American TV pioneer
Born to struggle
Born in New York City, NY on August 31, 1903. Young Arthur was the eldest of 5 children born to Arthur Hanbury Godfrey and Kathryn Morton Godfrey (formerly of Ossining, NY). The elder Godfrey claimed to be the son of Sir John Godfrey, former viceroy of India and son of a wealthy Liverpool family involved in the brewery trade. He was a freelance writer and an expert in horses. His fortunes declined and by the time young Arthur was 10 the family had departed Manhattan for Hasbrouck Heights, NJ. Two years later Arthur had taken on a paper route as well as worked after school in a bakery.
At age 15 the owners of the bakery fell victim to the 1918 flu epidemic and were sidelined for 3 weeks. Arthur, working almost unassisted, ran the shop thereby keeping the business afloat. Meanwhile at school he had been selected captain of his sophomore debate team. His absence from school while he ran the bakery saw him lose his captaincy. Godfrey viewed this as an example of adult injustice and as a result dropped out of school.
He, like many of his peers of the time, set out on his own. He worked odd jobs to support himself, work from handling brick at a brick factory to washing dishes, anything to make ends meet.
Arthur Godfrey started his career in radio in the US Navy, serving as a radioman on destroyer duty 1920-24. He then served in the Coast Guard in a similar capacity 1927-30, receiving additional radio training while there.
On the radio
He got his start in commercial radio in 1930 at WFBR, a Baltimore, Maryland radio station where he worked as announcer and entertainer.
Godfrey had already demonstrated an interest in flying, and was taking glider lessons. In an auto accident while on the way to a flight lesson Godfrey was seriously injured. He was confined by a body cast for 5 months in hospital, and could not bend his knees for 2 years afterward. While sidelined, he listened to the radio. He thought the announcers were too formal and high brow for the audience. He resolved that, when he returned to the airwaves, he would treat the audience like they were in a personal conversation with him. That was the genesis of his famous informal styling, something heretofore unheard of in the medium. In recalling his epiphany, Godfrey recounts thinking "Those days we were all talking to the 'ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience.' I decided there wasn't any such audience. There was just one guy or one girl off somewhere listening by themselves. Hell, if they were together, they'd have something better to do than listen to the radio."
Godfrey worked steadily in radio during the 30's and 40s, initially for NBC, then made the switch to CBS as well as doing freelance work.
In 1948 CBS enlisted Godfrey as host for a program in the new medium of television. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was born and quickly became a success. The format was simple: present a slate of 'new discoveries' to the audience, who then chose the winner by using an 'audience applause meter'. The talent was actually often struggling professional performers looking for a boost to their career, a boost that Godfrey happily provided. Some of the performers who Godfrey helped in their career were Pat Boone, Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Lenny Bruce, and Patsy Cline. The program had a very successful run from 1948-1958.
Knowing a winner when they were confronted with one, CBS followed up in 1949 with another program named Arthur Godfrey and his Friends. The show had a different format, depending on a regular cast of performers hosted by Godfrey as combination ringmaster/host. This show also had a decade long run from 1949-1959.
Despite his enormous popularity Godfrey had his share of controversy. He rankled his network bosses, often poking fun at them. He was quixotic in his personality, alternating between a sympathetic father figure and a martinet, often within a few minute span. His most infamous gaff came when he fired singer Julius LaRosa on air in 1953. Godfrey had declared that members of his cast must take dance lessons, whether the member had an affinity for dance or not. LaRosa missed a required lesson and Godfrey suspended him for a day. LaRosa, in a move that showcased his exasperation with Godfrey's managerial style, hired himself a manager. Godfrey took that as a personal affront, and following the next LaRosa performance announced that it was "Julie's swan song". LaRosa had to have explained what a swan song meant. Audience reaction was both swift and harsh, resenting the firing of LaRosa. The facade projected by Godfrey as all goodness and light had developed a serious fracture. Another element to LaRosa's firing was that his fan mail had started to match that of Godfrey himself. Perhaps Godfrey felt threatened by his 'discovery'.
Times move forward, and the 50s were Godfrey's heyday. He returned to radio in 1960, hosting Arthur Godfrey Time, a show which lasted until 1972. Along the way in his varied career, he also appeared in film. His most notable appearances were in Four For Texas, (1963), The Glass Bottom Boat, (1966), and Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, (1968).
Arthur Godfrey gave the viewers of television a person they could identify with, someone who approached them on their own level. His straightforward folksy style resonated with his audience, and as much as anyone in the medium, he owned the 50s. His personal talent was limited to his smooth hosting style and a little singing and strumming on his ukelele. His real talent was in recognizing and promoting the talent of others.
Where Arthur Godfrey really made his mark was in the area of advertising. His conversational manner made people feel like they were getting a recommendation from a friend rather than being sold something by a stranger. He maddened his network superiors by disregarding time limits for his promos, taking as much time as he felt necessary to make his point. A one minute commercial might morph into a 6 minute monologue singing the simple praises of Lipton Tea. He would sometimes throw away the script, look straight into the camera and tell viewers to just go out and get some of whatever product he was touting. His bosses ranted and his advertisers loved him as he made the cash registers ring. In a new medium finding its way, he taught them how to sell product.
Advertising has always depended on the salesperson being believable. Godfrey, with his ready smile, soothing voice, and freckled face was the personification of honesty to his audience. He was simply trusted, a quality which made his viewers willing to take a chance, try the products he endorsed.
Godfrey was also a huge proponent of civilian air travel. Eddie Rickenbacker said that Arthur Godfrey had done more for air travel than anyone since Charles Lindbergh. Godfrey earned his pilot's license in 1950 and later trained to fly jets.
Godfrey accrued a substantial fortune, and owned a 700 acre estate in Leesburg, Virginia. He also enjoyed a Manhattan apartment, migrating back and forth in his own aircraft.
Arthur Godfrey was married twice, the first marriage producing a son named Richard. His second marriage was to Mary Bourke in 1938, producing 2 children, Arthur Michael, Jr. and Patricia Ann.
Godfrey had battled lung cancer, having a lung removed. In defiance of the odds, he survived the operation and subsequent radiation treatments. After years he developed emphysema, the disease which ultimately led to his death in New York City, NY on March 16, 1983.
- Radio Hall of Fame (1988)
- Peabody Award (1972)
- Hollywood Walk of Fame (television)
- Nominated 3 ties for Emmy Award
- National Aviation Hall of Fame
Arthur Godfrey is the only person ever to be named by Talkers Magazine as in their Top 25 in both their radio (#19) and TV (#15) categories.