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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!

Happy Birthday, Paul Frees!

“Paul Frees is EVERYWHERE!”  A cartoonist of my acquaintance adopted that statement as both a personal mantra and a tribute to the man born Solomon Hersh Frees in Chicago on this date in 1920.  For a time during the 50s/60s/70s, it was nigh impossible to sit through a movie or TV episode without hearing Frees’ incredible four-octave voice.  Paul not only narrated films and the trailers for same, he was often called upon to “loop” dialogue in features for actors who either had thick, unintelligible accents or were the victims of problems with the sound equipment.  For example: listen carefully to Tony Curtis’ “Josephine” the next time you make an appointment to watch Some Like It Hot (1959).  As incredible as this may seem, Curtis simply couldn’t do the falsetto required of his “drag” character…and so Frees was brought in to dub him.  Paul also voices four different characters in Spartacus (1960)—notably the guard hamstrung by Kirk Douglas in the movie’s opening sequence.

The artist who gave Mel Blanc serious competition in “The Man of a Thousand Voices” department began in show business as an impressionist, billed as “Buddy Green.”  A man of Paul Frees’ talents was a natural for radio, of course, and by 1942 he was actively employed in the medium until his career was interrupted by World War II.  Wounded in action in the Normandy invasion of D-Day, Paul was mustered out and sent home to recuperate…and during that convalescence decided to pursue a career studying art at the Chouinard Art Institute on the G.I. Bill.  When the health of his first wife began to fail, Frees abandoned his artistic ambitions and returned to radio for steady work.

We’re not kidding about the “steady work,” either.  To list all of Paul Frees’ radio credits would be a Herculean task, but as a point of reference, he made the rounds on such favorites as The Adventures of Frank RaceThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintBold VentureBox 13Broadway’s My Beat, The Casebook of Gregory HoodDangerous AssignmentEllery QueenJeff Regan, InvestigatorLet George Do It, The Line UpThe Man Called XNight BeatPat Novak for HireRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky Jordan (and its original incarnation, A Man Called Jordan); Rogue’s GalleryThe Silent MenThe Story of Dr. KildareTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIT-ManVoyage of the Scarlet QueenThe Whisperer; and Wild Bill Hickok.  Frees had occasional roles on Gunsmoke…and in one episode (“The Cast”) filled in for an absent Howard McNear as “Doc Adams.”  And yes, just like every radio actor (practically, anyway), Paul could be heard on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Frees’ versatility helped him secure gigs on many a radio anthology series, notably Crime ClassicsSuspense (he was the series’ announcer for a time), and The Whistler…but Paul also stood behind the microphone on ConfessionThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreThe First Nighter ProgramThe Hallmark Hall of FameHollywood Star PlayhouseThe Lux Radio TheatreMr. PresidentNBC Presents: Short StoryNBC Star PlayhouseThe NBC University TheatreOn StagePresenting Charles BoyerThe Prudential Family Hour of StarsThe Railroad HourRomance, and Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  The lighter side of Mr. Frees surfaced when he worked alongside comedic duos such as George Burns & Gracie Allen, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, and Jim & Marian Jordan (a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly), and while plying his trade on sitcoms and comedy programs headlined by Edgar Bergen, Dennis Day, Stan Freberg, Penny Singleton, and Alan Young.

Paul Frees didn’t spend all his time on the air as a supporting player.  He performed as a “one-man theater” on the 1948 syndicated series The Player (a show reminiscent of The Whistler), giving voice to ALL of the characters (he did similar duties on the syndicated Studio X).  In the summer of 1949, he portrayed “Jethro Dumont” on CBS’ The Green Lama, an adventure series in which Dumont used “his curious and secret powers in his singlehanded fight against injustice and crime.”  (Dumont’s description as a “wealthy young American” no doubt prompted comparisons to another mysterious radio crimefighter; the Lama character was the subject of numerous pulp fiction tales penned by Kendall Foster Crossen as “Richard Foster.”)  Two summers later, Paul was the titular star of Mr. Aladdin on CBS; ”Robert Aladdin” was yet another crimefighting sleuth imbued with otherworldly powers…though if the character could perform miracles, perhaps it would have been more to his benefit to use that talent to keep his show on the air.  Paul Frees’ claim to radio immortality resides on the radio adventure series Escape.  Along with William Conrad (they alternated weekly), he was heard as “the voice of Escape” (“Tired of the everyday grind…?”).  Like Conrad, Frees also performed in both lead and supporting roles on the series.  For example, in the classic “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” (02/22/48), he can be heard as a parrot!  The actor would remain a radio man till the end of his life—he was the announcer on NPR’s Bradbury 13 in 1984, an anthology that dramatized tales from science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury.

Crashing the motion picture industry was easy for Paul Frees—his voice was his ticket to fortune, and he used his gift working at cartoon studios like MGM (he was the voice of Barney Bear in a series of cartoons in the 1950s) and Walter Lantz (where he gave voice to Woody Woodpecker’s nemesis Wally Walrus and another ursine star, Charlie Beary of The Beary Family).  His earliest live action credit—according to the IMDb—was portraying a bellhop in the opening scene of my favorite John Garfield movie, Force of Evil (1948—he asks Julie’s character for advice on playing the numbers).  But Frees had notable roles in such films as A Place in the Sun (1951), The Star (1952), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), and Suddenly (1954) …and three movies in which he doesn’t receive credit include The Thing from Another World (1951—Paul is one of the scientists…as is George Fenneman!), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Harder They Fall (1956), where he plays a priest in Humphrey Bogart’s valedictory film.  (Several sources say Frees was called upon to dub Bogie’s voice in post-production—I’ve watched the movie multiple times and I just don’t believe this to be true.)  In 1960, Paul went behind the camera to direct and executive produce The Beatniks (he even wrote the songs!), an oddity that many might recognize as one of the many films that received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.  Whether you’re watching the 1949 Columbia serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Frees is the voice of “The Black Knight”) or the classic 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, there’s just no “escape” from Paul.

On the small screen, Paul Frees could be heard weekly on The Millionaire as the voice of the rarely-seen John Beresford Tipton, the philanthropist who entrusted assistant Michael Anthony (Marvin Miller) to hand out million-dollar checks to deserving people.  Most of Frees’ TV gigs, however, involved giving voice to cartoon characters.  He had a close working relationship with Jay Ward, and voiced Rocky & Bullwinkle villain Boris Badenov (channeling Akim Tamiroff) and the long-suffering Inspector Fenwick (impersonating Eric Blore), Dudley Do-Right’s superior.  Paul later used his Ronald Colman imitation as the ape named Ape on Ward’s George of the Jungle (in addition, Frees borrowed Ed Wynn’s tones as the voice of Fred, the lion sidekick of Super Chicken on that show).  For Hanna-Barbera, Paul used his Peter Lorre impersonation for Morocco Mole, the aide-de-camp to Secret Squirrel, while contributing to such shows as Shazzan! and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

He was Oliver Wendell Clutch on Calvin and the Colonel (an animated series featuring the voices of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy), and voiced half of the Fab Four (John Lennon and George Harrison) when The Beatles were the subject of a King Features cartoon series (Frees had also contributed to that studio’s versions of Barney Google & Snuffy Smith and Krazy Kat).  Fans of the Rankin-Bass holiday specials will hear Paul as Santa on Frosty the Snowman and the Burgermeister in Santa Claus is Coming to Town…but he also worked the company’s Saturday morning offerings like The Jackson Five and The Osmonds.  Other animated TV series featuring Paul’s work include The Mr. Magoo ShowThe Dick Tracy ShowThe Super 6Super President, and The Fantastic Four.  The actor couldn’t even find time for a station break, providing the voices of the Pillsbury Doughboy and Kellogg’s Froot Loops pitchbird Toucan Sam in commercials.

As you can see—we could be here all day totaling up Paul Frees’ credits…and I’m sure there are some we overlooked.  But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention his lengthy working relationship with the Walt Disney Studios, which encompassed such feature films as The Shaggy Dog (1959—Paul narrates and plays the psychiatrist) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).  In the fall of 1961, when the TV series Disneyland became Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Frees was tabbed to provide the voice of Ludwig von Drake, the show’s animated host.  Paul would later provide the voices for various Disneyland attractions like the Haunted Mansion, the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Hall of Presidents, and the Tomorrowland ride Adventure Thru Inner Space.  To the end of his days, Paul Frees kept busy, busy, busy…and upon his passing in 1986 at the age of 66, there was a noticeable silence in the world of entertainment.

My good friend Ben Ohmart is the author of Welcome, Foolish Mortals…The Life and Voices of Paul Frees; it’s a must-own biography of today’s birthday celebrant and can be found at a friendly neighborhood online bookstore near you.  Here at Radio Spirits, you’ll hear Mr. Frees in our Escape collections EssentialsEscape to the High SeasPerilThe Hunted and the Haunted) and Suspense compilations (Around the WorldSuspense at WorkTies That BindWages of Sin).  You’ll also make Paul’s acquaintance on such old-time radio favorites as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s RoadNight Tide), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show (The Funny Fifties), Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), The Line Up (Witness), The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (Quite an Affair), Rogue’s Gallery (Blue Eyes), and The Whistler (Root of All Evil).  For dessert, Frees is one of the many voices on the DVD Beer Commercials of the 50s and 60s, which presents vintage ads highlighting the cause of—and solution to—all our problems: beer!  (Little Simpsons joke for you in the audience.)


Happy Birthday, Ona Munson!

The effort to cast the motion picture adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel Gone with the Wind is almost as epic as the content itself.  For the role of madam Belle Watling, producer David O. Selznick considered such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Dove…and even at one point during pre-production (though many have surmised this was a publicity stunt) suggested Mae West portray Belle.  Eventually, the part of Rhett Butler’s lady friend was awarded to Broadway veteran Ona Munson—born Owena Elizabeth Wolcott in Portland, Oregon on this date in 1903.  Munson’s show business career encompassed both stage and screen, and she even dabbled in television before her unfortunate passing in 1955.  Old-time radio fans know that Munson shone in the aural medium, however, appearing before the microphone in such venues as Suspense and The Cavalcade of America.

Ona Munson’s show business career blossomed on Broadway.  She was a chorus girl in the 1919 revue of George White’s Scandals when she was only sixteen, and received her “big break” playing the titular role in No, No, Nanette (1926; taking over from Louise Groody).  Munson would then go on to grace the casts of successful stage musicals such as Twinkle, Twinkle (1926), Manhattan Mary (1927), and Hold Everything (1928)—it was in this latter production that she introduced the Cole Porter standard You’re the Cream in My Coffee.  Even after she ventured out to the West Coast for moviemaking, Ona would return to her stage roots with roles in Hold Your Horses (1933) and Petticoat Fever (1935), and she tackled a more serious role in Ghosts in 1936.  Her final Broadway work would surface in 1952, with a small part in a revival of George S. Kaufman-Katharine Dayton’s First Lady.

Ona was anxious to establish herself in motion pictures…and relished her first starring role in Warner Brothers’ Going Wild (1930).  Wild had been fashioned as a musical, but the tunes in the movie were excised to placate the moviegoing public, who had soured on musicals because of so many having been released the previous year.  Munson would later get the opportunity to ply her musical stock-in-trade in The Hot Heiress (1931), which allowed her to sing a few numbers alongside her co-star, Ben Lyon.  In Broadminded (1931), she was reunited with Wild star Joe E. Brown, and that same year she played cub reporter “Kitty Carmody” in the splendid Five Star Final (1931), starring Edward G. Robinson and Boris Karloff.

Munson’s movie resume also includes vehicles such as His Exciting Night (1938), Scandal Sheet (1939), and Legion of Lost Flyers (1939)…but for most classic movie fans, her turn in Gone with the Wind (1939) remains her best-known role.  Producer Selznick took a novel approach in giving Ona the gig—in the book, the reader gets the impression that bordello proprietor Belle Watling was stacked like a burlap bag filled with bobcats…while the actress herself was of much slighter build.  But Ona made the role her own, and was so convincing that she would later portray another madam in the persona of “Mother Gin Sling” in the 1941 cult oddity The Shanghai Gesture (directed by Josef von Sternberg).  Critic Chuck Stephens described her cinematic turns in Wind and Gesture as “the defining extremes of Ona Munson’s on-screen career” in a January/February 2013 essay in Film Comment, noting her performance as Mother Gin Sling was “Medusa in antennae braids and hairpins of ancient jade.”

Her Five Star Final co-star Edward G. Robinson tabbed her to replace Claire Trevor in the role of Lorelei Kilbourne in the hit radio drama Big Town in 1940, on which Eddie G. also starred.  Ona would appear on the program until 1942, when Robinson decided to leave the series…but she declined to follow the show when it was revived in the fall of 1943, originating from the East Coast.  Munson kept busy in radio; she guest-starred on such anthologies as The Screen Guild Theatre and Family Theatre, and was the host of Ona Munson in Hollywood, a popular program that dished up plenty of Tinsel Town gossip.  (Ona also headlined CBS Open House; a surviving June 19, 1949 broadcast has her conducting an interview with actor Howard Culver, the last old-time radio personality to get a birthday shout-out on the blog.)  One of Munson’s most interesting radio jobs was producing the wartime series Victory Belles, a CBS variety program that featured Mabel Todd, Martha Mears, Wilhelmina Gould, and Jean Ruth Hay (a.k.a. “Beverly” of Reveille with Beverly fame).

Fittingly, Ona Munson’s cinematic swan song was The Red House (1947), a movie starring her Big Town compadre Edward G. Robinson.  While Ona gave solid performances in such films as Lady from Louisiana (1941—with John Wayne), Idaho (1943—with Roy Rogers), The Cheaters (1945), and Dakota (1945—another with John Wayne), the actress suffered from turmoil in her personal life and was in ill-health in her final years.  In spite of that, she managed to make inroads on the small screen, appearing on such TV favorites as The Armstrong Circle Theatre and Martin Kane, Private Eye.  Tragically, Ona would take her own life with an overdose of barbiturates on February 11, 1955 at the age of 51…leaving behind a note that read: “This is the only way I know to be free again…please don’t follow me.”

Despite leaving us too soon, Ona Munson left behind an amazing legacy of movie memories; Gone with the Wind fans love her performance as Belle in that iconic film, and speaking only for myself I highly recommend the movies she made with Edward G. Robinson, Five Star Final and The Red House.  (The Shanghai Gesture is pretty wild and way out, too.)  Here at Radio Spirits, Ona is present and accounted for in our Big Town collection, Blind Justice, featuring vintage broadcasts from the popular newspaper drama series (including a few rarities).  We extend hearty birthday greetings to Ona…because without question, she’s the cream in our coffee.

“They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate.” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt


Seventy-three years ago on this date, the landing operations of the Allied invasion of Normandy got underway in one of the most pivotal battles of World War II.  The largest seaborne invasion in history, “Operation Overlord” saw 160,000 troops cross the English Channel that day, preceded by a 1,200-plane airborne assault and an amphibious attack from more than 5,000 vessels.  The event—now commonly referred to as “D-Day” (a military term signifying the date on which a combat attack or operation is to begin)—marked the liberation of northwestern Europe from German occupation, and contributed heavily to the Allied victory on the Western Front.

Radio was there, of course.  The complete schedules of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) broadcast on June 6-7, 1944 were recorded on transcription discs and are in the collections of many old-time radio hobbyists.  It makes for captivating listening as the regularly scheduled programming of daytime dramas mingle with reports of the invasion—even when you know the outcome, it’s still nail-bitingly suspenseful.  For Americans, it was indeed a day to celebrate…but it was also a day of mourning; over 10,000 soldiers died on the beaches of Normandy that day, and many on the Homefront faced an agonizing wait for news about whether their father, brother, husband, or son would be returning home.

Radio played an important part in World War II practically from the moment President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the United States had no choice but to enter the conflict after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—“a date which will live in infamy.”  It’s one of the reasons why old-time radio is so fascinating for people in “The Hobby”.  Because there was an immediacy to events in the war, it’s the height of nostalgia for people who remember when their favorite programs would be interrupted by important war bulletins.  World War II inspired some of the most well-written drama of Radio’s Golden Age, with series like William N. Robson’s landmark The Man Behind the Gun and the dramatic anthology Words at War.  Radio playwrights like Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin also “did their bit” with series like Plays for Americans (Oboler) and An American in England (which Norman collaborated on with CBS’ Edward R. Murrow).

In a time when news is available to TV viewers on a 24-hour basis, reporting on radio during WW2 seems a bit primitive…and yet men like Murrow (the head of CBS’ European Operations in London) covered the conflict in a fashion that remains the gold standard for journalism today.  Correspondents like Larry LeSueur, Charles Collingwood, William L. Shirer, and Richard C. Hottelet were collectively nicknamed “Murrow’s Boys.” More than a few reporters from those primitive days — such as Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Howard K. Smith — would later become bigger names once television news took over.  To this day, listening to Edward R. Murrow authoritatively intone “This is London…” will send chills up the spine of any nostalgia fan.

“During America’s involvement in World War II,” wrote Arthur Frank Wertheim in Radio Comedy, “the radio comedians helped boost national morale.  The jokers had kept listeners laughing during the Great Depression; now the war against Japan and Germany was another critical time.”  The primary “jokers” keeping spirits up on the homefront were undoubtedly Jim and Marian Jordan—a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly.  The Office of War Information, created to coordinate existing government information services and to promote wartime propaganda both at home and abroad, no doubt marveled at how skillfully Fibber scribe Don Quinn subtly weaved pro-war messages into the show’s scripts (though after the way Quinn managed to integrate the Johnson’s Wax commercials into the program, it shouldn’t have been too surprising).  While Fib & Molly (and many other sitcom stars) took up the fight at home, it was Bob Hope who stormed the beaches overseas by broadcasting his popular program to the troops.  Technically, Hope started before the U.S. entered the war (in March of 1941)—but once he set the precedent, fellow mirthmakers like Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, and Burns & Allen soon followed suit.

The War Department created the Armed Forces Radio Service on May 26, 1942—bringing familiar radio voices to those fighting overseas.  Networks provided their programming free of charge (though the commercials ads on those shows had to be excised—one of those individuals responsible for editing them was the future star of The Adventures of Sam Spade, actor Howard Duff), but AFRS also produced its own programming as well.  Some of the most popular shows included Mail Call and G.I. Journal, which presented top celebrities (performing gratis) in a variety format.  Jubilee was a similar type of show, spotlighting African-American performers and targeted specifically towards black soldiers.  G.I. Jive was a disc jockey program for soldiers, and “the man of a thousand voices,” Mel Blanc, was the emcee of the quiz show Are You a Genius?  The most popular of the AFRS programs was Command Performance, a variety series that allowed servicemen to write in and request their favorite performers—many, like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland, donated their time and talent for free.  When sampling surviving broadcasts of Command Performance, a listener can’t help but be gobsmacked by the amount of talent involved in each show…something that could never be duplicated today.

The Allied Powers accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany’s armed forces on May 8, 1945, and the formal surrender of Japan occurred on September 2 of that same year (the surrender had been announced by Emperor Hirohito on August 15, shortly after the bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  World War II would change the lives of the American citizenry, but it changed the medium of radio as well.  Radio Spirits is proud to commemorate this special date of June 6, 1944, which signified the beginning of the end of the most significant event of the 20th century.  Those interested in hearing the radio news broadcasts from that day may wish to consider Radio Spirits’ 10 CD D-Day Radio Broadcasts collection—it’s radio history at its finest!


Happy Birthday, Howard Culver!

In the summer of 1949, with CBS working on the idea for what would eventually become Gunsmoke, an audition was recorded (“Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye”) that starred Howard Brasfield Culver—born in Larimer County, Colorado on this date in 1918—as Dodge City’s resolute lawman.  (The name of the character was later changed to Matt Dillon, of course.)  Howard Culver might have achieved radio immortality in the role that would eventually go to William Conrad in 1952…except for one teensy snag.  As the star of Mutual’s Straight Arrow, Culver was contractually forbidden to appear on any competing western series…so he had to abandon his ambition of taking that chancy job that makes a man watchful (and a little lonely).  Howard would get a consolation prize on Gunsmoke in later years…but more importantly, he’d leave behind a radio resume that’s every bit as impressive as the role on which he lost out.

Though born in Colorado, Howard Culver spent his formative years in Los Angeles.  As a senior at Manual Arts High School, he was selected to play a small role in a local radio show play…and by age 19 he was appearing on The Life of Mary Southern.  On Happy Dalton’s Ranch in 1938, Culver played all four roles on the half-hour show *and* wrote, directed and handled the sound effects!  His baritone voice was perfect for announcing, and he made the rounds at stations in L.A. (KFI, KNX) and San Francisco (KFRC). Surviving broadcasts of Mutual’s News of the World Today in 1942-43 feature Howie plying his trade before the mike.  Culver abandoned radio for a brief period during World War II to serve a hitch in the Navy, something that came in handy in 1944 when he returned to civilian life and hosted CBS’ We Deliver the Goods. This series illustrated tales of heroism from Santa Catalina Island, California and utilized actual seamen in the acting roles.  Howard was “your maritime narrator.”

Culver also portrayed “Stephen Biggs” on The Gallant Heart, a short-lived NBC daytime drama that originated in Hollywood at a time when most of the “soaps” came out of Chicago and New York.  In addition, Howard appeared regularly as the announcer on the syndicated anthology series Strange Wills, which dramatized events involving searches for missing heirs and other odd bequests by the deceased.  Howard Culver’s C.V. started to fill up with gigs on The WhistlerMystery in the AirFamily TheatreTell it AgainMake-Believe Town, and The Croupier.  On Stairway to the Stars, the actor read poetry, and on the ABC revival of Chandu the Magician, Culver served as the show’s announcer.  In January of 1948, Howard took over from Lawrence Dobkin and played famed radio sleuth of The Adventures of Ellery Queen until that series left the airwaves on May 27, 1948.

Howard Culver’s best-known role from this period was that of the titular hero of Mutual’s Straight Arrow, a popular juvenile adventure series broadcast from 1948 to 1951.  Rancher Steve Adams, owner of the Broken Bow cattle spread, is really the “secret identity” of Straight Arrow, a Comanche orphan who was raised by a white family…and now matched wits weekly with the usual Western villains.  Howard’s stint as Straight Arrow later put him in good stead for similar radio series like The Roy Rogers Show and Wild Bill Hickok, and he later co-starred as Judson “Jud” Barnes, the reporter boyfriend of Mercedes McCambridge’s D.A. Martha Ellis ‘Marty’ Bryant on ABC’s Defense Attorney from 1951 to 1952.

Rounding out Culver’s radio resume are appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietThe Adventures of Philip MarloweBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorEscapeFather Knows BestFort LaramieHave Gun – Will TravelInheritanceHollywood Star PlayhouseThe Man from HomicideNBC Presents: Short StoryThe Railroad HourRocky FortuneSuspense, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Culver was a “radio man” till the very end; he was part of the cast of the AFRS shows Horizons West and When the West was Young, and later acted on attempts to revive radio drama, including The Hollywood Theatre Group and The Sears/Mutual Radio Theatre.

Though Howard Culver had to forfeit playing the hero of radio’s Gunsmoke, he did make appearances on that program as other characters from time to time.  On the television version, Howard had a recurring role as Howie Uzzell, the desk clerk at the Dodge House—he’d play that role up until the series’ penultimate small screen season in 1974.  An old-time radio author humorously noted that Culver ”was a frequent performer in virtually anything that Jack Webb was ever a party to”—the actor not only turned up on both the 50s and 60s versions of Dragnet, but also such Webb-affiliated series as Adam-12 and Project U.F.O. (and he played “Walt” in the Webb-directed feature film -30- in 1959).

A much-in-demand character actor, Howard guest starred on such TV favorites as Perry MasonDick Powell’s Zane Grey TheatreThe Twilight ZoneThe UntouchablesVoyage to the Bottom of the SeaThe Brady Bunch, and Marcus Welby, M.D.  Culver was a familiar face in several Walt Disney releases, such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970) and The Million Dollar Duck (1971). And whenever an actor was needed to play an announcer, Howard Culver was on everyone’s speed dial (he demonstrates his newscaster chops in Shampoo [1975] and The Bad News Bears [1976]).  His prolific career came to an end in 1984, when he passed away at the age of 66 in Hong Kong during a vacation trip to China.

While actor Warren William starred as fictional probate attorney John Francis O’Connell on the syndicated series Strange Wills, it was the man whose birthday we’re honoring on the blog today that served as the show’s announcer—Howard Culver.  The Radio Spirits collection I Devise & Bequeath features sixteen broadcasts from that series, and you can also hear Howie on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe: Night Tide and Lonely CanyonsChandu the MagicianFamily Theater: Every HomeFather Knows Best: Maple StreetFort Laramie and Fort Laramie Volume TwoHave Gun – Will TravelThe Man From Homicide, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Medium Rare Matters.  Happy birthday to one of the best character actor veterans!


Happy Birthday, Bob Hope!

We’re commemorating Memorial Day today…and it seems only fitting that the entertainer who established his legacy performing in United Service Organizations (you know it as the USO) shows for the benefit of active duty American military personnel (he made 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991) should be celebrating a birthday on this date as well.  The man born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, Kent, England in 1903 is better known to us as Bob Hope—and he plied his talents for song, dance, and witty patter to conquer stage, screen (both silver and small) and radio for over seventy-five years…becoming an American institution in the process.

Hope adopted the “Bob” in 1929.  There are several versions as to why he made this decision, but the comedian himself frequently noted in interviews that he chose the new name because it had a friendly “Hiya fellas!” ring to it.  Since his arrival in the U.S. in 1908 with his parents and brothers (his father Harry was a stonemason by trade), Bob was often teased by the neighborhood kids in Cleveland, OH (where the family eventually put down stakes) for his British accent and given name of “Leslie.” When the young Hope started referring to himself as “Les,” the kids redoubled their efforts and nicknamed him “Hopeless.”  To handle his tormenters, Bob became quite the scrapper and he even had a brief career as a pugilist in 1919 (fighting under the name “Packy East”).

But since the age of four, the young Hope had practiced mimicry and loved to sing and dance.  He earned pocket money singing, dancing, and performing comedy from the age of twelve, and winning a prize in a talent contest in 1915 for an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin only whetted his appetite for a show business career that much more.  After tryouts in various occupations, including a butcher’s assistant and a lineman, Bob and his then-girlfriend signed up for dancing lessons in their determination to pursue a show business career.  Bob would form a partnership with a friend from the dancing school, Lloyd Durbin, and the duo got much encouragement from movie comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who found them work in 1925 with a troupe known as Hurley’s Jolly Follies.  A year later, Hope would team up with George Byrne and the infamous Hilton Sisters (Siamese twins Daisy and Violet) to form an act known as the Dancemedians.  By 1928, Bob was performing solo, telling jokes in blackface…until one day, having arrived late for a theatre date, Bob didn’t have time to apply his makeup and so he went without it.  The theatre manager told him after his performance he was funnier without the burnt cork.

Bob Hope’s expertise with one-liners and zingers soon made him a top performer in vaudeville, and allowed him to expand his horizons on the New York stage.  He performed in plays and musical revues, with his big Broadway break coming with his role as “Huckleberry Haines” in Roberta (a show that also featured Sydney Greenstreet, Fred MacMurray, and George Murphy).  While he was wowing them in the aisles with that production, he agreed to have a go at motion pictures. He agreed to appear in a series of shorts for Educational Pictures, the first being Going Spanish in 1934.  (Hope famously told Walter Winchell: “When they catch John Dillinger, they’re going to make him sit through it twice.”)  Bob didn’t stay with Educational long, but did agree to do a series of comedy two-reelers for producer Sam Sax and Vitaphone.  (This accommodated the entertainer’s schedule quite nicely: he made movies by day and performed on stage at night.)

Bob’s motion picture breakthrough came when Paramount Pictures signed him to make his first feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1938.  Despite a high-wattage celebrity cast that included W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, Lynne Overman, and Ben Blue, Bob walked off with the picture by performing an unassuming musical number with Shirley Ross: Thanks for the Memory.  The wistful tune not only won the Academy Award for Best Original Song…it provided the comedian with his signature theme for the rest of his show business career.  His success in Big Broadcast resulted in his landing The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope in the fall of that same year, a half-hour program that quickly raced to the top of the Hooper ratings for NBC on Tuesday night radio.  It should be stressed that this was not Bob’s first radio showcase—he had performed before a microphone as far back as 1935 on the Blue Network’s The Intimate Revue, and followed that with stints for Atlantic Oil (CBS’ The Atlantic Family, from September 1935 to September 1936), Woodbury Soap (The RipplingRhythm Revue for Blue in 1937), and Lucky Strike (NBC’s Your Hollywood Parade from December 1937 to March 1938).

The success of the Pepsodent show symbiotically boosted Bob Hope’s movie career. He continued to make successful features for Paramount, including 1938’s Thanks for the Memory (capitalizing on his famous theme song) and 1939’s The Cat and the Canary (a wildly successful remake of the 1927 film).  With co-star Paulette Goddard, Bob deftly mixed laughs and scares in this comedy classic (the two of them would reunite for 1940’s The Ghost Breakers and 1941’s Nothing but the Truth) and proved to Paramount his viability as a leading man.  Success after success followed, with a string of comedies that are loved by fans today (Caught in the DraftMy Favorite Blonde)…but the best was yet to come when the studio decided to dust off a property that they had originally envisioned for George Burns and Gracie Allen: Road to Singapore (1940).  Bob was teamed with actor-crooner Bing Crosby (with Dorothy Lamour added for saronged spice) in a conventional but fun vehicle that led to a series of six “Road” films after the initial entry…each one wackier than the one before.  (Bob and Bing formed a solid friendship, and their “feud”—every bit as counterfeit as the one between Jack Benny and Fred Allen—convulsed radio audiences whenever the two men would guest star on each other’s shows.)

March 6, 1941 was a very important date in the history of Bob Hope’s radio program.  It marked the very first time that he performed for an audience of military troops (at March Field, California). From that moment on, Hope became radio’s official goodwill ambassador, taking his show and cast to any number of military bases and camps in his belief that “GIs are the greatest audiences in the world.”  Though many of his fellow radio comedians would follow suit (Jack Benny, Burns & Allen), none of them performed with the same devotion and enthusiasm as Bob. He and his cast of regulars (Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna, Vera Vague, etc.) went anywhere and everywhere to provide entertainment for the men and women who needed it the most.  Bob Hope was a human dynamo—not only maintaining a grueling schedule of performing USO shows, but continuing to thrive in his film career with box office successes like The Princess and the Pirate (1944) and Monsieur Beaucaire (1946).

When World War II ended, the popularity of Bob’s radio program began to wane.  His show still got respectable ratings, but audiences were starting to tire of what they felt was a staleness in his formula. Pepsodent relinquished sponsorship in the fall of 1948 to Swan Soap, and Bob decided to “shake things up” by adding new regulars like vocalist Doris Day (whom he inherited when his future longtime bandleader Les Brown joined the program) and Irene Ryan (taking over for Vera Vague).  Bob held on to radio longer than his contemporaries (only Edgar Bergen outlasted him), and while he never regained the momentum of the war years, he was still an audience favorite.  You could argue that, in a sense, Hope didn’t need radio—his movie career was going great guns (My Favorite BrunetteWhere There’s Life), and in 1948 he scored another box office triumph with The Paleface.  (The song Buttons and Bows would win an Oscar statuette, too.)  Paleface was so successful that the comedian did a sequel in 1952 with Son of Paleface—which happens to be my favorite of his feature films.

With his red-hot movie career, Bob Hope didn’t need to commit to a regular TV series like radio comedians Jack Benny and Red Skelton—Hope settled for the occasional small screen special and guesting on the popular variety shows of the day.  His Christmas specials (many concentrating on the USO shows he performed for military audiences overseas) always drew big boob tube audiences, and he still holds the record for having emceed the yearly Oscars telecasts (though some of that hosting was done during his years on radio).  Bob Hope once famously remarked at the event in 1968: “Welcome to the Academy Awards…or as they’re known at my house, Passover.”  (Hope was green with envy that his “Road” companion Bing Crosby had won an Oscar for his performance in 1944’s Going My Way…and though he tried to get notice for serious turns like those in The Seven Little Foys [1955] and Beau James [1957], the comedian had to settle for five honorary trophies (including the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award), presented to him between 1941 and 1966.

The Guinness Book of World Records notes that Bob Hope holds the record for “most honored entertainer.” Among the many tributes he received were a Congressional Gold Medal (presented to him by President John F. Kennedy in 1963) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (President Lyndon Johnson in 1969).  He continued making theatrical films (his last starring movie was 1972’s Cancel My Reservation) and top-rated TV specials for four more decades – the later due to another Guinness record: the entertainer with “the longest running contract with a single network (NBC)—spanning 61 years.”  Simply put, Bob Hope was on many individuals’ lists as “The Entertainer of the 20th Century” …and with his passing in 2003, he himself reached the century mark when he died at the age of 100.

In honor of Memorial Day, we recommend the DVD Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops—a 1994 documentary originally broadcast on PBS that not only highlights how radio stars gave their all for the war effort, but features fascinating background detail on our birthday boy’s efforts to make certain those individuals knew there was “no place like Hope for the holidays.” (Bob is even reunited with some of his fellow entertainers, including Frances Langford—we reviewed the release in this space here.)  Bob is also present and accounted for on the DVD collection Funniest Moments of Comedy, and does a “telephone cameo” in the 1950 short You Can Change the World that’s featured on Stars in Their Shorts.  For the musical side of Hope, the You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet! Showstoppers CD features a rendition of his theme song, Thanks for the Memory, and a duet with Shirley Ross (from the film Thanks for the Memory), Two Sleepy People.  On The Good Old Boys Club: Solos, Duos, Trios and Four-O’s!, Bob duets with singer Jimmy Wakely on a pair of numbers featured in Son of PalefaceThere’s a Cloud in My Valley of Sunshine and Four-Legged Friend.  With a Song in My Heart: Hooray for Hollywood lets Bob loose on Buttons and Bows (from The Paleface) and teams him with his “Road” buddy Bing Crosby on The Road to Morocco.

Whoops—I almost forgot Bob on radio!  There’s a Screen Directors’ Playhouse broadcast from 1950 that allows Bob to reprise his famous role from The Paleface on Comedy Goes West, and Hope double-dates with Jack Benny in a riotous April 17, 1955 broadcast available on Jack Benny: The Fabulous ‘50s.  Top that off with an episode of Bob’s The New Swan Show from December 7, 1948 (“Put somethin’ in the pot, boy…”) on Radio’s Christmas Celebrations…and I’ll bet you’ll soon be thanking us for the memories.  Happy birthday, Bob!