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Old Time Radio

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.

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Old Time Radio

Wally Maher in Old Time Radio

Maher-Wally-2
It could be every mother’s nightmare. Her darling boy leaves home, meets with early success, and then moves out West to Hollywood where he is killed.

In Wally Maher‘s case, getting killed may not have been the most appealing thing he could have done, but it kept him working in pictures! During his career, he was chewed on by alligators, gassed, electrocuted, attacked by vampires and shot. It wasn’t always like that for Wally, he said that he had never played a bad guy until he moved to California, in fact, his specialty had been a light comedy. He joked that he had been killed more times than any other actor working in radio. In the 127 pictures he made, he had a light comedy role in perhaps half a dozen, in the rest he was the heavy.

On the radio, he was Everyman, and Everyman was a busy man! Producers look for definite “types” when they are casting a leading role, even more so when they are looking for someone to fill a character/sidekick role. But what about all those voices that fill the background of the story? The hotel clerk, the cop on the corner, the gas station attendant, the waiter who brings the leading man and his sidekick their soup, all of these are real people who are needed to move the story along. You don’t want them to stand out too much, but they have to be believable in what they are doing or the whole broadcast suffers.

As an Indiana native, Wally Maher was about as Midwestern as could be. Born in 1908, he got his start as a baggage clerk for the Southern Pacific. This may not seem like acting training, but it exposed Wally to people and dialects from all over the place. He was also good at mimicking what he heard, a useful talent that helped him land a job on the dramatic staff at WLW Cincinnati, “The Nation’s Station”. Sensing that he was capable of bigger things, he moved to New York and established himself as a reliable character actor. In 1935, he moved to Hollywood to get into pictures.

The  heavyweights of network radio were making the move to the West Coast about the same time Maher did. On June 1, 1936, The Lux Radio Theater made its first broadcast from Hollywood, and Wally Maher was there. As he was the next week, and the next. Maher would be in Lux’s acting company for at least 43 episodes.

With a history of respiratory problems, Maher was listed 4F and watched while so many of his contemporaries shipped out. Undoubtedly, Wally would have found work on his own merit, but with the shortage of talent his 4F status put him in high demand. In addition to playing “Everyman”, shows like Cavalcade of America began to press him into service as sailors, airmen, soldiers, doctors, engineers, War correspondents, merchant seamen and factory workers.

Maher’s versatility helped him to become a regular player on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”. He starred in one of Suspense‘s most frightening episodes, “Dead Ernest”, a tale about a man who suffers from catalepsy, a condition where the patient goes into a fit making him appear to be dead. The story follows Ernest into the hospital, the morgue, right to the embalmer’s table.

Given the huge variety of roles he played, Maher is best remembered on radio for his portrayal of Michael Shayne, Private Detective. On the surface, Shayne was just another of the dozens of hard-boiled private eyes filling the airwaves, but Maher put his own touch on the role. Shayne had a more relaxed style, seeing the humor in situations without degrading into sarcasm or self-parody. Wally played Shayne from 1945 until 1947, when his health forced a hiatus. Jeff Chandler took over the role when Maher was forced to step down.

Wally was not out of the game for long, returning in 1948 as police lieutenant Riley, doing his best to keep George Valentine in line in Let George Do It. He filled a similar role opposite Dick Powell in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and had a more legitimate law enforcement role on This is Your FBI.

Maher’s most impressive police role was as Sgt Matt Greb in The Lineup, opposite Bill Johnstone as Lt Ben Guthrie. Wally’s health was failing quickly at this point, however. He had a lung removed just before the program began the 1950 season in the hope of clearing some of his respiratory issues. He managed to soldier through, but Raymond Burr had to take over the role on a number of occasions. Wally Maher died on December 27, 1951, at the age of 43.

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Agnes Moorehead Alfred Hitchcock Old Time Radio Suspense William Spier Yours Truly Johnny Dollar

July 22: 73rd Anniversary of Suspense on the Radio…

Suspense_1946_Title

On July 22,  we celebrate the anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s greatest treasures, Suspense. Soon fans will argue that the anniversary is actually June 17, 1942. That is when the fully developed program launched as a weekly series. However, that night in July of 1940 was the first time the public heard a Suspense radio program, and the premiere caused its own share of ruckus for a program which would go on to last for twenty years as a weekly feature, right to the very end of the Radio age.

The Columbia Broadcasting Service, the “Tiffany Network”, built a reputation for bringing the highest quality programming to the airwaves, no matter the expense. This pursuit of The Best manifested itself in many ways, from the almost cinematic productions of Norman Corwin to the infamous NBC “Talent Raids” when CBS chief William Paley outbid the older network for some of its most profitable acts (and helped to establish CBS as the dominant presence in Post War radio).

Fun With Hitchcock

Alfred_Hitchcock_by_Jack_MitchellCBS was not afraid to take risks on new shows and concepts, but like anyone else playing for high stakes, they did their best to minimize the risks. One way the network developed to try out new shows was to introduce them as a summer replacement series for the radio. Another device was a weekly program called Forecast (Forecast itself filled a Monday night summer slot). Forecast was designed as a preview of new radio programs, presenting two audition shows each week. Other great shows that got their start on  Forecast include Duffy’s Tavern.

English movie director Alfred Hitchcock had already established himself as “the master of Suspense” by 1940. Having established himself as one of England’s greatest movie directors, Hitchcock was brought to America by producer David R. Selznick. His first American film, Rebecca, won best picture, and he was getting ready to repeat that success with Foreign Correspondent. Part of the promotion for both films was to have Hitchcock direct the audition program for Suspense. To sweeten the deal, Edmund Gwenn and Herbert Marshall, both of whom were working on Foreign Correspondent, were included in the package.

Hitchcock chose to dramatize the short story “The Lodger” which he had brought to the silent screen in 1926. It was the story of a London boarding house keeper whose guest may or may not have been the infamous Jack The Ripper. In an effort to keep the audience in “Suspense”, at the end of the broadcast Hitchcock neglected to reveal whether or not the Lodger really was the Ripper. This was a major coup for the show-to-be. If listeners wanted to find the answer, they had to write to the network. The show received hundreds of letter, not all of it favorable. Many were upset over the cliff hanger, but CBS was convinced.

Establishing a Weekly Favorite

SuspenseadHowever, even the Tiffany network could not afford Hitchcock every week, so the project was turned over to William Spier, “the Hitchcock of the airwaves”. Suspense began as a sustained program, but soon sponsor Roma Wines was paying the bills.

A number of factors went into making Suspense an incredible Radio success. The production values were kept very high. Spier and the producers that followed him were able to attract an impressive selection of actors to Suspense, not just radio heavyweights, but big names from the screen, as well.

For the actors, Suspense gained a reputation for being a fun project to appear on. The anthology format meant that there would be a variety of different characters to play and develop. Rarely were they the sort of characters that the actors were used to playing. It is very interesting to hear comics like Jack Benny playing a Martian laborer or a clueless bank robber, or Jim and Marian Jones (Fibber McGee and Molly) as kidnap victims. Listeners have their ear ready for a quip or joke, but it never comes. Instead, the anticipation draws the listener even deeper into the story.

agnes1

Even more than the production and the actors, the stories were the big attraction of Suspense. Pretty much anything was fair game, as long as it would keep the audience in Suspense. One of the earliest successes was an adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number”, Agnes Moorehead plays a woman who panics when she overhears part of the murder plot but cannot convince anyone of what she heard. “Sorry,
Wrong Number” would be repeated seven times over the 20 year run of Suspense. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker”, which featured Orson Welles as a man stalked by a mysterious stranger across country.

Endings, Remembrance, and Rebirth

suspense5The coming of television took a toll on Suspense, but not as big as it would appear. Budgets were slashed, both sponsors and producers left for the small screen, but the stories were still presented every week, keeping audiences in Suspense. Eventually, CBS gave up on dramatic radio completely on September 30, 1962. The last two programs broadcast were Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense.

Suspense was simply too good of a show to die with the Golden Age of Radio. The existing episodes are a cornerstone of any OTR collection.

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Escape

Radio’s Escape To… Success

Radio ShowsSuspense was the big “grip the seat” program of the golden radio age of the 40’s and 50’s. It’s title characterized efficiently the mood of the show…as it entered the homes across America. However, it was not the only show to set in the motion the building of nerves. The Escape radio program was another broadcastthat built the suspense, but with more supernatural additive. From 1947-1954, Escape carried away its fair share of heavy hitting writing.

From John Dehner to Harry Bartell, Escape featured an array of episodes and stars that never failed to grab the listener where he lived…in the adrenaline. Fear, surprise, anxiety were all adjectives that could be considered perfect qualifiers for the show. But, one thing that never could be stated about this show was that it was boring.

Escape featured shows that made people think. It developed personas strictly by minute by minute intrigue. Each episode was a unique flavor…a focused approach to wonder and bewilderment. The writer of each episode knew how to string dialog with curiosity. But, it took the talents of the voice actor to drive home the message.

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Agnes Moorehead Barbara Stanwyck Sorry Wrong Number Suspense

70th Anniversary of “Sorry, Wrong Number”

On May 25, 2013, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s truly magnificent treasures. One that evening in 1943, CBS’s “Outstanding Theater of Thrills”, radio’s Suspense!, presented for the first time the chilling tale “Sorry, Wrong Number”.

Lucille Fletcher, one of the female mystery writers who dominated the genre, wrote the radio play. In contrast to other types of fiction, there was relatively little “gender-gap” for mystery writers. In part, this was due to Agatha Christie’s work popularizing the genre, but the editor’s need to gather compelling stories whereever they could be found was also a factor. Ms. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker” script that was hugely successful for Orson Welles in 1941. Welles would later opine that “The Hitch Hiker” and “Sorry, Wrong Number” were the best suspense plays ever written for Radio.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was as simple as it was effective. The program as originally written as almost a one woman show and radio veteran Agnes Moorehead handled it masterfully. The story opens as she is trying to reach her late-working husband, but finds that his office telephone is constantly busy. Seeking aid from the operator, she overhears two men plotting a cold-blooded murder. As the program progresses, the woman (and the audience) come to realize that she is the intended victim of the crime.

There were two performances of the episode on the evening of May 25, 1943; first for the East Coast and then for the West. One of the supporting actors missed a cue near the end of the East Coast broadcast, which resulted in some confusion among listeners as to the actual outcome of the story. Producer William Spier aired a clarification at the beginning of the following week’s episode, “Banquo’s Chair”, and also announced that the story would be repeated on the coming weeks due to the outstanding audience response. Suspense would present “Sorry, Wrong Number” seven times, each time starring Ms. Moorehead. Each time she assumed the role, Moorehead used her original, dog-earred script.

Producers hired Ms. Fletcher to expand the story for the 1948 film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck received a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar for the role, but many fans of noir fiction feel that the expanded plot of the movie loses the taut simplicity and sheer terror of the original radio version. Ms. Stanwyck appeared on the Jack Benny Program plugging the film and supporting Jack’s parody. She also reprised her movie role for the Jan 9, 1950, Lux Radio Theater presentation.

Enjoy the “West Coast” version of “Sorry Wrong Number” starring Agnes Moorehead in radio’s Suspense!:

http://www.otrcat.net/otr6/Suspense-430525-043-SorryWrongNumber–OTRCAT.com.mp3

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Detective Radio John Dickson Car Suspense

John Dickson Carr Radio Plays

If one thing could be said about John Dickson Carr it was his love for England. It was prevalent in the mysteries he created, because the “blessed plot, this earth, this realm” of his writings was England. His character detectives had to use the logic of the English mind to solve the riddle set before them…when it seemed impervious to the radio listener to try and conquest.

One of John Dickson Carr‘s most beloved of characters was Dr Fell. This paunchy purveyor of impossibility seemed to circuit the storyline of mystery with impossible grace. The listener to the program would get the facts, as convoluted as they may seem, and end up equally at a loss to figuring out the answer. Yet Dr Fell, who could not do much physical because of grandiose size, brought a conclusion to each mystery without breaking much of a sweat…unless you count moving his fork hand to his mouth as great feats of endurance. Dr Fell could see what most people could not even imagine. This was character was indicative of Carr’s resolve to offer detective stories that used the off-beat to control the outcome. Dr Fell may have had obese issues, he also had a heart for civility. His character never treated people with anything less than true gentlemanly discourse.

In contrast to the grace and sensitivity of Dr Fell is Carr‘s other detective…Sir Henry Merrivale. This large man (Carr seemed to be fascinated by the “fat” of society) was always impatient and in a snit about something. If his temper did not get the best of him, his boisterous presence created an environment of “egg-shell” walkers. yet, as with Dr Fell, Merrivale brought out the only possible solution from an otherwise impossible case.

Whether it was for America’s radio broadcast of “Suspense” or the equal, “Appointment with Fear”, Carr created many radio plays that courted lovers of mystery and resolution. The radio audience could not get enough of Carr’s works and always contacted the radio studio for more.

England may have been carr’s place of preference, but America loved his offerings with almost relatable insistence.

http://www.otrcat.net/otr6/John-Dickson-Carr-Suspense-431109-065-Cabin-B13-OTRCAT.com.mp3