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Happy Birthday, Philip Rapp!

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Comedy writer Phil Rapp was born on this date in 1907, and during his long show business career he would probably become best known for creating a constantly squabbling couple played on numerous shows by actor Don Ameche and singer Frances Langford. His son Joel once related that his father’s inspiration for John and Blanche Bickerson sprung forth from the disagreements Rapp often had with his wife Mary, a former vaudeville dancer. “I’ve hidden under a lot of tables in my day,” cracked Joel as he pointed out that the Rapp’s quarrels frequently went beyond the bedroom environs established by “The Bickersons,” spilling out into public view. “My father would scurry off to the typewriter while the dialogue was still fresh,” Joel confessed…and old-time radio comedy fans are the richer for it.

rapp3Philip Rapp, a native of jolly old England, emigrated to the U.S. with his Austrian-born parents when he was just a teen, and he set his sights on an entertainment career by first becoming a novelty dancer. But Phil discovered he possessed a flair for the funny, and one of his first jobs involved selling jokes to his fellow vaudevillians. By 1932, he had moved to Hollywood and joined the writing staff of Eddie Cantor’s show; Rapp later moved up to take over the directorial duties for Banjo Eyes’ Pebeco program in 1936.

Phil Rapp also played a part in establishing Ziegfeld Follies legend Fanny Brice as a radio comedy star. Rapp developed Fanny’s “Baby Snooks” character, which she began playing on the CBS program Ziegfeld Follies of the Air in 1936. A year later, Brice transferred the bratty kid to the Good News of 1938 series on NBC and, with her foil Hanley Stafford (as Lancelot “Daddy” Higgins), provided comic relief for a celebrity-studded show that featured the crème de la crème of MGM’s “more stars than there are in heaven.” Both Brice and MGM’s resident comic actor Frank Morgan supplied the laughs on Good News, and teamed up for four years of Maxwell House Coffee Time beginning in 1940. (Maxwell House was the original sponsor of Good News, and though Fanny and Frank were the stars of Coffee Time they worked in separate sections of the show.) Fanny would then headline The Baby Snooks Show from 1944 until her death in 1951.

generalPhil used his Cantor connections to contribute material to the comedian’s 1936 movie musical comedy Strike Me Pink, and began to get jobs working on such films as Start Cheering (1938—with Jimmy Durante and the Three Stooges) and There’s Always a Woman (1938). In addition, Rapp entertained a most felicitous collaboration with entertainer Danny Kaye, writing the screenplays for two of Kaye’s most successful comedies: Wonder Man (1945) and The Inspector General (1949). His other cinematic contributions number New Faces of 1937, Ziegfeld Follies (1945), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947—another Kaye film), Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1955) and Wild and Wonderful (1964).

bickersons12Of Philip Rapp’s many contributions to show business, his creation of the energetically argumentative John and Blanche Bickerson is perhaps his longest-lasting. “The Bickersons” first appeared on an NBC comedy-variety series entitled Drene Time in 1946, which featured actor (and former Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy announcer-straight man) Don Ameche in the role of a harried husband who just wants to get a good night’s sleep. This is an impossible task, for he shares his bed with his wife Blanche—played by vocalist Frances Langford—who’s determined to have her say. The Bickersons sketches also featured an up-and-coming Danny Thomas in the role of Blanche’s ne’er-do-well brother Amos. The following year, the battling couple moved to CBS’ The Old Gold Show, where they continued their nocturnal give-and-takes on a series that also featured Frank Morgan, musician Carmen Dragon and announcer Marvin Miller.

topperThe Bickersons would later resurface in sketches on Edgar Bergen’s program (with Marsha Hunt replacing Langford as Blanche) and had a brief run as a stand-alone sitcom in 1951 (with Lew Parker as John B.). The 1951 radio Bickersons followed shortly after John and Blanche briefly became TV stars on DuMont’s Star Time, on which Phil Rapp not only wrote the sketches but directed as well. Star Time was a launch pad for Rapp’s debut into boob tube society. Phil would go on to direct and produce the television adaptation of Topper (he was also the supervising story editor) and the short-lived Wally Cox series The Adventures of Hiram Holiday. Rapp’s TV credits also include I Married Joan, The Tab Hunter Show, Summer Playhouse and My Favorite Martian. Philip continued to have great success with The Bickersons in the form of TV commercials and best-selling records (in addition, he authored a “Bickersons” play in Match Please, Darling) before his passing in 1996.

19804My colleague and good friend Ben Ohmart is the author of the definitive biography of the creative mind behind Baby Snooks and The Bickersons, and Radio Spirits has it for the sale—the amusingly-titled The Gripes of Rapp. Ben is also editor of The Philip Rapp Joke File, and has compiled several of the birthday boy’s funniest Baby Snooks misadventures in The Baby Snooks Scripts and The Baby Snooks Scripts Volume 2. It’s all highly recommended reading, of course—but don’t forget that to get the full force of this classic comedy you can’t be without our Bickersons collection Put Out the Lights! and the Baby Snooks sets Why, Daddy? and Smart Aleck.

Happy Birthday, Mandel Kramer!

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“I’m a product of radio,” actor Mandel Kramer confessed to an interviewer for a 1953 article in the March edition of Radio-TV Mirror. Mandel, who was born in Cleveland ninety-nine years ago on this date, never really amassed the large number of movie or television credits that defined his many of his contemporaries…but, you could argue that he never really wanted that sort of attention. That same Radio-TV Mirror article revealed that once Kramer made the long commute back to his wife and two girls at his suburban Harrison, NY home, “no one would ever suspect Mandel of being an actor.”

kramer4Not only was Mandel Kramer “a modest, likable guy”—the actor himself never really had an answer as to why he entered that profession in the first place. Kramer attended both Cleveland Heights High School and Western Reserve University in his formative years. Later, while working in his father’s shoe store for the princely sum of $15 a week, he took classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Mandel’s studies there led him to a year of performing with the Cleveland Playhouse, and he developed an interest in radio while apprenticing at WTAM in Cleveland.

With $150 squirreled away in his pocket, Kramer followed his thespic ambitions to New York City…and though the Big Apple was certainly capable of treating newcomers cruelly, Mandel caught a break by bluffing his way into a radio audition by telling the receptionist a tiny white lie. It didn’t matter—the producers liked him, and hired him for the gig. Kramer worked steadily on such programs as The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, The Molle Mystery Theatre, Murder at Midnight, Philo Vance and Words at War. Mandel was a semi-regular on This is Your FBI in the series’ early New York years (from 1945 to 1947), and could also be heard on such Big Apple-based shows as The Adventures of the Falcon, The Adventures of the Thin Man, The Big Story, Casey, Crime Photographer, Famous Jury Trials and Gang Busters. He was garrulous cab driver Mahatma McGloin on Mr. and Mrs. North, and occasionally played a similar talkative hack on The Shadow: Moe “Shreevy” Shrevnitz.

kramer5Mandel Kramer’s most durable radio gig was playing Harry Peters opposite Don McLaughlin’s David Harding on the popular juvenile adventure series Counterspy—he landed the role in 1943, and played the part until the show’s departure in 1957. Kramer also had recurring roles on a slew of daytime dramas; in addition to appearing on Big Sister, The Guiding Light, The Light of the World, Stella Dallas and Young Dr. Malone, Mandel played Tom Bryson (theatrical manager to matinee idol Larry Noble) on Backstage Wife and Lt. Tragg on the radio version of Perry Mason. Kramer also transitioned with the Mason cast when the series went to television—not with the familiar Raymond Burr nighttime version, but instead with The Edge of Night. The actor received an Emmy nomination in 1979 for his work on that program as Police Chief Bill Marceau. (Mandel also appeared briefly on the TV version of Guiding Light before his long-running stint on Edge.)

kramer6Mandel’s busiest period as a radio actor could arguably be observed during the mid-1950s; he was the last performer to play Pat Abbott on the mystery comedy The Adventures of the Abbotts, which in turn led to a similar role as the star of It’s a Crime, Mr. Collins. Kramer was also heard on 21st Precinct, The Chase, Exploring Tomorrow, Official Detective, Rocky Fortune and X-Minus One. Perhaps the one radio program for which modern-day audiences remember today’s birthday boy is Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. When the long-running crime drama left for New York in December of 1960 after its many years in Hollywood, Mandel was the last actor to play “the man with the action-packed expense account.” Kramer also appeared several times on the New York-based incarnation of Suspense, which – along with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – rang down the curtain on “The Golden Age of Radio” on September 30, 1962.

20716Mandel Kramer was a radio veteran who insisted on remaining true to the medium that brought him fame: he was a member-in-good-standing of the informal stock company that frequented the 1970s radio revival attempt known as The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. Kramer passed away at the age of 72 in 1989.

Mandel Kramer is represented as “America’s fabulous freelance investigator” in two broadcasts (“The Guide to Murder Matter” and the series’ swan song, “The Tip-Off Matter”) on our The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar collection—and he’s also a formidable presence on several of Radio Spirits’ X-Minus One sets: Archives Collection, Volume Two and Time and Time Again. In addition, the work of Mr. Kramer can be heard on The Adventures of the Falcon (Count Me Out Tonight, Angel), The Big Story (As It Happened), Gang Busters (Cases of Crime), The Molle Mystery Theatre (Nightmare) and Rocky Fortune. Best wishes of the day to Mandel Kramer!

Happy Birthday, Virginia Gregg!

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In our natal anniversary spotlight today is one of old-time radio’s indisputable veterans. She would get a special nod for proficiency alone, but Virginia Gregg—born in Harrisburg, Illinois ninety-nine years ago on this date—was also one of the medium’s most versatile and talented female performers. Virginia played characters young and old, pretty and ugly, good and evil…and in addition, mastered many of the dialects necessary to be a continual presence in front of the microphone. She was also a familiar face on television and in movies as well.

gregg2Virginia Gregg Burket, the daughter of musician Dewey Todd Alphaleta and businessman Edward Gregg, aspired to a career as tuneful as her mother’s. The family moved to California while Gregg was a young girl, and she attended various schools in The Golden State. While at Jefferson Junior High in Long Beach she revealed a passion for sports, and excelled as a pitcher on the school’s baseball team. At a senior high school in Pasadena, Virginia demonstrated an aptitude for the double bass, which she indulged as a musician with the Pasadena Symphony. This also led her to a gig as a vocalist with “The Singing Strings,” an aggregation that offered the future thespian’s first radio exposure at Los Angeles station KHJ in 1937.

By the early 1940s, Virginia was demonstrating that she could act, too. She started out with appearances on the likes of Lights Out and The Lux Radio Theatre, and followed up with work on such shows as All-Star Western Theatre, Cavalcade of America, California Caravan, The Count of Monte Cristo, The First Nighter Program, Michael Shayne, One Man’s Family, Pat Novak for Hire, Screen Director’s Playhouse and The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. Gregg was also a member of the informal stock company of radio’s The Whistler (jokingly referred to as “Whistler’s children”).

gregg7During the 1947-48 season of Ellery Queen, Gregg was one of several actresses who played the master sleuth’s girlfriend, Nikki Porter…and for a while, girlfriend-of-the-detective seemed to be a niche for Virginia. One of her best-remembered radio roles was that of socialite Helen Asher, the wealthy inamorata of Richard Diamond, Private Detective (played by Dick Powell). And though she had played various previous roles on Let George Do It, the comic crime drama featuring Bob Bailey, Gregg inherited the role of George Valentine’s loyal gal Friday Claire “Brooksie” Brooks after Frances Robinson left the series. (It was only right: Robinson had played Helen on Richard Diamond for a brief time as well.) Gregg also worked on The Story of Dr. Kildare, a syndicated series based on the MGM movie franchise; she played the garrulous Nurse Parker, who was a constant thorn in the side of crusty Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore).

Gregg married producer-director Jaime del Valle in 1948—and while the union lasted only little more than a decade, it did give the actress an advantage where her competition was concerned. She worked frequently on Family Theatre, on which del Valle was a presence, as well as three other shows overseen by her new spouse: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, The Line-Up and The General Electric Theatre. The 1950s would prove to be one of Virginia’s most productive periods in radio. She was great friends with Jack Webb, the auteur of Dragnet, and not only appeared frequently on that show’s radio incarnation, but would be seen on the TV versions (both 1951-59 and 1967-70) as well. Gregg played guest roles on later Webb small screen productions such as Adam-12 and Emergency!, and made a memorable impression as Ethel Starkie in Jack’s big screen version of Dragnet in 1954.

gregg8Virginia’s other radio “patron” was director Norman Macdonnell, who became acquainted with her talent and professionalism when he took charge of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Those Marlowe appearances enabled Gregg to work on such later Macdonnell shows as Escape, Fort Laramie, Rogers of the Gazette, Romance and Have Gun—Will Travel (on which she played Missy Wong, the romantic interest of Carlton Hotel concierge Hey Boy, played by Ben Wright). But the “jewel of the crown” was the amazing work she did on Gunsmoke, where her versatility in handling an amazing range of acting roles would be called on practically week after week. (The actress made a number of appearances on the boob tube incarnation of Gunsmoke as well.) Virginia’s other radio gigs (known at this time) include Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Broadway’s My Beat, The CBS Radio Workshop, Crime Classics, Dangerous Assignment, Frontier Gentleman, Hallmark Playhouse, The Halls of Ivy, The NBC University Theatre, Night Beat, The Six Shooter, Suspense, Tales of the Texas Rangers and Wild Bill Hickok.

gregg10Virginia Gregg began her movie career with uncredited roles in such classics as Notorious, Body and Soul and Gentleman’s Agreement. Her work on the silver screen wasn’t as inexhaustible as her radio and TV contributions, but she appeared in a number of movies well worth the effort tracking down: Casbah (1948), Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), Crime in the Streets (1956), The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), Portland Exposé (1957) and The Hanging Tree (1959), to name just a few. She had a plum role as Nurse Maj. Edna Haywood in the Cary Grant-Tony Curtis comedy Operation Petticoat (1959), and along with radio veteran Jeanette Nolan, she provided the “voice” of Mrs. Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) (she would reprise that role in two of the sequels, Psycho II and Psycho III).

gregg5Gregg’s television resume was extensive, and that’s a bit of an understatement. She guest starred on a number of shows now considered classics: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Maverick, Rawhide, Hazel, Perry Mason and so many more. Nostalgia fans remember her as one of four unlucky souls to have tried on “The Masks” in a classic Twilight Zone outing, and Virginia would revisit her radio roots by doing voice work on such cartoon series as Calvin and the Colonel (which featured Amos ‘n’ Andy’s Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll), The Herculoids, Yogi’s Gang and These are the Days. Gregg was also a participant in the radio “revival” of the 1970s, appearing frequently on The Sears/Mutual Radio Theatre. She once admitted to an interviewer “The British know a good medium when they hear it,” referring to how radio drama was never completely abandoned on the other side of the pond. Virginia Gregg passed away at the age of 70 in 1986.

20084Radio Spirits has been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the radio work of Virginia Gregg. For starters, there’s her regular role as Helen Asher on Richard Diamond, Private Detective in the collections Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy, Mayhem is My Business and Shamus. You can also hear Virginia in The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road), Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Dragnet (Crime to Punishment), Escape to the High Seas, Fort Laramie Volume 2, Frontier Gentleman (Aces and Eights, Life and Death), Let George Do It, Lights Out (Later Than You Think), The Line-Up (Witness), Night Beat (Lost Souls), Romance, The Six Shooter (Gray Steel), Suspense (Ties That Bind), The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Whistler (Root of All Evil, Skeletons in the Closet) and all of our Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar compilations (Confidential, Expense Account Submitted, The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, Wayward Matters). Our Stop the Press! set also features today’s birthday girl in broadcasts of Rogers of the Gazette and San Francisco Final!

Review: Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949)

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No sooner has Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) dropped off a bundle of dirty clothes to his laundryman, Charley Wu, when frenemy Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) wants a few answers to questions surrounding Wu’s murder. It seems that Wu’s niece, Mei Ling (Maylia), spotted Blackie and The Runt (Sid Tomack) leaving the gentleman’s establishment shortly after she discovered Uncle Charley’s corpse. Farraday isn’t completely convinced that Blackie is the murderer, but he’s sure B.B. knows more than he’s willing to reveal. Mei Ling believes Farraday’s not above pinning the rap on Blackie—or even her—just to close the case, though Blackie reassures her the Inspector is “an honest cop.”

venture2And thus, it falls to Blackie and Runt to expend the necessary shoe leather to clear up the matter of Wu’s death. Farraday thinks it might have some connection to the numbers racket, but Blackie soon learns that Charley inadvertently received a package that points toward a Chinatown tour bus racket and, ultimately, stolen jewelry. The jewelry angle is right in Blackie’s line of work as the curtain rings down on the final entry in Columbia Pictures’ movie series based on Jack Boyle’s creation, Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949). Chinese Venture is one of three Blackie movies that’s been released to MOD DVD by Sony Pictures Video (along with One Mysterious Night and A Close Call for Boston Blackie). That might be your best bet if you haven’t seen the picture; in January, when getTV televised a marathon of Boston Blackie movies, Chinese Venture was curiously not on the schedule.

venture4Chinese Venture is a fitting capper to the long-running franchise, though it can be argued that the story (courtesy of Maurice Tombragel) and direction (Seymour Friedman, who helmed the previous Trapped by Boston Blackie) are aggressively average for a movie that should have exited with a bit more flourish. Unsurprisingly, the final entries in Columbia’s Whistler (The Return of the Whistler) and Crime Doctor series (The Crime Doctor’s Diary) were pretty humdrum as well. But Chinese Venture moves along at a brisk clip (barely an hour’s running time) and shines a spotlight on several first-rate Asian-American actors, including Maylia, Philip Ahn, Benson Fong (a one-time scion of cinematic sleuth Charlie Chan) and Victor Sen Yung (also a member of the Chan clan).

On Demand Master_10rillViewers will also notice that there’s a different actor playing the role of Blackie’s loyal sidekick The Runt; he’s Sid Tomack, a balding character actor who played scores of clerks and cabbies throughout his movie career…though he’s probably better known for playing second-string hoods, the kind of roles Ben Welden would have taken on had Ben not been busy. Tomack can be seen in such films as A Double Life (1947) and Hollow Triumph (1948); one of my favorite Tomack appearances is in Force of Evil (1948), in which he’s uncredited as human calculator “Two-and-Two” Taylor. Sid also performed often on radio; he can be heard on several broadcasts of The Life of Riley (Tomack was playing the role of Jim Gillis in the Jackie Gleason TV version so that John Brown could concentrate on Digby “Digger” O’Dell) and he replaced Brown as “Al” in the waning years of radio’s My Friend Irma. As The Runt, Sid does a respectable job…but he just couldn’t convey the rat-like quality that was the bailiwick of George E. Stone.

venture6Columbia contractee Joan Woodbury plays the femme fatale in Chinese Venture (known simply as “Red”); we’ve mentioned her appearances in Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) and The Whistler (1944) on the blog, and she’s also familiar to serial fans as the titular Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945). Another familiar cliffhanger face appears in Chinese Venture as well: Don McGuire as Les the bus driver. McGuire brought the comic strip character of Congo Bill to life in 1948, and appeared in such films as The Threat (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950). He later became a director-producer, overseeing features such as Johnny Concho (1956) and Jerry Lewis’ first solo outing, The Delicate Delinquent (1957).

20808We here at Radio Spirits hope you’ve enjoyed our retrospective of Columbia’s Boston Blackie franchise, and highly recommend these entertaining mystery comedies to anyone who’s a fan of classic movies. Radio Spirits also reminds you that we have TV’s Boston Blackie on hand in a DVD featuring four of his boob tube adventures, as well as classic Blackie broadcasts on Outside the Law and Great Radio Detectives (“Kingston and the Disappearing Office Building”).

Happy Birthday, Nigel Bruce!

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If we can suggest a word association exercise for the old-time radio devotees and classic movie fans who drop by the blog on occasion…what would be the first thought to come to mind upon the mention of “Nigel Bruce”? We’d bet dollars to donuts the largest percentage of answers received would be “Dr. Watson.” Playing the physician sidekick of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes is unquestionably the English actor’s most memorable role. But we’d also be doing William Nigel Ernle Bruce—“Willie” to his close friends, and born on this date in 1895—a grave disservice; though he was immortalized on the silver screen as the archetypal bumbling Englishman, Bruce did more than just aid and abet Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in over a dozen celluloid investigations and 200 radio broadcasts. For example, Nigel had substantial roles in two classic Alfred Hitchcock films, Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941).

bruce7The English actor was born the second son of Sir William Walter Bruce and Lady Angelica Bruce…though interestingly enough, not on British soil; his birthplace was Ensenada in Mexico’s Baja California, a little surprise to his parents as they vacationed there. His schooling took place in his home country, however, and after a brief job with a stockbroker’s firm Willie enlisted in the service—achieving the rank of lieutenant in the 10th Service Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry and the Honourable Artillery Company. Like his silver screen counterpart Dr. Watson, Bruce suffered an injury (taking eleven bullets in his leg at Cambrai) during his military stint; Bruce was forced to spend the remainder of the war wheelchair-bound.

bruce8This wouldn’t be a setback in the acting career that Nigel Bruce set his sights on; his stage debut was as a footman in a 1920 production of Why Marry?, and he later appeared in such plays as The Ringer, Lean Harvest and Two White Arms. Bruce’s credited film debut is believed to be in a 1929 silent entitled Red Aces, and he later graced such British-made films as The Squeaker (1930) and I Was a Spy (1933; with Conrad Veidt and Madeleine Carroll). Nigel still continued to be active in the footlights, but his move to Hollywood in 1934 opened up many more motion picture opportunities: the films on his resume at that time include Stand Up and Cheer (1934), Treasure Island (1934), She (1935), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937). Bruce also appeared in Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature film released in full Technicolor.

bruce9Many of his movie roles were consistent with the lovably absentminded British twits that became his stock-in-trade—though Nigel Bruce wasn’t afraid to expand his range when needed, playing a particularly loathsome sort in 1939’s Oscar-nominated The Rains Came. It was also in 1939 that Bruce was cast as Dr. John Watson in 20th Century-Fox’s production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel. The chemistry between Willie and Basil Rathbone (as Holmes) was positively perfection (the two actors were close friends even before shooting on Baskervilles began), and a follow-up from the same studio was released that same year, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (Adventures was based on the famed William Gillette play and not Conan Doyle material…but the film has quite a few admirers, notably for the first-rate casting of such thespians as Ida Lupino, George Zucco, Henry Stephenson and E.E. Clive.)

bruce1Their success in the two Fox films would pave the way for Nigel and Basil to reprise their characters in a Sherlock Holmes radio series that premiered over NBC in the fall of 1939. We need to stress that this was not the first time Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuthing creation was heard before the microphones; Sherlock Holmes had been entertaining listeners as far back as 1930. But the teaming of Rathbone and Bruce on the radio was undeniably the most celebrated of the various Holmes series incarnations; the duo broadcast for Bromo Quinine for two seasons on the Blue network, then switched to NBC for a season with the same sponsor. In April of 1943, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes moved to Mutual, where Petri Wines agreed to pick up the tab.

bruce10At the same time the radio series was on the air, Bruce and Rathbone were the stars in a Sherlock Holmes film franchise that began at Universal in 1942. Though signed to an MGM contract in 1941, Rathbone was generously loaned to Universal for each entry in the movie series, beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942). That entry was helmed by John Rawlins, with each subsequent film featuring Roy William Neill in the director’s chair; Neill had an incredible talent for making B-pictures (which the Universal Holmes films clearly were) look lavish despite their miniscule budgets. Despite an ill-advised decision to update the first three films to the modern era (as well as saddling Rathbone with a risible haircut), the remaining installments (well, with the exception of 1944’s The Spider Woman) operated in a quasi-Victorian period that occasionally echoed the era depicted in Baskervilles and Adventures.

Basil_Rathbone_Nigel_Bruce2The Universal Sherlock Holmes films were treasured by movie audiences, but they often came under criticism by devoted Sherlockians, who objected to the portrayal of Dr. Watson on screen by Nigel Bruce. The dispute was with Bruce’s interpretation of Watson as a not-too-terribly bright sidekick who fumbled and harrumphed his way through the investigations, the very picture of foggy bewilderment. Conan Doyle’s Watson was an intelligent man (he would have had to have been, seeing as he was a physician and all) whose intellectualism paled in contrast to the brilliance of Holmes. I’ve long dismissed this nitpicking; Bruce’s performances were infused with a lovability that his co-star Rathbone later championed in his 1961 memoir In and Out of Character: “There was an endearing quality to his performance that to a very large extent, I believe, humanized the relationship between Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes.” Their relationship on both film and radio was an engaging one, but all good things eventually come to an end; by 1946, Rathbone believed playing Holmes had grown stale, and he informed Universal that Dressed to Kill would be the final time he dawned the deerstalker hat and inverness cape. Basil left the radio series as well at the end of the 1945-46 season, with an eye on working on stage for a while.

20743Nigel Bruce, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to cease being Dr. Watson; he soldiered on in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Tom Conway taking on the titular role. Nigel got a hefty raise and top billing on the show…but tensions between the writers and the series’ producer made the experience an unpleasant one for Bruce, and so he relinquished the Watson part at the end of the season. He could certainly afford to do so; his career as a beloved character actor was in full swing, as he racked up appearances in such films as Journey for Margaret (1942), Lassie Come Home (1943), Son of Lassie (1945), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Limelight (1952) and Bwana Devil (1953), the first 3-D film. Bruce passed away at the age of 58 on October 8, 1953—his final film (released posthumously) was 1954’s World for Ransom.

Radio Spirits’ latest CD collection Great Radio Detectives features today’s birthday boy opposite his friend Basil Rathbone in a November 6, 1939 broadcast of “The Bruce Partington Plans.” We’ve also got a new set of cases from The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (with Tom Conway as Holmes) in Cue for Murder, as well as our classic compilation The Stuttering Ghost & Other Mysteries. It’s Nigel Bruce at his beloved bumbling best, and we wish one of our favorite character thesps a most happy birthday!

The Never-Ending Battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way

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The Man of Steel made his comic book debut in Action Comics on April 18, 1938, and less than a year later (in January of 1939), the costumed superhero creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster would conquer the world of newspaper comic strips as well. But the induction of Superman—“strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men”—as a genuine pop culture icon didn’t really get underway until the alter ego of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent detailed his incredible exploits over the radio airwaves. It was on this date in 1940 (after several audition records produced in 1938 and 1939) that The Adventures of Superman premiered as a syndicated series from New York’s WOR, and it would soon become a favorite of juvenile audiences for a decade afterward.

19383For those of you who’ve been encased in ice during the past century, the origin of Superman is pretty straightforward. Kal-El, the son of Jor-El and Lara, arrived on Earth in a spaceship of his father’s design after the destruction of their home planet of Krypton. The atmosphere of Earth would prove beneficial to Kal-El; it helped him run faster than a speeding bullet; made him more powerful than a locomotive; and enabled him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. These impressive feats literally made the Krypton alien a “superman,” and he made it his mission to take on those villains and evildoers who posed a threat to his adoptive planet. Superman disguised himself as Clark Kent, a reporter for the major metropolitan newspaper known as The Daily Planet—which he pretty much had to do, in order to ward off autograph seekers and groupies and the like.

budcollyerThe role of Superman was essayed by Clayton “Bud” Collyer, an actor-announcer whose old-time radio resume included such series as Terry and the Pirates, The Guiding Light, The Goldbergs and Renfrew of the Mounted. Superman was unquestionably his most famous role; Collyer would use his normal voice when playing Clark Kent, and then when it came time to let the audience know that “This looks like a job for Superman” his voice shifted an octave lower on the last word to indicate he was now “The Man of Steel.” Bud played Supe on radio for nearly a decade before transitioning to the small screen as one of TV’s first game show hosts—among the popular programs he hosted were Beat the Clock and To Tell the Truth.

joanalexanderJoan Alexander played Clark Kent’s rival (and love interest) at The Daily Planet, reporter Lois Lane…in what surely ranks as one of the most unusual love triangles in popular culture. (Clark was mad about Lois, who spurned his advances; she had a thing for Superman, who really didn’t need anybody.) The role of Lois would later be played by Rolly Bester and Helen Choate. In the part of cub reporter-sidekick Jimmy Olsen was Jack Grimes, with Julian Noa as exasperated Planet editor Perry White. Other actors heard on The Adventures of Superman over the years include Ned Wever, Agnes Moorehead, Jay “Mr. District Attorney” Jostyn, Arthur Vinton and Matt Crowley. Crowley played Inspector Henderson, the top cop in the city of Metropolis…but he also emoted as Superman’s buddy Batman when the decision was made to add DC Comics’ other breadwinner to the program in the mid-1940s. (Stacy Harris and Gary Merrill also took their turns as “The Caped Crusader.”)

jacksonbeckOne of the most important performers on The Adventures of Superman was the show’s announcer, Jackson Beck. Beck took over as narrator when the series moved to Mutual in August of 1942, after they lost their #1 kiddie adventure show Jack Armstrong to NBC. (The announcer for Superman in the years between 1940 and 1942 was George Lowther.) Beck, whose range on radio included stints as The Cisco Kid and Philo Vance, played a number of minor characters on Superman (Daily Planet copyboy Beany Martin, Batman butler Alfred Pennyworth) but is best known for his thrilling introduction to the main character—“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” Beck acknowledged in later years that he was often called upon by fans to recreate the legendary opening, adding: “It’s nice to be part of a legend.”

pepUpon its addition to Mutual’s schedule beginning August 31, 1942, The Adventures of Superman quickly became one of that networks most popular programs; its devoted after-school audience would gather around to listen to their favorite superhero vanquish villains, accompanied by commercials for Kellogg’s Pep cereal (beginning in January of 1943). Many of the facets that we associate with the Superman character were actually a by-product of the radio series; for example, to allow lead actor Collyer a little vacation time (because the show was performed live five days a week), his Superman would often briefly disappear thanks to the effects of the powerful substance known as Kryptonite. (The addition of Batman and Robin also came about from the need for Bud to get a little R-and-R.) Most of the stories on the show were serialized in multiple chapters; one of the most famous story arcs was “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” in which The Man of Steel squared off against the Ku Klux Klan. (Spoiler warning: Superman wins.) The episodes coincided with a promotional campaign in Time magazine for racial and religious tolerance; it was in those pages that Bud Collyer revealed that he was the voice behind Superman when Time conducted an interview.

jackiekelkThe five-day-a-week quarter-hour that was The Adventures of Superman continued on Mutual until January 28, 1949; three days later the program expanded to a full half-hour while curtailing the output to three weekly broadcasts. Superman continued at its Mutual home until June, and then in October moved to an 8:30pm Saturday slot on ABC with a revamped “mystery” format designed to appeal to an older audience. That version of Superman ended on January 21, 1950, and after a period of idleness resurfaced as a twice-weekly afternoon offering on the same network at 5:30 before finally calling it a day on March 1, 1951. This new Superman did without the services of Collyer; Michael Fitzmaurice replaced him as Clark Kent/Superman, with Aldrich Family player Jackie Kelk as Jimmy Olsen and future Wild Wild West master of disguise Ross Martin as the announcer/narrator.

19382Author Tom De Haven recreates the early experiences of The Man of Steel in It’s Superman, a 2005 novel that starts with the formative teen years of young Clark Kent, growing up in Smallville. It’s available for purchase from Radio Spirits, along with a Superman poster and two CD collections: Up! Up! And Away! (a 2-disc set featuring the first twelve episodes of the series) and Last Son of Krypton, which showcases rare quarter-hours from 1948 as well as several half-hour broadcasts from 1949. There’s no better way to celebrate the anniversary of the individual who indisputably put the “super” in superhero!

”Stories start in many different ways…”

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Habitual old-time radio listeners have no difficulty identifying their favorite actors and actresses; while some radio thesps possessed the talent to disguise their voices in the roles they were assigned, others have a distinctive “tell” that gives them away immediately. There’s no mistaking, for example, Frank Lovejoy in a part. Lovejoy wasn’t able to master dialects in the way someone like, say, Hans Conried could…still, Frank’s authoritative tough-guy voice, blended with concern and compassion, leaps out at you if you happen to be listening to him on broadcasts of Suspense or Escape. Frank Lovejoy had regular roles on such old-time radio classics as Mr. and Mrs. North, Murder and Mr. Malone (a.k.a. The Amazing Mr. Malone) and This is Your FBI (he was the narrator in the early years of the program); and his best-remembered series, the short-lived but first-rate Night Beat, which premiered over NBC on this date sixty-five years ago today.

lovejoy4Lovejoy played journalist Randy Stone, who penned a column for a fictitious newspaper known as The Chicago Star. The title of Night Beat was just what it implied: Stone worked the swing shift, and in order to gather material for his column walked the streets of the Windy City in a Whistler-like fashion, encountering a colorful array of individuals—some good, others often menacing. Stone in many ways served as the narrator for an anthology program that could feature a terrifying series of events on one broadcast…and the following week, a decidedly humorous and light-hearted tale. He chased down members of the criminal element while at the same lending a sympathetic ear to those in need of assistance; Randy Stone provided a “voice” for those without influence or power, marginalized on the edges of society.

lovejoy1The origins of Night Beat began with a May 19, 1949 audition recording that would have cast Edmond O’Brien in the role that Frank Lovejoy would make famous. O’Brien’s character answered to “Hank Mitchell” in that audio pilot (and his newspaper of record was The Examiner), in which he becomes trapped in an elevator in the pursuit of a murderer named George Bailey. (Does anyone in Bedford Falls know about this?) The Powers That Be at NBC liked the “Night Beat” concept, but didn’t feel that O’Brien had what it took for the lead role. (O’Brien later replaced Charles Russell as “fabulous freelance insurance investigator” Johnny Dollar, so he wasn’t out of work for long.) The same script (by veteran scribe Larry Marcus) was recycled for a second audition (in January of 1950), now featuring Lovejoy as the new lead, “Lucky” Stone. NBC greenlighted the series for a February 6, 1950 premiere, with a final name change to the now well-known “Randy” Stone. (Though if you listen to that inaugural broadcast, “Zero,” announcer Frank Martin identifies the protagonist as “Rudy” even though Lovejoy introduces himself by his more familiar moniker two lines earlier.)

lovejoy2Night Beat had a relatively brief radio run (its final broadcast was September 25, 1952). It’s mindboggling that a series of such quality scripting (much of it from co-creator Marcus, with contributions from first-rate writers like Russell Hughes, Kathleen Hite, John and Gwen Bagni, and David Ellis) struggled in its two-year stint over the airwaves, but NBC did little to promote the program and constantly switched Night Beat’s time slot around as if they were challenging listeners to a game of three-card monte. The acting on the show was nothing short of tremendous; in addition to Lovejoy, many of Radio Row’s “usual suspects” appeared on the broadcasts—such as Lawrence Dobkin, Parley Baer, William Conrad, Jeanette Nolan and Georgia Ellis. Its distinctive timpani-accompanied opening remains one of radio’s most memorable, as does Lovejoy’s trademark cry of “Copy boy!” at the program’s close. Because NBC inexplicably chose to orphan Night Beat, it was difficult for the show to attract sponsors; it was sustained for most of its broadcast run, save for a brief period where General Mills’ Wheaties made sure Randy got his paycheck each week.

20439Despite the network’s indifference, Night Beat became one of old-time radio’s true “success stories.” Special care was taken to preserve its transcriptions by fans of the show, and during the nostalgia boom of the 1970s, it was prominently featured among the offerings on the syndicated The Golden Age of Radio Theatre and other old-time radio-themed shows.

Radio Spirits enthusiastically endorses this absorbing radio drama: there are several Night Beat broadcasts available on our Stop the Press! collection, and a March 27, 1950 episode (“Flowers on the Water”) on our new Great Radio Detectives set. For pure undiluted Randy Stone, we invite you to check out Lost Souls.

Happy Birthday, W.C. Fields!

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One of the funniest men to ever walk this planet was born one hundred and thirty-five years ago on this date; his birth name was William Claude Dukenfield, but modern audiences know him as W.C. Fields. Fields cultivated a persona on stage, screen and radio of a beloved misanthrope—an individual who drank, smoke, lied, cheated and gambled…and was rewarded for such behavior at a time when moral scolds and bluenoses looked down at such goings-on. The Great Man is perhaps best known for endearing himself as a sympathetic underdog to audiences despite such vices…as well as a barely-concealed dislike for dogs and children.

W.C. Fields Juggling Top HatsMuch of Fields’ character flaws on stage and in the movies would later be assimilated into the biographical sketch that was the man in person—Fields himself enjoyed frequently embellishing the details of his life, portraying himself as a character that leapt full-blown out of a Charles Dickens novel. Most of the real truth about W.C. would later be presented in a 1973 book written by his grandson Ronald Fields, W.C. Fields by Himself. On the professional side, Fields began his show business career in 1898 as a “tramp juggler” in vaudeville, demonstrating a dexterity in juggling objects (cigar boxes, balls, etc.) that would later be showcased in such feature films as The Old Fashioned Way (1934). His big professional break on the stage would arrive in 1915 when he appeared as a featured performer in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway; at that same time, he also made his first foray into the medium that would bring him his greatest fame, starring in a pair of short comedies (Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma) that were filmed in New York during his Follies work.

wcfields9His stage work kept him out of motion pictures until 1924, when he graced the cast of the Revolutionary War drama Janice Meredith (1924); Fields later reprised his starring role from the 1923 musical comedy Poppy in the D.W. Griffith-directed Sally of the Sawdust (1925). It’s a bit of stretch to think of W.C. Fields as a silent comedian, particularly in light of his memorable later performances in talkies, but surviving features like It’s the Old Army Game (1926; with Louise Brooks) and So’s Your Old Man (1926) demonstrate that Fields could be just as funny without sound. Both of these movies would later be refashioned into sound features; Old Man was reworked as You’re Telling Me! (1934) and sections of Army Game were appropriated into It’s a Gift (1934), which fans of The Great Man consider one of his comedic masterpieces. Working for Paramount in the 1930s, W.C. also starred in such now-classic comedies as Tillie and Gus (1933), Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) and Mississippi (1935), and all-star romps like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and International House (1933).

wcfields4After finishing his sound remake of Poppy (1936), Fields checked into a sanitarium to recuperate from disorders brought upon by his habitual drinking. W.C. had turned down all previous offers to do a radio show, but after hearing the comedian on a tribute broadcast to Adolph Zukor (W.C. broadcast right from his sanitarium room), the producers of The Chase and Sanborn Hour made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: $6500 a week to perform alongside the likes of Nelson Eddy, Dorothy Lamour and Don Ameche when the program made its debut over radio in May of 1937. (Fields’ ill health at the time convinced him it would be easier to do radio than a feature film.) It was on this show that Fields instituted a “feud” that would become as famous as the on-air squabbles between Jack Benny & Fred Allen and Ben Bernie & Walter Winchell; the undisputed weekly comedic highlight of The Chase and Sanborn Hour was when W.C. matched wits with radio’s most popular brat, Charlie McCarthy (the creation of Edgar Bergen).

wcfields3“Tell me, Charles—is it true your father was a gate-leg table?” Fields asked his wooden nemesis on one broadcast. “If he was,” Charlie retorted, “your father was under it!” W.C. Fields possessed a legendary jealousy toward other comedians but had nothing but praise for Charlie’s “guardian,” Edgar Bergen, admiring Bergen’s talent and timing. (The Great Man, on the other hand, was not particularly enamored of Charlie—according to Don Ameche, who often “refereed” their verbal sparring—even resorting to threatening to saw McCarthy in two during another broadcast.) Fields’ stint on the Chase and Sanborn broadcasts was fairly brief—more than a few sources note that the unpredictable comedian steadfastly refused to “clear” material with the Standards & Practices folks beforehand—but he remained a frequent guest on Edgar & Charlie’s program after his departure and up until his passing in 1946. Edgar & Charlie (and Mortimer!) even co-starred with W.C. in his first film for Universal, 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.

wcfields1In the fall of 1938, W.C. Fields became the star attraction on radio’s Your Hit Parade, adding comedy to the popular variety program that counted down the week’s most listened-to songs in the nation. Like his Chase and Sanborn duties, W.C.’s time on Parade was also brief…but it did provide a momentary bit of subversive Fieldsian humor when the star took to reading letters from his son Chester each week on the show. It took sponsor Lucky Strike a while to catch on that their star comedian was getting mail from “Chester Fields”…but when they did figure it out, the letters came to a screeching halt.

wcfields5Aside from guest appearances on the Bergen-McCarthy and Frank Sinatra programs—and the occasional turn on Mail Call and Command Performance—W.C. Fields continued his movie career with the likes of My Little Chickadee (1940; in which he was paired with the equally legendary Mae West) and The Bank Dick (1940), every bit a classic as the earlier It’s a Gift. Fields would peddle his comic wares in one more starring role in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), then limited his onscreen activities to minor appearances in features such as Follow the Boys (1944) and Song of the Open Road (1944). Years of hard drinking finally caught up to him on (here’s a slice of irony for you) December 25, 1946, when he left this world for a better one at the age of 66.

W.C. Fields left behind a rich cinematic legacy that continues to attract admirers and fans of all stripes and generations; film critic Roger Ebert once described the timelessness of the Great Man thusly: “It is the appeal of the man who cheerfully embraces a life of antisocial hedonism, basking in serene contentment with his own flaws.”

20747You can check out some of his film classics for yourself in the DVD set W.C. Fields Comedy Collection: Volume II (which features my favorite of The Great Man’s sound features, Man on the Flying Trapeze), as well as the collection Hollywood on Parade, Volume 1. No Fieldsian scholar can be without Radio Spirits’ Bergen & McCarthy: W.C. Fields and Friends, a CD set that showcases many of Fields’ Chase and Sanborn Hour appearances and a few guest shots with Edgar and Charlie from the 1940s…including his final work with the duo on that show from March 24, 1946.