Lucy: "The Wonder Show"


Lucy Cavorts with Jack Haley, Virginia Verrill & Gale Gordon


For years, radio-TV historians and Lucyfans alike have dated Lucille Ball's long professional relationship with Gale Gordon back to 1948, when the two were teamed on CBS Radio's My Favorite Husband. Lucy and Richard Denning starred in that situation comedy, with Gale appearing as Denning's boss.

Now, it seems, the "scholars" were wrong -- by a whopping 10 years! Brian Allen, a collector of old radio programs, has recently unearthed 20 episodes of Jack Haley's 1938-39 radio program, The Wonder Show -- and not only was Lucy a regular on the series, but Gale was the announcer!

About the Series

The Wonder Show -- so named because its sponsor was Wonder Bread -- was broadcast over CBS Radio Network for 26 weeks, airing Friday evenings, 7:30-8PM. The program premiered October 14, 1938, and ran through April 7, 1939.

Actor-comedian Jack Haley starred in the show, and the regular cast included songstress Virginia Verrill, Lucy, comedian Artie Auerbach (later of The Jack Benny Program), and Ted FioRita & His Orchestra. Gale Gordon was the announcer. (Lucy and Virginia pose with Haley in the photo, top right.)

As the announcer, Gale both kibitzed with the cast, and did the commercials. Wonder Bread was a major sponsor of radio series in the 1930s, underwriting both children's and adult programs. Even then, brightly colored circles (originally balloons) were its logo -- you can see just a corner of a huge Wonder Bread blow-up hanging beside Lucy and Haley in the drum photo (top left).

Technically, this was the second year for Haley's series. An earlier version aired on NBC during the 1937-38 season, sponsored by Log Cabin syrup. Titled Log Cabin Jamboree, the cast included Ms. Verrill and Ted FioRita & His Orchestra, but Lucy and Gale were not involved. Actress Wendy Barrie was a regular, along with comedian Jack Oakie (one of Lucy's buddies at RKO). Warren Hull was the announcer.

As many Lucyfans know, Lucy spent much of 1937-38 radio season as a regular on Phil Baker's Gulf Headliner series on CBS. Working with Baker and Haley gave Lucy the opportunity to develop skills other than those she used in the movies. As she later recalled, "(Radio work) gave me a name in the trade as a good feminine foil. I could flip a comedy line, which a lot of actresses couldn't do. In radio I couldn't depend upon props or costumes or makeup; I had to rely on timing and tone of voice for comic effects, and this was invaluable training."

Lucy spent much of her "down time" at RKO studying the artists and craftsmen working around her, essentially learning her trade. "It was better than attending any college," she later admitted. If she carried that practice over to her radio career (and why would she not?), certainly one of the radio performers she studied was Gale Gordon.

Gordon, throughout most of the 1930s, was known as the "highest paid radio artist in Hollywood." "Big deal!" he later said somewhat disparagingly. "That meant I earned $15 a show, when everyone else was earning $2.50. We were still grossly underpaid, at least by motion picture standards." Gordon, who at the time of The Wonder Show was 32 years old, recently married and just starting to grow his moustache, was in such demand that he often did two or more radio shows a day. "Luckily," he recalled, "the studios were nestled along Sunset Boulevard or in a nearby theater, so we could shuttle rather quickly back and forth from one broadcast to another."

About the Star

Jack Haley, virtually born into show business, had spent his early career in vaudeville as a comedian and a song-and-dance man. By the late 1930s, he was under contract to 20th Century-Fox, where he reportedly earned $3,000 a week -- at least until radio came along. When Haley was offered the Log Cabin gig, Fox did not stand in his way... but reduced his weekly paycheck to $2,000!

During the first episode of The Wonder Show, Jack speaks briefly of his then-current movie release, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," starring Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Ethel Merman. (He also mentions Lucy's then-current RKO releases, "Room Service," "The Affairs of Annabel," and "Having Wonderful Time.")

Two weeks after The Wonder Show went on the air, Fox told Haley they were loaning him out to MGM, who needed a last-minute replacement for Buddy Ebsen in "The Wizard of Oz." Ebsen, cast as the Tin Man, had been hospitalized with an allergic reaction to the aluminum-based make-up the studio was using, and Metro was forced to replace him. For the next two-and-a-half months, Haley found himself filming a lavish MGM musical by day, and working with his radio writers by night. He finished his scenes in the film in mid-January -- and celebrated by incorporating a "Wizard of Oz" sketch into the January 20th episode (#15) of The Wonder Show. Haley's on-screen performance as the Tin Man, of course, would go on to be his most-lasting claim to fame.

"That was quite a winter," Haley later recalled. "By the time we did the show for CBS every Friday night, I was physically exhausted. Emotionally, however, I was very satisfied. I loved doing that radio show."


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