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Happy Birthday, The Life of Riley! - or - What a revoltin' development this is!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 16, 2012 12:22pm | Post a Comment
On this day, in 1944, The Life of Riley premiered on the Blue network (later known as ABC).

William Bendix at NBC

The Life of Riley began with an audition taping on July 25, 1943 after its creation by Irving Brecher. Over the course of roughly 320 episodes, it established itself as one of the most enduringly funny sitcoms on Old Time Radio. It's final episode on ABC aired on July 8, 1945. After moving to the NBC radio network, it aired again from August 8, 1945 until its final episode aired on June 29, 1951.

The main character, Chester A. Riley, was played by William Bendix. His wife, Peg, his son, Junior, and his daughter, Babs, were all played by more than one actor. Both his co-worker/neighbor, Gillis, as well as audience favorite, Digby "Digger" O'Dell (the "friendly undertaker") were both played by John Brown. At various times it was sponsored by the American Meat Institute, Teel Dentifrice, Dreft, Prell Shampoo, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.

Life of Riley - American Meat Institute   Life of Riley - Pabste

In 1949 it was adapted into a feature film that was co-written by Brecher and Groucho Marx. That same year it also debuted as a television series starring a pre-Honeymooners Jackie Gleason in the title role that ran for 26 episodes (Bendix's contract with RKO prevented him from appearing on NBC TV). It returned in 1953 with Bendix again in the title role and again with Marx as a writer. It proved much more successful and ran for six seasons until 1958, when it was also adapted into a Dell comic book.

The Life of Riley - TV series

The series followed the day-to-day doings of the working class, Irish-American Riley family, nominally headed by the bumbling Chester Riley, who supported his brood by working, like many post-War Southern Californians, at an aircraft plant, in this case as a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft. In reality, Chester Riley was the dimmest bulb in the drawer, and usually misinformed by Gillis. 

As originally developed (as The Flotsam Family), the title role was to have been played by Groucho Marx but the sponsors had difficultly envisioning Marx's brainy, unhinged comedy being reigned in for the much straighter role as the somewhat dense head-of-household. Bendix was cast after Brecher saw his appearance in 1942's McGuerins from Brooklyn and it was renamed. 

If you ask me, the humor, unlike that of a lot of radio sitcoms, still holds up today (the same thing can be said about The Great Gildersleeve). The sitcom formula of the confounded father who barely maintains even a semblance of authority over children can be seen and heard in comedies like The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, All in the Family, Robin Harris's Bebe's Kids routine, Married... with Children, The Bernie Mac Show and The War at Home

You can listen to episodes online by clicking here or check in Amoeba's back room for CDs, which come through used occasionally in the Spoken Word section. 

*****

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Jackie Gleason (7), The Life Of Riley (1), Old Time Radio (23), Otr (9), Sitcoms (5), Abc (3), Nbc (6), William Bendix (1), Groucho Marx (2), Rko (1)