Monday, July 06, 2020

The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street

The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street has one of the longest radio program names in radio history. So for the purposes of this article let's use the acronym CMSLBS. It aired for over a decade and spawned at least half a dozen commercial recordings. [LINK]  As the quote in the book Once More... from the Beginning by Oscar G. Zimmerman said "The CMSLBS had dedicated their lives to the preservation of the music of  The Three Bs,' not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but Barrelhouse, Boogie-Woogie and the Blues."

Harrisburg Evening News Aug 11, 1937
Interestingly that quote has been 'borrowed' from CMSLBS repeatedly since 1940. It was paraphrased in the promotions for two 1943 films: Best Foot Forward and Thousands Cheer. It was used on printed ads for the radio show Jam With Sam on WGN in 1951, and used as an album title [LINK] by Sam Price And His Kaycee Stompers in 1955. Multiple entertainment writers have borrowed it as well, including myself, James Wertheim at Sound & Fury magazine in 1965, by Playbill writer Steven Suskin in 2003 and more recently by Brent Phillips in his biography of Charles Walters in 2014. It's amazing how a phrase like that can travel through 75 years of media without accreditation. It's almost like the blues idiom itself.

CMSLBS began in 1936 as a 15-minute program called Bughouse Rhythm broadcast out of San Francisco by NBC. It originally aired on Friday's at 5:00 PM on  NBC Red then in October, moved to Monday nights at 7:15 PM on NBC Blue. The show was created by Ward Byron. The show satirized classical music with it's studio orchestra performing swing versions of well-known classical compositions. The live music was sometimes followed by short lectures or music history discussions led by announcer "Professor" Archie Presby and his assistant Martha Murgatroyd, played by comedian Natalie Park. Her role was to yawn and pretend to be young and bored. Jack Meakin handled the music arrangements. Bughouse Rhythm debuted September 4th, 1936 and the last show was April 26th 1937. Only a few recordings exist. Ward Byron followed up that creation with the Fitch Bandwagon show which ran from 1937 - 1948.

Just a few years later Ward Byron managed to reboot the program. This time the show was 30 minutes long and had more of a musical variety radio format. It debuted where Bughouse Rhythm had ended —NBC Blue. He brought back Jack Meakin and built a bigger better orchestra. The "society" was a rotating group of about 14 musicians. When Jack Meakin left Paul Lavalle took over. At different times band members included: Zero Mostel, Charles Marlowe, Gene Hamilton, and Albert Ammons, Fletch Philburn, Harry Patent, Nat Levine, and Frank Signorelli to name a few. Guests included Louis Armstrong, Art Tatem, Leadbelly, Lionel Hampton, Sidney Bechet, Bobby Hackett, Jelly Roll Morton, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, W.C. Handy, Harry James, and many more. But it was probably Paul Lavalle who brought in Dinah Shore. She was with them from the start in 1940. He had worked with her in 1939 on The Dinah Shore Show. Lena Horne later replaced Shore as a vocalist, but Horne only lasted 6 months. Then Linda Keene took that mic in 1941. (Some sourced incorrectly list Betty Keene)

But by 1940 announcer Archie Presby had moved to Los Angeles to work at Radio City studios in Hollywood. (He also announced at KFI. Archie was the chief West Coast announcer for NBC until he retired in 1972.) So CMSLBS got Milton Cross. Cross played the straight man through all this shtick. Cross was also announcing for the Metropolitan Opera so listeners would be very familiar with his solemn and dignified delivery. The Metropolitan Opera was the very type of program that CMSLBS had intended to mock. As a result, the new format had a somewhat drier flavor of satire. The humor reminds me of early Prairie Home Companion episodes. More here.

CMSLBS debuted on on February 11, 1940 in a crappy late Sunday slot: 4:30 PM EST. It was Milton Cross who opened the program by saying "Welcome to the no doubt world-famous Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, and another concert dedicated to The Three Bs— Barrelhouse, Boogie-Woogie and the Blues." Then he'd introduce the host Dr. Gino Hamilton. By September it had built up it's listenership and moved to Monday nights at 9:00 PM EST. More here.

Then it got moved back to Sundays at 9:15 PM. It's not as bad as the original slot but not a weeknight either. But it was better to have Woodbury Soap as a sponsor than to be a sustaining program. The band stopped calling itself the NBC Dixieland Octet, and started calling itself the Woodbury Soap Symphony Orchestra. Comically this name is recorded as the bands proper name in the book The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong by Jos Willems with no irony. Archie Presby would have loved it. CMSLBS did one more season in 1943-1944 and then the  show was off air for 6 years. Ward Byron produced the Philip Morris Follies in 1946, and the Chesterfield Supper Club but it's unclear why the show didn't return next season, or what force of nature led to a 2nd reboot in 1950.

When the show came back in 1950 on Saturday nights at 10:30 PM Paul Lavalle didn't return. Henry Levine took over his music duties, renaming the band again as the Henry Levine Octet. They added British character actor, Arthur Treacher, appearing as guest commentator. The only original cast members to return was Gene Hamilton. Even Milton Cross abandoned them. The season fished out with NBC staff announcers Fred Collins, (formerly WOWO) and Wayne Howell finished out the season. Orson Bean was final host of the series in 1952, for it's last 13 week season. Bean was later placed on the Hollywood blacklist for attending Communist Party meetings. Unlike some others, he ratted out his girlfriend and his career made a full recovery.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! I can't wait to follow some of those links.