This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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THE BINARY BREAKFAST
BABBLERS OF RADIO
by Jim Cox © 2010
(From Radio Recall, October 2010)
Pegeen Fitzgerald probably had little notion of the extensive implications of an initiative she suggested to her spouse, Ed, in 1939. The pair was then airing on separate programming over New York’s WOR Radio but had collaborated on a few broadcasts from the World’s Fair. All of a sudden a little light came on in Pegeen’s head. She proffered her inspiration of an early morning feature that put the two of them chatting over the breakfast table about a myriad of topics, bottomless cups of coffee nearby to fortify them through their deliberations.
The upshot of her brainchild was that not only did Ed like it, so did the station’s management. WOR found a slot for them in 1940 and the early morning husband-and-wife gabfest went on the air. No one realized then, of course, that they were inaugurating a strain of broadcasts that was to have substantial impact in multiple radio markets. Their act was ultimately to catch on at several other local stations in its premiering city as well as far beyond the confines of the Big Apple. It was to be authenticated as a practice that wasn’t going away any time soon, too.
Ed Fitzgerald hadn’t planned to spend his life in radio when he started his career as a newspaperman on dailies in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Along the way the Troy, New York native, born in 1898, wed Margaret Worrall, nicknamed Pegeen (an Irish derivative of Margaret), in June 1930 in the City by the Bay. She emanated from Norcatur, Kansas, born November 24, 1904. At the time of their nuptials Ed was a theatrical press agent and Pegeen was an advertising copywriter and fashion coordinator for a mercantile vendor. Subsequently, in 1933 he joined KFRC Radio, San Francisco, where one of his assignments was as master of ceremonies of a feature labeled Feminine Fancies.
Three years hence the couple relocated in New York City where Ed went on the air over WOR. He presided on an all-night show, Almanac de Gotham, while offering listeners a literary feature at other hours, Book Talk, Back Talk and Small Talk. A few years beyond their arrival in Gotham, Pegeen broke into radio, too, with her spouse’s employer where she launched a feature titled Pegeen Prefers. That led her into the World’s Fair audio representations. The early-risers eggs-and-bacon chatter was their next big step.
Breakfast with the Fitzgeralds, the duo’s joint talkathon, was relabeled The Fitzgeralds before long for simplicity’s sake. It lasted at WOR for five years. In 1945 the pair departed for greener pastures (as in currency), carrying their show and a sizable segment of the early morning audience to crosstown rival WJZ. Their new ethereal home was the flagship outlet of the recently-formed ABC chain. ABC had been derived out of the defunct NBC Blue web, parenthetically. One outcome the twosome enjoyed for a couple of years via the new affiliation was being aired across the country by ABC.
In all truthfulness, nonetheless, The Fitzgeralds never attracted a significant following outside its embryonic territorial province. After the ABC deal failed, in 1948 the pair returned to their roots at WOR, persisting until Ed’s demise on March 22, 1982. They had been given more than four decades to put Pegeen’s novel design to the test. By several measures, of course, it was a winning concept.
The Fitzgeralds was replicated again and again by others in the industry who tweaked its formula for their own regional audiences. It soon became apparent that the blueprint instituted by the originators had generated a fresh –albeit diminutive—genus in local radio programming. No fewer than 78 imitations were eventually confirmed in markets scattered throughout the county.
Regrettably, at its worst the model—according to one critic—“degenerated into little more than a saccharin parade of commercials without much information or entertainment provided for listeners.” Despite that insightful assessment, some of those efforts could be deemed incredibly worthy. At least one more network, for instance, picked up another of the coffee klatch tête-à-têtes for a while and beamed it to a nationwide audience. That kind of affirmation tended to build momentum, endorse budding ideas and hint that such innovations were more than mere novelty.
Possibly to no one’s surprise, a surfeit of conjugal couples residing in New York City soon adopted the formula popularized by Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald, embracing it as their own. It resulted in their contending for the same listeners with similar fare on competing Gotham stations during the same hours. But there were clearly some distinguishing trademarks separating them from one another.
The first to apply The Fitzgeralds’ formula was Richard Kollmar and Dorothy Kilgallen, a married duo that local and national audiences were familiar with already, although in diverse settings. After Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald moved to WJZ in 1945, vacating a 45-minute timeslot at WOR, Kollmar and Kilgallen were hired to fill it. Their series, Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick, persisted for 18 years at WOR despite the fact The Fitzgeralds returned to the station in 1948. Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald, meanwhile, left the pancakes-and-syrup time period to concentrate on the steak-and-potatoes hour, launching Dinner with the Fitzgeralds three nights weekly. (Several others who duplicated their efforts did so, too.) The point not to be missed, of course, is that the form—and not always the timeframe the pioneering Fitzgeralds commenced initially—caught on elsewhere. The two eventually added a half-hour on Sunday mornings to their weekly repertoire, by the way.
Kollmar and Kilgallen, in the meantime, were said to be bringing in 20 million listeners to the powerful 50,000-watt WOR during their halcyon days with the station. Born December 31, 1910 at Ridgewood, New Jersey, Kollmar was one of the busiest actors in daytime and primetime radio when his and Kilgallen’s 18-year odyssey on the air together began. He was a drama scholar at Yale University prior to entering radio in 1935. He wed Kilgallen in 1940 while playing on Broadway in Too Many Girls.
She was a Chicago native, born July 13, 1913, whose father instilled in her a love of his trade of print journalism. Kilgallen attended New Rochelle College for a year but quit to allow the ink to flow through her veins, too, taking a job reporting for The New York Evening Journal. By 1938 the paper was renamed The New York Journal American and she was penning a syndicated column, “The Voice of Broadway,” that made her extraordinarily well known. The capstone of her career was her Sunday night gig as a permanent panelist on CBS-TV’s What’s My Line? game show beginning in 1950. She was still at it when she met an untimely death in New York on November 8, 1965.
In the meantime, Kollmar appeared in legions of radio roles and often on stage in Broadway productions. His best known radio character might have been the venerated crime sleuth Boston Blackie. He turned up in occasional TV slots in the 1950s and produced a handful of plays, too. Kollmar died on January 7, 1971 in New York.
Before considering other luminaries who had their coffee and toast while perched beside a microphone, it’s worth digressing to consider the kind of fare transmitted on these first two examples of the developing morning chitchat circuit.
With the exception of the commercials, The Fitzgeralds was a totally spontaneous feature, originating live at the hosts’ East 36th Street apartment.
Unfortunately, Ed exhibited a demonstrably acerbic tongue. He frequently lashed out at his broadcast competitors: Kollmar and Kilgallen were special objects of his diatribes. “Neither [couple] liked the others’ shows, and sniping was frequent from both sides,” a pundit affirmed. “Kilgallen considered the Fitzgeralds vulgar and coarse; the Fitzgeralds called Dorothy and Dick upper-crust dilettantes.”
Perhaps not so surprisingly, Fitzgerald just as quickly disparaged his own spouse, putting her in what he considered “her place” while the pair was on the air. For instance, he exploded before the listeners when she confessed that she had ransacked his pockets and swiped a dollar without his approval. A historian affirmed, “Fitzgerald was probably the most unpredictable of all the morning husbands.” Sometimes their live disagreements were pretty animated. No doubt a segment of the audience tuned in largely to overhear those impulsive and at times unnerving verbal exchanges. On the other hand, a source noted, “Much of the time they were suspiciously lovey-dovey.”
The Kollmars’ sessions emanated from their colossal 16-room Park Avenue apartment at 66th Street. The pair reportedly earned $75,000 annually for a 45-minute daily broadcast. In her professional capacity as a gossip columnist, Kilgallen cultivated an extensive outreach with contacts in the entertainment and political worlds. The couple attended legions of Broadway opening nights and bigwig parties connected with those ventures. They were frequently seen at functions at such imposing venues as the Stork Club and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Much of that formed the basis for her future columns while the duo applied it as colorful background for their breakfast chatfests.
Unlike some others who performed live on radio every morning, incidentally, the Kollmars often prerecorded their shows the afternoon prior to airing. That fact wasn’t usually shared with the listeners. Occasionally their trio of offspring—Jill, Dickie and Kerry Kollmar—appeared with them, plus a singing canary. A reviewer postulated, “The Kollmars preened amidst the birdseed.”
In addition to the Kollmars and Fitzgeralds, another well-recognized New York couple, newlyweds Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg, added their own bread-and-bacon banter to the local airwaves between 1946 and 1959. Their gabfest, initially Hi Jinx but later revised to Tex and Jinx, was beamed over WEAF which was subsequently re-lettered WNBC and later WRCA. In limited doses, the flagship outlet of the National Broadcasting Company transmitted Meet Tex and Jinx to the whole country during 1947 and 1948. Alas, NBC’s experience proved similar to ABC’s with The Fitzgeralds in the same epoch; the rest of the nation invariably seemed to prefer local personalities in a format combining conversation, coffee and corn flakes.
To their credit, at any rate, the McCrarys attempted to remain above the ongoing fray involving Ed, Pegeen, Dorothy and Dick. Instead, Tex and Jinx devoted most of their airtime to more lofty and noble concepts, visitors and sidebars. “Of the three [couples],” confided a radio historiographer, “Tex and Jinx clearly took the high road: they didn’t even pretend to eat while talking world affairs with the rich and famous. McCrary, who ran the show, resisted the prattling stream-of-insipidity that often characterized the others….
While the Fitzgeralds bickered about Pegeen’s weight on WJZ and the Kollmars preened amidst the birdseed on WOR, the McCrarys [on WEAF-WNBC-WRCA] were interviewing Bernard Baruch, Margaret Truman, or Ethel Waters…. McCrary built the show on the assumption that the early morning audience was not stupid, as programmers generally assumed; that people in general had fresher minds and were more open to serious topics at the beginning of the day.” Another source separated their feature from its counterparts, characterizing it summarily: “The Falkenburg-McCrary show focused on guest personalities and issues like the UN and the atomic bomb.”
John Reagan (Tex) McCrary was born October 13, 1910 at Calvert, Texas. Like Kollmar, a contemporary, he was educated at Yale. Becoming a cub reporter for The New York World-Telegram, then editor of The Literary Digest before joining The New York Daily Mirror in 1936, five years later he drew the assignment of interviewing stunning model-actress Jinx Falkenburg.
Eugenia Lincoln (Jinx) Falkenburg was a native of Barcelona, Spain, having been born there January 21, 1919 to American parents (her dad was an executive with Westinghouse Corporation). Before she reached adulthood the family relocated to Chile, Brazil and—when she was 16—California. By then she already had been a Chilean swimming champion and a Brazilian tennis pro. Her statuesque figure led to a modeling contract with the Powers agency which projected her into motion pictures.
Between 1935 and 1946 Falkenburg appeared in 23 mostly B-movie productions. By her own admission, however, she was “never a very good” actress. She was an American icon already, nevertheless, in the tradition of the eminently stellar Hollywood legend Grace Kelly who arrived only a few years later. Millions knew Falkenburg’s form and figure for she possessed a face and body that adorned the slick covers of more than 200 popular periodicals.
She wed McCrary in 1945 after he wooed her following his interview with her and a whirlwind courtship resulted, eventually carrying them overseas: he was in the U. S. Army Air Force while she performed for the armed services. Her image was also captured on a postage stamp commemorating the USO.
Their joint radio venture began in 1946 just 10 months following their nuptials. Launched as a breakfast feature, the series later shifted to afternoons and finally into the evening hours before departing the ether a dozen years afterward. They were branded by one journalist “Mr. Brains and Mrs. Beauty.” During that era the McCrarys also enjoyed considerable exposure on national television, a sidelight not experienced by most other well recognized conjugal couples proffering aural gabfests.
In early 1947 NBC put them on its television network as a portion of a Sunday evening quarter-hour dubbed Bristol-Myers Tele-Varieties. “The McCrarys were naturals for TV,” wrote a reviewer, “with their combination of friendly chatter, interviews, and features.” That summer the web awarded them an exclusive Sunday night half-hour format under the appellation At Home with Tex and Jinx. A decade later, in the 1957-58 season, the duo hosted a daytime NBC-TV showcase, The Tex and Jinx Show. In the meantime, Jinx was also turning up alone on lots of video game shows like I’ve Got a Secret, Masquerade Party and What’s My Line?
When hepatitis sidetracked Falkenburg in 1958 from their broadcast commitments, McCrary carried on solo on their radio show for another couple of years. In the 1980s, however, the couple separated, remaining on genial terms. McCrary died in New York on July 29, 2003 and Falkenburg expired just 29 days later in the same city, on August 27, 2003.
The most notable names among the airborne early morning gabfests across the table, of course, could be expected to prevail in New York City, a Mecca of celebrated public figures. There were multiple others who prevailed on analogous morning ventures. Particularly well known were announcer Andre Baruch and his vocalist-wife Bea Wain, plus entertainers Peter Lind Hayes and spouse Mary Healy.
Baruch, a native of Holland, was born August 20, 1908. He arrived in the United States prior to his teen years and in 1929 earned a degree from Columbia University. When he auditioned at CBS three years later he thought he was trying out for a radio pianist vacancy. Too late he discovered he was in the wrong line and wound up being hired as a network announcer. That watershed moment permanently altered his direction. Before retiring, Baruch routinely introduced nearly two dozen network audio features including such notable hits as The Kate Smith Show, Myrt and Marge, The Shadow and Your Hit Parade.
He married New York City native Bea Wain, born April 30, 1917, who grew up singing on the air to the accompaniment of outfits fronted by several well known bandleaders. Striking out on her own in 1939, she recorded frequently and for a while was a recurring songstress on Your Hit Parade. In 1955 the Baruchs, who were also business partners, attempted to revive the aura of the legendary Your Hit Parade via a disc jockey series, Mr. and Mrs. Music, over WMCA Radio in New York.
Consequently, the pair collaborated on an extensive run of transcribed syndicated features; they summoned the Your Hit Parade tunes from mothballs, those that actually appeared on the air, featuring their original vocalists and instrumentalists. Each segment echoed the song charts of a given week and year. In the 1970s the duo conducted a talk show over WPBR Radio in Palm Beach, Florida. It was possibly a stretch—but still a spinoff—of the original sausage-and-gravy repartee begun by Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald years before.
While Baruch died in Los Angeles on September 15, 1991, at the time of this writing, Wain is not only living but—during the early years of the 21st century—occasionally appearing at vintage radio gatherings on both coasts.
Hayes and Healy, meanwhile, were able to project their radio exchanges into something more visible. The Peter Lind Hayes Show, a primetime variety series on NBC-TV in 1950-51 and a like daytime program on ABC-TV in 1958-59, plus a half-hour sitcom on NBC-TV in 1960-61, Peter Loves Mary, were natural extensions of their earlier joint radio appearances.
Peter Lind Hayes, nee Joseph Conrad Lind, was born June 25, 1915 at San Francisco. He became a vaudeville entertainer, lyricist, film and television actor and broadcast series co-host with his life-long spouse. In 1940 he wed Mary Healy, a former Miss New Orleans beauty pageant winner, who was born in the Crescent City on April 14, 1918. Professionally, she appeared in nearly two dozen movies and performed in numerous TV dramatic, comedy, variety and game shows. While Hayes died in Las Vegas on April 21, 1998, as of this writing, Healy is still living.
As already observed, no fewer than 78 binary breakfast babblers produced a fascinating subgenre in local American radio during the medium’s golden age. Begun perhaps as an experiment on a single station with little thought to launching a trend, the movement proliferated rapidly. Legions of listeners, in fact, found themselves pouring cups of coffee to the revelations—and sometimes the caustic barbs—of celebrated personalities who helped them start their days a little easier than otherwise. It was an ingenious initiative whose time ostensibly had arrived.
This article was previously published in the Nostalgia Digest and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.