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Happy Birthday, Marsha Hunt!

Actress Marsha Hunt reminisced to writer-director-producer Roger C. Memos in 2014 that her mother Minabel took her to see a Joan Crawford film, No More Ladies (1935), when she was just a teenager.  Crawford’s character in the movie was named “Marcia,” and at one point during the feature Mother Hunt leaned over and whispered to her daughter: “That’s your name.”

This came as quite a surprise to the woman who was born Marcia Virginia Hunt on this date in the Windy City in 1917…and as of this writing, celebrates her 102nd birthday today.  You see, young Marsha had always gone by “Betty”—the reason being that a member of her family convinced Mother Minabel it wasn’t a good idea to name her new daughter “Marcia,” seeing as how there was already a “Marjorie” in the Hunt family (Marsha’s sister) and siblings shouldn’t have similar names.  From the moment she learned this, Hunt decided she would go with her proper name…but that it would be spelled “Marsha” after some of her schoolmates argued that “Marcia” might be mistakenly pronounced Mar-see-uh.

Marsha Hunt’s father was a lawyer by profession, and later worked as a Social Security Administrator, while Mirabel was a voice coach and organist.  That could explain Marsha’s interest in acting, which took full bloom after the family moved to NYC when she was young. She began to perform in school plays and at church functions. Hunt graduated from the Horace Mann High School for Girls at age 16, and though her parents encouraged her to go to college, Marsha had difficulty finding one “where you could major in drama before your third year.”  Instead, Hunt opted to take acting lessons at the Theodora Irvine Studio (one of her fellow students was Cornel Wilde) and found employment as a model with the John Powers Agency.

Marsha Hunt had planned to studying acting at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the UK…but an interesting development sidetracked that career path.  She was offered, at age 17, a seven-year motion picture contract with Paramount while vacationing in Los Angeles to visit an uncle.  Hunt was uncertain about a movie career, but she made her movie debut with 1935’s The Virginia Judge. From that moment on, she made motion pictures as the ingénue — anything from programmers to B-Westerns (with an occasional loan-out to 20th Century-Fox or R-K-O).  Among the interesting items on Marsha’s Paramount resume: Hollywood Boulevard (1936), an engaging little B featuring many star cameos and performances from silent movie legends; College Holiday (1936), a musical comedy with Jack Benny and his friends George Burns & Gracie Allen; and Born to the West (1937; a.k.a. Hell Town), where her leading men were Johnny Mack Brown and John Wayne (before he became John Wayne).  (If you’ve ever watched the classic screwball comedy Easy Living [1937], you may recognize Hunt as the girl who figures in the movie’s closing gag.)

Paramount dispensed with Marsha Hunt’s services in 1938, and for a few years after that she did a little freelancing. At M-G-M she appeared in such films as The Hardys Ride High (1939), These Glamour Girls (1939)…and a critically-acclaimed showcase as one of Greer Garson’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice (1940).  MGM signed her officially in 1941, and Hunt would go on to provide sibling support in another Garson film, Blossoms in the Dust (1941).  Before the studio allowed her contract to lapse in 1945, Marsha racked up film appearances in the likes of Kid Glove Killer (1942), The Affairs of Martha (1942), The Human Comedy (1943), Cry “Havoc” (1943), and The Valley of Decision (1945).  (Marsha is also quite excellent in None Shall Escape [1944]—though she made that one while on loan to Columbia.)

Marsha Hunt’s film work resulted in many appearances on radio, guesting on such anthology programs as The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Ford TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe MGM Theatre of the AirThe Silver TheatreSuspenseThe Orson Welles Theatre, and The Unexpected.  Hunt also made time for showcases on Mail Call and The Smiths of Hollywood.  Her most high-profile radio gig was replacing Frances Langford as Don Ameche’s sparring partner in the “Bickersons” sketches that were a prominent feature on The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show in the 1948-49 season.  This didn’t last long, unfortunately; Bergen voluntarily took his show off the air in December of 1948, waiting for the phenomenon known as Stop the Music to burn itself out. (Eventually it did, and Edgar and his dummies returned to radio in the fall of 1949…sans John and Blanche.)

Despite first-rate showcases in films like Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and Raw Deal (1948; one of her best remembered pictures), Marsha Hunt would soon fall victim to the insidious Hollywood blacklist in the late 1940s/early 1950s.  She was one of the many Hollywood stars who were members of the Committee for the First Amendment (truth be told, she’s the last surviving member as of this post). Her participation in a 1947 radio program entitled Hollywood Fights Back didn’t do her any favors…nor did flying to Washington, DC with celebs like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to support writers and directors [“The Hollywood Ten”] who had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Marsha Hunt was also listed in the notorious publication Red Channels — primarily because she signed more than a few petitions back in the day, but also because of her refusal to recant her participation in the Committee for the First Amendment.  Her spouse Robert Presnell, Jr. (her second husband) was also blacklisted, though neither Marsha nor Robert were ever called on to testify before HUAC.  Hunt’s work on the silver screen began to dry up, though she did appear in a few movies (like Actors and Sin and The Happy Time, both 1952). She compensated for the steep decline in film work by doing a lot of early live television (The Philco Television TheatreStudio One) and stage work, where the blacklist never quite took hold.  Marsha had made a rather impressive Broadway debut in 1948’s Joy to the World, and she followed that with productions of The Devil’s DiscipleBorned in Texas, and Legend of Sarah.

The late 1950s would find Marsha Hunt still performing on stage in plays like The Tunnel of Love. While she eventually outlasted the blacklist, she entered in a state of semi-retirement in the 1960s.  There would be appearances on TV favorites like GunsmokeThe Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone, but Hunt was also committed to spending her time helping others. She supported civil rights causes and efforts like UNICEF and The March of Dimes, with a special emphasis on getting involved with the United Nations.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she worked on TV (Murder, She WroteMatlock), and even in the 2000s graced the occasional film (like Chloe’s Prayer [2006]).  She was the subject of a highly recommended documentary released in 2015, Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity.

recent article in the Biddeford, Maine newspaper The Journal Tribune, written by Alabama-based writer Nick Thomas, notes the upcoming natal anniversary of our birthday girl. Thomas suggests that those people named “Marsha” (possibly inspired by Hunt’s show business career) get in touch with their namesake…because she would love to hear from fans.  Here at Radio Spirits, we recommend that you check out The Honeymoon is Over!, our popular Bickersons collection that features Marsha along with Don Ameche, Frances Langford, and Lew Parker.  Happy birthday, Marsha!

Happy Birthday, Benita Hume!

When Jack Benny and his writers concocted the script that would introduce actor Ronald Colman as Jack’s “next door neighbor” on The Jack Benny Program, the writers’ first inclination was to hire an experienced radio actress to portray Colman’s real-life wife, Benita Hume.  After all, such a decision would have been safer and cheaper—the creative minds on the show reasoned that although Hume had acting experience, she was relatively unknown to American radio audiences.  Benny was a stickler for realism, however, and insisted that they cast Benita in the role of…well, herself.  “It was one of his more fortuitous decisions,” recalled Milt Josefsberg in his book The Jack Benny Show, “because not only did she lend more realism and publicity value to the part, but her sense of comedy and timing was so instinctively impeccable that she immediately became as important to the programs as her far better known husband.”

Benita Hume, born on this date in 1906 in London, initially wanted a career as a pianist…but somewhere along the way she decided that an actor’s life was for her.  Hume studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, making her first appearance on stage in 1923. By 1925, she was working in silent films, such as The Happy Ending (1925) and Second to None (1927).  She portrayed one of the sisters in The Constant Nymph (1928)—a movie remade a few times, notably in 1943 starring Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine. Benita has a memorable scene in the Alfred Hitchcock-directed Easy Virtue (1928) as a telephone receptionist.  Other British features in which Hume appeared as leading lady include The Lady of the Lake (1928), The Clue of the New Pin (1929), and The House of the Arrow (1930).

When Ivor Novello’s smash stage success Symphony in Two Flats went “across the pond” for a Broadway run, Benita Hume went with the production to reprise her role as “Lesley Fullerton.”  (Hume would play Lesley in the 1930 British movie release, but the U.S. distributors insisted that she be replaced by actress Jacqueline Logan.)  By 1933, Benita had embarked on an American movie career with roles in such films as Clear All Wires! (1933), Looking Forward (1933), Only Yesterday (1933), The Gay Deception (1935), and The Garden Murder Case (1936).  Though Hume made the rounds at several studios, most of her output was based at M-G-M, appearing in such features as Tarzan Escapes (1936) and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937).  Her last film was Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus, made at R-K-O in 1938—the same year she married Ronald Colman (her second husband).

Having officially retired from the acting profession, Benita Hume was content to play the real-life role of Hollywood socialite until she and her husband became “semi-regulars” on the Benny program.  Jack and his writers may not have been aware of it, but this wasn’t Benita’s first radio rodeo: she had racked up credits on The Rudy Vallee HourThe Lux Radio Theatre (notably a June 4, 1939 broadcast in which she acted alongside husband Colman in an adaptation of “The Prisoner of Zenda”), and The Doctor Fights.  Hume’s appearances on the Benny show would present acting opportunities on such series as Favorite Story (okay, a little cheating here since Ronnie was the host), Maxwell House Coffee Time (George Burns & Gracie Allen), and Screen Director’s Playhouse (another go-around with “Zenda”).

Benita Hume’s best-remembered radio role also involved husband Ronald Colman: the two of them starred in the comedy-drama The Halls of Ivy, which premiered over NBC Radio on January 6, 1950.  As difficult as this is to believe, the roles of Professor William Todhunter Hall (Ronnie) and Victoria Hall (Benita) were not originally created with the Colmans in mind. The June 22, 1949 audition featured Gale Gordon and Edna Best (a close friend of the Colmans).  Gordon’s commitment to Our Miss Brooks necessitated that he turn down the weekly series offer, so Ronnie and Benita were off to the races in this delightful program about life at a small-town college (created by Fibber McGee & Molly’s Don Quinn).  The Halls of Ivy, which would garner a Peabody Award for Best Radio Drama Series, was one of the bright spots of radio as the aural medium gradually ceded its dominance to its upstart sibling television.  Though the radio run was brief (its last broadcast was June 25, 1952), Ivy later made the transition to TV in the fall of 1954 with Ronnie and Benita reprising their roles.

The Halls of Ivy only ran for one season on television but it was a particularly long one for Benita Hume and Ronald Colman.  Their daughter Juliet recalled in later years that the show’s production took quite a toll on her dad: “It had been a tough haul and it showed.”  Ronnie died in 1958, and the following year Benita tied the knot with actor George Sanders, her third and last husband.  Benita’s last credit (according to the IMDb) was an appearance she and Ronnie made on Jack Benny’s TV show on November 4, 1956, the actress herself passed away in 1967 at the age of 61.

Milt Josefsberg recalled a hilarious anecdote about the Colmans in his previously mentioned The Jack Benny Show book. Ronnie, puzzled by a line in his script, asked Jack what his “motivation” was in reading the line. Benny responded: “Ronnie, I think your motivation is to get the biggest [expletive] laugh you can.” After the laughter from the cast and crew subsided, Colman decided to give it another try.  Whereupon Benita, “in her so well-groomed and clipped, cultured tones,” answered her husband: “Ronnie dear, you heard him.  Your motivation is to get the biggest [expletive] laugh you can.”

Check out Radio Spirits’ Halls of Ivy collection School Days and see for yourself that today’s birthday girl and her husband clearly took Jack’s advice.  You’ll also hear Benita and Ronnie briefly on our Jack Benny collection Planes, Trains and Automobiles!  Happy birthday, Benita!

“There are many tales told on radio, but only one Chandu…”

The origin story of Chandu the Magician is as follows: Frank Chandler, a student of the occult, has spent much of his time residing in the Orient.  Chandler’s environs have produced the benefit of learning the magic secrets of the Far East from mystic Yogis—including teleportation and astral projection.  Which begs the question: do you suppose Frank ever encountered Lamont Cranston at that time?  Was there competition between the two students to see who could cloud a man’s mind the fastest?  Chandu the Magician, described by old-time radio author/historian John Dunning as “among the first and last shows of its kind,” had its nationwide premiere over Mutual on this date in 1932.

Chandu the Magician was developed by partners Raymond R. Morgan and Harry A. Earnshaw. Observing that there was a significant interest in magic amongst the public, Earnshaw proposed that they create a hero who would battle the forces of evil with the use of otherworldly powers.  Frank Chandler was that hero—of course, the student of the occult had enough showmanship to bill himself as “Chandu.” In the first 68 chapters of the serialized story, he squared off against the villainous Roxor…who had captured the husband of Chandu’s sister, Dorothy Regent.  (Dottie’s hubby, Robert, was thought to have perished in a shipwreck.)  Chandu traveled with Dorothy and her children, twins Bob and Betty, to many exotic locales in search of Roxor and the imprisoned Robert.

The unique feature of Chandu the Magician was that the series was scripted by a woman (at a time when radio writing was a male-dominated industry).  Vera Oldham was an office girl who decided to try her hand at writing and the result was such that she was integral to the success of the Chandu serial.  (After the series ended, she kept busy with other assignments on shows like Maxwell House Show Boat and Those Websters.)  Chandu the Magician was originally heard over Los Angeles’ KHJ in 1931 and, by February of 1932, it was being broadcast over New York’s WOR.  (For a time, East Coast listeners heard Beech Nut Gum commercials during the broadcasts while audiences on the West Coast were plied with plugs for White King Soap.)

Silent film star Gayne Whitman portrayed Chandu in the show’s original 1932-35 run, with Margaret MacDonald as Dorothy and Bob Bixby & Betty Webb as the Regent twins.  The series was directed by Cyril Armbrister and music was supplied by Felix Mills and (later) Raymond Paige.  In 1935, Chandu the Magician relocated to the Windy City for a new series produced at WGN. This time around, the cast included Howard Hoffman (Chandu), Cornelia Osgood (Dorothy), Olan Soule (Bob), and Audrey McGrath (Betty).  The WGN version of Chandu the Magician called it a day in 1936.

The success of Chandu wasn’t just limited to radio.  Fox Film Corporation, convinced that there was a ready-made audience for a movie adaptation, released a big screen version of Chandu the Magician in 1932.  Edmund Lowe was cast as the heroic Frank Chandler, and in the role of Roxor was Bela Lugosi himself.  The film was co-directed by the legendary William Cameron Menzies. He was the art director on the silent classic The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and its recent resurfacing on Blu-Ray reinforces that the movie is what critic Raymond Durgnat once termed “the wedding of poetry and pulp.”  A film serial, The Return of Chandu, would be released in 1934. This time around, Lugosi was given the opportunity to portray the mystical Chandu (one of his rare heroic roles).

In 1948, Chandu the Magician’s creators decided on a “reboot” of the original radio series. They went the extra mile to “get the band back together,” luring director Armbrister out to  the West Coast. (He had made a career for himself in NYC, overseeing such shows as Land of the Lost and Terry and the Pirates.) They hired writer Oldham to “touch up” the original scripts, and resurrected the gong that had introduced each 1930s broadcast. To top it all off, White King Granulated Soap signed up once again to pay the program’s bills.  The new Chandu the Magician premiered over Mutual-Don Lee on June 28, 1948 as a weekday quarter-hour before expanding to a half-hour version in February of 1949.  That fall saw Chandu the Magician on a new network (ABC) in the same half-hour format, first on Saturdays and then Thursdays.  Tom Collins was Chandu, with Irene Tedrow as Dorothy, Lee Millar as Bob, Joy Terry as Betty, Veola Vonn as Princess Nadji (Chandu’s love interest), and Luis van Rooten rounding out the cast as Roxor.  The show bid listeners a fond fare-thee-well on September 6, 1950.

“Can you be sure it isn’t true?” announcer Howard Culver would ask at the beginning of each broadcast of the revival.  Honestly, Mr. C…I cannot.  Perhaps those of you among the Radio Spirits faithful can venture an opinion after a purchase of Chandu the Magician, a 6-CD set of vintage Mutual broadcasts that includes the first half-hour episode of the series, “The Origin of Chandu.”  We’ve also got on hand the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu on DVD, with Bela Lugosi as the crimefighting hero.  “Remember the name Chandu, the Magician, which swept the country not so many years ago—the name that spells intrigue, romance, the mystic East, the spell of Egypt!”

Happy Birthday, Kenny Baker!

From 1935 to 1939, Kenneth Laurence Baker—born in Monrovia, California on this date in 1912—was welcomed into millions of homes as the popular tenor vocalist on radio’s The Jack Benny Program.  Kenny was more than just a singer, however; he was pressed into showing off his comedic chops as a member of Benny’s “gang,” playing a slightly zany and naïve young man who drove his boss to distraction.  Baker wasn’t the first to perform this function (Frank Parker held the job previously) and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. Upon Kenny’s departure in 1939, Dennis Day would replace him as both vocalist and male “Gracie Allen.”  But while Dennis became the yardstick by which that character would be measured, Kenny had quickly grown tired of his gig as stooge. In later years, he remarked on his Benny show exit: “It wasn’t easy walking away from $150,000 a year…but I realized if I didn’t kill the jerk character it would kill me.”

Educated in several California schools, Kenny Baker’s experience as a boy soprano in a church choir lit the fire of inspiration underneath him to pursue a musical career.  Before that dream could be fulfilled, however, he was often called upon to work in his father’s furniture store.  Baker also toiled as a day laborer to earn money for his musical education at Long Beach City College.  While at college, Kenny won a radio contest, and his reward was a singing engagement at Los Angeles’ famed Cocoanut Grove.  Baker made his radio debut practically as an unknown—Jack Benny was auditioning for a replacement for Frank Parker and Kenny’s successful tryout found him debuting on the show on November 3, 1935.

Kenny Baker’s weekly exposure on The Jack Benny Program was a boost to his movie career as well.  He was frequently called upon to provide a singing voice for characters in animated cartoons and, after small roles in films like George White’s 1935 Scandals and Metropolitan (both 1935), he gravitated to credited parts in King of Burlesque (1936), Turn Off the Moon (1937), Mr. Dodd Takes the Air (1937), and Radio City Revels (1938).  Baker was under contract to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, which explains why he was cast in the all-star The Goldwyn Follies in 1938.  While still employed with Benny, Kenny appeared in what perhaps is his best-known motion picture, a silver screen adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado (1939).  Baker’s rendition of “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” was so well-received that it became his signature song.

Kenny Baker may have said goodbye to Jack and the gang at the end of the 1938-39 season (he later made two guest appearances on the program), but it wasn’t as if he was desperate for work.  Baker became the resident vocalist on The Texaco Star Theatre in the fall of 1938 (he worked this gig on Wednesday nights, so it didn’t interfere with his Benny appearances). He continued in this capacity until the fall of 1940, when the program became the showcase for Fred Allen’s comedy.  Kenny stayed with Fred for two additional years; Allen’s show was shortened to a half-hour in the fall of 1942 and the decision was made to dispense with Kenny’s services.

Kenny Baker’s movie career continued to chug along.  He had the thankless role of straight man to the Marx Brothers in At the Circus (1939), and his additional motion picture appearances include Hit Parade of 1941 (1940), Silver Skates (1943), Stage Door Canteen (1943), and Doughboys in Ireland (1943).  Baker took a hiatus from films in 1943 to co-star opposite Mary Martin in the Broadway smash One Touch of Venus (directed by Elia Kazan!) and when he finished that nearly two-year run it was back before the camera for The Harvey Girls (1946) and Calendar Girl (1947), his final film.

Kenny Baker may not have maintained the radio fame that he garnered working with Jack Benny or Fred Allen, but he appeared on several shows throughout the 1940s, including the self-titled The Kenny Baker Show and Sincerely, Kenny Baker.  He had a brief stint as the vocalist on Blue Ribbon Town after Groucho Marx left in mid-June of 1944. (The show’s creative minds were convinced he would be more entertaining than Groucho.) Baker worked a little longer on the daytime variety series Glamour Manor (from 1946 to 1947).  His other radio credits include Command PerformanceFamily TheatreMail CallThe Pause That RefreshesThe Radio Hall of Fame, and The Railroad Hour.

Kenny Baker’s show business career started to winnow itself by the 1950s.  He has a credit on the IMDb for an appearance on TV’s Musical Comedy Time in 1951, but he was ready to retire and did so. He devoted his time to wife Geraldyne (his high school sweetheart, whom he married in 1933) and their three children.  He also became a practicing Christian Scientist and motivational speaker, and recorded several gospel hymn albums to benefit his church.  Kenny Baker would leave this world for a better one in 1985 at the age of 72.

In honor of Kenny Baker’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to check out the role that made him famous in the Jack Benny collection The Great Outdoors and our fantabulous compendium Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud.  But that’s just the singing-and-joshing Kenny: you’ll find a more dramatic Baker in our Family Theatre set Every Home (“Wanted: One Baby”) and an additional Family Theatre broadcast (“Blessed are They”) in our Yuletide collection Great Radio Christmas.  Happy Birthday, Kenny!

Happy Birthday, Mickey Rooney!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Penny Singleton!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Alan Ladd!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Van Johnson!

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