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Happy Birthday, Jerry Lewis!

August 20, 2017 was for many fans of comedy a day to weep…not laugh.  The man born Joseph Levitch (though other sources report his name as Jerome) in Newark, NJ on this date in 1926 had left this world for a better one.  Whether or not you consider yourself a fan, it’s inarguable that Jerry Lewis made incalculably important contributions to comedy.  Lewis was one of the few performers whose show business career touched upon every facet of entertainment in the 20th century.  He began in vaudeville and burlesque before achieving initial fame in nightclubs.  Jerry conquered movies, working not only as an actor-comedian, but graduating to a position as a writer, director, and producer.  He flourished in television with variety programs and talk shows, conquered Las Vegas and Broadway…and of course, Lewis did okay for himself in radio as well.

Jerry Lewis seemed destined for a life in show business.  His father, Danny, was a vaudeville performer and M.C. (Master of Ceremonies); his mother, Rachel (known to all as “Rae”), was Danny’s musical director and a piano player for New York’s WOR.  Jerry began performing on stage at age five, and initially achieved some small success with what became known as “The Record Act”—in which he frantically lip-synched and mimed to phonograph records played offstage.  This specialty kept the young comedian busy throughout the New York entertainment circuit affectionately known as “the Borscht Belt.”

It was making the acquaintance of a singer named Dean Martin that would catapult both men to the top of the entertainment world.  Jerry initially met Dean in 1945 at a club called The Glass Hat. A year later, while Jerry was bombing at the Havana-Madrid Club in New York City (the Spanish audience was unreceptive to Lewis’ miming-to-records shtick), he convinced the club manager to let him cut up a little during Martin’s performance, as Dean was also on the bill at the time.  Lewis, dressed as a bellboy, interrupted Martin’s musical number by dropping a tray of dishes and generally wreaking havoc, and this resulted in a hilarious exchange of insults between the duo that laid the audience in the aisles. Their subsequent nightclub bookings came fast and furious; it was estimated that the team took in $15,000 weekly in 1948 alone.

It wouldn’t take long before the public became familiar with Martin and Lewis’ antics over the ether. Dean and Jerry made a well-received appearance on The Bob Hope Show in October of 1948, and NBC decided to give the duo their own radio show. It premiered on April 3, 1949, with Lucille Ball as their guest.  NBC spent $10,000 a week on The Martin & Lewis Show, booking big celebrities like Henry Fonda, John Garfield, and Jane Russell…but the show failed to attract much of an audience.  The program left NBC on January 30, 1950.

Though their work in radio experienced a temporary setback, the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would return to a microphone in the fall of 1951 with a show that would run for two seasons.  The reason for this was the duo’s popularity in motion pictures…which began (interestingly enough) with an appearance in a movie based on a radio hit.  Paramount brought My Friend Irma to the silver screen in 1949, with star Marie Wilson reprising her radio role as the frustratingly dim-witted blonde. Martin & Lewis were added to the cast as incidental characters; Martin played a love interest for the Jane Stacy character (played in the film by Diana Lynn).  My Friend Irma not only became a box-office smash, it led to a sequel the following year (My Friend Irma Goes West). The first solo Dean & Jerry film followed: At War with the Army (1950).  Martin & Lewis would soon overtake Abbott & Costello as the #1 movie comedy team, appearing in a string of celluloid smashes that included That’s My Boy (1951), Sailor Beware (1951), Jumping Jacks (1952), Scared Stiff(1953), and Money from Home (1953).

Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were also hard at work convulsing television audiences as well.  The team were among the guests on the very first telecast of Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of the Town on June 20, 1948, and they would eventually be hired to host The Colgate Comedy Hour in the fall of 1950. (The Colgate series rotated the hosts regularly, insuring that Martin & Lewis were not tied down to a weekly series.)  It’s been said that while nothing could quite capture the improvised zaniness of Dean & Jerry’s nightclub act, their assignments on the Comedy Hour came as close as possible.  The duo remained mainstays on the program until it left the airwaves in December of 1955.

Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin continued their string of movie successes with hits like Living It Up (1954), You’re Never Too Young (1955), and Artists and Models (1955)…but their partnership had already started to show signs of strain by the time the duo made 3 Ring Circus (1954).  Martin’s role in their films had started to take a backseat to Lewis’ antics, and the friction that developed would eventually lead to their break-up before their final film as a team, Hollywood or Bust, was released in 1956.  Both men would later have wildly successful solo film careers…though it was Lewis who fared a little better on the moviemaking side, with popular releases like The Delicate Delinquent (1957), Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), and Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959).  The 1960 comedy The Bellboy established Jerry as a director, and he would helm such successes as The Ladies’ Man (1961) and The Nutty Professor (1963), the latter considered by his many fans to be his best solo film.

Although Jerry Lewis continued to make appearances on television—he hosted a two-hour variety show in 1963 and another variety hour from 1967 to 1969—he never found the small screen success that his ex-partner achieved with The Dean Martin Show from 1965 to 1974.  It didn’t really matter much in the big picture, however; Lewis was a frequent guest (and occasional guest host) on outlets like The Tonight Show.  In addition, from 1966 to 2010, he hosted the popular Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, an annual fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  Jerry would continue to make movies throughout the 1960s (The PatsyThe Family Jewels) before finishing out the decade with Which Way to the Front? In 1970.  He was absent from the silver screen for about a decade until he returned in the 1980s with hits like Hardly Working (1981) and Cracking Up (1983).  It was about this time that Jerry began to receive critical praise for appearances in the likes of such films as The King of Comedy (1983) and Funny Bones (1995).

Despite a series of health setbacks over the years, Jerry Lewis never let his energy wane. In 1995, he achieved a lifelong ambition to appear in a Broadway production, portraying The Devil in a revival of the musical Damn Yankees.  Lewis continued to be a dynamo with guest roles on TV shows like Mad About You and Law & Order: SVU. His final solo film, Max Rose, was released in 2013 and his cinematic swan song was 2016’s The Trust.  However, Jerry Lewis had a booking to play an exclusive nightclub in The Great Beyond and left this world to fulfill that obligation at the age of 91.

From 1950 to 1955, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin appeared in twenty-eight telecasts of The Colgate Comedy Hour…and on The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection—a DVD set available from Radio Spirits—you can revisit those hilarious moments when TV was live and America’s favorite comedy team was working without a net.  (The collection also features three of Jerry’s solo films: 3 on a Couch [1966], Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River [1968], and Hook, Line and Sinker [1969].)  You’ll also find clips of our birthday boy on Funniest Moments of Comedy, a 6-DVD collection stuffed with classic clowns from the worlds of both the big and small screens.  Happy birthday to the incomparable Jerry Lewis!

Happy Birthday, Pat McGeehan!

Patrick Joseph McGeehan—born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on this date in 1907—enjoyed a long and fruitful association with comedian Red Skelton.  He joined Red’s radio program as an announcer in the fall of 1943 and, though he would eventually take a back seat to Rod O’Connor as Red’s foil, McGeehan was still on hand as an assistant announcer…plus he played many incidental roles on the show as well.  Pat would later transition to Skelton’s TV series, as an announcer, during the 1951-52 season.

According to an April 30, 1944 issue of Radio Life, Pat McGeehan considered himself “dull copy.”  This was far from the truth! At the age of 14, young Pat was filled with wanderlust and signed on to be an apprentice seaman on the Leviathan.  He globetrotted in that capacity for six years and, upon his return to New York, he began working in various vaudeville and musical comedy shows. That is, until he made the acquaintance of wire walker Con Colleano.  Colleano hired McGeehan to be a companion-secretary, and the duo traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada for another six years with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

McGeehan would eventually leave Ringling to focus on a show business career…but the Great Depression was at its height, and Pat had to settle for a gig with the Works Project Administration, handling a pick and shovel.  Eventually, McGeehan—through his association with both the Federal Theatre Project and the Pasadena Playhouse—started to land some radio jobs, and it wasn’t long before he was one of the busiest actor-announcers in the industry.  His pre-Skelton work includes assignments on The Romance of the RanchosThe Cavalcade of America, and Dr. Christian. One of his high-profile gigs was as an announcer on an Orson Welles series, Ceiling Unlimited, which premiered over CBS Radio on November 9, 1942 for Lockheed Vega Aircraft.  (Come to think of it—I’d be curious to know just how many people in the radio audience were looking to buy an airplane.)

Welles’ stint with the program didn’t last long; Orson had a disagreement with an agency man and walked off the show. The hosting duties were left to various guest celebrities until Lost Horizon author James Hilton took over in June.  Two months later, the series was re-christened America—Ceiling Unlimited and revamped as a half-hour variety program, with Welles’ Citizen Kane co-star Joseph Cotten as master of ceremonies.  McGeehan continued in his role of announcer until the show signed off on April 30, 1944; by that time Pat was not only working for Red Skelton, he was doing up to six shows a day.

Red Skelton wasn’t the only comedian in need of Pat McGeehan’s services.  Pat worked for a time as an announcer on the Joan Davis and Abbott & Costello shows, and would ply his comedic acting talents as a guest on the likes of The Adventures of MaisieBurns and AllenCommand PerformanceThe Eddie Cantor ShowFibber McGee & MollyThe Great GildersleeveThe Jack Benny ProgramThe Life of RileyMail Call, and Meet Mr. McNutley.  His work on weekly dramatic and anthology shows included Diary of FateFamily TheatreGunsmokeHollywood PreviewIntrigueJeff Regan, InvestigatorLet George Do It, The LineupThe Roy Rogers ShowScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodSuspenseThe Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Pat McGeehan played “Ben Calvert” on an NBC West Coast soap opera, The Story of Aunt Mary, for several years (the show ran from 1942 to 1951) and was associated with The Hour of St. Francis (a syndicated dramatic anthology that, despite its title, ran only fifteen minutes).  Pat was “the voice” of the latter show, and he gained much recognition for his recitation of the Catholic saint’s peace prayer.  McGeehan even got the opportunity to be the star of a show: a syndicated series entitled Strange Adventure.

Pat’s movie work relied on his announcing talents; he narrated such films as The Dark Past (1948), Son of the Renegade (1953), and Okefenokee (1959).  Yet his talents as a voice actor came in handy in the field of animated cartoons. The IMDb doesn’t credit him, but he’s been identified by ‘toon experts as participating in such Tex Avery-directed efforts as Doggone Tired (1949) and Rock-a-Bye Bear (1952).  McGeehan also did voice work on an early television cartoon series entitled NBC Comics. Rounding out his small screen work are announcer-narrator assignments on the likes of The Bob Hope ShowThe Loretta Young ShowFibber McGee & Molly, and Insight.  His final TV credit (according to the IMDb) was on an episode of The Law and Mr. Jones; he left this world for a better one in 1988 at age 80.

As a member of the wonderfully hilarious ensemble that comprised radio’s The Red Skelton Show, you’ll find much McGeehan in our Red collections Scrapbook of Satire (with liner notes by yours truly), Clowning, and our newest release, Mischief.  There’s also Skelton to be had in our Yuletide sets Christmas Radio Classics and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations, and in our all-star comedy compendiums Comedy Goes West and Great Radio Comedy.  See of you can identify our birthday boy in Burns & Allen: Muddling ThroughFamily Theatre: Every HomeRoy Rogers: King of the Cowboys, and Suspense: Beyond Good and Evil.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Jean Wong!

It became one of old-time radio’s most cherished traditions.  The annual Christmas broadcast of Amos ‘n’ Andy, in which family man Amos Jones tucks his daughter Arbadella into bed on Christmas Eve and explains to her the meaning of The Lord’s Prayer.  While you probably know that the role of Amos was played by Freeman Gosden on that long-running series, it was an Asian-American actress who essayed the role of Amos’ little girl.  Her name was Barbara Jean Wong, and she was born in Los Angeles, California on this date in 1924.

Barbara Jean began her show business career at the age of five. Due to her charm and her long black hair (which was curled into ringlets), many people thought of her as an Asian-American version of Shirley Temple.  Wong, who had attended the Fanchon and Marco School of the Theater, didn’t dissuade them from this notion when she performed as a dancer for charity events and women’s clubs.  A small part in the 1934 film The Painted Veil stoked Barbara Jean’s interest in acting. After landing roles on NBC’s Strange As It Seems and CBS radio shows like White Fires of Inspiration and The Lux Radio Theatre, she provided the voice of Judy Barton in the syndicated The Cinnamon Bear, a Yuletide-themed show that continues to entertain new generations of fans every year.

A role as the eldest daughter on the Charlie Chan radio program in 1938 would later be mirrored with an uncredited part (she was demoted to Daughter Number Three, sadly) in the film Charlie Chan in Honolulu, released that same year.  Barbara Jean continued to balance her radio work with her studies, graduating from the Mar-Ken Professional School for Children in 1941 (one of her classmates was Mickey Rooney!).  She was already appearing on Amos ‘n’ Andy, but she also found steady work playing Asian characters (P.Y. Ling, Lee Taw Ming, etc.) on Carlton Morse’s I Love a Mystery (and later I Love Adventure).  In addition, Wong appeared in such motion pictures as China (1943), Behind the Rising Sun (1943), Babes on Swing Street (1945), and God is My Co-Pilot (1945).

Barbara Jean Wong later made appearances in three of the Charlie Chan films produced at Monogram—two with Sidney Toler (The Red DragonThe Trap) and one with Roland Winters (The Chinese Ring).  Upon earning degrees in English and drama at USC and Columbia University, Wong dropped the “Barbara” and began billing herself as Jean Wong while working on such films as Calcutta (1947) and Chinatown at Midnight (1949).  Barbara Jean also kept her hand in radio, with appearances on the likes of The Cavalcade of America, Hallmark PlayhouseThe Hallmark Hall of FameNight BeatRomance, and Tarzan.  One of her best performances was on a February 17, 1950 broadcast of The Halls of Ivy, in which she played a Chinese student who wants to leave college after experiencing extreme prejudice.  Wong would reprise that role when that episode was adapted for the TV version of the show. In addition, her small screen resume includes such series as Boston BlackieFireside Theatre, The Lone Wolf, and Buffalo Bill, Jr.

While Barbara Jean Wong was an accomplished radio actress, she didn’t always have great luck in motion pictures. By the 1950s, most of the movies in which she appeared were placing her in the background in uncredited parts: China Corsair (1951), Soldier of Fortune (1955), and The Left Hand of God (1955).  Her last film appearance—not counting the 1965 animated film The Man from Button Willow, in which she provided the voice of “Stormy”—was as a nurse in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955).  (The IMDb credits her with an appearance on the TV series Anna and the King of Siam in 1972.)  After marrying Robert Wah Lee in 1950, she began a retreat from acting. Barbara Jean would earn teaching credentials from Cal State in Los Angeles and work as an elementary school teacher until her retirement in 1992.  Barbara Jean Wong passed on from a respiratory illness in 1999 at the age of 75.

Radio Spirits’ compilation Stop the Press! Gives you an opportunity to hear Barbara Jean Wong earn her “bread and butter” on an April 17, 1950 broadcast of Night Beat entitled “The Tong War.”  Happy birthday, Barbara Jean!

Happy Birthday, Louise Erickson!

Actress Louise Erickson—born in Oakland, California on this date in 1928—becomes a nonagenarian today…and we at Radio Spirits couldn’t be more excited about celebrating the occasion.  In the 1940s, Louise was one of the “go-to” thespians whenever the role of a teenage girl needed to be played on radio…and from 1943 to 1950, she would emote as “that lovable teenage girl who’s close to all our hearts” as the star of A Date with Judy.  And yet as they say in commercials: ”But, wait…there’s more!”

Moving to Hollywood with her parents at the age of seven (her father Arthur was a restaurateur) allowed young Louise to get in on radio’s ground floor with a role on a local kids’ program, Uncle Whoa Bill.  She was royalty on that show (she played a fairy princess), and Louise would later make her network debut on a broadcast of Dr. Christian.  Erickson was one of several juvenile performers on Mutual’s Dramas of Youth, and with experience on such favorites as The Cavalcade of America, she landed a plum assignment playing Mitzi—gal pal and co-conspirator of Judy Foster on A Date with Judy.  When Date premiered on June 24, 1941 as a summer replacement for The Bob Hope Show, the role of Ms. Foster was portrayed by child actress Ann Gillis. However, by the time Louise joined the show, Dellie Ellis was playing Judy.  A Date with Judy would be pressed into service to be Eddie Cantor’s replacement in the summer of 1943; Erickson got a promotion to the lead when Ellis bowed out.

A Date with Judy opened a lot of doors in radio for Louise Erickson.  Before Janet Waldo took over as bubbly Emmy Lou on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Louise played the part.  When the success of Judy inspired CBS to launch their own teenage girl comedy, Meet Corliss Archer (based on the character created by F. Hugh Herbert), Erickson appeared on that program as Corliss’ pal Mildred (with Corliss portrayed by Waldo, of course).  Louise would later play Babs, the eldest daughter of lunkheaded working stiff Chester A. Riley on The Life of Riley during that show’s run.  Other radio favorites on which Erickson worked include The Adventures of the SaintThe Alan Young Show (as Alan’s girlfriend Betty), Arch Oboler’s PlaysCloak and DaggerGranby’s Green Acres(as Janice), The Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and Repeat Performance.

Though A Date with Judy made Louise Erickson a radio star, it was The Great Gildersleeve that provided the actress with her most fondly remembered showcase.  In later years, Erickson reminisced about her time on the series: “Of all the programs I did on radio The Great Gildersleeve is the one that still stands up today; the writing was superb, and Hal Peary was a comedic genius.”  Louise inherited the role of Marjorie Forrester from Lurene Tuttle, who played Marjorie from 1941 to 1944.  On one broadcast, Erickson was too ill to appear and another actress, Mary Lee Robb, agreed to fill in for her.  (That “audition” allowed Robb to continue as Marjorie in the fall of 1948.)

Erickson’s steady radio work as Judy Foster would later translate to motion pictures. Louise had a small role in the 1944 musical comedy Rosie the Riveter (Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer played her brother). In Meet Miss Bobby Socks, released that same year, she received a bit more exposure as a lovesick teenager who falls head-over-heels for a bandleader (played by Bob Crosby).  (Also in 1944: Louise appeared with Gildersleeve star Hal Peary in an installment of Paramount’s “Unusual Occupations” shorts series, in a brief segment on the “making of” the show.)  Louise was snubbed when MGM decided to bring A Date with Judy to the big screen in 1948 (Jane Powell played Judy…they should have stuck with the original), and her only other movie of note is 1950’s Three Husbands…which allowed her a small-but-scene-stealing role.

The only item on Louise Erickson’s small screen resume was a guest appearance on a telecast of Hollywood Theatre Time. The August 10, 1951 installment, “Father’s Harem,” featured a few of her fellow radio veterans including Elvia Allman, Sarah Selby, and Hanley Stafford.  Perhaps she was looking for something beyond her extensive body of radio work (she did have a small role in a 1957 Broadway production of A Hole in the Head), because after her second marriage she took up writing. According to authors Charles Stumpf and Ben Ohmart, Louise accepted a job in New York City as a museum tour guide for handicapped children.

To celebrate Louise Erickson’s special day, Radio Spirits recommends you check out Neighbors, a collection of classic broadcasts from The Great Gildersleeve.  Our Life of Riley set, Blue Collar Blues, features several shows with Louise as Babs.  In addition, you can hear Ms. Erickson on two of our potpourri compilations. Great Radio Detectives gives Louise a guest shot on The Adventures of the Saint (“The Horrible Hamburger,” from September 10, 1950) and Great Radio Comedy allows her to be the star of A Date with Judy in a classic February 20, 1945 broadcast (a personal favorite of mine) in which our teenaged heroine dreams that boyfriend Oogie Pringle has switched places…with none other than Francis Albert Sinatra himself!  Happy ninetieth to you, Ms. Ericson–to paraphrase your radio boyfriend, “you look sna-a-zzy!”

Happy Birthday, Robert Young!

During his lengthy career in show business, Robert George Young—born on this date in 1907—cultivated a characteristic that’s best described in one word: dependable.  He was a reliable leading man for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the 1930s and early ‘40s, accepting any role that came his way (even if a good many of the films he graced were B-pictures).  He would later dominate the small screen with two phenomenally successful television shows; the first a beloved family situation comedy we know as Father Knows Best, and the second an hour-long medical drama in which he played compassionate physician Marcus Welby, M.D. What may not be generally known among the actor’s fans is that he could call himself a veteran of old-time radio as well.

Born in Chicago, IL, Bob left the Windy City as a child when his parents relocated to Seattle, WA…and later to Los Angeles, CA.  The acting bug bit Young early, as he performed in numerous dramatic productions during his years of attendance at LA’s Abraham Lincoln High School. Upon graduation, the ambitious thespian studied at night at the Pasadena Playhouse while working various odd jobs during the day (such as bank clerk and loan collector).  As he acquired experience on stage, Young made his uncredited movie debut in 1928’s The Campus Vamp.  His first onscreen credit was in the Charlie Chan mystery The Black Camel (1931), and upon being summoned to a meeting with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, Bob was signed to a contract at the studio known for “more stars than there are in Heaven.”

Robert Young soon learned as an MGM contract player that when the call came down for him to appear in a movie—any movie—he did so without hesitation.  Young revealed in an interview with Leonard Maltin that the studio’s modus operandi as far as a Young picture was concerned simply boiled down to “let’s get Bob.”  The actor appeared in a lot of programmers, but he worked hard and many of his early film appearances demonstrate the likability that would cement his cinematic reputation.  Among some of his lesser-known films (but interesting all the same) are The Guilty Generation (1931), The Kid from Spain (1932), Men Must Fight (1933), The House of Rothschild (1934), Whom the Gods Destroy (1934) and Secret Agent (1936—directed by Alfred Hitchcock).  Young would later observe facetiously that he often got the roles another well-known Robert (Montgomery, that is) turned down…but this allowed him to work alongside such leading ladies as Katharine Hepburn, Margaret Sullavan, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Helen Hayes and Luise Rainer.

Every now and then, Young received an opportunity to up his acting game in “A” productions: he landed plum roles in the likes of Three Comrades (1938), Northwest Passage (1940), The Mortal Storm (1940) and Western Union (1941).  One of Bob’s finest thespic showcases was in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), in which he plays the title gentleman—an introverted, conservative man who’s coaxed out of his shell by a breathtakingly lovely Hedy Lamarr (it was also one of Lamarr’s best acting turns as well).  While he continued to be the model of a good company man, Bob’s employment with MGM was responsible for introducing him to a stint behind the radio microphone as the host of Good News of 1938.

Premiering on November 4, 1937 over NBC, and sponsored by Maxwell House, Good News essentially served as an hour-long promotion for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. (It was often joked that it was difficult to tell whether MGM was sponsoring Maxwell House or vice versa).  After hosting stints by James Stewart and Robert Taylor, Young got the emcee nod in the fall of 1938. He presided over the festivities for a season before relinquishing the broadcast torch to a rotating series of hosts (included Dick Powell).  Such leading celebrity lights as Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Lionel Barrymore were frequent guests…but the Good News series also became famous for featuring the comedy of Frank Morgan and Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks).

In addition to cavorting with Frank and Fanny, Robert Young was a welcomed guest alongside such radio funsters as Burns & Allen and Fibber McGee & Molly—as well as Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour.  Bob was a frequent presence on The Lux Radio Theatre, dramatizing not only his own starring films but those instances where they had to “get Bob,” and he guested on Suspense a number of times as well.  Young’s radio resume includes The Cavalcade of AmericaThe CBS Radio WorkshopCommand PerformanceFamily TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star PlayhouseMail CallThe Radio Reader’s DigestThe Screen Guild TheatreThe Silver TheatreStudio One and Theatre of Romance.  In 1943, he starred as a globetrotting newspaperman in a brief Norman Corwin-created series, Passport for Adams.  And in the fall of 1944—when Frank Morgan and Fanny Brice went their separate ways in separate shows—Bob returned to Maxwell House as the emcee for what was often referred to as The Frank Morgan Show (which also featured Cass Daley and Eric Blore in the cast).

No one was more relieved than Bob Young when MGM finally released him from his contract in the early 1940s. Despite his admirable work ethic, the studio often treated him shabbily (L.B. Mayer thought he had “no sex appeal”), and habitually made him wait until the last minute to learn whether or not he’d be with the organization for another year.  Young then moved on to 20th Century-Fox, appearing in the likes of Claudia (1943), Claudia and David (1946) and Sitting Pretty (1948). He also did two movies at RKO, both of which are now considered masterpieces of film noir: They Won’t Believe Me and Crossfire (both 1947).  On radio, however, his old friend Maxwell House beckoned once again…this time with an offer to play patriarch Jim Anderson in a new NBC radio sitcom: Father Knows Best.

The radio version of Father underwent quite a metamorphosis during its time over the airwaves.  In the 1948 audition (which might have been called Father Knows Best?), Young’s character was a knucklehead in the Chester Riley mold. Creator Ed James toned down Jim’s dunderheadedness by the time the show officially went on the air on August 25, 1949, but he was still a far cry from the affable, understanding insurance salesman dad we remember from the small screen.  Still, the series was a successful one, lasting until April 25, 1954, and smoothly transitioned to TV in the fall of that same year.  It was on the small screen that Father reached its full maturity. The wholesome family sitcom won acting Emmys for Bob and co-star Jane Wyatt during its six-year-run (first a season on CBS, then three years at NBC, then back to CBS for its final two seasons).  It was still a Top Ten favorite in its last season: the show only made its final bow in front of the boob tube curtain because its star wanted to pursue other projects.

And pursue those projects he did: Robert Young followed Father Knows Best with an ambitious comedy-drama that he also created and produced, Window on Main Street.  It lasted only a season on CBS, but his third television attempt succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.  It began as a 1969 TV-movie entitled A Matter of Humanities, which was so well received that it became a weekly series in September of that same year. On Marcus Welby, M.D., Bob essayed the role of a kindly general practitioner dedicated to his patients. James Brolin co-starred as his partner in practice, and the program ran for seven seasons on ABC from 1969 to 1977. (In the 1970-71 season, it become the first ABC show to finish at #1.) For his efforts, Young would win another acting Emmy.  He revisited the role in two “reunion” TV movies in 1984 and 1988…with the last movie featuring his final acting role before his death at the age of 91 in 1998.

Radio Spirits features today’s birthday boy in his signature radio role on Father Knows Best with an 8-CD collection of sixteen sidesplitting broadcasts from 1953—it’s a bit different from the long-running TV version, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.  You’ll also convulse with laughter at the Andersons’ antics in an additional collection, Maple Street.  For dessert, enjoy Robert Young and fellow TV patriarch Danny “Make Room for Daddy” Thomas in an episode of TV’s The Christophers, available on our DVD Stars in Their Shorts.  Happy birthday to not only one of our favorite TV dads…but one of our prized television doctors, too!

“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…”

The man officially known as The Reverend Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C. was chaplain of the Holy Cross Brothers of the Vincentian Institute in Albany, New York during World War II. Father Peyton established himself as a leader who promoted the importance of family strength during those tumultuous times.  One of his methods involved the ritual of praying the Family Rosary, and he pitched the idea of broadcasting the Rosary ritual.  This had been popular on a local Albany station in 1942, but the major networks politely turned him down, explaining that it wouldn’t be proper for them to endorse just one denomination.  Undaunted, Father Peyton proposed broadening the scope of his project to a weekly half-hour dramatic anthology…in which the only “commercial” would be an appeal for family prayer.  That show made its debut over Mutual on this date in 1947; when listeners to Family Theatre heard for the first time that “a world at prayer is a world at peace.”

Mutual donated the airtime for Family Theatre, but insisted on a few concessions.  The series had to be of top quality, had to be nonsectarian…and Peyton would have to shoulder the cost of the weekly program.  The network’s final request was that Family Theatre spotlight a major film star on each broadcast, but that would not prove to be a problem for the determined Peyton.  The priest had previously participated in a special Mother’s Day broadcast for Mutual in 1945, and was asked if he could get a big-time celebrity to appear – so he boldly approached Bing Crosby on the set of The Bells of St. Mary’s (in which Der Bingle plays a priest). The Old Groaner acquiesced to Peyton’s request and the broadcast proved quite successful, laying the groundwork for Family Theatre.

For the new series, Peyton met with actress Loretta Young…who gave him some pointers on how to approach her film colony brethren and sistren, and in doing so became Family Theatre’s unofficial “first lady.”  With James Stewart and Don Ameche, Young appeared on that inaugural broadcast in February, and would go on to grace more than thirty subsequent broadcasts.  A sample of the high-power celluloid wattage on Family Theatre includes notables such as Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Shirley Temple, Irene Dunne, Edward G. Robinson, and Maureen O’Sullivan. As OTR historian John Dunning noted in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio: “It can be safely said that no series offered more Hollywood personalities in the same span of time.”

Family Theatre was a well-produced series whose quality matched that of higher-profile anthologies aired at that time, such as Suspense and The Lux Radio Theatre.  The stories featured only the tiniest soupçon of religion, and many times classic tales like Moby Dick and Don Quixote were brought before the microphones.  The dogma was saved for commercial breaks, with Father Peyton offering up observations along the lines of his famous slogan (created by Al Scalpone): “The family that prays together stays together.”

At the same time that Family Theatre was being welcomed into listeners’ homes every week, the series made a successful transition to the small screen in 1951 (in an hour-long version also hosted by Peyton).  The boob tube incarnation left the airwaves in 1958, running a year longer than its radio cousin…though the aural version was broadcast in repeats by many Mutual stations as late as the 1960s.  Father Peyton kept personal transcriptions of the broadcasts and made them available to collectors even as he continued his work hosting “rosary rallies” throughout Latin America and elsewhere.  Peyton left this world for a better one in 1992 at the age of 93, but in 2017 (according to his website) Pope Francis declared him “Venerable.”  This was “a rare recognition by the universal Church that Father Peyton is a person of heroic virtue” and that he lived “a life worthy of veneration by all Christians.”

One of the many celebrity performers on Family Theatre was Jack Benny, and you can sample one of his appearances on that show (“The Golden Touch” from May 23, 1951) on Radio Spirits’ collection of vintage Benny broadcasts, Be Our Guest.  Yuletide-themed episodes of Theatre can be found on our Christmas sets The Voices of Christmas Past (“Crossroads of Christmas”) and Christmas Radio Classics (“Ruth”).  But the compendium that will give you more Family value for your dollar is Every Home, an 8-CD set of sixteen classic broadcasts spotlighting the work of stars like Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly, Donna Reed, and Ethel Barrymore.  The family that gathers ’round the radio together, enjoys Family Theatre together!

Happy Birthday, William Johnstone!

Old-time radio fans know that when Orson Welles made the decision to abandon his role as Lamont Cranston (aka The Shadow) and go on to better things (scaring the daylights out of listeners on Halloween, for example), actor William Llewellyn Johnstone was there to take his place as the “wealthy young man-about-town.” Johnstone, born in New York City on this date in 1908, was no doubt well-acquainted with wunderkind Welles, having worked with Orson when the two were employed on CBS’ The March of Time (where Bill impersonated Cordell Hull and King Edward VIII). The two actors would also share a microphone on Welles’ first Mercury radio presentation, Les Miserables, in 1937.

In fact, you can hear Johnstone on Welles’ first Shadow broadcast, “The Death House Rescue” (09/26/37)—Bill plays the innocent man headed for a date with the electric chair. The actor would work on The Shadow several more times before donning the slouch hat and cloak in the fall of 1938…and though Johnstone always performed in an exemplary style, more than a few people thought he sounded a bit too grandfatherly to play the considerably younger Lamont Cranston. (I’ve joked in the past that Bill was more of a “wealthy old man-about-town.”)

Bill Johnstone’s early radio career was dominated by a genre not uncommon to radio artists: soap operas. He emoted on a good many of them, including Five-Star JonesIrene Rich DramasJoyce Jordan, M.D.Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage PatchValiant Lady, and Wilderness Road. His exposure on The Shadow led him to become one of the busiest actors in the radio business, working on such anthologies as Arch Oboler’s PlaysThe Columbia WorkshopFamily TheatreFavorite StoryThe General Electric TheatreGreat PlaysHallmark PlayhouseThe Railroad HourRomanceScreen Director’s PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Romance. He was practically a regular on The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre, and later continued his association with Orson Welles with appearances on Campbell PlayhouseThe Mercury Summer Theatre, and This is My Best.

Bill appeared many times on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, in the early days of that long-running anthology…and during its sponsorship by Auto-Lite, he would interact with announcer Harlow Wilcox in the role of “Hap the mechanic.” Escape and The Whistler also called upon his talents (Johnstone even briefly played the titular narrator on the latter program). To list every show on which Johnstone collected a paycheck would be a Herculean task, but some of the better-known programs include The Adventures of Frank RaceThe Adventures of the AbbottsThe Adventures of the SaintBroadway’s My BeatCrime ClassicsDangerous AssignmentDiary of FateDr. SixgunDragnet (a powerful performance in the Yuletide classic “.22 Rifle for Christmas”), Ellery QueenThe FBI in Peace and WarI Was a Communist for the FBILet George Do ItThe Man Called XThe Mysterious TravelerNick Carter, Master DetectiveNight BeatPursuitRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveThe Roy Rogers ShowThe Silent MenThe Six ShooterThe Story of Dr. Kildare, Tales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIT-ManVoyage of the Scarlet Queen, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

William Johnstone was the first actor to play Sanderson “Sandy” Taylor, sidekick of sleuthing San Francisco importer Gregory Hood on The Casebook of Gregory Hood (he was replaced by Howard McNear), and enjoyed stints as Lieutenant Ybarra on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe and as Inspector Cramer on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. The actor’s range was such that he was also adept at comedy, with roles on such sitcoms as Amos ‘n’ AndyThe Bill Goodwin ShowThe Halls of IvyMy Favorite HusbandOur Miss BrooksThe Penny Singleton Show, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Early in his radio career, Johnstone played “Wilfred Mason,” the father of the teen heroine on Maudie’s Diary, a sitcom that predated the better-known A Date with Judy and Meet Corliss Archer. In the summer of 1946, he would reunite with his former Shadow leading lady Agnes Moorehead on her sitcom The Amazing Mrs. Danberry.

Outside of his turn as Lamont Cranston, Bill Johnstone’s best-known radio gig would inarguably be that of Lieutenant Ben Guthrie on the police procedural The Line-Up, an outstanding crime drama that aired on CBS Radio from 1950 to 1953 featuring Wally Maher and, later, Jack Moyles. The series would later make a successful transition to television (and produce a big screen version in 1958), but Johnstone was not asked to reprise his role when it was brought to boob tube audiences. Bill would never completely abandon radio; he was heard in a version of Pepper Young’s Family in 1966, and made a number of appearances on The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre in the 1970s.

While William Johnstone’s radio career was an industrious one, he didn’t appear in many feature films. But when he did step in front of the cameras, he displayed the same professionalism that was evident when he stood before a microphone. You might know him as John Jacob Astor in 20th Century-Fox’s 1953 Titanic release, and his movie resume also includes All My Sons (1948), The Magnificent Yankee (1950), My Favorite Spy (1951), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and Down Three Dark Streets (1954—a personal favorite). On the small screen, Bill reprised his turn from “.22 Rifle for Christmas” when it was done on the TV Dragnet, and he also guested on such series as Tom Corbett, Space CadetFour Star Playhouse and The Big Story. For many years, Johnstone was the law in the fictional city of Oakdale as Judge James T. Lowell on the daytime drama As the World Turns, a gig that ran from 1956 to 1979. William Johnstone would pass on in 1996 at the age of 88.

If you were to ask us (rhetorically, of course) “Might there be some Radio Spirits collections featuring today’s birthday boy?” we would chuckle in a sinister manner, mutter something along the lines of “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit,” and invite you to check out Bill Johnstone’s signature role as The Shadow on Bitter FruitDead Men TellEvil Lurks, Hearts of EvilKnight of DarknessRadio Treasures, and Strange Puzzles. Our set of broadcasts from The Line-Up (Witness) also features some of Bill’s outstanding radio work. In addition, there’s The Adventures of Philip MarloweAmos ‘n’ Andy (Volume Two), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Escape (Essentials), The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (Parties for Death), Night Beat (Human Interest), The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show (Smoother and Sweeter), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead MenHomicide Made Easy), The Six Shooter (Gray SteelSpecial Edition), Stop the Press! (with the Night Beat episode “Doctor’s Secret”), Suspense (At WorkTies That Bind), The Weird Circle (Toll the Bell), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar). Last—but certainly not least—listen to Mr. Johnstone “walk by night” as one of the many Whistlers in the Whistler: Voices compilation! Happy birthday to one of the true radio greats!

Happy Birthday, Dan Duryea!

“He was Dark City’s most enchanting villain,” writes author/Turner Classic Movies personality Eddie Muller in his essential reference Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, “the man audiences loved to hate.”  Muller is talking about actor Dan Duryea, once described by movie critic Paul Gaita as “the go-to for malevolent supporting roles in Westerns and crime pictures.”  Despite his onscreen nastiness, the man born on this date in 1907 was, off-screen, a model citizen and devout family man whose interests included gardening and boating…not to mention being a member of both the P.T.A and the Boy Scouts (as a Scout Master!).  Nevertheless, whenever there was deviltry to be done, Dan was more than up to the task in films, TV…and old-time radio.

White Plains, New York is where Dan called home—the son of Mabel and textile salesman Richard Duryea.  Dan’s interest in acting began during his teenage years at White Plains High School as a member of the drama club, and continued in college as he pursued a degree in English at Cornell University.  (His senior year found him taking over as president of Cornell’s Dramatic Society…from a classmate who also did quite well for himself later in motion pictures, Franchot Tone.)  Duryea’s parents weren’t at all keen on their son’s interest in an acting career and, to placate them, Dan got work in advertising.  The job soon affected Duryea’s health; after suffering a mild heart attack, Dan decided that an actor’s existence would be a little less stressful. He began to focus on achieving his dream.  (In later years, Duryea remarked to interviewers that all he needed to work up the required violence in one of his characters was to think back on his terrible experiences in the ad biz.)

Duryea worked in summer stock, and got his Broadway break playing the small role of a “G-Man” in the Sidney Kingsley play Dead End (1935-37).  He went on to additional roles in Many Mansions (1937) and Missouri Legend (1938) before landing a plum assignment as the loutish Leo Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes in 1939.  His role in Foxes would be reprised in the 1941 feature film version (starring Bette Davis) when Samuel Goldwyn purchased the movie rights to Hellman’s play.  While it was believed to be Dan’s film debut, he had previously played a bit role in a 1934 Argentinian film, El Tango en Broadway (Duryea made this film while looking for work on Broadway).  Dan made such an impression in Foxes (and a wonderful contribution as “Duke Pastrami” in the 1941 Gary Cooper-Barbara Stanwyck comedy Ball of Fire) that when Paramount brought Hellman’s prequel, Another Part of the Forest, to big screens in 1948, Duryea was cast as the young version of his character’s father (played in Foxes by Carl Benton Reid).

Other film roles followed—The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Sahara (1943), Mrs. Skeffington (1944)—but Duryea eventually began to carve out a niche for himself as what Muller describes as “a delectable bastard” with “an odd, almost fetishistic onscreen forte—beating women.” A prime example of this is the treatment he gives femme fatale Joan Bennett in the 1944 noir classic The Woman in the Window…at one point giving her the back of his hand and then throwing her onto a bed.  Directed by Fritz Lang, Window is one of Dan’s best vehicles (he is pure dagnasty evil) and he repeated his menacing ways in the director’s Scarlet Street, released the following year.  (Duryea had also appeared in Lang’s Ministry of Fear [1944], in which he does a memorable bit as a Nazi spy masquerading as a tailor brandishing a pair of lethal shears.)  Dan continued to play heavies in such films as Criss Cross (1949—as gangster Slim Dundee, one of his best bad guy showcases) and Too Late for Tears (1949), but his talent was such that studios soon found work for him as a slightly tarnished good guy in the likes of Black Angel (1946) and The Underworld Story (1950).  Duryea was a serviceable leading man, but as Muller observes: “When Duryea played straight the strange music in his voice tended to go flat.  When his riff was sharp and cunning, he exuded what one admirer described as ‘animal magnetism’.”

1950’s Winchester ’73 gave Dan Duryea the opportunity to portray one of his most memorable villains—that of outlaw Waco Johnny Dean, one of several people who comes into possession of the titular rifle.  The star of that film was James Stewart, and Dan would later be teamed with Jimmy in 1953’s Thunder Bay (he’s on the right side of the law as Stewart’s sidekick) and Night Passage (1957), which restored him to his no-goodnik status.  Duryea excelled at playing Western heavies in such oaters as Silver Lode (1954) and Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), and while he would continue in features throughout the decade with movies like The Burglar (1957) and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), Dan had started to explore new avenues for his talent on the small screen.  He starred in a 1952 syndicated series entitled China Smith, in which he played a soldier-of-fortune who operated out of Singapore, and he reprised that character in a reboot two years later called The New Adventures of China Smith.  Dan performed on such TV anthologies as The Ford Television Theatre and The Lux Video Theatre, and made a hilarious guest appearance on Jack Benny’s TV show in 1955 that spoofed his bad guy image.

Dan Duryea’s motion picture success gave him plenty of opportunities to emote in front of a radio microphone, guesting on such favorites as Family TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe Sealtest Variety Theatre, and Suspense.  Duryea’s most notable contribution in the aural medium, however, was as the star of The Man from Homicide.  Homicide was a summer replacement series for Inner Sanctum Mysteries in 1951, so its run was brief — but it featured Duryea as dedicated detective Lt. Lou Dana (replacing fellow noir actor Charles McGraw, who only appeared in the show’s first episode) and OTR veteran Lawrence Dobkin as his sidekick, Sgt. Meyers.

Duryea continued to work in motion pictures throughout the 1960s, appearing in Westerns like Six Black Horses (1962) and The Bounty Killer (1965), and he worked with Jimmy Stewart one last time in 1966’s The Flight of the Phoenix (as a mild-mannered accountant—a bit closer to his real-life persona).  Dan did a good bit of television around this time as well, guesting on favorites like The Twilight Zone, Laramie, RawhideRoute 66Bonanza, and Burke’s Law.  Though his final feature film was 1968’s The Bamboo Saucer, Dan was working steady as a cast member of TV’s Peyton Place (portraying con man Eddie Jacks) when he passed away at the age of 61 (shortly after undergoing surgery to have a malignancy removed).

“I thought the meaner I presented myself,” Dan Duryea once relayed to gossip maven Hedda Hopper, “the tougher I was with women, slapping them around in well-produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in every nightmare alley and behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment, I could find a market for my screen characters.”  Dan did just that, and Radio Spirits invites you to check out some of our birthday boy’s finest small screen work in a 1958 episode of Climax! (“Four Hours in White”) that’s available on the DVD Great Hollywood Actors on Television and “Badge Without Honor,” a 1960 installment of the boob tube classic Bonanza.  But you’ll really want to check out our The Man from Homicide collection, a 4-CD set containing rare broadcasts of Dan as a hard-boiled homicide cop (“I don’t like killers!”).  Happy birthday to Dan Duryea, the charming bad guy who makes watching classic movies a true delight!