Your Shopping Cart | Your Account Information | Catalog Quick Order | Customer Service | Order Status | Contact Us


AboutBlogOur Radio Show SEARCH   KEYWORD

Happy Birthday, Van Johnson!

During the 1940s, the man born Charles Van Dell Johnson in Newport, Rhode Island on this date in 1916 was known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “boy next door.”  Van Johnson’s affable charm and golden-boy looks (red hair and freckled face—Van used to joke he “got paid by the freckle”) made him the ideal actor to portray any variety of fresh-scrubbed innocents who, during the course of the motion picture, wound up enlisting as a soldier, a sailor, or a bomber pilot.  “I’d been in every branch of the service, all at MGM,” Johnson mused at the end of WW2.  In real life, the actor was rejected by the military because of a steel plate in his head—an unwanted souvenir from an automobile crash that nearly took his life in 1943 (while he was filming one of his most successful MGM pictures, A Guy Named Joe). 
Van Johnson was an only child, born to Charles E. (a plumber and later real-estate salesman) and Loretta (Snyder).  Charles would soon take on both father and mother roles after Loretta (an alcoholic) abandoned the family while Van was still a youngster.  The relationship between Johnson pere et fils was, sadly, a strained one.  Van’s show business beginnings can be traced to his performing at social clubs in his hometown of Newport, and after graduating in 1935 he moved to New York City to join an off-Broadway revue, Entre Nous. 
Van Johnson’s terpsichorean talents were developed while he toured New England in a theatre troupe (as a substitute dancer).  His break on Broadway came in the form of the revue New Faces of 1936 (which also featured Imogene Coca and June Blair among the “new faces”) and when that closed it was back to the chorus for an endless series of engagements along with work at resort hotels.  Director-playwright George Abbott liked him well enough to give him a job playing a college boy in his 1939 production of Too Many Girls. When Girls went West for the big screen treatment from R-K-O in 1940, Johnson made his movie debut in that film (though he was uncredited). 
Van Johnson wouldn’t receive credit onscreen until 1942’s Murder in the Big House, a B-picture he made at Warner Brothers.  Before Murder, Johnson was all set to head back to New York and the stage after filming wrapped up on Too Many Girls, but a fortuitous meeting one night at Chasen’s (Johnson had gone there with Girls co-stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) with an MGM casting director eventually landed him the Warner’s contract (at $300 a week).  The studio dyed Johnson’s hair and eyebrows jet-black (something that’s noticeable in his first MGM vehicle, a Crime Does Not Pay short called For the Common Defense [1942]), but Van’s cheerful demeanor and matinee idol looks were out of place at the grittier Warner, and six months later he wound up at MGM. 
His first film for Leo the Lion was an uncredited role in Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942). Johnson’s next film, The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1943), was so well-received by audiences that the studio decided to cast him as Lew Ayres’ replacement in their Dr. Kildare franchise opposite Lionel Barrymore (as Dr. Gillespie).  The Kildare films—and vehicles like The Human Comedy (1943) and Pilot #5 (1943)—continued to bolster Van’s stock at MGM. He was then cast as a young pilot mentored by a guardian angel (Spencer Tracy) in A Guy Named Joe (1943).  On his way to an MGM screening with friends, Johnson’s convertible was broadsided by a car that ran a red light. He would undergo several surgeries to repair a fractured skull, severe facial injuries, a severed artery in his neck, and to remove bone fragments that were piercing his brain. 
A Guy Named Joe stars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne overruled MGM’s plans to replace Van Johnson, who returned to the picture with a noticeably scarred forehead. (Johnson would spend extra time in the makeup chair to conceal this in subsequent pictures.) Not only did the metal plate on the left side of his head ensure his 4-F status throughout the war, the accident provided Van with the kind of publicity that money can’t buy. His popularity with “bobby soxers” was second only to Francis Albert Sinatra—as such, the press jokingly tagged Johnson with the nickname “The Voiceless Sinatra.”  Van’s post-Joe project was Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), the first of six films he appeared in alongside June Allyson. The other five included Till the Clouds Go By (1946), High Barbaree (1947), The Bride Goes Wild (1948), Too Young to Kiss (1951), and Remains to Be Seen (1953).  Johnson made the same number of films with leading lady Esther Williams; they appeared together in Joe and Clouds, as well as Thrill of a Romance (1945), Easy to Wed (1946), Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Easy to Love (1953). 
Van Johnson’s success in movies would soon spread to radio. He would be called upon to reprise many of his movie roles on the popular dramatic anthologies of the day, including Best PlaysThe General Electric TheatreHallmark PlayhouseThe Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreNBC PlayhouseRadio’s Reader DigestStagestruckTheatre Guild on the Air, and Theatre of Romance.  (Van appeared on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”—Suspensefive times!)  In addition, Johnson guest starred on variety series like The Big Show and Front and Center (starring Dorothy Lamour). He also joshed with such personalities as Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Jimmy Durante, and his “rival” Frank Sinatra.  (The March 20, 1949 broadcast of Benny’s Lucky Strike Program remains one of his funniest half-hours, as Jack and Van go to Ciro’s on a double date…with Mabel and Gertrude!) 
Van Johnson’s career at MGM wasn’t just frothy musical comedies and lighthearted romances: he turned in memorable performances in serious fare such as State of the Union (1948), Command Decision (1948), and the all-star Battleground (1949), one of his finest films.  1954’s The Caine Mutiny also provided Van with an outstanding acting showcase as the Naval officer court-martialed after taking command from paranoid captain Humphrey Bogart.  In addition to movies, Johnson began making inroads into television with guest appearances on the likes of I Love LucyThe Ann Sothern ShowBen Casey, and Batman (as The Minstrel!).  (Johnson turned down the Elliot Ness role on TV’s The Untouchables—can you believe it?)  Van would continue to work throughout his career (his role on 1976’s Rich Man, Poor Man netted him an Emmy nomination). Before his passing in 2008 at the age of 92, he received more than a few positive reviews for a small but entertaining turn in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). 
It was joked that when Van Johnson married Evie Abbott (Keenan Wynn’s ex-wife) in 1947, his young female fans were so heartbroken they wore their bobby socks at half-mast.  I got a million of ‘em—and so does Jimmy Durante, who welcomes our birthday boy as a guest on the March 10, 1948 broadcast of his Rexall program on our Radio Spirits collection The Jimmy Durante Show.  Happy birthday, Van! 

Happy Birthday, Mae West!

It’s a textbook example of how a mediocre movie can be redeemed by the appearance of a personality whose mere presence dominates the motion picture screen.  In an otherwise dreary 1932 film entitled Night After Night (starring George Raft and Constance Cummings), a character named Maudie Triplett rings the doorbell of the speakeasy run by Joe Anton (Raft).  As she “makes herself to home,” Maudie is approached by a hatcheck girl (Patricia Farley) who is quite taken with Ms. Triplett’s jewelry.  “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” the dazzled employee burbles in delight. “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” retorts Maudie.

Night After Night marked the movie debut of Mary Jane West—born in Kings County, NY on this date in 1893.  We know her better as Mae West, and curiously, she was reluctant to take on the Night assignment at first—it was Raft himself who requested she play the part, which she eventually agreed to do after getting an okay from producer William LeBaron to rewrite her dialogue.  “She stole everything but the cameras,” George was purported to have remarked in hindsight, and in each subsequent vehicle that West starred in during her stint at Paramount in the 1930s, she continued to commit petty larceny.

Mae West was born the eldest of four children to John Patrick West (a prizefighter and later private investigator) and Mathilde “Tillie” Delker (a former fashion model).  West’s show business ambitions were encouraged at the age of five when she entertained at a church social, and two years later she began appearing in talent shows and entering amateur competitions, where she frequently won prizes.  At 14, Mae began performing in vaudeville with the Hal Clarendon Stock Company, and she landed her first Broadway gig with a revue entitled A La Broadway in 1911.  Though she was billing herself as “Jane Mast,” a review in The New York Times misidentified her in one show as “Mae West”—and the name just stuck.  West would go on to appear in productions like Vera Violetta (with Al Jolson) and Sometime (with Ed Wynn).

Mae West began writing plays for herself (using “Jane Mast” as her pseudonym) and achieved notoriety with a Broadway play entitled Sex (1926).  The risqué content of the production would get her in trouble with the law; one night the theatre was raided, and West was prosecuted and convicted on a charge of “corrupting the morals of youth.”  Even then, Mae realized there was no such thing as “bad publicity”—she insisted on serving out her ten-day sentence in jail (though she only had to do eight, released early for good behavior) and in doing so burnished her reputation as a “bad girl.”  West followed the success of Sex with Diamond Lil (1928), while writing and starring in such plays as The Wicked AgePleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner.

Paramount made Mae West an offer in 1932 despite the fact that she was nearly 40 years old.  Having walked off with Night After Night, the studio wanted her to be the star of her next picture and Mae proposed that it be based on Diamond Lil.  Renaming her character “Lady Lou” (“one of the finest women who ever walked the streets”) for She Done Him Wrong (1933). West defied the powers-that-be (they were wary of doing a “period piece”) with a comedy that created a major sensation (Mae’s male co-star was a then-unknown Cary Grant). It grossed $2 million at a time when the industry was taking a beating due to the Depression.  In fact, producer LeBaron would later credit Wrong with saving Paramount from bankruptcy.  But Wrong had its downside; it created such a controversy that it led directly to the establishment of the Hollywood Production Code, changing the face of filmmaking.

The Production Code didn’t do too much damage to Mae West’s next feature, I’m No Angel (1933; her most successful film at the box office and one that re-teamed her with Cary Grant). However, by the time Belle of the Nineties (1934) went before the cameras, the “Code” would rob each successive Mae West film of its potency by censoring much of West’s suggestive dialogue.  Mae was such an intoxicating presence that even lesser vehicles like Goin’ to Town (1935) and Go West, Young Man (1936) are of interest simply because she’s there.  Klondike Annie (1936), though sanitized, is quite enjoyable. In that one, Mae impersonates a deceased missionary…and finds the experience a redeeming one.  Her final film for Paramount, Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), is also highly recommended, with an outstanding supporting cast and solid story line.  Oddly enough, it was a box office flop…so Mae was given her pink slip.

On December 12, 1937, Mae West was the guest star on the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour.  She portrayed “Eve” opposite Don Ameche’s “Adam” in an irreverent sketch (written by Arch Oboler). Although it is mind-bogglingly tame by today’s standards, it is thought to have been the catalyst for the performer’s eventual banishment from radio for an indefinite period of time. (You weren’t even allowed to utter her name for fear of incurring the censors’ wrath.) A routine she did with Charlie McCarthy—in which she delivered the dialogue a little too suggestively—is also believed responsible for her exile in the aural medium.  (The antics of Charlie and Edgar Bergen were favorites among family audiences…who were shocked to hear these shenanigans on a Sunday!)  Over a decade later, having served her penance, Mae was finally allowed back on the air as a guest on Perry Como’s Chesterfield Supper Club on February 16, 1950.

Though she wasn’t getting the warmest of welcomes over the radio airwaves, Mae West would soon go back to work at Universal with My Little Chickadee (1940), a collaborative effort with fellow studio stablemate W.C. Fields.  (The studio had hoped to duplicate the success of 1939’s Destry Rides Again.)  Chickadee has its fans and detractors; some argue that two dominant personalities simply weren’t meant to share the screen, but others (like myself) are convinced that it represents some of West’s best work.  (Chickadee features one of Mae’s classic retorts: to a judge who asks if she’s trying to show contempt for his court—”No, your Honor…I’m doin’ my best to hide it!”)  Though the production of Chickadee was a rocky one, it performed quite well at the box office.  Despite reservations, West agreed to star in The Heat’s On (1943)—as a favor to her pal Gregory Ratoff—but the tepid Columbia comedy would mark her last film appearance until 1970’s Myra Breckinridge.

Mae West had multiple opportunities to jump-start her film career: she was offered the starring role in Sunset Blvd. (1950), which ultimately went to Gloria Swanson, and she said no to 1957’s Pal Joey (Rita Hayworth wound up playing her part).  Mae kept busy in night clubs and on stage (with 1944’s Catherine the Great and a revival of Diamond Lil [1949-51]) and found a home on the small screen with appearances on The Red Skelton Show and Mister Ed (a classic).  Her cinematic swan song was 1978’s Sextette (a film version of her 1961 Broadway hit), which featured an impressive celebrity cast (including her Night After Night co-star George Raft).  Mae West finally shuffled off this mortal coil in 1980 at the age of 87.

Mae West is one of the many big-name celebrities (50 in all) spotlighted in Hollywood’s Greatest Screen Legends, a 4-DVD collection available from Radio Spirits.  Happy birthday to the screen legend who reminded us: “When I’m good, I’m very, very good.  But when I’m bad, I’m better.”

Happy Birthday, Alfred Hitchcock!

It was a story that he frequently told in interviews: when Sir Alfred Hitchcock was only five years old, his father (who referred to his son as a “little lamb without a spot”) sent him to the local police station with a note for the constable.  The policeman read the note and ushered young Alfred into a cell that he then locked behind the youngster, and after holding him there for several minutes admonished him: “This is what we do to naughty boys.”  Whether or not the anecdote is true, it instilled in Hitchcock a lifelong fear of the police—he wouldn’t even drive a car out of concern he might get a parking ticket.  The apocryphal story would also have an effect on the many motion pictures “The Master of Suspense” directed throughout his career—those films feature themes of guilt and voyeurism with a common plot involving “the wrong man” (an individual accused of a crime who must prove his innocence).  The man who became one of the most successful movie directors in the history of Hollywood was born in Leytonstone, Essex, England on this date in 1899. 
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was the youngest of three children born to greengrocer William Hitchcock and his wife Emma Jane.  Educated in both Jesuit and Catholic schools as a child, young Alfred later attended engineering school in London. (He became a draftsman and advertising designer for a cable company after graduation.)  Hitchcock found a creative outlet in both writing short stories and dabbling in photography as a hobby.  Both of these pursuits inspired him to apply for a job as a title designer for the London branch of Paramount Pictures.  In 1920, he went to work for Islington Studios in the same position. At that time, Islington was owned by Famous Players-Lasky, and would later be acquired by Gainsborough Pictures. 
At Gainsborough, Alfred Hitchcock found a patron in producer Michael Balcon, who helped Hitch move up through the ranks via a series of promotions.  Alfred served as an art designer, and then as an assistant director (second-unit director).  Although Hitchcock’s official “directed by” credit wouldn’t appear onscreen until 1925’s The Pleasure Garden, the novice behind the camera had actually directed a movie as far back as 1922—a movie with the unfortunate title of Number 13.  (The production got cancelled after the funding fell through.)  Hitchcock would also direct (without credit) a short in 1922 entitled Always Tell Your Wife.  Hitch followed Garden with The Mountain Eagle in 1926 (Eagle appears to be a lost film) and then The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), with which he started to demonstrate his considerable cinematic talents.  It was Hitchcock’s first thriller (a genre he would return to time and time again) and was heavily influenced by German expressionism.  (Lodger also marked the first onscreen appearance of the director; he made the first of many cameos only because he was short an actor.) 
Alfred Hitchcock continued to perfect his craft in the silent era, adding such interesting items to his c.v. as The Ring (1927) and The Farmer’s Wife (1928).  His tenth film, Blackmail (1929), was the first British “talkie” and allowed him to experiment with early sound techniques.  At Gaumont-British, Hitchcock crafted such classic movie thrillers as Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and Young and Innocent (1937).  A 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, became a critical and commercial success (the director would win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director in 1939—the only award he’d receive for his direction). It also secured him a lucrative job offer from producer David O. Selznick, who signed Alfred to a seven-year contract in March of 1939. 
In the 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock directed classics like Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946) for Selznick. David O. also lent his employee out to various studios to make pictures like Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and Lifeboat (1944).  Hitch soon developed a capacity for self-promotion that would make Walt Disney envious. He made an appearance on Rudy Vallee’s Royal Gelatin Hour in April of 1939, and on the July 22, 1940 broadcast of Forecast (the pilot for the later Suspense series) purportedly directed a radio version of The Lodger that featured two actors working in his film production of Foreign Correspondent: Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn.  (The “Hitchcock” heard on that broadcast is actually Joseph Kearns.)  Alfred would guest star on shows like Information Please and The Fred Allen Show, and his films would be recreated on anthology programs like The Lux Radio Theatre and Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  Hitch attempted a permanent radio gig with an audition for a series entitled Once Upon a Midnight dated May 11, 1945 (“Malice Aforethought”)…but apparently there were no takers. 
His weekly radio series may not have gotten off the ground…but the small screen was another matter.  On October 2, 1955, Alfred Hitchcock Presents premiered over CBS-TV, allowing the Master of Suspense to visit with TV audiences.  As the host of an anthology series, with stories marinated in mystery and murder, Hitchcock soon found himself a Top 10 favorite and pop culture icon as he was introduced weekly to the strains of Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette (“Good evening”).  Alfred Hitchcock Presents enjoyed a healthy five-year-run on CBS before switching networks to NBC in 1960. After two more years as a half-hour program, the show expanded to sixty minutes (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) in the fall of 1962 and ran until 1965. 
Being welcomed into the homes of Nielsen families every week certainly didn’t hurt Alfred Hitchcock where the box office was concerned.  His movie successes during the 1950s include many that are considered classics today: Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959).  Two of his best-known films, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), were released in the 1960s. Hitchcock proved that he still hadn’t lost his suspenseful touch a decade later, when he made Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976; his final film).  Though nominated five times for a Best Director Academy Award, Sir Alfred (he was knighted in 1980) had to settle for a consolation prize in the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.  (His 1968 acceptance speech established a precedent for brevity: “Thank you…very much indeed.”)  Alfred Hitchcock passed away in 1980 at the age of 80. 
Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock was a bandleader?  I didn’t either, but his “orchestra” is one of the many featured artists on Best of Horror—a 3-CD collection of classic novelty hits like Monster MashThe Purple People Eater, and Dinner with Drac (Pt. 1).  Sir Alfred and his musical aggregation entertain with Music to Be Murdered By, and in the immortal words of Stan Freberg–it’s “wun’erfulwun’erful!”  Okay…I’m being a little facetious here—but pick yourself up a copy from the Radio Spirits catalog, won’t you? Or you could pick yourself up an Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Jigsaw Puzzle: 1000 Pieces (item #92808) by calling 800-833-4248. 

Happy Birthday, Raymond Chandler!

For all his success in the literary world, and then later in Hollywood, author Raymond Thornton Chandler was a lonely man.  He lived the life of a recluse; he left no surviving wife or children upon his passing in 1959, and had himself been an only child when he entered this world on this date in 1888 in Chicago.  Those attempting a biography of his life have often found that their best source of information were the many letters that he wrote, spoken into a Dictaphone late at night for his secretary to type up in the morning. (Ray rarely wrote fiction in the wee hours, believing his nocturnal efforts to be too “ghoulish.”)  It’s uncomfortable to start such an essay on a note of melancholy, I know, but it helps us to understand his famous literary creation Philip Marlowe — Chandler once observed that he saw the P.I. “always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated” — and why Time magazine once dubbed Chandler “the poet laureate of the loner.” 
Life in the Windy City for Raymond Chandler as a child began in a rented house, followed by a series of cheap hotel rooms and then a residency in Nebraska, staying with relatives.  Chandler’s father Maurice was both an itinerant rail engineer and an alcoholic (a condition that would plague Chandler in later years),and he eventually abandoned his son and wife Florence. Ray and his mother moved to Ireland in 1895 (Flo was Irish-born).  To ensure her son received the best education, the Chandlers eventually relocated to the London borough of Croydon where Ray attended Dulwich College, a public school that also claimed as alumni P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forrester.  Raymond’s uncle was not prepared to pay for his nephew to attend university, choosing instead to pull him out of Dulwich a year early so that Chandler could attend tutorial colleges in France and Germany to prepare him for the British Civil Service examination. 
Raymond Chandler was naturalized as a British citizen in order to enter the Civil Service (he kept that citizenship until 1956), and obtained a job with the British Admiralty in the office of munitions.  Ray loathed the job, quit after a few months, and for the next five years eked out a living writing poetry for literary magazines.  Chandler would eventually emigrate to the U.S. in 1912 (with money borrowed from his uncle, who had refused to subsidize his “ward” any longer) and find work in various odd jobs (including fruit picking and tennis racquet-stringing).  Ray served a hitch with the Gordon Highlanders (a Scottish regiment that he had to join by traveling to Canada) during the First World War. Upon being mustered out, he returned to California to secure a position with the state’s booming oil industry…that is, after he married a twice-divorced ex-model named Pearl Eugene “Cissy” Pascal. 
There is speculation that Raymond Chandler was unaware that his wife Cissy was seventeen years his senior when they tied the knot.  (She was often mistaken for his mother.)  Be that as it may, the couple moved around to various L.A. residences over the years during Chandler’s time with the oil company, which would eventually fire him in 1932 for drunkenness.  Ray then decided to go back to writing to keep the wolf at the door at bay, and credited the prolific prose of Erle Stanley Gardner as his inspiration.  Chandler’s freshman contribution to the pulp fiction Black Mask magazine, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” was published in 1933.  His first novel featuring private investigator Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. This was followed by a second Marlowe book, Farewell, My Lovely, in 1940. 
Farewell, My Lovely would be adapted for the silver screen in 1942 as a George Sanders Falcon movie (The Falcon Takes Over) and again two years later as Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell playing the role of Marlowe.  The success of the latter film would get Raymond Chandler work as a screenwriter; the author co-wrote And Now Tomorrow (1944) with Frank Partos (based on Rachel Field’s novel). Chandler received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay for his collaboration with director Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity (1944; Wilder freely acknowledged that much of that movie’s memorable dialogue was all Chandler).  Ray’s Hollywood success allowed him to buy a luxurious house near San Diego. 
Chandler would garner a second Oscar nomination for The Blue Dahlia (1946), which started out as an early manuscript for one of the author’s books until he was persuaded to transform it into a screenplay.  However, Ray hadn’t yet progressed far enough to write a denouement, and he told producer John Houseman that the only way he could complete it was to get good and drunk.  It would be Chandler’s sole original effort for the silver screen. His remaining film work (apart from adaptations of Marlowe novels like The Big SleepThe Lady in the Lake, and The High Window) was on 1951’s Strangers on a Train. He collaborated on this with director Alfred Hitchcock.  Raymond did not enjoy the assignment (he thought Patricia Highsmith’s novel implausible). In addition, the two men made disparaging remarks toward one another and were not even on speaking terms by the time the movie was completed. 
Strangers on a Train would be the subject of Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts in 1951 and 1954, and several other Raymond Chandler works would be broadcast over the ether, including And Now Tomorrow and Murder, My Sweet.  Chandler short stories such as “Pearls are a Nuisance” and “Murder in the City Hall” were showcased on programs like Suspense and The Molle Mystery Theatre.  But Ray’s lasting contribution to radio was based on the gumshoe who put groceries on his table: The Adventures of Philip Marlowe was first heard over NBC on June 17, 1947.  This initial version only lasted the summer (it was filling in for a vacationing Bob Hope), but it returned in the fall of 1948 over CBS. It ran for two seasons on this network, and then enjoyed one final summer season in 1951 (while Hopalong Cassidy got a little R&R). 
Cissy Chandler died in 1954, and her passing left Raymond Chandler inconsolable.  He would continue to eke out a forlorn existence drinking and writing. (Four chapters of an unfinished novel, Poodle Springs, would later be finished by author Robert B. Parker and published in 1989.) Ray tried to commit suicide in 1955, and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital as a result.  Chandler looked for respite in England the late 50s, before returning to the U.S.  He succumbed to pneumonial peripheral vascular shock at the age of 70.  Raymond had wanted to be interred next to his wife. (Her remains had lingered in a storage locker at Cypress View Mausoleum, because a heartbroken Chandler neglected to make the necessary arrangements.) They wouldn’t be reunited until 2011, after the estate received permission from a judge in 2010. Their shared gravestone reads: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” (This is, of course, a quote from The Big Sleep). 
Many screen actors stepped into the (gum)shoes of Philip Marlowe to play our birthday boy’s famous sleuth (including Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery), but Robert Mitchum did it twice—with Farewell, My Lovely in 1975 and The Big Sleep three years later.  Both of these movies are available on DVD from Radio Spirits, as are our popular CD collections featuring vintage broadcasts from The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Philip MarloweLonely CanyonsNight Tideand Sucker’s Road(There’s Marlowe adventure on our Great Radio Detectives set, too).  Creator Chandler wasn’t a fan of the Marlowe radio series—in a 1949 letter to a friend he cracked that it was “about as sadistic as a frosted marshmallow sundae”—but maybe he wasn’t the best judge of what we believe to be an unmistakable classic? (Get this and get it straight, Raymond…happy birthday!) 

Happy Birthday, Verna Felton!

It’s a bit of a stretch, but try to imagine Verna Felton—the actress who appeared on Jack Benny’s radio/TV show as Dennis Day’s mother and later as “Hilda Crocker” on December Bride—as “Baby Felton.”  That’s the handle Verna went by in her stage days. She began her show business career as a child performer in vaudeville, and in later years she reminisced that old friends still referred to her as “Baby Felton.”  (Verna only wished it wasn’t within earshot of people unfamiliar with her performing history).  Since “nobody puts Baby in a corner,” I thought we’d take a little time today to celebrate the birthday of this exemplary character actress (she was born on this date in 1890 in Salinas, California) and the only woman formidable enough to go up against Red Skelton’s “mean widdle kid.”

Verna Felton’s decision to pursue a career in show business was a financial one.  Her father, a physician, died when she was seven years old…and though Dr. Felton had operated a respectable practice in San Jose, her mother learned that when it came to billing his patients…the cupboard was bare, cash-wise.  The manager of a theatrical road company had spotted young Verna singing and dancing at a San Jose benefit for victims of the Galveston Flood, and offered the young girl a job with his troupe to ease the family’s financial burden.  Felton would travel North America with various stock companies, honing her trade, and by 1907 she was taking on leading lady roles.  In the late 1920s, she had the leads in such productions as Stella Dallas and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, performed at the Empress Theatre in Vancouver.  A gentleman named Lee Millar was the band director for these productions—Millar would tie the knot with Verna not long after, and the two were married until his untimely death in 1941.

In 1931, Verna suggested to her husband that the two of them look toward employment in the new medium of radio.  Millar shrugged off the suggestion: “Honey, you know radio isn’t here to stay.  Why, people will never listen to a play.  Music, yes…but not a play.”  And yet, the following Saturday, the Millars emerged from the NBC Studios in San Francisco—scripts in hand, and they didn’t even have to audition.  It was the beginning of a whole new career for Felton. She was heard on The Lux Radio Theatre , The John Barrymore Theatre, and the Yuletide favorite The Cinnamon Bear (as the mother). Verna also started making many appearances on the show for which listeners perhaps remember her best: The Jack Benny Program.

Verna Felton had been a member of Benny’s “stock company” as far back as 1937 – and when Dennis Day joined the show in the fall of 1939, she was enlisted to play his mother. It was a stroke of casting genius!  Fiercely protective of her boy, and unconvinced that his boss wasn’t trying to exploit him at every turn, Mrs. Day was an intimidating presence. She frequently dispensed with Jack’s protestations by bellowing an ear-splitting “Ehhhhhh…shut up!”  The Mrs. Day role would firmly establish Felton’s comedic prowess, allowing her to work on shows headlined by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Dorothy Lamour, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles.  In addition, Verna was pressed into service to guest star on sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietThe Aldrich FamilyAmos ‘n’ AndyThe BickersonsDuffy’s TavernFibber McGee & MollyThe Great GildersleeveHap HazardThe Life of RileyMeet Mr. McNutleyOur Miss BrooksThe Penny Singleton Show, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

Verna Felton’s prominent showcase on The Jack Benny Program would also lead to regular employment on other comedy programs, notably two showcasing Joan Davis.  When Davis inherited Rudy Vallee’s show (after The Vagabond Lover enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1943) and it became The Sealtest Village Store, Verna played a regular character with the moniker “Blossom Blimp.”  Felton then followed Joan to CBS (in 1945) for Joanie’s Tea Room, portraying “Rosella Hipperton III” (in keeping with her Blossom-like size, she was nicknamed “Hippy”) and later “Cousin Cornelia.”  On Tommy Riggs & Betty Lou, Verna was “Mrs. McIntyre”; she played “Mrs. Beverly Wilshire” on Blue Ribbon Town (Groucho Marx’s show); “Aunt Aggie” on The Judy Canova Show; “Hattie Hirsch” on Point Sublime; “Mrs. Shaw” on Young Love; and “Mrs. Odetts” on the radio version of My Little Margie. The most high-profile gig for Verna at this time, however, was as a cast member of Red Skelton’s program.  Felton was the grandmother to Red’s “Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid.” (He affectionately called her “Namaw.”) She would play his foil — up to a point – and then introduce the little scamp to the business end of a hairbrush.

But Verna Felton demonstrated that she was capable of handling dramatic material on radio as well.  A list of her credits on the medium’s popular anthologies and other dramatic half-hours would include The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeArch Oboler’s PlaysBig Town, The Cavalcade of AmericaDr. ChristianEncore TheatreEscapeFamily TheatreFavorite StoryThe First Nighter ProgramThe Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TheatreLet George Do ItThe Radio Hall of FameThe Railroad Hour, Screen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodSuspenseTheatre of RomanceThis is My BestVoyage of the Scarlet QueenThe Whistler, and Wild Bill Hickok.

Verna Felton also made inroads on the silver screen, with performances in such films as Joe and Ethel Turp Call On the President (1939) and If I Had My Way (1940). Soon, she began to amass credits in movies like Girls of the Big House (1945), Buccaneer’s Girl (1950), New Mexico (1951), Little Egypt (1951), Bells on Their Toes (1952), and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952).  You might recognize the photo at the beginning of this essay from The Gunfighter (1950), a fine Western that features Felton as “Mrs. August Pennyfeather,” the head bluenose in a small hamlet that has asked lawman Millard Mitchell to run the titular gunslinger (Gregory Peck) out of town.  A better-known showcase for Verna was her splendid turn in Picnic (1955), in which she plays “Helen Potts,” a surrogate mom of sorts to William Holden’s drifter character. But her most famous movies allowed her to play to her strengths…by using her voice acting skills. She was heard in a large number of Walt Disney animation features, including Dumbo (1941), Cinderella (1950; as the fairy godmother who performs Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo), Alice in Wonderland (1951; the Queen of Hearts), Lady and the Tramp (1955; Aunt Sarah [with the Siamese cats]), and Sleeping Beauty (1959; as both fairy Flora and Queen Leah).  In fact, Felton’s final film credit was a Disney feature: she played “Winifred” the elephant in The Jungle Book (1967).

“Radio offers a pleasant existence for anyone; I like it because it gives me a chance to live a normal life,” observed Verna Felton in an interview for a 1944 issue of Radio Life.  Sadly, radio started to retreat into the wings by the 1950s, allowing its showier sibling (television) to steal the spotlight.  Still, Felton would be a small screen favorite by reprising her role as “Mrs. Day” on both The Jack Benny Program and Dennis’ RCA Victor show, and she made memorable appearances on popular series like I Love Lucy (“Lucy Hires a Maid”), I Married JoanThe Many Loves of Dobie GillisThe Real McCoys, and The Flintstones (she voiced Mrs. Slaghoople, Fred’s mother-in-law).  Verna’s most prominent TV showcase was as a cast member of December Bride, a sitcom that ran from 1954 to 1959.  Bride had its origins in radio, a 1952-53 series created by Parke Levy that he based on his own mother-in-law, who broke the mold of the stereotypical battle-axe.  Spring Byington originated the role of “Lily Ruskin” on the radio series and like co-star Felton (as her best pal and confederate “Hilda Crocker”), transitioned when the show was adapted to TV in the fall of 1954 to become an even bigger hit.  A year after Bride had left the airwaves, Verna would play Hilda on the first season of Pete and Gladys, a Bride spin-off built around next-door neighbor Pete Porter (Harry Morgan).  Verna Felton passed away at the age of 76 on December 14, 1966—just a day before her old boss, Walt Disney, would leave this world for a better one as well.

In the 1948 feature film comedy The Fuller Brush Man, Red Skelton plays a go-getting salesman who stops at a house and encounters a young hellion (Jimmy Hunt) who answers to “Junior.”  The lady playing Junior’s “Namaw”? None other than Verna Felton herself!  Make a note to catch it the next time it makes the rounds on cable…but until then, Radio Spirits invites you to check out our Red Skelton collections of ClowningMischief, and Scrapbook of Satire.  We’ve got plenty of Verna on our The Adventures of Philip Marlowe sets Lonely Canyons and Sucker’s Road, and also on Suspense compendiums Beyond Good and EvilFear and TremblingTies That Bind, and Wages of Sin.  In addition, we like to suggest that you sample our birthday girl on Big Town: Blind JusticeDuffy’s Tavern: Irish Eyes (she and Dennis Day are guest stars!), Family Theatre: Every HomeFibber McGee & Molly: Cleaning the ClosetThe Fitch Bandwagon (Phil Harris-Alice Faye): Stepping OutThe Great Gildersleeve: Family ManLet George Do It: Sweet PoisonThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Smoother and Sweeter, and Voyage of the Scarlet Queen: Volume Two.  We’ve saved the best for last: you can hear Verna in our Jack Benny collections The Fabulous 50sOn the TownPlanes, Trains and Automobiles, and Tough Luck! (and on Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud).  Happy, happy birthday to you, Verna!

Happy Birthday, Bill Thompson!

When he was five years old, actor Bill Thompson lost his voice campaigning around the country selling Liberty bonds (America had just entered World War I).  Now, if you’ve ever listened to a broadcast of Fibber McGee & Molly or watched a Droopy cartoon, you know that Thompson’s voice eventually returned…but it took two years of throat exercises to recover his instrument.  What’s more, Bill discovered as he got older that he was able to switch back and forth from bass to tenor with very little effort. (Doctors later determined that the actor’s ability to do this was a direct result of the temporary voice loss in his youth.)  Combined with a fine comedic sense, the man born William H. Thompson on this date in 1913 in Terre Haute, Indiana enjoyed a long and prosperous career on radio and in movies, providing voices for many of both mediums’ most memorable characters.

Bill Thompson’s hawking of Liberty bonds was done while he was in vaudeville, where he performed as a song-and-dance man alongside his parents—he was a stage veteran at age two, making his debut performing a tap dance.  He’d transition from the boards to a microphone in 1932 after a successful audition with NBC, garnering attention with a routine called “International Parade” (which included demonstrations of ten different dialects).  Thompson then appeared on such programs as The Breakfast ClubClub MatineeThe Hoofinghams, and The Saturday Night Jamboree.

Bill Thompson joined Jim and Marian Jordan on The Johnson Wax Program in January of 1936, and for most of his radio career Fibber McGee & Molly would be his bread-and-butter.  In the show’s early years, he played cafeteria owner Nick Depopolous, a malapropism-prone Greek who got big laughs mispronouncing words. (He called Fibber “Fizzer” and Molly “Kewpie.”)  Thompson also voiced Horatio K. Boomer (originally known as Widdicomb Blotto), a garrulous con man who sounded very much like W.C. Fields. That character’s standard shtick was rummaging through his pockets…where he would invariably find “a check for a short beer.”  Nick and Boomer would eventually fade out in the early forties, though there’s a Bing Crosby Show broadcast from October 10, 1951 that allows Bill to reprise his Boomer characterization.

One of the most popular Fibber & Molly characters voiced by Bill Thompson included The Old Timer, a half-deaf old codger who often had to have Fibber repeat things to him (“Whut say, Johnny?”)…and never failed to be tickled by McGee’s predilection for stretching the truth.  “That’s purty good, Johnny,” The Old Timer would observe, “but that ain’t the way I heerd it!”  (To do the Old Timer, Thompson would distort his jaw and speak as if he had no teeth.)  Another Thompson characterization that really took hold was Wallace Wimple, a henpecked creampuff who was forced to drop in on the McGees at 79 Wistful Vista to escape “Sweety Face” his “big ol’ wife.” The Wimple character was one that Bill had performed as far back as his days on The Breakfast Club, and the voice would later be recycled for a series of popular MGM cartoons featuring Droopy, a stone-faced basset hound (“Hello, folks…”).  The studio would produce the Droopy cartoon series from 1943 to 1958.

It could be argued that voicing Droopy was Bill Thompson’s longest-lasting contribution to motion pictures because outside of a few feature film appearances (1940’s Comin’ Round the Mountain, 1942’s Here We Go Again—the Fibber McGee & Molly film in which he plays Wallace Wimple). But this would diminish his work in many of the animation classics released by the Walt Disney Studios.  In Alice in Wonderland (1951), he voiced both the Dodo and the White Rabbit, and he was Captain Hook’s sidekick Mr. Smee in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953).  (Thompson would reprise this role in a Lux Radio Theatre presentation on December 21, 1953.)  Bill also did voice work in Sleeping Beauty (1959; as King Hubert) and The Aristocats (1970; Uncle Waldo), not to mention several Disney shorts in which he played park ranger J. Audubon Woodlore (Beezy BearIn the Bag).  His most impressive feat was voicing five characters in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp, notably Jock, the pugnacious Scottish terrier.

Bill Thompson’s work on Fibber McGee & Molly was interrupted briefly in the mid-1940s while he was “doing his bit” in the Navy. When he returned, he was given his own starring sitcom (The Bill Thompson Show) that aired briefly in the spring of 1946 on ABC.  In addition to his Fibber & Molly duties, Bill was a guest on programs headlined by Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Jimmy Durante & Garry Moore, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, Red Skelton (Avalon Time), and Rudy Vallee.  Thompson also guested on The CBS Radio WorkshopCommand PerformanceThe Great GildersleeveThe Halls of Ivy, and Wild Bill Hickok.  Thompson left show business in 1957 to take an executive position with Union Oil in Los Angeles but continued to keep his hand in when the mood hit. (He appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1959 as a contestant!)  This talented, funny man left this world for a better one in 1971 at the age of 58.

As a kid, it would be many years before I discovered the joys of old-time radio…but I already knew Bill Thompson as the voice of one of my cartoon heroes: Touche Turtle!  (“Touche away!”)  Bill voiced this character for a series produced by Hanna-Barbera in 1962, where he was joined by veteran radio actor Alan Reed as his loyal sheepdog sidekick Dum Dum.  Radio Spirits invites you to celebrate Mr. Thompson’s natal anniversary by picking up a few collections featuring his work on Fibber McGee & MollyCleaning the ClosetGone Fishing, and Wistful Vista.  You’ll also hear Bill on several of the wartime broadcasts featured on our Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy compendium Smile a While, and on the sets The Halls of Ivy: School DaysThe Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show: Smoother and Sweeter, and Great Radio Science Fiction (the CBS Radio Workshop presentation of “A Pride of Carrots”).  Happy birthday, Bill!

Happy Birthday, Tommy Cook!

One night in 1941, child actor Tommy Cook was determined to see the Republic cliffhanger serial Jungle Girl.  You see, he had a part in that motion picture as a native boy, Kimbu, so he stealthily sneaked out of the house and down to the neighborhood theatre…where he presented himself to the manager.  Cook didn’t have the twenty-five-cent admission to get in, so he persuaded the manager to let him see the picture in exchange for making a personal appearance on stage.  Done and done, as they say—and it probably stands as the lowest paid personal appearance in show biz history, instigated by the actor-producer-screenwriter born on this date in 1930.

Tommy Cook called Duluth, Minnesota home in his early years…in fact, Duluth was where he got his first taste of performing, winning a special prize (at the age of four) for “making a speech” at a father-and-son banquet.  His father’s medical condition (he suffered from Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment) necessitated that the family move to warmer climes, so the Cook clan soon found themselves putting down stakes in Los Angeles.  Tommy’s mother encouraged him to explore theatrics, so he studied at the Ben Bard School while performing at the Pasadena Playhouse as a child thespian.  It was Arch Oboler who would give an eight-year-old Cook his first radio job, and who became sort of a mentor for the youngster.

One of Tommy Cook’s most prominent radio roles was “Little Beaver” on The Adventures of Red Ryder. He also played this part in the 1940 serial (opposite Don “Red” Barry as the titular cowpoke) in one of his first motion picture gigs.  Tommy’s dark complexion made him a natural for roles in such films as The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942) and Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), where he played “Kimba” opposite Johnny Weissmuller.  Tommy appeared as the younger version of John Garfield’s character in Humoresque (1946), and could be seen in such silver screen titles as Hi, Buddy (1943), Strange Holiday (1945—a film written and directed by his mentor, Arch Oboler), Michael O’ Halloran (1948), Cry of the City (1948), and The Vicious Years (1950)—a movie that garnered him a Photoplay Award for “Outstanding Performance of the Year.”

As busy as Tommy Cook was on motion picture screens, his performances in front of a microphone were even more numerous. A 1944 Radio Life article (humorously titled “Busy Little Beaver”) noted that within one week Cook had appeared on BlondieMayor of the TownGallant HeartFashions in Rations (Billie Burke’s sitcom), The Great Gildersleeve, I Was There, and I Love a Mystery.  Blondie was a regular gig for Tommy (he played Alexander Bumstead), as was The Life of Riley (as Chester A. Riley, Jr.), A Date with Judy (Judy’s brother Randolph), and Smilin’ Ed and His Buster Brown Gang.  Cook’s work on comedy and variety shows extended to The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietCommand PerformanceFibber McGee & MollyOur Miss Brooks, and Point Sublime…plus guest spots on programs headlined by Abbott & Costello, Eddie Bracken, and Bob Burns.

Rounding out Tommy Cook’s radio resume are appearances on The Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintThe Cavalcade of AmericaFamily TheatreFree World TheatreGunsmokeThe Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreLet George Do ItThe Lux Radio TheatreSuspenseTales of the Texas RangersTo the President, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Long after the curtain had been rung down on “Radio’s Golden Age,” Tommy could still be heard emoting on the likes of The Adventures of Harry Nile, Heartbeat Theatre, and The Sears Radio Theatre.  Cook was also able to skillfully balance radio work with his motion picture career, notching up films like Panic in the Streets (1950), American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950), Battle Cry (1955), Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955), Night Passage (1957), and Alaska Passage (1959) to his credit.

Tommy Cook began to make inroads on the small screen by the 1950s, guest starring on such popular shows as DragnetThe Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and M Squad.  The following decade saw Cook on such TV programs as The UntouchablesThe Rifleman, and Perry Mason...yet he also reached back to his radio roots by providing voices for animated cartoon series such as The Superman/Aquaman Hour and The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He’d continue his cartoon work throughout the 1970s with The Funky Phantom and Jabberjaw, while also guest starring on the likes of The Streets of San Francisco and Marcus Welby, M.D. 

Some new horizons were opening up for Tommy in the 1970s. He served as an associate producer on such films as Rollercoaster (1977—which was based on his story) and Players (1979—he co-wrote the screenplay).  His lifelong love of tennis inspired him to pitch to the networks a competition on the courts involving top-name celebrities from “the big three” that came to be known as “Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes.”

Tommy Cook officially turns 89 today, and in honor of his natal anniversary we invite you to check out one of his signature radio roles as “Junior” in Radio Spirits’ The Life of Riley collection Blue Collar Blues.  You can also hear Tommy on our Strange Wills set, I Devise & Bequeath, and on our compendium of Mutual Radio Theatre broadcasts.  Happiest of birthdays to you, Tommy!

Happy Birthday, Ed Gardner!

It was on a short-lived radio series entitled This is New York that comedian Ed Gardner found his creative muse…playing a pugnacious New Yorker who answered to “Archie.”  Gardner was the show’s producer, and he’d be the first to admit that he was no actor—the only problem was, he wasn’t able to find a suitable thespian to play the role.  Ed decided to read the part himself in rehearsal, and in so doing convulsed the cast and crew to the point where it was clear he was the only person capable of doing the job.  “Archie” would later become the starring character in a situation comedy entitled Duffy’s Tavern, and make the man born in Astoria, NY (Long Island, you know) on this date in 1901 a household name.

Ed Gardner was born Friedrich Poggenburg, Jr….clearly, he made the right call in changing his name, which he did about the time he entered show business.  Before that, “Poggy” (as he was known to very close friends) received a formal education at both P.S. 4 and William Cullen Bryant High School…up to a point.  You see, the Family Poggenburg encouraged Ed to make his mark in the world without a lot of “fancy book learning,” and at age 14 Ed got a gig playing piano in a neighborhood saloon.  Prohibition sadly put an end to those activities, and like the quintessential hustler he’d later play on Duffy’s, Gardner soon embarked on a “jack-of-all-trades” tour that included jobs as a railroad dispatcher, a stenographer…and endless sales opportunities, peddling everything from pianos to paint.

Ed Gardner did well enough to divert the wolf at the door, but money seemed to run through his fingers. Things really didn’t take off for him until he married actress Shirley Booth in 1929.  Booth was an ambitious performer who dreamed of conquering Broadway, and although she wasn’t particularly sold on her husband developing the same talent, Ed was determined to make his name in show business as well (banking on his fast patter and talent for ingratiating himself with people).  It wasn’t long before Gardner found work as a theatrical publicist, and from that he got into radio as a producer with the J. Walter Thompson agency — working on shows with the likes of Bing Crosby, George Burns, and Gracie Allen.  Along the way, he made the acquaintance of writer Ace Burrows, whose sardonic style of comedy appealed to Ed.  The two men pooled their talents on This is New York in 1938. The series didn’t last long, but the “Archie” creation of Gardner’s became popular enough to make later appearances on Good News of 1940 and Forecast (which devoted a half-hour to a pilot that ultimately became Duffy’s Tavern).

While working as the producer on Rudy Vallee’s Sealtest variety program, Ed Gardner received word from the Schick Razors people that they were interested in sponsoring a Duffy’s Tavern series. Ahead of the March 1, 1941 premiere over CBS, Gardner tapped his buddy Ace Burrows to be the head writer. The two men assembled both an impressive writing staff and supporting cast. Charlie Cantor (one of Fred Allen’s prized stooges) was heard as the stupefyingly dense Clifton Finnegan (his name was a parody of the host of Information Please), and veteran African-American comic Eddie Green became “Eddie the waiter.”  Gardner also cast his spouse Shirley Booth as “Miss Duffy,” the daughter of the tavern’s owner. She was there the keep a close eye on things, because (as we were informed every week) “Duffy ain’t here.” Ed presided over the weekly half-hour proceedings as “Archie the manager,” a fast-talking con man constantly searching for ways to rise above his lowly (serving) station.  Booth didn’t stay with Duffy’s Tavern for long (nor did her marriage to Ed last), and while Gardner welcomed a slew of fine comic actresses to fill the void (including Florence Halop, Sara Berner, Sandra Gould, and Doris Singleton), he often lamented that Shirley’s shoes were hard to fill.

Duffy’s Tavern would soon become one of radio’s most popular radio comedy shows. It justly acquired a reputation as a smartly-written series, and Hollywood celebrities jumped at the opportunity to visit the famed Manhattan dive to be insulted by Archie (while garnering huge laughs in the process).  A number of Tinseltown’s top stars made cameos in a 1945 motion picture based on the film, and while the merits of the movie are often debated (Gardner himself didn’t care for it), the participation of so many film personalities (Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake) ensured a big box office take.  (Ed later tried his hand at producing motion pictures with a 1951 feature, The Man With My Face—but it turned out to be a notorious flop.)  In addition to his weekly duties bragging to audiences that Duffy’s was “where the elite meet to eat,” Gardner made the rounds on such shows as The Big ShowThe Camel Comedy CaravanThe Columbia WorkshopCommand PerformanceJubileeThe Kraft Music HallMail CallPaul Whiteman PresentsThe Radio Hall of FameThe Sealtest Variety Theatre, and Suspense (“The Kettler Method”).  Ed was also made welcome on shows headlined by Fred Allen, Dick Haymes, Kate Smith, and Alan Young.

In 1949, Ed Gardner decided to move production of Duffy’s Tavern to Puerto Rico, which allowed him to take advantage of the country’s favorable tax laws.  In hindsight, it may have been a sound business decision, but the relocation hurt the program: Eddie Green passed away not long after the move, Gardner had trouble keeping writers on staff, and unless a celebrity was in the mood for a nice vacation getting big stars to appear on the program was a challenge.  Television also began to threaten the show’s sponsorship, and when the series left NBC on December 28, 1951, Gardner decided to give TV a try with a video version of Duffy’s that was syndicated between 1954 and 1955.  Although Ed made a few more TV appearances after the cancellation of the TV Duffy’s (including two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), his failing health curtailed much of his show business activity.  He left this world for a better one on August 17, 1963 at the age of 62.

“Comedy writing is a labor of love of black coffee,” Ed Gardner once joked about his profession.  The stories of Gardner being a tough taskmaster are legion (I recommend a purchase of Jordan R. Young’s The Laugh Crafters for some anecdotes that we can’t quite quote appropriately here), but his radio creation of Duffy’s Tavern remains of the medium’s funniest shows. Our birthday boy is held in high regard as a first-rate editor who knew funny when he heard it.  For the skeptics in the audience, I also recommend the Radio Spirits collections Duffy Ain’t Here and our newest compendium Irish Eyes for their large belly laugh quotient.  If you’d like to learn more about the history behind the Tavern, leave us invest in a copy of Duffy’s Tavern: A History of Ed Gardner’s Radio Program, written by Radio Spirits’ own Martin Grams, Jr.  Happy Birthday, Ed!