Happy Birthday, Gale Gordon

On Feb 20, 2015, we celebrate the 109 birthday of the beloved character actor Gale Gordon.

gale gordonGale Gordon was born Charles T. Aldrich in New York in 1906, the son of vaudevillian Charles Aldrich and his English actress wife, Gloria Gordon. The couple took their one year old son to Great Britain where they worked on stage, and the boy spent the next eight years absorbing the English reserve that would define his professional persona. Young Gordon underwent a delicate operation to repair a cleft palate while in England. The family returned to America when the boy was nine, settling in New York’s Forest Hill’s area. Gale returned to England to complete his education at the Woolbridge School in Suffolk at the age of 17.

Gale Gordon got his acting start in a 1923 Canadian production, working with stage and silent screen great Richard Bennett. To earn extra cash, Gordon also worked as Gale-Gordon-5Bennett’s dresser. The great actor must have seen potential in the young man, and he endeavored to teach Gordon the elements of acting and the craft of stage work. By 1925, Gordon found himself in Hollywood, taking what acting jobs he could find. In 1926,  he got a call to come to a studio to try his hand at a new thing called radio. “I sang and accompanied myself on ukelele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born” Gordon later remembered.

By 1933, Gordon was the highest paid radio actor in Hollywood. He played the male lead on serials opposite Mary Pickford and Irene Rich. He appeared on most of the big shows on the air, from Lux Radio Theater to Stories From the Black Chamber. He even played the cockney-accented Inspector Lestrade opposite Basil Rathbone on Sherlock Holmes and was the first actor to play Flash Gordon.

Gordon met Virginia Curley while appearing on Death Valley Days in New York. The couple was married two days after Christmas in 1937. For at least the next twenty years, the 27th of each month was celebrated as an anniversary.

In 1941, Gordon appeared as Molly McGee’s former boy friend. The fit was so good that the part of Mayor LaTrivia was created for him, and Gordon became part of the Fibber McGee and Molly family for the next 12 years, with a break while he served in the Coast Guard. In 1948, Gordon landed the role of Principal Osgood Conklin on Eve Arden’s Our Miss Brooks, a role that would carry him into TV fame. The Conklin character was slightly refined to become banker Rudolph Atterbury on the Lucille Ball vehicle My Favorite Husbandgalegordon2

Lucy and Gordon had been friends for a long time, first working together on Jack Haley’s Wonder Show in 1938-39. When My Favorite Husband made the move to TV as I Love Lucy, Gordon was Lucy’s first choice to fill the role of Fred Mertz. Gordon, however, remained committed to Miss Brooks and eventually moved to TV with the program.

On TV Gordon perfected his famous “slow burn” persona. He realized that his characters were funnier if he lost his temper by degrees rather than exploding all at once. Although his characters were full of bluster, in real life Gordon was a “pipe-smoking homebody”. In 1949, Gordon and wife Virginia bought a 150 acre ranch in Borrego Springs, 175 miles from the craziness of Hollywood. An incurable handyman, Gordon built the house himself and became one of the leading growers of carob beans in the US.

Gordon continued to have commitments on other shows, and was not able to become a regular part of a Lucille Ball TV show until the 1963-64 season of The Lucy Show. TheGale_Gordon_Jay_North_Dennis_the_Menace_boxing_1962 bombast between Gordon and Lucy became an important part of the red-head’s shows until they both “retired” from weekly TV in 1974, but their roles were recreated in annual specials for several years.

Of Lucy herself, Gordon commented “her attitude has never changed. Every show she did was the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success.”

The secret of Gale Gordon‘s success may have been to find roles he enjoyed, but mostly to enjoy life beyond the studio.

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Happy 39th birthday, Jack Benny!

You probably can’t think of a talk show host who doesn’t have a birthday. But while some of them make brief mention of it during a monologue or none at all, Jack Benny celebrated his birthday, Feb. 14, year after year. From 1937-55, listeners had a chance (or had no choice but to turn the station) to sit in on the perpetual 39th birthday of the famous radio ham, whose real 39th was in 1933.

One of the traits of Benny’s radio persona was his self-involvement, so it’s little surprise that most years, skits involving the celebration of his entrance to this world ran the entire program. (Benny’s show was always colloquially known as “The Jack Benny Program,” but officially named after the sponsor at the time. In the late 30’s it was “The Jello Program.”)

happy birthday jack bennyOn the ’54 show, after the audience opened the show by singing “Happy Birthday,” Jack pulled a curmudgeon from the audience and scolding him onstage for not singing. The other joke in the sketch was his birthday being proclaimed at a Chinese restaurant and all around L.A.

Often, the birthday sketches would include a reenactment of Jack in his home on the day of his birthday (if the show aired one or two days later). One of these included his trying to decide which actress to ask to dinner to help him celebrate.

In some cases, cast members such as announcers George Hicks, and later Don Wilson, Ethel Shutta and Sadye Marks presented Jack with gifts. One year it was a bike tire pump. Another, a carton of Lucky Strikes, the sponsor at the time.

In 1955, the last year of the show’s life, various groups of people were separately planning surprise parties for Jack. When they found out about the coincidence, they decided to throw him one big party at his house. But he missed it by going to the movie theatre to watch “The Horn Blows At Midnight” three times.

Jack’s birthday shows were a prime vehicle for his narcissistic personality and the attendant jabs at his vanity.

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Jan 1: Happy Birthday, Dana Andrews!

andrews-1946_optThe melodramas that were later labeled “film noir” needed a special sort of actor. The genre depended upon pathos, overwrought emotion and moral polarization (extreme good vs extreme evil). Noir stories are often related to Hard Boiled Detectives, but the characters were usually not so hard boiled. They were ordinary people doing the best that they could in an indifferent world.

Dana Andrews has been called the “face of Noir”, and he worked in some of the greatest examples of the genre. Like the characters he played, Andrews faced his share of personal demons. Through the strength of his character, he was able to defeat them.

Dana Andrews on CBS

Carver Dana Andrews was born in Don’t, Mississippi, one of the local Baptist minister’s thirteen children. He studied business administration and landed a job in the oil industry, but when the Great Depression hit he began to question if there might be more to life. Armed with what he thought was a winning baritone voice, he packed a grip and lit out for Hollywood. The movie industry was already over-flowing with attractive singing leading men, and Andrews wound up pumping gas in Van Nuys.

One of his employers was well enough impressed with Andrews to sponsor his studies at the Pasadena Playhouse. The Playhouse was an old fashioned drama school where the players were expected to start at the bottom and earn their way to better roles. At this time, Andrews chose to drop “Carver”, feeling that Dana was a snappier stage name (some biographers, recognizing that Dana could be a masculine or feminine name, have questioned this decision. Would Andrews have known more success as “Carver Andrews, scourge of the Pacific”?)

Andrews finally landed a contract with MGM,but his first job had little to do with acting. The studio was planning to shoot Raffles(1940) starring the dashing David Niven, but Niven was holding out for more money. Sam Goldwyn assigned Andrews with the job of wearing a tuxedo and being around Niven. Seeing Andrews photographed in Raffle’s costumes was enough to intimidate Niven into signing.

Andrews finally made it to the screen in a series of supporting roles such as The Westerner(1940), The Lucky Cisco Kid(1940), Kit Carson(1940), Tobacco Road(1941), Berlin Correspondent(1942), Crash Dive(1943) and others. His role in The Ox-Bow Incident(1943) as the victim of a lynching is considered one of his best.

Playing an obsessed detective in Laura(1944), Andrews became the Noir star we remember him as. In the 1946 post-War classic The Best Years Of Our Lives, he played a bombardier trying to return to a world which has changed beyond his understanding while he was at War.

As a preacher’s son during Prohibition and a budding young businessman, Andrews had rarely, if ever, touched a drop of liquor. However, when he got to Hollywood, he found that booze was an important social lubricant. Deals and career moves were negotiated and sealed over drinks. It was a way for actors and crews to unwind after endless hours on the set, and it was a prominent feature of the night-life where reputations were made and preserved. Eventually, the gentle relief that a drink provided became an obsessive need for Andrews. Knowledge of his drinking problem spread through the movie industry, and producers began rolling their eyes when his name was mentioned.

The movies were not the only way for a hard working actor to pay the bills, and radio syndicator Frederic Ziv was willing to take a chance on Andrews’ All-American persona. Andrews had appeared on Lux Radio Theater and other shows in support of his movie. Ziv was offering steady work.

I Was a Communist For the F.B.I. began as a series in the Saturday Evening Post chronicling the case of Matt Cvetic, the informant who would provide the FBI with information on the inner workings of the Communist Party in America and eventually testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. The Post stories were developed as a movie for Warner Brothers, released in 1951 starring Frank Lovejoy.

Ziv realized that there was more mileage to be found in the Cvetic tale as the era of McCarthyism was beginning. Frank Lovejoy was busy with other radio and movie projects, but Dana Andrews carried the right combination of sincerity and toughness for the role. 72 episodes were recorded for syndication, each with Andrews’ ominous tagline :”I walk alone”.

Andrews’ alcoholic reputation continued to dog him with movie casting directors. In a magazine interview soon after Ronald Reagan gained the Presidency of the United States, Andrews revealed that it was Reagan’s example which helped Andrews defeat the bottle. While Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, Andrews knew him as a man who “knew when to say when”. Andrews was determined to show the same strength of character, and was also elected president of SAG in 1963.

Dana Andrews continued to act into the 1980s, but spent the last years of his life at the Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Los Alamitos. In 1992, Andrews succumbed to congestive heart failure and pneumonia at the age of 83.

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December 7: Happy Birthday Arch Oboler

It is interesting that Pearl Harbor Day is also Arch Oboler‘s birthday. Interesting, but probably not significant. Arch would be105 years old in 2014, so it is interesting to wonder how he must have spent his 32nd birthday.

Ronald Colman‘s daughter said that Oboler was an “eccentric Hitler hating truth stretching flashy writer” who “wrote and directed in dirty dungarees, no socks, thong sandals, and a hat with a grease stained band”.  TIME called him a “horn-rimmed half-pint scrivener”. Oboler was no stranger to confrontation. Though assuredly as horrified as the rest of the nation at the audacity of the Japanese: Arch was probably thrilled at the thought of taking part in the scrap.

Oboler was the precocious child of poor, but cultured Jewish immigrants in Chicago. Young Arch was a voracious reader and had been taught to appreciate fine music. He sold his first short story at the age of ten (a story about an amorous dinosaur) and he continued to write through his teen years. Possibly hoping to shake the image of being a nerdy kid, Arch was also an accomplished boxer, in contention for a Golden Gloves championship. The writing was a better course to follow after getting expelled from the University of Chicago, even though it was his confrontational manner that earned him the boot.

Arch saw terrific potential in radio as a storytelling medium, even if it was being “wasted” on radio Soap Operas. In 1933, he wrote his first radio play, which NBC thought was impressive enough to include in the dedication program for the new Radio City headquarters. The show was a success, but the writer took some flack about lampooning the slogan of American Tobacco. At the time, the feelings of sponsors were considered sacred by the network, and it was far from the last time Oboler would ruffle feathers, corporate and otherwise.

For the next few years Oboler was kept busy with “Potboilers”, but in 1936, he wrote a short play for the Rudy Vallee Program which won him a 52 week stint writing bits for Don Ameche on the Chase and Sanborn Hour. Of course, it was doomed to end poorly; Oboler wrote a small play with Mae West in the Garden of Eden which did not go over well with the sponsors.

By this time,  Oboler had taken over Wyllis Cooper’s Lights Out!, and was beginning to make it his own show. When he first drew the assignment for Lights Out!, it was with less than enthusiasm. Midnight on Tuesday was hardly a glorious time slot, but he soon realized that he was hidden from sponsors and censors, so there was a chance to experiment with story and content. Not the mention an opportunity to circumvent NBC’s neutrality policy and smuggle in the occasional anti-Fascist message.

Arch-Oboler-Norma-Shearer-radioIn 1939, Oboler used his own money to record his script “The Ugliest Man In The Universe” and presented it to the Network. Fortuitously, NBC was desperate to come up with something similar to CBS’s Columbia Workshop.

Oboler was given a green light for the new project, and until a sponsor was found, it even carried his name. Arch Oboler’s Plays was stuck opposite Jack Benny on Sunday nights, but still managed to attract some impressive talent, including Bette Davis, James Cagney, Ronald Colman and Edmond O’Brien. When Proctor and Gamble came on board, the show became Everyman’s Theater for 1940-41. Arch soon tired of having to disrupt his show to put a commercial in the middle, and quit.

After Pearl Harbor, the anti-Fascist shows that Oboler used to receive flack for were suddenly in demand. He took no fee for writing Plays For Americans, but the program was eventually shut down for Oboler being too inflammatory. Oboler continued with other propaganda efforts, including Everything For The Boys, a collaboration with Ronald Colman. Unfortunately, the actor and the writer never got along.

Oboler was ready to make the jump to scripting and directing movies, but it seems uncertain whether the movies were really ready for Oboler. His movie career is most notable for his experimentation with the earliest 3D films.

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Aviation in Old Time Radio

The sleek designs, the light construction, the spray of white light from the propellor: the fighter plane captured the hearts and minds of millions of American
boys in the 1930’s and 40’s. Piloting an elegant craft and achieving flight was a dream that was part of the fabric of wartime Americana, and the fearless technicians skilled enough to do so were role models.

The pilot was the focal point of many radio series in the 30’s and 40’s, especially in Juvenile air adventure stories.

The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen

jimmie_allen_1Jimmie Allen was one of the teen pilots on the airwaves in the golden era. The character’s premise is that he worked as a telegraph messenger at a Missouri Airways station when a hijacking (in the show’s debut episode) embroiled him in an ongoing partnership with the veteran pilot Speed Robertson. The two of them would embark on dizzying 15-minute adventures, often of a crime-fighting nature.
The role of Allen was played by John Frank, not a young actor, but a director in his 40’s who felt up to the challenge of the vocal gymnastics required to convincingly sound like a teenager. Robert Fiske played Speed.

The show went out over WDAF from Kansas City, and was the brainchild of two former pilots, Bob Burtt and Bill Moore. That two WWI dog fighters both ended up in media jobs in Kansas City was a considerable coincidence that would prove fortuitous both for radio and for aviation.

Though the show was originally produced in KC, during its long life from 1933 to 1947, it would originate in studios in some of the U.S.’s big show biz towns. The show’s focus on a relatable, youthful character who went out and did the right thing made it irresistible to the intended demographic of young boys.

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capt_midnightCaptain Midnight

This, the longest-running airplane show in radio history, Captain Midnight also ascended from the minds of Burtt and Moore, creators of Jimmie Allen. The protagonist was a WWI Army pilot, christened with his irresistible, just-right name after returning from a mission at exactly guess what time.

Midnight was the head of a paramilitary organization called the Secret Squadron, which fought espionage. Once World War II began, the show, aired from 1938-1949, shifted focus to war battles for the Secret Squadron. They faced characters clearly based on real war figures: Admiral Himakito, Baron von Karp. The key villain before and after the war was Ivan Shark.

One of the program’s claims to fame and contributions to popular culture was the decoder ring, which it sent off to listeners in exchange for their Ovaltine labels. It also offered other premiums, a kitschy delight of years now gone by.

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tailspintommyTail-Spin Tommy
Tail-Spin Tommy is interesting and illuminating as a way of studying aviation’s place in Americana. Not only was it a radio show, but it began as a comic strip in 1928, thus demonstrating how Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earheart had caused aviation to enter the popular lexicon. A film version came out in 1934, and the radio show debuted in 1941.

Like the young Jimmy Allen, Tail-spin–Tommy Tomkins–started with stars in his eyes and then worked his way from mechanic to pilot. Like many on-air fly-boys, he soared with a crew, in this case his girlfriend Betty Lou and his pal Skeets Milligan.

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Hop Harrigan

When it came to bringing the exploits of fighter pilots to the airwaves, Burtt and Moore weren’t half-hearted. Hop Harrigan was the third flight-oriented program the partners brought into being. In this case, the two didn’t invent the character. Rather, HH was the protagonist of a comic book series, and B & M thought if the public liked Tail-Spin Tommy on the air, why not adapt another comic book pilot?

This program aired from 1942-1948 and took listeners into WWII theatres in Germany and Japan. Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airways, had as big a retinue of sidekicks as any of the other radio barnstormers. His girlfriend was Gail Nolan, and his flying partners was Tank Tinker.

The title role was played by Chet Stratton, a stage and screen actor in addition to being a radio star.

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terry_pirate_hdrTerry and the Pirates

Terry and the Pirates was yet another radio program based on a comic strip. Its protagonist, Terry Lee, a precocious whipper-snapper from “The Orient,” whose circle of acquaintances was wide enough to accommodate Connie the coolie, Burma and Elita, Pat Ryan, Flip Corkin, and Hotshot Charlie, freelance Nazi fighters. Not surprisingly, zest for the show began to recede after the war, and it ended an impressive eleven-year run in 1948.

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captain-frank-hawkCaptain Frank Hawk’s Sky Patrol

Before Michael Jordan and Paris Hilton, Captain Frank Hawks understood how to turn success in one area into an all-encompassing brand and money-making machine. He was a WWI dog fighter turned celebrity pilot turned man of many endorsements and author. He was also a radio host.  This program, including an organ of Capt. Hawk’s fan club of the same name, involved many radio premiums like belt buckles and brass rings.

Other Aviation Programs

Other flights of fancy to be heard over the airwaves included The Flying Family, Anne of the Airlines, Phantom Pilot Patrol, Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police, Howie Wing, and Smilin’ Jack.

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Our Miss Brooks’ Halloween Party

evearden2Halloween is about letting the kids have some fun. Of course, just because the kids get a little older they don’t seem to outgrow the desire to have a little bit of haunted fun! What about the grownups? Should they be denied a bit of Halloween fun? Not according to Eve Arden as Our Miss Brooks.

To be fair, Principal Osgood Conklin, played by Gale Gordon, may not agree with those sentiments. We must remember that Mr. Conklin has been under an enormous amount of strain lately. Who wouldn’t be with the responsibilities that a high school principal faces? When you add that to the trials of raising an attractive teenage daughter like Harriet, well… What Mr. Conklin needs is a quiet weekend up at Crystal Lake where it is quiet and soothing. Thank goodness Halloween falls on Saturday so that he can get away from all that silliness.

Luckily for Harriet, her friends Walter and Stretch decide to hold a Halloween Party on Friday night. The only problem is where to have the party. What would be wrong with having it at Miss Brooks’ house? Everything! At least, until Miss Brooks discovers that the good looking biology teacher, Mr. Boynton (played by Jeff Chandler), is coming. Then a party at Connie Brooks’ house is a wonderful idea!

When Connie hears what a hard time Mr. Conklin has been having, having the party at the Conklin’s house seems like an even better idea! What could possibly go wrong? Listen Here to the old time radio classic Our Miss Brooks halloween broadcast find out:

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Fibber and Molly Go To Gildersleeve’s Halloween Party

FMcG&MThe holiday at the end of October was actually the lead into All Saints Day, November 1, and All Souls Day, Nov 2. The religious feast is a time to remember those Saints who don’t already have a feast day of their own, and then to remember the recently departed. In ancient times they often said Feast when what they really meant was sitting in church for hours praying. Not an appealing prospect for kids who realized that the harvest was in and there would be precious few nice days left before the hardships of winter set in.

To help burn off some of this youthful energy, wise parents and community leaders began to encourage the celebration of All Hallows Eve, what we now know as Halloween. What they may not have counted on was that the kids are not the only one’s who enjoy an evening of autumnal merriment.

It is hard to find a supposed grown up who is a bigger kid than Wistful Vista’s own Fibber McGee. In 1939, Fibber and Molly receive an invitation to the party next door at the Gildersleeve’s house.

For those of you keeping track of Beloved Characters, The Great Gildersleeve first appeared before the Johnson’s Wax microphone in June of 1939, when Howard Peary appeared as a dentist treating Fibber’s tooth ache. The dentist in the episode is Dr. Wilber Gildersleeve, sowe can see that writer Don Quinn was still developing the character (some have raised the theory that Dr. Wilbur may in fact have been Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve’s brother).

By Halloween, Throckmorton had established himself as the McGee’s pompous neighbor. If there was anything that the Fibber McGee and Molly crew loved as much as watching Fibber go through the motions as town busy body, it was deflating pomposity. As we will see, sometimes even the most pompous can get the last laugh on Fibber.

great-gildersleeveThe evening starts out innocently enough, with Fibber enjoying a fine cigar, which Gildersleeve must have meant for his guests to enjoy. After all, he left them sitting in the bottom of his dresser drawer where anyone could find them! The evening is filled with traditional Halloween games and activities, like Mrs. Uppington telling fortunes and Harlow Wilcox telling a ghost story (you get three guesses to determine whether or not the ghost walked across a floor treated with Johnson’s Glo Coat).

Halloween would not be complete without a prank or two. What is Fibber doing in Gildy’s garage? Surely it is harmless fun… Wait, isn’t Gildy’s car at the mechanics? Where is Fibber’s car? Would some one have moved it off the street for safe keeping? Listen here to learn more :

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