Sunday, August 31, 2014

Arthur Godfrey: A Celebrity Face In The Crowd

Godfrey at CBS Radio, 1948
Arthur Godfrey was born in New York on this day in 1903. Few people under forty years old probably recognize the name "Arthur Godfrey" or have any idea of his celebrity during the middle decades of the last century. He was a star of stars on radio from coast to coast, an ambitious man with a folksy broadcast persona who in real life turned hubris into a tyranny that eventually destroyed his career. Despite his shortfalls, he remains one of the most influential shapers of radio and television entertainment in the U.S. Although I never met the man, we shared common interests including flying, aviation history, the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Northern Virginia, his appreciation of Washington, D.C., and breakfast. You'll understand more about those interests by reading this revised post on Godfrey that first appeared in 2009.

Godfrey was introduced to radio during his Navy and Coast Guard careers. He broke into entertainment and civilian radio in Baltimore and Washington in the early 1930s. He also earned his pilot's license in 1931, an achievement that would lead to a distinguished role in military and civilian aviation. His Arthur Godfrey Time breakfast show was heard on radio coast-to-coast shortly after World War II. By 1952, it had joined his other program, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, on television. 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. 

Godfrey with pilot George Cooper and former Ames Aeronautical Laboratory director Smith DeFrance at Moffett Field, California, 1948 
Without question, he was television's first star, rising quickly, then falling almost as fast, a victim of the darker elements of fame and ego. By 1960, he disappeared from regularly scheduled television and began a brief career in film. By 1972, the radio programs ended and his television appearances dwindled as the decade closed. He died in New York in 1983.

Godfrey was a local to this mill town kid. As a regional radio and television celebrity, Godfrey 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. In addition, fame bought Godfrey his 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 the Washington area  when I was a child and we always passed the farm. My dad always pointed it out 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.

Another connection we shared was a passion for airplanes. Godfrey owned several planes that he flew either from the farm or from Leesburg's airport. I spent many long 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 owners, Georgia and David 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. It reminds me of visiting small town museums where the treasured display shows an aging photograph of President Truman waving from his campaign train in 1948. Sometimes history comes at a slow pace. Nevertheless, Godfrey's visits were the talk of the town for Burlington folks. Late one afternoon, the little airfield may have saved his life. He and a passenger made a critical emergency landing at the airfield. With its mechanical issues resolved the plane continued on its final leg to Leesburg later in the week. I'll never understand how they got a twin engine aircraft out of that little dogleg of grass. They probably stripped it, released the brake, went balls to the wall, and sampled the tops of the wall of old sycamores at the end of the field.  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, "wheels up" at 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 the mill town boy, his mom and dad, and millions of other listeners at ease, 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.

Hard to believe this was a big national hit for the Old Redhead  in 1947. 

For a comprehensive biography, visit the Arthur Godfrey page on Wikipedia, especially if you're interested in the nasty details of his fall from television grace beginning in the mid '50s. For an equally comprehensive bio with additional information visit his enshrinee page at the National Aviation Hall of Fame. For more information on his impact in broadcast media see his page at the Museum of Broadcast Communication.

N.B. Godfrey's fall from grace was a hard one. He is often considered the inspiration for the character, Lonesome Rhodes, a "drunken drifter" in the landmark film, A Face in the Crowd (1957). Rhodes smooth talking, friendly style brings him fame and fortune through national radio and television exposure only to have it destroyed when his true character emerges. This great film brought Andy Griffith to stardom in a very powerful and unexpected role. If you like outstanding writing and editing on film, add this one to your list.

Source: Wikipedia entry, Arthur Godfrey

Photo Credits:

CBS photo, the Harris & Ewing Photo Collection, Library of Congress
Moffett Field photo, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

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