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Happy Birthday, Portland Hoffa!

It pains me to have to say this…but I have heard from many an old-time radio devotee that Portland Hoffa—born on this date in 1905—is an acquired taste.  Her trademark high-pitched voice as husband Fred Allen’s favorite stooge (Portland jokingly referred to herself as a “wooge”) on his long-running radio program has been known to alienate both fans and would-be fans.  In their defense, these individuals have company; the wife of one of Fred’s sponsors once lobbied heavily to have Portland removed from Allen’s program, finding her annoying.  In a letter to an agency vice-president, Allen laid down the law (in his trademark lowercase style):  “you tell him that portland is my wife, that she makes my life livable, and that her presence on the show is not a matter of negotiation.  we are a family and we work as a family.  if he doesn’t want mrs. allen, he doesn’t want mr. allen.  i’m telling you and you tell him—never mention this subject to me again.”

The woman who would become Portland Hoffa Allen acquired her birth name because she was born in that Oregon city—likewise, her siblings went by Lebanon, Cortland, and Harlem.  (The exception was her youngest sister Lastone—pronounced “Last-un”—because her parents decided enough was enough.)  Though born in The Beaver State, Portland grew up in Jamaica, NY, where she attended school and was more interested in basketball and archery than the three R’s.  Before she reached voting age, Hoffa secured work on Broadway as a stage performer in productions like The Mimic World (1921) and Make It Snappy (1922).  It was in The Passing Show of 1922 that she would meet Fred Allen. She would also appear in Marjorie (1924), Tell Me More (1925), and George White’s Scandals of 1926 before tying the knot with Allen in 1927.  (The Allens would appear together in the successful stage revues The Greenwich Village Follies of 1925-26The Little Show [1929] and Three’s a Crowd [1930].)

Portland Hoffa would also accompany Fred on his various vaudeville engagements. It was not uncommon for husband-and-wives to team up together in those days, as witnessed by the success of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Jim and Marian Jordan, etc.  When network radio expressed an interest in Fred’s comedy with the CBS Radio premiere of The Linit Bath Club Revue on October 23, 1932, Portland would sign on as his sidekick.  She would be billed as “Portland Hoffa” on the air, but her character differed from her real-life persona as Mrs. Allen. Hoffa was a slightly daffy young girl, filled with enthusiasm and always anxious to read a letter from home (both Gracie Allen and Mary Livingstone played similar characters on their radio shows).  Portland would exuberantly greet Fred with “Mis-ter Allen!  Mis-ter Allen!” prompting her husband to respond along the lines of “Well, as I try to make both ends meet in this tight vest—if it isn’t Portland!”  (Hoffa’s actual voice was soft and gentle; Fred often speculated that Portland’s on-air squeak was born out of mike fright and it was kept that way because it was popular.)

With each incarnation of Fred Allen’s program—The Salad Bowl RevueThe Sal Hepatica RevueThe Hour of Smiles—Portland maintained her “wooge” duties. She continued in that capacity when the Allen show took on its most popular 1930s form, the hour-long Town Hall Tonight.  In the 1940s, when Fred’s program reverted back to a half-hour, Hoffa was faithfully by her husband’s side…and whenever she would ask after his monologue “Shall we go?” the audience knew there would be a trip down “Allen’s Alley.”  Portland was also in support of Fred whenever he would guest on the likes of Command Performance and The Radio Hall of Fame, and on shows showcasing the talents of Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen, and his “feuding” nemesis Jack Benny.  The Fred Allen Show would acknowledge its final curtain call on June 26, 1949, a casualty of both declining ratings and Fred’s health problems.

In the fall of 1950, when Fred Allen became a semi-regular on NBC’s The Big Show, Portland Hoffa became a semi-regular as well.  One of the couple’s most delightful guest appearances was on an April 12, 1952 broadcast of The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, where Portland uncharacteristically sang Sweet Marie…accompanied by Fred on banjo.  Hoffa would also be in attendance during Allen’s forays on the small screen like The Colgate Comedy Hour and All Star Revue.  When the October 17, 1954 edition of Omnibus featured a segment on Fred’s recently-published Treadmill to Oblivion, Portland was reunited with former Allen Show players Kenny Delmar, Parker Fennelly, Peter Donald, and Peter Van Steeden.  And when Fred Allen became a regular on the popular panel show What’s My Line, the February 27, 1955 telecast made use of Portland as that evening’s “Mystery Guest.”

When Fred Allen passed away in 1956, Portland Hoffa retreated from show business. In 1959, she married bandleader Joe Rines, who later became an advertising executive.  She gathered up a large portion of her first husband’s famous correspondence and saw it published as Fred Allen’s Letters in 1965. (She appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that same year to promote the book in what would be one of her last TV appearances).  Rines died in 1986, two years after Portland celebrated the second of two silver wedding anniversaries. Hoffa-Allen-Rines would leave this world for a better one in 1990.

James Thurber, a good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Allen, memorably observed to Portland that “everything you and Fred said to each other was somehow akin to The Sweetheart Duet from Maytime.”  I make no secret of my love for both Fred and today’s birthday girl, and Radio Spirits features several of their most memorable broadcasts from the 1930s on the must-own CD collection Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud.  Portland and her husband are also guests on the Jack Benny sets Be Our Guest and On the Town, and you’ll hear classic Fred Allen Show broadcasts on our potpourri compilations of Comedy Out West and Great Radio Comedy.  Shall we go?

Happy Birthday, Danny Kaye!

The date was June 9, 1986 and the borough of Brooklyn was awash with the celebrative gaiety of its Back to Brooklyn Day Festival.  The individual chosen to be the festival’s “King” was a native son born on this date in 1911 — and if there was a worthier candidate than David Daniel Kaminsky, the committee that made the decision certainly didn’t let on.  We know Mr. Kaminsky as Danny Kaye—one of show business’ true “Renaissance men.”  Kaye could sing, dance, act, and make audiences laugh…and he did so on stage and radio, and in movies and TV.  But to call Danny an entertainer would be a severe understatement. In addition to his better known talents, Kaye was a gourmet chef, an accomplished golfer, a licensed pilot, a baseball enthusiast (he was at one time part owner of the Seattle Mariners), and an honorary member of both the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics.  (I’m willing to bet he was one of those kids you knew in high school who signed up for every curricular activity.)

Jacob and Clara Kaminsky welcomed Danny into the world as the youngest of their three sons (and the only member of the clan to be born in the United States).  In Brooklyn, he attended Public School 149 (later renamed after Kaye as tribute to their famous alumnus). But when his mother died unexpectedly while Danny was still in his teens, he set out with a friend to Florida, where the pair made a living as amateur musicians.  Danny would eventually return to New York and, while he expressed an interest in attending med school, his family simply couldn’t afford the money for his education.  Kaye embarked on a “jack-of-all-trades” career with jobs as a soda jerk, insurance investigator, and office drone—all of which he was fired from. (His stint with the insurance company found him responsible for an error that cost the firm $40,000.)  Since he had entertained his classmates during his school days with jokes and music, Danny thought a career in the footlights might be more to his liking. He received his education in that vocation performing at various venues (as a “tummler”) in the Catskills.  He got his big break as a member of The Three Terpsichoreans, a vaudeville act that started in Utica, NY (where he used his new name for the first time). He went on to tour the U.S. and Asia in a revue entitled La Vie Paree.

After a six-month tour of the Far East, Danny Kaye returned to America to discover that show business bookings were in short supply.  (One of his most unusual gigs was working with burlesque legend Sally Rand; Kaye was hired to make sure her fans were always in front of her.)  Danny got work in several two-reel shorts cranked out by Educational Pictures (Getting an EyefulDime a Dance), and worked on a Broadway show entitled The Straw Hat Revue with his soon-to-be-wife Sylvia Fine. That production had a brief run, but the good notices Kaye received got him hired at La Martinique, a NYC nightclub.  While performing there, Danny attracted the attention of playwright Moss Hart, who cast the entertainer opposite Gertrude Lawrence in his 1941 production of Lady in the Dark.  The highlight of Lady was Danny’s showstopping performance of “Tchaikovsky,” in which he rattled off the names of fifty-four Russian composers (in thirty-nine seconds!) during the course of his song.

Lady in the Dark and his nightclub engagements afforded Danny Kaye a second try in motion pictures (even though Samuel Goldwyn swore that he was unaware of the entertainer’s previous Educational oeuvre at the time of Kaye’s hiring).  Goldwyn was, however, enthusiastic about Kaye appearing in Up in Arms (1944; a remake of Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee! [1930]), because Danny performed a Sylvia-penned tune entitled The Lobby Number. When the duo auditioned this for Goldwyn, the mogul was reduced to helpless (and uncharacteristic) laughter. Sylvia later recalled that Sam never quite enjoyed the other movie songs she created for her hubby to the degree of The Lobby Number.  (Up in Arms also featured Melody in 4-F, which Danny had originally performed in his starring stage musical Let’s Face It.)

A string of successful movie vehicles produced by Sam Goldwyn followed for Danny Kaye: Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and A Song is Born (1948).  (All four of these musical comedies featured Virginia Mayo as Danny’s leading lady.)  At the same time, Kaye was starting to make headway in front of a radio microphone as well, though he had originally dabbled in the medium with appearances over Brooklyn’s WBBC in the early 1930s.  He would reprise his movie roles on programs such as The Camel Screen Guild Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre and showcase his incredible performing talents in venues like The Big ShowCommand PerformanceForecastJubilee, and Mail Call.  Kaye was a two-time guest on Suspense (“The Too-Perfect Alibi” and “I Never Met the Dead Man”) and an in-demand guest star on shows headlined by the likes of Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Jack Benny (who was a big fan).

But Danny Kaye’s largest contribution to radio was the appropriately-titled The Danny Kaye Show, which premiered over CBS on January 6, 1945.  Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon (”33 fine brews, blended into one great beer”), it allowed Danny to cut loose with his trademark scat-singing patter while supported by the likes of a pre-Our Miss Brooks Eve Arden, Lionel Stander, Frank Nelson (as the sponsor, Mr. Pabst), and bandleader Harry James.  (The program originated in Hollywood but then later moved in New York, allowing such pros as Kenny Delmar and Everett Sloane to show up from time to time.)  While there was no denying Kaye’s talent, the program failed to catch on with the listening audience (Goodman Ace, the head writer, charitably referred to the Kaye show as “a bomb”)and departed the airwaves in May of 1946.

Danny Kaye continued his work in motion pictures with features like The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), and Knock on Wood (1954).  With Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen, Danny appeared in 1954’s White Christmas—a film that has become an annual Yuletide viewing tradition favorite even today (it was a remake of Bing’s 1942 musical Holiday Inn).  1956 saw the release of The Court Jester, a delightful comedy that may have disappointed at the box office but remains a classic among fans…even those who don’t care for Danny Kaye.  While continuing to make movies (Merry AndrewThe Five Pennies), Kaye became the hardest working man in show business: wowing audiences across the pond with appearances at the London Palladium (and even a Royal Command performance!); scoring hit chart records like Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo) (performed with the Andrews Sisters) and C’est Si Bon (It’s So Good); and becoming the first ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

Danny Kaye’s 1960s filmic output included On the Double (1961) and The Man from the Diners’ Club (1963), but he was perhaps best remembered for his television variety show that was a staple on CBS’ schedule from 1963 to 1967.  The Danny Kaye Show was never a huge Nielsens hit (attributed to the network’s scheduling of the show in the later hours of primetime, robbing Danny of his large younger audience). However, it collected an Emmy statuette in 1964 (for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series) and the prestigious Peabody Award.  Kaye would later appear in two acclaimed TV presentations in the 1970s, Pinocchio (1976; as Geppetto opposite Sandy Duncan’s puppet) and Peter Pan (1976; as Captain Hook).  Danny also received rave critical notices for his performance in the 1981 TV-movie Skokie and for guest turns on The Twilight Zone (the 80s revival) and The Cosby Show.  After a lifetime of following his motto “Life is a great big canvas—throw all the paint you can at it,” Danny Kaye left this world for a better one in 1987 at the age of 76.

On January 18, 2013, as Turner Classic Movies celebrated Danny Kaye’s centennial with a daylong scheduling of his movies. Kaye’s daughter Dena revealed to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz that contrary to what her famous father claimed for many years, he was not born in 1913…but 1911.  So, on the anniversary of Kaye’s 108th birthday, Radio Spirits invites you to check out a trio of classic musical numbers from our birthday boy on our 3-CD collection You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet! ShowstoppersAnatole of Paris (from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Ballin’ the Jack (On the Riviera), and Tchaikovsky.  You’ll also find this latter number on our compilation Some Enchanted Evening: The Greatest Broadway Hits, and on The Best of Christmas, Danny joins Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, and Trudy Stevens for the delightful Snow (a number from White Christmas).  Since we shouldn’t neglect our old-time radio roots, we’ll politely point out that you’ll find Mr. Kaye guesting on his good friend Jack Benny’s program with Jack Benny & Friends.  On behalf of Danny, I can say nothing more than “Git gat gittle giddle-di-ap giddle-de-tommy riddle de biddle de roop da-reep fa-san skeedle de woo-da fiddle de wada REEP!”

“…we love the Halls of Ivy/That surround us here today…”

From the moment writer Don Quinn first met vaudevillian Jim Jordan at the studios of Chicago’s WENR in the early 1930s, the success of the two men in the burgeoning medium of radio was assured. Don would contribute scripts to Jim and wife Marian’s programs The Farmer Rush Hour and Smackout.  Quinn’s association with the Jordans would continue when The Johnson Wax Program—known by its fans as simply Fibber McGee & Molly—premiered over NBC on April 16, 1935 and soon became one of the country’s most popular radio comedy shows.  Fibber McGee & Molly would also make Don radio’s highest-paid scribe; at the peak of his involvement with the program he was pulling down $3,000 a week.

Yet in the fall of 1949, Don would turn over his head writing duties on Fibber and Molly to his assistant Phil Leslie (who had been with the show since 1943) because he was enthusiastic about a new project that began with an audition disc recorded that June.  Quinn’s concept for his new situation comedy was about a small midwestern institution of higher education, Ivy College, and the misadventures of the college’s head administrator, William Todhunter Hall.  The audition passed muster with the National Broadcasting Company, who added it to their schedule on this date in 1950.  There were, however, some changes made along the way…alterations and tweaks that would make The Halls of Ivy one of the bright spots of postwar radio in the 1950s.

The June 22, 1949 audition for The Halls of Ivy featured Gale Gordon and Edna Best in the roles of Professor Hall and Victoria Hall, respectively.  Gordon was one of radio’s best-known character presences and had even worked with Ivy creator Quinn in Don’s Fibber McGee & Molly days (Gale played Wistful Vista mayor Charles LaTrivia, among other characters).  The actor was also familiar to radio audiences as Osgood Conklin, the autocratic principal on the situation comedy Our Miss Brooks.  The growing success of Brooks threatened to put the kibosh on Gordon’s continuing with Ivy(contractual obligations and all that), so the hunt for a suitable replacement was on.

Nat Woolf, Ivy’s director-producer, sent his good friend Ronald Colman a few of Don Quinn’s scripts and asked him to read them, sensing that it might be a project in which the Academy Award-winning actor (for 1947’s A Double Life) might be interested.  Ronnie was in a state of semi-retirement; he appeared in a movie every now and then to keep his hand in (Colman would star in one of his finest motion picture comedies the year of Halls of Ivy’s debut, Champagne for Caesar)—but he was starting to explore opportunities in front of a radio microphone, appearing as a frequent guest on the anthology series Favorite Story.

Colman’s other “high profile” radio gig was a series of hilarious guest turns on The Jack Benny Program, where he gamely agreed to portray (as himself) the comedian’s long-suffering next-door neighbor.  On Benny’s show, Ronnie was joined by his real-life spouse Benita Hume. Benita had actually retired from show business sometime earlier, but Jack was a stickler for authenticity and coaxed Hume into playing herself on his program rather than hire another actress.  The Colmans demonstrated a delightful flair for comedy in their Benny show appearances—providing a marvelous counterpart to Jack’s clueless oafishness with their proper British bearing and manners.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that Ronald and Benita Colman weren’t considered for the leads on The Halls of Ivy from the show’s conception.  Ronnie was no stranger to comedy (with delightful films like The Talk of the Town and The Late George Apley to his credit), but his reputation as a respected actor infused Professor Hall with a dignified demeanor that was tempered with an approachable and appealing likability.  (Some have posited that Colman was really just playing himself.)  The character of Victoria Hall, as played by Benita, was the series’ true delight. Mrs. Hall was a former London musical comedy actress (Victoria “Vickie” Cromwell) who affectionately referred to her husband as “Toddy” and reveled in unconventional antics…like teaching Ivy students to tap dance.  Many of the Ivy broadcasts would relate in flashback the early days of Professor Hall and Victoria’s courtship.

The Halls of Ivy also benefitted from a superlative supporting cast.  Herb Butterfield was heard quite often as Clarence Wellman, the head of Ivy College’s Board of Governors…who frequently clashed with Professor Hall on college matters.  Hall’s ally on the board was John Merriweather, portrayed by Great Gildersleeve star Willard Waterman. When Waterman’s schedule as Gildy conflicted with the program, The Halls of Ivy revealed that Merriweather had a twin brother in Charles (played by returnee Gale Gordon!).  Other occasional Ivy regulars included Arthur Q. Bryan (as Professor Warren), Alan Reed (as Professor Heaslip), Barton Yarborough, Lee Patrick, and James Gleason.  (The Halls had a bit of turnover in the maid department, with household domestics portrayed by Gloria Gordon, Bea Benaderet, and Elizabeth Patterson.)  The show’s broadcasts also spotlighted memorable turns from Barbara Jean Wong, Anne Whitfield, Robert Easton, Jane Morgan, William Johnstone, Sheldon Leonard, and Ken Christy.

Creator Don Quinn had a handicap when it came to The Halls of Ivy.  He was without peer when it came to jokes featuring his signature wordplay…but he’d be the first to admit that he wasn’t particularly strong when it came to the “situation” part of the comedy.  He’d rely on writers like Walter Brown Newman, Cameron Blake, Robert Sinclair, and Milton & Barbara Merlin to help craft the show’s fine scripts.  Perhaps the most famous of Ivy’s writing alumni were Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, who went on to write the highly successful stage play Inherit the Wind.  Ivy’s scripts were quite sophisticated and occasionally ahead of their time, tackling taboo subjects such as racial prejudice and out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  The show would deservedly win a Peabody Award for Best Radio Drama Series.

The Halls of Ivy’s longtime sponsor was Schlitz (“The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”—kind of fitting for a show about college), with veteran announcer Ken Carpenter extolling the product’s virtues. Henry Russell and Vick Knight’s memorable theme song is surely familiar to some, even if they’ve never listened to the program.  Ivy was heard over NBC until June 25, 1952 (with an episode appropriately titled “The Farewell Party”). Like so many radio shows before it, the series had a brief romance with the small screen when a television version of the show debuted over CBS-TV on October 19. 1954.  Both the Colmans and Herb Butterfield reprised their radio roles (Arthur Q. Bryan also appeared in several episodes as Professor Warren). However, the series faced stiff competition from NBC’s triple threat rotation of Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and Martha Raye, and lasted but a single season.

If you’ve been searching for a radio comedy program that has truly stood the test of time, I can think of no better example than The Halls of Ivy.  It’s a marvelous blend of sophistication and warmth with the occasional touch of pathos, and Radio Spirits spotlights the Peabody Award-winner in a delightful collection entitled School Days.  Pay particular attention to the January 24, 1951 broadcast, “The Goya Request”; it was written by none other than the show’s star—Ronald Colman!  All together now: “In the sacred halls of Ivy/Where we’ve lived and learned to know/That through the years we’ll see you in the sweet afterglow…”

Happy Birthday, Jeanette Nolan!

Actress Jeanette Nolan—born in Los Angeles on this date in 1911—met future husband John McIntire while working on a West Coast radio program in the 1930s.  John was the announcer for a show on which Jeanette was appearing, and as she told Radio Life in 1945: “Right then, I thought he should be acting as well as announcing.”  McIntire took her advice and soon he could be heard performing opposite his wife on programs like The Cavalcade of AmericaThe March of TimeThe Court of Missing Heirs…and co-starring on too many daytime dramas to count.  McIntire would later become celebrated for work on TV shows like Naked City and Wagon Train…but since it is Jeanette’s birthday, we should concentrate on her incredible career as one of the medium’s finest character actresses.

As an L.A. native, Jeanette Nolan attended Abraham Lincoln High School and upon graduation, had plans to study music at Los Angeles City College (she aspired to sing opera).  Her plans were sidetracked when she became a member of the Pasadena Playhouse…but for a time, Jeanette had to quit college and the Playhouse because she couldn’t afford carfare on what she was making as a clerk in a local department store ($2.37 a day, during the Great Depression).  Her friend True Boardman, who had attended the same high school, suggested she give radio a try and made an appointment for her to see a man named Cyril Armbrister at Earnshaw Young.  Armbrister had Nolan read…and the following day the aspiring young thespian had a job that would net her $7.50.  As she later reminisced to Leonard Maltin: “I went to my boss and said, ‘I have to quit.’  She said, ‘What’s the matter?’  And I said, ‘Well, I have a job and it’s going to pay me $7.50.’  She said, ‘Listen, Sarah Bernhardt, you keep your job; if you get more work, we’ll let you go.’  It was just so darling, they kept me on.”

Jeanette Nolan made her radio debut over station KHJ in a production of Omar Khayyam, the first transcontinental broadcast.  Nolan can be heard in the surviving radio serials Tarzan of the Apes and Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher (with husband John as narrator), eventually working her way up to portraying major roles on The March of Time and supplementing that with gigs on Calling All Cars, Great PlaysThe Jack Pearl ShowRadio GuildThe Shadow, and Young Dr. Malone.  Many of those acting jobs allowed her to work with McIntire, with whom she tied the knot in 1935. The couple performed alongside one another so often that they were nicknamed “the Lunt and Fontanne of radio.”  (The McIntires would later purchase a piece of property in Montana in the mid-40s—nicknamed “The Yaak” because of its proximity to the Yaak River—where they enjoyed a life of peaceful seclusion three miles from the Canadian border and fourteen from the nearest mail drop.  Whenever they needed money, they’d go to New York and get radio work.)

Jeanette Nolan would become, by the 1940s, one of radio’s busiest and in-demand actresses.  She emoted on serialized dramas like Big SisterHome of the Brave, and Life Begins; she even had a recurring role (as Nicolette Moore) on Carlton E. Morse’s One Man’s Family.  Much of her work can be heard on surviving broadcasts of The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre. At this point in her career, Nolan’s radio resume also included The Adventures of Sam SpadeThe ClockThe Columbia WorkshopCrime Doctor (because husband John played the title role—it was not uncommon for him to psychoanalyze his own wife!), Family TheatreFavorite StoryThe Ford TheatreThe Great GildersleeveHedda Hopper’s HollywoodI Love AdventureLet George Do It,Manhattan at MidnightMeet Mr. MeekThe Perfect CrimeThe Railroad Hour, and The Upper Room.  Jeanette was also one of the many prominent performers on EscapeSuspense, and The Whistler.

Jeanette Nolan’s work on Orson Welles’ This is My Best (and The Shadow) would pave the way for her motion picture debut. Orson convinced Republic Studios—known primarily for their B-Westerns and serials—to finance a production of Macbeth in 1948 (co-starring Ms. Nolan).  Surprisingly, Jeanette did not get good notices for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. (Personally, it’s my favorite of all the cinematic versions of “the Scottish play,” but the movie was panned by many critics.) It wasn’t until years later that its reputation improved after being reevaluated.  Macbeth led to plum parts in movies like Words and Music (1948) and No Sad Songs for Me (1950). I’ve seen many of Nolan’s films (she’s one of my old-time radio loves) and I thought she gave standout performances in features (a lot of them Westerns) like The Secret of Convict Lake (1951), Hangman’s Knot (1952), Seventh Cavalry (1956), The Halliday Brand (1957), and The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957).  Jeanette’s best movie at this time was the classic 1953 film noir The Big Heat; as Bertha Duncan—the scheming wife of a croaked cop found to be on the take—she brought a real “Lady Macbeth” wickedness to the role.

At the radio microphone, Jeanette Nolan kept busy. Elliott Lewis utilized her services often on his series Broadway’s My BeatCrime Classics, and On Stage, while Norman Macdonnell made sure she had fine showcases on The Adventures of Philip MarloweFort LaramieGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelRogers of the Gazette, and Romance.  The 1950s may have seen the transition of popular home entertainment from radio to television, but Jeanette still found work on such shows as The Adventures of Christopher LondonThe CBS Radio WorkshopFather Knows BestFibber McGee & MollyFrontier GentlemanThe General Electric TheatreThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star Theatre, Hopalong CassidyJason and the Golden FleeceThe LineupThe Man Called XMr. PresidentNight BeatPursuitRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Six ShooterTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBI, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

You wouldn’t have seen her onscreen…but one of Jeanette Nolan’s high-profile movie roles was a bit of voice work as one of several actresses (including Virginia Gregg) to voice Mrs. Bates, the mother of Psycho (1960) protagonist Norman.  Jeanette was featured in two of John Ford’s later-career films, Two Rode Together (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). However, she made more of an impression on the small screen where she would eventually notch up a staggering number of credits (and four Emmy nominations for series like The Richard Boone Show and I Spy),appearing on such series as Alfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Twilight ZoneDr. KildarePerry MasonLaredo, and Wagon Train.  From 1959 to 1960, she co-starred on Hotel de Paree—a TV oater that found her portraying Annette Deveraux, co-owner of the titular establishment.  She often guest-starred on the TV Gunsmoke, including a memorable turn as Festus’ “Aunt Thedy.” In fact, her two-episode appearance as frontier bag lady “Sally Fergus” resulted in a spin-off, Dirty Sally, which enjoyed a brief run in 1974.

Jeanette Nolan’s longest-running TV role was alongside her husband John McIntire. They took over ownership of the Shiloh Ranch (as Clay and Holly Granger) on The Virginian from 1967 to 1970.  Nolan continued to make the rounds of series like Night GalleryMannix, and Medical Center. She also shared some memorable gigs with husband John: the couple supplied voices for the Disney features The Rescuers (1977) and The Fox and the Hound (1981). One of the McIntires’ standout film performances was as the villains in 1984’s Cloak and Dagger—a remake of the 1949 noir The Window.  (The duo also had an unforgettable showcase as the parents of John Larroquette‘s character on Night Court.)  John McIntire passed away in 1991 and Jeanette followed seven years later, after completing her final film appearance in The Horse Whisperer (1998).

Despite branching out into movies and television, Jeanette Nolan never really abandoned radio. She worked on 70s drama revivals like The Hollywood Radio Theatre and The Sears Radio Theatre, and was an active member in CART—California Artists Radio Theatre.  Radio Spirits offers a collection of Sears broadcasts on Mutual Radio Theatre, plus you can check out our birthday girl on our audio compendium saluting the Fourth Estate in Stop the Press!  But we’re just getting started: we have much more Nolan on sets of The Adventures of Philip MarloweBroadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers, Great White Way), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Escape (EssentialsPeril), Fort Laramie (Volume Two), Frontier GentlemanGunsmoke (Around Dodge CityThe RoundupSnakebite), Have Gun – Will Travel (Blind Courage), Jack Benny (Be Our Guest), Let George Do It (Cry UncleFull DetailsSweet Poison), The Line-Up (Witness), The Man Called XNight Beat (Human Interest), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Homicide Made EasyMayhem is My Business), RomanceThe Shadow (Bitter FruitStrange Puzzles), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel), Suspense (Ties That BindWages of Sin), The Whistler (Eleventh Hour), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Expense Account SubmittedThe Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMysterious MattersWayward Matters).

Happy Birthday, Van Heflin!

“Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, ‘You will never get the girl at the end,’” recalled actor Van Heflin once in an interview.  “So I worked on my acting.”  The man born Emmett Evan Heflin, Jr. in Walters, Oklahoma on this date in 1908 (some sources report 1910) always boasted, “I’ve never played the same part twice.  I’m a character actor—always have been.”  You’d be hard pressed to find a finer character thesp; Heflin not only gave memorable performances in such (highly recommended) films as Act of Violence (1949) and The Prowler (1951)…he got the last laugh on Mayer when he was awarded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1943 for his turn as Robert Taylor’s alcoholic buddy in Johnny Eager (1942).

The son of Fanny Bleecker and Emmett Evan Heflin, Sr. (a dentist by profession), Van, Jr. had an interest in acting since his childhood. (This interest was shared by his sister, [Mary] Frances Heflin—known to TV daytime drama fans as Mona Kane Tyler on All My Children).  Schooled in Oklahoma in his early years, Van would relocate to California when his parents went their separate ways. Having graduated, he answered the siren song of the sea by shipping out on a tramp steamer for a year of nautical adventure.  Heflin would return to The Sooner State to attend the University of Oklahoma in pursuit of a law degree…but eventually turned his attention to performing.  Van would later graduate from Yale University with a master’s degree in theater.

In the late 1920s, Van Heflin was already making a name for himself as a stage actor with appearances in productions like Mister Moneypenny (1928).  Heflin returned to stage work after taking another sailing sabbatical (he had a passion for sea spray and salt air that would last his lifetime) for three years, landing roles in plays like The Bride of Torozko (1934) and Mid-West (1936).  A plum showcase in 1936’s End of Summer got him noticed in Hollywood, and Van made his prestigious motion picture debut opposite Katharine Hepburn in A Woman Rebels (1936).  That assignment won him a contract with RKO, where he graced such programmers as The Outcasts of Poker FlatFlight from GloryAnnapolis Salute, and Saturday’s Heroes (all of which were released in 1937).  Other movie triumphs included Back Door to Heaven (1939) and Santa Fe Trail (1940).

Katharine Hepburn was so impressed with Van Heflin from A Woman Rebels that she insisted he be cast as “Macaulay ‘Mike’ Connor” opposite her “Tracy Lord” in the Broadway stage smash The Philadelphia Story (1939).  Sadly, Van lost out to James Stewart when Philadelphia was adapted for the screen the following year (a role that won Jimmy a Best Actor Oscar), but he wasn’t left completely empty-handed. Heflin got an MGM contract out of it, and the studio put him to work in such features as The Feminine Touch (1941), H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), and the aforementioned Johnny Eager.  (Heflin also appeared in a pair of the studio’s “B” pictures, 1942’s Kid Glove Killer and Grand Central Murder.)  For a time, MGM seemed interested in turning the actor into a leading man in films like Tennessee Johnson (1942), Seven Sweethearts (1942), and Presenting Lily Mars (1943).  With World War II in progress, the actor decided to “do his bit” by enlisting in the Army, serving as a combat cameraman with the Motion Picture Unit and also the Ninth Air Force in Europe.

Van Heflin returned to motion pictures in 1946 with one of his most accessible films (it’s fallen into the public domain), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946; with Barbara Stanwyck), and he followed that “film noir” turn with another trip to Dark City in 1947’s Possessed (with Joan Crawford).  This period in Heflin’s movie career saw him not only as a serviceable leading man, but a most versatile actor – demonstrating a range between Green Dolphin Street (1947) and The Three Musketeers (1948) to Madame Bovary (1949) and East Side, West Side (1949).  Many of his movie performances would be reprised on radio’s popular anthology series, including The Lux Radio Theatre and The Theatre Guild on the Air.

You see, Van Heflin was well acquainted with performing in front of a radio microphone.  In his Broadway days, the actor supplemented his stage work on radio soaps like Betty and Bob and Way Down East.  An inventory check of Heflin’s on-air resume would include appearances on such popular shows as Escape and Suspense, not to mention Arch Oboler’s PlaysThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopThe Doctor FightsFamily TheatreThe Ford TheatreHallmark PlayhouseThe Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreThe Man Called X (Heflin filled in for star Herbert Marshall on a May 25, 1951 broadcast), The NBC University Theatre, and The Radio Reader’s Digest.  Van’s most high-profile gig was being the first to star in a weekly radio series as Raymond Chandler’s famed sleuth on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, which was a summer replacement series for Bob Hope’s Pepsodent show in 1947.  (Heflin would guest on Bob’s show when the comedian resumed in the fall and was also one of the guest stars on a notorious Sealtest Variety Theatre broadcast [March 4, 1949] that was plagued with technical problems [and a little unplanned profanity].)

By the 1950s, Van Heflin was starting to explore acting opportunities on the small screen, with guest appearances on TV shows like Robert Montgomery Presents and Playhouse 90.  His motion picture output never slacked off, however; his well-known feature films at this point in his career include My Son John (1952), Wings of the Hawk (1953), The Raid (1954), Battle Cry (1955), and Patterns (1956).  Heflin’s best remembered film would be released in 1953: Shane. In this Western classic, Van was in danger of losing his wife (played by Jean Arthur) to a handsome gunman-turned-drifter (Alan Ladd).  Heflin further demonstrated his flair for the sagebrush with appearances in oaters like 3:10 to Yuma (1957—my favorite of his films), Gunman’s Walk (1958), and They Came to Cordura (1959).

Van Heflin returned to Broadway for one last turn amongst the footlights with the very well-received A Case of Libel in 1963.  (When he reprised this role for a TV version in 1968, he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Single Performance in a Drama.)  Throughout the decade, Heflin continued to work in films like Cry of Battle (1963) and Stagecoach (1966), and while it wasn’t his final show business turn (he did two TV movies in 1970 and 1971), he made a memorable impression in the all-star disaster drama Airport (1970) as the sympathetic but nevertheless twisted antagonist whose on-board bomb sets the film’s plot in motion.  Van would succumb to a heart attack in 1971 (while he was enjoying a dip in his pool), and per his request, his ashes would be scattered in the Pacific, so he could continue his love for the sea.

Van Heflin’s producer on Airport, Ross Hunter, remarked after the actor’s passing: “I’ve never known a kinder, simpler, more understanding man.  People didn’t realize this—his talent overshadowed it all.”  Radio Spirits extends the warmest of invitations on Van’s birthday to check out both his talent and his signature radio role on our Adventures of Philip Marlowe collection (with the five surviving Heflin broadcasts supplemented by shows featuring Gerald Mohr).  In addition, you can hear Heflin in the “Wild Oranges” broadcast (09/28/49) on Escape to the High Seas, and “The Lady in the Red Hat” (11/30/50) on Suspense: Wages of Sin.  Happy birthday, Mr. Heflin!

Happy Birthday, Agnes Moorehead!

In my days of higher education—where it was joked that I had spent so much time in college, ivy had started to grow up my leg—I was a member of Armstrong State College’s quiz bowl team.  I vividly remember my first tournament, in which we squared off against a most formidable squad from Georgia Tech; their team had a reputation for being able to “buzz in” with the answer to questions merely after hearing the first five words.  But one of the questions in the round began: “She played Orson Welles’ mother in Citizen Kane…”  I hit the buzzer lickety-split and blurted out “Agnes Moorehead” when the moderator called my name.  It goes without saying, of course, that our team was no match for Georgia Tech (our captain noted with a perfectly straight face that one of Tech’s members had never even watched television)—yet knowing that small bit of trivia about the actress born in 1900 on this date in Clinton, Massachusetts gave me a brief moment of self-satisfaction (and a reputation in tournaments to follow as a “trash” expert—”trash” being the nickname college bowl veterans gave to pop culture questions).

Agnes Robertson Moorehead was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister (John) and a former singer (Mildred McCauley).  Agnes would make her public debut reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” in her father’s church, while her mother encouraged her theatrical ambitions by allowing her and her sister Peggy plenty of opportunity to indulge their talents for imagination.  The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri while Moorehead was young, and the two Moorehead sisters would often amuse their father with impressions of his parishioners.  Peggy died suddenly at the age of 23, and Agnes rarely spoke of her sister after that tragedy.

While attending high school, Agnes Moorehead became a member of the chorus of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company (known to locals as “The Muny”). After graduation she had planned to pursue a theatrical career—something her father did not discourage, but he did insist that she get a formal education.  Moorehead would obtain this at New Concord, Ohio’s Muskingum College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She taught public school in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin for five years while earning her masters in English and public speaking at the University of Wisconsin.  Agnes pursued further study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (Manhattan), graduating with honors in 1929.

With graduation and the news of her sister’s passing, Agnes Moorehead was ready to look for acting gigs in Manhattan…and although she did find some stage work, it seemed there were far more opportunities for her in radio.  Moorehead began to build a radio resume that included a recurring role on CBS’ comedy-variety series Evening in Paris (as Cousin Anna), stooging for Phil Baker on his popular comedy program, and bringing the comic strip character of “Min Gump” to life on the situation comedy The Gumps.  Agnes also explored her dramatic side on shows like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and fortuitously became a member of Orson Welles’ celebrated Mercury Theatre Players—appearing in his 1937 production of Les Miserables and in roles on The Mercury Theatre on the Air/Campbell Playhouse.  Her contribution to the infamous “The War of the Worlds” broadcast?  She performed a woman’s scream, then helped take frantic telephone calls from listeners for the remainder of the program.  Many of the radio programs that Agnes worked on had a distinct Orson influence; she played “Margo Lane” to his “Lamont Cranston” in the 1937-38 season of The Shadow(and opposite Bill Johnstone for an additional season after that), and had roles on the likes of The Orson Welles TheatreHello AmericansCeiling UnlimitedRadio AlmanacThis is My Best, and The Mercury Summer Theatre.

Agnes Moorehead owed her debut in feature films to her chum Mr. Welles with Citizen Kane (1941), as I mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay.  Agnes would also work with Orson in the Welles-directed The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), as well as Journey Into Fear (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944).  Her role as Aunt Fanny in Ambersons (an outstanding and moving performance) would garner Moorehead the first of four Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress; the other films for which she was nominated were Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948), and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965).  Agnes rarely played leads in motion pictures, but her undeniable talent is stamped on many classic movies of the 1940s, including Since You Went Away (1944),Tomorrow, the World! (1944), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), Dark Passage (1947—a great villainous role), The Woman in White (1948), and Station West (1948).

As Agnes Moorehead wowed movie audiences with a steadily growing body of work, she continued to make waves before a radio microphone. She appeared as housekeeper Marilly on the comedy-drama The Mayor of the Town (which starred Lionel Barrymore), joshed with Jack Carson on his weekly series, played Maggie on Bringing Up Father, and starred in The Amazing Mrs. Danbury (a sitcom that replaced The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show when its star succumbed to a heart attack).  Many of Moorehead’s most lauded radio turns were on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” (she was the anthology’s most frequently cast actress). She gave bravura performances in classic Suspense broadcasts like “The Diary of Saphronia Winters,” “The Sisters,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and “The Trap”…but the best-known of them all was “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Moorehead first performed this Lucille Fletcher-penned classic on May 25, 1943, and would go on to reprise the role an additional seven times (using the same dog-eared, pencil-marked script on each and every occasion).

Other shows on Agnes Moorehead’s radio c.v. include The Adventures of Leonidas WitherallBetty and BobThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopEllery QueenEverything for the BoysThe Free CompanyGreat PlaysThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseInner SanctumThe Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreMystery in the AirThe NBC Radio Theatre, Pulitzer Prize PlaysRadio GuildThe Radio Hall of FameRequest PerformanceStagestruck, and Way Down East.  Despite her movie fame and later TV notoriety, Agnes never forgot her radio roots. One of her final performances was on a January 26, 1974 broadcast of The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, “The Ring of Truth.” (Moorehead also appeared on that program’s inaugural January 6, 1974 installment, “The Old Ones are Hard to Kill.”)

Throughout the 1950s, Agnes Moorehead played character parts in a variety of films: Caged (1950—one of my favorites with Aggie as a sympathetic women’s prison warden), Fourteen Hours (1951),Show Boat (1951), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), The Left Hand of God (1955), The Conqueror (1956), and Raintree County (1957), to name just a few.  In addition to her work on the silver screen, she started to appear on TV on many anthology shows and episodic series, like Wagon Train and The Rebel.  With the 1960s, her onscreen appearances started to slow a bit (PollyannaHow the West Was Won), but she was still a welcome presence in living rooms with guest star gigs on RawhideThe RiflemanThe Twilight Zone (the classic “The Invaders”), and Burke’s Law.  The fall of 1964 would bring Moorehead her most famous boob tube role of all.

On September 17, 1964, ABC premiered a half-hour situation comedy entitled Bewitched—with the premise that a witch named Samantha (portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery) has married a mortal, Darrin Stephens (Dick York and later Dick Sargent), much to the disapproval of her mother Endora (Agnes) and the rest of her supernaturally-powered family.  The show became a smash hit for third-place ABC (it was ranked #2 among all TV programs that first season), and Moorehead’s portrayal of the free-spirited Endora (who took perverse delight in using magic on her son-in-law week after week) would garner her six Emmy Award nominations for her supporting work.  (Interestingly, Agnes wouldn’t win an Emmy for any of those nominations—she received her statuette for a guest appearance on an episode of The Wild Wild West.)  Bewitched enjoyed an amazing eight-year-run on the network and continued to thrive in reruns afterward. Before her passing in 1974 at the age of 73, Moorehead continued to do TV (The VirginianNight Gallery) and movies (a nice contribution as an Aimee Semple McPherson-type evangelist in 1971’s What’s the Matter with Helen?).

In an anecdote that she would later tell on The Dick Cavett Show in 1973, Agnes Moorehead related how she had visited New York City as a teenager on Easter vacation. She said that she had spotted a precocious seven-year-old at the Waldorf Astoria, discussing a concert with his father and two elderly women.  It wasn’t until after the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, when newspapers were writing articles about Orson Welles and included photos of him as a child that she realized he was the lad she had seen at the Waldorf Astoria that day.  (For years afterward, whenever anyone asked how long he had known Moorehead, Welles would jokingly reply: “Ever since I was seven!”)  Listen for the birthday girl’s scream in The Mercury Theatre on the Air presentation of “The War of the Worlds”…and for more substantial work from Agnes, check out our Shadow collections Bitter FruitDead Men TellKnight of DarknessStrange Puzzles, and The Story of the Shadow.  You can also enjoy Moorehead at her very best on Suspense with Beyond Good and Evil and Fear and Trembling!

Happy Birthday, Rex Stout!

He became famous for creating Nero Wolfe—a character memorably described by  an author at The Thrilling Detective Website as a “{m}assively overweight, a cranky, agoraphobic and sedentary gourmet who virtually never leaves his Manhattan brownstone.”  But Rex Todhunter Stout—born in Noblesville, Indiana on this date in 1886—wouldn’t introduce fans to the corpulent sleuth until he was in his late forties. Stout had enjoyed a taste of literary success in the early teens before giving up writing for one reason: he wanted to be a success in business before picking up a writing instrument again.  Rex succeeded in this goal…sort of. By the time he resumed writing fiction it was of financial necessity since much of his fortune was wiped out in the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Rex Stout may have been a Hoosier by birth, but his family soon moved to Kansas. They were a Quaker clan consisting of father John Wallace, mother Lucretia Elizabeth (Todhunter), and eight siblings.  John Wallace was a schoolteacher by trade and encouraged young Rex to read; Stout had devoured the Bible twice by the time he was four.  Rex would also become the state spelling bee champion at age 13, later attending Topeka High School and then (briefly) the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  Stout joined the Navy for a two-year hitch between 1906 and 1908 (he served as a yeoman on President Theodore Roosevelt’s president yacht) and then embarked on a “jack-of-all-trades” career. Over the next four years, he moved through six different states, working as a bookkeeper, a salesman, a hotel manager, and a cigar store clerk.

Rex Stout’s career as an author began in 1910 with the sale of three poems to the magazine The Smart Set. Between 1912 and 1918 he contributed close to 40 fictional works to such publications as All-Story MagazineSmith’s Magazine, and Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.  His early efforts included detective fiction, but Stout was also adept at stories of romance, adventure, and science fiction/fantasy.  Rex disliked of having to write stories for cash, so in 1916 (with one of his brothers) he invented a school banking system (it kept track of the money that children saved in school accounts). This venture paid off handsomely and allowed him to travel extensively in Europe.  Stout wouldn’t return to writing again until the late 1920s. He published his first book How Like a God with the Vanguard Press—a company he had helped to found, which published books of a left-wing nature…and those books deemed “unpublishable” elsewhere.

Following the success of the 1934 political thriller The President Vanishes (which later became a Paramount motion picture starring future Mr. President Edward Arnold), Rex Stout introduced his most famous literary creation in Fer-de-Lance (1934): Nero Wolfe.  Nero was the yardstick by which “armchair detective” is measured (one critic dubbed him “that Falstaff of detectives”). He had an assistant, Archie Goodwin, do most of the legwork as Nero tooled around his Manhattan brownstone tending to his orchids and satisfying his epicurean cravings for fine beer and food.  Fer-de-Lance provided a shot in the arm to what was then the fledgling detective fiction genre, and Stout followed that work with over 70 novels/novellas released between 1934 and 1975. (Death Times Three, which features a novella and two short stories written by Stout, was published posthumously in 1985!)

It would be no exaggeration to state that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe made an enormous contribution to pop culture. Fer-de-Lance was adapted by Columbia Pictures for the silver screen in 1936 as Meet Nero Wolfe (with President Vanishes star Edward Arnold as Nero). Then, the studio followed that the following year with a silver screen take of Stout’s second Wolfe outing, The League of Frightened Men (with Walter Connolly as the detective).  Rex didn’t care for the way that these movies interpreted his sleuth (in Frightened Men, Nero craves hot chocolate instead of the beer he lovingly quaffed in the novels). However, he did allow the radio networks to introduce Wolfe to the airwaves beginning in 1943 with a small regional network’s The Adventures of Nero Wolfe.  This version eventually moved to NBC and, in its one-year run, featured actors Santos Ortega and Luis van Rooten as the detective.

The Amazing Nero Wolfe surfaced on Mutual on Sunday nights in the summer of 1946 with Francis X. Bushman portraying Nero…but the program’s run was a brief one, leaving the airwaves in December.  The most well-known radio incarnation of Rex Stout’s sleuth would premiere with The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe on October 20, 1950 for NBC, with filmdom’s Sydney Greenstreet as Nero.  Stout thought Greenstreet was perfect casting, though he didn’t care for the series’ scripts. However, the New Nero had difficulty locating a sponsor and beat a hasty retreat back to the detective’s brownstone on April 27, 1951.  One could speculate as to why Rex was so enthusiastic about seeing Nero Wolfe become a radio success. The author himself was no stranger to the aural medium.  He appeared several times on the intellectual quiz show Information Please (Rex also appeared as the “guest panelist” in the first theatrical Please short released in 1939), not to mention the likes of the wartime series Our Secret WeaponThis is Our Enemy, and Wake Up America.  Other Stout radio appearances include The Author Meets the CriticsInvitation to LearningThe People’s PlatformSpeaking of BooksSpeaking of Liberty, and The Voice of Freedom.

If the shows noted above sound a little “high-toned,” it’s because Rex Stout took special pains to cultivate an image as a public intellectual—he once described himself in 1942 as “pro-Labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt left liberal.”  Stout proudly associated himself with the American Civil Liberties Union and was one of the founders of The New Masses, a radical Marxist magazine.  As a member of organizations like Friends of Democracy, the Writers’ War Board, and the United World Federalists, you might wonder how Rex escaped the notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Well, he didn’t. Chairman Martin Dies accused Stout of being a Communist, prompting the author to reply: “I hate Communists as much as you do, Martin, but there’s one difference between us.  I know what a Communist is and you don’t.”  Stout made no bones about his anti-Communism (he later became a hawkish supporter of the Vietnam War), but he was still monitored by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, particularly when he served as head of the Authors League of America.

Rex Stout became president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1958, and the following year received that organization’s prestigious Grand Master Award.  His output of Nero Wolfe novels didn’t start to slow until the mid-sixties…but he still managed to complete four novels between 1968 (The Father Hunt) and 1975 (A Family Affair).  Stout left this world for a better one in October of 1975 at the age of 88.

“If he had done nothing more than to create Archie Goodwin, Rex Stout would deserve the gratitude of whatever assessors watch over the prosperity of American literature,” wrote Jacques Barzun for a birthday tribute to Rex Stout in 1965.  “For surely Archie is one of the folk heroes in which the modern American temper can see itself transfigured.”  To honor today’s birthday celebrant, Radio Spirits invites you to check out both of our collections featuring The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe broadcasts: The Case of the Midnight Ride and Other Tales and Parties for Death.  You’ll also find a TV pilot (from 1959) for a possible Nero series on the DVD collection Television’s Lost Classics: Volume 2 – Rare Pilots.  (And in a bit of shameless self-promotion, you’ll find a review of this set at my home base of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.)  Happy birthday, Rex!

Happy Birthday, Elliott Lewis!

“Elliott Lewis was the greatest actor of them all,” declared veteran radio scribe E. Jack Neuman in an interview with Leonard Maltin. “He could break your heart with a word; his timing was impeccable.”  Now, we should point out here that Neuman’s praise for the acting talents of the man born in New York City on this date in 1917 is a teensy bit jaundiced. Neuman wrote for Hawk Larabee, a Western series that starred Lewis in the title role, and later contributed scripts to such Lewis productions as On StagePursuit, and Suspense.  However, he’d get little argument from old-time radio fans. Elliott’s thespic abilities before a live microphone were something special…and yet Lewis himself preferred to tamp down the enthusiasm.  “I never enjoyed acting,” he told Maltin.  I was able to do it because…it’s a trick, and it’s a trick that I somehow knew how to do, without any training.”  Elliott’s dissatisfaction with performing would later lead to a love affair with writing, directing, and producing for the aural medium—a “triple crown” achievement that would inspire CBS’ publicity department to dub him “Mr. Radio.”

For a performer that never enjoyed acting, Elliott Lewis found himself drawn to it after leaving New York for Los Angeles. There he studied music and drama at Los Angeles City College. (His initial interest had been in civil engineering).  Across the street from that junior college was radio station KHJ, and one day True Boardman handed him a script for a broadcast.  When the program was finished, Boardman asked him: “Well, do you want to work next week?”  Judging from surviving broadcasts of Lewis’ early acting gigs—in syndicated shows like Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police and the Yuletide favorite The Cinnamon Bear (he was “Mr. Presto the Magician”)—Elliott’s answer appears to have been “Yes!”

In a conversation with old-time radio historian Chuck Schaden in 1975 (reprinted in Speaking of Radio), Elliott Lewis also gave generous credit to Jack Benny, the comedian he described as “my teacher.”  Lewis would eventually become a member of the wonderful stock company on The Jack Benny Program, creating such memorable characters as “the mooley” (the “Duhhh, can I help youse, huh?” sales clerk from Jack’s Christmas shopping broadcasts) and a gentleman who would trade back-and-forth with ticket salesman Frank Nelson the lyrics to popular songs (Istanbul [Not Constantinople]How Are Things in Glocca Morra?) as Benny would look on helplessly.

Under Benny’s tutelage, Elliott Lewis would later get steady gigs on such sitcoms as This is Judy Jones and Junior Miss. The latter was a 1940-42 series that starred moppet actress Shirley Temple and featured Lewis (who was 22 at the time!) as her father.  Elliott demonstrated a dramatic flair on radio as well; one of his high-profile jobs was as the brief host of Knickerbocker Playhouse. (His initial audition was given an assist from Rosalind Russell, who told the receptionist her name was “Miss Brown” and she was there to help Lewis read lines!)  The programs on which Elliott worked on at that time include Arch Oboler’s Plays (Lewis would also appear on Oboler’s Lights Out and Plays for Americans), The Cavalcade of AmericaDr. ChristianThe Gulf Screen Guild TheatreThe Hermit’s Cave (its 1940-44 KMPC Los Angeles revival), The Orson Welles TheatreThe Silver Theatre, and Stars Over Hollywood.  Lewis reminisced: “I did the Junior Miss show on a Thursday or something, waved bye-bye and Friday went into the Army.”

Elliott Lewis’ radio career did not stop with “doing his bit” for Uncle Sam.  As a master sergeant, he was assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Network with his Army buddy Howard “Sam Spade” Duff. Together they made strides in the art of radio editing (at a time before recording tape) in a division AFRS called “Commercial Denaturing.”  The two men would record network programs off the air, edit out commercials and “anything that would be considered information that you didn’t want broadcast nationwide,” and place the content on acetate discs to be shipped to shortwave stations.  These discs were glass-based, meaning they were delicately fragile. Lewis recalled that they would haul the transcriptions to their destination in an Army jeep. One night, a driver cut in front of them and the discs shifted during the sudden braking…resulting in the loss of two hours of material.  Both Lewis and Duff also functioned as announcers for AFRS rebroadcasts whenever they needed to “fill” to account for missing content (commercials and the like), so it’s not uncommon to hear their voices when listening to surviving transcriptions.

Back in civilian life, Elliott Lewis became one of radio’s busiest thespians.  He was one of three actors to portray “Captain Bart Friday” on Adventures by Morse, a syndicated serial created by the man (Carlton E. Morse) responsible for One Man’s Family and I Love a Mystery. (Lewis occasionally worked on Mystery, too.)  He took on the role of “Archie Goodwin” on The Adventures of Nero Wolfe; replaced Gale Gordon as the titular hero of The Casebook of Gregory Hood (Elliott learned to his dismay that no one clued Gale into the news he was losing his gig); and famously essayed “Philip Carney” on The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen.  Lewis also made appearances on The Adventures of Sam SpadeThe ClockColumbia Presents CorwinThe Columbia WorkshopDark VentureEncore TheatreEscapeHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TimeObsessionThe Philip Morris PlayhouseScreen Directors’ PlayhouseTales of the Texas RangersThe Whistler, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.

Elliott Lewis gathered no moss on the comedic side of radio, either. On George Burns and Gracie Allen’s program, he had a recurring role as a gentleman who George would encounter in various occupations. Lewis would gush about just how ecstatic he was about his line of work (“I’m sooooo happy!”) before launching into a monologue that eventually revealed how miserable he truly was by the end.  Elliott also guested on such lighter fare as A Day in the Life of Dennis DayThe Halls of IvyThe Life of RileyMeet Me at Parky’sThe Sealtest Variety Theatre, and Sweeney and March.  His greatest contribution to radio mirth, however, was his portrayal of Phil Harris’ sidekick Frankie Remley, first on The Fitch Bandwagon and then on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.  Frankie, the real-life left-handed guitar player for Harris’ orchestra was, according to Lewis, “a very sweet, nice, quiet man, a really dear man.” The radio Frankie, on the other hand, was a wisecracking conniver who could get his pal “Curly” in trouble merely by uttering four words: “I know a guy…”

In his interview with Chuck Schaden, Elliott Lewis recalled sitting down with Jack Benny and saying “Please explain something to me.  I know that when Phil and I work that it’s funny and the jokes are funny but I don’t understand why the laughs are so big.  What are we doing?”  His “teacher” responded: “You’ve found a wonderful thing in the relationship you two have.  The two of you say and do what everybody in the audience would like to say and do in a similar situation if they had the nerve.  But nobody has the nerve that you two guys have, and that’s what people are laughing at.  They’re just delighted.”  Although Lewis had to use his actual name instead of the “Frankie Remley” handle in the final two seasons of the program, the chemistry between him and Phil Harris remained one of radio’s finest. Even today, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show continues to delight old-time radio fans old and new.

As noted earlier, Elliott Lewis was good at his craft…but he didn’t enjoy it to the extent other actors might.  To relieve the boredom, Lewis began to explore other avenues of expression. He started writing and contributed  scripts to The Whistler and SuspenseSuspense director-producer William Spier began to let Elliott direct broadcasts of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.” (Lewis noted that he’d get the tap whenever the show had a bad script or an uncomfortable situation that required Spier’s attention…who then wound up calling in sick).  By August of 1950, Elliott had assumed the director-producer duties of Suspense (which he maintained until July of 1954). He also served as either director and/or producer on a few other programs, including Broadway’s My BeatCrime Classics (a show he also created), The LineupMr. AladdinOn Stage (on which he performed with wife Cathy Lewis), and Pursuit.  Elliott lightened his workload in the mid-50s but continued to dabble with directorial/writing assignments on one of the medium’s attempts to keep Radio’s Golden Age thriving: The CBS Radio Workshop.  Lewis also played a substantial role in the effort to revive radio drama in the seventies, tackling such projects as The Hollywood Radio Theatre (a.k.a. The Zero Hour) and The Sears Radio Theatre.

As a creature of radio, Elliott Lewis didn’t have much time for movies…but you’ll run into him in features like The Winner’s Circle (1948; which he narrated), The Story of Molly X (1949; featuring wife Cathy), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1951), and Saturday’s Hero (1951).  By 1954, Elliott was bringing his behind-the-camera talents to TV series like Climax!The Court of Last ResortMackenzie’s Raiders, and This Man Dawson.  In the 1960s, Lewis was the producer on shows like The Lucy Show (on which his second wife, Mary Jane Croft, was a regular) and The Mothers-in-Law. He also managed to direct a few episodes of TV favorites like Bat Masterson and Petticoat Junction.  While attempting to apply the paddles to radio in the 1970s, Elliott worked on special writing projects for Paramount Pictures, and his last major contribution to TV before retiring from the business was serving as a script supervisor on NBC’s hit series Remington Steele.  Lewis must have enjoyed the mystery angle of that program, because he penned a few novels himself in retirement (featuring an ex-cop-turned-P.I. named Fred Bennett).  Lewis died of cardiac arrest in 1992 at the age of 72.

Elliott Lewis enjoyed his second career as a novelist “because the writer is the actor, director, producer, wardrobe person, weatherman, location director, stunt and second unit director, crowd handler, transportation gaffer and everything else I’ve ever been around, all rolled up into one person.”  Radio Spirits invites you to sample some of the birthday boy’s “all-rolled-up” talents in collections of Broadway’s My Beat (Dark WhispersGreat White WayThe Loneliest Mile), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), The Lineup (Witness), The Mutual Radio Theatre, and Suspense (Ties That BindWages of Sin).  You can hear Elliott the Actor in sets like Dark VentureThe Halls of Ivy: School Days, Lights Out, EverybodySuspense: Beyond Good and EvilVoyage of the Scarlet Queen: Volume Two, and The Whistler: Skeletons in the Closet.  In addition, here’s plenty of “Mr. Radio” in our Burns & Allen (As Good as Nuts, Illogical LogicMuddling Through) and Jack Benny (Fabulous ‘40sThe Great OutdoorsOn the TownPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesSilly SkitsTough Luck!) compilations.  We’ve saved the best for last: check out The First 20 Episodes, our latest aggregation of broadcasts from The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and from The Fitch BandwagonBuried TreasureA Song and a Smile, and Stepping Out.  Happy birthday to you, Mr. Lewis!