Arthur Godfrey


Arthur Godfrey : biography

August 31, 1903 – March 17, 1983

Godfrey was one of the busiest men in the entertainment industry, often presiding over several daytime and evening radio and TV shows simultaneously. (Even busier was Robert Q. Lewis, who hosted Arthur Godfrey Time whenever Godfrey was absent, adding to his own crowded schedule.) Both Godfrey and Lewis made commercial recordings for Columbia Records, often featuring the "Little Godfreys" in various combinations. In addition to the "Too Fat Polka" mentioned above, these included "Candy and Cake"; "Dance Me Loose". "I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover"; "Slap ‘Er Down Again, Paw"; "Slow Poke"; and "The Thing". In 1951 Godfrey also narrated a nostalgic movie documentary, Fifty Years Before Your Eyes, produced for Warner Brothers by silent-film anthologist Robert Youngson.

On a memorable evening in 1953, disc jockey Steve Allen was a last-minute replacement for Godfrey on Talent Scouts. When it came time to deliver the live commercial for Lipton tea and soups, Allen impulsively prepared the soup and the tea on camera, and poured both into a ukulele. Shaking the mixture well, he played a few damp notes while reciting the rest of the commercial, to the delight of the studio audience, the viewers, and Godfrey himself. Allen became a national celebrity and within the year he would become the first host of NBC’s Tonight Show.

Godfrey had been in pain since the 1931 car crash that damaged his hip. In 1953, he underwent pioneering hip replacement surgery in Boston using an early plastic artificial hip joint. The operation was successful and he returned to the show to the delight of his vast audience. During his recovery, CBS was so concerned about losing Godfrey’s audience that they encouraged him to broadcast live from his Beacon Hill estate (near Leesburg, Virginia), with the signal carried by microwave towers built on the property.

In his own way, Godfrey was a social pioneer. One of the "Little Godfrey" acts were the Mariners, an integrated vocal quartet of white and black Coast Guard veterans. When the act appeared on his TV show, Southern CBS affiliates and racist Southern politicians complained of their participating in dance sequences with white women and resented their presence on the show at all. Godfrey responded caustically, decrying the racism and refusing to remove them from the cast. At the time, CBS backed him.

Godfrey’s immense popularity and the trust placed in him by audiences was noticed by not just advertisers but also his friend U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who asked him to record a number of public service announcements to be played on American television in the case of nuclear war. It was thought that viewers would be reassured by Godfrey’s grandfatherly tone and folksy manner. The existence of the PSA tapes was confirmed in 2004 by former CBS president Dr. Frank Stanton in an exchange with a writer with the Web site CONELRAD.

Later life

In 1959, Godfrey began suffering chest pains. Closer examination by physicians revealed a mass in his chest that could possibly have been lung cancer. Later that same year, Godfrey ended Arthur Godfrey Time and The Arthur Godfrey Show (as the prime-time series was known after the fall of 1956) after revealing his illness.

Surgeons discovered cancer in one lung that spread to his aorta. One lung was removed. Yet, despite the disease’s discouragingly high mortality in that era, it became clear after radiation treatments that Godfrey had beaten the substantial odds against him. He returned to the air on a prime-time special and resumed the daily morning show on radio, reverting to a format featuring guest stars such as ragtime pianist Max Morath and Irish vocalist Carmel Quinn, maintaining a live combo of first-rate Manhattan musicians (under the direction of Sy Mann) as he had done since the beginning. Longtime announcer Tony Marvin, with Godfrey since the late 1940s, did not make the transition to the new program. Marvin was one of the few Godfrey associates who left Godfrey on amicable terms, and went on to a career as a news anchor on the Mutual Broadcasting Network. The Godfrey show was the last daily longform entertainment program on American network radio when Godfrey and CBS agreed to end it in April 1972, when his 20-year contract with the network expired. Godfrey by then was a colonel in the United States Air Force Reserve and still an active pilot.