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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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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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Christmas Christmas Radio Shows Fibber McGee and Molly Jack Benny

Christmas Radio Show Favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Jack Benny Jack Benny Birthday

Happy 39th birthday, Jack Benny!

Jack_Benny_Happy_Birthday_Blue_Eyes_2
You probably can’t think of a talk show host who doesn’t have a birthday. But while some of them make brief mention of it during a monologue or none at all, Jack Benny celebrated his birthday, Feb. 14, year after year. From 1937-55, listeners had a chance (or had no choice but to turn the station) to sit in on Jack Benny’s perpetual 39th birthday of the famous radio ham, whose real 39th was in 1933.

One of the traits of Benny’s radio persona was his self-involvement, so it’s little surprise that most years, skits involving the celebration of his entrance to this world ran the entire program. (Benny’s show was always colloquially known as “The Jack Benny Program,” but officially named after the sponsor at the time. In the late 30’s it was “The Jello Program.”)

happy birthday jack bennyOn the ’54 show, after the audience opened the show by singing “Happy Birthday,” Jack pulled a curmudgeon from the audience and scolding him onstage for not singing. The other joke in the sketch was his birthday being proclaimed at a Chinese restaurant and all around L.A.

Often, the birthday sketches would include a reenactment of Jack in his home on the day of his birthday (if the show aired one or two days later). One of these included his trying to decide which actress to ask to dinner to help him celebrate.

In some cases, cast members such as announcers George Hicks, and later Don Wilson, Ethel Shutta and Sadye Marks presented Jack with gifts. One year it was a bike tire pump. Another, a carton of Lucky Strikes, the sponsor at the time.

In 1955, the last year of the show’s life, various groups of people were separately planning surprise parties for Jack. When they found out about the coincidence, they decided to throw him one big party at his house. But he missed it by going to the movie theatre to watch “The Horn Blows At Midnight” three times.

Jack’s birthday shows were a prime vehicle for his narcissistic personality and the attendant jabs at his vanity.

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Carole Lombard Jack Benny

Sometimes The Show Doesn’t Go On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carole Lombard

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

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

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

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

Carole Lombard

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

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

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

Hear the Jack Benny Show from Jan 18, 1942:

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

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

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Fred Allen Jack Benny

Why I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Contest of 1945

Jack-benny-cbs-mikeWhen We Couldn’t Stand Jack Benny – A running gag series on the Jack Benny Program where radio listeners and special guests shared the many ways they couldn’t stand Jack Benny. The winner received $10,000 in American Bonds.

No one has ever accused Jack Benny of being a visionary (except, maybe, Jack Benny). However, Jack and his merry band managed to raise radio comedy from its vaudeville roots to what many reviews feel is “the quintessential radio comedy show.”

The Jack Benny Show was always a team effort, even if Jack’s character would never admit it. Jack Benny was a comic genius, and no one could have played the character he created as well or duplicated his timing and delivery. The true genius of Benny’s program was always letting the other players shine. Taking a different direction from other vaudeville veterans in radio, Jack never depended upon the technique of heckling his audience or fellow players. In contrast, Jack was usually the butt of his cast’s jokes. How much of this was Jack’s creation and how much can from his writing staff is hard to say. Jack rarely, if ever, gave an interview without acknowledging his writers, even when he disagreed with them.

_jackbennyOne bit that Jack wasn’t happy with at first was the “Why I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Contest”. When the writers originally presented the concept to Benny, the contest was “Why I Hate Jack Benny”, but that was a little much, even for Benny’s iron-tough self-deprecation.

The contest began on the first December broadcast of 1945, after a series of running gags involving Jack getting robbed of $10,000. It turns out the robbery was a publicity stunt, and the stunt continues in the contest. Through the weeks of the contest, the program
has several unique episodes and guests, including the first appearance of Ronald and Benita Colman as Jack’s neighbors, and a visit from Louella Parsons.

Jack Benny’s character is even more beside himself with the thought of giving away $10,000 than having been robbed of it. The prizes are various denominations of Victory Bonds. The worst part for Jack is the contest’s “Supreme Judge”, no other than his nemesis, Fred Allen.

Fred Allen takes positive delight in announcing the winners, but probably not as much as Ronald Colman does the following week, when he reads Carrol P. Craig’s winning entry:

Jack Benny
He fills the air with boasts and brags
And obsolete obnoxious gags.
The way he plays his violin
Is music’s most obnoxious sin.
His cowardice alone, indeed,
Is matched by his obnoxious greed.
In all the things that he portrays
He shows up my own obnoxious ways.

Enjoy this Jack Benny broadcast from 68 years ago today, Dec 30, 1945:

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Cartoon Comedy Jack Benny Old Time Radio

“The Mouse That Jack Built” – Jack Benny in Looney Tunes Animation

Old Time Radio believes it appeals to a “Nostalgia Market”, which sadly often means that the market will dry up once the generation that remembers when the programs were broadcast moves on. Fortunately, a growing number of enthusiasts are joining the ranks of old time radio fans who are discovering these shows and what a treasure they are. 

Some have no recollection of Jack Benny as a Radio or even a Television personality. But we did know him as a small rodent from the Merrie Melodies cartoon, “The Mouse That Jack Built”.

“Merrie Melodies” and “Looney Tunes” were the cornerstones of Warner Brothers animation from the 1930s onwards. Most of the short films were originally released in theaters as companions to Warner Brother’ feature films. Many of us grew to love the cartoons and the great characters when they were released to TV syndication during the 1950s and 1960s. They were also a staple of Saturday mornings on all three networks at different times.

“The Mouse That Jack Built” was released in 1959, directed by Robert McKimson. The plot was a parody of The Jack Benny Program. Most of the references in the cartoon were to the TV show rather than the radio program, but the program was such a close outgrowth of the Radio that most of the gags are familiar to Radio fans.

The story is a dream sequence of a mouse living in the walls of Jack Benny’s house. This mouse is of course Jack himself, and the cartoon hits a number of the running gags from The Jack Benny Program. These include “Jack as a Miser”, “The Vault”, “Jack’s Violin” and “The Maxwell”.

The sound effect for the Maxwell jalopy had been voiced by Mel Blanc since its radio introduction, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to add it to the cartoon. “The Mouse” would be only the second time that on-screen acting credit would be given to someone besides Mel Blanc.

There is a rumor that the only payment Jack Benny asked for the project was a copy of the cartoon.

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Comedy Jack Benny Jack Benny Birthday Old Time Radio

Happy 39th Birthday, Jack Benny!

The “stuck on 39” running gag got started the year after Jack Benny celebrated his “first” 39th birthday on the air. It was so much fun he decided to do the same thing the next year, because “There’s nothing funny about 40.” Jack would celebrate his 39th birthday 41 times. Headlines just after Christmas, 1974, reported “Jack Benny Dies- At Age 39?”

It seems appropriate that such a well loved entertainer would be born on Valentine’s Day, 1894. Meyer and Emma Kubelsky’s boy was born in Chicago and grew up in nearby Waukegan. He began his lifelong affair with the violin at the age of six. He loved the instrument, but hated to practice. He did get good enough to play with local dance bands and his school orchestra by 14, and by 17 began playing in local Vaudeville theaters. In 1911 he shared billing with the young Marx Brothers. The Marx mother, Minnie, though Jack would be a good fit as permanent accompanist for her boy’s act, but the elder Kubelsky’s wouldn’t allow their 17 year old boy to go on the road. The next year he did go on the road with 45 year old pianist Cora Salisbury. Responding to pressure from another violinist with a similar name, Kubelsky became Ben K. Benny.

Joining the Navy during WWI, he often played to entertain his shipmates. One night his violin playing was booed by the sailors, but he managed to ad-lib his way out of the jam, and thereafter the violin became a prop to his comedy. After the war he started a Single act- “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology,” but ran afoul of another name problem.  He adopted the sailor’s nick name “Jack” (short for Jack Tar) and went on developing his comic talents.

In 1922 Jack was invited to a Passover dinner by Zeppo Marx, where he met cousin Sadye Marks, whom he married in 1927. In Vaudeville tradition Jack Benny worked his new bride into the act, and she adopted the stage name of Mary Livingstone.

Jack Bennycame to the radio on May 2, 1932, sponsored by Canada Dry. The Jack Benny Program became a staple of family entertainment. Jack Benny was one of William Paley’s main targets in the famous CBS Talent Raids of 1948-49.

On the Radio, Jack was everything that he was not in real life. Benny’s character was cheap, vain, petty, and self congratulatory. Part of Benny’s genius was that he didn’t hog the laughs for himself. His assumed personality drew fire from his supporting cast, and Benny took the role of straight man. By allowing himself to become vulnerable, what could have been a despicable character was well loved.

One long lasting highlight of Benny’s comedy was the long lasting mock feud with Fred Allen, who, along with Benny, was part of NBCs powerful Sunday night line-up. The feud began when Allen made a disparaging remark about Benny’s violin playing in an ad-lib. Though the feud would run for years, Benny and Allen were great friends.

In later years Jack Benny rediscovered his love of classic violin playing. More due to his fame than talent, he played as a guest with several prominent orchestras, which resulted in considerable fund raising for these important institutions.

Further proof that Jack Benny had been born on Valentine’s Day: Arrangements had been made in his will so that after his death, Mary Livingstone received a single long stemmed red rose every day. This went on until Mary’s own death nine years later.

Enjoy this episode from his Jack Benny’s 39th Birthday in 1937: 

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Comedy Fred Allen Jack Benny Old Time Radio

Jack Benny v Fred Allen Feud “Battle of the Century” 3-14-1937

Jack Benny and Fred AllenBilled as the “Battle of the Century”, comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen began long running faux feud. This is the opening of the on-air brawl, the broadcast of the Jack Benny program from March 14, 1937:

On the Red Network (KFI, Los Angeles) and sponsored by Jell-O, this program originates from The Grand Ballroom of The Hotel Pierre, New York City. “Bing” Shlepperman (Sam Hearn) offers to substitute for Kenny Baker, who’s back in California and Mary sings! Jack sings the Jell-O commercial, but is interrupted by guest Fred Allen. Jack and Fred start an argument and wind up reminiscing about their days in Vaudeville and then sing a duet.