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Happy Birthday, Barbara Eiler!

You’re familiar with the old cliché: a young girl leaves her hometown and heads for Hollywood, determined to become an actress…nay, not just an actress—a star!  All that needs to be done is to hang around a drugstore’s soda fountain drinking chocolate malteds until some talent scout wanders in, notices our future star at the counter, and makes her dreams come true.

Sometimes, however, it’s not necessary to go through all this—particularly if you already live in Hollywood.  That was the case with Barbara June Eiler, born in Los Angeles on this date in 1922.  Other than this deviation, Barbara’s road to stardom pretty much mimicked every corny classic film plot.  She was walking across her high school campus one day when a man named Don Chapman approached her and asked: “How would you like to be in radio, Babs?”

Before you start humming the theme from Dragnet—this was all perfectly legitimate.  A local station, KFAC, needed a young girl with a childlike voice to play a part on a series that dramatized the childhood lives of famous people.  They weren’t looking for a professional radio actress, but they did want someone who could act. After discussing it with Barbara’s mother, Don was convinced Babs was perfect for the part.  That next morning, Eiler walked into the radio station and exited a cast member of Dreams of Youth.

Barbara Eiler later learned that while it was easy to get into radio, continuing in the medium was an entirely different matter.  Fortunately for her, her talent started opening doors: she made an appearance on The Gulf Screen Guild Theatre in a production of “Babes in Arms,” where she played Baby Rosalie.  Eiler then found work on the Shirley Temple sitcom Junior Miss, playing the older sister (Lois) to Temple’s character.  Babs almost didn’t stay around on Junior Miss, however; the show’s sponsors thought she sounded too much like Shirley, and they were pressing upon the ad agency to give Barbara a pink slip.  So Eiler went to work on changing both the timbre of her voice and the characterization of Lois.  A different-sounding Barbara kept her job.

Only on one occasion did Barbara Eiler consider giving up her budding radio career.  It was in the summer of 1943 and she was having difficulty finding work. Most of the big network shows saw their talent enjoying well-deserved vacations and the summer replacements, as a rule, utilized smaller casts as a budgetary measure.  Babs told her mother Margaret of her career plans and Mother Eiler offered this advice: “You’re an actress, Barbara.  If you’re going to fail, you might as well do it in your own profession—not in someone else’s.  You can’t type, but even if you did…do you think it would be fair to your employer for you to be acting Camille or Lady Macbeth in the office, when all he wants you to do is take shorthand and file letters?”

As such, it’s no surprise that Barbara Eiler did not want for regular radio assignments throughout her career.  She appeared on daytime dramas like Aunt Mary (as Carla) and The Guiding Light (Susan Collins), and one of her most popular daytime gigs was portraying bookkeeper Barbara Dilley on Glamour Manor, a comedy-variety program starring Kenny Baker.  Eiler was a regular on The Life of Riley for many years as daughter Babs, and on that same network played Mildred Anderson, girlfriend to the titular star of A Day in the Life of Dennis Day.  Other programs on which Babs worked regularly include The Danny Thomas Show (his 1947-48 CBS series), The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy (working opposite star Frank Morgan), Masquerade (Jeannie Wendall), and The Rexall Theatre (as Ellen).  Her comedy resume eventually opened wide to include appearances on The Charlotte Greenwood ShowMaxwell House Coffee Time (Burns & Allen), Meet Mr. McNutleyMy Favorite Husband, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

Barbara Eiler stretched her dramatic muscles during Radio’s Golden Age with appearances on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the SaintArch Oboler’s PlaysBroadway’s My Beat, The Cavalcade of AmericaErrand of MercyFamily Theatre, Free World TheatreGunsmokeThe Hallmark Hall of FameHallmark PlayhouseHave Gun – Will TravelHeartbeat TheatreHollywood Star TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreMystery in the AirThe NBC University TheatreThe Railroad HourRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseThe Six ShooterStars Over Hollywood, SuspenseWhispering StreetsThe WhistlerYou Were ThereYour Movietown Radio Theatre, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Because Barbara Eiler was one of radio’s busiest actresses, the list of motion pictures in which she appeared is skimpy—1958’s The Deep Six and 1966’s The Bubble (directed by Arch Oboler), according to the IMDb.  Eiler did much more work for the screen once television became the dominant medium; she guest starred on such shows as DragnetTales of Wells FargoThe MillionaireTrackdownWagon TrainThe Bill Dana Show, and The Magical World of Disney.  Babs made a total of 26 appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet and there’s probably a reason for this—she married Ozzie’s brother Don in 1948, and the two remained in that state of happy-ever-after until 1962.  She would marry her second husband, Sportsman Quartet member Martin Sperzel, shortly afterward and remained Mrs. Sperzel until her passing in 2006 at the age of 83.

To celebrate Barbara Eiler’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to check out collections of her signature series A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Life of Riley (Blue Collar Blues, Loveable Lug), which you can also find on our potpourri sets of Great Radio Comedy and Great Radio Sitcoms.  You’ll also find plenty of Barbara on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road) and Broadway’s My Beat (The Loneliest Mile).  Rounding out the collections featuring the birthday girl are selections from Have Gun – Will Travel (Bitter Vengeance, Blind Courage), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel, Special Edition), Suspense (Ties That Bind, Wages of Sin), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Confidential, Fabulous Freelance, Murder Matters).  Happy birthday, Barbara!

“Two people who live together…and like it!”

Old-time radio author-historian Jim Cox describes My Favorite Husband as “a dress rehearsal for the main event” in his indispensable reference book The Great Radio Sitcoms.  “My Favorite Husband was like a pilot for a television series that has never ceased,” he writes.  “While the final production was better than its forerunner, every sitcom requires a rehearsal.”  The “final production” Cox alludes to is I Love Lucy, one of the most popular situation comedies in the history of the broadcast medium.  Husband, which premiered over CBS on this date in 1948, was the blueprint for Lucy. Many of Lucy’s classic episodes were recycled from earlier Husband scripts, and elements of the radio show would work their way into Lucille Ball’s later television efforts as well.

My Favorite Husband’s origins can be traced to a 1941 novel penned by Isabel Scott Rorick: Mr. & Mrs. Cugat: The Record of a Happy Marriage.  Rorick’s book had already been adapted for the silver screen as a 1942 Ray Milland-Betty Field comedy, Are Husbands Necessary? However, as Lucy reminisced in her autobiography Love, Lucy, it was CBS vice president Hubbell Robinson who approached her in 1946 with the idea of doing a radio version.  Anxious to repair her then dicey marriage with bandleader Desi Arnaz—who had justly acquired a reputation as being a wandering husband whenever he was on the road—Lucy was amenable to the idea. Of course, she wanted Desi to play her spouse on the program.  The CBS brass balked at this, arguing that no one would believe Arnaz was her husband, despite the fact that…well, that he was her husband.  “I think it helps make a domestic comedy more believable when the audience knows the couple are actually married,” she explained to The Powers That Be.  (Ball had also observed that radio, as a medium, was kinder to the married home life of entertainers, as witnessed in such couples as Jack Benny & Mary Livingstone and George Burns & Gracie Allen.)

CBS refused to budge, so Mrs. Arnaz relented and My Favorite Husband debuted as a “special preview program” on July 5, 1948. Lucy starred as socialite-turned-housewife Elizabeth (Liz) Elliott Cugat, and Lee Bowman played her husband George, former playboy-turned-bank-vice-president.  The reception to the show was quite positive, and CBS gave the greenlight for Husband to continue for the remainder of the summer.  Bowman, however, was forced to bow out due to previous commitments and he handed off his role to actor Richard Denning, who would play George Cugat until the show left the radio airwaves.  Bowman wasn’t the only individual whose stint with Husband would be a short one. The series was being written by Frank Fox and Bill Davenport, but only until their regular writing jobs returned in the fall with The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (they were “on loan,” to speak).  CBS vice president Harry Ackerman assigned the scripting of Husband to a pair of network staffers, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.

Ackerman would also hire an individual who, as head writer, would make important changes to My Favorite Husband.  Writer Jess Oppenheimer had made his name at the network working for stars like Fanny Brice. In fact, it was after being dismissed from Brice’s The Baby Snooks Show (CBS gave the star her pink slip at the end of the 1947-48 season) that Jess was encouraged by Ackerman to submit a script to Husband…with Ackerman being so bowled over he offered the head writer’s job to Oppenheimer.  Jess was hesitant to take the gig—he had heard that Lucy had a reputation as a “strong personality”—but eventually agreed to accept the position.  To Oppenheimer’s surprise, Ackerman informed him that not only would he be the head writer but the director-producer as well.

Getting acclimated to the working conditions on My Favorite Husband was not an easy task for Jess Oppenheimer, but he was soon tinkering with the formula to make the show funnier.  When Husband first went on the air, the characters of Liz and George Cugat were quite upwardly mobile, owing to George’s status as bank vice president.  Oppenheimer made them a little more middle class, hinting that George’s title was more window dressing than anything truly financially substantial.  Jess also toned-down Liz’s sophistication—using Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks as a template, he made Liz more childlike and impulsive.  The final touch was changing the couple’s last name to “Cooper.” (Bandleader Xavier Cugat and his wife had threatened the show with a lawsuit over use of their name.)

Oppenheimer also had the brainstorm to ask Lucy to attend a Jack Benny Show broadcast and watch how effective Jack was at milking laughs from an audience.  Realizing that she could make the show funnier by interacting with the crowd rather than just reading lines from a script, Lucy adopted this new policy with gusto.  (“[T]here were times I thought we’d have to catch her with a butterfly net to get her back to the microphone,” Oppenheimer recalled in his son Gregg’s Laughs, Luck…and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time.)  He wasn’t quite as fortunate with Lucy’s co-star, however; Denning told him: “If I take my eyes or finger off that script, I’ll never find my place again.”

Jess Oppenheimer continued to make successful alterations to My Favorite Husband.  Realizing that the Coopers could use the comic contrast of an older couple (the wife of which could act as Liz’s confidant), the writers started to beef up the role of Rudolph Atterbury, George’s boss at the bank…and assigned the role to radio’s indispensable Gale Gordon.  (Atterbury had previously been played on Husband by the likes of Hans Conried and Joseph Kearns.)  Bea Benaderet played Iris Atterbury, always willing to help Liz carry out some zany scheme. Benaderet was no stranger to Husband, having previously emoted as George’s mother Leticia (a role that then went to Eleanor Audley.  The supporting cast of Husband included Ruth Perrott (as dutiful maid Katie), Richard Crenna, John Hiestand, Hal March, Frank Nelson, Doris Singleton, and many more.

My Favorite Husband started out as a sustained series for CBS Radio, but it eventually found a sponsor in General Mills, allowing Lucille Ball to greet the studio and listening audiences each week with an enthusiastic “Jell-O, everybody!”  The program also became famous for its memorable closing commercials featuring Lucy and announcer Bob Lemond, with Lucy playing famous Mother Goose/storybook characters like Goldilocks and Little Miss Muffet.  My Favorite Husband was a success for The Tiffany Network until its curtain closing on March 31, 1951.  A TV version of Husband later aired over CBS from 1953 to 1955, with Joan Caulfield and Barry Nelson in the Ball-Denning roles. Meanwhile, Lucy would get the opportunity to play housewife to her real-life husband…but that’s a post for another day.

Radio Spirits’ brand-new potpourri collection of radio comedy programs, Great Radio Sitcoms, features a May 21, 1950 broadcast of My Favorite Husband that is guaranteed to brighten your spirits on this anniversary of one of radio’s most entertaining programs!

Happy Birthday, James Cagney!

When we think of the man that Orson Welles once described as “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera” it’s usually as the motion picture industry’s consummate tough guy, with memorable appearances in such iconic films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and White Heat (1949). James Cagney, however, was a performer of incredible versatility: he sang and danced in Footlight Parade (1933), spouted Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), and won the respect and admiration of his movie peers by grabbing an Oscar trophy portraying showman George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  The first actor selected to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award (in 1974), James Francis Cagney, Jr. arrived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in NYC on this date in 1899—no doubt asking the doctor who delivered him: “Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?”

The son of Carolyn and James, Sr. (a bartender and amateur boxer), James Cagney was the second of seven Cagney children…although two of them died within months of their births.  Jimmy lived a hardscrabble life of poverty, and his poor health in childhood was often attributed to his family’s financial difficulties.  Cagney graduated from NYC’s Stuyvesant High School and enrolled in Columbia College with the intention of getting an art degree.  He dropped out after one semester, returning home to help the family after his father succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic.

James Cagney worked a variety of jobs at this period of his life, including copy boy (for the New York Sun) and bellhop.  He developed a love of tap dancing in his childhood while participating in amateur theatrics.  A woman named Florence James can claim credit for first putting Jimmy on stage, but it was while working at a department store in 1919 that a colleague gave him a heads-up about an upcoming production entitled Every Sailor.  Cagney didn’t think he had a chance of getting hired, but the producers were impressed with his audition enough to give him a job…as a dancer in the female chorus line.  Jimmy was grateful for the $35-a-week salary, but his mother influenced his decision to leave after two months, wanting him to get an education.  His retirement from performing didn’t last long; Cagney later became a chorus boy in the Broadway revue Pitter Patter, pulling down $55 a week ($40 of which went to Mama Cagney).

Thus began James Cagney’s 10-year-association with vaudeville and Broadway, working his way up from the chorus to male leads (including his first dramatic role in 1925’s Outside Looking In—he beat out a pre-Ethel and Albert Alan Bunce for the part because his hair was redder).  Along the way, he married dancer Frances Willard “Billie” Vernon in 1922, who remained Mrs. Cagney until Jimmy’s death.  Cagney’s Broadway triumphs included Women Go On Forever (1926) and Grand Street Follies (1928/1929); Jimmy’s turn in Penny Arcade (1930) won critical acclaim even if critics didn’t care for the material.  Al Jolson bought the rights to Arcade for $20,000 and sold them to Warner Brothers under the stipulation that the studio keep Jimmy and female lead Joan Blondell (who had acted alongside Cagney in a previous play, Maggie the Magnificent [1929]).  Arcade was retitled Sinners’ Holiday (1930) for the screen and, while Warners had some initial doubts about Jimmy, it wasn’t long before they realized they had a hot property in their stable.

In Holiday, James Cagney played a tough guy who becomes a killer and he continued in that same vein in a follow-up film, The Doorway to Hell (1930).  The Public Enemy (1931) would be Cagney’s true Hollywood breakthrough. Even today, Enemy crackles with energy in its iconic sequences of Jimmy shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face and Cagney’s memorable demise at the end.  A role in Smart Money (1931), a gangster flick which paired him with fellow studio menace Edward G. Robinson (in their sole feature film teaming), only further cemented Cagney’s rise to stardom.  James Cagney was one of the most unconventional of movie stars—he didn’t possess leading man looks (he was short and rather ordinary looking), but his vitality and two-fisted toughness made him ideal for the studio’s output of social dramas and gangster sagas.

Having a star of Jimmy Cagney’s talent on the payroll, Warner Bros. missed few opportunities to showcase him at every opportunity.  Jimmy made a lot of movies for the studio during the early 1930s, many of them he didn’t want to participate in…which gave him a reputation for being “difficult.”  To express his dissatisfaction, the actor would resort to such tactics as adopting an unattractive haircut (1934’s Jimmy the Gent) or sporting a risible pencil-thin mustache (1934’s He Was Her Man).  Cagney’s dissatisfaction with Warners would lead to his suing the studio for breach of contract in 1935.  While awaiting the outcome of that case, Jimmy accepted an offer from independent studio Grand National to make motion pictures—two of which were released (a third didn’t get made because the studio ran out of money), Great Guy (1936) and Something to Sing About (1937).

The courts ultimately ruled in James Cagney’s favor, and the actor returned to Warner Brothers in 1938 to make several movies beloved by classic film fans today: Dirty FacesThe Roaring Twenties (1939), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy.  He and his brother William decided to become independent filmmakers through United Artists in 1942, and though he released such features as Johnny Come Lately (1943) and Blood on the Moon (1945), Jimmy would return to Warners in 1949 after a third “Cagney Productions” film, The Time of Your Life (1948), really gave the company a soaking.  Part of Cagney’s agreement to return to Warner Brothers was that they would clean up the financial mess left by Time; in return, Jimmy gave the studio a substantial hit by once again returning to his gangster roots with White Heat.

By the 1950s, James Cagney’s star luster had started to dim a bit, though he continued to make critically-acclaimed films like Mister Roberts (1955), Love Me or Leave Me (1955; playing Marty “The Gimp” Snyder opposite Doris Day’s Ruth Etting), and Man of a Thousand Faces (1957; as silent film star Lon Chaney). He even dabbled in directing—a remake of 1942’s This Gun for Hire entitled Short Cut to Hell (1957).  Even with an uproarious performance in the Billy Wilder-directed One, Two, Three (1961), Cagney was ready to retire and live the life of a gentleman farmer on his spread in upstate New York.  During his movie heyday, Jimmy often reprised his motion picture roles in radio venues like The Cavalcade of AmericaFamily TheatreThe Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio Theatre, and The NBC Star Playhouse.  Cagney had two very memorable radio showcases on Arch Oboler’s Plays (an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel. Johnny Got His Gun) and Suspense (a good little installment entitled “No Escape”).

It wasn’t until 1981 that James Cagney was coaxed back into the movies: partly because his doctors recommended physical activity for his ailments (including diabetes) and partly to work with his old chum Pat O’Brien once again.  (The two actors made a total of nine films together including Ceiling Zero [1935] and Torrid Zone [1940].)  As New York Police Commander Rhinelander Waldo in an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, Jimmy demonstrated he was still the consummate pro (film critics ran out of superlatives to describe how good it was to have him back).  Sadly, it was Pat O’Brien’s cinematic swan song.  Cagney would only make one more movie (with Art Carney), the 1984 TV-film Terrible Joe Moran, before his passing in 1986 at the age of 86.

I mentioned earlier an appearance James Cagney made on Arch Oboler’s Plays—a March 9, 1940 performance of “Johnny Got His Gun,” with Jimmy as a war veteran who’s blind, deaf and mute..and has no arms or legs.  It’s powerful radio, and you’ll find it on Radio Spirits’ Arch Oboler’s Plays collection.  Today’s birthday boy is also one of the many subjects featured on our documentary DVD Hollywood’s Greatest Screen Legends and the 1975 cinematic documentary mosaic Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Happy birthday, Jimmy!

“Somewhere along the line a murderer makes a mistake—it’s my job to find that mistake.”

“Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance” Ogden Nash once rhymed in a memorable couplet.  Nash’s editorial comment was addressing the one-time popularity of author S.S. Van Dine’s famed sleuth. After generating quite a following with the 1926 publication of the first Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case,  the character soon took a back seat to the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s. (Raymond Chandler purportedly called Philo Vance “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”)  The aristocratic Vance may have noticed a decline in the number of his books disappearing from bookstore shelves, but he kept busy in movies and on radio. In fact, the first of three Philo Vance series premiered over NBC Radio on this date in 1945.

S.S. Van Dine was a pseudonym for author-art critic Willard Huntington Wright, who enjoyed a most respectful journalism/literary career beginning at age 21, when he was made literary editor of The Los Angeles Times.  By the 1920s, Wright had become a freelancer…and due to a combination of exhaustion/overwork and a cocaine addiction (not known to family and associates at the time), he adopted a regimen of bed rest to recuperate.  Willard also developed a voracious appetite for crime fiction, and after reading hundreds of volumes on crime and detection, decided to try his hand at the genre.  He sold Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins on an idea that eventually took wing as The Benson Murder Case.  Successful Philo Vance novels like The Canary Murder Case (1927) and The Greene Murder Case (1928) followed.

Both Canary and Greene were given the silver screen treatment (in 1929), with William Powell cast in the role of Philo.  (Canary is of interest to silent film fans as being the final American film made by the legendary Louise Brooks before making both Pandora’s Box [1929] and Diary of a Lost Girl [1929] for G.W. Pabst.)  Powell would make the most movie appearances as Vance, also appearing as the sleuth in The Benson Murder Case (which was finally adapted for film in 1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933), one of the best entries in the Philo Vance franchise.  In fact, when Powell’s The Thin Man was released in 1934, the trailer for the movie had his Nick Charles meeting Philo Vance (both played by Powell).  Other actors offering their interpretation of Vance include Basil Rathbone (The Bishop Murder Case), Warren William (The Dragon Murder Case), Paul Lukas (The Casino Murder Case), and Edmund Lowe (The Garden Murder Case).

Warren William encored as Philo Vance in a movie entry that will certainly be of interest to old-time radio fans: 1939’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case.  Based on the novel published in 1938, it features the two people who live in the Burns house—George and Gracie—as well as Gracie’s mother and brother.  The motion picture, however, only makes room for Gracie; the comedienne steals the show (calling the detective “Fido”) and relegates Vance to a secondary role, but it’s most entertaining.

The first attempt to bring Philo Vance to radio was as a summer replacement for The Bob Burns Show (sponsored by Lifebuoy-Lever Brothers), which ran on NBC from July 5 to September 27, 1945.  Future Academy Award winner Jose Ferrer portrayed Philo, with Let George Do It’s Frances Robinson as his Gal Friday Ellen Deering.  Documentation of a second Philo series that apparently aired a year later on ABC’s West Coast is a bit slippery to track down, while others document that this version may have aired earlier than the Jose Ferrer version, in 1943 with John Emery.

The third Philo Vance incarnation is not hard to track down, however, as most of the surviving shows are from this syndicated version from Frederic Ziv and his syndication factory.  It began in the fall of 1946, airing on some Mutual stations, before wrapping things up four years later.  In the role of Philo was Jackson Beck, already becoming a known radio name with appearances as the announcer on The Adventures of Superman and the star of The Cisco Kid.  Beck’s fellow Superman player, Joan Alexander, worked on Vance as his secretary Ellen Deering, and the cast was rounded out with George Petrie as District Attorney Frank Markham, and Humphrey Davis as Vance’s police force adversary, Sgt. Ernest Heath.

By the time Philo Vance settled in for his third crack at radio he had ceased to be a “detective dandy” and instead became what critic John Crosby described as “just another smoothie with an eye for the ladies and a collection of wisecracks that would make the late author spin in his grave.”  Surviving episodes of Vance show that it’s not necessarily a bad series, but one that seemed to just be going through the motions.  You get the feeling the only person that had fun on the show was the organist.  One cannot deny, however, the stamp of professionalism from veterans like Beck and Alexander, who brought conviction to their performances until Ziv shut down the syndicated version in 1950.

Radio Spirits offers up some of Jackson Beck’s memorable excursions as Philo Vance in the Philo Vance: Archives Collection, available as a digital download.  Eighteen broadcasts from the syndicated Ziv series await your downloading convenience!

Radio’s home folks

It’s difficult to describe the sublime joys of Vic and Sade—which premiered over NBC Blue on this date in 1932—to anyone unfamiliar with old-time radio.  Come to think of it, it’s not easy with people familiar with old-time radio, either.  It’s one of those programs you either immediately take to your bosom or don’t.  For most of its run, Vic and Sade spent time in radio’s “daytime ghetto,” sandwiched between daytime soaps and game shows.  Though it was broadcast as a five-day-a-week quarter-hour, it was not technically a serial.  A more apt description of the show came from longtime announcer Bob Brown, who labeled it “an island of delight in a sea of tears.”

Vic and Sade was a comedy, however.  Radio historian (and Radio Spirits scribe) Elizabeth McLeod once observed in an essay:

There were many other fifteen minute comedy-dialogue shows in its time, and Vic and Sade was nothing like any of them. It never had the compelling, dramatic plots of Amos ‘n’ Andy, or the urbane wit of Easy Aces, or the broad comedy of Lum and Abner. You didn’t tune in Vic and Sade to find out how the characters would get themselves out of a difficult plot wrinkle—Rush was never put on trial for murder, for example, or sued for breach of promise—and you never fell on the floor laughing at the Gook family’s wacky antics.

Vic and Sade wasn’t really about any of these things. In fact, when you really think about it, Vic and Sade wasn’t about anything. It was the original show about nothing.

Vic and Sade was the creation of a young NBC continuity writer named Paul Rhymer.  Rhymer, born in Fulton, Illinois in 1905, spent most of his childhood in Bloomington—which would become the model for the unidentified town where “the small house halfway up in the next block” was located.  Paul attended Illinois Wesleyan University for a brief time, until the passing of his father, then embarked on a series of odd jobs.  Rhymer even dabbled as a newspaper reporter for a time, but he indulged in a practice that is generally frowned upon in journalism: he was writing feature stories about people he had neglected to interview.  Working for NBC, Paul spent the next three years churning out scripts for various shows until program director Charles Menser asked him to whip up a family skit that was to be auditioned before prospective sponsor Procter & Gamble.  This “skit” would eventually become Vic and Sade, and though P&G took a pass, Menser liked the concept enough to put it on the air.  (Procter & Gamble would change their mind and sign on to pay the bills in 1934, allowing Paul to leave NBC and be a freelancer from that moment on.)

Vic and Sade were the first names of Mr. and Mrs. Victor Rodney Gook, an average, nondescript couple residing in an unnamed rural town located somewhere in Illinois.  Vic, portrayed by former grain salesman Art Van Harvey, worked as chief accountant for Consolidated Kitchenware Company’s Plant Number Fourteen—and had married Sade after meeting her in her hometown in Dixon, Illinois.  Like most office drones, Vic constantly grumbled about his job and about his boss in particular: J.K. Ruebush (pronounced “Old Rubbish”).  After punching the time clock at the end of his workday, Vic would return home to his castle (“Hi-dee-hi, Ho-dee-ho” he’d call out in Cab Calloway fashion) and indulge in his passions of parades, alarm clocks, cigars, etc.  Vic was also a lodge member-in-good-standing of the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, Drowsy Venus Chapter—he was the Exalted Big Dipper.

Actress Bernardine Flynn was lured to radio by its career stability and played the part of Sade, Vic’s domestic partner who took great pride in her housekeeping (whipping up kitchen delights like beef punkles ice cream and limberschwartz cheese).  But she, too, had outside interests in the form of the Thimble Club—a ladies’ aggregation that met weekly to sew and gossip.  Sade’s best bud was Ruthie Stembottom; the two women never missed a washrag sale at Yamilton’s Department Store.  Sade was the straight woman on the show, but she’d often give out with statements like, “Somebody knock me over with a feather!” and her endearing catchphrase, “Oh, ish.”

What was so remarkable about Vic and Sade is that the Gooks’ entire existence was established while rarely leaving the confines of their Virginia Avenue residence—the supporting characters in their world were talked about in anecdotes, letters and phone calls.  But even Rhymer could detect that this would become limiting and as such, he introduced a third character off-mike on July 8, 1932.  This would be nine-year-old Rush, the son of an old school friend of Sade’s who the couple adopted because his mother was unable to take care of him.  Billy Idelson made his first on-mike appearance on July 15, and it wasn’t long before listeners simply accepted that Rush was Vic and Sade’s son all along.  A good kid who possessed an endearing deadpan innocence, Rush affectionately called his father “Gov” and Vic had an endless supply of nicknames in response—”Pocketwatch,” “Paperweight,” “Horse Chestnut,” etc.  (To Sade, Rush was “Willie”—a reference to actor Idleson’s real first name.)  Like his parents, we learned about Rush’s friends and acquaintances (Smelly Clark, Blue-Tooth Johnson) through various conversations.

Art Van Harvey suffered a heart attack in 1940. To keep the show running until he recuperated, Paul Rhymer decided to add a fourth character to Vic and Sade: Uncle Fletcher. Often talked about on the program, Fletcher was brought to life by Huntington, WV native Clarence Hartzell as a half-deaf old codger who lived in his own little world. He would often ramble on at length about old acquaintances from places like Sweet Esther, Wisconsin and Dismal Seepage, Ohio.  Oblivious to any conversation already in progress, Fletcher would talk right through people and respond to any question asked of him with “Fine.”  (When discussing his acquaintances, Uncle Fletcher would invariably conclude his reminiscences with the curt “…later died.”)  Uncle Fletcher soon became indispensable to the program, and he remained with the series even after Art Van Harvey’s return.  The show underwent another cast change in 1942, when Billy Idelson enlisted in the Navy. The character of Russell Miller, the orphaned nephew of one of Vic’s co-workers at Consolidated Kitchenware (and played by David Whitehouse and Johnny Coons), became a Rush-surrogate on the June 3, 1943 broadcast.

Vic and Sade vacated the airwaves on September 29, 1944.  It returned on August 21, 1945 and ran until December 7, 1945, and then did a brief summer stint (sponsored by Fitch Shampoo) as a half-hour comedy program from June to October 1946.  The program later took a shot at a couple of small screen runs (in 1949 and 1957).  About 300 transcriptions of the show have survived to entertain a new generation of audiences, but Vic and Sade is also at the center of one of the true tragic stories of old-time radio preservation.  The show’s longtime sponsor, Procter & Gamble, destroyed close to 3,000 recorded transcription discs of the program shortly after WWII.  John Dunning, author of On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, summed up the feelings of Vic and Sade fans: “All we can do at this late date is hope that the space formerly used to house those wonderful transcriptions made some indifferent company bureaucrat a comfortable office.”  The written record is another matter entirely. In the 1970s, the efforts of Paul Rhymer and his wife resulted in two book collections of Vic and Sade scripts featuring forewords from Ray Bradbury and Jean Shepherd.

Bradbury and Shepherd were not the only fans of the series. Admirers of Vic and Sade included James Thurber, Ogden Nash, Sherwood Anderson, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Fibber McGee & Molly’s Jim and Marian Jordan—two individuals who knew a thing or two about life in Illinois.  We’ll wager that we’ll be adding your name to this list, too, once you check out our collection of Vic and Sade shows.  You’ll even find the couple on our potpourri set of Great Radio Sitcoms!  Don’t just sit there with your teeth in your mouth—order these sets today!

Oh, my Papa…

Every third Sunday in June, we celebrate Father’s Day—a national holiday recognizing the importance of fatherhood, paternal bonds and really, the societal influence of fathers in general.  Here at Radio Spirits, we had a nice tie picked out for our dads this year…and then we thought: why not take a little time on the blog to recognize those old-time radio fathers that made a tremendous difference in our listening lives?

Because there are so many radio “Pops” worthy of recognition, like Inspector Richard Queen on The Adventures of Ellery Queen and patriarch Henry Barbour of One Man’s Family fame, I decided for the purposes of this post to concentrate on fathers that you can become acquainted with on programs from our voluminous inventory here.  (I’ve even included links to the collections in case you’re trying to narrow down the gift choice between CDs and a pipe.)

Chester A. Riley, The Life of Riley – One of our most popular collections, Loveable Lug, succinctly sums up the appeal of an OTR dad who may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer…but he was definitely one of the most beloved.  When Riley was wrong, he was bullheadedly wrong…and he wasn’t going to admit this until the latest complication he had blundered into had reached a satisfactory conclusion.  Even then he would throw up his hands and mutter his famous catchphrase: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”  Despite his lack of brains, he loved his wife Peg and children Babs and Junior, and if he did something stupid, it was for their benefit.  In addition to Lug, check out our Riley collections Blue Collar Blues and Magnificent Mug.

Phil Harris, The Fitch Bandwagon/The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show – Another patriarch who may not have been the best role model where children were concerned, musician Phil Harris nevertheless had a bit more on the ball than Chester A. Riley. His trouble was that he had a best friend (Frankie Remley) who managed to get him into hot water all the time.  Phil Harris was best known for his baton-waving duties on The Jack Benny Show but after he tied the knot with movie star Alice Faye in 1941, he became more and more of a family man, devoted to his wife and two daughters.  Phil began his fatherly duties on The Fitch Bandwagon in 1946, and those shows are featured on A Song and a SmileStepping Out, and Buried Treasure.  Two years later, the family Harris introduced The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, spotlighted on our collections The First 20 EpisodesThe Circus, and Smoother and Sweeter.

Abner Peabody, Lum & Abner – It’s funny how we tend to forget that one-half of The Jot ‘Em Down Store was a dutiful family man, isn’t it?  I guess that’s because ol’ Abner, bless his heart (buh-less his little heart!), spent so many working hours playing epic games of checkers or getting involved in other wacky shenanigans he didn’t seem to make much time for his wife Elizabeth and daughter Pearl.  Oh, that’s not really being fair; truth be told, we rarely heard from either woman during the many years the comedy serial was broadcast, but we can state categorically that they were the most important things in life to Abner—his bachelor buddy Lum surely had to be jealous.  If you’re curious as to what’s going on down in Pine Ridge, spend an hour or two listening to Lum & Abner volumes 123567891011, and 12.

Mr. Piper, The Couple Next Door – The Couple Next Door was another serial that celebrated the comedic joys of domestic bliss.  We’re not being formal with the “Mister,” either—during the show’s run on CBS from 1957 to 1960, the husband and wife had no first names other than “Dear” and “Darling.”  But they did have daughter Suzy and newborn Bobby, and Piper proved to be an exemplary father when it came to ensuring that the children were brought up properly.  Radio Spirits features the Piper family in multiple CD sets: The Couple Next DoorMerry Mix-UpsMoving OnBusiness & Pleasure, and Family Fortunes.

Victor Gook, Vic & Sade – Listeners during the Golden Age of Radio made this program (not a serial, though it was broadcast five days a week) a popular one, with its devoted audience tuning in religiously to the adventures of the family occupying “the small house halfway up in the next block.”  The curmudgeonly Vic, whose bark was worse than his bite, made certain that between his nine-to-five job working for J.K. Ruebush and his duties as the Exalted Big Dipper of Sacred Stars of the Milky Way (Drowsy Venus Chapter) he was there for his wife Sade and son Rush.  If you’ve never heard this classic program, do what you can to slip Vic & Sade in your shopping cart.

Osgood Conklin, Our Miss Brooks – I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult life must have been for young Harriet Conklin growing up.  Your entire high school existence is stymied by the fact that your autocratic father is the principal and referred to fondly by both faculty and students as “Old Marblehead.”  We may have been grateful that we didn’t have to call Osgood Conklin “Pop”…but the fact that he provided us with endless laughs as he matched wits with his nemesis, English teacher Connie Brooks, more than made up for his shortcomings.  If you’re skeptical, check out Boynton BluesGood EnglishFaculty Feuds, and School Spirit.

Jim Anderson, Father Knows Best – The old-time radio dad that everybody wishes they had.  Jim Anderson started out in the “Daddy’s-an-idiot-but-we-love-him” mold until star Robert Young used his muscle to transform his patriarch into an all-knowing sage who gently but firmly prodded his children to follow the right path in life.  Most folks remember Father Knows Best as a long-running TV show, but its roots are in radio, as witnessed on the Radio Spirits collection Maple Street.

Radio Spirits also has on hand a pair of potpourri collections with samples of comedy hits from radio’s past, Great Radio Comedy and Great Radio Sitcoms.  You’ll find many of the Dads discussed above on Comedy, along with visits to the patriarchs of The Aldrich Family (Sam Aldrich—attorney-at-law!), The Baby Snooks Show (Lancelot “Daddy” Higgins), A Date with Judy (Melvin Foster), A Day in the Life of Dennis Day (Dennis’ landlord, Herbert Anderson), and Meet Corliss Archer (Harry Archer).  Sitcoms spotlights some of these same favorites and adds Ethel and Albert (the original Couple Next Door), Blondie (Dagwood Bumstead), My Little Margie (Vern Albright), and of course, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (super dad Ozzie Nelson and his family)!

Happy Father’s Day to the Dad in your life!

Happy Birthday, Francis “Dink” Trout!

In the Golden Age of Radio, actors were often called upon to play “meek” individuals—or whatever nickname you prefer: wimp, nebbish, milquetoast, etc.  The gold standard for these portrayals might be Bill Thompson, who even utilized “wimp” in the name of his famous creation “Wallace Wimple.”  But the go-to thespian continually called upon to play any number of henpecked “Yes, dear” souls would unquestionably be “Dink” Trout, born Francis Harry Traut in Beardstown, Illinois on this date in 1898.  A multi-talented performer described by author Trav S.D. (author of No Applause—Just Throw Money) as “a fascinating jack of all trades” (musician, radio personality, screen actor, voice-over artist), Trout is fondly remembered by old-time radio fans for bringing life to two unforgettable characters on the sitcoms A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Life of Riley.

The son of a civil engineer (Frank J. Traut), Dink Trout attended the University of Illinois and, upon graduation, began to pursue an acting career with vigor. In 1926, he appeared in a  Broadway production of The Wild Rose as a character named “Zeppo.”  Trout worked briefly for “The Old Maestro,” Ben Bernie, playing marimba and trombone in his orchestra.  His gig with Bernie led to radio work, with Dink headlining his own radio show over WOR in 1927.  Trout also made the rounds on the vaudeville circuit and played in any number of Chautauqua shows.

One of Dink Trout’s first high-profile radio jobs was as a regular on Scattergood Baines, a daily serial that premiered over CBS’ West Coast on February 22, 1937.  The show was based on a creation by author Clarence Buddington Kelland (best-known for a short story, “Opera Hat,” that became the basis of the classic 1936 comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). The main character was a wise country sage who dispensed wisdom and advice in a small Vermont town.  Trout portrayed Pliny Pickett, the conductor of the town’s branch-line train, and one of Scattergood’s true-blue pals.  Scattergood Baines moved to the full coast-to-coast CBS network in October of 1938 and, apart from a four-month hiatus in 1941, was a Tiffany mainstay until June 12, 1942.  While Baines was still enjoying its radio run, independent film producer Jerrold T. Brandt instituted a B-movie franchise at R-K-O that allowed Dink to reprise his radio role (veteran character actor Guy Kibbee was the “name” enlisted to portray Scattergood) in three of the six programmers that comprised the series: Scattergood Baines (1941), Scattergood Baines Pulls the Strings (1941), and Cinderella Swings It (1943), the final entry.

Dink Trout was no novice when it came to movie making: his initial debut was an uncredited appearance in 1936’s Under Your Spell, but he turns up in a number of OTR-themed films or alongside the radio star headliners.  Trout has small roles in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943) and It’s a Great Life (1943; part of the Blondie series), and worked alongside Danny Kaye in Up in Arms (1944) and Jack Benny in his notorious The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945).  Dink’s other film roles include Miss Polly (1941), The Doughgirls (1944), I’m from Arkansas (1944), When Irish Eyes are Smiling (1944), Sudan (1945), and Notorious (1946).  Toward the end of the decade, Trout was punching a time clock for Disney in the form of a small role in So Dear to My Heart (1948) and voicing the character of Bootle Beetle in several Donald Duck cartoons.

Dink Trout played “Roger Waddington” on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet and a meek little character who answered to “Horace” on The Fitch Bandwagon during Cass Daley’s season (1945-46) with the program.  Trout essayed the role of “Obie Slider” on The Nebbs, a 1945-46 Mutual sitcom based on the popular comic strip created by Sol Hess and starring the husband-and-wife team of Kathleen and Gene Lockhart.  When Lum & Abner adopted its weekly half-hour, live-audience format in 1948, Dink was pressed into playing lunchroom owner Luke Spears.  Other radio shows on Trout’s resume include The Abbott & Costello ShowAll-Star Western TheatreThe Baby Snooks ShowThe Cavalcade of AmericaCommand PerformanceFamily TheatreFrontier TheatreJohnny Madero, Pier 23The Lux Radio TheatreMeet Me at Parky’sOur Miss BrooksScreen Directors’ Playhouse, and The Sealtest Variety Theatre.

But when fans fondly reminisce about Francis “Dink” Trout, it’s a good bet that his characterization of “Waldo Binney” on The Life of Riley is near the top of the list.  Waldo was a neighbor of Riley’s whose mild, docile demeanor provided a direct contrast to Chester’s bombastic pal Gillis.  The fall of 1946 would provide Trout with his most inspired radio role. On A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, Dink was Herbert Anderson—the timid father of Dennis’ girlfriend Mildred.  Mr. Anderson was a man who had been so beaten down by his domineering wife Clara (Bea Benaderet) that on the rare occasion when he stood up to her (he called her “Poopsie”) it was guaranteed to bring the house down.  Herbert’s trademark was to laugh at something stupid uttered by his potential son-in-law (who had no shortage of idiotic observations) with a dismissive “Silly boy…”

A brief item in the “Radio in Review” column of the March 3, 1950 edition of Radio-TV Life noted that Dink Trout and Barbara Eiler (who was playing Mildred on the Day show at the time) would not be returning to A Day in the Life of Dennis Day the following season.  (This is accurate: a change in the show’s format found Dennis trying to make it on his own in Hollywood, with Benaderet playing a new landlady character.)  In the case of Trout…this might have been a premonition.  Dink went in for cancer surgery not long after the Radio-TV Life announcement and complications from two procedures during his three-week stay took his life at age 51.  His final role wouldn’t be released until the following year when he provided the memorable voice of the King of Hearts in the Walt Disney production of Alice in Wonderland (1951).

A July 1948 edition of Radio Mirror features a lengthy article on Dennis Day and his wife Peggy…and a passing reference to our birthday boy.  Did you know that Dennis owned a Cocker Spaniel…that answered to “Dink Trout”?  Well, Radio Spirits features some of the funniest half-hours of Day’s 1946-51 sitcom in our A Day in the Life of Dennis Day collection, and you can also hear Dink on The Life of Riley sets Blue Collar Blues and Magnificent Mug.  Check out Dink on Great Radio Comedy and Great Radio Sitcoms, too!

Happy Birthday, Don Diamond!

The actor born Donald Alan Diamond in Brooklyn, NY on this date in 1921 was in real life a rather nondescript individual…but that is precisely the quality you want when you’ve decided you want to be a character actor.  Diamond’s knack for dialects—Spanish ones in particular—kept him busy in radio during the 1940s, and with the advent of television, his vocal talents won him high profile roles on The Adventures of Kit Carson (as Carson’s loyal sidekick “El Toro”) and Zorro, on which he played Corporal Reyes.  In the mid-60s, Don would land the gig for which he’s best remembered among couch potatoes in good standing: that of Crazy Cat, the goofy second-in-command to Hekawi Indian Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) on the popular TV comedy-western F Troop.

Because he tackled so many Hispanic roles, Don Diamond was often believed by many to be Mexican.  His origins, however, were Russian. Diamond’s father Benjamin emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1905, which explained why Don spoke more than his fair share of Yiddish.  But he studied Spanish while attending the University of Michigan to obtain a degree in drama, and when Diamond enlisted in the Army Air Corps during WWII (serving stateside because he suffered from myopia), he spent his spare time perfecting his Spanish while stationed in the Southwest.

Don Diamond got his start in radio while waiting induction in New York, emoting on such series as The March of Time.  Once out of the service, Don made the rounds on many of the medium’s popular dramatic anthologies, notably All-Star Western TheatreThe Bakers’ Theatre of StarsThe CBS Radio WorkshopConfessionEscapeThe Eternal LightFavorite StoryFamily TheatreInheritanceThe Lux Radio TheatreNBC Presents: Short StoryThe NBC University TheatreRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over Hollywood, and Suspense.

Other programs on which Don Diamond did a little script reading include The Adventures of Nero WolfeThe Adventures of Philip MarloweBroadway’s My BeatDangerous AssignmentFort LaramieFrontier GentlemanGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelLassieLet George Do ItLuke Slaughter of TombstoneNight BeatO’HaraPresenting Charles BoyerRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky FortuneThe Silent MenThe Story of Doctor KildareTales of the Texas RangersYou Were There, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Don kept his hand in radio practically till the end, appearing on such radio revival attempts as Horizons WestThe Hollywood Radio Theatre, and The Sears Radio Theatre.

While his radio career was going great guns, Don Diamond decided to flex his thespic muscles and try his luck in motion pictures. He made his silver screen debut in 1950’s Borderline (a noir starring Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor), and would go to work both credited and uncredited in the likes of Omar Khayyam (1957), Raiders of Old California (1957), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), The Story of Ruth (1960), Swingin’ Along (1961), Irma la Douce (1963), Fun in Acapulco (1964), and The Carpetbaggers (1964).  Diamond felt more at home on the small screen, however; in addition to his regular gigs on The Adventures of Kit Carson and Zorro, Don guest starred on such TV favorites as The Adventures of Superman,  TrackdownThe Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna!The Life and Legend of Wyatt EarpThe Untouchables, and Rawhide.  He had a recurring role on two 60s series: Empire (1962-63), a modern-day Western starring Richard Egan as a ranch foreman (Charles Bronson was a regular on this show), and Redigo (1963), which spun off Egan’s character into a separate series.

It was as the pixilated flunky Crazy Cat on F Troop that Don Diamond would cement his television immortality; the cheerful sidekick often expressed an ambition to take over as Hekawi chief, prompting Wild Eagle to react with undisguised disdain.  (“Craze” did get a brief opportunity to be the man in charge in an episode entitled ”Our Brave in F Troop,” when Chief Wild Eagle is disguised as a Fort Courage soldier in order to get his tooth pulled.)   After F Troop finished its two-year-run in 1967, Don returned to guest roles on such series as Run for Your LifeThe Big ValleyGet Smart (in the classic “The Treasure of C. Errol Madre”) and Here’s Lucy.  Diamond also voiced one of the “Tijuana Toads” (he was “Toro,” Tom Holland was “Pancho”) in a series of theatrical cartoons produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. When those shorts became segments on The Pink Panther Show, they renamed the characters the “Texas Toads” and overdubbed some of the dialogue to address concerns about stereotyping.

Don Diamond later did voices for the Saturday morning favorite Devlin and provided the voice of “Gonzales” on The New Adventures of Zorro.  Other TV favorites that Don visited include Mission: ImpossibleColumboAdam-12The Streets of San FranciscoThe Rockford Files, and WKRP in Cincinnati.  He continued to work until his retirement in 1987, and passed away in 2011 at the age of 90.

Don Diamond was the definition of a working actor during the Golden Age of Radio, and Radio Spirits has plenty of his performances on hand to back this up.  Don was a frequent supporting player on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and you can hear him on our Dollar sets ConfidentialFabulous FreelanceFatal MattersThe Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMurder Matters, and Phantom Chases.  Today’s birthday boy also made occasional forays into Dodge City, which you’ll notice in the Gunsmoke collections Around Dodge CityDead or Alive, and Flashback.  Rounding out our “Diamond” presentations: The Adventures of Philip MarloweEscape: PerilFort LaramieHave Gun – Will Travel: Bitter VengeanceThe New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Mayhem is My Business.  Happy birthday, Don!