Remembering Classic Old Time Radio Westerns

Westerns have always been a part of American popular mythology and entertainment. Westerns were an important genre of the early pulp novels. They became a staple of movies from the time of the earliest silent films, and their relatively low production cost kept them a favorite of the studios. When TV advanced enough to take advantage of outdoor shots, Westerns became a favorite of the small screen, as well.

Westerns on the radio were mostly Radio Cereal Serials, on going after school sagas for the youth audience. Westerns for grown ups took off during the 1950s. There had been Westerns on the radio that were more serious than the kiddie Westerns, but Gunsmoke, premiering in 1952, was the first Western specifically for a grown-up audience.

The audiences for these grown-up Westerns were the younger brothers and sisters of the Greatest Generation who had fought the Second World War. The Hard Boiled, noirish detectives had been immensely popular immediately after the war, but audiences were ready for something new. Gunsmoke was inspired when CBS chief, William Paley, called for a Hardboiled Western series; a Philip Marlowe with horses.

Gunsmoke was created by the writing and directing team of John Meston and Norman MacDonnell. The pair created a rather gritty adult portrayal of the frontier where traditional black and white notions of right and wrong were often blurry. The popularity of Gunsmoke made the the program incredibly attractive to CBS’s Television division, and director MacDonnell held reservations, feeling the show was “perfect for radio” and would lose its authenticity to the constraints of Television. In the end, TV Gunsmoke was “taken away” from MacDonnell (Meston stayed on as head writer), first airing in 1955. Meston and MacDonnell kept Gunsmoke on the radio until 1961, making it one of the most enduring radio dramas (and arguably one of the best of the entire Golden Age of Radio).

After Gunsmoke started on TV, MacDonnell and Meston followed up on the radio with Fort Laramie. Where Gunsmoke was a story about a single lawman facing questions of right and wrong with his interpretation of the law, the hero of Fort Laramie, Captain Lee Quince, had to reconcile right and wrong with his duty. In his own way, Quince was as tormented and tortured as Marshal Matt Dillon.

Quince was convincingly played by an up and coming young actor, Raymond Burr. Burr was a hard working movie player, chiefly in Noir roles. He appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In The Sun (1951) and played the suspected murderer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Just before taking the role of Lee Quince, Burr was edited into the seminal Japanese monster film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Fort Laramie was a military drama along the lines of John Ford’s “Calvary Trilogy”,  Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Burr was by no means John Wayne, but he did a very creditable job of playing an officer on the frontier, struggling to maintain his sense of right and wrong while answering his call to duty.

Captain Lee Quince faced the demands of settlers moving into the Western Frontier while striving to respect the culture and honor of the Red man. He recognized that he had a mission to carry out the orders of his superiors, but was fiercely loyal to the troopers under his command. It is a tribute to the talents of Meston, MacDonnell, and the CBS Radio production team to realize that it is difficult to listen to Fort Laramie without seeing visions of the troops, riding through Monument Valley, ala John Ford.

Fort Laramie only lasted a single season. There were 41 episodes broadcast from January to October 1956, and the show continued to be popular over AFRTS for many years. For the 1957 season, Burr moved on to the role for which he would be most closely identified, the TV version of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason.

See also: Where Did All the Radio Westerns Go?

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March 31: Happy Birthday, Les Damon!

 

Working actor Les Damon is best known for his work on The Thin Man, The Right To Happiness, and especially as detective Mike Waring on The Falcon. Damon had a successful career on daytime TV soap operas and character roles on the small screen in the fifties and early sixties. He would have been 107 on March 31, 2015.


les-damon-on-the-radioThe Golden Age of Hollywood was built on the studio Star system, but relatively few serious actors got into the business hoping for the glamor that comes with the Hollywood lifestyle. Most actors got into the business out of a love of performing (“the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd”). Many actors spent their days in stock companies, performing in a different city every few days, and lending a hand in every task to put on a show, from setting the scenery to selling tickets to comic character roles to romantic leads. They may have juggled a day job while hustling from audition to audition, always hoping for their big break. Or any break, for that matter.
Part of the magic of radio was that in addition to bringing the world closer together, it was a way for countless actors to make a living. Some were part of the Hollywood Star system, trying to put a few extra dollars in the kitty until they got that big starring role. For many, appearing on the radio was a job, just like going to the office or the aircraft plant.
Les Damon was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1908. He got his acting start with the Albee Stock Company in Providence, and traveled to England to apprentice with the Old Vic Company.
Returning to America, Damon began to pick up lead roles in a number of radio dramas in the late 1930s and 40s. Versatility was a watchword for a successful radio actor, and Les Damon had it in spades. He was radio’s original Nick Jones in The Adventures of the Thin Man, and he appeared regularly on Words At War. He was also a regular player for the Hummert Radio Factory, with recurring roles in everything from The Adventures of Helen Trent to Houseboat Hanna to The Right To Happiness.
An actor’s soul is often a romantic one. In 1943, Damon married radio actress Ginger Jones, whom he had met in various broadcast studios. When Ginger went to work on the serial Brave Tomorrow, she wore a beautiful ring set with an African turquoise and diamonds. Hidden is a secret compartment in the ring were two grains of rice which Damon had found in the cuff of his trousers after their wedding.
les-damon-in-the-falconDamon answered his country’s call, and he flew “over the hump” in the China-Burma Theater of WWII, delivering supplies to Chiang Kai Shek’s Army. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service.
After the War, Damon took up where he left off, reclaiming his role on The Thin Man, as well as several appearances on The Cavalcade of America and Gang Busters. In 1950, he began his most famous radio role as The Falcon. Damon was not the first to play the suave detective on the radio, but he did move the role from chasing crooks to the slippery world of espionage.
Through the fifties and early sixties, Damon began getting work in television with recurring but not major roles on The Guiding Light and As The World Turns. He also appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show, The Honeymooners and Have Gun, Will Travel.
Les Damon checked into the UCLA Medical Center complaining of chest pains. He passed away on July 21, 1962 at the age of 53. Damon was survived by his wife Ginger Jones and their daughter Lisa.

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C.P. MacGregor and the Transcribers

1956-C-P-MacGregor-ObsessionOne of the great debates of the Radio Era was “Live” versus “Transcribed” broadcast. This seems like a curiosity today in the Cable TV era, when about the only live shows are sports and local news, and even those are subject to a short delay to keep anything from “slipping” On the Air.

Transcription, the practice of recording a program for later broadcast, has some pretty obvious advantages, but the policy of the big networks for most of the Radio Era was to broadcast live. Some famous proponents of transcription were Freeman Gosden and Charles Cornell of Amos ‘n’ Andy fame. They realized that there were unrealized profits to be had by recording their live broadcasts and allowing local broadcasters to use the material at a later time.

Cecil-and-Sally-15-tbOn of the most prolific transcribers was C.P. “Chip” MacGregor. MacGregor first appears in the records as the West coast distributor of Brunswick Records. The Brunswick Company is better known today as a manufacturer of billiard tables and bowling alley equipment, but in the early decades of the twentieth century they dabbled in phonograph equipment before being selling the division to Columbia.

In 1924 MacGregor operated from a store San Francisco, and opened a recording studio nearby, presumably to produce material to play on the phonographs. One of MacGregor’s first transcription efforts was the popular Cecil and Sally show. Starring Helen Troy and Johnny Patrick, Cecil and Sally was initially based on the banter between the switchboard operator and the staff organist at San Francisco’s KYA. KYA was part of Adolph Linden’s early ABC network which folded in August 1929 under a cloud of scandal.

Forced off the air from August until December of ’29, when they opened on KPO San Francisco, Troy and Patrick made the decision to build their fan-base using electrical transcriptions recorded at the MacGregor Studios. MacGregor transcription discs were made under a few different business partnerships, beginning with MacGregor & Ingram Co, and MacGregor and Sollie in 1932. In 1945 the C.P. MacGregor Studios began operating from Hollywood.


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There was a common complaint that transcribed programs lacked the excitement of live broadcasts. MacGregor was quick to point out that he was willing to forgo the “excitement” to create flawless shows. Performing in a recording studio was certainly more pleasant and less stressful for the On Air talent. It would have been much simpler for the broadcasting technician to start and stop a phonograph on cue than to deal with actors in the broadcast studio.

Contrary to popular belief, until the advent of magnetic recording tape after WWII, there was very little editing of transcribed programs. The recording was made by cutting a groove in the recording media, so the entire program had to be recorded in a single cut.

MacGregor Transcriptions include Lux Radio Theater, Skippy Hollywood Theater, Obsession, Proudly We Hail, Heartbeat Theater, and Jonathan Thomas and His Christmas on the Moon.

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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!

Jack_Benny_Happy_Birthday_Blue_Eyes_2
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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