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.

The Skinny on The Fat Man

Fans of Old Time Radio are used to creating a portrait of character just from their voice. The announcer who tells us “There he goes into that drugstore. He’s stepping on the scales…” is a slender but not underweight dandy. The voice of the scales reads the card: “Weight, 239 pounds, Fortune, Danger!”

Even before the intro tells us, we know we are listening to The Fat Man. However, if we tuned in late, we still know just who we are listening to when we hear the the thick, rich, almost syrupy voice of J. Scott Smart flowing luxuriantly from the speaker.

The Fat Man was built on the success of The Thin Man, itself ironic since the Thin Man we heard on the radio was not the Thin Man in the title. Nick and Nora Charles were not so much a husband and wife detective team as they were a hustler with a heart of gold doing his best to drink his wife’s fortune away (the Thin Man in the original story was a former client of Nick’s and the focus of the mystery). The characters were created by “the dean of hard-boiled detective fiction” Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel, and it would provide him with a surprisingly steady income. Not only were the book and the movie it inspired successful, the film spun off into six sequels and a popular radio series, and Hammett continued to collect royalties on them.

Since nothing succeeds like success, Hammett was encouraged to create a Fat Man to go with The Thin Man. The new character, Brad Runyon, was designed to be everything that Nick Charles was not. Nick took advantage of his position as Nora’s husband to hold the rest of the world in disdain, while Runyon was a consummate professional for whom the welfare of his clients was foremost. Runyon was based on the anonymous character who narrated Hammett’s early stories, the Continental Op, but The Fat Man would be “fleshed out” by the actor who played him, J.Scott Smart.

A native of Philadelphia, John Kenley Tener Smart found his way to the stage via the orchestra pit. Born in 1902, Smart found an aptitude for music after the family moved to Buffalo, New York. Jack, as he was known, graduated from Lafayette High School in 1922, and was a classmate of Fran Striker, who would gain radio fame as the creator of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Smart began finding jobs with local stage bands but it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to realize that the actors on the stage were having more fun, getting more recognition, and being paid better than the musicians in the pit. He apprenticed with the McGarry Majestic Players, a stock company, and toured the eastern seaboard as a journeyman actor before settling in New York.

The New York Stage was in for hard times after the Stock Market Crash, but fortunately for Smart, radio was just beginning to take off. He found small roles on NBC’s dramatic staff until moving to CBS as Joe on Mr and Mrs, a show about spouses who had tired of each other that became the forerunner of The Bickersons, The Naggers and TV’s The Honeymooners and Married With Children. After Mr and Mrs‘s two season run, Smart stayed with CBS and eventually became a regular player on The March of Time impersonating a number of real people as the show dramatized current events. His versatility won him the nickname “The Lon Chaney of Radio”, a moniker that would not be lost on his next boss, Fred Allen.

Fred wasn’t sure what to make of radio in 1932, but he could see that the format his fellow vaudevillians were using could not last. Vaudeville used a visual and aural connection with the audience, but Fred instinctively knew that radio audiences couldn’t see what he was up to. He needed voice talents to sell his stories. He needed the Lon Chaney of Radio!

Jack worked with Fred Allen’s company of players on The Linit Bath Club, The Best Foods Salad Bowl Review and The Sal Hepatica Review. He played everything from pimply faced kids to blow-hard politicians to sissyfied artists to Samson Souse, Allen’s Alley’s resident tippler. In 1944, Jack left radio to take a role in the stage play “A Bell for Adano” which enjoyed a successful run in New York and Washington D.C. After the show closed, he auditioned for a new detective show on ABC, The Fat Man.

Any casting director would have tapped Smart for the role based on his looks alone, but it was his voice and expression that really won him the part. Although the character was based on Hammett’s creation and fleshed out by series writer Richard Ellington and producer Mannie Rosenberg, It was Smart who breathed life into the character. He often quipped that “it takes a fat man to sound like a fat man” (Runyon weighed between 235 and 244, depending on which episode you listened to, while Smart tipped the scales at 270 on a 5’9” frame).

Smart took an active role in creating the scripts, and had a clause inserted into his contract that he would receive a copy of the script two weeks before broadcast so that he could make changes he felt were necessary. He became the show’s “continuity man”, ensuring that the business of an episode would not contradict something that the audience would have learned about the characters in a previous episode. One touch that outsiders would not have known was Smart’s delight in changing character names for people he knew in his personal life. A friend in Ogunquit, Maine, tuned in one night to discover that he and his fishing boat had been lost at sea!

The popularity of the series was not lost on Hollywood, and a movie based on The Fat Man seemed like a natural. As it turned out, the 1951 film was used as a vehicle for Universal’s new star, Rock Hudson, and featured famous Barnum and Bailey clown Emmett Kelly but Smart was still the standout player. One of the picture’s running gags involved Runyon driving around town in a rented MG. 270 pound Smart disengaging himself from the tiny British roadster was not to be missed!

It seemed inevitable that The Fat Man‘s success would continue on the strength of the film and four seasons on radio. However, even though he had little to do with the series after creating the character, when Dashiell Hammett was named in the Red Channel’s Scandal and refused to “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, sponsors began dropping show’s related to him. (NBC TV did bring The Thin Man to the small screen on Friday nights from 1957-59).

J. Scott Smart did some more acting after The Fat Man, but for the most part he had retired from show business to a fisherman’s shack in Ogunquit, Maine, where he worked at painting and sculpting. He died of pancreatic cancer in January, 1960.

Halloween the Whole Year ‘Round: Himan Brown and the Horror Host

Himan Brown was one of radios foremost pioneers and an advocate for the medium long after the commercial sponsors had given up on radio drama. His name is attached to an impressive number of OTR programs in all genres, but he is best remembered for giving us the Horror classic, Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Notable for its famous creaking door, Inner Sanctum gave us what would become a staple of the horror genre, the horror host. hi brown

Tailor Sam Brown and his wife Dora immigrated from Odessa and settled in a Yiddish neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their little boy Hi would turn out to be an incredibly ambitious young man. While in shop class at the Brooklyn School for Boys, the teacher brought in a receiver built from a piece of copper wire wrapped around a Quaker Oats box and the boys could hear WLW in Cincinnati. Himan was hooked.

At the age of 18, Hi tried convinced WEAF that a Yiddish voice on the air could bring the station the sort of success that Milt Gross’s cartoons brought the newspapers. Whether it was the boy’s persistence or the station’s desperation for programming of any sort, Hi was on the air and enjoyed a good deal following among his listeners. One of those listeners was a creatively minded housewife named Gertrude Berg who had an idea for a Sitcom based on an immigrant family. She enlisted Hi for the project, and after nearly of  a year of pitching to NBC, The Rise of The Goldbergs hit the air with young Himan as the father. Mrs. Berg was less than enthused to have more than one creative genius around, and gave Hi the boot after six months.

challahcrop (1)Hi began going directly to sponsors with story and show ideas, and created a number of immigrant focused programs for the New York market. At the same time,  he was studying law at Brooklyn College. However, Himan Brown quickly realized that the cut-throat lessons of the legal profession could be put to use in the rough and tumble world of commercial radio. His legal background allowed him to get the most advantageous contracts from sponsors, but they always got their money’s worth from Himan Brown. He created a number of soaps, and the anthology Grand Central Station. He also realized that he could buy the right to characters from other media, and brought Bulldog Drummond,  Dick Tracy and the Thin Man to the air.

grand central station

When Carter’s Little Liver Pills came knocking on the door looking for ideas, Hi had a concept ready to pitch that he called The Creaking Door. Horror programs on the radio were certainly nothing new, the fun of telling ghost stories and other creepy tales had been a late night staple since the early Thirties with the campiness of The Witches Tale and the refined terror of Lights Out. The Creaking Door was going to take the horror seriously, but kept in mind that telling ghost stories were essentially good fun. Carter’s loved the concept but hated the name. Taking a page from his earlier crossovers from popular literature, Brown bought the radio rights to a series of low-grade mystery novels from Simon and Schuster called Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and the rest is horror history.

The Inner Sanctum Mysteries discarded the title but not the concept of the Creaking Door, which was based on a sound effect Brown discovered on a rusty basement door. A door was planned for use on the air, but when it did not produce the needed creak, Brown sat in a rusty office chair and turned to make the needed sound. The chair remained part of the show’s equipment, (except for the night that a well meaning studio staffer innocently oiled the chair).

The true genius of The Inner Sanctum was its host. Other horror programs had a host to elevate the level of terror, The Witch’s Tale used a scratchy voiced crone, Arch Oboler himself introduced the stories on Light’s Out, and The Whistler took us into the mind of the killer each week.

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Inner Sanctum‘s host went another direction Originally voiced by stage actor Raymond Johnson, “Your host, Raymond” was a mocking character who was so over the top that the audience had to laugh, both at him and themselves, for being so scared. A smiling sociopath, Raymond took delight in his creepy environs, from the collection to skeletons to the shelf filled with severed heads.

In 1945, Johnson left the program to serve in the Army, and host duties were given to Paul McGrath. McGrath dropped the Raymond handle, known as just “Your Host” or “Mr. Host”. 1945 also marked a change in sponsor, and Mary the Lipton Tea Lady joined the show. Mary Bennett as the sunny Tea Lady was a marked contrast to the Smiling Sociopath, but the contrast only served to intensify the fun of the show. The Tea Lady would chide the Host for taking amusement from suicides and dismemberments, using much the same tone as a suburban housewife telling her husband to curb his enthusiasm for pro-football.

The Inner Sanctum carried over into a series of low-budget Universal Horror films during the 1940’s, and was produced as a short-lived syndicated television program produced by Himan Browns Chelsea Studios. However, the visual media lacked the “image intensity” that made Radio Horror so successful. Brown continued to campaign for radio as a story telling medium long after sponsors moved on to TV. He was somewhat vindicated when CBS gave a green light to CBS Radio Mystery Theater in

The over the top Horror Host Himan Brown created by Raymond Johnson and Paul McGrath lives on as the late night TV Horror Movie hosts like Vampira, Count Floyd, Morgus the Magnificent, Svengoolie and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. All of these personalities manage to capture the fun of Halloween throughout the year.

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