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Happy Birthday, Jack Johnstone!

A September 24, 1938 edition of Radio Guide describes a “radio first” executed by actress Alice Frost and Jack Johnstone, the writer-producer of the popular Johnny Presents.  The blurb describes how the program had just gotten underway when Frost ran up to the microphone yelling “But I want to ask a question, Dr. Carrington!”  “The audience sat spellbound, thinking it was someone that had gone wacky all of sudden,” Guide observed.  No need to call the men in the white coats, however; it was just Frost and Johnstone putting one over on the audience as they “work[ed] out a new technic on the microphone.”  The career of Jack Johnstone—born in Vineland, New Jersey on this date in 1906—was marked by this kind of inventive experimentation as Johnstone sought to supplement his talents as writer, director, and producer on many popular radio shows.

Earl Ransom Johnstone went by “Jack” for most of his professional career (though he also used “Jonathan Bundy” as a pseudonym, notably on a handful of Suspense scripts in the 1960s). His vocational path began with a short stint working in the mental health field after he dropped out of Rutgers University (he was majoring in abnormal psychology).  Johnstone was earning $32 a week at an advertising agency when one of his colleagues, who was contributing scripts to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, asked Jack if he’d like to take a crack at it.  Johnstone was soon sharing scripting chores on Buck Rogers, and after getting an opportunity to direct one broadcast rehearsal when the director (Carlo D’Angelo) wasn’t able to show up for the run-through with the cast, Jack was eventually promoted to director on the program.

Buck Rogers was broadcast at a time when radio was undergoing a period of discovery, notably in the field of “sound patterns.”  In an interview with Leonard Maltin, Jack Johnstone fondly reminisced about how the show’s creative minds depicted Buck’s spaceship on the program:

“CBS New York had an excellent air conditioning system at that time.  There were huge grates, perhaps four by four, for exhaust and intake; the sound effects man took a spare script and plastered pages over the whole thing, which stuck because of the draw of the air, except for a small spot in the middle of it, out of which he placed a microphone.  The air conditioning system provided the sound for the rocket.  Where we had Killer Kane flying a different ship and needed a rocket background for his, the engineer sent it through a filter, to give a little different sound.”

When Kellogg’s, Buck Rogers’ sponsor, relinquished sponsorship of the series, Jack Johnstone persuaded a contact at CBS that he could do the entire show (writing and directing) if his friend could sell it to another sponsor.  That’s how Johnstone started pulling down $300 a week, and how he later gravitated to Johnny Presents (where his contributions were known as “Jack Johnstone’s Dramas”) and The Adventures of Superman.  “Those were busy days,” Jack reminisced in later years.  “I left the house right after breakfast, got home between midnight and 1:00.”

By the 1940s, Jack Johnstone was one of radio’s busiest director-producers, making the rounds on Crime DoctorDark DestinyHollywood Star TimeOrson Welles’ AlmanacThe Prudential Family Hour of Stars, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  Jack also kept his hand in writing on these shows.  He enjoyed a long personal and professional relationship with actor Herbert Marshall, the star of The Man Called X (Johnstone called Bart “a three-way thespian, equally at home in the motion picture, the theatre or radio”).  One of the more unusual entries on Johnstone’s resume was a series called Somebody Knows, an interesting precursor to TV’s America’s Most Wanted/Unsolved Mysteries where loyal listeners were tempted with a $5,000 cash prize if they were able to help provide clues for unsolved murders.  Jack was the director on Somebody Knows, but he also served as the show’s narrator.

Jack Johnstone’s 1991 obituary in The Los Angeles Times noted that at the time he was hiring top Hollywood stars for such anthologies as Hollywood Star Time and Hollywood Star Playhouse, a big name like Barbara Stanwyck commanded a salary of $5,000 for an appearance.  But by 1952, with radio on the wane, there was a fire sale going on and stars could be had for a mere grand.  Johnstone’s work on Hollywood Star Playhouse is notable, however, for two things: first, it marked one of Marilyn Monroe’s early radio showcases (an August 31, 1952 broadcast entitled “Statement in Full”) and second, it aired a pilot (on April 13, 1952) that would result in The Six-Shooter. (This splendid radio Western series starring James Stewart only lasted a single season because Stewart objected to the one sponsor most anxious to pay the bills: Chesterfield cigarettes.)

Jack Johnstone’s best-remembered contribution to old-time radio is unquestionably Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. He joined the organization as director when the show adopted its beloved five-day-a-week quarter-hour format, and continued to sit in the director’s chair when Dollar went back to its half-hour weekly format, occasionally contributing scripts. (He even gave the go-ahead when star Bob Bailey submitted one.)  Jack would also work as one of several directors on the prestigious CBS Radio Workshop. When Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar migrated back to New York in 1960, Johnstone maintained the tone of the show by writing a number of scripts (which he mailed in from Hollywood).

Unlike so many of his peers in the aural medium, Jack Johnstone wanted nothing to do with television. So when Radio’s Golden Age had its life support system unplugged, Jack chose early retirement at the age of 56.  He kept occupied with his hobby of fishing. However, what was not known at the time, was that he also spent much of his time making audio recordings for the visually impaired. That explains why his family requested, at the time of Johnstone’s death in 1991 (at the age of 85), that donations be made to the Santa Barbara Chapter of Recordings for the Blind.

Old-time radio fans have reached a consensus that the 1955-56 years of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar represent one of the many highlights of audio crime drama…but you may not know that the reason why the performances on that series were so good is that director Jack Johnstone insisted that each fifteen-minute session be recorded from start to finish with no retakes.  A few of the actors balked at first (if somebody muffed a line, they started back at the beginning), but gradually came around to agreeing with today’s birthday boy that the results were first-rate.  See if you agree by checking out our voluminous Dollar collections:  The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMurder MattersPhantom ChasesWayward MattersExpense Account SubmittedMysterious MattersMedium Rare Matters, and Fatal Matters.  You can also enjoy Johnstone’s work on our compendiums of The Six-ShooterSpecial Edition and Gray Steel.  Rounding out our “Jack-pot”: The Man Called X, Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Homicide Made EasySomebody Knows, and Superman: Up, Up and Away!  (We’ve even got Jack writing as “Jonathan Bundy” on Suspense: Final Curtain!)

Happy Birthday, Norman Corwin!

The man born Norman Lewis Corwin on this date in 1910 is universally recognized as “the poet laureate of radio.”  Norman Corwin wrote and produced many of the most memorable broadcasts in the aural medium and was one of the first artists to use entertainment as a means to address the serious social issues of the day.  Norman excelled at both drama and comedy, and yet his works encompassed everything from satire to fantasy to philosophy.  Radio historian John Dunning noted in On the Air that “Corwin was given the treatment and almost unlimited freedom of a major star.”

Beantown (Boston) was where Norman Corwin called home, and at the age of 19 decided on a career in the fourth estate, working on The Springfield Republican as a “color man” (Corwin’s description).  When the paper joined forces with WBZ in Springfield and WBZA in Boston three years later, Norman found himself on the ground floor of radio broadcasting as he provided news commentary every evening.  Corwin would later relocate to Cincinnati’s WLW in 1935 for a short late-night stint as an announcer…until that station gave him a pink slip for airing reports on labor strikes (it was against station policy).  Norman then returned to the Republican, where he broadcast over WBZ a program entitled Rhymes and Cadences and Norman Corwin’s Journal over WMAS (both stations were in Springfield).

Norman Corwin continued his itineracy with a job for 20th Century Fox, churning out PR for the studio’s feature films. By 1938, he was working at New York’s WQXR on a program called Poetic License, which spotlighted many of the leading poets of the day.  Corwin began his experiments with dramatization on License, which attracted the attention of W.B. Lewis, a vice president at CBS Radio.  Norman was hired by the network in April of 1938 and, for most of the following decade, the Columbia Broadcasting System was his home.  But Corwin worked in virtual anonymity in the beginning. His ambition was to write for The Columbia Workshop, the network’s experimental dramatic series…but Norman was convinced that he just wasn’t good enough. Yet in three short years, he would write, produce and direct Twenty-Six by Corwin—an extension of Workshop (broadcast from May 4 to November 9, 1941), which would be a precursor to his later Columbia Presents Corwin (broadcast in 1944 and 1945).

Norman Corwin’s first big success at CBS was a program entitled Words Without Music (December 4, 1938 to June 25, 1939) and the broadcast that put him on the map was “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” (12/25/38).  A delightful bit of whimsy in which demons from Hell scheme to assassinate St. Nick (House Jameson played Santa, with Will Geer as Satan). The show attracted the attention of Edward R. Murrow, who compared “Christmas” to the best of Gilbert and Sullivan.  Corwin and Murrow quickly established a long friendship, with Norman demonstrating his serious side in “They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease” (02/19/39), inspired by the callousness of Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio in describing the dropping of bombs on civilians.

When Words Without Music finished its run, Norman Corwin moved on to the short-lived So This is Radio , followed by The Pursuit of Happiness.  The aforementioned Twenty-Six by Corwin was next, which included classics such as “The Log of the R-77″ [05/11/41] and “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones” [06/08/41]. It was that series that prompted playwright Archibald MacLeish to suggest Norman to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wanted radio to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.  Norman’s contribution, “We Hold These Truths” (12/15/41; broadcast on all four networks), had a special resonance when it aired just a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Actor James Stewart (portraying an average American citizen who acted as a “sounding board” for the broadcast’s patriotic sentiments) was just one of many participants in the all-star cast of this critically acclaimed production.

Norman Corwin followed “Truths” with several series: This is War!An American in England (a collaboration between Corwin and Murrow), Passport for Adams, and An American in Russia.  Columbia Presents Corwin premiered on March 7, 1944 and spotlighted such presentations as “The Long Name None Could Spell” (03/14/44; on Czechoslovakia) and “The Lonesome Train” (03/21/44; about the train journey of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse).  In between this first series of Columbia Presents Corwin and the second, Norman became notorious for a November 6, 1944 broadcast on behalf of the Democratic National Committee to re-elect FDR (many big-name celebrities, like Judy Garland and Humphrey Bogart, participated in what members of the loyal opposition [the GOP} justifiably called “propaganda”).  “On a Note of Triumph”—broadcast on May 8, 1945—commemorated V-E Day with an awe-inspiring presentation that many consider Corwin’s “crowning touch.”

Norman Corwin’s second series of Columbia Presents Corwin featured some of his most fondly remembered work including “The Undecided Molecule” (06/17/45) and “Fourteen August” (08/14/45).  Although Norman was given unprecedented freedom at his time with CBS, after WW2 the writing was on the wall.  Corwin would later recall that one of his fervent champions, CBS president William S. Paley, suggested to him during a train trip that the author’s future scripts be fashioned for a more commercial audience.  After the success of One World Flight in 1947, the network attempted to usurp half of the money Norman received for his subsidiary rights during contract negotiations, Corwin left CBS and joined United Nations Radio in 1948 (and continued his fine work with such presentations as “Document A/777” and “Could Be”).

Norman Corwin had a little success with adapting his radio output to motion pictures: his classic Columbia Workshop production of a talking caterpillar (“My Client Curley,” adapted from Lucille Fletcher’s story) became a Cary Grant film in 1944 called Once Upon a Time. The author would later pen screenplays for films like The Blue Veil (1951), Scandal at Scourie (1953), No Place to Hide (1955), and Lust for Life (1956; which earned him an Oscar nomination).  But Norman would never lose his love for radio; he would contribute to later revival attempts like The Sears Radio Theatre and was the focus of several National Public Radio series in the 1980s/1990s including Thirteen by Corwin and More by Corwin.  The man who would be rewarded with tributes in the form of Peabody, Emmy and Golden Globe Awards reached the centennial birthday mark in 2010…but would leave this world for a better one on October 18, 2011.

The first volume in Jason Hill’s Life in the Past Lane series (which compiles interviews with personalities who had a hand in creating twentieth century entertainment) features a chapter with today’s birthday boy (and his biographer, R. Leroy Bannerman) and is available for purchase at Radio Spirits.  But you’re also going to want to slip The Poet Laureate of Radio into your shopping cart—it’s a 2006 documentary directed by Michael James Kacey, and it’s an extended interview with Norman Corwin as he dissects a variety of topics and subjects (everything from fascism to William Shatner) as only the master can.  Happiest of birthdays to Norman Corwin!

Happy Birthday, Frances Robinson!

“Danger’s my stock-in-trade,” observed George Valentine weekly on the popular Mutual crime drama Let George Do It.  For actress Frances Robinson, who played George’s loyal gal Friday, Claire “Brooksie” Brooks, her stock-in-trade was playing girlfriends and secretaries (and in some cases both) on radio.  From Perry Mason to Murder and Mr. Malone, Robinson supplemented a busy movie career with multiple trips to emote before a radio microphone.  Born Marion Frances Ladd on this date in 1916, Frances entered show business at the age of five, playing the younger version of Lillian Gish’s character in D.W. Griffith’s classic Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Frances Robinson was born in Fort Wadsworth, NY—a military base where her father served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army.  When the senior Ladd passed away in 1925, Frances and her mother made a trek to California. The child actress made a few more appearances in films (Laddie [1926], The Climbers [1927]) before taking a hiatus from motion pictures.  Robinson worked as an illustrator’s model for a time (and did stock theatre work in NYC), then returned to the movies in 1935.  When she signed a contract with Universal Pictures in 1937, she began using “Frances Robinson” as her professional name (she went by “Marion Ladd” in a 1935 Paramount film, Millions in the Air).

At Universal, ingenue Frances Robinson was kept pretty busy in both B-Westerns (Forbidden Valley [1938]) and programmers (Society Smugglers [1939]), and cliffhanger serial fans fondly remember her as the spunky female lead in both Tim Tyler’s Luck (1937) and Red Barry (1938; as girl reporter “Mississippi”).  (You may have caught this last chapter play on TCM on Saturday mornings in recent months.)  Frances also played leading lady to Johnny Mack Brown in two of his oaters, Desperate Trails (1939) and Riders of Pasco Basin (1940)—again, if you watch as many old movies as I do, you might have caught Riders recently on Starz Encore Westerns.  Robinson would leave Universal at the beginning of the decade to freelance (she did a few programmers for Columbia, including The Lone Wolf Keeps a Date and a Joe E. Brown comedy, So You Won’t Talk [both 1940]), which would give her an opportunity to appear in two “prestige” films at MGM, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1941; the Spencer Tracy-Ingrid Berman version) and Smilin’ Through (1941).

About this same time, Frances Robinson began her rewarding radio career with appearances on The Silver Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre. She worked with Maurice Tarplin, Larry Haines, and Roger DeKoven on the Ziv-syndicated crime drama Manhunt.  Frances put her movie career away in mothballs during WW2 after getting work at Lockheed Aircraft in the personnel placement department.  Radio proved a good fit for Robinson, and it would nicely accommodate both her later stage work (she was in a 1944 Broadway musical, Jackpot) and an advertising job she acquired after WW2.  Frances was “Ellen Deering” to Jose Ferrer’s “Philo Vance” in the short-lived NBC series based on the S.S. Van Dine creation in 1945, and later appeared opposite Frank Lovejoy (as “hep” secretary Maggie) in Murder and Mr. Malone, an ABC program based on Craig Rice’s sleuth.

“If I was on the air it was a mystery,” Frances Robinson joked to Radio Life (after dubbing her a “mystery girl”) about the time she started playing “Brooksie” on Let George Do It—which remains her best-remembered radio showcase.  (Frances would later be replaced on George by Virginia Gregg…which seems only fair, since Robinson replaced Gregg temporarily on Richard Diamond, Private Detective playing girlfriend Helen Asher.)  Robinson had regular “girlfriend” roles on Perry MasonEllery Queen, and The Falcon, and to further her crime drama credentials she also worked on The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of the SaintJeff Regan, Investigator, and Mike Malloy.  But Frances was nothing if not versatile; she demonstrated a flair for comedy, filling in for Bea Benaderet as “Eve Goodwin” on The Great Gildersleeve briefly in 1947 during Benaderet’s pregnancy.  Rounding out Robinson’s radio resume: shows like The Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Cavalcade of AmericaHallmark PlayhouseRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseSongs by Sinatra, and The Whistler.

Frances Robinson would eventually return to motion pictures. She’s in The Missing Lady (1946) (an entry in Monogram’s Shadow series loosely based on the radio program), Keeper of the Bees (1947) and Backfire (1950). In the 1950s, Robinson was more at home on the small screen, with appearances on many of the popular dramatic anthologies of that era (Armstrong Circle TheatreKraft Television Theatre), and as the commercial spokeswoman for Arrid Deodorant.  Frances would make the rounds in guest shots on such shows as The Millionaire and The Real McCoys. In the Howard Duff and Ida Lupino sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve, Robinson had a recurring role as next-door neighbor “Louise Stewart.” Robinson continued to work in the 1960s on such television venues as The Donna Reed Show and Dr. Kildare, while making an occasional feature film appearance (she played “Aunt Gladys” in the Disney release The Happiest Millionaire [1967]).  Sadly, Frances left this world far too early in 1971 at the age of 55.

To commemorate Frances Robinson’s natal anniversary today, Radio Spirits invites you to check out her signature role as “Brooksie” on Let George Do It with our CD collections Cry Uncle and Sweet Poison.  You can also find our birthday girl on the Richard Diamond, Private Detective sets Dead Men and Homicide Made Easy, and on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Night Tide), Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way), Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), and The Damon Runyon Theatre (Here is Broadway).  Happy birthday, Frances!

Happy Birthday, Sir John Gielgud!

Sir John Gielgud made his cinematic debut in a 1924 silent film, Who is the Man?  Yet the celebrated actor, born in South Kensington, London on this date in 1904, really didn’t commit to a movie career until he had reached his sixties, with memorable turns in such films as Becket (1964), The Loved One (1965), and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).  Sir John had kept pretty busy in the interim, however, dominating the British stage along with contemporaries like Dame Peggy Ashcroft. With Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson, he formed what Alan Strachan dubbed a “great trinity of theatrical knights.”

The Terry family was a renowned theatrical dynasty, a clan of performers who started in the late 19th century and whose members weren’t just limited to those with the surname Terry (they were either blood relations or related by marriage)—they included Neilsons, Craigs …and Gielguds.  John’s father Frank was not in the theatrical profession (he was a stockbroker), but his mother Kate had been a stage veteran until she got married.  Young John’s interest in the footlights began at an early age, while he attended preparatory school at Hillside in Surrey.  His early performances in school included Julius Caesar (as Mark Antony) and The Merchant of Venice (as Shylock).

John Gielgud’s scholastic achievements were insufficient to secure him a scholarship to prestigious universities like Eton or Rugby (where his elder brothers attended), so he settled as a “day boy” at Westminster School.  Westminster enjoyed a proximity to the West End, which exposed Gielgud to stage legends like actress Sarah Bernhardt and ballet dancer Adeline Genée.  His parents tried to discourage him from a theatrical career (Frank wanted him to become an architect), but John struck a deal upon leaving Westminster: if he was unable to make acting pan out by the time he reached25, he would settle for an office post.

John Gielgud enrolled in a private dramatic school run by Constance Benson, whose assessment of the would-be actor’s stage presence was that he “walked like a cat with rickets.”  John would appear in amateur productions both before and after he entered dramatic school, eventually getting in with a professional company that, alas, did not pay him for his work.  Gielgud would get a break through familial connections; his cousin, Phyllis Neilson-Terry, invited him to work with J.B. Fagan’s company as an assistant stage manager, understudy, and bit player.  From there, a colleague recommended John to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his fellow classmates included Claude Rains.

John Gielgud graced the cast of many a West End production throughout the 1920s (he did a number of Chekhov plays including The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters). He also began working for BBC Radio, thanks to his distinctive speaking voice. (His biographer, Sheridan Morley, observed that Gielgud’s relationship with the BBC was “a medium he made his own for seventy years.”)  In 1928, Sir John made his Broadway debut as the Grand Duke Alexander in a production of The Patriot; while the play closed after one week, the actor got rave reviews from the likes of Alexander Woolcott and Brooks Atkinson.

1929 would be a watershed year for John Gielgud: it was the year he was invited to join the company at the Old Vic, a company that staged performances of plays and operas for working-class audiences at reduced ticket prices.  It was here that Gielgud would cement his theatrical immortality playing Hamlet (many believe that John was among the best to tackle the role), as well as appearing as “John Worthing” in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  It was here that John would also make the acquaintance of Ralph Richardson, and while the two men were polar opposites in terms of personality (Ralph was an outgoing extrovert, John a shy introvert), they would enjoy a friendship and professional association (on stage, TV, etc.) that would last until Sir Ralph’s passing in 1983.

One of the projects that Sirs John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson collaborated on was a series of BBC Radio dramatizations of tales featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes.  This series was rebroadcast over NBC in 1955, with Gielgud as Holmes and Richardson as Dr. Watson.  This series is (sadly) often overlooked (in the opinion of Radio Spirits’ Elizabeth McLeod) among “Baker Street Irregulars.”  (John’s older brother Val, who later became the head of drama at the BBC, not only directed many of the productions but fittingly played Mycroft to John’s Sherlock in one episode.)  While most of Gielgud’s radio work was done for the Beeb (he continued on “the wireless” in the 1980s/1990s), he occasionally made the rounds on American radio—notably on The Theatre Guild on the Air.

Before his cinematic resurgence, John Gielgud appeared in the occasional silver screen presentation, such as 1933’s The Good Companions and the Alfred Hitchcock-directed Secret Agent (1936).  Gielgud made his first Hollywood film in 1953, appearing as “Cassius” in the all-star MGM production of Julius Caesar (he would later credit learning much of his film technique to James Mason, who was also in the film).  Other notable items on John’s cinematic resume include Richard III (1955), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Providence (1977), Murder by Decree (1979), and The Elephant Man (1980)…but his real movie claim-to-fame would arrive when he portrayed Dudley Moore’s acerbic butler Hobson in the classic comedy Arthur (1981).  The role would nab Gielgud an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (he also agreed to reprise the role as a “ghost” in the ill-advised sequel, Arthur 2: On the Rocks [1988]) and lead to further movie triumphs in such films as Gandhi (1982), The Shooting Party (1984), Plenty (1985), Prospero’s Books (1991), First Knight (1996), and Elizabeth (1998).  Sir John Gielgud (he was knighted in 1953) left this world for a better one in 2000 at the age of 96.

Though he expressed indifference when it came to winning awards, Sir John Gielgud is a member of the select group of performers nicknamed “EGOTs”—those who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (Gielgud won three in the last category).  To celebrate Sir John’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to check out Our Finest Hour, a DVD/CD collection spotlighting the sights and sounds of London circa 1940 as a great nation prepared for war (Gielgud reads “An Airmen’s Letter to His Mother”).  We also feature John at his finest on radio with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, an 8-CD collection of classic BBC/NBC broadcasts with Gielgud as “the world’s greatest consulting detective” and his friend Sir Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson.  Happy Birthday, Sir John!

“…the official broadcast from the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation…”

Author Frederick Lewis Collins’ book The FBI in Peace and War became such a huge best seller in 1943 that a radio adaptation premiered the following fall. The series was created by Louis Pelletier and directed-produced by Max Marcin, who was also bringing audiences Crime Doctor every week.  You’d think that such a series—which was heard over CBS from 1944 to 1958—would number Federal Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover among its fans.  I mean—you can’t buy that kind of publicity.

But G-man J. Edgar…well, he purportedly wasn’t enamored of Peace and War.  Instead, Hoover chose to bestow his personal stamp of Bureau approval to a rival series that premiered over ABC Radio on this date in 1945.  “It is my sincere hope that the broadcasts will enable you to know more about how to cooperate with your local police officials and every branch of law enforcement in your community,” Hoover stated at the time of This is Your FBI’s debut.  “I also hope that you will come to know your FBI as a group of men and women who seek no personal glory, and who are part of a great team serving you, your family, and the nation.”

This is Your FBI was created by director-producer Jerry Devine, who began his radio career as a comedy writer for personalities like Kate Smith and Tommy Riggs before turning to radio dramas like Mr. District Attorney.  Devine was given carte blanche by J. Edgar to access closed case files from the Bureau as material for This is Your FBI’s scripts. In return Hoover used the show as both publicity and a recruiting tool for future Feds (he raved about the show as “the finest dramatic program on the air”).  Using the Hoover-approved material gave FBI a true air of authenticity, though each weekly broadcast had that now-familiar disclaimer: “All names used are fictitious and any similarity thereof to the names of persons or places, living or dead, is accidental.”  (Author Jim Cox, in his book Radio Crime Fighters, mused in his write-up on FBI: “Some listeners must have pondered that for a while—‘So did these events happen or not?’”)

In the early years of This is Your FBI, the program originated in New York…and as such, utilized Big Apple radio talent like Mandel Kramer, Karl Swenson, Santos Ortega, Elspeth Eric, and Lesley Woods.  Future Night Beat reporter Frank Lovejoy also appeared on the series as both a player and the show’s original announcer. (He would be replaced by Dean Carlton from 1946 to 1947.)  When FBI relocated to the West Coast in 1948, the series tabbed actor Stacy Harris to portray Special Agent Jim Taylor, who represented all of the Bureau’s operatives.  Harris would be supported by many of “Radio Row’s” veterans: William Conrad, Parley Baer, Georgia Ellis, Bea Benaderet, Herb Ellis, etc.

William Woodson became This is Your FBI’s new announcer with the West Coast migration, and his authoritarian voice would soon become associated with law enforcement-themed films like Down Three Dark Streets (1954; Woodson also played a professor in the film) and Cell 2455 Death Row (1955).  In later years, Bill would enjoy an association with the 60s cult TV series The Invaders (doing voice work) and the Saturday morning cartoon favorite Super Friends (“Later…at the Hall of Justice…”).  (Woodson’s tones will also be familiar to WKRP in Cincinnati fans as the voice who introduced Les Nessman’s newscasts.)  The This is Your FBI announcer who did the show’s Equitable Life Assurance Company commercials (the show’s longtime sponsor) at this time may also sound familiar. It’s actor Larry Keating, who later played George Burns and Gracie Allen’s next door neighbor Harry Morton on their TV sitcom (and Roger Addison, neighbor to a certain talking equine on the even later Mister Ed).

This is Your FBI provided memorable entertainment from its debut to its final show on January 30, 1953.  Special Agent Taylor took on all criminal comers: embezzlers, hijackers, con men, and fraudsters of all shapes and sizes.  The fictional Taylor was encouraged by the real-life J. Edgar Hoover, who squeezed every drop of publicity he could from the series (much as he would later do with the 1965-74 TV show The F.B.I.). Hoover gave the show’s creator Jerry Devine VIP tours of Bureau facilities, and kept him in the loop on the latest leaps in technology used by the Feds in their law enforcement pursuits.

The FBI in Peace and War may have been the higher-rated program (it certainly had a more memorable theme song in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges), but surviving broadcasts of This is Your FBI demonstrate that it was clearly the superior series. (Plus, more of its broadcasts have managed to survive compared to the output of Peace and War.)  We hope that you’ll agree and purchase a copy of National Security, an 8-CD collection of early episodes from the program’s New York years.  This…is Your FBI!

Happy Birthday, Maurice Tarplin!

A 1946 issue of Radio Mirror noted that “practically everyone connected with the Boston Blackie show is a former athlete.” Radio Mirror was not publishing “fake news”: the show’s star, Richard Kollmar, was a member of the tennis team while attending Tusculum College (Tennessee) and later, at Yale, became an outstanding water polo player.  (I’ll spare you the old joke about the horses.)  Kollmar’s female co-star, Lesley Woods (who played girlfriend Mary Wesley), was captain of the women’s basketball team during her matriculation at Northwestern.  The third member of the Blackie triumvirate—actor Maurice Tarplin (Blackie’s nemesis Inspector Farraday), born in Boston on this date in 1911—attended William and Mary, where he showed his stuff on skates as a member of that institution’s championship ice hockey squad.

Maurice Tarplin was not only a William and Mary alum—he attended both Phillips Exeter and Harvard during his pursuit of higher education.  As for a post-graduate career, Maurice decided an actor’s life was for him and he found that his memorably sardonic voice lent itself beautifully to the new medium of radio.  He arrived in New York in 1937 and became a working thespian in the world of daytime dramas. He appeared on Myrt and Marge (as Barnie Belzer), Valiant Lady (Barclay), The Guiding Light (Richard Hanley), and When a Girl Marries.  Tarplin would eventually become a member of the stock company on The March of Time, where his impersonation of Winston Churchill was always in high demand. Supplementing his gigs on the aforementioned shows were appearances on The ShadowIdeas That Came TrueGang Busters, and The Columbia Workshop.

One of Maurice Tarplin’s high-profile radio jobs was playing Agatha Christie’s sleuthing creation Hercule Poirot on Murder Clinic, a show heard briefly over Mutual in 1942.  Tarplin also starred (and announced) on Manhunt, a syndicated crime anthology in which Maurice’s homicide detective Bill Monroe assisted the investigations of forensic cop Andrew “Drew” Stevens.  Manhunt was a quarter-hour production from the Ziv people, who put Maurice to work (as Farraday) when they resurrected Boston Blackie as a Mutual (and ABC) offering that ran from April 1, 1945 to October 25, 1950.

Maurice Tarplin’s best-remembered stint in front of the microphone was as the titular train passenger on The Mysterious Traveler, a mystery-horror anthology that became one of Mutual’s most popular programs.  Tarplin’s interpretation of that series’ omnipresent terror tale narrator was described by author/radio historian John Dunning as conveying “good-natured menace, the kind of mischievous malevolence inspired by The Whistler or Raymond of Inner Sanctum Mysteries.”  Traveler aired from 1943 to 1951, and at one time Mutual recycled many of the show’s scripts for a quarter-hour series along similar lines in The Strange Dr. Weird.  (Maurice played that role as well.)

Other radio programs on which Maurice Tarplin made the rounds include The Adventures of the AbbottsBy the PeopleCasey, Crime PhotographerThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe ChaseCloak and DaggerCounterspyDid Justice Triumph?Easy MoneyEchoes of a CenturyEye Witness NewsFamous Jury TrialsHallmark PlayhouseHigh AdventureHollywood’s Open HouseMr. and Mrs. NorthMurder by ExpertsThe New Adventures of Sherlock HolmesNew World A’Comin’Nick Carter, Master DetectiveNow Hear ThisOut of the ThunderThe Sealed BookSecret MissionsWe Came This WayWhat’s the Good Word?Worlds at War, and You are There/CBS is There.  Tarplin also had the distinction of appearing on the radio versions of two early TV favorites, Tales of Tomorrow and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet—both rare examples of programs that made a TV-to-radio transition.

Maurice Tarplin was first and foremost a radio actor.  He made the occasional appearance on shows like Danger and Naked City, but he went the distance where radio’s last hour was concerned—working on shows like X-Minus One, Exploring Tomorrow, IndictmentSuspense, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Even after “the Golden Age of Radio” had come to an end, Tarplin could be heard on such series as The Eternal Light and Theatre Five.  Maurice was a man of many interests: he penned a short story, Seven Casks of Death, which was published in a 1948 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine.  Until his passing at the age of 64 in 1975, Tarplin kept busy doing voiceovers on television commercials and providing translations on the English soundtracks for foreign films.

Radio Spirits is pleased to offer a fine collection of broadcasts featuring today’s birthday celebrant in his signature role as The Mysterious Traveler. Not only can you listen to Maurice Tarplin on Dark Destiny, but you can enjoy his exploits in two Traveler episodes featured among the many on our Great Radio Horror compilation.  Maurice plays Inspector Farraday on our Boston Blackie sets Boston Blackie Delivers the Goods (and he does!) and Death Wish, and gives it his all on the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar compendiums Medium Rare Matters and Mysterious Matters.  We hope you saved room for the “ice cream and cake”: Tarplin’s showcases on Casey, Crime Photographer: Blue NoteThe Sealed Book: GhostmakersThe Shadow: The Story of the ShadowSuspense: Final Curtain, Words at War, and X-Minus One: Far Horizons.  Happy birthday, Maurice!

Happy Birthday, Earle Ross!

As a boy, actor Earle Ross had been gifted with a beautiful soprano voice—one that he put to good use singing in the boys’ choir at his local church. (His parents wanted him to become a minister.)  One day, Earle reached for a high note…and his voice cracked.  For several days, he was unable to speak; when his voice finally returned, his vocal chords were no longer in a high register.  “The more I talked,” Ross reminisced in later years, “the lower they seemed to get.  I didn’t sound like a boy anymore.  I sounded like an old man.”  Well, you know the old adage about life, lemons, and lemonade. Ross, who was born on this date in Chicago in 1888, used his new gift to earn a successful show business career portraying elderly men. Authority figures were his forte, and he is probably best remembered by radio fans for playing Judge Hooker on the successful radio sitcom The Great Gildersleeve.

Earle Ross’ acting ambitions began about the time his voice made that startling change from youth to old age.  He bypassed the usual juvenile roles, playing only old men or villains.  One of his first paying gigs (earning a salary of $20 a week) found him taking on three roles in a melodrama entitled In a Woman’s Power or a Dangerous Friend.  (Earle not only negotiated that impressive salary, he cadged an extra $2.50 as the stage manager.)  By 1912, Ross was working on the East Coast in productions like Where the Trail Divides and Cost of Living.  Earle put his experience in stage managing to good use by building up a chain of theatres…but the stock market crash in 1929 put an end to that business venture.

Undaunted, Earle Ross soon created acting opportunities for himself in the burgeoning medium of radio.  For a time, he had his own program called The Earle Ross Theatre of the Air.  Ross also starred in an early radio series penned by One Man’s Family creator Carlton E. Morse, playing the titular role of Inspector Post.  The Ramblings of Jonathan Quid was another early offering featuring Earle, who became one of the pioneer members in Actors’ Equity.  Ross eventually worked his way onto network shows like The Lux Radio Theatre, where he was a member of that program’s unofficial stock company—not to mention his work on The Columbia Workshop and Dr. Christian.  Earle began a weekly gig around this time on the offbeat comedy-drama Point Sublime, a charming series about a small seaport village and the romance between two of its inhabitants, storekeeper/mayor Ben Willet (played by Cliff Arquette) and Evelyn “Evy” Hanover (Jane Morgan).  Ross portrayed retired Texas millionaire Howie McBrayer, who acted as Ben’s rival on the series; Howie was a good-hearted soul who nevertheless found himself the frequent butt of Willet’s jokes.

Earle Ross cemented his radio immortality playing another rival in another small town: he was Judge Horace Hooker of Summerfield in the Fibber McGee & Molly spin-off The Great Gildersleeve.  Hooker, whose billy goat laugh earned him the nickname of “the old goat” from water commissioner Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold “Hal” Peary), was a cantankerous old codger whose quarrels with Gildy provided many memorable moments of mirth for fans of the show.  Although Judge Hooker and Gildersleeve often went at one another with verbal swords, the two men really were the best of friends—joining other Summerfield chums in that fraternal organization known as “The Jolly Boys.”  Ross was also a regular on Billie Burke’s sitcom (as her disapproving brother Julius), The Mel Blanc Show (as Uncle Rupert), and in the 1950s, played opposite Audrey Totter and Bea Benaderet on Meet Millie as Millie’s hard-to-please boss, J.R. Boone, Sr.

On That Amazing Jennifer Logan, Earle Ross played a darker version of his “Howie McBrayer” Point Sublime character as “John Barton,” a ruthless tycoon who showed an interest in the titular heroine.  Ross was also “Mayor Turner” on Jonathan Trimble, Esq. (a lighter drama starring Oscar-winning actor Donald Crisp as a newspaperman).  Earle demonstrated quite a comedy flair with appearances on such radio shows as The Adventures of MaisieBeulahFather Knows BestFibber McGee & MollyThe Halls of IvyThe Jack Benny ProgramLife with LuigiMaxwell House Coffee Time (with Francis Langford), Meet Corliss ArcherThe Merry Life of Mary ChristmasMr. and Mrs. BlandingsOur Miss BrooksThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and Shorty Bell.

Rounding out Earle Ross’ extensive radio resume are entries like The Adventures of Red RyderThe Adventures of the SaintArch Oboler’s PlaysBroadway’s My BeatThe Cavalcade of America, Encore TheatreFamily TheatreFavorite StoryFrontier TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHopalong CassidyI Want a DivorceLet George Do ItLights OutMichael ShaynePlays for AmericansThe Railroad HourThe Roy Rogers ShowScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodThe Story of Dr. KildareThe Theatre of Famous Radio PlayersTheatre of RomanceThe WhistlerWild Bill Hickok, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.  On the August 13, 1945 broadcast of The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, Earle portrayed “Judge Hooker” on that program’s presentation of the 1943 film Gildersleeve’s Bad Day.  However, Ross was only in one of the RKO features based on the Gildersleeve program (1944’s Gildersleeve’s Ghost); the role of Hooker was played in the other entries (including Day) by Charles Arnt.

Earle Ross’ cinematic oeuvre includes roles in B-pictures like The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940) and A Date with the Falcon (1941). Western fans might recognize him as “Professor Cleary” in one of the “Three Mesquiteers” best-remembered vehicles, Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937).  Ross dabbled a bit in TV, reprising his Meet Millie role as J.R. Boone, Sr. in that show’s first season on the small screen and playing Judge Hooker in two TV episodes of The Great Gildersleeve.  Earle’s other TV credits include The Adventures of Wild Bill HickokBig TownI Married JoanOur Miss Brooks, and The Real McCoys.  Ross would succumb to cancer in 1961 at the age of 73.

Here at Radio Spirits, we’d like to pay tribute to today’s birthday boy by showcasing Earle Ross’ signature role as Judge Hooker in our Great Gildersleeve collections Family ManNeighbors, and For Corn’s Sake.  (You should also check out Gildy shows in our potpourri compendiums of Great Radio Christmas and Great Radio Comedy.)  In addition, you’ll find Earle on our sets of Broadway’s My Beat (Dark WhispersThe Loneliest Mile), Father Knows Best (Maple Street), Family Theatre (Every Home), The Halls of Ivy (School Days), and Lights Out (Later Than You Think).  Happy birthday, Mr. Ross!

Happy Birthday, Sammy Kaye!

It was at a Cleveland, Ohio venue known as The Cabin Club where Sammy Kaye—born Samuel Zamocay, Jr on this date in 1910—would acquire the slogan that would make him and his orchestra famous.  The Cabin Club’s master of ceremonies liked to give Sammy and his musical aggregation a nice rhyming welcome: “Music in the Rhythmic/Sentimental Way with Sammy Kaye” were two popular catchphrases, but the one that stuck was “Let’s Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye.”  Why?  It seems that fans of the band greeted Kaye and his musicians one night with “Hi, Swing and Sway” and Sammy instinctively knew it was a perfect fit.

Sammy Kaye entered this world in Lakewood, Ohio and attended high school in Rocky River.  Upon graduation, Sammy attended Ohio University (in Athens), intending to earn a degree in civil engineering.  To finance his studies, Kaye started a band (he was proficient on both the clarinet and saxophone, though he rarely soloed on either instrument). The group became so popular that, in addition to playing the usual school dances and proms, he opened up his own little “nickel a dance” nightspot: The Varsity Inn.  Sammy kept his crew together after college graduation and embarked on a tour. What began with one-nighters at “whistle stops” soon blossomed into gigs at hotels, theatres, and nightclubs.

In Radio’s Golden Age, hotels often served as a location for “band remotes,” which comprised much of the medium’s musical programming.  Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra were just one of the many “big bands” who performed before appreciative hotel crowds and listeners at home.  Kaye and his band got their initial start in radio in Cincinnati before relocating to Pittsburgh.  Nationally, Kaye and Company began doing remotes for Mutual in 1937, and for the next twenty years would log airtime on all of the major networks (many of his popular series were broadcast as Sammy Kaye’s Sunday Serenade). Most notably, they were heard on CBS’s The Old Gold Program from January 1943 to March 1944 (Wednesdays at 8pm), where Sammy was the bandleader for a half-hour show starring “The Old Redhead,” Red Barber, and later comic actor Monty Woolley.  Kaye also headlined a half-hour program for Rayve/Richard Hudnut on ABC from November 1945 to January 1948 (heard on Sunday afternoons), and from 1953 to 1956 held court on Sammy Kaye’s Cameo Room, heard in various formats and time slots on ABC.

One of Sammy Kaye’s best remembered radio series was born during a two-year engagement that he and his band had in the Century Room at New York’s Commodore Hotel.  (Kaye and his orchestra got the gig after another orchestra—fronted by someone named Tommy Dorsey—found work elsewhere.)  The story goes that a couple sauntered up to Kaye’s bandstand one evening and the man asked if he could lead the orchestra.  “Sure,” joked Sammy, “if you let me dance with your girl.”  This moment of levity inspired Kaye to make it a permanent part of the band’s repertoire, and on September 5, 1946 So You Want to Lead a Band premiered over ABC on Thursday evenings at 10.  Kaye would select amateur maestros from the audience and hand out prizes to the participants (the grand prize was $1,000).  Its run on ABC was brief (the last broadcast was on October 24, 1946), but during that time the program hosted guest celebrities like Betty Grable, Linda Darnell, and Ethel Merman.  Sammy continued “So You Want to Lead a Band” in his orchestra’s live appearances afterward (and often used it as a warm-up before radio broadcasts). In fact, he even brought the show to the small screen on ABC-TV in 1954-55.

Jazz writer George T. Simon was not a Sammy Kaye fan, describing the maestro’s style as “mickey mouse music”: “[W]here the phrase came from I don’t know, except perhaps that the music sounded as manufactured and mechanized as Walt Disney’s famous mouse—and projected just about as much depth.”  (In Kaye’s defense, George was a one-time drummer for rival Glenn Miller’s band, so there may have been a little professional jealousy.)  The general public paid little attention to Simon’s opinion; beginning with the appropriate Swing and Sway in 1937, they made certain that Sammy and Company were never missing from the popular music charts. Fans propelled such records as Rosalie (1937), Love Walked In (1938), Dream Valley (1940), Daddy (1941), Chickery Chick (1945), I’m a Big Girl Now (1946), The Old Lamp-Lighter (1946), and Harbor Lights (1950) to the top spot.  (Lights would become Kaye’s signature tune.)

Sammy Kaye and his band also appeared in two motion pictures: Iceland (1942) and Song of the Open Road (1944).  On the small screen, the maestro headlined two separate series entitled The Sammy Kaye Show (on CBS in 1951-52 and a summer NBC series in 1953) and Sammy Kaye’s Music from Manhattan (1958-59, ABC).  Throughout the 1950s/1960s Kaye continued to be a familiar face on TV, notably as a guest on such programs as Toast of the Town/The Ed Sullivan ShowThe Jackie Gleason Show, and The Merv Griffin Show. He was even among the many big band legends in a PBS presentation from 1978 called Big Band Bash.  Sammy continued to perform for appreciative audiences before his last swing and sway in 1987 at the age of 77. Before retiring, he put his orchestra in the hands of Roger Thorpe, who continues to wield the baton as of this writing.  Sammy was posthumously inducted into The Big Band Hall of Fame in 1992, and his musical legacy in radio, movies, TV, and records earned him a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Sammy Kaye borrowed the music from Ohio University’s Alma Mater and (with Don Reid) wrote Remember Pearl Harbor, which rocketed to #3 on the pop charts in 1942.  You’ll find that classic tune on the 4-CD collection America’s Greatest Hits 1942, as well as another popular Kaye standard, I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen (which also peaked at #3).  In addition, Radio Spirits features our birthday boy on the 3-CD set You Make Me Feel So Young (with Sammy’s chart-topping rendition of Love Walked In) and Too Young: Hits of the 1950s, another 3-CD compilation featuring Kaye and band member Don Cornell on It Isn’t Fair (#2 in 1950).  Happy birthday, Sammy!