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It is interesting to note that one of radio’s most popular mystery anthologies—The Mollé Mystery Theatre, which debuted over NBC Radio seventy-two years ago on this date—did without its identifying sponsor for a period of three months when it first premiered September 7, 1943. The decision of the “heavier brushless shaving cream” to pick up the advertising tab apparently gave Sterling Drugs (the manufacturer of Mollé) the freedom to attach its name to the program…though when the series migrated to CBS in the fall of 1948, MMT shed the “Mollé” to become simply Mystery Theatre. (It would soon pick up an assortment of different identifiers in its long broadcast history.)

molle2In its original incarnation, The Mollé Mystery Theatre spotlighted tales of mystery cribbed from the works of celebrated authors (from Edgar Allan Poe to Raymond Chandler). The stories were presented through an “annotator” (a fancy description for narrator) who answered to “Geoffrey Barnes”—originally played by Roc Rogers, but Bernard Lenrow is the actor best-remembered in the role. Barnes dubbed himself “the connoisseur of mysteries,” and I’ll bet after his time on the program ended he spent his retirement lunching weekly with Crime Classics’ Thomas Hyland (“the connoisseur of crime”). Okay, I am joking about that—still, Barnes was no slouch when it came to spinning yarns guaranteed to keep listeners on the edge of their seat. When Mollé Mystery Theatre ran dry of inspiration with classic stories, it turned to new contributions from writers who in many instances were making their earliest forays into radio, including Aldous Huxley (“The Giaconda Smile”) and Ray Bradbury (“Killer Come Back to Me”).

molle7Dan Seymour was the longtime announcer for Mollé Mystery Theatre, and the casts of the various episodes included New York veterans like Joseph Julian, Elspeth Eric, Frank Lovejoy, Anne Seymour and Inner Sanctum’s Raymond Edward Johnson. (A newcomer named Richard Widmark was also a frequent performer on Mollé until he moved on to a lucrative film career pushing old ladies in wheelchairs down staircases.) When Mollé was broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Service, the name of the sponsor had to be dropped from the title…but they made up for this by adding some real star wattage in Peter Lorre, who became the host of a show alternately known as Mystery Theatre and Mystery Playhouse (an umbrella title for several other radio favorites, too, like Mr. and Mrs. North and The Saint).

hummertsIn the fall of 1948, CBS began broadcasting the series because…well, because they had been successful in taking everything else from NBC. A slight exaggeration, to be sure, but the program continued on as Mystery Theatre despite the continuing sponsorship of Sterling Drugs (they chose to promote other products such as Bayer aspirin and Phillips Milk of Magnesia). The production of Mystery Theatre was also placed in the hands of Frank and Anne Hummert…who may have been unparalleled in the field of daytime soaps, but unfortunately applied the same heavy-handed melodramatic methods to their mystery shows as well (see Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons). One of their innovations was to introduce a character entitled Inspector Hearthstone, a dedicated detective played by British actor Alfred Shirley, who worked in the homicide division (nicknamed “the Death Squad”) of London’s Metropolitan Police Department. (It’s speculated that the Hummerts were more comfortable with a solitary protagonist rather than an array of different sleuths week-to-week.) Accompanied by Detective Sam Cook (James Meighan) in his pursuits, Hearthstone made his debut on Mystery Theatre in February of 1949 and by the end of the series’ run, had pretty much taken over the show (only a few broadcasts focused on other characters).

shirleyThe August 30, 1951 broadcast of Mystery Theatre provided ample evidence of Hearthstone’s successful coup; the show had been retitled Hearthstone of the Death Squad, and it continued on CBS until September the following year—with many of the show’s previous scripts recycled to showcase its new star. Mystery Theatre fans had to tune into ABC Radio beginning in October of 1951 to continue listening to the show made famous by Sterling Drugs’ sponsorship…but they would have been disappointed to discover that the Mystery Theatre anthology had gone the way of Hearthstone by changing its focus to a single protagonist as well. That man was Mark Saber, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide bureau, who solved murders with the help of his sidekick, Sergeant Tim Maloney. (Mark Saber was originally played by Robert Carroll, with Les Damon and Bill Johnstone following; Maloney was essayed by Walter Burke and James Westerfield.) The once-proud Mystery Theatre had morphed into just another hard-boiled detective series—and in fact, was often referred to as Mark Saber or Homicide Squad. It did, however, have the distinction of making the move onto the small screen as Saber of London, telecast on both the ABC and NBC television networks at various times between 1951 and 1960. The radio version closed its case files on June 30, 1954.

molle4On the Radio Spirits’ horror compilation Great Radio Horror, the Mollé Mystery Theatre is represented with a spine-tingling tale entitled “The Beckoning One” (originally broadcast on June 5, 1945). But devoted fans will want to grab a copy of Mollé Mystery Theatre: Nightmare for their old-time radio libraries—with programs hosted by Roc Rogers, Bernard Lenrow and Peter Lorre, and featuring classics like Cornell Woolrich’s “Nightmare” (brought to the silver screen as the 1947 noir Fear in the Night) and Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (later a memorable episode of TV’s Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff). The DVD Rare TV Mystery also features an episode of Saber of London from 1952, “The Case of the Locked Room,” with Tom Conway bringing the radio sleuth to boob tube life!

Happy Birthday, Shirley Booth!


There’s an oft-repeated observation that purportedly came from Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel on the controversial topic of her satisfaction with playing subservient domestic roles throughout her career. “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?” Hattie was quoted as saying. “If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” It would seem that most of the good-paying housekeeper jobs existed in Hollywood, and no one knew that better than Shirley Booth—born in Brooklyn, New York on this date in 1898. From 1961 to 1966, the woman originally known as Thelma Marjorie Ford would achieve television immortality as the meddlesome maid Hazel, and would be nominated three times for Outstanding Continued Performance by a Lead Actress in a Series (she won twice, in 1962 and 1963).

booth18Booth’s educational pursuits took her to schools in Brooklyn and Hartford, Connecticut…but only until the age of 14, when she defied her father’s wishes and quit school to pursue a stage career. Shirley was not an overnight success; her first professional performance wouldn’t materialize until 1921 (a role in The Cat and the Canary). But four years later, she made her Broadway debut in Hell’s Bells, which also had the novelty of featuring a young Humphrey Bogart in the cast. Shirley’s love of acting was often concentrated on the stage; she appeared in nearly 40 Broadway productions and worked in 600 productions with various stock companies. Her better known Broadway contributions include The Philadelphia Story, My Sister Eileen, Tomorrow the World, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Desk Set. (Shirley even auditioned to reprise the role she originated on stage for the movie version of Desk Set…but lost out to Katharine Hepburn.)

duffystavernWhile Shirley Booth’s stage career was whooshing along at full speed, she was able to conquer radio with a little help from the man she married in 1929: Ed Gardner. On March 1, 1941, Gardner debuted as “Archie the Manager” on the popular situation comedy Duffy’s Tavern. And to play the role of the saloon owner’s man-crazy daughter, Ed solicited the participation of Mrs. Gardner. Ed and Shirley called it quits in September of 1942, but she continued to play Miss Duffy on the show until June of 1943. Depending on the source, the two of them just couldn’t work together anymore or they parted as the best of friends. (The latter is perhaps closer to the truth, considering that Gardner lamented afterward that the myriad actresses who followed in Booth’s wake just couldn’t measure up to her original portrayal.)

booth19Shirley had actually performed on radio before the Duffy’s Tavern gig: she appeared on the now-famous December 17, 1936 broadcast of Rudy Vallee’s Royal Gelatin Hour that introduced ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his saucy sidekick Charlie McCarthy to the airwaves. (Shirley did a scene from Three Diamond Bid, a Broadway production in which she was appearing at the time.) But upon her departure from Duffy’s, she found herself in demand playing a character not unlike Miss Duffy: “Dottie Mahoney.” She guested on the shows of such comedians as Fred Allen and Danny Kaye, and worked alongside the likes of Vaughn Monroe and Kate Smith. Other radio favorites on which Shirley made appearances include The Cavalcade of America, The Ford Theatre, It Pays to Be Ignorant, The Radio Reader’s Digest, The Raleigh Room, The Theater of Romance, and The Theatre Guild On The Air.

booth10If Shirley Booth had been able to put over a little more comedy in her portrayal of Connie Brooks, chances are we’d remember Our Miss Brooks for Shirley and not Eve Arden (who ultimately won the role). Booth played Madison High’s favorite English teacher for the series’ April 8, 1948 audition, but CBS Radio programming chief Harry Ackerman felt that Shirley had problems finding the humorous side of Miss Brooks (empathizing with the difficult working conditions of teachers and their low pay instead). Shirley got a consolation prize in a short-lived NBC sitcom entitled Hogan’s Daughter, on which she played yet another Miss Duffy clone who actively sought out marriage prospects. (Harry Ackerman later became an executive with Screen Gems Television in 1958, and it’s not hard to discern that he remembered Shirley when it came to casting Hazel.)

booth13Besides, after winning a Tony Award for her performance in 1949’s Goodbye, My Fancy—and a third statuette for The Time of the Cuckoo in 1952-53—Shirley Booth was in full command of her acting career. Her second Tony win for playing a housewife dealing with her alcoholic husband in William Inge’s debut play Come Back, Little Sheba would also open doors for her in Hollywood: she reprised her stage role in the movie version, and nabbed the Best Actress Oscar for her memorable portrayal. Her Academy Award trophy brought about its share of controversy, however. Many feel that Booth’s skimpy film resume—she appeared in only four additional films, including About Mrs. Leslie (1954) and The Matchmaker (1958)—demonstrates that she cared more about the stage than becoming a movie star. (To these people I say: “Pish tosh.”)

booth5Her sporadic movie roles did not preclude the success she would enjoy in Hazel when the decision was made to bring Ted Key’s popular Saturday Evening Post comic panel strip to television. Shirley showed great interest in the project after Thelma Ritter reportedly took a pass. Burt Lancaster, her co-star in Come Back, Little Sheba, tried to warn her off the series by stating the experience would “cheapen” her. “Time will tell if it cheapens me,” she told him in response, “and if it does, I hope to be as cheapened as Lucy.” (“Lucy” as in Lucille Ball, of course.) The Hazel series ran for four seasons on NBC before switching to CBS in its final season…and it might have gone on for much longer had Booth herself not made the decision to quit the show (the long working hours were murder on her bursitis). Since Shirley owned a nice little piece of Hazel, the “cheap” experience paid off well when the show hit syndication.

booth11After Hazel, Shirley Booth limited her boob tube appearances to guest spots on sitcoms like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and specials like a 1966 presentation of The Glass Menagerie, for which she received her fourth and final Emmy nomination. Her Emmy wins for Hazel—not to mention her three Tony statuettes and Oscar for Sheba—place her in a rare category known as “The Triple Crown of Acting.” In 1973, Shirley took one more stab at a sitcom by starring in A Touch of Grace, a series based on the popular Britcom For the Love of Ada. Though well-written and well-acted, the show faced stiff competition from another U.K.-to-U.S. transplant, All in the Family, and Grace was cancelled after thirteen weeks. Shirley Booth’s final television credit would be voice work in the now-classic holiday special The Year Without a Santa Claus. She passed away on October 16, 1992 at the age of 94.

Happy Birthday, Gloria Blondell!


If Gloria Blondell—born in Manhattan, NY one hundred and five years ago on this date—ever resented living in the shadow of older sister Joan, she rarely displayed any outside bitterness. This is not to say that occasionally being mistaken for the film star (Joan) who appeared in such classic Warner Bros. musicals as Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade didn’t present problems for Gloria…but since both she and her sister hailed from a theatrical tradition that Gloria herself once said dated all the way back to Richard the Lionhearted, there was no shortage of time to stand in front of the floodlights for Miss Blondell—besides, she preferred stage work to films, not to mention she left behind an old-time radio resume of which any actress would be proud.

gloria1Gloria first stepped onstage as a nine-month-old member of the vaudeville troupe “The Bouncing Blondells.” Her sister Joan and brother Eddie also performed with their parents—the senior Blondell (Eddie, Jr.), in fact, had an acting career that lasted nearly 80 years. While Joan was making inroads into Hollywood motion pictures in the 1930s, Gloria was establishing herself on stage with a role as a hotel maid in the 1935 New York production of Three Men on a Horse (which would be adapted as a feature film at Warner’s the following year). She followed this with a brief stint in the 1936 play Iron Men, which featured a young Eddie Bracken in the cast.

Gloria Blondell took a stab at motion picture work when she was signed to a contract at sister Joan’s studio Warner Bros. in 1938. Her film debut was in a B-programmer entitled Daredevil Drivers, and she also made appearances in Accidents Will Happen (starring opposite Ronald Reagan) and Four’s a Crowd (with Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland). Gloria also worked briefly at Columbia, appearing in two-reel comedies alongside The Three Stooges (Three Sappy People), Andy Clyde (Home on the Rage) and Charley Chase (The Sap Takes a Wrap). Blondell’s film work was sporadic after that; though it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had she landed a role she was the first choice for—the part of Blondie Bumstead, in a movie comedy inspired by Chic Young’s popular comic strip. Penny Singleton wound up with the part, and played it in what would be the first of twenty-eight comedies produced at Columbia between 1938 and 1950. Penny would also reprise on radio when a Blondie sitcom premiered over CBS Radio in 1939.

mysteryInterestingly, it was radio that would provide the central showcase for Gloria’s acting talents. Her best-remembered radio work is inarguably that of playing the indispensable Jerri Booker, gal Friday to Jack, Doc and Reggie on Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery from 1939 to 1944. The Jerri character became so important to the series that for a time it was trumpeted in the opening as “the adventures of Jack, Doc and Jerri.” After Mystery, Blondell played another assistant in Gloria Dean on Hollywood Mystery Time (1944-45), a series about a Poverty Row filmmaker named Jim Laughton (played by Carlton Young) who propped up his moviemaking ambitions by solving mysteries in his (and Gloria’s) spare time. Gloria was a favorite performer of radio auteur Arch Oboler, who used her frequently on Lights Out as well as Plays for Americans and Arch Oboler’s Plays. (Fittingly, Gloria would appear—along with fellow radio veteran Hans Conried—in the Arch Oboler-directed film The Twonky in 1953.) Blondell would make the rounds on a number of popular dramatic anthologies including All-Star Western Theatre, Diary of Fate, Family Theatre, Hallmark Playhouse, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood, and The Theater of Famous Radio Players.

gloria3Dig through your old-time radio collection, and you’ve certainly heard Gloria Blondell on such favorites as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the Saint, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, Escape, The Green Lama, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Let George Do It, The Man Called X, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Rocky Jordan, Rogue’s Gallery, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Gloria also demonstrated a flair for mirthmaking on sitcoms such as The Great Gildersleeve and Our Miss Brooks, and working alongside comedians like Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Jack Kirkwood, Lum and Abner (Chester Lauck and Norris Goff), and Bob Sweeney & Hal March.

gloria9In the 1950s, Gloria continued to be seen in such films as Don’t Bother to Knock and White Lightning, but she was probably better known for supplying the voice of Daisy Duck in the six Walt Disney cartoons that gave Donald’s long-suffering girlfriend a speaking part. Blondell also began to grace small screen shows as The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor and Wanted: Dead or Alive; I Love Lucy fans might remember her as neighbor Grace Foster in the classic outing “The Anniversary Present.” But Gloria’s most notable TV gig was playing Olive “Honeybee” Gillis (a part that Shirley Mitchell had played on radio) on The Life of Riley when the popular William Bendix radio sitcom took a second boob tube try in 1953. Blondell also did voice work on Calvin and the Colonel, the Joe Connelly-Bob Mosher produced animated sitcom that was created by radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. It must have seemed like Old Home Week for Gloria in that she was given the opportunity to work with many old-time radio veterans like Virginia Gregg, Paul Frees, June Foray and Howard McNear. It would be Blondell’s last professional gig: she retired not long after and enjoyed some well-deserved R&R until her passing in 1986.

20822Here at Radio Spirits, our Lights Out collections provide a wonderful starting point for those interested in checking out the always solid radio work of Gloria Blondell: Lights Out, Everybody features the classic chiller “Valse Triste” while Later Than You Think showcases the memorable “Murder in the Script Department.” Our birthday girl is also featured in two sets of Let George Do It (including our newest release, Cry Uncle) and The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint is Heard, The Saint Solves the Case). In addition, Ms. Blondell is present and accounted for on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road), Escape (The Hunted and the Haunted), The Man from Homicide, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead Men), Voyage of the Scarlet Queen Volume Two, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Confidential). Settle back for a birthday listen, won’t you?

Happy Birthday, Lucille Ball!


One hundred and four years ago on this date in Jamestown, NY, the woman who would become virtually synonymous with television situation comedy entered this world as Lucille Désirée Ball. October 15, 1951 marked the small screen debut of I Love Lucy, a domestic comedy vehicle featuring Lucy and her real-life bandleader husband Desi Arnaz. Ostensibly a boob tube incarnation of a radio series that Ball had enjoyed success with as My Favorite Husband, I Love Lucy would become the breakout hit of the 1951-52 season and later earned iconic status as one of television’s most beloved shows. This despite the consensus from critics at the time of I Love Lucy’s premiere that the series probably wouldn’t “amount to anything.”

younglucyGrowing up in Celeron, NY, Lucy had a number of family members who encouraged her acting ambitions: her grandfather Fred often took his “Lucyball” to vaudeville shows in her youth, and when her mother DeDe remarried after her husband Henry’s death (when Lucy was 3), Lucy’s new stepfather also wasn’t shy about pushing her into the footlights; he was responsible for staging many of the talent shows put on by his fellow Shriners. It was DeDe who arranged for Lucy to attend the prestigious John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in NYC in 1927…though the faculty informed their impressionable pupil that she “had no future at all as a performer.” Lucy would have the last laugh. First, she found work as a model (achieving a little fame as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl). Next, after adopting the moniker “Diane Belmont,” she started getting small parts in Broadway productions.

It wasn’t until Ball decided to migrate West to Hollywood that her career started to take off. She’d land bit roles in films like The Bowery, Blood Money, Broadway Bill, and The Whole Town’s Talking…and as one of the Goldwyn Girls worked alongside Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals and Kid Millions. Although Lucy would appear in movie classics like Follow the Fleet and Stage Door, admittedly much of her feature film work was of a B-picture variety. She was known informally by the nickname “Queen of the B’s”…though in all fairness, there was more than one queen buzzing around in that hive.

lucyharpoYears after the success of I Love Lucy, many Ball biographers would lament that the motion picture studios at which she was employed often overlooked her comedic talents and chose to focus instead on her as a glamour-gal. While this is true to a certain point, it’s fascinating to look back at Lucy’s cinema resume and see just how well-schooled she became in the art of mirthmaking. While at Columbia Pictures, she took lessons from the likes of The Three Stooges (Three Little Pigskins) and Leon Errol (Perfectly Mismated), and upon being signed to RKO she continued her tutelage under Billy Gilbert (So and Sew) and Edgar Kennedy (Dummy Ache). She yukked it up with the Marx Brothers in the 1938 feature Room Service, and with Jack Oakie made two amusing films in The Affairs of Annabel and Annabel Takes a Tour. Moving to MGM in the 1940s, Lucy would work with Red Skelton and Abbott & Costello, and made a devoted friend in legend Buster Keaton. The latter may have only been employed as a gag writer after his phenomenal success in silent films, but he gave Lucy invaluable advice in the finer points of comedy.

lucybergenmccarthyLucille Ball also continued her comedy lessons in the medium of radio. One of her earliest aural showcases was as a regular on The Wonder Show, a 1938-39 series starring Jack Haley and featuring an announcer who would later play an important role in Ball’s radio and television career: Gale Gordon. Lucy would also work with such comedians and headliners as Phil Baker, Victor Borge, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy. In fact, Lucy was Edgar’s love interest in the 1941 film Look Who’s Laughing…which also featured another well-known radio comedy duo: Fibber McGee & Molly.

lucilleball7Her exposure in motion pictures meant that she was in demand on such programs as The Campbell Playhouse, The Cavalcade of America, Command Performance, Family Theatre, G.I. Journal, Good News of 1940, The Screen Guild Theatre, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Mail Call, The Philip Morris Playhouse, and Screen Directors’ Playhouse. Lucy’s best-remembered dramatic work was on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”; she appeared on Suspense a total of six times (including the classic broadcast “Dime a Dance”)—including two performances alongside her husband, Desi Arnaz. The stability of performing on radio had appeal for Ball, who was experiencing problems in her marriage to Arnaz (Desi’s bandleading took him out of town often, and he had a reputation as a playboy). She suggested the idea of a radio show to her agent, Don Sharpe, and he reported back to her with what he thought was an ideal candidate: a situation comedy based on a best-selling novel entitled Mr. & Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage, by Isabel Scott Rorick.

myfavoritehusband6Lucy lobbied CBS Radio hard to let Desi play her husband on the new series—which had been given the title My Favorite Husband—but the network brass refused to budge, thinking that no one in the audience would buy the idea of their star being married to a Cuban entertainer…despite the fact she really was married to a Cuban entertainer. Instead, Lucy’s co-star would be dependable leading man Richard Denning. The pair debuted as Liz and George Cugat with the premiere of My Favorite Husband on July 23, 1948 (after a special “preview” on July 5…which featured Lee Bowman as Lucy’s hubby). The series enjoyed only middling success until writer-director-producer Jess Oppenheimer was brought aboard to “tweak” the show. He changed the last name of the couple to “Cooper” and made Lucy’s “Liz” character more child-like and impulsive. (Qualities that were present, by the way, in the comedienne that Oppenheimer worked for before the Husband gig—Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks.)

beagaleOppenheimer also introduced an older couple to act as a contrast to the Coopers: Rudolph and Iris Atterbury. The male Atterbury had appeared on the series in the beginning (he was George’s boss at the bank where they worked), but assigning the role to Gale Gordon was a stroke of comedy genius, as he was a perfect foil for Lucy’s aural shenanigans. Iris was played by Bea Benaderet, and other performers on Husband included Ruth Parrott (as Katie, the maid), Hal March, Hans Conried, Frank Nelson and Eleanor Aubrey.

iballlu001p1When plans were made to bring My Favorite Husband to TV in the form of I Love Lucy, Ball very much wanted Gordon and Benaderet along to play the neighbors on that program, Fred and Ethel Mertz. But Benaderet was already committed to George Burns and Gracie Allen’s series, and Gordon would transition with nearly the entire cast of Our Miss Brooks for that show’s TV antics. (However, both Gale and Bea later did guest appearances on I Love Lucy.) One casting decision that would not be negotiated was Lucy’s choice for her small screen husband: she was quite fond of Richard Denning, but it was going to be Desi Arnaz or no show. This time, The Powers That Be at CBS caved…and we’re glad they did, because the rest became television history.

20520I could, of course, continue on and on about the amazing accomplishments of today’s birthday celebrant…but they’re not going to warn me again about the bandwidth usage. Instead, I’ll let you know that Radio Spirits has selected episodes of Lucy’s signature radio series My Favorite Husband on their potpourri compilation Happy Halloween! So and Sew, the comedy two-reeler I mentioned earlier that features Lucy with Billy Gilbert, is available on the DVD set Lost Comedies of the ‘30s. One hundred and four years after her birth…we still love Lucy.

Happy Birthday, Irene Tedrow!


I’d never be able to prove it in a court of law…but I’d be willing to gamble that when the need arose for an actress to play the part of a spinster or neighborhood busybody, Irene Tedrow was on everyone’s speed dial. (Okay, I just remembered that they didn’t have speed dial back then—that might explain why I’d have difficulty with my court case.) Tedrow, born on this date in 1907, enjoyed a rewarding stage and screen career—not to mention radio and TV—as one of the go-to people for matronly roles. Fittingly, in the twilight of her career, she would move on to playing grandmotherly types as well.

tedrow1It wasn’t always this way, of course. Though born in Denver, CO, Irene attended Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, PA and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama in 1929. With that, Tedrow actively pursued a stage career as an ingenue, appearing frequently at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum and San Diego’s Old Globe Theater (of which she was a founding member). She was the recipient of much acclaim at another Old Globe venue in 1934—this time at Chicago’s World Fair, where she performed the roles of eighteen Shakespearean heroines in tandem with the Maurice Evans Company. Irene never fell out of love with the stage, acting in such productions as Our Town (which also featured Oscar-winning actor Henry Fonda at the Plumstead Playhouse). Pygmalion, and The Hot L Baltimore.

tedrow5Becoming a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater opened a lot of doors in radio for Irene Tedrow. She would work with such radio legends as Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler (appearing on Oboler’s Lights Out, Plays for Americans and his self-titled Plays series), and had parts on such dramatic anthologies as All-Star Western Theatre, California Caravan, The Cavalcade of America, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, Great Plays, The Lux Radio Theatre, NBC Presents: Short Story, Romance, and Screen Directors’ Playhouse. Tedrow’s radio resume also includes guest appearances on the likes of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the Saint, The CBS Radio Workshop, Defense Attorney, Dragnet, Escape, Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel, Let George Do It, The Line Up, Mr. President, Night Beat, Pursuit, Rogers of the Gazette, The Whistler, Wild Bill Hickok, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. In addition, Irene was a favorite of “Mr. Radio,” director-producer-actor Elliott Lewis, acting frequently on the Lewis-produced Broadway’s My Beat, Crime Classics, On Stage, and Suspense.

meetcorlissarcher2Irene Tedrow had regular roles on daytime dramas like Aunt Mary (as Jessie Calvert) and The Gallant Heart (as Captain Julia Porter), and played opposite Donald Crisp (and later Gale Gordon) on the 1946 newspaper drama Jonathan Trimble, Esquire. She was Dorothy Regent, sister of Chandu the Magician, when that character was revived for an ABC series in 1948. But Tedrow’s most enduring radio gig was playing Janet Archer, the mother of the titular heroine in the sitcom Meet Corliss Archer; after taking over from Gloria Holden less than a month into the series, Irene would play Janet until the show left the air in 1956. Not only did this give Tedrow experience to appear on other sitcoms like Life with Luigi and My Friend Irma, but it allowed her to transition to the brief TV version of Archer in 1952 (though once again, she waited for another actress—Freida Inescort—to hand over the role before taking over).

tedrow2On the silver screen, Irene Tedrow appeared in close to fifty feature films—often uncredited, but she graced such classics as Cheers for Miss Bishop, The Moon and Sixpence, Journey Into Fear, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, They Won’t Believe Me, Thieves’ Highway, The Company She Keeps, A Lion is in the Streets, Not as a Stranger, Loving You, Saddle the Wind, Never So Few, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Parent Trap, and The Cincinnati Kid. (Tedrow is purportedly—according to the IMDb—an extra in 1956’s The Ten Commandments; I invite you to look at the movie next Easter and see if you can pick her out.) Irene’s work on the TV version of Meet Corliss Archer would also make her a much in-demand character actress on the small screen, with appearances on such classic series as Dragnet, The Millionaire, December Bride, Rawhide, Maverick and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

tedrow4Tedrow’s most prominent television role was that of Ms. Lucy Elkins—one of several neighbors to the hellion known as Dennis the Menace in the 1959-63 TV sitcom based on the comic strip character created by Hank Ketcham. Ms. Elkins functioned as the disapproving nemesis of “good ol’” Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns, Gale Gordon), and no doubt enjoyed working again with her old-time radio colleagues Kearns, Gordon and Mary Wickes (who played Miss Esther Cathcart). Throughout the 1960’s, Irene flourished in guest appearances on such iconic series as The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, The Andy Griffith Show, The Fugitive, and Peyton Place.

tedrow8In the 1970s, Irene Tedrow would receive recognition from her peers with two Emmy Award nominations. The first was for portraying future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandmother, Mary Ludlow Hall, in the 1976 TV movie Eleanor and Franklin (Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Comedy or Drama Special). Two years later, Irene was nominated again for a guest appearance (Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series) on the short-lived teen drama James at 15. Tedrow continued her TV work on shows like St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law, but a stroke she suffered in 1989 curtailed any future small screen work, and she passed away in 1995 at the age of 87.

20827Irene Tedrow’s signature radio roles are available from Radio Spirits in the form of a Meet Corliss Archer collection and a set of Chandu the Magician broadcasts…but she’s also featured on Broadway’s My Beat (Murder, Neon Shoals) and Crime Classics (Crime Classics, The Hyland Files). If you’re a sharp-eared listener, you can also hear her on The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint is Heard, The Saint Solves the Case), Defense Attorney, Let George Do It, The Line Up (Witness), Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Phantom Chases) and our potpourri compilations Radio’s Christmas Celebrations and Stop the Press! Happy birthday to one of the true character greats!

”The only national program that brings you authentic police case histories…”


Radio’s resident “crime buster” was inarguably director-producer-writer Philips H. Lord, who gravitated to creating crime-themed programs. Perhaps the fate met by his first success over the airwaves, a folksy drama entitled Seth Parker, pushed him in that direction. That series became the victim of a publicity stunt gone awry (involving a schooner that wound up shipwrecked in the South Pacific). Among the popular “law-and-order” shows created by Lord were Mr. District Attorney (1939-52), Counterspy (1942-57) and Treasury Agent (1947-57). But, his biggest success, which premiered on this date eighty years ago in 1935, was a series that would influence later radio dramas like Dragnet and modern-day television programs like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries. We know it as: Gang Busters!

phillipshlord2The premise for what ultimately became Gang Busters was a devastatingly simple one—though at the time of its premiere over NBC Blue, the series was known as G-Men. (Not to be confused with the similarly named James Cagney motion picture, released at about the same time.) The show’s stories concentrated on the notorious “outlaws” who were then making newspaper headlines: John Dillinger, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, etc. Lord had been able to title the series “G-Men” because he had obtained the blessing of Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover to cooperate with the program’s production. However, Hoover soon objected to the director-producer’s heavy concentration on gunplay and expressed his dissatisfaction by withdrawing the FBI’s participation. That lead to G-Men’s cancellation in October of 1935…but it would soon reemerge in a revamped form over CBS beginning January 15, 1936 under its now-legendary title.

gangbusters4As Gang Busters, the series continued in the same vein as G-Men, except that the focus was now directed to lesser-publicized crime cases (usually with a local, state or federal flavor). This did not, however, minimize the program’s excitement…in fact, Gang Busters’ audiences were sucked in from the get-go with one of radio’s most memorable openings. A police whistle and sirens kicked off the proceedings, followed by shuffling feet, screeching tires, gunshots and the rat-a-tat of machine guns. (This loud and brash cacophony introduced the slang phrase “coming on like gang busters” to the American lexicon.) After each docudramatic case, Phillips H. Lord himself would interview either a local lawman or federal agent who had figured heavily in that evening’s dramatization. Lord later turned over his host duties to H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who had grabbed national headlines as one of the lead investigators in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case. (Schwarzkopf’s son, “Stormin’” Norman Jr., later became well-known for his participation in the 1991 Gulf War.) Other Gang Busters hosts included Dean Carlton and John C. Hilley…not to mention retired New York police commissioner Lewis J. Valentine, who departed in 1946 after being asked by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to oversee the reorganization of the various police departments in postwar Japan.

gangbusters5Perhaps the best-remembered feature of Gang Busters (in addition to its rock-‘em-sock-‘em opening) was the famous “Gang Busters clues”—a gimmick that would appear at the end of each program. A national alert for actual criminals would be broadcast, giving listeners detailed descriptions of wanted evildoers. It was estimated that these “clues” helped nab 110 individuals in the show’s first three years—286 criminals by 1943. (This advocacy of encouraging the public to act as informers and bounty hunters continues today…particularly during your local newscast, I’d be willing to gamble.) The Gang Busters program would prove to be one of radio’s most durable; during its twenty-plus years on the air, it aired over all four major radio networks and was sponsored by the likes of Colgate-Palmolive, Sloan’s Liniment, and Waterman Pens.

elspetheric1Since the program’s production was based in New York City, many of that town’s familiar radio voices were heard on Gang Busters, including Lesley Woods, Ted de Corsia, Elspeth Eric (whose specialty on the show was playing molls), Alice Reinhart, Santos Ortega, Don McLaughlin, Raymond Edward Johnson, and Joan Banks (not to mention Ms. Banks’ husband, Frank Lovejoy). At the time of Oscar-winning actor Art Carney’s passing in 2003, one of Carney’s obituaries featured an observation from Richard Widmark…who stated he was unaware of Art’s comedic talents until Carney achieved fame on The Honeymooners. (It seemed that Widmark was only familiar with Art’s dramatic chops during their lean-and-hungry days as Gang Busters actors.)

gangbusters6The success of Gang Busters soon spread out into other media: DC Comics instituted a popular comic book series based on the program, and a 1942 Universal serial remains one of the most entertaining chapter plays in the history of cliffhangers (with a final sequence that will knock your socks off). In March of 1952, Gang Busters was adapted to the small screen as a series that alternated weekly with another radio-to-TV transplant, Dragnet. The curious aspect of the TV Gang Busters was that it was on the air as a “stop-gap” program; it was acting as a mere placeholder until Jack Webb was able to deliver a Dragnet episode every week. (Gang Busters the TV show was given its pink slip in October of 1952; it finished #8 in the Nielsens with a 42.4 rating…making it possibly the highest-rated show in the history of the boob tube to be ingloriously cancelled.)

19904If you’re curious as to what the Gang Busters television series was like, Radio Spirits invites you to check out the DVD Gang Busters: Volume Two, which features four telecasts from the show’s short-lived run. You’ll find radio episodes on our collections Great Radio Detectives and Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama, and Crime Wave features eight hours of shows from the influential “law-and-order” series of Radio’s Golden Age. Celebrate the show’s anniversary by listening to those “Gang Busters clues” and see if you can assist in bringing these miscreants to justice!

“…who teaches English at Madison High School…”


When Paramount Pictures brought the hit Broadway musical Grease to the big screen in 1978, some of the film’s casting decisions tickled the fancies of both old-time radio devotees and classic TV fans. One such decision was assigning the role of Rydell High School principal, Miss McGee, to character great Eve Arden. Arden had made a cottage industry out of playing wisecracking second bananas in films like Cover Girl (1944) and Mildred Pierce (1945; for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress). But, she was perhaps best remembered for her long career as beleaguered high school English teacher Connie Brooks from the radio sitcom Our Miss Brooks, which premiered sixty-seven years ago on this date. (I know we’re not supposed to giggle in class, but learning that Miss Brooks finally got promoted to principal—even if she did have to change her name—was a temptation no fan could resist.)

ourmissbrooks2Interestingly, Eve almost took a pass on the Brooks gig. It wasn’t that she was afraid of radio—she had the chops, having worked on shows alongside the likes of Jack Carson, Jack Haley and Danny Kaye—it’s just that she was asked to take on Our Miss Brooks at the same time she was about to depart for a long overdue summer vacation. The actress who had played Miss Brooks in the audition recording (none other than future TV domestic Shirley “Hazel” Booth) hadn’t been able to capture the lighthearted side of the character, and so CBS chairman William S. Paley prevailed upon Arden. Only after an agreement was made that the Our Miss Brooks shows would be transcribed (recorded) before Arden went off for her R&R did the actress sign on the dotted line. In the middle of her vacation, Arden received a phone call from CBS executive Frank Stanton that Our Miss Brooks was the runaway hit of the network’s summer season.

ourmissbrooks7Writers Al Lewis and Joe Quillan must take the bows for creating a truly wonderful example of character comedy. Our Miss Brooks was a funny series with uproarious situations, but it was the endearing Connie Brooks—dedicated to her profession despite the limited financial rewards—that made the series work. Miss Brooks transcended the usual depiction of schoolteachers, often portrayed in movies and elsewhere as scowling, humorless tormentors of inquiring young minds. Instead, Connie came across as a warm, funny presence…and was unique in that era for being a single career woman, something often overlooked in discussions of boob tube trailblazers like Ann Marie (That Girl) or Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore). The show illustrated our heroine’s travails at work and play; the latter represented by her amusing interactions with absentminded landlady Margaret Davis (Jane Morgan). Though Mrs. Davis occasionally drove Connie to distraction with her eccentricities, the sweet Mrs. D served as a mother figure to Miss Brooks, offering her counsel (though occasionally ill-advised) and overlooking the fact that her tenant was always in arrears where her room rent was concerned.

ourmissbrooks4In the workplace, Connie Brooks enjoyed a great rapport with her students—notably übernerd Walter Denton (Richard Crenna), who often relied on his favorite teacher for advice regarding matters of the heart. Walter’s object of affection was Harriet Conklin (Gloria McMillan), who also loved and respected Miss Brooks, as did class athlete (and Madison’s resident dunce) Fabian “Stretch” Snodgrass (Leonard Smith). Miss Brooks’ best friend at Madison was also the man that she had set her cap for: biology teacher Philip Boynton (Jeff Chandler). Nicknamed “the bashful biologist” because of his painfully shy manner, Mr. Boynton was completely oblivious to Connie’s romantic advances…preferring the company of his frog “McDougall.” Many of the laughs on Our Miss Brooks were generated by Miss Brooks’ battles with her rival for Boynton’s attentions: fellow English teacher Daisy Enright (Mary Jane Croft). All of these were utterly lost on Boynton, of course, who probably preferred poring over the centerfold in Biology Monthly to spending time with females of his own species.

ourmissbrooks3Madison was also the home base of Connie’s nemesis: the autocratic and pompous school principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon). Conklin was originally played by actor Joe Forte, but the minds behind OMB wanted a much more forceful personality in the role, and they pressed upon Gordon to play the part. Because he already had a lot on his plate with regards to radio roles (Gale was Mayor LaTrivia on Fibber McGee & Molly and Rumson Bullard on The Great Gildersleeve, for starters), Gordon asked for what he thought was an astronomical salary…and was flabbergasted when they agreed to his request. It would turn out to be money well-spent; the actor who specialized in blustery characters that eventually blew their stacks could be satisfied in knowing that Osgood Conklin would turn out to be his best radio role.

chandler20Our Miss Brooks was a solid performer for CBS Radio, and four years after its debut the decision was made to transition the sitcom to the small screen. Most of the program’s cast reprised their radio roles…with the exception of Jeff Chandler. While excelling as the radio Boynton, Chandler would have seemed out of place with his rugged good looks. In fact, he was beginning to enjoy a burgeoning silver screen career as a matinee idol (which started with his Oscar nominated performance as Cochise in 1950’s Broken Arrow). The producers replaced Chandler with actor Robert Rockwell, who looked more like a biology teacher…but to Chandler’s credit, Jeff insisted on fulfilling the remainder of his radio contract. When Chandler moved on, Rockwell replaced him as Boynton on radio as well.

ourmissbrooks5The television version of Our Miss Brooks was every bit as successful as its radio counterpart (in 1954, star Eve Arden would nab an Emmy as Best Female Star of a Regular Series). However, the ratings started to slide a bit in the show’s fourth boob tube season …and so the series was revamped slightly. Madison High was razed to make room for a freeway, and so Connie and Mr. Conklin eventually wound up squaring off against each other at a girls’ private school. Although Mrs. Davis turned up on occasion, we said goodbye to Walter, Harriet, Stretch…and even Mr. Boynton; Connie had a new lineup of suitors competing for her affections. Toward the end of the season, they brought back Boynton after realizing that the changes had been a terrible mistake…but it was too late to stop the sinking ratings.

Oddly enough, radio’s Madison High had been spared the wrecking ball; Our Miss Brooks continued with the same cast of characters as if the radio incarnation existed in an alternate universe. (It was the same situation in 1956’s Our Miss Brooks, a theatrical film produced to cash in on the success of the sitcom.) The Madison High gang continued with their shenanigans until June 30, 1957, when the show (which radio historian John Dunning once described as “one of the last bright lights of radio situation comedy”) rang the final bell to signal that school was out…forever.

20265Once popular as a television syndication staple, Our Miss Brooks seems to have fallen off the radar. I consider it one of the greatest entertainment crimes that there doesn’t appear to be enough interest in the TV series to warrant official season-by-season releases on DVD. But you can certainly find selected episodes of the TV show if you know where to look…and I can’t think of a better example than a collection of telecasts on Life of Riley/Our Miss Brooks, sold by Radio Spirits and featuring two laugh-packed installments from 1955: “The Jump” and “Home Cooked Meal.” There’s also a vintage November 26, 1950 radio broadcast featured on our Road Trip: Humorous Travel Tales set, and twenty classic shows featured on Boynton Blues (with liner notes by yours truly). Happy anniversary to our favorite high school instructor!

“…ace cameraman who covers the crime news of the great city…”


Turner Classic Movies occasionally schedules a 1956 film noir directed by Fritz Lang entitled While the City Sleeps. In the film, a troubled young man (John Drew Barrymore) has embarked on a killing spree (earning him the nickname “The Lipstick Killer”), and the heir to a magazine empire (Vincent Price) challenges three editors who head up the various periodicals published under the banner to solve the mystery—the victorious editor, of course, will be rewarded with the plum job of executive editor.

crimephotographer7While the “contest” is in progress, the subplot of Sleeps finds the various magazine employees whiling away the hours inside a gin joint, which is apparently an activity enjoyed by news hounds in real life as well. In fact, seeing the characters drown their sorrows in gin reminds me of another famous member of the fourth estate—a tenacious shutterbug who spent his copious free time in a jazz club haunt when he wasn’t solving murders and the like for his newspaper, The Morning Express. Sixty-seven years ago on this very date, radio audiences paid their first visit to The Blue Note Café…the favorite hangout of Casey, Crime Photographer.

A former newspaperman and advertising executive named George Harmon Coxe introduced Jack “Flashgun” Casey to the pages of the Black Mask detective pulp magazine in March of 1934. Coxe’s inspiration for the character was revealed in a 1978 interview; he knew that a newspaperman often risked life and limb to get the story, but the unsung hero of the newspaper was inarguably the man who snapped the pictures. “So why not give the cameraman his due?” George asked the interviewer. “If the reporter could be a glamorous figure in fiction, why not the guy up front who took—and still does take (consider the televised war sequences)—the pictures?”

crimephotographer3The popularity of Coxe’s Casey in the pulps soon led to a radio crime drama, which was originally known as Flashgun Casey upon its July 7, 1943 debut over CBS Radio. The program also went by Casey, Press Photographer and Crime Photographer, but most old-time radio historians and fans prefer to mash the two together and refer to the show as Casey, Crime Photographer. When he wasn’t plying his trade for the fictitious Morning Express, Casey sidelined as an amateur sleuth—on more than one occasion, Casey would notice a detail in a photo he snapped that the cops had apparently overlooked, and with fellow reporter Annie Williams—who doubled as the photographer’s love interest—Casey would doggedly follow any lead in order to insure that justice was done.

crimephotographer6At a time when mentioning saloons over the airwaves was frowned upon—even Duffy’s Tavern went by Duffy’s for a short period to satisfy the bluenoses—the hero of Casey, Crime Photographer spent his off-hours with gal pal Annie at The Blue Note, where they often engaged in lively conversation with the Note’s genially sardonic bartender Ethelbert, accompanied by the singular jazzy stylings of the café’s piano player. It was this aspect of the show that set it apart from the goodly number of crime dramas on the air (Coxe’s hero had always been too busy in the pulps to frequent taverns); the Blue Note scenes provided a touch of levity to the somewhat serious goings-on. Much of this lightheartedness can be attributed to writer Alonzo Deen Cole (who had previously scripted many broadcasts of The Witch’s Tale), who, according to one reviewer at the time of Casey’s run, infused the plots with a “wit and naturalism missing from many radio thrillers.”

crimephotographer8The first actor to lug around the camera equipment as Casey was Matt Crowley, then Jim Backus—yes, that Jim Backus!—inherited the role. But the best-remembered Casey was Staats Cotsworth, who was also playing another newspaper hero in the form of Front Page Farrell. There was only one Ethelbert…and that was radio veteran John Gibson, whose badinage with Cotsworth’s Casey was unquestionably the highlight of many broadcasts. A plethora of actresses came and went as Ann, notably Jone Allison, Alice Reinheart, Lesley Woods, Betty Furness and Jan Miner. Also heard on Casey was the hero’s police contact, Captain Bill Logan—one of the many roles played by radio legend Jackson Beck, though Bernard Lenrow took his turn at the part. The most important individual was the unseen musician who tickled the ivories at the Blue Note: it was Herman Chittison for most of Casey’s run, but Juan Hernandez and Teddy Wilson (formerly with the Benny Goodman Trio) occupied the stool on occasion as well.

20908Casey, Crime Photographer was mostly sustained during the program’s CBS run, but from 1946 to 1948 the series had glass company Anchor Hocking paying the bills, and it’s these saved transcriptions that constitute the bulk of the broadcasts extant today for future generations of listeners. Casey left CBS on November 16, 1950, and enjoyed a brief live television run (with Miner and Gibson in their radio roles) from April 19, 1951 to June 5, 1952 that served as an early acting showcase for character great Darren McGavin (taking over from Richard Carlyle). The radio program was revived on January 13, 1954, and allowed its titular hero to continue to run a tab at The Blue Note until it faded from the ether on April 22, 1955.

Before Casey, Crime Photographer ventured before the radio microphones, Coxe’s creation was featured in a 1938 Grand National movie release, Here’s Flash Casey—which is available on DVD from Radio Spirits. We’ve also got episodes from the show in our Stop the Press! (“The Demon Miner” and “The Loaded Dice”) and Highway Horror (“Road Angel”) compilations. But for pure undiluted Flashgun Casey, check out our Snapshots of Mystery and Blue Note collections. Happy anniversary to our favorite crusading cameraman!