November 14: Happy Birthday Dick Powell!

Some actors are stamped with a certain role and are never able to move beyond it. It is called type casting, and Hollywood, which has always been more commercial than artistic, revels in the practice. Why not? Once they have found an actor who can fill a certain type of role, and do it well, what is the sense in changing as long as money is still being made?

dick-powell-c-1930sWhen Dick Powell came to town, he landed one of the typecasting plums, that of Musical Comedy Romantic Leading Man. From the dawn of the Talkies until the 1950’s, the MCRLM was assured to find work, even well past his prime. His leading lady could expect to be tossed aside before she turned 30, but the MCRLM would be playing the fresh-faced college boy into his forties. Powell, however, felt that he had more to contribute, and he was correct.

Powell really was the fresh-faced, bound to succeed at anything sort that he portrayed in his early musicals. He grew up in Indiana and attended Little Rock College where he excelled at his studies, at business, but especially in performing. He began playing cornet and performing in campus musicals. Rather than moving directly into the business world, after college he went on the road with Charlie Davis Orchestra.

With a rather casual tenor style ( Powell did not have the classical training like many big band singers of late 1920’s the band was popular on the mid-Western dance circuit and landed a recording deal with Vocalion. Hollywood noticed, and when Vocalion’s parent company was bought by Warner Brothers, song-and-dance man Dick Powell was a sweet part of the deal.

Through the 1930s, Powell appeared in musical after musical, including 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Flirtation Walk and On The Avenue. Although he was enjoying a good deal of success, Dick realized that an aging pretty boy was going to seem ridiculous, even if the studio heads did not.

Dick_powell_-_publicityHis pleas to play other roles fell on deaf ears. He lobbied for the lead in what was to become a film noir classic, Double Indemnity, but was denied yet again. The role went to another Hollywood “nice guy”, Fred MacMurray (Fred thought it was a casting mistake, but acknowledged that it was the role which turned his career around). MacMurray’s success helped open the door for Dick to work with director Edward Dmytryk in Edward Chandler’s Murder My Sweet(1944). Powell became the first actor to play Philip Marlowe, and broke away from the MCRLM mold forever.

The year 1944 also found Powell in his first steady radio dramatic role. Radio was part of the Hollywood star machine at the time, and Powell had appeared on a number of musical variety programs as well as the Radio Movie anthologies in support of his films. Private eye Richard Rogue of Rogue’s Gallery was rather less hard boiled than Philip Marlowe, but he was no creme puff. Radio detectives of the period were expected to get beat up in every episode, but when Richard Rogue took a powder he would be visited by his alter-ego Eugor (Rogue backwards). Very often it was during his conversations with Eugor that the shamus figured out whodunit.

Through the forties and fifties Powell became a popular film “heavy” in films like Cornered, Johnny O’Clock and Cry Danger. He also made an even bigger splash on radio as Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Richard Diamond was the creation of writer Blake Edwards, who would be better known for films Operation Petticoat, Breakfast At Tiffany’s and the Pink Panther movies. Although Powell had to chops to play a very credible radio noir detective in the hard-boiled tradition, Diamond was a decidedly light-hearted detective. Edwards even convinced Powell that it was OK to sing in the role!

Screen Guild PlayersPowell the businessman realized that TV producers were going to be happier using the resources of the Hollywood film industry than continuing in New York sound stages, and with David Niven, Ida Lupino and Charles Boyer founded Four Stars Television. He also expanded into film direction; his classic submarine film The Enemy Below (1957) won the Academy Award for Special Effects.

The ambitious film The Conqueror (1956) was not Powell’s last creative effort, but it was allegedly the one that killed him. Produced by Howard Hughes and starring John Wayne at the height of his career, the epic should have been one the great hits of the decade. Even with Dick Powell’s direction and the support of Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead, the film was more than a critical flop. It is considered one of the worst films ever made. The real tragedy of the movie came from the fact that the exterior photography was shot in St. George, Utah, just 137 miles downwind from the Nevada Test Site, location of above ground nuclear testing in the early 1950s. Although the production company had government assurance that it was safe, 91 of the 220 people in the production company developed cancer. Although tobacco was a contributing factor in many cases, especially Wayne and Moorehead, radiation is suspected to have contributed to the early demise of Powell, Susan Hayward, and many others.

A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6915 Hollywood Blvd honors Dick Powell.

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Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Debut on The Royal Gelatin Hour

Bergen, Charlie, Sneed

The first thing to keep in mind is that Rudy Vallee was not enthusiastic about having a ventriloquist act on his program. On the August 6,  1936, episode of The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour,  he stated on the air “…ventriloquism hardly makes good radio.”

Rudy Vallee

That night was the radio debut of noted comic and ventriloquist Frank Gaby (according to our sources, it was Gaby’s only credited radio appearance). Not surprisingly, he flopped. Gaby had been a successful vaudevillian, and to be fair, when he appeared on Fleischmann’s he was forced to use Rudy as his dummy because everyone knew that ventriloquism would not work on radio.

Ventriloquism comes from the Latin root meaning “belly noises”. It is a visual trick where the artist “throws” his voice so that it appears that his dummy or doll is talking. There is a pretty obvious disconnect between radio and visual tricks, so Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards ventriloquists is understandable.

Johan and Nilla Bergren’s boy, Edgar, learned ventriloquism from a pamphlet at the age of 11. A few years later, after developing his skill, Edgar hired Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack to fashion the head of his life-long side-kick (Edgar made the body himself). The likeness was based on a precocious Irish newsboy. Bergren entered Northwestern University, performing with Charlie McCarthy to pay the bills. Soon he was doing Vaudeville full time and changed his name to the easier to pronounce Edgar Bergen.Edgar_Bergen_Charlie_McCarthy_1947

The Vaudeville circuit eventually drew Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy to New York. “America’s Premier Party-giver”, Elsa Maxwell, saw the act at a party for Noel Coward and helped Bergen to land a gig at the Rainbow Room. While rubbing shoulders with the well-to-do, Charlie adopted his trademark top hat, tuxedo and “Esky” monocle (for the Esquire magazine’s  cartoon mascot). One of the “swanks” who saw the act at the Rainbow was Julian Field, an executive at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Part of Field’s duties was to find talent for the firm’s client’s radio shows,
The Royal Gelatin Hour in particular.

Given Rudy Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude about ventriloquists, it was surprising the Edgar and Charlie made it on the show at all, let alone into what was essentially the headline spot. Guest wise, it was a pretty slow night for Rudy.

The program featured a scripted and long-winded interview with Elsa Maxwell, mostly about how wonderful it was to be Elsa Maxwell. Cornelia Otis Skinner gave a humorous monologue about Christmas, Sleepy Hall introduced the electric banjo, and there was a dramatic sketch by Shirley Booth and Douglas Thomas best described as “forgettable”.

Charlie McCarthy and Edgar BergenEdgar was introduced right after the mid-show commercial break, traditionally the head-line slot. Charlie got his first big laugh on the radio when Edgar asked why he was so nattily dressed. “Well, its a long story… and a dirty one!”

The listening audience was both shocked and delighted! Although very tame by today’s standards, this was a bit ribald for 1936. However, Charlie could get away with it because he was a young boy. A boy made of wood at that! Later there is an exchange where Charlie claims “I never have more than, ah, four or five scotch and sodas….” “Goodness, four or five scotch and sodas would make you awfully drunk!” “Yeah, well, it helps!”

The shock of such adult musings with a little-boy voice was a hit with audiences and sponsors. Standard Brands fell over themselves to sign Bergen as the show’s featured comedians. When that 13 show contract was up they offered man and dummy their own Sunday night show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour.charliemccarthytoy

Charlie went on to become one of the most revered personalities on radio. Naturally there was a flood of Charlie McCarthy
merchandise, from dolls to boardgames to teaspoons. He was no stranger to scandal; his exchange with Mae West was considered so racy that the sex symbol was banned from NBC until 1950.

Edgar and CharlieAlthough he would create other dummies for his act, Charlie remained the one audiences wanted to see when Edgar Bergen performed. Bergen appeared on television both with and without his wooden side-kick. He played Grandpa Walton in The Homecoming and appeared with his daughter Candice on Y
ou Bet Your Life (Candice claimed to be jealous of Charlie, he had a bigger bedroom!)

Charlie remained a precocious little boy until Bergen’s death in 1978. He is now on display as an American icon in the Smithsonian Institution.


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David Harding: Counterspy!

Sun Tzu’s ancient Chinese text, The Art Of War has been praised for its applications to warfare ever since the old general first scribbled his thoughts on strips of bamboo more than two thousand years ago. The text is as much about avoiding war as it is fighting it, and its timeless wisdom has kept it on the nightstands of many generals, right next to the Bible. It is on the Commandant’s Reading List for the United States Marine Corps. Douglas MacArthur is known to have studied Sun Tzu, and The Art of War is required reading for officers of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The thirteenth and final chapter of The Art Of War is all about spies. As Sun Tzu points out (and every military commander will tell you) that there is no substitute for knowing as much about your enemy as possible. Just as vital, perhaps even more so, is the importance of preventing your enemy from learning too much about you.

In the real life cloak and dagger world of State Intelligence, keeping information out of enemy hands is the job of Counter Intelligence Agents. From 1942 until 1950 on the radio, the job defeating enemy spies fell to David Harding, Counterspy.

Counterspy was the creation of one of radio’s most prolific producers, Phillips H. Lord. Lord is best known for the long running police drama, Gangbusters, but his contributions to radio are similar in scope to Himan Brown, Frederick Ziv, and the Hummerts. Lord invested personal attention to every element of his programs, and by the late 40’s there were as many as 18 Lord productions airing on three different networks.

The country, still recovering from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, was ripe for a show like Counterspy in 1942. The show incorporated the respect for law and order which was vital to Gangbusters along with a patriotic sensibility demonstrated in Lord’s We The People. The overriding theme of Counterspy was that no matter how sneaky, underhanded, ruthless, or downright evil the enemies of Democracy were, they were no match for the All-American agents of the Counterspies.

Counterspy-headDavid Harding, Counterspy was unique in the annals of Espionage Radio Fiction because its star character was a spymaster rather than simply a field agent facing danger every day. Harding, played by Don MacLaughlin, was the head of the fictional Counterspy organization. While both shows were on the air, MacLaughlin also played Commissioner Valentine on Lord’s Gangbusters. A clean cut Iowa native, MacLaughlin appeared on Broadway, and several Radio Soaps. Reviewers claimed he had “the most American voice on the air”.

Being a spymaster allowed Harding to possess a great  deal of knowledge which his cohorts may not have been privy to, but Harding was far from being a desk-bound bureaucrat. He was an accomplished field agent in his own right, willing to go where ever there were military secrets in danger.


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Adam and Evelyn starring Jean Simmons

img_jean-simmonsBroadcast 63 years ago today: Enjoy this 1952 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater starring Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, and Chester Stratton.  In the show a professional gambler finds himself the acting father to a young girl.  This (non-commercial) AFRS broadcast was renamed as “Hollywood Radio Theater”

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Radio’s Casey Crime Photographer

crimephotographer8-218x300Somewhere, hidden deep in the offices of the Old Time Radio Networks, in a place where only writers go, there must have been an office dedicated to the Creation of the Perfect Radio Detective. Posted on the wall of the office would have been the Rules for the Perfect Radio Detective, and perhaps an honor roll of the programs that managed to capture these elements. An unlikely addition to that roll would have been Casey, Crime Photographer.

The first of these crucial elements is that the perfect Radio Detective is Different from Every Other Radio Detective. Next is that even if the Radio Detective is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, he will be sharper than any cops he comes across, if not the crooks. The Perfect Radio Detective does not have to come from the same gritty world his foes do, but it doesn’t hurt. He does not even need a well defined crimephotographer3-294x300sense of Right and Wrong like the Superman or The Lone Ranger. In fact, it might even get in his way. He will find a sidekick useful. He may or may not enjoy the regular attention of a lovely young woman, if there is not a regularly occurring feminine character in his world, then trouble is bound to follow the new ladies who come in and out of his life on a weekly basis. Hard drink is usually a way to dull life’s various pains, and an appreciation for Jazz music is an enormous plus.

Casey, Crime Photographer, came to the airwaves from the pages of pulp fiction, and he brought the many elements of the Perfect Radio Detective with him. Author George Harmon Coxe grew up in Upstate New York, and attended Purdue and Cornell Universities before moving to the West Coast to work in newspapers. Beginning in 1922, Coxe began publishing short fiction in various genres to help pay the bills. In 1934, Black Mask Magazine introduced the character Coxe would become best remembered for. Coxe drew upon his journalistic background to create the news photographer “Flashgun” Casey.

While still on the pulp pages, Casey kept a bottle of hooch in his desk drawer and was confident in his ability to put a .38 slug where he thought it should go, although he was more likely depend on the “two big fists he knew how to use”.

Casey, whose given name was never revealed, lost some of his grittiness when he came to the airwaves, but none of his intelligence or determination. He specialized in photographing major crimes for the Morning Express newspaper. Pretty reporter Ann Williams’ job was to get the stories, but her Photographer was the brains of the team. Police Captain Logan was usually a friend of the newspaper team, instead of getting in the way of their pursuit of justice as most cops did for Hardboiled Detectives.

In between stories, Casey and Ann would while away the hours at their favorite watering hole, the Blue Note. The tavern always had great jazz on tap, which must have brought in a decent amount of business. It was needed to make up for the long overdue tab run up by Casey. (Casey and Ann’s chief source of nourishment was the free pretzels set out by Ethelbert the bartender.)

Matt Crowley first brought the role of Casey to the airwaves. Staats Cosworth took over the role in late 1943. Jim Backus played the part for a few episodes, and Darren McGavin brought the role to television for a single, best forgotten, season. Jone Allison, Alice Reinheart, Lesley Woods and Betty Furness each played reporter Ann Williams, but the role is more closely associated with Jan Miner. Miner best remembered as Palmolive’s “Madge the Manicurist”, reprised the role for TV.

John Gibson played Ethelbert, the long suffering barkeep at the Blue Note. The tavern had the musical services of the Archie Bleyer Orchestra and  the Teddy Wilson Trio.


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Remembering Big John and Sparky Radio Show

confused-science-readerWhen computers came along, “multitasking” became an influential buzzword. It came as a shock to many of us that even simple early computers could do more than one thing at once. What was an even bigger shock was seeing how many things a kid operating a computer could do. You just haven’t been around kids lately if you haven’t seen one sitting in front of his computer, supposedly doing his homework. The homework is getting done, but at the same time he is video-chatting with his classmates, slaying alien monster zombies in a video game, downloading music (which fortunately he’ll be listening to over headphones), watching YouTube and updating his FaceBook page.

Multitasking is nothing new for kids. There was a time when kids’ favorite “media experience” was to rush home turn on the radio for the terrific kid’s programming on the air. One of the great things about the radio is that it can be enjoyed while other things are going happening. It is easy to imagine after-school chores might be done quicker while Hop Harrigan or Flash Gordon were keeping the kids company. Imagine how many rounds of the Go-Fish or Chinese Checkers got played while Little Orphan Annie did her best to get in and out of danger. Thousands of kids played catch while the Adventures of Superman came through the open living room window, and it would be a fib to say that some didn’t expect Space Patrol, Planet Man, Mark Trail and the Junior G-Men to help with their homework.

Television was not as conducive to this type of multitasking. Some kids tried to convince their parents and teachers they could get their homework done in front of the TV. Even while in a semi-darkened room, with their attention on the pictures on the box. Their claims didn’t convince parents and teachers.

Big John and Sparky
The ability to multi task was valuable on the other side of the speaker, as well. One of the best examples of this was Jon Arthur’s Big Jon and Sparkie. Arthur was an On-Air personality on Cincinnati’s WSAI, and he invented the Sparkie character as a scamp who would interrupt him while he was on the air. Sparkie’s voice, which could be irritating to anyone over the age of twelve. By recording his own speech on a reel-to-reel tape, then replaying it at a higher speed, Arthur created Sparkie’s distinctive voice. Thus, Big Jon and Sparkie would have conversations on the air. WSAI station managers liked the concept and teamed Arthur with Don Kortenkamp as a scriptwriter. The Big Jon and Sparkie Show was picked-up as a daily half hour program by ABC, along with a Saturday morning two hour long show titled No School Today.

Although Kortenkamp provided the scripts, which were a delightful combination of reality and fantasy, Arthur did most of the on-air voices and created the assortment of characters. Arthur based many of the characters on personalities from his childhood in Ohio. They included Mayor Plumpfront, Clyde Pillroller, “fabulously wealthy” widow Daffodil Dilly, taxi-driver Eukie Betcha, and Rabbit Ears McKester. Sparkie and Rabbit Ears were members of The Grand Order Of The Mysterious Secret Circle, as well as great fans of movie hero Captain Jupiter.

Big Jon and Sparkie left ABC in 1958. The program never quite made it on television. It found new life on Harold Camping’s (the same guy who predicted the Rapture on four occasions) Family Radio Network. Arthur was an announcer for the Christian network, and also kept Big Jon and Sparkie alive in syndication from 1960 until his death in 1982.

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Country Music and Patriotism Created a Party

Cecil Daniels hosted “Country Style USA” and did it make the country hoot and holler with excitement over the radio airwaves. The show did one and it did it very well. It played the top country music of the day, and the guest stars that performed were Nashville proud. if you pulled on your boots and plunked your 10 gallon head covering on when the radio started playing the “Country Style USA” program, you could not help but galavant around your living room as if you had just gotten of your caloose.

But why? Why was this program,and others like it, such a game changer with the multitudes that preferred it over other radio programs of its day? One word…patriotism! People had gotten out of a couple of major world conflicts and people wanted to remember the greatness of this country. People found the simplicity of “Country Style USA”, Red Foley and Roy Rogers comforting and rewarding. Much of the music of the day was either heady and sophisticated or hard to understand. But country music paid attention to the greatness of this country. It made people remember what God meant and what family meant and how it all added up to “red,white and blue”.

“It’s time for Country Style USA…

stay all night, stay a little longer,

dance all night, dance a little longer,

pull off your coat and go a little longer,

don’t see why you don’t stay a little longer.”

Patriotism, Country Style USA and the radio added up to a party and America was ready to kick up its heels. Hank Snow might make the romantics get into the mood with “Hello Love” and Gene Autry brought the holiday cheer with “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. But whatever the theme and whatever the season, country music made people aware of how fortunate they were living in this land and celebrating that fact was always a good thing.

Country music is timeless and it resonates to the memories of so many. Radio allowed the memories to be stirred and to be thrilled. It encouraged people  to want to “stay a lil longer”.

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