Sunday, February 29, 2004

“Hello, every-b-uh-bbb-uh-b-bbb…hi!”

I’m a little fuzzy on how the whole discussion got underway, but my good friend Jeff and I once had a disagreement over whether or not Mel Blanc could be classified as a “genius.” Jeff took a pro-genius stance, arguing that his long list of legendary credits, including voicing practically every character that came out of the Warner Brothers cartoon studio—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, etc.—entitled him to the “genius” appellation.

Now, I bow to no one in my admiration for Mel. Lou Costello once praised Blanc as “the finest radio artist I know.” He was certainly among the busiest actors in radio, not only working alongside Lou and partner Bud Abbott, but appearing on shows with George Burns & Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, Judy Canova, and (of course) Jack Benny. My argument was that Jeff was slighting equally talented voice artists, and I ticked off the names of Paul Frees, June Foray, and Daws Butler for starters. (If memory serves me correctly, he dismissed Butler entirely, denigrating him as “a cheap-o Hanna-Barbera hack”—this doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person, just wrong.) I even argued that artists like Frees and Foray were much more versatile, capable of doing not only comedic but dramatic parts as well. But Jeff continued to stick to his guns—and I respect him for that, but that’s par for the course; most of our arguments generally conclude with both of us agreeing to disagree.

I thought about this incident last night as I was listening to The Mel Blanc Show, a 1946-47 situation comedy sponsored by the Colgate-Palmolive folks on CBS Radio beginning September 3. It’s a moderately entertaining program, and of course, Blanc gets to demonstrate his patented versatility by playing two characters (and on some episodes, even more)—the first being himself, in his natural voice, as the proprietor of Mel Blanc’s Fix-It Shop. The comedy frequently emerged from the concept that Mel most assuredly did not put the “handy” in “handyman”—items left at his place of business more often than not left in worse condition than when they had arrived. Mel also played his helper, Zookie—who spoke in the same stutter that Blanc used for Warner’s Porky Pig (Mel also used that stutter for a character named August Moon on a short-lived comedy-drama called Point Sublime.). Zookie, sad to say, is a worthy candidate for Most Annoying Old-Time Radio Character—his shtick gets old very quick.

In his autobiography, That’s Not All, Folks!, Blanc relates how he bought a hardware store in Venice, California and used the establishment to promote his series. He tells a story (and you’ll have to bear with me here, I don’t have my copy of the book available) about a customer who came in one day, wanting to purchase a “little bastard.” Mel did a double-take, and the customer explained that it was a type of small file, prompting Mel to crack: “No sir, we don’t have a little bastard—but we do have this great big son of a bitch!” Mel finally turned over the store’s operation to his father-in-law, explaining that “much like my radio character, I didn’t know a jigsaw from a hacksaw.”

The Mel Blanc Show also featured a talented group of supporting actors, beginning with Mary Jane Croft (who would later work alongside Lucille Ball on The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy), who played the part of Mel’s girlfriend Betty Colby, and Joseph Kearns, who essayed the role of her father. Mel was constantly trying to ingratiate himself with the crusty Mr. Colby in order to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage—with little success. In the February 4, 1947 broadcast that I entertained myself with last night, Mel and Betty are discussing that very subject:

BETTY: Mel! A wedding ring!
MEL: Yours, Betty—ain’t it a beaut? Five diamonds!
BETTY: Oh, Mel, it’s gorgeous…
MEL: Of course, you really can’t tell from this picture…
BETTY: When am I going to get it?
MEL: Betty, you can have the whole catalog, right now…of course, I won’t buy the ring until I get your father’s consent…and that’s what worries me…
BETTY: Oh, Mel—stop worrying…Father will surely give his consent…you think he dislikes you because he always says: “Mel Blanc, I’ll break every bone in your body!”
MEL: Well…he doesn’t say it because he’s a chiropractor…
BETTY: Oh gosh, married…Mel, I get goose pimples every time I think about it…what about you?
MEL (giving out with a Woody Woodpecker laugh, then) Betty…remember how we first met…?
BETTY: Yes…you came over to my house to fix the antenna on the roof…
MEL: Yeah…the birds were singing…but I didn’t hear them…the sun was shining…but I didn’t see it…
BETTY: You didn’t?
MEL: No, don’t you remember? I fell off the roof and was unconscious for two hours…

Later in the show, Mel’s friend Mr. Potchnik—a Russian piano teacher played by Mel’s future Flintstones co-star Alan Reed—comes up with a plan on how to get Mr. Colby to soften: Betty will introduce three “suitors” (all played by Mel) to her father who are asking for her hand in marriage. The suitors will be so dumb they’ll make Mel look good in comparison. Let the wacky complications ensue!

Other regular characters on Blanc’s show included Hartley Benson, the resident Beau Brummel (played by Jim Backus as a riotously funny Cary Grant/Ronald Colman-impression), and Mr. Cushing (Hans Conried), the “Mighty Potentate” of the Loyal Order of Benevolent Zebras, the lodge to which Mel belonged. Cushing always greeted Mel with the lodge password: “Ugga-ugga-boo, ugga-boo-boo-ugga,” which soon became the series’ memorable catchphrase. Blanc was later to adopt this bit of silliness into a song that he and Spike Jones transformed into a hit record.

While The Mel Blanc Show did on occasion produce a classic episode or two—the one that always comes to mind is the one where Mel destroys Mr. Colby’s radio and is forced to impersonate the various programs in an attempt to cover his blunder (Jerry Lewis lifted this bit for a wonderful gag in Rock-a-Bye Baby)—the show wasn’t consistently amusing. (Veteran radio comedy scribe Bob Schiller describes it in The Laugh Crafters as “a terrible show,” and since he was employed there briefly, I will take him at his word.) I think part of the problem is that when you listen to Mel, you’re not laughing because he’s Mel, you’re laughing because he’s Bugs Bunny, or Daffy Duck, or Jack Benny’s violin teacher, etc. The second show (3/18/47) did have one laugh-out-loud moment for me: in this episode, Mel has managed to get himself engaged to both Betty and her man-chasing cousin Dottie (Elvia Allman). He disguises himself as Inspector MacGregor (complete with Botsford Twink burr) of Scotland Yard in an attempt to sour Dottie on the idea of matrimony, portraying “Mel” as a wanted criminal:

MEL (to Betty): My, but you’re a bonnie lassie…you look just like Annie Laurie…
DOTTIE: And who do I look like?
MEL: Peter Lorre…I was just joking, girl…you, too, are a bonnie lassie—and you do look like Lassie…

The Mel Blanc Show closed its fix-it shop doors on June 24, 1947, and its entire run is extant for OTR radio fans to enjoy today. Those familiar with Blanc’s work will no doubt want to tune it in for its novelty value, but you do need to be made aware that it is only sporadically funny; Blanc’s strength clearly lies in supporting roles, like those on The Jack Benny Show. I guess if I think about it, maybe his willingness to play second-banana was genius after all.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Farewell, Mr. Bartell

Charlie Summers sent the subscribers of The Old-Time Radio Digest a short message this a.m., one of those e-mails you never, ever like receiving.

Veteran radio character actor Harry Bartell passed away February 26, 2004—he was ninety years old.

I never got to meet Harry in person, one of my favorite radio actors and one of the most distinctive voices of that long-ago Golden Age. But every now and then I would get an opportunity to chat with him on mIRC’s #oldradio on Thursday nights. I will never forget the time that Charlie im’d me and asked me if I knew who “Harverly” (his screen name) was—when I told him I didn’t have a clue, he announced proudly that it was Harry. I nearly fell out of my chair, I was in such awe.

Every time Harry dropped in for a chat session, I found it difficult not to gush—and it seemed like every time he participated, I had just heard him on something either that day or the day before. I once told him that his performance on the classic Escape episode “A Shipment of Mute Fate” (3/28/48) was my absolute favorite of all the times it had been broadcast, and he thanked me profusely, declaring it one of his favorite shows as well.

What I loved and admired best about Harry’s work is that it was so effectively understated—case in point, a Gunsmoke episode called “Doc Holliday” (7/19/52), which I had only recently heard after purchasing a CD set of that show. Harry plays the title character, and delivers the goods with a wry, laid-back take on the famed gunslinger, completely blowing away the likes of Victor Mature, Val Kilmer, and anyone else I may have left out. Everything he did, from Dragnet to Escape to Fort Laramie, was performed in a quietly effective manner—you never once got the impression when listening to him of someone saying “Hey, look at me—I’m acting!”

I’m not a religious man by any means—I approach any concept of organized religion with a cynical squint and a healthy skepticism. But I’d like to think that somewhere out in the great beyond, Harry’s been reunited with the likes of Bill Conrad, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, John Dehner, and all the other departed Gunsmoke radio players and that that group are enjoying themselves in endless “Dirty Saturdays” for eternity. That he’s met up with Jack Webb and Ben Alexander to outline a story that is true, but that the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Maybe even Raymond Burr and the gang from Fort Laramie will hook up with Harry, too.

R.I.P., Mr. Bartell – you will be missed. 

“Bellkeeper, toll the bell!”

I whiled away the hours last night at work with a couple of Edgar Allan Poe tales on The Weird Circle, a 1940s mystery-horror series originally produced and recorded at NBC’s Recording Division and later distributed by syndicator Fredric Ziv. There’s a certain irony about Circle, in that the program itself is as mysterious as the short stories it weekly showcased. The actors on the program received no on-air credit (though some have been identified: Arnold Moss, Lawson Zerbe, Eleanor Audley, etc.), and no writing, directing or producing credits for the series exist today.

Even its broadcast history remains spotty: for example, the first of the two broadcasts I heard—Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”—is dated April 15, 1946, the date the program made its debut over New York’s WOR. Jerry Haendiges’s Weird Circle log, however, assigns an August 29, 1943 date—but according to a source I consulted the program didn’t start until November of that same year. This same source also mentions that the show had a brief run on ABC from September 15-October 6, 1947. Perhaps we’ll never really know for certain.

The Weird Circle was a low-budget affair, presenting adaptations of classic stories from literature with an emphasis on gothic tales like “Frankenstein” and “Wuthering Heights.” This was essentially a cost-cutting measure: since most of the copyrights of these tales had expired, it eliminated the need for royalty payments. Among the authors showcased on the program were Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edgar Allan Poe was probably the author whose work was most represented on the series (“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Oblong Box,” etc.).

Despite its shoestring budget, I actually found the two productions I sampled fairly entertaining: “Usher” is, of course, the classic Poe tale that tells of the supernatural bond between twins Madeline and Roderick Usher—the last two branches on the Usher family tree. The second show, “The Cask of Amontillado” (11/25/46), was even better—the production fleshes out Poe’s legendary revenge tale a good deal, though the famous “bricking-the-guy-up-inside-the-wall” bit is discarded for a kindler, gentler “locking-him-up-in-a-cell-in-the-cellar” conclusion. Must have been a decree from Standards and Practices.

“In this cave by the restless sea, we are meant to call from out of the past, stories strange and weird. Bellkeeper, toll the bell—so that all may know we are gathered again in…The Weird Circle!” So went the show’s standard opening, uttered by a peculiar, otherworldly voice in the tradition of The Shadow and The Whistler. 78 episodes were produced—all extant today—and these broadcasts saw a new “weird circle” begin in the 1960s when the show was syndicated by Charles Michelson (who also reintroduced The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and The Lone Ranger to a new generation of listeners). Given its budget limitations, I must admit that the shows entertained me last night…so toll on, bellkeeper, toll on.

Friday, February 27, 2004

“…dedicated to man’s imagination…the theater of the mind…”

Those last four words have often served as shorthand to explain radio drama, both old-time and new—I’m uncertain as to where it originated; I’ve often believed that it was attributed to comedy writer Hal Kanter (a Savannah, Georgia native) who once cracked: “Radio is the theater of the mind, television is the theater of the mindless.” In any case, there can be little doubt that the phrase accurately describes and defines one of the finest programs of Radio’s Golden Age: The CBS Radio Workshop.

The program was pretty much an update (though there are those who believe it to be superior) of what is generally considered the father of experimental radio drama, CBS’ Columbia Workshop (1936-42, 1946-47). Here, noted playwrights like Archibald MacLeish and Norman Corwin were given free reign to build their reputations, on a program not only sustained by the network but encouraged to be as such. (CBS chairman William S. Paley believed that the series added a necessary touch of prestige to his network.) In the words of John Dunning, “Even in its failures, it was interesting—the people behind it seemed to know that to be good an artist must have the freedom to be bad.”

Nearly a decade after its cancellation, a decision was made to revive the concept under a new title, The CBS Radio Workshop. Radio was, by this time, on life support, and yet there was still a demand from its small, determined listening audience for serious, high-quality, adult drama. William Froug (who acknowledged that Norman Corwin was a “hero”), a vice-president at CBS, proposed the new show to his boss, Howard Barnes—who gave him a thumbs-up on the project. Froug’s idea for the show’s premiere broadcast (January 27, 1956) was to produce a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic 1932 novel, Brave New World—which I so conveniently listened to in this morning’s wee a.m. hours.

Froug arranged for Huxley to narrate the two-part broadcast, and I know there was some dissension in the ranks here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear questioning the degree of Huxley’s participation. (In listening to both parts one and two, I agree that most of it is a dramatization but Huxley does break in from time to time with what I would certainly classify as “narration.” Dissenting opinions are always encouraged.) The show tells in unnerving detail of a futuristic society that demands conformity, prescribes a drug called “Soma” for unhappiness (Prozac, call your office), and replaces reproduction with an assembly-line “hatchery” that breeds and cultivates human beings artificially. The sound effect of the hatchery was created by blending and recording a ticking metronome, the beat of a tom-tom, bubbling water, an air hose, a cow mooing, repeated “boings,” and three different glasses clinking against one another—then playing it backward with a slight echo effect. It lasts only 30 seconds, but it required three sound men and an engineer to create the effect over a period of five hours.

Author Huxley begins the production with an effectively chilling narrative observation:

Brave New World is a fantastic parable about the dehumanization of human beings. In the negative utopia described in my story, man has been subordinated to his own inventions. Science, technology, social organization—these things have ceased to serve man; they have become his masters. A quarter of a century has passed since the book was published. In that time, our world has taken so many steps in the wrong direction that if I were writing today, I would date my story not 600 years in the future, but at the most, 200. The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.

“Brave New World” is a simply superb production, produced, directed and adapted by Froug, with music by the one-and-only Bernard Herrmann. The supporting cast is a literal Who’s Who of radio acting: Parley Baer, Herb Butterfield, Sam Edwards, Gloria Henry, Bill Idelson, Byron Kane, Joseph Kearns, Jack Kruschen, Charlotte Lawrence, Vic Perrin, Doris Singleton, Lurene Tuttle and William Conrad—who also handled the series’ announcing chores.

The broadcast was indeed an auspicious debut for the series, but the best was yet to come, as producer Froug recalled: “Everybody on the second floor of CBS Radio at Columbia Square was excited about the show. Every day guys were coming to my office pitching ideas. Bill Conrad had a show idea; so did [composer] Jerry Goldsmith. I had never seen such excitement in my nine years at CBS.” This excitement soon spread to CBS’ studios in New York, as those staffers demanded the opportunity to participate as well (the program was initially broadcast from the West Coast). A rotating schedule was soon set up, alternating between East Coast (produced by Paul Roberts) and West Coast productions (Froug).

Once again, the directors behind these productions reads like yet another Who’s Who of old-time radio: William N. Robson, Jack Johnstone, Norman Macdonnell, Antony Ellis, and Elliott Lewis—who was told by a network vice president: “Do whatever you want. You have a half-hour.” Lewis took his advice and wrote, directed and starred in one of my favorite Workshop productions: “Nightmare” (5/5/57), about the terrible dreams of a man in a coma. (Director Antony Ellis also participated in another fave of mine, this time with a rare on-mike appearance in June 1, 1956’s “A Matter of Logic” with William Conrad.)

The CBS Radio Workshop was, I truly believe, radio drama at its zenith—a program that often served as a back-and-forth pendulum between the traditional and the offbeat: one week, an “interview” with Shakespeare; an adaptation of a Robert A. Heinlein story (“The Green Hills of Earth”) the next; a analysis of satire by Stan Freberg after that. Sadly, the series came to an end on September 22, 1957 after 87 episodes—all of which are apparently extant today in fine sound—of creative, cutting-edge radio drama. What continues to fascinate me is that it ever got on the air in the first place—as CBS’ Barnes remarked in an interview with Time magazine: “We’ll never get a sponsor anyway, so we might as well try anything.” Can you imagine anyone expressing a similar opinion in today’s broadcasting, where the bottom line is everything? Nope…I can’t, either.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

“Oh, they cut down the old pine tree…”

The Bashful Bachelor (1942) was the second of six Lum and Abner feature films released by RKO Pictures from 1940-46, and after watching it last night, I must admit that it’s the best of the ones I’ve seen so far (this opinion is subject to change, of course). It definitely comes a lot closer to capturing the feel of the radio series than the previous Dreaming Out Loud (1940), due no doubt to the larger contribution of creators Chester Lauck and Norris Goff (they are given story credit on the film).

The film features several plot threads: one involves Lum (Lauck) attempting to woo his girlfriend Geraldine (ZaSu Pitts) by thinking up various scenarios in which to portray himself as a hero, and the other concerns a horse, Skyrocket, Abner (Goff) acquires (by “swapping” with some gypsies) that the two men later enter in the County Sweepstakes horse race. A third plot details Lum giving Abner a note of a marriage proposal to present to Geraldine, but Abner—who’s wearing a cheap pair of glasses for which he’s also “swapped”—hands the note instead to the “Widder” Abernathy (Constance Purdy), who threatens to sue the hapless Lum for breach of promise if he backs out of the wedding. I won’t give away the ending, of course, but if you’re familiar with similar story threads from Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Great Gildersleeve the conclusion won’t surprise you much. (The bit where Lum, Abner and Cedric experience problems after buying eyeglasses from a vendor probably originated from a similar story arc on the radio show as well.)

Two of my favorite characters from the radio show are featured in this movie—Cedric Weehunt and Squire Skimp. Cedric was the resident Clem Kadiddlehopper/Mortimer Snerd of Pine Ridge, and though he was voiced in the radio version by Lauck, he’s portrayed here by the great comic character actor Grady Sutton. I have to admit, though, I was a little disoriented hearing Sutton imitate Lauck doing Cedric; Sutton usually speaks in a much higher and softer hick-oriented tone as witnessed by his appearances in the Hal Roach Boy Friends two-reelers (High Gear, Air-Tight) and classic W.C. Fields films like The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) and The Bank Dick (1940). But that aside, he makes a perfect Cedric, and he would appear twice more in the role in the L&A features Goin’ to Town (1944) and Partners in Time (1946). Actor Oscar O’Shea essays the role of Skimp, Pine Ridge’s resident con man/huckster, a part voiced by “Tuffy” Goff on the radio show—while I think O’Shea does a fair job (he encores in the next L&A movie, Two Weeks to Live) he’s not quite capable of capturing the role as well as Goff did in the radio version. There’s also a brief appearance from Uncle Henry Lunsford, but the IMDb does not credit the actor playing him.

Other standout performers include Louise Currie as Skimp’s niece Marjorie (Currie is probably best-remembered as a heroine in classic serials like The Adventures of Captain Marvel and The Masked Marvel), Irving Bacon (previously seen in Dreaming Out Loud), and longtime Jack Benny Show stooge Benny Rubin as the eyeglasses pitch man. The direction is by Malcolm St. Clair (who would encore with Two Weeks to Live), an accomplished comedy film director who once worked at the Mack Sennett studios during the silent era and later went on to direct several of the Stan Laurel-Oliver Hardy 1940s features at 20th Century-Fox. I was sort of intrigued in that ZaSu Pitts (Geraldine) is presented as a love interest for Lum in this film, but on the radio show (in the 1949-50 season) she was used for more comic effect, with Lum fending off her constant attempts to march him down the aisle. I was also pleased with the transfer of this film to DVD; although it’s a beat-up public domain copy, it’s still in better shape than the previous Dreaming Out Loud. If you’re a Lum and Abner fan like me, I guarantee you will enjoy it.

“The House of Squibb presents…”

With the Oscars telecast approaching, I decided last night to listen to a pair of episodes from Academy Award®, a dramatic anthology that had a brief run on CBS from March 30-December 18, 1946. It’s pretty much in the Lux Radio Theatre-Screen Guild Players mold, though it did attempt to set itself apart from its siblings by limiting its radio adaptations to films that had either won or been nominated for an Oscar.

Academy Award® also used as many of the original film’s performers whenever possible, though in the first show I listened to—“Foreign Correspondent” (7/24/46)—it is explained that the male lead, Joel McCrea, had to be replaced by stalwart fill-in Joseph Cotten due to a scheduling conflict. The show is, of course, based on the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film, and though the production and actors are first-rate I didn’t enjoy the listening experience all that much because, as I have stated previously, I’m no more than five or ten minutes into the thing before I’m saying to myself: “Why don’t I just watch the doggone movie?” (Foreign Correspondent is one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock films, and it’s a crying shame that it’s not available on DVD yet.) The second program is also based on a Hitchcock classic, “Shadow of a Doubt” (9/11/46), and though Cotten is back, it fits this time (he starred in the 1943 film). He’s joined by actress June Vincent (replacing the movie’s original actress, Teresa Wright) and although this broadcast is a little better, adaptation-wise, it’s still no substitute for the film (which is on DVD). The half-hour allotted for this adaptation is also insufficient, I think—for a really good radio version of Shadow of a Doubt, you should check out the November 9, 1950 broadcast of Screen Directors’ Playhouse, which features Cary Grant and Betsy Drake in the Cotten and Wright roles.

Academy Award® cost a pretty penny to produce every week—the Squibb people found themselves footing a bill that included $4,000 for the weekly star talent, plus a $1,600 kickback to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for use of the title. After 39 episodes (all of which are extant today), the series threw in the towel when the tariff proved too hefty—so if you’re not turned off by radio adaptations of feature films, I think you’ll be entertained and impressed by the talent and quality involved.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

“Aye grannies, Abner…I b’lieve that’s our ring…”

I recently ordered a pair of DVDs from Critic’s Choice Video and received them in the mail yesterday—Lum and Abner Double Features #1 and #2. #1 contains the first two films starring the boys from Pine Ridge, Dreaming Out Loud (1940) and The Bashful Bachelor (1942), while #2 has Two Weeks to Live and So This is Washington, both from 1943. Of these four films, I’ve only seen one (Washington), so I put the first one on out of curiosity.

The running time of the original release of Dreaming Out Loud is apparently 81 minutes, but the version on the DVD clocks in at 1:05, which probably explains why I had difficulty following the story—there are more than a few continuity jumps present. The plot involves Lum and Abner’s attempts to obtain a mobile first-aid unit for the people of Pine Ridge after the town doctor suffers a debilitating stroke which leaves him wheelchair-bound. There’s also two subplots, one of which involves the reformation of the town drunkard after his daughter is hit and killed by a speeding car, the other being a romance between the town doctor’s son (also an MD) and the postmistress (played by lovely Francis Langford, who sings the title tune).

This movie really wasn’t any great shakes, but since I’m such a big L&A fan I definitely enjoyed it. Of the familiar characters from the show, only Caleb Weehunt is present and accounted for, played by veteran character actor Robert “Bob” McKenzie (a frequent supporting player in many of Andy Clyde’s Columbia two-reelers, like Love Comes to Mooneyville and Stuck in the Sticks). Phil Harris has an all-too brief appearance as a salesman who cons the Jot ‘Em Down Store proprietors into buying some bath salts, and there are also fine performances from the likes of Frank Craven, Clara Blandick, and Irving Bacon.

The only disappointment I had with this DVD is that it says “digitally restored” on the cover when that is clearly not the case. Why do people think that if you just stick an old movie on a DVD it automatically qualifies that title as being “restored”? Ish.

“I’m quietly yours, Ernest Chappell…”

Radio’s legendary Arch Oboler built his formidable reputation on the classic horror series Lights Out—to be sure, many of that program’s most memorable tales—“Cat Wife,” “Chicken Heart,” “Revolt of the Worms”—sprang from both his typewriter and fertile imagination. It seems unfair, however, that the individual who originally developed Lights Out—Wyllis Cooper—should receive such short shrift with regards to that series, though a lot of that is due to the fact that his work on the show (from 1934 to 1936) simply did not survive in the numbers that Oboler’s productions did and cannot be listened to by modern day old-time radio fans.

Still, Cooper’s splendid contributions to the Golden Age of Radio are available to OTR listeners, thanks to surviving recordings of his unsung and seldom-heard-at-the-time Quiet, Please, which debuted over Mutual Radio on June 8, 1947. Ostensibly a return to Cooper’s radio roots, the program has been heralded by radio historian John Dunning as “a potent series bristling with imagination,” in which listeners confronted a seemingly ordinary world where “the element of menace was ripe and ever present.” For me, the off-kilter nature of Quiet, Please explains why I’m such a fan of the series—rarely is anything explained or justified on the show, and this reminds me of the expression often used on Vic and Sade: “Stuff happens.”

Each week, the series would be ushered in a with an unforgettably eerie piano-and-organ theme (Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor), and host/star Ernest Chappell would relate in first person (sometimes in present tense, sometimes in flashback) an unsettling tale of, as he once characterized it, an “ordinary fellow who gets all bollixed up with the supernatural.” Chappell was a long-time radio veteran—he was the announcer on Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse—who at one time coached first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on her broadcast commentaries. Chappell’s wonderfully understated narrative approach to the show’s stories was a directive from creator-writer-director Cooper, who disdained “acting,” preferring a more deadpan, naturalistic “here’s how it happened” style that was later used for radio’s Dragnet. Many of the show’s productions often featured Chappell and Chappell alone, though the two broadcasts I listened to last night at work are exceptions to this rule.

“The Thing On the Fourble Board” (8/9/48) was the first show I previewed, and is often cited as one of Quiet, Please’s classic broadcasts. It’s the story of an oil-drilling “roughneck” (Chappell) and his geologist friend (Dan Sutter) who discover evidence of human (?) life in soil samples taken from the Earth. This intriguing tale takes an extremely bizarre twist towards the end, and though I think its reputation is a little inflated, the mewling sounds emanating from the “thing” (Cecil Roy) are definitely bloodcurdling. In the second show, “Presto Change-O, I’m Sure” (8/16/48), a master magician (Edgar Stehli) hands a teenager (Chappell) a magic wand that bestows upon him supernatural powers. Granted, it’s no classic, but it’s still entertaining in an offbeat way—very reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode (“The Magic Shop”) I saw as a kid. Ed Latimer, Peggy Stanley, and Brad Barker round out this broadcast’s supporting cast.

The strength of Quiet, Please lies in the realization that even its weakest episodes constitute prima facia evidence of Wyllis Cooper’s imaginative talent; indeed, it’s the outstanding writing in the show’s scripts that drive the action, such scripts being described by Radio Life beginning “as immediately and forceful as opening a door on a madman’s monologue.” But when Quiet, Please was good, it was very, very good—among my favorites are “Northern Lights” (“a…e…i…o…u…”), “My Son, John,” “Whence Came You,” and “Nothing Behind the Door.”

Quiet, Please spent its roughly two-and-a-half year radio run as a sustained series, mostly on Mutual before it moved to ABC Radio on September 19, 1948 and wrapping up its all-too-brief stay June 25, 1949. Although nearly all of its original 104 broadcasts are extant today, a great majority of them are in poor or substandard sound. To wrap up this essay, I echo the thoughts of the esteemed New York Herald-Tribune radio critic John Crosby: “Most of the Quiet, Please dramas are weird, ingenious and intimate affairs. Above all, they are pure radio.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

“From Times Square to Columbus Circle…the gaudiest, the most violent—the lonesomest mile in the world…”

In Radio Crime Fighters, Jim Cox’s riveting read of a reference book on old-time radio crime dramas, he describes a new breed of detective show that became prevalent in the 1950s that “witnessed a forbidding side of law enforcement in the harsh realities of an urban backdrop.” While Jack Webb’s groundbreaking Dragnet is considered to have been at the forefront of this new kind of cop show (followed later by The Line-Up and Twenty-First Precinct), Broadway’s My Beat actually preceded it by a few months, debuting over CBS Radio on February 27, 1949.

Broadway’s My Beat detailed the exploits of plainclothes homicide detective Danny Clover of the N.Y.P.D., and as an early CBS press release described him: “As a kid, Danny Clover sold papers and shined shoes along the Great White Way, and later pounded the beat as a policeman. He knows everything along Broadway—from panhandler to operatic prima donna—but he’s still sentimental about the street, forever a wonderland of glamour to him.” Stage veteran Anthony Ross played Clover in Broadway’s early run, which for the first four months originated at the network’s New York Studios, with producer Lester Gottlieb and director John Dietz at the helm.

Beginning July 7, 1949, Broadway’s My Beat moved to the West Coast, with radio’s “renaissance man” Elliott Lewis taking over as the show’s producer-director, and the writing team of Morton Fine & David Friedkin (Bold Venture) assuming the scripting duties. Broadway was Lewis’ first effort in the producer-director’s chair, and he brought an expert familiarity to the program and its locale, having been born in Manhattan. He insisted on having three sound effects men—David Light, Ralph Cummings, and Ross Murray—assigned to the series, since according to him, “you should hear the city constantly.” The talented crew gave him precisely what he wanted—a cacophonous show where “even the people in New York are noisy.” Providing the program’s music score (the show’s theme was “(I’ll Take) Manhattan”) was Alexander Courage, who later went on to write the opening theme for the classic television show Star Trek.

On July 3, 1950, the role of Detective Danny Clover was recast with actor/announcer Larry Thor, a longtime radio veteran who had joined CBS in 1948, and who was often heard as the mysterious opening voice on both Suspense and Escape. In addition to Clover, two other characters, Sgt. Gino Tartaglia—the show’s comic relief, played by Charles Calvert—and Sgt. Muggavan (Jack Kruschen) comprised the show’s cast. The series by this time had developed a reputation for gritty, hard-hitting drama that explored topics previously unheard in crime dramas of that period, such as juvenile delinquency and anti-Semitism.

I previewed a pair of Broadway’s My Beat episodes last night, kicking things off with the June 9, 1951 “Earl Lawson” broadcast. Clover investigates the murder of a wealthy stockbroker who was stabbed in the middle of a Times Square crowd, and a tourist (Peggy Webber) has luckily snapped a photograph of the murderer—though the case isn’t as cut-and-dried as it would appear. Strong dialogue makes this a very good entry, with a fine cast including Ted Osborne, Tony Barrett, and Don Diamond. The second show is “Frank Dunn” (6/16/51), in which the investigation of a club bartender’s murder starts out with a mysterious phone call. Again, superior acting in this entry as well, particularly from Herb Butterfield and Mary Jane Croft as a wonderfully despicable couple, Edward and Louise Hathaway—actors Edgar Barrier, Joe Granby, and Gladys Holland round out the cast. I consider myself a Broadway’s My Beat fan, though I do think that some of Clover’s narration is a bit flowery and over the top at times. This is just a teensy quibble, but if anything, Dragnet proved with its crisp, clipped narration that less is sometimes more.

Broadway’s My Beat was a sustained program throughout its five year run, though it did on occasion secure sponsorships from Lux Soap and Wrigley Gum. Like Escape, it found itself bounced around on the CBS schedule a good deal; from February 27, 1949 to August 1, 1954 it aired in at least 15 different time slots, on many occasions serving as a summer replacement (for Arthur Godfrey’s Talents Scouts in 1950 and Meet Corliss Archer in 1951). (For a brief period in 1954, Broadway was scheduled on Sunday nights alongside the series On Stage and Crime Classics: all three of these shows were produced and directed by the multi-talented Lewis.) Of the 212 shows originally broadcast, around 100 are extant today—allowing modern day listeners to revel in a truly splendid crime drama from the Golden Age of Radio.

Monday, February 23, 2004

“Somewhere along the line a murderer makes a mistake—it’s my job to find that mistake.”

Author S.S. Van Dine introduced detective Philo Vance to the fraternity of literary sleuths with the 1926 novel The Benson Murder Case. Vance was described in this and subsequent novels as a wealthy connoisseur of the arts who dabbled in amateur detection, often assisting the district attorney in investigating crimes. The Vance novels (a total of nine in all) were later adapted successfully for the silver screen, with a number of actors offering their interpretation of the famed sleuth including William Powell (who made the most Vance features, including the 1933 film classic The Kennel Murder Case), Basil Rathbone, Warren William, and Edmund Lowe. Of particular interest to old-time radio fans is the 1939 release The Gracie Allen Murder Case, an amusing comedy-mystery (Gracie refers to the detective as “Fido”) based on a novel Van Dine released a year earlier. (The real Gracie co-stars in the movie version with Warren William as Vance, though it’s a shame that the film couldn’t find room for George—after all, he’s in the novel as well.)

It saddens me to report that the subsequent radio series based on Philo Vance just can’t measure up to the movies. There were three separate runs, the first lasting a brief summer stint on NBC from July 5-September 27, 1945, sponsored by Lifebuoy-Lever Brothers and starring Jose Ferrer as Philo. Frances Robinson played Ellen Deering, Vance’s secretary-love interest—but to avoid a possible messy sexual harassment suit it was strictly “Miss Deering” and “Mr. Vance” around the office. (I’ll refrain from revealing the nicknames they used for one another after working hours—this is a family blog, after all.)

Philo Vance resurfaced again July 23, 1946 for a brief ABC West Coast series, the details as to the length of its run and its cast/crew unfortunately remain unknown. Finally, the third time proved to be the charm as Frederic W. Ziv and the Ziv Corporation produced a 1948-50 syndicated series with Jackson Beck as Vance, Joan Alexander as Miss Deering, George Petrie as D.A. Frank Markham, and Humphrey Davis as Vance’s police force adversary, Sgt. Ernest Heath.

Jackson Beck was a veteran radio actor-announcer-narrator whose lengthy resume included shows like Grand Central Station, Life Can Be Beautiful, Easy Aces, The March of Time, and Hop Harrigan (as Tank Tinker). Philo Vance was not his only starring series; he also essayed the title role of The Cisco Kid on Mutual from 1942-45. But Beck is best remembered among OTR fans as the announcer-narrator of Mark Trail, Man Behind the Gun, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet…and The Adventures of Superman. “I’m still often asked to recreate the famous opening today,” he once commented regarding Superman. “It’s nice to be part of a legend.” His Vance co-star Joan Alexander also worked alongside him on Superman, and the two of them—along with star Bud Collyer—even provided the voices for a 1960s animated version of the show. Possessing one of the most distinctive voices around, Beck stretched beyond radio to animated cartoons (he voiced the spinach-eating sailor man’s nemesis Bluto in 300 Popeye TV cartoons), films (he’s the narrator of Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run), and television commercials (among the products for which he’s provided voiceovers: Thompson’s Water Seal, Brawny Paper Towels, and Little Caesar’s Pizza).

In listening to some Philo Vance episodes last night at work, I confronted the unpleasant but nevertheless immutable truth that not all the programs broadcast during the Golden Age of Radio were…well, gold, I guess. Philo Vance is one of those shows. It’s not that the acting is bad, it’s just that it has this going-through-the-motions-to-pick-up-the-check feel to it; there is very little characterization, and the participants are often distant and emotionless. (For example, Vance often refers to the D.A. as “my friend,” but always calls him “Markham”—you’d think two buddies would use their respective first names.) The writing (by Kenny Lyons and Robert J. Shaw) is incredibly stiff and pedestrian, and desperately cries out for a smidge of humor. One gets the impression after sampling a couple of shows that the only person who had fun on this series was the organist.

In “The Flying Murder Case” (2/8/49), pilot Gregory Allen is murdered, and both his co-pilot Johnny Taylor and passenger Millard Crane are on the list of suspects since Allen was apparently cavorting with their women. The solution to this mystery is pretty obvious—even a meter maid would have picked out the guilty party in the time allowed. The second show, “The Butler Murder Case” (2/15/49), isn’t much of an improvement—Philo investigates the murder of a prominent dentist who was being blackmailed by an extortion specialist. This is definitely one series you can take a pass on—after spending an hour with Vance, Boston Blackie looks better and better all the time.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Uncle Miltie

“For a guy who never made it big on radio,” famed vaudeville comedian Milton Berle once jokingly remarked, “I was always on.” Indeed, Berle starred in a slew of different programs under various formats over a thirteen-year span on radio, but it would take television’s The Texaco Star Theater to make “Uncle Miltie” a household word. John Dunning succinctly sums it up when describes the popular comedian as “radio’s best-known failure.”

Milton’s first foray into radio was The Gillette Original Community Sing, which ran on CBS from September 6, 1936 to August 29, 1937 as a Sunday night comedy-variety program. It was here than Berle demonstrated his patented “machine gun comedy” shtick, a style very similar to that of Bob Hope’s but with a heavier emphasis on slapstick. (Both Berle and Hope have both acknowledged that they patterned their stage personas after Ted Healy, a sadly neglected comic who—for better or worse—was responsible for unleashing The Three Stooges on an unsuspecting world.) Berle recalled in his autobiography that the program’s theme song (which he sang in the show’s opening) was “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing,” which would require the audience to respond: “Tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet!”

Milton later went on to host NBC’s Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One in the fall of 1939—a comedy panel show in which its members would attempt to finish the jokes sent in by the show’s listening audience. (Three of the show’s panelists went on to further radio fame: Harry Hershfield and “Senator” Ed Ford to the similar but better-known Can You Top This?, and Harry McNaughton to the Information Please spoof It Pays to Be Ignorant.) Berle then resurfaced in 1941 on Three Ring Time, a comedy-variety program for Ballantine Ale that ran for a season on both the Mutual and Blue networks. Though the program received favorable critical buzz, it turned into a complete bust—much of it due to the internecine squabbling of Berle and co-star Charles Laughton. Milton tried radio three more times as a headliner: a brief self-titled series over CBS in 1943 for Campbell Soups; a 1944-45 “half-hour of slapstick” for Blue/CBS called Let Yourself Go (sponsored by Eversharp); and a summer series over CBS in 1946, Kiss and Make Up—a gimmick program in which “judge” Berle presided over a mock court. (This turkey was created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later responsible for My Friend Irma and Life With Luigi.)

1947 found Berle seriously wanting to succeed in radio, so much so that he cancelled several lucrative nightclub appearances (that would have netted him $25,000 weekly) in order to break his radio jinx with Philip Morris’ The Milton Berle Show, a Tuesday NBC program beginning March 11, 1947. Though the show barely made a dent in the ratings (its Hooper was a dismal 11.6), it’s probably Berle’s best radio work, described by OTR historian Elizabeth McLeod as “one of the forgotten bright spots of postwar radio.” The Milton Berle Show took a weekly satirical look at prominent pop-culture phenomena; one week it might be “a salute to relaxation,” the next “a salute to high finance.” This January 20, 1948 broadcast (which I listened to last night) will give you sort of an idea, as announcer Frank Gallop introduces the show’s star:

GALLOP: Ladies and gentleman… 
BERLE (interrupting with an ad-lib) You’re great!!!
GALLOP: …with national economy in the news, tonight we salute Wall Street and high finance…the star of our show has been saving for years, and faces the future with hope…
BERLE: That’s right…
GALLOP: He should—he’s been saving all of Hope’s jokes…and here he is—Milton Berle!
(Amidst the audience’s applause, Berle can be heard ad-libbing “Fine introduction tonight…you’re a fool, Mr. Gallop.”)
BERLE: Thank you…all right (as the audience applause subsides) Take the sign down….thank you…oh, I’m startin’ off with a lull…thank you and good…Mr. Gallop, I shouldn’t be so happy…I really shouldn’t (here Berle speaks in an affectation) I mean, I should—I’m shocked…at that introduction you gave me tonight…literally and deeply shocked…I mean that sincerely…you say that I, Milton Berle (back to his normal voice) I steal from Bob Hope? You don’t understand, that’s just high finance…I take a joke from Bob Hope…Eddie Cantor takes it from me…Jack Carson takes it from Cantor…and I take it back from Carson…that’s the way it operates, it’s called corn exchange…

The show’s format rarely deviated from week to week—after his monologue, Milton would interview a few individuals with some connection to the show’s topic, more than likely members of his supporting cast, like Jack Albertson (pre-Chico and the Man), Ed Begley, and Arthur Q. Bryan. Next, he would conduct a hilarious interview with “expert” Al Kelly, a comedian/second banana whose specialty was “double-talk” routines. Announcer Gallop would then introduce with a ringing bell the weekly “forum” (similar to Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley”), in which questions would be taken from “members” of the audience. Among the participants were Arnold Stang—on loan from The Henry Morgan Show—playing a quarrelsome character always out to pick an argument with Berle, and Pert Kelton—who invariably introduced herself as “Tallulah Feeney, I’m a homemaker.” The show would then conclude with a segment entitled “At Home With the Berles,” in which Milton, his wife (Mary Shipp), and his bratty son (Stang) would be featured in a sketch again related to that week’s topic. 

The Milton Berle Show was a very underrated program, which benefited tremendously from both a fine supporting cast and well-written scripts from veteran scribes Nat Hiken (a former writer for Fred Allen who later created the TV classics The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?) and Aaron Ruben (The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, USMC). Announcer Frank Gallop was the perfect foil for Berle (Berle: “Mr. Gallop, did you hear that? I just got four laughs in a row.” Gallop: “Yes, they’re all in the row your mother is in.”), and vocalist Dick Farney and orchestra leader Ray Bloch found themselves the frequent target of Milton’s barbs. But what ultimately made the show click was Berle himself, his boorish stage persona (described by Gerald Nachman as “the manic comic who won’t shut up until you laugh”) and self-deprecating manner blending seamlessly with Hiken and Ruben’s broadly-written satire. Berle demonstrated with this series—though admittedly, the radio audience at home appeared to have a dissenting opinion—that he didn’t need his trademark verbal gags and slapstick to create a rapport with listeners.

The Milton Berle Show was axed by NBC on April 13, 1948, and Milton moved to ABC in September with a radio version of The Texaco Star Theater, bringing along with him Stang, Kelton, Gallop, and writers Hiken and Ruben (who were joined by two scriptwriting brothers, Danny and Neil Simon). In later years, Milton remembered it as “the best radio show I ever did…a hell of a funny variety show.” It, too, was doomed to last only one season—but by that time, it scarcely mattered. Milton was already wowing audiences with the TV version on NBC, a program that became the stuff of legend—and bestowed upon him the kingly title of “Mr. Television.”

Saturday, February 21, 2004

“The ring of the silver spurs heralds the most amazin’ man ever to ride the prairies of the early West…”

Syndicated series were a hallmark of programming during Radio’s Golden Age, providing shows for those stations not affiliated with the networks or those in dire need of cheap product to fill up airtime. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the demand for this type of programming became even greater—often to make up for lost revenue due to cuts in compensation by the networks to their affiliates—which is how companies like Ziv and Mayfair came into existence. 1948 saw the creation of Commodore Productions, a shoestring operation founded by Walter and Shirley White, whose product made Ziv look like the M-G-M of radio syndication. The Whites kick-started their radio empire with the assistance of an unlikely participant: popular B-western character Hopalong Cassidy.

Hopalong Cassidy was introduced in several stories (Bar 20) by a pulp western author named Clarence Mulford as a whiskey-drinkin’, tobacco-chewin' cuss of a cowpoke. But in 1934, under the tutelage of movie producer Harry Sherman (who bought the rights from Mulford for a silver screen version of Hoppy), he became a paragon of virtue and gallantry, as played by veteran silent movie actor William Boyd. Boyd (who was originally cast in Hopalong Cassidy [1935] as the bad guy until producer Sherman decided to recast) had watched his movie career tank in the 1920s due to a Hollywood scandal—another actor with the same name had been arrested for possession of whiskey and gambling equipment and newspapers ran Boyd’s picture in error. The success of the Hopalong Cassidy films—66 pictures made between 1935 and 1946—catapulted him back into the limelight.

In 1948, William Boyd made two shrewd business decisions that probably seemed at that time like a very risky roll of the dice. The first involved his partnering up with the Whites for a transcribed Hopalong Cassidy radio series produced from 1948-50; although it was slow-going at first (only a few shows were in the can when Commodore started selling them to stations, using those profits to produce more), it paid off in a substantial way when Mutual scheduled the show for a nationwide audience beginning January 1, 1950, sponsored by General Foods. Cassidy then moved to CBS in September of that year, beginning a two-year run that ended December 27, 1952.

Boyd’s other decision was to acquire the rights to all of his Hopalong Cassidy films—he had the foresight to observe that when television got up and running, the new medium would need plenty of product. Again, his instincts were right-on-the-money; after edited versions of the old movies appeared on New York television in 1948, new ones were produced to supplement them, and the films soon acquired a berth on NBC-TV’s schedule starting June 24, 1949. The combination of the both radio and TV success made the cowboy a household word in 1950.

The commercial juggernaut involving Hopalong Cassidy was nothing short of astonishing: there were Hoppy bicycles, roller skates (with spurs, even), pajamas and much, much more. The immense demand for Hopalong pants and shirts was so great that it resulted in a shortage of black dye. Cassidy jokes became a staple on television and radio; in the traditional Christmas episode of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a boy sitting on department-store-Santa Andy’s lap makes the request: “I want a Hopalong Cassidy hat, a Hopalong Cassidy shirt, Hopalong Cassidy spurs, a Hopalong Cassidy belt, a Hopalong Cassidy gun, Hopalong Cassidy boots, and a Hopalong Cassidy toothbrush.” When Andy asks the youngster who his favorite cowboy star is, the boy replies “Roy Rogers.”

So, I decided to check out a couple of Hopalong Cassidy shows last night, and as Providence would have it, they were the first and second broadcasts from the Mutual radio run in 1950. “Dead Man’s Hand” (January 1) concerns a doctor from Indian Springs who enlists the help of a “dead man” to jump another man’s gold claim. Fairly tame, but it killed 25 minutes. The second show, “The Rainmaker of Eagle Nest Mountain” (January 8), was downright bizarre: Hoppy and sidekick California Carlson (Andy Clyde) travel to a town in which they discover a series of strange goings-on: “Wanted” posters picturing the town’s leading citizens and a “sheriff” who’s invented a machine that will make rain. I can’t really recommend the Hopalong Cassidy series, since I was pretty underwhelmed by it, though I did enjoy listening to the antics of Clyde, who has been a longtime favorite of mine since being exposed to his Columbia comedy shorts and episodes of both The Real McCoys and Lassie as a tyke.

Since the national phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy took place before I was born, it’s difficult for me to grasp the appeal of the program. John Dunning writes: “Possibly some of it had to do with the novelty of television: just as Amos ‘n’ Andy had capitalized on the newness of radio a generation earlier, a TV sensation was bound to occur.” Hey, I can’t argue with success—during his career, William Boyd appeared in 52 half-hour television shows and 104 radio broadcasts in addition to the previously mentioned films, while Commodore Productions continued to score with later hit series in The Clyde Beatty Show and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. They all must have done something right.

Friday, February 20, 2004

“…I take the same train every week at this time…”

The Mysterious Traveler, one of the Mutual Broadcasting System’s most durable series, debuted over that network on December 5, 1943 and lasted nearly a decade until it left the airwaves September 16, 1952. The show was sustained throughout its run—though it hardly mattered as the program was fairly cheap to produce—and starred Maurice Tarplin as the host-narrator who told stories of “the strange and terrifying” as he arrived weekly on a phantom train. “I hope you will enjoy the trip,” he would intone in a menacing but good-natured way, “that it will thrill you a little and chill you a little. So settle back, get a good grip on your nerves, and be comfortable—if you can!

Tarplin was a seasoned radio veteran known for his roles on shows like The Shadow, The March of Time, Gangbusters, and a variety of soap operas to boot. (His most famous role outside The Mysterious Traveler was that of Inspector Faraday on the syndicated detective series Boston Blackie.) He landed the part of the Traveler by beating out such radio stalwarts as Lon Clark, Lawson Zerbe, Larry Haines, and Lon McAllister; according to producer-director-writer David Kogan, “Maurice was far and away the best. We’d never worked with him before, but there was no comparison.” Tarplin’s ability to “double,” or play multiple characters in one episode, was no doubt an additional enticement to hiring the talented actor.

The stories on The Mysterious Traveler ran the gamut from crime to science fiction, and the show’s best-known episode dabbled in the latter genre: “Behind the Locked Door” (November 6, 1951), which tells the tale of a pair of archaeologists trapped in a dark cave by a landslide, and of the strange creatures they discover residing there. One of my personal favorites is “The Man the Insects Hated” (July 27, 1947)—a scientist finds himself on the receiving end of being attacked by insects after he creates a formula to destroy all bug life.

I would describe The Mysterious Traveler as a low-rent Whistler, the popular CBS West Coast series (1942-55) that also featured an omnipresent host-narrator. There were, of course, some differences: most of the Traveler shows that I’ve listened to, don’t have the degree of participation in the narrative that The Whistler did. I can also say this in the Traveler’s favor—at least he had the wherewithal for train fare every week. The Whistler was always having to “walk by night.”

Last night, I listened to a pair of shows from 1948, beginning with “Murder in Jazztime” (from April 20), which tells the story of a popular singer named Vicki Saunders (Joan Alexander) who marries a man named Alexander Drake (Frank Barron). While the couple honeymoon in New Orleans, they meet up with a legendary jazz pianist named Jeff Becker (John Gibson), with whom Vicki becomes deeply infatuated. Alex, in a fit of jealous rage, kills the pianist—but soon finds himself haunted by continuous jazz music. This episode is pretty so-so, but the acting is good, and I was both surprised and pleased to learn that the music in this show was contributed by the legendary Hazel Scott.

“Murder is My Business,” originally heard June 8, 1948, is a definite improvement: David Philips (Eric Dressler), the scriptwriter for radio’s Dangerous Adventure, is hired by autocratic radio producer Basil King (Philips’ wife Julia describes him as “the most hated man in radio”) to be the new scribe on King’s hit program, Brad Barker—Private Eye. But King turns out to be a real martinet, and after several weeks David decides to…well, let’s just say he’s not gonna send him a fruit basket. A fine cast including Shirley Blanke, John Sylvester, and Richard Coogan—plus The Mysterious Traveler’s announcer Carl Caruso as…well, an announcer—makes this a pleasing entry, if not outstanding. That pretty much sums up The Mysterious Traveler in a nutshell—it’s not particularly great, but it’s not all that bad, either.

The Mysterious Traveler proved to be a rather hardy radio chestnut, particularly due to the fact that two similar shows—The Strange Dr. Weird (1944-45, which also featured Tarplin in the title role) and The Sealed Book (1945)—recycled many of the show’s scripts, as did Suspense in its later, waning years. This proves to be a good thing, since OTR historian Jay Hickerson notes that only 75 of the show’s original 370 broadcasts survive today. As for Maurice Tarplin, he was able to continue on even after the Golden Age of Radio’s demise by finding a career in dubbing soundtracks for foreign films and doing commercial voiceovers for a variety of advertised products.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

“…the Robin Hood of modern crime…”

It was 1997, and I found myself roped into going to see The Saint with a group of friends—an agonizing experience, and a perfectly dreadful film that bears no resemblance to anything Leslie Charteris ever wrote. (The movie only works if a, you can swallow that Elizabeth Shue is a scientist working on cold fusion, and b, you can convince yourself that Val Kilmer is not one of the most annoying actors to ever walk in front of a motion picture camera. I failed miserably on both counts.) Returning home, I was able to alleviate my revulsion at having paid to see it thanks to a marathon of the original Saint films being run by the ever reliable Turner Classic Movies. My favorite, by the way, is The Saint Strikes Back (1939), starring George Sanders—Sanders did five of these quick-but-enjoyable B-mysteries for RKO before becoming bored with them and moving on to another RKO B-movie series, The Falcon, based on the character created by Michael Arlen. He became bored with those as well, leaving the fourth film, The Falcon’s Brother (1942), and being replaced by his real-life brother Tom Conway. (Sanders eventually committed suicide in 1972, leaving behind a note that he was bored with it all. Maybe he should have considered another line of work.)

But I digress. Author Leslie Charteris introduced the character Simon Templar—a.k.a. The Saint—in the 1928 novel The Saint Meets the Tiger (later filmed as a 1941 movie starring Hugh Sinclair); Templar being a modern-day rogue/adventurer who subscribed to the Robin Hood philosophy of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Though he frequently intervened in murder and mysteries, he really wasn’t a detective in the literal sense, preferring to taking a big bite out of life’s sandwich and letting the juice dribble down his chin. (Okay, I apologize for that—this is what happens when you listen to too many Pat Novaks.) Many more novels and short stories followed, leading to a mystery magazine, a comic strip, films and TV series—and a radio series, first broadcast over NBC January 6, 1945.

The Saint’s first radio run lasted a scant three months, with a show starring Edgar Barrier and sponsored by Bromo Seltzer. He had a little more luck a few months later; this time actor Brian Aherne played the suave sleuth in a CBS series that replaced Campbell Soup-sponsored The Jack Carson Show during the summer of 1945. Louise Arthur co-starred in this version as Patricia Holm, Templar’s lady friend in the early Charteris novels. The show then returned in a West Coast version for CBS on July 9, 1947, starring the best-known of the radio Saints, Vincent Price.

I believe that Price was the perfect actor to play The Saint, particularly due to the George Sanders quality he brought to the part (although author Charteris didn’t care for Sanders, proclaiming him miscast): witty, urbane, and always handy with a quip for any situation. (John Dunning is quoted as saying that Price “was able to elevate ordinary lines and make them sing.”) His Templar was a true sophisticate, a patron of the arts and a frequent diner at the finest restaurants, much like the real-life Price. (When I lived in Westover, West Virginia during the nineties, a friend of mine took me to an Italian restaurant that Price had once visited and proclaimed to be magnificent, so I knew going in that the food was going to be top-notch.) With Price in the role, the show lasted a year on CBS until June 30, 1948, then resurfaced on Mutual in July 1949 before moving to its final home on NBC in June 1950. Price left the series in May 1951, and Tom Conway (Price must have told him that he was bored as well) replaced him as Templar until the show was cancelled October 14, 1951. The NBC series had a memorable opening in which the listener heard footsteps, accompanied by a haunting whistle, which leads me to wonder what would have happened if he had met up with the Whistler one night. (I bet they’d have one heck of a duet.)

Last night, I listened to a pair of episodes from the 1950-51 NBC run of The Saint, beginning with “The Terrible Tintype” (originally broadcast November 26, 1950). A woman named Sally Blair (Helen Parrish) is convinced that Simon has in his possession a photograph of her sister Valerie (Joan Banks) and her lover (Lamont Johnson), and is working for Valerie’s husband. Things get a tad sticky when Val’s spouse is discovered deader-than-a-doornail. Lawrence Dobkin appears in this episode as Louie the Cab Driver, and would make frequent appearances in this part while the series was on NBC. This fine episode was written by Louis Vittes, who provides great dialogue for the above-named cast and supporting actors Ken Christy and Dan O’Herlihy.

The second show, “Marvin Hickerson, Private Eye” (12/3/50), is an absolute jewel; a young woman (Lesley Banning) approaches Templar’s table with an offer he can’t refuse:

ALICE: Excuse me…do you mind if I sit down here with you?
SIMON: Why, I’d be happy if you…
ALICE: Oh, thank you…I hope you realize that I wouldn’t approach a perfect stranger if it wasn’t a matter of life or death…
SIMON: Oh, I’m sure you…
ALICE: …and it is a matter of life or death…that’s why I had to sit down with the handsomest man in the room…you…
SIMON: Well, I’d…
ALICE: …but you certainly aren’t much of a conversationalist…
SIMON: Well, happily you fill the gap…now, how may I be of service in this matter of life or death?
ALICE: Do you think you could gaze into my eyes…as if I were the only woman in the entire world? But don’t make it anything personal…
SIMON: Well, I consider it a thespic challenge…
ALICE: I want you to…hug me with your eyes…while I spurn you proudly…
SIMON: Ah, la belle dame son merci…well, uh…now, how’s this for an ardent yet humble gaze?
ALICE: Well, not now…he’s not watching…
SIMON: Sorry, I didn’t mean to be fresh…who’s he?
ALICE: Marvin…he’s over there with that…that woman…
ALICE: He’s looking at her the way I want you to look at me…
SIMON: This I shall have to see…
ALICE: Well, don’t turn around…they’re leaving…they’ll see you…
SIMON: Well, uh…shall I start hugging you now? I’m sure it will be good for the muscles in my eyes…
ALICE: Yes, hurry up…
SIMON: I’m hugging…
ALICE: Stop!
ALICE: He never even noticed me…he walked right on out…oh, men!

Alice is Alice Parks, who enlists Simon’s help in looking out for her amateur detective boyfriend Marvin (Simon derisively informs the would-be sleuth that “You are not Sam Spade”). There’s not much mystery in this particular episode, but it’s undeniably funny, with a superb cast made up of Victor Rodman, Barney Phillips, Maggie Morley, Edmund McDonald, and Herb Vigran.

With regards to The Saint—which remains every bit as entertaining as it was during Radio’s Golden Age--OTR listeners today have benefited greatly from Price’s generosity; the legend has it that the actor called a member of SPERDVAC and asked them if they would be interested in some old transcriptions that he was planning to toss (thus ensuring that the organization dedicated to old-time radio would set a new land-speed record in the time they took to get over there), so some fifty-five episodes are extant today. Though Price is immortalized today as a horror movie icon, the actor considered radio his favorite entertainment medium:

The extraordinary thing about radio was the care that went into the shows. There was a kind of perfection about the radio actor that was extraordinary. It was a very small group of people, and I always felt myself enormously privileged that I was able to join that group.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

“America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator…”

In On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, John Dunning makes a right-on-the-money observation of radio’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar by commenting that the show “had more lives than a cat.” To be certain, this crime drama—critically lambasted upon its premiere on February 11, 1949—was a genuine Energizer Bunny; it kept going and going and going until it became the last network drama show to leave the airwaves on September 30, 1962, ringing down the curtain on the Golden Age of Radio.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar’s origins begin with actor Dick Powell, who portrayed “the man with the action-packed expense account” in an audition record prepared December 8, 1948. Though the show had an impressive pedigree in director Anton M. Leader (Suspense, Murder at Midnight) and writers Gil Doud and Paul Dudley, Powell opted out of this series and became Richard Diamond, Private Detective instead. A second audition with Charles Russell was recorded January 14, 1949, and the actor was tapped for the series’ debut less than a month later.

In the series’ early run, Johnny Dollar worked for the Universal Adjustment Bureau, which acted as sort of an umbrella for various client companies, his superior being Pat McCracken. His assignments varied from investigating cases of arson to following up on stolen goods (diamonds, furs, etc.) to serving as bodyguard to a heavily insured client whose life had been threatened. Inevitably, murder would often result in the course of his duties. He had a keen, analytical mind and enough brawn to take care of himself in a scrap, and was also a bit of a playboy. His surname, Dollar, no doubt stemmed from his habit of tipping individuals with silver dollars—a cutesy gimmick that was thankfully phased out as the series progressed.

Russell spent about a year in the role, and was then replaced for two-and-a-half years by actor Edmond O’Brien. Though fans of the show almost unanimously agree that the best Johnny Dollar was portrayed by Bob Bailey, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for O’Brien. He didn’t bring anything special to the role—Russell, O’Brien and later John Lund pretty much played the part interchangeably as your typical hard-boiled Philip Marlowe type—but he’s one of my favorite actors, particular in film noirs like The Killers (1946), The Web (1947), White Heat (1949) and the underrated classic D.O.A. (1950). Actor John Lund inherited the part from O’Brien in November of 1952 and stayed with it until September 1954—I think Lund was probably the weakest of the Dollars; I never cared much for him in films since he always seemed to be just taking up space. (Although he does get an exemption for 1951’s The Mating Season, courtesy of The Blind Squirrel Film Theory™.)

After an August 29, 1955 audition with Gerald Mohr (which never aired), Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar returned to CBS Radio as a 15-minute five-day-a-week series beginning October 3, 1955 with former Let George Do It star Bob Bailey in the role of Dollar. Fifty-five multi-chaptered stories were produced, and it is generally felt that this version of the series is where the program reached its pinnacle, under the supervision of veteran producer-director Jack Johnstone (whose radio resume includes The Adventures of Superman and Orson Welles’ Almanac). The multi-part format allowed Johnstone (who scripted a few entries under the nom de plume “Jonathan Bundy”) and the series’ other writers to concentrate more on character development, particularly in the case of Bailey (the part he "was born to play," asserts Dunning), who gave Dollar a lighter comedic touch (for example, his shameless padding of his expense account was often played for laughs). Johnny also got a steady girlfriend in Betty Lewis (Virginia Gregg), who waged a losing battle to march the confirmed bachelor up the aisle for the rice-and-old-shoes routine. Bailey continued as Dollar when the series returned to a weekly half-hour; the show was still supervised by Johnstone, but without the additional time afforded to the serialized episodes, many of the shows lacked the necessary punch.

Last night, I listened to a couple of AFRS rebroadcasts of the half-hour Bob Bailey Dollars—the first one originally broadcast over CBS June 14, 1958. In “The Delectable Damsel Matter,” Johnny investigates the theft of the Cape Star—a $300,000 emerald—from flirtatious socialite Hildegarde Ransom (Gregg). (You don’t suppose she had a cousin named Leila, do you? Oh well…) This episode, scripted by Johnstone, isn’t bad—it reminds me a lot of The Rockford Files, in that a lot of time is spent sketching out the characters, but then time runs out, necessitating a rush to get to the show's end. (Johnny's answering of the phone at the beginning of each show is similar to Rockford's standard message-on-the-answering-machine opening as well.) The supporting cast is comprised of Barney Phillips, Chet Stratton, Jack Moyles, and Frank Gerstle.

Gerstle is also in “The Virtuous Mobster Matter,” the second show I previewed, originally broadcast the week after (June 21). Also scripted by Johnstone, this time Dollar receives a call from an ex-con friend in Virgu (pronounced “virtue”), South Carolina who reports that a mutual pal of theirs has turned up missing and that foul play is suspected. A definite improvement over “Delectable Damsel,” though there’s a plot development that’s a tad on the far-fetched side, it features Jack Kruschen, Jean Tatum, Les Tremayne, Billy Halop, and Gil Stratton, Jr. in the cast.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar headed East on November 27, 1960, and with its Hollywood-to-New-York move found Bob Readick in the role of the famed insurance investigator. Veteran actor Mandel Kramer took over for Readick on June 25, 1961, becoming the last Dollar until the show left the airwaves in 1962. Overall, the series is pretty much average, though the multi-parters do lift the show up from its suffocating sameness. The fact that both it and Suspense would be the last to leave on that fateful day, September 30, 1962, is more of a testament to its survival skills than its overall quality—but the 5-part, 15-minute shows are definitely "Must-Hear-OTR."