A Yankee Notebook

February 8, 2016


MONTPELIER – Almost obscured by the foofaraw surrounding the Presidential primaries was the sad announcement, last week, of the passing of an American treasure. Bob Elliott, 92, the surviving member of the Bob & Ray comedy team, died at his home in Cundys Harbor, Maine – one of those places you can’t get to from here. He’d been out of action for some years, but suddenly I miss him more than ever.

In 1951, just after my sophomore year in secondary school, I got my first summer job, as a pots-and-pans scrubber at a summer camp on Cape Cod. My buddy Art Edgerly ran the dishwasher, and two Simmons coeds, Minnie Mouse (her nickname overcomes any memory of her real name) and Nancy Tucker, did the cooking.

It was my first immersion in eastern Massachusetts accents and my first exposure to a local addiction, “The Bob and Ray Matinee,” which ran for 15 minutes daily at 5:45 on WHDH. All three of my culinary colleagues had to have the radio on at that time.

But there was a fly in the ointment: Mr. Melcher, the somewhat fussy camp director – you’d be fussy, too, if you had a roster of campers with the surnames those kids bore – insisted that supper be “on the tables, piping hot, at precisely six o’clock!” But Bob and Ray so regularly reduced us to hopeless laughter that we failed a couple of times. After a few tongue-lashings by the Director, we settled on a plan: Three of us, in rotation, would listen to the show and help out whenever we could, while the fourth avoided listening, and kept everything “piping hot” – without burning anything – and trundled it out into the dining room at precisely one minute before six. If the Director ever noticed the frantic activity of the decimated kitchen staff, he never mentioned it; and three of us, at least, were able to indulge our addiction.

Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were masters of deadpan humor and commentators on the occasional unwitting farce of American life. Their show featured commercials for zany, unlikely manufacturers like the Monongahela Metal Foundry, which produced “steel ingots with the housewife in mind,” and Einbinder Flypaper, “the flypaper you’ve gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations.” Their delivery was so like that of normal radio commercials that people new to the phenomenon – especially midwesterners – thought it was genuine.

Their collaboration wasn’t planned; they were just a pair of disc jockeys who met at the station and clicked with each other. The normal banter and patter of DJs developed into a give-and-take that became irresistible. They spoofed a popular soap opera, “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife,” with their version of “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife,” which eventually became more popular than the show it lampooned. Bob did the dulcet alto of Mary herself.

Ray normally did the blustery, opinionated characters, and Bob the credulous, but slightly amused interviewer. It’s amazing to me that, 65 years after hearing it during an evening off from the piping-hot detail, I still remember Bob visiting a convention of flower pot manufacturers. He’s managed to get an interview with one of them (Ray, naturally) who agrees to it on the condition that he not be asked any controversial questions. After a couple of minutes, Bob mentions that he’s always been intrigued by the little round hole in the bottom of flowerpots, and asks what it’s for.

Pause. Then, “I thought we agreed I was not to be asked any controversial questions.”

There was the psychiatrist (Bob) whom Ray interviewed in his office on the 73rd floor of a Manhattan office building. The psychiatrist is wearing a parachute. Naturally, Ray asks him why. If the building collapses, the psychiatrist answers, I’ll be able to jump out the window and survive.

“But that’s never happened,” Ray protests, “and it’s quite unlikely.”

“I don’t have the statistics. I just have the phobia.” I don’t imagine there’s a single writer or speaker in the world who doesn’t hope what he writes or says will last that long in memory.

Bob’s character Wally Ballou (“highly regarded winner of over seven international diction awards”), is an utterly clueless sports announcer who always keys his mike a half-second late and comes on air as “...allou here.” He runs an occasional man-on-the-street program in which he always interviews characters played by Ray: a cranberry grower, for example, who’s never heard of cranberry juice, and a disgruntled pedestrian who says, “I’ve never understood why the network places so much faith in the opinions of the man on the street.”

One of Bob’s most famous turns is as an expert in the habits and habitat of the Komodo dragon; his repetitive answers drive Ray to distraction. He does it again as the president of the Slow Talkers of America, whose answers take so long to deliver that soon Ray is trying to finish them for him, and finally calls in exasperation for the curtain to be dropped.

One reason many of us who loved them miss them so is that we can never adequately convey to those who never heard them, especially young people, how funny they were. But never mind. They travel with me still in the CD player (soon to be defunct) in my truck, and I still have somewhere a few cases of canned corned beef, all clearly stamped, “San Juan Hill, 1898.”

Photo by Willem lange