Today is the birthday of Jim Jordan (1896-1988). Together with his wife Marion Driscoll Jordan, he was creator and star of the groundbreaking radio sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly.
Originally from rural Illinois, Jordan married Driscoll in 1918 and performed in small time vaudeville both solo and with his wife from the late teens through the early 1920s. Their big break in radio came in 1924, when they auditioned on a dare, vowing that they were better than the stars. They began working in local radio, gradually evolving situation comedy characters (in collaboration with writer Donald Quinn) that would become Fibber McGee and Molly: he, the boastful, impractical dreamer, she the hilarious no-nonsense truth-teller.
Their national radio program debuted on NBC in 1935, and began to swell in popularity a couple of years later, remaining on the air until 1959, long after television had supplanted radio as the nation’s dominant entertainment medium. The show was so popular it launched some of the first “spinoffs”, including Hal Peary’s “Great Gildersleeve” and Beaulah, the black maid, originally voiced by Marlin Hurt (a white man!), and later played in various radio and tv incarnations by Hattie McDaniel, Lillian Randolph, Amanda Randolph, Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers. Other notable actors on the show included Gale Gordon (best known for his long association with Lucille Ball) and Bea Benaderet (Blanche on The George Burns and Grace Allen Show, Pearl in early seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies, and perhaps her character with the widest ongoing reach — the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones.)
The Jordans also appeared as their characters in a handful of movies through the 1940s. The translation was less than perfect. Film is literal; radio relies on your imagination. Case in point, this adaptation of one of the show’s most well-known running gags, the overstuffed hall closet. There’s no way a visual version could ever measure up to the audience’s idea of what that closet must be like. It could only fall short:
Marion Jordan (who had suffered from health problems for many years) died two years after the show went off the air. Jim Jordan was retired, but emerged briefly to appear in a 1976 episode of Chico and the Man and do a voiceover in the 1977 Disney movie The Rescuers.
Here’s a random episode of the team at their peak, doing what they did best:
To learn more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.