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Batman Casey Crime Photographer Dragnet Duffy's Tavern Gunsmoke Jack Benny

When Settings Become Characters: Casey Crime Photographer and the Blue Note Cafe

The setting is one of the first elements defined in storytelling. The author will often select a certain setting for the mood it will evoke in the reader, although it is also true that a story takes place in a specific location because it is one that the author knows well enough to allow the story to flow. The time period is also an element of the story’s setting which helps the listener know what to expect from the characters.

Part of the magic of radio drama is that the writer and the actors, who are working in a studio somewhere, can take us anywhere and anytime. Most OTR fans can picture dozens of places that they have never been to but know almost as well as their own living rooms. The living room at 79 Wistful Vista; Jack Benny‘s house next door to Ronald and Benita Colman with a vault in the basement and the kitchen in back where Jack does laundry for hire; the foggy San Francisco waterfront where Pat Novak for Hire foils bad guys; The offices of Spade and Archer where Sam Spade dictates his case notes to Effie; the grimy streets of post War Los Angeles in Dragnet; the dusty prairie around Dodge City in Gunsmoke. The listener may have never been to any of these places but when he hears a few notes of the program’s theme music, he is transported there.

Batman Comics

The detective or private investigator usually has a safe place to retire between cases, or somewhere safe to contemplate the clues in the case he is working on. The most obvious example is the famous Batcave (interestingly even though Batman never had his own series during the Golden Age of Radio, he and Robin appeared in several story arc of Mutual Network’s Superman; although the Man of Steel never sees the Batcave, Clark Kent does visit Stately Wayne Manor). Sherlock Holmes‘ apartment at 221B Baker Street still receives fan mail addressed to the mythical detective. Jack Casey of Casey Crime Photographer and his girlfriend, reporter Ann Williams, could often be found whiling away the hours at the Blue Note, a jazz club in the wrong part of town.

A bar seems like a natural lair for a private eye, there is the privacy of darkness even at midday, strong drink to help the P.I. focus his thoughts, and any number of unsavory characters passing through to bring fresh clues. However, the radio networks were incredibly protective of the family-friendly atmosphere of their programs, which made the Blue Note an interesting anomaly in radio.

Crucial to any good bar scene is the trusty bartender, and the lead mixologist at the Blue Note is none other than the enigmatic Ethelbert. Although his position provides Ethelbert with more than his share of street-knowledge, he is more often employed as a sounding board for Casey and Ann than a real source of intel or even advice. With a rather affected Brooklyn accent, Ethelbert seems to be modeled after Archie the Bartender at Duffy’s Tavern and seems nearly as clueless. Although Ethelbert contributes relatively little to whatever case or story Casey and Ann are chasing, he is the beyond-the-workplace glue which holds the couple together. In this way he is even more effective than an office romance (and all the stickiness that would imply).

Jan Miner also played the role of “Ann” on Casey Crime Photographer

Although a number of actors would play Casey and Ann over the years (most notably Jan Miner and Shakespearean actor Staats Cosworth), John Gibson would voice Ethelbert for eleven years, mixing drinks and metaphors to the delight of all. In fact, because the program played during family hours, Ethelbert served far fewer drinks than the club’s owners would have preferred. The Blue Note Café was better known for its house band than its bar, and when the Teddy Wilson Trio was on the show, some critics felt that the band had a bigger following than the show.

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George Burns & Gracie Allen

George and Gracie and the Loving Art of Reinvention

There is an old saw that supposes when a man marries, he wants his wife to stay the same sweet, loving girl she was when they met while the woman immediately begins to change the man into her ideal of manhood. Like so many examples of folk wisdom, this old saw seems to be true to a greater or lesser extent in every relationship, and there will always be exceptions. For an illustration, we need look no further than one of the most successful and beloved couples in show business, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

George and Gracie came from different backgrounds, even different ends of the country. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born in San Francisco on July 26, sometime between 1895 and 1906, no one is really sure, including George. Gracie famously claimed that she was born in 1906, and the records were lost in the Great Earthquake and Fire (“But the San Francisco Earthquake was in April of 1906 and your birthday is on July 27?” “It was a really big earthquake!”) Singing, dancing, and entertaining were part of the Allen household even before Gracie was born, and when she was old enough she joined her sisters as one of “The Four Colleens” dance troupe, and began making some small vaudeville engagements. She was still a teen when she hit the road with “Larry Reilly and Company”, the company being Gracie and her sisters. One by one, her other sisters dropped out of the act, and in New Jersey, Reilly changed the name of the act to just “Larry Reilly”. Gracie dropped out of the act, she hadn’t had much billing before, but no billing was insufferable.

Nathan Birnbaum was born in New York City, 1896, the ninth of twelve children born to Romanian Jews who had immigrated to America. When father Louis Birnbaum died suddenly during the influenza epidemic of 1903, little Nattie went to work at whatever he could find, shining shoes, peddling newspapers, or just running errands. When he was seven, he was hired with a team of boys to make syrup in the basement of a candy shop. Bored with stirring the syrup, the boys began harmonizing and were heard by the postman who fancied himself an agent. When he insisted that the boys sing again, a crowd gathered and Nattie realized that he had found the way he wanted to make a living.

There are different versions of how Nattie Birnbaum became George Burns, all of which were told by George himself. One is that he picked up the name because there was a George H. Burns and a George J. Burns both playing in the Major Leagues, and the name seemed lucky. Another is that his brother Izzy wanted to be called George and then he added the last name after reading it off of a Burns Bros. Coal Company wagon. He began performing wherever he could find an audience, singing on ferries, at bus stops, in front of taverns, eventually hitting the vaudeville circuit. He tried working as a song and dance man, a monologist, as part of a comedy team, as part of a dance team, even with a trained seal.

George happened to be in New Jersey when his act with Billy Lorraine was breaking up. A mutual friend was Gracie’s roommate and introduced them. George later said that as soon as he heard Gracie’s delicate voice, he knew she was a dancer. However, they found that they had enough in common to put together a new act. They started as dance partners and began adding patter, eventually evolving into what was known as a “park bench act”. The park bench act was a small drama which took place between a man and woman on a bench and was popular with theater owners because it could be performed in front of the curtain (while the scenery was being reset for the next act).

As originally conceived, the act consisted of Gracie asking a seemingly innocent question and George supplying a funny answer. After just a few performances, George realized that Gracie was getting more laughs with her questions than he got with the funny answers, so he rewrote the material reversing the roles and they became a hit. Audiences were falling in love with Gracie Allen. And so was George Burns.

The only problem was that Gracie was in love with an Irish tenor named Benny Ryan. Benny fully intended to marry Gracie, but luckily for George, Burns and Allen landed a booking on the Orpheum Circuit. Gracie was not sure she wanted to make the trip, even though her friend Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny‘s wife, pointed out that she would finally get to see her picture in the lobby of the San Francisco Orpheum Theater. Grace was finally convinced to make the tour, so long as their wages were increased by $50 a week. No wonder George was smitten.

When they returned to New York, Gracie found out that Benny was on tour again and they could not marry until he returned. George pressed his suit with little success. Finally, he was asked to play Santa at a party at the Benny’s Christmas party. Seeing his chances with Gracie slipping away, he was an incredibly surly Santa (Gracie was late because she was waiting for a phone call from Ryan). When he opened Gracie’s gift, signed “To Nattie, With all My Love”, he grumped, “All your love? Ha ha ha, you don’t even know what love means!” and left in a huff. Gracie ran into the bedroom, crying, then realized that if Nattie Birnbaum could make her cry, she must be in love. They were married on January 7, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, between performances.

As their vaudeville fame grew, Burns and Allen built a reputation as a reliable “disappointment act”. Whenever the scheduled act failed to make it to the theater, the disappointment act could be called upon at the last minute to go on. A similar thing happened at Paramount’s New York studios in 1929 when Fred Allen was scheduled to make a short talking film. Someone on the set had the idea of calling George and Gracie, who went through their “Lambchops” routine.

1929, but NBC failed to show any interest when they auditioned after returning to the US in 1930. Guy Lombardo began using them as part of his show on CBS, and when Lombardo moved to NBC, his spot was filled by The Adventures of Gracie beginning in the 1934 fall season. Their radio act was very similar to their patter routines in vaudeville, but the writing became a challenge. In vaudeville, George could create a bit which they would perfect according to audience reactions, and before the act became stale they would be moving on to another city. For a regular radio program, they needed fresh material every week so a team of writers was hired. George would select the best gags, then arrange them to fit into the show. This also gave him the opportunity to introduce the running gags which eventually ensure Burns and Allen as stars.

The first running gag was “Where is Gracie’s Brother?” routine. The gag actually began while they were still working with Guy Lombardo and soon became a cross-network phenomenon. Not only did they use the gag on their own show, Gracie would appear on other programs to ask if the characters had seen her brother. The laughs finally came to an end when Rudy Vallee let it slip that Gracie’s real brother, a mild-mannered accountant in San Francisco, was not amused by the attention and had in fact gone into hiding for a time.

The next big running gag came during the Presidential election of 1940 when Gracie jokingly announced that she was running on the “Surprise Party” ticket. The bit was expected to be a short-lived gag on the air, but eventually, a Surprise Party Convention was scheduled in Omaha, Nebraska, and George and Gracie made a whistle-stop tour along the way. Although she did not distract Roosevelt or Wilkie that much, with War Clouds gathering, she did give a troubled nation more than a little to smile about.

Although it was no secret that Burns and Allen were a married couple, their radio program was still based on a park bench routine, and George was savvy enough to realize that they were getting a little mature to keep pulling it off. He made the decision to remake the show as a situation comedy where he and Gracie would be a married couple in the entertainment industry. Perhaps not much of a stretch, but domestic bliss combined with Gracie’s illogical-logic was enough laughs for many more years.

The post-War era on radio was marked mostly by the exodus of the top performers to television, but few made the transition as gracefully as Burns and Allen. George took a few stylistic risks with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, most notably breaking the “fourth wall” and commenting on the action directly to the audience. He said that he knew it was an original idea because he originally stole it from Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. The one thing that he wisely refused to do was mess with Gracie’s character, knowing full well that Gracie was the reason for his success. Gracie was less happy with the arrangement.

George had worked full time on the radio program, putting together the script, arranging guests, and the other chores required to produce a weekly program. Gracie had to show up for a couple of hours’ rehearsal each week, and the live broadcast but the rest of her time could be dedicated to being a housewife, which she relished. For TV, she had to work at learning her lines, do more complicated rehearsals, make-up sessions, as well as taping the show. She quickly tired, but continued to do it, mostly to keep George happy. Finally, she got to the point of announcing that she would retire at the end of the 1958 season. George tried to keep the show going with the same supporting cast without his wife, but, just as he knew it would, it simply did not work without Gracie.

When Gracie retired from showbiz, she really retired. There were countless offers for her to make films or appear as a guest on several TV shows, but they would have gotten in the way of her gardening, shopping, and the other things that she enjoyed. However, her work schedule, while she was in TV, had taken a toll on her health. She had a history of cardiac problems, and she died of a heart attack at her Hollywood home in 1964.

George opened his 1988 memoir by admitting, “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.” George Burns without Gracie Allen seemed like an impossibility. He immersed himself in his work as a producer and made a few tours of the nightclub circuit with various actresses playing the Gracie role, including Carol Channing, Jane Russell, and Connie Haines. His good friend, Jack Benny, had been scheduled to play a lead in the film version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975) but passed away before production began. George took the role and went on to establish himself as one of the grand old men of show business. He continued to work until his death on March 9, 1996, 49 days after his 100th birthday.

George Burns has been honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6510 Hollywood Blvd for his contributions to Television, at 1639 Vine St for Motion Pictures, and at 6672 Hollywood Blvd for Live Performance. Gracie Allen’s Star for Television is also at 6672 Hollywood Blvd

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Murder By Experts

Murder By Experts: How to Become an Expert in Murder

Robert Arthur Jr. at work during 1950.
Robert Arthur, Jr

How does one become an expert on murder? According to the creators of Murder By Experts, expertise in murder is demonstrated by writing about murder in a highly entertaining fashion. No university has a recognized degree program in murder, and consulting someone with “experience in the field” is too ghastly to contemplate.

The subject itself seems too ghastly to consider, but murder mysteries make for highly entertaining fair and they are the centerpiece of the majority of the crime dramas which filled the air during the Golden Age of Radio. The average listener might drive a few miles over the speed limit on occasion or could neglect to tell Uncle Sam the whole truth on their tax returns, but by and large, they are law-abiding people who would go out of their way to help their fellow man. The psychological makeup of someone who is actually capable of murder is fascinating to behold. Remember the old joke about going to a party dressed as a homicidal maniac? They look just like you and me.

Using their own standard, Robert Arthur and Dave Kogan each qualified as experts in murder. Kogan grew up with Radio entering the Golden Age and entered Columbia University to study radio production. At a scriptwriting class in 1940, he met Robert Arthur Jr, who had a mixed bag of experiences any author would be happy to draw upon. He was born in Corregidor, Philippines, the son of a US Army lieutenant. After a life of moving from base to base around the country he won an appointment to West Point but decided against a military career and entered William and Mary College in Virginia in 1926, later transferring to the University of Michigan (Robert Arthur Sr was working there as a Professor of Military Science) where he earned a BA then an MA in English. After settling in Greenwich Village, New York City, he began writing for pulp magazines and had stories published in Wonder Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, The Illustrated Detective Magazine, Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, Detective Tales, Thrilling Detective, Double Detective, The Phantom Detective, Unknown Worlds, Black Mask, and several other magazines.

Arthur married a radio soap opera actress in 1938, but they split before he joined the scriptwriting class at Columbia in 1940. Kogan and Arthur’s friendship developed into a formidable scriptwriting team. They would work together in an intense session to hammer out a story, then Kogan would take over as director and producer. They went to work together at WOR, the flagship station of the Mutual Network, creating scripts for the short-lived Dark Destiny in 1942. With one success under their belt, the duo was allowed to put together another series, The Mysterious Traveler, which first aired in December 1943. In addition to spellbinding tales of fantasy, science fiction, and the supernatural to go along with crime drama, The Traveler featured the Traveler himself as a horror host.

The series spawned comic books and, eventually, its own pulp magazine. With a proven money-maker on their hands, Mutual gave Kogan and Arthur the greenlight for another series, Murder By Experts, which would begin airing in 1949. Experts would be just as thrilling as The Traveler, but the format took some interesting creative turns. One of the most important was that rather than original plots the show used stories selected by the weekly guest “Expert”, the stories still had to be adapted to a radio format. The “horror host” was replaced by a host expert, prolific mystery writer John Dickson Carr during the first season.

Carr was no stranger to radio. Not only had several of his stories been adapted by various anthology series, but he wrote several original scripts for Suspense. Each week Carr’s “guest expert” would select a favorite murder story, usually the work of yet a third author. After the first season, Carr left the series, presumably to concentrate on furthering his writing career. He was replaced by Brett Halliday, creator of the Michael Shayne detective series. Halliday was the pseudonym of Davis Dresser, who had been influential in founding the Mystery Writers of America. Kogan and Arthur were awarded an “Edgar” award by the Mystery Writers in 1950 for “best radio program of a mystery nature” in 1950 for Murder By Experts (The Mysterious Traveler would be so honored in 1953).

The team of Kogan and Arthur decided to give back to the radio writing profession by becoming supporters of the Radio Writers Guild. At the time, however, any collective bargaining effort was destined to be painted as a Communist front by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although they were not listed in Red Channels, HUAC attention was enough to gain notice from Mutual’s sponsors who put pressure on the network to cancel both Experts and Traveler.

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Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ Wartime Campaign for Pan-Americanism: Hello Neighbors

Orson Welles

We have cited several examples of Hollywood and the entertainment industry doing their part to fight the Second World War. The Stars did whatever they could to boost the morale of men in uniform, and more than a few Hollywood figures actually donned their country’s uniform. More than a few made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the service of their country. In his rush to serve the nation, Orson Welles sacrificed something that, to many in Hollywood and beyond, was even more precious than his life. To serve his country, Welles sacrificed his career and reputation.

Welles was still in his mid-Twenties when he first answered the nation’s call. That call came due to his meteoric rise in the entertainment industry, and anyone who upsets the status quo as much as Welles did is bound to attract controversy. The wunderkind’s spectacular rise through the Federal Theater Project and the notoriety gained in radio where based on a stunning combination of audacity and creative genius. His infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast is thought to have been the catalyst which caused RKO to agree to what was an unprecedented contract for a new movie director. The notoriety from the “War of the Worlds” is based on the hype generated after the fact by entertainment reporters who were willing to report just about anything that seemed like a juicy story, the supposed “nationwide panic” that the broadcast caused was largely fictional, but it certainly boosted Welles’ reputation.

The deal with RKO was for Welles to write, produce, direct, and perform in two motion pictures and to have complete creative control over the projects. The studio rejected his first two film proposals before allowing him to proceed with Citizen Kane (1941). Today, the film is regarded as an artistic triumph and one of the best films ever made, but at the time of its release, it was an expensive boondoggle for RKO which drew the ire of William Randolph Hearst, one of the most influential men in the country. Hearst’s war on the film is attributed with not only ruining its chance for box office success but hurting all of RKO’s pictures.

Welles went to work on his second picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which may have salvaged his reputation with RKO, but as the picture was going into post-production Welles was appointed as a goodwill ambassador to South America by Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Nelson Rockefeller. The honor of such an ambassadorship had been offered to Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth John Ford, Walt Disney (resulting in The Three Caballeros), and others in the entertainment industry. Rockefeller was a big investor at RKO, and the reason for choosing Welles as a goodwill ambassador was to film a documentary about the February 1942 Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Although he had only completed a “rough cut” of Ambersons, Welles left extensive notes on how he wanted the film edited before leaving for South America. He was thoroughly briefed in Washington before the trip south (allegedly, the intelligence services conducted part of that briefing and Welles was to do some spying on as well as filming his South American friends).

Working mostly on his own dime, Welles traveled to several South American countries gathering footage for a project tentatively titled It’s All True, an “omnibus picture” with three parts, “The Story of Jazz” which was a history of Samba, “My Friend Bonito” where a Mexican boy befriends a bull, and “Jangadeiros” about four poor Brazilian fishermen sailing a raft. When he finally returned to Hollywood, Welles discovered that his editing notes for Ambersons had been ignored and the studio edited and released version was “ruined” in his opinion (all of the unused footage had been destroyed, possibly to prevent future editing). What’s more, the studio terminated any further work on It’s All True.

Despite lack of support from RKO, Welles was far from being finished with his fight in the War. Just days after returning to U.S. soil, he acted as emcee of a seven-hour coast-to-coast War Bond Drive broadcast which raised $10 million. He continued campaigning for Pan-American unity by presenting “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, a biography of Christopher Columbus, on the October 12 episode of Cavalcade of America. A month later, he began hosting Hello Americans on CBS, sponsored by the OCIAA to promote inter-American understanding. Hello Americans drew heavily on the research he had done for It’s All True. During the same period, he created Ceiling Unlimited which would also broadcast on CBS, sponsored by Lockheed and glorifying the contributions of the Aviation industry.

At the beginning of the War, Welles’ draft status was “1-B”, or “unfit for active duty by available for limited duty. This was soon upgraded to “1-A”, Fit for duty, however, Welles, the Army, and the Roosevelt administration all seemed to agree that he had more to contribute as a media personality than he would have in uniform.  Gossip columnist and long-time agent of the Heart newspapers, Louella Parsons soon began making discrete (and not so discrete) inquiries as to why Orson Welles was living the life of a Hollywood playboy while so many others were in uniform, fighting and dying for the cause of Democracy. Finally, in the spring of 1943, Welles presented himself to the induction center set up at the Pacific Electric Building in downtown Los Angeles. After his medical examination, his status was downgraded to 4-F because of “myoditis (skeletal muscle inflammation), bronchial asthma, arthritis and inverted flat feet”.

Far from being the only Hollywood figure with 4-F status, Welles was in the company of Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, and Errol Flynn. However, it can hardly be said that Orson Welles shirked in his duty. However, whether because of bad press, driven by the Hearst organization, bad professional choices, or simply changing public tastes, Orson Welles would never quite regain the reputation he enjoyed as a pre-War wunderkind.

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Christmas Christmas Radio Shows Texaco Star Theater

Texaco Star Theater with John Barrymore

In this 1938 Christmas Variety Show, host John Barrymore shared a few hilariously funny Christmas remarks with actress Una Merkel, then introduced Kenny Baker, who reminded everyone of us to? Don’t Wait Until the Night Before Christmas to be Good? Following that, the stars of the show performed a drama based on ?The Song of Christmas? you won’t want to miss:

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Christmas Fibber McGee and Molly Jack Benny Jack Webb Police Drama

Enjoying Christmas Radio Classics

Jack Benny

After the end of the Golden Age of Radio, the Christmas season simply meant that radio commercials got cheerier and more obnoxious at the same time. We were also sure to be subjected to those darned chipmunks at least once every forty-five minutes.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Many social critics (and kindly curmudgeons) bemoan the supposed commercialism of the Holiday Season. Although it is hard to find any real personal value in a spending orgy that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers are cold, the national obsession with making the Christmas Season special that ran from the Depression years through the Post War period was more than a boon to retailers. At its deepest level, the season of “Goodwill to All Men” became an important thread in the fabric that made us Americans.

Town and country, city and village, prairie and mountain, no matter where you were during the period, radio from the four big networks helped to bind us together as a nation, and made our Holidays a common experience. Jack Benny taught us that Christmas Shopping was supposed to be frustrating, hearing Bing belt out ?Adeste Fidelis? every year reminded us of the importance of tradition, and Fibber McGee helped to teach us that we never outgrow Christmas.

Fibber McGee & Molly

Seasonal Silliness would be carried into the Television era, of course. With television, the season became less real and more retail. The reality of TV’s fantasy world was that the Christmas shows were often written in the summertime and recorded before the fall season started. Radio, with rare exceptions, was live, being performed by people who were involved in their own version of the holiday rush. This was especially true, and that much more poignant in the holiday editions of AFRS programs during WWII. Hollywood and Radio’s biggest names came together on programs like Command Performance, GI Journal and Mail Call. Working on a volunteer basis, and more often than not led by Bob Hope, the Stars did all they could to make Christmas special for the troops.

Bob Hope

Any program that held onto a time slot as well as managing to stay on the air for more than a couple years had a pretty good chance of Christmas Eve or The Big Day falling on a broadcast night. Of course, the longer the show stayed on the air, the more likely it was to happen more than once. The long run of Fibber McGee and Molly gave us a number of terrifically festive Christmas programs (and usually more than just during the week before Christmas), but some of the best took place on Christmas Eve or Christmas and included ?Teenie? Marian Jordan’s little girl character) reciting Twas The Night Before Christmas along with the Kingsmen.

With Beulah in the kitchen and Leroy scheming for the perfect present, The Great Gildersleeve gave us a number of terrific Christmas memories. Gildy’s Christmases often involved manly voices raised in song as well as schemes to do something nice for the town’s young folks, but few Christmases were as poignant than 1948. That fall a baby had been abandoned in Gildersleeve’s car. Having an infant in his life turned the confirmed bachelor on his ear. The story arc climaxed at Christmas when Gildy must make the decision to adopt the baby girl or return her to the father who had been forced to abandon her. The was not a dry eye within earshot of the radio.

Jack Webb as Sgt Joe Friday of Dragnet

Even Radio Tough Guys softened a bit around the edges at Christmas, even of the Radio Noir world they operated in didn’t. Sgt Friday on Dragnet shocked us one year over the dangers of kids and guns with “A Rifle For Christmas”, and then in another season warmed our heart to melting in “Big Little Jesus” when an immigrant boy makes good on his promise to take the Baby Jesus for a ride if he receives a red wagon for Christmas. The great Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin discover that street corner Santa Clauses are being murdered and that one of the Santas is a millionaire. Even Sherlock Holmes has to come to the rescue when Professor Moriarty stoops so low as to try and steal kid’s Christmas gifts.

Christmas is not forgotten in the Wild West. One of the best Cowboy Christmases is shared by James Stewart’s The Six Shooter when Britt Ponset tells a very Western version of the classic Scrooge tale.

Even without Chipmunks, Christmas is a time for music, and Old Time Radio does not disappoint. On Christmas Day, 1943, NBC managed to connect every theater of the War with music and inspiration talks. Two days earlier, Dinah Shore delighted everyone with her beautiful Christmas songs while apologizing that her sponsor’s Birdseye frozen turkeys would all be going to support the War Effort. Of course,  Melody Ranch and the rest of the guitar and fiddle crowd would never forget Christmas.

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Old Time Radio

Sam Spade on the Radio

You’ve heard the boast: America is the country that invented rock and roll; America invented jazz, the car, the Big Mac, baseball.?  It seems fair enough to add Sam Spade, and indeed, hard-boiled detectives to the list.?  That is, there’s something quintessentially American about the droll jokes, the world-weary attitude, the careful selection of haberdashery.?  The irascible man in the trench coat who didn’t like his boss and despised authority but was ultimately on the right team and knew a bad guy when he saw one.?  Perhaps all of this reflected the increasingly complex and frightening realities in a country that was increasingly industrialized, spread out, and urban. Americans had lost some innocence in World War I, and perhaps longed for heroes who could give them an unvarnished version of what they saw around them?

You probably know that Sam Spade was the product of the imagination of legendary author Dashiell Hammett.?  S-squared set up office in San Francisco in the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, which of course was brought to the silver screen with Humphrey Bogart starring.

Sam first came to life on the radio in the form of adaptations of Falcon, with examples being the Lux Radio Theater adaptation from February of ’43 and that of Academy Award Theater in 1946 (with the latter starring Bogey himself)

But his main incarnation was on the relatively long-running series The Adventures of Sam Spade, masterminded by entrenched producer William Spier.? 

There isn’t a major radio network that didn’t carry the show at one time or another: for ABC it was?  Jul-Oct, 1946; CBS, Sept. ’46-Sept. ’49; NBC, Oct. ’49-Apr. ’51.? ? 

Spier, the show’s creator and producer, had risen quickly through the CBS ranks to become the head of program development.?  In that capacity, he produced the acclaimed series Suspense.?  Moving to ABC, he developed for the airwaves The Adventures of Sam Spade.

William Spier

To play the title character, Spier brought in Howard Duff, a newcomer, freshly returned from service in the Air Force’s radio services.?  Duff had just a bit of theatre experience but was already developing something a tough-guy persona, which he filtered through a bit of sarcasm, helping to achieve a less serious approach than Falcon and other radio series focusing on detectives.? ? 

Lurene Tuttle was tapped for the all-important role of Sam’s secretary Effie Perrine, who took down Sam’s observations, which served as major support beams for each narrative. Unlike Duff, Tuttle was far from being a newcomer to the silver airwaves.?  She was quite the opposite, an overworked character actress who also appeared on The Great Gildersleeve and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.?  She would at some point in her career work on as many as fifteen shows concurrently, and would eventually be known as “The First Lady of Radio,” though she happened not to be radio’s only “first” lady, and probably not its last.

But while something in the free-wheeling nature of Spade suggests a frontier mentality native to America, the show’s fate would be affected by a part of this nation’s history of which not many are proud.?  The Communist hunt of the 1950’s had wide-ranging effects, and this program was not immune. First, Hammett, whose name was originally announced at the beginning of each episode, was swept into the dragnet of those seeking anti-American behavior.?  An anti-fascist from way back, Hammett was also a member of the Communist party. This brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the major arm of McCarthy’s witch hunt. Just like we imagine Spade woulda, Hammett stood his ground and refused to implicate some of his cohorts, and this earned him some jail time for a contempt charge.

NBC, to no one’s surprise, had no interest in taking a political stand, and it dropped Hammett’s name from the show early in the writer’s persecution.? 

With, Duff, however, things weren’t so easy for the show’s producers.?  Duff was also far Left, and when he was outed as a sympathizer of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers who refused to testify before HUAC, he lost his job as Sam Spade.?  He was entered onto some blacklists, though he did manage to continue acting in film.

Steven Dunne took over in 1950.?  Dunne was a blossoming talent, a just-known commodity, having played roles in the films Doll Face, Colonel Effigham’s Raid, and The Big Sombrero. ? He would go on to star in Professional Father and would appear in two of the late episodes of The Brady Bunch. Noted radio historian John Dunning referred to Dunne as “a boy-ish sounding Spade,” and it’s hard to find a source that gives rave reviews to the actor’s performance as the iconic detective.

The show’s last episode was “The Hail and Farewell Caper,” aired April 27, 1951.  Sam Spade is, of course, an enduring element of Americana, an exemplar of the hard-boiled detective.  The program goes down as one of the best-made detective shows, a cohesive package of acting, sound effects, production, writing and directing.

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Your Movietown Radio Theater

Your Movietown Radio Theater

For movie actors on their way up to the A-List, Your Movietown Theater provided a showcase.

One result of the symbiosis between the Studio System and Radio Row was Your Movietown Theater.

Jeff Chandler

Symbiosis is a scientific term describing two different organisms which live in close proximity to one another, usually to the benefit of each. The classic example of this is bees and flowers; the flower’s colorful display attracts the bee who gathers nectar to feed the hive and at the same time spreads the pollen which helps the flowers make more flowers.

Radio Row and Hollywood Studios also enjoyed a symbiotic relationship on many levels. A radio show would not need as many players as a Hollywood movie but Radio Row had an insatiable appetite for talent, and several actors worked in Radio on their way up (or down) the ladder of Stardom. The Studios took advantage of Radio’s reach into nearly all the households in America by having Stars appear on comedy and variety programs and plugging their latest film.

Another example of Studio and Radio symbiosis was the Movie Adaptation Anthology Program. At first, this seemed like a bad idea to the Studio execs; why would anyone want to pay to see a film after Lux or Lady Esther gave the story away? The films adapted were usually not “first-run” although some were. When a film was adapted while it was still playing in theaters, the adaptation made more people want to see the real thing.

Your Movietown Theater took a slightly different approach; rather than featuring A-list actors in stories adapted from film scripts, producer/director Les Mitchell hired up-and-coming players and used original story scripts. The show often featured a “get to know the Star” segment along with the main story; Ginger Rodgers got to introduce her mother, journalist Leila Rogers, Lurene Tuttle talked about her first day on a movie set, and William Lundigan talks about his golf game.

Movietown was a product of ZIV Syndications, which had a big impact on the show’s success. Fred Ziv came from an advertising and legal background and was known to pitch a show like he was making a court case. Although Movietown appeared to be a relatively low-budget project, Ziv was willing to spend lavishly to get big names on his programs, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Adolphe Menjou, Fred MacMurray, Ronald Colman, and Irene Dunne. Ziv’s marketing philosophy was that he could make more money selling his programs to local sponsors at unaffiliated stations than he could by dealing with the big networks.

A member of Movietown‘s regular company who was also an up-and-comer was Jeff Chandler, appearing here under his given name, Ira Grossel. Growing up in Brooklyn, Chandler always wanted to act although he admitted later that commercial art lessons were cheaper than acting lessons, so that is the direction his early career followed. He eventually formed an acting company in the Midwest during the summer of 1941. During the War, he served in the Aleutians and managed to save $3,000, which he used to stake himself while giving Hollywood a shot. Jeff was on his way to a screen test when he was in an auto accident that left him scared across the forehead. Fortunately, the bandages didn?t show on Radio, and he managed to find work on the air just before the $3,000 ran out. In addition to Movietown, he made a splash on Escape, Academy Award Theater, Rogues Gallery, Frontier Town, and Our Miss Brooks before finding success on the silver screen.

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Ed Begley

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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Old Time Radio

Steady Work: Paula Winslow in Old Time Radio

Paula Winslowe

There are stars in every industry, the CEOs who make the big decisions, the outstanding salespeople who convince new customers to buy and develop new markets for the product, the daring researchers who create new products, the ambitious production managers who help the factory meet or exceed production quotas each month. These so-called stars are impressive, but overall probably less important to the bottom line than the countless working stiffs who punch the clock each morning, do the job they are hired for, and picking up their paycheck which will go towards expanding the economy as a whole. Being a worker may not be as glamorous as being a star, but without the contributions of the workers, the stars would never be able to shine.

Paula Winslowe was a typical Midwestern girl, born in Grafton, North Dakota, 1910, who would grow up to prove that a worker can, in her own way, shine as brightly as a star. Many of the wonders of the Twentieth century were late in coming to the Midwest, but every small town had a movie palace, and Paula’s high school sweetheart, John Sutherland, was as fascinated by what he was seeing on the screen as he was with the pretty girl in the seat next to him. John determined that he would become the next great movie director as soon as he could get to Hollywood while Paula decided she was going to become Mrs. Sutherland and support whatever ambitions he had. They married just after high school and made the move to Tinsel Town.

Paula Winslowe and William Bendix

While the young couple was adjusting to big city life in Hollywood, the movie industry itself was trying to adjust to the new phenomenon of talking pictures. The studios were hardly beating the bushes to find the Next Great Director, unfortunately for John, but he did manage to get a job with Disney studios as an animator, his first project was the Mickey Mouse short Beach Party (1931).

While John was looking for a job, the studios were coming to grips with the fact that many of their most photogenic actresses simply did not have voices which were suitable for talkies. An early solution was to hire a “voice double” to speak their lines which were later added to the film’s soundtrack. With a lovely contralto voice, Paula was well received as a voice double, signing with MGM. Of course, the studio would never admit that their most popular actresses were not using their own voices, so Paula was rarely given public credit for her work beyond a paycheck every week, and since she knew her husband would someday be the Next Great Director, that was credit enough for Paula.

One of her most notable voice doublings was for Saratoga (1937) after star Jean Harlow died suddenly of kidney disease during filming. Body double Mary Dees filled in for Harlow’s long shots during the remainder of the shoot and Paula was tapped to dub the star’s lines. Winslowe was gaining enough of a reputation for reliability around town that she was offered a job with KHJ, the flagship station of the budding Don Lee Network, joining the station’s company before the December 1936 merger with Mutual. Don Lee had been the West Coast outlet for CBS before merging with Mutual, and Paula appeared in “dramatized commercials” on several Tiffany Network programs before and after the merger. She also worked with Louella Parsons on Hollywood Hotel, Alexander Woolcott on Town Crier, was a pitch lady on Lux Radio Theatre and had a recurring role on Big Town.

Meanwhile, John was still at Disney and had moved from animation to the Story department where he received a greater exposure to the business side of animation. Frankly, the business end of things at Disney was not great at the time. Sutherland was working on the studio’s fifth full-length animated feature, Bambi (1942), while two previous films, Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940) had been box office disappointments. Dumbo (1941) had been a “financial miracle” for the studio, but a strike during production had killed the family atmosphere workers had previously enjoyed. Paula voiced Bambi’s mother in what would be her most famous film role, but Bambi lost money in its first release.

Sutherland left Disney on good terms before the strike, and Mr. Disney gave him strong recommendations and eventually helped him to open his own animation studio. He produced several live-action training films during the War, and later John Sutherland Productions released a series of industrial and propaganda films espousing the strengths of free enterprise. The studio was so prolific that Disney considered buying him out, but no deal was reached.

In addition to their professional success, John and Paula had four children. Paula’s biggest radio role was as Peg Riley on The Life of Riley from 1944-1951. The concept for the program had been created as a radio vehicle for Groucho Marx, but he was not a good fit for the role as it developed. Groucho would find radio success in other projects, and writer Irving Brecher reworked the script to fit William Bendix, who he had seen in Hal Roach’s The McGuerins of Brooklyn (1942). The reworked story revolved around a Brooklyn family who moved to California to find their fortune in the Wartime aircraft industry. Bendix’s Chester Riley would be the prototype of the bumbling sitcom dad, but Riley would have been nowhere without the wise and loving support of wife Peg. Few listeners realized how closely Paula’s own backstory paralleled Peg’s.

Paula continued to work in television and eventually retired with John to their home in Van Nuys. Paula Winslowe passed away at her home on March 7, 1996. She was 85. John Sutherland went to his reward on February 17, 2001, at the age of 90.