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Happy Birthday, Ralph Bell!

It would be no exaggeration to state that the actor born Ralph Scognamiglio in New Jersey (though sources also state his place of birth as New York City) on this date in 1915 had a lifelong love affair with the aural medium. Scognamiglio — who later changed his professional name to “Ralph Bell” — continued to send his voice out over the airways (on series like Theatre Five and the long-running The Eternal Light) long after the curtain fell on prime time radio drama. Bell was there when Himan Brown tried to resurrect the art form in the 1970s with The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (he would do some one-hundred-and-twenty Mystery Theatre broadcasts). He also emoted on Brown’s The General Mills Adventure Theatre (also known as The CBS Adventure Theatre) and NPR’s Earplay. In addition, Ralph Bell continued to pay the rent with voice-overs for TV commercials and the like.

Whether you consider him a native New Yorker or not, Ralph Bell spent much of his formative years in The Garden State—Hackensack, to be precise. Ralph did his higher learning at the University of Michigan (go Wolverines!), where his interest in acting was stoked by attending the college’s Drama School as he majored in English. Upon graduating in 1937, the university offered him a job teaching drama and producing plays, which Bell happily accepted. He spent a year teaching at his alma mater and then decided to strike out on his own, putting his acting skills to practical use.

Moving to New York City, Ralph Bell landed a small part in What a Life! (1938)—the Clifford Goldsmith-penned play that would later be adapted for radio as The Aldrich Family. (Bell later replaced Jack Byrne in the role of “Mr. Patterson” in that same Broadway production.) Ralph’s stage credits include See My Lawyer (1939), Banjo Eyes (1941), Native Son (1942), and The Great Big Doorstep (1942). In later years, Bell would return to his footlights origins with appearances in such plays as The Crucible (1953), A View from the Bridge/A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1969), The Time of Your Life (1969), and Camino Real (1970).

Like most stage actors, it didn’t take long for Ralph Bell to realize that moonlighting in radio could reap substantial financial benefits…and for Bell, his voice (described by some as “nasal” and “sing-songy”) was ideal for playing gangsters, villains, and other sinister types. One of Ralph’s early high-profile gigs was on the daytime drama This is Nora Drake. He played a no-goodnik named Spencer on that long-running soap, but he also acted as the titular heroine’s “lost” father Alfred (after the performer who was playing Daddy Drake, Everett Sloane, had to take a leave of absence from the program to work on the motion picture Prince of Foxes [1949]). Bell could also be heard as “Joe Peterson” on Lorenzo Jones, “Charlie Gleason” on The Strange Romance of Evelyn Winters, “Jack Eastman” on Valiant Lady, and various parts on Big SisterThe Guiding Light, and The Right to Happiness.

Throughout his lengthy radio career, Ralph Bell made regular appearances on such favorites as $1000 RewardCloak and DaggerColumbia Presents CorwinCrime DoctorDavid Harding, CounterspyThe FBI in Peace and WarGang BustersThe MarriageMr. District AttorneyNew World A’Comin’, and Treasury Agent. In the early New York years of Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Bell portrayed Craig’s nemesis on the force, Lt. Travis Rogers, from 1951 to 1953. Other shows on Ralph’s radio resume include 2000 PlusABC Mystery TimeThe Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of the FalconBest PlaysThe Big StoryThe CBS Radio WorkshopCasey, Crime PhotographerThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe ChaseThe Columbia WorkshopCrime and Peter ChambersA Crime Letter from Dan DodgeDangerously YoursDick TracyDimension XDr. Six-gunEasy MoneyInheritanceInner Sanctum MysteriesThe Kate Smith HourThe Lux Radio TheatreThe Magnificent MontagueThe Mollé Mystery TheatreMr. I.A. MotoMurder by ExpertsThe Mysterious TravelerNBC Star PlayhouseThe Radio City PlayhouseRomanceThe Search That Never EndsThe ShadowThis is My StoryThe Theatre Guild On the AirTop SecretTreasury SaluteTrue Detective MysteriesUnder ArrestX Minus One, and You Are There.

Ralph Bell is listed among the 151 names from the entertainment field in Red Channels, the anti-Communist booklet published in 1950 that did significant damage to the careers of those performers unfortunate to be featured in its pages. (Ralph’s then-spouse, Pert Kelton, is also named in the pamphlet.) A website (with an anonymous author) that declares the Hollywood blacklist to be a “myth” argues that Bell was not blacklisted despite appearing in Red Channels because — according to one of Ralph’s neighbors — the actor “harbored no political leanings at all.” The neighbor must have been unaware of Bell’s participation in Stage for Action, a social activist organization of performers founded in the 1940s that, in the words of author Chrystyna Dail, “amplified the voices of the some of the most radically anti-racist, anti-fascist, and pro-union thinkers of the era.” The website also posits that because Ralph continued to work in radio and on stage in New York this means he wasn’t on anyone’s list, ignoring the “Hollywood blacklist” part. (Blacklisted performers did find radio/stage work on the East Coast, but it was hardly a walk in Central Park.) As such, Ralph’s early small screen acting work was limited to appearances on television soaps like The Edge of Night and the boob tube version of radio’s Suspense, while contributing scripts to such series as The Loretta Young Show.

Eventually Ralph Bell found himself being offered work on television favorites like The Andy Griffith ShowThe DefendersEast Side/West SideHawaiian EyeHawkThe Patty Duke Show (as William Schallert’s boss), The Tom Ewell Show, and Wanted: Dead or Alive. In later years Bell appeared on the likes of Kate & Allie and Law & Order while landing roles in theatrical features like Wolfen (1981) and Zelig (1983). A longtime member of the Screen Actors Guild (where he served as a national board member beginning in 1965 and concluding in 1994), Ralph Bell left this world for a better one in 1998 at the age of 82.

Ralph Bell was part of the floating repertory company that acted on Dimension X and later X Minus One…and you can hear his familiar tones on the Dimension collections Adventures in Time and Space and Future Tense and our X Minus One sets Countdown and Time and Time Again. Ralph’s also present and accounted for on Great Radio Science Fiction and Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures, as well as The Mollé Mystery Theatre: Close ShaveThe Mysterious Traveler: Dark DestinySherlock Holmes: Well Staged MurderSuspense: Final CurtainTheatre 5, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Mysterious Matters.

You’ll also find today’s birthday boy in our digital downloads store, beginning with his signature role on Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator. That’s followed by Casey, Crime Photographer: Snapshots of MysteryThe Falcon: Private Eye to Super SpyGang Busters: Crime WaveGreat Radio SpiesThe Mysterious Traveler: Out of the PastMurder by Experts, and Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama. Happy, happy birthday, Ralph!

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