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Happy Birthday, Staats Cotsworth!

A newspaper man once referred to actor Staats Cotsworth—born in Oak Park, Illinois on this date in 1908—as “the Clark Gable of radio.”  It was one of several nicknames Cotsworth would acquire during his long career in the aural medium — the most fitting being “the busiest actor in radio,” because Staats had emoted before a microphone for an estimated 7,500 broadcasts within a 12-year period alone.  But Staats could also be labeled a true “Renaissance man.” His acting engagements spanned stage, screen (both silver and small), and radio – but he also pursued other artistic interests, including painting, music, and photography. The latter hobby was a side effect from his most famous role as the “ace cameraman who covers the crime news of the great city” on radio’s Casey, Crime Photographer.

Staats Jennings Cotsworth, Jr. wanted to be a painter since childhood, and to achieve that dream he attended the Pennsylvania Museum’s School of Industrial Art.  After receiving his diploma, Staats journeyed to Paris for more instruction at the Académie Colarossi.  He returned to the States a few years later where, according to his first wife Muriel Kirkland Cotsworth, he illustrated several books before receiving a commission to paint murals in some Washington bowling alleys.  It was only after he returned to New York (it was difficult to sell paintings during the Great Depression) that Cotsworth heard “the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd” and decided that an actor’s life was for him. He began as a member of Eve LeGalliene’s Civic Repertory Theatre, where he appeared in Alice in Wonderland (as The Mad Hatter) and Hedda Gabler.  (Two of Staats’ fellow thespians in this troupe were Burgess Meredith and Parker Fennelly.)

It was Abby Lewis who noticed that Staats Cotsworth had a fine voice, and introduced him to some people in the radio industry. Soon, he was playing Jeff Taylor on the daytime drama Pepper Young’s Family.  Since many “soaps” were heard five days a week—and since Cotsworth worked on a lot of them—this explains how he was able to run up that 7,500 broadcasts number mentioned earlier.  Staats appeared on the likes of Amanda of Honeymoon Hill (as Edward Leighton), Big Sister (Dr. John Wayne), Lone Journey (Wolfe Bennett), Ma Perkins (Gideon Harris), Marriage for Two (Roger Hoyt), The Right to Happiness (Alex Delavan), and When a Girl Marries (Phil Stanley). He also made the rounds on Lorenzo JonesThe Second Mrs. BurtonStella Dallas, and The Story of Mary Martin.  Cotsworth’s most famous daytime gig was portraying the titular reporter on Front Page Ferrell, a role that he held longer than any other actor. (The character had been played in the program’s early run by Richard Widmark.)

His work as the muckraking Ferrell no doubt allowed Staats Cotsworth to move seamlessly into the part of Casey on Crime Photographer, a detective drama that spotlighted the investigative exploits of a shutterbug employed by The Morning Express.  Each week, our hero lubricated himself at a dive called The Blue Note—where he hung out with reporter girlfriend Annie Williams and jawed with sardonic bartender Ethelbert.  A favorite of listeners between 1943 and 1955, Casey, Crime Photographer was just one of several radio jobs that kept Staats busy. He could also be heard as Lt. Weigand on Mr. and Mrs. North; district attorney Sam Howe on Roger Kilgore, Public Defender; Major Hugh North on The Man from G-2, and the titular heroes on Inspector Thorne and Mark Trail.

A 1948 Newsweek article on Staats Cotsworth (humorously entitled “Cotsworth in the Chips”) gave the game away as to how well-compensated the actor was for his hectic broadcasting schedule.  After a few Casey-style cocktails, Staats let slip enough information to the reporter that allowed any accountant worth his/her salt to estimate that the radio thespian had a weekly income of $1,000—a considerable sum at that time.  (For example, Cotsworth was pulling down $250 weekly in his capacity as Casey, Crime Photographer alone.)  When asked why he continued to act on daytime dramas, Staats matter-of-factly replied: “Giving up a daytime show is like turning in your insurance policy.”  A sample of Cotsworth’s radio resume would include such shows as Best PlaysThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe ChaseCrime ClubDimension XThe Ford TheatreGrand Central StationGreat PlaysThe March of TimeThe MGM Theatre of the Air, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost PersonsThe Mysterious TravelerThe NBC Star PlayhouseRocky FortuneRogue’s GallerySecret MissionsThe ShadowThe Silver TheatreThe Sportsmen’s ClubThe Theatre Guild on the AirWords at War, You are There, and You Make the News.

As you can probably gather from the preceding paragraph, Staats Cotsworth didn’t let any grass grow under his feet where radio was concerned…so it’s not too surprising that the movies in which he appeared—That Night! (1957), Peyton Place (1957), They Might Be Giants (1971)—were made long after radio was giving way to TV.  Cotsworth would do quite a bit of small screen work (playing judges and other authority figures), appearing on shows like The DefendersDr. Kildare, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  In addition, he returned to what many have said was his true love—the stage, where he appeared in productions of Advise and Consent (1960) and The Right Honourable Gentleman (1965).  Staats would never abandon the medium that rewarded him the most, however; he appeared on shows that closed out Radio’s Golden Age (like The CBS Radio Workshop and X-Minus One) and on attempts to keep radio alive (like The Eternal Light and Theatre Five).  One of his final performing jobs would be on The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre before his death in 1979 at the age of 71.

An obituary for Staats Cotsworth in The St. Petersburg Times noted that he was “an accomplished painter of oils and watercolors” and was even listed in the current edition of Who’s Who in American Art.  But here at Radio Spirits, we remember today’s birthday boy for his lofty accomplishments in the ether, beginning with his trademark role as Casey, Crime Photographer in the collection Blue Note.  Check out Mr. Cotsworth also in Crime ClubDimension X: Adventures in Time & SpaceThe Mysterious Traveler: Dark DestinyWords at War, and X-Minus One: Time and Time Again.  Our Stop the Press! compendium features a pair of Casey, Crime Photographer broadcasts from 1947, and on Great Radio Science Fiction, Cotsworth is among the cast in a two-part adaptation of Frederick Pohl’s classic “The Space Merchants” from The CBS Radio Workshop.  Happy birthday, Staats!

Happy Birthday, Joseph Kearns!

In the 1950s, with technological strides being embraced by the dying medium of radio, the Columbia Broadcasting System started using Hammond electric organs for “fill music” on their broadcast programs.  The Hammond was smaller and far less expensive, and it would allow CBS to rid itself of a colossal Wurlitzer theatrical organ the network already had on hand, packed away after being purchased from Warner Brothers.  The Wurlitzer was headed for the scrapyard…until an actor named Joseph Kearns—born on this date in 1907 in Salt Lake City, Utah—made CBS a cash offer for the instrument.  Joe experienced a temporary setback once he remembered that he had no place to put the Wurlitzer—Kearns was a lifelong bachelor who called various studio apartments home. So in the tradition of “if the mountain will not come to Muhammad,” Joe designed a two-and-a-half story house to be built around the enormous organ.  With pipes built into the walls, and the console the showpiece of his living room, Joseph was able to indulge himself in one of his favorite hobbies in his downtime, often making the rafters at Chez Kearns ring.

If Joseph Sherrard Kearns’ parents had their way, young Joe would have abandoned all those silly notions of show business once he shed childhood.  His mother Cordelia was partly to blame; a pianist and organist, she instilled in her son a lifelong love of music (despite the family’s strict Mormon upbringing).  But at the age of nine, Joseph was traveling with a kiddie troupe in vaudeville until his parents sent him to a school (for “precocious children”) in San Diego a year later.  Kearns would eventually graduate from the University of Utah with a degree in music. Although he continued to fuel the fire of his performing ambitions with part-time work as a motion picture organist, his father (Joseph Albert) insisted that he take a position in the Boston-based wool company that employed the senior Kearns as a buyer.

Joe Kearns’ career in the wool business was short and sweet.  He purchased $8,000 worth of Karakul wool and shipped it back to the company…only to learn that the wool was black and could not be dyed. Kearns soon left that industry and, with his father’s blessing, found work with a California theatrical company. This first official step in his acting career found him doing what such stock players do best: playing any kind of role, and educating himself in the ways of the theatre.  One thing that Joseph learned early on is that leading men may come and go, but the character actors reliably add spice to any play and ensure a production’s success.

In addition to developing into a fine character actor, Joseph Kearns had a fine voice that was perfect for the burgeoning medium of radio.  His early broadcast days found him performing in all manner of plays for Los Angeles’ KHJ as a member of that station’s stock company. He later moonlighted on any number of transcribed programs from Hollywood studios.  One of his well-known jobs from this transcription era was on The Cinnamon Bear, a Yuletide serial that continues to delight listeners today.  Joe co-starred as the Crazy Quilt Dragon, alongside a cast of true radio veterans. With the gradual migration of network programs from New York to Hollywood, Joseph never wanted for acting work—appearing on such favorites as Big TownDr. ChristianHollywood HotelThe Lux Radio TheatreThe Silver Theatre, and White Fires of Inspiration.

The 1940s would find Joseph Kearns at his busiest.  He had a regular weekly appointment on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” in the early broadcast years of Suspense as the show’s unofficial host, “The Man in Black.”  Even after Joe turned in his somber clothing, nary a Suspense broadcast aired where he wasn’t playing a role in some capacity, and he continued to be heard on the show throughout the 1950s.  Kearns would revisit his “Man in Black” persona by playing The Whistler in that series’ early broadcasts.  Joseph made the rounds on many of the major anthology programs in that era, notably The Cavalcade of AmericaThe ClockFavorite StoryThe Ford TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TimeMystery in the Air, The Philip Morris PlayhouseScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Famous Radio Players.

Joseph Kearns had certainly earned his dramatic chops…but he demonstrated a knack for comedy acting as well.  He played Melvin Foster, the father of the titular teen on A Date with Judy in the program’s early years. On The Mel Blanc Show, he was the star’s would-be father-in-law, convinced that his daughter Betty could do much, much better.  Kearns played a variety of roles on The Judy Canova Show (notably as the eccentric Benchley Botsford), and worked on shows headlined by George Burns & Gracie Allen, Rudy Vallee, and Joan Davis (as “Pops” on Leave It to Joan).  Joseph was a member-in-good-standing of the stock company on The Jack Benny Program, where he famously played Ed, the poor soul who had the unenviable job of guarding the star’s money-filled vault. (It was intimated that Ed had been in Jack’s vault for so long that he had very little knowledge of 20th century culture.)  Joe also appeared on such favorites as The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietA Day in the Life of Dennis DayFibber McGee & MollyThe Great GildersleeveThe Life of Riley, and My Favorite Husband.

Joseph Kearns also had the comic relief assignment on Let George Do It as Caleb, the elevator operator in the building where George Valentine received the “full details” of his assignments.  Rounding out the actor’s radio resume in the 1940s are gigs with The Adventures of Sam SpadeBox 13Broadway’s My BeatThe Count of Monte CristoEllery QueenEscapeLights OutMayor of the Town, The New Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Railroad HourRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveThe Roy Rogers Show, and The Story of Dr. Kildare.

Joseph Kearns’ first film credit was 1951’s Hard, Fast and Beautiful...although if you’re a sharp-eared listener, you can hear Joe’s voice on the radio in the 1947 feature The Hucksters.  The actor had another recognizable vocal gig in 1951, as The Doorknob in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.  Throughout the 1950s, Kearns appeared in such movies as Daddy Long Legs (1955), Storm Center (1956), The Girl Most Likely (1957), The Gift of Love (1958), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  Joseph was probably better known for his extensive work on the small screen; he made the transition to Jack Benny’s TV show and the video version of Our Miss Brooks (reprising his radio role as school superintendent Edgar T. Stone). He also had regular roles and guest appearances on the likes of December BrideThe George Burns & Gracie Allen ShowI Love LucyHow to Marry a Millionaire, and Professional Father.

While juggling movies and TV, Joseph Kearns kept up with his hectic radio pace—appearing on such shows as Amos ‘n’ AndyCrime ClassicsFamily TheatreThe General Electric TheatreThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Halls of IvyThe Harold Peary Show (as Doc “Yak-Yak” Yancy), Life with Luigi, The Line-UpMr. PresidentOn StageThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye ShowPresenting Charles BoyerPursuitRogers of the GazetteRomance, and Tales of the Texas Rangers.  Kearns was even around for many of the last great network radio dramas like The CBS Radio WorkshopFort Laramie, Frontier GentlemanGunsmokeHave Gun – Will Travel, Luke Slaughter of Tombstone, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. None of these acting gigs apparently interfered with the TV show for which Baby Boomers remember Joe best—Dennis the Menace, a sitcom based on Hank Ketcham’s popular comic strip.  Though his role as fastidiously fussy neighbor George Wilson was originally going to be just a recurring one…the chemistry between Joe and star Jay North was unbeatable, and he continued as a regular until he was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage in the series’ third season at the age of 55.

As for that “mighty Wurlitzer” I mentioned at the start of this essay…well, after a long period of neglect (owing to Joe’s passing) the new owners of Kearns’ “estate” sold it to the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield, Ohio in 1985—where it continues to entertain film and concert audiences of a new generation.  We’re doing our part to ensure that generations of old-time radio fans are able to experience the acting talents of our birthday boy with our many collections featuring his work.  As an appetizer, enjoy Mr. Kearns in one of his signature roles (“The Man in Black”) in the Suspense sets Beyond Good and EvilFear and TremblingTies That Bind, and Wages of Sin.  We’ll then cleanse your palate with some comedy, including Joe’s supporting turns in The Harold Peary Show: Honest Harold and the Our Miss Brooks compendiums Boynton BluesFaculty Feuds, and Good English.  You can also chuckle at Mr. Kearns on Neighbors, a collection of broadcasts featuring The Great Gildersleeve. In addition, we’ve got Joseph Kearns emoting on Gunsmoke (Around Dodge CityKillers & SpoilersSnakebiteThe Round-Up); The Whistler (Eleventh HourSkeletons in the ClosetVoices); and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Fabulous FreelanceFatal MattersThe Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMurder MattersMysterious MattersWayward Matters). Plus there are single sets of Big Town (Blind Justice), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Fort Laramie (Volume Two), Frontier GentlemanGreat Radio Science FictionHave Gun – Will Travel (Blind Courage), Let George Do It (Sweet Poison), Lights Out (Lights Out, Everybody), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Mayhem is My Business), and Romance.  But we mustn’t forget the main course: endless helpings of The Jack Benny Program (Be Our Guest, Fabulous 40sThe Fabulous 50sJack Benny & FriendsOn the TownPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesSilly SkitsTough Luck!, and Wit Under the Weather)!  (I hope we didn’t serve up too much…good thing we have doggie bags on hand!)

Happy Birthday, Chester Lauck!

On April 26, 1936, the small Arkansas town of Waters officially changed its name to Pine Ridge.  It wasn’t because they were on the lam from the law or ducking creditors, however—the inspiration came from the popular radio comedy serial Lum and Abner. The fictional hamlet on that show was based on Waters…so the town decided to make it official in tribute.  Lum and Abner was the creation of two men who performed on stage for fun after their regular nine-to-five jobs. The show that they developed premiered on Hot Springs’ KTHS in 1931 and was soon picked up by the National Broadcasting Company for the benefit of coast-to-coast audiences.  The long-running program would bring fame and fortune to Findley Norris “Tuffy” Goff and Chester Harris Lauck—the latter born on this date in Alleene, Arkansas in 1902.

Chet Lauck was born the son of William J. and Cora Lauck, who moved their family to Mena, Arkansas in 1911.  It was there that Lauck met his future partner, Norris Goff. Both the Lauck and Goff families were quite prominent in Mena, and the duo cemented that lifelong tie by cutting up in school and later performing at various venues in the area (they did a blackface act).  Chet’s performing ambitions no doubt proved to be a disappointment to his father, who wanted him to take on the family business (banking and lumber).  Instead, Lauck enrolled in the University of Arkansas after graduating from Mena High School in 1920. He majored in business and art, and was the editor of the university’s humor magazine, White Mule.

When partner Norris Goff wasn’t toiling away in his father’s business (a wholesale general merchandise warehouse), he joined Chester Lauck (the manager of a finance company) in entertaining friends and audiences with comedy routines.  The duo had planned to perform at a benefit at KTHS in Hot Springs in 1931…but to their dismay, all of the other comedy acts were going to do blackface (because of the popularity of radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy).  To stand out from the rest of the imitators, Lauck and Goff decided to switch to one of their “fellers-from-the-hills” routines, and the audience reception was remarkable.  Chet and Norris were hired by KTHS to continue in that capacity and, two months later, a successful audition for sponsor Quaker Oats would earn them a berth on NBC’s schedule.  In its twenty-three-year run on radio, Lum and Abner would be heard on all four major networks (NBC, CBS, Mutual, and NBC Blue [which later became ABC]).

Lum and Abner were, respectively, Columbus Edwards (pronounced “Eddards”) and Abner Peabody. The two lovable old codgers owned and operated the “Jot ‘Em Down Store” in the peaceful little Arkansas burg of Pine Ridge.  Their world was a small but lively (and funny) one, filtered through the sensibilities of what their creators affectionately called “hill people.” (They didn’t care for the term “hillbilly.”)  Chet Lauck played Lum, the somewhat more sensible half of the duo, but he was not strictly in the role of “straight man”—he got just as many laughs as his partner-in-crime. He also performed as dimwitted Cedric Weehunt, cantankerous Milford “Grandpappy” Spears, and tough guy Snake Hogan.  Lum and Abner shared some similarities with Amos ‘n’ Andy; both series concentrated on dialect humor, with a slight sprinkling of soap opera elements. However, Lum and Abner eschewed Amos ‘n’ Andy’s true-to-life depiction of the Depression in favor of an absurdist escapism.

In addition to their own program, Chet Lauck and Norris Goff would frequently appear as “Lum and Abner” on various radio charity broadcasts and on shows like Command PerformanceThe Kraft Music HallMail CallThe Radio Hall of Fame, and Sealtest Variety Theatre.  They received a warm welcome whenever they appeared as guests on shows headlined by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, and Paul Whiteman.  March 12, 1945 found them as the main attraction on The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, where that evening’s broadcast was a reworking of their 1943 feature film, So This is Washington.  Beginning in 1940 with Dreaming Out Loud, Lum and Abner were major motion picture stars in a series of productions under independent producer Jack Votion. Their final vehicle, Partners in Time, would be released to theatres in 1946.

Chester Lauck and Norris Goff would appear in one more Lum and Abner feature film entitled Lum and Abner Abroad in 1956—a film that was actually three TV pilots that were stitched together after none of the episodes attracted any sponsors.  Lum and Abner would complete their lengthy radio run in 1954, and Lauck and Goff decided to officially retire a year later.  Chet managed to keep busy; he made appearances on To Tell the Truth (as a contestant!) and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. In fact, for years afterward, he reprised his “Lum” role in his capacity as vice-president of public relations for Conoco Oil.  In the 1970s, when Lum and Abner was rerun on radio stations (as a result of “the nostalgia boom”), Lauck recorded new introductions for those classic episodes.  Chet passed away in 1980 at the age of 78.

I have mentioned so many times in past essays that listening to Lum and Abner during their 70s revival was my introduction to old-time radio, and one of my greatest pleasures in life is being able to slap a cassette or CD into the player to hear “what’s going on down in Pine Ridge.”  Radio Spirits is only too eager to help scratch my Lum and Abner itch, with nine volumes available spotlighting broadcasts that originally aired between 1942-44.  You’ll also find a half-hour broadcast (the comedic duo appeared on CBS in this format from 1948 to 1950) in our all-star mirthmakers compendium Great Radio Comedy.  Happy birthday, Chet!

Happy Birthday, Bennett Kilpack!

During his long-running stint as the titular sleuth on Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, actor Bennett Kilpack—born William Bennett Kilpack on this date in 1883 in Long Melford, Suffolk in the United Kingdom—was so well identified as the “kindly old investigator” that much of his fan mail from loyal listeners was addressed simply to his character’s name.  Those letters came from all walks of life, from teenage girls looking for assistance in finding vanished boyfriends to more serious-minded folk whose spouses (or other relatives) may have gone out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back.  Kilpack’s second wife, Dorothy Young Schisler Kilpack, remembered in a 1949 Radio Mirror essay that there was once “a letter from the Middle West which enclosed, carefully wrapped in waxed paper, twenty-five four-leaf clovers, and one five-leaf—’to bring you continued good luck, dear Mr. Keen, in tracing lost persons and bringing murderers to the bar of justice.’”  Saints preserve us!

Bennett Kilpack, the son of minister William Gilbert Kilpack and Maria Theresia Hennequin, didn’t relocate to this side of the pond until 1908. Prior to this move, his ambition to be an actor manifested itself early on with avid participation in plays performed at the London Oratory School.  So why, upon entering college at Finsbury Technical, did he choose as his vocation electrical engineering?  It seems that Father Kilpack had a poor opinion of the theatrical profession. His son later recalled that his father “gave me to understand that a Kilpack as an actor was a Kilpack better dead!”  Bennett emigrated to Canada to apprentice in a locomotive factory, and later became an engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal.

Kilpack would eventually take up stage work after a search for engineering jobs in the U.S. proved fruitless.  His first acting gig would find him playing Cassio in Othello, but his time on the stage (appearing in productions of Samson and Kismet) would be temporarily interrupted by World War I. When he enlisted in Canada’s Royal Flying Corps, he was made head of the salvage department at a flying field due to his engineering background.  Once demobbed, Bennett returned to acting, securing work with Sir Philip Ben Greet’s Shakespearean troupe.  He would also grace the casts of several Broadway productions, among them Thursday Evening (which he also directed) and Hot Pan.

Bennett Kilpack’s introduction to the medium that made him famous came in 1927, when he played the male lead in an early radio serial called The Wayward Inn.  Radio impresario Phillips H. Lord cast Bennett as Cephus Peters in his popular Sunday Night at Seth Parker’s program, and later made use of the actor’s talents on Gang Busters.  Kilpack’s work on Seth Parker garnered him his sole movie credit, as he reprised his role of Cephus in the 1931 feature Way Back Home.  According to his obituary in the New York Times (upon his passing in 1962), he recommended Bette Davis for a part in that film, which became one of her earliest silver screen showcases.

On radio, Kilpack also made the rounds on such shows as Dr. ChristianThe GoldbergsGrand Central StationRadio GuildRipley’s Believe It or NotThe Shadow, and Vanished Voices.  In addition, Bennett worked on many daytime dramas; he starred as the small-town druggist struggling to keep a watchful eye on his three offspring on CBS’ Doc Barclay’s Daughters, and had substantial roles on David Harum (as James Benson), Hilltop House, and Young Widder Brown (Uncle Josh).  The role that kept our birthday boy the busiest, however, was Mr. Keen.

Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons premiered on NBC Blue as a thrice-weekly quarter-hour that aired in the evenings. It sported a few “soap opera” trappings owing to the fact that it was produced by Anne and Frank Hummert, whose radio “suds factory” was responsible for such shows as Ma Perkins and Our Gal Sunday.  In the early serialized years of the show, Mr. Keen (he apparently never bothered to hunt for his first name) diligently tracked down missing individuals, hired to do so by their friends or family members.  Keen was assisted by Mike Clancy, an Irish bodyguard who wouldn’t be bringing potato salad to the MENSA picnic anytime soon, but nevertheless was the subject of Mr. Keen’s infinite patience and loyalty.

The program’s format switch to a weekly half-hour in the fall of 1944 (it had jumped networks to CBS a year earlier) found Keen and Clancy in more of a murder investigation mode (as opposed to the missing persons racket). Mr. Keen continued to be quite popular with radio listeners…even if some of the methods the duo employed might have raised the antennae of the ACLU.  As I noted in a 2015 essay on Keen’s anniversary: “They rarely reported any of their conversations with witnesses and/or suspects to the police; they trampled crime scenes with little regard for search warrants—they even snatched up objects in evidence, contaminating them with their fingerprints. Keen was even able to arrest the guilty party at the end of each episode, despite having no authority to make such collars.“  But hey—it’s a radio crime drama, not a documentary! Kilpack would play Mr. Keen until 1950…and in 1962, left this world for a better one after succumbing to cancer at the age of 79.

Our 4-CD history of The ShadowThe Story of The Shadow—features a March 30, 1938 broadcast (“The White Legion”). The legendary Orson Welles stars as the invisible hero, but you’ll also hear Bennett Kilpack among that episode’s supporting cast.  Radio Spirits also invites you to check out Celebrated Cases, an 8-CD set with sixteen vintage broadcasts from the show that generated all that fan mail for Mr. Kilpack: Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.  Happy birthday, Bennett!

“The Green Hornet strikes again!”

Though most people remember veteran newsman Mike Wallace from his long-running stint on the television investigative news program 60 Minutes (from 1968 to 2008), old-time radio fans know that Wallace—often using his real name of “Myron”—served as an announcer on such programs as  Curtain TimeA Life in Your Hands, and Spotlight Revue (the variety show starring Spike Jones and His City Slickers).  Wallace also worked as an announcer on Sky King; he had an association with several juvenile-oriented programs during his broadcast career (Ned Jordan, Secret AgentThe Adventurers’ Club)—but perhaps none so famous as the program which premiered over Detroit’s WXYZ on this date in 1936: The Green Hornet.

WXYZ station owner George W. Trendle, anxious to duplicate his success with The Lone Ranger series, decided to create a new hero..  The legend goes that Trendle became obsessed with the concept of a hornet after spending a sleepless night in a hotel room in which just such an insect was trapped…and constantly buzzing. Since The Hornet had been appropriated for a previous radio series, it was decided that adding a color to the title would do the trick. Green, of course.

From its debut, listeners couldn’t help but notice that there were a number of similarities between “the daring and resourceful Masked Rider of the Plains” and the modern-day vigilante who “hunts the biggest of all game—public enemies who try to destroy our America!”  The Ranger’s mode of transportation was “the great horse Silver!” and the Hornet tooled around in a souped-up automobile known as the “Black Beauty.”  The Lone Ranger was accompanied by his trusty Potawatomi sidekick Tonto and the Green Hornet’s aide-de-camp was his faithful Filipino valet Kato. (More than just performing as a “gentleman’s gentleman,” Kato was schooled in chemistry—his boss’ gas gun and smokescreens were among his inventions—and was most adept at the art of physical combat.  In addition, Kato was frequently behind the wheel of the Beauty, zipping up and down city streets with the greatest of ease.)

The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet also shared classical music based theme music…though this can be explained by the fact that using tunes in the public domain meant that WXYZ didn’t have to pay anyone royalties.  Just as it’s difficult to hear Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking of the Ranger astride his steed and Tonto by his side, I defy you to listen to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and not picture the Hornet and Kato in the Black Beauty chasing down bad guys.  Perhaps the most telling parallel between the masked heroes is that both men operated outside the law and were often mistaken for the very villains they sought to apprehend.  In the Lone Ranger’s case, any suspicions that he might be an outlaw could quickly be dispelled by his producing a sample silver bullet.  For the Green Hornet…it was a tougher exercise.

You see, when he wasn’t donning the Hornet gear, our masked hero was Britt Reid—the editor of big city newspaper The Daily Sentinel.  Though Reid could wield influence through his paper, he felt it necessary to take on corruption by posing as the shadowy figure who quickly became the subject of many a Sentinel front page story.  The Hornet’s “outlaw” status gave him an advantage when it came to mixing with underworld figures and other disreputable types…but the trade-off was that law enforcement personnel were convinced that the Hornet was every bit as dangerous as the evildoers he was trying to bring down.

Besides Kato, not many people knew that Britt Reid and The Green Hornet were one and the same. Lenore “Casey” Case, Britt’s loyal secretary, was one of the few exceptions; it took her a few years to put two and two together, but she eventually figured out Reid’s secret.  One individual who would never make the connection—even if Britt wore a sign reading “Yes, I am the Green Hornet”—was Mike Axford, an ex-cop hired by Reid’s father to be Britt’s personal bodyguard.  Axford, an excitable Irishman whose favorite expression was “Sufferin’ snakes!”, eventually become a reporter on the paper (he worked the police beat). He joined other Sentinel employees, like city editor Bill Gunnigan, crack reporter Ed Lowery, and ace photographer Clicker Binney.

Oh, there was one other noteworthy individual who had the skinny on Britt Reid’s alter-ego…and that was Britt’s elderly father, Dan Reid.  If that name sounds familiar…it’s because Dan was the nephew of The Lone Ranger, who rode with the Masked Man during those crimefighting days “in the early Western United States.”  The connection between the Ranger and the Hornet was slowly developed throughout the years, and finally came to a boil with an October-November 1947 story arc (available on the Radio Spirits collection Generations) that cemented the ties between the hard-riding hero of yesteryear and his modern-day counterpart.

Actor Al Hodge—who later achieved boob tube fame as Captain Video—played the Green Hornet in the program’s early years. He became so well-known as the voice of the crimefighter that when Universal brought the Hornet to the silver screen in a 1940 serial they dubbed the actor playing the Hornet (Gordon Jones) with Hodge’s voice.  A. Donovan Faust and Robert Hall also portrayed the masked hero, with Jack McCarthy taking the final shift in the lead role until the show left the airwaves on December 5, 1952.  The Green Hornet has become firmly ingrained in American pop culture, with movie adaptations (a second Hornet serial in 1940 and a rightly-panned feature film in 2011) and a 1966-67 TV series…not to mention comic books, a comic strip, toys, and other merchandising items.

Here at Radio Spirits, we’re in the vintage broadcasts business…and we’ve got plenty of sets on hand for fans of the original radio program.  In addition to Generations, we invite you to while away the hours listening to The Big DealCity Hall ShakeupFights Crime!Night FlightSting of JusticeUnderworld, and (appropriately, considering the title of this blog post) The Green Hornet Strikes Again! Happy anniversary to “that no-good spalpeen, the Har-nut” and remember: our daring young punisher and Kato match wits with the Underworld, risking their lives “so that criminals and racketeers within the law may feel its weight by the sting of the Green Hornet!”

Happy Birthday, Portland Hoffa!

It pains me to have to say this…but I have heard from many an old-time radio devotee that Portland Hoffa—born on this date in 1905—is an acquired taste.  Her trademark high-pitched voice as husband Fred Allen’s favorite stooge (Portland jokingly referred to herself as a “wooge”) on his long-running radio program has been known to alienate both fans and would-be fans.  In their defense, these individuals have company; the wife of one of Fred’s sponsors once lobbied heavily to have Portland removed from Allen’s program, finding her annoying.  In a letter to an agency vice-president, Allen laid down the law (in his trademark lowercase style):  “you tell him that portland is my wife, that she makes my life livable, and that her presence on the show is not a matter of negotiation.  we are a family and we work as a family.  if he doesn’t want mrs. allen, he doesn’t want mr. allen.  i’m telling you and you tell him—never mention this subject to me again.”

The woman who would become Portland Hoffa Allen acquired her birth name because she was born in that Oregon city—likewise, her siblings went by Lebanon, Cortland, and Harlem.  (The exception was her youngest sister Lastone—pronounced “Last-un”—because her parents decided enough was enough.)  Though born in The Beaver State, Portland grew up in Jamaica, NY, where she attended school and was more interested in basketball and archery than the three R’s.  Before she reached voting age, Hoffa secured work on Broadway as a stage performer in productions like The Mimic World (1921) and Make It Snappy (1922).  It was in The Passing Show of 1922 that she would meet Fred Allen. She would also appear in Marjorie (1924), Tell Me More (1925), and George White’s Scandals of 1926 before tying the knot with Allen in 1927.  (The Allens would appear together in the successful stage revues The Greenwich Village Follies of 1925-26The Little Show [1929] and Three’s a Crowd [1930].)

Portland Hoffa would also accompany Fred on his various vaudeville engagements. It was not uncommon for husband-and-wives to team up together in those days, as witnessed by the success of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Jim and Marian Jordan, etc.  When network radio expressed an interest in Fred’s comedy with the CBS Radio premiere of The Linit Bath Club Revue on October 23, 1932, Portland would sign on as his sidekick.  She would be billed as “Portland Hoffa” on the air, but her character differed from her real-life persona as Mrs. Allen. Hoffa was a slightly daffy young girl, filled with enthusiasm and always anxious to read a letter from home (both Gracie Allen and Mary Livingstone played similar characters on their radio shows).  Portland would exuberantly greet Fred with “Mis-ter Allen!  Mis-ter Allen!” prompting her husband to respond along the lines of “Well, as I try to make both ends meet in this tight vest—if it isn’t Portland!”  (Hoffa’s actual voice was soft and gentle; Fred often speculated that Portland’s on-air squeak was born out of mike fright and it was kept that way because it was popular.)

With each incarnation of Fred Allen’s program—The Salad Bowl RevueThe Sal Hepatica RevueThe Hour of Smiles—Portland maintained her “wooge” duties. She continued in that capacity when the Allen show took on its most popular 1930s form, the hour-long Town Hall Tonight.  In the 1940s, when Fred’s program reverted back to a half-hour, Hoffa was faithfully by her husband’s side…and whenever she would ask after his monologue “Shall we go?” the audience knew there would be a trip down “Allen’s Alley.”  Portland was also in support of Fred whenever he would guest on the likes of Command Performance and The Radio Hall of Fame, and on shows showcasing the talents of Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen, and his “feuding” nemesis Jack Benny.  The Fred Allen Show would acknowledge its final curtain call on June 26, 1949, a casualty of both declining ratings and Fred’s health problems.

In the fall of 1950, when Fred Allen became a semi-regular on NBC’s The Big Show, Portland Hoffa became a semi-regular as well.  One of the couple’s most delightful guest appearances was on an April 12, 1952 broadcast of The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, where Portland uncharacteristically sang Sweet Marie…accompanied by Fred on banjo.  Hoffa would also be in attendance during Allen’s forays on the small screen like The Colgate Comedy Hour and All Star Revue.  When the October 17, 1954 edition of Omnibus featured a segment on Fred’s recently-published Treadmill to Oblivion, Portland was reunited with former Allen Show players Kenny Delmar, Parker Fennelly, Peter Donald, and Peter Van Steeden.  And when Fred Allen became a regular on the popular panel show What’s My Line, the February 27, 1955 telecast made use of Portland as that evening’s “Mystery Guest.”

When Fred Allen passed away in 1956, Portland Hoffa retreated from show business. In 1959, she married bandleader Joe Rines, who later became an advertising executive.  She gathered up a large portion of her first husband’s famous correspondence and saw it published as Fred Allen’s Letters in 1965. (She appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that same year to promote the book in what would be one of her last TV appearances).  Rines died in 1986, two years after Portland celebrated the second of two silver wedding anniversaries. Hoffa-Allen-Rines would leave this world for a better one in 1990.

James Thurber, a good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Allen, memorably observed to Portland that “everything you and Fred said to each other was somehow akin to The Sweetheart Duet from Maytime.”  I make no secret of my love for both Fred and today’s birthday girl, and Radio Spirits features several of their most memorable broadcasts from the 1930s on the must-own CD collection Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud.  Portland and her husband are also guests on the Jack Benny sets Be Our Guest and On the Town, and you’ll hear classic Fred Allen Show broadcasts on our potpourri compilations of Comedy Out West and Great Radio Comedy.  Shall we go?

Happy Birthday, Danny Kaye!

The date was June 9, 1986 and the borough of Brooklyn was awash with the celebrative gaiety of its Back to Brooklyn Day Festival.  The individual chosen to be the festival’s “King” was a native son born on this date in 1911 — and if there was a worthier candidate than David Daniel Kaminsky, the committee that made the decision certainly didn’t let on.  We know Mr. Kaminsky as Danny Kaye—one of show business’ true “Renaissance men.”  Kaye could sing, dance, act, and make audiences laugh…and he did so on stage and radio, and in movies and TV.  But to call Danny an entertainer would be a severe understatement. In addition to his better known talents, Kaye was a gourmet chef, an accomplished golfer, a licensed pilot, a baseball enthusiast (he was at one time part owner of the Seattle Mariners), and an honorary member of both the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics.  (I’m willing to bet he was one of those kids you knew in high school who signed up for every curricular activity.)

Jacob and Clara Kaminsky welcomed Danny into the world as the youngest of their three sons (and the only member of the clan to be born in the United States).  In Brooklyn, he attended Public School 149 (later renamed after Kaye as tribute to their famous alumnus). But when his mother died unexpectedly while Danny was still in his teens, he set out with a friend to Florida, where the pair made a living as amateur musicians.  Danny would eventually return to New York and, while he expressed an interest in attending med school, his family simply couldn’t afford the money for his education.  Kaye embarked on a “jack-of-all-trades” career with jobs as a soda jerk, insurance investigator, and office drone—all of which he was fired from. (His stint with the insurance company found him responsible for an error that cost the firm $40,000.)  Since he had entertained his classmates during his school days with jokes and music, Danny thought a career in the footlights might be more to his liking. He received his education in that vocation performing at various venues (as a “tummler”) in the Catskills.  He got his big break as a member of The Three Terpsichoreans, a vaudeville act that started in Utica, NY (where he used his new name for the first time). He went on to tour the U.S. and Asia in a revue entitled La Vie Paree.

After a six-month tour of the Far East, Danny Kaye returned to America to discover that show business bookings were in short supply.  (One of his most unusual gigs was working with burlesque legend Sally Rand; Kaye was hired to make sure her fans were always in front of her.)  Danny got work in several two-reel shorts cranked out by Educational Pictures (Getting an EyefulDime a Dance), and worked on a Broadway show entitled The Straw Hat Revue with his soon-to-be-wife Sylvia Fine. That production had a brief run, but the good notices Kaye received got him hired at La Martinique, a NYC nightclub.  While performing there, Danny attracted the attention of playwright Moss Hart, who cast the entertainer opposite Gertrude Lawrence in his 1941 production of Lady in the Dark.  The highlight of Lady was Danny’s showstopping performance of “Tchaikovsky,” in which he rattled off the names of fifty-four Russian composers (in thirty-nine seconds!) during the course of his song.

Lady in the Dark and his nightclub engagements afforded Danny Kaye a second try in motion pictures (even though Samuel Goldwyn swore that he was unaware of the entertainer’s previous Educational oeuvre at the time of Kaye’s hiring).  Goldwyn was, however, enthusiastic about Kaye appearing in Up in Arms (1944; a remake of Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee! [1930]), because Danny performed a Sylvia-penned tune entitled The Lobby Number. When the duo auditioned this for Goldwyn, the mogul was reduced to helpless (and uncharacteristic) laughter. Sylvia later recalled that Sam never quite enjoyed the other movie songs she created for her hubby to the degree of The Lobby Number.  (Up in Arms also featured Melody in 4-F, which Danny had originally performed in his starring stage musical Let’s Face It.)

A string of successful movie vehicles produced by Sam Goldwyn followed for Danny Kaye: Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and A Song is Born (1948).  (All four of these musical comedies featured Virginia Mayo as Danny’s leading lady.)  At the same time, Kaye was starting to make headway in front of a radio microphone as well, though he had originally dabbled in the medium with appearances over Brooklyn’s WBBC in the early 1930s.  He would reprise his movie roles on programs such as The Camel Screen Guild Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre and showcase his incredible performing talents in venues like The Big ShowCommand PerformanceForecastJubilee, and Mail Call.  Kaye was a two-time guest on Suspense (“The Too-Perfect Alibi” and “I Never Met the Dead Man”) and an in-demand guest star on shows headlined by the likes of Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Jack Benny (who was a big fan).

But Danny Kaye’s largest contribution to radio was the appropriately-titled The Danny Kaye Show, which premiered over CBS on January 6, 1945.  Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon (”33 fine brews, blended into one great beer”), it allowed Danny to cut loose with his trademark scat-singing patter while supported by the likes of a pre-Our Miss Brooks Eve Arden, Lionel Stander, Frank Nelson (as the sponsor, Mr. Pabst), and bandleader Harry James.  (The program originated in Hollywood but then later moved in New York, allowing such pros as Kenny Delmar and Everett Sloane to show up from time to time.)  While there was no denying Kaye’s talent, the program failed to catch on with the listening audience (Goodman Ace, the head writer, charitably referred to the Kaye show as “a bomb”)and departed the airwaves in May of 1946.

Danny Kaye continued his work in motion pictures with features like The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), and Knock on Wood (1954).  With Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen, Danny appeared in 1954’s White Christmas—a film that has become an annual Yuletide viewing tradition favorite even today (it was a remake of Bing’s 1942 musical Holiday Inn).  1956 saw the release of The Court Jester, a delightful comedy that may have disappointed at the box office but remains a classic among fans…even those who don’t care for Danny Kaye.  While continuing to make movies (Merry AndrewThe Five Pennies), Kaye became the hardest working man in show business: wowing audiences across the pond with appearances at the London Palladium (and even a Royal Command performance!); scoring hit chart records like Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo) (performed with the Andrews Sisters) and C’est Si Bon (It’s So Good); and becoming the first ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

Danny Kaye’s 1960s filmic output included On the Double (1961) and The Man from the Diners’ Club (1963), but he was perhaps best remembered for his television variety show that was a staple on CBS’ schedule from 1963 to 1967.  The Danny Kaye Show was never a huge Nielsens hit (attributed to the network’s scheduling of the show in the later hours of primetime, robbing Danny of his large younger audience). However, it collected an Emmy statuette in 1964 (for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series) and the prestigious Peabody Award.  Kaye would later appear in two acclaimed TV presentations in the 1970s, Pinocchio (1976; as Geppetto opposite Sandy Duncan’s puppet) and Peter Pan (1976; as Captain Hook).  Danny also received rave critical notices for his performance in the 1981 TV-movie Skokie and for guest turns on The Twilight Zone (the 80s revival) and The Cosby Show.  After a lifetime of following his motto “Life is a great big canvas—throw all the paint you can at it,” Danny Kaye left this world for a better one in 1987 at the age of 76.

On January 18, 2013, as Turner Classic Movies celebrated Danny Kaye’s centennial with a daylong scheduling of his movies. Kaye’s daughter Dena revealed to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz that contrary to what her famous father claimed for many years, he was not born in 1913…but 1911.  So, on the anniversary of Kaye’s 108th birthday, Radio Spirits invites you to check out a trio of classic musical numbers from our birthday boy on our 3-CD collection You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet! ShowstoppersAnatole of Paris (from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Ballin’ the Jack (On the Riviera), and Tchaikovsky.  You’ll also find this latter number on our compilation Some Enchanted Evening: The Greatest Broadway Hits, and on The Best of Christmas, Danny joins Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, and Trudy Stevens for the delightful Snow (a number from White Christmas).  Since we shouldn’t neglect our old-time radio roots, we’ll politely point out that you’ll find Mr. Kaye guesting on his good friend Jack Benny’s program with Jack Benny & Friends.  On behalf of Danny, I can say nothing more than “Git gat gittle giddle-di-ap giddle-de-tommy riddle de biddle de roop da-reep fa-san skeedle de woo-da fiddle de wada REEP!”

“…we love the Halls of Ivy/That surround us here today…”

From the moment writer Don Quinn first met vaudevillian Jim Jordan at the studios of Chicago’s WENR in the early 1930s, the success of the two men in the burgeoning medium of radio was assured. Don would contribute scripts to Jim and wife Marian’s programs The Farmer Rush Hour and Smackout.  Quinn’s association with the Jordans would continue when The Johnson Wax Program—known by its fans as simply Fibber McGee & Molly—premiered over NBC on April 16, 1935 and soon became one of the country’s most popular radio comedy shows.  Fibber McGee & Molly would also make Don radio’s highest-paid scribe; at the peak of his involvement with the program he was pulling down $3,000 a week.

Yet in the fall of 1949, Don would turn over his head writing duties on Fibber and Molly to his assistant Phil Leslie (who had been with the show since 1943) because he was enthusiastic about a new project that began with an audition disc recorded that June.  Quinn’s concept for his new situation comedy was about a small midwestern institution of higher education, Ivy College, and the misadventures of the college’s head administrator, William Todhunter Hall.  The audition passed muster with the National Broadcasting Company, who added it to their schedule on this date in 1950.  There were, however, some changes made along the way…alterations and tweaks that would make The Halls of Ivy one of the bright spots of postwar radio in the 1950s.

The June 22, 1949 audition for The Halls of Ivy featured Gale Gordon and Edna Best in the roles of Professor Hall and Victoria Hall, respectively.  Gordon was one of radio’s best-known character presences and had even worked with Ivy creator Quinn in Don’s Fibber McGee & Molly days (Gale played Wistful Vista mayor Charles LaTrivia, among other characters).  The actor was also familiar to radio audiences as Osgood Conklin, the autocratic principal on the situation comedy Our Miss Brooks.  The growing success of Brooks threatened to put the kibosh on Gordon’s continuing with Ivy(contractual obligations and all that), so the hunt for a suitable replacement was on.

Nat Woolf, Ivy’s director-producer, sent his good friend Ronald Colman a few of Don Quinn’s scripts and asked him to read them, sensing that it might be a project in which the Academy Award-winning actor (for 1947’s A Double Life) might be interested.  Ronnie was in a state of semi-retirement; he appeared in a movie every now and then to keep his hand in (Colman would star in one of his finest motion picture comedies the year of Halls of Ivy’s debut, Champagne for Caesar)—but he was starting to explore opportunities in front of a radio microphone, appearing as a frequent guest on the anthology series Favorite Story.

Colman’s other “high profile” radio gig was a series of hilarious guest turns on The Jack Benny Program, where he gamely agreed to portray (as himself) the comedian’s long-suffering next-door neighbor.  On Benny’s show, Ronnie was joined by his real-life spouse Benita Hume. Benita had actually retired from show business sometime earlier, but Jack was a stickler for authenticity and coaxed Hume into playing herself on his program rather than hire another actress.  The Colmans demonstrated a delightful flair for comedy in their Benny show appearances—providing a marvelous counterpart to Jack’s clueless oafishness with their proper British bearing and manners.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that Ronald and Benita Colman weren’t considered for the leads on The Halls of Ivy from the show’s conception.  Ronnie was no stranger to comedy (with delightful films like The Talk of the Town and The Late George Apley to his credit), but his reputation as a respected actor infused Professor Hall with a dignified demeanor that was tempered with an approachable and appealing likability.  (Some have posited that Colman was really just playing himself.)  The character of Victoria Hall, as played by Benita, was the series’ true delight. Mrs. Hall was a former London musical comedy actress (Victoria “Vickie” Cromwell) who affectionately referred to her husband as “Toddy” and reveled in unconventional antics…like teaching Ivy students to tap dance.  Many of the Ivy broadcasts would relate in flashback the early days of Professor Hall and Victoria’s courtship.

The Halls of Ivy also benefitted from a superlative supporting cast.  Herb Butterfield was heard quite often as Clarence Wellman, the head of Ivy College’s Board of Governors…who frequently clashed with Professor Hall on college matters.  Hall’s ally on the board was John Merriweather, portrayed by Great Gildersleeve star Willard Waterman. When Waterman’s schedule as Gildy conflicted with the program, The Halls of Ivy revealed that Merriweather had a twin brother in Charles (played by returnee Gale Gordon!).  Other occasional Ivy regulars included Arthur Q. Bryan (as Professor Warren), Alan Reed (as Professor Heaslip), Barton Yarborough, Lee Patrick, and James Gleason.  (The Halls had a bit of turnover in the maid department, with household domestics portrayed by Gloria Gordon, Bea Benaderet, and Elizabeth Patterson.)  The show’s broadcasts also spotlighted memorable turns from Barbara Jean Wong, Anne Whitfield, Robert Easton, Jane Morgan, William Johnstone, Sheldon Leonard, and Ken Christy.

Creator Don Quinn had a handicap when it came to The Halls of Ivy.  He was without peer when it came to jokes featuring his signature wordplay…but he’d be the first to admit that he wasn’t particularly strong when it came to the “situation” part of the comedy.  He’d rely on writers like Walter Brown Newman, Cameron Blake, Robert Sinclair, and Milton & Barbara Merlin to help craft the show’s fine scripts.  Perhaps the most famous of Ivy’s writing alumni were Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, who went on to write the highly successful stage play Inherit the Wind.  Ivy’s scripts were quite sophisticated and occasionally ahead of their time, tackling taboo subjects such as racial prejudice and out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  The show would deservedly win a Peabody Award for Best Radio Drama Series.

The Halls of Ivy’s longtime sponsor was Schlitz (“The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”—kind of fitting for a show about college), with veteran announcer Ken Carpenter extolling the product’s virtues. Henry Russell and Vick Knight’s memorable theme song is surely familiar to some, even if they’ve never listened to the program.  Ivy was heard over NBC until June 25, 1952 (with an episode appropriately titled “The Farewell Party”). Like so many radio shows before it, the series had a brief romance with the small screen when a television version of the show debuted over CBS-TV on October 19. 1954.  Both the Colmans and Herb Butterfield reprised their radio roles (Arthur Q. Bryan also appeared in several episodes as Professor Warren). However, the series faced stiff competition from NBC’s triple threat rotation of Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and Martha Raye, and lasted but a single season.

If you’ve been searching for a radio comedy program that has truly stood the test of time, I can think of no better example than The Halls of Ivy.  It’s a marvelous blend of sophistication and warmth with the occasional touch of pathos, and Radio Spirits spotlights the Peabody Award-winner in a delightful collection entitled School Days.  Pay particular attention to the January 24, 1951 broadcast, “The Goya Request”; it was written by none other than the show’s star—Ronald Colman!  All together now: “In the sacred halls of Ivy/Where we’ve lived and learned to know/That through the years we’ll see you in the sweet afterglow…”