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Happy Birthday, William Bendix!

In movies, television—and especially on radio—actor William Bendix frequently played a typical blue-collar working stiff.  Take his most famous role, Chester A. Riley, of the successful radio/TV sitcom The Life of Riley; the titular hero was a Brooklyn, NY expatriate who moved with his family (wife, daughter, and son) to the milder climes of California where he worked as a riveter at an aircraft factory.  As a well-meaning schmoe who frequently found himself in hot water, despite his best intentions, Bendix perfected the Brooklyn accent (and attitude) to make Riley a true pop culture hero.  So it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Bill—born on this date in 1906…actually hailed from Manhattan!

Biographers note that young William (named after his grandfather) was a descendant of famed composer Felix Mendelssohn-Barrholdy, and that his uncle Max was a composer-concertmaster with both the Chicago Symphony and the Metropolitan Orchestras.  A show business career appeared to be in the cards for Bill, and he made a rather inauspicious motion picture debut as a youngster in a Vitagraph short starring Lillian Walker (his father Oscar did odd jobs at the Vitagraph studios at the time).  Before returning to those endeavors, however, Bendix embarked on a series of colorful pursuits (after deciding not to finish high school), beginning with becoming a batboy for the New York Yankees in the 1920s.  The story goes that Bill obtained for Yankees player Babe Ruth a large order of hot dogs and soda before a game…and when this splendid repast rendered Ruth incapable of playing, Bendix got his pink slip from the organization.  (Later, Bill would portray the Bambino in a 1948 film, The Babe Ruth Story.)

William Bendix’s later occupations included stints as a singing waiter and grocery store manager—the latter career resulting from his marriage to Theresa Stefanotti in 1927 (his father-in-law called in a few favors).  His grocer days didn’t last long, however; the store went belly up during the Depression and Bill soon drifted into acting (he was a member of the Federal Theatre Project from 1935 to 1939), something he had previously done while warbling and waiting on tables.  Bendix also entertained in nightclubs and landed small roles in Broadway productions like Run Sheep Run and Miss Swan Expects, but his breakthrough role was that of Officer Krupp in the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life.  His good notices in that smash would win him a contract with Hollywood producer Hal Roach, and he scored his first credited screen role in the Roach “streamliner” Brooklyn Orchid (1942).

In Orchid, Bendix played Timothy “Tim” McGuerin, a good-natured cab driver (Irish, begorrah)…and he reprised the role in two follow-ups, The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942—also known as Two Mugs from Brooklyn) and Taxi, Mister (1943).  After seeing The McGuerins from Brooklyn, writer Irving Brecher wanted Bill to play the patriarch in a radio sitcom that he had originally created for his friend Groucho Marx (it was titled The Flotsam Family).  Groucho’s version went nowhere, but Brecher felt that with Bendix as the lead, the series might get picked up…and it did, making its debut over the Blue Network on January 16, 1944 (sponsored by the American Meat Institute).  The Life of Riley, as it eventually came to be known, was a huge hit. When it moved to NBC in the fall of 1945, it remained a radio staple until 1951.  The popular show—which inspired a feature film in 1949—would eventually transition to the small screen that same year…but in its first incarnation, Bendix was not able to reprise his role due to a clause in his motion picture contract.  Jackie Gleason played Riley in the first series (1949-50), and the second time around (1953-58) Bendix was back in his element as the bumbling, fumbling Riley.

William Bendix’s success in Brooklyn Orchid soon made him much-in-demand around Tinsel Town, landing him high profile gigs in features like Woman of the Year (1942) and Wake Island (1942—where he scored his solo Academy Award nomination playing Private Aloysius K. “Smacksie” Randall).  He was versatile enough to portray menaces (like the brutal henchman in 1942’s The Glass Key) and comic stooges (he’s an ideal foil for Abbott & Costello in Who Done It? [1942]).  Bill’s memorable movie roles include Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Lifeboat (1944), A Bell for Adano (1945), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Dark Corner (1946), The Web (1947), and The Time of Your Life (1948)—this time playing Nick, the saloon owner in this James Cagney-financed production.

Bendix was more than capable when it came to providing support in films featuring his fellow radio comedians.  He’s part of the all-star ensemble in Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and has a delightful bit as a hypochondriac gangster (named “Bill Bendix”) in Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag! (1945).  He’s Bob Hope’s prospective brother-in-law in Where There’s Life (1947), and gets the opportunity to croon with Bing Crosby (and Sir Cedric Hardwicke) in the delightful Technicolor musical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949).  His comedic flair made Bill a delightful guest star on the radio shows of Victor Borge, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Al Jolson, Fibber McGee & Molly, and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.  Bendix’s other radio appearances include The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCommand PerformanceFamily TheatreG.I. JournalThe Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio TheatreThe Railroad HourSuspenseThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and Truth or Consequences.

While William Bendix continued to appear in films like The Big Steal (1949), Kill the Umpire (1950), and Detective Story (1951), the 1950s found him focusing more on his weekly duties on TV’s The Life of Riley and guesting on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line?  After finishing that five-year Riley run, Bill would star on one additional series—a short-lived Western titled Overland Trail (co-starring Doug McClure)—and make appearances on favorites such as Wagon TrainThe Untouchables, and Burke’s Law.  His cinematic swan song was 1964’s Young Fury…he passed away that same year at the age of 58.

William Bendix is one of several guest stars on Smile a While, a fantastic collection of vintage broadcasts from The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show (I wrote the liner notes!) featuring recently unearthed shows from 1943!  Bendix also appears on a memorable January 18, 1944 escapade of The George Burns-Gracie Allen Show that’s present and accounted for on Burns & Allen and Friends.  But to fully celebrate today’s birthday boy, check out Radio Spirits’ one-two punch of collections—Magnificent Mug and Blue Collar Blues—and potpourri sets like Great Radio Comedy to enjoy hilarious broadcasts of The Life of Riley.  William Bendix’s birthday…it’s definitely not a revoltin’ development!

“Welcome to the mysterious circle of the Inner Sanctum…”

Established in 1924 by Richard L. Simon (father of singer-songwriter Carly Simon) and M. Lincoln “Max” Schuster as a vehicle to sell crossword puzzle books, the company known as Simon & Schuster (still in existence today, by the way) quickly established itself as a leader in the publishing field with innovations in mass-marketing and distribution.  Additionally, they were the first to offer booksellers the option of returning unsold books for credit, and Simon & Schuster can also lay claim to creating the modern paperback when they instituted their “Pocket Books” line in 1939.  With the introduction of a series of novels in 1930 that the company dubbed “Inner Sanctum” (color-coded books in which the subject matter ranged from serious drama to detective/mystery stories), Simon & Schuster can accept responsibility for one of old-time radio’s classic horror anthologies…which made its radio debut on this date in 1941.

It was, in fact, a radio show that inspired the “Inner Sanctum” book series…that would return full circle to radio.  Simon & Schuster’s rival Street and Smith had agreed to sponsor CBS’ The Detective Story Hour in 1930 to boost sales of their publication Detective Story Magazine.  (That program would later metamorphose into The Shadow.)  The “Inner Sanctum” book series was introduced in that same year, but it received a rather lukewarm reception from the book-buying public.  Had it not been for the company’s decision to reissue the first novel in that series—Claude Haughton’s I Am Jonathan Scrivener—in 1935, the book franchise might never have given birth to its eventual radio counterpart.  But the “Inner Sanctum” series began to move product, and with the success of other radio horror programs, such as The Witch’s Tale and Lights Out, it would only be a matter of time before radio listeners began turning down their lights for additional goosebumps.

The task of bringing Inner Sanctum Mysteries before the microphones would fall to radio veteran Himan Brown.  The director-producer of any number of shows from soap operas (Marie, the Little French PrincessJoyce Jordan, M.D.) to juvenile action (Dick TracyFlash Gordon), by the 1940s Brown had become a one-man industry when it came to initiating radio programs, enjoying success with hits like Bulldog Drummond and The Adventures of the Thin Man.  Hi had approached Simon & Schuster with the proposition for a radio version of Sanctum, but rather than sponsoring the show by their lonesome they suggested he line up someone else to pay the bills.  Faster than you can say “Your host, Raymond” Brown had persuaded Carter’s Little Liver Pills to sign on the dotted line…and Inner Sanctum Mysteries made its debut over the Blue Network on January 7, 1941.

“Your host, Raymond” was actor Raymond Edward Johnson, who Himan Brown hired to introduce each week’s bloodcurdling tale of murder and mayhem.  Raymond would eventually morph into what some might recognize as an embryonic version of the modern-day television horror movie host, cracking atrocious puns in a jovial, tongue-in-cheek manner.  (“Well, it’s so nice of you to come here tonight…and…uh…help me sit up with a corpse…he’s such dull company…so cold and stiff…”)  Raymond would make his entrance after the program’s signature opening: three bars of organ music punctuated by a sting…and then the sound of a doorknob turning.  Listeners then heard a door swinging in slowly with an ominous creak…

The idea for the “creaking door” sprang from a sound effect that Himan Brown had previously used on a broadcast of Dick Tracy, though in later years Brown would reminisce that the inspiration had been the basement door in a studio where he had once worked. As he relayed it in Martin Grams, Jr.’s Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door, “The door told me to use it. The door spoke to me. ‘Make me a star,’ it said.” Brown was true to his word; the rusty hinges of the door to the Inner Sanctum would become one of radio’s beloved sound effects, and one of only two sounds from Radio’s Golden Age to be copyrighted (the other being the NBC chimes).

The content of Inner Sanctum Mysteries fluctuated between classic horror tales (like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”) and original stories of terror with a dash of the supernatural for spice.  Modern-day listeners have occasionally described surviving recordings as “camp”; Sanctum never made any bones (see what I did there?) about subtlety, and many of its dramas would call it a wrap with endings not too far removed from an episode of Scooby Doo, Where are You? (“It’s Old Mr. Crabtree, the owner of the amusement park!”)  In its purest form, Inner Sanctum offered simple, old-fashioned entertainment—the sort of spinetingling spook tales one might tell around a campfire.  Sanctum also boasted a most impressive list of Hollywood celebrities that guest starred now and then, with performances from horror icons Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre supplemented by the likes of non-horror actors such as Mary Astor and Raymond Massey.  For the most part, the series chiefly drew upon a rich pool of New York radio talent with veterans like Berry Kroeger, Lesley Woods, Santos Ortega, and Everett Sloane.

When Inner Sanctum Mysteries moved to CBS in the fall of 1943, the sponsorship shifted to Colgate-Palmolive-Peet.  In January of 1945, the series took on its best-remembered sponsor in Lipton’s Tea, with host Raymond regularly matching wits with Lipton spokeswoman Mary Bennett.  (Mary would scold Raymond when he insisted on adding his macabre sense of humor to the commercials.)  Sanctum’s longest-running sponsor was the Emerson Drug Company (from 1946-50, and distinguished by another memorable ad for “bromoseltzerbromoseltzerbromoseltzer“), but by that time Raymond Edward Johnson’s hosting duties had shifted to actor-announcer Paul McGrath.  (Johnson had left the show in May of 1945 after receiving greetings from Uncle Sam.)  McGrath sounded similar to the departing Johnson, but decided to keep his identity a secret by referring to himself simply as “your host.”

In July of 1950, Inner Sanctum Mysteries returned to its old Blue neighborhood (now known as ABC) as a summer sustainer, and then persuaded Mars Candy to pick up the check in September, continuing in that capacity until June 18, 1951.  The radio show had one more brief summer run on CBS in 1952 (sponsored by the Pearson Pharmaceutical Company) before giving up the ghost (okay, I promise to stop now).  An attempt was made to bring Inner Sanctum to the small screen in the form of a syndicated TV series (produced in 1953 and telecast in 1954), but it failed to catch fire…much in the same manner as a short-lived Universal movie franchise (six films produced between 1943 and 1945).  Inner Sanctum remains a show that works best for those who truly enjoy “the theater of the mind.” (When I was in fifth grade, my English teacher had me spellbound with reminisces of listening to the show when she was a youngster.)

To celebrate the anniversary of Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Radio Spirits invites you to sample some of its eerie delights with three deliciously terrifying tales in our potpourri release of Great Radio Horror.  After you’ve finished with that appetizer, you’re ready for the main course in Shadows of Death—an eight-CD set with sixteen vintage broadcasts (and liner notes by yours truly).  It wouldn’t be a complete meal without dessert, of course, so we offer up our newest Sanctum collection, Pattern for Fear, with sixteen additional episodes of “the fear you can hear.”  As for me…well, it’s time to close that squeaking door…good niiii-iight…pleasant dreeeeeaaaaammmmmsssss…

Happy Birthday, Richard Kollmar!

From 1941 to 1949, Columbia Pictures entertained devoted moviegoers with a series of films based on a character created by author Jack Boyle in 1914.  The Boston Blackie franchise was comprised of fourteen B-movies that brilliantly mixed comedy and mystery.  They starred Academy Award nominee Chester Morris as Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black as a reformed safecracker/jewel thief who frequently found himself embroiled in crime investigations…and under suspicion from his nemesis on the police force, Inspector Farraday (played by Richard Lane).  Despite their “second feature” status, the films are still engaging to watch today, with outstanding entries like Meet Boston Blackie (1941) and Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) able to hold their own against any “A” mystery produced at that time.

Morris and Lane reprised their movie roles for a 1944 NBC radio series that aired as a summer replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy.  The actor who became best known for portraying Blackie on radio, however, was Dick Kollmar—born Richard Tompkins Kollmar in Brooklyn on this date in 1910.  Kollmar had an impressive family background: his great-great grandfather was Daniel D. Tompkins—the fourth Governor of New York and, later, sixth Vice-President of the United States (under James Monroe).  But young Richard also had a reputation for being a “hellion,” prompting his father to enroll him in a New Jersey school for “problem boys” (his family had moved to the Garden State when he was an infant).  Kollmar would later attend Tusculum College in Tennessee, where he developed an interest in acting (in addition to being editor of the student newspaper and a member of the glee club), which encouraged him to enroll in the Yale School of Drama after graduation.

Dick Kollmar never fulfilled his commitment to Yale, however, because he landed a job in radio. And when he moved back to New York City for further opportunities in the medium, he began getting stage work. Kollmar made his Broadway debut in 1938’s Knickerbocker Holiday.  He followed that up with Too Many Girls (1940), and later not only appeared in the 1941 musical revue Crazy with the Heat but wrote songs for that production as well.  Kollmar enjoyed a fruitful career as a director-producer of such shows as By Jupiter (1942-43), Early to Bed (1943-44), and Are You with It? (1945-46).  Dick continued his theatrical work in the 1950s with the likes of Plain and Fancy (1955-56) and The Body Beautiful (1958).

On radio, Kollmar was one of the busiest actors in daytime drama.  He portrayed John Perry, the titular hero of John’s Other Wife, and David Naughton on Claudia and David.  Dick also emoted on Life Can Be Beautiful (as Barry Markham), Pretty Kitty Kelly (Jackie Van Orpington/Dennis Pierce), and When a Girl Marries (Paul Stanley).  On Big Sister, Kollmar essayed the role of Michael West…and reprised the role when that character was spun-off onto another soap, Bright Horizon.  His radio resume also includes announcing duties on The Alan Young Show and The Adventures of Topper, not to mention Gang BustersGrand Central StationGreat PlaysThe Radio Reader’s Digest (he was the host from 1946-47), and Theatre of Romance.

Richard Kollmar is best remembered for two old-time radio gigs.  I’ve mentioned Boston Blackie, a show on which he performed from 1945-50. (It was syndicated by Ziv, but was also heard on Mutual outlets.) Maurice Tarplin co-starred on that program (as Farraday), along with Lesley Woods and Jan Miner (as Blackie’s gal Friday Mary Wesley).  But on April 15, 1945, Dick launched his longest-running radio venture with his wife Dorothy Kilgallen (a Broadway columnist for The New York Journal-American): Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick.  A precursor to the morning talk shows that permeate television nowadays, Breakfast originated in the Kollmars’ 16-room apartment on Park Avenue and 66th Street.  It featured “one of America’s most charming couples” (according to WOR publicity) engaging in a 45-minute conversation about their fabulous lives, friends and family. They were heard live Monday through Saturday, with a pre-recorded edition on Sunday (while they no doubt slept in).

Although it was only a local program, it’s been estimated that the audience for Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick reached 20 million listeners regularly…which is why sponsors no doubt knocked one another down for an opportunity to advertise on the show.  The Kollmars’ program was originally put together as a replacement for a similar show hosted by Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald, who had jumped ship from WOR to WJZ after launching their show in 1942.  (The Fitzgeralds later had quite the heated rivalry with the Kollmars.)  With their children Richard, Jr. (Dickie) and Jill, loyal retainer Julius (the butler), and a chirpy canary named Robin, the Kollmars made mornings cheerier for loyal listeners until their final sign-off on March 21, 1963.  (That classic Fred Allen/Tallulah Bankhead parody of the radio couple who get up on the wrong side of the bed owes a lot to Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick, by the way.)

Richard Kollmar had only one movie credit: the 1948 B-picture thriller Close-Up.  He fared much better on the small screen, with guest roles on series like The Web and Armstrong Circle Theatre, and hosting gigs on the likes of Broadway Spotlight and Guess What?  He appeared multiple times as a panelist (three times as a “mystery guest”) on What’s My Line?, a show that featured Mrs. Kollmar (Dorothy) as a regular.  Dick never really got over the passing of Dorothy in 1965 (there is still speculation as to the details of her death, which some believe was connected to the JFK assassination). Although he remarried in 1967 (to fashion designer Anne Fogarty), he was said by close friends to be often despondent and depressed.  Kollmar went on to his greater reward in 1971 at the age of 60 after an overdose of barbiturates.

In honor of Richard Kollmar’s birthday, Radio Spirits invites you to check out our latest release of classic Boston Blackie broadcasts: Boston Blackie Delivers the Goods.  The title is not hyperbole, by the way; it’s an eight-CD set containing sixteen thrilling escapades of the famed sleuth from 1947.  “Enemy to those who make him an enemy! Friend to those who have no friends!”

Happy Birthday, Irene Dunne!

Irene Dunne is acknowledged by many classic movie fans to be the greatest actress who never won an Academy Award.  It wasn’t for a lack of trying: she was nominated five times—for Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937—a peerless comic performance), Love Affair (1939), and I Remember Mama (1948)—but putting an Oscar on her fireplace mantle remained an elusive goal.  Dunne was never even considered for an honorary trophy!  It’s something to consider the next time you get stoked during Oscar season…and it’s as good a way as any to honor the lady born Irene Marie Dunn in Louisville, KY on this date in 1898.

The daughter of Adelaide Henry and Joseph John Dunn, Irene learned to play piano as a young girl (her mother was a concert pianist and music teacher), stoking the fires of ambition to becoming a performer.  “Music was as natural as breathing in our house,” Dunne later reflected, and she gained valuable experience by participating in school plays and singing at local churches by the time of her graduation in 1916.  Though she earned a college degree to teach art, her musical desires prompted her to enter and win a contest that netted her a scholarship to the prestigious Chicago Musical College.  Her dream of becoming an opera singer, however, suffered a setback when her audition with the Metropolitan Opera Company resulted in disappointment.

Undaunted, Irene Dunne turned to musical theater.  Touring cities as the lead in the production Irene (most appropriate), Dunne would make her Broadway debut in 1922 in The Clinging Vine.  By 1929, Irene was playing leads in shows like Yours TrulyShe’s My Baby, and Luckee Girl…and was touring in the road company version of the successful Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II production of Show Boat when Hollywood came a-calling.  Signed to a contract by RKO, Irene made her film debut in Leathernecking (1930; an adaptation of the stage musical Present Arms), and from that point on graced such features as Cimarron (1931), Symphony of Six Million (1932), Back Street (1932), Thirteen Women (1932), Ann Vickers (1933), The Age of Innocence (1934), Roberta (1935–where she sings the standard Smoke Gets in Your Eyes), and Magnificent Obsession (1935).  When RKO remade Show Boat in 1936 (it had been previously filmed in 1929), Irene reprised her original stage role as Magnolia Hawks.

The 1936 film Theodora Goes Wild established Irene Dunne as a fitfully funny movie comedienne, and paved the way for performances in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940), both co-starring Cary Grant.  (Dunne and Grant would be teamed for a third film, 1941’s Penny Serenade—a tearjerker leavened with lighter moments.)  Charles Boyer was also a frequent co-star; the pair appeared in Love Affair (1939), When Tomorrow Comes (1939), and Together Again (1944).  Irene’s film career continued going great guns into the 40s and 50s, with audience favorites like A Guy Named Joe (1943), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Life with Father  (1947), I Remember Mama (1948), and The Mudlark (1950).  Her movie swan song was 1952’s It Grows on Trees. She continued to act, but a lack of suitable of scripts redirected her energies towards television, where she was a guest star on the likes of The Ford Television TheatreThe DuPont Show with June AllysonThe General Electric Theater, and Saints and Sinners.  Irene never really had a zeal for auditioning like other actresses, once remarking: “I drifted into acting and drifted out. Acting is not everything. Living is.”

During Radio’s Golden Age, Irene Dunne’s movie star celebrity made her a familiar presence on the medium’s popular anthology programs: The Academy Award TheatreThe Cavalcade of AmericaEverything for the BoysFamily TheatreHallmark PlayhouseThe Lux Radio TheatreScreen Directors’ Playhouse, and The (Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel) Screen Guild Theatre.  Dunne also guest starred on such favorites as Command PerformanceThe Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show, and Fibber McGee & Molly.  This workout that Irene received in both radio comedy and drama would eventually result in her own starring series: a syndicated 1952-53 program entitled Bright Star, where Dunne portrayed Susan Armstrong, editor of The Hillside Morning Star.  Susan had her hands full dealing with the antics of ace reporter George Harvey, portrayed by Fred MacMurray (the two had previously co-starred in Invitation to Happiness [1939] and Never a Dull Moment [1950]). Bright Star also featured the participation of radio pros like Elvia Allman (as Irene’s sardonic domestic), Sheldon Leonard, Betty Lou Gerson, and Harry Von Zell.

Irene Dunne left this world for a better one in 1990, and Radio Spirits has a first-rate collection of her signature radio series available in Bright Star, a 4-CD set featuring eight broadcasts from 1953.  In addition, there’s a pair of Bright Star episodes on Stop the Press!, our potpourri aggregation of newspaper reporters both homespun and hard-boiled.  For visual Dunne, check out one of her finest feature films (delightfully paired with William Powell and featuring a young Elizabeth Taylor) in Life with Father, the movie adaptation of the long-running Broadway family comedy.  Finally, Irene is represented on our DVD Stars in Their Shorts with a 1950 star-studded short entitled You Can Change the World.  Happy birthday to the amazing Irene Dunne!

A ventriloquist…on the radio?

On this date in 1936, The Royal Gelatin Hour’s Rudy Vallee introduced a very unusual guest:

Why—people have been asking me for the last two days—why put a ventriloquist on the air?  The answer is, why not?  True, our ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, is an unusual one—a sort of Noel Coward or perhaps Fred Allen among ventriloquists, a dexterous fellow who depends more upon the cleverness and wit of his material than upon the make-believe of his delivery.  Mr. Bergen works with a dummy—several of them, in fact—but this one is a typical ventriloquist’s dummy except that it is arrayed with top hat and tails.  Just imagine a dummy and take my word for it that both voices you hear are owned and operated by just one man—Edgar Bergen.

During his boyhood years in Chicago, Edgar John Berggren discovered he had a talent for ventriloquism (often referred to as “belly talk” at that time) …and at first it was just a pastime to fool his family and friends. (One story has him pranking his mother by throwing his voice, convincing her an elderly man was at their front door).  He became more and more serious about his talent as he grew older, and was no doubt buoyed after attending a Windy City performance from noted ventriloquist Harry Lester.  Lester was so impressed with Bergen (after meeting with young Edgar backstage) that he gave the novice “belly-talker” a couple of lessons free of charge.

Bergen’s ventriloquist talent also helped him graduate from high school.  As the old joke goes, Edgar’s report cards were soaking wet because his grades were below “C” level…but his teacher, after good-naturedly enjoying a performance her pupil gave at a high school recital (where he needled both her and the principal), helped tutor Bergen so he could order his cap and gown.  Edgar also depended on ventriloquism to put himself through college; he was enrolled at Northwestern University as a pre-med student, and entertaining at socials and private functions paid the bills.  Eventually, the roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd proved too tempting for the young man, and he abandoned med school to pursue a show business career.  It was through many years of one-night stands and three-a-days on “the sawdust trail” that allowed Edgar to perfect his craft and achieve the dream of every vaudevillian: playing New York’s Palace Theatre in 1930.

By the time Bergen returned from a tour of both Europe and South America, vaudeville was in hospice.  This meant Edgar would have to change the venues in which he worked, and he opted for entertaining in swanky nightclubs.  To accommodate this change, he dressed dummy Charlie McCarthy in top-hat-and-tails, and gave Charlie an English accent.  Bergen got work at New York’s Helen Morgan Club and Chicago’s Chez Paree, and he soon became a hit at private parties as well.  It was at an affair for Noel Coward in 1936—thrown by professional party maven Elsa Maxwell—that Edgar attracted the attention of Rudy Vallee, who agreed to put Edgar and Charlie on his NBC show.  (An idea that stupefied the advertising department of J. Walter Thompson, who worked with The Vagabond Lover’s sponsor.)  Rudy’s instincts were on the money; Edgar and Charlie went over big with his audience, and were invited back for an additional thirteen weeks.

Realizing that Bergen and McCarthy were a hot property, NBC added the duo to the all-star lineup of The Chase and Sanborn Hour when it premiered on May 9, 1937.  Though this hour-long variety show would eventually be taken over by Edgar and his wooden companions (Charlie, Mortimer Snerd, Effie Klinker, etc.), it’s interesting to remember that Bergen’s co-stars on the program included Nelson Eddy, Don Ameche, Dorothy Lamour, and W.C. Fields.  Fields’ stint on the show lasted only four months, but in that time his “feud” with Charlie McCarthy became every bit as popular as the quarrel between Jack Benny and Fred Allen or the squabble that pitted Walter Winchell against Ben Bernie.  (Bergen & McCarthy would even give The Great Man grief in 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, one of Fields’ funniest films.) When the contracts of Ameche, Eddy, and Lamour were up for renewal, the sponsor decided instead to prune the weekly show to a half-hour on Sunday nights.  The program still bore the “Chase & Sanborn” moniker…but radio fans simply referred to it as “Charlie McCarthy.”

Throughout Radio’s Golden Age, Edgar Bergen’s broadcasts rarely budged from the top five of the medium’s most popular comedy programs (and it was often ranked at #1).  It was only in the 1948-49 season that the ratings took a dip, owing to the stiff competition from Stop the Music.  Yes, Bergen & McCarthy had the same trouble as Fred Allen…but while Allen stubbornly insisted on staying in his time slot (even bribing viewers with a $5,000 offer if they had been called by Stop the Music while they were listening to his show), Bergen chose to go on hiatus in December of 1948—presciently guessing that the Stop the Music phenomenon would burn itself out.  In the fall of 1949, Bergen returned to his proper position in the ratings (with new sponsor Coca-Cola), and pretty much outlasted all of his radio contemporaries. Bergen remained on the air until July 1. 1956, returning in his last two seasons to an hour-long format.

Radio Spirits invites you to enjoy Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy’s later radio years with two fine collections: The Funny Fifties (which features several rare radio broadcasts) and The New Edgar Bergen Hour (also spotlighting rare shows).  Our most recent Bergen & McCarthy release, Knock on Wood, also has recently unearthed broadcasts (from 1942) as does Smile a While (with rare 1943 broadcasts…and liner notes from yours truly).  One of my favorite Radio Spirits collections is W.C. Fields and Friends, which features the duo squaring off against a true comedic great (according to Don Ameche, W.C. was not a member of Charlie’s fan club despite his admiration for Edgar’s talents).  Finally, for those of you who’d like to recover from these sumptuous servings of Edgar & Charlie, you can sample nibbles of the team on Jack Benny & FriendsGreat Radio ComedyComedy Goes WestChristmas Radio Classics, and the DVD set Funniest Moments of Comedy.

Happy Birthday, Jay Jostyn!

In 1975, actor Jay Jostyn related an amusing anecdote to author Chuck Schaden (Speaking of Radio) about an event held at New York’s famed Stork Club to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the popular radio program Mr. District Attorney, on which Jostyn starred.  Former GOP Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, the one-time New York City district attorney (and governor of the state) who inspired the titular character of the show, had been invited to the party and offered some words of wisdom to the actor: “Jay, you’ve been successful.  Let me give you a little advice.  You’ve been successful as a district attorney.  My advice to you is not to try to advance politically!”

Jay Jostyn—born Eugene Jostyn in Milwaukee on this date in 1905 (some sources say 1901)—played the prosecutor who had no official name on Mr. District Attorney from 1940 to 1952, and kept busy on other radio series as well.  He was more than just a radio thespian, however; he began in show business as an actor working in stock companies after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in dramatic arts.  (Jay also attended Marquette University briefly, before transferring to the University of Wisconsin’s dramatic school.) Though Jostyn broke into radio on the West Coast (California), it was on Cincinnati’s WLW that he received his earliest exposure as a cast member on Moon River, a poetry program.  Jay also worked on such shows as Lives of the GreatSalute to the Cities, and Smoke Dreams.

While at WLW, Jay Jostyn was a cast member on a daytime drama entitled The Life of Mary Sothern—on which he portrayed Max Tilley, one of the heroine’s many suitors.  The show was heard over the Cincinnati station from 1934 to 1936 before moving to Mutual in 1935 and then CBS by 1937.  (The series finished out its radio run as a syndicated program, finally calling it quits in 1943.)  Jostyn went with the show when it relocated to New York, and began getting gigs on other soap operas as well, including Hilltop HouseOur Gal SundayThe Parker FamilySecond Husband, and This Day is Ours.  A July 29, 1940 edition of The Time Recorder noted that Jay was one of the industry’s most in-demand performers, appearing “in 35 script shows in one week, portraying 45 different characters.”

It was as Mr. District Attorney that Jostyn scored his greatest radio success, portraying the “champion of the people, defender of truth, and guardian of all fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” after a brief stint as the show’s “Voice of the Law” (the individual who spoke those preceding words).  He was really the third actor to play Mr. D.A.; it was Dwight Weist who originated the character in the show’s early fifteen-minute serial days. Future Inner Sanctum Mysteries host Raymond Edward Johnson inherited the part from Weist, and Jay took the baton after that.  Jostyn would star on Mr. District Attorney until 1952; he reprised the role in a 1951-52 TV version (and the prosecutor finally got a real name, Paul Garrett).  However, when the program returned as a 1954 syndicated series, the district attorney’s job went to actor David Brian (who had played the part when the radio series also went into syndication from 1952-53).

Jostyn’s other radio work includes a 1943-44 Mutual series, Foreign Assignment. He played Brian Barry, a foreign correspondent for the fictitious The American Press, and actress Vicki Vola (who played his faithful secretary Edith Miller on Mr. D.A.) emoted alongside him as assistant Carol Manning.  Jay made the rounds on the likes of Dr. ChristianGreat PlaysListen CarefullyNBC Parade of StarsNew World A’Comin’, Phyl Coe MysteriesPopeye the SailorQuick as a FlashRadio GuildThe Radio Hall of FameThe Radio Reader’s DigestThe Raleigh RoomRubinoff and His Musical Moments Revue, Secret Agent K-7 ReturnsThe Silver Theatre, and The Top Guy (a 1951-53 series starring J. Scott Smart).

His TV stint as Mr. District Attorney may not have caught fire…but Jay Jostyn would eventually find small screen stardom as the star of a KTLA series called Judge Jay Jostyn of Night Court.  (Well, with all those years as a district attorney—he was destined to become a judge eventually.)  The show would eventually go national as the syndicated Night Court, U.S.A., and he would score an additional gig on the daytime soap The Secret Storm as well.  Jostyn eventually made the rounds in a guest star capacity on such popular shows as Alfred Hitchcock PresentsCar 54, Where are You?The Felony SquadThe Lineup, Maverick, Mission: ImpossibleTales of Wells FargoThriller, and The Wild Wild West.  His motion picture turns went mostly uncredited, but you can spot him in such fine films as Love Me Tender (1956), A Hatful of Rain (1957), The Hunters (1958), and Never Steal Anything Small (1959).  Jay Jostyn passed on in 1977…although, like the disagreement on his birth date, some sources report that he died in 1976.

Here’s one thing we can all agree on: Mr. District Attorney was one of radio’s most popular crime dramas (with ratings that matched many of the top comedy programs of that era) and was also a series that did not know the meaning of “summer vacation.”  (It’s true—while most of the top radio series got a break during the summer months, Mr. District Attorney was still trying cases on the docket.)  Our birthday celebrant appears on a first-rate collection of Mr. D.A. broadcasts, which also features two other thespians to tackle the part, Dwight Weist and David Brian.  (There’s even a 1939 promotional show, which throws the spotlight on District Attorneys from around the country!)  You’re going to want to add this to your bookshelf as a tribute to a hard-working actor…and remember: “…it shall be my duty, not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all those charged with crimes perpetrated within this country, but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens…”

Happy Birthday, Peg Lynch!

The domestic comedy The Private Lives of Ethel and Albert had its official network radio premiere on May 29, 1944 over NBC Blue, but the idea for the program had been germinating in the mind of Peg Lynch for years…during her days of working at KATE in Albert Lea, Minnesota.  Ethel and Albert was a sitcom in the mold of such successes as Easy Aces and Vic & Sade, but what set the show apart from these cousins was that Ethel and Albert was created, as stated, by a woman…at a time when males dominated radio comedy writing.  Margaret Frances “Peg” Lynch was born in Lincoln, Nebraska on this date in 1916…and fans of not only Ethel and Albert but The Couple Next Door, should all be thankful (even though this comes a little late, Thanksgiving-wise).

Peg Lynch didn’t stay long in the Cornhusker State.  Her father died when she was only two years old, prompting her mother to relocate to Kasson, Minnesota…and allowing Mother Lynch to resume her career as an orthopedic nurse at the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester.  At fifteen, young Peg was helping at the clinic as a part-time receptionist when she was asked by a classmate’s father if she’d be interested in working at Rochester’s KROC.  Peg’s job was writing copy and interviewing sports figures like Lou Gehrig and Knute Rockne…pretty much anyone who was visiting the Mayo Clinic at that time.

Lynch would graduate from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English (with an emphasis on drama and writing), and her experience at KROC inspired her to seek work in broadcasting.  That brought her to KATE, where she was hired to write commercials and other radio copy.  Soon, however, she was pressed into service to script a daily half-hour show for women, as well as a weekly farm news program and a half-hour theater show.  As a three-minute “filler” during the woman’s program, Peg started writing the skits that would later blossom into Ethel and Albert.  Her fictional couple were also utilized in many of KATE’s commercials.

Subsequent jobs at stations in Charlottesville, Virginia and Cumberland, Maryland followed for Peg Lynch…and of course wherever she went she took Ethel and Albert with her.  She was hired in February of 1944 to script an ABC network serial in New York, and while doing that she pitched Ethel and Albert to her superiors.  The suits liked the idea for the series, and agreed to put it on the air.  While Lynch was a little hesitant to turn over her creation, she jumped in with enthusiasm—particularly since ABC insisted that she portray Ethel (an audition for actresses yielded no suitable candidates).

In the early months of Ethel and Albert, actor Richard Widmark portrayed Albert…but once he departed, he was replaced by Alan Bunce.  Bunce and Lynch had such an amazing chemistry that it was difficult to believe they weren’t married in real life.  Ethel and Albert ran as a five-day-a-week quarter hour for most of its radio history, and in January of 1949 it expanded to a half-hour, heard on Monday nights at 8pm until its cancellation on August 28, 1950.  Like so many of its radio brethren and sistren, Ethel and Albert transitioned to television—first as a fifteen-minute segment on The Kate Smith Hour in 1952, and then in a half-hour format that was eventually telecast over all three networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) from April 25, 1953 to July 6, 1956.

Ethel and Albert would be reunited for a CBS radio series that began December 30, 1957…but because Peg Lynch no longer owned the rights to her creation, she wasn’t allowed to call the show Ethel and Albert.  Instead, the series went by The Couple Next Door, and Peg and Alan’s couple the Arbuckles were now known as the Pipers.  (The Pipers’ first names were never mentioned on the program…unless they were “dear,” “darling,” or “sweetheart.”)  The show was a success for CBS, and ran until November 25, 1960 when the network issued pink slips to several other long-running radio favorites, including Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent.

The rights to Peg’s famous characters were eventually returned to her, and she resurrected the couple on five-minute segments of NBC’s Monitor in 1963, as well as a series of fondly remembered TV commercials.  Her “Albert,” Alan Bunce, passed away in 1965, so when Lynch brought the couple back for another go-round in the 1970s—on NPR’s Earplay—the creator of that award-winning radio series, Karl Schmidt, stepped in to fill Bunce’s shoes.  Robert Dryden would play Albert on Peg’s creation “The Little Things in Life” for Radio Playhouse, heard from 1975 to 1976.  Peg Lynch continued to write sketches about her famed couple (some featured Ethel and Albert Arbuckle in their nineties!) until her passing in 2015 at the age of 98.

Not many of the original Ethel and Albert radio broadcasts have survived the ravages of time and neglect…but fortunately for old-time radio fans, nearly the entire run of The Couple Next Door was preserved and is around for new generations of fans.  Radio Spirits offers up several collections of this classic show, starting with The Couple Next Door (which contains the inaugural broadcast) and continuing with Merry Mix-Ups (which would be perfect for the holidays) and Moving On.  There’s even an episode (from April 15, 1958) on our all-star mirthmaking compendium, Great Radio Comedy.  Happy birthday to Peg Lynch—a special lady and exemplary talent who created “a show about nothing” long before the plans for TV’s Seinfeld were set in motion.

Happy Birthday, Frank Graham!

In 1950, actor-announcer Frank Graham was at the peak of his radio career.  He was the star of Jeff Regan, Investigator—a detective series heard exclusively over CBS Radio on the West Coast. The series had originally starred future Dragnet cop Jack Webb when it premiered in 1948.  It was not an easy task to follow in Webb’s footsteps, but Graham was doing okay as Regan…ably assisted by character veteran Frank Nelson as Anthony J. Lyon, the buffoonish owner of the detective agency where Regan was employed.

There were only five more broadcasts left in Graham’s Jeff Regan contract, but he never completed the shows. He was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning on September 2, 1950—the victim of a successful suicide attempt.  The police would find a photograph of a beautiful brunette in Graham’s hand, later identified as Disney animator Mildred Rossi, a companion of the actor. It was a sad end to the performer who was born on this date in Detroit, MI in 1914.

A show business career was in the cards for Frank Lee Graham, because his mother Ethel was a well-known opera singer (his father, also named Frank, was an inventor). He frequently accompanied her on the concert circuit, attending literally dozens of schools in various cities during this vagabond existence. Upon graduation, Graham decided to enroll in the University of California, but college life was brief. After one year, Graham left school to pursue an acting career on stage (Graham and wife Dorothy founded the city’s Rockcliff School of Theatre and Radio) and in radio in Spokane (working for KHQ-KGA).  His radio acting is what ultimately took hold, and in 1937 he was brought to Hollywood for an announcer’s job at CBS station KNX.

Frank Graham’s first radio venture for KNX was a program entitled White Fires of Inspiration. However, he soon became well known for a West Coast series entitled Night Cap Yarns, which he starred in from 1938 to 1942. He eventually became a much-in-demand announcer for variety shows headlined by such stars as Rudy Vallee, Ginny Simms (from 1942-45), and Dinah Shore.  Another KNX series on which Frank worked was The Adventures of Cosmo Jones (also known as simply Cosmo Jones and The Crime Smasher).  Actually, “worked” is a bit of an understatement, because on Jones the actor was a “one-man-theater.” He not only wrote the series, but played all the roles — including the titular character, a correspondence school criminologist.  Though Crime Smasher’s listenership was limited to the West Coast, it had enough of a following that Monogram Pictures purchased the rights to the series, with the intention of making several motion pictures based on the character.  They got as far as one entry, Cosmo Jones in the Crime Smasher (1943), one of Frank’s few “live-action” performances in the movies. He was billed fifth in the feature, appearing alongside such talents as Edgar Kennedy, Mantan Moreland, and a young Gale Storm.

Frank Graham had a bit more motion picture success by merely supplying his voice, however.  He narrated and performed in animated cartoons for various studios. For example, he narrated Warner Brothers’ attempt to bring Dr. Seuss to the silver screen, Horton Hatches the Egg, in 1942.  At MGM, he can be heard in Tom & Jerry cartoons (Sufferin’ Cats!Springtime for Thomas) and he performed a lot of voice work in the productions of the legendary Tex Avery—he was the first actor to play “the wolf” in Avery’s “Red” cartoons (Red Hot Riding HoodSwing Shift Cinderella), and Graham also voiced the mouse in Tex’s lunatic King-Size Canary (1947).  The narrator for the Walt Disney animated feature The Three Caballeros (1945)?  Yes, you’ll recognize him as Frank.  Graham’s best-remembered work in animated cartoons—though again, he never got Mel Blanc-like recognition for his work—was voicing both the Fox and the Crow in the popular Columbia cartoon series during the 1940s.

Meanwhile, back at the radio microphone, Frank Graham continued to ply his trade; on The Romance of the Ranchos, he was “The Wandering Vaquero,” the series’ narrator.  Frank played several roles (including Diogenes Smith and B.L. Webster) on Lum and Abner, was the announcer for Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou (1942-43) and Nelson Eddy’s The Electric Hour (1944-46), and the host of Theatre of Romance from 1944 to 1946.  Other radio favorites on which the actor appeared include The Adventures of Bill LanceThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCommand PerformanceDarts for DoughEncore TheatreFour for the FifthFrontier TheatreThe Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreStars Over HollywoodThe Talent TheatreThe Westinghouse ProgramThe WhistlerYarns for Yanks, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.

When producer Sterling Tracy resurrected Jeff Regan, Investigator for CBS on the West Coast in 1949, Frank Graham was tabbed to replace Jack Webb in the role.  In addition to his acting, Graham co-created an anthology program (with Van Des Auteis) entitled Satan’s Waitin’ that aired in 1950—in which Beelzebub (Graham) himself played a large role in guiding the destinies of the characters in each installment broadcast.  According to a trade paper item published after his death, Frank was set to do the Colgate-Palmolive commercials on Our Miss Brooks when that series resumed in September of 1950.

Had Frank Graham not committed suicide and ended a promising career, there’s no telling what he would have accomplished in the new field of television (Satan’s Waitin’ was being considered for a small screen version).  So while this kind of puts a pall over celebrating his birthday today, Radio Spirits recognizes that Frank was loaded with talent—and there’s no better indication of that than his performance as “The Lyon’s Eye” on his signature series, Jeff Regan, Investigator. Our collection Stand By for Mystery features today’s birthday boy in eleven vintage broadcasts of the program from 1950.