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The Happy Anniversary Matter


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…”


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!


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!


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!)

Review: Meet Boston Blackie (1941)


20588Radio Spirits has just released a brand-new CD collection of broadcasts featuring Boston Blackie, a lighthearted detective drama based on the famed reformed safecracker-jewel thief introduced by author Jack Boyle in 1914.  The program was heard on radio from 1944 to 1950, and although Richard Kollmar was the actor who played the role of Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black the longest, many people can’t help but associate the amateur sleuth with Chester Morris.  Granted, Morris may have been the first thespian to play Blackie on radio (in a 1944 NBC series that served as the summer replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy), but the reason why he’s become so identified with the part is that he starred in a series of B-movies released by Columbia Pictures between 1941 and 1949—fourteen programmers in all.

meet6Meet Boston Blackie (1941) appropriately kicked off the popular movie franchise.  The film opens as Blackie (Morris) and his sidekick The Runt (Charles Wagenheim) arrive in New York via cruise ship, with Blackie coming to the aid of a young woman identified as Marilyn Howard (Constance Worth), who’s accosted by the sinister Martin Vestrick (Nestor Paiva).  Before he exits the gangplank at the behest of his nemesis on the police force, Inspector James Faraday (Richard Lane), Blackie returns to his stateroom to find a dead body on the premises…none other than Vestrick himself.  Blackie temporarily eludes Faraday’s clutches and winds up at Coney Island, where he manages to catch up with Ms. Howard and extract a confession that she’s responsible for croaking Vestrick.  Unfortunately for our hero, Marilyn soon joins her victim in the Great Beyond when she’s dispatched by two goons (Jack O’Malley, George Magrill) in the employ of a “mechanical man” (James Seay).

During the movie’s sixty-one minutes, Blackie finds himself drawn into a web of wartime spy intrigue…and a murder mystery that he’ll need to solve since his pal Faraday has fingered him as the guilty party.  He’s helped by The Runt, of course, and by an innocent bystander named Cecilia Bradley (Rochelle Hudson) who’s not exactly certain what’s going on—she remarks to Blackie that the proceedings play “like the second installment of a serial”—but is soon so caught up in the spirit of Blackie’s adventure that she’s game enough to tag along.

meet3Despite its B-programmer origins, Meet Boston Blackie remains not only an entertaining comedy-mystery, but a second feature with production values (including striking cinematography by Franz Planer) capable of fooling an audience into thinking it was an “A” picture.  At the helm of Meet was director Robert Florey, whose past work included Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932; with Bela Lugosi) and The Face Behind the Mask (1941; with Peter Lorre).  And, the casting Chester Morris as Blackie was particularly inspired; Morris’ star was shining a little less brightly since his glory days of Alibi (1929—a film that garnered him an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor), The Divorcee (1930) and The Big House (1930)…but he was still a solid and dependable second lead in A-pictures (and a leading man in many a “B”s).  In the words of film historian Leonard Maltin, Chet “brought to the role a delightful offhand manner and sense of humor that kept the films fresh even when the scripts weren’t.”  The Blackie films cemented the actor’s popularity among moviegoers.

meet8Rochelle Hudson is Morris’ leading lady in Meet Boston Blackie—she captivated audiences in the 1930s in a number of Will Rogers vehicles (notably Doctor Bull and Life Begins at Forty).  By 1941, she was starting to shift toward character roles (you might know her as Natalie Wood’s mother in Rebel without a Cause).  Hudson acquits herself nicely as the reluctant woman who is skeptical of Blackie at first but eventually ends up in his corner.  Richard Lane plays Inspector Faraday.  (In subsequent outings, his name would be spelled with an extra ‘R’ – Farraday – and his first name had a tendency to shift from film to film between John and William R.)  What rarely changed, however, was that (although he had a grudging respect for Blackie), he would have given his eyeteeth to lock B.B. behind bars permanently.

meet7Meet Boston Blackie was the sole venture for character great Charles Wagenheim as The Runt.  In subsequent Blackie films, George E. Stone inherited the role and played it beautifully in all but the final Blackie saga, Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949—where Sid Tomack is The Runt).  In a bit role as a dimwitted flatfoot who mistakes Faraday for Blackie is Walter Sande.  In the second Blackie film, Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941), Sande gets a promotion to plainclothes detective and is referred to as “Matthews” (though, alas, his rise in the ranks does not make him any smarter).  Walter would play Detective Matthews in five Blackie films in total, his last being The Chance of a Lifetime in 1943.

Next month: Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) will be in the spotlight—featuring direction from a promising filmmaker who would later be at the helm of movies like Crossfire and The Caine Mutiny…and the female half of “America’s favorite young couple”…

Happy Birthday, Amzie Strickland!


One of radio’s most prolific character actresses was born in Oklahoma City on this date in 1919: Amzie Strickland.  That first name is pronounced AIM-zee, by the way, and during her lengthy show business career (close to six decades) it was estimated that she appeared on nearly 3,000 broadcasts…not to mention racking up a slew of credits for movies, TV and commercials.

amzie3She began practicing her craft during the Golden Age of Radio in the mid-1940s, appearing on a variety of anthology series that included The Big Story, The Brownstone Theatre, The Cavalcade of America, The Chase, The Ford Theatre and A Voice in the Night.  In addition, Strickland also guest starred (or had recurring roles) on the likes of The Adventures of the Falcon, Barrie Craig, Private Investigator, Call the Police, Gangbusters, Inner Sanctum, The Private Files of Rex Saunders, The Shadow and Suspense.  Amzie’s best remembered radio role is undoubtedly that of Cathy Evans—the girlfriend of corpulent sleuth Brad Runyon (J. Scott Smart), known to audiences as The Fat Man on ABC Radio from 1946 to 1951.  Strickland would later be one of many radio veterans to work on Hiram Brown’s The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, the attempt to revive old-time radio in the 1970s.  On one particular broadcast, she worked with her husband, actor Frank Behrens, who also made the rounds during radio’s Golden Age on series like Murder by Experts and The Mysterious Traveler.

amzie4At the same time that she was keeping busy over the ether, Amzie Strickland began landing small parts in movies, some of which included Man with the Gun, Battle Hymn, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Drango and Curse of the Undead.  Her film roles would multiply in later years, with high profile appearances in Kotch, The One and Only, Harper Valley PTA (as Shirley Thompson, the secretary who likes “a little nip of gin”), Pretty Woman, Doc Hollywood and Krippendorf’s Tribe.  But, it is perhaps TV where Strickland is most well-known: she made multiple guest appearances on such classics as Dragnet (both the 50s and 60s versions), Gunsmoke, The Millionaire, Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show, Wagon Train, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Ironside.  Amzie had recurring turns on The Bill Dana Show (as the wife of Jonathan Harris’ manager character), The Andy Griffith Show (as Myra Tucker), Carter Country (as Julia Mobley) and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (as Mrs. Schumacher).  Her last television credit before her passing in 2006 was a 2000 episode of ER; she appeared twice on that series as Jean Connelly.

19685Radio Spirits features the radio work of Amzie Strickland in its Fat Man collection, and you’ll also hear her on The Adventures of the Falcon set Count Me Out Tonight, Angel.  Amzie also emotes in four CD collections of The Shadow: Knight of Darkness, Radio Treasures, Unearthly Specters, and Silent Avenger.  Happy birthday, Amzie!

Happy Birthday, Cathy Lewis!


When radio actress Cathy Lewis—born on this date in Spokane, Washington in 1916—married actor-director-producer Elliott Lewis (who would later become known as “Mr. Radio”) in 1943, she didn’t even have to take her husband’s surname.  That’s because Cathy Lewis was actually born “Cathy Lewis,” and their union (making them “Mr. and Mrs. Radio”) would bear much fruit in the aural medium, culminating in the critically-acclaimed dramatic anthology On Stage from 1953 to 1954.  But I’m getting a little ahead of the story…

cathy10Cathy left Washington and arrived in Hollywood in 1936 with the expressed desire to become a female vocalist—something that she did for a short while with bandleader Kay Kyser’s orchestra.  But she also had aspirations of becoming an actress, and after an apprenticeship with the Pasadena Playhouse, she was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to a contract.  Her stint at MGM involved a lot of extra work and bit parts; she can be seen in one of the studio’s Crime Does Not Pay shorts (“Soak the Old”) and a couple of entries from the Dr. Kildare series (Dr. Kildare’s Crisis, Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day).  Lewis, billed as “Catherine” Lewis, also shows up in a 1941 PRC Harry Langdon quickie, Double Trouble, and an MGM B-picture starring Van Heflin, Kid Glove Killer (1942), that occasionally plays on Turner Classic Movies.

Elliott_and_Cathy_LewisHer film career might not have been going anywhere…but it was a different story when Lewis stood in front of a radio mike.  She began to get jobs on shows like Lights Out, The Lux Radio Theatre, Theatre of Romance, Michael Shayne, Private Detective, The Philip Morris Playhouse and The Adventures of Sam Spade.  Cathy was one of “Whistler’s children,” the nickname given to the loose repertory company that frequently appeared on the West Coast radio mystery smash, The Whistler.  She would also find herself a frequent player on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense; she played the female lead opposite Robert Taylor in one of that program’s best-remembered playlets, “The House in Cypress Canyon,” and emoted next to Cary Grant in an equally famous Suspense broadcast, “On a Country Road.”  Cathy’s marriage to Elliott Lewis in 1943 allowed them to work together on such programs as Twelve Players, The Clock and The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (on which Elliott starred as Philip Carney, skipper of the titular vessel), but their best known collaboration was on the series On Stage, in which the Lewises performed in first-rate mysteries, adventures and comedies.  Mrs. Radio also made appearances on two other series overseen by her husband, Broadway’s My Beat and the aforementioned Suspense.

EDS1350328458PZYXQICathy Lewis would be no stranger to radio comedy.  She worked on series headlined by Rudy Vallee, Eddie Bracken and Dennis Day, and it was her experience on these shows that lured her to an audition for a new situation comedy created by a writer named Cy Howard…one that would become known as My Friend Irma.  The legend goes that Cathy, late for another appointment, began to grow a little impatient during her Irma audition…and loving that irritated quality in her voice, Howard gave her the job.  As sardonic roommate Jane Stacy, Cathy would co-star with Marie Wilson (as Irma) on the hit sitcom from 1947 to 1953; she left the program in its last radio season (and its second on TV) and was replaced by Mary Shipp (as Irma’s new roomie, Kay Foster).  At the same time that Lewis was working on Irma she was also appearing on The Great Gildersleeve as Nurse Kathryn Milford, one of the many girlfriends that Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, water commissioner in the town of Summerfield, acquired during his long radio run.

cathy11Cathy and Elliott Lewis divorced in 1958, and though Cathy continued to perform on radio she found new vistas in her entertainment career.  Her film appearances at this time include The Party Crashers (1958) and The Devil at O’Clock (1961), and she appeared briefly alongside comic actor Bob Sweeney in an ill-fated attempt to bring Fibber McGee & Molly to TV screens in the fall of 1959.  (As you’ve probably surmised, Cathy played Molly…but the show only lasted a few months.)  Lewis made guest appearances on series like The Danny Thomas Show, Death Valley Days, The Farmer’s Daughter and F Troop—she had a funny recurring role as Deirdre Thompson, the snobbish sister of attorney George Baxter (Don DeFore) who employed the meddlesome maid played by Shirley Booth on Hazel.  Cathy Lewis passed away from lung cancer in 1968.

20004Cathy Lewis’ remarkable radio career is well-represented at Radio Spirits: you’ll hear her as Kathryn Milford on The Great Gildersleeve collection Marjorie’s Wedding, and in support of Wally Maher’s “red-headed Irishman” on Michael Shayne, Private Detective.  There’s also Lewis performances on Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way), The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (Parties for Murder), The Adventures of Sam Spade (Volumes One and Two) and The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (Volumes One and Two).  There are also several sets of Suspense (Omnibus, Around the World, Tales Well Calculated) and we mustn’t leave out The Whistler (Skeletons in the Closet).  For those of you who’d like to get a look at today’s birthday girl—the Route 66: The Complete First Season set features her in the two-part drama, “Fly Away Home.”  (Note: A new collection of My Friend Irma radio episodes is scheduled to be released in January—keep your eye out for it!)

Happy Birthday, House Jameson!


When radio’s popular family sitcom The Aldrich Family came to television in the fall of 1949, it soon established a reputation as being a sort of “revolving door” as far as acting talent went.  During its four-year run on NBC, they went through five Henrys, three Mrs. Alice Aldrichs, three Mary Aldrichs and three Homer Browns.  The one actor that remained constant—as lawyer and family patriarch Sam Aldrich—was House Jameson, who was born in Austin, Texas on this date in 1902.  Not surprisingly, Jameson played Mr. A on the radio version for practically its entire run as well.

jameson7House went into acting almost immediately after graduating from New York’s Columbia University in 1924.  He did quite a bit of stage work with various stock companies; his Broadway debut in a production of St. Joan found him holding a spear.  Later in his noteworthy dramatic career, he had high-profile parts in productions of Never Too Late and Don’t Drink the Water.  But like many actors at that time, Jameson found that radio promised a steady paycheck, and he soon found himself in high demand on the airwaves—he even landed a plum role as the titular hero of Renfrew of the Mounted, which was heard over CBS from 1936 to 1937, then on NBC Blue from 1938 to 1940.  Daytime soap operas also put groceries on the table; House played roles on such series as Brave Tomorrow, By Kathleen Norris, Hilda Hope, MD, Marriage for Two, This Day is Ours and Young Widder Brown.  Anthology programs such as The Columbia Workshop and The Cavalcade of America also made use of Jameson’s dramatic talents.

Dick_Jones_Katherine_Raht_House_Jameson_Aldrich_Family_1944House Jameson introduced the famous “creaking door” on Inner Sanctum Mysteries for a fleeting moment in 1941 before host Raymond Edward Johnson began entertaining listeners with his morbid sense of humor, and Jameson also played David Harding, Counterspy on that long-running series’ premiere before being replaced by Don McLaughlin.  The actor was also one of several who played Dr. Benjamin Ordway—known to many listeners as Crime Doctor.  But it was his role as Mr. Aldrich on The Aldrich Family that cemented House’s radio immortality; the role of the stern but loving father (and that’s how he was addressed—never “Dad” or “Pop” like those other radio juveniles who had no respect for their elders) fit him like a glove as he spent week after week trying to undo whatever catastrophe his well-meaning son Henry had concocted.

jameson4Until the medium said its final goodbyes, House continued performing in radio, on series like X-Minus One and Suspense, but playing Sam Aldrich on the boob tube version of Aldrich Family opened up new vistas in television.  He appeared on live dramatic anthology programs like Robert Montgomery Presents and The U.S. Steel Hour, and made guest appearances on regular series such as The Phil Silvers Show, The Defenders and N.Y.P.D.  Jameson also harkened back to his radio days with regular roles on TV soap operas like The Edge of Night and Another World; he even appeared on the cult daytime drama Dark Shadows a time or two.  He appeared on several occasions on the TV crime drama Naked City, which seemed only fitting as he had a prominent showcase in the original 1948 movie noir of the same name; other movies on which the actor worked include Parrish (1961) and Mirage (1965).  His last feature film before his death in 1971 was The Swimmer (1968), in which he played Mr. Chester Halloran, the nudist neighbor of protagonist Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster).  (Nudist?  What would Alice, Henry and Mary say?  Or Aunt Martha, for that matter!)

20465Earlier this year, Radio Spirits had yours truly compose the liner notes for a CD collection of broadcasts from The Aldrich Family…which was a very enjoyable experience for me because, though the series might seem a little corny and dated to some, I think it’s a splendid situation comedy.  I can certainly see why it was an audience favorite for so many years—in its heyday, its ratings were on par with the comedy shows hosted by such legendary comedians as Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy.  We also encourage you to check out the birthday boy on two DVD collections: House appears in the premiere episode “Black November” on Route 66: The Complete First Season, and guest stars in two hilarious outings (“That’s Show Business” and “The Biggest Day of the Year”) of Car 54, Where are You? on that classic comedy’s second season set.