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Happy Birthday, Groucho Marx!

If comedian Groucho Marx—born Julius Henry Marx in New York City on this date in 1890—had achieved his childhood ambition of becoming a doctor…well, the world would know a little less laughter.  Fortunately for audiences who enjoyed the quick, insulting wit of the premier funnyman in movies, radio, and TV, Julius was “persuaded” to go into show business by his domineering mother Minnie, who believed that he and his brothers—collectively known as Leonard (Chico), Adolph (Harpo), Herbert (Zeppo), and Milton (Gummo)—were destined to conquer the show business world.  Although the term “stage mother” often conveys negativity, we owe Mother Minnie a debt of gratitude for riding herd on her “boys.”

Stories differ on just why young Julius was discouraged from pursuing a medical career; one account states that he was needed to supplement the family’s income (his father Sam—known to the family as “Frenchie”—never really achieved success in the tailoring business), while another puts the blame on his limited formal education.  Minnie herself had a tenuous connection to show business in that her father had once made a living as a traveling magician and her brother Al (Shean) Schoenberg was one-half of the popular vaudeville duo, Gallagher and Shean.  Julius’ first show business job was with a singing trio that paid a handsome $4-a-week.  Unfortunately, a member of that group made off with Julius’ salary and left him stranded in Colorado—he had to work a series of odd jobs to earn his fare back home.

Julius would have better luck letting Minnie run the show; in 1909, she put together a quartet consisting of Julius, Adolph (who changed his name to Arthur), Milton, and non-Marx brother Lou Levy.  Collectively they were known as “The Four Nightingales,” and for several years the brothers got by as an average vaudeville act.  It was only during a particularly dismal performance in Nagadoches, Texas when the Marxes discovered that they had a flair of comedy; they started heckling the audience giving them grief during their act…and the crowd ate it up.

The Brothers Marx took an old comedy routine from Gus Edwards, “School Days,” and refashioned it as “Fun in Hi Skule”—an act that they dutifully performed to appreciative laughter over the years until eventually they arrived at the Mecca of Vaudeville, The Palace Theatre, in 1919.  Along the way, the group started to develop their characters (Chico the phony Italian, Harpo the silent sprite) and their nicknames, bestowed upon them by fellow performer Art Fisher during a card game.  Julius would go by “Groucho” for the rest of his career, and the Marx Brothers went on to conquer Broadway with three smash stage hits: I’ll Say She Is (1924), The Cocoanuts (1925), and Animal Crackers (1930).

If those last two production sound vaguely familiar, it’s because they were the first two films featuring the Marx Brothers when they began making movies for Paramount in 1929.  The team would follow those successes with Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932)…and the film many consider to be their finest screen comedy, Duck Soup (1933).  All five of those films featured Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo (Gummo quit performing after he was drafted in World War I), and when the siblings were hired by MGM to make A Night at the Opera (1935), Zeppo had quit the motion picture business as well.  The three Marx Brothers followed the giant success of Opera with A Day at the Races (1937), and later made three additional films for Leo the Lion: At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941).  The three remaining movies featuring Groucho, Chico, and Harpo were Room Service (1938; RKO), A Night in Casablanca (1946; United Artists), and Love Happy (1949; also UA)—though Groucho’s participation with Chico and Harpo in this last production is rather fleeting.

In the Marx Brothers’ films, Groucho handled most of the verbal comedy; in his trademark glasses and greasepaint eyebrows-and-moustache, he’d sidle up to wealthy dowagers (generally played by favorite foil Margaret Dumont) and let loose with a barrage of rapid, cut-to-the-quick insults—in fact, his entire character was built on a foundation of defying authoritarian figures and deflating pomposity.  In 1932, he and Chico took a stab at radio with a comedy program over NBC Blue entitled Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (Harpo did not appear, owing to the silent nature of his comedy).  The series did well in the Hoopers, but sponsor Standard Oil was disappointed that it didn’t match the audience of Texaco’s The Fire Chief Program (with Ed Wynn), and pulled out after one season.

Groucho and Chico would later join the all-star cast (Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, etc.) of NBC’s The Circle in January of 1939, later described by the show’s writer Carroll Carroll as “radio’s most expensive failure.”  In subsequent radio ventures, Groucho went solo…without much success.  He was the host of CBS’ Blue Ribbon Town from 1943-44, a show that surviving broadcasts reveal isn’t quite as bad as its reputation (Groucho got solid support from regulars like Virginia O’Brien, Leo Gorcey, Fay McKenzie, and Kenny Baker—who inherited the program after Marx left in June of 1944).  Groucho was depressed that radio popularity eluded him despite getting appreciative laughs while guesting on shows headlined by the likes of Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and Dinah Shore (Marx was practically a regular on Dinah’s Birds Eye Open House).  Even his good friend Irving Brecher couldn’t create a hit for the acerbic funnyman; a pilot entitled “The Flotsam Family” flopped (though Brecher later refashioned it into The Life of Riley for William Bendix).

An appearance on a Walgreens’ special would be the catalyst for Groucho’s eventual radio success.  As Groucho and host Bob Hope deviated from a prepared script with some fast-and-furious ad-libs, producer John Guedel (the man behind People are Funny) was convinced he had the perfect radio format for Marx.  Groucho would host a quiz show—which eventually became You Bet Your Life—and exercise his talent for sharp wisecracks “interviewing” the contestants.  Marx was reluctant, to say the least; he believed that playing the role of “quiz show host” was a considerable comedown.  But as he gradually grasped that You Bet Your Life’s “quiz” was merely a backdrop for allowing him to do what he did best—improvised conversation—he enthusiastically embraced the project.  You Bet Your Life premiered over ABC Radio on October 27, 1947 for Elgin-American watches and quickly became one of the fledgling network’s big hits.  It later transitioned to CBS in October of 1949 for a season and then moved into its permanent home on NBC a year later.  Because of the simplicity of its format, You Bet Your Life was broadcast simultaneously on radio and TV (where it quickly made a nest in the Top Ten of the Nielsen ratings); the radio version bowed out on June 10, 1960, but the boob tube incarnation lasted one additional season (and was retitled The Groucho Show).

Before his death on August 19, 1977 at the age of 86, Groucho Marx continued to be a beloved TV presence, both as a guest on the medium’s many talk shows and appearances on variety hours like The Hollywood Palace and The Kraft Music Hall.  He’s revered by students of comedy for his take-no-prisoners wit, and his quotable lines (like “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”) are cherished by those who took pleasure in Groucho’s fearless mockery of society’s conventions.  Radio Spirits invites you to enjoy Groucho on radio in our Jack Benny & Friends collection, as the birthday boy trades quips with Jack on a February 20, 1944 broadcast.  The 3-DVD set Groucho Marx TV Classics presents the comedian at his finest with a compendium that includes telecasts from You Bet Your Life and The Hollywood Palace, and the Marx Brothers TV Collection not only features Groucho but brothers Chico and Harpo in clips from fifty rare and vintage television appearances.  Finally, we recommend you peruse the Radio Spirits bookshelf until you locate Marx & Re-Marx; written by Andrew T. Smith, it’s a fascinating history of Groucho and Chico’s “lost” radio show, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel—with the scripts from the original series and the story of how they came to be revived by BBC Radio in the early 1980s.  If Groucho were here, he might say, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

“Laugh a while/Let a song/Be your style…”

Though he had firmly established his persona as a flashy, hard-drinking playboy with an eye for exquisite female pulchritude on The Jack Benny Program, bandleader Phil Harris would find himself “domesticated” in 1941 after marrying singer-actress Alice Faye.  His home life with Faye started to work its way into the Benny broadcasts. For example, the episode from April 11, 1943 featured the following line by Phil: “Say, Jackson—I got a surprise for ya…Alice Faye, now appearing in Hello, Frisco, Hello, made a dozen doughnuts for you with her own little hands.”  (When Jack asks “Curly” where they are, Phil cracks: “Out in the car—I’ll get Rochester to help me carry ‘em in.”)

The marriage of Phil Harris and Alice Faye (it was the second for both) was truly a love affair—the couple remained together until Phil’s passing in 1995.  Though both were enjoying successful solo careers—Phil with his music and work with Benny, Alice a major star at 20th Century-Fox—the two of them eventually joined forces for one of radio’s last great situation comedies.  That series premiered on this date in 1946, as Phil and Alice became the headliners of radio’s The Fitch Bandwagon.

Alice Faye was one of Fox’s hottest properties…but after her marriage to Phil Harris, she expressed more interest in becoming a mother and homemaker after the births of their daughters, Alice, Jr. and Phyllis.  She cut her work schedule at the studio to one production a year, and in 1945 decided to retire from motion pictures entirely after her scenes in Fallen Angel ended up on the cutting room floor (studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was distracted by Fox’s newest “flavor of the month,” Linda Darnell).  Faye was enjoying “retirement,” but when she was offered the opportunity to work with her husband on a radio series, she warmed to the idea of reading a script for one half-hour weekly before calling it a day.  She agreed (after some initial hesitation) to start broadcasting alongside Phil for Fitch in the fall of 1946.

The Fitch Bandwagon had been on radio since 1938, and in its early years it functioned as a showcase for big bands frontedby the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.  In the fall of 1944, the program allowed Dick Powell to host and sing, and the following season Cass Daley inherited Bandwagon duties.  Sponsor F.W. Fitch, impressed by the popularity of radio’s The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, decided to propose a format change (situation comedy mixed with music) to Harris and Faye, and after a well-received July 10, 1946 audition Mr. and Mrs. Harris earned a berth on NBC’s Sunday night schedule.

The Sunday night scheduling was one of the reasons why The Fitch Bandwagon was so popular with radio audiences.  It was sandwiched between Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), a time slot any performer would have committed murder to get.  But it provided an additional benefit for new host Phil Harris; in the program’s early years, Bandwagon would begin with Phil bidding his boss a fare-thee-well as he headed home to the Harris household.  Alice would be waiting for him, of course, along with “Little” Alice (portrayed by Jeanine Roose) and Phyllis (Anne Whitfield).  Life at Rancho Harris was not all beer and skittles; Phil also had to put up with Alice’s annoying brother Willie—played to creampuff perfection by Robert North.

Frankie Remley was a left-handed (honest!) guitar player in Phil’s musical aggregation, and was often joked about (but never heard) on Jack Benny’s program.  It was decided to make Remley a regular character on Harris’ show because of Frankie’s well-established reputation as an imbiber (now that Phil had a family, the Bandwagon writers de-emphasized the drinking jokes that were a staple of Phil’s character in the Benny broadcasts).  It was thought at first that Remley would play himself…but an unsuccessful audition soon convinced the real Frankie he should stick to guitar playing.  In his place, actor Elliott Lewis was tabbed to play the fictional Remley…and the seed for classic comedy was planted.

In the early years of the Harris-Faye Bandwagon, Frankie came across like a dimwitted hoodlum…but with the hiring of writers Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat in the show’s second season, the Remley character began to take on the characteristics of the sardonic wisenheimer radio audiences would soon come to know and love—always willing to get his buddy (and boss) Phil into trouble.  Singer and Chevillat soon infused Phil and Alice’s show with a sarcastic sensibility that gives it a contemporary feel when listened to by modern-day audiences.  In addition, they beefed up the presence of the character of Julius Abbruzio (portrayed by The Great Gildersleeve’s Walter Tetley), a smart-alecky grocery boy who lived to make life miserable for his nemeses Phil and Frankie. (“Are you in trouble, Mistuh Harris?  Is there anything I can do to get you in deepuh?”).

After two years with Fitch, Phil and Alice got a new sponsor—Rexall Drugs—in the fall of 1948, and the show underwent a name change to the now-familiar The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.  Their ratings for Fitch had always been solid, owing to their Benny-Bergen hammock, but when Jack jumped ship to CBS in January of 1949 the Harrises lost their edge in the Hoopers.  It didn’t keep the program from being funny, however; the writing remained razor-sharp. With the addition of a new regular—a Rexall company representative portrayed by radio veteran Gale Gordon—the belly laughs continued even after a portion of their audience wandered over to the Tiffany network to check out what Jack and Amos ‘n’ Andy were up to.  Rexall wrote the checks for Phil and Alice’s show for two seasons before switching their allegiance to Amos ‘n’ Andy, and then RCA Victor became the show’s “angel.”  Though the audiences continued to dwindle with each passing year (blame television), The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show soldiered on until finally calling it quits on May 28, 1954 (they were still being sponsored by RCA…at a time when many programs were sustained).

Alice Faye observed in later years that while she would have been amenable to doing a television version of their popular radio sitcom, it was husband Phil Harris who put the kibosh on the idea.  Nevertheless…to paraphrase Casablanca, “we’ll always have radio.”  Radio Spirits has several collections of what I personally believe was one of the aural medium’s top comedy programs, beginning with The Fitch Bandwagon years in our latest Phil and Alice compendium, Buried Treasure…not to mention Stepping Out and A Song and a Smile (with liner notes by yours truly!).  The couple’s RCA years are represented by Quite an Affair and Smoother and Sweeter, and there’s a stray Bandwagon broadcast (from January 19, 1947) to be checked out on our potpourri collection, Great Radio Comedy.  Last—but not least—Phil, Alice, and the family spread a little holiday cheer in a December 26, 1948 Rexall show on Christmas Radio Classics—it’s a gift you definitely will want to unwrap first!

“Atsa funny thing—when I’m-a say it, itsa come out different…”

Describing himself at one time as “a reformed introvert,’ writer Cy Howard decided to get into radio after quitting a $70-a-week position as a salesman in Chicago.  He had a taste of success in that arena, working briefly as a scribe for Jack Benny, and upon being hired by CBS as a staff writer contributed gags to the likes of Milton Berle and Danny Thomas.  His idea for a situation comedy about two young women living and working in New York would hit the airwaves in April of 1947, and became a smash hit: My Friend Irma.  In show business, nothing succeeds like success…and Howard soon followed up Irma with another popular radio comedy series that premiered over CBS on this date in 1948.  He used his familiar Chicago environs as the setting for a show that chronicled a newly-arrived immigrant’s heartwarming attempts to adjust to his adopted country: Life with Luigi.

Life with Luigi began as a June 15, 1948 audition record originally titled “The Little Immigrant.”  The concept of the series was that Luigi Basco (J. Carrol Naish), an Italian émigré, sets up an antique shop at 21 North Halstead in the Little Italy section of the Windy City.  Luigi’s arrival in the U.S. was free of difficulty thanks to his sponsor/benefactor Pasquale (Alan Reed), a restauranteur who leased the space that housed Luigi’s burgeoning antique shop.  Pasquale was the proprietor of The Spaghetti Palace, an Italian bistro adjacent to Luigi’s business, and had paid for Luigi’s boat passage to his new country in the spirit of friendship.

Okay…that last part isn’t completely on the level.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Pasquale schemed in the manner of an Italian “Kingfish” and he had an ulterior motive: to marry off his hefty daughter Rosa (who tipped the scales at 300 lbs. soaking wet) to Luigi and become Mr. Basco’s father-in-law.  Much as My Friend Irma had a running gag with Al phoning his friend Joe for advice (“Hello, Joe? Al. Got a problem…”), Life with Luigi milked audience laughter with the anticipated entrance of Rosa on the program every week.  “Just so happen I’m-a bring-a my little baby with-a me…I’m-a gonna call her over,” Pasquale would declare.  “Oh Rooosssa…Rooosssa…ROSA!”  A squeaky-voiced female (portrayed by actress Jody Gilbert) would then reply: “You call me, Papa?”

“Say ‘allo to Luigi,” her father would prompt, and Rosa would respond with the boisterous laugh of a more-than-amply-proportioned gal before adding a high-pitched “Hello, Luigi!”  “Hello, Rosa,” Luigi would reply with all the enthusiasm of a husband beaten down by years of marriage (despite Luigi’s determined bachelorhood).  It was one of those moments that fans of the show came to anticipate weekly, and though it’s a bit repetitious when one listens to several Luigi shows back-to-back, occasional attempts were made to “shake it up” as evidenced in this exchange from a March 27, 1949 broadcast:

PASQUALE: Heh heh heh…where-a you think? I’m-a gotta just the girl…she also happens to be passin’-a by…
ROSA: Papa, you want me?
PASQUALE: Not-a yet! Wait ‘til I call-a you… (calls) Rooosssa…
ROSA: Now?
PASQUALE: No! (again) Rooosssa…
ROSA: Now?
PASQUALE: No! Canna you play hard to get? (third time) ROSA!
ROSA: Yes, Papa?

PASQUALE: Rosa—say ‘allo to Luigi…
ROSA (giggling): Hello Luigi!
LUIGI (resigned to his fate): Hello, Rosa…

The Life with Luigi broadcasts were framed around a weekly letter written by Luigi to his mother (“Dear Mamma Mia…”), as the character would relate his misadventures in the New World.  Many of the comic situations were derived from the main character’s determination to assimilate and become an American citizen.  To that end, he attended night classes to prepare him for citizenship test.  The class was taught by Miss Spaulding (Mary Shipp), on whom Luigi had a slight crush.  His fellow students were a melting pot that included Scandinavian Olsen (Ken Peters), Russian Jew Horowitz (Joe Forte), and a cantankerous German named Schultz, whose frequent complaint of “My rheumatism is killing me” also became a popular catchphrase.  Schultz was played by Hans Conried, who was already working for creator Howard on My Friend Irma as Professor Kropotkin; Alan Reed was also an Irma regular (he played Irma’s boss, Mr. Clyde).  There was quite a bit of cast crossover—in fact, when Cathy Lewis left Irma in its last radio season, Luigi’s Mary Shipp joined the Irma cast as Irma’s new roommate, Kay Foster.

Audiences soon fell in love with Luigi, and during its six-year-run on CBS (from 1948 to 1954) the series often gave its competition—Bob Hope on NBC—a run for its money.  The show later transitioned to television with much of its radio cast intact; the only exception being Conried, whose Schultz was played by Sig Ruman for the small screen version.  The TV Luigi didn’t enjoy the success of its radio counterpart; after its premiere on September 22, 1952 it lasted just three months before being cancelled due to sponsor concerns about its ethnic stereotypes.  Actor Alan Reed reminisced in a 1975 interview with radio historian Chuck Schaden that the show’s cancellation was connected to Jody Gilbert’s testimony before HUAC due to her political affiliations.  However, his memory was clouded by the fact that CBS resurrected the TV Luigi in April of 1953 with Vito Scotti, Thomas Gomez, and Muriel Landers in the Luigi, Pasquale, and Rosa roles.  It mattered very little; the TV Life with Luigi made its final bow in June of 1953…a few months after the radio incarnation called it quits in early March.  (Life with Luigi made a brief reappearance on radio in 1954 in a fifteen-minute strip-show format…and then closed the antique shop permanently.)

One of radio’s surefire laugh-getting devices was dialect comedy and the exaggeration of ethnic stereotypes; as author Fred MacDonald wrote in Don’t Touch That Dial!: “Some of the most important series in radio history, in fact, exploited ethnic humor.” (Amos ‘n’ AndyThe GoldbergsLum and Abner…just to name a few.)  Though Life with Luigi can seem controversial in these more enlightened times, there’s never any real malice in its presentation…besides, it allows listeners to enjoy Alan Reed in his funniest radio role (Pasquale is a great comic villain) not to mention Hans Conried (always sensational!) and “that celebrated actor,” J. Carrol Naish—a dialect master despite his Irish origins.  Radio Spirits offers an 8-CD collection of classic Life with Luigi broadcasts (including the September 21, 1948 premiere!) and there’s Luigi to be located on our potpourri sets Great Radio Comedy and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations.

“C’mon folks, these are the jokes!”

Mention “Milton Berle” to any baby boomer and chances are they’ll immediately think of the frenzied mirthmaker who entertained audiences Tuesday nights, in the newly inaugurated Golden Age of Television, as host of The Texaco Star Theatre.  Berle, once accurately described by Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio as “the manic comic who won’t shut up until you laugh,” became such a boob tube institution that he would forever be known as “Mr. Television.” “Uncle Miltie” was purportedly the reason why sales of television sets mushroomed from 500,000 in 1948 (his first year on TV) to over 30 million by the time he ended his initial run in 1955 with The Milton Berle Show.

But a goodly number of people—outside old-time radio fans, of course—aren’t aware that Milton Berle enjoyed a lengthy stint in the aural medium, beginning on this date in 1936.  Berle, a major vaudeville talent who had previously appeared on programs headlined by Rudy Vallee and Fred Waring, was the host of CBS’ The Gillette Original Community Sing, which ran until August 29, 1937 as a Sunday night comedy-variety program.  This program allowed Milton to patent his “machine-gun” style of comedy (very similar to the shtick practiced by Bob Hope) mixed with an element of radio slapstick that Radio Mirror remarked worked well “if he can keep it up.”  The show featured an audience sing-a-long led by “the Red Headed Music Maker,” Wendell Jones, and “Happiness Boys” Billy Jones and Ernie Hare.  (Actress Betty Garde was also a regular, as was future Eddie Cantor stooge Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon—who answered to “Mischa Moody.”)  Irving Brecher, who’d go on to create radio’s The Life of Riley, was the program’s sole writer; Berle would later brag that Brecher was the only scribe he knew “who wrote a radio program every week all by himself.”

Berle’s next radio venture premiered on October 7, 1939 for NBC:  Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One, a comedy panel show in which the members of the panel attempted to finish jokes sent in by the program’s listening audience.  Stop Me, sponsored by Quaker Oats, was similar to the more successful Can You Top This? (1940; 1942-54), and in fact, two of the Can You Top This? regulars—Harry Hershfield and “Senator” Ed Ford—worked on the Berle program at one time.  (Harry McNaughton, who was one of the bright minds on the later comedy quiz It Pays to Be Ignorant, was heard on the show as well.)  Stop Me left NBC on February 24, 1940 (it would later resurface on Mutual in 1947). Uncle Miltie experienced a brief period of radio unemployment, but he didn’t have to clip coupons, kids; his movie career was still in full swing and he made a tidy sum playing nightclubs. Berle returned to the air in September of 1941 with Three Ring Time for Ballantine Ale—the first major Mutual West Coast origination, and a show that Mutual had hoped would make them “a real competitor in transcontinental broadcasting,” according to old-time radio historian John Dunning.

Three Ring Time also featured Shirley Ross and Bob Crosby (and His Bobcats) as regulars, with Bill Goodwin as announcer…delightful!  But Milton didn’t get along with the program’s other big name, Charles Laughton.  Despite his reputation as an outstanding dramatic actor, Laughton had high hopes that Three Ring Time would, as Radio Life reported, “give me a chance to do what I really like to do—make people laugh.”  Charlie, however, didn’t want to lay them in the aisles at the expense of being his co-star’s “ego massage” (the term Berle used in his own autobiography) and the two stars soon began to openly quarrel, even after Three Ring jumped ship to NBC in December of 1941.  (Mutual would later sue NBC for $10 million, charging restraint of trade.)  Laughton asked for (and was given) his release in January, and for a time Berle welcomed a rotating series of co-hosts until the show left the airwaves on June 2, 1942.

Milton Berle tried radio three more times as a headliner: a brief self-titled series over CBS in 1943 for Campbell Soups; a 1944-45 “half-hour of slapstick” for Blue/CBS called Let Yourself Go (sponsored by Eversharp); and a summer series over CBS in 1946, Kiss and Make Up—a program (created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later of My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi) in which “judge” Berle presided over a mock court as the show’s hook.  By 1947, Berle was ready to roll the dice and gamble with The Milton Berle Show, which premiered on March 11 over NBC for Philip Morris as a replacement for Rudy Vallee’s show.  (We’re not kidding about the gambling part, either; Milton forfeited nearly $25,000 in cancelled nightclub engagements just to make The Milton Berle Show a success.)  The series, which ran until April 13, 1948, didn’t make much of a dent in the radio ratings (its Hooper was an anemic 11.6) but thanks to some first-rate scripts by Fred Allen Show alumnus Nat Hiken (the later creator of The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?) and Aaron Ruben (the man who enlisted The Andy Griffith Show’s Gomer Pyle in the Marines) new generations of fans have discovered an unsung gem, described by Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod as “one of the forgotten bright spots of postwar radio.”

Berle was aided and abetted on his program by an exemplary cast of “stooges.”  There was Arnold Stang, on vacation from The Henry Morgan Show, playing the same quarrelsome wisenheimer determined to have a verbal scrap with the star.  (Stang would later be a regular on Milton’s TV show.)  Pert Kelton portrayed a put-upon housewife (“Tallulah Feeney, I’m a homemaker…”) and gave voice to a woman who appeared in a series of skits entitled “At Home with the Berles” where her only dialogue was a drawn-out utterance of “Yessssss…”  (This gag was later appropriated for the “Miss Prissy” spinster hen in Warner Brothers’ Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.)  The “At Home” sketches featured Milton as an exasperated patriarch who encountered friction from his bratty son (Stang) and his too-understanding wife (Mary Shipp).  Other regulars on the Berle program include a pre-Chico and the Man Jack Albertson, Ed Begley, Arthur Q. Bryan, John Gibson, and Al Kelly—a second banana who specialized in double-talk and would be brought out as an “expert” in whatever subject was the topic of the show that week.

Milton Berle found his perfect foil in announcer Frank Gallop, a man who sounded like a funeral parlor owner letting his hair down for the first time.  Gallop would also migrate to the comedian’s later TV show, but in the radio years got big laughs through his condescending attitude toward the star.  (Berle: “Mr. Gallop, did you hear that? I just got four laughs in a row.” Gallop: “Yes, they’re all in the row your mother is in.”)  Gallop, Stang, Kelton, Albertson, Shipp and several other members of the Berle Show cast would follow Milton (along with writers Hiken and Ruben) to The Texaco Sar Theatre for ABC in the fall of 1948.  This was the comedian’s last gasp over the ether and described by Uncle Miltie himself as “the best radio show I ever did…a hell of a funny variety show.”  Theatre was pretty much a continuation of The Milton Berle Show, and some of the surviving broadcasts are falling-down funny; a young Jacqueline Susann (before she got into the writing novels thing) can be heard on occasion, and assisting Hiken and Ruben in the writing chores were two brothers just starting out in the business: Danny and Neil Simon.

The radio Texaco Star Theatre closed its studio doors on June 15, 1949; by that time, Milton Berle was wowing audiences on TV…even if he had to often don drag to do it.  At Radio Spirits, we think you’ll agree that while Uncle Miltie wasn’t the sensation on radio that he was on TV he was every bit as hilarious.  If you check out our Comedy Goes West collection, an October 7, 1947 broadcast of The Milton Berle Show (“A Salute to the Old West”) will back up our assertion that Berle could certainly bring the funny.  On The Voices of Christmas Past, the frantic funnyman continues with the laughs with a broadcast from December 23rd of that same year, “A Salute to Christmas.”  Milton thanks you…and his mother would, too, once she stopped laughing.

“What a character!”

In addition to Jim and Marian Jordan’s star turns as Fibber McGee and Molly on The Johnson Wax Program in the 1930s, the couple was aided and abetted on the popular comedy show by a talented cast of supporting players.  These included Hugh Studebaker (as handyman Silly Watson), Isabel Randolph (the snooty Abigail Uppington), Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet…and especially Bill Thompson, who introduced favorites such as Nick Depopoulous and Horatio K. Boomer before moving on to Wallace Wimple and The Old Timer.  Another talent on the program was actor-singer Harold Peary, who was a voice-of-all-trades before he persuaded the show’s writer, Don Quinn, to give him a meatier part.  Quinn wrote Hal the role of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve—Fibber’s nemesis and next-door neighbor, and the only individual pompous enough to challenge McGee’s windy tall tales.

After playing Gildersleeve on Fibber McGee and Molly for a couple of years, Peary wanted to move onto other pursuits…but NBC was anxious to retain his services due to the popularity of the Gildersleeve character.  So, the network approached Hal with the idea for a spin-off: the show would be called The Great Gildersleeve, and would move the supporting character from his Wistful Vista environs to the nearby town of Summerfield.  There, he would act as executor to the estate of Marjorie and Leroy Forrester, his heretofore unmentioned niece and nephew.  It was on this very date in 1941 that “Gildy” boarded the Summerfield Express, leaving his friends in Wistful Vista behind…and providing audiences (and later, fans of old-time radio) with an additional weekly half-hour of hilarity.

Harold Peary was very enthusiastic about The Great Gildersleeve; he loved to sing as well as act, and he felt that he’d have ample opportunity to do so on a show where he was the star.  In a May 14, 1941 audition record, Gildy bids the employees of his girdle company fare-thee-well and shuffles off to Summerfield.  The hope was that Gildersleeve would land the job as Fibber McGee and Molly’s summer replacement while they vacationed.  Johnson’s Wax, Fib and Molly’s sponsor, sadly took a pass and went with another show (a Ransom Sherman comedy entitled Hap Hazard)—but the Kraft Foods Company liked what they heard, and agreed to foot the bills for The Great Gildersleeve’s eventual arrival on NBC’s schedule.

On The Great Gildersleeve, Gildy was put in charge of the estate of niece Marjorie and nephew Leroy…though Judge Horace Hooker had reservations about their uncle’s reliability.  Hooker (Earle Ross) would be Gildy’s persistent nemesis throughout the show’s run, constantly involved in a running battle of wits and one-upmanship with “the Great Man” not unlike his old Wistful Vista neighbor Fibber McGee.  Like Fibber McGee and MollyGildersleeve spotlighted a cast of supporting characters that Throckmorton encountered each week.  For example, there was the neighborhood druggist J.W. Peavey (Richard LeGrand), whose catchphrase “Well, now…I wouldn’t say that” became one of the program’s most popular gags.  Floyd Munson (Arthur Q. Bryan) was Summerfield’s sardonic barber, always offering Gildy advice regardless of whether it was wanted (or sound).  Tom Gates was Summerfield’s police chief who, along with Gildy, Peavey, Floyd, and Judge Hooker, formed a fraternal organization known as “The Jolly Boys.” This quirky quintet would gather to sing and enjoy each other’s company.

On the Gildersleeve homefront, actress Lurene Tuttle portrayed Marjorie Forrester (the character went by “Eve” in the audition) for the show’s first three seasons. She handed the part off to Louise Erickson, who played Marjorie until the fall of 1948, when she relinquished the role to Mary Lee Robb.  When the show premiered in 1941, Marjorie was actually a twenty-year-old with a strong romantic interest in the young attorney handling the Forresters’ estate.  Somewhere along the way, Marj got hold of the same brew that kept Helen Trent thirty-five for so long…because the mid-1940s found her a few years younger and back in high school.  Marjorie would eventually mature a second time and marry high school sweetheart Bronco Thompson (Richard Crenna), eventually giving birth to a pair of twins in later seasons of Gildersleeve.  Her brother Leroy (played by Walter Tetley) also aged a little slower than most, but for most of the show’s run delighted in making mischief and deflating his “Unk’s” enormous ego whenever possible.  Helping Gildy out with the house and the children was housekeeper Birdie Lee Coggins (Lillian Randolph), an exemplary cook who had been taking care of Marjorie and Leroy long before Gildy even thought about relocating to Summerfield.  Birdie was delightfully outgoing, with a laugh that could rattle the rafters.

There were noticeable differences between the Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve that listeners came to know and love in Wistful Vista and the one who put down stakes in Summerfield.  On Fibber McGee and Molly, there was at least one reference to a Mrs. Gildersleeve…but by the time Gildy arrived in Summerfield, he had apparently become a bachelor.  (Old-time radio fans occasionally joke that somewhere at 83 Wistful Vista, there’s a body buried in the basement.)  Gildy played the field on his own program, dating any number of equally single women—the most famous being Leila Ransom, a flirty Southern belle memorably portrayed by Shirley Mitchell.  (In later seasons, Leila acquired a rival for Gildy’s affections in her cousin Adeline Fairchild—played by character veteran Una Merkel.)  Leila almost got manacled to Gildy in the 1942-43 season, but he managed to dodge that bullet.  He later dated school principal Eve Goodwin (Bea Benaderet), nurse Katherine Milford (Cathy Lewis), Ellen (Bullard) Knickerbocker (Martha Scott), and Paula (Bullard) Winthrop (Jeanne Bates), among others.  Making Gildersleeve single was a smart move by the show’s writers, allowing them ample material for comedic plots…particularly when Gildy had to compete with stuck-up Runsom Bullard (Gale Gordon) in romantic rivalry.  (Note that two of Gildersleeve’s “steadies” were related to Runsom…much to his dismay.)

But the big night-and-day difference between Fibber McGee and Molly and the spin-off was the tone of the two programs.  Fibber was verbal slapstick, getting king-size laughs via a vaudeville sensibility in which each broadcast’s “plot” was a loose peg on which to hang hilarious gags.  The Great Gildersleeve took a character-based approach to its comedy; we laughed at the broadcasts not because of the strength of the jokes, but because its characters were so vividly drawn and portrayed by a masterful cast.  As Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod once wrote: “Contrasted with Fibber’s cartoony approach, Gildersleeve was a show firmly grounded in the Real World.  Its characters were far more textured than Fibber’s supporting cast, and thus far more realistic.”  Elizabeth rightly characterized Gildersleeve as “the One Man’s Family of situation comedy.”

As one of radio’s finest sitcoms, The Great Gildersleeve had a longer shelf life than the Kraft products it so eagerly promoted.  Even when Willard Waterman took over for Hal Peary in the fall of 1950 (Peary had moved to CBS with the Gildersleeve-like Honest Harold), Gildersleeve managed to stick around as radio began its death march, only departing the airwaves on March 21, 1957.  The show remains a solid favorite with radio listeners of old and new generations, and the decision at the time of the show’s run to utilize a semi-serialized storyline each season is an immeasurable help when you consider that some of the series’ broadcasts have been lost to the ravages of time and neglect…and yet the show is easy to follow despite the missing installments.

Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve might be having “one of his bad days” …but here at Radio Spirits, every day with Summerfield’s water commissioner is like an idyllic afternoon spent at Grass Lake. Our newest Gildersleeve compendium, Family Man, features sixteen vintage broadcasts from the program’s inaugural season (1941-42), while For Corn’s Sake (liner notes by yours truly!) focuses on later shows with Willard Waterman in the Gildersleeve role.  You’ll find a hilarious June 14, 1942 broadcast on our potpourri collection Great Radio Comedy, and for my money—some of the all-time memorable Gildersleeve shows were the heartwarming broadcasts heard around the holidays; there’s Yuletide Throcky on Christmas Radio ClassicsThe Voices of Christmas Past, and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations.  Happy anniversary, Gildy!

Let’s have another cup of coffee…

No less an authority than TV Guide declared Father Knows Best to be “the quintessentially comforting 50s sitcom.”  A generation of dedicated couch potatoes never missed a weekly visit with the Anderson family—comprised of wise patriarch Jim (Robert Young), nurturing mother Margaret (Jane Wyatt), and the three Anderson offspring: Betty (Elinor Donahue), Jim, Jr., a.k.a. “Bud” (Billy Gray), and Kathy (Lauren Chapin).  Even when the show officially left the airwaves after a six-season run from 1954 to 1960, it continued in prime-time reruns until 1963…and then settled permanently into The Old Syndication Home afterward.  Father was critically acclaimed by numerous family, church, and civic organizations, and described by boob tube historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh as spotlighting “truly an idealized family, the sort that viewers could relate to and emulate.”

That may have been the case on television…but it was a different story on radio, when Father Knows Best debuted over NBC on this date in 1949.  The audio Anderson clan was a bit more dysfunctional than their small screen counterparts, though star Young later attributed the zaniness of the radio program to the fact that “it had to have laughs…I wanted a warm relationship show.”  The actor eventually got his wish…but for those of us who resented that the Anderson siblings were a little too perfect (those kids never fell into giant soup bowls or hung out with beatniks, for example), the early broadcasts of the radio Father Knows Best are a respite from the blandness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm the TV adaptation.

Some of that blandness can be attributed to the show’s star, who began his motion picture career with a credited role in the 1931 Charlie Chan vehicle The Black Camel (after bit parts in two other films).  Robert Young would soon establish himself in movies as a charming and likable leading man in such vehicles as The Guilty Generation (1931), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and The Wet Parade (1932).  Young’s characters were predictably unthreatening, only occasionally demonstrating a dark side in the likes of Secret Agent (1936—a Hitchcock film where Bob’s the villain!) and The Mortal Storm (1940).  Robert could rise to the occasion with superior performances in such movies as Northwest Passage (1940) and Crossfire (1947), but for most of his nearly 100-film career, he was good ol’ dependable Bob.

Young’s exposure in motion pictures would follow a natural progression into radio, where adaptations of the movies he appeared in would be tackled on such anthologies as The Gulf Screen Guild Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre.  In April of 1938, Robert would become a host on the Good News program, where he joshed with the likes of Frank Morgan and Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks) while extoling the virtues of Maxwell House coffee.  Young continued his association with that sponsor when he played Morgan’s foil on Maxwell House Coffee Time from 1944 to 1945, cutting up alongside Cass Daley.  In between, Bob was the star of 1943’s Passport for Adams, a Norman Corwin-produced wartime drama that cast the actor as a newspaperman who trekked around the world.

Though Father Knows Best was created by writer Ed James, the project really came to fruition due to the partnership that Young had with Eugene B. Rodney.  The actor had met Rodney in 1935, and the two later teamed up to form a company: Rodney-Young Productions.  Father premiered in the form of a December 20, 1948 audition recording.  It was a funny, if manic, production that suggested “Father Knows Best” might have been a bit of sarcasm.  June Whitley played Margaret in the audition (the family’s last name was “Henderson”); her role would later become the responsibility of Jean Vander Pyl, a talented veteran who had previously appeared on the Alan Young and Joan Davis shows.  As for Bob Young…well, his “Jim Henderson” comes off as a bit of a numbskull—only slightly smarter than, say, Ozzie Nelson.  The “Henderson” kids are also not the role models of the later TV series; Betty is a bit on the spoiled and shallow side, and Kathy is an obnoxious brat.

When Father Knows Best was picked up as a regular series by NBC in August of 1949, they reworked the Jim Anderson character, though he still came across occasionally as—in the words of author Jim Cox—“a rather awkward bungler…guilty of mangling even the best of intents.”  Many of the flaws of the radio Jim can be attributed to creator James, whose approach to the show was to present a funhouse mirror exaggeration of family life (many of the early broadcasts weren’t shy about presenting Jim and Margaret as a frequently bickering couple—though never to the degree of The Bickersons, created by non-Father Knows Best fan Phil Rapp).  As the series progressed, writer Paul West “de-squabbled” the program’s content, and shows from 1953 and 1954 are more reminiscent of the TV version.

Father Knows Best would reunite Robert Young and Maxwell House—Bob inherited the General Foods’ sponsorship from George Burns & Gracie Allen, and the sitcom would also feature commercials hawking Post Toasties, Instant Postum, etc.  (I often wondered what Maxwell House had to say about the actor’s commercials for Sanka in the 1970s.)  In fact, the show would memorably open with a plug for the sponsor’s product, along the lines of young Kathy singing out: “Mo-ther…are Post 40 Percent Bran Flakes really the best-tasting cereal of them all?”  “Well,” Margaret would reply, “your father says so…and Father Knows Best.”  Announcer Marvin Miller (and later Bill “The Whistler” Forman) would then invite listeners to check in with “a half-hour visit with your neighbors, the Andersons” to the strains of Waiting (for Love to Find You)—also referred to as the “Father Knows Best Theme.”  (The show’s opening theme was the 1932 Cole Porter tune that I cleverly appropriated as the title for this post.)

Rounding out the radio cast were Rhoda Williams as eldest daughter Betty (affectionately known to Jim as “Princess”), Ted Donaldson as Bud (Bud had the show’s catchphrase, “Holy cow!”—which he apparently appropriated from Meet Corliss Archer’s Dexter Franklin), and Norma Jean Nilsson as Kathy (“Kitten” or “Angel” to Jim, “Shrimp” to Bud).  (Helen Strohm replaced Nilsson in the show’s later run.)  Other actors who appeared on Father Knows Best included Eleanor Audley and Herb Vigran, who played Elizabeth and Hector Smith—the Andersons’ next-door neighbors.  (Sam Edwards portrayed their son Billy…and since Sam was best known for playing Dexter on the aforementioned Meet Corliss Archer, I’m curious as to whether he and Donaldson ever had a “Holy cow!”-off.)

By the time of Father Knows Best’s radio premiere, the aural medium was slowly starting to transition to pre-recording broadcasts for “later broadcast at a more convenient time.”  Father would adopt the practice, too…but it’s interesting to note that before transcriptions, Robert Young’s co-stars would arrange to join him in whatever city he happened to be in whenever he performed in a play (Bob apparently wasn’t going to let a weekly series tie him down).  The radio Father Knows Best would eventually close shop on April 25, 1954, and after a tryout on The Ford Television Theatre (telecast on May 27, 1954) with a production entitled “Keep it in the Family,” Father would successfully transition to the small screen that October.  TV’s Father Knows Best would be even more successful than its radio counterpart; in its final season, it was still in the Top Ten (#6 that year) when Young decided to call it quits.

“We never intended the series to be more than a weekly half-hour of fun and entertainment,” declared Robert Young in later years when challenged about the show’s reluctance to tackle serious issues…and on that score, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t succeed.  The TV series continues to entertain new generations of fans in reruns (all six seasons of the show have been released to DVD) and its radio sibling is also a solid favorite with old-time radio devotees.  Radio Spirits offers two fine collections of vintage Father Knows Best broadcasts in Father Knows Best and Maple Street (a reference to the Anderson family’s address of 607 Maple Street in the fictional town of Springfield), and our Radio’s Christmas Celebrations compendium includes a nice December 24, 1953 episode with a heartwarming Yuletide theme.  “Margaret!  I’m home!” was Jim Anderson’s familiar refrain after returning from a tough day at the office.  And after listening to a few shows from this timeless classic…you will be, too.

Happy Birthday, Jeff Corey!

In May of 2017, the memoirs of character actor Jeff Corey—born Arthur Zwerling in Brooklyn on this date in 1914—were published to much critical acclaim.  Written with his daughter Emily, Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood to Act concentrates a great deal on Corey’s second career as an acting teacher.  (The change of profession was necessitated by his blacklisting in the 1950s, due to his past political affiliations).  The list of his students who “went on to bigger and better things” is a lengthy and most impressive one. Performers under Jeff’s tutelage include Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams…and, shortly before his passing in 1955, James Dean.  Corey is beloved by classic film fans for his appearances in movie westerns like True Grit (1969—as bad guy Tom Chaney) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and his old-time radio bona fides weren’t too shabby, either.

Jeff Corey was the son of working class Jewish immigrants, and though he was “an indifferent student” in high school, a drama class he took fueled his interest in acting.  He earned a scholarship with the Feagin School of Dramatic Arts, one of NYC’s prestigious theater schools; his stint there, he later reflected, rescued him from a career as a sewing machine salesman.  While at Feagin, Jeff worked with the New York Federal Theatre Project alongside such luminaries as John Randolph, Elia Kazan, and Jules Dassin.  Post-Feagin, Corey landed a job with a Shakespearean repertory company, and later found work with a traveling children’s theater troupe.  One of Corey’s earliest onstage showcases was portraying “Rosencrantz” in a touring production of Hamlet, a Broadway success overseen by actor Leslie Howard.

With his wife Hope, Jeff moved to Los Angeles in 1940 to find work in motion pictures…and old-time radio fans may have seen him in a brief bit as a game show contestant forced to sing a song with a mouthful of crackers in You’ll Find Out (1940), starring the Ol’ Perfesser himself, Kay Kyser.  Corey got small roles in movies like The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Roxie Hart (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and My Friend Flicka (1943). When he wasn’t toiling in B-pictures, he helped established the Actors Lab, where he appeared in such productions as Abe Lincoln in Illinois and God Bless Our Bank (opposite Ann Sothern).  Jeff joined the Navy in 1943, and was assigned to the U.S.S. Yorktown as a combat photographer; he later earned citations for the footage he captured during a kamikaze attack on the ship.

After World War II, Jeff Corey returned to his motion picture career and was on his way to becoming a most recognizable character face.  He’s not credited, but that’s Jeff playing “Blinky Franklin” in the 1946 film noir classic The Killers…and as a certified noir maniac, my cherished celluloid memories of Corey include seeing him in such vehicles as Brute Force (1947), The Gangster (1947), Canon City (1948), City Across the River (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), and Fourteen Hours (1951).  Other memorable turns by the actor include roles in Ramrod (1947), Joan of Arc (1948), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Roughshod (1949), Home of the Brave (1949—a great Corey performance as a sympathetic psychiatrist), The Next Voice You Hear… (1950), and Rawhide (1951).

While his movie career was going great guns, Corey also appeared on many occasions in front of a radio microphone on such shows as The Lux Radio Theatre and Favorite Story.  Jeff made the rounds on many of radio’s top dramatic anthologies, notably EscapeNBC Presents: Short StoryThe NBC University TheatreScreen Directors’ PlayhouseSuspense, and The Whistler.  On The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Corey regularly played Lieutenant Ybarra—the police contact of the titular P.I. portrayed by Gerald Mohr.  Rounding out Jeff’s radio resume are appearances on the likes of The Curtain of TimeNight BeatThe Silent MenTales of the Texas RangersTell it Again, and This is Your FBI.  The actor’s enjoyment of radio acting would continue through radio revival attempts in the 1970s (like The Sears Radio Theatre). Corey also appeared on an NPR broadcast in 1997, in a production written and directed by the legendary Norman Corwin.  This effort, titled Our Lady of the Freedoms and Some of Her Friends, was a July 4th commemoration (and the swan song for journalist-commentator Charles Kuralt).

During his time with the New York Federal Theatre Project, Jeff Corey attended Communist Party meetings…but he never actually joined the Party.  It made little difference to the House Un-American Activities Committee, who subpoenaed him to testify in September of 1951.  Corey later recalled to Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist: “The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not?  I had no impulse to defend a political point of view that no longer interested me particularly.”  His decision not to “name names” meant that, at the age of 37, Jeff Corey was out of work with a wife and three daughters to support.  Undaunted, Jeff found work as a laborer (earning $14 a day) and then enrolled at UCLA on the G.I. Bill.

His teaching career came about purely by accident.  A fellow UCLA student who wasn’t doing well in his studies organized an acting class and talked Jeff into teaching it—so Corey launched the ambitious enterprise out of his garage.  A young freshman, Carol Burnett, was among the first of his students—the “tuition” for “Corey University” was $10 a month for two classes a week.  Not given to self-promotion, Corey’s acting classes soon became popular via word-of-mouth and, by the mid-1950s, he would become the most sought-after acting coach in Tinsel Town.  (The irony is that several of Jeff’s students related that while auditioning for acting jobs they would be told that the studios were looking for a “Jeff Corey-type.”)  The list of individuals who studied with Jeff Corey is a long one, but just to drop a few names: Robert Blake, James Coburn, Richard Chamberlain, Sally Kellerman, Shirley Knight, Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner, Anthony Perkins, Sharon Tate, and Leonard Nimoy (who contributed the foreword to Corey’s memoirs).

Jeff Corey didn’t work in movies or television for many years, but the logjam was broken with a role in a 1961 episode of The Untouchables. Jeff then began appearing in films, such as The Yellow Canary (1963—starring Pat Boone, a one-time student of Corey’s) and Lady in a Cage (1964—as the wino who menaces Olivia de Havilland).  Corey did some of his finest film work in this period, with roles in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), In Cold Blood (1967), The Boston Strangler (1968), and Little Big Man (1970—as Wild Bill Hickok!).  I’m a huge fan of his turn in the cult classic Seconds (1966), in which he plays the ominous, chilling counselor to John Randolph’s tired businessman (who is later turned into handsome Rock Hudson).  Not only did Jeff get to work with his old friend Randolph, but fellow blacklistee Will Geer is also in the film (and is equally sinister).

Corey continued to work in movies and TV throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s (he was a regular on former student Robert Blake’s short-lived series Hell Town). He even received several opportunities to direct (episodes of Night Gallery and Alias Smith and Jones are on his C.V.).  According to Patrick McGilligan, Jeff was “an actor’s actor, someone that actors loved to watch because he was always doing something interesting in his work.”  Corey passed away in 2002 at the age of 88 (from complications suffered after a fall), but he left us with a legacy of acting riches.  But as McGilligan notes: “He was a wonderful actor who we never fully got to see because of the blacklist.”

Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson was an 18-year-old rebel when he first enrolled in Jeff Corey’s acting classes…and later observed that the one lesson he took away from his experience was “You can’t change the world…but you can make the world think.”  A talent like today’s birthday celebrant cries out for further exploration, and Radio Spirits heartily endorses our Adventures of Philip Marlowe collections Night Tide and Sucker’s Road, where you’ll hear Jeff in his signature role as Lieutenant Ybarra.  Corey also appears on Night Beat: Human Interest and in our Escape compilations EssentialsPeril, and The Hunted and the Haunted.  Happy birthday to you, Mr. Corey!

 

Happy Birthday, Brett Halliday!

If we were to truly recognize the birthday of author Brett Halliday, we’d have to settle in for a series of blog posts.  “Brett Halliday,” the author who brought the adventures of detective Michael Shayne to life on the printed page, was a pen name used by any number of hard-working mystery scribes, including Bill Pronzini, Robert Terrall, Ryerson Johnson, and Dennis Lynds.  (This is the reason why “that reckless, redheaded Irishman” enjoyed such a lengthy run in the literary sleuthing world—with 77 books and 300 short stories in his shoulder holster.)  For the sake of tidiness, we’ll focus instead on the original Halliday—Davis Dresser, born in Chicago on this date in 1904.

If you’ve noticed in the photo on the left that Mr. Dresser is sporting a rather stylish eyepatch…well, it was more necessity than the height of fashion.  Though he was born in the Windy City, Dresser spent most of his boyhood in West Texas…and an incident involving barbed wire took out his left eye.  His wanderlust inspired him to run away from home at the age of 14, where he enlisted in the U.S. 5th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas.  He followed that stint with a year in the Border Patrol on the Rio Grande.  Davis would eventually return to finish high school, but promptly continued leading “a life of romantic adventure” (to quote a well-known radio program).  He toiled in any number of jack-of-all-trades jobs (muleskinner, farmhand, deckhand) before finally deciding to enroll in the Tri-State College of Engineering.  Receiving a certificate in civil engineering, Dresser found work as an engineer and surveyor in Texas before switching to a writing career in 1927.

Davis Dresser’s life as a wanderer provided him with the inspiration for the literary creation that later paid for his food, clothing, and shelter.  He based the character of Michael Shayne on an American he encountered in a Tampico, Mexico bar (while Davis was working as a deckhand on an oil tanker).  A fracas broke out one night and Dresser was rendered unconscious — thanks to a beer bottle to the head.  The unnamed American pulled him out of the cantina so that Dresser’s comrades could attend to him with a little first aid.  Dresser would cross paths with this same gentleman in a bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter years later, and approached the man to reminisce about their Tampico misadventure.  Halliday related this encounter in Otto Penzler’s The Great Detectives: The World’s Most Celebrated Sleuths Unmasked by Their Authors:

A wide grin came over his face and he started to say something when a sudden chill came over his features.   He was looking past me at the front door and I turned my head to see what he was seeing. Two men had entered the bar and were making their way toward us.  He tossed off his cognac and slid out of the booth as they stopped beside us.  He said harshly to me, “Stay here,” and started down the aisle with one burly man leading the way and the other following close behind.  Thus they disappeared in the French Quarter, and I’ve never seen him again.

Dresser never forgot the man, and when he decided to write a mystery novel “there was never any question as to who my hero would be.”  That book was entitled Dividend on Death, a book that was rejected by 22 publishers before Davis decided to lay it aside.  Dresser wrote another novel, Mum’s the Word for Murder, under the pseudonym of Asa Baker…and had a bit more success on the publishing side when he received only 17 rejections; the book would eventually be published by Frederick Stokes’ company.  A Stokes salesman and a representative from Henry Holt and Company visited Davis not long after the publication of Mum’s. When the author mentioned that he felt Dividend was a better mystery, the Henry Holt salesman suggested he send it to the company.  It turns out that Holt was just starting a new mystery line.  Bill Sloane, Holt’s editor, gave Dividend the thumbs-up and sent Dresser a contract.

Dresser’s second Shayne novel, The Private Practice of Michael Shayne, proved to be every bit as successful as Dividend on Death…and prompted 20th Century-Fox to buy the novel for the purpose of instituting a film series based on the character.  (Actor Lloyd Nolan would play Shayne in seven B-mysteries, beginning in 1940 with Michael Shayne, Private Detective.)  The seven films produced by Fox, however, did not use any of Davis’ Shayne mysteries; instead, they bought books written by Dresser’s competitors and just changed the name of the lead character to Michael Shayne.  When Dresser asked why, he was told it was because he had married off his detective in his books and “it was against their policy to use a married detective.”  So, Dresser decided to kill Mrs. Shane off (she dies in childbirth) …only to learn that Fox was going to drop the series shortly before the first book without Michael’s wife (Blood on the Black Market—a.k.a. Heads You Lose) was published.

Michael Shayne’s success in motion pictures continued with five more B-pictures at Producers Releasing Corporation between 1946 and 1947 — featuring future Leave it to Beaver dad Hugh Beaumont as Shayne.  Meanwhile, Dresser’s creation was also making a splash in radio, beginning in 1944 with a program that starred Wally Maher as the tough-as-nails investigator.  That series would last until 1947, but would later resurface in 1948 as The New Adventures of Michael Shayne — this time with Jeff Chandler in the role.  The detective’s last radio gig was in 1952’s The Adventures of Michael Shayne on ABC, with Donald Curtis, Robert Sterling, and Vinton Hayworth all taking turns at the microphone before the series bowed out in July of 1953.  On the small screen, Dresser’s creation was played by former “Mr. North” Richard Denning in an NBC-TV series that ran from 1960 to 1961.

Davis Dresser was not only prolific as “Brett Halliday”—he also wrote under such pen names as Asa Baker, Matthew Blood, Kathryn Culver, Don Davis, Hal Debrett, Anthony Scott, Peter Field, and Anderson Wayne.  His Halliday persona was his best known, however; he even “portrayed” Halliday on Murder by Experts, a 1949-51 Mutual radio program that he hosted/narrated along with John Dickson Carr (and later film director Alfred Hitchcock).  The show featured mystery tales adapted by the duo responsible for The Mysterious Traveler: David Kogan and Robert A. Arthur.  Dresser continued to pen Michael Shayne mysteries until 1958 (Murder and the Wanton Bride was Dresser’s swan song).  The character continued to appear in comic books, short stories, and novels courtesy of other authors until 1985, when Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine ceased publication.  Dresser, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, won an Edgar Award in 1954 for his critical writings on the mystery genre.  He also founded the Torquil Publishing Company, in operation from 1953 to 1965.  He died in 1977 at the age of 72.

At the same time that Jeff Chandler was getting laughs as “the bashful biologist,” Philip Boynton, on radio’s Our Miss Brooks…he was also emoting as our birthday celebrant’s sleuth on The New Adventures of Michael Shayne.  You can check out a January 15, 1949 broadcast (“The Case of Tahlani’s Tears”) on our private eyes anthology collection Great Radio Detectives.  Michael Shayne’s also in full force on Murder, Prepaid: a set of vintage broadcasts featuring both Chandler and Wally Maher. Happy birthday to Davis Dresser…or as he’s better known, Brett Halliday—creator of one of the most famous detectives in the history of the written word!