by Bob Stepno
Did you hear the one about the big-city reporter and the farmer’s daughter?
It was called “State Fair,” as a novel, a movie, two Hollywood musicals and several stage productions. On radio, it had at least a half-dozen adaptations.
The whole theatrical Lockhart family was unleashed on this New Year’s Eve broadcast by Screen Guild on the Air in 1950. Daughter June and parents Kathleen and Gene play the Iowa farm family en route to the State Fair with Pa’s pig and Ma’s pickles.
The reporter waiting at the fair is Van Heflin, who had one of his first stage hits as a journalist character in “The Philadelphia Story,” the role that went to Jimmy Stewart in the film adaptation. As newsman Pat Gilbert in “State Fair,” Heflin sounds a bit old and worldly for the sweet young June Lockhart as farmer’s daughter Margie — which is just what the script calls for.
Audiences who saw the 1945 movie musical by the same name may have been disappointed that this radio adaptation a few years later is not the singing and dancing Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It’s closer to the pre-musical play and 1933 movie, in which Will Rogers was the father figure and Lew Ayres was the reporter. (The original film isn’t on DVD, but comes around on the Turner Classic Movies schedule now and then. TCM also has a database page for State Fair, 1933.)
In this broadcast, 18-year-old Margie and the reporter she meets at the State Fair are the heart of the story. Who better for a model of worldliness than this newspaperman? He’s worked in New York and Chicago. He’s been to Paris. He’s been to Rome. He’s even been to her home town once — but only because a plane crashed there.
The farmer’s daughter in this telling could not be any sweeter (or wiser for her years) than June Lockhart. She had, however, already won a Tony on Broadway in 1948 and was not yet known to the world as the more mature mother from the “Lassie” TV series or her silver-clad counterpart on “Lost in Space.”
Van Heflin plays Pat, the “Just for fun, baby; just for laughs…” reporter, as world-travelled, well-educated, a bit sad, and not entirely a cad.
“Pat, what kind of a person are you, really?” Margie asks at one point. And, at another, “Your life hasn’t been very dull, has it, Pat?”
He knows literature and music as well as news, and hopes to return to Paris someday to write a book. He knows art and architecture, too, although not enough to have become an architect on that trip to Rome. He has a way with words, and Margie inspires him to eloquence. And after a couple of evenings in the moonlight with her, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t know his heart as well as he thought.
(However, for all the risks to 1950 Midwestern morality, and thanks to Margie’s level-headed principles, the reporter’s main ethical failing involves her mother’s pickles… which leads to a press photographer’s request for the kind of cheesecake they don’t give ribbons for at the fair.)
For 21st century listeners, this all may be a bit corny and sentimental, but I enjoyed it almost as much as the live studio audience — which must have had fun watching the voice actors who played the parts of the chickens and that prize hog, who has the happiest ending of anyone.
When former journalist Phil Strong’s novel “State Fair” came out in 1932, times were different, as is clear in the blurbs on the University of Iowa Press page:
“…two hours of welcome relief from the depression…a gay novel of normal, healthy farm people, a novel with plenty of gusto and relish for life in it.”—New York Times Book Review, May 8, 1932
“…he brings to his first published novel an unusual combination of the city slicker’s knowingness and humor with a sound understanding of and affectionate feelings for the life of which he makes his story.”—Saturday Review of Literature, May 7, 1932
The Hollywood musical version must not have hurt the radio audience’s appreciation of the original story. The 1950 U.S. Steel’s Theater Guild on the Air version of the story was followed by another production in just three years. The focus was still on the “reporter and the farmer’s daughter” aspect of the tale, this time minus the Lockharts, and with a different Van — Van Johnson — as the reporter. (The Internet Archive has a downloadable copy as episode 134, Jan. 4, 1953)
Film, stage and radio versions
Unlike other Hollywood musicals that began as Broadway plays, State Fair’s musical version was written for the screen. In fact, the stage productions were preceded by two film versions, in 1945 and 1962, with music by Richard Rodgers and
lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II. The most famous songs from the show are “It Might as Well Be Spring” and “It’s a Grand Night For Singing,” neither of which is particularly journalistic.
Hollywood gave the reporter role to Dana Andrews in 1945 and Bobby Darin in 1962, although the latter production shifted the star focus from the farmer’s daughter and the reporter to the farmer’s son, played by Pat Boone, and his romance with an entertainer, played by Ann-Margret.
The Lux edition featured Jeanne Crain in her original film-musical role as the heroine, but no Dana Andrews, whom newspaper film fans may remember as a reporter in “While the City Sleeps” and “Assignment Paris.” Instead, “Mr. Radio” Elliott Lewis fills in as the non-singing reporter, diminished a bit in the plot to feature singing star Dick Haymes in the other male lead. Lewis’s version of Pat the reporter sounds a bit more insecure and conflicted about his out-of-town job offer than Dana Andrews did in the film. But he still has a good line about a newspaperman knowing how to find the right people at the right time — meaning Margie. And he doesn’t flash his press card to ride the roller coaster for free like Dana Andrews (above). But he does get his shot at the Iowa-centric line that “the great Des Moines Register’s got me hog tied.”
“The Railroad Hour,” which specialized in half-hour summaries of Hollywood musicals, did State Fair three times, starting in 1949, although that production is not in any of the popular online archives. The two later versions are available, from 1951 and 1953.
In these adaptations the reporter is the lead character and gets to do more singing, played by series host Gordon MacCrea. The tension is between his hopes for a bigger out-of-town job and his sudden feelings for Margie.
In MacCrea’s versions of “State Fair,” the journalist is, in his words, “Just a reporter for the local paper, but I’ll be a columnist someday” — quite a contrast with the older, world-travelled scribe of the Theater Guild productions.
The story was also told with Ann Blyth as its star twice — first on Hallmark Playhouse on August 26, 1948, although the well-researched Digital Deli Too log of the Hallmark program lists the episode as unavailable in radio collections. Blyth was back with a General Electric Theater version, State Fair broadcast Sept. 10, 1953.
Blyth is both star and narrator of the latter program, which has a mature script by Kathleen Hite, a radio and television writer who showed a flair for journalist characters in several series, including “Rogers of the Gazette.” Her “State Fair” ending is more subtle and “writerly” than the others.