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Happy Birthday, Sammy Kaye!

It was at a Cleveland, Ohio venue known as The Cabin Club where Sammy Kaye—born Samuel Zamocay, Jr on this date in 1910—would acquire the slogan that would make him and his orchestra famous.  The Cabin Club’s master of ceremonies liked to give Sammy and his musical aggregation a nice rhyming welcome: “Music in the Rhythmic/Sentimental Way with Sammy Kaye” were two popular catchphrases, but the one that stuck was “Let’s Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye.”  Why?  It seems that fans of the band greeted Kaye and his musicians one night with “Hi, Swing and Sway” and Sammy instinctively knew it was a perfect fit.

Sammy Kaye entered this world in Lakewood, Ohio and attended high school in Rocky River.  Upon graduation, Sammy attended Ohio University (in Athens), intending to earn a degree in civil engineering.  To finance his studies, Kaye started a band (he was proficient on both the clarinet and saxophone, though he rarely soloed on either instrument). The group became so popular that, in addition to playing the usual school dances and proms, he opened up his own little “nickel a dance” nightspot: The Varsity Inn.  Sammy kept his crew together after college graduation and embarked on a tour. What began with one-nighters at “whistle stops” soon blossomed into gigs at hotels, theatres, and nightclubs.

In Radio’s Golden Age, hotels often served as a location for “band remotes,” which comprised much of the medium’s musical programming.  Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra were just one of the many “big bands” who performed before appreciative hotel crowds and listeners at home.  Kaye and his band got their initial start in radio in Cincinnati before relocating to Pittsburgh.  Nationally, Kaye and Company began doing remotes for Mutual in 1937, and for the next twenty years would log airtime on all of the major networks (many of his popular series were broadcast as Sammy Kaye’s Sunday Serenade). Most notably, they were heard on CBS’s The Old Gold Program from January 1943 to March 1944 (Wednesdays at 8pm), where Sammy was the bandleader for a half-hour show starring “The Old Redhead,” Red Barber, and later comic actor Monty Woolley.  Kaye also headlined a half-hour program for Rayve/Richard Hudnut on ABC from November 1945 to January 1948 (heard on Sunday afternoons), and from 1953 to 1956 held court on Sammy Kaye’s Cameo Room, heard in various formats and time slots on ABC.

One of Sammy Kaye’s best remembered radio series was born during a two-year engagement that he and his band had in the Century Room at New York’s Commodore Hotel.  (Kaye and his orchestra got the gig after another orchestra—fronted by someone named Tommy Dorsey—found work elsewhere.)  The story goes that a couple sauntered up to Kaye’s bandstand one evening and the man asked if he could lead the orchestra.  “Sure,” joked Sammy, “if you let me dance with your girl.”  This moment of levity inspired Kaye to make it a permanent part of the band’s repertoire, and on September 5, 1946 So You Want to Lead a Band premiered over ABC on Thursday evenings at 10.  Kaye would select amateur maestros from the audience and hand out prizes to the participants (the grand prize was $1,000).  Its run on ABC was brief (the last broadcast was on October 24, 1946), but during that time the program hosted guest celebrities like Betty Grable, Linda Darnell, and Ethel Merman.  Sammy continued “So You Want to Lead a Band” in his orchestra’s live appearances afterward (and often used it as a warm-up before radio broadcasts). In fact, he even brought the show to the small screen on ABC-TV in 1954-55.

Jazz writer George T. Simon was not a Sammy Kaye fan, describing the maestro’s style as “mickey mouse music”: “[W]here the phrase came from I don’t know, except perhaps that the music sounded as manufactured and mechanized as Walt Disney’s famous mouse—and projected just about as much depth.”  (In Kaye’s defense, George was a one-time drummer for rival Glenn Miller’s band, so there may have been a little professional jealousy.)  The general public paid little attention to Simon’s opinion; beginning with the appropriate Swing and Sway in 1937, they made certain that Sammy and Company were never missing from the popular music charts. Fans propelled such records as Rosalie (1937), Love Walked In (1938), Dream Valley (1940), Daddy (1941), Chickery Chick (1945), I’m a Big Girl Now (1946), The Old Lamp-Lighter (1946), and Harbor Lights (1950) to the top spot.  (Lights would become Kaye’s signature tune.)

Sammy Kaye and his band also appeared in two motion pictures: Iceland (1942) and Song of the Open Road (1944).  On the small screen, the maestro headlined two separate series entitled The Sammy Kaye Show (on CBS in 1951-52 and a summer NBC series in 1953) and Sammy Kaye’s Music from Manhattan (1958-59, ABC).  Throughout the 1950s/1960s Kaye continued to be a familiar face on TV, notably as a guest on such programs as Toast of the Town/The Ed Sullivan ShowThe Jackie Gleason Show, and The Merv Griffin Show. He was even among the many big band legends in a PBS presentation from 1978 called Big Band Bash.  Sammy continued to perform for appreciative audiences before his last swing and sway in 1987 at the age of 77. Before retiring, he put his orchestra in the hands of Roger Thorpe, who continues to wield the baton as of this writing.  Sammy was posthumously inducted into The Big Band Hall of Fame in 1992, and his musical legacy in radio, movies, TV, and records earned him a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Sammy Kaye borrowed the music from Ohio University’s Alma Mater and (with Don Reid) wrote Remember Pearl Harbor, which rocketed to #3 on the pop charts in 1942.  You’ll find that classic tune on the 4-CD collection America’s Greatest Hits 1942, as well as another popular Kaye standard, I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen (which also peaked at #3).  In addition, Radio Spirits features our birthday boy on the 3-CD set You Make Me Feel So Young (with Sammy’s chart-topping rendition of Love Walked In) and Too Young: Hits of the 1950s, another 3-CD compilation featuring Kaye and band member Don Cornell on It Isn’t Fair (#2 in 1950).  Happy birthday, Sammy!

Happy Birthday, Harlow Wilcox!

If real life were like an old-time radio comedy program—and my gosh, don’t you think it should be?—I can’t think of any other individual that I would want to handle the announcing chores from week to week…and to feel free to literally enter my house and plug the sponsor’s wares with all the enthusiasm they could muster.  I’m referring, of course, to announcer Harlow Wilcox, born on this date in 1900 in Omaha, Nebraska. His longtime association with The Johnson’s Wax Program with Fibber McGee & Molly provided so many memorable moments, “making himself to home” at 79 Wistful Vista to extol the virtues of Johnson’s Glo-Coat or Carnu.  The integration of commercials into the comedic content on Fibber McGee & Molly became one of the series’ trademarks…though it did create a problem or two when the Armed Forces Radio Service had to do judicious editing to remove any unnecessary plugs for the troops overseas.

It was a foregone conclusion that Harlow Wilcox would eventually embrace a career in show business.  His father played cornet for the Ringling Brothers circus, and later became a bandleader (with young Harlow as “band boy”).  Wilcox’s sister Hazel was a concert violinist, who also performed in vaudeville.  Harlow, as a youth, aspired to be a musician (he wanted to play “hot trombone”), and after graduating from Omaha High School he embarked on the Chatauqua and Lyceum circuits for a two-year period.  Wilcox soon learned, to his disappointment, that the life of an artist is frequently a starving one—so when he was offered a job as a salesman for an electrical equipment firm he accepted.

Harlow Wilcox’s life as a salesman wasn’t a particularly fulfilling one.  He kept his hand in performing by engaging in amateur dramatics, but Harlow would eventually decide that combining that with the salesmanship he had been engaged in over the years, radio announcing would be ideal.  It took a little time for Wilcox to get into radio—stations were usually reluctant to hire anyone without experience…and you can’t get experience if they don’t hire you—but eventually he landed a job at a small Chicago radio station in 1929.  A gig as announcer for comedian Charles “Chic” Sale would be the impetus for Harlow’s burgeoning career, and soon his baritone voice was one of the most recognized on-air in Chicago—first as a CBS staff announcer (on shows like Myrt and Marge), then NBC.

Harlow Wilcox had a relationship with the Johnson’s Wax organization almost since he got his break in radio.  He was the announcer on The House by the Side of the Road in 1934, a Johnson’s sponsored program that featured radio personality Tony Wons (“Are you listening?”). When the company rolled out Fibber McGee & Molly on April 16, 1935 over NBC Blue, Harlow was made the announcer on that show as well.  It marked, as Humphrey Bogart remarked in Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Wilcox was so determined to get in his spiel as he dropped in to say “hi-dy” to the McGees weekly that Fibber jokingly nicknamed him “Waxy.” (During the Pet Milk years of the show, Fib referred to Wilcox as “Milky.”) Harlow would be a mainstay on Fibber McGee & Molly until the half-hour version of the program closed up shop on June 30, 1953. When Jim and Marian Jordan went on vacation in the summer, Harlow stuck around and performed announcing chores for such Fib & Molly replacements as Attorney at LawMeredith Willson’s Musical RevueHap HazardThe Victor Borge Show, and King for a Night (featuring The King’s Men).

Throughout his long radio career, Harlow Wilcox worked for such leading lights as Ben Bernie, Phil Baker (The Armour Hour), Rudy Vallee (The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour), Major Bowes, and Charlie Ruggles.  In addition, Wilcox had an interesting association with Frank Morgan and Fanny Brice: first, on Maxwell Coffee House Time when Morgan and Brice were the stars, and then on a single season of Coffee Time when it was solely Morgan’s preserve.  Harlow would work with Fanny when she began her own Baby Snooks program in the mid-40s.  When Amos ‘n’ Andy expanded to a half-hour in the fall of 1943, Wilcox was the announcer on that program for a few seasons, left and then returned in 1951 to finish out the show’s run in 1955 (Harlow was also heard on The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall as well).  Other programs on which he worked include The Adventures of Frank MerriwellArnold Grimm’s DaughterBlondieBoston BlackieThe Curtain of TimeThe Grennaniers Variety Show, Hedda Hopper’s HollywoodHollywood PremiereMail CallThe Mayor of the TownThe Nash-Kelvinator Showroom (starring the Andrews Sisters), Niles and Prindle (Ice Box Follies), The Princess Pat Players, and Truth or Consequences.

From 1948 to 1954, Harlow Wilcox’s other high-profile gig was on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”—Suspense, where he was the commercial spokesman for Auto-Lite.  Harlow was just as enthusiastic about spark plugs as he was about the floor wax from Racine, and on the program’s classic February 3, 1949 broadcast “Backseat Driver,” Wilcox welcomed his bosses Fibber and Molly as they stepped before the Suspense microphones for a most memorable dramatic half-hour.  On TV, Harlow’s small screen resume was a short one, appearing on installments of Science Fiction Theatre and You Are There. His work on the larger screen was even more brief, including only a handful of theatrical shorts (Bah WildernessThey’re Off) and an interesting turn as “Mr. Collins” in the 1941 Bergen & McCarthy/Fibber McGee & Molly feature Look Who’s Laughing.  Harlow Wilcox left this world for a better one in 1960 at the age of 60.

In the 1950s, Harlow Wilcox was the executive vice president of Rockett Pictures, a Hollywood film production company.  Maybe it’s us, but we just can’t picture our birthday boy seated behind a desk and smoking a stogie.  We’ve decided to remember “Waxy” for what he did best: beseeching folks to purchase the finest of floor wax in our Fibber McGee & Molly collections of Cleaning the ClosetGone FishingToo Much Energy, and Wistful Vista.  You can also listen to Mr. Wilcox in Fibber McGee & Molly episodes in our potpourri compendiums of Comedy Out West and Great Radio Comedy, and selected broadcasts on Amos ‘n’ Andy: Radio’s All-Time Favorites.  Finally—because if we’ve learned anything from Harlow it’s “You’re always right with Autolite!”—our Suspense collections of Ties That Bind and Wages of Sin allow him ample opportunity to strut his announcer stuff.  Happy birthday, Harlow!

Happy Birthday, Edgar Barrier!

Life in motion pictures was never easy for actor Edgar Barrier.  It wasn’t that the work was difficult—it’s that whenever Edgar appeared in a movie, it was even money that he wouldn’t make it to the closing credits.  “He has experienced horrible deaths by suicide, stabbing, fire, gunshot wounds,” noted Radio Life in 1945.  Radio was a little kinder to the man born in New York City on this date in 1907. Sure, Barrier still practiced his trademark villainy, but he also received an opportunity to play the hero now and then (as witnessed in his brief stint as Simon Templar on The Adventures of the Saint).

Edgar Barrier developed his love of acting in childhood.  When he enrolled at Columbia University after high school graduation, he purposely arranged his class schedule to ensure little conflict with matinees.  Barrier worked with many stage legends—Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Maude Adams, Helen Hayes, etc.—but when he was spotted in a production of Love from a Stranger by a brash youngster named Orson Welles, his future success in radio was assured.  Welles signed him for his stock company, and Edgar soon began broadcasting each week on CBS’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air.  Barrier remained with the program when it secured a sponsor and became Campbell Playhouse — and when Orson revived the series in 1946 as The Mercury Summer Theatre, Barrier was still with the organization.  Welles would also cast Edgar in films, including Journey Into Fear (1943) and Macbeth (1948 – as Banquo). The actor also appeared in Welles’ Too Much Johnson (1938), the director’s first cinematic effort (which was considered lost for many years until it was rediscovered in 2013).

His participation in Johnson persuaded Edgar Barrier to remain in Hollywood, where he soon found work in additional motion pictures.  His dark complexion and proficiency in languages made him the ideal candidate for parts that required mysterious and sinister backgrounds. Barrier played such roles in movies like Arabian Nights (1942) and Cobra Woman (1943).  Edgar’s a good guy in the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera (as a policeman), but one of his best-known silver screen turns was as the villainous Erich Kreiger in Game of Death (1945)—a remake of the 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game.  Barrier is only a voice in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), but he also graced the casts of the 1943 serial The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack and features like Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), The Secret of St. Ives (1949), Last of the Buccaneers (1950), and Cyrano de Bergerac (1950).

Edgar Barrier’s 13-week gig—from January 4 to March 29, 1945—as “the Robin Hood of modern crime” on The Adventures of the Saint for Bromo Seltzer over NBC was one of his few leading roles in the aural medium.  Suffice it to say, Barrier was a busy actor; working for leading radio lights such as Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler, and appearing on familiar dramatic anthologies like The Bakers’ Theatre of Stars, Family TheatreFrontier TheatreThe General Electric TheatreThe Hallmark Hal of FameHallmark PlayhouseThe Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe Molle Mystery Theatre, and On Stage.  In addition, Edgar made the rounds on The Adventures of Philip MarloweBroadway’s My BeatThe CBS Radio WorkshopChandu the MagicianCrime ClassicsEscapeFort LaramieThe Green LamaGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelJeff Regan, InvestigatorThe Line-UpThe Mayor of the TownPursuitRichard Diamond, Private Detective, Rogers of the GazetteRomance, SuspenseThe Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Edgar Barrier continued to work in motion pictures throughout the 1950s. He appears uncredited (as Professor McPherson) in The War of the Worlds (1953), and added features like The Whip Hand (1951), Prince of Pirates (1953), The Stand at Apache River (1953), Count the Hours! (1953), The Giant Claw (1957), and On the Double (1961) to his resume.  Barrier also garnered small screen credits, appearing in several episodes of Zorro (as Don Cornelio Esperon), and guest starring on favorites such as 77 Sunset StripBroken ArrowHawaiian EyeThe MillionaireMy Little MargieThe Rebel, and Wagon Train.  Sadly, Edgar’s contributions to the entertainment world came to an abrupt end when a heart attack took his life in 1964. He was 57 years old.

From the time he made his motion picture debut as an elderly Asian in a 1930 French film, Le spectre vert, Edgar Barrier engaged in a variety of ethnic characterizations that included Frenchmen, Spaniards, Turks, and Germans—he attributed his foreign language fluency to his mother, a talented linguist.  Barrier once remarked in an interview: “I speak some German, some Russian, pretty good Spanish, pretty good French.  And fair English.”  That last statement was Edgar engaging in a little levity, and Radio Spirits has the proof. The birthday boy is speaking spectacularly on the following collections of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Lonely CanyonsNight TideSucker’s Road), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark WhispersGreat White WayThe Loneliest Mile), Chandu the Magician, Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Escape (Escape Essentials, Peril), Fort LaramieGunsmoke (Killers & Spoilers), Lights Out (Later Than You ThinkLights Out, Everybody), The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Cue for Murder), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Expense Account Submitted, Fabulous FreelanceMedium Rare MattersWayward Matters).  Happy birthday, Mr. Barrier!

Happy Birthday, Staats Cotsworth!

A newspaper man once referred to actor Staats Cotsworth—born in Oak Park, Illinois on this date in 1908—as “the Clark Gable of radio.”  It was one of several nicknames Cotsworth would acquire during his long career in the aural medium — the most fitting being “the busiest actor in radio,” because Staats had emoted before a microphone for an estimated 7,500 broadcasts within a 12-year period alone.  But Staats could also be labeled a true “Renaissance man.” His acting engagements spanned stage, screen (both silver and small), and radio – but he also pursued other artistic interests, including painting, music, and photography. The latter hobby was a side effect from his most famous role as the “ace cameraman who covers the crime news of the great city” on radio’s Casey, Crime Photographer.

Staats Jennings Cotsworth, Jr. wanted to be a painter since childhood, and to achieve that dream he attended the Pennsylvania Museum’s School of Industrial Art.  After receiving his diploma, Staats journeyed to Paris for more instruction at the Académie Colarossi.  He returned to the States a few years later where, according to his first wife Muriel Kirkland Cotsworth, he illustrated several books before receiving a commission to paint murals in some Washington bowling alleys.  It was only after he returned to New York (it was difficult to sell paintings during the Great Depression) that Cotsworth heard “the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd” and decided that an actor’s life was for him. He began as a member of Eve LeGalliene’s Civic Repertory Theatre, where he appeared in Alice in Wonderland (as The Mad Hatter) and Hedda Gabler.  (Two of Staats’ fellow thespians in this troupe were Burgess Meredith and Parker Fennelly.)

It was Abby Lewis who noticed that Staats Cotsworth had a fine voice, and introduced him to some people in the radio industry. Soon, he was playing Jeff Taylor on the daytime drama Pepper Young’s Family.  Since many “soaps” were heard five days a week—and since Cotsworth worked on a lot of them—this explains how he was able to run up that 7,500 broadcasts number mentioned earlier.  Staats appeared on the likes of Amanda of Honeymoon Hill (as Edward Leighton), Big Sister (Dr. John Wayne), Lone Journey (Wolfe Bennett), Ma Perkins (Gideon Harris), Marriage for Two (Roger Hoyt), The Right to Happiness (Alex Delavan), and When a Girl Marries (Phil Stanley). He also made the rounds on Lorenzo JonesThe Second Mrs. BurtonStella Dallas, and The Story of Mary Martin.  Cotsworth’s most famous daytime gig was portraying the titular reporter on Front Page Ferrell, a role that he held longer than any other actor. (The character had been played in the program’s early run by Richard Widmark.)

His work as the muckraking Ferrell no doubt allowed Staats Cotsworth to move seamlessly into the part of Casey on Crime Photographer, a detective drama that spotlighted the investigative exploits of a shutterbug employed by The Morning Express.  Each week, our hero lubricated himself at a dive called The Blue Note—where he hung out with reporter girlfriend Annie Williams and jawed with sardonic bartender Ethelbert.  A favorite of listeners between 1943 and 1955, Casey, Crime Photographer was just one of several radio jobs that kept Staats busy. He could also be heard as Lt. Weigand on Mr. and Mrs. North; district attorney Sam Howe on Roger Kilgore, Public Defender; Major Hugh North on The Man from G-2, and the titular heroes on Inspector Thorne and Mark Trail.

A 1948 Newsweek article on Staats Cotsworth (humorously entitled “Cotsworth in the Chips”) gave the game away as to how well-compensated the actor was for his hectic broadcasting schedule.  After a few Casey-style cocktails, Staats let slip enough information to the reporter that allowed any accountant worth his/her salt to estimate that the radio thespian had a weekly income of $1,000—a considerable sum at that time.  (For example, Cotsworth was pulling down $250 weekly in his capacity as Casey, Crime Photographer alone.)  When asked why he continued to act on daytime dramas, Staats matter-of-factly replied: “Giving up a daytime show is like turning in your insurance policy.”  A sample of Cotsworth’s radio resume would include such shows as Best PlaysThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe ChaseCrime ClubDimension XThe Ford TheatreGrand Central StationGreat PlaysThe March of TimeThe MGM Theatre of the Air, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost PersonsThe Mysterious TravelerThe NBC Star PlayhouseRocky FortuneRogue’s GallerySecret MissionsThe ShadowThe Silver TheatreThe Sportsmen’s ClubThe Theatre Guild on the AirWords at War, You are There, and You Make the News.

As you can probably gather from the preceding paragraph, Staats Cotsworth didn’t let any grass grow under his feet where radio was concerned…so it’s not too surprising that the movies in which he appeared—That Night! (1957), Peyton Place (1957), They Might Be Giants (1971)—were made long after radio was giving way to TV.  Cotsworth would do quite a bit of small screen work (playing judges and other authority figures), appearing on shows like The DefendersDr. Kildare, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  In addition, he returned to what many have said was his true love—the stage, where he appeared in productions of Advise and Consent (1960) and The Right Honourable Gentleman (1965).  Staats would never abandon the medium that rewarded him the most, however; he appeared on shows that closed out Radio’s Golden Age (like The CBS Radio Workshop and X-Minus One) and on attempts to keep radio alive (like The Eternal Light and Theatre Five).  One of his final performing jobs would be on The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre before his death in 1979 at the age of 71.

An obituary for Staats Cotsworth in The St. Petersburg Times noted that he was “an accomplished painter of oils and watercolors” and was even listed in the current edition of Who’s Who in American Art.  But here at Radio Spirits, we remember today’s birthday boy for his lofty accomplishments in the ether, beginning with his trademark role as Casey, Crime Photographer in the collection Blue Note.  Check out Mr. Cotsworth also in Crime ClubDimension X: Adventures in Time & SpaceThe Mysterious Traveler: Dark DestinyWords at War, and X-Minus One: Time and Time Again.  Our Stop the Press! compendium features a pair of Casey, Crime Photographer broadcasts from 1947, and on Great Radio Science Fiction, Cotsworth is among the cast in a two-part adaptation of Frederick Pohl’s classic “The Space Merchants” from The CBS Radio Workshop.  Happy birthday, Staats!

Happy Birthday, Joseph Kearns!

In the 1950s, with technological strides being embraced by the dying medium of radio, the Columbia Broadcasting System started using Hammond electric organs for “fill music” on their broadcast programs.  The Hammond was smaller and far less expensive, and it would allow CBS to rid itself of a colossal Wurlitzer theatrical organ the network already had on hand, packed away after being purchased from Warner Brothers.  The Wurlitzer was headed for the scrapyard…until an actor named Joseph Kearns—born on this date in 1907 in Salt Lake City, Utah—made CBS a cash offer for the instrument.  Joe experienced a temporary setback once he remembered that he had no place to put the Wurlitzer—Kearns was a lifelong bachelor who called various studio apartments home. So in the tradition of “if the mountain will not come to Muhammad,” Joe designed a two-and-a-half story house to be built around the enormous organ.  With pipes built into the walls, and the console the showpiece of his living room, Joseph was able to indulge himself in one of his favorite hobbies in his downtime, often making the rafters at Chez Kearns ring.

If Joseph Sherrard Kearns’ parents had their way, young Joe would have abandoned all those silly notions of show business once he shed childhood.  His mother Cordelia was partly to blame; a pianist and organist, she instilled in her son a lifelong love of music (despite the family’s strict Mormon upbringing).  But at the age of nine, Joseph was traveling with a kiddie troupe in vaudeville until his parents sent him to a school (for “precocious children”) in San Diego a year later.  Kearns would eventually graduate from the University of Utah with a degree in music. Although he continued to fuel the fire of his performing ambitions with part-time work as a motion picture organist, his father (Joseph Albert) insisted that he take a position in the Boston-based wool company that employed the senior Kearns as a buyer.

Joe Kearns’ career in the wool business was short and sweet.  He purchased $8,000 worth of Karakul wool and shipped it back to the company…only to learn that the wool was black and could not be dyed. Kearns soon left that industry and, with his father’s blessing, found work with a California theatrical company. This first official step in his acting career found him doing what such stock players do best: playing any kind of role, and educating himself in the ways of the theatre.  One thing that Joseph learned early on is that leading men may come and go, but the character actors reliably add spice to any play and ensure a production’s success.

In addition to developing into a fine character actor, Joseph Kearns had a fine voice that was perfect for the burgeoning medium of radio.  His early broadcast days found him performing in all manner of plays for Los Angeles’ KHJ as a member of that station’s stock company. He later moonlighted on any number of transcribed programs from Hollywood studios.  One of his well-known jobs from this transcription era was on The Cinnamon Bear, a Yuletide serial that continues to delight listeners today.  Joe co-starred as the Crazy Quilt Dragon, alongside a cast of true radio veterans. With the gradual migration of network programs from New York to Hollywood, Joseph never wanted for acting work—appearing on such favorites as Big TownDr. ChristianHollywood HotelThe Lux Radio TheatreThe Silver Theatre, and White Fires of Inspiration.

The 1940s would find Joseph Kearns at his busiest.  He had a regular weekly appointment on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” in the early broadcast years of Suspense as the show’s unofficial host, “The Man in Black.”  Even after Joe turned in his somber clothing, nary a Suspense broadcast aired where he wasn’t playing a role in some capacity, and he continued to be heard on the show throughout the 1950s.  Kearns would revisit his “Man in Black” persona by playing The Whistler in that series’ early broadcasts.  Joseph made the rounds on many of the major anthology programs in that era, notably The Cavalcade of AmericaThe ClockFavorite StoryThe Ford TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TimeMystery in the Air, The Philip Morris PlayhouseScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Famous Radio Players.

Joseph Kearns had certainly earned his dramatic chops…but he demonstrated a knack for comedy acting as well.  He played Melvin Foster, the father of the titular teen on A Date with Judy in the program’s early years. On The Mel Blanc Show, he was the star’s would-be father-in-law, convinced that his daughter Betty could do much, much better.  Kearns played a variety of roles on The Judy Canova Show (notably as the eccentric Benchley Botsford), and worked on shows headlined by George Burns & Gracie Allen, Rudy Vallee, and Joan Davis (as “Pops” on Leave It to Joan).  Joseph was a member-in-good-standing of the stock company on The Jack Benny Program, where he famously played Ed, the poor soul who had the unenviable job of guarding the star’s money-filled vault. (It was intimated that Ed had been in Jack’s vault for so long that he had very little knowledge of 20th century culture.)  Joe also appeared on such favorites as The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietA Day in the Life of Dennis DayFibber McGee & MollyThe Great GildersleeveThe Life of Riley, and My Favorite Husband.

Joseph Kearns also had the comic relief assignment on Let George Do It as Caleb, the elevator operator in the building where George Valentine received the “full details” of his assignments.  Rounding out the actor’s radio resume in the 1940s are gigs with The Adventures of Sam SpadeBox 13Broadway’s My BeatThe Count of Monte CristoEllery QueenEscapeLights OutMayor of the Town, The New Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Railroad HourRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveThe Roy Rogers Show, and The Story of Dr. Kildare.

Joseph Kearns’ first film credit was 1951’s Hard, Fast and Beautiful...although if you’re a sharp-eared listener, you can hear Joe’s voice on the radio in the 1947 feature The Hucksters.  The actor had another recognizable vocal gig in 1951, as The Doorknob in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.  Throughout the 1950s, Kearns appeared in such movies as Daddy Long Legs (1955), Storm Center (1956), The Girl Most Likely (1957), The Gift of Love (1958), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  Joseph was probably better known for his extensive work on the small screen; he made the transition to Jack Benny’s TV show and the video version of Our Miss Brooks (reprising his radio role as school superintendent Edgar T. Stone). He also had regular roles and guest appearances on the likes of December BrideThe George Burns & Gracie Allen ShowI Love LucyHow to Marry a Millionaire, and Professional Father.

While juggling movies and TV, Joseph Kearns kept up with his hectic radio pace—appearing on such shows as Amos ‘n’ AndyCrime ClassicsFamily TheatreThe General Electric TheatreThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Halls of IvyThe Harold Peary Show (as Doc “Yak-Yak” Yancy), Life with Luigi, The Line-UpMr. PresidentOn StageThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye ShowPresenting Charles BoyerPursuitRogers of the GazetteRomance, and Tales of the Texas Rangers.  Kearns was even around for many of the last great network radio dramas like The CBS Radio WorkshopFort Laramie, Frontier GentlemanGunsmokeHave Gun – Will Travel, Luke Slaughter of Tombstone, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. None of these acting gigs apparently interfered with the TV show for which Baby Boomers remember Joe best—Dennis the Menace, a sitcom based on Hank Ketcham’s popular comic strip.  Though his role as fastidiously fussy neighbor George Wilson was originally going to be just a recurring one…the chemistry between Joe and star Jay North was unbeatable, and he continued as a regular until he was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage in the series’ third season at the age of 55.

As for that “mighty Wurlitzer” I mentioned at the start of this essay…well, after a long period of neglect (owing to Joe’s passing) the new owners of Kearns’ “estate” sold it to the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield, Ohio in 1985—where it continues to entertain film and concert audiences of a new generation.  We’re doing our part to ensure that generations of old-time radio fans are able to experience the acting talents of our birthday boy with our many collections featuring his work.  As an appetizer, enjoy Mr. Kearns in one of his signature roles (“The Man in Black”) in the Suspense sets Beyond Good and EvilFear and TremblingTies That Bind, and Wages of Sin.  We’ll then cleanse your palate with some comedy, including Joe’s supporting turns in The Harold Peary Show: Honest Harold and the Our Miss Brooks compendiums Boynton BluesFaculty Feuds, and Good English.  You can also chuckle at Mr. Kearns on Neighbors, a collection of broadcasts featuring The Great Gildersleeve. In addition, we’ve got Joseph Kearns emoting on Gunsmoke (Around Dodge CityKillers & SpoilersSnakebiteThe Round-Up); The Whistler (Eleventh HourSkeletons in the ClosetVoices); and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Fabulous FreelanceFatal MattersThe Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMurder MattersMysterious MattersWayward Matters). Plus there are single sets of Big Town (Blind Justice), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Fort Laramie (Volume Two), Frontier GentlemanGreat Radio Science FictionHave Gun – Will Travel (Blind Courage), Let George Do It (Sweet Poison), Lights Out (Lights Out, Everybody), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Mayhem is My Business), and Romance.  But we mustn’t forget the main course: endless helpings of The Jack Benny Program (Be Our Guest, Fabulous 40sThe Fabulous 50sJack Benny & FriendsOn the TownPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesSilly SkitsTough Luck!, and Wit Under the Weather)!  (I hope we didn’t serve up too much…good thing we have doggie bags on hand!)

Happy Birthday, Chester Lauck!

On April 26, 1936, the small Arkansas town of Waters officially changed its name to Pine Ridge.  It wasn’t because they were on the lam from the law or ducking creditors, however—the inspiration came from the popular radio comedy serial Lum and Abner. The fictional hamlet on that show was based on Waters…so the town decided to make it official in tribute.  Lum and Abner was the creation of two men who performed on stage for fun after their regular nine-to-five jobs. The show that they developed premiered on Hot Springs’ KTHS in 1931 and was soon picked up by the National Broadcasting Company for the benefit of coast-to-coast audiences.  The long-running program would bring fame and fortune to Findley Norris “Tuffy” Goff and Chester Harris Lauck—the latter born on this date in Alleene, Arkansas in 1902.

Chet Lauck was born the son of William J. and Cora Lauck, who moved their family to Mena, Arkansas in 1911.  It was there that Lauck met his future partner, Norris Goff. Both the Lauck and Goff families were quite prominent in Mena, and the duo cemented that lifelong tie by cutting up in school and later performing at various venues in the area (they did a blackface act).  Chet’s performing ambitions no doubt proved to be a disappointment to his father, who wanted him to take on the family business (banking and lumber).  Instead, Lauck enrolled in the University of Arkansas after graduating from Mena High School in 1920. He majored in business and art, and was the editor of the university’s humor magazine, White Mule.

When partner Norris Goff wasn’t toiling away in his father’s business (a wholesale general merchandise warehouse), he joined Chester Lauck (the manager of a finance company) in entertaining friends and audiences with comedy routines.  The duo had planned to perform at a benefit at KTHS in Hot Springs in 1931…but to their dismay, all of the other comedy acts were going to do blackface (because of the popularity of radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy).  To stand out from the rest of the imitators, Lauck and Goff decided to switch to one of their “fellers-from-the-hills” routines, and the audience reception was remarkable.  Chet and Norris were hired by KTHS to continue in that capacity and, two months later, a successful audition for sponsor Quaker Oats would earn them a berth on NBC’s schedule.  In its twenty-three-year run on radio, Lum and Abner would be heard on all four major networks (NBC, CBS, Mutual, and NBC Blue [which later became ABC]).

Lum and Abner were, respectively, Columbus Edwards (pronounced “Eddards”) and Abner Peabody. The two lovable old codgers owned and operated the “Jot ‘Em Down Store” in the peaceful little Arkansas burg of Pine Ridge.  Their world was a small but lively (and funny) one, filtered through the sensibilities of what their creators affectionately called “hill people.” (They didn’t care for the term “hillbilly.”)  Chet Lauck played Lum, the somewhat more sensible half of the duo, but he was not strictly in the role of “straight man”—he got just as many laughs as his partner-in-crime. He also performed as dimwitted Cedric Weehunt, cantankerous Milford “Grandpappy” Spears, and tough guy Snake Hogan.  Lum and Abner shared some similarities with Amos ‘n’ Andy; both series concentrated on dialect humor, with a slight sprinkling of soap opera elements. However, Lum and Abner eschewed Amos ‘n’ Andy’s true-to-life depiction of the Depression in favor of an absurdist escapism.

In addition to their own program, Chet Lauck and Norris Goff would frequently appear as “Lum and Abner” on various radio charity broadcasts and on shows like Command PerformanceThe Kraft Music HallMail CallThe Radio Hall of Fame, and Sealtest Variety Theatre.  They received a warm welcome whenever they appeared as guests on shows headlined by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, and Paul Whiteman.  March 12, 1945 found them as the main attraction on The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, where that evening’s broadcast was a reworking of their 1943 feature film, So This is Washington.  Beginning in 1940 with Dreaming Out Loud, Lum and Abner were major motion picture stars in a series of productions under independent producer Jack Votion. Their final vehicle, Partners in Time, would be released to theatres in 1946.

Chester Lauck and Norris Goff would appear in one more Lum and Abner feature film entitled Lum and Abner Abroad in 1956—a film that was actually three TV pilots that were stitched together after none of the episodes attracted any sponsors.  Lum and Abner would complete their lengthy radio run in 1954, and Lauck and Goff decided to officially retire a year later.  Chet managed to keep busy; he made appearances on To Tell the Truth (as a contestant!) and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. In fact, for years afterward, he reprised his “Lum” role in his capacity as vice-president of public relations for Conoco Oil.  In the 1970s, when Lum and Abner was rerun on radio stations (as a result of “the nostalgia boom”), Lauck recorded new introductions for those classic episodes.  Chet passed away in 1980 at the age of 78.

I have mentioned so many times in past essays that listening to Lum and Abner during their 70s revival was my introduction to old-time radio, and one of my greatest pleasures in life is being able to slap a cassette or CD into the player to hear “what’s going on down in Pine Ridge.”  Radio Spirits is only too eager to help scratch my Lum and Abner itch, with nine volumes available spotlighting broadcasts that originally aired between 1942-44.  You’ll also find a half-hour broadcast (the comedic duo appeared on CBS in this format from 1948 to 1950) in our all-star mirthmakers compendium Great Radio Comedy.  Happy birthday, Chet!

Happy Birthday, Bennett Kilpack!

During his long-running stint as the titular sleuth on Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, actor Bennett Kilpack—born William Bennett Kilpack on this date in 1883 in Long Melford, Suffolk in the United Kingdom—was so well identified as the “kindly old investigator” that much of his fan mail from loyal listeners was addressed simply to his character’s name.  Those letters came from all walks of life, from teenage girls looking for assistance in finding vanished boyfriends to more serious-minded folk whose spouses (or other relatives) may have gone out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back.  Kilpack’s second wife, Dorothy Young Schisler Kilpack, remembered in a 1949 Radio Mirror essay that there was once “a letter from the Middle West which enclosed, carefully wrapped in waxed paper, twenty-five four-leaf clovers, and one five-leaf—’to bring you continued good luck, dear Mr. Keen, in tracing lost persons and bringing murderers to the bar of justice.’”  Saints preserve us!

Bennett Kilpack, the son of minister William Gilbert Kilpack and Maria Theresia Hennequin, didn’t relocate to this side of the pond until 1908. Prior to this move, his ambition to be an actor manifested itself early on with avid participation in plays performed at the London Oratory School.  So why, upon entering college at Finsbury Technical, did he choose as his vocation electrical engineering?  It seems that Father Kilpack had a poor opinion of the theatrical profession. His son later recalled that his father “gave me to understand that a Kilpack as an actor was a Kilpack better dead!”  Bennett emigrated to Canada to apprentice in a locomotive factory, and later became an engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal.

Kilpack would eventually take up stage work after a search for engineering jobs in the U.S. proved fruitless.  His first acting gig would find him playing Cassio in Othello, but his time on the stage (appearing in productions of Samson and Kismet) would be temporarily interrupted by World War I. When he enlisted in Canada’s Royal Flying Corps, he was made head of the salvage department at a flying field due to his engineering background.  Once demobbed, Bennett returned to acting, securing work with Sir Philip Ben Greet’s Shakespearean troupe.  He would also grace the casts of several Broadway productions, among them Thursday Evening (which he also directed) and Hot Pan.

Bennett Kilpack’s introduction to the medium that made him famous came in 1927, when he played the male lead in an early radio serial called The Wayward Inn.  Radio impresario Phillips H. Lord cast Bennett as Cephus Peters in his popular Sunday Night at Seth Parker’s program, and later made use of the actor’s talents on Gang Busters.  Kilpack’s work on Seth Parker garnered him his sole movie credit, as he reprised his role of Cephus in the 1931 feature Way Back Home.  According to his obituary in the New York Times (upon his passing in 1962), he recommended Bette Davis for a part in that film, which became one of her earliest silver screen showcases.

On radio, Kilpack also made the rounds on such shows as Dr. ChristianThe GoldbergsGrand Central StationRadio GuildRipley’s Believe It or NotThe Shadow, and Vanished Voices.  In addition, Bennett worked on many daytime dramas; he starred as the small-town druggist struggling to keep a watchful eye on his three offspring on CBS’ Doc Barclay’s Daughters, and had substantial roles on David Harum (as James Benson), Hilltop House, and Young Widder Brown (Uncle Josh).  The role that kept our birthday boy the busiest, however, was Mr. Keen.

Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons premiered on NBC Blue as a thrice-weekly quarter-hour that aired in the evenings. It sported a few “soap opera” trappings owing to the fact that it was produced by Anne and Frank Hummert, whose radio “suds factory” was responsible for such shows as Ma Perkins and Our Gal Sunday.  In the early serialized years of the show, Mr. Keen (he apparently never bothered to hunt for his first name) diligently tracked down missing individuals, hired to do so by their friends or family members.  Keen was assisted by Mike Clancy, an Irish bodyguard who wouldn’t be bringing potato salad to the MENSA picnic anytime soon, but nevertheless was the subject of Mr. Keen’s infinite patience and loyalty.

The program’s format switch to a weekly half-hour in the fall of 1944 (it had jumped networks to CBS a year earlier) found Keen and Clancy in more of a murder investigation mode (as opposed to the missing persons racket). Mr. Keen continued to be quite popular with radio listeners…even if some of the methods the duo employed might have raised the antennae of the ACLU.  As I noted in a 2015 essay on Keen’s anniversary: “They rarely reported any of their conversations with witnesses and/or suspects to the police; they trampled crime scenes with little regard for search warrants—they even snatched up objects in evidence, contaminating them with their fingerprints. Keen was even able to arrest the guilty party at the end of each episode, despite having no authority to make such collars.“  But hey—it’s a radio crime drama, not a documentary! Kilpack would play Mr. Keen until 1950…and in 1962, left this world for a better one after succumbing to cancer at the age of 79.

Our 4-CD history of The ShadowThe Story of The Shadow—features a March 30, 1938 broadcast (“The White Legion”). The legendary Orson Welles stars as the invisible hero, but you’ll also hear Bennett Kilpack among that episode’s supporting cast.  Radio Spirits also invites you to check out Celebrated Cases, an 8-CD set with sixteen vintage broadcasts from the show that generated all that fan mail for Mr. Kilpack: Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.  Happy birthday, Bennett!

“The Green Hornet strikes again!”

Though most people remember veteran newsman Mike Wallace from his long-running stint on the television investigative news program 60 Minutes (from 1968 to 2008), old-time radio fans know that Wallace—often using his real name of “Myron”—served as an announcer on such programs as  Curtain TimeA Life in Your Hands, and Spotlight Revue (the variety show starring Spike Jones and His City Slickers).  Wallace also worked as an announcer on Sky King; he had an association with several juvenile-oriented programs during his broadcast career (Ned Jordan, Secret AgentThe Adventurers’ Club)—but perhaps none so famous as the program which premiered over Detroit’s WXYZ on this date in 1936: The Green Hornet.

WXYZ station owner George W. Trendle, anxious to duplicate his success with The Lone Ranger series, decided to create a new hero..  The legend goes that Trendle became obsessed with the concept of a hornet after spending a sleepless night in a hotel room in which just such an insect was trapped…and constantly buzzing. Since The Hornet had been appropriated for a previous radio series, it was decided that adding a color to the title would do the trick. Green, of course.

From its debut, listeners couldn’t help but notice that there were a number of similarities between “the daring and resourceful Masked Rider of the Plains” and the modern-day vigilante who “hunts the biggest of all game—public enemies who try to destroy our America!”  The Ranger’s mode of transportation was “the great horse Silver!” and the Hornet tooled around in a souped-up automobile known as the “Black Beauty.”  The Lone Ranger was accompanied by his trusty Potawatomi sidekick Tonto and the Green Hornet’s aide-de-camp was his faithful Filipino valet Kato. (More than just performing as a “gentleman’s gentleman,” Kato was schooled in chemistry—his boss’ gas gun and smokescreens were among his inventions—and was most adept at the art of physical combat.  In addition, Kato was frequently behind the wheel of the Beauty, zipping up and down city streets with the greatest of ease.)

The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet also shared classical music based theme music…though this can be explained by the fact that using tunes in the public domain meant that WXYZ didn’t have to pay anyone royalties.  Just as it’s difficult to hear Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking of the Ranger astride his steed and Tonto by his side, I defy you to listen to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and not picture the Hornet and Kato in the Black Beauty chasing down bad guys.  Perhaps the most telling parallel between the masked heroes is that both men operated outside the law and were often mistaken for the very villains they sought to apprehend.  In the Lone Ranger’s case, any suspicions that he might be an outlaw could quickly be dispelled by his producing a sample silver bullet.  For the Green Hornet…it was a tougher exercise.

You see, when he wasn’t donning the Hornet gear, our masked hero was Britt Reid—the editor of big city newspaper The Daily Sentinel.  Though Reid could wield influence through his paper, he felt it necessary to take on corruption by posing as the shadowy figure who quickly became the subject of many a Sentinel front page story.  The Hornet’s “outlaw” status gave him an advantage when it came to mixing with underworld figures and other disreputable types…but the trade-off was that law enforcement personnel were convinced that the Hornet was every bit as dangerous as the evildoers he was trying to bring down.

Besides Kato, not many people knew that Britt Reid and The Green Hornet were one and the same. Lenore “Casey” Case, Britt’s loyal secretary, was one of the few exceptions; it took her a few years to put two and two together, but she eventually figured out Reid’s secret.  One individual who would never make the connection—even if Britt wore a sign reading “Yes, I am the Green Hornet”—was Mike Axford, an ex-cop hired by Reid’s father to be Britt’s personal bodyguard.  Axford, an excitable Irishman whose favorite expression was “Sufferin’ snakes!”, eventually become a reporter on the paper (he worked the police beat). He joined other Sentinel employees, like city editor Bill Gunnigan, crack reporter Ed Lowery, and ace photographer Clicker Binney.

Oh, there was one other noteworthy individual who had the skinny on Britt Reid’s alter-ego…and that was Britt’s elderly father, Dan Reid.  If that name sounds familiar…it’s because Dan was the nephew of The Lone Ranger, who rode with the Masked Man during those crimefighting days “in the early Western United States.”  The connection between the Ranger and the Hornet was slowly developed throughout the years, and finally came to a boil with an October-November 1947 story arc (available on the Radio Spirits collection Generations) that cemented the ties between the hard-riding hero of yesteryear and his modern-day counterpart.

Actor Al Hodge—who later achieved boob tube fame as Captain Video—played the Green Hornet in the program’s early years. He became so well-known as the voice of the crimefighter that when Universal brought the Hornet to the silver screen in a 1940 serial they dubbed the actor playing the Hornet (Gordon Jones) with Hodge’s voice.  A. Donovan Faust and Robert Hall also portrayed the masked hero, with Jack McCarthy taking the final shift in the lead role until the show left the airwaves on December 5, 1952.  The Green Hornet has become firmly ingrained in American pop culture, with movie adaptations (a second Hornet serial in 1940 and a rightly-panned feature film in 2011) and a 1966-67 TV series…not to mention comic books, a comic strip, toys, and other merchandising items.

Here at Radio Spirits, we’re in the vintage broadcasts business…and we’ve got plenty of sets on hand for fans of the original radio program.  In addition to Generations, we invite you to while away the hours listening to The Big DealCity Hall ShakeupFights Crime!Night FlightSting of JusticeUnderworld, and (appropriately, considering the title of this blog post) The Green Hornet Strikes Again! Happy anniversary to “that no-good spalpeen, the Har-nut” and remember: our daring young punisher and Kato match wits with the Underworld, risking their lives “so that criminals and racketeers within the law may feel its weight by the sting of the Green Hornet!”