There he is, the Old Redhead himself, circling in an age 76, the hair still red, the freckles still freckling, the adenoidal voice - once described as a "south wind blowing over a swampful of dirty old bathtubs" - still wafting.
Arthur Godfrey has just turned off the television set and is full of the wonders of Phil Donahue's latest seminar. Fascinating 'Phil Donahue Show. All about penis implants. Ohhh you laugh, but it's a very serious thing. Fifty percent of men from 19 to 80 will be impotent at some time. Every other guy you meet is gonna have an impotency problem." On and on goes Godfrey, endlessly fascinated.
So much for introductions. Godfrey, slight in build these days, scrunches into a sofa at the Hay-Adams, spraying an inhalator at times for shortness of breath. "Lost a lung ya know, and beside, the goddman weather . . ."
As Godfrey tells you flat out why he's hoofed it into town, echos are there of the kid who seized all the opportunities a millennium ago; the kid who was just plain old "'Red' Godfrey, the Warbling Banjoist," when he did his first radio broadcast in 1929. "Reason I'm out on this hype tour, the only reason I'm doing this is to try to get bigger numbers. If I get decent numbers, then the stations and everybody will gamble."
Godfrey is talking about the only numbers that count in TV; ratings, For the first time in 20 years, on Aug. 16, Godfrey will host his own show. TV, not too taken with subtelty, has named it "arthur's Back."
He hopes the numbers game will make him marketable enough for four or five specials a year. He'll never have to go back to sleeping on park benches, what with all the tea he sold in his glory days and having just sold his Leeburg farm in June to a Saudi Arabian prince for $5 million, but Godfrey is not in this TV racket for the dough.
"It's frustrating when you have something to say -- and no platform." Godfrey says the exact phrase again later in the interview. After all, he said it in December to an interviewer for Parade magazine and look where it got him.
"Two guys in Texas read where I wanted to get back to work -- only thing wrong with that article was the bloody headline, "The Man the Networks Forget - and they put up 800 Gs to put the show on. This is a real all-time special. They wanted to do it for the Fourth of July. They are very patriotic and had been influenced and affected by my obvious patriotism. Well, we couldn't get it ready for the Fourth so, what the hell, they said: This is your 50th year in broadcasting.'" They figured it could run any time.
When Godfrey snuggled up to the mike and gave off with that slow greeting which kept a lot of imitators in business, that low and nasal "hehwahya, hehwahya, hehwahya," he cornered the market on folksiness. There are many push-buttom answers he delivers now, after all these years of talking about himself to new generations of interviewers.
One is the magic of how he caught on. None of that "Guuud eeevening, ladies and gentlement," of other broadcasters. Godfrey knew the audience was usually one person sitting in a room "and if there's two, they're probably fighting." So he talked to one person at a time and he said folksylike, "with the good lord willing" at times, and he gave the Bronx cheer to his bosses by dawn's early light and said to himself, what the hell, as he broke a record over the mike because he didn't like it.
"Don't worry," he told his many audiences-of-one, "the big shots won't even know about this.They're still in the sack." That was on Washington radio. When he moved to big-time television his show stayed in the top 10 much of the time in the years between 1947 and 1958.His Boy Scout sincnrity about such products as Lipton Tea broughrt in $27 million worth of accounts to CBS each year.
Older women adored Godfrey, that freckle-faced guy who read a department store ad about "filmy, clingy, alluring silk underwear in devastating pink and black," then ad-libbed "boy, is my face red." He tore up the ad copy. "I'll never do that again," he vowed. The women adored that. Went out and flooded the store asking for those particular undies that made Godfrey blush.
Off camera, Godfrey could be quite a cutup about women (he once said, "When I want to take my mind off things, I do what any other intelligent man does. I get in bed with a good woman"). And "the good lord willing" gave way for "for chrissakes" and "what the hell" and a lot of expletives deleted.
But patriotism for a tried-and-true country never waves, nor it seems, does his vision of a tried-and-true television format.
Julius LaRosa, Holi Loki, Marion Marlowe, the Mariners, the McGuire sisters who could ever forget the pals on Godfrey's show? A lot of people. They were like whipped cream, shipping into America's living room, sliding down our gullets, pleasant and monumentally mediocre and forgotten.
"Phyllis McGuire is on the new show. The most gorgeous 50-year-old. She looks like 25. She's even a little more slim than then. And she sings like a bird.
"I think when you see this show you're gonna feel a lift, a pride once again at seeing people doing things that are wonderful to look at. I'm presenting two beautiful legitimate female voices and you haven't heard that one radio or TV for ages. One girl from Australia, Julie Anthony, will knock you out physically and she has a beautiful voice.
"And another, who is diva, makes Dolly Parton llook like me. A beautiful, big gal who sings so gorgeous. We filmed her in Reno, Nev. by trees and a lake and there are two trout fishermen at dawn and here comes this gal screaming down the river. They threw their poles away and swore never to take another drink.
"And we've got Art Garney -- I gave him his start - and Steve Allen and Jo Ann Worley, you remember her don't you? She's the first woman astronaut in this skit . . . I used to do firsts. Did the first figure-skating ballet on ice In this show we do the first ballet on rollerskates." And there is the tribute to Walt Disney and Will Rogers and the Apollo astronauts.
It stays with him alway. It is even given prominence in a wire service obituary written years ago, as they are for all famous people, and waiting in newspaper libraries around the country. "It" is Arthur Godfrey's on-the-air firing in singer Julius LaRosa in 1953.
After LaRosa performed, Godfrey eased his way into camera viiew and told his 20 million viewers that Julius La Rosa had sung his swan song There was just one problem. That was the first LaRosa had heard about it.
LaRosa had lost his humility, Godfrey explained. Humility jokes were big for a while. Some in the broadcast industry still say that this one incident -- that hardly squared with a godbless-good-guy image - started Godfrey's downfall. His widely publicized cancer five years later climaxed it.
A brief cloud of irritation crosses Godfrey's sunnyfaced, twinkly-eyed openness when LaRosa is mentioned. "Ahhhh, what's the use rehashing that old junk? So what the hell." LaRosa is shrugged off. "If you don't have talent, it runs its course. He's selling mussels now."
The lung cancer is another matter, "Reson I am not on TV are the last 20 years. TV people say we're got to have five years, in order to make money now, you gotta have reruns. So they said 'Hell, we can't depend on him. Look at his medical history. He's gonna die.' Well it's been 20 years."
"I should never have sired anybody. You've got to be home to be a father. I was immersed in my business, my flying, my horses. People like me don't make good husbands or fathers. Oh, sure I 'provided well' but that's not half the job." Godfrey says of his wife of 40 years, "I've always lived in New York and she lived on the farm."
His children, two grown sons and a daughter, are wonderful, great and lovely, he tells you. "My oldest son (by a former marriage) got all screwed up about the celebrity stuff and my granddaughter is still having problems, but she brings it on herself.She goes around telling everyone who she is" (as in Arthur Godfrey's granddaughter).
He is happy his children never went into show biz. "I don't think it's a good life. Either you're a star and have to put up with all that stuff -- or you're nothing. And to be children of a celebrity is a bad deal, I kept them completely away from it".
If Godfrey doesn't have a platform, he certanly has the opinions. "I found out about the (environment) problem fishing in the Chesapeake and noticing certain species were gone, noticing the shad run was gone out of the Hudson, flying around and seeing smog all around the earth. We should have used methanol and electric cars years ago,"
And the little guy who doesn't understand the pain and agony of being rich: "A million dollar a year I made? Do you also remember the tax? It was 92 cents on a dollar , over $100,000 gross. The idea we were multimulti- millionaires is baloney. The average man says, 'Oh I should have problems like that.' That's the reason this country has so many goddam problems. The average person doesn't care. Thank god it's down to 50 cents on the dollar now."
It takes a long time for Godfrey to tell one of his favorite, rambling stories. How he was an ardent disciple of Curtis LeMay and the B-52 bomber and how Godfrey went down to the ranch to see "Lyndon" who was then majority leader.How Godfrey knew a lot he never talked about on radio because it was pretty much top secret stuff. "It's not generally known but he (Defense Secretary C. E. Wilson) wanted me to be secretary of the Navy."
Godfrey lobbied Lyndon Johnson and helped push the B-52 through, he says. Then Godfrey was alerted to a another crisis. Pay raises for the military were vital to stop a brain drain of the best men needed to save our country, said Curt (LeMay). "Lyndon said the only way to convince Congress of the need was constituent mail."
So Godfrey went on the air and pleaded for military pay raises. Lyn- callnd him. The grin of recollection spreads, "Lyndon said, finally, to stop it. 'You S.O.B.' Lyndon said, 'the mail is up to the ceiling.'" The smile of satisfaction is there still. "Well, those are the things I love to do. The power of constituent mail is terrific."
Godfrey never tires of telling of his Horatio Alger leap to frame. From sleeping on park benches to seven-figure salaries. The kid whose family was evicted four times grew up to have a higher name recognition (91 percent) than either John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon in 1960.
He'd like to tell his stories in a book but he doesn't have the patience to write it and he can't find a collaborator who can get along with him. "Only way is I'd have to find a woman - cuz I don't get along with guys too well."
He gives it a boffo-ending, stagesized wink. Arthur Godfrey will be 76 on Aug. 31. CAPTION: Picture, Arthur Godfrey, by James M. Thresher-The Washington Post