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Happy Birthday, anybody—here’s Morgan…

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Henry Lerner Van Ost, Jr. brashly entered this world in New York City on this date in 1915. We know him better as Henry Morgan…and it’s a good thing he was persuaded to change his name once he decided on a career in broadcasting, because the phrase “Van Ost’ll be here on the same corner in front of the cigar store next week” doesn’t quite come trippingly off the tongue. Henry was asked by his employers to make the switch because they believed his given name was “too exotic, too unpronounceable”; his argument that announcers such as Westbrook Van Voorhis and Harry Von Zell didn’t seem to have that problem fell on deaf ears…and in retrospect, might have foreshadowed the constant battles he would wage against authority figures (management, sponsors, etc.) later in his show business career.

morgan1Henry Morgan literally entered radio on the ground floor; he began his career as a page at WMCA in 1932 and worked up through the ranks until he achieved the lofty position of announcer. (Morgan later boasted that he was one of the youngest in that profession in the country.) By “through the ranks,” I mean that Morgan was employed by a lot of radio stations. He cultivated a talent both for insubordination and tardiness; the insubordination was a by-product of his constant need to test the limits of authority. Morgan often found certain tasks in radio tedious—he was a weatherman at one station, and because he became bored reading the weather reports on the air he’d relieve the monotony by ad-libbing cracks like “Dark clouds, followed by silver linings” and “Snow, followed by little boys with sleds.” Henry also began to develop a disdain for ad copy, which he often found insulting and mind-numbingly insipid. This derision for radio’s necessary evil (it pays the rent, cartooners) would become a hallmark in his later career as well.

morgan2By the early 1940s, Henry Morgan managed to find himself at the prestigious WOR in New York; how long he would stay there was another matter entirely. The Powers That Be at the station came up with what they believed would be a cure for Morgan’s restlessness: they’d let him have fifteen minutes every Saturday morning to get the “foolishness” out of his system with a broadcast entitled Here’s Morgan. But it didn’t take long for the experiment to turn on its creators: Henry was not only having the time of his life, he was attracting a loyal following that included such notable practitioners of mirth as Fred Allen, James Thurber and Robert Benchley (who would soon adopt Morgan as his drinking buddy). Morgan’s wars with the advertisers also reached a fever pitch as Here’s Morgan was eventually expanded to three times a week…then six times a week.

adlerAmong his early sponsors was Adler Shoes; the company was best known for their “elevator shoes” and the reassurance to their male customers that they could be “taller than she is.” Morgan soon began directing barbs at the company president, Jesse Adler, referring to him as “Old Man Adler” and tossing off bon mots like “You might like them, but I wouldn’t wear them to a dogfight.” “Old Man” Adler was apoplectic at this and demanded time for an editorial response. Henry headed him off by apologizing: “You’re right, Mr. Adler—I would wear them to a dogfight.” Jesse Adler might not have been able to see the humor in Morgan’s unconventional selling of his product…but when customers came in wanting to purchase “Old Man Adler’s shoes” and the number of stores he owned increased from two to fourteen inside of a year, he soon changed his mind. Sadly for Mr. Adler, the best thing to happen to his business was no longer a concern for WOR once Henry was drafted in 1943.

morgan11Having “done his bit,” Henry Morgan returned to the airwaves in 1945. Ironically, his show would be broadcast on ABC, whose owner (Edward Noble) was president of the Life Savers Candy Company…a product that Henry ripped to shreds during his WOR days. (He once described the candy flavors as “cement, asphalt, and asbestos.”) ABC carried Henry in his fifteen-minute format for a while, then promoted him to prime time in the fall of 1946 with a weekly half-hour comedy show. Each week, to the strains of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” announcer Charles Irving would ask incredulously “The Henry Morgan Show?”…which was the cue for the show’s star to introduce himself with “Good evening, anybody…here’s Morgan.” (Henry explained his greeting was inspired by Kate Smith’s bright and cheery “Hello everybody!”)

arnoldstangAided and abetted by a cast that included (at various times) Florence Halop, Madeline Lee, Art Carney, and Arnold Stang, Morgan let his sarcastic flag fly with hilarious send-ups of radio programs (he particularly enjoyed ribbing quiz shows) and a puckish look at American pop culture. His sponsorship problems continued: Eversharp-Schick (pens by Eversharp) paid the program’s bills, and its injector razor slogan of “Push-Pull Click-Click” became “Push-Pull Nick-Nick” in Morganese. (From a May 7, 1947 broadcast: “The Eversharp-Schick injector razor is very educational…shave with it sometime—that’ll teach you a lesson.”) The Eversharp people tolerated Henry’s antics as long as was possible before eventually pulling out of the program, blaming Morgan’s anemic ratings for poor sales. (“It’s not my show—it’s their razor!” exclaimed Henry in his defense.)

morgan14The breakout star on The Henry Morgan Show was radio veteran Arnold Stang, whose wisecracking “Gerard” soon captured the fancy of the listening audience (and several critics, who proposed renaming Henry’s program “The Arnold Stang Show”). Stang was so popular that he was the lone cast member to travel to the West Coast with Henry to do the weekly show while the two of them worked on a film that was designed to promote Morgan heavily. So This is New York (1948), an adaptation of Ring Lardner’s novel The Big Town, was released to favorable critical reviews (mine is here), but dismal box office returns ultimately torpedoed the film. (“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” George S. Kaufman once observed—I think it’s a first-rate vehicle for its star, and was pleased as punch when Olive Films released the title to both DVD and Blu-ray in July of 2014.) Morgan’s only other cinematic contribution was a nice turn as a district attorney in 1960’s Murder, Inc.

morgan4Henry Morgan shook off any disappointment that a long movie career was not forthcoming by continuing what he did best on radio. The Henry Morgan Show moved to NBC in the spring of 1949 for Rayve Shampoo, and welcomed new regulars Pert Kelton, Kenny Delmar, and Fran Warren (along with Stang and Carney). Henry was also attempting to make inroads into television: first with shows on ABC (1948’s On the Corner) and NBC (1949), and then with Henry Morgan’s Great Talent Hunt on NBC from January to June of 1951. The comedian was bum-rushed off the small screen for a short period of time after he found himself listed in Red Channels—Morgan’s defense was that it was due to the political affiliations of his first wife.

morgan5Just as Henry’s good friend Fred Allen eventually found his niche as a regular panelist on TV’s What’s My Line?, so would Morgan himself when he joined the cast of another panel program, I’ve Got a Secret, in June of 1952. It was not a happy experience for Henry; he frequently complained about the show—not realizing (or perhaps he did) that it was his cranky, curmudgeonly persona that was such a hit with the show’s audience. (Secret was a highly-rated series for CBS during its long prime time run of fourteen years.) In addition to his Secret duties, Henry Morgan was a cast member on the satirical revue That Was the Week That Was (1964-65), and later played William Windom’s editor on the James Thurber-inspired situation comedy My World and Welcome to It (1969-70).

But “radio’s bad boy” never forgot the medium that made him a star: he frequently appeared on NBC’s Monitor in the 1950s and 1960s, and later revived Here’s Morgan over New York’s WBAI-FM. In the 1980s, Henry was a major Big Apple celebrity on the dial, doing short commentaries for WNEW in 1981…and a year later, he was welcomed back into the WOR fold with a Saturday evening show entitled Morgan and the Media. Feisty and combative until the end, the world became a little less sane when Henry Morgan left this world for a better one in 1994 at the age of 79.

20336It goes without saying that Henry Morgan is one of my favorite radio comedians: a brilliant satirist who went one step further than my beloved king of the radio funsters, Fred Allen, by fearlessly drawing blood with the verbal stiletto that was his uncompromising wit. (As Gerald Nachman memorably described today’s birthday boy in his compendium of on-the-air memories, Raised on Radio: “If Fred Allen bit the hand that fed him, Henry Morgan tried to bite off the whole arm.”) No set of liner notes brought me more joy than the ones I contributed to Radio Spirits’ Henry Morgan, a five-CD set of broadcasts from The Henry Morgan Show broadcast between 1946 and 1947. Purchase this collection in honor of Henry’s natal anniversary and get ready to enjoy maximum mirth.

Happy Birthday, Jan Miner!

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On radio, one of the rare daytime dramas to stand out from its weepy brethren and sistren was Hilltop House—a series that took place in an orphanage located in the fictional town of Glendale and sponsored throughout its four-year-run by Colgate-Palmolive-Peet. You read that right: Hilltop House initially ran for only four years (1937-41) before its creators voluntarily took the show off the air. The new advertising agency wanted the team to compromise on the fine, literate quality of Hilltop—something producer Edwin Wolfe and writer “Adelaide Marston” (the pen name of scribes Addy Richton and Lynn Stone) simply refused to do.

miner6Hilltop House would return to the airwaves in May of 1948 and made itself at home on the radio dial until July 30, 1957. The lead role of the orphanage’s administrator, Julie Erickson, would no longer be essayed by radio veteran Grace Matthews; furthermore, the show’s sponsorship had passed from Palmolive to Miles Laboratories (makers of Alka Seltzer). Actress Jan Miner—born in Boston, Massachusetts on this date in 1917—would play Julie till the show folded its tent; as for Palmolive, Ms. Miner would soon enjoy a long relationship with that product much later in her show business career…but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Young Janice Miner attended Boston’s prestigious Vesper George School of Art before deciding on an acting career. To accomplish this, she studied with renowned acting teacher Lee Strasberg and others, enabling her to make her stage debut in Boston in 1945 in a production of Street Scene, written by Elmer Rice. A move to the Big Apple the following year to continue in the footlights found Jan also breaking into local radio at a station in Hartford, Connecticut. While her Broadway resume would later include the likes of Othello, The Women, The Heiress and Watch on the Rhine, it was radio that would provide a steady source of groceries on the table when Miner took over for Joan Tompkins as Lora Lawton in 1946 (Jan would play the part until 1950).

miner2In addition to Lora Lawton and Hilltop House, Jan added to her daytime radio c.v. with stints on Perry Mason (as Perry’s gal Friday, Della Street) and I Love Linda Dale. In prime-time, Miner played Mary Wesley for a time on Boston Blackie and Ann Williams, the girlfriend of Casey, Crime Photographer as well. She emoted on many of radio’s top dramatic anthologies: Radio City Playhouse, My Secret Story, The Cavalcade of America, The MGM Theatre of the Air, Best Plays and The CBS Radio Workshop. In addition, Jan worked on such shows as 21st Precinct, The Big Show, The Chase, Cloak and Dagger, Dimension X, The Falcon, I Love a Mystery (the Mutual version), The Mysterious Traveler, Rocky Fortune, That Hammer Guy, X-Minus One, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Even after radio had said goodbye to its glory days, Jan’s reverence for the medium was such that she could be heard on such 1960s revival programs as The Eternal Light and Theater Five.

miner11The gradual disappearance of radio prompted Jan Miner to look elsewhere for work. Miner did quite a bit of repertory theatre, but she would also reprise her Ann Williams role on Crime Photographer when it appeared briefly on TV in 1951. For the most part, she depended on guest star roles on such programs as Schlitz Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, One Step Beyond, Naked City, The Defenders and The Doctors and the Nurses. Miner continued to be busy with appearances on such 1970s series as One Day at a Time and Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. She had a recurring role on the latter show as the mother (Marge Dreyfuss) of the series’ titular star.

miner8By the time of her stint on Friends and Lovers, I’d be willing to guess confidently that audiences at home shouted out “Madge!” when Jan Miner made her appearances. Jan’s best-remembered television work remains a series of commercials for Palmolive dishwashing liquid; she played “Madge the Manicurist,” a wisecracking beautician who did the nails of customers at the Salon East Beauty Parlor. Her conversations with her clientele started out innocently enough…but they would gradually veer toward the topic of the Palmolive product since her unsuspecting patrons were completely unaware their digits were soaking in the dishwashing liquid until Madge nonchalantly revealed the contents. “Palmolive softens hands while you do the dishes,” she would declare in the successful ad campaign shown on small screens from 1966 to 1992.

miner7Jan Miner may not have had a voluminous movie resume like some of her fellow radio actors…but she made the most of the parts she did land; her most famous film role was playing Sally Bruce, the mother of future comedic legend Lenny (Dustin Hoffman) in the 1974 biopic Lenny, and she also can be seen in the likes of The Swimmer (1968—a particular favorite of mine), Willie & Phil (1980), Endless Love (1981) and Mermaids (1990—she plays the Mother Superior!). Her last IMDb credit was an appropriate guest appearance on the cable sitcom Remember WENN; I caught Jan in a Law & Order repeat (“Golden Years”) and asked my mother if she recognized the actress. (I eventually had to reveal Miner’s Madge the Manicurist identity.) Jan Miner passed away in 2004 at the age of 86.

20908Like many of my generation, I knew Jan Miner only as the gal who hawked Palmolive; I didn’t learn of her amazing radio career until much later, and she’s been a favorite of mine ever since that revelatory moment. Radio Spirits has plenty of Miner’s radio work on hand starting with the Casey, Crime Photographer collection Blue Note and two Casey broadcasts on our compilation Stop the Press! Jan also appears on Dimension X: Adventures in Time and Space. Happy birthday to our favorite actress-beautician and remember…you’re soaking in it!

“Saints preserve us, Mr. Keen! He’s got a gun!”

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Back in the 1970s, when I first immersed myself in the wonderful world of old-time radio, my enthusiasm for “The Hobby” was such that I beseeched both my mother and father for stories about their listening experiences. My mother was too young to remember most of Radio’s Golden Age…though she did regale me with some recollections of how she and her grandmother would snuggle up in her bed and listen to The Lone Ranger because Nana Mary Sullivan did not own a TV set. (This instilled in my mother a love for the “daring and resourceful masked rider of the Plains” that continues unabated today.)

My father, being considerably older, was also a disappointment as far as radio memories were concerned. He patiently explained to me that growing up, he didn’t have time for “all that foolishness.” (Don’t ever get him started on stories about his childhood—there’s a reason why they called that era The Great Depression.) Oddly enough, he did remember with fondness a radio detective that premiered on NBC Blue on this date in 1937: Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

keen3Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons originated in the daytime drama factory of Anne and Frank Hummert. The Hummerts’ soap opera empire was legendary; classic series from their stable include The Romance of Helen Trent, Ma Perkins, Backstage Wife, and Our Gal Sunday. Mr. Keen was not dissimilar to their daytime programs — in fact, it began on the Blue Network as a three-day-a-week quarter-hour (only it was broadcast at 7:15pm). For many years, the program’s announcer intoned that the show was based on “one of the most famous characters of American fiction”…and yet no one has been able to produce the “Mr. Keen” novel that purportedly provided the inspiration for the long-running show. OTR historian Jack French has opined that the origins of the “kindly old investigator” might be traced (see what I did there?) to a 1906 novel, The Tracer of Lost Persons, written by Robert W. Chambers.

Setting the origins of its main character aside, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons centered on an elderly investigator (think Barnaby Jones on radio) whose specialty was looking into the mysterious disappearances of people, as requested by their loved ones and/or family members. The serialized nature of the program in its early years gave the show more credibility than most (allowing the series to eschew the common “miracle-in-a-half-hour” trope). However, one mystery that was never addressed was why the show’s protagonist had no first name. (He must have been pretty busy.) The part of Mr. Keen was played, through most of its lengthy run, by Bennett Kilpack; Arthur Hughes and then Philip Clarke took over in Keen’s later years.

keen2Mr. Keen was assisted in his tracing endeavors by Irishman Mike Clancy (Jimmy Kelly), who supplied the necessary “muscle” for his soft-spoken boss…because let’s face it, Mike wasn’t the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer. Mr. Keen demonstrated saint-like patience, explaining to Mike the situations in which the two men frequently found themselves…in almost the same manner that a tolerant parent would use to mentor a child. The only other regular character on Keen was Maisie Ellis (Florence Malone), who performed secretarial duties…and even she didn’t hold that job for too long, appearing only in the early years of the program. Because the Hummerts always kept an eye on what could be done to cut program costs (hey, with the number of shows they produced it only made sense), they generally relied on tried-and-true performers like Arline Blackburn, Mary Jane Higby, Vivian Smolen and Ned Wever (all of whom worked on their other shows).

keen9During its five years on NBC Blue, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons was sponsored by Whitehall Pharmaceuticals. The primary commercials touted the benefits of Anacin and Kolynos toothpaste and tooth powder, but on occasion pitches for Aerowax, BiSoDol antacid, Heet liniment, and Hills cold tablets could be heard as well. Whitehall was, in fact, the show’s longest-running sponsor; when they stopped paying the bills in 1951 the likes of Chesterfield/L&M, RCA Victor, Procter & Gamble, and Dentyne started signing the paychecks. Mr. Keen moved to CBS in October of 1943 and continued its serialized format for another year before expanding to a half-hour (and shrinking to weekly status).

keen4With the adoption of the half-hour format, Mr. Keen began specializing in the solving of murders…even though the series kept its memorable theme song, “Someday I’ll Find You.” Once Keen and Clancy became indistinguishable from the other detective brethren and sistren on the air, listeners started to notice that the two men adopted a rather unorthodox approach to law enforcement. They rarely reported any of their conversations with witnesses and/or suspects to the police; they trampled crime scenes with little regard for search warrants—they even snatched up objects in evidence, contaminating them with their fingerprints. Keen was even able to arrest the guilty party at the end of each episode, despite having no authority to make such collars. “We usually work along with the police,” Keen would explain to those people asking too many questions…and while the cops always seemed in awe of the man (“The famous investigator?”) I’ll bet the district attorney was repeatedly tearing his hair out.

Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons was a hugely popular program during its almost twenty years on the air. It left CBS in 1951 and was welcomed as the prodigal son for a season on NBC before the show went back to its former CBS environs in 1952. It would stay at the “stars’ address” until September 26, 1955. By that time it had fully entered pop culture, and was even parodied in MAD magazine (“Kane Keen!”) and sent up by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding as Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons. (If I had a dime for every time someone referenced the Bob & Ray version when I mention Mr. Keen, I’d be a wealthy, wealthy man).

20638Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons is a huge fan favorite of old-time radio devotees today…though not in the manner you’d probably expect. It has an unintentional campy quality, no doubt due to its Hummert pedigree, owing to such lines of dialogue as, “Before I open this door, Mr. Keen, let me tell you something: no one in this house right now had anything to do with the murder of young Donald Travers, my sister’s husband.” It appeals to a generation brought up on deadpan dramatics like those featured on TV’s Batman, and as such Radio Spirits highly recommends its collection Murder in the Air to the novice Keen fan. (I wrote the liner notes!) When you’ve finished that, why not check out “the kindly old investigator” in a new adventure alongside fellow radio gumshoes like Pat Novak and Johnny Dollar in the C.J. Henderson-Joe Gentile novel Partners in Crime!

Happy Birthday, Elvia Allman!

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“Speed it up a little!” That unforgettable line of dialogue from the classic I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching”—the one where Lucy and Ethel are working a conveyor belt at a candy factory, and resort to stuffing chocolates in their mouths and down their blouses to keep up with the endless confectionaries coming down the assembly line—might just be Elvia Allman’s entertainment legacy (she played the formidable forewoman supervising our heroines). But old-time radio fans confidently know that Elvia—born one hundred and eleven years ago on this date in Enochville, North Carolina—established a major presence over the airwaves: she worked with many of the medium’s biggest comedy stars, and performed regularly on any number of top-rated programs.

elvia3Though Allman would see later success in movies and television as a solid, dependable character actress (where her specialty was playing shrews and stuffy society matrons), it would seem that radio captivated her from the very start of her show business career. At Los Angeles’ KHJ in the mid-20s, she worked as a program arranger and children’s story reader, later adding “singer” to her resume. 1933 briefly found her working in the Big Apple, where she sang on a network quarter-hour, and then it was back to Los Angeles and KNX for what was to be a long-term contract…that unfortunately ended two years later.

But by that time, Elvia had already established herself as a performer on CBS’ successful Blue Monday Jamboree, playing characters like Pansy Pennypincher (a home economist) and Octavia Smith-Whiffen (a high-falutin’ society matron). Allman also worked on a number of programs sold directly in radio syndication, including Crazy Quilt, Komedy Kapers and The Komedy Kingdom (she was the emcee on this latter series, billed as “Elvia, the Queen of Mirth”). (She was also one of the many radio veterans who participated in the Yuletide classic The Cinnamon Bear, playing the part of Penelope the Pelican.) Her big break came as a regular on Bob Hope’s The Pepsodent Show. While she was recruited to play many, many minor characters, she’s best known for playing opposite Blanche Stewart as “Brenda and Cobina,” a pair of homely man-chasers (well, as ugly as you can get on radio) who were meant to be parodies of real-life socialites Brenda Frazier and Cobina Wright. (The real Brenda and Cobina, suffice it to say, were not particularly flattered by all of the attention.)

elvia1Working on Bob Hope’s program solidified Elvia Allman’s credentials as a supporting performer; the list of comedians and personalities that she later worked alongside includes Alan Young, Dinah Shore, Dorothy Lamour (The Sealtest Variety Theatre), Eddie Bracken, Eddie Cantor, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fanny Brice, Frank Morgan, Jack Benny, Jack Paar, Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee & Molly), Jimmy Durante & Garry Moore, Judy Canova, Mel Blanc, and Phil Harris & Alice Faye. It was during the 1940s that Allman performed two of her most famous radio roles. On The Abbott & Costello Show, she was the battle-axe wife of announcer Ken Niles, and her comedic sparring with Lou Costello every week was just one of that series’ hilarious highlights. Elvia’s other regular gig was playing the man-chasing Tootsie Sagwell on George Burns & Gracie Allen’s show; “Tootsie” schemed constantly to march down the matrimonial aisle with announcer Bill Goodwin…but she was flexible; she’d pretty much go after anything in pants. (When Goodwin struck out on his own with a failed sitcom in 1947, Allman could be heard on that series as well, as one-half of “the Dinwiddie Sisters,” a pair of siblings who served as the announcer’s comic nemeses.)

bobhopecast1Allman was heard on radio’s Blondie from time to time as Cora Dithers, the intimidating wife of Dagwood’s boss (played by Hanley Stafford). She also worked on such programs as The Adventures of Maisie, The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, Beulah, Bright Star, Glamour Manor, The Life of Riley, Meet Mr. McNutley, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, My Favorite Husband, That’s Rich, and Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou. Though primarily a comedy performer, she could branch out on occasion in dramatic parts on the likes of Broadway’s My Beat, The CBS Radio Workshop, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Railroad Hour, and The Six Shooter. Elvia also “did her bit” for the war effort by appearing on such AFRS favorites as Command Performance, G.I. Journal, and Mail Call. With the departure of radio in the 50s and 60s, Allman still kept her hand in the medium, appearing on such 70s revival series as Heartbeat Theatre, The Hollywood Radio Theatre and The Sears Radio Theatre.

elvia5To get into the movies, Elvia Allman relied on her radio resume and began as a voice-over artist for animated cartoons produced at Warner Brothers and Walt Disney. She was one of several performers who provided the speaking tones of Disney’s Clarabelle Cow, and her final show business job was reprising Clarabelle for the studio’s 1990 release of The Prince and the Pauper. Working for Bob Hope also helped her silver screen cred (if you’ve seen Road to Singapore, Elvia is the unattractive woman who chases after Bob in that romp). And she and Blanche Stewart played “Brenda and Cobina” in such films as Time Out for Rhythm (1941—which featured The Three Stooges), Swing It, Soldier (1941), and Sweetheart of the Fleet (1942). Sadly, most of her movie roles were uncredited bits, but she made the most of her assignments in films like Sis Hopkins (1941), In Society (1944), Carolina Blues (1944), The Noose Hangs High (1948), and Week-End with Father (1951). Her best known movie appearance might be that of Edwina Kelp, the mother of Professor Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis) in 1963’s The Nutty Professor.

elvia2Television opened up a lot of doors for Elvia…though it’s interesting to note that many of the radio stars on whose programs she appeared used her sparingly, like Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen. But her association with George & Gracie put her in good stead with one of their writers, Paul Henning, who began using her on The Bob Cummings Show (as Mrs. Montague). And he later assigned her the roles she’s best remembered for among couch potatoes: Selma Plout on Petticoat Junction (she was the nemesis of Edgar Buchanan’s Uncle Joe) and Elverna Bradshaw on The Beverly Hillbillies. Allman also reprised her Cora Dithers characterization for a short-lived boob tube version of Blondie in 1957, and was a guest star on such programs as The Andy Griffith Show, The Ann Sothern Show, Bachelor Father, December Bride (and its spin-off, Pete and Gladys), Dennis the Menace, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Gale Storm Show, I Married Joan, The Jack Benny Show, Mister Ed, Our Miss Brooks, The People’s Choice, and Perry Mason. Elvia would continue to guest on TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s until her passing at the age of 87 in 1992.

20263Radio Spirits has plenty of collections featuring today’s birthday celebrant—we suggest you start with her work alongside George Burns & Gracie Allen on such sets as Treasury, Burns & Allen & Friends, and Muddling Through. Elvia Allman also had a regular role as the crotchety housekeeper on Bright Star, a comedy-drama starring Fred MacMurray and Irene Dunne—which is available in a single collection and broadcasts on our Stop the Press! compilation. We certainly don’t want to leave out her appearances with such radio comedy greats as Abbott & Costello (a Yuletide broadcast on The Voices of Christmas Past), Jack Benny (Be Our Guest, No Place Like Home, On the Town, Wit Under the Weather), Fibber McGee & Molly (Wistful Vista), Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (The Funny Fifties), and Phil Harris & Alice Faye (Hotel Harris, Smoother and Sweeter). Happy birthday, Elvia!

Happy Birthday, Walter B. Gibson!

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When it came to pulp fiction, Street & Smith were among the leaders in that particular kingdom of the publishing world—the company churned out a large number of weekly magazines, comics and inexpensive novels during their reign from 1855 to 1949 (the year S & S began selling off some of their titles), and were undeniably shrewd promoters of their own product. For example, Street & Smith began sponsoring a radio program on CBS starting on July 31, 1930 to plug Detective Story Magazine—a series appropriately titled The Detective Story Hour. Ostensibly an anthology program that dramatized tales originally printed in Detective Story, the narrator of the show—a mysterious character identified as “The Shadow” (played by James LaCurto, then Frank Readick)—quickly began to attract attention among the series’ devoted listeners.

gibson1That attention came in the form of Street & Smith Publishers being constantly asked where folks might purchase magazines with “that Shadow character from the radio.” To address the high demand for a magazine they technically didn’t publish (yet), the company asked an author who had recently submitted some stories for Detective Story Magazine to produce 75,000 words for the premiere issue of The Shadow Magazine. That tale, “The Living End,” was published under the nom de plume of Maxwell Grant…but the author’s real name was Walter Brown Gibson, and he was born 118 years ago on this very date.

Gibson entered this world in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA, to Alfred Cornelius and May Morrell Whidden Gibson. After graduating from Colgate University in 1920, Walter became a member of the fourth estate: he worked on such newspapers as the Philadelphia North American and (later) The Evening Ledger, as a reporter and crossword puzzle designer. Macfadden Publications hired him in 1928 to edit a magazine entitled True Strange Stories (he went by “Walter Scofield” at that time), and three years later he embarked on his Street & Smith Shadow venture—publishing the equivalent of 283 novels out of an eventual 325 on the invisible crimefighter (about 24 novels a year!).

Shadow_Magazine_Vol_1_253Walter Gibson described himself as a “compulsive writer,” and the proof of that is his churning out an estimated 1,680,000 words a year. In addition to his contribution as the Shadow’s official chronicler (Gibson more or less created the mythos of the pop culture favorite), Walter was also the author of a daily newspaper comic strip featuring the famed mystery man in the 1940s, and he penned many of The Shadow’s comic book adventures as well. Gibson also served as a consultant to the radio series, which became known as The Blue Coal Mystery Revue in 1932, and in the fall of 1937 put The Shadow center stage with Orson Welles voicing the man who could cloud men’s minds so that they couldn’t see him. Moving back and forth between the publishing and radio worlds was not without controversy, however. The Shadow’s identity on radio was “wealthy young man-about-town” Lamont Cranston, but in the novels and stories The Shadow used “Cranston” as a disguise to cover his real identity: former WW1 aviator Kent Allard. The Shadow’s “friend and companion” Margo Lane was also a pure radio addition (to add some female interest to the series)—Margo wasn’t introduced to the printed page until 1941…and more than a few readers objected strongly to this.

blackstoneBecause he decided sleep was for the weak (okay, I’m just making a joke here), Walter Gibson didn’t just limit his writing activity to the adventures of The Shadow. Gibson published books on such subjects as true crime, yoga, hypnotism and games, and as an accomplished magician Walter wrote on magic, psychic phenomena/occult and rope tricks. The author was quite well-known as a “ghost writer” on books published by Harry Houdini, writing on Houdini’s legendary escapes and feats of magic (and he was an active participant in the “séances” conducted to contact Harry in the next world as well). Gibson contributed to the “literary efforts” of mentalist Joseph Dunninger and fellow prestidigitator Harry Blackstone, Sr. Blackstone was the subject of a quarter-hour radio drama entitled Blackstone, the Magic Detective that ran weekly on Mutual from 1948-49; Walter contributed to those scripts as well as the comic book series inspired by Blackstone’s fictional exploits.

nickelsdimesIf you’ve ever perused the items for sale in your local magic shop and found yourself distracted by the “nickels to dimes” illusion…well, you can award the credit to Walter Gibson; he also introduced the “Chinese linking rings” trick to American audiences as well. Gibson never called it a day with his love of writing, by the way—he brought back The Shadow in 1963 with the appropriately titled Return of the Shadow (his last Shadow novel had been released in 1949), and as “Andy Adams” penned five entries in the Biff Brewster juvenile adventure book series between 1960 and 1965. Walter would continue writing books and short stories until he left this world to really look for Houdini with his passing in 1985.

20789Radio Spirits is proud to present numerous first-rate reprints of classic Shadow Magazine tales…and since there’s just too many to list here, we invite you to “browse the stacks” so you can lay your hands on treasures like The Shadow Annual 1. We’ve also plenty of recorded Shadow adventures on hand: Bitter Fruit, Crime Does Not Pay, Dead Men Tell, Knight of Darkness, Radio Treasures, Silent Avenger and Strange Puzzles. Purchase some today to celebrate the birthday of the man who truly knows “what evil lurks in the hearts of men”: Walter Gibson!

“M-O-L-L-É…”

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It is interesting to note that one of radio’s most popular mystery anthologies—The Mollé Mystery Theatre, which debuted over NBC Radio seventy-two years ago on this date—did without its identifying sponsor for a period of three months when it first premiered September 7, 1943. The decision of the “heavier brushless shaving cream” to pick up the advertising tab apparently gave Sterling Drugs (the manufacturer of Mollé) the freedom to attach its name to the program…though when the series migrated to CBS in the fall of 1948, MMT shed the “Mollé” to become simply Mystery Theatre. (It would soon pick up an assortment of different identifiers in its long broadcast history.)

molle2In its original incarnation, The Mollé Mystery Theatre spotlighted tales of mystery cribbed from the works of celebrated authors (from Edgar Allan Poe to Raymond Chandler). The stories were presented through an “annotator” (a fancy description for narrator) who answered to “Geoffrey Barnes”—originally played by Roc Rogers, but Bernard Lenrow is the actor best-remembered in the role. Barnes dubbed himself “the connoisseur of mysteries,” and I’ll bet after his time on the program ended he spent his retirement lunching weekly with Crime Classics’ Thomas Hyland (“the connoisseur of crime”). Okay, I am joking about that—still, Barnes was no slouch when it came to spinning yarns guaranteed to keep listeners on the edge of their seat. When Mollé Mystery Theatre ran dry of inspiration with classic stories, it turned to new contributions from writers who in many instances were making their earliest forays into radio, including Aldous Huxley (“The Giaconda Smile”) and Ray Bradbury (“Killer Come Back to Me”).

molle7Dan Seymour was the longtime announcer for Mollé Mystery Theatre, and the casts of the various episodes included New York veterans like Joseph Julian, Elspeth Eric, Frank Lovejoy, Anne Seymour and Inner Sanctum’s Raymond Edward Johnson. (A newcomer named Richard Widmark was also a frequent performer on Mollé until he moved on to a lucrative film career pushing old ladies in wheelchairs down staircases.) When Mollé was broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Service, the name of the sponsor had to be dropped from the title…but they made up for this by adding some real star wattage in Peter Lorre, who became the host of a show alternately known as Mystery Theatre and Mystery Playhouse (an umbrella title for several other radio favorites, too, like Mr. and Mrs. North and The Saint).

hummertsIn the fall of 1948, CBS began broadcasting the series because…well, because they had been successful in taking everything else from NBC. A slight exaggeration, to be sure, but the program continued on as Mystery Theatre despite the continuing sponsorship of Sterling Drugs (they chose to promote other products such as Bayer aspirin and Phillips Milk of Magnesia). The production of Mystery Theatre was also placed in the hands of Frank and Anne Hummert…who may have been unparalleled in the field of daytime soaps, but unfortunately applied the same heavy-handed melodramatic methods to their mystery shows as well (see Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons). One of their innovations was to introduce a character entitled Inspector Hearthstone, a dedicated detective played by British actor Alfred Shirley, who worked in the homicide division (nicknamed “the Death Squad”) of London’s Metropolitan Police Department. (It’s speculated that the Hummerts were more comfortable with a solitary protagonist rather than an array of different sleuths week-to-week.) Accompanied by Detective Sam Cook (James Meighan) in his pursuits, Hearthstone made his debut on Mystery Theatre in February of 1949 and by the end of the series’ run, had pretty much taken over the show (only a few broadcasts focused on other characters).

shirleyThe August 30, 1951 broadcast of Mystery Theatre provided ample evidence of Hearthstone’s successful coup; the show had been retitled Hearthstone of the Death Squad, and it continued on CBS until September the following year—with many of the show’s previous scripts recycled to showcase its new star. Mystery Theatre fans had to tune into ABC Radio beginning in October of 1951 to continue listening to the show made famous by Sterling Drugs’ sponsorship…but they would have been disappointed to discover that the Mystery Theatre anthology had gone the way of Hearthstone by changing its focus to a single protagonist as well. That man was Mark Saber, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide bureau, who solved murders with the help of his sidekick, Sergeant Tim Maloney. (Mark Saber was originally played by Robert Carroll, with Les Damon and Bill Johnstone following; Maloney was essayed by Walter Burke and James Westerfield.) The once-proud Mystery Theatre had morphed into just another hard-boiled detective series—and in fact, was often referred to as Mark Saber or Homicide Squad. It did, however, have the distinction of making the move onto the small screen as Saber of London, telecast on both the ABC and NBC television networks at various times between 1951 and 1960. The radio version closed its case files on June 30, 1954.

molle4On the Radio Spirits’ horror compilation Great Radio Horror, the Mollé Mystery Theatre is represented with a spine-tingling tale entitled “The Beckoning One” (originally broadcast on June 5, 1945). But devoted fans will want to grab a copy of Mollé Mystery Theatre: Nightmare for their old-time radio libraries—with programs hosted by Roc Rogers, Bernard Lenrow and Peter Lorre, and featuring classics like Cornell Woolrich’s “Nightmare” (brought to the silver screen as the 1947 noir Fear in the Night) and Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (later a memorable episode of TV’s Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff). The DVD Rare TV Mystery also features an episode of Saber of London from 1952, “The Case of the Locked Room,” with Tom Conway bringing the radio sleuth to boob tube life!

Happy Birthday, Shirley Booth!

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There’s an oft-repeated observation that purportedly came from Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel on the controversial topic of her satisfaction with playing subservient domestic roles throughout her career. “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?” Hattie was quoted as saying. “If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” It would seem that most of the good-paying housekeeper jobs existed in Hollywood, and no one knew that better than Shirley Booth—born in Brooklyn, New York on this date in 1898. From 1961 to 1966, the woman originally known as Thelma Marjorie Ford would achieve television immortality as the meddlesome maid Hazel, and would be nominated three times for Outstanding Continued Performance by a Lead Actress in a Series (she won twice, in 1962 and 1963).

booth18Booth’s educational pursuits took her to schools in Brooklyn and Hartford, Connecticut…but only until the age of 14, when she defied her father’s wishes and quit school to pursue a stage career. Shirley was not an overnight success; her first professional performance wouldn’t materialize until 1921 (a role in The Cat and the Canary). But four years later, she made her Broadway debut in Hell’s Bells, which also had the novelty of featuring a young Humphrey Bogart in the cast. Shirley’s love of acting was often concentrated on the stage; she appeared in nearly 40 Broadway productions and worked in 600 productions with various stock companies. Her better known Broadway contributions include The Philadelphia Story, My Sister Eileen, Tomorrow the World, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Desk Set. (Shirley even auditioned to reprise the role she originated on stage for the movie version of Desk Set…but lost out to Katharine Hepburn.)

duffystavernWhile Shirley Booth’s stage career was whooshing along at full speed, she was able to conquer radio with a little help from the man she married in 1929: Ed Gardner. On March 1, 1941, Gardner debuted as “Archie the Manager” on the popular situation comedy Duffy’s Tavern. And to play the role of the saloon owner’s man-crazy daughter, Ed solicited the participation of Mrs. Gardner. Ed and Shirley called it quits in September of 1942, but she continued to play Miss Duffy on the show until June of 1943. Depending on the source, the two of them just couldn’t work together anymore or they parted as the best of friends. (The latter is perhaps closer to the truth, considering that Gardner lamented afterward that the myriad actresses who followed in Booth’s wake just couldn’t measure up to her original portrayal.)

booth19Shirley had actually performed on radio before the Duffy’s Tavern gig: she appeared on the now-famous December 17, 1936 broadcast of Rudy Vallee’s Royal Gelatin Hour that introduced ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his saucy sidekick Charlie McCarthy to the airwaves. (Shirley did a scene from Three Diamond Bid, a Broadway production in which she was appearing at the time.) But upon her departure from Duffy’s, she found herself in demand playing a character not unlike Miss Duffy: “Dottie Mahoney.” She guested on the shows of such comedians as Fred Allen and Danny Kaye, and worked alongside the likes of Vaughn Monroe and Kate Smith. Other radio favorites on which Shirley made appearances include The Cavalcade of America, The Ford Theatre, It Pays to Be Ignorant, The Radio Reader’s Digest, The Raleigh Room, The Theater of Romance, and The Theatre Guild On The Air.

booth10If Shirley Booth had been able to put over a little more comedy in her portrayal of Connie Brooks, chances are we’d remember Our Miss Brooks for Shirley and not Eve Arden (who ultimately won the role). Booth played Madison High’s favorite English teacher for the series’ April 8, 1948 audition, but CBS Radio programming chief Harry Ackerman felt that Shirley had problems finding the humorous side of Miss Brooks (empathizing with the difficult working conditions of teachers and their low pay instead). Shirley got a consolation prize in a short-lived NBC sitcom entitled Hogan’s Daughter, on which she played yet another Miss Duffy clone who actively sought out marriage prospects. (Harry Ackerman later became an executive with Screen Gems Television in 1958, and it’s not hard to discern that he remembered Shirley when it came to casting Hazel.)

booth13Besides, after winning a Tony Award for her performance in 1949’s Goodbye, My Fancy—and a third statuette for The Time of the Cuckoo in 1952-53—Shirley Booth was in full command of her acting career. Her second Tony win for playing a housewife dealing with her alcoholic husband in William Inge’s debut play Come Back, Little Sheba would also open doors for her in Hollywood: she reprised her stage role in the movie version, and nabbed the Best Actress Oscar for her memorable portrayal. Her Academy Award trophy brought about its share of controversy, however. Many feel that Booth’s skimpy film resume—she appeared in only four additional films, including About Mrs. Leslie (1954) and The Matchmaker (1958)—demonstrates that she cared more about the stage than becoming a movie star. (To these people I say: “Pish tosh.”)

booth5Her sporadic movie roles did not preclude the success she would enjoy in Hazel when the decision was made to bring Ted Key’s popular Saturday Evening Post comic panel strip to television. Shirley showed great interest in the project after Thelma Ritter reportedly took a pass. Burt Lancaster, her co-star in Come Back, Little Sheba, tried to warn her off the series by stating the experience would “cheapen” her. “Time will tell if it cheapens me,” she told him in response, “and if it does, I hope to be as cheapened as Lucy.” (“Lucy” as in Lucille Ball, of course.) The Hazel series ran for four seasons on NBC before switching to CBS in its final season…and it might have gone on for much longer had Booth herself not made the decision to quit the show (the long working hours were murder on her bursitis). Since Shirley owned a nice little piece of Hazel, the “cheap” experience paid off well when the show hit syndication.

booth11After Hazel, Shirley Booth limited her boob tube appearances to guest spots on sitcoms like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and specials like a 1966 presentation of The Glass Menagerie, for which she received her fourth and final Emmy nomination. Her Emmy wins for Hazel—not to mention her three Tony statuettes and Oscar for Sheba—place her in a rare category known as “The Triple Crown of Acting.” In 1973, Shirley took one more stab at a sitcom by starring in A Touch of Grace, a series based on the popular Britcom For the Love of Ada. Though well-written and well-acted, the show faced stiff competition from another U.K.-to-U.S. transplant, All in the Family, and Grace was cancelled after thirteen weeks. Shirley Booth’s final television credit would be voice work in the now-classic holiday special The Year Without a Santa Claus. She passed away on October 16, 1992 at the age of 94.

Happy Birthday, Gloria Blondell!

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If Gloria Blondell—born in Manhattan, NY one hundred and five years ago on this date—ever resented living in the shadow of older sister Joan, she rarely displayed any outside bitterness. This is not to say that occasionally being mistaken for the film star (Joan) who appeared in such classic Warner Bros. musicals as Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade didn’t present problems for Gloria…but since both she and her sister hailed from a theatrical tradition that Gloria herself once said dated all the way back to Richard the Lionhearted, there was no shortage of time to stand in front of the floodlights for Miss Blondell—besides, she preferred stage work to films, not to mention she left behind an old-time radio resume of which any actress would be proud.

gloria1Gloria first stepped onstage as a nine-month-old member of the vaudeville troupe “The Bouncing Blondells.” Her sister Joan and brother Eddie also performed with their parents—the senior Blondell (Eddie, Jr.), in fact, had an acting career that lasted nearly 80 years. While Joan was making inroads into Hollywood motion pictures in the 1930s, Gloria was establishing herself on stage with a role as a hotel maid in the 1935 New York production of Three Men on a Horse (which would be adapted as a feature film at Warner’s the following year). She followed this with a brief stint in the 1936 play Iron Men, which featured a young Eddie Bracken in the cast.

Gloria Blondell took a stab at motion picture work when she was signed to a contract at sister Joan’s studio Warner Bros. in 1938. Her film debut was in a B-programmer entitled Daredevil Drivers, and she also made appearances in Accidents Will Happen (starring opposite Ronald Reagan) and Four’s a Crowd (with Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland). Gloria also worked briefly at Columbia, appearing in two-reel comedies alongside The Three Stooges (Three Sappy People), Andy Clyde (Home on the Rage) and Charley Chase (The Sap Takes a Wrap). Blondell’s film work was sporadic after that; though it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had she landed a role she was the first choice for—the part of Blondie Bumstead, in a movie comedy inspired by Chic Young’s popular comic strip. Penny Singleton wound up with the part, and played it in what would be the first of twenty-eight comedies produced at Columbia between 1938 and 1950. Penny would also reprise on radio when a Blondie sitcom premiered over CBS Radio in 1939.

mysteryInterestingly, it was radio that would provide the central showcase for Gloria’s acting talents. Her best-remembered radio work is inarguably that of playing the indispensable Jerri Booker, gal Friday to Jack, Doc and Reggie on Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery from 1939 to 1944. The Jerri character became so important to the series that for a time it was trumpeted in the opening as “the adventures of Jack, Doc and Jerri.” After Mystery, Blondell played another assistant in Gloria Dean on Hollywood Mystery Time (1944-45), a series about a Poverty Row filmmaker named Jim Laughton (played by Carlton Young) who propped up his moviemaking ambitions by solving mysteries in his (and Gloria’s) spare time. Gloria was a favorite performer of radio auteur Arch Oboler, who used her frequently on Lights Out as well as Plays for Americans and Arch Oboler’s Plays. (Fittingly, Gloria would appear—along with fellow radio veteran Hans Conried—in the Arch Oboler-directed film The Twonky in 1953.) Blondell would make the rounds on a number of popular dramatic anthologies including All-Star Western Theatre, Diary of Fate, Family Theatre, Hallmark Playhouse, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood, and The Theater of Famous Radio Players.

gloria3Dig through your old-time radio collection, and you’ve certainly heard Gloria Blondell on such favorites as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the Saint, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, Escape, The Green Lama, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Let George Do It, The Man Called X, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Rocky Jordan, Rogue’s Gallery, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Gloria also demonstrated a flair for mirthmaking on sitcoms such as The Great Gildersleeve and Our Miss Brooks, and working alongside comedians like Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Jack Kirkwood, Lum and Abner (Chester Lauck and Norris Goff), and Bob Sweeney & Hal March.

gloria9In the 1950s, Gloria continued to be seen in such films as Don’t Bother to Knock and White Lightning, but she was probably better known for supplying the voice of Daisy Duck in the six Walt Disney cartoons that gave Donald’s long-suffering girlfriend a speaking part. Blondell also began to grace small screen shows as The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor and Wanted: Dead or Alive; I Love Lucy fans might remember her as neighbor Grace Foster in the classic outing “The Anniversary Present.” But Gloria’s most notable TV gig was playing Olive “Honeybee” Gillis (a part that Shirley Mitchell had played on radio) on The Life of Riley when the popular William Bendix radio sitcom took a second boob tube try in 1953. Blondell also did voice work on Calvin and the Colonel, the Joe Connelly-Bob Mosher produced animated sitcom that was created by radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. It must have seemed like Old Home Week for Gloria in that she was given the opportunity to work with many old-time radio veterans like Virginia Gregg, Paul Frees, June Foray and Howard McNear. It would be Blondell’s last professional gig: she retired not long after and enjoyed some well-deserved R&R until her passing in 1986.

20822Here at Radio Spirits, our Lights Out collections provide a wonderful starting point for those interested in checking out the always solid radio work of Gloria Blondell: Lights Out, Everybody features the classic chiller “Valse Triste” while Later Than You Think showcases the memorable “Murder in the Script Department.” Our birthday girl is also featured in two sets of Let George Do It (including our newest release, Cry Uncle) and The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint is Heard, The Saint Solves the Case). In addition, Ms. Blondell is present and accounted for on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road), Escape (The Hunted and the Haunted), The Man from Homicide, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead Men), Voyage of the Scarlet Queen Volume Two, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Confidential). Settle back for a birthday listen, won’t you?