By Elizabeth McLeod
It dominated American radio during the Great Depression -- a nightly serial telling the story of Amos Jones and Andy Brown, two Georgia-born black men seeking their fortunes in the North. Combining character-driven humor with melodramatic plots, the series established the viability in broadcasting of continuing characters in a continued story, and from both a business and creative perspective proved the most influential radio program of its era ---inspiring the creation of the broadcast syndication industry and serving as the fountainhead of both the situation comedy and the soap opera. At its peak in 1930-31, the series' nightly audience exceeded 40 million people.
After fifteen years and more than 4000 episodes, the serial gave way to a weekly situation comedy and the characterizations grew more exaggerated . Today, the original Amos 'n' Andy is almost completely forgotten -- lost not only to the memory of the broadly-played sitcom which replaced it, but to the modern-day unacceptability of white actors portraying African-American characters. Nevertheless, Amos 'n' Andy remains a landmark in U. S. broadcasting history.
Amos 'n' Andy grew out of Sam 'n' Henry, created by Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Correll, two former producers of home-talent revues who had begun a career as a comic harmony team on Chicago radio in 1925. The performers had been asked by the management of station WGN to adapt the popular comic strip "The Gumps" for broadcasting, but were intimidated by its middle-class setting. Instead, they suggested a "radio comic strip" about two black men from the South moving to the North -- characterizations which would draw on Gosden's familiarity since childhood with African-American dialect, and which would enable the performers to remain anonymous -- an important consideration if the program should fail. Sam 'n' Henry premiered on 12 January 1926 as the first nightly serial program on American radio, combining blackface dialect with certain character traits and storytelling themes from "The Gumps." The early episodes were often crude, but gradually, Gosden and Correll learned how to tell involving stories and how to create complex human characterizations.
By the spring of 1926,the performers had begun recording Sam 'n' Henry sketches for Victor, and the success of these records suggested to the performers that live broadcasting need not be their only course. Accordingly, the partners suggested to WGN that their actual programs be recorded -- and the recordings leased to other stations. WGN rejected the proposal, citing its ownership of the series and its characters. Gosden and Correll left WGN in December 1927, moving to station WMAQ, owned by the Chicago Daily News -- and negotiated an agreement which included syndication rights. Arrangements were made for advance recordings of each episode on 12" 78rpm discs -- which would be distributed to subscribing stations for airing in synchronization with the live broadcast from WMAQ. Correll and Gosden called this a "chainless chain," and realizing the value of the concept, attempted to secure a patent. They were unable to do so, and by the early 1930s, their idea had formed the basis for the broadcast syndication industry.
The WMAQ series introduced Amos Jones and Andy Brown as hired hands on a farm outside Atlanta, looking ahead to their planned move to Chicago. Amos was plagued by self-doubts, and worried about finding work in the North -- while the swaggering Andy was quick to insist that he had the answers to everything. Amos and Andy would struggle until they met Sylvester -- a soft-spoken, intelligent teenager patterned after the black youth who had been Gosden's closest childhood friend. Sylvester would help Amos and Andy start their own business, the Fresh Air Taxicab Company., and would introduce them to a cultured , successful middle-class businessman named William Taylor -- and his bright, attractive daughter Ruby, who would soon become Amos's fiancee. They would also meet the potentate of a local fraternity, George "Kingfish" Stevens -- a smooth-talking hustler who would insinuate himself, and his constant moneymaking schemes, into their lives.
CHAINLESS CHAIN TO NETWORK
Within a few months, Amos 'n' Andy had attracted a national following -- and the attention of the Pepsodent Company., which negotiated to bring the serial to the coast-to-coast NBC Blue network in the summer of 1929. Amos, Andy and the Kingfish relocated from Chicago to Harlem at the start of the network run, but otherwise the storyline continued unchanged. At first, the program was heard at 11pm Eastern time. However, Pepsodent sought an earlier time slot for Eastern listeners, and NBC was able to clear time at 7pm. As soon as the change was announced. thousands of listeners in the Midwest and West wrote to complain about the move, and within a week, Correll and Gosden had agreed to broadcast twice nightly. This dual-broadcast plan would be widely adopted by other national sponsors as a solution to the time-zone dilemma. The outcry over the time change offered just a hint of what was to come. By the spring of 1930, theatre owners in many cities were being forced to present Amos 'n' Andy over their sound systems in order to hold an evening audience -- dramatic evidence of an unprecedented craze which would endure for nearly two years.
As a result of its extraordinary popularity, Amos 'n' Andy profoundly influenced the development of dramatic radio . Working alone in a small studio, Correll and Gosden created an intimate, understated acting style that differed sharply from the broad manner of stage actors -- a technique requiring careful modulation of the voice, especially in the portrayal of multiple characters. The performers pioneered the technique of varying both the distance and the angle of their approach to the microphone to create the illusion of a group of characters. Listeners could easily imagine that that they were actually in the taxicab office, listening in on the conversation of close friends. The result was a uniquely absorbing experience for listeners who in radio's short history had never heard anything quite like Amos 'n' Andy.
While minstrel-style wordplay humor was common in the formative years of the program, it was used less often as the series developed, giving way to a more sophisticated approach to characterization. Correll and Gosden were fascinated by human nature, and their approach to both comedy and drama drew from their observations of the traits and motivations that drive the actions of all people: while often overlapping popular stereotypes of African-Americans, there was at the same time a universality to their characters which transcended race,
Central to the program was the tension between the lead characters. Amos stood as an "Everyman" figure: a sympathetic, occasionally heroic individual who combined practical intelligence and a gritty determination to succeed with deep compassion -- along with a caustic sense of humor and a tendency to repress his anger until it suddenly exploded. Andy, by contrast, was a pretentious braggart -- obsessed with the symbols of success but unwilling to put forth the effort required to earn them. While Andy's overweening vanity proved his greatest weakness, he was at heart a poignant, vulnerable character -- his bombast masking deep insecurity and a desperate need for approval and affection. The Kingfish was presented as a shrewd, resourceful man who might have succeeded in any career, had he applied himself-- but he preferred the freedom of living by his wits. Other characters displayed a broad range of human foibles -- the rigid, hard-working Brother Crawford, the social climber Henry Van Porter, the arrogant Frederick Montgomery Gwindell, the slow-moving but honest Lightning, the flamboyant Madam Queen. And still other characters stood as bold repudiations of stereotypes -- the graceful, college-educated Ruby Taylor and her quietly dignified father, the self-made millionaire Roland Weber, the capable and effective lawyers and doctors and bankers who advised Amos and Andy in times of crisis. Beneath the dialect and racial imagery, the series celebrated the virtues of friendship, persistence, hard work, and common sense , and as the years passed and the characterizations were refined, Amos 'n' Andy achieved an emotional depth rivaled by few other radio programs of the 1930s.
Above all, Correll and Gosden were gifted dramatists. Their plots flowed gradually from one into the next, with minor subplots building in importance until they took over the narrative, before receding to give way to the next major sequence, and seeds for future storylines were often planted months in advance. It was this complex method of story construction that kept the program fresh, and enabled Correll and Gosden to keep their audience in a constant state of suspense. The technique they developed for radio from that of the narrative comic strip endures to the present day as the standard method of storytelling in serial drama., Storylines in Amos 'n' Andy usually revolved around themes of money and romance -- Amos's s progress toward the goal of marrying his beloved Ruby Taylor stood in contrast to Andy's romantic fumblings, as the daily challenge of making ends meet formed a constant backdrop. The taxicab company remained the foundation of Amos and Andy's enterprises, but the partners constantly explored other ventures, including a lunchroom, a hotel, a grocery, a filling station, and a 500-acre housing development. Andy invariably claimed the executive titles, while Amos shouldered the majority of the work -- until Amos's temper finally blazed and Andy was forced to carry his share of the load.
The moneymaking adventures of the Kingfish moved in and out of these plotlines -- and through the Depression era, Amos 'n' Andy offered a pointed allegory for what had happened to America itself in the 1920s: Amos represented traditional economic values, believing that wealth had to be earned, while the Kingfish embodied the Wall Street lure of easy money. And Andy stood in the middle, the investor torn between prudence and greed. Although Amos 'n' Andy's rating gradually declined from the peak years of the early 1930s, it remained the most popular program in its time slot until 1941. Amos finally married Ruby Taylor on Christmas night, 1935, and in October 1936, their daughter Arbadella was born. Andy remained single, occasionally coming close to matrimony, but never quite following through. The craze might have long since cooled off, but Correll and Gosden and their characters had become a seemingly-permanent part of the American scene.
The early 1930s saw criticism of the dialect and lower-class characterizations in the series by some African-Americans, but Amos 'n' Andy also had black supporters., who saw the series as a humanizing influence on the portrayal of blacks in the popular media. A campaign against the program by the Pittsburgh Courier in mid-1931 represented the most visible black opposition the radio series would receive -- and while the paper claimed to have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures against the series, the campaign was abruptly abandoned after six months of publicity failed to generate a clear consensus. Throughout Amos 'n' Andy's run, African-American opinion remained divided on the interpretation of the complex, often contradictory racial images portrayed in the program.
A NEW DIRECTION
On 19 February 1943, Correll and Gosden broadcast the final episode of the original Amos 'n' Andy. In a busy wartime world, the era of the early-evening comedy-drama serial was drawing to an end. Correll and Gosden returned to the air that fall in a radically different format. The gentle, contemplative mood of the serial was replaced by a brassy Hollywoodized production, complete with studio audience, a full cast of supporting actors -- most of them African-American -- and a team of writers hired to translate Amos, Andy, the Kingfish, and their friends into full-fledged comedy stars. The new Amos 'n' Andy Show endured for the next twelve years as one of the most popular weekly programs on the air.
Originally, the sitcom stuck close to the flavor of the original series. With Amos having settled down to family life, the storylines in the last years of the serial had focused on Andy's romantic entanglements and on his business dealings with the Kingfish. At first the half-hour series continued in this pattern, emphasizing plots that could be wrapped up with an O. Henry-like surprise twist at the end. By 1946, the Kingfish had moved to the forefront, and it was he who began to drive the plots, through his eternal quest for fast money and his endless battles with his no-nonsense wife Sapphire. The subtle blend of self-importance, guilelessness and vulnerability which had characterized Andy was gradually replaced by simple gullibility -- and in order for the Kingfish's increasingly outlandish schemes to work, Andy had to become not just gullible but more than a little stupid. And Amos receded further into the background, his presence reduced to that of a brief walk-on, in which he would tip Andy off that the Kingfish had again played him for a fool. The relaxed intimacy of the original series had been replaced by an increasing emphasis on verbal slapstick. The subtlety of the original characterizations was lost in a barrage of one-liners. At the same time, however, the new series offered African-American performers a doorway into mainstream radio -- in both comedic and non-dialect, non-stereotyped supporting roles.
THE FINAL YEARS
In 1948, Correll and Gosden sold the program to the Columbia Broadcasting System which immediately began plans to bring the series to television with an all-African-American cast. The television version of The Amos 'n' Andy Show was dogged by controversy, as CBS took the characters even further down the path of broad comedy, culminating in a formal protest of the TV series by the NAACP in 1951. The TV series was cancelled in 1953, but remained in rerun syndication until 1966. The radio version of The Amos 'n' Andy Show was not mentioned in the NAACP protest. But radio was a dying medium, and when the weekly show ended in May 1955, the performers had already begun their next series -- The Amos 'n' Andy Music Hall, a nightly feature of recorded music, sandwiched between pre-recorded bits of dialogue. Coasting on the familiarity of the characters, this final series ran for more than six years,
On 25 November 1960 CBS aired the final broadcast of The Amos 'n' Andy Music Hall. After a brief comeback -- in which they provided voices for the 1961-62 ABC-TV animated series Calvin and the Colonel, which reworked Amos 'n' Andy Show plots into funny-animal stories -- Correll and Gosden slipped quietly into retirement. While audio recordings of most of the situation comedy episodes exist, most of the serial survives only as archival scripts, stored at the University of Southern California and the Library of Congress . Modern discussions of Amos 'n' Andy commonly focus more on deconstruction of its racial subtext than on factual examination of the original program -- often obscuring the seminal role Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll played in the development of American broadcasting.
Text Copyright by Elizabeth McLeod