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“C’mon folks, these are the jokes!”

Mention “Milton Berle” to any baby boomer and chances are they’ll immediately think of the frenzied mirthmaker who entertained audiences Tuesday nights, in the newly inaugurated Golden Age of Television, as host of The Texaco Star Theatre.  Berle, once accurately described by Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio as “the manic comic who won’t shut up until you laugh,” became such a boob tube institution that he would forever be known as “Mr. Television.” “Uncle Miltie” was purportedly the reason why sales of television sets mushroomed from 500,000 in 1948 (his first year on TV) to over 30 million by the time he ended his initial run in 1955 with The Milton Berle Show.

But a goodly number of people—outside old-time radio fans, of course—aren’t aware that Milton Berle enjoyed a lengthy stint in the aural medium, beginning on this date in 1936.  Berle, a major vaudeville talent who had previously appeared on programs headlined by Rudy Vallee and Fred Waring, was the host of CBS’ The Gillette Original Community Sing, which ran until August 29, 1937 as a Sunday night comedy-variety program.  This program allowed Milton to patent his “machine-gun” style of comedy (very similar to the shtick practiced by Bob Hope) mixed with an element of radio slapstick that Radio Mirror remarked worked well “if he can keep it up.”  The show featured an audience sing-a-long led by “the Red Headed Music Maker,” Wendell Jones, and “Happiness Boys” Billy Jones and Ernie Hare.  (Actress Betty Garde was also a regular, as was future Eddie Cantor stooge Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon—who answered to “Mischa Moody.”)  Irving Brecher, who’d go on to create radio’s The Life of Riley, was the program’s sole writer; Berle would later brag that Brecher was the only scribe he knew “who wrote a radio program every week all by himself.”

Berle’s next radio venture premiered on October 7, 1939 for NBC:  Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One, a comedy panel show in which the members of the panel attempted to finish jokes sent in by the program’s listening audience.  Stop Me, sponsored by Quaker Oats, was similar to the more successful Can You Top This? (1940; 1942-54), and in fact, two of the Can You Top This? regulars—Harry Hershfield and “Senator” Ed Ford—worked on the Berle program at one time.  (Harry McNaughton, who was one of the bright minds on the later comedy quiz It Pays to Be Ignorant, was heard on the show as well.)  Stop Me left NBC on February 24, 1940 (it would later resurface on Mutual in 1947). Uncle Miltie experienced a brief period of radio unemployment, but he didn’t have to clip coupons, kids; his movie career was still in full swing and he made a tidy sum playing nightclubs. Berle returned to the air in September of 1941 with Three Ring Time for Ballantine Ale—the first major Mutual West Coast origination, and a show that Mutual had hoped would make them “a real competitor in transcontinental broadcasting,” according to old-time radio historian John Dunning.

Three Ring Time also featured Shirley Ross and Bob Crosby (and His Bobcats) as regulars, with Bill Goodwin as announcer…delightful!  But Milton didn’t get along with the program’s other big name, Charles Laughton.  Despite his reputation as an outstanding dramatic actor, Laughton had high hopes that Three Ring Time would, as Radio Life reported, “give me a chance to do what I really like to do—make people laugh.”  Charlie, however, didn’t want to lay them in the aisles at the expense of being his co-star’s “ego massage” (the term Berle used in his own autobiography) and the two stars soon began to openly quarrel, even after Three Ring jumped ship to NBC in December of 1941.  (Mutual would later sue NBC for $10 million, charging restraint of trade.)  Laughton asked for (and was given) his release in January, and for a time Berle welcomed a rotating series of co-hosts until the show left the airwaves on June 2, 1942.

Milton Berle tried radio three more times as a headliner: a brief self-titled series over CBS in 1943 for Campbell Soups; a 1944-45 “half-hour of slapstick” for Blue/CBS called Let Yourself Go (sponsored by Eversharp); and a summer series over CBS in 1946, Kiss and Make Up—a program (created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later of My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi) in which “judge” Berle presided over a mock court as the show’s hook.  By 1947, Berle was ready to roll the dice and gamble with The Milton Berle Show, which premiered on March 11 over NBC for Philip Morris as a replacement for Rudy Vallee’s show.  (We’re not kidding about the gambling part, either; Milton forfeited nearly $25,000 in cancelled nightclub engagements just to make The Milton Berle Show a success.)  The series, which ran until April 13, 1948, didn’t make much of a dent in the radio ratings (its Hooper was an anemic 11.6) but thanks to some first-rate scripts by Fred Allen Show alumnus Nat Hiken (the later creator of The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?) and Aaron Ruben (the man who enlisted The Andy Griffith Show’s Gomer Pyle in the Marines) new generations of fans have discovered an unsung gem, described by Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod as “one of the forgotten bright spots of postwar radio.”

Berle was aided and abetted on his program by an exemplary cast of “stooges.”  There was Arnold Stang, on vacation from The Henry Morgan Show, playing the same quarrelsome wisenheimer determined to have a verbal scrap with the star.  (Stang would later be a regular on Milton’s TV show.)  Pert Kelton portrayed a put-upon housewife (“Tallulah Feeney, I’m a homemaker…”) and gave voice to a woman who appeared in a series of skits entitled “At Home with the Berles” where her only dialogue was a drawn-out utterance of “Yessssss…”  (This gag was later appropriated for the “Miss Prissy” spinster hen in Warner Brothers’ Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.)  The “At Home” sketches featured Milton as an exasperated patriarch who encountered friction from his bratty son (Stang) and his too-understanding wife (Mary Shipp).  Other regulars on the Berle program include a pre-Chico and the Man Jack Albertson, Ed Begley, Arthur Q. Bryan, John Gibson, and Al Kelly—a second banana who specialized in double-talk and would be brought out as an “expert” in whatever subject was the topic of the show that week.

Milton Berle found his perfect foil in announcer Frank Gallop, a man who sounded like a funeral parlor owner letting his hair down for the first time.  Gallop would also migrate to the comedian’s later TV show, but in the radio years got big laughs through his condescending attitude toward the star.  (Berle: “Mr. Gallop, did you hear that? I just got four laughs in a row.” Gallop: “Yes, they’re all in the row your mother is in.”)  Gallop, Stang, Kelton, Albertson, Shipp and several other members of the Berle Show cast would follow Milton (along with writers Hiken and Ruben) to The Texaco Sar Theatre for ABC in the fall of 1948.  This was the comedian’s last gasp over the ether and described by Uncle Miltie himself as “the best radio show I ever did…a hell of a funny variety show.”  Theatre was pretty much a continuation of The Milton Berle Show, and some of the surviving broadcasts are falling-down funny; a young Jacqueline Susann (before she got into the writing novels thing) can be heard on occasion, and assisting Hiken and Ruben in the writing chores were two brothers just starting out in the business: Danny and Neil Simon.

The radio Texaco Star Theatre closed its studio doors on June 15, 1949; by that time, Milton Berle was wowing audiences on TV…even if he had to often don drag to do it.  At Radio Spirits, we think you’ll agree that while Uncle Miltie wasn’t the sensation on radio that he was on TV he was every bit as hilarious.  If you check out our Comedy Goes West collection, an October 7, 1947 broadcast of The Milton Berle Show (“A Salute to the Old West”) will back up our assertion that Berle could certainly bring the funny.  On The Voices of Christmas Past, the frantic funnyman continues with the laughs with a broadcast from December 23rd of that same year, “A Salute to Christmas.”  Milton thanks you…and his mother would, too, once she stopped laughing.

“What a character!”

In addition to Jim and Marian Jordan’s star turns as Fibber McGee and Molly on The Johnson Wax Program in the 1930s, the couple was aided and abetted on the popular comedy show by a talented cast of supporting players.  These included Hugh Studebaker (as handyman Silly Watson), Isabel Randolph (the snooty Abigail Uppington), Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet…and especially Bill Thompson, who introduced favorites such as Nick Depopoulous and Horatio K. Boomer before moving on to Wallace Wimple and The Old Timer.  Another talent on the program was actor-singer Harold Peary, who was a voice-of-all-trades before he persuaded the show’s writer, Don Quinn, to give him a meatier part.  Quinn wrote Hal the role of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve—Fibber’s nemesis and next-door neighbor, and the only individual pompous enough to challenge McGee’s windy tall tales.

After playing Gildersleeve on Fibber McGee and Molly for a couple of years, Peary wanted to move onto other pursuits…but NBC was anxious to retain his services due to the popularity of the Gildersleeve character.  So, the network approached Hal with the idea for a spin-off: the show would be called The Great Gildersleeve, and would move the supporting character from his Wistful Vista environs to the nearby town of Summerfield.  There, he would act as executor to the estate of Marjorie and Leroy Forrester, his heretofore unmentioned niece and nephew.  It was on this very date in 1941 that “Gildy” boarded the Summerfield Express, leaving his friends in Wistful Vista behind…and providing audiences (and later, fans of old-time radio) with an additional weekly half-hour of hilarity.

Harold Peary was very enthusiastic about The Great Gildersleeve; he loved to sing as well as act, and he felt that he’d have ample opportunity to do so on a show where he was the star.  In a May 14, 1941 audition record, Gildy bids the employees of his girdle company fare-thee-well and shuffles off to Summerfield.  The hope was that Gildersleeve would land the job as Fibber McGee and Molly’s summer replacement while they vacationed.  Johnson’s Wax, Fib and Molly’s sponsor, sadly took a pass and went with another show (a Ransom Sherman comedy entitled Hap Hazard)—but the Kraft Foods Company liked what they heard, and agreed to foot the bills for The Great Gildersleeve’s eventual arrival on NBC’s schedule.

On The Great Gildersleeve, Gildy was put in charge of the estate of niece Marjorie and nephew Leroy…though Judge Horace Hooker had reservations about their uncle’s reliability.  Hooker (Earle Ross) would be Gildy’s persistent nemesis throughout the show’s run, constantly involved in a running battle of wits and one-upmanship with “the Great Man” not unlike his old Wistful Vista neighbor Fibber McGee.  Like Fibber McGee and MollyGildersleeve spotlighted a cast of supporting characters that Throckmorton encountered each week.  For example, there was the neighborhood druggist J.W. Peavey (Richard LeGrand), whose catchphrase “Well, now…I wouldn’t say that” became one of the program’s most popular gags.  Floyd Munson (Arthur Q. Bryan) was Summerfield’s sardonic barber, always offering Gildy advice regardless of whether it was wanted (or sound).  Tom Gates was Summerfield’s police chief who, along with Gildy, Peavey, Floyd, and Judge Hooker, formed a fraternal organization known as “The Jolly Boys.” This quirky quintet would gather to sing and enjoy each other’s company.

On the Gildersleeve homefront, actress Lurene Tuttle portrayed Marjorie Forrester (the character went by “Eve” in the audition) for the show’s first three seasons. She handed the part off to Louise Erickson, who played Marjorie until the fall of 1948, when she relinquished the role to Mary Lee Robb.  When the show premiered in 1941, Marjorie was actually a twenty-year-old with a strong romantic interest in the young attorney handling the Forresters’ estate.  Somewhere along the way, Marj got hold of the same brew that kept Helen Trent thirty-five for so long…because the mid-1940s found her a few years younger and back in high school.  Marjorie would eventually mature a second time and marry high school sweetheart Bronco Thompson (Richard Crenna), eventually giving birth to a pair of twins in later seasons of Gildersleeve.  Her brother Leroy (played by Walter Tetley) also aged a little slower than most, but for most of the show’s run delighted in making mischief and deflating his “Unk’s” enormous ego whenever possible.  Helping Gildy out with the house and the children was housekeeper Birdie Lee Coggins (Lillian Randolph), an exemplary cook who had been taking care of Marjorie and Leroy long before Gildy even thought about relocating to Summerfield.  Birdie was delightfully outgoing, with a laugh that could rattle the rafters.

There were noticeable differences between the Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve that listeners came to know and love in Wistful Vista and the one who put down stakes in Summerfield.  On Fibber McGee and Molly, there was at least one reference to a Mrs. Gildersleeve…but by the time Gildy arrived in Summerfield, he had apparently become a bachelor.  (Old-time radio fans occasionally joke that somewhere at 83 Wistful Vista, there’s a body buried in the basement.)  Gildy played the field on his own program, dating any number of equally single women—the most famous being Leila Ransom, a flirty Southern belle memorably portrayed by Shirley Mitchell.  (In later seasons, Leila acquired a rival for Gildy’s affections in her cousin Adeline Fairchild—played by character veteran Una Merkel.)  Leila almost got manacled to Gildy in the 1942-43 season, but he managed to dodge that bullet.  He later dated school principal Eve Goodwin (Bea Benaderet), nurse Katherine Milford (Cathy Lewis), Ellen (Bullard) Knickerbocker (Martha Scott), and Paula (Bullard) Winthrop (Jeanne Bates), among others.  Making Gildersleeve single was a smart move by the show’s writers, allowing them ample material for comedic plots…particularly when Gildy had to compete with stuck-up Runsom Bullard (Gale Gordon) in romantic rivalry.  (Note that two of Gildersleeve’s “steadies” were related to Runsom…much to his dismay.)

But the big night-and-day difference between Fibber McGee and Molly and the spin-off was the tone of the two programs.  Fibber was verbal slapstick, getting king-size laughs via a vaudeville sensibility in which each broadcast’s “plot” was a loose peg on which to hang hilarious gags.  The Great Gildersleeve took a character-based approach to its comedy; we laughed at the broadcasts not because of the strength of the jokes, but because its characters were so vividly drawn and portrayed by a masterful cast.  As Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod once wrote: “Contrasted with Fibber’s cartoony approach, Gildersleeve was a show firmly grounded in the Real World.  Its characters were far more textured than Fibber’s supporting cast, and thus far more realistic.”  Elizabeth rightly characterized Gildersleeve as “the One Man’s Family of situation comedy.”

As one of radio’s finest sitcoms, The Great Gildersleeve had a longer shelf life than the Kraft products it so eagerly promoted.  Even when Willard Waterman took over for Hal Peary in the fall of 1950 (Peary had moved to CBS with the Gildersleeve-like Honest Harold), Gildersleeve managed to stick around as radio began its death march, only departing the airwaves on March 21, 1957.  The show remains a solid favorite with radio listeners of old and new generations, and the decision at the time of the show’s run to utilize a semi-serialized storyline each season is an immeasurable help when you consider that some of the series’ broadcasts have been lost to the ravages of time and neglect…and yet the show is easy to follow despite the missing installments.

Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve might be having “one of his bad days” …but here at Radio Spirits, every day with Summerfield’s water commissioner is like an idyllic afternoon spent at Grass Lake. Our newest Gildersleeve compendium, Family Man, features sixteen vintage broadcasts from the program’s inaugural season (1941-42), while For Corn’s Sake (liner notes by yours truly!) focuses on later shows with Willard Waterman in the Gildersleeve role.  You’ll find a hilarious June 14, 1942 broadcast on our potpourri collection Great Radio Comedy, and for my money—some of the all-time memorable Gildersleeve shows were the heartwarming broadcasts heard around the holidays; there’s Yuletide Throcky on Christmas Radio ClassicsThe Voices of Christmas Past, and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations.  Happy anniversary, Gildy!

Let’s have another cup of coffee…

No less an authority than TV Guide declared Father Knows Best to be “the quintessentially comforting 50s sitcom.”  A generation of dedicated couch potatoes never missed a weekly visit with the Anderson family—comprised of wise patriarch Jim (Robert Young), nurturing mother Margaret (Jane Wyatt), and the three Anderson offspring: Betty (Elinor Donahue), Jim, Jr., a.k.a. “Bud” (Billy Gray), and Kathy (Lauren Chapin).  Even when the show officially left the airwaves after a six-season run from 1954 to 1960, it continued in prime-time reruns until 1963…and then settled permanently into The Old Syndication Home afterward.  Father was critically acclaimed by numerous family, church, and civic organizations, and described by boob tube historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh as spotlighting “truly an idealized family, the sort that viewers could relate to and emulate.”

That may have been the case on television…but it was a different story on radio, when Father Knows Best debuted over NBC on this date in 1949.  The audio Anderson clan was a bit more dysfunctional than their small screen counterparts, though star Young later attributed the zaniness of the radio program to the fact that “it had to have laughs…I wanted a warm relationship show.”  The actor eventually got his wish…but for those of us who resented that the Anderson siblings were a little too perfect (those kids never fell into giant soup bowls or hung out with beatniks, for example), the early broadcasts of the radio Father Knows Best are a respite from the blandness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm the TV adaptation.

Some of that blandness can be attributed to the show’s star, who began his motion picture career with a credited role in the 1931 Charlie Chan vehicle The Black Camel (after bit parts in two other films).  Robert Young would soon establish himself in movies as a charming and likable leading man in such vehicles as The Guilty Generation (1931), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and The Wet Parade (1932).  Young’s characters were predictably unthreatening, only occasionally demonstrating a dark side in the likes of Secret Agent (1936—a Hitchcock film where Bob’s the villain!) and The Mortal Storm (1940).  Robert could rise to the occasion with superior performances in such movies as Northwest Passage (1940) and Crossfire (1947), but for most of his nearly 100-film career, he was good ol’ dependable Bob.

Young’s exposure in motion pictures would follow a natural progression into radio, where adaptations of the movies he appeared in would be tackled on such anthologies as The Gulf Screen Guild Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre.  In April of 1938, Robert would become a host on the Good News program, where he joshed with the likes of Frank Morgan and Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks) while extoling the virtues of Maxwell House coffee.  Young continued his association with that sponsor when he played Morgan’s foil on Maxwell House Coffee Time from 1944 to 1945, cutting up alongside Cass Daley.  In between, Bob was the star of 1943’s Passport for Adams, a Norman Corwin-produced wartime drama that cast the actor as a newspaperman who trekked around the world.

Though Father Knows Best was created by writer Ed James, the project really came to fruition due to the partnership that Young had with Eugene B. Rodney.  The actor had met Rodney in 1935, and the two later teamed up to form a company: Rodney-Young Productions.  Father premiered in the form of a December 20, 1948 audition recording.  It was a funny, if manic, production that suggested “Father Knows Best” might have been a bit of sarcasm.  June Whitley played Margaret in the audition (the family’s last name was “Henderson”); her role would later become the responsibility of Jean Vander Pyl, a talented veteran who had previously appeared on the Alan Young and Joan Davis shows.  As for Bob Young…well, his “Jim Henderson” comes off as a bit of a numbskull—only slightly smarter than, say, Ozzie Nelson.  The “Henderson” kids are also not the role models of the later TV series; Betty is a bit on the spoiled and shallow side, and Kathy is an obnoxious brat.

When Father Knows Best was picked up as a regular series by NBC in August of 1949, they reworked the Jim Anderson character, though he still came across occasionally as—in the words of author Jim Cox—“a rather awkward bungler…guilty of mangling even the best of intents.”  Many of the flaws of the radio Jim can be attributed to creator James, whose approach to the show was to present a funhouse mirror exaggeration of family life (many of the early broadcasts weren’t shy about presenting Jim and Margaret as a frequently bickering couple—though never to the degree of The Bickersons, created by non-Father Knows Best fan Phil Rapp).  As the series progressed, writer Paul West “de-squabbled” the program’s content, and shows from 1953 and 1954 are more reminiscent of the TV version.

Father Knows Best would reunite Robert Young and Maxwell House—Bob inherited the General Foods’ sponsorship from George Burns & Gracie Allen, and the sitcom would also feature commercials hawking Post Toasties, Instant Postum, etc.  (I often wondered what Maxwell House had to say about the actor’s commercials for Sanka in the 1970s.)  In fact, the show would memorably open with a plug for the sponsor’s product, along the lines of young Kathy singing out: “Mo-ther…are Post 40 Percent Bran Flakes really the best-tasting cereal of them all?”  “Well,” Margaret would reply, “your father says so…and Father Knows Best.”  Announcer Marvin Miller (and later Bill “The Whistler” Forman) would then invite listeners to check in with “a half-hour visit with your neighbors, the Andersons” to the strains of Waiting (for Love to Find You)—also referred to as the “Father Knows Best Theme.”  (The show’s opening theme was the 1932 Cole Porter tune that I cleverly appropriated as the title for this post.)

Rounding out the radio cast were Rhoda Williams as eldest daughter Betty (affectionately known to Jim as “Princess”), Ted Donaldson as Bud (Bud had the show’s catchphrase, “Holy cow!”—which he apparently appropriated from Meet Corliss Archer’s Dexter Franklin), and Norma Jean Nilsson as Kathy (“Kitten” or “Angel” to Jim, “Shrimp” to Bud).  (Helen Strohm replaced Nilsson in the show’s later run.)  Other actors who appeared on Father Knows Best included Eleanor Audley and Herb Vigran, who played Elizabeth and Hector Smith—the Andersons’ next-door neighbors.  (Sam Edwards portrayed their son Billy…and since Sam was best known for playing Dexter on the aforementioned Meet Corliss Archer, I’m curious as to whether he and Donaldson ever had a “Holy cow!”-off.)

By the time of Father Knows Best’s radio premiere, the aural medium was slowly starting to transition to pre-recording broadcasts for “later broadcast at a more convenient time.”  Father would adopt the practice, too…but it’s interesting to note that before transcriptions, Robert Young’s co-stars would arrange to join him in whatever city he happened to be in whenever he performed in a play (Bob apparently wasn’t going to let a weekly series tie him down).  The radio Father Knows Best would eventually close shop on April 25, 1954, and after a tryout on The Ford Television Theatre (telecast on May 27, 1954) with a production entitled “Keep it in the Family,” Father would successfully transition to the small screen that October.  TV’s Father Knows Best would be even more successful than its radio counterpart; in its final season, it was still in the Top Ten (#6 that year) when Young decided to call it quits.

“We never intended the series to be more than a weekly half-hour of fun and entertainment,” declared Robert Young in later years when challenged about the show’s reluctance to tackle serious issues…and on that score, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t succeed.  The TV series continues to entertain new generations of fans in reruns (all six seasons of the show have been released to DVD) and its radio sibling is also a solid favorite with old-time radio devotees.  Radio Spirits offers two fine collections of vintage Father Knows Best broadcasts in Father Knows Best and Maple Street (a reference to the Anderson family’s address of 607 Maple Street in the fictional town of Springfield), and our Radio’s Christmas Celebrations compendium includes a nice December 24, 1953 episode with a heartwarming Yuletide theme.  “Margaret!  I’m home!” was Jim Anderson’s familiar refrain after returning from a tough day at the office.  And after listening to a few shows from this timeless classic…you will be, too.

Happy Birthday, Jeff Corey!

In May of 2017, the memoirs of character actor Jeff Corey—born Arthur Zwerling in Brooklyn on this date in 1914—were published to much critical acclaim.  Written with his daughter Emily, Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood to Act concentrates a great deal on Corey’s second career as an acting teacher.  (The change of profession was necessitated by his blacklisting in the 1950s, due to his past political affiliations).  The list of his students who “went on to bigger and better things” is a lengthy and most impressive one. Performers under Jeff’s tutelage include Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams…and, shortly before his passing in 1955, James Dean.  Corey is beloved by classic film fans for his appearances in movie westerns like True Grit (1969—as bad guy Tom Chaney) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and his old-time radio bona fides weren’t too shabby, either.

Jeff Corey was the son of working class Jewish immigrants, and though he was “an indifferent student” in high school, a drama class he took fueled his interest in acting.  He earned a scholarship with the Feagin School of Dramatic Arts, one of NYC’s prestigious theater schools; his stint there, he later reflected, rescued him from a career as a sewing machine salesman.  While at Feagin, Jeff worked with the New York Federal Theatre Project alongside such luminaries as John Randolph, Elia Kazan, and Jules Dassin.  Post-Feagin, Corey landed a job with a Shakespearean repertory company, and later found work with a traveling children’s theater troupe.  One of Corey’s earliest onstage showcases was portraying “Rosencrantz” in a touring production of Hamlet, a Broadway success overseen by actor Leslie Howard.

With his wife Hope, Jeff moved to Los Angeles in 1940 to find work in motion pictures…and old-time radio fans may have seen him in a brief bit as a game show contestant forced to sing a song with a mouthful of crackers in You’ll Find Out (1940), starring the Ol’ Perfesser himself, Kay Kyser.  Corey got small roles in movies like The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Roxie Hart (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and My Friend Flicka (1943). When he wasn’t toiling in B-pictures, he helped established the Actors Lab, where he appeared in such productions as Abe Lincoln in Illinois and God Bless Our Bank (opposite Ann Sothern).  Jeff joined the Navy in 1943, and was assigned to the U.S.S. Yorktown as a combat photographer; he later earned citations for the footage he captured during a kamikaze attack on the ship.

After World War II, Jeff Corey returned to his motion picture career and was on his way to becoming a most recognizable character face.  He’s not credited, but that’s Jeff playing “Blinky Franklin” in the 1946 film noir classic The Killers…and as a certified noir maniac, my cherished celluloid memories of Corey include seeing him in such vehicles as Brute Force (1947), The Gangster (1947), Canon City (1948), City Across the River (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), and Fourteen Hours (1951).  Other memorable turns by the actor include roles in Ramrod (1947), Joan of Arc (1948), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Roughshod (1949), Home of the Brave (1949—a great Corey performance as a sympathetic psychiatrist), The Next Voice You Hear… (1950), and Rawhide (1951).

While his movie career was going great guns, Corey also appeared on many occasions in front of a radio microphone on such shows as The Lux Radio Theatre and Favorite Story.  Jeff made the rounds on many of radio’s top dramatic anthologies, notably EscapeNBC Presents: Short StoryThe NBC University TheatreScreen Directors’ PlayhouseSuspense, and The Whistler.  On The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Corey regularly played Lieutenant Ybarra—the police contact of the titular P.I. portrayed by Gerald Mohr.  Rounding out Jeff’s radio resume are appearances on the likes of The Curtain of TimeNight BeatThe Silent MenTales of the Texas RangersTell it Again, and This is Your FBI.  The actor’s enjoyment of radio acting would continue through radio revival attempts in the 1970s (like The Sears Radio Theatre). Corey also appeared on an NPR broadcast in 1997, in a production written and directed by the legendary Norman Corwin.  This effort, titled Our Lady of the Freedoms and Some of Her Friends, was a July 4th commemoration (and the swan song for journalist-commentator Charles Kuralt).

During his time with the New York Federal Theatre Project, Jeff Corey attended Communist Party meetings…but he never actually joined the Party.  It made little difference to the House Un-American Activities Committee, who subpoenaed him to testify in September of 1951.  Corey later recalled to Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist: “The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not?  I had no impulse to defend a political point of view that no longer interested me particularly.”  His decision not to “name names” meant that, at the age of 37, Jeff Corey was out of work with a wife and three daughters to support.  Undaunted, Jeff found work as a laborer (earning $14 a day) and then enrolled at UCLA on the G.I. Bill.

His teaching career came about purely by accident.  A fellow UCLA student who wasn’t doing well in his studies organized an acting class and talked Jeff into teaching it—so Corey launched the ambitious enterprise out of his garage.  A young freshman, Carol Burnett, was among the first of his students—the “tuition” for “Corey University” was $10 a month for two classes a week.  Not given to self-promotion, Corey’s acting classes soon became popular via word-of-mouth and, by the mid-1950s, he would become the most sought-after acting coach in Tinsel Town.  (The irony is that several of Jeff’s students related that while auditioning for acting jobs they would be told that the studios were looking for a “Jeff Corey-type.”)  The list of individuals who studied with Jeff Corey is a long one, but just to drop a few names: Robert Blake, James Coburn, Richard Chamberlain, Sally Kellerman, Shirley Knight, Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner, Anthony Perkins, Sharon Tate, and Leonard Nimoy (who contributed the foreword to Corey’s memoirs).

Jeff Corey didn’t work in movies or television for many years, but the logjam was broken with a role in a 1961 episode of The Untouchables. Jeff then began appearing in films, such as The Yellow Canary (1963—starring Pat Boone, a one-time student of Corey’s) and Lady in a Cage (1964—as the wino who menaces Olivia de Havilland).  Corey did some of his finest film work in this period, with roles in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), In Cold Blood (1967), The Boston Strangler (1968), and Little Big Man (1970—as Wild Bill Hickok!).  I’m a huge fan of his turn in the cult classic Seconds (1966), in which he plays the ominous, chilling counselor to John Randolph’s tired businessman (who is later turned into handsome Rock Hudson).  Not only did Jeff get to work with his old friend Randolph, but fellow blacklistee Will Geer is also in the film (and is equally sinister).

Corey continued to work in movies and TV throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s (he was a regular on former student Robert Blake’s short-lived series Hell Town). He even received several opportunities to direct (episodes of Night Gallery and Alias Smith and Jones are on his C.V.).  According to Patrick McGilligan, Jeff was “an actor’s actor, someone that actors loved to watch because he was always doing something interesting in his work.”  Corey passed away in 2002 at the age of 88 (from complications suffered after a fall), but he left us with a legacy of acting riches.  But as McGilligan notes: “He was a wonderful actor who we never fully got to see because of the blacklist.”

Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson was an 18-year-old rebel when he first enrolled in Jeff Corey’s acting classes…and later observed that the one lesson he took away from his experience was “You can’t change the world…but you can make the world think.”  A talent like today’s birthday celebrant cries out for further exploration, and Radio Spirits heartily endorses our Adventures of Philip Marlowe collections Night Tide and Sucker’s Road, where you’ll hear Jeff in his signature role as Lieutenant Ybarra.  Corey also appears on Night Beat: Human Interest and in our Escape compilations EssentialsPeril, and The Hunted and the Haunted.  Happy birthday to you, Mr. Corey!

 

Happy Birthday, Brett Halliday!

If we were to truly recognize the birthday of author Brett Halliday, we’d have to settle in for a series of blog posts.  “Brett Halliday,” the author who brought the adventures of detective Michael Shayne to life on the printed page, was a pen name used by any number of hard-working mystery scribes, including Bill Pronzini, Robert Terrall, Ryerson Johnson, and Dennis Lynds.  (This is the reason why “that reckless, redheaded Irishman” enjoyed such a lengthy run in the literary sleuthing world—with 77 books and 300 short stories in his shoulder holster.)  For the sake of tidiness, we’ll focus instead on the original Halliday—Davis Dresser, born in Chicago on this date in 1904.

If you’ve noticed in the photo on the left that Mr. Dresser is sporting a rather stylish eyepatch…well, it was more necessity than the height of fashion.  Though he was born in the Windy City, Dresser spent most of his boyhood in West Texas…and an incident involving barbed wire took out his left eye.  His wanderlust inspired him to run away from home at the age of 14, where he enlisted in the U.S. 5th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas.  He followed that stint with a year in the Border Patrol on the Rio Grande.  Davis would eventually return to finish high school, but promptly continued leading “a life of romantic adventure” (to quote a well-known radio program).  He toiled in any number of jack-of-all-trades jobs (muleskinner, farmhand, deckhand) before finally deciding to enroll in the Tri-State College of Engineering.  Receiving a certificate in civil engineering, Dresser found work as an engineer and surveyor in Texas before switching to a writing career in 1927.

Davis Dresser’s life as a wanderer provided him with the inspiration for the literary creation that later paid for his food, clothing, and shelter.  He based the character of Michael Shayne on an American he encountered in a Tampico, Mexico bar (while Davis was working as a deckhand on an oil tanker).  A fracas broke out one night and Dresser was rendered unconscious — thanks to a beer bottle to the head.  The unnamed American pulled him out of the cantina so that Dresser’s comrades could attend to him with a little first aid.  Dresser would cross paths with this same gentleman in a bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter years later, and approached the man to reminisce about their Tampico misadventure.  Halliday related this encounter in Otto Penzler’s The Great Detectives: The World’s Most Celebrated Sleuths Unmasked by Their Authors:

A wide grin came over his face and he started to say something when a sudden chill came over his features.   He was looking past me at the front door and I turned my head to see what he was seeing. Two men had entered the bar and were making their way toward us.  He tossed off his cognac and slid out of the booth as they stopped beside us.  He said harshly to me, “Stay here,” and started down the aisle with one burly man leading the way and the other following close behind.  Thus they disappeared in the French Quarter, and I’ve never seen him again.

Dresser never forgot the man, and when he decided to write a mystery novel “there was never any question as to who my hero would be.”  That book was entitled Dividend on Death, a book that was rejected by 22 publishers before Davis decided to lay it aside.  Dresser wrote another novel, Mum’s the Word for Murder, under the pseudonym of Asa Baker…and had a bit more success on the publishing side when he received only 17 rejections; the book would eventually be published by Frederick Stokes’ company.  A Stokes salesman and a representative from Henry Holt and Company visited Davis not long after the publication of Mum’s. When the author mentioned that he felt Dividend was a better mystery, the Henry Holt salesman suggested he send it to the company.  It turns out that Holt was just starting a new mystery line.  Bill Sloane, Holt’s editor, gave Dividend the thumbs-up and sent Dresser a contract.

Dresser’s second Shayne novel, The Private Practice of Michael Shayne, proved to be every bit as successful as Dividend on Death…and prompted 20th Century-Fox to buy the novel for the purpose of instituting a film series based on the character.  (Actor Lloyd Nolan would play Shayne in seven B-mysteries, beginning in 1940 with Michael Shayne, Private Detective.)  The seven films produced by Fox, however, did not use any of Davis’ Shayne mysteries; instead, they bought books written by Dresser’s competitors and just changed the name of the lead character to Michael Shayne.  When Dresser asked why, he was told it was because he had married off his detective in his books and “it was against their policy to use a married detective.”  So, Dresser decided to kill Mrs. Shane off (she dies in childbirth) …only to learn that Fox was going to drop the series shortly before the first book without Michael’s wife (Blood on the Black Market—a.k.a. Heads You Lose) was published.

Michael Shayne’s success in motion pictures continued with five more B-pictures at Producers Releasing Corporation between 1946 and 1947 — featuring future Leave it to Beaver dad Hugh Beaumont as Shayne.  Meanwhile, Dresser’s creation was also making a splash in radio, beginning in 1944 with a program that starred Wally Maher as the tough-as-nails investigator.  That series would last until 1947, but would later resurface in 1948 as The New Adventures of Michael Shayne — this time with Jeff Chandler in the role.  The detective’s last radio gig was in 1952’s The Adventures of Michael Shayne on ABC, with Donald Curtis, Robert Sterling, and Vinton Hayworth all taking turns at the microphone before the series bowed out in July of 1953.  On the small screen, Dresser’s creation was played by former “Mr. North” Richard Denning in an NBC-TV series that ran from 1960 to 1961.

Davis Dresser was not only prolific as “Brett Halliday”—he also wrote under such pen names as Asa Baker, Matthew Blood, Kathryn Culver, Don Davis, Hal Debrett, Anthony Scott, Peter Field, and Anderson Wayne.  His Halliday persona was his best known, however; he even “portrayed” Halliday on Murder by Experts, a 1949-51 Mutual radio program that he hosted/narrated along with John Dickson Carr (and later film director Alfred Hitchcock).  The show featured mystery tales adapted by the duo responsible for The Mysterious Traveler: David Kogan and Robert A. Arthur.  Dresser continued to pen Michael Shayne mysteries until 1958 (Murder and the Wanton Bride was Dresser’s swan song).  The character continued to appear in comic books, short stories, and novels courtesy of other authors until 1985, when Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine ceased publication.  Dresser, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, won an Edgar Award in 1954 for his critical writings on the mystery genre.  He also founded the Torquil Publishing Company, in operation from 1953 to 1965.  He died in 1977 at the age of 72.

At the same time that Jeff Chandler was getting laughs as “the bashful biologist,” Philip Boynton, on radio’s Our Miss Brooks…he was also emoting as our birthday celebrant’s sleuth on The New Adventures of Michael Shayne.  You can check out a January 15, 1949 broadcast (“The Case of Tahlani’s Tears”) on our private eyes anthology collection Great Radio Detectives.  Michael Shayne’s also in full force on Murder, Prepaid: a set of vintage broadcasts featuring both Chandler and Wally Maher. Happy birthday to Davis Dresser…or as he’s better known, Brett Halliday—creator of one of the most famous detectives in the history of the written word!

Happy Birthday, Lou Krugman!

It seems odd that an actor who claimed to have emoted on over 10,000 radio broadcasts and provided voiceovers for 700 commercials doesn’t even rate an entry at Wikipedia…it’s a crime against the acting profession, not to put too fine a point on it.  Allow us to assuage your outrage by paying proper tribute to a character veteran born in Passaic, NJ on this date in 1914: Lou Krugman.  Krugman continued to do what he loved most—acting, of course—almost until the time of his passing, and fans of old-time radio, classic movies, and vintage television are all the richer for it.  His dedication to his craft earned him the respect and admiration of his peers; in 1991, he was honored by the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters organization in recognition for his lifetime achievements.

Lou’s flair for the buskin began in the 1930s as a member of the distinguished Shakespearean company headed up by renowned stage actress Maude Adams.  Krugman’s Broadway debut was in 1933’s Yoshe Kalb, and after that triumph he would later grace the cast of such productions as Twelfth NightA Midsummer Night’s DreamCafé CrownPeer Gynt, and The Diary of Anne Frank.  Lou eventually discovered that radio could provide a steady paycheck for a hungry actor who could demonstrate versatility, and he started to get work on such shows as Captain MidnightFlying PatrolJack ArmstrongLights OutMa Perkins, and The Shadow.

To list every radio program Lou Krugman worked on would be a daunting task…in case you missed the estimated numbers in the opening paragraph of this blog post.  But like any seasoned professional, he made the rounds on most of the important anthology programs from Radio’s Golden Age.  In addition to occasionally functioning as “the opening voice” on Escape, Lou made appearances on All-Star Western TheatreThe CBS Radio WorkshopCrime ClassicsThe Diary of FateFamily TheatreThe First Nighter ProgramThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Lux Radio TheatreNBC Presents: Short StoryThe NBC University TheatreRomanceScreen Directors’ Playhouse, and Suspense.  Krugman also rode tall in the saddle on such western favorites as The Cisco Kid (William Nadel notes in Radio Rides the Range that “no one was more adept at playing slimy villains” than Lou), Fort LaramieFrontier GentlemanGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelHopalong CassidyThe Romance of the RancherosTales of the Texas RangersTom Mix and His Ralston Straight Shooters, and Wild Bill Hickok.

Krugman stood before the microphone with script in hand on many of radio’s popular crime dramas, including The Adventures of Phillip Marlowe, The Adventures of the Saint, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Broadway’s My Beat, Defense Attorney, Jeff Regan, Investigator, The Line Up, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Night Beat, Pursuit, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Lou even displayed a flair for comedy, trading quips with Alan Young and Jim & Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee & Molly), and working on such sitcoms as Dear Mom, December Bride, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, That’s Rich, and Those Websters.  Rounding out Krugman’s radio C.V. was a recurring role (as Tony Griffin) on the long-running daytime drama The Romance of Helen Trent, and guest appearances on the likes of Chandu the Magician, I Love Adventure, Lassie, The Man Called X, Rocky Fortune, Rocky Jordan, The Silent Men, and Smilin’ Ed’s Buster Brown Gang.

When this last program (Smilin’ Ed) made the transition to the small screen as Andy’s Gang, Lou Krugman followed as well, portraying The Maharajah in the serialized adventures of “Gunga, the Elephant Boy” on the program.  Krugman’s TV work is every bit as extensive as his radio resume.  In the 1950s, he made the rounds of such favorites as 77 Sunset Strip, The Abbott and Costello Show, The Adventures of Superman, Cheyenne, December Bride, The Gale Storm Show (Oh Susanna!), I Love Lucy, The Lone Ranger, M Squad, Maverick, The Millionaire, The Restless Gun, and The Thin Man.  Lou kept up his busy pace as the 60s rolled in, guest starring on the likes of Ben Casey, Bonanza, Burke’s Law, The Dick Van Dyke Show, F Troop, Family Affair, Green Acres, Gunsmoke, Hazel, Hogan’s Heroes, I Spy, The Lucy Show, My Three Sons, Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and The Wild Wild West.

A small, uncredited role in an underrated Dick Powell picture, To the Ends of the Earth (1948), got Lou Krugman’s film career going…though he wasn’t quite as prolific in feature films as he was in radio and TV.  Krugman’s movies include Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), Sabaka (1954), Jump Into Hell (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  One of his most memorable assignments was portraying John R. “Jack” Santo in 1958’s I Want to Live!—one of two lowlifes (the other played by Philip Coolidge) responsible for Barbara Graham’s descent into crime and eventual date with the gas chamber…Graham was played by Susan Hayward, who won an Academy Award for the role.  Lou’s appearances in The Purple Gang (1959), Irma la Douce (1963), and Our Man Flint (1966) followed.

In the 1970s, Lou Krugman continued to be a member-in-good-standing in the “Hey—it’s that guy!” acting fraternity, guest starring on such favorites as The Streets of San Francisco and The Rockford Files.  But Lou never abandoned his love for radio; he contributed to attempts to keep audio drama alive with performances on the likes of The CBS Radio Mystery TheatreHeartbeat TheatreThe Hollywood Radio Theatre, and The Sears Radio Theatre.   He did voiceover work as well, breathing life into “Chief Cooper” on the Saturday morning cartoon series Spider-Woman.  In addition, Krugman enjoyed working as a member of the California Artists Radio Theatre (an organization founded by actress Peggy Webber in 1984), and joined the cast of CART’s production of Macbeth (alongside fellow radio veterans like Parley Baer, Jeanette Nolan, and Elliott Reid), which was awarded two gold medals from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  To relax between acting gigs, Lou also dabbled as an amateur artist—the picture at the upper left is one of his works (as of this posting, it was being sold on eBay).  This amazing talent succumbed to cancer in 1992, at the age of 78.

In real estate, a “looky-loo” is slang for a person bursting with curiosity to check out a house for sale…but with no actual intention of purchasing the property.  Here at Radio Spirits, a “listen-Lou” can be defined as our determination to tell you about all the collections we have on hand featuring the talents of Mr. Krugman.  There are our Escape sets (Escape to the High Seas, EssentialsThe Hunted and the HauntedPeril), of course…but you can also hear Lou on The Adventures of Phillip Marlowe (Sucker’s RoadNight TideLonely Canyons), Barrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBroadway’s My Beat (Great White WayDark Whispers), Chandu the MagicianCrime Classics (The Hyland Files), Fort Laramie (Volume Two), Frontier Gentleman (Life and Death), Gunsmoke (Killers & Spoilers), Have Gun – Will TravelThe Line Up (Witness), Night Beat (Human Interest), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Homicide Made Easy), The Shadow (Strange Puzzles), and The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (The Stuttering Ghost & Other Mysteries).  Last—but certainly not least—our birthday celebrant is present and accounted for in our Great Radio Detectives compendium, too!

Happy Birthday, Milton Berle!

At the height of his phenomenal fame on television as the star of The Texaco Star Theatre, Milton Berle was the target of a hilarious barb from fellow comedian Joe E. Lewis: “Milton Berle is responsible for the sale of more television sets than any other performer…I know I sold mine and my brother sold his.”  (Lewis had conceived the gag in 1947, when Berle was still on radio—but “Uncle Miltie’s” boob tube popularity allowed Joe to rework the joke.)  Truth be told, a lot of people invested in those newfangled sets just to see this crazy comedian everyone was talking about.  Born Milton (some sources say Mendel) Berlinger in New York City on this date in 1908, Berle would become an entertainment icon.  It is not for nothing that he’s reverently referred to as “Mr. Television.”

Berlinger wouldn’t change his name to “Milton Berle” until he was 16…but by the age of five, he was already a show business veteran.  He was encouraged by his mother Sarah, who promoted him as a child actor in silent films like The Perils of Pauline (1914) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917).  Berle acknowledged that he appeared in close to fifty features in the silent era (including The Mark of Zorro [1920] and Tess of the Storm Country [1922]) while actively pursuing a vaudeville career.  In 1920, at the age of 12, Milton made his stage debut in a production of the musical comedy Floradora in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  By 16, he was working solo as a “Master of Ceremonies” in vaudeville, invading other acts on the bill with the brash, smartass style that would make him famous (and which Berle acknowledged he patterned after one of vaudeville’s top comics, Ted Healy—the man responsible for bringing us The Three Stooges).  During his stage career, Milton developed his reputation as a “chooser”—vaudeville slang for a joke thief.  “I never stole a joke in my life,” he once insisted, tongue-in-cheek.  “I just find them before they’re lost.”  (This propensity for lifting other comics’ material earned him the hilarious appellation “The Thief of Bad Gags.”)

Milton Berle was headlining at New York’s Palace Theatre (the “Mecca” of Vaudeville) by the age of 21.  His Broadway work included Earl Carroll’s Vanities (a 1932 revue) and Saluta (1934).  In 1936, he was anxious to get back into motion pictures, so he did a screen test for producer Samuel Goldwyn.  Goldwyn took a pass, but RKO wanted his services—which resulted in young Milton appearing in such movie vehicles as New Faces of 1937 (1937) and Radio City Revels (1938).  Berle also made several films for 20th Century-Fox in the 1940s: Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941—one of my favorites), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Whispering Ghosts (1942), and Margin for Error (1943), to name a few.  Towards the end of the decade, Milton would make Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) for Warner Brothers…a movie whose protagonist (a vaudeville comic) was clearly near-and-dear to his heart.

Berle’s ambition was such that he was anxious to conquer every area of show business—particularly the aural medium.  He would later acknowledge that “for a guy who never made it big on radio I was always on.”  (Old-time radio historian John Dunning once described Milton as “radio’s best-known failure.”)  His early radio appearances include guest shots on Rudy Vallee’s The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour and a regular stint on The Fred Waring Show. By the fall of 1936, he was the host of The Gillette Original Community Sing.  The Sunday night CBS comedy-variety program showcased Berle’s “machine gun comedy” style, which was similar to that of Bob Hope’s (both comics admitted borrowing a lot from the aforementioned Ted Healy).  In his autobiography, Berle recalled that the program’s theme song (which he sang in the opening) was Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing, which would require the audience to respond: “Tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet!”

Milton later went on to host NBC’s Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One in the fall of 1939—a comedy show on which panel members would attempt to finish jokes sent in by the show’s listening audience.  (Three of the show’s panelists went on to further radio fame: Harry Hershfield and “Senator” Ed Ford on the similar [but better known] Can You Top This?, and Harry McNaughton on It Pays to Be Ignorant.)  Berle then resurfaced in 1941 on Three Ring Time, a comedy-variety program for Ballantine Ale that ran for a season on both the Mutual and Blue networks.  Though the program received favorable critical buzz, it turned into a complete bust—much of it due to the squabbling of Berle and co-star Charles Laughton.  Milton tried radio three more times as a headliner: a brief self-titled series over CBS in 1943 for Campbell Soups; a 1944-45 “half-hour of slapstick” for Blue/CBS called Let Yourself Go (sponsored by Eversharp); and a summer series over CBS in 1946 known as Kiss and Make Up. The latter was a gimmick program that found “judge” Berle presiding over a mock court.  (This one was created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later responsible for My Friend Irma and Life With Luigi.)

1947 found Berle seriously wanting to succeed in radio, so much so that he cancelled several lucrative nightclub appearances (that would have netted him $25,000 weekly) to break his radio jinx with Philip Morris’ The Milton Berle Show, a Tuesday NBC program beginning March 11, 1947.  Though the show barely made a dent in the ratings (its Hooper was a dismal 11.6), it represents some of the comedian’s best radio work.  The Milton Berle Show took a weekly satirical look at prominent pop culture phenomena—one week it might be “a salute to relaxation,” the next “a salute to high finance”—and featured a cast that included Arnold Stang (on loan from The Henry Morgan Show), Jack Albertson, Ed Begley, Arthur Q. Bryan, Al Kelly, Pert Kelton, and Mary Shipp.  Frank Gallop was Milton’s announcer and a perfect foil for the comedian’s boorish, obnoxious persona (author Gerald Nachman once characterized Berle as “the manic comic who won’t shut up until you laugh”).

The Milton Berle Show came to an end on April 13, 1948…but in the fall of that same year, Milton was back on ABC with The Texaco Star Theatre—which the comedian later remembered as “the best radio show I ever did…a hell of a funny variety show.”  Surviving broadcasts (almost the entire run has resurfaced) back him up on this.  It was essentially an extension of his NBC series—Gallop was back as his announcer/foil, along with Stang, Kelly, Kelton, Albertson and Shipp—but it featured first-rate writing from Nat Hiken (who would later create Phil Silvers’ classic TV sitcom), Aaron Ruben (Gomer Pyle, USMC), and two brothers named Neil and Danny Simon.  While starring on this show, Milton Berle was already transitioning to the small screen with a TV version of Theatre. He hosted it in June of 1948, but shared those duties monthly with Jack Carter, Morey Amsterdam, and Georgie Price.  Berle was hired to host permanently that fall.  His Texaco radio show left the airwaves in June of 1949, but he’d continue to be sponsored by the company on TV until 1953.  From 1953-55, Buick started paying the bills (The Buick-Berle Show).  Milton would do one final season from 1955 to 1956 as The Milton Berle Show, which would also be the same title of his ABC variety hour from 1966-67.  “Mr. Television” continued to live up to that nickname for many years afterward in various appearances on TV favorites (F TroopBatman) and feature films (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldWho’s Minding the Mint?) until his death in 2002 at the age of 93.

Radio Spirits features two samples from what our own Elizabeth McLeod calls “one of the forgotten bright spots of postwar radio.”  Comedy Goes West spotlights an October 7, 1947 broadcast of The Milton Berle Show (“A Salute to the Old West”), and The Voices of Christmas Past reaches back to December 23rd of that same year with a Berle Show entitled “A Salute to Christmas.”  You’ll find clips from the birthday boy’s celebrated television series on the DVD collection Funniest Moments of Comedy, plus reminiscences from Irving Brecher (The Wicked Wit of the West) and interviews with David Rothel (Opened Time Capsules) sitting on the voluminous Radio Spirits bookshelf.  Happy birthday, Uncle Miltie!

“Want to get away from it all? We offer you…Escape!

Seventy-years ago today, in 1947, the CBS Radio Network decided to complement its celebrated “outstanding theatre of thrills” with an anthology “designed to free you from the four walls of today with a half-hour of high adventure.”  That’s the fundamental difference between Suspense and Escape (the latter celebrating its 70th anniversary).  Suspense concentrated on tales of crime and mystery, with the protagonist of each tale placed in a situation that kept the listener on the edge of their seat.  Escape certainly had its fair share of “suspense,” but its broadcasts leaned more toward action.

The other major difference between the two series was that Suspense, under the direction of creator William Spier (and later Anton Leader and Elliott Lewis), served as a showcase for the crème de la crème of Hollywood stars.  Suspense paraded the likes of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, and Olivia de Havilland before its microphones…while poor relation Escape could only afford the occasional film star in Victor Mature or Gary Merrill—or movie actors who already had a solid background in the aural medium, like Jeff Chandler or Vincent Price.  Escape overcame its lack of star wattage with some of the very best radio actors to ever pick up a script, including legends like Ben Wright, Harry Bartell, John Dehner, Parley Baer, and Lawrence Dobkin.

The origins of Escape can be loosely traced to an NBC series broadcast from 1944-45 as Stories of Escape, with a format similar to the later CBS series.  The CBS version began as a February 28, 1947 audition for a show that was to be titled Out of This World, which reworked one of the segments that had been featured in the 1945 British horror anthology film Dead of Night, in which a ventriloquist’s dummy seems to have a life of its own.  This toned-down version of the tale would also be utilized for Escape’s official audition (dated March 21, 1947), and featured World’s actors Berry Kroeger and Art Carney.

Not long after its July 7th premiere, Radio Life noted that the title of Escape was a misnomer.  “These stories all possess many times the reality that radio writing conveys,” the publication gushed in August of 1947.  Escape drew upon a treasure trove of short stories penned by such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”), Joseph Conrad (“Typhoon”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Sire de Maletroit’s Door”), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (“The Ring of Thoth”), H.G. Wells (“Pollack and the Porrah Man”), and Rudyard Kipling (“The Man Who Would Be King”).  The show’s producer, William N. Robson, also contributed an original tale on occasion (“Operation Fleur de Lis”), but for the most part the program generously helped itself to established published tales, adapted by such renowned radio scribes as Les Crutchfield, John Dunkel, Walter Newman, and James Poe.

Escape had one of radio’s most unforgettable openings: “Tired of the everyday grind?  Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure?  Want to get away from it all?  We offer you… Escape!”  These lines would be spoken by either William Conrad or Paul Frees (they alternated from week to week), but the two actors could also be pressed into service playing roles within the productions. (Conrad did some of his best radio work in Escape showcases like “Wild Oranges” and “Snake Doctor.”)  In later years, actor Lou Krugman was “the voice of Escape.”  After hearing the orchestra launch into Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, the announcer would authoritatively intone something along the lines of: “You are alone and unarmed in the green Hell of the Caribbean jungle…you are being trailed by a pack of hungry dogs and a mad hunter armed for the kill…”  This was a recurring theme of Escape—that the protagonist was on his own and at the mercy of the elements, often relying on his wits to survive.

Despite its modest budget, and some reluctance on the part of the Columbia Broadcasting System to promote the series, Escape quickly became a firm favorite with radio audiences.  CBS treated the show like a shell game, shifting the program around in eighteen different time slots before the program eventually left the airwaves on September 25, 1954.  The show was also mostly sustained during its time on the air (apart from Richmond Oil paying the bills from April to August 1950).  Even though its cast and crew were probably working for peanuts, everyone involved was dedicated to putting out an exemplary show.  This was evident in the acting, writing, and production values of each broadcast.  Escape has been responsible for so many memorable radio memories: “Leinengen vs. the Ants,” “Three Skeleton Key,” “A Shipment of Mute Fate,” and much, much more.

Radio Spirits’ collection Escape Essentials showcases several of the classic broadcasts mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, and even a few of my favorites like “Casting the Runes” (you may recognize this as the inspiration for the classic 1958 horror film Night of the Demon) and “Poison.”  I didn’t write the liner notes for this set, but I did contribute the booklet for The Hunted and the Haunted, and I can highly recommend two additional Escape compendiums in Escape to the High Seas and Peril—all four of these collections are indispensable listening for old-time radio fans.  To cleanse your palate, you’ll also find Escape in our potpourri sets of Great Radio Horror (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Golden Snake,” “The Abominable Snowman”) and Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures (“Conqueror’s Isle,” “North of Polaris”).  When you have a craving for high adventure, Escape is the only remedy—ask for it by name!