The series centered on Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve (nicknames included “The Great Man” or just “Gildy“), a lovable windbag who first appeared on Fibber McGee and Molly in 1939. On Fibber McGee and Molly he was McGee’s antagonist armed with a catchphrase (“You’re a haaard man, McGee!”). He was originally expertly played by Harold Peary.
Gildersleeve was so popular that he soon got his own show, The Great Gildersleeve, which debuted on NBC on 31 August, 1941. It was sponsored by Kraft Foods whose advertisements promoted their Parkay margarine — a weird, oily yellow spread that people turned instead of butter during the Great Depression but strangely continued to eat after butter was affordable again). On The Great Gildersleeve, the titular character retained some of his pomposity and general man-childishness but was made more likeable. And whereas he had a wife on Fibber McGee, on his own he was a lifelong bachelor and much of the plot revolved around his awkward romantic pursuits.
The show was set in the small town of Summerfield, where Gildersleeve inherited his late brother-in-law’s estate and orphaned niece (Marjorie) and nephew (Leroy) — making him a bit of a mid-century forerunner to Bernie Mac. The household was rounded out by Gildersleeve’s cook and housekeeper, Birdie Lee. At the series’ debut, Gildersleeve ran a girdle-manufacturing company but his character was soon recast as Summerfield’s water commissioner.
The series is one of the few sitcoms of the era that for the most part holds up very well today. Whereas other comedies at the time such as Jack Benny Program, The Fred Allen Show, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, Burns and Allen, and Fibber McGee and Molly were rooted the vaudeville tradition and bore more similarity to revues or sketch comedies, the humor sitcoms like The Life of Riley, Father Knows Best, and The Great Gildersleeve seem comparatively modern (at least to me) as the genre’s formula hasn’t changed much in the last 75 years or so. One notable exception to the show’s timelessness is the characterization of Birdie, the black housekeeper whose stereotypical portrayal is occasionally wince-inducing.
When The Great Gildersleeve began, it was written by Leonard Lewis Levinson, who mined for laughs from Birdie’s (played by Lillian Randolph) apparent stupidity and impolitely loud speaking voice. Around the third season, however, as other writers came on board (including Sam Moore, Paul West, John Elliotte, Andy White, and the great John Whedon — father of Tom Whedon and grandfather of Joss Whedon) Birdie was increasingly depicted as the true brains of the household.
Marjorie Forester was originally played by Lurene Tuttle and later Louise Erickson (who’s incidentally still with us) and Mary Lee Robb. Over the course of the series, she grew up, got married and moved out (to a house next door). Leroy, on the other hand, remained the same age throughout and was played by Walter Tetley — a famous child star who in real life never went through puberty — supposedly because his mother had him castrated. Much of the show’s humor revolved around his and Gildy’s relationship (Leroy’s catchprases of “Ah, you kiddin’?” and “Aw, for corn’s sake!” usually came right before or after Gildersleeve’s rumbling delivery of “Leeeroy!”)
Gildersleeve’s friends were Judge Horace Hooker (Earle Ross), pharmacist Richard Q. Peavey (Richard LeGrand), and barber Floyd Munson (Arthur Q. Bryan). In the fourth season, the friends — along with Police Chief Donald Gates (Ken Christy) — formed a clique known as The Jolly Boys, whose chief activities involved singing a cappella (this was the 1940s, after all). Aside from his work, the Jolly Boys, and raising the kids, Gildersleeve pursued numerous love interests — almost marrying on three occasions — most memorably to southern belle Leila Ransom.
Peary and crew starred in four RKO Great Gildersleeve films: The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (2943), Gildersleeve On Broadway (1943), and Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944). He also released three children’s records: Stories for Children, Told in His Own Way by the Great Gildersleeve (1945), Children’s Stories as Told by the Great Gildersleeve (1946), and a second volume of Stories for Children, Told in His Own Way (1947).
The show jumped the shark, as it were, in 1950 when as a result of one of CBS‘s famous talent raids, Peary left NBC and signed a seven-year contract with their rival, believing that the show would come with him. Kraft, however, refused to sanction the move and replaced him with Willard Waterman. Waterman version of Gildersleeve sounds uncannily like that of Peary — although Waterman refused to emulate Peary-as-Gildersleeve’s signature laugh which was once described by a critic as “a national phenomenon almost as awe-inspiring as Yellowstone National Park.” Waterman was fine as Gildersleeve — it’s nearly impossible to differentiate him from Peary — but there are noticeably fewer laughs after 1950.
Meanwhile, over at CBS, Peary starred as Harold Hemp aka “Honest Harold the Homemaker” on The Harold Peary Show. It was remarkably similar to The Great Gildersleeve made moreso with the frequent reuse of plot devices and similar characters — not just Honest Harold but his foil, Doc “Yak-Yak” Yancey, who was an obvious substitute for Judge Hooker. Its setting, Melrose Springs, was just like Summerfield. Without an estate to manage or children to raise, however, more of the plot revolved around romantic pursuits although Harold came off as a bit of a sleaze. Though enjoyable, it never came close to reaching the highs of The Great Gildersleeve and was cancelled in 1954.
Back at NBC, the Waterman Gildersleeve drifted aimlessly. Marjorie and Judge Hooker disappeared on several occasions for long periods and new characters were regularly introduced and just as quickly dropped. In 1954 the series was reduced from half an hour to just fifteen minutes. The following year it transitioned to television and aired for 39 episodes, ending its run in 1956. The radio version ended in 1957.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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