THE SMALL HOUSE HALFWAY UP IN THE NEXT BLOCK

Sam Sackett

Years before television found The Little House on the Prairie radio had “the small house halfway up in the next block.”  That was the home of Vic and Sade, “radio’s homefolks,” the Gooks.

The purpose of any soap opera, besides selling soap, was to give the American housewife something to focus her attention on while she was ironing the clothes, washing the dishes, and running the pre-vacuum carpet sweeper.  The additional purpose of Vic and Sade was to vindicate the housewife’s belief that she had married an idiot. So successful was it at this that it endured from 1932 to 1944, 15-minute episodes five days a week.  According to Time magazine, it had an audience of seven million listeners in 1943.  Think of it!  Seven million American housewives reassured that they were correct in their conviction that, like Vic, their husbands were idiots!

Because of its popularity, after its original twelve-year run Vic and Sade was revived for about three and a half months in the fall of 1945, then again in a 30-minute weekly format for four months in the summer of 1946, next as three half-hour television broadcasts in July 1949, and finally as seven weekly 15-minute episodes on radio station WNBQ, Chicago.

Sandwiched in among Stella Dallas and “Oxydol’s own Ma Perkins” on NBC’s Blue Network, and sponsored by Crisco,.Vic and Sade was unique among soap operas.  It was devoted to ridiculing the absurdities and follies of typical American masculine activities.  In the days of my youth I found its satire delicious, and when a few years ago I discovered that Radio Reruns had issued four episodes on a cassette tape – remember cassette tapes? – I immediately bought it.  It is among my precious treasures, and, knowing the tragedies that can befall cassette tapes, I play it infrequently in order to preserve it.

Vic and Sade was also unique because each episode was self-contained.  Other soap operas had stories that continued from day to day and ended with a cliff-hanger summarized by the announcer with a series of questions: “Will Mary marry the Prince of Ruritania?  Will the shadowy figure Mary saw turn out to be an assassin, threatening the prince’s life?  Tune in tomorrow for the next thrilling installment.”  But when an episode of Vic and Sade was over, it was over.  The initial problem may have dissipated into a quagmire of bumbleheadedness rather than being resolved, but the episode was over.  The fecundity of imagination demonstrated by the show’s creator and sole author, Paul Rhymer, was phenomenal and may perhaps be unequaled in any field of writing.

Vic was, ironically because he never won, short for Victor.  He was played by Art Van Harvey, whose voice, while not nasal, always sounded as though he had a cold in his nose.  His lines were written by Rhymer in a formal language such as no one has ever spoken in real life, and Van Harvey uttered them as if he was reading from a script – which of course he was.  He had the ability of making monumentally stupid statements sound just ordinarily banal.

By occupation Vic was the head accountant of Plant No. 14 of the Consolidated Kitchenware Company.  When he came home from the office, he entered through the kitchen screen door, announcing his presence with “Hi-dee-hi, ho-dee-ho.”  Like many American men at the time, he belonged to a lodge; his was called the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, and he was the Exalted Big Dipper of the Drowsy Venus Chapter.  One of his friends was Hank Gutstop; Hank was chronically unemployed, and Vic often tried to help him find a job.

Sade’s tired voice, expressing the weariness of exertion after effort after exertion to make Vic see things sensibly, was the voice of reason. She was played by Bernadine Flynn.  Her chief interests outside the home were the Thimble Club, a sewing circle she belonged to, and going shopping with her friend Ruthie Stembottom.  Vic and Sade frequently played cards with Ruthie and her husband Fred.  Vic had a number of nicknames for Sade; “Kiddo” was a frequent one.

The couple had an adopted son, Rush; when Bill Idelson, who played him, was drafted into the army, he was replaced by Russell, whose voice was provided by David Whitehouse.  Russell’s age was established as fourteen.  Both Rush and Russell called Vic “Gov” and Sade “Mom,” and both seemed to have slightly better sense than the adults around them – which may have been the author’s point.  Of the two, Rush was the less studious, and though he despised geometry, he was always looking for an angle.  Russell, on the other hand, enjoyed school and was good at it.  Both liked to play baseball and football in Tatman’s vacant lot and liked to go to the YMCA to watch the fat men play handball.  Both also enjoyed seeing the movies at the Bijou Theater and reading about the exploits of Third Lieutenant Clinton Stanley.  Sade called both “Willie”; Vic used a variety of nicknames.

Sade’s Uncle Fletcher, played by Clarence Hartzell, was added to the cast during the forties when Van Harvey became ill and another masculine voice and foibles were needed.  His forte was telling long, tedious stories, comical in their outlandishness.  He also enjoyed riding on Gumpox’s garbage wagon.  When addressing Vic, Rush, and Russell, Uncle Fletcher invariably added “Honey” to their names.  Like Vic, Uncle Fletcher always sounded as if he had a cold in his nose.  A few other characters came and went, but those named formed the recurrent core of the cast.

The four episodes on my tape are “Lodge Holiday Visits,” “Formula for Hyena Grease,” “Hank Gutstop Throws a Party,” and “The Mysterious Skulkers.”  The four are typical in portraying the vapidity which characterizes much American life.

In “Lodge Holiday Visits” Vic receives a letter from lodge headquarters suggesting that members save money by staying with other members instead of in hotels when they go on summer vacations.  Sade dampens Vic’s enthusiasm when it appears that they will have to provide far more hospitality than they can receive. Vic as usual comes to see that Sade is right.  As “Formula for Hyena Grease” opens, Vic is home from the office early and is about to take a nap when Uncle Fletcher arrives and wants to speak to him.  Uncle Fletcher reveals that he has the hidden formula for hyena grease, a preparation to be applied to shoes, and wants Vic to put the document in his safety deposit box.  Vic acquiesces.

Vic returns home in “Hank Gutstop Throws a Party” to gloat that his friend Gutstop has taken a position as house detective at the Butler House Hotel and has invited five friends to dinner.  “The Mysterious Skulkers”opens with Vic and Russell playing cards in the evening when Sade comes in and reports three mysterious men in the alley.  It turns out that Uncle Fletcher has brought two friends with him.  Although the ending vaporizes Sade’s concern, she is clearly in the right to be apprehensive, and Vic is clearly irresponsible in pooh-poohing her.

These synopses are typical of the three thousand episodes Rhymer wrote; nothing of any consequence happens in any of them.  If a plot may be defined as something which starts with a problem and ends with its resolution, any episode of Vic and Sade stands less than one millimeter away from plotlessness.  To the extent that any episode deals with a problem, the problem is utterly insignificant.  The humor arises from the foolishness of the adult male characters and the stilted language with which they express it.

Bouncing through the internet, I discovered that two printed collections of Rhymer’s scripts, thirty to a volume, are extant.  One has an introduction by Ray Bradbury; the other, one by Jean Shepherd.  Bill Idelson wrote a book about the program.  More than three thousand transcriptions were recorded; only a tenth of them have survived.  They may be found at http://www.vicandsade.net.  The vicandsade.net website also has 32 items listed as “interviews” and a page of 23 photos apparently taken during a broadcast.  All 346 surviving episodes are reproduced on two CDs which may be purchased from http://www.otrcat.com/vic-and-sade-p-1958.html; the site also has one episode that can be listened to or downloaded for free.  Seventy-four episodes may be found at  http://www.archive.org/details/vicandsade3.  A selection of 23 episodes is available for free auditioning at http://www.otr.net/?p=vsde.  Eight scripts can be read at http://www.pocreations.com/vicandsade, which also includes other information.  Seven episodes may be listened to without charge at http://www.radiolovers.com/pages/vicandsade.htm.

Two LP records were made in the seventies; my tape derives from one of them entitled One Full Hour with Radio’s Homefolks.  There was also an LP with Spike Jones on one side and Vic and Sade on the other, and sundry episodes appeared in various compilations of radio comedy.  Stephen M. Lawson, who seems a little like a character out of Vic and Sade himself, has a tribute to the show on his website, http://www.kinnexions.com, together with much information about himself and his ancestors.

(c) Sam Sackett, 2012

Sam Sackett is a reformed English professor old enough to remember radio.  He left teaching for journalism, then advertising, then public relations; then, having become an expert on career change, he spent 15 years in career management.  He’s back in the US after having spent six years retired in Thailand,  which he spent writing novels and short stories.

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