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Happy Birthday, Mickey Rooney!

“I was a 14-year-old boy for 30 years,” Mickey Rooney once jokingly observed of his show business career, which spanned stage, screen, television and radio. He had one of the longest runs in entertainment history—active from the silent era up until the time of his death (a period of nine decades).  Diminutive in stature but packed with talent, “The Mick” could sing, dance, act (both comedy and drama) and was such a dynamo when it came to performing that even Sir Laurence Olivier considered him “the best that’s ever been.”  Rooney was born Joe Yule, Jr. in Brooklyn, NY on this date in 1920. He was best known in the 1930s/1940s as the onscreen partner to Judy Garland in a series of “let’s-put-on-a-show” musicals, as well as the star of a movie franchise in which he played typical teenager Andy Hardy.

Mickey Rooney’s future career was set in stone by his parents, Joe Yule, Sr. and Nellie Carter, vaudevillians who worked the youngster into their act when he was but 17 months old.  Mickey’s parents divorced when he was four, and his mother relocated to Hollywood. She was able to find work for her talented son: he made his motion picture debut (at age six) in a short, Not to Be Trusted (1926).  After seeing an ad placed by independent producer Larry Darmour looking for a child actor to play “Mickey (Himself) McGuire” in a series of comedy shorts based on Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Trolley comic strip, Nellie rubbed black shoe polish on Joe, Jr.’s head (Mickey was a blonde and the comic strip Mickey a brunette) and sold Darmour on hiring her son for the part.  Nellie went above and beyond just mere cosmetic adjustments to keep her son employed—when the notoriously frugal Darmour tried to rook Fox out of his royalties, the two of them changed Joe Jr.’s legal name to “Mickey McGuire.”  (This deception would eventually fail.)

Mickey Rooney appeared in the McGuire comedies until 1934, but he was clearly being groomed for bigger things with small but noticeable roles in features like The Beast of the City (1932), The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933), and Manhattan Melodrama (1934).  Rooney earned much critical praise for his turn as Puck in the Warner Bros.’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and after signing a contract with MGM continued his popularity with appearances in Ah Wilderness! (1935) and Captains Courageous (1937).  1937 saw the release of A Family Affair, the first of 14 films that featured the actor as girl-crazy teen Andy Hardy in the small town of Carvel.  The Hardy films were successfully produced and released until 1946, with a final film (Andy Hardy Comes Home) in 1958.

Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry was also released in 1937 and marked the initial teaming of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, whose onscreen chemistry extended offscreen as well (the two of them were lifelong friends).  Garland would play “Betsy Booth” in three of the Andy Hardy movies, but the most popular of their vehicles would be the “barnyard musicals” like Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up the Band (1940).  Babes would garner Mickey his first Oscar nomination (Best Actor in a Leading Role) and though he would be nominated three additional times, the only trophies he would place on his mantle were a special juvenile award in 1939 (for recognition of his work in Boys’ Town [1938]) and a career recognition statuette in 1983.

Mickey Rooney was often found himself reprising his film roles on the popular radio anthologies of the day, like The Lux Radio Theatre and The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre.  Rooney guest starred on Suspense three times, and made the rounds on The Cavalcade of America, Hollywood Star Playhouse, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and Stagestruck.  Mickey would add the likes of Command Performance, Duffy’s Tavern, Good News, Shell Chateau, and The Treasury Hour to his radio resume while finding time to josh with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope.

Mickey Rooney’s contributions to radio also included a short-lived comedy-drama entitled Shorty Bell, heard over CBS Radio in 1948. That series, directed and produced by William N. Robson, starred Mickey as an aspiring newspaperman and went down in radio history as a rather expensive failure (though surviving broadcasts show it was quite good).  When Bell was cancelled in June of 1948, Rooney moved on to Hollywood Showcase, a talent show variety effort.  It left the network in September.  Mickey’s biggest radio success was an adaptation of his popular movie franchise, The Hardy Family, which began syndication in 1949 (along with other MGM properties like The Adventures of Maisie and The Story of Dr. Kildare).

In the early 1940s, Mickey Rooney was frequently among the Top Ten film stars in terms of box office. In addition to his Andy Hardy vehicles and the Judy Garland musicals, he was featured in Young Tom Edison (1940), The Human Comedy (1943), and National Velvet (1944).  His fortunes took a dip by mid-decade, however, no thanks to his tumultuous personal life. (He was married eight times, including to stars like Ava Gardner and Martha Vickers.)  But Rooney started to do some interesting work at this time, notably a series of low-budget film noirs like Quicksand (1950) and Drive a Crooked Road (1954).  Mickey worked on that last film with future director Blake Edwards, who crafted a TV sitcom for him in the form of The Mickey Rooney Show (a.k.a. Hey Mulligan!) in 1954.  Rooney would attempt small screen success three additional times with Mickey (1964-65), One of the Boys (1982), and The Adventures of the Black Stallion (1990-93). The latter allowed him to reprise the role he had played in the 1979 movie of the same name (and for which he earned his fourth acting Oscar nomination).

Despite a rollercoaster life of ups and downs (at the time of his death in 2014, Vanity Fair called him “the original Hollywood trainwreck”), Mickey Rooney left behind a legacy of fine movie performances in films like The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and the 1981 TV movie Bill (which won him a Golden Globe award).  In addition, he wowed Broadway with Sugar Babies in 1979, a phenomenally popular musical revue co-starring his old MGM stablemate Ann Miller.  Radio Spirits invites you to celebrate Mr. Rooney’s natal anniversary by checking out one of his turns on Suspense (“The Lie”) available on the collection Ties That Bind and a hilarious visit to the Burns household in 1949 (Gracie wants to adopt Mickey!) on the George & Gracie set Burns & Allen and Friends.  Happy birthday, Mickey!

Happy Birthday, Penny Singleton!

She had stiff competition for the film role that would make her a household name: actresses Gloria Blondell and Una Merkel had both been approached to breathe life into Blondie, the titular heroine of Murat Bernard “Chic” Young’s popular comic strip, on the silver screen.  When a third actress, Shirley Deane, fell ill before she could play the part, Columbia Pictures ultimately chose the woman born Mariana Dorothy Agnes Letitia McNulty on this date in 1908.  We know her as Penny Singleton (more on how she acquired this name in a moment), a veteran performer who bleached her tresses platinum blonde in order to star in the hugely successful film franchise, and to reprise that role in front of a radio microphone for nearly a decade as well.

Dorothy McNulty was born in Philadelphia to Bernard J. “Benny” McNulty and Mary Dorothy McNulty. Father Benny was a newspaperman, and was related to Jim Farley, who served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign manager and later Postmaster General.  Dorothy didn’t get further than the sixth grade in her schooling before being bit by the performing bug.  She started out as a singer (billed as “Baby Dorothy”) with a silent movie theater before joining a traveling vaudeville troupe known as “The Kiddie Kabaret.”  (Milton Berle and Gene Raymond were among McNulty’s fellow child performers.)  Dorothy even appeared on Broadway in shows like Sky High (1925), Sweetheart Time (1926), and The Great Temptations (1927)—this last show featured Jack Benny.  In addition, McNulty worked in roadshow versions of musicals and did extensive touring in nightclubs.

In the 1930s, Dorothy McNulty made her way to Hollywood and her motion picture debut was in the 1930 short Belle of the Night.  She would also appear as “Flo” in the 1930 musical Good News—a role she had played on Broadway, where she was prominently featured in the show-stopping number The Varsity Drag.  She’s billed as “Dorothy McNulty” in one of her better-known showcases, After the Thin Man (1936—playing a nightclub singer named “Polly Byrnes”), and would keep the name for two more movies before changing it to the more familiar handle.  She married dentist Laurence Singleton in 1937, and the “Penny” came from her propensity for collecting coins.  “They threw parts at me that Claire Trevor didn’t want,” Penny observed drily in later years.  Warner Brothers put her in three Humphrey Bogart features—Swing Your Lady (1938), Men are Such Fools (1938), and Racket Busters (1938).  One Warner vehicle that allowed her a chance to shine (she practically makes off with the movie) is Hard to Get (1938), where she’s a maid forced to impersonate a socialite (played by Olivia de Havilland).

Penny Singleton’s first foray as “Blondie Bumstead” was in the appropriately-titled Blondie (1938), which was released in November of 1938.  Playing opposite Arthur Lake as husband Dagwood (Singleton always insisted her co-star was “Dagwood to his toes”), Penny saw the feature film clean up at the box office and become so successful that it spawned thirteen follow-ups between 1939 and 1943 (featuring up-and-coming stars like Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford).  Even when Columbia was convinced that the franchise was played out, audiences clamored for more Blondie and Dagwood…and after a two-year hiatus, embarked on fourteen additional movies that finally called it quits in 1950 with Beware of Blondie.  With two exceptions, Singleton’s motion picture career was defined by the Blondie comedies: the actress received top billing for the delightful Go West, Young Lady in 1941 and five years later appeared in Young Widow (1946).

To promote the first Blondie film in 1938, Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake appeared in character as guests on The Pepsodent Show with Bob Hope on December 20, 1938.  Their joshing with Hope was well-received, and in the summer of 1939, Blondie premiered as a replacement for the vacationing Eddie Cantor.  When Cantor elected not to return in the fall, Blondie inherited the time slot and would convulse listeners for eleven more seasons. The series was sponsored by Camel for the first five, and then Colgate-Palmolive-Peet (Super Suds!) from 1944 to 1949.  The sitcom’s final season was sustained…but by that time Penny had given up the radio gig. Her Blondie role would be played at various times by Alice White, Ann Rutherford, and Patricia Van Cleve (Mrs. Arthur Lake).

Penny Singleton would also play Blondie on such comedy programs as The Abbott & Costello Show and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet alongside Arthur Lake…but on her own, she starred in The Penny Singleton Show, a short-lived sitcom that aired over NBC Radio from May to September in 1950.  Singleton continued to perform on stage, and even made a foray into guest appearances on such TV shows as Death Valley Days and The Twilight Zone.  In her later years, Penny would remain in the public eye. She became very active in union affairs, serving as the president of the American Guild of Variety Artists from 1958-59 and again in 1969-70.  The actress became notorious for leading a month-long strike in 1967 on behalf of the Radio City Rockettes and, in 1970, led negotiations in a strike against Disney during a variety artists’ strike at Disneyland.

In the fall of 1962, ABC-TV premiered the prime-time animated series The Jetsons, which chronicled the misadventures of a futuristic family.  Penny Singleton voiced Jane, the level-headed matriarch who was a little too patient with her Dagwood-like husband George (voiced by George O’Hanlon).  She made a heralded return to Broadway in No, No Nanette (Penny replaced Ruby Keeler) and a memorable guest turn on Murder, She Wrote. However, portraying Jane Jetson would be the actress’ most prominent gig in the business, and she lent her voice to such Jetsons TV-movies as The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones (1987) and Rockin’ with Judy Jetson (1988).  Her last role was as Jane in Jetsons: The Movie (1990). Penny left this world for a better one in 2003 at the age of 95.

Radio Spirits offers up the recent DVD release of Blondie: The Complete 1957 TV Series in our voluminous inventory…and though this adaptation does not feature today’s birthday girl in her signature movie role, we think you’ll get a kick out of the madcap adventures of one of America’s favorite comic strip families in 26 delightful (and remastered) episodes!

Happy Birthday, Alan Ladd!

Old-time radio legend Frank Nelson (The Jack Benny Program) shared the following anecdote in Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast: “I had a friend who did just bits with me in radio shows, and one day he said, ‘Frank, I have a chance to do some [motion] pictures, what do you think I ought to do?  Do you think I should stay in radio or do you think I should do the picture thing?’  And I was thinking, ‘Boy, he reads in a monotone; if he can do anything in pictures’—and I didn’t think he could—’he sure ought to take that.’  Well, fortunately he did, and he did very well for himself; his name was Alan Ladd.”

Alan Walbridge Ladd was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas on this date in 1913.  He was the only child of Alan Ladd and Ina Raleigh (also known as Selina Rowley), and his childhood was an unhappy one.  Young Alan lost his father to a heart attack when he was four years old.  A year later, the family’s home burned to the ground—Alan had been playing with matches.  His mother would remarry sometime later to Jim Beavers, a housepainter, and the Ladd clan was forced to move from Oklahoma City to California due to economic hardship.  In the San Fernando Valley, Beavers found work at the FBO Studios as a painter, and Ladd would enroll at North Hollywood High where his extracurricular pursuits included swimming and diving.

Alan Ladd also dabbled in high school dramatics.  His performance as “Koko” in a production of The Mikado attracted the attention of a talent scout with Universal Pictures, who signed Ladd and a number of other young hopefuls to a contract (with options that could last up until seven years).  Though Alan did work uncredited in one movie—Once in a Lifetime (1932), as a projectionist—the studio dropped him after six months (they thought he was too short).  (Probably not the wisest decision in hindsight: though one of Ladd’s fellow “discoveries” also got a pink slip—Tyrone Power.)  Alan graduated from high school in 1934, and from there embarked on a number of careers, including a stint as the advertising manager of a newspaper and a cash register salesman.  Ladd was anxious to get back into the film industry, and he worked at Warner Bros. as a grip for two years before a scaffold accident convinced him to quit.

Alan Ladd’s radio career was the result of his taking acting lessons at a school run by Ben Bard—an old crony from Ladd’s Universal days who cast the young performer in a number of stage productions.  Bard also persuaded Alan to speak in a lower register (he described Ladd as “a shy guy”) and pretty soon the actor was performing regularly on KFWB, the Warner Bros. studio-owned station.  (In his time with KFWB, Alan would work as many as 20 shows a week—including a stint as “The Richfield Reporter.”)  Ladd hadn’t completely abandoned the idea of becoming a film actor—he can be glimpsed in the 1936 20th Century-Fox musical Pigskin Parade, among other films—but his silver screen dreams wouldn’t fully blossom until agent Sue Carol entered his life.

Sue Carol heard Alan Ladd performing on KFWB one night (in a play where he portrayed both the father and son) and was so impressed with his looks after meeting him that she took him on as a client, getting him work in such films as Riders of the Sea (1939) and The Light of Western Stars (1940).  Many motion picture appearances followed: Those Were the Days! (1940), Captain Caution (1940), The Black Cat (1941), etc.  If you’re familiar with Citizen Kane (1941), you might be interested to know that the reporter smoking a pipe (in silhouette) is Ladd (his voice is a dead giveaway).

With a small but memorable role in Joan of Paris (1942), Alan Ladd was offered a $400-a-week contract at R-K-O…but he received a better offer at Paramount, where he would make the movie that put him on the map.  The studio changed the title of Graham Greene’s novel A Gun for Sale to This Gun for Hire (1942), with Alan cast as a sympathetic hitman named “Raven.”  Though Robert Preston was the nominal male lead in the film, Ladd stole the picture with his killer-with-a-conscience character, paired with actress Veronica Lake with whom he shared a remarkable chemistry.  (Lake’s 4’11” height was also more suitable to Alan’s 5’6” frame.)  This Gun for Hire proved such a success at the box office that Ladd and Lake were re-teamed for a following film, The Glass Key (1942)—based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel (and previously filmed in 1935 with George Raft).

Alan Ladd made three additional Paramount films—Lucky Jordan (1942), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942; a cameo), and China (1943)—before getting his “Greetings” notice from Uncle Sam. A history of stomach troubles technically earned Ladd a 4-F designation, though he did serve briefly in the United States Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit.  Alan returned to his motion picture career with And Now Tomorrow (1944), then found himself re-classified 1-A after taking an Army physical.  This meant that he would eventually be re-drafted.  Paramount, concerned about their star, postponed the inevitable with a series of deferments in order to allow Ladd to make Two Years Before the Mast (made in 1944 but released two years later), Salty O’Rourke (1945), and the all-star Duffy’s Tavern (1945).  But by the time he completed The Blue Dahlia (1946)—his fourth with Veronica Lake—a directive from the U.S. Army released all men over the age of 30 from military service, allowing Alan to continue with films like O.S.S. (1946) and Calcutta (1947).

A high-profile film star like Alan Ladd naturally found himself in demand where radio was concerned…and his previous experience proved invaluable when he had to reprise both his own film roles and others on dramatic anthologies like The Cavalcade of AmericaHollywood Star TimeThe Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Silver Theatre, and Theatre of Romance.  Ladd appeared on Suspense four times, and guest starred on the likes of Command Performance and G.I. Journal.  In addition, he spoofed his “tough guy” image while joshing with the likes of Abbott & Costello, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Eddie Cantor, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Dinah Shore, and Rudy Vallee.

Alan Ladd’s most famous radio contribution came in the form of an adventure series entitled Box 13, a syndicated program from Mayfair Productions. (“Mayfair” had been the name of a chain of restaurants the actor invested in with his old friend Bernie Joslin.)  Box 13 featured “Laddie” as Dan Holiday, a retired-newspaper-reporter-turned-mystery-novelist who got inspiration for his books with the insertion of a simple ad in his local paper: “Adventure wanted.  Will go anywhere, do anything.  Box 13.”  Although the series was produced for syndication, the series aired on both the West and East Coast Mutual networks.  The strides made in transcribing shows for later broadcast meant that Alan did not need to not be tied down to a weekly series. Thus he was able to star in such films as Saigon (1948; his final teaming with Veronica Lake), Whispering Smith (1948), The Great Gatsby (1949), and Chicago Deadline (1949).

Alan Ladd’s movie work didn’t slow down in the 1950s…and yet he wasn’t the big marquee name that distinguished his career in the previous decade.  Ladd appeared in film noirs like Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950) and Appointment with Danger (1951), and graced westerns like Drum Beat (1954) and The Proud Rebel (1958).  His best cinematic turn at this time was his starring role in Shane (1953), considered by many to be one of the finest westerns in movie history.  Ladd kept working and his final film, The Carpetbaggers (1964), was released a few months after his death in January of that year—Alan succumbed to an accidental overdose of alcohol and barbiturates at the age of 50.

Alan Ladd’s signature role as Dan Holiday is spotlighted in the Radio Spirits collection Box 13; this 8-CD set features the first sixteen episodes of the series.  But you can also hear today’s birthday boy in a funny George Burns & Gracie Allen broadcast from March 7, 1944) on Burns & Allen and Friends, and an adaptation of “The Glass Key” from The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre (07/22/46), which you’ll find on Smithsonian Legendary Performers: Dashiell Hammett.  Happy birthday, Alan!

Happy Birthday, Van Johnson!

During the 1940s, the man born Charles Van Dell Johnson in Newport, Rhode Island on this date in 1916 was known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “boy next door.”  Van Johnson’s affable charm and golden-boy looks (red hair and freckled face—Van used to joke he “got paid by the freckle”) made him the ideal actor to portray any variety of fresh-scrubbed innocents who, during the course of the motion picture, wound up enlisting as a soldier, a sailor, or a bomber pilot.  “I’d been in every branch of the service, all at MGM,” Johnson mused at the end of WW2.  In real life, the actor was rejected by the military because of a steel plate in his head—an unwanted souvenir from an automobile crash that nearly took his life in 1943 (while he was filming one of his most successful MGM pictures, A Guy Named Joe). 
 
Van Johnson was an only child, born to Charles E. (a plumber and later real-estate salesman) and Loretta (Snyder).  Charles would soon take on both father and mother roles after Loretta (an alcoholic) abandoned the family while Van was still a youngster.  The relationship between Johnson pere et fils was, sadly, a strained one.  Van’s show business beginnings can be traced to his performing at social clubs in his hometown of Newport, and after graduating in 1935 he moved to New York City to join an off-Broadway revue, Entre Nous. 
 
Van Johnson’s terpsichorean talents were developed while he toured New England in a theatre troupe (as a substitute dancer).  His break on Broadway came in the form of the revue New Faces of 1936 (which also featured Imogene Coca and June Blair among the “new faces”) and when that closed it was back to the chorus for an endless series of engagements along with work at resort hotels.  Director-playwright George Abbott liked him well enough to give him a job playing a college boy in his 1939 production of Too Many Girls. When Girls went West for the big screen treatment from R-K-O in 1940, Johnson made his movie debut in that film (though he was uncredited). 
 
Van Johnson wouldn’t receive credit onscreen until 1942’s Murder in the Big House, a B-picture he made at Warner Brothers.  Before Murder, Johnson was all set to head back to New York and the stage after filming wrapped up on Too Many Girls, but a fortuitous meeting one night at Chasen’s (Johnson had gone there with Girls co-stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) with an MGM casting director eventually landed him the Warner’s contract (at $300 a week).  The studio dyed Johnson’s hair and eyebrows jet-black (something that’s noticeable in his first MGM vehicle, a Crime Does Not Pay short called For the Common Defense [1942]), but Van’s cheerful demeanor and matinee idol looks were out of place at the grittier Warner, and six months later he wound up at MGM. 
 
His first film for Leo the Lion was an uncredited role in Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942). Johnson’s next film, The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1943), was so well-received by audiences that the studio decided to cast him as Lew Ayres’ replacement in their Dr. Kildare franchise opposite Lionel Barrymore (as Dr. Gillespie).  The Kildare films—and vehicles like The Human Comedy (1943) and Pilot #5 (1943)—continued to bolster Van’s stock at MGM. He was then cast as a young pilot mentored by a guardian angel (Spencer Tracy) in A Guy Named Joe (1943).  On his way to an MGM screening with friends, Johnson’s convertible was broadsided by a car that ran a red light. He would undergo several surgeries to repair a fractured skull, severe facial injuries, a severed artery in his neck, and to remove bone fragments that were piercing his brain. 
 
A Guy Named Joe stars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne overruled MGM’s plans to replace Van Johnson, who returned to the picture with a noticeably scarred forehead. (Johnson would spend extra time in the makeup chair to conceal this in subsequent pictures.) Not only did the metal plate on the left side of his head ensure his 4-F status throughout the war, the accident provided Van with the kind of publicity that money can’t buy. His popularity with “bobby soxers” was second only to Francis Albert Sinatra—as such, the press jokingly tagged Johnson with the nickname “The Voiceless Sinatra.”  Van’s post-Joe project was Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), the first of six films he appeared in alongside June Allyson. The other five included Till the Clouds Go By (1946), High Barbaree (1947), The Bride Goes Wild (1948), Too Young to Kiss (1951), and Remains to Be Seen (1953).  Johnson made the same number of films with leading lady Esther Williams; they appeared together in Joe and Clouds, as well as Thrill of a Romance (1945), Easy to Wed (1946), Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Easy to Love (1953). 
 
Van Johnson’s success in movies would soon spread to radio. He would be called upon to reprise many of his movie roles on the popular dramatic anthologies of the day, including Best PlaysThe General Electric TheatreHallmark PlayhouseThe Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreNBC PlayhouseRadio’s Reader DigestStagestruckTheatre Guild on the Air, and Theatre of Romance.  (Van appeared on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”—Suspensefive times!)  In addition, Johnson guest starred on variety series like The Big Show and Front and Center (starring Dorothy Lamour). He also joshed with such personalities as Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Jimmy Durante, and his “rival” Frank Sinatra.  (The March 20, 1949 broadcast of Benny’s Lucky Strike Program remains one of his funniest half-hours, as Jack and Van go to Ciro’s on a double date…with Mabel and Gertrude!) 
 
Van Johnson’s career at MGM wasn’t just frothy musical comedies and lighthearted romances: he turned in memorable performances in serious fare such as State of the Union (1948), Command Decision (1948), and the all-star Battleground (1949), one of his finest films.  1954’s The Caine Mutiny also provided Van with an outstanding acting showcase as the Naval officer court-martialed after taking command from paranoid captain Humphrey Bogart.  In addition to movies, Johnson began making inroads into television with guest appearances on the likes of I Love LucyThe Ann Sothern ShowBen Casey, and Batman (as The Minstrel!).  (Johnson turned down the Elliot Ness role on TV’s The Untouchables—can you believe it?)  Van would continue to work throughout his career (his role on 1976’s Rich Man, Poor Man netted him an Emmy nomination). Before his passing in 2008 at the age of 92, he received more than a few positive reviews for a small but entertaining turn in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). 
 
It was joked that when Van Johnson married Evie Abbott (Keenan Wynn’s ex-wife) in 1947, his young female fans were so heartbroken they wore their bobby socks at half-mast.  I got a million of ‘em—and so does Jimmy Durante, who welcomes our birthday boy as a guest on the March 10, 1948 broadcast of his Rexall program on our Radio Spirits collection The Jimmy Durante Show.  Happy birthday, Van! 

Happy Birthday, Mae West!

It’s a textbook example of how a mediocre movie can be redeemed by the appearance of a personality whose mere presence dominates the motion picture screen.  In an otherwise dreary 1932 film entitled Night After Night (starring George Raft and Constance Cummings), a character named Maudie Triplett rings the doorbell of the speakeasy run by Joe Anton (Raft).  As she “makes herself to home,” Maudie is approached by a hatcheck girl (Patricia Farley) who is quite taken with Ms. Triplett’s jewelry.  “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” the dazzled employee burbles in delight. “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” retorts Maudie.

Night After Night marked the movie debut of Mary Jane West—born in Kings County, NY on this date in 1893.  We know her better as Mae West, and curiously, she was reluctant to take on the Night assignment at first—it was Raft himself who requested she play the part, which she eventually agreed to do after getting an okay from producer William LeBaron to rewrite her dialogue.  “She stole everything but the cameras,” George was purported to have remarked in hindsight, and in each subsequent vehicle that West starred in during her stint at Paramount in the 1930s, she continued to commit petty larceny.

Mae West was born the eldest of four children to John Patrick West (a prizefighter and later private investigator) and Mathilde “Tillie” Delker (a former fashion model).  West’s show business ambitions were encouraged at the age of five when she entertained at a church social, and two years later she began appearing in talent shows and entering amateur competitions, where she frequently won prizes.  At 14, Mae began performing in vaudeville with the Hal Clarendon Stock Company, and she landed her first Broadway gig with a revue entitled A La Broadway in 1911.  Though she was billing herself as “Jane Mast,” a review in The New York Times misidentified her in one show as “Mae West”—and the name just stuck.  West would go on to appear in productions like Vera Violetta (with Al Jolson) and Sometime (with Ed Wynn).

Mae West began writing plays for herself (using “Jane Mast” as her pseudonym) and achieved notoriety with a Broadway play entitled Sex (1926).  The risqué content of the production would get her in trouble with the law; one night the theatre was raided, and West was prosecuted and convicted on a charge of “corrupting the morals of youth.”  Even then, Mae realized there was no such thing as “bad publicity”—she insisted on serving out her ten-day sentence in jail (though she only had to do eight, released early for good behavior) and in doing so burnished her reputation as a “bad girl.”  West followed the success of Sex with Diamond Lil (1928), while writing and starring in such plays as The Wicked AgePleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner.

Paramount made Mae West an offer in 1932 despite the fact that she was nearly 40 years old.  Having walked off with Night After Night, the studio wanted her to be the star of her next picture and Mae proposed that it be based on Diamond Lil.  Renaming her character “Lady Lou” (“one of the finest women who ever walked the streets”) for She Done Him Wrong (1933). West defied the powers-that-be (they were wary of doing a “period piece”) with a comedy that created a major sensation (Mae’s male co-star was a then-unknown Cary Grant). It grossed $2 million at a time when the industry was taking a beating due to the Depression.  In fact, producer LeBaron would later credit Wrong with saving Paramount from bankruptcy.  But Wrong had its downside; it created such a controversy that it led directly to the establishment of the Hollywood Production Code, changing the face of filmmaking.

The Production Code didn’t do too much damage to Mae West’s next feature, I’m No Angel (1933; her most successful film at the box office and one that re-teamed her with Cary Grant). However, by the time Belle of the Nineties (1934) went before the cameras, the “Code” would rob each successive Mae West film of its potency by censoring much of West’s suggestive dialogue.  Mae was such an intoxicating presence that even lesser vehicles like Goin’ to Town (1935) and Go West, Young Man (1936) are of interest simply because she’s there.  Klondike Annie (1936), though sanitized, is quite enjoyable. In that one, Mae impersonates a deceased missionary…and finds the experience a redeeming one.  Her final film for Paramount, Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), is also highly recommended, with an outstanding supporting cast and solid story line.  Oddly enough, it was a box office flop…so Mae was given her pink slip.

On December 12, 1937, Mae West was the guest star on the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour.  She portrayed “Eve” opposite Don Ameche’s “Adam” in an irreverent sketch (written by Arch Oboler). Although it is mind-bogglingly tame by today’s standards, it is thought to have been the catalyst for the performer’s eventual banishment from radio for an indefinite period of time. (You weren’t even allowed to utter her name for fear of incurring the censors’ wrath.) A routine she did with Charlie McCarthy—in which she delivered the dialogue a little too suggestively—is also believed responsible for her exile in the aural medium.  (The antics of Charlie and Edgar Bergen were favorites among family audiences…who were shocked to hear these shenanigans on a Sunday!)  Over a decade later, having served her penance, Mae was finally allowed back on the air as a guest on Perry Como’s Chesterfield Supper Club on February 16, 1950.

Though she wasn’t getting the warmest of welcomes over the radio airwaves, Mae West would soon go back to work at Universal with My Little Chickadee (1940), a collaborative effort with fellow studio stablemate W.C. Fields.  (The studio had hoped to duplicate the success of 1939’s Destry Rides Again.)  Chickadee has its fans and detractors; some argue that two dominant personalities simply weren’t meant to share the screen, but others (like myself) are convinced that it represents some of West’s best work.  (Chickadee features one of Mae’s classic retorts: to a judge who asks if she’s trying to show contempt for his court—”No, your Honor…I’m doin’ my best to hide it!”)  Though the production of Chickadee was a rocky one, it performed quite well at the box office.  Despite reservations, West agreed to star in The Heat’s On (1943)—as a favor to her pal Gregory Ratoff—but the tepid Columbia comedy would mark her last film appearance until 1970’s Myra Breckinridge.

Mae West had multiple opportunities to jump-start her film career: she was offered the starring role in Sunset Blvd. (1950), which ultimately went to Gloria Swanson, and she said no to 1957’s Pal Joey (Rita Hayworth wound up playing her part).  Mae kept busy in night clubs and on stage (with 1944’s Catherine the Great and a revival of Diamond Lil [1949-51]) and found a home on the small screen with appearances on The Red Skelton Show and Mister Ed (a classic).  Her cinematic swan song was 1978’s Sextette (a film version of her 1961 Broadway hit), which featured an impressive celebrity cast (including her Night After Night co-star George Raft).  Mae West finally shuffled off this mortal coil in 1980 at the age of 87.

Mae West is one of the many big-name celebrities (50 in all) spotlighted in Hollywood’s Greatest Screen Legends, a 4-DVD collection available from Radio Spirits.  Happy birthday to the screen legend who reminded us: “When I’m good, I’m very, very good.  But when I’m bad, I’m better.”

Happy Birthday, Alfred Hitchcock!

It was a story that he frequently told in interviews: when Sir Alfred Hitchcock was only five years old, his father (who referred to his son as a “little lamb without a spot”) sent him to the local police station with a note for the constable.  The policeman read the note and ushered young Alfred into a cell that he then locked behind the youngster, and after holding him there for several minutes admonished him: “This is what we do to naughty boys.”  Whether or not the anecdote is true, it instilled in Hitchcock a lifelong fear of the police—he wouldn’t even drive a car out of concern he might get a parking ticket.  The apocryphal story would also have an effect on the many motion pictures “The Master of Suspense” directed throughout his career—those films feature themes of guilt and voyeurism with a common plot involving “the wrong man” (an individual accused of a crime who must prove his innocence).  The man who became one of the most successful movie directors in the history of Hollywood was born in Leytonstone, Essex, England on this date in 1899. 
 
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was the youngest of three children born to greengrocer William Hitchcock and his wife Emma Jane.  Educated in both Jesuit and Catholic schools as a child, young Alfred later attended engineering school in London. (He became a draftsman and advertising designer for a cable company after graduation.)  Hitchcock found a creative outlet in both writing short stories and dabbling in photography as a hobby.  Both of these pursuits inspired him to apply for a job as a title designer for the London branch of Paramount Pictures.  In 1920, he went to work for Islington Studios in the same position. At that time, Islington was owned by Famous Players-Lasky, and would later be acquired by Gainsborough Pictures. 
 
At Gainsborough, Alfred Hitchcock found a patron in producer Michael Balcon, who helped Hitch move up through the ranks via a series of promotions.  Alfred served as an art designer, and then as an assistant director (second-unit director).  Although Hitchcock’s official “directed by” credit wouldn’t appear onscreen until 1925’s The Pleasure Garden, the novice behind the camera had actually directed a movie as far back as 1922—a movie with the unfortunate title of Number 13.  (The production got cancelled after the funding fell through.)  Hitchcock would also direct (without credit) a short in 1922 entitled Always Tell Your Wife.  Hitch followed Garden with The Mountain Eagle in 1926 (Eagle appears to be a lost film) and then The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), with which he started to demonstrate his considerable cinematic talents.  It was Hitchcock’s first thriller (a genre he would return to time and time again) and was heavily influenced by German expressionism.  (Lodger also marked the first onscreen appearance of the director; he made the first of many cameos only because he was short an actor.) 
 
Alfred Hitchcock continued to perfect his craft in the silent era, adding such interesting items to his c.v. as The Ring (1927) and The Farmer’s Wife (1928).  His tenth film, Blackmail (1929), was the first British “talkie” and allowed him to experiment with early sound techniques.  At Gaumont-British, Hitchcock crafted such classic movie thrillers as Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and Young and Innocent (1937).  A 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, became a critical and commercial success (the director would win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director in 1939—the only award he’d receive for his direction). It also secured him a lucrative job offer from producer David O. Selznick, who signed Alfred to a seven-year contract in March of 1939. 
 
In the 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock directed classics like Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946) for Selznick. David O. also lent his employee out to various studios to make pictures like Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and Lifeboat (1944).  Hitch soon developed a capacity for self-promotion that would make Walt Disney envious. He made an appearance on Rudy Vallee’s Royal Gelatin Hour in April of 1939, and on the July 22, 1940 broadcast of Forecast (the pilot for the later Suspense series) purportedly directed a radio version of The Lodger that featured two actors working in his film production of Foreign Correspondent: Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn.  (The “Hitchcock” heard on that broadcast is actually Joseph Kearns.)  Alfred would guest star on shows like Information Please and The Fred Allen Show, and his films would be recreated on anthology programs like The Lux Radio Theatre and Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  Hitch attempted a permanent radio gig with an audition for a series entitled Once Upon a Midnight dated May 11, 1945 (“Malice Aforethought”)…but apparently there were no takers. 
 
His weekly radio series may not have gotten off the ground…but the small screen was another matter.  On October 2, 1955, Alfred Hitchcock Presents premiered over CBS-TV, allowing the Master of Suspense to visit with TV audiences.  As the host of an anthology series, with stories marinated in mystery and murder, Hitchcock soon found himself a Top 10 favorite and pop culture icon as he was introduced weekly to the strains of Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette (“Good evening”).  Alfred Hitchcock Presents enjoyed a healthy five-year-run on CBS before switching networks to NBC in 1960. After two more years as a half-hour program, the show expanded to sixty minutes (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) in the fall of 1962 and ran until 1965. 
 
Being welcomed into the homes of Nielsen families every week certainly didn’t hurt Alfred Hitchcock where the box office was concerned.  His movie successes during the 1950s include many that are considered classics today: Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959).  Two of his best-known films, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), were released in the 1960s. Hitchcock proved that he still hadn’t lost his suspenseful touch a decade later, when he made Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976; his final film).  Though nominated five times for a Best Director Academy Award, Sir Alfred (he was knighted in 1980) had to settle for a consolation prize in the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.  (His 1968 acceptance speech established a precedent for brevity: “Thank you…very much indeed.”)  Alfred Hitchcock passed away in 1980 at the age of 80. 
 
Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock was a bandleader?  I didn’t either, but his “orchestra” is one of the many featured artists on Best of Horror—a 3-CD collection of classic novelty hits like Monster MashThe Purple People Eater, and Dinner with Drac (Pt. 1).  Sir Alfred and his musical aggregation entertain with Music to Be Murdered By, and in the immortal words of Stan Freberg–it’s “wun’erfulwun’erful!”  Okay…I’m being a little facetious here—but pick yourself up a copy from the Radio Spirits catalog, won’t you? Or you could pick yourself up an Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Jigsaw Puzzle: 1000 Pieces (item #92808) by calling 800-833-4248. 

Happy Birthday, Raymond Chandler!

For all his success in the literary world, and then later in Hollywood, author Raymond Thornton Chandler was a lonely man.  He lived the life of a recluse; he left no surviving wife or children upon his passing in 1959, and had himself been an only child when he entered this world on this date in 1888 in Chicago.  Those attempting a biography of his life have often found that their best source of information were the many letters that he wrote, spoken into a Dictaphone late at night for his secretary to type up in the morning. (Ray rarely wrote fiction in the wee hours, believing his nocturnal efforts to be too “ghoulish.”)  It’s uncomfortable to start such an essay on a note of melancholy, I know, but it helps us to understand his famous literary creation Philip Marlowe — Chandler once observed that he saw the P.I. “always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated” — and why Time magazine once dubbed Chandler “the poet laureate of the loner.” 
 
Life in the Windy City for Raymond Chandler as a child began in a rented house, followed by a series of cheap hotel rooms and then a residency in Nebraska, staying with relatives.  Chandler’s father Maurice was both an itinerant rail engineer and an alcoholic (a condition that would plague Chandler in later years),and he eventually abandoned his son and wife Florence. Ray and his mother moved to Ireland in 1895 (Flo was Irish-born).  To ensure her son received the best education, the Chandlers eventually relocated to the London borough of Croydon where Ray attended Dulwich College, a public school that also claimed as alumni P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forrester.  Raymond’s uncle was not prepared to pay for his nephew to attend university, choosing instead to pull him out of Dulwich a year early so that Chandler could attend tutorial colleges in France and Germany to prepare him for the British Civil Service examination. 
 
Raymond Chandler was naturalized as a British citizen in order to enter the Civil Service (he kept that citizenship until 1956), and obtained a job with the British Admiralty in the office of munitions.  Ray loathed the job, quit after a few months, and for the next five years eked out a living writing poetry for literary magazines.  Chandler would eventually emigrate to the U.S. in 1912 (with money borrowed from his uncle, who had refused to subsidize his “ward” any longer) and find work in various odd jobs (including fruit picking and tennis racquet-stringing).  Ray served a hitch with the Gordon Highlanders (a Scottish regiment that he had to join by traveling to Canada) during the First World War. Upon being mustered out, he returned to California to secure a position with the state’s booming oil industry…that is, after he married a twice-divorced ex-model named Pearl Eugene “Cissy” Pascal. 
 
There is speculation that Raymond Chandler was unaware that his wife Cissy was seventeen years his senior when they tied the knot.  (She was often mistaken for his mother.)  Be that as it may, the couple moved around to various L.A. residences over the years during Chandler’s time with the oil company, which would eventually fire him in 1932 for drunkenness.  Ray then decided to go back to writing to keep the wolf at the door at bay, and credited the prolific prose of Erle Stanley Gardner as his inspiration.  Chandler’s freshman contribution to the pulp fiction Black Mask magazine, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” was published in 1933.  His first novel featuring private investigator Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. This was followed by a second Marlowe book, Farewell, My Lovely, in 1940. 
 
Farewell, My Lovely would be adapted for the silver screen in 1942 as a George Sanders Falcon movie (The Falcon Takes Over) and again two years later as Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell playing the role of Marlowe.  The success of the latter film would get Raymond Chandler work as a screenwriter; the author co-wrote And Now Tomorrow (1944) with Frank Partos (based on Rachel Field’s novel). Chandler received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay for his collaboration with director Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity (1944; Wilder freely acknowledged that much of that movie’s memorable dialogue was all Chandler).  Ray’s Hollywood success allowed him to buy a luxurious house near San Diego. 
 
Chandler would garner a second Oscar nomination for The Blue Dahlia (1946), which started out as an early manuscript for one of the author’s books until he was persuaded to transform it into a screenplay.  However, Ray hadn’t yet progressed far enough to write a denouement, and he told producer John Houseman that the only way he could complete it was to get good and drunk.  It would be Chandler’s sole original effort for the silver screen. His remaining film work (apart from adaptations of Marlowe novels like The Big SleepThe Lady in the Lake, and The High Window) was on 1951’s Strangers on a Train. He collaborated on this with director Alfred Hitchcock.  Raymond did not enjoy the assignment (he thought Patricia Highsmith’s novel implausible). In addition, the two men made disparaging remarks toward one another and were not even on speaking terms by the time the movie was completed. 
 
Strangers on a Train would be the subject of Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts in 1951 and 1954, and several other Raymond Chandler works would be broadcast over the ether, including And Now Tomorrow and Murder, My Sweet.  Chandler short stories such as “Pearls are a Nuisance” and “Murder in the City Hall” were showcased on programs like Suspense and The Molle Mystery Theatre.  But Ray’s lasting contribution to radio was based on the gumshoe who put groceries on his table: The Adventures of Philip Marlowe was first heard over NBC on June 17, 1947.  This initial version only lasted the summer (it was filling in for a vacationing Bob Hope), but it returned in the fall of 1948 over CBS. It ran for two seasons on this network, and then enjoyed one final summer season in 1951 (while Hopalong Cassidy got a little R&R). 
 
Cissy Chandler died in 1954, and her passing left Raymond Chandler inconsolable.  He would continue to eke out a forlorn existence drinking and writing. (Four chapters of an unfinished novel, Poodle Springs, would later be finished by author Robert B. Parker and published in 1989.) Ray tried to commit suicide in 1955, and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital as a result.  Chandler looked for respite in England the late 50s, before returning to the U.S.  He succumbed to pneumonial peripheral vascular shock at the age of 70.  Raymond had wanted to be interred next to his wife. (Her remains had lingered in a storage locker at Cypress View Mausoleum, because a heartbroken Chandler neglected to make the necessary arrangements.) They wouldn’t be reunited until 2011, after the estate received permission from a judge in 2010. Their shared gravestone reads: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” (This is, of course, a quote from The Big Sleep). 
 
Many screen actors stepped into the (gum)shoes of Philip Marlowe to play our birthday boy’s famous sleuth (including Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery), but Robert Mitchum did it twice—with Farewell, My Lovely in 1975 and The Big Sleep three years later.  Both of these movies are available on DVD from Radio Spirits, as are our popular CD collections featuring vintage broadcasts from The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Philip MarloweLonely CanyonsNight Tideand Sucker’s Road(There’s Marlowe adventure on our Great Radio Detectives set, too).  Creator Chandler wasn’t a fan of the Marlowe radio series—in a 1949 letter to a friend he cracked that it was “about as sadistic as a frosted marshmallow sundae”—but maybe he wasn’t the best judge of what we believe to be an unmistakable classic? (Get this and get it straight, Raymond…happy birthday!) 

Happy Birthday, Verna Felton!

It’s a bit of a stretch, but try to imagine Verna Felton—the actress who appeared on Jack Benny’s radio/TV show as Dennis Day’s mother and later as “Hilda Crocker” on December Bride—as “Baby Felton.”  That’s the handle Verna went by in her stage days. She began her show business career as a child performer in vaudeville, and in later years she reminisced that old friends still referred to her as “Baby Felton.”  (Verna only wished it wasn’t within earshot of people unfamiliar with her performing history).  Since “nobody puts Baby in a corner,” I thought we’d take a little time today to celebrate the birthday of this exemplary character actress (she was born on this date in 1890 in Salinas, California) and the only woman formidable enough to go up against Red Skelton’s “mean widdle kid.”

Verna Felton’s decision to pursue a career in show business was a financial one.  Her father, a physician, died when she was seven years old…and though Dr. Felton had operated a respectable practice in San Jose, her mother learned that when it came to billing his patients…the cupboard was bare, cash-wise.  The manager of a theatrical road company had spotted young Verna singing and dancing at a San Jose benefit for victims of the Galveston Flood, and offered the young girl a job with his troupe to ease the family’s financial burden.  Felton would travel North America with various stock companies, honing her trade, and by 1907 she was taking on leading lady roles.  In the late 1920s, she had the leads in such productions as Stella Dallas and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, performed at the Empress Theatre in Vancouver.  A gentleman named Lee Millar was the band director for these productions—Millar would tie the knot with Verna not long after, and the two were married until his untimely death in 1941.

In 1931, Verna suggested to her husband that the two of them look toward employment in the new medium of radio.  Millar shrugged off the suggestion: “Honey, you know radio isn’t here to stay.  Why, people will never listen to a play.  Music, yes…but not a play.”  And yet, the following Saturday, the Millars emerged from the NBC Studios in San Francisco—scripts in hand, and they didn’t even have to audition.  It was the beginning of a whole new career for Felton. She was heard on The Lux Radio Theatre , The John Barrymore Theatre, and the Yuletide favorite The Cinnamon Bear (as the mother). Verna also started making many appearances on the show for which listeners perhaps remember her best: The Jack Benny Program.

Verna Felton had been a member of Benny’s “stock company” as far back as 1937 – and when Dennis Day joined the show in the fall of 1939, she was enlisted to play his mother. It was a stroke of casting genius!  Fiercely protective of her boy, and unconvinced that his boss wasn’t trying to exploit him at every turn, Mrs. Day was an intimidating presence. She frequently dispensed with Jack’s protestations by bellowing an ear-splitting “Ehhhhhh…shut up!”  The Mrs. Day role would firmly establish Felton’s comedic prowess, allowing her to work on shows headlined by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Dorothy Lamour, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles.  In addition, Verna was pressed into service to guest star on sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietThe Aldrich FamilyAmos ‘n’ AndyThe BickersonsDuffy’s TavernFibber McGee & MollyThe Great GildersleeveHap HazardThe Life of RileyMeet Mr. McNutleyOur Miss BrooksThe Penny Singleton Show, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

Verna Felton’s prominent showcase on The Jack Benny Program would also lead to regular employment on other comedy programs, notably two showcasing Joan Davis.  When Davis inherited Rudy Vallee’s show (after The Vagabond Lover enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1943) and it became The Sealtest Village Store, Verna played a regular character with the moniker “Blossom Blimp.”  Felton then followed Joan to CBS (in 1945) for Joanie’s Tea Room, portraying “Rosella Hipperton III” (in keeping with her Blossom-like size, she was nicknamed “Hippy”) and later “Cousin Cornelia.”  On Tommy Riggs & Betty Lou, Verna was “Mrs. McIntyre”; she played “Mrs. Beverly Wilshire” on Blue Ribbon Town (Groucho Marx’s show); “Aunt Aggie” on The Judy Canova Show; “Hattie Hirsch” on Point Sublime; “Mrs. Shaw” on Young Love; and “Mrs. Odetts” on the radio version of My Little Margie. The most high-profile gig for Verna at this time, however, was as a cast member of Red Skelton’s program.  Felton was the grandmother to Red’s “Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid.” (He affectionately called her “Namaw.”) She would play his foil — up to a point – and then introduce the little scamp to the business end of a hairbrush.

But Verna Felton demonstrated that she was capable of handling dramatic material on radio as well.  A list of her credits on the medium’s popular anthologies and other dramatic half-hours would include The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeArch Oboler’s PlaysBig Town, The Cavalcade of AmericaDr. ChristianEncore TheatreEscapeFamily TheatreFavorite StoryThe First Nighter ProgramThe Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TheatreLet George Do ItThe Radio Hall of FameThe Railroad Hour, Screen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodSuspenseTheatre of RomanceThis is My BestVoyage of the Scarlet QueenThe Whistler, and Wild Bill Hickok.

Verna Felton also made inroads on the silver screen, with performances in such films as Joe and Ethel Turp Call On the President (1939) and If I Had My Way (1940). Soon, she began to amass credits in movies like Girls of the Big House (1945), Buccaneer’s Girl (1950), New Mexico (1951), Little Egypt (1951), Bells on Their Toes (1952), and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952).  You might recognize the photo at the beginning of this essay from The Gunfighter (1950), a fine Western that features Felton as “Mrs. August Pennyfeather,” the head bluenose in a small hamlet that has asked lawman Millard Mitchell to run the titular gunslinger (Gregory Peck) out of town.  A better-known showcase for Verna was her splendid turn in Picnic (1955), in which she plays “Helen Potts,” a surrogate mom of sorts to William Holden’s drifter character. But her most famous movies allowed her to play to her strengths…by using her voice acting skills. She was heard in a large number of Walt Disney animation features, including Dumbo (1941), Cinderella (1950; as the fairy godmother who performs Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo), Alice in Wonderland (1951; the Queen of Hearts), Lady and the Tramp (1955; Aunt Sarah [with the Siamese cats]), and Sleeping Beauty (1959; as both fairy Flora and Queen Leah).  In fact, Felton’s final film credit was a Disney feature: she played “Winifred” the elephant in The Jungle Book (1967).

“Radio offers a pleasant existence for anyone; I like it because it gives me a chance to live a normal life,” observed Verna Felton in an interview for a 1944 issue of Radio Life.  Sadly, radio started to retreat into the wings by the 1950s, allowing its showier sibling (television) to steal the spotlight.  Still, Felton would be a small screen favorite by reprising her role as “Mrs. Day” on both The Jack Benny Program and Dennis’ RCA Victor show, and she made memorable appearances on popular series like I Love Lucy (“Lucy Hires a Maid”), I Married JoanThe Many Loves of Dobie GillisThe Real McCoys, and The Flintstones (she voiced Mrs. Slaghoople, Fred’s mother-in-law).  Verna’s most prominent TV showcase was as a cast member of December Bride, a sitcom that ran from 1954 to 1959.  Bride had its origins in radio, a 1952-53 series created by Parke Levy that he based on his own mother-in-law, who broke the mold of the stereotypical battle-axe.  Spring Byington originated the role of “Lily Ruskin” on the radio series and like co-star Felton (as her best pal and confederate “Hilda Crocker”), transitioned when the show was adapted to TV in the fall of 1954 to become an even bigger hit.  A year after Bride had left the airwaves, Verna would play Hilda on the first season of Pete and Gladys, a Bride spin-off built around next-door neighbor Pete Porter (Harry Morgan).  Verna Felton passed away at the age of 76 on December 14, 1966—just a day before her old boss, Walt Disney, would leave this world for a better one as well.

In the 1948 feature film comedy The Fuller Brush Man, Red Skelton plays a go-getting salesman who stops at a house and encounters a young hellion (Jimmy Hunt) who answers to “Junior.”  The lady playing Junior’s “Namaw”? None other than Verna Felton herself!  Make a note to catch it the next time it makes the rounds on cable…but until then, Radio Spirits invites you to check out our Red Skelton collections of ClowningMischief, and Scrapbook of Satire.  We’ve got plenty of Verna on our The Adventures of Philip Marlowe sets Lonely Canyons and Sucker’s Road, and also on Suspense compendiums Beyond Good and EvilFear and TremblingTies That Bind, and Wages of Sin.  In addition, we like to suggest that you sample our birthday girl on Big Town: Blind JusticeDuffy’s Tavern: Irish Eyes (she and Dennis Day are guest stars!), Family Theatre: Every HomeFibber McGee & Molly: Cleaning the ClosetThe Fitch Bandwagon (Phil Harris-Alice Faye): Stepping OutThe Great Gildersleeve: Family ManLet George Do It: Sweet PoisonThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Smoother and Sweeter, and Voyage of the Scarlet Queen: Volume Two.  We’ve saved the best for last: you can hear Verna in our Jack Benny collections The Fabulous 50sOn the TownPlanes, Trains and Automobiles, and Tough Luck! (and on Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud).  Happy, happy birthday to you, Verna!