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“…true crime stories from the records and newspapers of every land from every time…”

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Even as he continued to convulse audiences weekly in the 1950s as Frankie Remley, sidekick to the male half of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, actor Elliott Lewis was anxious to branch out into the more creative areas of network radio.  While acting on Suspense in the 1940s, Lewis had occasion to rewrite scripts as well as submitting his own originals on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.”  So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when he moved up to the director-producer’s chair in August of 1950 on Suspense, a position he maintained until June of 1954.

elliottlewis1Other series that bore Elliott’s distinctive stamp include Broadway’s My Beat and On Stage—but perhaps the most unusual entry on his resume premiered on this date in 1953.  As a matter of fact, it began as a summer replacement for Suspense before generating enough positive critical buzz to run for an additional season afterward.  We know it as Crime Classics.

What made Crime Classics so unusual?  Granted, it was a crime anthology and there had already been a history of those types of series on radio for years previous.  What made the program stand out was its tongue-in-cheek approach to its stories; tales laced with an irresistibly mordant wit that kept audiences from drifting off in the middle of what could have a been a dry, dusty criminology lecture.  The Crime Classics project sprung forth from Elliott Lewis’ longstanding hobby of collecting anecdotes and tidbits from famous murder cases throughout history.  Elliott could proudly boast of a remarkable library of files and clippings on the history of murder—much of his material being primary source information dating back to the 17th century.  With Crime Classics, Lewis set out to recreate those cases by placing them firmly in the time periods they occurred and executing meticulous detail to capture the exact dialects and behavior of the principals involved.

elliott-lewis-morton-fine-david-friedkinAssisting Elliott Lewis was the veteran writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin—who, in the spirit of the scripts they contributed to Classics, once observed: “You can afford to laugh at murder as long as you’re safely a century or so away from it…the killers we make fun of are good and dead.  If they weren’t, we know a pair of writers who would be.”  The three men would select a case and thoroughly discuss the particulars, combing through periodicals that concentrated on their chosen act of mayhem and taking copious notes on the subject.  The actual writing of the script came very easy; requiring Fine and Friedkin to merely sprinkle a little gallows humor throughout to keep things from getting too grim.

Here’s a brief example from the opening of “The Checkered Life and Sudden Death of Col. James Fiske, Jr.” (06/29/53)—to give you a bit of the Crime Classics flavor:

(SFX: body falling down a flight of stairs, music starts)

HYLAND: The man who just fell down the stairs was Colonel James Fiske, Jr.  Although the Colonel is a man given to the consumption of dozens of blue point oysters—and bottles of heady wine at a sitting—his friends were given to pointing him out as a man inordinately steady on his feet.  So why did he tumble down the stairs?  And in New York’s Grand Central Hotel, no less—where stair-tumbling was frowned upon…the Colonel didn’t slip…he wasn’t pushed…he was shot.  The sudden presence of two bullets in him had upset his equilibrium.

(SFX: footsteps, running)

HYLAND: The man who’s running away is the man who just shot the Colonel.  His name—Edward S. Stokes, until recently the Colonel’s very dear friend.  There he goes… (SFX: more running, door slamming shut) And tonight—my report to you on the Checkered Life…and Sudden Death of…Colonel James Fiske, Jr.

Lou-Merrill-Lucille-Meredith3The individual reciting that preface was Thomas Hyland—portrayed by actor Lou Merrill, and described as a “connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders.”  (I would give my eyeteeth to be identified as a “connoisseur of crime.”)  Crime Classics also availed itself of many of Radio Row’s top thespians, including Herb Butterfield, William Johnstone, Ben Wright, Jeanette Nolan, Irene Tedrow, John Dehner, and Lillian Buyeff.  Mary Jane Croft was also a Crime Classics regular; she would marry director-producer Lewis shortly after his divorce from Cathy Lewis in 1958.

The announcing chores were handled by Roy Rowan and Bob LeMond, and Elliott Lewis was also quite fortunate to be able to use the services of the legendary Bernard Herrmann to oversee Classics’ music.  Herrmann took the same care with each score that Lewis, Fine and Friedkin exercised with each script, going above and beyond the call of duty to capture the period flavor of each tale.  He often relied on just one or two instruments to create the most effective of moods.

20850Unfortunately, Crime Classics’ reign on radio was a brief one; its last tale was told on June 30, 1954.  It was a sustained series, which was generally the kiss of death in network radio.  For the 21st century old-time radio fan, however, most of the series’ run has been preserved…and is available in two collections from Radio Spirits.  The first, Crime Classics, features the first twenty episodes from the series—including the program’s December 3, 1952 audition “The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner.”  An additional twenty episodes comprise Crime Classics: The Hyland Files.  Get both and enjoy them today!

Happy Birthday, Basil Rathbone!

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Basil Rathbone was born on this date in 1892—and I’ll come clean right from the get-go: I am a tremendous fan of the actor’s work.  Basil possessed a suavity and menace that made him one of the cinema’s best villains; even when he was engaging in stovepipe-hat-and-twirly-moustache antics he had an undeniable élan and panache that you couldn’t help but admire.  Rathbone played scores of bad guys in movies…yet his best-remembered cinematic role was that of a hero, Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective Sherlock Holmes.

basil6He was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone in Johannesburg to British parents…yet his stay in the South African Republic was a brief one.  Rathbone was three years old when the family was forced to flee to Britain, his father Edgar having been accused by the Boers of being a spy.  Educated at the Repton School in Derbyshire between 1906 and 1910, Basil acquiesced to Edgar’s request that he pursue a “conventional” career by briefly working for the Liverpool and Globe Insurance Companies.  However, the footlights proved to be too strong a temptation to resist, and the aspiring young thespian gravitated toward the stage—making his theatrical debut with a small role in a 1911 production of The Taming of the Shrew.  This would lead to a trip to America a year later, traveling with a repertory company in productions of Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and As You Like It.

basil7Basil Rathbone took a momentary detour from acting when he was called up into the British Army as a private with the London Scottish Regiment.  This same regiment also included (at various times) many of his acting contemporaries, notably Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall, and Ronald Colman.  Returning to the stage in 1919, Basil enjoyed a flourishing career as a Shakespearean performer in both the United Kingdom and the United States…and by 1925, Rathbone had set his sights on a motion picture career.  One of his earliest “talkies” was The Bishop Murder Case (1930), in which he played Philo Vance—the sleuth created by S.S. Van Dine.  Yet Basil would find greater success as a delectable cinematic villain, playing knaves and scoundrels in such films as David Copperfield (1935), Captain Blood (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938—his best-known villainy as Sir Guy of Gisbourne), and The Mark of Zorro (1940).  Rathbone also established earlier horror film bona fides with roles in Tower of London (1939) and Son of Frankenstein (1939).  In addition, his turns as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and King Louis XI in If I Were King (1938) garnered him his two Academy Award acting nominations.

basil2It was his casting as Sherlock Holmes in 20th Century-Fox’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) that would cement Rathbone’s cinematic immortality.  His success in that film (with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson) led to a follow-up in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that same year, and in 1942 a series of Holmes films was cranked out by Universal (twelve of those in all).  The Fox films led to Rathbone and Bruce reprising their parts in a radio series for NBC in the fall of 1939 (keep in mind that the great detective’s “adventures” had been appearing before the microphones since 1930).  Basil would continue in that capacity until 1946, when he announced that he had grown tired of the character (the last of the Universal Holmes pictures, Dressed to Kill, also appeared in that same year).  He returned to Broadway, where his performance as Dr. Austin Sloper in The Heiress would earn him a Tony Award.

basil5As a well-known movie actor, Basil Rathbone didn’t lack for work in radio—making frequent appearances on such anthology shows as The Cavalcade of America, The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Radio Reader’s Digest, and The Theatre Guild On the Air.  He appeared on the likes of Information Please and Truth or Consequences, and joshed with such radio comedians and personalities as Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Cass Daley, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Henry Morgan, and Rudy Vallee.  Basil took a try at a second weekly radio series with Tales of Fatima, a crime drama (sponsored by the cigarette) that premiered over CBS on January 8, 1949.  Despite its attempts at novelty—Rathbone played himself, as an actor who frequently found himself caught up in investigations of murder—the series wasn’t successful, and left the airwaves on October 1st of that same year.

basil9By the 1950s, Rathbone found that he was able to use his reputation for villainy to comic effect in such silver screen efforts as Casanova’s Big Night (1954), We’re No Angels (1955), and the delightful Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester (1956).  Basil was actually asked to hold back during the climactic swordfight in that film (Rathbone was a first-class fencer, which made it all the more painful when he had to lose to Errol Flynn in the movies they made together—he once joked in later years “I could have killed Errol Flynn any time I wanted to!”) so that Kaye would look better.  Rathbone also had a wonderful showcase in 1958’s The Last Hurrah, and made guest appearances on such TV series as Burke’s Law and Dr. Kildare.  The actor continued making movies throughout the 1960s, collecting a few paychecks from American International Pictures for roles in good movies like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964—with co-stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff!)…and questionable efforts like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).  (To be fair—there’s a great gag in Bikini where Harvey Lembeck sizes up Basil with “That guy looks like Sherlock Holmes!”)  The movies lost one of their unsurpassed villains when Basil Rathbone passed away in 1967.

20948Radio Spirits has plenty of Basil Rathbone performances on hand: our popular collection of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes broadcasts featured on The Game is Afoot is an excellent place to start, and you’ll also find a vintage Holmes program (“The Bruce Partington Plans”) on our Great Radio Detectives compilation.  Our DVD set Danger, Death and Dames: Film & TV Crime Dramas includes the 1937 Rathbone film Love From a Stranger, and on the two-CD set The Stingiest Man in Town (A Christmas Carol), you’ll hear Bas as Ebenezer Scrooge on the soundtrack from the December 23, 1956 telecast of The Alcoa Hour.  One of the numbers from that program, “Mankind is My Business,” is also featured on the Did You Know These Stars Also Sang? Hollywood’s Acting Legends CD set…but you’ll want to own this because it includes Rathbone’s delightful rendition of “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).  Best birthday wishes, Mr. Rathbone!

Happy Birthday, Rosa Rio!

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In Leonard Maltin’s old-time radio memoir The Great American Broadcast, veteran announcer Jackson Beck recalled a most amusing anecdote involving today’s birthday celebrant.  “There was a time Rosa Rio was playing the organ,” reminisced Beck, “and Dorian St. George, who was a real prankster, was the announcer at the show.  She’s at the Hammond organ, and she’s a very attractive, talented lady, great sense of humor.  And he went up and unbuttoned her blouse while she’s playing; she had a blouse with buttons down the back.  He unbuttoned the whole thing and then he undid her bra.  She can’t say anything, [and] there’s an audience up in the visitor’s booth at NBC watching this.”

rio2Beck continued: “She waits until his middle commercial comes up and she walks up, undoes his belt, unzips his fly and drops his pants.  And then starts on the underpants.  And there’s an audience up there!  They go, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”  Sounds like just another wacky day at the National Broadcasting Company, where Rosa Rio worked as staff organist from the late 1930s to 1960, with stops at Mutual and ABC to boot.  Rosa was born Elizabeth Raub in New Orleans on this date in 1902, and enjoyed a long career not only on radio, but during those early days of thrills and laughter in the silent movie era as well.

Young Elizabeth demonstrated an inclination towards music in early childhood; she began playing piano at the age of four, and was taking formal lessons on the instrument by age eight.  Her family disapproved of her career ambitions, by the way…until they reasoned that playing the organ at church wouldn’t be too scandalous for a young Southern lady.  Her first gig was accompanying movies in the theater, and by adolescence she was studying music at both Oberlin College and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.  When Elizabeth decided to turn professional, she changed her name to Rosa Rio…since it was easier to fit on a theater marquee.

These stills were issued in 1998 as part of Warner Bros. 75th AnniversaryRosa played the Wurlitzer organ—her instrument of choice—in a variety of theatrical venues throughout New York and around the country, accompanying the movies of such silent movie greats as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton…and performing before audiences who paid to see such classics as The Birth of a Nation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera.  October 6, 1927 marked the day of a disturbing cloudburst on Rosa’s career; with the release of The Jazz Singer, Rio feared that “the talkies” would put her out of business.

19721Rio was able to find temporary work as an accompanist and vocal coach.  One of her pupils was a young Mary Martin, who asked Rosa to accompany her when she auditioned (successfully) for her Broadway debut in 1938, the Cole Porter musical Leave it to Me!  Rio eventually was hired by NBC to play organ for as many as two dozen shows a week, including everything from Bob and Ray to Ethel and Albert.  At one point, she headlined two of her very own programs, Rosa Rio Rhythms and Rosa Rio Time.  Her work on such daytime dramas as Front Page Farrell, Lorenzo Jones, My True Story, and When a Girl Marries earned her the nickname “Queen of the Soaps.”  Purportedly, the time between the sign-off of Lorenzo Jones and the start of Bob and Ray was less than sixty seconds…necessitating Rio’s dash between the two studios.

One of Rosa’s best-known jobs at the radio organ was her accompaniment for The Shadow; in 1985, Radiola Records—the LP division of Radio Yesteryear—released an audio documentary entitled The Story of the Shadow that featured Rio and surviving members of the Shadow series reminiscing about what it was like to work on the program.  Rio’s relationship with Radio Yesteryear would extend to the company’s foray into videocassette releases (appropriately titled Video Yesteryear); she would provide scores and accompaniment to nearly 370 silent movie releases including Intolerance, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Cat and the Canary.

rio3After years of working on such radio hits as David Harding—Counterspy and Hannibal Cobb, Rosa Rio attempted a transition to television, playing for such small screen efforts as The Today Show and As the World Turns.  The opportunities for work in TV, however, were not quite as generous as those in radio…and soon Rosa found herself in Connecticut, where she ran a music school offering classes in voice, organ, and piano.  Relocating to Florida’s Hillsborough County in 1993 would provide Rio with a “comeback” career, however; she was the official accompanist for the silent movie program presented by the Tampa Theatre, the revival house built in 1926.  My friend Jeff Stewart would often enthusiastically inform me of his visits to see silent films on “the big screen,” and remind me that the music would be provided by “Rosa Rio and the Mighty Wurlitzer.”  Rosa would traditionally take a bow before the audience as her signature tune Everything’s Coming Up Roses would play (she jokingly renamed the standard “Everything’s Coming Up Rosa”).

19902Rosa Rio passed away in 2010—three weeks before her 108th birthday.  If you find that amazing, keep in mind that for many years, no one actually knew Rio’s real age (ageism is still alive and well in the show business world, sadly); it was only during an appearance at the Tampa Theatre in 2007 that she divulged her secret.  (Because she was not the kind of person given to blowing out birthday cake candles, some members of her family didn’t even know.)  A lovely portion of her obituary in the New York Times reads: “In Miss Rio’s career one can trace the entire history of entertainment technology in the 20th century.  After all, she was alive, and playing, for nearly all of it.”  Radio Spirits is only too humbled to celebrate the natal anniversary of this legendary individual, and if you want to check out her talent we suggest you make a purchase of The Story of the Shadow in addition to The Shadow: Strange Puzzles.  Happy birthday, Rosa!

Happy Birthday, Norris Goff!

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One-half of the comedy team that served as my introduction to old-time radio was born one hundred and ten years ago on this date.  With his lifelong partner Chester Lauck, Norris “Tuffy” Goff comprised the mirth making duo better known as Lum and Abner—who would eventually appear on all four networks (ABC, CBS, Mutual and NBC) during their twenty-year run on the airwaves.

goff2Findley Norris Goff was born in Cove, Arkansas…but his family moved to Mena five years later.  There, his father expanded a wholesale general merchandise warehouse that would influence the young Norris’ future career (he was called upon to work in his dad’s store growing up).  Another fortuitous event in his life was meeting up with Chester Lauck, the son of another prominent Mena family.  The two young men quickly developed reputations as “class clowns” in high school, entertaining their fellow students, and both later attended the University of Arkansas after their graduation in 1924.  Goff also attended Oklahoma University, where he graduated with a degree in business.  During his years of working in the family store, Norris was often called upon to visit other general stores in the area to further his education…but more often than not, he spent a great deal of time chatting it up with the various old-timers who congregated around the pot-bellied stoves of those establishments.

goff3After work, Norris and Chet amused their friends and audiences with off-the-cuff comedy routines.  They were scheduled to perform at a flood relief fundraiser for Hot Springs radio station KTHS in 1931, when they realized that the blackface routine that they had planned to do would be one of several (the other performers had decided on the same thing, as radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy was at the peak of its popularity).  The two men called an audible, and decided to do their “fellers-from-the-hills” material instead.  The success of this performance would lead Goff and Lauck to be hired to perform Lum and Abner for KTHS.  The popularity of the comedy serial spurred them to audition for an NBC station in Chicago, where they were hired to do the same program nationwide for Quaker Oats.

goff4The titular characters of Lum and Abner were Columbus “Lum” Edwards (usually pronounced “Eddards”) and Abner Peabody, who operated the general mercantile “Jot ‘Em Down Store” in the mythical hamlet of Pine Ridge, Arkansas.  Lauck played Lum while Goff was Abner…but in the early days, the two performers found it necessary to take on other roles as well.  Norris also played Dick Huddleston (Pine Ridge’s postmaster…whose name was borrowed from one of Goff and Lauck’s good friends), Mousie Gray, Doc Miller, and Squire Skimp—the town’s resident George “Kingfish” Stevens, part con man and part loan shark.  There were a lot of similarities between Lum and Abner and Amos ‘n’ Andy (for example, many of the female characters were only referred to—never heard).  However, as radio historian Elizabeth McLeod once noted, while Amos ‘n’ Andy tried to tackle the Great Depression with a sense of realism, Lum and Abner settled for more escapist fare.

Lum and Abner aired over various networks for various sponsors (Horlicks Malt, General Foods, Miles Laboratories) as a five-day-a-week quarter hour, but in the fall of 1948 the team hit the big time with a weekly half-hour situation comedy for CBS.  The New Lum and Abner Show had a studio audience, an orchestra, a big-time sponsor (“On the air for Frigidaire!”), and a supporting cast that included Clarence Hartzell (as Ben Withers), ZaSu Pitts, Andy Devine, Opie Cates, Francis “Dink” Trout, and Cliff Arquette.  The show was sponsored by Ford in its 1949-50 season, and then spent its last year on the air (1953-54) back in its familiar quarter-hour format.

goff5Both Norris and Chet attempted to get a boob tube version of their creations off the ground, but weren’t able to make any headway with a series of pilots.  Instead, those pilots were stitched together to comprise a 1956 feature film, Lum and Abner Abroad, which was actually their seventh motion picture.  The two men had appeared in a film series based on the show for independent producer Jack Votion (and released by RKO), beginning with Dreaming Out Loud in 1940 and ending with Partners in Time in 1946.  Norris would be the busier of the two performers once he and his partner called it quits with Lum and Abner.  He made occasional guest appearances on the Jack Benny and Andy Griffith shows, and memorably played “Grandpa” Pyle in an episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC in 1965.  Both men would live to see Lum and Abner make a “comeback” on radio stations during the 1970s nostalgia boom.  By that time, Goff had made himself comfortable in retirement in Palm Springs, CA, before departing this world for a better one (“Wonderful world!”) in 1978.

21208Here at Radio Spirits, we’re always anxious to find out “what’s going on down in Pine Ridge”…and you can do the same with our latest release of classic Lum and Abner broadcasts (Volume 8) as well as previous releases in Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7.  Our Great Radio Comedy collection also features a hilarious half-hour broadcast from the Lum and Abner prime time years.  So what are you waiting for?  Ay grannies, people—I b’lieve that’s your ring!  (And happy birthday, Norris!)

Happy Birthday, Arthur Conan Doyle!

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As a medical student at the University of Edinburgh from 1876 through 1881, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle—born in Edinburgh on this date in 1859—found himself fascinated by an instructor at that school named Joseph Bell.  An early practitioner of what we would call nowadays forensic pathology, Dr. Bell displayed an unusual talent for being able to examine patients and deduce details about their life and occupation through simple observation.  Doyle later became Bell’s clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

bell1Doyle’s association with Bell would extend beyond medicine: the young doctor, who also wrote short stories during his medical studies, was inspired to create a fictional detective that used the same deductive reasoning practiced by his mentor.  We know this shamus, of course, as Sherlock Holmes—unquestionably the most popular character of the many novels and short stories for which Arthur Conan Doyle was responsible during his lengthy literary career.

doyle2Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood was a troubled one.  His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, battled alcoholism.  For a brief period of time, the Doyle family was scattered throughout Edinburgh as a result of his parents’ temporary separation.  Though the family would reunite three years later, Charles was never able to overcome his struggles with the bottle and he passed away in 1893 after years of illness.  Doyle was fortunate to be supported by several wealthy uncles, who saw to it that he be educated at a number of Jesuit schools between 1868 and 1876.  Catholicism never took hold of young Arthur; he would later become an agnostic and dabbled in spiritual mysticism.

doyle3His medical career saw similar troubles.  Doyle established several practices (including serving as a ship’s doctor on two sailing vessels in the 1880s), but spent most of his time writing fiction as he waited for patients—a practice he had instituted during his days in medical school.  His earliest known short story, “The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe,” was submitted to Blackwood’s Magazine (and was rejected).  His first published work, “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley,” was introduced in the September 6, 1879 issue of Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal.  Doyle then decided to use Dr. Bell’s ingenious methods as inspiration for a detective that he described in his 1924 autobiography as “a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.”  This sleuth’s first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, was purchased by Ward Lock & Co in November of 1886 for the princely sum of £25 (the equivalent of £2,500 today) and published a year later in Beeton’s Christmas Annual to much critical acclaim.

finalproblemA sequel to Scarlet was published as The Sign of the Four in Lippincott’s Magazine in February of 1890.  Arthur Conan Doyle quickly grew dissatisfied with Ward Lock & Co (he felt they were exploiting him), and he left them to continue publishing Sherlock Holmes stories in the pages of the Strand magazine.  Holmes would soon make Doyle one of the best-paid authors of his time.  It soon became apparent, however, that the author’s discontent was more with his creation; in an attempt to devote more time to his historical novels, Doyle made the decision to kill off his detective (along with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty) in a December 1893 tale, “The Final Problem.”

To say that the public was indignant would be a severe understatement.  There was a good deal of pressure put on Arthur Conan Doyle to revive the resident of 221-B Baker Street, and Doyle placated his audience by featuring Holmes in his novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in 1901 (the events in Baskervilles took place before Sherlock’s plunge over Reichenbach Falls).  This didn’t satisfy his public, and so Doyle wrote “The Adventure of the Empty House” (published in 1903), explaining that while Holmes did survive the fall it was necessary to maintain the illusion that he snuffed it because he had other deadly enemies (notably Colonel Sebastian Moran).  Arthur Conan Doyle continued to create the adventures of what many believe to be the world’s greatest detective until 1927, with a total of fifty-six short stories and four novels.  (After his death in 1930, other authors took up the slack by featuring Holmes in their works.)

lostworldSherlock Holmes was Doyle’s most popular literary creation, but to only credit the author with Holmes does him a tremendous disservice.  Many critics believe that the seven historical novels that he wrote between 1888 and 1906 constitute his best work, and Doyle also brought to life such characters as Professor Challenger (featured prominently in The Lost World, perhaps his best-known non-Holmes work) and Brigadier Gerard.  In addition to short stories and novels, Doyle also penned poetry, non-fiction, and works on spiritualism.  He even dabbled in stage plays, including the 1899 production of Sherlock Holmes (co-written with William Gillette).  (Of course, a number of his tales were adapted for the silver and small screens as well.)

rathbonebruceSir Arthur Conan Doyle led a life that included forays into sport (as a footballer), spiritualism, politics…and even imitating his famous creation when it came to crime detection. (Doyle took on two “closed” cases in 1906 and 1908 that resulted in the exoneration of two men convicted of crimes that they did not commit).  Radio Spirits is only too proud to celebrate his birthday today by reminding you that there’s a first-rate dramatization of his short story “The Ring of Thoth” in our Escape Essentials collection.  We’ve also got plenty of Sherlock: Basil Rathbone (assisted by Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson) plays the detective in The Game is Afoot; Tom Conway (with Bruce) in The Stuttering Ghost & Other Mysteries and Cue for Murder; and Sir John Gielgud (with Sir Ralph Richardson as Watson) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  For visual Holmes, check out the 1954-55 TV series starring Ronald Howard (son of film star Leslie Howard) as Doyle’s detective in volumes in 6, 7, 8, and 9.  Finally—if you’re looking for a bit of novelty—we offer a 1,000 piece puzzle game depicting the Doyle short story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”…and a wonderful book in The Crossovers Casebook, featuring short stories (from various authors) that team Holmes up with everyone from Calamity Jane to Harry Houdini!

Happy Birthday, Arthur Q. Bryan!

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A doorbell rings at a residence in the Midwest, and the all-too-trusting couple that resides inside welcomes their visitor with an enthusiastic “Come in!”  I’ll keep you in suspense no longer: the couple is Fibber McGee & Molly (Jim and Marian Jordan), and it’s a good bet that the person on the other side of the door at 79 Wistful Vista is one of their many friends and neighbors stopping in for a brief visit and some guaranteed laughs.  Since today marks the 117th birthday of character great Arthur Q. Bryan, let’s assume that it’s Doctor George Gamble, who will affectionately insult his friend McGee (“Look, wobblejaw…”) and reduce those of us eavesdropping to completely hysterical laughter.

bryan8Born in Brooklyn, NY, Arthur demonstrated that marvelous sense of timing from the very moment the doctor gave him a smack on the rump to welcome him into the world.  You see, by the time Bryan reached his twenties, radio was just starting to develop as a formidable entertainment medium…and he was indeed fortunate to be able to get in on the ground floor as an announcer at New York’s WEAF.  Truth be told, Bryan’s ambitions were directed more toward singing in front of a microphone (he was a first-rate tenor, performing with such quartets as The Sieberling Singers).  But announcing eventually became his forte.  He filled in one day in 1929 for his friend Norman Brokenshire (when Norman experienced a bout of illness), and being in the right place at the right time soon landed him a plum position with Philadelphia’s WCAU in 1932.

bryan12In 1938, Arthur Q. Bryan took in some California sun on vacation…and made the decision to stay permanently.  He obtained work at the Warner Brothers-owned KFWB, and became a regular on that station’s comedy program The Grouch Club, described as a half-hour show about “life’s little annoyances.”  (The program was written by Nat Hiken, later to become one of Fred Allen’s top scribes and the creator of TV’s The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?)  The association between Warner’s and KFWB also led to a brief series of Grouch Club one-reelers, notably an entry entitled The Great Library Misery (1938) that makes the rounds on Turner Classic Movies from time to time.   In addition, Bryan began appearing in bit roles in such films as Broadway Serenade (1939) and I Stole a Million (1939).

bryan1But the biggest benefit to being a member of the Warner Brothers family was that Arthur was pressed into service to provide voices for the characters that populated their animated cartoons.  Director Tex Avery created an eccentric character named Egghead (modeled after comedian Joe Penner), and Arthur pronounced his “l’s” and “r’s” as “w’s” in classic baby talk fashion.  Egghead soon morphed into Elmer Fudd, and with Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940), Arthur Q. Bryan would soon be working alongside the man who did most of the voices for the characters in the Warner’s stable: Mel Blanc.  The Elmer Fudd voice was so versatile that Bryan borrowed it for use on The Fitch Bandwagon (then hosted by Dick Powell; Bryan was usually identified as “Waymond Wadcwiffe”) and many of the top radio comedy shows hosted by the likes of Al Pearce, Eddie Cantor and Rudy Vallee.  Arthur Q. Bryan soon became one of radio’s most prominent second bananas, supporting Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Bob Burns, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Cass Daley, Jimmy Durante, Charlotte Greenwood, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Ken Murray, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton, and Bob Sweeney and Hal March.

arthurqbryan1Arthur had a recurring role on Blondie as Mr. Fuddle, and would appear on such comedy programs as The Adventures of Maisie, Archie Andrews, My Favorite Husband, Life with Luigi, and The Mayor of the Town.  Fittingly, as his comedy resume expanded, he would headline his own program: he performed the title role on Major Hoople, a 1942-43 NBC series based on the character from the popular comic strip Our Boarding House.  (Arthur’s pal Mel Blanc played the part of star boarder Tiffany Twiggs.)  One of the writers on the Hoople program, Phil Leslie, suggested to Fibber McGee & Molly head writer Don Quinn that Bryan would be an excellent addition to the program. (Phil had just landed a job on the show himself).

bryan11Bryan was certainly no stranger to working with Fibber and Molly (he had a bit part in their 1941 film Look Who’s Laughing).  And once again, his timing was perfect.  Two of the show’s regulars, Bill Thompson and Gale Gordon, were on extended leave due to their military service obligations in the war.  Don and Phil created the character of George Gamble, a physician who filled in as McGee’s verbal sparring partner in the absence of Gordon’s Mayor LaTrivia (with a few echoes of the also-departed Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve).  Doc Gamble, by virtue of his superior education, generally got the best of Fibber in their exchanges and he would soon be most welcomed by the show’s dedicated audience.  At the same time, Arthur also played sardonic barber Floyd Munson on The Great Gildersleeve, the sitcom spun-off from the Fib & Molly show.  (Mel Blanc played Floyd in early Gildersleeve broadcasts before Bryan settled in the part.)

bryan2Bryan’s association with Don Quinn would even extend to a few appearances on Quinn’s other radio concoction, The Halls of Ivy (as Professor Warren).  By the time Arthur worked on Ivy, he was demonstrating greater acting range by performing on such crime dramas as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the Saint, Jeff Regan, Investigator, The Man from Homicide, and Rocky Jordan.  In fact, for a brief time he even took over for Ed Begley as Lt. Walter “Walt” Levinson on Dick Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  (When Bryan joined the program, Powell’s Diamond started to develop a repertoire of “fat” jokes).  It would be impossible to list every one of Arthur Q. Bryan’s radio jobs, but a good start would include The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, Favorite Story, The First Nighter Program, The Ford Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, The NBC University Theatre, Radio City Playhouse, The Railroad Hour, The Roy Rogers Show, The Screen Guild Theatre, Screen Director’s Playhouse, and Theater of Romance.

bryan6His work in radio—not to mention voicing Elmer Fudd—kept Arthur Q. Bryan pretty busy, so seeing him pop up in small roles in such films as Road to Singapore (1940), Larceny, Inc. (1942), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is always a treat.  Bryan tried to make time for the small screen as well, with guest shots on the likes of I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, The People’s Choice and The Life of Riley.  Animation fans would sadly discover, however, how integral Arthur was to the success of Elmer Fudd in the Warner Brothers cartoons when the actor passed away on November 18, 1959.  Though Hal Smith, and even Mel Blanc, attempted to fill the void by doing Elmer’s voice…it just wasn’t the same.  “Arthur was Elmer Fudd,” declared Mel’s son Noel.

21123To celebrate Arthur Q. Bryan’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits recommends sampling some of the actor’s signature roles…as Doc Gamble in our Fibber McGee & Molly collections Wistful Vista and For Goodness Sakes, and as Floyd Munson in The Great Gildersleeve sets Marjorie’s Wedding, Neighbors, and For Corn’s Sakes.  In addition, Bryan emotes as Lt. Levinson in the Richard Diamond, Private Detective compendiums Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy, Mayhem is My Business, and Shamus.  Check out Arthur in Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand by For Mystery) and The Man from Homicide, too!

Happy Birthday, Alice Faye!

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During the 1930s and early 1940s, actress-singer Alice Faye—born in New York City on this date in 1915—was one of 20th Century-Fox’s most bankable attractions, starring in such box office vehicles as Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) and That Night in Rio (1941).  By 1945, however, Alice earned the distinction of being one of the few silver screen stars to abandon stardom at the peak of her career…choosing instead to focus on being both wife to husband Phil Harris and mother to their two daughters, Phyllis and Alice.  Since performing is not always easy to walk away from, Faye found fulfillment in appearing alongside Phil in one of radio’s funniest situation comedies: The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

alicerudyBorn Alice Jeane Lippert, Alice Faye had acquired her new show business moniker by the time she became a performer on Rudy Vallee’s popular radio program The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour.  Faye was no neophyte; she had started out as a chorus girl in vaudeville before moving on to Broadway (where she had a prominent role in the 1931 version of George White’s Scandals).  But it was Vallee’s program that really shot her to prominence, and Rudy and White can also take small credit for Alice’s burgeoning movie career.  Hired to perform a musical number with Rudy in the film version of George White’s Scandals (1935), Alice found herself cast as the movie’s female lead after Lillian Harvey abandoned the role.

inoldchicagoIn addition, Alice Faye obtained a career boost from Fox production head Darryl F. Zanuck, who took her on as his protégé and made sure that she was featured in many of the studio’s musicals such as On the Avenue (1937) and You Can’t Have Everything (1937).  (Faye even starred alongside Fox’s bread-and-butter Shirley Temple in two of her most memorable vehicles, Stowaway [1936] and Poor Little Rich Girl [1936].)  Alice’s breakout film was In Old Chicago (1937), in which she co-starred with two of Fox’s dependable leading men, Tyrone Power and Don Ameche.  Both actors were reunited with Faye in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and Ty was Alice’s leading man in Rose of Washington Square (1939)—a film that so resembled the story of the legendary Fanny Brice that “Baby Snooks” later took the studio to court.

Don had appeared alongside Alice in You Can’t Have Everything, and would be pressed into service as a leading man in three more pictures including Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) and Lillian Russell (1940).  This latter feature would be cited by Faye as her personal favorite, and when she finished production on Week-End in Havana (1941)—one of three films she made with Carmen Miranda—Alice took some well-deserved time off for maternity leave.

harris&faye7Alice Faye married Phil Harris—best known as Jack Benny’s playboy bandleader on Benny’s successful radio program—in 1941.  It was not Alice’s first trip down the matrimonial aisle (she was married to vocalist Tony Martin from 1937 to 1940), but the union with Harris was a solid one…even to the point of providing comic fodder for the Benny show, where Phil was often ribbed about being married to a wealthy movie star.  But Faye’s career would soon change direction.  After successes in Hello Frisco, Hello (1943—the film that produced Alice’s signature song, “You’ll Never Know”) and The Gang’s All Here (1943), the actress hit a speed bump with her role in 1945’s Fallen Angel.  She had started out as the star of that picture, but her mentor Zanuck had found a new shiny object to focus on in Linda Darnell.  Much of Alice’s Angel footage wound up on the cutting room floor in favor of emphasizing Darnell’s role, and Faye decided to call it quits after screening the final product.

harrisfaye5Enter F.W. Fitch.  The president of the Fitch Shampoo company had been quite impressed with the success of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s radio sitcom, and felt that it could be duplicated with a weekly half-hour featuring Alice and Phil.  After a promising audition recorded on July 10, 1946, the Harrises became the new stars of The Fitch Bandwagon in the fall of that same year.  Phil had already established his radio chops as a regular on The Jack Benny Program, but Alice was no slouch when it came to performing before a microphone either.  She’d made frequent appearances on Rudy Vallee’s program, and her radio resume also included Command Performance, Good News of 1939/1940, The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Music from Hollywood, Request Performance, and Texaco Town (Eddie Cantor’s show, on which her then-husband Tony Martin was a regular).

harris&faye3For years, The Fitch Bandwagon benefited from its plum time slot: right between the Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy programs.  That insured that Alice and Phil’s Fitch broadcasts would do well in the ratings…but even then, it took a little time for the Harris’ show to find its comedic footing.  It all came together in the second season, when writers Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat began to suffuse the program’s scripts with a wisecracking, sarcastic sensibility that makes the show such a joy to listen to today.  Phil’s character was more or less an extension of the character he played on the Benny program (though they toned down the drinking aspects of the character for the benefit of the family audience): an illiterate stumblebum who, with the help of his friend (and band member) Frankie Remley (Elliott Lewis), managed to turn simple situations into hilarious chaos by the end of the half-hour.  Phil and Frankie would be frequently confronted by Harris’ nemesis, a smart-alecky delivery boy who answered to “Julius Abruzzio” (played by professional radio brat Walter Tetley).

harris&faye6Critics have opined that the Phil-Frankie-Julius shenanigans often overshadowed Alice’s participation on the program, relegating her to the status of a fourth wheel.  But this does “Miss Faye” a tremendous disservice. Alice not only demonstrated first-rate comic timing (not to mention a talent for dialects, often adopting a gum chewing “moll” accent), but wowed audiences with her vocal gifts and her warm-hearted demeanor (which kept the program from getting too snarky).  One of the show’s funniest running gags centered on Phil’s status as a “kept” husband; he once boasted to boss Jack Benny—who was making a guest appearance—that Alice “has money we haven’t even counted yet!”

In the fall of 1948, the Harrises obtained a new sponsor in Rexall and the series changed its name to The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.  While the couple had been enjoying good numbers as far as ratings went, their place in the Hoopers was threatened when they lost their valuable lead-in with the migration of Jack Benny to rival CBS in January of 1949.  Unbowed, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show continued on NBC (getting another sponsor in 1950 in the form of RCA Victor) until 1954, proud that it was one of the last sitcoms to continue on radio at that time.

harris&faye2Radio was quite good to Alice Faye; it allowed her the freedom she wanted to look after her family once she quit motion pictures in 1945…because all she was really required to do was show up for a rehearsal read-through and then for the live broadcast (and like many shows, Phil and Alice’s series was eventually transcribed for later broadcast).  Alice was actually keen to bring their sitcom to the small screen like so many other radio programs, but Phil nixed that idea.  So she settled for sporadic TV appearances on shows like All Star Revue and This is Your Life (where Ralph Edwards feted her famous husband).

In 1962, Alice attempted a “comeback” with a role in a remake of State Fair, a 20th Century-Fox film that had previously been tackled in 1933 (with Will Rogers) and 1945.  Despite good reviews for her efforts, the 1962 State Fair was, as Johnny Carson might have said, a “Bomb-o”…and after that, her movie appearances were limited to small parts in films like Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) and her swan song, The Magic of Lassie (1978).  She spent the remainder of her life as a frequent interviewee in documentaries on former co-stars Shirley Temple and Carmen Miranda before succumbing to stomach cancer in 1998.

20949One of the most delightful experiences I’ve had during my tenure with Radio Spirits was being allowed to write the liner notes for A Song and a Smile, a set of early Fitch Bandwagon broadcasts with Alice Faye and Phil Harris—I highly recommend purchasing a copy, in that it allows you to enjoy hearing how the program found its hilarious stride.  There’s also a Fitch Bandwagon broadcast (from January 19, 1947) on the potpourri collection Great Radio Comedy.  You’ll find select episodes of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show on our Christmas Radio Classics and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell compilations (the Greg Bell set features the series finale), and for full-blown Alice-Phil hilarity check out Hotel Harris, Quite an Affair, Family Values, and Smoother and Sweeter.  Last—but certainly not least—get in touch with our birthday girl’s musical side with the CDs Object of My Affection: Best of the Sweet Bands and Academy Awards (with Alice’s rendition of “You’ll Never Know”).

“If trouble is around, yours truly will most likely get a chunk of it.”

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Sixty-seven years ago on this very date, actor Dick Powell whistled his very first rendition of “Leave it to Love” on NBC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective—a light-hearted radio crime drama that successfully blended Powell’s popular image as a happy-go-lucky crooner (with a flair for comedy) and his newly-earned movie reputation as a two-fisted tough guy.  Powell’s resume over the ether stretched back as far as Hollywood Hotel (a big-time variety hour featuring gossip maven Louella Parsons)—but with the success of his career-changing role as Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, Dick began to flirt with radio vehicles that would capitalize on his new hard-boiled image…like Rogue’s Gallery and The Front Page.

powellDick’s film debut was as a bandleader in Warner Brothers’ Blessed Event (1932), but it was with the introduction of the studio’s Depression-era musicals like 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933) that Powell honed his cinematic chops as the apple-cheeked boy-next-door who could not only sing but act.  His popularity during the 1930s was not unlike that of Frank Sinatra’s in the next decade, but with each musical he made for Warner’s Powell began to grow more and more dissatisfied (he complained that the studio made movies with “the same stupid story”).  Dick moved to Paramount in the 1940s and had luck with features like Christmas in July (1940) and True to Life (1943)—but it wasn’t long before his new studio started treating him like his old one; truth be told—they simply didn’t know what to do with him.  He lobbied hard to play the Walter Neff role in the Billy Wilder-directed Double Indemnity (1944), but lost out to Fred MacMurray.

richarddiamond4RKO would offer him silver screen salvation when they tabbed him to play Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet.  The success of the film led to a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation in June of 1945, and while performing as the star of The Fitch Bandwagon from 1944 to 1945, Powell convinced F.W. Fitch (the sponsor) to let him take over as the summer replacement for that program with a private eye series informally known as Bandwagon Mysteries (but eventually renamed Rogue’s Gallery).  Powell enjoyed doing Gallery so much that he stayed with the series when it got a promotion to a weekly slot on another network (Mutual) in the fall, and then for one final summer run back at its home on NBC.

Rogue’s Gallery would soldier on with other actors in the starring role.  In the meantime, Dick Powell accepted another assignment as one of the stars of The Front Page, a 1948 newspaper drama broadcast over ABC and based on the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play.  Later that year, Powell would do an audition as the titular “fabulous freelance investigator” of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  But it would be a detective drama created by a young writer named Blake Edwards that attracted the attention of Powell’s agent Don Sharpe: Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

richarddiamond6The premise of Richard Diamond was that the main character was an ex-cop who had decided to hang out his shingle as a private investigator after World War II.  Diamond’s shamus services did not come cheap: he charged $100 a day plus expenses, but he was worth every penny because his previous experience as a homicide dick had taught him that cases were solved with persistence and a lot of legwork.  The Diamond series, however, also mixed in elements of comedy (Rick always had a ready quip in his holster) and romance.  Diamond’s lady love was Helen Asher, played by Virginia Gregg—whose husband, Jaime del Valle, directed many of the show’s broadcasts.  (Okay, it sounds a little like nepotism…but for a brief period in the summer of 1950, Frances Robinson—“Brooksie” on Let George Do It—took her turn as Helen as well.)

richarddiamond5While doing his best to resist the temptation of marrying a woman with a Park Avenue address and $10 million in her bank account (move over, Nick Charles!), Richard Diamond defied the traditional conventions of bad P.I.-cop relations by bouncing ideas off of (and often consulting with) Lt. Walter Quincy Levinson, played by Ed Begley.  Rick and Walt enjoyed a pleasant association, and actors Powell and Begley displayed great chemistry, but it didn’t last long.  Begley left the show and was replaced briefly by character veteran Ted de Corsia.  Then Arthur Q. Bryan stepped into Levinson’s shoes, and it was about that time that jokes about the lieutenant’s girth (a reference to actor Bryan’s own corpulent figure) started appearing hither and yon in the scripts.  Alan Reed later inherited the role of Levinson as the series drew to a close.

herbertOf course, Diamond had to have someone to pick a fight with, and that’s where the character of Sergeant Otis Ludlum (also referred to as Loveloon) came into play.  Ludlum seemingly had a force field of stupidity surrounding him, much in the manner of the various detectives who assisted Richard Lane’s Inspector Farraday in the Boston Blackie movies.  Otis was played by Wilms Herbert, who did double-duty on the series as Francis, butler to Helen Asher.  Francis had a rather mood-killing habit of interrupting Helen and her boyfriend just as the champagne was on ice and the lights were beginning to dim, if you get the idea (and you probably do).

janssendiamondRichard Diamond, Private Detective was a sustained series until it landed a sponsor in Rexall Drugs.  The Rexall sponsorship came in handy because, when the company needed a summer replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy in the summer of 1953, they just raided the Diamond library for repeats.  The NBC-Rexall collaboration lasted until December 27, 1950.  January 5, 1951 found our hero with a new sponsor (Camel cigarettes) and a new network (ABC)—which necessitated that Rick reach for a cigarette on occasion (Powell’s whistling of “Leave it to Love” segued rather nicely with Camel’s theme, “How Mild”).  Diamond stubbed out his last butt on June 27, 1952…not because the network or sponsor was dissatisfied with the program, but because the actor was becoming busy as a director of films (Split Second) and a television producer (he was one of the “four stars” in Four Star Productions).  Richard Diamond did make a brief transition to the small screen in the summer of 1957 (and bounced around CBS and NBC’s schedule until 1960), with Powell deciding to turn over the role to future Fugitive David Janssen.

20740So you’re probably asking: does Radio Spirits have plenty of “the singing detective” on hand?  We do indeed—in the form of such Richard Diamond, Private Detective collections as Homicide Made Easy, Dead Men, Mayhem is My Business, and Shamus.  Richard Diamond is also one of the many radio gumshoes showcased in Great Radio Detectives (“Central Park Murder”) and there’s a yuletide Diamond—which might remind you of a famous story by Charles Dickens—present on Christmas Radio Classics.  Finally, if you’re curious as to what David Janssen did before having to outrun the reach of lawman Barry Morse, check him out as TV’s Richard Diamond (“Picture of Fear”) on the DVD set TV Guide Spotlight: TVs Greatest Crime Stoppers.