Godfrey, Arthur (1903-1983)

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Godfrey, Arthur (1903-1983)

The arrival of genial, folksy Arthur Godfrey on television was the most publicized event of the 1948-49 season. The reviewers pulled out all the stops in praising "the old redhead," and he became the only personality in TV history to have two top-rated programs run simultaneously in prime time for an extended period. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts aired on Mondays and Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on Wednesdays for eight-and-a-half seasons. In 1952-53, the programs ranked two and three, just behind I Love Lucy. Even more remarkably, Godfrey's morning radio show, every Monday through Friday, continued during this time with high ratings, his fan base growing with multiple exposures. TV critic Ben Gross of the New York Daily News summed up Godfrey's appeal: "It is his friendliness, his good cheer, his small-boy mischievousness, and his kindly philosophy."

Godfrey's Talent Scouts brought little known or newly discovered professional talent to perform before a live nation-wide audience, with an applause meter deciding the winner. The host's witty banter and interviews with contestants plus a high quality of talent delighted the listeners. Some of the winners—including Pat Boone, Carmel Quinn, the Chordettes, and the McGuire Sisters—later became regulars on Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. Also appearing on the show were many other soon-to-be-famous performers, including Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Steve Lawrence, Leslie Uggams, and Patsy Cline. Two big stars missed by the show's screening staff, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, both flunked the show's auditions.

For his weekly variety hour, Godfrey assembled a personable group of talented regulars, chosen with an eye to audience demographics. Frank Parker and Marion Marlowe sang romantic duets for the mature audience, and Julius LaRosa was the bright young singer with appeal to bobby-soxers. There was also the bashful Hawaiian singer, Haleloke, as well as the Chordettes, a squeaky clean barbershop quartet from Wisconsin. Other popular regulars were Janette Davis, Bill Lawrence, and the Toppers. Tony Marvin was the mellow-voiced announcer, while Godfrey enhanced the proceedings, sometimes playing his ukulele and singing in a gravelly croon. As he had on radio, Godfrey kidded his sponsor's products, but he refused to endorse any product he did not like personally.

When Godfrey underwent surgery for a hip replacement in May 1953, it almost seemed as though the whole country sent him get-well cards. The press continued to revere him until October of that year, when a dramatic turnaround occurred and Godfrey became controversial—suddenly maligned by columnists who had praised him. The controversy was ignited by his firing members of his popular TV family of stars for what seemed to be petty reasons. He dismissed Julius LaRosa on the air in October 1953, charging that he "had become too big a star." He told the press that LaRosa had lost his "humility," a remark that was to come back and plague Godfrey for the rest of his career. LaRosa made immediate well-publicized appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, cut several hit records, and was given a series of his own, before his career faded after a few years. In April 1955, Godfrey fired Marion Marlowe, Haleloke, and the Mariners in one fell swoop.

Part of the public forgave him. His Talent Scouts continued until July 1958, and the Friends show until April 28, 1959, but his popularity never matched that of the sensational early 1950s. Godfrey survived an operation for lung cancer in 1959 but, except for a brief interval on television's Candid Camera in 1960-61, his television career was over. He worked on radio until 1972, when he broadcast a tearful farewell over CBS. Coincidentally, it had been tears that brought him to national attention as he gave a touching description of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral in 1945.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946 to Present. New York, Ballantine, 1980.

Lackmann, Ron. Same Time … Same Station: An A-Z Guide to Radio from Jack Benny to Howard Stern. New York, Facts on File, 1996.

Sackett, Susan. Prime-Time Hits: Television's Most Popular Network Programs. New York, Billboard Books, 1993.

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