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Happy Birthday, Agnes Moorehead!

In my days of higher education—where it was joked that I had spent so much time in college, ivy had started to grow up my leg—I was a member of Armstrong State College’s quiz bowl team.  I vividly remember my first tournament, in which we squared off against a most formidable squad from Georgia Tech; their team had a reputation for being able to “buzz in” with the answer to questions merely after hearing the first five words.  But one of the questions in the round began: “She played Orson Welles’ mother in Citizen Kane…”  I hit the buzzer lickety-split and blurted out “Agnes Moorehead” when the moderator called my name.  It goes without saying, of course, that our team was no match for Georgia Tech (our captain noted with a perfectly straight face that one of Tech’s members had never even watched television)—yet knowing that small bit of trivia about the actress born in 1900 on this date in Clinton, Massachusetts gave me a brief moment of self-satisfaction (and a reputation in tournaments to follow as a “trash” expert—”trash” being the nickname college bowl veterans gave to pop culture questions).

Agnes Robertson Moorehead was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister (John) and a former singer (Mildred McCauley).  Agnes would make her public debut reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” in her father’s church, while her mother encouraged her theatrical ambitions by allowing her and her sister Peggy plenty of opportunity to indulge their talents for imagination.  The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri while Moorehead was young, and the two Moorehead sisters would often amuse their father with impressions of his parishioners.  Peggy died suddenly at the age of 23, and Agnes rarely spoke of her sister after that tragedy.

While attending high school, Agnes Moorehead became a member of the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company (known to locals as “The Muny”). After graduation she had planned to pursue a theatrical career—something her father did not discourage, but he did insist that she get a formal education.  Moorehead would obtain this at New Concord, Ohio’s Muskingum College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She taught public school in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin for five years while earning her masters in English and public speaking at the University of Wisconsin.  Agnes pursued further study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (Manhattan), graduating with honors in 1929.

With graduation and the news of her sister’s passing, Agnes Moorehead was ready to look for acting gigs in Manhattan…and although she did find some stage work, it seemed there were far more opportunities for her in radio.  Moorehead began to build a radio resume that included a recurring role on CBS’ comedy-variety series Evening in Paris (as Cousin Anna), stooging for Phil Baker on his popular comedy program, and bringing the comic strip character of “Min Gump” to life on the situation comedy The Gumps.  Agnes also explored her dramatic side on shows like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and fortuitously became a member of Orson Welles’ celebrated Mercury Theatre Players—appearing in his 1937 production of Les Miserables and in roles on The Mercury Theatre on the Air/Campbell Playhouse.  Her contribution to the infamous “The War of the Worlds” broadcast?  She performed a woman’s scream, then helped take frantic telephone calls from listeners for the remainder of the program.  Many of the radio programs that Agnes worked on had a distinct Orson influence; she played “Margo Lane” to his “Lamont Cranston” in the 1937-38 season of The Shadow(and opposite Bill Johnstone for an additional season after that), and had roles on the likes of The Orson Welles TheatreHello AmericansCeiling UnlimitedRadio AlmanacThis is My Best, and The Mercury Summer Theatre.

Agnes Moorehead owed her debut in feature films to her chum Mr. Welles with Citizen Kane (1941), as I mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay.  Agnes would also work with Orson in the Welles-directed The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), as well as Journey Into Fear (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944).  Her role as Aunt Fanny in Ambersons (an outstanding and moving performance) would garner Moorehead the first of four Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress; the other films for which she was nominated were Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948), and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965).  Agnes rarely played leads in motion pictures, but her undeniable talent is stamped on many classic movies of the 1940s, including Since You Went Away (1944),Tomorrow, the World! (1944), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), Dark Passage (1947—a great villainous role), The Woman in White (1948), and Station West (1948).

As Agnes Moorehead wowed movie audiences with a steadily growing body of work, she continued to make waves before a radio microphone. She appeared as housekeeper Marilly on the comedy-drama The Mayor of the Town (which starred Lionel Barrymore), joshed with Jack Carson on his weekly series, played Maggie on Bringing Up Father, and starred in The Amazing Mrs. Danbury (a sitcom that replaced The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show when its star succumbed to a heart attack).  Many of Moorehead’s most lauded radio turns were on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” (she was the anthology’s most frequently cast actress). She gave bravura performances in classic Suspense broadcasts like “The Diary of Saphronia Winters,” “The Sisters,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and “The Trap”…but the best-known of them all was “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Moorehead first performed this Lucille Fletcher-penned classic on May 25, 1943, and would go on to reprise the role an additional seven times (using the same dog-eared, pencil-marked script on each and every occasion).

Other shows on Agnes Moorehead’s radio c.v. include The Adventures of Leonidas WitherallBetty and BobThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopEllery QueenEverything for the BoysThe Free CompanyGreat PlaysThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseInner SanctumThe Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreMystery in the AirThe NBC Radio Theatre, Pulitzer Prize PlaysRadio GuildThe Radio Hall of FameRequest PerformanceStagestruck, and Way Down East.  Despite her movie fame and later TV notoriety, Agnes never forgot her radio roots. One of her final performances was on a January 26, 1974 broadcast of The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, “The Ring of Truth.” (Moorehead also appeared on that program’s inaugural January 6, 1974 installment, “The Old Ones are Hard to Kill.”)

Throughout the 1950s, Agnes Moorehead played character parts in a variety of films: Caged (1950—one of my favorites with Aggie as a sympathetic women’s prison warden), Fourteen Hours (1951),Show Boat (1951), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), The Left Hand of God (1955), The Conqueror (1956), and Raintree County (1957), to name just a few.  In addition to her work on the silver screen, she started to appear on TV on many anthology shows and episodic series, like Wagon Train and The Rebel.  With the 1960s, her onscreen appearances started to slow a bit (PollyannaHow the West Was Won), but she was still a welcome presence in living rooms with guest star gigs on RawhideThe RiflemanThe Twilight Zone (the classic “The Invaders”), and Burke’s Law.  The fall of 1964 would bring Moorehead her most famous boob tube role of all.

On September 17, 1964, ABC premiered a half-hour situation comedy entitled Bewitched—with the premise that a witch named Samantha (portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery) has married a mortal, Darrin Stephens (Dick York and later Dick Sargent), much to the disapproval of her mother Endora (Agnes) and the rest of her supernaturally-powered family.  The show became a smash hit for third-place ABC (it was ranked #2 among all TV programs that first season), and Moorehead’s portrayal of the free-spirited Endora (who took perverse delight in using magic on her son-in-law week after week) would garner her six Emmy Award nominations for her supporting work.  (Interestingly, Agnes wouldn’t win an Emmy for any of those nominations—she received her statuette for a guest appearance on an episode of The Wild Wild West.)  Bewitched enjoyed an amazing eight-year-run on the network and continued to thrive in reruns afterward. Before her passing in 1974 at the age of 73, Moorehead continued to do TV (The VirginianNight Gallery) and movies (a nice contribution as an Aimee Semple McPherson-type evangelist in 1971’s What’s the Matter with Helen?).

In an anecdote that she would later tell on The Dick Cavett Show in 1973, Agnes Moorehead related how she had visited New York City as a teenager on Easter vacation. She said that she had spotted a precocious seven-year-old at the Waldorf Astoria, discussing a concert with his father and two elderly women.  It wasn’t until after the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, when newspapers were writing articles about Orson Welles and included photos of him as a child that she realized he was the lad she had seen at the Waldorf Astoria that day.  (For years afterward, whenever anyone asked how long he had known Moorehead, Welles would jokingly reply: “Ever since I was seven!”)  Listen for the birthday girl’s scream in The Mercury Theatre on the Air presentation of “The War of the Worlds”…and for more substantial work from Agnes, check out our Shadow collections Bitter FruitDead Men TellKnight of DarknessStrange Puzzles, and The Story of the Shadow.  You can also enjoy Moorehead at her very best on Suspense with Beyond Good and Evil and Fear and Trembling!

Happy Birthday, Rex Stout!

He became famous for creating Nero Wolfe—a character memorably described by  an author at The Thrilling Detective Website as a “{m}assively overweight, a cranky, agoraphobic and sedentary gourmet who virtually never leaves his Manhattan brownstone.”  But Rex Todhunter Stout—born in Noblesville, Indiana on this date in 1886—wouldn’t introduce fans to the corpulent sleuth until he was in his late forties. Stout had enjoyed a taste of literary success in the early teens before giving up writing for one reason: he wanted to be a success in business before picking up a writing instrument again.  Rex succeeded in this goal…sort of. By the time he resumed writing fiction it was of financial necessity since much of his fortune was wiped out in the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Rex Stout may have been a Hoosier by birth, but his family soon moved to Kansas. They were a Quaker clan consisting of father John Wallace, mother Lucretia Elizabeth (Todhunter), and eight siblings.  John Wallace was a schoolteacher by trade and encouraged young Rex to read; Stout had devoured the Bible twice by the time he was four.  Rex would also become the state spelling bee champion at age 13, later attending Topeka High School and then (briefly) the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  Stout joined the Navy for a two-year hitch between 1906 and 1908 (he served as a yeoman on President Theodore Roosevelt’s president yacht) and then embarked on a “jack-of-all-trades” career. Over the next four years, he moved through six different states, working as a bookkeeper, a salesman, a hotel manager, and a cigar store clerk.

Rex Stout’s career as an author began in 1910 with the sale of three poems to the magazine The Smart Set. Between 1912 and 1918 he contributed close to 40 fictional works to such publications as All-Story MagazineSmith’s Magazine, and Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.  His early efforts included detective fiction, but Stout was also adept at stories of romance, adventure, and science fiction/fantasy.  Rex disliked of having to write stories for cash, so in 1916 (with one of his brothers) he invented a school banking system (it kept track of the money that children saved in school accounts). This venture paid off handsomely and allowed him to travel extensively in Europe.  Stout wouldn’t return to writing again until the late 1920s. He published his first book How Like a God with the Vanguard Press—a company he had helped to found, which published books of a left-wing nature…and those books deemed “unpublishable” elsewhere.

Following the success of the 1934 political thriller The President Vanishes (which later became a Paramount motion picture starring future Mr. President Edward Arnold), Rex Stout introduced his most famous literary creation in Fer-de-Lance (1934): Nero Wolfe.  Nero was the yardstick by which “armchair detective” is measured (one critic dubbed him “that Falstaff of detectives”). He had an assistant, Archie Goodwin, do most of the legwork as Nero tooled around his Manhattan brownstone tending to his orchids and satisfying his epicurean cravings for fine beer and food.  Fer-de-Lance provided a shot in the arm to what was then the fledgling detective fiction genre, and Stout followed that work with over 70 novels/novellas released between 1934 and 1975. (Death Times Three, which features a novella and two short stories written by Stout, was published posthumously in 1985!)

It would be no exaggeration to state that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe made an enormous contribution to pop culture. Fer-de-Lance was adapted by Columbia Pictures for the silver screen in 1936 as Meet Nero Wolfe (with President Vanishes star Edward Arnold as Nero). Then, the studio followed that the following year with a silver screen take of Stout’s second Wolfe outing, The League of Frightened Men (with Walter Connolly as the detective).  Rex didn’t care for the way that these movies interpreted his sleuth (in Frightened Men, Nero craves hot chocolate instead of the beer he lovingly quaffed in the novels). However, he did allow the radio networks to introduce Wolfe to the airwaves beginning in 1943 with a small regional network’s The Adventures of Nero Wolfe.  This version eventually moved to NBC and, in its one-year run, featured actors Santos Ortega and Luis van Rooten as the detective.

The Amazing Nero Wolfe surfaced on Mutual on Sunday nights in the summer of 1946 with Francis X. Bushman portraying Nero…but the program’s run was a brief one, leaving the airwaves in December.  The most well-known radio incarnation of Rex Stout’s sleuth would premiere with The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe on October 20, 1950 for NBC, with filmdom’s Sydney Greenstreet as Nero.  Stout thought Greenstreet was perfect casting, though he didn’t care for the series’ scripts. However, the New Nero had difficulty locating a sponsor and beat a hasty retreat back to the detective’s brownstone on April 27, 1951.  One could speculate as to why Rex was so enthusiastic about seeing Nero Wolfe become a radio success. The author himself was no stranger to the aural medium.  He appeared several times on the intellectual quiz show Information Please (Rex also appeared as the “guest panelist” in the first theatrical Please short released in 1939), not to mention the likes of the wartime series Our Secret WeaponThis is Our Enemy, and Wake Up America.  Other Stout radio appearances include The Author Meets the CriticsInvitation to LearningThe People’s PlatformSpeaking of BooksSpeaking of Liberty, and The Voice of Freedom.

If the shows noted above sound a little “high-toned,” it’s because Rex Stout took special pains to cultivate an image as a public intellectual—he once described himself in 1942 as “pro-Labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt left liberal.”  Stout proudly associated himself with the American Civil Liberties Union and was one of the founders of The New Masses, a radical Marxist magazine.  As a member of organizations like Friends of Democracy, the Writers’ War Board, and the United World Federalists, you might wonder how Rex escaped the notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Well, he didn’t. Chairman Martin Dies accused Stout of being a Communist, prompting the author to reply: “I hate Communists as much as you do, Martin, but there’s one difference between us.  I know what a Communist is and you don’t.”  Stout made no bones about his anti-Communism (he later became a hawkish supporter of the Vietnam War), but he was still monitored by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, particularly when he served as head of the Authors League of America.

Rex Stout became president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1958, and the following year received that organization’s prestigious Grand Master Award.  His output of Nero Wolfe novels didn’t start to slow until the mid-sixties…but he still managed to complete four novels between 1968 (The Father Hunt) and 1975 (A Family Affair).  Stout left this world for a better one in October of 1975 at the age of 88.

“If he had done nothing more than to create Archie Goodwin, Rex Stout would deserve the gratitude of whatever assessors watch over the prosperity of American literature,” wrote Jacques Barzun for a birthday tribute to Rex Stout in 1965.  “For surely Archie is one of the folk heroes in which the modern American temper can see itself transfigured.”  To honor today’s birthday celebrant, Radio Spirits invites you to check out both of our collections featuring The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe broadcasts: The Case of the Midnight Ride and Other Tales and Parties for Death.  You’ll also find a TV pilot (from 1959) for a possible Nero series on the DVD collection Television’s Lost Classics: Volume 2 – Rare Pilots.  (And in a bit of shameless self-promotion, you’ll find a review of this set at my home base of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.)  Happy birthday, Rex!

Happy Birthday, Elliott Lewis!

“Elliott Lewis was the greatest actor of them all,” declared veteran radio scribe E. Jack Neuman in an interview with Leonard Maltin. “He could break your heart with a word; his timing was impeccable.”  Now, we should point out here that Neuman’s praise for the acting talents of the man born in New York City on this date in 1917 is a teensy bit jaundiced. Neuman wrote for Hawk Larabee, a Western series that starred Lewis in the title role, and later contributed scripts to such Lewis productions as On StagePursuit, and Suspense.  However, he’d get little argument from old-time radio fans. Elliott’s thespic abilities before a live microphone were something special…and yet Lewis himself preferred to tamp down the enthusiasm.  “I never enjoyed acting,” he told Maltin.  I was able to do it because…it’s a trick, and it’s a trick that I somehow knew how to do, without any training.”  Elliott’s dissatisfaction with performing would later lead to a love affair with writing, directing, and producing for the aural medium—a “triple crown” achievement that would inspire CBS’ publicity department to dub him “Mr. Radio.”

For a performer that never enjoyed acting, Elliott Lewis found himself drawn to it after leaving New York for Los Angeles. There he studied music and drama at Los Angeles City College. (His initial interest had been in civil engineering).  Across the street from that junior college was radio station KHJ, and one day True Boardman handed him a script for a broadcast.  When the program was finished, Boardman asked him: “Well, do you want to work next week?”  Judging from surviving broadcasts of Lewis’ early acting gigs—in syndicated shows like Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police and the Yuletide favorite The Cinnamon Bear (he was “Mr. Presto the Magician”)—Elliott’s answer appears to have been “Yes!”

In a conversation with old-time radio historian Chuck Schaden in 1975 (reprinted in Speaking of Radio), Elliott Lewis also gave generous credit to Jack Benny, the comedian he described as “my teacher.”  Lewis would eventually become a member of the wonderful stock company on The Jack Benny Program, creating such memorable characters as “the mooley” (the “Duhhh, can I help youse, huh?” sales clerk from Jack’s Christmas shopping broadcasts) and a gentleman who would trade back-and-forth with ticket salesman Frank Nelson the lyrics to popular songs (Istanbul [Not Constantinople]How Are Things in Glocca Morra?) as Benny would look on helplessly.

Under Benny’s tutelage, Elliott Lewis would later get steady gigs on such sitcoms as This is Judy Jones and Junior Miss. The latter was a 1940-42 series that starred moppet actress Shirley Temple and featured Lewis (who was 22 at the time!) as her father.  Elliott demonstrated a dramatic flair on radio as well; one of his high-profile jobs was as the brief host of Knickerbocker Playhouse. (His initial audition was given an assist from Rosalind Russell, who told the receptionist her name was “Miss Brown” and she was there to help Lewis read lines!)  The programs on which Elliott worked on at that time include Arch Oboler’s Plays (Lewis would also appear on Oboler’s Lights Out and Plays for Americans), The Cavalcade of AmericaDr. ChristianThe Gulf Screen Guild TheatreThe Hermit’s Cave (its 1940-44 KMPC Los Angeles revival), The Orson Welles TheatreThe Silver Theatre, and Stars Over Hollywood.  Lewis reminisced: “I did the Junior Miss show on a Thursday or something, waved bye-bye and Friday went into the Army.”

Elliott Lewis’ radio career did not stop with “doing his bit” for Uncle Sam.  As a master sergeant, he was assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Network with his Army buddy Howard “Sam Spade” Duff. Together they made strides in the art of radio editing (at a time before recording tape) in a division AFRS called “Commercial Denaturing.”  The two men would record network programs off the air, edit out commercials and “anything that would be considered information that you didn’t want broadcast nationwide,” and place the content on acetate discs to be shipped to shortwave stations.  These discs were glass-based, meaning they were delicately fragile. Lewis recalled that they would haul the transcriptions to their destination in an Army jeep. One night, a driver cut in front of them and the discs shifted during the sudden braking…resulting in the loss of two hours of material.  Both Lewis and Duff also functioned as announcers for AFRS rebroadcasts whenever they needed to “fill” to account for missing content (commercials and the like), so it’s not uncommon to hear their voices when listening to surviving transcriptions.

Back in civilian life, Elliott Lewis became one of radio’s busiest thespians.  He was one of three actors to portray “Captain Bart Friday” on Adventures by Morse, a syndicated serial created by the man (Carlton E. Morse) responsible for One Man’s Family and I Love a Mystery. (Lewis occasionally worked on Mystery, too.)  He took on the role of “Archie Goodwin” on The Adventures of Nero Wolfe; replaced Gale Gordon as the titular hero of The Casebook of Gregory Hood (Elliott learned to his dismay that no one clued Gale into the news he was losing his gig); and famously essayed “Philip Carney” on The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen.  Lewis also made appearances on The Adventures of Sam SpadeThe ClockColumbia Presents CorwinThe Columbia WorkshopDark VentureEncore TheatreEscapeHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TimeObsessionThe Philip Morris PlayhouseScreen Directors’ PlayhouseTales of the Texas RangersThe Whistler, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.

Elliott Lewis gathered no moss on the comedic side of radio, either. On George Burns and Gracie Allen’s program, he had a recurring role as a gentleman who George would encounter in various occupations. Lewis would gush about just how ecstatic he was about his line of work (“I’m sooooo happy!”) before launching into a monologue that eventually revealed how miserable he truly was by the end.  Elliott also guested on such lighter fare as A Day in the Life of Dennis DayThe Halls of IvyThe Life of RileyMeet Me at Parky’sThe Sealtest Variety Theatre, and Sweeney and March.  His greatest contribution to radio mirth, however, was his portrayal of Phil Harris’ sidekick Frankie Remley, first on The Fitch Bandwagon and then on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.  Frankie, the real-life left-handed guitar player for Harris’ orchestra was, according to Lewis, “a very sweet, nice, quiet man, a really dear man.” The radio Frankie, on the other hand, was a wisecracking conniver who could get his pal “Curly” in trouble merely by uttering four words: “I know a guy…”

In his interview with Chuck Schaden, Elliott Lewis recalled sitting down with Jack Benny and saying “Please explain something to me.  I know that when Phil and I work that it’s funny and the jokes are funny but I don’t understand why the laughs are so big.  What are we doing?”  His “teacher” responded: “You’ve found a wonderful thing in the relationship you two have.  The two of you say and do what everybody in the audience would like to say and do in a similar situation if they had the nerve.  But nobody has the nerve that you two guys have, and that’s what people are laughing at.  They’re just delighted.”  Although Lewis had to use his actual name instead of the “Frankie Remley” handle in the final two seasons of the program, the chemistry between him and Phil Harris remained one of radio’s finest. Even today, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show continues to delight old-time radio fans old and new.

As noted earlier, Elliott Lewis was good at his craft…but he didn’t enjoy it to the extent other actors might.  To relieve the boredom, Lewis began to explore other avenues of expression. He started writing and contributed  scripts to The Whistler and SuspenseSuspense director-producer William Spier began to let Elliott direct broadcasts of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.” (Lewis noted that he’d get the tap whenever the show had a bad script or an uncomfortable situation that required Spier’s attention…who then wound up calling in sick).  By August of 1950, Elliott had assumed the director-producer duties of Suspense (which he maintained until July of 1954). He also served as either director and/or producer on a few other programs, including Broadway’s My BeatCrime Classics (a show he also created), The LineupMr. AladdinOn Stage (on which he performed with wife Cathy Lewis), and Pursuit.  Elliott lightened his workload in the mid-50s but continued to dabble with directorial/writing assignments on one of the medium’s attempts to keep Radio’s Golden Age thriving: The CBS Radio Workshop.  Lewis also played a substantial role in the effort to revive radio drama in the seventies, tackling such projects as The Hollywood Radio Theatre (a.k.a. The Zero Hour) and The Sears Radio Theatre.

As a creature of radio, Elliott Lewis didn’t have much time for movies…but you’ll run into him in features like The Winner’s Circle (1948; which he narrated), The Story of Molly X (1949; featuring wife Cathy), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1951), and Saturday’s Hero (1951).  By 1954, Elliott was bringing his behind-the-camera talents to TV series like Climax!The Court of Last ResortMackenzie’s Raiders, and This Man Dawson.  In the 1960s, Lewis was the producer on shows like The Lucy Show (on which his second wife, Mary Jane Croft, was a regular) and The Mothers-in-Law. He also managed to direct a few episodes of TV favorites like Bat Masterson and Petticoat Junction.  While attempting to apply the paddles to radio in the 1970s, Elliott worked on special writing projects for Paramount Pictures, and his last major contribution to TV before retiring from the business was serving as a script supervisor on NBC’s hit series Remington Steele.  Lewis must have enjoyed the mystery angle of that program, because he penned a few novels himself in retirement (featuring an ex-cop-turned-P.I. named Fred Bennett).  Lewis died of cardiac arrest in 1992 at the age of 72.

Elliott Lewis enjoyed his second career as a novelist “because the writer is the actor, director, producer, wardrobe person, weatherman, location director, stunt and second unit director, crowd handler, transportation gaffer and everything else I’ve ever been around, all rolled up into one person.”  Radio Spirits invites you to sample some of the birthday boy’s “all-rolled-up” talents in collections of Broadway’s My Beat (Dark WhispersGreat White WayThe Loneliest Mile), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), The Lineup (Witness), The Mutual Radio Theatre, and Suspense (Ties That BindWages of Sin).  You can hear Elliott the Actor in sets like Dark VentureThe Halls of Ivy: School Days, Lights Out, EverybodySuspense: Beyond Good and EvilVoyage of the Scarlet Queen: Volume Two, and The Whistler: Skeletons in the Closet.  In addition, here’s plenty of “Mr. Radio” in our Burns & Allen (As Good as Nuts, Illogical LogicMuddling Through) and Jack Benny (Fabulous ‘40sThe Great OutdoorsOn the TownPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesSilly SkitsTough Luck!) compilations.  We’ve saved the best for last: check out The First 20 Episodes, our latest aggregation of broadcasts from The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and from The Fitch BandwagonBuried TreasureA Song and a Smile, and Stepping Out.  Happy birthday to you, Mr. Lewis!

Happy Birthday, Bernard Lenrow!

When the popular radio crime anthology known as The Mollé Mystery Theatre premiered over NBC in the fall of 1943, the host of that series—”annotator” Geoffrey Barnes—was portrayed by an actor named Roc Rogers.  Barnes, who described himself as “the connoisseur of mysteries” (eat your heart out, Thomas Hyland!), served as the audience’s introduction to dramatized tales from the likes of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Chandler…but Rogers quickly relinquished the role of Barnes to another radio veteran born in Binghampton, NY on this date in 1903.  Bernard Lenrow was one of the hardest working thespians in the business, with regular roles on such classic radio programs as Casey, Crime Photographer and The Eternal Light.

Bernard Lenrow was bitten by the acting bug early in life. Educated at Cornell, he did graduate work in speech and dramatics, and later became an instructor at the university’s department of public speaking (not to mention assistant director of Cornell’s dramatic club).  Lenrow later taught speech at New York’s Hunter College before moving on to the University of Iowa where he also served a stint as the director of the Iowa State Players.  Bernard moved comfortably back-and-forth between academia and broadcasting (he had his first radio audition in 1928) before deciding in 1936 to make radio his permanent career.  Encouraged by the fan mail that he received after his commercial radio debut, Lenrow never wanted for work as a freelance actor, narrator, and announcer.

If you were a working radio actor in New York throughout the 1930s/1940s, chances are you spent a lot of time in front of a microphone on daytime dramas.  Bernard Lenrow was no exception; one of his busiest gigs was on the long-running Valiant Lady, on which he portrayed an unscrupulous real estate agent named Carson.  Bernard also emoted on The Road to Life (as Dr. Ollie Ferguson) and Joyce Jordan, M.D. (Dr. Howard Starr). One soap opera that didn’t require him to wear a stethoscope was The Light of the World, which was heard on NBC and CBS from 1940 to 1950. This series was inspired by The Good Book itself (Lenrow played Nebuchadnezzar).  Bernard’s work on World paved the way for one of his longest radio engagements: The Eternal Light, a dramatic anthology that featured both Biblical reenactments and tales of human perseverance.  Light, produced by the Jewish Theological Seminary, ran on radio for over forty years (and transitioned to TV in 1952).

Portraying “Geoffrey Barnes” on Mystery Theatre was undoubtedly Bernard Lenrow’s most recognized radio work…but the actor had regular roles on other series as well.  Bernard played Commissioner Weston for a time on The Shadow and could also be heard as Captain Bill Logan, the police contact for the titular shutterbug of Casey, Crime Photographer.  Lenrow also made recurring appearances on the likes of The Mystery ManDoc Savage, Man of Bronze (a 1943 New York series based on the pulp hero), and Secret Missions, an espionage series that aired on Mutual from 1948 to 1949.  In addition, Bernard’s radio resume includes Adventure AheadThe Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe ChaseDimension XFamous Jury TrialsGreat PlaysThe Hallmark Hall of FameIdeas That Came TrueThe Jack Benny ProgramNew World A’ComingNow Hear ThisThe Silent MenStroke of FateSuspenseVoice of the ArmyWe Came This Way, Words at WarX-Minus OneYou Are There, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Bernard Lenrow’s movie credits include an uncredited bit in 1945’s The House on 92 Street and a somewhat larger role as a judge in The Violators (1957; directed by One Step Beyond’s John Newland).  His small screen resume includes appearances on shows such as Tales of TomorrowOmnibusDecoy, and The Defenders. Clearly, Lenrow was a creature of radio and devoted most of his time to that medium, save for the occasional stage play. (He had impressive showcases in productions of Compulsion [1958] and The Gang’s All Here [1959]).  His appearance in the “Everybody Else is Dead” episode of The Defenders would be his final role before his passing in 1963 at the age of 59.

To celebrate Bernard Lenrow’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to purchase our latest collection of Mollé Mystery Theatre broadcasts: Close Shave.  You’ll also hear Bernard as Commissioner Weston in our Shadow sets Knight of Darkness and Strange Puzzles, and as Captain Bill Logan in our Casey, Crime Photographer compendium Blue Note.  And while we’re on the subject—since your shelf is looking a bit bare—check out Mr. Lenrow in Sherlock Holmes: Well Staged MurderSuspense: Final CurtainX-Minus One: Far Horizons, and our potpourri set Great Radio Horror (with a Mollé Mystery Theatre episode from 1945, “The Beckoning Fair One”).

Happy Birthday, Don Quinn!

The most fortuitous event that occurred in the life of writer-cartoonist Don Quinn—born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on this date in 1900—was meeting Jim Jordan at the studios of Chicago’s WENR.  Jordan, an employee at the station along with his wife Marian, had heard that Quinn wrote jokes for a living and asked him to submit some material for a program on which he and Marian were performing, The Farmer Rusk Hour.  Don received $10 for the jokes he concocted…which may not sound like much, but then again—there was a Depression on.  Yet that sawbuck investment would reap handsome dividends when Quinn created for the couple one of old-time radio’s most beloved comedy shows: Fibber McGee & Molly.

For a man who later made his living as a writer, Don Quinn’s formal schooling was brief—interrupted in tenth grade when he elected to put his studies on hiatus in order to serve in World War I.  Later, Quinn would find work as a freelance cartoonist…but in an unusual twist, the magazines that he sold cartoons to would keep his captions while throwing out his artwork.  His talent for gags attracted the notice of vaudeville duo Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (after establishing himself in radio, Quinn later wrote for their Swift Revue program in 1933-34), who paid Don for his material as did other comics of that era.  With the stock market crash of 1929, however, Quinn’s writing assignments started to dry up.

Don Quinn then decided to relocate to Chicago, the scene of a thriving radio community despite the fierce economic times.  It wasn’t easy for Quinn, who later noted that the Windy City stations treated him “like a leper.”  As such, his meeting Jim Jordan at WENR came just at the right time. Don was called upon to write scripts for The Smith Family, a comedy serial starring Jim and Marian, and was asked to revive an earlier series the couple had appeared on entitled Luke and Mirandy (when Jim and Marian moved to station WMAQ).  On the new series — known as Smackout—The Crossroads of the Air — Jim played Luke Gray, an elderly codger whose general store was always “smack out” of everything, with Marian playing a variety of female characters.  The Jordans earned $200 a week for the daily quarter-hour, with which they paid Don $40.  The trio got a bit of nationwide exposure when Smackout began airing on the national NBC network.  Quinn would eventually churn out a total of 948 scripts for Smackout before it departed the airwaves on August 3, 1935.

Some sources report that the wife of John Jeffry Louis—head of an advertising firm that had S.C. Johnson & Son as a client—was a fan of Smackout and recommended it to her husband when he was looking for a show for Johnson to sponsor.  Others speculate that Louis himself was familiar with the show.  Nevertheless, whoever was listening was clearly able to appreciate both the Jordans’ performing talent and Don Quinn’s genius for witty wordplay, resulting in an offer. Don was given $75 to write a sample script, and the Jordans would star in what eventually became The Johnson Wax Program with Fibber McGee & Molly, which premiered over NBC’s Red Network on April 16, 1935.  In the early years of the program, Fibber and Molly McGee pursued a nomadic life of driving the highways and by-ways of this great country (thanks to the sponsor’s insistence that they promote their product “Carnu”).  With the end of summer, Johnson’s insisted that the McGees switch to hawking “Glo-Coat”…so with the purchase of a winning raffle ticket, the couple put down stakes at radio’s most famous address: 79 Wistful Vista.

On the surface, Fibber McGee & Molly didn’t seem too remarkable a situation comedy (and indeed, some argue it isn’t due to its vaudeville skit-like nature): a husband with a propensity for tall tales (hence the nickname “Fibber”) engaged in constant domestic misadventures with his all-too-patient wife.  But Don Quinn made Fibber & Molly an indisputable comedy classic. His playful way with words (“As the fat lady said as she took off her corset–that lets me out”) and skillful propensity with running gags (Fibber McGee’s famous hall closet is well-known even to those people who’ve never listened to a broadcast) kept audiences coming back week after week. In fact, it was often the number-one rated show during the 1940s (the WW2 years were unquestionably the series’ peak when it came to ratings).  For the most part, Quinn was a one-man writing team, though he did have the occasional assistant in Winsor “Win” Anderson and future Beverly Hillbillies creator Paul Henning. Don wrote in marathon sessions, locking his door and arming himself with sandwiches, a pot of coffee, and two cartons of cigarettes.  (Henning once observed in an interview that he tried to emulate Quinn’s method of writing and it nearly killed him.)

In 1943, Don Quinn started to cede some of his Fibber McGee & Molly writing duties to his protégé Phil Leslie, who would also take over as head writer on a series created by Quinn (featuring a character that had first appeared on Fibber & Molly), The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show.  Because Don had been the sole writer of the Jordans’ program for so many years, he received a heftier paycheck than most radio scribes (as a full partner, he split $6,000 a week three ways with Jim and Marian). When the Jordans sold the rights to their show to NBC (to stave off any “talent raid” from rival CBS), Quinn was included in the package, signing a seven-year exclusive deal with the network.  At the peak of his career, Don Quinn was pulling down $3,000 a week for Fibber McGee & Molly, but in the fall of 1949, he announced he’d be leaving the show to pursue other projects.

That project wound up being The Halls of Ivy, a comedy-drama about the administrator at a small-town college and his wife.  It had originally starred Gale Gordon (a longtime Fibber McGee & Molly cast member) and Edna Best in a June 22, 1949 audition…but by the time it had its official premiere over NBC Radio on January 6, 1950, Ronald Colman and wife Benita Hume were portraying Dr. William Todhunter Hall and his wife Victoria. (The Colmans were likely considered good candidates thanks to their exposure on The Jack Benny Program.)  The Peabody Award-winning series would air on radio until June 25, 1952 and later transition to TV (airing over CBS for a season in the fall of 1954). Quinn would look back fondly on the Ivy experience as one of the best of his life.

In 1953, Don Quinn accepted a position with Young & Rubicam to supervise comedy shows; he also worked as a story editor on the series Four Star Playhouse.  Quinn’s stories were used on such series as Climax! (Don’s “Public Pigeon No. 1” would later be used for a Red Skelton film in 1957) and The Addams Family. In addition, he was briefly credited as a “script consultant” for his former assistant Paul Henning’s hit series Petticoat Junction.  Toward his retirement years, Don ran a commercial production company (he didn’t care for that aspect of the business, complaining about the under-the-table deals and kickbacks) until his passing in 1967 at the age of 67.

“Be fair in all things; don’t offend people; don’t hurt their feelings.  Keep it clean—and keep it friendly—and it will keep you.”  That was Don Quinn’s personal mantra throughout his life and career, and if Radio Spirits’ Fibber McGee & Molly collections are any indication…it certainly served him well.  You can hear why our birthday boy is revered for his incredible skill at comedy writing in such sets as Cleaning the Closet (with liner notes from yours truly!), Gone FishingToo Much Energy, and Wistful Vista.  There are also individual broadcasts of Quinn’s most famous radio contribution available on our potpourri aggregations of Comedy Goes WestGreat Radio Comedy, and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell; in addition, plenty of yuletide Fibber & Molly on Christmas Radio ClassicsRadio’s Christmas Celebrations, and The Voices of Christmas Past.  Finally, keep your eye out for the new The Halls of Ivy: School Days set, available later this month!

Happy Birthday, Frank Readick!

The actor born Frank Winfield Russell Marion Derwent Readick, Jr. (that’s what he called himself in a 1932 issue of Radio Guide) on this date in Seattle, Washington in 1896 was already a performing veteran at the age of two.  Readick traveled with his parents’ covered wagon show, and (in another edition of Radio Guide) he reminisced that the show once trekked through Utah in search of audiences with little success.  The troupe finally came upon a “boom town” and the large population lifted the spirits of Frank’s father. Once they pitched their tents, he started dreaming of hefty box office receipts that would allow him to pay the salaries of his employees.  The next morning, the senior Readick awoke to learn that the entire population of that town—save for twenty people—had left overnight.

When Frank Readick, Jr. joined his parents’ show at The Curtis Theater in Denver, Colorado, he portrayed a character named “Black Crook, Jr.”—he was “a cunning little clown” who’d appear on stage with a donkey and a stein of beer in one hand.  You needn’t worry about anyone contributing to the delinquency of a minor, however; the donkey was trained to kick the stein out of Readick’s hand before the beverage went down his gullet, whereupon a deadpan Frank would then sing When You Make Those Goo-Goo Eyes at Me.  From performing in dance halls in Dawson City, Alaska (where he picked up gold nuggets tossed at him by the audience) Readick made his way to Broadway.  He appeared in productions like Solid Ivory (1925), although much of his stage career found him touring “on the road.” (“Every Ernest Truex show that played New York, I’d play,” he once remarked.)  One of the productions in which he toured was Peter Pan, with actress Maude Adams.  “Who could think a potential Shadow flighty enough to flit around with ‘Peter Pan’?”

Frank Readick’s reference to “the Shadow” was an observation about his most famous radio role. But before playing the sinister figure who knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men, the actor got his start in front of a microphone playing “Happy Jack Lewis” on Hank Simmons’ Show Boat.  Readick was also a regular on The Love Story Hour, an anthology that dramatized tales from a Street and Smith publication. In fact, he and another actor from that show—Teddy Bergman—starred on Joe Palooka, a CBS series inspired by Ham Fisher’s popular comic strip.  (Frank played manager Knobby Walsh, with Bergman—who later changed his name to the more recognizable “Alan Reed”—as Joe.)  Other radio programs that availed themselves of Frank’s talents include Eno Crime Clues (The Eno Crime Club), Dangerous Paradise, and The March of Time.  (Readick was a regular on this last show from its very first broadcast, often playing New York mayor Jimmy Walker and Chicago mayor Anton Cermak.)

Four months after the premiere of The Detective Story Hour in July of 1930, Frank Readick replaced James La Curto (who had landed a Broadway gig) as the omnipresent narrator who would later take over as the series’ protagonist: The Shadow!  Frank played the Shadow when the program became The Blue Coal Radio Revue in September of 1931, and stayed on until the show’s departure in March of 1935. (Street and Smith insisted that the program start to emulate the character depicted in the stories/novels of Walter B. Gibson.)  This wasn’t the end of Readick’s participation on The Shadow, however.  Though the secret identity of “wealthy young man-about-town” Lamont Cranston would be the responsibility of actor Orson Welles beginning in the fall of 1937, Welles—for all his acting talent—was never quite able to reproduce the sinister laugh of the character at the opening and close of each show.  So, previous recordings of Readick’s Shadow laugh were used during Orson’s stint with the series (making Welles the only radio Shadow who didn’t perform the famous signature chortle).  Readick also portrayed the Shadow’s “doppelganger” on a January 19, 1941 broadcast entitled “The Shadow Challenged.”

Frank Readick’s association with Orson Welles didn’t just stop with his helping out the actor in the-Shadow-laughs department.  Readick was one of several thesps who appeared in Welles’ celebrated radio production of Les Miserables in 1937.  In addition, Frank would be called upon to perform on The Mercury Theatre on the Air (in such productions as “Heart of Darkness” and “A Tale of Two Cities”); he’s best-known as doomed reporter Carl Phillips in the celebrated “The War of the Worlds” broadcast.  Readick continued with the program when it became Campbell Playhouse in December of 1938.  Welles would later appear alongside Frank (as “Matthews”) in the 1943 suspense thriller Journey Into Fear.

Frank Readick, it could be said, was a creature of radio. His motion picture resume outside of Journey was pretty skimpy; he didn’t even receive credit for voicing “The Shadow” in the first (1931’s A Burglar to the Rescue) of a short series of two-reel shorts based on the radio program and produced by Universal between 1931 and 1932. (This short was believed to be lost for many years until it was restored and shown to an appreciative Cinecon audience in 2004.)  Radio kept Frank pretty busy; he was the star of Smilin’ Jack, a 1939 Mutual serial based on Zack Mosley’s comic, and later portrayed the titular henpecked protagonist of Meet Mr. Meek, a CBS situation comedy that aired from 1940 to 1942.  Readick’s other radio credits include The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCounterspyFamous Jury TrialsThe FBI in Peace and WarGangbustersMurder at MidnightThe Mysterious TravelerStudio OneSuspense, and Theatre of Romance.

For a time on the daytime drama This is Nora Drake, Frank Readick emoted as “William Arnold”…and his son Robert (one of several actors to play “Johnny Dollar”) worked alongside him at the microphone as “Tom Morely.”  Frank passed away in 1965, but you can still hear the laugh that cemented his radio immortality in the Radio Spirits Shadow collections Bitter FruitDead Men TellKnight of DarknessStrange Puzzles, and The Story of the Shadow.  You can hear our birthday boy flexing his acting muscles a bit more in “One Hundred in the Dark” in our Suspense set of Fear and Trembling…and as the cherry on the top of the sundae, one of his finest radio showcases in the October 20, 1938 “The War of the Worlds” broadcast on The Mercury Theatre on the Air.  Happy birthday, Frank!

Happy Birthday, Parker Fennelly!

It would become one of radio’s most beloved weekly rituals in the late 1940s: comedian Fred Allen would venture into “Allen’s Alley” to ask its inhabitants a topical question about a recent event in the news.  The first door he knocked on was the residence of a windy Southern politician (Senator Beauregard Claghorn) who demonstrated what “filibuster” was all about in his conversations with Fred.  The second door Allen approached was the home of a taciturn New Englander named Titus Moody, who greeted his visitor with a simple “Howdy, bub.”  Titus was played by actor Parker Fennelly—born on this date in 1891—and never was there a more perfect match between performer and character.  Fennelly was New England from his head to his toes, entering the 19th century as a new resident of Northeast Harbor, Maine.

The son of Nathan and Estelle Fennelly, young Parker (kind of hard to imagine Fennelly ever as a young man!) attended primary and high schools in his hometown.  He may not have been a whiz at the three R’s, but when it came to performing in school plays he tackled each role with enthusiasm.  Parker decided early on to pursue an acting career, and with a financial assist from a cousin he was able to attend the Leland T. Powers school in Boston.  During his stint in Beantown, Fennelly became a member of that city’s Toy Theater company. He later found work on the Midland Chautauqua Circuit with the Maud Scheerer Shakespeare Players, followed by a gig with the Jack X. Lewis Stock Company. After marrying his wife Catherine Reynolds in 1918, the couple formed the Parker Fennelly Duo, performing on stage in short plays and readings.

Before greeting Fred Allen each week in his enthusiastic New England manner, Parker Fennelly worked a great deal on the Broadway stage.  He appeared in the casts of Mr. Pitt (1924), The Small Timers(1925), Florida Girl (1925), Babbling Brookes (1927), and Black Velvet (1927).  Even after he became established in radio, Fennelly continued to appear on stage whenever possible, with productions like The County Chairman (1936), Yours, A. Lincoln (1942), Our Town (1944), Happily Ever After (1945), Live Life Again (1945), Loco (1946), and The Southwest Corner (1955) to his credit.  In addition, a story Parker wrote was expanded into play form by George M. Cohan, becoming 1937’s Fulton of Oak Falls. He also wrote Cuckoos on the Hearth, which had a four-month run in 1941 and 1942.  Fennelly even added “director” to his list of credits, with 1931’s Technique.

Parker Fennelly, however, was a creature of radio. In fact, his boss Fred Allen joked in Treadmill to Oblivion that Fennelly had been a man of the medium since “shortly after Marconi had turned his invention loose.” He performed for many years as a partner to Arthur Allen on the long-running Snow Village Sketches (also known as Soconyland Sketches) beginning on NBC in 1928. Allen portrayed the happy-go-lucky Dan’l Dickey and Fennelly was his sterner chum Hiram Neville.  (The show would air on NBC and CBS until 1943, with a revival on Mutual in 1946.)  Parker and Arthur also performed as The Stebbins Boys (of Bucksport Point), though their “Yankee codgers” also went by The Simpson Boys (of Sprucehead Bay).  With Margaret Burlen, Fennelly starred in a 1936-37 CBS series, Ma and Pa. Later, Parker played a similar character opposite Charme Allen in Mother and Dad (heard on CBS between 1942 and 1944).

Parker Fennelly portrayed Mike Hagen on the daytime drama Valiant Lady and emoted on other soap operas such as A House in the CountryMary Foster, the Editor’s DaughterThe Story of Ellen Randolph, and Your Family and Mine.  Fennelly had recurring roles on shows like The Adventures of the Thin Man (he was Sheriff Ebenezer Williams of Crabtree County);  The American School of the AirIt’s MurderBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorPrairie FolksScattergood Baines (the 1949 Mutual reboot) ; and Stand By For Adventure.  In the summer of 1947, Parker was the star of Lawyer Tucker, a CBS comedy-drama about a homespun legal eagle.  He’d follow that with a 1949-50 Mutual sitcom, Mr. Feathers, portraying another homespun codger (though not in the legal profession).

Many of Parker Fennelly’s radio roles, it could be argued, were variations of the laconic, common-sense New Englander that he had essayed on-air over the years (well before he landed his most famous gig as Titus Moody on The Fred Allen Show). Of Moody, Fred remarked: “I liked Titus Moody the best.  I had more fun writing his lines and trying to invent things for the old boy to do than I had working on the others.”  Allen was, of course, a Boston native—“That may account for my attitude toward Mr. Moody.”  In addition to working alongside Fred, Parker joshed along with Jack Benny, Bob Burns, and Alan Young.  Rounding out Fennelly’s radio c.v. are appearances on such shows as The Adventures of SupermanThe Aldrich FamilyBest PlaysBoston BlackieCasey, Crime Photographer, The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCrime Does Not PayFront Page DramaGene Autry’s Melody RanchGrand Central StationGreat PlaysInheritanceListener’s PlayhouseThe MGM Theatre of the AirThe MarriageMeet Corliss ArcherRadio GuildThe Radio Hall of FameSuspenseThe Theatre Guild of the Air, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Parker Fennelly’s first credited film role was in 1949’s Lost Boundaries. After that auspicious debut, he would rack up roles in the likes of The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and It Happened to Jane (1959).  Parker would replace Percy Kilbride (who had retired from the franchise after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident) as “Pa Kettle” in the final “Ma and Pa Kettle” film, The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957).  One of Fennelly’s funniest film turns was in The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966), where he plays another one of his Yankee eccentrics…oblivious to the fact that his wife (Doro Merande) is bound-and-gagged behind him (see the photo at the top of this essay). He’d finish his movie career with roles in the Andy Griffith comedy Angel in My Pocket (1969) and the Don Knotts vehicle How to Frame a Figg (1971).

Andy Griffith was also responsible for Parker Fennelly’s regular TV gig as “Mr. Purdy” in his 1970 series Headmaster. Before that, Parker was always in demand as a guest star on many a small screen favorite like The Phil Silvers ShowFather Knows BestHave Gun – Will Travel, and Route 66.  But for many couch potatoes of my generation, Fennelly is best remembered as the Titus Moody-like spokesman for Pepperidge Farm in commercials he did for the company between the late 50s and early 80s (“Pep’ridge Fahm remembahs”).  It’s only fitting that Parker—so identified as the New England sage who probably spent his spare time whittling on the porch of a feed store—would live to the ripe old age of 96, passing on in 1988.

“Parker Fennelly,” wrote Fred Allen in Treadmill to Oblivion, “in my estimation, is the finest simulator of New England types we have in radio, the theater, in Hollywood or even New England.”  Since I make no secret of my worship of the comedian, I will not argue with him…instead, I recommend you check out Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: Grudge Match—which features a classic Fred Allen Show broadcast that features our birthday boy (“King for a Day” from May 26, 1946).  Radio Spirits also has Fennelly on hand on The Aldrich FamilyBarrie Craig, Confidential Investigator: Song of Death, Boston Blackie: Death WishCasey, Crime Photographer: Blue NoteCrime Does Not Pay, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Medium Rare Matters.  Happy birthday, bub!

“Good night, folks…”

In his essential reference encyclopedia of old-time radio, On the Air, author John Dunning notes that actor William Gargan’s presence on the detective drama Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator “was an interesting bit of typecasting.”  “As a young man he had worked in a real detective office,” Dunning continues, “and had once confessed amusement at the blunders of radio detectives.”  John damns the show that premiered over NBC on this date in 1951 with faint praise, noting that it “seldom rose above B-grade detective fare.”  This is not necessarily a bad thing, speaking as someone who’s watched and listened to more “B-grade detective fare” than Carter has little liver pills.  Here’s the straight dope: with Gargan on board, Barrie Craig was always worth a listen.

Though William Gargan enjoyed a long motion picture career—which included an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his memorable turn in 1940s They Knew What They Wanteda good many of the movies on his resume were known in the industry as “second features” (B-movies), and crime mellerdrammers at that.  (For example, Bill played Ellery Queen in the final three programmers in Columbia’s franchise…and might have appeared in more had he been under contract to the studio.)  On radio, Gargan was also a veteran in the crime business, starring on such shows as Murder Will Out and I Deal in Crime—with his best-known turn before a microphone as the titular gumshoe on Martin Kane, Private Eye.  Bill simultaneously played Kane in the TV version, stepping down only when he became disenchanted with the show’s scripts. (According to Gargan, they were “a vehicle for the meat parade.”)

That brings us to the fall of 1951, with William Gargan set to star in a radio mystery series entitled Barrie Crane, Confidential Investigator.  Yes, that was the character’s original name…but Bill’s old Martin Kane bosses objected, arguing that “Crane” sounded too much like “Kane.”  So the protagonist became “Craig,” and for most of the show’s four-year run, Gargan delivered the goods…even when the plots were not the textbook definition of “inspired.”  When the show’s announcer (future Jeopardy! and Saturday Night Live announcer Don Pardo during the program’s New York period) enthused that listeners would soon hear “another transcribed drama of mystery and adventure with America’s number one detective,” it’s possible that there was some eye-rolling in a few quarters.  (Radio Mirror noted in 1953 that Barrie Craig was “a sucker for a $100 retainer.”)

The strengths of Barrie Craig were with Gargan, of course, but also a dedicated stock company of New York acting talent that included Ralph Bell (as Lt. Travis Rogers, Barrie’s contact on the force), Parker Fennelly (as Jake the elevator operator), Elspeth Eric, Santos Ortega, Arnold Moss, and Amzie Strickland.  Himan Brown, the man who frightened radio listeners with the mere sound of a door in need of oil for its hinges (Inner Sanctum Mysteries), was the director for the series. Scripts were contributed by veterans including Ernest Kinoy, John Roeburt, and Louis Vittes.  Vittes had a gift for eccentric characters and offbeat dialogue, a talent he had previously displayed on the likes of Mr. and Mrs. North and The Adventures of the Thin Man (another Hi Brown show).

The production of Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator migrated to the West Coast after a three-year stint on NBC, allowing members of the “Radio Row” congregation—Betty Lou Gerson, Jack Moyles, Barney Phillips, Virginia Gregg, Vivi Janiss, etc.—to support William Gargan as Barry.  (Parley Baer even does his best “Parker-Fennelly-as-Jake” impression in an August 31, 1954 episode entitled “Hay is for Homicide.”)  In the surviving transcription for “Ghosts Don’t Die in Bed” (09/07/54), you’ll hear Gargan’s pre-recorded remarks for next week’s show (“The Corpse Who Couldn’t Swim”) before announcer John Laing drops this little bombshell: “We regret that with the program you have just heard, we conclude the present Barrie Craig series…we hope you have enjoyed them, and we look forward to bringing them to you again sometime in the not too distant future.”

Laing wasn’t wrong about “the not too distant future,” by the way; “Corpse” would be the focus of Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator when the show resumed on October 3rd.  With his June 30, 1955 broadcast (“The Man Who Didn’t Get Them Wholesale”), Barrie Craig filed for unemployment …though the actor who portrayed him, William Gargan, would reprise his role as the original Martin Kane in a syndicated TV series in 1957 (The New Adventures of Martin Kane) before he lost his voice box to throat cancer.

Radio Spirits has a brand-new collection of Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator broadcasts headed your way in Song of Death, which spotlights the show’s New York years and performers like Jackson Beck, Joan Alexander, and Mandel Kramer.  Keep an eye peeled for it, and for those impatient fans we also have our original release, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, and a Craig show from 1955 (“Visitor at Midnight”) on our compendium of radio’s best gumshoes, Great Radio Detectives.