The Great Gildersleeve
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|Running time||30 minutes (1941–1954)
15 minutes (1954–1957)
Mary Lee Robb
Arthur Q. Bryan
|Creator(s)||Leonard L. Levinson|
Leonard L. Levinson
|Air dates||August 31, 1941 to 1957|
|No. of episodes||552 (1940–1954)|
The Great Gildersleeve is a radio situation comedy broadcast from 1941 to 1957. Initially written by Leonard Lewis Levinson, it was one of broadcast history's earliest spin-off programs. The series was built around the character Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve, a regular element of the radio situation comedy Fibber McGee and Molly. The character was introduced in the October 3, 1939 episode (number 216) of that series. The Great Gildersleeve enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 1940s. Actor Harold Peary played the character during its transition from the parent show into the spin-off and later in four feature films released at the height of the show's popularity.
In Fibber McGee and Molly, Peary's Gildersleeve had been a pompous windbag and nemesis of Fibber McGee. "You're a haa-aa-aa-aard man, McGee!" became a Gildersleeve catchphrase. The character went by several aliases on Fibber McGee and Molly; his middle name was revealed to be "Philharmonic" in "Gildersleeve's Diary" episode on October 22, 1940.
The Great Gildersleeve premiered on NBC on August 31, 1941. It moves the title character from the McGees' Wistful Vista to Summerfield, where Gildersleeve oversees his late brother-in-law's estate and rears his orphaned niece and nephew, Marjorie and Leroy Forester. The household also includes a cook named Birdie. While Gildersleeve had occasionally mentioned his (unseen) wife in some Fibber episodes, in his own series he is a confirmed bachelor.
At the outset of the series, Gildersleeve administers a girdle manufacturing company ("If you want a better corset, of course, it's a Gildersleeve"); later and during the remainder of the show he serves as Summerfield's water commissioner.
A key figure in the Gildersleeve home was cook and housekeeper Birdie Lee Coggins (Lillian Randolph). In the first season, under writer Levinson, Birdie was often portrayed as less than intelligent, but she slowly developed as the real brains and caretaker of the household under Whedon and other writers.
Marjorie (originally played by Lurene Tuttle, later by Louise Erickson and Mary Lee Robb) matured to a young woman through the 1940s. During the ninth season (September 1949-June 1950) she met and married Walter "Bronco" Thompson (Richard Crenna), star football player at the local college. Look devoted five pages in its May 23, 1950, issue to the wedding. After living in the same household for a few years, the newlyweds moved next door.
Leroy (Walter Tetley), who remained age 10–11 during most of the 1940s, began to grow up in the spring of 1949, establishing relationships with the girls in the Bullard home across the street. He developed interests in driving, playing the drums and dreaming of a musical career.
Neighbors and friends
Outside the home, Gildersleeve's closest association was with the executor of his brother-in-law's estate, Judge Horace Hooker (Earle Ross), with whom he had many battles during the first few broadcast seasons. After a change in scriptwriters in January 1943, the confrontations slowly subsided and the two men became friends. During the second season, pharmacist Richard Q. Peavey (Richard LeGrand) and barber Floyd Munson (Arthur Q. Bryan) joined Gildersleeve's circle of acquaintances.
In the fourth season, these three friends, along with Police Chief Donald Gates (Ken Christy), formed the nucleus of the Jolly Boys Club, whose activities revolve around practicing barbershop quartet songs between sips of Coca-Cola.
Several women passed through Gildersleeve's life during the series, including three he almost married before settling into a pattern of casual dating.
Decline and fall
In 1950, Harold Peary was convinced to move The Great Gildersleeve to CBS, but sponsor Kraft refused to sanction the move. Peary, now contracted to CBS, was legally unable to appear on NBC as a star performer, but Gildersleeve was still an NBC series. This prompted the hiring of Willard Waterman as Peary's replacement. Peary, meanwhile, began a new series on CBS which attempted to reproduce the Gildersleeve show with the names changed. The Harold Peary Show, lasting one season, included a fictitious radio show within the show. This was Honest Harold, hosted by Peary's new character.
Starting in mid-1952, some of the program's long-time characters (Judge Hooker, Floyd Munson, Marjorie and her husband) were missing for months at a time. In their place were a few new ones (Mr. Cooley, the Egg Man, and Mrs. Potter the hypochondriac) who would last only a month or so. By 1953, Gildersleeve's love life took center stage over his family and friends. His many love interests were constantly shifting, and women came and went with great frequency.
In 1954 the show's format changed drastically. After missing the fall schedule, it finally appeared in November as 15-minute episodes that aired five times a week. Only Gildersleeve, Leroy and Birdie remained on a continuing basis. All other characters were seldom heard, and gone were Marjorie and her family as well as the studio audience, live orchestra and original scripts.
The radio show also suffered from the advent of television. A televised version of the show, produced and syndicated by NBC, also starring Waterman, premiered in 1955 but lasted only 39 episodes. During that year, both the 15-minute radio show and the television show were being produced simultaneously.
On the television series, Gildersleeve was sketched as less lovable, more pompous and a more overt womanizer. Harold Peary stated that the problem with the television series was that "Waterman was a very tall man" and "Gildersleeve was not a tall man, he was a little man, who thought he was a tall man, that was the character." He added, "Willard [Waterman] did a very good job on the radio show", but was "miscast on the television version".
Actress Barbara Stuart landed her first television acting role on The Great Gildersleeve in the role of Gildersleeve's secretary, Bessie. Child actor Michael Winkelman, later of The Real McCoys, made his first television appearance on the show in the role of 9-year-old Bruce Fuller.
After joining Jim and Marion Jordan (as Fibber McGee and Molly) and fellow radio favorite Edgar Bergen in Look Who's Laughing (1941) and Here We Go Again (1942), Peary received top billing for a brief series of RKO films. The Great Gildersleeve (1942) also carried Randolph from the radio cast to the screen, with Nancy Gates as Marjorie and Freddie Mercer as Leroy. Walter Tetley, who played Leroy on radio, could not appear on screen as Leroy because he was actually an adult playing a child character.
Gildersleeve on Broadway followed, in 1943; the story is centered on Leroy as the odd boy out as everyone around him is falling in love. Gildersleeve's Bad Day (1943) followed the mishaps around his call to jury duty; and in Gildersleeve's Ghost (1944), his relatives Randolph and Johnson rise from the dead to help his campaign for police commissioner.
The Gildersleeve character was parodied in the 1945 Bugs Bunny cartoon Hare Conditioned, in which the rabbit distracts a menacing taxidermist by telling him that he sounds "just like that guy on the radio, the Great Gildersneeze!" The taxidermist responds with "I do?!" followed by Gildersleeve's chuckle. The Gildersleeve voice in this cartoon was done by radio actor and voice artist Dick Nelson.
At the height of the show's popularity, Harold Peary recorded three albums as Gildersleeve, reading popular children's stories for Capitol Records in heavy-bookleted four-disc 78rpm record albums. Stories for Children, Told in His Own Way by the Great Gildersleeve, was released in 1945 and was Capitol's first-ever such release for children. With orchestral accompaniment, it featured "Puss in Boots," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Jack and the Beanstalk."
The second album, Children's Stories as Told by the Great Gildersleeve, in 1946, featured "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Brave Little Tailor", again with orchestral accompaniment. The third and final album in the series, reverting to the title of the first and released in 1947, included "Snow White and Rose Red" and "Cinderella", once more with full orchestral accompaniment.
The music was by Robert Emmett Dolan. Capitol brought in The Great Gildersleeve's chief writers at the time, Sam Moore and John Whedon, to adapt the stories to Gildersleeve's style.
Peary continued his career (often billed as Hal Peary) in films and television well into the 1970s; he was especially active as a voice actor for cartoons produced by Rankin-Bass and Hanna-Barbera, among others. He died of a heart attack in 1985. Waterman, who was a regular supporting character on radio's The Halls of Ivy while doing his version of Gildersleeve, died a decade later.
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