You felt old, or older, if you saw the movie "Annie Hall" with a friend too young to know that "Seems Like Old Times," the song sung in the movie by Diane Keaton, was for years and years the signature tune of the one and only Arthur Godfrey, who may have sung it a thousand times or so during his lengthy career on the air.
Arthur Godfrey signed off for good yesterday at 79, quietly and presumably without musical accompaniment, after more than 50 years in broadcasting, but he didn't take an era with him. It had left long before. Those who cannot remember first-generation television will never know the privileged place in our lives that the highfalutin and much celebrated shows like "Studio One" and "Playhouse 90" and "Wide Wide World" had--nor will they know the particular and perhaps no less important niche occupied by the likes of Arthur Godfrey and the new kind of fame he both enjoyed and helped invent.
For a span of several years, Arthur Godfrey was probably the most omnipresent entertainment figure in broadcasting, even though by traditional terms he lacked readily identifiable talents. His singing was on the mediocre side (though he had a hit recording of "I'd Give a Million Tomorrows for Just One Yesterday," with lyrics by Milton Berle) and his ukulele playing--well, how good can ukulele playing be? In a 1979 interview he theorized that what viewers thought of him as a personality was, "He sings horribly, but he's on the level." Godfrey's daily radio show continued on the CBS network even while he hosted the weekly TV "Talent Scouts" show on Monday nights and its spinoff (though the term hadn't been invented yet), "Arthur Godfrey and His Friends," on Wednesday nights.
"Arthur Godfrey and His Friends," announcer Tony Marvin would say, starred "Arthur Godfrey and all the little Godfreys." He was as much a patriarch as Ben Cartwright on "Bonanza," and he ruled his clan with, it was said, an iron hand not unlike that of Lawrence Welk.
Arthur Godfrey was not really an innovator in a class with Dave Garroway, nor a raconteur in a class with Jack Paar, but he as much as anyone helped take the chill off the idea of suddenly having a stranger in the house. The stranger was television. He was not boldly talented in any particular way except in being able to ingratiate himself into the lives of millions of people who knew him as a light picture that flickered inside a bulky box. Arthur Godfrey surrounded himself with an extended family on his programs--Carmel Quinn, the McGuire Sisters, Haleloke, The Chordettes (of "Mr. Sandman" fame), Frank Parker and Marion Marlowe (the Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald of the '50s) and Julius LaRosa, the boyish Italian singer whom Godfrey, in a notorious moment of pique, fired on the air--but he also extended himself into millions of real families who incorporated him into the daily rituals of domestic American life.
Godfrey liked to explain his secret of success in broadcasting by saying that, during one of his innumerable spells in a hospital, he listened to the radio and realized that most radio personalities were using the old-fashioned oratorical techniques suited better to large crowds than to the tiny audiences gathered around their Philcos and Emersons. Godfrey helped do for talk broadcasting what Bing Crosby did for song broadcasting. He made himself phenomenally familiar to an entire nation.
When he was sponsored by a cigarette company, announcer Marvin introduced him by saying, "And now, here he is, Arthur Buy-'Em-By-The-Carton Godfrey." But we who watched then associate him more with the Lipton company, whose tea and soups he hawked in revolutionary candid fashion on the Monday night "Talent Scouts" show, the one with the primitive VU meter that measured audience applause and decided each week's winning performer. Godfrey was one of the first personalities to "kid" the sponsor, a canny technique that was a boon to sales. Sitting behind a podium on "Talent Scouts," he would open a box of Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup, pour out the dehydrated contents next to his microphone, and search diligently through them to find an actual piece of chicken.
He succeeded then in allying himself with the viewer and the viewer's skepticism even while obediently serving his master, The Sponsor. Arthur Godfrey moved a lot of soup in his time. He was considered for many years the master salesman in all of broadcasting.
The LaRosa incident was a pivotal media event of the '50s, like Nixon's "Checkers" speech or Pinky Lee's on-air heart attack, or, on a more sublime level still, the night Mary Martin and Ethel Merman sang the duet of the century on the "Ford 50th Anniversary Show." In later years, the humiliated LaRosa, who heard Godfrey announce that he'd just sung "his swan song" after a live, televised, 1953 performance, expressed little hostility toward the man who had plucked him from obscurity in Pensacola, Fla., and then, with more than a touch of demagoguery, tried to send him right back to it again.
"You can't really blame the guys I ran up against," LaRosa told Max Wilk for Wilk's book "The Golden Age of Television," published in 1976. "TV presented them with enormous power, and if they used it in various ways, that's because they had it to use. Put any of us in the same position as they were, we'd probably do the same."
Television grew too big and too frantic for the low-key camaraderie Godfrey and similar performers had to offer, and pretty soon if a comedian were to greet an audience with an adenoidal "Ha-whya ha-whya ha-whya," as almost every impressionist eventually did during the '50s, few people would have known it was an impersonation of Arthur Godfrey. Television, which grants instant celebrity, can also in its cruelty bestow hasty anonymity. Robert Metz reported in his book "Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye" that at one point Godfrey alone was responsible for bringing in 12 percent of the revenues of the CBS Television Network, but as the '50s ended, and Godfrey's health worsened, he left the air, and soon prime time was, stem-to-stern, filmed shows made in Hollywood.
There would have been little room for Arthur and his teabags and chicken soup even if his health had allowed him to continue.
The life had been drained out of live television. But Godfrey showed amazing resiliency even after the loss of a lung. He continued to appear from time to time, handling such chores as, in New York, the telecast of the St. Patrick's Day Parade or, ignobly, one of those insurance commercials for people over 50. The hair on The Old Redhead's head was still, naturally or not, a jaunty crimson and the voice a bouncy baritone. And so it seemed, though only faintly and for a brief moment, like old times once again.