This Month

MORE notes on television: — This new home entertainment form continues to expand, and it is now possible to discern the main trend of its program content. TV’s search for talent has ranged throughout the world, and as reports from its various field expeditions begin to trickle in we gain some idea of whither TV will be taking us. At present our destination seems much like the Egyptian Room of a well-stocked museum, with overtones of Madame Tussaud’s, Chichen-Itzá, and the days when one fished for DX reception via the headphones of a trusty Neutrodyne. The purpose of television, we find, is to re-create the personalities and indeed the way of life of earlier cultures.

It was only last year, for instance, that one of the first major “digs” of TV’s archaeologists yielded up talent from a primitive Broadway species long believed extinct. Of Musical Comedy Man, as members of this family are called, only three complete specimens are known to exist; superstitious New Yorkers had long believed the Broadway area haunted, and the TV scouts could find no natives in show business willing to disturb the overlay of the years. From an entertainment point of view, the place seemed accursed.

What first attracted the TV diggers was a pair of fossilized theater stubs with which a child actor was playing. On examination, these proved to have come from The Passing Show of 1916. Their identification rocked TV to its foundations, but it was necessary to proceed with the greatest secrecy. The child actor, who had no idea of the value of his find, was spirited away to Hollywood, and digging was begun on 50th Street where the stubs had first been picked up.

For a time the excavations disclosed nothing but old radio scripts, sound effects devices, and the basic jokebooks used by Radio Man, On a Slow Train Through Arkansas and Through Missouri on a Mule.1 Then suddenly, after sinking a vertical shaft straight through 160 feet of these deposits, the expedition turned up its first, real clue: a small wooden mallet bearing the inscription “Midnight Frolic.” This was identified as a favor supplied to patrons of the New Amsterdam Roof, on 42nd Street, for purposes of beating on the tables by way of applause, and its presence near the so-called Winter Garden dig is still mystifying to scientists.

But the mallet plainly indicated the existence of Pre-Radio Man, and soon the excavators were uncovering a whole system of cabaret activities which proved this to be the fact. Long before the first microphone, it was learned, singers and comedians had been employed in such places as Shanley’s, Churchill’s, Murray’s, and Reisenweber’s. A Complete hatchecking unit, with decoy dimes still affixed to the plate, was disclosed not far below the mallet, the small size of the gratuity showing a culture much more ancient than anything suggested by the common twentyfive and fifty-cent survivals of the Radio Age.

These signs were more than enough to convince the TV diggers that something big lay near at hand. They were right. Amid a shower of loose gravel and fragments of runway, the work party broke through into a theatrical dressing room. Here, in a remarkable state of preservation and fully equipped with the artifacts of the period — the funny hats, baggy pants, squirting seltzer siphon, cornon-cob machine, and other props now familiar to every TV customer — the expedition came upon Musical Comedy Man himself — Ed Wynn.

It was an awesome moment. Television had rediscovered the Past.

News of the great find at the Winter Garden diggings naturally caused a mad scramble for other Pre-Radio talent. Survivors of Gus Edwards’ School Days, Dockstader’s Minstrels, the Ben Greet Players, and Early Chautauqua are in heavy demand for television. Plans are afoot to remake The Great Train Robbery for TV, with the original cast. A lively curb market is springing up on the West Coast in rights to films starring John Bunny, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, At St. John, Bessie Barriscale, Hank Mann, and Mary Miles Minter.

The rest is history. How Allen and Cantor — missing throughout the latter half of the Radio Age — were hunted out for television shortly after the Wynn strike is too well known to bear relating here.

By Constant repetition, TV believes, and with any luck at all, these ancient examples of Musical Comedy Man can attain once again the acclaim they enjoyed in the Neo-Gaslight Period. The fact that television can do anything that the movies and radio could do, and then some, is beside the point. It can show you the Harlem Globetrotters, the winning putt in the National Open, or the eruption of Mauna Loa. It can take you to Lake Success and it can convey by the lift of an eyebrow or the twitch of a check muscle the nuances of a comedy situation with an intimacy never before possible in the theater.

Under these circumstances, we can only marvel at the steadfastness of TV’s quest down Memory Lane. It was no small feat to lure from their honorable state of retirement the three great personages of bygone comedy days and to build hour-long shows around them. The public tends to believe that such results come largely from brilliant impulse, some stroke of genius on the part of the producers and sponsors. Not at all. There is nothing inspirational in projects of this kind. Only through incredibly dull and tiresome plodding are such results achieved.

  1. Commonly ascribed to one Thos. W. Jackson, authorship of these jokes has been traced by Hooton back to Elizabethan Man.