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“If trouble is around, yours truly will most likely get a chunk of it.”

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Sixty-seven years ago on this very date, actor Dick Powell whistled his very first rendition of “Leave it to Love” on NBC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective—a light-hearted radio crime drama that successfully blended Powell’s popular image as a happy-go-lucky crooner (with a flair for comedy) and his newly-earned movie reputation as a two-fisted tough guy.  Powell’s resume over the ether stretched back as far as Hollywood Hotel (a big-time variety hour featuring gossip maven Louella Parsons)—but with the success of his career-changing role as Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, Dick began to flirt with radio vehicles that would capitalize on his new hard-boiled image…like Rogue’s Gallery and The Front Page.

powellDick’s film debut was as a bandleader in Warner Brothers’ Blessed Event (1932), but it was with the introduction of the studio’s Depression-era musicals like 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933) that Powell honed his cinematic chops as the apple-cheeked boy-next-door who could not only sing but act.  His popularity during the 1930s was not unlike that of Frank Sinatra’s in the next decade, but with each musical he made for Warner’s Powell began to grow more and more dissatisfied (he complained that the studio made movies with “the same stupid story”).  Dick moved to Paramount in the 1940s and had luck with features like Christmas in July (1940) and True to Life (1943)—but it wasn’t long before his new studio started treating him like his old one; truth be told—they simply didn’t know what to do with him.  He lobbied hard to play the Walter Neff role in the Billy Wilder-directed Double Indemnity (1944), but lost out to Fred MacMurray.

richarddiamond4RKO would offer him silver screen salvation when they tabbed him to play Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet.  The success of the film led to a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation in June of 1945, and while performing as the star of The Fitch Bandwagon from 1944 to 1945, Powell convinced F.W. Fitch (the sponsor) to let him take over as the summer replacement for that program with a private eye series informally known as Bandwagon Mysteries (but eventually renamed Rogue’s Gallery).  Powell enjoyed doing Gallery so much that he stayed with the series when it got a promotion to a weekly slot on another network (Mutual) in the fall, and then for one final summer run back at its home on NBC.

Rogue’s Gallery would soldier on with other actors in the starring role.  In the meantime, Dick Powell accepted another assignment as one of the stars of The Front Page, a 1948 newspaper drama broadcast over ABC and based on the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play.  Later that year, Powell would do an audition as the titular “fabulous freelance investigator” of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  But it would be a detective drama created by a young writer named Blake Edwards that attracted the attention of Powell’s agent Don Sharpe: Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

richarddiamond6The premise of Richard Diamond was that the main character was an ex-cop who had decided to hang out his shingle as a private investigator after World War II.  Diamond’s shamus services did not come cheap: he charged $100 a day plus expenses, but he was worth every penny because his previous experience as a homicide dick had taught him that cases were solved with persistence and a lot of legwork.  The Diamond series, however, also mixed in elements of comedy (Rick always had a ready quip in his holster) and romance.  Diamond’s lady love was Helen Asher, played by Virginia Gregg—whose husband, Jaime del Valle, directed many of the show’s broadcasts.  (Okay, it sounds a little like nepotism…but for a brief period in the summer of 1950, Frances Robinson—“Brooksie” on Let George Do It—took her turn as Helen as well.)

richarddiamond5While doing his best to resist the temptation of marrying a woman with a Park Avenue address and $10 million in her bank account (move over, Nick Charles!), Richard Diamond defied the traditional conventions of bad P.I.-cop relations by bouncing ideas off of (and often consulting with) Lt. Walter Quincy Levinson, played by Ed Begley.  Rick and Walt enjoyed a pleasant association, and actors Powell and Begley displayed great chemistry, but it didn’t last long.  Begley left the show and was replaced briefly by character veteran Ted de Corsia.  Then Arthur Q. Bryan stepped into Levinson’s shoes, and it was about that time that jokes about the lieutenant’s girth (a reference to actor Bryan’s own corpulent figure) started appearing hither and yon in the scripts.  Alan Reed later inherited the role of Levinson as the series drew to a close.

herbertOf course, Diamond had to have someone to pick a fight with, and that’s where the character of Sergeant Otis Ludlum (also referred to as Loveloon) came into play.  Ludlum seemingly had a force field of stupidity surrounding him, much in the manner of the various detectives who assisted Richard Lane’s Inspector Farraday in the Boston Blackie movies.  Otis was played by Wilms Herbert, who did double-duty on the series as Francis, butler to Helen Asher.  Francis had a rather mood-killing habit of interrupting Helen and her boyfriend just as the champagne was on ice and the lights were beginning to dim, if you get the idea (and you probably do).

janssendiamondRichard Diamond, Private Detective was a sustained series until it landed a sponsor in Rexall Drugs.  The Rexall sponsorship came in handy because, when the company needed a summer replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy in the summer of 1953, they just raided the Diamond library for repeats.  The NBC-Rexall collaboration lasted until December 27, 1950.  January 5, 1951 found our hero with a new sponsor (Camel cigarettes) and a new network (ABC)—which necessitated that Rick reach for a cigarette on occasion (Powell’s whistling of “Leave it to Love” segued rather nicely with Camel’s theme, “How Mild”).  Diamond stubbed out his last butt on June 27, 1952…not because the network or sponsor was dissatisfied with the program, but because the actor was becoming busy as a director of films (Split Second) and a television producer (he was one of the “four stars” in Four Star Productions).  Richard Diamond did make a brief transition to the small screen in the summer of 1957 (and bounced around CBS and NBC’s schedule until 1960), with Powell deciding to turn over the role to future Fugitive David Janssen.

20740So you’re probably asking: does Radio Spirits have plenty of “the singing detective” on hand?  We do indeed—in the form of such Richard Diamond, Private Detective collections as Homicide Made Easy, Dead Men, Mayhem is My Business, and Shamus.  Richard Diamond is also one of the many radio gumshoes showcased in Great Radio Detectives (“Central Park Murder”) and there’s a yuletide Diamond—which might remind you of a famous story by Charles Dickens—present on Christmas Radio Classics.  Finally, if you’re curious as to what David Janssen did before having to outrun the reach of lawman Barry Morse, check him out as TV’s Richard Diamond (“Picture of Fear”) on the DVD set TV Guide Spotlight: TVs Greatest Crime Stoppers.

“Lights out…everybody!”

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In the early years of Radio’s Golden Age, those individuals who worked in radio discovered fairly quickly that the medium was ideal for presenting horror tales—listeners reveled in stories guaranteed to raise goosebumps on arms and hair on the backs of necks.  It began with offerings like The Witch’s Tale and The Hermit’s Cave, and expanded in the 1940s to programs like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and The Mysterious Traveler.  Even prestigious programs like The Mercury Theatre on the Air (“The War of the Worlds”) and Suspense (“The House on Cypress Canyon”) presented the occasional spine-tingling tale, as did the later Escape (“Three Skelton Key”) and X-Minus One (“Mars is Heaven”).

WyllisCooperLights Out—which premiered over NBC eighty-two years ago on this date—was one of the earliest and longest-running of the “spook shows.”  Its origins can be traced to a NBC staffer named Wyllis Cooper, who created, wrote, directed, and produced the series for Chicago’s WENR.  A quarter-hour show when it debuted in January of 1934, Lights Out soon became so popular that it was expanded to a half-hour in April and, a year later, went coast-to-coast on NBC.  Because Lights Out was usually presented around 11:30pm or midnight (and in some instances after midnight), the show’s memorable opening referenced its “midnight hour” timeslot: “This is the witching hour!  It is an hour when dogs howl, and evil is let loose on the sleeping world.  Want to hear about it?  Then turn out your lights!”

lights2Lights Out’s Chicago origination meant that some of the Windy City’s finest radio actors collected a paycheck for appearing on the show, including Harold Peary, Willard Waterman, Mercedes McCambridge, Arthur Peterson, Macdonald Carey, and Betty Winkler.  But the prestige of the program was such that even a Hollywood horror icon like Boris Karloff could be lured in front of the microphone to participate in a half-hour of mayhem.  Complementing the tales of terror was the show’s novel use of sound effects: spare ribs snapped with a pipe wrench allowed listeners to visualize human bones being broken, and bacon in a frying pan conveyed a realistic impression of someone being electrocuted.  After two years of frightening listeners, Cooper answered the siren song of Hollywood (he contributed to the screenplay of Son of Frankenstein, among others)—but on his return to radio in the 1940s, demonstrated that he could still create first-rate horror with the underrated Quiet Please in 1947.

240px-Arch_Obler_and_Tommy_CookNBC handed the Lights Out baton to Arch Oboler, a promising network scribe who plied his trade on such programs as Grand Hotel and The Irene Rich Show.  Oboler later admitted in an interview that he really wasn’t much of a fan of horror: “I wrote about the terror we each have in us,” he explained.  “The woman who let us down, the man who left us, the boss we hated, the opportunity that we missed, the monsters within each of us.”  But Arch quickly reasoned that accepting the assignment would allow him freedom from both sponsor interference and the censorship battles he constantly engaged in with NBC’s “suits.”  His first play for Lights Out was a doozy: “Burial Services,” the disturbing tale of a young girl unable to communicate to her family that she’s still alive as she’s being lowered into her final resting place.  The episode generated so much controversy that the National Broadcasting Company purportedly received 50,000 letters of complaint.  Oboler was on his way.

karloffWyllis Cooper may have created Lights Out, but for many Arch Oboler is the man that comes to mind when the show is discussed.  Much of this has to do with the fact that many more of Oboler’s broadcasts have survived than Cooper’s…but one also cannot discount that many of Arch’s plays remain in the memory many years after their original presentation.  There’s “Cat Wife,” with Boris Karloff as a cuckolded husband whose wife is inexplicably transformed into a humongous feline.  There was “Revolt of the Worms,” in which an experimental growth formula is tossed out into the backyard by a careless scientist…and you can probably guess from the title what happens next.

Even those people who’ve never heard “Chicken Heart” (sadly, the original recording did not survive) know the plot of the titular organ who just grew and grew (and GREW) until it consumed the world, thanks to a classic Bill Cosby comedy routine.  Oboler kept Lights Out listeners chillingly entertained for two years before deciding to concentrate on propaganda plays (via Arch Oboler’s Plays and Everyman’s Theatre) attacking the real monster in the world: Adolf Hitler.  Various NBC staffers kept Lights Out going until it left the airwaves on August 16, 1939.

lights1Three years later—with a bank account depleted by the uncomfortable fact that saving the world doesn’t always put groceries on the table—Arch Oboler resurrected Lights Out on October 6, 1942 for Ironized Yeast.  Lights Out’s opening was a little lighter (with a gong that struck between each syllable of “It…is…later…than…you…think…”) and many of its tales were recycled versions of previous broadcasts from the show’s earlier 1930s run (“State Executioner,” “Oxychloride X”).  Long before Iron Eyes Cody shed a tear because careless motorists were dumping trash out of their car windows, Oboler was fully committed to recycling.  In fact, when Lights Out was resurrected during the nostalgia boom of the 1970s as The Devil and Mr. “O,” Arch simply reedited and retitled his earlier plays to convince fans they were listening to something new.

The 1942-43 version of Lights Out may have only lasted a single season…but, it’s the incarnation of the series with which most old-time radio fans are familiar, since a good many of its broadcasts were saved for future generations.  There were three additional summer revivals of the program between 1945 and 1947 that featured input from creator Cooper, and Wyllis also had a hand in the live, small screen version of the show when it aired over NBC-TV from 1949-52.  As for Oboler—he decided to give the flickers a try as well, directing such films as Bwana Devil (1952—the movie that kicked off the 3-D craze) and The Twonky (1953).  Yet he never completely fell out of love with radio: a 1962 Capitol Records album, Drop Dead! An Exercise in Horror, introduced a new generation of horror fans to such classic Oboler frights as “The Dark” and “A Day at the Dentist’s.”

20822Radio Spirits features two hair-raising collections of “radio’s premier showcase for heart-stopping horror”: Lights Out, Everybody and Lights Out: Later Than You Think.  But you’ll also find dollops of Lights Out in our Great Radio Horror set (“Mirage,” “Haunted Cell”) and on Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell (“The Sub-Basement”).  Last—but certainly not least—we invite you to take a look at the visual side of Lights Out in these five DVD volumes.  And now…it’s time to turn out your lights!

”Adventures in time and space…told in future tense!”

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The premiere of NBC Radio’s Dimension X on this date sixty-six years ago was inspired by the phenomenal box office success of Universal-International’s Destination Moon in 1950, produced by the legendary George Pal and winner of a special Academy Award for Best Special Effects.  It would not be the only radio science fiction series to premiere that year, either.  Mutual attempted to cash in on the renewed interest in sci-fi created by Moon with Two Thousand Plus in March, and CBS quickly followed suit with Beyond Tomorrow (though the audition for this show was recorded in February).

wellesOddly, interest in science fiction radio had always been lukewarm at best.  It was relegated to mostly programs that dealt with kiddie fare, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (both of which had a ready-made audience from the “funny papers,” as well as several movie serials that followed).  On occasion, favorites like Suspense (the two-part “Donovan’s Brain”), Lights Out, Quiet, Please and Escape would serve up an inventive tale from the sci-fi realm.  This had to be frustrating for people who worked in the aural medium, where science fiction would seem to be the ideal method to stimulate the imagination of the listening audience.  But with the exception of the most famous broadcast of Radio’s Golden Age—“The War of the Worlds” on Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air—and a short-lived 1941 effort from NBC entitled Latitude Zero, it would be up to Dimension X to do the heavy lifting until its slightly more successful cousin, X-Minus One, premiered in April of 1955.

d-x2One thing you can say about Dimension X: there was a determination to do right by the science fiction genre on this series…even if its run was short-lived (D-X aired from April 8, 1950 to September 29, 1951).  Though the program had a little trouble getting out of the gate (its inaugural show was Graham Doar’s “The Outer Limit,” which had already been done to death on a number of earlier radio anthologies, including Escape), D-X quickly found its dramatic niche…and the key was adapting tales that had originally appeared in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction.  “We went the ‘adaptation route’ simply because that’s where the best stories are,” producer Van Woodward later reminisced.  Frequently adapted by NBC scribes George Lefferts and Ernest Kinoy (who were also encouraged to write original plays of their own making), D-X’s stories came forth from legendary authors like Ray Bradbury (“Mars is Heaven,” “And the Moon Be Still as Bright”), Isaac Asimov (“Pebble in the Sky,” “Nightfall”), and Robert Heinlein (“The Roads Must Roll,” “The Green Hills of Earth”).  In fact, D-X’s filmic parent, Destination Moon, was based on a Heinlein tale (and was dramatized on the program on June 24, 1950).

staats-cotsworth-jan-minerBut Dimension X also made impressive strides in the field of “sound patterns.” Often relying on two or three SFX artists per broadcast, D-X’s episodes were produced in a massive two-story studio, which generated incredible “echo” effects that were beyond the range of conventional recording equipment.  D-X also had the luxury of featuring the best of New York’s radio acting talent; among the performers who appeared on the program were Raymond Edward Johnson, Les Damon, Joan Alexander, Berry Kroeger, Staats Cotsworth, Bill Lipton, Jan Miner, Joe DeSantis, and Santos Ortega…just for starters.

d-x3The Theremin, an electronic music instrument used on the soundtracks of such films as Spellbound, The Lost Weekend—and most famously, 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still—was often used by Dimension X musical director Albert Berman to compose scores for the broadcasts.  As for the show’s memorable opening theme, Berman relied on an organ, cymbals and tympanic rolls (“DIMENSION… X…X…x…x…x…x…”).  The quality of D-X was impeccable…but the demise of the series was foretold by its erratic time slots on NBC (the show once disappeared from the network’s schedule for nineteen weeks during 1951) and its difficulty attracting a sponsor (General Mills tried for two months beginning in July of 1950, to no avail).  After fifty episodes, D-X was cancelled by NBC and wouldn’t resurface until the premiere of X-Minus One on April 24, 1955 (and X-1 would suffer the same timeslot indignities as its predecessor).

At Radio Spirits, the first sixteen episodes of Dimension X are available in a collection appropriately titled Adventures in Time & Space; it includes such classics as “No Contact” and “Knock” (“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room.  There was a knock on the door.”).  Future Tense continues with the next sixteen, and includes one of my personal D-X favorites, “Universe” (11/26/50), adapted from the Robert Heinlein story.  There are simply not enough superlatives in my vocabulary to describe the first-rate dramatic productions presented in these two sets, which will stimulate and entertain any science fiction fan in your household!

Happy Birthday, Gertrude Warner!

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In his invaluable reference book The Great Radio Soap Operas, author Jim Cox opines that Gertrude “Trudy” Warner—born in Hartford, Connecticut on this day in 1917—“may have played the leads or female leads in more dramas than any other actress.”  In fact, Jim wrote an article for Radio Recall in 2006 entitled “Soap Stars: Ethereal Busybodies” that credited Warner with eighteen soap opera roles to allow her a third-place finish in the top five: ahead of Fran Carlon (17) and Raymond Edward Johnson (16), and only slightly behind champ Ethel Owen (22) and runner-up Marvin Miller (20—though on many of those programs he served as the announcer).  In her 1986 obituary, The New York Times noted that in 1945, Trudy kept pretty busy doing live broadcasts of Perry Mason (on which she played Della Street), Big Sister, When a Girl Marries, and This Life is Mine.

warner4Trudy Warner’s area of expertise, after she graduated from high school and college, was home economics…and she plied this talent on many a local program broadcast over Hartford’s WTIC.  Still, she had aspirations of becoming a dramatic actress (she already had a sideline as a blues singer)—so she journeyed to New York, and not long after found work at NBC Red on the critically acclaimed daytime drama Against the Storm.  A year later, Warner landed the female lead, Rebecca Lane, on Beyond These Valleys when she moved over to CBS.  For a few months in 1941, Trudy acted opposite James Meighan on the prime-time newspaper drama City Desk.

warner2For most of her lengthy radio career, Gertrude Warner was a (daytime) drama queen.  The soap operas on which she appeared include The O’Neills, The Story of Ellen Randolph, The Man I Married, Marriage for Two, Modern Romances, The Mystery Man, Real Stories from Real Life, The Right to Happiness, When a Girl Marries, and Valiant Lady.  As previously mentioned, Warner was one of three actresses to play Gal Friday Della Street on Perry Mason, but she also emoted as Susan Wells on David Harum…and played Tracy, the second wife of Young Doctor Malone.  Gertrude even got the opportunity to practice medicine as the titular doc of Joyce Jordan, M.D.; and when a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Mrs. Miniver did well in the Hoopers for CBS in December of 1943, Trudy was drafted to play the part made famous by Oscar-winner Greer Garson in a short-lived radio version the following year.  In the 1950s, she took on the role of Hope Winslow, the narrator of the popular series Whispering Streets.

warner3But labeling Gertrude Warner as a “soap opera actress” would do her a tremendous disservice.  She served as the female lead on the Mutual dramatic anthology The Brownstone Theatre, after a previous stint doing similar work on The Matinee Theatre (previously known as Dangerously Yours).  She played Nikki Porter, girlfriend to the shamus who solved weekly mysteries on The Adventures of Ellery Queen.  Trudy’s radio credits also include The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, Dimension X, Ethel and Albert, The Fat Man, The MGM Theatre of the Air, Mr. Ace and Jane, Murder by Experts, The Mysterious Traveler, Nick Carter, Master Detective, Secret Missions, Studio One, and Theater of Romance.

21020Gertrude’s best known radio gig might very well be The Shadow; she was the last actress to play “[Lamont] Cranston’s friend and companion, the lovely Margo Lane” beginning in mid-1949.  Sadly, because many of the Shadow’s adventures were being recorded on magnetic tape at that time and then erased to use the tape over and over again, not many of Warner’s broadcasts remain for new generations to hear.  Because radio kept the actress busy, Trudy expressed little to no interest in silver or small screen work save for the occasional commercial and a brief stint as Claire English Lowell Cassen Shea on the CBS-TV soap As the World Turns (back to her roots!).  This didn’t dissuade her, however, from teaching television acting in later years at Weist Barron studios and at Oberlin College.  Warner remained a die-hard radio thespian, working on such shows as Suspense, Theatre Five, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar until they trotted off the stage, one by one, in Radio’s Golden Age.  Gertrude Warner left this world for a better one in 1986.

One of Gertrude Warner’s surviving Shadow broadcasts, “Preview of Terror” (06/05/49), is available on Radio Spirits’ collection Dream of Death, and you can also enjoy listening to Trudy on The Mysterious Traveler: Dark Destiny, Suspense: Final Curtain, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Mysterious Matters.  Happiest of birthdays to one of the busiest actresses who ever stood before a microphone!

Happy Birthday, Fletcher Markle!

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Today’s birthday celebrant was once dubbed “the Canadian Orson Welles”…and after leaving The Great White North in 1946, Fletcher Markle—born on this date in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1921—would not only direct and produce Welles’ The Mercury Summer Theatre (in 1946), but contribute (though uncredited) to the director’s cult film noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947).  Fletcher went on to make significant inroads into movies and television…but radio always held a special place in his heart.

markle2Though born in Winnipeg, Fletcher Markle grew up in Vancouver, where he enrolled at the University of Vancouver…and left school two years later to write scripts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  He was only eighteen and considered a “wunderkind,” producing radio dramas for both local stations and the CBC (featuring a troupe of actors that included future star comedian Alan Young).  During his stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1942 to 1945, Markle continued working in radio.  After being demobilized, he journeyed to England to write and direct radio plays.  It was there that Fletcher landed a small role in a motion picture entitled Journey Together (1945), which was his second contribution to motion pictures (after writing and appearing in a 1944 short titled The V-1: Story of the Robot Bomb).

markle7Producer Alexander Korda persuaded Fletcher Markle to move to the U.S. to try his luck in Hollywood.  Markle cut his teeth in American radio writing scripts for The Columbia Workshop. In 1947, after successfully overseeing Mercury Summer Theatre, the twenty-six-year-old Fletcher was tapped to tackle a most prestigious assignment: directing and producing CBS Radio’s sixty-minute anthology drama Studio One.  The network had such high hopes for the program (dubbed “the most ambitious series in radio”) that CBS scheduled it opposite the NBC Tuesday night powerhouse combo of Fibber McGee & Molly and The Bob Hope Show.  Markle ensured that the series would set itself apart from similar shows by refusing celebrity “stunt casting” (he’s talking to you, Lux Radio Theatre) and remaining faithful to the source material.  Studio One premiered on April 29, 1947 with an adaptation of Malcolm Lowery’s “Under the Volcano” that featured true radio veterans like Everett Sloane, Joe DeSantis, and Robert Dryden.  In hindsight, perhaps the Tiffany network was just using the series as a sacrificial lamb…particularly since for the first six months of its run, Studio One could only be heard on the East Coast.  (It lasted a solitary season, ending July 27, 1948.)

markle8Markle’s work on Studio One (which he later duplicated when the show transitioned to TV in 1948) allowed him to take the reins on The Ford Theatre, another hour-long drama that was entering its second season on CBS starting October 8.  Ford’s inaugural season on NBC was quite similar to Studio One’s in that the creative minds behind the program eschewed Hollywood’s glittery stars in favor of radio professionals…but by the time Markle took over, the network insisted that he revamp Ford into Lux Radio Theatre redux.  Fletcher wasn’t happy about this, and occasionally commented about the show “taking the yellow brick road” in the press.  The Ford Theatre would receive a pink slip at the end of its second season, beaten by the formidable competition of other anthology dramas of its type.  Like his later duties on the TV version of Studio One, Markle would sit in the director-producer’s chair when Ford made its move to the small screen (re-titled The Ford Television Theatre).

markle4While flexing his radio muscles, Fletcher Markle continued with his career in movies at this time; he was the writer-director (and even had a small role as a nightclub customer) of Jigsaw (1949), a film oddity worth checking out for the celebrity cameos contributed by Marlene Dietrich, Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Burgess Meredith, Everett Sloane, and Marsha Hunt.  He also held the reins on Night Into Morning (1951), a melodrama with Ray Milland and future First Lady Nancy Davis Reagan, and The Man with a Cloak (1951), a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it Gothic thriller that for reasons unknown allows star Barbara Stanwyck to sing.  (You have been warned.)  Fletcher’s last feature film directing credit was The Incredible Journey (1963), a Walt Disney Studios caper about three animals (two dogs and a cat) attempting to find their way home after being lost on vacation (this one was remade as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey in 1993).

20393With radio on life support in the 1950s, Fletcher Markle concentrated his efforts on the small screen.  In 1953, he produced and directed a TV sitcom version of the stage/movie success Life with Father, and two years later supervised (as well as hosted) the anthology series Front Row Center.  His directing/writing/producing credits include such shows as The George Sanders Mystery Theater, Panic!, M Squad, Thriller, Hong Kong, Father of the Bride, Festival and Telescope.  Once a radio man, however, always a radio man; Markle worked on such radio revival series as The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and The General Mills Radio Adventure Theatre, and was part of the creative team behind The Sears/Mutual Radio Theatre.  Fletcher Markle passed on in 1991.

21090To celebrate Fletcher Markle’s birthday, Radio Spirits recommends you check out Golden Age of Television, Volumes 1-5, a DVD set featuring episodes of Studio One—the anthology series that represented much of Mr. Markle’s best work in television drama.  We’ve also a collection of Mutual Radio Theatre broadcasts, with liner notes by yours truly: an excellent example of the attempts to revive Radio’s Golden Age.  We’ve saved the best for last: our Jack Benny collection Be Our Guest features the star comedian in a March 4, 1949 Ford Theatre broadcast of his notorious “The Horn Blows at Midnight”…and in our Great Radio Comedy set, you can hear Fletcher Markle guest on Jack’s show from February 20, 1949 along with Jack Warner…both of whom try to talk Benny out of doing the Ford Theatre program!

Happy Birthday, Ed Begley!

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If you were to ask character actor Edward James Begley—born in Hartford, Connecticut on this date in 1901—about the highlight of his professional career, he would probably have responded that it came on the night of April 8, 1963…when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (his first and only Academy Award nomination).  According to his son Ed, Jr. (also an actor, best known for his role as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere), Ed, Sr. never went anywhere without his prize.  He even took it with him on car trips, since nothing tickled him more than having people take pictures of him with the statuette.

begley7Ed, Jr. was never allowed to touch the Oscar…until one day when his father asked him to hold it while he purchased plane tickets for a trip from New York to Los Angeles.  The nervous Ed, Jr. dropped the trophy, breaking its base.  Fortunately, the Academy had the Oscar repaired.  If they hadn’t, the young Begley would have never achieved his dream of becoming an actor (Ed, Sr. purportedly had quite the temper).  As for the senior Begley…it had been a long slog for the Oscar winner; he didn’t achieve real success until he was in his 40s.  Old-time radio fans, however, usually have no trouble picking Ed out of any cast of voice actors, thanks to his distinctive gravelly voice.

begley1Ed Begley, Sr. dropped out of school while he was still in fifth grade, but held on to his dream of becoming an actor, performing in amateur theatricals at his hometown’s Hartford Globe Theatre.  He left home at age eleven, and became a “jack-of-all-trades” before joining the U.S. Navy for a four-year hitch.  Out of the service, he worked in a bowling alley (as a pin boy), and then in various circuses and carnivals until finding work in vaudeville.  His radio career caught fire when he was hired as an announcer…and from there, it was just a short drift into acting.  He began performing on Hartford stations before moving to New York to look for work on stage…and got a big break with a part in Land of Fame in 1943.

begley4Ed’s radio career was distinguished by his contributions to soap operas like Myrt and Marge (on which he played Francis Hayfield), and the exhaustive work he did on anthology programs, including Best Plays, The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, The Damon Runyon Theatre, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, The Ford Theatre, Green Valley USA, The Hallmark Playhouse, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Radio Hall Of Fame, The Radio Reader’s Digest, The Railroad Hour, The Screen Director’s Playhouse, The Sportsman’s Club, Stars Over Hollywood, Studio One, and Theatre of Romance.  But in contrast to many of the serious roles with which he became identified later in his career, Begley demonstrated a flair for comedy before a radio microphone.  For a time, he played Will Brown, father of Henry Aldrich’s pal Homer on The Aldrich Family, and was later a regular on The Alan Young Show as Papa Dittenfeffer, the bad-tempered father of Alan’s girlfriend Betty (played by Jean Gillespie and Doris Singleton).  Ed also appeared as a regular of Milton Berle’s troupe on Uncle Miltie’s program during the 1947-48 season.  In addition, Begley worked on such comedy shows as Blondie, Fibber McGee & Molly, Honest Harold (The Harold Peary Show), and Our Miss Brooks.

begley2Ed Begley’s most unusual radio role would undoubtedly be that of the inscrutable sleuth who’d already gained popularity in motion pictures: Charlie Chan.  Yes, just as Charlie was played onscreen by such non-Asian actors as Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, Ed gave voice to the Asian detective on a series of broadcasts over various networks (NBC, ABC, Mutual) and in various formats from 1944 to 1948.  Begley later portrayed Sergeant O’Hara on The Fat Man, and for many was the definitive Lt. Walt Levinson on Dick Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  Crime dramas and mystery programs provided much work for the actor; Ed was heard on the likes of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the Saint, Box 13, Broadway’s My Beat, Casey, Crime Photographer, Crime and Peter Chambers, Crime Doctor, Crime Does Not Pay, The FBI in Peace and War, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Let George Do It, The Line Up, Night Beat, Rocky Fortune, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Rounding out Begley’s radio resume were guest roles on such popular shows as Creeps by Night, Escape, The Man Called X, The Marriage, The Molle Mystery Theatre, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Stroke of Fate, Suspense, The Whistler, and Words at War.

begley13While keeping busy in radio, Ed Begley saw his stage career start to pick up steam as well.  He was cast as tragic patriarch Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s successful All My Sons in 1947 (adapted for the silver screen the following year, with Edward G. Robinson as Joe), and in 1955 played Matthew Harrison Brady opposite Paul Muni’s Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind.  Begley won a Tony (1956’s Best Featured Actor in a Play) for his efforts…and when Muni left the production, Ed took a turn playing Drummond.  Other stage successes with Begley include Advise and Consent (1960) and Our Town (1969).

Begley’s feature film debut was in 1947’s Boomerang, which started him on a long journey of playing character roles in film noirs such as The Street with No Name (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Dark City (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), The Turning Point (1952), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).  His best remembered movie roles include tired businessman Bill Briggs in 1956’s Patterns (written by Rod Serling, Ed had played the same part twice previously on TV) and Juror Number Ten in 12 Angry Men (1957—the fellow with the head cold).  As previously stated, Begley took home the Oscar for his portrayal of political “boss” Tom Finley in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), a movie adaptation of the 1959 Tennessee Williams play.

begley9Before his passing in 1970, Ed Begley made many appearances on the small screen in addition to his radio, movie, and stage work.  In 1952, he co-starred with Eddie Albert in a short-lived sitcom entitled Leave it to Larry; Begley played Albert’s father-in-law despite there only being about five years’ difference in their ages.  This and a brief stint as Reverend Dr. Paul Keeler on the daytime drama The Guiding Light (he was a member of the original cast) would be his only foray into a regular series, but Ed brought the same professionalism and conviction to guest roles on such favorites as The Defenders, Naked City, Route 66, Ben Casey, Wagon Train, The Fugitive, and The Invaders.

21176Here at Radio Spirits, we have collections featuring Ed Begley, Sr.’s signature role as Lt. Levinson on Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy, and Shamus.  You can also hear him on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe in Sucker’s Road and the brand-new Lonely Canyons, and on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”: Suspense! (Suspense at Work, Ties That Bind).  Of course, you shouldn’t forget to check out our collections of Our Miss Brooks (Good English), The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint Solves the Case), Casey, Crime Photographer (Snapshots of Mystery), Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), Let George Do It (Cry Uncle), and The Line Up (Witness).  May I suggest an aperitif for this special occasion?  Birthday boy Ed appears in a May 9, 1948 broadcast of “The Front Page”—available on our popular Stop the Press! set.

Happy Birthday, Minerva Pious!

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The legendary Fred Allen had words of high praise in his book Treadmill to Oblivion for long-time Fred Allen Show regular Minerva Pious, who was born on this date in either 1903 (according to most sources) or 1908 (according to her headstone) in Odessa, Kherson Governale (then Czarist Russia, nowadays part of Ukraine). Pious “was the most accomplished woman dialectician ever to appear in radio,” the comedian observed, admitting “I am an authority on Minerva Pious.” He continued to be effusive by noting, “There is no subtlety or inflection of speech associated with any nationality that Minerva cannot faithfully reproduce.”

fredallenshow4The woman who would later be immortalized on Fred’s program as Jewish housewife Pansy Nussbaum in the “Allen’s Alley” segments of his show actually began her show business career as accompanist to a radio vocalist named Harry Taylor. Minerva was quite proud of the fact that she needed no music in front of her, relying on her ability to remember notes. Except one night…well, you can probably see where this is going. Minerva froze during the performance…and was fired. It was unquestionably the best thing that could have happened to her. Harry Taylor later changed his name to Harry Tugend, and landed a job with Allen’s program as Fred’s assistant and director. When an actress who could do a Russian dialect was needed, Tugend remembered Pious (who was, after all, Russian). Minerva was on her way to becoming a character actress—a long way from her first appearance on stage as a child walk-on in an opera where her father sang the baritone lead.

alanreed12Minerva Pious actually had a bit more acting experience than just the opera item on her resume. Before she settled on radio as her career, she had performed various character bits in New York stage productions and, while abroad, she dabbled in German and French dramatics in Salzburg. Still, her mastery of dialects was what kept her working on Fred’s weekly comedy broadcasts; whether it was The Salad Bowl Revue, The Sal Hepatica Revue, The Hour of Smiles, Town Hall Tonight, or The Texaco Star Theatre. It was on this last show that Allen would introduce the feature for which most old-time radio fans remember him best: “Allen’s Alley.” On December 6, 1942, the first four denizens to be interviewed were Senator Bloat (played by J. Scott Smart), John Doe (John Brown), Socrates Mulligan (Charlie Cantor) and Mrs. Nussbaum (Minerva). Mrs. N was the only original member of the group to remain through the various incarnations (which later saw the addition of Senator Claghorn, Titus Moody, Falstaff Openshaw, and Ajax Cassidy).

nussbaumOn radio, Pansy Nussbaum was a formidable housewife who would often reply to Fred’s greeting of “Ah, Mrs. Nussbaum…” with “You were expecting maybe Nat King Cohen?” or “You were expecting maybe the Fink Spots?” Adding a Jewish malapropal twist to the names of well-known celebrities would become the character’s trademark, in addition to her constant complaining about Mr. Nussbaum—“mine husband, Pierre.” Pious demonstrated many dialects on Allen’s program—Scandinavian, German, French…even Brooklynese! But it was her portrayal of Mrs. Nussbaum that kept listeners coming back each week, and Allen would later write: “Her Jewish housewife was never the routine, offensive burlesque caricature. Mrs. Nussbaum was a human being, warm, honest, understanding and—‘you should pardon the expression’—very funny.”

charlieminervaMinerva was often asked to reprise her Nussbaum character on a variety of other comedy-variety shows, which allowed her to trade yuks with the likes of Abbott & Costello, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Frank Morgan (The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy), Henry Morgan, Kate Smith, and Rudy Vallee. She appeared as a regular on both The Alan Young Show and Happy Island (with Ed Wynn), and guested on the likes of G.I. Journal and Mail Call. One of my favorite Pious appearances is on a January 22, 1947 broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern, in which Mrs. Nussbaum visits “where the elite meet to eat” and announces her intention to divorce husband Pierre. (John J. “No names, please” Anthony is also on hand in this episode, and he tries to give Mrs. N a little marital advice.) Rounding out Minerva’s radio resume are gigs on such shows as Behind the Mike, Columbia Presents Corwin, The Columbia Workshop, The Goldbergs, Life Can Be Beautiful (“Elsie Beebe”), The Pursuit of Happiness, The Radio Hall of Fame, and You Are There.

joemacbethIn the 1945 motion picture comedy It’s in the Bag!, viewers get an opportunity to see Minerva Pious in the Nussbaum role. In a delightful sequence, Fred Allen’s character (Frederick Floogle) is trying to track down a fortune hidden in one of five chairs (one of which was sold to Mrs. Nussbaum). For some people, the segment doesn’t work because, while Pious could create magic in front of microphone, in real life she stood only five-feet in her stockings and suffered from a bad hip that gave her a pronounced limp. Speaking only for myself, I love seeing the two of them working together in what is admittedly my favorite of Fred’s feature films.

Minerva’s contributions to the silver screen were few in number—she has bit roles in Love in the Afternoon (1957) and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973—which aired recently on TCM). Her most substantial movie turn was as “Rosie” in Joe MacBeth (1955)—a gangster version of the Shakespeare play. (She also contributed her wonderful voice to 1964’s Pinocchio in Outer Space.) Pious’ television appearances were even fewer: she performed on The Colgate Comedy Hour and The Chevrolet Television Theatre, and appeared briefly on the daytime drama The Edge of Night as a landlady in the 1970s. Until her death in 1979, Pious was content to reminisce about Radio’s Golden Age in such television specials as The Great Radio Comedians (telecast in 1972).

20206In honor of what would have been Minerva Pious’ 108th/113th natal anniversary today, Radio Spirits would like to recommend that you check out our signature Fred Allen collection, The Fred Allen Show: a set that contains the very first trip down “Allen’s Alley” (the December 6, 1942 broadcast features George Jessel as guest). You’ll also find Minerva on Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud and Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: Grudge Match—two excellent compilations of broadcasts that focus on radio’s best-known verbal donnybrook between two of the medium’s greatest comedians. Happy birthday, Minerva! (“You were expecting maybe Hoagy Carbuncle?”)

Happy Birthday, Antony Ellis!

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The last time we got together here on the blog we celebrated Sheldon Leonard’s birthday…and I described his career as a “hyphenate”: actor, producer, director (and even writer on shows like the Andy Griffith and Danny Thomas programs). Today marks the natal anniversary of yet another hyphenate: it’s Antony Ellis, a native Brit (born in the United Kingdom in 1920) who found success on this side of the pond as an actor before expanding his horizons as a writer-director-producer on such radio classics as Escape and Suspense.

ellis2Antony’s early radio career was marked as a performer on such shows as The Lux Radio Theatre, Arch Oboler’s Plays, and The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. It was with Pursuit, a short-lived but excellent series about the exploits of a fictional Scotland Yard detective (played at various times by Ted de Corsia, John Dehner, Herb Butterfield, and Ben Wright), that Ellis demonstrated he had a knack for slapping a noun up against a verb. His writing talents would soon be in high demand on series such as Romance and Escape…and yet he never completely abandoned emoting before the microphone, since several surviving broadcasts from those two series (as well as Pursuit) feature him in a performing capacity (frequently alongside his wife Georgia, best-known as Long Branch proprietor Kitty Russell on Gunsmoke).

ellis1Among Tony’s memorable contributions to Escape: “A Sleeping Draught,” “The Cave” (a classic Christmas fantasy), and “I Saw Myself Running”—a personal favorite of mine that deals with the bizarre, mystifying world of dreams. In the last season of Escape, Ellis found himself seated in the director’s chair numerous times (while Norm Macdonnell continued as producer), adding to his resume of writing and performing. As mentioned, wife Georgia was a regular on Macdonnell’s Gunsmoke, and Tony contributed a few remarkable scripts to that series as well, including that show’s classic Christmas outing (appropriately titled “Christmas Story”) and “Kitty,” an entry that takes a closer look at the “relationship” between the saloon girl and Marshal Dillon when the lawman asks her to be his escort at a dance (Ellis plays a small part in this one as well).

lewisesIn addition, Antony Ellis forged a bond of friendship with none other than “Mr. Radio” himself—Elliott Lewis. Tony wrote and performed on a number of shows overseen by Lewis, notably Crime Classics and On Stage. It was Ellis who adapted Shakespeare’s Othello for the memorable Suspense two-parter broadcast on May 4 and May 11, 1953, featuring Lewis as the titular Moor with Richard Widmark (as Iago) and Elliott’s then-wife Cathy Lewis (as Desdemona). Tony inherited Suspense in December of 1954 as director-producer, and continued in that capacity for two years (he was also directing and producing Romance) until William N. Robson took over. Other series that featured Ellis’ contributions include The Bakers’ Theatre of Stars, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, and O’Hara. Tony also left his stamp on The CBS Radio Workshop with a pair of classics in “The Enormous Radio” and “A Matter of Logic”—both of which dealt with the business that he loved so well.

john-dehner-radio2As an Englishman who became a naturalized American citizen, Antony Ellis turned his fascination with his adopted country and his insatiable interest in the history of the Old West into the series that inarguably remains his greatest radio achievement: Frontier Gentleman. The intro to that classic western says it all: “Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in the West.” The show revolved around London Times reporter Jeremy Brian Kendall (played by John Dehner, who was great friends with Tony in real life) as he traveled throughout the early Western United States in search of subject matter for his contributions to the newspaper. Frontier Gentleman provided rich character studies of people both obscure and famous (among the legends Kendall encountered were Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok), and as old-time radio historian John Dunning once remarked, Gentleman was “the only serious rival to Gunsmoke in the radio Hall of Fame.” Sadly, this superb series only ran from February 2 to November 16, 1958.

ridebackSince it was only a matter of time until radio’s coffin was lowered into the ground, Antony Ellis was soon forced to find other conduits for his creative talents. A Gunsmoke episode he penned (which unfortunately no longer appears to survive in recorded form), “The Ride Back,” was fashioned into a feature film in 1957 starring Anthony Quinn and William Conrad. (I always tell those people outraged by the vetoing of Conrad by the network brass to continue playing Matt Dillon on the TV version of Gunsmoke that Ride Back is an excellent way to imagine him in the role). Ellis had better luck on the small screen, where he wrote for such hits as Zorro, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor (Ellis also penned a few Gunsmoke scripts, too). Ellis was the producer of a TV version of Michael Shayne between 1960 and 1961, and created, wrote and produced Black Saddle (1959-60)—an underrated western (that should have been more successful) starring a pre-Big Valley Peter Breck and a pre-Gilligan’s Island Russell Johnson. Tony’s promising career was cut short in 1967 when he succumbed to cancer at the age of 47.

19833At Radio Spirits, we feature plenty of broadcasts from Antony Ellis’ amazing contribution to radio drama in Frontier Gentleman, featuring such collections as Frontier Gentleman and Life and Death. You can also listen to his creative contributions to Romance as well as Escape (Escape Essentials, Escape to the High Seas, The Hunted and the Haunted) and Suspense (Suspense at Work, Ties That Bind, Around the World). Finally—don’t miss out on Tony the actor with performances on Crime Classics and Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, Volume Two. Happy birthday to the one of the most formidable talents of Radio’s Golden Age!