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Happy Birthday, Lesley Woods!


Actress Lesley Woods is described in author Jim Cox’s compendium The Great Radio Soap Operas as someone who “made a career out of playing mean-spirited first wives” in the world of daytime drama.  Woods would later earn a long list of soap opera credits on the small screen as well…yet to limit her as a performer on the “weepies” would overlook her work on such shows as Boston Blackie and Casey, Crime Photographer.  She was born in Berwick, IA on this date in 1910.

woods9A graduate of Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama, Lesley Woods set her sights on stage acting upon completion of her courses…and immediately found work in summer theatre, where her duties ranged from shifting scenery to taking over as leading lady (when the star of one production suffered a fainting spell due to the heat).  Woods moved on to a stock company in Michigan, gaining more experience in both bit parts and meatier ingénue roles…and again, filling in for those who did not believe “the show must go on” in spite of illness.  When her stint with the stock company ended, Lesley had planned to return to Chicago, but two other members from that company convinced her to move to New York.

Despite her acting experience, Woods found it rough going in the Big Apple.  Many producers would tell her at auditions, “You’re not the right type.”  But her perseverance paid off; she appeared in a Theatre Guild production of Love is Not Simple, and won roles in both Broadway’s Double Dummy (1936, produced by Mark Hellinger), and Excursion (1937).  In between her stage work, Lesley toiled as both a model and clerk for a number of stores along Fifth Avenue as well as posing for photographers and appearing in movie shorts.  Her later Broadway appearances include Comes the Revelation (1942), The Assassin (1945), Advise and Consent (1960), and A Case of Libel (1963).

CBS RadioA decision to return to Chicago for a brief vacation would provide the impetus to change Lesley Woods’ career direction…since an empty pocketbook often seemed to be an accessory to her fabulous young actress wardrobe.  While attending a party, at which a number of radio thespians were in attendance, Lesley received a suggestion that she, too, “take a crack” at acting in the aural medium.  Casting directors would soon learn that while Lesley may not have been “the right type” for stage work, her technique was just right for radio.  Woods extended her vacation in the Windy City for two years, where she worked on such series as The First Nighter Program and The Wayside Theatre.  It was at this time that she also found steady work in daytime dramas as well.

woods3Lesley emoted on the likes of The Guiding Light (as Helene Cunningham), Road to Life (Carol Evans Brent), Woman in White (Janet Munson Adams), Midstream (Meredith Conway), Backstage Wife (Maida), Bright Horizon (as both Rosie and Margaret Anderson McCarey), The Romance of Helen Trent (Tember Adams), Rosemary (Audrey Roberts), This is Nora Drake (Peggy Martinson), We Love and Learn (Mickey), Joyce Jordan, Girl Interne (Margot Sherwood—this was before Joyce became an M.D.), The Man I Married (Evelyn Waring), and Portia Faces Life (Elaine Arden).  The Great Radio Soap Operas credits Woods with fifteen daytime dramas, and that doesn’t even take into consideration appearances on non-soap opera programs such as Bulldog Drummond, The Chase, Crime and Peter Chambers, Dimension X, The Falcon, Gangbusters, Inner Sanctum, It Can Be Done, The Molle Mystery Theatre, Murder by Experts, The Mysterious Traveler, The Private Files of Rex Saunders, Suspense, This is Your FBI, Treasury Star Parade, Words at War, and You Are There.

woods21946 was a particularly prolific time for Lesley Woods; she was, as described by author Cox, “the girlfriend-confidante-accomplice of a trio of radio sleuths.”  On Boston Blackie, she was the detective’s gal Friday Mary Wesley.  She appeared for one season on The Shadow as “the only person who knows to whom the voice of the invisible Shadow belongs”—the lovely Margo Lane.  And in the summer of 1946, Woods hung out in the dive known as The Blue Note for a brief time as reporter Ann Williams, gal pal to Casey, Crime Photographer.  Lesley’s commitment to radio drama would extend to appearances on programs that attempted to revive the medium’s Golden Age, including 60s shows like Theater Five and efforts in the 1970s like The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and The Mutual/Sears Radio Theatre.

woods7Lesley Woods’ attempt to make inroads into television hit a small snag when she was listed among many of her fellow radio performers in the notorious publication Red Channels, which was responsible for the “blacklisting” of artists due to their political affiliations.  Yet Lesley would overcome this setback, and began appearing on as many daytime television soaps as she had in her radio days.  A list of her small screen appearances in the afternoons would include Young Dr. Malone, The Edge of Night, A Flame in the Wind, The Nurses, Search for Tomorrow, The Secret Storm, Bright Promise, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, All My Children, and The Bold and the Beautiful.  Her boob tube resume also includes guest star roles in a number of TV favorites: The Real McCoys, Daniel Boone, Bonanza, The F.B.I., and The Rockford Files.  In addition, Woods made the rounds on nighttime soaps like Dallas, Family and Knots Landing; she had recurring roles on Falcon Crest (as housekeeper Mrs. Miller) and L.A. Law before her passing in 2003 at the age of 92 (a little over two weeks’ shy of her 93rd birthday).

21173Radio Spirits has a fistful of collections spotlighting Lesley Woods’ signature radio roles.  She can be heard on Boston Blackie on The Voices of Christmas Past, Great Radio Detectives, and Highway Horror; while her work on Casey, Crime Photographer can be sampled on Stop the Press! and the Casey sets Blue Note and Snapshots of Mystery.  Listen to Lesley as Margo Lane in The Shadow collections Bitter Fruit, Radio Treasures, Silent Avenger, and Strange Puzzles…and as a palate cleanser, check out Woods on the Inner Sanctum set Shadows of Death.  Happy birthday, Lesley!


Happy Birthday, Eddie Green!


If what I’m hearing are the familiar strains of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”—then we’ve apparently stumbled into old-time radio’s most famous watering hole, Duffy’s Tavern:

ARCHIE: Eddie, uh…get me a pail of hot water and a mop, will ya?

EDDIE: What for, you gonna take a bath?

ARCHIE: No, I’m gonna mop up the place…now, uh…lemme get to work here…

EDDIE: You? Going to work?

ARCHIE: Is it such a surprise?

EDDIE: Well…up to now, it’s been one of your hidden talents…

ARCHIE: Oh yeah? Well, that’s all been changed, Eddie—I’m even gonna help you do your work…now, hand me the mop…

EDDIE: Okay, but don’t get too close to me…

ARCHIE: Why not?

EDDIE: Whatever you got, I don’t wanna catch it…look, how come you suddenly wanna do my work?

ARCHIE: Eddie…just because a guy wants to help people, do you have to be suspicious?

EDDIE: If the guy is you, and the people is me…yes!!!

eddie-green-getty-imageThe actor who played “Eddie the Waiter”—essentially the “Rochester” to Duffy’s Tavern star Ed Gardner’s “Jack Benny”—was born in Baltimore, MD on this date in 1896.  Eddie Green was a show business veteran at the age of seven, performing as a “boy magician” for a number of churches in and around the Baltimore area.  By fifteen, he was hiring halls in nearby towns and making money with his prestidigitation.  He would abandon his magic act by the time he entered vaudeville, where he earned a hefty salary of $9 a week.

Green also became a fixture in burlesque.  He spent eleven years working as a right hand man for the legendary Billy Minsky, functioning as both writer and comedian.  After leaving Minsky, he started a lucrative career on stage, beginning in 1929 with the musical revue Hot Chocolates.  (Chocolates served as the Broadway debut for Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and also featured James Baskett, future Oscar winner for Song of the South.)  Other shows that utilized Eddie’s comedic talents include Blackberries of 1932 (for which he wrote the book), A Woman’s a Fool—to Be Clever (1938), and The Hot Mikado (1939; an all-black version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta).

eddiegreen1Eddie’s fame as a Broadway performer would later extend to the world of motion pictures.  He made his “talkie” movie debut in a 1929 Vitaphone short, Sending a Wire.  Like the pioneering writer-director-producer Oscar Micheaux, Green later participated in what were known at the time as “race pictures”—films produced with African-American audiences solely in mind.  Eddie wrote, directed, and starred in such features as What Goes Up (1939) and Mr. Adam’s Bomb (1949), and was the producer of titles like Dress Rehearsal (1939) and Comes Midnight (1940).  Green’s other motion picture appearances include Laff Jamboree (1945) and Mantan Messes Up (1946).

In a large sense, Eddie Green owed his fruitful radio career to Rudy Vallee—Vallee often featured Eddie on his Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, Royal Gelatin Hour, and Sealtest shows.  Green was also a regular on his old friend Louis Armstrong’s variety series in 1937, where he performed sketches and routines with Gee Gee James.  Other radio shows on which the comedian appeared include The Gibson Family, Maxwell House’s Show Boat, The Jack Benny Program, The New Army Game (with Ben Bernie), Meet the Colonel (a sitcom starring F. Chase “Colonel Stoopnagle” Taylor), The Pursuit of Happiness, The Columbia Workshop, The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy, and The Philco Radio Hall of Fame.  Eddie was also a frequent performer on Jubilee, an AFRS series spotlighting top African-American talent (Lena Horne, Ernest Whitman, Leadbelly, etc.), and joshed with radio boss Ed Gardner on installments of AFRS’ Mail Call.

eddiegreen4The program that would eventually develop into Duffy’s Tavern was first auditioned on the CBS series Forecast.  Technically, Green wouldn’t join Duffy’s until the show premiered over CBS in March of 1941—but he did appear on a Forecast broadcast with the legendary Paul Robson in a production of “All God’s Children” (08/26/40).  Duffy’s would prove to be a splendid showcase for Eddie—the waiter character even shared the same surname, and as OTR historian John Dunning shrewdly observed, Green’s “cunning dialogue contained some of the show’s funniest lines.”  (An interesting note is that Eddie was no stranger to the craft of waiting on tables; he also dabbled in the food business, maintaining a chain of Harlem-based restaurants for a number of decades.)  Eddie, along with Duffy’s co-star Charlie Cantor (a.k.a. “Clifton Finnegan”), would reprise his famous radio role when Ed Gardner brought Duffy’s Tavern to the big screen in 1945.  Considered by many to be a notorious flop, film-wise, the picture actually made money due to its all-star Paramount Pictures cast.

amosandyEddie Green’s other claim-to-fame was his role as Stonewall the lawyer on Amos ‘n’ Andy; never has an individual made the legal profession so disreputable and yet so falling-down-funny at the same time.  Stonewall was a shyster…but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more charming one.  On one broadcast, Stonewall relates to the Kingfish the importance of maintaining positive PR with the public if one plans to run for political office—he himself has been out pressing the flesh and kissing any number of babies and young women.  “Well, what political office are you running for?” Stonewall is asked.  “I ain’t runnin’ for nothin’—I’m just out for the smoochin’!” he replies.  When Ed Gardner relocated Duffy’s Tavern from Brooklyn to Puerto Rico (the program moved for tax purposes), Eddie reluctantly gave up his gig as Stonewall and was replaced by Johnny Lee as “Algonquin J. Calhoun.”  (It just wasn’t the same after that.)

20788Duffy’s Tavern, sadly, would lose its most beloved employee when Eddie Green succumbed to a heart ailment on September 19, 1950.  If the information in this tribute seems a bit sketchy, it’s because the incredibly talented Green has never really received his proper due as a performer and comedian.  Green’s daughter Elva Diane Green has rectified this slight with the recent Bear Manor Media publication of Eddie Green: The Rise of an Early 1900s Black American Entertainment Pioneer.  It is the very definition of “labor of love,” as Elva researched major archives for more information than we can make available here. (For example, did you know that Eddie wrote the song standard “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?)

At Radio Spirits, we have Eddie on tap in the Duffy’s Tavern collection Duffy Ain’t Here, and you can also hear his hilarious contributions as Stonewall in our newest Amos ‘n’ Andy set Radio’s All-Time Favorites.  Happiest of birthdays to you, Eddie Green…you always made listening to the saloon “where the elite meet to eat” a most enjoyable pleasure.


Happy Birthday, Bert Lahr!


In his indispensable reference book The Great Movie Shorts, film historian Leonard Maltin made this observation of Leon Errol: “There are comedians, comics, and a few clowns around, but funnymen are hard to find.  A funnyman can be amusing under any circumstances; he doesn’t need stories to support him, as comedians do; he doesn’t need jokes, as comics do; and he doesn’t need particular settings, as clowns do.  He is funny in himself.”

lahr10I’ve always felt that “funnyman” was the perfect word to describe Bert Lahr—born Irving Lahrheim on this date in New York City in 1895.  If you mention Lahr’s name to someone familiar with classic movies, chances are the first thing that will come to mind is his wonderful performance as The Cowardly Lion in the timeless movie musical The Wizard of Oz (1939).  But Bert’s career transcended that role; he established himself as a one-of-a-kind performer in vaudeville, burlesque, and on the Broadway stage…making stops in radio, movies, and television along the way.

The son of German Jewish immigrants, Bert Lahr grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, dropping out of school at age 15 to join a vaudeville act.  From that beginning, Bert paid his dues until he eventually worked up to top billing on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit.  The unique entertainment style of burlesque was a starting point for many stars—Abbott and Costello, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Phil Silvers are just a few of the familiar names.  But it’s important to remember that many burlesque performers never advanced beyond burlesque; it took a special kind of entertainer to move on to bigger things.  Lahr was one such performer; he made his Broadway debut in a show called Harry Delmar’s Revels (1927).  One of the highlights of that revue was Bert’s rendition of “The Song of the Woodsman”—which he later performed in the feature film Merry-Go-Round of 1938.

lahr13Lahr’s next big success was Hold Everything! in 1928, and from that followed popular stage musicals such as Flying High (1930), Hot-Cha! (1932), The Show is On (1936; with Bea Lillie), and DuBarry Was a Lady (1939; with Ethel Merman).  Between 1927 and 1964, Bert appeared in a total of 18 Broadway shows—some of the most memorable included Burlesque (1948), Two on the Aisle (1951), Waiting for Godot (1956), The Girls Against the Boys (1959), and The Beauty Part (1962).  His final stage triumph was Foxy (1964), for which he received a Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical (he had been nominated the previous year for his dramatic turn in Beauty Part.)

Though his motion picture debut was in a 1929 Vitaphone short entitled Faint Heart, it was his reprisal of the role of an eccentric aviator from Flying High that brought Bert Lahr into feature films when the Broadway show was adapted for the silver screen in 1931 (his co-star was the long-legged Charlotte Greenwood).  Throughout the 1930s, Bert supplemented his stage work with occasional film appearances. Educational Pictures even featured him in a series of two-reel comedy shorts that ranged from abysmal (No More West) to delightful (Off the Horses).  Truth be told, the movies were never really able to accommodate Lahr; his style of performing was a bit too broad to capture on celluloid…but he certainly gave it the old college try in vehicles like Love and Hisses (1937), Just Around the Corner (1939), and Zaza (1938).

lahr1Bert Lahr and motion pictures achieved harmony when he was cast as The Cowardly Lion in the M-G-M musical The Wizard of Oz.  His contract with the studio that boasted “more stars than there are in Heaven” stipulated he would receive $2500 a week…and even then he had to haggle.  (The studio was only going to offer him five weeks of work—Lahr held out for six.)  As it happened, shooting on Oz commenced over a period of several months, so Bert ended up making more than he had originally negotiated.  Oz is inarguably Lahr’s finest hour on screen; when warned that the role might typecast him Bert cracked: “Yeah, but how many parts are there for lions?”  (He would become so identified with the role that a biography written by his son John—a drama critic for The New York Times—was appropriately titled Notes on a Cowardly Lion.)  He would continue his association with M-G-M in such musicals as Ship Ahoy (1942) and Meet the People (1944).  He uttered his famous “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” in the latter film…providing the inspiration for Hanna-Barbera’s pink cartoon lion Snagglepuss.

lahr16Bert Lahr’s career on radio experienced the same setbacks that it encountered in feature films.  Despite having an “unforgettable bawl of a voice” (as described by Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio), Lahr was often nervous in front of a microphone (he frequently twisted buttons off his shirt) and resorted to his trademark mugging to get a reaction from the studio audience (while listeners at home wondered what was so funny).  Still, Bert did the best he could in the aural medium; he appeared as a guest on Fred Allen’s program a number of times (resulting in some very funny broadcasts), and joshed with the likes of Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy) while guesting on such shows as Good News of 1939, Command Performance, The Philco Radio Hall of Fame, and The Theatre Guild On the Air.

lahr17One of Bert Lahr’s most memorable film turns was a supporting role in Always Leave Them Laughing (1949).  It harkened back to his burlesque days (the movie’s star was fellow Burly-Q veteran Milton Berle) and even allowed him to perform his legendary “Stop in the name of the stationhouse!” routine.  Bert continued to make occasional appearances in movies like Mister Universe (1951) and Rose Marie (1954), but by that time he was starting to make inroads into television.  His small screen triumphs include live performances in Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It and Anything Goes (with Ethel Merman and Frank Sinatra), both in 1954; a version of The Fantasticks in 1964; guest appearances on Jack Benny and Red Skelton’s shows; and turns on The Eleventh Hour and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.

lahr4Lahr’s farewell film appearance was a small role as “Professor Spats” in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968).  Bert passed away from undiagnosed cancer (the newspapers originally reported pneumonia) at the age of 72 in 1967.  Though he had fortunately filmed most of his scenes ahead of time, director Norman Lear did have to resort to a little trickery (including a voice double and body double—fellow burlesque veteran Joey Faye) to make certain Lahr’s performance stayed in the film.  Minsky’s offers a splendid valedictory tribute to the funnyman who convulsed audiences with helpless laughter…if you’ve not had the pleasure of sitting down with this movie I urge you to do so at your earliest opportunity.

21275Radio Spirits’ latest collection of vintage Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy broadcasts is entitled Smile a While—and because I was asked to compose the liner notes for the set, I have a special affinity for it…particularly since the majority of these broadcasts haven’t been heard since their original broadcast!  Our birthday boy is at his funnyman best in two broadcasts in this compendium, dated January 31, 1943 and December 19, 1943.  We also invite you to check out Some Enchanted Evening: The Greatest Broadway Hits—a three-CD set spotlighting famous show tunes from hit Broadway musicals.  Bert and co-star Ethel Merman are represented in this collection with their show-stopping “Friendship” from DuBarry Was a Lady.

Happy Birthday, Gracie Allen!


She was born Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen on this date in 1895, in “the city by the bay” (San Francisco, CA).  Fortunately, to accommodate vaudeville marquees (and future billing in movies, radio and TV), today’s birthday celebrant decided on “Gracie Allen” as her professional name.  A skilled singer and nimble dancer, Gracie would nevertheless become famous as the female half of one of the most successful comedy duos of the twentieth century with her husband George Burns.  Burns never made any bones about the fact that their show business success was due to Gracie; longtime Burns & Allen scribe Paul Henning once recalled in an interview how he wrote his mother with the sensational news that he was now writing jokes for George.

“Congratulations,” Mother Henning wrote back.  “But who writes for Gracie?  She’s the one who says the funny things.”

actress/comedian Gracie Allen as a little girlIt seemed written in the stars that Gracie Allen would embark on a show business career.  Her father Edward earned a living as a song-and-dance man in vaudeville, and Gracie made her stage debut at age three performing in his act.  At fourteen, Gracie teamed up with her three sisters in an act that saw success performing in various vaudeville houses throughout the West Coast.  On her own in the 1920s, Allen relied on her lively terpsichorean talents and a knack for Irish dialect to win bit parts as colleens in stage shows before going to work for the vaudeville troupe Larry Reilly and Company as a dancer.

As a result of a dispute over billing, Gracie eventually parted with Larry and Company…and for a brief moment, gave serious consideration to enrolling in secretarial school when she had difficulty finding work on stage.  In 1922, Allen attended a vaudeville show in New Jersey for the purpose of watching one of her roommates perform.  It was there she met both her future partner and husband, George Burns.

TrainBurns (born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896) had done everything under the sun during his vaudeville career: singing, dancing, and snappy, syncopated patter.  He had just split with partner Billy Lorraine when he met Gracie…and was impressed enough to gamble on starting an act with her, believing she would make an ideal comedic foil.  They opened at Newark’s Hill Street theatre in 1923; George was the comedian, Gracie the straight woman.

Their act initially went over with all the enthusiasm shown to ants at a picnic.  However, Burns couldn’t help but notice that while his one-liners “laid eggs,” Gracie’s straight lines got laughs.  “I knew right away that there was a feeling of something between the audience and Gracie,” George recalled in later years.  “They loved her, and so, not being a fool and wanting to smoke cigars for the rest of my life, I gave her the jokes.”

burns&allen11It wasn’t just audiences that fell for Gracie—George also started to look at her beyond their show business partnership…though he had serious romantic competition from her boyfriend, songwriter-dancer Benny Ryan.  What gave Burns the edge in the relationship was an emergency appendectomy operation Gracie was forced to undergo in a San Francisco hospital in 1925.  George sent his fiancée enough flowers to fill her entire hospital room, and Gracie was impressed enough to move him to the top of her list of suitors.  Around Christmas time, George gave Gracie an ultimatum: she had ten days to decide whether or not she would marry him.  On the ninth day, she said “yes”; the couple tied the knot on January 7, 1926.

gracieradioThe act perfected by Gracie and George during their vaudeville days was once described by Burns as “illogical logic.”  On stage, Gracie played a daffy screwball who sincerely believed the often ludicrous statements she uttered were completely true.  “It makes sense but it only made sense to Gracie,” George affirmed.  The husband-and-wife duo soon became top vaudeville headliners, even achieving every performer’s dream of “playing the Palace” in 1931 with a nine-week engagement at New York’s entertainment Mecca with Eddie Cantor and George Jessel.  By that time, however, vaudeville was beginning its slow decline…and Burns quickly realized that their act could only remain successful once they cracked radio.  After a tryout on the BBC (they were touring London at the time) and Gracie’s well-received performance on Cantor’s Chase and Sanborn Program in 1931, Burns and Allen were hired for The Robert Burns Panatela Program in February of 1932, sharing a microphone with Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

PianoWhile Gracie and George were making their fortunes on radio with a show that was frequently ranked among the top five comedy programs, the duo was also enjoying success on the silver screen.  They appeared in a series of one-reel comedy shorts for Paramount between 1930 and 1933, while gracing (ooh…bad pun) the casts of films like International House (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), and We’re Not Dressing (1934).  Gracie even appeared in three films without her famous husband: The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), Mr. and Mrs. North (1941), and Two Girls and a Sailor (1944—in which she performs the classic “Concerto for Index Finger”).

Throughout the 1940s, Gracie and George continued their radio success with shows for the likes of Swan Soap and Maxwell House; by the time of their final season on radio (for Amm-i-dent toothpaste) in 1949, Burns and Allen were willing to give that upstart television a try.  It would be more accurate to say that George was willing; Gracie had a little stage fright before the television cameras and found it much easier to perform not looking at “the little red light.”  After doing a live show for two years, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show became a filmed series and, while never a ratings blockbuster, was one of CBS’ most dependable situation comedies.  Gracie had to be coaxed by George at the end of every season to renew their series; after eight years of small screen success, “Googie” told “Nattie” that she had had enough.  Gracie enjoyed retirement for six years before her passing in 1964; purportedly, George was so devastated by his wife’s death that for years the only way he could get a good night’s sleep was in her room.

21255In 1940, as a stunt on Burns & Allen’s Hinds Honey and Almond Cream show, Gracie undertook an ambitious campaign to run for President (“Down with common sense—vote for Gracie!”)…and in this election year, no self-respecting old-time radio fan can afford to be without Radio Spirits’ Gracie for President collection, featuring selected broadcasts from that memorable time (and campaign stops on the Jack Benny and Fibber McGee & Molly shows as a bonus).  Other sets featuring the couple in their comedic prime include As Good as Nuts, Burns & Allen and Friends, Muddling Through…and our most recent release, Keep Smiling—which features newly circulated shows not heard since their initial broadcast more than half-a-century ago!  Today’s birthday girl can also be heard on The Jack Benny Program compilations Jack Benny & Friends and Be Our Guest; our Yuletide collections Christmas Radio Classics and The Voices of Christmas Past; and the laugh-riot compendium Great Radio Comedy.  You can see Gracie and George on one of the one-reel shorts featured on the DVD Hollywood on Parade, Volume 1…and as a palate cleanser, enjoy the song stylings of Gracie on Did You Know These Stars Also Sang? Hollywood’s Acting Legends.  (Gracie performs “Snug as a Bug in a Rug” from The Gracie Allen Murder Case and the title tune from the 1939 musical Honolulu—a movie in which Gracie appears with George…but the two of them don’t meet until the end!)

Happy Birthday, William Gargan!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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