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Happy Birthday, Frank Graham!

In 1950, actor-announcer Frank Graham was at the peak of his radio career.  He was the star of Jeff Regan, Investigator—a detective series heard exclusively over CBS Radio on the West Coast. The series had originally starred future Dragnet cop Jack Webb when it premiered in 1948.  It was not an easy task to follow in Webb’s footsteps, but Graham was doing okay as Regan…ably assisted by character veteran Frank Nelson as Anthony J. Lyon, the buffoonish owner of the detective agency where Regan was employed.

There were only five more broadcasts left in Graham’s Jeff Regan contract, but he never completed the shows. He was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning on September 2, 1950—the victim of a successful suicide attempt.  The police would find a photograph of a beautiful brunette in Graham’s hand, later identified as Disney animator Mildred Rossi, a companion of the actor. It was a sad end to the performer who was born on this date in Detroit, MI in 1914.

A show business career was in the cards for Frank Lee Graham, because his mother Ethel was a well-known opera singer (his father, also named Frank, was an inventor). He frequently accompanied her on the concert circuit, attending literally dozens of schools in various cities during this vagabond existence. Upon graduation, Graham decided to enroll in the University of California, but college life was brief. After one year, Graham left school to pursue an acting career on stage (Graham and wife Dorothy founded the city’s Rockcliff School of Theatre and Radio) and in radio in Spokane (working for KHQ-KGA).  His radio acting is what ultimately took hold, and in 1937 he was brought to Hollywood for an announcer’s job at CBS station KNX.

Frank Graham’s first radio venture for KNX was a program entitled White Fires of Inspiration. However, he soon became well known for a West Coast series entitled Night Cap Yarns, which he starred in from 1938 to 1942. He eventually became a much-in-demand announcer for variety shows headlined by such stars as Rudy Vallee, Ginny Simms (from 1942-45), and Dinah Shore.  Another KNX series on which Frank worked was The Adventures of Cosmo Jones (also known as simply Cosmo Jones and The Crime Smasher).  Actually, “worked” is a bit of an understatement, because on Jones the actor was a “one-man-theater.” He not only wrote the series, but played all the roles — including the titular character, a correspondence school criminologist.  Though Crime Smasher’s listenership was limited to the West Coast, it had enough of a following that Monogram Pictures purchased the rights to the series, with the intention of making several motion pictures based on the character.  They got as far as one entry, Cosmo Jones in the Crime Smasher (1943), one of Frank’s few “live-action” performances in the movies. He was billed fifth in the feature, appearing alongside such talents as Edgar Kennedy, Mantan Moreland, and a young Gale Storm.

Frank Graham had a bit more motion picture success by merely supplying his voice, however.  He narrated and performed in animated cartoons for various studios. For example, he narrated Warner Brothers’ attempt to bring Dr. Seuss to the silver screen, Horton Hatches the Egg, in 1942.  At MGM, he can be heard in Tom & Jerry cartoons (Sufferin’ Cats!Springtime for Thomas) and he performed a lot of voice work in the productions of the legendary Tex Avery—he was the first actor to play “the wolf” in Avery’s “Red” cartoons (Red Hot Riding HoodSwing Shift Cinderella), and Graham also voiced the mouse in Tex’s lunatic King-Size Canary (1947).  The narrator for the Walt Disney animated feature The Three Caballeros (1945)?  Yes, you’ll recognize him as Frank.  Graham’s best-remembered work in animated cartoons—though again, he never got Mel Blanc-like recognition for his work—was voicing both the Fox and the Crow in the popular Columbia cartoon series during the 1940s.

Meanwhile, back at the radio microphone, Frank Graham continued to ply his trade; on The Romance of the Ranchos, he was “The Wandering Vaquero,” the series’ narrator.  Frank played several roles (including Diogenes Smith and B.L. Webster) on Lum and Abner, was the announcer for Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou (1942-43) and Nelson Eddy’s The Electric Hour (1944-46), and the host of Theatre of Romance from 1944 to 1946.  Other radio favorites on which the actor appeared include The Adventures of Bill LanceThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCommand PerformanceDarts for DoughEncore TheatreFour for the FifthFrontier TheatreThe Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreStars Over HollywoodThe Talent TheatreThe Westinghouse ProgramThe WhistlerYarns for Yanks, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.

When producer Sterling Tracy resurrected Jeff Regan, Investigator for CBS on the West Coast in 1949, Frank Graham was tabbed to replace Jack Webb in the role.  In addition to his acting, Graham co-created an anthology program (with Van Des Auteis) entitled Satan’s Waitin’ that aired in 1950—in which Beelzebub (Graham) himself played a large role in guiding the destinies of the characters in each installment broadcast.  According to a trade paper item published after his death, Frank was set to do the Colgate-Palmolive commercials on Our Miss Brooks when that series resumed in September of 1950.

Had Frank Graham not committed suicide and ended a promising career, there’s no telling what he would have accomplished in the new field of television (Satan’s Waitin’ was being considered for a small screen version).  So while this kind of puts a pall over celebrating his birthday today, Radio Spirits recognizes that Frank was loaded with talent—and there’s no better indication of that than his performance as “The Lyon’s Eye” on his signature series, Jeff Regan, Investigator. Our collection Stand By for Mystery features today’s birthday boy in eleven vintage broadcasts of the program from 1950.

2 Comments

  1. Lee says:

    Error in your article: KHQ/KGA are based in Spokane, WA, not Seattle.

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