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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FUN FOR ALL AND ALL FOR FUN:THE NIT WIT HOUR
by Ryan Ellett. © 2016
(From Radio Recall, April 2016)
Network radio in 1929 was a primitive medium in comparison to what it would become even a decade later. NBC, the first network, had only come into existence three years earlier and executives were only then starting to understand what programming appealed to audiences and how both quality and profitability could be improved.
Musical broadcasts predominated stations' hours along with a fair number of talks covering a wide array of topics and a smaller amount of sports coverage. Sketch programming was beginning to appear in some evening hours, primarily comedy but some drama as well. An example of these sketch comedy shows was CBS' The Nit Wit Hour, a series popular in its day that is now largely forgotten.
The Nit Wit Hour was the brain child of Edson Bradford Browne, professionally known as Brad Browne, and Georgia Backus. Browne had entered radio around 1926 with a Newark-based program called Cellar Knights that he broadcast with Al Llewelyn and Harry Swan. When he was hired l;)y New York City's WABC Browne took Cellar Knights with him and after the newly formed CBS network bought WABC, the series went out over the entire network.
After a few years in theater, Georgia Backus gave radio a try and by 1929 was working as WABC's (and CBS') continuity director. She originated the basic concept of The Nit Wit Hour sketches and songs featuring a recurring cast of zany characters - and passed the idea on to Browne who fleshed out the details and brought it to the airwaves in early 1929. Browne felt that radio comedy had such potential that he later claimed to have written six 30-minute scripts before he felt comfortable with the material he wanted aired on the show's debut.
Operating under its motto of "Fun for all and all for fun" and opening with its theme song "Yes We Have No Bananas", (a 1922 novelty tune), The Nit Wit Hour found a loyal audience in New York and beyond. The heart of the show was its cast of characters who were played by WABC employees. Browne was known as The Chief Nit Wit and served as the show's on-air master of ceremonies as well as writing the scripts behind the scenes. Backus played Aphrodite Godiva.
Still an era in which radio acting was not yet a singular profession, a variety of-WA BC staff had supporting roles. Margaret E. Young, Browne's wife and assistant program manager for CBS, played Patience Bumpstead, a so-called "interior desecrator." Her regular part of the program was dubbed' 'Talks on Interior Desecration with Advice to the Lovelorn." Lucille Black, a professional concert pianist, portrayed Madame Mocha de Polka, "operatic slinger." The character was a former member of the Russian Grand Opera and known as the "sweet singer of sour songs."
Black was also involved in surety one of the earliest attempts to integrate pre-recorded lines into a live broadcast. In 1930, during the program's second year on the air, Black went on vacation. She had a very distinctive (natural) laugh that couldn't be impersonated so before leaving Browne recorded Black's giggle and a couple lines which were then inserted at the appropriate time during the week's broadcast. Thus, in a rare treat, Black actually got to hear herself on the air.
Chester Miller, who left the cast in 1930 had a few rotes. Chief among them were ' announcing duties and playing both Lord Algernon Ashcart and a blustery Congressman, Felix O'Beefe. Yolande Langworthy, actress and writer on a handful of other WABC programs, was Lizzy Twitch, a cooking expert. The aforementioned Harry Swan was a true jack-of-all- trades radio man, with experience in every aspect of broadcasting. On The Nit Wit Hour, Swan got to focus on singing and acting as Professor R. U. Musclebound, a "physical culturalist."
Staff pianist Minnie Blauman was called on to play Professor Excema (also spelled Eczema) Succotash. Blauman, a former arranger for Irving Berlin, brought considerable musical chops to the series. Joining the show about half-way through its run was Ernest W. Naftzger as Gabriel Horn. Phil Maher took over script-writing chores when Browne found himself with too many other responsibilities.
A few published accounts have left glimpses into the general content of The Nit Wit Hour. In one sketch the cast lampooned the popular Showboat radio series. with a play about Rank Persimmons' Slowboat - the Sleighbell. In another eplso.de. Lord Ashecart described the. running of the "Kaintucky Derby" despite never having attended a horse race before. Over time ensembles developed that delivered the comedy plays and songs, including the Nit Wit Dramatic Society, the Nit Wit Choral Society, and the Nit Wit School of Radio. Announcers.
Other sketches included spoofs on Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, Robert Edeson's "Strongheart" and the play "Way Down East." Characters also had their own running gags including Prof. Musclebound's propensity for leaping from random tall structures such as the Washington Monument.
Unfortunately, radio programs were rarely recorded during these early years of the medium so there is no aural record of The Nit Wit Hour, which left the air in 1931. Thus, modern old time radio. enthusiasts must be content with a handful of contemporary accounts and a small book about the series written by Browne in 1930.