"bigger Than A Show - Better Than A Circus": The Broadway Musical, Radio, And Billy Rose's 'jumbo'

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Musical Quarterly




In its day, Billy Rose's circus-musical extravaganza Jumbo was the talk of New York. For nearly a year prior to its long-awaited debut at the Hippodrome theater on 16 November 1935, the New York papers relentlessly offered gruesome details about Rose's public finances, his successful efforts to have Jumbo recognized as a circus instead of a Broadway stage show, the signing of his creative team, the human cast and major circus animal performers, the suspense generated by delayed openings, and finally the exciting and chaotic first night. After fighting the traffic congestion created when Sixth Avenue was roped off for seventeen blocks up to Fifty-Ninth Street and forced a later starting time, dozens of celebrities arrived to celebrate the show's premiere, including Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Berlin, Ben (“Yowza”) Bernie, Fanny Brice (Mrs. Billy Rose), George Burns and Gracie Allen, Marion Davies, Jack Dempsey, George and Ira Gershwin, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, and Ed Wynn.1

Jumbo's public profile inadvertently led to an unusual legacy of considerable interest and significance to future Broadway historians. One of Rose's promotional schemes was to broadcast a series of a dozen weekly thirty-minute radio programs live from the Hippodrome to promote songs and dialogue from Jumbo, the latter either directly from the show's script or newly fashioned by the show's writers. Sponsored by the Texaco Oil Company and featuring their “Fire Chief” brand of gasoline, The Jumbo Fire Chief Program ran on twelve successive Tuesday evenings from 9:30 to 10:00 on station WEAF on the National Broadcasting Company network from 29 October 1935 to 14 January 1936. Due to the widely publicized postponements, audiences heard the first three scheduled broadcasts before opening night. Rose's frustration is our gain. The opening trio of airings included portions of the score that were later discarded during the final weeks of the in-town tryouts, songs that, without the broadcasts, would have remained unknown as well as unheard. While Broadway songs were not foreign to radio in 1935, the presence of twelve broadcasts devoted to a single Broadway show was unusual and probably unprecedented.

The present essay will explore the contents, context, and historical significance of these Texaco Jumbo broadcasts and what we can learn from them. The broadcasts also provide an opportunity to take a longer look at one of the era's most highly publicized media events. The show, marketed at Rose's insistence as “Billy Rose's Jumbo,” is the story of an unusual hybrid, half circus, half musical comedy, a circus-musical that, from all accounts, few New Yorkers missed, but a show that has since hovered below the radar of both audiences and scholars.2