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Happy Birthday, Judy Canova!

There’s a reason why Judy Canova was frequently referred to as “The Ozark Nightingale” and “The Jenny Lind of the Ozarks.”  Judy was blessed with an incredible singing voice, and at one point in her professional career she had serious aspirations to become an opera singer.  Fate had other plans for Ms. Canova, however. The woman born Juliette (also Julietta) Canova on this date in Starke, Florida in 1913 (though her obituary in The New York Times noted 1916) became typecast early in vaudeville as a “hillbilly” performer. She would dutifully make that her bread-and-butter persona in movies and on radio throughout her lengthy tenure in show business.

Born to Joseph Francis and Henrietta E. Canova, Judy was one of seven Canova kids—and with two siblings, Annie and Zeke, she would form a musical aggregation known as the Three Georgia Crackers.  They started out playing in various Florida nightclubs before hitting the big time at Manhattan’s The Village Barn.  The Three Canovas (with brother Peter) would make their Broadway debut in Calling All Stars in 1934 and later grace the cast of Yokel Boy (1939)…while on her own, Judy was featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.  The trio (and Peter) also established a beachhead in motion pictures like In Caliente and Broadway Gondolier (both 1935).

Judy Canova was still a teenager when Rudy Vallee invited her and her siblings to appear on his popular radio program The Fleischmann Hour in 1933.  The Canovas would guest frequently on that and subsequent Vallee series, and later became regulars on Paul Whiteman’s Musical Varieties in 1936 (a show that was handed off to Shep Fields and became The Rippling Rhythm Revue in early 1937).  Judy, Annie, and Zeke also made appearances on The Chase & Sanborn Hour in the fall of 1938, joining the all-star cast of Nelson Eddy, Dorothy Lamour, Don Ameche, and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy).

Judy Canova would make two more motion pictures with her siblings Annie and Zeke (1937’s Artists and Models and Thrill of a Lifetime) before deciding to become a solo act. (She had given that a try with a film she made at Warner Bros., Going Highbrow [1935].)  Judy would make the majority of her solo starring films at Republic Pictures—beginning with 1940’s Scatterbrain—where the specialty was serials and B-Westerns.  Canova would be one of Republic’s biggest box office assets, and her economically produced musical comedies would prove quite popular with movie audiences until her last film at the studio, Lay That Rifle Down (1955).

On radio, Judy Canova made guest appearances on the likes of Command Performance and The Kraft Music Hall while yukking it up with Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, and George Burns & Gracie Allen.  July 6, 1943 would mark the debut of her own self-titled sitcom over CBS, The Judy Canova Show (though it originally went by Rancho Canova).  A fresh-faced innocent from the mythical hamlet of “Cactus Junction,” Judy had moved to Southern California where she lived with her Aunt Aggie (played at times by Verna Felton and Ruth Parrott) and maid Geranium (Ruby Dandridge).  Canova would sing both novelty and serious numbers on the show, whose content (to borrow a quote from Fred Allen) “frequently mulched the maize to monumental heights.”  Here’s an example:

STRAIGHT MAN: One of my ancestors was a Knight of the Royal Order of the Bath—or don’t you know the Royal Order of the Bath?
JUDY: Why, shore—on Saturday night, it was Paw first and then all the kids in order of their ages!

The Judy Canova Show distinguished itself by showcasing an impressive cast of old-time radio veterans: Hans Conried (as the constantly complaining boarder Mr. Hemingway), Sheldon Leonard (as Judy’s cabbie boyfriend Joe Crunchmiller), Gerald Mohr (as the buff Humphrey Cooper, Judy’s one-time fiancé), and Joseph Kearns (as the eccentric Bentley Botsford).  Gale Gordon, Elvia Allman, George Neise, and Sharon Douglas also appeared on occasion, and Jim Backus transplanted his “Hubert Updike III” character from The Alan Young Show when that program closed up shop.  The best-known cast member of the Canova show was unquestionably Mel Blanc (as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already), who tackled quite a few characters—Pedro, Judy’s gardener, was the most frequent to appear.  (“Pardon me for talking in your face, Senorita…thirty days hacienda, April, June, and sombrero.”)  Judy’s program was heard over CBS until June 27, 1944; it then moved to NBC in January of 1945 and ran until May 28, 1953.

In addition to her successful radio show, Judy Canova made the guest star rounds on programs like The Abbott & Costello ShowThe Harold Lloyd Comedy TheatreThe Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre (a radio version of her 1942 film Joan of Ozark), Mail CallThe Radio Hall of FameRequest PerformanceThe Sealtest Variety Theatre, and The Victor Borge Show.  With the decline of the aural medium, Judy began following her radio brethren and sistren to the small screen. She would be a guest on venues like The Milton Berle Show and The Colgate Comedy Hour, and later stretch her acting range on series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Police Woman.  Canova’s last TV appearance before her death in 1983 was on an episode of The Love Boat.

I’ve only scratched the surface on Judy Canova’s phenomenal show business career here—if you’re curious to check out more, may we recommend a purchase of Singin’ in the Corn, a one-of-a-kind biography on our birthday girl written by Ben Ohmart. It’s packed with family interviews and rare, unpublished photographs.  Tarnation!

Happy Birthday, Eleanor Audley!

The epitaph on the headstone adorning the final resting place of actress Eleanor Audley reads: “A Kind Friend to All.”  And while it’s undeniably true that Audley—born Eleanor Zellman on this date in NYC in 1905—was held in the highest regard by her thespic peers, it’s a marked contrast from the roles for which fans remember her today.  Eleanor not only provided the voices for two of the most menacing villainesses in Walt Disney animation history, she could be heard as spirit medium “Madame Leota Toombs” (a disembodied head inside a crystal ball) at the “Haunted Mansion” attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

A small role in the Broadway hit Howdy, King (1926) launched the acting career of a 20-year-old Eleanor.  She followed up this debut with performances in such productions as On Call (1928), Pigeons and People (1933), Thunder on the Left (1933), Kill That Story (1934), Ladies’ Money (1934), and Susan and God (1937).  Like many of her fellow actors, Audley found work enough to sustain her in radio—lending her talents to daytime dramas like By Kathleen Norris.  A blurb in an Evans Plummer column from a 1935 issue of Radio Life gives Eleanor an “atta girl”: “Plums to Eleanor Audley, of the Windy City cast of Three Men on a Horse, who without rehearsal and but thirty minutes’ notice came to the rescue of the Monday night Princess Pat drama when actress Dorothy Mallinson was seized with an acute attack of asthma caused from eating strawberry shortcake.”

By the 1940s, Eleanor Audley continued to demonstrate what a trouper she could be in the aural medium with appearances on such shows as Adventure AheadThe Big StoryThe Bishop and the GargoyleEllery QueenEncore TheatreEscapeThe Eternal LightThe Haunting HourLawyer QThe Lux Radio TheatreMy Home TownThe NBC University TheatrePursuitThe Railroad HourRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRomanceThe Sealtest Variety TheatreSuspenseThis is Your FBIThe Weird CircleThe Whistler, and Words at War.  Audley had a recurring role on the Lucille Ball-Richard Denning sitcom My Favorite Husband as Leticia Cooper (Lucy’s character’s mother-in-law) and on The Story of Dr. Kildare she played Molly Byrd, the receptionist at Blair General Hospital.  Her busiest radio role was probably on Father Knows Best; Eleanor was Elizabeth Smith, the next-door neighbor of the Family Anderson (Herb Vigran was her husband Hector and Sam Edwards their son Billy).

Eleanor Audley’s motion picture debut was an uncredited role in 1949’s The Story of Molly X—a “women’s prison” picture that features many old-time radio veterans: Cathy Lewis, Sara Berner, Sandra Gould, Elliott Lewis, Wally Maher, and Hal March, just to name a few.  Eleanor’s second film, however, would prove to be one of her most memorable: she provided the voice of Lady Tremaine, the “wicked stepmother” in the Disney animation classic Cinderella (1950).  Not only did Audley provide the tones of the woman who made the titular heroine’s life quite unpleasant, but animators modeled the character on the actress’ physical appearance.  Eleanor would reprise the wicked stepmother role on a February 15, 1951 broadcast of radio’s Hallmark Playhouse, “The Story of Cinderella,” and tackled a similar showcase in a memorable outing of The Six Shooter (“When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit,” 06/17/54) that found protagonist Britt Ponset in a Cinderella-inspired tale.

Eleanor Audley’s cinematic oeuvre also includes credited and uncredited parts in classics like No Way Out (1950), Three Secrets (1950), Pretty Baby (1950), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Prince of Players (1955), Untamed (1955), Cell 2455, Death Row (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1955), The Unguarded Moment (1956), Full of Life (1956), Home Before Dark (1958), and The Second Time Around (1961).  Eleanor returned to her radio roots for her most famous movie showcase, however: voicing the evil fairy known as Maleficent in another animated feature from Walt Disney, 1959’s Sleeping Beauty.  At the time production was underway, Audley initially turned down the assignment because she was battling tuberculosis…but she eventually rose to the occasion, and as she had done on Cinderella allowed Beauty’s animators to borrow some of her own physical features for the animated baddie.  (That unforgettable diabolical cackle of Maleficent’s, though—that was all Eleanor.)  When Sleeping Beauty was finished, Audley was treated to a special private screening of the film.

Eleanor Audley continued to perform in front of a radio microphone throughout the 1950s with appearances on programs like The Adventures of the SaintFamily TheatreFibber McGee & MollyThe Halls of IvyHollywood Star PlayhouseThe Life of RileyNight Beat, and Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  Even as radio was waiting for the hook that would yank it off the national stage, Audley could be found performing on the likes of The CBS Radio Workshop and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  But as assignments in the aural medium started to become scarcer and scarcer, Eleanor would eventually make the transition to the small screen, guest starring on everything from I Love Lucy to The Twilight Zone.  She had recurring roles on series like The Swamp Fox (a Disneyland serial), The Gale Storm ShowThe Joey Bishop ShowThe Dick Van Dyke ShowThe Beverly HillbilliesMister EdPistols ‘n’ Petticoats, and My Three Sons.  Couch potatoes probably know her best as Eunice Douglas—the snobbish mother of Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert) on the beloved sitcom Green Acres.  Unlike most mother-in-law stereotypes, Eunice actually got along better with her daughter-in-law (Eva Gabor as Lisa) than her own son!  Audley had hoped to reprise her Eunice role in the reunion TV movie Return to Green Acres (1990), but illness put the kibosh on that; she passed away in 1991 at the age of 86.

That “Cinderella” episode of The Six Shooter that I mentioned earlier in this essay?  Well, it’s available on the Radio Spirits release Six Shooter: Special Edition, and you’ll also find our birthday girl on another Shooter collection, Gray Steel.  We also feature Eleanor Audley on three of her signature series: The Story of Dr. KildareFather Knows Best (on Great Radio Christmas), and My Favorite Husband (Great Radio Sitcoms).  There’s a wealth of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar sets with work by Eleanor—Fabulous FreelanceFatal Matters, and Murder Matters—and on Jack Benny: Be Our Guest, Ms. Audley is among the cast of The Hotpoint Holiday Hour presentation of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (12/25/49).  Hey—you’ve still got room in your shopping cart for The Big Story: As It Happened and The Weird Circle: Toll the Bell.  Happy birthday to one of our very favorite character actresses!

Happy Birthday, Helen Mack!

In 1949, RKO re-released She (1935)—a motion picture based on the series of H. Rider Haggard novels and starring Randolph Scott and Helen Gahagan (as the title character).  She, a science fiction-themed film that the studio had hoped would enjoy the same success as the earlier King Kong (1933), lost money in its original run…but the re-release proved a bit more lucrative at the box office.  So much so that several movie executives actively sought to sign the other leading lady from the film, Helen Mack—born Helen McDougall in Rock Island, Illinois on this date in 1913—to a movie contract.  These “suits” had apparently not been paying attention: Helen Mack was doing quite well for herself at this stage of her show business career, notably as one of the few female director-producers in radio.

Before establishing herself as a prolific presence during Radio’s Golden Age, Helen Mack began her career in entertainment as a child actress.  She appeared in several silent features, notably Success (1923) and Pied Piper Malone (1924)—where she was billed as “Helen Macks.”  Mack also graced the cast of the occasional Broadway stage production, such as Neighbors (1923) and Yellow (1926).  Helen took on these assignments while attending NYC’s Professional Children’s School from 1921 to 1929.  (The school, founded in 1914, is still in operation today; its famous alums [along with Helen] include Sarah Michelle Gellar [Buffy the Vampire Slayer] and Holly Marie Combs [Charmed].)

Helen Mack’s hard work would pay off in a screen test with Fox Film in March of 1931. Three weeks later, she was officially employed on the studio lot in movies like The Silent Witness (1932) and While Paris Sleeps (1932—her first film as a leading lady).  (Helen also had a role in D.W. Griffith’s final film, The Struggle, released by United Artists in 1931.)  A move to RKO really expanded Mack’s career as she added titles like Sweepings (1933), Melody Cruise (1933), Blind Adventure (1933), and Christopher Bean (1933) to her celluloid resume.  One of her high-profile film roles was as the leading lady in The Son of Kong (1933), which (like She) also hoped to recapture the King Kong thrill (as a direct sequel).  Undaunted, Helen continued to make onscreen magic in features like The Lemon Drop Kid (1934), College Rhythm (1934), Four Hours to Kill! (1935), The Last Train from Madrid (1937), The Wrong Road (1937), and Mystery of the White Room (1939).

In the 1936 Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way, Helen Mack portrayed Harold’s sister (Lloyd is a milkman who becomes an unlikely boxer).  Classic film fans probably know Helen best from His Girl Friday (1940; as “heart-of-gold” hooker Molly Malloy), one of the most perfect of motion picture comedies.  By this juncture in her career, however, Mack had tied the knot with second husband Tom McAvity, who worked in radio as an executive with Lord and Thomas, a major advertising agency.  The actress decided to change her focus to the aural medium. Helen was no stranger to radio, having previously worked for Arch Oboler and appearing on such shows as Hollywood on the Air and The Lux Radio Theatre.  She beat out two hundred actresses to win the role of “Marge” on the popular radio soap Myrt and Marge after the original Marge, Donna Damerel Fick, had an untimely death.  (Fick’s mother, Myrtle Vail, continued to play “Myrt.”)  Mack said goodbye to her film career with 1945’s Divorce and Strange Holiday (a movie director by her friend Oboler).

Helen Mack had a very good friend in writer Aleen Leslie, who began her movie career as a scribe in Columbia Pictures’ short subjects department (The Nightshirt Bandit [1938]) before graduating to features like The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and The Stork Pays Off (1941).  Aleen wanted to create a radio show for her chum, but by the time the production was ready to take flight Mack had to bow out due to her pregnancy.  The show went on as A Date with Judy, a sitcom that premiered over NBC on June 24, 1941 as Bob Hope’s summer replacement.  Helen might have missed out playing the title role that would be essayed at various times by Ann Gillis, Dellie Ellis, and (most famously) Louise Erickson but she got a nice consolation prize: she became director-producer of the program when husband Tom asked her to take it off his plate (he had his hands full with Judy’s competitor, Meet Corliss Archer, and Joan Davis’ show).

While overseeing A Date with Judy, Helen Mack was also in charge of The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show—a spin-off from Fibber McGee & Molly.  With the untimely death of star Hurt, a situation comedy starring Agnes Moorehead, Calamity Jane, was the quick replacement (and was also supervised by Mack).  Jane lasted three weeks before being nudged out by The Amazing Mrs. Danberry, a sitcom that also featured Aggie as star and Helen as director. (In this one, Moorehead played a widow who assumed responsibility for her late husband’s department store.) In the fall of 1946, Mack was the director on The Affairs of Ann Scotland—a crime drama (whose titular female character was described as a “private eyelash”) starring future What’s My Line? panelist Arlene Francis.  After A Date with Judy forfeited its sponsor, Helen took over as director of Alan Young’s radio show.  Throughout the 1940s, Helen Mack had a claim to fame as radio’s only female director…and she was good, too. Her work on Judy and Beulah netted her recognition from Radio Life in April of 1946 with one of their Distinguished Achievement Awards.

With the start of the 1950s, Helen Mack continued to work in radio—staying true to her sitcom roots by directing the show that once employed her husband, Meet Corliss Archer.  But she also expanded her range with assignments on The Man from HomicideThe Adventures of the Saint, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  Mack dabbled a little in television, serving as a script supervisor on the 1955 series Homer Bell and later contributing teleplays to the likes of Daniel Boone and Julia.  Helen tried her hand at writing stage plays—one of which, Mating Dance, was written under her married name, Helen McAvity, and had a very brief Broadway run.  Mack’s husband Tom died in 1974, and Helen moved in with her friend Aleen Leslie shortly afterward.  She succumbed to cancer in 1986 at the age of 72.

Here at Radio Spirits, you can celebrate Helen Mack’s natal anniversary by checking out our new The Bob Bailey Collection, where you can hear Mack co-star with Bailey in an episode of To The President titled “Miracle in 3-B.” You may also consider our collections of Richard Diamond, Private DetectiveDead MenHomicide Made Easy, and Mayhem is My Business—all of which feature her work “behind the scenes.”  Helen also directed the pilot episode (with Charles McGraw) of The Man from Homicide, and one of her outings from The Adventures of the Saint (“The Horrible Hamburger”) is available on Great Radio Detectives.  Mack’s signature series, A Date with Judy is represented on Great Radio Comedy and our newest mirth compendium, Great Radio Sitcoms.  Happy birthday, Helen!

Happy Birthday, Marsha Hunt!

Actress Marsha Hunt reminisced to writer-director-producer Roger C. Memos in 2014 that her mother Minabel took her to see a Joan Crawford film, No More Ladies (1935), when she was just a teenager.  Crawford’s character in the movie was named “Marcia,” and at one point during the feature Mother Hunt leaned over and whispered to her daughter: “That’s your name.”

This came as quite a surprise to the woman who was born Marcia Virginia Hunt on this date in the Windy City in 1917…and as of this writing, celebrates her 102nd birthday today.  You see, young Marsha had always gone by “Betty”—the reason being that a member of her family convinced Mother Minabel it wasn’t a good idea to name her new daughter “Marcia,” seeing as how there was already a “Marjorie” in the Hunt family (Marsha’s sister) and siblings shouldn’t have similar names.  From the moment she learned this, Hunt decided she would go with her proper name…but that it would be spelled “Marsha” after some of her schoolmates argued that “Marcia” might be mistakenly pronounced Mar-see-uh.

Marsha Hunt’s father was a lawyer by profession, and later worked as a Social Security Administrator, while Mirabel was a voice coach and organist.  That could explain Marsha’s interest in acting, which took full bloom after the family moved to NYC when she was young. She began to perform in school plays and at church functions. Hunt graduated from the Horace Mann High School for Girls at age 16, and though her parents encouraged her to go to college, Marsha had difficulty finding one “where you could major in drama before your third year.”  Instead, Hunt opted to take acting lessons at the Theodora Irvine Studio (one of her fellow students was Cornel Wilde) and found employment as a model with the John Powers Agency.

Marsha Hunt had planned to studying acting at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the UK…but an interesting development sidetracked that career path.  She was offered, at age 17, a seven-year motion picture contract with Paramount while vacationing in Los Angeles to visit an uncle.  Hunt was uncertain about a movie career, but she made her movie debut with 1935’s The Virginia Judge. From that moment on, she made motion pictures as the ingénue — anything from programmers to B-Westerns (with an occasional loan-out to 20th Century-Fox or R-K-O).  Among the interesting items on Marsha’s Paramount resume: Hollywood Boulevard (1936), an engaging little B featuring many star cameos and performances from silent movie legends; College Holiday (1936), a musical comedy with Jack Benny and his friends George Burns & Gracie Allen; and Born to the West (1937; a.k.a. Hell Town), where her leading men were Johnny Mack Brown and John Wayne (before he became John Wayne).  (If you’ve ever watched the classic screwball comedy Easy Living [1937], you may recognize Hunt as the girl who figures in the movie’s closing gag.)

Paramount dispensed with Marsha Hunt’s services in 1938, and for a few years after that she did a little freelancing. At M-G-M she appeared in such films as The Hardys Ride High (1939), These Glamour Girls (1939)…and a critically-acclaimed showcase as one of Greer Garson’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice (1940).  MGM signed her officially in 1941, and Hunt would go on to provide sibling support in another Garson film, Blossoms in the Dust (1941).  Before the studio allowed her contract to lapse in 1945, Marsha racked up film appearances in the likes of Kid Glove Killer (1942), The Affairs of Martha (1942), The Human Comedy (1943), Cry “Havoc” (1943), and The Valley of Decision (1945).  (Marsha is also quite excellent in None Shall Escape [1944]—though she made that one while on loan to Columbia.)

Marsha Hunt’s film work resulted in many appearances on radio, guesting on such anthology programs as The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Ford TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe MGM Theatre of the AirThe Silver TheatreSuspenseThe Orson Welles Theatre, and The Unexpected.  Hunt also made time for showcases on Mail Call and The Smiths of Hollywood.  Her most high-profile radio gig was replacing Frances Langford as Don Ameche’s sparring partner in the “Bickersons” sketches that were a prominent feature on The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show in the 1948-49 season.  This didn’t last long, unfortunately; Bergen voluntarily took his show off the air in December of 1948, waiting for the phenomenon known as Stop the Music to burn itself out. (Eventually it did, and Edgar and his dummies returned to radio in the fall of 1949…sans John and Blanche.)

Despite first-rate showcases in films like Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and Raw Deal (1948; one of her best remembered pictures), Marsha Hunt would soon fall victim to the insidious Hollywood blacklist in the late 1940s/early 1950s.  She was one of the many Hollywood stars who were members of the Committee for the First Amendment (truth be told, she’s the last surviving member as of this post). Her participation in a 1947 radio program entitled Hollywood Fights Back didn’t do her any favors…nor did flying to Washington, DC with celebs like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to support writers and directors [“The Hollywood Ten”] who had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Marsha Hunt was also listed in the notorious publication Red Channels — primarily because she signed more than a few petitions back in the day, but also because of her refusal to recant her participation in the Committee for the First Amendment.  Her spouse Robert Presnell, Jr. (her second husband) was also blacklisted, though neither Marsha nor Robert were ever called on to testify before HUAC.  Hunt’s work on the silver screen began to dry up, though she did appear in a few movies (like Actors and Sin and The Happy Time, both 1952). She compensated for the steep decline in film work by doing a lot of early live television (The Philco Television TheatreStudio One) and stage work, where the blacklist never quite took hold.  Marsha had made a rather impressive Broadway debut in 1948’s Joy to the World, and she followed that with productions of The Devil’s DiscipleBorned in Texas, and Legend of Sarah.

The late 1950s would find Marsha Hunt still performing on stage in plays like The Tunnel of Love. While she eventually outlasted the blacklist, she entered in a state of semi-retirement in the 1960s.  There would be appearances on TV favorites like GunsmokeThe Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone, but Hunt was also committed to spending her time helping others. She supported civil rights causes and efforts like UNICEF and The March of Dimes, with a special emphasis on getting involved with the United Nations.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she worked on TV (Murder, She WroteMatlock), and even in the 2000s graced the occasional film (like Chloe’s Prayer [2006]).  She was the subject of a highly recommended documentary released in 2015, Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity.

recent article in the Biddeford, Maine newspaper The Journal Tribune, written by Alabama-based writer Nick Thomas, notes the upcoming natal anniversary of our birthday girl. Thomas suggests that those people named “Marsha” (possibly inspired by Hunt’s show business career) get in touch with their namesake…because she would love to hear from fans.  Here at Radio Spirits, we recommend that you check out The Honeymoon is Over!, our popular Bickersons collection that features Marsha along with Don Ameche, Frances Langford, and Lew Parker.  Happy birthday, Marsha!

Happy Birthday, Benita Hume!

When Jack Benny and his writers concocted the script that would introduce actor Ronald Colman as Jack’s “next door neighbor” on The Jack Benny Program, the writers’ first inclination was to hire an experienced radio actress to portray Colman’s real-life wife, Benita Hume.  After all, such a decision would have been safer and cheaper—the creative minds on the show reasoned that although Hume had acting experience, she was relatively unknown to American radio audiences.  Benny was a stickler for realism, however, and insisted that they cast Benita in the role of…well, herself.  “It was one of his more fortuitous decisions,” recalled Milt Josefsberg in his book The Jack Benny Show, “because not only did she lend more realism and publicity value to the part, but her sense of comedy and timing was so instinctively impeccable that she immediately became as important to the programs as her far better known husband.”

Benita Hume, born on this date in 1906 in London, initially wanted a career as a pianist…but somewhere along the way she decided that an actor’s life was for her.  Hume studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, making her first appearance on stage in 1923. By 1925, she was working in silent films, such as The Happy Ending (1925) and Second to None (1927).  She portrayed one of the sisters in The Constant Nymph (1928)—a movie remade a few times, notably in 1943 starring Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine. Benita has a memorable scene in the Alfred Hitchcock-directed Easy Virtue (1928) as a telephone receptionist.  Other British features in which Hume appeared as leading lady include The Lady of the Lake (1928), The Clue of the New Pin (1929), and The House of the Arrow (1930).

When Ivor Novello’s smash stage success Symphony in Two Flats went “across the pond” for a Broadway run, Benita Hume went with the production to reprise her role as “Lesley Fullerton.”  (Hume would play Lesley in the 1930 British movie release, but the U.S. distributors insisted that she be replaced by actress Jacqueline Logan.)  By 1933, Benita had embarked on an American movie career with roles in such films as Clear All Wires! (1933), Looking Forward (1933), Only Yesterday (1933), The Gay Deception (1935), and The Garden Murder Case (1936).  Though Hume made the rounds at several studios, most of her output was based at M-G-M, appearing in such features as Tarzan Escapes (1936) and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937).  Her last film was Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus, made at R-K-O in 1938—the same year she married Ronald Colman (her second husband).

Having officially retired from the acting profession, Benita Hume was content to play the real-life role of Hollywood socialite until she and her husband became “semi-regulars” on the Benny program.  Jack and his writers may not have been aware of it, but this wasn’t Benita’s first radio rodeo: she had racked up credits on The Rudy Vallee HourThe Lux Radio Theatre (notably a June 4, 1939 broadcast in which she acted alongside husband Colman in an adaptation of “The Prisoner of Zenda”), and The Doctor Fights.  Hume’s appearances on the Benny show would present acting opportunities on such series as Favorite Story (okay, a little cheating here since Ronnie was the host), Maxwell House Coffee Time (George Burns & Gracie Allen), and Screen Director’s Playhouse (another go-around with “Zenda”).

Benita Hume’s best-remembered radio role also involved husband Ronald Colman: the two of them starred in the comedy-drama The Halls of Ivy, which premiered over NBC Radio on January 6, 1950.  As difficult as this is to believe, the roles of Professor William Todhunter Hall (Ronnie) and Victoria Hall (Benita) were not originally created with the Colmans in mind. The June 22, 1949 audition featured Gale Gordon and Edna Best (a close friend of the Colmans).  Gordon’s commitment to Our Miss Brooks necessitated that he turn down the weekly series offer, so Ronnie and Benita were off to the races in this delightful program about life at a small-town college (created by Fibber McGee & Molly’s Don Quinn).  The Halls of Ivy, which would garner a Peabody Award for Best Radio Drama Series, was one of the bright spots of radio as the aural medium gradually ceded its dominance to its upstart sibling television.  Though the radio run was brief (its last broadcast was June 25, 1952), Ivy later made the transition to TV in the fall of 1954 with Ronnie and Benita reprising their roles.

The Halls of Ivy only ran for one season on television but it was a particularly long one for Benita Hume and Ronald Colman.  Their daughter Juliet recalled in later years that the show’s production took quite a toll on her dad: “It had been a tough haul and it showed.”  Ronnie died in 1958, and the following year Benita tied the knot with actor George Sanders, her third and last husband.  Benita’s last credit (according to the IMDb) was an appearance she and Ronnie made on Jack Benny’s TV show on November 4, 1956, the actress herself passed away in 1967 at the age of 61.

Milt Josefsberg recalled a hilarious anecdote about the Colmans in his previously mentioned The Jack Benny Show book. Ronnie, puzzled by a line in his script, asked Jack what his “motivation” was in reading the line. Benny responded: “Ronnie, I think your motivation is to get the biggest [expletive] laugh you can.” After the laughter from the cast and crew subsided, Colman decided to give it another try.  Whereupon Benita, “in her so well-groomed and clipped, cultured tones,” answered her husband: “Ronnie dear, you heard him.  Your motivation is to get the biggest [expletive] laugh you can.”

Check out Radio Spirits’ Halls of Ivy collection School Days and see for yourself that today’s birthday girl and her husband clearly took Jack’s advice.  You’ll also hear Benita and Ronnie briefly on our Jack Benny collection Planes, Trains and Automobiles!  Happy birthday, Benita!

“There are many tales told on radio, but only one Chandu…”

The origin story of Chandu the Magician is as follows: Frank Chandler, a student of the occult, has spent much of his time residing in the Orient.  Chandler’s environs have produced the benefit of learning the magic secrets of the Far East from mystic Yogis—including teleportation and astral projection.  Which begs the question: do you suppose Frank ever encountered Lamont Cranston at that time?  Was there competition between the two students to see who could cloud a man’s mind the fastest?  Chandu the Magician, described by old-time radio author/historian John Dunning as “among the first and last shows of its kind,” had its nationwide premiere over Mutual on this date in 1932.

Chandu the Magician was developed by partners Raymond R. Morgan and Harry A. Earnshaw. Observing that there was a significant interest in magic amongst the public, Earnshaw proposed that they create a hero who would battle the forces of evil with the use of otherworldly powers.  Frank Chandler was that hero—of course, the student of the occult had enough showmanship to bill himself as “Chandu.” In the first 68 chapters of the serialized story, he squared off against the villainous Roxor…who had captured the husband of Chandu’s sister, Dorothy Regent.  (Dottie’s hubby, Robert, was thought to have perished in a shipwreck.)  Chandu traveled with Dorothy and her children, twins Bob and Betty, to many exotic locales in search of Roxor and the imprisoned Robert.

The unique feature of Chandu the Magician was that the series was scripted by a woman (at a time when radio writing was a male-dominated industry).  Vera Oldham was an office girl who decided to try her hand at writing and the result was such that she was integral to the success of the Chandu serial.  (After the series ended, she kept busy with other assignments on shows like Maxwell House Show Boat and Those Websters.)  Chandu the Magician was originally heard over Los Angeles’ KHJ in 1931 and, by February of 1932, it was being broadcast over New York’s WOR.  (For a time, East Coast listeners heard Beech Nut Gum commercials during the broadcasts while audiences on the West Coast were plied with plugs for White King Soap.)

Silent film star Gayne Whitman portrayed Chandu in the show’s original 1932-35 run, with Margaret MacDonald as Dorothy and Bob Bixby & Betty Webb as the Regent twins.  The series was directed by Cyril Armbrister and music was supplied by Felix Mills and (later) Raymond Paige.  In 1935, Chandu the Magician relocated to the Windy City for a new series produced at WGN. This time around, the cast included Howard Hoffman (Chandu), Cornelia Osgood (Dorothy), Olan Soule (Bob), and Audrey McGrath (Betty).  The WGN version of Chandu the Magician called it a day in 1936.

The success of Chandu wasn’t just limited to radio.  Fox Film Corporation, convinced that there was a ready-made audience for a movie adaptation, released a big screen version of Chandu the Magician in 1932.  Edmund Lowe was cast as the heroic Frank Chandler, and in the role of Roxor was Bela Lugosi himself.  The film was co-directed by the legendary William Cameron Menzies. He was the art director on the silent classic The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and its recent resurfacing on Blu-Ray reinforces that the movie is what critic Raymond Durgnat once termed “the wedding of poetry and pulp.”  A film serial, The Return of Chandu, would be released in 1934. This time around, Lugosi was given the opportunity to portray the mystical Chandu (one of his rare heroic roles).

In 1948, Chandu the Magician’s creators decided on a “reboot” of the original radio series. They went the extra mile to “get the band back together,” luring director Armbrister out to  the West Coast. (He had made a career for himself in NYC, overseeing such shows as Land of the Lost and Terry and the Pirates.) They hired writer Oldham to “touch up” the original scripts, and resurrected the gong that had introduced each 1930s broadcast. To top it all off, White King Granulated Soap signed up once again to pay the program’s bills.  The new Chandu the Magician premiered over Mutual-Don Lee on June 28, 1948 as a weekday quarter-hour before expanding to a half-hour version in February of 1949.  That fall saw Chandu the Magician on a new network (ABC) in the same half-hour format, first on Saturdays and then Thursdays.  Tom Collins was Chandu, with Irene Tedrow as Dorothy, Lee Millar as Bob, Joy Terry as Betty, Veola Vonn as Princess Nadji (Chandu’s love interest), and Luis van Rooten rounding out the cast as Roxor.  The show bid listeners a fond fare-thee-well on September 6, 1950.

“Can you be sure it isn’t true?” announcer Howard Culver would ask at the beginning of each broadcast of the revival.  Honestly, Mr. C…I cannot.  Perhaps those of you among the Radio Spirits faithful can venture an opinion after a purchase of Chandu the Magician, a 6-CD set of vintage Mutual broadcasts that includes the first half-hour episode of the series, “The Origin of Chandu.”  We’ve also got on hand the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu on DVD, with Bela Lugosi as the crimefighting hero.  “Remember the name Chandu, the Magician, which swept the country not so many years ago—the name that spells intrigue, romance, the mystic East, the spell of Egypt!”

Happy Birthday, Kenny Baker!

From 1935 to 1939, Kenneth Laurence Baker—born in Monrovia, California on this date in 1912—was welcomed into millions of homes as the popular tenor vocalist on radio’s The Jack Benny Program.  Kenny was more than just a singer, however; he was pressed into showing off his comedic chops as a member of Benny’s “gang,” playing a slightly zany and naïve young man who drove his boss to distraction.  Baker wasn’t the first to perform this function (Frank Parker held the job previously) and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. Upon Kenny’s departure in 1939, Dennis Day would replace him as both vocalist and male “Gracie Allen.”  But while Dennis became the yardstick by which that character would be measured, Kenny had quickly grown tired of his gig as stooge. In later years, he remarked on his Benny show exit: “It wasn’t easy walking away from $150,000 a year…but I realized if I didn’t kill the jerk character it would kill me.”

Educated in several California schools, Kenny Baker’s experience as a boy soprano in a church choir lit the fire of inspiration underneath him to pursue a musical career.  Before that dream could be fulfilled, however, he was often called upon to work in his father’s furniture store.  Baker also toiled as a day laborer to earn money for his musical education at Long Beach City College.  While at college, Kenny won a radio contest, and his reward was a singing engagement at Los Angeles’ famed Cocoanut Grove.  Baker made his radio debut practically as an unknown—Jack Benny was auditioning for a replacement for Frank Parker and Kenny’s successful tryout found him debuting on the show on November 3, 1935.

Kenny Baker’s weekly exposure on The Jack Benny Program was a boost to his movie career as well.  He was frequently called upon to provide a singing voice for characters in animated cartoons and, after small roles in films like George White’s 1935 Scandals and Metropolitan (both 1935), he gravitated to credited parts in King of Burlesque (1936), Turn Off the Moon (1937), Mr. Dodd Takes the Air (1937), and Radio City Revels (1938).  Baker was under contract to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, which explains why he was cast in the all-star The Goldwyn Follies in 1938.  While still employed with Benny, Kenny appeared in what perhaps is his best-known motion picture, a silver screen adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado (1939).  Baker’s rendition of “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” was so well-received that it became his signature song.

Kenny Baker may have said goodbye to Jack and the gang at the end of the 1938-39 season (he later made two guest appearances on the program), but it wasn’t as if he was desperate for work.  Baker became the resident vocalist on The Texaco Star Theatre in the fall of 1938 (he worked this gig on Wednesday nights, so it didn’t interfere with his Benny appearances). He continued in this capacity until the fall of 1940, when the program became the showcase for Fred Allen’s comedy.  Kenny stayed with Fred for two additional years; Allen’s show was shortened to a half-hour in the fall of 1942 and the decision was made to dispense with Kenny’s services.

Kenny Baker’s movie career continued to chug along.  He had the thankless role of straight man to the Marx Brothers in At the Circus (1939), and his additional motion picture appearances include Hit Parade of 1941 (1940), Silver Skates (1943), Stage Door Canteen (1943), and Doughboys in Ireland (1943).  Baker took a hiatus from films in 1943 to co-star opposite Mary Martin in the Broadway smash One Touch of Venus (directed by Elia Kazan!) and when he finished that nearly two-year run it was back before the camera for The Harvey Girls (1946) and Calendar Girl (1947), his final film.

Kenny Baker may not have maintained the radio fame that he garnered working with Jack Benny or Fred Allen, but he appeared on several shows throughout the 1940s, including the self-titled The Kenny Baker Show and Sincerely, Kenny Baker.  He had a brief stint as the vocalist on Blue Ribbon Town after Groucho Marx left in mid-June of 1944. (The show’s creative minds were convinced he would be more entertaining than Groucho.) Baker worked a little longer on the daytime variety series Glamour Manor (from 1946 to 1947).  His other radio credits include Command PerformanceFamily TheatreMail CallThe Pause That RefreshesThe Radio Hall of Fame, and The Railroad Hour.

Kenny Baker’s show business career started to winnow itself by the 1950s.  He has a credit on the IMDb for an appearance on TV’s Musical Comedy Time in 1951, but he was ready to retire and did so. He devoted his time to wife Geraldyne (his high school sweetheart, whom he married in 1933) and their three children.  He also became a practicing Christian Scientist and motivational speaker, and recorded several gospel hymn albums to benefit his church.  Kenny Baker would leave this world for a better one in 1985 at the age of 72.

In honor of Kenny Baker’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to check out the role that made him famous in the Jack Benny collection The Great Outdoors and our fantabulous compendium Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud.  But that’s just the singing-and-joshing Kenny: you’ll find a more dramatic Baker in our Family Theatre set Every Home (“Wanted: One Baby”) and an additional Family Theatre broadcast (“Blessed are They”) in our Yuletide collection Great Radio Christmas.  Happy Birthday, Kenny!

Happy Birthday, Mickey Rooney!

“I was a 14-year-old boy for 30 years,” Mickey Rooney once jokingly observed of his show business career, which spanned stage, screen, television and radio. He had one of the longest runs in entertainment history—active from the silent era up until the time of his death (a period of nine decades).  Diminutive in stature but packed with talent, “The Mick” could sing, dance, act (both comedy and drama) and was such a dynamo when it came to performing that even Sir Laurence Olivier considered him “the best that’s ever been.”  Rooney was born Joe Yule, Jr. in Brooklyn, NY on this date in 1920. He was best known in the 1930s/1940s as the onscreen partner to Judy Garland in a series of “let’s-put-on-a-show” musicals, as well as the star of a movie franchise in which he played typical teenager Andy Hardy.

Mickey Rooney’s future career was set in stone by his parents, Joe Yule, Sr. and Nellie Carter, vaudevillians who worked the youngster into their act when he was but 17 months old.  Mickey’s parents divorced when he was four, and his mother relocated to Hollywood. She was able to find work for her talented son: he made his motion picture debut (at age six) in a short, Not to Be Trusted (1926).  After seeing an ad placed by independent producer Larry Darmour looking for a child actor to play “Mickey (Himself) McGuire” in a series of comedy shorts based on Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Trolley comic strip, Nellie rubbed black shoe polish on Joe, Jr.’s head (Mickey was a blonde and the comic strip Mickey a brunette) and sold Darmour on hiring her son for the part.  Nellie went above and beyond just mere cosmetic adjustments to keep her son employed—when the notoriously frugal Darmour tried to rook Fox out of his royalties, the two of them changed Joe Jr.’s legal name to “Mickey McGuire.”  (This deception would eventually fail.)

Mickey Rooney appeared in the McGuire comedies until 1934, but he was clearly being groomed for bigger things with small but noticeable roles in features like The Beast of the City (1932), The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933), and Manhattan Melodrama (1934).  Rooney earned much critical praise for his turn as Puck in the Warner Bros.’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and after signing a contract with MGM continued his popularity with appearances in Ah Wilderness! (1935) and Captains Courageous (1937).  1937 saw the release of A Family Affair, the first of 14 films that featured the actor as girl-crazy teen Andy Hardy in the small town of Carvel.  The Hardy films were successfully produced and released until 1946, with a final film (Andy Hardy Comes Home) in 1958.

Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry was also released in 1937 and marked the initial teaming of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, whose onscreen chemistry extended offscreen as well (the two of them were lifelong friends).  Garland would play “Betsy Booth” in three of the Andy Hardy movies, but the most popular of their vehicles would be the “barnyard musicals” like Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up the Band (1940).  Babes would garner Mickey his first Oscar nomination (Best Actor in a Leading Role) and though he would be nominated three additional times, the only trophies he would place on his mantle were a special juvenile award in 1939 (for recognition of his work in Boys’ Town [1938]) and a career recognition statuette in 1983.

Mickey Rooney often found himself reprising his film roles on the popular radio anthologies of the day, like The Lux Radio Theatre and The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre.  Rooney guest starred on Suspense three times, and made the rounds on The Cavalcade of America, Hollywood Star Playhouse, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and Stagestruck.  Mickey would add the likes of Command Performance, Duffy’s Tavern, Good News, Shell Chateau, and The Treasury Hour to his radio resume while finding time to josh with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope.

Mickey Rooney’s contributions to radio also included a short-lived comedy-drama entitled Shorty Bell, heard over CBS Radio in 1948. That series, directed and produced by William N. Robson, starred Mickey as an aspiring newspaperman and went down in radio history as a rather expensive failure (though surviving broadcasts show it was quite good).  When Bell was cancelled in June of 1948, Rooney moved on to Hollywood Showcase, a talent show variety effort.  It left the network in September.  Mickey’s biggest radio success was an adaptation of his popular movie franchise, The Hardy Family, which began syndication in 1949 (along with other MGM properties like The Adventures of Maisie and The Story of Dr. Kildare).

In the early 1940s, Mickey Rooney was frequently among the Top Ten film stars in terms of box office. In addition to his Andy Hardy vehicles and the Judy Garland musicals, he was featured in Young Tom Edison (1940), The Human Comedy (1943), and National Velvet (1944).  His fortunes took a dip by mid-decade, however, no thanks to his tumultuous personal life. (He was married eight times, including to stars like Ava Gardner and Martha Vickers.)  But Rooney started to do some interesting work at this time, notably a series of low-budget film noirs like Quicksand (1950) and Drive a Crooked Road (1954).  Mickey worked on that last film with future director Blake Edwards, who crafted a TV sitcom for him in the form of The Mickey Rooney Show (a.k.a. Hey Mulligan!) in 1954.  Rooney would attempt small screen success three additional times with Mickey (1964-65), One of the Boys (1982), and The Adventures of the Black Stallion (1990-93). The latter allowed him to reprise the role he had played in the 1979 movie of the same name (and for which he earned his fourth acting Oscar nomination).

Despite a rollercoaster life of ups and downs (at the time of his death in 2014, Vanity Fair called him “the original Hollywood trainwreck”), Mickey Rooney left behind a legacy of fine movie performances in films like The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and the 1981 TV movie Bill (which won him a Golden Globe award).  In addition, he wowed Broadway with Sugar Babies in 1979, a phenomenally popular musical revue co-starring his old MGM stablemate Ann Miller.  Radio Spirits invites you to celebrate Mr. Rooney’s natal anniversary by checking out one of his turns on Suspense (“The Lie”) available on the collection Ties That Bind and a hilarious visit to the Burns household in 1949 (Gracie wants to adopt Mickey!) on the George & Gracie set Burns & Allen and Friends.  Happy birthday, Mickey!