut was made twenty-two years ago on a Coney Island stage. He was pushed on when “The Three Mascots” were playing there. He wore a white duck suit with a flower in his buttonhole. Frightened, he stood with his back to the audience an didn’t say a word until the curtain fell. Has yet to speak a word on the stage. After his début “The Three Mascots” was changed to “The Four Nightingales.”
After finishing a sandwich at a party, Groucho throws the plate out the window.
Chico is the business member of the quartet. It was he who arranged for their first appearance in a Broadway show.
Harpo was once a bellboy at the Hotel Seville. He earned an extra twenty-five cents a week from Cissie Loftus for taking her dog for a daily stroll. Chico played the piano in nickelodeons. Groucho drove a grocery wagon in Cripple Creek, Col. He had a burning desire to become a prize fighter.
Whenever they want to get out of an engagement Harpo fakes an appendicitis.
Their dressing room is always filled with visitors. Herbert Swope, Neysa McMein, Harold Ross, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun and Alice Duer Miller are nightly visitors when they have a show in town.
Chico will bet on anything. Merely say it is a nice day and he will say: “I’ll bet you.”
Harpo’s and Zeppo’s favorite dish is crab flakes and spaghetti. Groucho and Chico, on the other plate, are especially fond of dill pickles and red caviar.
The four of them play the stock market. That’s why they’re still in the show business.
Whenever Groucho wants to visit his broker he tells his wife he is going to play golf. He visits his broker attired in a golf outfit, carrying a bag of clubs.
Are always playing practical jokes. Annoy interviewers by pretending they are slightly deaf. Another gag is Groucho telling their life story. He stops at a certain point saying: “This is all I remember of my life. Chico knows the rest.” Chico continues with an entirely different story. He also stops in the middle, offers the same excuse, referring the interviewer to Zeppo, who continues the process until all four have told a different story of their lives.
Offstage Groucho, Chico and Zeppo occasionally wear glasses.
Zeppo is in the real estate business. He tries to sell property backstage.
Harpo is the best poker player of The Thanatopsis Club. Has won enough money from Heywood Broun to pay for young Heywood’s tuition fee through any college in the country. Is also a great croquet player. Often plays in Central Park for a thousand dollars a game.
Their grandfather was a noted strolling German magician. Their grandmother was also in the act. She played the “accompanying music” on a harp.
They failed to click only once. In a London Music Hall. The Englishmen booed and threw pennies on the stage. Groucho stepped to the footlights and told them they were cheap. He dared them to throw shillings. They made more money at the performance than they were paid for the week.
To Harpo every woman, regardless of her name, is Mrs. Benson.
Harpo can play any musical instrument. Chico plays the piano and harp. Groucho plays the guitar. Zeppo likes to listen to the radio.

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Time Square Tintypes: Sam H. Harris

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles Broadway producer and theater owner Sam H. Harris.
 

HIS WORD IS HIS BOND

IN a business where an ironclad contract often becomes a mere scrap of paper, there is a man whose word is his bond. He often closes an important deal by merely a handshake. The man is SAM H. HARRIS.
Caricature of Sam H. HarrisThe “H” is for Henry, although he likes to believe it stands for “Hits.”
His first theatrical job was at Miner’s Theater. Was employed to trail John W. Kelly, the Rolling Mill man, a star of the times. When Kelly went out for a drink he played no favorites. He gave every saloon along the Bowery a break. Harris’s task was to tag after him and bring him back to the theater in time to go on.
When a young girl comes to him, anxious to get into show business, he advises her to go home and get married.
At twenty-two he owned six horses. Entered four of them in a seven-horse race. They finished fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. He immediately traded his stable of horses for a bulldog.
His favorite expression: “You can play only one way—straight.”
Was once part of one of the most successful partnerships in the theatrical business: Cohan and Harris. That firm dissolved, friendly, during the actors’ strike. Cohan picked up a blotter, which had his picture in one corner and Harris’s in another. Tearing the blotter, he tossed the half with Harris’s picture to him and said: “Sam, we’re through.” That’s all there was to it.
His trousers can stay up without support of either a belt or suspenders.
Always sits in the last row of the balcony at the opening of his plays.
Is the only theatrical producer to have the honor of having a book dedicated to him by Alexander Woollcott.
He hasn’t a gray hair in his head. Bets have actually been made that he never will have a gray hair.
His idea of a swell meal is a good bowl of vegetable soup.
Any play he produces must have these two requisites: In his own words, “It must add up at the finish.” Secondly, it must contain at least one character for whom the audience will root.
He never harbors a grudge.
Was once in the prize-fighting racket. Trained his protégé faithfully. Only to see him knocked out in the first five minutes of action. While this man was being counted out, he was in the other corner, signing up the winner. You’ve probably heard of the guy—Terry McGovern.
He eats chop suey only on rainy days.
In his opinion there is no man in the world who knows the theater as well as George M. Cohan.
Every time he is about to close a show, his comment is: “I can’t go along with it.”
Is now the owner of a fine stable of horses. He names his horses after fond memories. One is called Terry McGovern. Another is known as Sadie Thompson.
As a kid he greatly admired John Drew. Although just getting out of short pants he grew a heavy mustache in order to look like his idol.
His favorite author is George S. Kaufman. And, as far as music is concerned, he taste begins and ends with Irving Berlin.
He once worked in a hat store on Grand Street. Every week he had to make a delivery away uptown, at Seventy-second Street. For this he was given a quarter for carfare. He walked, thus giving a dollar a month extra to his mother. Every month his mother had to buy him a pair of shoes costing a dollar and a quarter. A little figuring and shortly he was told to spend the quarter for carfare. His economy was costing the family money.
He will play cards with anybody in the world but Harpo Marx.
His office is a studio room in the Music Box Theatre. A wall door leads to an especially constructed dungeon. Inside there is a fully equipped bar. The entrance is guarded by a cuckoo clock. While leaning against the bar the pressing of a button will produce a beautiful scenic effect. The ceiling becomes “Blue Heaven” and the stars twinkle.
When an actress’s performance pleases him he expresses his delight by saying: “She gives me a lump.”

Times Square Tintypes: Beatrice Lillie

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles actress and comedic performer Beatrice Lillie.
 

PuLEEZE!!!!

BEATRICE LILLIE was really born in Toronto, Canada. She went to England, alone, at the age of fifteen.
Caricature of Beatrice LillieShe likes anything that’s green.
Her theatrical career started in Charlot’s Revue of 1915. Here she made her first hit singing Irving Berlin‘s “I Want to Go Back to Michigan.”
Has an inferiority complex whenever she talks about business.
Her husband is Lord Peel. That makes her Lady Peel, in parentheses, to the rotogravure sections. Her supreme treasure is her son, Robert, who is here with her.
Is exactly the same offstage as she is on. Even says “Thank you” and “Puleeze” as she does for a laugh in the theater.
Sleeps perched up on three big pillows. Always has a sandwich placed on the night table and sleeps with socks on to keep her feet warm.
There are two things she really hates. One is to have her picture taken. The other is writing her signature.
She passed the blindfold test, endorsing a certain brand of cigarettes. She smokes an English cigarette called “Players.” She endorsed Lux thinking it was candy.
She either likes a person at first sight or not at all.
As far as musical talent goes she can tickle a bit on the guitar.
The only legitimate play she ever appeared in was Up in Mabel’s Room. It was a big hit here. It lasted six weeks in London. The critics said: “Beatrice Lillie played Beatrice Lillie very well.”
A snowstorm fascinates her. During the snowstorms, while she was in this city, she went sleigh riding in Central Park.
Calls people “Ducky.” If she doesn’t call them “Ducky,” she calls them “Chicken.” Whenever something pleases her she refers to it as “A pretty kettle of fish.”
Her son scolds her because she wears funny costumes on the stage. He believes he should always look pretty.
Among the things that make her shudder are people who chump hard candy, people who tell you they have a cold and then cough in your face to prove it, people who crack their knuckles and people who are always blowing bubbles with chewing gum.
She likes the saxophone because Lord Peel plays it.
She owns a dress suit. And wears it as well as she does a Paris smock. This Year of Grace was the first show in her theatrical career in which she didn’t wear it.
Every week she receives letters from people who want to sell her an old gun, an old piece of china or an old print that once belonged to the early Peels.
Almost everyone has his own nickname for her. Some of the most popular are: “Tiny,” “Smally,” “Beena,” “Mina,” “Hoyland,” “Peanut,” ‘Dumbell,” “Crazy,” “Oopie” and “Lady Peel.”
She would rather visit a doctor than eat an apple. She only took a bite of the apple she is supposed to eat while singing “World Weary.” This bite almost choked her.
She can name the horse the Prince of Wales didn’t fall off.
Her favorite Americans are Robert Benchley, Donald Ogden Stewart, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, Marc Connolly and Alexander Woollcott. The Algonquin, she believes, is the capital of the United States.
Claims that no matter where she lives in this town of ours they are always building a house next to her bedroom. For this reason she sleeps with cotton in her ears.
Every evening she orders the same dinner. It consists of roast beef plain, plain boiled potatoes, plain white bread, Worcestershire sauce and plain spinach. She makes a special request that it be served by a plain waiter.
Her secret desire is to be able to speak with a Jewish accent.

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Times Square Tintypes: Irving Berlin

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles perhaps the greatest of American songwriters, Irving Berlin.
 

THE BIRTH OF THE BLUES

HE has a name that will live forever and he bought it for a song. IRIVING BERLIN.
Came to this country at the age of four, the youngest of eight children. In Russia his father was a cantor. Here a kosher butcher.
He has yet to find a hat to fit him.
He eats a lot for one of his size.
Plays the piano by ear. And only in F sharp. Has a specially constructed piano with a sliding keyboard. When the music calls for another key he merely moves the lever.
He is not a one finger player. Uses all his fingers badly.
Has a scar on his forehead. It was received on a Washington’s Birthday in Cherry Street, trying to start a bonfire.
Thinks he is a good stud poker player. His friends say he’s lucky.
His pet aversions are riveters and second verses.
Ran away from home at the age of fourteen. His first stop was Callahan’s saloon. Here he sang “The Mansion of Aching Hearts” until enough coins were tossed at him to pay for a night’s lodging. Later became a singing waiter at Nigger Mike’s place, 12 Pell Street. The barker on the trip to Chinatown bus now points out the place.
He wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” credited with starting the jazz vogue, at the age of twenty-three.
Crowds frighten him. So do certain individuals.
His idea of a great achievement is writing a song that reaches the million copy mark.
Maintains a home in West Forty-sixth Street. But lives elsewhere. The first of every month generally finds him moving.
His square moniker is Israel Baline. For a time, he went under the name of Cooney. Became Berlin because that was the way the Bowery pronounced Baline.
As a singing waiter he kicked a hoofer named George White out of the place for being a pest, and he served Al Smith.
Is always chewing gum. This can be observed by merely watching the funny way his hat moves on his head.
His favorite biographer is Alexander Woollcott.
He composes in this fashion: First playing the song on the piano. Then singing it to Arthur Johnson, his right and left hand man, who records upon paper what he hears. Then Johnson plays the written manuscript. This is the first draft. From this Berlin works on to the final version. Often after a song has been published he changes it.
His bill for flowers for the Mrs. is $1,000 a month.
His patent leather dinner shoes have more cracks than his hair has waves.
Of all the songs he has written, a figure exceeding four hundred, his favorite is “The Song Is Ended But the Melody Lingers On.”
Is very restless. Can’t sit or stand still. Always paces the floor. He walks miles in any room he is in. It is the only exercise he gets.
As far as playwrights go, his taste begins and ends with George S. Kaufman. As for music, he’ll whistle anything by Jerome Kern. For lyrics he hands first prize to B. G. De Sylva. And if asked to name the swellest guy in the theatrical game, he’d shout Sam Harris.
He has had to change his entire working schedule since he became a father.
He has never worn a diamond. The only jewelry he wears is, occasionally, a pearl tie pin.
Never eats the crust of bread or rolls. Always plucks the filling. This can be seen circled about his plate.
After finishing a song he sings it to the first person he meets. A bell boy at Palm Beach was the first person to hear “Lazy.” A Broadway taxi driver was the first to hear “All Alone.” A bewildered stranger, occupation unknown, was the first to hear “Say It With Music.”
He never writes anything in longhand but his signature on a check. Everything else he prints.
The one thing in life he is looking forward to is walking into a restaurant with his daughter, Mary Ellen.
Of all the songs ever written the one he’d love to be the author of is “The Rosary.”
On the fly leaf of a book containing every song he wrote there is this ditty which he believes sums up everything:

Let Me Be a Troubadour,
And I Will For Nothing More
Than One Short Hour Or So
To Sing My Song And Go.

He has a form-fitting couch which was especially designed for him.