Singin Sam “Barbasol Man”

When we study the personalities of Old Time Radio, every once in a while we encounter the story of what appears to be a very happy man. One such person was Harry Frankel, better known as Singin’ Sam.

Harry was born in Ohio in 1888 to a men’s clothing merchant who soon took the family to Danville, Kentucky.  The family business would take them to Richmond, Indiana when Harry was nine, but by this time the “Old Kentucky Home” had a hold on the lad. For the rest of his life, Harry was a Son of the South. In 1908,  Harry joined Al G. Fields’ Minstrels and began his vaudeville apprenticeship.

In 1930,  an offer from the Great States Lawnmower Company allowed Harry to leave the hectic life of vaudeville, and he settled in Cincinnati, to sing over WLW as Singin’ Sam, The Lawnmower Man. Exposure on WLW led to an opportunity to move to New York to become Singin’ Sam, the Barbasol Man. Life in New York was not happy for the confirmed Son of the South, and he left after three years, but first he met and courted Helene “Smiles” Davis. Harry and Smiles settled in Richmond, and soon Harry was again singing for Barbasol on national broadcasts originating in Cincinnati. In 1937, Harry became a “Jet-Set entertainer in the pre-jet era, flying to New York twice a month to record a series of shows for Coca Cola, Refreshment Time With Singing Sam. The transcribed shows were distributed nationally while Harry got to spend his off time at home with his wife, Smiles.

Sadly, this happy man was cut down by a heart attack at the age of sixty. Much too young for someone who made his living happily singing “old songs”. For finding lasting success on his own terms, we have to tip our hat to Singin’ Sam.

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Old Time Radio Crime Shows

 

Die hard fans of Old Time Radio would have us believe that there is something in the OTR world for everyone, and to a great extent they are correct. Many of us find that we have favorites in every OTR genre. However, there are three types of show which Old Time Radio does exceptionally well, arguably a superior storytelling medium than Movies or TV.

These are Horror, Science Fiction and Crime Drama. The first two are actually fairly obvious. To achieve the desired response from the audience, the creators of both these genre must create indelible images for the audience. Common sense would have us believe that the visual media should be better at this, but in actual practice even the best special effects men cannot create images as intense as those created in the minds of an attentive listener. In other words, the scary monster on the screen can never be as scary as the one we can conjure in our own imagination. At least, this is true if the writer, director, and actors in the drama have any more than mediocre talent. Many of the surviving examples of both Horror and Drama were produced by the best talents in the showbiz industry.

Crime Drama is a somewhat different case. Whereas Horror and Science Fiction are image driven, fans of Crime Drama are essentially enjoying a puzzle. Whether the audience is able to solve the puzzle themselves, or they have to wait for the Dashing Detective to solve it for them, makes little difference. The complexity and intricacy of the puzzle are as important as the solution.

The Puzzle Factor is especially important for the so-called Soft Boiled Detectives. These are the guys who specialize in the Whodunit story. Their archetype in both literature and on the Radio is Sherlock Holmes, who always got his man but took the listener through some plot twists that were positively neck snapping. Nero Wolfe, The Saint, Nick and Nora of The Thin Man and Hercule Poirot are also popular Soft Boiled Detectives.

The existence of Soft Boiled Detectives implies Hard Boiled Detectives, and Old Time Radio has them in droves. The came from between the covers of pulp magazines and Noir Detective Cinema, and they flooded the post War airwaves. Part of the reason for their abundance was that they were ideal listening for the target audience of the time, largely rugged veterans who were adapting to the new affluence of of civilian life. The hard boiled detective might taken a licking once in a while, but they were rugged individuals who answered injustice whether it was perpetrated against themselves or those they had taken into their protection.

The archetype of the Hard Boiled Detective is Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was developed in pulps of the 1930s, and even though he was a tough guy, he was a character you would introduce to your grandma; he enjoyed classical music, chess, and had a strong moral code. Other Hard Boiled regulars may have been more Neanderthal, but characters like Sam Spade, Pat Novak, Michael Shayne, Mike Hammer or Johnny Dollar may have had to take their lumps, but they always got their man.

Just because imagery was not as important to crime drama as it was to Horror of Science Fiction radio, it was far from ignored. Thanks to the great writing and production values, when a listener enjoys an episode of the classic Dragnet they are transported to post-War Los Angeles. Although it is a noticeably monochromatic Los Angeles (with occasional flashes of brown from a well behaved Mexican shop owner), Dragnet‘s Los Angeles is a city of lunch counters, War Factory workers, urban sprawl just beginning to spread, and even the junkies wore coats and ties.

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Let Yours Truly, Bob Bailey, Do It!

Bob Bailey

Bob Bailey was “born in a theater trunk” in Toledo, Ohio, to traveling-performer parents. Bob first hit the stage at the age of six. As a young man he began performing on the radio in Chicago, which was a hub of network production during the pre-War years. Bailey appeared in a number of anthology productions originating from WGN and WMAQ, and worked on several of Arch Oboler’s productions.

Bailey reached the West Coast soon after the War broke out. There was a shortage of male-talent because of the War, and Bob landed a standard one year contract with Twentieth Century Fox. He would appear in seven films for Fox. Of medium height and rather skinny, as far as the movies were concerned, Bob Bailey had a face for radio.

Fortunately for his career, he also had a voice for radio. Hollywood was gaining prominence as the center of radio production, and perhaps capitalizing on his Chicago connections, Bailey found occasional work on Oboler’s Everything For The Boys, Treasury Star Parade, Lux Radio Theater, and Arch Oboler’s Plays. In 1946 the door to stardom opened for Bailey with the Don Lee/Mutual network production of Let George Do It.

George Valentine was a departure from the typical hard-boiled detectives of the time. A detailed and believable backstory was built through the first season; Valentine had been a GI during the war, and while he was overseas he had plenty of time to consider what he wanted to do (or more likely, what he DIDN’T want to do) when he got home. He took out a personal ad in the local paper:

Do You Have a Job That Needs Doing?
Let George Do It!
Danger is my stock in trade.
If the job is too tough for you to handle
You’ve got a job for me,
George Valentine
Write FULL details

Virginia Gregg and Dick Powell

Conceived as more of a professional problem solver than a detective, the program began as almost a situation comedy before it evolved into a not-quite-hard-boiled detective drama. Valentine always displayed a degree of GI ingenuity and out of the box thinking. Let George Do It had many of the trappings of the Detective genre. He always had an eye for a pretty girl, much to the consternation of his secretary and sometimes love interest Claire Brooks (Brooksie), played by Virginia Gregg. Brooksie’s kid brother was an occasional character; Sonny was none other than Eddie Firestone Jr., and often turned up just when Valentine needed a hand or an obscure piece of information.

As part of the Don Lee Network, Let George Do It was a popular program, but little known in the East for its first five seasons. By that time Bailey was ready to move on, and he found an opportunity in the reformulated version of CBS’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Johnny Dollar had been a popular detective radio program for several years, with different actors in the lead role. Dollar was an insurance investigator with an “Action Packed Expense Account” beginning in 1949. His various cases took Johnny Dollar around the world in search of insurance fraud. By the end of the 1954 season, YTJD was little different from the rest of the detectives on the air. In order to breath new life into the show, production was turned over to Jack Johnstone, who had previously produced Buck Rogers and The Adventures of Superman. One of Johnstone’s first moves was to change the format from a weekly half hour to a five day a week 15 minute show. The new format allowed for week-long story arcs and greater character and plot development.

This was a great fit for the thinking-man detective persona Bob Bailey developed on Let George Do It. Of all the actors to handle the Johnny Dollar role, Bailey is the fan favorite. Unfortunately the daily format only lasted for thirteen months before returning to weekly episodes (Johnstone continued to contribute scripts). By this time the writing was on the wall for Radio Drama. CBS moved production to New York as a cost cutting move in 1960, but Bailey chose to remain in Hollywood.

Bailey made a few television appearances, and began writing for TV (he wrote “the Carmen Kringle Matter” Christmas episode for Johnny Dollar’s 1957 season). He would battle with alcoholism for most of his remaining years. He began to make a recovery with the help of Alcoholic’s Anonymous when he was felled by a massive heart attack. He would spend most of the remaining ten years of his life in a convalescent home, renewing his relationships with friends and family.

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Top Secret: “Unknown Mission”

Assassination for political or military reasons, unpleasant though it may be to think about, is a tool of statecraft and strategic practice. Nonetheless, assassination is murder, and it exacts a moral toll on those who practice it.

Ilona Massey

State sanctioned assassination of course occurs in real life, but certainly not with the frequency we see in espionage fiction. In fiction, the morality of assassination takes many forms, as seen in the contrast between the James Bond of Fleming’s novel, who sees his job as a distasteful if necessary task, and the License to Kill, almost casual murders of the 007 films.

Assassination, especially in fiction, is an exploration of “the greatest game”; man hunting man. The suspense is often heightened when the hunter becomes the hunted. Weighing the moral implications of assassination adds even more spice to spy drama.

In the Top Secret episode “Unknown Mission” Baroness Karin Geza receives orders to take “Action Seven” against a French Duke visiting Rome. It is known that the duke is collaborating with the Nazis through Vichy, but she is given no other reason for the assignment, but the Action needs to be accomplished as soon as possible to prevent the duke from carrying out his assignment. The audience is let in on the Duke’s mission- to assassinate the Baroness!

They meet at the nightclub where Karin works (a special treat of this episode is getting to hear Ilona Massey singing), and a rendezvous at the Duke’s stable is arranged for the next morning. The Duke’s assistant makes a device to deliver poison through the saddle. When the time comes, the Duke is so enchanted with Karin he cannot go through with the poisoning. During their ride, they spend time at the top of the cliffs near the villa. The Baroness has a perfect opportunity to complete her mission, but she hesitates because she still doesn’t know the reason for her assignment, and she is becoming enchanted with the Duke herself. There are other attempts, but finally, realizing he cannot kill her himself, the Duke’s assistant devises a bomb in the Duke’s car, and loans it to Karin for a picnic. In the end, Karin does learn that the Duke has been given the mission of killing her.

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Walter Tetley: Old Time Radio’s Beloved Actor had a Lonely Story

Walter Tetley

Walter Tetley is one of Radio’s most beloved character actors also had one of the era’s saddest, and loneliest stories.

Walter Tetley practically cornered the market as the “fresh-mouthed kid” character on radio. The precocious kid, who always managed to take the stuffing out of pretentious adult males, has always been a feature in situation comedy, from Charlie McCarthy, Henry Aldrich, and Jughead Jones, to TV’s Bart Simpson. Few actors were able to pull off the character as convincingly or as successfully as Tetley. This is because Tetley, despite the youthful voice heard on the radio, was a full grown man. (Bart Simpson is voiced by actress Nancy Cartwright.)

Chronologically, Tetley was fully grown throughout his entire radio career; physically, he had never gone through puberty. Tetley got his start in show business while still actually a child, doing imitations of Scottish comedian Harry Lauder, and appearing on a few radio children’s shows. In 1934, he took a break from radio to do a music-hall tour of England. By now Walter’s eternal youthfulness had become obvious. It is thought that Tetley had been born with a rare hormonal disorder, possibly Kallman’s Syndrome, although there is a rumor that his mother had him “fixed”, castrated, so that he could continue to work as a child actor.

When he returned from England, Tetley was a seasoned performer with expert comic timing, and he was a terrific fit with Fred Allen‘s Mighty Allen Art Players. At the age of twenty, Walter was still well suited to playing twelve year olds. Fred Allen’s urbane comedy was a great forum for the various kids Tetley played utterly to deflate whichever authority figure was available. After two years with Allen, Tetley’s mother took him to Hollywood to try his luck in pictures in 1937.

The movies weren’t friendly Walter Tetley. Although he had a young boy’s voice, his pudgy looks had a tough time finding a place in films. He was mostly relegated to uncredited roles; bellboys and elevator attendants. The timing of Tetley’s move was rewarded by radio, however; this was the time that the networks were moving a lot of their production from New York to the West Coast.

This boom in the Hollywood radio industry kept Tetley working in everything from children’s shows to Lux Radio Theater. In 1941, Fibber McGee and Molly‘s solid success was enough for one of their characters, Throckmorton Gildersleeve, to strike out on his own. Gildersleeve, played by Harold Peary, was the perfect blowhard to play against Tetley. The Great Gildersleeve program was built around confirmed bachelor Gildy taking custody of his pretty and popular niece and her smart mouthed little brother.

The Great Gildersleeve ran from 1941 through 1954. Other characters on the program saw some development through the years. Sister Marjorie went from popular high school girl to a young mother. Tetley’s Leroy pretty much stayed a precocious kid. Eventually, Leroy would enter junior high and discover girls, but only just barely.

Because of his condition, discovering girls, indeed most normal social interaction, was pretty much denied to Walter Tetley. Even though his fellow actors recognized his talent and professionalism, it was hard for them to avoid treating him like the child that he appeared to be. Tetley’s mother also continued to dominate him as though he indeed remained 12 years old. Outside of work, Tetley became withdrawn and isolated.

In 1948, Jack Benny‘s band-leader, Phil Harris, landed his own show with his movie-star wife, Alice Faye. One of the favored characters in the company of the Phil Harris-Alice Faye show was the smart-mouthed neighborhood grocery boy, Julius Abbruzio. Julius was of course able to get the best of Harris, and held a serious crush on Alice Faye. Faye’s character took him about as seriously as women took Tetley in real life.

As television dominated radio, Tetley found some work voicing cartoons. For a time in the late 1960’s, he found some solace in the solitary sport of motorcycling, but an accident in 1970 left him crippled and confined to a wheelchair. Although he still found sporadic voice over work, the accident had left him financially crippled as well.

Tetley closed out his remaining years, living alone in a trailer in Encino, CA. He passed away in 1975, at the age of 60, due to stomach cancer and complications from the motorcycle accident.

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Soap Operas in Old Time Radio

It doesn’t seem long ago that homes with multiple television sets were becoming common place. Then it became rare to find a house that didn’t have some sort of high speed connection to the Internet. Now it is common to find people who have high speed Internet access in their pockets in the form of a smartphone or tablet device. From this perspective, it is hard to imagine a time that radios were a luxury only possessed by a few households.

Like satellite TV or home WiFi transmitters, the decision to purchase a radio when the media was in its early stages was justified as “something the whole family can enjoy”. This brings to mind an image of the whole tribe gathered around a big wooden box with a glowing dial; the kids sprawled out on the living room rug, Dad in his favorite overstuffed chair with his pipe, and Mom in her smaller chair. Mom is probably still wearing her apron, perhaps knitting or shelling peas. While the rest of the household is relaxing and enjoying an evenings radio broadcast, Mom’s work, by definition, is never done.

A few wags will make the point that it is fair that Mom doesn’t really get to relax and enjoy the evening shows; after all, the entire daytime line up, mostly radio soap operas, is designed with Mom in mind! We need to remember that the purpose of the soap operas wasn’t to give Mom a daytime treat, it was to get Mom to listen to the sponsor’s message. The soap in Soap Opera didn’t get there because Mom was listening to the show while her hands were plunged in the laundry tub or standing over sink full of dirty dishes. Mothers made most of the important regular purchasing decisions for the family. The manufacturers of soap and cleaning products were among the first to realize this, and so lent their name to the daytime serial program.

Soap Opera Radio Shows were and are the target of a lot of derision for being overly dramatic, vulgar, and badly written. In actuality, even though they were often not taken seriously, the daytime serial drama is a sophisticated and complex form of storytelling that places certain demands not only on those presenting the story, but on those listening as well. Not only does the story need to be compelling and attractive, but a new episode has to be ready for presentation every day. It is little wonder that the actors in the lead roles of a 10:30 am program would be in supporting roles at noon and 1:30. For the listener’s part, she would need to keep the different characters and story-lines straight in her head, usually while dealing with the important day to day happenings and house work that needs to be accomplished in”real life”. Remember that unlike modern OTR MP3 collections, entire series were not presented back to back; after listening to an episode, Mom had to wait a whole day, and probably hear several other programs before she could hear the next installment. It is no wonder that the Soaps adopted the tactic of using a “cliffhanger” to keep audiences returning.

The soap operas from the Golden Age of Radio are still a lot of fun. Not only does the modern listener have the option to listen to several episodes in succession, but thanks to the great number of listening devices, the shows can be enjoyed anywhere, whether Mom is commuting, watching the kids in the park, of standing over the sink with suds up to her elbows!

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Good Night Debbie Reynolds

For all the glitz and glamour of Golden Age Hollywood, there is a definite sadness as the players from that time are leaving us. The sadness is compounded when we realize that even after a full life many of these celebrities will not be allowed to rest in peace because of the interest their lives generated by the tabloid press.

Few have generated as much interest in the tabloids as Debbie Reynolds. When her death was announced the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher passed away, the tabloids theorized that Ms. Reynolds died of a broken heart. She became a Star in through the studio system while the studio system itself was dying, but it was her personal life and relations to fame that truly caught attention. She was the heartbroken victim in an infamous infidelity scandal, helped breathe life into the Hollywood nostalgia craze both in film and by preserving artifacts of the Golden Era, stood bravely against network TV and sponsors who did not fit her principles, was blasted for her dysfunctional relationship with her daughter after Carrie had become a Star for her role in the cultural phenomenon Star Wars, and publicly reconciled when Carrie Fisher presented her mother with a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2015.

Reynolds was born in El Paso, Texas, 1932, to a ditch-digger trying to get his family through the Great Depression. Her mother took in laundry to help make ends meet, and the family moved to Southern California seeking greater opportunities. Debbie was active in the Girl Scouts. On a whim, she entered the 1948 Miss Burbank beauty contest and was as surprised as anyone when she won. Two of the judges in the contest were film scouts, both of whom wanted the newly discovered beauty for their studio. The Warner Bros scout won the toss and she stayed with the studio for two years. When Warner’s stopped making musicals, she moved to MGM. In 1952, she starred in Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly, who she credited with making her a Star.

One of the biggest marriages in Hollywood was between Debbie and singer/heartthrob Eddie Fisher. In addition to Carrie, the couple had a son Todd Fisher, named for Eddie’s good friend producer Michael Todd. Michael was married to Debbie’s best friend, actress Elizabeth Taylor. When Liz was widowed after Michael died in a private airplane accident, Debbie and Eddie immediately went to console her, but Eddie’s consolation took a more intimate and physical form. Reynold’s and Fisher’s 1959 divorce was very public and painful, although Debbie admitted understanding being thrown over “for the most beautiful woman in the world”, she and Liz eventually reconciled. Liz dumped Eddie in 1964 after carrying on an affair with Richard Burton since 1962.

Debbie was nominated for Best Actress for starring in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). The Debbie Reynolds Show was a hit for NBC-TV during the 1969-70 season, but she left the show because the network would not promise to disallow cigarette advertising for her show. Debbie’s second husband, shoe retailer Harry Karl, along with daughter Carrie that year in a revival of Irene, and Debbie went on to have a successful revue in Las Vegas.
Carrie Fisher starred as Princess Leia in
Star Wars (1977) as well as The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, was published in 1987 and adapted to the big screen starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in 1990. The story dealt with drug addiction and rehab, as well as relations with her self-absorbed mother. In 2001, Ms. Fisher wrote a television film, These Old Broads, which starred Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, Elizabeth Taylor, and Debbie Reynolds (the story includes scenes of Debbie and Liz’s characters taking shots at a common ex-husband). Fisher appeared in The Force Awakens (2015), the first installment in a new Star Wars trilogy, and had completed shooting her role in the second installment which is due for release in 2017. While returning from a European book tour on December 23, 2016, Carrie Fisher suffered a heart attack fifteen minutes before landing in Los Angeles. She died four days later, on December 27 at UCLA Medical Center at the age of 60.

Debbie Reynolds was at the home of son Todd Fisher discussing funeral arrangements for Carrie on December 28 when she suffered a severe stroke. She died that afternoon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at the age of 84. According to her son, her last words were “I want to be with Carrie”. A Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6654 Hollywood Blvd honors Debbie Reynolds’ work in Motion Pictures.

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