GODFREY, ARTHUR

U.S. Variety Show Host

Arthur Godfrey ranks as one of the important on-air stars of the first decade of American television. Indeed prior to 1959 there was no bigger TV luminary than this freckled faced, ukelele playing, host/pitchman. Through most of the decade of the 1950s Godfrey hosted a daily radio program and appeared in two top-ten prime time television shows, all for CBS. As the new medium was invading American households, there was something about Godfrey's wide grin, his infectious chuckle, his unruly shock of red hair that made millions tune in not once, but twice a week.

To industry insiders, Godfrey was television's first great master of advertising. His deep, microphone-loving voice delivery earned Arthur Godfrey a million dollars a year, making him one of the highest paid persons in the United States at the time. He blended a Southern folksiness with enough sophistication to charm a national audience measured in the millions through the 1950s. For CBS-TV in particular, Godfrey was one of network television's most valuable stars, generating millions of dollars in advertising billings each year, with no ostensible talent save being the most congenial of hosts.

After more than a decade on radio, Godfrey ventured onto primetime TV in December 1948 by simply permitting the televising of his radio hit Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. The formula for Talent Scouts was simple enough. "Scouts" presented their "discoveries" to perform live before a national radio and television audience. Most of these discoveries were in fact struggling professionals looking for a break, and the quality of the talent was quite high. The winner, chosen by a fabled audience applause meter, often joined Godfrey on his radio show and on Arthur Godfrey and His Friends for some period thereafter.

Through the late 1940s and 1950s Godfrey significantly assisted the careers of Pat Boone, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, and Patsy Cline. An institution on Monday nights at 8:30 P.M., Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts always functioned as Godfrey's best showcase and through the early 1950s was a consistent top-ten hit.

A month after the December 1948 television debut of Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts came the premiere of Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. Here Godfrey employed a resident cast which at times included Julius La Rosa, Frank Parker, Lu Ann Simms, and the Cordettes. Tony Marvin was both the announcer and Godfrey's "second banana," as he was on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. The appeal of Arthur Godfrey and His Friends varied depending on the popularity of the assembled company of singers, all clean cut young people lifted by Godfrey from obscurity. Godfrey played host and impresario, sometimes singing off key and strumming his ukulele, but most often leaving the vocals to others.

As he had done on radio, Godfrey frequently kidded his sponsors, but always "sold from the heart," only hawking products he had actually tried and/or regularly used. No television viewer during the 1950s doubted that Godfrey really did love Lipton Tea and drank it every day. He delighted in tossing aside prepared scripts and telling his audience: "Aw, who wrote this stuff? Everybody knows Lipton's is the best tea you can buy. So why get fancy about it? Getcha some Lipton's, hot the pot with plain hot water for a few minutes, then put fresh hot water on the tea and let it just sit there."

Godfrey perfected the art of seeming to speak intimately to each and every one of his viewers, to sound as if he was confiding in "you and you alone." Despite all his irreverent kidding, then, advertisers loved him. Here was no snake oil salesman hawking an uneeded item, merchandise not worth its price. Here was a friend recommending the product. This personal style drove CBS efficiency experts crazy. Godfrey refused to simply read his advertising copy in the allocated 60 seconds. Instead he talked--for as long as he felt it necessary to convince his viewers of his message, frequently running over his allotted commercial time.

 

 


Arthur Godfrey

CBS owner William S. Paley detested Godfrey but bowed to his incredible popularity. CBS president Frank Stanton loved Godfrey because his shows were so cheap to produce but drew consistently high ratings. In 1955 when Disneyland cost $90,000 per hour, and costs for a half hour of The Jack Benny Show totalled more than $40,000, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts cost but $30,000. This figure was more in line with the production of a cheap quiz program than fashioning a pricey Hollywood-based show on film. n his day Godfrey accumulated a personal fortune that made it possible for him to own a vast estate in the Virginia horse country, maintain a huge duplex apartment in Manhattan, and fly back and forth in his own airplanes. In 1950 he qualified for a pilot's license; the following year he trained to fly jets. Constantly plugging the glories of air travel, Arthur Godfrey, according to Eddie Rickenbacker, did more to boost aviation than any single person since Charles Lindbergh.

As much as the termination of any live anthology drama from New York, Godfrey's end symbolized the close of the era of experimental, live television. But Arthur Godfrey should be remembered for more than his skill in performing for live television. Perhaps even more significant is that he taught the medium how to sell. In terms of the forces of that have shaped and continue to shape the medium of television, Arthur Godfrey's career perfectly illustrates the workings of the star system. Here was a person who seemed to have had "no talent," but was so effective that through most of the 1950s he was "everywhere" in the mass media. In the end times and tastes changed. In 1951 that Arthur Godfrey stood as the very center of American television. Eight years later he was back on radio, a forgotten man to all but the few who listened to the "old" medium.

-Douglas Gomery

ARTHUR GODFREY. Born in New York City, U.S., 31 August 1903. Educated at Naval Radio School, 1921; Naval Radio Materiel School, 1929; various correspondence courses. Married: 1) name unknown, children: Richard; 2) Mary Bourke, 1938, children: Arthur Michael, Jr. and Patricia Ann. Served in the U.S. Navy, receiving radio training and becoming a radio operator on destroyer duty, 1920-24; served in the U.S. Coast Guard acquiring additional radio training, 1927-30. Radio announcer and entertainer for WFBR in Baltimore, Maryland, 1930; staff announcer for NBC in Washington, D.C., 1930-34; freelance radio entertainer from 1934; joined CBS Radio, 1945; CBS television host of Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, 1948-58; television host of Arthur Godfrey & His Friends, 1949-59; national radio host of Arthur Godfrey Time, 1960-72; starred in films Four For Texas, 1963, The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966, Where Angels Go...Trouble Follows, 1968. Member of ASCAP, National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, and Citizen's Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. Died in New York City, 16 March 1983.

TELEVISION SERIES
1948-58 Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
1949-59 Arthur Godfrey and His Friends

FILMS
Four For Texas, 1963; The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966; Where Angels Go...Trouble Follows, 1968

RADIO
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, 1945-48; Arthur Godfrey Time, 1960-72.

 

See also Arthur Godfrey Shows; Columbia Broadcasting System; Dann, Michael