At the age of eight, I truly learned what it meant to be an Army brat.
Within a couple of years of my mother's marriage to my stepfather, an Army officer, I found myself on a post near a small village in southern Germany. A country that, a few months before, I didn't know existed.
People spoke a language I'd never before heard—and it was everywhere, even on the television, so TV I could actually understand would be out of the question. For three years.
In this instant-communication, Internet age, it's hard for anyone under 30 to truly understand how isolated American kids like me felt. Calling relatives cost a small fortune, and you often had to yell to be heard, so I had to learn how to craft a good letter fast. Entertainment from the states came in dribs and drabs; we might, once and a while, catch films of a two-month-old football game and some King Leonardo cartoons. We might as well have been on the far side of the moon.
Fortunately for my youthful sanity, there was Armed Forces Radio.
Wherever in Europe or the Far East there were American troops, Armed Forces Radio was there, trying to bring at least a taste of home. Our affiliate, AFN-Nürnburg, had a rather novel way of doing so.
It would play anything it could find on records or tape: top 40, Stan Freberg novelty records, and most amazingly for me, old radio shows.
For someone like me who was only vaguely aware of a world before television, this was a lost treasure; who knew there were sitcoms and westerns you could only "see" in your head? It was as though Doc Brown had come screeching up in his DeLorean and plopped the entire family into 1947, but I quickly grew to love it. And one program was a particular part of my schedule of Must Hear Radio: The Magnificent Montague.
Oh, yes. I imagine even you old-radio buffs are thinking, "The Magnificent what??" Possibly the best radio show absolutely nobody remembers, Montague starred acerbic stage and film actor Monty Woolley. He's perhaps best known for his role in The Man Who Came To Dinner as Sheridan Whiteside, theater critic and houseguest from hell.
There's more than a hint of Whiteside in Montague: Woolley plays Edwin "The Magnificent" Montague, a Shakespearean actor hailed by critics 25 years before, but now gone to seed. To make ends meet, he's forced to find work in (ugh!) radio. A radio soap opera, no less. Playing a character named "Uncle Goodheart," a sort of male Mary Worth. Oh, the indignity of it all! What would his actor friends at the Proscenium Club say?
As might be expected, Montague takes imperiousness to new heights. As the narrator puts it in the first episode:
In the last eight years, he's turned down any play in which he did not have the starring role. In the last eight years, he's refused to be in any drama in which he did not have the privilege of re-writing and directing personally. In the last eight years, he hasn't worked… (quoted in King Of The Half Hour: Nat Hiken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy, David Everitt, p. 57)
Keeping him somewhat in check are his wife and onetime partner on the stage, Lily Boheme (Anne Seymour), and his standard-issue sarcastic maid Agnes, played by Pert Kelton—who some might recognize as the first "Alice Kramden." She was as adept as Montague when it came to trading zingers; a typical routine would be her wisecracking responses to Montague's morning "vocalizing":
Agnes: There he goes—the Voice Of The Turtle! [a reference to a popular play of the day].
The Honeymooners connection is a bit stronger than you might realize, actually: aside from Kelton, a frequent supporting player on the series was Art Carney, playing everything from a TV wrestler to a train-station employee in charge of the "sched-OOL" to Montague's even more pompous father. Even I, who knew he played many characters other than Ed Norton, including on Jackie Gleason's early TV shows, was surprised at the versatility of the man. Though he would occasionally slip into a Norton-ish sort of speech, more often he's absolutely unrecognizable.
There's even a connection to a program The Honeymooners "inspired": Alan Reed played occasional roles as well, such as the Hollywood writer who wanted Montague to star in his movie—a musical version of Macbeth. It's a bit mind-warping to hear Edwin Montague insult Fred Flintstone.
Montague came along rather late in the radio era, lasting for only one season on NBC (1950-51). Throughout the recordings that survive, one can, with a certain sad irony, hear advertisements for the product that would soon spell the doom of not only Montague, but the radio era itself: RCA televisions.
Nat Hiken, Montague's creator, would go on to other things in the medium that cut his show down in its prime: he'd eventually create The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?. But he always retained a certain affection for Montague, trying even as late as the 1960s to bring a version to television.
It's an intriguing idea even now, an updated Montague, perhaps with Kelsey Grammer or David Ogden Stiers in the lead. Montague could now be forced to endure the torture of working in a TV soap. But neither of them are Monty Woolley, and the very thought of anyone else in his role would undoubtedly make his ghost howl in indignation.
But we still have the radio episodes, and they deserve to be heard. It says a great deal of such a program that it could make an eight-year-old forget about TV for three long years. Montague, you were wrong. Radio is a great thing.