Everybody’s waiting for the United States government to decide whether to approve the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal. The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice have to bless the marriage, and it appears that the FCC is going to do so with some conditions. These include requirements that the new entity make its content available to competitors on reasonable terms, along with some net neutrality provisions on top of the recent Order that the FCC released in December.
But I’ve got another condition to consider—asking NBC Universal posthumously apologize to Mae West for banning her from its radio network almost 75 years ago.
Here’s what happened. In 1937 West, who was at the height of her career in motion pictures, appeared on the wildly popular Chase and Sandborn Hour in a sketch written by Arch Oboler titled The Garden of Eden. West played Eve. The show’s smooth announcer Don Ameche played Adam. Comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen brought in his world famous dummy Charlie McCarthy in as The Snake.
Snake: That’s the forbidden tree.
Eve (Mae West): Oh, don’t be technical. Answer me this — my palpitatin’ python — would you like to have this whole Paradise to yourself?
Eve: OK, then pick me a handful of fruit — Adam and I’ll eat it and the Garden of Eden is all yours. What do ya say?
Snake: Sssounds all right . . . but it’s forbidden fruit.
Eve: Listen, what are you — my friend in the grass or a snake in the grass?
Snake: But, forbidden fruit.
Eve: Are you a snake or are you a mouse?
Snake: I’ll — I’ll do it [hissing laugh].
Eve: Now you’re talking. Here — right in between those pickets.
Snake: I’m, I’m stuck.
Eve: Oh — shake your hips. There, there now, you’re through.
Snake: I shouldn’t be doing this.
Eve: Yeah, but you’re doing all right now. Get me a big one. I feel like doin’ a big apple.
Snake: Here you are, Missus Eve.
Eve: Mm — oh, I see — huh — nice goin’, swivel hips.
Snake: Wait a minute. It won’t work. Adam’ll never eat that forbidden apple.
Eve: Oh, yes, he will — when I’m through with it.
Snake: Nonsense. He won’t.
Eve: He will if I feed it to him like women are gonna feed men for the rest of time.
Snake: What’s that?
This skit seems mild by today’s standards. “Compared with program content in this first decade of the twenty-first century, it wouldn’t even twitch an eyebrow,” observe broadcasting educators Robert L. Hilliard and Michael C. Keith.
But decency groups across the country howled over the program. As the radio scholar Michele Hilmes notes, the skit showed that “even a preapproved script could be read differently over the air from how it might be read in a continuity office, undermining the power of the written word.” Historian Erik Barnouw put it less delicately. “She filled out the dialogue with oohs and grunts that brought thousands of angry letters,” Barnouw wrote,” many of which found their way into the Congressional Record.”
West’s publicist sent out an apology, but it was too late. “Unschooled in the politics of radio, Mae had misjudged the speed with which an enterprise broadcasting into people’s homes, sponsored by companies made easily vulnerable by pressure on advertisers, could be reduced to quivering jelly,” explained her biographer Simon Louvish.
Although the FCC did little more than issue a stuffy statement warning broadcasters to “scrutinize more carefully” their sponsored advertising scripts, NBC responded by banning West from both its network and its owned-and-operated radio stations.
The all-powerful media company ordered that “no script utilized as a basis of broadcast programs over these stations shall contain any reference to Miss West, nor shall her name be mentioned by entertainers or others.”
This was something akin to Soviet style censorship—the literal purging of a public entertainer’s identity from the airwaves. Four years later the FCC would release its Report on Chain Broadcasting. The document ordered the “divorcement” of NBC’s “red” and “blue” networks—a combination that the agency characterized as monopolistic in effect. The Order barred any broadcaster from owning more than one such entity.
But that was too late for West. Her career didn’t flop because of this incident. She still enjoyed a huge presence in the movies. But NBC’s dominance in the late 1930s allowed the company to scour the AM airwaves of her unique humor and wit for a over a decade.
NBC Universal today is a very different company than the NBC of 1937. But the General Electric owned outfit regularly joins other broadcasters in challenging the FCC’s vague and chilling “fleeting expletive” indecency rules. Ironically, NBC was responsible for Golden Age of Radio’s worst act of broadcast suppression. The banning of West legitimized the endless clamor for censorship, laying the groundwork for the ever harsher interpretations of the FCC’s Pacifica decision that we endure today.
It’s time for the media company to make amends for that mistake by posthumously apologizing to Mae West—one of the great stage, cinema, and radio peformers of the twentieth century.