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Ed Begley Sr in Old Time Radio

Winner of the Tony and an Oscar, Ed Begley Sr. was a force to be reckoned with on Radio Row in both New York and Los Angeles.

Although he will never be as popular as the Leading Man, sometimes the character actor is the best part of a movie. Leading Men are pretty much interchangeable; he is a ruggedly handsome manly man, and Hollywood has nearly as many ruggedly handsome manly men as it does beautiful girls. Character actors tend to specialize as certain types, and few actors were as able to pull off the querulous old guy whom everyone likes quite as well as Ed Begley. 

Born the son of Irish immigrants in Hartford, Connecticut, 1901, Ed Begley Sr enjoyed a happy childhood. His father “could mimic any dialect and knew hundreds of songs and stories. He loved to entertain people – for the fun he got out of it.” Ed began performing at the age of nine and did his acting apprenticeship with the Hartford Globe Theatre. Although his parents encouraged his efforts and he grew up in a happy home, Ed frequently ran away, not to get away from anything but to find adventure.

One of these adventures landed Ed in the “hoosegow” for a four-day stretch, but he was always happy to return home because it was a happy and welcoming place. However, he dropped out of school in the fifth grade and began working with carnivals and traveling shows Later, he would work as a bowling alley pin boy, sold brushes, and delivered milk. He was too young to get in on the adventure of the Great War, but he did serve a four-year hitch in the Navy between the Wars.

During the Great Depression, Ed worked in vaudeville and was hired as a radio announcer while he struggled to establish himself on the legitimate stage. He would become Radio’s first Charlie Chan and played Sgt. O’Hara in The Fat Man. Broadway success came in 1943 with Land of Fame (Belasco Theatre, 6 performances) and Get Away Old Man (Cort Theatre, 13 performances).

Broadway notices led to invitations to Hollywood where Ed was cast in character roles while keeping his presence felt on Radio Row. He played Lt Walter Levinson on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Begley also appeared on episodes of Suspense, Escape, and The Cavalcade of America. Back on Broadway, Ed starred as Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind (1955, National Theatre, 806 performances) opposite Paul Muni as Henry Drummond. Ed won a Tony for his work, and when Muni left the production Begley moved into the Drummond role. In 1965, he reprised the Brady role for an NBC TV movie. The highlight of his film career came when he was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, MGM).

Ed Begley was married three times and is the father of actor and activist Ed Begley Jr. On April 28, 1970, Ed Begley Sr. suffered a fatal heart attack during a party at the home of his publicist, Jay Lerner. He was 69.

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Amos and Andy Archie Andrews Comics Dick Tracy FDR Funny Papers Little Orphan Annie Superman Terry and Pirates

Comic Pages in Old Time Radio

There is no way it should work. The Comics depend on pictures! Some of the best strips don’t even have dialog! The Funny Pages are a visual medium, Radio just plain isn’t. Still some of radio’s most loved treasures began as “Sequential Art.”

The art of telling stories through a series of pictures goes back further than the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, all the way back to Cave Wall Paintings. During the Middle Ages Biblia Pauperum, Pauper’s Bibles, were published with Bible stories in illustrated form.

By the late 19th century comic strips began to appear in American newspapers. In 1895 Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World began to publish “Hogan’s Alley.” In 1897 “The Katzenjammer Kids” appeared in a Sunday Supplement to Hearst’s New York Journal.

Newspaper strips are divided into Daily and Sunday strips. The Dailies are usually shorter and printed in black and white, while the Sundays are longer pieces and usually colorized.

In 1925 The Chicago Tribune had a very popular comic strip, The Gumps. An executive at WGN, the radio station owned by the newspaper, thought there was potential in developing a radio serial based on the strip, and presented the idea to a pair of station regulars, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden. The pair thought they could do a better program if they drew on their experience in Vaudeville blackface performance, and the show eventually became Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Another very popular Tribune Strip was Little Orphan Annie. Annie was the creation of Harold Gray, who injected a lot of his personal political philosophy into the long running strip. Gray was influenced by his farm upbringing and the novels of Charles Dickens. He met a young girl wandering the streets of Chicago and “liked her right away.” The little girl was tough and could take care of herself because she had to! The character almost became “Little Orphan Otto,” but Gray realized that a girl might be an easier sell- there were 40 popular strips with young boys in the lead roles, but only three with girls. Gray was not a fan of FDR and the New Deal. The artist took some heat for preaching to the poor to “work harder” through his strip while he was living very well off the income it generated along with two movies during the Depression.

Little Orphan Annie came to the airwaves over WGN in 1931, and was soon heard coast to coast. Because the networks at the time didn’t reach all the way to the west coast, there were two casts; one in Chicago and one in San Francisco. The show was initially sponsored by the Ovaltine milk supplement. On the air Annie concentrated on pushing Ovaltine and avoided many of the political themes of the newspaper strip. The show was scheduled for late in the afternoon, after the kids got home from school but before the dinner hour. Listeners could exchange Ovaltine proofs of purchase for “Secret Decoder” rings or badges, and were encouraged to decode messages read in the closing minutes of the show.

In 1934 Dick Tracy first appeared in the Detroit Mirror. Chester Gould brought raw violence to the comics by reflecting Gangland Chicago of the 20s and 30s. Tracy was dedicated and intelligent, depending on his intelligence and the latest in Police Forensic Science to solve crimes. Tracy, with his black and white sense of right and wrong, may have been a pretty boring character without his fanciful stable of villains, some of whom were so evil that their outward appearance would give away the darkness of their makeup. Dick Tracy began airing on NBC’s New England stations in 1934. The show had a daily 15 minute format until sponsor Quaker Oats brought it to prime time and half-hours in 1939.

In response to a Newspaper Delivery Strike in NYC during 1945, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read Dick Tracy strips over the radio so citizens wouldn’t fall behind on the story.

Adventure Stories based on the world of Aviation became popular in the 30’s. Zack Mosley began sketching airplanes after an Army “Jenny” landed in a field near his home. After attending the Chicago Art Institute he got a job as an assistant to Dick Calkins who drew Buck Rogers and Skyroads (another early Aviation Strip which was adapted for the Mutual network for a few months in 1939.) Mosley began his own strip in 1933, On the Wing, the hilarious adventures of three frightened student pilots. Editors loved the stories, but hated the title, which was soon changed to Smilin’ Jack in reference to Mosley’s own nickname, Smiling Zack. Smilin’ Jack was filled with great aviation art but Jack’s adventures carried the strip. The supporting cast of characters included his side kick, Fatstuff, a young Hawaiian friend who was forever losing his buttons; beautiful Air Hostess Dixie Lee; and co-pilot Downwind Jaxon, who was so handsome that readers were never allowed to see his whole face; he drove every woman who saw him wild with passion. Smiling Jackwas only on the Mutual Network for a few months in 1939, fighting baddies like the Mad Dog in Arabia. The strip lasted for four decades, finally closing in 1973 when Mosley decided he would have more fun flying airplanes than drawing them.

Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff began as the story of a “wide-awake American Boy” in China having adventures and foiling the plans of various bad guys along with his he-man mentor, Pat Ryan, and guide Confucius “Connie” Webster. As Terry matures he joins the Air Forces and becomes a pilot. Terry and the Pirates came to late afternoons on NBC’s Red network in 1937 sponsored by Dari-Rich, but left the air after two years. Returning shortly after Pearl Harbor, the show became incredibly popular and patriotic. After the War the loss of War-time villains caused ratings to slip and the show was cancelled in 1948. Caniff left the strip in 1946 to create Steve Canyon, which allowed him greater creative freedom. Terry continued to be drawn by George Wunder until 1973, by which time Terry was Colonel in the Air Force.

In 1941 Bob Montana created Archie Andrews, who first appeared in Pep Comics #22. Archie was  atypical small town kid, hanging out with his best friend Jughead Jones, attending Riverdale High School, dating cute girl-next-door Betty Cooper and wealthy Veronica Lodge, working on his Jalopy (kept together with whatever parts he could find), and trying to keep ahead of his rival Reggie Mantle. Archie and his gang came to the NBC Blue network in 1943. Like many shows at the time the program was performed in front of a live audience, but with its Teen Appeal, those audiences could become a bit boisterous at times. The show lasted on radio until 1953, but in the comics, Archie is still the likable red-headed 17 year old he has always been.

Did you know that before Action Comics #1, Superman was a telepathic Villian? And that he was Bald!?! That was how high-school buddies Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster first used the name in a short story they wrote and illustrated in 1933. Later they reformed Superman as a hero and sought a publisher. After seeing a copy of Detective Dan, Secret Operative #48 (which would go on to become the Dan Dunn radio show) Siegel rewrote the story for the comic form and Schuster illustrated it. Their man in the red boots would get published in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and become an American icon.

In 1939 Superman was featured in a newspaper strip an that summer he appeared in a self titled comic-book series. The early Superman stories are a reflection of their Depression era origins. Siegel and Schuster allowed there hero to display the Left-leaning Liberalism of the New Deal. This liberalism would continue somewhat onto the Radio. In 1946 Superman takes on “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a thinly disguised KKK

Part of the fun on radio was that the star of The Adventures of Superman had a secret identity like his character. Bud Collyer was not acknowledged as Superman until a front-page interview in Time Magazine about the racial-intolerance story arc. Because this was the era before reruns, several devices were used so that Collyer would be able to take a vacation from his recurring radio role. These included being overcome by Kryptonite; this one weakness of the hero’s was developed on radio, not the comic pages. Another device used was to allow his fellow DC comic characters, Batman and Robin, to take over the story while Collyer was out. Although an audition program was prepared, Batman never had a self titled radio program during the Golden Age of Radio

The power of Radio is that it allows the mind to generate its own images.  Fans of Radio Mystery and Science Fiction have long recognized that the images that the mind generates with a few audible clues are far richer than anything that could ever appear on a movie or TV screen. The comic page is a powerful story telling device because it combines visual images with written words. When the great stories told in “Sequential Art” move to Radio, the strength of the audible medium takes over and the stories are made even better.

Read more about comic books and funny papers in old time radio.

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Old Time Radio

Dana Andrews and What Makes a Hollywood Tough Guy Tough

Hollywood expects a variety of qualities from its leading men; good looks, virile physicality, an appealing and understandable voice, acting ability, sex appeal, and a sense of toughness. Of course, this being Hollywood, any or all of these qualities can be and have been faked. The hardest one to fake, also the hardest to define, is toughness.

Dana Andrews

Material Science defines toughness as a material’s ability to absorb energy without rupturing. In other words, toughness is a balance of strength and flexibility. Something can be strong enough to support a heavy load but will shatter quickly if the load shifts and there is little provision in the design for flexibility. Examples of toughness can also be seen within military units; the Sergeant will assign the biggest recruit to a leadership position thinking that his strength will inspire the other troops on a long march. The big recruit can carry the biggest load, but tires after a few hour’s march and quits. The smaller but tougher recruit may not carry as big a load, but will continue to carry it for hours, and will be willing to shoulder the load and continue to march the following day.

As the third to thirteen children born to Charles and Annis Andrews near Collins, Mississippi, New Year’s Day 1909, Dana Andrews had to learn toughness early. Papa Charles was a Baptist Minister, so Dana had to become tough to endure his father’s discipline as well as compete for everything with a dozen other kids in the house. Charles moved the family from Mississippi to Huntington, Texas, where Dana entered Sam Houston State University to study business.

Dana Andrews

Dana took a job as a bookkeeper for Gulf Oil in 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash made a business career seem like a terrible idea. Convinced that he could make it in Hollywood as a singer, he packed a suitcase and hitch-hiked to the West Coast, where he found a town full of talented young men who thought they could sing. For a time, he drove school bus, dug ditches, picked oranges, and stocked department store shelves before returning to the oil industry in the somewhat lower capacity of a service station attendant. He continued to try and break into show business and convinced the owner of the service station to “invest” in him. Dana’s boss would fund his singing and acting lessons, even allow him to rehearse in the garage, and Andrews would repay him once he made it as an actor.

The Pasadena Playhouse was a famous training ground for acting talent, but Andrews was told he didn’t have what it took to get in. He used his boss’s support to begin opera training when a music agent told him to stick to acting. He tried the Pasadena Playhouse again and this time got in. He had to work his way up from nonspeaking “spear-carrier” roles to walk-ons to supporting parts before starring in Playhouse production, and he appeared in dozens of plays. Eventually, Sam Goldwyn offered Dana a contract.

Andrews now had a contract after nine years in Los Angeles, but Goldwyn still did not have any major work for him. However, the folks over at Fox liked him, and Goldwyn loaned him for Sailor’s Lady and Kit Carson (both 1940) before selling half of Dana’s contract to Fox. Goldwyn finally used him in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940) supporting Gary Cooper. Andrew’s got his first leading role at Fox in the B-grade propaganda film Berlin Correspondent (1942) and he did further propaganda work in John Ford’s December 7th: The Movie (1943, a censored version won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject). Other War films for Fox included Purple Heart and Wing and a Prayer (both 1944).

Also, at Fox, Andrews nearly achieved A-List status as an NYPD detective investigating the shotgun death of an enigmatically beautiful advertising executive in Laura (1944, the third of five films Dana made with Gene Tierney). Laura helped to cement Dana as a Hollywood Star. He again shared the screen with Ms. Tierney in the early Cold War propaganda piece, Iron Curtain (1948) and he would play a salty operator in The Frogmen (1951, based on the exploits of Navy Underwater Demolition Teams in the Pacific, the forerunners of the Navy SEALs). 

Around this time, however, good roles were passing Andrews by. Finally, his friend Sam Goldwyn took him aside to tell him that his drinking problem was interfering with his career. As the son of a Baptist preacher, young Dana had never been directly exposed to the results of har drinking, but Hollywood was awash in booze and the libations lubricated business and social functions. Dana got to the point where he simply could not function without another drink and realized he needed to get help. While he found it, he went to work for ZIV Syndications starring in the hard-boiled radio drama I Was a Communist for the FBI.

McCarthy

I Was a Communist for the FBI was based on a series of stories published in The Saturday Evening Post detailing the undercover adventures of Matt Cvetic, an operative who had infiltrated the upper echelons of the Communist Party of the USA and reported his finding to the Bureau and testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. This made IWaC an artifact of McCarthyism as well as a highly entertaining Hard-Boiled noir Radio story. A movie version of Cvetic’s story had been released by Warner Bros starring Frank Lovejoy in 1951 before the ZIV shows aired, but many propaganda historians find the radio program more compelling.

I was a Communist for the FBI

Dana Andrews did beat the bottle, and rather than hiding his problems actively campaigned to get the word out that help was available to other alcoholism sufferers. However, his film career never rebounded. He was elected to the Presidency of the Screen Actors Guild in 1963. He drifted away from show business as fewer and fewer good roles came his way. He would quip that he was making more money from real estate investments than he ever had as a film Star.

Sadly, after achieving clarity beyond his battle with the bottle, Dana Andrews spent the last years of his life trapped in a fog brought on by Alzheimer’s Disease. He was confined to the John Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Los Alamitos, California, where he passed away after congestive heart failure on December 17, 1992. He was 84. 

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Old Time Radio

How Rochester Helped Win The War

Eddie Anderson

Eddie Anderson was incredibly well suited for his role as second banana. This is reflected in the long term success of the Jack Benny Program, and the fact that Eddie was one of the best paid second bananas in Hollywood Radio. Although there were a few listeners who objected to someone of Eddie’s race achieving so much success, few could argue the fact that Eddie’s success, even beyond his Rochester character, was well earned. And well enjoyed.

Eddie was born into show business. His mother was a tightrope performer and his father performed in minstrel shows. His brother Cornelius was a song and dance man, a path Eddie probably would have followed if he had not ruptured his vocal cords as a boy. He could and did still dance, and he developed a terrific sense of comic timing to go with his gravel voice.

Rochester became one of the most recognizable and well loved characters on radio, and Eddie Anderson enjoyed the fruits of his success. He bought a large home for his family and became a leader in the Los Angeles area African American Community. When America became involved in WWII, Anderson was desperate to contribute whatever he could to the War Effort. He was unable to serve directly like some younger Hollywood and Radio stars. Whenever asked, he made himself available to entertain the troops, often along with the rest of Jack Benny‘s company. He invested his own money in War Bonds and worked tirelessly on Bond Drives, as well.

Early in the War, an opportunity came to Anderson which was of strategic and material import in winning the conflict. Aviation was always a dangerous business, especially military aviation. Nonetheless, it was of vital importance to America’s military effort. Eddie took flying lessons himself, and his was one of the voices that helped to establish the training program for the Tuskegee Airmen.

Rochester 1949

That would not be the end of Eddie’s involvement in aviation safety. Eddie had become friends with Howard “Skippy” Smith, a Daredevil and one of the rare African Americans, at the time, to hold a pilot’s certificate. Death defying skydiving performances were a prominent part of Skippy’s act, and over the years, he had learned “everything there is to know about parachutes”. With the expansion of military aviation, that knowledge took on strategic value.

Skippy approached Eddie with the idea of opening a parachute factory, and Anderson saw the potential in the enterprise. The newly formed business was located in San Diego, the hub of West Coast Aviation (the original building is still standing at 627 8th Ave, just a few blocks away from Petco Park.) Pacific started as a subcontractor for Standard Parachutes, but soon won government contracts of its own.

Skippy Smith oversaw the operations of the factory, but the used a mostly female, racially balanced, workforce. Most of the white and African American girls came to California to work in the aviation industry. From a start with twenty “White and colored girls” the workforce soon swelled to more than 200, approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 Mexican. Most of the girls received seamstress training under New Deal training programs.

Eddie Anderson, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Benny

It would be hard to determine just how many aviators and paratroops floated to safety under a canopy of Pacific Parachute Company silk. When the War ended, demand for their product evaporated, and the company closed its doors. During its existence, it was profitable for everyone involved, perhaps mostly for those airmen who had to put the parachutes to use.

Eddie Anderson‘s leadership in the African American community dwindled somewhat as younger voices came into their own. Eddie continued to enjoy the trappings of a successful Southern California businessman and media figure. He was an enthusiastic, if less than successful, with a stable of racing horses. He also owned and sailed a yacht from Long Beach Harbor.

One of his most notable engineering feats was the “Rochester Special”, a custom built sports car created in 1950. Perhaps as an extension of the aviation industry, Southern California was a hotbed for hotrod and race car design in the early fifties. The Rochester Special was one of the first cars to use a twin-tube frame. Powered by a 331 c.i. Cadillac engine, the car was in many ways a street-legal, two passenger Indy Car.

The car took two years to build, and campaigned successfully in SCCA events. Anderson enjoyed the car and drove it hard. So hard, that after 10 years, it was in need of a complete restoration. Work began in 1960, but with typical Rochester van Jones forgetfulness, Anderson defaulted on the bill. A mechanic’s lien was placed against the car, and it was traded for a Model A pick-up. The current owner of the car began a ground-up, no expense spared restoration in 2002.

Jack and Rochester
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Old Time Radio

Presidential Nominating Convention Recordings (RNC and DNC)

1932 DNC FDR

Ideally, an American Presidential Election is a race between two worthy men, two worthy ideals, battling it out on the National Stage in the weeks before the National Election in November when the American People make the worthiest selection. Sadly, it seems as though the race often comes down to selecting the lesser evil. The American form of democracy has been said to be the worst possible form of government, except for everything else!

The Presidential Race usually boils down to two major candidates, although the US Constitution makes no provision for a two-person race or even a limit to the number of candidates. Many of the Founding Fathers warned against the formation of Political Parties, but it did not take long for factions to split into party alliances. The earliest Political Parties in America were Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists who were opposed by Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. 

The first Presidential Nominating Convention was held by the Anti-Masonic Party in 1831 at a saloon in Baltimore. The Anti-Masons were a single-issue party, but their power of organization turned them into a force to be reckoned with. The Jacksonian Democrats followed their example (at the same saloon) and Nominating Conventions have been a part of the election process ever since.

In the modern two-party system, the nominating conventions take place every four years during the summer before the General Election. The Incumbent Party (the Party which the sitting President belongs to) usually holds their convention after the Challenging Party. Presidential Election Years also fall during Olympic Years, so an informal tradition developed that one Party’s Convention takes place in the weeks before the Summer Games, formal campaigning essentially stops during the Games, and the other Party Convention begins afterward (another informal campaign break occurs during Baseball’s World Series because no true American would let something as trivial as a Presidential Election distract them from something as important as Baseball).

Each Party has its own rules and procedures for the convention. In many modern races, the presumptive Nominee is known before the end of the Caucus and Primary Election cycle, but the Convention is still an important part of the Election Process to rally support for the Candidate. An important function of the Convention is the creation of the Party Platform. The Platform is a statement of principals or goals that the Party hopes to fulfill by getting their Candidate elected.

During the Presidential Nominating Convention, meetings are held during the day where policy is developed. In a “contested Convention” where the Nominee is not selected before the event begins, these “cigar smoke-filled rooms” are where the negotiations occur. The last time the results of a convention were not obvious before the event began was the 1976 Republican Convention when Ronald Reagan nearly wrested the nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford. In the evenings, all the delegates attend the general meeting in the main hall to hear speeches from the Party’s “rising stars”.

The broadcast era has brought these speeches out of the Convention Hall and made the entire Nation their audience. NBC anchorman John Chancellor said before the 1972 Democratic National Convention that, “Convention coverage is the most important thing we do. The conventions are not just political theater, but really serious stuff”. However, during the 1996 Republican National Convention, ABC’s Ted Koppel went home in the middle of the convention, stating that it had become an “infomercial” for the Candidate and no longer a news event.

As we go into the next general election, give a listen to this selection of Convention speeches from the past before you decide the historic importance of the Nominating Conventions.

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Old Time Radio

The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective

Howard Duff Sam Spade

As the late Forties turned into the early Fifties, the airwaves were filled with a seemingly endless series of gumshoes. They were meant to appeal to the hard working, big spending young men in the audience, many of whom were just back from the War and may have been unhappy trying to readjust to the humdrum of civilian life.

With so many hardboiled detectives on the air, it’s hard to imagine there was room for one more, but ABC did in the summer of 1946. Most of the hardboiled detectives on the air took their cues from the hard bitten detectives that were popular in the movies, but essentially, they all wanted to be Sam Spade.

Star of Sam Spade

Of course, there could only be one Sam Spade, and that was Humphrey Bogart, who brought Spade to the screen in The Maltese Falcon(1941). This is a little surprising, since Bogie was not the first to play Sam Spade. There had been two earlier versions of The Maltese Falcon on the screen. Bogart didn’t even fit the physical description of Sam Spade that author Dashiell Hammett placed in his stories. In Hammett’s book, Spade was a ”blond Satan”, tall, and somewhat imposing. Bogie with his snappy fedora and rumpled trench coat was neither blond nor tall, but he was imposing. It could be said that when Bogie played that other hard boiled classic, Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep(1946), he was still playing Sam Spade.

We don’t know why it took so long for Spade to make it to the radio, but we would like to think that Dashiell Hammett was waiting for the right team to bring his favorite detective to the airwaves. He was already enjoying the royalty checks he was receiving for The Thin Man.

The first element which would make the Sam Spade radio series such an incredible radio hit was director William Spier. Spier had been an incredibly knowledgeable music critic, who got into radio as producer of the Atwater Kent Hour, a showcase for classical and semi classical music. He took to radio production like a fish to water, and had Duffy’s Tavern and “Radio’s Outstanding Theater of Thrills” Suspense to his credit before taking on Sam Spade. Suspense was as well know for its outstanding production values as its terrific stories. The same quality and attention to detail would be part of Sam Spade.

Sam Spade

Like many hardboiled detectives, Spade worked as a lone wolf, but his world was anchored by his doting secretary, Effie Perrine, played by “the first lady of radio” Lurene Tuttle. Effie was less than a sidekick, and not really even a love interest (Spade was too worldly to be tied down to a single dame), however there is little doubt that Spade cares deeply about Effie and what she thinks. Ms. Tuttle shows us that Effie had the same of stronger feelings for her boss, but she is smart enough to not let her affection get in the way of a good relationship.

The real genius of The Adventures of Sam Spade was the acting of Howard Duff in the titular role. Just like Bogie became Sam Spade by being Bogie, Duff paid tribute to Bogie by being Duff. Just like Bogie, Duff was tough because he was cool. Listeners could hear Duff’s insouciant smile through their speakers, and it carried just as much disdain as Bogie’s sneer, only without sneering.

Duff grew up in Bremerton, Washington, a Navy town across the Puget Sound from Seattle. He took up acting when he was cut from the High School Basketball team. He did some acting in the Seattle area, which helped him to be assigned to the Army Air Force’s radio division during the War. After discharge he found himself in Hollywood. He landed a few roles as general purpose tough guys in a few noir films (and a tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner), but his real break was landing the Sam Spade role under the tutelage of Spier and Ms. Tuttle.

Spier’s vision for The Adventures of Sam Spade was a street wise detective who knew better than to take the world too seriously. Even though Spade got his share of knocks, there was none of the deadly seriousness which was a weekly feature of Suspense. Some of the situations that Spade wound up in stretched the bounds of believability, but the program’s attitude told audiences “stick with us, it will be worth it”, and it always was.

ABC ran The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective, as a summer replacement series in 1946, but did not have a spot for it in the fall line up. The production moved to CBS on September 29, 1946, and picked up a sponsor, Wild Root Cream Oil Hair Tonic. The show ran continuously, without taking summer breaks, until September, 1950. Sometimes Sam had to deal with a new and especially scatterbrained secretary until Effie got back from vacation, and there were quite a few replacement directors. Duff told one interviewer that he was taking the show to New York for a while; the only way he could get a vacation was to take the show with him. The show moved to NBC in September of 1949.

The show remained popular for its entire run, but it was eventually a victim of the Red Scare. Dashiell Hammett was the first to be cut. His name in the “Created By” slot was cut because he was an admitted Communist. Duff had worked in support of labor unions, which was enough to get him listed in Red Channels.

In the fall of 1950, both Howard Duff and Wildroot Cream-oil left the show, the sponsor willingly, the star less so. Wildroot felt that the Red association would damage their reputation with the slicked back hair crowd, and put their sponsorship money behind a different detective program, Charlie Wild, Private Detective (a play on their jingle; Get Wildroot Cream-oil, Charlie). The new program was a rather direct ripoff of The Adventures of Sam Spade with a new cast and crew. Charlie’s secretary was even named Effie Perrine!

When The Adventures of Sam Spade went off the air, Duff gave a few interviews stating that he would miss his radio alter ego. NBC reportedly received 45,000 protest letters from fans over the cancellation. In November, Sam Spade was back without a sponsor, still directed by Spier and featuring Ms. Tuttle as Effie, but the title role went to Steve Dunne.

Although most careers were ruined by a listing in Red Channels, Duff’s wife, actress and director Ida Lupino, was able to keep him working, even after they separated. He continued to work on the big and small screen until his death in 1990.

The Adventures of Sam Spade is considered one of the high points of radio detective drama. No copies of Charlie Wild, Private Detective are known to exist.

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Old Time Radio

Man of a Thousand Voices when One was Enough: William Conrad

William Conrad in Gunsmoke

The movie hero generally fits a specific physical type. Not necessarily handsome in the classic sense, he has a manly, rugged appearance, tall, with a V-shaped torso, tapering from wide, solid shoulders to a narrow waistline. In classic films, he may not have the chiseled “six-pack abs” which are the trademark of modern leading men, but there is an undeniable masculine toughness about him. Fortunately, Hollywood has nearly as many of this type running around as it does pretty girls.

On the radio, the equivalent of broad shoulders and a narrow waist is a commanding basso profundo voice. Several actors were blessed with such a commanding voice, but few were able to use it to the degree William Conrad did, especially when we consider how far Conrad was physically from the leading man type.

William Conrad Hazel Brooks

William Conrad was born in Lexington, Kentucky, 1920, where his parents owned and operated a movie theater. Little Bill was babysat by the flickering light of the projector and growing up with the scent of popcorn in his nostrils there is little wonder that he dreamed of becoming one of the screen heroes who were a part of his daily life. It seemed that he might have his chance during high school when the family left Kentucky for Los Angeles. The youngster soon discovered that, as mentioned above, there were dozens if not hundreds of leading men types in town, all looking for their big break n the studio system.

One place that surprisingly few of them were looking was in local radio. In 1934, Detroit businessman George A “Dick” Richards paid $125,000 for a controlling interest in Los Angeles station KMPC, making it the third jewel in his “Good Will Broadcasting Company”, along with WGAR Cleveland and WJR in his native Detroit. Partially to raise capital but mostly as a marketing move, Richards sold minority shares in KMPC to Bing Crosby, Freeman Gosden and Charles Corell (Amos ‘n’ Andy), Paul Whiteman, and Harold Lloyd, and began advertising KMPC as “the Station of the Stars”. All-American tackle Bob Reynolds was retiring from the Detroit Lions (Richards owned the team) in 1938 and joined KMPC’s marketing department and soon became general manager.

Bill Conrad joined KMPC as part of the acting company for The Hermit’s Cave. The horror anthology was a rather direct rip-off of Mutual’s The Witch’s Tale, but it had been successful on WGAR and WJR, so Richards and Reynolds were happy to bring it to the L.A. market.  Conrad’s deep voice and willingness to experiment with microphone technique made him a welcome addition to the company. Other work at KMPC followed and soon he was producing The Hermit’s Cave.

When the War started, Conrad had earned enough of a showbiz background that he might have found a “behind the lines” job but he chose to join the Army Air Corps and train as a fighter pilot. Soon after he won his commission, however, he was diagnosed as suffering from night blindness and was transferred to AFRS as a producer-director. When he mustered out as a Captain, he was in a very good position to continue his radio career. He joined the acting company of The Man Called X and The Whistler along with numerous “Radio Row” gigs.

One of Conrad’s most recognizable parts was intoning the introduction to the CBS adventure anthology Escape: “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you… Escape!” In fact, the announcing duties for Escape were shared with Paul Frees, one week one of the deep, rich voices would announce while the other acted in the episode, and the next week they would trade places. In addition to a classic part, Escape also gave Conrad a chance to work with director/producer Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston.

When CBS boss Bill Paley asked for ‘a Philip Marlowe set in the Old West’, MacDonnell and Meston came up with Gunsmoke. It was Meston who first advocated for the Escape announcer to breathe life into US Marshal Matt Dillon. Marshal Dillon would be a heroic yet tragic figure. He was determined to uphold the law in a generally lawless territory but saw first hand that the rule of law was not always a civilizing influence at the very edge of civilization. He was prepared to give his own life to preserve justice and it affected him deeply to see examples where even the force of law failed to bring justice to those who deserved it most. Dillon was no matinee hero who would win in every given situation, he enjoyed a beer at the end of a hard day and sometimes he needed something stronger to deal with his job. Miss Kitty was euphemistically described as someone the marshal “has to visit every once in a while”.

William Conrad and microphone

Although it aired when the Golden Age of Radio beginning to lose ground to TV, Gunsmoke was easily one of the greatest dramas commercial radio ever produced, thanks in no small part to the character created by William Conrad. However, adapting the program to television was inevitable, and while he was a great actor there was no way Conrad would be able to carry off the physical appearance the network expected for Matt Dillon at 5’7″ and tipping the scales more than 250 pounds, he was hardy the tall, broad-shouldered and narrow waist type envisioned as a leading man. The fact that his leading man could not play the part on TV may have been one of Norman MacDonnell’s biggest objections to “confining” Gunsmoke to the small screen, but the fact that James Arness was able to play the role for twenty seasons shows that his judgment may have been off.

Conrad seems more accepting of the fact that he would not be acting on TV’s Gunsmoke. He contributed scripts and directed episodes of the TV series and narrated a two-part story during the 1973 season. He managed to land a few roles which took advantage of his girth, including starring in Cannon (1971-1976), Nero Wolfe (1981), and Jake and the Fat Man (1987-1992). His voice work continued on television, including commercials and narrating the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. In 1981, he starred as the famous Masked Man in the animated reboot The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger.

William Conrad suffered a fatal heart attack on February 11, 1994, in Los Angeles. He was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1997.

Categories
Old Time Radio

Charles Boyer in Old Time Radio

Charles Boyer: Many critics argue that Charles Boyer‘s success in Hollywood is due to the appeal of being a Frenchman. We would suppose that the appeal of Frenchmen is that they are so much like Charles Boyer.

Ever since the Marquis de Lafayette and later the pirate Jean Laffite stepped in to aid the newly formed United States, Americans have gone absolutely bonkers for Frenchmen. This was especially true during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whenever the chips were down in a picture, the doughty Frenchman could be depended upon to flip away his cigarette butt, whisper “c’est la Guerre”, and rush headlong into the fight. When his British or even American cousins had their full attention on the trivialities of business, the Frenchman would have the savoir-faire to think “Cherchez la femme” and give any available lady the attention she needed.

American Cinema’s prototypical Frenchmen was Charles Boyer, although the case could be made that moviegoers enjoyed romantic Frenchmen because they were reminded of Charles Boyer. In the dialect of Southern France, the surname “Boyer” means cowherd. Charles was born in the small town of Figeac in 1899, his father a merchant. Young Charles was a basically shy boy who learned to express himself by watching plays and movies. During the Great War, he worked as a hospital orderly and was popular with the soldiers for performing comic sketches in the wards. 

Boyer’s father helped him to get into the Sorbonne where he studied Philosophy, but he gave more attention to his budding show business career and trying to get into the Paris Conservatory. A stage manager noticed how well he memorized lines and helped to get understudy work. Charles became an overnight success when he appeared in the 1920 play La Bataille, winning more stage work as well as establishing himself in French silent cinema.

Hollywood reached out to Boyer for the first time to star in the French language version of MGM’s groundbreaking prison film The Big House (1930, the French version was Révolte dans la prison, not L’homme du large which was Boyer’s 1920 cinematic debut). He would appear in a few English language films, including Jean Harlow‘s racy Red Headed Woman (1932) before returning to France. For the next several years he worked alternately in France and Hollywood as his Star continued to shine ever brighter. His classic role of Pepe le Moko in Walter Wagner’s Algiers (1938, United Artists), costarred Hedy Lamarr and Sigrid Currie. This is the film that attached him to the line “Come with me to the Casbah”, although Boyer never uttered those words on the screen. 

When France declared War on Germany in 1939, Boyer was in Nice, France, to make a pirate picture. The film was never finished, and Charles immediately volunteered with the French Army, although by November the government convinced him to accept a discharge and return to Hollywood where he would have a greater effect on the War Effort. He would receive an Honorary Oscar Certificate for establishing the French Research Foundation and became a naturalized American Citizen in 1942.

Although there is no denying Boyer’s savoir-faire, he was a small man (shorter than many of his leading ladies) with a noticeable paunch and he began losing his hair at an early age. He wore a toupee while working, but in public proudly displayed this magnificent Gallic dome. Back in 1934, he met British actress Pat Paterson at a dinner party, they fell in love and became engaged within two weeks, marrying three months later. Socially, Boyer described himself as “a stick in the mud” who would rather stay at home and read than engage in the Hollywood nightclub scene. He and Pat moved from Tinsel Town to Paradise Valley, Arizona.

Boyer’s gregarious and fun-loving demeanor made him a popular guest on several radio variety programs, and he was a popular target of Gracie Allen’s flirtations. He reprised several of his film roles for Lux Hollywood Theatre as well as other parts. In 1950, NBC gave him his own radio program, Presenting Charles Boyer.

Although he often played an unattached Continental bon vivant, Boyer’s loyalty to his wife, Pat was boundless, and they had a son, Michael Charles, in 1943. In 1960, he was honored with two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures and for Television. Tragedy struck in 1965 after Michael Charles broke up with a girlfriend, he committed suicide by playing Russian Roulette. Pat succumbed to cancer in 1978, Two days later, on August 26, 1978, Charles Boyer took a fatal dose of Seconal. It was two days before his 79th birthday. Charles Boyer‘s Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are at 6306 and 6308 Hollywood Blvd.

Categories
Fat Man

The Skinny on The Fat Man

Fans of Old Time Radio are used to creating a portrait of character just from their voice. The announcer who tells us “There he goes into that drugstore. He’s stepping on the scales…” is a slender but not underweight dandy. The voice of the scales reads the card: “Weight, 239 pounds, Fortune, Danger!”

Even before the intro tells us, we know we are listening to The Fat Man. However, if we tuned in late, we still know just who we are listening to when we hear the the thick, rich, almost syrupy voice of J. Scott Smart flowing luxuriantly from the speaker.

The Fat Man was built on the success of The Thin Man, itself ironic since the Thin Man we heard on the radio was not the Thin Man in the title. Nick and Nora Charles were not so much a husband and wife detective team as they were a hustler with a heart of gold doing his best to drink his wife’s fortune away (the Thin Man in the original story was a former client of Nick’s and the focus of the mystery). The characters were created by “the dean of hard-boiled detective fiction” Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel, and it would provide him with a surprisingly steady income. Not only were the book and the movie it inspired successful, the film spun off into six sequels and a popular radio series, and Hammett continued to collect royalties on them.

Since nothing succeeds like success, Hammett was encouraged to create a Fat Man to go with The Thin Man. The new character, Brad Runyon, was designed to be everything that Nick Charles was not. Nick took advantage of his position as Nora’s husband to hold the rest of the world in disdain, while Runyon was a consummate professional for whom the welfare of his clients was foremost. Runyon was based on the anonymous character who narrated Hammett’s early stories, the Continental Op, but The Fat Man would be “fleshed out” by the actor who played him, J.Scott Smart.

A native of Philadelphia, John Kenley Tener Smart found his way to the stage via the orchestra pit. Born in 1902, Smart found an aptitude for music after the family moved to Buffalo, New York. Jack, as he was known, graduated from Lafayette High School in 1922, and was a classmate of Fran Striker, who would gain radio fame as the creator of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Smart began finding jobs with local stage bands but it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to realize that the actors on the stage were having more fun, getting more recognition, and being paid better than the musicians in the pit. He apprenticed with the McGarry Majestic Players, a stock company, and toured the eastern seaboard as a journeyman actor before settling in New York.

The New York Stage was in for hard times after the Stock Market Crash, but fortunately for Smart, radio was just beginning to take off. He found small roles on NBC’s dramatic staff until moving to CBS as Joe on Mr and Mrs, a show about spouses who had tired of each other that became the forerunner of The Bickersons, The Naggers and TV’s The Honeymooners and Married With Children. After Mr and Mrs‘s two season run, Smart stayed with CBS and eventually became a regular player on The March of Time impersonating a number of real people as the show dramatized current events. His versatility won him the nickname “The Lon Chaney of Radio”, a moniker that would not be lost on his next boss, Fred Allen.

Fred wasn’t sure what to make of radio in 1932, but he could see that the format his fellow vaudevillians were using could not last. Vaudeville used a visual and aural connection with the audience, but Fred instinctively knew that radio audiences couldn’t see what he was up to. He needed voice talents to sell his stories. He needed the Lon Chaney of Radio!

Jack worked with Fred Allen’s company of players on The Linit Bath Club, The Best Foods Salad Bowl Review and The Sal Hepatica Review. He played everything from pimply faced kids to blow-hard politicians to sissyfied artists to Samson Souse, Allen’s Alley’s resident tippler. In 1944, Jack left radio to take a role in the stage play “A Bell for Adano” which enjoyed a successful run in New York and Washington D.C. After the show closed, he auditioned for a new detective show on ABC, The Fat Man.

Any casting director would have tapped Smart for the role based on his looks alone, but it was his voice and expression that really won him the part. Although the character was based on Hammett’s creation and fleshed out by series writer Richard Ellington and producer Mannie Rosenberg, It was Smart who breathed life into the character. He often quipped that “it takes a fat man to sound like a fat man” (Runyon weighed between 235 and 244, depending on which episode you listened to, while Smart tipped the scales at 270 on a 5’9” frame).

Smart took an active role in creating the scripts, and had a clause inserted into his contract that he would receive a copy of the script two weeks before broadcast so that he could make changes he felt were necessary. He became the show’s “continuity man”, ensuring that the business of an episode would not contradict something that the audience would have learned about the characters in a previous episode. One touch that outsiders would not have known was Smart’s delight in changing character names for people he knew in his personal life. A friend in Ogunquit, Maine, tuned in one night to discover that he and his fishing boat had been lost at sea!

The popularity of the series was not lost on Hollywood, and a movie based on The Fat Man seemed like a natural. As it turned out, the 1951 film was used as a vehicle for Universal’s new star, Rock Hudson, and featured famous Barnum and Bailey clown Emmett Kelly but Smart was still the standout player. One of the picture’s running gags involved Runyon driving around town in a rented MG. 270 pound Smart disengaging himself from the tiny British roadster was not to be missed!

It seemed inevitable that The Fat Man‘s success would continue on the strength of the film and four seasons on radio. However, even though he had little to do with the series after creating the character, when Dashiell Hammett was named in the Red Channel’s Scandal and refused to “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, sponsors began dropping show’s related to him. (NBC TV did bring The Thin Man to the small screen on Friday nights from 1957-59).

J. Scott Smart did some more acting after The Fat Man, but for the most part he had retired from show business to a fisherman’s shack in Ogunquit, Maine, where he worked at painting and sculpting. He died of pancreatic cancer in January, 1960.

Categories
Old Time Radio

How to Hard Boil a Detective, A Look at “Let George Do It”

George Valentine wasn’t any tougher than the next guy, but he certainly was no sissy. He did not aspire to any self-made code of right and wrong, although he tried to be honest with his fellow man and if he made a promise he did his best to keep it. Although he wasn’t a teetotaler, he didn’t keep a bottle of rye whiskey in his desk drawer to get through the morning. He was no rumple-suited, hard-boiled type packing a well-worn .38 in a shoulder holster, in fact, George may not have even carried a gun after he got out of the military and even after serving in the War, George Valentine wasn’t all that hard-boiled.

So how did Let George Do It get lumped in with all the other Hard-boiled Detectives which had escaped the pulps to become a staple of post-War radio? Perhaps we should look at the Hard-boiled Detectives before we pursue that answer. Although the pulps were less than respectable reading during their heydays of the 1930’s and early ’40’s, they inspired some of the great films of the period. The most classic example might be The Maltese Falcon (1941) which helped to cement Humphrey Bogart‘s reputation as a tough guy.

Crime drama had always been a popular part of radio drama simply because the interplay of good guys and bad guys just makes for good stories. Classic mysteries like Sherlock Holmes stories or Agatha Christie adaptations were focused on how smart the detective was in bringing the bad guy to justice. As the detectives became more and more hardboiled, the settings became grittier, the bad guys more violent, and the good guy more jaded. George Valentine begins his detective career with a relatively non-violent, even optimistic notion. Recently released from War service and with no job prospects, Valentine decides to open his own business. With no other resources or specific skills, he rents an office and some furniture and takes out an ad in the local classifieds.

The ad copy reads: “Do you have a crime that needs solving? Do you have a dog that needs walking? Do you have a wife that needs spanking? Let George do it!” In other words, Valentine sets himself up as a “concierge on steroids”. The audition episode, in addition to giving George a teenaged sidekick and a pretty secretary/office manager, involves a murdered mystery writer (who hasn’t been murdered and is not even dead), but murder is not part of the plot for several weeks. The next few episodes involve finding a girl farm for a pig farmer and a cowboy movie star who is afraid of horses.

It does not take long for the bodies to begin pile up for our hero. Apparently, the writers or whoever was paying the writers decided that capital crimes were more likely to hold the interest of the audience. As the content got grittier, George’s want-ad was modified; “Danger is my stock in trade. If you have a job that is too tough for you to handle, you’ve got a job for me. George Valentine. Write full details.” Even as things get more dangerous, Valentine simply cannot help being a nice guy, although he does find more than a few smarmy comments for the cops and his suspects.

The role of George Valentine was created by Bob Bailey. After getting his start in network programs out of Chicago, he built a solid resume with appearances in soaps and dramatic anthologies. He decided to try his luck in Hollywood and in 1943 was signed by 20th Century Fox where he appeared in seven feature films, starting in supporting roles for Laurel and Hardy. Unfortunately, Bailey was not physically imposing enough, nor did he have the sex appeal to develop as a leading man. At the same time, he was too plain to be a memorable character actor.

That everyman plainness was perfect for George Valentine, however, and sponsor Standard Oil soon had a West Coast hit on the Mutual-Don Lee Network. However, the relatively low budgets of radio dropped even further as sponsor dollars migrated to television. For the first years, Bailey’s charm was underscored by a studio orchestra (and the natural laughter of a studio audience) but in later episodes, the orchestra was replaced by a cheaper but less effective organ. In late 1952, Standard dropped sponsorship altogether, but the show kept going as a Mutual syndication. Interest in George Valentine’s brand of detective work eventually won sponsorship from Pream artificial coffee creamer. Unfortunately, the network and sponsor decided that production should be moved to New York, Bailey had found a home as part of L.A.’s “Radio Row” and was unwilling to relocate so the role was given to Olan Soule for nine months in 1954 until the program went off the air.

CBS had their own “nice guy detective” in the form of an “Insurance Investigator with an Action-Packed Expense Account”, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, which had gone of the air in September 1954. When fan and sponsor interest was high enough to bring Johnny Dollar back to the air, Bailey was hired for the role. Like George, Dollar had been becoming more “hard-boiled” as the series progressed, but when Bailey came on board the insurance investigator became more thoughtful and even-tempered. This was helped by a change in format from a half-hour-weekly to a quarter-hour-daily with five-episode story arcs. This gave Dollar, the people he was helping, and the crooks he took down a greater opportunity for character development.Bob Bailey as Yours Truly Johnny Dollar gave one of the most outstanding performances in Old Time Radio, and although that performance was based on the character developed for Let George Do It, the older program stands on its own as great listening.