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Happy Birthday, Betty Lou Gerson!

George Allen took over as director of the West Coast radio mystery anthology The Whistler beginning in the mid-40s, and one of the hallmarks of his tenure with the program was building a stock company that was facetiously referred to as “Whistler’s children.”  He tailored the casting of many of radio’s finest performers to the needs of each week’s Whistler scripts. For example, if he needed an actor who “can sound like the average guy under pressure, and he builds emotion fast and holds it at a peak”—his go-to guy would be Elliott Lewis, and if that character were female he’d tab Cathy Lewis, Elliott’s then-wife.  For “parts that convey mental superiority” Allen would call on Betty Lou Gerson; “she’s perfect for women who have catty, fencing dialogue.”  Gerson was one of radio’s busiest actresses, and the performer who made that medium her own was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on this date in 1914.

Although a native of the Volunteer State, Betty Lou Gerson spent much of her youth in Birmingham, Alabama, where her father was president of the Southern Steel and Roller Mills Company.  Betty Lou had early ambitions of being an actress while attending a girl’s seminary, where she voraciously read magazines about theatre, Hollywood and radio.  Gerson also performed in school plays and, upon graduating, she convinced her parents to let her enroll in Chicago’s Goodman Dramatic School.  Her scholastics there didn’t last long, however; Betty Lou received an offer to join a stock company, which occupied her time for three months during the summer.

Betty Lou Gerson then returned to the Windy City to continue her schooling.  On a lark, she decided to audition for a role on an NBC program, Talkie Picture Time.  Gerson got the part…but she also got the attention of the show’s director, Joseph Ainsley—the two of them would later tie the knot after several years of courtship.  Betty Lou, in the meantime, concentrated on her radio acting career: one of her high-profile jobs was as leading lady opposite Don Ameche on The First Nighter Program.  When Ameche was asked by Hollywood to take a screen test, First Nighter moved to the West Coast and Gerson went with the show.  Despite being offered a tempting contract by Warner’s, Betty Lou decided to turn down the studio and return to Chicago to make plans with her beau Joe.

The First Nighter Program eventually returned to Chicago as well, but Betty Lou Gerson lost her leading lady status to Barbara Luddy (with Les Tremayne as leading man).  Still, Gerson worked hard at her craft, and would eventually land starring roles on the daytime dramas Win Your Lady (a 1938 summer soap that featured Don Ameche’s brother Jim), Arnold Grimm’s Daughter (Betty Lou was Constance, the “daughter” in the title), and Midstream (on which she played Julia Meredith).  Betty Lou also played leading lady on Grand Hotel, a dramatic anthology that aired over NBC (Arch Oboler wrote some of the program’s playlets when he was just starting out), as well as the Mutual program Curtain Time.

Being a busy thespian during Radio’s Golden Age meant working on a lot of daytime dramas…and Betty Lou Gerson was no exception.  In addition to the ones already named, Gerson had recurring roles on Attorney-at-LawAunt MaryThe Guiding Light (as Charlotte Wilson), The Last of the LockwoodsRoad of Life (Nurse Helen Gowan), The Story of Mary Marlin (first as Henriette, then in the title role), A Tale of Today, and Women in White (Karen Adams).  Betty Lou also did a brief stint on a soap called Lonely Women; she reprised her character from that soap (Marilyn Larimore) when Today’s Children was revived in 1943.  Gerson also had regular roles on serials aimed at the juvenile audience: she played Sue on Flying Time, and Mercedes Colby on Don Winslow of the Navy.

A list of Betty Lou Gerson’s credits is going to eat up a lot of bandwidth. Let’s start with the dramatic anthology programs: in addition to The Whistler, she worked on The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Chicago Theatre of the AirCrime ClassicsEscapeThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreFavorite StoryThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Sound StageHollywood Star PlayhouseInner Sanctum MysteriesLights OutThe Lux Radio TheatreRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Screen Guild TheatreStars Over HollywoodSuspense, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.  On the weekly series Mr. President, Edward Arnold would take on the role of a different Commander-in-Chief…but it was Betty Lou who played the “generic” secretary to each president, Miss Sarah.

Newspaper columnist Anne Rogers was the main character on Hot Copy, an early 1940s series where Ms. Rogers solved murders every week.  Betty Lou Gerson was heard in that role, and provided voices for a host of characters on such detective programs as The Adventures of Nero WolfeThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintThe Amazing Mr. Malone (Murder and Mr. Malone), Barrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBox 13Broadway’s My BeatDangerous AssignmentEllery QueenI Deal in CrimeI Love AdventureJeff Regan, InvestigatorJohnny Modero, Pier 23Let George Do ItMike MalloyNight BeatPat Novak for HireRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky FortuneTales of FatimaTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIThe Whisperer, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Rounding out Betty Lou Gerson’s radio resume are credits for such favorites as The Adventures of Frank RaceBirds’ Eye Open HouseBold VentureBright StarDark VentureDuffy’s TavernFibber McGee & MollyThe Fitch BandwagonThe Great GildersleeveHopalong CassidyI Was a Communist for the FBIInheritanceThe Man Called XMystery is My HobbyOne Man’s FamilyThe Private Practice of Dr. DanaThe Railroad HourThe Silent MenThe Story of Dr. Kildare, and You Were There.

As you can tell from what’s been listed, Betty Lou Gerson spent a great deal of time going back-and-forth from network to network and studio to studio.  As such, she didn’t have much time for outside show business pursuits like motion pictures—though Betty Lou did appear in a few.  Her debut was in the 1949 anti-Communist film The Red Menace, and Gerson also had roles in Undercover Girl (1950), An Annapolis Story (1955), The Green-Eyed Blonde (1957), The Fly (1958), and The Miracle of the Hills (1959).  Her best remembered movie turns were for animated features: she narrates Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950) and portrayed one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains in Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).  (Betty Lou also had a bit role in Disney’s Mary Poppins [1964]; her work for The Mouse earned her a “Disney Legend” designation in 1996.)

Betty Lou Gerson was much more prominent on the small screen; among her television credits are appearances on shows like 77 Sunset StripCheckmateThe Dick Van Dyke ShowFather Knows BestHazelI Married JoanPerry MasonThe RiflemanThe Twilight Zone, and The Untouchables.  She retired in 1966 (though she continued to use her voice in working for her second husband’s telephone answering service). Betty Lou’s last credit (according to the IMDb) was voicing “Frances” in the 1997 animated feature Cats Don’t Dance before her passing in 1999 at the age of 84.

Since we weren’t exaggerating about Betty Lou Gerson’s prolific radio career, we have oodles of goodies available in the Radio Spirits store to help you celebrate her natal anniversary.  We’ll single out one of her signature series: we have plenty of The Whistler on hand in the form of such collections as Eleventh HourRoot of All Evil, and Skeletons in the Closet.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: check out our Broadway’s My Beat sets (Great White Way, The Lonesomest Mile), The Adventures of Philip Marlowe compendiums (The Adventures of Philip MarloweLonely CanyonsNight Tide), The Adventures of Nero Wolfe anthologies (The New Adventures of Nero WolfeParties for Death), and our always popular Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar compilations (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMurder Matters).  For dessert: Box 13Crime Classics: The Hyland FilesDark VentureDuffy’s Tavern: Duffy Ain’t HereGreat Radio Private EyesJeff Regan, Investigator: Stand By for MysteryNight Beat: Human InterestRichard Diamond: Mayhem is My Business, and Suspense: Wages of Sin.  Happy birthday, Betty Lou!

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