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.

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.


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. 

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Dick Powell and the Fight Against Typecasting

Most serious actors do their best to avoid falling into the trap of typecasting. As creative artists, they would prefer to build a varied resume’, with appearances in a variety of films and roles in Romantic Comedies, Westerns, action films, Period Pieces, Crime Stories, and Space Operas, playing a mix of heroes, villains, clowns, and tragic figures. Of course, only the hottest of Hollywood talent will get to put together a resume’ this rich. Most will find the only way they can keep working is to accept some degree of typecasting.

Typecasting is an easy trap to fall into, and usually, the typecast actor is a victim of his own success. If you are successful as a certain type of character, then the studio bean counters will feel reassured that they can make money if you do it again. That is how Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce wound up making more than a dozen Sherlock Holmes films from 1939 until 1946, as well as several seasons playing the characters on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on the radio.

Some actors will point out that it is better to be typecast than to not be cast at all, but it is easy to understand the frustration of playing the same type of character, over and over again. That is why it can be so satisfying to see an actor break from type. One of the best examples is Dick Powell who broke from the musical comedy “pretty boy” type so successfully that he seemed to have three separate careers.

Born Richard Ewing Powell in Arkansas, 1904, he was the middle boy of three sons. His father was often away on business, his mother used as a way to keep her sons in line, encouraging each of the boys to take up an instrument. The family settled in Little Rock in 1914, where folks began to notice Dick’s singing talent. After working his way through Little Rock College as a grocery clerk, soda jerk, and other odd jobs, he broke into show business as an M.C. at local theaters. Later, he signed on as a banjo player and singer with the Royal Peacock Orchestra in Louisville, Kentucky, before hitting the road with the Charlie Davis Band, touring throughout the mid-West.

Davis was based in Indianapolis, where he had the bad cut a few sides for Vocalion, and the label had Dick make some discs as a solo artist. Vocalion was owned by Brunswick Records, who were bought out by Warner Bros in 1930. After getting the new acquisitions sorted out the film studio began to take notice of the good-looking young singer and offered Powell a movie contract in 1932. He made his film debut as a singing bandleader in Blessed Event (1932).

Warner’s brought Dick along as a journeyman crooner, eventually pairing him with Al Jolson’s wife, Ruby Keeler, in the backstage musical 42nd Street (1933). Audiences loved the Keeler and Powell pairing, and they appeared together in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Flirtation Walk (1934), Shipmates Forever (1935), and Coleen (1936). Joan Blondell, another Warner’s contract player, was part of Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, and Coleen. She also appeared with Powell in Convention City (1933), Broadway Gondolier (1935), and Stage Struck (1936). The Blondell/Powell pairing appeared to work both on and off the set, and Dick and Joan were married in September 1936 (the second marriage for both).

Dick adopted Joan’s son and they had a daughter together. On screen, they made the farces I Want a Divorce (1940) and Model Wife (1941). By this point in his career, Powell was beginning to realize that he would soon outgrow the lightweight roles which had so far defined his Warner’s career. This may have been a strain on the marriage, but he campaigned hard to get the lead in Double Indemnity (1944). The part went to another aging “nice guy”, Fred MacMurray, and Powell was even further frustrated when he saw how working out of type revitalized MacMurray’s career. Powell and Blondell were divorced on July 14, 1944.

Perhaps to help cultivate a roguish image Dick began pursuing MGM starlet June Allyson, who was 13 years his junior. Her studio’s publicity department had sent her on public dates with their own young leading men, including Van Johnson and Peter Lawford. None of the studio set-ups were as attractive to June as Powell, even after Louis B. Mayer ordered her to stop seeing him. In an attempt to mollify the studio head, June asked him to give her away at the wedding. The shocked Mayer accepted (but still suspended her for defying him). Dick and June wed in August 1945.

Powell was cast in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) as the screen’s first Philip Marlowe. Although the role would be forever identified with Humphrey Bogart once he played him in The Big Sleep (1946), Powell’s Marlowe was closer to the thoughtful character created by Raymond Chandler and every bit as tough and hard-bitten as Bogie’s sneering Marlow. The picture certainly turned Dick Powell’s career around, setting his reputation as a noir tough guy.

Along with the hard-boiled movie roles, Powell was a popular radio drama star. He was no stranger to the broadcast studio, usually as a guest crooner supporting his films, but in 1945 Powell was hired to play Richard Rogue of Rogue’s Gallery, the summer replacement for Fitch Bandwagon. Although detective and mystery series had been a staple of radio for a long time, Rogue was arguably the first “hard-boiled” detective who took more beatings than he dished out. The program held on past the summer, but in 1947 Powell left to concentrate on his film career and the part of Richard Rogue was picked up by Barry Sullivan and later Paul Stewart.

After a number of successful he-man film roles, Powell was coaxed back to the airwaves in 1949 for NBC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Diamond was as ready to take or throw a punch as any other hard-boiled detective, creator and writer Blake Edwards convinced Powell that it would be alright for the gum-shoe to sing a musical number after putting away the bad guy.

On screen, Powell was beginning to age out of the tough guy leading roles, so he began to explore the possibility of keeping his career alive from the other side of the camera. His feature directorial debut was RKO’s noir thriller Split Second (1953) about a group of escaped convicts hiding in a ghost town which is to be the site of an atomic weapon test. There would be a Cold War spin on his second feature, but it would be more sinister and much deadlier.

The Conqueror (1956) had the elements to be a major blockbuster. Powell was a relatively new but highly talented and creative director, Howard Hughes (and his fortune) backed the project as co-producer. There was serious star-power involved, with John Wayne and Susan Hayward leading a strong cast. The principal photography was shot in the grandeur of the Utah desert, and the cavalry scenes involved hundreds of horsemen. What no one seems to have considered was how ridiculous it was to cast The Duke as a Mongolian warrior (Temujin, or Genghis Khan), let alone blond Susan Hayward as his concubine.

Even more tragic than having to sit through the film’s 111 minutes was that the arduous filming took place 137 miles downwind of the site of eleven recent above-ground atomic test shots. Of the 220 people in the cast and crew, nearly half would die of various forms of cancer before 1980 (granted, most of these people were also heavy tobacco users, but the downwinder status seems a bigger factor in their illnesses). Howard Hughes took the film out of circulation by purchasing every known print of the film until Universal bought the rights from his estate in 1979.

Powell had greater directorial success on the small screen. In the early Fifties, he saw that there were greater creative opportunities in the growing TV industry, and he felt that the industry was bound to shift from live programs from New York to recorded shows shot in Hollywood. Impressed by the Desilu Studios business model developed by his friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, he convinced Charles Boyer, David Niven, and Joel McCrea to invest in Four Star Television. McCrea left to pursue his own career and Ida Lupino became the fourth Star, although she did not own stock in the enterprise.

Four Star’s pet project was Four Star Playhouse which featured a weekly rotation of the principals (sometimes more than one working together) in an anthology series. The company also brought a number of Westerns and Sitcoms to TV and resurrected Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective with David Janssen playing the slick gumshoe (Janssen did not, however, sing on the program). Four Star was a career launching pad for TV heavyweights David Janssen, Steve McQueen, Robert Culp, Chuck Connors, Mary Tyler Moore, Linda Evans, Jeannie Carson, Lee Majors, The Smothers Brothers, and Aaron Spelling.

In September 1962 Powell acknowledged rumors that he was undergoing aggressive treatment for cancer. He passed away on January 2, 1963, at the age of 58. Although it has widely speculated that Dick Powell was a victim of the Nuclear Downwinder Phenomenon, his widow June Allyson stated in a 2001 interview that the cause of death had been lung cancer resulting from years of cigarette smoking.

Three Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame were set for Dick Powell, one for Motion Pictures at 6915 Hollywood Blvd, another for Television at 6745 Hollywood Blvd, and for Radio at 1560 Vine Street.

Rumors, Excess, and the Unlikely Journey of John Barrymore’s Corpse

Hollywood sometimes seems to run on the motto that “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing”. A one-industry town built where fantasy and hard cash come together, it can be difficult to tell which stories are true and which are simply stories. Strangely, because Hollywood is a place where excess is a way of life, the more fantastic a story is, the easier it is to believe. The story that follows is so far out that it seems more likely to have happened than not. There are voices from the past which claim it is a hoax and others which claim it is true. Our opinion is that true or not, it is a very good story.

John Barrymore became one of the greatest actors of his generation. Born into the Drew and Barrymore acting dynasties in 1882, Barrymore was expected to follow his father Maurice, older brother and sister Lionel and Ethel, and his maternal uncles John and Sidney Drew onto the stage. John became one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time, was one of Hollywood’s first super-Stars during the silent era, and with his stage-trained voice flourished with the advent of talkies. This success came despite the fact that Barrymore struggled with the bottle from the time he was fourteen. While starring in the silent horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), he was working at the studio during the day while staying at a sanitarium to dry out (he also managed to get another man’s wife pregnant about the same time).

Hard-drinking director Raoul Walsh had been a friend of Barrymore’s since boyhood, and notorious tippler W.C. Fields was also a companion. Swashbuckling star Errol Flynn, who claimed to have patterned his own acting after the great Barrymore, joined what became known as the “Bundy Drive Gang”, a gin-soaked bunch who made Humphrey Bogart‘s and Frank Sinatra‘s Holmby Hills Rat Pack seem likes a gathering of choir boys.

By the mid-1930’s, Barrymore’s drinking had led to him nearly being blacklisted by the major studios. However, word got out that CBS was going to broadcast Columbia Presents Shakespeare as a summer replacement program in 1937. Not to be outdone by the upstart “Tiffany Network”, NBC began to plan Streamlined Shakespeare, but the show needed a “name” to carry it and the decision was that John Barrymore was the name.

Critics are divided on Barrymore’s performance on Streamlined Shakespeare, some praising him for bringing the Bard to life for the masses while others felt his work lampooned the greatness of the material. To Barrymore’s credit, he remained sober and reliable through the program’s run, leading the studios to give him another chance at film work. Although he was relegated to supporting roles, the infusion of cash was a great relief to his many creditors and film crews referred to him as “Mr. Barrymore” out of respect. NBC took another chance on him, giving him a part as Rudy Vallee‘s foil on The Sealtest Show. There was plenty of self-deprecating jokes about his relations with women and his drinking, but the show also gave him a chance to do some serious radio acting. While recording a segment from Romeo and Juliet on May 19, 1942, Barrymore collapsed in the studio. He was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital where he died of cirrhosis of the liver complicated by kidney failure. After sixty years, John Barrymore had finally drunk himself to death.

The surviving members of the Bundy Drive Gang did not take the death of their leader well and retired to L.A.’s Cock and Bull Bar. After a few hours of liquid mourning, excused himself, claiming that the grief had overwhelmed him. Errol Flynn expressed his grief by continuing his attempt to drink the establishment dry. What happened next is reported in Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959, Putman) which was released weeks after his own death (Flynn, too, drank himself to death, dropping dead in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 1959, where he had traveled to sell his yacht Zaca to satisfy creditors, at the time the schooner was rotting in a harbor in France, it has since been restored and is said to be haunted by Errol Flynn‘s ghost).

After leaving the bar, Walsh drove to the Pierce Bros mortuary where money was exchanged with a funeral director. Barrymore’s body was loaded into the director’s car, and Walsh then drove to Flynn’s mansion. He pounded on the door until he awoke Flynn’s butler who he directed to help him bring Mr. Barrymore into the house. “I think he is dead, sir,” said the butler, but Walsh pointed out that the butler had seen Barrymore in this condition before. Once the departed Barrymore was ensconced on Flynn’s sofa, Walsh sent the butler to get coffee “to help sober him up”.

About this time, Flynn wobbled home from the Cock and Bull. He collapsed into a favorite chair when the butler came into the room saying, “Here’s Mr. Barrymore’s coffee”. Flynn then spotted the corpse on his sofa and ran screaming from the room. From behind a bush, he yelled for Walsh to “Get him out of here! You are going to get us all of us put in San Quentin!” When Walsh returned to the funeral home, the funeral director asked where the film director had been. After laughingly describing their visit to Flynn’s mansion, the mortician said, “Why, if I’d have known you were going to take him up there, I would have put a better suit on him!”

This episode, as mentioned, was described in Flynn’s autobiography and confirmed by Raoul Walsh in a documentary in 1973. However, a close friend of the Barrymore family and fellow member of the Bundy Street Gang, Gene Fowler, states that he and his son stood vigil with Barrymore’s body in the funeral home and the shenanigans described above never occurred.

True or not, it is too good of a story not to share.