Finally - the definitive biography of The Bickersons! Lavishly illustrated, with a foreword by Blanche herself, Frances Langford, this book unearths material never before published:
A complete history of the program
Biographies of the cast
Scripts from Star Time, Old Gold & radio commercials
A history of John, Blanche, Nature Boy & those grasping relatives
The infamous Honeymooners/Jackie Gleason court case
And much more!
Classic Images/Laura Wagner
Ben Ohmart is also the author of the history of one of Philip Rapp’s most enduring creations, The Bickersons: A Biography of Radio’s Wittiest Program, with a foreword by Blanche herself, the late Frances Langford ($19.95, BearManor Media softcover). Debuting on radio’s Drene Time in 1946, the original skits of the squabbling married couple starred Don Ameche as John Bickerson and Frances Langford as Blanche. The skits were described by one critic as “character comedy with teeth in it,” as the two sparred as John tried in vain to get some sleep in between snores. The set-up was usually the Bickersons’ bedroom. John, tired from his long day at work, just wanted to get some sleep, but Blanche, feeling neglected, just wanted to talk—and fight. As played by Langford, known primarily as a singer, but surprising everyone with her great comic flair, the shrewish wife not only built “sheer terror” in her husband, but elicited a strange sort of desperate sympathy:
JOHN: I’m not funny, Blanche—I’m just sleepy.
BLANCHE: What about me? I haven’t slept for so long I’m a nervous wreck. My face is full of lines—I’m losing my youth. You’ll be sorry. When I’ve changed into a withered old crone, you won’t like it so well.
JOHN: Oh, I do too.
JOHN: I mean you’ll never look like a withered old crone. You haven’t changed since the day I married you. You look great.
BLANCHE: That’s not true. You’re just trying to make me feel good.
JOHN: I am not!
BLANCHE: You are too!
JOHN: I am not! I wouldn’t make you feel good if it was the last thing I ever did!
The show was simply unique for the 1940s and ‘50s. John Crosby, in his May 25, 1948 column, Radio in Review, was aware just how The Bickersons changed radio and comedy in general: “In a medium which strives so desperately to spread sweetness and light, in which every wife is an angel of tolerant understanding and every husband dumb but lovable, the bickering Bickersons are a very refreshing venture in the opposite direction.”
It was definitely comedy with an edge:
“Are you satisfied with our married life?”
“Satisfied? I’ve had more than enough.”
“Would you miss me if I ran away?”
“How much would you miss me?”
“How far you running?”
“It wouldn’t hurt you to kiss me good night, you know.”
“Well, if the house ever caught fire which would you save first? The cat, the canary, or me?”
Like the show, the author sets a breezy, light, often funny, tone as he reports on the characters and the main plot (or argument) points of the show. He utilizes his interviews, among them Phil Rapp’s sons Paul and Joel, Frances Langford, Martha Stewart (no, not that one), etc., very well. The many different incarnations of the Bickersons, starring at times Ameche, Langford, Lew Parker, Stewart, Betty Kean, Marsha Hunt, Virginia Grey, etc., are all comprehensively discussed. The most notable actors get small profile write-ups, which was most welcome in the case of the neglected Parker.
The most interesting chapter, however, was the one dealing with Rapp’s lawsuit against Jackie Gleason and his creation of the Bickersons-like Honeymooners. Ohmart’s clear understanding of this case, supplemented by court records, is outstanding writing.
Ohmart effortlessly brings it all together in an entertaining insider’s look at one of radio’s funniest shows. The truth is, most people can identify with John and Blanche as they bicker their nights away. “Still,” writes Ohmart, “somehow, the Bickersons kept together for at least 8 years, and probably a lot longer. It was a real love-hate relationship that, in moments of extreme hardship, showed that John and Blanche really loved one another, despite the snoring, the lack of money and the craziness of all those grasping friends and relatives around them.”
Phil Rapp's creation of radio's celebrate Bickersons is surely one of the most popular treasures to come out of old-time radio. But beyond its OTR origins, the term "bickerson" has taken a life of its own. In fact, describing someone as a "bickerson" conjures up a certain image in 21st century America, namely that of a shrewish, fighting, well, you know, a person who just bickers. What is amazing is how these two bickering characters managed to transcend their old-time radio roots and to continue into early television, into the comedy record fad of the 1960s, and into radio commercials well into the 1970s since several actors and actresses played the parts of John and Blanche Bickerson. Moreover, it remains amazing that its popularity stems from a series that, indeed, was rarely any more than a skit on any number of variety programs through the years. And being as common as "bickerson" is, it may surprise one to realize that until now no author has undertaken the task of telling the story of this famous comedy sketch.
When someone hands you a large cache of radio related papers and scripts, it seems that the natural thing to do is sort it out, and publish some document of it so that it can be shared with others. Ben Ohmart, the one-man band behind the well-respected small publishing house BearManor Media, found himself with just such a task. Boxes and boxes of scripts, letters, contracts and odds and ends from two programs written by Philip Rapp, The Bickersons and Baby Snooks, were handed to Ben, and BearManor has to date put together several volumes of scripts from the two shows, and has also presented a definitive history of The Bickersons, titled The Bickersons: A Biography of Radio's Wittiest Program.
In his introduction, Ben explains his love for the show, telling about how the Bickersons themselves served as his introduction to old-time radio (it was also one of the first shows I heard, making me wonder if Ben and I acquired the same set of cassettes way back when). Because of his obvious respect and adoration for the show, The Bickersons often skirts the line of biography/research work and love letter. Indeed, there's no doubt at all that Ben Ohmart really thinks a lot of this show, and while there are some who may not get it, there are a good number of people who do, and they're the ones who will be attracted to this work and will naturally get the most out of it.
The book is bursting with material, ranging from a complete history of the program in all of its various incarnations, biographies of the talented actors and actresses who performed on the show (some written by Laura Wagner), script excerpts, unused gags, and a section dealing detailing the various court cases that Rapp took up with seemingly any comedian who dared to perform a comedy skit about fighting spouses. In general, some of Rapp's litigation seems legitimate whereas others appear to be a little less than that. There is also a lovely foreword written by Francis Langford in 2004 just before her death. Many black and white illustrations are also included, some appearing quite clear and others less so, but always viewable.
If you're a fan of the show, you're obviously going to be attracted to this book, and if you're the kind of person who wants a well-rounded OTR related library, you're going to want it as well. But, if you're a student of comedy, you should read it. It's a fascinating study about how a talented author could take people doing something obnoxious and unlovable and make them all the same somehow endearing. It's a frequently fascinating and entertaining read and is typical of the sort of works that Ben Ohmart and BearManor Media have carved a niche for.
After reading the book, it's still debatable if The Bickersons really was "radio's wittiest program," but there's never an ounce of doubt about the respect that the comedy series deserves.