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Taking Norma Jean to the Blackouts

   The Blackouts had been playing at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood since the early days of World War II and was originally intended to be a vaudevillian look at military life.

    By now the war had been over for about three years, but Ken Murray's clever showmanship kept the revue alive through the end of the decade.

    His co-star was Marie Wilson, the buxom blonde with the wide eyes and innocent look who later became
My Friend Irma
on radio, television and in the movies.

    Her material in the Blackouts was considerably less innocent — although, compared to what we see on primetime TV nowadays, it seems pretty tame in retrospect.

    I still remember some of the gags.

    The show would open with Ken Murray chewing on an unlit cigar and doing his Bugs Bunny "What's up, doc?" impersonation.

   After a few topical jokes of the day, he would "warn" us that he was about to introduce Marie Wilson, who would come out wearing a very low-cut strapless evening gown. And if she decides to take a bow, we were admonished, the first four rows of the theater would be immediately evacuated.

   He'd then beckon to her, and she'd prance out with a provocative jiggle that made the top of her gown appear to be in imminent danger of losing its grip. Before she could say anything, he'd tell to go back and come out again. His eyes would then be fixed on the top of her dress as she again bounced her way toward center stage.

    "One more time," he insisted, but she shook her head. "Darn!" he said as he turned back the audience, "one more time and I'm sure we'd have had it!"

    When asked what was new, Marie would say that she'd been reading a study about the advantages of using mothers' milk over bottled milk.

    When prompted to tell what the advantages were, she'd reply, "Well, it doesn't need refrigerating — the cats can't get at it — and, best of all, it comes in such cute containers."

    (I wondered if Norma Jean could tell I was fantasizing about what her cute containers
might look like.)

    Blackouts at The Blackouts

    The word "blackouts" had a double meaning in those days. During World War II we had "blackouts" where all lights were supposed to be extinguished at the sound of an air-raid alarm so we'd be invisible to enemy aircraft.

    As a vaudeville term, it referred to a darkened stage where a spotlight would briefly illuminate a person or persons just long enough for them to do their schtick.
    (The gimmick was later used extensively in the 1960s TV show Laugh-In.)
    Here's a brief sampling of Ken Murray's blackout routines:

    A Russian peasant woman stands holding a baby in her arms. Her soldier husband appears, saying, "Tanya, Tanya, three long years I have been away at war — three long years." Then he notices the baby and looks perplexed as he starts counting on his fingers.

    "Aha!" he says, "you have been unfaithful! Who’s the father — my friend Erroll Flynnovich?"

    "Nyet," she replies.

    "Was it my friend Iva Bellyitch?"


    "Was it my friend Igor Beavor?"


    "Was it my friend..."

   "Wait a minute," she cuts in, "don't you think I have any friends of my own?"

    A woman screams, and the spotlight shows her sitting up in bed, clutching the covers to her otherwise bare bosom. Her husband dashes in and says, "Darling, what's the matter?"

    "A burglar was just here."

    "Did he get anything?"

    "Yes — but I thought it was you."

    The beam next highlights a hotel hallway with two doors — one marked "Bridal Suite" and the other "Bath." An excited groom carries his blushing bride through the former. Then somebody comes in and playfully swaps the signs. Now Ken Murray enters clad in a bathrobe, carrying a towel and bath brush.

    Naturally he tries the door marked "Bath" but it's locked. He leaves, but comes back a few seconds later and tries it again. He shrugs and leaves again. The third time he pounds on the door and shouts, "Hey you in there — how about letting somebody else have a crack at that?"

    Finally, Marie Wilson is shown in a skimpy "military" costume which consists mainly of two glittery stars — one placed strategically on each bountiful breast — and a red and white target placed to discreetly hide another sensitive area. Then she recites a poem (most of which I've long since forgotten) but which ends with, "I may be a civilian, but I've got a target for tonight."

    Pretty racy stuff in 1948. I wasn't sure that Norma wasn't going to be offended and maybe never speak to me again. But she laughed at all the gags, and said she really enjoyed the show. Maybe she wasn't destined to become a nun after all.

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