Today marks the birthday of Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983), a legendary radio and television broadcaster who was reduced to obscurity by his abuse of power and fame. He was born in New York City and introduced to radio during military service. He broke into entertainment and civilian radio in Baltimore and Washington in the early 1930s and had his own nation-wide program, Arthur Godfrey Time, by 1945. Seven years later, he had two of the most popular shows on television. Without question, he was the medium's first star. In 1953 he made a huge error by firing a popular employee on-air, live, during a nation-wide radio broadcast. That act revealed his true character, one far removed from the folksy personality he had carefully cultivated for decades. Millions of fans abandoned him outright and his career entered a period of slow decline over the next generation. For a comprehensive biography, visit the Arthur Godfrey page on Wikipedia.
Godfrey developed a wonderful easy going, friendly on-air style that captured American radio audiences. That style, coupled with his big smile and his signature red hair made him a natural for television, and for print advertising. But it was the radio that made the man. Here is the master at work in 1947:
The pace may seem stiflingly slow and the format and setting anything but catchy, but it was the post-war U.S. The folksiness of it all was enough for Arthur Godfrey Time, his talent scout show and radio audience to attract over 80,000,000 viewers/listeners a week at its peak in the 1950s.
I never met the man personally, but geography made him close during my childhood. First, Godfrey was a regional radio and television celebrity, having made his start in the big cities a hundred miles east of my home town. My parents had listened to him almost from the beginning of his career. And second, fame bought Godfrey the 800 acre farm known as Beacon Hill, located on Route 9 just west of Leesburg, Virginia. He loved the place and spent most of his weekends there after four weekdays in New York. My family made many trips to Washington when I was a child and we always passed the farm. My dad made sure we knew when we were about to pass it so we could look for the horses, another of Godfrey's passions. I came to look forward to seeing the place, maybe not so much for the horses, as much as for the apples we'd buy at Senator Harry Byrd's orchard nearby if it happened to be Fall.
The third reason for the closeness comes from our shared passion for airplanes. Godfrey owned several planes that he flew either from the farm or from his Leesburg airport. as readers know, as a child I spent many vacations and weekends at a lodge in Burlington, West Virginia, about 55 air miles from Leesburg. For about twenty years following the end of World War II, Burlington was home to an active airfield and I knew the owner, Dave Baker, very well. The flying stories were endless and I was a willing listener.
Though he wasn't a frequent visitor, Godfrey made occasional fly-ins at Baker's Air Park. In the '50s, it was quite an honor to have "your" airfield graced by television's most famous celebrity. Godfrey's visits were the talk of the town for Burlington folks, all three hundred of them. Late one afternoon, the little airfield may have saved his life. He and a passenger brought in a twin-engine aircraft with mechanical issues. With the plane repaired the following day, they continued on the return to Leesburg. I'll never understand how they got a twin-engine aircraft out of that little dogleg of grass. They probably stripped the plane, released the brake with balls to the wall, and sampled the tops of the sycamores at the end of the runway. Actually, I don't recall if Godfrey was on board. Fifty or so years is a long time to remember, but it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't send the passenger home by car. For a pilot who at one time flew everything in the U.S. Air Force arsenal, lifting out of Burlington probably wasn't much of a challenge. It did, however, require a tempered ego to reduce the risk.
We know for certain he had both a temper and an ego, not an unusual combination for super successful people. And Godfrey was surely super and successful. He knew how to transcend the airwaves and come into your house for breakfast, make you laugh, maybe even sell you something you didn't need. It was television in it's first real decade in the U.S. And Godfrey transitioned his leading radio talk show into the leading television talk show almost overnight. It was the equivalent of going from silent film to talkies twenty years earlier. He made it look easy. He put our family at ease on those Burlington mornings, made good conversation, strummed the ukulele, sang a bit, made us laugh, then sent us off for the day. We had a good time. That's really because it was Arthur Godfrey's time.