The Secret Word is George Fenneman

I am cheating just a bit with this post. During this Oddly Wonderful series, I think I can push the envelope enough. You Bet Your Life was a very different type of game show. If ever there was a person who personifies oddly wonderful it was Groucho. But I really wanted an excuse to write about George Fenneman.

George Fenneman is best remembered for his role on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life which began on radio in 1947 and transitioned to television in 1950. The show went off the air in 1961, the year I was born. Obviously, I don’t remember the original show, but I saw it in reruns and always had a crush on George; I think it was his smile that always got me.

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George was born in Beijing (then Peking), China in 1919. His father was in the importing/exporting business. When he was not quite one, his parents moved to San Francisco where he grew up. After high school, he attended San Francisco State College. He graduated in 1942 with a degree in speech and drama. He took a job with a local radio station KGO for a short time. He married his college sweetheart Peggy Clifford in 1943 and they would stay married until George died. The couple had two daughters and a son.

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Poor eyesight and asthma prevented Fenneman from military action in World War II, but he was able to become a broadcast correspondent for the War of Information. In 1946 he was back in California, in the radio industry again. One of the shows he announced for was Gunsmoke. After the episode concluded, he would introduce Matt Dillon (William Conrad) to discuss the sponsor’s products which often was cigarettes such as L&M or Chesterfield.

Some of the other radio shows he announced for included The Orson Welles Show, The Eddie Albert Show, and the Hedda Hopper Show.

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He and Peggy were neighbors of Christian Nyby. In 1951, Nyby was hired as director for the film, The Thing from Another World. George joined the cast as in the minor role of Dr. Redding who has an important scene at the end of the film. It took 27 takes for him to get the speech right, and he realized he was better suited for radio. However, he would appear in two additional films, the little-known Mystery Lake in 1953 and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1967. While his voice was part of several other films, most notably in the original Ocean’s 11 as the man talking on the phone to Sheriff Wimmer.

Jack Webb had worked on broadcasts with George during the war. He hired Fenneman as announcer for his radio show, Pat Novak, For Hire. When Dragnet aired the same year, Jack took George with him. George, along with Hal Gibney took on the role of narrator for the show. They both continued with the show in 1951 when it moved to television. Dragnet was off the air for a number of years and returned to television in 1967. Fenneman was again hired as narrator with John Stephenson for that version. George was the one who was heard saying, “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Stephenson handled the closing narration. Fenneman was also cast as a news reporter in a variety of shows including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game, and on Batman in 1966 in the episode, “The Yegg Foes in Gotham.”

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On Batman

In addition to appearing on Groucho’s show on television, Fenneman was the host or announcer for several other shows. He emceed two games shows during his time with Groucho: Anybody Can Play in 1958 and Your Surprise Package in 1961. In 1963, He hosted a show on ABC titled Your Funny, Funny Films which was a cousin to the later Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

He was usually an unseen announcer on The Ed Sullivan Show, but in 1964, the night the Beatles were on the show for the second time, he did a spot on the air for Lipton Tea. From 1978-1982 he hosted a show on PBS, Talk About Pictures. In this show, Life magazine photographer Leigh Weiner and George interviewed respected photographers and looked at their best photos.

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With Leigh Weiner on PBS

He also was the voice for Home Savings & Loan commercials from the late 1960s until his death from emphysema in 1997. He also acted as announcer for shows such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donny and Marie, The Jim Nabors Show, and The Life of Riley.

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With Martin and Lewis

In 1993, The Simpsons aired an episode that spoofed Dragnet, and Fenneman can be heard on the show delivering his famous line about names being changed to protect the innocent.

Despite his large cannon of work as an announcer and emcee, Fenneman became a household celebrity when he went to work for Groucho on You Bet Your Life. One day George was standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Robert Dwan, who had hired him at KGO Radio, came up and told him he was holding an audition for a new show for Groucho. Fenneman went up against thirty other announcers and won the job which paid $55 a week. He was hired just to do commercials. At some point, Groucho decided he should also be scorekeeper, as well as his straight man.

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When discussing Groucho, George said, “I have to say he was unique, and he was fearless. It was a great privilege to work with him for 15 years and to be his friend for 30.” After Fenneman’s death, Peggy did an interview for an article by Lawrence Van Gelder for the NY Times in June of 1997. She said that George was always a fan of Groucho and the Marx Brothers. She remembered them often going to the Golden Gate Theater when they were in college. They went to watch the Marx Brothers rehearse future movie scenes for comic timing. She remembered watching scenes from A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

Groucho, known for his quick wit and acid tongue, found an agreeable and attractive man in Fenneman. When viewers queried George whether the show was scripted or ad-libbed, he always said yes. Actually, it was about 50/50.  Groucho was fed some lines from the interviews with the contestants, but he never met them ahead of time and was given the freedom to interject whatever comments he chose.

Photo: mptvimages.com

George often took the brunt of Groucho’s humor. One time he had to inhale helium, one day he came down from the ceiling when the secret word was said in place of the usual duck, or he would be questioned about something on the show. For example, one evening each of the contestants was a very attractive woman and Groucho made it seem that Fenneman had set that up on purpose. One contestant mistakenly referred to George as Mr. Fidderman, and Groucho called him out to discuss his double life.

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George never knew what Groucho had in store for him. Often Marx would summon George from behind the curtain, and he always looked uncomfortable which was quite genuine. But Groucho had great affection and appreciation for him, calling him the perfect straight man.

At times on the show, George could also be quite funny, but he knew his main role was straight man, and he usually toed that line carefully.

George and Groucho remained friends long after the show was cancelled. They often got together before Groucho’s death in 1977 at age 87. Groucho never lost his sense of humor. At one of their last visits, Groucho was in very frail health. Helping Groucho get across the room, George lifted him out of his wheelchair and carried him. He had his arms around his torso and began to shimmy him across the floor. Groucho’s rasping voice said, “Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer.”

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Although the shows have never been released in a chronological DVD collection, they are available. The programs were recorded in full and then edited to the desired length. On MP3 discs, some of the unedited tapes are available which provide a very different perspective than the aired show.

There are a few announcers still well known in the business. I think of Rod Roddy, Johnny Gilbert or Johnny Olson who have game show fame, but it is a career that is being phased out. There is something charming about watching the former announcers for shows promoting products and interacting with the stars. Harry Von Zell from the Gracie Allen and George Burns Show comes to mind or Don Wilson from the Jack Benny Show. Like rotary phones, transistor radios, and Polaroid cameras, they are fondly remembered from a slower and less technological period in history.

With this series being Oddly Wonderful, I am stretching it a bit by focusing on George. In our definition of oddly wonderful, he was definitely the wonderful.

“Don’t give up before the miracle happens.” ― Fannie Flagg, I Still Dream About You

Fannie Flagg is one of those performers who I have seen all my life but know little about. I thought it would be fun to learn about her show business career. Like me, she started writing later in life as her second career.  I wanted to know how that whole dream fulfillment came about. Let’s get to know Fannie Flagg.

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She was born Patricia Neal in Alabama in 1944. Flagg, of Finnish ancestry, spent most of her childhood in the Birmingham area. It sounds like she had a “normal” childhood. Although she liked writing, she had problems because she was dyslexic which she did not realize until she was an adult. She was an archery champion at age 12. By age fifteen, she thought about entering a convent. Luckily for us she didn’t. In high school she was a cheerleader and a saxophone player in the band.

As a teen, she entered the Miss Alabama pageant, where she won a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse Theater Acting School. Acting might have been in her blood because both her father and her grandfather were motion picture machine operators. The summer she returned home, the woman who cohosted the Morning Show in Birmingham was leaving, so Fannie was able to replace her.

Who knows what direction Flagg’s career would have taken if the head of WBRC-TV were not so tight-fisted. Flagg asked for a raise and they denied it, so she quit her job and moved to New York City. She had to take on a new name since there was already a quite famous Patricia Neal in show business. Her grandfather suggested “Fannie” because so many comediennes used the name and a friend came up with “Flagg.”

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Her first television job was on CBS Repertoire Workshop in 1964. During this time, Fannie recorded two comedy albums with various skits that included parodies of famous women. She appeared on a variety of talk shows including The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Johnny Cash Show, Dinah!, and The Rosie O’Donnell Show.

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Flagg got her first film role in 1970 in Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson. The next year she appeared in Some of My Best Friends Are.

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It was also in 1971 that she received an offer for her first series. Fannie says she stumbled into the role.  She had been doing concerts and performing with stock companies. She was on the west coast and stopped in at her agent’s California office to meet the staff.  A man came in and looked her up and down and then left. The next day she learned she was given the part of Dick Van Dyke’s sister on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. The man in the office the day before had been looking for someone who could pass for Dick’s sister in real life.

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The New Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air from 1971 till 1973. Carl Reiner created the series for Van Dyke. Van Dyke was Dick Preston, a local talk show host. Van Dyke was signed to a three-year contract and given permission to film in Arizona where he lived. Hope Lange was his wife Jenny, Angela Powell their daughter Annie, Flagg his sister Mike, David Doyle was his boss Ted, and Marty Brill and Nancy Dussault were their best friends Bernie and Carol Davis.

The show began its life on Saturday night with All in the Family, Funny Face, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The series didn’t garner very high ratings, so the second season found the show on Sunday nights when ratings decreased drastically. Flagg was mentioned by several critics as being very funny in her role. Fannie credited Dick Van Dyke as her acting mentor, as well as one of her best friends.

Because Dick had a three-year contract, rather than cancel the show, CBS changed the structure. Dick gets a role on a soap opera, so he and his family move to Hollywood. They changed out most of the cast members so Flagg moved on. The show followed Here’s Lucy. The ratings improved significantly, but after the third year, Dick quit to go back to Arizona.

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Throughout the 1970s, Fannie continued to get both television and film offers. She appeared on Love American Style, The New Candid Camera, Wonder Woman, and Fernwood Tonight. She was also in several films including both Rabbit Test and Grease in 1978.

During the 1970s, Flagg was a fixture on game shows. She is best known for Match Game where she usually sat next to Richard Dawson.  With all the different versions of Match Game, she appeared in 529 episodes of the show. She is famous for wearing unusual tops on Match Game. It was while on the game show that Fannie received a note from a teacher who noticed a particular pattern in her misspellings on the show. She mentioned she might have dyslexia which is when Flagg first began to investigate and learn she did indeed suffer from the disease. When asked about two her costars on Match Game, namely Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers, Flagg said, “Besides being hilarious, Brett and Charles were two of the smartest people I have ever known. On “Match Game,” they got such a big kick out of each other! They razzed one another and everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they really liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.”

She continued, One of the happiest times in my life was in 1980 when I was doing “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, and Charles, Brett and I were staying at the Wyndham Hotel at the same time. Every day at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon they would come to my room for cocktails. Many is the time I would come home from after the show and they would still be sitting there having a good time. The only thing that changed was the position of Charles’ toupee.”

In addition to “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Flagg toured with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

Fannie continued her acting career into the 1980s. From 1981-1982 she took a role as Cassie Bowman on Harper Valley PTA starring Barbara Eden. The show was based on the hit song, “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie Riley. Sherwood Schwartz produced the first eleven episodes.  The show moved around a bit from Thursdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8:30. Barbara played Stella, a mom who ignores Southern small-town standards by wearing mini skirts and speaking her mind. She reveals the hypocrisy of the other PTA members, making her a target of their comments. The show did not last long enough to accumulate enough episodes for syndication, but it occasionally shows up on independent networks.

Flagg was on The George Burns Comedy Week series and on The Love Boat three times. Her final films were done at the beginning and end of the 1990s. Her last movie was Crazy in Alabama in 1999 written by her friend Mark Childress.

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She also had a cameo in 1991 in Fried Green Tomatoes, a movie based on her novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. She co-wrote the screenplay and received an Oscar nomination. The book is told in the past and the present by Ninnie Threadgoode and Evelyn Crouch who talk about the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama and the bonds the women forged in the 1920s and 1930s. The novel, published in 1987, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 36 weeks. This was her most famous novel, but it was not her first.

Flagg felt a pull toward writing as a child. She had written a play when she attended Catholic school. Because her father worked at the cinema, she had seen a lot of movies. She wrote a play about two career girls who lived in an apartment over the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. A man named Mr. Truman called and asked to come for tea. The girls assume it’s President Truman and go all out getting ready and inviting their friends. It turns out to be an insurance salesman. Her teacher phoned her mother to say the nuns were concerned because she used the word “martini” 16 times. Her mother had to explain that Fannie watched a lot of movies and the family was not sitting around drinking martinis every night.

She won first prize at the county fair for an essay titled, “Why I Want to Be Bald Headed.” She wrote it because she hated her mother braiding her hair so tightly every morning.

In the 1960s, Flagg wrote skits for a night club in New York—Upstairs at the Downstairs. She filled in for a sick actress one night when Allen Funt was in the audience. He invited her to become a staff writer on Candid Camera where she acted as well.

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Flagg decided to attend a conference in 1978 to see Eudora Welty. She had to write a short story for a contest based on the word “childhood.” As Flagg tells it,

“I went to the grocery store, and I bought one of those spiral notebooks. I wrote a story called Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man about something that had actually happened to me in childhood,” says Flagg. “I wrote it as an 11-year-old child, and I thought that if they saw any mistakes, they would think I did it on purpose.”

Flagg won the contest. “I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, but at the same time I felt like such a cheat and a liar,” says Flagg. An editor there said that he wanted to talk with her about her writing a fleshed-out novel based on her short story. Flagg burst into tears and said, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t write a book.” When he asked her why, she replied, “Because I can’t spell.” Flagg says the editor looked at her like she was crazy and said, “What do you think we have editors for?”

She’s been writing ever since.

Fannie Flagg has found her niche.  Since that first novel, she has continued to write, publishing ten books in all. Her most recent release was The Whole Town is Talking in 2016. In 2012 she won the Harper Lee Distinguished Alabama Author award and presented it to Fannie in person.

As an adult, Fannie collects lamps from the 1940s and 1950s. She loves going on cruise ships, which might explain her three appearances on The Love Boat.  If you were a Match Game fan, it will not surprise you to learn that she loves wearing stripes with polka dots.

Fannie just seems like a delightful and fun person to be around.  She is on my list of people to have dinner with. I have recently began reading her books and I love them.  She writes about quirky, not strange, characters who seem true to life. It’s been fun getting to know a bit more about her life and career.

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