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Happy Birthday, Wally Maher!

In the annals of movie animation, there was never a cartoon character quite like Screwball “Screwy” Squirrel.  Described by author-historian Leonard Maltin in Of Mice and Magic as possessing “all the brashness associated with such recent stars as Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker,” the manic creation of legendary director Tex Avery had a short life in motion picture cartoons (only five shorts released between 1944 and 1946). This is because, according to Maltin, Avery “made him so aggressive, so completely obnoxious, that there was no room for ‘lovability’.”

However, the actor who voiced Screwy—born Walter Maher in Cincinnati, OH on this date in 1908—was indeed quite lovable, and certainly made his presence known in movies and on radio.  Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod once described Wally Maher as “an unassuming fellow.” He was the perfect “Everyman” called upon whenever a radio script required “a truck driver, a security guard, a garage mechanic, a patrol cop, or just plain Joseph H. Blow.  Though show business may not have been the direction Wally initially had planned to go in life (despite his father William’s history with vaudeville as a song-and-dance-man), he discovered he had a knack for mimicry while working as a baggage clerk for the Southern Pacific railroad.  An audition with Cincinnati radio station WLW—”the Nation’s Station”—in 1930 for a role in a radio serial version of the film All Quiet on the Western Front landed him a job with the station’s dramatic staff (despite that audition being a bit disastrous, as Maher would admit in later years).

While at WLW, Wally Maher was an actor, director and producer.  During his stay in Cincinnati, Maher made the acquaintance of a performer named Tommy Riggs.  Riggs had been diagnosed with a medical condition that doctors at the Cornell Medical Center would dub “bi-vocalism.”  It wasn’t life-threatening…it simply allowed Riggs to switch back-and-forth from his natural baritone voice to the tones of a seven-year-old girl (whom he dubbed “Betty Lou Barrie”).  It was not a childish falsetto—it was an honest-to-goodness girl’s voice, which Tommy used to his amusement one day when he nearly cleared out a Brown University locker room filled with his teammates.

Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou were stars on WLW, and one day when Riggs heard Wally imitate an angry kid, he persuaded Maher to join his program as Betty Lou’s boyfriend “Wilbur.”  Wally’s character was well-received, and when Maher eventually came back to the West Coast in 1942 (after a brief sojourn in New York, performing on Broadway and doing radio shows like Camel CaravanEno Crime CluesGangbusters, and Mr. District Attorney) the first person he ran into at the Hollywood CBS studios was his old pal Tommy. Riggs had been signed to do a summer replacement series (George Burns and Gracie Allen got a vacation) for Swan Soap.  While that show came to end in 1943 (due to Riggs’ enlistment in the Navy), it would return in the summer of 1946 with Wally Maher back on board.

Tommy Riggs was not the only radio comedian that Maher had the pleasure of working with. Wally would appear on shows headlined by the likes of Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Eddie Bracken, Burns & Allen, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, and Rudy Vallee.  In addition, Maher made the rounds on comedy-variety programs like Amos ‘n’ AndyG.I. JournalThe Harold Peary ShowThe Magnificent MontagueMaisieMeet Me at Parky’sMy Favorite HusbandThe Penny Singleton Show, and Sealtest Variety Theatre.  Despite his flair for comedy, Wally worked on many of the dramatic series of that era: Arch Oboler’s PlaysThe Cavalcade of AmericaEscapeFamily TheatreHallmark PlayhouseLights OutThe Lux Radio TheatreNBC Presents: Short StoryThe NBC University TheatreScreen Director’s PlayhouseThe Silver TheatreSuspense (most memorably in “Dead Ernest”), and The Whistler.

In 1944, Wally Maher was cast as the titular gumshoe of The Adventures of Michael Shayne, Private Detective, a hard-boiled detective series based on Brett Halliday’s literary creation.  The program began as West Coast offering (with Louise Arthur and Cathy Lewis as his gal Friday) before being promoted to the full Mutual network in later seasons.  Maher also had a recurring role on another West Coast detective program, Let George Do It, on which he played Lieutenant Riley, the friendly police nemesis of private investigator George Valentine.  In addition, Wally was “Dan Murray” on Carlton E. Morse’s One Man’s Family and did occasional work on Morse’s I Love a Mystery.  Maher was one of several actors to portray “Archie Goodwin” on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, and he made the rounds on other popular crime dramas such as The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeJeff Regan, InvestigatorRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveT-ManTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBI, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Wally Maher’s initial decision to “go west, young man” was prompted (according to Radio Life) by his landing a bit role in a 1935 film, Murder in the Fleet.  Yet once established in Tinsel Town, Wally didn’t lack for work in motion pictures, appearing in such features as Thanks a Million (1935), Fury (1936), Libeled Lady (1936), You Only Live Once (1937), and It’s a Wonderful World (1939).  By the end of the 1940s, Maher’s movie work resulted in more than a few credited roles in the likes of Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) and The Story of Molly X (1949—with his Michael Shayne co-star Cathy Lewis).  He appeared in two Dick Powell vehicles, The Reformer and the Redhead (1950) and Right Cross (1950), and was among the cast of an oft-overlooked little noir, Mystery Street (1950).

But Wally Maher enjoyed radio above all else, and in addition to his duties on Let George Do It he made the rounds on such shows as The Cisco KidDangerous AssignmentHopalong CassidyNight BeatThe Story of Dr. Kildare, and Wild Bill Hickok.  Maher’s last major role was as “Sergeant Matt Grebb” on The Line-Up—a no-nonsense cop who provided an excellent contrast to star William Johnstone’s “Lieutenant Ben Guthrie.”  Unfortunately for Wally, a troublesome medical history of respiratory problems (which kept him from enlisting during WW2) continued to plague him at this point in his career – despite surgery to have a lung removed in 1950.  Wally Maher passed away on December 27, 1951 at the tender age of 43.

Despite his regrettably short stay on this planet we lovingly call Earth, Wally Maher was a hard man to keep down where radio was concerned—and Radio Spirits is ready to back up that boast with collections from his two signature radio series: Michael Shayne: Murder, Prepaid and The Line-Up: Witness.  You can also hear our birthday boy as Lt. Riley in the Let George Do It sets Cry Uncle and Sweet Poison, plus his brief (emphasis on brief) stint as Nero Wolfe’s legman in Parties for Death.  If that’s not enough for Maher for you, check out his work on such shows as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Great Radio DetectivesLonely Canyons), The Adventures of Sam Spade (Lawless), Burns & Allen (Burns & Allen and FriendsMuddling Through), Escape (Peril), The Fitch Bandwagon with Phil Harris & Alice Faye (A Song and a Smile), Lights Out (Lights Out, Everybody), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead MenHomicide Made EasyMayhem is My Business), Suspense (Beyond Good and EvilSuspense at WorkTies That BindWages of Sin), The Whistler (Root of All Evil), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar).

Happy Birthday, Alice Frost!

At the turn of the twentieth century, a career as an actor or actress was frowned upon in “proper” society.”  Aspirations to trod amongst the footlights were held in low regard, particularly among members of the clergy. So a Lutheran minister in Minneapolis, MN named John August Frost certainly would have raised objections if he thought his daughter—born Alice Dorothy Margaret Frost on this date in 1905—was planning on making performing her life’s vocation.  Reverend Frost was blissfully unaware of it at the time…but when four-year-old Alice stood up in his little Swedish church and sang Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam one Sunday morning, her theatrical ambitions were already well underway.

The closest anyone in Alice Frost’s family came to a performing career at that time was Alice’s mother, who was the organist in Reverend Frost’s church.  Her father was so dead set against her acting that ten-year-old Alice had to sneak out at night to attend rehearsals for a production of Hansel and Gretel (she played the witch).  By the time she entered high school, the acting bug had bit and refused to let go; she participated in both the drama society and glee club in addition to the student newspaper and debate society.  After graduation, Frost would enroll at the University of Minnesota…and landed a small part in a play being put on by the school’s drama club.  It was during rehearsal for the production that Alice got the terrible news: her father had died suddenly, leaving the family destitute.  Alice had to drop out of school and take a job in a department store to help the family make ends meet.

Alice Frost would eventually return to dramatics when she started taking night classes at the McPhail School of Music in Minneapolis.  That summer, Frost was cast as Lorelei in a Chautauqua production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and she hoped that stardom would not be too far behind when the play passed through Chicago in late summer.  Alice got an offer to join a road company troupe…but the company found itself broke and stranded in Miami not long afterward.  Following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, Frost and her mother decided to use some money from a small legacy to move to the big city in search of acting work.  Alice would appear in a number of stage plays—The Great Lover, As Husbands GoIt’s a Wise Child, etc.—but she really found the idea of performing on radio most attractive.  As she later remarked for an interview with Movie and Radio Guide in 1940: “Radio was something new and, I felt, something big.  I felt that if I could get into it with my dramatic background and grow up with it, I’d find a real place for myself.”

Radio parts were hard to come by at first, but a friend of hers, announcer Fred Uttel, gave her some advice: Alice would be more likely to make inroads into the medium if she made her presence known to the directors at the advertising agencies responsible for underwriting much of radio’s content.  Soon, Alice began getting work on such shows as Al Pearce and His GangThe Criminal CourtForty-Five Minutes in HollywoodFive Star FinalThe Eno Crime ClubStoopnagle and BuddMrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and The Camel Caravan.  Frost would also be one of the inaugural members of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe. On radio, she would work on Les Miserables and Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air/Campbell Playhouse, and on stage she understudied the role of Portia in Orson’s famed production of Julius Caesar.

Alice Frost’s big radio break came when she was cast as the long-suffering Ruth Evans Wayne on the popular daytime drama Big Sister.  (It was Kismet—the announcer on that program was her chum Fred Uttel.)  Alice would also reprise her role of Ruth on Sister’s soapy spin-off, Bright Horizon, and in addition the actress made the rounds on David HarumLorenzo JonesAunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories, and The Second Mrs. Burton.  Frost’s radio resume would eventually encompass such favorites as The Adventures of the SaintThe Big StoryThe Cavalcade of AmericaCBS Radio WorkshopCloak and DaggerThe ClockThe Columbia Workshop, Crime ClubFamous Jury TrialsThe Fat ManThe FBI in Peace and WarGrand Central StationGreat PlaysThe Harold Lloyd Comedy TheatreInner SanctumThe Lux Radio TheatreThe Mercury Summer Theatre, The MGM Theatre of the AirMr. District AttorneyMr. I.A. MotoThe Philip Morris PlayhouseThe Private Files of Rex SaundersThe Radio Reader’s DigestRomanceThe Shadow, and Suspense.

As you can see—Alice Frost was never idle when it came to standing in front of a microphone.  Her best known radio gig, however, was unquestionably portraying the female half of the husband-and-wife sleuthing team Mr. and Mrs. North.  Premiering over NBC on December 30, 1942, the series would soon become one of radio’s most popular radio mystery shows…with Alice as the delightfully dizzy Pam North alongside Joseph Curtin as her down-to-earth book publisher spouse, Jerry.  The series ran on NBC from 1942 to 1946 before switching to CBS in July of 1947 for an even longer run until 1955.  Alice, however, turned over the role of Pam North to actress Barbara Britton by the fall of 1953; Britton was by that time appearing as Pam in a TV version of the show (with her boob tube spouse Richard Denning replacing Curtin on radio as well).

With her busy radio schedule, Alice Frost had little time for movies—she didn’t start seeking film roles until the 1960s, with bit roles in such features as The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and The Prize (1963).  Television, on the other hand, was a different story: Alice made her small screen debut on TV’s Mama in 1949 and would go on to notch up guest appearances on such popular TV hits as GunsmokeThe Twilight ZoneWagon Train, and Hazel.  (She had a recurring role as “Mama Holstrum” on the ABC-TV sitcom The Farmer’s Daughter, which aired from 1963 to 1966.)  Frost also guested on such 70s shows as BarettaPolice Woman, and Fantasy Island; she passed away at the age of 87 in 1998.

The secret of Alice Frost’s longevity on radio is that like any good actress, she mastered a number of dialects, with her friends jokingly referring to her as “the girl of a hundred voices.”  Frost would trace this talent to her childhood; her father welcomed in any number of visiting ministers who had traveled to the four corners of the earth, and young Alice would delight in mimicking their speech patterns.  Our birthday girl shows off her thespic prowess in our brand-new Suspense collection, Fear and Trembling, and you can also check her out in Inner Sanctum: Shadows of Death and The Shadow: Strange Puzzles.  Happy birthday, Alice!

Happy Birthday, Blake Edwards!

If I enlisted you into playing a word association game and started the ball rolling by uttering “Blake Edwards”—chances are that you would respond with “Pink Panther”…for it was indeed Edwards who instituted that long-running movie franchise (beginning with 1964’s The Pink Panther) starring British actor-comedian Peter Sellers as the bumbling French Inspector Jacques Clouseau.  Edwards’ film career as a movie director includes such classics as Operation Petticoat (1959), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and on the small screen he was responsible for introducing super-suave Peter Gunn to TV audiences.  But I’d bet only a handful know of Blake’s contributions to radio, including a detective that also had a bit of success on the boob tube—Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  Seeing that Mr. Edwards was born William Blake Crump on this date in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1922, it seems only fitting we pay tribute to his career, particularly his work in the aural medium.

Blake Edwards’ father, Donald Crump, purportedly abandoned the family before Blake was born.  His interest in show business might have been cultivated by his stepfather, Jack McEdwards, who moved the family out to L.A. in 1925 to take a job as a film production manager.  (He had been a movie director during the silent era.)  In a 1971 interview with The Village Voice, Blake observed that relations between him and his stepdad were not particularly rosy (he felt “alienated” and “estranged”), but after attending grammar and high school in Los Angeles, actively sought work as a film actor — beginning with an uncredited bit as a cadet in 1942’s Ten Gentlemen from West Point.

Movies in which Blake Edwards performed bit roles (non-credited) include A Guy Named Joe (1943), Wing and a Prayer (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and They Were Expendable (1945).  Blake played a lot of military men in the movies, and life would imitate art during World War II when he served in the United States Coast Guard. (He would suffer a back injury that resulted in years of agonizing discomfort.)  As for his film career—well, he worked with a lot of well-known directors, but at that time was acquiring a reputation as (as he put it) “a spunky, smart-assed kid.”  “Maybe even then I was indicating that I wanted to give, not take, direction,” he mused.  The ambitious Edwards convinced John C. Champion, an individual with whom he had attended high school, to put some money into a Western movie that the two men would write. The finished product was released by Monogram in 1948 as Panhandle.  They teamed up for another film as their follow-up (as producers and writers), Stampede (1949), before going their separate ways.

With those writing and producing credits under his belt, Blake Edwards happened to tune into a radio program on which his girlfriend, an aspiring actress, was appearing. When she asked him what he thought, Blake confessed that it was “pretty bad.”  Challenged to do better, Edwards worked up his own script (using the girl’s show, Hollywood Star Theatre, as a template) and she submitted it to Star Theatre’s producer, Nat Wolff…who liked Blake’s contribution so much that he passed it off to radio auteur Jack Webb.  Wolff would then introduce Edwards to Don Sharp, who was looking for a radio vehicle for his client, Dick Powell.  Blake did a little bluffing—telling Sharp he had just the thing for Dick, but…since he was living at the beach…he would have to go home and bring it back the following day.  He wrote up a treatment for Richard Diamond, Private Detective that evening, and the show premiered over NBC Radio on April 24, 1949. The program would continue to run (with stops at ABC and CBS) under various sponsorships until September 20, 1953.

Blake Edwards not only penned the weekly investigations of Richard Diamond…he had a hand in the creation of radio’s The Line-Up, and contributed to both Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar as well.  Asked by Leonard Maltin in an interview if there was a specific reason why he didn’t continue in radio, Edwards quipped: “Only because I got a better job.  You know, somebody called me up and said, ‘You want to write a movie?’  And that was that.”  That movie was 1952’s Sound Off, which he co-wrote with director Richard Quine; the duo would also work together on such films as All Ashore (1953), Drive a Crooked Road (1954), and The Atomic Kid (1954).

All four of the aforementioned movies starred Mickey Rooney, with whom both Edwards and Quine would work with on a short-lived TV sitcom entitled The Mickey Rooney Show: Hey Mulligan.  It was TV that provided Blake with his first opportunity to become a director, helming episodes of his friend Dick Powell’s Four Star Playhouse. Later in the decade, Edwards would create and produce (as well as contribute scripts to) Peter Gunn, a jazzy crime drama that ran for three seasons on NBC and ABC.  Blake also produced, for a time, the series Mr. Lucky. Both Gunn and Lucky featured music from Henry Mancini, a composer with whom Edwards enjoyed a fruitful partnership. When Blake’s motion picture directing career was in full swing, Mancini worked with him on the likes of Experiment in Terror (1962) and The Party (1968).

Blake Edwards’ feature film directorial debut was 1955’s Bring Your Smile Along. Although his career included high points (like the previously mentioned Tiffany’s and Wine and Roses), he would become best known for his comedic contributions (like the Pink Panther films), and occasional curios like Darling Lili (1970), The Tamarind Seed (1974), and S.O.B. (1981).  All three of the latter films starred Mrs. Edwards — he wed Julie Andrews in 1969 — as did 1982’s Victor/Victoria, which many consider to be one of his finest films.  Edwards would continue to direct until 1995 (his last effort was a TV presentation of Victor/Victoria with Andrews, a video recording of the Broadway version he directed), and passed away in 2010 at the age of 88.

Blake Edwards said of Dick Powell, “…we took a liking to each other, as a matter of fact. He was really a sweet man.”  Edwards did admit, however, that when Powell brought Diamond to TV (starring future Fugitive David Janssen) he sort of had to remind him that he did originate the character before Dick finally threw some money his way.  On the anniversary of Blake’s birthday, Radio Spirits invites you to check out our Richard Diamond collections of Homicide Made EasyMayhem is My Business, and Dead Man (which also features our other birthday celebrant, Stacy Harris—a favorite actor of Blake’s during his stint in radio!).  You can also hear Edwards’ work on The Line-Up: Witness and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Mysterious Matters.

Happy Birthday, Stacy Harris!

Before embarking on his long career as a much-in-demand actor on radio, TV, and in the movies, Stacy Harris—born in Big Timber, Quebec, Canada on this date in 1918—was the dictionary definition of a “jack-of-all-trades.”  Among his previous occupations were pilot, sailor, boxer, champion archer, artist (he was a political cartoonist for The New Orleans Times-Picayune), and newspaper reporter (sportswriter for The San Francisco Chronicle).  But show business was where Stacy would toil the longest, because…with all those other jobs you might start wondering why he had trouble holding onto them. (Just joking, of course.)

Stacy Harris spent many years in the military; he had enlisted in the Army as a pilot right out of high school, but a plane crash in 1937 injured his leg…and as a result, rendered him “4F” when he attempted to re-enlist at the start of World War II.  Undaunted, Harris became a merchant seaman and then ambulance driver for the Free French in Africa, and then was transferred to the Foreign Legion (as a dispatch rider), where he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.  Discharge in hand, Stacy would soon find work in the aural medium—particularly in the world of daytime drama, where he appeared on such programs as Pepper Young’s Family (as Carter Trent) and The Strange Romance of Evelyn Winters (Ted Blades).

One of Stacy’s earliest high-profile jobs was on another daytime series—though it was geared more to a kid audience than housewives.  On The Adventures of Superman, Harris was one of three actors (the others being Gary Merrill and Matt Crowley) to portray Batman, Supe’s fellow DC Comics super crimefighter.  The creative minds behind the radio Superman decided to introduce The Dark Knight to the show as a way to give actor Clayton “Bud” Collyer (who played The Man of Steel) a little R&R from the rigors of the series, but Batman never really caught on in the same way as The Kid from Krypton did.

It wouldn’t be until radio’s This is Your FBI made a move to the West Coast (it was a New York-based program in its early years) that Stacy Harris would get regular work. He became FBI’s star as Special Agent Jim Taylor, who investigated the various cases on the series as sort of a representation of all of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s agents.  This is Your FBI was one of two shows on the airwaves to spotlight the work of the Feds (the other was The FBI in Peace and War) — and although Peace and War enjoyed a longer run on radio, This is Your FBI had FBI head J. Edgar Hoover’s stamp of approval. Recognizing an effective public relations tool when he saw one, Hoover declared it “the finest dramatic program on the air.”  This is Your FBI premiered over ABC on April 6, 1945 and sold plenty of Equitable Life insurance until January 30, 1953.  Producer-director Jerry Devine was most enthused about adding Stacy to the program, remarking to a newspaper columnist: “Stacy has just the sort of voice I need for the quiet authority of the special agent on my show.  On top of that, he’s a good actor, and it’s a combination on radio which can’t be beat.”

Stacy Harris made certain that Jerry Devine wasn’t just talking out of his hat.  His radio appearances include The Adventures of Christopher LondonThe CBS Radio WorkshopConfessionDangerous Assignment, Ellery QueenEscapeThe First Nighter ProgramFrontier Gentleman, Gangbusters, GunsmokeThe Halls of IvyHollywood Star PlayhouseJason and the Golden FleeceThe Line-UpThe Lux Radio TheatreNight BeatO’HaraRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Silent MenSomebody KnowsStars Over HollywoodThe Story of Dr. KildareSuspenseTales of the Texas RangersThe WhispererThe Woman in My House, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  One of Stacy’s longest and most rewarding collaborations was with Jack Webb: Harris made the rounds of such Webb-connected series as Jeff Regan, InvestigatorPat Novak for Hire, and Pete Kelly’s Blues. In fact, he was particularly in-demand on Jack’s Dragnet, in which he specialized in portraying lowlifes constantly crabbing about not being able to catch a break.

It was his association with Jack Webb that got Stacy Harris established in motion pictures, too. Harris made his movie debut in a 1951 noir entitled Appointment with Danger, in which he plays the “inside man” at a post office (Webb and his future Dragnet co-star Harry Morgan play the bad guys!).  Webb would also use Stacy as the main villain when he brought Dragnet to the big screen in 1954, with Harris playing the ulcerated Max Troy (a sour stomach and disposition to match).  Stacy would appear on the TV Dragnet multiple times (both the 1952-59 and 1967-70 incarnations), not to mention the Webb-produced Adam-12Emergency!, and O’Hara, U.S. Treasury (on which he had a recurring role as Agent Ben Hazzard).  Jack and Stacy were such good friends that Webb even named his elder daughter “Stacy” in tribute.

Stacy Harris’ other recurring TV roles were as “Detective Vic Beaujac” on N.O.P.D. and “Mayor Clum” on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.  Harris was a busy beaver when it came to the small screen, making the rounds of such hit shows as Have Gun – Will TravelThe UntouchablesRawhidePerry Mason77 Sunset StripWagon TrainBonanzaThe Virginian, and so many more.  According to the IMDb, Stacy’s final credit was an episode of the short-lived horror anthology Circle of Fear; he left this world for a better one rather early after succumbing to a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 54.

Today, fans of Stacy’s work can hear his familiar voice on two sets of Dragnet (The Big BlastThe Big Gamble); three volumes of Escape (Escape Essentials, The Hunted and the HauntedPeril); Frontier Gentleman; Night Beat (Human Interest); Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead Men); Somebody KnowsSuspense (Suspense at Work); The Weird Circle (Restless Sea); and our Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar compendiums of The Archives CollectionFabulous FreelanceMedium Rare MattersMurder MattersMysterious Matters, and Wayward Matters.

“…there you will find…The Man Called X!”

Before his long, distinguished career as a stage and motion picture actor, Herbert Marshall embarked on a variety of jobs (including accounting) that led up to his enlisting in the first World War.  While serving on the Western Front in 1917, Marshall was hit in his left knee by a sniper during the Second Battle of Arras in France…and doctors were forced to amputate his left leg after a series of operations failed to save it.  Herbert—or “Bart,” as he was known to his friends—wore a prosthetic wooden leg after that, and as someone who’s watched the actor in many films including Blonde Venus (1932), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941)…if I didn’t already know he had a wooden leg, I’d never be able to tell.  (He walked with a slight limp—emphasis on slight.)

On radio, it mattered very little if Marshall had a wooden leg or not.  Herbert had a rich, resonant voice that served him quite well in front of a microphone as a guest on such programs as The Lux Radio TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, and The Cavalcade of America.  On this date in 1944, Herbert Marshall made his debut on a series tailor-made for him: a summer show that was filling in for the vacationing Lux Radio Theatre…and that came to be known as The Man Called X.

In its short eight-week summer run, The Man Called X was a little far removed from the espionage drama of later years.  Marshall played Ken Thurston, a private operative who was more detective than secret agent and was joined on the program by veterans Hans Conried (as Thurston’s friendly nemesis, Egon Zellschmidt) and Mary Jane Croft (as fiancée Nancy Bessington).  Man Called X had a light comedic touch to its proceedings, but that began to be downplayed when the show got the greenlight for a full season in the fall (it moved to the Blue Network, though it kept its sponsor, Lockheed).  Conried and Croft had disappeared, and Thurston’s reluctant sidekick was renamed Pegon Zellschmidt.  Leon Belasco, a character actor who was also a violinist and conductor, stepped into the role of Pegon and would play the part until the show left the radio airwaves in the early 1950s.

There would be no summer vacation for The Man Called X after its 1944-45 season.  The show would be called upon to continue selling Pepsodent while Bob Hope got a little R&R, and Man Called X would repeat this function in the summer of 1946 as well.  After that, Man Called X temporarily halted its globetrotting until April of 1947, when it returned to CBS for Frigidaire (hawked by Wendell Niles, of course).  The show ended its CBS run in September of 1948 (and Niles went on to sell his appliances on The New Lum ‘n’ Abner Show.)

By the time of the series’ run on CBS, The Man Called X had firmly established its format.  Ken Thurston worked for an agency known only as “The Bureau” (possibly an offshoot of the U.S. State Department).  Thurston, a.k.a. “X,” could take solace in knowing he at least had a proper name that would allow him to sign checks…but his boss was known only as “The Chief.”  The role of the Chief was played by a number of actors, the most identifiable being character great Will Wright.

Thurston’s “dangerous” assignments took him to various hot spots around the globe—had the airlines’ “frequent flyer” program been in operation at the time, they would have been providing a lot of free airfare to Mr. “X.”  More often than not, once Thurston had made himself comfortable in his new locale, he’d wind up bumping into Pegon—a slightly shady con man who had reason to be where Ken had landed because he had a “relative” working in the area.  Despite Mr. Zellschmidt’s reluctance to get involved, he proved to be a reliable ally in helping Thurston bring miscreants like drug smugglers and black marketeers to justice.

The Man Called X flourished during the post-WW2 era, as listeners thrilled to Ken Thurston’s adventures in exotic locales.  In the fall of 1950, NBC resurrected Man Called X after a two-year hiatus, and Marshall and Belasco continued in their roles of Thurston and Pegon, assisted by a cast of Radio Row pros like John Dehner, Lou Merrill, Gloria Blondell, Ed Begley, Howard McNear and many more.  Chesterfield, RCA Victor, Anacin, and Ford all took turns paying X’s bills, and with the exception of a brief period in May of 1951 — when star Marshall went in for surgery due to a pulmonary embolism (Van Heflin, John Lund, and Joseph Cotten filled in during Marshall’s convalescence) — the stars and format continued until the show signed off on May 27, 1952.

In 1956, syndicator Frederick Ziv revived The Man Called X for a TV series that ran for 39 episodes. The show certainly gave a nod to its radio roots (created by real-life intelligence operative Jay Richard Kennedy), but author Michael Kachman (Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage and Cold War Culture) notes that the TV Thurston character was also based on an American journalist named Ladislas Farago. Gradually transitioning from ink-stained wretch to espionage agent, Farago worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence—a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.  The small screen version of X starred Barry Sullivan as Thurston.

“Wherever there is mystery…intrigue…romance…in all the strange and dangerous places in the world…there you will find…The Man Called X!”  That familiar opening for the program will clue in old-time radio lovers that a half-hour of top espionage excitement is to follow, and Radio Spirits invites you to check out the exotic exploits of Ken Thurston in our Man Called X collection, which features twelve vintage broadcasts of the series from 1950-51.

Happy Birthday, George W. Trendle!

“There were many tight-fisted broadcasting officials in the Golden Age of Radio, but probably none more pernicious the George W. Trendle, the owner of WXYZ in Detroit.”  So wrote author/Radio Spirits contributor Jack French in a 1998 article he titled “The Miser of Motown.”  Trendle, born George Washington Trendle in Norwalk, Ohio on this date in 1884 (a real-life nephew of his Uncle Sam, so to speak), purchased a Detroit, Michigan station (WGHP) in 1929 with partner John H. Kunsky. They changed its call letters to WXYZ…and became an indelible part of old-time radio history with the creation of such classic juvenile adventures as The Lone RangerThe Green Hornet, and Challenge of the Yukon (a.k.a. Sergeant Preston of the Yukon).  Trendle’s extreme frugality may not have won him many fans where his employees were concerned (tales of his skinflint activities are well-documented, French notes, in Dick Osgood’s essential history of WXYZ, Wyxie Wonderland), yet there are those who opine that George’s ruthless practices may have kept the station afloat during the Great Depression.

George W. Trendle started his career as a member of the legal profession in the 1920s, quickly establishing a hardball reputation as a tough negotiator when it came to movie contracts and leases.  His partner John H. Kunsky (who had built Detroit’s first theatre in 1911) got him further involved in “the movies” when he offered George a 25 percent interest in his motion picture theatre business in exchange for Trendle’s services.  Later, Kunsky, Trendle, and other local theatre owners would feel intense pressure to sell out when Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, acquired the Detroit area film exchange known as the Cooperative Booking Office.  George skillfully negotiated the sale of Kunsky’s holdings for six million dollars — but under the terms of the agreement, neither he nor Kunsky could return to the theatre business in Detroit.  (Zukor, however, was so impressed by Trendle that he hired him to manage Paramount’s theaters in Detroit.  George kept that job until in 1937, when he was fired for “negligence.”)

As previously stated, George W. Trendle and John H. Kunsky were already conquering new fields in entertainment with their acquisition of WXYZ in 1929.  Trendle became the president of the organization known as the Kunsky-Trendle Broadcasting Company (which changed its name to King-Trendle in 1936 when vice president Kunsky legally changed his name) and took an active role as WXYZ’s station manager.  Though a Columbia Broadcasting System affiliate in the beginning, WXYZ became an independent station in 1932 and began to concentrate on their own “homegrown” programming. Early offerings included Thrills of the Secret ServiceDr. Fang, and Warner Lester, Manhunter.  Jim Jewell became WXYZ’s dramatic director and Fran Striker became head of the station’s script department.

George’s staff also included H. Allen Campbell, his longtime business associate. Campbell had previously worked for the Hearst organization as an advertising salesman…and was hired by Trendle to secure sponsors for the station’s programs.  But Campbell had another function at WXYZ: he was George’s “hatchet man.” He would also lure prospective employees with the novel idea of a job for no pay (kind of a precursor to the “unpaid internships” of today.)  There was, after all, a Depression going on, and new hires were promised a salary “when things got better.”

The Lone Ranger would eventually become the hit that helped things get better at the station.  It was syndicated to such stations as Chicago’s WGN and New York’s WOR — and when the Mutual Broadcasting Company was formed in 1934, WXYZ became a charter member.  The Green Hornet would be added to WXYZ’s roster in 1936, followed by Challenge of the Yukon in 1938.  (Not everything George W. Trendle touched turned to gold, however—he also produced such largely forgotten shows as Ned Jordan Secret Agent and Bob Barclay – American Agent.)  In 1946, the newly formed American Broadcasting Company purchased the King-Trendle Broadcasting Company—which included station WOOD and the Michigan Regional Network in addition to WXYZ—for $3.65 million.  George, however, retained ownership of WXYZ’s programs (RangerHornet, etc.).  That same year, Trendle, Campbell, and Raymond Meurer started the Trendle-Campbell Broadcasting Company and began to acquire Michigan radio stations (Flint’s WTCB, Pontiac’s WPON) and add a TV station (WTAC-TV in Flint).

In 1949, George W. Trendle hired producer Jack Chertok to bring The Lone Ranger to TV, taking a credit as executive producer.  The TV Ranger would go on to become a small screen success (one of the fledgling ABC’s few hits). In 1954, Trendle sold the rights to the property to the Jack Wrather Corporation for $3 million, and Wrather continued as the executive producer on that show until 1957.  (George later sold Sergeant Preston of the Yukon to Wrather in 1957, after having produced that program on TV for two seasons beginning in 1955.)  George would continue to participate in the operation of WPON into the late 60s before passing on in 1972 at the age of 87.

If you ever wondered why the theme songs to such George W. Trendle-produced shows like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet were classical music standards (The William Tell Overture for RangerThe Flight of the Bumblebee for Hornet)…well, you can chalk that up to our birthday boy’s propensity for squeezing a nickel till the buffalo bellowed.  Sure, George W. might have given Jack Benny’s radio character a run for his money (pun intended) in his reluctance to part with a dollar, but we can’t dismiss his contributions to Radio’s Golden Age.  We offer our Lone Ranger collections Danger in the Night (our newest release), Vengeance, Masked Rider, and The Lone Ranger Rides Again.  (There’s even some Yuletide Ranger on our compendium Radio’s Christmas Celebrations, and TV Ranger on the DVD collection Lone Ranger: 20 Episodes.)  As for The Green Hornet, we can point you to Sting of JusticeCity Hall ShakeupFights Crime!The Green Hornet Strikes AgainNight FlightUnderworldThe Big Deal…and be sure to check out Generations, which explores the familial connections between The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet with vintage broadcasts from both shows.  Finally, the third member of the “WXYZ triumvirate” is represented by the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon sets Return to DangerFrozen TrailsOn, You Huskies!Relentless Pursuit, and King Takes Over.

“…enemy to those who make him an enemy…friend to those who have no friends…”

The debate as to whether prisons can successfully reform those individuals who have strayed off the straight-and-narrow will rage on as long as those edifices are being built…but we’d like to present Exhibit A as an example of how the inside of those four gray walls can do wonders for a man.  His name is Jack Boyle, a San Francisco newspaperman whose opium habit led him to kiting checks (a little slang for writing bad ones) and then robbery.  It was this last bit of business that led to his conviction, and while serving his sentence in San Quentin, Boyle fell back on his journalistic pursuits to create a character named “Boston Blackie,” professional safecracker and jewel thief.

Boyle’s first Blackie story, “The Price of Principle,” appeared in The American Scene Magazine in July of 1914—written under his pen name, “No. 6066” (his prison identification).  He followed “Principle” with three additional tales of the thief, and eventually reached a point (beginning in 1917) where stories of Boston Blackie began to appear regularly in periodicals like Redbook and Cosmopolitan.  Boston Blackie would later achieve fame in the movies and on television…but it was on this date in 1944 that “Horatio Black” began entertaining radio listeners with a program that remains one of the most fondly remembered of Radio’s Golden Age.

To call Boyle’s Boston Blackie a crook and con artist would do a disservice to this anti-hero. Blackie had reformed (like his creator) and became more of a modern-day Robin Hood.  He did all right for himself in the short story arena, but Blackie’s fame really took off when one of Boyle’s short stories, “Boston Blackie’s Little Pal” (published in Redbook in June of 1918), was adapted for a feature film that same year starring Bert Lytell as Blackie.  Lytell reprised the role in 1919’s Blackie’s Redemption, but in-between those two features there was 1919’s The Poppy Girl’s Husband (with Walter Long as Blackie) and The Silk Lined Burglar (with Sam De Grasse).  The Blackie films proved so popular that Boyle collected many of the previously published short stories for a book release, Boston Blackie, in 1919.  (Boyle revised and rearranged the stories to form a more cohesive narrative for the benefit of those encountering his creation for the first time.)

Six additional Boston Blackie features were produced during the 1920s featuring a variety of actors portraying the character—the best known is probably Lionel Barrymore, who starred in 1922’s The Face in the Fog (released by Paramount).  After 1927’s The Return of Boston Blackie (with Raymond Glenn as Blackie), Horatio was absent from the silver screen until 1941, when Columbia Pictures instituted a series of B-pictures starring Chester Morris.  The first entry in this series, Meet Boston Blackie (1941), may have been produced with economy in mind…but it was very successful at the box office, with solid entries like Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) and Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942) following in its wake.  In the Columbia series, Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black was an ex-con who frequently found himself the chief suspect in murders and jewel thefts (due to his reputation) and was frequently pressed into solving the crimes as an amateur detective, staying one step of the police…represented by his nemesis Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane).  Blackie was assisted by his loyal sidekick, The Runt—portrayed in the series’ entries by George E. Stone, with the exception of the first film (Meet Boston Blackie, Charles Wagenheim) and last (Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture [1949], Sid Tomack).

The success of Columbia’s Blackie franchise prompted NBC to fashion a radio series for the safecracking sleuth in June of 1944, with Morris and Lane reprising their movie roles of Blackie and Farraday.  Blackie lost “The Runt” on radio, but gained a sidekick called “Shorty” and a lady friend named Mary Wesley, portrayed by Jan Miner.  Boston Blackie’s first season on radio was a brief one, owing to the fact that it was the summer replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy, which returned to its regularly scheduled timeslot in September.  But on April 11, 1945, Boston Blackie was back on the air in a series produced by syndication pioneer Frederick Ziv.  Transcribed for syndication, Boston Blackie would nevertheless air over Mutual and ABC throughout its run, and it starred Richard Kollmar as Blackie, Maurice Tarplin as Farraday, and Lesley Woods as Mary.  The Ziv-produced Boston Blackie proved quite popular with audiences, airing on radio until October 25, 1950.

With the advent of television, it was only fitting that Boston Blackie transition to the small screen like so many of its radio brethren and sistren. With the help of Ziv, Horatio Black became a weekly boob tube fixture with a syndicated series, The Adventures of Boston Blackie, that began in September of 1951.  Kent Taylor would play the TV Blackie, with Lois Collier as Mary and Frank Orth as Farraday.  Though Blackie still hadn’t made an honest woman out of Mary, the couple did have a pet dog (Whitie)…which gave them a sort of Nick-and-Nora vibe.  The TV series lasted 58 episodes and, although there were no further adventures after 1953, the show continued to be enjoyed by couch potatoes because…well, like diamonds, syndication is forever.

I know what you’re thinking: the TV Boston Blackie has been MIA for a while now.  Fortunately, we have radio—namely, Radio Spirits’ collections Boston Blackie Delivers the Goods and Death Wish, with vintage broadcasts starring Richard Kollmar, Maurice Tarplin, and Lesley Woods.  Our shamus compendium, Great Radio Detectives, features a Blackie caper (“Kingston and the Disappearing Office Building”), and there’s Yuletide Blackie with “Stolen Rings at Christmas” on The Voices of Christmas Past.  As a bonus, we invite you to check out C.J. Henderson’s (with Joe Gentile) Partners in Crime, which teams our hero with a “League of Extraordinary Gumshoes” that includes Johnny Dollar, Candy Matson, Pat Novak, Mr. Keen and more!  Happy anniversary, Blackie!

“Get this and get it straight…”

In 1932, having been dismissed from his position as a vice-president with the Dabney Oil Syndicate, Raymond Chandler decided to take up writing detective fiction to make a living.  Chandler had previous experience in journalism, writing poetry and reviews for such publications as The Westminster Gazette and The Academy, but his dissatisfaction with journalism led him to other pursuits.  Back for a second bite at the apple, Raymond’s first professional short story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” was published in the December 1933 edition of the pulp magazine Black Mask. The newly-minted author followed that up with additional submissions for Mask and Dime Detective before his first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939.

The protagonist of The Big Sleep was a private detective named Philip Marlowe, who figured heavily in Chandler’s follow-up novel, Farewell, My Lovely, in 1940.  Lovely would be adapted for two motion picture screenplays: an RKO production in their popular “Falcon” series (starring George Sanders) entitled The Falcon Takes Over (1942), and a Dick Powell film destined to become a noir classic (also produced at RKO) called Murder, My Sweet (1944).  With Sweet and the silver screen adaptations of Chandler’s Sleep in 1946 (starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe) and The Lady in the Lake (with Robert Montgomery) the following year, it was only a matter of time before Chandler’s “white knight in a trench coat” got his own radio series (especially after Sweet was well-received on a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast in 1945).  The Adventures of Philip Marlowe made its debut over the ether on this date in 1947.

Academy Award-winner Van Heflin played Marlowe in this first radio incarnation of Chandler’s detective, though as critic John Crosby noted in a 1947 review for The Oakland Tribune, “No matter who plays Marlowe, he remains a cynical cuss who complains that he could be quite a nice guy if everyone else in the world weren’t such a 14-karat heel.  This somewhat sweeping indictment is understandable in Marlowe’s case; he gets mixed up with the funniest people.”  Heflin’s interpretation of Marlowe is a most interesting one and it’s conceivable that after thirteen episodes (Marlowe was a summer replacement for Bob Hope’s Pepsodent show) the actor could have made a further go at portraying the shamus.  Raymond Chandler, however, wasn’t a fan of Heflin’s take on his creation. He complained that it was “thoroughly flat” in a letter to Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner. (Chandler studied many of the Mason stories before embarking on his writing own ambitions.)  Anyway, MGM—Van Heflin’s employer—had other plans for their star.

After a year’s vacation, Philip Marlowe returned for a CBS series that premiered on September 26, 1948.  The actor who put on Marlowe’s trench coat was Gerald Mohr, in a production overseen by director-producer Norman Macdonnell.  (Macdonnell’s Marlowe was a favorite of CBS chairman William S. Paley, who pressed the network’s creative team to come up with a “Philip Marlowe in the early West.”)  Mohr also had Chandler’s approval. The author noted that Gerald’s voice “at least packed personality.”  (Okay, so Chandler wasn’t exactly effusive with the praise.)  CBS’s The Adventures of Philip Marlowe was an audience favorite featuring a memorable opening. Mohr’s Marlowe would bark: “Get this and get it straight—crime is a sucker’s road, and those who travel it end up in the gutter, the prison, or an early grave…”

For his portrayal of Marlowe, Gerald Mohr was chosen by Radio-Television Magazine as their Most Popular Male Actor.  The Adventures of Philip Marlowe ran two years (it was a sustained series), but was briefly revived in the summer of 1951 (as a replacement for Hopalong Cassidy) with Mohr reprising his role.  “The Sound and the Unsound” (09/15/51) would be Philip Marlowe’s radio swan song, but he continued to take cases on TV (for example, Philip Carey played the detective in a 1959-60 TV series for ABC) and in movies (interpreted by thespians such as James Garner and Elliott Gould).

For many years, only three broadcasts from the original 1947 Philip Marlowe survived the ravages of time and neglect…but two additional transcriptions eventually resurfaced, and you’ll find all five of those Van Heflin episodes on our The Adventures of Philip Marlowe collection.  Gerald Mohr’s Marlowe is represented on that set, too—not to mention Lonely CanyonsNight Tide, and Sucker’s Road.  There are broadcasts of Mohr’s Marlowe on our potpourri compilations Great Radio Detectives (“The Uneasy Head”) and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell (“The Quiet Magpie”), and to round out your collection, Radio Spirits highly recommends DVD purchases of Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978)—both starring Robert Mitchum as our favorite shamus.  In the words of Raymond Chandler: “…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  He is the hero; he is everything.”  He’s Philip Marlowe!