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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.

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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.