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The Allegany County Roots of Clifford Goldsmith

By: Richard L. Kellogg


Long before the advent of cable television and the internet, families would gather around large console radios during the evening hours.  Parents and children would use their imagination while listening to a wide variety of entertaining programs.  For those craving excitement and drama, favorite shows included Gangbusters, The Lone Ranger, Sherlock Holmes, and the Whistler.  Those looking for a good laugh selected programs such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Baby Snooks, and Fibber McGee and Molly.

Those of a certain age may still recall the introduction to a popular comedy show of that era.  The program was titled The Aldrich Family and it commenced with Mrs. Aldrich calling “Hen-reee! Henry Aldrich!”  Her teenage son, the brash and crisis-prone Henry, replied in a squeaky voice with “Coming, Mother.”  Loyal fans know that Henry and his best friend, Homer Brown, would soon be involved with mischief and hijinks typical of the high-school population.  Listeners also sensed that all would turn out well.  After all, Henry had good intentions and he was supported by responsible and caring parents, Sam and Alice Aldrich.

Listeners who faithfully followed the exploits of Henry Aldrich and his friends may not have realized that Clifford Goldsmith (1899-1971) was the creator and writer of this radio program.  Even fewer would have known that the writer spent considerable time residing in Allegany County, New York, during his formative years.  Some of the characters and events portrayed in the radio show are based upon Goldsmith’s own experiences in the Rushford and Centerville areas of the Southern Tier.  It is not by chance that Henry Aldrich and his friends were proud students at Centerville High School!

Following a brief summary of Goldsmith’s professional career, his early years will be examined.  It is likely that his experiences in Allegany County contributed to his later success as a writer and playwright.  He wrote extensively about teenagers and the many problems they face during the adolescent period of development.

Clifford Goldsmith achieved national attention in the late 1930s for his play titled What a Life.  Henry Aldrich, played by the talented Ezra Stone, first appeared as a character in this show.  The play was produced and directed by the legendary George Abbott.  Other cast members included Eddy Bracken, Betty Field, and Butterfly McQueen.  The successful production ran on Broadway for over 500 performances from April of 1938 to July of 1939.

Crooner and actor Rudy Vallee was so impressed with the play that he asked Goldsmith to adapt some sketches from the show for his own radio program.  The author agreed and the short skits he wrote for Vallee soon evolved into a new radio series.  The Aldrich Family soon became one of the most endearing comedies on radio and the series ran from 1939 until 1953.

Henry Aldrich, along with his family and friends, proved to be equally appealing to audiences when transferred to the silver screen.  Paramount Pictures released a total of eleven movies about Henry between 1939 and 1944.  Jackie Cooper, famous for the Our Gang comedies, played Henry in the first two films.  The remaining nine films featured Jimmy Lydon in the leading role.

Henry and his family were even prepared when the new medium of television appeared on the horizon.  The televised series of The Aldrich Family ran concurrently with the radio show in the early 1950s.  The television program remained on the air for a little over three years.

During the 1940s, Goldsmith ranked among the highest-paid writers in radio.  Time reported in 1943 that he earned as much as $3,000 a week for writing each episode of The Aldrich Family.  Later in his career, Goldsmith made the transition to writing comedy shows for television.  He consulted or collaborated in the writing for programs such as The Flying Nun, Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, Petticoat Junction, and Dennis the Menace.

When reviewing the life of Clifford Goldsmith, one can speculate that Henry Aldrich is the alter-ego of his creator.  Indeed, the adventures of Henry and his friends are derived partially from the author’s own experiences as a teenager growing up in Western New York.

Charles Goldsmith (1857-1909), the father of Clifford Goldsmith, was an educator from East Aurora, New York.  Charles married his first wife, Rosa Oltoff (1861-1894) of Rushford, in 1890.  Charles and Rosa had one daughter, Margaret.  Following Rosa’s death, Charles married Edith Henshaw (1869-1907) and they had one son, Clifford.

Clifford Goldsmith was born on March 29, 1899, in East Aurora.  He grew up in the same neighborhood as craftsman and Roycrofter Elbert Hubbard.  Clifford and his half-sister Margaret were orphaned when their father died in 1909.  Clifford was ten and Margaret was seventeen at the time.  In subsequent years, Clifford and Margaret spent considerable time in Rushford with their Aunt Dee Oltoff, who was married to merchant John James.

Goldsmith continued his Allegany County connections when he married Margaret Towell (1897-1987) of Rushford on July 2, 1921, in New York City.  Margaret graduated from Rushford High School in 1914.  It is interesting to note that Margaret’s sister, Katherine Towell, also wed a famous author.  Katherine, who graduated from Rushford High School in 1915, married Arch Merrill.  A reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Merrill penned a series of history books about the Genesee Valley and the Finger Lakes of upstate New York.

Before achieving fame as a writer, Goldsmith worked as an actor and attended classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  During the 1920s, he worked as a vaudeville performer and even labored as a trimmer of store windows.  He was employed for several years as a lecturer for the National Dairy Council.  Clifford always advised his high-school audiences to drink lots of milk.  It was a long and hard climb from the streets of East Aurora to the bright lights of Broadway.

Concluding a long and productive life, Clifford Goldsmith died on July 11, 1971, at a hospital in Tucson, Arizona.  The obituary appearing in The New York Times reported that the writer was survived by his widow, Cathryn, and four sons and a daughter.

Those interested in the Goldsmith legacy will find interesting comments in The Spirit of Rushford, the sesquicentennial book published in 1958.  It is noted that the neighborhood of Hardys Corners in Rushford and the town of Centerville both appear in The Aldrich Family radio show.  The program also alludes to the good times that Goldsmith had in Will Rice’s blacksmith shop and with the local physician, Dr. Earl Kilmer.

Author Philip Wylie is a reliable authority since he was a good friend of Goldsmith and spent his summers in Rushford from 1938, the year he married Frederica Ballard, until his death in 1971.  In the Philip Wylie Papers, stored in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Princeton University Library, Wylie comments that the Henry Aldrich stories are based on Clifford Goldsmith’s own experiences while a youth residing in Rushford.

It is quite pleasant for current residents of Allegany County to recall that the Henry Aldrich character was inspired to some degree by experiences which Clifford Goldsmith had while living in this area.  Although born in a nearby county, Goldsmith had very deep roots in Allegany County soil.

Perhaps residents of Rushford and Centerville should consider hosting a Clifford Goldsmith Day.  On this august occasion, families could share in the pleasure of listening to The Aldrich Family radio programs and viewing the related films and television shows.  Such a community gathering would be the ideal way to celebrate the life and career of Clifford Goldsmith, one of Allegany County’s most successful “adopted sons.”  It is certain that a wonderful time would be enjoyed by all.


NOTE: The author would like to thank local historians Devi Conley, Luanne Bump, and Rebecca Cole for providing information on the background of the Goldsmith family.  Timothy Goldsmith, son of Clifford and Margaret Goldsmith, was most gracious in sharing memories of his family with the author.  His contributions and insights are greatly appreciated.

 

From the Author:

Since you were kind enough to publish a couple of my pieces on author Philip Wylie a few years ago, I wanted to let you know that I am currently completing an article on the Allegany County connections of Clifford Goldsmith, the creator and writer of The Aldrich Family – a popular radio program which ran from 1939 to 1953.  After corresponding with the relevant town historians and with Timothy Goldsmith, the son of Clifford Goldsmith,  most of the dots are connected as to the years that Clifford spent in Rushford as a child.  Since Henry Aldrich attended Centerville High School in the radio series, it is assumed that Clifford spent some time in Centerville as well."  RLK

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