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Happy Birthday, Vincent Price!

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If actor Vincent Price—born Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. on this date in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911—had decided to ignore the call of the footlights and pursue honest work, it’s safe to say his future would have been fairly secure. His father, Vincent, Sr., was president of the National Candy Company—the largest candy company in America at that time. Vincent’s grandfather (also named Vincent—the family apparently didn’t have much imagination), invented “Dr. Price’s Baking Powder,” the first cream of tartar baking powder. In later years, Price established sidelines as a renowned art expert and gourmet chef; the former stemming from his graduating from Yale with a degree in art, the latter allowing him to write several best-selling cookbooks.

price12But Vincent Price decided that the actor’s life was for him, and fans are all the richer for it. He developed an interest in acting and fine arts during his years at Yale, and in the mid-1930s began to appear in a number of critically-acclaimed stage productions. His big break came from a plum role opposite Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina in 1936, which brought him such good fortune that he later named his first daughter “Victoria” (a superstitious man, he was also gladdened by the fact that her mother had been raised in Victoria, British Columbia). Two years later, Vincent would make his feature film debut in Service de Luxe (1938)…a movie that he didn’t have many positive things to say about, but which paved the way to future successes in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The House of Seven Gables (1940), The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Laura (1944).

price9We tend to remember Price as a horror icon. Interestingly enough, his only true horror role in his early days of cinema was playing the titular The Invisible Man Returns in 1940; the actor only really got started in the horror movie genre with the 3-D House of Wax in 1953. He followed that with such films as The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959), and by the 1960s, horror had a new face in Vincent Price—particularly the celebrated series of films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe that were directed by Roger Corman: House of Usher (1960), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and several others.

What often is ignored about Price’s phenomenal career—though certainly not overlooked by old-time radio fans—is that Vincent excelled in the aural medium as one of several actors more than capable of meeting radio’s demands. His earliest recorded work was on an episode of Rudy Vallee’s The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour on June 18, 1936…where he was memorably introduced as “Vincent Prince.” Undaunted, Price would return to Vallee’s microphone in April of 1938 (with the show now sponsored by Royal Gelatin desserts) to perform a scene from Ever After (a comedy sequel to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) with actress Edith Barrett.

price1Vincent Price was called upon frequently to perform on radio’s top dramatic anthology programs. The actor appeared on such shows as The Cavalcade of America, The CBS Radio Workshop, Columbia Presents Corwin, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, Hollywood Star Playhouse, Hollywood Star Time, The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, The NBC Radio Theatre. NBC Star Playhouse, The Philip Morris Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood and The Theatre Of Romance. Price was also flexible enough to appear in comedic venues like The Sealtest Village Store and Duffy’s Tavern. His February 6, 1949 appearance on The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny remains one of Jack’s funniest half-hours, as he and Price competitively vie to be the leading man opposite Claudette Colbert in a future broadcast of The Ford Theatre.

price10In addition, Price lent his dramatic talents to such crime dramas as This is Your FBI and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar—the latter program even tailored the story to the guest star, calling it “The Price of Fame Matter” (02/02/58). “Radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, made excellent use of the actor—Vincent graced such classic episodes as “Fugue in C Minor” (06/01/44) and “Hunting Trip” (09/12/46). (Price appeared on a November 10, 1957 broadcast of the series in an adaptation of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”…and four years later, he would star in a film version as part of Roger Corman’s Poe series.) I personally believe Vincent Price did some of his best radio work on Suspense’s sister series, Escape. He was in what many believe to be the definitive version of “Three Skelton Key” (03/17/50), as well as “Present Tense” (01/31/50) and a favorite of mine, “Blood Bath” (06/30/50). (Price later reprised his roles from “Key” and “Tense” in Suspense’s later years.)

price5For many old-time radio mavens, Vincent Price is best remembered for portraying Leslie Charteris’ creation Simon Templar on The Adventures of the Saint, a role he inherited from Brian Aherne (who played Templar in 1945). From July 9, 1947 to May 20, 1951, Vincent emoted as the suave jewel thief who had renounced his past and was now focusing his energies on solving murders. Because “the Robin Hood of modern crime” had done quite well in his career of acquiring precious gems, Templar did not want for money and spent a great deal of his time indulging his culinary tastes at posh restaurants and satisfying his love for the fine arts. The perfect role for Vincent Price, wouldn’t you say? The survival of many Saint broadcasts, by the way, owes a lot to the actor himself; he found a treasure trove of transcriptions from the program at his residence one day and was about to chuck them out when he called SPERDVAC to see if anyone was interested. (The SPERDVAC rep broke all existing land-speed records rushing to Vincent’s house to collect the discs.)

Even after the Golden Age of Radio was drawing to a close, Vincent Price still professed a fondness for the medium. He was one of the five rotating hosts (emceeing “mystery and suspense” on Wednesday nights) of The Sears (Mutual) Radio Theater in 1979, the Elliott Lewis-Fletcher Markle attempt to revive radio drama. (Sadly, they did not succeed). The actor was also host of a BBC program, The Price of Fear, which was heard beginning in 1973. (Proving that our cousins across the pond were right in their refusal to abandon the art of radio drama.)

19981Vincent Price succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 82 in October of 1993. Radio Spirits is pleased to honor his legacy with three collections of his signature radio series, The Adventures of the Saint: The Saint Solves the Case, The Saint is Heard, and The Saint Goes Underground. We also feature a Saint broadcast on our Great Radio Detectives set, and a little Yuletide Templar in our Christmas Radio Classics compendium. Be sure to check out Price’s hosting duties on the Mutual Radio Theater collection, and Suspense: Omnibus spotlights one of the actor’s frequent trips to the program with “The Name of the Beast” (04/11/46). Crossroads: Volumes 1-3 feature Vincent’s work on the TV anthology Crossroads, with performances in “God’s Healing” and “Cleanup,” and an early boob tube version (1949) of “A Christmas Carol” with Price is one of the highlights of Rare Christmas Classics, Volume 2. Our Horror Classics Collection features one of my favorite Price films, House on Haunted Hill, while another of the actor’s memorable horror excursions, The Bat (1959), is one of six films featured on Horror Classics. Finally, Vincent Price is one of several celebrities featured in a sensational book of interviews edited by David Rothel: Opened Time Capsules. You better believe that on any of these the Price is right!

Happy Birthday, James Stewart!

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James Maitland Stewart, the Academy Award-winning actor beloved by theatergoers as “the boy next door” was born on this date in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1908. Jimmy took home Oscar gold for his unconventional role (and by unconventional, I mean a “fast-talking” reporter) in The Philadelphia Story (1940)—though a good many people (myself included) are convinced it was a consolation prize for his not winning the prior year for his nominated performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart would garner Oscar noms for three additional movies—It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Harvey (1950) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959)—before being recognized by his peers in 1985 with an honorary statuette paying tribute to his fifty-year cinematic career.

stewart6I could take up an entire webpage discussing Stewart’s incredible movie resume: chatting about such classics as You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). But I thought it fitting to focus on the actor’s impressive radio C.V. As one of the “more stars than there are in heaven” at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Stewart was selected to be the first host of Good News of 1938, a lavish variety hour (sponsored by Maxwell House) that featured just about anyone working on the MGM lot at that time. Jimmy was the emcee on the series’ November 4, 1937 inaugural broadcast, and while he was replaced by Robert Taylor in early 1938, the actor continued to make guest appearances on the program (he was even around for the name change, Good News of 1939).

stewart4Stewart’s distinctive drawl and “aw shucks” manner made him the perfect foil for such radio comedy greats as Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, and Bob Hope. The actor also guested alongside Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Louella Parsons, Bill Stern, Fred Waring and the usual suspects on It Pays to Be Ignorant. As his stardom grew, Jimmy Stewart was often called upon to not only reprise his film roles but appear in original radio plays on such anthology series as Academy Award Theatre, The Cavalcade of America, Family Theatre, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Radio Reader’s Digest, Screen Director’s Playhouse, The Silver Theatre, and The Theater of Romance. Stewart also appeared on The Screen Guild Theatre under its three separate sponsors—Gulf, Lady Esther, and Camel—and along with Orson Welles, led an all-star cast for one of the medium’s most memorable broadcasts, Norman Corwin’s We Hold These Truths…first heard over Mutual Radio on December 15, 1941.

stewart3Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin observed in his old-time radio reference The Great American Broadcast that James Stewart “brought the same conviction to every radio performance that he did to his classic screen roles.” Veteran radio performer Dick Beals was in agreement, noting Stewart “was a total professional as a radio actor and never tried to draw attention to himself as the star.” Indeed, many a Hollywood thesp was unable to say “Hello” into a mike without flubbing the line. Stewart’s talent was never more evident than his tour-de-force turn in a classic Suspense episode, “Mission Completed” (12/01/49). Jimmy plays Tom Warner, a paralyzed veteran whose life in a V.A. hospital has been a living hell for four years until the day he recognizes a man working at a florist’s as the same Japanese officer who presided over his torture in a P.O.W. camp. It’s a definite nail-biter.

sixshooterWith such standout appearances on Suspense like “Consequence” (05/19/49) and “The Rescue” (04/19/51), it wasn’t long before the idea of a radio series starring James Stewart began to be kicked around among radio executives. Stewart appeared on an April 13, 1952 broadcast of Hollywood Star Theatre (a show that stood out amongst its anthology brethren and sistren in presenting original, half-hour suspense plays with Hollywood’s finest talent) in a production entitled “The Six Shooter,” which many critics felt was one of the program’s high spots. The actor was then talked into doing an audition record (dated July 15, 1953), which impressed NBC so much that they scheduled the show in the fall of that year, with creator Frank Burt in charge of scripting and Jack Johnstone (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar) in the director’s chair. The call went out to the distinguished performers that comprised “Radio Row”; veteran actors such as Howard McNear, Herb Vigran, Bill Johnstone, William Conrad, Shirley Mitchell, and Eleanor Audley were among the many to play supporting roles in the enterprise.

“The man in the saddle is angular and long-legged,” went The Six Shooter’s opening. “His skin is sun-dyed brown…the gun in his holster is gray steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl, its handle unmarked. People call them both ‘The Six Shooter.’” James Stewart played Britt Ponset, an easy-going drifter who encountered an assortment of oddball characters in his various adventures traveling through the West. Shooter functioned as an anthology (with only Britt Ponset as its constant), presenting tales of drama and adventure…and demonstrating an occasional lighter side as well.

stewart8It’s mindboggling to think that this splendid show lasted only a single season on NBC (a total of thirty-nine half-hours, not including the audition and the initial Hollywood Star Theatre broadcast). Sad to say, it was at a point during The Golden Age of Radio when the medium was being shoved off the center stage by its attention-grabbing sibling: television. But The Six Shooter might have had a longer run over the airwaves were it not for the fact that the series was being sustained by the network due to the star’s reluctance to allow a cigarette company assume sponsorship. (Stewart was concerned that plugging Chesterfield, the interested party, would be bad for his screen image. The show was briefly sponsored by Coleman Heaters for its first four episodes before NBC wound up picking up the tab.) Interestingly, the series made the eventual transition to the small screen with a new title (The Restless Gun) and star (John Payne, whose character’s name was changed to “Vint Bonner”); that series started out (if you’ll pardon the pun) great guns in its first season but dropped off considerably with the audience in its second and last year on the air.

It’s fitting that James Stewart’s last show business credit was supplying his unmistakable voice for a character in the An American Tail sequel, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991). It was appearing before a microphone again, and the great actor’s voice was finally silenced with his passing in 1997 at the age of 89.

20589Here at Radio Spirits, we feature a fine CD collection of James Stewart’s signature radio series The Six Shooter in Grey Steel, which we believe to be essential listening for the actor’s many fans. You can also delight in an radio adaptation of one of the actor’s most beloved feature films, It’s a Wonderful Life (a March 10, 1947 broadcast from The Lux Radio Theatre) and in Jimmy’s tunesmith talents with several selections (from the 1936 musical Born to Dance and 1941’s Pot O’Gold, a movie version of the popular radio program) from Did You Know These Stars Also Sang? Hollywood’s Acting Legends. On the DVD front, we invite you to check out the birthday boy’s participation in WW2 film shorts featured in World War II Homefront, Volume 1 and Hellions of War: Rare World War II Propaganda. Happy birthday to one of our favorite film and radio actors!

Happy Birthday, Frank Nelson!

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It never fails…every time I tune into an episode of The Jack Benny Program (be it on radio or TV) and Jack needs help from someone in customer service, the clerk is played by the same actor—who greets the comedian in the same sneering fashion: “Yeeeeeeeeesssss?” It couldn’t be the same guy, could it? Of course it could! Actor Frank Nelson, born on this date in 1911, seemed to serve one purpose while here on Earth: to play the patronizing nemesis of America’s beloved everyman. The important thing to remember is: he was the one guy who couldn’t stand Jack Benny. Whenever Jack confronted him with “You really do hate me, don’t you?” Nelson’s enthusiastic response was always “Oooooooh, do I!”

nelson12Frank Nelson was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado…and at the tender age of 15, he beat out thirty other actors who were competing for a part (a character twice his age) for a KOA broadcast. Nelson was then hired by the radio station as an actor, and he later migrated to a smaller Denver station (KFEL) to tackle announcing chores. By the end of 1929, Frank was ready to take on Hollywood, and he lucked into a position at KNX where he played the leading man on many a local show while acting on syndicated series like The Count of Monte Cristo and Tarzan of the Apes.

By the mid-30s, Frank had moved up to the big time: he put together an impressive resume appearing on the likes of Shell Chateau (as an announcer) and The Lux Radio Theatre, and he was part of the old-time radio acting ensemble on the seasonal The Cinnamon Bear (Nelson was Captain Tip Top). Frank recalled in a 1975 interview with historian Chuck Schaden that his association with Jack Benny began in June of 1934, but his regular appearances on the program date right around 1937. He became a member-in-good-standing of the comedian’s valued stock company, rarely straying from his assigned role as the individual who took gleeful pleasure in disparaging Jack. Jack Benny was not the only “Jack” Frank would work with, by the way; the actor later shared a microphone with the likes of Jack Carson, Jack Haley, Jack Kirkwood and Jack Paar…an impressive poker hand in any language.

nelson3Nelson flourished in radio as a professional foil, and as he told Chuck Schaden: “[I]’d go in and the writer would say, ‘Now be as funny on this show as you are on The Jack Benny Show.’ And, I’d always say, ‘You write it as funny and I’ll be as funny, ‘cause I’m just as funny as the material. That’s how funny I am.’” Frank and the writing staffs must have come to a meeting of the minds, because the actor soon received appreciative audience response working alongside such greats as Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fanny Brice, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Cass Daley, Jimmy Durante, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Dorothy Lamour, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton and Alan Young. Nelson also paid the occasional visit to The Adventures of Maisie, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah, A Date with Judy, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, Meet Me at Parky’s, My Favorite Husband, My Little Margie and Our Miss Brooks. (And of course, it seems only right that he would emote on the two series “spun-off” from The Jack Benny Program: A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.)

nelson7While Frank Nelson stressed that “I wasn’t a regular on those shows, but I worked them all”—he occasionally landed a steady gig on such programs as Blondie (he played the role of the Bumsteads’ next-door neighbor, Herb Woodley) and a short-lived sitcom entitled Today with the Duncans, on which he starred with then-wife Mary Lansing. (Nelson and Lansing were married from 1933-70; he later walked down the aisle with another Jack Benny regular, Veola Vonn – his second wife until his passing sixteen years later.) Frank also took on an unusual role in the series Jeff Regan, Investigator, playing the titular gumshoe’s corpulent boss, Anthony J. Lyon. Though identified with lighter roles (Lyon was Regan’s comedy relief), Frank Nelson was more than capable of handling dramatic parts, appearing on such series as The Cavalcade of America, Defense Attorney, Hallmark Playhouse, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Suspense, The Whistler, You Were There and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

nelson5When Jack Benny transitioned his show to television in the fall of 1950, Frank Nelson soon joined the cast on a semi-regular basis…but the actor also performed on the small screen in other venues as well. Having worked with Lucille Ball on her radio sitcom My Favorite Husband, Frank turned up in a number of memorable episodes of I Love Lucy—including the uproarious outing (“The Great Train Robbery”) where the Ricardos and Mertzes are returning to New York by train, with Nelson as the beleaguered conductor. (Frank: “Madam, did you stop this train by pulling this handle?” Lucy: “Well, I didn’t do it by dragging my foot!”) Frank later played Ralph Ramsey, the husband of Lucy’s Connecticut neighbor Betty Ramsey (Mary Jane Croft) in the show’s final TV season. Other sitcoms that welcomed Frank Nelson’s presence include Our Miss Brooks, Private Secretary, The Real McCoys and Make Room for Daddy; the actor also fell back on his radio roots by voicing various characters on animated series like Mr. Magoo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and The Oddball Couple—a cartoon version of The Odd Couple with a Felix cat (Frank) and Oscar dog (Paul Winchell).

nelson10Frank’s radio and television duties—he was president of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists from 1954 to 1957—didn’t leave him a lot of time for movies…so it’s always a treat to spot him in a small role in various films you might catch on TV. In a number of 1930s movies, you can hear Frank as a radio announcer—Humphrey Bogart’s Black Legion is a good example—and he provided narration for theatrical cartoons as well. Nelson turns up in several of the Joe McDoakes comedies starring George O’Hanlon, and among the actor’s movie credits are Down Memory Lane, Fourteen Hours, You Never Can Tell, Here Come the Nelsons, Bonzo Goes to College, The Clown, Remains to Be Seen, It Should Happen to You, It’s Always Fair Weather and Kiss Them for Me.

nelson6Frank Nelson became so identified as Jack Benny’s “Yeeeeeeeeesssss?” man that he was often called upon to reprise the part in other sitcoms; he appeared in several 1976 episodes of Sanford and Son doing his beloved shtick, and McDonald’s built a TV ad campaign around him in 1981 with Frank as an obnoxious passport agent, promoting their vacation sweepstakes. He continued to supply his memorable voice on a number of cartoon shows until 1986, when he left this world for a better one at the age of 75.

20637To celebrate Frank Nelson’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to generously sample the actor’s exemplary work on The Jack Benny Program, with the following collections: Maestro, Neighbors, Wit Under the Weather, Drawing a Blanc, Oh, Rochester!, Be Our Guest, No Place Like Home, On the Town, Tall Tales and Jack Benny International. (Nelson can also be heard on our latest Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen compilation, Grudge Match.) Check out Frank’s contributions on some of our other comedy sets: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (The Funny Fifties), Burns and Allen (Treasury, Muddling Through), A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, Fibber McGee and Molly (Wistful Vista), Life with Luigi, Phil Harris and Alice Faye (Private Lives, Quite an Affair, Family Values, Smoother and Sweeter), Our Miss Brooks (Boynton Blues, Good English) and Red Skelton (Stick Around, Brother). We’ve also got Mr. Nelson’s dramatic side on hand, with his co-starring role on Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), and excursions before the mike on Defense Attorney, The Mutual Radio Theatre and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Murder Matters, Wayward Matters, Expense Account Submitted). Can we make this birthday a great one for one of radio’s finest character performers? Oooooooh will we!

“Heavenly days!”

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The day that writer Don Quinn crossed paths with Jim Jordan at WENR in Chicago would prove to be a most fortuitous one for both men…and for Jim’s wife Marian as well. The Jordans arrived on radio by way of vaudeville. Although radio didn’t pay nearly as well as stage work at the time, both Jim and Marian liked the ease and comfort of not having to undergo the grueling travel required by performers of the time. Quinn would sign on to become the author of Smackout, a weekday quarter-hour starring Jim and Marian that began on Chicago’s WMAQ in 1931 before moving to the national NBC lineup. One of Smackout’s fans was Henrietta Johnson Louis, the wife of ad executive John J. Louis, who convinced her hubby that the Jordans would be perfect for a new show Johnson’s Wax was looking to sponsor in 1935. That show premiered eighty years ago on this date as The Johnson’s Wax Program…but we know it as Fibber McGee & Molly.

fibbermcgeemolly2In their early broadcast days, the characters of Fibber & Molly McGee were on what we would refer to nowadays as a “road trip.” The couple traveled around in a dilapidated old jalopy, ostensibly to promote a Johnson’s product entitled Car-Nu. But once summer was over, the company wanted to switch to hawking Johnson’s Glo-Coat, and so with the purchase of a winning raffle ticket, the McGees found themselves the proud owners of a house at 79 Wistful Vista…soon to become one of radio’s most popular addresses.

It was probably a good thing that the McGees owned their home…because Mr. McGee wasn’t much of a provider in the traditional husbandly sense. Fibber wasn’t really lazy, just unmotivated; many of the show’s plots would find him employed in some capacity…and by the end of the broadcast he’d be in search of work again. McGee was a good man, it’s just that he earned his nickname “Fibber” for a reason—he had a propensity for stretching the truth, and liked to while away the hours telling tall tales to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. His wife Molly loved him despite his serial exaggerations, and her warm, loving demeanor was just the remedy needed to the take the wind out of her blustery spouse’s sails. Her voice was reassuring and comfy, always greeting newcomers to the house with a “How do you do, I’m sure.” (Marian Jordan was sorely missed when she was forced to take a leave of absence from the program from September 1937 to April 1939, so much so that the show was briefly renamed Fibber McGee and Company.)

fibbermcgeemollyThe ratings for Fibber McGee & Molly were anemic at first; they had the misfortune of being up against the popular Lux Radio Theatre on Monday nights. But a switch to Tuesday nights helped the listenership immensely, and soon loyal audiences couldn’t get enough of Fibber and Molly’s misadventures. The show also developed many memorable supporting characters: Bill Thompson, who began appearing on the show in 1936, played Greek cafeteria owner Nick DePopolous (who got laughs via malapropisms and mispronunciations) and shady con man Horatio K. Boomer (whose voice was a dead ringer for W.C. Fields). Several years later, Thompson would introduce two of the program’s most enduring personages: The Old Timer, a half-deaf old codger who could out-tall-tale Fibber any day of the week (“That’s pretty good, Johnny—but that ain’t the way I heared it!”), and Wallace Wimple, a cheerful milquetoast who paid Fibber and Molly frequent visits to escape the wrath of his formidable wife Sweetyface.

galegordonGale Gordon also became a regular on the program, playing Charles LaTrivia, Wistful Vista’s mayor—whose visits with the McGees usually left him in a frustrated state of tongue-tiedness. (Gordon introduced a character in the show’s later years that was always one of my favorites: F. Ogden “Foggy” Williams, the town weatherman, who always announced his exit with “Good day…probably!”) Actress Isabel Randolph was the snooty Abigail Uppington, who never tired of looking down at Fibber and Molly’s lowly social status. (Mrs. Uppington was later replaced by the equally condescending Millicent Carstairs, played by Bea Benaderet, and Elvia Allman emoted as Mrs. Albert Clemmer after Bea’s departure.) Other actors who appeared on The Johnson’s Wax Program on a regular basis include Cliff Arquette, Hugh Studebaker, Richard LeGrand (as Ole, the Elks’ janitor) and Ransom Sherman. Marian Jordan doubled as other characters when the need arose: her best remembered supporting role was “Teeny,” the little neighbor girl who often drove Fibber to distraction.

greatgildersleeve13Actor-singer Harold Peary played a variety of characters on the show before he was able to convince Don Quinn to write him a meatier part: that of Fibber’s pompous next-door neighbor, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. The only man in Wistful Vista windy enough to match McGee’s bluff, Gildersleeve and Fibber were purportedly best friends…though the two of them engaged in an awful lot of quarreling and traded a good many insults. Peary’s Gildersleeve would later become so popular that NBC agreed to spin the character off in a situation comedy entitled The Great Gildersleeve, which premiered in August of 1941.

Then, with America’s entry into World War II at the end of 1941, The Johnson’s Wax Program became one of the benchmarks by which patriotism on the radio homefront was measured. The McGees beseeched their listening audience to do all they could for the war effort (like buying war bonds and planting victory gardens), and many of their broadcasts were built around this theme. (For example: cognizant of gas rationing, Fibber and Molly often depended on four-legged transportation—their horse Lillian.) The war kept two of their cast members occupied, Thompson and Gordon, so the show was forced to create new characters to make up for the deficit.

mcgeesgambleArthur Q. Bryan was soon brought aboard as Dr. George Gamble, a corpulent physician who replaced Gildersleeve as Fibber’s verbal punching bag…though the erudite medico often got the better of his nemesis in their oral entanglements. Shirley Mitchell played man-crazy Alice Darling, a war worker who boarded with the McGees. The character with the most influential impact was an African-American maid named Beulah that Fibber and Molly hired in 1944. Unbeknownst to home listeners, Beulah was played by a white actor named Marlin Hurt, who got shrieks of laughter from the studio audience whenever he would spin around (he spent the time until his entrance with his back to the audience) and holler his first line. The character of Beulah later migrated to a spin-off as well, in CBS’ The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show in 1945.

fibbermcgeeclosetFibber McGee & Molly continued to be popular with radio listeners once the war ended, and fans tuned in religiously each week to hear their favorite catchphrases (“Tain’t funny, McGee!”, “Dadrat the dadratted…”). The most popular running gag on the show was introduced in 1940: the McGees had a closet at 79 Wistful Vista that had become home to numerous piles of junk and bric-a-brac over the years. And because the contents of the closet had been organized with the kind of discipline you’d expect of a man nicknamed “Fibber,” when some unlucky individual (usually McGee) opened the closet…an avalanche of odds and ends came spilling out (courtesy of the show’s preeminent sound effects man). “Gotta straighten out that closet one of these days,” McGee would wind up muttering.

fibbermolly11Jim and Marian Jordan were a rarity in radio: they were practically alone among the medium’s top comedy acts who had no interest in transitioning to television. They filmed a pilot at Johnson Wax’s request, but having fulfilled that obligation, the couple decided that newfangled boob tube had nothing to offer them. So they amicably split with their longtime sponsor at the end of the 1949-50 season, and for the next two years Pet Milk paid their bills, with Reynolds Aluminum writing the checks for the final season their half-hour show was on the air. The thirty-minute adventures of the McGees ended on June 30, 1953, and in October of that same year Jim and Marian’s show became a five-day-a-week quarter-hour that was heard until March 23, 1956. The couple also performed in Fibber and Molly skits on NBC’s Monitor between 1957 and 1959.

20345The traditional gift for eightieth wedding anniversaries is oak…which would be kind of appropriate in the case of Fibber and Molly; one of the subtlest running gags on their program was that the address for any home, business or government building was always located at 14th and Oak. We at Radio Spirits, however, suggest a more suitable anniversary gift: Fibber McGee & Molly collections Whoppers, That Ain’t the Way I Heared It, and the crème de la crème of their wartime broadcasts available on Wistful Vista. For Yuletide McGee mirth, we recommend checking out Christmas Radio Classics, Radio Christmas Celebrations and The Voices of Christmas Past; Fibber and Molly also figure prominently in our Road Trip: Humorous Travel Tales collection. If you’re curious about the origin of Fibber’s famous closet, our Burns and Allen: Gracie for President can take you back to when it all began. And keep your eyes peeled for the brand spanking new Fibber McGee & Molly: For Goodness Sakes collection, which will be available for purchase next week! Happy anniversary, Fibber and Molly!

“Out of the fog…out of the night…”

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It was on this date in 1941 that Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond began what the announcer referred to as “his American adventures” on Mutual Radio. The need to stress “American adventures” stems from the fact that Captain Drummond (nicknamed “Bulldog” because of his tenacity) originally hailed from our neighbor on the other side of the pond. Drummond, a decorated war hero in the “Royal Loamshire Regiment” (he earned the Military Cross [MC] and Distinguished Service Order [DSO]), had grown restless after the First World War and decided to advertise (much in the same way as Dan Halliday and his Box 13) his services as a two-fisted adventurer and private detective.

bulldogdrummondbookDrummond was introduced in a self-titled novel (Bulldog Drummond) in 1920 by H.C. McNeile, who wrote under the pseudonym “Sapper.” McNeile purportedly based the Drummond character on his friend Gerald Fairlie, and when McNeile passed away in 1937, Fairlie repaid him for the compliment by continuing to write Drummond novels for a time afterward. Military fit and a bloke you’d definitely want on your side in a barroom brawl, Bulldog craved excitement…and was unquestionably no stranger to it. His sidekick in his various endeavors was (James) Denny, a loyal man-servant (and his former batman), though the Captain was often aided and abetted by a number of his ex-Army pals as well—one of his hangers-on was Algy (Longworth), who appeared in a good many of the motion pictures inspired by the character.

bulldogdrummondcolmanThe Drummond novels and short stories proved quite popular with the British public, and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood began calling—Bulldog Drummond, based on a play written by McNeile (screenplay adapted by B.E. Doxat-Pratt), began packing theater houses in 1922. There were several other actors to tackle the role of Captain Drummond (including Jack Buchanan and Ralph Richardson), but most Bulldog fans believe that Ronald Coleman’s take on the famed detective in 1929 stands head and shoulders above the rest. It was Bulldog Drummond (1929) that put Colman on the map in his first talkie, and he did a sequel in 1934 entitled Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back. (Sadly, Strikes Back has never been made available to TV or home video in this country.)

BulldogdrummondcomesbackParamount Pictures instituted a Bulldog Drummond film series beginning in 1937 with Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge, which starred John Howard as the adventurous detective. Howard played the part in the majority of the series titles (the exception being Ray Milland in Bulldog Drummond Escapes [1937])—yet the series wasn’t so much about him as it was about featuring John Barrymore as Col. J.A. Neilson, Drummond’s pal and master-of-disguise. The Great Profile eventually tired of his role, and left the series (allowing H.B. Warner to take over)…but the franchise soldiered on until 1939, and always featured first-rate character actors such as Heather Angel (as Bulldog’s girlfriend Phyllis Clavering), Reginald Denny and E.E. Clive. (Turner Classic Movies has tentatively scheduled eight of the Paramount Drummond features to be shown June 4, beginning at 8pm.)

colouris2On April 13, 1941, Mutual premiered Bulldog Drummond to radio listeners in a series produced and directed by the man who brought you the creaking door (on Inner Sanctum Mysteries): Himan Brown. Airing on Sunday evenings for Howard Clothes, Captain Drummond was played by character actor George Coulouris, a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre who also appeared in Welles’ debut motion picture, Citizen Kane (1941), as well as Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Nobody Loves Forever (1946). Many of the early broadcasts probably seemed like Old Home Week to George: several of his friends also played parts on the program, including Everett Sloane (as his sidekick Denny), Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Mercedes McCambridge and Ted de Corsia.

weverSantos Ortega took over for Coulouris in May of 1942 and portrayed Drummond for nearly a year…then the Bulldog role was handed off to Ned Wever, the actor best remembered for playing the “polished man-about-town.” (Actors Rod Hendrickson and Luis van Rooten eventually inherited the part of Denny from Everett Sloane.) The series was sustained for most of its run (with sponsorships from Tums in 1945-46 and American Transit in 1947), and bounced around Mutual’s schedule until 1949. While this was going on, Columbia Pictures attempted to jump-start a big screen version of Drummond in 1947 with Bulldog Drummond at Bay and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (not to be confused with the 1934 Ronald Colman). 20th Century-Fox had a turn the following year with The Challenge and 13 Lead Soldiers, both starring former Falcon (and radio Sherlock Holmes) Tom Conway as Bulldog.

callingbulldogdrummondWith the radio show having been off the air for two years, M-G-M tried their hand at the character with Calling Bulldog Drummond (1951), featuring Walter Pidgeon in the part. It didn’t move past the initial entry, but Bulldog Drummond returned to Mutual for a season in the fall of 1953 (briefly sponsored by Chrysler-Dodge) starring Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Captain Hugh. The series called it a wrap on March 28, 1954…and with the exception of two films in the 1960s that starred Richard Johnson as a more James Bondian interpretation of the hero (Deadlier Than the Male and Some Girls Do), Bulldog Drummond eventually disappeared into that foggy night well established during Radio’s Golden Age.

20636Several of the Paramount Bulldog Drummond films are available for purchase from Radio Spirits: Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge (1937), Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937), Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (1938) and Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police (1939). You also won’t want to miss our fine collection of classic Bulldog broadcasts in Out of the Fog, featuring radio Drummonds George Coulouris and Ned Wever!

“…the bulkiest, balkiest, smartest, most unpredictable detective in the world…”

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On this date in 1943, the first of several attempts to introduce radio to one of the most memorable of literary sleuths got underway. Nero Wolfe, the well-upholstered creation of author Rex Stout, was introduced in 1934 in the pages of Fer-De-Lance. The first of 33 novels (and 39 short stories) introduced the eccentric bon vivant with a taste for cold beer, fine food and orchids. (I should stress this last item wasn’t on the menu). Nero lived lavishly in an elegant New York City brownstone—but because of his fondness for the finer things in life, he had turned to detection to pay the bills.

ferdelanceThe only trouble was—Wolfe loathed venturing outside his familiar environs (he had an aversion to both travel and trains), and so he often depended on his “leg man,” Archie Goodwin, to do the heavy lifting. (I’m not kidding about the “heavy” part; Goodwin once guesstimated his boss’ girth at about 286 pounds). Goodwin was more in keeping with the traditional private eye cliché – a hard-boiled wisecracker with an eye for a shapely dame – yet his most important function was to serve as the narrator for their various misadventures.

arnoldwolfeThe success of Fer-de-Lance eventually led to Stout’s being besieged with offers from movie studios to adapt Wolfe to the silver screen. Rex himself thought Charles Laughton would make an outstanding Nero (and it’s certainly fun to speculate), but Columbia Pictures (who purchased the screen rights to the novel for $7,500) refashioned the book into Meet Nero Wolfe for contractee Edward Arnold—reasoning that they could keep the actor busy in between more prestigious assignments with a series of “B” programmers budgeted to play on the bottom of movie theater double bills. Meet Nero Wolfe (1936) was actually a borderline “A,” and featured a young Margarita Carmen Cansino on her way to becoming Rita Hayworth. It was directed by Herbert Biberman who, along with Arnold, was not asked back for the second (and last) film in the series, The League of Frightened Men (1937; Stout’s second Nero book). Walter Connolly took over as the corpulent Wolfe in that feature, with Lionel Stander reprising his role from the first film as Archie Goodwin.

ortegaStout was adamant about authorizing any more movies featuring his creation. (You can’t really blame him; the studio had Nero switching from beer to hot chocolate in Frightened Men.) But he was amenable to a radio adaptation, The Adventures of Nero Wolfe, which premiered over a small regional network (The New England Network) on April 7, 1943, and featured J.B. Williams as Wolfe. That series ran until June, and in July it moved to the Blue network with veteran Santos Ortega as the show’s star. Ortega would later be replaced by Luis van Rooten (in January of 1944) until the show left the airwaves on July 14, 1944. (John Gibson, best remembered as “Ethelbert” on Casey, Crime Photographer, played Archie during the Blue network run.) A disagreement between producer Himan Brown and Edwin Fadiman—the man who oversaw Stout’s radio, movie and television interests as Nero Wolfe Attractions, Inc.—is what kept The Adventures of Nero Wolfe from returning to the now-retitled ABC network.

lewisNero Wolfe, however, would not be silenced where the airwaves were concerned. Mutual resurrected “the detective genius who rates the knife and fork the greatest tools ever invented by man” in the summer of 1946 on a Sunday night series sponsored by Jergens Lotion. The series was retitled The Amazing Nero Wolfe, and appearing as “the gargantuan gourmet” was former silent movie legend Francis X. Bushman…with Elliott Lewis as Archie. Produced and directed by Travis Wells and scripted by Louis Vittes, the new Wolfe series was criticized by Stout biographer John McAleer for its “slapstick” humor. The Amazing Nero Wolfe went off the air on December 15 of that same year.

greenstreetwolfe2When NBC premiered The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe on October 20, 1950, fans of the detective had to be wondering if the third time would be the charm. The actor chosen to play the rotund gumshoe seemed to be a natural; Sydney Greenstreet, who hit one out of the park with his first movie role in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon (at the age of 62, after a lengthy stage career)—his character of Kasper Gutman in Falcon was even referenced as “the fat man.” Greenstreet had solid radio credentials: he appeared on such programs as The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre and Academy Award Theatre, and poked fun at his silver screen persona alongside comedians like Fred Allen and Bob Hope. But the actor’s participation on New Adventures didn’t come cheap, and even with the input of Vittes and Fadiman, NBC had difficulty locating a sponsor (Plymouth signed up briefly, then lost interest) so the series was mostly sustained during its one-year run.

bartellThe low ratings for Nero Wolfe explains why five actors—Wally Maher, Lawrence Dobkin, Herb Ellis, Gerald Mohr and Harry Bartell—all played Archie Goodwin during the program’s single season on the air. Old-time radio historian Stewart Wright reminisced that after seeing Dobkin, Ellis and Bartell recreate a broadcast of the series at a radio convention in 1999 he learned “[t]he reason why there were so many Archies during the Greenstreet run is that the ratings for the series were never good and Greenstreet, as the star, could not believe that the poor ratings were his fault, so the fault must lie with the actor playing Archie. Therefore, [the] actor playing Archie was changed several times. Obviously, the changes didn’t help.”

greenstreetwolfe1The fate of The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe was a sad one, because Stout was quite positive about Greenstreet’s participation (Rex just thought the scripts were lousy). And who knows? Had the attempt been made to keep the Wolfe franchise stable in the early years of its broadcast history, it might have enjoyed a more successful run during Radio’s Golden Age. The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe made its last bow at the curtain on April 27, 1951. Except for a brief attempt at resuscitation in the early months of 1982 courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Nero Wolfe soldiered on in his brownstone, saddened that the aural medium hadn’t been kinder to his legacy.

20182Still, time was pretty good to The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe; of the twenty-six shows originally broadcast, only one didn’t survive the ravages of neglect (“The Case of the Headless Hunter,” from November 11, 1950). The surviving shows are featured on two Radio Spirits collections: The Case of the Midnight Ride and Other Tales and Parties of Death. To compensate for the missing “Hunter,” Parties includes an April 16, 1945 broadcast of The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre: “The Mask of Dimitrios,” a radio adaptation of the 1944 suspense thriller with Greenstreet and Peter Lorre recreating their original roles. (Trust me—you don’t want to miss it!)

Happy Birthday, John Brown!

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In the 1949 film The Life of Riley—based on the successful radio situation comedy created by Irving Brecher (who also directed and wrote the silver screen adaptation)—one of the series’ most popular characters is introduced in a rather novel fashion. The electricity has been cut off in the Riley household, and in the darkness we hear those familiar sepulchral tones of Chester A.’s pal, Digby “Digger” O’Dell—“the friendly undertaker.” The lights then come up, and the audience is able to see the somber mug of the character veteran whose portrayal of “Digger” saved the radio Riley from almost certain cancellation, according to creator Brecher. Old-time radio fans know the actor that played Digger (and so many other comedic creations) as John Brown, born on this date in 1904.

brown1For an actor who mastered Noo Yawk accents with effortless ease, it’s interesting to learn that John Brown was actually a native of Hull, Yorkshire, England. After emigrating to the U.S., Brown was eager to start a career as a radio actor…but while waiting for “the call” he worked many an odd job and appeared on stage in such New York City productions as Peace on Earth and The Milky Way. (Curiously, Brown’s main source of a paycheck in the Big Apple at that time was working as a mortician’s clerk—which probably came in handy later in his career.) His earliest recorded radio credit was in a 1932 syndicated series entitled Police Headquarters, and from that he packed his resume with appearances on such dramatic shows as The Adventures of the Saint, Arch Oboler’s Plays, Casey, Crime Photographer, The Cavalcade of America, Ellery Queen, Everyman’s Theatre, Family Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Mr. President, Mystery in the Air, Radio Almanac, The Shadow, The Silver Theatre, Stars Over Hollywood, Suspense, The Treasury Hour and The Whistler.

brown4John Brown is probably better known for his comedic contributions to the Golden Age of Radio, seeing as he was afforded the opportunity to work alongside one of the leading radio funsters in Fred Allen. John appeared on Fred’s Salad Bowl Revue in 1933, and then became part of Allen’s “stock company” on Town Hall Tonight in the fall of 1934. John was still with Fred when the comedian’s weekly hour-long program became The Fred Allen Show in 1939, and when the satirist got a new sponsor in Texaco (The Texaco Star Theatre) a year later. Brown is best remembered for playing “John Doe,” one of the earliest “Allen’s Alley” tenants when Fred introduced the recurring segment in December of 1942.

brown3Because of his association with Allen, John got a foot in the door and worked alongside many of the medium’s best-remembered comedy-variety stars, including Abbott & Costello, Amos ‘n’ Andy (Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll), Jack Benny, Bergen & McCarthy, Fanny Brice (Baby Snooks), Burns & Allen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Cass Daley, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Charlotte Greenwood, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, Marlin “Beulah” Hurt, Al Jolson, Danny Kaye, Jack Kirkwood, Dinah Shore, Rudy Vallee and Alan Young. Brown could also be heard on occasion on The Amazing Mr. Smith, The Bickersons, December Bride, The Gay Mrs. Featherstone, Life with Luigi, Lorenzo Jones, Maisie, Tillie the Toiler and Young Love.

On The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, John Brown played Syd “Thorny” Thornberry, the Nelsons’ next-door neighbor…who was often called upon to offer advice to his friend “Oz” whenever the male half of “America’s favorite young couple” found himself in a particularly sticky wicket. He offered fatherly words of wisdom as Melvin Foster on the teen sitcom A Date with Judy—and though Mr. Foster was played by other radio veterans (including Paul McGrath and Joseph Kearns), Brown made the character his own by relying on his trademark sardonic manner. John also played Homer Willoughby, Dennis Day’s boss at the drugstore where Day soda-jerked on A Day in the Life of Dennis Day; Willoughby made a good go at counseling Dennis, but usually ended up frustrated by his employee’s weekly shenanigans.

riley2John’s radio immortality stems from two of the medium’s truly beloved situation comedies. I’ve already mentioned that Brown played “Digger” O’Dell on The Life of Riley, a character that Irving Brecher created on the spur of the moment when that week’s broadcast was going to run short. O’Dell had a touch of the macabre about him (“You’re looking fine, Riley—very natural!”) and though the show’s original sponsor thought the character was in bad taste, audiences soon made Digger a solid favorite. But Brown also doubled on Riley as Jim Gillis—who, unlike John’s “Thorny” character on Ozzie & Harriet, did not always provide the best advice to his chum (played by William Bendix). In the movie adaptation, character veteran James Gleason played Gillis to avoid the need for split-screen trickery, and when John joined the cast of the TV version of Riley that starred future Honeymooner Jackie Gleason, it was Sid Tomack who took over the Gillis duties.

irma3Brown’s other radio claim-to-fame was his weekly gig as the perpetually unemployed Al, boyfriend to Irma Peterson (Marie Wilson) on My Friend Irma. Al was truly one of nature’s noblemen: an unrepentant loafer who subsisted solely on his unemployment checks…and the generosity of Irma, of course—his little “Chicken.” While John Brown was working on both Irma and The Life of Riley, he landed a program that would allow him to be the star. Carrying an entire show was not a new experience for the actor—he had played the titular The Busy Mr. Bingle back in 1943—but The Damon Runyon Theatre allowed John to combine his comedic and dramatic talents as “Broadway,” the narrator (and frequent participant) in stories based on the wonderful tales from the pen of author Damon Runyon.

brown7Suffice it to say, John Brown was kept so busy in radio that it rarely gave him time to concentrate on a film career. But he turns up in a number of wonderful classic films. One of my favorites is a small role in his old boss Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag! (1945), in which he plays a theatre usher who stands outside and announces “Immediate seating on all floors!” Later that year, John had an equally memorable turn as a sarcastic cafeteria manager in The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), which starred Allen’s nemesis Jack Benny. Brown’s movie resume also includes bit parts in such features as Casanova Brown (1944), The Stranger (1946), Three Desperate Men (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Sniper (1952), The Bigamist (1953) and The Wild One (1953). Classic movie fans can spot him in Strangers on a Train (1951) as the soused professor who can provide Guy Haines (Farley Granger) an alibi for a murder that Haines has been accused of…if he can only remember the events of the previous evening. (Brown also voices “Ro-Man,” the alien ape protagonist—clad in a diving helmet—in the 1953 cult oddity Robot Monster.)

brown6John Brown was starting to make inroads on the small screen with his reprisal of “Digger” O’Dell on the Gleason Life of Riley, and he also guest-starred on the likes of Amos ‘n’ Andy, I Love Lucy and Biff Baker, U.S.A. He had taken over as “Harry Morton” on The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show when his name surfaced in the infamous Red Channels. As a result of being blacklisted, John found himself fighting to get work. The experience clearly took a toll on this multi-talented actor, for Brown passed away in 1957 at the age of 53.

20264Radio Spirits has beaucoups and beaucoups of old-time radio collections featuring the great John Brown; we suggest sampling his signature series of The Life of Riley (Magnificent Mug, My Head is Made Up!), My Friend Irma (On Second Thought), The Damon Runyon Theatre (Broadway Complex), A Date with Judy, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (on our Happy Halloween! set). You should then check out his support of such legendary radio comedians as Amos ‘n’ Andy (Volume Two, Radio’s All-Time Favorites), Fred Allen (The Fred Allen Show) and Jack Benny (Neighbors, On the Town and Oh, Rochester!)—John even makes his presence known in our two Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen compilations, The Feud and Grudge Match. For dessert, there’s The Adventures of the Falcon (Shakedown), The Bickersons (Put Out the Lights!) and The Shadow (Crime Does Not Pay)!

Happy Birthday, Richard Denning!

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If I stated up front that the man who’s in our birthday spotlight today transcended his meager beginnings as a mere thespian and eventually became the governor of a state…well, you’d probably assume I was talking about Ronald Reagan. So I’ll abandon that angle. Instead, join me for some cake and ice cream as we pay tribute to Louis Albert Heindrich Denninger, Jr.—born in Poughkeepsie, NY in 1914, and who would later find fame on stage, screen (big and small) and radio as handsome leading man Richard Denning.

denning13Before Denning decided on a show business career, however, he was a handsome leading man working for his father in the Los Angeles garment industry. Clothes may make the man, but in this instance they made Richard restless; besides, he was much more interested in appearing in plays presented by the city’s Little Theater groups. A Paramount Pictures scout spotted Denning in a production and offered him a contract…but first, Paramount’s Powers That Be demanded that he change his last name of “Denninger.” (It seems that there was a certain Public Enemy Number One with the same surname, and the executives didn’t want audiences wondering if there was a family connection once they saw Richard onscreen.)

denningankersThe lanky, square-jawed actor would soon become a casting favorite with the studio’s directors…though many of the films in which he appeared were of the B-variety. A few of the more recognizable features Richard Denning graced include The Buccaneer (1938), The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938), Her Jungle Love (1938), Union Pacific (1939), Some Like it Hot (1939), The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), Million Dollar Legs (1939), North West Mounted Police (1940), Love Thy Neighbor (1940) and Adam Had Four Sons (1941). 1942 was a very good year for the ambitious Richard; he had one of his best remembered movie roles as the wastrel Taylor Henry in The Glass Key (1942), and he had fallen for the studio’s resident “Scream Queen,” Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula). The two of them would tie the knot before the year was out, and had one of Hollywood’s happiest marriages until Evelyn’s passing in 1985.

denning8Richard Denning’s movie career momentarily stalled once World War II was underway. He served in the South Pacific with the U.S. Navy, and upon his discharge appeared in Black Beauty (1946) with wife Ankers. But Richard soon found his niche in “science fiction” films: he appeared in such features as Unknown Island (1948), Target Earth (1954), Day the World Ended (1955), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), and The Black Scorpion (1957). His best known work in sci-fi films is unquestionably Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), in which he played the arrogant boss of dedicated scientist Richard Carlson, and served as Carlson’s rival for the affections of swimsuit clad Julia Adams. (The two men had a little competition in that department, though, from the titular beast of the film.) Other films from Denning’s expansive resume include No Man of Her Own (1950), Hangman’s Knot (1952), The Glass Web (1953), An Affair to Remember (1957) and Twice-Told Tales (1963).

denning1While working to reestablish himself in motion pictures, Denning began the first of many forays in front of a radio microphone beginning in the late 1940s. On July 5, 1948, CBS Radio premiered “a special preview” of My Favorite Husband, a sitcom that was developed to capitalize on the long-underutilized comedic talents of glamour gal Lucille Ball. Based on Isabel Scott Rorick’s 1941 novel Mr. and Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage, Husband cast Lucy in the role of socialite-turned-housewife Elizabeth (Liz) Cugat, and movie favorite Lee Bowman as her husband George, former-playboy-turned-bank-vice-president. The reception to the show was quite positive, and the network made plans for it to return two weeks later. But they would have to do without Bowman’s services (he had other commitments), and so Richard was tabbed to play opposite Lucy.

denning2My Favorite Husband was a sporadically funny series that didn’t really find its full footing until writer Jess Oppenheimer was hired to script the show after he lost his job as head man on The Baby Snooks Show. Oppenheimer was quickly promoted to director-producer, and along with network staff scribes Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr., revamped both the series and Lucy’s character—making her more childlike and impulsive (qualities that defined Fanny Brice’s Snooks, when you stop and think about it). Denning’s portrayal of Richard Cugat also got a reworking: while he remained a jocular, good-natured individual, he wasn’t afraid to lay down the law when it came to the shenanigans engineered by his endearingly ditzy wife. The characters of Rudolph and Iris Atterbury—played by Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet—were also added, and the show soon featured radio veterans Ruth Perrott, Hans Conried and Eleanor Audley, to name a few.

denning5Old-time radio fans know that Husband was pretty much the blueprint for Ball’s mega-successful I Love Lucy, which came about when CBS wanted her to bring MFH to TV and she told them that if her real-life husband Desi Arnaz wasn’t cast as her television spouse it wasn’t gonna happen. Richard took all this in stride (no offense, but Lucy wasn’t going to back down on the Desi thing). And he had a show waiting for him in the wings for him anyway – Mr. and Mrs. North, a small screen adaptation of the long-running radio hit. Denning was Jerry North, and the attractive Barbara Britton perfectly complemented him as wife Pam. Mr. and Mrs. North had a two-year run on TV, but Barbara and Richard later inherited the radio roles from Alice Frost and Joseph Curtin in 1953 and continued over the ether until the series rang down the curtain in April of 1955.

denning11Richard Denning continued to work in feature films while at the same dabbling in the medium known as television: he guest-starred on such series as Cavalcade of America, The Ford Television Theatre and Cheyenne, and in 1959 starred as Dr. Greg Graham on The Flying Doctor. The following year, Denning got back into the detective game by playing longtime radio favorite Michael Shayne in a season-long series. Dick later played TV pop to Debbie Watson on a sitcom called Karen, which was part of a trilogy of series under the umbrella title of 90 Bristol Court (the others being Tom, Dick and Mary and Harris Against the World). After finishing a film in 1968 entitled I Sailed to Tahiti With an All-Girl Crew (thanks for the spoiler warning), Denning was ready to kick back and enjoy retirement in The Aloha State with his wife Evelyn. But producer Leonard Freeman made the actor an offer he couldn’t refuse: he’d work five-hour days and a four-day work week and in turn be the familiar face of Governor Paul Jameson on the hit crime drama Hawaii Five-O. (That’s how Denning got into politics.) Richard Denning remarried after his wife Evelyn’s death; he and spouse Patricia Leffingwell remained together until the actor’s death in 1998.

20518Radio Spirits offers an eight-DVD set—with a total of thirty-two episodes—that spotlights the televised adventures of Mr. and Mrs. North as played by today’s birthday boy and leading lady Barbara Britton (they also appear in “The Doll House,” a North episode spotlighted in our collection Rare TV Detectives, Volume 2). When you’re done with those, we invite you to listen to Britton’s Pam and Denning’s Jerry investigate “murder liberally sprinkled with laughs” in Bet on Death and Touch of Death. Happy birthday to Richard Denning!