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Happy Centennial Birthday, Parley Baer!

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Simply put, the actor born on this date one hundred years ago in Salt Lake City, Utah possessed one of the most distinctive voices in the multiple mediums of radio, TV and movies. Let me illustrate with a personal example. Many years ago, I was worked on some project in the living room of my home in Savannah, GA and to have some noise on in the background, put on a DVD of the 1951 Cary Grant-Jeanne Crain movie People Will Talk. I was pretty engrossed in what I was doing, but the moment Grant’s character walked into a hobby store with the intention of buying a train set, I looked up upon hearing the voice of the salesman who spoke to him. “Parley Baer!” I shouted out…and then felt kind of silly, because I was the only person in the living room at the time.

parley7After studying drama at the University of Utah, Parley achieved the dream of every young boy: he ran away to join the circus. He was quite an adept ringmaster, employed at various times by Circus Vargas and Barnum & Bailey—and years after his radio and TV success, kept his hand in serving on the board of the community L.A. Circus. The big top is also where he met the future Mrs. Baer; Parley courted circus aerialist-bareback rider Ernestine Clarke, and married her in 1946—they were together for fifty-four years until her passing in 2000.

A stint as an announcer for Salt Lake’s KSLM got Baer interested in radio, and he began getting jobs on such series as The Whistler and The First Nighter Program. Parley would go on to appear on nearly every major dramatic anthology series, among them The Damon Runyon Theater, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Lux Radio Theatre, The NBC University Theater and The Railroad Hour. He was versatile enough to do comedy, scoring supporting roles on shows like Shorty Bell, Granby’s Green Acres (he was the original Eb!) and The Truitts, and guesting on the likes of Fibber McGee & Molly, Our Miss Brooks and Those Websters. It’s difficult to name a series that didn’t give Parley a script to hold at one time or another; he graced such popular programs as Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Confession, The Count of Monte Cristo (as manservant Rene), Dragnet, The Man Called X, Night Beat, Pat Novak For Hire, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, The Six Shooter, Suspense, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

parley6If Parley Baer had a mentor in radio…it might arguably be producer-director Norman Macdonnell. Norm used Parley frequently on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The CBS Radio Workshop, Escape, Fort Laramie and Romance. On Honest Harold, the sitcom Harold Peary did for CBS after departing The Great Gildersleeve, Baer played Harold’s pal Pete, and the actor later essayed the role of Doc Clemmens, the best friend (who often narrated the stories) of the titular hero on Rogers of the Gazette. Parley would also work for Macdonnell on what would later be acknowledged as his signature radio role as Chester Wesley Proudfoot in the dean of radio westerns, Gunsmoke.

parley8As originally written, Chester didn’t actually have a name—star William Conrad complained that Parley’s part in the audition script was simply designated as “Townsman,” and he explained it was silly to call him that when he had to address him. So Conrad came up with “Chester,” and Baer later ad-libbed the remainder of his moniker in another episode. In numerous interviews, the actor unhesitatingly described playing Chester on Gunsmoke as the highlight of his professional career—a complete contrast to Dennis Weaver, who played the “dependable non-thinker” (Baer’s description) on television, and who eventually became dissatisfied with what he considered a limiting, confining trap. Like so many radio veterans, Parley Baer embraced acting in the medium as a pure joy—he continued to perform on such 1970s revivals as The Sears Radio Theater (a.k.a. The Mutual Radio Theater) and played the recurring roles of Reginald Duffield and Uncle Joe Finneman on Adventures in Odyssey in the 1980s/1990s.

parley4By the beginning of the 1950s, Parley was ready to flex his thespic muscles as a movie character actor; his first credited roles were in the films Comanche Territory and Union Station, and he later appeared in the likes of Air Cadet (1951), Away All Boats (1956), The Young Lions (1958), The FBI Story (1959), Wake Me When It’s Over (1960), A Fever in the Blood (1961), Gypsy (1962), Bedtime Story (1964), Those Calloways (1965), Skin Game (1971)…and one of his personal favorites, the controversial Sam Fuller-directed White Dog (1982). He’d continue to play small roles and bit parts in films until 1995; one of his most memorable valedictory roles was as the Senate majority leader in the 1993 comedy Dave.

parley9Parley would become a frequent presence on the small screen as well, guest starring on such TV successes as Have Gun – Will Travel, Perry Mason, The Lucy Show, Hogan’s Heroes, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, The Virginian, Bewitched, WKRP in Cincinnati and Newhart. On The Andy Griffith Show, Parley played Mayberry mayor Roy Stoner (reuniting him with his one-time Gunsmoke colleague Howard McNear), a by-the-book stickler for the rules who frequently created conflict for Sheriff Andy Taylor. Baer also appeared on The Addams Family in several episodes (as city commissioner—and later mayor—Arthur J. Henson) and had a recurring role on The Dukes of Hazzard as Doc Appleby. His best remembered boob tube gig is undoubtedly that of Ozzie and Harriet’s neighbor Herb Darby on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet; later, in the 1990s, he made multiple appearances on the daytime drama The Young and the Restless as Miles Dugan when that series prominently featured a story arc on senior citizens. Even when Parley wasn’t appearing on a proper TV program chances were you could catch him voicing the Keebler Elf in that cookie company’s popular commercials.

parley5A major stroke in 1997 ended Parley’s acting career, and he finally shuffled off this mortal coil in 2002 at the age of 88. But his radio legacy is a rich one; among the Radio Spirits collections on which you can hear the amazing Mr. Baer: The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Defense Attorney, Escape (Escape to the High Seas), Fort Laramie Volume Two, Frontier Gentleman (Aces and Eights), The Line Up (Witness), The Mutual Radio Theater, Night Beat (Lost Souls), Our Miss Brooks (Boynton Blues), Pat Novak for Hire (Pain Gets Expensive), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Mayhem is My Business), Romance, The Six Shooter (Gray Steel), Suspense (Tales Well Calculated) and The Whistler (Notes on Murder, Root of All Evil). Today’s birthday boy also appears on all of our Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar sets: Confidential, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, Wayward Matters…and The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar. Happy centennial anniversary to one of our favorite character actors!

Happy Birthday, Bill Goodwin!

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There are announcers…and there are personality announcers. The latter were integral to the success of any comedy program during Radio’s Golden Age; not only did they dutifully promote the sponsor’s product, but they were also called upon to play a more participatory role in the weekly shenanigans in the show. Don Wilson, when he wasn’t hawking Jell-O or Grape Nuts or Lucky Strike, was important to the plot that unfolded during each half-hour of The Jack Benny Program. Harlow Wilcox stopped by 79 Wistful Vista each week not only to praise Johnson’s Wax or Carnu, but to needle the laird and master of that residence, Fibber McGee. Harry Von Zell was a foil for Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Joan Davis and Dinah Shore before becoming the whipping boy on George Burns and Gracie Allen’s popular TV sitcom.

goodwin5Since I’ve mentioned Burns and Allen, it seems only fitting to mention that their longtime announcer Bill Goodwin celebrates what would have been his one-hundred-and-fourth birthday today. Born William Nettles Goodwin in San Francisco in 1910, Bill can be heard working alongside George and Gracie as early as an extant September 26, 1934 broadcast (when the couple’s show was known as The Adventures of Gracie and was sponsored by White Owl cigars). But he moonlighted with other funsters at the same time, working for Joe Penner’s Cocomalt show and at Jack Oakie’s College (which also meant that he handled the announcing chores for Oakie’s companion program, The Camel Caravan with Benny Goodman). Bill was also the announcer for Hollywood Showcase briefly in 1938, and yucked it up with Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton when those two brought their movie act to radio in the sitcom Blondie.

goodwin1Goodwin’s best known radio gig at that time was as announcer and stooge for Bob Hope, whom he worked with during the comedian’s early years in radio (1938-41), and later rejoined in the 1950s (after George and Gracie chose to concentrate solely on TV). Because Bill was Bob’s announcer, it only made sense that he fill the same role on A Date with Judy when that sitcom was Hope’s summer replacement in 1941. Throughout the 1940s, Bill Goodwin would work alongside the likes of Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), Milton Berle (on Three Ring Time), Gracie Fields, Al Pearce and Frank Sinatra. In select summers (because he was employed by Burns and Allen), he handled the chores on Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou and Paul Whiteman Presents. Other shows on which Bill made appearances include Command Performance, Mail Call, The Columbia Workshop, The Silver Theatre and The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre.

goodwin7As George and Gracie’s announcer and foil, Bill Goodwin was a master of the integrated commercial—sneaking in plugs for Swan Soap and Maxwell House Coffee with effortless aplomb. Bill was also a sounding board for Gracie’s weekly bit of wacky, and loved to toss barbs at George…usually on the subjects of his age and how he owed much of his success to his wife. Goodwin also fancied himself quite the ladies’ man, and would offer up his expertise on charming the fairer sex to bandleader Meredith Willson, who was a complete washout where women were concerned.

Because of his popularity on the Burns and Allen program, Bill Goodwin attempted to strike out on his own in two unsuccessful solo ventures. He played an insurance salesman on CBS’ The Bill Goodwin Show (also known as Leave it to Bill), but despite the presence of radio veterans like Jim Backus, Bill Johnstone, Shirley Mitchell, Elvia Allman and Mary Jane Croft, the sitcom came and went rather quickly. The following year, Bill sent up the private eye genre as an inept (and inebriated) gumshoe named Johnny Fletcher, heard briefly on ABC (and co-starring Sheldon Leonard). A quiz show, Dollar a Minute, was hosted by Mr. G for a single season from 1950-51. Of course, by that time Bill was touting Carnation Milk on George and Gracie’s behalf on the small screen, so he certainly wasn’t browsing the want ads for work.

'To Each His Own'Besides, Bill Goodwin was already hard at work establishing his bona fides as a movie character actor. Amusingly, he turns up in two entries in the Blondie franchise (so it must have seemed like Old Home Week for Bill, Penny and Arthur), Blondie in Society (1941) and Blondie Goes to College (1942). You’ll recognize him as the hotel detective in Spellbound (1945), and as Olivia de Havilland’s business partner in To Each His Own (1946), the film that won Livvy her first of two Best Actress Oscars. Other Goodwin performances can be viewed in Incendiary Blonde (1945), The Stork Club (1945), The Jolson Story (1946), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), The Life of Riley (1949), Tea for Two (1950), Lucky Me (1954) and The Opposite Sex (1956). A film that’s been previously discussed here on the blog, So This is New York (1948), also includes Bill Goodwin among the all-star cast (as a megalomaniacal Broadway star)…and was recently released to DVD and Blu-ray this month by Olive Films.

20560It’s quite ironic that Bill Goodwin, who garnered appreciative laughs by ridiculing his boss George Burns’ age, would actually leave this world for a better one before his famous employer—Goodwin died of a heart attack in 1958 at the age of 47. But his underrated prowess as a comedic straight man lives on in such Burns & Allen Radio Spirits collections as Treasury, As Good as Nuts and Burns & Allen and Friends. (Bill gets plenty of time to say a few words in Volumes 1 and 2 of their television show, too.) And for a change of pace…our birthday boy shares a microphone with Bergen and McCarthy in the set Homefront Charlie. Happy birthday, Bill—you’re good to the last drop!

Review: One Mysterious Night (1944)

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It costs only a dollar—1/100th of a C-note—to gaze at a display of precious gems at the Carleton Plaza Hotel, an event that’s fundraising for the war effort…and that features the Blue Star of the Nile as its main attraction. But that attraction won’t be around for long—a couple of hoods, Paul Martens (William Wright) and Matt Healy (Robert Williams), put the snatch on the diamond with the help of the Carleton’s general manager, George Daley (Robert E. Scott). The audience is aware of this, of course, but Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) is not—and after being called on the carpet by the commissioner (Edward Keane), Farraday falls back on the old reliable of publicly accusing Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) of the theft.

night8We’ve already been clued in as to Blackie’s innocence…but even without that information we know our hero is the victim of a baseless accusation, since he and his sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone) are working legitimate jobs in the tool factory owned by their pal Arthur Manleder (Harrison Greene). When Blackie goes to police headquarters to confront Farraday and clear his name…that’s when his cop nemesis reveals his true intentions. He knows that Blackie is the only person who can ferret out the people responsible, and he deputizes the ex-jewel thief to carry out this mission.

night2It will certainly be strange for Blackie to be working with the encouragement of the police department for a change…but Farraday starts to have second thoughts when a series of events, including the murder of Daley, suggests that Blackie might be in on the caper after all. Throw in a doggedly determined female reporter, Dorothy Anderson (Janis Carter), and some truly offbeat set pieces…and you have the makings of one of the best vehicles in Columbia’s Boston Blackie franchise: One Mysterious Night (1944).

What makes Night such an engaging Boston Blackie entry is that while it contains many of the elements audiences have come to expect from the film series, it throws in some amusing twists to make the entry a particular standout. Blackie dons several of his legendary disguises to track down the thieves, and there’s a riotously funny moment where he and Runt, posing as phone repairmen, converse with a salesclerk (Ann Loos) working the hotel’s newsstand. “The nursery’s at the other end of the lobby,” she tells Blackie, suggesting that The Runt is his “little boy.” Blackie corrects her, letting her know The Runt is his assistant. “That half-pint?” she asks.

night4“Why not?” responds Blackie. “I got him for half-price.” Our hero’s first attempt at going undercover, earlier in the film, resulted in his unmasking by reporter Anderson…and he’s hauled back to headquarters, much to Farraday’s frustration—which increases when Blackie tells him he has no other recourse but to let the press (and public) know that he’s “escaped.” “I can see the headlines now,” Farraday wails. “’Blackie Escapes Farraday After Three Hours in Jail’.” Sure enough, after a scene dissolve, Blackie and Runt are perusing a newspaper with that very headline.

night7Night also brings back many of the favorite supporting characters from previous Blackie entries…but audiences might be a bit perplexed by the fact that they have new faces. Lloyd Corrigan is sorely missed as Arthur Manleder. The character puts in but a brief appearance, and he’s played by Harrison Greene for this go-round. Joseph Crehan is adequate as pawnshop owner-fence Jumbo Madigan (played in previous Blackie movies by Cy Kendall). Lyle Latell takes over for Walter Sande as the unbelievably dense Sergeant Matthews. Latell’s Matthews is convincing evidence that they’ve lowered the I.Q. test requirements for the police force…but after seeing a couple of plainclothesman play gin rummy in Jumbo’s shop—oblivious to the fact that two of the “mannequins” are actually Martens and Healy—it could be concluded that there’s a systemic problem.

night5Janis Carter is the leading lady in One Mysterious Night; the Columbia starlet appeared in two of the Whistler films discussed previously here at Radio Spirits, The Mark of the Whistler (1944) and The Power of the Whistler (1945). But she’s a bit overshadowed by the actress playing Eileen Dailey, George’s concerned sister—it’s Dorothy Malone in one of her earliest film roles before going on to Academy Award-winning glory with Written on the Wind in 1956. Also uncredited is character great Minerva Urecal (as the manager of an apartment building with an all-female clientele), who later appeared on such TV shows as The Adventures of Tugboat Annie and Peter Gunn.

night1Honestly, there are some really unusual touches in this—witness the spinning street sign after the opening credits, without any explanation as to why it’s twirling on its axle. The crisp, snappy direction of Night is courtesy of Oscar Boetticher, Jr. This is his third feature film, but the first on which he received official credit. Oscar is probably more familiar to movie buffs as “Budd.” He helmed a number of entertaining B-films—like The Missing Juror (1944) and Behind Locked Doors (1948) —before achieving critical success with Bullfighter and the Lady in 1951, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Motion Picture Story (which he shared with Ray Nazarro). However, he’s most revered for a series of low-budget westerns made in tandem with cowboy great Randolph Scott and producer Harry Brown. Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Ride Lonesome (1959), and the like have acquired considerable cache with fans of the genre.

20588One Mysterious Night is one of three Boston Blackie films available on DVD, part of Sony Home Video’s manufactured-on-demand series (MOD). Next up in the catalog: Lloyd Corrigan returns to his Arthur Manleder role for the last time in Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945), which finds the whole gang mixed up in bookstore shenanigans involving a rare first edition by Charles Dickens. As always, we encourage you to check out our CD collection Outside the Law and listen to the radio adventures of the man who’s an “enemy to those who make him an enemy…friend to those who have no friends.”

Happy Birthday, Jackson Beck!

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Though he personally considered himself foremost an actor, radio veteran Jackson Beck—born in New York City on this date in 1912—remains best known for announcing in his unmistakable, deep voice: “Yes, it’s Superman—strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!” Beck joined Mutual’s popular The Adventures of Superman in 1943, and stayed on as the show’s announcer-narrator until its cancellation in 1950. As we will see, however, Jackson was in the Man of Steel’s circle of friends both before and after his seven-year radio stint.

beck1Beck was the son of silent film actor Max Beck, and began his radio career as far back as 1931, when he worked on the daytime drama Myrt and Marge. Jackson became one of the medium’s most reliable narrators, heard frequently on The March of Time and serving as the announcer on The Adventures of Babe Ruth. The actor never ventured far from his home base of NYC, and was part of the city’s extensive pool of first-rate radio performers, which allowed him to appear on such New York-based shows as The Brownstone Theatre, Bulldog Drummond, The Busy Mr. Bingle, Casey, Crime Photographer (as Inspector Logan), Cloak and Dagger, Creeps by Night, The FBI in Peace and War, Grand Central Station, Hercule Poirot, Inner Sanctum, Joe and Ethel Turp, The Joe DiMaggio Show, Life Can Be Beautiful, The Man Behind the Gun (replacing Everett Sloane as the show’s narrator), Matinee Theater, The Mysterious Traveler, Valiant Lady, Words at War, Woman of America, X-Minus One and You are There. Even as the curtain was about to close on radio in the 1960s, Beck could be heard on some of the medium’s last remaining programs like Have Gun – Will Travel, Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar…and participated enthusiastically in the radio revivals of the 1960s/1970s with appearances on Theater Five and The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

BlutoBefore landing the Superman gig, Jackson Beck was already associated with the comic strip character: he provided the voice of Perry White in the series of theatrical animated cartoons produced by Max Fleischer beginning in 1941. When Paramount took over the Fleischer outfit—and renamed it Famous Studios in 1942—Beck stayed on the payroll, voicing the father of cartoon heroine Little Lulu and Buzzy the Crow, a minor star paired with the company’s Herman the cat (of Herman and Katnip) in a series of shorts that aren’t revisited much today (Beck was asked to use a dialect voice for Buzzy). Jackson can also be heard in several of the Casper, the Friendly Ghost shorts and Little Audrey cartoons…but most members of that generation know his unmistakable tones in Bluto, the nemesis of cartoon star Popeye. (Once again, Beck was ahead of the curve—he played Bluto on the spinach-eating gob’s short-lived radio series in the mid-1930s.)

beck3On Superman, even though he became immortal as the program’s announcer-narrator (“I’m still often asked to recreate the famous opening today,” he once observed, “It’s nice to be part of a legend”), Jackson got the opportunity to do more than just observe the adventures of the visitor from Krypton. He provided the voice of Beany Martin, the Daily Planet’s copyboy, and whenever Supe got a visit from the Caped Crusader, Jackson would play the part of Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. The actor would achieve major success with an association in radio fare aimed at juvenile audiences; he served as a narrator on Mark Trail and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and played Tank Tinker on Hop Harrigan. From 1942 to 1945, Beck was the first actor to portray O. Henry’s “famous Robin Hood of the Old West,” The Cisco Kid. Beck also flexed his thespic muscles as one of radio’s popular gumshoes; from 1948 to 1950, he played S.S. Van Dine’s famed creation Philo Vance in a series syndicated by prolific producer Frederic W. Ziv. Jackson’s Superman co-worker Joan Alexander emoted beside him as his assistant Miss Deering, and George Petrie played district attorney Frank Markham. Beck also briefly played the titular sleuth of The Casebook of Gregory Hood over Mutual in 1949.

king-leonardo-of-bongo-congoIf you’ve ever watched Woody Allen’s 1969 mockumentary Take the Money and Run, you no doubt know that Jackson Beck served as the movie’s tongue-in-cheek narrator of the plight of hapless criminal Virgil Stark. Allen was a fan of Beck’s; he later used the actor’s vocal talents as the on-the-spot newsman in his homage to those thrilling days of yesteryear, Radio Days (1987). Unlike his fellow narrators Reed Hadley and Paul Frees, Jackson rarely did much acting before a television camera. However, he did make an exception in the late sixties with a brief appearance on the daytime soap The Edge of Night as mobster Willie Saffire. Still, Beck maintained a presence on TV: he was the narrator of the 1958-59 series Steve Canyon, and voiced the characters of King Leonardo and Biggie Rat in the fondly remembered cartoon series King Leonardo and His Short Subjects.

beck7Jackson also returned to past triumphs: he reestablished his inner Bluto when a series of made-for-TV Popeye cartoons were produced in the 1960s, and was reunited with Clayton “Bud” Collier and Joan Alexander for The Adventures of Superman in 1966 (Beck was the narrator, and once again played editor Perry White—but he also took on additional work as the Man of Steel’s evil nemesis, Lex Luthor). Throughout the 1980s/1990s the actor served as the narrator on the G.I. Joe cartoon series and was everywhere in the advertising arena, serving as an enthusiastic pitchman for Little Caesar’s, Thompson’s Water Seal, Brawny paper towels and Infusium shampoo. He passed away only a few days after his 92nd birthday in 1994.

19905The adventures of our birthday boy in his signature role as Philo Vance are available in a nice Radio Spirits collection, and you can also enjoy hearing him on Bulldog Drummond: Out of the Fog. Jackson is also featured in all three of our The Adventures of the Falcon sets: Count Me Out Tonight, Angel, Private Eye to Super Spy and Shakedown (with liner notes by yours truly!). You’ll also enjoy hearing Jackson on the Words at War collection, featuring WWII dramas with the likes of Lesley Woods, Maurice Tarplin and Lon Clark, and Beck rings down the Final Curtain in our set of Suspense programs from the final years of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.” Happy birthday to the multi-talented Jackson Beck!

Happy Birthday, Harriet Hilliard!

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If actress-singer Harriet Hilliard—born on this date in 1909—had kept her birth name of Peggy Louise Snyder…do you think anyone would have been comfortable referring to her long-running radio and TV sitcom as The Adventures of Ozzie & Peggy? Nah…that doesn’t sound quite right. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, young Peg was a show business veteran at the age of only six weeks—her parents were also troupers, and her actress mother carried her on stage so that she could make her thespic debut. Peggy started acting regularly at the age of three, and by the time she was ready for high school graduation she opted to join the Castle Ballet at New York’s Capitol Theater. Back in those vaudeville days, performers did it all: acting, singing, dancing—qualities that certainly came in handy when she was hired by Ken Murray (and later, stage legend Bert Lahr) to be the “straight woman” in his act.

harriet10In 1932, Ms. Snyder made the acquaintance of a young bandleader named Ozzie Nelson…who came up with the then-novel idea of including a female in his musical aggregation. “He wanted to do musical comedy duets at the bandstand,” Harriet later told Chuck Schaden in a 1989 interview. “He said the boys would have something to look at as well as the girls!” As it turns out, Ozzie did his share of looking as well; after renaming Peggy “Harriet Hilliard,” the two of them participated in a whirlwind summer courtship that would later lead to forty years of holy matrimony beginning in 1935.

harriet3Ozzie had never intended to get into the band leading business—it was merely a sideline for him while he considered putting his law degree to use by hanging out his shingle. But the income from his band proved so lucrative that he stayed in show business, and Harriet was the perfect partner for him. They were among the first couples to trade song lyrics back-and-forth in a nonchalant, casual manner. While Harriet vocalized, she also pursued an acting career. She was under contract to RKO and appeared in several films for the studio—the most famous being the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (1936).

Another film from Harriet’s RKO resume was The Life of the Party (1937), a musical comedy romp that featured the talents of radio comedian Joe Penner…who had been Ozzie & Harriet’s radio co-worker at one time. The couple regularly appeared with Joe on The Bakers Broadcast from 1933 to 1935, and inherited the program when Penner made a rather unwise career move to leave the show. The Nelsons were joined by “Believe it or Not” creator Robert L. Ripley for the 1935-37 seasons, and stayed for another year after that with cartoonist Feg Murray until the show was cancelled in June of 1938.

harriet1Three years later, the Nelsons landed a plum gig on The Raleigh Cigarette Program…as the musical entertainment supporting comedian Red Skelton. Premiering in the fall of 1941, Skelton’s program would soon become one of the airwaves’ top comedy shows, and Harriet was often pressed into service to play the female characters on Red’s half-hour of hilarity. For example, when Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper greeted his girlfriend with “We-e-e-e-e-lll Da-a-a-a-i-i-sy June!”—it was Harriet who voiced the object of Clem’s affection. Harriet was also the mother of Junior, “the mean widdle kid.” Ozzie & Harriet’s exposure on the Skelton program allowed Mr. Nelson to join his wife in that acting thing, and the duo made a number of entertaining pictures together, notably Sweetheart of the Campus (1941) and Honeymoon Lodge (1943). Solo, Harriet proved a most fetching leading lady in vehicles like the Boston Blackie programmer Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) and an entertaining entry from The Falcon franchise, The Falcon Strikes Back (1943).

ozzie&harriet1Red Skelton’s induction into the military at the end of the 1943-44 radio season would prove to be a small setback for Ozzie & Harriet. That is, until Fibber McGee & Molly creator Don Quinn suggested to Ozzie that he write his and Harriet’s own program. And so on October 8, 1944—the ninth anniversary of “America’s favorite young couple”—The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet premiered over CBS Radio. It would stay with “the stars’ address” until 1948, when it moved to NBC for a season…and then from 1949 to 1954 finished out its twelve-year radio run on ABC. When Ozzie & Harriet first went on the air, it was a “wild” (Harriet’s description) sitcom about a bandleader and his young wife—but over the years, it morphed into a gentler family situation comedy, particularly when the Nelsons’ real-life sons, David and Ricky, finally convinced their dad to let them play themselves on the show (before that, the roles had been essayed by professional child actors).

ozzieharriet3After an eight-year hiatus from the motion picture screen, Ozzie and Harriet teamed up again—along with David and Ricky—for Here Come the Nelsons (1952), a wacky comedic romp that in essence served as a pilot for the Nelson family’s successful transition onto the country’s television screens in the fall of 1952. The series would become one of the ABC Network’s most durable hits, lasting fourteen seasons and allowing viewers to literally watch the family members grow up, with Ricky becoming a teen music idol and David…well, becoming whatever he was, I guess. All kidding aside—The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet gets a bad rap for being the epitome of WASPy blandness (several critics have joked that the “Adventures” in the title is a misnomer unless you find picnics and games of backyard catch adventuresome), but the show is actually funnier than most people remember. And while Harriet may have been reduced to the role of straight woman…she could land a good zinger on her hubby from time to time.

img0153AWith the cancellation of their long-running sitcom, Ozzie and Harriet were content to limit their small screen appearances to guest roles on such series as Love, American Style and Night Gallery. The couple did attempt a TV comeback in 1973 with a syndicated sitcom entitled Ozzie’s Girls that had a fairly short shelf life (and there was a reason for that). With the passing of her husband in 1975, Harriet retired to the Laguna Beach, California beach home that the family had built for them in 1954. She was content to play a motherly “elder stateswoman” role in pop culture…while occasionally guest starring on the likes of The Love Boat and Happy Days. Hailed almost unanimously as one of television’s all-time “Top Moms,” Harriet Hilliard Nelson passed away of congestive heart failure in 1994 at the age of 85.

20520If you’re still skeptical about what I said regarding how underrated The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet was as a TV show, I invite you to check out some of the DVDs available here at Radio Spirits. I will admit, however, that the Nelsons really hit their stride in radio—one of their funniest broadcasts, from October 31, 1948 (“The Haunted House”), is available on the potpourri collection Happy Halloween! You can also listen to Harriet and her husband emote on guest broadcasts of Suspense (Tales Well Calculated), as well as enjoy them in their prime in the Red Skelton collections I Dood It! and Stick Around, Brother. “I’ve often said,” observed Harriet of Red in her interview with Chuck Schaden, “when his timing was so right, I used to get chills down my back. It was like listening to a great symphony. Such a talent!” But he owed a lot of that to you, Harriet Hilliard Nelson…and for that, we wish you a most happy birthday.

“I get ten a day and expenses…they call me the Lyon’s Eye.”

webb2During his stint at San Francisco’s KGO in the mid-1940s, John Randolph “Jack” Webb earned his initial radio bona fides as the star of Pat Novak for Hire, a West Coast crime drama whose adherence to the hard-boiled detective tradition often bordered on delirious parody—much to the delight of listeners and fans. Webb played Novak from 1946 to 1947 before moving on to Los Angeles for a shot at bigger fame and fortune. In the summer of 1947 he retooled the Novak character as the titular investigator of Johnny Modero, Pier 23—heard over Mutual Radio from April through September of 1947.

Before Jack created the seminal police procedural Dragnet in the summer of 1949, he would take one more crack at Pat Novak…this time on a coast-to-coast version on ABC from February to June of that same year. And in between Johnny and Pat, Webb completed his gumshoe triumvirate with Jeff Regan, Investigator—a private eye program first heard over CBS Radio on this date sixty-six years ago.

yarboroughJeff Regan actually began as a secondary character on the program; the inaugural broadcast was announced in newspapers as Joe Canto, Private Eye, with the titular sleuth played by Webb’s future Dragnet co-star, Barton Yarborough. Canto and Regan were operatives with the International Detective Bureau, a small investigations firm in the City of Angels founded by disgraced lawyer Anthony J. Lyon. Lyon, portrayed by actor Wilms Herbert (who played both Sergeant Otis Ludlum and Francis the butler on Richard Diamond, Private Detective), was little more than an ambulance chaser who bestowed the lofty title on the company to give it a touch of class. Rarely did any of Lyon’s employees venture into international waters…and while the other investigators were mentioned from time to time (including Canto, who gradually receded into the background after the first episode), it often seemed as though Regan did most of the legwork. This might explain the P.I.’s disdain for his boss, though he managed to keep it together with a sardonic sense of humor.

webb5The series allowed Webb to emote in the clipped, no-nonsense style that was rapidly becoming his radio trademark. The scripts (by Webb and E. Jack Neuman) were compelling and the direction (Gordon T. Hughes) crisp. Jeff Regan frequently featured members from the graduating class of Radio Row: Betty Lou Gerson, Hans Conried, Jeff Chandler, William Conrad, Marvin Miller, Lurene Tuttle, Herb Butterfield, Larry Dobkin and Herb Vigran were just a few who guested from time to time. (In addition to Herbert and Yarborough, actress Laurette Fillbrandt appeared on occasion as Melody, the firm’s long-suffering secretary.) Much to CBS’ dismay, however, Jack was determined to jump-start Pat Novak on ABC after Regan finished its run in December of 1948…despite the fact that Jeff Regan was in high demand with the network’s listenership.

graham4Regan producer Sterling Tracy resurrected the series in October of 1949 for the network…though the show retreated to become a West Coast entity only. Actor Frank Graham was brought in to replace Webb; Graham was an up-and-coming vocal talent who had appeared on such programs as Lum & Abner and The Whistler, but was probably better known for his contributions to animated cartoons. He narrated and provided voices for the likes of Walt Disney, MGM, Warner Brothers and Columbia (he was the voice of the Fox and the Crow in that studio’s popular franchise).

nelsonAnthony J. Lyon was also replaced. Jack Benny Program player Frank Nelson stepped into the role, playing Lyon as a bit more buffoonish than the original Wilms Herbert incarnation, and shared a first-rate chemistry with Graham. The scripts were written by Neuman and Adrian Gendot, and later William Fifield, William Froug and Gilbert Thomas assumed the task. The work was as solid and witty as it was for the first go-around. The only problem was…Graham wasn’t Jack Webb, and the fate of the show suffered a bit from this (admittedly, Graham had huge shoes to fill). Had both Franks originated the roles of Regan and Lyon, it might have been a different story. The show’s ratings did remain respectable, and there was every expectation the program would continue.

Tragedy struck the show in September of 1950. Actor Graham, who was supplementing his Regan success as the host of the radio anthology Satan’s Waitin’ (not to mention his announcing chores and cartoon vocal duties), committed suicide on September 2nd via carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage…a photo of his then-girlfriend, Disney animator Mildred Rossi, clutched in his hand. It was a devastating end to a most promising career, and the decision was made by the network to discontinue the series as a result.

20637Frank Graham’s stint as Jeff Regan, Investigator is the focus of a new Radio Spirits collection: Stand By For Mystery. The twelve episodes also feature Frank Nelson as Anthony J. Lyon, and spotlight such radio favorites as William Conrad, Arthur Q. Bryan and Lurene Tuttle. Of interest on this set is an April 26, 1950 broadcast (“It All Comes Back to Me Now”) that features the third actor to essay the role of “The Lyon’s Eye”: actor Paul Dubov, who substituted for Graham on a number of occasions. We invite you to enjoy hard-boiled radio drama at its very best!

Happy Birthday, Peter Lorre!

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One hundred and ten years ago on this date, a son was born to Alajos Löwenstein and Elvira Freischberger in an Austria-Hungarian village that is now located in present-day Slovakia. His name was László Löwenstein…but we’re much more familiar with his stage name: Peter Lorre. Audiences are also well acquainted with his status as a beloved movie character actor and horror film icon.

lorre8Lorre’s flair for the buskin began at the age of 17. He did a great deal of stage work as a young actor in Vienna, and eventually made his way to Berlin where he earned his acting chops in plays like Bertolt Brecht’s Mann ist Mann. It was director Fritz Lang who would make Peter an international movie star, however; Lang cast Lorre in the challenging role of a child killer in his 1931 suspense masterpiece M. It would be a few years, however, before Lorre would come to America to work on the movies that brought him his greatest acclaim. Director Alfred Hitchcock helped Peter along by assigning him a pivotal role in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and used him again two years later in his espionage thriller Secret Agent.

madlovePeter’s first Hollywood venture was Mad Love (1935), which once again featured him as a creature of menace in the role of a maniacal doctor obsessed with an actress played by Francis Drake. The actor would eventually sign a contract with 20th Century-Fox, and appear in support in such vehicles as Nancy Steele is Missing! (1937) and Lancer Spy (1937). The movies that allowed him to play a starring role were those based on Asian spy-sleuth Mr. Moto, a creation of author John P. Marquand. Several of the Moto films—notably Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)—featured written contributions by Wyllis Cooper, whom old-time radio fans know from Lights Out and the later horror anthology Quiet Please.

lorre12Initially excited about the Mr. Moto series, Lorre later became disenchanted with the franchise and left Fox to become a freelancer. This move resulted in some of Peter’s most memorable film roles, notably in such programmers as Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)—which some consider to be the first film noir—and The Face Behind the Mask (1941). But it was signing with Warner Brothers that proved to be Lorre’s shrewdest move, allowing him to appear in the two movies for which he is inarguably best remembered today. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Lorre played the effeminate Joel Cairo, one of several disreputable characters who want to hire gumshoe Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to look for the titular prize. After Falcon, Peter had a small but pivotal role in Casablanca (1942) as Ugarte, the lowlife whose handing off of “the letters of transit” to café owner Rick Blaine (also Bogart) pretty much sets the wheels of the plot in motion. Lorre would work with Bogart on two more Warner films, All Through the Night (1941) and Passage to Marseille (1944), and the two men later reunited for a third film with Beat the Devil (1953).

lorre14Falcon and Casablanca also paired Lorre up with character actor Sydney Greenstreet. The two actors would appear in a total of nine films together, notably 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios—which features Peter in a rare heroic role (even if Sydney does get top billing). The underrated Three Strangers (1946) finds Peter, Sydney and Geraldine Fitzgerald playing a trio of disparate individuals brought together by a sweepstakes ticket.

Peter Lorre demonstrated an amazing range as an actor: he plays a sympathetic character in The Constant Nymph (1943), and a darkly comic one in the 1944 adaptation of the stage play Arsenic and Old Lace. But by and large, Lorre was usually called on to tackle parts that harkened back to his M and Mad Love days. His Face Behind the Mask director Robert Florey, for example, memorably cast him as the villain in the 1946 horror oddity The Beast with Five Fingers.

lorre15After World War II, Peter Lorre’s film career slowed down and he began to concentrate more on stage work…plus he found a good friend in radio. He was no stranger to the aural medium; Lorre emoted frequently on such series as Inner Sanctum and Suspense, and poked fun at his screen image with such radio funsters as Abbott & Costello, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. (Bob would later use Peter—along with Lon Chaney, Jr.—as a formidable knife-wielding henchman in one of his funniest comedies, 1947’s My Favorite Brunette.) For the Armed Forces Radio Service, Peter was one of several hosts of Mystery Playhouse, a show comprised of repeats of such popular stateside series such as Mr. District Attorney, Mr. and Mrs. North and The Molle Mystery Theatre (the commercials on these shows were edited out for the benefit of the servicemen). In the summer of 1947, Peter was the star attraction on Mystery in the Air, an underrated anthology series featuring classic horror tales like “The Marvelous Barastro” and “The Horla.”

lorre5By the 1950s, Peter Lorre was an in-demand character actor in such film favorites as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957). He was also gravitating to guest roles on such popular TV series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (in the classic “Man from the South”), Rawhide, Wagon Train and Checkmate. His appearance in an episode of Route 66, “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” allowed him to mock his well-honed screen image along with his fellow horror fraternity brothers Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. Peter was also featured in several horror films released by American International Pictures in the 1960s, gracing Tales of Terror (1962) with a marvelous interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and giving a hilarious performance as Jack Nicholson’s skeevy sorcerer father in The Raven (1963). His last feature film appearance was in Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy (1964); Peter Lorre passed away that same year at the age of 59.

20321Peter enters the swinging doors of a popular radio saloon and eatery in an October 19, 1943 broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern that’s featured on the Radio Spirits collection Duffy’s Tavern: Where the Elite Meet; Peter helps “Archie the Manager” (Ed Gardner) solve the mystery of who filched a sandwich from the tavern’s free lunch counter. You can also hear him hosting select episodes of Mystery Playhouse, including “A Crime to Fit the Punishment” and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” in the Molle Mystery Theatre set Nightmare. Happy birthday to one of our favorite movie greats!

Happy Birthday, Mary Livingstone!

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Today’s birthday girl was born Sadye Marks 109 years ago on this date in Seattle, Washington—the daughter of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Romania. Much of her childhood, however, was spent in Vancouver, British Columbia. At a Passover seder, fourteen-year-old Sadye was introduced to a popular vaudeville entertainer who was born Benjamin Kubelsky…but was just starting to make a name for himself as Jack Benny. Despite Sadye’s attempts to appear older (by dressing up in her sister’s high-heel shoes and a borrowed dress), Jack (eleven years her senior) didn’t give her the time of day. In fact, he unknowingly insulted her while she was treating the seder guests to a violin recital (by walking out on her performance). So, the next night, Marks and several of her girlfriends went down to the theater where Benny was headlining…and sat completely stone-faced during his act.

mary2Three years later, Mary and her family moved to San Francisco. One night, after Benny played the Pantages Theater, she re-introduced herself at the stage door entrance around back. Jack still refused to give her a tumble. But, the third time was the charm…after a few more years went by and Jack found himself entertaining in Los Angeles. On a blind date with one of the members of an acrobatic act, he couldn’t help but notice that the young woman with whom he had been set up looked awfully familiar. It was Sadye, all grown up…and Jack fell head over heels in love. Benny even went down to her place of employment, the now-legendary May Company department store, and pretended to peruse the items in her department (lingerie) while she spared him no embarrassment. The couple enjoyed a long distance courtship after that—Benny would often call her several times a day while he was on tour—and when Sadye got engaged to another man, Benny finally gave in and proposed to her. They married in 1927.

jack&mary3In vaudeville, it was not uncommon for performers to use their wives as partners in their acts: one of the most famous teams was George Burns & Gracie Allen, of course, but other talented duos included Fred Allen & Portland Hoffa, Jesse Block & Eve Sully and Bennie Fields & Blossom Seely. (The trend would later continue in radio with the addition of Jim & Marian Jordan, Goodman & Jane Ace and Ozzie & Harriet Nelson.) Jack followed tradition by making Sadye his partner. For performing purposes, she had some cosmetic surgery done (bobbing her nose) and she dyed her dark hair honey-blonde. Sadye never really considered herself a performer in the traditional sense, and when Jack began his show for Canada Dry on NBC Blue in May of 1932 she probably thought that would be the end of her show business career. But on an August broadcast, husband Jack pressed her into service to play the part of Mary Livingstone (a Plainfield, New Jersey resident who billed herself as the comic’s biggest fan) when the actress originally hired failed to appear.

Sadye’s stint on the program was originally planned to be brief…but the network received so much mail applauding her participation that Jack persuaded her to stay on as a regular. Sadye would later change her name legally to Mary Livingstone…though she personally preferred being addressed as “Mrs. Jack Benny.” While her contributions to the show—her infectious laugh and dry, sarcastic manner—would be just one of the many building blocks in what ultimately made The Jack Benny Program one of radio’s most successful comedy shows, there was always a bit of an enigma about her weekly appearances. Namely—what exactly was Mary’s function on the program (besides getting big laughs)?

jackbennygang2Most members of Benny’s “gang” served distinct purposes: Don Wilson was Jack’s announcer; Phil Harris the show’s bandleader; Dennis Day the program’s tenor; Eddie “Rochester” Anderson Benny’s loyal chief-cook-and-bottle-washer. Mary’s only assigned task seemed to be to serve as Jack’s foil. You couldn’t technically call her his “girlfriend” because Jack dated a number of women in addition to Mary, and though she’s sometimes been referred to as a “secretary” she didn’t type or take much dictation. Yet whenever Mary’s verbal barbs lanced Jack a little too hard he’d often threaten to send her back to the May Company…and on at least one broadcast Mary herself refers to Jack as her “boss.” Perhaps it’s best not to think too much about the occupation implications; whatever her job was she excelled at it, always ready to waylay the “boss” with an impeccably timed wisecrack whenever he started to believe a bit too much of his own press. Mary also became well-known for reading weekly letters from her family in Plainfield, referring to her not-at-all-attractive sister Babe (frequently a target of Jack’s insults) and her mother (who had a mutual antagonism toward Mary’s employer).

jack&mary5As accomplished a comedienne as Mary was, she was not immune to the kind of blooper that made old-time radio such a joy to listen to (both then and now). One of her famous flubs was heard on the October 27, 1946 broadcast. She mispronounced “Swiss cheese” as “chiss sweeze,” and allowed Benny’s writers to milk the gag for several shows after the initial goof. A December 3, 1950 episode found Mary pronouncing “grease rack” as “grass reek”…and the creative staff were off to the races again. By the mid-1950s, Mary had started to develop a crippling case of mike fright and she began to cut back on her appearances on Jack’s radio program (she appeared in a few of his earlier TV shows as well, before tapering off). She pre-recorded her lines for each broadcast and, on occasion, her adopted daughter Joan would act as a stand-in, mouthing her mother’s words.

20545By 1958, Mary had decided to recede from the limelight, only occasionally appearing on talk shows and as a guest star on other programs. She had put in quite a bit of time on the Benny show, and even enjoyed a brief movie career both with her husband (she appears in 1933’s Mr. Broadway, and had vocal cameos in films like Buck Benny Rides Again and It’s in the Bag!) and as a solo performer—she’s one of several stars in the 1937 concoction This Way Please (which also features radio’s Fibber McGee & Molly, Jim & Marian Jordan). Radio Spirits features many classic radio appearances from “Miz Livingstone”—our newest collection, Jack Benny International, and past sets like Oh, Rochester!, Neighbors, Tall Tales, Wit Under the Weather, Maestro, Remotes, Drawing a Blanc, No Place Like Home and On the Town. Mary even plays reluctant referee between her boss-husband and his nemesis Fred Allen on Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud! Happy birthday, doll!