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“On, King! On, you huskies!”

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The Detroit, Michigan station known as WXYZ—“the last word in radio”—was already responsible for introducing two dramatic programs over the airwaves that became firm favorites with radio listeners.  The first of these was a simple juvenile adventure that began broadcasting in 1933, detailing the exploits of a masked individual who “led the fight for law and order in the early Western United States”—The Lone Ranger.  Three years later, The Green Hornet updated the Ranger formula to the modern era as its titular hero also battled forces determined to undermine society with rampant crime.  Seventy-nine years ago on this date, “Wyxie Wonderland” introduced the last series in their triumvirate of heroes: Challenge of the Yukon.

wxyzAuthor Gerald Nachman jokingly refers to Challenge of the Yukon in his book Raised on Radio as “the Lone Ranger on ice.”  But there’s a little bit of truth behind this jocularity. George W. Trendle, the station owner of WXYZ, was determined to create another radio drama along the lines of The Lone Ranger…the only difference was he wanted a dog to be the hero.  It wasn’t a canine in the Lassie mold that G.W. had in mind…he insisted that his dog be a working dog (why he was believed that Lassie was on the dole remains a mystery).  The proposed setting for the new series was the Northwest…and a working dog in that neck of the woods would unquestionably be an Alaskan husky.

yukonkingFrom that, it was just a short step to the inspiration of pairing that dog with a Canadian Mountie…and the concept of Challenge of the Yukon was born.  The show’s background drew heavily on The Lone Ranger: to avenge the murder of his father, young William Preston joins the Northwest Mounted Police and successfully captures the senior Preston’s killer.  Impressed with Preston’s skills, the Mounties promote him to the rank of sergeant and assign him a faithful lead sled dog named Mogo.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “If the dog’s name was ‘Mogo,” shouldn’t the title of this post would be different?”  “Mogo” was the original name of Preston’s devoted canine, but George W. Trendle insisted that the dog’s name be changed to “King.”  This may have been a tribute to author Zane Grey (of whom Trendle was a fan) and his heroic character Dave King.  (Zane would go on to his greater reward about a year after Challenge of the Yukon’s radio debut).

preston3Employed against the colorful background of the Klondike gold rush, the square-jawed (okay, maybe it was kind of hard to tell on radio but you just sort of knew Preston had one), straight-shooting Sergeant Preston and his “wonder dog” were responsible for policing a large area known as “Forty Mile.”  (In the early years of Challenge of the Yukon, the duo was assisted by a French-Canadian guide named Pierre…though he was eventually dropped from the program.)  The presence of gold frequently led less-than-honest men to severely test the boundaries of law and order…and that’s when Preston and King would swing into action, swiftly bringing those miscreants to justice.  Like its siblings The Lone Ranger and The Green HornetChallenge resorted to borrowing a little music from the public domain for its theme song: Emil von Reznicek’s Donna Diana Overture (which had previously been featured on Ranger as background and bridge music).

johntoddChallenge of the Yukon employed many of the same actors from Trendle’s other dramatic creations. John Todd, who played the faithful Indian companion Tonto on The Lone Ranger, and the elderly version of Dan Reid on The Green Hornet, essayed the role of Inspector Conrad (Preston’s superior).  Brace Beemer took over as Sergeant Preston in the series’ final year, once his stint as the Lone Ranger came to an end.  The first actor to play Preston was Jay Michael, who voiced the heroic Mountie during the years the program aired as a quarter-hour in Detroit (when the show moved to the ABC network in June of 1947 it expanded to a half-hour).  Although Michael would eventually be replaced by Paul Sutton in the lead role, he would later be pressed into serving as Challenge’s announcer until the series concluded on June 9, 1955.  (King’s barking came courtesy of soundman Dewey Cole.)

simmonsIn November of 1951, Challenge of the Yukon officially changed its name to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon in honor of its main character…and I’ve always wondered if King placed a call to his agent not long afterward, because in all honesty the dog did most of the heavy lifting.  (“Well, King—thanks to you, this case is closed,” Preston would frequently inform his four-legged pal at the end of the show.  The defense rests, Your Honor.)  Sergeant Preston made a successful transition to the small screen in the fall of 1955 with a TV version that starred Richard Simmons (not the exercise guru) and ran on CBS until 1958.

21489To celebrate the anniversary of our favorite Mountie (it was close, but he beat Dudley Do-Right by a mere handful of votes), Radio Spirits invites to check out our inventory of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon collections—many of which feature previously uncirculated episodes!  We offer Treacherous AdventuresOn, You Huskies!King Takes OverRelentless Pursuit, and Frozen Trails…and soon, a new Preston set in Return to Danger will be available (keep an eye out for it!).  Our Yuletide compendium Radio’s Christmas Celebrations also featured a holiday-themed outing of the series entitled “The Sergeant’s Present” (12-23-49).  There’s no greater outlet for radio adventure than a journey to the ice and snow of the Great Northwest with “stout-hearted man” Sergeant Preston and his heroic sled dog, Yukon King!

Happy Birthday, Irving Brecher!

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The only scriptwriter to receive sole credit on two of the Marx Brothers’ classic feature film comedies was Irving Brecher, born in the Bronx on this date in 1914.  An impressive achievement, to be sure…though it should be noted that those two romps—At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940)—rank toward the bottom of the Brothers’ oeuvre where dedicated Marxists are concerned.  That nitpicky criticism aside, Groucho Marx (as well as collaborator S.J. Perelman) thought most highly of Irving, once remarking that Brecher possessed a quick, spontaneous wit that was the equal of George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant.  It was while trying to create a radio program for Groucho that Irving would inadvertently bring to life one of the medium’s best-remembered and beloved sitcoms.

berleEven as a teenager, Irving Brecher was somehow destined to become one of the respected elders of comedy.  He was writing humor for his high school newspaper in Yonkers, while at the same time earning $6 a week as a reporter for The Yonkers Herald.  While toiling as an usher and errand boy in a Manhattan movie theatre, Irving supplemented his income by supplying jokes to columnists like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan.  When a reporter from Variety informed him that comedian Bob Hope was laying audiences in the aisles with some of his material, Brecher quickly learned that he could make a living at writing comedy.  He persuaded that same reporter to print an ad in Variety touting Brecher’s services with the observation: “Positively Berle-proof gags—so bad not even Milton will steal them.”

Irving’s brashness caught the comedian’s eye (Milton was certainly no slouch in the insolence department himself), and from that moment on Brecher was an employee of Berle Enterprises, supplying gags for Milton’s vaudeville act and scripting his first forays into radio.  (Irving also wrote—along with his later collaborator Alan Lipscott—a radio program for the comedy team of Willie and Eugene Howard.)  Milton Berle’s first major network program was CBS’ The Gillette Original Community Sing, a 45-minute broadcast on which Brecher was the sole writer.  (Even with the music on the program, Irving was having to write twenty-five minutes of comedy every week.)  Berle would later remark that Irving was the only man he knew “who wrote a radio program every week all by himself.”

newfacesMilton Berle would be Irving Brecher’s ticket to a career in movie screenwriting.  While churning out the Gillette program, Irving was pressed into assisting on the screenplay for New Faces of 1937, which not only featured his radio boss but other on-the-air favorites such as Joe Penner, Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein, Harriet Hilliard Nelson, Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon, and Patricia “Honey Chile” Wilder.  Brecher also contributed additional dialogue to Fools for Scandal (1938), a film co-directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  LeRoy was a fan of Irving’s work on Berle’s radio program, and hired him to punch up the material of Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr on The Wizard of Oz (1939).  This kicked off a long association with MGM; in addition to the screenplays for At the Circus and Go West, Brecher was responsible for Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Best Foot Forward (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944—which earned Irving an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay), and Yolanda and the Thief (1945).

grouchoAs an MGM employee, Brecher was contracted to work solely for the studio—this allowed him to keep his hand in radio by contributing comedian Frank Morgan’s material for MGM’s Good News radio program.  Any other radio work had to be done on the Q.T., so Irving did not receive credit for the brief time he worked on Al Jolson’s show for Old Gold cigarettes.  Brecher also dusted off a pilot he had written, The Flotsam Family, for his good friend Groucho to jumpstart Marx’s sagging radio career.  An audition record was produced, and while Groucho was undeniably funny, the concept of the series—the anarchic Groucho as the patriarch of a family—just didn’t click with either the audience or potential sponsors.  Then Irving happened to spot actor William Bendix in the film The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942).  Brecher was convinced that with Bendix in the lead role, The Flotsam Family could be a hit—and this prophecy came to pass when the new series, retitled The Life of Riley, premiered over the Blue Network for The American Meat Institute on January 16, 1944.

brecher2The Life of Riley became a huge success on radio, and it also paved the way for Irving Brecher’s brief directing career in movies.  A big screen version of the series was released by Universal in 1949 (which Brecher also produced and wrote), allowing Irving to also sit in the director’s chair on Somebody Loves Me (1952) and Sail a Crooked Ship (1961).  The success of the movie led to a TV version of the radio hit, but because star William Bendix was under contract to producer Hal Roach—and Roach vetoed Bill’s participation on the small screen, believing it to be just “a fad”—Brecher, who was producing the small screen version, had to go with an actor he was originally warned away from: Jackie Gleason.  The TV Life of Riley would only last one season (the show’s sponsor, Pabst, essentially wanted the time slot to schedule prizefights) despite winning an Emmy Award.  A later incarnation of the show enjoyed a bit more longevity, airing on NBC-TV from 1953 to 1958.

peoplesThe 1953-58 Life of Riley was produced without the participation of its creator (instead, Irving leased NBC the rights to the show) …but at that time, Irving Brecher was busy with another TV sitcom: The People’s Choice.  This series starred Jackie Cooper as a city councilman who was secretly married to the mayor’s daughter (played by Patricia Breslin).  Folks familiar with the show no doubt remember it for Cooper’s pet basset hound (Cleo), who frequently commented on the action with the voice of radio actress Mary Jane Croft.  Other Brecher projects included an episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a TV adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis, and the screenplays for the films Cry for Happy (1961) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963).  Birdie would be the funnyman’s show business swan song; Irving enjoyed a relaxing retirement as an elder statesman of comedy.  After his death in 2008, his remarkable life and career was the subject of a posthumously-released memoir, The Wicked Wit of the West.

21119Milton Berle once remarked of his former employee: “As a writer, Irving Brecher really has no equals.  Superiors, yes.”  (It’s possible that Brecher even wrote that gag himself.)  At Radio Spirits, we’re all too aware of the impact that today’s birthday boy made in radio comedy: we have two collections of his finest achievement, The Life of Riley, available in Magnificent Mug and Blue Collar Blues.  That memoir mentioned previously, The Wicked Wit of the West, is also available for purchase; written in collaboration with Hank Rosenfeld, it’s choc-a-bloc with great anecdotes on Irving’s incredible show business career (including a fishing trip with Groucho and how Brecher paid for Jackie Gleason’s teeth).  Happy birthday to Irving Brecher, the man who continues to show old-time radio fans just how revoltin’ a development can be.

Happy Birthday, Father Patrick Peyton!

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“The family that prays together stays together.”  It’s a sentiment that we’re all very much familiar with, even if the program that popularized that phrase—Family Theater—may not be as well-known.  Hosted by a rotation of big-name Hollywood stars (notably Loretta Young), the Mutual series was the brainchild of Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C.—born on this date in 1909.  Family Theater was an extension of the Family Rosary Crusade (Father Peyton himself is often referred to as “The Rosary Priest”), and its lengthy radio and television run was integral in the promotion of family prayer.

peyton14As for Peyton himself, he was a son of the auld soil; born Patrick Joseph Peyton in County Mayo, Ireland.  His early teenage years were marked by periods of rebellion and defiance of authority.  Although he eventually dropped out of school, his strong family ties and deeply religious nature eventually inspired him to seek out a vocation in the priesthood.  Before becoming a man of the cloth, young Patrick eagerly sought to earn a living to help his family, for his father John was ill and unable to work the family’s farm.  Several of Peyton’s elder sisters (Patrick was the sixth of nine children) were living in the U.S., sending money to the family, and in 1927 sent word that Patrick and his older brother Thomas should sail to America and join them in Scranton, PA.

Upon his arrival in the States in 1928, Patrick had difficulty finding work, but eventually settled for a job as a sexton (janitor) for St. Stanislaus Cathedral under Monsignor Paul Kelly.  His custodial duties at St. Stanislaus continued to stoke Peyton’s desire to enter the priesthood, and Monsignor Kelly highly approved…but pressed upon Patrick to finish his high school education.  When Father Pat Dolan of the Congregation of the Holy Cross paid the cathedral a visit in search of new seminarians, both Patrick and brother Thomas entered the priesthood in Norte Dame, IN (after getting their high school diplomas at a Holy Cross school).

peyton9Patrick pursued a B.A. in Philosophy within the University of Notre Dame’s Moreau Seminary beginning in 1932.  His career as a priest saw dark clouds on the horizon in 1938, when Peyton was diagnosed with tuberculosis—and he would later credit the attention and prayers from his sister Nellie and Father Cornelius Hagerty (his mentor at Notre Dame) with what was unquestionably a miracle: the patches on his right lung would heal to the utter bewilderment of his doctors.  Peyton completed his theology studies at Washington, DC’s Holy Cross College and received a special dispensation from the Vatican (stemming from his illness) in May of 1941, allowing him to be ordained as a priest.  He took his vows alongside his brother in June at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

peyton8As the Reverend Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., Peyton’s first assignment was as chaplain of the Holy Cross Brothers of the Vincentian Institute in Albany, NY.  His duties were relatively light (owing to WW2), but Father Patrick established himself as one of the leaders stressing the importance of strengthening families both before and after the war, often through the ritual of praying the Family Rosary.  Peyton would also become one of the first mass media evangelicals, chiefly through the radio anthology Family Theater, which premiered over Mutual on February 13, 1947.  Family Theater was a sustained series, yet Father Patrick could exercise enormous influence on the crème de la crème of Hollywood—James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Irene Dunne, Henry Fonda, etc.—to appear on the show as either announcers, narrators, or performers on the program.  Family Theater presented a good many religious-themed dramas (a total of 540 episodes during its ten-year-run), but occasionally dramatized classic tales such as Moby Dick and Don Quixote.

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While still airing on Mutual, Family Theatre would transition to the small screen in 1951 as a syndicated TV series (the boob tube incarnation swapped “Theater” with “Theatre”), expanded to a full hour, and was hosted by Father Peyton himself.  (The TV version would run for seven years, just a little longer than Family Theater’s radio run—which came to a close on September 11, 1957.)   Father Patrick continued his day job, hosting popular rosary rallies throughout Latin America.  These “Family Rosary Crusades” were not without controversy; Peyton was accused at the time of being a front for American intelligence during his many trips to Latin America, and it was later revealed that The Rosary Priest’s crusades were receiving generous funding from the Central Intelligence Agency.  The Vatican pressed upon Father Patrick in 1964 to sever those ties with the CIA, and his reputation eventually recovered.  Peyton would continue his good works with the church until his passing in 1992 at the age of 93, and after his death a petition was put forth (in 2001) to promote him as a candidate for sainthood.  (As of 2015, it was still undergoing the rigorous bureaucratic process known in the Catholic Church as The Positio.)

21406Though the Yuletide holidays have come and gone, Radio Spirits features broadcasts of Father Patrick Peyton’s signature radio series on two of our Christmas CD sets: the Family Theater broadcast of “Ruth” (12-23-53) is available on Christmas Radio Classics, and The Voices of Christmas Past spotlights “Crossroads of Christmas” (from 12-17-52).  A frequent guest on the program, Jack Benny, can be heard on Family Theater’s “The Golden Touch” (05-23-51) on the Benny collection Be Our Guest.  But for the fullest and finest representation of Family Theater, you need to purchase a copy of Every Home, an eight-CD set featuring stars and radio favorites like Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, Kirk Douglas, and Ethel Barrymore.  Happy birthday to the man who taught us that “A world at prayer is a world at peace.”

Happy Birthday, Dana Andrews!

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Author Carl Rollyson’s 2012 biography of actor Dana Andrews—born Carver Dana Andrews on this date in 1909—is titled Hollywood Enigma.  For many folks in the motion picture industry, including producers Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl F. Zanuck, Andrews was just that.  Rollyson notes that “his heroes seemed conflicted” and that “they were holding back something, as if they did not quite trust themselves in the heroic roles assigned to them.”  Dana’s diffident, almost minimalist style of acting has been dismissed by any number of movie critics as “wooden”—but anyone who’s ever sampled the man’s extensive film, television, and radio work knows that there was much more to Dana Andrews than meets the eye.

youngdanaIt’s a mystery as to how Dana Andrews ever aspired to an acting career in the first place.  He spent his early years in and around Texas (though his birthplace was a Mississippi town that humorously decided to call itself “Don’t”—as in Don’t, Miss.).  Andrews’ father, Charles Forrest Andrews, was a Baptist minister who organized campaigns not only against the wickedness in the motion picture industry…but the evils of alcohol as well.  (Ironically, Dana struggled with alcoholism for most of his adult life, which didn’t help his career as he became older.)  At the age of ten, young Dana began surreptitiously spending time at the movies.  (He wasn’t the only member of his family—which numbered thirteen children—to pursue acting…his younger brother is Steve Forrest.)  Dana attended Sam Houston State University and studied business administration; after graduation, he began working as an accountant for Gulf Oil.  However, he could not tamp down his acting ambitions and, against the wishes of his family, moved to California in 1931 to focus on his career.

bellestarrDana would become a member of the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse while working at a variety of odd jobs including bus driver, ditch digger, and gas station attendant.  (Andrews also studied opera—he had a fine singing voice—something to which his family might have been more amenable as a vocation.)  Spotted by a talent scout working for independent film producer Sam Goldwyn in 1938, Dana would make his movie debut in a Cisco Kid western for 20th Century-Fox in 1940 (Fox bought half his contract from Goldwyn), Lucky Cisco Kid.  While Fox used Andrews as a supporting player in films like Kit Carson (1940), Tobacco Road (1941), and Swamp Water (1941), producer Goldwyn availed himself of Dana’s talents in vehicles like The Westerner (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941).

oxbowOne of Dana Andrews’ most important early movie assignments was in Fox’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), an underrated Henry Fonda western in which Dana plays one of three men accused of cattle rustling…and a mob thirsting for vengeance decides to take the law into their own hands by lynching them for their crime.  Incident would lay the groundwork for the movie that made Andrews a star—the classic film noir Laura (1944), in which he plays a detective investigating the homicide of a famous model played by Gene Tierney.  Laura was the third movie to feature Dana and Gene (1941’s Belle Starr and the previously mentioned Tobacco Road were the first two); they would later team up for two additional motion pictures in The Iron Curtain (1948) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950—directed by Otto Preminger, who also helmed Laura).  Laura also established the actor’s noir bona fides; Dana would later appear in Fallen Angel (1945), Boomerang! (1947), Daisy Kenyon (1947), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

zerohourDana also had a plum acting role in The Best Years of Our Lives, the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1946, as a former Army bombardier struggling to re-adjust to civilian life after WW2.  There was something about Andrews that made him an ideal fit to portray military men in the movies; his lengthy resume includes Crash Dive (1943), The Purple Heart (1944), Wing and a Prayer (1944), and A Walk in the Sun (1945).  The actor played a lot of “fly-boys” in later movies as well, notably Zero Hour! (1957—the film that would later be satirized as Airplane!), The Crowded Sky (1960), and Airport 1975 (1974).  His movie fame also insured that Andrews would reprise many of these parts on radio in addition to original productions on various dramatic anthologies: The Cavalcade of America, Family Theatre, The General Electric Theatre, Hallmark Playhouse, Hollywood Sound Stage, Hollywood Star Playhouse, The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and Suspense.

danaradioDana Andrews’ major contribution to radio came about as many big-name motion picture stars were being lured to microphones in the late 1940s/early 1950s via the magnetic tape revolution; programs could be recorded in advance and not interfere with a movie actor’s busy shooting schedule.  Dana starred in a syndicated series for Ziv entitled I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., broadcast in 1952-53 over 78 episodes.  It was based on a best-selling book by Matt Cvetic, an Everyman who had managed to infiltrate his local chapter of the Communist Party and tattle on their activities to J. Edgar Hoover’s boys as an undercover agent.  (It was important for Cvetic to maintain the fiction that he was a Red…which I’m sure made Thanksgiving dinners with his family a treat.)  Communist had originally been adapted to the big screen in 1951 with radio veteran Frank Lovejoy as Cvetic; both the movie and radio series remain artifacts of the Cold War era, but at the time it was a major showcase for Dana’s radio skills (he would memorably close the program in the style of one of his film noir heroes: “I was a Communist…a Communist for the F.B.I…I walk alone…”).

demonDana Andrews continued to work in films in the 50s and 60s…though his movie roles weren’t quite as stellar as the fame he enjoyed in the early stages of his cinematic career.  He’d occasionally strike gold with vehicles like Night of the Demon (1957), a classic in the horror movie genre, and he appeared in eight films in 1965 alone, including In Harm’s Way, The Satan Bug, and The Loved One.  1965 was the year that Dana’s two-year stint as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild came to an end.  His film appearances became limited to mostly B-flicks like The Frozen Dead (1966) and Hot Rods to Hell (1967), so Andrews branched out to jobs on the small screen with guest appearances on TV favorites like Checkmate, The Twilight Zone, Ben Casey, and Family Affair.  From 1969 to 1971, Dana starred as Thomas Boswell, the president of fictional Bancroft College on the daytime drama Bright Promise.

tycoonAndrews won his battle with the bottle in 1970, and began a second career performing in dinner theatre alongside his wife, actress Mary Todd.  (The actor would appear in a televised public service announcement in 1972 on behalf of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.)  But he continued to work steadily on TV and in movies, guest starring in episodes of Night Gallery and Ironside, and making a memorable impression as a movie director (“Red Ridingwood”) in 1976’s The Last Tycoon.  Dana’s last appearance onscreen was in the 1984 film Prince Jack (a satirical drama about the JFK administration); he spent his remaining years at Los Alamitos, California’s John Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease before his passing in 1992 at the age of 83.

21124Dana Andrews’ signature radio series, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., is well represented here at Radio Spirits with two broadcasts (“The Party Got Rough” and “Tour of Duty”) on our potpourri collection of secret agents, Great Radio SpiesAfter these have whetted your appetite, we invite you to delve into more Cold War intrigue with Sleeper, a collection of sixteen episodes from the popular Communist series.  Happy birthday to the man once described by fellow film thespian Norman Lloyd as “one of nature’s noblemen”!

“There’s nothing like a quiet, pleasant dinner at home…”

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On this date in 1957, listeners who had not completely abandoned radio for television received a nice surprise when the Piper family—better known as The Couple Next Door—put down stakes in the neighborhood for a three-year run over CBS Radio.  Couple was a quarter-hour domestic sitcom—but it didn’t have to resort to gimmicks like opening a closet stuffed with various bric-a-brac.  It presented simple, amusing situations in the lives of a husband and wife, showcasing natural, realistic (and very funny) dialogue.  The show was created by a woman—Margaret “Peg” Lynch—and while female radio comedy writers weren’t exactly an endangered species in the medium, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that their number could be seated in a Volkswagen…with plenty of leg room.

lynch2Peg Lynch broke into radio almost immediately after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1937 (she majored in English, with an interest in writing and drama).  However, she had been a broadcasting veteran since the age of 15 when, while living in Rochester, she wrote copy and interviewed celebrities for Rochester’s KROC.  Her first big job in the broadcasting industry was at KATE in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where Peg scripted a daily half-hour woman’s show, a weekly farm news program, and a half-hour theater show.  It was at KATE that Lynch developed the idea for a comedy program featuring a married couple who answered to “Ethel and Albert”; she used the characters as “filler” during the segments on the daily woman’s show, in addition to local commercials that aired over the station.

widmarklynchSubsequent employment at stations in Charlottesville, VA and Cumberland, MD would also find Peg utilizing her comic creations, and in February of 1944 she was hired by ABC to work in New York and script a serial for her new employers.  Lynch suggested that Ethel and Albert be that serial, and while she wasn’t particularly enthused about signing over the rights to her characters to the fledgling network, Peg decided to give it a whirl.  (In addition, ABC asked her to play “Ethel” when auditions failed to yield a suitable actress for the role.)  The Private Lives of Ethel and Albert premiered over NBC Blue/ABC on May 29, 1944.  From that moment on Goodman and Jane Ace, Vic & Sade Gook, and other comic examples of domestic tranquility had new neighbors in their neck of the woods.  In the role of Albert Arbuckle, Ethel’s better half, was Richard Widmark—a radio veteran whose resume included appearances on Gang Busters and The Shadow.

lynchbunce2Widmark’s stint with the show lasted only six months.  He would go on to bigger things—including Broadway and a movie career that began with his unforgettable turn as a giggling psychopath in 1947’s Kiss of Death.  Peg Lynch tabbed actor Alan Bunce as Richard’s replacement, and the two of them displayed such a wonderful chemistry as husband and wife that listeners wouldn’t be blamed if they thought the couple were married in real-life.  Ethel and Albert (the show’s title was eventually shortened) continued a healthy run as a weekday quarter-hour (usually heard around 6:15pm), and was expanded to a half-hour on Monday nights at 8pm on January 16, 1949 before it was cancelled on August 28, 1950.

Despite its status as a modest radio hit, Ethel and Albert would make a successful transition to the small screen beginning as a fifteen-minute segment on Kate Smith’s TV show in 1952.  From April 25, 1953 to July 6, 1956, Lynch’s show would bounce around from NBC to CBS to ABC in various time slots. (Its run on CBS was as a summer replacement for the network’s hit sitcom December Bride.)  Yet Peg Lynch was never really happy with the Arbuckles’ television career.  In an interview with Gerald Nachman, author of Raised on Radio, she recalled: “I was not a stage person who was accustomed to performing in front of an audience, as comedians are.  And I always felt it spoiled my timing.  I would have to hold up for the laugh.”

lynchbunce1And that brings us to The Couple Next Door.  CBS asked Peg to resurrect Ethel and Albert…without using her famous characters, since Lynch had relinquished the rights some time back.  (She would eventually welcome “Ethel and Albert” back with open arms when she and Bunce reprised their roles in a series of television laundry detergent commercials…and in five-minute segments on NBC’s Monitor in 1963.)  The couple now answered to “Mr. and Mrs. Piper,” and though they never addressed each other by their first names (preferring to rely on “darling” and “sweetheart”) you somehow suspected that they really were Ethel and Albert, functioning in some bizarre radio witness protection program.

Author Nachman has praised Peg Lynch’s writing, noting that she never had to resort to “female stereotypes, insults, running gags, funny voices or goofy plots.”  The situations in the Piper household were frighteningly realistic (only slightly exaggerated—after all, The Couple Next Door was a comedy) and the dialogue so natural it was like you were eavesdropping on your neighbors from the house next door.  Also residing at Casa del Piper was crotchety Aunt Effie Sorenson, played to perfection by Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz).  In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Piper had a young daughter in Betsy (portrayed by Francie Myers) and an infant named Bobby (Madeleine Pearce).  (Pearce had performed the gurgling of Suzy, the infant Arbuckle daughter on the previous Ethel and Albert.)  Fans delighted in the Piper’s homespun escapades until November 25, 1960, when CBS cancelled the series (along with daytime drama stalwarts like Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent).

21374Radio Spirits will be rolling out a new collection of The Couple Next Door soon in Moving On, which will contain thirty-two consecutive broadcasts from 1958.  We urge you to keep an eye out for it, and in the meantime you can enjoy Peg Lynch’s fine comedy writing on The Couple Next Door (which contains the series’ premiere broadcast) and Merry Mix-Ups (I wrote the liner notes for this one!).  You’ll also find The Couple Next Door on our potpourri collection Great Radio Comedy, and some Yuletide Piper fun on Radio’s Christmas CelebrationsYou’re going to love The Couple Next Door—it’s the original “show about nothing” (take that, Seinfeld!).

Happy Birthday, Sydney Greenstreet!

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Despite appearances in only two dozen films in an eight-year time span, Sydney Hughes Greenstreet—born on this date in 1879—remains one of the motion picture industry’s best-remembered character actors.  Greenstreet was fortunate to make an indelible impression in so many movie classics:  Signor Ferrari, the owner of The Blue Parrot nightclub in 1942’s legendary Casablanca (Sydney has only to swat at a simple fly, and his character is immediately revealed to the viewing audience);  Jerome K. Arbutny, the shady shyster whose downfall is brought about by a sweepstakes ticket in Three Strangers (1946);  Evan Llewellyn Evans, the crass network sponsor (based on George Washington Hill, the real-life president of Jack Benny’s longtime sponsor the American Tobacco Company) who unforgettably hocks a loogie on a conference table in The Hucksters (1947); and perhaps most memorable of all—Kasper Gutman, the effetely corpulent villain in The Maltese Falcon (1941) …a role which served as the actor’s silver screen debut at the age of 62 (and garnered him his only Academy Award acting nomination).

sydney8Sydney Greenstreet was born in Sandwich, Kent, England to Ann Baker and John Jarvis Greenstreet, who made his living at various times as a tanner, a leather merchant, and a Merchant Marine.  As for Sydney—he had ambitions to be a tea planter, and at age eighteen he left home for Sri Lanka, where he had planned to make his fortune.  Unfortunately for the tea business—but lucky for us movie fans—a drought put a quick end to Greenstreet’s farming motivations, and he returned to England five years later to undertake a series of odd jobs, including managing a brewery.  To alleviate the boredom of the beer business, Sydney took up acting lessons under the tutelage of Ben Greet, the manager of an English Shakespearean company.

Greenstreet’s theatrical debut was in 1902, playing a murderer in a production of Sherlock Holmes.  He followed Greet to the U.S. two years later, and made his Broadway debut in Everyman.  Sydney appeared in a variety of productions, many of them Shakespearean plays like The Merchant of VeniceAs You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  (Legend has it that the actor not only landed roles in every play composed by The Bard of Avon, but had committed 12,000 lines of Shakespearean verse to memory.)  His success in the American theatre persuaded Greenstreet to make the U.S. his permanent home.  By the mid-1930s, Sydney found himself working alongside the legendary Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontaine in many of their Theatre Guild productions, including The Taming of the ShrewIdiot’s Delight, and The Seagull.

sydney11Sydney Greenstreet’s turn as Uncle Waldemar in a Theatre Guild presentation of There Shall Be No Night in 1940 attracted the attention of John Huston.  The director felt that Sydney was perfect for the dignified dandy that was Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, and cast the 300-pound actor despite Greenstreet’s never having appeared in a motion picture.  Sydney’s association with The Maltese Falcon would lead to two felicitous collaborations with Falcon’s star, Humphrey Bogart (as anti-hero Sam Spade), and supporting player Peter Lorre (who portrayed Joel Cairo, Gutman’s confederate).

Greenstreet, having signed a contract with Warner Brothers, would later appear with Bogie in Across the Pacific (1942), CasablancaPassage to Marseille (1944), and Conflict (1945).  Sydney’s onscreen partnership with Peter Lorre was even more prolific: in addition to FalconCasablanca, and Marseille, the two actors were teamed up for Background to Danger (1943), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), The Conspirators (1944),The Verdict (1946), and Three Strangers—plus a gag appearance in the all-star Warners’ production of Hollywood (1944).  At the risk of making an awful pun, Sydney was Warner Brothers’ “Merchant of Menace” …but to broaden his movie range, Greenstreet also appeared in lighter fare like Pillow to Post and Christmas in Connecticut (both 1945).  Sydney would continue to demonstrate his versatility by playing heroic parts (1948’s The Velvet Touch) and villains (1949’s Flamingo Road)…and yet never being afraid to poke fun at his screen image, as with his cameo in the Dennis Morgan-Jack Carson-Doris Day frolic It’s a Great Feeling (1949).

sydney5Sydney Greenstreet’s cinematic swan song was 1949’s Malaya, in which he co-starred with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.  For all intents and purposes, Greenstreet announced his retirement from acting in 1952…but this didn’t discourage him from seeking out new venues to demonstrate his thespian prowess.  One such setting was radio.  In his capacity as a motion picture actor, Sydney was frequently requested to reprise his silver screen triumphs over the airwaves on such dramatic anthologies as Academy Award TheatreThe Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, and The Lux Radio Theatre.  He also joked and sent up his movie persona alongside such radio funsters as Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll (Amos ‘n’ Andy), Bob Hope, and Alan Young.  Greenstreet’s radio resume includes appearances on The Andrews Sisters ShowCommand PerformanceG.I. JournalThe Radio Reader’s Digest, and Repeat Performance.

sydney16Beginning October 20, 1950, Sydney Greenstreet began making weekly appearances in radio listeners’ living rooms as the star of The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, NBC’s attempt to successfully bring author Rex Stout’s literary sleuth before a microphone.  It was the third try at Nero Wolfe series (there had been previous versions in 1943-44 and 1946), and Greenstreet seemed to be a perfect fit as “the detective genius who rates the knife and fork the greatest tools ever invented by man.”  (The Wolfe in the novels tipped the scales at 286 pounds—he was even heftier than Brad Runyon!)  But the NBC series was beset with problems: the network had difficulty obtaining a sponsor (Plymouth expressed a brief interest, then abandoned the show) and despite the presence of Sydney, the ratings for the series were abysmal.  Greenstreet was convinced that the dismal numbers were the fault of the actor emoting as Wolfe’s leg man Archie Goodwin…which is why there was high turnover in that role.  Wally Maher, Lawrence Dobkin, Herb Ellis, Gerald Mohr and Harry Bartell all took a shot at playing the part.  The show was given its pink slip on April 27, 1951, and it would be Sydney Greenstreet’s final acting gig before his death in 1954 at the age of 74.

19576Sydney Greenstreet is well represented here at Radio Spirits, with two collections of broadcasts from The New Adventures of Nero WolfeThe Case of the Midnight Ride and Other Tales and Parties for Death.  (Parties also includes an April 16, 1945 appearance by Sydney on The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre, reprising his role from the 1944 film The Mask of Dimitrios.)  As befitting an actor who started out on stage performing in musicals and comedies, Sydney had a laugh that would rattle the rafters…and he gets the opportunity to guffaw from the gut alongside Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy in a March 7, 1943 broadcast of their show that’s one of the many highlights on the recent Radio Spirits release Smile a While.  By gad, sir, he was a character.  There was never any telling what he’d say or do next, except that it was bound to be something astonishing.  Happy birthday to the wonderful Sydney Greenstreet!

Happy Birthday, Brace Beemer!

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On April 8, 1941, an actor named Earle Graser was killed in an automobile accident.  A tragic event to be sure, but what compounded this tragedy was that Graser had a devoted fan following as the voice of The Lone Ranger.  This popular radio western adventure series had been broadcasting from the WXYZ Detroit studios since January of 1933.  To ease into the transition of a new actor taking over as the Ranger, the show broadcast five episodes in which the character was so injured that he could barely speak above a whisper. (His faithful Indian companion Tonto found himself at the center of the show’s action during his friend’s convalescence.)  At the end of that story arc, The Lone Ranger then introduced the thespian who would portray “the daring and resourceful Masked Rider of the Plains” until the series’ cancellation on September 3, 1954.  That man was born in Mount Carmel, Illinois on this date in 1902—Brace Beemer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrace Beemer was the son of Bertina (Bell) and Joseph D. Beemer, and attended high school in Vincennes, Indiana (the birthplace of another radio great, Red Skelton).  Beemer didn’t concentrate on his studies for long, however; he made the decision to enlist at the age of 14.  Successfully misrepresenting his actual age, he served during World War I as the youngest sergeant in that conflict.  He was wounded in action in May of 1918 in France as a soldier with the 150th Field Artillery, Battery E.  This resulted in his being sent home and discharged once his true age was discovered.

In 1922, Brace entered radio with a job at an Indianapolis station.  A few years later, a sales manager from Detroit’s WXYZ heard Beemer reading poetry over that station, and hired him to work for WXYZ on the spot.  At “Wxyie Wonderland,” Brace did some announcing in his capacity as station manager…and at one time, could have taken over from George Stenius (future film director George Seaton) when that actor quit the role of the Ranger after a few months in 1933.  (Brace briefly left WXYZ to start his own advertising agency.)  Upon his return to the station, Beemer was pressed into service to portray The Lone Ranger in publicity appearances…since he physically looked the part, was an expert horse rider, and a crack shot.

beemer11Brace Beemer’s appearances as the Ranger in public and on radio made him a natural choice to replace Graser.  Beemer’s deep, mellifluous voice (and his real life riding and shooting prowess) eventually convinced the public that he was The Lone Ranger.  “Never cheat the public and never fake an act,” was the actor’s credo, as he attended rodeos, circuses, benefits, football games, etc. as radio’s most famous Masked Man.  He enjoyed friendship from celebrities as wide-ranging as Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover, and brightened the day of many hospitalized children, who unquestionably received a real treat when Brace showed up in full Ranger regalia.  (Truth be told, the reason why Beemer became so identified with the character is that he was contractually obligated to play that role—and only that role—until the program left the airwaves.)

beemer13The Lone Ranger transitioned to a television series that premiered over ABC-TV on September 15, 1949.  Despite all the public appearances he had made as the character, Brace Beemer was ultimately eliminated from consideration for the TV role because he had little experience in film.  (Beemer preferred live action to television, anyway.)  Clayton Moore, an experienced movie veteran, imitated Beemer’s “sound” as the small screen Ranger, playing the part (though the role was also briefly played by John Hart after Moore was let go due to a salary dispute) until the TV show was cancelled in 1957.  Brace’s tenure as the radio Ranger ended in September of 1954, and he moved on to portray another WXYZ hero in Sergeant William Preston on Challenge of the Yukon (Sergeant Preston of the Yukon), taking over for Paul Sutton.

Brace Beemer 2In retirement, Brace Beemer became a resident of Oxford Township, Michigan, where he lived on a 300-acre farm affectionately known as “Paint Creek Acres” with his wife Leta, raising thoroughbred horses and subdividing land as a contractor.  The equine who played “the great horse Silver” also made Paint Creek his home (and rumor has it that Silver was eventually buried on the property upon his death).  For a time before his death in 1965, Beemer had resurrected his famous role on a series of automobile commercials broadcast over several Michigan radio stations.  A Radiola Records release of The Lone Ranger in the 1970s featured the last recorded interview with the actor before he passed away while playing bridge on March 1, 1965.

20499“Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice!” enthused announcer Fred Foy during many a Lone Ranger broadcast, and you can “return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear” with any number of Radio Spirits collections spotlighting today’s birthday boy.  The Lone Ranger sets in our library include The Lone Ranger Rides Again, Masked Rider, Plains Thunder, and Six Gun Hero (I wrote the liner notes for this one!).  For dessert, why not try Generations—which explores the fascinating connection between the Old West crimefighter and his modern-day counterpart, The Green Hornet!  Happy birthday to a true radio legend in Brace Beemer!

“…I take this same train every week at this time…”

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Seventy-three years ago on this date, one of the Mutual Broadcasting System’s longest-lasting and most popular programs premiered in the form of The Mysterious Traveler.  It was created and written by the team of Robert Alan Arthur, Jr. and David Kogan—the duo became acquainted when Arthur encountered Kogan in a radio writing class.  Kogan had already established himself as a contributor to programs such as The Shadow and Bulldog Drummond, while radio novice Arthur had been working hard as a pulp magazine author on publications like Amazing Stories and Pocket Detective Magazine (a concept that Arthur sold to pulp giants Street & Smith, and on which he served as editor).

travelerThe Mysterious Traveler was a dramatic anthology, narrated by an enigmatic individual who unquestionably enjoyed train travel…for that’s where listeners could find him every week.  The Traveler spun tales of “the strange and the terrifying” in a fashion not dissimilar to Dark Destiny, a supernaturally-tinged series that Arthur and Kogan also created for Mutual and broadcast from 1942-43.  “I hope you will enjoy the trip,” The Traveler would intone in a menacing but good-natured way (over the sound of a distant locomotive), “that it will thrill you a little and chill you a little.  So settle back, get a good grip on your nerves, and be comfortable—if you can!”  The identity of The Traveler was shrouded in mystery…though a few sources have written that early broadcasts hinted he was “Dr. Smith,” once associated with the medical profession.

tarplinA few notable radio veterans auditioned for the titular role of The Mysterious Traveler—Lon Clark, Lawson Zerbe, Larry Haines, etc.  There was no doubt in the minds of Arthur & Kogan, however, that actor Maurice Tarplin was their man.  (Kogan later related in an interview: “Maurice was far and away the best.  We’d never worked with him before, but there was no comparison.”).  Tarplin was a busy performer who had appeared on a slew of daytime dramas and popular programs like The March of Time and Gang Busters; he would later be a regular as Inspector Farraday on Boston Blackie, another Mutual favorite.  Maurice also had the enviable ability to “double,” or play multiple characters in a single broadcast, which was no doubt appealing to a program that often had to keep a keen eye on its strict shoestring budget.

minerAssisting Tarplin in his weekly train travels was a repertory company of accomplished radio thespians that included Roger DeKoven, Elspeth Eric, Jan Miner, Joseph Julian, Santos Ortega, Bryna Raeburn, Ralph Bell, and Luis van Rooten; surviving broadcasts of the series reveal that future Academy Award winners Mercedes McCambridge and Art Carney also acted on the show.  Sherman “Jock” MacGregor was the show’s producer-director, overseeing the scripted plots of Kogan and Arthur, which ran the gamut from crime/mystery to fantasy/science-fiction.  The former stories tended to rely on a time-worn formula of jealous spouses driven to murder their respective better halves (love triangles were also a frequent plot device), so it’s no surprise that the fantasy and sci-fi episodes remain in the memories of listeners.  A good example is “Behind the Locked Door,” in which a pair of archaeologists finds themselves trapped in a dark cave due to a landslide…and discover to their horror that they’re sharing that space with the descendants of wagon train survivors, who have learned to adapt to their sightless world.  (It was broadcast on the series on multiple occasions.)

weirdThe success of The Mysterious Traveler led to two similar Mutual series.  One was The Strange Dr. Weird (broadcast from November 7, 1944 to May 15, 1945), which not only recycled previous Traveler scripts (shortened to a quarter-hour), but utilized the talents of Maurice Tarplin in the role of the titular host.  (Weird had something that Traveler didn’t, though: a sponsor in Adam Hats.)  Traveler scripts were also borrowed for The Sealed Book, a Mutual offering heard from March 18-September 9, 1945.  Philip Clarke was the host of Sealed (as “the Keeper of the Book”), relating “tales of every kind, tales of murder, tales of madness, of dark deeds and events strange beyond all belief.”  Traveler’s Jock MacGregor also held the director-producer reins on this program, which was re-broadcast as The Teller of Tales in 1950.  (Traveler later got a facelift when some broadcast outlets recycled the show as Adventure Into Fear.)

comicThe Mysterious Traveler even made in-roads beyond its weekly radio visits into the world of publishing, both in pulps and comic books.  A one-shot comic released by Trans-World in November of 1948 (as Mysterious Traveler Comics) led to thirteen issues (how appropriate!) of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler published by Charlton Comics between 1956 and 1959.   The series eventually returned to Robert A. Arthur’s pulp fiction roots beginning in November 1951; Grace Publishing introduced a digest-sized Traveler pulp that ran for five issues under the supervision of publisher David Kogan and containing stories from managing editor Arthur.

Kogan and Arthur would win their second Edgar Award (for excellence in radio mystery drama writing—their first was for their efforts on Mutual’s Murder by Experts) for The Mysterious Traveler in 1953…shortly after that the show ended on September 16, 1952.  (It would seem the team’s active participation in the Radio Writers’ Guild did not meet with the approval of the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], who leaned heavily on Mutual to cancel the show.)  Kogan decided to continue working in the world of publishing, while his former partner Arthur worked on such TV series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller.  Toward the end of the long run of Suspense, a good number of the duo’s Mysterious Traveler scripts were recycled for “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.”

21126Radio Spirits’ Great Radio Horror collection features two classic broadcasts from The Mysterious Traveler: “If You Believe” (12-29-46), and one of my personal favorites, “The Man the Insects Hated” (07-27-47).  (In my case, the insect animosity works both ways.)  But if you want pure, undiluted Traveler you need to check out Dark Destiny, a set that features twenty episodes from that series—and as a bonus, six installments of The Strange Dr. Weird!  So have your tickets ready when the conductor…oh…you have to get off here…I’m sorry…but I’m sure we’ll meet again…