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.

1917 Was A Very Good Year

This week I was inspired by the blog “Once upon a screen . . .” to take a look at television pioneers who were born in 1917. (For some great articles on pop culture, movies, and television, check out her blog at aurorasginjoint.com.) Let’s get to know 17 of the stars who helped shape the direction of television during the golden age.

Herbert Anderson. Best known for his role as Henry Mitchell on Dennis the Menace, Anderson began his career making movies.  He transitioned to television in 1953, appearing on 61 shows over the years.  He appeared in episodes on such shows as Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, Man from U.N.C.L.E., My Three Sons, Bewitched, and The Waltons.  One of my favorites is the first season of The Brady Bunch.  The kids are sick and both parents call a doctor.  The girls were used to a woman played by Marion Ross while the boys always had a man, Anderson.  After weighing factors to pick one of them, the family decides to keep both doctors. He died from a heart attack in 1994.

Carl Ballantine. Ballantine began his career as a magician and inspired many famous magicians since.  He began working in Las Vegas and on television as a magician.  Eventually he transferred to movie roles and after appearing in McHale’s Navy on the big screen, took on the same role of Lester Gruber on the television series. He went on to appear on 33 additional tv shows including That Girl, Laverne and Shirley, Trapper John MD, and Night Court. He passed away at his home in 2009.

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Earl Bellamy. Earl Bellamy directed episodes for 101 different television shows.  He is best known for The Lone Ranger and The Tales of Wells Fargo.  He directed 82 episodes for Bachelor Father, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms.  In the 1960s he specialized in sitcoms including That Girl, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and My Three Sons while the 1970s saw him transition to dramas including Marcus Welby MD, The FBI, Medical Center, and Eight is Enough. In 2003 he passed away from a heart attack.

Ernest Borgnine.  Best known of his Oscar-winning role of Marty in 1955, Ernest enlisted in the Navy in 1935 until 1941.  In 1942 he re-enlisted and served until 1945.  After doing some factory work, he decided to go to school to study acting and began his career on Broadway.  He was also in the movie McHale’s Navy and went on to tackle the role in the television series.  He loved working with Tim Conway and in later years they did the voices for Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in SpongeBob SquarePants. He appeared in 47 different shows over the years, including the series Airwolf which he starred in. Borgnine appeared in the final episode of ER which he won an Emmy for. He was married five times, including a 32-day marriage to Ethel Merman.  His last marriage to Tova lasted 39 years. He died of kidney failure in 2012.

Raymond Burr. Best known as Perry Mason, Burr started his career on Broadway in the 1940s and then appeared in 50 films from 1946-1957. In 1956 he auditioned for the role of Hamilton Burger, the DA in Perry Mason.  He was told he could have the starring role if he lost about 60 pounds which he accomplished. He later starred in Ironside, another crime drama and appeared on a variety of other shows.  Burr had many interests including raising and cross-breeding orchids; collecting wine, art, stamps and sea shells; reading; and breeding dogs.  He was extremely generous, giving away much of his money over the years.  He passed away from cancer in 1993.

Phyllis Diller. Known for her wild hair and clothing, Diller was one of the pioneering stand-up female comedians.  She appeared in films in the 1940s, worked in radio in the 1950s, and began her stand-up career in 1955. Her first television appearance was in You Bet Your Life.  She appeared in 40 shows including Batman, CHIPs, Full House, and The Drew Carey Show.  She had her own show titled The Pruitts of Southampton, and in reruns The Phyllis Diller Show that ran from 1966-67.  She recorded comedy albums in the 1960s, wrote several books during her career, was an accomplished pianist, performing with symphony orchestras across the US and taught herself painting which she continued throughout the 1960s and 70s. Her husband Fang was not real, but she used him in her comedy routines.  She died of natural causes in 2012. My first memory of Diller was in the movie Boy Did I Dial a Wrong Number with Bob Hope which my parents took me to at the drive in.

Ross Elliott. A prolific actor on stage, film, and television, Elliott appeared in 184 different shows from sitcoms to westerns to medial dramas, all between 1951 and 1983. He passed away from cancer in 1999.

June Foray.  One of the greatest voice actors ever, Foray has been active in the industry since she had her own radio show.  She did off-air voices for many sitcoms including I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, Jack Benny, Rawhide, Get Smart, Lost In Space, and Bewitched.  She also appeared in more than 76 animated series.  She is perhaps best known as Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle and as Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Karen and other voices in Frosty the Snowman. Foray is still alive today.

Zsa Zsa Gabor.  Unlike her sister Eva who became known as Lisa Douglas on Green Acres, Zsa Zsa seemed to make a career out of playing herself.  Of the 80 appearances she made in film and television, 20 of them were as herself. She was a true celebrity.  Crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, she came to the US in 1941 and began her career.  She was known for her extravagant lifestyle and many marriages: 9 with 7 divorces (including one to Conrad Hilton) and 1 annulment.

Sid Melton.  Known to most viewers today as handyman Alf Monroe on Green Acres, Melton began as a film star and went on to appear in 71 shows including Topper, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, That Girl, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Empty Nest. He died from pneumonia in 2011.

Alice Pearce. Although her career was cut short due to illness, I included Alice Pearce because her role as Gladys Kravitz in so memorable.  After spending her childhood in Europe, Pearce started on Broadway and after appearing in On the Town, she was brought to Hollywood to reprise her role in the movie version. She began specializing in comedy in the 1940s. In 1964 she turned down the role of Grandmama in The Addams Family and shortly after was offered the role of Gladys in Bewitched. She was already diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she began her role but didn’t tell anyone and was able to act for two seasons before she passed away from the disease. She received an Emmy for her work on Bewitched.

Gene Rayburn. One of the kings of game shows, Rayburn began his career as an actor, taking over for Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie when Van Dyke began his television show. While he was on numerous game shows as a panelist or host over the years, Rayburn is best known for Match Game which first ran from 1962-69. It was revived again in 1973 and took several formats in the following years.  He died from heart failure in 1999.

Isabel Sanford. Best known as Louise Jefferson, she grew up in Harlem and performed in amateur nights at the Apollo Theatre. Her Broadway debut was in 1965.  After appearing as a maid in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she was cast by Norman Lear in All in the Family which led to the series The Jeffersons.  When the show ended in 1985, she appeared in a variety of other shows until 2002.  She passed away from natural causes in 2004.

Sidney Sheldon.  A writer and producer, Sheldon created The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart, writing many of the scripts for all three series. After he turned 50, he began a career writing romantic suspense novels.  He died from pneumonia in 2007.

Robert Sterling. A clothing salesman before getting into acting, Sterling was best known for his role as George Kerby in Topper from 1953-55.  His wife, Anne Jeffreys played his wife in the show. From 1943-49 he was married to Ann Sothern. He appeared in 36 shows between 1951 and 1986. He passed away from natural causes in 2006.

Jesse White.  While White was a hard-working character actor, he is best known for his commercials as the Maytag repairman from 1967-88. After appearing in films for many years, he transitioned to television in the 1950s.  His daughter Carole Ita White also became an actress best known for Laverne and Shirley. White appeared in 113 shows, never receiving a regular series.

Jane Wyman. Wyman began working at Warner Brothers at age 16, claiming to be 19. Although she was a successful film star and began in television in 1955 with her own show, Jane Wyman Presents Fireside Theater, she is probably best known for her role on Falcon’s Crest from 1981-90 and her marriage to Ronald Reagan. She died in her sleep from natural causes in 2007.

These are just a handful of television mavericks that influenced television as we know it today.  I was amazed at the variety of different talents each of these stars displayed.  In comparing their television appearances, it’s surprising how many of them overlap and worked on the same shows.  What I found most surprising was that Ballantine, Diller, Melton, Sanford, Sterling, White and White’s daughter all appeared on Love American Style while Bellamy, Borgnine, Burr, Diller, Gabor, Rayburn, Sanford, White, and Wyman all guest starred on The Love Boat.  During my research, I ran across many shows that will become future blog topics.

Another fun fact about celebrating stars born in 1917 is that this week we are traveling to Pennsylvania to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday who was also born in 1917.  Happy Birthday Mamie.