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“Somewhere along the line a murderer makes a mistake—it’s my job to find that mistake.”

“Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance” Ogden Nash once rhymed in a memorable couplet.  Nash’s editorial comment was addressing the one-time popularity of author S.S. Van Dine’s famed sleuth. After generating quite a following with the 1926 publication of the first Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case,  the character soon took a back seat to the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s. (Raymond Chandler purportedly called Philo Vance “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”)  The aristocratic Vance may have noticed a decline in the number of his books disappearing from bookstore shelves, but he kept busy in movies and on radio. In fact, the first of three Philo Vance series premiered over NBC Radio on this date in 1945.

S.S. Van Dine was a pseudonym for author-art critic Willard Huntington Wright, who enjoyed a most respectful journalism/literary career beginning at age 21, when he was made literary editor of The Los Angeles Times.  By the 1920s, Wright had become a freelancer…and due to a combination of exhaustion/overwork and a cocaine addiction (not known to family and associates at the time), he adopted a regimen of bed rest to recuperate.  Willard also developed a voracious appetite for crime fiction, and after reading hundreds of volumes on crime and detection, decided to try his hand at the genre.  He sold Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins on an idea that eventually took wing as The Benson Murder Case.  Successful Philo Vance novels like The Canary Murder Case (1927) and The Greene Murder Case (1928) followed.

Both Canary and Greene were given the silver screen treatment (in 1929), with William Powell cast in the role of Philo.  (Canary is of interest to silent film fans as being the final American film made by the legendary Louise Brooks before making both Pandora’s Box [1929] and Diary of a Lost Girl [1929] for G.W. Pabst.)  Powell would make the most movie appearances as Vance, also appearing as the sleuth in The Benson Murder Case (which was finally adapted for film in 1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933), one of the best entries in the Philo Vance franchise.  In fact, when Powell’s The Thin Man was released in 1934, the trailer for the movie had his Nick Charles meeting Philo Vance (both played by Powell).  Other actors offering their interpretation of Vance include Basil Rathbone (The Bishop Murder Case), Warren William (The Dragon Murder Case), Paul Lukas (The Casino Murder Case), and Edmund Lowe (The Garden Murder Case).

Warren William encored as Philo Vance in a movie entry that will certainly be of interest to old-time radio fans: 1939’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case.  Based on the novel published in 1938, it features the two people who live in the Burns house—George and Gracie—as well as Gracie’s mother and brother.  The motion picture, however, only makes room for Gracie; the comedienne steals the show (calling the detective “Fido”) and relegates Vance to a secondary role, but it’s most entertaining.

The first attempt to bring Philo Vance to radio was as a summer replacement for The Bob Burns Show (sponsored by Lifebuoy-Lever Brothers), which ran on NBC from July 5 to September 27, 1945.  Future Academy Award winner Jose Ferrer portrayed Philo, with Let George Do It’s Frances Robinson as his Gal Friday Ellen Deering.  Documentation of a second Philo series that apparently aired a year later on ABC’s West Coast is a bit slippery to track down, while others document that this version may have aired earlier than the Jose Ferrer version, in 1943 with John Emery.

The third Philo Vance incarnation is not hard to track down, however, as most of the surviving shows are from this syndicated version from Frederic Ziv and his syndication factory.  It began in the fall of 1946, airing on some Mutual stations, before wrapping things up four years later.  In the role of Philo was Jackson Beck, already becoming a known radio name with appearances as the announcer on The Adventures of Superman and the star of The Cisco Kid.  Beck’s fellow Superman player, Joan Alexander, worked on Vance as his secretary Ellen Deering, and the cast was rounded out with George Petrie as District Attorney Frank Markham, and Humphrey Davis as Vance’s police force adversary, Sgt. Ernest Heath.

By the time Philo Vance settled in for his third crack at radio he had ceased to be a “detective dandy” and instead became what critic John Crosby described as “just another smoothie with an eye for the ladies and a collection of wisecracks that would make the late author spin in his grave.”  Surviving episodes of Vance show that it’s not necessarily a bad series, but one that seemed to just be going through the motions.  You get the feeling the only person that had fun on the show was the organist.  One cannot deny, however, the stamp of professionalism from veterans like Beck and Alexander, who brought conviction to their performances until Ziv shut down the syndicated version in 1950.

Radio Spirits offers up some of Jackson Beck’s memorable excursions as Philo Vance in the Philo Vance: Archives Collection, available as a digital download.  Eighteen broadcasts from the syndicated Ziv series await your downloading convenience!

Radio’s home folks

It’s difficult to describe the sublime joys of Vic and Sade—which premiered over NBC Blue on this date in 1932—to anyone unfamiliar with old-time radio.  Come to think of it, it’s not easy with people familiar with old-time radio, either.  It’s one of those programs you either immediately take to your bosom or don’t.  For most of its run, Vic and Sade spent time in radio’s “daytime ghetto,” sandwiched between daytime soaps and game shows.  Though it was broadcast as a five-day-a-week quarter-hour, it was not technically a serial.  A more apt description of the show came from longtime announcer Bob Brown, who labeled it “an island of delight in a sea of tears.”

Vic and Sade was a comedy, however.  Radio historian (and Radio Spirits scribe) Elizabeth McLeod once observed in an essay:

There were many other fifteen minute comedy-dialogue shows in its time, and Vic and Sade was nothing like any of them. It never had the compelling, dramatic plots of Amos ‘n’ Andy, or the urbane wit of Easy Aces, or the broad comedy of Lum and Abner. You didn’t tune in Vic and Sade to find out how the characters would get themselves out of a difficult plot wrinkle—Rush was never put on trial for murder, for example, or sued for breach of promise—and you never fell on the floor laughing at the Gook family’s wacky antics.

Vic and Sade wasn’t really about any of these things. In fact, when you really think about it, Vic and Sade wasn’t about anything. It was the original show about nothing.

Vic and Sade was the creation of a young NBC continuity writer named Paul Rhymer.  Rhymer, born in Fulton, Illinois in 1905, spent most of his childhood in Bloomington—which would become the model for the unidentified town where “the small house halfway up in the next block” was located.  Paul attended Illinois Wesleyan University for a brief time, until the passing of his father, then embarked on a series of odd jobs.  Rhymer even dabbled as a newspaper reporter for a time, but he indulged in a practice that is generally frowned upon in journalism: he was writing feature stories about people he had neglected to interview.  Working for NBC, Paul spent the next three years churning out scripts for various shows until program director Charles Menser asked him to whip up a family skit that was to be auditioned before prospective sponsor Procter & Gamble.  This “skit” would eventually become Vic and Sade, and though P&G took a pass, Menser liked the concept enough to put it on the air.  (Procter & Gamble would change their mind and sign on to pay the bills in 1934, allowing Paul to leave NBC and be a freelancer from that moment on.)

Vic and Sade were the first names of Mr. and Mrs. Victor Rodney Gook, an average, nondescript couple residing in an unnamed rural town located somewhere in Illinois.  Vic, portrayed by former grain salesman Art Van Harvey, worked as chief accountant for Consolidated Kitchenware Company’s Plant Number Fourteen—and had married Sade after meeting her in her hometown in Dixon, Illinois.  Like most office drones, Vic constantly grumbled about his job and about his boss in particular: J.K. Ruebush (pronounced “Old Rubbish”).  After punching the time clock at the end of his workday, Vic would return home to his castle (“Hi-dee-hi, Ho-dee-ho” he’d call out in Cab Calloway fashion) and indulge in his passions of parades, alarm clocks, cigars, etc.  Vic was also a lodge member-in-good-standing of the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, Drowsy Venus Chapter—he was the Exalted Big Dipper.

Actress Bernardine Flynn was lured to radio by its career stability and played the part of Sade, Vic’s domestic partner who took great pride in her housekeeping (whipping up kitchen delights like beef punkles ice cream and limberschwartz cheese).  But she, too, had outside interests in the form of the Thimble Club—a ladies’ aggregation that met weekly to sew and gossip.  Sade’s best bud was Ruthie Stembottom; the two women never missed a washrag sale at Yamilton’s Department Store.  Sade was the straight woman on the show, but she’d often give out with statements like, “Somebody knock me over with a feather!” and her endearing catchphrase, “Oh, ish.”

What was so remarkable about Vic and Sade is that the Gooks’ entire existence was established while rarely leaving the confines of their Virginia Avenue residence—the supporting characters in their world were talked about in anecdotes, letters and phone calls.  But even Rhymer could detect that this would become limiting and as such, he introduced a third character off-mike on July 8, 1932.  This would be nine-year-old Rush, the son of an old school friend of Sade’s who the couple adopted because his mother was unable to take care of him.  Billy Idelson made his first on-mike appearance on July 15, and it wasn’t long before listeners simply accepted that Rush was Vic and Sade’s son all along.  A good kid who possessed an endearing deadpan innocence, Rush affectionately called his father “Gov” and Vic had an endless supply of nicknames in response—”Pocketwatch,” “Paperweight,” “Horse Chestnut,” etc.  (To Sade, Rush was “Willie”—a reference to actor Idleson’s real first name.)  Like his parents, we learned about Rush’s friends and acquaintances (Smelly Clark, Blue-Tooth Johnson) through various conversations.

Art Van Harvey suffered a heart attack in 1940. To keep the show running until he recuperated, Paul Rhymer decided to add a fourth character to Vic and Sade: Uncle Fletcher. Often talked about on the program, Fletcher was brought to life by Huntington, WV native Clarence Hartzell as a half-deaf old codger who lived in his own little world. He would often ramble on at length about old acquaintances from places like Sweet Esther, Wisconsin and Dismal Seepage, Ohio.  Oblivious to any conversation already in progress, Fletcher would talk right through people and respond to any question asked of him with “Fine.”  (When discussing his acquaintances, Uncle Fletcher would invariably conclude his reminiscences with the curt “…later died.”)  Uncle Fletcher soon became indispensable to the program, and he remained with the series even after Art Van Harvey’s return.  The show underwent another cast change in 1942, when Billy Idelson enlisted in the Navy. The character of Russell Miller, the orphaned nephew of one of Vic’s co-workers at Consolidated Kitchenware (and played by David Whitehouse and Johnny Coons), became a Rush-surrogate on the June 3, 1943 broadcast.

Vic and Sade vacated the airwaves on September 29, 1944.  It returned on August 21, 1945 and ran until December 7, 1945, and then did a brief summer stint (sponsored by Fitch Shampoo) as a half-hour comedy program from June to October 1946.  The program later took a shot at a couple of small screen runs (in 1949 and 1957).  About 300 transcriptions of the show have survived to entertain a new generation of audiences, but Vic and Sade is also at the center of one of the true tragic stories of old-time radio preservation.  The show’s longtime sponsor, Procter & Gamble, destroyed close to 3,000 recorded transcription discs of the program shortly after WWII.  John Dunning, author of On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, summed up the feelings of Vic and Sade fans: “All we can do at this late date is hope that the space formerly used to house those wonderful transcriptions made some indifferent company bureaucrat a comfortable office.”  The written record is another matter entirely. In the 1970s, the efforts of Paul Rhymer and his wife resulted in two book collections of Vic and Sade scripts featuring forewords from Ray Bradbury and Jean Shepherd.

Bradbury and Shepherd were not the only fans of the series. Admirers of Vic and Sade included James Thurber, Ogden Nash, Sherwood Anderson, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Fibber McGee & Molly’s Jim and Marian Jordan—two individuals who knew a thing or two about life in Illinois.  We’ll wager that we’ll be adding your name to this list, too, once you check out our collection of Vic and Sade shows.  You’ll even find the couple on our potpourri set of Great Radio Sitcoms!  Don’t just sit there with your teeth in your mouth—order these sets today!

Oh, my Papa…

Every third Sunday in June, we celebrate Father’s Day—a national holiday recognizing the importance of fatherhood, paternal bonds and really, the societal influence of fathers in general.  Here at Radio Spirits, we had a nice tie picked out for our dads this year…and then we thought: why not take a little time on the blog to recognize those old-time radio fathers that made a tremendous difference in our listening lives?

Because there are so many radio “Pops” worthy of recognition, like Inspector Richard Queen on The Adventures of Ellery Queen and patriarch Henry Barbour of One Man’s Family fame, I decided for the purposes of this post to concentrate on fathers that you can become acquainted with on programs from our voluminous inventory here.  (I’ve even included links to the collections in case you’re trying to narrow down the gift choice between CDs and a pipe.)

Chester A. Riley, The Life of Riley – One of our most popular collections, Loveable Lug, succinctly sums up the appeal of an OTR dad who may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer…but he was definitely one of the most beloved.  When Riley was wrong, he was bullheadedly wrong…and he wasn’t going to admit this until the latest complication he had blundered into had reached a satisfactory conclusion.  Even then he would throw up his hands and mutter his famous catchphrase: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”  Despite his lack of brains, he loved his wife Peg and children Babs and Junior, and if he did something stupid, it was for their benefit.  In addition to Lug, check out our Riley collections Blue Collar Blues and Magnificent Mug.

Phil Harris, The Fitch Bandwagon/The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show – Another patriarch who may not have been the best role model where children were concerned, musician Phil Harris nevertheless had a bit more on the ball than Chester A. Riley. His trouble was that he had a best friend (Frankie Remley) who managed to get him into hot water all the time.  Phil Harris was best known for his baton-waving duties on The Jack Benny Show but after he tied the knot with movie star Alice Faye in 1941, he became more and more of a family man, devoted to his wife and two daughters.  Phil began his fatherly duties on The Fitch Bandwagon in 1946, and those shows are featured on A Song and a SmileStepping Out, and Buried Treasure.  Two years later, the family Harris introduced The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, spotlighted on our collections The First 20 EpisodesThe Circus, and Smoother and Sweeter.

Abner Peabody, Lum & Abner – It’s funny how we tend to forget that one-half of The Jot ‘Em Down Store was a dutiful family man, isn’t it?  I guess that’s because ol’ Abner, bless his heart (buh-less his little heart!), spent so many working hours playing epic games of checkers or getting involved in other wacky shenanigans he didn’t seem to make much time for his wife Elizabeth and daughter Pearl.  Oh, that’s not really being fair; truth be told, we rarely heard from either woman during the many years the comedy serial was broadcast, but we can state categorically that they were the most important things in life to Abner—his bachelor buddy Lum surely had to be jealous.  If you’re curious as to what’s going on down in Pine Ridge, spend an hour or two listening to Lum & Abner volumes 123567891011, and 12.

Mr. Piper, The Couple Next Door – The Couple Next Door was another serial that celebrated the comedic joys of domestic bliss.  We’re not being formal with the “Mister,” either—during the show’s run on CBS from 1957 to 1960, the husband and wife had no first names other than “Dear” and “Darling.”  But they did have daughter Suzy and newborn Bobby, and Piper proved to be an exemplary father when it came to ensuring that the children were brought up properly.  Radio Spirits features the Piper family in multiple CD sets: The Couple Next DoorMerry Mix-UpsMoving OnBusiness & Pleasure, and Family Fortunes.

Victor Gook, Vic & Sade – Listeners during the Golden Age of Radio made this program (not a serial, though it was broadcast five days a week) a popular one, with its devoted audience tuning in religiously to the adventures of the family occupying “the small house halfway up in the next block.”  The curmudgeonly Vic, whose bark was worse than his bite, made certain that between his nine-to-five job working for J.K. Ruebush and his duties as the Exalted Big Dipper of Sacred Stars of the Milky Way (Drowsy Venus Chapter) he was there for his wife Sade and son Rush.  If you’ve never heard this classic program, do what you can to slip Vic & Sade in your shopping cart.

Osgood Conklin, Our Miss Brooks – I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult life must have been for young Harriet Conklin growing up.  Your entire high school existence is stymied by the fact that your autocratic father is the principal and referred to fondly by both faculty and students as “Old Marblehead.”  We may have been grateful that we didn’t have to call Osgood Conklin “Pop”…but the fact that he provided us with endless laughs as he matched wits with his nemesis, English teacher Connie Brooks, more than made up for his shortcomings.  If you’re skeptical, check out Boynton BluesGood EnglishFaculty Feuds, and School Spirit.

Jim Anderson, Father Knows Best – The old-time radio dad that everybody wishes they had.  Jim Anderson started out in the “Daddy’s-an-idiot-but-we-love-him” mold until star Robert Young used his muscle to transform his patriarch into an all-knowing sage who gently but firmly prodded his children to follow the right path in life.  Most folks remember Father Knows Best as a long-running TV show, but its roots are in radio, as witnessed on the Radio Spirits collection Maple Street.

Radio Spirits also has on hand a pair of potpourri collections with samples of comedy hits from radio’s past, Great Radio Comedy and Great Radio Sitcoms.  You’ll find many of the Dads discussed above on Comedy, along with visits to the patriarchs of The Aldrich Family (Sam Aldrich—attorney-at-law!), The Baby Snooks Show (Lancelot “Daddy” Higgins), A Date with Judy (Melvin Foster), A Day in the Life of Dennis Day (Dennis’ landlord, Herbert Anderson), and Meet Corliss Archer (Harry Archer).  Sitcoms spotlights some of these same favorites and adds Ethel and Albert (the original Couple Next Door), Blondie (Dagwood Bumstead), My Little Margie (Vern Albright), and of course, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (super dad Ozzie Nelson and his family)!

Happy Father’s Day to the Dad in your life!

Happy Birthday, Francis “Dink” Trout!

In the Golden Age of Radio, actors were often called upon to play “meek” individuals—or whatever nickname you prefer: wimp, nebbish, milquetoast, etc.  The gold standard for these portrayals might be Bill Thompson, who even utilized “wimp” in the name of his famous creation “Wallace Wimple.”  But the go-to thespian continually called upon to play any number of henpecked “Yes, dear” souls would unquestionably be “Dink” Trout, born Francis Harry Traut in Beardstown, Illinois on this date in 1898.  A multi-talented performer described by author Trav S.D. (author of No Applause—Just Throw Money) as “a fascinating jack of all trades” (musician, radio personality, screen actor, voice-over artist), Trout is fondly remembered by old-time radio fans for bringing life to two unforgettable characters on the sitcoms A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Life of Riley.

The son of a civil engineer (Frank J. Traut), Dink Trout attended the University of Illinois and, upon graduation, began to pursue an acting career with vigor. In 1926, he appeared in a  Broadway production of The Wild Rose as a character named “Zeppo.”  Trout worked briefly for “The Old Maestro,” Ben Bernie, playing marimba and trombone in his orchestra.  His gig with Bernie led to radio work, with Dink headlining his own radio show over WOR in 1927.  Trout also made the rounds on the vaudeville circuit and played in any number of Chautauqua shows.

One of Dink Trout’s first high-profile radio jobs was as a regular on Scattergood Baines, a daily serial that premiered over CBS’ West Coast on February 22, 1937.  The show was based on a creation by author Clarence Buddington Kelland (best-known for a short story, “Opera Hat,” that became the basis of the classic 1936 comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). The main character was a wise country sage who dispensed wisdom and advice in a small Vermont town.  Trout portrayed Pliny Pickett, the conductor of the town’s branch-line train, and one of Scattergood’s true-blue pals.  Scattergood Baines moved to the full coast-to-coast CBS network in October of 1938 and, apart from a four-month hiatus in 1941, was a Tiffany mainstay until June 12, 1942.  While Baines was still enjoying its radio run, independent film producer Jerrold T. Brandt instituted a B-movie franchise at R-K-O that allowed Dink to reprise his radio role (veteran character actor Guy Kibbee was the “name” enlisted to portray Scattergood) in three of the six programmers that comprised the series: Scattergood Baines (1941), Scattergood Baines Pulls the Strings (1941), and Cinderella Swings It (1943), the final entry.

Dink Trout was no novice when it came to movie making: his initial debut was an uncredited appearance in 1936’s Under Your Spell, but he turns up in a number of OTR-themed films or alongside the radio star headliners.  Trout has small roles in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943) and It’s a Great Life (1943; part of the Blondie series), and worked alongside Danny Kaye in Up in Arms (1944) and Jack Benny in his notorious The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945).  Dink’s other film roles include Miss Polly (1941), The Doughgirls (1944), I’m from Arkansas (1944), When Irish Eyes are Smiling (1944), Sudan (1945), and Notorious (1946).  Toward the end of the decade, Trout was punching a time clock for Disney in the form of a small role in So Dear to My Heart (1948) and voicing the character of Bootle Beetle in several Donald Duck cartoons.

Dink Trout played “Roger Waddington” on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet and a meek little character who answered to “Horace” on The Fitch Bandwagon during Cass Daley’s season (1945-46) with the program.  Trout essayed the role of “Obie Slider” on The Nebbs, a 1945-46 Mutual sitcom based on the popular comic strip created by Sol Hess and starring the husband-and-wife team of Kathleen and Gene Lockhart.  When Lum & Abner adopted its weekly half-hour, live-audience format in 1948, Dink was pressed into playing lunchroom owner Luke Spears.  Other radio shows on Trout’s resume include The Abbott & Costello ShowAll-Star Western TheatreThe Baby Snooks ShowThe Cavalcade of AmericaCommand PerformanceFamily TheatreFrontier TheatreJohnny Madero, Pier 23The Lux Radio TheatreMeet Me at Parky’sOur Miss BrooksScreen Directors’ Playhouse, and The Sealtest Variety Theatre.

But when fans fondly reminisce about Francis “Dink” Trout, it’s a good bet that his characterization of “Waldo Binney” on The Life of Riley is near the top of the list.  Waldo was a neighbor of Riley’s whose mild, docile demeanor provided a direct contrast to Chester’s bombastic pal Gillis.  The fall of 1946 would provide Trout with his most inspired radio role. On A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, Dink was Herbert Anderson—the timid father of Dennis’ girlfriend Mildred.  Mr. Anderson was a man who had been so beaten down by his domineering wife Clara (Bea Benaderet) that on the rare occasion when he stood up to her (he called her “Poopsie”) it was guaranteed to bring the house down.  Herbert’s trademark was to laugh at something stupid uttered by his potential son-in-law (who had no shortage of idiotic observations) with a dismissive “Silly boy…”

A brief item in the “Radio in Review” column of the March 3, 1950 edition of Radio-TV Life noted that Dink Trout and Barbara Eiler (who was playing Mildred on the Day show at the time) would not be returning to A Day in the Life of Dennis Day the following season.  (This is accurate: a change in the show’s format found Dennis trying to make it on his own in Hollywood, with Benaderet playing a new landlady character.)  In the case of Trout…this might have been a premonition.  Dink went in for cancer surgery not long after the Radio-TV Life announcement and complications from two procedures during his three-week stay took his life at age 51.  His final role wouldn’t be released until the following year when he provided the memorable voice of the King of Hearts in the Walt Disney production of Alice in Wonderland (1951).

A July 1948 edition of Radio Mirror features a lengthy article on Dennis Day and his wife Peggy…and a passing reference to our birthday boy.  Did you know that Dennis owned a Cocker Spaniel…that answered to “Dink Trout”?  Well, Radio Spirits features some of the funniest half-hours of Day’s 1946-51 sitcom in our A Day in the Life of Dennis Day collection, and you can also hear Dink on The Life of Riley sets Blue Collar Blues and Magnificent Mug.  Check out Dink on Great Radio Comedy and Great Radio Sitcoms, too!

Happy Birthday, Don Diamond!

The actor born Donald Alan Diamond in Brooklyn, NY on this date in 1921 was in real life a rather nondescript individual…but that is precisely the quality you want when you’ve decided you want to be a character actor.  Diamond’s knack for dialects—Spanish ones in particular—kept him busy in radio during the 1940s, and with the advent of television, his vocal talents won him high profile roles on The Adventures of Kit Carson (as Carson’s loyal sidekick “El Toro”) and Zorro, on which he played Corporal Reyes.  In the mid-60s, Don would land the gig for which he’s best remembered among couch potatoes in good standing: that of Crazy Cat, the goofy second-in-command to Hekawi Indian Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) on the popular TV comedy-western F Troop.

Because he tackled so many Hispanic roles, Don Diamond was often believed by many to be Mexican.  His origins, however, were Russian. Diamond’s father Benjamin emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1905, which explained why Don spoke more than his fair share of Yiddish.  But he studied Spanish while attending the University of Michigan to obtain a degree in drama, and when Diamond enlisted in the Army Air Corps during WWII (serving stateside because he suffered from myopia), he spent his spare time perfecting his Spanish while stationed in the Southwest.

Don Diamond got his start in radio while waiting induction in New York, emoting on such series as The March of Time.  Once out of the service, Don made the rounds on many of the medium’s popular dramatic anthologies, notably All-Star Western TheatreThe Bakers’ Theatre of StarsThe CBS Radio WorkshopConfessionEscapeThe Eternal LightFavorite StoryFamily TheatreInheritanceThe Lux Radio TheatreNBC Presents: Short StoryThe NBC University TheatreRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over Hollywood, and Suspense.

Other programs on which Don Diamond did a little script reading include The Adventures of Nero WolfeThe Adventures of Philip MarloweBroadway’s My BeatDangerous AssignmentFort LaramieFrontier GentlemanGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelLassieLet George Do ItLuke Slaughter of TombstoneNight BeatO’HaraPresenting Charles BoyerRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky FortuneThe Silent MenThe Story of Doctor KildareTales of the Texas RangersYou Were There, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Don kept his hand in radio practically till the end, appearing on such radio revival attempts as Horizons WestThe Hollywood Radio Theatre, and The Sears Radio Theatre.

While his radio career was going great guns, Don Diamond decided to flex his thespic muscles and try his luck in motion pictures. He made his silver screen debut in 1950’s Borderline (a noir starring Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor), and would go to work both credited and uncredited in the likes of Omar Khayyam (1957), Raiders of Old California (1957), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), The Story of Ruth (1960), Swingin’ Along (1961), Irma la Douce (1963), Fun in Acapulco (1964), and The Carpetbaggers (1964).  Diamond felt more at home on the small screen, however; in addition to his regular gigs on The Adventures of Kit Carson and Zorro, Don guest starred on such TV favorites as The Adventures of Superman,  TrackdownThe Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna!The Life and Legend of Wyatt EarpThe Untouchables, and Rawhide.  He had a recurring role on two 60s series: Empire (1962-63), a modern-day Western starring Richard Egan as a ranch foreman (Charles Bronson was a regular on this show), and Redigo (1963), which spun off Egan’s character into a separate series.

It was as the pixilated flunky Crazy Cat on F Troop that Don Diamond would cement his television immortality; the cheerful sidekick often expressed an ambition to take over as Hekawi chief, prompting Wild Eagle to react with undisguised disdain.  (“Craze” did get a brief opportunity to be the man in charge in an episode entitled ”Our Brave in F Troop,” when Chief Wild Eagle is disguised as a Fort Courage soldier in order to get his tooth pulled.)   After F Troop finished its two-year-run in 1967, Don returned to guest roles on such series as Run for Your LifeThe Big ValleyGet Smart (in the classic “The Treasure of C. Errol Madre”) and Here’s Lucy.  Diamond also voiced one of the “Tijuana Toads” (he was “Toro,” Tom Holland was “Pancho”) in a series of theatrical cartoons produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. When those shorts became segments on The Pink Panther Show, they renamed the characters the “Texas Toads” and overdubbed some of the dialogue to address concerns about stereotyping.

Don Diamond later did voices for the Saturday morning favorite Devlin and provided the voice of “Gonzales” on The New Adventures of Zorro.  Other TV favorites that Don visited include Mission: ImpossibleColumboAdam-12The Streets of San FranciscoThe Rockford Files, and WKRP in Cincinnati.  He continued to work until his retirement in 1987, and passed away in 2011 at the age of 90.

Don Diamond was the definition of a working actor during the Golden Age of Radio, and Radio Spirits has plenty of his performances on hand to back this up.  Don was a frequent supporting player on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and you can hear him on our Dollar sets ConfidentialFabulous FreelanceFatal MattersThe Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMurder Matters, and Phantom Chases.  Today’s birthday boy also made occasional forays into Dodge City, which you’ll notice in the Gunsmoke collections Around Dodge CityDead or Alive, and Flashback.  Rounding out our “Diamond” presentations: The Adventures of Philip MarloweEscape: PerilFort LaramieHave Gun – Will Travel: Bitter VengeanceThe New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Mayhem is My Business.  Happy birthday, Don!

Happy Birthday, Betty Lou Gerson!

George Allen took over as director of the West Coast radio mystery anthology The Whistler beginning in the mid-40s, and one of the hallmarks of his tenure with the program was building a stock company that was facetiously referred to as “Whistler’s children.”  He tailored the casting of many of radio’s finest performers to the needs of each week’s Whistler scripts. For example, if he needed an actor who “can sound like the average guy under pressure, and he builds emotion fast and holds it at a peak”—his go-to guy would be Elliott Lewis, and if that character were female he’d tab Cathy Lewis, Elliott’s then-wife.  For “parts that convey mental superiority” Allen would call on Betty Lou Gerson; “she’s perfect for women who have catty, fencing dialogue.”  Gerson was one of radio’s busiest actresses, and the performer who made that medium her own was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on this date in 1914.

Although a native of the Volunteer State, Betty Lou Gerson spent much of her youth in Birmingham, Alabama, where her father was president of the Southern Steel and Roller Mills Company.  Betty Lou had early ambitions of being an actress while attending a girl’s seminary, where she voraciously read magazines about theatre, Hollywood and radio.  Gerson also performed in school plays and, upon graduating, she convinced her parents to let her enroll in Chicago’s Goodman Dramatic School.  Her scholastics there didn’t last long, however; Betty Lou received an offer to join a stock company, which occupied her time for three months during the summer.

Betty Lou Gerson then returned to the Windy City to continue her schooling.  On a lark, she decided to audition for a role on an NBC program, Talkie Picture Time.  Gerson got the part…but she also got the attention of the show’s director, Joseph Ainsley—the two of them would later tie the knot after several years of courtship.  Betty Lou, in the meantime, concentrated on her radio acting career: one of her high-profile jobs was as leading lady opposite Don Ameche on The First Nighter Program.  When Ameche was asked by Hollywood to take a screen test, First Nighter moved to the West Coast and Gerson went with the show.  Despite being offered a tempting contract by Warner’s, Betty Lou decided to turn down the studio and return to Chicago to make plans with her beau Joe.

The First Nighter Program eventually returned to Chicago as well, but Betty Lou Gerson lost her leading lady status to Barbara Luddy (with Les Tremayne as leading man).  Still, Gerson worked hard at her craft, and would eventually land starring roles on the daytime dramas Win Your Lady (a 1938 summer soap that featured Don Ameche’s brother Jim), Arnold Grimm’s Daughter (Betty Lou was Constance, the “daughter” in the title), and Midstream (on which she played Julia Meredith).  Betty Lou also played leading lady on Grand Hotel, a dramatic anthology that aired over NBC (Arch Oboler wrote some of the program’s playlets when he was just starting out), as well as the Mutual program Curtain Time.

Being a busy thespian during Radio’s Golden Age meant working on a lot of daytime dramas…and Betty Lou Gerson was no exception.  In addition to the ones already named, Gerson had recurring roles on Attorney-at-LawAunt MaryThe Guiding Light (as Charlotte Wilson), The Last of the LockwoodsRoad of Life (Nurse Helen Gowan), The Story of Mary Marlin (first as Henriette, then in the title role), A Tale of Today, and Women in White (Karen Adams).  Betty Lou also did a brief stint on a soap called Lonely Women; she reprised her character from that soap (Marilyn Larimore) when Today’s Children was revived in 1943.  Gerson also had regular roles on serials aimed at the juvenile audience: she played Sue on Flying Time, and Mercedes Colby on Don Winslow of the Navy.

A list of Betty Lou Gerson’s credits is going to eat up a lot of bandwidth. Let’s start with the dramatic anthology programs: in addition to The Whistler, she worked on The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Chicago Theatre of the AirCrime ClassicsEscapeThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreFavorite StoryThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Sound StageHollywood Star PlayhouseInner Sanctum MysteriesLights OutThe Lux Radio TheatreRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Screen Guild TheatreStars Over HollywoodSuspense, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.  On the weekly series Mr. President, Edward Arnold would take on the role of a different Commander-in-Chief…but it was Betty Lou who played the “generic” secretary to each president, Miss Sarah.

Newspaper columnist Anne Rogers was the main character on Hot Copy, an early 1940s series where Ms. Rogers solved murders every week.  Betty Lou Gerson was heard in that role, and provided voices for a host of characters on such detective programs as The Adventures of Nero WolfeThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintThe Amazing Mr. Malone (Murder and Mr. Malone), Barrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBox 13Broadway’s My BeatDangerous AssignmentEllery QueenI Deal in CrimeI Love AdventureJeff Regan, InvestigatorJohnny Modero, Pier 23Let George Do ItMike MalloyNight BeatPat Novak for HireRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky FortuneTales of FatimaTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIThe Whisperer, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Rounding out Betty Lou Gerson’s radio resume are credits for such favorites as The Adventures of Frank RaceBirds’ Eye Open HouseBold VentureBright StarDark VentureDuffy’s TavernFibber McGee & MollyThe Fitch BandwagonThe Great GildersleeveHopalong CassidyI Was a Communist for the FBIInheritanceThe Man Called XMystery is My HobbyOne Man’s FamilyThe Private Practice of Dr. DanaThe Railroad HourThe Silent MenThe Story of Dr. Kildare, and You Were There.

As you can tell from what’s been listed, Betty Lou Gerson spent a great deal of time going back-and-forth from network to network and studio to studio.  As such, she didn’t have much time for outside show business pursuits like motion pictures—though Betty Lou did appear in a few.  Her debut was in the 1949 anti-Communist film The Red Menace, and Gerson also had roles in Undercover Girl (1950), An Annapolis Story (1955), The Green-Eyed Blonde (1957), The Fly (1958), and The Miracle of the Hills (1959).  Her best remembered movie turns were for animated features: she narrates Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950) and portrayed one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains in Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).  (Betty Lou also had a bit role in Disney’s Mary Poppins [1964]; her work for The Mouse earned her a “Disney Legend” designation in 1996.)

Betty Lou Gerson was much more prominent on the small screen; among her television credits are appearances on shows like 77 Sunset StripCheckmateThe Dick Van Dyke ShowFather Knows BestHazelI Married JoanPerry MasonThe RiflemanThe Twilight Zone, and The Untouchables.  She retired in 1966 (though she continued to use her voice in working for her second husband’s telephone answering service). Betty Lou’s last credit (according to the IMDb) was voicing “Frances” in the 1997 animated feature Cats Don’t Dance before her passing in 1999 at the age of 84.

Since we weren’t exaggerating about Betty Lou Gerson’s prolific radio career, we have oodles of goodies available in the Radio Spirits store to help you celebrate her natal anniversary.  We’ll single out one of her signature series: we have plenty of The Whistler on hand in the form of such collections as Eleventh HourRoot of All Evil, and Skeletons in the Closet.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: check out our Broadway’s My Beat sets (Great White Way, The Lonesomest Mile), The Adventures of Philip Marlowe compendiums (The Adventures of Philip MarloweLonely CanyonsNight Tide), The Adventures of Nero Wolfe anthologies (The New Adventures of Nero WolfeParties for Death), and our always popular Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar compilations (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMurder Matters).  For dessert: Box 13Crime Classics: The Hyland FilesDark VentureDuffy’s Tavern: Duffy Ain’t HereGreat Radio Private EyesJeff Regan, Investigator: Stand By for MysteryNight Beat: Human InterestRichard Diamond: Mayhem is My Business, and Suspense: Wages of Sin.  Happy birthday, Betty Lou!

“Friendship, friendship…just a perfect blendship…”

The Golden Age of Radio was always welcoming to dizzy women who marched to the beat of a different drummer—Gracie Allen (with her “illogical logic”) and Jane Ace being two primary examples.  But both Gracie and Jane had stiff competition in the form of the medium’s favorite “dumb blonde,” Irma Peterson, the lovably dumb stenographer on the sitcom My Friend Irma.  According to historian John Dunning in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Irma “had neither the malapropian qualities of Ace nor the dubiously screwy logic of Allen.”  She just wasn’t too terribly bright.  For example, when her roommate Jane Stacy once suggested replacing the apartment’s wall brackets with a bridge lamp for better lighting, Irma responded: “But, Jane—what if we want to play gin rummy?”  The program that became one of radio’s bright lights of comedy premiered over CBS on this date in 1947.

The central premise of My Friend Irma—two career girls, sharing an apartment and struggling to survive in New York City—was certainly not a new one. (One strong film example is 1942’s My Sister Eileen).  But writer Cy Howard, who gave up a career in sales to become a professional writer, put a new twist on the concept by making the titular character of My Friend Irma the stereotypical dumb blonde to end all dumb blondes.  Howard had spotted actress Marie Wilson performing in the stage revue Ken Murray’s Blackouts and convinced her to take a chance and star in the radio comedy.  Casting Cathy Lewis, a radio veteran, as Irma’s levelheaded roomie Jane was also a masterstroke. Lewis purportedly got the gig due to her impatience at the audition (she was running late for another one) and Howard loved the irritation expressed in her voice.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Jane might muse at the start of a broadcast.  “I love that girl—most people do.  It’s just that Mother Nature gave some girls brains, intelligence, and cleverness…but with Irma…well, Mother Nature slipped her a mickey.”  Despite her frequent putdowns of her roommate, Jane and Irma were almost like sisters…and fiercely protective of one another. (Jane affectionately called Irma “Cookie.”)  They resided in a dilapidated rooming house (8224 West 73rd Street, NYC) run by Kathleen O’Reilly (first played by Jane Morgan, then Gloria Gordon). This feisty Irish lass was constantly engaged in a war of words with the girls’ upstairs neighbor, violinist Professor Kropotkin (Hans Conried).  Kropotkin’s entrance on the show each week was signaled by a soft knock on the girls’ apartment door and a meek “It’s only me…Professor Kropotkin.”  Kropotkin would also toss a bit of flattery toward his downstairs neighbors: “Hello, Janie and Irma—my two little jigsaw puzzles…one complete, and one a few pieces are missing.”

Both Jane and Irma worked as secretaries—Irma’s employer was attorney Milton J. Clyde (Alan Reed). The lawyer was constantly exasperated by his hare-brained assistant, but reluctant to fire her because he knew no one else would be able to decipher Irma’s screwy filing system.  Jane not only worked for wealthy Richard Rhinelander III (Leif Erickson), she had a big crush on her boss, and was unabashedly determined to become “Mrs. Richard Rhinelander III.”  (“What good will that do if he has two other wives?” Irma once mused.)  Irma’s love interest would never appear in the social register like her best friend’s boss. Al (who had no last name) was one of radio’s most memorable loafers—a man permanently on the dole and completely unembarrassed by it.  Wonderfully portrayed by John Brown, Al was short on ambition but long on inspiration—always cooking up a Ralph Kramden-like scheme that was guaranteed to put him in the chips.  Whenever he found himself in a jam (a weekly occurrence), audiences waited for Al to get on the phone with the only man who could give him the right advice: “Hello, Joe?  Al.  Got a problem…”

Other characters on My Friend Irma included Mrs. Rhinelander (Myra Marsh), who wasn’t completely sold on Jane’s intentions to march her son up the matrimonial aisle. And there was Amber Lipscott, a friend of Irma’s who had a hilarious Noo Yawk accent (voiced by the one-and-only Bea Benaderet).  Later in the show’s radio/TV run, Cathy Lewis left the show and Irma got a new roommate in Kay Foster, played by Mary Shipp.  Shipp had been a regular (as Miss Spaulding) on Cy Howard’s other successful radio creation, Life with Luigi, which also featured Alan Reed (as Pasquale) and Hans Conried (Schultz).  For a brief period in 1949, Lewis had been replaced in the role of Jane by actress Joan Banks (while Cathy recuperated from an illness).

My Friend Irma was a huge hit for the Columbia Broadcasting System, likely due to its plum time slot (it aired after The Lux Radio Theatre, one of radio’s most popular shows).  After being sustained in early broadcasts, it quickly secured a sponsor in Lever Brothers (for Swan Soap) and later in its run, the Pearson Pharmacal Company (Ennds breath mints/Eye-Gene eye drops) and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (Camel/Cavalier cigarettes) paid the bills.  The success of the show led to two theatrical films based on the program, My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950).  Both movies remain quite popular today, no doubt due to the participation of an up-and-coming comedy duo, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

My Friend Irma would also make a transition to the small screen, premiering on CBS-TV on January 8, 1952.  Its television run was a brief one—though creator Cy Howard had proposed a spin-off, My Wife Irma, to the network that would find Irma now married to a Park Avenue millionaire (I thought that was Jane’s racket?).  Steve Dunne was purportedly considered for the role of Irma’s hubby, but the series never materialized.  My Friend Irma fans had to soldier on after the radio series’ departure on August 24, 1954 with a series of comic books (that began in 1950) featuring the confused heroine, published by Atlas (later Marvel) and written by future Marvel Comics figurehead Stan Lee (and illustrated by Dan DeCarlo!) until 1955.

My Friend Irma is one of several radio classics featured in our potpourri collection Great Radio Sitcoms.  It’s guaranteed to whet your appetite for full-blown Irma in the set On Second Thought (which features a program guide booklet penned by yours truly!).  Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about the talented lady who made us laugh as the daffy Irma, we’d like to recommend my friend Charles Transberg’s book Not So Dumb: The Life and Career of Marie Wilson.  Happy anniversary, Irma and Jane!

“Champion of the people! Defender of truth! Guardian of our fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”

During the Golden Age of Radio, it was standard practice for the comedians headlining the most popular programs to work 39 weeks out of the year (which is kind of fitting when you work Jack Benny into the equation) and then take a summer break in the interim.  Mr. District Attorney, one of the medium’s most popular crime dramas, never enjoyed that luxury, according to old-time radio historian John Dunning.  “It was a year-round operation. In the summers, when such comics as Jack Benny and Bob Hope were on vacation, Mr. DA often soared to the top of the ratings; it was seldom out of the top ten, even in midseason.”

Mr. District Attorney made its debut on this date in 1939, replacing Amos ‘n’ Andy, which had defected to CBS.  That’s why the early years of the program utilized a weekday quarter-hour format (airing at 7pm).  On June 27 of that same year, Mr. DA expanded to a half-hour as a summer replacement for Bob Hope’s Pepsodent show. On October 1, it would find itself on NBC Blue’s schedule full-time.  It later switched to NBC, in April of 1940, to be sponsored for more than ten years by Bristol Myers (Vitalis). So while funsters like Edgar Bergen and Fred Allen enjoyed a little R-and-R in the summer, Mr. District Attorney still had cases on the docket.

Mr. District Attorney was created by Edward A. Byron, a one-time law student who abandoned his studies for a radio career, working out of WLW in Cincinnati.  The inspiration for the fictional prosecutor came from Thomas E. Dewey, New York City’s famed district attorney, who parlayed his crimebusting activities into governorship of the Empire State (and later two-time candidate for the presidency).  Radio producer Phillips H. Lord, the man who brought Gang Busters to radio audiences, was the co-creator of Mr. DA. He would later be “bought out” by Byron (who paid Lord a hefty sum for the show’s title), but retained both a credit on the show and royalties.

The lead character on Mr. District Attorney never had an actual name until he made a brief transition to TV (more on this in a sec).  The supporting cast usually referred to him as “Chief” or “Boss.”  The role was originated by Dwight Weist and was then briefly essayed by the man who maintained Inner Sanctum’s creaking door, Raymond Edward Johnson.  It would be Jay Jostyn who portrayed the heroic prosecutor the longest, from 1940 to the program’s final network broadcast (on ABC) on June 13, 1952.  Mr. District Attorney also had a brief run as a syndicated program (from the Frederick W. Ziv stables) from 1952-53. By that time, the character was identified as “Paul Garrett,” and was played by David Brian.  (The syndicated version demonstrated that the series was still popular, airing in over 200 markets.)

Long before television producer Dick Wolf (of the Law & Order franchise) devised the concept of using “ripped-from-the-headlines” stories as plots of his shows, the creative minds behind Mr. District Attorney used similar methods to create exciting radio adventures.  Byron was a student of crime and possessed an uncanny knack for anticipating trends and scooping the newspapers on a regular basis.  As Dunning writes in On the Air, “Con games occurred most often in the spring; juvenile delinquency in the summer; husbands and wives killed each other in the fall; burglaries were most common in winter.”  But Ed Byron was more than just a dusty encyclopedia of crime facts—a stickler for realism, he researched his material by going undercover and rubbing elbows “with thieves, lackeys, and off-duty cops” in his quest for program fodder.  Mr. District Attorney also benefitted from such writing talent as Jerry Devine (who later went on to create This is Your FBI), Finis Farr, Harry Herman, and Robert J. Shaw.

It’s important to remember that the titular Mr. District Attorney was only one man and he needed a crackerjack staff to assist him in his vendetta against the bad guys.  His secretary was Miss (Edith) Miller and was portrayed throughout the show’s entire run by Vicki Vola.  Len Harrington was Mr. DA’s investigator (a former cop), played initially by Walter Kinsella and then Len Doyle (from 1940 on).  Eleanor Silver and future What’s My Line panelist Arlene Francis were heard as Miss Rand, receptionist to Mr. DA.  Maurice Franklin was the “Voice of the Law,” responsible for the program’s memorable opening (“it shall be my duty as district attorney not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all persons accused of crimes perpetuated within this county but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens…”).

At the height of Mr. District Attorney’s popularity, the show inspired a brief movie franchise (from Republic Pictures). It began with the appropriately titled Mr. District Attorney in 1941 and was followed by The Carter Case (1941) and Secrets of the Underground (1942).  The film series used a completely different set of characters, however, and if not for the opening credits referencing the radio program in each of the entries, audiences might not have made the connection.  A second attempt at jumpstarting a Mr. DA movie series came from Columbia Pictures in 1947. The resulting Mr. District Attorney hewed a little closer to the radio show’s concept.  While Mr. District Attorney was still airing on radio, the program migrated to TV with Jostyn, Vola, and Doyle all reprising their roles.  The show aired over ABC-TV from October 1, 1951 to June 23, 1952, alternating weekly with another radio lawyer transplant, The Amazing Mr. Malone (a.k.a. Murder and Mr. Malone).  Mr. DA resurfaced in 1954, when Ziv tackled a brief syndicated series. In this effort, David Brian reclaimed his earlier radio gig as “Paul Garrett,” with Jackie Loughery as “Miss Miller.”

Three of the actors who played Mr. District Attorney—Dwight Weist, Jay Jostyn, and David Brian—are featured in the Radio Spirits collection Mr. District Attorney, which spotlights broadcasts from 1939 (including the series’ debut broadcast) to 1953.  Also included in the set is a 1939 promotional show featuring fellow district attorneys from around the country.  Happy anniversary to Mr. DA!