Sunday, November 25, 2018

My Friend Irma

BROADCAST HISTORY: April 11, 1947–Aug. 23, 1954, CBS. 30m, Fridays at 10:30 until mid-June 1947; Mondays at 8:30 until Aug.; at 10, 1947–51; Sundays at 6, 1951–52; at 9:30, mid-1952; Tuesdays at 9:30, 1952–54. Lever Brothers for Pepsodent, 1947–51; Ennds Chlorophyl Tablets (“to stop Triple O—odors of body, odors of breath, odor offense”), 1951–52; Camel Cigarettes, 1952–53; various thereafter. CAST: Marie Wilson as Irma Peterson, the last word in “dumb blonde” radio comediennes. Cathy Lewis as her best friend and roommate, Jane Stacy. Joan Banks as Jane Stacy, ca. early 1949, while Lewis was ill. John Brown as Irma’s boyfriend, Al. Jane Morgan initially as Mrs. O’Reilly, owner of the rooming house where Irma and Jane lived. Gloria Gordon as Mrs. O’Reilly for most of the run. Hans Conried as Professor Kropotkin, who lived in the apartment upstairs. Alan Reed as Mr. Clyde, Irma’s boss. Leif Erickson as Richard Rhinelander III, Jane’s boss and the love of her life. Myra Marsh as Richard’s mother. Mary Shipp as Kay Foster, Irma’s roommate from ca. 1953. Richard Eyer as Bobby, Kay Foster’s nephew. ANNOUNCERS: Carl Caruso, Bob LeMond, Frank Bingman, etc. SOUND EFFECTS: James Murphy. ORCHESTRA: Lud Gluskin. CREATOR-WRITER-PRODUCER-DIRECTOR: Cy Howard. WRITERS: Parke Levy, Stanley Adams, Roland MacLane. THEME: Friendship, by Cole Porter. Secondary theme and midbreak bridge: Street

In October 1947, a Time critic described My Friend Irma as a follower in the “artfully stumbling footsteps of Gracie Allen, Jane Ace, and other attractive dunderheads.” But Irma had neither the malapropian qualities of Ace nor the dubiously screwy logic of Allen. She was naively friendly, with a blue-eyed innocence that managed to come across through nothing more than a voice. She was dumb indeed. Only Irma would answer a question about compulsory military service by saying that “a girl shouldn’t have to go out with a sailor unless she wants to.” Irma was so dumb she thought flypaper was the stationery used on airlines. She was a stenographer by trade, and heaven help her understandably crusty boss, Mr. Clyde. Her roommate, Jane Stacy, was her dyed-in-the-wool opposite—completely sane, logical, dependable in every way that Irma was not. Jane narrated the stories with weary resignation, infusing the narrative with exasperation and love. Jane carried an unrequited torch for her boss, the millionaire Richard Rhinelander III. “Wouldn’t it be great,” she asked Irma one night, “if I wound up being Mrs. Richard Rhinelander the third?” Without missing a beat, Irma said, “What good will that do if he’s got two other wives?” But Jane always had Irma’s best interests at heart; thus she tried to discourage Irma’s relationship with the Brooklyn hustler, Al. “Hi-ya, Chicken,” Al would say in his weekly greeting, and the troubles of Irma Peterson

would begin to magnify. Good for one walk-on per show was Professor Kropotkin, the violinist at the Paradise Burlesque, who carried on a running battle of insults with the landlady, a fierce Irish battleaxe named Mrs. O’Reilly. His entrance was always marked by a soft knock and a sheepish Russian accent: “It’s only me, Professor Kropotkin.” The show was created by Cy Howard, a reformed introvert who would also produce Life with Luigi, a year later. Howard had worked in local radio, from KTRH, Houston to WBBM, Chicago. He arrived at CBS in 1946, with Irma on his mind and a sense that the casting would make or break it. He tested for the two leads but found no suitable actresses until Cathy Lewis arrived to read for Jane Stacy. Lewis was then one of radio’s busiest talents, and Howard would long remember her impatience to get on to her next job. With her first words, “All right, all right, five minutes, that’s all,” Howard felt he had found Jane. The critical title role followed shortly, when he saw Marie Wilson in Ken Murray’s Blackouts, doing a part so unlike Irma but packed with the precise naive bewilderment he was looking for. Wilson, Lewis, and Gloria Gordon took their roles to television in 1952, for a CBS series that ran two seasons. Lewis resigned midway through it, and it was decided not to try recasting a role so strongly identified with one actress. Jane was written out of both the radio and TV shows, sent off to live in Panama. Irma’s new roommate, Kay Foster, moved in with her 7–year-old

nephew. Though the show made Marie Wilson a national figure, it typecast her beyond redemption. Far from stupid, Wilson was constantly compared to her fictitious alter ego by critics and her fellow cast members. “She has that same touching sincerity, the same steady wide-eyed gaze,” said Radio Life. “she can keep an admirable poker face through the most idiotic conversations. … She loves everything and everybody, and there isn’t a person in the world that she doesn’t call ‘honey’ with sincerest regard.” Howard agreed. “She’s so much like Irma that I have to rewrite the things she says to make them believable.” The Hooper rating was consistently healthy, peaking at 20–plus. In 1949, Irma was brought to the screen by Hal Wallis. Wilson made the transition, but the film was mainly a launching pad for the careers of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The radio show, meanwhile, continued on through the TV run.

Listen to the show on our A.M. America OTR Comedy Channel. Click Link Below:

Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (p. 473). Oxford University Press. 


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