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Happy Birthday, Joe DeSantis!

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On this date in 1909 in New York City, Maria Paoli and Pasquale DeSantis welcomed Joseph Vito Marcello DeSantis into the world. The shorter version of that name is Joe DeSantis, a man who would become one of the most celebrated character actors on stage and radio, and in movies and television. Interestingly, Joe’s first ambition was to become a sculptor; he studied at the prestigious Leonardo da Vinci Art School after attending public schools in NYC and graduating from City College of New York. He served as an apprentice to Onorio Ruotolo at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design beginning in 1927, and during his early stage career in the 1930s taught sculpting at both New York’s Henry Street Settlement and the 92nd Street YMHA.

desantis10Sculpting might have been DeSantis’ first love, but during his college years Joe also actively pursued the study of drama, with his first stage performances delivered in Italian. His footlights resume is lengthy; among the plays in which he performed include Cyrano de Bergerac, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Arsenic and Old Lace. Even after achieving success on radio, the lure of stage work proved difficult to resist; DeSantia would later work in such productions as The Front Page, Golden Boy, Strictly Dishonorable and A Stone for Danny Fisher (later brought to the silver screen in 1958 as King Creole, starring Elvis Presley).

Working and residing in the Big Apple would prove most advantageous for DeSantis, for the world of radio immediately opened up to him and he made his debut on the popular soap Pepper Young’s Family. He later starred on the Mutual crime drama Under Arrest in 1948, playing Captain Jim Scott. Joe’s extensive ether C.V. could fill a medium-sized library, but he appeared on programs like 21st Precinct, Casey, Crime Photographer, The Cavalcade of America, The CBS Radio Workshop, The Columbia Workshop, Crime and Peter Chambers, Crime Club, Dick Tracy, Dimension X, Famous Jury Trials, Gangbusters, The March of Time, Mr. District Attorney, NBC Star Playhouse, Official Detective, Radio City Playhouse, Studio One, Suspense, The Chase, The Clock, The FBI in Peace and War, The Goldbergs, The Mysterious Traveler, The Radio Reader’s Digest, The Shadow, The Silent Men, X-Minus One, and You Are There. Joe continued to keep his hand in the medium even after the passing of Radio’s Golden Age, appearing on the likes of The Eternal Light, The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, and The General Mills Adventure Theater.

desantis8DeSantis supplemented his impressive radio resume with numerous roles in motion pictures, drawing on his talent for dialects and chameleonic method of playing a wide variety of characters. His first on-screen credit was in 1949’s Slattery’s Hurricane, and he followed that by playing a butler in The Man with a Cloak (1951). His third film is one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart vehicles; in Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Bogie is a crusading newspaper editor who, while trying to save his paper from folding, is engaged in the pursuit of taking down a notorious racketeer (played by Martin Gabel…and Larry Dobkin plays his mouthpiece!). As Herman Schmidt, DeSantis is the man who provides evidence against Gabel’s gangster…and ends up being murdered by a pair of goons who drop Joe off a catwalk and onto a printing press below.

desantis5Joe continued to shine in such films as The Last Hunt (1956), Full of Life (1956), I Want to Live (1958), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), Al Capone (1959) and A Cold Wind in August (1961), where his portrayal of “Papa Perugino” has been acknowledged by many as the high point of his cinematic career. After appearances in such films as The Professionals (1966) and The Brotherhood (1968), however, DeSantis landed a role in a made-for-TV movie, Contract on Cherry Street (1977)—in which he played opposite one of his idols, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board was so impressed with Joe’s acting that he told him, “You should have played The Godfather”—a compliment Joe DeSantis cherished to his dying day.

desantis4In addition to film work, DeSantis worked extensively in television…and as a confirmed couch potato, I know this because I’m always coming across something Joe appeared in—recently, it was an episode of Rawhide entitled “Incident at Alabaster Plain.” Joe guest-starred on such classic favorites as 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66, Naked City, The Defenders, The Fugitive, The Outer Limits, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible and many, many more.

Though Joe DeSantis would work in two additional TV-movies before his death in 1989—Suburban Beat (1985) and How Rare a Possession: The Book of Mormon (1987)—the actor had made the decision to retire in 1978, relocating to Provo, Utah to spend time with his family. In addition to his sculpting, he generously donated his time to Provo’s Eldred Center. In recognition for his many contributions to radio, DeSantis was inducted into the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters’ Diamond Circle in 1985.

20658Here at Radio Spirits, we’re proud to feature today’s birthday celebrant on Words at War: World War II Radio Drama, a collection of broadcasts from the 1943 wartime series that features Joe DeSantis displaying that on-the-air talent we cherish so well. Joe can also be heard on our Dimension X set, Adventures in Time and Space, and the series that followed in Dimension X’s wake, X-Minus One (Time and Time Again). In addition, we’re proud to showcase DeSantis’ work on Casey, Crime Photographer (Blue Note), The Shadow (Silent Avenger), and his starring role on Under Arrest in the collection Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama. Happy birthday to you, Joe!

Happy Birthday, Bob Bailey!

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Robert Bainter Bailey was born in Toledo, OH on this date in 1913. Though some would argue he never fulfilled his ambition to become a motion picture star, old-time radio fans will trump that card by insisting that Bob Bailey was king in the medium of radio, thanks to his exceptional speaking voice. Radio veteran Harry Bartell once observed: “Bob was a stylish, very professional actor whose voice fit perfectly into the two characters by which he is best known.” One of those characters was a jack-of-all-trades who eventually morphed into a first-rate private eye named George Valentine (on Let George Do It). The other was also in the investigation business; Bailey breathed new life into “America’s fabulous freelance investigator,” who was previously known for generously tipping with silver dollars. Bob Bailey would be responsible for making Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar the gold standard of radio crime dramas.

bailey4It sounds like the song Judy Garland sang in the 1954 musical A Star is Born, but Bob Bailey really was “born in a trunk.” Both of his parents were stage actors, and Bailey followed in their footsteps by appearing in front of the footlights at the age of eighteen months. His first gig in front of a radio mike was in 1925, when he and his father landed parts in a play presented on local radio. From there, Bob migrated to Chicago, and earned his bread-and-butter emoting on the likes of soap operas and other series, among them Aunt Mary, Girl Alone, Kitty Keene, Incorporated, Knickerbocker Playhouse, Mortimer Gooch, One Man’s Family, Road of Life, Scattergood Baines, The Story of Holly Sloan, That Brewster Boy, and Today’s Children.

By the 1940s, Bailey had latched onto his big break: he was signed to a picture contract at 20th Century-Fox. Bob had roles in such Fox productions as The Eve of St. Mark (1944), Wing and a Prayer (1944) and Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944), while Laurel and Hardy fans saw Bailey featured in two films starring The Boys, Jitterbugs (1943) and The Dancing Masters (1943). While pursuing his thespic ambitions on the big screen, the actor continued performing with a windscreen; Bailey graced such radio shows as Arch Oboler’s Plays, The Cavalcade of America, The Lux Radio Theatre, Mayor of the Town, and Suspense.

bailey7Bailey gradually discovered he had a knack for radio performing, and in 1946 he landed the first of the two jobs that would guarantee him radio immortality. On Mutual’s Let George Do It, Bob played George Valentine—an ex-GI who returned stateside to start a business in which he would undertake the unpleasant tasks others could or would not. (Hence, the series’ title: “Let George do it.”) As the show progressed, George Valentine became less of a concierge and more of a detective—aided and abetted by his gal Friday Claire “Brooksie” Brooks (played by Frances Robinson and Virginia Gregg), who also functioned as his romantic companion (though George was able to thwart Brooksie’s constant suggestions that the two of them take a walk down a certain aisle). Other actors that appeared on Let George Do It included Eddie Firestone (as Sonny, Brooksie’s brother), Joseph Kearns (as sardonic elevator man Caleb), Wally Maher (as Lieutenant Riley, Valentine’s “frenemy” on the police force) and Ken Christy (as Lieutenant Johnson—who took over after actor Maher’s untimely passing in 1951).

Bob Bailey didn’t just limit his radio work to Let George Do It; in this period the actor also performed on such venues as Family Theatre, The General Electric Theatre, Honest Harold (The Hal Peary Show), The Line-Up, Romance, Screen Director’s Playhouse, and Stars Over Hollywood. Bailey’s stint as George ended in the program’s last season (it signed off the air on September 27, 1954). Bob worked on a pair of movies, No Escape (1953) and Not as a Stranger (1955), and then he signed on for the radio job for which many in the hobby remember (and love) him best.

19737Bob Bailey got the Johnny Dollar gig at a most opportune moment. Since February of 1949, the series had been a lighthearted half-hour about an insurance investigator who worked for a number of different underwriting firms. When Bailey settled into the role, the show had switched to a five-day-a-week quarter-hour presentation—which allowed for longer stories and fuller character development. Bob took to Johnny Dollar like a duck to water (he had actually appeared on two of the earlier broadcasts, “The Lancer Jewelry Matter” and “The Classified Killer Matter”), and fans mostly agree that the serialized version of the series remains the highpoint for the long-running show. The quarter-hour format lasted only a year, but Johnny Dollar returned to its half-hour status with Bailey at the helm. Bob even penned one of the episodes, “The Carmen Kringle Matter,” using the nom de plume of “Robert Bainter.”

bailey9During his stint as “the man with the action-packed expense account,” Bob Bailey also tried his hand in television and movies; he guest-starred on such series as Tightrope, M Squad and The Line-Up, and even had a small role in the movie version of the latter program, released in 1958. Bailey was never able to progress beyond character roles, however; two attempts to bring Let George Do It to television in the 1950s went nowhere because producers believed Bailey didn’t have the right “build” for the small screen. Bob would encounter similar problems when the idea for a possible Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar series began to be kicked around in 1962; while the producers knew the audience wouldn’t accept anyone else in the role, they just didn’t think the actor who was synonymous with Dollar was “he-man” enough for TV (Bailey was 5’9”, and tipped the scales at 150 lbs.).

bailey6When Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar moved to New York in December of 1960, Bob Bailey elected to stay behind in Hollywood…and so the part of Johnny went to Bob Readick. Bailey found work in guest appearances on shows like The Asphalt Jungle, 87th Precinct and Tales of Wells Fargo, and purportedly penned a few episodes of the children’s adventure Fury (with Peter Graves) as “Robert B. Bailey.” Sadly, his last credit was a bit part in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), as a reporter in a scene with star Burt Lancaster and Edmond O’Brien (who had once played Johnny Dollar on radio himself). It was not generally known at the time—many of Bailey’s radio colleagues were reluctant to discuss the details—but Bob suffered from alcoholism, and nearly a decade of his life was lost to public view before he was able to lick the problem through Alcoholics Anonymous. This provided only a brief respite from his inner demons; he suffered a stroke in 1973 and spent the next ten years in a Lancaster, CA rest home before his passing in 1983 at the age of 70.

20905“If you know how to handle your voice in radio, it’s almost impossible to destroy an illusion,” Bob Bailey was once quoted as saying. Though his life may have ended on a tragic note, his radio legacy is filled with riches that await both the experienced and novice old-time radio fan. Radio Spirits has a great many collections of Bailey’s signature series, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, on hand: Confidential, Expense Account Submitted, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, and Wayward Matters. (We also cannot recommend highly enough our “Dollar starter,” The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.) For George Valentine devotees, check out Let George Do It and our latest collection, Cry Uncle (with liner notes by yours truly!). Happy birthday, Bob Bailey!

Happy Centennial Birthday, Walter Tetley!

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It wasn’t a drink from the legendary Fountain of Youth that kept today’s birthday celebrant seemingly young throughout his impressive show business career. A purported glandular disorder prevented Walter Campbell Tetzlaff—better known as Walter Tetley, and born in New York on this date in 1915—from undergoing normal adolescence, and thus his voice was never allowed to change. Fortunately for young Master Tetley, his voice would become his fortune as it enabled him to emote over the airwaves as America’s beloved brat. Forget what you’ve learned about Charlie McCarthy, Baby Snooks and Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid—Walter was the first and inarguably the best.

waltertetley5Tetley began his fledgling footlights career as a pint-sized impersonator of Scottish entertainer Sir Harry Lauder. In fact, Walter was even billed as “Wee Harry Lauder” on stage, with the personal approval of Sir Harry himself. The young actor was so good as Lauder that several people suggested to Mrs. Tetley she might want to consider auditioning him for radio…and in 1930, Walter Tetley made his debut over the airwaves on The NBC Children’s Hour (later known as Coast-to-Coast on a Bus). A long list of radio jobs followed: The Lady Next Door, Let’s Pretend, Raising Junior, The March of Time and Death Valley Days, to name just a few. In 1934, Tetley took a break from his radio routine and sailed across to our neighbor on the other side of the pond, where he became a music hall (vaudeville) sensation with his Lauder impersonation.

waltertetleyOn his return from his English “sabbatical,” Walter Tetley returned to his radio roots, with a prominent weekly gig as one of the Mighty Allen Art Players on Fred Allen’s popular Town Hall Tonight. Walter was usually called upon to play a smart alecky wiseacre and, in addition to Allen’s show, he worked alongside a number of major radio personalities, including Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Joe Penner, Jim & Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee & Molly), Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bob Burns, Dinah Shore, Orson Welles, Alan Young, and Jack Paar. Tetley’s radio resume is extensive, but the programs on which he appeared include such favorites as Big Town, The Campbell Playhouse, The Cavalcade of America, Command Performance, Crime Classics, Dr. Christian, Family Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Mail Call, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and Suspense.

greatgildersleeve6In 1941, Walter Tetley landed the role that would cement his old-time radio immortality. Harold Peary, who had played neighbor Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve on Fibber McGee & Molly for several years, was going to be given a spin-off in the form of The Great Gildersleeve. In this sitcom, Gildy moved from Wistful Vista to the neighboring hamlet of Springfield. There, as uncle to orphaned Marjorie (Lurene Tuttle, Louise Erickson, and Marylee Robb) and Leroy Forrester (Walter), he acted as executor of their trust and later became the town’s water commissioner. Nephew Leroy was one of radio’s most beloved incorrigibles; he was basically a good kid even though he occasionally crossed the line into juvenile delinquent mischief from time to time. Leroy was the pin necessary to puncture the balloon-like pomposity of his uncle Gildy (Leroy’s frequent exclamation was “What a character!”), and though he did give his uncle trouble he endearingly loved the man, affectionately calling him “Unk.” Tetley played the part of Leroy until the show ended its sixteen-year-run in March of 1957—even continuing to utter “For corn’s sake!” when Willard Waterman inherited the role of Gildy from Peary in the fall of 1950.

harris-fayeIn 1947, Walter Tetley joined Richard Lane and Louise Arthur for the syndicated radio sitcom The Anderson Family, in which Tetley played son to Lane’s sourpuss patriarch. The Anderson Family ran for only a year, but in addition to his Gildersleeve gig Walter took on another radio assignment that is my personal favorite. The actor joined the cast of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show when it was still The Fitch Bandwagon, playing another Leroy-like wisenheimer in the form of Julius Abbruzio, the saucy delivery boy for the neighborhood grocery. In the early years of the show, the Julius character was a relatively mild irritant to star Phil Harris—“Bruzie” had quite the schoolboy crush on Alice, truth be told, and was constantly trying to convince “Miss Faye” to run away with him. By the time Phil and Alice’s show switched sponsorship to Rexall, however, Julius had become Leroy on steroids (though the two were easily differentiated by Julius’ pronounced Noo Yawk accent)—and was frequently the devilish, malevolent nemesis to Harris and his guitar-playing pal Frankie Remley (Elliott Lewis), always looking for a way to scotch the duo’s latest stumble into idiocy. (His romantic overtures to Mrs. Harris became a bit more blatant as well.) The trio of Phil, Frankie and Julius provided some of radio’s best comedy, and Tetley continued playing the role until the show signed off in 1954.

waltertetley6Although Walter Tetley’s voice made him a natural for radio’s juvenile roles, appearing on the big screen was a bit of a problem: his appearance was kind of at odds with his youthful-sounding voice. He never became a major player in movies (his roles consisted of mainly messengers and bellboys), but he made some memorable appearances in the flickers—I caught him two weeks ago as a chimney sweep in the 1939 film Tower of London, much to my amusement. He did a remarkable bit with Lou Costello in the Abbott & Costello feature Who Done It? (1942), as a pesky page boy who bets Lou a nickel he can drink orange juice faster than Costello can set ‘em up (keep in mind that each glass of orange juice costs Lou fifteen cents). Walter played an elevator operator in It’s in the Bag! (1945), alongside his old boss Fred Allen, that was also good for a hearty guffaw. The Powers That Be took a pass on Tetley playing Leroy in the four films RKO produced based on The Great Gildersleeve series…though Walter did have a brief bit in Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943) as a bellhop.

peabodyWalter’s major contribution to the movies was providing the voice of Andy Panda in a number of Walter Lantz-produced Universal cartoons released in the 1940s. Tetley would reprise the voice when The Woody Woodpecker Show came to television in 1957. Sadly, doing voice work for the small screen seemed to be the only outlet for Tetley’s unique talent…but you can’t say he didn’t make the most of it. Tetley voiced Sherman, pet boy of the whip-smart beagle Mr. Peabody in the “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments of Rocky and His Friends (later The Bullwinkle Show)—which is where I first became familiar with Walter before discovering my obsession with old-time radio. Tetley later emoted on a 1972 animated Yuletide special, A Christmas Story, and worked briefly on The Hollywood Radio Theatre (produced by his former Harris-Faye colleague Elliott Lewis) before succumbing to stomach cancer at the age of sixty in 1975.

20500Walter Tetley remains today one of old-time radio’s most treasured performers, and Radio Spirits has plenty of collections of shows from his two best-remembered on-the-air roles. Enjoy the antics of “Leeeeeeroy!!!” on The Great Gildersleeve compilations Baby, Marjorie’s Wedding and Neighbors. If you like your Leroy without a chaser, we recommend listening to Mr. Tetley as Julius Abbruzio on the Phil Harris-Alice Faye sets Hotel Harris, Quite an Affair, Family Values and Sweeter and Sweeter. You can also catch today’s birthday celebrant in the Crime Classics anthology The Hyland Files and our Road Trip: Humorous Travel Tales collection, as well as the holiday compendiums Radio’s Christmas Celebrations, The Voices of Christmas Past, Christmas Radio Classics and Happy Halloween!

Happy Birthday, Don Ameche!

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Dominic Felix Amici was born on this date in Kenosha, WI in 1908. When Dominic changed his name to Don Ameche, however, that’s when any number of doors started opening for one of show business’ formidable talents. Ameche could sing, act, tell jokes and perform the necessary duties of a “master of ceremonies” with effortless ease. Beginning with uncredited bits in 1935’s Clive of India and Dante’s Inferno, Don would flourish for over half a century with a movie career that reached its pinnacle in long overdue recognition from his peers—a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his winning performance as a breakdancing senior citizen in Cocoon (1985).

ameche11Don’s original ambition was to study law during his years attending Marquette University, Loras College, and the University of Wisconsin. But he was bitten by the acting bug, and he took advantage of the lead actor’s AWOL in a stock company production of Excess Baggage by offering his services at the last minute. The experience thrilled him so much that he landed the juvenile role in a New York staging of Jerry for Short, which ultimately lead to a vaudeville tour with the legendary Texas “Hello, suckers!” Guinan. Guinan didn’t keep Don around long, however; she purportedly dismissed him because she felt he was “too stiff.”

But Don Ameche wasn’t “too stiff” for the up-and-coming medium of radio. His earliest work was on The National Farm and Home Hour, and the actor soon demonstrated an incredible flexibility in front of the mike. He was one of the early “Mr. First Nighters” on The First Nighter Program, played “Bob” on the popular Betty and Bob daytime drama, and even worked alongside the famous film German shepherd known as Rin-Tin-Tin in a juvenile radio serial. All of those shows were based out of Chicago – and Don was featured on other Windy City programs as well, including Empire Builders, Grand Hotel, and Jack Armstrong. The Armstrong series allowed him to play opposite his brother Jim (who was the titular boy hero, while Don played Captain Hughes).

ameche10Ameche left Chicago in the mid-30s to try his luck in Hollywood. He was one of 20th Century-Fox’s most dependable leading men, gracing such features as One in a Million (1936), In Old Chicago (1938), You Can’t Have Everything (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939) and Midnight (1939). The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) would bring Don his greatest fame; playing the inventor of the telephone sparked a lot of “Don-Ameche-invented-the-telephone” jokes in pop culture, and “Ameche” became slang for the device itself. The actor’s string of movie hits continued in the 1940s with entries like Down Argentine Way (1940), That Night in Rio (1941), Moon Over Miami (1941) and Wing and a Prayer (1944). His 1943 film Heaven Can Wait, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-starring Gene Tierney, is a particular favorite among classic film fans: Don plays a recently deceased rake who descends to Hell, convinced that his lifelong romantic escapades have necessitated he spend eternity there. The Devil (Laird Cregar) convinces him otherwise by looking back at his life.

ameche3Don Ameche’s success in films during the 1930s provided the springboard for his landing one of his best-remembered radio gigs: he was a member of the all-star lineup of The Chase and Sanborn Hour, which made its debut over the airwaves on May 9, 1937. A talented ventriloquist named Edgar Bergen would eventually steal the spotlight (along with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd), yet it’s important to remember that Ameche’s talents were given ample room to flourish on a variety series that also featured Nelson Eddy and Dorothy Lamour. Don was called upon to sing a song every week, as well as perform in dramatic skits (many of which were written by newcomer Arch Oboler). During W.C. Fields’ brief stint with Chase and Sanborn, Don also acted as The Great Man’s straight man (though considering the unpredictability of Fields, “handler” might be the more apt job description).

ameche5Eddy and Lamour left The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1939, but Don continued his association with Bergen & McCarthy until the mid-40s. Don was the show’s jack-of-all-trades—announcer, vocalist…and occasional foil for Bergen’s wisecracking dummy (in the form of Gazolo, an Italian who ran afoul of Charlie from time to time). In addition to his Bergen & McCarthy duties, Don branched out to host a short-lived Blue Network series in 1943 entitled What’s New? Later in the decade, he was the host of Your Lucky Strike, a spin-off off the popular Your Hit Parade, from 1948 to 1949.

In the summer of 1946, Don Ameche did two audition records for a possible series to be sponsored by Drene Shampoo: The Don Ameche Show and The Drene Show. Drene Time was the eventual result of these two projects; it premiered in December of 1946, and the actor-singer found himself paired with talented female vocalist Frances Langford (who also acted and did comedy). This modest little series would introduce the characters for which folks remember Don and Frances best: John and Blanche Bickerson, the squabbling couple created by scribe Philip Rapp. (Drene Time also featured contributions from a young comic named Danny Thomas, who played Blanche’s brother Amos.) When Drene Time was cancelled, Don and Frances took the Bickersons to Old Gold Time—a comedy-variety half-hour they shared with actor-comedian Frank Morgan. Old Gold Time was cancelled after one year, but The Bickersons proved so popular that they later resurfaced on Bergen & McCarthy, with actress Marsha Hunt playing Blanche to Ameche’s John.

ameche4Don took over for Alan Young as the co-star of The Jimmy Durante Show in April of 1949…and worked with The Schnoz until Durante’s radio show called it quits at the end of the 1949-50 season. Ameche’s efforts with Jimmy and Edgar Bergen—as well as his work with Francis Langford on The Bickersons—removed all doubt that he was admiringly adept at radio comedy, which he also demonstrated as a guest star on shows headlined by such funsters as Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Harold Lloyd and Spike Jones. During the war, Don also gave his all on such AFRS shows as Command Performance and Mail Call, and displayed his dramatic side on anthology programs such as The Cavalcade of America, Family Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Screen Guild Theatre and Theatre of Romance.

ameche13Don Ameche would make the transition to the small screen like so many of his fellow radio artists; he was the host of Don Ameche’s Musical Playhouse from 1950 to 1951, and re-teamed with Frances Langford for more Bickersons fun on The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show from 1951-52. His television and movie chores were sporadic due to his renewed interest in performing on Broadway, but he made the guest star rounds on such series as Burke’s Law and Julia, and gave interesting performances in the likes of A Fever in the Blood (1961) and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? (1970). His teaming with Ralph Bellamy in 1983’s Trading Places paved the way for his movie career resurgence (and Oscar win for Cocoon), and he would appear in films like Harry and the Hendersons (1987) and Things Change (1988) before his passing in 1993.

19950To pay tribute to the man who would have turned 107 today, Radio Spirits has on hand two Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy collections that feature Don Ameche: Homefront Charlie and W.C. Fields and Friends. You’ll also hear Don battle it out with his radio spouse Frances Langford as The Bickersons in Put Out the Lights! And on our Jack Benny compendium No Place Like Home—well, Don pops up in a surprise cameo on a November 21, 1948 broadcast that resulted in the reduction of radio’s famous cheapskate to uncontrollable laughter…and we think it will do the same to you, too.

Happy Birthday, Vincent Price!

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If actor Vincent Price—born Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. on this date in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911—had decided to ignore the call of the footlights and pursue honest work, it’s safe to say his future would have been fairly secure. His father, Vincent, Sr., was president of the National Candy Company—the largest candy company in America at that time. Vincent’s grandfather (also named Vincent—the family apparently didn’t have much imagination), invented “Dr. Price’s Baking Powder,” the first cream of tartar baking powder. In later years, Price established sidelines as a renowned art expert and gourmet chef; the former stemming from his graduating from Yale with a degree in art, the latter allowing him to write several best-selling cookbooks.

price12But Vincent Price decided that the actor’s life was for him, and fans are all the richer for it. He developed an interest in acting and fine arts during his years at Yale, and in the mid-1930s began to appear in a number of critically-acclaimed stage productions. His big break came from a plum role opposite Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina in 1936, which brought him such good fortune that he later named his first daughter “Victoria” (a superstitious man, he was also gladdened by the fact that her mother had been raised in Victoria, British Columbia). Two years later, Vincent would make his feature film debut in Service de Luxe (1938)…a movie that he didn’t have many positive things to say about, but which paved the way to future successes in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The House of Seven Gables (1940), The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Laura (1944).

price9We tend to remember Price as a horror icon. Interestingly enough, his only true horror role in his early days of cinema was playing the titular The Invisible Man Returns in 1940; the actor only really got started in the horror movie genre with the 3-D House of Wax in 1953. He followed that with such films as The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959), and by the 1960s, horror had a new face in Vincent Price—particularly the celebrated series of films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe that were directed by Roger Corman: House of Usher (1960), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and several others.

What often is ignored about Price’s phenomenal career—though certainly not overlooked by old-time radio fans—is that Vincent excelled in the aural medium as one of several actors more than capable of meeting radio’s demands. His earliest recorded work was on an episode of Rudy Vallee’s The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour on June 18, 1936…where he was memorably introduced as “Vincent Prince.” Undaunted, Price would return to Vallee’s microphone in April of 1938 (with the show now sponsored by Royal Gelatin desserts) to perform a scene from Ever After (a comedy sequel to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) with actress Edith Barrett.

price1Vincent Price was called upon frequently to perform on radio’s top dramatic anthology programs. The actor appeared on such shows as The Cavalcade of America, The CBS Radio Workshop, Columbia Presents Corwin, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, Hollywood Star Playhouse, Hollywood Star Time, The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, The NBC Radio Theatre. NBC Star Playhouse, The Philip Morris Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood and The Theatre Of Romance. Price was also flexible enough to appear in comedic venues like The Sealtest Village Store and Duffy’s Tavern. His February 6, 1949 appearance on The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny remains one of Jack’s funniest half-hours, as he and Price competitively vie to be the leading man opposite Claudette Colbert in a future broadcast of The Ford Theatre.

price10In addition, Price lent his dramatic talents to such crime dramas as This is Your FBI and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar—the latter program even tailored the story to the guest star, calling it “The Price of Fame Matter” (02/02/58). “Radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, made excellent use of the actor—Vincent graced such classic episodes as “Fugue in C Minor” (06/01/44) and “Hunting Trip” (09/12/46). (Price appeared on a November 10, 1957 broadcast of the series in an adaptation of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”…and four years later, he would star in a film version as part of Roger Corman’s Poe series.) I personally believe Vincent Price did some of his best radio work on Suspense’s sister series, Escape. He was in what many believe to be the definitive version of “Three Skelton Key” (03/17/50), as well as “Present Tense” (01/31/50) and a favorite of mine, “Blood Bath” (06/30/50). (Price later reprised his roles from “Key” and “Tense” in Suspense’s later years.)

price5For many old-time radio mavens, Vincent Price is best remembered for portraying Leslie Charteris’ creation Simon Templar on The Adventures of the Saint, a role he inherited from Brian Aherne (who played Templar in 1945). From July 9, 1947 to May 20, 1951, Vincent emoted as the suave jewel thief who had renounced his past and was now focusing his energies on solving murders. Because “the Robin Hood of modern crime” had done quite well in his career of acquiring precious gems, Templar did not want for money and spent a great deal of his time indulging his culinary tastes at posh restaurants and satisfying his love for the fine arts. The perfect role for Vincent Price, wouldn’t you say? The survival of many Saint broadcasts, by the way, owes a lot to the actor himself; he found a treasure trove of transcriptions from the program at his residence one day and was about to chuck them out when he called SPERDVAC to see if anyone was interested. (The SPERDVAC rep broke all existing land-speed records rushing to Vincent’s house to collect the discs.)

Even after the Golden Age of Radio was drawing to a close, Vincent Price still professed a fondness for the medium. He was one of the five rotating hosts (emceeing “mystery and suspense” on Wednesday nights) of The Sears (Mutual) Radio Theater in 1979, the Elliott Lewis-Fletcher Markle attempt to revive radio drama. (Sadly, they did not succeed). The actor was also host of a BBC program, The Price of Fear, which was heard beginning in 1973. (Proving that our cousins across the pond were right in their refusal to abandon the art of radio drama.)

19981Vincent Price succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 82 in October of 1993. Radio Spirits is pleased to honor his legacy with three collections of his signature radio series, The Adventures of the Saint: The Saint Solves the Case, The Saint is Heard, and The Saint Goes Underground. We also feature a Saint broadcast on our Great Radio Detectives set, and a little Yuletide Templar in our Christmas Radio Classics compendium. Be sure to check out Price’s hosting duties on the Mutual Radio Theater collection, and Suspense: Omnibus spotlights one of the actor’s frequent trips to the program with “The Name of the Beast” (04/11/46). Crossroads: Volumes 1-3 feature Vincent’s work on the TV anthology Crossroads, with performances in “God’s Healing” and “Cleanup,” and an early boob tube version (1949) of “A Christmas Carol” with Price is one of the highlights of Rare Christmas Classics, Volume 2. Our Horror Classics Collection features one of my favorite Price films, House on Haunted Hill, while another of the actor’s memorable horror excursions, The Bat (1959), is one of six films featured on Horror Classics. Finally, Vincent Price is one of several celebrities featured in a sensational book of interviews edited by David Rothel: Opened Time Capsules. You better believe that on any of these the Price is right!

Happy Birthday, James Stewart!

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James Maitland Stewart, the Academy Award-winning actor beloved by theatergoers as “the boy next door” was born on this date in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1908. Jimmy took home Oscar gold for his unconventional role (and by unconventional, I mean a “fast-talking” reporter) in The Philadelphia Story (1940)—though a good many people (myself included) are convinced it was a consolation prize for his not winning the prior year for his nominated performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart would garner Oscar noms for three additional movies—It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Harvey (1950) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959)—before being recognized by his peers in 1985 with an honorary statuette paying tribute to his fifty-year cinematic career.

stewart6I could take up an entire webpage discussing Stewart’s incredible movie resume: chatting about such classics as You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). But I thought it fitting to focus on the actor’s impressive radio C.V. As one of the “more stars than there are in heaven” at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Stewart was selected to be the first host of Good News of 1938, a lavish variety hour (sponsored by Maxwell House) that featured just about anyone working on the MGM lot at that time. Jimmy was the emcee on the series’ November 4, 1937 inaugural broadcast, and while he was replaced by Robert Taylor in early 1938, the actor continued to make guest appearances on the program (he was even around for the name change, Good News of 1939).

stewart4Stewart’s distinctive drawl and “aw shucks” manner made him the perfect foil for such radio comedy greats as Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, and Bob Hope. The actor also guested alongside Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Louella Parsons, Bill Stern, Fred Waring and the usual suspects on It Pays to Be Ignorant. As his stardom grew, Jimmy Stewart was often called upon to not only reprise his film roles but appear in original radio plays on such anthology series as Academy Award Theatre, The Cavalcade of America, Family Theatre, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Radio Reader’s Digest, Screen Director’s Playhouse, The Silver Theatre, and The Theater of Romance. Stewart also appeared on The Screen Guild Theatre under its three separate sponsors—Gulf, Lady Esther, and Camel—and along with Orson Welles, led an all-star cast for one of the medium’s most memorable broadcasts, Norman Corwin’s We Hold These Truths…first heard over Mutual Radio on December 15, 1941.

stewart3Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin observed in his old-time radio reference The Great American Broadcast that James Stewart “brought the same conviction to every radio performance that he did to his classic screen roles.” Veteran radio performer Dick Beals was in agreement, noting Stewart “was a total professional as a radio actor and never tried to draw attention to himself as the star.” Indeed, many a Hollywood thesp was unable to say “Hello” into a mike without flubbing the line. Stewart’s talent was never more evident than his tour-de-force turn in a classic Suspense episode, “Mission Completed” (12/01/49). Jimmy plays Tom Warner, a paralyzed veteran whose life in a V.A. hospital has been a living hell for four years until the day he recognizes a man working at a florist’s as the same Japanese officer who presided over his torture in a P.O.W. camp. It’s a definite nail-biter.

sixshooterWith such standout appearances on Suspense like “Consequence” (05/19/49) and “The Rescue” (04/19/51), it wasn’t long before the idea of a radio series starring James Stewart began to be kicked around among radio executives. Stewart appeared on an April 13, 1952 broadcast of Hollywood Star Theatre (a show that stood out amongst its anthology brethren and sistren in presenting original, half-hour suspense plays with Hollywood’s finest talent) in a production entitled “The Six Shooter,” which many critics felt was one of the program’s high spots. The actor was then talked into doing an audition record (dated July 15, 1953), which impressed NBC so much that they scheduled the show in the fall of that year, with creator Frank Burt in charge of scripting and Jack Johnstone (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar) in the director’s chair. The call went out to the distinguished performers that comprised “Radio Row”; veteran actors such as Howard McNear, Herb Vigran, Bill Johnstone, William Conrad, Shirley Mitchell, and Eleanor Audley were among the many to play supporting roles in the enterprise.

“The man in the saddle is angular and long-legged,” went The Six Shooter’s opening. “His skin is sun-dyed brown…the gun in his holster is gray steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl, its handle unmarked. People call them both ‘The Six Shooter.’” James Stewart played Britt Ponset, an easy-going drifter who encountered an assortment of oddball characters in his various adventures traveling through the West. Shooter functioned as an anthology (with only Britt Ponset as its constant), presenting tales of drama and adventure…and demonstrating an occasional lighter side as well.

stewart8It’s mindboggling to think that this splendid show lasted only a single season on NBC (a total of thirty-nine half-hours, not including the audition and the initial Hollywood Star Theatre broadcast). Sad to say, it was at a point during The Golden Age of Radio when the medium was being shoved off the center stage by its attention-grabbing sibling: television. But The Six Shooter might have had a longer run over the airwaves were it not for the fact that the series was being sustained by the network due to the star’s reluctance to allow a cigarette company assume sponsorship. (Stewart was concerned that plugging Chesterfield, the interested party, would be bad for his screen image. The show was briefly sponsored by Coleman Heaters for its first four episodes before NBC wound up picking up the tab.) Interestingly, the series made the eventual transition to the small screen with a new title (The Restless Gun) and star (John Payne, whose character’s name was changed to “Vint Bonner”); that series started out (if you’ll pardon the pun) great guns in its first season but dropped off considerably with the audience in its second and last year on the air.

It’s fitting that James Stewart’s last show business credit was supplying his unmistakable voice for a character in the An American Tail sequel, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991). It was appearing before a microphone again, and the great actor’s voice was finally silenced with his passing in 1997 at the age of 89.

20589Here at Radio Spirits, we feature a fine CD collection of James Stewart’s signature radio series The Six Shooter in Grey Steel, which we believe to be essential listening for the actor’s many fans. You can also delight in an radio adaptation of one of the actor’s most beloved feature films, It’s a Wonderful Life (a March 10, 1947 broadcast from The Lux Radio Theatre) and in Jimmy’s tunesmith talents with several selections (from the 1936 musical Born to Dance and 1941’s Pot O’Gold, a movie version of the popular radio program) from Did You Know These Stars Also Sang? Hollywood’s Acting Legends. On the DVD front, we invite you to check out the birthday boy’s participation in WW2 film shorts featured in World War II Homefront, Volume 1 and Hellions of War: Rare World War II Propaganda. Happy birthday to one of our favorite film and radio actors!

Happy Birthday, Frank Nelson!

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It never fails…every time I tune into an episode of The Jack Benny Program (be it on radio or TV) and Jack needs help from someone in customer service, the clerk is played by the same actor—who greets the comedian in the same sneering fashion: “Yeeeeeeeeesssss?” It couldn’t be the same guy, could it? Of course it could! Actor Frank Nelson, born on this date in 1911, seemed to serve one purpose while here on Earth: to play the patronizing nemesis of America’s beloved everyman. The important thing to remember is: he was the one guy who couldn’t stand Jack Benny. Whenever Jack confronted him with “You really do hate me, don’t you?” Nelson’s enthusiastic response was always “Oooooooh, do I!”

nelson12Frank Nelson was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado…and at the tender age of 15, he beat out thirty other actors who were competing for a part (a character twice his age) for a KOA broadcast. Nelson was then hired by the radio station as an actor, and he later migrated to a smaller Denver station (KFEL) to tackle announcing chores. By the end of 1929, Frank was ready to take on Hollywood, and he lucked into a position at KNX where he played the leading man on many a local show while acting on syndicated series like The Count of Monte Cristo and Tarzan of the Apes.

By the mid-30s, Frank had moved up to the big time: he put together an impressive resume appearing on the likes of Shell Chateau (as an announcer) and The Lux Radio Theatre, and he was part of the old-time radio acting ensemble on the seasonal The Cinnamon Bear (Nelson was Captain Tip Top). Frank recalled in a 1975 interview with historian Chuck Schaden that his association with Jack Benny began in June of 1934, but his regular appearances on the program date right around 1937. He became a member-in-good-standing of the comedian’s valued stock company, rarely straying from his assigned role as the individual who took gleeful pleasure in disparaging Jack. Jack Benny was not the only “Jack” Frank would work with, by the way; the actor later shared a microphone with the likes of Jack Carson, Jack Haley, Jack Kirkwood and Jack Paar…an impressive poker hand in any language.

nelson3Nelson flourished in radio as a professional foil, and as he told Chuck Schaden: “[I]’d go in and the writer would say, ‘Now be as funny on this show as you are on The Jack Benny Show.’ And, I’d always say, ‘You write it as funny and I’ll be as funny, ‘cause I’m just as funny as the material. That’s how funny I am.’” Frank and the writing staffs must have come to a meeting of the minds, because the actor soon received appreciative audience response working alongside such greats as Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fanny Brice, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Cass Daley, Jimmy Durante, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Dorothy Lamour, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton and Alan Young. Nelson also paid the occasional visit to The Adventures of Maisie, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah, A Date with Judy, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, Meet Me at Parky’s, My Favorite Husband, My Little Margie and Our Miss Brooks. (And of course, it seems only right that he would emote on the two series “spun-off” from The Jack Benny Program: A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.)

nelson7While Frank Nelson stressed that “I wasn’t a regular on those shows, but I worked them all”—he occasionally landed a steady gig on such programs as Blondie (he played the role of the Bumsteads’ next-door neighbor, Herb Woodley) and a short-lived sitcom entitled Today with the Duncans, on which he starred with then-wife Mary Lansing. (Nelson and Lansing were married from 1933-70; he later walked down the aisle with another Jack Benny regular, Veola Vonn – his second wife until his passing sixteen years later.) Frank also took on an unusual role in the series Jeff Regan, Investigator, playing the titular gumshoe’s corpulent boss, Anthony J. Lyon. Though identified with lighter roles (Lyon was Regan’s comedy relief), Frank Nelson was more than capable of handling dramatic parts, appearing on such series as The Cavalcade of America, Defense Attorney, Hallmark Playhouse, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Suspense, The Whistler, You Were There and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

nelson5When Jack Benny transitioned his show to television in the fall of 1950, Frank Nelson soon joined the cast on a semi-regular basis…but the actor also performed on the small screen in other venues as well. Having worked with Lucille Ball on her radio sitcom My Favorite Husband, Frank turned up in a number of memorable episodes of I Love Lucy—including the uproarious outing (“The Great Train Robbery”) where the Ricardos and Mertzes are returning to New York by train, with Nelson as the beleaguered conductor. (Frank: “Madam, did you stop this train by pulling this handle?” Lucy: “Well, I didn’t do it by dragging my foot!”) Frank later played Ralph Ramsey, the husband of Lucy’s Connecticut neighbor Betty Ramsey (Mary Jane Croft) in the show’s final TV season. Other sitcoms that welcomed Frank Nelson’s presence include Our Miss Brooks, Private Secretary, The Real McCoys and Make Room for Daddy; the actor also fell back on his radio roots by voicing various characters on animated series like Mr. Magoo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and The Oddball Couple—a cartoon version of The Odd Couple with a Felix cat (Frank) and Oscar dog (Paul Winchell).

nelson10Frank’s radio and television duties—he was president of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists from 1954 to 1957—didn’t leave him a lot of time for movies…so it’s always a treat to spot him in a small role in various films you might catch on TV. In a number of 1930s movies, you can hear Frank as a radio announcer—Humphrey Bogart’s Black Legion is a good example—and he provided narration for theatrical cartoons as well. Nelson turns up in several of the Joe McDoakes comedies starring George O’Hanlon, and among the actor’s movie credits are Down Memory Lane, Fourteen Hours, You Never Can Tell, Here Come the Nelsons, Bonzo Goes to College, The Clown, Remains to Be Seen, It Should Happen to You, It’s Always Fair Weather and Kiss Them for Me.

nelson6Frank Nelson became so identified as Jack Benny’s “Yeeeeeeeeesssss?” man that he was often called upon to reprise the part in other sitcoms; he appeared in several 1976 episodes of Sanford and Son doing his beloved shtick, and McDonald’s built a TV ad campaign around him in 1981 with Frank as an obnoxious passport agent, promoting their vacation sweepstakes. He continued to supply his memorable voice on a number of cartoon shows until 1986, when he left this world for a better one at the age of 75.

20637To celebrate Frank Nelson’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to generously sample the actor’s exemplary work on The Jack Benny Program, with the following collections: Maestro, Neighbors, Wit Under the Weather, Drawing a Blanc, Oh, Rochester!, Be Our Guest, No Place Like Home, On the Town, Tall Tales and Jack Benny International. (Nelson can also be heard on our latest Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen compilation, Grudge Match.) Check out Frank’s contributions on some of our other comedy sets: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (The Funny Fifties), Burns and Allen (Treasury, Muddling Through), A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, Fibber McGee and Molly (Wistful Vista), Life with Luigi, Phil Harris and Alice Faye (Private Lives, Quite an Affair, Family Values, Smoother and Sweeter), Our Miss Brooks (Boynton Blues, Good English) and Red Skelton (Stick Around, Brother). We’ve also got Mr. Nelson’s dramatic side on hand, with his co-starring role on Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), and excursions before the mike on Defense Attorney, The Mutual Radio Theatre and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Murder Matters, Wayward Matters, Expense Account Submitted). Can we make this birthday a great one for one of radio’s finest character performers? Oooooooh will we!

“Heavenly days!”

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The day that writer Don Quinn crossed paths with Jim Jordan at WENR in Chicago would prove to be a most fortuitous one for both men…and for Jim’s wife Marian as well. The Jordans arrived on radio by way of vaudeville. Although radio didn’t pay nearly as well as stage work at the time, both Jim and Marian liked the ease and comfort of not having to undergo the grueling travel required by performers of the time. Quinn would sign on to become the author of Smackout, a weekday quarter-hour starring Jim and Marian that began on Chicago’s WMAQ in 1931 before moving to the national NBC lineup. One of Smackout’s fans was Henrietta Johnson Louis, the wife of ad executive John J. Louis, who convinced her hubby that the Jordans would be perfect for a new show Johnson’s Wax was looking to sponsor in 1935. That show premiered eighty years ago on this date as The Johnson’s Wax Program…but we know it as Fibber McGee & Molly.

fibbermcgeemolly2In their early broadcast days, the characters of Fibber & Molly McGee were on what we would refer to nowadays as a “road trip.” The couple traveled around in a dilapidated old jalopy, ostensibly to promote a Johnson’s product entitled Car-Nu. But once summer was over, the company wanted to switch to hawking Johnson’s Glo-Coat, and so with the purchase of a winning raffle ticket, the McGees found themselves the proud owners of a house at 79 Wistful Vista…soon to become one of radio’s most popular addresses.

It was probably a good thing that the McGees owned their home…because Mr. McGee wasn’t much of a provider in the traditional husbandly sense. Fibber wasn’t really lazy, just unmotivated; many of the show’s plots would find him employed in some capacity…and by the end of the broadcast he’d be in search of work again. McGee was a good man, it’s just that he earned his nickname “Fibber” for a reason—he had a propensity for stretching the truth, and liked to while away the hours telling tall tales to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. His wife Molly loved him despite his serial exaggerations, and her warm, loving demeanor was just the remedy needed to the take the wind out of her blustery spouse’s sails. Her voice was reassuring and comfy, always greeting newcomers to the house with a “How do you do, I’m sure.” (Marian Jordan was sorely missed when she was forced to take a leave of absence from the program from September 1937 to April 1939, so much so that the show was briefly renamed Fibber McGee and Company.)

fibbermcgeemollyThe ratings for Fibber McGee & Molly were anemic at first; they had the misfortune of being up against the popular Lux Radio Theatre on Monday nights. But a switch to Tuesday nights helped the listenership immensely, and soon loyal audiences couldn’t get enough of Fibber and Molly’s misadventures. The show also developed many memorable supporting characters: Bill Thompson, who began appearing on the show in 1936, played Greek cafeteria owner Nick DePopolous (who got laughs via malapropisms and mispronunciations) and shady con man Horatio K. Boomer (whose voice was a dead ringer for W.C. Fields). Several years later, Thompson would introduce two of the program’s most enduring personages: The Old Timer, a half-deaf old codger who could out-tall-tale Fibber any day of the week (“That’s pretty good, Johnny—but that ain’t the way I heared it!”), and Wallace Wimple, a cheerful milquetoast who paid Fibber and Molly frequent visits to escape the wrath of his formidable wife Sweetyface.

galegordonGale Gordon also became a regular on the program, playing Charles LaTrivia, Wistful Vista’s mayor—whose visits with the McGees usually left him in a frustrated state of tongue-tiedness. (Gordon introduced a character in the show’s later years that was always one of my favorites: F. Ogden “Foggy” Williams, the town weatherman, who always announced his exit with “Good day…probably!”) Actress Isabel Randolph was the snooty Abigail Uppington, who never tired of looking down at Fibber and Molly’s lowly social status. (Mrs. Uppington was later replaced by the equally condescending Millicent Carstairs, played by Bea Benaderet, and Elvia Allman emoted as Mrs. Albert Clemmer after Bea’s departure.) Other actors who appeared on The Johnson’s Wax Program on a regular basis include Cliff Arquette, Hugh Studebaker, Richard LeGrand (as Ole, the Elks’ janitor) and Ransom Sherman. Marian Jordan doubled as other characters when the need arose: her best remembered supporting role was “Teeny,” the little neighbor girl who often drove Fibber to distraction.

greatgildersleeve13Actor-singer Harold Peary played a variety of characters on the show before he was able to convince Don Quinn to write him a meatier part: that of Fibber’s pompous next-door neighbor, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. The only man in Wistful Vista windy enough to match McGee’s bluff, Gildersleeve and Fibber were purportedly best friends…though the two of them engaged in an awful lot of quarreling and traded a good many insults. Peary’s Gildersleeve would later become so popular that NBC agreed to spin the character off in a situation comedy entitled The Great Gildersleeve, which premiered in August of 1941.

Then, with America’s entry into World War II at the end of 1941, The Johnson’s Wax Program became one of the benchmarks by which patriotism on the radio homefront was measured. The McGees beseeched their listening audience to do all they could for the war effort (like buying war bonds and planting victory gardens), and many of their broadcasts were built around this theme. (For example: cognizant of gas rationing, Fibber and Molly often depended on four-legged transportation—their horse Lillian.) The war kept two of their cast members occupied, Thompson and Gordon, so the show was forced to create new characters to make up for the deficit.

mcgeesgambleArthur Q. Bryan was soon brought aboard as Dr. George Gamble, a corpulent physician who replaced Gildersleeve as Fibber’s verbal punching bag…though the erudite medico often got the better of his nemesis in their oral entanglements. Shirley Mitchell played man-crazy Alice Darling, a war worker who boarded with the McGees. The character with the most influential impact was an African-American maid named Beulah that Fibber and Molly hired in 1944. Unbeknownst to home listeners, Beulah was played by a white actor named Marlin Hurt, who got shrieks of laughter from the studio audience whenever he would spin around (he spent the time until his entrance with his back to the audience) and holler his first line. The character of Beulah later migrated to a spin-off as well, in CBS’ The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show in 1945.

fibbermcgeeclosetFibber McGee & Molly continued to be popular with radio listeners once the war ended, and fans tuned in religiously each week to hear their favorite catchphrases (“Tain’t funny, McGee!”, “Dadrat the dadratted…”). The most popular running gag on the show was introduced in 1940: the McGees had a closet at 79 Wistful Vista that had become home to numerous piles of junk and bric-a-brac over the years. And because the contents of the closet had been organized with the kind of discipline you’d expect of a man nicknamed “Fibber,” when some unlucky individual (usually McGee) opened the closet…an avalanche of odds and ends came spilling out (courtesy of the show’s preeminent sound effects man). “Gotta straighten out that closet one of these days,” McGee would wind up muttering.

fibbermolly11Jim and Marian Jordan were a rarity in radio: they were practically alone among the medium’s top comedy acts who had no interest in transitioning to television. They filmed a pilot at Johnson Wax’s request, but having fulfilled that obligation, the couple decided that newfangled boob tube had nothing to offer them. So they amicably split with their longtime sponsor at the end of the 1949-50 season, and for the next two years Pet Milk paid their bills, with Reynolds Aluminum writing the checks for the final season their half-hour show was on the air. The thirty-minute adventures of the McGees ended on June 30, 1953, and in October of that same year Jim and Marian’s show became a five-day-a-week quarter-hour that was heard until March 23, 1956. The couple also performed in Fibber and Molly skits on NBC’s Monitor between 1957 and 1959.

20345The traditional gift for eightieth wedding anniversaries is oak…which would be kind of appropriate in the case of Fibber and Molly; one of the subtlest running gags on their program was that the address for any home, business or government building was always located at 14th and Oak. We at Radio Spirits, however, suggest a more suitable anniversary gift: Fibber McGee & Molly collections Whoppers, That Ain’t the Way I Heared It, and the crème de la crème of their wartime broadcasts available on Wistful Vista. For Yuletide McGee mirth, we recommend checking out Christmas Radio Classics, Radio Christmas Celebrations and The Voices of Christmas Past; Fibber and Molly also figure prominently in our Road Trip: Humorous Travel Tales collection. If you’re curious about the origin of Fibber’s famous closet, our Burns and Allen: Gracie for President can take you back to when it all began. And keep your eyes peeled for the brand spanking new Fibber McGee & Molly: For Goodness Sakes collection, which will be available for purchase next week! Happy anniversary, Fibber and Molly!