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Review: Alias Boston Blackie (1942)

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alias8It’s Christmas Eve, and reformed safecracker Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) has arranged for a vaudeville troupe to entertain the prisoners at his “alma mater” in the spirit of fellowship and good cheer.  One of the dancing girls in the company, Eve Sanders (Adele Mara), risks violating the prison rules by coming along.  She’s already visited her brother Joe Trilby (Larry Parks) twice that month — he’s a guest of the state for a fifteen-year stretch as a result of his participation in a robbery-murder.  Blackie reassures clown Roggi McKay (George McKay) that it’ll be okay for Eve to make the trip, confident that no one will recognize her among all the other showgirls.

alias2On the bus ride up to the prison, Blackie and the performers pick up a pair of hitchhikers—cops Farraday (Richard Lane) and Matthews (Walter Sande), because Farraday is certain that Blackie’s Christmas surprise means that he’s up to something.  As usual, Blackie’s past makes him an object of suspicion—but the guilty culprit in this instance is Joe.  In the pen for a crime he didn’t commit, he ties up Roggi in a spare room and walks right out the prison gate disguised as the clown.  Joe has sworn to get even with the two men who set him up as a patsy, so Blackie and The Runt (George E. Stone) have their hands full trying to stop the elusive fugitive…and stay one step ahead of the always mistrustful Farraday.

Because Alias Boston Blackie (1942) takes place in a twenty-four hour period (Christmas Eve to Christmas night), in recent years it’s often made the rounds among the Yuletide-themed films showcased on Turner Classic Movies in the month of December.  The movie was originally released in April of 1942, and even though the proceedings in Alias only tangentially come into contact with the holiday season, that doesn’t keep it from being every bit as pleasurable as the first two entries in Columbia’s Boston Blackie franchise.  (There’s some sentimental camaraderie between Blackie and Farraday despite their usual squaring off, and even a lovely Christmas toast at film’s end!)

alias7Chester Morris (Blackie), George E. Stone (Runt), Richard Lane (Farraday) and Walter Sande (Matthews) all reprise their familiar series roles in this third entry, as does Lloyd Corrigan as Blackie’s chum Arthur Manleder (who has a few comic relief bits as he suffers from a mild case of lockjaw)…and in addition, Alias Boston Blackie introduces the character of Jumbo Madigan to the franchise; a pawnshop proprietor who could always be counted upon to provide Blackie with information about individuals with ties to the underworld.  Jumbo’s played in this entry by Cy Kendall—a stocky actor known for playing villains in such serials as The Green Hornet (1940) and Secret Agent X-9 (1945)—who would revisit the part in the Blackie vehicle immediately following Alias, Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942), as well as in The Chance of a Lifetime (1943).

alias6Classic movie fans will recognize Larry Parks in the role of Joe.  This actor later achieved silver screen fame playing the greatest entertainer of them all, Al Jolson, in both The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949).  (Tragically, his movie career would come to an end in the 1950s as a result of the blacklist…despite having bared his soul in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.)  Actress Adele Mara plays Joe’s sister, Eve, and is best known for her roles in B-westerns and two John Wayne classics, Wake of the Red Witch (1948) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).  You’ll recognize character actor Paul Fix as one of the bad guys. (Fix was Marshal Micah Torrance on TV’s The Rifleman.) And if the gentleman driving the bus looks as if he’d be more comfortable underwater, that’s because it’s Sea Hunt’s own Lloyd Bridges in one of his earliest cinematic outings.

alias4Alias Boston Blackie continues the winning formula of the previous films in Columbia’s franchise as a fast-paced and entertaining programmer that deftly blends suspense and snickersThe screenplay is by Paul Yawitz (who was also responsible for Confessions of Boston Blackie) and is directed at a breakneck pace by Lew Landers, an accomplished B-picture director who always made them move and on budget.  The dialogue is snappy and the situations are suspenseful.  In fact, there is an encounter with cops at a police station that might remind viewers of The Silence of the Lambs — honest, it’s not as bizarre as it sounds — that results in a pursuit of Blackie (who is disguised as a uniformed cop), Eve, and The Runt via motorcycle and sidecar.

20588Next month, Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942)!  While it sounds like fame might be going to our hero’s head…he’s really just visiting the film capital to bail out his chum Arthur Manleder.  Look for Alias Boston Blackie on a classic movie channel near you…and don’t forget to check out Radio Spirits’ latest CD release featuring the “friend to those who have no friends”—Boston Blackie: Outside the Law.

Happy Birthday, David Friedkin!

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The birth of one of radio’s most prolific and celebrated writers occurred on this date one hundred and two years ago.  David Friedkin, whose ambitions of being an actor-musician (he studied violin at the famed Julliard School) eventually took a back seat to writing for radio…and later television and movies as well.  It’s a little odd to mention Friedkin’s name without adding “and Morton Fine” to complete the thought.  Fine, who was four years Friedkin’s junior, teamed up with David in the 1940s to write for some of radio’s best remembered shows, including Suspense and Escape.  To give you an idea of how interchangeable the two scribes were—an entry written by their one-time boss, Frederic W. Ziv, in the 1959 Radio Annual and Television Year Book identifies them as “Mort Friedkin and David Fine.”  (Well, Ziv might have been too busy counting his money to proofread…who’s to say?)

20546David and Morton began their prosperous partnership around 1948, when the two men worked in tandem on such series as The Front Page and The Philip Morris Playhouse.  In addition, Friedkin and Fine were the writers responsible for a 1949 audition script entitled “Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye”—which was a building block in what eventually became the Gunsmoke radio series.  They also penned many of the early scripts of the police procedural program The Line Up, though their most famous contribution to the crime drama genre was Broadway’s My Beat, the 1949-54 series directed and produced by Elliott Lewis.  Friedkin and Fine would become valuable employees in Lewis’ stable; they also wrote for Elliott and his wife Cathy’s On Stage series.  Their most fruitful collaboration, however, was their work on Crime Classics—a short-lived but excellent anthology that dramatized crimes of a historical nature.  David and Morton meticulously researched (along with Lewis) each incident that they planned to dramatize each week, and then allowed themselves a little literary license by giving the proceedings a humorously macabre touch.

boldventureFriedkin and Fine can also take credit for luring Humphrey Bogart to radio during the time they worked for Ziv.  Bogie had been approached about doing a weekly over-the-airwaves program in the past (including a 1949 audition entitled “Dead Man”), but the actor wasn’t too anxious to commit himself to a live microphone every week.  The syndicated series that Friedkin and Fine pitched to him—which would eventually premiere as Bold Venture—would accommodate the actor’s schedule, allowing him (and his co-star, wife Lauren Bacall) to do 3-4 shows a week ahead of time, freeing the pair to continue their movie work.  Bogie and Baby collected $4,000 per episode of Bold Venture and the series went on to be one of Ziv’s most popular ventures.  As soldier-of-fortune Slate Shannon, Bogart owned both a hotel and the boat of the program’s title…and engaged in weekly misadventures with his “ward,” Sailor Duval (Bacall) in the Caribbean.  The success of the show (it was syndicated to over 400 radio stations) later ensured its transition to a television version in 1959 (on which David later wrote and directed), with Dane Clark and Joan Marshall as Shannon and Duval.

ispyBold Venture was just one of many television shows that David Friedkin would oversee—not only as a writer, but as a director and producer as well.  He penned scripts for such series as Frontier, Target, The Aquanauts and The Case of the Dangerous Robin…while directing and/or producing the likes of Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, Dr. Kildare, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Breaking Point and The Virginian.  His most famous contribution to the cathode ray tube—again, in tandem with Morton Fine—was the successful espionage series I Spy, which ran on NBC-TV from 1965 to 1968 and starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as a pair of spies masquerading as an amateur tennis player (Culp) and his trainer (Cos).  I Spy was an audience favorite for its tongue-in-cheek approach to the spy genre, and was responsible for catapulting Cosby to TV stardom (the program would garner the actor-nightclub comedian three consecutive Emmy Awards for his work).  David even resurrected his dormant acting ambitions to appear in two I Spy episodes (as did partner Morton Fine).

pawnbrokerFriedkin would finish out his career in television, although he did step behind a motion picture camera on a couple of occasions. His silver screen efforts include Hot Summer Night (1957) and Handle with Care (1958), but he turned over the reins to Sidney Lumet for his most successful film project, 1965’s The Pawnbroker (co-written with Fine).  The movie starred Rod Steiger as the titular character who’s haunted by past demons as a Holocaust survivor, and is today considered one of Lumet’s most accomplished films.  Before his death on October 15, 1976, David Friedkin would continue to work as a writer, director and producer on popular series such as Hawaii Five-O, Ironside, The Streets of San Francisco, Kojak and Barnaby Jones.

20415Of course, at Radio Spirits…it’s all about David Friedkin’s legacy during the medium’s Golden Age.  We highly recommend you start off with Crime Classics, a woefully neglected series that features some of Friedkin and partner Morton Fine’s best writing, and another underrated gem in The Line Up (Witness).  There are also several sets of Broadway’s My Beat on hand: the recently released Great White Way, and the earlier Murder and Neon Shoals (there are also Broadway and Line Up broadcasts on the potpourri collection Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama).  For dessert, why not take a listen to some Friedkin-Fine contributions to Suspense (Tales Well Calculated) and Escape (Escape to the High Seas).

“From Times Square to Columbus Circle…the gaudiest, the most violent—the lonesomest mile in the world…”

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By the beginning of the 1950s, radio crime drama began to develop a new breed of program that, in the words of old-time radio historian Jim Cox, “witnessed a forbidding side of law enforcement in the harsh realities of an urban backdrop.”  Jack Webb’s seminal police procedural Dragnet is considered by many to have been at the forefront of this new kind of cop show…but it’s interesting to note that Dragnet was actually preceded by a few months by a series that premiered over CBS Radio sixty-five years ago today: Broadway’s My Beat.

ArossbroadwayBroadway’s My Beat detailed the exploits of plainclothes homicide detective Danny Clover of the N.Y.P.D. According to an early CBS press release: “As a kid, Danny Clover sold papers and shined shoes along the Great White Way, and later pounded the beat as a policeman. He knows everything along Broadway—from panhandler to operatic prima donna—but he’s still sentimental about the street, forever a wonderland of glamour to him.” Stage veteran Anthony Ross played Clover in Broadway’s early run, which originated at the network’s New York Studios for the first four months, with producer Lester Gottlieb and director John Dietz at the helm.

Elliott-Lewis-CBBeginning on July 7, 1949, the program moved to the West Coast—where none other than “Mr. Radio” himself, Elliott Lewis, took over Broadway’s My Beat’s direction and production chores.  It would be the actor’s first foray into working on the other side of microphone, which he would continue to do with such series as Suspense, On Stage and Crime Classics.  Writers Morton Fine and David Friedkin (Bold Venture) handled most of the scripting for the series.  Director-producer Lewis was a native Manhattanite, and brought this expertise to the program…particularly in the area of “sound patterns.”  Lewis utilized three sound effects men—David Light, Ralph Cummings and Ross Murray—to give him precisely what he wanted: a cacophonous show where “even the people in New York are noisy.”  Elliott strongly believed that Manhattan was just as much a character as the regulars in the series. “You should hear the city constantly,” he told the SFX men.  The Big Apple was even referenced in Broadway’s memorable theme song, I’ll Take Manhattan.  The program’s vibrant musical score was composed by Alexander Courage, who would later write the opening theme for the television classic Star Trek.

thor10The move of Broadway out west also resulted in a casting change in the main character of Detective Clover; Larry Thor, a CBS staff announcer familiar to both Suspense and Escape audiences, won the role.  Two other characters appeared regularly on the show: Sergeant Gino Tartaglia (the show’s comic relief, played by Charles Calvert) and Sergeant Muggavan (played by future Oscar nominee Jack Kruschen).  Supporting roles were played by a mixture of OTR veterans and movie/TV actors, including favorites such as Hy Averback, Edgar Barrier, Harry Bartell, Herb Butterfield, Mary Jane Croft, Lawrence Dobkin, Herb Ellis, Betty Lou Gerson, Virginia Gregg, Sheldon Leonard, Cathy Lewis, Eve McVeagh, Barney Phillips, Irene Tedrow and Martha Wentworth.

20546While Broadway’s My Beat covered much of the same territory as the better-known Dragnet—exploring hard-hitting topics foreign to radio drama at that time, like juvenile delinquency and anti-Semitism—it eschewed the crisp, clipped presentation of the Jack Webb program in favor of a more literate approach that sometimes veered toward the flowery.  It’s important to remember, however, that both programs paved the way for later radio police dramas like The Line Up and Twenty-First Precinct.  During its five-year radio run (from February 27, 1949 to August 1, 1954), Broadway was mostly sustained by the network (though it did have brief sponsorships by Lux Soap and Wrigley Gum) and was a utility series in the same manner as radio’s Escape.  It would often be bounced around (at one time it was heard in fifteen different time slots) to fill a cancellation hole in CBS’ schedule or called upon as a summer replacement (for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in the summer of 1950 and Meet Corliss Archer in 1951).  In fact, there was a time when Broadway and two other Elliott Lewis series, Crime Classics and On Stage, could be heard on the same Sunday night in 1954.

Of the 212 broadcasts that comprised the radio run of Broadway’s My Beat, about half of those have survived.  Radio Spirits has some of them available in three wonderful CD sets: the recently released Great White Way, and the earlier Murder and Neon Shoals.  In addition, the Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama set contains several programs from the series, as well as many of the shows that followed in its wake.

Review: Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941)

confessions7Diane Parrish (Harriet Hilliard) has commissioned art dealer Eric Allison (Walter Soderling) to sell a valuable statue at an auction…but has no inkling that Allison and two of his confederates (Ralph Theodore, Kenneth MacDonald) are actually going to fob off a copy of the art treasure and keep the original for themselves.  She learns of their duplicity at the auction, and when she attempts to blow the whistle on their scheme is shot by one of the men.  Diane survives with just a flesh wound, but Allison is felled by the same bullet.  And, because ex-jewel thief and safecracker Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) was also at the sale—at the request of his wealthy friend Arthur Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan) —he’s the number-one suspect in Allison’s murder.  At least, that’s how Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), Blackie’s nemesis on the force, figures it.

confessions6There’s no murder mystery at the heart of Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941); the audience knows the identity of the killer from the get-go.  The bulk of the movie’s 65-minute running time finds Blackie staying one step ahead of Farraday as he attempts to locate Allison’s corpse (which the murderer has stashed inside the fake statue) in order to verify that the bullet didn’t come from his gun, thus proving his innocence.  Confessions defies the conventional movie wisdom that sequels rarely stack up against the original; it’s every bit as entertaining as Meet Boston Blackie (1941) and, in a small way, improves on its predecessor with a suspenseful plot.  It’s a bit far-fetched—but, hey…it’s a movie, not a documentary—and is leavened with lighter moments of first-rate comedy.

confessions8Chester Morris returns to play our hero, and he’s joined by Richard Lane (as Farraday) and Walter Sande—who played a uniformed cop in the previous Meet Boston Blackie, but settles into his familiar role of Detective Matthews in the first of five Blackie vehicles.  Making his debut in the series as “The Runt” is character great George E. Stone.  Stone, whose cinematic specialty was playing lowlifes and stoolies (you might recognize him as “Toothpick Charlie” in Some Like it Hot), was positive perfection as Blackie’s comic relief sidekick, and would play the hapless Runt in every remaining Boston Blackie movie save the final entry, Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949).  Also making his first Blackie film appearance is veteran actor-director Lloyd Corrigan as Blackie’s wealthy pal Arthur Manleder—Manleder was a recurring character in the Blackie franchise (the new Radio Spirits Boston Blackie collection, Outside the Law, even features Manleder in one of the broadcasts), appearing in eight vehicles and played by Corrigan in six.  (Corrigan’s Manleder is the focus of one of Confessions’ priceless running gags as he helplessly attempts to extricate himself from a pair of handcuffs.)

confessions1Columbia’s B-picture factory served the useful purpose of providing work for their contractees as well as allowing novice directors a chance to earn their stripes.  Confessions of Boston Blackie was one of the earliest features helmed by Edward Dmytryk, who would make a name for himself directing film noirs at RKO like Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947); he also directed later classics such as The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Broken Lance (1954).  While at Columbia, Dmytryk helmed a fun musical comedy entitled Sweetheart of the Campus (1941), and one of the female stars of that film, Harriet Hilliard, plays the leading lady here in Confessions.  Harriet was just making a name for herself over the airwaves with her husband Ozzie Nelson (who was also in Campus) on Red Skelton’s Raleigh Cigarette Program when Confessions hit theatres; later, after Dmytryk went to RKO, he used Harriet in one of the Falcon entries he directed, The Falcon Strikes Back (1943).

confessions3Harriet’s a lot of fun in this film (she reminds me a little of Penny Singleton) and her performance is as far from the female half of “America’s favorite couple” as you could imagine.  She gets a little competition in Confessions of Boston Blackie from actress Joan Woodbury (best remembered for playing comic strip heroine Brenda Starr in a 1945 Columbia serial adaptation), who essays the role of a conniver named Mona…out to shake down old flame Blackie at a most inopportune time.  You might also recognize Bowery Boy William “Billy” Benedict as an unfortunate ice cream vendor who hilariously has his uniform stolen twice by Blackie as he attempts to elude the cops.  In addition, familiar Three Stooges villain Kenneth MacDonald (who later played a judge in a number of Perry Mason episodes) is on hand here as one of the bad guys; he’s distinguished by his sebaceous manner and rich, resonant voice.

20588Jay Dratler, who wrote the story and screenplay for Meet Boston Blackie, teamed up with Paul Yawitz to concoct the engaging story for Confessions.  Yawitz is credited with the screenplay, and would contribute other Blackie scenarios including the third movie in the series, Alias Boston Blackie (1942)—which Radio Spirits will review next month.  (It’s Christmas, Boston Blackie-style!)  In the meantime, we encourage you to seek out Confessions of Boston Blackie the next time it turns up on Turner Classic Movies…and if that’s too long a wait, our newest CD collection, Outside the Law, is just the tonic if you need a Blackie fix.

The Happy Anniversary Matter

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Who would have guessed that sixty-five years ago today, the premiere of a half-hour program about an independent investigator who specialized in following up on insurance claims would wind up as one of the two last network dramatic shows to leave the airwaves…and bring Radio’s Golden Age to an end?  Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar originally starred Charles Russell as “the man with the action-packed expense account”—and no doubt listeners wondered what could be so exciting about an itemized list of expenses.  The surname of the lead character, Dollar, referred to the investigator’s gimmicky custom of tossing silver dollars as tips to people in the service industry (busboys, bellhops, doormen, etc.)—which hardly made for compelling radio.

dick_powellThe series that OTR historian John Dunning once observed as having “more lives as a cat” had its genesis with an audition record produced on December 7, 1948 starring new movie tough guy Dick Powell.  But, Powell decided that he’d rather whistle “Leave it to Love” every week on Richard Diamond, Private Detective—so after a second audition (January 14, 1949), B-movie actor Charles Russell got the part.  Because Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had originally been planned as a private eye drama, many of the P.I. trappings were in place on the show—the only difference was that Dollar engaged in much of the legwork and painstaking detail of checking the claims involving arson, theft, etc…and only on occasion was he involved in homicides.  Johnny was employed by a clearinghouse of insurance companies known collectively as “the Universal Adjustment Bureau,” which would send him to various hot spots in and outside the U.S.  Unlike his private eye brethren, Dollar was generally on good terms with the cops…but he possessed many of the attributes that made a good private dick, including a keen analytical mind and the necessary muscle to deal with threatening situations.

edmondobrienRussell stayed with YTJD until January of 1950, when he was replaced by Edmond O’Brien—the character actor who had made quite a name for himself in film noirs like The Killers, White Heat and D.O.A.  O’Brien was Dollar for two years before handing the role off to John Lund, known to movie audiences for his roles in such films as To Each His Own and A Foreign Affair, in November of 1952.  While competent actors, the stints of Russell, O’Brien and Lund really didn’t make Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar stand out from any of the other crime dramas on the air at that time…and what’s more, the CBS Radio Network bounced the show around continuously as a sustaining program during the five years it was on the air.  (It did secure a sponsor during the Lund years, with Wrigley’s Gum paying the bills from March 1953 to August 1954.)

bob-baileyJust as it looked as if Johnny was going to fill out his last expense account, hope for the series was rekindled when producer-director Jack Johnstone revamped the show into a five-day-a-week quarter hour that featured serialized stories.  (This concept was developed in a never-broadcast audition with The Adventures of Philip Marlowe’s Gerald Mohr as “America’s fabulous freelance investigator.”)  Tackling the role of Dollar this time was actor Bob Bailey, familiar to radio listeners from a Mutual detective series that ran from 1946 to 1954—Let George Do It.  Johnny Dollar was the role Bob Bailey was born to play; the actor brought to the part a wry, quick-witted sense of humor, supplied for him by writers like Johnstone, Les Crutchfield and Robert Ryf—who were able to use the serialized version of the show (now totaling an hour and fifteen minutes each week) to flesh out supporting characters while offering meaty, suspenseful plots.  The fifteen-minute YTJD series ran from October 3, 1955 to November 2, 1956, and most fans of the series would agree that this is when the program reached its creative peak.

mandel_kramerYours Truly, Johnny Dollar reverted back to its half-hour format on November 11, 1956, with star Bailey still filling out expense reports on a weekly basis—but Bob’s last case was broadcast on November 27, 1960.  CBS had decided to move production of the show to New York, and Bailey decided to stay on the West Coast, and he gave up the role to Robert Readick when the show resumed in December of that same year.  After six months of Dollar, Readick made way for Mandel Kramer, who finished out the series’ fourteen-year-run on September 30, 1962 (immediately following the final episode of Suspense), bringing “the Golden Age of Radio” to a close.

20544Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar is that radio rarity where the popularity of the program is larger today than when it was first broadcast.  A good starting point if you want to check out what the series has to offer is the Radio Spirits set The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, which will allow you to sample all of the actors who played the titular insurance investigator during its fourteen-year-run.  The most recent YTJD set is Wayward Matters, and in addition there’s Phantom Chases, Murder Matters, Confidential (with liner notes by yours truly, Ivan Shreve) and of course…Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

“Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in the West…”

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Fifty-six years ago on this date, a western — that old-time radio historian John Dunning once described (in Tune in Yesterday) as “the only serious rival to Gunsmoke in the radio Hall of Fame” — premiered over the Columbia Broadcasting System.  Frontier Gentleman, created by Antony Ellis, was a Western adventure drama featuring rich and detailed character studies…all of which were filtered through the series’ main character: Jeremy Brian (J.B.) Kendall.  A reporter for The London Times, Kendall roamed the territories out West in search of stories to submit to his publication on the other side of the pond.

ellisAntony “Tony” Ellis was himself an Englishman who became a naturalized American citizen, and whose radio resume included some of the most prestigious programs the airwaves had to offer.  He began his show business career as an actor, and then found that he had a flair for writing—which he used to contribute and adapt scripts for Gunsmoke, Romance, Suspense, Escape and Pursuit.  It was on this latter series that he started to exercise his directorial muscles, and he later took the rudder on Escape and The CBS Radio Workshop as well.  Ellis successfully transitioned into movies (one of his Gunsmoke scripts, “The Ride Back,” was fashioned into a 1957 Western starring William Conrad and Anthony Quinn) and TV (he wrote and produced the boob tube oater Black Saddle).  But, his life was cut tragically short in 1967 with his passing, at age 47, from cancer.

dehner3There were a number of reasons why Frontier Gentleman was one of the true delights in the waning days of radio, and chief among them was the casting of character veteran John Dehner in the title role of Kendall.  Dehner had actually been considered for the lead in both Gunsmoke and Fort Laramie (he would eventually appear frequently in guest parts in both venues), but turned them down because he felt it would typecast him in Westerns.  Fortunately for radio fans old and new, he said “yes” to Kendall and played the wandering English journalist to perfection.  (An audition record with Ben Wright as Kendall, however, also exists.)  Though Frontier Gentleman primarily featured Kendall as an observer, listeners were not robbed of learning a few details about J.B.’s background.  He was a principled individual with a passion for justice, and yet easy-going enough to possess a wry sense of humor, even enjoying it when he was the center of the joke.  Throughout the series’ run, he encountered outlaws, gamblers and other colorful individuals doing whatever they could to survive the challenges of the frontier.

greggJoining Dehner on Gentleman was a repertory company of radio’s finest performers: actress Virginia Gregg was a semi-regular, with the versatility to play a Chinese slave girl one week (in the classic “Gentle Virtue”) and a prim schoolmarm the next.  Jeanette Nolan made the rounds on the show, as did Jeanne Bates Lansworth—Lansworth, in fact, appeared on several broadcasts as Madame Verdi (an alias for Confederate spy Belle Siddons).  Jack Kruschen, Barney Phillips, Harry Bartell, Joseph Kearns and Lawrence Dobkin are just a few of the many other talents who appeared on Gentleman…as well as three actors billed as Richard Perkins, Ray Woods and Waldo Epperson.  (If these names don’t ring a bell, it might be because they were pseudonyms for Vic Perrin, Ralph Moody and Parley Baer, respectively.)

dehner7Tom Hanley and Bill James, the two men who did Gunsmoke and Fort Laramie’s “sound patterns,” also worked on Frontier Gentleman, providing an unsurpassed level of excellence to the sound effects that added to the realism of the series.   An outstanding example of their work can be heard on “Justice of the Peace” (available on the Radio Spirits collection Life and Death), in which the work of a lynch mob is chillingly conveyed through the sounds of a horse being slapped, hoof beats…and then a short silence, followed by the creak of a twisting rope and faint background noise of clucking chickens.  Composer Jerry Goldsmith, who would later provide music for movies and television (notably the theme for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), contributed a haunting trumpet theme once described by OTR historian Stewart Wright as “a slightly premature ‘Taps’ for the American Golden Age of Radio.”

19602Perhaps it was a prelude for the demise of Frontier Gentleman. Sadly, the series had a short run over CBS, with the show concluding on November 16, 1958.  Star Dehner didn’t stay inactive too long; he began his two-year stint as Paladin on the radio version of Have Gun – Will Travel the following week.  Still, one wishes The Powers That Be had been patient with Gentleman a little longer.  All forty-one episodes of the series have survived, however, and are responsible for introducing a new generation of fans to one of the medium’s exceptional programs.  Radio Spirits offers several collections of the show on CD – in addition to the aforementioned Life and Death, there’s Frontier Gentleman (which includes both “Gentle Virtue” and the series’ audition with Ben Wright), and Aces and Eights (which features “Random Notes,” one of the series’ all-time best episodes).  You owe it to yourself to make the acquaintance of what John Dunning succinctly summed up as “a lovely piece of radio.”

Happy Birthday, Howard McNear!

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In the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina—as seen on the popular situation comedy The Andy Griffith Show—the locus of the town’s goings-on was usually the humble barber shop run by garrulous Floyd Lawson.  Floyd, a fey, gentle soul who looked at the world around him with a sense of awe and bewilderment, would become one of the show’s most endearing characters…and his presence would be sorely missed when the actor who played Floyd left the series at the end of the 1966-67 season.  He’s also today’s birthday boy: the wonderful Howard McNear.

howard9Howard was a Los Angeles native, born on this date in 1905.  His early acting career started on stage in a San Diego stock company, shortly after his graduation from the Oatman School of Theater.  McNear, however, developed an interest in radio and began active appearances in the medium.  He began with syndicated series like The Shadow of Fu Manchu, The Cinnamon Bear (he was Samuel the Seal) and The Count of Monte Cristo. Howard eventually made the rounds of network series such as The Lux Radio Theatre and The Cavalcade of America.

Howard McNear would demonstrate an amazing versatility in the aural medium.  The actor had recurring roles on such series as The Adventures of Bill Lance, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, The Gallant Heart and Romance of the Ranchos.  Howard also frequently appeared on the “big three” (Escape, Suspense and The Whistler) and gave first-rate performances on comedy programs (Our Miss Brooks, Burns and Allen), crime dramas (The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Line Up, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar), and westerns (The Six Shooter, Fort Laramie). 

howard3The greatest radio western of them all, Gunsmoke, would be his bread-and-butter from its premiere in April of 1952 to its sign-off in June of 1961.  Howard brought the character of “Doc” to life from the very first episode as a man delighted by the thought of all the money he stood to collect from the number of men Marshal Matt Dillon sent to Boot Hill.  William Conrad, who played Dillon, was so tickled by McNear’s wickedly ghoulish take on the character that he suggested Doc’s real name be “Dr. Charles Adams”—a reference to macabre cartoonist Charles Addams.  (As the series progressed, Howard was able to flesh out the grumpy medico, even giving him a backstory in which his presence in Dodge was explained by a tale involving a woman he fought a duel over in Virginia.)

howard7While McNear worked at his Gunsmoke job, he began making appearances in feature films.  His big screen debut came in the 1953 western Escape from Fort Bravo.  Howard’s movie roles include memorable bits in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Blue Hawaii (1961), The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and The Fortune Cookie (1966).  The actor also made the rounds on television: he had a recurring role on George and Gracie’s show as Mr. Jansen, the plumber, and also did guest appearances on December Bride, The People’s Choice, The Jack Benny Program, The Real McCoys, Peter Gunn, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Twilight Zone.  Sadly, although Howard auditioned for the role of Doc Adams on the TV version of Gunsmoke he lost out to Milburn Stone…who emoted as Doctor Galen Adams for practically the entirety of that western’s twenty-year-run on the tube.  Still, he did guest-star on the program a number of times, portraying different characters and as charming as ever.

howard2But, as previously mentioned, McNear is best remembered as Mayberry’s resident tonsorial artist—a part he started to play mid-season during the show’s first year, and would continue to do so until the middle of The Andy Griffith Show’s third season.  McNear suffered a severe stroke at that time and, while he was able to recover his speech, he was rendered immobile by the incident.  So, upon his return fifteen months later, Howard’s Floyd seldom moved beyond his barber chair; he would either be seated, or standing alongside (supported by a brace).  This allowed the actor to continue his role as the philosophical stylist.  Eventually, Howard became frustrated with the difficulty of remembering his lines and left the program in its eighth season.  Howard McNear passed away on January 3, 1969 at the age of 63, and was mourned by everyone who had ever worked with him.  His friend Parley Baer (Chester on Gunsmoke) described him as “the dearest man—there was just nobody who didn’t like him.”

20587Samples of Howard McNear’s extensive radio resume are available at Radio Spirits.  The collections featuring today’s birthday celebrant include Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way), Defense Attorney, Fort Laramie (Volume 2), Hopalong Cassidy (Cowtown Troubleshooters), The Lineup (Witness), The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Mayhem is My Business), Romance, Suspense (Omnibus, Tales Well Calculated) and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar, Phantom Chases, Confidential and Murder Matters).  Spend some time with one of the most distinctive voices in radio!

Happy Birthday, George Burns!

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He’s acknowledged by many to have been one of the finest straight men in comedy—if not the finest.  This, however, does George Burns a disservice.  The man born on this date in 1896 immodestly attributed the success of his hit comedy teaming with wife Gracie Allen to Gracie herself…but at the height of their popularity, only a handful of people knew that George was the architect behind their incredible achievements on stage and in movies, radio and television.  The genius of Burns and Allen was that the “Burns” half was content to downplay his contributions to allow “Allen” to take all the credit.

georgeburns9Nathan Birnbaum (his given name) was born in New York City, and from his early childhood days he knew that he wanted to be an entertainer.  That decision was made for him when he was a boy of seven: George and several of his friends passed the time they spent working in a candy shop by singing harmony…and when a number of passersby heard their vocalizing and threw pennies their way in approval, George knew show business was in his future.  Starting with “the Pee-Wee Quartet,” George would eventually work his way up to vaudeville headliner—he may not have been a big name, but he didn’t lack for determinedness; during his vaudeville days he entertained as a vocalist, a dancer…and even a seal trainer.

georgeburns7Good fortune came Burns’ way in 1922; he had just dissolved his partnership with Billy Lorraine when he happened to cross paths with one Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen.  Burns suggested to his future wife that they form a team, and after a trial period in which Gracie played “straight man” to George’s comic, Burns realized that it would work better if they switched roles.  (The fact that audiences laughed at Gracie’s “feed” lines and were stone-faced at George’s replies no doubt succeeded in convincing him.)  They tied the knot in 1926, and gradually became so popular that they were able to achieve every vaudevillian’s dream: playing the top spot at New York’s Palace Theatre.  Looking back on those years, George later observed, “And all of a sudden, the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent—and I was married to her for 38 years.”

georgeburns6George Burns and Gracie Allen were among the first vaudeville stars to get in on the ground floor of radio…though it wasn’t in America.  In England, through the BBC, they were heard on the “wireless” for fifteen weeks during a tour of the country in 1931.  Their American radio career began when Eddie Cantor extended an invitation to appear on his mega-popular Chase and Sanborn Hour—only Cantor just wanted Gracie at the mike, and planned to deliver George’s straight lines himself.  (Burns was miffed at this slight, but let Gracie take the gig once he was given permission to write her material.)  After also guesting on Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann Hour, Burns and Allen finally got their own radio showcase in February of 1932: on The Robert Burns Panatella Program.  Even then, they had to wait until the star of that series, bandleader Guy Lombardo, departed for other opportunities before they were placed in charge of the show.

georgeburns8George and Gracie were tailor-made for radio: as George once remarked, “Both of us could stand still in front of a microphone and read out loud.  Gracie had a terrific voice, and I had Gracie.  And that’s all it took.”  Throughout the 1930s their programs for White Owl, Campbell Soups and other sponsors were tremendously popular with audiences.  The team is best remembered for one of the medium’s great promotional stunts in which Gracie went on a nationwide hunt for her “missing” brother, often interrupting other broadcasts asking about his whereabouts.  By the 1940s, their ratings had slipped a bit…but George and his writers turned it around by revamping their program into a situation comedy format.  The Burnses’ reign on radio (for Swan Soap and later Maxwell House Coffee) continued until 1950, and by that time they were ready to conquer television.

georgeburns4October 19, 1950 marked the debut of The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show, a television series that was quite similar to the format of their radio program.  For their first two seasons, the Burnses appeared live every other week, but became a weekly feature in the fall of 1952.  (Following the example of I Love Lucy, the show was filmed with a three-camera process, allowing Burns and Allen to later thrive in syndication.)  While George & Gracie’s series was never a monster hit on the tube, it held its own against its competition…and probably would have continued in perpetuity had Gracie not decided that the eighth season (1957-58) would be her last.  George had always managed to persuade his “Googie” to go one more round in past radio and TV seasons, but Gracie was firm on this one; she wanted to retire due to health issues.  The show did soldier on for an additional year as The George Burns Show (which featured everyone from the old program except Gracie—though she was referred to often), but audiences knew that it just didn’t work without Gracie.

georgeburns2Gracie’s concerns about her health proved quite prescient; she passed away in 1961, and George was devastated.  About the time that the couple’s TV series switched to a filmed format, Burns had started a production company — McCadden Corporation — and he experienced success producing programs such as The Bob Cummings Show (a.k.a. Love That Bob), The People’s Choice and Mister Ed.  Performing, however, was still in his blood; he attempted to recapture the magic of his and Gracie’s act with a 1964-65 series entitled Wendy and Me…with Connie Stevens as the ersatz Gracie.  The sitcom was not a success, and Burns returned to television production (with series like No Time for Sergeants and Mona McCluskey) while singing, dancing and joking in front of audiences in venues from college campuses to Carnegie Hall.

georgeburns5George’s closest friend, and fellow comedian, Jack Benny was scheduled to play the part of veteran vaudeville comic Al Lewis in a film adaptation of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit The Sunshine Boys…but died before that project came to fruition.  So Burns stepped in for Benny and, playing opposite Walter Matthau (as Willy Clark), was not only nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award but won the Oscar at the age of 80—the oldest actor to do so until Jessica Tandy’s Best Actress win for Driving Miss Daisy (1989) in 1990.  George was no stranger to movies—he and Gracie appeared in a number of comedy shorts for Paramount in the 1930s, as well as features like Six of a Kind (1934) and We’re Not Dressing (1934)—but the Oscar win revitalized his career.  Two years later, he won raves for playing the Almighty in Oh, God! (1977) (a role he would reprise in two sequels) and as a crafty senior citizen who masterminds a bank heist in Going in Style (1979).  George continued making film appearances (and writing several best-selling books) until he reached the ripe old age of 100 in 1996…then it was his turn to say “Good night.”

20560In the opinion of this author, George Burns was at his best behind a radio microphone and with his partner and love-of-his-life, Gracie Allen, by his side.  I think that if you check out the latest Radio Spirits collection of their misadventures, Burns & Allen and Friends, you’ll agree with my assessment…and you can also entertain yourself with previous sets in Gracie for President, Treasury and As Good as Nuts.  You’ll also hear George on the Jack Benny collection Be Our Guest, and on radio potpourri sets such as Road Trip: Humorous Travel Tales, Christmas Radio Classics, Radio Christmas Spirits, and The Voices of Christmas Past.  For a TV look at our birthday boy, check out the DVD set The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes. (Plus Volumes 1 and 2 of George and Gracie in their classic 1950’s television show!)