Goodman Ace


Goodman Ace

Goodman Ace (born Goodman Aiskowitz (January 15, 1899March 25, 1982), was one of the most respected humourists in the 20th Century United States, mostly as a radio writer and comedian, a television writer, and a magazine columnist.

In a twist that could have been one of his own plot lines, Ace's broadcasting career happened by accident, thanks to one night of bridge and a following night of absenteeism, by the show that followed his wry movie reviews on a Kansas City radio station.

That fits the way he is remembered today. "Goody" (as he was known to friends) is not always the most recognisable writer/performer of his era by today's reader or listener, but his low-keyed, literate drollery and softly tart way of tweaking trends and pretenses made him one of the most sought-after writers in radio and television after he turned his attention to writing alone.

Radio Aces

Born in Kansas City, MO, the son of Latvian immigrants, Goodman Ace (he inverted his first "non de plume", Asa Goodman) grew up wanting to write, proving it as the editor of his high school newspaper. He married his high school sweetheart, Jane Epstein, in 1922, and in due course---after having to work at the post office and a local haberdashery to support his mother and sisters, after his father's early death---he became a reporter and then columnist for the Kansas City "Journal-Post".

Before long, Ace took on a second job---reading the Sunday comics on radio station KMBC (anticipating the famous newspaper strike stunt, almost two decades later, by legendary New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia) and hosting a Friday night film review and gossip program called "Ace Goes to the Movies".

But one night the recorded fifteen-minute show scheduled to air after Ace's timeslot failed to feed. With an immediate need to fill fifteen minutes' more airtime and his wife having accompanied him to the station that night, Ace slipped into an impromptu chat about a bridge game the couple played the previous weekend and invited Jane to join the chat---which soon enough included discussion of a local murder case in which a wife murdered her husband over an argument about bridge. Loaded with Goodman's wry wit and Jane's knack for malaprops ("Would you care to shoot a game of bridge, dear?"), the couple's surprise improvisation provoked a response enthusiastic enough to convince KMBC to hand them a regular fifteen minute slot, creating and performing a "domestic comedy" of their own.

"Easy Aces"---written by Goodman Ace, starring himself as a harried real estate salesman and the exasperated but loving husband of deceptively scatterbrained, malaprop-prone Jane Ace ("You've got to take the bitter with the better"; "Time wounds all heels")---became a long-running serial comedy (1930-1945) and a low-keyed legend of old-time radio for its literate, unobtrusive, conversational style and the malaprops of the female half of the team. In 1948, Ace created a new, half-hour version of the show, "mr. ace and JANE"; this expanded version, perhaps because a live studio audience detracted from its quiet style (a point made especially vivid by its audience-less, quiet audition show, and when new episodes expanded upon some of the old show's vintages), didn't last beyond a single season. And it fared no better on television.

Two decades after its brief, unsuccessful television adaptation, however, someone else was willing to give the "Easy Aces" idea a fresh television try: a number of the original "Easy Aces" radio scripts were adapted for the CTV Television Network show "The Trouble with Tracy" in 1971. The bad news: This version, apparently, was an unqualified bomb, perhaps because burgeoning feminism looked askance at the Jane Ace type of character, but most likely because the cast performing the remade scripts just weren't the relaxed Mr. Ace and Jane.

"Terrible Vaudeville": You Are There

Ace may have needled TV as "terrible vaudeville," but he wasn't averse to giving television a try. He and Jane adapted "Easy Aces" to television in December 1949, with a fifteen-minute version on the DuMont network that ended in mid-June 1950, after airing Wednesday nights from 7:45-8:00 p.m., according to "The Complete Directory to Prime Network TV Shows -- 1946 to Present (First Edition)". "As on radio," authors Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh wrote, "Ace was his witty, intelligent self, and his wife, Jane, was a charming bundle of malapropisms." The television show included Betty Garde as Jane Ace's friend, Dorothy. What it didn't include, alas, was an audience equal to the ones who kept "Easy Aces" on radio for all those years, the ones who listened each week for that quiet drollery uninterrupted even by a studio audience. The demise of the show also meant the demise of the Aces' career in front of a microphone or camera. Jane Ace retired almost completely; Goodman Ace merely retired as a performer, becoming strictly a writer from 1949 forward.

Ace did have a serious side, too, and he melded it to his sense of the absurd to create a radio show with the twist of taking listeners to re-created historical events described by actual CBS News reporters. The problem was that Ace didn't get official credit for his creation for many years; a CBS executive vice president named Desmond Taylor got the original credit for the show born on radio as "CBS Was There" and famed (especially on television, with future anchor legend Walter Cronkite narrating) for its introduction, which leapt into the American vernacular: "All things are as they were then, except you... are... there!"

"You Gentlemen, The Authors"

By this time, however, Ace began writing for other performers; Milton Berle, Perry Como, Danny Kaye, Robert Q. Lewis, and Bob Newhart were some who engaged this witty man with a winking inability to take himself too seriously. (He would be nominated for Emmy Awards twice during his term as Como's head writer, in 1956 and 1959.) Perhaps his best turn of writing in these years, however, was when he collaborated with Frank Wilson on "The Big Show", considered NBC's last-gasp attempt to keep classic radio alive. This 90-minute variety program was hosted by Tallulah Bankhead and featured a rotating cast that included some of America's and the world's greatest entertainers, including Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante, Joan Davis, Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong, George Jessel, Ethel Merman, Jose Ferrer, Ed Wynn, Lauritz Melchior, Ezio Pinza, Edith Piaf, Ginger Rogers, Ethel Barrymore, Phil Silvers, Benny Goodman, and Danny Thomas. The show was ripened by Ace's wry style, adapted to Bankhead's diva-blunt style and the differing ways of the various guests who joined in the show. (Ace said years later that one of his secrets was isolating particular interests of the guests---for example, Ginger Rogers' passion for playing golf---and write comic routines around those interests.)

For his part Ace remembered working with Bankhead fondly in later years. "'You gentlemen, the authors,' she would say," Ace once told author Robert Metz. "We gag writers felt pretty good about that." What he didn't necessarily feel good about was the writers' non-mention in Bankhead's memoir recollection about "The Big Show".

Ace had known Jack Benny since his Kansas City years. Radio historian Arthur Frank Wertheim recorded that, as a young newspaper reporter and columnist, Ace had written a witty gossip column that moved Benny himself to ask the young writer for some jokes for his stage act. Benny asked for more and paid Ace $50 for one packet of jokes. "Your jokes got lots of laughs," said the note Benny sent with the check. "If you have any more, send them along." Ace, according to Wertheim, returned the check with a note: "Your check got lots of laughs. If you have any more, send them along." Ace ended up supplying Benny with gags on the house for years, Wertheim noted.

Ace's influence went further. He revealed in the mid-1960s that CBS once developed a kind of school for young comedy writers, with Ace himself "placed in charge of a group of six or seven young writers who wanted to make all that easy money." All became television writers and two eventually became successful playwrights: George Axelrod ("The Seven Year Itch") and Neil Simon ("Barefoot in the Park", "The Odd Couple", "The Goodbye Girl").

The Saturday Reviewer

Ace became a regular columnist for "Saturday Review" (formerly "The Saturday Review of Literature"; he liked to suggest cause-and-effect in the magazine's name changing two weeks after his debut in its pages) in the early 1950s. At first, he focused---in what a publisher described (considering his parallel employment writing "for" television) as "nibbling the hand that feeds him"---on television criticism in his usual droll style; a collection of this criticism was published in 1955 as "The Book of Little Knowledge: More Than You Want to Know About Television".

Later, Ace shifted to more broad contemporary concerns and called the column "Top of My Head"; these essays became as well-read as his old radio show had been, without being either too frivolous or too overbearing. Sometimes, they were gentle; sometimes, they were more tart, always they were without genuine malice. Often they included his beloved Jane, and they were strongly enough received to provoke two delightful published collections, "The Fine Art of Hypochondria; or, How Are You?" and "The Better of Goodman Ace."

As if suggesting that radio had never really left him, Ace assembled and published a collection of eight complete Easy Aces scripts, with new essays and comments from the Aces, as "Ladies and Gentlemen-Easy Aces" in 1970. He also held a small regular slot offering witty commentaries on New York station WPAT for a time, before going out over the full National Public Radio network during the 1970s.

Jane Ace died after a long illness in 1974, just days before what would have been their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Her husband's tribute to her in the 8 February 1975 issue ("Jane") provoked hundreds of letters from his regular readers and from the couple's old radio fans.

"...now alone at a funeral home...the questions...the softly spoken suggestions...repeated, and repeated... because ...because during all the arrangements, through my mind there ran a constant rerun, a line she spoke on radio...on the brotherhood of man ...in her casual, malapropian style ... "we are all cremated equal" ... they kept urging for an answer...a wooden casket? ... a metal casket? ...it's the name of their game ... a tisket a casket...and then transporting it to Kansas City, Mo. ...the plane ride..."smoking or non-smoking section?" somebody asked ... the non-thinking section was what I wanted...."

"...a soft sprinkle of snow as we huddled around her...the first of the season, they told me ... lasted only through the short service ...snow stopped the instant the last words were spoken. He had the grace to celebrate her arrival with a handful of His confetti ..."

Goodbye, Goody

Goodman Ace died eight years after his wife, in their New York City home in March 1982; the couple are interred together in a suburb of their native Kansas City. "Mr. Ace," wrote "The New York Times's" obituarist, David Bird, "liked to scoff at ratings. He said that neither the writer nor a star alone could make or break a comedy show. It took, he said, a good time spot and teamwork. 'The whole thing has to be a kind of partnership -- a marriage between writer and performer,' he explained, 'If there is no marriage -- well you know what the brainchild has to be'."

The author of "CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye", Robert Metz, recalled that, once, a relative of Ace's had wired him to say, "Send me $10,000 or I'll jump from the fourteenth floor of my building," and Ace was said to have wired back, "Jump from seven--I'll send $5,000." Whether or not this was a true story or an Ace gag, it was understatedly madcap enough that it could have been true.

When CBS fired Ace as the head of its "comedy workshop" in the late 1940s, according to "Time", a sympathetic network vice president told him afterward, "I'll tell you a secret---we haven't got a man who understands comedy." Ace wryly replied, "I'll tell you a secret---that's no secret."

Ace himself offered his own best epitaph when "Saturday Review" ran a poll asking well-known Americans to nominate members of a contemporary Hall of Fame. "I respectfully suggest the name of Goodman Ace...if he's still around," Ace replied. "If he isn't, I wouldn't dig him up just for this." The Radio Hall of Fame respectfully ignored that suggestion, inducting "Easy Aces" in 1990.

External links

* [http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0009640/ Internet Movie Database entry: Goodman Ace]
* Walter J. Beaupre, [http://otrsite.com/articles/artwb011.html "Radio's Original Comedy Couple"]
* [http://easyace.blogspot.com/2006/07/late-great-goodman-ace.html "The Late, Great Goodman Ace"]
* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6845324 Goodman Ace's Gravesite]
* [http://www.friarsclub.com/Immortal%20Friars/Immortal%20Friars.htm "The Friars Club"]

References

Goodman Ace, "The Book of Little Knowledge; Or, More Than You Want to Know About Television" (New York; 1955).

Goodman Ace, "The Fine Art of Hypochondria; or, How Are You?" (New York: Doubleday, 1966).

Goodman Ace, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Easy Aces" (New York: Doubleday, 1970).

Goodman Ace, "The Better of Goodman Ace" (New York: Doubleday, 1971).

Fred Allen (Joe McCarthy, editor), "Fred Allen's Letters"

Groucho Marx, "The Groucho Letters", (Simon & Schuster Pub., 1967).

Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, "The Complete Directory to Prime Network TV Shows -- 1946 to Present (First Edition)"

Frank Buxton and Bill Owen, "The Big Broadcast 1920-1950"

John Crosby, "Out of the Blue"

Richard Lamparski interview with Goodman Ace, WBAI-FM, December 1970.

Leonard Maltin, "The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio's Golden Age" (New York: Dutton/Penguin, 1997).

Robert Metz, "CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye"

Arthur Frank Wertheim, "Radio Comedy". (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.)


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