George Fenneman: You Bet His Life

Tribute today to a man who usually rode shotgun, broadcast announcer and sometime actor George Fenneman (1919-1997). Fenneman is remembered almost exclusively as Groucho Marx’s foil on the radio and tv versions of the game show You Bet Your Life (1947-1961), but that was a high profile gig, hence he was a well recognized public figure for nearly four decades, with many more credits to his name through the early 1980s.

Fenneman grew up in San Francisco, though he was born in China — his father was in the import-export business. He started out in local radio in the early 40s, in San Francisco, also for the government during WWII, and finally in Los Angeles, where he was hired by the You Bet Your Life producers. His was a unique job — initially not unlike that performed by Don Wilson for Jack Benny, or Harry Von Zell for George Burns and Gracie Allen. In radio, announcers read the commericials, narrated what listeners could not see, and kept the proceedings moving, like masters of ceremonies (but more like second bananas when the show had a comedian as star. The role bled into the TV age — Ed McMahon, of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, was the most famous of the late ones.) So, that was the BASE of what Fenneman had to do. But naturally with Groucho as the star of the show, the role was enhanced. Fenneman basically inherited aspects of what Margaret Dumont (and Zeppo) had done for the Marxes in the movies. He (often unwittingly) fed Groucho straight lines, and attempted to hold the proceedings together as the comedian often reduced things to chaos and helpless laughter with his endless riffing. And Fenneman served as a kind of ambassador between Groucho and the rest of humanity. When Fenneman brought a contestant to stand before Groucho he seemed like some kind of court functionary leading a commoner to meet a King who also a Jester.

You Bet Your Life wasn’t Fenneman’s only high profile gig. In radio he was also an announcer on Gunsmoke and Dragnet (he remained the Dragnet announcer into the TV era). By the end of the ’50s he was so well recognized that he was given his own shows to host: Anybody Can Play (1958), Your Surprise Package (1961) and Your Funny Funny Films (1963). He was the pitchman for Lipton Tea and Chesterfield. And he had cameos (usually playing some version of himself) on such programs as The Danny Thomas Show, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Batman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., That Girl, Happy Days, and The Simpsons, and in films like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Those are his stentorian tones in the iconic opening sequence of the John Wayne western Big Jake (1971), and in the 1969 thriller Once You Kiss a Stranger. His last major gig was as the co-host of the PBS program Talk About Pictures (1978-82), on which he interviewed famous photographers about their most important images.

“After we unfreeze the alien, let’s see what we can do to thaw out OURSELVES”

But, truly, I have saved the best for last. On a couple of rare occasions, Fenneman was in front of the cameras as a thespian. I saw one of these performances just a couple of weeks ago during my annual Halloween classic horror binge. He’s part of the ensemble of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951). It’s unmistakable — you go, “That’s Fenneman!” You’d think he’d stand out even more, but remember the year. The entire cast is made up of stiff, announcer-like actors with minimal personalities, including ANOTHER narrator/announcer (Paul Frees). I don’t want to short change it, this is a rippingly excellent movie which I’ll probably watch every year or two until I die, but Fenneman as an actor is not much more human than James Arness as the vegetable man from outer space. Still, he gave it a whirl a couple of more times. He was in a thing called Mystery Lake, which is owned by Disney (who Fenneman often did narration work for) and has not been seen since its original release in 1953. And he played an actual character in a 1968 episode of Gomer Pyle USMC. Because life is short, and narration is long.

A lot of Fenneman’s last public appearances were in documentaries about the old days of broadcasting, especially You Bet Your Life. The former pitchman for L&M and Chesterfields (who was no doubt partially paid in free product) died of ephysema at the age of 77.

To learn more about the variety arts, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.