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Happy Birthday, Claire Trevor!

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On March 24, 1949, actress Claire Trevor—born in Brooklyn, NY on this date in 1910—received one of the highest honors a performer can obtain from their peers in the motion picture industry: an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  The role for which Trevor garnered her Oscar was that of Gaye Dawn in the film Key Largo (1948)—a faded torch singer now coating her sugar throat with liberal applications of booze.  Who can ever forget Gaye’s pitiful attempt to belt out “Moanin’ Low” in exchange for one little drink…only to be refused by her abusive boyfriend, mobster Johnny Rocco (memorably played by Edward G. Robinson)—who reneges on his promise by telling her “But you were rotten.”  I’ve always thought it fascinating that Claire got her statuette for this film…because in appearing opposite Robinson, it’s almost like watching their Big Town characters, Steve Wilson and Lorelei Kilbourne, in some Bizarro-universe where Steve quit the newspaper game to join the rackets.

trevor7Claire Trevor started out in life as Claire Wemlinger—the only daughter of Benjamina (“Betty”) and Noel, a Fifth Avenue merchant tailor.  Though born in Bensonhurst, Claire spent her formative years in Larchmont, NY, attending high school in Mamaroneck before going on to Columbia University (where she studied art) and then the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (she had wanted to be an actress since the age of 11).  By the late 1920s, Trevor was performing in theatrical stock companies and made her Broadway debut in 1932 in Whistling in the Dark.  (Her co-star, Ernest Truex, would reprise his starring role in that play in a 1933 film adaptation…but Claire’s part was portrayed in the movie by Una Merkel.)

trevor3While performing on Broadway, Claire Trevor got an apprenticeship appearing before the motion picture camera by making shorts for the Vitaphone company, like The Meal Ticket (1931) and The Imperfect Lover (1932).  When a play in which she had a starring role, The Party’s Over, was an enormous flop, Claire was fortunate that 20th Century Fox offered her a five-year contract—though she was disappointed that she couldn’t continue to work in the theatre, economic realities (jobs were scarce) dictated she move to Hollywood in 1933.  Her stay at Fox was marked by a series of programmers in which she played a lot of tough, hard-bitten female reporters; most of these films rarely see the light of day on Turner Classic Movies or Fox Movie Channel, save for exceptions like 1934’s Baby Take a Bow (Claire plays Shirley Temple’s mother) and Dante’s Inferno (1935), in which she acted opposite Spencer Tracy.

deadendClaire Trevor would eventually leave Fox for better roles…and landed one almost immediately in 1937’s Dead End—where she played a tubercular prostitute and the old flame of gangster Humphrey Bogart.  That role earned her the first of her three Academy Award nominations and, in a sense, became her cinematic stock-in-trade: gangster’s molls in crime pictures and dance hall girls in Westerns.  She returned as Bogie’s girl in The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse (1938—which also featured her Big Town co-star, Eddie G.) and gave mobster husband George Raft moral support in I Stole a Million (1939).  Trevor received top billing in Stagecoach (1939)—the movie that cemented John Wayne’s stardom—as a bar girl run out of town by a contingent of nosy biddies.  Claire would later appear opposite The Duke in Allegheny Uprising (1939) and Dark Command (1940) …and in 1954, as a member of the all-star cast in Wayne’s The High and the Mighty, she earned her final Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

trevor8In the world of film noir, Claire Trevor had no equal when it came to playing femme fatales—witness her in Street of Chance (1942), in which she misleads Burgess Meredith (suffering from amnesia) into thinking he’s wanted for a murder.  One of her finest roles (and my personal favorite) is in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet as Helen Grayle, the seductive temptress who turns the knees of P.I. Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) to jelly.  Claire followed this with a succession of turns in such noir classics as Johnny Angel (1945), Crack-Up (1946), Born to Kill (1947—her nastiest femme fatale onscreen, hands down), Raw Deal (1948), Borderline (1950), Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), and Hoodlum Empire (1952).  Other vehicles that are all the better for featuring Trevor include Texas (1941), Crossroads (1942), The Woman of the Town (1943), The Velvet Touch (1948), and Best of the Badmen (1951).

bigtownFrom 1937 to 1940, Claire emoted opposite Edward G. Robinson on the previously mentioned radio series Big Town.  Trevor would relinquish her role to Ona Munson after complaining that the part had been reduced to two lines: “I’ll wait for you in the car, Steve” and “How’d it go, Steve?”  But Claire never completely abandoned the aural medium: her radio resume includes appearances on such radio anthologies as Academy Award TheatreThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreHollywood Star PlayhouseHollywood Star TimeThe Lux Radio TheatreScreen Director’s PlayhouseSuspenseThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Romance.  Claire stood before the mike on AFRS broadcasts of Command PerformanceG.I. Journal, and Mail Call, and guested on programs headlined by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Jack Carson, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.  Trevor would also appear with Lloyd Nolan on Results, Inc.—a lighthearted comedy-mystery program heard briefly over Mutual in 1944.

twoweeksClaire Trevor continued to work regularly in motion pictures until 1967 (though she would return for a small role as Sally Field’s mother in 1982’s Kiss Me Goodbye) with memorable turns in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962—her third and final outing with Edward G. Robinson), and How to Murder Your Wife (1965).  The actress also began making appearances on the small screen with guest shots on boob tube hits such as Wagon TrainAlfred Hitchcock Presents, and Dr. Kildare; one of her major television triumphs was winning an Emmy Award for her performance in a 1956 production of Dodsworth on NBC’s Producers’ Showcase.  After retirement, she maintained an active interest in stage work and, with her third husband, contributed close to $10 million to The School of Arts at the University of California-Irvine.  With her death in 2000 at the age of 90, UCI renamed the school The Claire Trevor School of the Arts…with her Academy Award for Key Largo also finding a permanent home there, displayed in a glass window located in the school’s arts complex.

21276One of the many movie actors who worked alongside our birthday girl was westerns icon Randolph Scott—and the two films they made together, The Desperadoes (1943) and The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), are available in the DVD collection Randolph Scott Round-Up Volume 2, available for purchase here at Radio Spirits.  We’ve also Claire to spare in the Big Town collection Blind Justice—a collection of classic broadcasts including a few rarities from Trevor’s years on the program.  For dessert? Sample two of Trevor’s guest star appearances on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” with Suspense: Ties That Bind (“The Plan,” from May 16, 1946) and Suspense: Wages of Sin (“Angel Face,” May 18, 1950).  Happy birthday to one of our favorite “wanton women” from the movies!

Happy Birthday, Jim Backus!

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He was an actor who did it all: stage, television, movies…and for us fans of the aural medium, plenty of old-time radio.  James Gilmore Backus arrived in Cleveland, OH on this date in 1913, and for most of his show business career was identified as a consummate comedic character actor…though he could, on occasion, show off impressive dramatic chops as well (witness his amazing turn as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause).  Dedicated couch potatoes like myself remember Jim Backus as the obscenely wealthy Thurston Howell III, one of seven stranded castaways on the popular TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island (1964-67) …and the man who gave voice to the nearsighted Quincy Magoo.

backus8Raised in the wealthy enclave of Bratenahl, Jim Backus’ early years in education were spent in preparatory school in East Cleveland—one of his teachers was Margaret Hamilton, who later achieved silver screen immortality as The Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.  His interests at that time were golf (which remained a lifelong passion) and acting.  In his teens, he worked for a stock theater company, where he would get small roles in various productions.  His father Russell, a mechanical engineer, wanted his son to focus on academics…so he enrolled young Jim in the Kentucky Military Institute (one of Backus’ classmates was another struggling young thespian, Victor Mature).  Backus’ stay there was not a lengthy one—purportedly he was expelled after riding a horse through the school’s mess hall.

backusradioJim persuaded his father to allow him to forego traditional college and try his luck at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.  He graduated in 1933, and since acting jobs were often difficult to come by, Backus decided to try his luck in radio as an announcer.  This led to freelance work on daytime dramas and The Kate Smith Hour.  Jim also achieved success on stage in the hit Broadway comedy Hitch Your Wagon in 1937, and a dramatic role in Too Many Heroes that same year.  Surviving audio recordings from the 1940s feature Jim on such shows as Great Plays, The Shadow, Forecast, and The Kay Thompson Show (these last two programs showcased his talents as a writer!).

On the radio series Society Girl, Jim Backus played a millionaire aviator named Dexter Hayes…a character that would more-or-less become his stock-in-trade in his varied radio roles.  The actor himself once described these characters as parodies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered through a sort of “patrician lockjaw.”  For example, on The Mel Blanc Show, Backus was the conceited Hartley Benson, and on The Great Gildersleeve’s later run, he took over for Gale Gordon as Gildy’s stuffed-shirt neighbor Runsom Bullard.  But Jim’s best-remembered radio persona was that of rich playboy Hubert Updike III on The Alan Young Show; Hubert’s favorite expression was “Heavens to Gimbels!” and he would issue veiled threats to the show’s star like “Careful, or I’ll have your mouth washed out with domestic champagne!”  Backus’ portrayal of Hubert proved so popular that he later reprised the character on comedy programs headlined by favorites like Judy Canova and Bob Hope.

jimbackusOn The Sad Sack, Jim Backus played the conniving Chester Fenwick, roommate to the titular hard luck ex-serviceman portrayed by Herb Vigran.  In addition, Jim was Mr. Hendricks, boss to Bill Goodwin on the announcer’s self-titled sitcom, and real estate partner Horace Wiggins on The Penny Singleton Show.  Backus made the rounds of such radio sitcoms as The Aldrich Family, December Bride, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Halls of Ivy, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, Lum and Abner, The Magnificent Montague, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, My Favorite Husband, Our Miss Brooks, and The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show.  The actor also served as a solid second banana on shows starring the likes of Don Ameche, Jack Benny, Bob Burns, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Cass Daley, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, Jack Kirkwood, Jerry Lester, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and Ed Wynn.  As the decade wore on, Jim headlined his own self-titled comedy-variety show on Mutual from 1947 to 1948 for Pharmaco, and in the summer of ’48 hosted The Great Talent Hunt on that same network, a parody of musical participation programs.

Before Staats Cotsworth began his weekly emoting as Casey, Crime Photographer…Jim Backus played the titular shutterbug for a few shows.  This gave Jim experience that he later used in supporting roles on episodes of Suspense, and on detective dramas such as Jeff Regan, Investigator, The Line-Up, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and This is Your FBI.  Rounding out Jim’s radio resume are credits on such series as Encore Theatre, Family Theatre, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Man Behind the Gun, The Railroad Hour, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and The Screen Guild Theatre.

backusmagoo2Backus’ extensive radio experience made him a natural for voicing cartoon characters—he was a memorable genie in the classic Bugs Bunny short A-Lad-in His Lamp (1948) (Bugs refers to him as “Smoky”).  It was a successful audition for a 1949 cartoon entitled Ragtime Bear that would bring the actor his greatest fame, however; it was the first of several outings featuring the myopic Quincy Magoo, a vision-impaired individual who frequently found himself in funny situations due to his stubborn refusal to make an appointment with his optometrist.  Jim provided the voice of Magoo in over fifty shorts until 1959 (becoming the UPA studio’s most famous character), then followed those with a feature film (1001 Arabian Nights) and a 1960 TV series.  Magoo would later be the focus of a primetime animated show from 1964 to 1965 (The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo) and a Saturday morning revival in the 1970s, What’s New, Mr. Magoo?  (In addition, Jim could be heard in commercials for General Electric, since the company hired Magoo as a spokesman.)

deadlineusa21949 was the year that Jim Backus also received his first onscreen film credit in the Warner Brothers romantic comedy One Last Fling; he would appear in four additional features that same year, including Father Was a Fullback (billed as James G. Backus), Easy Living (starring his old pal Victor Mature), and The Great Lover, an underrated Bob Hope comedy.  To list all of Jim’s film credits would eat up our allotted bandwidth rations…but a few of our favorites include Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), M (1951), His Kind of Woman (1951), Here Come the Nelsons (1952), Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Macabre (1958), Boys’ Night Out (1962), and The Wheeler Dealers (1963).  Backus was one of the many funsters to appear in the all-star comedy spectacular It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), playing a tipsy amateur airline pilot named Tyler Fitzgerald.  (Fitzgerald’s observation “it’s the ooooonly way to fly” was an in-joke reference to some Western Airlines TV commercials of the 1950s, in which Jim voiced the character of Wally the Bird.)

gilligansislandOn the small screen, Backus became well known for supporting Joan Davis on her 1952-55 sitcom, I Married Joan (he played her husband, Judge Bradley Stevens).  One of Joan’s writers was Sherwood Schwartz, who had also penned much of Hubert Updike’s dialogue on The Alan Young Show…and when Schwartz got the idea for Gilligan’s Island, he couldn’t get Jim out of his mind when he created the character of Thurston Howell III.  In an interview with Jordan R. Young, Schwartz recalled that when he learned that Backus was available he begged Jim to do the part…but was chagrined because the role was so small since he hadn’t had the time to flesh out the character.  (After reading the script, Jim joked: “My part is shorter than the wine list on an airplane.”)  Despite this, Backus agreed to the role…and not only spent three successful seasons as TV’s favorite blue-blood (with support from Natalie Schafer as his wife “Lovey”), but reprised the part in three “reunion” TV-movies that aired during 1979 and 1981, as well as two animated spin-offs: The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-75) and Gilligan’s Planet (1982).

hotoffthewireJim Backus’ other contributions to TV include a 1960-61 syndicated sitcom, The Jim Backus Show (also known as Hot Off the Wire), and portraying the irascible J.C. Dithers in a sitcom based on Chic Young’s Blondie in 1968 (with his real-life wife Henny as Mrs. D).  He was constantly in demand as a guest star on any number of popular boob tube programs, from The Beverly Hillbillies to The Love Boat, but in the 1980s his acting began to be hampered by Parkinson’s disease—his last feature film credit was 1984’s Prince Jack, and his television farewell came in the form of an Orville Redenbacher Popcorn commercial that reunited him with his Gilligan’s Island spouse, Natalie Schafer.  Backus passed away from pneumonia in 1989 at the age of 76.

20585On a personal note—while I was aware that today’s birthday boy did radio…I had no idea he did a lot of radio.  Radio Spirits features Jim Backus on a slew of collections: Bergen & McCarthy: The Funny Fifties, Burns & Allen: Muddling Through, Fibber McGee & Molly: For Goodness Sakes, Life with Luigi, The Line Up: Witness, The Man from Homicide, Our Miss Brooks: Good English, Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Dead Men, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Mayhem is My Business.  On our compilation Comedy Goes West, you can check out a May 23, 1947 broadcast featuring Jim Backus’ signature radio role (Hubert Updike III) as the star of The Alan Young Show pays a visit to Hubert’s million acre ranch.  Happy natal anniversary to Jim Backus—as a comedic actor without peer in every aspect of show business, you might say his career was (in a nod to his 1958 novelty record, which was a Top 40 hit) “Delicious!”

Happy Birthday, Alonzo Deen Cole!

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Before radio audiences eagerly anticipated each week the memorably unsettling sound of a creaking door (on Inner Sanctum Mysteries) or an ominous gong signaling that they should dim the lights (Lights Out), they had to tune into The Witch’s Tale for the proper raising of goosebumps.  Tale was the true granddaddy of radio horror, premiering over New York’s WOR on May 21, 1931 and running until June 13, 1938.  The creative mind behind this series—who would later introduce radio listeners to the thrilling crime adventures of “Flashgun Casey”—was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on this date in 1897: Alonzo Deen Cole.

cole2Young Alonzo made the decision to be a writer at an early age, perhaps spurred on by winning a statewide competition among Minnesota schoolchildren at the age of 11.  (He took first prize at the Minnesota State Fair for a scenario he contributed to a military pageant.)  In high school, he kept in close contact with his creative muse by writing plays performed by the school’s dramatic society—in addition, he directed and starred in those same productions.  He graduated from high school at the age of 16, and took up study at the Minnesota Academy of Arts…this was soon discarded in favor of his acting ambitions, and he found work with stock companies in Minneapolis and St. Paul, eventually earning the princely salary of $15 a week.

World War I interrupted Deen Cole’s acting career temporarily.  He enlisted in the Army as a medic and, after serving briefly in France, he received a transfer to the Entertainment A.E.F.  After the Armistice, he was assigned to a repertoire company comprised of actors in uniform.  A return to civilian life in 1919 proved difficult for Alonzo where acting was concerned; finding steady acting work was tough due to the Equity strike. (Stage performers, led by Ed Wynn, had squared off against producers and theatre owners for better wages and working conditions.) However, he eventually secured a contract that ensured him gainful employment in both vaudeville and legitimate theatre until the stock market crash and the Depression.  It was during this time that Deen Cole met (and later married) an actress named Marie O’Flynn, who would become his vaudeville partner.

witchstale1Alonzo and Marie also teamed up for a WOR daytime serial broadcast as Darling and Dearie, which ran for a little over a year on the New York station.  Deen Cole, a voracious reader and efficacious raconteur, sold the station on the idea of doing a supernatural horror series in the late evening hours as counterprogramming to the various music broadcasts airing on rival stations.  Both Alonzo and Marie would perform the various male and female parts in his scripts on The Witch’s Tale.  The role of “Old Nancy,” the elderly, cackling witch who served as the series’ narrator, was essayed by Adelaide Fitz-Allen…who was seventy-five at the time she began playing the part before the microphone.  The long tradition of featuring a host-narrator for horror programs—think of the later Raymond (Edward Johnson) on Inner Sanctum or The Mysterious Traveler (Maurice Tarplin), for example—began on Tale.  Nancy was also accompanied by a black cat named “Satan” …with Deen Cole getting in touch with his feline side as the narrator’s familiar.

miriamNot long after its WOR debut, The Witch’s Tale was a solid hit with listeners and critics.  Dorothy Kardel of The New York Daily News gushed in a June 12, 1931 review: “Thrill seekers miss plenty when they fail to hear this new dramatic series.”  Even the death of Fitz-Allen (she passed away on February 26, 1935, having never missed a performance) didn’t slow down the series.  After auditioning several contenders for “Nancy,” Alonzo selected thirteen-year-old Miriam Wolff to continue as the cackling host.  (Wolff had previous appeared on the children’s series Let’s Pretend—in fact, it was the creator of that program, Nila Mack, who recommended Miriam to Deen Cole as she and Alonzo had formed a strong friendship during their years in vaudeville.)  Though The Witch’s Tale aired its final episode on June 13, 1938, Alonzo Deen Cole recorded enough of the live broadcasts to ensure that the show lived on in syndication for an additional six years.  (Sadly, Deen Cole destroyed his collection of recordings in 1961 after moving to California—he didn’t think they had any commercial value.)

crimephotographer3Alonzo kept busy in radio after that, contributing scripts to such series as The Shadow and Gang Busters.  In the summer of 1943, he signed a contract with CBS to write, produce, and direct a program based on a pulp magazine creation by George Harmon Coxe.  The show premiered on July 7, 1943 as Flash-Gun Casey and, though it went by several names (Crime PhotographerCasey, Press Photographer, etc.), old-time radio fans know it best as Casey, Crime Photographer.  The titular shutterbug (portrayed at various times by Matt Crowley, Jim Backus, and Staats Cotsworth) worked for The Morning Express.  When Casey wasn’t plying his trade at crime scenes (where he would often find himself in the role of amateur detective), he spent a copious amount of time at a watering hole known as The Blue Note Café.  There he would hold forth with girlfriend Ann Williams (played by Jone Allison, Alice Reinheart, Lesley Woods, Betty Furness, and Jan Miner), a reporter at the paper, and bartender Ethelbert (John Gibson).  The popular series was a solid favorite with listeners until 1955.

20337Casey, Crime Photographer enjoyed a brief run on television from 1951 to 1952, and Alonzo Deen Cole had hopes that The Witch’s Tale could establish a beachhead on the small screen as well.  But a pilot (filmed in 1958) never got off the ground (Alonzo admitted later that the cheapness of the production worked against its favor).  After a lifetime of writing for radio—he churned out 332 Witch’s Tale scripts, not to mention the entirety of Casey, Crime Photographer (384 in all)—he had earned a well-deserved vacation.  What ultimately sidelined Deen Cole was a diagnosis of a heart condition in 1962—and though he adopted a regimen of proper medication and a salt-free diet, he finally succumbed to his heart ailment in 1971 at the age of 73.

Not many broadcasts of The Witch’s Tale have endured for a new generation of old-time radio fans to enjoy…but what have survived can be found in the Radio Spirits collection The Witch’s Tale, a 10-CD set with liner notes by the late David S. Siegel.  (David also edited a book containing thirteen scripts — how appropriate — from the series that’s well worth seeking out if you have time on your lunch hour.)  You can also find a classic Tale (“Rockabye Baby,” from 1934) on our supernatural radio compendium Great Radio Horror.  For those of you who gravitate more to crime stories, our birthday celebrant’s other series, Casey, Crime Photographer, is well represented here with the sets Snapshots of Mystery and Blue Note.  Happiest of birthdays to one of radio’s true masters of chilling and thrilling drama!

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Durante!

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From the 1920s and onward, James Francis Durante—born in Manhattan on this date in 1893—was the entertainer who advised audiences that they have to start off each day with a song.  Durante’s large proboscis earned him the nickname “Schnozzola,” and he became known for singing jazz/ragtime-influenced songs in his trademark gravelly voice while wearing a battered hat.  Jimmy’s lengthy career in show business—which spanned stage, screen, radio, and TV—was fueled by audiences who were genuinely fond of his larger-life-personality.  Fans eagerly repeated his famous catchphrases (like “Everybody wants to get inta the act!” and “I got a million of ‘em!”) with gusto.  As his longtime vaudeville partner Lou Clayton once observed: “You can warm your hands on this man.”

youngjimmyThe youngest of four children born to Italian immigrants Rosa (Lentino) and Bartolomeo Durante, Jimmy’s interest in show business began when he reached the age of seventeen.  He began performing in various venues around Coney Island, and in a club owned by a man named Terry Walsh (Jimmy played piano while a waiter named Eddie Cantor sang).  Durante had formed a Dixieland combo in Harlem’s Club Alamo, and it was here that he honed the routine that became his fame and fortune: frequently interrupting his own musical numbers (“Stop da music!  Stop da music!”) to tell jokes.  It was here that he met his longtime associate Eddie Jackson.  Durante, Jackson, and a third performer named Lou Clayton opened a nightclub in 1923 known as the Club Durant.

durantekeatonThe Club Durant, successful as it was, would eventually have its doors nailed shut by Prohibition agents.  Unbowed, Clayton, Jackson and Durante continued in vaudeville and eventually hit it big on Broadway before the team agreed to an amicable split in the 1930s.  (Clayton and Jackson continued their tight-knit friendship with Jimmy, even becoming his business managers later in his career.)  Durante’s film debut was in 1930s Roadhouse Nights (Clayton and Jackson also appear, along with the legendary Helen Morgan).  From that moment on, he was a star at MGM in such vehicles as New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), The Wet Parade (1932), Meet the Baron (1933), and Hollywood Party (1934).  The three vehicles that teamed Jimmy with silent comedy great Buster Keaton—The Passionate Plumber (1932), Speak Easily (1932), and What—No Beer? (1933)—were big hits at the box office…but Keaton’s struggles with both the studio and alcoholism put an end to their partnership.  Jimmy would continue to maintain quite a presence in motion pictures, notably in the 1942 Christmas film classic The Man Who Came to Dinner.

durante7As Jimmy Durante busied himself with movie success, he began to explore fields in the aural medium.  He appeared on Eddie Cantor’s popular The Chase and Sanborn Hour from September to November 1933, and then became the show’s host in April of 1934.  The ratings for the show had already started their decline by the time Durante came aboard, so it may be a little unfair to blame the entertainer for its eventual cancellation in the fall.  But Jimmy’s determination to establish himself as a radio star hit another bump in the road when he was put in charge of The Jumbo Fire Chief Program in October of 1935. The once-popular series (previously hosted by the madcap Ed Wynn) had started to fall out of favor with listeners through no fault of Durante’s, and the show rang down the curtain in February of 1936.

durantemoore2Despite these initial setbacks, Jimmy Durante would eventually find the radio success that eluded him in the 1930s.  In 1943, while he was packing them in at New York’s famed Copacabana, he accepted an offer to be a guest on NBC’s popular Camel Caravan.  On that very broadcast, director-producer Phil Cohan was struck by the contrast between the veteran Durante and an up-and-coming young funnyman named Garry Moore.  Though Moore had been given the greenlight to host the summer replacement for The Abbott & Costello Program (also sponsored by Camel), Cohan approached both Durante and Moore to see if they were interested in teaming up for a possible series in the fall (the sponsor was a little nervous about Garry’s ability to carry a series).  Jimmy and Garry would begin their partnership sooner than they expected: when Lou Costello found himself confined to bed rest with a severe case of rheumatic fever, Durante and Moore found their show rushed into production (in just two weeks) as Abbott & Costello’s replacement.

durantemoore1“The Nose” (Jimmy) and “The Haircut” (Garry) were a smash hit, and Camel continued to sponsor The Camel Comedy Caravan (later to become The Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore Show) on CBS beginning in the fall of 1943.  The two men were given ample opportunity to shine as both solo performers and a team; their coupling took on a father-son relationship, with Jimmy frequently referring to Garry as “Junior” and introducing the catchphrase “Dat’s my boy dat said that!”  (Many listeners were convinced the duo really were father and son.)  Rexall Drugs took over sponsorship in 1945, and two years later Durante and Moore agreed to a harmonious parting of the ways.  (Moore would go on to host the radio quiz show Take It or Leave It, and on television he headlined a popular TV variety series from 1958 to 1964 and was the longtime moderator of the successful panel quiz I’ve Got a Secret.)

duranteballBeginning on October 1, 1947, Durante returned to NBC with The Jimmy Durante Show, a half-hour comedy-variety program also sponsored by Rexall.  Durante—accompanied by Roy Bargy’s orchestra—would open each show with a rendition of his theme Inka Dinka Doo (a classic ditty he introduced in the 1934 movie Palooka).  Bargy was a holdover from the Durante-Moore years, and the new Rexall show also brought back announcer Howard Petrie and regular supporting stooges Elvia Allman and Candy Candido (“I’m feeling mighty low…”).  Also joining the “Schnoz” on his new series were Florence Halop (as sexy Mae West clone “Hotbreath” Houlihan), Arthur Treacher (as Jimmy’s butler—Durante must have lured him away from Jack Carson, who had previously employed Arthur on his show), Dave Barry, Alan Reed, and Victor Moore (who was promoted to regular after a series of guest appearances).  Musical numbers were contributed by the Crew Chiefs and a young Peggy Lee…and of course, Durante himself would warble any number of his hits, like I Know Darn Well I Can Do Wit’out Broadway and I’m Jimmy, That Well-Dressed Man.

allencantorduranteCamel resumed sponsorship of The Jimmy Durante Show in the fall of 1948, and Durante would rekindle the father-son relationship he had enjoyed with Garry Moore when Alan Young joined the show. (Young had enjoyed previous radio success with a self-titled series heard over ABC from 1944-47.)  When Young’s show was given a new lease on life by NBC in April of 1949, Don Ameche took over as Jimmy’s sidekick (Barbara Jo Allen—a.k.a. “Vera Vague”—would also become a regular) and the two men kidded and joked until Durante called it quits on June 30, 1950.  Jimmy didn’t completely abandon radio, however—in addition to guest appearances on the likes of Family Theatre and Fibber McGee & Molly (yes, you read that right), he became a frequent presence on The Big Show…the all-star NBC radio spectacular hosted by Tallulah “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” Bankhead.

durantefrostyLike so many of his fellow radio stars, Jimmy Durante would make a successful leap to the small screen.  He hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour on several occasions, was one of the rotating hosts of All Star Revue/Four Star Revue from 1950 to 1953, and was the star of The Jimmy Durante Show from 1954 to 1956.  He continued as a favorite guest star on TV variety shows in the 1960s (not to mention headlining The Hollywood Palace and Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters) and appeared in feature films like Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962—“What elephant?”) and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).  My generation knew Jimmy as the narrator of the animated Christmas special Frosty the Snowman (which first aired in 1969) and a pitchman for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.  A stroke rendered Jimmy wheelchair-bound in 1972, and in 1980 Durante went to join his beloved “Mrs. Calabash” (he frequently closed performances with the memorable “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash…wherever you are”) at the age of 86.

21479Radio Spirits has just recently introduced a new CD set in The Jimmy Durante Show, sixteen half-hour broadcasts from Durante’s 1947-48 season for Rexall on NBC, and featuring the likes of Dorothy Lamour, Van Johnson, and Victor Moore as guests.  (This collection also features a celebrated radio reunion of Clayton, Jackson and Durante!)  Episodes of Jimmy’s show are also available on Great Radio Comedy and Christmas Radio Classics, and our CD compendium Wonderful Christmas: 75 Essential Christmas Classics contains the Schnozzola’s rendition of the Yuletide classic Frosty the Snowman.  Both With a Song in My Heart: Hooray for Hollywood and You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet! Showstoppers feature Jimmy belting out Start Off Each Day With a Song, and as the cherry on the sundae our birthday boy is featured along with a score of his fellow mirthmakers on the DVD collection Funniest Moments of Comedy.  You can’t afford to be without any of these hilarious Durante performances—as the man himself might say: “It would be a complete catastastroke!”

“On, King! On, you huskies!”

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The Detroit, Michigan station known as WXYZ—“the last word in radio”—was already responsible for introducing two dramatic programs over the airwaves that became firm favorites with radio listeners.  The first of these was a simple juvenile adventure that began broadcasting in 1933, detailing the exploits of a masked individual who “led the fight for law and order in the early Western United States”—The Lone Ranger.  Three years later, The Green Hornet updated the Ranger formula to the modern era as its titular hero also battled forces determined to undermine society with rampant crime.  Seventy-nine years ago on this date, “Wyxie Wonderland” introduced the last series in their triumvirate of heroes: Challenge of the Yukon.

wxyzAuthor Gerald Nachman jokingly refers to Challenge of the Yukon in his book Raised on Radio as “the Lone Ranger on ice.”  But there’s a little bit of truth behind this jocularity. George W. Trendle, the station owner of WXYZ, was determined to create another radio drama along the lines of The Lone Ranger…the only difference was he wanted a dog to be the hero.  It wasn’t a canine in the Lassie mold that G.W. had in mind…he insisted that his dog be a working dog (why he was believed that Lassie was on the dole remains a mystery).  The proposed setting for the new series was the Northwest…and a working dog in that neck of the woods would unquestionably be an Alaskan husky.

yukonkingFrom that, it was just a short step to the inspiration of pairing that dog with a Canadian Mountie…and the concept of Challenge of the Yukon was born.  The show’s background drew heavily on The Lone Ranger: to avenge the murder of his father, young William Preston joins the Northwest Mounted Police and successfully captures the senior Preston’s killer.  Impressed with Preston’s skills, the Mounties promote him to the rank of sergeant and assign him a faithful lead sled dog named Mogo.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “If the dog’s name was ‘Mogo,” shouldn’t the title of this post would be different?”  “Mogo” was the original name of Preston’s devoted canine, but George W. Trendle insisted that the dog’s name be changed to “King.”  This may have been a tribute to author Zane Grey (of whom Trendle was a fan) and his heroic character Dave King.  (Zane would go on to his greater reward about a year after Challenge of the Yukon’s radio debut).

preston3Employed against the colorful background of the Klondike gold rush, the square-jawed (okay, maybe it was kind of hard to tell on radio but you just sort of knew Preston had one), straight-shooting Sergeant Preston and his “wonder dog” were responsible for policing a large area known as “Forty Mile.”  (In the early years of Challenge of the Yukon, the duo was assisted by a French-Canadian guide named Pierre…though he was eventually dropped from the program.)  The presence of gold frequently led less-than-honest men to severely test the boundaries of law and order…and that’s when Preston and King would swing into action, swiftly bringing those miscreants to justice.  Like its siblings The Lone Ranger and The Green HornetChallenge resorted to borrowing a little music from the public domain for its theme song: Emil von Reznicek’s Donna Diana Overture (which had previously been featured on Ranger as background and bridge music).

johntoddChallenge of the Yukon employed many of the same actors from Trendle’s other dramatic creations. John Todd, who played the faithful Indian companion Tonto on The Lone Ranger, and the elderly version of Dan Reid on The Green Hornet, essayed the role of Inspector Conrad (Preston’s superior).  Brace Beemer took over as Sergeant Preston in the series’ final year, once his stint as the Lone Ranger came to an end.  The first actor to play Preston was Jay Michael, who voiced the heroic Mountie during the years the program aired as a quarter-hour in Detroit (when the show moved to the ABC network in June of 1947 it expanded to a half-hour).  Although Michael would eventually be replaced by Paul Sutton in the lead role, he would later be pressed into serving as Challenge’s announcer until the series concluded on June 9, 1955.  (King’s barking came courtesy of soundman Dewey Cole.)

simmonsIn November of 1951, Challenge of the Yukon officially changed its name to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon in honor of its main character…and I’ve always wondered if King placed a call to his agent not long afterward, because in all honesty the dog did most of the heavy lifting.  (“Well, King—thanks to you, this case is closed,” Preston would frequently inform his four-legged pal at the end of the show.  The defense rests, Your Honor.)  Sergeant Preston made a successful transition to the small screen in the fall of 1955 with a TV version that starred Richard Simmons (not the exercise guru) and ran on CBS until 1958.

21489To celebrate the anniversary of our favorite Mountie (it was close, but he beat Dudley Do-Right by a mere handful of votes), Radio Spirits invites to check out our inventory of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon collections—many of which feature previously uncirculated episodes!  We offer Treacherous AdventuresOn, You Huskies!King Takes OverRelentless Pursuit, and Frozen Trails…and soon, a new Preston set in Return to Danger will be available (keep an eye out for it!).  Our Yuletide compendium Radio’s Christmas Celebrations also featured a holiday-themed outing of the series entitled “The Sergeant’s Present” (12-23-49).  There’s no greater outlet for radio adventure than a journey to the ice and snow of the Great Northwest with “stout-hearted man” Sergeant Preston and his heroic sled dog, Yukon King!

Happy Birthday, Irving Brecher!

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The only scriptwriter to receive sole credit on two of the Marx Brothers’ classic feature film comedies was Irving Brecher, born in the Bronx on this date in 1914.  An impressive achievement, to be sure…though it should be noted that those two romps—At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940)—rank toward the bottom of the Brothers’ oeuvre where dedicated Marxists are concerned.  That nitpicky criticism aside, Groucho Marx (as well as collaborator S.J. Perelman) thought most highly of Irving, once remarking that Brecher possessed a quick, spontaneous wit that was the equal of George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant.  It was while trying to create a radio program for Groucho that Irving would inadvertently bring to life one of the medium’s best-remembered and beloved sitcoms.

berleEven as a teenager, Irving Brecher was somehow destined to become one of the respected elders of comedy.  He was writing humor for his high school newspaper in Yonkers, while at the same time earning $6 a week as a reporter for The Yonkers Herald.  While toiling as an usher and errand boy in a Manhattan movie theatre, Irving supplemented his income by supplying jokes to columnists like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan.  When a reporter from Variety informed him that comedian Bob Hope was laying audiences in the aisles with some of his material, Brecher quickly learned that he could make a living at writing comedy.  He persuaded that same reporter to print an ad in Variety touting Brecher’s services with the observation: “Positively Berle-proof gags—so bad not even Milton will steal them.”

Irving’s brashness caught the comedian’s eye (Milton was certainly no slouch in the insolence department himself), and from that moment on Brecher was an employee of Berle Enterprises, supplying gags for Milton’s vaudeville act and scripting his first forays into radio.  (Irving also wrote—along with his later collaborator Alan Lipscott—a radio program for the comedy team of Willie and Eugene Howard.)  Milton Berle’s first major network program was CBS’ The Gillette Original Community Sing, a 45-minute broadcast on which Brecher was the sole writer.  (Even with the music on the program, Irving was having to write twenty-five minutes of comedy every week.)  Berle would later remark that Irving was the only man he knew “who wrote a radio program every week all by himself.”

newfacesMilton Berle would be Irving Brecher’s ticket to a career in movie screenwriting.  While churning out the Gillette program, Irving was pressed into assisting on the screenplay for New Faces of 1937, which not only featured his radio boss but other on-the-air favorites such as Joe Penner, Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein, Harriet Hilliard Nelson, Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon, and Patricia “Honey Chile” Wilder.  Brecher also contributed additional dialogue to Fools for Scandal (1938), a film co-directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  LeRoy was a fan of Irving’s work on Berle’s radio program, and hired him to punch up the material of Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr on The Wizard of Oz (1939).  This kicked off a long association with MGM; in addition to the screenplays for At the Circus and Go West, Brecher was responsible for Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Best Foot Forward (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944—which earned Irving an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay), and Yolanda and the Thief (1945).

grouchoAs an MGM employee, Brecher was contracted to work solely for the studio—this allowed him to keep his hand in radio by contributing comedian Frank Morgan’s material for MGM’s Good News radio program.  Any other radio work had to be done on the Q.T., so Irving did not receive credit for the brief time he worked on Al Jolson’s show for Old Gold cigarettes.  Brecher also dusted off a pilot he had written, The Flotsam Family, for his good friend Groucho to jumpstart Marx’s sagging radio career.  An audition record was produced, and while Groucho was undeniably funny, the concept of the series—the anarchic Groucho as the patriarch of a family—just didn’t click with either the audience or potential sponsors.  Then Irving happened to spot actor William Bendix in the film The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942).  Brecher was convinced that with Bendix in the lead role, The Flotsam Family could be a hit—and this prophecy came to pass when the new series, retitled The Life of Riley, premiered over the Blue Network for The American Meat Institute on January 16, 1944.

brecher2The Life of Riley became a huge success on radio, and it also paved the way for Irving Brecher’s brief directing career in movies.  A big screen version of the series was released by Universal in 1949 (which Brecher also produced and wrote), allowing Irving to also sit in the director’s chair on Somebody Loves Me (1952) and Sail a Crooked Ship (1961).  The success of the movie led to a TV version of the radio hit, but because star William Bendix was under contract to producer Hal Roach—and Roach vetoed Bill’s participation on the small screen, believing it to be just “a fad”—Brecher, who was producing the small screen version, had to go with an actor he was originally warned away from: Jackie Gleason.  The TV Life of Riley would only last one season (the show’s sponsor, Pabst, essentially wanted the time slot to schedule prizefights) despite winning an Emmy Award.  A later incarnation of the show enjoyed a bit more longevity, airing on NBC-TV from 1953 to 1958.

peoplesThe 1953-58 Life of Riley was produced without the participation of its creator (instead, Irving leased NBC the rights to the show) …but at that time, Irving Brecher was busy with another TV sitcom: The People’s Choice.  This series starred Jackie Cooper as a city councilman who was secretly married to the mayor’s daughter (played by Patricia Breslin).  Folks familiar with the show no doubt remember it for Cooper’s pet basset hound (Cleo), who frequently commented on the action with the voice of radio actress Mary Jane Croft.  Other Brecher projects included an episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a TV adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis, and the screenplays for the films Cry for Happy (1961) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963).  Birdie would be the funnyman’s show business swan song; Irving enjoyed a relaxing retirement as an elder statesman of comedy.  After his death in 2008, his remarkable life and career was the subject of a posthumously-released memoir, The Wicked Wit of the West.

21119Milton Berle once remarked of his former employee: “As a writer, Irving Brecher really has no equals.  Superiors, yes.”  (It’s possible that Brecher even wrote that gag himself.)  At Radio Spirits, we’re all too aware of the impact that today’s birthday boy made in radio comedy: we have two collections of his finest achievement, The Life of Riley, available in Magnificent Mug and Blue Collar Blues.  That memoir mentioned previously, The Wicked Wit of the West, is also available for purchase; written in collaboration with Hank Rosenfeld, it’s choc-a-bloc with great anecdotes on Irving’s incredible show business career (including a fishing trip with Groucho and how Brecher paid for Jackie Gleason’s teeth).  Happy birthday to Irving Brecher, the man who continues to show old-time radio fans just how revoltin’ a development can be.

Happy Birthday, Father Patrick Peyton!

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“The family that prays together stays together.”  It’s a sentiment that we’re all very much familiar with, even if the program that popularized that phrase—Family Theater—may not be as well-known.  Hosted by a rotation of big-name Hollywood stars (notably Loretta Young), the Mutual series was the brainchild of Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C.—born on this date in 1909.  Family Theater was an extension of the Family Rosary Crusade (Father Peyton himself is often referred to as “The Rosary Priest”), and its lengthy radio and television run was integral in the promotion of family prayer.

peyton14As for Peyton himself, he was a son of the auld soil; born Patrick Joseph Peyton in County Mayo, Ireland.  His early teenage years were marked by periods of rebellion and defiance of authority.  Although he eventually dropped out of school, his strong family ties and deeply religious nature eventually inspired him to seek out a vocation in the priesthood.  Before becoming a man of the cloth, young Patrick eagerly sought to earn a living to help his family, for his father John was ill and unable to work the family’s farm.  Several of Peyton’s elder sisters (Patrick was the sixth of nine children) were living in the U.S., sending money to the family, and in 1927 sent word that Patrick and his older brother Thomas should sail to America and join them in Scranton, PA.

Upon his arrival in the States in 1928, Patrick had difficulty finding work, but eventually settled for a job as a sexton (janitor) for St. Stanislaus Cathedral under Monsignor Paul Kelly.  His custodial duties at St. Stanislaus continued to stoke Peyton’s desire to enter the priesthood, and Monsignor Kelly highly approved…but pressed upon Patrick to finish his high school education.  When Father Pat Dolan of the Congregation of the Holy Cross paid the cathedral a visit in search of new seminarians, both Patrick and brother Thomas entered the priesthood in Norte Dame, IN (after getting their high school diplomas at a Holy Cross school).

peyton9Patrick pursued a B.A. in Philosophy within the University of Notre Dame’s Moreau Seminary beginning in 1932.  His career as a priest saw dark clouds on the horizon in 1938, when Peyton was diagnosed with tuberculosis—and he would later credit the attention and prayers from his sister Nellie and Father Cornelius Hagerty (his mentor at Notre Dame) with what was unquestionably a miracle: the patches on his right lung would heal to the utter bewilderment of his doctors.  Peyton completed his theology studies at Washington, DC’s Holy Cross College and received a special dispensation from the Vatican (stemming from his illness) in May of 1941, allowing him to be ordained as a priest.  He took his vows alongside his brother in June at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

peyton8As the Reverend Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., Peyton’s first assignment was as chaplain of the Holy Cross Brothers of the Vincentian Institute in Albany, NY.  His duties were relatively light (owing to WW2), but Father Patrick established himself as one of the leaders stressing the importance of strengthening families both before and after the war, often through the ritual of praying the Family Rosary.  Peyton would also become one of the first mass media evangelicals, chiefly through the radio anthology Family Theater, which premiered over Mutual on February 13, 1947.  Family Theater was a sustained series, yet Father Patrick could exercise enormous influence on the crème de la crème of Hollywood—James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Irene Dunne, Henry Fonda, etc.—to appear on the show as either announcers, narrators, or performers on the program.  Family Theater presented a good many religious-themed dramas (a total of 540 episodes during its ten-year-run), but occasionally dramatized classic tales such as Moby Dick and Don Quixote.

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While still airing on Mutual, Family Theatre would transition to the small screen in 1951 as a syndicated TV series (the boob tube incarnation swapped “Theater” with “Theatre”), expanded to a full hour, and was hosted by Father Peyton himself.  (The TV version would run for seven years, just a little longer than Family Theater’s radio run—which came to a close on September 11, 1957.)   Father Patrick continued his day job, hosting popular rosary rallies throughout Latin America.  These “Family Rosary Crusades” were not without controversy; Peyton was accused at the time of being a front for American intelligence during his many trips to Latin America, and it was later revealed that The Rosary Priest’s crusades were receiving generous funding from the Central Intelligence Agency.  The Vatican pressed upon Father Patrick in 1964 to sever those ties with the CIA, and his reputation eventually recovered.  Peyton would continue his good works with the church until his passing in 1992 at the age of 93, and after his death a petition was put forth (in 2001) to promote him as a candidate for sainthood.  (As of 2015, it was still undergoing the rigorous bureaucratic process known in the Catholic Church as The Positio.)

21406Though the Yuletide holidays have come and gone, Radio Spirits features broadcasts of Father Patrick Peyton’s signature radio series on two of our Christmas CD sets: the Family Theater broadcast of “Ruth” (12-23-53) is available on Christmas Radio Classics, and The Voices of Christmas Past spotlights “Crossroads of Christmas” (from 12-17-52).  A frequent guest on the program, Jack Benny, can be heard on Family Theater’s “The Golden Touch” (05-23-51) on the Benny collection Be Our Guest.  But for the fullest and finest representation of Family Theater, you need to purchase a copy of Every Home, an eight-CD set featuring stars and radio favorites like Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, Kirk Douglas, and Ethel Barrymore.  Happy birthday to the man who taught us that “A world at prayer is a world at peace.”

Happy Birthday, Dana Andrews!

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Author Carl Rollyson’s 2012 biography of actor Dana Andrews—born Carver Dana Andrews on this date in 1909—is titled Hollywood Enigma.  For many folks in the motion picture industry, including producers Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl F. Zanuck, Andrews was just that.  Rollyson notes that “his heroes seemed conflicted” and that “they were holding back something, as if they did not quite trust themselves in the heroic roles assigned to them.”  Dana’s diffident, almost minimalist style of acting has been dismissed by any number of movie critics as “wooden”—but anyone who’s ever sampled the man’s extensive film, television, and radio work knows that there was much more to Dana Andrews than meets the eye.

youngdanaIt’s a mystery as to how Dana Andrews ever aspired to an acting career in the first place.  He spent his early years in and around Texas (though his birthplace was a Mississippi town that humorously decided to call itself “Don’t”—as in Don’t, Miss.).  Andrews’ father, Charles Forrest Andrews, was a Baptist minister who organized campaigns not only against the wickedness in the motion picture industry…but the evils of alcohol as well.  (Ironically, Dana struggled with alcoholism for most of his adult life, which didn’t help his career as he became older.)  At the age of ten, young Dana began surreptitiously spending time at the movies.  (He wasn’t the only member of his family—which numbered thirteen children—to pursue acting…his younger brother is Steve Forrest.)  Dana attended Sam Houston State University and studied business administration; after graduation, he began working as an accountant for Gulf Oil.  However, he could not tamp down his acting ambitions and, against the wishes of his family, moved to California in 1931 to focus on his career.

bellestarrDana would become a member of the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse while working at a variety of odd jobs including bus driver, ditch digger, and gas station attendant.  (Andrews also studied opera—he had a fine singing voice—something to which his family might have been more amenable as a vocation.)  Spotted by a talent scout working for independent film producer Sam Goldwyn in 1938, Dana would make his movie debut in a Cisco Kid western for 20th Century-Fox in 1940 (Fox bought half his contract from Goldwyn), Lucky Cisco Kid.  While Fox used Andrews as a supporting player in films like Kit Carson (1940), Tobacco Road (1941), and Swamp Water (1941), producer Goldwyn availed himself of Dana’s talents in vehicles like The Westerner (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941).

oxbowOne of Dana Andrews’ most important early movie assignments was in Fox’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), an underrated Henry Fonda western in which Dana plays one of three men accused of cattle rustling…and a mob thirsting for vengeance decides to take the law into their own hands by lynching them for their crime.  Incident would lay the groundwork for the movie that made Andrews a star—the classic film noir Laura (1944), in which he plays a detective investigating the homicide of a famous model played by Gene Tierney.  Laura was the third movie to feature Dana and Gene (1941’s Belle Starr and the previously mentioned Tobacco Road were the first two); they would later team up for two additional motion pictures in The Iron Curtain (1948) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950—directed by Otto Preminger, who also helmed Laura).  Laura also established the actor’s noir bona fides; Dana would later appear in Fallen Angel (1945), Boomerang! (1947), Daisy Kenyon (1947), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

zerohourDana also had a plum acting role in The Best Years of Our Lives, the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1946, as a former Army bombardier struggling to re-adjust to civilian life after WW2.  There was something about Andrews that made him an ideal fit to portray military men in the movies; his lengthy resume includes Crash Dive (1943), The Purple Heart (1944), Wing and a Prayer (1944), and A Walk in the Sun (1945).  The actor played a lot of “fly-boys” in later movies as well, notably Zero Hour! (1957—the film that would later be satirized as Airplane!), The Crowded Sky (1960), and Airport 1975 (1974).  His movie fame also insured that Andrews would reprise many of these parts on radio in addition to original productions on various dramatic anthologies: The Cavalcade of America, Family Theatre, The General Electric Theatre, Hallmark Playhouse, Hollywood Sound Stage, Hollywood Star Playhouse, The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and Suspense.

danaradioDana Andrews’ major contribution to radio came about as many big-name motion picture stars were being lured to microphones in the late 1940s/early 1950s via the magnetic tape revolution; programs could be recorded in advance and not interfere with a movie actor’s busy shooting schedule.  Dana starred in a syndicated series for Ziv entitled I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., broadcast in 1952-53 over 78 episodes.  It was based on a best-selling book by Matt Cvetic, an Everyman who had managed to infiltrate his local chapter of the Communist Party and tattle on their activities to J. Edgar Hoover’s boys as an undercover agent.  (It was important for Cvetic to maintain the fiction that he was a Red…which I’m sure made Thanksgiving dinners with his family a treat.)  Communist had originally been adapted to the big screen in 1951 with radio veteran Frank Lovejoy as Cvetic; both the movie and radio series remain artifacts of the Cold War era, but at the time it was a major showcase for Dana’s radio skills (he would memorably close the program in the style of one of his film noir heroes: “I was a Communist…a Communist for the F.B.I…I walk alone…”).

demonDana Andrews continued to work in films in the 50s and 60s…though his movie roles weren’t quite as stellar as the fame he enjoyed in the early stages of his cinematic career.  He’d occasionally strike gold with vehicles like Night of the Demon (1957), a classic in the horror movie genre, and he appeared in eight films in 1965 alone, including In Harm’s Way, The Satan Bug, and The Loved One.  1965 was the year that Dana’s two-year stint as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild came to an end.  His film appearances became limited to mostly B-flicks like The Frozen Dead (1966) and Hot Rods to Hell (1967), so Andrews branched out to jobs on the small screen with guest appearances on TV favorites like Checkmate, The Twilight Zone, Ben Casey, and Family Affair.  From 1969 to 1971, Dana starred as Thomas Boswell, the president of fictional Bancroft College on the daytime drama Bright Promise.

tycoonAndrews won his battle with the bottle in 1970, and began a second career performing in dinner theatre alongside his wife, actress Mary Todd.  (The actor would appear in a televised public service announcement in 1972 on behalf of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.)  But he continued to work steadily on TV and in movies, guest starring in episodes of Night Gallery and Ironside, and making a memorable impression as a movie director (“Red Ridingwood”) in 1976’s The Last Tycoon.  Dana’s last appearance onscreen was in the 1984 film Prince Jack (a satirical drama about the JFK administration); he spent his remaining years at Los Alamitos, California’s John Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease before his passing in 1992 at the age of 83.

21124Dana Andrews’ signature radio series, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., is well represented here at Radio Spirits with two broadcasts (“The Party Got Rough” and “Tour of Duty”) on our potpourri collection of secret agents, Great Radio SpiesAfter these have whetted your appetite, we invite you to delve into more Cold War intrigue with Sleeper, a collection of sixteen episodes from the popular Communist series.  Happy birthday to the man once described by fellow film thespian Norman Lloyd as “one of nature’s noblemen”!