There is a scene in the 1973 movie Paper Moon that features Ryan O'Neal's daughter Tatum O'Neal sitting down to enjoy one the very few pleasures that poor people had during the Depression -- listening to a popular radio show. Tatum's character eagerly tunes in Fibber McGee and Molly just in time to hear Fibber open the hall closet door to the sound of a resounding crash.
During the golden age of radio from about 1932 to about 1952, the city of Chicago was just as likely to be the point of origin for national network hookups as either New York or Los Angeles. One of the best known network shows was The National Barn Dance produced by WLS Radio in Chicago and carried by NBC Blue Network (later ABC) affiliates for many years. The Quiz Kids from WMAQ Radio in The Merchandise Mart was also carried on NBC Blue as was Amos n Andy starring Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The two white actors imitated their version of black dialects to play the role of a taxi driver and his friend. While Gosden (Amos) was from Virginia, Correll (Andy) was also born in Peoria and lived in Rock Island and Chicago until he died. Correll also recruited retired Broadway actor Tim Moore, who was African American and a native of Rock Island, to play the role of The Kingfish on the TV version of Amos n Andy from 1951 to 1953.
But one of the top comedy shows from 1935 to 1959 also started on WMAQ and starred Jim and Marian Jordan, a real-life married couple from Peoria who got their start on the vaudeville circuits. Their radio characters were called Fibber McGee and Molly. In the 1930s, the plot line so stale today on TV was then still new. Molly was the sensible wife most of the time trying to save Fibber from himself and his schemes. As with the Tatum O'Neal character referred to above, a favorite trademark of the show audiences looked forward to was "seeing" through their ears when Fibber went to get some article from the over-filled hall closet and a loud crash of all manner of household goods could be heard tumbling to the floor. It was a masterpiece of radio sound effects and it was innocent humor for a far more innocent age. Yet tapes of the shows can still be appreciated today.
Jim Jordan was born Nov. 16, 1896 on a farm about six miles from Peoria. Marian Driscoll was born on the south side of Peoria almost exactly two years after Jim on Nov. 15, 1898. When he was a student at Peoria High School, Jim played basketball with Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen later became the Roman Catholic Auxillary Bishop of New York and host of one of the highest rated TV shows of the early 1950s called Life Is Worth Living. As pointed out in a previous post on Sheen, when Milton Berle was asked by a reporter how Bishop Sheen could get a larger audience than Berle's Texaco Star Theater, the Jewish comedian graciously replied, "The Bishop has better writers than I do." When Sheen won an Emmy, he referred to Berle's remark and said his material came from writers "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."
Jim met Marian just before World War I during choir practice at St. John's Cathedral in Peoria. The couple married in 1918. Jim tried to enlist but was later drafted to go to France where he caught the Spanish influenza bug that was then a wordwide pandemic. He recovered himself and stayed in France a while to entertain other recovering troops with vaudeville routines.
When Jim came back home to Peoria he tried many jobs as a mechanic, laborer, and a salesman but always Jim and Marian dreamed of doing their vaudeville routine. The first radio show was produced by KDKA Pittsburgh in November 1920 to report results of the presidential election contest between Warren Harding and James Cox. Radio quickly spread from a hobby and a fad in 1921 to a pioneering commercial medium just six years later. Jim and Marian had two children during this time.
Just as radio audiences were growing to numbers that would attract advertisers, Jim and Marian got their first show called The Smith Family on WENR Radio in Chicago in 1972. WENR was then owned by The Chicago Daily News. Their second show about a gossipy grocery store manager was called The Smack-Outs on WENR in 1931. The Fibber McGee and Molly Show made its premier in 1935 on a WMAQ feed to the NBC Blue Network. The studio was in the Merchanside Mart. The show remained in Chicago until 1939 when it was moved to Los Angeles to be closer to guest stars and other talent.
Fibber McGee was a middle class man. He loved to recall his days as a young man playing the mandolin while rowing his boat on the Illinois River. As in classic sitcom plots, Fibber had a running feud with his next door neighbor Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, the president of Gildersleeve's Girdleworks. Fibber and Gildersleeve were constantly trading insults in every show. Harold Peary was a former singer with a distinctive comic voice who played Gildersleeve. Harold was later given his own "spin off" radio show, The Great Gildersleeve. Character actor Gale Gordon replaced Peary with a new character called Mayor LaTrivia who was a politician that both Fibber and Molly loved to trip up. Gordon later played many parts on television in Our Miss Brooks, Dennis the Menace, and The Lucy Show.
Other popular characters included Wallace Whimple, a hen-pecked husband who was afraid of his wife "Sweetie Face." Wallace: "I told Sweetie Face that the center line painted on the highway was for bicycles and you know how she loves to ride." Fibber: "Good gosh Wallace she could get killed!" Wallce: "Why yes, I imagine so."
Fibber McGee and Molly went off the air in 1959, long after most other shows of their era, when they were reduced to a ten-minute nostalgia segment on Monitor. Marian Jordan died of cancer on April 7, 1961 at the age of 62. Jim married a second time and died on April 1, 1988 at the age of 91. Even today recordings of their voices, skits, music, and sound effects are thought of as icons of the radio era.
Fibber McGee and Molly were inducted into the Chicago-based Radio Hall of Fame in 1989. Click here to see their page on the Radio Hall of Fame and hear a short audio clip from one of their comedy skits with Gale Gordon and Mayor LaTrivia.