Television’s First Act of Censorship

The first regularly scheduled, commercial television relay opened on Thursday, May 24th, 1944 between station WNBT in New York City and station WPTZ in Philadelphia. The broadcast was sponsored by the Philco Corporation, which owned WPTZ [1]. For some unknown reason the broadcast wasn’t included in television listings published in The New York Times so I don’t know when it began or how long it lasted. Watching the broadcast were members of the Poor Richard Club at the Franklin Institute, and anyone in New York City who may have turned on their sets at the right time (and likely any viewers able to receive WPTZ’s signal)

In addition to being the first program aired over the first regularly scheduled, commercial television relay, the broadcast was also the source of television’s first controversy over censorship. It involved entertainer Eddie Cantor who, along with Nora Martin, provided the evening’s entertainment from NBC’s studios in New York City [2].

In a May 27th article, The New York Times referred to the incident as “television’s first controversy over censorship” [3]. NBC cut the audio while Cantor and Martin were performing a song called “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me” with Nora Martin and also moved the camera up while Cantor began to “illustrate the song with a modified hula-hula dance in the tradition of the Broadway stage” [4]. What were the objectionable lyrics?

Martin: “Thanks to you, life is bright. You’ve brought me joy beyond measure.”
Cantor: “Don’t thank me. Quite all right. Honestly, it was a pleasure.”
Martin: “Just think, it’s my first one.”
Cantor: “The next one’s on me.” [5]

NBC’s vice president in charge of programs, Clarence L. Menser, told The New York Times that the audio was cut due to “the obligation of NBC to the public to make certain that its facilities do not bring into American homes material which the audience would find objectionable” [6]. Menser also stated that it was the second time Cantor had to be censored (he didn’t clarify whether the first time took place on radio or television).

According to Cantor, he was only told of NBC’s objections some 40 minutes prior to the start of the broadcast, meaning there was no time to rehearse a new number. Menser said that Cantor insisted on dropping the entire routine if the lyrics were to be cut but Menser and NBC decided to simply cut them out. That didn’t sit well with Cantor:

I’m blazing mad at fellows who tell you it’s all right and then sneak around and cut you off. Of course, NBC has the right to say we don’t use the lyrics, but when little Hitlers tell you you can’t do it just as you’re going on, that’s tough.

There must have been dialogue on the air that has to do about marriage and people having a child. No man can be in the business for thirty-five years and do any vulgarity and last. I’ve been at it longer than NBC or television. [7]

Cantor also stated that he couldn’t remember being cut off by NBC before. TIME reported on the controversy in early June but chose to focus on the technology behind the relay, explaining that in order for the broadcast to make it from New York City to Philadelphia, a relay was situated halfway between the cities and WNBT boosted its power [8]. TIME also pointed out that while the relay worked, “on prewar television receivers Eddie Cantor’s stifled image was anything but clear” [9].

It’s unfortunate that no recording of this broadcast exists. Maybe then I could begin to understand why NBC felt some of the lyrics were objectionable. Was it the line “Honestly, it was a pleasure,” which suggests the act of making a baby is somehow enjoyable? Or perhaps “The next one’s on me,” indicating that payment for babies may somehow be acceptable? And just what was Cantor’s “modified hula-hula dance” that NBC wouldn’t show?

Works Cited:

1 “Philadelphia Linked to New York in First Television Hook-Up.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 26 May 1944: 25.
2 Ibid.
3 “Cantor Censored in Televised Act.” New York Times. 27 May 1944: 17.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 “Radio: Belligerent First.” TIME. 5 Jun. 1944: Page Unknown. Read at Time.com (Opens in new window).
9 Ibid.

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4 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    Eddie Cantor had a right to be angry when he was “censored”, because he usually played to a “family” audience on radio, and no one questioned his taste in material or dialogue there.
    However, he could be a bit arrogant himself when it came to his radio scripts; George Burns once told the story where Eddie’s writers disagreed with a joke he wanted to insert into a radio script. Cantor then declared, “Okay, to be fair, we’ll take a vote. How many of you don’t want the joke in the script?”. All four of his writers raised their hands. “All right, that’s four votes against the joke”, Cantor observed. “However, since I’m the star of this show, I get FIVE votes, so the joke stays in. And if you ever want to take another vote on something else, just let me know”.

  • Rachel Newstead says:

    Regarding why the “next one’s on me” line might have been censored–Cantor may have been implying he wasn’t actually the father. Sort of like the old Rodney Dangerfield joke in which he says, “I said to my son, ‘Someday you’ll have kids of your own. ‘ He said, ‘So will you!’”

  • Brian says:

    You have to remember that back then, in “polite company” any mention of having a baby was considered vulgar. They wouldn’t even use the word ‘pregnant’ on the air. They would say a woman was, for instance, in “an interesting condition.” When the baby arrived, they had euphemisms like “a blessed event” or “a little stranger came to visit”, or “the baby arrived.”

    Now… “Having a baby” is one thing, but to refer to the fact that the father had something to do with the baby might make people think of, [gasp!] sex. This was COMPLETELY unacceptable, and, although you could occasionally get away with ‘hints’ like this on the radio, you shouldn’t be too surprised to have something like this happen on an experimental new medium like television.

    In addition, these lyrics don’t appear to be in the original song. These might have been made up by Cantor. Here are the original lyrics:

    Were having a baby, my baby and me
    You’ll read it in Winchell’s
    That we’re adding a limb to our family tree
    We’re pushing our carriage
    How proud I will be
    There’s nothing like marriage
    Ask your mother and father and they’ll agree
    He’ll have toys, baby clothes
    He’ll know he’s come to the right house
    By and by, when he grows
    Maybe he’ll live in the White House
    Our future gets brighter
    But definitely
    We’re having a baby
    We’re having a baby
    We’re having a baby
    My baby and me

    Notice the difference in tone. The lyricist is even careful to confirm that the couple is married in the original, just to ease anyone’s objections. (Yes, that was incredibly important in media that went over public airwaves in 1944!)

  • George Strum says:

    Desi Arnaz sang this very song to Lucy on “I Love Lucy” when he found out Lucy was pregnant. Of course that word wasn’t spoken.

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