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Happy Birthday, Earle Ross!

As a boy, actor Earle Ross had been gifted with a beautiful soprano voice—one that he put to good use singing in the boys’ choir at his local church. (His parents wanted him to become a minister.)  One day, Earle reached for a high note…and his voice cracked.  For several days, he was unable to speak; when his voice finally returned, his vocal chords were no longer in a high register.  “The more I talked,” Ross reminisced in later years, “the lower they seemed to get.  I didn’t sound like a boy anymore.  I sounded like an old man.”  Well, you know the old adage about life, lemons, and lemonade. Ross, who was born on this date in Chicago in 1888, used his new gift to earn a successful show business career portraying elderly men. Authority figures were his forte, and he is probably best remembered by radio fans for playing Judge Hooker on the successful radio sitcom The Great Gildersleeve.

Earle Ross’ acting ambitions began about the time his voice made that startling change from youth to old age.  He bypassed the usual juvenile roles, playing only old men or villains.  One of his first paying gigs (earning a salary of $20 a week) found him taking on three roles in a melodrama entitled In a Woman’s Power or a Dangerous Friend.  (Earle not only negotiated that impressive salary, he cadged an extra $2.50 as the stage manager.)  By 1912, Ross was working on the East Coast in productions like Where the Trail Divides and Cost of Living.  Earle put his experience in stage managing to good use by building up a chain of theatres…but the stock market crash in 1929 put an end to that business venture.

Undaunted, Earle Ross soon created acting opportunities for himself in the burgeoning medium of radio.  For a time, he had his own program called The Earle Ross Theatre of the Air.  Ross also starred in an early radio series penned by One Man’s Family creator Carlton E. Morse, playing the titular role of Inspector Post.  The Ramblings of Jonathan Quid was another early offering featuring Earle, who became one of the pioneer members in Actors’ Equity.  Ross eventually worked his way onto network shows like The Lux Radio Theatre, where he was a member of that program’s unofficial stock company—not to mention his work on The Columbia Workshop and Dr. Christian.  Earle began a weekly gig around this time on the offbeat comedy-drama Point Sublime, a charming series about a small seaport village and the romance between two of its inhabitants, storekeeper/mayor Ben Willet (played by Cliff Arquette) and Evelyn “Evy” Hanover (Jane Morgan).  Ross portrayed retired Texas millionaire Howie McBrayer, who acted as Ben’s rival on the series; Howie was a good-hearted soul who nevertheless found himself the frequent butt of Willet’s jokes.

Earle Ross cemented his radio immortality playing another rival in another small town: he was Judge Horace Hooker of Summerfield in the Fibber McGee & Molly spin-off The Great Gildersleeve.  Hooker, whose billy goat laugh earned him the nickname of “the old goat” from water commissioner Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold “Hal” Peary), was a cantankerous old codger whose quarrels with Gildy provided many memorable moments of mirth for fans of the show.  Although Judge Hooker and Gildersleeve often went at one another with verbal swords, the two men really were the best of friends—joining other Summerfield chums in that fraternal organization known as “The Jolly Boys.”  Ross was also a regular on Billie Burke’s sitcom (as her disapproving brother Julius), The Mel Blanc Show (as Uncle Rupert), and in the 1950s, played opposite Audrey Totter and Bea Benaderet on Meet Millie as Millie’s hard-to-please boss, J.R. Boone, Sr.

On That Amazing Jennifer Logan, Earle Ross played a darker version of his “Howie McBrayer” Point Sublime character as “John Barton,” a ruthless tycoon who showed an interest in the titular heroine.  Ross was also “Mayor Turner” on Jonathan Trimble, Esq. (a lighter drama starring Oscar-winning actor Donald Crisp as a newspaperman).  Earle demonstrated quite a comedy flair with appearances on such radio shows as The Adventures of MaisieBeulahFather Knows BestFibber McGee & MollyThe Halls of IvyThe Jack Benny ProgramLife with LuigiMaxwell House Coffee Time (with Francis Langford), Meet Corliss ArcherThe Merry Life of Mary ChristmasMr. and Mrs. BlandingsOur Miss BrooksThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and Shorty Bell.

Rounding out Earle Ross’ extensive radio resume are entries like The Adventures of Red RyderThe Adventures of the SaintArch Oboler’s PlaysBroadway’s My BeatThe Cavalcade of America, Encore TheatreFamily TheatreFavorite StoryFrontier TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHopalong CassidyI Want a DivorceLet George Do ItLights OutMichael ShaynePlays for AmericansThe Railroad HourThe Roy Rogers ShowScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodThe Story of Dr. KildareThe Theatre of Famous Radio PlayersTheatre of RomanceThe WhistlerWild Bill Hickok, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.  On the August 13, 1945 broadcast of The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, Earle portrayed “Judge Hooker” on that program’s presentation of the 1943 film Gildersleeve’s Bad Day.  However, Ross was only in one of the RKO features based on the Gildersleeve program (1944’s Gildersleeve’s Ghost); the role of Hooker was played in the other entries (including Day) by Charles Arnt.

Earle Ross’ cinematic oeuvre includes roles in B-pictures like The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940) and A Date with the Falcon (1941). Western fans might recognize him as “Professor Cleary” in one of the “Three Mesquiteers” best-remembered vehicles, Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937).  Ross dabbled a bit in TV, reprising his Meet Millie role as J.R. Boone, Sr. in that show’s first season on the small screen and playing Judge Hooker in two TV episodes of The Great Gildersleeve.  Earle’s other TV credits include The Adventures of Wild Bill HickokBig TownI Married JoanOur Miss Brooks, and The Real McCoys.  Ross would succumb to cancer in 1961 at the age of 73.

Here at Radio Spirits, we’d like to pay tribute to today’s birthday boy by showcasing Earle Ross’ signature role as Judge Hooker in our Great Gildersleeve collections Family ManNeighbors, and For Corn’s Sake.  (You should also check out Gildy shows in our potpourri compendiums of Great Radio Christmas and Great Radio Comedy.)  In addition, you’ll find Earle on our sets of Broadway’s My Beat (Dark WhispersThe Loneliest Mile), Father Knows Best (Maple Street), Family Theatre (Every Home), The Halls of Ivy (School Days), and Lights Out (Later Than You Think).  Happy birthday, Mr. Ross!

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