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Happy Birthday, Ezra Stone!


The star of radio’s The Aldrich Family, Ezra Stone, may have portrayed an endearingly awkward teenager over the airwaves…but in real life, his co-star Jackie Kelk (as best buddy Homer Brown) confessed that Stone bore not the slightest resemblance to “Henry Aldrich” in person. As Kelk reminisced in Gerald Nachman’s Raised on Radio, “It was a big shock to people who came to see the show in the studio, because I looked more the [Henry Aldrich] part; I was slight and skinny. Ezra was this fat little man in a vest who smoked cigars.” Fortunately, radio was a medium where looks didn’t matter—the actor who would become famous playing Henry, Ezra Chaim Feinstone, was born on this date in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1917.

ezra12Ezra related in a 1975 interview with radio historian Chuck Schaden that his show business career was can be traced to a debt owed to his father Sol by an actor friend; the elder Stone suggested that his pal work off the amount “in trade” by teaching his son Ezra how to speak. Ezra was able to work around a lifelong lisp as a result of these speech lessons, and began to get parts as a juvenile (at the age of seven) in local plays produced in Philadelphia, where the family had relocated. Stone also began his first appearances on radio on the popular The Children’s Hour, as well as emoting on stage as part of the National Junior Theatre. When he wasn’t working professionally, he attended acting classes at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

ezra11Ezra eventually landed roles in such Broadway hits as Room Service and Brother Rat—but it was while he was serving as a production assistant to impresario George Abbott that he won the part that would make him famous: a trouble-prone lad named Henry Aldrich, the protagonist of Clifford Goldsmith’s What a Life! The success of the show attracted the attention of entertainer Rudy Vallee, who asked Goldsmith to work up an eight-to-ten minute excerpt of the play to present on his popular Thursday night program The Royal Gelatin Hour. After the first sketch was well received, Rudy pressed Cliff for more Aldrich Family playlets—despite Goldsmith’s belief that he had done all he could with the premise. Soon, Kate Smith—whose hour-long variety show also aired on Thursdays—requested that the playwright do the same for her program, and “the Aldrich Family” became a well-received segment on her series during the 1938-39 season.

ezra1Young and Rubicam, needing a summer replacement for The Jack Benny Program, pressed The Aldrich Family into service in 1939 as a half-hour sitcom…and when Jack returned in the fall, so did Henry and his folks. The Aldrich Family became one of radio’s highest-rated comedies, centering around a young adolescent whose best intentions often gave way to complete catastrophe by the end of the half-hour, with his parents Sam (a lawyer, played by House Jameson) and Alice (Katharine Raht for most of the show’s run) looking helplessly on; it’s no secret that his weekly misadventures were often introduced by an announcer remarking on “the troubles of Henry Aldrich.”

ezra3Henry Aldrich was the role Ezra Stone was born to play—though he relinquished the part to several replacements during his hitch with Uncle Sam during World War II (Norman Tokar, Dickie Jones and Raymond Ives all got their opportunities to play Centerville’s favorite son). Stone picked up where he left off in November of 1945 and continued to convulse audiences with his puberty-cracked voice until 1951. Bobby Ellis played Henry during the show’s last season on radio (1952-53), probably because he was already doing so on the television version. TV presented a problem for “the fat little man in a vest who smoked cigars.” Ezra wasn’t going to be able to play Henry when The Aldrich Family transitioned to the small screen—but that didn’t preclude him from writing for the series, and directing several episodes of the program as well. Stone had kept busy in the theater world during his radio gig, appearing on Broadway in the likes of The Alchemist and She Stoops to Conquer, and directing hits like Me and Molly and At War with the Army.

ezra13Because his movie career was fleeting—Ezra appeared in only two feature films, Those Were the Days! (1940) and a brief bit as himself in This is the Army (1943)—Stone started a second career behind the camera as a director, helming installments of such classic television hits as I Married Joan, Bachelor Father, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Munsters, Lost in Space and Julia. Stone was also producer on The Hathaways, a short-lived sitcom in which Jack Weston and Peggy Cass played papa and mama to The Marquis Chimps. Still, it’s hard to completely abandon the greasepaint: the actor in Ezra circulated as a guest star on such shows as Hawaiian Eye, Emergency! and Quincy, M.E.

ezra10In his twilight years, Ezra slowed down a bit to enjoy married life with his wife Sara Seegar—an actress who’s perhaps best remembered as “the second Mrs. Wilson” (Eloise) in the final season of TV’s Dennis the Menace. The two of them sponsored a number of acting workshops, with the expressed purpose of training aspiring thespians to learn the craft. Stone also donated generously of his time to reminisce with new generations of old-time radio fans, notably in a 1976 television special entitled The Good Old Days of Radio, which also featured performers like Edgar Bergen, Dennis Day, Jim “Fibber McGee” Jordan and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

20465Ezra figures prominently in The Great Radio Comedians, one of the first essential books on the subject of old-time radio comedy (written by beloved author-historian Jim Harmon) that can be yours for a mere pittance here at Radio Spirits. You’ll also enjoy listening to a classic Halloween excursion of The Aldrich Family from 1940 on the holiday set Happy Halloween! But to really get your fill of the program that made our birthday boy famous, check out our Aldrich Family collection—with a program guide written by an author who…well, modesty forbids me from pontificating on his brilliance. (Okay, I may be a tad biased about that last part.)

Happy Birthday, Richard Crenna!


The go-to actor for radio’s squeaky-voiced adolescents was born in Los Angeles, California on this date in 1926. Richard “Dick” Crenna established his bona fides in the aural medium with co-starring roles on such sitcom favorites as A Date with Judy, The Great Gildersleeve…and the series that cemented his stardom, Our Miss Brooks. Crenna would migrate from the radio version to that show’s boob tube cousin, and enjoy a consistent career as both an actor and occasional director to boot.

crenna12An only child, Richard was the son of a hotel manager (his mother Edith) and pharmacist (pop Domenick)…and while attending high school, acquired an interest in performing on radio that led him to be cast on a program called Boy Scout Jamboree. Upon graduation, Crenna “did his bit” in World War II as a radioman, where he saw combat duty in both The Battle of the Bulge and in the Pacific Theater. After the war, he attended the University of Southern California to major in English—but continued his work in radio, most famously as Oogie Pringle, the daffy boyfriend of the titular heroine (Judy Foster) on the popular A Date with Judy.

crenna17Richard also found steady work on The Great Gildersleeve as Bronco Thompson, the boyfriend of Marjorie Forrester, Gildy’s niece. The two of them later tied the knot in a memorable May 10, 1950 broadcast (available on the Radio Spirits Gildersleeve collection Marjorie’s Wedding). Crenna also appeared occasionally on George Burns and Gracie Allen’s show as a lovesick teenager named Waldo, and made the rounds on such comedy programs as The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, My Favorite Husband, The Hardy Family and The Harold Peary Show. In later years, Crenna referenced a radio critic who once railed about the plethora of teenage nerds that dominated the airwaves at that time—the actor wasn’t entirely certain if his detractor knew he was playing most of the parts. But Richard wouldn’t be tied down to just juvenile roles; among the other series on which he emoted: The Adventures of the Saint, Broadway’s My Beat, The CBS Radio Workshop, Fort Laramie, Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel, Night Beat, Romance, Suspense, This is Your FBI, You Were There and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

crenna13Be that as it may, it was the teen nerd persona that catapulted Richard Crenna to radio immortality: the role of Walter Denton, Connie Brooks’ student confidant (and co-conspirator) on the popular sitcom Our Miss Brooks. As Walter, Crenna demonstrated immaculate comic timing as the well-intentioned dweeb whose loyalty to his favorite English teacher (played by Eve Arden) often meant entanglement in her battles against autocratic school principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon). Of course, Walter had a vested interest in these situations—he was dating Conklin’s daughter Harriet (Gloria McMillan, Anne Whitfield). Richard made the transition with most of the cast when Our Miss Brooks became a hit on the small screen (save for the series’ last season on TV)…and appeared in the 1956 silver screen adaptation as well.

crenna3Richard became so identified as Walter Denton that it presented a few problems when he auditioned for the sitcom that would become his second solid TV success, The Real McCoys. The producers of that iconic hit wanted a more “manly” thespian in the role of Luke McCoy, and not the famous nerd that Crenna made popular on OMB. But Richard demonstrated he had the acting chops to change his image, and enjoyed much success on that program for six seasons. After McCoys, he was ready to try something completely different: an hour-long drama in which he played a state legislator named James Slattery in Slattery’s People. Though the program was one of the most critically-acclaimed offerings of the 1964-65 season, audience response was rather tepid; CBS gave it a reprieve for a short-lived second season before finally throwing in the towel. Slattery’s People did garner two Emmy Award nominations for Crenna for his performance…but the actor would have to wait for his Emmy triumph until 1985, when he won a trophy for the TV-movie The Rape of Richard Beck.

crenna7By this point in his career, Richard Crenna was beginning to make a name for himself as a distinguished movie actor as well. He earned praise for his turns in The Sand Pebbles (1966) and Wait Until Dark (1967), and memorably played one of three doomed astronauts in the 1969 film Marooned. His other notable film credits include Breakheart Pass (1975), Body Heat (1981) and The Flamingo Kid (1984); in this latter film he played a flashy salesman who becomes a role model for young Matt Dillon…and in one scene shows Dillon his new remote control television, flipping past a rerun of The Real McCoys in an amusing in-joke. Perhaps the most popular showcase for Richard was his role as Colonel Sam Trautman in the first three movies of the Rambo series (beginning with First Blood in 1982); he would later spoof this character as—wait for it—Colonel Denton Walters in Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993). (I laughed so hard at this when I saw the comedy in a movie theater that my sister threatened to walk out because she was embarrassed.)

crenna4While Richard Crenna was appearing on The Real McCoys, he decided to have a go at working behind the camera…and he not only directed a handful of McCoys outings, but installments from such series as The Andy Griffith Show, Lou Grant and The Rockford Files as well, in addition to a number of TV-movies. Richard was never able to duplicate the television series longevity he established on Brooks and McCoys, but he certainly made a go of it with roles on the likes of All’s Fair, It Takes Two, Pros and Cons and Judging Amy—the series on which he had a recurring part (as Jared Duff) before his death in 2003 at the age of 76.

20523The producers of Hot Shots! Part Deux reportedly asked Richard’s agent before they offered him the role in their movie: can Crenna do comedy? Radio Spirits knows the answer to that all too well, which is why we offer such Great Gildersleeve collections as the previously mentioned Marjorie’s Wedding and laugh-packed broadcasts on A Date with Judy. Richard Crenna is present and accounted for in the Our Miss Brooks sets Boynton Blues and Good English as well (we also have on hand a DVD featuring a pair of Brooks TV broadcasts). If you’re a sharp-eared listener, you’ll also hear Crenna on Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way), The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint is Heard) and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Phantom Chases)! Happy birthday to one of our radio and television favorites!

Happy Birthday, Judy Canova!


At the height of her popularity in the 1940s, Judy Canova—born in Starke, Florida on this date in 1913—started a pigtails-and-calico fad among female students on college campuses. Juliette Canova, whose mother Henrietta Perry was also a singer, had serious aspirations in the field of music…and in my opinion, had the pipes to pull it off. However, because her early vaudeville career consisted of singing and yodeling with her siblings Annie and Zeke (as The Three Canovas)—not to mention her brief marriage to Bob Burns (a.k.a. “The Arkansas Traveler”) in the 1930s—Judy was destined instead to become America’s favorite female hillbilly in radio, movies and TV.

canovas2Judy, Annie and Zeke got their start in various nightclubs in the Florida area before hitting the big time at The Village Barn in Manhattan. Their efforts soon landed them a spot in the Broadway stage revue Calling All Stars, and the Canovas attracted the attention of Rudy Vallee, who arranged for them to appear on his Fleischmann Hour in 1933. The three siblings then moved from The Vagabond Lover to The King of Jazz—none other than Paul Whiteman, whose Musical Varieties program welcomed them from 1936-37. The Canovas also made regular appearances in the fall of 1938 on The Chase & Sanborn Hour, the popular Sunday night variety hour that launched ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and dummy Charlie McCarthy to prominence.

judycanova11In addition to their radio work, the Canova siblings began appearing together in feature films—they’re among the specialty acts in the 1935 Warner Bros. picture In Caliente, and they also turned up in a number of Paramount movies like Artists and Models (1937) and Thrill of a Lifetime (1937). When Judy went out on her own as a solo act, she signed a contract with Republic Pictures. For many years, she would be that studio’s bread-and-butter with box office attractions like Scatterbrain (1940), Sis Hopkins (1941) and Joan of Ozark (1942). (Her last film for Republic was 1955’s Lay That Rifle Down, ending a most fruitful fifteen-year partnership with the studio best known for B-Westerns and serials,)

canovashow2In the fall of 1943, Judy launched her most successful radio venture with the appropriately titled The Judy Canova Show (though it was briefly known as Rancho Canova). It ran on CBS for a season, sponsored by Colgate, then moved to NBC in January of 1945 and continued there until May of 1953. The program featured Canova as a country girl transplanted from the mythical hamlet of “Cactus Junction” to Southern California, where she lived with her Aunt Aggie (played at times by Verna Felton and Ruth Perrott) and maid Geranium (Ruby Dandridge). The material on the show was corn as high as an elephant’s eye (though it featured Judy singing both novelty and serious numbers), but is best remembered for its impressive cast of radio pros: Hans Conried (as complaining boarder Mr. Hemingway); Sheldon Leonard (as Joe Crunchmiller, Judy’s cabbie boyfriend); Gerald Mohr (as Humphrey Cooper) and Joseph Kearns (as Benchley Botsford). Gale Gordon, Elvia Allman, George Neise and Sharon Douglas also made occasional appearances.

canovashow1The Judy Canova Show is also remembered for showcasing the work of the one-and-only Mel Blanc…as if he didn’t have enough work in radio at that time. Mel’s primary character was Pedro, Judy’s gardener, who popularized the oft-repeated catchphrase “Pardon me for talking in your face, senorita…” Mel also did double duty as Roscoe Wortle, a fast-talking salesman, and Sylvester—a character whose name and spray-when-he-talked voice were later adopted for the famous Warner Brothers cartoon cat. Mel also recycled Pedro’s voice to use for the same studio’s lightning-quick rodent Speedy Gonzales…and in addition, fell back on Pedro when he voiced the Frito-Lay mascot The Frito Bandito in a series of commercials in the 1970s. (Audiences had become a bit more enlightened by that time, and the ads were quickly pulled after objections were raised by those who felt the stereotype was a bit much.) In later years, Mel and Judy would do a “Ma and Pa” sketch in the latter half of her program.

judycanova5Because The Judy Canova Show was a popular Saturday night institution, it was often heavily promoted in tandem with A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, a comedy show also sponsored by Colgate. And years after the show left the airwaves, audiences can still sing the lyrics of Judy’s closing theme:

Go to sleep-y, little baby
Go to sleep-y, little baby
When you wake
You’ll patty-patty cake
And ride a shiny little pony

19972Even before her radio program signed off in 1953, Judy Canova began making inroads on the small screen—with guest appearances on popular shows headlined by Milton Berle and Red Skelton, and roles on such favorites as Make Room for Daddy, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Love, American Style. Her final TV appearance was in a 1977 episode of The Love Boat. Content in retirement (and proud of her daughter Diana, who at that time was a cast member on the TV sitcom Soap), Judy passed away in 1983 at the age of 69.

My colleague Ben Ohmart is the author of a very good book about today’s birthday girl. Judy Canova: Singin’ in the Corn—which is available for purchase from Radio Spirits. Plus, you can also check out a December 21, 1946 broadcast of her popular radio sitcom on the RS collection The Voices of Christmas Past. Why not spend some time with the gal affectionately known to her fans as “The Ozark Nightingale” in honor of her natal anniversary?

Review: The Phantom Thief (1946)


Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris…who later explains to a character in the film that he’s “of the Philadelphia Blackies”) returns to his humble bachelor environs to find a note from his loyal sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone)—who apparently has gone to the aid of a friend in need. That friend is ex-con Eddie Alexander (Murray Alper), who’s employed by a wealthy couple as a chauffeur…and the female half of that coupling, Anne Parks Duncan (Jeff Donnell), has given him an assignment to ransack an office for some valuable “papers.” Opening the leather case containing this paperwork, all three men are astonished to find a diamond necklace!

thief9Knowing that he’ll soon get a visit from Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) if he retains possession of the hot ice, Blackie takes Runt and Eddie to where Eddie grifted the case—the offices of spiritualist Dr. Nejino (Marvin Miller). In questioning the mystic, Blackie is clued in on Anne’s history (Nejino remarks she’s a bit “unstable”)…and our hero also learns that Anne and husband Rex (Wilton Graff) will be stopping by for a séance, where Nejino will contact the spirit of Anne’s dear, departed father. Blackie, Runt and Eddie are cordially invited to sit in on the séance—however, things do not go according to plan. When the lights go up after the attempt to contact Anne’s pop has failed…Eddie winds up well-prepared to have a one-on-one conversation with the deceased!

thief8The third of three films in Columbia’s Boston Blackie movie franchise that does not have “Boston Blackie” in its title (the others are The Chance of a Lifetime [1943] and One Mysterious Night [1944]), The Phantom Thief (1946) is a rather uninspired entry, with an all-too-familiar plot line involving a phony spiritualist racket and a series of murders. The bright spot is that charlatan Dr. Nejino is played by an actor who will probably be quite familiar to old-time radio fans; Marvin Miller served as an announcer on a number of shows including The Whistler, Duffy’s Tavern and Songs by Sinatra. (Miller would later achieve TV immortality as the narrator on the long-running The F.B.I. and as Michael Anthony, the man who handed out John Beresford Tipton’s checks on The Millionaire.) Sadly, the scenes involving the séance fakery are a bit disappointing, and seem to serve only as a backdrop for some tired “scare comedy” involving The Runt (and later Detective Sergeant Matthews, played by Frank Sully).

thief11The highlight of Thief is an amusing sequence in which Blackie manages to elude Farraday’s attempts to nab him for a crime he didn’t commit by getting himself pinched by an Irish cop named McGonagle (Tom Dillon)—our hero pretends he’s intoxicated and is thrown into the “drunk tank” overnight in Farraday’s own precinct. The next morning, Blackie is ordered to do a little “tidying up” to pay for his room and board…so he goes about polishing various brass fixtures (wearing dark sunglasses as a disguise) under Farraday’s very nose! Blackie then contacts his friendly nemesis on a pay phone in the same station, and due to his sunglasses goes completely unrecognized by the dimmer-than-dim Matthews.

thief10Blackie has two untrustworthy females to deal with in The Phantom Thief: one of them answers to “Sandra” (Dusty Anderson), an accomplice of Dr. Nejino’s who arranges for Blackie and Runt to be the main suspects in the murder of Nejino’s associate, Dr. Purcell Nash (Forbes Murray). The other is Anne Duncan herself, played by Columbia starlet Jeff Donnell (The Boogie Man Will Get You, Nine Girls); Donnell is familiar for roles in such film noirs as In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Blue Gardenia (1953), and was previously seen here on the blog in The Power of the Whistler (1945). (Donnell would later play wife Alice on George Gobel’s popular comedy-variety TV series in the 1950s.) As Anne, Donnell gets an unintended chuckle when she asks for Blackie and The Runt’s help as the two of them hide from the police in her car; “If only I was sure…” she begins before The Runt adds “…I could trust you.”

“How did you know I was going to say that?” Anne asks. “They all do,” returns The Runt. “Dames are always telling Blackie they can trust them.” This is a bit of a wink at the fact that in the Boston Blackie movies, our heroes would often be double-crossed by the damsels in distress to which they offered assistance (and not to give anything away, but Anne turns out to be on the side of the angels).

morris-ledermanThe Phantom Thief was helmed by director D. Ross Lederman, a man described by his fellow B-picture director Edward Bernds as a “bull in a china shop” when it came to his talent behind the camera (in his defense, D. Ross excelled at action sequences where the stuntmen were forced to carry the load). Lederman was by all accounts not an easy individual to get along with (he directed many of Tim McCoy’s oaters for Columbia in the 1930s, and frequently clashed with the star), but his propensity for cranking them out on time and under budget earned him respect from the studio brass. Lederman also directed the next entry in the Boston Blackie series, Boston Blackie and the Law (1946), and also held the reins on the final film in the Whistler series, The Return of the Whistler (1948).

20588So join us here at Radio Spirits next month when we’ll have the skinny on Boston Blackie and the Law, an outing that may seem familiar to those of you who’ve seen Alias Boston Blackie (1942)…but allows amateur magician Chester Morris to once again display some impressive feats of prestidigitation. In the meantime, you can listen to Morris and his Blackie co-star Richard Lane in select broadcasts from 1944 if you purchase the Blackie collection Outside the Law…which also features episodes starring Richard Kollmar and Maurice (The Mysterious Traveler) Tarplin!

Happy Birthday, Norman Macdonnell!


One of old-time radio’s most important—and inarguably, most creative—director-producers was born ninety-eight years ago on this date. A native of Pasadena, CA, Norman Macdonnell would use his experiences during World War II—he was among the many who stormed the beaches at France’s Normandy Beach on D-Day—throughout his distinguished radio and television career. He was hired by CBS as an assistant director in the mid-1940s, and quickly worked his way up to the ranks of director, guiding such programs as The City and the classic adventure anthology Escape.

macdonnell2Escape was a most prestigious assignment for Macdonnell. Produced by William N. Robson, Escape was kind of a neglected “kid sister” to the more popular Suspense series (which Norm Macdonnell later worked as a director during the 1949-50 and 1953-54 seasons), but that certainly didn’t mean that it measured any less in terms of quality. Escape told tales of “high adventure” and, though it may not have possessed the star wattage of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” it featured powerhouse acting from the true professionals in the medium: artists who hailed from what was commonly referred to as “Radio Row.” Performers such as Parley Baer, Harry Bartell, William Conrad, Hans Conreid, John Dehner, Lawrence Dobkin, Sam Edwards, Jeanette Nolan and Vic Perrin were just a few of the many who plied their trade on the series and, not coincidentally, these same thespians would work on future Macdonnell-supervised series as well.

mohr21Norm was also made director-producer of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, a show that had originally aired on NBC in the summer of 1947 as a replacement for The Bob Hope Show—with actor Van Heflin in the role of Raymond Chandler’s literary fictional shamus. When CBS resurrected Philip Marlowe in the fall of 1948, Gerald Mohr had taken over as the detective—something that pleased its creator (Chandler wasn’t a fan of Heflin’s interpretation), who remarked that Mohr’s gumshoe “at least packed personality.” The Adventures of Philip Marlowe was broadcast on the Tiffany network for two seasons (and a final re-appearance in the summer of 1951). I’ve argued with many about whether Mohr was the right actor for the job (I think Mohr was strongest in supporting parts), but the show remains important for what it ultimately brought about. CBS chairman William S. Paley was a Marlowe fan, and suggested to both Norm and CBS director of programming Harry Ackerman that they develop a “Philip Marlowe in the Old West.”

macdonnell3That show would eventually reach the airwaves as Gunsmoke, Macdonnell’s best-known contribution to Radio’s Golden Age. Even before its debut on April 26, 1952, Norm was laying the groundwork for the phrase he would be credited for coining: “adult western.” He did so in tandem with writer John Meston, who had contributed a script to Escape (broadcast on December 22, 1950) entitled “Wild Jack Rhett.” Another building block in the creation of Gunsmoke was “Pagosa,” a script also penned by Meston and broadcast on August 6, 1951 on radio’s Romance, a series on which Macdonnell also toiled as director-producer. With Gunsmoke, both Macdonnell and Meston ushered in a new breed of radio western that was a far cry from the juvenile adventure days of The Lone Ranger and Wild Bill Hickok. The stories were depicted with a gritty realism, where happy endings were scarce. Matt Dillon, the show’s “hero” (portrayed by Bill Conrad), was a man whose devotion to doing a tough job could make him unsympathetic at times…but all-too-human as well.

macdonnell6The success of Gunsmoke led eventually to a television adaptation…and CBS, who owed the program’s popularity to the hard work of Macdonnell, writer Meston and the superlative radio cast and crew, decided to put Norm in charge of the small screen version as well. I’m kidding, of course; they handed the TV show’s reins over to Charles Marquis Warren (who later became the creator of TV’s Rawhide) for the program’s inaugural season (though, wisely, they brought Meston over as story editor) before promoting Macdonnell (who was the associate producer in Season One) to the job in Gunsmoke’s sophomore season. Is it any wonder that the second season is when the show began its phenomenal run of audience popularity—appearing in the Top Ten before becoming #1 in the Nielsen ratings from 1957-61?

laramie1While Macdonnell was seated on the sidelines as Warren supervised his “baby,” the director-producer created a second classic radio western in Fort Laramie. Laramie, a series that depicted the harsh and often challenging experiences of soldiers on a U.S. Army post in the 1880’s, utilized many of the performers who appeared on Gunsmoke, and its creative team as well. Sadly, it lasted barely a season – but it did provide future generations with truly compelling radio. Macdonnell was also in charge in the early days of Have Gun – Will Travel when the hit TV series enjoyed a brief transition to radio from 1958 to 1960.

Norm’s stint as producer of TV’s Gunsmoke lasted until the end of the 1964-65 season; the show had dipped substantially in the ratings, and it was thought that some “new blood” would revitalize the program’s fortunes (as it turns out, all Gunsmoke needed was a new time slot…which propelled the warhorse back into TV’s Top Ten). Norm worked on The Kraft Suspense Theatre for a season, but it’s unquestionably his work on The Virginian that’s as accessible to audiences today as Gunsmoke. Norm served as the executive producer of TV’s first ninety-minute oater until The Virginian ended its run in 1971 (as The Men from Shiloh); during that time he also produced The Road West, a western that ran briefly in the 1966-67 season and starred Barry Sullivan as the patriarch of a pioneer family headed for the Kansas territory. (Perhaps they ran into Marshal Dillon on their way out there?)

20547Norman Macdonnell died on November 28, 1979 at the age of 63. His work in radio is defined by a stamp of quality that modern-day listeners cannot ignore: Escape, Suspense, Philip Marlowe, Romance, Fort Laramie and of course, Gunsmoke. Macdonnell also worked on such series as The Lux Radio Theatre and The Bakers’ Theatre of Stars, and indulged his lighter side on the likes of Life with Luigi, Honest Harold (The Hal Peary Show) and Rogers of the Gazette. Why not celebrate the birthday of one of radio’s indisputable creative geniuses—we have the Escape collection Escape to the High Seas ready to purchase, not to mention Fort Laramie Volume Two, Romance, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe; plus episodes of Rogers of the Gazette in Stop the Press! and Honest Harold in our Yuletide collection The Voices of Christmas Past. Check out our Suspense collections Ties That Bind and Omnibus as well!

Inner Sanctum at the movies


In 1943, Universal Pictures was reaping the rewards from a revived horror movie cycle, so the studio decided in June of that year to ink a deal with Simon and Schuster to institute a film series based upon the publishing company’s popular “Inner Sanctum” novels…much in the same way that S&S agreed to let producer Himan Brown fashion a radio program (Inner Sanctum Mysteries) with the same name. Both the novels and the radio series were quite popular…though curiously, Universal did not use any of the novels or scripts from the show, just the “Inner Sanctum” name. Actor Lon Chaney, Jr., who was under contract to Universal and was beginning to chafe at having to play one monster after another, would star in the brief series of six films—though one could charitably say he was miscast in all of them.

drdeath1Still, the Inner Sanctum movie franchise got off to a promising start with Calling Dr. Death (1943), which cast Lon, Jr. as renowned neurologist Mark Steele. Steele subscribes to the then-radical therapy of hypnosis, with which he’s been able to work wonders with his patients. The doc is ga-ga for his nurse, Stella Madden (Patricia Morison), who is most reciprocal in her romantic attentions. But Mark has an unfaithful wife named Maria (Ramsay Ames), who refuses to relinquish her (sorry about this) Steele-like grip on him. At the end of a “lost weekend,” Maria has been discovered murdered at Mark’s lodge (both beaten to death with a poker and then disfigured with acid)—and Mark has no memory of what happened during that previous forty-eight hours due to a blackout. Intrepid Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish of Life With Luigi fame) pursues suspect Steele with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier.

drdeath4Calling Dr. Death is certainly not without its merits—both Morison and Naish turn in fine performances. Morison was sort of the “poor man’s Gale Sondergaard,” which is interesting in that Sondergaard was originally slated to play opposite Lon in all of the Inner Sanctum films. Most of the film’s problems can be traced to its star, who was never that convincing in the leading man parts he played in all six movies. Lon [Creighton] may have been the son of Lon Chaney, but Junior had a rather limited thespic ability. He was very good in movies like Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Wolf Man (1941), but was much better in character roles like those in High Noon (1952) and The Defiant Ones (1958). Director Reginald LeBorg does what he can with the tools that he’s got—there’s a great nightmarish montage toward the end of the film that plays out in the mind of the real murderer—but he’s handicapped by both Chaney’s performance and a pedestrian script.

weird2The Inner Sanctum franchise took a tremendous upswing with the second entry, Weird Woman (1944)—my personal pick as the best in the movie series. Chaney is still a liability as Norman Reed, a college professor who returns from the South Seas (studying native superstitions for a book he’s writing) with a new bride (Anne Gwynne) in tow. This news sort of unnerves his former girlfriend Ilona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), who cattily stirs up a hornet’s nest of trouble by inadvertently causing the suicide of one of Reed’s colleagues (Ralph Morgan, who’s accused of plagiarism) and getting the jealous boyfriend (Phil Morgan) of his intern (Lois Collier) all worked up to the point where the boyfriend is killed in a struggle with Reed and the prof ends up accused of murder. Ankers, Universal’s “Scream Queen,” effectively plays against type as the villainess of the piece (she goes stark raving mad in the last ten minutes of the film—and receives a nasty comeuppance for being such a schemer in the first place). Elisabeth Russell (the memorable dame who calls Simone Simon “Moya Sestra” in 1942’s Cat People) practically walks off with the movie as Ralph Morgan’s ambitious, manipulative wife. Woman was adapted from Fritz Leiber’s classic horror novel Conjure Wife, and was later remade as the even better Burn, Witch Burn! (1962, a.k.a. Night of the Eagle) and the head-scratchingly offbeat Witches’ Brew (1980).

eyes6Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), the third movie, casts Lon, Jr. as a painter who’s blinded in a freak accident, courtesy of a breathtakingly beautiful model played by Acquanetta (whose acting is even worse than Chaney’s). The father (Edward Fielding) of Chaney’s fiancée (Jean Parker) wills his own eyes to Lon in the event of his death…and an unknown somebody brings about this bequest earlier than expected by dispatching dear old “Dad” to the happy hunting ground. Once again, a great supporting cast—which also includes Paul Kelly, Thomas Gomez (as yet another dedicated detective) and Jonathan Hale—adds the only life to this tepid entry, which bears a strong similarity to “The King of Darkness,” an Inner Sanctum radio broadcast first heard on October 11, 1942 and featuring Claude Rains.

ghost2Number four, The Frozen Ghost (1945), easily wins the prize as the worst movie of the half-dozen Inner Sanctum films. As (Alex) Gregor the Great, Lon is a mentalist who’s convinced himself that he’s responsible for the death of an audience member (Arthur Hohl) who volunteered to be hypnotized during a radio broadcast. His business manager (Milburn Stone) suggests he have a little R&R at a wax museum run by curator Tala Birell. Alex finds plenty of mischief to get into there, including matching wits with a creepy ex-plastic surgeon (played by Martin Kosleck, the silver screen’s favorite Nazi officer) now in charge of the wax figures. Evelyn Ankers has a second go-round as Gregor’s fiancée, but the movie actually seems longer than its running time of 61 minutes—it’s that painful.

confession1Strange Confession (1945), entry number five, was for many years not included in Universal’s “Shock Theater” package—the bundle of the studio’s classic horror films sold to television syndication—because it was a remake of their 1934 production The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (with Claude Rains), and the contract with playwright Jean Bart neglected to include any films beyond the original. But Confession was eventually released on VHS in the 1990s, and along with Weird Woman it’s one of the better Inner Sanctum films. Chemist Jeffrey Carter (Lon) works for Roger Graham (J. Carrol Naish—again), whose pharmaceutical company is obsessed with little more than the bottom line. Graham sends Carter to South America (with partner Lloyd Bridges in tow) basically so he can make time with Mrs. Carter (Brenda Joyce, who played Jane in a few of the RKO Tarzans). In the meantime, Graham arranges for Carter’s wonder drug to be released on the market without being fully tested…and Jeff’s young son dies of influenza as a result. Though the denouement of this movie is telegraphed in advance by director John Hoffman, it’s not a bad little programmer. Old-time radio fans might get a kick out of seeing Naish’s later Life with Luigi co-star, Jody Gilbert, in a brief bit as a customer in a pharmacy where Chaney works.

pillow4The final Inner Sanctum entry, Pillow of Death (1945), might have been an appropriate instrument to use on the struggling franchise by this time. As attorney Wayne Fletcher, Lon, Jr. is accused of the suffocation death of his harpy of a wife Vivian…and several other pillow murders besides. His secretary Donna (the return of Brenda Joyce) naturally believes in his innocence…her aunt Belle (Clara Blandick) isn’t so sure, but it makes no never mind since she and husband Sam (George Cleveland, the best thing in the picture) are two of the aforementioned pillow murder victims. It takes an iron constitution to sit through this one…if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s murder. (Pillow bears the distinction of being the only movie in the series that does not feature the opening narration of David Hoffman, whose disembodied head inside a crystal ball would intone: “This is the Inner Sanctum…a strange, fantastic world controlled by a mass of living, pulsating flesh…the mind! It destroys…distorts…creates monsters…commits murder…yes, even you, without knowing…can commit murder…”)

20749In an essay (“Half a Dozen Frights: The Inner Sanctum Movies”) penned by film historian Gregory William Mank for Martin Grams, Jr.’s authoritative Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door, Mank writes: “Universal’s Inner Sanctum potboilers never came close to approaching the creativity, assurance and nightmarish potency of the radio show, nor the goose-pimply power of the pulps.” I’ll be the first to admit that the films aren’t great cinema (a mustachioed Lon Chaney, Jr. is generally Clark Gable gone to seed), but the radio show didn’t always hit one out of the park, either. I think the Universal movies capture the flavor of Inner Sanctum Mysteries quite well: the melodramatic plots (as much as I love Weird Woman, it’s lip-smackingly-over-the-top), stream-of-consciousness monologues (often emanating from star Chaney) and liberal use of organ music on the soundtracks. All six films have been released on a 2-disc DVD set entitled Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection. You’ll find plenty of the aural Sanctum (the movies weren’t allowed to use the famous creaking door) on Radio Spirits’ new collection, Great Radio Horror and previous Inner Sanctum collections like Romance Gone Wrong and No Rest for the Dead. Until next time…pleasant dreeeeeeams?

Review: Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)


One thing you can say about Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary): his political ambitions are boundless, and in the 1944 film comedy Gildersleeve’s Ghost he’s determined to advance from his present position as Summerfield’s water commissioner to Summerfield’s police commissioner. It’s not proving to be an easy task; the current man in the job, Commissioner Haley (Emory Parnell), has been there for a dozen years and though Gildy is trying his best he’s lagging behind in the polls.

ghost5But The Great Man gets an otherworldly assist from the spirits of two of his ancestors: Randolph Q, Gildersleeve and his nephew Jonathan (both played by Peary). The ghostly Gildersleeves know that at nearby Wagstaff Manor, dotty scientist Dr. John Wells (Frank Reicher) is working on an experiment involving invisibility—once perfected, he’ll use it on a gorilla subject (the first of many more to come) to create an invincible army. Wells and assistant Lennox (Joseph Vitale) have already tested the formula on a chorus girl named Terry Vance (Marion Martin), who has a tendency to appear and reappear at various times. Randolph and Jonathan hatch a plan whereupon they’ll let the gorilla out of his cage to terrorize Summerfield…and Gildy will naturally step up to the plate to capture the beast, thus ensuring his election win.

ghost4To paraphrase an observation often made on his radio program…this looks like it’s going to be one of Gildersleeve’s bad days. Gildy has his hands full trying to convince his druggist pal Peavey (Richard LeGrand) and Paley that there actually is an ape. A series of mishaps result in those three men—along with Gildy’s niece Marjorie (Margie Stewart), nephew Leroy (Freddie Mercer) and housekeeper Birdie Lee Coggins (Lillian Randolph)—having to spend the night in Wagstaff Manor. There, Wells and Terry prove quite successful in convincing Throcky’s family and friends that the cheese has slid off his cracker.

greatgildersleeve3Old-time radio fans know that before Hal Peary went off on his own in the sitcom spin-off The Great Gildersleeve, he was a regular on Fibber McGee & Molly as the obstreperous neighbor of the McGees. But the Gildersleeve character was too popular just to be contained at 81 Wistful Vista. Peary played Throckmorton in a number of feature films: Comin’ Round the Mountain (1940—as Mayor Gildersleeve!), County Fair (1941), and a movie reviewed previously here on the blog, Seven Days’ Leave (1942). He also appears in the Fibber & Molly/Bergen & McCarthy vehicles Look Who’s Laughing [1941] and Here We Go Again [1942]—even though he had already relocated to Summerfield by then. The success of all these films inspired RKO to institute a series of B-films with Hal as his popular character, beginning with the appropriately titled The Great Gildersleeve in 1942.

ghost1Gildersleeve’s Ghost was the last of these “Gildersleeve” romps, and was directed by Gordon Douglas—who helmed all four programmers in the Gildy franchise. Douglas began his movie career as a child actor and worked at Hal Roach Studios for a number of years, as both a gag writer and directing shorts in the Our Gang series (he even helmed the kiddie troupe’s solo foray into feature films, 1936’s General Spanky). Gordon would later go on to sit in the director’s chair on such movies as Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), Them! (1954) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). Robert E. Kent, who handled story and screenplay duties on the previous Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943—my pick for the best in the series), also tackled the same on Ghost…and later worked on radio-themed movies such as Radio Stars on Parade (1945) and It’s a Joke, Son! (1947).

ghost6So I’m going to be honest—this movie is not Blithe Spirit. Kent’s screenplay for Ghost is pretty much your standard “scare comedy” material, but it does get a boost from impressive special effects (for a B-picture) and enthusiastic performances from its players. The problem with the Gildersleeve movies is that RKO only availed themselves of three of the principle performers from the radio series: Peary, Legrand and Randolph (who appeared in all four). Child actor Freddie Mercer replaced Walter Tetley as Leeeeeroy in the Gildersleeve movies, and was never really able to convey Tetley’s endearing rambunctiousness as Gildy’s skeptical nephew. (Tetley does make an appearance, however, as a pugnacious bellhop in Broadway.) Margie Stewart is okay as Marjorie (she replaced the actress who played Marj in the previous Gildy romp, Margaret Landry), but she’s certainly no Lurene Tuttle. He’s not billed in the credits, but Earle Ross appears briefly in Ghost in the role he played on the program, Judge Horace Hooker (Hooker was played by Charles Arnt in the first two Gildersleeve films)—possibly making Ghost the winner when it comes to featuring the most performers from the radio incarnation. (Ken Christy, who played Chief Gates on the show, is in a couple of the movies in minor parts and Forrest Lewis, who would play Peavey on the short-lived TV series, is a druggist in Broadway.)

ghost2This is just nitpicking, of course; the supporting players in Ghost all turn in solid work—particularly Marion Martin, who plays the “ghostly” Terry. The platinum-tressed Martin, known as “Hollywood’s blonde menace,” could play both comedic and serious roles in such movies as The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) and Angel on My Shoulder (1946). As Terry, Martin tries to put the moves on our favorite water commissioner (she’s been told by Wells that if she doesn’t help to convince everyone Gildy is cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs she’ll never be visible again), and Throckmorton continuously rebuffs her advances. (I know—he must not be feeling well.) Nicodemus Stewart also generates more than his fair share of chuckles as Paley’s chauffeur Chauncey (doubling as Birdie’s love interest); Stewart, who must have landed the part because Mantan Moreland and Willie Best were unavailable, is able to work wonders with even the weakest material. (As the two of them explore a secret passageway in the mansion Gildy asks: “You want to go first, Chauncey?” Chauncey: “No, sir—I don’t even want to go second!”) Nick would later play the role of Lightnin’ the janitor in the boob tube version of Amos ‘n’ Andy. His roles in films and TV may have been demeaning, but he was able to use the money he earned to establish the prestigious Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles in 1950.

20536Gildersleeve’s Ghost isn’t anywhere close to high art, but its shortcomings are overcome by its sense of whimsy and fun—it’s available on a 2-DVD collection entitled The Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection, which also contains The Great Gildersleeve, Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943), Gildersleeve on Broadway and Seven Days’ Leave. Be sure to check out Radio Spirits’ other Gildy sets featuring his radio adventures in Baby, Marjorie’s Wedding and Neighbors (and special seasonal shows in Happy Halloween and Christmas Radio Classics!). We even have Gildy on TV in Classic TV Comedies of the 50s (Featuring “The Great Gildersleeve”).

Review: A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)


A Close Call for Boston Blackie begins in a particularly jaunty mood: Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) and his sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone) are riding back to Blackie’s apartment courtesy of Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and his aide de camp, Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully). It seems that Blackie’s Galahad-like gallantry got him into trouble by stranding him and The Runt in the middle of nowhere with no transportation; fortunately, Farraday happened along to help him out of the jam. His longtime cop nemesis even warns him to stay away from women because they eventually lead to trouble…a bit of advice that Blackie could have used in any number of the previous Boston Blackie vehicles. (Come to think of it, the ones to follow as well.)

closecall1No sooner have they arrived at Blackie’s apartment when Blackie and The Runt come to the aid of yet another damsel in distress—it’s Geraldine “Gerry” Peyton (Lynn Merrick), an old girlfriend of our hero, who’s being manhandled by a pair of thugs outside the apartment building. Blackie and The Runt spirit Gerry upstairs…and find another surprise waiting inside—an abandoned baby! (Blackie: “Is this one of your ideas?” Runt: “Now wait a minute, Blackie—if this were one of my ideas do you think it would be that good-looking?”) Gerry claims the child is hers; the product of a marriage between her and her no-account husband John (Mark Roberts), who’s just been paroled after doing a two-year stretch in the pokey. In fact, Blackie warned Gerry before she wed the ex-con that he was nothing but trouble…and John proves his point by arriving unannounced at Blackie’s digs, ready to start some fireworks. The true fireworks begin when John is shot and killed by a man later identified as Smiley Slade (Erik Rolf)…though in typical Boston Blackie fashion, our reformed jewel thief isn’t able to convince Farraday that he had nothing to do with the murder.

closecall2Short on plot (Gerry and Smiley are working a con with the baby to secure a large financial payoff from John’s father) but long on comedy, A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946) is an enjoyable lark—within its one hour running time, the Boston Blackie players run through their usual paces with frenetically hilarious situations and clever disguises. The Runt, in charge of watching the baby until Blackie can square himself with Farraday, is forced to borrow a waitress’ uniform from his girlfriend so he can go on an errand of mercy and obtain milk for the little shaver. Blackie adopts the persona of the late Mr. Peyton’s father Cyrus in an effort to trap Gerry and Smiley…and Matthews dons the same getup! (Farraday has his dumb-as-a-sled-track detective do this to prove to Blackie that he’s got some Moxie; that he can round up the guilty parties before the closing credits roll…and that he wasn’t joking about dames being nothing but trouble.)

closecall7B-picture veteran Lew Landers holds the directorial reins on Close Call, which guarantees that the proceedings (scripted by Ben Markson from a Paul Yawitz story…with additional dialogue from Malcolm Stuart Boylan) will be fast and funny, and the supporting cast plays it to perfection as well. Lynn Merrick is great as Blackie’s latest femme fatale, with Erik Rolf solid as her confederate in crime. One of the members of their gang, Hack Hagen, is played by character great Charles Lane (you know him as Homer Bedloe on Petticoat Junction); he’s the actual father of the tyke used in the set-up but Hack sadly suffers a tragic fate. Russell Hicks, Emmett Vogan and Kathryn Card are also on hand—I Love Lucy fans might recognize Card as Mrs. McGillicuddy, Ricky Ricardo’s mother-in-law.

closecall6But just as character favorite Iris Adrian walked off with Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945), A Close Call for Boston Blackie is the victim of further onscreen larceny with the presence of Claire Carleton, who plays The Runt’s ditzy blonde girlfriend Mamie Kerwin. Reluctantly dragooned into helping her man and Blackie out of the hot water they’re in with Farraday, Blackie tells her “Well, if you’re arrested, Mamie—we’ll come visit you and we’ll send you flowers and candy.” “Never mind the flowers,” Mamie replies sharply. “If I get pinched, you’ll need ‘em yourself!”

I’m a little biased about the fun that Claire provides in Close Call because she’s been a longtime favorite of mine. You can see her display her comedic talents in many of Columbia’s two-reel comedies (notably the Three Stooges’ Fright Night [1947] and Schilling & Lane’s Two Nuts in a Rut [1948]) and movies like Lady of Burlesque (1943), Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943), Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946) and It’s a Great Feeling (1949). Claire had a serious side, too; she’s the waitress fired for stealing in 1945’s Mildred Pierce…and the secretary who dallies with Willy Loman in the 1951 version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman.

20588A Close Call for Boston Blackie is one of three films in the long-running Columbia Pictures mystery-comedy franchise available on DVD (on a manufactured-on-demand disc from Sony Home Video) and while it’s not quite in the same league as another Blackie vehicle released on MOD, One Mysterious Night (1944), Close Call’s lighter moments most certainly make up for whatever plot shortcomings there are in the finished product. We encourage you to rent it for an evening of fun…and Radio Spirits would also like to remind you that our Boston Blackie collection, Outside the Law, is available for purchase—with several broadcasts featuring the actors who portrayed Blackie and Inspector Farraday in the movies, Chester Morris and Richard Lane.