Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Debut on The Royal Gelatin Hour

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.”

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.

The Vaudeville circuit eventually drew Edgar and Charlie 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”.

Edgar 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.

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.

Although 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 You 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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1954 The Year of the National Negro Network

W. Leonard Evans organized the first radio network devoted to airing programs that reflected Black life and music. On January 20, 1954, the National Negro Network (NNN) claimed forty founding affiliate station members. While programming was aimed at a Black audience, network staff was composed of both Black and White employees. Evans maintained that a “mixed” or “interracial” staff performed better and was more successful in bringing in revenue.

Evans believed the time was right for a Black network and Black programming. His plans included the broadcasting of Black sports and Black news. Initial programming included musical variety shows and soap operas. The soap opera, The Story of Ruby Valentine was very popular. It was an adaptation of the long running Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network’s soap, We Love and Learn.  The Story of Ruby Valentine starred Juanita Hill, Ruby Dee and Terry Carter. Other programs included Black college concerts, Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters productions and independent programming from the affiliate stations. Sponsors Philip Morris and Pet Milk were on board from the beginning.

A graduate of the University of Illinois and accomplished advertising executive, W. Leonard Evans was no stranger to the importance of sponsor financial support. He had witnessed the rise of Black stations, going from only four in 1943 to almost 300 by 1954. Unfortunately, he could not foresee the impact television would have on radio. Nor, could he have predicted that Black music would soon become part of the popular American culture. The popularity of Black music with the White youth help to integrate musical styles played on the urban radio stations.

The ongoing civil rights movements and legal actions also helped to integrate youth through African-American rooted music. Thus, dissolving segregation signaled the demise of Black only oriented broadcasts. In 1955, only one-year after its formation, the NNN dissolved. Sponsorship dried up as sponsors began to target the more affluent integrated listening audience. Young listener, both Black and White were better off economically and tended to spend more money during the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Sadly, the NNN could not financially compete with the larger audiences.

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Doris Day

Doris Day, one of the most influential and prolific actresses to ever grace the silver screen, was born Doris Mary Ann Von Kapplehoff to a immigrated German family in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1924. As a child, she was always a playful little girl, wanting what other girls wanted, which was to become a typical ballerina. She loved to dance, sometimes dancing by herself, for hours at a time, but soon her dreams of becoming a dancer were shattered by a horrific automobile accident. Grace smiled upon her again when, at the age of 16, Doris discovered that she could sing, and sing WELL!

Doris DayDoris began singing with local bands and on one separate singing occasion, Doris met her first husband, Al Jorden, whom she married shortly afterwards in 1941, at the age of 17. The marriage was short-lived because of Jorden’s obsession with violence. In 1943, the couple divorced. After another failed marriage, that did not last even a year, Doris’ agent urged her to take a screen test for motion pictures. It was the mega movie moguls Warner Brothersthat caught on quick to Doris’ talent, and their pursuit for the perfect face for their pictures was well worth the journey. After a lofty contract signing, Doris went on to star in over 20 films from 1948 to 1953. Some of her most famous films of this period were Calamity JaneLucky MeMy Dream is YoursThe Man Who knew Too Much, and Pillow Talk.

Her soaring movie career helped her sell her musical album, and further increased her stardom. It was during this time that she met Marty Melcher, her future husband. They were wed in 1951, and in 1953, they adopted a child. Doris’ success took her through over 50 smash movie hits, her own show, countless other television appearances, and gold records. Even at the young age of 75, Doris runs a foundation for the proper care of Animals in the town of Carmel, California.

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George Raft in Old Time Radio

Most of America likes to imagine Hollywood as a fantasy land where a pretty girl or a handsome young man came make it on their own merit. It is true to a certain extent, but it ignores the fact that the Movies mean big money, the sort of money that can’t help but attract an undesirable element. The big studio moguls and mafia crime bosses came from a similar background, European Jews or Sicilians who had a history of protecting themselves from the outside world.

Like the most notorious Mafiosi, the Big Studio heads were a law unto themselves, with the ability to make problems “go away” for the stars working for them. How much money the Mob invested in Hollywood is hard to measure, but it is well known that organized crime wove its way into the very fabric of the Movie Colony.

Only two film stars were known to be mob insiders, Frank Sinatra, and George Raftraft. Raft was born to German immigrant parents, probably in 1901 (records are unclear). He grew up on the streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and was childhood pals with Bugsy Siegel and Owney Madden. George was a talented dancer and a snappy dresser who would have made it in show business without mob connections.

As a young man, George danced in many of the same nightclubs frequented by Rudolph Valentino before Valentino became a movie star. Flamboyant speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan took Raft under her wing for a while during prohibition and helped to find him work on Broadway, but he had mostly chorus-boy roles. He made the move to Hollywood in 1929, and his big break came as Paul Muni’s coin-flipping sidekick in the Howard Hughes production of Scarface (1932), which was loosely based on the life of Al Capone.

Raft went on to be one of the big three gangster actors of the Thirties, along with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. His mob affiliation became an open secret (when one of Gary Cooper‘s romantic indiscretions put him on a gangster’s hit list, Raft supposedly made a phone call and got the contract canceled). It is said that Raft’s fashionable Hollywood roles “taught the mob how to dress”. He campaigned for Paramount to hire his friend Texas Guinan for Night After Night (1932), thinking that the film (which was based on Guinan’s experience as a speakeasy operator) would launch her movie career. Instead, Mae West got the role, and her star began to rise.

George Raft topped Humphrey Bogart in box office clout through the Thirties, but when Raft turned down the lead in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Bogey made the move from supporting player to major Hollywood force and Raft’s star began to fade. There are rumors that Raft also turned down the role of Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), but internal Warner Bros memos fail to substantiate this.

In 1942, James Cagney was elected to head S.A.G., and he led the Guild’s fight to get the mob out of the movie business. Cagney alleged that a contract was put out to eliminate him by dropping a heavy movie light on his head. Raft picked up the phone again, called in a few favors, and the hit was canceled. Although Raft still managed to fill leading man roles through the Forties, the quality of the films steadily declined. By 1950, he was reduced to working as a greeter in a mob owned casino in Havana.

During the summer of 1951, Raft stepped into the role of Rocky Jordan on CBS Radio. Jordan had a more than passing similarity to Casablanca‘s Rick Blaine. He was a nightclub owner in Cairo, and in each episode Rocky encounters a “crime, a mystery, a beautiful woman, or a combination of all three”. Raft assumed the role created by radio veteran Jack Moyles in 1948. In 1952, Moyles began starring in Douglas of the World for AFRS. Raft was set for a comeback when he satirized his gangster image in Some Like It Hot (1959), but the comeback never materialized.

George Raft died from leukemia on November 24, 19george_raft_motion_pictures80, in Los Angeles, he was 79 years old. Mae West had passed away two days earlier, and their bodies were stored together in the same mortuary. Raft’s personal effects were sold in 1981 for $800 through a classified ad in Hemming’s Motor News. Two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are dedicated honoring George Raft, at 1500 Vine St for contributions to Television and at 6159 Hollywood Blvd for Motion Pictures.

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Christmas Radio Show Favorites

Vintage-Christmas-Card-Christmas-2008-christmas-2795244-472-299Every year before I even think about going up to the attic to get the Christmas decoration boxes, I make it a point to dust off my collection of OTR Christmas Programs. There will be plenty of time to sit in front of the TV or computer to watch all of my family’s favorite Christmas movies and TV specials, but there is just something about the Christmas programs on the Radio that set the holiday mood.

OldDesignShop_BoxOfHollyChristmasPCToday, Christmas seems to start just before Halloween, when the stores begin putting up red and green end bases. The shopping fury of the day after Thanksgiving is almost a bigger deal than the morning after Santa arrives. Back then, Christmas seemed to last longer, building in intensity for the whole month of December, beginning at your school desk as you waited for Christmas vacation to start, and then being extra good to make up for the rest of the year when you may have been on the naughty list, until the climax when all those colored packages appear under the tree.

One of the great things about OTR Christmas is that you can enjoy the shows while you are doing other Christmas things. You can listen to your favorite characters and their holiday tribulations and still have your eyes and hands free to make fudge, string the lights, bake cookies, trim the tree, or drive to the in-laws.

Christmas-Vintage-wallpaper-vintage-33115960-1024-768Maybe it was because the Jordan’s had kids of their own during a good portion of their run, but Fibber McGee and Molly took a different path for the holidays than we see on TV sitcoms. On TV, the writers come up with a single Christmas themed episode to air the week before the Big Day and that is about it.

Holiday preparations in Wistful Vista usually started two or three weeks before Dec 25. Every year there were Christmas cards to get sent, presents to buy and a the perfect tree had to be found. The week before Christmas in 1945, Fibber decides that Molly should have a white Christmas tree, and his solution is to spray paint the tree he bought. Of course, everyone else in town can tell him what a bad idea that is, but Fibber has to find out for himself.

--tvtimesbenny1960aThe highlight of the Christmas day program (or the last broadcast before Christmas) is Teeny (voiced by Marian Jordan, who also played Molly) giving a rendition of Twas the Night Before Christmas with the Kingsmen.

During all his years on radio, whether he was creating Jello Holiday Desserts or wrapping carton of Lucky Strikes to place under the tree, Jack Benny knew what was important at Christmas: parties and shopping! Jack always had plenty of help from his gang at his Christmas parties, even when he had Rochester splurge for a whole box of crackers, but his real troubles came at the department store. It takes a delicate balance to find the perfect present and not spend too much money on it.

christmasSome radio shows did take time to spread a more spiritual message. Andy takes a job as a department store Santa on Amos ‘n’ Andy so that he can buy his daughter Ardabella a special doll, but the highlight is when he explains the Lord’s Prayer to the child as only Andy could tell it. The Lord’s Prayer bit became a tradition on the show for years.

Of course, there were plenty of Christmas traditions in OTR, from Bing Crosby’s annual rendition of “Adeste Fideles” to Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge from the Christmas Carol. Perhaps tradition is the most important part of the Christmas season, because it reminds us that the world is still a good place to live.


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December 12: Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra

Portrait Of Frank SinatraDecember 12 would be Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. We would like to wish Ol’ Blue Eyes a happy one.

franksinatraaschildSinatra is a bit of an enigma. There is no getting around it: Frank was cool. Frank made sure that everyone knew he was cool. Frank got his first breaks in showbiz because of his mother’s influence, and he was still cool. When his career started to take a nose dive, he attempted suicide, and Frank still managed to be cool.

Frank Sinatra was an incredibly talented singer and showman, and that is what ultimately made him cool.

Frank was born in 1915, the only child of Italian immigrants. His father served as a Captain in the  Hoboken Fire Department, and his mother was active in Democratic Politics. Little Frank began singing “professionally” at the age of eight, standing on a bar top and singing for tips.

sinatraYoung Frank Sinatra was invited to leave high school after just 47 days because of his rowdy behavior. He supported himself as a newspaper delivery boy and later as a shipyard riveter, but music was his calling. He listened intently to swing jazz, but never learned to read music. In 1935, Mama Sinatra convinced a local group, the Three Flashes, to become the Hoboken Four. The group appeared on Major Bowes Amateur Hour and was voted first prize.

In 1939,  Frank signed a one year contract with the Harry James Band. Before the year was out, James allowed Sinatra to move on to Tommy Dorsey’s Band. Dorsey had Frank sign a contract that awarded the band leader one third of the singer’s earnings in show business. (It was later rumored that the contract was bought out for a few dollars by mob-boss Sam Giancana. The incident was fictionalized in The Godfather.)

The exposure from singing with the Tommy Dorsey Band put Sinatra on the top of the music industry polls, and suddenly his records were in demand by teenage “bobby soxers”. This was a major shift for the record industry, records had always been marketed to grown-ups before.

tumblr_mlkgll5dIs1qeg3g9o1_500The Musician’s Strike of 1942-44 helped to fuel Sinatramania, along with a few lucrative radio gigs. His first starring vehicle was on CBS’s 15 minute Songs By Sinatra, starting in late 1942. In Feb, 1943, he became the featured singer on Your Hit Parade. A budding movie career led to appearances on Lux Radio Theater and Screen Guild Theater. His growing popularity made him a popular guest for the radio comedians like Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Bergen and McCarthy and Jack Benny. He was also welcomed on the programs of other popular singers like Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and Dinah Shore.

Frank appeared on a number of AFRS programs during the War, such as Command Performance, GI Journal and Mail Call. However, some who served have related that Frank himself was not well loved, even resented by the troops. Frank was seen by the troops making lots of money and surrounded by pretty girls back home. He was 4F because of a ruptured eardrum, but there were persistent rumors that Sinatra bought his way out of serving (rumors that are thought to have started in reaction to his Democratic Politics).

In 1950,  Frank’s vocal cords began hemorrhaging on stage, and he began to realize that the teenagers who used to swoon for him were moving on to younger idols. He made a couple of less than successful forays into television.

Frank-Sinatra-and-John-F-Kennedy sands las vegasHis career began to rebound with a supporting role in From Here to Eternity in 1953. The same year he returned to radio, this time in a dramatic role as Rocky Fortune. Fortune lasted for a single season. It was the story of a temp worker/ jack-of-all trades who weekly stumbled upon a situation that required his amateur crime-fighting prowess. The program benefited from great writing and the time slot immediately following Dragnet on Tuesday nights.

In the mid-fifties, Sinatra became part of the Holmbly Hills Rat Pack, a group centered around his drinking buddy, Humphrey Bogart. After Bogart’s death, the group began to orbit around Frank and his Las Vegas buddies, notably Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

A lifelong Democrat, Sinatra changed his politics after being snubbed by President Kennedy. The President had been invited to stay at Sinatra’s estate during a West Coast visit; however, the Justice Department had reservations because of Frank’s supposed mob connections. Kennedy enjoyed the hospitality of Bing Crosby in Palm Springs, and Frank moved his loyalty to the GOP.

You can get away with that sort of thing when you are as cool as Frank Sinatra.

 

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November 14: Happy Birthday Dick Powell!

dick-powell-nbc
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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