Arthur Godfrey Receives Restoration
The University of Maryland Special Collections has launched a new project to preserve and digitize one-of-a-kind recordings of Arthur Godfrey, a broadcasting powerhouse of the 1940s and 50s. Arthur Morton Godfrey (August 31, 1903 – March 16, 1983) was an American radio and television broadcaster and entertainer who was sometimes introduced by his nickname, “The Old Redhead.” No television personality of the 1950s enjoyed more clout or fame than Godfrey until a famous on-the-air incident undermined his folksy image and triggered a gradual decline; the then-ubiquitous Godfrey helmed two CBS-TV weekly series and a daily 90-minute television mid-morning show through most of the decade, but by the early sixties found himself reduced to hosting an occasional TV special.
Arguably the most prominent of the medium’s early master commercial pitchmen, he was strongly identified with many of his many sponsors, especially Chesterfield cigarettes and Lipton Tea. After many years of advertising for Chesterfield (during which Godfrey came up with the idea and slogan “Buy ‘em by the carton”), he severed the relationship during one of his television programs, when his doctors convinced him that his lung cancer was due to smoking. Subsequently, he became a prominent spokesman for anti-smoking education.
Materials pertaining to Godfrey comprise the University’s largest broadcasting collection dedicated to one individual. About 5,000 hours of audio and video recordings are housed in the Broadcasting Archives on the third floor of the University’s Hornbake Library. “For influence and popularity he was the Oprah of his day,” says curator Chuck Howell.
A goal of the multi-year digitization effort is to preserve and make accessible about 3,400 hours of rare wire recordings — a format used before magnetic tape. One hour long spool contains 7,200 feet of stainless steel wire about the thickness of human hair. “It’s very fragile and tangles easily,” Howell says of the wire format. “Consequently, it’s almost completely inaccessible.”
Another goal of the project is simply to reveal the contents of the recordings. “Playback equipment hasn’t even been manufactured in 70 years,” Howell says. “The specific content of each spool is unknown to us.” By seeking specialists and working with vendors to preserve and extract the content, the university will unlock valuable new information for researchers.
And then there’s the time that Rosemary Clooney bested Tony Bennett on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a popular talent show of the 1940′s and 50′s. This episode has been requested several times, and Howell is keeping his fingers crossed that it’s included in the thousands of wire recordings in Godfrey’s personal collection. The problem? Nobody, not even Tony Bennett himself, remembers the exact date he and the late Rosemary Clooney actually appeared on the program. Sources disagree, with the years 1948 and 1950 both being suggested. Mr. Howell is pulling for 1950, as the earliest recordings in Godfrey’s personal programming archive are from June of 1949. This is just another case of why preservation is not optional… it’s essential.
“Because Godfrey was on the air so much and had so much time to fill, much of the content is of him talking, reading articles from newspapers, and commenting on events of the day,” Howell says. “That in itself is an incredible resource. It will be very enlightening for historians looking for a way into the mindset of Middle America during the Eisenhower years.”
For more information about the Arthur Godfrey collection, and the Library of American Broadcasting, please visit http://www.lib.umd.edu/LAB/