Good Night Ruby Dee

ruby-dee2Actress Ruby Dee passed away quietly in her home in New Rochelle, NY, on June 11, 2014, surrounded by family. Praised for her contributions to stage, screen, radio and civil rights, Ms. Dee was 91.

Ruby was born in Cleveland in 1922, and raised in the Harlem, New York. Her father was a porter and her mother a school teacher. After graduating from Hunter College with a  degree in Romance Languages she apprenticed with the American Negro theater, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Hilda Simms. She gained national attention for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, and in 1965 she became the first black actress to perform in leading roles at the American Shakespearean Festival.

Ruby’s earliest existing radio appearances were on WMCA’s New World A’ Coming, in the story of the ANT and other African American stories which took place in New York City. With her acting career well established by the late 1950′s, she appeared on programs such as X Minus One and the CBS Radio Workshop. In the mid Seventies she made several appearances on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Although radio drama was thought to be a dying art form at the time, CBSRMT often showcased respected actors.

Ruby married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941 and they were divorced in 1945, although she continued to use his name on stage. She married actor Ossie Davis in 1948, and the marriage lasted until his death in 2005. The couple was well known for their work for the cause of civil rights and they were close friends to Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

Ruby was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, and won in 1990 for her role in the TV movie Decoration Day.  She and Ossie were awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1995 and were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. In 2007, Ruby became the second oldest Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role in American Gangster.

Ruby Dee’s remains are to be cremated and her ashes will share the same urn as Ossie Davis. The urn will bear the inscription “In this thing together”.

Goodnight, Ruby Dee.

 

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Big Band and Swing Bands in Old Time Radio

bob crosby & margaret whiting with modernariesMusic has always been an indispensable element of radio broadcast. The station which would eventually become WHA, Wisconsin Public Radio, began its first music broadcasts as early as 1917. It is not surprising that we have a number of terrific music programs on the shelves here at OTRCat, which showcase a number of different musical styles. If we were to choose a single style of music to typify Old Time Radio, that style would have to be Big Band Jazz.

The origins of Jazz are muddied and complicated by both the passage of time and the fact that they were the result of many influences coming together. The most vital elements were the melding of the syncopated rhythms of Africa with the melodic traditions of European music.

When the slaves were freed after the Civil War it meant artistic freedom as well as economic. As more blacks sought fulfillment through artistic expression, they explored the remembered tribal rhythms, combining them with the melodicism and “square rhythms” of the European tradition. These musicians abandoned the “Oom-pah Oom-pah” styling from European courts and peasant villages.

rag timeThe newly freed musicians explored beats, melodies and harmonies that were more “ragged”. Ragtime musicians were among the first to achieve financial success from their music. Success brought imitation as well as innovation.

As troops demobilized in the port of New Orleans after the Spanish American War, several military bands dumped their instruments on the local market. Black musicians were quick to purchase these instruments, although they often had to teach themselves how to play. This self taught ethos fit well into ragtime improvisation, but the surplus brass and woodwind sounded best when played in conjunction with other instruments.

new orleans

The loose structure of Jazz needed some discipline to avoid becoming a caterwaul. Bands came together and “arranged” their music by rehearsing the pieces over and over again until they felt and sounded “right”. The membership of these bands changed regularly, sometimes weekly. Success depended upon musicians who could quickly fit in and bandleaders who could tame these disparate elements. This constant personnel change enforced the change which would become the hallmark of Jazz.

White musicians quickly became enthused about the artistic freedom and possibilities of Jazz. They also brought a measure of formality and discipline to Jazz, at least to the extent that Jazz could be formalized or disciplined. One of their greatest contributions  greater formality and structure in arrangements. This structure would be beneficial as the bands became popular through the magic of radio.

 Big Band Music popularity came in two distinct phases, both of which worked remarkably well for radio play. Beginning in the mid-twenties, Big Bands, typically 10-25 pieces, began to dominate popular music. This Sweet Jazz period was highly melodic, often quite danceable, but far too disciplined to truly be called Jazz. Some of the best surviving OTR examples from this period include, Live at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and the Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors.

paul whiteman

The disciplined approach made for some terrific music, but the enthusiasm of jazzmen for their craft is hard to contain, especially as more instrumentalists became bandleaders. The clarinets of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet stand out as examples. Improvements in electronic technology also gave vocalists a chance to come to the fore. Even the strongest human voices strain to be heard over the volume of a band, but through amplification, crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby could be heard in front of a swinging band, and pretty girl singers could be appreciated for more than their looks.

From the time it began to separate from Sweet Jazz, Swing was music for youth. There was little better than attending a concert performance of a favorite band, but if that was not possible, a dance party to records or even the radio would have been a welcome substitute. Like America itself, Swing Music “grew up” during WWII.

swing-dance-vintage

The War had a combination of effects on popular music. It concentrated some of its most ardent fans in troop camps and gave performers, both in and outside of the service, a ready and enthusiastic audience. Many bands experienced personnel shortages as players were drafted while those who held together found their popularity soaring. Big Band Swing became the de facto sound of the USO.

The War wasn’t all good for Swing Music. One of music’s most shining lights, Glenn Miller became a casualty of the War. Many bands folded when members joined the service. For most of the War, musicians were on strike against the recording industry. This gave even more importance to individual vocalists. Finally, listener tastes changed after the War.

Fortunately, the music lives on  thanks to the great recordings of Old Time Radio!

 

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Lonesome for the Lonesome Gal

lonesomeheaderWe reasonably expect that music programs should focus on the music. The presenter is an essential part of the package of course, linking the songs together and injecting their own personality into the mix. “Border Blaster” radio Wolfman Jack‘s programs come to mind. Another is Martha Wilkerson, the audio pin-up girl on G.I. Jive.

G.I. Jive’s
G.I. Jill reminds us of a basic tenet of advertising: Sex Sells. AFRS may not have meant to use sex to sell with G.I. Jill, but she certainly showed that sex could attract listeners. Another personality who used this formula to considerable success was Jean King and her The Lonely Gal.

Author John Dunning called Jean King “one of radio’s best rags to riches sagas.” Ms. King was a Dallas, TX, native who followed her dreams to Hollywood. Dreamers packed Hollywood to overflowing, and King only managed to appear in small parts in a few “B” pictures, and a few episodes of radio’s I Love A Mystery.

King left Hollywood and eventually wound up in Dayton, OH, with no job and no money. About that time, local radio station WING ended their network affiliation and was desperate for content. Ms. King arrived with the idea for a show built around the character of The Lonesome Gal. The Lonesome Gal played romantic Lounge music records and laid down a sensual patter directed at the men in the listening audience. To add some mystery to the mix, the Lonesome Gal was never identified, and King wore a kittenlike mask for public appearances. One of her earliest sponsors was a restaurant filled with empty table; at the end of a 39 week run the owners found they had a busy eatery and $60,000 in the bank.

After two years of success in Dayton, King decided to try her luck on the West coast again in 1949. The Lonesome Gal was slow to launch from Hollywood, until Jean King met, fell in love with, and eventually married producer Bill Rousseau. Rousseau had more than his share of connections in radio, having produced Murder And Mrs. Malone, The New Adventures of Michael Shayne, The Amazing Mr. Malone, Pat Novak For Hire, and Dragnet.

redt01Her husband’s connection may have helped get The Lonesome Gal into syndication, but Jean King’s personality and hard work that kept the program going. The Lonesome Gal was relentless in appealing to its masculine audience. The Gal spoke directly to her listeners as individuals, calling them by intimate pet names like “Sweetie”, “Baby”, “Angel”, “Muffin” and so on. Monologues by the Gal filled the show, where where would express her appreciation for her listening lover, and all of his manly attributes. Some of the monologues would be long or short commercials for the sponsor, usually Bond Street Pipe Tobacco (imagine a pretty girl sensuously filling your pipe) or for Red Top Beer (the Red Top Brewery closed soon after The Lonely Gal went to Hollywood). Others were long soliloquies where the Gal told about some incident that reminded her how much she loves her man, and ending with the title of the song she was introducing.

The Lonesome Gal was blatantly selling sexuality, but it was a decidedly fresh-scrubbed sensuality from an era when no couple would be seen kissing without at least one foot each firmly on the ground (and on opposite sides of the bed).

“If you have love to spare
And lips to share….
Why don’t you be a pal, and
Share them…..with your lonesome gal?
………..Good-night, baby”…….

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How Hitler Helped Create Allen’s Alley

fred allen 1949The title of this should not be interpreted with any insinuation that Fred Allen may have been a Nazi. Like most Americans of his generation, the more Fred and the rest of the entertainment industry learned about Hitler and his schemes, the more dedicated they became to pledging all of their professional and personal resources in defeating Hitler’s threat to humanity. Fred Allen was one of America’s great humorists and blessed with a marvelous sense of the absurd. There were plenty of absurdities to go around in Fred’s life. First of all, his name was John Florence Sullivan, not Fred Allen. The path to becoming Fred was often an exercise in absurdity. John Florence was born into aching poverty which was the lot of many Boston Irish at the end of the nineteenth century. His father was a bookbinder. Between the competitive trade and the heart crushing loss of his wife (to pneumonia, when the boy was only three), the senior Sullivan was often in his cups, and unable to adequately provide for two young sons. Raising the boy was left to his maternal Aunt Lizzie. In addition to the Sullivans, Lizzie was in the care of a husband who had been crippled by lead poisoning, a pair of spinster sisters, and a brother. Allen would later write “Aunt Lizzie had her hands full, and not with money”. Young John Florence loved her dearly. John F. Sullivan’s path to show business (and becoming Fred Allen) is a fascinating story in its own right. What is important to this discussion, is that Fred Allen’s eventual celebrity was simply a trade to him. Like many successful tradesmen who rose from poverty, Allen had an ingrained conservatism which prevented his taking risks that might endanger his status. By the mid-1930s, Fred Allen had achieved remarkable success, and was arguably at the top of his game. He was one of the comics who successfully made the transition from vaudeville to radio, and in 1934 , his sponsor increased his presence with an hour long format, the Fred Allen “Hour of Smiles”, which was retooled as “Town Hall Tonight” the following season. The Town Hall Tonight format was a great fit for Fred, both professionally and artistically. The program was largely built around amateur talent, which was a reminder of Allen’s early vaudeville experience. He also gathered a company of regular players, the Mighty Allen Art Players. In addition to the weekly play, a regular feature of Town Hall Tonight was the weekly “Newsreel”. The Newsreel showcased a series of absurd characters who would comment on important and obscure news items. The Newsreel feature outlived the sponsor, and in the fall of 1940, Town Hall Tonight became Texaco Star Theater. A new sponsor has a right to make changes, but this chafed against Allen’s “if it works don’t fix it” attitude. The Newsreel remained in place until the 1942 season, when War related hard times caught up with Texaco. Because of Wartime shortages, there was less gasoline to sell, and therefore less profit for Texaco to make. Rather than abandon its successful radio presence, the show was cut to a half hour. This left little time for the Newsreel. Fred, whose sense of satire was the driving force of the Newsreel, created Allen’s Alley to replace it. Fred Allen’s Alley is second in Fred Allen’s legacy, only to the Benny-Allen Feud. The recurring characters who populated the Alley became landmarks in the American consciousness. Allen’s Alley was created in large part because of Wartime accommodations, but it is a good bet that the Fascists would never appreciate the underlying American-ness of the Alley’s residents. The Yiddish mannerisms of Mrs. Nussbaum (created by Minerva Pious), the drunken slowness of Socrates Mulligan (Charles Cantor), and the overenthusiastic Southernness of Senator Beauregard Claghorn (Kenny Delmar) would raise politically-correct hackles today. However, the characters were never criticized as being anti Jewish, anti Irish, or anti Southern. One of the longest lasting residents of the Alley was Allen Reed‘s Falstaff Openshaw. Falstaff was an enthusiastic if less than appreciated poet, whose often painful-to-hear rhymes were the close to a visit to Allen’s Alley. A number of factors finally doomed the Alley, including competition for TV and the NBC Sunday Night radio lineup suffering from the CBS Talent raids and ABC’s suddenly popular quiz-shows, especially Bert Parks’ Stop The Music. The ultimate end was Fred’s health; after the 1949 season he took a year off for his hypertension, and would never host another old time radio program.

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Stars for Defense: Cold War Era Music Show

In Case of Attack Tune your AM radio Dial to 640 or 1240

Syndicated by the Office of Price Stabilization, later the Office Of Civilian and Defense Mobilization

The Office of Price Stabilization (OPS) during the Korean War had the same functions as the WWII era Office of Price Administration. The Office had the power to place price ceilings on everything except agricultural commodities, and to ration items that were in short supply and considered vital to the War effort. This could include tires, Automobiles, shoes, coffee, meat, sugar, nylon, and processed foods.

Doris Day

Ceiling prices were encouraged by OPS in order to control inflation. This is seen as contrary to the laws of Supply and Demand by many economists, and thought to be a dangerous practice for many reasons. There may be a perceived need for price ceiling if the price of the commodity in question is inflated due to a shortage of supply. In this case quality of the merchandise may be lowed by manufacturers in order to make a profit. During WWII there were examples of food processors lowering portion size or using lower quality ingredients to maintain profit margins.

What does this have to do with Big Band Music?

The OPS sponsored the syndicated weekly music program Stars For Defense. The 15 minute weekly programs featured some of the great stars of the time, including Gordan McRae, Jo Stafford, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, Percy Faith and his Orchestra, Paul Weston and his Orchestra, the Norman Luboff Choir, and Dennis Day. The music and quality of production was always excellent, and mixed into the music would be a short economics lesson, always with the perspective that shopping decisions at home had an effect on Our Boys fighting in Korea.

In 1956 Stars For Defense sponsorship was taken over by the Office Of Civilian and Defense Mobilization. The ODCM was an incredibly powerful bureaucratic arm of the Department of Defense, charged with the planning, coordination, and control of Wartime Mobilization activities of the Federal Government, including Manpower, Economic Stabilization, and Transportation operations.

StarsFor Defense took on a greater Civil Defense role, including instructions of how long to remain in you fallout shelter after a Nuclear Attack.

But you could still get great music if the radio in your fallout shelter could still pick up Stars For Defense! Stars in the later episodes included Frankie Laine, Eydie Gorme, Sammy Davis Jr, Johnny Mercer, Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney.

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Sometimes The Show Doesn’t Go On

Carole Lombard death causes grieving Jack Benny show cancellation (Jan 16, 1942)

There has been plenty written on how the Hollywood community came together to aid their nation when America became embroiled in World War Two. The attack on PearlHarbor touched everyone, and later generations have every reason to be proud of the way the Greatest Generation reacted.

We have heard the stories of the stars who put their careers aside so that they could wear the uniform of their country. Those who couldn’t join the service contributed where they were able. Whether sharing their talents for entertaining the troops, working hard to sell War Bonds, or spreading the message from the rationing board, it seemed that the entire entertainment industry had been mobilized.

Like any other segment of the population, some from the Hollywood community paid the ultimate price in the War Effort. The following is the story of what the Hollywood Victory Committee recognized as the first star to give their life for their country in the war effort.

Carole Lombard was an incredible screen presence and had the power to absolutely entrance men, both on and off the screen. In 1931, she was married to her sometimes costar William Powell. Friends were convinced that they could not overcome the sixteen year difference in age, but they were sure they could be happy together. The marriage only lasted 28 months, but they remained friends and coworkers. Powell even insisted that Lombard costar in his 1936 hit My Man Godfrey.

Carole Lombard starred with Clark Gable in No Man of Her Own (1932) while she was still happily married to Powell. Lombard and Gable renewed their acquaintance at a costume party in 1936, and soon fell in love. Unfortunately, this time Gable was married. When he was offered the role as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, part of the deal was a bonus that would cover the expense of Gable‘s divorce.

Carole Lombard was an ideal mate for Gable. She had all the glamor of the movie queen she was, but she also outgoing and enough of an outdoors woman to be a real “pal” to the active Gable. They were married during a break in the production of Gone With The Wind in 1939 and settled on a 20 acre ranch in Encino.

Carole Lombard

Lombard’s career took a bit of a setback about the time of her wedding to Gable; she took a number of dramatic roles that audiences found difficult to accept. She found success in comedies again in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). She rode the career boost into one of her most successful films, To Be Or Not To Be with radio’s Jack Benny.

The film was a satire set in Nazi occupied Poland. Jack Benny played a “ham” actor who bears a resemblance to Adolph Hitler. Carole Lombard played his suffering wife with a wandering eye. Lombard and Benny struck up a strong friendship during production.

The film was in post production when Pearl Harbor was attacked and Hollywood mobilized. Clark Gable was made the chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, and one of his first acts was to send his pretty movie star wife, along with his press agent and her mother, on a War Bond drive tour of her home state of Indiana.

The drive was very successful, raising more than $2 million and hit a high point in Indianapolis, where Carole Lombard exhorted the crowd to “join me in a big cheer- V for Victory!” In a hurry to get back to her husband, Lombard convinced her party to board TWA flight 3, which flew from New York to Burbank, with Indianapolis being one of the stops.

Carole Lombard

When the flight stopped in Las Vegas, the Carole Lombard party was in danger of being bumped for military passengers, but Lombard”pulled rank”, claiming the having sold $2 million in war bonds, she deserved some consideration. 32 miles from the airport, the DC-3 slammed into a cliff on Potosi Mountain. There were no survivors.

Clark Gable was understandably distraught at the loss of his wife and friend, so much so that he joined the Army Air Corp and flew on B-17 missions from England. But first he had to bury Carole Lombard. The Army offered to honor her with a military funeral. Gable choose to respect her wishes, giving her a simple, private funeral at Forest Lawn. He also bought two adjoining burial plots, one for Lombard’s mother, and another for himself.

Lombard’s friend Jack Benny was so broken up over the loss of his friend that he was not able to perform his regular program on Jan 18, 1946. Instead, he had Don Wilson host an all music format. Neither Carole Lombard or the plane crash is mentioned on the broadcast.

Hear the Jack Benny Show from Jan 18, 1942:

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To Be Or Not To Be was initially a disaster. Between the depressing war news and the tragic loss of the film’s star, moviegoers were not much in the mood for laughter when the movie was released. The Screen Guild Theater performed a radio adaptation of the movie exactly a year after Jack Benny‘s music format broadcast. Benny’s role in the radio adaptation was played by Carole Lombard’s first husband, William Powell.

Enjoy The Screen Guild Theater‘s 1943 broadcast of To Be or Not To Be:

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A and P Gypsies Old Radio Show from the 1930′s

Before there was Walmart, before there was Target, before there was Safeway, PigglyWiggly, Krogers, or even Sears and Roebuck, there was the A&P.

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company began in 1859 as a small chain of coffee and tea retailers in the New York City area, which had national sales through mail order. The tea and coffee business expanded, opening their first Chicago store after the Great Fire, and moving as far south as Atlanta. Around 1880 the government placed heavy tariffs on coffee and tea, so the firm began adding sugar, condensed milk, butter, and other sundries to it’s line to make up the lost income. This expanded line-up would be the basis of the modern grocery store.

By 1930 the A&P had become the largest retailer in the nation, twice as large as Sears. There were a few dark clouds on the horizon, however. On both the east and west coast the new concept of the “Supermarket” began to make inroads into the retail market; and there was always a backlash that the powerful retail chain was driving local concerns out of business. Nonetheless, because A&P had not borrowed to facilitate their expansion, the change was in a good position to whether the Great Depression.

The biggest expansion of the A&P was during the same period that Commercial Radio came to be, and the grocer was quick to use the new medium to attract shoppers to their stores. When band-leader Harry Horlick’s family escaped Russia at the beginning of WWI, Harry chose to stay behind, and he wound up as a prisoner of war. Working behind the scenes through the American consul, his family was able to get him released and he came to the US. He began playing in cafe’s around New York with a six piece ensemble, eventually landing an unsponsored spot on WEAF. In 1924 an A&P exec was touring the studio, and heard the group. Horlick was arranging what ever the audience wanted, but he specialized in the Gypsy Music he had learned traveling in Eastern Europe. Thus the A&P Gypsies were born.

The A&P Gypsies radio show was a regular Monday night on-air attraction for many years. In 1933 A&P was part of the Chicago World’s Fair, featuring a large canopied board-walk where tea dances were held, the company providing samples of coffee and tea while the crowds danced to the music of the Gypsies. The attraction was incredibly popular with the program’s legion of loyal fans.

A&P Gypsies can be heard in Old Time Radio’s collection of Random Rarities #6:

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