On the radio western Fort Laramie, actor Harry Bartell—born in New Orleans, LA on this date in 1913—played the part of Lieutenant Richard Sieberts, a greenhorn junior officer stationed at the outpost. Listening to Harry play the character, he is absolutely convincing as a young, earnest officer occasionally handicapped by his inexperience. Bartell was also forty-two at the time, older than star Raymond Burr and co-star Vic Perrin. It was Harry’s youthful voice that distinguished him from his fellow performers amongst the Radio Row fraternity, but it was his outstanding acting talent that kept him busy through most of Radio’s Golden Age, where he added immeasurably to the enjoyment of such classic programs as Dragnet and Gunsmoke.
Although he was a native of N’awlins, Harry grew up in Houston, Texas. After graduating from high school, he would attend Rice University and start his radio career in the early 1930s at Houston’s KRPC, performing in short audio versions of films that were playing in the theaters of the time. (He received a modest salary of two 25 cent theater tickets for each dramatic turn.) Bartell would temporarily abandon radio to attend Harvard Business School, followed by a move out to the West Coast to look for work in retail. The acting bug bit again, and he got a disc jockey job with KFWB (the station of the Warner Brothers studio) while studying at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Bartell eventually worked his way up to network radio, landing acting jobs on The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre. His work over the airwaves was curtailed for a time while he served a military hitch in World War II, but upon his return in 1943 Harry secured a nice gig as the announcer on Mutual’s The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Each week, Bartell received an invitation from Dr. John H. Watson (played by Nigel Bruce) to sit by the fire and listen to a tale about The World’s Greatest Consulting Detective, and in return Harry would extol the virtues of Petri Wines. Harry worked the show until the fall of 1946, and at one time did double duty as the pitchman on the Holmesian clone The Casebook of Gregory Hood. (Harry was also the announcer on The Silver Theatre for a time in the 1940s.)
While he was a first-rate announcer, Harry Bartell had larger acting ambitions…and he soon began to exercise them on such series as Rogue’s Gallery and Let George Do It. Harry was always available for roles on the popular dramatic anthologies of the day, and he did appear on most of them, including All-Star Western Theatre, The CBS Radio Workshop, Family Theatre, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, Hollywood Star Playhouse, Hollywood Star Time, Screen Directors’ Playhouse and Stars Over Hollywood. Bartell demonstrated a remarkable versatility…and also a sense of humor; he landed roles on lighter fare like The Adventures of Maisie, The Charlotte Greenwood Show, Meet Mr. McNutley, My Favorite Husband and My Friend Irma. It would be nearly impossible to list every radio program on which Harry emoted but a good list would also include The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Adventures of the Saint, Dangerous Assignment, Defense Attorney, The Green Lama, Hopalong Cassidy, I Was a Communist for the FBI, The Man Called X, Night Beat, Somebody Knows, This is Your FBI, T-Man, Wild Bill Hickok, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. He was often used by “Mr. Radio” himself, Elliott Lewis, on such shows as Broadway’s My Beat, Crime Classics, On Stage, and Suspense. Harry was also part of the revolving door that was Archie Goodwin on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, playing the corpulent sleuth’s leg man for a brief period on the NBC Radio series that starred Sydney Greenstreet.
One of Harry’s fiercest radio patrons was director-producer Norman Macdonnell. I mentioned earlier that Norm hired Harry for Fort Laramie, but Bartell also made the rounds on such Macdonnell shows as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Bakers’ Theatre of Stars, The General Electric Theatre, Romance, Rogers of the Gazette and of course, Gunsmoke. Like John Dehner, Virginia Gregg, Vic Perrin—and too many others to name—Harry didn’t have a regular role on Gunsmoke but managed to be on it practically every week. Macdonnell also relied on Harry in his years of producing Escape even though the actor had done the series before Norm’s concentrated participation. One of my favorite Escape shows on which Bartell appeared was “A Shipment of Mute Fate” (03-13-49); I once told Harry during an online chat room session that his performance was the best of the three times Escape tackled the story, and he thanked me profusely, mentioning it was one of his favorites as well.
Harry Bartell’s other frequent source of radio work was on Jack Webb’s seminal police procedural Dragnet. Once again, versatility was the watch word as the actor could play one of Joe Friday’s fellow police detectives one week…and a combative, nasty drunk the next. On Dragnet’s Yuletide-themed episode “The Big Little Jesus”—in which a statue of the Christ child disappears from a church in a Latino neighborhood—Bartell played “Father Xavier Rojas” on both the radio and television versions…and when Webb updated the episode during the series’ 1967-70 revival, Bartell reprised his role as the kindly priest. Throughout the 1950s, Harry Bartell continued to be one of the busiest men in radio, appearing on such favorites as Frontier Gentleman, Have Gun – Will Travel, and The Six Shooter—even after radio was forced to make room for Top 40 tunes and obnoxious radio dee-jays, Harry did his best to keep the medium alive with appearances on shows like Horizons West.
Because radio kept Bartell fairly busy, he didn’t have as impressive a movie resume as some of his fellow performers—his movie roles include such favorites as Destination Tokyo (his film debut), Monkey Business, Dragnet (the 1954 big screen version), Johnny Concho, Voice in the Mirror, and Brainstorm (directed by Marshal Dillon himself, William Conrad). But Harry definitely made the rounds on the small screen, with guest roles on such series as I Love Lucy (he’s one of the jewel thieves in the classic “The Great Train Robbery”), Have Gun – Will Travel, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, The Wild Wild West and The Fugitive. Harry did a number of TV Dragnet’s and Gunsmoke’s. I remember seeing him in the last Gunsmoke penned by co-creator John Meston, “Honey Pot,” and recalling with sadness that there had been a time when he was on every week. Bartell retired in 1975 to concentrate on such interests as photography (something he indulged in often—the famous publicity photos of the Gunsmoke radio cast in western garb were taken by him), but he still kept a hand in the medium that he loved so: appearing at old-time radio conventions, writing articles, and spending time with fans in online chats. Fittingly, his last show business gig was appearing on an episode of radio’s The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (recorded in 2003) before his passing in 2004.
Harry Bartell recalled during an online chat room session that he once paid a visit to his local public radio station and offered his services—free of charge—to read short stories over the airwaves in a small, intimate venue (not unlike that of old-time radio). The station turned him down flat. It was their loss—but fortunately for us, we have an embarrassment of riches available at Radio Spirits in the form of Harry’s incredible radio legacy. For starters, why not enjoy one of his finest acting turns in two volumes of Fort Laramie? In addition, you can check out his early work as an announcer on our Sherlock Holmes collection, The Game is Afoot, and his co-starring role as Archie Goodwin on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (Parties for Death). Rest assured—this is just the tip of the iceberg; we also have plenty of Bartell performances in sets of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road), The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint is Heard, The Saint Solves the Case), Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way, Murder), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Defense Attorney, Dragnet (Crime to Punishment), Escape (Escape to the High Seas, The Hunted and the Haunted, Escape Essentials), Frontier Gentleman (Aces and Eights, Life and Death), Hopalong Cassidy (Out from the Bar-20), Let George Do It (Cry Uncle), My Friend Irma (On Second Thought), Night Beat (Lost Souls), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Homicide Made Easy), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel, Special Edition), Somebody Knows, Suspense (Suspense at Work), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Confidential, Mysterious Matters, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, Expense Account Submitted, Wayward Matters). I hope, by the way, you saved room for dessert: Harry can be heard on our Stop the Press! compilation, in episodes of Rogers of the Gazette and San Francisco Final. Happy birthday to one of radio’s acting greats!