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Happy Birthday, Dashiell Hammett!

“I’ve been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.”  So declared the man born Samuel Dashiell Hammett on this date in 1894, a confession he made to his daughter Josephine in a display of cynicism that would be most appropriate of his famous literary creation, shamus Sam Spade.  Hammett was selling himself short, however.  His career as a novelist and writer of short stories would also have a profound effect on movies and television…and for old-time radio fans, without a little “Dash” there would be no adventures with either the Thin Man or the Fat Man.

Born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, young Dashiell Hammett left school at the age of 13 and occupied himself with a series of menial jobs, including stints as a freight clerk, railroad laborer, and stevedore.  He became a detective with the famous Pinkerton Agency (“We never sleep”) in 1915, and would later capitalize on that employment by integrating his experiences into his hard-boiled detective fiction.  His on-again, off-again time spent with the agency lasted nearly a decade. He enlisted in the Army during World War I and became a sergeant in the Motor Ambulance Corp…and contracted tuberculosis during his hitch.  The condition would plague him for the remainder of his life, yet it was during his stay as a patient at Cushman Hospital in Tacoma, Washington that he was cared for by nurse Josephine Dolan.  The two of them would wed in 1921.

Most biographies of Hammett state that he left Pinkerton due to his tubercular condition (Dash surmised that it would be a handicap as a detective), but tend to gloss over the fact that the decision to depart was hastened by an incident that occurred in 1917—when labor organizer Frank H. Little was lynched in Butte, Montana for his union and anti-war activities.  Hammett was employed by Pinkerton as a strike breaker, and allegedly was offered $5,000 to “assassinate” Little (a claim the author made to his longtime companion Lillian Hellman).  Dash refused, but the episode would haunt him for the rest of his life; it is speculated that the Little murder influenced Hammett’s later political leanings…and it became the basis for the plot of Red Harvest, the author’s first novel in 1929.

After leaving the Pinkertons, Dashiell Hammett decided to try his hand at writing.  His first story, “The Parthian Shot,” appeared in the pages of The Smart Set in 1922…but his kind of writing, which would soon be described as “hard-boiled” detective fiction, seemed a little out-of-place in such a “society” publication.  “The Road Home,” his second effort, would find a home at the pulp magazine Black Mask, and his third contribution for the magazine (published in 1923), “Arson Plus,” introduced the gumshoe known as “The Continental Op” (the detective had no name, but worked for the Continental Detective Agency).  Hammett drew on his former experiences as a Pinkerton dick, basing many of the characters in his stories on people he knew and setting many of the tales against the backdrop of San Francisco, his base of operations during his time with the agency.  (In his early stories, Dash adopted “Peter Collinson” as his pen name before going with “Dashiell Hammett” for his byline.)

As previously noted, Dashiell Hammett’s debut novel, Red Harvest, hit bookstores in 1929 and was quickly followed with a second effort, The Dain Curse.  (Both novels are narrated by “The Continental Op,” and both had been previously published in Black Mask in serialized installments.)  Red Harvest was never officially adapted for the silver screen, but its plot would later be borrowed for the Akira Kurosawa-directed Yojimbo in 1961 (and by Sergio Leone when he used Yojimbo as a template for A Fistful of Dollars in 1964).  In addition, elements would later turn up in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990).  His third novel (also previously serialized in Black Mask in 1929) was the legendary The Maltese Falcon—which inspired three movie versions in 1931, 1936 (as Satan Met a Lady), and 1941.

Dashiell Hammett’s fourth novel, The Glass Key, would also receive the motion picture treatment with films released in 1935 and 1942.  By this point in his writing career, Hammett was looking for opportunities to write for the movies—his marriage to Josephine was deteriorating (doctors advised Jo and their two daughters to live in a separate residence from Dash due to his tuberculosis). To compensate, he began a romance with a 24-year-old aspiring playwright named Lillian Hellman that would last for the rest of his life.  (Though he and Hellman would eventually divorce their spouses, the two of them never married.)  The affair with Hellman would inspire his last published novel, The Thin Man—Hammett asserted that the tipsy society couple known as Nick and Nora Charles was based on Lillian and himself.  Published in 1934, the book would be adapted in motion picture form that same year by MGM, who would produce five additional movies featuring the Charleses (the last released in 1947).

Dashiell Hammett’s career as a professional writer eventually petered out with the publication of The Thin Man; he only wrote a few short stories after that, and his contribution to the comic strip Secret Agent X-9 (drawn by Alex Raymond) lasted only a year.  Hammett produced some work for the movies (he receives story credit for City Streets [1931] and Woman in the Dark [1934]), but he mostly served as a sounding board and editor for Hellman. (Some have even suggested that he was Lillian’s co-writer; he’s credited with the screenplay for Watch on the Rhine [1943], adapted from her stage play.)  Dash’s poor health played a large role in his inactivity at this point in his career, yet the success of the movies based on his creations (Sam Spade, Nick and Nora) helped him keep body and soul together.

Hammett’s characters would achieve much fame in the aural medium as well.  A program (produced by Inner Sanctum’s Himan Brown, who learned to his astonishment that no one had bothered to snap up the radio rights to Nick and Nora) entitled The Adventures of the Thin Man premiered in July of 1941 and would be heard on NBC, CBS, and ABC until September of 1950.  Suspense producer William Spier introduced tales of “the greatest private detective of them all” with The Adventures of Sam Spade in July of 1946, a popular crime drama that aired until 1951.  Completing the Hammett hat trick was The Fat Man, a series whose protagonist some have speculated was based on “The Continental Op”; that popular show was heard on ABC from 1946 to 1951.  Hammett’s participation in these programs continues to be a subject of debate among scholars today, but I’ve always speculated that it was minimal at best.  “My sole duty in regard to these programs is to look in the mail for a check once a week,” he declared in 1949.  “I don’t even listen to them.  If I did, I’d complain about how they were being handled, and then I’d fall into the trap of being asked to come down and help.”

Dashiell Hammett was passionately committed to leftist political causes…and that spelled trouble after WW2, when the U.S. started looking for new villains after defeating the Nazis.  Dash was an ardent supporter of New York’s Civil Rights Congress, and when four of that organization’s members jumped bail in 1951 rather than surrender to federal agents (they had been convicted under the Smith Act “for criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence”) Dash was summoned to appear before the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to testify as to the whereabouts of the fugitives.  Echoing the same moral code as many of the characters in his works, Hammett refused to divulge any information and was found in contempt of court (he served his six-month sentence in a West Virginia penitentiary, cleaning toilets).  Hammett would also run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee (he had joined the Communist Party in 1937) and the IRS also decided to stick a shiv in, coming after him for $100,000 in back taxes and garnishing any future earnings.  His alcoholism and tuberculosis continued to worsen, and he was forced into seclusion at a cottage in Katonah, NY where he suffered a heart attack in 1955…and then passed away six years later.

Dashiell Hammett’s contemporary Raymond Chandler—the creator of Philip Marlowe—remarked in his seminal essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse…he put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”  There’s a reason why Hammett is considered “the dean” of hard-boiled detective fiction, and that bad influence referenced in the first paragraph of this post was certainly evident in Radio’s Golden Age.  Skeptical?  Well, Radio Spirits invites you to check out Smithsonian Legendary Performers: Dashiell Hammett—a six-CD collection featuring radio adaptations of such famous Hammett works as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key (from the likes of The Lux Radio Theatre and The Screen Guild Players) and episodes of The Fat ManThe Adventures of the Thin Man, and The Adventures of Sam Spade.  (You’ll find additional “capers” from Mr. Spade on our collection Lawless as well.)  Our birthday celebrant also rates a mention in The Best of Blood ‘n’ Thunder, Volume 2, a book that compiles articles from the publications dedicated to pulp fiction and edited by my good friend Ed Hulse—a perfect gift for fans of adventure and mystery!


Happy Birthday, Ben Alexander!

With the death of Barton Yarborough in December of 1951, Jack Webb was anxious to find a replacement for the actor who had portrayed Ben Romero to his Joe Friday on the radio and television versions of his hit police procedural Dragnet.  Webb relied on several actors in the interim, including Barney Philips and Herb Ellis, before spotting the man born Nicholas Benton Alexander III on this date in 1911. Alexander was hosting a local TV game show, Watch and Win, and Webb’s people told him to forget about getting him for Dragnet.  Ben was, for all intents and purposes, retired from show business (having invested well in businesses like gas stations and automobile dealerships). He only emceed Watch as a lark (he owned the show).  When word got to Webb that Alexander was interested in doing an episode of Dragnet (Ben had mentioned it to his friend Cliff Arquette), Jack persuaded him to take on the role of Joe Friday’s new partner, Frank Smith, for four outings…but Alexander went the distance until the TV show ended in 1959.

Ben Alexander called Goldfield, Nevada his birthplace—his parents originally hailed from Tennessee, so how they wound up in Nevada is anybody’s guess.  But the Alexander family didn’t linger long in the Silver State; they relocated to Los Angeles when Ben was three years old, ostensibly to get the youngster into motion pictures.  They didn’t have to wait long: five-year-old “Bennie Alexander” got a job playing “Cupid” in the 1916 film Each Pearl a Tear, and after that enjoyed a prosperous career as a child thespian with movie appearances in the likes of The Little American (1917), Hearts of the World (1918), and Little Orphan Annie (1918).  (This last entry on Ben’s resume, one of silent film star Colleen Moore’s surviving movie showcases, recently underwent a restoration to Blu-ray/DVD through a Kickstarter campaign.)

Ben’s movie career continued throughout the 1920s—he starred in a version of Penrod and Sam (1923), playing Booth Tarkington’s famous creation of Penrod Schofield—allowing him to transition into both mature roles and the talkies.  His best-known movie from this period is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in which he plays Kemmerich, the amputation victim — but he also did fine work in vehicles like High Pressure (1932), The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), This Day and Age (1933), and Stage Mother (1933).  Alexander continued to make sporadic appearances in motion pictures (a lot of B-pictures and second features) and by this time he started to turn his attention to radio, where he found steady work as an announcer.  In fact, his work in the aural medium encouraged him to return to Stanford University (his second go-round—the first time he dropped out because he couldn’t afford the tuition) to study business administration…and then he learned an individual could make more money acting and/or announcing.  (The business classes he took at Stanford, however, were a boon to Ben later in life when he achieved great success outside the acting field.)

On radio, Ben Alexander was in huge demand as an announcer and emcee; one of his earliest gigs was on a variety show called Little Ol’ Hollywood, which was heard over the Blue Network from 1939 to 1942.  (The inaugural broadcast of this series has survived, and Ben is introduced as “Hollywood’s oldest young actor.”)  He also announced a few times on Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, and from 1941 to 1942 worked on The New Old Gold Show alongside Herbert Marshall, Bert Wheeler (with his new partner Hank Ladd), and Lucille Ball.  Alexander stood before the microphone on the wartime series Eyes Aloft and the comedy serial Point Sublime, and in later years worked on Red Ryder and Favorite Story.  From 1939 to 1940 he played “Philip West” on the nighttime serial Brenthouse, and performed with future Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge as “Junior Sheldon,” boyfriend of the titular heroine in the short-lived This is Judy Jones in 1941.

Before his role on Dragnet, Ben’s best-known radio showcase was portraying “Bashful” Ben Waterford on The Great Gildersleeve—Ben being one of Marjorie Forrester’s many suitors before she became Mrs. Bronco Thompson.  Alexander’s work on Gildersleeve paved the way for later gigs with Fanny Brice (he was a “utility man” on The Baby Snooks Show) and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis (as their announcer in 1949), not to mention hosting several “audience participation” programs (Lady Be Beautiful, It’s a Living)—the best-known being a Queen for a Day-knockoff called Heart’s Desire from 1946 to 1948.  Rounding out Ben’s radio resume are gigs with I Love a Mystery, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, and Free World Theatre.  Ben can also be heard on surviving broadcasts of Mail Call; during World War II the actor-announcer served as a naval lieutenant aboard an aircraft with the radar division…later, he provided work for his old war buddies managing his various gas stations.

Ben Alexander eventually tackled behind-the-scenes work in radio and TV as an account executive with Foote, Cone & Belding…though the performer in him couldn’t resist a stint hosting Party Time at Club Roma (a 1950-51 TV show that was part Truth or Consequences-type stunt show and part talent contest).  Ben really didn’t need the TV work; his shrewd investments (including a hotel and a brewery) paid the bills, but it almost seems as if his Officer Frank Smith role was destiny.  He took an aptitude test before enrolling at Stanford, and the results revealed that Alexander “should become a pilot or a policeman.”  (The actor often noted in interviews that he was hired for Dragnet because “I looked like a cop.”)  There had been occasional light or comic relief moments on the series during the Barton Yarborough years…but Ben Alexander upped the ante with his humorous portrayal of Frank Smith, whether he was fretting about his wife Fay or expressing concern about his health. (Frank was a bit of a hypochondriac.)  A running gag on the program often had Smith excitedly describing a new food recipe that he had tried at home, much to his partner’s bemusement.

Many of the qualities that were established with the Frank Smith character would later be transferred to Bill Gannon, the partner played by Harry Morgan when Dragnet was revived on NBC-TV from 1967 to 1970.  Ben Alexander would have reprised the role of Frank when Jack Webb started the Dragnet revival…but he had already committed to another series that had premiered over ABC in the fall of 1966, a half-hour crime drama called The Felony Squad.  Co-starring with radio veteran Howard Duff and newcomer Dennis Cole, Alexander played desk sergeant Dan Briggs in this entertaining series that ran three seasons (Cole was Briggs’ son Jim).  It was Alexander’s last television credit; he suffered a coronary occlusion at his L.A. home and passed away at the age of 58.

About the time that getTV was rerunning The Felony Squad for a short period, a friend of mine noted that Ben Alexander had a cameo in an episode of Batman as a police detective (it’s not indicated as to whether he’s playing his Dan Briggs character—but I’d like to think he was).  Until someone decides to release Felony Squad to DVD, Alexander fans will have to settle for his iconic role as Frank Smith on Dragnet—and fortunately for you, Radio Spirits has two outstanding collections featuring Ben’s work on Big Crime and The Big Gamble.  But be sure to check out our birthday celebrant’s flair for comedy on The Great Gildersleeve set Neighbors and his dramatic turn on our Dark Venture collection, too!


Happy Birthday, Bing Crosby!

At one time in the 1940s, the man born Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby, Jr. in Tacoma, Washington on this date in 1903 was the top-selling recording star…the number-one box office attraction…and the most popular performer on radio (headliner of The Kraft Music Hall).  Author Gerald Nachman observed in his book on Radio’s Golden Age, Raised on Radio: “Pop singing can be divided roughly into ‘AC’ and ‘BC.’  Before Crosby, singers sang at you; after Crosby and radio, they sang to you.”  The Yuletide standard White Christmas remains the best-selling single of all time (a tune Crosby introduced in the movie classic Holiday Inn), and after dedicating years to moviemaking, Bing received a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a happy-go-lucky priest in the Academy Award winner for Best Picture that year, Going My Way (1944).

Acres of old growth forests have been cut down to produce paper for the number of books written about “The Old Groaner”—so it seems only fitting that I concentrate mostly on Bing’s accomplishments in the aural medium, what with this being Radio Spirits and all.  It begins, of course, with Crosby’s childhood interest in music—purportedly it was a summer job as a prop boy at Spokane’s “Auditorium” that stoked his yearning for a musical career; he once watched a performance of Al Jolson and later described the experience as “electric.”  Young Harry attended and graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1920 and moved on to enrollment at Gonzaga University, where he attended the halls of ivy for three years.  Crosby never graduated from Gonzaga (however, his brother Bob did), but he remains that school’s most famous alumnus; he received an honorary doctorate in 1937, and the house in which Bing was born now sits on the school campus (where, fittingly enough, it once housed the Alumni Association).

Bing quit college to form a band with three other individuals from his high school, and they called themselves The Musicaladers (with Crosby on “skins”).  The musical aggregation broke up after two years, and Crosby and ex-Musicalader Al Rinker—working at the Clemmer Theatre in Spokane—formed a band known as The Three Harmony Aces, which later became The Clemmer Trio (also known as The Clemmer Entertainers, depending on who was in the group at the time).  Bing and Al (the brother of singer Mildred Bailey) then decided to try their luck in California, and (through Mildred’s contacts) became members of The Syncopation Revue.  Their experience with that group landed them work with the Will Morrissey Hall Revue, and then they got the break of a lifetime when they were hired by bandleader Paul Whiteman to perform in-between his numbers.  Crosby and Rinker, with the hiring of a third musician, Harry Barris, became The Rhythm Boys—and the trio worked for Whiteman until 1929, when they then joined Gus Arnheim’s orchestra.  Gradually, Bing broke away from the Boys (though Barris would later write some of Der Bingle’s biggest hits, like I Surrender Dear and Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams) to go solo, spurred on by a recording contract with Columbia Records and an offer to make comedy shorts for filmdom’s Mack Sennett.

September 2, 1931 marked the debut of Bing Crosby on radio, on a weekly quarter-hour for Cremo cigars over CBS.  His work in the Sennett-produced shorts (Sing, Bing, Sing, Blue of the Night) soon convinced Paramount to move him into feature films (though Crosby had previously appeared in such movies as King of Jazz [1930] and Reaching for the Moon [1931]) and throughout the 1930s the popular crooner acted in such vehicles as College Humor (1933), We’re Not Dressing (1934), She Loves Me Not (1934), Mississippi (1935), and Rhythm on the Range (1936).  His CBS radio show expanded to a half-hour in the fall of 1933 (sponsored by Woodbury Soap), and in December of 1935 the singer took over for Al Jolson on NBC’s Kraft Music HallMusic Hall would be the home of Crosby’s crooning and comedy for nearly a decade; audiences loved Bing’s laid-back approach to music/radio and how the program, in the words of writer Carroll Carroll, “treated baseball as if it were opera and opera as if it were baseball.”

On the Kraft Music Hall, Crosby featured performers who became big names like Bob Burns (who would later get his own solo series in 1941), Mary Martin (an already established Broadway performer who took a leave of absence in 1942 to be on the show), Victor Borge, Connee Boswell, Jerry Lester, George Murphy, and Peggy Lee.  John Scott Trotter got established on Music Hall as Bing’s conductor, and two members from Trotter’s band (Jerry Colonna and Spike Jones) also hit it big.  When Ken Carpenter was brought aboard, he became Crosby’s longtime announcer.  While working to promote Kraft products, Crosby enjoyed incredible success on the pop music charts and in the movies, with hits like Rhythm on the River (1940), Birth of the Blues (1941), and Dixie (1943).  It was around this time that Bing Crosby started his fruitful association with comedian Bob Hope in the entertaining “Road” series that began with Road to Singapore (1940) and continued with six successful follow-ups.  Crosby and Hope engaged in a mock “feud” similar to Jack Benny and Fred Allen’s, and when one performer appeared on the other’s program—comedic chaos wasn’t far behind.

It was his role as “Father Chuck O’Malley” in the comedy-drama Going My Way (1944) that garnered Bing Crosby his solo Oscar trophy and the approval of his peers.  Bing reprised the O’Malley role in a follow-up film, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), which netted him a second Academy Award nomination and the actor-singer received his third and final Oscar nod for portraying an alcoholic has-been actor in 1954’s The Country Girl.  While his film career was going great guns, things were not particularly rosy in the ol’ Music Hall; strained relations between Bing, the sponsor, and NBC led the crooner to jump ship to fledgling ABC and a series entitled Philco Radio Time.  The big beef between Bing and the boys (dig that Crosby-like alliteration!) was that Crosby had wanted to take advantage of the strides made in recording to start transcribing his programs in lieu of live broadcasts, allowing him to take advantage of when he was in great voice and stockpiling shows so that he could devote time to his passions of golf and horse racing.  (The fact that Bing had invested heavily in Ampex, the firm that developed magnetic recording tape, might have had something to do with Crosby’s decision, too.)

Philco Radio Time provided ABC Radio with a much-needed hit (and Crosby’s victory in the transcription war later inspired radio performers like Hope and Jack Benny to follow suit), but in 1949 Bing was back on CBS (those darn talent raids!) with The Bing Crosby Show—where he stayed until 1954 broadcasting for Chesterfield and General Electric.  (Bing’s last radio effort was a five-day-a-week quarter hour heard over CBS from November of 1954 to December of 1956.)  The singer’s movies remained popular: Here Comes the Groom (1951), Just For You (1952), White Christmas (1954—a remake of Holiday Inn), High Society (1956), and Say One for Me (1959) are just a few of the more familiar titles.  Like his “feuding” partner Bob Hope, Crosby nixed the idea of doing a weekly TV series in lieu of highly-rated boob tube specials and guest appearances on the programs of those people who did decide to tackle the small screen grind.

By the 1960s, despite appearances in films like Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) and Stagecoach (1966), Bing Crosby realized that his time in motion pictures was just about up—he remarked when he and Bob Hope were completing their final “Road” trip, The Road to Hong Kong (1962): “Filming is kind of difficult for someone at my time of life.  I’m too old to get the girl and not old enough to be her granddad.”  Instead, the popular crooner decided to try his hand with a TV sitcom in the fall of 1964 entitled The Bing Crosby Show, in which he played a retired singer who had taken up teaching electrical engineering at a community college.  The show only lasted a season; Crosby had better luck behind the camera with his own Bing Crosby Productions which produced such TV hits as Ben Casey and Hogan’s Heroes.

Bing Crosby’s last feature film appearance was a brief bit in the 1974 all-star MGM extravaganza That’s Entertainment!  He continued to do TV specials at that time, with a December 1977 outing, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, acting as his small screen swan song (this is the one where he duets with David Bowie on Peace On Earth/The Little Drummer Boy).  1977 marked the year of his death at the age of 74; he was playing a round of golf on a course in Madrid and after the game collapsed from a massive heart attack twenty yards from the clubhouse.  It would be no small exaggeration to note that we lost one of the major entertainers in show business on that day.

Radio Spirits features our birthday boy’s Philco Radio Time series as one of several broadcasts in our potpourri collection Comedy Goes West (a January 7, 1948 show with guests Walter O’Keefe and Brace Beemer [a.k.a. The Lone Ranger!]), and you can also listen to Der Bingle on Jack Benny & Friends (a classic February 15, 1953 show highlighting “The Life of Bing Crosby”).  For the pop music side of The Old Groaner, check out the CD sets George Gershwin Collection (They All Laughed and Mine [with Judy Garland]), You Make Me Feel So Young (How Deep is the Ocean, Moonlight Becomes You, Too Marvelous for Words, You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me), Great American Songbook: The Crooners (Just One More Chance, Out of Nowhere, Day by Day [with Mel Torme]), With a Song in My Heart: Hooray for Hollywood (Blue Skies, Swinging on a Star, The Road to Morocco [with Bob Hope]), and Swing Something Simple (When You and I Were Young, Maggie, Deep in the Heart of Texas, and two duets with his son Gary—Play a Simple Melody and Down by the Riverside).  The singer we often associate with the holidays sings his classic White Christmas on the CD collections The Very Best of Christmas, Christmas Crooners, and Wonderful Christmas: 75 Essential Christmas Classics…and performs other Yuletide favorites on 15 Christmas Favorites, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Do You Hear What I Hear? (my favorite Crosby Christmas carol).  In addition, Bing can be spotted in our DVD collections Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops, Stars in Their Shorts, and Best of Andy Williams.  As the ice cream on the birthday cake, we invite you to drink deeply of Bing Crosby—a massive 3-CD set with Crosby solos and hit duets featuring the likes of Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters and so many more!


“…and that’s with a U.S. Marshal and the smell of…Gunsmoke!”

“If I had known it would last this long, I would never have created the darn thing.”  So observed John Meston, the writer who—along with director-producer Norman Macdonnell—can claim responsibility for breathing life into the Western series that premiered over CBS Radio on this date sixty-five years ago: Gunsmoke.  There’s no getting around it: Gunsmoke is the dean of TV westerns (it continues to be rerun in perpetuity, particularly as a lynch pin of the programming on TVLand and MeTV), but there are still a few out there who are unaware that the origins of the long-running series can be traced back to radio, where the inhabitants of Dodge City took up residence in “the theater of the mind.”

William S. Paley, the chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System, was quite the fan of a detective series that aired on the network, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe.  He suggested to CBS’ Hubbell Robinson (a network executive in charge of programming in New York) that a program be developed along the lines of “Philip Marlowe in the early West,” and the suggestion was passed along to Harry Ackerman—vice president in charge of West Coast programming.  It was Ackerman who came up with the show’s eventual title (though the story details do vary depending on the telling); Ackerman later recalled: “It just popped into my head one day.”  A Gunsmoke audition record was soon recorded (on June 11, 1949) using a Morton Fine-David Friedkin script (Rye Billsbury voiced the hero in “Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye”), and another audition using the same script took place on July 15 with Howard Culver in the Dillon role.  Culver appeared to have the inside track in the Dillon sweepstakes, but there was a teensy little snag: Howie was already the titular voice of Straight Arrow on the Mutual network, and contractually he was not allowed to do a competing Western series.

As Ackerman and his creative team worked to get the Gunsmoke concept off the ground, another duo was hard at work on an idea for an “adult Western”:  Norman Macdonnell (director-producer of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe) and network story editor John Meston.  Born in Pueblo, CO, Meston had a lifelong obsession with the history of “the Old West,” and wanted very much to tackle a series that would present that time period in a more accurate light than the usual “white-hat-hero” kiddie fare that was usually associated with radio westerns.  So he wrote a script titled “Pagosa” for another Macdonnell series, Romance, featuring a protagonist who had taken the job of sheriff in a small town.  Meston and Macdonnell approached Ackerman about turning “Pagosa” into a regular series, which would be named after the sheriff’s character: Jeff Spain.  That’s when the two men learned of the efforts to develop Gunsmoke, and that any series proposal would continue under that name (Ackerman thought “Jeff Spain” a name more befitting a villain).

CBS’ cancellation of an espionage series produced by William N. Robson, Operation Underground, cut down the tall grass and allowed Gunsmoke to get on the air—though Macdonnell and Meston had just one week to whip it in shape.  Norm hired writer Walter Brown Newman to pen the premiere episode (giving him a recording of “Pagosa” to give him an idea of how the two men conceived of the show), and asked composer Rex Khoury to create the series’ theme.  (Khoury’s now iconic “The Old Trail” was written on the very morning of the deadline!)  The creative team also had to locate an actor to portray Matt Dillon (Meston insisted the name be changed, because he felt “Mark” was too modern), and they lobbied hard for the thespian who had portrayed the heroic sheriff on “Pagosa”: William Conrad.  CBS was a little reticent about hiring Conrad (they felt he was “overexposed,” and wanted an actor who “sounded like Orson Welles”), but it eventually became clear that Bill was the only man for the job.

The rest of the Gunsmoke cast quickly fell into place.  Though it was believed in the early stages of the show’s creation that the only recurring character would be Dillon, Norm and John soon realized that Matt would need other people around with which to interact.  An individual identified in the first script as “Townsman” would eventually morph into “Chester Wesley Proudfoot,” Dillon’s loyal deputy, who was beautifully portrayed by Parley Baer.  The town medico, who displayed a disturbing glee at the thought of the fees he’d collect as Dodge City’s unofficial coroner, was played by Howard McNear.  The fourth member of the Gunsmoke quartet took a little longer to develop, but actress Georgia Ellis would receive featured billing among her male cast mates in the role of saloon girl “Kitty Russell.”

From its premiere on April 26, 1952, Gunsmoke was a stand-out in the aural medium.  There are a number of factors involved in explaining why this is so, beginning with the first-rate scripts penned by John Meston.  The broadcasts emphasized the raw, uncompromising nature of the Old West, as experienced by characters who spoke sparingly yet eloquently.  The show took on complex topics that were not often featured in similar shows of that time, with nuanced portrayals of Native Americans, women, and minorities (notably Asian Americans).  Though it sometimes seemed as if Meston wrote every Gunsmoke script, he would soon be joined by a “guild” of talented scribes that included Les Crutchfield, John Dunkel, Kathleen Hite, Marian Clark, and Antony Ellis.

To breathe life into those scripted characters, director-producer Macdonnell made use of a “stock company” that he knew and trusted from other shows under his supervision.  Those performers include (but are certainly not limited to) John Dehner, Vic Perrin, Lawrence Dobkin, Sam Edwards, Jeanette Nolan, Virginia Gregg…and so many others.  Like Dragnet, Gunsmoke established a superiority in the area of “sound patterns” (sound effects), which were the bailiwick of three artists—Bill James, Tom Hanley, and Ray Kemper.  Their “patterns” added a necessary touch of realism to each broadcast, whether it be the squeak of saddle leather as Matt Dillon rode out on the prairie or the creak of wooden boards as the Dodge City marshal strolled through town on patrol.

A sustained series in its early years on radio, Gunsmoke’s popularity would eventually make sponsors sit up and take notice—at first, the show’s commercials inappropriately sang the praises of Post Cereals (Sugar Crinkles and Post Toasties). Eventually the series’ longtime sponsor, Chesterfield/L&M, started to pick up the tab.  The radio version of Gunsmoke would run until June 18, 1961; by that time, the show had successfully transitioned to the small screen (it was the top-rated TV program from 1957-61) and would continue to be a solid hit for CBS until its final original episode was telecast on March 31, 1975.

From the time I listened to my very first broadcast while attending Marshall University in 1982-83, Gunsmoke has been my all-time favorite radio drama series.  That’s why I was very excited to contribute the liner notes to Radio Spirits’ upcoming Gunsmoke: Around Dodge City collection, and I urge you to keep an eye out for that soon.  While you’re waiting, Radio Spirits invites you to check out Killers and Spoilers, an excellent set of vintage episodes from 1954…and Too Hot for Radio features an uproarious Gunsmoke rehearsal for “The New Hotel” (the series’ rehearsals were lovingly referred to by its actors as “Dirty Saturdays”).  Our Romance collection features an item of interest for Gunsmoke devotees: the August 6, 1951 broadcast of “Pagosa,” which served as one of the many “pilots” for the show we know and love.  (Love, that is.)

“From the far horizons of the unknown…”

NBC Radio’s dramatic anthology Dimension X—which was inspired by a renewed interest in science-fiction following the release of Universal-International’s Destination Moon in 1950—was the most successful of the sci-fi radio dramas. (Others that premiered that same year include Mutual’s Two-Thousand Plus and CBS’ Beyond Tomorrow.) Its run on the airwaves was nevertheless brief, and the program bowed out on September 29, 1951.  Sixty-two years ago on this date, the National Broadcasting Company got a second bite of the apple when X-Minus One debuted, featuring its now-legendary signature opening: a rocket ship countdown leading to a “blast off” amid a chorus of voices blending in with the rocket roar.

“From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions of time and space,” enthused announcer Fred Collins at the beginning of each broadcast.  “These are stories of the future, adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand maybe worlds.  The National Broadcasting Company, in cooperation with Street and Smith—publishers of Astounding Science Fiction magazine—present… (Echo chamber effect) X (X…X…X…) Minus (Minus…minus…minus…) One (One…one…one…)…”  The show’s association with Street and Smith was an important one.  The earlier Dimension X took its stories from publications like Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy, which were homes for legendary writers of the genre (including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein).  As Dimension X’s producer, Van Woodward, explained: “We went the ‘adaptation route’ simply because that’s where the best stories are.”

The first fifteen broadcasts of X-Minus One—including the Ray Bradbury tales “Mars is Heaven” (05-08-55) and “The Veldt” (08-04-55)—were adapted from those originally heard on Dimension X.  Bradbury was a rich source of inspiration for X-1 dramas, with first-rate versions of classics like “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “Marionettes, Inc.,” and “Zero Hour” tackled before the show’s microphones.  “Nightfall,” “C-Chute,” and “Hostess” were adapted from stories penned by Isaac Asimov, while Robert Heinlein contributions included “Universe,” “The Green Hills of Earth,” and “Requiem.”  (One of my favorite X-1 broadcasts is “The Roads Must Roll,” a Heinlein concoction in which the highway traffic of the future has become so congested that engineers have devised roads that move—similar to the automated walkways you find at airports.)

Other authors whose names will be familiar to science-fiction devotees also had their stories adapted on X-Minus One, including Robert Bloch (“Almost Human”), Philip K. Dick (“The Defenders,” “Colony”), Fritz Leiber (“A Pail of Air”), and Theodore Sturgeon (“Saucer of Loneliness,” “The Stars are the Styx”).  The most important creative minds on that program, however, were NBC staff writers George Lefferts and Ernest Kinoy, who were responsible for the adaptation of these authors’ tales.  The duo also contributed their own originals, notably Kinoy’s “The Martian Death March”—a fascinating allegory that mirrored the plight of Native Americans on reservations.

Every X-Minus One fan has their preferred episodes.  Mine include “The Lifeboat Mutiny,” Robert Sheckley’s darkly humorous story of a HAL-like computer on a spaceship that’s programmed to protect its inhabitants…at any cost. (I also love Sheckley’s “Skulking Permit” (in which the government of a planet that has no concept of criminal behavior issues a license for two of its inhabitants to commit mayhem so as not to discourage corporate investors), and Tom Goodwin’s “Cold Equation” (the memorably chilling tale of a woman who stows away on her husband’s spaceship…oblivious to the fact that her extra weight could jeopardize the mission.  But my all-time favorite remains Fredrik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” in which a man wakes up screaming day after day after day—the same day, in fact (shades of Groundhog Day!)—but only he seems to be aware of it.  It’s the kind of drama that could only be effectively done on radio, “the theatre of the mind.”

The direction on X-Minus One was handled by veterans like Fred Weibe, Daniel Sutter, George Voutsas, and Kenneth MacGregor, while New York acting talents such as Mason Adams, Jack Grimes, Bob Hastings, John Gibson, and Bill Quinn numbered among the show’s unofficial stock company of performers.  Despite its lack of sponsor, X-1 was a survivor at a time when radio was losing its audience to TV, and it continued to present fine audio drama until January 9, 1958.  In the 1970s, when a brief interest in reviving radio drama was taking place, an attempt was made to rekindle the series with a January 27, 1973 audition episode called “The Iron Chancellor.”  Beginning in June of that same year, X-1 was broadcast via repeat transcriptions…but its erratic scheduling (it aired once a month, sometimes on Saturdays…sometimes on Sundays) killed it in its cradle, with the experiment coming to an end on March 22, 1975.

“The most interesting dramatic of the 1955 season was produced by two genre series: Gunsmoke, a western, and this space opera.”  That’s how old-time radio historian and author John Dunning described X-Minus One in his invaluable reference On the Air, and we at Radio Spirits are certain that you’ll agree that the program aired some of the finest radio drama ever broadcast.  We are so sure of this that we invite you to check out the X-1 sets Archive Collection and Countdown, which feature such classic tales as my favorite, “Tunnel Under the World” (available on Archive Collection).  “Drop Dead,” a broadcast that originally aired on August 22, 1957, is available on Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell, and you’ll find eight X-1 broadcasts (including “The Lifeboat Mutiny”!) on our compendium Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures.  Happy anniversary to radio’s premier science-fiction program!


“…that most famous of all manhunters…”

Nick Carter received the first knock at his radio door on this date in 1943.  I know this sounds like an odd statement, but I’m referring to the memorable opening that signaled the start of Nick Carter, Master Detective—a popular radio crime drama, and a program that would become one of the Mutual network’s most enduring hits.  The show would begin with the rapping on the door to Carter’s brownstone office (bang-bang-bang-bang-bang)—an action that received no response.  There would follow a second series of knocks, but still no answer.  Finally, the unknown individual rapping on Nick’s chamber door would get desperate—BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG!!!  The door would open, and Carter’s girl Friday, Patsy Bowen, would respond with a startled, “What’s the matter?  What is it?”

A male voice would urgently reply: “Another case for Nick Carter, Master Detective!”  The show’s announcer would back him up by intoning: “Yes, it’s another case for that most famous of all manhunters…the detective whose ability at solving crime is unequalled in the history of detective fiction—Nick Carter, Master Detective!”

The sleuth that John J. “Jess” Jevins (author of the just-released Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes) tabbed “the grandfather of superheroes” had his origins in the pulps.  John Russell Coryell introduced Nick Carter in a story published in Street & Smith’s New York Weekly in 1886, “The Old Detective’s Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square.”  Carter shared many of the qualities ascribed to the legendary Sherlock Holmes: a keen analytical mind, a knowledge of arcane trivia, and a talent for disguise. (Nick was also in remarkable physical condition, having been taught by his father to maintain good health as well as solid mental acuity.)  It’s important to note that while some often refer to Nick Carter as “the American Sherlock Holmes,” the reality is that the detective was pounding a beat in the pulps nearly a year before Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth arrived on the scene.

Coryell wrote the first three Nick Carter exploits…and then the job of chronicling the detective’s further adventures fell to a variety of writers employed by Street & Smith.  Most of Carter’s cases would eventually be penned by Frederic van Rensselaer Day.  Nick struck an immediate chord with pulp fiction fans, and it wasn’t long before he was being published in his own magazine…under a variety of names, but usually referred to as Nick Carter Weekly.  Publication stopped in 1915, and the tales of Nick Carter (along with his fellow gumshoes) moved to Detective Story Magazine, which could be found on newsstands until 1927.  With the success of both The Shadow and Doc Savage in the 1930s, Carter was brought out of retirement with Nick Carter Detective Magazine in 1933.  Stories about Nick continued in other periodicals after that; he was even in the inaugural issue of Shadow Comics in March of 1940, which republished stories of many of Street & Smith’s popular pulp heroes.  That line of comic books continued well into the remainder of the decade.

Despite his print popularity, it took a while for Nick Carter to start solving cases over the radio on a weekly basis.  The radio program was even preceded by a short-lived movie franchise, which began in 1939 with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release of Nick Carter, Master Detective.  MGM’s own Walter Pidgeon essayed the role of Nick, and continued in the two Carter follow-ups, Phantom Raiders and Sky Murder (both released in 1940).  Though the studio had purchased the rights to all the Nick Carter stories before starting on the fictional detective’s cinematic endeavors, they had original screenplays written for the series.  After those three films, however, MGM abandoned the franchise.

Deprived of his movie income, Nick Carter then made his move into the aural medium.  It was tough for Nick Carter, Master Detective to establish a beachhead on the Mutual schedule; during its initial years on the air, the program would be bounced around in eleven different time slots between 1943 and 1946…and to make things even more confusing for the listening audience, the series went by the title of The Return of Nick Carter for a time as well.  The show eventually stayed put in a Sunday night time slot (6:30pm) from 1946 to 1952, sponsored by Old Dutch Cleanser and Cudahy Packing (makers of Del Rich Margarine).  Libby Packing took over sponsorship for a year after that.

In the role of Nick Carter was actor Lon Clark, who handled the part for the entire run of the series.  This is an amazing accomplishment…particularly when you know that nearly 700 broadcasts of Nick Carter, Master Detective aired between 1943 and 1955.  (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had close to as many episodes…and they needed six actors to play the title role.)  Clark also had decent luck in keeping a secretary.  Helen Choate played Patsy Bowen, Nick’s assistant, in the early years of the program.  Choate would be replaced by Charlotte Manson, who held the role until the series’ finale. Carter’s sidekick, “Scubby” Wilson (described as a “demon” reporter…but don’t be scared—he didn’t have horns or anything), was portrayed by John Kane.  The trio of Nick, Patsy and Scubby often made life difficult for Sergeant “Matty” Mathison (Ed Latimer), Nick’s friendly cop nemesis.  (Patsy wasn’t shy about reminding Matty that he’d be toiling in another area of civil service were it not for Nick; she’d even take the time to make sure that Mathison’s superior, Lt. Riley [Humphrey Davis], had this pertinent information.)

Additional actors who appeared on Nick Carter, Master Detective included Bill Johnstone, Bryna Raeburn, Raymond Edward Johnson, Maurice Tarplin, and Al Hodge.  For a time, the detective’s adopted son Chick (played by Bill Lipton and Leon Janney) was featured on the program.  That character moved on to a spin-off series titled Chick Carter, Boy Detective, which premiered on Mutual in July of 1943.  Whereas Chick’s old man solved his cases in a weekly half-hour format, young Chick went the serial route: in fifteen-minute installments five-days-a-week.  Nick even flirted with that same format briefly in 1944, with an attempt made to combine the two show’s storylines.  But in the end Chick didn’t have the stamina, and his series came to a close in 1945.  Nick Carter, Master Detective, on the other hand, would remain a Mutual network staple until September 25, 1955.

Even after bidding radio a fond fare-thee-well in the mid-1950s, Nick Carter would continue to demonstrate the importance of maintaining top physical condition by getting a second lease on life in the 1960s.  The Carter franchise, influenced by the success of the James Bond novels/movies, would jump-start with a series of highly successful pulp novels under the Nick Carter: Killmaster banner.  Those novels continued to be cranked out until the late 1990s, proving that “the most famous of all manhunters” could take a licking but keep on ticking.

You’ll excuse us, however, if we state a preference for the Nick Carter who presented his adventures courtesy of “the theater of the mind”; Radio Spirits offers several collections of vintage Nick Carter, Master Detective broadcasts, including our latest collection, Records of Death, and the previously released Echoes of Death and Chasing Crime (I wrote the liner notes!).  You’ll also find a Nick Carter adventure (“Death in the Pines”) on our Great Radio Detectives compendium, and some Yuletide Nick (“Nick Carter’s Christmas Adventure”) on The Voices of Christmas Past.  For a nightcap, why not venture back to the early pulp fiction days of the great detective in this fantabulous reprint which features “Calling Nick Carter”—an entertaining tale that teams the sleuth with none other than The Shadow!

Happy Birthday, Frances Langford!

“Just play it like a nagging wife” was comedy writer Philip Rapp’s suggestion to actress-singer Frances Langford, who was about to take on a facet of radio performing with which she had only a passing familiarity.  Frances, born Frances Newbern Langford in Lakeland, FL on this date in 1913, had traded funny quips with comedian Bob Hope as the vocalist on his Pepsodent show from 1941 to 1946 (not to mention accompanying him on his many overseas jaunts during WW2), and before that she appeared in musical comedies such as Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) and Born to Dance (1936).  But portraying Blanche Bickerson, the never-ceasing shrewish spouse of the hapless John Bickerson (played by Don Ameche), would be a new experience for her.  Langford took it in stride.  As she reminisced in an interview years later, “Actually, it wasn’t that hard to do at all.  Phil’s scripts were so well written that the laughs got themselves.”

From childhood, a musical career seemed to be in the tea leaves for young Frances.  Her mother was Annie Newbern, a renowned concert pianist, and Frances set her sights on studying music at Florida Southern College.  Her operatic ambitions were sidelined by a tonsillectomy she underwent at age 17—the result was that her beautiful soprano voice had been transformed into a husky contralto.  Fortunately for Langford, she had the perfect pipes for the big band era, which was just getting underway at that time.  Eli Witt, a Tampa cigar manufacturer, heard Frances sing at an American Legion party and hired her to do her thing on his local radio show for $5 a week.  It was there that she attracted the notice of the Vagabond Lover himself, Rudy Vallee, who invited her to sing on his popular Fleischmann Hour.

Invited to New York, Frances entertained at a birthday party for Cole Porter…and that’s where she was heard by Paramount’s Walter Wanger, who signed her to a movie contract without a screen test.  In Hollywood, Frances had appeared in two short subjects for Vitaphone-Warner Brothers (circa 1932), but under Wanger’s tutelage she made her feature film debut (alongside Alice Faye, George Raft, and Patsy Kelly) in 1935’s Every Night at Eight.  Every Night was the movie in which Frances sang what would become her signature tune, I’m in the Mood for Love.  The vocalist charted several popular songs, including I’ve Got You Under My SkinI Feel a Song Comin’ OnEasy to LoveHarbor LightsSo Many MemoriesWas it Rain?, and Falling in Love with Love.  In addition, Langford would be in much demand for movie musicals, gracing the cast of tunefests like Collegiate (1936), Palm Springs (1936), The Hit Parade (1937), and Hollywood Hotel (1937).

That last film was a movie version of a popular radio variety program hosted by gossip maven Louella Parsons and featuring boy crooner Dick Powell.  Frances would be a regular on Hollywood Hotel from 1934 to 1938, and she was also building a radio resume that included The Spartan HourThe Colgate House Party (also known as The Joe Cook Show), and The Texaco Star Theatre (starring Ken Murray).  When Bob Hope asked her to accompany him on the first of many excursions he would make to entertain those in the military during the Second World War, Langford also joined Hope’s weekly radio show as the featured vocalist.  Her many visits to military bases in the U.S. and around the world inspired Frances to keep a journal, which would eventually be printed in Hearst-owned newspapers as a regular column (“Purple Heart Diary”).

Despite the hectic pace of “entertaining the troops,” Frances Langford still found time to make movies.  She appeared in such films as Dreaming Out Loud (1940—the first of several films starring the boys from Pine Ridge, Lum ‘n’ Abner), Too Many Girls (1940—with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), and Swing It Soldier (1941—Frances plays twins, and the movie also features Hanley Stafford, Don Wilson, and Brenda [Blanche Stewart] and Cobina [Elvia Allman]!).  For 1941’s All-American Co Ed, Langford dyed her brunette tresses blonde, and kept them that way for the rest of her career.  Although Frances appeared in major motion pictures like Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and This is the Army (1943), most of her film appearances were in smaller B-musicals (several built around radio themes), including Follow the Band (1943), Cowboy in Manhattan (1943), Never a Dull Moment (1943), Career Girl (1944), Radio Stars on Parade (1945), People are Funny (1946), The Bamboo Blonde (1946), and Beat the Band (1947).  Langford would close out the 1940s with a B-western, Deputy Marshal (1949), which bears the distinction of featuring actor Jon Hall (her real-life husband) as her leading man (it would be their only film together).

On radio, Frances Langford starred on The Chase and Sanborn Hour—a 1945 summer replacement for the popular program starring Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy.  Langford would headline another summer show in 1947, when George Burns & Gracie Allen took a break from Maxwell House Coffee Time.  It was with Don Ameche on NBC’s The Drene Show (also known as Drene Time) in the fall of 1946, however, that Frances would play the radio role for which she’s best known today.  Ameche and Langford would convulse listeners every week as “The Battling Bickersons.”  After their show for Drene, the pair would join Frank Morgan for The Old Gold Show, which ran on CBS from 1947 to 1948.  Despite the popularity of the Bickersons sketches, radio had a hard time turning their verbal squabbling into a regular series.  There was a half-hour audition record made in 1948, and “The Bickersons” continued to be heard occasionally on the Bergen-McCarthy program (with Marsha Hunt replacing Frances as Blanche.)  But in the summer of 1951, Langford reprised her role in a full CBS sitcom devoted to the couple, with Lew Parker replacing Ameche as John.

In the 1950s, Frances Langford would make two more motion pictures: Purple Heart Diary (1951), based on the previously mentioned column detailing Langford’s WW2 experiences, and The Glenn Miller Story (1954)—Frances played herself in both movies.  By this time, she was turning her attention to television.  With Don Ameche, Langford had a go at making the Bickersons a small screen success in the series Star Time (1950) and The Francis Langford-Don Ameche Show (1951-52).  Langford would later headline Francis Langford Presents in 1959, and The Francis Langford Show in 1960…but for the most part, was content to appear on TV screens in a guest star capacity on shows hosted by Spike Jones, Jackie Gleason, Jack Carter, and Perry Como, among the many.  In the 1960s, she chatted on talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas, and made appearances on series like The DuPont Show of the Week and The Hollywood Palace.

For all intents and purposes, Frances Langford left Hollywood in 1955…and with her second husband, Ralph Evinrude, settled for a more content existence in Jensen Beach, FL as the featured singer in a nightclub, The Frances Langford Outrigger Resort.  Frances was devoted to philanthropic causes, giving generously to The Florida Oceanographic Society on Hutchinson Island, and a park in Jensen Beach also bears her name (Langford Park).  Langford lived to the ripe-old age of 92 before her passing in 2005, and to this day entertains fans old and new with CD collections of her songs and radio appearances.

And speaking of CD collections (oh, these segueways just write themselves sometimes), Radio Spirits features our birthday girl’s signature role as Blanche in the hilarious Bickersons set Put Out the Lights!—with a program guide penned by my chum Ben Ohmart, whose Bear Manor Media publication The Bickersons came in mighty handy writing this post.  Frances can also be heard among many singing celebrities in the 3-CD collection With a Song in My Heart: Hooray for Hollywood (Langford sings Hooray for Hollywood from Hollywood Hotel, and with James Cagney—from Yankee Doodle DandyOver There).  On the DVD front, check out a most entertaining documentary (reviewed previously on the blog) entitled Entertaining the Troops, which allows Frances to stroll down Memory Lane with Bob Hope, dancer Patty Thomas, and guitarist Tony Romano…as well as feature timeless clips from your old-time radio favorites “doin’ their bit.”  Happiest of birthdays to you, Frances!

Happy Birthday, Les Damon!

Lester Joseph Damon—born in Providence, RI on this date in 1908—was memorably described by my Radio Spirits colleague Elizabeth McLeod as “the prototype of the radio actor on the go.”  From his earliest acting experience in stock companies during the 1930s to his busy radio gigs from the 1940s and onward, Les Damon never allowed grass to grow under his thespic feet.  He was one of the medium’s most versatile performers, appearing on dramatic anthologies and soap operas—and is fondly remembered by new generations of old-time radio fans for his detective roles on The Adventures of the Thin Man and The Falcon.

Acting for Les Damon became a profession immediately after graduating from high school.  He became a member of the prestigious Albee Stock Company in his hometown of Providence—in stock companies, actors performed in different plays every night, from leads to character roles.  It was great training for Les, and he pursued his craft in 1934 by serving an apprenticeship with the Old Vic Company in Lambeth, England for a year.

Upon his return to the states, Damon learned to his chagrin that in the acting world…he was a small fish in a trout-stocked pond.  When his stock company folded in 1938, Les gravitated to Chicago in search of employment.  He got lucky: The Windy City was at that time an important hub in radio, particularly in the area of daytime drama.  His talent attracted the notice of Air Features, Inc., the production company run by soap opera moguls Frank and Anne Hummert, and Damon soon began securing roles on such programs as The Romance of Helen Trent and Houseboat Hannah.  That valuable experience would lead to work on soaps not produced by the Hummerts, including The Right to HappinessAunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories, and Portia Faces Life.  Les would eventually move to New York, but continued to work on daytime dramas throughout his radio career, notably The BartonsGirl AloneLone Journey (on which he starred, playing Wolfe Bennett), The Second Mrs. BurtonThis is Nora Drake, and Young Dr. Malone.

July 2, 1941 marked a very important date in the radio career of Lester Damon.  That night, The Adventures of The Thin Man premiered over NBC for Woodbury Soap, a light-hearted detective series based on the famous sleuthing couple created by Dashiell Hammett (and the subjects of a popular MGM film series, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora).  The Thin Man radio series (produced by Inner Sanctum Mysteries’ Himan Brown) became a solid radio hit, but Les’ tenure with the show would be interrupted via a letter from his Uncle Sam.  Inducted into the Army Air Force, Les served with distinction in WW2 and would eventually return to his work in radio during his hitch as a member of the staff of the India-Burma Network.  (Technical Sergeant Damon did newscasts, interviews, and live spot announcements during his time at the IBN.)

Mustered out of the service, Les reclaimed his Thin Man job in 1946 from another Les—Tremayne, who had been portraying Nick Charles in Damon’s absence.  It only lasted a brief period, however; by 1947 Damon had moved onto other gigs, including taking over for Myron McCormick in the titular role on the short-lived The Adventures of Christopher Wells.  Les’ radio resume would eventually make room for many popular series, including The Big StoryThe Cavalcade of AmericaDimension X (and its sister series, X-Minus One), GangbustersThe FBI in Peace and WarThe Ford TheatreThe Haunting HourSuspenseUnder Arrest, and Yours TrulyJohnny Dollar.  In May of 1950, Damon inherited another role from Les Tremayne: that of gumshoe Michael Waring on The Falcon, a show that had been airing on radio since 1943 (Tremayne played the part from 1947-50).  Les Damon would spend three seasons as Waring (who would graduate from P.I. to secret agent during his time on the air), with George Petrie taking over in Falcon’s last season.

Les Damon did not remain idle in radio: in the fall of 1954, he was reunited with his former Thin Man co-star, Claudia Morgan, in another mystery series—The Adventures of the Abbotts.  Abbotts had been kicking around on radio since 1945 (as a summer series on Mutual), and the show’s protagonists—Jean and Pat Abbott—were remarkably similar to the Charles of Thin Man fame.  The Adventures of the Abbotts never really captured the appeal of Nick and Nora, however, and it was dropped after a single season.  Les would also play Inspector Mark Sabre on Mystery Theatre for a time, and the part of Captain Frank Kennelly on Twenty-First Precinct (a role previously tackled by Everett Sloane and James Gregory), but by that point in his career he was ready to give the small screen a try.  In a parallel to his start in radio, Damon made the rounds on several TV soap operas: The Guiding Light (a radio transplant), Search for TomorrowThe Edge of Night, and As the World Turns.

In addition, Les chalked up several appearances on Jackie Gleason’s TV variety series, as well as the sitcom version of Gleason’s The Honeymooners that ran from 1955 to 1956.  Damon’s guest shots on the boob tube include roles on The Big StoryWindow on Main StreetThe Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, and Bus Stop.  His final TV credit was in an episode of Have Gun – Will Travel, while his last radio performance was befittingly on Suspense in June of 1962…a few months before “Radio’s Golden Age” ended.  Sadly, the hard-working Damon wouldn’t be around to see it—he succumbed to a heart attack in July at the age of 54.

Les Damon’s signature radio role of Michael Waring is featured in the Radio Spirits set of The Falcon broadcasts entitled Shakedown (with liner notes by yours truly), but you can also listen to Les in collections of Dimension X (Adventures in Time and SpaceFuture Tense), The Haunting HourWords at War, and X-Minus One (Countdown).  Damon also turns up in our potpourri compendiums Great Radio Detectives (in the Falcon episode “The Case of the Widow’s Gorilla”) and Science Fiction Radio: Atomic Age Adventures (X-Minus One’s “The Discovery of Mornial Mathaway” and Suspense’s “Report from a Dead Planet”).  Happy birthday to you, Mr. Damon—your dedication and hard work has paid off handsomely for fans of old-time radio!