Of the nine people being celebrated on tonight's "Big Broadcast," I have a connection with three. Although, in one case it's by way of an anecdote. Another, an answering machine.
But I did know Arthur Tracy.
He was billed as "The Street Singer," and, even in the 1930s, he was a stylistic throwback. Sometime in high school, shortly after we discovered good music, my cousin and I went to a screening of "The Big Broadcast" at MOMA. Released in 1932, "The Big Broadcast" assembled some of network radio's biggest stars: Bing Crosby, Burns & Allen, the Boswell Sisters, the Mills Brothers and Arthur Tracy. It was Crosby's first starring vehicle. Tracy is heard in a "speakeasy" episode singing "Here Lies Love," which he reprises later in the picture. When the lights came up, we spotted an older gent in the row behind us: The Street Singer. (Later I learned Arthur would frequently show up for films with "Street" connections, like the premiere of "Pennies from Heaven," where his recording of the title song is heard on the soundtrack.) We didn't speak to him, and I don't think I met Arthur for another ten years. We became friends. It was always a thrill to hear that voice on the phone! Arthur was a guest at my 1000th show in 1992, and sang "I Love You Truly" at my wedding. He lived to be 98.
I never met Phil Harris, who lived to be 91, but called him while working on the Museum of Broadcasting's "Jack Benny" exhibit. Phil was part of the cast from the fall of 1936 through 1952, when he was succeeded by Bob Crosby. I didn't get Phil on the phone, but his answering machine was almost as good. (He had a memorable voice, too. And was "Baloo" in "The Jungle Book.") His message explained that he had trouble operating anything more complicated than a cork.
Never met Gene Austin, not even his voice mail, but Les Paul loved talking about him. Austin was a crooner. His 1927 recording of "My Blue Heaven" was the biggest selling record until "White Christmas" came along. Les made a bunch of recordings with Austin, but only a few have ever been released. Les told me a story involving a pistol, Gene Austin, and tumbler of gin, and the Rolling Stones, but you'd never believe it. Not sure I do.