This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
HAM ON WRY - THE MAGNIFICIENT MONTAGUE
By John C. Abbott ©2012
(From Radio Recall, June 2012)
When you think of the word curmudgeon (defined as a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man), you might think of many persons, but in the field of Old Time Radio, there is one actor who created the ultimate acid-tongued curmudgeonly role on stage, then took it to the movies, and modified it for a role on radio.
The Actor? Monty Woolley.
The Play/Movie? "The Man Who Came to Dinner".
The radio personality? Here is where it gets interesting, as the actor Monty Woolley starred as a curmudgeon on a radio program that seems to have slipped below the radar. The program was The Magnificent Montague, which aired on NBC during the 1950 to 1951 season.
So, just who was Monty Woolley, and why did he come to personify the ultimate curmudgeon?
Monty Woolley, born Edgar Montillion Wooley in 1888, was born to a wealthy family that ran a hotel on Broadway. He was a graduate of both Harvard and Yale. He returned to Yale where he was a drama coach (1914 - 1917) and then an assistant professor of Drama (1919 – 1927).
After a disagreement with the university, Woolley left for New York where he became a successful director of musicals and revues. In 1939, Woolley took the role that came to define him, that of Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner". During this time period, Woolley was a close friend of Cole Porter. To quote from the Yale Alumni News of April, 1999, while watching a sunset on a cruise, "Porter cried, "It's delightful." His wife Linda added, "It's delicious," and Monty continued, "It's de-lovely."
Woolley moved on to Hollywood, where he made 32 movies (which included two Oscar nominations) according to the IMDB, including the movie version of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" – the role that defined him for the rest of his life.
In late 1950, Monty was offered the leading role of Edwin Montague in The Magnificent Montague, which was written and produced by Nat Hiken and co-written by Billy Friedburg.
Hiken thought that Woolley was the perfect man to portray Montague, as the character almost
fit the man to a "T". Both off-stage and off-mike, Monty nurtured a reputation for irascibility that would have made even Montague proud. For example, he was once pressured into making a publicity appearance at a children's party. His reply: "Very well then. I shall attend, and I shall pat the little darlings on the head - until they are dead."
So, what is The Magnificent Montague about? According to King of the Half Hour: Nat Hiken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy by David Everitt, "Edwin Montague is the scion of a long line of classical tragedians, while his wife, the refined Lily Boheme (from Cleveland), is also a leading light of the legitimate stage. Montague never entertains any doubt that he is the world's greatest actor. The strength of this conviction matched only by the vehemence of his contempt for the current theater scene. To him, anyone starring in anything other than Shakespeare or Ibsen is nothing more than a chorus boy.
As explained in the premiere episode's introduction, 'In the last eight years, he's turned down any play in which he did not have the starring role. In the last eight years, he's refused to be in any dramas in which he did not have the privilege of rewriting and directing personally. In the last eight years he hasn't worked.'"
The consequences of unemployment finally hit home when Montague realizes he must settle on domestic instead of imported kippers for breakfast. This faces him to do the unthinkable - take a job in radio, "the lowest point a man can sink to and still stay out of jail," as Montague puts it. And not just radio but radio soap operas.
The curmudgeonly actor takes the title role in "Uncle Goodheart" in which he must drool syrupy platitudes to the troubled and world-weary five afternoons a week. Making the job even more burdensome, Montague now has to live a double life. If he should reveal how he is making a living, he will be drummed out of his beloved Proscenium Club, gathering spot for New York's proudest and longest unemployed thespians."
In addition to Monty Woolley, the cast included a number of New York based actors, including Anne Seymour as Lily, and Pert Kelton as Agnes the maid– both experienced actresses.
Anne Seymour is a familiar voice from such programs as Ford Theatre, Grand Hotel, Portia Faces Life, The Story of Mary Marlin, and many more. Goldin lists 104 radio appearances for Anne Seymour. She went on to appear in over 120 TV programs and movies.
Pert Kelton was an experienced actress on Broadway, radio and the movies. Pert was part of the Milton Berle program as well as many other programs on radio; Goldin lists 90 appearances for her. Also appearing in recurring roles was a young Art Carney as Montague's father, and some other minor roles. It is an interesting coincidence that Art Carney and Pert Kelton were appearing together on television in early Cavalcade of America programs as Ed Norton and Alice Kramden in sketches that came to be the classic program "The Honeymooners".
As noted, writing on the program was handled by Nat Hiken and Billy Friedburg. Nat
was a seasoned radio writer, with Goldin crediting him with 51 programs. Hiken went on to television to write or produce 23 TV programs. Billy Friedburg paired with Nat in writing The Magnificent Montague shows, and moved to TV to assist Hiken in writing the popular comedy, The Phil Silver Show, aka Sgt. Bilko.
The announcer for the program was a young Don Pardo, who started working for NBC in 1938, and moved to TV where he is still the announcer for Saturday Night Live.
The Magnificent Montague started out as a sustaining program, but quickly picked up several sponsors, including RCA Portable Radios, Liggett & Myers Tobacco and the 1951 Ford. But even with sponsors, which was rare for the waning days of commercial radio, and a listening audience, the program was no match for television. While people listened and liked the program, they were watching and loving TV even more so. As a result, The Magnificent Montague lasted only one season.
While the program catalog for The Magnificent Montague lists 52 programs, and the number of programs available seems to vary by source between 35 and 41 programs, with some possible duplication of programs. The Magnificent Montague is a great listen, and the programs available are high in quality, which makes listening even more enjoyable.
"King of the Half Hour: Nat Hiken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy", by David Everitt
Yale Alumni Magazine - April 1999
"The Oxford Companion to American Theatre"
"On the Air" by John Dunning
International Movie Database
International Broadway Database