Arthur Godfrey an Unlikely Early American Idol During television's first decade, Arthur Godfrey was the most omnipresent, watched, listened-to, and talked about personality in America. He was on TV five days a week for nine hours, eight of them simulcast on radio. But his only real talent was a folksy, laid-back, unpredictable charm.
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Arthur Godfrey an Unlikely Early American Idol

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Arthur Godfrey an Unlikely Early American Idol

Arthur Godfrey an Unlikely Early American Idol

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Two weeks from now, if you tune in for the season premier of "American Idol," look closely. Deep in the background, you may see the ghost of a man named Arthur Godfrey. Long before Ryan, Simon, Paula and Randy, Arthur Godfrey was the undisputed king of the television talent show. Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" introduced Americans to a number of well-known performers, including Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Marilyn Horne and Patsy Cline.

Today, their names are more familiar than Godfrey's, but that hasn't stopped commentator and radio producer John McDonough of putting together this remembrance of a much earlier "American Idol."

JOHN MCDONOUGH: During television's first decade, Arthur Godfrey was the most omnipresent, watched, listened to and talked about personality in America.


MCDONOUGH: He was on television five days a week for nine hours, eight of them simulcast on radio. His theme song was played up to 70 times a week.

Mr. ARTHUR GODFREY (Television and Radio Broadcaster): Hello, hello, hello, hello. This is Arthur Godfrey. This is the "Talents Scouts" show. We operate here on the theory that since the public makes stars, the public should have a hand in finding them.

MCDONOUGH: The format was simple. Each guest would bring a struggling newcomer to Godfrey. And audience applause would decide the winner at the end of each show. Godfrey may be forgotten, but not some of his proteges.

Mr. GODFREY: What's your name, Mrs. Bruce?

Ms. SALLY BRUCE (Lenny Bruce's Mother): Mrs. Bruce.

Mr. GODFREY: Mrs. Sally Bruce?

Ms. BRUCE: That's right.

Mr. GODFREY: Who'd you bring with you, Mrs. Bruce, to get right on?

Ms. BRUCE: My son.

Mr. GODFREY: Your son? What's his name?

Ms. BRUCE: Lenny Bruce.

Mr. GODFREY: Lenny Bruce. Let's bring him on.

MCDONOUGH: That's right, Lenny Bruce was doing impersonations then. On "Talent Scouts," he did a Bavarian impersonator impersonating James Cagney.

Mr. LENNY BRUCE (Comedian): All right, (unintelligible).

MCDONOUGH: But Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" was less about talent than it was about Godfrey whose appeal may be hard to imagine today when we insist that words and images move quickly. His only real talent was a folksy, laidback and unpredictable charm. His talk rambled from topic to topic with an informal spontaneity that stripped broadcasting of its pretense and artifice. Anything that popped into his mind was fair game, a shirt stain, for instance.

Mr. GODFREY: Hey, Tom, come over here a minute, will you? Stand around a minute. That's what I saw. How do you get lipstick on the right shoulder of a hunting coat? There it is, right over there.

Unidentified Man #1: That's paint.

Mr. GODFREY: Go away.

MCDONOUGH: He noticed people were laughing even though he never actually says anything especially funny. Godfrey was like that, full of affable mischief and monkey business. Godfrey's charm was nurtured by a team of writers who share his penchant for deflating pretense and sacred cows. One of them was a young war correspondent turned humorist named Andy Rooney.

Mr. ANDY ROONEY (Humorist): I was in CBS probably went up to see Ed Murrow, looking for work. I came down the elevator and Godfrey was in the elevator. And I said I was a writer. And I was here at CBS looking for a job at CBS News. And he said, well, come on over and see me. So I got a job with Godfrey in 1949 late. And I was with him for five years. It was an interesting experience.

Unidentified Man #2: Chesterfield presents, "Arthur Godfrey Time."

MCDONOUGH: "Arthur Godfrey Time" became his flagship show, simulcast daily on radio and television for 90 minutes Monday through Friday.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, it's Arthur Godfrey and all the Little Godfreys, Janet Davis, the Mariners...

MCDONOUGH: The Little Godfreys were Arthur's extended family of musicians, singers and foils whom he could turn to for banter or a song. He played the benevolent patriarch.

Mr. GODFREY: Look at all these folks in the studio. It's all guarded by - if I was told you were coming, ought to have brought a joke.


MCDONOUGH: Actually, Godfrey brought plenty, but they were always camouflaged in his cracker-barrel chitchat. The spontaneity was often real as his sponsors were frequently reminded.

Mr. GODFREY: But tonight, I want to talk about Lipton Tea. Lipton Tea is a good drink. Now let's talk about something else.

MCDONOUGH: And he met it. That was the commercial. Advertisers could never be sure what to expect when he started talking about their brand. Godfrey was so powerful, sponsors had no court of appeal. Andy Rooney.

Mr. ROONEY: He was good with advertising. He didn't want any part of it. He wouldn't give them a nickel. Just, I'll sell your stuff for you. And that's all I know, I don't want to hear anymore from you. And he was really nasty to the sponsors. He could tell them to go to hell and they had to take it.

MCDONOUGH: They had to take it because no one had the magic selling touch Godfrey did. At his peak, it was said that he brought in as much as 17 percent of CBS's total income. With such power, he owed fealty to no one, not even his CBS bosses.

Mr. ROONEY: They didn't like him because he wouldn't take anything from them. One guy that he liked who was sort of in-charge of Godfrey, a vice president at CBS. He was his only chum.

MCDONOUGH: But some saw a dark side in such power. Among the private standing rules all Little Godfreys lived under were no agents, no managers. Arthur would provide.

Mr. GODFREY: And now, I want you to meet a young man named Julius LaRosa.

MCDONOUGH: Godfrey had discovered Julius LaRosa in the Navy and brought him to television in 1951. By 1953, he was becoming a star. In October, LaRosa signed with a major talent agency. The following Monday, everything seemed normal as Godfrey gave LaRosa a warm introduction.

Mr. GODFREY: And I would like Julius, if he would, to sing me that song called, "Manhattan." Sing me that.

MCDONOUGH: LaRosa stepped to the microphone and sang. When it was over, seconds before the end of the program, Godfrey did an unprecedented thing that no one on the show could quite believe what is happening.

Mr. GODFREY: Thank you so much, Julie(ph). That was Julie's swan song with us. He goes now out on his own as his own star. So I know you wish him Godspeed same as I do.

Mr. ROONEY: The four us, the writers, were all in the backroom where slip stuff that are out there. We're listening to Arthur and Arthur says, that was Julius's final appearance. Julius look at us and he says, did I just get fired?

MCDONOUGH: LaRosa didn't know what the expression swan song even meant. But unlike Newsweek(ph), the incident became the most talked about event in America. It was the crest of Godfrey's fabled career. A procession of other Little Godfreys would get the ax over the next two years. Each would chip away at his most valuable asset, that of the kindly patriarch. Godfrey's ratings slipped and tastes changed. By 1959, the most pervasive TV presence of the decade was off television. He would never return in a major series. Pieces of Godfrey's darker side are said to live on in the characters of Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd" and Herb Fuller in Jose Ferrer's "The Great Man," both movies made in the mid-1950s.


MCDONOUGH: Arthur Godfrey left no great movie classic or recording, no reruns to live in perpetual syndication, as Andy Rooney says, only the intense but fragile fame of a broadcaster.

Mr. ROONEY: And it's gone. It's up in thin air. And I can't get over the fact that he's forgotten.

MCDONOUGH: For NPR News, this is John McDonough.


BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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