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Happy Birthday, Betty Lou Gerson!

George Allen took over as director of the West Coast radio mystery anthology The Whistler beginning in the mid-40s, and one of the hallmarks of his tenure with the program was building a stock company that was facetiously referred to as “Whistler’s children.”  He tailored the casting of many of radio’s finest performers to the needs of each week’s Whistler scripts. For example, if he needed an actor who “can sound like the average guy under pressure, and he builds emotion fast and holds it at a peak”—his go-to guy would be Elliott Lewis, and if that character were female he’d tab Cathy Lewis, Elliott’s then-wife.  For “parts that convey mental superiority” Allen would call on Betty Lou Gerson; “she’s perfect for women who have catty, fencing dialogue.”  Gerson was one of radio’s busiest actresses, and the performer who made that medium her own was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on this date in 1914.

Although a native of the Volunteer State, Betty Lou Gerson spent much of her youth in Birmingham, Alabama, where her father was president of the Southern Steel and Roller Mills Company.  Betty Lou had early ambitions of being an actress while attending a girl’s seminary, where she voraciously read magazines about theatre, Hollywood and radio.  Gerson also performed in school plays and, upon graduating, she convinced her parents to let her enroll in Chicago’s Goodman Dramatic School.  Her scholastics there didn’t last long, however; Betty Lou received an offer to join a stock company, which occupied her time for three months during the summer.

Betty Lou Gerson then returned to the Windy City to continue her schooling.  On a lark, she decided to audition for a role on an NBC program, Talkie Picture Time.  Gerson got the part…but she also got the attention of the show’s director, Joseph Ainsley—the two of them would later tie the knot after several years of courtship.  Betty Lou, in the meantime, concentrated on her radio acting career: one of her high-profile jobs was as leading lady opposite Don Ameche on The First Nighter Program.  When Ameche was asked by Hollywood to take a screen test, First Nighter moved to the West Coast and Gerson went with the show.  Despite being offered a tempting contract by Warner’s, Betty Lou decided to turn down the studio and return to Chicago to make plans with her beau Joe.

The First Nighter Program eventually returned to Chicago as well, but Betty Lou Gerson lost her leading lady status to Barbara Luddy (with Les Tremayne as leading man).  Still, Gerson worked hard at her craft, and would eventually land starring roles on the daytime dramas Win Your Lady (a 1938 summer soap that featured Don Ameche’s brother Jim), Arnold Grimm’s Daughter (Betty Lou was Constance, the “daughter” in the title), and Midstream (on which she played Julia Meredith).  Betty Lou also played leading lady on Grand Hotel, a dramatic anthology that aired over NBC (Arch Oboler wrote some of the program’s playlets when he was just starting out), as well as the Mutual program Curtain Time.

Being a busy thespian during Radio’s Golden Age meant working on a lot of daytime dramas…and Betty Lou Gerson was no exception.  In addition to the ones already named, Gerson had recurring roles on Attorney-at-LawAunt MaryThe Guiding Light (as Charlotte Wilson), The Last of the LockwoodsRoad of Life (Nurse Helen Gowan), The Story of Mary Marlin (first as Henriette, then in the title role), A Tale of Today, and Women in White (Karen Adams).  Betty Lou also did a brief stint on a soap called Lonely Women; she reprised her character from that soap (Marilyn Larimore) when Today’s Children was revived in 1943.  Gerson also had regular roles on serials aimed at the juvenile audience: she played Sue on Flying Time, and Mercedes Colby on Don Winslow of the Navy.

A list of Betty Lou Gerson’s credits is going to eat up a lot of bandwidth. Let’s start with the dramatic anthology programs: in addition to The Whistler, she worked on The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Chicago Theatre of the AirCrime ClassicsEscapeThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreFavorite StoryThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Sound StageHollywood Star PlayhouseInner Sanctum MysteriesLights OutThe Lux Radio TheatreRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Screen Guild TheatreStars Over HollywoodSuspense, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.  On the weekly series Mr. President, Edward Arnold would take on the role of a different Commander-in-Chief…but it was Betty Lou who played the “generic” secretary to each president, Miss Sarah.

Newspaper columnist Anne Rogers was the main character on Hot Copy, an early 1940s series where Ms. Rogers solved murders every week.  Betty Lou Gerson was heard in that role, and provided voices for a host of characters on such detective programs as The Adventures of Nero WolfeThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintThe Amazing Mr. Malone (Murder and Mr. Malone), Barrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBox 13Broadway’s My BeatDangerous AssignmentEllery QueenI Deal in CrimeI Love AdventureJeff Regan, InvestigatorJohnny Modero, Pier 23Let George Do ItMike MalloyNight BeatPat Novak for HireRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky FortuneTales of FatimaTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIThe Whisperer, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Rounding out Betty Lou Gerson’s radio resume are credits for such favorites as The Adventures of Frank RaceBirds’ Eye Open HouseBold VentureBright StarDark VentureDuffy’s TavernFibber McGee & MollyThe Fitch BandwagonThe Great GildersleeveHopalong CassidyI Was a Communist for the FBIInheritanceThe Man Called XMystery is My HobbyOne Man’s FamilyThe Private Practice of Dr. DanaThe Railroad HourThe Silent MenThe Story of Dr. Kildare, and You Were There.

As you can tell from what’s been listed, Betty Lou Gerson spent a great deal of time going back-and-forth from network to network and studio to studio.  As such, she didn’t have much time for outside show business pursuits like motion pictures—though Betty Lou did appear in a few.  Her debut was in the 1949 anti-Communist film The Red Menace, and Gerson also had roles in Undercover Girl (1950), An Annapolis Story (1955), The Green-Eyed Blonde (1957), The Fly (1958), and The Miracle of the Hills (1959).  Her best remembered movie turns were for animated features: she narrates Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950) and portrayed one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains in Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).  (Betty Lou also had a bit role in Disney’s Mary Poppins [1964]; her work for The Mouse earned her a “Disney Legend” designation in 1996.)

Betty Lou Gerson was much more prominent on the small screen; among her television credits are appearances on shows like 77 Sunset StripCheckmateThe Dick Van Dyke ShowFather Knows BestHazelI Married JoanPerry MasonThe RiflemanThe Twilight Zone, and The Untouchables.  She retired in 1966 (though she continued to use her voice in working for her second husband’s telephone answering service). Betty Lou’s last credit (according to the IMDb) was voicing “Frances” in the 1997 animated feature Cats Don’t Dance before her passing in 1999 at the age of 84.

Since we weren’t exaggerating about Betty Lou Gerson’s prolific radio career, we have oodles of goodies available in the Radio Spirits store to help you celebrate her natal anniversary.  We’ll single out one of her signature series: we have plenty of The Whistler on hand in the form of such collections as Eleventh HourRoot of All Evil, and Skeletons in the Closet.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: check out our Broadway’s My Beat sets (Great White Way, The Lonesomest Mile), The Adventures of Philip Marlowe compendiums (The Adventures of Philip MarloweLonely CanyonsNight Tide), The Adventures of Nero Wolfe anthologies (The New Adventures of Nero WolfeParties for Death), and our always popular Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar compilations (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMurder Matters).  For dessert: Box 13Crime Classics: The Hyland FilesDark VentureDuffy’s Tavern: Duffy Ain’t HereGreat Radio Private EyesJeff Regan, Investigator: Stand By for MysteryNight Beat: Human InterestRichard Diamond: Mayhem is My Business, and Suspense: Wages of Sin.  Happy birthday, Betty Lou!

“Friendship, friendship…just a perfect blendship…”

The Golden Age of Radio was always welcoming to dizzy women who marched to the beat of a different drummer—Gracie Allen (with her “illogical logic”) and Jane Ace being two primary examples.  But both Gracie and Jane had stiff competition in the form of the medium’s favorite “dumb blonde,” Irma Peterson, the lovably dumb stenographer on the sitcom My Friend Irma.  According to historian John Dunning in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Irma “had neither the malapropian qualities of Ace nor the dubiously screwy logic of Allen.”  She just wasn’t too terribly bright.  For example, when her roommate Jane Stacy once suggested replacing the apartment’s wall brackets with a bridge lamp for better lighting, Irma responded: “But, Jane—what if we want to play gin rummy?”  The program that became one of radio’s bright lights of comedy premiered over CBS on this date in 1947.

The central premise of My Friend Irma—two career girls, sharing an apartment and struggling to survive in New York City—was certainly not a new one. (One strong film example is 1942’s My Sister Eileen).  But writer Cy Howard, who gave up a career in sales to become a professional writer, put a new twist on the concept by making the titular character of My Friend Irma the stereotypical dumb blonde to end all dumb blondes.  Howard had spotted actress Marie Wilson performing in the stage revue Ken Murray’s Blackouts and convinced her to take a chance and star in the radio comedy.  Casting Cathy Lewis, a radio veteran, as Irma’s levelheaded roomie Jane was also a masterstroke. Lewis purportedly got the gig due to her impatience at the audition (she was running late for another one) and Howard loved the irritation expressed in her voice.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Jane might muse at the start of a broadcast.  “I love that girl—most people do.  It’s just that Mother Nature gave some girls brains, intelligence, and cleverness…but with Irma…well, Mother Nature slipped her a mickey.”  Despite her frequent putdowns of her roommate, Jane and Irma were almost like sisters…and fiercely protective of one another. (Jane affectionately called Irma “Cookie.”)  They resided in a dilapidated rooming house (8224 West 73rd Street, NYC) run by Kathleen O’Reilly (first played by Jane Morgan, then Gloria Gordon). This feisty Irish lass was constantly engaged in a war of words with the girls’ upstairs neighbor, violinist Professor Kropotkin (Hans Conried).  Kropotkin’s entrance on the show each week was signaled by a soft knock on the girls’ apartment door and a meek “It’s only me…Professor Kropotkin.”  Kropotkin would also toss a bit of flattery toward his downstairs neighbors: “Hello, Janie and Irma—my two little jigsaw puzzles…one complete, and one a few pieces are missing.”

Both Jane and Irma worked as secretaries—Irma’s employer was attorney Milton J. Clyde (Alan Reed). The lawyer was constantly exasperated by his hare-brained assistant, but reluctant to fire her because he knew no one else would be able to decipher Irma’s screwy filing system.  Jane not only worked for wealthy Richard Rhinelander III (Leif Erickson), she had a big crush on her boss, and was unabashedly determined to become “Mrs. Richard Rhinelander III.”  (“What good will that do if he has two other wives?” Irma once mused.)  Irma’s love interest would never appear in the social register like her best friend’s boss. Al (who had no last name) was one of radio’s most memorable loafers—a man permanently on the dole and completely unembarrassed by it.  Wonderfully portrayed by John Brown, Al was short on ambition but long on inspiration—always cooking up a Ralph Kramden-like scheme that was guaranteed to put him in the chips.  Whenever he found himself in a jam (a weekly occurrence), audiences waited for Al to get on the phone with the only man who could give him the right advice: “Hello, Joe?  Al.  Got a problem…”

Other characters on My Friend Irma included Mrs. Rhinelander (Myra Marsh), who wasn’t completely sold on Jane’s intentions to march her son up the matrimonial aisle. And there was Amber Lipscott, a friend of Irma’s who had a hilarious Noo Yawk accent (voiced by the one-and-only Bea Benaderet).  Later in the show’s radio/TV run, Cathy Lewis left the show and Irma got a new roommate in Kay Foster, played by Mary Shipp.  Shipp had been a regular (as Miss Spaulding) on Cy Howard’s other successful radio creation, Life with Luigi, which also featured Alan Reed (as Pasquale) and Hans Conried (Schultz).  For a brief period in 1949, Lewis had been replaced in the role of Jane by actress Joan Banks (while Cathy recuperated from an illness).

My Friend Irma was a huge hit for the Columbia Broadcasting System, likely due to its plum time slot (it aired after The Lux Radio Theatre, one of radio’s most popular shows).  After being sustained in early broadcasts, it quickly secured a sponsor in Lever Brothers (for Swan Soap) and later in its run, the Pearson Pharmacal Company (Ennds breath mints/Eye-Gene eye drops) and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (Camel/Cavalier cigarettes) paid the bills.  The success of the show led to two theatrical films based on the program, My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950).  Both movies remain quite popular today, no doubt due to the participation of an up-and-coming comedy duo, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

My Friend Irma would also make a transition to the small screen, premiering on CBS-TV on January 8, 1952.  Its television run was a brief one—though creator Cy Howard had proposed a spin-off, My Wife Irma, to the network that would find Irma now married to a Park Avenue millionaire (I thought that was Jane’s racket?).  Steve Dunne was purportedly considered for the role of Irma’s hubby, but the series never materialized.  My Friend Irma fans had to soldier on after the radio series’ departure on August 24, 1954 with a series of comic books (that began in 1950) featuring the confused heroine, published by Atlas (later Marvel) and written by future Marvel Comics figurehead Stan Lee (and illustrated by Dan DeCarlo!) until 1955.

My Friend Irma is one of several radio classics featured in our potpourri collection Great Radio Sitcoms.  It’s guaranteed to whet your appetite for full-blown Irma in the set On Second Thought (which features a program guide booklet penned by yours truly!).  Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about the talented lady who made us laugh as the daffy Irma, we’d like to recommend my friend Charles Transberg’s book Not So Dumb: The Life and Career of Marie Wilson.  Happy anniversary, Irma and Jane!

“Champion of the people! Defender of truth! Guardian of our fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”

During the Golden Age of Radio, it was standard practice for the comedians headlining the most popular programs to work 39 weeks out of the year (which is kind of fitting when you work Jack Benny into the equation) and then take a summer break in the interim.  Mr. District Attorney, one of the medium’s most popular crime dramas, never enjoyed that luxury, according to old-time radio historian John Dunning.  “It was a year-round operation. In the summers, when such comics as Jack Benny and Bob Hope were on vacation, Mr. DA often soared to the top of the ratings; it was seldom out of the top ten, even in midseason.”

Mr. District Attorney made its debut on this date in 1939, replacing Amos ‘n’ Andy, which had defected to CBS.  That’s why the early years of the program utilized a weekday quarter-hour format (airing at 7pm).  On June 27 of that same year, Mr. DA expanded to a half-hour as a summer replacement for Bob Hope’s Pepsodent show. On October 1, it would find itself on NBC Blue’s schedule full-time.  It later switched to NBC, in April of 1940, to be sponsored for more than ten years by Bristol Myers (Vitalis). So while funsters like Edgar Bergen and Fred Allen enjoyed a little R-and-R in the summer, Mr. District Attorney still had cases on the docket.

Mr. District Attorney was created by Edward A. Byron, a one-time law student who abandoned his studies for a radio career, working out of WLW in Cincinnati.  The inspiration for the fictional prosecutor came from Thomas E. Dewey, New York City’s famed district attorney, who parlayed his crimebusting activities into governorship of the Empire State (and later two-time candidate for the presidency).  Radio producer Phillips H. Lord, the man who brought Gang Busters to radio audiences, was the co-creator of Mr. DA. He would later be “bought out” by Byron (who paid Lord a hefty sum for the show’s title), but retained both a credit on the show and royalties.

The lead character on Mr. District Attorney never had an actual name until he made a brief transition to TV (more on this in a sec).  The supporting cast usually referred to him as “Chief” or “Boss.”  The role was originated by Dwight Weist and was then briefly essayed by the man who maintained Inner Sanctum’s creaking door, Raymond Edward Johnson.  It would be Jay Jostyn who portrayed the heroic prosecutor the longest, from 1940 to the program’s final network broadcast (on ABC) on June 13, 1952.  Mr. District Attorney also had a brief run as a syndicated program (from the Frederick W. Ziv stables) from 1952-53. By that time, the character was identified as “Paul Garrett,” and was played by David Brian.  (The syndicated version demonstrated that the series was still popular, airing in over 200 markets.)

Long before television producer Dick Wolf (of the Law & Order franchise) devised the concept of using “ripped-from-the-headlines” stories as plots of his shows, the creative minds behind Mr. District Attorney used similar methods to create exciting radio adventures.  Byron was a student of crime and possessed an uncanny knack for anticipating trends and scooping the newspapers on a regular basis.  As Dunning writes in On the Air, “Con games occurred most often in the spring; juvenile delinquency in the summer; husbands and wives killed each other in the fall; burglaries were most common in winter.”  But Ed Byron was more than just a dusty encyclopedia of crime facts—a stickler for realism, he researched his material by going undercover and rubbing elbows “with thieves, lackeys, and off-duty cops” in his quest for program fodder.  Mr. District Attorney also benefitted from such writing talent as Jerry Devine (who later went on to create This is Your FBI), Finis Farr, Harry Herman, and Robert J. Shaw.

It’s important to remember that the titular Mr. District Attorney was only one man and he needed a crackerjack staff to assist him in his vendetta against the bad guys.  His secretary was Miss (Edith) Miller and was portrayed throughout the show’s entire run by Vicki Vola.  Len Harrington was Mr. DA’s investigator (a former cop), played initially by Walter Kinsella and then Len Doyle (from 1940 on).  Eleanor Silver and future What’s My Line panelist Arlene Francis were heard as Miss Rand, receptionist to Mr. DA.  Maurice Franklin was the “Voice of the Law,” responsible for the program’s memorable opening (“it shall be my duty as district attorney not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all persons accused of crimes perpetuated within this county but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens…”).

At the height of Mr. District Attorney’s popularity, the show inspired a brief movie franchise (from Republic Pictures). It began with the appropriately titled Mr. District Attorney in 1941 and was followed by The Carter Case (1941) and Secrets of the Underground (1942).  The film series used a completely different set of characters, however, and if not for the opening credits referencing the radio program in each of the entries, audiences might not have made the connection.  A second attempt at jumpstarting a Mr. DA movie series came from Columbia Pictures in 1947. The resulting Mr. District Attorney hewed a little closer to the radio show’s concept.  While Mr. District Attorney was still airing on radio, the program migrated to TV with Jostyn, Vola, and Doyle all reprising their roles.  The show aired over ABC-TV from October 1, 1951 to June 23, 1952, alternating weekly with another radio lawyer transplant, The Amazing Mr. Malone (a.k.a. Murder and Mr. Malone).  Mr. DA resurfaced in 1954, when Ziv tackled a brief syndicated series. In this effort, David Brian reclaimed his earlier radio gig as “Paul Garrett,” with Jackie Loughery as “Miss Miller.”

Three of the actors who played Mr. District Attorney—Dwight Weist, Jay Jostyn, and David Brian—are featured in the Radio Spirits collection Mr. District Attorney, which spotlights broadcasts from 1939 (including the series’ debut broadcast) to 1953.  Also included in the set is a 1939 promotional show featuring fellow district attorneys from around the country.  Happy anniversary to Mr. DA!

Happy Birthday, Fran Carlon!

Actress Fran Carlon—born in Indianapolis, Indiana on this date in 1913—was married to actor-announcer Casey Allen for many years. The couple even occasionally worked together on radio programs like Radio City Playhouse and Theatre Five.  On the day of their nuptials, another couple drove Fran and Casey to a secluded spot outside of North Tarrytown (the burg in which the newly marrieds tied the knot) and treated them to a lavish wedding lunch, complete with champagne on ice.  The four of them were having a lovely time until a motorcycle cop happened by, wanting to know what the quartet was up to…since they were “trespassing” in a no-picnicking zone.

When Fran and Casey’s friend, a doctor by trade, explained to the patrolman that the four of them were celebrating the Allens’ “just married” status, the cop grumbled: “What didya have to go and do that for?  I’ve been married eight years and now we can’t stand each other.”  The quartet tried to execute some marital counseling to man-in-blue by coaxing him into having some champagne…but in the end, all he was able to offer up was: “My sympathies to you both.”  Neither Casey nor Fran were discouraged in the slightest. The pair enjoyed not only a wonderful marriage, but successful careers in the aural medium. This was true of Fran, in particular, who worked any number of daytime dramas in addition to her prominent nighttime gig as Lorelei Kilbourne on the popular newspaper drama Big Town.

Though born a Hoosier, Fran Carlon spent most of her childhood growing up in Chicago.  She received theatrical training at the Windy City’s Goodman Theatre and, later, the Pasadena Playhouse.  Fran made her stage debut in a road company production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, portraying Little Eva.  As her career progressed, Carlon appeared in such Broadway plays as Play, Genius, PlaySunrise at Campobello, and Men of Distinction.  A brief sojourn in Hollywood in 1934 allowed her to appear (uncredited) in two films: The White Parade and 365 Nights in Hollywood.  “[N]o one in our neighborhood suspected I was an actress until the grocer asked what I did and I told him I was on radio,” she mused in an article she wrote for Radio Mirror in April of 1952 about her life with husband Casey.

Fran Carlon got as much acting work as she could handle once she returned to Chicago and booked a gig doing commercials on Amos ‘n’ Andy.  The thespic floodgates opened in the world of soap operas, where she played Martha on This Changing World and was the star (portraying Joan Martell) on The Story of Joan and Kermit.  Fran was heard as Bunny Mitchell on The Story of Mary Marlin, Irene Galway on Our Gal Sunday, Eileen Moran on Today’s Children, and Sue on Big Sister.  Carlon also, at various times, brought life to the titular heroines of Joyce Jordan, M.D.Kitty Keene, Incorporated, and The Life of Mary Sothern.  Fran also played attorney Portia Manning of Portia Faces Life briefly when star Lucille Wall was incapacitated due to illness.

Rounding out Fran Carlon’s daytime drama resume are gigs on Attorney at LawGirl AloneLora LawtonMa PerkinsMary Noble, Backstage Wife, and A Woman of America.  Fran also played assistant Rhoda Trent on Blackstone, the Magic Detective—a quarter-hour adventure series (with Edwin Jerome as the titular prestidigitator) adapted from the comic books by Elmer Cecil Stoner and based on the real-life magician Harry Blackstone, Sr.  (Walter B. Gibson, the prolific author behind The Shadow, wrote many of the show’s scripts.)  In addition, Carlon could be heard on occasion on such radio favorites as Barrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBest PlaysThe Chicago Theatre of the AirCrime and Peter ChambersThe Eternal LightThe Ford TheatreThe MarriageMr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, and Words at War.

Fran Carlon’s most high-profile radio employment was on the primetime drama Big Town, a show that had premiered over CBS in 1937. It starred motion picture gangster Edward G. Robinson as Steve Wilson, editor of the daily newspaper Illustrated Press.  For five seasons, Robinson had made Big Town one of the Tiffany Network’s biggest hits. After he decided to hang it up, Broadway veteran Edward J. Pawley replaced him in the role (following the program’s year-long hiatus).  Backing up Pawley was Fran as Lorelei Kilbourne, who had made the transition from gossip columnist to girl reporter in the meantime.  Big Town continued over CBS until the fall of 1948, when it switched networks to NBC. During the final months of the show, Walter Greaza took over as Wilson – but Pawley and Carlon punched a time clock at the paper until June 25, 1952.

Fran Carlon did not reprise her role of Lorelei when Big Town transitioned to TV in the fall of 1950 (where it had a six-year-run on both CBS and NBC). However, she did start to make appearances on such small screen shows as Robert Montgomery Presents and Decoy. Her previous experience portraying Portia on Portia Faces Life came in handy when she took over the role from Frances Reid when the popular radio soap became a TV show on NBC from 1954 to 1955 (it also went by the title The Inner Flame).  Carlon was a regular on CBS’ As the World Turns from 1968 to 1975, portraying Julia Burke.  Fran left this world for a better one in 1993 at the age of 80.

Our Big Town collection, Blind Justice, features today’s birthday girl emoting as Lorelei Kilbourne.  You’ll also find Fran on Words at War: World War II Radio Drama (“Love at First Flight”) and in the Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator episode “Dead Loss” on our Craig set Song of Death.  Happy birthday, Fran!

Happy Birthday, Chester Morris!

Chester Morris starred in several Boston Blackie movies during the 1940s (Alias Boston BlackieBoston Blackie and the Law, etc.). In a number of these films, Morris allowed his character Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black to be quite a skilled practitioner of prestidigitation.  (That’s a fancy way of saying “magician.”)  Chet had a lifelong love for magic, and he would often entertain USO audiences during WW2 with feats to astound their very eyes.  Morris made the mistake of revealing a few tricks of the trade, however, in a 1947 Popular Mechanics article entitled “There’s Magic Up Your Sleeve.” That didn’t earn him many fans among the magician brotherhood.  Still, the actor born John Chester Brooks Morris in NYC on this date in 1901 remained quite popular with movie audiences, particularly with the Boston Blackie franchise.

Show business was in the blood of Chester Morris’ family: his father was Broadway stage performer William Morris and his mother was stage comedienne Etta Hawkins.  Young Chester dropped out of school at the age of 15 to try his luck among the footlights, appearing alongside future The Mayor of the Town star Lionel Barrymore in The Copperhead (1918).  Around this same time, Morris also made his first feature film, An Amateur Orphan (1917).  Chet would go on to a grace a few more stage productions, like Thunder (1919) and The Mountain Man (1921), then joined his parents, sister and two brothers on the vaudeville circuit with a popular comedy sketch entitled “The Horrors of Home.”

Chester Morris worked alongside his family for two years before returning to a solo stage acting career with the likes of The Home Towners (1926) and Yellow (1927).  Spotted by a talent agent while appearing in the play Crime (1927), Morris was signed to a motion picture contract. With his very first talkie, Alibi (1929), he earned his first and only Best Actor Oscar nomination.  Chet went on to appear in several of the period’s prestigious releases, among them The Divorcee (1930), The Big House (1930), The Miracle Man (1932), and Red-Headed Woman (1932).

By the mid-1930s, Chester Morris’ star had started to wane…although he was still a dependable leading man, his cinematic output tended to lean toward that of the B-movie variety.  Morris was in some very good second features: he’s the star of Three Godfathers (1936), a remake of several films that used Peter Kyne’s novel as inspiration. (The 1948 version starring John Wayne is perhaps the best known version, seeing as it has become a Christmas favorite.) Chester also headlines the cast of two memorable B-thrillers in Five Came Back (1939) and Blind Alley (1939).  Many of Morris’ features rarely rose above those of I Promise to Pay (1937), Law of the Underworld (1938), and Smashing the Rackets (1938), but he continued to be a reliable box office draw.

Columbia Pictures’ Boston Blackie franchise—which got underway in 1941 with Meet Boston Blackie—would prove to be the catalyst in reviving Chester Morris’ career.  He made 14 Boston Blackie films between 1941 and 1949, portraying Jack Boyle’s reformed safecracker and jewel thief.  The popularity of the movie series would result in a radio series, Boston Blackie, that premiered as a summer replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy over NBC in June of 1944.  Morris reprised his film role on the program, with Richard Lane joining him as Inspector Farraday, Blackie’s nemesis in the movies.  Though the Morris Blackie lasted just the summer, Boston Blackie resurfaced in April of 1945 as a syndicated series from the Ziv production stables. This time Richard Kollmar would play Blackie, with Maurice Tarplin as Farraday and Lesley Woods as Mary Wesley, Blackie’s lady friend.

Boston Blackie was not Chester Morris’ only radio work.  He appeared on many of the popular dramatic anthologies of the time, notably Family TheatreThe Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe Silver Theatre, and Suspense.  Morris was also a guest on many of the popular comedy-variety programs of the era, including Amos ‘n’ AndyThe Charlie McCarthy ShowDuffy’s TavernThe Harold Lloyd Comedy TheatreThe Kraft Music Hall (Bing Crosby), and Maxwell House Coffee Time (George Burns & Gracie Allen).  Rounding out Chester’s appearances on radio are credits for Calling All CarsThe Shell ChateauThe Texaco Star Theatre, and Welcome Travelers.

Although Chester Morris did some non-Boston Blackie work in films—titles like Secret Command (1944), Rough, Tough and Ready (1945), and Blind Spot (1947)—Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949), the last of the Blackie films, put him a state of semi-retirement where the silver screen was concerned.  Morris turned his attention towards television, appearing on live anthology telecasts like Robert Montgomery Presents and Kraft Theatre, as well as making guest spots on popular programs such as RawhideNaked CityBen Casey, and Route 66.  (Morris also starred in a 1960 summer series, Diagnosis: Unknown.)  In addition, Chet returned to the stage, with productions like Blue Denim (1958), Advise and Consent (1960), and The Subject Was Roses (1964) to his credit.  Before his death in 1970 at the age of 69, Chester Morris went out on a high note with a nice supporting turn (as ‘Pop’ Weaver) in the 1970 drama The Great White Hope, which was released after his death.

We invite you to check out one of the funniest half-hours in the place “where the elite meet to eat” on Duffy Ain’t Here. In the May 11, 1949 Duffy’s Tavern broadcast, “Archie the Manager” (Ed Gardner) mistakes guest Morris for the notorious “Whistling Sam”!  In addition – although these programs are not from the 1944 NBC summer series — Radio Spirits has on hand two Boston Blackie collections, Boston Blackie Delivers the Goods and Death Wish. These feature Dick Kollmar in the role that Chester Morris made famous in motion pictures.  Happy birthday, Chester!

Happy Birthday, Mary Lee Robb!

Actress Mary Lee Robb’s first professional radio job in 1947 was a small one.  She was hired to play Pearl, the daughter of Abner Peabody (Norris “Tuffy” Goff) on the long-running comedy serial Lum ‘n’ Abner.  In a 1988 interview with author-historian Chuck Schaden (Speaking of Radio), Robb still remembered the two lines she had as Pearl: “I do” and “Don’t cry, Papa.”  (It was Pearl’s wedding day, you see.)  The recitation of those two lines netted her a fat fee of $45…but in order to join the radio actors’ union, Mary Lee had to fork over $75.  Fortunately for the actress who was born in Streator, Illinois on this date in 1930, there would be more radio work to follow—notably her beloved role as Marjorie Forrester Thompson on The Great Gildersleeve.

Though born in Streator, Mary Lee Robb spent her younger years in Chicago.  Her father Alex was an NBC executive there, as manager of the network’s Artists Service Bureau. (He had some experience with performers, having been a one-time manager of Amos ‘n’ Andy’s Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll…back in their Sam ‘n’ Henry days.) When the network relocated Mr. Robb to Hollywood, he enrolled the young Mary Lee in University High School in Los Angeles.  Upon graduation, the young actress attended UCLA to study drama. However, she was also receiving training in radio performance at the Geller Radio Workshop (formerly the Max Reinhardt Workshop).  She left UCLA in her sophomore year to actively pursue a radio acting career.

One of Mary Lee Robb’s fellow Geller Workshop students was Louise Erickson, the A Date with Judy star who was also playing the role of niece Marjorie Forrester on The Great Gildersleeve.  Mary Lee was also working on the Gildersleeve program, though she was hired to perform “off-mike babble”—where actors huddled around a microphone making “crowd noises.”  Then came the day that’s become a cliché in a million old movies: Erickson was running late and was going to miss a vital dress rehearsal.  Robb volunteered to read the Marjorie part so that the broadcast could be timed properly.  For one brief moment, it looked as if Mary Lee was going to have to go on the air to replace the tardy Louise…but Louise made it on time for the broadcast with five minutes to spare.  Still, Mary Lee made such a favorable impression as a “temporary Marjorie” that when Louise left The Great Gildersleeve at the end of the 1947-48 season, the show’s creative minds hired Robb as her replacement.

By the time Mary Lee Robb got the job as Marjorie, she was already starting to build a radio resume.  On occasion, she provided the baby cries for little Robespierre, the baby brother of Snooks Higgins on Fanny Brice’s The Baby Snooks Show.  Robb also had a recurring role on Maxwell House Coffee Time as Emily Vanderlipp—the teenage girl who lived next door to George Burns and Gracie Allen. (Robb credited George Burns with teaching her everything she knew about comedy timing.)  The actor who played Emily’s boyfriend on George & Gracie’s half-hour was Richard Crenna, who Mary Lee would “marry” on The Great Gildersleeve (Dick played Marjorie’s boyfriend Bronco Thompson).  Other shows on Robb’s aural c.v. include Family TheatreFather Knows BestFibber McGee & MollyThe Railroad HourRed Ryder, and This is Your FBI.

Mary Lee Robb’s other recurring radio gig was on The Penny Singleton Show, an NBC summer series starring the former Blondie actress as a war widow attempting to balance her work as a realtor with raising her two daughters.  Robb portrayed the older daughter Dorothy (also known as “DeeGee,” age 13), while her younger sister Sue (8) was played by Sheila James Kuehl (who would go on to portray Zelda Gilroy on TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).  Rounding out the cast of the Singleton show were Jim Backus (as Penny’s real estate partner), Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, and Sarah Selby.

In her half-hour interview with Chuck Schaden in 1988, Mary Lee Robb shared fond memories of The Great Gildersleeve, particularly the story arc in which Marjorie became Mrs. Bronco Thompson.  The cast went all out for the May 10, 1950 event, dressing up in full wedding regalia for the studio audience. (Look magazine even featured the Gildy cast preparing for the nuptials in a May 23rd article entitled “Gildersleeve Gives the Bride Away.”) When Schaden jokingly asked her if her dedication extended to Marjorie’s pregnancy, Robb laughed and said: “That would have been going a little too far, I’m afraid.”  (Mary Lee didn’t marry in real life until 1952, with a second union in 1983.)  Mary Lee remained with the Gildersleeve program until the birth of her daughter Alexandra in 1954, when she decided to retire from show business. (Although, one source reports she later did voiceover work with the Disney studios.) Robb would become a longtime member of the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters, participating in radio recreations and discussion panels until her passing in 2006 at the age of 80.

Radio Spirits features much of Mary Lee Robb’s signature radio work on The Great Gildersleeve collection For Corn’s Sake (liner notes by you-know-who), but there’s also a classic Gildersleeve outing on our new situation comedy compendium Great Radio Sitcoms.  Happy birthday, Mary Lee!

Happy Birthday, Ronald Colman!

In February of 2012, an auction by Nate D. Sanders Memorabilia successfully sold fifteen Academy Awards Oscars for a total of slightly over $3 million (a record-breaking amount at that time).  The top ticket item was Herman Mankiewicz’s 1941 screenplay statuette for Citizen Kane, which went for $588,455.  But I’m willing to bet that there were a few smiles on the faces of old-time radio fans when the Best Actor Oscar that Ronald Colman won for 1947’s A Double Life sold for $206,250.  Listeners of The Jack Benny Program remember fondly the difficulties experienced by Jack when he was robbed of Ronnie’s Oscar on the legendary March 28, 1948 broadcast (“Your money or your life!”).  That actor, who went temporarily Oscar-less, was born on this date in 1891. In addition to his immensely successful film career, Ronald Charles Colman enjoyed fame on radio in such series as Favorite StoryThe Halls of Ivy., and the aforementioned Jack Benny Program.

Young Ronald Colman was born in Richmond, Surrey, England and educated at boarding school in Littlehampton.  (It was here where he first developed his interest in acting.) Colman later considered studying engineering at Cambridge, but he had to abandon his plans. His father, Charles, had passed away in 1907, putting the family in a bit of a financial pinch.  Ronnie took up acting on an amateur basis.

Ronald Colman would take a leave of absence from his clerking job in London’s British Steamship Company to join the London Scottish Regiment in 1909.  Among his fellow soldiers in that same regiment were Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall, Cedric Hardwicke, and Basil Rathbone.  Colman took some shrapnel in his ankle in the Battle of Messines during World War I. He didn’t lose the leg, but he did acquire a limp (which he gamely tried to hide throughout his stage and movie career).  Mustered out of the Army in 1915 due to his injuries, Ronnie recovered sufficiently to start performing on stage by 1916. He appeared in such productions as The Maharani of Arakan (1916), The Misleading Lady (1917), and The Little Brother (1918).

1920 found Ronald Colman in America, where he appeared in the play The Dauntless Three.  He also married his first wife, Thelma Raye, a union that lasted until 1934.  Colman appeared in a string of mostly forgettable stage productions for about two years…until director Henry King caught his performance in La Tendresse and asked him to star opposite Lillian Gish in the 1923 melodrama The White Sister.  The movie would make Ronnie a star, and though he had worked previously in features during his time in Britain, Colman would now entirely abandon the stage for the flickers.  Among his silent movie successes were such feature films as The Dark Angel (1925), Stella Dallas (1925), Lady Windemere’s Fan (1925), Beau Geste (1926), and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926).

Silent films weren’t able to take advantage of Ronald Colman’s rich mellifluous voice…but with the advent of the talkies, Colman made up for lost time when his first two sound films—Condemned (1929) and Bulldog Drummond (1929)—won him recognition from his peers in the form of a Best Actor nomination.  (Ronnie would later be nominated two more times—for 1942’s Random Harvest and the aforementioned A Double Life, which won him his trophy.)  Colman enjoyed a string of box-office hits throughout the 1930s: Raffles (1930), Arrowsmith (1931), Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), Clive of India (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), If I Were King (1938), and The Light That Failed (1939), just to name a few.

Ronald Colman’s resonant speaking voice was a natural for radio, and one of the first programs on which he regularly appeared was The Circle, a short-lived “talk show” that premiered over NBC Radio on January 15, 1939.  Despite a powerhouse celebrity lineup that included Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and Groucho & Chico Marx (and later Basil Rathbone and Madeleine Carroll), The Circle departed the airwaves in July of that same year. The program was memorably dismissed by writer Carroll Carroll as “radio’s most expensive failure.”  Colman’s next big radio venture was Everything for the Boys, a dramatic anthology written, produced and directed by radio’s enfant terrible, Arch Oboler.  Premiering over NBC on January 18, 1944, Everything featured a variety of mini-plays that dramatized classic stories and adapted motion picture films…with some originals from Oboler thrown in for good measure.  The collaboration between Colman and Oboler soon soured, and hostilities between the two men made working on the program a nightmare.  It bowed out on June 13, 1944 and was replaced the following week with a musical variety series that eventually became The Dick Haymes Show.

On December 9, 1945, Ronald Colman made the first of many guest appearances on The Jack Benny Program.  The show’s writers came up with the brilliant comic device of having Ronald be Jack’s next-door neighbor. The contrast between the cultured Colman and the vulgar Benny was a recipe for classic comedy. The proceedings were helped immeasurably by adding Ronnie’s second wife (they married in 1938) Benita Hume into the mix.  The Colmans didn’t appear on every broadcast, but made enough visits between 1945 and 1951 to become semi-regulars. The high point of their guest spots occurred on the March 1948 broadcast mentioned in the first paragraph.  When Jack is mugged for Ronnie’s Oscar, he tried to disguise its loss by “borrowing” Oscars from guest stars over the following weeks (like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra) in an attempt to avoid Colman’s wrath.

Ronald Colman’s guest appearances on The Jack Benny Program did wonders for his stock in radio.  Favorite Story, a syndicated radio program that had premiered in 1946, brought Ronnie aboard to host the dramatic anthology, and he continued in that capacity until it left the airwaves in 1949.  Colman’s most high-profile radio gig followed not long after; he and Benita Hume were the stars of The Halls of Ivy, a comedy-drama about a small Midwestern college. Created by Fibber McGee & Molly’s Don Quinn, the show aired over NBC from January 6, 1950 to June 25, 1952.  (Ivy would later transition to TV in the fall of 1954 for a single season.)  Colman’s radio resume also includes such favorites as Academy Award TheatreArch Oboler’s PlaysColumbia Presents CorwinCommand PerformanceThe Doctor FightsThe Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy ShowGood News of 1940The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHedda Hopper’s HollywoodThe Lux Radio TheatreMaxwell House Coffee TimeThe Radio Hall of FameRadio’s Reader DigestRequest PerformanceThe Sealtest Variety TheatreThe Silver TheatreSuspense (including the classic broadcasts of “August Heat” and “The Dunwich Horror”), The Theatre Guild of the Air, and Theatre of Romance.

By the 1940s, Colman had entered a period of semi-retirement where motion pictures were concerned.  True, he was active with features like Random Harvest (1942), The Talk of the Town (1942; one of my favorites), Kismet (1944), The Late George Apley, and A Double Life (both 1947) — but by the start of the 1950s, he limited his participation to Champagne for Caesar (1950) and The Story of Mankind (1957), his cinematic swan song.  Colman made a few small screen appearances on such shows as Four Star Playhouse and The General Electric Theatre…and even reprised his “next-door neighbor” role on two of Jack Benny’s television shows.  Sadly, acute emphysema took Ronnie in 1958 at the age of 67.

In 1960, Ronald Colman received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for his work in motion pictures and the other for television.  Our birthday boy never got his due for his admirable devotion to the medium of radio, but Radio Spirits has on hand an 8-CD collection of broadcasts from his signature series The Halls of Ivy in School Days.  Ronnie’s superlative performance in “The Dunwich Horror” is available on our Suspense set Beyond Good and Evil, and in addition there’s “The Living Book” (04/04/44), a broadcast of Everything for the Boys to be found on The Bob Bailey Collection.  Happy birthday, Ronnie!

Happy Birthday, Conrad Binyon!

“Why are you so extra nice to me?” asked sixteen-year-old Conrad Binyon of his mother in 1947.  Ma Binyon wouldn’t admit it…but she was still trembling from her son’s recent experience involving a crash landing with a friend on an aviation trip to Arizona.  Binyon—born Conrad Ambress Binyon on this date in 1931—had just become a newly-licensed pilot at that tender age, and his adventures into the wild blue yonder were just some of the many extracurricular activities in which the youngster was engaged.  Conrad (still with us as of this writing at the age of 89) was best known as a child performer, with regular roles on such radio favorites as One Man’s Family and The Mayor of the Town.

As a youngster growing up in Los Angeles, Conrad Binyon and his family moved around to various homes in central Hollywood, allowing Conrad to walk or bicycle to both the CBS studios (located on Sunset Boulevard at that time) and to movie studios in the neighborhood.  His mother Ann got him into show business early (Binyon made his motion picture debut at the age of six in 1937’s Life Begins with Love) by encouraging his participation in productions at a local playhouse. His work there led to an audition with NBC and that was followed by a tryout for Carlton E. Morse’s popular radio serial One Man’s Family.  Conrad began playing Henry Herbert “Hank” Murray in April of 1939, the son of Barbour daughter Hazel. “Hank” was the “good” half of twin brothers, with his sibling “Pinky” being the more interesting (because he got into a lot of trouble).  Binyon would play the role until he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force (as a licensed pilot, he was a natural) at the age of 21.

Conrad Binyon portrayed Alvin, the “precocious” nephew of “Major” Amos Hoople (Arthur Q. Bryan) in the early broadcasts of Major Hoople—a 1942-43 NBC Blue sitcom based on the popular newspaper comic Our Boarding House.  He also essayed the role of Chester A. Riley, Jr. during the halcyon days of The Life of Riley (starring William Bendix). It’s interesting to note that Riley wasn’t the only comedy program on which Conrad played a character named “Junior.” He could also be heard as Junior Nebb on the Mutual program The Nebbs (also based on a popular comic strip) and Junior Anderson on the syndicated The Anderson Family.  In addition, Binyon regularly appeared on the Saturday morning children’s favorite Smilin’ Ed and His Buster Brown Gang. Conrad’s old-time radio resume includes such classics as The Cavalcade of AmericaCommand PerformanceFashions in Rations (The Billie Burke Show), The Great GildersleeveThe Halls of IvyHollywood Star TimeI Want a DivorceI Was ThereMystery in the AirThe Penny Singleton ShowThe Smiths of HollywoodSuspense, and Sweeney & March.

Conrad Binyon’s most fulfilling radio gig came in 1944 when he played Roscoe “Butch” Gardner on The Mayor of the Town. This popular comedy-drama starred Lionel Barrymore and Agnes Moorehead and had been airing since 1942. (It would eventually be heard over all four networks—CBS, NBC, ABC, and Mutual—during its seven-year-run.)  “Butch” was the ward to Barrymore’s “Mayor Russell,” and became sort of a surrogate son to the childless official.  Binyon told author Axel Nissen in 2007: “The character of Butch didn’t stem from the show’s beginning.  I seem to recall about three years or so playing the character, who was introduced as a boy who lost both his parents in an auto accident.  Prior to that, the story line involved the mayor in city administration plots, police investigations, and fraud schemes against citizens.  The Butch character became the mayor’s ward and turned the plot line more into a family-like situation.”  In a 1991 interview with old-time radio historian Chuck Schaden, Conrad also reminisced fondly about doing “A Christmas Carol” on Mayor, with Lionel giving his all as Ebenezer Scrooge. (Binyon performed as the kid Scrooge asks to buy the Christmas goose toward the story’s end.)

Conrad Binyon was a busy radio actor, but he still made time for the occasional part in motion pictures. Author Nissen relates that Conrad was “no pretty, delicate Dickie Moore type, nor was he a comedically cute George ‘Spanky’ McFarland.”  Instead, Binyon “was your typical, straight-haired, fresh-faced boy next door,” which served him well — not only in radio but in credited roles in the likes of The Boy from StalingradGood Luck, Mr. Yates, and The Underdog (all three released in 1943).  Claude can also be glimpsed in such favorites as The Glass Key (1942), The Meanest Man in the World (1943), Since You Went Away (1944), Courage of Lassie (1946), and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).  His last film role was a bit as an elevator boy in My Blue Heaven (1950). He enlisted in the Air Force and spent a twenty-year career there before retiring.  Binyon had no desire to return to show business, though—he told Schaden: “I looked at it, and it was doing quite well without me.”

When Conrad Binyon landed the role of Butch on The Mayor of the Town, he was forced to relinquish his regular gig as Junior on The Life of Riley—but Radio Spirits comes to the rescue with Magnificent Mug, a Riley collection of early broadcasts featuring our birthday boy in one of his signature radio roles.  You can also check out Conrad on the Suspense set Beyond Good and Evil and our Halls of Ivy audio compendium School Days.  Happy birthday, Conrad!