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The original ‘you’re fired!’: When Godfrey fired La Rosa on radio, TV

Bob Cox • Nov 6, 2017 at 12:00 PM

There was a time when people were introduced to their favorite radio actors, which let them hear, but not see them. When the 1940s-’50s transpired, we were able to visualize on television the folks we had listened to perhaps for years on radio.

There was an expression that referred to what radio actors were perceived to look like, commonly known as "the mind's eye." It was defined as the imaging of remembered or invented scenes. It was different for every viewer.

My cousin, Larry Reaves, invited me to his Locust Street living room to witness the new media of television. His family had just purchased a black and white television and we were there to watch "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," a popular show that broadcasted on Friday evenings.

I can still recall their sponsor: "From Hollywood, International Silver Company, creators of International Sterling, presents 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,' starring America's favorite young couple, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard."

In spite of our occasionally reading radio and television magazines from that era, which revealed what actors looked like, we were a bit surprised to see the Nelson Family (Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky) and how they performed over the tube. If you closed your eyes, it was the Nelsons; if you opened them, it wasn't.

We soon accepted the individuals we heard on television as being the same as the ones we had heard over radio. The transition went surprisingly smooth.

Let me turn the clock to Oct. 19, 1953. An unfortunate event that day would create quite a stir with television viewers. It seems that Julius La Rosa, a handsome, up-and-coming singer over the media of television was abruptly fired by his boss, Arthur Godfrey with little explanation.

Godfrey, was a ukulele-playing radio and television personality, whose calm, folksy manner won him millions of admirers in the 1940s and 50s. Singer Julius La Rosa was a pop baritone singer known for many hits, including “Eh, Cumpari,” a novelty song.

Godfrey, whose calm, good humor had made him a television titan, promptly gave the young unsuspecting Brooklyn baritone his "walking papers." The reason for his firing was not immediately understood, although jealousy was considered to have been a significant factor.

Godfrey told his morning viewers the news as soon as La Rosa finished singing. It went out first over morning radio and then was mentioned briefly over television. Efforts were orchestrated to get the news out quickly and move on, but that did not happen.

Over the air, Godfrey quickly fired La Rosa and offered him "Godspeed." La Rosa later told others that he didn't even know the meaning of the word.

La Rosa nobly emphasized the fact that he did not want to get into a lingering battle with Godfrey or the network for whom he had worked 23 months to the day. He knew he could easily get a job doing what he did best — singing.

Once the news came out, the network tried to undo some of the damage by downplaying what had happened. It was the talk of the town for some time. La Rosa greatly benefited from the incident, but Godfrey had some major damage to repair and do it promptly.

In Julius's first theater date after being fired, he took home $13,000 for five days of singing at Boston's Metropolitan Theatre. In his second date, the Chicago Theater paid him $40,000 for two weeks.

Further, he sang on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" for $3,000 per Sunday. For one night in Milwaukee, he was compensated $8,000. The public rushed to his defense and fan mail came pouring into his office. Julius's new radio show on CBS began selling like hot cakes. The following year, his earnings were estimated to be $1 million.

Time eventually brought both parties together for reconciliation. La Rosa was rewarded by appearing in a range of television shows including, "The Honeymooners," "What's My Line?" "The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom," "The Polly Bergen Show," "The Merv Griffin Show" and “Laverne and Shirley.”

The feud, which sparked a bitter soap opera of sorts, finally ran its course and time kindly erased it. I hope some of my readers remember the feud. I was 11 years old and my family had just gotten our first television.

Reach Bob Cox at boblcox@bcyesteryear.com or at www.bcyesteryear.com.

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