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“You’re durn tootin’, Hoppy!”

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The August 11, 1941 broadcast of CBS’ Forecast marked the first time the character of Hopalong Cassidy was offered up to radio audiences as a potential series, much in the same manner as fellow B-Western cowboy Gene Autry did with his Melody Ranch in January of 1940. Since the Forecast presentation did not feature the actor who’d been playing Hoppy on the silver screen since 1935—William Boyd—that might have been a factor in why a Hopalong Cassidy program wasn’t spun-off from the summer anthology show in the same manner as Suspense and Duffy’s Tavern. Hopalong Cassidy would have to wait until 1949 before it was launched as a weekly series; it had its network premiere over Mutual Radio on this very date in 1950.

boydvolgaWilliam “Bill” Boyd was born in Hendrysburg, OH in 1895 and moved to Tulsa at the age of seven. He lost both of his parents while in his teens, and after a series of jobs that included surveying and working in the oil fields, Boyd arrived in Hollywood in 1918 with ambitions of being an actor. After appearing in small roles and bit parts in the likes of Why Change Your Wife? (1920), The Affairs of Anatol (1921) and Adam’s Rib (1923), Bill ingratiated himself with famed film director Cecil B. DeMille—who cast him as the leading man in The Volga Boatman (1926) and The Yankee Clipper (1927), as well as substantial roles in The Road to Yesterday (1925) and The King of Kings (1927). Sadly, with the revolution of talking pictures, Boyd found himself without a contract and steadily going broke.

hoppy5What really threatened to put the kibosh on Bill Boyd’s acting career was a newspaper story about a similarly-named actor, William “Stage” Boyd, in which Bill’s photo was mistakenly inserted into an article that detailed “Stage’s” arrest on gambling, liquor and morals charges. It was eventually corrected, but a lot of damage had already been done. Things started to look up for Bill in 1934, however; producer Harry Sherman had negotiated the rights to make films featuring Hopalong Cassidy, a character created by author Clarence Mulford in several popular short stories. Bill was originally cast as the bad guy in what would become Hop-a-Long Cassidy (1935), the first of fifty-four films produced by Sherman and distributed by Paramount and United Artists until 1944. When those came to an end, Boyd himself produced an additional twelve Hoppy features through his own company from 1946 to 1948.

hoppy7Mulford’s cowpoke earned his name “Hop-a-Long” because he walked with a limp (a souvenir of a bullet wound); he was also a whiskey-drinkin’, tobacco-chewin’, ornery cuss. Bill revamped Cassidy into a paragon of virtue: he abstained from liquor and tobacco, didn’t swear (he spoke with flawless grammar) and rarely enjoyed the company of women. (My personal opinion is that this is why Hoppy always wore black.) He became a Saturday matinee hero to millions of young moviegoers, and guest-starred as Hoppy alongside radio favorites such as Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

hoppy6At some point in his career, Bill Boyd realized that playing Hopalong Cassidy was not only the best thing to happen to him as an actor…it was going to be his legacy. So in 1948, he made two shrewd business decisions that to some might have seemed like risky rolls of the dice. The first was to acquire the rights to all of his Hopalong Cassidy films, even if he had to sell his ranch in order to do so (which he did). Boyd was prescient enough to see that with the advent of television, radio’s new competitor was going to need a lot of product to fill broadcast hours. His instincts were right-on-the-money; after edited versions of the old movies appeared on New York television in 1948, new ones were produced to supplement them, and the films soon acquired a berth on NBC-TV’s schedule starting June 24, 1949.

commodoreBoyd wasn’t ready to abandon radio just yet, however. He teamed up with Walter and Shirley White, a couple who responded to the demand for syndicated programming (like Ziv and Mayfair) by founding a shoestring production operation entitled Commodore Productions. As Hoppy, Bill became Commodore’s first star; it was slow-going at first (the transcribed series started out with only a handful of shows in the can—when those were sold to individual stations, the profits were used to make more) but it paid off handsomely when Mutual scheduled the program for a nationwide audience in January of 1950, sponsored by General Foods. Hopalong Cassidy then moved to CBS in September of that year, and stayed on for a two-year stint, ending on December 27, 1952 with a special Christmas-themed episode (“The Santa Claus Rustlers”).

Joining Boyd in this new radio venture was veteran film comedian Andy Clyde, who reprised his movie role as Hoppy’s sidekick, California Carlson, in the series. Clyde appeared in the first twenty-six transcribed episodes, with Joe DuVal taking over for a brief period until Andy rejoined the program. A total of 104 episodes were produced, directed by Walter White and with musical supervision by Albert Glaser…who also composed the show’s main theme.

hoppyradio1950 was the height of what might be called “Hoppymania”. With the success of both his radio and TV series, Boyd oversaw a Hopalong Cassidy commercial juggernaut that was nothing short of astonishing: there were Hoppy guns, hats, bicycles, comic books, roller skates (with spurs, even), pajamas and much, much more. The immense demand for Hopalong pants and shirts was so great that it resulted in a shortage of black dye. Cassidy jokes became a staple on television and radio; in the traditional Christmas episode of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a boy sitting on department-store-Santa Andy’s lap makes the request: “I want a Hopalong Cassidy hat, a Hopalong Cassidy shirt, Hopalong Cassidy spurs, a Hopalong Cassidy belt, a Hopalong Cassidy gun, Hopalong Cassidy boots, and a Hopalong Cassidy toothbrush.” (When Andy asks the youngster who his favorite cowboy star is, the boy replies “Roy Rogers.”)

20413Bill Boyd hung up his hat and spurs in 1953 and retired to Palm Springs (his last film appearance was fitting a cameo as Hoppy in his old boss Cecil B. DeMIlle’s The Greatest Show on Earth); the Whites would solider on with Commodore Productions, initiating such series as The Clyde Beatty Show and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Here at Radio Spirits, we have classic broadcasts from the Hopalong Cassidy series on hand in Bullets on the Range and Out From the Bar-20—both would be perfect to celebrate the show’s anniversary today!

“Look out, Jerry—he’s got a gun!”

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For Nick and Nora Charles, the famed imbibing couple created by Dashiell Hammett in the 1934 novel The Thin Man, sleuthing was a walk in the park; Nick was a retired gumshoe, and knew a little bit about the in-and-outs of detecting. But Jerry and Pam North—the other well-known twosome who investigated murder and mysteries—were strictly amateurs; Jerry was a run-of-the-mill book publisher who constantly found himself pulled into cases by his irrepressible spouse. Together, Mr. and Mrs. North would headline one of radio’s most successful mystery-comedy programs—one that premiered on this very date seventy-two years ago.

MrMrsNorthAuthor Richard Lockridge introduced us to the Park Avenue Norths in a popular series of short vignettes first published in The New York Sun in the mid-1930s, then in short stories featured in The New Yorker—which were collected together in book form with Mr. and Mrs. North in 1936. In 1940, the Norths’ destiny took a detour not unlike the plot of a film noir. Lockridge’s wife Francis assisted him with The Norths Meet Murder…and the success of that book led to twenty-five additional collaborations that ended only when Mrs. Lockridge passed away in 1963.

norths4The Norths Meet Murder became the basis of a 1941 Broadway play (starring Albert Hackett and Peggy Conklin) written by Owen Davis, Sr.…and its success inspired an audition record for a potential series (with Conklin and Carl Eastman in the title roles) that reverted back to the original New Yorker format of humorous romantic comedy. It was MGM who brought Pam and Jerry to the silver screen in January of 1942 in Mr. and Mrs. North, with the emphasis reverting back to mystery. Gracie Allen, on a rare vacation from husband George Burns, played the scatterbrained Pam (William Post, Jr. played spouse Jerry). The movie would spark additional interest in another radio go-round, premiering on NBC on December 30, 1942 for Jergens lotion and Woodbury cold cream. Cast in the roles of Mr. and Mrs. North were Joseph Curtin and Alice Frost.

norths1The appeal of Mr. and Mrs. North was fairly easy to appreciate: an average couple up to their necks in murder and mayhem each week. The fact that the Norths were amateurs distinguished them from the professionalism practiced by Nick and Nora, whose program debuted a year earlier over NBC. Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. North’s popularity over the airwaves would soon overtake The Adventures of the Thin Man; North averaged a weekly audience of 25 million listeners a week, seriously threatening the mystery show forerunner, Mr. District Attorney. There was sort of a sly subversive undertone to the program in that Pam and Jerry often accomplished what specialized law enforcement could not; as Jim Cox noted in his reference book Radio Crime Fighters: “No explanation was given, of course, as to why a couple of misfits could be so successful in their preoccupation while the professionals thrashed about ineffectually.”

lovejoy8Pam and Jerry’s pal on the force was Lieutenant Bill Wigand (initially played by Frank Lovejoy, then Staats Cotsworth and Francis De Sales)—a first-rate cop who was a bit shy around the opposite sex (Pam was always trying to play matchmaker for the bashful detective). Wigand grudgingly got used to the fact that people simply had a bad habit of kicking off whenever the Norths went anywhere. Wigand’s aide-de-camp was Sergeant Aloysius Mullins (Walter Kinsella), a bumbling cop in the Barney Fife tradition who often bewildered his superior due to the fact that the easily exasperated Mullins was married with a family of eight children. The strong characterizations of Mr. and Mrs. North contributed to the show’s success; other individuals who populated the colorful cast included the loquacious cabbie Mahatma McGloin (Mandel Kramer) and problem child Susan, Pam and Jerry’s 14-year-old niece (Betty Jane Tyler).

britton15Mr. and Mrs. North won the Edgar Award (presented by the Mystery Writers of America) for Best Radio Drama in 1946 (tying with Ellery Queen), the year the series got its pink slip from NBC (it went off the air in December). But the married sleuths got a reprieve in July of 1947 when CBS began airing the series as a Tuesday night staple for Colgate-Palmolive. Often advertised as “mystery liberally sprinkled with laughs,” Mr. and Mrs. North performed quite well for their new network—and Curtin and Frost continued as Jerry and Pam until the beginning of the 1953-54 season, when Richard Denning and Barbara Britton inherited the roles. Denning and Britton were by that time appearing in the TV version, which ran on CBS from 1952-53 and a short season on NBC in 1954. A year later, Mr. and Mrs. North solved their last radio case when CBS cancelled their show, along with their fellow sleuthing brethren Casey, Crime Photographer and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

20518To celebrate the North’s radio anniversary, Radio Spirits offers two collections of the popular program featuring broadcasts from both the Curtin-Frost years and the Denning-Britton collaborations: Bet on Death and Touch of Death. We also have on hand an 8-DVD box set featuring thirty-two of the couple’s exciting television cases as well. Happy 72nd anniversary to radio’s most engaging amateur sleuths!

Review: Boston Blackie and the Law (1946)

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Previously on the Radio Spirits blog, I discussed Alias Boston Blackie (1942), the third entry in the popular Columbia Pictures movie franchise—it’s a holiday-themed picture, with the events taking place during Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and centering on Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black’s (Chester Morris) attempt to recapture an escaped convict who made a successful break as a result of our hero’s inviting a vaudeville troupe to entertain at a prison. Boston Blackie and the Law (1946), the twelfth Blackie outing, is a semi-remake of the earlier film; it simply does a gender switch (the prisoner on the lam is now a woman) and starts the plot on Thanksgiving.

bblaw5As part of a Thanksgiving Day party, Blackie is entertaining the inmates at a women’s prison…and when he announces his piece de resistance, a disappearing cabinet trick, the volunteer he solicits from the audience is one Dinah Moran (Constance Dowling)…who takes advantage of Blackie’s amateur prestidigitation by vanishing permanently. Naturally, Dinah’s disappearing act lands our hero in Dutch with the ever-suspicious Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and his sidekick Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully). Unbeknownst to Blackie, Dinah was a former assistant to a magician named John Lampau (Warren Ashe); three years earlier, Ms. Moran was jailed along with her boss on suspicion of stealing $100,000 during a performance at a private party…and while Lampau was later cleared of any involvement, Dinah wound up taking the fall, serving a stint at the county’s bed-and-breakfast.

bblaw2In tracking down Dinah, Blackie pays Lampau a visit at the theatre where he’s performing: he’s got a new name (Jani) and a new assistant named Irene (Trudy Marshall), whom he plans to marry. To recapture the fugitive Dinah, Blackie will not only have to press upon his amateur magic skills but his penchant for disguises (he impersonates Jani) as well.

In addition to his thespic duties on the silver screen, Chester Morris was an amateur magician—showing off his boyhood love of magic at a number of USO shows during the war years, and working many of his tricks into the plots of the Boston Blackie films. No more is this evident than in Boston Blackie and the Law, which, despite Morris’ undeniable enjoyment at being able to show-off his craft, suffers a bit from a static script and some ham-handed attempts at humor. Off-screen, Morris got into a bit of trouble the following year when he revealed some of the “tricks of the trade” in an article for Popular Mechanics (“There’s Magic Up Your Sleeve”) that did not win him any fans in the magic community.

bblaw4The problem with Law is that the paucity of suspects in the film makes it fairly easy for the viewer to suss out who’s responsible for committing two of the movie’s murders. In addition, while a healthy sense of humor has always been a hallmark of the Boston Blackie series, much of the comedy in Law comes off a bit forced. Case in point: When Blackie is brought into police headquarters to be interrogated as to what he knows of Dinah Moran’s prison break, we find that the magic cabinet he used in his performance happens to be in Farraday’s office. Announcing his intention to learn the disappearing trick by hook or crook, stumblebum Matthews examines the cabinet in vain …until Blackie volunteers to demonstrate how it’s done. A prolonged sequence of Blackie disappearing and reappearing in the box follows, with Matthews repeatedly assuring the apoplectic Farraday he did not let his nemesis escape. The repetition of this routine might have worked as an Abbott & Costello bit, but here it’s just tiresome.

bblaw6This is not to say that Frank Sully’s Matthews doesn’t have his moments: later in Law, Farraday pieces together some of the elements of the mystery by glancing at a precinct report and he asks his dimwitted sergeant: “Matthews! Do you realize how important this is?!!” “Only because you’re excited, and that’s nothing new” is Matthews’ deadpanned response—Sully’s throwaway delivery of the line is a peach. The most ridiculous sequence in Law is a jailbreak by Blackie and his pal The Runt (George E. Stone), in which they outwit a turnkey (Syd Saylor) in a manner that suggests he might be a distant relative in the Matthews family. Director D. Ross Lederman may have earned the studio’s gratitude for cranking out their programmers on time and under budget…but his handling of this kind of comic material is truly leaden.

bblaw3Constance Dowling plays the on-the-lam Dinah; Dowling’s films include Up in Arms (1944) and Black Angel (1946), and she would be reteamed with Chester Morris a year later in Blind Spot, a nifty little whodunit that should get exposure on TV more often. Audiences will probably be more familiar with the other female lead in Law: Trudy Marshall’s credits include The Sullivans (1944), The Purple Heart (1944), The Dolly Sisters (1946) and The Fuller Brush Man (1948). A gaggle of familiar character actors and Columbia contract players round out the cast, including Eddie Dunn and Selmer Jackson. And pay close attention to the woman who plays the librarian in the early portion of Law: it’s Maudie Prickett, who later played “Rosie” on TV’s Hazel (and Jack Benny’s sarcastic secretary in several episodes of his TV show).

20588Next month, we’ll look at the penultimate Boston Blackie film—Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948)—in which a clever screenwriter decides that an ex-jewel thief is the perfect person to guard a precious pearl necklace. In the meantime, Radio Spirits reminds you that there’s plenty of byplay between Chester Morris’ Boston Blackie and Richard Lane’s Inspector Farraday in our CD set Outside the Law, which also features broadcasts from the team of Richard Kollmar (as Blackie) and Maurice Tarplin (Farraday). Check out a DVD collection of the boob tube adventures of our hero as well, starring Kent Taylor!

Happy Birthday, Jeff Chandler!

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If you were given a name like “Ira Grossel” at birth…chances are you’d have a long career as a certified public accountant or a dentist waiting in the wings once you reached adulthood. But one particular Ira Grossel would overcome the name handicap by becoming a well-known actor—a rewarding gig that spanned both radio, TV and the movies. It was the last medium that brought Ira his greatest fame: as an employee at Universal Pictures, he would become one of their top leading men and most bankable of box office stars. I should also point out that you may be more familiar with Mr. Grossel as Jeff Chandler—born on this date today in 1918.

chandler23Chandler grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Philip and Anna Herman Grossel…who were separated at the time of his birth. (Later, Anna would bring up Jeff when the Grossels divorced.) After attending Erasmus Hall High School, he landed a job as a cashier in his father’s restaurant. Jeff had harbored acting ambitions for a good while but studied art for a year (and worked as a layout artist for a mail order catalog) before he saved up enough money to attend the prestigious Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York City. From there, Jeff Chandler went to work for a theatrical stock company on Long Island as an actor and stage manager, and later formed his own company, The Shady Lane Playhouse, in Illinois in 1941. His acting career went on hiatus as he enlisted in the Cavalry not long after, serving four years in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

chandler24After his discharge, Chandler moved to Los Angeles with money he had saved and almost immediately found work in radio. He had dabbled in the medium during his stock company days, and his experience there provided him with the experience to make a good living emoting on the airwaves, particularly in the area of anthology drama. Some of the anthology programs on which Jeff worked include Academy Award Theatre, The Cavalcade of America, The Damon Runyon Theatre, Escape, Family Theatre, Hallmark Playhouse, The Lux Radio Theatre, Mr. President, The Railroad Hour, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood, Suspense and The Whistler.

One of Jeff’s most unusual radio gigs was an appearance on a December 22, 1948 broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern; in a Yuletide episode that some refer to as “Miracle in Manhattan,” he played a stranger who brightens the spirit of “Archie the Manager” (Ed Gardner) after Archie is denied a Christmas bonus. Chandler’s other radio credits include The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Show, Ellery Queen, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Let George Do It, The Sealtest Variety Theatre and The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen.

chandler21Jeff Chandler’s first starring role on a radio series was playing the part of medical doctor Steve Dana on The Private Practice of Dr. Dana, a CBS West Coast program heard from 1947-48. He then landed the part of Brett Halliday’s legendary literary sleuth Michael Shayne in a syndicated series entitled The New Adventures of Michael Shayne in 1948, and a year later—billed as “Tex” Chandler—initiated the lead on the syndicated Frontier Town, a Western drama on which he portrayed Chad Remington (Jeff handed over the role to Reed Hadley midway through the series’ run). For many old-time radio fans, Chandler is best known as Philip Boynton—the “bashful biologist” who served as the unobtainable object of desire to Constance Brooks (Eve Arden), Madison High’s beloved English teacher on the popular CBS sitcom Our Miss Brooks.

chandler20The part of Mr. Boynton could arguably be called Chandler’s best radio role; his distinctive voice and previously untapped comedic talent made Boynton a most likable character (even though he was a bit dim not to see that Connie had it bad for him) and Our Miss Brooks a solid hit. The problem for Jeff was that while he excelled vocally in the part, he knew that visually, he just wouldn’t be right for Boynton when Brooks eventually transitioned to TV in the fall of 1952. Jeff Chandler was a ruggedly handsome chap, with a 6’4” build, broad shoulders and a tan from head to toe—so the creative minds behind OMB cast Robert Rockwell as Boynton for the boob tube version, who looked more like a nebbish science teacher. To Chandler’s credit, he insisted on continuing to play Boynton on radio until the end of his contract (Rockwell took over after that)—still, it’s sad that of all the Brooks principals Jeff was the only one who didn’t make the transition to the small screen.

Jeff ChandlerFortunately, Jeff was occupied on the silver screen by that time. A guest appearance on Dick Powell’s Rogue’s Gallery impressed Powell so much that he gave Chandler a small role in a 1947 noir, Johnny O’Clock. The actor continued to appear in small roles in the likes of Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) and Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), and his work on Our Miss Brooks attracted the attention of Universal studio executives, who cast him as an Israeli leader in Sword in the Desert (1949)…and then signed him to a seven-year contract beginning with Abandoned that same year.

chandler19Chandler’s skyrocketing silver screen fame was actually due to a film released by 20th Century-Fox in 1950. Jeff would play the role of the Apache chief Cochise in that studio’s successful Broken Arrow, which also starred James Stewart and Debra Paget. His performance garnered an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor, and he would later reprise the role in 1952’s The Battle at Apache Pass (this time at Universal) and cameoed as Cochise in Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). Jeff was a bona fide matinee idol by this time; his tanned appearance allowed him to appear in a variety of films such as Flame of Araby (1951—as an Arab chief) and the 1951 remake of Bird of Paradise (as a Polynesian). Red Ball Express (1952), Sign of the Pagan (1954), Foxfire (1955), Female on the Beach (1955), Away All Boats (1956), The Tattered Dress (1957), Jeanne Eagels (1957), Man in the Shadow (1957) and Return to Peyton Place (1961) are just a few of the many movies that featured the popular actor.

chandler18His work in movies kept him pretty busy, but Jeff Chandler still found the time to appear on programs with established boob tube favorites such as Martin & Lewis, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Steve Allen and Frank Sinatra. He even dabbled in music: Jeff formed his own publishing company, Chandler Music, and recorded a few albums while entertaining in nightclubs (though the verdict is still out on Chandler’s actual musical talent). After completing what would be his final film role in 1962’s Merrill’s Marauders, Jeff had to undergo surgery for a spinal disc herniation that resulted from a back injury playing baseball with some extras in the movie. Complications unfortunately resulted when one of the actor’s arteries was damaged during the procedure and Chandler began hemorrhaging. A second operation could not repair the injury…and Jeff Chandler passed away at the age of 42 on June 17, 1961.

19982It was indeed tragic that Jeff Chandler left this world for a better one at a young age…but fortunately for old-time radio devotees, he left behind a rich legacy of wonderful performances—particularly his first-rate work on Our Miss Brooks, which we invite you to sample on our Boynton Blues and Good English collections. Jeff exercises his dramatic chops on select broadcasts featured on the Michael Shayne, Private Detective set, and there’s also appearances by the actor on The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, Volume 2, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road) and Let George Do It. There’s a rare 1954 broadcast of San Francisco Final available on Radio Spirits’ Stop the Press!…and in keeping with the season, a nice little Christmas outing from Family Theatre (“The Other Wise Man”) in our Radio Christmas Spirits collection. Happy birthday, Jeff!

Happy Birthday, Ezra Stone!

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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!

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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!

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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)

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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!