Sunday, February 1, 2004

”Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in the West…”

Faithful readers will no doubt recall that during the Suspense-a-thon on this blog, I had some kind words of high praise for one of radio’s most seasoned acting veterans, John Dehner. The funny thing is, I first became acquainted with Dehner’s work on—and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this—The Doris Day Show, where he played her boss Cy Bennett from 1971-73. (Whatever happened to that show, anyway? I don’t think I ever saw it in reruns.) To be certain, it was hardly his finest hour, but as my friend Pam is often fond of saying, “Hey, the man’s gotta eat.” There are two Dehner performances (outside of radio) that always stand out in my mind. First, an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Jungle” (12/01/61), a memorably eerie outing in which he plays an architect who’s been cursed and is now being stalked by an unseen lion. The other is a funny role in Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)—he’s Colonel Ames, a wealthy mine owner with a Napoleonic complex.

On radio, however, it’s his role of J.B. Kendall on Frontier Gentleman that stands out on his lengthy resume. With the introduction of Gunsmoke in 1952, a slew of mature, adult westerns soon began to appear on radio, offering some of the finest drama ever broadcast. There was The Six Shooter (1953-54), a NBC series starring James Stewart as easy-going gunslinger Britt Ponset, and Fort Laramie, a gritty, realistic look at life in the cavalry starring Raymond Burr. I enjoy both of these shows tremendously, but it’s Frontier Gentleman that edges them out as the only serious contender for Gunsmoke’s throne in the Radio Hall of Fame.

Frontier Gentleman was the creation of writer-director Antony Ellis, whose distinguished radio career included high-quality programs like Suspense and Escape. It premiered over CBS Radio on February 2, 1958 and told the story of J.B. Kendall, a reporter for The London Times, whose adventures and chance encounters with a colorful array of characters in the old West often provided the material for the stories he submitted to the paper. Kendall was no casual observer or pencil-pusher, however; he handled himself very well “as a man with a gun,” becoming “part of the violent years in the new territories.”

The show was most assuredly a cut above most of the radio and television western product at that time, and often had fun placing its protagonist in the background of some of the famous legends of the Old West. One classic episode, “Aces and Eights” (04/20/58), has him meeting Calamity Jane and sitting in on the famous poker hand on that fateful day that Wild Bill Hickok is killed. Other episodes would spotlight quieter, oftentimes humorous events in his life; one of my favorites is “Gentle Virtue” (03/30/58), in which he wins an Asian girl in a card game.

Frontier Gentleman benefited from a superior supporting cast of top-flight radio veterans, like Jack Kruschen, Stacy Harris, Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin, and Jeanette Nolan. The music for the show was also particularly memorable, with Jerry Goldsmith contributing a memorable trumpet theme. With well-crafted scripts, exceptional acting and fine music, how could a series such as this last only nine months? It’s a mystery to me as well, but it happened—Frontier Gentleman rode off into the sunset on November 16, 1958, to be replaced by the better-known but inferior radio version of Have Gun, Will Travel, which also starred Dehner in the lead role.

Last night, I listened to a couple of episodes of Frontier Gentleman, beginning with “The Preacher” (10/19/58): Kendall encounters Thomas Yorby (Parley Baer), a former preacher who loses his faith after the death of his wife—and whose brother-in-law is out to kill him for revenge. This is great radio, a quiet but tense little drama with a very satisfying ending. “The Rainmaker” (10/23/58), has a decidedly lighter tone, in which Kendall hooks up with Darby Bullman (Joseph Kearns), the “king of the rainmakers,” who’s planning to sell his services to a drought-ravaged Kansas town. There’s a laugh-out-loud moment in this show where the town biddy (played by Virginia Gregg) is threatening to be a force to be reckoned with since she’s convinced that Bullman and Kendall are doing “the Devil’s work.” (“Liquor and sin!”) After she leaves, Kendall asks: “Somebody’s wife?” “Not no more, Kendall,” the town’s lawyer replies dryly. “Buried two…talked them to death, some say…”

Modern day old-time radio fans can count their blessings that Frontier Gentleman is still around for us to enjoy today, as its entire run of 41 episodes exists in fine audio for the introductory listener. I would heartily recommend the collection offered by Terry Salomonson’s Audio Classics Archive for those interested in obtaining it in superior sound.

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