Yesterday's Magazette

7 – Fibber McGee

The Radio Voices Of Our Lives

Fibber McGee 

By Marshall J. Cook

For years, the lines “T’aint’t funny, McGee” and “Don’t open that door, McGee!” never failed to bring a laugh and raise a radio listener’s spirits.

“McGee” was, of course, Fibber McGee, and the woman who kept him honest was wife Molly (played by real life husband and wife Jim and Marian Jordan). Fibber McGee and Molly debuted on the NBC Blue Network in April of 1935 and ran in one form or another until March of 1956. For three seasons starting in 1957, NBC’s magazine-format show, Monitor, ran vignettes, five segments of about four minutes each, on Saturday and Sunday, completing the show’s 24-year run.

FibberMcGee:Molly

Little changed over all those years. The McGee’s lived at 79 Wistful Vista, welcoming (or not) visits from a pesky little girl named Teeny (also played by the versatile Marian Jordan), Isabel Randolph as a snooty old lady (“Mrs. Abigail Uppington” had the longest run), and Bill Thompson in a variety of roles, most famously as the Old Timer, known for his pet phrase (“That ain’t the way I heeeeered it!”)

Thompson also played Wallace Wimple, bird fancier and henpecked husband of “my big fat wife Sweetieface.” Cliff Arquette originated the role of Willingford Tuttle Gildersleeve. Hal Perry later took on the role and developed one of the first great spin-off successes, taking the role of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve to his own show, The Great Gildersleeve.

Wistful Vista needed a leader, and the blustering Gale Gordon stepped in beautifully as Mayor LaTrivia. Gordon would find his greatest fame as Osgood Conklin, the principal and principal tormenter of Eve Arden as everyone’s favorite high school English teacher, Constance Brooks (Our Miss Brooks). (More on her in a future column.)

Fibber employed various vocalists, most notably The King’s Men Quartet for 13 years. Harlow Wilcox was the show’s announcer for all but the last three years of the show’s run. Since the commercials were integrated into the shows then, he always dropped by the house and somehow managed to work in a plug for Johnson’s Wax.

When Fibber added a studio audience, the biggest shock came when the McGee’s cook, Beulah, made ‘her’ appearance. “Beulah” was in fact played by a man, Marlin Hurt, a white man at that! ‘She’ always delivered ‘her’ best laugh after being slayed by something Fibber said. After gales of laughter, she would recover enough to say, “Love that man!” Beulah also enjoyed a successful run as a spin-off show.

Arthur Q. Bryan portrayed portly Doc Gamble starting in 1943, creating a voice for the character that sounded for all the world like Elmer Fudd, later made famous and endearing by the Man of a Million Voices, Mel Blanc. Since Blanc created literally hundreds of voices (including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Jack Benny’s Maxwell car), we need not credit him for the Fudd origination.

Oh, but t’was Molly who held it all together. She was the voice of reason, tried to keep Fibber tethered to reality, and corrected her husband’s frequent malapropisms.

She was born Marian Driscoll on April 15, 1898, the seventh and last child of coal miner Daniel Driscoll and his wife Anna (Carroll). Marian and her future husband hailed from Peoria, Illinois, met at the Catholic Church there, and were married in 1918.  They had two children, Kathryn Therese and James Carroll Jordan.

Like so many of the early radio stars, they got their start in vaudeville, graduating to radio on WENR Chicago in 1927 with what may have been the first situation comedy. They ran a general store on WMAQ Chicago until writer Don Quinn developed Fibber McGee and Molly for NBC, debuting April 16, 1935. It took five seasons for the show to find its audience, but from then on it was unstoppable.

Molly disappeared from the show from November of 1937 through April 1939 while Marian Jordan battled what was described as “fatigue” but which was in fact alcoholism. The show must go on, of course, and was called Fibber McGee and Company until her return.

It came back to life when Marian Jordan returned.

McGee would often comment, “There goes a good kid” whenever Molly exited the stage (while Marian stayed right there to portray Teeny). He may have fibbed a lot, but he surely told the truth that time.

Marian Jordan played Molly to her husband Jim’s Fibber McGee for almost a quarter of a century. The running gags, puns, and malapropisms still hope up well today.

Vol. 38 No.4 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter- 2011-12

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