One of the first lessons I learned when I took over as publisher of Nostalgia Digest eleven years ago was a variation of the old axiom “It never hurts to ask.” After all, the worst thing anyone can say is “no” — and they might even say “yes.”
That axiom was on my mind in the fall of 2005 when I reached out to a representative of Bob Elliott about the possibility of an interview. I knew Bob was more or less retired following the 1990 death of his performing partner Ray Goulding and I knew he hadn’t really done any interviews since then. On the other hand, I knew 2006 was the sixtieth anniversary of the day that Bob and Ray met at a Boston radio station and — really by chance — became one of America’s greatest, most influential comedy teams. It never hurts to ask, right?
A representative for Bob Elliott gave me a mailing address and suggested I contact him directly, although he cautioned me that in doing so, I would only receive a direct rejection rather than an implied one. I put my first two copies of the Digest in the mail along with a letter and crossed my fingers. After all, the worst Bob could say was “no.”
To everyone’s surprise — and I mean everyone’s surprise — Bob said “yes.”
In the old parlance of journalism, I had a scoop.
That fall, we spoke by telephone for about 40 minutes about radio, television, Broadway and the career of his son Chris. The result was the article you’re about to read, which first appeared in the Spring 2006 issue along with the cover headline: “A BOB & RAY EXCLUSIVE: Bob Elliott looks back.” I sent a handful of copies to Bob along with a thank-you note and he responded by sending a check and asking for some additional copies to give to his grandchildren. I was happy to send off the copies but I think I still have the check.
We stayed in touch with one another over the years, through letters, telephone calls and even the occasional visit. When I became host and producer of Those Were the Days, he was kind enough to invite us to his home in Maine to record an expanded version of the career-spanning conversation we’d had back in 2005. When David Pollock’s marvelous book Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons was published in 2013, a publisher’s representative contacted me to say that Bob was doing some interviews in connection with the book and wanted to be sure we were among them. (That conversation became one of our Nostalgia Digest Podcasts and is currently available on our 2013 Podcast CD.)
In 2013, we invited our Those Were the Days listeners to join us in celebrating Bob’s birthday by sending cards and letters of greetings. Dozens of you wrote in and I know it was a gesture he very much appreciated. In 2015, Bob even took the time to record a message of greeting for Those Were the Days’ 45th anniversary celebration and he even threw in a punch line. (He was also more than gracious when we asked about perhaps re-creating some of the sketches from the Bob & Ray canon. Our efforts were sincere and the performers quite talented, but there’s only one Bob and Ray.)
We last saw Bob in the summer of 2013 on a purely social visit and spent a delightful lunch with him, his son Bob Jr. and Bob’s two schnauzers, Bert and Harriet (named, in a fashion, after the characters Bob and Ray played in their commercials for Piel’s Beer). To this day, my wife and I agree it’s still the best road trip we ever took.
We were terribly saddened to hear the news of Bob’s passing on February 2. He was a huge influence on America’s collective sense of humor, whether we knew it or not. He was also a lovely man and I'll always be grateful for the kindnesses he showed to me and my family. He'll be missed.
-- Steve Darnall, publisher, Nostalgia Digest Magazine
Talk If You Get Work
In 1946, Bob Elliott was working as an announcer at Boston radio station WHDH. As a young man in a major city, he had every reason to assume that this could be the culmination of his career.
Instead, it was only the beginning.
That year. Elliott met a newsreader named Ray Goulding, giving birth to an informal partnership that would lead to one of radio’s best (and certainly last) comedy teams. Over the next four decades, Bob & Ray’s unique, delightfully absurd humor would lead them from the Golden Age of radio into television, advertising, movies, the Broadway stage, and back to radio again. Not bad for two guys who “kind of fell into” working together.
In fact, when Bob & Ray first met, there was no intention of forming a team of any sort; given their schedules, it’s hard to imagine how they could’ve planned anything that big. “I was doing two [shows] a day,” Elliott recalls from his New York home. “One was 6:30 to 9 or something, and Ray was the newscaster. Then I did another one from two to four in the afternoon.
“Everybody who was in radio did that.” he continues. “Announcers were performers then. It’s hard to believe now because it’s so changed. We were both staff announcers, and Ray would do a sportscast now and then. We sort of fell into chatting with each other between records.”
Like so much of the Bob & Ray story, the formation of one of radio’s great comedy teams happened pretty modestly; there was no “kid, we’re going straight to the top” moment or even a plan as to what the two would talk about once one of those records was over. “No, we never did that,” Elliott says. “In all the years we were together, we never Iooked at ourselves as ‘the act.’
“I just finished reading Jerry Lewis’ book [Dean and Me: A Love Story] — which I enjoyed — but he and Dean really looked at themselves and each other as an act.” Elliott continues. “Whereas we looked at each other as individuals who could entertain each other, and made an effort to break each other up, and that was about it.”
Whatever they said to make each other laugh, it obviously worked: by the beginning of 1947, the on-air antics of Goulding and Elliott had come to the attention of WHDH station manager Bill McGrath.
“He said, ‘How about doing this in a more formal show that we could promote?”‘ Elliott recalls. “I think he saw more in us than we ever did at that point.”
That spring WHDH had gotten the rights to broadcast Red Sox and Braves games (for you younger readers, this is long before the Braves moved to Milwaukee, let alone Atlanta). “They were mostly day games; when they were rained out or they weren’t scheduled, he’d put us on before the games with a thing called Matinee. After the season, we became a regular feature.”
Comedy teams of the previous era had an unofficial code: the straight man’s name came first (e.g. Abbott & Costello or Burns & Allen). The teaming of Elliott and Goulding was less formal; because both men were equally adept at witty repartee and character voices, neither one was designated the “straight man.” As a result, it has been suggested (perhaps facetiously) that the only reason the duo became known as Bob & Ray was because the name “Matinee” was in place already.
‘‘Probably,’ Elliott laughs. “Well, it would never have sold as ‘Off the Cob with Ray & Bob,’ which it was.”
Of course, Bob & Ray’s humor wasn’t the corn that some radio comics had been dishing out, but it was certainly off-the cuff. Unlike the previous generation of vaudeville-performers-turned-radio-comedians, Elliott and Goulding had no well-rehearsed burlesque routines or file cabinets loaded with variations on the Joe Miller Joke Book. Instead, the two sat down at the WHDH microphones for 25 minutes and said whatever came into their heads. One day, they created their own juvenile adventure show, Rancid, the Magician, which rapidly transformed into — of all things — a spoof of the popular morning show Breakfast at Brenneman’s. A parody of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts featured a woman who impersonated birds (by saying “chirp, chirp”) and later impersonated James Cagney (also by saying “chirp, chirp”). There were occasional dead ends but the censor was never called in.
“I think we understood, without ever having to say it, that we were highly corruptible in our likes and dislikes,” Elliott explains, “and we were big fans of radio.”
Which makes perfect sense; Elliott once remarked that “from the time I knew what radio was, I wanted to be a part of it,” and by the late 1940s, everyone knew what radio was. As the dominant mass medium in America, it had acquired some patterns, preferences, and pretensions of its own.
Ironically, the duo’s humor also was shaped in part by the post-war expansion that made it possible to work in the city while living farther from it.
“Ray used to commute 25 miles from one side of Boston to get to the studio and I did [the same] from the other and we ‘d hear a lot of radio — particularly soap operas in the afternoon,” Elliott explains. “That way, we were ironbound with poking fun at radio, which Henry Morgan had done a few years before. But we had an electricity that stayed with us.”
That electricity, coupled with the steady diet of soap operas and personalities that saturated the airwaves, led to the duo’s first soap opera parody, “The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely,” which managed to accomplish even less each day than most soap operas. The duo drew from radio’s best-known archetypes to create a few personalities of their own, including homemaker Mary McGoon (Ray provided the falsetto voice that denoted women in the Bob & Ray world) and mush-mouthed boy Friday/book critic Webley Webster.
“There was always a woman’s program on radio schedules,” Elliott explains, “and a sportscaster and a man on the street, which was Wally Ballou’s birth. He was kind of patterned after a newsroom office boy that we had...He developed greatly over the years.”
It’s funny to think that there isn’t more detail to be shared about the creation of Bob & Ray’s longest-running character, the reporter so enamored with his own voice that he would start talking before his microphone was on. On the other hand, it has to be remembered that Wally Ballou, like so many other Bob & Ray creations, came together in real time, without a lot of premeditated thought.
Jack Benny and his writers could sit down and craft jokes for Dennis Day or Phil Harris; for Bob & Ray, characters like Wally Ballou and Wobbly Webster (“roughly patterned after an office boy”) were running solely on the duo’s improvisational electricity. At the end of one show, Ray made an offhand remark: “Write if you get work, won’t you? And hang by your thumbs — you’ll agree it’s milder. Much milder.” Baffling as the phrase was, it eventually beware the duo’s standard sign-off.
During the electric WHDH years, Elliott recalls, two musicians shared the same current. “Every station had a staff organist in those days, in case anything broke down, and he would usually do a program a couple of times a day. That was Ken Wilson. Then he teamed up with Bill Green, who was in a band at a Iocal hotel, and they became our live music, and became very helpful in setting up our backgrounds and themes that we needed.” Decades later, Paul Shafer would perform a similar function for David Letterman.
“It was Neanderthal radio,” Elliott admits, “but the people caught onto it and found us. We had brand new studios at the time and they began to show up in person to see us do this stuff.”
What these people heard was a new kind of radio humor. Compared to the fast-paced humor of radio stalwarts like Bob Hope and Fibber McGee and Molly, Bob & Ray’s humor tended to unspool gradually. As author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, Bob & Ray’s characters tended to be “engaged in enterprises which, if not contemptible, are at least insane.”
That’s as good a description as any for cowboy singer Tex Blaisdell (Bob), who did rope tricks on radio and had a band that played nothing but introductory vamps. Mary McGoon suggested making a holiday centerpiece by freezing jelly in an old stocking. Author Alfred E. Nelson (Ray) wrote a history of the United States, despite having an eighth grade education (“I relied on my memory a great deal,” he explained).
Unusual as it all was. It struck a chord. Before long, Bob & Ray were bringing their many voices to local colleges and nightclubs. By 1950, the show was available on a network of New England radio stations. For a young man who had wondered if playing records on a Boston radio station would be his entire career, the thrill of creating new material in this environment must have been tremendously exhilarating.
“Well, it was,” Elliott acknowledges, “and more so when somebody came up from New York who told us how much he thought we had a career. I mean, that was really the beginning of it.”
That particularly machinery began humming when Ray’s brother Phil arranged for the duo to appear in New York on Morey Amsterdam’s radio show Gloom Dodgers. “Phil was the announcer and he talked Morey into bringing us down. So we came with all the standard stuff that we’d been doing at colleges around Boston, and we did that whole thing in front of a studio audience in New York.”
John Moses of General Artists Corporation was impressed enough by the young duo to negotiate a deal with NBC in the spring of 1951. That summer, Bob & Ray bade a permanent farewell to Boston and WHDH — although WHDH didn’t seem to know it.
“We kept it pretty quiet,” Bob admits. “For a long time that summer, WHDH would get letters from listeners asking, ‘When are they coming back?’ and they would send out a form letter saying, ‘Well, we expect them back this fall.’ That gave us great enjoyment.
“We didn’t leave under any bad feelings,” he adds. “Bill McGrath had encouraged us to do this stuff and it just kind of backfired on him.”
Indeed, once Bob & Ray hit New York, they took on a workload that made Bob’s two disk-jockey shows in Boston look like a coffee break. NBC gave the duo a 15-minute daily show that offered listeners a taste of the duo’s inspired madness, a world where quiz shows were cither unfathomable or blatantly rigged, where cowboys had trouble mounting their horses, and straight-faced pitchmen offered bogus products like Grit, “the paste that makes your hands look dirty” so that white-collar workers could enjoy “that popular working-man appearance.” It was low-key insanity, all the funnier because the duo’s sober performances never hinted at the lunacy of it all.
The show also aligned Bob & Ray with organist Paul Taubman, who would go on to work with the duo throughout their careers. In addition to owning a nightclub in New York, Taubman was an NBC staff musician who actually “played real soap opera themes on a lot of the big shows” — which made him perfect for Bob & Ray spoofs like "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife."
“[Paul] got a great trio together with a guy named Sandy Gold at the piano and a tremendous guitar player from Portland, Maine, named Johnny Smith. They were our live music in New York.”
That same summer, Bob & Ray hosted a 60-minute Saturday night radio show on NBC, with musical guests like Peggy Lee and Les Paul. That show ran until September; by then, the duo had started a morning show on NBC’s New York affiliate. “We took over from Sketch Henderson, who had taken over from Bob Smith when Howdy Doody got big.
“Then, that same fall, they said, ‘Well, we gotta get these guys on television.’ So we took on a 7:15-7:30 strip on NBC five nights a week. They put us on as a 15-minute hunk of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which was a half-hour show, and that didn’t make fans of theirs too happy!”
Without taking anything away from Mssrs. Elliott and Goulding, it does seem like an unusually boneheaded move to take Burr Tillstrom’s beloved show and cut it in half. As Elliott notes, “It’d be like putting you in the middle of Milton Berle!”
“It was nothing we were trying to get,” he explains of the duo’s television slot, “and there were a lot of pros and cons about why we should or should not be on the air in place of Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” In any case, “it didn’t last too long. They moved us around.”
Still, the move to television had its share of benefits. John Moses was charged with finding an actress who could play the female roles that Ray’s falsetto supplied for radio. The first such discovery was a young actress named Audrey Meadows.
“I think she was doing Top Banana with Phil Silvers on Broadway,” Elliott recalls. “She started with us and I think it was her first TV stuff. She was perfect. She just got onto it very quickly.” Jackie Gleason was impressed enough to hire Meadows for the role of Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners. When Meadows moved on. Bob & Ray tapped another talented young actress, CIoris Leachman, who would go on to win a number of Emmys and an Oscar as well.
“I’ll tell you another one we had: Madeline Kahn,” Elliott says. “We did Dick Cavett’s morning show in 1968 or ‘69. At that point, somebody lined her up to play Mary Backstayge, or whoever the girl character was, so we got to know her a little bit.” While Elliott notes that Kahn “was very talented and did very well, I don’t think she knew at the time what she was taking part in. She admitted she didn’t while we were doing it, but it was 11:00 in the morning, and who cared?”
By the mid 1950s, Bob & Ray had become NBC’s unofficial “go-to” duo. When the network launched their ambitious weekend series Monitor, Bob & Ray were always close at hand. “We were originally supposed to show up and sit in a little booth — which we did,” Elliott says, “and if something there broke down, which it occasionally did, they would throw it to us and we would come up with something we hoped would have something to do with what they were covering.”
That wasn’t the duo’s only extracurricular activity; in 1952, NBC asked them to participate in a new television program called Today. “There was a 15-minutc newscast at 7:30 on WNBC, and we would go downstairs — the elevator was waiting — and go across the street and do an ad-libbed interview through the [Today show] window. We never went inside. The head of NBC saw us for a few mornings and said ‘Don’t those idiots know that the interviewer is talking to the same guest every day?'”
Given their schedules in those days, it’s a wonder that Bob & Ray themselves knew it. Elliott chuckles as he thinks about tackling that prodigious workload. “I lived in the city, but Ray had moved to Long Island. He was in so early in the morning and going home so late at night, he was afraid he’d meet himself coming back!
“That’s when we said, ‘Gee, we gotta have some writing help. We can’t just do this stuff hour after hour.'"
The subject of writers has been a source of some contention in Bob & Ray history. It’s no secret that Bob & Ray were incredibly gifted ad-lib comedians and, as Elliott recalls, “we were the first ones they ever let go on the network without a pre-okayed script.” Some radio historians have gone so far as to interpret the duo’s facility (coupled with the fact that they rarely gave on-air credit to their writers) as a sign that they improvised everything throughout their 40-year career. It’s a myth that Elliott has no qualms about dispelling.
“Nobody could expect that to happen,” he acknowledges. “We had writers from quite close to the beginning. I guess Ray Knight, who had created radio comedy back in the early ‘30s with The Cuckoo Hour, was the first one we had. Then there was Jack Roche and a bunch of them over the years. Then we got with Tom Koch, who began writing for us when we were doing Monitor on NBC on the weekends...Tom used to supply us with stuff and created a load of things that we did.
“I think [Tom had a feel] for the kind of humor we liked.” Elliott notes, “and he really hit the right buttons, because he came up with a lot of things that we get credit for now...like The Gathering Dusk [“The heartwarming story of a girl who hides behind a shield of indecision because it’s the safest place to hide”] and Tippy, the Wonder Dog [a poor man’s Lassie in every respect, sponsored by Mushies, “the great new cereal that gets soggy even without milk or cream”].”
Elliott has a special fondness for Koch’s Squad Car 119, a Dragnet parody in which the “unsung heroes of the police force” never actually made it to the scene of a crime.
Given their idiosyncratic style of humor — and the tepid state of modern radio —it’s a pleasant surprise to hear that Bob & Ray never ran afoul of station management or sponsors who failed to see the humor in parodies like “Our Fella Thursday” (a soap opera for men) and “Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate.”
“Very seldom,” Elliott admits. “It was amazing. We had a load of sponsors over the years and a load of different bosses, but it just went smoothly. Sometimes we negotiated ourselves; we were in and out of management... We had a couple of different managers and then we [managed] ourselves. We engineered a deal with CBS in 1959 when Ed Murrow ended his radio show.”
In fact, some fans consider the team’s yearlong run on CBS as a real high water mark. There were still parodies of popular shows (including “One Fella’s Family,” the spoof of “One Man’s Family” in which the Mother and Father can barely stand one another and the kids are hopeless ne’er-do-wells), but there was also the “Great Bob & Ray Bird, who was forever fighting guests over the “Great Bob & Ray popcorn bowl.” Reporter Arthur Schrank filed daily missives from the Bob & Ray Trophy rain (in which tourists paid to see Bob’s bicycle clips and Ray’s high-school track suit); there was even a remote broadcast from the Bob & Ray employee summer picnic — a show in which Bob & Ray never appeared as themselves.
“And Smelly Dave, the great dead whale who traveled around the country on a flatbed train car,” Elliott laughs as he recalls one of that series’ comedic highpoints. “That was a fun, very creative time.”
It was around this time that the duo, like fellow satirist Stan Freberg, tried their hand at advertising, beginning with an award-winning series of spots for Piels Beer. Over the years, Elliott notes, “we added a lot of clients and formed a company with Ed Graham Jr... For the next 15-20 years, we had headquarters in the Graybar Building.”
After 20 years together, Bob & Ray had become mainstays of radio, television, and advertising. In 1970, they added Broadway to their list of conquests when Joseph and Johnna Levine — two attorneys and longtime fans — produced Bob & Ray: The Two and Only.
“They tried [to get] us for several years to do Broadway,” Elliott says of the Levines, “and we were always involved. We turned them down and we were afraid of it; we came up with excuses for not thinking about [going on] stage. We’d never done any stage work or anything. They would come back every year-and-a-half and try to talk us into it. They finally hit us in 1970 and we said ‘Yes.’ And they said ‘Well, start getting some stuff together. “‘
What made the duo change their mind after years of saying “no”?
“I don’t know.” Elliott admits. “We always liked to be busy; the thing about actors looking for their part kind of comes true, particularly when you have a lot depending on it. Ray, by that time, had six kids, and I had five — yeah, I guess we had the limit at that point.”
He laughs. “We had to keep a family going, so we said ‘Why not try it? We’ve been in New York what, 20 years? Maybe we should do it.’ And we did, and we really learned to love it.
“We thought originally we were going to ad-lib a portion every night,” he continues, “and we got so used to doing the same show word for word every night, which we enjoyed — even doing it eight times a week — that we never veered very much from the original script. The difference in being live made us more wary, I guess. You’ve got real people out there. They’re not listening at home. You’re seeing them, you know they’re there, and you can’t be as loose as you might be, even in a personal appearance stage thing.”
The show ran for close to six months and spawned a soundtrack album, “which was pretty good for a two-man show at the time. It’s hard to believe at the time the top price was eight bucks. I look at the playbills now and I can’t believe what I read.”
By the 1970s, Bob & Ray had established themselves as comedy journeymen, moving from job to job as needed. This included appearing everywhere from WOR radio (where they held court from 1973-1976) to The Tonight Show to Happy Days. A 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live led to a 1979 special with SNL cast members Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner.
“We became the grand old gentlemen of guest shot lists,” Elliott jokes. “And Johnny [Carson] was tremendously warm to us; he had us back at least once every six months on The Tonight Show, and he and Ed McMahon came to the Broadway show.”
The two also appeared with New York radio host Larry Josephson, who was instrumental in bringing the duo back to the airwaves in 1982, for a weekly series on National Public Radio.
“There again, we did a lot of stuff we’d done before and a Iot of new stuff,” Elliott says. “By that time, I think Torn Koch was the only person supplying us with new stuff,” including “Garish Summit,” a striking parody of the night-time soap operas that had taken root in American culture.
The show ran in one form or another until 1987, when Ray’s health began to decline. Goulding passed away in March of 1990; since then, Elliott has kept a deliberately low profile.
“Yeah, I’ve tried to,” he admits. “I did a movie with Bill Murray [Quick Change] and I did an episode of Newhart, but I didn’t really have any great enthusiasm for it in any way.”
Instead, Elliott has focused on the career of his son Chris who, like his father, has made ventures into television (the two worked together on Chris’ short-lived sitcom Get a Life, movies, commercials, and even the book world.
“He used to come to the Broadway show and sit in the wings,” a proud dad recalls. “He was just a small boy and he never did lose that interest. He did summer stock when he was 15, so he knocked around for a while.”
In a recent interview, the younger Elliott suggested that his father’s demeanor was completely opposite from what one would expect from a comedian — to the point where Chris was 10 or 11 before he realized what his Dad did for a living.
“Well, we did go to the office every day, both [Ray and l], and handle whatever business I’ve had,” Elliott admits, “and if we had a radio show, we’d walk over to the radio studio and do it and then go home.”
Although the team of Bob & Ray is no more, their work is available in ample supply. Josephson’s Radio Foundation has repackaged more than 90 hours of material from throughout the duo’s career (“He’s found just about everything we ever said on the radio,” Elliott jokes).
What’s especially impressive about Bob & Ray’s humor is that it’s aged remarkably — well even in a world of changing mores and customs. Then as now, there was pomposity that needed to be skewered.
“Well, everything we did was in generalities,” Elliott suggests. “We did political stuff and we did all the classic genres — the police and the medical — and we touched upon practically everything, but in a very general way. I mean, if we did a political bit, it was the sore loser... it was somebody you’d seen many times before but couldn’t put your finger on who it was.”
It’s been 60 years now since the young disc jockey and the young newsreader met at a station in Boston. Dare one ask how it feels to realize that this duo began hanging by their thumbs that long ago?
“It feels older,” he suggests dryly. “Did you hear the 90-year-old couple we reunited?”
Ah, yes. Frank and Tabetha Worley. In a parody of the human-interest shows that littered radio at the time, Bob & Ray created a fictitious brother and sister and reunited them after 70 years — only to find they had nothing to say to one another.
“One of my favorite bits,” Elliott says. “‘So, what do you have to say to your sister’?’ ‘You’ve changed.’”