“The Old Boy Doped It Out Pretty Damn Well” — Notes on an Early "Emperor's Bridge" Campaigner
A May 1956 episode of the television series Telephone Time is one of the four films currently included in The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign’s digital ARchive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film (ARENA).
The series aired on CBS and — as the name suggests — was sponsored by Bell Telephone.
The 30-minute episode in our archive is titled “Emperor Norton’s Bridge” and follows the same format as all the episodes in the series: a dramatization of a true story is framed — “bookended” — by an introduction and concluding remarks by the host, John Nesbitt (1910–1960).
The mood of the “framing pieces” is urbane. Nesbitt — crisp, light suit; dark fore-in-hand tie; scholarly glasses — is in a stage set that says “private study”: sturdy desk, lamps, books, lots of wood.
You can view the episode here.
What’s curious about the Norton episode is its title: “Emperor Norton’s Bridge.”
The dramatization itself doesn’t make any reference to the Emperor’s call for the construction of a bridge between Oakland and San Francisco.
It’s only in the final minute, as part of Nesbitt’s concluding remarks, that any connection is made between Emperor Norton and the Bay Bridge — and, even then, somewhat obliquely.
The Emperor Norton lived out his full span of years quite happily, except that he always fiercely insisted on having his bridge across the San Francisco Bay and that it was entirely practical.
When he died, the entire city mourned him….As late, I believe, as 1934, they raised a fine monument to him, and on it they were quite careful to put just the inscription which he would like. It reads: “Norton the First: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
They also got around, at last, to giving him his Bay Bridge
It turns out that the episode title and the parting note was part of a longstanding one-man campaign by John Nesbitt to get the Bay Bridge named for the Emperor.
Born in Victoria, B.C., Nesbitt — a grandson of the actor Edwin Booth — got his professional start in San Francisco, working for the NBC Radio Network beginning in 1933.
By the time he started hosting Telephone Time in 1956, Nesbitt was well-known as the creator, producer and host of The Passing Parade, a series of 15- and 30-minute dramatizations of strange-but-true stories that aired on a number of radio networks between 1938 and 1951. During these years, there also were MGM theatrical releases of 11-minute-long Passing Parade film shorts.
The enterprise was similar to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and Strange As It Seems projects that produced stories for newspaper, radio and film during this same period. Indeed, the 9-minute Strange As It Seems film short, “The Story of Norton I” — produced in 1936, and also part of our archive (view here) — appears to feature the earliest extant portrayal of the Emperor on film.
Nine years later — and eleven years before the Telephone Time episode on Emperor Norton — Nesbitt produced a Passing Parade radio segment on the Emperor that aired 26 November 1945, as part of the Westinghouse Hour on NBC.
The Telephone Time episode originally aired on 27 May 1956. The preceding April, the San Francisco Examiner published a new interview that John Nesbitt did with Dwight Newton for Newton’s “radio and television” column “Day and Night.” In the interview, Nesbitt talked with Newton about Emperor Norton — specifically, about his own determination that the Bay Bridge should be named after the Emperor.
Here’s the relevant excerpt. Nesbitt’s words are in bold type.
JOHN NESBITT: Norton was the first to suggest the bridge and the old boy doped it out pretty damn well. I’ve always campaigned to have it re-named The Emperor’s Bridge. I’ll never give up.
Who knows? Perhaps if John Nesbitt had lived past 50, cars would have been driving under signs for the Emperor Norton Bridge for the last two generations.
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