It’s true. The weaker CBS network had nothing on Sunday nights to compete with “The Chase and Sanborn Hour” on mighty NBC, featuring the monstrously successful comedy team of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.
As a sacrificial lamb, CBS threw on a variety program called “This is New York” featuring actors and musicians working in the city. It never found a sponsor and died after less than a season.
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While auditioning actors to play a seedy New York tough guy, Gardner realized that the voice he needed was his own nasal Queens bark.
In the process, Gardner created the character that made him rich and famous.
That character became “Archie,” the bartender at “Duffy’s Tavern,” a fictional dive on New York City’s rough-and-tumble Third Avenue.
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Audience response to the “Duffy’s Tavern” sketch on “Forecast” was so strong that a year later, in March 1941, “Duffy’s Tavern” became a regular series on CBS, sponsored by Ipana toothpaste.
Listeners never heard “Duffy,” the bar’s owner. Each episode opened with Archie answering the phone: “Duffy’s Tavern, where da elite meet to eat, Archie the manager speakin’, Duffy ain’t here … Oh, hello, Duffy.”
Then Gardner would explain to Duffy what was going to happen at the bar that night — in other words, he set up the plot, mentioning the name of the guest star that would be featured during the half hour.
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There was nothing subtle about the jokes. Archie was a not-too-smart schemer who was always trying to scam a few extra dollars out of Duffy or attract top-name performers to appear in the bar for no money.
Duffy’s daughter was man-crazy but ugly; Clifton Finnegan was an endearing but stupid barfly; and Eddie the waiter sarcastically commented on the proceedings.
But the formula worked and the audience loved it, following the show to NBC in 1942. It lasted until 1951, when network radio programs were being canceled left and right due to competition from television.
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In 1949, Gardner decided to save money by moving production of the series to Puerto Rico, where he could take advantage of tax breaks and government development incentives.
Unfortunately, that meant “Duffy’s Tavern” had a hard time getting good guest stars. Live music was dropped, too.
With television steadily eroding the audience for radio drama and comedy, last call for “Duffy’s Tavern” on radio came Saturday, Jan. 5, 1952. In April, “Duffy’s Tavern” moved to NBC television as part of a rotating series of filmed sketches called “The All-Star Revue.”
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Gardner also kept the characters alive by writing some short skits for NBC Radio’s “Monitor” weekend program, and in 1954 created a syndicated TV version of “Duffy’s Tavern.”
Television wasn’t kind to the show. According to one writer, Gardner was terrible on camera. The show lasted only a few months.
A 1945 movie version of “Duffy’s Tavern” had also done poorly, with the New York Times labeling the film “dull.”
“In front of the cameras, Mr. Gardner is reciting his lines and forgetting his part,” wrote Jack Gould in the Times’ April 25, 1954, review of the TV version. “Mr. Gardner’s non-dimensional Archie, together with a very old-fashioned script, could easily close up ‘Duffy’s Tavern.’ It is a poor show.”
And that, sadly, was it for Gardner, except for a few appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” A drinker and a heavy smoker, he died in 1963 of liver disease. Among those at Gardner’s funeral, according to an Aug. 21, 1963, story in the Los Angeles Times, were Edward G. Robinson, Hal Roach Jr. and Jim Backus.
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Happily, many “Duffy’s Tavern” broadcasts from the height of the series’ popularity survive, and dozens are available for free download at the Internet Archive website.
This episode, from the day before St. Patrick’s Day, 1949, features another famous “tough guy” actor: Sheldon Leonard. Leonard made a minor career playing “racetrack touts” on “The Jack Benny Show” and other programs.
Today he might be best remembered as the bartender in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (“out you two pixies go”) or as the producer of “Make Room for Daddy,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.”
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this beautiful St. Patrick’s Day than with a charming, green-eyed Irish lass.
But all of the charming Irish lasses I called told me they’re washing their red hair today, so I’m stuck writing the Monday Morning Nostalgia Fix.
Today’s installment celebrates the long-running radio sitcom “Duffy’s Tavern,” a quintessentially New York City program that spent several years being taped … in Puerto Rico!
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“Duffy’s Tavern” debuted on July 29, 1940 over CBS stations nationwide, including Pittsburgh’s WJAS, Uniontown’s WMBS, Youngstown’s WKBN and Wheeling’s WWVA as part of a short-lived summer anthology series called “Forecast.”
The half-hour comedy sketch, set in a Skid Row bar, was created by Ed Gardner, a native of the Astoria, Queens, section of New York City, who also played the starring role.
Over at the Audio Classics website, Martin Grams Jr. has compiled an exhaustive history of Gardner and “Duffy’s Tavern,” from which many of the details of today’s Nostalgia Fix are taken.
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Here’s the condensed version: Gardner began his show business career as a theatrical agent for vaudeville comedians, then became a producer.
By the late 1930s, he had migrated from the stage to radio, where he was writing scripts and producing shows for some of the medium’s biggest stars, including Rudy Vallee, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice.
But Gardner didn’t get his big break as a performer until he had to compete with a dummy.