Broadcasting’s Forgotten Giant

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

At one time, he was a gigantic star of radio and television. His programs were on the air for hours every day. He was a beloved and trusted presence for decades, and had tens of millions of fans. He used the fame and power of his career, which began right here in the Greater Washington area, to open previously closed doors to Jewish and black artists. And then, at the height of it all, one ill-advised incident caused his popularity to slowly erode and his presence to fade away. The name Arthur Godfrey is now generally unknown — broadcasting’s forgotten giant.

 

Born in New York City in 1903, Godfrey was serving in the Coast Guard in the late 1920s and stationed in Baltimore when he entered a radio talent contest. A year later, he was involved in a horrific car accident that broke his leg and shattered his pelvis. It would take two years for him to recuperate; and while he was laid up, he listened to a lot of radio.

When he was ready to begin working again, he got a job as the morning host on WJSV (today WTOP), the powerful CBS affiliate. Godfrey developed a new style. He spoke normally on the air — as he described it, it was as if he was having a conversation with “one guy.” Godfrey played music, read the commercials, and delivered monologues on various topics. It was a comfortable show, and was extraordinarily popular with Washington listeners.

It would be a monumental historical event that would bring him to the national network.

In April of 1945, President Roosevelt died, and CBS assigned Godfrey to cover his funeral. As the funeral cortege passed the Treasury building where Godfrey was stationed, he broke down in tears on the air. The entire nation was moved and CBS promoted him to the full network. He brought the same show and the same style to the national audience, although now he had a full orchestra and singers, staff announcer, and guests of all types. The program, now called “Arthur Godfrey Time,” was heard every weekday morning and was very popular. In 1949, he added a new show called “Talent Scouts.” A shrewd judge of talent, Godfrey discovered many performers who became show business greats in all genres, from Lenny Bruce to Patsy Cline.

Godfrey was a champion of black and Jewish artists. The Mariners were the first integrated singing group on the air. His longtime announcer Tony Marvin was Jewish, as were band leaders Archie Bleyer and Nat Farber. It was known that Godfrey would hire anyone who was talented, and his shows were always the most diverse on the air. With the advent of television, Godfrey simulcast his programs on both radio and television, and his popularity soared.

In 1953, Julius La Rosa, a fine singer who Godfrey had discovered, had become a big star and had basically outgrown the Godfrey program. Relations between the two worsened, and after consulting with the CBS brass, a plan was concocted to bring La Rosa down, once and for all: He would fire La Rosa on the air.

It was Friday, Oct. 19, 1953. The television portion of the show had ended and the last hour was carried only on radio. As La Rosa finished the song “Manhattan,” Godfrey told a shocked audience that that would be La Rosa’s last song with the show and wished him well. The program ended with those words. The nation was shocked. This was not the folksy, nice guy they adored. It made him look petty and small.

Godfrey’s popularity began to decline; throughout the 1950s, his shows began to disappear. Then, in 1959, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given only a 5 percent chance of survival. During the time he was off the air, his program was guest hosted by Jewish comedian and raconteur Sam Levenson. Godfrey beat the odds and after a year and a half was back in front of the camera. Outside of the occasional special, however, his TV career was finished, and he eventually returned to his radio show. It was the last network variety show on the air and lasted until Godfrey retired, ending a 40-year run on CBS with a final broadcast on April 30, 1972. He passed away in 1983.

Godfrey loved Washington, always maintaining a home here. All his archives were donated to the University of Maryland, and with the availability of so much of his material on the internet, he will be remembered for a long a fabulous career.

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By Larry Shor