Saturday, January 31, 2004

”…RCA Victor, world leader in radio…first in recorded music, first in television…”

Radio added another big-time Hollywood dramatic anthology to its glut of similar programs in 1949 with The Screen Directors’ Playhouse, which debuted over NBC Radio as a sustained half-hour series January 9. OTR historian John Dunning is laudatory in his On the Air entry for the show, praising its writing and commenting: “Though the material had a familiar sound, it was made fresh.” Though I agree that the show was better written than some of its radio cousins, I don’t believe the show is anything that will set the world on fire. Admittedly, programs that dramatize Hollywood movies are among my least favorites—it’s not that they’re not well-done, it’s just that I prefer watching the original source material instead.

Screen Directors’ Playhouse picked up a sponsor in July 1949 with Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, which paid the tab until September; it was later sponsored by RCA Victor, Anacin, and Chesterfield. The program’s half-hour format sort of handicapped the show at first—by having to shoehorn the movie adaptations into a thirty-minute time frame, the productions lost a great deal of their nuance. I once listened to a Playhouse presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life (courtesy of Victor Ives and The Golden Age of Radio Theater) that zipped by so fast I thought Jimmy Stewart’s character had married Evelyn Wood instead of Donna Reed.

Screen Directors’ Playhouse expanded to a full hour beginning November 9, 1950 and it improved the series considerably; last night’s listen to the November 16, 1950 broadcast of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat is a pretty good example, since the original movie relies more on dialogue rather than visuals. It features Tallulah Bankhead, who reprises her starring role as reporter Constance (Connie) Porter, and Jeff Chandler as Kovac (played by John Hodiak in the original), telling the tale of a group of survivors whose ship has sank after being attacked by a German U-boat. The production eliminates one of the movie’s characters, “Sparks,” (played by Hume Cronyn) but otherwise remains faithful to the film, and features a capable supporting cast in Wilms Herbert, Anne Diamond, Henry Roland, Barbara Eiler, Sheldon Leonard, and Roy Glenn.

At the time of this broadcast, Chandler was just beginning to make noise on the silver screen as a big box-office draw—the show’s announcer, Jimmy Wallington, even plugs his latest release, Deported (1950), during the program’s end. Chandler was a long-time radio veteran, often performing under his real name, Ira Grossel and appearing on programs like Suspense and Lux Radio Theatre. Chandler was immortalized in OTR as the “bashful biologist” Philip Boynton in the hit situation comedy Our Miss Brooks, which allowed his previously hidden comedic talents to shine. He's also remembered by old radio fans for a syndicated series in which he played Michael Shayne, the fictional detective created by author Brett Halliday.

Lifeboat’s leading lady, Tallulah Bankhead, was also burning up the airwaves as the “mistress of ceremonies” of NBC’s The Big Show, a Sunday night big-budget variety spectacular (it was estimated that the show cost around $300 a minute). It debuted November 5, 1950 and despite a top-flight guest roster (Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen, Ethel Merman) it limped along for two years, never managing to make a dent in its competition on CBS (which included The Jack Benny Program). Both The Big Show and The Screen Directors’ Playhouse were examples of the hard-working efforts of radio at this time to stay viable as its audience dwindled, falling under the seductive, hypnotic spell of the boob tube. Had Playhouse premiered earlier during Radio’s Golden Age, it might have shared the longevity of programs like The Lux Radio Theatre and The Screen Guild Players, but instead it made a graceful exit at curtain on September 28, 1951.

I did notice one curious thing while listening to this broadcast—a plug for 20th Century-Fox’s All About Eve starring Bette Davis. Curious in that Bankhead made no secret of her disdain for the picture (she nicknamed it “All About Me”) because she felt that much of the movie was cribbed from her fascinating history of her many years on the stage. I’d be interested to know as to how she felt about the plug at the end of the show.

Friday, January 30, 2004

”Happy trails to you…”

Here’s something that has always puzzled me: how did a man born Leonard Slye from Cincinnati, Ohio ever lay claim to a title like “King of the Cowboys”? I am, of course, referring to the late, great Roy Rogers, and while I mean no malice toward the popular entertainer, it also seemed kind of presumptuous to me that a “flat-lander” would usurp a throne like that. I suppose that when competing with Gene Autry—“America’s favorite cowboy”—something like that was bound to happen in the cowboy biz.

I’m at a distinct disadvantage here because I was born way too late in life to experience Roy’s incredible career in radio, TV, movies, etc. My first exposure to him occurred back in 1975, when a song Rogers recorded, “Hoppy, Gene and Me,” became a top 20 country hit. (It’s a great tune, by the way; a nostalgic exercise to a time when kids packed Saturday afternoon matinees for B-westerns and serials, two movie genres in which I’ve always had an interest.) Roy also co-starred in my favorite Bob Hope comedy, Son of Paleface (1952), and I think he was a good sport to allow his wholesome, straight-laced, milk-drinking cowboy image to take a ribbing. (BOB: “S’matter, don’t you like girls?” ROY: “I’ll stick to horses, mister…”) So Roy is okay in my book.

Rogers’ radio career began back in the 1930s, where despite bouts of mike fright he sang with a number of vocal groups before forming the Sons of the Pioneers with Bob Nolan. The western harmony group achieved tremendous success, making bit appearances in several movies released by Republic Pictures in 1935. Roy caught a lucky break two years later when the studio’s top cowboy star, Gene Autry, left in a contract dispute, and tapped as his replacement, Rogers appeared in a slew of low-budget but very profitable B-westerns, beginning in 1938 with Under Western Stars. While competing neck-and-neck with Autry at the box office, Rogers soon found himself among the top ten moneymakers in the industry by the mid-1940s.

Rogers brought his mix of western ballads and two-fisted action to Mutual Radio beginning November 21, 1944 with The Roy Rogers Show. (His “rival” Autry had already made inroads on radio with Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in 1940.) Sponsored by Goodyear Tire, the show had an around-the-campfire feel to the proceedings, mixing dramatics with songs by vocalist Pat Friday and the Sons of the Pioneers. His co-stars were replaced in 1946 (when the show moved to NBC) with the Riders of the Purple Sage and movie sidekick Gabby Hayes (later Pat Brady), plus a young singer-actress who had recently become Rogers’ leading lady in the movies: Dale Evans. Evans, who had previously been the female vocalist on The Charlie McCarthy Show during the 1942-43 season, would later wed her leading man on December 31, 1947 (though they remained unattached on the radio show and in films) and would take her place alongside Roy as “Queen of the West” (sounds like an Our Gal Sunday scenario, doesn’t it?). After a season on NBC for Miles Laboratories (1946-47), The Roy Rogers Show moved back to Mutual from 1948-51 (for Quaker Oats), then back to NBC in the fall of 1951 where it finished out its run for Post Toasties (and later Dodge), bowing out July 21, 1955.

I previewed two episodes of The Roy Rogers Show last night, both of which were originally broadcast during the 1951-52 season on NBC. In the first, “Ed Bailey’s Bad Luck” (10/12/51), the titular character is a bank robber who tries to pull a fast one on his partners, Charlie Fisher and Dick Harris, by hiding the loot from their most recent job. Bailey attempts to escape the two by jumping out the window, but that—along with gunshots from the two partners shooting after him—only ends up attracting the good townspeople of Mineral City. Fisher and Harris put the snatch on Bailey and Dale Evans (who works at the hotel the trio were staying in) and take them hostage in order to beat a hasty retreat, foolishly underestimating our hero Roy and sidekick Jonah Wilde, “the wisest trail scout of them all.” (Did everybody have a title on this show? Even Trigger got billed as “the smartest horse in the movies.”) Jonah—who sounds like a Gabby Hayes clone—replaced Pat Brady as Roy’s comic relief, and was played by Forrest Lewis, a radio veteran of shows like Tom Mix’s Ralston Straightshooters and I Love a Mystery. (Brady returned to his rightful place as Roy’s stooge at the beginning of the 1952-53 season.)

The second adventure is “Night Riders” (10/19/51), which concerns an ex-bruiser named Jake Gullig (it’s telegraphed early on that this guy is a no-goodnik because he was banned from the boxing ring for killing an opponent) who Roy suspects of being the head of a cattle rustling ring operating in Paradise Valley (the location of Rogers’ Double R Bar Ranch). Roy devises a cunning plan to trip up Gullig by agreeing—only temporarily, you understand—to sell him his faithful dog Bullet. Both of these episodes are fun and entertaining to listen to, perfect kiddie fare for the younger folk in the tradition of The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. (It is interesting to note, however, that the show did make an attempt to attract an older audience in 1954-55, with some mature mystery-thriller plots prominently featured.) I particularly enjoyed the promotion on the show which offered a membership in the Roy Rogers Riders Club, which netted the listener a membership card (“entitling you to all the rights and privileges as a Riders Club member”), official badge, 16-page full color comic book and full-color autographed picture of Roy and Trigger. All for a box-top off a regular-sized package of any Post cereal and a dime—one-tenth of a dollar, you understand.

Two months after these two broadcasts, Roy, Dale, Pat and the Pioneers (along with Trigger and Bullet) successfully transplanted The Roy Rogers Show to television, debuting over NBC on December 30, 1951 and lasting until June 23, 1957. (The show later established in reruns a beachhead on CBS’ Saturday morning schedule from 1961-64.) The King and Queen made a brief return in 1962 with a musical variety series on ABC, but after its cancellation the two stuck to guest appearances and specials. Roy never completely disappeared from public view, however; again, like Autry, he invested in a series of profitable outside interests including a chain of fast-food restaurants that bore his name, some 100 of which that still exist today. (And 90 of which are along the West Virginia Turnpike. Okay, I’m exaggerating that last part.) I’ll confess, when I chose The Roy Rogers Show as today’s show in the spotlight, I didn’t think I would enjoy listening to it—but it just goes to show you never can tell. So until next time, “Goodbye, good luck, and may the good Lord take a likin’ to ya.”

Thursday, January 29, 2004

”These are stories of the future, adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds…”

In the entry for the classic science fiction series X-Minus One in John Dunning’s invaluable On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, the radio historian writes that “the most interesting dramatic radio of the 1955 season was produced by two genre series, Gunsmoke, a western, and this space opera.” I’m inclined to agree with Dunning’s assertion, and I’ve often found it interesting that I discovered the delights of “this space opera” and—well, “this horse opera,” at the same time.

Let’s take the WABAC machine to 1983, when a young college student (that would be me, by the way) discovers that the library at Marshall University has a small collection of old-time radio shows on reel-to-reel tape. Still being an OTR novice at the time (I had a small—very small—collection), I did what anyone in my position would do—I went at those tapes like the kid in the proverbial candy store. As production director at the campus radio station, I was allowed access to the production studios on the weekend and I took every one of those tapes and dubbed off copies for myself—I just wish I had managed to hang onto them. A March 14, 1956 episode of X-Minus One, “Tunnel Under the World,” still continues to resonate with me today. Based on a story by Frederick Pohl, it’s about an experiment conducted by an ad agency that it so monstrous it…well, I can’t do the program justice by describing it. I heartily recommend that you seek that particular one out, because the ending will knock your socks off.

Since radio is often referred to as “the theater of the mind,” I’ve always believed that both it and the genre of science fiction are a match made in heaven. Both depend heavily on the power of the individual’s imagination; indeed, when sci-fi is presented either on television or the silver screen, I’m in awe for maybe five seconds, and then I start wondering what kind of special effects or, as Arch Oboler once humorously described such visual trickery, “paper mache” it took to put the production together. My imagination makes anything more frightening than the efforts of a special effects wizard. I suppose you could attempt something like “Tunnel Under the World” on TV or in the movies with an assist from George Lucas’ bankbook—but why would you want to?

X-Minus One, which debuted over NBC Radio on April 24, 1955, was an extension of an equally fine NBC science fiction anthology, Dimension X (1950-51). X-1’s first 15 broadcasts were adapted from this earlier series, after which it blazed trails with newer “transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space.” Two highly respected sci-fi magazines, Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy, supplied the material for the series’ stories, with an occasional original—usually penned by either George Lefferts or Ernest Kinoy, two NBC staffers—tossed in for good measure. X-Minus One transcended the usual radio kiddie fare like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in favor of adult, literate tales from the likes of the finest science fiction writers: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, etc. Happy endings were often nudged out by meatier wrap-ups that allowed the “bad guys” to emerge triumphant, like the unforgettable “Mars is Heaven,” an adaptation of Bradbury’s classic short story.

As with Gunsmoke, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a really bad X-1; even the weaker entries manage to avoid the pitfall of being dull. The series maintained a consistently high batting average, with classics like “The Cold Equation,” “Junkyard,” “Hallucination Orbit,” and “The Seventh Victim.” “A Gun For Dinosaur,” “The Skulking Permit,” and “Lulungameena” are also among my personal favorites. I treated myself to a triple helping of 1957 shows last night at work—since the length of X-1 shrank during its later run to accommodate a five-minute network newscast, it was possible to squeeze in three programs on one CD. First, “Volpa” (8/29/57), a bizarre comic entry about a scientist (Nelson Olmsted) who creates a species of flying mutants and convinces them that they hail from another planet in order to play an elaborate practical joke on the world.

Following that was “Saucer of Loneliness” (9/5/57), a quiet, understated piece based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon, in which a woman (Lydia Bruce) finds herself badgered and harassed by government officials and the press after coming into contact with a flying saucer. (I had previously heard this one on Victor Ives’ syndicated The Golden Age of Radio Theater, so it was kind of like “old home week.”) The final show, and my favorite of the three, is “Death Wish” (10/10/57), in which the crew of a spaceship that has been shot out of the solar system tries to solve its problem by computer—which provides them an ingenious (and deliciously ironic) solution.

Like its predecessor, Dimension X, X-1 suffered from an extensive shuffling of its timeslot while on NBC’s schedule, which made it difficult to secure an audience beyond that of its devoted cult following. Yet in the tradition of shows like Escape, it overcame this handicap by showcasing some of the finest radio drama ever broadcast. The program ended its run on January 9. 1958, but the radio renaissance of the 1970s allowed X-Minus One a reprieve: transcriptions from the 1955-58 series were brought back in a test run beginning June 24, 1973. Alas, a resurgence in radio drama was not to be—its scheduling was even more erratic (once a month, sometimes on Saturdays, sometimes Sundays), proving that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. It came to a sad end on March 22, 1975, but fortunately for both sci-fi and OTR fans, X-1’s entire run has been preserved today—to give a generation of new listeners an opportunity to start another “countdown for blast-off…”

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

”If trouble is around, yours truly will most likely get a chunk of it.”

Laura, a friend of mine who is as passionate about classic movies as I am, was engaged in a discussion with me one night about Dick Powell. She began chanting in a sing-song fashion: “Philip Marlowe is a high tenor…Philip Marlowe is a high tenor…” She was referring to Powell’s role in the 1944 film noir Murder, My Sweet. I remember recommending to her at the time that she would really enjoy listening to Richard Diamond, Private Detective if she wanted the experience the adventures of “the singing detective.”

Powell appeared in a slew of Hollywood musicals for both Warner Brothers (42nd Street, Footlight Parade) and 20th Century-Fox (Thanks a Million, On the Avenue) during the 1930s, but by the end of the decade had become frustrated with his career, weary of doing—in his words—“the same stupid story” over and over again. His move to Paramount in the 1940s (Christmas in July) didn’t help matters any; he had begged for the meaty role of sleazy insurance man Walter Neff in the studio’s release Double Indemnity (1944), but lost out to Fred MacMurray. He then fled to RKO, and with one film (Murder, My Sweet) managed to transform his image from apple-cheeked chorus boy to hard-boiled tough guy.

Of all the screen incarnations of Raymond Chandler’s famous detective (with the exception of George Montgomery, whose The Brasher Doubloon [1947] I have not seen), I think Powell’s portrayal is the best. His baby-faced “eternal juvenile” of those ‘30s musicals gives Chandler’s hero a vulnerability that allows the actor to outshine the more celebrated Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. Murder, My Sweet provided Powell a stepping stone to playing the radio gumshoe known as Richard Rogue in the short-lived detective series Rogue’s Gallery from 1945-46.

Powell also played another hard-boiled character in a 1948 radio series based on the hit stage play/film The Front Page (he played Hildy Johnson to William Conrad’s Walter Burns), which was on the receiving end of many a critical brickbat. It was about that time that a young screenwriter named Blake Edwards (later the successful director of Operation Petticoat [1959] and the Pink Panther film series) was assigned to create a new show for Powell, which he did by inventing the personage of Richard Diamond, originally a former OSS agent with a talent for fast flippancy and quips. By the time the series debuted over NBC Radio on April 24, 1949, Diamond had morphed into an ex-cop who had decided to hang out his own shingle and become…Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

I think one reason why I’m so fond of this show is that it shares many similarities with another favorite of mine, The Adventures of Sam Spade. Both detectives had a breezy insouciance that added much needed levity to the normally poker-faced private-eye show. In addition, Diamond had—as did Spade with Lt. Dundy—a sort of love-hate relationship with homicide lieutenant Walt Levinson (Ed Begley, then Arthur Q. Bryan) and often engaged in sarcastic badinage with the easily agitated cop. Diamond saved most of his suffer-no-fools disdain for desk sergeant Otis Ludlum (Wilms Herbert), a dimwit who had to have a relative at City Hall protecting his job.

The lighthearted tone of Richard Diamond was evident in the program’s weekly opening, which featured Powell whistling a jaunty “Leave It to Love.” Powell even reached back to his crooner origins and closed out each program with a song, serenading his character’s love interest, Helen Asher (played by radio stalwart Virginia Gregg, and later Francis Robinson). Helen was a wealthy redhead who resided in a Park Avenue penthouse apartment, and was catered to by a butler named Francis (also played by Herbert), who had an uncanny knack for killing the mood by walking in as the pair were just getting down to business, if you get my drift.

Sponsored at first by Rexall Drugs and later, Camel cigarettes and Prince Albert tobacco, Richard Diamond left NBC’s schedule in December 1950, resurfacing a month later on ABC in January 1951, and finally bowing out June 27, 1952. The show returned for a brief summer run in 1953 over ABC, although these shows consisted of repeat broadcasts from 1950. I had the opportunity to listen to a pair of episodes from 1949 last night at work—in “The Gibson Murder Case” (10/08/49), a blonde schoolteacher contacts Diamond for help after she stumbles across a corpse left there by a pail of blackmailers. The second show is from the following week (October 15), and finds our hero going after a counterfeiter after he passes a phony five-dollar bill to Diamond’s paperboy pal.

Dick Powell’s movie career included work behind the camera; the actor directed such films as Split Second (1953, a particular B-movie fave of mine) and The Enemy Below (1957). He also dabbled in television, creating a company known as Four Star Productions, which brought forth such TV favorites as Four Star Playhouse (1952-56) and Zane Grey Theater (1956-61). Powell brought Richard Diamond, Private Detective to the tube, in a 1957-60 series that bore no resemblance at all to its radio namesake (David Janssen played the title role). During its sporadic run, Diamond started out as a New York shamus but by February 1959 he relocated to Hollywood—and the change in climate apparently did him some good, since he acquired a girlfriend in Karen Wells (played by future Mission: Impossible star Barbara Bain) and an answering service operator in “Sam,” a sultry-voiced, leggy gal (her face was never shown) who was played by an at-that-time-unknown Mary Tyler Moore. I have one of the early Diamond TV shows from 1957; a ho-hummer called “Picture of Fear” (which sounds like a Barnaby Jones episode, doesn’t it?). Perhaps I'm being a bit too hasty after sampling only one episode, but all I know is after seeing it I now know why Janssen became a fugitive.

"I kid you not."

When Jack Paar was in his television prime with The Tonight Show (1957-62), I had not yet arrived on the scene. Even when his prime-time series, The Jack Paar Show, left the airwaves in 1965, I was barely two years old--and I wasn't allowed to stay up past 10 o'clock until I was five or so. (Rimshot!)

So my familiarity with the man comes from mostly archival sources, clips from the 1957-62 series. I watched him on an NBC special that was a tribute to his program, and an American Masters from PBS, "Jack Paar--As I Was Saying..." I saw him on Letterman one night and was impressed in that he seemed to be one of the few guests Dave was in complete awe of. I even caught him on a Password repeat on the Game Show Network one time, which I thought was bizarre. (Though not nearly as bizarre as seeing G. Gordon Liddy on the 1980s revival of that game show--that was truly my Tom Lehrer "satire-died-when-they-gave-Kissinger-the-Nobel-Peace-Prize" moment.)

I guess the closest I've come to experiencing the talent that was Paar was listening to a couple broadcasts of his radio show, which was a situation comedy that replaced The Jack Benny Program during the summer of 1947 on NBC. Benny had "discovered" Paar while entertaining troops at Guadalcanal in 1945, and took such an interest in Paar's career that he even produced Paar's show, enlisting his own writers to assist with the show's scripts. On Benny's last broadcast of the 1946-47 season, he had Paar on as a special guest to give him the proper send-off, and according to Milt Josefsberg's book The Jack Benny Show, Jack asked his other guest, Fred Allen, to take it easy on the young newcomer, particularly when it came to some of Allen's patented barbed ad-libs. (Allen acquiesced, cracking "With you around, Jack, whom else do I need to poke fun at?")

Paar's radio show was the feel-good hit of the summer, and returned in the fall on a new network, ABC. By that time, Paar had developed the famous temperament for which he would become later associated with on The Tonight Show. He fired many of his writers (one of them was M*A*S*H's Larry Gelbart) and gave an unfortunate interview to Time magazine, remarking that he wanted to get away from the "old-hat" comedy practiced by Benny and Allen. (Fred sent Jack a copy of the Time article with a note that read: "Dear Jack—I'm so happy that you told me not to make any ad-libs at the expense of this nice kid.")

In the early 1960s, Paar was engaged in a heated, well-publicized feud with Ed Sullivan, ostensibly over the amount of money that each man was paying for talent to appear on their shows. Benny, making an appearance on Paar's program, chided his host for squabbling with Sullivan, pointing out—in a twisted bit of logic—that had it not been for Sullivan, who gave Benny his break on radio on his interview program in 1931, Benny would not have been able to treat Paar in the same fashion. Both Paar and Sullivan later kissed and made up.

Yesterday, Jack Paar gave his final curtain call and passed away at the age of 85, leaving behind a show business legacy to which I only wish I could have had more exposure. R.I.P, Jack. You will be missed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

”Harry Lime had many lives…and I can recall all of them. How do I know? Very simple…’cause my name is Harry Lime.”

Classic film buffs and fans are in general agreement that The Third Man, the 1949 thriller directed by Carol Reed and based on the novel by Graham Greene, is a genuine cinematic masterpiece. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp Western writer, journeys to postwar Vienna to meet up with his old chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon his arrival, Martins learns from Harry’s lover (Valli) and friends that Harry is dead, but as Holly probes into the events surrounding his death, he learns that Harry is indeed very much alive. Lime, however, is living on borrowed time: wanted by the police for his black marketing/war profiteering activities, he is chased in a memorable climax through the sewers of Vienna, where he meets his demise.

The character of Harry Lime, as played by Welles, is barely in the movie for more than ten minutes, but he remains so unforgettable that his presence is felt throughout the entire story. (His introduction in the film is also one of the silver screen’s most memorable entrances.) Welles was recruited some time later by British producer Harry Alan Towers—on behalf of Lang/Worth syndications—for a radio series based on the movie; the result being The Lives of Harry Lime, which was first broadcast over tiny “pirate station” Radio Luxembourg August 3, 1951.

The radio program transformed Harry from the film’s amoral scoundrel to a more lovable, steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor con man, a “prince of knaves,” as described by John Dunning in On the Air. Indeed, though the radio Harry was a dyed-in-the-wool rogue, his victims were often greedier than he was, so he remained sympathetic (and almost admirable) when fleecing them. (Harry also had standards, drawing the line at both murder or blackmail.) In addition, because Lime snuffs it in The Third Man, it was always noted in the introduction of each episode that these adventures took place before the events that transpired in the feature film version.

In Radio Drama, Martin Grams, Jr. observes that The Lives of Harry Lime (and a second series that Orson appeared in, The Black Museum, which he narrated) was granted a large budget, which allowed guest stars like Sebastian Cabot and Dana Wynter to appear in various episodes. (Listening to the show today, it doesn’t sound all that expensive—I get the feeling that Welles might have been skimming some off the top to finance Othello [1952].) The series was directed by Tig Roe and most of the scripts were penned by Ernest Borneman—Welles also contributed some scripts as well, including the show’s premiere episode, “Too Many Crooks.” Welles even lifted the plot of one of his scripts, “Man of Mystery,” for his 1955 feature film Mr. Arkadin (1955). The opening and closing theme for the series was the same zither music composed and played by Anton Karas that was featured in the 1949 movie—the popular instrumental, “Third Man Theme,” became a #1 hit in 1950; in fact, whenever my father talks about the film, he invariably adds the word “theme” to its title.

Last night, I was entertained by two entries of The Lives of Harry Lime; in the first, “The Elusive Vermeer” (from May 16, 1952), Harry meets a man who offers him a lucrative business proposition selling fine art to American tycoons. In the second, “Murder On the Riviera” (5/23/52), Harry stops to help a beautiful motorist and ends up involved in a murder case after finding a dead body in her car. Both shows are fun, relying on interesting plotting and the charm of Welles to propel them along. In addition, I also took a half hour to watch an episode of the 1959-65 TV series (for which the title reverted back to The Third Man); a syndicated show starring Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as an even more sanitized Lime—in this version, Harry’s gone corporate as the head of a Viennese import-export operation and an international troubleshooter (shades of The Man Called X). “Listen For the Sound of a Witch,” broadcast September 29, 1960, features old-time radio vets Joe de Santis and Ralph Moody, plus Raymond Bailey (The Beverly Hillbillies) and an incredibly young Suzanne Pleshette (she looks like she’s 15 in this one). It’s sad to see the Harry Lime character watered down in such a fashion, but I did enjoy the television episode; I just wish I could have seen one of the earlier entries when Jonathan Harris ("Oh the pain, the pain...") played Harry's sidekick Bradford Webster.

The Lives of Harry Lime was later brought over to this side of the pond in 1952, and all 52 episodes were broadcast via U.S. syndication. (All of these programs—plus the 52 broadcasts of The Black Museum—are extant for OTR listeners to enjoy today.) Again, my opinion of the program is a little colored by my admiration and affection for Welles and his work—but if you’ve seen and enjoyed The Third Man, you’ll flip for the radio show as well. (And if you haven’t seen the film, put the computer down now and get thee to a DVD player. Criterion has the definitive version, with two nifty bonus extras: the “Ticket to Tangier” episode of The Lives of Harry Lime and the April 9, 1951 Lux Radio Theatre treatment of The Third Man, with Joseph Cotten reprising his role as Holly and Ted De Corsia as Harry.)

Monday, January 26, 2004

”Good day…probably!”

Some time back, I reviewed a Burns & Allen New Year’s program and my good friend Richard J. Smith posted a comment about Gale Gordon. This morning, while idly surfing, I found a website dedicated to this versatile and prolific character actor, which features some interesting reprints from some TV Guide articles and a great caricature as you enter the site. If you’re a Gordon fan, you should check it out.

”…ever ready to roar to the rescue of a friend or the search of an enemy…”

Last night, I watched a DVD of The Desperate Hours, a 1955 Humphrey Bogart film that I had not seen in quite a long while. (To give you an idea of the time frame, I watched it on TBS—and you know how long it’s been since they’ve shown anything in black-and-white.) Viewing the movie inspired me to dig up a couple of Bogie broadcasts and make him the focus of today’s trip back to those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

For many years, Bogart had been approached by both producers and the networks to appear in a weekly radio series—but Bogie usually refused, not wanting to commit himself to a live microphone every week for fear that it would conflict with shooting schedules and family vacations. The revolution of audio tape in the late 1940s and early 1950s changed all that, however—writers Morton Fine and David Friedkin presented the actor with a proposal for a syndicated series, allowing him to pre-record the dialogue with the music and sound effects dubbed in later. Under this arrangement, he could do three to four shows a week, stockpiling a season’s worth of programs in a relatively short period of time. Bogart was amenable to this deal (“People don’t have to look at my ugly puss,” he commented wryly), and with the participation of his actress wife Lauren Bacall—Bold Venture was born.

Bogie and “Baby” had met on the set of their feature film together—To Have and Have Not—in 1944, and they shared an off-screen as well as on-screen chemistry, prompting the two to marry in 1945. Bold Venture was, in a sense, loosely based on that memorable film: Bogart was Slate Shannon, a Havana hotel owner who also skipped his own yacht, the Bold Venture, while Bacall essayed the role of Sailor Duval, Shannon’s sultry, sexy sidekick—described on the show as his “ward,” she had been “willed” to Shannon by her father for her own “protection.” (Show of hands…who among you here honestly believe that Bacall would have trouble taking care of herself? That’s what I thought.) Set against “the sultry setting of tropical Havana and the mysterious islands of the Caribbean,” it was a very entertaining series, particularly for “Bogie-and-Baby” fans, providing “adventure, intrigue, mystery and romance.”

Bold Venture was unique in that Calypso music was used for the musical bridges between scene changes, because, according to Bogart, “we don’t use any of that narrative stuff.” The Calypso singing was provided by a character named King Moses, portrayed by Jester Hairston, a gifted composer and choral director who conducted the choral music for Frank Capra’s 1937 film classic Lost Horizon. In addition to being a frequent performer on Amos ‘n’ Andy (he usually played the part of Leroy, the Kingfish’s brother-in-law), he also provided the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the actor’s Oscar-winning role in Lillies of the Field (1963). Modern-day audiences might recognize Hairston in reruns playing the role of Rollie Forbes on the hit TV sitcom Amen (1986-91).

Bold Venture was produced by Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Productions (Santana was the name of the actor’s yacht), but was distributed by the Ziv Company (a successful radio program syndicator whose other hits included The Cisco Kid and Boston Blackie), who sold the series to 423 stations by the time of the show’s debut broadcast, March 26, 1951. A year later, it was broadcast in 600 markets. Bold Venture was a cut above the usual syndicated fare, since Ziv ponied up $12,000 per episode (the Bogarts pocketed $4,000 of that) to ensure that the writing and production would be top-notch. Ultimately, Bogie and Bacall netted close to half a million dollars for their efforts, thanks to a lucrative fee-plus-percentage deal with the Ziv people.

Of the 78 episodes broadcast between 1951-53, some 28 episodes still survive to be listened to today, which is precisely what I did last evening. Not all 28, of course, but a pair of good entries; in the first, “Matt Jeffries Dies,” Slate and Sailor find themselves in hot water when a fisherman who dies on their boat is discovered to have been poisoned. “Welcome Back to Civilization, Dead Man” also features the pair in trouble; a man named George Carson is promptly murdered after returning from a treasure hunt—and his killers threaten Slate and Sailor when they come looking for his gold. Both shows have that notorious syndicated “canned” quality, but the dialogue is pretty snappy and the plots better than average. Bold Venture may have been one of radio’s most expensive dramatic series, but it paid off in rich dividends—and Ziv even revisited the show again in 1959 for a television version, starring Dane Clark (the poor man’s Bogart) and Joan Marshall.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

”Look out, Jerry—he’s got a gun!”

Author Richard Lockridge introduced the couple known as Mr. and Mrs. North in a series of short stories published in The New Yorker during the 1930s. But in 1940, Pam and Jerry’s lighthearted domestic misadventures took a serious detour like something out a noir film: Lockridge’s wife Francis joined forces with her hubby to write The Norths Meet Murder, and the twenty-five novels that followed transformed the Norths into a husband-and-wife crimefighting couple, quite possibly the most successful of their day.

The origins of radio’s Mr. and Mrs. North can be traced back to 1941—that year, movie audiences could watch the couple in an MGM motion picture with the same title, which was based on the stage play and starred Gracie Allen (as the scatterbrained Pam) and William Post, Jr. An audition record for a potential radio series was transcribed that same year, starring Peggy Conklin and Carl Eastman—but the radio version reverted back to the original New Yorker stories, the emphasis being on humorous romantic comedy. That audition was shelved, but a year later the Norths returned in their new mystery regalia on an NBC series that premiered December 30, 1942 for Jergens Lotion and Woodbury Cold Cream. Alice Frost and Joseph Curtin stepped into the parts of Mr. and Mrs. North and would continue in those roles until 1954.

One might be tempted to compare the Norths with that other famous literary sleuthing couple, Nick and Nora Charles—introduced by Dashiell Hammett in the 1934 novel The Thin Man. But Nick Charles was a retired detective, and knew a little about the science of detection—Jerry North, on the other hand, was strictly an amateur; a run-of-the-mill book publisher aided and abetted in his investigations by his irrepressible wife Pam. This could explain why their adventures had such a tremendous appeal for audiences—the Norths were an average couple who just happened to have a knack for stumbling onto murders. Nick and Nora were also featured on radio (1941-50), but their popularity paled to that of Mr. and Mrs. North—the program averaged a weekly audience of 25 million listeners a week, seriously threatening the mystery show forerunner, Mr. District Attorney.

Pam and Jerry’s pal on the force was Lieutenant Bill Wigand (initially played by Frank Lovejoy, then Staats Cotsworth and Francis De Sales)—a first-rate cop who was a bit shy around the opposite sex (Pam was always trying to play matchmaker for the bashful detective). Wigand grudgingly got used to the inescapable conclusion that people simply had a bad habit of kicking off whenever the Norths went anywhere. Wigand’s aide-de-camp was Sergeant Aloysius Mullins (Walter Kinsella), a bumbling cop in the Barney Fife tradition who often bewildered his superior due to the fact that the easily exasperated Mullins was married with a family of eight children. The strong characterizations of Mr. and Mrs. North contributed to the show’s success; other individuals who populated the colorful cast included the loquacious cabbie Mahatma McGloin (Mandel Kramer) and problem child Susan, Pam and Jerry’s 14-year-old niece (Betty Jane Tyler).

Mr. and Mrs. North left NBC Radio on December 18, 1946, but soon resurfaced over CBS in July 1947 as a Tuesday night staple for Colgate-Palmolive for seven seasons. Barbara Britton and Richard Denning (Lucille Ball’s better-half on My Favorite Husband) replaced Frost and Curtin at the beginning of the 1954-55 radio season; the two stars had played the roles of Pam and Jerry in a TV version from 1952-54. In April 1955, CBS unceremoniously removed Mr. and Mrs. North from their schedule—in fact, the radio network cleaned house of two other long-running, popular detective shows at the same time as well: Casey, Crime Photographer and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

For a program of such longevity and popularity during the Golden Age of Radio, it is a curious fact that barely three dozen episodes of Mr. and Mrs. North have survived, according to Jim Cox in Radio Crime Fighters. Last night, I listened to two of them; they’re AFRS rebroadcasts and unfortunately have no date, but since both star Britton and Denning I’m guesstimating they originated from the 1954-55 season. First out of the box, “Cry Foul”: a boxer friend of Jerry and Pam’s finds himself the number one suspect in the murder of his ex-wife’s husband, while “Collector’s Item” finds the Norths on the search of the murderer of an art critic who has proven that an “original” painting is a complete fake. I’ve never particularly cared for Denning—he’s about as exciting as vanilla pudding—but I have to admit he’s pretty good here, and I've fallen head-over-heels for Britton; she’s a more youthful-sounding Pam, a different take on the character than that provided by series stalwart Alice Frost. (I also took a half-hour to watch a TV episode of Mr. and Mrs. North from February 2, 1954 called “Target,” in which Jerry is being hunted down by a mysterious killer; in the beginning of the show the Norths are enjoying a day at the beach and when I saw Denning in his bathing trunks I kept expecting the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” to come lumbering into view.) These two shows featured such radio stalwarts as William Conrad, Paul Frees and Gerald Mohr, and though I prefer network broadcasts to the AFRS versions, it’s still a delightful show—“mystery liberally sprinkled with laughs,” as the CBS radio promotion informed the listening audience.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

”…where the elite meet to eat…”

To the strains of a barroom piano playing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” week after week listeners stopped by for a cold one at their favorite radio bar, Duffy’s Tavern. A beloved Third Avenue dive located in downtown Manhattan where—according to John Dunning—“the food was bad but the service was lousy,” it served as the backdrop for one of the Golden Age of Radio’s classic comedies, beginning a ten-year run March 1, 1941.

The bar was owned by one Patrick J. Duffy, but he was rarely seen or heard from. Duffy left the day-to-day activities up to manager/bartender Archie—no last name, just “Archie”—who kicked off the program every week by answering a ringing telephone: “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat—Archie the manager speakin’, Duffy ain’t here…” A larcenous soul with a talent for insult and a gift for mangling the English language (“Do unto others and you will find the bluebeard of happiness yourself”), the role was played by a most unlikely actor named Ed Gardner.

Gardner didn’t start out to be an actor. Early in his career, he was a hustler-promoter, employed by theatrical stock companies to do everything from directing to painting the scenery. He broke into radio as an agent for the J. Walter Thompson ad agency, and became a director for several shows, including those of Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, and Burns & Allen. It was while working on a short-lived CBS series, This is New York, that he discovered what was to be the origin of Archie the genial bartender—Gardner was auditioning several actors to play the part of a bartender, with little success. “Can’t nobody talk like a bartender?” he asked those assembled in the sponsor’s booth. When the writers and producers of the show all pointed to him in unison, he realized that he was perfect for the part.

Duffy’s Tavern made its first appearance on CBS’ Forecast on July 29, 1940Forecast being the same summer audition series that launched Suspense. Seven months later, the show officially went on the air for CBS for Schick Razors, and then moved to the Blue network in 1942. Two years later, it found a home at NBC, where it remained until its cancellation on December 28, 1951. The comedy show quickly became a critical darling and an audience favorite as well—the inmates of San Quentin, for example, voted the show their favorite program.

Though Duffy was pretty much a non-presence at his own place of business, his daughter—Miss Duffy—was usually around to keep an eye on both the bar and Archie. A lovably dizzy gal who was a member of the same man-chasing sorority as her sisters Joan Davis, Cass Daley, and Vera Vague—she didn’t hesitate to mince words with the bartender:

ARCHIE: Oh, good evenin’, Miss Duffy…and how are you this evenin’?
MISS DUFFY: Why don’t you keep your big mouth shut?
ARCHIE: About what?
MISS DUFFY: About that advice that you gave Papa on the telephone…
ARCHIE: All I told him was to be nice to your mother…what was wrong with that?
MISS DUFFY: Plenty…in tryin’ to be nice, he sneaked up behind Mama and put his arms around her…that’s what started the trouble…
ARCHIE: Uh…how come?
MISS DUFFY: She hollered “Papa, come quick! There’s a strange man in the house!” So, one word lead to another and Papa wound up with a cracked skull…
ARCHIE: Well…words can’t crack a guy’s skull…
MISS DUFFY: They can when they’re in a 2,000 page dictionary…

During the early years of Duffy’s Tavern, the part of Miss Duffy was played by Mrs. Ed Gardner—who was better known to theatre and stage fans as Shirley Booth (pre-Hazel). Booth and Gardner had married in 1929, and Gardner later admitted that, being unknown at that time, he didn’t handle his wife’s success too well. Although the role was tailor-made for her, she quit the program in 1943 (they divorced in 1942) and left a void on the program that Gardner desperately tried to fill. Booth was replaced by actress Florence Halop (many years away from St. Elsewhere and Night Court), who played the part from 1943-44 and 1948-49, but Gardner never really was satisfied with any of the Miss Duffys after Booth’s departure. Among the replacements were Sandra Gould (who had the role the longest, from 1944-47), Doris Singleton, Sara Berner, Gloria Erlanger, and Hazel Shermet.

Archie was aided and abetted at the tavern by Eddie the waiter—played to perfection by the wonderful (and woefully underrated) Eddie Green, an African-American comedian who would later find fame as the ethically-challenged "Stonewall the lawyer" on Amos ‘n’ Andy. To some small fashion, Green played “Rochester” to Gardner’s “Jack Benny,” but it was his sly, cunning delivery of his lines that often produced many of the program’s biggest belly-laughs:

ARCHIE: Eddie, uh…get me a pail of hot water and a mop, will ya?
EDDIE: What for, you gonna take a bath?
ARCHIE: No, I’m gonna mop up the place…now, uh…lemme get to work here…
EDDIE: You? Going to work?
ARCHIE: Is it such a surprise?
EDDIE: Well…up to now, it’s been one of your hidden talents…
ARCHIE: Oh yeah? Well, that’s all been changed, Eddie—I’m even gonna help you do your work…now, hand me the mop…
EDDIE: Okay, but don’t get too close to me…
ARCHIE: Why not?
EDDIE: Whatever you got, I don’t wanna catch it…look, how come you suddenly wanna do my work?
ARCHIE: Eddie…just because a guy wants to help people, do you have to be suspicious?
EDDIE: If the guy is you, and the people is me…yes!!!

Upon Green’s passing in 1950, he was replaced on the show by Ed “Fats” Pichon—but for me, Duffy’s Tavern just wasn’t the same after that. Pichon lasted a few episodes, and then was replaced by Bert Gordon (a.k.a. “The Mad Russian”) as a waiter named Sacha—and even Arthur Treacher played Archie’s sidekick on a few occasions.

Of the many denizens who made Duffy’s Tavern their home away from home, by far and away the most popular was the lovable dimwit Clifton Finnegan, played by veteran comic actor Charlie Cantor. Cantor, who created a similar character for Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley” named Socrates Mulligan, was also no slouch in dramatic roles, having often appeared on shows like The Shadow and Dick Tracy. Finnegan’s arrival at the tavern was usually announced in this fashion:

ARCHIE: …I never could stand that guy…always thought he was such a big shot, just because his old man owned his own pushcart…always walkin’ around with his nose in the air, like he was smellin’ somethin’ bad…
FINNEGAN: Duhhhhhh…hello, Arch!

This surefire comic device was later appropriated by The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (with Maynard G. Krebs’ “You rang?”) and later still, for the arrival of Lenny & Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. Finnegan, whose name was a sly parody of Clifton Fadiman, host of Information Please, was an amiable dunce whose SAT scores ranked right alongside those of Clem Kadiddlehopper and Mortimer Snerd’s:

ARCHIE: …the guy the yearbook said was the most likely to succeed…hey, wait a minute…I wonder if I still got that yearbook here in the safe?
FINNEGAN: Uh…good ol’ P.S…uh…P.S…uh…
EDDIE: Four?
FINNEGAN: Yeah…yeah, four…oh, wonderful school, Eddie…what memories it brings back…
EDDIE: Them were the good ol’ days, huh?
FINNEGAN: Yeah…they don’t make days like that no more…
ARCHIE: Well, here we are, Finnegan…our old yearbook…hey, look at this picture here…remember these guys?
ARCHIE: You don’t?
FINNEGAN: No, that was the graduatin’ class…

Other characters that appeared on the program included Wilfred—who was Finnegan’s “kid brother,” and was played by Dickie Van Patten (who later shortened his first name and became immortalized on TV as the patriarch of Eight is Enough). Actor Alan Reed also played a gallery of characters, but was usually featured in the role of Officer Clancy, the neighborhood cop on the beat.

Duffy’s Tavern was once referred to by comedy writer Parke Levy as “a helluva show…the best written radio show ever.” Many of the program’s writers, among them Larry Gelbart and Bob Schiller, relate some interesting and fascinating anecdotes about both the show and Gardner in Jordan R. Young’s The Laugh Crafters. For the first four years of the program, the head writer was Abe Burrows—who later went to Broadway with the hit shows Guys and Dolls, Silk Stockings, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. (I always found it interesting that Burrows’ son James co-created one of modern-day TV’s comedy classics in Cheers, yet another famous bar.)

There are close to 100 episodes of Duffy’s Tavern still in existence for today’s audiences—but unfortunately, most of them are from the 1949-51 years which for me, is when the series “jumped the shark,” so to speak. Gardner took advantage of a 12-year tax holiday in Puerto Rico and moved the show there in order to save some money, recording the weekly program via transcription. The series took on a “canned quality,” and of course with the loss of Eddie Green, the show lost a great deal of its luster. Last night, however, I listened to a pair of 1949 broadcasts—the first, dated February 9, 1949, is a funny show that contains the can’t fail everyone-is-convinced-Archie-has-only-three-days-to-live plot. The second broadcast is from the following week (February 16), in which an old school pal named Willie Gundig (played by Ken Christy) is planning on stopping by to see Archie:

ARCHIE: You remember him…remember the guy who was always punished for puttin’ the girls’ hair in the inkwells…tyin’ the cans on dogs’ tails…puttin’ tacks on the teacher’s chair…?
ARCHIE: Well, uh…Willie Gundig was the guy who always squealed on me…

If you’re interested in a little more background on Duffy’s Tavern, Martin Grams, Jr. has a nice little article (complete with log) here. (Just click on “OTR Articles,” then “Martin Grams Jr.”)

Weekend getaway in Hooterville

I got my copy of the Green Acres: The Complete First Season DVD in the mail a couple of days ago, and fortunately for me, I also have this weekend off. So I plan to take the WABAC machine to 1965 and enjoy some episodes from one of TV's all-time classic--and downright bizarrely surreal--situation comedies.

Green Acres is often called a spin-off of Petticoat Junction, and technically that is true, since the main characters originally appeared on that program. But Green Acres (you knew this was coming sooner or later) actually has roots in the Golden Age of Radio--a sitcom called Granby's Green Acres had a brief summer run over CBS Radio in 1950. The stars were Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet, who (although they had different character names) were essentially playing Rudolph and Iris Atterbury from Lucille Ball's hit series My Favorite Husband. The plot remained the same--a couple from the big city decide to chuck it all and pursue a life of self-sufficiency on a recently purchased farm. There are about half-a-dozen shows in circulation, and although it only ran as a summer replacement the show's creator, Jay Sommers, later brought the idea to producer Paul Henning (creator of the successful corn-coms The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction) and the show became a hugh smash for CBS-TV from 1965-71.

Two more small items to tie this show into OTR: Sommers co-wrote many of Green Acres' episodes with Dick Chevillat, a veteran comedy scribe who, with partner Ray Singer, supplied many radio scripts to such shows as The Sealtest Village Store (with Joan Davis & Jack Haley) and the classic Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. The other is something that I never thought about until I read it in a book I recently bought called TV Land to Go; author Tom Hill observes that Green Acres was sort of a doppelganger to The Burns & Allen Show. On Burns & Allen, you had the "illogical logic" of Gracie vs. the logic of George, and George usually won out--but on Green Acres, it was Lisa Douglas' nonsense that usually edged out the common sense of her husband Oliver. I should also point out that producer Paul Henning wrote for George & Gracie on radio/TV for about ten years. I'll stop before all this coincidence makes your head explode.

Friday, January 23, 2004

”…designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure…”

During the “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense” marathon this month, frequent mention was made of the CBS series Escape and how it was considered by many to be the “sister show” of Suspense. If these shows—with the addition of a third program, Romancewere indeed siblings, then Escape was undoubtedly the “middle child.” So I thought I would devote a post to this “Jan Brady” of dramatic anthologies; I previewed two broadcasts at work last night because—believe me—in my line of work one needs a little “high adventure.”

Escape never received the lavish attention received by its older sister, Suspense—throughout its seven-year run (July 7, 1947-September 25, 1954), the show was shifted around in 18 different time slots, and except for a brief period from April-August 1950 (when it was sponsored by Richfield Oil) it was sustained by the CBS radio network. The top-flight Hollywood talent present on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills” rarely if ever got a showcase on Escape, although there were some exceptions: Victor Mature, Edmond O’Brien, and Vincent Price, to name a few.

Yet Escape is held in high-esteem by fans of Radio’s Golden Age; although I like both shows, I sometimes wonder if Escape isn’t a little bit superior to the better-known Suspense. What the series lacked in big-time budget or celebrity guest stars it more than made up for in the best talent radio had to offer: performers like Elliott Lewis, Jeanette Nolan, Jack Webb, Lillian Buyeff, Hans Conried, Vivi Janiss, Harry Bartell, and Georgia Ellis were just a small sample of the fine performers featuring in front of Escape’s microphone each week. Distinguished veterans like William N. Robson and Norman Macdonnell oversaw the production-direction, and exceptional scripts were provided by the likes of Les Crutchfield, John Dunkel, Gil Doud, E. Jack Neumann and Kathleen Hite. Time and time again, Escape demonstrated that it could still be an outstanding show minus the “Hollywood gloss.”

While stories of mystery and crime were the bailiwick of Suspense, Escape concentrated more on tales of “high adventure”: war, westerns, supernatural horror and science-fiction. Esteemed authors like Rudyard Kipling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad provided much of the source material for the program, which set Escape apart from the other dramatic anthologies on the air at that same time. (I previously pointed out how many of the originals from Escape—“Zero Hour,” “Three Skeleton Key,” “Leiningen vs. the Ants”—resurfaced on Suspense during that show’s later seasons.) Some of my personal favorites include “Evening Primrose” (which I’ve mentioned a time or two); “Poison” (7/28/50, with Jack Webb and William Conrad), a real sweat-inducer in which a man wakes up to find that a deadly snake has joined him in his bunk; and “A Shipment of Mute Fate” (3/28/48, with Harry Bartell), another spine-tingling snake tale in which an African bushmaster is accidentally let loose on a passenger ship. (Full disclosure: I think my intense dislike of snakes might explain why I’m so fond of two of these shows, because they give me the willies.)

Escape featured one of radio’s most memorable openings, with either William Conrad or Paul Frees (they alternated every week during the show’s early run) intoning: “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you…ESCAPE!” The orchestra would then strike up Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and within seconds the listener would be transported to a Caribbean jungle or an icy glacier, effectively putting you in the shoes of that episode’s protagonist.

The first show I listened to last night was “The Scarlet Plague,” originally broadcast April 8, 1954 and adapted by Les Crutchfield from the novel by Jack London. It’s a chilling depiction of human existence after an apocalyptic plague spreads like wildfire and kills the world’s millions—the cast includes Vic Perrin, Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg. John Dehner, Eleanore Tanin, John Larch, Barney Philips and Sam Edwards. Following that, “Affair at Mandrake”—a taut espionage thriller (broadcast April 15, 1954) with Dehner as a British Army major assigned to command a battalion conducting field tests with rockets in Mandrake Forest. Again, a superlative supporting cast consisting of Baer, Joseph Kearns, Richard Peale, Gary Montgomery, Lawrence Dobkin and Ben Wright (who also wrote the script), adds immeasurably to this production.

Of the more than 200 episodes originally broadcast on Escape, there are but a mere handful that are missing today, which is wonderful news for the novice listener, as hours and hours of great radio drama awaits (and ultimately rewards). Several shows are available in both East Coast and West Coast versions; the East Coast shows are distinguished by the presence of a full orchestra, while the West Coast broadcasts (repeats usually performed a few days later with the same cast) have organ music as accompaniment.