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.

Photo: imdb.com

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.

Photo: collectors.com

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.

Photo: aveleyman.com

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.”

Photo: pinterest.at
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.

Photo: pinterest.com
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.

Photo: hollywoodphotographs.com
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.

Photo: usawoopro.blogspot.com

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.

Photo: popflock.com

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.

If It’s Friday Night, It’s Time for the Adults to Gather Round and Watch . . . Cartoons?

In September 1960 several iconic shows had their debut including My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show. On Friday nights at 8:30 eastern time, a very unusual show also began on ABC that fall:  The Flintstones.  Many viewers don’t realize that The Flintstones began life as a prime-time animated show aimed at adults. Created by Hanna-Barbera (H-B), it continued to run at night until April of 1966, a total of 166 episodes.

H-B went to New York for 8 weeks to pitch the show. After being turned down by every ntework, ABC decided to take a chance on it.  It was the most financially successful animated show for 30 years until The Simpsons was created. Variety described its premier as “a pen and ink disaster,” but the show was nominated for Outstanding Comedy, losing to The Jack Benny Show.

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Set in Bedrock, population 2500, the Flintstones and the Rubbles were neighbors and best friends.  The show’s success had a lot to do with the fact that these Stone Age families participated in the same modern-day activities that families did in the 1960s. They relied on the same technology; it’s just that their technology was powered primarily by animals and rocks.

H-B considered other historical eras for the show.  They researched hillbillies, the Roman Empire, and American Indians before settling on Stone Age characters. The original title was The Flagstones.  It was then changed to The Gladstones, and, finally, The Flintstones. In the first creation, Fred and Wilma had a son — Fred Jr. H-B decided that they wanted both couples to be childless, so Fred Jr. was written out.  A Golden Book which came out in 1960 was released before the show changed its concept, and it features Fred Jr.

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Let’s review the regular characters.

Fred Flintstone works at Slate Rock and Gravel Co. He had a quick temper but was a loving father and husband.  He is tall and broad with black hair. He was on a bowling team and belonged to the Loyal Order of Buffaloes, Lodge No. 26. Alan Reed was the voice of Fred. In one episode, Fred was supposed to yell “Yahoo.” Reed asked if he could say “Yabba Dabba Doo” which he based on a Brylcreem jingle his mother used to say, “A little dab’ll do ya.” That became his catchphrase.  In 1977, when the show was in syndication, Henry Corden took over after Reed passed away. Fred was based on Ralph Kramden. In a 1986 , article Jackie Gleason revealed that his attorney told him he could have easily won a lawsuit and stopped The Flintstones, but he advised against it or Gleason would have been known as the man who destroyed The Flintstones.

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Wilma Flintstone is a practical and level-headed wife. She is a true redhead and loves to shop. She often has to get Fred out of bad situations or is forced to convince him to apologize to Barney or Mr. Slate. Jean Vander Pyl was the voice of Wilma.

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Pebbles Flintstone was born at the end of Season 3.  She wore bones in her hair for bows and was a happy little girl. Vander Pyl also played Pebbles.

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Dino is their purple pet.  He barks and often acts like a dog, but he is officially a prosauropod. The incredible Mel Blanc was the voice of Dino.

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Barney Rubble is Fred’s best friend and next-door neighbor. He and Fred get into spats regularly. Barney is shorter than Fred, easy going, and friendly.  Barney was on Fred’s bowling team and part of the Water Buffaloes. Barney was also voiced by Mel Blanc. After Blanc’s death, several actors played Barney.

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Betty Rubble is Wilma’s best friend.  They often conspire to get their husbands to mend their friendship.  Betty is a brunette. Bea Benaderet was the voice of Betty for seasons 1-4.  After her death, Gerry Johnson took over for seasons 5 and 6.

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Bamm-Bamm is the Rubbles’ adopted son.  He is absurdly strong and says “Bamm-Bamm” a lot. Don Messick was the voice of both Bamm-Bamm and the Rubbles’ pet.

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Hoppy is Rubbles’ pet hopparoo (a cross between a kangaroo and a dinosaur).  He doesn’t appear until Season 5.

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More than 100 “guest” characters appear on the show, but several are better known and appear more often, including:

Mr. Slate owns the company where Fred works.  Sometimes Barney works there as well but it doesn’t seem to be consistent. Mr. Slate fires Fred a lot but always takes him back. John Stephenson voiced Mr. Slate.

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Arnold is the Rubbles’ and Flintstones’ paperboy. Fred doesn’t like him because Arnold can outsmart him. Don Messick played Arnold.

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Joe Rockhead is a friend of Fred and Barney’s. He is mentioned in one show as being the chief of the Bedrock Volunteer Fire Department. Irwin Keyes played Joe.

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Pearl Slaghoople is Wilma’s mother.  She is hard to please and has always disapproved of Fred. Verna Felton and Janet Waldo played Pearl.

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Gazoo is an alien who helps Fred and Barney.  He can only be seen by those two, small children, and pets. Harvey Korman was the voice of Gazoo. He appeared during the final season as a way to boost viewership. The show had begun to try to capture younger viewers during the final two seasons.

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Many famous people also showed up on the show. The 6th episode of the 6th season featured Darrin and Samantha Stephenson from Bewitched. H-B produced the animated opening of Bewitched, so there was a tie-in. Other stars included Stony Curtis (Tony Curtis), Ann Margrock (Ann Margaret), and Cary Granite (Cary Grant) as well as the Green Bay Pachyderms.

One strange thing about the show was that the Flintstones home and furniture placement was not consistent.  You can see changes in almost every episode. Their address also changed. It was given as 345 Cave Stone Rd., 1313 Cobblestone Way, and 222 Rocky Way.

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A theme song, “Rise and Shine” was created for the show and used in seasons 1 and 2. The tune was similar to Bugs Bunny’s theme, and in season 3 it was changed to “Meet the Flintstones.” A 22-piece jazz band and a 5-person singing group, the Skip Jacks, recorded it. When the show went into syndication, “Rise and Shine” was replaced with “Meet the Flintstones” for the first two seasons as well. Hoyt Curtin was in charge of the underscores for seasons 1-5 and Ted Nichols took over for season 6.

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Believe it or not, the first two seasons were sponsored by Winston Cigarettes, and there were ads featuring Fred and Barney smoking. These seasons were aired in black and white. Seasons 3-6 would be in color. In season 3, Welch’s became the sponsor for the last four years. They created jelly jars which could be re-used as drinking glasses. At this point, it was decided that the Flintstones would have a baby. A boy was written into the script. A marketing director suggested they change it to a girl because girl dolls sold better. Based on his recommendation, they created Pebbles. Apparently, he was right because during the first few months, they sold 3 million of them. In season 4, Bamm-Bamm was adopted.

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Some of the clever products included an alarm clock that is a bird, a bird car horn, a dinosaur crane, an octopus dishwasher, a pelican garbage can, a porcupine hairbrush, and a swordfish knife. Several famous brands were seen in the stone age such as Stoneway Pianos and Polarrock cameras.

The show was offered in syndication till 1997. Ted Turner purchased H-B in 1992, and The Flintstones ran on TBS, TNT, and the Cartoon Network. In 2000, Boomerang began airing the show where it continued until 2016. Now it’s only available on Boomerang’s subscription video-on-demand service.

The Flintstones had 12 different television series versions and 13 tv specials produced. In addition, there have been 5 tv movies, 6 educational filmstrips and 2 big-screen films.

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Two theme parks exist: Bedrock City in Custer, SD and Valle, AZ. A stage production took place in Universal Studios in Hollywood from 1994-1997. DC Comics produced a 2016 Flintstones comic book. Flintstones collectibles have been produced for almost 60 years.

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Fifty-eight years after the debut of the show, Bedrock characters are still promoting products.  One-a-Day vitamins features Flintstones Chewables and Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles are made by Post.

 

A typical conversation between Fred and Barney is:

Fred: How can you be so stupid?

Barney: Hey, that’s not very nice. Say you’re sorry.

Fred: I’m sorry you’re stupid.

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For the remainder of January, we will continue to look at prime-time animation series.