Hangin' Out With Top Cat

An Interview With Arnold Stang

by Walter J. Beaupre

Condensed version of this article appeared in June, 1997, Radiogram

The Henry Morgan Show on October 30, 1946 (see SPERDVAC Catalog A-736) opens with a send-up of pocket-sized magazines with condensed articles [Reader’s Digest?]. In a skit about the "Morgan Magazine Digest", announcer Ted Huzing sets up the comic premise by introducing Henry as...
"Foreign correspondent Rudley Mongoose, just returned from a 12-minute visit to the country of Snooznia. Mr. Mongoose is known as the author of such revealing books as:
  • Austria: A Country of Austrians,
  • South Africa: Land of Smuts,
  • The Boer War: And Why It Was Boring! and
  • Philadelphia: Gateway To India
The following article was both written and condensed by Mr. Mongoose for the ‘Morgan Magazine Digest’ titled, ‘Snooznia: A Country to Watch’"
Ominous Fanfare...
"Snooznia: A Country to Watch’ -- so I watched it! My plane landed in Sneeznia, capitol of Snooznia, early in January...or perhaps February, depending upon what calendar you use. As you know, the Snooznian calendar has two Fridays because they’re so fond of fish. As we landed, thousands of hungry Snooznians crowded about the plane begging for 1946 Chevrolets. I naturally gave out as many as I could. After all, I’d come to learn something about this strange, mysterious, unknown people about whom I’d already written so much.." [Morgan drops the pontificating voice of Mongoose and addresses the audience as himself.] "What’s WRONG with the first five rows here!!" [Back in character as Mongoose] "As I walked along the main street of Sneeznia suddenly, without warning, a sinister native stopped me and muttered..."
Your shoe laces are untied!
The audience erupts with uninhibited glee. Morgan’s show has been stopped by a performer usually identified as “Gerard” and played by Arnold Stang. True, Henry had been getting respectable laugh responses to the sophisticated humor of the piece up to this point -- even though his aside to the first five rows of the audience suggests that he expected better. Why the sudden magic moment? Just who is the radio actor who proved on this particular occasion to be more than a match for the enormously gifted Henry Morgan?

Arnold Stang Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Arnold Stang in his hotel room after a Friday evening appearance at Radio Classics Live VIII in Brockton, Massachusetts. He had been featured in a re-creation of an episode where Henry Morgan tries to arrange a date for Gerard with a neat-freak bimbette who uses her vacuum cleaner as mood music for the romantic tryst. The piece was as fresh and funny as anything done today by Jerry Seinfeld and company, and the audience loved it. Arnold modestly passed it off as all in an evening’s work, so we settled down to reviewing the past.

Where was Arnold Stang born? About 30 miles from where we were doing the interview -- in Chelsea, a town just north of Boston on the way to Revere Beach. The Stangs had lived for a couple generations in this area. Had he been born into a show-biz family? No way! The Stangs took a dim view of any form of acting. This fact, however, didn’t stop Arnold from being fascinated by the kiddy program Let’s Pretend which he heard every Saturday morning over the local CBS station WEEI and which originated in New York. He decided that he would like to be on the program and sent in a postcard to that effect. Of course, thousands of children wanted to be on the program, but CBS dutifully sent him a form to complete which he mailed back post-haste. What followed was almost as unbelievable as the fairy tales enacted on Let’s Pretend.

Without his parents’ blessing this 9-year-old took his savings and bought a round-trip bus ticket from Boston to New York, showed up all by himself at the Madison Avenue offices of CBS on a Saturday morning, and found himself in a waiting room with dozens of other children with their doting parents. When it was Arnold’s turn to be interviewed he walked in solo and recited Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Before he left New York for the bus ride back to Boston he had been hired to appear on Let’s Pretend. Arnold remembered also that the program was actually broadcast at that time not from the CBS studios but from a theater which later became Playhouse 54.

His success created a slight problem in logistics. Commuting from Chelsea, Massachusetts, every weekend to New York for a grammar-school child had its pitfalls. He had also been employed to do the Horn & Hardhart Children’s Show for NBC on Sundays. Luckily Arnold had an aunt who lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. He moved in with her and continued schooling while adding a second Sunday show to his schedule, American Pageant of Youth.

For the first three years Arnold Stang worked exclusively in radio. He mentioned at this point in the interview that he once had an entire shelf of scripts in his apartment where characters were identified as "an Arnold Stang type." He didn’t elaborate as to just what this "type" was. I would describe the persona as "plucky," "brash," "appealingly vulnerable" -- the quintessential "ugged individual" who down deep isn’t "rugged" at all. Arnold’s assessment of his craft was more definitive: "I was never a ‘comedian’: I am an actor who does comedy." He emphasized the fact that he is a team player with little interest in doing stand-up routines or a one-man-show. One time, Arnold remembered, when Milton Berle was ill and couldn’t do the Texaco Star Theater he was asked to take over for "Uncle Miltie." In the earliest stages of rehearsals it was clear to Arnold that he should step aside for another personality.

With three years of network radio under his slender belt, Arnold Stang did his first legitimate theater work at age twelve. The play was called “All In Favor” and had tryouts in Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia before opening at the Henry Miller theater in New York. The critics called the show a “Junior Mister,” suggesting that it was riding on the coat-tails of the enormously popular hit of the early 40’s, “Junior Miss.” Movies were the next challenge, and Arnold made the trek to Hollywood with his mother in tow. Mrs. Stang was lonesome for her family back East and soon returned to New York while Arnold stayed in Tinsel-town to make Seven Days Leave with Victor Mature and Lucille Ball. The 1942 RKO musical about a sailor on leave who must marry within two weeks to collect his inheritance was directed by Tim Whelan and also featured Ginny Simms, Buddy Clark, Peter Lynd Hayes, and Harold Perry. The hit song in the film was "Can’t Get Out of This Mood." (Incidentally, the film is available through Turner Home Video.) RKO loaned out Arnold to Columbia for My Sister Eileen with Roz Russell, and to MGM for a Bob Hope feature They Got Me Covered. Dorothy Lamour also starred in this WWII yarn about a fired war correspondent who tries to prove his worth by uncovering a Nazi spy ring.

Truth continued to be stranger than fiction while this teenager found himself living all alone in a house rented for him by the studio. Not to worry! There was little chance for him to get into trouble. "All my time was spent at the studio!" he declared. "I probably never would have seen the Pacific Ocean if it hadn’t been for Victor Mature. I’d do six days a week at the studio -- and then radio on Sundays!"

Arnold had nothing but admiration for actor Victor Mature who "kept an eye on me and took me to his home on weekends"” He survived -- thanks to the kindness of some other rather exotic "strangers." "Rita Hayworth wrote a note to my mother every weekend to keep her posted." Bob Hope and Jack Benny took a personal interest in him as well.

His first network radio show as a featured performer was a partial summer replacement for the Jack Benny Jell-O program on NBC Sundays at 7:00 PM. It was called The Remarkable Miss Tuttle and starred Edna Mae Oliver as Josephine Tuttle. Arnold Stang played Miss Tuttle’s nephew Bobby Shuttleworth. The program aired from July 5th through August 30th in, 1942

.. It was time to return to New York where Arnold suddenly found himself doing a lot of radio comedy. There were guest appearances with Fanny Brice and each of the Marx Brothers. He spent two seasons on the Al Jolson Show. Fred Allen turned out to be a valuable friend, and Arnold played the son to Fred’s Rip Van Winkle with Minerva Pious as Mrs. Van Winkle for the Theater Guild On The Air. All day every day he went from one radio show to another, often with time only for a candy bar at lunch.

I asked if he had ever done one of my favorite shows, Easy Aces."Oh, yes!" he said, and went on to praise Asa Goodman as a brilliant writer and producer of some of the epic shows of radio and early TV. I observed that Jane Epstein who was also Goodman’s wife in real life couldn’t have been THAT "ditzy" in person."Oh, she couldn’t?" Arnold countered with a twinkle in his eye. Another one of my personal myths bit the dust! The interview hour was getting late, and we began began recalling the famous Jane Ace malapropisms --all carefully scripted by her husband.

Eventually we got back to Henry Morgan. What did Arnold think of the controversial man behind the radio personality? "An absolute genius!" was the unhesitating reply. "He pulled up the standards of a lot of other shows. You’d be surprised, perhaps shocked, if you knew the number of famous entertainers who came to rehearsals to watch Henry work his magic -- and learn from him." Arnold also made it clear that Morgan was "often his own worst enemy" [my paraphase of his description]. I pushed for a specific example.

Apparently Henry insisted that everyone on his show sit up front in a row of chairs until it was time to step to the microphone and say lines. Arnold chose not to buy this regimentation and would wander around doing other things -- but always back to the mike on time for lines. Henry refused to accept this, and it was a source of constant friction."“As well as we worked together on the air," admitted Stang, "we were never friends outside the show. I remember one time he invited me to a housewarming at his new Fifth Avenue apartment. I went but I couldn’t wait to get away!"

Nevertheless, Arnold Stang was not one to let personal feelings cloud his objective assessment of Henry’s amazing talents: "Whenever I got a big laff on the Morgan show it was because of brilliant planning -- nothing else! I am NOT a comedian. I am an actor who does comedy."

Although Arnold was later a favorite on TV’s Texaco Star Theater, "I much preferred radio as a more intelligent and creative medium." Ironically, Milton Berle had been a flop on radio. It was his writer/producer Nat Hiken who made "Uncle Miltie" a Tuesday night phenomenon. Hiken went on to work similar magic for Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko.

In spite of his preference for radio Arnold was soon advised by his agent to do TV in order to survive in radio as well. "Remember," he told this interviewer, "I started out to be a serious actor. I was a charter member of the Actor’s Studio and I played serious parts in Man With the Golden Arm and in Somebody Up There Likes Me. What I do is acting....comedy acting."

There were other projects. Just before the Brockton weekend when I mentioned to my son that I hoped to get an interview with Arnold, he asked,"Who IS he?" This was ironic because, as a child, our son nearly drove my wife and I crazy playing his favorite Top Cat records over and over again. Arnold Stang was,of course, the very distinctive voice of "T.C."

There were only two topics the obliging Mr. Stang refused to discuss -- his age and retirement. Time has been kind to his looks and his talents, so age is really irrelevant. With his busy schedule and plans well into the future it is highly unlikely that Arnold will switch to shuffleboards and contract bridge any time soon.

Is there a Mrs. Stang? "Oh, yes! I’m still with my ‘original wife’ Joanne. I call her my ‘current wife,’ but we’ve been a team for 49 years." She writes for the New York Times. Were there children? Yes, a daughter who is a pediatrician and a son who taught art history and currently is an art dealer.

What do you do in your spare time? "I don’t have any!" was his first response. Later he confessed to being into backyard gardening, a "member of the black thumb club." He quickly added to his list of hobbies"writing, directing and re-writing." These sounded suspiciously like "work" to this reviewer. Arnold likes to travel to England twice a year to see shows.

After getting the bulk of this information in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I had a chance to watch Arnold Stang at work again the same afternoon playing the role of Herb, the narrator (and con artist/promoter) of My Client Curley, a Columbia Workshop program written by Louise Fletcher and adapted by Norman Corwin. "Curley" is a caterpillar who has been taught to dance only to the tune "Yes, sir! That’s My Baby!" and who eventually thwarts Herb’s plans for grandiose exploitation by doing what comes naturally. Stang’s professionalism and focus when attacking a role new to him was a powerful moment of theater artistry. This was a careful craftsman who could build a flesh-and-blood character in your mind. This was also a team player who was not about to "upstage" anybody -- not even a caterpillar. Arnold Stang as a consumate illusionist with his voice is still very much in transit, and I am thankful that I was there to cheer as he passed by.

[Special thanks to Eileen Tierney in the Media Center at the University of Rhode Island, Roy Waite of Tokyo, and Jay Hickerson for additional data related to this report. WJB]

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