by Kathleen Dooley
Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear presents
At The Oak Park Arms
801 Lake St., Oak Park, IL
This afternoon I had a unique theater experience that was unlike any other live performance I've previously attended. Today, I felt magically transported back in time. I enjoyed a live recreation of two famous shows from the Golden Age of radio, Fibber McGee and Molly and The Great Gildersleeve in his spin off show, Honest Harold.
First, the Grand Ballroom of the Oak Park Arms impressively set the scene for time transportation. This elegant and historic hotel from the 1920s caused me to imagine I was one of the fortunate ones to be in the live studio audience over fifty years ago as I watched my favorite performers create the show. I noticed all the senior citizens taking their seats in the marble tiled, ornately decorated ballroom. It's neat to watch their faces as they laughingly remember the comedy performances as they heard them for the first time in their youth.
The narrator suggested we might wish to sit back, close our eyes and imagine we were sitting in the living room, in front of the old Philco radio, anxiously awaiting our favorite show to begin.
Before the show even began, the pianist, Joanne Dougherty, played a prelude of songs from the 1940's including School Days. I watched in anticipation as the twelve performers, smartly dressed in vintage clothing sat in a row on the stage smiling and studying their lead sheets.
It was interesting and entertaining to see and hear the sound effects man seated up front. He was busy the whole time but unnoticable with slamming doors, buzzing buzzers, tinkling chimes, walking shoes and cracking leaf filled branches for the show.
The first episode was Fiber McGee and Molly from 1947 and the bow tied, Harlow Wilcox character gets up to the microphone with a commercial for Johnson's Wax. His affected voice was so convincing that I wanted make my housework easier with Johnson's wax, paste, liquid or cream. I think it’s this announcer played by Evan Cater and the time specific commercials for antique products that really set the flavor for this delightful recreation.
The voice of Fibber McGee is so well known by his fans that it's really impressive to have Gary Joy pull it off so accurately as he did. Gary's 20 plus years as a voice over professional and actor really paid off in this performance. I'd never laid eyes on Jim Jordan a.k.a. Fibber, in person before but I was sure that Gary must look and act just like him. That's how good he was in this role.
This first show titled, “Trouble with Grammar”, was dedicated to the colloquialisms and parts of speech Fibber McGee always seems to mangle. Some of the best gags included the parade of visitors that came by 79 Wistful Vista that day. They were all in for a lively, English grammar lesson.
My favorite visitor to Molly and Fibber's home that day is an incorrigible little girl, aptly named Teeny who dialogues with Fibber in a voice that stays with you as she giggles and says, “You betcha Mister”. Teeny is played by talented, adult actress Joy Kenyon, who's most memorable career break was her talking toilet bowl voice in a Service Master commercial.
I can tell the director has a passion for old time radio and the Americana history it represents. The performances are very authentic. Famous Hollywood voices are the toughest to tackle since the audience has set expectations. That is why this troupe is so amazing! Word for word, they capture a live show and present it as it was many years ago.
The second show was The Honest Harold Peary Show which originally aired in 1951. Here was a test of acting greatness. Steve Schroeder had to pull off the Great Gildersleeve's low, infectious laugh, which was Harold Peary's trademark. He did a great impression, wholly believable. He even sang an old Al Jolson song about boys in their youth in a beautiful baritone bass just like the original Gildy.
I have to mention the pianist again, Joanne Dougherty. Though she never says a word during the whole performance, her piano tied the whole program together in a polished but unobtrusive way. She really added so much depth to this show without being noticed hardly at all.
This “First Day of School” show was especially entertaining because it reminded me of the first day of school in many homes at this time of year. Kids just want to be kids and sometimes parents want kids to be little grown ups instead. The Harold Perry character has temporarily adopted a distant cousin's son and dresses him up for the first day of school in a blue business suit with a red carnation in the lapel. It's just funny to imagine this little ten year old showing up to school dressed like a “department store floor walker”—poor him!
I interject to note one of the reasons I love old time radio shows so much better than television. Radio is like reading a book. You have the pictures in your mind and it's always funnier or more meaningful than seeing the interpretation of someone else's imagination. The young man on stage was not dressed up like the floor walker description but that did not stop our imaginations from getting the joke!
Well, the story is predictable from here that the young Marvin gets off on the wrong foot with somebody at school who called him a sissy. Harold Perry has to spend the rest of the episode trying to bribe and coax young Marvin to get off the roof of the house where he has decided to hide in disgrace. While Marvin stubbornly insists, “I won't go back to school.” A variety of helpful visitors give well-meaning advice to Harold as to how to win him over.
A hilarious moment with Marvin on the roof is when the rotund Harold is trying to bribe him down by offering him a puppy! Hefty Harold has his neighbor Doc stand on his shoulders and climb up a trellis along the side of the house while holding onto the howling and whimpering puppy dog. Pam Turlow, who plays Molly McGee in the first show, imitates a great, howling beagle pup.
The two shows today were a delight. The Oak Park Arms hostess announcer summed up my critique perfectly when she thanked the audience for coming and said, “This is entertainment that spans all age groups. Today we have in the audience a little darling named Claire who's one year old and Leonard Eagle who just celebrated his 100th birthday this past June. Interestingly enough, Leonard has his professional roots in live radio shows. He was a violinist with the WGN radio orchestra, the Wayne King Orchestra and was Franklin McCormick's violin accompanist.”
My family and I came away refreshed, highly entertained and eager to see more performances from this talented troupe in the near future.