Saturday, February 20, 2016

Two books and a blog

After hearing of the death of Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray earlier this month, I finally decided to buy David Pollock’s book about the pair, aptly titled “Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons.”

Before giving you my verdict, I should tell you that Bob and Ray Goulding have been a part of my world since I was a kid. Matter of fact, I first new Bob and Ray as Bert and Harry.

Bert and Harry were the Piel brothers in a series of animated commercials for a beer by the same name. I could tell that the ads were funny – the grown-ups around me seemed to find them amusing – but I was too young to get the humor. That youthful ignorance was a continual source of frustration, like the time I saw the dour-faced (to say the least) composer Oscar Levant on Jack Paar’s Friday night show and couldn’t understand why the things he said made my visiting uncle roar with laughter.

I didn’t really get to know Bob and Ray as Bob and Ray until Dick Cavett featured them on his ABC morning show during the political conventions of 1968. My older brother and sister found them hilarious and, lo and behold, by now I was old enough to get the jokes, too.

A few years later they were on Broadway in “Bob and Ray: The Two and Only.” Naturally my family bought the original cast album. (I’m sure I have a cassette of it somewhere, along with other cassettes of their material, including a prize I won in a local radio contest: one hour of 15-minute broadcasts they did for CBS in the late 1950s.)

The cassette I won includes my favorite Bob and Ray bit, “The Feb. 8th Parade,” in which Wally Ballou and Artie Schermerhorn are broadcasting the parade for separate networks and wind up on the same frequency, battling over who can see which parade floats first and other stuff. It’s a masterpiece of comedy and audio engineering.

In the mid-1970s Bob and Ray had an afternoon show for a New York radio station, and I remember trying to bring in the signal on an old radio of hours.

Pollock’s book is probably the best one we’re likely to get about this duo. It helps that Pollock, a veteran comedy writer, has a pro’s understanding of what the two were doing. And speaking of writers, I should point out that some of their greatest bits (such as “Slow Talkers of America”) were written not by them but by Tom Koch, who also wrote many pieces for Mad magazine.

I suppose some might say the book could have used some trimming – some people might not be as interested as I was in the pair’s personal lives – but if you’re a true Bob and Ray fan, you won’t mind a bit.

Another broadcasting personality’s life is covered in “The Matchless Gene Rayburn” by Adam Nedeff, who previously wrote a good biography of Bill Cullen. The Rayburn book is better – not that there was really anything wrong with the Cullen book, but Rayburn’s life had more ups and downs.

I hadn’t known that Rayburn and then-partner Dee Finch created the morning drive-time comedy duo format back in the 1940s. They were wildly successful, and Rayburn went on to host many shows, mostly game shows, most famously both versions of “Match Game,” which began as a rather staid show in the 1960s and resurfaced years later in the better-remembered format that featured Richard Dawson, Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly. (I first saw Rayburn in a game show called “Dough Re Mi,” in the late 1950s.)

More and more I find in my reading that successful entertainment personalities are dissatisfied with their lot. Groucho Marx, for example, really wanted to be a writer. Rayburn really set out to be an actor before he got sidetracked into game shows. He did have one fling on Broadway, as Dick Van Dyke’s replacement in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

And now I’d like you to say hello to Sister Celluloid, whom I recently added to my blogroll. If you like old movies – and especially enjoy the Self-Styled Siren’s blog – I’m 99.9 percent sure you’ll spend a lot of time visiting with the good sister.

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