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Review: Meet Boston Blackie (1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Amzie Strickland!

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Cathy Lewis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, House Jameson!

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Lamour!

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The woman born on this date in 1914 is best remembered by moviegoers as someone who made something as simple as a sarong look mighty good…while traipsing down various roads alongside crooner Bing Crosby and comedian Bob Hope.  But Dorothy Lamour, born Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton in N’awlins (New Orleans), also became a familiar voice through her radio showcases on The Chase & Sanborn Hour in the late 1930s…and later as the hostess of the Sealtest Variety Theater a decade later.

lamour1It was Dottie’s voice that got her foot in the door in the world of show business…though her looks and figure didn’t hurt much, either.  She quit school at the age of fourteen and became a secretary (thanks to a business course) to support herself and her mother, who had divorced her father after only a few years of marriage.  Lamour relied on her natural charms to enter beauty contests, and after becoming “Miss New Orleans” in 1931, she used her prize money to support herself while learning her acting craft in a stock theatre company.  While holding down a job as a salesclerk in a Chicago department store, she had the good fortune to be spotted performing in a talent show by orchestra leader Herbie Kay, and Kay hired her to work as the vocalist in his musical aggregation.  After working with both Kay (she was Mrs. Kay from 1935 to 1939) and in vaudeville, the young ingénue was rewarded with her own weekly quarter-hour radio program in 1935; later, she would develop a larger fan following singing on the popular Rudy Vallee program.

lamour3A relocation to Hollywood in 1936 laid the foundation for Lamour’s movie career.  She had an uncredited role in her first film at Paramount, College Holiday (1936), but her second venture, The Jungle Princess (1936), cast her in the part of a jungle native named “Utah,” who wore a sarong (designed by Edith Head!) throughout the movie.  A series of films in which Dottie “went native” followed: The Hurricane (1937), Her Jungle Love (1938), Tropic Holiday (1938), Typhoon (1940), Moon over Burma (1940), Aloma of the South Seas (1941) and Beyond the Blue Horizon (1942).  Lamour would become famous for her sartorial trademark—in fact, she performed a song with Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake in 1942’s Star Spangled Rhythm, “A Sweater, a Sarong and a Peekaboo Bang”—but this would sell her talents woefully short.  She also played change-of-pace parts in vehicles like The Last Train from Madrid (1937), Spawn of the North (1938) and Johnny Apollo (1940).

bergen&mccarthy3Her stardom in Paramount films would lead to Lamour’s joining of the powerhouse talent lineup of radio’s The Chase & Sanborn Hour, which premiered over NBC on May 9, 1937.  Though it’s primarily remembered as the program that launched ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies Charlie McCarthy & Mortimer Snerd to fame, the series also featured the likes of Nelson Eddy, Don Ameche and (for a short time) W.C. Fields, with whom Dorothy would later work in The Big Broadcast of 1938.  On the show, Dorothy got to sing and cavort with the likes of Bergen & McCarthy, who eventually became the stars of the program…and when the contracts of Lamour, Eddy and Ameche were not renewed, the program was whittled down to a half-hour in order to concentrate on Edgar and Charlie (though Dottie would return on occasion as a guest star).

lamour2Back in Hollywood, Road to Singapore (1940) probably seemed like just another “sarong” picture to Dorothy…except that her co-stars in this film were Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and Singapore launched a successful series of “Road” musical comedies that ended in 1962 with The Road to Hong Kong—which made a huge mistake in limiting Dottie’s participation to practically a cameo, instead casting Joan Collins as the straight woman to Hope and Crosby.  Because all three “Roadies” worked at Paramount, Lamour would often appear solo with either Bing (Dixie) or Bob (in several of his comedies, including Caught in the Draft and They Got Me Covered) and was a frequent guest star on their popular radio programs—Bing for Kraft (and later Philco), Bob for Pepsodent.  Hope dubbed Dottie “my favorite brunette,” the title of one of his best film comedies in 1947: a wacky film noir spoof that featured both a menacing Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr…and in cameos, Bing and Alan Ladd.  Though Lamour deprecatingly referred to herself as “the highest and happiest-paid straight woman in the business,” she rose to the occasion a number times turning in solid dramatic work in movies like Chad Hanna (1940), A Medal for Benny (1945) and Manhandled (1949).

lamour4In the summer of 1947, Dorothy became the headliner of Front and Center, an NBC variety series (that filled in for Fred Allen on his summer vacation) designed to boost recruitment in the United States Army.  She told Center’s director Glenhall Taylor: “I can’t sing and I can’t act; it’s up to you guys to make me look good.”  Once again, the years of traveling movie highways and bi-ways with Bing and Bob gave Lamour an opportunity to joke about her talents—but she proved able to hold her own on that series, interacting with guest stars like Dick Powell, Van Johnson and George Burns & Gracie Allen.  The success of Center landed Dorothy a gig on The Sealtest Variety Theatre a year later in the fall of 1948; although the program was sponsored by the dairy concern, fans of the series often referred to it as “The Dorothy Lamour Show.”  For one season, Dorothy invited top celebrities like Ronald Colman, Red Skelton and Gregory Peck to join her and orchestra leader Henry Russell (with the Crew Chiefs) for a solid half-hour of songs, dramatic sketches and comedy patter.  (Later in the season, the program did a slight revamp into a situation comedy format, and added fellow Paramount co-worker Eddie Bracken as Dottie’s second banana.)

lamour7By the end of the 1940s, Dorothy Lamour’s movie career had begun to taper off—and although she would still appear in the occasional feature film like The Greatest Show on Earth (1952—a wonderful showcase) and Donovan’s Reef (1963), she diverted her attention to performing in nightclubs and dinner theatre.  Lamour published an autobiography in 1980, My Side of the Road, and could be seen in occasional guest spots on TV series like Hart to Hart and Murder, She Wrote.  One of her final show business contributions was in 1995, acting as a “special advisor” to the Broadway musical Swingin’ on a Star, which featured songs written by Johnny Burke, the composer of much of the material in the “Road” films.  (The actress playing Dottie’s part in the musical’s “road movie” sequence, Kathy Fitzgerald, would be nominated for a Tony Award.)  Dorothy Lamour, whose popularity selling bonds during World War II earned her the nickname “The Bombshell of Bombs,” died in 1996.

19584Radio Spirits has a few collections featuring the saronged one, beginning with several classic broadcasts of The Chase & Sanborn Hour on the Bergen & McCarthy set Ladies’ Men, on which she first established her radio bona fides.  You can also enjoy La Lamour as “the hostess with the mostess” on a Sealtest Variety Theater collection that features such guest stars as Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis and Fibber McGee & Molly, and a Sealtest show on our Happy Halloween set teams Dottie with the one and only Boris Karloff!  Happy birthday to our favorite companion on the “Road”!

Happy Birthday, William Spier!

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The man who brought listeners “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” (Suspense!) and “the greatest private detective of them all” (The Adventures of Sam Spade) was born in New York City on this date in 1906.  The history behind one of the medium’s most creative producers is indeed an interesting one—involving both a love of music and marriages to two individuals as equally entwined in show business as himself.

spier7Upon his graduation from Evander Childs High School, the young Spier worked a series of odd jobs before landing a position at Musical America at the age of nineteen—a magazine then edited by the one and only Deems Taylor.  Bill, under Deems’ tutelage, gradually worked his way up to the position of chief critic for the periodical…but even after leaving in 1929 to take a job at the ad agency of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, Spier would continue his lifelong love of music (as a talented pianist and composer).  During his stint as director-producer on Suspense, series composer Lucien Moraweck once observed of Spier: “He knows everything about music.  Sometimes he even knows more than the musician.”

spier1It was at BBD&O that Spier honed his radio chops, producing such series as The Atwater Kent Hour, General Motors’ Family Party and Ethyl Tune-Up Time.  His crowning achievement before his string of successes in the 1940s was directing and co-writing The March of Time, a show on which he would cement friendships with future Suspense guest stars like Orson Welles, Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten.  Spier would leave BBD&O in 1941 to take a job on the West Coast with CBS…and that’s where the saga of Suspense begins.

spier4As director-producer of Suspense, William Spier essentially laid out the ground rules for the dramatic anthology program: the broadcasts would feature tightly-written plays featuring ordinary characters caught up in circumstances beyond their control.  The situations that the protagonists would find themselves in had to be plausible; there would be no supernatural nonsense (although Spier occasionally bent this rule, as in the classic “The House in Cypress Canyon”) and the guilty party would pay by episode’s end (though he broke this one, too, in the most famous Suspense episode of them all—“Sorry, Wrong Number”).  Bill supervised all aspects of the Suspense productions—voices, story, sound effects and especially music—and he never wanted for guest stars on the show.  Many of Hollywood’s top celebrities enjoyed the prestige of the program (Cary Grant was a fan of appearing on the show, noting it was “where I get a good chance to act”).  Spier often indulged in offbeat casting on the series (assigning roles to big names like Peter Lorre and Lucille Ball that were out of their comfort zone), and maintained a repertory company of some of radio’s finest utility players, such as Joseph Kearns, Cathy Lewis, Lurene Tuttle and Wally Maher.

duff1In the same year that he began his duties on Suspense, William Spier married a second time (he had been previously married to a woman named Mary Scanlan, with whom he had three children) to actress-singer Kay Thompson, perhaps best known for creating the children’s book character of “Eloise.”  (Eloise was modeled after the young Liza Minnelli, the godchild of Spier and Thompson.)  Thompson played an important role in the casting of the lead actor in Spier’s next big project.  Bill was going to bring Dashiell Hammett’s sleuthing creation Sam Spade to radio, and he had his mind set on any actor who could imitate Humphrey Bogart (since Bogie had been successful playing Spade in the movie version of The Maltese Falcon).  Kay lobbied for Howard Duff, an actor whose only notable gig had been as an announcer and producer with the Armed Forces Radio Service during his hitch in the military during World War II.  Despite a less-than-stellar audition, Thompson talked her husband into giving Duff the part…and after thirteen weeks, Duff’s takeover of the role would cause many to ask “Humphrey who?”  The Adventures of Sam Spade would be a tremendous success on all three networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—from 1946 to 1951; its cancellation by NBC was due only to nervousness surrounding the politics of author Hammett (who actually had little to do with the program other than collecting a check) and actor Duff, who had been replaced by Steve Dunne in the fall of 1950.

spier5Spier eventually left Suspense in the capable hands of such director-producers as Anton M. Leader, Norman Macdonnell and Elliott Lewis (occasionally returning in-between the hiring of those men) to work on dramatic anthology programs such as The Clock and The James and Pamela Mason Show.  Bill divorced Kay Thompson in 1947 and was married (for the third and last time) to June Havoc…an actress who had guest-starred on one of his programs.  (In case you were wondering, that made Gypsy Rose Lee his sister-in-law.)  Spier would later produce a television sitcom for June at Desilu from 1954 to 1955 entitled Willy that won a few critical raves but not much of an audience.  It was not Bill’s first TV project; he had served as producer of TV’s Omnibus in its early years (and also brought a visual version of The Clock briefly to screens).  After the cancellation of Willy, his boob tube duties were limited to writing scripts for such series as The Lineup, Peter Gunn and The Untouchables (his two-part script, “The Unhired Assassin,” won him a Writer’s Guild of America award—which went along nicely with his Peabody trophies for Suspense and Mystery Writers of America presentation for Sam Spade).  William Spier died on May 30, 1973 at the age of 66.

20354Since Bill Spier was the individual who helped to craft the tales well-calculated to keep you in…well…Radio Spirits offers first-rate Suspense collections featuring his contributions, including Omnibus and Around the World.  But you also don’t want to miss the thrilling adventures of legendary radio shamus Sam Spade in Volumes One and Two, featuring broadcasts with both Howard Duff and Steve Dunne. 

Happy birthday to a true radio legend!

Happy Birthday, J. Scott Smart!

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While two of the radio programs based on characters created by author Dashiell Hammett—The Adventures of the Thin Man and The Adventures of Sam Spade—were adapted from his novels, The Fat Man was created by Dash specifically for the medium.  (There is one school of thought that suggests Brad Runyon, the big man himself, was loosely based on Hammett’s “Continental Op” stories.)  The Fat Man enjoyed a successful but short-lived run over the airwaves; it was cancelled by ABC on September 26, 1951 due to sponsor pressure over Hammett’s perceived political sympathies.  That forced its star, J. Scott Smart—born on this date in 1902 in Philadelphia—into another line of work.

smart9Even if J. Scott could no longer play radio’s favorite corpulent sleuth (well, along with Nero Wolfe, of course) he still had the stage and movies to fall back on.  But after a last TV appearance in an installment of Robert Montgomery Presents, the actor decided to end his career in the footlights.  Off-mike, Smart lived a rather Spartan existence: he hung his hat in a fisherman’s hut on the coast of Maine and commuted to New York for the broadcasts while The Fat Man was still on the air.  He enjoyed painting seascapes and sculpting, and was considered quite a cook (though I suppose that goes without saying); his wife was once quoted in a Radio Mirror article as saying that the chef’s specialty was “clam spaghetti, New England style.”

smart10Smart—“Jack” to his friends and colleagues—discovered a talent early on for art, music and dance…qualities that discouraged him from joining the Navy.  He opted for a show business career when his father gave him a set of drums just as he was getting out of high school in Buffalo, NY.  “That set of drums changed me from a normal human being into an entertainer,” Smart later observed.  He worked a while in a band, and then developed a flair for the buskin, traveling with a Buffalo theatrical stock company around New England and New York for a number of years.  Jack had also dabbled in radio while living in Buffalo, and in 1929 decided he was ready for the big time in the Big Apple.  Smart began landing gigs on network programs, and he was well on his way.

smart2Jack displayed a versatility over the ether that allowed him to work alongside comedians like Fred Allen, Jack Benny and Bob Hope, and on dramatic shows including The Lux Radio Theatre and The Cavalcade of America.  Smart was quite adept at character parts in radio, earning him the nickname “the Lon Chaney of Radio.”  From 1942 to 1944, Jack played a windy politician on Fred Allen’s Texaco Star Theatre who answered to “Senator Bloat”—the character would gradually give way to the more famous garrulous politico of the Allen program, Senator Beauregard Claghorn (played by Kenny Delmar).

smart4It was on January 21, 1946 that J. Scott Smart began his most famous gig—voicing the anonymous detective known as “The Fat Man” over ABC Radio.  The portly shamus started out with no name, though it was later revealed that the handle on his investigator’s license was “Brad Runyon.”  The series began as a sustained program, but would later be sponsored—it was kismet, no question about it—by the Norwich Pharmaceutical Company, best known for Pepto-Bismol (“When your stomach’s upset/Don’t add to the upset…”).  The Fat Man also featured one of radio’s most unforgettable openings:

WOMAN: There he goes into that drugstore…he’s stepping on the scale…

(SFX: Penny tumbling onto scale)

WOMAN: Weight?  Two hundred thirty-seven pounds…

(SFX: Click of card popping out of scale)

WOMAN: Fortune…danger!  (Music sting) Whooooo is it?

RUNYON: The Fat Mannnnnn…

smart7Bernard Green’s “Fat Man Theme” would then get underway, as fans listened intently to another tale of P.I. Runyon investigating another murder (or as Smart himself pronounced it with his one-of-a-kind rumble, “murrr-derrr”).  The fictional Runyon topped the scales at 237, but his real-life counterpart weighed a bit more at 270.  Still, for a man of his girth, J. Scott Smart was incredibly light on his feet—a number of photographs from the era show him jitterbugging with celebrities like Julie London and Hedda Hopper.

smart6The popularity of the program prompted Universal to produce a feature film with Smart in his radio role in 1951; because the vehicle was also a tryout for a studio up-and-comer named Rock Hudson, television listings would later have fun with the movie when it became a Late, Late Show staple (“Rock Hudson as the Fat Man”).  Jack had a fairly impressive cinematic resume, with bit roles in such classics as Three Smart Girls, One Hundred Men and a Girl and Kiss of Death, and he appeared in a number of Broadway productions including A Bell for Adano, Waiting for Godot and The Pirates.  But his turn in the 1951 film didn’t win him many critical plaudits (one wag remarked that the actor “was better behind the microphone than in front of the camera”) and so he headed back to his home in Ogunquit.  J. Scott Smart died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 on January 15, 1960.

20291Radio Spirits’ The Fred Allen Show collection features some broadcasts in which today’s birthday boy was a denizen in the comedian’s famed “Allen’s Alley”…but to hear Jack Smart in his best remembered radio gig, you’ll need to check out the 4-CD set of The Fat Man.  Four broadcasts from Smart’s 1946-51 run on the series are spotlighted, along with four Australian shows from the series’ brief 1954-55 stint down under with actor Lloyd Berrell as the corpulent shamus.  You’ll see for yourself why in its heyday, The Fat Man attracted six million radio listeners every week…and J. Scott Smart was the actor responsible.

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

houseoffrankenstein

Born on this date in 1887, William Henry Pratt no doubt had little inkling that he was destined to become a horror film icon and one of the silver screen’s most beloved performers.  After being educated at various London schools, he intended on studying for the consular service at King’s College London.  He dropped out around 1909, working at various odd jobs until his yen for the stage developed.  He moved to Canada that same year to appear in stage shows, and it’s long been suspected that, because Pratt feared bringing embarrassment to his family through his pursuit of a career in acting, he changed his name to…“Boris Karloff.”

youngborisFor the young Karloff, an acting career was satisfying in every way but financial; during his halcyon stage years in Canada and later the U.S., he was often forced to take supplemental menial jobs to keep body and soul together.  Having made his way to Hollywood, he continued his craft with small parts in silent films (The Bells, Two Arabian Knights) while occasionally landing larger roles in silent and sound serials like The Hope Diamond Mystery (1920) and King of the Kongo (1929).  It wasn’t until 1931 that things began to turn around for Boris; he had a small but unforgettable role in the Howard Hawks-directed The Criminal Code (reprising a role he played on stage), and nice showcases in both Five Star Final and The Guilty Generation.

frankensteinThe Criminal Code helped him land the part that made him a star: the monstrous creation that sprang from the laboratory of the doctor known as Frankenstein (1931).  He almost didn’t get to play The Creature; Universal’s resident “monster” star Bela Lugosi had originally been cast, but Lugosi’s screen test made studio head Carl Laemmle laugh out loud.  Although Karloff wasn’t billed in his role in Frankenstein (he’s credited as simply “?”), it did not take long before Universal realized that the actor was well on his way to becoming the new face of horror.  Films like The Mummy (1932) and The Old Dark House (1932) showcased his incredible talent, and he was also paired with his rival Bela in outings like The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935).  Karloff also reprised The Monster in a follow-up to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—which some have argued is even better than the original.  (This time, there was none of that “?” malarkey—the actor simply went by “Karloff.”)

sonoffrankensteinA public backlash against horror movies discouraged Universal from continuing their franchise for a few years, but Boris proved he could do more than just growl and grunt.  Among the films on his resume were Scarface (1932—he doesn’t strike people as a gangster type, but he makes it work), The House of Rothschild (1934), The Lost Patrol (1934) and Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), one of the best entries in the Charlie Chan series.  Boris would tackle the role of the Monster one more time in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein before passing the role onto others.  Though his horror films made his fame and fortune, they unfortunately had a negative effect in that the actor also wound up gracing a lot of programmers and B-pictures.  For example, in 1938, he began the first of several Monogram quickies playing Hugh Wiley’s literary sleuth James Lee Wong (perhaps because Peter Lorre was enjoying success as John P. Marquand’s Mr. Moto).  The Wong movies weren’t much to write home about…but Boris, ever the professional, always gave his all.

boriskarloffThe medium of radio would provide Boris Karloff an outlet to continue his reputation as entertainment’s premiere horror menace.  Boris appeared a number of times on Arch Oboler’s Lights Out – notably in an episode entitled “Cat Wife” in which Karloff portrays a man whose nasty, vindictive wife morphs into a giant feline.  The actor also visited Inner Sanctum on several occasions, not to mention a 1944 Blue Network horror anthology, Creeps by Night.  Karloff sat in on the panel of Information, Please, and joshed with comedians like Fred Allen, Jack Benny and Bergen & McCarthy while poking fun at his horror image on programs like Duffy’s Tavern.  Boris even got the opportunity to exercise his dramatic chops on The Theatre Guild on the Air and The NBC University Theatre.

arsenicandoldlaceIn 1941, Boris Karloff was wowing critics with his stage work as a homicidal maniac in the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace—the in-joke of the play was that his character was repeatedly mistaken for Karloff due to some botched plastic surgery.  A film adaptation of the hit went into production at that time…but unfortunately, the play’s producers would not allow Boris to appear in the movie because he was the main attraction for Broadway audiences.  (Raymond Massey wound up playing the part in the film, which wasn’t released until 1944, after the stage play had finished its run.)  Had Boris been allowed to make the film, it would probably be more beloved than it is today (he eventually did get to do a version of Arsenic in a 1962 episode of TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame).  However, we shouldn’t forget the excellent film work that he did do at that time, particularly a trio of films produced by the legendary Val Lewton: The Body Snatcher (1945—his last film with Lugosi), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946).  The actor also continued to demonstrate his comedic abilities in appearances with Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and Abbott & Costello (Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff).

thrillerBoris Karloff was one of the first film stars to test the waters of television.  In 1949, he hosted a television horror anthology (that was also broadcast on radio) entitled Starring Boris Karloff…as well as playing the titular role in the syndicated series Colonel March of Scotland Yard.  He guest-starred on TV series like Suspense, Lights Out, Shirley Temple Storybook and The Gale Storm Show in the 50s, and favorites like Route 66, The Wild Wild West, I Spy and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. the following decade.  His best-remembered boob tube showcase remains Thriller, an anthology series televised on NBC from 1960-62 that author Stephen King once declared “the greatest horror series ever to air on television.”  While Boris was the weekly host, he also acted on occasion in such memorable episodes as “Dialogues with Death” and “The Incredible Doktor Markesan.”

targetsBy the 1960s, even though he had fewer film roles, Boris remained a pop culture icon.  One of his all-time best horror outings was in the Mario Bava-directed Black Sabbath (1964), and he made a number of movies for American International Pictures, including The Terror (1963), The Comedy of Terrors (1963) and The Raven (1963)—a wonderful horror comedy that also features Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.  In fact, it was because Karloff owed director-producer Roger Corman a few days’ work that he was cast in the cult classic Targets (1968), as a faded horror actor (named Byron Orlok) who’s convinced his kind of movie terror can’t compete with the real horrors of today.  Targets, directed by newcomer Peter Bogdanovich, wasn’t technically Boris’ last film (he appeared in four Mexican horror quickies released sometime afterward), but I like to consider it so.  He died on February 2, 1969—a notation on a plaque inside St. Peter’s Covent Garden (in London) reads: “He Nothing Common Did or Mean/Upon That Memorable Scene.”

20199I’ve never made it a secret that I have been a passionate fan of both Boris Karloff and his film legacy…and I really had to reign in the gushing, otherwise this blog post would have gone on forever.  Here at Radio Spirits, we feature much of Boris’ work in the aural medium: Lights Out, Everybody! features the classic “Cat Wife” episode mentioned above.  You can hear Boris cut up on broadcasts with Fred Allen (The Fred Allen Show) and Jack Benny (No Place Like Home), and he can also be heard on two shows featured on our Happy Halloween! collection (The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show and Sealtest Variety Theatre).  For a visual Boris, why not check out some episodes of his 1958 boob tube anthology The Veil—which you’ll find on Lights Out: Volume 1.  And for the die-hard Karloff fan, you can revisit his role as the inscrutable sleuth Mr. Wong in Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection.  (Here’s where I get to say:  “Tell them Boris sent you!”)