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Happy Birthday, Paul Frees!

“Paul Frees is EVERYWHERE!”  A cartoonist of my acquaintance adopted that statement as both a personal mantra and a tribute to the man born Solomon Hersh Frees in Chicago on this date in 1920.  For a time during the 50s/60s/70s, it was nigh impossible to sit through a movie or TV episode without hearing Frees’ incredible four-octave voice.  Paul not only narrated films and the trailers for same, he was often called upon to “loop” dialogue in features for actors who either had thick, unintelligible accents or were the victims of problems with the sound equipment.  For example: listen carefully to Tony Curtis’ “Josephine” the next time you make an appointment to watch Some Like It Hot (1959).  As incredible as this may seem, Curtis simply couldn’t do the falsetto required of his “drag” character…and so Frees was brought in to dub him.  Paul also voices four different characters in Spartacus (1960)—notably the guard hamstrung by Kirk Douglas in the movie’s opening sequence.

The artist who gave Mel Blanc serious competition in “The Man of a Thousand Voices” department began in show business as an impressionist, billed as “Buddy Green.”  A man of Paul Frees’ talents was a natural for radio, of course, and by 1942 he was actively employed in the medium until his career was interrupted by World War II.  Wounded in action in the Normandy invasion of D-Day, Paul was mustered out and sent home to recuperate…and during that convalescence decided to pursue a career studying art at the Chouinard Art Institute on the G.I. Bill.  When the health of his first wife began to fail, Frees abandoned his artistic ambitions and returned to radio for steady work.

We’re not kidding about the “steady work,” either.  To list all of Paul Frees’ radio credits would be a Herculean task, but as a point of reference, he made the rounds on such favorites as The Adventures of Frank RaceThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintBold VentureBox 13Broadway’s My Beat, The Casebook of Gregory HoodDangerous AssignmentEllery QueenJeff Regan, InvestigatorLet George Do It, The Line UpThe Man Called XNight BeatPat Novak for HireRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky Jordan (and its original incarnation, A Man Called Jordan); Rogue’s GalleryThe Silent MenThe Story of Dr. KildareTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIT-ManVoyage of the Scarlet QueenThe Whisperer; and Wild Bill Hickok.  Frees had occasional roles on Gunsmoke…and in one episode (“The Cast”) filled in for an absent Howard McNear as “Doc Adams.”  And yes, just like every radio actor (practically, anyway), Paul could be heard on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Frees’ versatility helped him secure gigs on many a radio anthology series, notably Crime ClassicsSuspense (he was the series’ announcer for a time), and The Whistler…but Paul also stood behind the microphone on ConfessionThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreThe First Nighter ProgramThe Hallmark Hall of FameHollywood Star PlayhouseThe Lux Radio TheatreMr. PresidentNBC Presents: Short StoryNBC Star PlayhouseThe NBC University TheatreOn StagePresenting Charles BoyerThe Prudential Family Hour of StarsThe Railroad HourRomance, and Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  The lighter side of Mr. Frees surfaced when he worked alongside comedic duos such as George Burns & Gracie Allen, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, and Jim & Marian Jordan (a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly), and while plying his trade on sitcoms and comedy programs headlined by Edgar Bergen, Dennis Day, Stan Freberg, Penny Singleton, and Alan Young.

Paul Frees didn’t spend all his time on the air as a supporting player.  He performed as a “one-man theater” on the 1948 syndicated series The Player (a show reminiscent of The Whistler), giving voice to ALL of the characters (he did similar duties on the syndicated Studio X).  In the summer of 1949, he portrayed “Jethro Dumont” on CBS’ The Green Lama, an adventure series in which Dumont used “his curious and secret powers in his singlehanded fight against injustice and crime.”  (Dumont’s description as a “wealthy young American” no doubt prompted comparisons to another mysterious radio crimefighter; the Lama character was the subject of numerous pulp fiction tales penned by Kendall Foster Crossen as “Richard Foster.”)  Two summers later, Paul was the titular star of Mr. Aladdin on CBS; ”Robert Aladdin” was yet another crimefighting sleuth imbued with otherworldly powers…though if the character could perform miracles, perhaps it would have been more to his benefit to use that talent to keep his show on the air.  Paul Frees’ claim to radio immortality resides on the radio adventure series Escape.  Along with William Conrad (they alternated weekly), he was heard as “the voice of Escape” (“Tired of the everyday grind…?”).  Like Conrad, Frees also performed in both lead and supporting roles on the series.  For example, in the classic “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” (02/22/48), he can be heard as a parrot!  The actor would remain a radio man till the end of his life—he was the announcer on NPR’s Bradbury 13 in 1984, an anthology that dramatized tales from science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury.

Crashing the motion picture industry was easy for Paul Frees—his voice was his ticket to fortune, and he used his gift working at cartoon studios like MGM (he was the voice of Barney Bear in a series of cartoons in the 1950s) and Walter Lantz (where he gave voice to Woody Woodpecker’s nemesis Wally Walrus and another ursine star, Charlie Beary of The Beary Family).  His earliest live action credit—according to the IMDb—was portraying a bellhop in the opening scene of my favorite John Garfield movie, Force of Evil (1948—he asks Julie’s character for advice on playing the numbers).  But Frees had notable roles in such films as A Place in the Sun (1951), The Star (1952), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), and Suddenly (1954) …and three movies in which he doesn’t receive credit include The Thing from Another World (1951—Paul is one of the scientists…as is George Fenneman!), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Harder They Fall (1956), where he plays a priest in Humphrey Bogart’s valedictory film.  (Several sources say Frees was called upon to dub Bogie’s voice in post-production—I’ve watched the movie multiple times and I just don’t believe this to be true.)  In 1960, Paul went behind the camera to direct and executive produce The Beatniks (he even wrote the songs!), an oddity that many might recognize as one of the many films that received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.  Whether you’re watching the 1949 Columbia serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Frees is the voice of “The Black Knight”) or the classic 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, there’s just no “escape” from Paul.

On the small screen, Paul Frees could be heard weekly on The Millionaire as the voice of the rarely-seen John Beresford Tipton, the philanthropist who entrusted assistant Michael Anthony (Marvin Miller) to hand out million-dollar checks to deserving people.  Most of Frees’ TV gigs, however, involved giving voice to cartoon characters.  He had a close working relationship with Jay Ward, and voiced Rocky & Bullwinkle villain Boris Badenov (channeling Akim Tamiroff) and the long-suffering Inspector Fenwick (impersonating Eric Blore), Dudley Do-Right’s superior.  Paul later used his Ronald Colman imitation as the ape named Ape on Ward’s George of the Jungle (in addition, Frees borrowed Ed Wynn’s tones as the voice of Fred, the lion sidekick of Super Chicken on that show).  For Hanna-Barbera, Paul used his Peter Lorre impersonation for Morocco Mole, the aide-de-camp to Secret Squirrel, while contributing to such shows as Shazzan! and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

He was Oliver Wendell Clutch on Calvin and the Colonel (an animated series featuring the voices of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy), and voiced half of the Fab Four (John Lennon and George Harrison) when The Beatles were the subject of a King Features cartoon series (Frees had also contributed to that studio’s versions of Barney Google & Snuffy Smith and Krazy Kat).  Fans of the Rankin-Bass holiday specials will hear Paul as Santa on Frosty the Snowman and the Burgermeister in Santa Claus is Coming to Town…but he also worked the company’s Saturday morning offerings like The Jackson Five and The Osmonds.  Other animated TV series featuring Paul’s work include The Mr. Magoo ShowThe Dick Tracy ShowThe Super 6Super President, and The Fantastic Four.  The actor couldn’t even find time for a station break, providing the voices of the Pillsbury Doughboy and Kellogg’s Froot Loops pitchbird Toucan Sam in commercials.

As you can see—we could be here all day totaling up Paul Frees’ credits…and I’m sure there are some we overlooked.  But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention his lengthy working relationship with the Walt Disney Studios, which encompassed such feature films as The Shaggy Dog (1959—Paul narrates and plays the psychiatrist) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).  In the fall of 1961, when the TV series Disneyland became Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Frees was tabbed to provide the voice of Ludwig von Drake, the show’s animated host.  Paul would later provide the voices for various Disneyland attractions like the Haunted Mansion, the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Hall of Presidents, and the Tomorrowland ride Adventure Thru Inner Space.  To the end of his days, Paul Frees kept busy, busy, busy…and upon his passing in 1986 at the age of 66, there was a noticeable silence in the world of entertainment.

My good friend Ben Ohmart is the author of Welcome, Foolish Mortals…The Life and Voices of Paul Frees; it’s a must-own biography of today’s birthday celebrant and can be found at a friendly neighborhood online bookstore near you.  Here at Radio Spirits, you’ll hear Mr. Frees in our Escape collections EssentialsEscape to the High SeasPerilThe Hunted and the Haunted) and Suspense compilations (Around the WorldSuspense at WorkTies That BindWages of Sin).  You’ll also make Paul’s acquaintance on such old-time radio favorites as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s RoadNight Tide), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show (The Funny Fifties), Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), The Line Up (Witness), The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (Quite an Affair), Rogue’s Gallery (Blue Eyes), and The Whistler (Root of All Evil).  For dessert, Frees is one of the many voices on the DVD Beer Commercials of the 50s and 60s, which presents vintage ads highlighting the cause of—and solution to—all our problems: beer!  (Little Simpsons joke for you in the audience.)

 

Happy Birthday, Ona Munson!

The effort to cast the motion picture adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel Gone with the Wind is almost as epic as the content itself.  For the role of madam Belle Watling, producer David O. Selznick considered such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead and Billie Dove…and even at one point during pre-production (though many have surmised this was a publicity stunt) suggested Mae West portray Belle.  Eventually, the part of Rhett Butler’s lady friend was awarded to Broadway veteran Ona Munson—born Owena Elizabeth Wolcott in Portland, Oregon on this date in 1903.  Munson’s show business career encompassed both stage and screen, and she even dabbled in television before her unfortunate passing in 1955.  Old-time radio fans know that Munson shone in the aural medium, however, appearing before the microphone in such venues as Suspense and The Cavalcade of America.

Ona Munson’s show business career blossomed on Broadway.  She was a chorus girl in the 1919 revue of George White’s Scandals when she was only sixteen, and received her “big break” playing the titular role in No, No, Nanette (1926; taking over from Louise Groody).  Munson would then go on to grace the casts of successful stage musicals such as Twinkle, Twinkle (1926), Manhattan Mary (1927), and Hold Everything (1928)—it was in this latter production that she introduced the Cole Porter standard You’re the Cream in My Coffee.  Even after she ventured out to the West Coast for moviemaking, Ona would return to her stage roots with roles in Hold Your Horses (1933) and Petticoat Fever (1935), and she tackled a more serious role in Ghosts in 1936.  Her final Broadway work would surface in 1952, with a small part in a revival of George S. Kaufman-Katharine Dayton’s First Lady.

Ona was anxious to establish herself in motion pictures…and relished her first starring role in Warner Brothers’ Going Wild (1930).  Wild had been fashioned as a musical, but the tunes in the movie were excised to placate the moviegoing public, who had soured on musicals because of so many having been released the previous year.  Munson would later get the opportunity to ply her musical stock-in-trade in The Hot Heiress (1931), which allowed her to sing a few numbers alongside her co-star, Ben Lyon.  In Broadminded (1931), she was reunited with Wild star Joe E. Brown, and that same year she played cub reporter “Kitty Carmody” in the splendid Five Star Final (1931), starring Edward G. Robinson and Boris Karloff.

Munson’s movie resume also includes vehicles such as His Exciting Night (1938), Scandal Sheet (1939), and Legion of Lost Flyers (1939)…but for most classic movie fans, her turn in Gone with the Wind (1939) remains her best-known role.  Producer Selznick took a novel approach in giving Ona the gig—in the book, the reader gets the impression that bordello proprietor Belle Watling was stacked like a burlap bag filled with bobcats…while the actress herself was of much slighter build.  But Ona made the role her own, and was so convincing that she would later portray another madam in the persona of “Mother Gin Sling” in the 1941 cult oddity The Shanghai Gesture (directed by Josef von Sternberg).  Critic Chuck Stephens described her cinematic turns in Wind and Gesture as “the defining extremes of Ona Munson’s on-screen career” in a January/February 2013 essay in Film Comment, noting her performance as Mother Gin Sling was “Medusa in antennae braids and hairpins of ancient jade.”

Her Five Star Final co-star Edward G. Robinson tabbed her to replace Claire Trevor in the role of Lorelei Kilbourne in the hit radio drama Big Town in 1940, on which Eddie G. also starred.  Ona would appear on the program until 1942, when Robinson decided to leave the series…but she declined to follow the show when it was revived in the fall of 1943, originating from the East Coast.  Munson kept busy in radio; she guest-starred on such anthologies as The Screen Guild Theatre and Family Theatre, and was the host of Ona Munson in Hollywood, a popular program that dished up plenty of Tinsel Town gossip.  (Ona also headlined CBS Open House; a surviving June 19, 1949 broadcast has her conducting an interview with actor Howard Culver, the last old-time radio personality to get a birthday shout-out on the blog.)  One of Munson’s most interesting radio jobs was producing the wartime series Victory Belles, a CBS variety program that featured Mabel Todd, Martha Mears, Wilhelmina Gould, and Jean Ruth Hay (a.k.a. “Beverly” of Reveille with Beverly fame).

Fittingly, Ona Munson’s cinematic swan song was The Red House (1947), a movie starring her Big Town compadre Edward G. Robinson.  While Ona gave solid performances in such films as Lady from Louisiana (1941—with John Wayne), Idaho (1943—with Roy Rogers), The Cheaters (1945), and Dakota (1945—another with John Wayne), the actress suffered from turmoil in her personal life and was in ill-health in her final years.  In spite of that, she managed to make inroads on the small screen, appearing on such TV favorites as The Armstrong Circle Theatre and Martin Kane, Private Eye.  Tragically, Ona would take her own life with an overdose of barbiturates on February 11, 1955 at the age of 51…leaving behind a note that read: “This is the only way I know to be free again…please don’t follow me.”

Despite leaving us too soon, Ona Munson left behind an amazing legacy of movie memories; Gone with the Wind fans love her performance as Belle in that iconic film, and speaking only for myself I highly recommend the movies she made with Edward G. Robinson, Five Star Final and The Red House.  (The Shanghai Gesture is pretty wild and way out, too.)  Here at Radio Spirits, Ona is present and accounted for in our Big Town collection, Blind Justice, featuring vintage broadcasts from the popular newspaper drama series (including a few rarities).  We extend hearty birthday greetings to Ona…because without question, she’s the cream in our coffee.

“They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate.” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

Seventy-three years ago on this date, the landing operations of the Allied invasion of Normandy got underway in one of the most pivotal battles of World War II.  The largest seaborne invasion in history, “Operation Overlord” saw 160,000 troops cross the English Channel that day, preceded by a 1,200-plane airborne assault and an amphibious attack from more than 5,000 vessels.  The event—now commonly referred to as “D-Day” (a military term signifying the date on which a combat attack or operation is to begin)—marked the liberation of northwestern Europe from German occupation, and contributed heavily to the Allied victory on the Western Front.

Radio was there, of course.  The complete schedules of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) broadcast on June 6-7, 1944 were recorded on transcription discs and are in the collections of many old-time radio hobbyists.  It makes for captivating listening as the regularly scheduled programming of daytime dramas mingle with reports of the invasion—even when you know the outcome, it’s still nail-bitingly suspenseful.  For Americans, it was indeed a day to celebrate…but it was also a day of mourning; over 10,000 soldiers died on the beaches of Normandy that day, and many on the Homefront faced an agonizing wait for news about whether their father, brother, husband, or son would be returning home.

Radio played an important part in World War II practically from the moment President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the United States had no choice but to enter the conflict after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—“a date which will live in infamy.”  It’s one of the reasons why old-time radio is so fascinating for people in “The Hobby”.  Because there was an immediacy to events in the war, it’s the height of nostalgia for people who remember when their favorite programs would be interrupted by important war bulletins.  World War II inspired some of the most well-written drama of Radio’s Golden Age, with series like William N. Robson’s landmark The Man Behind the Gun and the dramatic anthology Words at War.  Radio playwrights like Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin also “did their bit” with series like Plays for Americans (Oboler) and An American in England (which Norman collaborated on with CBS’ Edward R. Murrow).

In a time when news is available to TV viewers on a 24-hour basis, reporting on radio during WW2 seems a bit primitive…and yet men like Murrow (the head of CBS’ European Operations in London) covered the conflict in a fashion that remains the gold standard for journalism today.  Correspondents like Larry LeSueur, Charles Collingwood, William L. Shirer, and Richard C. Hottelet were collectively nicknamed “Murrow’s Boys.” More than a few reporters from those primitive days — such as Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Howard K. Smith — would later become bigger names once television news took over.  To this day, listening to Edward R. Murrow authoritatively intone “This is London…” will send chills up the spine of any nostalgia fan.

“During America’s involvement in World War II,” wrote Arthur Frank Wertheim in Radio Comedy, “the radio comedians helped boost national morale.  The jokers had kept listeners laughing during the Great Depression; now the war against Japan and Germany was another critical time.”  The primary “jokers” keeping spirits up on the homefront were undoubtedly Jim and Marian Jordan—a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly.  The Office of War Information, created to coordinate existing government information services and to promote wartime propaganda both at home and abroad, no doubt marveled at how skillfully Fibber scribe Don Quinn subtly weaved pro-war messages into the show’s scripts (though after the way Quinn managed to integrate the Johnson’s Wax commercials into the program, it shouldn’t have been too surprising).  While Fib & Molly (and many other sitcom stars) took up the fight at home, it was Bob Hope who stormed the beaches overseas by broadcasting his popular program to the troops.  Technically, Hope started before the U.S. entered the war (in March of 1941)—but once he set the precedent, fellow mirthmakers like Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, and Burns & Allen soon followed suit.

The War Department created the Armed Forces Radio Service on May 26, 1942—bringing familiar radio voices to those fighting overseas.  Networks provided their programming free of charge (though the commercials ads on those shows had to be excised—one of those individuals responsible for editing them was the future star of The Adventures of Sam Spade, actor Howard Duff), but AFRS also produced its own programming as well.  Some of the most popular shows included Mail Call and G.I. Journal, which presented top celebrities (performing gratis) in a variety format.  Jubilee was a similar type of show, spotlighting African-American performers and targeted specifically towards black soldiers.  G.I. Jive was a disc jockey program for soldiers, and “the man of a thousand voices,” Mel Blanc, was the emcee of the quiz show Are You a Genius?  The most popular of the AFRS programs was Command Performance, a variety series that allowed servicemen to write in and request their favorite performers—many, like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland, donated their time and talent for free.  When sampling surviving broadcasts of Command Performance, a listener can’t help but be gobsmacked by the amount of talent involved in each show…something that could never be duplicated today.

The Allied Powers accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany’s armed forces on May 8, 1945, and the formal surrender of Japan occurred on September 2 of that same year (the surrender had been announced by Emperor Hirohito on August 15, shortly after the bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  World War II would change the lives of the American citizenry, but it changed the medium of radio as well.  Radio Spirits is proud to commemorate this special date of June 6, 1944, which signified the beginning of the end of the most significant event of the 20th century.  Those interested in hearing the radio news broadcasts from that day may wish to consider Radio Spirits’ 10 CD D-Day Radio Broadcasts collection—it’s radio history at its finest!

 

Happy Birthday, Howard Culver!

In the summer of 1949, with CBS working on the idea for what would eventually become Gunsmoke, an audition was recorded (“Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye”) that starred Howard Brasfield Culver—born in Larimer County, Colorado on this date in 1918—as Dodge City’s resolute lawman.  (The name of the character was later changed to Matt Dillon, of course.)  Howard Culver might have achieved radio immortality in the role that would eventually go to William Conrad in 1952…except for one teensy snag.  As the star of Mutual’s Straight Arrow, Culver was contractually forbidden to appear on any competing western series…so he had to abandon his ambition of taking that chancy job that makes a man watchful (and a little lonely).  Howard would get a consolation prize on Gunsmoke in later years…but more importantly, he’d leave behind a radio resume that’s every bit as impressive as the role on which he lost out.

Though born in Colorado, Howard Culver spent his formative years in Los Angeles.  As a senior at Manual Arts High School, he was selected to play a small role in a local radio show play…and by age 19 he was appearing on The Life of Mary Southern.  On Happy Dalton’s Ranch in 1938, Culver played all four roles on the half-hour show *and* wrote, directed and handled the sound effects!  His baritone voice was perfect for announcing, and he made the rounds at stations in L.A. (KFI, KNX) and San Francisco (KFRC). Surviving broadcasts of Mutual’s News of the World Today in 1942-43 feature Howie plying his trade before the mike.  Culver abandoned radio for a brief period during World War II to serve a hitch in the Navy, something that came in handy in 1944 when he returned to civilian life and hosted CBS’ We Deliver the Goods. This series illustrated tales of heroism from Santa Catalina Island, California and utilized actual seamen in the acting roles.  Howard was “your maritime narrator.”

Culver also portrayed “Stephen Biggs” on The Gallant Heart, a short-lived NBC daytime drama that originated in Hollywood at a time when most of the “soaps” came out of Chicago and New York.  In addition, Howard appeared regularly as the announcer on the syndicated anthology series Strange Wills, which dramatized events involving searches for missing heirs and other odd bequests by the deceased.  Howard Culver’s C.V. started to fill up with gigs on The WhistlerMystery in the AirFamily TheatreTell it AgainMake-Believe Town, and The Croupier.  On Stairway to the Stars, the actor read poetry, and on the ABC revival of Chandu the Magician, Culver served as the show’s announcer.  In January of 1948, Howard took over from Lawrence Dobkin and played famed radio sleuth of The Adventures of Ellery Queen until that series left the airwaves on May 27, 1948.

Howard Culver’s best-known role from this period was that of the titular hero of Mutual’s Straight Arrow, a popular juvenile adventure series broadcast from 1948 to 1951.  Rancher Steve Adams, owner of the Broken Bow cattle spread, is really the “secret identity” of Straight Arrow, a Comanche orphan who was raised by a white family…and now matched wits weekly with the usual Western villains.  Howard’s stint as Straight Arrow later put him in good stead for similar radio series like The Roy Rogers Show and Wild Bill Hickok, and he later co-starred as Judson “Jud” Barnes, the reporter boyfriend of Mercedes McCambridge’s D.A. Martha Ellis ‘Marty’ Bryant on ABC’s Defense Attorney from 1951 to 1952.

Rounding out Culver’s radio resume are appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietThe Adventures of Philip MarloweBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorEscapeFather Knows BestFort LaramieHave Gun – Will TravelInheritanceHollywood Star PlayhouseThe Man from HomicideNBC Presents: Short StoryThe Railroad HourRocky FortuneSuspense, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Culver was a “radio man” till the very end; he was part of the cast of the AFRS shows Horizons West and When the West was Young, and later acted on attempts to revive radio drama, including The Hollywood Theatre Group and The Sears/Mutual Radio Theatre.

Though Howard Culver had to forfeit playing the hero of radio’s Gunsmoke, he did make appearances on that program as other characters from time to time.  On the television version, Howard had a recurring role as Howie Uzzell, the desk clerk at the Dodge House—he’d play that role up until the series’ penultimate small screen season in 1974.  An old-time radio author humorously noted that Culver ”was a frequent performer in virtually anything that Jack Webb was ever a party to”—the actor not only turned up on both the 50s and 60s versions of Dragnet, but also such Webb-affiliated series as Adam-12 and Project U.F.O. (and he played “Walt” in the Webb-directed feature film -30- in 1959).

A much-in-demand character actor, Howard guest starred on such TV favorites as Perry MasonDick Powell’s Zane Grey TheatreThe Twilight ZoneThe UntouchablesVoyage to the Bottom of the SeaThe Brady Bunch, and Marcus Welby, M.D.  Culver was a familiar face in several Walt Disney releases, such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970) and The Million Dollar Duck (1971). And whenever an actor was needed to play an announcer, Howard Culver was on everyone’s speed dial (he demonstrates his newscaster chops in Shampoo [1975] and The Bad News Bears [1976]).  His prolific career came to an end in 1984, when he passed away at the age of 66 in Hong Kong during a vacation trip to China.

While actor Warren William starred as fictional probate attorney John Francis O’Connell on the syndicated series Strange Wills, it was the man whose birthday we’re honoring on the blog today that served as the show’s announcer—Howard Culver.  The Radio Spirits collection I Devise & Bequeath features sixteen broadcasts from that series, and you can also hear Howie on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe: Night Tide and Lonely CanyonsChandu the MagicianFamily Theater: Every HomeFather Knows Best: Maple StreetFort Laramie and Fort Laramie Volume TwoHave Gun – Will TravelThe Man From Homicide, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Medium Rare Matters.  Happy birthday to one of the best character actor veterans!

 

Happy Birthday, Bob Hope!

We’re commemorating Memorial Day today…and it seems only fitting that the entertainer who established his legacy performing in United Service Organizations (you know it as the USO) shows for the benefit of active duty American military personnel (he made 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991) should be celebrating a birthday on this date as well.  The man born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, Kent, England in 1903 is better known to us as Bob Hope—and he plied his talents for song, dance, and witty patter to conquer stage, screen (both silver and small) and radio for over seventy-five years…becoming an American institution in the process.

Hope adopted the “Bob” in 1929.  There are several versions as to why he made this decision, but the comedian himself frequently noted in interviews that he chose the new name because it had a friendly “Hiya fellas!” ring to it.  Since his arrival in the U.S. in 1908 with his parents and brothers (his father Harry was a stonemason by trade), Bob was often teased by the neighborhood kids in Cleveland, OH (where the family eventually put down stakes) for his British accent and given name of “Leslie.” When the young Hope started referring to himself as “Les,” the kids redoubled their efforts and nicknamed him “Hopeless.”  To handle his tormenters, Bob became quite the scrapper and he even had a brief career as a pugilist in 1919 (fighting under the name “Packy East”).

But since the age of four, the young Hope had practiced mimicry and loved to sing and dance.  He earned pocket money singing, dancing, and performing comedy from the age of twelve, and winning a prize in a talent contest in 1915 for an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin only whetted his appetite for a show business career that much more.  After tryouts in various occupations, including a butcher’s assistant and a lineman, Bob and his then-girlfriend signed up for dancing lessons in their determination to pursue a show business career.  Bob would form a partnership with a friend from the dancing school, Lloyd Durbin, and the duo got much encouragement from movie comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who found them work in 1925 with a troupe known as Hurley’s Jolly Follies.  A year later, Hope would team up with George Byrne and the infamous Hilton Sisters (Siamese twins Daisy and Violet) to form an act known as the Dancemedians.  By 1928, Bob was performing solo, telling jokes in blackface…until one day, having arrived late for a theatre date, Bob didn’t have time to apply his makeup and so he went without it.  The theatre manager told him after his performance he was funnier without the burnt cork.

Bob Hope’s expertise with one-liners and zingers soon made him a top performer in vaudeville, and allowed him to expand his horizons on the New York stage.  He performed in plays and musical revues, with his big Broadway break coming with his role as “Huckleberry Haines” in Roberta (a show that also featured Sydney Greenstreet, Fred MacMurray, and George Murphy).  While he was wowing them in the aisles with that production, he agreed to have a go at motion pictures. He agreed to appear in a series of shorts for Educational Pictures, the first being Going Spanish in 1934.  (Hope famously told Walter Winchell: “When they catch John Dillinger, they’re going to make him sit through it twice.”)  Bob didn’t stay with Educational long, but did agree to do a series of comedy two-reelers for producer Sam Sax and Vitaphone.  (This accommodated the entertainer’s schedule quite nicely: he made movies by day and performed on stage at night.)

Bob’s motion picture breakthrough came when Paramount Pictures signed him to make his first feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1938.  Despite a high-wattage celebrity cast that included W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, Lynne Overman, and Ben Blue, Bob walked off with the picture by performing an unassuming musical number with Shirley Ross: Thanks for the Memory.  The wistful tune not only won the Academy Award for Best Original Song…it provided the comedian with his signature theme for the rest of his show business career.  His success in Big Broadcast resulted in his landing The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope in the fall of that same year, a half-hour program that quickly raced to the top of the Hooper ratings for NBC on Tuesday night radio.  It should be stressed that this was not Bob’s first radio showcase—he had performed before a microphone as far back as 1935 on the Blue Network’s The Intimate Revue, and followed that with stints for Atlantic Oil (CBS’ The Atlantic Family, from September 1935 to September 1936), Woodbury Soap (The RipplingRhythm Revue for Blue in 1937), and Lucky Strike (NBC’s Your Hollywood Parade from December 1937 to March 1938).

The success of the Pepsodent show symbiotically boosted Bob Hope’s movie career. He continued to make successful features for Paramount, including 1938’s Thanks for the Memory (capitalizing on his famous theme song) and 1939’s The Cat and the Canary (a wildly successful remake of the 1927 film).  With co-star Paulette Goddard, Bob deftly mixed laughs and scares in this comedy classic (the two of them would reunite for 1940’s The Ghost Breakers and 1941’s Nothing but the Truth) and proved to Paramount his viability as a leading man.  Success after success followed, with a string of comedies that are loved by fans today (Caught in the DraftMy Favorite Blonde)…but the best was yet to come when the studio decided to dust off a property that they had originally envisioned for George Burns and Gracie Allen: Road to Singapore (1940).  Bob was teamed with actor-crooner Bing Crosby (with Dorothy Lamour added for saronged spice) in a conventional but fun vehicle that led to a series of six “Road” films after the initial entry…each one wackier than the one before.  (Bob and Bing formed a solid friendship, and their “feud”—every bit as counterfeit as the one between Jack Benny and Fred Allen—convulsed radio audiences whenever the two men would guest star on each other’s shows.)

March 6, 1941 was a very important date in the history of Bob Hope’s radio program.  It marked the very first time that he performed for an audience of military troops (at March Field, California). From that moment on, Hope became radio’s official goodwill ambassador, taking his show and cast to any number of military bases and camps in his belief that “GIs are the greatest audiences in the world.”  Though many of his fellow radio comedians would follow suit (Jack Benny, Burns & Allen), none of them performed with the same devotion and enthusiasm as Bob. He and his cast of regulars (Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna, Vera Vague, etc.) went anywhere and everywhere to provide entertainment for the men and women who needed it the most.  Bob Hope was a human dynamo—not only maintaining a grueling schedule of performing USO shows, but continuing to thrive in his film career with box office successes like The Princess and the Pirate (1944) and Monsieur Beaucaire (1946).

When World War II ended, the popularity of Bob’s radio program began to wane.  His show still got respectable ratings, but audiences were starting to tire of what they felt was a staleness in his formula. Pepsodent relinquished sponsorship in the fall of 1948 to Swan Soap, and Bob decided to “shake things up” by adding new regulars like vocalist Doris Day (whom he inherited when his future longtime bandleader Les Brown joined the program) and Irene Ryan (taking over for Vera Vague).  Bob held on to radio longer than his contemporaries (only Edgar Bergen outlasted him), and while he never regained the momentum of the war years, he was still an audience favorite.  You could argue that, in a sense, Hope didn’t need radio—his movie career was going great guns (My Favorite BrunetteWhere There’s Life), and in 1948 he scored another box office triumph with The Paleface.  (The song Buttons and Bows would win an Oscar statuette, too.)  Paleface was so successful that the comedian did a sequel in 1952 with Son of Paleface—which happens to be my favorite of his feature films.

With his red-hot movie career, Bob Hope didn’t need to commit to a regular TV series like radio comedians Jack Benny and Red Skelton—Hope settled for the occasional small screen special and guesting on the popular variety shows of the day.  His Christmas specials (many concentrating on the USO shows he performed for military audiences overseas) always drew big boob tube audiences, and he still holds the record for having emceed the yearly Oscars telecasts (though some of that hosting was done during his years on radio).  Bob Hope once famously remarked at the event in 1968: “Welcome to the Academy Awards…or as they’re known at my house, Passover.”  (Hope was green with envy that his “Road” companion Bing Crosby had won an Oscar for his performance in 1944’s Going My Way…and though he tried to get notice for serious turns like those in The Seven Little Foys [1955] and Beau James [1957], the comedian had to settle for five honorary trophies (including the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award), presented to him between 1941 and 1966.

The Guinness Book of World Records notes that Bob Hope holds the record for “most honored entertainer.” Among the many tributes he received were a Congressional Gold Medal (presented to him by President John F. Kennedy in 1963) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (President Lyndon Johnson in 1969).  He continued making theatrical films (his last starring movie was 1972’s Cancel My Reservation) and top-rated TV specials for four more decades – the later due to another Guinness record: the entertainer with “the longest running contract with a single network (NBC)—spanning 61 years.”  Simply put, Bob Hope was on many individuals’ lists as “The Entertainer of the 20th Century” …and with his passing in 2003, he himself reached the century mark when he died at the age of 100.

In honor of Memorial Day, we recommend the DVD Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops—a 1994 documentary originally broadcast on PBS that not only highlights how radio stars gave their all for the war effort, but features fascinating background detail on our birthday boy’s efforts to make certain those individuals knew there was “no place like Hope for the holidays.” (Bob is even reunited with some of his fellow entertainers, including Frances Langford—we reviewed the release in this space here.)  Bob is also present and accounted for on the DVD collection Funniest Moments of Comedy, and does a “telephone cameo” in the 1950 short You Can Change the World that’s featured on Stars in Their Shorts.  For the musical side of Hope, the You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet! Showstoppers CD features a rendition of his theme song, Thanks for the Memory, and a duet with Shirley Ross (from the film Thanks for the Memory), Two Sleepy People.  On The Good Old Boys Club: Solos, Duos, Trios and Four-O’s!, Bob duets with singer Jimmy Wakely on a pair of numbers featured in Son of PalefaceThere’s a Cloud in My Valley of Sunshine and Four-Legged Friend.  With a Song in My Heart: Hooray for Hollywood lets Bob loose on Buttons and Bows (from The Paleface) and teams him with his “Road” buddy Bing Crosby on The Road to Morocco.

Whoops—I almost forgot Bob on radio!  There’s a Screen Directors’ Playhouse broadcast from 1950 that allows Bob to reprise his famous role from The Paleface on Comedy Goes West, and Hope double-dates with Jack Benny in a riotous April 17, 1955 broadcast available on Jack Benny: The Fabulous ‘50s.  Top that off with an episode of Bob’s The New Swan Show from December 7, 1948 (“Put somethin’ in the pot, boy…”) on Radio’s Christmas Celebrations…and I’ll bet you’ll soon be thanking us for the memories.  Happy birthday, Bob!

 

Happy Birthday, Dashiell Hammett!

“I’ve been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.”  So declared the man born Samuel Dashiell Hammett on this date in 1894, a confession he made to his daughter Josephine in a display of cynicism that would be most appropriate of his famous literary creation, shamus Sam Spade.  Hammett was selling himself short, however.  His career as a novelist and writer of short stories would also have a profound effect on movies and television…and for old-time radio fans, without a little “Dash” there would be no adventures with either the Thin Man or the Fat Man.

Born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, young Dashiell Hammett left school at the age of 13 and occupied himself with a series of menial jobs, including stints as a freight clerk, railroad laborer, and stevedore.  He became a detective with the famous Pinkerton Agency (“We never sleep”) in 1915, and would later capitalize on that employment by integrating his experiences into his hard-boiled detective fiction.  His on-again, off-again time spent with the agency lasted nearly a decade. He enlisted in the Army during World War I and became a sergeant in the Motor Ambulance Corp…and contracted tuberculosis during his hitch.  The condition would plague him for the remainder of his life, yet it was during his stay as a patient at Cushman Hospital in Tacoma, Washington that he was cared for by nurse Josephine Dolan.  The two of them would wed in 1921.

Most biographies of Hammett state that he left Pinkerton due to his tubercular condition (Dash surmised that it would be a handicap as a detective), but tend to gloss over the fact that the decision to depart was hastened by an incident that occurred in 1917—when labor organizer Frank H. Little was lynched in Butte, Montana for his union and anti-war activities.  Hammett was employed by Pinkerton as a strike breaker, and allegedly was offered $5,000 to “assassinate” Little (a claim the author made to his longtime companion Lillian Hellman).  Dash refused, but the episode would haunt him for the rest of his life; it is speculated that the Little murder influenced Hammett’s later political leanings…and it became the basis for the plot of Red Harvest, the author’s first novel in 1929.

After leaving the Pinkertons, Dashiell Hammett decided to try his hand at writing.  His first story, “The Parthian Shot,” appeared in the pages of The Smart Set in 1922…but his kind of writing, which would soon be described as “hard-boiled” detective fiction, seemed a little out-of-place in such a “society” publication.  “The Road Home,” his second effort, would find a home at the pulp magazine Black Mask, and his third contribution for the magazine (published in 1923), “Arson Plus,” introduced the gumshoe known as “The Continental Op” (the detective had no name, but worked for the Continental Detective Agency).  Hammett drew on his former experiences as a Pinkerton dick, basing many of the characters in his stories on people he knew and setting many of the tales against the backdrop of San Francisco, his base of operations during his time with the agency.  (In his early stories, Dash adopted “Peter Collinson” as his pen name before going with “Dashiell Hammett” for his byline.)

As previously noted, Dashiell Hammett’s debut novel, Red Harvest, hit bookstores in 1929 and was quickly followed with a second effort, The Dain Curse.  (Both novels are narrated by “The Continental Op,” and both had been previously published in Black Mask in serialized installments.)  Red Harvest was never officially adapted for the silver screen, but its plot would later be borrowed for the Akira Kurosawa-directed Yojimbo in 1961 (and by Sergio Leone when he used Yojimbo as a template for A Fistful of Dollars in 1964).  In addition, elements would later turn up in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990).  His third novel (also previously serialized in Black Mask in 1929) was the legendary The Maltese Falcon—which inspired three movie versions in 1931, 1936 (as Satan Met a Lady), and 1941.

Dashiell Hammett’s fourth novel, The Glass Key, would also receive the motion picture treatment with films released in 1935 and 1942.  By this point in his writing career, Hammett was looking for opportunities to write for the movies—his marriage to Josephine was deteriorating (doctors advised Jo and their two daughters to live in a separate residence from Dash due to his tuberculosis). To compensate, he began a romance with a 24-year-old aspiring playwright named Lillian Hellman that would last for the rest of his life.  (Though he and Hellman would eventually divorce their spouses, the two of them never married.)  The affair with Hellman would inspire his last published novel, The Thin Man—Hammett asserted that the tipsy society couple known as Nick and Nora Charles was based on Lillian and himself.  Published in 1934, the book would be adapted in motion picture form that same year by MGM, who would produce five additional movies featuring the Charleses (the last released in 1947).

Dashiell Hammett’s career as a professional writer eventually petered out with the publication of The Thin Man; he only wrote a few short stories after that, and his contribution to the comic strip Secret Agent X-9 (drawn by Alex Raymond) lasted only a year.  Hammett produced some work for the movies (he receives story credit for City Streets [1931] and Woman in the Dark [1934]), but he mostly served as a sounding board and editor for Hellman. (Some have even suggested that he was Lillian’s co-writer; he’s credited with the screenplay for Watch on the Rhine [1943], adapted from her stage play.)  Dash’s poor health played a large role in his inactivity at this point in his career, yet the success of the movies based on his creations (Sam Spade, Nick and Nora) helped him keep body and soul together.

Hammett’s characters would achieve much fame in the aural medium as well.  A program (produced by Inner Sanctum’s Himan Brown, who learned to his astonishment that no one had bothered to snap up the radio rights to Nick and Nora) entitled The Adventures of the Thin Man premiered in July of 1941 and would be heard on NBC, CBS, and ABC until September of 1950.  Suspense producer William Spier introduced tales of “the greatest private detective of them all” with The Adventures of Sam Spade in July of 1946, a popular crime drama that aired until 1951.  Completing the Hammett hat trick was The Fat Man, a series whose protagonist some have speculated was based on “The Continental Op”; that popular show was heard on ABC from 1946 to 1951.  Hammett’s participation in these programs continues to be a subject of debate among scholars today, but I’ve always speculated that it was minimal at best.  “My sole duty in regard to these programs is to look in the mail for a check once a week,” he declared in 1949.  “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.”

Dashiell Hammett was passionately committed to leftist political causes…and that spelled trouble after WW2, when the U.S. started looking for new villains after defeating the Nazis.  Dash was an ardent supporter of New York’s Civil Rights Congress, and when four of that organization’s members jumped bail in 1951 rather than surrender to federal agents (they had been convicted under the Smith Act “for criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence”) Dash was summoned to appear before the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to testify as to the whereabouts of the fugitives.  Echoing the same moral code as many of the characters in his works, Hammett refused to divulge any information and was found in contempt of court (he served his six-month sentence in a West Virginia penitentiary, cleaning toilets).  Hammett would also run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee (he had joined the Communist Party in 1937) and the IRS also decided to stick a shiv in, coming after him for $100,000 in back taxes and garnishing any future earnings.  His alcoholism and tuberculosis continued to worsen, and he was forced into seclusion at a cottage in Katonah, NY where he suffered a heart attack in 1955…and then passed away six years later.

Dashiell Hammett’s contemporary Raymond Chandler—the creator of Philip Marlowe—remarked in his seminal essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse…he put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”  There’s a reason why Hammett is considered “the dean” of hard-boiled detective fiction, and that bad influence referenced in the first paragraph of this post was certainly evident in Radio’s Golden Age.  Skeptical?  Well, Radio Spirits invites you to check out Smithsonian Legendary Performers: Dashiell Hammett—a six-CD collection featuring radio adaptations of such famous Hammett works as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key (from the likes of The Lux Radio Theatre and The Screen Guild Players) and episodes of The Fat ManThe Adventures of the Thin Man, and The Adventures of Sam Spade.  (You’ll find additional “capers” from Mr. Spade on our collection Lawless as well.)  Our birthday celebrant also rates a mention in The Best of Blood ‘n’ Thunder, Volume 2, a book that compiles articles from the publications dedicated to pulp fiction and edited by my good friend Ed Hulse—a perfect gift for fans of adventure and mystery!

 

Happy Birthday, Ben Alexander!

With the death of Barton Yarborough in December of 1951, Jack Webb was anxious to find a replacement for the actor who had portrayed Ben Romero to his Joe Friday on the radio and television versions of his hit police procedural Dragnet.  Webb relied on several actors in the interim, including Barney Philips and Herb Ellis, before spotting the man born Nicholas Benton Alexander III on this date in 1911. Alexander was hosting a local TV game show, Watch and Win, and Webb’s people told him to forget about getting him for Dragnet.  Ben was, for all intents and purposes, retired from show business (having invested well in businesses like gas stations and automobile dealerships). He only emceed Watch as a lark (he owned the show).  When word got to Webb that Alexander was interested in doing an episode of Dragnet (Ben had mentioned it to his friend Cliff Arquette), Jack persuaded him to take on the role of Joe Friday’s new partner, Frank Smith, for four outings…but Alexander went the distance until the TV show ended in 1959.

Ben Alexander called Goldfield, Nevada his birthplace—his parents originally hailed from Tennessee, so how they wound up in Nevada is anybody’s guess.  But the Alexander family didn’t linger long in the Silver State; they relocated to Los Angeles when Ben was three years old, ostensibly to get the youngster into motion pictures.  They didn’t have to wait long: five-year-old “Bennie Alexander” got a job playing “Cupid” in the 1916 film Each Pearl a Tear, and after that enjoyed a prosperous career as a child thespian with movie appearances in the likes of The Little American (1917), Hearts of the World (1918), and Little Orphan Annie (1918).  (This last entry on Ben’s resume, one of silent film star Colleen Moore’s surviving movie showcases, recently underwent a restoration to Blu-ray/DVD through a Kickstarter campaign.)

Ben’s movie career continued throughout the 1920s—he starred in a version of Penrod and Sam (1923), playing Booth Tarkington’s famous creation of Penrod Schofield—allowing him to transition into both mature roles and the talkies.  His best-known movie from this period is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in which he plays Kemmerich, the amputation victim — but he also did fine work in vehicles like High Pressure (1932), The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), This Day and Age (1933), and Stage Mother (1933).  Alexander continued to make sporadic appearances in motion pictures (a lot of B-pictures and second features) and by this time he started to turn his attention to radio, where he found steady work as an announcer.  In fact, his work in the aural medium encouraged him to return to Stanford University (his second go-round—the first time he dropped out because he couldn’t afford the tuition) to study business administration…and then he learned an individual could make more money acting and/or announcing.  (The business classes he took at Stanford, however, were a boon to Ben later in life when he achieved great success outside the acting field.)

On radio, Ben Alexander was in huge demand as an announcer and emcee; one of his earliest gigs was on a variety show called Little Ol’ Hollywood, which was heard over the Blue Network from 1939 to 1942.  (The inaugural broadcast of this series has survived, and Ben is introduced as “Hollywood’s oldest young actor.”)  He also announced a few times on Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, and from 1941 to 1942 worked on The New Old Gold Show alongside Herbert Marshall, Bert Wheeler (with his new partner Hank Ladd), and Lucille Ball.  Alexander stood before the microphone on the wartime series Eyes Aloft and the comedy serial Point Sublime, and in later years worked on Red Ryder and Favorite Story.  From 1939 to 1940 he played “Philip West” on the nighttime serial Brenthouse, and performed with future Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge as “Junior Sheldon,” boyfriend of the titular heroine in the short-lived This is Judy Jones in 1941.

Before his role on Dragnet, Ben’s best-known radio showcase was portraying “Bashful” Ben Waterford on The Great Gildersleeve—Ben being one of Marjorie Forrester’s many suitors before she became Mrs. Bronco Thompson.  Alexander’s work on Gildersleeve paved the way for later gigs with Fanny Brice (he was a “utility man” on The Baby Snooks Show) and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis (as their announcer in 1949), not to mention hosting several “audience participation” programs (Lady Be Beautiful, It’s a Living)—the best-known being a Queen for a Day-knockoff called Heart’s Desire from 1946 to 1948.  Rounding out Ben’s radio resume are gigs with I Love a Mystery, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, and Free World Theatre.  Ben can also be heard on surviving broadcasts of Mail Call; during World War II the actor-announcer served as a naval lieutenant aboard an aircraft with the radar division…later, he provided work for his old war buddies managing his various gas stations.

Ben Alexander eventually tackled behind-the-scenes work in radio and TV as an account executive with Foote, Cone & Belding…though the performer in him couldn’t resist a stint hosting Party Time at Club Roma (a 1950-51 TV show that was part Truth or Consequences-type stunt show and part talent contest).  Ben really didn’t need the TV work; his shrewd investments (including a hotel and a brewery) paid the bills, but it almost seems as if his Officer Frank Smith role was destiny.  He took an aptitude test before enrolling at Stanford, and the results revealed that Alexander “should become a pilot or a policeman.”  (The actor often noted in interviews that he was hired for Dragnet because “I looked like a cop.”)  There had been occasional light or comic relief moments on the series during the Barton Yarborough years…but Ben Alexander upped the ante with his humorous portrayal of Frank Smith, whether he was fretting about his wife Fay or expressing concern about his health. (Frank was a bit of a hypochondriac.)  A running gag on the program often had Smith excitedly describing a new food recipe that he had tried at home, much to his partner’s bemusement.

Many of the qualities that were established with the Frank Smith character would later be transferred to Bill Gannon, the partner played by Harry Morgan when Dragnet was revived on NBC-TV from 1967 to 1970.  Ben Alexander would have reprised the role of Frank when Jack Webb started the Dragnet revival…but he had already committed to another series that had premiered over ABC in the fall of 1966, a half-hour crime drama called The Felony Squad.  Co-starring with radio veteran Howard Duff and newcomer Dennis Cole, Alexander played desk sergeant Dan Briggs in this entertaining series that ran three seasons (Cole was Briggs’ son Jim).  It was Alexander’s last television credit; he suffered a coronary occlusion at his L.A. home and passed away at the age of 58.

About the time that getTV was rerunning The Felony Squad for a short period, a friend of mine noted that Ben Alexander had a cameo in an episode of Batman as a police detective (it’s not indicated as to whether he’s playing his Dan Briggs character—but I’d like to think he was).  Until someone decides to release Felony Squad to DVD, Alexander fans will have to settle for his iconic role as Frank Smith on Dragnet—and fortunately for you, Radio Spirits has two outstanding collections featuring Ben’s work on Big Crime and The Big Gamble.  But be sure to check out our birthday celebrant’s flair for comedy on The Great Gildersleeve set Neighbors and his dramatic turn on our Dark Venture collection, too!

 

Happy Birthday, Bing Crosby!

At one time in the 1940s, the man born Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby, Jr. in Tacoma, Washington on this date in 1903 was the top-selling recording star…the number-one box office attraction…and the most popular performer on radio (headliner of The Kraft Music Hall).  Author Gerald Nachman observed in his book on Radio’s Golden Age, Raised on Radio: “Pop singing can be divided roughly into ‘AC’ and ‘BC.’  Before Crosby, singers sang at you; after Crosby and radio, they sang to you.”  The Yuletide standard White Christmas remains the best-selling single of all time (a tune Crosby introduced in the movie classic Holiday Inn), and after dedicating years to moviemaking, Bing received a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a happy-go-lucky priest in the Academy Award winner for Best Picture that year, Going My Way (1944).

Acres of old growth forests have been cut down to produce paper for the number of books written about “The Old Groaner”—so it seems only fitting that I concentrate mostly on Bing’s accomplishments in the aural medium, what with this being Radio Spirits and all.  It begins, of course, with Crosby’s childhood interest in music—purportedly it was a summer job as a prop boy at Spokane’s “Auditorium” that stoked his yearning for a musical career; he once watched a performance of Al Jolson and later described the experience as “electric.”  Young Harry attended and graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1920 and moved on to enrollment at Gonzaga University, where he attended the halls of ivy for three years.  Crosby never graduated from Gonzaga (however, his brother Bob did), but he remains that school’s most famous alumnus; he received an honorary doctorate in 1937, and the house in which Bing was born now sits on the school campus (where, fittingly enough, it once housed the Alumni Association).

Bing quit college to form a band with three other individuals from his high school, and they called themselves The Musicaladers (with Crosby on “skins”).  The musical aggregation broke up after two years, and Crosby and ex-Musicalader Al Rinker—working at the Clemmer Theatre in Spokane—formed a band known as The Three Harmony Aces, which later became The Clemmer Trio (also known as The Clemmer Entertainers, depending on who was in the group at the time).  Bing and Al (the brother of singer Mildred Bailey) then decided to try their luck in California, and (through Mildred’s contacts) became members of The Syncopation Revue.  Their experience with that group landed them work with the Will Morrissey Hall Revue, and then they got the break of a lifetime when they were hired by bandleader Paul Whiteman to perform in-between his numbers.  Crosby and Rinker, with the hiring of a third musician, Harry Barris, became The Rhythm Boys—and the trio worked for Whiteman until 1929, when they then joined Gus Arnheim’s orchestra.  Gradually, Bing broke away from the Boys (though Barris would later write some of Der Bingle’s biggest hits, like I Surrender Dear and Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams) to go solo, spurred on by a recording contract with Columbia Records and an offer to make comedy shorts for filmdom’s Mack Sennett.

September 2, 1931 marked the debut of Bing Crosby on radio, on a weekly quarter-hour for Cremo cigars over CBS.  His work in the Sennett-produced shorts (Sing, Bing, Sing, Blue of the Night) soon convinced Paramount to move him into feature films (though Crosby had previously appeared in such movies as King of Jazz [1930] and Reaching for the Moon [1931]) and throughout the 1930s the popular crooner acted in such vehicles as College Humor (1933), We’re Not Dressing (1934), She Loves Me Not (1934), Mississippi (1935), and Rhythm on the Range (1936).  His CBS radio show expanded to a half-hour in the fall of 1933 (sponsored by Woodbury Soap), and in December of 1935 the singer took over for Al Jolson on NBC’s Kraft Music HallMusic Hall would be the home of Crosby’s crooning and comedy for nearly a decade; audiences loved Bing’s laid-back approach to music/radio and how the program, in the words of writer Carroll Carroll, “treated baseball as if it were opera and opera as if it were baseball.”

On the Kraft Music Hall, Crosby featured performers who became big names like Bob Burns (who would later get his own solo series in 1941), Mary Martin (an already established Broadway performer who took a leave of absence in 1942 to be on the show), Victor Borge, Connee Boswell, Jerry Lester, George Murphy, and Peggy Lee.  John Scott Trotter got established on Music Hall as Bing’s conductor, and two members from Trotter’s band (Jerry Colonna and Spike Jones) also hit it big.  When Ken Carpenter was brought aboard, he became Crosby’s longtime announcer.  While working to promote Kraft products, Crosby enjoyed incredible success on the pop music charts and in the movies, with hits like Rhythm on the River (1940), Birth of the Blues (1941), and Dixie (1943).  It was around this time that Bing Crosby started his fruitful association with comedian Bob Hope in the entertaining “Road” series that began with Road to Singapore (1940) and continued with six successful follow-ups.  Crosby and Hope engaged in a mock “feud” similar to Jack Benny and Fred Allen’s, and when one performer appeared on the other’s program—comedic chaos wasn’t far behind.

It was his role as “Father Chuck O’Malley” in the comedy-drama Going My Way (1944) that garnered Bing Crosby his solo Oscar trophy and the approval of his peers.  Bing reprised the O’Malley role in a follow-up film, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), which netted him a second Academy Award nomination and the actor-singer received his third and final Oscar nod for portraying an alcoholic has-been actor in 1954’s The Country Girl.  While his film career was going great guns, things were not particularly rosy in the ol’ Music Hall; strained relations between Bing, the sponsor, and NBC led the crooner to jump ship to fledgling ABC and a series entitled Philco Radio Time.  The big beef between Bing and the boys (dig that Crosby-like alliteration!) was that Crosby had wanted to take advantage of the strides made in recording to start transcribing his programs in lieu of live broadcasts, allowing him to take advantage of when he was in great voice and stockpiling shows so that he could devote time to his passions of golf and horse racing.  (The fact that Bing had invested heavily in Ampex, the firm that developed magnetic recording tape, might have had something to do with Crosby’s decision, too.)

Philco Radio Time provided ABC Radio with a much-needed hit (and Crosby’s victory in the transcription war later inspired radio performers like Hope and Jack Benny to follow suit), but in 1949 Bing was back on CBS (those darn talent raids!) with The Bing Crosby Show—where he stayed until 1954 broadcasting for Chesterfield and General Electric.  (Bing’s last radio effort was a five-day-a-week quarter hour heard over CBS from November of 1954 to December of 1956.)  The singer’s movies remained popular: Here Comes the Groom (1951), Just For You (1952), White Christmas (1954—a remake of Holiday Inn), High Society (1956), and Say One for Me (1959) are just a few of the more familiar titles.  Like his “feuding” partner Bob Hope, Crosby nixed the idea of doing a weekly TV series in lieu of highly-rated boob tube specials and guest appearances on the programs of those people who did decide to tackle the small screen grind.

By the 1960s, despite appearances in films like Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) and Stagecoach (1966), Bing Crosby realized that his time in motion pictures was just about up—he remarked when he and Bob Hope were completing their final “Road” trip, The Road to Hong Kong (1962): “Filming is kind of difficult for someone at my time of life.  I’m too old to get the girl and not old enough to be her granddad.”  Instead, the popular crooner decided to try his hand with a TV sitcom in the fall of 1964 entitled The Bing Crosby Show, in which he played a retired singer who had taken up teaching electrical engineering at a community college.  The show only lasted a season; Crosby had better luck behind the camera with his own Bing Crosby Productions which produced such TV hits as Ben Casey and Hogan’s Heroes.

Bing Crosby’s last feature film appearance was a brief bit in the 1974 all-star MGM extravaganza That’s Entertainment!  He continued to do TV specials at that time, with a December 1977 outing, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, acting as his small screen swan song (this is the one where he duets with David Bowie on Peace On Earth/The Little Drummer Boy).  1977 marked the year of his death at the age of 74; he was playing a round of golf on a course in Madrid and after the game collapsed from a massive heart attack twenty yards from the clubhouse.  It would be no small exaggeration to note that we lost one of the major entertainers in show business on that day.

Radio Spirits features our birthday boy’s Philco Radio Time series as one of several broadcasts in our potpourri collection Comedy Goes West (a January 7, 1948 show with guests Walter O’Keefe and Brace Beemer [a.k.a. The Lone Ranger!]), and you can also listen to Der Bingle on Jack Benny & Friends (a classic February 15, 1953 show highlighting “The Life of Bing Crosby”).  For the pop music side of The Old Groaner, check out the CD sets George Gershwin Collection (They All Laughed and Mine [with Judy Garland]), You Make Me Feel So Young (How Deep is the Ocean, Moonlight Becomes You, Too Marvelous for Words, You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me), Great American Songbook: The Crooners (Just One More Chance, Out of Nowhere, Day by Day [with Mel Torme]), With a Song in My Heart: Hooray for Hollywood (Blue Skies, Swinging on a Star, The Road to Morocco [with Bob Hope]), and Swing Something Simple (When You and I Were Young, Maggie, Deep in the Heart of Texas, and two duets with his son Gary—Play a Simple Melody and Down by the Riverside).  The singer we often associate with the holidays sings his classic White Christmas on the CD collections The Very Best of Christmas, Christmas Crooners, and Wonderful Christmas: 75 Essential Christmas Classics…and performs other Yuletide favorites on 15 Christmas Favorites, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Do You Hear What I Hear? (my favorite Crosby Christmas carol).  In addition, Bing can be spotted in our DVD collections Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops, Stars in Their Shorts, and Best of Andy Williams.  As the ice cream on the birthday cake, we invite you to drink deeply of Bing Crosby—a massive 3-CD set with Crosby solos and hit duets featuring the likes of Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters and so many more!