This post was written by Matt Barton, curator, Recorded Sound Section.
Born in the early 1920s, Bob Elliot (1923-2016) and Ray Goulding (1922 – 1990), better known as “Bob and Ray,” never knew a world without radio, and reveled in the medium from early childhood. They became professional announcers while still in their teens, eventually making a merry career of disassembling the medium and putting it back together to suit their own tastes. They met in 1946 as staff announcers at Boston’s WHDH radio, and their natural rapport and what Variety called their “sense of the ridiculous[i]” soon had them hosting a two hour morning bloc of adlibbed conversation and skits between pop records on Breakfast with Bob and Ray.
Though WHDH was an independent station with only a 5,000 watt signal, it was becoming competitive in the Boston market with a mix of music, talk, news and sports, and Bob and Ray helped expand the station’s audience and raise its advertising billings. In the fall of 1947, the pair were given a daily half hour at 1:00 pm called Matinee with Bob and Ray, and after WHDH increased the power of its signal to 50,000 watts in early 1949, Bob and Ray could be heard throughout New England and even beyond. “Following no particular format,” wrote Variety.” [S]how usually open with some topical subject getting a good kicking around, or an interview with some ludicrous imaginary character…Resulting farcical skits rank with the sharpest off-the-cuff humor on the air.[ii]”
Network radio was then at its peak of popularity and profitability, but from their independent perch at WHDH, Bob and Ray felt no compunctions about lampooning every aspect of it. They worked without scripts and voiced all of their characters themselves. Thankfully, many Matinee with Bob and Ray episodes survive in the collection of the Library of Congress, shows on which they honed characters and tropes that would serve them well for more than forty years, and the first fruits can be heard in the daily program that NBC gave them in the summer of 1951, nearly all of which survive in the NBC Collection at the Library.
They arrived at NBC with characters such as Mary Margaret McGoon, a purported culinary expert pushing doubtful recipes, voiced by Ray, and “shows” such as The Lives and Loves of Linda Lovely, one of their many soap opera parodies. When their daily, late morning quarter hour show became a hit, they were also given a 30 minute Saturday night slot, Inside Bob and Ray, and an early morning show on local station WNBC. NBC gave them two television series as well, which were intermittently successful. Radio was their true home.
The parodies continued. The venerable soap opera Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, on the air since 1935 became Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife. Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, a detective drama that had been on the air since 1937, became Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons. In spite of its continuing popularity, the original Mr. Keen was a ripe target, with predictable plots and unwieldy dialogue long on exposition and short on feeling. A 1952 “episode” of Mr. Trace opened with Bob Elliott affecting a tough guy growl:
Boo-Boo, as I sit here in my twenty-one room mansion on the outskirts of the suburban town of Magnolia only 24 minutes to Grand Central, I’m grateful that I, Egghead McNamara, racetrack player, ex rum runner and currently engaged in the old brass cannon racket am married to such a lovely creature as you, Marilyn “Boo Boo” Lasvogel, former Ziegfield girl and runner up to Miss New York of 1922…At the present time I have enemies in the underworld, enemies who are trying to hijack the scores of old brass cannon which have been pilfered from scores of New England and Middle West village greens, but I and my henchman, “One-Ear” Dodson, so far have thwarted their every move to obtain the keys to the underground warehouse where we store these brass cannon, awaiting a suitable high market for hot brass cannon.
As on WHDH, Bob and Ray hawked unappealing, even surreal products alongside legitimate advertisements by their NBC sponsor Colgate:
Ray: Say ladies, if you want bright shining floors, use new double-rich Flugel’s Floor Wax.
Bob: Flugel’s Floor Wax is genuine skid-proof beeswax made by genuine skid-proof bees.
Ray: Flugel’s Floor Wax is self-renewing. Each can contains a guaranteed, hardworking queen bee who makes new wax daily!
Bob: This wax gives your floor a hard, glossy finish and is guaranteed against wear and tear.
Ray: Make this simple test: rub Flugel’s Floor Wax on your floor, then grasp the edge of your floor firmly with both hands.
Bob: Tear your floor lengthwise. You’ll notice although your floor tears readily, the wax remains in one solid piece! Ladies, be sure to tear out to your supermarket and get some Flugel’s Floor Wax right after the Bob and Ray Show!
The advertising community was surprisingly appreciative of these send-ups, and made Bob and Ray occasional guests at their conventions, and they helped start a trend towards more clever and entertaining radio and television ads when they provided voices for six years staring in 1955 of cartoon characters Bert and Harry Piel, the supposed manufacturers of Piel’s Beer.
For the remainder of the decade, Bob and Ray frequently starred on two radio networks. When NBC launched its weekend news and entertainment feed Monitor for the first four years of the program’s run, while also doing daily shows for Mutual from 1955 to 1957, CBS from 1959 to 1960, and on New York station WINS. They continued to work together in radio, television and on the stage until Ray’s death in 1990, after which Bob worked in film and television with his son Chris Elliot before passing in 2016. Nowadays, the sounds of rock and roll and the sight of tail-finned cars may be the most familiar symbols of 1950s America, not Bob and Ray, but they were a major presence and just as enduring, if not nearly as loud.
Interested in learning more about Bob and Ray or other recordings in our NBC Radio Collection and want to learn how to find other recorded sound resources? Don’t hesitate to contact our reference staff at the Recorded Sound Research Center or contact us through the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.
[i] “Radio Reviews,” Variety, November 17, 1948, p. 35.