Wed December 16, 2009
Bill Knight - December 17
Macomb, IL – As Burlington, Iowa's world-famous Liar's Club winds up its 80th annual World Champion Lie contest this week, it's worth recalling another area institution who many forget was the Liar's Club's only professional champion: Fibber McGee.
The Liar's Club today prohibits "professional liars," specifically politicians, but things were more relaxed in 1935, when Fibber McGee (Peoria native Jim Jordan) was one of 5,000 entries from around the world, winning the group's medal, the only pro to ever win.
Jordan and his wife Marian Driscoll Jordan created the characters Fibber McGee and Molly in a radio show that same year, becoming one of the top comedy acts in radio's Golden Age and pioneering what became show business's situation-comedy formula.
They'd grown up in Peoria, where they met as teens at St. John's Church. They married in 1918 and worked on stage for a few years - although to make ends meet, Jim also was a letter carrier and clerk while Marian gave piano lessons.
In 1925 they broke into radio in Peoria and occasionally appeared on Chicago's WIBO radio, which later featured them as "the O'Henry Twins." They moved to Chicago's WENR in 1927, starring in "Air Scouts" and spoofing farm reports with "The Luke and Mirandy Show."
In 1931, the pair went to the much bigger WMAQ and hired jobless cartoonist Don Quinn as their writer. In 1933, the NBC network picked up the act and featured them in a 15-minute show called "Smackout," in which Jim played storeowner Luke Grey, always "smack out" of whatever customers wanted.
The program "Fibber McGee and Molly" debuted on April 16, 1935, featuring a cast of characters who moved through the McGee home at 79 Wistful Vista: Mayor LaTrivia (actor Gale Gordon), the Old-Timer (Cliff Arquette), Doc Gamble (Arthur Q. Bryan), Mr. Whimple (Bill Thompson), and Abigail Uppington (Isabel Randolph), plus regular guests ranging from Bea Benaderet and Herb Vigran to Billy Mills' Orchestra and the King's Men vocal group.
Radio legend Fran Allison from "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" said the show was "one of the greatest continuing radio shows that ever existed."
It appealed to audiences craving humor in the Great Depression, putting the boastful but kind-hearted Fibber into hare-brained situations indulged by the patient Molly, and repeating trademark lines or factors, from Molly's "T'ain't funny, McGee!" to Fibber's legendary cluttered closet. The program grew in popularity until it was an established hit by the end of the decade.
The show had spin offs. Radio featured "The Great Gildersleeve," starring Harold Peary, and "Beulah," starring a succession of African-American actresses. The Jordans played Fibber McGee and Molly in the 1930s and 40s films "This Way Please," "Look Who's Laughing," "Here We Go Again," and "Heavenly Days."
By the end of their radio career in 1959, the Jordans had performed on stage 4,000 times and had done 7,000 radio shows. But the duo didn't make the transition to television. NBC-TV's "Fibber McGee and Molly" didn't feature them and was cancelled after one season, in 1959.
After Marian died in 1961, Jim retired except for a few appearances, such as guesting on a 1976 episode of TV's "Chico and the Man" and voicing Captain Orville in Disney's "The Rescuers" in 1977. In 1983 the Jordans received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (near the building where they used to perform the show). Jim died in 1988, and a year later the couple was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
But back in '35, Fibber was in his element as Burlington's Liar's Club announced its winner live from NBC Radio's studios in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The winning yarn remains typical Fibber fare: "Two years ago the winter here was so cold that it drove a large rat into our house for shelter. Do whatever I would, I could not catch him, even with the most cleverly baited traps. Finally I hit upon an idea. The cold drove you in here,' says I to myself. And the cold will catch you.' That night I brought in our largest thermometer and hung it in the kitchen, putting a large piece of cheese directly beneath it. Next morning I had Mr. Rat - for the mercury had dropped so low during the night that it had pinned both him and the cheese to the floor."