FORECAST

Is There a Sponsor in the House?
Written by Martin Grams, Jr.

The trial-and-error system being an old if frequently painful institution in the show business (else all stage plays would be hits, and all radio programs would have an Amos and Andy average in the Crossley ratings), the Columbia Broadcasting System’s Forecast series shrewdly dramatized the fact that there is no such phenomenon as a sure thing. For two particular seasons, the CBS people enlivened summer’s somewhat lethargic air waves with a schedule of experimental entertainments which, to tell the truth, aren’t experimental in the exact sense of the word, but have nevertheless a refreshing air about them, if only for the ideas they represented.

The idea is that neither CBS nor anyone else knew, until they were produced, whether the programs were any good or not, though they were of course, hoping for the best. And, very sensibly, they made a game of it. Whereas the listener during the busy season was told to take what he got and, if possible, like it, Forecast invited criticism. Listening to the various episodes, one could not help but applaud for Marlene Dietrich in "The Thousand and One Nights," and convulsed with laughter as they listened to the amorous antics of "Mischa the Magnificent." (Mischa Auer, that is.) Whatever it was that made people bet on horse races or write letters to the editor, they could file an honest opinion about the programs and then sat back to await the verdict.

If the public, in sufficient numbers, liked a Forecast sample – as they liked "Duffy’s Tavern" during the first season – the chances were that the fully developed product would be on the air after the fall semester opened. On the other hand, a negative response or some hearty, candid disapproval would prevent a lot of headaches, save a good many dollars, in the months to come.

Speaking of dollars, it is giving away no trade secret to say that the producing company did not do all this out of sheer altruism. It probably believed in health, but was not in the business for it. It was looking for program sponsors as well as for new writing and acting talent. To a potential sponsor, it said, in effect, "Here is a show and here is the public reaction to it, and perhaps with a little play-doctoring and some recasting . . ." A tryout is a tryout, almost anywhere, with this radio’s audience enjoys over the theater’s: it paid no $3.30 per seat for a tussle with the arts in an out-of-town playhouse. It paid nothing at all, and it sat comfortably at home. There was a good deal to be said for that.

How much was to be said for the Forecast broadcasts, and the public response cannot be found. Still, if the program did make it to the airwaves for a regular run, say the highly successful "Duffy’s Tavern," we can only suspect the reviews favorable. Take the episode "The Thousand and One Nights." According to the New York Times:

"It had it’s points, to be sure. It had Miss Dietrich, whose sultry voice fitted into the pattern of enchantment evoked by the Rimsky-Korsakoff music; and Miss Dietrich’s is a voice that can all but live up to even the gaudy introduction arranged for her in a script not notable for its understatement. ("Let her name echo from the furthest mountain top," said a lackey after a proper roll of drums.) But what is virtually a monologue, by Miss Dietrich or anyone else, is hard to take for an hour, or even the half hour which the successful Forecasts will have for running-time."

But not everything was new. One of the Forecast broadcasts, "51 East 51" raised a curtain toward an audience that no doubt, found it difficult to see anything experimental about it, unless it was that no one else has heretofore presented a radio sketch called "51 East 51." Otherwise, things were as they usually were in fables about nightclubs, including the song cues introduced as with a sledge-hammer. It was described in advance as "a new musical show with comedy and vice versa" (whatever that meant), but it sounded rather like vaudeville in its last, unhappy phase, with no more for a plot than Kay Thompson ("our midnight girl of music") tormented by a couple of practical jokers, the while she poured out her unhappy heart in song. Seems I’ve heard this before somewhere.

Another déjà vu was the "Hopalong Cassidy" entrance without William Boyd playing the role of Hoppy. Clarence E. Mulford, the creator of the fictional character, sat within listening distance of his radio set the night Hopalong Cassidy first rode onto radio, originating from the New York studio. "I found it interesting," he was quoted of saying. "I naturally hope there are more of them." Mulford’s agent worked actively to land a sustaining series, possibly over the NBC station, according to researcher Bernard Drew, but without success. It wouldn’t be until William Boyd took over the Cassidy property for television that the radio market was exploited. After this Forecast broadcast, Hopalong would never grace the radio waves until 1950. (They were working on pre-production of the series in 1946, but it still took four years till the show became a reality.) The only thing I have yet to solve is the script itself. Having heard the broadcast years ago, I recalled, half-way through the program, that the same script was later used for another western radio broadcast (or perhaps a B-class western picture) because the plot was not only familiar, but I knew in detail how the ending was going to turn out without hearing it yet. Would anyone know if this script was later done on another Hopalong episode?

The opinions varied, the critics were pleased or disgusted (whichever viewpoint the readers of their columns accepted), but one thing definitely stood in stone. Forecast was a good idea. Though most were not really experimental – The Columbia Workshop presented more experimental dramas than Forecast – they were highly entertaining. With many Hollywood stars backing some of the productions with their appearances, Burgess Meredith, Herbert Marshall, Duke Ellington, and even Hedda Hopper included, the program entertained and dazzled listeners. NBC even began their own summer audition/pilot series in 1950 entitled Advance Release offering various stars in various dramas and musical presentations. Imitation is often the sincerest form of flattery.

The following is a broadcast log listing each Forecast broadcast aired. Keep in mind that the program had a full-hour time slot and many of these airings offered two half-hour programs. A majority of the broadcasts do exist and are in circulation among collectors, but remain individual recordings. For the July 29, 1940 broadcast, as an example, the "Duffy’s Tavern" presentation stands alone on cassette and CD without "Angel" accompany. Therefore, I have numbered each presentation as an individual episode, and the leangth of time they aired.

Both Forecast series were summer replacements for The Lux Radio Theatre, heard over the CBS network, Monday evenings from 9 to 10 p.m., EST.

Martin Grams, Jr. is the author/co-author of numerous books about old-time radio and television including INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES: BEHIND THE CREAKING DOOR, THE SOUND OF DETECTION: ELLERY QUEEN’S ADVENTURES IN RADIO, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS COMPANION, THE HISTORY OF THE CAVALCADE OF AMERICA, THE HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL COMPANION, INVITATION TO LEARNING, RADIO DRAMA, THE CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER, and the October 2003 release of INFORMATION PLEASE.


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