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Happy Birthday, Les Damon!

Lester Joseph Damon—born in Providence, RI on this date in 1908—was memorably described by my Radio Spirits colleague Elizabeth McLeod as “the prototype of the radio actor on the go.”  From his earliest acting experience in stock companies during the 1930s to his busy radio gigs from the 1940s and onward, Les Damon never allowed grass to grow under his thespic feet.  He was one of the medium’s most versatile performers, appearing on dramatic anthologies and soap operas—and is fondly remembered by new generations of old-time radio fans for his detective roles on The Adventures of the Thin Man and The Falcon.

Acting for Les Damon became a profession immediately after graduating from high school.  He became a member of the prestigious Albee Stock Company in his hometown of Providence—in stock companies, actors performed in different plays every night, from leads to character roles.  It was great training for Les, and he pursued his craft in 1934 by serving an apprenticeship with the Old Vic Company in Lambeth, England for a year.

Upon his return to the states, Damon learned to his chagrin that in the acting world…he was a small fish in a trout-stocked pond.  When his stock company folded in 1938, Les gravitated to Chicago in search of employment.  He got lucky: The Windy City was at that time an important hub in radio, particularly in the area of daytime drama.  His talent attracted the notice of Air Features, Inc., the production company run by soap opera moguls Frank and Anne Hummert, and Damon soon began securing roles on such programs as The Romance of Helen Trent and Houseboat Hannah.  That valuable experience would lead to work on soaps not produced by the Hummerts, including The Right to HappinessAunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories, and Portia Faces Life.  Les would eventually move to New York, but continued to work on daytime dramas throughout his radio career, notably The BartonsGirl AloneLone Journey (on which he starred, playing Wolfe Bennett), The Second Mrs. BurtonThis is Nora Drake, and Young Dr. Malone.

July 2, 1941 marked a very important date in the radio career of Lester Damon.  That night, The Adventures of The Thin Man premiered over NBC for Woodbury Soap, a light-hearted detective series based on the famous sleuthing couple created by Dashiell Hammett (and the subjects of a popular MGM film series, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora).  The Thin Man radio series (produced by Inner Sanctum Mysteries’ Himan Brown) became a solid radio hit, but Les’ tenure with the show would be interrupted via a letter from his Uncle Sam.  Inducted into the Army Air Force, Les served with distinction in WW2 and would eventually return to his work in radio during his hitch as a member of the staff of the India-Burma Network.  (Technical Sergeant Damon did newscasts, interviews, and live spot announcements during his time at the IBN.)

Mustered out of the service, Les reclaimed his Thin Man job in 1946 from another Les—Tremayne, who had been portraying Nick Charles in Damon’s absence.  It only lasted a brief period, however; by 1947 Damon had moved onto other gigs, including taking over for Myron McCormick in the titular role on the short-lived The Adventures of Christopher Wells.  Les’ radio resume would eventually make room for many popular series, including The Big StoryThe Cavalcade of AmericaDimension X (and its sister series, X-Minus One), GangbustersThe FBI in Peace and WarThe Ford TheatreThe Haunting HourSuspenseUnder Arrest, and Yours TrulyJohnny Dollar.  In May of 1950, Damon inherited another role from Les Tremayne: that of gumshoe Michael Waring on The Falcon, a show that had been airing on radio since 1943 (Tremayne played the part from 1947-50).  Les Damon would spend three seasons as Waring (who would graduate from P.I. to secret agent during his time on the air), with George Petrie taking over in Falcon’s last season.

Les Damon did not remain idle in radio: in the fall of 1954, he was reunited with his former Thin Man co-star, Claudia Morgan, in another mystery series—The Adventures of the Abbotts.  Abbotts had been kicking around on radio since 1945 (as a summer series on Mutual), and the show’s protagonists—Jean and Pat Abbott—were remarkably similar to the Charles of Thin Man fame.  The Adventures of the Abbotts never really captured the appeal of Nick and Nora, however, and it was dropped after a single season.  Les would also play Inspector Mark Sabre on Mystery Theatre for a time, and the part of Captain Frank Kennelly on Twenty-First Precinct (a role previously tackled by Everett Sloane and James Gregory), but by that point in his career he was ready to give the small screen a try.  In a parallel to his start in radio, Damon made the rounds on several TV soap operas: The Guiding Light (a radio transplant), Search for TomorrowThe Edge of Night, and As the World Turns.

In addition, Les chalked up several appearances on Jackie Gleason’s TV variety series, as well as the sitcom version of Gleason’s The Honeymooners that ran from 1955 to 1956.  Damon’s guest shots on the boob tube include roles on The Big StoryWindow on Main StreetThe Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, and Bus Stop.  His final TV credit was in an episode of Have Gun – Will Travel, while his last radio performance was befittingly on Suspense in June of 1962…a few months before “Radio’s Golden Age” ended.  Sadly, the hard-working Damon wouldn’t be around to see it—he succumbed to a heart attack in July at the age of 54.

Les Damon’s signature radio role of Michael Waring is featured in the Radio Spirits set of The Falcon broadcasts entitled Shakedown (with liner notes by yours truly), but you can also listen to Les in collections of Dimension X (Adventures in Time and SpaceFuture Tense), The Haunting HourWords at War, and X-Minus One (Countdown).  Damon also turns up in our potpourri compendiums Great Radio Detectives (in the Falcon episode “The Case of the Widow’s Gorilla”) and Science Fiction Radio: Atomic Age Adventures (X-Minus One’s “The Discovery of Mornial Mathaway” and Suspense’s “Report from a Dead Planet”).  Happy birthday to you, Mr. Damon—your dedication and hard work has paid off handsomely for fans of old-time radio!

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