The Life of Riley: A matter of perspective

January 14, 2011

Sign at a tavern in Portland, Ore.

One of the classes I taught last semester included a section on idiomatic expressions. A topic like that always calls attention to the difference in the ages of the students and the instructor. We came across many expressions that a person my age uses casually but that many or all of the students didn’t recognize. None of them, for instance, knew the expression “hocus pocus,” which refers to the things magicians do and say to create the illusion that they have paranormal resources.

Another example arose when, instead of instructing, I was telling the students about Marcello, the new cat at our house. We had met Marcello on the sidewalk outside a gift shop in North East, Md., and the chance acquaintance evolved into a permanent arrangement. Now, I told my students, Marcello is living “the life of Riley.”

Opening title of the television series "The Life of Riley"

As the words left my lips, I could read in the faces of the students that they didn’t know what that meant. My experience has been that students are a tolerant lot, and that they wouldn’t think of embarrassing the instructor by pointing that he had said something they couldn’t comprehend. They would have been content to go on living without knowing what that expression meant. So I asked them: “Do you know that expression?” They didn’t, and even though none of them asked, even then, what it meant, I told them.

That set me to wondering where that expression originated, but I didn’t have time until now to look it up. Apparently there is no definitive answer. One theory traces the phrase to a song written in 1898 by vaudevillian Pat Rooney Sr. In that song, a hotel owner named Riley looks forward the day when he strikes it rich. The phrase itself is not in the lyric of that song.

Rosemary DeCamp and Jackie Gleason

The expression does appear in a song called “My Name is Kelly,” which was written by Howard Pease in 1919. “Faith, and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly / But I’m livin’ the life of Reilly just the same.” The fact that Pease used the phrase that way suggests that it was well known by that time. The author of a British web site, The Phrase Finder, writes that the first known instance of “the life of Riley” appearing in print in the United States occurred in 1911 in the Hartford Courant in a story about the demise of a notorious wild cow, something — I must confess — I have never heard of before: “The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After ‘living the life of Riley’ for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.”

Of  course, I associate the expression with the television comedy series that starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley; Marjorie Reynolds as his wife, Peg; the gorgeous Lugene Sanders as their daughter, Babs, and Wesley Morgan as their son, Junior.

Lugene Sanders

Although the expression implies that a man is living a life of ease, Chester Riley worked steadily in the wing assembly division of Cunningham Aircraft in Los Angeles. He was the stereotypical bumbling father who was always in some kind of scrape. He didn’t have many happy endings, and his closing line on most episodes became one of the most popular catch phrases of the era: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

A radio show with the same title that appeared for a few months in 1941 was not related to the later series. Film star William Bendix appeared on radio as Chester Riley from 1945 to 1951. One of the developers of that series was Gummo Marx. Bendix was making a film version of “Riley” when the show moved to television in 1949, so Jackie Gleason was cast as Riley and Rosemary De Camp as Peg. A contributing writer for that series was Groucho Marx, who had once been considered for the title role on radio. The series won an Emmy, but it ended after one short season because of a contract dispute.

Bill Bendix on the cover of a Dell comic based on the series.

The show was introduced on television again in 1953 with Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds leading the cast, and it was a hit, running for six seasons. A 2009 BBC series with the same title is not related in anyway to the American shows.

While I was looking around for information about this show, I came across two modern-day uses of the expression “Life of Riley,” both with more serious and somewhat ironic applications. One is a foundation headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., that raises funds to promote awareness of and seek a cure  for pediatric brain tumors. The organization is named for Riley Saba, a 7-year-old girl who died because of such a tumor. You can visit the foundation’s web site by clicking HERE.

Another site, this one located in Great Britain, was inspired by a boy whose first name is Riley. The youngster has a form of cerebral palsy, and a group of his family’s friends formed an organization to raise funds for charities that assist kids with that or similar conditions. Riley came by his first name because his dad was attracted to the song “The Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. The song was written by Ian Broudie whose own son, Riley, now plays guitar with the group. You can learn more about the charity group by clicking HERE.

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3 Responses to “The Life of Riley: A matter of perspective”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    It’s always fun when you remind me of shows I grew up with, but have forgotten. There’s still an echo of this one around, though, as Mom is given to saying, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” I just didn’t realize that saying is associated with “The Life of Riley”.

    I did get curious and did a little snooping myself. I didn’t turn up any other information about the idiom, except that in earlier times (c.1820) it meant roiled, muddy, ill-tempered or irritated. I suppose that’s where the phrase “riled up” came from. I never heard that one until I came to the South.

  2. bronxboy55 Says:

    “The life of Riley” is apparently one of those expressions (like “Bob’s your uncle”) that endures far longer than anyone would have expected, and that may be why it’s so difficult to trace its origin. It’s interesting how certain things get passed from one generation to the next. Our three kids all knew “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe,” as a way to choose up sides, even though we had never taught it to any of them.

    I’m surprised your students didn’t know “hocus pocus.”

  3. souldipper Says:

    Appreciate being reminded that I’m using a phrase without having any concept of its origin. Thanks for the research.

    Purely out of interest: I’ve just been checking out Bacchus due to a strange reference I ran across. When Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Leonardo painted our god of wine and intoxication, there must not have been any town drunks! 🙂

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