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Happy Birthday, Joan Banks!

In 1949, at the height of the success of radio’s My Friend Irma, actress Cathy Lewis—who originated the character of roommate Jane Stacy on the popular sitcom—was forced to briefly hand over the role of Jane while she recuperated from illness.  Filling in for Cathy as sidekick to the lovably ditzy Irma Peterson (Marie Wilson) was Joan Banks, a veteran radio thespian who had been a familiar voice to listening audiences since 1936, when she made her debut in front of a radio microphone (at the age of 16) with Walter O’Keefe.  Born on this date in 1918 in Petersburg, WV (shout out to a fellow Mountaineer!), Joan would move beyond radio to appear on television and in films, occasionally in tandem with her equally accomplished husband, Frank Lovejoy.

The daughter of Edith and Nelson Banks, Joan Banks attended a Russian ballet school where her performing talents were encouraged…and her hard work paid off in the form of a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Art.  Joan also attended Hunter College, but working in radio held an enormous appeal for her, and she began to get a great deal of work on various daytime dramas.  Her radio resume of “soaps” (she was once described as a “soapbox queen”) would go on to include such favorites as Aunt Jenny’s Real Life StoriesDeadline DramasHer Honor, Nancy James (she played Nancy’s secretary), A House in the CountryJohn’s Other Wife (as Roberta Lansing), Mary Foster, the Editor’s DaughterThe O’Neills (as Peggy O’Neill Kayden), One Man’s FamilyPortia Faces Life (as Arline Harrison Manning), Today’s Children (as Carlotta Lagorro), Valiant Lady (as Joan Barrett), Whispering StreetsYoung Doctor Malone (as Phyllis Dineen), and Young Widder Brown (as Camille).  In fact, it was while portraying Eleanor MacDonald on the CBS serial This Day is Ours that Banks would meet soul mate Frank Lovejoy, who joined the program’s cast in January of 1940.  Four months later, their love scenes on the radio would provide a textbook example of life imitating art. The duo tied the knot on May 31, 1940.  (The newlyweds couldn’t even make time for a honeymoon…because they both had to be back at work the following Monday!)

Joan Banks’ radio work wasn’t all soap suds, however.  She emoted on many of the medium’s popular anthology programs, among them The Bakers’ Theatre of StarsThe Columbia WorkshopDoorway to LifeThe First Nighter ProgramHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe NBC University TheatrePresenting Charles BoyerScreen Directors’ Playhouse, and Theatre of Romance/Romance.  Some of Joan’s earliest radio work was on the venerable Gang Busters, and she also made the rounds on such hits as The Adventures of Christopher LondonThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of the SaintBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBroadway’s My BeatEllery QueenEscapeInner SanctumThe Man Called XThe Man from HomicideNight BeatPursuitRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveThe Roy Rogers ShowThe Silent MenSuspenseTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIThe Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

As you can see, Joan Banks was one busy radio actress…and in the fall of 1948, she’d get even busier. This was when she received an emergency call from CBS while at her doctor’s office for an appointment.  Cathy Lewis, who played Jane on My Friend Irma, had collapsed during rehearsal and they needed Joan to take her place.  Banks was no stranger to performing comedy, having played Nora on a radio version of the comic strip Bringing Up Father (she had also worked on Mickey Rooney’s Shorty Bell).  She did run into some difficulties with her debut on the show, however – her automobile ran out of gas on her way to the studio (she had rushed home to change).  She had only a half-hour to look over the Irma script, and was as nervous as a first-time bride…but star Marie Wilson provided some helpful coaching, and the broadcast went off without a hitch.  Joan continued as Jane until Cathy Lewis was hale, hearty, and ready to return to work.  Banks’ other laughter-generating turns included appearances on The Adventures of Maisie and Meet Mr. McNutley.

Just as hubby Frank Lovejoy leapt into moviemaking with 1948’s Black Bart, Joan decided to try her luck on the silver screen with her motion picture debut in 1951’s Cry Danger.  She continued to make an impression in such films as Bright Victory (1951), Washington Story (1952), My Pal Gus (1952), Mister Cory (1957), and Return to Peyton Place (1961).  Banks was also constructing an impressive small screen resume with assignments on such shows as I Love LucyMake Room for DaddyThe George Burns and Gracie Allen ShowDecember Bride, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Joan appeared multiple times as “Sylvia Platt” on Ann Sothern’s sitcom Private Secretary, and made two guest appearances on her husband’s TV venture The Adventures of McGraw (a.k.a. Meet McGraw).  (Joan and Frank would work in tandem on two more occasions in presentations on Four Star Playhouse and The Star and the Story…and Joan made certain to be around when Ralph Edwards told Frank “This is Your Life” on an October 16, 1957 telecast of the popular program.)

Since their initial meeting on This Day is Ours, Joan and Frank often worked side-by-side on radio (on Today’s Children, Frank portrayed “Christopher Barnes”…and Joan also appeared a few times on Night Beat). The couple were appearing together in a 1962 production of the Broadway hit The Best Man (written by Gore Vidal—Lovejoy had appeared onstage in the original 1960 version) when tragedy struck as they were enjoying a night off: Lovejoy passed away in his sleep in their hotel room at the age of 50.  Joan would later remarry, but her interest in TV performing began to wane, with her only primetime credits being guest shots on Perry Mason and Bewitched.  Banks would later make multiple appearances on the 1970s radio revival of The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, indulging her fondness for the aural medium.  Joan Banks succumbed to lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 79.

Joan Banks Lovejoy’s role as Jane Stacy on My Friend Irma is present and accounted for in the Radio Spirits collection On Second Thought (with liner notes by yours truly), as well as a Yuletide Irma (from December 20, 1948) on our holiday compendium Radio’s Christmas Celebrations. We’ve also got plenty of Joan in such sets as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Lonely CanyonsNight TideSucker’s Road), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers), Escape (Escape EssentialsThe Hunted and the HauntedPeril), Inner Sanctum (Shadows of Death), The Man Called XThe Man From HomicideNight Beat (Human Interest), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead MenHomicide Made Easy), Stop the Press!, and Suspense (Wages of Sin).  Happy birthday, Joan!

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