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Happy Birthday, William Johnstone!

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Old-time radio fans know that when Orson Welles made the decision to abandon his role as Lamont Cranston (aka The Shadow) and go on to better things (scaring the daylights out of listeners on Halloween, for example), actor William Llewellyn Johnstone was there to take his place as the “wealthy young man-about-town.” Johnstone, born in New York City on this date in 1908, was no doubt well-acquainted with wunderkind Welles, having worked with Orson when the two were employed on CBS’ The March of Time (where Bill impersonated Cordell Hull and King Edward VIII). The two actors would also share a microphone on Welles’ first Mercury radio presentation, Les Miserables, in 1937.

johnstone2In fact, you can hear Johnstone on Welles’ first Shadow broadcast, “The Death House Rescue” (09/26/37)—Bill plays the innocent man headed for a date with the electric chair. The actor would work on The Shadow several more times before donning the slouch hat and cloak in the fall of 1938…and though Johnstone always performed in an exemplary style, more than a few people thought he sounded a bit too grandfatherly to play the considerably younger Lamont Cranston. (I’ve joked in the past that Bill was more of a “wealthy old man-about-town.”)

Bill Johnstone’s early radio career was dominated by a genre not uncommon to radio artists: soap operas. He emoted on a good many of them, including Five-Star Jones, Irene Rich Dramas, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Valiant Lady, and Wilderness Road. His exposure on The Shadow led him to become one of the busiest actors in the radio business, working on such anthologies as Arch Oboler’s Plays, The Columbia Workshop, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, The General Electric Theatre, Great Plays, Hallmark Playhouse, The Railroad Hour, Romance, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood, The Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Romance. He was practically a regular on The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre, and later continued his association with Orson Welles with appearances on Campbell Playhouse, The Mercury Summer Theatre, and This is My Best.

johnstone4Bill appeared many times on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, in the early days of that long-running anthology…and during its sponsorship by Auto-Lite, he would interact with announcer Harlow Wilcox in the role of “Hap the mechanic.” Escape and The Whistler also called upon his talents (Johnstone even briefly played the titular narrator on the latter program). To list every show on which Johnstone collected a paycheck would be a Herculean task, but some of the better-known programs include The Adventures of Frank Race, The Adventures of the Abbotts, The Adventures of the Saint, Broadway’s My Beat, Crime Classics, Dangerous Assignment, Diary of Fate, Dr. Sixgun, Dragnet (a powerful performance in the Yuletide classic “.22 Rifle for Christmas”), Ellery Queen, The FBI in Peace and War, I Was a Communist for the FBI, Let George Do It, The Man Called X, The Mysterious Traveler, Nick Carter, Master Detective, Night Beat, Pursuit, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, The Roy Rogers Show, The Silent Men, The Six Shooter, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI, T-Man, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

johnstone6William Johnstone was the first actor to play Sanderson “Sandy” Taylor, sidekick of sleuthing San Francisco importer Gregory Hood on The Casebook of Gregory Hood (he was replaced by Howard McNear), and enjoyed stints as Lieutenant Ybarra on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe and as Inspector Cramer on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. The actor’s range was such that he was also adept at comedy, with roles on such sitcoms as Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Bill Goodwin Show, The Halls of Ivy, My Favorite Husband, Our Miss Brooks, The Penny Singleton Show, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Early in his radio career, Johnstone played “Wilfred Mason,” the father of the teen heroine on Maudie’s Diary, a sitcom that predated the better-known A Date with Judy and Meet Corliss Archer. In the summer of 1946, he would reunite with his former Shadow leading lady Agnes Moorehead on her sitcom The Amazing Mrs. Danberry.

20587Outside of his turn as Lamont Cranston, Bill Johnstone’s best-known radio gig would inarguably be that of Lieutenant Ben Guthrie on the police procedural The Line-Up, an outstanding crime drama that aired on CBS Radio from 1950 to 1953 featuring Wally Maher and, later, Jack Moyles. The series would later make a successful transition to television (and produce a big screen version in 1958), but Johnstone was not asked to reprise his role when it was brought to boob tube audiences. Bill would never completely abandon radio; he was heard in a version of Pepper Young’s Family in 1966, and made a number of appearances on The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre in the 1970s.

While William Johnstone’s radio career was an industrious one, he didn’t appear in many feature films. But when he did step in front of the cameras, he displayed the same professionalism that was evident when he stood before a microphone. You might know him as John Jacob Astor in 20th Century-Fox’s 1953 Titanic release, and his movie resume also includes All My Sons (1948), The Magnificent Yankee (1950), My Favorite Spy (1951), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and Down Three Dark Streets (1954—a personal favorite). On the small screen, Bill reprised his turn from “.22 Rifle for Christmas” when it was done on the TV Dragnet, and he also guested on such series as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Four Star Playhouse and The Big Story. For many years, Johnstone was the law in the fictional city of Oakdale as Judge James T. Lowell on the daytime drama As the World Turns, a gig that ran from 1956 to 1979. William Johnstone would pass on in 1996 at the age of 88.

21089If you were to ask us (rhetorically, of course) “Might there be some Radio Spirits collections featuring today’s birthday boy?” we would chuckle in a sinister manner, mutter something along the lines of “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit,” and invite you to check out Bill Johnstone’s signature role as The Shadow on Bitter Fruit, Crime Does Not Pay, Dead Men Tell, Dream of Death, Knight of Darkness, Radio Treasures, Silent Avenger, and Strange Puzzles. Our set of broadcasts from The Line-Up (Witness) also features some of Bill’s outstanding radio work. In addition, there’s The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Amos ‘n’ Andy (Volume Two), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Defense Attorney, Escape (Essentials), The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (Parties for Death), Night Beat (Human Interest), The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show (Smoother and Sweeter), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel, Special Edition), Stop the Press! (with the Night Beat episode “Doctor’s Secret”), Suspense (Around the World, At Work, Ties That Bind), Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Weird Circle (Toll the Bell), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar). Last—but certainly not least—listen to Mr. Johnstone “walk by night” as one of the many Whistlers in the new Whistler: Voices compilation! Happy birthday to one of the true radio greats!

“He hunts the biggest of all game! Public enemies who try to destroy our America!”

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In the annals of radio broadcasting, Detroit, Michigan’s WXYZ was a truly remarkable station. It would introduce one of the medium’s larger-than-life heroes (and a genuine pop culture icon) in The Lone Ranger in 1933. Ten years later, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (described by more than a few as “The Lone Ranger on ice”) was added to its panoply of juvenile heroes. In between those successful programs came The Green Hornet, which premiered over WXYZ eighty years ago on this very date.

greenhornetIt was station owner George W. Trendle, giddy over the success of The Lone Ranger, that suggested to WXYZ director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker that they pursue a second radio series along the same lines. After kicking ideas back and forth, it was decided to tweak the Ranger formula (an individual facing off against the forces of corruption prevalent in both politics and society) to give it a modern-day bent. The legend has it that Trendle was obsessed with using a bee as a symbol for the new hero, purportedly due to an incident in which he spent a sleepless night in a hotel room with a trapped bee buzzing constantly.

The show’s original title was The Hornet. Trendle wasn’t completely satisfied with this; he was concerned about possible legal problems since that same title had been used for a previous radio series. After a discussion on the color of the hornet (pink, blue, chartreuse), it was decided that their hornet would sport a hue of green. (I read somewhere that “green hornets” are the angriest of their kind—but I am not going to say this with any degree of authority, because I make it a point to stay away from any kind of hornet, regardless of their color.)

katoIt probably didn’t escape the notice of those listeners who tuned into The Green Hornet that there were a number of similarities between the series and the earlier Ranger. The Ranger’s mode of transportation was “his great horse Silver,” while the Hornet tooled around in a sleek, black automobile dubbed “The Black Beauty.” Both heroes operated outside the law (though they themselves were not lawless), and for their trouble were occasionally believed by law enforcement to be engaging in criminal behavior (though it always seemed that The Hornet got the worst of this—all the Ranger had to do was show skeptics a silver bullet to remove all doubt). And like the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion Tonto,” the Green Hornet had his own sidekick in a Filipino valet named Kato. Kato, like his boss, was not what he seemed: he functioned as the Hornet’s chief-cook-and-bottle-washer, but he was quite schooled in chemistry (the Hornet’s gas gun and smokescreens were his designs) and the art of Oriental combat. Kato also knew the Green Hornet’s true identity: Daily Sentinel publisher Britt Reid.

19997That last name may ring a familiar bell. As the mythology of The Lone Ranger developed over the years, the folks at WXYZ gave their masked hero a certain backstory: he had been Texas Ranger John Reid. And in a number of Lone Ranger episodes, he would ride with his young nephew, Dan Reid. The Green Hornet’s writers later capitalized on this familial connection by revealing that Dan Reid was the father of Britt, who had quite a surprise for his pa when he revealed that he was more than just a callow millionaire playboy. As the cherry on top of this sundae, the elderly Dan Reid was played by John Todd—who played Tonto on The Lone Ranger. (You can explore this fascinating history in the Radio Spirits collection Generations, which contains episodes of both The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet that examine the bridge between these two iconic heroes.)

caseyaxfordDid anyone else but Kato (and later Dan Reid) know that Britt Reid and The Green Hornet were one and the same? Well, Britt’s secretary Lenore Case (“Miss Case” to Britt; “Casey” to pretty much everyone else) certainly suspected that something was up. In the final years of The Green Hornet’s radio run, she had put two and two together…but kept the information to herself. One person who did not suspect was Michael Axford, a cantankerous Irishman who started out on the series as Reid’s bodyguard, but eventually wound up as one of the Sentinel’s reporters. (And you thought Sean Penn was responsible for the death of journalism.) Axford could certainly handle himself in a tough scrape, but he served mostly as the program’s comic relief, forever railing against “that no-good spalpeen, the Har-nut!” Other Sentinel employees included the paper’s ace reporter Ed Lowry and resourceful female photographer “Clicker” Binney.

20934When The Green Hornet premiered over WXYZ in 1936, the titular hero was played by actor Al Hodge. Hodge became so identified as “the Har-nut” that when Universal brought the crime fighter to the silver screen in the form of a 1940 serial, they had Hodge dub the voice of the Hornet. (He was physically portrayed by Gordon Jones.) Hodge would be replaced by Robert Hall in 1943, and Hall himself would be relieved by Jack McCarthy in 1946. McCarthy continued in the role until the series rounded up its last evildoer on December 5, 1952 as the familiar strains of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee played the program out. (Another similarity to The Lone Ranger was the use of familiar classical music pieces as their theme music.)

Radio Spirits has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Green Hornet broadcasts on CD. There’s the previously mentioned Generations, of course, as well as Spies & Rackets, The Biggest Game, Fights Crime!, Underworld, Sting of Justice, and The Green Hornet Strikes Again. For those of you who were brave enough to sit through the 2011 “revival” film and found it wanting, we’ve got just what you need to wash that acrid taste out of your month: printed collections of brand new Green Hornet tales in the form of The Green Hornet Chronicles (hardcover and softcover), The Green Hornet Casefiles (hardcover and softcover) and The Green Hornet: Still at Large. There’s plenty here for fans to enjoy as bad guys and evildoers are brought to justice “by the sting of The Green Hornet!”

Happy Birthday, Wyllis Cooper!

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Radio writer and playwright Arch Oboler once had these words of praise for the man he would eventually replace as the mind behind the mayhem that fueled the horror series Lights Out: “Radio drama (as distinguished from theatre plays boiled down to kilocycle size) began at midnight, in the middle thirties, on one of the upper floors of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The pappy was a rotund writer by the name of Willys [sic] Cooper.” Okay, maybe Arch could have worked on the spelling of his mentor’s name a bit; he’s referring to Wyllis Cooper, who created the series that featured the intonation of “Lights out, everybody!” before presenting plays guaranteed to chill the bone marrow. After spending a brief sojourn in Hollywood, Cooper—born Willis Oswald Cooper in Pekin, Illinois one hundred and seventeen years ago today—would later follow up that success with the underrated Quiet, Please in the 1940s.

cooper2Pekin was also where the young Willis attended high school, and after graduating in 1916 he joined the U.S. Cavalry—eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant as he served along the Mexican border. The following year found him in France during the First World War as a signal corpsman, and though he was gassed at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive as part of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, he continued to serve until 1919…and for many years after, was a member of the Illinois National Guard and the Cavalry Reserves. Advertising, however, was the civilian field in which Cooper chose to toil. After working as a copywriter for several agencies (including a brief stint at one he founded himself), Willis got into the ground floor of radio at NBC in Chicago, where his first assignment was for the Western drama The Empire Builders.

cooper6After writing for Empire Builders, Cooper worked at rival CBS as a continuity editor, and generated scripts for such series as The Witching Hour and The Lost Legion (Tales of the Foreign Legion). His loyalty then reverted back to NBC when he was hired to do the same continuity editor job, and he continued to write prolifically with such contributions as Desert Guns and Fifty-Fifty. Willis would create the program that would become his radio legacy in 1934: a fifteen-minute horror program broadcast at midnight known as Lights Out.

Lights Out began as a quarter-hour in January of 1934, but its popularity convinced NBC Chicago to grant it half-hour status three months later. Lights Out’s midnight time slot allowed Cooper to go a bit beyond broadcasting’s usual norms by concentrating on gory sound effects and terrorizing subject matter, and it attracted such a devoted following that even when the series was discontinued in January of 1935 to ease its creator’s workload, public outcry brought Lights Out back a few weeks later. In April of 1935, the program made its debut national on NBC Red after a positive reception to test broadcasts in New York City.

cooper7Willis Cooper stayed with Lights Out until May of 1936 (allowing Oboler to take over and put his distinctive stamp on the show), when he answered the siren call of Hollywood and moved west. After doing uncredited work on such films as Pigskin Parade (1936), Wild and Woolly (1937), and She Had to Eat (1937), Willis received his first onscreen credit by contributing “additional dialogue” to Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937). Cooper would receive screenplay credit for Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937) and story credit on Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), two entries in the popular 20th Century-Fox franchise starring Peter Lorre as the Japanese sleuth created by John P. Marquand. Willis’ best-remembered screenplay was 1939’s Son of Frankenstein—the third in Universal’s highly successful horror series, and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. (Willis also participated in projects that never materialized on the silver screen…though he earned a place in the hearts of cheesy movie fans by scripting the Universal serial The Phantom Creeps [1939].)

cooper4During his sojourn in Hollywood, Willis Cooper had kept his hand in radio by writing scripts for the popular Hollywood Hotel program, and in 1940 he returned east (New York City) to continue in broadcasting and contributing to such shows as Charlie and Jesse and The Campbell Playhouse (the new name of The Mercury Theatre On the Air after creator-star Orson Welles landed a sponsor). By this time the writer was signing “Wyllis Cooper” on his scripts, purportedly changing the spelling of his first name “to please his wife’s numerological inclinations.” Cooper’s experience in World War I landed him a position as consultant to the Secretary of War during the Second World War, and part of his new job involved producing and directing The Army Hour, a weekly propaganda show with elements of both news and variety.

cooper3After the war, Wyllis was hired by the radio department of Compton Advertising in New York, and many of his old scripts for Lights Out would be utilized when the series enjoyed three summer runs in 1945, 1946, and 1947. In June of 1947 Mutual premiered what many consider to be Cooper’s most exemplary contribution to radio drama: Quiet, Please. A horror anthology that was much more understated than the previous Lights Out, Quiet, Please didn’t attract much attention during its initial run (it lasted a year on Mutual before moving to ABC for its second and final season), but has since become recognized by historians as one of the medium’s most outstanding shows. John Dunning praised Quiet, Please as “a potent series bristling with rich imagination,” and University of Glamorgan professor Richard J. Hand declared the show’s creator “one of the greatest auteurs of horror radio.”

20904Wyllis Cooper made a grab for small screen achievement with contributions to TV shows like Escape and (of course) Lights Out, but his own productions of Volume One and Stage 13 never caught on in the way that his radio contributions did. He would enjoy one last success with one final radio series, Whitehall 1212—a 1951-52 NBC crime anthology (featuring an all-British cast) that dramatized stories based on artifacts held at Scotland Yard’s Black Museum (Whitehall competed with a similar Orson Welles program on Mutual, The Black Museum, and there has occasionally been confusion between the two). Wyllis Cooper passed away in 1955 at the age of 56.

Radio Spirits features an outstanding collection of broadcasts from Wyllis Cooper’s final radio series, Whitehouse 1212, in This is Scotland Yard, and there’s also some choice Quiet, Please tales on the sets Great Radio Horror (which also features Cooper’s Lights Out drama “The Haunted Cell”), Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures, and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell. For a taste of our birthday boy’s contributions to the boob tube, check out “Dead Man’s Coat”—available on the Lights Out: Volume Five DVD!

“Fortune: Danger!”

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It’s safe to say that without author Dashiell Hammett, the crime rate in Radio Land would be at risk of going on an uptick. Hammett’s legendary gumshoe Sam Spade—introduced in his novel The Maltese Falcon—would become “the greatest private detective of them all” over the airwaves (in The Adventures of Sam Spade), and the Nick and Nora Charles characters from his book The Thin Man (purportedly inspired by Dash and longtime lady friend Lillian Hellman) also enjoyed much radio success (The Adventures of the Thin Man). Seventy years ago on this date, Hammett created a radio “hat trick” when The Fat Man made his debut over the ABC Radio Network.

fatman2The titular sleuth was Brad Runyon, who topped the scales at a hefty 237 pounds…and the reason why listeners knew this was because it was incorporated into the show’s unforgettable opening each week:

WOMAN: There he goes into that drugstore…he’s stepping on the scale…
(SFX: Penny tumbling onto scale)
WOMAN: Weight? Two hundred thirty-seven pounds…
(SFX: Click of card popping out of scale)
WOMAN: Fortune…danger! (Music sting) Whooooo is it?
RUNYON: The Fat Mannnnnn…

The actor who played Runyon (and who actually weighed a bit more than his fictional counterpart, coming in at 270) was radio veteran J. Scott Smart, tabbed “The Lon Chaney of Radio” by his peers for his talent in playing character parts. Smart had worked on such programs as The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre, in addition to being a member of Fred Allen’s popular “Allen’s Alley” as windy politico Senator Bloat. Smart’s deep bass voice had a distinctive rumble to it, so when he pronounced “murder” it came out as “murrr-derrr.” Suffice it to say, he was perfect casting for the role of Runyon, a man who despite his girth and “tough as nails” demeanor was also a charming ladies’ man (he could have double-dated with The Great Gildersleeve), which added an interesting dimension to his ability to bring down any suspect before his half-hour came to a close.

fatman7The origins of The Fat Man have often been a topic of discussion amongst fans of the series. Some argue that the character of Casper Gutman in Falcon inspired the portly sleuth (one of the chapters in Falcon is titled “The Fat Man”), while others posit that radio’s Runyon bears a striking similarity to the nameless detective Hammett created known to fans as “the Continental Op” (so named because he worked for the Continental Detective Agency). There’s even disagreement as to how much involvement Hammett himself had in the creation of The Fat Man; a number of sources suggest that he might have penned a few of the program’s early scripts before allowing staff writers to take it from there. I myself remain skeptical about this, particularly since Hammett himself declared in 1949 (regarding the radio versions of his literary efforts): “My sole duty in regard to these programs is to look in the mail for a check once a week. I don’t even listen to them. If I did, I’d complain about how they were being handled, and then I’d fall into the trap of being asked to come down and help. I don’t want to have anything to do with the radio. It’s a dizzy world—makes the movies seem highly intellectual.”

fatman3Whether or not Hammett was ghost-writing The Fat Man, the fact remains that the show—under the sponsorship of Pepto-Bismol, a match made in heaven—was a very popular one for ABC, frequently occupying the Top Ten in the radio ratings. It was such a smash that, in 1951, Universal brought J. Scott Smart (reprising his Brad Runyon role) to the big screen with a feature film adaptation of The Fat Man that also spotlighted the talents of Julie London, Rock Hudson, Jayne Meadows, John “Lawman” Russell, and legendary clown Emmett Kelly. (The movie, directed by future schlockmeister William Castle, features a climax set against the background of a circus). Sadly, the critical reaction to the movie was rather tepid (one wag remarked that J. Scott “was better behind the microphone than in front of the camera”) and it eventually was relegated to Late, Late Show status allowing television listings to have a bit of fun (“Rock Hudson as The Fat Man”).

20291It was perhaps for the best, for the radio Fat Man was also having trouble. Despite the program’s popularity, there was pressure being put on ABC to give the rotund detective a pink slip—mostly due to the association it had with Dashiell Hammett, who was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee at that time for his political affiliations. Hammett’s other creations suffered a similar fate: The Adventures of The Thin Man left a vacant microphone in 1950, and The Adventures of Sam Spade would have followed had not an outcry from its fans given the series a temporary one-year reprieve. The Fat Man was the last Hammett-inspired show to take its final bows at the curtain, departing ABC’s schedule on September 26, 1951.

Time was not kind to The Fat Man. Less than a dozen broadcasts of the 1946-51 series survived, though about three dozen episodes from the Australian version (which went on the air in 1954, starring actor Lloyd Berrell) were saved, and a mixture of episodes from the U.S. and Australian series comprise the content of Radio Spirits’ classic radio detective collection of The Fat Man. At the height of his popularity, the corpulent Brad Runyon was heard by six million listeners weekly, and after listening to his adventures on this set you’ll gain a new appreciation for the sleuth adept at dealing with the art of “murrr-derrr…”

Happy Birthday, Herb Ellis!

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It’s not often that we here at the Radio Spirits blog get an opportunity to blow a noisemaker and celebrate the natal anniversary of an old-time radio performer who’s still with us—but that’s what we intend to do today, as we commemorate actor Herb Ellis’s 95th birthday! Herb, born Herbert Siegel in Cleveland, OH on this date in 1921, was a longtime collaborator with Dragnet actor-director-producer Jack Webb. In fact, it was once recalled in an interview that the police procedural, lauded for revolutionizing crime drama in both radio and television, was mapped out on Ellis’ kitchen table. (Jack and Herb wanted to sell the idea to television as Joe Friday, Room Five—but their small screen efforts would have to take a detour towards a radio microphone first.)

20334Herb Ellis began his radio career as an announcer, presiding over many a jazz band remote (broadcast under the aegis of One Night Stand). He would eventually land work at San Francisco’s KGO…a station where Jack Webb also found employment. Ellis worked with Webb on Jack’s Pat Novak for Hire, both during its KGO years and its brief run on the ABC network. Herb could also be heard on Jeff Regan, Investigator, on which Jack played the titular gumshoe. But Herb really became indispensable on Dragnet, becoming a solid member of Jack Webb’s “stock company” of performers, hewing to the creator’s insistence on realism. (In Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast, Ellis recalled that he had reservations about Webb’s style of monotone acting on the series. “He was so vertical in the way he wanted everyone to play,” reminisced Herb, “that I felt there was no humanness, because we all talked the same way. Why it struck America and struck a chord, I don’t know, but it did.”) Ellis was the first actor to portray Officer Frank Smith, which he did for eight episodes in the TV transplant before being replaced by radio veteran Ben Alexander. Herb later had a co-starring role (as Frank La Valle) on the Jack Webb-produced series The D.A.’s Man in 1959. In 1967, when Dragnet was revived for NBC, Ellis made appearances on that as well.

ellis4However, to suggest that Herb Ellis owed his long career to a fruitful association with Jack Webb would be doing the actor a tremendous disservice. Herb’s work on Dragnet shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he was in high demand as a radio actor, working on other crime dramas such as The Adventures of the Saint, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Broadway’s My Beat, Jason and the Golden Fleece, The Line-Up, Mike Malloy, Private Cop, Night Beat, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Tales of the Texas Rangers, and This is Your FBI. Ellis was even a member of the “revolving door” fraternity that took a crack at satisfying star Sydney Greenstreet’s standards for an actor to play sidekick Archie Goodwin on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (unfortunately for Herb, the gig lasted for one solitary broadcast). Ellis’s radio resume also includes Dangerous Assignment, Dr. Christian, Escape, Family Theatre, Fibber McGee & Molly, Frontier Gentleman, Gunsmoke, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, Hallmark Playhouse, The Halls of Ivy, The Lux Radio Theatre, The NBC Star Playhouse, Rocky Fortune, Rogers of the Gazette, Romance, The Six Shooter, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Suspense, The Whisperer, Wild Bill Hickok, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Even after the casket belonging to Radio’s Golden Age had long been lowered into the ground, Herb Ellis worked on the shows that nobly wanted to keep radio drama alive including Heartbeat Theatre, Horizons West, and The Sears/Mutual Radio Theatre.

ellis2When radio was “down on its uppers,” Herb turned to television to make a living, and found that his talents as a character actor were welcomed by a number of shows that signed him on as a semi-regular. On Peter Gunn, he played a character named “Wilbur”—who owned a bistro and did a little sculpting on the side. He was “Dr. Dan Wagner” on the Jackie Cooper comedy-drama Hennesey, and “Lou Porter” on the short-lived Peter Loves Mary. Ellis made guest appearances on such television classics as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, The Fugitive, M Squad, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, My Favorite Martian, and Perry Mason. On the silver screen side of the Ellis resume, we have such movies as Rogue Cop (1954), Naked Alibi (1954), The Killing (1956), The Fortune Cookie (1966), What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), and The Party (1968)—not to mention the Jack Webb feature film Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and the big-screen version of Dragnet in 1954.

21120Radio Spirits invites you to listen to some of Herb Ellis’ work on our newest Night Beat collection, Human Interest, and we’ve also got Herb working with his pal Jack Webb in Pat Novak for Hire: Pain Gets Expensive. In addition, Herb is Archie Goodwin for a night in Parties for Death, a set of broadcasts from The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. Round out your Ellis library by acquiring Escape to the High Seas, Frontier Gentleman, Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Homicide Made Easy, Romance, The Six Shooter (Grey Steel and Special Edition), Suspense at Work, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Expense Account Submitted, Mysterious Matters, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, Wayward Matters) in honor of this versatile actor’s milestone birthday!

Happy Birthday, Morton Fine!

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Before embarking on a rewarding career as a radio, television and movie writer, Morton S. Fine—born a Christmas Eve baby in Baltimore, MD on this date in 1916—was a “jack-of-all-trades.” He worked in an advertising agency, toiled in a bookstore, and punched a card at an aircraft factory (before the work at that factory inspired him to join the Army Air Force in 1942). Though he had previously graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis before his hitch in the service, he returned to the “halls of ivy” (the University of Pittsburgh) upon being mustered out in 1944 and earned a Master’s in English. Mort tried to put that degree to use as a writer for magazines, but had no success in that field…causing him to decide that he ought to be in California instead. He found work as a radio scribe on shows like Let George Do It, and then teamed up with David Friedkin (who was four years his senior) in 1948 to form one of the medium’s most fruitful writing partnerships. Together, they delivered scripts for such series as The Front Page and The Philip Morris Playhouse.

20546Fine and Friedkin played a large role in the success of Broadway’s My Beat, an Elliott Lewis-produced crime drama that was heard over CBS Radio from 1949 to 1954. Broadway’s My Beat established the template for the gritty, realistic cop show that many (including myself) associate with Dragnet—even though Beat premiered before Jack Webb’s seminal police procedural by several months. Beat originated in New York from February to June of 1949 in its first season, and then moved to the West Coast. The series showcased first-rate acting from its star, actor-announcer Larry Thor (as Detective Danny Clover), and a superlative supporting cast that included Charles Calvert (as Sergeant Gino Tartaglia) and Jack Kruschen (Detective Muggavan). Mort and David’s scripts for the series were an interesting blend of introspective prose and hard-hitting social commentary (they often tackled controversial subjects like juvenile delinquency and anti-Semitism), and were praised by radio historian Fred MacDonald as “a striking example of a writing flair which was generally absent from radio.”

20850Morton Fine and David Friedkin also contributed scripts for Elliott Lewis’ directing-producing efforts on Suspense and On Stage, and in addition set the tone for the puckish black humor that became the hallmark of the offbeat anthology known as Crime Classics. Classics presented historical tales of murder and mayhem laced with a very dry wit; Messrs. Fine and Friedkin once commented about their macabre efforts: “You can afford to laugh at murder as long as you’re safely a century or so away from it…the killers we make fun of are good and dead. If they weren’t, we know a pair of writers who would be.” Though Crime Classics had but a brief sustained run over the CBS Radio Network (from June 15, 1953, to June 30, 1954), it remains a firm favorite with old-time radio fans today.

ventureOther series on which Fine and Friedkin turned in scripts include Escape, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Line Up, Pursuit, Romance, San Francisco Final, and Sara’s Private Caper. The writing duo also had a hand in the blueprint of what would eventually become radio’s Gunsmoke (they penned the 1949 audition script, “Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye”) after CBS President William S. Paley suggested a series that would echo “Philip Marlowe in the Old West.” In addition, Fine and his partner can take a little credit in luring Humphrey Bogart to a stand-up microphone. Long reluctant to commit himself to the rigors of a live weekly series, Bogie liked Fine and Friedkin’s pitch for Bold Venture, an adventure program that would co-star Mrs. Bogie (Lauren Bacall) and allow them to record 3-4 shows in advance while he and Baby concentrated on their film careers. Bold Venture would go on to become one of the Fredric W. Ziv radio syndication company’s biggest hits, awarding the husband-and-wife team a princely sum of $4,000 per episode.

frontierLike many of their radio brethren and sistren, Fine and Friedkin decided to try their luck writing for that newfangled upstart television…and were quite successful for the most part, contributing to the likes of Climax! and Suspense, and later shows such as Bat Masterson, The Aquanauts, and Bold Venture (brought to TV in 1959 with Dane Clark and Joan Marshall). One of their interesting “failures” was an anthology entitled Frontier, which tried to do for the Old West what the duo had previously done for “murder-throughout-the-ages” on Crime Classics. Episodes from the series netted the duo Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominations (they lost both); still, Fine was able to add “producer” to his resume with Frontier, which led to future gigs on The Virginian, Breaking Point, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Morton Fine and David Friedkin’s most successful television collaboration was I Spy, the tongue-in-cheek espionage series starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as a pair of globetrotting secret agents masquerading as a tennis amateur (Culp) and his trainer (Cos). Though nominated three times as Outstanding Dramatic Series for every season it was on the air (Fine and Friedkin were the producers), I Spy was only Emmy-lucky for Bill Cosby (who scored a hat trick as Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series). Morton and partner David did get a nice consolation prize in Writers Guild of America honors for their screenplay for The Pawnbroker (1965), which still remains one of the important films from that era.

T8DMODE EC003By his lonesome, Morton Fine contributed scripts (as Mort Fine) to such 1970s TV favorites as Barnaby Jones, Kojak, and The Streets of San Francisco. With partner David Friedkin, Fine attempted a few more series like The Most Deadly Game (which the two created) and Bearcats!; their last collaboration was a short-lived cop drama starring Paul Sorvino as Bert D’Angelo/Superstar (I am not making that title up) before Friedkin’s passing in 1976. Morton Fine busied himself in the meantime with writing for TV movies and feature films like The Greek Tycoon (1978) and Cabo Blanco (1980) before his death in 1991.

20944Here at Radio Spirits, we’re pleased to honor Morton Fine’s birthday with collections featuring his rewarding partnership with David Friedkin. We have plenty of Broadway’s My Beat on hand, in the form of Murder, Neon Shoals, and Great White Way. The duo can also take credit for the content on Crime Classics, and its sequel The Hyland Files. But be sure to check out Mort’s fine work on the likes of Escape (Escape Essentials, Escape to the High Seas), The Line Up (Witness), Suspense (Ties That Bind), and San Francisco Final (on our Stop the Press! compilation) as you help yourself to ice cream and cake!

Happy Birthday, David Kogan!

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Columbia University student David A. Kogan (born in New York City on this date in 1916) met Robert Jay Arthur, Jr. in his radio writing class. The pair would go on to form one of the most fruitful collaborations in old-time radio. It was a perfect partnership. Kogan already had experience scripting for the medium with efforts for shows like The Shadow and Bulldog Drummond. And Arthur could lay claim to a lengthy list of stories published in nearly every major pulp magazine being sold on newsstands of the day (Weird Tales and Astounding Science Fiction, among others). Their first project—in tandem with WOR producer Jack Johnstone—was a short-lived program entitled Dark Destiny, heard from August 26, 1942 to March 11, 1943.

MtarplinDespite the brevity of its run, the supernaturally-themed Dark Destiny was essentially a blueprint for what was to follow when Dave Kogan and Bob Arthur pooled their unique talents. Arthur had a preference for specializing in horror-themed scripts (part of his Weird Tales training, no doubt) and Kogan favored those that dabbled in science fiction. Kogan also tackled the directing chores on the program, after his partner let him know he really wasn’t interested in that aspect of radio. From the appropriately titled Dark Destiny, the two men launched the series (with producer-director Jock MacGregor) that would be their longest-running radio venture on December 5, 1943: The Mysterious Traveler. The titular host, portrayed by actor Maurice Tarplin, narrated spooky tales from a club car on a locomotive speeding toward an unknown destination each week. “This is the Mysterious Traveler, inviting you to join me on another journey into the strange and terrifying,” he would say in introducing the program. “I hope you will enjoy the trip, that it will thrill you a little and chill you a little. So settle back, get a good grip on your nerves and be comfortable—if you can!

elspetheric1The repertory company of actors that appeared on Traveler included many of New York’s experienced radio veterans: Jackson Beck, Lon Clark, Elspeth Eric, Bill Johnstone, Jan Miner, and Santos Ortega—just to name a few of the many. I’ve often facetiously suggested that despite similarities between Traveler and The Whistler (both shows featured stories narrated by omnipresent personages, for example), Traveler had a few advantages over the man who “walked by night” despite the fact that he broadcasted over the Mutual network, considered by many to be radio’s “poor relation.” First, M.T. clearly had the wherewithal to afford a train ticket every week…while his whistling cousin was forced to expend a lot of shoe leather as he travailed over CBS’ West Coast. That was also what separated the two shows: The Mysterious Traveler was heard nationally over Mutual, while The Whistler was limited to areas within driving distance of a Signal Oil station.

clarkeThe Mysterious Traveler influenced two other Mutual series that depended heavily on previous scripts from the team of Kogan and Arthur. The Strange Dr. Weird was a weekly quarter-hour (the kindly Doc Weird was played by the same thespian who emoted as The Mysterious Traveler, Maurice Tarplin) that recycled a good number of Kogan and Arthur’s Traveler submissions and was heard over Mutual (for Adam Hats) from November 1944 to May 1945. The Sealed Book, a syndicated half-hour produced by Mutual/WOR also salvaged scripts from Traveler during its twenty-six episode run from May to September of 1945. Other Mutual shows that relied on scripts by the Kogan-Arthur team include Adventure Into Fear, Nick Carter, Master Detective, The Shadow, and A Voice in the Night.

JohndicksoncarrIf The Mysterious Traveler was David Kogan and Robert Arthur’s longest-running series on Mutual…Murder by Experts was unquestionably their most ambitious. Premiering on Mutual on June 18, 1949, Experts was a cut above the usual mystery anthology in that it concentrated on old-school detective tales selected weekly by Kogan and Arthur, and gussied up with an “endorsement” by the prestigious organization known as The Mystery Writers of America. To add a further bit of esteem, John Dickson Carr (mastermind behind the Dr. Gideon Fell novels and Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries) hosted Murder by Experts in its first season…and the show soon became a favorite of those who worked in the mystery writing field, to the point where the show nabbed an “Edgar” from the Mystery Writers of America in 1949 as radio’s top mystery program.

DavidKoganHad Murder by Experts been fortunate to secure a sponsor—or even sweet-talked a network like CBS or NBC for a berth on their schedule—it might have had a longer run. It left the airwaves on December 17, 1951, which was no doubt disappointing to author Davis Dresser (better known as “Brett Halliday,” the creator of Michael Shayne), who took over for Carr as Experts host in mid-1950. Kogan and Arthur continued their work on Mysterious Traveler (a series that resulted in the team being bestowed with a second “Edgar” in 1952 for Best Radio Mystery Drama), but there were storm clouds on the horizon. Both Kogan and partner Arthur were members of the Radio Writers’ Guild, a union that had run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC was convinced that the Guild was leading its members, in Kogan’s words, “down the path to Moscow.” (If they indeed were…perhaps The Mysterious Traveler could have arranged for train tickets.) Mutual pulled Traveler into the station on September 16, 1952.

20355Many sources report the year of David Kogan’s death as 1964, a bit of misinformation that amused Mr. K when he came across this news on an online website in 2009 and felt it his duty to correct the record. “I was surprised to find that I had died in 1964,” he e-mailed Tangent Online. “This means I have been living forty-five years on borrowed time. I begin to see a script shaping up—on whose borrowed time have I been living?” Sadly, three weeks after he sent that e-mail, David Kogan did leave this world for a more fantastic one (his son Kenneth was the bearer of the bad news).

If you’re curious to sample some of Mr. Kogan’s work in honor of his natal anniversary, Radio Spirits highly recommends our Great Radio Horror compilation, which includes two episodes of The Mysterious Traveler: “If You Believe” (12/29/46) and one of my personal favorites, “The Man the Insects Hated” (07/27/47). (Great Radio Horror also features a tale from The Sealed Book, “Beware of Tomorrow” [09/30/45].) Last but certainly not least, Murder by Experts is represented in our Mystery is Mutual collection with “The Creeper” (07/18/49) and “Dig Your Own Grave” (08/15/49). Happy birthday, David Kogan!

Happy Birthday, Sir Ralph Richardson!

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There’s a hilarious story (possibly apocryphal, so we make no claims as to its accuracy) concerning Sir Ralph Richardson, who was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England on this date in 1902. Performing in a play, the famously eccentric Richardson stopped the action and addressed the audience with the traditional “Is there a doctor in the house?” joke. When a physician acknowledged that he was, indeed, in attendance, Sir Ralph joshed: “Isn’t this a terrible play, Doctor?”

richardson12The actor who would eventually be knighted in 1947 for his contributions to the British theatre was the third (and youngest) son of Arthur and Lydia Richardson, both renowned artists (father Arthur had been the senior art master at Cheltenham Ladies’ College). For murky reasons that are still debated by biographers today, Mr. and Mrs. Richardson split in 1907—no divorce or formal separation involved—and Ralph’s elder brothers Christopher and Ambrose went off with their father while Ralph remained with Lydia. (“She eloped with me, then age four,” he later mused.)

Lydia raised Ralph as a Roman Catholic, and very much wanted him to enter the priesthood…but at a seminary for training priests, Richardson soon found he lacked the discipline to commit to such a career. At age sixteen, he obtained a position as an office boy with a prestigious insurance firm—once again, his nonchalant approach to his job (as well as a penchant for pulling pranks) jeopardized his future with the company. But a legacy of £500 left to him by his paternal grandmother enabled him to give the Brighton School of Art a try. It was eventually revealed that he had no aptitude for an art career, either. Ralph finally decided on an actor’s life after seeing Sir Frank Benson in the title role of a touring production of Hamlet.

richardson15Richardson went an unconventional route in his quest to become a professional actor: he paid a local theatrical manager ten shillings a week to let him become a member of the troupe, where he quickly learned the craft of acting. His stage debut was as a gendarme in a Brighton production of Les Misérables, and he later landed roles as Banquo in Macbeth and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. His first professional gig—a year later, after he had been engaged by theatrical manager Charles Doran for the princely sum of £3 a week—was playing Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. Ralph would later tackle important parts in Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

The early foundation of his work as a Shakespearean actor—though Sir Ralph Richardson also performed in modern works as well—would eventually lead to his acclaim as one of the greatest English stage actors of the twentieth century. Richardson is often recognized alongside two other actors—contemporaries Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier—as representing the crème de la crème of British theater. In fact, Ralph was invited by producer Harcourt Williams to join the prestigious Old Vic company in 1930, ostensibly to take over for Gielgud in leading the dramatic company the following year. There was a clash of personalities between the two thespians at first, but eventually a long friendship and professional association blossomed between Richardson and Gielgud that would last many years. Richardson’s relationship with Laurence Olivier was also a close one, particularly on stage (where they often played opposite one another in Old Vic productions staged during the 1940s), but also in films like The Divorce of Lady X (1938) and the very entertaining Clouds Over Europe (1939—released in the U.K. as Q Planes).

Ralph Richarrichardson16dson’s first credited film appearance was in the 1933 feature The Ghoul, and while maintaining his successful stage career he welcomed movie roles with open arms (he was no snob about motion pictures, once observing that films “are to the stage what engravings are to paintings”). Sir Ralph appeared in two movies based on H.G. Wells works: Things to Come and The Man Who Could Work Miracles (both released in 1936). The more famous titles on his cinema resume include The Citadel (1938), The Four Feathers (1939), The Lion Has Wings (1939), and The Day Will Dawn (1942). Both his work on film and on stage were temporarily curtailed by the outbreak of World War II and Ralph’s determination to do his part for England’s war effort. He enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant pilot, and (despite what he believed of his limitations in the air) rose to the rank of lieutenant commander.

richardson1In 1948, Richardson graced two more films that are considered among his most impressive acting showcases: Anna Karenina (alongside Mrs. Olivier, Vivien Leigh), and the Carol Reed-directed The Fallen Idol. The following year, the actor made his Hollywood feature film debut with The Heiress (1949), in which he played opposite eventual Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland (as her father, Dr. Austin Sloper). (Richardson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor…but had to settle for a consolation prize in Best Actor honors from the National Board of Review.) Ralph enjoyed playing the role so much that he reprised it for a West End production of The Heiress in February of 1949 (under the direction of his good friend John Gielgud). He continued his film work throughout the 1950s in such gems as Outcast of the Islands (1951), Home at Seven (1952—his sole attempt at directing a film), Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952—which won him several Best Actor honors, including a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award), and Richard III (1955—featuring Gielgud and Olivier).

richardson3Ralph Richardson’s rich baritone voice was a natural for the aural medium; he had been performing on radio as far back as 1929, and even performed on CBS’ Columbia Workshop in 1946 in Old Vic productions of Richard III and Peer Gynt (one of his notable stage triumphs). In 1954, he appeared as a performer/host on NBC’s Theatre Royal, an outstanding British drama anthology that also featured (in its first season) Sir Ralph’s colleague Laurence Olivier as a host. The following year, NBC rebroadcast a number of BBC radio dramas that teamed Richardson with his good friend John Gielgud in dramatizations of Sherlock Holmes tales (Sir John was Sherlock, Sir Ralph was Dr. Watson). Orson Welles was also featured on this series as Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty, and Gielgud’s brother Val not only directed some of the plays, but fittingly appeared as Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock’s bro) on one occasion.

richardson11To do justice to Sir Ralph Richardson’s acting career would require a blog the size of an encyclopedia. Suffice it to say, he continued his impressive string of feature film turns in such classics as Exodus (1960), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Wrong Box (1966), Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Dragonslayer (1981), and a personal favorite—Time Bandits (1981). Before his death in 1983, Sir Ralph appeared in several scenes with Gielgud and Olivier in a 1981 TV miniseries entitled Wagner (it was released shortly after Richardson’s passing), and achieved a bit of recognition from his industry peers with a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). (He would receive posthumous honors for this role from the New York Film Critics Circle.)

20347Sherlock Holmes devotees often declare the 1955 BBC series with Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud to be one of the very best interpretations of the adventures of the iconic detective. Radio Spirits offers up a first-rate collection of these broadcasts; sixteen shows gleaned from what currently exists of the syndication masters. You should check out this set in honor of today’s birthday boy, a consummate actor who once declared: “The art of acting lies in keeping people from coughing.” (Trust us—you’ll be positively spellbound by the breadth of Sir Ralph’s talent.)