The Great Gildersleeve was one of radio’s first great spin-off shows. Harold Peary had played several character roles on “Fibber McGee and Molly,” including various pompous characters with the last name Gildersleeve. Eventually, he was given a recurring role as the McGees’ next door neighbor, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. Vain, egotistical, bombastic, Gildersleeve was noted for his deep voice and trilling pronouncement, “You’re a ha-a-a-ard man, McGee!” Gildersleeve became Fibber McGee’s best enemy, and the two men had some notable verbal battles over the years.
In 1941, the new show debuted, with Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve moving from Wistful Vista to Summerfield, to assume guardianship of his orphaned niece and nephew, Marjorie and Leroy Forrester. The new show differed from “Fibber McGee and Molly” in a number of ways. “The Great Gildersleeve” was a true situation comedy, more sophisticated in style. There was a clear separation between the story and the advertising, with a true suspension of disbelief– no musical numbers, and no announcer dropping by the house to talk about the sponsor’s product. The new show was a true situation comedy, rather than a series of comic sketches
The Gildersleeve character softened somewhat as well. With his booming voice, quick temper and distinctive laugh, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve retained his vanity and tendency toward pomposity, but on his own show and with his new role as a family man, the character was much more endearing. Behind the bluster, he is a romantic and idealistic character, whose vulnerability makes us sympathetic toward him even while we are laughing at him.
In his new life, the Great Gildersleeve has his hands full with the pretty and popular young Marjorie, initially played by Lurene Tuttle, and her kid brother Leroy, played by Walter Tetley. Birdy Lee Coggins, played by Lillian Randolph, is the family’s cook and housekeeper. Cantankerous Judge Horace Hooker, played by Earle Ross, oversees Gildersleeve’s administration of Marjorie and Leroy’s affairs, and the two become good friends, despite frequent arguments. Gildersleeve’s “You’re a ha-a-a-ard man, McGee!” was replaced by “You’re a bri-i-i-ght boy, Leroy!”
Gildersleeve is a bachelor, and, despite the frequent jokes about his waistline, he is something of a ladies’ man. His romantic adventures, especially with the Southern widow, Leila Ransom, played by Shirley Mitchell, form the plot of many episodes. As Leila comes and goes, Gildy seeks the company of other women, notably School Principal Eve Goodwin, played by Bea Benardaret. This is perhaps the first show to focus on a single parent or single adult who finds him or her self in a parental role, and is notable for the way the program balances both aspects of Gildersleeve’s life.
Gildersleeve eventually joins the Jolly Boys, a group of men who meet over Floyd Munson’s barbershop, where they sing around the piano and drink Cokes. In addition to Gildersleeve, Judge Hooker and Floyd Munson, Police Chief Gates and druggist Mr. Peavey are also Jolly Boys. The Chief is noted for his booming bass voice and attempts to keep the peace– “Fellas, fellas, let’s be Jolly Boys!” Mr. Peavey, a role created by Richard LeGrand, was one of the most popular characters on the program, and many scenes are set in his store, where Gildersleeve goes to buy cigars, get some advice, and escape from the demands of both his family and romantic adventures. The mousey Mr. Peavey, with his dry, nasal voice, has the most famous catchphrase of the program, “Well, now, I wouldn’t say that!”
In Wistful Vista, Gildersleeve ran the Gildersleeve Girdleworks, whose advertising slogan was “If you want a better corset, of course it’s Gildersleeve.” In Summerfield, he first devotes himself to managing the financial affairs of the Forrester estate, but he soon finds his true calling as Summerfield’s Water Commissioner.
“The Great Gildersleeve” premiered on August 31, 1941. Through the fall of 1941, the episodes and even the advertisements for the show’s sponsor, Kraft’s Parkay margarine, reflect the sense of impending trouble of those days leading up to America’s entry into World War II. The November 16 show, “Servicemen for Thanksgiving,” has Gildersleeve appearing on the radio encouraging Summerfield residents to invite soldiers home for a holiday dinner. Listening to these shows now, knowing what the show’s announcer, cast and listeners didn’t know– that December 7, 1941 would be a date that would live in infamy– gives the shows a sense of tension and poignancy that is quite different than reading a history of the time.
Throughout the war years, there are frequent references to rationing and war bonds and volunteer service, and in the memorable episode “Leroy Runs Away” (February 1, 1942), Leroy tries to join the service. Gildersleeve sympathizes because he’s too old to serve and Leroy is too young, but they both are needed to do all they can on the homefront.
After the war, the Great Gildersleeve shows reflect the return to a peacetime economy. The Kraft advertisements reflect this as much as the programs themselves, as products like aged cheddar cheese and mayonnaise, in short supply during the war, are again available.
The Great Gildersleeve program even contributes to the baby boom, when Marjorie marries Bronco Thompson, and they become the parents of twins. Just before the twins are born, Bronco brings home a modern book on parenthood, with advice that sounds much like Dr. Spock. In another episode, Marjorie has an argument with Bronco’s mother on the issue of schedule vs. demand feeding, one which was probably very familiar to many young mothers of Marjorie’s generation. Meanwhile, Summerfield was feeling the same building boom as the rest of the nation– both real estate man Bronco and Water Commissioner Gildy are involved with the new subdivision.
Throughout the 1940’s, Harold Peary was the Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, on the radio and in three feature movies. He left the program in a dispute with NBC, and lost his case to retain the rights to the Gildersleeve name and character. In 1950, he was replaced by Willard Waterman, an actor whose voice was so similar that he was quickly accepted in the role. The only thing missing was Harold Peary’s characteristic laugh, which both actors believed belonged to Peary.