Celebrating Gale Gordon
Lucy's longtime co-star, Gale Gordon, celebrated his birthday on February 20, even though a misprint in an early interview convinced fans for years that the date was February 2.
Gale passed away on June 30, 1995. The following article was published in our We Love Lucy newsletter a few weeks later...
Gale Gordon: A Final Bow
The images are indelible: Lucy Ricardo playing "catch" with hot rolls to impress Ricky’s boss...Lucy Carmichael trying to wheedle one last dollar out of banker Mooney...Lucy Carter introducing her tongue-tied brother-in-law to the likes of Richard Burton...Lucille Ball’s shenanigans with Gale Gordon defined television comedy for over a decade, and achieved levels of success and longevity surpassed by none.
Gordon, whose "lovable blowhard" character made him a welcome guest in America’s livingrooms for over 50 years, died this past summer (June 30) of cancer. He was 89. His actress wife Virginia preceded him in death only a few weeks earlier in the same nursing facility. As everyone in show business knew, Gordon’s bellow-and-bluster was all an act: off-stage he was one of the sweetest, gentlest men to walk the earth. Gale himself once confessed, "I am never nasty -- unless I get paid for it."
Lucy’s explosive sidekick was born Charles T. Aldrich Jr., the son of vaudevillian Charles Aldrich and English actress Gloria Gordon, on February 2, 1906. Stage work took the family to England when Gale was only a year old, and he lived there for 8 years, absorbing the basics of English reserve that would later constitute much of his professional image. While living in London he underwent a delicate surgery that corrected a severely-cleft palate that had threatened to doom the boy to a speechless life.
The Aldriches returned to the United States when Gale was nine, and he grew up in New York’s Forest Hills area. At 17 he headed back to England to complete his education at the Woodbridge School in Suffolk.
Gale’s first theatrical job was as an extra in a 1923 Canadian stage production of "The Dancers," starring Richard Bennett -- the father of Constance, Joan and Barbara. To earn extra money, Gale doubled as Bennett’s dresser. Bennett taught the young man about make-up and acting, and also helped Gale develop what proved to be his greatest asset -- his voice.
Gordon later recalled, "I had forgotten all about my voice handicap by then, but evidently Bennett, whose ear was as sharp as his mind, saw possibilities for improvement. One day he placed me in the center of the stage and stalked off to a distant spot in the empty theatre’s second balcony. ‘Whisper so I can hear you,’ he trumpeted. I whispered. I whispered for days and found vocal muscles most people don’t know they have."
More stage work followed, and by 1925, Gale found himself in Hollywood, juggling assignments on the stage, in films, and on the radio. It was the latter that ultimately brought him to national prominence. He later remembered his first encountered with the new broadcasting medium: "They asked me to come to a Hollywood studio in 1926 and try this new thing called ‘radio.’ They didn’t pay me, of course. They just wanted me to fill up some time. So I sang, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More,’ and accompanied myself on the ukelele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born. I haven’t played an instrument on the air since."
By 1933 Gale was the highest-paid radio actor in Hollywood. Two years later he voiced the male lead opposite Mary Pickford in her radio serial, and later did the same for Irene Rich. In the seasons that followed, he hit just about every big-time show on the air, from Lux Radio Theatre to Stories from the Black Chamber. He was the voice of Flash Gordon and was Inspector Lestrade, complete with cockney accent, on Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone.
Radio also introduced Gale to the love of his life -- fellow performer Virginia Curley. They met while appearing on an episode of Death Valley Days in New York. They were married in Kingsman, Arizona, on December 27, 1937 -- and for at least the next two decades celebrated their anniversary on the 27th of every month.
A radio actor, unlike his modern TV counterpart, often appeared on two, three or more programs in a given week, playing a wide variety of characters. Gale, however, soon found himself type-cast as a dramatic actor, and casting agents failed to consider his formidable voice as appropriate for lighter roles. All that changed in 1941 when he became a regular on the popular Fibber McGee and Molly situation comedy. He joined the show to play Molly’s ex-boyfriend, but was quickly recast as Mayor LaTrivia, who would blow up and get his words all tangled. Audiences loved him, and Gale stayed with the series for 12 seasons.
Gale and Virginia were not the only members of the Gordon family to find success in radio. Gale’s mother Gloria had relocated to Los Angeles and in 1947 was cast as the Irish housekeeper in CBS’ My Friend Irma series starring Marie Wilson. A year later Gale himself joined two new CBS sitcoms, unaware that they would define the balance of his career: Our Miss Brooks, starring Eve Arden, and My Favorite Husband, with Lucille Ball.
Brooks, for readers too young to know, was set at fiction Madison High School, and chronicled the misadventures of Constance Brooks, English teacher. Connie’s three challenges in life were to educate unruly teenagers like squeaky-voiced Walter Denton (Richard Crenna); to land a boyfriend, like science-teacher Philip Boynton (Jeff Chandler); and to avoid conflicts with the school’s principal, blustery windbag Osgood Conklin (Gale).
As Gordon later recalled, "There was nothing subtle about Osgood. No nuances. Just a lot of very satisfying acid, bluster and bellowing, with an occasional weak moment of cordiality thrown in for leavening. It was practically impossible to overplay him. Even when he was being cordial, he was like an elephant trying to waltz."
Only slightly more refined was banker Rudolph Atterbury, Gale’s character in My Favorite Husband. Lucy played scatterbrained Liz Cooper in this one, and was married to bank vice-president George (Richard Denning). Gale portrayed Denning’s boss. When writer-producer Jess Oppenheimer joined the show in 1949, he focused the show on domestic situations. Liz and George were often paired with -- or against -- Atterbury and his wife, played by Bea Benederet. Ratings soared, and for the first time in her career Lucy felt she had found a niche.
Radio, alas, was about to be supplanted by television, and CBS asked both Eve and Lucy to retool their shows for the new medium. Lucy saw the change as a golden opportunity to work with real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, and set the wheels in motion that ultimately resulted in I Love Lucy. Even with the new format, she intended to include Gale and Bea in the cast. Ms. Benederet, unfortunately, was already appearing on the small screen in The Burns and Allen Show, and Gale was vital to the continued success of Miss Brooks on radio. Television, for him, would have to wait.
Happily married to Virginia, Gale defined himself in those days as "a quiet, reserved, pipe-smoking homebody." He believed strongly in balancing his personal and professional interests. "I’m not a compulsive actor," he explained later. "To me it’s just a job to do. I turn it off as soon as I leave the studio. I can’t stand those actors who are always ‘on’."
Indeed, acting was only one facet of Gale’s colorful life. A successful writer, he had already penned two books, "Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies" and "Leaves from the Story Trees," plus two one-act plays. He more than dabbled in oil painting -- his work having been highly rated by critics and shown in many west-coast galleries. Gale’s home was equipped with a workshop in which he built and refurnished furniture.
In the spring of 1952, Eve Arden agreed to convert Our Miss Brooks to television. Desilu Productions had handled the first season of I Love Lucy so successfully that the network asked the company to package the Brooks show, too. The pilot was filmed in February, and, a few weeks later Gale was invited back to guest on two episodes of Lucy. (Lucy knew the Brooks show was sure to be a hit -- and wanted to grab Gale before full production got underway!) Gale played Ricky Ricardo’s boss, Alvin Littlefield, a character reminiscent of both Rudolph Atterbury and Osgood Conklin.
One can only imagine what the next five years of I Love Lucy might have been like had Our Miss Brooks not have existed. But exist it did, and once the show premiered in October, 1952, America started spending Friday evenings at Madison High: for four years, Eve and Gale sparred their way through one misunderstanding after another. It was during the run of this show that Gale perfected what came to be known as "the slow burn." Gordon explained his technique: "To get the best audience reaction, the secret of losing one’s temper is not to react violently too quickly. The longer you wait, the more chance you give the audience to think of all the things they would do under such circumstances." Gale always allowed his slow burn to smolder for several seconds, during which he would speak in the calmest of tones...Then, BANG!...the explosion would come, and leave the audience hysterical from both the suspense and the actual climax.
Our Miss Brooks ended in 1956, and CBS immediately paired Gale with his longtime friend Bob Sweeney in a comedy of their own, The Brothers. The series folded after a hectic 26 weeks, and Gale never again aspired to star in his own show.
"I never had the burning desire to be top banana," he explained. "I’m very happy just to support great people like Lucy. When you have a show of your own, there’s simply too much responsibility. The star always gets the blame, no matter who may be at fault for a series failure."
Gordon soothed his wounds from The Brothers by purchasing a new home for himself and Virginia. Back in 1949 he had confessed to one reporter that his ambition was "to maintain a large ranch so I can have a ranch to maintain me." That dream came true when the Gordons bought a 150-acre ranch in Borrego Springs, California, 175 miles from Hollywood. Primary crop of the Gordon ranch was carob trees -- and in the years that followed Gale became one of the few commercial carob tree growers in the US. (Carob beans are made into health bread and at least 50 other products.)
Gale, as one might have guessed, not only raised the trees, he built the ranch house himself, installed the plumbing, did the carpentry and other handiwork, installed a swimming pool, and built a two-story garage and studio.
Lucy and Gale were reunited for "Lucy Makes Room for Danny," a 1958 Lucy-Desi special that guest-starred the cast of The Danny Thomas Show. A few months later, Gale joined the Thomas cast as Mr. Heckendorn, Danny’s miserly landlord.
In 1959, CBS-Desilu’s long-running comedy, December Bride (starring Spring Byington) went off the air, and, for 1960, the show’s producer, Parke Levy, created a "spinoff," Pete and Gladys. Harry Morgan, a regular on Bride, repeated his role as Pete Porter, and Cara Williams -- something of a Lucy look-a-like -- became his wife, Gladys. Gale appeared frequently during the 1960-61 season as Pete’s Uncle Paul, and when the show was renewed for 1961-62, Gale became a regular.
Gale was still appearing on Gladys in February, 1962, when he was tapped to replace the late Joseph Kearns as grouchy "Mr. Wilson" on Dennis the Menace. Based on his performance, CBS renewed the show for 1962-63.
Lucille Ball, meanwhile, was blueprinting plans for a new series of her own -- and was once again frustrated to learn Gale was not available. When The Lucy Show premiered that fall, Charles Lane appeared as Lucy’s banker/nemesis, Mr. Barnsdahl. Lucy enjoyed working with Lane very much -- but Gale was something special. Nine months later, when the redhead learned Dennis the Menace was soon to be discontinued, she swooped down like an eagle and locked up Gordon’s services for the coming year. (Lane quickly segued into steady employment as the miserable railroad inspector, Homer Bedloe, on Bea Benederet’s new Petticoat Junction.)
To showcase Gale’s "debut" on The Lucy Show, writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Martin, assisted by Bill O’Hallaren, fashioned something they had not attempted in nearly 8 years -- a two-part story. (Not since the famous John Wayne footprints caper had any Lucy situation carried over into two teleplays.) Theodore J. Mooney was introduced in an hilarious story that found Lucy Carmichael locking the new banker -- and herself -- in the bank’s vault. Only a convicted safecracker could get them out!
Subsequent shows found Lucy starting a fire at the bank; attempting to assist Mooney in the hospital when he is laid up with a broken leg; and taking the man to court when his sheepdog disturbs the peace...
Such shenanigans would be commonplace for the next eleven years -- with only minor format alterations along the way: when Vivian Vance left the show in 1965, the locale was switched from suburban New York to metropolitan Los Angeles -- where Lucy became Mooney’s secretary. In 1968, The Lucy Show became Here’s Lucy, and Gordon now played Lucy’s harried brother-in-law, Harrison Otis Carter. The names changed, but the relationships never did: he represented the "establishment," she was the scheming "little guy" that needed to get past him to accomplish her goal. An age old plot, but in the hands of Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon the shows were magic.
Lucy and Gale retired from series television in 1974, but the lure of the muse wooed them back in almost annual specials for the rest of that decade. When Lucy signed to develop program ideas for NBC, one of her pet projects was Bungle Abbey, a sitcom set in a monastery. Guess who she cast as the head monk?
In 1986, ABC asked Lucy to give weekly television another whirl, and Life With Lucy was created -- with Gale as co-star. "I wouldn’t know how to do a show without him," she confessed on many occasions.
Regarding his long tenure with the redhead, Gale told Good Morning, America in 1982, "I always had a wonderful feeling of anticipation going to work every week, which is very, very rare, I don’t care what business you are in. But to really look forward to getting into the nitty gritty and working hard for four days -- which is all the time we had to do the show -- is really unique. To look forward to it for eleven years, that’s doubly unique."
As for the lady herself, Gale commented, "Her attitude has never changed. Every show she ever did was always the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success."
By extension, that is also the reason we will continue to enjoy Gale’s bombastic performances with Lucy for many years to come.
Since the original publication of this article in 1995, we have learned that Gale and Lucy first worked together as early as 1938-39 on the Jack Haley radio series, The Wonder Show.
For more information about Gale, visit The Gale Gordon Archives at:
Gale Gordon (Main Page)
Original material © 2005 Lucyfan Enterprises.
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