By Ivan G Shreve Jr
Though he had firmly established his persona as a flashy, hard-drinking playboy with an eye for exquisite female pulchritude on The Jack Benny Program, bandleader Phil Harris would find himself “domesticated” in 1941 after marrying singer-actress Alice Faye. His home life with Faye started to work its way into the Benny broadcasts. For example, the episode from April 11, 1943 featured the following line by Phil: “Say, Jackson—I got a surprise for ya…Alice Faye, now appearing in Hello, Frisco, Hello, made a dozen doughnuts for you with her own little hands.” (When Jack asks “Curly” where they are, Phil cracks: “Out in the car—I’ll get Rochester to help me carry ‘em in.”)
The marriage of Phil Harris and Alice Faye (it was the second for both) was truly a love affair—the couple remained together until Phil’s passing in 1995. Though both were enjoying successful solo careers—Phil with his music and work with Benny, Alice a major star at 20th Century-Fox—the two of them eventually joined forces for one of radio’s last great situation comedies. That series premiered on this date in 1946, as Phil and Alice became the headliners of radio’s The Fitch Bandwagon.
Alice Faye was one of Fox’s hottest properties…but after her marriage to Phil Harris, she expressed more interest in becoming a mother and homemaker after the births of their daughters, Alice, Jr. and Phyllis. She cut her work schedule at the studio to one production a year, and in 1945 decided to retire from motion pictures entirely after her scenes in Fallen Angel ended up on the cutting room floor (studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was distracted by Fox’s newest “flavor of the month,” Linda Darnell). Faye was enjoying “retirement,” but when she was offered the opportunity to work with her husband on a radio series, she warmed to the idea of reading a script for one half-hour weekly before calling it a day. She agreed (after some initial hesitation) to start broadcasting alongside Phil for Fitch in the fall of 1946.
The Fitch Bandwagon had been on radio since 1938, and in its early years it functioned as a showcase for big bands frontedby the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. In the fall of 1944, the program allowed Dick Powell to host and sing, and the following season Cass Daley inherited Bandwagon duties. Sponsor F.W. Fitch, impressed by the popularity of radio’s The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, decided to propose a format change (situation comedy mixed with music) to Harris and Faye, and after a well-received July 10, 1946 audition Mr. and Mrs. Harris earned a berth on NBC’s Sunday night schedule.
The Sunday night scheduling was one of the reasons why The Fitch Bandwagon was so popular with radio audiences. It was sandwiched between Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), a time slot any performer would have committed murder to get. But it provided an additional benefit for new host Phil Harris; in the program’s early years, Bandwagon would begin with Phil bidding his boss a fare-thee-well as he headed home to the Harris household. Alice would be waiting for him, of course, along with “Little” Alice (portrayed by Jeanine Roose) and Phyllis (Anne Whitfield). Life at Rancho Harris was not all beer and skittles; Phil also had to put up with Alice’s annoying brother Willie—played to creampuff perfection by Robert North.
Frankie Remley was a left-handed (honest!) guitar player in Phil’s musical aggregation, and was often joked about (but never heard) on Jack Benny’s program. It was decided to make Remley a regular character on Harris’ show because of Frankie’s well-established reputation as an imbiber (now that Phil had a family, the Bandwagon writers de-emphasized the drinking jokes that were a staple of Phil’s character in the Benny broadcasts). It was thought at first that Remley would play himself…but an unsuccessful audition soon convinced the real Frankie he should stick to guitar playing. In his place, actor Elliott Lewis was tabbed to play the fictional Remley…and the seed for classic comedy was planted.
In the early years of the Harris-Faye Bandwagon, Frankie came across like a dimwitted hoodlum…but with the hiring of writers Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat in the show’s second season, the Remley character began to take on the characteristics of the sardonic wisenheimer radio audiences would soon come to know and love—always willing to get his buddy (and boss) Phil into trouble. Singer and Chevillat soon infused Phil and Alice’s show with a sarcastic sensibility that gives it a contemporary feel when listened to by modern-day audiences. In addition, they beefed up the presence of the character of Julius Abbruzio (portrayed by The Great Gildersleeve’s Walter Tetley), a smart-alecky grocery boy who lived to make life miserable for his nemeses Phil and Frankie. (“Are you in trouble, Mistuh Harris? Is there anything I can do to get you in deepuh?”).
After two years with Fitch, Phil and Alice got a new sponsor—Rexall Drugs—in the fall of 1948, and the show underwent a name change to the now-familiar The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Their ratings for Fitch had always been solid, owing to their Benny-Bergen hammock, but when Jack jumped ship to CBS in January of 1949 the Harrises lost their edge in the Hoopers. It didn’t keep the program from being funny, however; the writing remained razor-sharp. With the addition of a new regular—a Rexall company representative portrayed by radio veteran Gale Gordon—the belly laughs continued even after a portion of their audience wandered over to the Tiffany network to check out what Jack and Amos ‘n’ Andy were up to. Rexall wrote the checks for Phil and Alice’s show for two seasons before switching their allegiance to Amos ‘n’ Andy, and then RCA Victor became the show’s “angel.” Though the audiences continued to dwindle with each passing year (blame television), The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show soldiered on until finally calling it quits on May 28, 1954 (they were still being sponsored by RCA…at a time when many programs were sustained).
Alice Faye observed in later years that while she would have been amenable to doing a television version of their popular radio sitcom, it was husband Phil Harris who put the kibosh on the idea. Nevertheless…to paraphrase Casablanca, “we’ll always have radio.”
Copyright 2018 Ivan G Shreve Jr and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.