The Great Gildersleeve

The Great Gildersleeve

Infobox Radio Show
show_name = The Great Gildersleeve

imagesize = 200px
caption = Sam Berman's caricature of "The Great Gildersleeve" for NBC's 1947 promotional book shows Harold Peary as Gildersleeve and Walter Tetley as Leroy Forester.----
runtime = 30 minutes (1941-1954)
15 minutes (1954-1957)
country = United States
language = English
home_station = NBC
television = 1955-1956
starring = Harold Peary
Willard Waterman
Walter Tetley
Lillian Randolph
Richard Crenna
Barbara Whiting
Earle Ross
Richard LeGrand
Arthur Q. Bryan
Shirley Mitchell
Bea Benaderet
Una Merkel
Martha Scott
Cathy Lewis
Gale Gordon
creator = Leonard L. Levinson
writer = John Whedon
first_aired = August 31, 1941
last_aired = 1957
num_episodes = 552 (1940-1954) []

"The Great Gildersleeve" (1941-1957), initially written by Leonard Lewis Levinson, [ [ Our Neighbors in Wistful Vista] ] was one of broadcast history's earliest spin-off programs. Built around a character who had been a staple on the classic radio situation comedy "Fibber McGee and Molly", "The Great Gildersleeve" enjoyed its greatest success in the 1940s. Actor Harold Peary played the character during its transition from the parent show into the spin-off and later in a quartet of feature films released at the height of the show's popularity.

On "Fibber McGee and Molly", Peary's Gildersleeve was a pompous windbag who became a consistent McGee nemesis. "You're a "haa-aa-aa-aard" man, McGee!" became a Gildersleeve catch phrase. The character was given several conflicting first names on "Fibber McGee and Molly", and on one episode his middle name was revealed as Philharmonic. Gildy admits as much at the end of "Gildersleeve's Diary" on the "Fibber McGee and Molly" series (10/22/40).

He soon became so popular that Kraft Foods — looking primarily to promote its Parkay margarine spread — sponsored a new series with Peary's Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve as the central, slightly softened, and slightly befuddled focus of a lively new family.


Premiering on NBC on August 31, 1941, "The Great Gildersleeve" moved the title character from the McGee's Wistful Vista to Summerfield, where Gildersleeve now oversaw his late sister's estate and took on the rearing of his orphaned niece and nephew, Marjorie (originally played by Lurene Tuttle and followed by Louise Erickson and Mary Lee Robb) and Leroy Forester (Walter Tetley). The household also included a cook named Birdie.

In a striking forerunner to such later television hits as "Bachelor Father" and "Family Affair", both of which are centered on well-to-do uncles taking in their deceased siblings' children, Gildersleeve was a bachelor raising two children while, at first, administering a girdle manufacturing company ("If you want a better corset, of course, it's a Gildersleeve") and then for the bulk of the show's run, serving as Summerfield's water commissioner, between time with the ladies and nights with the boys. "The Great Gildersleeve" may have been the first broadcast show to be centered on a single parent balancing child-rearing, work, and a social life, done with taste and genuine wit, often at the expense of Gildersleeve's now slightly understated pomposity.

Many of original episodes were co-written by John Whedon, father of Tom Whedon (who wrote "The Golden Girls"), and grandfather of "Deadwood" scripter Zack Whedon and Joss Whedon (creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly").

The key to the show was Peary, whose booming voice and facility with moans, groans, laughs, shudders and inflection was as close to body language and facial suggestion as a voice could get. Peary was so effective, and Gildersleeve became so familiar a character, that he was referenced and satirized periodically in other comedies and in a few cartoons.


Aiding and abetting the periodically frantic life in the Gildersleeve home was family cook and housekeeper Birdie Lee Coggins (Lillian Randolph). Although in the first season, under writer Levinson, Birdie was often portrayed as saliently less than bright, she slowly developed as the real brains and caretaker of the household under writers John Whedon, Sam Moore and Andy White. In many of the later episodes Gildersleeve has to acknowledge Birdie's commonsense approach to some of his predicaments. By the early 1950s, Birdie was heavily depended on by the rest of the family in fulfilling many of the functions of the household matriarch, whether it be giving sound advice to an adolescent Leroy or tending Marjorie's children.

By the late 1940s, Marjorie slowly matures to a young woman of marrying age. During the 9th season (September 1949-June 1950) Marjorie meets and marries (May 10) Walter "Bronco" Thompson (Richard Crenna), star football player at the local college. The event was popular enough that "Look" devoted five pages in its May 23, 1950 issue to the wedding. After living in the same household for a few years with their twin babies Ronnie and Linda, the newlyweds move next door to keep the expanding Gildersleeve clan close together.

Leroy, aged 10-11 during most of the 1940s, is the all-American boy who grudgingly practices his piano lessons, gets bad report cards, fights with his friends and cannot remember to not slam the door. Although he is loyal to his Uncle Mort, he is always the first to deflate his ego with a well-placed "Ha!!!" or "What a character!" Beginning in the Spring of 1949, he finds himself in junior high and is at last allowed to grow up, establishing relationships with the girls in the Bullard home across the street. From an awkward adolescent who hangs his head, kicks the ground and giggles whenever Brenda Knickerbocker comes near, he transforms himself overnight (November 28, 1951) into a more mature young man when Babs Winthrop (both girls played by Barbara Whiting) approaches him about studying together. From then on, he branches out with interests in driving, playing the drums and dreaming of a musical career.

Neighbors and friends

Outside the home, Gildersleeve's closest association was with the cantankerous estate executor Judge Horace Hooker (Earle Ross), with whom he had many battles during the first few broadcast seasons. After a change in scriptwriters from Levinson (August 1941 to December 1942) to the team of Whedon and Moore in January 1943, the confrontations slowly subside and a true friendship slowly blossoms. In an early episode, Throckmorton was given the key of the city to Gildersleeve, Connecticut, a village in the town of Portland, Connecticut.

Joining Throckmorton's circle of close acquaintances during the second season (September 1942) are Richard Q. Peavey (Richard LeGrand), the friendly neighborhood pharmacist, whose nasal-voiced delivery and famous catchphrase, "Well, now, I wouldn't say that!" always elicited giggles from the studio audience (and was frequently quoted in animated cartoons such as 1945's "Draftee Daffy"); and Floyd Munson (Arthur Q. Bryan), the rough-around-the-edges neighborhood barber.

In the fourth season, (October 8, 1944) these three friends, along with Police Chief Donald Gates (Ken Christy), form the nucleus of the Jolly Boys Club whose activities revolve around practicing barbershop quartet songs between sips of Coca-Cola.

Adding spice to Gildersleeve's life are the women who come and go: the Georgia widow Leila Ransom (Shirley Mitchell), whom he almost marries (June 27, 1943), and the school principal Eve Goodwin (Bea Benaderet), who was another close call at the altar of matrimony (June 25, 1944). After almost being trapped a third time (1948-49 season) to Leila's cousin Adeline Fairchild (Una Merkel) Throckmorton learns his lesson and makes sure his future involvement with women is much more circumspect. He dates the sisters of his surly neighbor from across the street, Ellen Bullard Knickerbocker (Martha Scott) and Paula Bullard Winthrop (Jean Bates), as well as Nurse Katherine Milford and school principal Irene Henshaw (both played by Cathy Lewis) in an on-and-off fashion over many years, making sure the situation doesn't progress beyond the "just friends" state (although he's always after that special kiss).

To add adversity to Gildersleeve's world is the aforementioned surly neighbor from across the street: the retired millionaire Rumson Bullard, after initial portrayals by another actor, was portrayed definitively by (Gale Gordon) who was more pompous than the earlier version of the Gildersleeve character. Bullard was the focus of a continuity error: he began as a happily married man with two children and inexplicably became a widower with sisters and nieces living with him periodically. In numerous episodes, Mr. Bullard alternates between being chummy with "Gildy" (in order to get something he wants) to calling him a "nincompoop water buffalo". The two often court the same women (particularly Katherine Milford).

Decline and fall

Beginning in 1950, the show's momentum changed as the legendary CBS talent raids of the time began to take their toll. The most painful result of the raids was the jump of Jack Benny and Burns and Allen to CBS, forcing NBC to offer more lucrative deals to Fred Allen, Phil Harris and Alice Faye in order to keep them from defecting. Harold Peary was convinced to move "The Great Gildersleeve" to CBS, but sponsor Kraft refused to sanction the move. Peary, now contracted to CBS, was legally unable to appear on NBC as a star performer, but "Gildersleeve" was still an NBC series. This prompted the hiring of Willard Waterman as Peary's replacement. Peary, meanwhile, began a new series on CBS which was a rather obvious attempt to reproduce the Gildersleeve show with the names changed. "The Harold Peary Show", lasting a single season, included a fictitious radio show within the show. This was "Honest Harold", hosted by Peary's new character.

Waterman and Peary were longtime friends from Chicago radio; Waterman had replaced Peary as the Sheriff in "The Tom Mix Ralston Straightshooters" in the 1930s. His voice was a near-perfect match for Peary's, though he refused to use Peary's signature laugh. Peary reportedly sued unsuccessfully to retain the right to both the Gildersleeve character and vocalisms, but Waterman agreed with Peary that only one man held the patent on the Gildersleeve laugh.

Starting in mid-1952, some of the program's long time characters (Judge Hooker, Floyd Munson, Marjorie and her husband) would be missing for months at a time. In their place were a few new ones (Mr. Cooley, the Egg Man, and Mrs. Potter the hypochondriac) who would last only a month or so. By 1953, Gildy's love life took center stage over that of his family and friends. His many love interests were constantly shifting, and women were coming and going with such frequency that the audience had a hard time keeping up. His adversary, meanwhile, shifted from Mr. Bullard, who disappered completely from the cast of characters, to Dr. Clarence Olsen (George N. Niese).

1954 saw a drastic change in the show's format. After missing the fall schedule, it finally appeared in November as 15-minute episodes that aired five times a week, Sunday through Thursday from 10:15 to 10:30pm. Only Gildy, Leroy and Birdie remained on a continuing basis. All other characters were seldom heard and gone were Marjorie and her family as well as the studio audience, live orchestra and original scripts.


The radio show also suffered from the advent of television. A televised version of the show, also starring Waterman, premiered in 1955 but lasted only 39 episodes. During that year, both the 15-minute radio show and the television show were being produced simultaneously. The radio series was taped on days when the TV production was inactive. Because of the grueling schedule, quality suffered. Only a few examples of the quarter-hour shows have survived. By the time the radio show entered its final season, "The Great Gildersleeve"'s remaining radio audience heard only reruns of previous episodes.

The television series is considered now to be something of an insult to the "Great Gildersleeve" legacy. Gildersleeve was sketched as less lovable, more pompous and a more overt womanizer, an insult amplified when Waterman himself said the key to the television version's failure was its director not having known a thing about the radio classic. Peary meanwhile appeared in the TV version of Fibber McGee and Molly as Mayor LaTrivia. "Fibber McGee and Molly" also failed to migrate to television in the 1950s with Jim and Marion Jordan in the TV cast.


After joining Jim and Marion Jordan (as Fibber McGee and Molly) and fellow radio favorite Edgar Bergen in "Look Who's Laughing" (1941) and "Here We Go Again" (1942), Peary finally received top billing for a series of RKO films. "The Great Gildersleeve" (1942) also carried Randolph from the radio cast to the screen, with Nancy Gates as Marjorie and Freddie Mercer as Leroy. Walter Tetley, who played Leroy on radio, could not be seen on screen as Leroy because he was actually a child impersonator.

"Gildersleeve on Broadway" followed, in 1943; the story is centered on Leroy as the odd boy out as everyone around him is falling in love. "Gildersleeve's Bad Day" (1943) followed the mishaps around Gildy's call to jury duty; and, "Gildersleeve's Ghost" (1944) brings Gildy's relatives Randolph and Johnson up from the dead to help his campaign for police commissioner.

Peary went on to continue his career (often billed as Hal Peary) in films and television well into the 1970s. He died of a heart attack in 1985.


In full Gildersleeve character, at the height of the show's popularity, Harold Peary recorded three albums, reading popular children's stories for Capitol Records, in heavy-bookleted four-disc 78rpm record albums. "Stories for Children, Told in His Own Way by the Great Gildersleeve", was released in 1945 and was Capitol's first-ever such release for children. With orchestral accompaniment, it featured "Puss in Boots," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Jack and the Beanstalk." The second album, "Children's Stories as Told by the Great Gildersleeve", in 1946, featured "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Brave Little Tailor," again with orchestral accompaniment. The third and final album in the series, reverting to the title of the first and released in 1947, included "Snow White and Rose Red" and "Cinderella," once more with full orchestral accompaniment. The music was by Robert Emmett Dolan. To make sure stories would be unmistakably Gildersleevian without compromising their core integrity, Capitol brought in "The Great Gildersleeve's" chief writers, Sam Moore and John Whedon, to adapt them to Gildy's unmistakable bearing.

The Gildersleeve character was parodied in the 1945 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Hare Conditioned", in which the rabbit distracts a menacing taxidermist by telling him that he sounds "just like that guy on the radio, the Great Gildersneeze!" The taxidermist responds with "Really?!" followed by Gildy's famous chuckle. The Gildersleeve voice in this cartoon was likely done by voice artist Danny Webb.


=Listen to=
* [ "The Great Gildersleeve" radio shows (104 episodes)]
* [ "The Great Gildersleeve" Listen online 10 p.m., Wednesday nights, WHAV]

Further reading

*"The Great Gildersleeve" by Charles Stumpf and Ben Ohmart, 157 pp, illustrated, ISBN 0-9714570-0-X BearManor Media, PO Box 71426, Albany GA 31708 [ BearManor Media]
*"Gildy's Scrapbook". Albany: BearManor Media

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