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Happy Birthday, Clayton “Bud” Collyer!

“I never try to force people into impossible situations on the shows,” observed Clayton “Bud” Collyer to Radio Mirror in June of 1953.  One of those “shows” Bud was referencing was TV’s Break the Bank, once described by Mirror as “the highest-paying quiz program in the world.”  Bank had been a radio mainstay since 1945, but its peak of popularity occurred when Bert Parks became the host of the program and Collyer his announcer-sidekick.  The other series was Beat the Clock, a game show that Collyer hosted by his lonesome from 1950 to 1961.  (Clock also had radio origins, in a brief 1948 offering entitled Times A-Wastin’.)  On Clock, Bud held forth on a popular program where contestants tackled “problems” (though a more appropriate description would be “stunts”) for cash and/or merchandise.  Both shows made the man born Clayton Johnson Heermance, Jr. in Manhattan on this date in 1908 a household name…and yet, we’re just barely scratched the surface of his remarkable career.

Young Clayton Collyer was brought up in a theatrical family.  His mother Caroline was an actress, his sister June also an actress (a film star married to comic actor Stuart Erwin, her films include Four Sons [1928] and Hangman’s House [1928]), and his brother Richard later entered the business end of the movie industry.  Clayton, Sr. may have only been an attorney, but he had a certain flair for the dramatic, and his son initially set out to follow in his footsteps, first at Williams College and then Fordham University law school.  While studying law, Bud engaged in extracurricular acting in various dramatic clubs and even had his own musical show on radio, which aired six days a week at 7:45am over New York’s WABC (now WCBS).

It wasn’t long after accepting a position as a law clerk that Bud Collyer learned a) his chosen profession could be a bit of a snooze, and b) he could make more money in a month of radio than he could in a year of clerking.  Bud landed a part in a show at an NBC audition in 1935, and a year later at CBS he was pulling down $85 weekly as a vocalist.  Bud estimated that he earned $7,000 annually for standing in front of a microphone on 30 shows weekly, which he later acknowledged was “big money at that time.”  Many of those shows were of the daytime drama variety; Collyer was “Adam Waring” on The Man I Married, “Tom Hopkins” on Kate Hopkins Angel of Mercy, “Michael Conway” on Pretty Kitty Kelly, “Dr. Henry Powell” on Joyce Jordan, MD, “Wyn Strafford” on Kitty Foyle, and “Peter Turner” on Young Widder Brown.  Bud also appeared at one time or another on High PlacesJust Plain Bill, and Life Can Be Beautiful.

In addition, Bud Collyer worked as an announcer on soaps; for many years he was the voice of D-U-Z on the Procter & Gamble-sponsored Big SisterThe Guiding LightThe Goldbergs, and Road to Life.  (Collyer also plugged the product on the nighttime Truth or Consequences.)  Collyer was an announcer on A House in the Country and The Story of Mary Marlin as well.   Other shows that featured Bud handling the announcing chores include The Adventures of Jungle JimThe Benny Goodman Music FestivalThe Cavalcade of America (he served in this capacity from 1940-43), The Continental Celebrity ClubThe Hour of CharmThe Mary Small Show (Mary was a child who sang like an adult woman), Parents’ Magazine of the AirThe Philip Morris PlayhouseThe Raleigh RoomThe Schaefer RevueSilver TheatreStage Door Canteen, and The Victor Borge Show.

Bud Collyer played “Abie Levy” on Abie’s Irish Rose (a.k.a. Knickerbocker Playhouse), “Pat Ryan” on Terry and the Pirates, and was the titular Mountie of Renfrew of the Mounted.  But his best-known dramatic role on radio was giving voice to “The Man of Steel” on The Adventures of Superman when it premiered over Mutual on February 15, 1940.  Bud actually played two parts on this series—the titular superhero, and his alter ego, mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent.  When he emoted as Kent, Collyer spoke in a slightly higher register, only revealing to listeners that Kent had changed to Supe by lowering his voice an octave: “This looks like a job (lower) for Superman!”  Bud became so identified with the role that he was called upon to voice the character when legendary animator Max Fleischer brought Superman to motion picture screens in seventeen cartoons produced between 1941 and 1943. (Bud’s co-stars Joan Alexander [as Lois Lane] and Jackson Beck also worked on the Fleischer shorts.)  Collyer reprised his Man of Steel gig for a TV cartoon version in the 1960s, The New Adventures of Superman, which once again reunited him with Alexander and Beck.

Other items on Bud Collyer’s radio resume include hosting the dramatic anthology Listening Post and a variety series, By Popular Demand.  His future as a TV M.C. was foreshadowed by his work on the previously mentioned Break the Bank; Bud also worked on such radio quiz fests as On Your MarkThree for the Money, and Winner Take All!  (His marriage to radio actress Marian Shockley was even featured on the audience participation show Bride and Groom!)  The TV Bank and Beat the Clock would make Collyer a familiar face to small screen fans, but Bud also hosted This is the Missus, Talent JackpotOn Your WayFeather Your NestQuick as a Flash, and Number Please.  Outside of Beat the Clock, Bud Collyer is best remembered as the moderator for the popular panel show To Tell the Truth, in which he challenged the likes of Orson Bean, Kitty Carlisle, Peggy Cass, and Tom Poston to pick out “the real McCoy” from a group of impostors (“Will the real…John Doe…please…stand up!”).  Collyer hosted both the daytime and nighttime versions of Truth from 1956 to 1968, but when the series was going to be revised for a syndicated run in 1969 Bud would be unable to host—he passed away at the age of 61 on the very day of Truth’s syndicated premiere.

When today’s birthday boy was starring on The Adventures of Superman, he was working at a time when he was required to appear on that series live five days a week.  To give Bud a little R&R, the creators came up with a novel device to push The Man of Steel off to the sidelines: that would be the occasion when Superman came into contact with the powerful substance known as Kryptonite.  (Superman’s fellow DC Comics pals Batman and Robin were also introduced to the radio show to give Collyer the occasional vacation.)  Check out Bud Collyer in his signature radio role of the Man from Krypton in our Adventures of Superman CD collection, Superman: Up, Up and Away!

Happy Birthday, Joseph Julian!

At the time I borrowed Joseph Julian’s This Was Radio from my hometown public library as a kid, I wasn’t all that familiar with the distinguished actor born Joseph Shapiro in St. Marys, Pennsylvania on this date in 1911.  Granted, most of the radio performers with whom I was familiar were those associated with larger-than-life characters—like Brace Beemer (as the Lone Ranger) or Bret Morrison (The Shadow).  The one thing I took away from reading Joe’s book (published in 1975) was that it was a most engaging account of a working actor in the aural medium.  Julian appeared on a lot of programs, running the gamut from horror to crime to science fiction…and he worked with many of radio’s leading lights, including Arch Oboler, Himan Brown, and Norman Corwin.

While attending Johns Hopkins University, Joseph Julian pursued a career in acting by joining the Provincetown University Players.  Joe would make his Broadway debut in Judgment Day in 1934, and soon after found that acting on radio accommodated his stage exploits quite nicely (and no doubt kept groceries in the pantry to boot).  His earliest appearances would be on NBC shows like Ideas That Came True and Renfrew of the Mounted, then Julian moved over to CBS and worked on the likes of ForecastThe Columbia Workshop, and This is War.  It was on this last program that Joe made the acquaintance of “radio’s poet laureate,” Norman Corwin, who was inspired to cast Julian in the titular role of An American in England.  American was a series based on Corwin’s real-life experiences as a Yank in a strange land, and the series received a great deal of critical acclaim.  (Joe would work again many times with Norman, notably on Columbia Presents Corwin.)

Working radio actors kept working by doing a lot of daytime dramas…and Joseph Julian was no exception.  One of his earliest radio gigs was playing “Danny Stratford” on The Life of Mary Sothern, and he later appeared on the likes of Joyce Jordan, M.D. (as Ollie), Life Can Be Beautiful, and Lorenzo Jones (as Lorenzo’s pal Sandy Matson).  Joe’s most prominent soap opera experience was on the popular Big Sister, on which he played Michael West—a singer friend to the show’s long-suffering heroine, Ruth Evans Wayne.  When the decision was made to spin off Michael into his own series, Bright Horizon, Richard Kollmar took over the role…but Julian would later return to the part.

Throughout the 1940s, Joseph Julian could be heard on such shows as The American School of the AirArch Oboler’s PlaysCasey, Crime PhotographerThe Cavalcade of AmericaCrime Club, Foreign AssignmentThe Henry Morgan ShowInner Sanctum, Keeping Up with RosemaryLawyer QThe Molle Mystery TheatreMurder at MidnightThe Mysterious TravelerNew World A’ComingSecret MissionsThe ShadowThe Sparrow and the HawkThe Sportsmen’s ClubUnder Arrest, and Words at War.  In the summer of 1947, Joe was the star (with Joan Tompkins as leading lady) of Call the Police, a crime drama that also appeared in the summers of 1948 and 1949 as a replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy.  Julian’s stint as Police Commissioner Bill Grant was brief, however; actor George Petrie took over for the two subsequent seasons.

The fifties proved to be a challenging time for Joe Julian where his acting career was concerned.  He had the misfortune of being listed in Red Channels, a noxious little publication that purported to out “Communists” in the entertainment industry.  You’d be excused if you’re wondering how someone who starred in An American in England would wind up in such a pamphlet…but Julian’s friend Norman Corwin was also listed, as were personalities previously covered here on the blog like John Brown, Howard Duff, Dashiell Hammett, Paul McGrath, Minerva Pious…and yes, even Orson Welles.  Joe refused to take the allegations lying down, however, and fought the charges in order to clear his name.  He continued to work whenever he could, with guest appearances on radio shows like Best PlaysThe CBS Radio WorkshopCloak and DaggerThe Couple Next DoorDimension XGang BustersIndictmentNBC Star PlayhouseNow Hear ThisRocky FortuneThe Search That Never EndsTurning Wheel21st Precinct2000 Plus, and X-Minus One.  Julian would help close out Radio’s Golden Age working on Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, and later appeared on both radio revivals like The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and evergreens like The Eternal Light.

His busy radio career kept him in New York City most of the time, but Joseph Julian occasionally managed to appear in feature films, including The Violators and That Night! (both 1957).  Joe found a place on the small screen in his later thespic years, guesting on the likes of Alfred Hitchcock PresentsThe DefendersPerry Mason, and The Untouchables; and returned to his radio roots by working on daytime dramas like As the World TurnsThe Edge of Night, and Somerset.  Julian passed at the age of 71, seven years after the 1975 publication the previously mentioned This Was Radio.

Joseph Julian was held in such high regard by his fellow stage performers that a memorial service was held in his honor at the American Renaissance Theatre in New York a week after his passing. We think pretty highly of Joe, too, and invite you to check out his work on two of our science fiction potpourri collections: Great Radio Science Fiction and Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures.  You’ll also hear today’s birthday boy on sets of Dimension X (Adventures in Time and Space, Future Tense) and X-Minus One (Countdown, Far Horizons, Time and Time Again).  Rounding out our audio tribute to Mr. Julian are his appearances on Casey, Crime Photographer (Blue Note), Inner Sanctum (Pattern for Fear), The Mysterious Traveler (Dark Destiny), Suspense (Fear and Trembling, Final Curtain), Words at War: World War II Radio Drama, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar).  Happy birthday, Joe!

“The story of your police force in action.”

Joe Friday: Room 5.  That was the title of the script for a proposed TV pilot, written by Herb Ellis and Jack Webb, as 1948 was marching to a close.  If this treatment about a “private eye” had been picked up, we might not be celebrating an anniversary today…for it was in 1949 on this date that the police procedural that set the standard for the crime dramas to follow premiered over NBC Radio: Dragnet.  Dragnet would soon dominate all facets of pop culture in a very short period of time, permeating the nation’s vocabulary with catchphrases like “All we want are the facts, ma’am” and inspiring comedic tributes by everyone from Stan Freberg (and his million-selling record St. George and the Dragonet) to Daffy Duck & Porky Pig (the 1956 cartoon Rocket Squad).

Actor Jack Webb was working at San Francisco’s KGO in 1946, where he was the mastermind behind series such as One Out of Seven and The Jack Webb Show (a half-hour comedy show—no joke).  The show that garnered him the most attention, however, was a detective drama called Pat Novak, For Hire—in which Webb played a part-time gumshoe who spouted dialogue so hard-boiled it skirted the very edge of parody.  Its popularity allowed Jack to leave Frisco and head out for bigger things, like a network show of his own (Mutual’s Johnny Madero, Pier 23—which was similar to Pat Novak) and appearances on nationally broadcast series like EscapeSuspense, and The Whistler.  Radio kept Webb busy, and yet he found time to jumpstart a movie career with appearances in features like Hollow Triumph (1948).

It was landing the small role of a lab technician in an Eagle-Lion film entitled He Walked by Night (1948) that would change Jack Webb’s fortunes practically overnight.  Night, a police procedural loosely based on the terrifying exploits of a real-life serial killer, utilized the services of L.A.P.D. Sergeant Martin Wynn as a technical advisor.  Wynn and Webb would strike up conversations during downtime on the set, and though Marty was initially distrustful of Jack (Wynn hated shows like Pat Novak, which didn’t present police officers in the most positive light), he seized on the opportunity to talk up the concept of a program about “real cops.”  He even offered the actor access to actual police files.  Truthfully, Webb was cool to the idea at first (he didn’t think such a show would perform well in the ratings), but the success of He Walked by Night changed his mind.  To prepare for the show he was planning out in his head, Jack “went to school” by accompanying Wynn and his partner Vince Brasher on routine patrols in their prowl car, taking notes and learning “cop lingo.”

Jack Webb had played the titular shamus Jeff Regan, Investigator on CBS Radio’s West Coast network…so he decided to give the Tiffany network first grab at his proposed Dragnet series.  CBS was pretty blasé about Webb’s idea, and when they finally agreed to have a listen to an audition record—provided Jack foot the bill for the expense of recording one—Webb turned his attention to NBC.  Seeing as most of their talent was now working for CBS (courtesy of the legendary “talent raids”), NBC was far more receptive to Jack’s proposal.  West Coast operations director Homer Canfield fronted Webb $2,000 for an audition record, and when that was a success NBC gave it the greenlight for its June 3, 1949 premiere.

It took a while for Dragnet to build a following…but a laudatory review from critic Jack Crosby (who called the show “an astonishing cops-and-robbers job simply because nothing very astonishing happens on it”) soon catapulted the program to the point where it no longer had to depend on NBC’s largesse (as a sustaining show) and it grabbed a sponsor in Fatima Cigarettes.  In retrospect, it’s difficult to comprehend why people didn’t recognize how groundbreaking the show was from the very first broadcast.  Webb supervised every aspect of the show, while getting an assist in the writing chores from his old cronies James E. Moser and Richard L. Breen.  Jack also cast performers who were able to adapt to the naturalistic acting style he had chosen for the show, radio pros like Peggy Webber (who would often portray Joe Friday’s mother), Herb Ellis, Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin, and Virginia Gregg.  (The dialogue on the show was to be spoken in the manner of someone “pouring a cup of coffee.”)

Barton Yarborough, an actor with whom Webb had worked many times in the past, won the role of Sergeant Ben Romero, Joe Friday’s partner.  Romero provided the perfect counterbalance to Friday: whereas Joe was a confirmed bachelor and occasionally too dedicated when it came to the badge, devoted family man Ben was more soft-spoken and possessed a self-deprecating sense of humor.  Yarborough’s Romero would head off for The Great Precinct in the Sky with the December 27, 1951 radio broadcast, “The Big Sorrow” (actor Bart suffered a fatal heart attack). Friday tried out several partners (including Barney Phillips as Ed Jacobs) before settling on Officer Frank Smith—played by radio veteran Ben Alexander.

The December 16, 1951 installment of TV’s Chesterfield Sound-Off Time served as a special introduction to the boob tube version of Dragnet, which quickly became Must See TV (in the 1953-54 season, it was second only to I Love Lucy as the nation’s favorite program).  The TV show even inspired a 1954 feature film, with Jack Webb and Ben Alexander reprising their roles as Friday and Smith.  At the same time, Dragnet continued to be a radio favorite even when the aural medium was starting to see its audience being enticed by its more attractive sibling, TV.  The radio version continued to be heard until September 20, 1955, with an additional two years of “repeats.”  The TV Dragnet would run until August 23, 1959.

Jack Webb’s decided to retire the television series while it was still quite popular, but re-launched the program on January 12, 1967.  Jack had asked Ben Alexander to reprise his Frank Smith role, but because Alexander was already committed to another series (he was on ABC’s The Felony Squad) Sergeant Friday took on another partner: Officer Bill Gannon (portrayed by Harry Morgan).  Though the chemistry between the two actors often recalled the Friday-Smith years, Dragnet had by this time become a little too pro-cop, getting the nickname “the fuzz industrial.”  Its attempts to be relevant with narcotics-themed episodes has given the series a campy reputation (with such deathless dialogue as “You’re pretty high and far out—what kind of trip are you on, son?”).  Sadly, because no one seems to know who owns the original film negatives from the 1951-59 run, it’s the 1967-70 version that’s rerun the most.

Radio Spirits offers a 2-DVD collection of twenty telecasts from the 1951-59 run of the TV series. If your only familiarity with the visual version is that of Jack Webb and Harry Morgan moving about the floors and apartments in some hotel out of a David Lynch film, you owe it to yourself to check out these 20 Episodes to get a feel for the electricity of what was truly a groundbreaking series.  We’ve also got plenty of the radio Dragnet, from our latest collection Get ‘Em (liner notes by me!) to past releases like The Big BlastBig CrimeThe Big Gamble, and Night Watch.  Remember: the blog post you’ve read is true. Only the names were changed to protect the innocent.

Happy Birthday, Herbert Marshall!

The man born Herbert Brough Falcon Marshall on this date in 1890 is revered by classic movie mavens as one of the premiere leading men in motion pictures in the 1930s and 1940s.  Marshall graced so many classics, among them Trouble in Paradise (1932), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), and Duel in the Sun (1946).  What movie fans may not remember, however, is that “Bart” excelled in the aural medium; appearing multiple times on The Lux Radio TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild Theatre, and Suspense (the actor was even on the audition show for “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”: Forecast).  He was also the host of the radio anthology series Hollywood Star Theatre (from 1946 to 1947), and starred as The Man Called X from 1944 to 1952.  Producer Jack Johnstone, who worked with Marshall on both of these shows, described his friend as “a three-way thespian, equally at home in the motion picture, the theatre or radio.”

Born in London as the only child to a theatrical family (both father Percy and mother Ethel May were actors), Herbert Marshall didn’t take to show business at first. He was raised by his three maternal aunts whenever his parents were performing, and on those occasions (school vacations) when he did accompany Mom and Pop, he developed a negative view of the profession.  Upon graduating from St. Mary’s College in Old Harlow, Essex, Marshall took a job as an accounting clerk…but his career in that vocation was brief. (Bart was a little slow in his calculations.)  He accepted a job as an assistant business manager for a theatrical troupe operated by a family friend, and in later years Marshall would look back and say he got into acting because he didn’t know how to do anything else.

Herbert Marshall enlisted in World War I and, while serving on the Western Front in 1917, was hit in his left knee by a sniper during the Second Battle of Arras in France.  Doctors were unable to save his leg despite a series of operations, and Marshall’s left limb was amputated.  After a period of introspection and what he himself described as “self-pity,” Bart made the concerted effort to learn how to walk with his prosthetic leg so that he could return to his acting career.  Except for a slight limp, his false leg was virtually undetectable throughout his work on stage and film.  Marshall did suffer, however, from the occasional pain common to amputees. (He wore trousers with holes in the pockets to allow him to loosen the strap on his prosthetic leg to ease the discomfort.)

Herbert Marshall’s stage career was a distinguished one; he worked alongside such theatrical lights as Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Edna Best (who would become his second wife), and Edmund Gwenn (his future Foreign Correspondent co-star), and appeared in productions ranging from As You Like It to The Queen is in the Parlour.  His motion picture debut came in 1927 with Mumsie, a British silent film, and Marshall made his first American film appearance alongside Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929)—a film that was remade in 1940 with Bette Davis (in which Bart also appeared). Marshall began to attract industry notice when he was cast opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932), and throughout his Hollywood career he would work with such leading ladies as Claudette Colbert (1934’s Four Frightened People), Greta Garbo (The Painted Veil [1934]), Barbara Stanwyck (Always Goodbye [1938]), Katharine Hepburn (A Woman Rebels [1936]), and Joan Crawford (When Ladies Meet [1941]).  Despite an impressive body of work in movies, Marshall was never nominated for an Academy Award!

Herbert Marshall’s busy movie career might go a long way toward explaining why he was frequently called upon to stand behind a radio microphone. The actor reprised a good many of his film roles in radio adaptations, including The Dark Angel (1935), Mad About Music (1938), and Kathleen (1941).  But Marshall was a favorite guest star of many of radio’s top comedians as well, among them George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, and Bob Hope.  Bart filled in for an absent Jack Benny on a February 2, 1941 broadcast of The Jell-O Program and was so well-received that he returned for the following two shows.  Marshall worked alongside the likes of Al Jolson, Dinah Shore, and Rudy Vallee, and guested on Command PerformanceG.I. JournalThe Harold Lloyd Comedy Theatre, Information PleaseThe Kraft Music HallMail CallThe Old Gold ProgramRequest Performance, and The Texaco Star Theatre.

Herbert Marshall’s most prominent radio showcase was as the star of The Man Called X, which premiered on July 10, 1944 (as a summer replacement for The Lux Radio Theatre) over CBS Radio.  Marshall played Ken Thurston, an operative who started out as a detective in the show’s early years before morphing into a secret agent who worked for “The Bureau”—globetrotting hither and yon in search of smugglers, black marketeers, etc.  Man Called X had the occasional period of inactivity but it would eventually run (on both CBS and NBC) until May 27. 1952.  Rounding out Bart’s radio resume are credits for The Cavalcade of AmericaThe CBS Radio WorkshopColumbia Presents CorwinThe First Nighter ProgramThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseMatinee Theatre, The NBC University TheatreThe Silver TheatreThe Skippy Hollywood TheatreThe Star and the StoryTheater of Romance, and This is My Best.

Although he distinguished himself throughout the 1940s with roles in films like The Moon and Sixpence (1942) and The Razor’s Edge (1946), Herbert Marshall found himself settling into character roles by the following decade, turning in fine performances in such favorites as The Underworld Story (1950), The Virgin Queen (1955), and The Fly (1958).  Bart also started accepting work on the small screen, as a guest star on such TV series as Letter to Loretta (The Loretta Young Show) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Marshall continued to be active in the 1960s, gracing the cast of movies like Midnight Lace (1960), The Caretakers (1963), and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963).  But it comes to us all in the end: his valedictory performance was in 1965’s The Third Key. Herbert Marshall left this world for a better one in early 1966 at the age of 75.

During the Second World War, Herbert Marshall not only was a major presence on AFRS (as host of The Globe Theatre) but he also became an inspiration to veterans who were injured during the conflict, using his personal experiences to offer advice to amputees on how to adjust to their new limbs.  Radio Spirits is pleased to offer a collection of broadcasts from our birthday boy’s signature series—remember: “Wherever there’s mystery, intrigue, romance…in all the strange and dangerous places of the world…there you will find The Man Called X!”

A (Birth)Day in the Life of Dennis Day

Shortly after its premiere in 1932, The Jack Benny Program started a tradition of featuring tenor vocalists to entertain during the musical portions of the show.  James Melton, Frank Parker, and Michael Bartlett accepted the singing chores in the early years of the series, with Kenny Baker (who debuted on Jack’s show in 1935) sticking with the gig the longest in the 1930s.  When Baker decided to pursue other radio opportunities at the end of the 1938-39 season (amusingly, he would soon start hitting high notes on the program headlined by Jack’s “nemesis,” Fred Allen), his replacement was a singer who was just beginning his professional career in show business.  He was born Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty on this date in 1916 in New York City…but for the millions of devoted listeners who flocked to their radios every Sunday night at seven throughout the 1940s/1950s, he was better known as Dennis Day.

Dennis Day was raised in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx in the Big Apple, and after matriculating at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary began attending Manhattan College.  Day‘s enthusiastic participation in the college glee club soon began to point the way toward a singing career, which Dennis had even engaged in during the summer of 1938 on NBC’s The RCA Victor Campus Club (a vehicle for Larry Clinton and his orchestra).  Day graduated in 1939 and considered continuing his education with law school at Fordham University.  But Kenny Baker’s decision to leave The Jack Benny Program after four years would change things for Dennis Day.

Baker had grown weary of his role as Benny’s singing simpleton. Having heard of Jack’s search for a replacement, Dennis Day submitted a photo and audition record to Mary Livingstone, Jack’s wife.  Livingstone convinced her hubby to give Dennis a tryout. The story goes that, during his audition, Jack asked the nervous young man a question and Day responded with a high-pitched “Yes, please?”  Whether or not this anecdote is true, Benny was clearly impressed with Dennis’ singing and agreed to hire him, with Day making his debut on The Jack Benny Program on October 8, 1939.

Dennis Day would soon stake his claim on The Jack Benny Program playing a naïve young teenager (his age on the show was estimated at nineteen even though the real-life Day was older) who drove Jack to distraction with nonsensical, silly statements when he wasn’t having to mow Benny’s lawn weekly (it was in his contract!).  Radio Spirits’ Elizabeth McLeod once noted in an essay on Dennis that “Baker established the basic characterization, but it was Dennis Day who nailed it down for all time,” further noting that “Dennis took the character into a delightful surrealism far removed from Kenny Baker’s goofy-twit interpretation.”  Day became a distaff version of Gracie Allen, whose “illogical logic” would eventually wear his boss down to the point where Jack’s only response was “Sing, Dennis.”

Dennis Day had a few performing tricks up his sleeve, however, that would soon make Jack Benny fans ask, “Kenny who?”  Day would display a sense of comic timing that was outshone only by his employer, and he also proved to be a gifted mimic, with flawless impressions of Jerry Colonna, Parker Fennelly (as Titus Moody), Bert Gordon (as “The Mad Russian”), and Benny’s “next-door neighbor,” Ronald Colman.  (One classic Benny broadcast has bandleader Phil Harris goading Dennis into impersonating Colman on the telephone, inviting Jack over…with the usual wacky complications ensuing.)  In just five years, Day would cement his position on the Benny program to the point where even when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy (he reached the rank of lieutenant) during WW2, his replacement—Larry Stevens—only stayed around long enough to “save his seat.”

Dennis Day would get an additional surprise once he was mustered out of the service.  Like his Benny co-worker Phil Harris, Dennis got a show of his own in the fall of 1946: A Day in the Life of Dennis Day.  (Both Harris and Day’s “two shows” would be used for much hilarity at their home base of the Benny program.)  The popular sitcom, heard on NBC from 1946 to 1951, featured Day playing a character named after himself (but not the famed vocalist from the Benny program—he took pains to remind audiences of this), a small-town nebbish who worked as a drugstore soda jerk.  Dennis courted a girl named Mildred Anderson (played by Bettie Miles, Barbara Eiler, and Sharon Douglas) who was mad about the boy even if her parents (Bea Benaderet, Francis “Dink” Trout) were a tad apprehensive.

In addition to his own show and his Jack Benny assignment, Dennis Day’s radio resume included appearances on The Camel Comedy CaravanThe Carnation Contented HourCommand Performance, Duffy’s TavernEverything for the BoysFamily TheatreFibber McGee & MollyThe Ford ShowThe Lux Radio TheatreMail CallOrson Welles’ Radio Almanac, and Suspense.  In addition, Dennis was warmly welcomed as a guest star on shows headlined by Fred Allen, Victor Borge, Bing Crosby (Philco Radio Time), Al Jolson (The Kraft Music Hall), Dorothy Lamour (on both Front and Center and The Sealtest Variety Theatre), and Jack Paar.  Day’s exposure on radio certainly didn’t hurt him in the recordings arena, charting hit songs like Clancy Lowered the Boom and Dear Hearts and Gentle People.

Radio kept Dennis Day busy, yet he still found time to make the occasional appearance in feature films (he appears with Jack, Phil, Andy Devine, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in 1940’s Buck Benny Rides Again) such as Sleepy Lagoon (1943), Music in Manhattan (1944), I’ll Get By (1950), and The Girl Next Door (1953).  Truth be told, Dennis established quite a foothold on the small screen—not only with his only series, The RCA Victor Show (which he shared with Ezio Pinza on an alternate basis for a time), but still playing that same “crazy kid” on Jack Benny’s TV show.  (Day was close to fifty years old by the time Jack’s show went off the air!)  Dennis made the rounds on shows like Alfred Hitchcock PresentsBurke’s Law, and The Lucy Show and before his passing in 1988 (at the age of 71) lent his unmistakable voice to animated Yuletide specials like Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and The Stingiest Man in Town.

Dennis Day left a large family behind. (He had married Margaret Ellen Almquist in 1948 and, being devout Catholics, they would eventually bring ten children into the world.)  He left a large body of work behind as well. Radio Spirits offers a collection from our birthday boy’s starring series, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, plus there are Day encounters on our potpourri collections Comedy Goes West and Great Radio Comedy.  After you’ve checked out Dennis’ guest appearance on the May 2, 1944 broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern (available on our newest Tavern collection, Irish Eyes), dig deep into our Jack Benny sets—The Fabulous 40sThe Fabulous 50sThe Great OutdoorsJack Benny & FriendsOn the TownPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesSilly Skits, and Tough Luck!  Happy birthday, Dennis!

Happy Birthday, Jack Johnstone!

A September 24, 1938 edition of Radio Guide describes a “radio first” executed by actress Alice Frost and Jack Johnstone, the writer-producer of the popular Johnny Presents.  The blurb describes how the program had just gotten underway when Frost ran up to the microphone yelling “But I want to ask a question, Dr. Carrington!”  “The audience sat spellbound, thinking it was someone that had gone wacky all of sudden,” Guide observed.  No need to call the men in the white coats, however; it was just Frost and Johnstone putting one over on the audience as they “work[ed] out a new technic on the microphone.”  The career of Jack Johnstone—born in Vineland, New Jersey on this date in 1906—was marked by this kind of inventive experimentation as Johnstone sought to supplement his talents as writer, director, and producer on many popular radio shows.

Earl Ransom Johnstone went by “Jack” for most of his professional career (though he also used “Jonathan Bundy” as a pseudonym, notably on a handful of Suspense scripts in the 1960s). His vocational path began with a short stint working in the mental health field after he dropped out of Rutgers University (he was majoring in abnormal psychology).  Johnstone was earning $32 a week at an advertising agency when one of his colleagues, who was contributing scripts to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, asked Jack if he’d like to take a crack at it.  Johnstone was soon sharing scripting chores on Buck Rogers, and after getting an opportunity to direct one broadcast rehearsal when the director (Carlo D’Angelo) wasn’t able to show up for the run-through with the cast, Jack was eventually promoted to director on the program.

Buck Rogers was broadcast at a time when radio was undergoing a period of discovery, notably in the field of “sound patterns.”  In an interview with Leonard Maltin, Jack Johnstone fondly reminisced about how the show’s creative minds depicted Buck’s spaceship on the program:

“CBS New York had an excellent air conditioning system at that time.  There were huge grates, perhaps four by four, for exhaust and intake; the sound effects man took a spare script and plastered pages over the whole thing, which stuck because of the draw of the air, except for a small spot in the middle of it, out of which he placed a microphone.  The air conditioning system provided the sound for the rocket.  Where we had Killer Kane flying a different ship and needed a rocket background for his, the engineer sent it through a filter, to give a little different sound.”

When Kellogg’s, Buck Rogers’ sponsor, relinquished sponsorship of the series, Jack Johnstone persuaded a contact at CBS that he could do the entire show (writing and directing) if his friend could sell it to another sponsor.  That’s how Johnstone started pulling down $300 a week, and how he later gravitated to Johnny Presents (where his contributions were known as “Jack Johnstone’s Dramas”) and The Adventures of Superman.  “Those were busy days,” Jack reminisced in later years.  “I left the house right after breakfast, got home between midnight and 1:00.”

By the 1940s, Jack Johnstone was one of radio’s busiest director-producers, making the rounds on Crime DoctorDark DestinyHollywood Star TimeOrson Welles’ AlmanacThe Prudential Family Hour of Stars, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  Jack also kept his hand in writing on these shows.  He enjoyed a long personal and professional relationship with actor Herbert Marshall, the star of The Man Called X (Johnstone called Bart “a three-way thespian, equally at home in the motion picture, the theatre or radio”).  One of the more unusual entries on Johnstone’s resume was a series called Somebody Knows, an interesting precursor to TV’s America’s Most Wanted/Unsolved Mysteries where loyal listeners were tempted with a $5,000 cash prize if they were able to help provide clues for unsolved murders.  Jack was the director on Somebody Knows, but he also served as the show’s narrator.

Jack Johnstone’s 1991 obituary in The Los Angeles Times noted that at the time he was hiring top Hollywood stars for such anthologies as Hollywood Star Time and Hollywood Star Playhouse, a big name like Barbara Stanwyck commanded a salary of $5,000 for an appearance.  But by 1952, with radio on the wane, there was a fire sale going on and stars could be had for a mere grand.  Johnstone’s work on Hollywood Star Playhouse is notable, however, for two things: first, it marked one of Marilyn Monroe’s early radio showcases (an August 31, 1952 broadcast entitled “Statement in Full”) and second, it aired a pilot (on April 13, 1952) that would result in The Six-Shooter. (This splendid radio Western series starring James Stewart only lasted a single season because Stewart objected to the one sponsor most anxious to pay the bills: Chesterfield cigarettes.)

Jack Johnstone’s best-remembered contribution to old-time radio is unquestionably Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. He joined the organization as director when the show adopted its beloved five-day-a-week quarter-hour format, and continued to sit in the director’s chair when Dollar went back to its half-hour weekly format, occasionally contributing scripts. (He even gave the go-ahead when star Bob Bailey submitted one.)  Jack would also work as one of several directors on the prestigious CBS Radio Workshop. When Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar migrated back to New York in 1960, Johnstone maintained the tone of the show by writing a number of scripts (which he mailed in from Hollywood).

Unlike so many of his peers in the aural medium, Jack Johnstone wanted nothing to do with television. So when Radio’s Golden Age had its life support system unplugged, Jack chose early retirement at the age of 56.  He kept occupied with his hobby of fishing. However, what was not known at the time, was that he also spent much of his time making audio recordings for the visually impaired. That explains why his family requested, at the time of Johnstone’s death in 1991 (at the age of 85), that donations be made to the Santa Barbara Chapter of Recordings for the Blind.

Old-time radio fans have reached a consensus that the 1955-56 years of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar represent one of the many highlights of audio crime drama…but you may not know that the reason why the performances on that series were so good is that director Jack Johnstone insisted that each fifteen-minute session be recorded from start to finish with no retakes.  A few of the actors balked at first (if somebody muffed a line, they started back at the beginning), but gradually came around to agreeing with today’s birthday boy that the results were first-rate.  See if you agree by checking out our voluminous Dollar collections:  The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMurder MattersPhantom ChasesWayward MattersExpense Account SubmittedMysterious MattersMedium Rare Matters, and Fatal Matters.  You can also enjoy Johnstone’s work on our compendiums of The Six-ShooterSpecial Edition and Gray Steel.  Rounding out our “Jack-pot”: The Man Called X, Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Homicide Made EasySomebody Knows, and Superman: Up, Up and Away!  (We’ve even got Jack writing as “Jonathan Bundy” on Suspense: Final Curtain!)

Happy Birthday, Norman Corwin!

The man born Norman Lewis Corwin on this date in 1910 is universally recognized as “the poet laureate of radio.”  Norman Corwin wrote and produced many of the most memorable broadcasts in the aural medium and was one of the first artists to use entertainment as a means to address the serious social issues of the day.  Norman excelled at both drama and comedy, and yet his works encompassed everything from satire to fantasy to philosophy.  Radio historian John Dunning noted in On the Air that “Corwin was given the treatment and almost unlimited freedom of a major star.”

Beantown (Boston) was where Norman Corwin called home, and at the age of 19 decided on a career in the fourth estate, working on The Springfield Republican as a “color man” (Corwin’s description).  When the paper joined forces with WBZ in Springfield and WBZA in Boston three years later, Norman found himself on the ground floor of radio broadcasting as he provided news commentary every evening.  Corwin would later relocate to Cincinnati’s WLW in 1935 for a short late-night stint as an announcer…until that station gave him a pink slip for airing reports on labor strikes (it was against station policy).  Norman then returned to the Republican, where he broadcast over WBZ a program entitled Rhymes and Cadences and Norman Corwin’s Journal over WMAS (both stations were in Springfield).

Norman Corwin continued his itineracy with a job for 20th Century Fox, churning out PR for the studio’s feature films. By 1938, he was working at New York’s WQXR on a program called Poetic License, which spotlighted many of the leading poets of the day.  Corwin began his experiments with dramatization on License, which attracted the attention of W.B. Lewis, a vice president at CBS Radio.  Norman was hired by the network in April of 1938 and, for most of the following decade, the Columbia Broadcasting System was his home.  But Corwin worked in virtual anonymity in the beginning. His ambition was to write for The Columbia Workshop, the network’s experimental dramatic series…but Norman was convinced that he just wasn’t good enough. Yet in three short years, he would write, produce and direct Twenty-Six by Corwin—an extension of Workshop (broadcast from May 4 to November 9, 1941), which would be a precursor to his later Columbia Presents Corwin (broadcast in 1944 and 1945).

Norman Corwin’s first big success at CBS was a program entitled Words Without Music (December 4, 1938 to June 25, 1939) and the broadcast that put him on the map was “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” (12/25/38).  A delightful bit of whimsy in which demons from Hell scheme to assassinate St. Nick (House Jameson played Santa, with Will Geer as Satan). The show attracted the attention of Edward R. Murrow, who compared “Christmas” to the best of Gilbert and Sullivan.  Corwin and Murrow quickly established a long friendship, with Norman demonstrating his serious side in “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease” (02/19/39), inspired by the callousness of Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio in describing the dropping of bombs on civilians.

When Words Without Music finished its run, Norman Corwin moved on to the short-lived So This is Radio , followed by The Pursuit of Happiness.  The aforementioned Twenty-Six by Corwin was next, which included classics such as “The Log of the R-77″ [05/11/41] and “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones” [06/08/41]. It was that series that prompted playwright Archibald MacLeish to suggest Norman to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wanted radio to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.  Norman’s contribution, “We Hold These Truths” (12/15/41; broadcast on all four networks), had a special resonance when it aired just a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Actor James Stewart (portraying an average American citizen who acted as a “sounding board” for the broadcast’s patriotic sentiments) was just one of many participants in the all-star cast of this critically acclaimed production.

Norman Corwin followed “Truths” with several series: This is War!An American in England (a collaboration between Corwin and Murrow), Passport for Adams, and An American in Russia.  Columbia Presents Corwin premiered on March 7, 1944 and spotlighted such presentations as “The Long Name None Could Spell” (03/14/44; on Czechoslovakia) and “The Lonesome Train” (03/21/44; about the train journey of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse).  In between this first series of Columbia Presents Corwin and the second, Norman became notorious for a November 6, 1944 broadcast on behalf of the Democratic National Committee to re-elect FDR (many big-name celebrities, like Judy Garland and Humphrey Bogart, participated in what members of the loyal opposition [the GOP} justifiably called “propaganda”).  “On a Note of Triumph”—broadcast on May 8, 1945—commemorated V-E Day with an awe-inspiring presentation that many consider Corwin’s “crowning touch.”

Norman Corwin’s second series of Columbia Presents Corwin featured some of his most fondly remembered work including “The Undecided Molecule” (06/17/45) and “Fourteen August” (08/14/45).  Although Norman was given unprecedented freedom at his time with CBS, after WW2 the writing was on the wall.  Corwin would later recall that one of his fervent champions, CBS president William S. Paley, suggested to him during a train trip that the author’s future scripts be fashioned for a more commercial audience.  After the success of One World Flight in 1947, the network attempted to usurp half of the money Norman received for his subsidiary rights during contract negotiations, Corwin left CBS and joined United Nations Radio in 1948 (and continued his fine work with such presentations as “Document A/777” and “Could Be”).

Norman Corwin had a little success with adapting his radio output to motion pictures: his classic Columbia Workshop production of a talking caterpillar (“My Client Curley,” adapted from Lucille Fletcher’s story) became a Cary Grant film in 1944 called Once Upon a Time. The author would later pen screenplays for films like The Blue Veil (1951), Scandal at Scourie (1953), No Place to Hide (1955), and Lust for Life (1956; which earned him an Oscar nomination).  But Norman would never lose his love for radio; he would contribute to later revival attempts like The Sears Radio Theatre and was the focus of several National Public Radio series in the 1980s/1990s including Thirteen by Corwin and More by Corwin.  The man who would be rewarded with tributes in the form of Peabody, Emmy and Golden Globe Awards reached the centennial birthday mark in 2010…but would leave this world for a better one on October 18, 2011.

The first volume in Jason Hill’s Life in the Past Lane series (which compiles interviews with personalities who had a hand in creating twentieth century entertainment) features a chapter with today’s birthday boy (and his biographer, R. Leroy Bannerman) and is available for purchase at Radio Spirits.  But you’re also going to want to slip The Poet Laureate of Radio into your shopping cart—it’s a 2006 documentary directed by Michael James Kacey, and it’s an extended interview with Norman Corwin as he dissects a variety of topics and subjects (everything from fascism to William Shatner) as only the master can.  Happiest of birthdays to Norman Corwin!

Happy Birthday, Frances Robinson!

“Danger’s my stock-in-trade,” observed George Valentine weekly on the popular Mutual crime drama Let George Do It.  For actress Frances Robinson, who played George’s loyal gal Friday, Claire “Brooksie” Brooks, her stock-in-trade was playing girlfriends and secretaries (and in some cases both) on radio.  From Perry Mason to Murder and Mr. Malone, Robinson supplemented a busy movie career with multiple trips to emote before a radio microphone.  Born Marion Frances Ladd on this date in 1916, Frances entered show business at the age of five, playing the younger version of Lillian Gish’s character in D.W. Griffith’s classic Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Frances Robinson was born in Fort Wadsworth, NY—a military base where her father served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army.  When the senior Ladd passed away in 1925, Frances and her mother made a trek to California. The child actress made a few more appearances in films (Laddie [1926], The Climbers [1927]) before taking a hiatus from motion pictures.  Robinson worked as an illustrator’s model for a time (and did stock theatre work in NYC), then returned to the movies in 1935.  When she signed a contract with Universal Pictures in 1937, she began using “Frances Robinson” as her professional name (she went by “Marion Ladd” in a 1935 Paramount film, Millions in the Air).

At Universal, ingenue Frances Robinson was kept pretty busy in both B-Westerns (Forbidden Valley [1938]) and programmers (Society Smugglers [1939]), and cliffhanger serial fans fondly remember her as the spunky female lead in both Tim Tyler’s Luck (1937) and Red Barry (1938; as girl reporter “Mississippi”).  (You may have caught this last chapter play on TCM on Saturday mornings in recent months.)  Frances also played leading lady to Johnny Mack Brown in two of his oaters, Desperate Trails (1939) and Riders of Pasco Basin (1940)—again, if you watch as many old movies as I do, you might have caught Riders recently on Starz Encore Westerns.  Robinson would leave Universal at the beginning of the decade to freelance (she did a few programmers for Columbia, including The Lone Wolf Keeps a Date and a Joe E. Brown comedy, So You Won’t Talk [both 1940]), which would give her an opportunity to appear in two “prestige” films at MGM, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1941; the Spencer Tracy-Ingrid Berman version) and Smilin’ Through (1941).

About this same time, Frances Robinson began her rewarding radio career with appearances on The Silver Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre. She worked with Maurice Tarplin, Larry Haines, and Roger DeKoven on the Ziv-syndicated crime drama Manhunt.  Frances put her movie career away in mothballs during WW2 after getting work at Lockheed Aircraft in the personnel placement department.  Radio proved a good fit for Robinson, and it would nicely accommodate both her later stage work (she was in a 1944 Broadway musical, Jackpot) and an advertising job she acquired after WW2.  Frances was “Ellen Deering” to Jose Ferrer’s “Philo Vance” in the short-lived NBC series based on the S.S. Van Dine creation in 1945, and later appeared opposite Frank Lovejoy (as “hep” secretary Maggie) in Murder and Mr. Malone, an ABC program based on Craig Rice’s sleuth.

“If I was on the air it was a mystery,” Frances Robinson joked to Radio Life (after dubbing her a “mystery girl”) about the time she started playing “Brooksie” on Let George Do It—which remains her best-remembered radio showcase.  (Frances would later be replaced on George by Virginia Gregg…which seems only fair, since Robinson replaced Gregg temporarily on Richard Diamond, Private Detective playing girlfriend Helen Asher.)  Robinson had regular “girlfriend” roles on Perry MasonEllery Queen, and The Falcon, and to further her crime drama credentials she also worked on The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of the SaintJeff Regan, Investigator, and Mike Malloy.  But Frances was nothing if not versatile; she demonstrated a flair for comedy, filling in for Bea Benaderet as “Eve Goodwin” on The Great Gildersleeve briefly in 1947 during Benaderet’s pregnancy.  Rounding out Robinson’s radio resume: shows like The Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Cavalcade of AmericaHallmark PlayhouseRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseSongs by Sinatra, and The Whistler.

Frances Robinson would eventually return to motion pictures. She’s in The Missing Lady (1946) (an entry in Monogram’s Shadow series loosely based on the radio program), Keeper of the Bees (1947) and Backfire (1950). In the 1950s, Robinson was more at home on the small screen, with appearances on many of the popular dramatic anthologies of that era (Armstrong Circle TheatreKraft Television Theatre), and as the commercial spokeswoman for Arrid Deodorant.  Frances would make the rounds in guest shots on such shows as The Millionaire and The Real McCoys. In the Howard Duff and Ida Lupino sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve, Robinson had a recurring role as next-door neighbor “Louise Stewart.” Robinson continued to work in the 1960s on such television venues as The Donna Reed Show and Dr. Kildare, while making an occasional feature film appearance (she played “Aunt Gladys” in the Disney release The Happiest Millionaire [1967]).  Sadly, Frances left this world far too early in 1971 at the age of 55.

To commemorate Frances Robinson’s natal anniversary today, Radio Spirits invites you to check out her signature role as “Brooksie” on Let George Do It with our CD collections Cry Uncle and Sweet Poison.  You can also find our birthday girl on the Richard Diamond, Private Detective sets Dead Men and Homicide Made Easy, and on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Night Tide), Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way), Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), and The Damon Runyon Theatre (Here is Broadway).  Happy birthday, Frances!