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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.

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.

Old Time Radio

Radio’s Casey Crime Photographer

crimephotographer8-218x300Somewhere, hidden deep in the offices of the Old Time Radio Networks, in a place where only writers go, there must have been an office dedicated to the Creation of the Perfect Radio Detective. Posted on the wall of the office would have been the Rules for the Perfect Radio Detective, and perhaps an honor roll of the programs that managed to capture these elements. An unlikely addition to that roll would have been Casey, Crime Photographer.

The first of these crucial elements is that the perfect Radio Detective is Different from Every Other Radio Detective. Next is that even if the Radio Detective is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, he will be sharper than any cops he comes across, if not the crooks. The Perfect Radio Detective does not have to come from the same gritty world his foes do, but it doesn’t hurt. He does not even need a well defined crimephotographer3-294x300sense of Right and Wrong like the Superman or The Lone Ranger. In fact, it might even get in his way. He will find a sidekick useful. He may or may not enjoy the regular attention of a lovely young woman, if there is not a regularly occurring feminine character in his world, then trouble is bound to follow the new ladies who come in and out of his life on a weekly basis. Hard drink is usually a way to dull life’s various pains, and an appreciation for Jazz music is an enormous plus.

Casey, Crime Photographer, came to the airwaves from the pages of pulp fiction, and he brought the many elements of the Perfect Radio Detective with him. Author George Harmon Coxe grew up in Upstate New York, and attended Purdue and Cornell Universities before moving to the West Coast to work in newspapers. Beginning in 1922, Coxe began publishing short fiction in various genres to help pay the bills. In 1934, Black Mask Magazine introduced the character Coxe would become best remembered for. Coxe drew upon his journalistic background to create the news photographer “Flashgun” Casey.

While still on the pulp pages, Casey kept a bottle of hooch in his desk drawer and was confident in his ability to put a .38 slug where he thought it should go, although he was more likely depend on the “two big fists he knew how to use”.

Casey, whose given name was never revealed, lost some of his grittiness when he came to the airwaves, but none of his intelligence or determination. He specialized in photographing major crimes for the Morning Express newspaper. Pretty reporter Ann Williams’ job was to get the stories, but her Photographer was the brains of the team. Police Captain Logan was usually a friend of the newspaper team, instead of getting in the way of their pursuit of justice as most cops did for Hardboiled Detectives.

In between stories, Casey and Ann would while away the hours at their favorite watering hole, the Blue Note. The tavern always had great jazz on tap, which must have brought in a decent amount of business. It was needed to make up for the long overdue tab run up by Casey. (Casey and Ann’s chief source of nourishment was the free pretzels set out by Ethelbert the bartender.)

Matt Crowley first brought the role of Casey to the airwaves. Staats Cosworth took over the role in late 1943. Jim Backus played the part for a few episodes, and Darren McGavin brought the role to television for a single, best forgotten, season. Jone Allison, Alice Reinheart, Lesley Woods and Betty Furness each played reporter Ann Williams, but the role is more closely associated with Jan Miner. Miner best remembered as Palmolive’s “Madge the Manicurist”, reprised the role for TV.

John Gibson played Ethelbert, the long suffering barkeep at the Blue Note. The tavern had the musical services of the Archie Bleyer Orchestra and  the Teddy Wilson Trio.