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Happy Birthday, Luis Van Rooten!

Actor Luis Van Rooten received a unique compliment on his thespic talents after his performance as a psychiatrist on ABC’s Exploring the Unknown in 1946.  On the broadcast, Van Rooten’s character was treating an amnesia victim using hypnosis…and shortly after the program concluded, a woman telephoned him with a request. Her husband had been listening so intently to Luis’ performance that he had fallen into a trance—and she needed Luis’ help in snapping him out of it!  Can you prove it didn’t happen?  Well, it could be an apocryphal story (from Tune In magazine), but as the movie quote goes: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  It certainly doesn’t take anything away from the admirable acting skills of today’s birthday celebrant, who was born Luis d’Antin Van Rooten on this date in 1905.

Luis Van Rooten (his first name was occasionally spelled “Louis”) was born in Mexico City. He came to the United States with his family when he was eight years old, and they settled in Pennsylvania.  Luis would get his BA in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1927.  Van Rooten did quite well for himself as an architect (he was based in Cleveland, and is credited with designing three post offices)…but he harbored ambitions of being an actor. This interest was kindled in his early school days, when he appeared in a student production of Gringoire.  Luis was required to speak French in that play, which was no effort for him — his fluency in that language, as well as Spanish and Italian, put him on solid footing where dialects were concerned. After appearances in various amateur productions around Cleveland, Van Rooten became a radio actor in the mid-1930s.

Luis Van Rooten soon became one of radio’s most prolific character actors and expert dialecticians.  It’s estimated that he worked on close to 50 shows a month, and he himself recalled in later years that often he wasn’t aware what role he was going to play until he arrived at the studio.  Luis always made for a first-rate villain, though, and observed jokingly: “I was ‘bumped off’ in ten different crime shows in a single week.”  Van Rooten could be heard portraying Nero Wolfe for a time in 1944 (he inherited the part from Santos Ortega, another actor who worked extensively on radio crime shows) and he also played sidekick “Denny” on Bulldog Drummond.  Luis appeared multiple times on I Love a Mystery (and I Love Adventure), and when the 1930s radio favorite Chandu the Magician was revived in 1948, the actor punched his villainy time clock and played Chandu’s nemesis Roxor.  Other crime/mystery-themed shows on which Luis worked include The Adventures of the AbbottsThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Affairs of Peter SalemBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBox 13The ChaseCloak and DaggerCounterspyEllery QueenThe FBI in Peace and WarGangbustersLet George Do ItMartin Kane, Private EyeThe Molle Mystery TheatreThe Mysterious TravelerMystery in the AirMystery Theatre (Mark Saber), Nick Carter, Master DetectiveOfficial DetectiveSecret MissionsThe ShadowTime for LoveTop Secret21st PrecinctUnder Arrest, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

The above list just barely scratches the surface of Luis Van Rooten’s radio resume.  Like any hard-working actor in front of a microphone, Luis was kept busy in the area of daytime dramas. He played “Emilio” on Valiant Lady, “George Priestly” on County Seat, and “John Perry” on John’s Other Wife—as well as roles on Backstage WifeOne Man’s Family, and Stella Dallas.  On an August 22, 1949 edition of Radio City Playhouse, “Joey Was Different,” Van Rooten engaged in an actor’s tour de force by playing sixteen different characters (in addition to penning the script)!  Luis’ other radio credits include showcases on Arch Oboler’s PlaysBest PlaysThe Big StoryThe CBS Radio WorkshopThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopThe Couple Next DoorThe Damon Runyon TheatreDimension XDr. SixgunEscapeThe Eternal LightEverything for the BoysFavorite StoryThe First Nighter ProgramGreat PlaysThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Haunting HourHollywood’s Open HouseInheritanceInner Sanctum MysteriesLuke Slaughter of TombstoneThe Lux Radio TheatreMy Son JeepThe NBC Star TheatreThe NBC University TheatreThe Railroad HourStroke of FateSuspenseTom Corbett, Space CadetX-Minus OneWords at War, and You are There.  Even when radio had seen its glory days come and go, Luis was an enthusiastic participant in the medium on shows like Theatre Five.

By the 1940s, Luis Van Rooten was ready to explore other acting venues in addition to his work in radio.  He made his Broadway debut in 1946’s The Dancer, and would later grace the casts of such stage productions as The Number (1951), A Touch of the Poet (1958), and Luther (1963).  Van Rooten made an auspicious motion picture debut in The Hitler Gang (1944), where he played ”Heinrich Himmler.” His later movie credits include such classic film favorites as Two Years Before the Mast (1946), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), The Big Clock (1948), Saigon (1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949), Champion (1949), Detective Story (1951), My Favorite Spy (1951), The Sea Chase (1955), and Fräulein (1958).  One of Luis’ best remembered movie turns allowed him to do what he did best: use his marvelous voice. He portrayed both the King and the Grand Duke in Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950).

Luis Van Rooten also relied on his voice for a small screen showcase as President Dwight D. Eisenhower in “Thunder in Washington,” a November 27, 1955 telecast of The Alcoa Hour.  All you saw of Luis was the back of his head—and yet he received a great deal of critical notice.  Shows that featured the front of Van Rooten included popular series as The Honeymooners (he played Ralph Kramden’s landlord!), Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales of Wells Fargo, and 77 Sunset Strip.  At the risk of tooting Luis’ horn—he was quite the “Renaissance man.”  In addition to his acting, he dabbled in art and literature, authoring such books as Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Râmes, and Van Rooten’s Book of Improbable Saints.  Van Rooten’s love of horticulture was expressed in another book he wrote with the Sherlock Holmesian title The Floriculturist’s Vade Mecum of Exotic and Recondite Plants, Shrubs and Grasses, and One Malignant Parasite.  Luis later retired and designed his own retirement home in Chatham, Massachusetts before passing away in 1973 at the age of 66.

Radio Spirits features in its voluminous inventory—voluminous, that is—a collection of Chandu the Magician broadcasts that showcases Luis Van Rooten in one of his signature roles as the villainous Roxor.  You can also hear him as “Inspector Black” on Box 13.  But wait—there’s more!  There’s plenty of Luis on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Night Tide, Sucker’s Road), Escape (Essentials, Peril), and X-Minus One (Countdown, Time and Time Again), as well as our sci-fi compendiums Great Radio Science Fiction and Science Fiction Radio: Atomic Age Adventures.  Rounding our Van Rooten content are sets of Dimension X (Adventures in Time & Space), Inner Sanctum (Shadows of Death), Suspense (Final Curtain), Theatre Five, and Words at War: World War II Radio Drama.  Happy birthday, Luis!

One Comment

  1. Scott Cowden says:

    Another FASCINATING Bio!!!

    Thank you!!!

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