The St. Louis Influence on Fibber McGee
Writers were the faceless – usually nameless – people behind the scenes in yesteryear radio. Without them very little would have happened. A St. Louis man made a national name for himself in the field of radio writing after he grew tired of the long hours he was putting in at his old job.
Phil Leslie told interviewer Chuck Schaden he had been working as an assistant manager and bookkeeper in a St. Louis theater in the late 1930s when he decided to trade in his 80-hour work week for a job in writing. In 1939 he submitted some jokes to radio comedian Al Pearce for use on his network program, The Al Pearce Show. Broadcast nationally on NBC, the 30-minute show was sponsored by Grape Nuts.
Pearce was impressed, and he not only offered a writing job to Leslie. He even paid for the family’s move to Hollywood. But shortly after the Leslie family settled in California, the program went off the air for its summer hiatus, forcing Leslie to scrounge for another line of work and develop some free-lance writing work on the side.
He landed at Lockheed Aircraft, which brought in some income for a couple years. Then it was hand-to-mouth during the early years of the war. He eventually picked up script writing duties for the Major Hoople show and Victor Borge’s Kraft Music Hall. But when Phil Leslie got a chance to feed some material to a man named Don Quinn, he found the perfect job.
In March of 1943, Quinn was writing for the hugely popular Fibber McGee and Molly show. Leslie was able, through mutual friends, to get some of his material to Quinn and the two hit it off. Leslie’s work on Fibber McGee and Molly lasted until the mid-50s. He told interviewer Schaden that he began by coming up with loose plotlines so the door-knocking regular characters’ appearances could be woven into the show. Within a few months, Leslie was writing entire programs.
Quoted in the book “Heavenly Days,” Leslie said, “Don Quinn hired me to write with him, and it was a big change in my whole life…To have had thirteen years of that kind of life with Marian and Jim [Jordan, who played the show’s leads], and the others, it was a joy!”
Writing a once-a-week radio program was a week-long process. Leslie told interviewer Schaden, “…my routine was that I would write the whole show, and we would get together at the Jordans’ house on Saturday afternoon. We would all read the script – read it aloud…and I would sit and sweat – wondering how good it was. Then Don would rewrite it over the weekend on Saturday night and Sunday, as much as he thought it needed…Then Monday we’d do a reading, and Don would make cuts and polishes. Tuesday we’d rehearse all day and do the show.”
Apparently Don Quinn’s long relationship with the Jordans had yielded more than a personal relationship. They trusted his judgment completely, whether it was in hiring the best writers or in making the final script edits before the live Tuesday night broadcasts. The Fibber McGee and Molly show consistently placed in the top five nationally in number of listeners.
Along with that popularity, the show had an uncanny influence on the public as the source of favorite sayings that made their way into everyday use: “That ain’t the way I heeerd it;” “You’re a haaaard man, McGee;” “Looove dat man;” “Tain’t funny, McGee;” and “Heavenly days!” The Fibber McGee and Molly show was literally a “destination program” for radio listeners, giving them something to talk about the next day with their friends.
When Don Quinn left the program, Phil Leslie was promoted to his position. Shortly afterward the network changed the program from a half-hour, once-a-week broadcast to a fifteen minute show five nights a week.
By 1953, the power of network radio had begun to slip. Phil Leslie began writing for television, which he continued until his retirement.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 06/07.)