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Happy Birthday, Lillian Randolph!

When actress-singer Lillian Randolph—born on this date in 1898—got word of auditions for The Great Gildersleeve, she was working on a film soundtrack with a vocal group at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Lillian stole away from the session on her lunch break and sped off to the NBC studios. Upon entering the building she tripped and literally slid up to the microphone.  Randolph laughed it off and carried on reading the script as if she had rehearsed the incident beforehand.  It’s been said that both her naturalness and trademark infectious laugh at this audition ultimately won her the role of Birdie Lee Coggins, housekeeper to Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (and his niece and nephew) on the long-running radio program.

Born Castello Randolph in Knoxville, TN to a Methodist minister and teacher, Lillian got her start in show business at the age of four—singing in front of a Methodist Church congregation in Sewickley, PA.  She’d later start a musical act with her older sister Amanda — and it was when she replaced Amanda in a musical revue entitled Lucky Sambo that Randolph had her stage debut.  Lillian’s radio experience blossomed at Cleveland’s WTAM and later at the legendary Detroit station WXYZ.  It was at WXYZ, in fact, that Randolph was schooled in “southern dialect” (despite being a Southerner) by James Jewell—the director of that station’s The Lone Ranger.  While at WXYZ, Lillian co-starred on a comedy program entitled Lulu and Leander where she and fellow performer Billy Mitchell portrayed a variety of roles.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1936, Lillian Randolph would soon get regular gigs on Al Jolson’s radio show, while later appearing on Big Town and the Al Pearce and Joe Penner shows.  When not busy with radio, Randolph performed in nightclubs (notably the Club Alabam) as a blues singer.  Lillian also began making visits to Amos ‘n’ Andy, a program on which she played a variety of roles during its lengthy radio run. Most famously, however, she was heard as Madame Queen, Andy’s one-time fiancée.  (She would later reprise Queen on the TV version of the sitcom, with sister Amanda revisiting her weekly A&A gig as Ramona Smith—the Kingfish’s mother-in-law.)  In addition to her radio work, Randolph would make time for motion pictures with a screen debut in 1938’s Life Goes On.  Lillian had a small part in The Duke is Tops (1938), the film that introduced Lena Horne to motion picture audiences. (When the skimpy budget on Duke wouldn’t allow Lena money for a hotel room, Lillian invited her to stay in her own home.)

Lillian Randolph’s credited screen roles at this time include such films as Little Men (1940), West Point Widow (1941), Gentleman from Dixie (1941), All-American Co-Ed (1941), Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942), and Hi, Neighbor (1942).  A movie gig that did not credit Randolph at the time, but continues to delight scores of modern-day audiences, is her voicing of “Mammy Two-Shoes” in many of the Tom & Jerry cartoons at MGM.  (Those cartoons were criticized at the time for their stereotyping, and Lillian disappeared and reappeared from the franchise until 1952.)  Randolph continued to rack up celluloid credits in the likes of Three Little Sisters (1944), A Song for Miss Julie (1945), Child of Divorce (1946), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and Once More, My Darling (1949).  If you make watching It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) a yearly holiday tradition in your family you’ve definitely spotted Lillian as “Annie,” housekeeper to the Bailey family.

One movie franchise that made certain the name “Lillian Randolph” was in the opening credits was the short-lived The Great Gildersleeve film series based on the popular radio sitcom.  Lillian was the only radio regular besides Harold Peary to appear in all four Gildersleeve movies: The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943), Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943), and Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944).  In fact, Randolph was the only member of the Gildersleeve cast to appear on the radio, film, and TV series (a syndicated show that aired in the 1955-56 season).  Old-time radio historian John Dunning once described Lillian’s “Birdie” as “perhaps the most endearing in radio’s long parade of Negro maids, cooks, and housekeepers.  She had genuine warmth, an infectious laugh, and a heart as big as the great man’s midsection.  She also had a feisty side, being fully capable of deflating Gildersleeve’s ego.”  When the situation presented itself, Randolph’s presence on The Great Gildersleeve also allowed to showcase what a fine singer she was.

Gildersleeve was not the only radio program that put groceries on Lillian Randolph’s table.  She appeared with Edna May Oliver on The Remarkable Miss Tuttle, a summer sitcom replacement for Jack Benny’s show in 1942. She also had regular gigs on The Baby Snooks Show (as Mrs. Watson) and The Billie Burke Show (as Daisy).  Other programs on which Lillian appeared include The Cavalcade of AmericaCommand PerformanceDr. ChristianEverything for the BoysThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Hour of St. FrancisJubileeThe Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, and The Lux Radio Theatre.  In November of 1951, Randolph took over the title role of radio’s Beulah from Hattie McDaniel when McDaniel became too ill to perform. (McDaniel passed away in October of 1952).  Beulah’s creative team had wanted Lillian’s sister Amanda to play the part, but a clause in Amanda’s Amos ‘n’ Andy contract kept her from taking on that assignment until the fall of 1952. (Amanda’s A&A contract was re-negotiated.)

The 1950s would see Lillian Randolph working on both the radio and TV versions of The Great Gildersleeve and Amos ‘n’ Andy while appearing in such films as That’s My Boy (1951), Dear Brat (1951), and Bend of the River (1952).  Lillian continued to work on the small screen with guest appearances on Ben Casey and The Bill Cosby Show (as Cos’ character’s mother) and films like Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and The Great White Hope (1970).  Randolph closed out the 70s with work on Sanford and SonThe Jeffersons, and Roots (as Sister Sara) with her silver screen swan song a nice turn in The Onion Field (1979).  She passed away in 1980 at the age of 81…and fittingly, is buried next to her sister Amanda (in Forest Lawn).

Radio Spirits features plenty of The Great Gildersleeve collections showcasing Lillian Randolph in her signature radio role of Birdie. Our newest offering is Gildy for Mayor! (with liner notes by yours truly), but you can also put past releases like Family ManFor Corn’s Sake, and Neighbors in your online cart.  Our potpourri compendiums of Great Radio ChristmasGreat Radio Comedy, and Great Radio Sitcoms also feature vintage Gildersleeve broadcasts with Ms. Randolph.  Last—but certainly not least—you’ll hear Lillian in the Amos ‘n’ Andy sets Radio’s All-Time Favorites and Volume Two.  Happy birthday, Lillian!

“Well…that’s My Little Margie…”

The studio of legendary movie producer Hal Roach was known in the industry as the “Lot of Fun.” He quickly learned that his many years of producing quality two-reel comedy shorts in the silent and sound eras put him in good stead when the time came to creating content for television.  Roach launched his first successful boob tube effort in the fall of 1950 with The Stu Erwin Show (also known as The Trouble with Father). He followed up that hit with a situation comedy based on his daughter Shari.  He got the idea after an ugly quarrel with her, which resulted in the teen stomping-off to her room. Hal said to his wife: “My Lord, she’s hard to handle now.  What’ll happen when she’s over 21 and we have no legal control over her?”

Roach turned this concept over to writer Frank Fox, who was inspired to name the title character of the show after his secretary. The program eventually came to air as My Little Margie.  The creation of the other characters on the show, however, sprung solely from Fox’s imagination.  My Little Margie made its radio debut over CBS on this date in 1952—yes, you read that right…radio!

An explanation is no doubt in order.  As radio gradually ceded its home entertainment dominance to television in the 1950s, many of radio’s popular programs transitioned from the aural medium to the small screen.  Stars like Jack Benny, George Burns, and Gracie Allen would launch successful TV series, as did longtime radio programs like The Lone Ranger and Suspense.  But on occasion, the opposite would happen.  An example of this is Space Patrol, a science fiction adventure which premiered on ABC-TV in March of 1950.  Patrol would attract such a sizeable audience that a radio version was added in October of 1952. It ran for three seasons.  Other TV-to-radio offerings included Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; Howdy DoodyWhat’s My Line; and Have Gun – Will Travel.

So before My Little Margie began entertaining radio audiences, homes with a TV set had been getting acquainted with the series since it premiered over CBS-TV on June 16, 1952. It was the summer replacement for I Love Lucy. Although Margie’s ratings couldn’t quite match the juggernaut that was Lucy, sponsor Philip Morris was impressed enough to continue with the series, which moved to NBC (after its initial 13-week run on CBS) in October.  Assisting in the decision to keep Margie on the air was an exceptionally strong viewer response, in the form of a mail deluge, despite critics’ intense dislike of the show.  (John Crosby dismissed Margie as “[A}n amazingly complete illustration of how not to make a TV show…”)

The concept of My Little Margie centered on the misadventures of Margie Albright (Gale Storm), a 21-year-old woman who lived in New York City with her father Vern (Charles Farrell) in the fashionable Carlton Arms Hotel.  Margie had a knack for getting into farcical situations, many of them prompted by her father’s line of business. He was a vice-president at the investment firm of Honeywell and Todd, where his boss was the autocratic George Honeywell (Clarence Kolb).  Margie, in attempting to either help her dad land clients or convince Old Man Honeywell to give him a raise and/or promotion, would manage to transform innocent events into full-blown catastrophes by the end of each half-hour episode.  She received assistance from two confederates: her boyfriend Freddie Wilson (Don Hayden), who had difficulty holding onto a job, and elderly neighbor Clarissa Odetts (Gertrude Hoffman), who took particular delight in Margie’s screwball escapades.  Rounding out the regulars were Vern’s sophisticated girlfriend Roberta Townsend (Hillary Brooke) and Charlie (Willie Best), the elevator operator in the Albrights’ building.

Six months after My Little Margie made its TV debut, the show premiered on CBS Radio on December 7, 1952. The move of the TV version to NBC in October had little impact on its radio fortunes. (It was sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes throughout its entire run.) Gale Storm recalled in later years that the CBS network just wanted them to do a radio version, no questions asked. (On TV, the sponsorship of Margie would become the responsibility of the Scott Paper Company beginning in the fall of 1953.)  Gale Storm and Charles Ferrell reprised their TV roles, but there was a new supporting cast. Radio audiences would hear Gil Stratton, Jr. (Freddie), Verna Felton (Mrs. Odetts), Will Wright (Mr. Honeywell), Doris Singleton (Roberta), and Shirley Mitchell.  Johnny Jacobs and Roy Rowan handled the announcing chores.  Although less than two dozen radio broadcasts have survived, the radio Margie relied on original scripts while airing concurrently with its TV counterpart.  The radio Margie remained popular even in its final season, but it eventually bowed out on June 26, 1955. (Its TV sibling said goodbye on August 24th of that same year.)

At the same time that actress Gale Storm was convulsing both TV and radio audiences as the irrepressible Margie Albright, she was quite the fixture on the pop music charts with a steady string of Top Ten hits.  Two of these singles, Ivory Tower (#6 in 1956) and Why Do Fools Fall in Love (#9 in 1956), are available on Heartbreak Hotel: Top 100—a 4-CD music collection available from Radio Spirits.  We’ve also got a rare My Little Margie broadcast on our newest comedy compendium, Great Radio Sitcoms, which also features a virtual cornucopia of classic radio mirth makers.  Happy anniversary, Margie…and Albright—you’re fired!

Happy Birthday, Luis Van Rooten!

Actor Luis Van Rooten received a unique compliment on his thespic talents after his performance as a psychiatrist on ABC’s Exploring the Unknown in 1946.  On the broadcast, Van Rooten’s character was treating an amnesia victim using hypnosis…and shortly after the program concluded, a woman telephoned him with a request. Her husband had been listening so intently to Luis’ performance that he had fallen into a trance—and she needed Luis’ help in snapping him out of it!  Can you prove it didn’t happen?  Well, it could be an apocryphal story (from Tune In magazine), but as the movie quote goes: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  It certainly doesn’t take anything away from the admirable acting skills of today’s birthday celebrant, who was born Luis d’Antin Van Rooten on this date in 1905.

Luis Van Rooten (his first name was occasionally spelled “Louis”) was born in Mexico City. He came to the United States with his family when he was eight years old, and they settled in Pennsylvania.  Luis would get his BA in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1927.  Van Rooten did quite well for himself as an architect (he was based in Cleveland, and is credited with designing three post offices)…but he harbored ambitions of being an actor. This interest was kindled in his early school days, when he appeared in a student production of Gringoire.  Luis was required to speak French in that play, which was no effort for him — his fluency in that language, as well as Spanish and Italian, put him on solid footing where dialects were concerned. After appearances in various amateur productions around Cleveland, Van Rooten became a radio actor in the mid-1930s.

Luis Van Rooten soon became one of radio’s most prolific character actors and expert dialecticians.  It’s estimated that he worked on close to 50 shows a month, and he himself recalled in later years that often he wasn’t aware what role he was going to play until he arrived at the studio.  Luis always made for a first-rate villain, though, and observed jokingly: “I was ‘bumped off’ in ten different crime shows in a single week.”  Van Rooten could be heard portraying Nero Wolfe for a time in 1944 (he inherited the part from Santos Ortega, another actor who worked extensively on radio crime shows) and he also played sidekick “Denny” on Bulldog Drummond.  Luis appeared multiple times on I Love a Mystery (and I Love Adventure), and when the 1930s radio favorite Chandu the Magician was revived in 1948, the actor punched his villainy time clock and played Chandu’s nemesis Roxor.  Other crime/mystery-themed shows on which Luis worked include The Adventures of the AbbottsThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Affairs of Peter SalemBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBox 13The ChaseCloak and DaggerCounterspyEllery QueenThe FBI in Peace and WarGangbustersLet George Do ItMartin Kane, Private EyeThe Molle Mystery TheatreThe Mysterious TravelerMystery in the AirMystery Theatre (Mark Saber), Nick Carter, Master DetectiveOfficial DetectiveSecret MissionsThe ShadowTime for LoveTop Secret21st PrecinctUnder Arrest, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

The above list just barely scratches the surface of Luis Van Rooten’s radio resume.  Like any hard-working actor in front of a microphone, Luis was kept busy in the area of daytime dramas. He played “Emilio” on Valiant Lady, “George Priestly” on County Seat, and “John Perry” on John’s Other Wife—as well as roles on Backstage WifeOne Man’s Family, and Stella Dallas.  On an August 22, 1949 edition of Radio City Playhouse, “Joey Was Different,” Van Rooten engaged in an actor’s tour de force by playing sixteen different characters (in addition to penning the script)!  Luis’ other radio credits include showcases on Arch Oboler’s PlaysBest PlaysThe Big StoryThe CBS Radio WorkshopThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopThe Couple Next DoorThe Damon Runyon TheatreDimension XDr. SixgunEscapeThe Eternal LightEverything for the BoysFavorite StoryThe First Nighter ProgramGreat PlaysThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Haunting HourHollywood’s Open HouseInheritanceInner Sanctum MysteriesLuke Slaughter of TombstoneThe Lux Radio TheatreMy Son JeepThe NBC Star TheatreThe NBC University TheatreThe Railroad HourStroke of FateSuspenseTom Corbett, Space CadetX-Minus OneWords at War, and You are There.  Even when radio had seen its glory days come and go, Luis was an enthusiastic participant in the medium on shows like Theatre Five.

By the 1940s, Luis Van Rooten was ready to explore other acting venues in addition to his work in radio.  He made his Broadway debut in 1946’s The Dancer, and would later grace the casts of such stage productions as The Number (1951), A Touch of the Poet (1958), and Luther (1963).  Van Rooten made an auspicious motion picture debut in The Hitler Gang (1944), where he played ”Heinrich Himmler.” His later movie credits include such classic film favorites as Two Years Before the Mast (1946), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), The Big Clock (1948), Saigon (1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949), Champion (1949), Detective Story (1951), My Favorite Spy (1951), The Sea Chase (1955), and Fräulein (1958).  One of Luis’ best remembered movie turns allowed him to do what he did best: use his marvelous voice. He portrayed both the King and the Grand Duke in Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950).

Luis Van Rooten also relied on his voice for a small screen showcase as President Dwight D. Eisenhower in “Thunder in Washington,” a November 27, 1955 telecast of The Alcoa Hour.  All you saw of Luis was the back of his head—and yet he received a great deal of critical notice.  Shows that featured the front of Van Rooten included popular series as The Honeymooners (he played Ralph Kramden’s landlord!), Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales of Wells Fargo, and 77 Sunset Strip.  At the risk of tooting Luis’ horn—he was quite the “Renaissance man.”  In addition to his acting, he dabbled in art and literature, authoring such books as Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Râmes, and Van Rooten’s Book of Improbable Saints.  Van Rooten’s love of horticulture was expressed in another book he wrote with the Sherlock Holmesian title The Floriculturist’s Vade Mecum of Exotic and Recondite Plants, Shrubs and Grasses, and One Malignant Parasite.  Luis later retired and designed his own retirement home in Chatham, Massachusetts before passing away in 1973 at the age of 66.

Radio Spirits features in its voluminous inventory—voluminous, that is—a collection of Chandu the Magician broadcasts that showcases Luis Van Rooten in one of his signature roles as the villainous Roxor.  You can also hear him as “Inspector Black” on Box 13.  But wait—there’s more!  There’s plenty of Luis on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Night Tide, Sucker’s Road), Escape (Essentials, Peril), and X-Minus One (Countdown, Time and Time Again), as well as our sci-fi compendiums Great Radio Science Fiction and Science Fiction Radio: Atomic Age Adventures.  Rounding our Van Rooten content are sets of Dimension X (Adventures in Time & Space), Inner Sanctum (Shadows of Death), Suspense (Final Curtain), Theatre Five, and Words at War: World War II Radio Drama.  Happy birthday, Luis!

Happy Birthday, Judy Canova!

There’s a reason why Judy Canova was frequently referred to as “The Ozark Nightingale” and “The Jenny Lind of the Ozarks.”  Judy was blessed with an incredible singing voice, and at one point in her professional career she had serious aspirations to become an opera singer.  Fate had other plans for Ms. Canova, however. The woman born Juliette (also Julietta) Canova on this date in Starke, Florida in 1913 (though her obituary in The New York Times noted 1916) became typecast early in vaudeville as a “hillbilly” performer. She would dutifully make that her bread-and-butter persona in movies and on radio throughout her lengthy tenure in show business.

Born to Joseph Francis and Henrietta E. Canova, Judy was one of seven Canova kids—and with two siblings, Annie and Zeke, she would form a musical aggregation known as the Three Georgia Crackers.  They started out playing in various Florida nightclubs before hitting the big time at Manhattan’s The Village Barn.  The Three Canovas (with brother Peter) would make their Broadway debut in Calling All Stars in 1934 and later grace the cast of Yokel Boy (1939)…while on her own, Judy was featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.  The trio (and Peter) also established a beachhead in motion pictures like In Caliente and Broadway Gondolier (both 1935).

Judy Canova was still a teenager when Rudy Vallee invited her and her siblings to appear on his popular radio program The Fleischmann Hour in 1933.  The Canovas would guest frequently on that and subsequent Vallee series, and later became regulars on Paul Whiteman’s Musical Varieties in 1936 (a show that was handed off to Shep Fields and became The Rippling Rhythm Revue in early 1937).  Judy, Annie, and Zeke also made appearances on The Chase & Sanborn Hour in the fall of 1938, joining the all-star cast of Nelson Eddy, Dorothy Lamour, Don Ameche, and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy).

Judy Canova would make two more motion pictures with her siblings Annie and Zeke (1937’s Artists and Models and Thrill of a Lifetime) before deciding to become a solo act. (She had given that a try with a film she made at Warner Bros., Going Highbrow [1935].)  Judy would make the majority of her solo starring films at Republic Pictures—beginning with 1940’s Scatterbrain—where the specialty was serials and B-Westerns.  Canova would be one of Republic’s biggest box office assets, and her economically produced musical comedies would prove quite popular with movie audiences until her last film at the studio, Lay That Rifle Down (1955).

On radio, Judy Canova made guest appearances on the likes of Command Performance and The Kraft Music Hall while yukking it up with Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, and George Burns & Gracie Allen.  July 6, 1943 would mark the debut of her own self-titled sitcom over CBS, The Judy Canova Show (though it originally went by Rancho Canova).  A fresh-faced innocent from the mythical hamlet of “Cactus Junction,” Judy had moved to Southern California where she lived with her Aunt Aggie (played at times by Verna Felton and Ruth Parrott) and maid Geranium (Ruby Dandridge).  Canova would sing both novelty and serious numbers on the show, whose content (to borrow a quote from Fred Allen) “frequently mulched the maize to monumental heights.”  Here’s an example:

STRAIGHT MAN: One of my ancestors was a Knight of the Royal Order of the Bath—or don’t you know the Royal Order of the Bath?
JUDY: Why, shore—on Saturday night, it was Paw first and then all the kids in order of their ages!

The Judy Canova Show distinguished itself by showcasing an impressive cast of old-time radio veterans: Hans Conried (as the constantly complaining boarder Mr. Hemingway), Sheldon Leonard (as Judy’s cabbie boyfriend Joe Crunchmiller), Gerald Mohr (as the buff Humphrey Cooper, Judy’s one-time fiancé), and Joseph Kearns (as the eccentric Bentley Botsford).  Gale Gordon, Elvia Allman, George Neise, and Sharon Douglas also appeared on occasion, and Jim Backus transplanted his “Hubert Updike III” character from The Alan Young Show when that program closed up shop.  The best-known cast member of the Canova show was unquestionably Mel Blanc (as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already), who tackled quite a few characters—Pedro, Judy’s gardener, was the most frequent to appear.  (“Pardon me for talking in your face, Senorita…thirty days hacienda, April, June, and sombrero.”)  Judy’s program was heard over CBS until June 27, 1944; it then moved to NBC in January of 1945 and ran until May 28, 1953.

In addition to her successful radio show, Judy Canova made the guest star rounds on programs like The Abbott & Costello ShowThe Harold Lloyd Comedy TheatreThe Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre (a radio version of her 1942 film Joan of Ozark), Mail CallThe Radio Hall of FameRequest PerformanceThe Sealtest Variety Theatre, and The Victor Borge Show.  With the decline of the aural medium, Judy began following her radio brethren and sistren to the small screen. She would be a guest on venues like The Milton Berle Show and The Colgate Comedy Hour, and later stretch her acting range on series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Police Woman.  Canova’s last TV appearance before her death in 1983 was on an episode of The Love Boat.

I’ve only scratched the surface on Judy Canova’s phenomenal show business career here—if you’re curious to check out more, may we recommend a purchase of Singin’ in the Corn, a one-of-a-kind biography on our birthday girl written by Ben Ohmart. It’s packed with family interviews and rare, unpublished photographs.  Tarnation!

Happy Birthday, Eleanor Audley!

The epitaph on the headstone adorning the final resting place of actress Eleanor Audley reads: “A Kind Friend to All.”  And while it’s undeniably true that Audley—born Eleanor Zellman on this date in NYC in 1905—was held in the highest regard by her thespic peers, it’s a marked contrast from the roles for which fans remember her today.  Eleanor not only provided the voices for two of the most menacing villainesses in Walt Disney animation history, she could be heard as spirit medium “Madame Leota Toombs” (a disembodied head inside a crystal ball) at the “Haunted Mansion” attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

A small role in the Broadway hit Howdy, King (1926) launched the acting career of a 20-year-old Eleanor.  She followed up this debut with performances in such productions as On Call (1928), Pigeons and People (1933), Thunder on the Left (1933), Kill That Story (1934), Ladies’ Money (1934), and Susan and God (1937).  Like many of her fellow actors, Audley found work enough to sustain her in radio—lending her talents to daytime dramas like By Kathleen Norris.  A blurb in an Evans Plummer column from a 1935 issue of Radio Life gives Eleanor an “atta girl”: “Plums to Eleanor Audley, of the Windy City cast of Three Men on a Horse, who without rehearsal and but thirty minutes’ notice came to the rescue of the Monday night Princess Pat drama when actress Dorothy Mallinson was seized with an acute attack of asthma caused from eating strawberry shortcake.”

By the 1940s, Eleanor Audley continued to demonstrate what a trouper she could be in the aural medium with appearances on such shows as Adventure AheadThe Big StoryThe Bishop and the GargoyleEllery QueenEncore TheatreEscapeThe Eternal LightThe Haunting HourLawyer QThe Lux Radio TheatreMy Home TownThe NBC University TheatrePursuitThe Railroad HourRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRomanceThe Sealtest Variety TheatreSuspenseThis is Your FBIThe Weird CircleThe Whistler, and Words at War.  Audley had a recurring role on the Lucille Ball-Richard Denning sitcom My Favorite Husband as Leticia Cooper (Lucy’s character’s mother-in-law) and on The Story of Dr. Kildare she played Molly Byrd, the receptionist at Blair General Hospital.  Her busiest radio role was probably on Father Knows Best; Eleanor was Elizabeth Smith, the next-door neighbor of the Family Anderson (Herb Vigran was her husband Hector and Sam Edwards their son Billy).

Eleanor Audley’s motion picture debut was an uncredited role in 1949’s The Story of Molly X—a “women’s prison” picture that features many old-time radio veterans: Cathy Lewis, Sara Berner, Sandra Gould, Elliott Lewis, Wally Maher, and Hal March, just to name a few.  Eleanor’s second film, however, would prove to be one of her most memorable: she provided the voice of Lady Tremaine, the “wicked stepmother” in the Disney animation classic Cinderella (1950).  Not only did Audley provide the tones of the woman who made the titular heroine’s life quite unpleasant, but animators modeled the character on the actress’ physical appearance.  Eleanor would reprise the wicked stepmother role on a February 15, 1951 broadcast of radio’s Hallmark Playhouse, “The Story of Cinderella,” and tackled a similar showcase in a memorable outing of The Six Shooter (“When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit,” 06/17/54) that found protagonist Britt Ponset in a Cinderella-inspired tale.

Eleanor Audley’s cinematic oeuvre also includes credited and uncredited parts in classics like No Way Out (1950), Three Secrets (1950), Pretty Baby (1950), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Prince of Players (1955), Untamed (1955), Cell 2455, Death Row (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1955), The Unguarded Moment (1956), Full of Life (1956), Home Before Dark (1958), and The Second Time Around (1961).  Eleanor returned to her radio roots for her most famous movie showcase, however: voicing the evil fairy known as Maleficent in another animated feature from Walt Disney, 1959’s Sleeping Beauty.  At the time production was underway, Audley initially turned down the assignment because she was battling tuberculosis…but she eventually rose to the occasion, and as she had done on Cinderella allowed Beauty’s animators to borrow some of her own physical features for the animated baddie.  (That unforgettable diabolical cackle of Maleficent’s, though—that was all Eleanor.)  When Sleeping Beauty was finished, Audley was treated to a special private screening of the film.

Eleanor Audley continued to perform in front of a radio microphone throughout the 1950s with appearances on programs like The Adventures of the SaintFamily TheatreFibber McGee & MollyThe Halls of IvyHollywood Star PlayhouseThe Life of RileyNight Beat, and Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  Even as radio was waiting for the hook that would yank it off the national stage, Audley could be found performing on the likes of The CBS Radio Workshop and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  But as assignments in the aural medium started to become scarcer and scarcer, Eleanor would eventually make the transition to the small screen, guest starring on everything from I Love Lucy to The Twilight Zone.  She had recurring roles on series like The Swamp Fox (a Disneyland serial), The Gale Storm ShowThe Joey Bishop ShowThe Dick Van Dyke ShowThe Beverly HillbilliesMister EdPistols ‘n’ Petticoats, and My Three Sons.  Couch potatoes probably know her best as Eunice Douglas—the snobbish mother of Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert) on the beloved sitcom Green Acres.  Unlike most mother-in-law stereotypes, Eunice actually got along better with her daughter-in-law (Eva Gabor as Lisa) than her own son!  Audley had hoped to reprise her Eunice role in the reunion TV movie Return to Green Acres (1990), but illness put the kibosh on that; she passed away in 1991 at the age of 86.

That “Cinderella” episode of The Six Shooter that I mentioned earlier in this essay?  Well, it’s available on the Radio Spirits release Six Shooter: Special Edition, and you’ll also find our birthday girl on another Shooter collection, Gray Steel.  We also feature Eleanor Audley on three of her signature series: The Story of Dr. KildareFather Knows Best (on Great Radio Christmas), and My Favorite Husband (Great Radio Sitcoms).  There’s a wealth of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar sets with work by Eleanor—Fabulous FreelanceFatal Matters, and Murder Matters—and on Jack Benny: Be Our Guest, Ms. Audley is among the cast of The Hotpoint Holiday Hour presentation of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (12/25/49).  Hey—you’ve still got room in your shopping cart for The Big Story: As It Happened and The Weird Circle: Toll the Bell.  Happy birthday to one of our very favorite character actresses!

Happy Birthday, Helen Mack!

In 1949, RKO re-released She (1935)—a motion picture based on the series of H. Rider Haggard novels and starring Randolph Scott and Helen Gahagan (as the title character).  She, a science fiction-themed film that the studio had hoped would enjoy the same success as the earlier King Kong (1933), lost money in its original run…but the re-release proved a bit more lucrative at the box office.  So much so that several movie executives actively sought to sign the other leading lady from the film, Helen Mack—born Helen McDougall in Rock Island, Illinois on this date in 1913—to a movie contract.  These “suits” had apparently not been paying attention: Helen Mack was doing quite well for herself at this stage of her show business career, notably as one of the few female director-producers in radio.

Before establishing herself as a prolific presence during Radio’s Golden Age, Helen Mack began her career in entertainment as a child actress.  She appeared in several silent features, notably Success (1923) and Pied Piper Malone (1924)—where she was billed as “Helen Macks.”  Mack also graced the cast of the occasional Broadway stage production, such as Neighbors (1923) and Yellow (1926).  Helen took on these assignments while attending NYC’s Professional Children’s School from 1921 to 1929.  (The school, founded in 1914, is still in operation today; its famous alums [along with Helen] include Sarah Michelle Gellar [Buffy the Vampire Slayer] and Holly Marie Combs [Charmed].)

Helen Mack’s hard work would pay off in a screen test with Fox Film in March of 1931. Three weeks later, she was officially employed on the studio lot in movies like The Silent Witness (1932) and While Paris Sleeps (1932—her first film as a leading lady).  (Helen also had a role in D.W. Griffith’s final film, The Struggle, released by United Artists in 1931.)  A move to RKO really expanded Mack’s career as she added titles like Sweepings (1933), Melody Cruise (1933), Blind Adventure (1933), and Christopher Bean (1933) to her celluloid resume.  One of her high-profile film roles was as the leading lady in The Son of Kong (1933), which (like She) also hoped to recapture the King Kong thrill (as a direct sequel).  Undaunted, Helen continued to make onscreen magic in features like The Lemon Drop Kid (1934), College Rhythm (1934), Four Hours to Kill! (1935), The Last Train from Madrid (1937), The Wrong Road (1937), and Mystery of the White Room (1939).

In the 1936 Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way, Helen Mack portrayed Harold’s sister (Lloyd is a milkman who becomes an unlikely boxer).  Classic film fans probably know Helen best from His Girl Friday (1940; as “heart-of-gold” hooker Molly Malloy), one of the most perfect of motion picture comedies.  By this juncture in her career, however, Mack had tied the knot with second husband Tom McAvity, who worked in radio as an executive with Lord and Thomas, a major advertising agency.  The actress decided to change her focus to the aural medium. Helen was no stranger to radio, having previously worked for Arch Oboler and appearing on such shows as Hollywood on the Air and The Lux Radio Theatre.  She beat out two hundred actresses to win the role of “Marge” on the popular radio soap Myrt and Marge after the original Marge, Donna Damerel Fick, had an untimely death.  (Fick’s mother, Myrtle Vail, continued to play “Myrt.”)  Mack said goodbye to her film career with 1945’s Divorce and Strange Holiday (a movie director by her friend Oboler).

Helen Mack had a very good friend in writer Aleen Leslie, who began her movie career as a scribe in Columbia Pictures’ short subjects department (The Nightshirt Bandit [1938]) before graduating to features like The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and The Stork Pays Off (1941).  Aleen wanted to create a radio show for her chum, but by the time the production was ready to take flight Mack had to bow out due to her pregnancy.  The show went on as A Date with Judy, a sitcom that premiered over NBC on June 24, 1941 as Bob Hope’s summer replacement.  Helen might have missed out playing the title role that would be essayed at various times by Ann Gillis, Dellie Ellis, and (most famously) Louise Erickson but she got a nice consolation prize: she became director-producer of the program when husband Tom asked her to take it off his plate (he had his hands full with Judy’s competitor, Meet Corliss Archer, and Joan Davis’ show).

While overseeing A Date with Judy, Helen Mack was also in charge of The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show—a spin-off from Fibber McGee & Molly.  With the untimely death of star Hurt, a situation comedy starring Agnes Moorehead, Calamity Jane, was the quick replacement (and was also supervised by Mack).  Jane lasted three weeks before being nudged out by The Amazing Mrs. Danberry, a sitcom that also featured Aggie as star and Helen as director. (In this one, Moorehead played a widow who assumed responsibility for her late husband’s department store.) In the fall of 1946, Mack was the director on The Affairs of Ann Scotland—a crime drama (whose titular female character was described as a “private eyelash”) starring future What’s My Line? panelist Arlene Francis.  After A Date with Judy forfeited its sponsor, Helen took over as director of Alan Young’s radio show.  Throughout the 1940s, Helen Mack had a claim to fame as radio’s only female director…and she was good, too. Her work on Judy and Beulah netted her recognition from Radio Life in April of 1946 with one of their Distinguished Achievement Awards.

With the start of the 1950s, Helen Mack continued to work in radio—staying true to her sitcom roots by directing the show that once employed her husband, Meet Corliss Archer.  But she also expanded her range with assignments on The Man from HomicideThe Adventures of the Saint, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  Mack dabbled a little in television, serving as a script supervisor on the 1955 series Homer Bell and later contributing teleplays to the likes of Daniel Boone and Julia.  Helen tried her hand at writing stage plays—one of which, Mating Dance, was written under her married name, Helen McAvity, and had a very brief Broadway run.  Mack’s husband Tom died in 1974, and Helen moved in with her friend Aleen Leslie shortly afterward.  She succumbed to cancer in 1986 at the age of 72.

Here at Radio Spirits, you can celebrate Helen Mack’s natal anniversary by checking out our new The Bob Bailey Collection, where you can hear Mack co-star with Bailey in an episode of To The President titled “Miracle in 3-B.” You may also consider our collections of Richard Diamond, Private DetectiveDead MenHomicide Made Easy, and Mayhem is My Business—all of which feature her work “behind the scenes.”  Helen also directed the pilot episode (with Charles McGraw) of The Man from Homicide, and one of her outings from The Adventures of the Saint (“The Horrible Hamburger”) is available on Great Radio Detectives.  Mack’s signature series, A Date with Judy is represented on Great Radio Comedy and our newest mirth compendium, Great Radio Sitcoms.  Happy birthday, Helen!

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!