Arthur Godfrey, 79, the radio and television personality whose unfailing hominess was close to godliness for his millions of fans, died of emphysema and pneumonia yesterday at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Godfrey's daily television and radio broadcasts made him one of the most popular entertainers of all time. He was once reported to account for 12 percent of all of the revenue of CBS.
In a photo recognition poll taken just before the 1960 elections, John F. Kennedy was recognized by 71 percent, Richard M. Nixon by 86 percent and Arthur Godfrey by 91 percent of those interviewed.
He did it all with a voice and mannerisms that might have been wholly forgettable in anyone else, although they were a voice and mannerisms much beloved by impersonators and others in the entertainment world. There was his standard greeting, "Howahya, howahya, howahya;" his ukulele, an instrument he learned to play in the Navy; his voice, which has been described as "a south wind blowing over a swampful of dirty old bathtubs;" the fun he poked at sponsors; and his singing voice, which was mostly talking and which turned a tune called "Too Fat Polka" into a million-record best seller. He had freckles and red hair and, not surprisingly, he was called "the Old Redhead."
Most of all there was the way he seemed to persuade each listener that the whole informal, enchanting, titillating, folksy and carefully crafted rigamarole was just for the benefit of that one person. He was laid back long before pop culture discovered that being laid back was a virtue.
He knew exactly what he was doing. In the early days of radio "they would all come on as if they were speaking to the whole country," he said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1972. "'Guuud eeevening, ladies and gentlemen.' What they didn't realize was that the audience is one person sitting in a room and if there's two they're probably fighting. I saw that you have to talk to that one person."
In 1959, he gave up his daily television programs because of an operation to remove a cancerous lung. It was a medical procedure that was followed by millions. He kept up his radio broadcasts for CBS until 1972. In recent years he has appeared in occasional special broadcasts.
Mr. Godfrey's way with words and people made him a millionaire many times over. Until 1979, when he sold it to a Saudi Arabian prince, he owned "Beacon Hill," a 1,970-acre estate near Leesburg. He raised palomino cutting horses, all of which seemed to have been named "Goldie," and showed them all over the country. He was a pilot who was qualified to fly everything from the smallest private aircraft to big passenger jets. The causes he supported as a private citizen, if it can be said that anything he did was private, included pay increases for the military and benefits for the Boy Scouts. He was an avid supporter of environmental movements.
Away from the camera or the microphone, Mr. Godfrey was a tough-minded entertainment executive. It was a side of his character that the public got a look at one night in 1953 when he fired singer Julius La Rosa on the air for "lack of humility." Critics said the incident would put an end to the Godfrey appeal.
"Ahhh, what's the use of rehashing that old junk?" he asked in an interview with this newspaper in 1979 when he was here to promote a special broadcast. "So what the hell. If you don't have talent, it runs its course. He's selling mussels now."
He also spoke of his family. In 1938, he married the former Mary Bourke and they had two children. A third child was born to a previous marriage.
"I should never have sired anybody," he said. "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. I've always lived in New York and she lived on the farm."
Moreover, he said, he was happy that his children had not followed him into show business.
"I don't think it's a good life," he said. "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."
This was a far cry from the Arthur Godfrey America had been listening to for years and watching on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," which went on the air in 1948, and "Arthur Godfrey and His Friends," which followed shortly afterward and which became "The Arthur Godfrey Show."
America's Arthur Godfrey is there to be heard on a tape of a radio program he did on Christmas Eve, 1946. He read a poem, sang "White Christmas," and followed that with a recipe for eggnog, about which he commented, "What a mickey," and laughed. Later he put on some background music, remarking, "How about a little tune from the orchestra, it being time to sell headache powders." More chuckles. He finished up with a "merry Christmas" for everybody and advice on watching the traffic over the holidays.
A week later, he read a hangover recipe. "My, my, my," he said. "Serves six, it says. Serves 'em right, too."
A story Mr. Godfrey often told was about his early days on WMAL radio in Washington, when he did an early morning show. He was supposed to play "The William Tell Overture," he said, and decided that that was a bad idea. So he broke the record over the microphone and announced: "Some big shot upstairs thinks you ought to listen to 'The William Tell Overture' at 6:30 a.m. Don't worry, the big shots won't ever know about this. They're still in the sack."
Later, the station manager called him in and told him that whatever he was doing on the air he should keep it up.
Washington also was the scene of one of Mr. Godfrey's favorite stories about kidding advertisers. He read a department store ad for "filmy, clingy, alluring silk underwear." When he got through, he said, "Man, is my face red." The store was soon crowded with customers wanting to buy the merchandise that had made Arthur Godfrey's face red, according to the story.
And it was from Washington that he made the first disc jockey broadcast on a nationwide network on which listeners could call in. Among those who got on the telephone was Walter Winchell, and Mr. Godfrey was on his way to fame and fortune.
Arthur Michael Godfrey was born on Aug. 31, 1903, in New York City. His father was a newspaperman and magazine writer. The boy, and his four brothers and sisters, grew up in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. At 14, young Arthur ran away from home. He worked as a coal miner, an office boy and a cab driver. In 1920, he enlisted in the Navy and became a radio operator on a destroyer. He went back to civilian life in 1924, but in 1927 enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he graduated from the Radio Materiel School in Washington.
He was stationed in Baltimore when friends urged him to try out for a local radio talent show. Soon he was on the air regularly, billed as "Red Godfrey, the Warbling Banjoist." With the help of the governor of Maryland, it is said, he got an early discharge from the Coast Guard to go into radio full time.
In 1930, he was taken on by NBC as an announcer in Washington. In 1931, his hips were broken in an automobile accident that left him with a permanent limp. He shortly switched to CBS in Washington. In 1934, he embarked on a freelance radio career, much of which he spent in Washington on WJSV, which later became WTOP. One of his favorite sponsors was "Zlotnick the Furrier," who had a stuffed polar bear outside his store in downtown Washington. He began his daily national stint on CBS on April 30, 1945, and continued it until April 30, 1972.
For Mr. Godfrey, the bout he had with lung cancer in 1959 was one of the principal events of his life.
"In '59, I had a 2 percent chance," he recalled in 1972. "The media wrote me off. I wrote myself off for a year. Then I got a chance to be copilot on the first 707 delivery to Air India. Everyone was giving me six months at the time, including myself."
In India, he went on a tiger hunt in an area where no tigers had been seen for 25 years. This made him concerned about vanishing species.
Then, he said, "We went on to Tokyo and had us a ball, and I want to tell you that till you've had a bath in Tokyo you haven't had a bath. I proved to myself that I was a helluva lot younger than my years. I just say, don't wait till you're as old as I was before you take that bath . . . .
"The whole thing had a leveling, broadening influence on my life. There was only one thing in life in which I could have faith, I decided, and that was a belief in the goodness of man. But that doesn't mean you can bend over, unless your rear is against the wall. You've got to know that and not let it embitter you against man."