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Happy Birthday, Marian Jordan!

On a cold December night in 1915, young Marian Driscoll—born on this date in Peoria, Illinois in 1898—had no idea that after that evening’s choir practice at St. John’s Catholic Church, a lively jig that she danced during a “social period” would attract the attention of a young man named James Jordan.  Jim became quite taken with the Irish colleen and asked a friend of his to introduce him to the fetching teenager because…well, Jim was a bit on the bashful side.  The two youngsters chatted after the introductions were made and found out that they both shared a love of music.  But it took shy young Jim a week to work up the nerve to ask Marian out; he eventually found the courage and the duo went out that New Year’s Eve.  It’s fortunate for us that Jim did, too…for he and Marian would eventually tie the knot—and become one of radio’s most beloved comedy couples: Fibber McGee & Molly.

Marian’s father mined coal for a living to support his four daughters (including Marian) and nine sons.  She attended school at The Academy of Our Lady (her future husband’s school was right across the street). In addition to her classes, Driscoll made excellent use of her musical talents—Marian had a beautiful contralto voice and was quite proficient on both the piano and violin.  It was after inviting Jim to one of her piano recitals (shortly after their December 1915 meeting) that Marian realized she was very much in love with her bashful suitor. Jim had even spent $2.50 on a bouquet of roses…at a time when he was pulling down eight dollars a week…and they started making plans to wed after she graduated high school.  Her parents weren’t too enthused about Marian marrying Jim – largely due to his ambition to be an entertainer – so he tried out a variety of different jobs, including warehouse clerk and mail carrier, etc. But when his big break came (as a tenor singer with a Chicago vaudeville act), he took it.  Life on the road was difficult for Jim, who missed Marian terribly…and he would eventually return to Peoria to ask for her hand in marriage.  The joyous event took place on August 31, 1918.

No sooner had they become Mr. and Mrs. Jim Jordan than Jim got a letter from his Uncle Sam…and he soon found himself in WWI France, sidelined with dysentery.  Marian, in the meantime, kept “the home fires burning” by eking out a living teaching piano and performing at church services (she was often pressed into service to sing at weddings).  Jim would soon return home and, in the manner of Fibber McGee, tried out another series of jobs…before succumbing once again to the itch for performing.  Jordan thought that if Marian joined him they might make a little more noise on stage as a duo.  While vaudeville provided an excellent training ground for the Jordans’ show business aspirations, it was not conducive to marriage stability.  Marian took breaks from “the road” to give birth to their daughter Kathryn (in 1920) and son Jim, Jr. (1923). Jim, though he began with enthusiasm, would return home broke, taking on various odds-and-ends occupations until the family could maintain a sense of solvency.

It would be no exaggeration to state that radio provided a permanency for this married couple that vaudeville couldn’t offer…the only problem was that, in its infancy, performing on radio didn’t pay much.  In 1924, Jim’s brother Byron (affectionately known as “Mickey”) goaded him and Marian into performing on Chicago radio station WIBO. (Mickey believed that the Jordans could do a better job than the act that was on the air.) They were so well-received that the station hired them to perform (as The O’Henry Twins) at $35 a week.  Between 1925 and 1927, the couple worked an average of three radio stations a night. In October of 1927, they signed a contract with Chicago’s WENR for $60 weekly.  During their time on WENR, Jim and Marian appeared on The Air ScoutsGrab Bag, and Luke and Mirandy.  1929 saw the Jordans debut in The Smith Family, an early daytime drama that some radio historians consider the first “soap opera.”

The Jordans would appear regularly on such series as Kaltenmyer’s Kindergarten and The Breakfast Club…but Marian and Jim’s most successful program on Chicago radio would premiere on March 2, 1931: Smackout. This six-day-a-week quarter-hour featured Jim as Luke Gray, a garrulous general store owner who was always “smack out” of items requested by his clientele.  Marian supported her husband with a variety of quirky characters, demonstrating her versatility and vocal talents. Notably, she played a little girl named “Teeny,” who liked to tease Luke about his propensity for stretching the truth.  If this is starting to sound a little familiar…it should; Smackout was a blueprint for the wildly successful Fibber McGee & Molly. In fact, the writer on Smackout was none other than longtime Fibber scribe Don Quinn.  It was Smackout, of course, that brought Jim and Marian to the attention of the Johnson’s Wax people when they were looking to put a new program on the air on NBC.  The Johnson’s Wax Program with Fibber McGee & Molly premiered on April 16, 1935. After a slow start, it became one of radio’s most popular comedy programs.

Because Marian Jordan was considered such an integral part of the success of Fibber McGee & Molly, it’s often difficult to separate her from her equally famous husband.  But shortly after the pair made their first motion picture in Hollywood (1937’s This Way Please), Marian’s health deteriorated. She was forced to check into a Chicago sanitarium for a long period of rest while Jim carried on with the radio program, which was renamed in her absence Fibber McGee & Company.  Many doubted that Marian would ever return to the show, but in April of 1939 she was warmly welcomed back…and the show became better than ever.  In the 1940s, Fibber McGee & Molly was often ranked at the top of radio’s comedy programs and the show itself became one of the biggest morale boosters during WW2.

Marian and Jim Jordan performed as Fibber McGee & Molly from 1935 to 1956 (the years between 1953 and 1956 their show was a five-day-a-week quarter-hour). They kept the characters alive from 1957 to 1959 by doing short skits as the couple on NBC’s Monitor.  The Jordans made guest appearances on shows headlined by the likes of Amos ‘n’ Andy (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll), Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (with whom they made two motion pictures, Look Who’s Laughing [1941] and Here We Go Again [1942]), Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Lum & Abner, and Dinah Shore.  Even when guesting on such programs as The Big ShowCommand PerformanceFamily TheatreG.I. JournalThe Great Gildersleeve (a sitcom spin-off from their own series), The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, and The Lux Radio Theatre, Marian and Jim usually performed in character.  A notable exception was heard on February 3, 1949, when a Suspense broadcast, “Backseat Driver,” allowed them to stretch their acting muscles a bit.  (The couple did such a great job that they did an encore performance on February 22, 1951.)

Marian and Jim were unique in that, while they did bring their famous radio characters to film (such as 1944’s Heavenly Days), they were content to remain creatures of the aural medium. The fact that Marian’s health continued to be chancy with the passing years (doctors had advised her many times to take a long rest…but she didn’t want to disappoint fans) scotched any idea of bringing Wistful Vista’s favorite couple to the small screen.  When Fibber McGee & Molly finally did come to TV in the fall of 1959, Marian Jordan had already been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.  She would leave this world for a better one on April 7, 1961…and many old-time radio fans were saddened by the loss of a woman they considered a trusted friend.

I don’t know about you…but all I have to hear is Marian Jordan’s warm and welcoming “How you do, I’m sure!” and whatever funk I happened to be in is scattered to the four winds and beyond.  Radio Spirits has just the tonic for such blues, with Fibber McGee & Molly collections like Cleaning the Closet (with liner notes by yours truly), Gone Fishing, and Wistful Vista. (Be sure to keep an eye out for another upcoming Radio Spirits Fibber McGee & Molly collection…I know this because I wrote the booklet for that as well.)  You can also spend holiday time with Wistful Vista’s famous residents in our Yuletide compendiums Christmas Radio ClassicsRadio’s Christmas Celebrations, and The Voices of Christmas Past.  Last but not least…check out the McGees in our potpourri offerings of Comedy Goes WestGreat Radio Comedy, and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell.  Heavenly days–that’s a lot of listening!

Happy Birthday, Paul McGrath!

On May 29, 1945, radio’s popular Inner Sanctum Mysteries welcomed inside “the creaking door” a new host to replace the departing Raymond Edward Johnson.  The new master of ceremonies who welcomed audiences to the weekly broadcasts of murder and mayhem would be referred to as “The Host” or “Your Host” …and not “Raymond,” the beloved narrator that had been a fixture on the series since its debut in 1941.  There was a reason why Inner Sanctum’s Himan Brown chose not to identify the replacement; according to Johnson, “Hi used to be a lawyer, and Hi knew that they could not say [“Raymond”] because it was my name, a natural name.”

Additional speculation as to why the new host’s identity was cloaked in semi-anonymity is that Brown insisted that the content of Inner Sanctum was the star, and he was reluctant to promote another pop culture icon like Raymond Edward Johnson’s macabre host.  We won’t keep you in suspense any longer: the new host of the Sanctum was none other than actor Paul McGrath, born in Chicago on this date in 1904.  Not only did Paul bid listeners “Pleasant dreams…hmmm?” until the show left the airwaves in 1952, he served as the narrator of a short-lived attempt to bring the series to TV in 1953-54.

Though a native son of the Windy City, Paul McGrath moved with his family to New York, where he attended Public School 26 and graduated from Evander Childs High School.  After that, he was off to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology to study engineering…but that choice of vocation didn’t last long.  Paul had been bitten by the acting bug, and he dropped out in 1924 to return to New York and a career in the footlights.  He made his stage debut in a road company version of The First Year (written by character actor Frank Craven). He later confessed that he landed a part in that play “by lying about my stage experience.”  McGrath followed that gig touring as a member of the repertory company in shows like The Doctor’s DilemmaMr. Wu, and Ned Cobb’s Daughter.

The lights of Broadway were not all that far off for Paul McGrath: he appeared in stage hits like In the Near Future (1925), Made in America (1925), and The Arabian (1927).  Paul’s breakthrough role was in a 1931 production of Ferenc Molnar’s The Good Fairy featuring “The First Lady of the American Theatre,” Helen Hayes. Throughout his lengthy Broadway career (his final play was 1970’s Brightower) McGrath acted alongside some of the stage’s finest actresses.  He did Here Today (1932) with Ruth Gordon, Ode to Liberty (1934) with Ina Claire, In Bed We Cry (1944) with Ilka Chase, The Small Hours with Dorothy Stickney and Love and Let Love with Ginger Rogers (both in 1951), and a summer production of Desk Set with Shirley Booth.

McGrath’s most prominent role was opposite the legendary Gertrude Lawrence in 1940’s Susan and God; a part that became his after Osgood Perkins (the father of Anthony) died unexpectedly.  Lawrence and McGrath reprised their roles in an early televised performance of the play (also in 1940), and he would work again with Ms. Lawrence the following year in Lady in the Dark.  Paul McGrath would experience many Broadway triumphs, including turns opposite Paul Kelly in 1947’s Command Decision (later adapted for the silver screen) and John Garfield in 1949’s The Big Knife (also made into a movie, in 1955).

Performing on stage allowed Paul McGrath to make extra money as a radio actor—he could do any number of daytime soap operas and still fulfill his theatrical commitments in the evenings. And McGrath certainly made the rounds of radio’s most popular “weepies”; he was Edwin Lorimer on This Life is Mine, Phil Stanley on When a Girl Marries, Dr. Sewell Crawford on Young Doctor Malone, and Richard Lane on Lora Lawton.  His best-remembered “soap gig” was portraying Dr. John Wayne (I’m not making that name up) on Big Sister, and in the waning days of radio Paul was emoting as the titular medico of The Affairs of Dr. Gentry.

Other radio programs to employ Paul include A Date with Judy (he was the first thespian to play Melvin Foster, in the Ann Gillis years of the program), Barrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBest PlaysThe Casebook of Gregory Hood (in the title role), The Chase, Crime DoctorThe Eternal LightThe FBI in Peace and WarMy Son JeepStudio One, Suspense, and The Theatre Guild on the Air.  Even after “Radio’s Golden Age” rang down the curtain, McGrath made time for shows that attempted to revive audio drama, like Theater Five and The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre.

Though his radio and stage work no doubt kept him busy, Paul McGrath found time for appearances in feature films every now and then.  Paul had a high-profile role in This Thing Called Love, a 1940 comedy with Rosalind Russell; a 1941 Charlie Chan film, Dead Men Tell; and a nice showcase in the Claudette Colbert-Fred MacMurray romp No Time for Love (1943). Other items of interest on McGrath’s cinematic c.v. include A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Advise and Consent (1962).  Paul was no slouch when it came to the small screen, either. He made the rounds on many of TV’s top dramatic anthologies (Robert Montgomery PresentsThe United States Steel Hour), daytime soaps (The Guiding LightThe Edge of Night), and several New York-based dramatic series such as East Side/West SideThe Doctors and the Nurses, and For the People.  According to the IMDb, Paul McGrath’s final film performance was in a 1969 TV movie entitled This Town Will Never Be the Same. The actor passed away two days after his 74th birthday in 1978.

You know simply by having read the above material that Paul McGrath was a much-in-demand actor in radio, and Radio Spirits features two compendiums of his signature role as “Your Host” on Inner Sanctum MysteriesShadows of Death (with liner notes by yours truly) and Pattern for Fear.  (There’s also Inner Sanctum to be heard in our potpourri set of audio chills and thrills, Great Radio Horror.)  But please don’t overlook Final Curtain, a collection of vintage Suspense broadcasts from the final years of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” and a classic episode entitled “The Lost Lady” (06-14-53) on Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator.  Happy birthday to one of the richest voices in the aural medium!

Happy Birthday, Lou Merrill!

An item in the September 25, 1939 edition of The Van Nuys News trumpets the motion picture debut of actor Louis Merrill—born in Winnipeg, Canada on this date in 1912.  The blurb is a little hyperbolic; Lou had previously appeared (uncredited) in the 1938 cliffhanger serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. In addition, his voice had been heard as the narrator of the 1935 Boris Karloff feature The Black Room. However, his Tropic Fury (1939) role as Porthos Scipio, a menacing South American rubber baron, would be the first time the character great received billing on the silver screen.  There would be motion pictures to follow, of course, but Merrill was first and foremost a radio actor…described in the News article as “a veteran of the networks for the past eight years” and who “has mastered nine different dialects for his widely varied characterizations.”

If you can call being a choirboy in Montreal “show business,” then Lou Merrill was bitten by the bug from a very early age.  His big break in American radio was sharing a microphone with silent film queen Mary Pickford on Parties at Pickfair, and one of Lou’s earliest high-profile assignments was working on radio’s prestigious The Lux Radio Theatre. Not only was he on the latter program weekly as a member of the series’ repertory company of supporting players, but he also served as an assistant director, handling “crowd scenes” in the show’s broadcast plays.  On Big Town, Lou’s hefty 250 lb. frame gave him the gravitas to play a variety of “heavies”; he excelled at portraying gangsters—a nod to star Edward G. Robinson’s cinematic stock-in-trade.  (Merrill even served as Robinson’s “stand-in” whenever Eddie G. was unavailable.)  Throughout the 1930s, Lou racked up radio credits on shows like Calling All CarsDr. ChristianThe Joe Penner ShowThe John Barrymore TheatreThe Mickey Mouse Theatre of the AirStrange as It SeemsThose We Love (as con man Ed Neely), and Woodbury Playhouse.  Merrill was even a participant in the classic Yuletide radio production The Cinnamon Bear, where he played “the big man” himself: Santa Claus.

In the 1940’s, Lou Merrill scored roles in two films directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille: North West Mounted Police (1940; as Lesure) and Reap the Wild Wind (1942; as the Captain of “The Pelican”).  He was identified onscreen for those turns, but most of his film work consisted of uncredited roles in offerings like New Wine (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), and Passport to Suez(1943).  Lou’s radio career, on the other hand, was going like “gang busters.”  He was a favorite of radio auteur Arch Oboler, who made use of his talents and dialects on Lights OutArch Oboler’s PlaysEverything for the BoysFree World Theatre, and Plays for Americans.  Orson Welles also liked the cut of Merrill’s jib, casting him in parts on Hello AmericansCeiling Unlimited, and Radio Almanac.  (Lou also has a nice turn in Orson’s The Lady from Shanghai [1948] as “Jake Bjornsen.”)

For the most part, however, Lou Merrill leveraged his experience as a Lux Radio Theatre player to work scads of radio anthology programs, among them The Cavalcade of AmericaDark Venture, Encore TheatreThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreHollywood Star TimeThe NBC University TheatreThe Pacific StoryThe Railroad HourScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStudio OneThe Theatre of Famous Radio Players, and Theatre of Romance.  Merrill’s versatility also brought him to such venues as The Alan Young ShowThe George Burns & Gracie Allen ShowThe Jack Benny ProgramThe Life of RileyMail CallPoint Sublime (as Aaron Saul, the town jeweler), Request PerformanceThe Rudy Vallee Show, and Smilin’ Ed’s Buster Brown Gang.  He starred briefly as Captain Craig McKenzie on an early adult science-fiction series, Latitude Zero, and racked up appearances on Ellery QueenIntrigueThe New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Rogue’s Gallery.

Merrill also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with “Mr. Radio,” Elliott Lewis; he appeared frequently on the Lewis-produced Broadway’s My Beat, as well as On Stage and Suspense.  In addition, Elliott cast Lou in the radio role for which old-time radio fans remember him best: as Crime Classics host/narrator Thomas Hyland—“connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders.”  A short-lived crime anthology that is nevertheless revered by radio devotees even today, Classics allowed Lou-as-Hyland to be his droll, deadpan best as he regaled listeners with tales of true criminal cases presented in a macabre, tongue-in-cheek fashion.  The departure of Crime Classics (a crime in itself) didn’t slow Merrill down, however; his radio resume continued to bulge with entries such as The Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintThe CBS Radio WorkshopThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Halls of IvyHeartbeat TheatreThe LineupLuke Slaughter of TombstoneThe Man Called XNight BeatObsessionPresenting Charles BoyerRetributionRocky FortuneThe Silent MenThe Six ShooterSomebody KnowsStars in the AirStars Over HollywoodThat’s RichThis is Your FBIWild Bill Hickok, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Although a dedicated “radio man,” Lou Merrill was not a stranger to the small screen.  He appeared in several installments of a series entitled The Oboler Comedy Theatre (for his old boss Arch Oboler) and guest-starred on such hits as I Love LucyThe LineupColt .45The MillionaireSugarfoot, and Shirley Temple’s Scrapbook.  Most of his movie appearances allowed him to fall back on his love of radio. For example, that’s Lou as the radio announcer in the loopy morality film The Next Voice You Hear… (1950), and like his fellow radio thespian Paul Frees, Merrill enjoyed narrating trailers for such AIP features as It Conquered the World (195x), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), and A Bucket of Blood (1959).  His credited films include roles in Charge of the Lancers (1954), The Iron Glove (1954), The Crooked Web (1955), and a schlock favorite of mine, The Giant Claw (1957).  His cinematic swan song was 1961’s The Devil at 4 O’Clock; Lou Merrill passed on two years later at the tender age of 54.

If you’re in the mood—and you know you are—to celebrate Lou Merrill’s birthday, you’re going to want to own our Crime Classics collection The Hyland Files, featuring his signature role as Thomas Hyland.  However, Lou is present and accounted for in three of our Broadway’s My Beat sets: Dark WhispersGreat White Way, and our just-released The Loneliest Mile (with liner notes from your humble narrator).  In addition, you’ll hear Merrill working his microphone magic on Big Town: Blind JusticeDark VentureLights Out, Everybody and Lights Out: Later Than You ThinkThe Line Up: WitnessThe Man Called XRogue’s Gallery: Blue EyesSherlock Holmes: ElementaryThe Six Shooter: Gray SteelSomebody Knows; the Suspense compendiums Beyond Good and Evil and Wages of Sin; and the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar collections Murder Matters and Wayward Matters.  Believe you me—Lou Merrill is no April fool!

Happy Birthday, Charles Russell!

Fans of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are generally in agreement that it was actor Bob Bailey who made “America’s fabulous freelance investigator” the old-time radio icon he is today.  (I apologize in advance to all the John Lund fans out there.)  As revered as Bailey was as “the man with the action-packed expense account,” Johnny Dollar devotees know that he wasn’t the first radio thespian to tackle the role: that honor belongs to an actor born in New York City on this date in 1918.  We know him as Charles Russell.

While we know the name of the first of the Johnny Dollar thespians (excluding Dick Powell, of course, who starred in the show’s first audition), Charles Russell’s biography is a little sketchy…as author John C. Abbott acknowledged in his book The Who is Johnny Dollar Matter?  A 1949 issue of Radio Mirror offers but the briefest biographical blurb for Russell, noting that he turned down employment in his hometown of Tarrytown, NY for a career on the stage.  “After starving several years in Little Theater roles,” observes Mirror, “Charles wangled a screen test and subsequently made several pictures.”

The IMDb notes that Charles Russell’s first foray into motion pictures was an uncredited bit as a ball player in 1943’s Ladies’ Day, a romantic baseball-themed romp starring Eddie Albert and Lupe Velez.  Russell’s second film featured his first onscreen credit: Bombardier, a WW2 docudrama that also featured Albert…though the stars of that picture were Pat O’Brien and Randolph Scott.  Both Ladies’ Day and Bombardier were released by RKO, and on the strength of those appearances Charles was soon signed to a contract with 20th Century-Fox.

Charles’ first film for Fox was a prestigious one: The Purple Heart (1944), an all-star war drama whose cast included Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, and Farley Granger.  It would prove to be one of the studio’s biggest hits that year, and Russell would be pressed into service (if you’ll pardon the pun) for other “military” roles in Captain Eddie (1945—a biopic on Captain Eddie Rickenbacker) and Johnny Comes Flying Home (1946).  Charlie also appeared in a “B” mystery, Behind Green Lights (1946—you can read a review of this at my home base, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear), and a romantic tale with Fox headliners John Payne, June Haver, and Charlotte Greenwood: Wake Up and Dream (1946).

Charles Russell’s biggest success at 20th Century-Fox was 1947’s The Late George Apley—a sprightly comedy satire (based on the best-selling novel by author John P. Marquand, best-known as the man who introduced Asian sleuth Mr. Moto to bookshelves) about a proper Bostonian family whose lives are turned upside down when their children announce that they’re marrying “beneath their station.”  Charlie played the fiancé of the Apley daughter, Ellie (Peggy Cummins), and his would-be father-in-law was portrayed by an actor who was certainly no stranger to radio: Ronald Colman.

Russell finished out his stint at Fox with appearances in Give My Regards to Broadway (1948), Night Wind (1948), Trouble Preferred (1949), and Tuscon (1949).  Night Wind was one of only two pictures where Charlie received top billing; the other was an independent production entitled Inner Sanctum (1948)…which, despite the deceptive poster art, had very little connection to the popular radio show (I reviewed it for Radio Spirits here).  (Russell was also in the cast of 1948’s Canon City—a nifty little prison break noir that makes the rounds of Turner Classic Movies every now and then, so keep an eye out for it.)  Charles then drifted over to Columbia to make three pictures…but in only one of them, Chinatown at Midnight (1949), did he receive onscreen billing (the other two were Mary Ryan, Detective [1949] and Breakthrough [1950], his final film).

By the time Mary Ryan, Detective was released to theaters, however, Charles Russell had already made his “radio debut” in the role of the titular insurance investigator on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Russell’s first show aired February 11, 1949, and he would be kept busy itemizing his expense accounts for a total of 35 broadcasts (until motion picture star Edmond O’Brien replaced him in January of 1950).  John C. Abbott describes Russell’s portrayal of Dollar as “a sarcastic, irreverent, droll and somewhat lecherous person. Johnny always got the bad guy, but he always seemed to get the girl as well—sometimes to his undoing and always, it seemed ‘on’ the expense account.”  After his stint on Dollar, Russell would make appearances on such radio favorites as Family Theatre and The Adventures of Philip Marlowe.

Not much is known about Charles Russell after 1950. We do know that he married fellow Fox player Nancy Guild in 1947, and that the two divorced three years later.  In a 2012 issue of Radio Recall, Abbott writes: “…there is a clue to what he might have been up to. I have a photo of Russell taken from the St. Louis Dispatch. In that photo he is sitting at a paper-strewn table holding a pencil. The inference in this picture is that Russell is writing, but the question is: what?”  Curiouser and curiouser, to borrow a famous literary phrase.  Charles Russell passed on at the age of 66 in 1985.

The Radio Spirits collection of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe features our birthday boy in a January 28, 1950 broadcast entitled “The Hairpin Turn.”  But to get maximum Charles Russell in front of the mike, you’ll want to collect his signature role as Johnny Dollar in our compendiums of Medium Rare MattersMysterious Matters, and of course, The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Happy Birthday, Jerry Lewis!

August 20, 2017 was for many fans of comedy a day to weep…not laugh.  The man born Joseph Levitch (though other sources report his name as Jerome) in Newark, NJ on this date in 1926 had left this world for a better one.  Whether or not you consider yourself a fan, it’s inarguable that Jerry Lewis made incalculably important contributions to comedy.  Lewis was one of the few performers whose show business career touched upon every facet of entertainment in the 20th century.  He began in vaudeville and burlesque before achieving initial fame in nightclubs.  Jerry conquered movies, working not only as an actor-comedian, but graduating to a position as a writer, director, and producer.  He flourished in television with variety programs and talk shows, conquered Las Vegas and Broadway…and of course, Lewis did okay for himself in radio as well.

Jerry Lewis seemed destined for a life in show business.  His father, Danny, was a vaudeville performer and M.C. (Master of Ceremonies); his mother, Rachel (known to all as “Rae”), was Danny’s musical director and a piano player for New York’s WOR.  Jerry began performing on stage at age five, and initially achieved some small success with what became known as “The Record Act”—in which he frantically lip-synched and mimed to phonograph records played offstage.  This specialty kept the young comedian busy throughout the New York entertainment circuit affectionately known as “the Borscht Belt.”

It was making the acquaintance of a singer named Dean Martin that would catapult both men to the top of the entertainment world.  Jerry initially met Dean in 1945 at a club called The Glass Hat. A year later, while Jerry was bombing at the Havana-Madrid Club in New York City (the Spanish audience was unreceptive to Lewis’ miming-to-records shtick), he convinced the club manager to let him cut up a little during Martin’s performance, as Dean was also on the bill at the time.  Lewis, dressed as a bellboy, interrupted Martin’s musical number by dropping a tray of dishes and generally wreaking havoc, and this resulted in a hilarious exchange of insults between the duo that laid the audience in the aisles. Their subsequent nightclub bookings came fast and furious; it was estimated that the team took in $15,000 weekly in 1948 alone.

It wouldn’t take long before the public became familiar with Martin and Lewis’ antics over the ether. Dean and Jerry made a well-received appearance on The Bob Hope Show in October of 1948, and NBC decided to give the duo their own radio show. It premiered on April 3, 1949, with Lucille Ball as their guest.  NBC spent $10,000 a week on The Martin & Lewis Show, booking big celebrities like Henry Fonda, John Garfield, and Jane Russell…but the show failed to attract much of an audience.  The program left NBC on January 30, 1950.

Though their work in radio experienced a temporary setback, the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would return to a microphone in the fall of 1951 with a show that would run for two seasons.  The reason for this was the duo’s popularity in motion pictures…which began (interestingly enough) with an appearance in a movie based on a radio hit.  Paramount brought My Friend Irma to the silver screen in 1949, with star Marie Wilson reprising her radio role as the frustratingly dim-witted blonde. Martin & Lewis were added to the cast as incidental characters; Martin played a love interest for the Jane Stacy character (played in the film by Diana Lynn).  My Friend Irma not only became a box-office smash, it led to a sequel the following year (My Friend Irma Goes West). The first solo Dean & Jerry film followed: At War with the Army (1950).  Martin & Lewis would soon overtake Abbott & Costello as the #1 movie comedy team, appearing in a string of celluloid smashes that included That’s My Boy (1951), Sailor Beware (1951), Jumping Jacks (1952), Scared Stiff(1953), and Money from Home (1953).

Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were also hard at work convulsing television audiences as well.  The team were among the guests on the very first telecast of Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of the Town on June 20, 1948, and they would eventually be hired to host The Colgate Comedy Hour in the fall of 1950. (The Colgate series rotated the hosts regularly, insuring that Martin & Lewis were not tied down to a weekly series.)  It’s been said that while nothing could quite capture the improvised zaniness of Dean & Jerry’s nightclub act, their assignments on the Comedy Hour came as close as possible.  The duo remained mainstays on the program until it left the airwaves in December of 1955.

Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin continued their string of movie successes with hits like Living It Up (1954), You’re Never Too Young (1955), and Artists and Models (1955)…but their partnership had already started to show signs of strain by the time the duo made 3 Ring Circus (1954).  Martin’s role in their films had started to take a backseat to Lewis’ antics, and the friction that developed would eventually lead to their break-up before their final film as a team, Hollywood or Bust, was released in 1956.  Both men would later have wildly successful solo film careers…though it was Lewis who fared a little better on the moviemaking side, with popular releases like The Delicate Delinquent (1957), Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), and Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959).  The 1960 comedy The Bellboy established Jerry as a director, and he would helm such successes as The Ladies’ Man (1961) and The Nutty Professor (1963), the latter considered by his many fans to be his best solo film.

Although Jerry Lewis continued to make appearances on television—he hosted a two-hour variety show in 1963 and another variety hour from 1967 to 1969—he never found the small screen success that his ex-partner achieved with The Dean Martin Show from 1965 to 1974.  It didn’t really matter much in the big picture, however; Lewis was a frequent guest (and occasional guest host) on outlets like The Tonight Show.  In addition, from 1966 to 2010, he hosted the popular Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, an annual fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  Jerry would continue to make movies throughout the 1960s (The PatsyThe Family Jewels) before finishing out the decade with Which Way to the Front? In 1970.  He was absent from the silver screen for about a decade until he returned in the 1980s with hits like Hardly Working (1981) and Cracking Up (1983).  It was about this time that Jerry began to receive critical praise for appearances in the likes of such films as The King of Comedy (1983) and Funny Bones (1995).

Despite a series of health setbacks over the years, Jerry Lewis never let his energy wane. In 1995, he achieved a lifelong ambition to appear in a Broadway production, portraying The Devil in a revival of the musical Damn Yankees.  Lewis continued to be a dynamo with guest roles on TV shows like Mad About You and Law & Order: SVU. His final solo film, Max Rose, was released in 2013 and his cinematic swan song was 2016’s The Trust.  However, Jerry Lewis had a booking to play an exclusive nightclub in The Great Beyond and left this world to fulfill that obligation at the age of 91.

From 1950 to 1955, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin appeared in twenty-eight telecasts of The Colgate Comedy Hour…and on The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection—a DVD set available from Radio Spirits—you can revisit those hilarious moments when TV was live and America’s favorite comedy team was working without a net.  (The collection also features three of Jerry’s solo films: 3 on a Couch [1966], Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River [1968], and Hook, Line and Sinker [1969].)  You’ll also find clips of our birthday boy on Funniest Moments of Comedy, a 6-DVD collection stuffed with classic clowns from the worlds of both the big and small screens.  Happy birthday to the incomparable Jerry Lewis!

Happy Birthday, Pat McGeehan!

Patrick Joseph McGeehan—born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on this date in 1907—enjoyed a long and fruitful association with comedian Red Skelton.  He joined Red’s radio program as an announcer in the fall of 1943 and, though he would eventually take a back seat to Rod O’Connor as Red’s foil, McGeehan was still on hand as an assistant announcer…plus he played many incidental roles on the show as well.  Pat would later transition to Skelton’s TV series, as an announcer, during the 1951-52 season.

According to an April 30, 1944 issue of Radio Life, Pat McGeehan considered himself “dull copy.”  This was far from the truth! At the age of 14, young Pat was filled with wanderlust and signed on to be an apprentice seaman on the Leviathan.  He globetrotted in that capacity for six years and, upon his return to New York, he began working in various vaudeville and musical comedy shows. That is, until he made the acquaintance of wire walker Con Colleano.  Colleano hired McGeehan to be a companion-secretary, and the duo traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada for another six years with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

McGeehan would eventually leave Ringling to focus on a show business career…but the Great Depression was at its height, and Pat had to settle for a gig with the Works Project Administration, handling a pick and shovel.  Eventually, McGeehan—through his association with both the Federal Theatre Project and the Pasadena Playhouse—started to land some radio jobs, and it wasn’t long before he was one of the busiest actor-announcers in the industry.  His pre-Skelton work includes assignments on The Romance of the RanchosThe Cavalcade of America, and Dr. Christian. One of his high-profile gigs was as an announcer on an Orson Welles series, Ceiling Unlimited, which premiered over CBS Radio on November 9, 1942 for Lockheed Vega Aircraft.  (Come to think of it—I’d be curious to know just how many people in the radio audience were looking to buy an airplane.)

Welles’ stint with the program didn’t last long; Orson had a disagreement with an agency man and walked off the show. The hosting duties were left to various guest celebrities until Lost Horizon author James Hilton took over in June.  Two months later, the series was re-christened America—Ceiling Unlimited and revamped as a half-hour variety program, with Welles’ Citizen Kane co-star Joseph Cotten as master of ceremonies.  McGeehan continued in his role of announcer until the show signed off on April 30, 1944; by that time Pat was not only working for Red Skelton, he was doing up to six shows a day.

Red Skelton wasn’t the only comedian in need of Pat McGeehan’s services.  Pat worked for a time as an announcer on the Joan Davis and Abbott & Costello shows, and would ply his comedic acting talents as a guest on the likes of The Adventures of MaisieBurns and AllenCommand PerformanceThe Eddie Cantor ShowFibber McGee & MollyThe Great GildersleeveThe Jack Benny ProgramThe Life of RileyMail Call, and Meet Mr. McNutley.  His work on weekly dramatic and anthology shows included Diary of FateFamily TheatreGunsmokeHollywood PreviewIntrigueJeff Regan, InvestigatorLet George Do It, The LineupThe Roy Rogers ShowScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodSuspenseThe Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Pat McGeehan played “Ben Calvert” on an NBC West Coast soap opera, The Story of Aunt Mary, for several years (the show ran from 1942 to 1951) and was associated with The Hour of St. Francis (a syndicated dramatic anthology that, despite its title, ran only fifteen minutes).  Pat was “the voice” of the latter show, and he gained much recognition for his recitation of the Catholic saint’s peace prayer.  McGeehan even got the opportunity to be the star of a show: a syndicated series entitled Strange Adventure.

Pat’s movie work relied on his announcing talents; he narrated such films as The Dark Past (1948), Son of the Renegade (1953), and Okefenokee (1959).  Yet his talents as a voice actor came in handy in the field of animated cartoons. The IMDb doesn’t credit him, but he’s been identified by ‘toon experts as participating in such Tex Avery-directed efforts as Doggone Tired (1949) and Rock-a-Bye Bear (1952).  McGeehan also did voice work on an early television cartoon series entitled NBC Comics. Rounding out his small screen work are announcer-narrator assignments on the likes of The Bob Hope ShowThe Loretta Young ShowFibber McGee & Molly, and Insight.  His final TV credit (according to the IMDb) was on an episode of The Law and Mr. Jones; he left this world for a better one in 1988 at age 80.

As a member of the wonderfully hilarious ensemble that comprised radio’s The Red Skelton Show, you’ll find much McGeehan in our Red collections Scrapbook of Satire (with liner notes by yours truly), Clowning, and our newest release, Mischief.  There’s also Skelton to be had in our Yuletide sets Christmas Radio Classics and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations, and in our all-star comedy compendiums Comedy Goes West and Great Radio Comedy.  See of you can identify our birthday boy in Burns & Allen: Muddling ThroughFamily Theatre: Every HomeRoy Rogers: King of the Cowboys, and Suspense: Beyond Good and Evil.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Jean Wong!

It became one of old-time radio’s most cherished traditions.  The annual Christmas broadcast of Amos ‘n’ Andy, in which family man Amos Jones tucks his daughter Arbadella into bed on Christmas Eve and explains to her the meaning of The Lord’s Prayer.  While you probably know that the role of Amos was played by Freeman Gosden on that long-running series, it was an Asian-American actress who essayed the role of Amos’ little girl.  Her name was Barbara Jean Wong, and she was born in Los Angeles, California on this date in 1924.

Barbara Jean began her show business career at the age of five. Due to her charm and her long black hair (which was curled into ringlets), many people thought of her as an Asian-American version of Shirley Temple.  Wong, who had attended the Fanchon and Marco School of the Theater, didn’t dissuade them from this notion when she performed as a dancer for charity events and women’s clubs.  A small part in the 1934 film The Painted Veil stoked Barbara Jean’s interest in acting. After landing roles on NBC’s Strange As It Seems and CBS radio shows like White Fires of Inspiration and The Lux Radio Theatre, she provided the voice of Judy Barton in the syndicated The Cinnamon Bear, a Yuletide-themed show that continues to entertain new generations of fans every year.

A role as the eldest daughter on the Charlie Chan radio program in 1938 would later be mirrored with an uncredited part (she was demoted to Daughter Number Three, sadly) in the film Charlie Chan in Honolulu, released that same year.  Barbara Jean continued to balance her radio work with her studies, graduating from the Mar-Ken Professional School for Children in 1941 (one of her classmates was Mickey Rooney!).  She was already appearing on Amos ‘n’ Andy, but she also found steady work playing Asian characters (P.Y. Ling, Lee Taw Ming, etc.) on Carlton Morse’s I Love a Mystery (and later I Love Adventure).  In addition, Wong appeared in such motion pictures as China (1943), Behind the Rising Sun (1943), Babes on Swing Street (1945), and God is My Co-Pilot (1945).

Barbara Jean Wong later made appearances in three of the Charlie Chan films produced at Monogram—two with Sidney Toler (The Red DragonThe Trap) and one with Roland Winters (The Chinese Ring).  Upon earning degrees in English and drama at USC and Columbia University, Wong dropped the “Barbara” and began billing herself as Jean Wong while working on such films as Calcutta (1947) and Chinatown at Midnight (1949).  Barbara Jean also kept her hand in radio, with appearances on the likes of The Cavalcade of America, Hallmark PlayhouseThe Hallmark Hall of FameNight BeatRomance, and Tarzan.  One of her best performances was on a February 17, 1950 broadcast of The Halls of Ivy, in which she played a Chinese student who wants to leave college after experiencing extreme prejudice.  Wong would reprise that role when that episode was adapted for the TV version of the show. In addition, her small screen resume includes such series as Boston BlackieFireside Theatre, The Lone Wolf, and Buffalo Bill, Jr.

While Barbara Jean Wong was an accomplished radio actress, she didn’t always have great luck in motion pictures. By the 1950s, most of the movies in which she appeared were placing her in the background in uncredited parts: China Corsair (1951), Soldier of Fortune (1955), and The Left Hand of God (1955).  Her last film appearance—not counting the 1965 animated film The Man from Button Willow, in which she provided the voice of “Stormy”—was as a nurse in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955).  (The IMDb credits her with an appearance on the TV series Anna and the King of Siam in 1972.)  After marrying Robert Wah Lee in 1950, she began a retreat from acting. Barbara Jean would earn teaching credentials from Cal State in Los Angeles and work as an elementary school teacher until her retirement in 1992.  Barbara Jean Wong passed on from a respiratory illness in 1999 at the age of 75.

Radio Spirits’ compilation Stop the Press! Gives you an opportunity to hear Barbara Jean Wong earn her “bread and butter” on an April 17, 1950 broadcast of Night Beat entitled “The Tong War.”  Happy birthday, Barbara Jean!

Happy Birthday, Louise Erickson!

Actress Louise Erickson—born in Oakland, California on this date in 1928—becomes a nonagenarian today…and we at Radio Spirits couldn’t be more excited about celebrating the occasion.  In the 1940s, Louise was one of the “go-to” thespians whenever the role of a teenage girl needed to be played on radio…and from 1943 to 1950, she would emote as “that lovable teenage girl who’s close to all our hearts” as the star of A Date with Judy.  And yet as they say in commercials: ”But, wait…there’s more!”

Moving to Hollywood with her parents at the age of seven (her father Arthur was a restaurateur) allowed young Louise to get in on radio’s ground floor with a role on a local kids’ program, Uncle Whoa Bill.  She was royalty on that show (she played a fairy princess), and Louise would later make her network debut on a broadcast of Dr. Christian.  Erickson was one of several juvenile performers on Mutual’s Dramas of Youth, and with experience on such favorites as The Cavalcade of America, she landed a plum assignment playing Mitzi—gal pal and co-conspirator of Judy Foster on A Date with Judy.  When Date premiered on June 24, 1941 as a summer replacement for The Bob Hope Show, the role of Ms. Foster was portrayed by child actress Ann Gillis. However, by the time Louise joined the show, Dellie Ellis was playing Judy.  A Date with Judy would be pressed into service to be Eddie Cantor’s replacement in the summer of 1943; Erickson got a promotion to the lead when Ellis bowed out.

A Date with Judy opened a lot of doors in radio for Louise Erickson.  Before Janet Waldo took over as bubbly Emmy Lou on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Louise played the part.  When the success of Judy inspired CBS to launch their own teenage girl comedy, Meet Corliss Archer (based on the character created by F. Hugh Herbert), Erickson appeared on that program as Corliss’ pal Mildred (with Corliss portrayed by Waldo, of course).  Louise would later play Babs, the eldest daughter of lunkheaded working stiff Chester A. Riley on The Life of Riley during that show’s run.  Other radio favorites on which Erickson worked include The Adventures of the SaintThe Alan Young Show (as Alan’s girlfriend Betty), Arch Oboler’s PlaysCloak and DaggerGranby’s Green Acres(as Janice), The Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and Repeat Performance.

Though A Date with Judy made Louise Erickson a radio star, it was The Great Gildersleeve that provided the actress with her most fondly remembered showcase.  In later years, Erickson reminisced about her time on the series: “Of all the programs I did on radio The Great Gildersleeve is the one that still stands up today; the writing was superb, and Hal Peary was a comedic genius.”  Louise inherited the role of Marjorie Forrester from Lurene Tuttle, who played Marjorie from 1941 to 1944.  On one broadcast, Erickson was too ill to appear and another actress, Mary Lee Robb, agreed to fill in for her.  (That “audition” allowed Robb to continue as Marjorie in the fall of 1948.)

Erickson’s steady radio work as Judy Foster would later translate to motion pictures. Louise had a small role in the 1944 musical comedy Rosie the Riveter (Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer played her brother). In Meet Miss Bobby Socks, released that same year, she received a bit more exposure as a lovesick teenager who falls head-over-heels for a bandleader (played by Bob Crosby).  (Also in 1944: Louise appeared with Gildersleeve star Hal Peary in an installment of Paramount’s “Unusual Occupations” shorts series, in a brief segment on the “making of” the show.)  Louise was snubbed when MGM decided to bring A Date with Judy to the big screen in 1948 (Jane Powell played Judy…they should have stuck with the original), and her only other movie of note is 1950’s Three Husbands…which allowed her a small-but-scene-stealing role.

The only item on Louise Erickson’s small screen resume was a guest appearance on a telecast of Hollywood Theatre Time. The August 10, 1951 installment, “Father’s Harem,” featured a few of her fellow radio veterans including Elvia Allman, Sarah Selby, and Hanley Stafford.  Perhaps she was looking for something beyond her extensive body of radio work (she did have a small role in a 1957 Broadway production of A Hole in the Head), because after her second marriage she took up writing. According to authors Charles Stumpf and Ben Ohmart, Louise accepted a job in New York City as a museum tour guide for handicapped children.

To celebrate Louise Erickson’s special day, Radio Spirits recommends you check out Neighbors, a collection of classic broadcasts from The Great Gildersleeve.  Our Life of Riley set, Blue Collar Blues, features several shows with Louise as Babs.  In addition, you can hear Ms. Erickson on two of our potpourri compilations. Great Radio Detectives gives Louise a guest shot on The Adventures of the Saint (“The Horrible Hamburger,” from September 10, 1950) and Great Radio Comedy allows her to be the star of A Date with Judy in a classic February 20, 1945 broadcast (a personal favorite of mine) in which our teenaged heroine dreams that boyfriend Oogie Pringle has switched places…with none other than Francis Albert Sinatra himself!  Happy ninetieth to you, Ms. Ericson–to paraphrase your radio boyfriend, “you look sna-a-zzy!”