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Happy Birthday, Wally Maher!

In the annals of movie animation, there was never a cartoon character quite like Screwball “Screwy” Squirrel.  Described by author-historian Leonard Maltin in Of Mice and Magic as possessing “all the brashness associated with such recent stars as Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker,” the manic creation of legendary director Tex Avery had a short life in motion picture cartoons (only five shorts released between 1944 and 1946). This is because, according to Maltin, Avery “made him so aggressive, so completely obnoxious, that there was no room for ‘lovability’.”

However, the actor who voiced Screwy—born Walter Maher in Cincinnati, OH on this date in 1908—was indeed quite lovable, and certainly made his presence known in movies and on radio.  Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod once described Wally Maher as “an unassuming fellow.” He was the perfect “Everyman” called upon whenever a radio script required “a truck driver, a security guard, a garage mechanic, a patrol cop, or just plain Joseph H. Blow.  Though show business may not have been the direction Wally initially had planned to go in life (despite his father William’s history with vaudeville as a song-and-dance-man), he discovered he had a knack for mimicry while working as a baggage clerk for the Southern Pacific railroad.  An audition with Cincinnati radio station WLW—”the Nation’s Station”—in 1930 for a role in a radio serial version of the film All Quiet on the Western Front landed him a job with the station’s dramatic staff (despite that audition being a bit disastrous, as Maher would admit in later years).

While at WLW, Wally Maher was an actor, director and producer.  During his stay in Cincinnati, Maher made the acquaintance of a performer named Tommy Riggs.  Riggs had been diagnosed with a medical condition that doctors at the Cornell Medical Center would dub “bi-vocalism.”  It wasn’t life-threatening…it simply allowed Riggs to switch back-and-forth from his natural baritone voice to the tones of a seven-year-old girl (whom he dubbed “Betty Lou Barrie”).  It was not a childish falsetto—it was an honest-to-goodness girl’s voice, which Tommy used to his amusement one day when he nearly cleared out a Brown University locker room filled with his teammates.

Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou were stars on WLW, and one day when Riggs heard Wally imitate an angry kid, he persuaded Maher to join his program as Betty Lou’s boyfriend “Wilbur.”  Wally’s character was well-received, and when Maher eventually came back to the West Coast in 1942 (after a brief sojourn in New York, performing on Broadway and doing radio shows like Camel CaravanEno Crime CluesGangbusters, and Mr. District Attorney) the first person he ran into at the Hollywood CBS studios was his old pal Tommy. Riggs had been signed to do a summer replacement series (George Burns and Gracie Allen got a vacation) for Swan Soap.  While that show came to end in 1943 (due to Riggs’ enlistment in the Navy), it would return in the summer of 1946 with Wally Maher back on board.

Tommy Riggs was not the only radio comedian that Maher had the pleasure of working with. Wally would appear on shows headlined by the likes of Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Eddie Bracken, Burns & Allen, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, and Rudy Vallee.  In addition, Maher made the rounds on comedy-variety programs like Amos ‘n’ AndyG.I. JournalThe Harold Peary ShowThe Magnificent MontagueMaisieMeet Me at Parky’sMy Favorite HusbandThe Penny Singleton Show, and Sealtest Variety Theatre.  Despite his flair for comedy, Wally worked on many of the dramatic series of that era: Arch Oboler’s PlaysThe Cavalcade of AmericaEscapeFamily TheatreHallmark PlayhouseLights OutThe Lux Radio TheatreNBC Presents: Short StoryThe NBC University TheatreScreen Director’s PlayhouseThe Silver TheatreSuspense (most memorably in “Dead Ernest”), and The Whistler.

In 1944, Wally Maher was cast as the titular gumshoe of The Adventures of Michael Shayne, Private Detective, a hard-boiled detective series based on Brett Halliday’s literary creation.  The program began as West Coast offering (with Louise Arthur and Cathy Lewis as his gal Friday) before being promoted to the full Mutual network in later seasons.  Maher also had a recurring role on another West Coast detective program, Let George Do It, on which he played Lieutenant Riley, the friendly police nemesis of private investigator George Valentine.  In addition, Wally was “Dan Murray” on Carlton E. Morse’s One Man’s Family and did occasional work on Morse’s I Love a Mystery.  Maher was one of several actors to portray “Archie Goodwin” on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, and he made the rounds on other popular crime dramas such as The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeJeff Regan, InvestigatorRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveT-ManTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBI, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Wally Maher’s initial decision to “go west, young man” was prompted (according to Radio Life) by his landing a bit role in a 1935 film, Murder in the Fleet.  Yet once established in Tinsel Town, Wally didn’t lack for work in motion pictures, appearing in such features as Thanks a Million (1935), Fury (1936), Libeled Lady (1936), You Only Live Once (1937), and It’s a Wonderful World (1939).  By the end of the 1940s, Maher’s movie work resulted in more than a few credited roles in the likes of Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) and The Story of Molly X (1949—with his Michael Shayne co-star Cathy Lewis).  He appeared in two Dick Powell vehicles, The Reformer and the Redhead (1950) and Right Cross (1950), and was among the cast of an oft-overlooked little noir, Mystery Street (1950).

But Wally Maher enjoyed radio above all else, and in addition to his duties on Let George Do It he made the rounds on such shows as The Cisco KidDangerous AssignmentHopalong CassidyNight BeatThe Story of Dr. Kildare, and Wild Bill Hickok.  Maher’s last major role was as “Sergeant Matt Grebb” on The Line-Up—a no-nonsense cop who provided an excellent contrast to star William Johnstone’s “Lieutenant Ben Guthrie.”  Unfortunately for Wally, a troublesome medical history of respiratory problems (which kept him from enlisting during WW2) continued to plague him at this point in his career – despite surgery to have a lung removed in 1950.  Wally Maher passed away on December 27, 1951 at the tender age of 43.

Despite his regrettably short stay on this planet we lovingly call Earth, Wally Maher was a hard man to keep down where radio was concerned—and Radio Spirits is ready to back up that boast with collections from his two signature radio series: Michael Shayne: Murder, Prepaid and The Line-Up: Witness.  You can also hear our birthday boy as Lt. Riley in the Let George Do It sets Cry Uncle and Sweet Poison, plus his brief (emphasis on brief) stint as Nero Wolfe’s legman in Parties for Death.  If that’s not enough for Maher for you, check out his work on such shows as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Great Radio DetectivesLonely Canyons), The Adventures of Sam Spade (Lawless), Burns & Allen (Burns & Allen and FriendsMuddling Through), Escape (Peril), The Fitch Bandwagon with Phil Harris & Alice Faye (A Song and a Smile), Lights Out (Lights Out, Everybody), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead MenHomicide Made EasyMayhem is My Business), Suspense (Beyond Good and EvilSuspense at WorkTies That BindWages of Sin), The Whistler (Root of All Evil), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar).

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