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Happy Birthday, William Gargan!

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In 1940, actor William Gargan—born in Brooklyn, NY on this date in 1905—received appreciative tribute from his peers when he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal as a young foreman in the 1940 tearjerker They Knew What They Wanted.  Sadly, he didn’t win (he lost to The Westerner’s Walter Brennan)—but you know the old cliché: “It’s great just to be nominated.”  It was also great to possess a sensational career like the one Bill Gargan enjoyed on stage and in movies, TV…and of course, radio.

gargan3While attending high school at Brooklyn’s St. James School, Bill held down a number of jobs—from soda jerk to street car conductor.  After graduation, he advanced to more prestigious white-collar work.  Gargan was employed for a time as a credit investigator, and later as a collection agent for a clothier.  He nearly took a bullet for his trouble one day when a disgruntled customer (who was quite delinquent in his account) fired a shot at him.  His eventual career, however, came about while visiting his brother Edward during Ed’s participation in a musical comedy production on stage.  Bill landed a performing job himself, making his debut in Aloma on the South Seas in 1925.

Brother Edward was three years older than William…yet both brothers were born on the same date, July 17th.  Ed would later become a familiar face in the movies himself, with both Gargans working together in such films as The Devil’s Party (1938), Miss Annie Rooney (1942), and Follow That Woman (1945).  Though he was grateful to his older sibling for the opportunity to get into acting, Bill hedged his bets slightly; he served as a whiskey supplier (or bootlegger, to use the common nomenclature) for various New York speakeasies as he passed the time between acting gigs.

rainGargan’s big break came when he received rave notices for his work in the 1932 production of Philip Barry’s The Animal Kingdom.  He would reprise his role as Richard “Red” Regan in the silver screen version released later that year…though it wasn’t the first time he’d worked in front of a motion picture camera.  He had played bit parts in previous movies and was in the cast of such films as Rain (1932) and The Sport Parade (1932).  It was, however, the start of a prolific period that included such classics as Sweepings (1933), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Headline Shooter (1933), Four Frightened People (1934), Black Fury (1935), The Milky Way (1936), and You Only Live Twice (1937).

ellery queenWilliam Gargan’s Academy Award nomination for They Knew What They Wanted opened up a lot of acting opportunities, since (despite working on some high-profile films) many of his onscreen appearances were in second features, or “B-films.”  Still, Bill got good parts in the cinema of the 1940s; his celluloid resume included I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941), The Canterville Ghost (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and Till the End of Time (1946).  Gargan appeared with Bud Abbott & Lou Costello in two of their vehicles, Keep ‘Em Flying (1941) and Who Done It? (1942).  In addition, he was seen in one of my particular favorites — an offbeat little programmer from Republic Pictures entitled Strange Impersonation (1946; one of director Anthony Mann’s early efforts).  The actor also took over for Ralph Bellamy as famed sleuth Ellery Queen in the last three Queen movies released by Columbia in 1942.  That franchise came to a halt because Gargan wasn’t under contract to the studio…or any studio, for that matter.

Throughout his years on the silver screen, Bill Gargan played a variety of different roles in different movies.  He was, however, quite reliable when it came to portraying policemen and detectives—and there was an antecedent for that.  Before his stage career, Gargan had actually been employed as a private detective for a New York agency—pulling down a salary that was commensurate with the fictional Jeff Regan, Investigator ($10 a day, plus expenses).  Bill was sacked when a diamond salesman he had been hired to protect got away from him.

murderHis gumshoe experiences in real life certainly added credence to his future radio portrayal of a private detective.  Gargan’s first sleuthing job over the ether was playing Inspector Burke on ABC Radio’s Murder Will Out beginning in mid-1945 (taking over for Edmund MacDonald).  This quiz program had a format similar to that of Ellery Queen: a mystery was performed before a studio audience and then four panelists (plucked from the same audience) had to correctly guess the conclusion.  Bill appeared on Murder until the show’s cancellation in June of 1946…while at the same headlining I Deal in Crime, another ABC series that cast him as shamus Ross Dolan.  Dolan, a veteran P.I., had taken a breather during the war to serve in what he jovially called “Uncle Sugar’s Navy”…but after mustering out was ready to get back in the crime-solving game.

Neither Murder Will Out nor I Deal in Crime were the first radio series to make William Gargan a headliner.  During the 1941-42 season, Bill was a regular on Captain Flagg & Sergeant Quirt—a sitcom based on movie characters first played by Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe in the 1926 silent What Price Glory. (McLaglen reprised his role on the air, with Gargan taking over for Lowe in early 1942).  In the summer of 1945, Gargan was one of several performers on G.I. Laughs, a lighthearted half-hour that encouraged servicemen to send in jokes (I’m guessing they weeded out the inappropriate ones).  Other shows on which Bill appeared include Command Performance, Family Theatre, Good News of 1940, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Theatre, The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Philco Radio Time (with Bing Crosby), The Rudy Vallee Hour, and The Wonder Show (with Jack Haley).

gargan16August 7, 1949 found William Gargan back on the airwaves in another detective drama—Martin Kane, Private Eye.  The novelty here was that, while the show was being broadcast over Mutual Radio, it was also appearing on the small screen as one of NBC Television’s initial boob tube offerings.  Bill was in his element as the titular gumshoe who, when not on a case, spent most of his free time at Happy McMann’s Tobacco Shop. (Hap was played by veteran thespian Walter Kinsella.)  This hang out spot was fitting, since the show was sponsored by the United States Tobacco Company.  After two years as Kane, Gargan became more and more disenchanted with the show’s scripts and quit the series, handing off the role to Lloyd Nolan.  Nolan also took over Bill’s radio duties, particularly when the radio Kane moved to NBC for its last season beginning in 1951.

gargan14Bill Gargan would also welcome NBC Radio as his new home beginning in October of 1951.  He started another detective series—inarguably his longest-running radio success—as Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator. Gargan’s new shamus wasn’t really all that different from his previous turn as Martin Kane.  In fact, the show’s original title, Barrie Crane, Confidential Investigator, had to be changed when the Kane people complained that the two names were too similar.  Bill would emote as Barrie from 1951 to 1955.  Later, he returned to his former Kane role in a syndicated TV version, appropriately titled The New Adventures of Martin Kane.

The time that William Gargan spent (as Martin Kane) at Hap McMann’s tobacco emporium was not at all beneficial. The actor developed throat cancer in 1958, and two years later his larynx had to be removed and replaced with an artificial voice box.  With his career effectively sidelined, Gargan went into television production…and spoke out fiercely against the dangers of smoking on behalf of the American Cancer Society.  His autobiography, Why Me?, was filled with colorful anecdotes about his career and his struggle with cancer.  William Gargan passed away on a flight from New York to San Diego, CA on February 17, 1979 at the age of 73.

20659Radio Spirits invites you to check out the DVD collection Hollywood on Parade, Volume 1—a compendium of classic “celebrity newsreel” shorts produced by Paramount Pictures between 1932 and 1934.  One of the shorts features juvenile actor Frankie Darro as a messenger boy who runs into various celebrities on the lot—including today’s birthday boy (not to mention the likes of Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow, and other big name stars).  Danger, Death and Dames: Film & TV Crime Dramas is a 24-disc collection with over 100 hours of movies and television shows devoted to the weed of crime that bears bitter fruit…and you’ll find six vintage episodes of Martin Kane, Private Eye among them.  And last, but certainly not least, check out ten classic radio broadcasts of Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator!

“Under the cold, glaring lights pass the innocent…the vagrant…the thief…the murderer…”

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The introduction of Jack Webb’s Dragnet to NBC Radio’s schedule in June of 1949 would soon inspire several imitators focused on the meticulous details of police procedure.  There was Broadway’s My Beat (though Beat technically premiered before Dragnet, having first been heard in February of that same year) and Twenty-First Precinct (debuting on CBS in 1953)…and in-between was The Line UpThe Line Up made its radio debut on this date in 1950 as a summer replacement for The FBI in Peace and War.

7In the police headquarters of “a great American city,” Lieutenant Ben Guthrie investigates crimes with the help of victims and witnesses asked to look over suspects paraded out in “the line up”—thus providing the series with its title.  Each episode also featured Guthrie’s partner, Sergeant Matt Greb, explaining to those witnesses (and by design, the listening audience) the purpose of the line up:

Each of the suspects you will see will be numbered.  I’ll call off the number, their name and charge.  If you have any questions or identification, please remember the number assigned to the prisoner as I call his name.  At the end of each line when I ask for questions or identification, call out the number.  If you’re sure or not too sure of the suspect, have him held.  The questions I ask these suspects are merely to get a natural tone of voice—so do not pay too much attention to their answers, as they often lie…

Blake_Edwards_1966“All right, bring on the line,” Greb would conclude after his remarks.  It was a great gimmick for the series, which was dedicated to adhering to the level of realism established by DragnetThe Line Up didn’t shy away from controversial topics, nor flinch when it came to depicting the brutality present in certain offenses.  (The program also mimicked the deadpan humor that was a staple of Webb’s show.)  The only substantial difference between the two series is that The Line Up’s plots were not based on actual police files; it relied on the creative imagination of scribes like Morton Fine & David Friedkin, E. Jack Neuman, and future film director Blake Edwards.

williamjohnstone2William Johnstone, a one-time Lamont Cranston (alias The Shadow), portrayed Lt. Guthrie while former Michael Shayne star Wally Maher played Sgt. Greb.  (Joseph Kearns originated the part of Greb in Line Up’s audition, and Howard McNear also played Greb on one occasion.)  In an eerie Dragnet parallel, The Line Up lost one of its major players when Maher suddenly passed away in 1951 (Dragnet’s Barton Yarborough also died that same year), necessitating a replacement.  Jack Moyles (formerly Rocky Jordan) came aboard as Sergeant Pete Karger for the rest of the program’s run.

Except for its initial summer appearance, when The Line Up was overseen by “Mr. Radio,” Elliott Lewis, the director-producer of Line Up was Jaime del Valle.  The program suffered the same fate as many of CBS’ dramatic offerings (Broadway’s My Beat, Escape) in that it was frequently bounced around the network’s schedule, challenging its listeners to a bizarre game of hide-and-seek.  The Line Up also experienced difficulties in landing a sponsor; it was sustained for most of its three-year run, save for a brief period of check-signing by Wrigley’s Gum and Chrysler-Plymouth.

s-l1600The Line Up may have closed its radio squad room in February of 1953, but its broadcast career was just beginning.  CBS gave the series a new lease on life by introducing a television version (produced by Desilu) on October 1, 1954.  The boob tube Line Up featured Warner Anderson as Guthrie, and character veteran Tom Tully as Inspector Greb.  (I first believed that Greb got a promotion, and was happy for him…until someone pointed out to me that since the locale of the series was established in San Francisco “Inspector” was the closest rank to “Sergeant.”  The move to Frisco also prompted a good scouring of files from the San Francisco Police Department for script ideas.)  Both Guthrie and Greb would soon be joined by a third officer in Inspector Fred Asher, played by Marshall Reed.

The Line Up was a solid hit for CBS in the five seasons it aired as a half-hour series on Friday nights at 10:00 pm (it was ranked among the Top 20 in the Nielsens in its first three seasons)…but a decision to expand the show to an hour in its sixth season sounded the death knell for the program.  The creative minds behind the show also did a housecleaning of the cast, retaining only Anderson and assigning him four newcomers.  The last telecast of The Line Up was on January 20, 1960, after which it was sent to the Old Syndication Home in reruns titled San Francisco Beat.

lineup6The Line Up did spawn a feature film version in 1958, produced by del Valle and directed by the man who had helmed the series’ pilot episode, Don Siegel.  Warner Anderson and Marshall Reed reprised their respective roles as Guthrie and Asher, but the unavailability of Tom Tully for the film gave character actor Emile Meyer a chance to play the Greb-like Inspector Al Quine.  (Siegel had actually wanted the movie to concentrate solely on the villains—played by Eli Wallach and Robert Keith—but was vetoed when del Valle insisted the show’s fans would be perplexed by the absence of the regulars.)  Since The Line Up is rarely rerun today, the 1958 film is really the only way for a new generation to experience what the show was like, outside of surviving radio broadcasts.

20587And speaking of surviving radio broadcasts of The Line Up (I swear these segueways just write themselves), Radio Spirits is pleased to present sixteen of them (including the May 27, 1950 audition show) in the collection Witness.  Pay particular attention to “The Senile Slugging Case” (09/12/51), because you’ll hear a familiar voice in Barton Yarborough among the suspects (how did Ben Romero wind up in a line up?).  The set also features Howard McNear, Virginia Gregg (a/k/a Mrs. Jaime del Valle), Parley Baer, Peggy Webber, Sheldon Leonard…and many more of your favorites from “Radio Row.”

“Oh…the big red letters stand for the Jell-O family…”

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Comedy was king during the Golden Age of Radio; funsters like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), and Fibber McGee & Molly (Jim and Marian Jordan) frequently saw their programs ruling the roost when it came to listenership ratings.  There was a situation comedy that often joined this heady company of mirthmakers—an unassuming little series that focused on the trials and tribulations of an average teenage boy.  The program also featured one of the medium’s most memorable openings: a female voice calling out “Hen-reeeeeeeee!  Henry Aldrich!”

“Coming, Mother!” was the response, from the cracked voice of a kid who still seemed to be struggling with puberty.  It’s The Aldrich Family, which premiered over NBC on this date in 1939 and became one of radio’s most endearing comedies.

what a lifeClifford Goldsmith is the individual responsible for breathing life into The Aldrich Family.  The struggling playwright would finally enjoy success when his play What a Life! premiered at New York’s Biltmore Theatre in April of 1937, where it ran for 538 consecutive performances.  The production introduced audiences to “Henry Aldrich,” a troubled teenager who spent so much time in his high school superintendent’s office he was thinking about subletting.  Henry would be the breakthrough role for a young actor named Ezra Stone—and he had stiff competition, since producer George Abbott was seriously considering Eddie Bracken for the part.  What cinched Stone’s hiring was his mimicry of a former schoolmate whose voice had a tendency to crack whenever he found himself in a stressful situation.  (Bracken did get a consolation prize when he played Henry’s sidekick “Dizzy” Stevens in the 1940 film Life with Henry, based on Goldsmith’s characters.)

aldrichfamily4Rudy Vallee enjoyed What a Life! so much that he asked Goldsmith to pen a series of eight-to-ten minute sketches featuring his characters for Vallee’s popular The Royal Gelatin Hour.  Kate Smith followed suit by featuring Ezra and actors from the stage play in similar playlets on her program for 39 weeks during the 1938-39 season.  Kate then persuaded General Foods to present The Aldrich Family in full half-hour form as a summer replacement for Jack Benny, and the show executed this assignment with such effortless aplomb that it received a promotion to full-time status that fall.

The appeal of The Aldrich Family was in its disarming simplicity.  Henry Aldrich was a well-meaning teenager with a knack for turning everything he touched to catastrophe.  Henry could conceivably turn a simple trip to the grocery store in his hometown of Centerville into a situation involving the police, the fire department…and the National Guard, if he worked it right.  He never acted out of malice or mischief, he was just helpless when events began to snowball out of control.  Fortunately for our hapless hero, the “troubles of Henry Aldrich” were reliably ironed out by the final Jell-O commercial.

aldrichsamaliceThe cast of The Aldrich Family was one of the most stable in radio.  House Jameson played Henry’s father (attorney Sam Aldrich) for so long that listeners tend to forget it was Clyde Fillmore who originated the part in early broadcasts (with Tom Shirley as Sam in the series’ later run).  The same went for the actress who emoted as Henry’s mother—Leah Penman was the original Alice, and Regina Wallace finished out the series…but it’s Katherine Raht who played Mrs. A the longest.  Even Jackie Kelk, who portrayed Henry’s best friend Homer Brown, almost went the distance (he was playing both Homer and Jimmy Olsen on The Adventures of Superman at the same time) before being replaced in the series’ final radio season by John Fiedler, Jack Grimes and Michael O’Day.

While Ezra Stone may have been born to play Henry, his stint as the perpetually-in-hot-water teen was interrupted in 1942 due to military obligations. Norman Tokar, Dick Jones, and Raymond Ives filled in for Stone until Ezra was able to return to the program in November of 1945.  Bobby Ellis inherited the part of Henry in the radio version’s last season on radio…which makes sense, since he was playing the part on TV as well.

TBDALFA EC004The Aldrich Family made a successful transition to the small screen in October of 1949, where it ran for four seasons.  Although many members of the radio cast reprised their roles (notably Jameson and Kelk), Ezra Stone was conspicuously absent.  Ezra was unsurpassed as radio’s Henry…but visually, he simply didn’t look the part.  Jackie Kelk in later years mused that he looked more like Henry than Stone did: “Ezra was this little fat man who wore a vest and smoked cigars.”  Stone elected to work behind the camera, directing many episodes of The Aldrich Family. In later years, he would go on to direct episodes of such TV series as I Married Joan and The Munsters.

henry-aldrich-for-president-movie-poster-1941-1010709001The same rules had been applied previously when the Aldriches made their presence felt on the silver screen: Jackie Cooper played Henry when What a Life! was adapted for a feature film in 1939, and he reprised the role in a sequel the following year, Life with Henry (1940).  The movies’ best-known Henry Aldrich was James Lydon, who began his misadventures in a series of B-comedies for Paramount beginning with Henry Aldrich for President in 1941 and concluding with Henry Aldrich’s Little Secret in 1944.  The Paramount films managed to capture the spirit of the radio show quite well, though they did throw in a bit of physical comedy to suit the visual medium.

20465The radio version of The Aldrich Family took its final bows before the microphone on April 19, 1953.  It’s fondly remembered by many old-time radio fans…though I’ve had more than a few people tell me it doesn’t hold up well, calling it “corny” and “too sentimental.”  Feh! says I.  I enjoy listening to the program, which reminds us all how painful and awkward adolescence could be.  It brings you back to a time when your biggest worry was whether or not you could afford tickets to the high school dance…or more importantly, whether you had a suitable tux to wear to that affair.  I wrote the liner notes for Radio Spirits’ Aldrich Family release (a collection I would recommend without hesitation), but you’ll also find plenty of Henry fun on Radio’s Christmas Celebrations (a Yuletide-themed broadcast from 1952) and Great Radio Comedy (a February 17, 1949 broadcast involving antique chairs!).

“This case has more angles than a six-pointed star…”

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As the 1944-45 season of radio’s The Fitch Bandwagon came to its conclusion, star Dick Powell made an unusual request of the sponsor, shampoo magnate F.W. Fitch.   Powell asked Fitch if he could take over as Bandwagon’s summer replacement, with a private eye series that would be scripted by Ray Buffum and directed by Dee Englebach.  Fitch didn’t hesitate: most big-name radio stars took summer vacations at that time, so getting someone of Powell’s celebrity wattage would most assuredly not hurt any sales of Fitch shampoo.  The show would be titled Bandwagon Mysteries…but most old-time radio fans refer to it by its later title, Rogue’s Gallery.  It premiered over NBC on this date in 1945.

powell-42ndIn the 1930s, Dick Powell had established himself as a motion picture favorite in a slew of musicals released by Warner Brothers.  In titles such as 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), and Gold Diggers of 1933 the youthful Powell sang and danced as the chorus boy-next-door …but it didn’t take long for the actor-crooner to become weary of the rut the studio had placed him—his complaints to studio executives about having to appear in movies with “the same stupid story” fell on deaf ears.  Powell left Warner’s in 1940 and found work at Paramount…where they cast him in Warner-like fare such as Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Happy Go Lucky (1943).  Dick realized he was just too old to play boyish romantic leads anymore.

murdermysweetWhen Powell got word of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity project, he lobbied Paramount hard to play the leading role of insurance man Walter Neff.  Dick gambled that playing such a part would turn his career around overnight.  He was right on that score; Indemnity generated critical dividends for the actor who eventually did play Neff:  Fred MacMurray (also an actor known for romantic leads in light comedies).  Dick Powell’s persistence would pay off, however, when he became the first actor to play Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled sleuth Phillip Marlowe in the R-K-O production of Murder, My Sweet (1944—the silver screen adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely).

With his rejuvenated career as a movie tough guy, Powell took advantage by starring in such films noir as Cornered (1945) and Johnny O’Clock (1947).  He also reprised his Marlowe role to much acclaim on The Lux Radio Theatre’s adaptation of “Murder, My Sweet” on June 11, 1945.  Two weeks later, he began emoting before the microphone as shamus Richard Rogue.

leedsRogue’s Gallery wasn’t a particularly remarkable series…but it did get points for trying something different.  What listeners remember most about the show is that when Rogue was on the receiving end of a blackjack (and let’s be honest—it happened to gumshoes a lot) or knockout drops, he would ascend to what he called “Cloud Number Eight” in his subconscious.  There he would encounter his alter ego, “Eugor” (“Rogue” spelled backwards), played by radio veteran Peter Leeds.  Described by the detective as “a nasty little spook,” Eugor would occasionally be of help to Rogue by pointing out some clue or other bit of business that Rogue might have otherwise overlooked in his conscious state.  In addition to “Eugor,” Leeds played straight roles on Gallery as well.  Rounding out the program’s regular cast were Lurene Tuttle as Betty Callahan and Ted von Eltz as Lt. Urban, Rogue’s contact on the force.

diamondThe summer run of Rogue’s Gallery was a pleasant success—so much so that Powell relinquished his duties as host of The Fitch Bandwagon (singer-comedienne Cass Daley inherited the gig in the 1945-46 season) to continue playing Rogue on a weekly basis when Gallery moved to Mutual in the fall of 1945.  It returned to NBC for another summer season before Powell called it quits.  It’s interesting to note that the actor’s stint on Gallery was essentially a blueprint for Dick’s later Richard Diamond, Private Detective program; many of the elements on Diamond originated on Gallery—the light-heated insouciance of the main character; an occasional song crooned by Powell, etc.

21253Powell might have been finished with Rogue’s Gallery…but the show did continue without him.  In the summer of 1947, the show resurfaced again as the replacement for Fitch Bandwagon, this time with Barry Sullivan as Rogue.  In November of 1950, Gallery eked out one last season (with both Chester “Boston Blackie” Morris and Paul Stewart as the titular private eye) on ABC before departing the airwaves for good on November 21, 1951.

Of the less-than-two-dozen episodes of Rogue’s Gallery that are in circulation, only two of them are non-Powell episodes (one with Barry Sullivan and the other with Paul Stewart).  The Sullivan episode, “Phyllis Adrian is Missing” (06/29/47) will be available in our upcoming Gallery collection, Blue Eyes (the remaining fifteen broadcasts star Dick Powell).  Keep an eye peeled for it, because if you’ve been on the hunt for a decidedly different approach to crime drama…Rogue’s Gallery will definitely be your bottle of bourbon (stashed in the desk drawer, of course).

“…true crime stories from the records and newspapers of every land from every time…”

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Even as he continued to convulse audiences weekly in the 1950s as Frankie Remley, sidekick to the male half of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, actor Elliott Lewis was anxious to branch out into the more creative areas of network radio.  While acting on Suspense in the 1940s, Lewis had occasion to rewrite scripts as well as submitting his own originals on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.”  So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when he moved up to the director-producer’s chair in August of 1950 on Suspense, a position he maintained until June of 1954.

elliottlewis1Other series that bore Elliott’s distinctive stamp include Broadway’s My Beat and On Stage—but perhaps the most unusual entry on his resume premiered on this date in 1953.  As a matter of fact, it began as a summer replacement for Suspense before generating enough positive critical buzz to run for an additional season afterward.  We know it as Crime Classics.

What made Crime Classics so unusual?  Granted, it was a crime anthology and there had already been a history of those types of series on radio for years previous.  What made the program stand out was its tongue-in-cheek approach to its stories; tales laced with an irresistibly mordant wit that kept audiences from drifting off in the middle of what could have a been a dry, dusty criminology lecture.  The Crime Classics project sprung forth from Elliott Lewis’ longstanding hobby of collecting anecdotes and tidbits from famous murder cases throughout history.  Elliott could proudly boast of a remarkable library of files and clippings on the history of murder—much of his material being primary source information dating back to the 17th century.  With Crime Classics, Lewis set out to recreate those cases by placing them firmly in the time periods they occurred and executing meticulous detail to capture the exact dialects and behavior of the principals involved.

elliott-lewis-morton-fine-david-friedkinAssisting Elliott Lewis was the veteran writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin—who, in the spirit of the scripts they contributed to Classics, once observed: “You can afford to laugh at murder as long as you’re safely a century or so away from it…the killers we make fun of are good and dead.  If they weren’t, we know a pair of writers who would be.”  The three men would select a case and thoroughly discuss the particulars, combing through periodicals that concentrated on their chosen act of mayhem and taking copious notes on the subject.  The actual writing of the script came very easy; requiring Fine and Friedkin to merely sprinkle a little gallows humor throughout to keep things from getting too grim.

Here’s a brief example from the opening of “The Checkered Life and Sudden Death of Col. James Fiske, Jr.” (06/29/53)—to give you a bit of the Crime Classics flavor:

(SFX: body falling down a flight of stairs, music starts)

HYLAND: The man who just fell down the stairs was Colonel James Fiske, Jr.  Although the Colonel is a man given to the consumption of dozens of blue point oysters—and bottles of heady wine at a sitting—his friends were given to pointing him out as a man inordinately steady on his feet.  So why did he tumble down the stairs?  And in New York’s Grand Central Hotel, no less—where stair-tumbling was frowned upon…the Colonel didn’t slip…he wasn’t pushed…he was shot.  The sudden presence of two bullets in him had upset his equilibrium.

(SFX: footsteps, running)

HYLAND: The man who’s running away is the man who just shot the Colonel.  His name—Edward S. Stokes, until recently the Colonel’s very dear friend.  There he goes… (SFX: more running, door slamming shut) And tonight—my report to you on the Checkered Life…and Sudden Death of…Colonel James Fiske, Jr.

Lou-Merrill-Lucille-Meredith3The individual reciting that preface was Thomas Hyland—portrayed by actor Lou Merrill, and described as a “connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders.”  (I would give my eyeteeth to be identified as a “connoisseur of crime.”)  Crime Classics also availed itself of many of Radio Row’s top thespians, including Herb Butterfield, William Johnstone, Ben Wright, Jeanette Nolan, Irene Tedrow, John Dehner, and Lillian Buyeff.  Mary Jane Croft was also a Crime Classics regular; she would marry director-producer Lewis shortly after his divorce from Cathy Lewis in 1958.

The announcing chores were handled by Roy Rowan and Bob LeMond, and Elliott Lewis was also quite fortunate to be able to use the services of the legendary Bernard Herrmann to oversee Classics’ music.  Herrmann took the same care with each score that Lewis, Fine and Friedkin exercised with each script, going above and beyond the call of duty to capture the period flavor of each tale.  He often relied on just one or two instruments to create the most effective of moods.

20850Unfortunately, Crime Classics’ reign on radio was a brief one; its last tale was told on June 30, 1954.  It was a sustained series, which was generally the kiss of death in network radio.  For the 21st century old-time radio fan, however, most of the series’ run has been preserved…and is available in two collections from Radio Spirits.  The first, Crime Classics, features the first twenty episodes from the series—including the program’s December 3, 1952 audition “The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner.”  An additional twenty episodes comprise Crime Classics: The Hyland Files.  Get both and enjoy them today!

Happy Birthday, Basil Rathbone!

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Basil Rathbone was born on this date in 1892—and I’ll come clean right from the get-go: I am a tremendous fan of the actor’s work.  Basil possessed a suavity and menace that made him one of the cinema’s best villains; even when he was engaging in stovepipe-hat-and-twirly-moustache antics he had an undeniable élan and panache that you couldn’t help but admire.  Rathbone played scores of bad guys in movies…yet his best-remembered cinematic role was that of a hero, Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective Sherlock Holmes.

basil6He was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone in Johannesburg to British parents…yet his stay in the South African Republic was a brief one.  Rathbone was three years old when the family was forced to flee to Britain, his father Edgar having been accused by the Boers of being a spy.  Educated at the Repton School in Derbyshire between 1906 and 1910, Basil acquiesced to Edgar’s request that he pursue a “conventional” career by briefly working for the Liverpool and Globe Insurance Companies.  However, the footlights proved to be too strong a temptation to resist, and the aspiring young thespian gravitated toward the stage—making his theatrical debut with a small role in a 1911 production of The Taming of the Shrew.  This would lead to a trip to America a year later, traveling with a repertory company in productions of Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and As You Like It.

basil7Basil Rathbone took a momentary detour from acting when he was called up into the British Army as a private with the London Scottish Regiment.  This same regiment also included (at various times) many of his acting contemporaries, notably Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall, and Ronald Colman.  Returning to the stage in 1919, Basil enjoyed a flourishing career as a Shakespearean performer in both the United Kingdom and the United States…and by 1925, Rathbone had set his sights on a motion picture career.  One of his earliest “talkies” was The Bishop Murder Case (1930), in which he played Philo Vance—the sleuth created by S.S. Van Dine.  Yet Basil would find greater success as a delectable cinematic villain, playing knaves and scoundrels in such films as David Copperfield (1935), Captain Blood (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938—his best-known villainy as Sir Guy of Gisbourne), and The Mark of Zorro (1940).  Rathbone also established earlier horror film bona fides with roles in Tower of London (1939) and Son of Frankenstein (1939).  In addition, his turns as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and King Louis XI in If I Were King (1938) garnered him his two Academy Award acting nominations.

basil2It was his casting as Sherlock Holmes in 20th Century-Fox’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) that would cement Rathbone’s cinematic immortality.  His success in that film (with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson) led to a follow-up in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that same year, and in 1942 a series of Holmes films was cranked out by Universal (twelve of those in all).  The Fox films led to Rathbone and Bruce reprising their parts in a radio series for NBC in the fall of 1939 (keep in mind that the great detective’s “adventures” had been appearing before the microphones since 1930).  Basil would continue in that capacity until 1946, when he announced that he had grown tired of the character (the last of the Universal Holmes pictures, Dressed to Kill, also appeared in that same year).  He returned to Broadway, where his performance as Dr. Austin Sloper in The Heiress would earn him a Tony Award.

basil5As a well-known movie actor, Basil Rathbone didn’t lack for work in radio—making frequent appearances on such anthology shows as The Cavalcade of America, The Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Radio Reader’s Digest, and The Theatre Guild On the Air.  He appeared on the likes of Information Please and Truth or Consequences, and joshed with such radio comedians and personalities as Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Cass Daley, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Henry Morgan, and Rudy Vallee.  Basil took a try at a second weekly radio series with Tales of Fatima, a crime drama (sponsored by the cigarette) that premiered over CBS on January 8, 1949.  Despite its attempts at novelty—Rathbone played himself, as an actor who frequently found himself caught up in investigations of murder—the series wasn’t successful, and left the airwaves on October 1st of that same year.

basil9By the 1950s, Rathbone found that he was able to use his reputation for villainy to comic effect in such silver screen efforts as Casanova’s Big Night (1954), We’re No Angels (1955), and the delightful Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester (1956).  Basil was actually asked to hold back during the climactic swordfight in that film (Rathbone was a first-class fencer, which made it all the more painful when he had to lose to Errol Flynn in the movies they made together—he once joked in later years “I could have killed Errol Flynn any time I wanted to!”) so that Kaye would look better.  Rathbone also had a wonderful showcase in 1958’s The Last Hurrah, and made guest appearances on such TV series as Burke’s Law and Dr. Kildare.  The actor continued making movies throughout the 1960s, collecting a few paychecks from American International Pictures for roles in good movies like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964—with co-stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff!)…and questionable efforts like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).  (To be fair—there’s a great gag in Bikini where Harvey Lembeck sizes up Basil with “That guy looks like Sherlock Holmes!”)  The movies lost one of their unsurpassed villains when Basil Rathbone passed away in 1967.

20948Radio Spirits has plenty of Basil Rathbone performances on hand: our popular collection of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes broadcasts featured on The Game is Afoot is an excellent place to start, and you’ll also find a vintage Holmes program (“The Bruce Partington Plans”) on our Great Radio Detectives compilation.  Our DVD set Danger, Death and Dames: Film & TV Crime Dramas includes the 1937 Rathbone film Love From a Stranger, and on the two-CD set The Stingiest Man in Town (A Christmas Carol), you’ll hear Bas as Ebenezer Scrooge on the soundtrack from the December 23, 1956 telecast of The Alcoa Hour.  One of the numbers from that program, “Mankind is My Business,” is also featured on the Did You Know These Stars Also Sang? Hollywood’s Acting Legends CD set…but you’ll want to own this because it includes Rathbone’s delightful rendition of “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).  Best birthday wishes, Mr. Rathbone!

Happy Birthday, Rosa Rio!

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In Leonard Maltin’s old-time radio memoir The Great American Broadcast, veteran announcer Jackson Beck recalled a most amusing anecdote involving today’s birthday celebrant.  “There was a time Rosa Rio was playing the organ,” reminisced Beck, “and Dorian St. George, who was a real prankster, was the announcer at the show.  She’s at the Hammond organ, and she’s a very attractive, talented lady, great sense of humor.  And he went up and unbuttoned her blouse while she’s playing; she had a blouse with buttons down the back.  He unbuttoned the whole thing and then he undid her bra.  She can’t say anything, [and] there’s an audience up in the visitor’s booth at NBC watching this.”

rio2Beck continued: “She waits until his middle commercial comes up and she walks up, undoes his belt, unzips his fly and drops his pants.  And then starts on the underpants.  And there’s an audience up there!  They go, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”  Sounds like just another wacky day at the National Broadcasting Company, where Rosa Rio worked as staff organist from the late 1930s to 1960, with stops at Mutual and ABC to boot.  Rosa was born Elizabeth Raub in New Orleans on this date in 1902, and enjoyed a long career not only on radio, but during those early days of thrills and laughter in the silent movie era as well.

Young Elizabeth demonstrated an inclination towards music in early childhood; she began playing piano at the age of four, and was taking formal lessons on the instrument by age eight.  Her family disapproved of her career ambitions, by the way…until they reasoned that playing the organ at church wouldn’t be too scandalous for a young Southern lady.  Her first gig was accompanying movies in the theater, and by adolescence she was studying music at both Oberlin College and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.  When Elizabeth decided to turn professional, she changed her name to Rosa Rio…since it was easier to fit on a theater marquee.

These stills were issued in 1998 as part of Warner Bros. 75th AnniversaryRosa played the Wurlitzer organ—her instrument of choice—in a variety of theatrical venues throughout New York and around the country, accompanying the movies of such silent movie greats as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton…and performing before audiences who paid to see such classics as The Birth of a Nation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera.  October 6, 1927 marked the day of a disturbing cloudburst on Rosa’s career; with the release of The Jazz Singer, Rio feared that “the talkies” would put her out of business.

19721Rio was able to find temporary work as an accompanist and vocal coach.  One of her pupils was a young Mary Martin, who asked Rosa to accompany her when she auditioned (successfully) for her Broadway debut in 1938, the Cole Porter musical Leave it to Me!  Rio eventually was hired by NBC to play organ for as many as two dozen shows a week, including everything from Bob and Ray to Ethel and Albert.  At one point, she headlined two of her very own programs, Rosa Rio Rhythms and Rosa Rio Time.  Her work on such daytime dramas as Front Page Farrell, Lorenzo Jones, My True Story, and When a Girl Marries earned her the nickname “Queen of the Soaps.”  Purportedly, the time between the sign-off of Lorenzo Jones and the start of Bob and Ray was less than sixty seconds…necessitating Rio’s dash between the two studios.

One of Rosa’s best-known jobs at the radio organ was her accompaniment for The Shadow; in 1985, Radiola Records—the LP division of Radio Yesteryear—released an audio documentary entitled The Story of the Shadow that featured Rio and surviving members of the Shadow series reminiscing about what it was like to work on the program.  Rio’s relationship with Radio Yesteryear would extend to the company’s foray into videocassette releases (appropriately titled Video Yesteryear); she would provide scores and accompaniment to nearly 370 silent movie releases including Intolerance, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Cat and the Canary.

rio3After years of working on such radio hits as David Harding—Counterspy and Hannibal Cobb, Rosa Rio attempted a transition to television, playing for such small screen efforts as The Today Show and As the World Turns.  The opportunities for work in TV, however, were not quite as generous as those in radio…and soon Rosa found herself in Connecticut, where she ran a music school offering classes in voice, organ, and piano.  Relocating to Florida’s Hillsborough County in 1993 would provide Rio with a “comeback” career, however; she was the official accompanist for the silent movie program presented by the Tampa Theatre, the revival house built in 1926.  My friend Jeff Stewart would often enthusiastically inform me of his visits to see silent films on “the big screen,” and remind me that the music would be provided by “Rosa Rio and the Mighty Wurlitzer.”  Rosa would traditionally take a bow before the audience as her signature tune Everything’s Coming Up Roses would play (she jokingly renamed the standard “Everything’s Coming Up Rosa”).

19902Rosa Rio passed away in 2010—three weeks before her 108th birthday.  If you find that amazing, keep in mind that for many years, no one actually knew Rio’s real age (ageism is still alive and well in the show business world, sadly); it was only during an appearance at the Tampa Theatre in 2007 that she divulged her secret.  (Because she was not the kind of person given to blowing out birthday cake candles, some members of her family didn’t even know.)  A lovely portion of her obituary in the New York Times reads: “In Miss Rio’s career one can trace the entire history of entertainment technology in the 20th century.  After all, she was alive, and playing, for nearly all of it.”  Radio Spirits is only too humbled to celebrate the natal anniversary of this legendary individual, and if you want to check out her talent we suggest you make a purchase of The Story of the Shadow in addition to The Shadow: Strange Puzzles.  Happy birthday, Rosa!

Happy Birthday, Norris Goff!

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One-half of the comedy team that served as my introduction to old-time radio was born one hundred and ten years ago on this date.  With his lifelong partner Chester Lauck, Norris “Tuffy” Goff comprised the mirth making duo better known as Lum and Abner—who would eventually appear on all four networks (ABC, CBS, Mutual and NBC) during their twenty-year run on the airwaves.

goff2Findley Norris Goff was born in Cove, Arkansas…but his family moved to Mena five years later.  There, his father expanded a wholesale general merchandise warehouse that would influence the young Norris’ future career (he was called upon to work in his dad’s store growing up).  Another fortuitous event in his life was meeting up with Chester Lauck, the son of another prominent Mena family.  The two young men quickly developed reputations as “class clowns” in high school, entertaining their fellow students, and both later attended the University of Arkansas after their graduation in 1924.  Goff also attended Oklahoma University, where he graduated with a degree in business.  During his years of working in the family store, Norris was often called upon to visit other general stores in the area to further his education…but more often than not, he spent a great deal of time chatting it up with the various old-timers who congregated around the pot-bellied stoves of those establishments.

goff3After work, Norris and Chet amused their friends and audiences with off-the-cuff comedy routines.  They were scheduled to perform at a flood relief fundraiser for Hot Springs radio station KTHS in 1931, when they realized that the blackface routine that they had planned to do would be one of several (the other performers had decided on the same thing, as radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy was at the peak of its popularity).  The two men called an audible, and decided to do their “fellers-from-the-hills” material instead.  The success of this performance would lead Goff and Lauck to be hired to perform Lum and Abner for KTHS.  The popularity of the comedy serial spurred them to audition for an NBC station in Chicago, where they were hired to do the same program nationwide for Quaker Oats.

goff4The titular characters of Lum and Abner were Columbus “Lum” Edwards (usually pronounced “Eddards”) and Abner Peabody, who operated the general mercantile “Jot ‘Em Down Store” in the mythical hamlet of Pine Ridge, Arkansas.  Lauck played Lum while Goff was Abner…but in the early days, the two performers found it necessary to take on other roles as well.  Norris also played Dick Huddleston (Pine Ridge’s postmaster…whose name was borrowed from one of Goff and Lauck’s good friends), Mousie Gray, Doc Miller, and Squire Skimp—the town’s resident George “Kingfish” Stevens, part con man and part loan shark.  There were a lot of similarities between Lum and Abner and Amos ‘n’ Andy (for example, many of the female characters were only referred to—never heard).  However, as radio historian Elizabeth McLeod once noted, while Amos ‘n’ Andy tried to tackle the Great Depression with a sense of realism, Lum and Abner settled for more escapist fare.

Lum and Abner aired over various networks for various sponsors (Horlicks Malt, General Foods, Miles Laboratories) as a five-day-a-week quarter hour, but in the fall of 1948 the team hit the big time with a weekly half-hour situation comedy for CBS.  The New Lum and Abner Show had a studio audience, an orchestra, a big-time sponsor (“On the air for Frigidaire!”), and a supporting cast that included Clarence Hartzell (as Ben Withers), ZaSu Pitts, Andy Devine, Opie Cates, Francis “Dink” Trout, and Cliff Arquette.  The show was sponsored by Ford in its 1949-50 season, and then spent its last year on the air (1953-54) back in its familiar quarter-hour format.

goff5Both Norris and Chet attempted to get a boob tube version of their creations off the ground, but weren’t able to make any headway with a series of pilots.  Instead, those pilots were stitched together to comprise a 1956 feature film, Lum and Abner Abroad, which was actually their seventh motion picture.  The two men had appeared in a film series based on the show for independent producer Jack Votion (and released by RKO), beginning with Dreaming Out Loud in 1940 and ending with Partners in Time in 1946.  Norris would be the busier of the two performers once he and his partner called it quits with Lum and Abner.  He made occasional guest appearances on the Jack Benny and Andy Griffith shows, and memorably played “Grandpa” Pyle in an episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC in 1965.  Both men would live to see Lum and Abner make a “comeback” on radio stations during the 1970s nostalgia boom.  By that time, Goff had made himself comfortable in retirement in Palm Springs, CA, before departing this world for a better one (“Wonderful world!”) in 1978.

21208Here at Radio Spirits, we’re always anxious to find out “what’s going on down in Pine Ridge”…and you can do the same with our latest release of classic Lum and Abner broadcasts (Volume 8) as well as previous releases in Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7.  Our Great Radio Comedy collection also features a hilarious half-hour broadcast from the Lum and Abner prime time years.  So what are you waiting for?  Ay grannies, people—I b’lieve that’s your ring!  (And happy birthday, Norris!)