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.

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 Jane, Lucky Me, My Dream is Yours, The 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.

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.