Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Amalgamated Broadcasting System

Today, nobody remembers who Ed Wynne was, which is sort of a shame. He was born Isaiah Edwin Leopold, and his father made women's hats for a living in Philadelphia. Ed ran away from home to become a comedian while still a teenager. He crafted his middle name into a stage name, Ed Wynne. He performed on Broadway and in vaudeville, and made the jump into radio in the late 1920s.

While was a comedian in the 1930s he hosted a popular radio show called The Fire Chief. It was sponsored by Texaco. He reprized that popular Fire Chief radio character in two films "Follow the Leader" which came out in 1930 and "The Chief", three years later. It was then, at the peak of his fame that he struck it out boldly and risked it all to found a new radio network. Wynne lost big.

Wynne debuted the Amalgamated Broadcasting System on September 25, 1933. He used his personal savings to launch ABS, seriously trying to compete with CBS and NBC. They had one affiliate in New York WBNX, a share time with WAWZ. They had talks with other stations but it was just talk. Ed was tough, he'd been on his own for 30 years worked his way up from selling hats to Hollywood movies. But his partner Ota Gygi was not. Gygi was a Hungarian-born violinist, who worked in vaudeville. He was not very famous, and there is little written of him. Variety magazine reviewed a show he performed in 1922 and basically said it wasn't worth the $2.

Shortly after ABS started, Wynne left town to appear a Hollywood film. Gygi was left in charge. That's when things ran amok. Gygi spent his time offending the press, and advertisers. The fledgling network was crippled by the time Wynne got back. Without advertisers they lacked the capital to put together a schedule of quality programming. Amalgamated went out of business on October 28, 1933... after only 5 weeks. They lost $300,000, that's over 5 million in 2012 dollars. Wynne didn't take it well. In short order he was divorced, and had a nervous breakdown.

Gygi spent the next few years begging to work in the orchestra at NBC but he did eventually find work for Samuel Insull at the Affiliate Broadcasting Company, but that house of cards failed in 1936. He's lost to time after that. But Wynne's career recovered, The Fire Chief show lasted a few more years and he segued into television hosting variety shows. He hosted The Ed Wynne show on NBC TV in 1948, and memorably voiced the Mad Hatter character for Disney in the 1951 film Alice in Wonderland. He continued to do appearances on TV in the 1960s even appearing on the Twilight Zone. He died in 1966.