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A ventriloquist…on the radio?

On this date in 1936, The Royal Gelatin Hour’s Rudy Vallee introduced a very unusual guest:

Why—people have been asking me for the last two days—why put a ventriloquist on the air?  The answer is, why not?  True, our ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, is an unusual one—a sort of Noel Coward or perhaps Fred Allen among ventriloquists, a dexterous fellow who depends more upon the cleverness and wit of his material than upon the make-believe of his delivery.  Mr. Bergen works with a dummy—several of them, in fact—but this one is a typical ventriloquist’s dummy except that it is arrayed with top hat and tails.  Just imagine a dummy and take my word for it that both voices you hear are owned and operated by just one man—Edgar Bergen.

During his boyhood years in Chicago, Edgar John Berggren discovered he had a talent for ventriloquism (often referred to as “belly talk” at that time) …and at first it was just a pastime to fool his family and friends. (One story has him pranking his mother by throwing his voice, convincing her an elderly man was at their front door).  He became more and more serious about his talent as he grew older, and was no doubt buoyed after attending a Windy City performance from noted ventriloquist Harry Lester.  Lester was so impressed with Bergen (after meeting with young Edgar backstage) that he gave the novice “belly-talker” a couple of lessons free of charge.

Bergen’s ventriloquist talent also helped him graduate from high school.  As the old joke goes, Edgar’s report cards were soaking wet because his grades were below “C” level…but his teacher, after good-naturedly enjoying a performance her pupil gave at a high school recital (where he needled both her and the principal), helped tutor Bergen so he could order his cap and gown.  Edgar also depended on ventriloquism to put himself through college; he was enrolled at Northwestern University as a pre-med student, and entertaining at socials and private functions paid the bills.  Eventually, the roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd proved too tempting for the young man, and he abandoned med school to pursue a show business career.  It was through many years of one-night stands and three-a-days on “the sawdust trail” that allowed Edgar to perfect his craft and achieve the dream of every vaudevillian: playing New York’s Palace Theatre in 1930.

By the time Bergen returned from a tour of both Europe and South America, vaudeville was in hospice.  This meant Edgar would have to change the venues in which he worked, and he opted for entertaining in swanky nightclubs.  To accommodate this change, he dressed dummy Charlie McCarthy in top-hat-and-tails, and gave Charlie an English accent.  Bergen got work at New York’s Helen Morgan Club and Chicago’s Chez Paree, and he soon became a hit at private parties as well.  It was at an affair for Noel Coward in 1936—thrown by professional party maven Elsa Maxwell—that Edgar attracted the attention of Rudy Vallee, who agreed to put Edgar and Charlie on his NBC show.  (An idea that stupefied the advertising department of J. Walter Thompson, who worked with The Vagabond Lover’s sponsor.)  Rudy’s instincts were on the money; Edgar and Charlie went over big with his audience, and were invited back for an additional thirteen weeks.

Realizing that Bergen and McCarthy were a hot property, NBC added the duo to the all-star lineup of The Chase and Sanborn Hour when it premiered on May 9, 1937.  Though this hour-long variety show would eventually be taken over by Edgar and his wooden companions (Charlie, Mortimer Snerd, Effie Klinker, etc.), it’s interesting to remember that Bergen’s co-stars on the program included Nelson Eddy, Don Ameche, Dorothy Lamour, and W.C. Fields.  Fields’ stint on the show lasted only four months, but in that time his “feud” with Charlie McCarthy became every bit as popular as the quarrel between Jack Benny and Fred Allen or the squabble that pitted Walter Winchell against Ben Bernie.  (Bergen & McCarthy would even give The Great Man grief in 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, one of Fields’ funniest films.) When the contracts of Ameche, Eddy, and Lamour were up for renewal, the sponsor decided instead to prune the weekly show to a half-hour on Sunday nights.  The program still bore the “Chase & Sanborn” moniker…but radio fans simply referred to it as “Charlie McCarthy.”

Throughout Radio’s Golden Age, Edgar Bergen’s broadcasts rarely budged from the top five of the medium’s most popular comedy programs (and it was often ranked at #1).  It was only in the 1948-49 season that the ratings took a dip, owing to the stiff competition from Stop the Music.  Yes, Bergen & McCarthy had the same trouble as Fred Allen…but while Allen stubbornly insisted on staying in his time slot (even bribing viewers with a $5,000 offer if they had been called by Stop the Music while they were listening to his show), Bergen chose to go on hiatus in December of 1948—presciently guessing that the Stop the Music phenomenon would burn itself out.  In the fall of 1949, Bergen returned to his proper position in the ratings (with new sponsor Coca-Cola), and pretty much outlasted all of his radio contemporaries. Bergen remained on the air until July 1. 1956, returning in his last two seasons to an hour-long format.

Radio Spirits invites you to enjoy Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy’s later radio years with two fine collections: The Funny Fifties (which features several rare radio broadcasts) and The New Edgar Bergen Hour (also spotlighting rare shows).  Our most recent Bergen & McCarthy release, Knock on Wood, also has recently unearthed broadcasts (from 1942) as does Smile a While (with rare 1943 broadcasts…and liner notes from yours truly).  One of my favorite Radio Spirits collections is W.C. Fields and Friends, which features the duo squaring off against a true comedic great (according to Don Ameche, W.C. was not a member of Charlie’s fan club despite his admiration for Edgar’s talents).  Finally, for those of you who’d like to recover from these sumptuous servings of Edgar & Charlie, you can sample nibbles of the team on Jack Benny & FriendsGreat Radio ComedyComedy Goes WestChristmas Radio Classics, and the DVD set Funniest Moments of Comedy.

Happy Birthday, Jay Jostyn!

In 1975, actor Jay Jostyn related an amusing anecdote to author Chuck Schaden (Speaking of Radio) about an event held at New York’s famed Stork Club to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the popular radio program Mr. District Attorney, on which Jostyn starred.  Former GOP Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, the one-time New York City district attorney (and governor of the state) who inspired the titular character of the show, had been invited to the party and offered some words of wisdom to the actor: “Jay, you’ve been successful.  Let me give you a little advice.  You’ve been successful as a district attorney.  My advice to you is not to try to advance politically!”

Jay Jostyn—born Eugene Jostyn in Milwaukee on this date in 1905 (some sources say 1901)—played the prosecutor who had no official name on Mr. District Attorney from 1940 to 1952, and kept busy on other radio series as well.  He was more than just a radio thespian, however; he began in show business as an actor working in stock companies after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in dramatic arts.  (Jay also attended Marquette University briefly, before transferring to the University of Wisconsin’s dramatic school.) Though Jostyn broke into radio on the West Coast (California), it was on Cincinnati’s WLW that he received his earliest exposure as a cast member on Moon River, a poetry program.  Jay also worked on such shows as Lives of the GreatSalute to the Cities, and Smoke Dreams.

While at WLW, Jay Jostyn was a cast member on a daytime drama entitled The Life of Mary Sothern—on which he portrayed Max Tilley, one of the heroine’s many suitors.  The show was heard over the Cincinnati station from 1934 to 1936 before moving to Mutual in 1935 and then CBS by 1937.  (The series finished out its radio run as a syndicated program, finally calling it quits in 1943.)  Jostyn went with the show when it relocated to New York, and began getting gigs on other soap operas as well, including Hilltop HouseOur Gal SundayThe Parker FamilySecond Husband, and This Day is Ours.  A July 29, 1940 edition of The Time Recorder noted that Jay was one of the industry’s most in-demand performers, appearing “in 35 script shows in one week, portraying 45 different characters.”

It was as Mr. District Attorney that Jostyn scored his greatest radio success, portraying the “champion of the people, defender of truth, and guardian of all fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” after a brief stint as the show’s “Voice of the Law” (the individual who spoke those preceding words).  He was really the third actor to play Mr. D.A.; it was Dwight Weist who originated the character in the show’s early fifteen-minute serial days. Future Inner Sanctum Mysteries host Raymond Edward Johnson inherited the part from Weist, and Jay took the baton after that.  Jostyn would star on Mr. District Attorney until 1952; he reprised the role in a 1951-52 TV version (and the prosecutor finally got a real name, Paul Garrett).  However, when the program returned as a 1954 syndicated series, the district attorney’s job went to actor David Brian (who had played the part when the radio series also went into syndication from 1952-53).

Jostyn’s other radio work includes a 1943-44 Mutual series, Foreign Assignment. He played Brian Barry, a foreign correspondent for the fictitious The American Press, and actress Vicki Vola (who played his faithful secretary Edith Miller on Mr. D.A.) emoted alongside him as assistant Carol Manning.  Jay made the rounds on the likes of Dr. ChristianGreat PlaysListen CarefullyNBC Parade of StarsNew World A’Comin’, Phyl Coe MysteriesPopeye the SailorQuick as a FlashRadio GuildThe Radio Hall of FameThe Radio Reader’s DigestThe Raleigh RoomRubinoff and His Musical Moments Revue, Secret Agent K-7 ReturnsThe Silver Theatre, and The Top Guy (a 1951-53 series starring J. Scott Smart).

His TV stint as Mr. District Attorney may not have caught fire…but Jay Jostyn would eventually find small screen stardom as the star of a KTLA series called Judge Jay Jostyn of Night Court.  (Well, with all those years as a district attorney—he was destined to become a judge eventually.)  The show would eventually go national as the syndicated Night Court, U.S.A., and he would score an additional gig on the daytime soap The Secret Storm as well.  Jostyn eventually made the rounds in a guest star capacity on such popular shows as Alfred Hitchcock PresentsCar 54, Where are You?The Felony SquadThe Lineup, Maverick, Mission: ImpossibleTales of Wells FargoThriller, and The Wild Wild West.  His motion picture turns went mostly uncredited, but you can spot him in such fine films as Love Me Tender (1956), A Hatful of Rain (1957), The Hunters (1958), and Never Steal Anything Small (1959).  Jay Jostyn passed on in 1977…although, like the disagreement on his birth date, some sources report that he died in 1976.

Here’s one thing we can all agree on: Mr. District Attorney was one of radio’s most popular crime dramas (with ratings that matched many of the top comedy programs of that era) and was also a series that did not know the meaning of “summer vacation.”  (It’s true—while most of the top radio series got a break during the summer months, Mr. District Attorney was still trying cases on the docket.)  Our birthday celebrant appears on a first-rate collection of Mr. D.A. broadcasts, which also features two other thespians to tackle the part, Dwight Weist and David Brian.  (There’s even a 1939 promotional show, which throws the spotlight on District Attorneys from around the country!)  You’re going to want to add this to your bookshelf as a tribute to a hard-working actor…and remember: “…it shall be my duty, not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all those charged with crimes perpetrated within this country, but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens…”

Happy Birthday, Peg Lynch!

The domestic comedy The Private Lives of Ethel and Albert had its official network radio premiere on May 29, 1944 over NBC Blue, but the idea for the program had been germinating in the mind of Peg Lynch for years…during her days of working at KATE in Albert Lea, Minnesota.  Ethel and Albert was a sitcom in the mold of such successes as Easy Aces and Vic & Sade, but what set the show apart from these cousins was that Ethel and Albert was created, as stated, by a woman…at a time when males dominated radio comedy writing.  Margaret Frances “Peg” Lynch was born in Lincoln, Nebraska on this date in 1916…and fans of not only Ethel and Albert but The Couple Next Door, should all be thankful (even though this comes a little late, Thanksgiving-wise).

Peg Lynch didn’t stay long in the Cornhusker State.  Her father died when she was only two years old, prompting her mother to relocate to Kasson, Minnesota…and allowing Mother Lynch to resume her career as an orthopedic nurse at the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester.  At fifteen, young Peg was helping at the clinic as a part-time receptionist when she was asked by a classmate’s father if she’d be interested in working at Rochester’s KROC.  Peg’s job was writing copy and interviewing sports figures like Lou Gehrig and Knute Rockne…pretty much anyone who was visiting the Mayo Clinic at that time.

Lynch would graduate from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English (with an emphasis on drama and writing), and her experience at KROC inspired her to seek work in broadcasting.  That brought her to KATE, where she was hired to write commercials and other radio copy.  Soon, however, she was pressed into service to script a daily half-hour show for women, as well as a weekly farm news program and a half-hour theater show.  As a three-minute “filler” during the woman’s program, Peg started writing the skits that would later blossom into Ethel and Albert.  Her fictional couple were also utilized in many of KATE’s commercials.

Subsequent jobs at stations in Charlottesville, Virginia and Cumberland, Maryland followed for Peg Lynch…and of course wherever she went she took Ethel and Albert with her.  She was hired in February of 1944 to script an ABC network serial in New York, and while doing that she pitched Ethel and Albert to her superiors.  The suits liked the idea for the series, and agreed to put it on the air.  While Lynch was a little hesitant to turn over her creation, she jumped in with enthusiasm—particularly since ABC insisted that she portray Ethel (an audition for actresses yielded no suitable candidates).

In the early months of Ethel and Albert, actor Richard Widmark portrayed Albert…but once he departed, he was replaced by Alan Bunce.  Bunce and Lynch had such an amazing chemistry that it was difficult to believe they weren’t married in real life.  Ethel and Albert ran as a five-day-a-week quarter hour for most of its radio history, and in January of 1949 it expanded to a half-hour, heard on Monday nights at 8pm until its cancellation on August 28, 1950.  Like so many of its radio brethren and sistren, Ethel and Albert transitioned to television—first as a fifteen-minute segment on The Kate Smith Hour in 1952, and then in a half-hour format that was eventually telecast over all three networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) from April 25, 1953 to July 6, 1956.

Ethel and Albert would be reunited for a CBS radio series that began December 30, 1957…but because Peg Lynch no longer owned the rights to her creation, she wasn’t allowed to call the show Ethel and Albert.  Instead, the series went by The Couple Next Door, and Peg and Alan’s couple the Arbuckles were now known as the Pipers.  (The Pipers’ first names were never mentioned on the program…unless they were “dear,” “darling,” or “sweetheart.”)  The show was a success for CBS, and ran until November 25, 1960 when the network issued pink slips to several other long-running radio favorites, including Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent.

The rights to Peg’s famous characters were eventually returned to her, and she resurrected the couple on five-minute segments of NBC’s Monitor in 1963, as well as a series of fondly remembered TV commercials.  Her “Albert,” Alan Bunce, passed away in 1965, so when Lynch brought the couple back for another go-round in the 1970s—on NPR’s Earplay—the creator of that award-winning radio series, Karl Schmidt, stepped in to fill Bunce’s shoes.  Robert Dryden would play Albert on Peg’s creation “The Little Things in Life” for Radio Playhouse, heard from 1975 to 1976.  Peg Lynch continued to write sketches about her famed couple (some featured Ethel and Albert Arbuckle in their nineties!) until her passing in 2015 at the age of 98.

Not many of the original Ethel and Albert radio broadcasts have survived the ravages of time and neglect…but fortunately for old-time radio fans, nearly the entire run of The Couple Next Door was preserved and is around for new generations of fans.  Radio Spirits offers up several collections of this classic show, starting with The Couple Next Door (which contains the inaugural broadcast) and continuing with Merry Mix-Ups (which would be perfect for the holidays) and Moving On.  There’s even an episode (from April 15, 1958) on our all-star mirthmaking compendium, Great Radio Comedy.  Happy birthday to Peg Lynch—a special lady and exemplary talent who created “a show about nothing” long before the plans for TV’s Seinfeld were set in motion.

Happy Birthday, Frank Graham!

In 1950, actor-announcer Frank Graham was at the peak of his radio career.  He was the star of Jeff Regan, Investigator—a detective series heard exclusively over CBS Radio on the West Coast. The series had originally starred future Dragnet cop Jack Webb when it premiered in 1948.  It was not an easy task to follow in Webb’s footsteps, but Graham was doing okay as Regan…ably assisted by character veteran Frank Nelson as Anthony J. Lyon, the buffoonish owner of the detective agency where Regan was employed.

There were only five more broadcasts left in Graham’s Jeff Regan contract, but he never completed the shows. He was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning on September 2, 1950—the victim of a successful suicide attempt.  The police would find a photograph of a beautiful brunette in Graham’s hand, later identified as Disney animator Mildred Rossi, a companion of the actor. It was a sad end to the performer who was born on this date in Detroit, MI in 1914.

A show business career was in the cards for Frank Lee Graham, because his mother Ethel was a well-known opera singer (his father, also named Frank, was an inventor). He frequently accompanied her on the concert circuit, attending literally dozens of schools in various cities during this vagabond existence. Upon graduation, Graham decided to enroll in the University of California, but college life was brief. After one year, Graham left school to pursue an acting career on stage (Graham and wife Dorothy founded the city’s Rockcliff School of Theatre and Radio) and in radio in Spokane (working for KHQ-KGA).  His radio acting is what ultimately took hold, and in 1937 he was brought to Hollywood for an announcer’s job at CBS station KNX.

Frank Graham’s first radio venture for KNX was a program entitled White Fires of Inspiration. However, he soon became well known for a West Coast series entitled Night Cap Yarns, which he starred in from 1938 to 1942. He eventually became a much-in-demand announcer for variety shows headlined by such stars as Rudy Vallee, Ginny Simms (from 1942-45), and Dinah Shore.  Another KNX series on which Frank worked was The Adventures of Cosmo Jones (also known as simply Cosmo Jones and The Crime Smasher).  Actually, “worked” is a bit of an understatement, because on Jones the actor was a “one-man-theater.” He not only wrote the series, but played all the roles — including the titular character, a correspondence school criminologist.  Though Crime Smasher’s listenership was limited to the West Coast, it had enough of a following that Monogram Pictures purchased the rights to the series, with the intention of making several motion pictures based on the character.  They got as far as one entry, Cosmo Jones in the Crime Smasher (1943), one of Frank’s few “live-action” performances in the movies. He was billed fifth in the feature, appearing alongside such talents as Edgar Kennedy, Mantan Moreland, and a young Gale Storm.

Frank Graham had a bit more motion picture success by merely supplying his voice, however.  He narrated and performed in animated cartoons for various studios. For example, he narrated Warner Brothers’ attempt to bring Dr. Seuss to the silver screen, Horton Hatches the Egg, in 1942.  At MGM, he can be heard in Tom & Jerry cartoons (Sufferin’ Cats!Springtime for Thomas) and he performed a lot of voice work in the productions of the legendary Tex Avery—he was the first actor to play “the wolf” in Avery’s “Red” cartoons (Red Hot Riding HoodSwing Shift Cinderella), and Graham also voiced the mouse in Tex’s lunatic King-Size Canary (1947).  The narrator for the Walt Disney animated feature The Three Caballeros (1945)?  Yes, you’ll recognize him as Frank.  Graham’s best-remembered work in animated cartoons—though again, he never got Mel Blanc-like recognition for his work—was voicing both the Fox and the Crow in the popular Columbia cartoon series during the 1940s.

Meanwhile, back at the radio microphone, Frank Graham continued to ply his trade; on The Romance of the Ranchos, he was “The Wandering Vaquero,” the series’ narrator.  Frank played several roles (including Diogenes Smith and B.L. Webster) on Lum and Abner, was the announcer for Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou (1942-43) and Nelson Eddy’s The Electric Hour (1944-46), and the host of Theatre of Romance from 1944 to 1946.  Other radio favorites on which the actor appeared include The Adventures of Bill LanceThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCommand PerformanceDarts for DoughEncore TheatreFour for the FifthFrontier TheatreThe Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreStars Over HollywoodThe Talent TheatreThe Westinghouse ProgramThe WhistlerYarns for Yanks, and Your Movietown Radio Theatre.

When producer Sterling Tracy resurrected Jeff Regan, Investigator for CBS on the West Coast in 1949, Frank Graham was tabbed to replace Jack Webb in the role.  In addition to his acting, Graham co-created an anthology program (with Van Des Auteis) entitled Satan’s Waitin’ that aired in 1950—in which Beelzebub (Graham) himself played a large role in guiding the destinies of the characters in each installment broadcast.  According to a trade paper item published after his death, Frank was set to do the Colgate-Palmolive commercials on Our Miss Brooks when that series resumed in September of 1950.

Had Frank Graham not committed suicide and ended a promising career, there’s no telling what he would have accomplished in the new field of television (Satan’s Waitin’ was being considered for a small screen version).  So while this kind of puts a pall over celebrating his birthday today, Radio Spirits recognizes that Frank was loaded with talent—and there’s no better indication of that than his performance as “The Lyon’s Eye” on his signature series, Jeff Regan, Investigator. Our collection Stand By for Mystery features today’s birthday boy in eleven vintage broadcasts of the program from 1950.

Happy Birthday, Jim Jordan!

During my formative nostalgia years, my sisters and I rarely went to the movies unless there was a “G” rating attached and “Disney” mentioned somewhere in the credits.  We saw all the new Disney films and re-releases, and such was the case in 1977 when the Walt Disney studios unveiled their latest animated feature The Rescuers—based on the book series created by Margery Sharp.  The movie was about a pair of mice (they work for an organization known as The Rescue Aid Society) who help a little girl escape the evil clutches of a villainess colorfully dubbed Madame Medusa.  It provided much entertainment for me, because I got such a kick out of the vocal talent. The mice, Bernard and Bianca, were voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, for example, with Madame Medusa’s ineffective henchman Snoops played by Disney mainstay Joe Flynn (his last feature film work before his passing in 1974).

There was a minor character named Orville, an albatross who provided the transportation for the film’s rodent heroes to journey to the bayou where the little girl was being held captive.  From the moment Orville opened his mouth I knew right away the identity of the actor who lent his voice to this fine-feathered friend; my blossoming love for old-time radio came to the fore as I shouted out “It’s Fibber McGee!”  (I believe both of my sisters relocated to another section of the movie theatre following my outburst.)  Jim Jordan, born just outside—where else?—Peoria, Illinois on this date in 1896, did indeed voice Orville; it would be his last feature film credit before retiring a few years later.  He had certainly earned a rest after a lifetime of entertaining radio audiences as one-half of the medium’s most beloved comedy couples.

For young James Edward Jordan, life in Illinois loosely translated to life on a farm.  His family eventually “moved to town” in time for him to complete eighth grade at St. Marks School, and then transition to Peoria’s Spaulding Institute for a few more years of formal training.  Across the street, his future wife Marian Driscoll was enrolled at the Academy of Our Lady…though the couple wouldn’t officially meet until December of 1915, at a Christmas choral rehearsal for St. John’s Catholic Church.  Jim and Marian bonded over their love of music; Jim was singing tenor with a local trio while Marian was a contralto who played both piano and violin.  They began dating in January of the following year when Marian invited Jim to a piano recital.

Both Jim and Marian had boundless ambition to be entertainers, and while Jim made inroads into this by getting work as a tenor singer with a Chicago vaudeville act, his work often kept him on the road…and he missed Marian terribly.  Returning to Peoria, he found work as a mail carrier, while Marian made ends meet as a piano coach.  Jim was able to win over Marian’s family when he asked for her hand in marriage, and they tied the knot on August 31, 1918. He got a letter from his Uncle Sam just five days later and was shipped to France, where his exploits during WWI would become legend.  Okay—that’s a tall tale worthy of Fibber McGee; Jordan contracted dysentery not long after his arrival, and was hospitalized long past the Armistice signing.  He served out his hitch touring U.S. hospitals throughout France as part of a military camp show.

Returning stateside, Jim Jordan worked any number of odd jobs (selling vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and life insurance) before deciding to give show business another try…and suggesting that wife Marian join him as his partner.  Performing in vaudeville was not always peaches and cream; the Jordans started out well, but ended up broke. (Jim had to wire his family for money at one point in 1923 so they could return home.)  Their home life encountered instability as well, particularly after the births of daughter Kathryn (1920) and son Jim, Jr. (1923).  Marian elected to stay home to look after their kids while Jim continued with the vagabond vaudeville life, interrupted by periods of employment as a dry cleaner and selling toys in a department store.

Radio would be the Jordans’ ticket into show business.  Goaded by his brother Byron into performing at a Chicago station (after Jim bragged that he could give a better performance than the act that was on the air), WIBO hired both Jim and Marian to perform as The O’Henry Twins in 1926 for $10 a week.  It wasn’t huge money, but the couple worked at enough radio stations to keep body and soul together.  At WENR, Jim and Marian were the stars of The Smith Family, an early example of daytime drama that a few radio historians have suggested may have been the first radio “soap.”  At WMAQ, the Jordans headlined a weekday comedy serial entitled Smackout that became so popular it eventually moved to the national NBC Blue network.

The writer on Smackout was Don Quinn, who became acquainted with Jim and Marian at WENR in their Smith Family days (and he wrote for that program as well).  Quinn would create Fibber McGee and Molly for the couple, which got the greenlight as a half-hour comedy program for Johnson’s Wax beginning April 16, 1935 over NBC. (They were championed by the wife of ad executive John J. Louis, who suggested that the stars of her favorite show [Smackout] would be perfect for the new Johnson’s venture.)  The Johnson’s Wax Program with Fibber McGee & Molly started out slow in the ratings, but a few years later it was on its way to becoming a Tuesday night institution (the Jordans and Bob Hope were a one-two punch that clobbered any competition in the ratings).  Jim and Marian soon joined the ranks of radio’s top funsters, along with such popular mirth-makers as Hope, Jack Benny, and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy).

Jim and Marian Jordan portrayed “Fibber McGee and Molly” from 1935 to 1956, and for a period in the late 1950s appeared in short skits on NBC’s Monitor.  The couple enjoyed radio immensely, and were a rarity in that they chose not to make the transition to television like so many of their fellow clowns. (When Fibber McGee & Molly did finally arrive on the small screen in 1959, the characters would be played by Bob Sweeney and Cathy Lewis).  The Jordans did do a little work in motion pictures, beginning with 1937’s This Way Please…and with Edgar Bergen and his dummies headlined two successful movies in Look Who’s Laughing (1941) and Here We Go Again (1942).  But with the completion of Heavenly Days in 1944 (sans Bergen and the gang), the duo pretty much stuck to radio (though they did appear in the occasional film short).  The Jordans were quite content portraying the wacky couple from Wistful Vista, whether it be on their own show or guest starring on someone else’s.  When the Jordans appeared on Suspense on February 3, 1949 for a classic episode entitled “Backseat Driver”…they were billed as Fibber McGee & Molly.

Marian Jordan passed away in 1961, which necessitated that Jim Jordan carry on solo.  He did several TV commercials as his famous radio character (fittingly for Johnson’s Wax) and made the rounds on small screen talk shows (Jack Paar, Mike Douglas), with an occasional guest appearance – like his memorable turn on a 1976 episode of the sitcom Chico and the Man.  One of Jim Jordan’s last radio assignments before he slipped into semi-retirement was a February 20, 1979 appearance on The Sears Radio Theatre (“The Troublemaker”). I remember it only because I had difficulty wrapping my mind around listening to “Fibber McGee” swearing (and it wasn’t “dadrat the dadratted”).  Jim Jordan would eventually join his longtime radio spouse Marian when he, too, went on to his greater reward in 1988 at the age of 91.

As we edge closer and closer toward the holidays, Radio Spirits believes that it’s not a proper Yuletide celebration unless you’re listening to Fibber, Molly, and all the Wistful Vista regulars on such Christmas compilations as Christmas Radio ClassicsThe Voices of Christmas Past, and Radio’s Christmas Celebrations.  You can also hear today’s birthday boy in our potpourri collections of Comedy Goes West and Great Radio Comedy…plus the origins of McGee’s famed hall closet can be tuned into on Burns and Allen: Gracie for President.  Of course, for pure undiluted Wistful Vista fun, be sure to check out our newest Fibber & Molly set Gone Fishing…and past releases Wistful VistaFor Goodness Sakes, and Cleaning the Closet (with liner notes by me!).  I don’t care if Molly thinks your jokes “t’aint funny”—you always brought a smile to my face, and I wish you the happiest of birthdays!

Happy Birthday, Art Carney!

No one could have possibly seen it coming.  On the night of April 8, 1975, as the live telecast of the 47th Academy Awards was calling it a wrap for the evening, the Best Actor Oscar was handed out to a real “dark horse” in the race.  The winner wasn’t Al Pacino—who would appear to have been the favorite for his portrayal of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II.  Oscar also overlooked one of Jack Nicholson’s finest film performances (in Chinatown), not to mention Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express) and Dustin Hoffman (Lenny).

No, the Best Actor prize went to a veteran actor whose simple, sweet performance as an elderly man traveling in the company of his pet cat in Harry and Tonto (1974) completely won over the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.  That thespian was christened Arthur William Matthew Carney on this date in 1918, as he was welcomed into this world by his parents Helen and Edward Michael in Mount Vernon, NY.  We know this man, best-remembered as the one-of-a-kind Honeymooners character Ed Norton, as Art Carney.

Art was the youngest of six sons in the Carney clan, and his performing ambitions began early in life. He amused family and friends with impressions, and won talent contests in both elementary and high school.  After graduating from Mount Vernon’s A.B. Davis High School in 1936, Carney quickly set about getting into show business. He talked his way into a job with Horace Heidt’s orchestra, traveling with that musical aggregation on the road for three years doing impersonations and novelty songs.  Heidt and his boys were the house band on the popular radio quiz show Pot o’Gold (Art was the show’s announcer), and when the program was brought to the silver screen in 1941 as a feature film, it provided Art with a bit role and his feature film debut.

Art Carney was drafted into the Army during World War II, as an infantryman and machine gun crewman.  He served in the 28th Infantry Division during the Battle of Normandy, but took some shrapnel that resulted in a shortening of his right leg (3/4 inch) and a limp for the rest of his life.  Carney returned to find opportunities waiting for him in radio. Before being drafted, he had worked as an actor on such shows as The Columbia WorkshopJoe and Ethel TurpLand of the LostThe Man Behind the GunReport on the Nation, and Words at War…and having been mustered out, he began to appear regularly on the likes of Gang BustersCasey, Crime Photographer, and The March of Time.  On Time, Art impersonated political figures (having previously done so on Report) like Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Elmer Davis (Carney once joked that to do Davis all you had to do is imitate nasal comic Ned Sparks), and he would mimic Dwight D. Eisenhower on Living 1948.

Carney soon began to build credits on shows like The Adventures of Frank MerriwellThe Big StoryBroadway’s My BeatThe Ford TheatreThe MGM Theatre of the Air, and The Mysterious Traveler.  Though Art would be primarily identified as a comic performer, he always stressed that he was first and foremost a serious actor…yet this didn’t matter much to comedian Henry Morgan, who hired Carney to join his company of second bananas on his ABC and NBC shows that aired between 1946 and 1950.  (Art would also be a regular on Henry’s early foray into television, The Henry Morgan Talent Hunt.)  Art also appeared in a comedic capacity on mr. ace and JANE, and from 1950-51 was a co-star on the underrated Monty Woolley sitcom The Magnificent Montague, portraying Montague’s father (and other roles when needed).

Art Carney started to make inroads into television by this time, with a high-profile gig on The Morey Amsterdam Show as “Newton the waiter” (Morey’s show was also broadcast on radio, and a few recordings have survived).  But when Art was asked by comedian Jackie Gleason to portray prissy Clem Finch, the hapless victim to Gleason’s obnoxious loudmouth Charlie Bratten on his DuMont series Cavalcade of Stars, his small screen career was set in stone.  Carney also played Sedgwick van Gleason, the disapproving father of The Great One’s wastrel playboy Reginald van Gleason III, but Art’s most famous character was cheerful “underground sanitation expert” Ed Norton, the next-door neighbor and bosom chum of bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason) in “The Honeymooners” sketches.  When Gleason was lured away from DuMont by CBS in 1952, Carney went with him, and Art also joined Jackie for “the classic 39” episodes of The Honeymooners when it became a filmed sitcom from 1955-56.  Playing Ed Norton on The Jackie Gleason Show (both on the 1952-57 original and 1966-70 revival) and The Honeymooners would net Art Carney a total of seven Emmy Award nominations…of which he won six trophies.

Though Ed Norton would be Carney’s famous alter ego, it would be a discredit to the actor not to note that he distinguished himself in other television ventures as well.  Art was much-in-demand as a guest star on the popular TV variety shows of the day (Martha Raye, Dinah Shore, etc.); he even headlined a series of popular variety specials in the late 50s and early 60s.  He performed more serious roles on television shows such as The Twilight Zone (the classic Yuletide-themed “The Night of the Meek”), Batman (as arch-villain The Archer), and The Virginian.  In 1976, he portrayed Chief Paul Lanigan on Lanigan’s Rabbi, a short-lived mystery series loosely based on the popular novels by Harry Kellerman.  One of his last boob tube forays was making regular appearances as James “The Weasel” Cavanaugh on the short-lived sitcom The Cavanaughs (1987-89).

Art Carney was also no slouch when it came to performing on stage.  His Broadway debut was in 1957’s The Rope Dancers, and subsequent turns in the footlights include Take Her, She’s Mine (1961) and Lovers (1969)—the latter garnering him a Tony Award nomination.  His most famous stage role was originating the character of Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple from 1965-67; when offered the chance to reprise that role in the 1968 feature film version (opposite Walter Matthau, the original Oscar Madison) he declined.  Art was certainly no stranger to feature films, having appeared in such features as The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964) and A Guide for the Married Man (1967).

But one movie role he was hesitant to take was the one that would win him his Best Actor Oscar.  He initially turned down director Paul Mazursky to play the “Harry” in Harry and Tonto, primarily because he felt he was too young for the part (Harry was a 72-year-old man and Carney was only 55 at the time).  Mazursky persisted, and Carney’s performance paved the way for outstanding feature film work to follow. My personal favorite of Art’s movies is The Late Show (1977), an endearing tribute to hard-boiled detective fiction. (Lily Tomlin plays his reluctant sidekick, and former radio Sam Spade Howard Duff is Carney’s ex-partner.) But the actor also shone in the likes of W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), House Calls (1978), Movie Movie (1978), and Going in Style (1979—simply superb alongside co-stars George Burns and Lee Strasberg).  Art’s also the best thing in The Muppets Take Manhattan [1984]. (“If you two are in love—I don’t wanna know about it.”)  Carney’s cinematic swan song was the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy-actioner Last Action Hero (1993). He died of natural causes five days before his 85th birthday in 2003.

At the time of Art Carney’s death, one of his obituaries featured an observation from fellow actor Richard Widmark, who had worked with Carney in radio on such shows as Gang Busters.  Widmark confessed that, until he saw his friend perform as Ed Norton, he had no idea Art could do comedy!  Radio Spirits features collections that spotlight our birthday boy’s dramatic range: The Big Story (As It Happened), The Mysterious Traveler (Dark Destiny), and Words at War: World War II Radio Drama.  Happy birthday, Mr. Carney!

Happy Birthday, Dale Evans!

On January 14, 1953, TV’s This is Your Life paid tribute to “The King of the Cowboys”—none other than Roy Rogers himself.  Host Ralph Edwards presided over some predictably teary-eyed moments during the half-hour broadcast, including a touching reunion with Roy and his parents, his three sisters, and the musical group known as The Sons of the Pioneers.  (No kidding, friends and neighbors—you’d have to be a robot not to have cried during all this.)

But there were lighter moments to go with the sentiment, too.  One of these occurred when Edwards asked the man of the hour if anything significant happened during the production of one of his B-Westerns, Cowboy and the Senorita (1944).  Before Roy could answer, a female voice from backstage cried out: “If he doesn’t, he just better not come home tonight!”  The audience roared with laughter, recognizing the voice as that of Dale Evans, a.k.a. Mrs. Roy Rogers.  The actress-singer born Frances Octavia Smith on this date in 1912 in Uvalde, Texas had by this time already ascended the sagebrush throne to become “The Queen of the West.” Of course, radio listeners were already well acquainted with the talents of Her Majesty long before she climbed aboard her trusty steed Buttermilk.

About that “Francis Octavia” handle—Dale’s parents Walter and Betty Sue decided that would be the birthname of their first child…but for unexplained reasons, the doctor recorded her name on the birth certificate as “Lucille Wood Smith.”  (Dale didn’t learn about this faux pas until the 1950s, when she was applying for a passport.)  The young Dale spent her childhood years on a farm in Ellis County, and because her mother played piano at the local Baptist church, Dale would delightfully sing gospel hymns in accompaniment.  Evans was a very bright and precocious girl, skipping several school grades while hungry for a performing career. She learned to play the piano through a combination of lessons and by ear, and this led to singing and playing that very instrument in high school with a ukulele band.

After a failed first marriage (which resulted in the birth of a son at age fifteen that her movie studios would claim was her brother to stave off any tongue-wagging), Dale ended up in Memphis with her mother. The aspiring young vocalist had a habit of singing while she worked at her secretarial job in an insurance firm.  The boss was impressed and suggested that she demonstrate her talent on a local radio show sponsored by the company.  That led to multiple engagements performing at service clubs, followed by gigs at Memphis radio stations WMC and WREC.  By then, the one-time Frances Octavia had already decided on “Dale Evans” as her professional name.

Dale Evans endured two additional unhappy marriages in her continued determination to pursue a show business career. From Dallas to Chicago, she performed with jazz, blues, and big band aggregations, slowly burnishing her professional credentials.  It was in the Windy City that she was offered a screen test and then a contract with 20th Century-Fox, resulting in small roles in such films as Orchestra Wives (1942) and Girl Trouble (1942).  A year later, Dale would start punching a time clock at Republic Pictures. One of the movies that she made there was Here Comes Elmer (1943), in which she co-starred with comedian Al Pearce…who played himself and his radio alter ego, Elmer Blurt (from the long-running Al Pearce and His Gang).

In the fall of 1942, Dale landed a plumb gig as the female vocalist on radio’s highly-rated Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show.  Evans sang and joshed with Bergen and his dummies for two seasons, and when she wasn’t needed at that microphone she made appearances on the likes of Command PerformanceThe Fitch BandwagonThe Kraft Music Hall, and Mail Call.  If you came in after the opening paragraph, I’ll let you know that in 1944 Dale was assigned to work on a movie called Cowboy and the Senorita with the man who would become her fourth and final hubby: Roy Rogers.  The chemistry between the couple was undeniably appealing, and Roy and Dale continued to make onscreen magic in B-Westerns like The Yellow Rose of Texas (1944), Bells of Rosarita (1945), and Don’t Fence Me In (1945).  Dale would also grace Republic’s non-Rogers features like The Big Show-Off (1945) and Hitchhike to Happiness (1945); the latter re-teaming her with Al Pearce.

Roy and Dale’s onscreen romance gradually led to a real-life one. When Rogers’ second wife, Arline, died a week after giving birth to their son Dusty in 1946, Dale divorced husband number three and married Roy on New Year’s Eve (the fourth time’s a charm!) a year later, officially becoming Mrs. King of the Cowboys.  Dale, in addition to her feature film duties as Rogers’ leading lady, also assumed that role on Roy’s radio program, The Roy Rogers Show, beginning in the fall of 1946 when the series moved to NBC from Mutual.  Oddly enough, Republic Pictures was convinced that Rogers’ fans wouldn’t tolerate a married couple in his westerns and for a brief period, Roy worked with the likes of Jane Frazee and future Annie Oakley star Gail Davis in his oaters.  But the fans protested so loudly that the studio returned Dale to her rightful co-star status in 1949; she would make six features with Roy in 1949 and 1950 before taking a break to give birth to a baby girl…then she resurfaced to appear in her husband’s final two westerns for Republic, South of Caliente and Pals of the Golden West (both 1951).

Roy and Dale kept wishing radio listeners “Happy Trails” on the weekly Roy Rogers Show until 1955 (the series aired on Mutual from 1948-51, and then returned to NBC until it left the airwaves).  Occasionally, the couple would appear as themselves on such shows as The Bob Hope Show and The Kraft Music Hall (with Al Jolson)…with Dale going solo on the likes of The Philco Radio Hall of FameThe Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore ShowAll-Star Western Theatre, and The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Show.  The Rogers’ radio years overlapped with the run of their successful television show that began airing on NBC-TV in the fall of 1951 (one of the reasons why Roy and Dale made no more movie westerns is that Republic did not want their stars working on the small screen). The TV Roy Rogers Show ended in 1957, and continues in heavy rerun rotation to this day.  Excepting a brief return to the boob tube in 1962 with a variety series, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show (it lasted just a season), Roy and Dale rested on their laurels and made the rounds on various variety programs in a guest star capacity.  Roy and Dale were the envy of all Hollywood couples with a marriage that lasted until Roy’s passing in 1998—Dale followed him in 2001 at the age of 88.

Here at Radio Spirits, we recommend celebrating Dale Evans’ natal anniversary with a mini-marathon of episodes from the Roy Rogers TV series, and in-between changing DVDs in the player, one might listen to some Yuletide Dale (and Roy) on the 2-CD collection The Sounds of Christmas.  (Roy and Dale also warble a few tunes on another 2-CD offering, Saluting the Stars.)  Later, when the party’s quieted down a bit (that’s what happens when the guests get into the buttermilk), you can enjoy Dale’s song stylings on our Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy compendium, Smile a While.  When the cake and ice cream are served, enjoy some Western radio action on the ol’ Double-R Bar with Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys.  Happy birthday to the Queen of the West!

Happy Birthday, Joan Banks!

In 1949, at the height of the success of radio’s My Friend Irma, actress Cathy Lewis—who originated the character of roommate Jane Stacy on the popular sitcom—was forced to briefly hand over the role of Jane while she recuperated from illness.  Filling in for Cathy as sidekick to the lovably ditzy Irma Peterson (Marie Wilson) was Joan Banks, a veteran radio thespian who had been a familiar voice to listening audiences since 1936, when she made her debut in front of a radio microphone (at the age of 16) with Walter O’Keefe.  Born on this date in 1918 in Petersburg, WV (shout out to a fellow Mountaineer!), Joan would move beyond radio to appear on television and in films, occasionally in tandem with her equally accomplished husband, Frank Lovejoy.

The daughter of Edith and Nelson Banks, Joan Banks attended a Russian ballet school where her performing talents were encouraged…and her hard work paid off in the form of a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Art.  Joan also attended Hunter College, but working in radio held an enormous appeal for her, and she began to get a great deal of work on various daytime dramas.  Her radio resume of “soaps” (she was once described as a “soapbox queen”) would go on to include such favorites as Aunt Jenny’s Real Life StoriesDeadline DramasHer Honor, Nancy James (she played Nancy’s secretary), A House in the CountryJohn’s Other Wife (as Roberta Lansing), Mary Foster, the Editor’s DaughterThe O’Neills (as Peggy O’Neill Kayden), One Man’s FamilyPortia Faces Life (as Arline Harrison Manning), Today’s Children (as Carlotta Lagorro), Valiant Lady (as Joan Barrett), Whispering StreetsYoung Doctor Malone (as Phyllis Dineen), and Young Widder Brown (as Camille).  In fact, it was while portraying Eleanor MacDonald on the CBS serial This Day is Ours that Banks would meet soul mate Frank Lovejoy, who joined the program’s cast in January of 1940.  Four months later, their love scenes on the radio would provide a textbook example of life imitating art. The duo tied the knot on May 31, 1940.  (The newlyweds couldn’t even make time for a honeymoon…because they both had to be back at work the following Monday!)

Joan Banks’ radio work wasn’t all soap suds, however.  She emoted on many of the medium’s popular anthology programs, among them The Bakers’ Theatre of StarsThe Columbia WorkshopDoorway to LifeThe First Nighter ProgramHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreThe NBC University TheatrePresenting Charles BoyerScreen Directors’ Playhouse, and Theatre of Romance/Romance.  Some of Joan’s earliest radio work was on the venerable Gang Busters, and she also made the rounds on such hits as The Adventures of Christopher LondonThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of the SaintBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorBroadway’s My BeatEllery QueenEscapeInner SanctumThe Man Called XThe Man from HomicideNight BeatPursuitRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveThe Roy Rogers ShowThe Silent MenSuspenseTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIThe Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

As you can see, Joan Banks was one busy radio actress…and in the fall of 1948, she’d get even busier. This was when she received an emergency call from CBS while at her doctor’s office for an appointment.  Cathy Lewis, who played Jane on My Friend Irma, had collapsed during rehearsal and they needed Joan to take her place.  Banks was no stranger to performing comedy, having played Nora on a radio version of the comic strip Bringing Up Father (she had also worked on Mickey Rooney’s Shorty Bell).  She did run into some difficulties with her debut on the show, however – her automobile ran out of gas on her way to the studio (she had rushed home to change).  She had only a half-hour to look over the Irma script, and was as nervous as a first-time bride…but star Marie Wilson provided some helpful coaching, and the broadcast went off without a hitch.  Joan continued as Jane until Cathy Lewis was hale, hearty, and ready to return to work.  Banks’ other laughter-generating turns included appearances on The Adventures of Maisie and Meet Mr. McNutley.

Just as hubby Frank Lovejoy leapt into moviemaking with 1948’s Black Bart, Joan decided to try her luck on the silver screen with her motion picture debut in 1951’s Cry Danger.  She continued to make an impression in such films as Bright Victory (1951), Washington Story (1952), My Pal Gus (1952), Mister Cory (1957), and Return to Peyton Place (1961).  Banks was also constructing an impressive small screen resume with assignments on such shows as I Love LucyMake Room for DaddyThe George Burns and Gracie Allen ShowDecember Bride, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Joan appeared multiple times as “Sylvia Platt” on Ann Sothern’s sitcom Private Secretary, and made two guest appearances on her husband’s TV venture The Adventures of McGraw (a.k.a. Meet McGraw).  (Joan and Frank would work in tandem on two more occasions in presentations on Four Star Playhouse and The Star and the Story…and Joan made certain to be around when Ralph Edwards told Frank “This is Your Life” on an October 16, 1957 telecast of the popular program.)

Since their initial meeting on This Day is Ours, Joan and Frank often worked side-by-side on radio (on Today’s Children, Frank portrayed “Christopher Barnes”…and Joan also appeared a few times on Night Beat). The couple were appearing together in a 1962 production of the Broadway hit The Best Man (written by Gore Vidal—Lovejoy had appeared onstage in the original 1960 version) when tragedy struck as they were enjoying a night off: Lovejoy passed away in his sleep in their hotel room at the age of 50.  Joan would later remarry, but her interest in TV performing began to wane, with her only primetime credits being guest shots on Perry Mason and Bewitched.  Banks would later make multiple appearances on the 1970s radio revival of The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, indulging her fondness for the aural medium.  Joan Banks succumbed to lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 79.

Joan Banks Lovejoy’s role as Jane Stacy on My Friend Irma is present and accounted for in the Radio Spirits collection On Second Thought (with liner notes by yours truly), as well as a Yuletide Irma (from December 20, 1948) on our holiday compendium Radio’s Christmas Celebrations. We’ve also got plenty of Joan in such sets as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Lonely CanyonsNight TideSucker’s Road), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers), Escape (Escape EssentialsThe Hunted and the HauntedPeril), Inner Sanctum (Shadows of Death), The Man Called XThe Man From HomicideNight Beat (Human Interest), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead MenHomicide Made Easy), Stop the Press!, and Suspense (Wages of Sin).  Happy birthday, Joan!