Friday, February 3, 2012

THE DARK SIDE OF ARTHUR GODFREY

If you think of major television stars in 2012, I guess names that would come to mind would be Simon Cowell, Jerry Seinfeld, or Ryan Seachrest. They have made their mark on what is considered television in 2012. However, in the 1950s there was one man who not only dominated television but he owned it - Arthur Godfrey. Godfrey, born in 1903, appeared to television audiences as a likeable folksy host, but behind the scenes he was a strict task master, and that dark side lead to his demise.

Behind Godfrey's on-air warmth was a volatile and controlling personality. He insisted his "Little Godfreys" attend dance and singing classes, believing all should be versatile performers regardless of whether they possessed the aptitude for those disciplines. In meetings with the cast and his staff, he could be abusive and intimidating. In spite of his ability to bring in profits, CBS executives who respected Godfrey professionally were not fond of him personally, since he often baited them on and off the air.

Godfrey's attitude was controlling prior to having hip surgery, but upon his return, he added more air time to his morning shows and became critical of a number of aspects of the broadcasts. One night, he substituted a shortened, hastily-arranged version of his Wednesday night variety show in place of the scheduled "Talent Scouts" presentation, feeling that none of the talent was up to standards. He also began casting a critical eye on others in the cast, particularly LaRosa, whose popularity continued to grow.

Like many men of his generation, Julius LaRosa thought dance lessons to be somewhat effeminate—and chafed when Godfrey ordered them for his entire performing crew. CBS historian Robert Metz, in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, suggested that Godfrey instituted the practice because his own physical limitations made him sensitive to the need for coordination on camera. "Godfrey," Metz wrote, "was concerned about his cast in his paternalistic way."


Godfrey and LaRosa had a dispute when LaRosa missed a dance lesson due to a family emergency. He claimed he'd advised Godfrey, but was nonetheless barred from the show for a day in retaliation, via a notice placed on a cast bulletin board. At that point, LaRosa retained topnotch manager Tommy Rockwell to renegotiate his contract with Godfrey or, failing that, to receive an outright release. However, such talks had yet to occur.

LaRosa was also signed to Cadence Records, owned by Godfrey's musical director Archie Bleyer, who produced Eh, Cumpari, the best-selling hit of LaRosa's musical career. LaRosa admitted the record's success had made him a little cocky. But after Godfrey discovered that LaRosa hired a manager in the wake of the dance lesson reprimand, Godfrey immediately consulted with CBS President Dr. Frank Stanton, who noted that Godfrey had hired LaRosa on-air (after his initial appearance on Talent Scouts) and suggested firing him the same way. Whether Stanton intended this to occur after Godfrey spoke with LaRosa and his managers about the singer's future on the show, or whether Stanton suggested Godfrey actually fire LaRosa on air with no warning, remains lost to history.

On October 19, 1953, near the end of his morning radio show (deliberately waiting until after the TV portion had ended), after lavishing praise on LaRosa in introducing the singer's performance of "Manhattan," Godfrey thanked him and then announced that this was LaRosa's "swan song" with the show, adding, "He goes now, out on his own — as his own star — soon to be seen on his own programs, and I know you'll wish him godspeed as much as I do". Godfrey then signed off for the day saying, "This is the CBS Radio Network".

LaRosa, who had to be told what the phrase "swan song" meant, was dumbfounded, since he had not been informed beforehand of his departure and contract renegotiations had yet to happen. Stanton later admitted the idea may have been "a mistake." In perhaps a further illumination of the ego that Godfrey had formerly kept hidden, radio historian Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio, claims that what really miffed Godfrey about his now-former protege was that LaRosa's fan mail had come to outnumber Godfrey's. It is likely that a combination of these factors led to Godfrey's decision to discharge LaRosa. It is not likely Godfrey expected the public outcry that ensued.


In any event, the LaRosa incident opened an era of controversy that swirled around Godfrey and, little by little, dismantled his just-folks image. LaRosa was beloved enough by Godfrey's fans that they saved their harshest criticism for Godfrey himself. After a press conference was held by LaRosa and his agent, Godfrey further complicated the matter by hosting a press conference of his own where he responded that LaRosa had lost his "humility." The charge, given Godfrey's sudden baring of his own ego beneath the facade of warmth, brought more mockery from the public and press. Almost instantly, Godfrey and the phrase "no humility" became the butt of many comedians' jokes. Later, he claimed he had, with the firing, essentially given LaRosa a release from his contract that the singer requested. Godfrey, however, provided no evidence to support that contention.

Godfrey would fire others among his regulars, including bandleader Archie Bleyer, within days of LaRosa's public "execution." Bleyer had formed his own label, Cadence Records, which recorded LaRosa. Bleyer married one of The Chordettes, and that group also broke away from Godfrey; Godfrey replaced them with The McGuire Sisters. Godfrey was also angered that Bleyer had produced a spoken-word record by Godfrey's Chicago counterpart Don McNeill. McNeill hosted The Breakfast Club, which had been Godfrey's direct competition on the NBC Blue Network (later ABC) since Godfrey's days at WJSV. Despite the McNeill show's far more modest following, Godfrey was unduly offended, even paranoid, at what he felt was disloyalty on Bleyer's part. Bleyer simply shrugged off the dismissal and focused on developing Cadence, which went on to even greater fame in later years with classic hit records by the Everly Brothers and Andy Williams.


Apparently, Godfrey intended to teach his regulars a lesson by dismissing them from his show and curtailing their network-television exposure. The plan backfired somewhat when they continued to perform for his substitute host, Robert Q. Lewis, who by now had his own midday show on CBS.

Occasionally, a crotchety Godfrey snapped at cast members on the air. A significant number of other "Little Godfreys," including the Mariners and Haleloke, were dismissed from 1953 to 1959 without explanation. Other performers, most notably Pat Boone and Patsy Cline (briefly), stepped in as "Little Godfreys."

Godfrey's problems with the media and public feuds with newspaper columnists such as Jack O'Brian and newspaperman turned CBS variety show host Ed Sullivan were duly documented by the media, which began running critical exposé articles linking him to several female "Little Godfreys." Godfrey's anger at Sullivan stemmed from the variety show impresario's featuring of fired "Little Godfreys" on his Sunday night show, including LaRosa.


Despite an intense desire to remain in the public eye, Godfrey's presence ebbed considerably over the next ten years, notwithstanding an HBO special and an appearance on a PBS salute to the 1950s. A 1981 attempt to reconcile him with LaRosa for a Godfrey show reunion record album, bringing together Godfrey and a number of the "Little Godfreys," collapsed. At an initially amicable meeting, Godfrey reasserted that LaRosa wanted out of his contract and asked why he hadn't explained that instead of insisting he was fired without warning. When LaRosa began reminding him of the dance lesson controversy, Godfrey, then in his late seventies, exploded and the meeting ended in shambles. Godfrey died forgotten and seemingly alone in 1983...

2 comments:

  1. Hearing the actual LaRosa firing on Godfrey's A&E Biography segment was a stunning thing to behold, more chilling than Donald Trump's "You're fired!"

    What a jerk Godfrey became. Would things have been different had he not needed hip surgery? I wonder....

    The stories for the movies The Great Man (1956, directed by Jose Ferrer) and A Face in the Crowd (1957, directed by Elia Kazan) have their lead characters (though no one ever actually sees "the Great Man") based on aspects of Godfrey and his ego, and they're quite stinging.

    Too bad LaRosa couldn't become a big star and really stick it to Godfrey, despite help from the likes of Robert Q. Lewis and Ed Sullivan (both of whom were also hated as much as loved, according to some sources).

    Godfrey even got slammed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 by appearing in the late '70s exploitation flick Angels' Revenge (as Himself). When one of the ladies does a nightclub act, she spots him in the audience and announces his presence. He stands up in a spotlight and waves, upon which Mike Nelson riffs, "Thank you, thank you. You're all ungrateful!"

    If MST3K becomes his lasting legacy over his records or radio and TV shows, it'll be very odd, to say the least.

    Great post!

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  2. I was President of the Julius LaRosa Worcester, MA fan club back then. My best friend, who was the club's secretary and I watched that firing in shock. We were visibly upset and still recall the moment.

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