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Happy Birthday, Jay Novello!

Radio actors learned practically from their introduction to the medium that their fortunes were set if their talents included a mastery of dialects.  Take Jay Novello, who was born in Chicago on this date in 1904.  Because he was the child of Italian immigrants, Novello was already fluent in that tongue before he took up English (his birth name was “Michael Romano” until he changed it for show business). As his acting career blossomed, he learned to voice characters of Spanish, Greek, Mexican, French and Middle Eastern origin.  His roles ranged from “furtive, twitchy ethnic types and fastidious, comically prissy characters,” according to the TCM website.

An August 5, 1945 issue of Radio Life featured an article entitled “They Write Their Own Ticket.” This was an essay about a summer CBS Radio dramatic anthology called Twelve Players. The roles on this program were portrayed by supporting thespians capable of an amazing versatility…with the stories chosen by the actors as well.  Jay Novello was named as a regular on the program, along with Jack Moyles, Edmund MacDonald, Mary Jane Croft, Howard McNear, John Lake, Herbert Rawlinson, Lurene Tuttle, Cathy Lewis, Charlie Lung, Bea Benaderet, and David Ellis.  (The series’ concept was based on an idea by Moyles, MacDonald, and Ray Buffum.)  The show would later resurface for a second summer run on ABC in 1948.

Jay Novello’s “road” to Twelve Players began through his work for various theatrical troupes and companies in the Chicago area (before he made the trek west to Hollywood).  His first credited motion picture was 1938’s 10th Avenue Kid, with Novello demonstrating the adaptability that would serve him well in radio.  Jay did B-Westerns (The Border Legion [1940] with Roy Rogers; The Great Train Robbery [1941] with Bob Steele) and serial chapter plays (King of the Mounties [1942], The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack [1943]—playing a Japanese spy!) in addition to novelties as Phantom Lady (1944) and The Bullfighters (1945; a memorable encounter with Laurel & Hardy).

As we established earlier, it was Jay Novello’s work with dialects that started to fill his work calendar with multiple radio appointments, beginning with a syndicated series, The Singing Bandit, in 1939.  Novello would work with Arch Oboler on both Lights Out and his Plays series. Other programs on which Jay appeared throughout the 1940s include The Adventures of Philip MarloweAunt MaryBroadway’s My BeatThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopThe Count of Monte CristoEllery QueenEscapeFamily TheatreThe Ford TheatreHollywood Star TimeI Love a MysteryI Love Adventure, IntrigueLet George Do ItThe Lux Radio TheatreMy Favorite HusbandOne Man’s FamilyPursuitRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Story of Dr. Kildare, SuspenseThe WhistlerYour Movietown Radio Theatre, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Two of Jay Novello’s best-known radio showcases premiered during this period.  The first was The Lone Wolf, a show based on the jewel thief created by Louis Joseph Vance. The character had been quite popular in novels and a film franchise from Columbia Pictures starring Warren William and Eric Blore.  In the radio version, Novello played the Blore character—Jameson, The Lone Wolf’s indispensable butler—in a series that aired for a season on Mutual from 1948 to 1949.  Jay had better luck with Rocky Jordan, which premiered over CBS’ West Coast network in January of 1945. (It was originally a quarter-hour called A Man Called Jordan, before expanding to the more familiar half-hour form in 1948.)  Rocky was a café owner in Cairo who stumbled into mystery and intrigue each week. Jay played Captain Sam Sabaaya, Rocky’s contact on the police force in a sort of Captain-Renault-vs.-Rick-Blaine-Casablanca thing.  Novello returned to reprise his role in a 1951 summer version of the series that replaced Moyles with George Raft.

As the 1950s were ushered in, Jay Novello continued his demanding radio schedule with appearances on such shows as The Adventures of Frank RaceThe Bakers’ Theatre of StarsBold Venture, The CBS Radio WorkshopThe Cisco KidCrime ClassicsDr. ChristianFibber McGee & MollyThe General Electric TheatreThe George Burns and Gracie Allen ShowThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseLife with LuigiThe Line-UpThe Man from HomicideThe NBC University TheatreThe New Adventures of Nero WolfeNight BeatOn StageThe Railroad HourRomanceThe Roy Rogers ShowStars Over HollywoodTales of the Texas RangersTarzan, and That’s Rich.  At the same time, Novello was busy in motion pictures. Most of those appearances featured the actor in bit roles, but Jay would occasionally get a part with some meat on it — as witnessed in one of his best cinematic showcases, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952).  Other notable Novello vehicles include Crime Wave (1954), The Perfect Furlough (1958), The Wonderful Country (1959), The Lost World (1960), and Pocketful of Miracles (1961).

As radio roles began to shrink, Jay Novello seamlessly transitioned to roles provided by the small screen.  His work with Lucille Ball on her radio series My Favorite Husband allowed him to work on her TV show, I Love Lucy on three occasions — including a classic romp, “The Séance.”  Jay was everywhere from 77 Sunset Strip to Naked City. Notably, he appeared in the fourth and final season of McHale’s Navy, when the hit sitcom revamped its format and drydocked the PT 73 crew in a little Italian village called Voltafiore.  As Mayor Mario Lugatto, Novello provided competition in the scheming con man department, making that much more trouble for the beleaguered Captain Wallace Binghampton (Joe Flynn).  Jay would continue to work throughout the 70s on such classics as The Brady Bunch and Chico and the Man. He succumbed to lung cancer in 1982 at the age of 78.

You’re going to want to grab one of our steel-reinforced shopping carts…because birthday boy Jay Novello has one heck of a legacy here at Radio Spirits.  For starters, sample him on everybody’s favorite—Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar—with our collections Confidential, Fatal Matters, and Murder Matters.  Next: a hat trick of Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Dead Man, Homicide Made Easy, and Mayhem is My Business.  There’s additional crime drama entertainment to be found on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (Parties for Death), The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Lonely Canyons), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers, Great White Way), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), The Line-Up (Witness), The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (The Stuttering Ghost and Other Mysteries), Rogue’s Gallery (Blue Eyes), and Suspense (One Way Street).  Rounding out today’s birthday tribute to Mr. Novello are Arch Oboler’s Plays, Jack Benny: Be Our Guest, Lights Out: Later Than You Think, and The Story of Dr. Kildare.  Happy birthday, Jay!

Happy Birthday, Billy Idelson!

When Vic and Sade writer-creator Paul Rhymer decided to add a third character to his program in July of 1932, he had only one phone call to make.  You see, that third addition was going to be for “Rush Meadows”—the son of one of Sadie’s old school friends who gave Rush up for adoption to the Gooks since she was unable to care for him.  It wasn’t long after “Rush” made his first appearance on-mike that listeners simply believed that the boy had always been Vic and Sade’s son, wonderfully portrayed by the actor who was born William Idelson in Forest Park, Illinois on this date in 1919.

The number of anecdotes involving stage-struck parents trying to nudge their children into show business careers would fill many encyclopedia volumes…but in the case of Billy Idelson, the decision to pursue acting sprung from his own initiative.  A Chicago radio station working on an adaption of the Gasoline Alley comic strip (made popular in the pages of The Chicago Tribune) wasn’t having any luck finding a child actor to portray the strip’s young protagonist, Skeezix—not even after having contacted the traditional ranks of juvenile performers.  So the station started calling elocution schools in the hopes of turning up talent there.  Idelson’s older sister taught in such a school and, after having mentioned the request over dinner that same night, young William—despite never having taken any lessons in elocution—insisted on being allowed to audition that next day.  He did so and beat out over a hundred competitors for the part.

His excellent work on Gasoline Alley (a.k.a. Uncle Walt and Skeezix) made such an impression that he ultimately became the only child called for the Vic and Sade audition. In retrospect, it was unquestionably the right choice.  Idelson’s Rush was described by many a Vic and Sade listener as being “just like my own son”; a well-behaved kid who only occasionally deviated into childhood mischief.  He was an average student who, like most of us, tried to avoid studying if he could. The kid genuinely loved and respected his parents, yet was not above ribbing them good-naturedly from time to time.  Most memorably, Rush approached the world with a mixture of endearing awe and wonderment.  We learned everything we needed to know about his colorful friends (Smelly Clark, Blue Tooth Johnson) through casual conversations with his Mom and Dad.

Billy Idelson portrayed Rush on Vic and Sade until 1942, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as a fighter pilot during WWII, obtaining a Distinguished Flying Cross and earning four additional Air Medals.  After leaving the service, Idelson returned to Hollywood to continue his acting career. He re-joined Vic and Sade until it had its final radio curtain call in October of 1946.   It wasn’t his only radio job, by the way; his on-air resume also included the likes of Thunder Over ParadiseSecret City (as Bill Clark), The Trouble with the Truitts (Hugo), That Brewster Boy (Chuck), The Women in My House (Clay), and the title role in Cousin Willie (a summer sitcom in 1953).  Other entries include appearances on such shows as The CBS Radio WorkshopThe Family DoctorFamily SkeletonFamily TheatreFibber McGee & MollyGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelThe Magic KeyThe Radio Reader’s DigestRomance, and Suspense.

Billy Idelson’s TV debut came about from his appearances as Clifford Barbour on One Man’s Family (he performed the role on radio as well).  Idelson later chalked up appearances on such small screen favorites as DragnetFather Knows BestLeave it to BeaverCheyenneMy Three SonsPerry Mason, and Gomer Pyle, USMC.  Billy made seven appearances on The Bill Dana Show as “Babcock,” but perhaps his most famous gig on a 60s TV sitcom was his work on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He played Herman Glimscher, the mother-dominated boyfriend of Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) in four episodes.  (Idelson also had a role in a fifth Van Dyke episode, the classic “Never Bathe on Saturday.”  In that one, he played a bellboy who can’t quite figure out where Rob Petrie’s moustache has gone.)

(When the surviving cast members of The Dick Van Dyke Show assembled for a reunion special in 2004, entitled The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, we learned that among the many developments on the series Sally and Herman finally tied the knot, which a few fans—like myself—found very sweet.)

Billy Idelson’s television contributions went far beyond the occasional acting role, however.  Idelson’s first script for the small screen, “Long Distance Call” (co-written with Charles Beaumont), would be telecast on The Twilight Zone in 1961. From that moment on, Bill was submitting scripts to such favorites like LawmanThe FlintstonesGet Smart, and Bewitched, among many others (often in tandem with his partner Sam Bobrick).  Idelson was inspired by his Herman Glimscher character on The Dick Van Dyke Show to write a script for The Andy Griffith Show, “The County Clerk.” This introduced another milquetoast in Howard Sprague (played by Jack Dodson), who would eventually become one of the Griffith show’s more popular characters in the later years of the series (and its spin-off, Mayberry RFD).

Billy Idelson later used this script writing success to branch out as a producer in the 1970s, overseeing such series as Love, American Style and The Bob Newhart Show.  Billy’s additional television credits during the 1970s include M*A*S*HThe Odd Couple, and Happy Days.  Idelson passed away at the age of 88 in 2007.

You can hear Billy Idelson’s signature radio role on both our Great Radio Sitcoms and Vic and Sade collections…but why not, in celebration of his natal anniversary, check him out on Gunsmoke (The Hunter) and Great Radio Science Fiction (the CBS Radio Workshop presentation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), too?  Happy birthday, Billy!

Happy Birthday, Charles Farrell!

Unless you’re like me and have turned all of your extracurricular activity hours over to watching endless episodes of TV reruns, the name of actor Charles Farrell might not be an immediately familiar one.  Fellow couch potatoes know him as father to wacky Gale Storm on the situation comedy My Little Margie, while movie audiences from the Jazz Age/Depression Era remember him as a romantic partner for Janet Gaynor in a dozen motion pictures produced between 1927 and 1934 (Street AngelSunnyside Up, etc.).  New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall once described a performance of Farrell’s in this fashion: “Sometimes he may seem to be a little too swaggering, but what of it?  The actions suit the young man’s agreeable bombast.  You find that you like him.”  And audiences did. Charlie—born Charles David Farrell in Walpole, Massachusetts on this date in 1900—was such a durable performer that comedian Bob Hope once joked that Farrell was a star at “19th-Century Fox.”

Charles Farrell’s parents were working-class Irish immigrants who envisioned a stellar career path for their son…but Farrell’s dream always seemed focused on show business.  The family owned a movie theatre, and as young Charlie set up the films to be shown and swept out the theatre, he told himself that one day it would be him on that silver screen.  The senior wanted his son to attend Boston University and become a dentist; Charlie offered a compromise and worked toward getting a degree in business.  Farrell abandoned this just before his senior year in college by getting a job as a valet to vaudeville performer/little person Billy Curtis, which provided the means for the ambitious Charlie to get to Hollywood.

After getting some stage experience, Charles Farrell found work in Tinsel Town doing small bits in films like The Ten Commandments (1923) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923); he’s also in Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) and in the Charlie Chaplin-directed A Woman of Paris (1923).  Farrell’s film career really didn’t get underway until he signed with Fox Films in 1925 and appeared in such features as Wings of Youth (1925), Sandy (1926), and A Trip to Chinatown (1926).  Charlie was loaned out to Paramount to appear as “The Commodore” in Old Ironsides (1926); directed by James Cruze and a huge success at the box office.  But it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience before the cameras: an explosion on the set injured several bystanders and resulted in the death of a technician.  Charles’ eardrums were injured in the blast, and it left him partially deaf for the remainder of his life.

Charles Farrell’s next movie assignment was his first with Janet Gaynor and the film that would make him a matinee idol: Seventh Heaven (1927).  It would win Farrell’s co-star an Academy Award for Best Actress, and writer Benjamin Glazer a trophy for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Seventh Heaven was also responsible for garnering Frank Borzage a statuette for Best Director (for a Dramatic Picture). Borzage and Farrell would go on to make Street Angel and Lucky Star (1929) with Gaynor as leading lady, as well as The River (1929), Liliom (1930), and After Tomorrow (1932).

Charles Farrell was also the leading man in City Girl (1930), considered by classic film fans to be one of F.W. Murnau’s finest films. Throughout the 1930s, Farrell continued to be a familiar movie face in features like Wild Girl (1932) and Change of Heart (1934; his last film with Janet Gaynor).  World War II was responsible for Farrell’s abandonment of his picture career (his cinematic swan song was 1941’s The Deadly Game). He retired and joined the Navy, serving as a Personnel and Administrative Officer aboard the USS Hornet.

At the height of his motion picture fame in the 1930s, Charles Farrell moved to Palm Springs, California—which at that time was a dusty little desert town and not the “playground for the stars” it later became.  Charlie and his partner, actor Ralph Bellamy, opened the Palm Springs Racquet Club in 1934.  More than anyone, Farrell was responsible for Palm Springs developing prosperity. He was known to his friends as “Mr. Palm Springs” and, after serving on the city council in 1946, he was elected mayor from 1947 to 1955.  Radio’s The Jack Benny Show welcomed him as a guest whenever the program would visit Palm Springs. The show’s writers soon developed one of their hilarious running gags by having Farrell constantly introduce himself as “I’m Charlie Farrell—star of Seventh Heaven.”

Charles Farrell wasn’t quite done with show business yet, however.  “I took the part because I’m a ham,” he remarked in a 1954 interview.  ”The work is not exactly the same as making pictures, but it’s pretty close.”  Farrell was referencing his role as Vern Albright, the put-upon father to Margie Albright (Gale Storm) on TV’s My Little Margie. The show premiered on June 16, 1952 as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy and soon developed a large enough audience to appear on the schedule as a weekly series on its own.  What’s more, Charlie and Gale were coaxed into doing a radio version of the sitcom, which ran concurrently with its TV cousin from December 7, 1952 to June 26, 1955. (The TV Margie exited a bit later, in August of 1955.)

The success of My Little Margie would result in a second television sitcom success for star Gale Storm (The Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna! from 1956 to 1960). Charles Farrell tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice with The Charlie Farrell Show, which premiered on July 2, 1956…also as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy.  Farrell wasn’t quite as lucky with his series as Storm was with hers, however. It wasn’t renewed after it finished its run in September, though reruns later aired in the summers of 1957 and 1960.  (Not to be snarky…but the TV series was pretty much a commercial for Palm Springs and Farrell’s Racquet Club, which he would sell in 1959.)  Farrell died in 1990, still residing in his beloved Palm Springs.

Two of Charles Farrell’s classic guest appearances on The Jack Benny Show are available on our Benny collection Silly Skits—consecutive broadcasts dated April 11 and April 18, 1948.  You can also hear our birthday boy in his signature television role…only it’s on radio, with a broadcast of My Little Margie on Great Radio Sitcoms.  Happy birthday to Charlie Farrell!

“The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.”

A collaboration between author Graham Greene (his only original screenplay), producer David O. Selznick, and movie director Carol Reed resulted in a true cinematic masterpiece: 1949’s The Third Man.  The film tells the tale of American pulp Westerns writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who is summoned to postwar Vienna at the behest of his old chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  Harry has a job offer for his pal, but no sooner has Holly touched down that he learns Lime was the victim of an automobile accident while crossing the street.

Stunned by the news of his friend’s death, Martins refuses to take the “official” word of authorities, witnesses, and Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli)—all of whom insist Lime has drawn his rations.  Holly’s subsequent investigation into the matter reveals that Harry is very much alive…but that he’s living on borrowed time, culminating in an unforgettable climax involving a chase through Vienna’s sewers.

The character of Harry Lime, as portrayed by Orson Welles, is barely in The Third Man, yet he’s such an indelible presence that his company is felt throughout the entire film.  (Lime’s introduction in the movie also constitutes one of the silver screen’s most memorable entrances.)  As such, Welles would later be recruited by British producer Harry Alan Towers to reprise his role in a radio drama based on the movie.  That program, which aired in the U.S. as The Lives of Harry Lime, premiered over tiny “pirate station” Radio Luxembourg on this date in 1951 and was later heard as a product of (Harry) Lang/Worth Syndication.

At the risk of spoiling The Third Man for those of you who haven’t seen it, the Harry Lime character meets his demise in those same Vienna sewers in the film…and as such, the radio adventures of Harry were prefaced by a reminder that these were escapades that took place before the events of the film.  “Harry Lime had many lives…and I can recall all of them,” Welles would often muse at the beginning of each broadcast. “How do I know? Very simple…’cause my name is Harry Lime.”  The character of Lime also underwent a slight change in the radio version, transformed from the film’s amoral scoundrel to a more lovable, steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor con man (a “prince of knaves” as described by John Dunning in On the Air).  Harry may have been a dyed-in-the-wool rogue, but he was a Simon Templar/Boston Blackie type of swindler—his victims were even greedier, so he remained sympathetic while fleecing them.

Radio Spirits’ Martin Grams, Jr. notes in his book Radio Drama that both The Lives of Harry Lime and The Black Museum (another series featuring Orson, in which he functioned as narrator) benefited from larger budgets than the usual syndication fare, which allowed performers like Sebastian Cabot and Dana Wynter to make guest appearances.  The Lime series was directed by Tig Roe and penned by Ernest Bornemann, though star Welles made the occasional script contribution, notably the premiere installment, “Too Many Crooks.”  (Another Welles effort, “Man of Mystery,” became the plot for Welles’ 1955 film Mr. Arkadin [a.k.a. Confidential Report].)  The opening and closing theme for the series was the same zither music composed and performed by Anton Karas that was featured in the 1949 film; a popular instrumental, The Third Man Theme was a chart-topping single in 1950.

The complete run of The Lives of Harry Lime (the British title was The Adventures of Harry Lime) was later made available for U.S. syndication, with all 52 episodes extant today.  In January of 1959, a small screen version based on the feature film premiered in syndication. It starred Michael Rennie portraying Harry and a pre-Lost in Space Jonathan Harris appearing as Lime’s confederate, Bradford Webster.  A co-production between the BBC and NTA Film Network, the TV Third Man would generate a total of 77 telecasts during its run from 1959 to 1965.

In honor of its 69th anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to celebrate with a purchase of The Third Man: Lives of Harry Lime, an 8-CD set featuring the first 16 broadcasts of the radio show.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Eiler!

You’re familiar with the old cliché: a young girl leaves her hometown and heads for Hollywood, determined to become an actress…nay, not just an actress—a star!  All that needs to be done is to hang around a drugstore’s soda fountain drinking chocolate malteds until some talent scout wanders in, notices our future star at the counter, and makes her dreams come true.

Sometimes, however, it’s not necessary to go through all this—particularly if you already live in Hollywood.  That was the case with Barbara June Eiler, born in Los Angeles on this date in 1922.  Other than this deviation, Barbara’s road to stardom pretty much mimicked every corny classic film plot.  She was walking across her high school campus one day when a man named Don Chapman approached her and asked: “How would you like to be in radio, Babs?”

Before you start humming the theme from Dragnet—this was all perfectly legitimate.  A local station, KFAC, needed a young girl with a childlike voice to play a part on a series that dramatized the childhood lives of famous people.  They weren’t looking for a professional radio actress, but they did want someone who could act. After discussing it with Barbara’s mother, Don was convinced Babs was perfect for the part.  That next morning, Eiler walked into the radio station and exited a cast member of Dreams of Youth.

Barbara Eiler later learned that while it was easy to get into radio, continuing in the medium was an entirely different matter.  Fortunately for her, her talent started opening doors: she made an appearance on The Gulf Screen Guild Theatre in a production of “Babes in Arms,” where she played Baby Rosalie.  Eiler then found work on the Shirley Temple sitcom Junior Miss, playing the older sister (Lois) to Temple’s character.  Babs almost didn’t stay around on Junior Miss, however; the show’s sponsors thought she sounded too much like Shirley, and they were pressing upon the ad agency to give Barbara a pink slip.  So Eiler went to work on changing both the timbre of her voice and the characterization of Lois.  A different-sounding Barbara kept her job.

Only on one occasion did Barbara Eiler consider giving up her budding radio career.  It was in the summer of 1943 and she was having difficulty finding work. Most of the big network shows saw their talent enjoying well-deserved vacations and the summer replacements, as a rule, utilized smaller casts as a budgetary measure.  Babs told her mother Margaret of her career plans and Mother Eiler offered this advice: “You’re an actress, Barbara.  If you’re going to fail, you might as well do it in your own profession—not in someone else’s.  You can’t type, but even if you did…do you think it would be fair to your employer for you to be acting Camille or Lady Macbeth in the office, when all he wants you to do is take shorthand and file letters?”

As such, it’s no surprise that Barbara Eiler did not want for regular radio assignments throughout her career.  She appeared on daytime dramas like Aunt Mary (as Carla) and The Guiding Light (Susan Collins), and one of her most popular daytime gigs was portraying bookkeeper Barbara Dilley on Glamour Manor, a comedy-variety program starring Kenny Baker.  Eiler was a regular on The Life of Riley for many years as daughter Babs, and on that same network played Mildred Anderson, girlfriend to the titular star of A Day in the Life of Dennis Day.  Other programs on which Babs worked regularly include The Danny Thomas Show (his 1947-48 CBS series), The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy (working opposite star Frank Morgan), Masquerade (Jeannie Wendall), and The Rexall Theatre (as Ellen).  Her comedy resume eventually opened wide to include appearances on The Charlotte Greenwood ShowMaxwell House Coffee Time (Burns & Allen), Meet Mr. McNutleyMy Favorite Husband, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

Barbara Eiler stretched her dramatic muscles during Radio’s Golden Age with appearances on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the SaintArch Oboler’s PlaysBroadway’s My Beat, The Cavalcade of AmericaErrand of MercyFamily Theatre, Free World TheatreGunsmokeThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseHave Gun – Will TravelHeartbeat TheatreHollywood Star TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreMystery in the AirThe NBC University TheatreThe Railroad HourRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Six ShooterStars Over Hollywood, SuspenseWhispering StreetsThe WhistlerYou Were ThereYour Movietown Radio Theatre, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Because Barbara Eiler was one of radio’s busiest actresses, the list of motion pictures in which she appeared is skimpy—1958’s The Deep Six and 1966’s The Bubble (directed by Arch Oboler), according to the IMDb.  Eiler did much more work for the screen once television became the dominant medium; she guest starred on such shows as DragnetTales of Wells FargoThe MillionaireTrackdownWagon TrainThe Bill Dana Show, and The Magical World of Disney.  Babs made a total of 26 appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet and there’s probably a reason for this—she married Ozzie’s brother Don in 1948, and the two remained in that state of happy-ever-after until 1962.  She would marry her second husband, Sportsman Quartet member Martin Sperzel, shortly afterward and remained Mrs. Sperzel until her passing in 2006 at the age of 83.

To celebrate Barbara Eiler’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to check out collections of her signature series A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Life of Riley (Blue Collar Blues, Loveable Lug), which you can also find on our potpourri sets of Great Radio Comedy and Great Radio Sitcoms.  You’ll also find plenty of Barbara on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road) and Broadway’s My Beat (The Loneliest Mile).  Rounding out the collections featuring the birthday girl are selections from Have Gun – Will Travel (Bitter Vengeance, Blind Courage), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel, Special Edition), Suspense (Ties That Bind, Wages of Sin), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Confidential, Fabulous Freelance, Murder Matters).  Happy birthday, Barbara!

“Two people who live together…and like it!”

Old-time radio author-historian Jim Cox describes My Favorite Husband as “a dress rehearsal for the main event” in his indispensable reference book The Great Radio Sitcoms.  “My Favorite Husband was like a pilot for a television series that has never ceased,” he writes.  “While the final production was better than its forerunner, every sitcom requires a rehearsal.”  The “final production” Cox alludes to is I Love Lucy, one of the most popular situation comedies in the history of the broadcast medium.  Husband, which premiered over CBS on this date in 1948, was the blueprint for Lucy. Many of Lucy’s classic episodes were recycled from earlier Husband scripts, and elements of the radio show would work their way into Lucille Ball’s later television efforts as well.

My Favorite Husband’s origins can be traced to a 1941 novel penned by Isabel Scott Rorick: Mr. & Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage.  Rorick’s book had already been adapted for the silver screen as a 1942 Ray Milland-Betty Field comedy, Are Husbands Necessary? However, as Lucy reminisced in her autobiography Love, Lucy, it was CBS vice president Hubbell Robinson who approached her in 1946 with the idea of doing a radio version.  Anxious to repair her then dicey marriage with bandleader Desi Arnaz—who had justly acquired a reputation as being a wandering husband whenever he was on the road—Lucy was amenable to the idea. Of course, she wanted Desi to play her spouse on the program.  The CBS brass balked at this, arguing that no one would believe Arnaz was her husband, despite the fact that…well, that he was her husband.  “I think it helps make a domestic comedy more believable when the audience knows the couple are actually married,” she explained to The Powers That Be.  (Ball had also observed that radio, as a medium, was kinder to the married home life of entertainers, as witnessed in such couples as Jack Benny & Mary Livingstone and George Burns & Gracie Allen.)

CBS refused to budge, so Mrs. Arnaz relented and My Favorite Husband debuted as a “special preview program” on July 5, 1948. Lucy starred as socialite-turned-housewife Elizabeth (Liz) Elliott Cugat, and Lee Bowman played her husband George, former playboy-turned-bank-vice-president.  The reception to the show was quite positive, and CBS gave the greenlight for Husband to continue for the remainder of the summer.  Bowman, however, was forced to bow out due to previous commitments and he handed off his role to actor Richard Denning, who would play George Cugat until the show left the radio airwaves.  Bowman wasn’t the only individual whose stint with Husband would be a short one. The series was being written by Frank Fox and Bill Davenport, but only until their regular writing jobs returned in the fall with The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (they were “on loan,” to speak).  CBS vice president Harry Ackerman assigned the scripting of Husband to a pair of network staffers, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.

Ackerman would also hire an individual who, as head writer, would make important changes to My Favorite Husband.  Writer Jess Oppenheimer had made his name at the network working for stars like Fanny Brice. In fact, it was after being dismissed from Brice’s The Baby Snooks Show (CBS gave the star her pink slip at the end of the 1947-48 season) that Jess was encouraged by Ackerman to submit a script to Husband…with Ackerman being so bowled over he offered the head writer’s job to Oppenheimer.  Jess was hesitant to take the gig—he had heard that Lucy had a reputation as a “strong personality”—but eventually agreed to accept the position.  To Oppenheimer’s surprise, Ackerman informed him that not only would he be the head writer but the director-producer as well.

Getting acclimated to the working conditions on My Favorite Husband was not an easy task for Jess Oppenheimer, but he was soon tinkering with the formula to make the show funnier.  When Husband first went on the air, the characters of Liz and George Cugat were quite upwardly mobile, owing to George’s status as bank vice president.  Oppenheimer made them a little more middle class, hinting that George’s title was more window dressing than anything truly financially substantial.  Jess also toned-down Liz’s sophistication—using Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks as a template, he made Liz more childlike and impulsive.  The final touch was changing the couple’s last name to “Cooper.” (Bandleader Xavier Cugat and his wife had threatened the show with a lawsuit over use of their name.)

Oppenheimer also had the brainstorm to ask Lucy to attend a Jack Benny Show broadcast and watch how effective Jack was at milking laughs from an audience.  Realizing that she could make the show funnier by interacting with the crowd rather than just reading lines from a script, Lucy adopted this new policy with gusto.  (“[T]here were times I thought we’d have to catch her with a butterfly net to get her back to the microphone,” Oppenheimer recalled in his son Gregg’s Laughs, Luck…and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time.)  He wasn’t quite as fortunate with Lucy’s co-star, however; Denning told him: “If I take my eyes or finger off that script, I’ll never find my place again.”

Jess Oppenheimer continued to make successful alterations to My Favorite Husband.  Realizing that the Coopers could use the comic contrast of an older couple (the wife of which could act as Liz’s confidant), the writers started to beef up the role of Rudolph Atterbury, George’s boss at the bank…and assigned the role to radio’s indispensable Gale Gordon.  (Atterbury had previously been played on Husband by the likes of Hans Conried and Joseph Kearns.)  Bea Benaderet played Iris Atterbury, always willing to help Liz carry out some zany scheme. Benaderet was no stranger to Husband, having previously emoted as George’s mother Leticia (a role that then went to Eleanor Audley.  The supporting cast of Husband included Ruth Perrott (as dutiful maid Katie), Richard Crenna, John Hiestand, Hal March, Frank Nelson, Doris Singleton, and many more.

My Favorite Husband started out as a sustained series for CBS Radio, but it eventually found a sponsor in General Mills, allowing Lucille Ball to greet the studio and listening audiences each week with an enthusiastic “Jell-O, everybody!”  The program also became famous for its memorable closing commercials featuring Lucy and announcer Bob Lemond, with Lucy playing famous Mother Goose/storybook characters like Goldilocks and Little Miss Muffet.  My Favorite Husband was a success for The Tiffany Network until its curtain closing on March 31, 1951.  A TV version of Husband later aired over CBS from 1953 to 1955, with Joan Caulfield and Barry Nelson in the Ball-Denning roles. Meanwhile, Lucy would get the opportunity to play housewife to her real-life husband…but that’s a post for another day.

Radio Spirits’ brand-new potpourri collection of radio comedy programs, Great Radio Sitcoms, features a May 21, 1950 broadcast of My Favorite Husband that is guaranteed to brighten your spirits on this anniversary of one of radio’s most entertaining programs!

Happy Birthday, James Cagney!

When we think of the man that Orson Welles once described as “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera” it’s usually as the motion picture industry’s consummate tough guy, with memorable appearances in such iconic films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and White Heat (1949). James Cagney, however, was a performer of incredible versatility: he sang and danced in Footlight Parade (1933), spouted Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), and won the respect and admiration of his movie peers by grabbing an Oscar trophy portraying showman George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  The first actor selected to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award (in 1974), James Francis Cagney, Jr. arrived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in NYC on this date in 1899—no doubt asking the doctor who delivered him: “Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?”

The son of Carolyn and James, Sr. (a bartender and amateur boxer), James Cagney was the second of seven Cagney children…although two of them died within months of their births.  Jimmy lived a hardscrabble life of poverty, and his poor health in childhood was often attributed to his family’s financial difficulties.  Cagney graduated from NYC’s Stuyvesant High School and enrolled in Columbia College with the intention of getting an art degree.  He dropped out after one semester, returning home to help the family after his father succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic.

James Cagney worked a variety of jobs at this period of his life, including copy boy (for the New York Sun) and bellhop.  He developed a love of tap dancing in his childhood while participating in amateur theatrics.  A woman named Florence James can claim credit for first putting Jimmy on stage, but it was while working at a department store in 1919 that a colleague gave him a heads-up about an upcoming production entitled Every Sailor.  Cagney didn’t think he had a chance of getting hired, but the producers were impressed with his audition enough to give him a job…as a dancer in the female chorus line.  Jimmy was grateful for the $35-a-week salary, but his mother influenced his decision to leave after two months, wanting him to get an education.  His retirement from performing didn’t last long; Cagney later became a chorus boy in the Broadway revue Pitter Patter, pulling down $55 a week ($40 of which went to Mama Cagney).

Thus began James Cagney’s 10-year-association with vaudeville and Broadway, working his way up from the chorus to male leads (including his first dramatic role in 1925’s Outside Looking In—he beat out a pre-Ethel and Albert Alan Bunce for the part because his hair was redder).  Along the way, he married dancer Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon in 1922, who remained Mrs. Cagney until Jimmy’s death.  Cagney’s Broadway triumphs included Women Go On Forever (1926) and Grand Street Follies (1928/1929); Jimmy’s turn in Penny Arcade (1930) won critical acclaim even if critics didn’t care for the material.  Al Jolson bought the rights to Arcade for $20,000 and sold them to Warner Brothers under the stipulation that the studio keep Jimmy and female lead Joan Blondell (who had acted alongside Cagney in a previous play, Maggie the Magnificent [1929]).  Arcade was retitled Sinners’ Holiday (1930) for the screen and, while Warners had some initial doubts about Jimmy, it wasn’t long before they realized they had a hot property in their stable.

In Holiday, James Cagney played a tough guy who becomes a killer and he continued in that same vein in a follow-up film, The Doorway to Hell (1930).  The Public Enemy (1931) would be Cagney’s true Hollywood breakthrough. Even today, Enemy crackles with energy in its iconic sequences of Jimmy shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face and Cagney’s memorable demise at the end.  A role in Smart Money (1931), a gangster flick which paired him with fellow studio menace Edward G. Robinson (in their sole feature film teaming), only further cemented Cagney’s rise to stardom.  James Cagney was one of the most unconventional of movie stars—he didn’t possess leading man looks (he was short and rather ordinary looking), but his vitality and two-fisted toughness made him ideal for the studio’s output of social dramas and gangster sagas.

Having a star of Jimmy Cagney’s talent on the payroll, Warner Bros. missed few opportunities to showcase him at every opportunity.  Jimmy made a lot of movies for the studio during the early 1930s, many of them he didn’t want to participate in…which gave him a reputation for being “difficult.”  To express his dissatisfaction, the actor would resort to such tactics as adopting an unattractive haircut (1934’s Jimmy the Gent) or sporting a risible pencil-thin mustache (1934’s He Was Her Man).  Cagney’s dissatisfaction with Warners would lead to his suing the studio for breach of contract in 1935.  While awaiting the outcome of that case, Jimmy accepted an offer from independent studio Grand National to make motion pictures—two of which were released (a third didn’t get made because the studio ran out of money), Great Guy (1936) and Something to Sing About (1937).

The courts ultimately ruled in James Cagney’s favor, and the actor returned to Warner Brothers in 1938 to make several movies beloved by classic film fans today: Dirty FacesThe Roaring Twenties (1939), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy.  He and his brother William decided to become independent filmmakers through United Artists in 1942, and though he released such features as Johnny Come Lately (1943) and Blood on the Moon (1945), Jimmy would return to Warners in 1949 after a third “Cagney Productions” film, The Time of Your Life (1948), really gave the company a soaking.  Part of Cagney’s agreement to return to Warner Brothers was that they would clean up the financial mess left by Time; in return, Jimmy gave the studio a substantial hit by once again returning to his gangster roots with White Heat.

By the 1950s, James Cagney’s star luster had started to dim a bit, though he continued to make critically-acclaimed films like Mister Roberts (1955), Love Me or Leave Me (1955; playing Marty “The Gimp” Snyder opposite Doris Day’s Ruth Etting), and Man of a Thousand Faces (1957; as silent film star Lon Chaney). He even dabbled in directing—a remake of 1942’s This Gun for Hire entitled Short Cut to Hell (1957).  Even with an uproarious performance in the Billy Wilder-directed One, Two, Three (1961), Cagney was ready to retire and live the life of a gentleman farmer on his spread in upstate New York.  During his movie heyday, Jimmy often reprised his motion picture roles in radio venues like The Cavalcade of AmericaFamily TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio Theatre, and The NBC Star Playhouse.  Cagney had two very memorable radio showcases on Arch Oboler’s Plays (an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel. Johnny Got His Gun) and Suspense (a good little installment entitled “No Escape”).

It wasn’t until 1981 that James Cagney was coaxed back into the movies: partly because his doctors recommended physical activity for his ailments (including diabetes) and partly to work with his old chum Pat O’Brien once again.  (The two actors made a total of nine films together including Ceiling Zero [1935] and Torrid Zone [1940].)  As New York Police Commander Rhinelander Waldo in an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, Jimmy demonstrated he was still the consummate pro (film critics ran out of superlatives to describe how good it was to have him back).  Sadly, it was Pat O’Brien’s cinematic swan song.  Cagney would only make one more movie (with Art Carney), the 1984 TV-film Terrible Joe Moran, before his passing in 1986 at the age of 86.

I mentioned earlier an appearance James Cagney made on Arch Oboler’s Plays—a March 9, 1940 performance of “Johnny Got His Gun,” with Jimmy as a war veteran who’s blind, deaf and mute..and has no arms or legs.  It’s powerful radio, and you’ll find it on Radio Spirits’ Arch Oboler’s Plays collection.  Today’s birthday boy is also one of the many subjects featured on our documentary DVD Hollywood’s Greatest Screen Legends and the 1975 cinematic documentary mosaic Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Happy birthday, Jimmy!

“Somewhere along the line a murderer makes a mistake—it’s my job to find that mistake.”

“Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance” Ogden Nash once rhymed in a memorable couplet.  Nash’s editorial comment was addressing the one-time popularity of author S.S. Van Dine’s famed sleuth. After generating quite a following with the 1926 publication of the first Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case,  the character soon took a back seat to the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s. (Raymond Chandler purportedly called Philo Vance “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”)  The aristocratic Vance may have noticed a decline in the number of his books disappearing from bookstore shelves, but he kept busy in movies and on radio. In fact, the first of three Philo Vance series premiered over NBC Radio on this date in 1945.

S.S. Van Dine was a pseudonym for author-art critic Willard Huntington Wright, who enjoyed a most respectful journalism/literary career beginning at age 21, when he was made literary editor of The Los Angeles Times.  By the 1920s, Wright had become a freelancer…and due to a combination of exhaustion/overwork and a cocaine addiction (not known to family and associates at the time), he adopted a regimen of bed rest to recuperate.  Willard also developed a voracious appetite for crime fiction, and after reading hundreds of volumes on crime and detection, decided to try his hand at the genre.  He sold Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins on an idea that eventually took wing as The Benson Murder Case.  Successful Philo Vance novels like The Canary Murder Case (1927) and The Greene Murder Case (1928) followed.

Both Canary and Greene were given the silver screen treatment (in 1929), with William Powell cast in the role of Philo.  (Canary is of interest to silent film fans as being the final American film made by the legendary Louise Brooks before making both Pandora’s Box [1929] and Diary of a Lost Girl [1929] for G.W. Pabst.)  Powell would make the most movie appearances as Vance, also appearing as the sleuth in The Benson Murder Case (which was finally adapted for film in 1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933), one of the best entries in the Philo Vance franchise.  In fact, when Powell’s The Thin Man was released in 1934, the trailer for the movie had his Nick Charles meeting Philo Vance (both played by Powell).  Other actors offering their interpretation of Vance include Basil Rathbone (The Bishop Murder Case), Warren William (The Dragon Murder Case), Paul Lukas (The Casino Murder Case), and Edmund Lowe (The Garden Murder Case).

Warren William encored as Philo Vance in a movie entry that will certainly be of interest to old-time radio fans: 1939’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case.  Based on the novel published in 1938, it features the two people who live in the Burns house—George and Gracie—as well as Gracie’s mother and brother.  The motion picture, however, only makes room for Gracie; the comedienne steals the show (calling the detective “Fido”) and relegates Vance to a secondary role, but it’s most entertaining.

The first attempt to bring Philo Vance to radio was as a summer replacement for The Bob Burns Show (sponsored by Lifebuoy-Lever Brothers), which ran on NBC from July 5 to September 27, 1945.  Future Academy Award winner Jose Ferrer portrayed Philo, with Let George Do It’s Frances Robinson as his Gal Friday Ellen Deering.  Documentation of a second Philo series that apparently aired a year later on ABC’s West Coast is a bit slippery to track down, while others document that this version may have aired earlier than the Jose Ferrer version, in 1943 with John Emery.

The third Philo Vance incarnation is not hard to track down, however, as most of the surviving shows are from this syndicated version from Frederic Ziv and his syndication factory.  It began in the fall of 1946, airing on some Mutual stations, before wrapping things up four years later.  In the role of Philo was Jackson Beck, already becoming a known radio name with appearances as the announcer on The Adventures of Superman and the star of The Cisco Kid.  Beck’s fellow Superman player, Joan Alexander, worked on Vance as his secretary Ellen Deering, and the cast was rounded out with George Petrie as District Attorney Frank Markham, and Humphrey Davis as Vance’s police force adversary, Sgt. Ernest Heath.

By the time Philo Vance settled in for his third crack at radio he had ceased to be a “detective dandy” and instead became what critic John Crosby described as “just another smoothie with an eye for the ladies and a collection of wisecracks that would make the late author spin in his grave.”  Surviving episodes of Vance show that it’s not necessarily a bad series, but one that seemed to just be going through the motions.  You get the feeling the only person that had fun on the show was the organist.  One cannot deny, however, the stamp of professionalism from veterans like Beck and Alexander, who brought conviction to their performances until Ziv shut down the syndicated version in 1950.

Radio Spirits offers up some of Jackson Beck’s memorable excursions as Philo Vance in the Philo Vance: Archives Collection, available as a digital download.  Eighteen broadcasts from the syndicated Ziv series await your downloading convenience!