Saturday, March 6, 2004

“…the official broadcast from the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation…”

You read that right—ABC’s This is Your FBI received the personal stamp of approval from none other than J. Edgar Hoover himself; the director was even once quoted as calling it “the finest dramatic program on the air” (he did use the show exclusively as a public relations tool). It was one of two weekly broadcasts showcasing the daring exploits of the G-Men, the other being CBS’ The FBI in Peace and War (1944-58), adapted from the book of the same name by author Frederick L. Collins. Peace and War may have been the better received of the two—it certain had a more memorable theme song in Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges—but This is Your FBI, from the broadcasts I listened to last night (and several before that), was arguably the better program.

The show was created by producer-director Jerry Devine, a former comedy writer for Kate Smith and Tommy Riggs, who had turned his scripting talents to radio thrillers like Mr. District Attorney. This is Your FBI received the full cooperation of J. Edgar; Hoover gave Devine carte blanche to closed cases in the Bureau’s files for inspiration in writing the show’s weekly dramatizations. They were prefaced, of course, with the Dragnet-like disclaimer “All names used are fictitious and any similarity thereof to the names of persons or places, living or dead, is accidental.” (This led Jim Cox, author of Radio Crime Fighters, to observe: “Some listeners must have pondered that for a while—‘So did these events happen or not?’”)

Debuting over ABC Radio on April 6, 1945, This is Your FBI broadcast from New York in its early run (1945-47), showcasing the talents of New York radio veterans like Mandel Kramer, Karl Swenson, Santos Ortega, Elspeth Eric, Joan Banks, and Frank Lovejoy (who narrated many of the shows). In 1948, though, the program relocated to Hollywood, and with the move established a regular weekly character in Special Agent Jim Taylor, a representative of all of the Bureau’s special agents, played by actor Stacy Harris.

Before being bitten by the acting bug, Harris embarked on a journey of real-life adventure that was far more interesting than any of his roles on stage, screen, radio or TV. Born in Quebec in 1918, he served a short stint as an Army pilot before a plane crash steered him into a new career as a merchant seaman at the beginning of World War II. Stacy also worked as an ambulance driver for the Free French in Africa, and then was transferred to the Foreign Legion, where he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also worked as a political cartoonist for the The New Orleans Times-Picayune and sportswriter for The San Francisco Chronicle, defining what some would term a “modern-day Renaissance man.” This is Your FBI wasn’t his only radio gig, however—he was a presence on such shows as Pepper Young’s Family, The Strange Romance of Evelyn Winters, and Tales of the Texas Rangers; he also provided the voice of Batman on radio’s The Adventures of Superman.

In “Ghost Town” (8/31/51), the first of two This is Your FBI programs I previewed last night while at work, a man and woman are scouting locations for a film in the titled hamlet when they realize they aren’t alone—and are soon taken hostage by a pair of bank robbers on the lam. It’s a well-written show from staff scribe Jerry D. Lewis, with a fine cast that includes Newton Arnold, Parley Baer, Bea Benaderet, Wally Maher, Edmund McDonald, and John Sheehan. I was tickled by the fact that Benaderet appears on this program along with Larry Keating—the show’s announcer from 1948-53 for This is Your FBI’s longtime sponsor Equitable Life Assurance Company—since both Keating and Benaderet would later work side-by-side as next-door neighbors Harry and Blanche Morton on the TV version of The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show.

Episode two is “The Curious Fisherman” (9/7/51), which tells the sad tale of a boat owner hired to take a group of vacationers fishing, little realizing that he’s about to become a victim of modern-day piracy. Sheldon Leonard, Paul Richards, John T. Smith, Naomi Stevens, Tom Tully, and Anne Whitfield are in the cast, and though it’s a notch below “Ghost Town” it’s still an enjoyable listen.

Nearly 300 of This is Your FBI’s 409 broadcasts are extant today, and I think that may be one of the reasons why I rank the program higher than The FBI in Peace and War (whose available episodes stand at about three dozen); it's a little more accessible to the modern-day listener. Everything about the show is first-rate, from its cast, crew, scripting, and music, and the only quibble I have is that the program’s narration has a tendency to moralize a little too much (courtesy of William Woodson). I’m also a big Stacy Harris fan; I get a kick out of listening to him since my experience with Harris comes primarily from the work he did with his very good friend Jack Webb. Stacy always seemed to play (on the radio version of Dragnet) an endless succession of low-lifes pissing and moaning about not being able to catch a break (a good example is “The Big Escape”, a show broadcast 1/5/50 that stars Harris as an old Army pal of Webb’s Friday who’s a loser with a capital “L”). Harris also appeared on Webb’s radio series Pete Kelly’s Blues and both television versions of Dragnet (1952-59 and 1967-70). Webb even named his daughter “Stacy” after his close friend.

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