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“San Francisco, 1875…the Carlton Hotel…headquarters of the man called…Paladin!”

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By the beginning of the 1950s, television had started to make major inroads as the preferred home entertainment source for household families…leaving radio to play the unenviable role of middle child.  The small screen was a most ungrateful sibling when you consider that most of its content originated from the aural medium; comedians like Jack Benny and George Burns & Gracie Allen were slowly making their transfer to the boob tube, and popular programs like The Lone Ranger and Suspense were also becoming TV favorites.  And yet, a television show would occasionally go in the opposite direction: for example, two years after the series’ small screen debut, the cast of ABC’s Space Patrol wound up emoting in front of a radio mike, later joined by What’s My Line? and My Little Margie.  On this date in 1958, another TV-to-radio rarity premiered over the CBS Radio Network: Have Gun—Will Travel.

hgwt1The television incarnation of Have Gun—Will Travel debuted on CBS on September 14, 1957.  Created by Sam Rolfe and Herb Meadow, the show starred Richard Boone as Paladin, a professional gun-for-hire.  Paladin’s services did not come cheap; hence, his fee of $1000 (the going rate as a rule) tended to attract more well-to-do patrons…and yet, the gunfighter would offer his gun to more downscale clients on a pro bono basis whenever the need arose.  Paladin was a cultured gentleman (he spoke several languages, and frequently quoted from the classics), who loved good food and fine wines…and often found himself the center of romantic attention from the opposite sex.  His base of operations was the luxurious Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, where his needs were attended to by an Asian bellhop (played by Kam Tong) answering to “Hey Boy.”

hgwt4Paladin’s origins would remain a mystery for most of the TV run (the story of who he was and how he came to be would eventually be dramatized in “Genesis,” the premiere episode of the series’ sixth and final season. Viewers would eventually learn that he was a West Point graduate, who served as a Union cavalry officer and was a veteran of the American Civil War.  He was not an individual who reveled in violence—in fact, he tried to avoid gunplay whenever possible, but when required he proved quite handy with his fists (not to mention an impressive mastery of the martial arts).  Have Gun’s loyal viewers never learned whether or not Paladin had an actual first name (his moniker was inspired by the principal knights of Charlemagne’s court).  In fact, because the business card that he carried around read “Have Gun Will Travel, Wire Paladin, San Francisco,” more than a few people joked that their hero’s first name was “Wire.”

dehner3Have Gun—Will Travel premiered on television at a time when viewers couldn’t get enough of Westerns; it ranked #4 among all TV shows in its first season (according to the Nielsens), and was the third most-watched program for three seasons from 1958 to 1961.  (It was ranked #29 in its fifth and sixth seasons, still a solid favorite.)  As such, CBS thought a radio version might revive their fading aural fortunes, and so a little over a year later (November 23, 1958) veteran actor John Dehner took on the role that Richard Boone was still playing on TV.  To Dehner’s credit, his approach to the role could be boiled down to “Richard who?”  “I don’t imitate,” he forcefully stated in an interview about the series, and indeed the radio Paladin was a little more no-nonsense than his boob tube counterpart (Boone took pains to at least give his Paladin a sense of humor).  Character great Ben Wright played the radio version of Hey Boy, and a secondary character was added in “Missy Wong,” Hey Boy’s girlfriend (played by Virginia Gregg).  (It should be noted that the Miss Wong character appeared before the TV version introduced a “Hey Girl” character [portrayed by Lisa Lu] in its fourth season; regular Kam Tong had landed a gig on a series called The Garland Touch, but returned to HGWT when Garland folded after one season.)

dehner5At first, the radio Have Gun—Will Travel borrowed liberally from previously telecast episodes (adapting many scripted by future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) …but eventually transitioned to original scripts penned by the likes of William N. Robson, Ann Doud, and Frank Paris (who directed and produced the radio version).  (Sound patterns artists Tom Hanley and Ray Kemper also contributed the occasional script, as did actor Jack Moyles!)  One distinction between the radio and TV HGWTs was that the radio incarnation provided a finale.  Toward the end November of 1960, the CBS Radio Network said “fare-thee-well” to several of their long-running shows (including the daytime dramas Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent).  On November 27, “From Here to Boston” found HGWTs protagonist leaving Frisco for the East Coast to settle his late aunt’s estate in Beantown.  (Meanwhile, Paladin continued to offer his gun for hire on television for several additional seasons.)

21256My good friend and fellow Radio Spirits colleague Martin Grams, Jr. wrote the book on Have Gun—Will Travel…literally.  In 2001, a paperback (co-written with Les Rayburn) entitled The Have Gun—Will Travel Companion was published, an extensive documentation of the history behind both the TV and radio shows.  (It’s out-of-print, so you might have to pore through the stacks of your local library to find it.)  As such, Martin was the perfect choice to write the liner notes for the Radio Spirits collection Have Gun—Will Travel: a 10-CD set containing the first twenty broadcasts of the radio series.  It’s essential “must-hear radio” for fans of both radio drama and the classic TV series, so we invite you to spend a little time with the adventures of “a knight without armor in a savage land.”

“It’s round-up time/On the Double-R Bar…”

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“America’s favorite singing cowboy,” Gene Autry, began his long-running radio series Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in January of 1940.  It was fitting that the man who began his lengthy motion picture career in 1934 with In Old Santa Fe would launch an on-the-air vehicle for his sagebrush talents; Autry was a solid favorite of any kid who ever plopped down in a theatre seat for Saturday matinees (and more than a few “grown-up” kids, too).  It took his friendly B-Western rival, Roy Rogers, a little longer to establish himself in radio, however; even though Roy had performed before a microphone as far back as 1931 (as a member of “Uncle Tom Murray’s Hollywood Hillbillies”), the actor-singer wrestled throughout his show business career with bouts of mike fright.  That all changed on this date in 1944; the “King of the Cowboys” screwed up his courage and began broadcasting for Mutual with The Roy Rogers Show.

youngroyBorn in 1911—in a section of Cincinnati, Ohio where Riverfront Stadium now stands—Roy Rogers’ eventual rise to cowboy stardom was a slow and steady one.  His family called Duck Run, OH (about twelve miles from Portsmouth) home for many years. His father purchased a little farm while still working in a shoe factory, and in between ridin’ and a-ropin’ young Roy learned to play guitar and mandolin—as well as singing in the church choir.  The Rogers family decided to move west to California in 1930, and Roy continued to pursue his musical ambitions as a sideline while working at such jobs as fruit-picking and driving trucks.

A talent contest in Inglewood, CA would be the catalyst for Roy’s eventual decision to build a show business career.   He performed with various musical aggregations before making the acquaintance of fellow musicians Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer.  This trio formed the nucleus of The Sons of the Pioneers, and that Western music group not only enjoyed chart success with tunes like Cool Water and Tumbling Tumbleweeds, they found themselves in demand whenever background music was needed for B-Westerns.  Roy Rogers slowly started to make a name for himself in features like The Big Show (1936), The Old Corral (1936), and The Old Barn Dance (1938).  All three of those movies starred Gene Autry, who unintentionally gave his future rival’s silver screen career a shot in the arm when he walked out of Republic Pictures due to a contract dispute.  Republic head Herbert J. Yates then cast Roy as the lead in Under Western Stars (1938), and his new star would go on to make 86 additional oaters for the company through 1951.

roy2By the time The Roy Rogers Show premiered in the fall of 1944, its star was the number-one Western hero at the box office (Rogers would hold that position from 1943 to 1954—though in all fairness, he benefited from Gene Autry’s decision to enlist during WW2).  “The King of the Cowboys” would be introduced by announcer Verne Smith: “The greatest name in rubber, Goodyear, invites you to meet America’s greatest Western star, Roy Rogers!”  The Rogers show was similar to Autry’s Melody Ranch; a half-hour of homespun banter and music around the campfire (supplemented with the occasional comedic or dramatic skit) with the Sons of the Pioneers, Pat Friday, and Perry Botkin conducting “The Goodyear Orchestra.”  The Roy Rogers Show only lasted a season on Mutual; but resurfaced a year later on NBC as a Saturday night offering for Miles Laboratories.

roydalegabbyRoy’s “Alka-Seltzer” years would bring mikeside two familiar folks from his feature films: George “Gabby” Hayes was Rogers’ faithful sidekick (Gabby brought his patented brand of comic relief to Roy’s movies beginning in 1939 with Southward Ho), and Dale Evans (a one-time female vocalist for Edgar Bergen’s program) was Roy’s love interest.  (Dale was also her co-star’s love interest when they weren’t broadcasting, by the way—the two of them would become Mr. and Mrs. King of the Cowboys on December 31, 1947…though Dale’s official title was “The Queen of the West.”)  The Roy Rogers Show would run on NBC until March of 1947.  After a hiatus, it landed a new sponsor in Quaker Oats (“The Giant of the Cereals!”) with its return on August 29, 1948 over Mutual.  By this time, The Roy Rogers Show had started to de-emphasize its earlier variety show leanings (though there was always time for a song from Roy, Dale, or Foy Willing and The Riders of the Purple Sage), and instead shone its spotlight on rootin’-tootin’ juvenile adventure (described by The Christian Science Monitor as “a little song, a little riding, a little shooting, and a girl to be saved from hazard”).  Gabby and Dale continued as Roy’s co-stars; with Hayes still spinning tall tales and Dale buying a ranch next to Roy’s famed Double-R-Bar spread.  (Gabby was replaced in the 1950-51 season by “Clackity,” an equally longwinded codger played by Horace Murphy.)

roydale2By the fall of 1951, The Roy Rogers Show had returned to NBC in yet another incarnation sponsored by Post Cereals.  (Quaker Oats was a little skittish about continuing to sign the checks due to a legal skirmish between Roy and his movie studio Republic over the Cowboy King’s decision to get into television.)  Replacing Clackity was Jonah Wilde—“the wisest trail scout of them all”—played by Forrest Lewis in genuine Gabby Hayes-like fashion.  The following season, Jonah was out and Pat Brady—an old friend of Roy’s from their Sons of the Pioneers days—was providing the show’s comic relief (a job he had performed in several of Rogers’ feature films and on TV, where he tooled around in a jeep affectionately named “Nellybelle”).  Musical numbers from Roy and Dale featured backup accompaniment from The Whippoorwills and The Mellomen.

roydale1As for Dale—she had started a career as an entrepreneur running The Eureka Hotel and Café (eat your heart out, Miss Kitty!), located in Mineral City, the center of the show’s action.  (Herb Butterfield was also a regular, as Mineral City’s sheriff.)  Roy and Dale continued their adventures for General Foods/Post until January of 1954, when Chrysler took over sponsorship to plug Dodge trucks.  The Dodge years of The Roy Rogers Show found the program’s format once again undergoing a makeover: the series adopted a mystery-thriller tone, with episodes concentrating on plot threads like diamond smugglers and a stolen stamp collection.  On July 21, 1955, The Roy Rogers Show had ridden as far as it could (a reference to the show’s opening theme, which told listeners “saddle your horse, ‘cause we’re gonna ride far”) on radio—though the TV version of The Roy Rogers Show would last until 1957 (and then it put down stakes at The Old Syndication Ranch).

21409Radio Spirits features several DVDs of telecasts from TV’s The Roy Rogers Show, most notably on the collection TV Guide Spotlight: TV’s Greatest Westerns.  You can also enjoy solid western action with double features of some of Roy’s classic movie westerns: Colorado (1940)/Hands Across the Border (1944); Ridin’ Down the Canyon (1942)/On the Old Spanish Trail (1947); South of Santa Fe (1942)/In Old Cheyenne (1941); and Eyes of Texas (1948)/Grand Canyon Trail (1948).  (Take it from me—you don’t want to miss Eyes of Texas!)  Finally, Radio Spirits’ Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys—sixteen broadcasts from Roy’s inaugural season broadcasting for Post—will be available soon, so be sure to grab a copy (I say with no modesty whatsoever that the liner notes are first-rate…because I wrote them).  Happy anniversary to The Roy Rogers Show, and till the next time we meet—“Goodbye, good luck, and may the Good Lord take a likin’ to ya!”

Review: Partners in Time (1946)

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In 1937, Chester Lauck and Norris Goff began to express interest in bringing the characters from their popular radio show, Lum and Abner, to the big screen.  Talent agent Jack William Votion, a Hollywood veteran, also thought “the fellers from the hills” could make an easy transition to motion pictures…but in his conversations with the major studios, none of them were particularly enthused about a Lum and Abner picture.  Chiefly among the naysayers was RKO—though in their defense, they were a little gun-shy after their experience with 1930’s Check and Double Check, the vehicle responsible for introducing radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) to moviegoing audiences.

dreamingAfter three years of studio rejections, Jack Votion sold his ranch in California…and with a financial assist from Roger Mardiette (who provided matching funds), went into partnership with songwriter Sam Coslow (“Cocktails for Two”) to form Voco Productions—an independent company that planned to produce at least three Lum and Abner feature films.  Voco’s first venture was Dreaming Out Loud (1940—its working title was Money Isn’t Everything), which was filmed on the RKO-Pathé lot—and released by RKO as an 81-minute “A” film (the subsequent L&A entries were B-picture programmers) featuring stellar radio names like Frances Langford and Phil Harris.  Dreaming was a smash for RKO, earning an estimated $745,000 and paving the way for five additional follow-ups.

partnersposterAudiences seeing Dreaming Out Loud today are at a disadvantage because, since the film slipped into the public domain, most extant copies are short by fifteen minutes (from a choppy TV print).  The overall batting average on the L&A features was often hit-and-miss: some of the entries, like The Bashful Bachelor (1942; with a story contributed by stars Lauck and Goff) and Goin’ to Town (1944; I think this is the most underrated of their features) are delightful entertainments, while Two Weeks to Live and So This is Washington (both 1943) may only appeal to diehard fans of the show.  Curiously, the last of the L&A vehicles would turn out to be the best of the bunch (unusual in that many movie franchises start out strong before eventually running on fumes): 1946’s Partners in Time.

partners4There are two major plot points in Partners in Time: the first being that Pine Ridge’s resident “Kingfish,” Squire Skimp (Dick Elliott), is introducing to the town’s populace an equally conniving scalawag named Gerald Sharpe (Charles Jordan).  Sharpe is the grandson of Lucky Parker, a Pine Ridge-ian who once owned all of the land in town, and whose son Jeff sold said land to the townsfolk, including Lum Edwards (Chester Lauck) and Abner Peabody (Norris Goff), who built their Jot ‘Em Down Store on the property.  Sharpe maintains that Jeff wasn’t Parker’s son, and he’s insisting that everyone who bought land from Jeff pay him $500—a sum no one in town could possibly cough up (Abner remarks, “This town couldn’t raise $500 on lend lease.”).  Our heroes are tasked with finding proof that Jeff is Parker’s son lest they surrender Pine Ridge to the clutches of the loathsome Sharpe.

partnersintimelobbyThe second storyline involves Lum’s niece Janet (Teala Loring) and her boyfriend Tim Matthews (John James).  Tim has been away from Pine Ridge for two years, serving a hitch in the Army, and Janet spent that same amount of time with her aunt in the big city.  The young couple pledged to marry upon Tim’s return and put down stakes in Pine Ridge, but Janet is beginning to have second thoughts.  Lum then proceeds to tell the two lovebirds the tale of how Abner arrived in Pine Ridge circa 1906; he, too, was “just passing through” and he ended up staying put.  By flashing back to their past, the boys’ memories are jogged about Jeff Parker and they are able to present to necessary proof to foil Skimp and Sharpe’s dastardly scheme.

partners5In Partners in Time (wonderfully scripted by Charles E. Roberts, who expertly blends both pathos and bucolic comedy), we learn that Lum and Abner first met in the Philippines during the Spanish American War.  Abner is headed west to California, and he stops by Pine Ridge to say “howdy-do” to his war buddy Lum.  To be honest, Abner’s stopover in Pine Ridge was unplanned: he’s arrested for speeding (going 20 m.p.h. in his “horseless carriage”) by constable Milford Spears (Danny Duncan)—who Abner addresses as “Grandpap” even at their first meeting.  Grandpap brings Abner before Pine Ridge’s justice of the peace—none other than Lum himself, who is surprised and pleased to see his old war chum.  Lum then introduces Abner to his friends in Pine Ridge (including a young Squire Skimp!), notably a young woman named Elizabeth Meadows (Pamela Blake); Lum desperately wants to marry Elizabeth but he just can’t seem to find the proper words of proposal.   As you may have already guessed, Lum also invites Abner to become his partner in his new business venture: The Jot ‘Em Down Store.

partners6Chet Lauck and Norris Golf play Lum and Abner in the 1906 flashbacks sans their old-age makeup, allowing viewers to see and hear more of the real Lauck and Goff than their well-known radio personas.  (Both men would have to spend three hours in the makeup chair daily when filming their movies…and the results weren’t always convincing, sad to say.)  Nevertheless, the two men display some very impressive acting chops—Lauck conveys an effective sadness when his best friend marries the woman he loves…and to add insult to injury, Lum must perform the ceremony (in his capacity as justice of the peace) when the minister is unable to officiate.  What is so heartbreaking about this is Abner never learns of his pal’s sacrifice, and the audience is only let in on the secret in a sequence where Lum remembers telling a dying friend on her deathbed that he plans to ask for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage very soon…proving he who hesitates is lost.  Lum’s niece eventually figures out the mystery, but is silenced when Lum places a finger to her lips, effortlessly communicating that he’ll carry this secret to his grave.  (I puddle up every time I watch this scene…and if you don’t do likewise, I suspect you may be a cyborg.)

partners3Partners in Time was directed by B-movie veteran William Nigh, who had an impressive career at MGM in silent films.  He later eked out most of his living at Monogram in the 1930s and 1940s, guiding the sterling efforts of detective Mr. Wong and the East Side Kids.  The movie also features a first-rate cast, with Blake, Elliott, Duncan and Grady Sutton (as Cedric Weehunt) all turning in fine performances supporting stars Lauck and Goff.  Sutton is hysterically funny as always, particularly in a scene in which he’s been enlisted to warn the other merchants of Pine Ridge of Skimp’s scheme, and as the Squire enters the doorways of the various businesses he keeps running into Cedric.

21208Since Lum and Abner was the program that introduced me to old-time radio, I’m understandably enthusiastic about always seeing “what’s going on down in Pine Ridge”; it may take you a little time to track down Partners in Time (you may have to use The Google), but I guarantee that it will be time well spent.  Here at Radio Spirits, we feature Messrs. Lauck and Goff in seven CD sets featuring vintage Lum and Abner radio broadcasts from 1942 and 1943 (as part of our Radio Spirits Archive Collection).  Wonderful world!

“Extra, extra—get your Illustrated Press!”

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The Golden Age of Radio—and this may be a good or bad thing, depending upon your opinion of the Fourth Estate—was a regular breeding ground for newspaper folk.  Superheroes like The Green Hornet and Superman were journalists when they weren’t out fighting crime (the “Har-nut” was newspaper editor Britt Reid, and Superman’s Clark Kent punched a time clock at The Daily Planet).  The aural medium also brought us the dramatic sagas of Front Page Farrell and Casey, Crime Photographer, not to mention Chicago reporter Randy Stone of Night Beat fame.  Real-life tales of newspaper scoops were even featured on the anthology program The Big Story.  Head-and-shoulders above them all, of course, was Big Town—which premiered over the airwaves on this date in 1937.

bigtown4Big Town was created as a vehicle for actor Edward G. Robinson.  Eddie G. had actually played an editor in the 1931 film Five Star Final (one of Robinson’s finest roles), but moviegoers knew him best at the time for his gangster portrayals in movies like Little Caesar (1931), Smart Money (1931), and The Last Gangster (1937).  An attempt to escape his typecasting as a bad guy, Big Town starred the actor as “fighting managing editor” Steve Wilson of the Illustrated Press, a crusading newspaper operating in Big Town (yes, that was the name of the burg).  (Eddie G. didn’t entirely shed his “bad guy” image—in some of the early Big Town broadcasts his Wilson comes across as a bit of louse.)  Created, written and directed by former newspaperman Jerry McGill and sponsored by Rinso, there was no question that Big Town was a star showcase—as related in an anecdote by actor Jerry Hausner in Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast:

Edward G. Robinson [the show’s star] had a card table with a typewriter on it. The author of that week’s script had to sit there all day long, every day, and rewrite as we went along. He’d read a line and Eddie’d say, “I don’t like that one, cut that out, change this, change that.” He was a stickler for all these things, and that’s what made it a good show, but we had to sit there while this was being done. They rewrote and rewrote all week long, and if you were cut out, they waved you goodbye and you didn’t get any money at all. You had no protection of any kind. If your part stayed in and it was a minor supporting role, you wound up with $15, $20 for the week, $35 if you had a good part.

robinson-trevorBig Town was a blend of no-holds-barred melodrama and socially conscious soap-boxing, as Robinson’s Wilson crusaded against society’s ills and on behalf of freedom of the press.  Controversial subjects tackled on the program included examinations of racism, drunk driving, and juvenile delinquency.  The show’s memorable opening intoned from an echo chamber: “The power and freedom of the press is a flaming sword! That it may be a faithful servant of all the people…use it justly…hold it high…guard it well…”  Listening to surviving broadcasts today, a new generation might be puzzled by the adversarial approach of the paper’s reporters (no cozy palsy-walsy with the individuals they’re supposed to cover)—but this was a time when periodicals actively pursued investigative journalism, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” to use one of my favorite quotes.

trevorHaving a big name like Eddie G.’s on any radio program would be a feather in that show’s cap…but Big Town was graced with another silver screen presence in Claire Trevor, who played Lorelei Kilbourne, the paper’s society columnist (and Steve Wilson’s love interest).  Though Trevor’s performance in Dead End (1937) was just making the rounds in movie theatres shortly before Big Town’s debut, the actress wouldn’t really make it big until two years later opposite John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939).  (While working on Big Town, Robinson and Trevor would star in 1938’s The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, and later teamed up for Key Largo [1948]—the film that would win Claire a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.)

Other Big Town regulars included Ed MacDonald (as “fearless, imaginative reporter” Tommy Hughes), Gale Gordon (as District Attorney Miller), Paula Winslowe (as Wilson’s secretary Miss Foster, also played by Helen Brown), Lou Merrill, Cy Kendall and Jack Smart.  As for co-star Trevor, she would exit the program in 1940 (she later complained that her role had been reduced to two lines: “I’ll wait for you in the car, Steve” and “How’d it go, Steve?”).  Ona Munson took over as Lorelei…but by 1942, the program had put out a classified ad for a new Steve Wilson despite still ruling the ratings roost.  A decision had been made to move the show to New York, and Edward G. Robinson decided not to follow it.

carlon-pawley2In the fall of 1943, with the series now sponsored on CBS by Sterling Drugs (Ironized Yeast, Bayer), Robinson was replaced by Broadway veteran Edward J. Pawley, with Fran Carlon as Lorelei.  (Pawley would play Steve until the final months of the program in 1952, when Walter Greaza inherited the role.)  New characters were introduced to the program, notably a colorful cabbie named Harry the Hack (originated by Robert Dryden, but also essayed by Mason Adams and Ross Martin), who knew the back alleys and byways of Big Town (it was a big town, you know) like the back of his hand.  There was also a blind piano player named Mozart (Larry Haines) who owned a small bistro and provided underworld tips to Steve and Lorelei on the side, along with Willie the Weep (Donald MacDonald), a waterfront denizen who sobbed when he talked.  Other New York acting vets included Lawson Zerbe (as the Press’ photographer, Dusty Miller), Ted de Corsia, Dwight Weist (who doubled as the show’s announcer), Bill Adams, Bobby Winckler and Michael O’Day.

icoverbigtownWhen Big Town moved to NBC in the fall of 1948, the sponsorship reverted back to Lever Brothers (though this time they pushed Lifebuoy soap instead of Rinso detergent).  Its popularity was such that it inspired a short-lived B-picture franchise at Paramount beginning with Big Town (a.k.a. Guilty Assignment) in 1947, and followed by I Cover Big Town (1947), Big Town After Dark (1947), and Big Town Scandal (1948).  Phillip Reed played the silver screen Steve Wilson, with Hillary Brooke portraying Lorelei.  (The Big Town films were produced by William C. Thomas and William H. Pine…whose talent for low-budget filmmaking earned them the nickname “The Dollar Bills.”)  Big Town later transitioned to the small screen on October 5, 1950 on CBS-TV, then moved to NBC in 1954 for two additional seasons.  (The boob tube incarnation was then laid to rest in reruns, appearing under three separate titles: Byline: Steve Wilson, Headline and Heart of the City.)  The radio version of the long-running series finally added its “-30-” on June 25, 1952.

21121Radio Spirits’ Big Town collection Blind Justice not only features the premiere episode of the popular series, but previously uncirculated episodes and a pair of broadcasts from the Pawley-Carlon years.  You can also check out the first Big Town feature film on Big Town Collection, which is supplemented with two episodes from the TV version of the show, starring Mark Stevens as Steve Wilson.  In Big Town: Volume 1 and Big Town: Volume 2, it’s Patrick McVey as the “fighting managing editor,” aided and abetted by the lovely Jane Nigh as Lorelei.  Grab all these collections and use them justly…hold them high…guard them well!

Happy Birthday, William N. Robson!

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Though September 30, 1962 is often acknowledged as the date when The Golden Age of Radio came to a close, director-producer-writer William N. Robson had a decidedly different take in an interview with Dick Bertell in 1976.  “The great period of radio was from 1937, ’38 really, through the war,” Robson reminisced.  “It was only seven years—the golden age of radio. ‘Suspense’ and ‘Escape’—those are the things one does later because one has all the skills at his fingertips.”  Since Robson worked on both Suspense and Escape—not to mention prestigious radio dramas as The Columbia Workshop, The Man Behind the Gun, and The CBS Radio Workshop—he might know what he’s talking about.  But we definitely know what we’re talking about when we state that Robson—born in Pittsburgh, PA on this date in 1906—was one of the aural medium’s most amazing talents.

privatejonesBill Robson was a Yale man, graduating in 1928 and full of promise.  His writing career began with a contract at Paramount Pictures, co-penning the screenplay for a Lee Tracy-Gloria Stuart comedy entitled Private Jones (1933).  Robson also started his involvement in radio at the same time in November of 1933 with a CBS West Coast series entitled Calling All Cars, which he wrote and directed.  A program that depicted actual crime stories (many years ahead before the celebrated Dragnet), Robson recalled in Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast a fascinating anecdote about a San Quentin prison break that took place in January of 1935, in which four members of the prison’s Board of Governors were taken hostage by the escapees.  Asked via a phone call at 2:30pm to dramatize the incident on Calling All Cars, Bill agreed—thinking he had three days to work up a treatment…

robson6That’s when executive Dick Wiley informed him they had an open hour at 5pm, and since they already had actors and an orchestra rehearsing (for another show) why not do it then?  Robson and his team completed a script in time to meet the deadline; with a minute to air the news came down that the real-life escapees had been rounded up (inside a cemetery in Petaluma).  This report wouldn’t hit the newspapers until after 8pm, however, prompting a giddy Robson to exclaim: “I had scooped the newspapers!”  (“Dramatization of the San Quentin Prison Break” was later redone on The Columbia Workshop in 1936.)

robson3Robson’s work on Calling All Cars won him a friend and admirer in Irving Reis, who suggested Bill move to New York and take over his duties on the innovative and experimental Workshop in 1937.  Among Robson’s best-known contributions to Workshop: “S.S. San Pedro” (09/05/37), “Ecce Homo” (05/21/38), “The Story of Radio” (04/17/39), and a September 28, 1939 broadcast of Archibald MacLeish’s famed “The Fall of the City” (previously dramatized on the series in 1937).  Bill also directed episodes of Edward G. Robinson’s radio drama Big Town, in addition to working on such programs as Then and Now, The American School of the Air, Americans All—Immigrants All, What Price America, and The Twenty-Second Letter.

robson4In the fall of 1942, William Robson embarked on one of his most prestigious radio series: The Man Behind the Gun, a weekly program that dramatized stories from WW2, ranging from the invasion of Sicily to the Canine Corps.  Gun put a human face on the conflict for the listeners at home, and featured the work of writers like Ranald MacDougall and Arthur Laurents (later a successful playwright) while utilizing the talents of actors such as Frank Lovejoy, Jim Backus, and Jackson Beck (who narrated many of the broadcasts).  Beck had nothing but effusive praise for Robson, calling him “the best director I ever worked for.  The word ‘bravura’ was invented for Robson: rough, tough, broad, expansive, a guy who knew what the hell he wanted and knew how to get it.”

shortybellBeck’s appraisal for Bill’s work was shared by others: The Man Behind the Gun earned Robson his first George Foster Peabody Award (radio’s equivalent of an Oscar) in 1943, and Bill took home a second trophy that same year for the documentary Open Letter on Race Hatred, which Time magazine called “one of the most eloquent programs in radio history.”  Robson’s fine work continued on series like One World, Four for the Fifth, and Doorway to Life (an early attempt to examine the psychological problems unique to children)—yet he wasn’t always driven by prestige series; he wrote and produced one of the medium’s first “adult westerns” in Hawk Larabee, and directed-produced a newspaper comedy-drama starring Mickey Rooney in Shorty Bell.

robson2The anthology series “designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure” premiered in July of 1947, and William N. Robson was the first director-producer of Escape.  (Robson also flexed his writing skills on that show with contributions like “Operation Fleur de Lis” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” adapted from the Ambrose Bierce short story.)  Bill also directed and wrote broadcasts of Suspense and The Whistler, and produced and/or directed such series as Pursuit, Beyond Tomorrow, T-Man, and The Adventures of Christopher London.  But because he served as the New York director of the 1947 broadcast Hollywood Fights Back—a blistering rebuttal to the goings-on of the House Un-American Activities Committee—Robson found himself listed among many of his fellow radio artists (including Himan Brown and Mitchell Grayson) in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels.  There were other charges leveled against Bill—the man who won a Peabody for The Man Behind the Gun, mind you—but none of them had any real merit.  Show business, however, does not adhere to anything resembling logic, and his career stalled for a number of years.

robson1By 1955, apparently all was forgiven.  Robson started working again for such shows as Romance (he also returned to Suspense as director-producer from 1956 to 1959) and enjoyed another prestigious assignment in The CBS Radio Workshop (a noble but short-lived attempt to resurrect The Columbia Workshop).  Although Bill took on television assignments with scripts for Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion and Highway Patrol, he remained a creature of radio, directing broadcasts of Luke Slaughter of Tombstone and contributing scripts to another oater, Have Gun – Will Travel (the radio version).  Robson would get the last laugh on those who smeared him as a Red; he was chosen by his friend Edward R. Murrow to be the chief documentary writer-producer-director at The Voice of America, where his work garnered him four additional Peabody Awards.  William N. Robson departed this world on April 10, 1985 at the age of 88.

20944The exemplary work of one of radio’s true giants is well represented here at Radio Spirits.  You can sample William N. Robson’s genius on the Escape sets Escape Essentials, Escape to the High Seas, and The Hunted and the Haunted, while entertaining yourself with “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” in the Suspense collections Around the World, Final Curtain, Ties That Bind, and Suspense at Work. Today’s birthday celebrant is also featured in our Romance compilation, and on Fort Laramie, you can listen to one of that series’ finest episodes in “Never the Twain” (05/06/56), an effective treatise on anti-racism written by Bill himself.  Happiest of birthdays to you, Mr. Robson!

Happy Birthday, Damon Runyon!

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The Oxford Dictionary defines the term “Runyonesque” as “of, relating to, or characteristic of Damon Runyon or his style, language, or imagery; especially characterized by plot or language suggestive of gangsters or the New York underworld.”  For those were the denizens of Broadway that Runyon wrote about in his humorous and sentimental tales.  The author was born Alfred Damon Runyan on this date in 1880 in Manhattan…Kansas (NOT New York)…but you’d never know that from his short stories, which centered on the various gamblers, boxers, actors, grifters and hustlers that populated the Great White Way.  Damon’s literary contributions provided fodder for movies, television…and particularly radio, in the form of The Damon Runyon Theatre.

youngrunyonDamon Runyon was born to be a newspaperman.  No doubt due to the amount of printer’s ink in the blood of his family: his grandfather had been a printer in New Jersey and his father a Manhattan editor (before being forced to sell his paper and move west in 1882).  The Family Runyan eventually put down stakes in Pueblo, CO by 1887.  Pueblo is where young Damon spent the largest part of his youth—that’s where you’ll find Runyon Lake, Runyon Field, and the Damon Runyon Repertory Theater Company, in case you’re making room on the itinerary for your next vacation.

Most accounts note that the young Damon only got as far as the fourth grade scholastically, but this didn’t keep him from pursuing a journalism career.  He began working for various Colorado and Rocky Mountain newspapers under his father’s tutelage before that was interrupted in 1898 when the teenage Damon enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Spanish-American War.  The life of a doughboy didn’t discourage Runyon’s literary aspirations, though—he was pressed into service to write for both the Manila Freedom and Soldier’s Letter.  When his hitch was up, he returned to Pueblo and got his first job as a reporter for The Pueblo Star.  Damon then moved on to the Rocky Mountain area, beginning with a stint as a reporter and sports editor for The Denver Daily News.  There were a lot of newspapers that employed the future author between 1900 and 1910 (Runyon also contributed short stories to Collier’s and McClure’s), and somewhere along the way, the spelling of “Runyan” was changed to the now-familiar “Runyon.”

runyonreporterDamon Runyon relocated to New York in 1910.  He perfected his sportswriting skills at the Hearst-owned New York American, where his “beat” included covering both boxing and the New York Giants.  Runyon had dropped the “Alfred” from his byline by this time and, after leaving the American, he started a syndicated newspaper column titled Th’ Mornin’s Mornin’…later to be called The Brighter Side.  Damon also continued to indulge his short story ambitions, and his submissions began to grace such publications as The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan.  His contributions to sports journalism would win him two important honors: induction into the writers’ wing of The Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967, and The International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002. (Runyon was the man who nicknamed pugilist James J. Braddock “The Cinderella Man.”)

ladyforadayposterNicknames came naturally to the author—in Damon Runyon’s world, the inhabitants go by such unforgettable monikers as “Dave the Dude,” “Harry the Horse” and “The Seldom Seen Kid.”  In addition to “Runyonesque,” the term “Runyonese” was coined to describe these characters’ one-of-a-kind vernacular:  a mixture of formal speech and offbeat slang (peppered with terms like “roscoe,” “snoot” and “pineapple”), generally spoken in the present tense and often devoid of contractions.  Many of Damon’s tales would be adapted for the silver screen; the earliest appears to be Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933), based on his “Madame La Gimp”—it was remade by Capra in 1961 as Pocketful of Miracles.

markerOne of Runyon’s best-remembered short stories, “Pick a Winner,” figured in the plot of four feature films.  The first was in 1934, when “Winner” was adapted as Little Miss Marker (1934), one of Shirley Temple’s earliest vehicles.  “Winner” surfaced again in 1949 (as Sorrowful Jones, starring Bob Hope) and 1962 (40 Pounds of Trouble, starring Tony Curtis) before returning to its Little Miss Marker title in 1980 (in a version starring Curtis and Walter Matthau).  Damon’s “The Lemon Drop Kid” was filmed in 1934 (with Lee Tracy) and 1951 (Bob Hope).  “A Slight Case of Murder,” a 1935 play that Runyon co-wrote with Howard Lindsay, met moviegoers in 1938 with an Edward G. Robinson film and, later, with the 1953 remake Stop, You’re Killing Me, with Broderick Crawford.

guysanddollsThe most familiar of Damon Runyon’s works to achieve silver screen status is Guys and Dolls (1955).  Inspired by the 1950 Broadway success (winner of the Tony Award winner for Best Musical), which was co-written by former Duffy’s Tavern scribe Abe Burrows (with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser).  Two separate Runyon stories inspired this hit: “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure.”  Other “Runyonesque” feature films include Princess O’Hara (1935—remade in 1943 with Abbott & Costello as It Ain’t Hay), Professional Soldier (1935), The Big Street (1942), Butch Minds the Baby (1942), Johnny One-Eye (1950), and Money from Home (1953).

20440On radio, Damon Runyon owes a debt of gratitude to Alan Ladd.  Sure, Runyon’s stories had been previously featured on such programs as The Columbia Workshop, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Theatre, The Radio Reader’s Digest, and The Screen Guild Theatre—but it was Ladd and his business associate Bernie Joslin who conceived the idea of a weekly dose of Damon after experiencing syndicated success with their company Mayfair Productions (responsible for Ladd’s Box 13).  The Damon Runyon Theatre, a half-hour anthology, would draw upon inspiration from the author’s inexhaustible portfolio of colorful tales.

brown2Theatre had originally been planned for actor Pat O’Brien to host…but when Pat was called back to complete reshoots on The Boy with Green Hair (1948), Mayfair had to go with their second string—radio veteran John Brown got the nod to narrate the tales as “Broadway.”  In retrospect, Brown was the perfect choice: he was already playing a Runyonesque character on My Friend Irma as Al, Irma’s shady loafer boyfriend.  A total of fifty-two episodes of The Damon Runyon Theatre were produced; though the series began in October of 1948, the syndicated shows were still rerun as late as 1951.  CBS later brought a television version of the show to its schedule from April 1955 to February 1956.

21049Sadly, the man who inspired The Damon Runyon Theatre would never get to hear how well his stories fared on that series; Damon Runyon died in 1946 at the age of 66.  So you’ll have to do the heavy lifting for him: Radio Spirits features a collection of Runyon’s classic tales on Damon Runyon Theatre: Here is Broadway, as well as an earlier compendium, Damon Runyon Theatre: Broadway Complex (I wrote the liner notes!).  Both of these sets are “more than somewhat” essential listening, and you can enjoy them with your ever-loving doll (or guy).  Celebrate the birthday of one of America’s beloved authors with a nice slice of cheesecake (from Mindy’s, of course)!

Happy Birthday, Everett Sloane!

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In the 1941 movie classic Citizen Kane, Kane’s business manager Mr. Bernstein makes an observation that remains in the memories of movie fans long after Kane’s final reel has unspooled: “One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off.  A white dress she had on.  She was carrying a white parasol.  I only saw her for one second.  She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

sloane6Citizen Kane was the feature film debut of actor Everett Sloane (who played Bernstein).  Today is the anniversary of his debut on Earth, when he was born in Manhattan, NY in 1909.  Although Sloane would never be mistaken for a leading man, he enjoyed a fruitful career as a respected character actor on stage, in movies, and on TV.  (He even dabbled in songwriting and directing.)  Since radio is an aural medium, however, Everett could play as many handsome male leads as his heart desired over the ether…and suffice it to say, he was one of the busiest actors to ever stand in front of a microphone.

Everett Sloane once remarked to an interviewer: “I never got the idea of becoming an actor until I was about 2 years old.”  It’s nice to know Everett carefully took the time to consider his options.  At age seven, he made his footlights debut in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (he played Puck)—but his first professional gig wouldn’t happen until 1928, in a play performed at The Cherry Lane Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Sloane had been enrolled at The University of Pennsylvania, but left in 1927 to join a stock company in Moyland, PA.  An actor’s life is not an easy one, and because thespians thrive on little luxuries like food, clothing, and shelter, young Everett found a job as a stockbroker’s runner on Wall Street for the princely sum of $17 a week.  A year later, that ballooned to $140 a week when he was promoted to manager’s assistant.

sloane11Sloane, however, became one of the many victims of the Wall Street Crash in 1929; because his salary was slashed in half as a result of that financial disaster, he aggressively began looking for acting jobs…and found a welcome home in radio.  His first gig was on a broadcast of WOR’s called Impossible Detective Mysteries.  Further opportunities on shows such as 40 Fathom Traveler followed, and in 1935 Everett became a member of the large cast of performers on the highly-rated The March of Time.  Also appearing on Time was a young Orson Welles, who cast Sloane in his 1937 Mutual radio production of Les Miserables, and later made him a member of his renowned Mercury Theater company.  This insured that Everett worked steadily on such Orson-dominated shows as The Shadow (he often played Shreevy the cab driver) and The Mercury Theater on the Air (and later, when Theater had secured a sponsor, The Campbell Playhouse).

At the same time that Everett Sloane was emoting on The March of Time, the actor made his Broadway debut in a production of Boy Meets Girl…and he followed that success with such plays as All That Glitters (1938), Native Son (1941—the last of the Mercury Theater productions), and A Bell for Adano (1945).  A 1946 revival of The Dancer gave Everett his first opportunity to direct, and in 1960 a revue entitled From A to Z (with a book co-written by Woody Allen) featured a number of songs contributed by novice tunesmith Sloane.  (The cast of that production featured Hermione Gingold, Elliott Reid, Stuart Damon, Bob Dishy, and Larry Hovis.)

sloane1It’s safe to say, however, that radio was Everett’s bread-and-butter—his acting over the airwaves netted him at one time an annual income of $50,000, and Sloane himself estimated that in his first fifteen years in the business he performed on an average of twenty shows a week.  Everett was heard on daytime dramas like Betty and Bob, Central City, The Guiding Light, Pretty Kitty Kelly, This is Nora Drake, and Valiant Lady.  He was a cast member of The Goldbergs for eight years (as son Sammy), having previously appeared on Gertrude Berg’s The Heart of Glass in 1935.  Sloane also made the rounds on many an anthology show, including The Cavalcade of America, The CBS Radio Workshop, Columbia Meets Corwin, The Columbia Workshop, The Ford Theatre, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The MGM Theatre of the Air, The NBC Star Playhouse, The Philip Morris Playhouse, The Radio Reader’s Digest, Studio One, and The Theatre Guild of the Air.

Everett Sloane sidekicked as Denny on Bulldog Drummond alongside his fellow Mercury Theater thespian George Coulouris (who played the title role), and at one time was Dr. Benjamin Ordway on radio’s Crime Doctor (a role played previously by another Mercury alum, Ray Collins).  Other shows on which Everett appeared include The Adventures of the Abbotts, The Affairs of Peter Salem, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Cloak and Dagger, Crime and Peter Chambers, Crime Does Not Pay, The Danny Kaye Show, The Falcon, Inner Sanctum, The Man Behind the Gun, The Molle Mystery Theatre, Mr. Ace and Jane, The Mysterious Traveler, Stroke of Fate, Suspense, Treasury Agent, True Detective Mysteries, Words at War, and You Are There.  Beginning in July of 1953, Sloane was heard as Captain Frank Kennelly on Twenty-First Precinct, a part he played until 1955 (when James Gregory took over).

sloane2Somehow, Everett Sloane missed out appearing in Orson Welles’ second directorial movie effort, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  But he more than compensated for this with a role in Journey Into Fear (1943—film buffs still debate whether Welles directed this one despite the credit of Norman Foster), and made a memorably formidable villain (a criminal defense attorney confined to crutches) in Orson’s cult noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947).  (Everett also appeared with Orson in 1949’s Prince of Foxes.)  Many of Sloane’s finest moments onscreen were Orson-free, however: a sympathetic doctor in The Men (1950); a mysterious mob figure in The Enforcer (1951); and a ruthless boss in Patterns (1956).  Everett’s other film appearances include The Big Knife (1955), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Lust for Life (1956), and The Disorderly Orderly (1964).

dicktracyEverett made many inroads into television as well…though one of his more prolific gigs harkened back to his radio roots: he was the voice of Dick Tracy in an animated cartoon series produced in 1961 (in addition to providing voices on The Adventures of Jonny Quest).  Sloane also flexed his directorial muscle on episodes of Lawman, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye, while making the acting rounds on the likes of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, and Zorro.  (Ever whistle the theme to The Andy Griffith Show?  Its official title is “The Fishin’ Hole,” and it was written by none other than Everett himself.)  Sloane had just completed an episode of Honey West when, plagued by fears that he was going blind, he took an overdose of sleeping pills and died in 1965 at the age of 55.  (Ironically, he had played a character who committed suicide in a similar manner in 1960’s Home from the Hill.)

21317It was a tragedy for fans of radio, TV, and film when Everett Sloane took his own life…yet we can take solace in the actor’s rich radio legacy.  Radio Spirits features today’s birthday celebrant in The Shadow collections Hearts of Evil (our newest release!), Knight of Darkness, Radio Treasures, and Strange Puzzles.  A May 9, 1948 production from The Ford Theater and featuring Mr. Sloane can be found on Stop the Press!, and you can round out your listening tribute with the sets Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator, Bulldog Drummond: Out of the Fog, Inner Sanctum: Shadows of Death, and The Mysterious Traveler: Dark Destiny.  Happy natal anniversary to one of our favorite actors!

Happy Birthday, Lamont Johnson!

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I’m certainly not the first person to observe that the best directors—whether they work in film, television, theater, or elsewhere—are often those with an extensive background in acting…and today’s birthday celebrant, Lamont Johnson, certainly proves to be a solid example of this.  Born Ernest Lamont Johnson, Jr. in Stockton, CA on this date in 1922, Lamont would become a highly respected film director (The McKenzie Break, Cattle Annie and Little Britches).  He would go on to enjoy even more success on the small screen, with eleven Emmy Award nominations for directing and producing, winning two trophies each for the miniseries Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) and Lincoln (1988).  Here’s where things get interesting: Johnson got his show business break before a radio microphone; as radio’s Lord of the Jungle (Tarzan).  He certainly had an easier time of it than, say, movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller.

johnson3Lamont Johnson’s interest in radio acting began as a member of the kiddie troupe on Let’s Pretend…but it really blossomed while he was attending Pasadena City College.  By the time he transferred to UCLA, he had made his stage debut at the Pasadena Playhouse.  A hip injury kept Johnson out of the service during WW2, so to “do his bit” Lamont joined the USO and was sent to entertain troops in Europe.  His future wife, actress Toni Merrill, was in the same USO troupe (the two of them had met at Pasadena City College) and the couple eventually tied the knot in Paris in 1945.

Even before his return to the States, Lamont had already expressed an interest in directing stage plays (which he did at local theatres).  Still, to make sure there were adequate groceries on the Johnson household’s table, he relied on radio as his main source of income.  He was a member of the cast of The Adventures of Frank Merriwell, and played Ms. Warren’s first beau on the offbeat daytime drama Wendy Warren and the News (the program would begin with a legitimate newscast, then segue into the soap opera content).

johnson1Johnson’s radio resume includes appearances on such radio favorites as The Adventures of the Saint, Broadway’s My Beat, The Clock, Crime Classics, Defense Attorney, Escape, The Man Called X, The Man from Homicide, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (one of several actors to play legman Archie Goodwin), Night Beat, The Silent Men, Suspense, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Lamont’s voice—described in his 2010 obituary in The Independent as “richly sonorous” and “virile”—made him an ideal announcer, a function that he fulfilled on shows like Life Can Be Beautiful, The Six-Shooter, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI, Truth or Consequences, Vic and Sade, and The Whistler.

tarzanLamont Johnson’s best-remembered role in the aural medium was as the lead on Tarzan, a transcribed series that began in 1950 as one of several series from syndicator Commodore Productions (at the time enjoying great success with Hopalong Cassidy).  By January of 1951, Mutual made room for Tarzan on its schedule, and from March 22, 1952 to June 27, 1953 the series aired over CBS Saturday evenings, sponsored by General Foods/Post Toasties.  It was at this point in Johnson’s career that he also began appearing in films like Retreat, Hell! (1952), Sally and Saint Anne (1952), The Human Jungle (1954), and The Brothers Rico (1957).  Universal had signed him to a contract, but Lamont never made the impact on audiences that his fellow studio contractees Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, or Jeff Chandler did.  He gravitated toward acting on television, and from there it was just a short walk to working behind the camera.

johnson2Lamont’s first television assignment was to tackle a one-hour adaptation of Wuthering Heights for NBC-TV’s daytime Matinee Theater, and his success paved the way for 77 additional live productions for that series over the next two years.  Johnson then moved seamlessly into the world of taped television programs, helming episodes of programs like Have Gun – Will Travel, Peter Gunn, Naked City, and Dr. Kildare.  His work for The Twilight Zone still resonates with fans of that iconic series years later, with classic episodes like “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can.”

Johnson’s debut as a feature film director was 1967’s A Covenant with Death, a legal thriller with a promising plot that was ultimately sabotaged by its leaden pace.  Lamont followed it with The Mackenzie Break (1970), an exciting thriller with the novelty of German prisoners busting out of an Allied POW camp.  Many film critics agree that The Last American Hero (1973), a docudrama featuring Jeff Bridges as the legendary stock-car-racer Junior Johnson (though Bridges’ character in the film goes by “Junior” Jackson), represents the director’s finest achievement on the silver screen…eclipsing other Johnson-directed efforts such as A Gunfight (1971), You’ll Like My Mother (1972), and One on One (1977).

thatcertainsummerLamont Johnson received the first of his eleven Emmy Award nominations in 1970 for My Sweet Charlie—a controversial telemovie for its time, with an interracial romance at the center of its plot.  Lamont had to settle for a Directors’ Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement for that project, which he shared with assistant director Ralph Ferrin.  Johnson courted controversy again three years later with That Certain Summer, the first TV-movie to tackle the taboo subject of homosexuality—and was again nominated for an Emmy, but lost (though he added a third DGA trophy).  Lamont’s other Emmy-nominated telefilms include The Execution of Private Slovik (1974—the story of the only American soldier executed for treason since the Civil War), Ernie Kovacs: Behind the Laughter (1981), and The Kennedys of Massachusetts (1990).  Johnson’s direction of 1975’s Fear on Trial, adapted from John Henry Faulk’s autobiography about his experiences on the blacklist, was also nominated for an Emmy…and had great verisimilitude for the director, who once found his name on such a list.

19576“Projects about human problems, about the testing of the human experience, about the pressures which exist upon human beings in a difficult world, are what really involve me,” Lamont Johnson was once quoted as saying. “The traps people get into and have to battle out of are the elements of drama with which I like to deal.”  Johnson left this world for a better one in 2010, but his radio legacy is well preserved by Radio Spirits in the following collections: Broadway’s My Beat: Great White Way, Broadway’s My Beat: Murder, Broadway’s My Beat: Neon Shoals, Crime Classics, Crime Classics: The Hyland Files, Defense Attorney, The Man From Homicide, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, The Six-Shooter: Gray Steel, and The Six-Shooter: Special Edition.  Happy birthday to the multi-faceted Lamont Johnson!