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Happy Birthday, Les Damon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Fred Foy!

Old-time radio historian Jim Harmon minced no words in his book Radio Mystery and Adventure and Its Appearances in Film, Television and Other Media: “He was the announcer, perhaps the greatest announcer-narrator in the history of radio drama.  He pronounced words like no one ever had—‘SIL-ver,’ ‘hiss-TOR-ee.’  But hearing him, you realized everybody else had been wrong.”  That announcer was born Frederick William Foy on this date in 1921 in Detroit, MI…and although his wasn’t the first voice to recount the tales of “the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains,” he “literally made many people forget there had been others before him,” according to Harmon.

Born to Anna and Ferdinand Frederick Foy, an autoworker, Fred did not enter this world unaccompanied—he had a twin sister named Betty (his only sibling).  (Foy joked in a 2008 interview: “My Mom and Dad were not expecting a double feature.”)  He developed a love of acting by emulating the heroes in the various library books he checked out as a child.  Graduating from Detroit’s Eastern High School in 1938, Foy decided to remain home (instead of attending drama school) and look for any job opportunities in local radio.  His lack of experience hampered his ambitions, but he eventually landed a gig at WBMC, a small 250-watt station. Fred wasn’t paid for his on-air duties—he depended on his second job as an elevator operator in a downtown department store to keep body and soul together.

With his WBMC experience, Fred Foy eventually made the move to Detroit’s WXYZ in 1942—the home of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet (and later Challenge of the Yukon).  His stint at “Wyxie Wonderland” was brief, however; Foy was soon inducted into an Armed Forces Radio unit.  His attachment with the 14th Special Service Company would prove most fortuitous.  Fred would become the American voice of Egyptian State Broadcasting in Cairo, announcing news and sports while handling the distribution of American recordings throughout the Middle East.  In concert with the USO, Foy helped sponsor and stage shows featuring the likes of Jack Benny and Lily Pons.  Before his discharge in 1946, Fred received a commendation for voluntarily remaining at his post from August 10 until August 15, 1945 (the official confirmation of the Japanese surrender), issuing updates and news bulletins on the emerging situation.

Fred Foy returned to WXYZ after being demobbed, and for a couple of years served as a “second announcer” for many of the station’s popular series (doing the commercials at mid-break).  The decision of Lone Ranger announcer Harry Golder to relocate to the West Coast to further his career would provide Fred with the opportunity of a lifetime: to announce The Lone Ranger, a show he had listened to faithfully in his youth…never dreaming that he would one day be associated with the program.  Foy’s first broadcast was July 2, 1948, and he was also assigned the task of being star Brace Beemer’s understudy, frequently taking over for Brace during the show’s rehearsals.

Then came the day only dreamed about in old movie musicals: Fred would be pressed upon to play the role of the Ranger on a March 29, 1954 broadcast when Beemer came down with laryngitis!  (“I guess I did all right,” Foy reminisced in 2003 to The New York Daily News, “because we didn’t get any complaints.”) Had the series not bid listeners an official fare-thee-well in September of that same year, Foy could have eventually taken over for Beemer…though doing public appearances would have been a little tricky; WXYZ’s George W. Trendle suggested Fred take riding lessons, but the announcer quit after the first one.  When Brace Beemer took over as the titular hero of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon during that program’s final season…Fred Foy officially came along as Preston’s announcer-narrator (though he had appeared on that show—not to mention The Green Hornet—on earlier occasions).

When The Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto rode onto television screens on September 15, 1949, Fred Foy brought up the rear by reprising his role as announcer…though the narration for the initial episodes came courtesy of actor Gerald Mohr.  Fred would continue his weekly invite to “return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!” until ABC-TV cancelled the TV series on June 6, 1957.  Foy stayed with the American Broadcasting Company; he joined ABC’s New York staff in 1961, and plied his announcing trade for talk shows hosted by Les Crane and Dick Cavett, not to mention The Generation Gap and other quiz shows.  For ABC Radio, he was the host-narrator of Arch Oboler’s attempt to revive radio drama with Theatre Five, and he also lent his voice to an award-winning documentary series for the radio network, Voices in the Headlines.

Fred Foy would continue his love of radio by doing newscasts over WABC in New York, and his familiar voice could be heard not only as a narrator of documentaries on such notables as Sir Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, but as pitchman for such products as Colgate and General Motors.  Foy stayed with ABC until 1985, and in retirement he wrote an autobiography entitled Fred Foy from XYZ to ABC: A Fond Recollection.  Inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2000, and awarded the Golden Boot Award from the Motion Picture and Television Fund four years later, Fred became a frequent guest at old-time radio conventions…where he would enthusiastically recreate what many believe to be radio’s most recognized opening.  Foy left this world for a better one in 2010 at the age of 89.

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo Silver’—The Lone Ranger!”  You better believe that Radio Spirits has plenty of collections featuring the voice of today’s birthday celebrant, with The Lone Ranger Rides Again, Masked Rider, and Plains Thunder more than sufficient to whet any old-time radio fan’s appetite.  But be sure to check out our latest Sergeant Preston of the Yukon set, Return to Danger—just in case you want a little dessert.  Happiest of birthdays to you, Fred Foy—you’re not only one of the medium’s all-time greats…it’s safe to say that without you I’d be operating a blog without a proper name.

Happy Birthday, Paula Winslowe!

The untimely death of “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow at the age of 26 was devastating news to moviegoers…but since the motion picture business is a business, MGM (Harlow’s employer) soldiered on by completing Jean’s final movie, Saratoga (1937), with Jean’s body double, Mary Dees.  Filming Dees from behind could go a long way towards covering for Jean’s incomplete scenes…but Mary’s voice wouldn’t pass muster—it was much too high.  So, MGM called upon a starlet who had been working for the studio as a voice actress to do her flawless impression of Harlow…and to this day, it’s a challenge for classic film buffs to pick out which scenes feature the authentic voice of Jean, and which sequences depended on the amazing vocal talent born on this date in 1910: Paula Winslowe.

Paula Winslowe hailed from Grafton, North Dakota…and if anyone can claim responsibility for her interest in an acting career, it was her husband (and childhood sweetheart) John Sutherland.  John had been captivated by movies since he was a little shaver, and wanted to “follow the yellow brick road” to Tinsel Town to try his luck in “the flickers.”  Sutherland never did achieve his dream of becoming the next Cecil B. DeMille…but he did eventually manage to make a good living as a writer, director, and producer of educational film shorts (with captivating titles like A is for Atom [1953] and It’s Everybody’s Business [1954]).

As for Mrs. Sutherland…well, her arrival in The Golden State coincided with the motion picture industry’s revolution of “talking pictures.”  Many movie actresses—while certainly photogenic—often had voices at complete odds with their camera-friendly looks.  That’s why “voice doubles” were needed, and since Paula demonstrated some acting talent (as well as an ability to carry a tune when necessary) she was pressed into service to dub many performers.  “Voice doubling” may not have led to stardom (these actresses often went uncredited), but it kept the red ink away from the checkbook register.  Sadly, this work began to dry up when a series of articles criticizing the practice began to appear in fan magazines.

Paula Winslowe had a Plan B.  Though she studied dramatic acting in New York for a year, intending to work on stage, the growing medium of radio guaranteed work for voice actresses.  Winslowe soon garnered gainful employment with KHJ, the Don Lee network’s Hollywood flagship station.  KHJ would feature Paula in many of their dramatic productions—she can even be heard on a surviving December 30, 1936 broadcast commemorating the merger of Don Lee with the larger Mutual network.  But before that coupling, Don Lee served as the West Coast outlet for CBS…allowing Paula to appear regularly on Bing Crosby’s Woodbury Program in the show’s dramatized commercials (hawking Woodbury Soap).  Winslowe accepted every one of these jobs (she worked with notables like Louella Parsons on Hollywood Hotel and Alexander Woollcott on The Town Crier), and later became a fixture on The Lux Radio Theatre (more soap!) in the same capacity. In addition, Big Town (with a regular role as Miss Foster, Steve Wilson’s secretary), The Shadow of Fu Manchu, The Texaco Star Theatre (hosted by John Barrymore), and The Silver Theatre were just a few of the other programs that availed themselves of Paula’s services.  She also appeared on comedy broadcasts headlined by the likes of Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown (she portrayed Jill, Brown’s sweetheart), George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Edgar Bergen.

Before giving her all to radio, Paula Winslowe did one more notable bit of film work: she provided the voice of Bambi’s mother in the 1942 Walt Disney classic Bambi (her husband John also worked in the movie…as the adult Bambi!).  (Though if you look and/or listen sharply enough, you’ll spot Winslowe in the auction scene in 1959’s North by Northwest.)  Radio was good to Paula; she appeared regularly on such anthologies as The Cavalcade of America, Encore Theatre, Escape, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, Hollywood Sound Stage, The Railroad Hour, Romance, The Screen Guild Theatre, and Stars Over Hollywood.  Winslowe later became a member of Elliott Lewis’ “stock company,” with choice roles on Lewis-helmed series like Suspense, Broadway’s My Beat, The CBS Radio Workshop, Crime Classics, and On Stage.  (Her association with “Mr. Radio” continued even into the 1970s, when she worked on his attempts to revive radio drama, including The Hollywood Star Theatre and The Sears Radio Theatre.)

If Paula Winslowe had a signature radio role—it’s unquestionably that of Margaret “Peg” Riley, the long-suffering spouse of good-hearted slob Chester A. Riley (William Bendix) on the long-running sitcom The Life of Riley.  Paula was on that radio program for its entire run from 1944 to 1951…but incredibly enough, she was bypassed to reprise her radio gig in the 1949 movie adaptation.  Rosemary DeCamp got the part in both the feature film and the first attempt to bring Riley to TV screens later that year.  (To add insult to injury, Marjorie Reynolds tackled the role of Peg in the 1953-58 boob tube version that starred Bendix, the original radio Riley.)  Winslowe settled for playing Martha Conklin, spouse of Madison High principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon), when radio’s Our Miss Brooks made the jump to the small screen (Paula also played Martha on radio several times).  Her Life of Riley bona fides landed her work on such radio sitcom favorites as The Great Gildersleeve, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, The Halls of Ivy, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (she also appeared on the TV version on numerous occasions), and Fibber McGee & Molly…while also emoting on dramatic hits such as Mayor of the Town, The Line Up, Gunsmoke, Frontier Gentleman, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Paula Winslowe kept busy as radio began to cede attention to its newer sibling, television.  On the small screen, she guest-starred on favorites like I Love Lucy, December Bride, The Bob Cummings Show (Love That Bob), Father Knows Best, The Gale Storm Show (Oh Susanna!), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Perry Mason, The Real McCoys, and 77 Sunset Strip—just to name a few of the many.  (She would also resurrect her radio vocal talents on a few episodes of the primetime animated series The Flintstones.)  Paula’s final onscreen credit was in an episode of Run for Your Life, and in the well-chosen words of my Radio Spirits colleague Elizabeth McLeod: “Paula Winslowe kept working in radio as long as there was radio to work in.”  Winslowe passed away in 1996 at the age of 85.

Here’s something I’ll bet you’ll be asking yourself while listening to Paula Winslowe in Radio Spirits’ The Life of Riley collections Magnificent Mug and Blue Collar Blues: how could Peg stay married to that knucklehead all those years and not kick him to the curb?  (It’s all due to how Paula expertly blended exasperation with, and devotion to, her well-intentioned spouse, I suppose.)  Birthday girl Paula can also be heard on such program collections as Broadway’s My Beat (Great White Way, Murder), Suspense (Around the World, Suspense at Work, Ties That Bind), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Expense Account Submitted, Wayward Matters).  By the time you finish with Big Town: Blind Justice, Burns & Allen & Friends, Crime Classics: The Hyland Files, Frontier Gentleman: Life and Death, The Great Gildersleeve: For Corn’s Sake, The Line Up: Witness, and Our Miss Brooks: Faculty Feuds—we think you’ll agree that Paula Winslowe was the textbook definition of “a working actress.”

Happy Birthday, Claire Trevor!

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On March 24, 1949, actress Claire Trevor—born in Brooklyn, NY on this date in 1910—received one of the highest honors a performer can obtain from their peers in the motion picture industry: an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  The role for which Trevor garnered her Oscar was that of Gaye Dawn in the film Key Largo (1948)—a faded torch singer now coating her sugar throat with liberal applications of booze.  Who can ever forget Gaye’s pitiful attempt to belt out “Moanin’ Low” in exchange for one little drink…only to be refused by her abusive boyfriend, mobster Johnny Rocco (memorably played by Edward G. Robinson)—who reneges on his promise by telling her “But you were rotten.”  I’ve always thought it fascinating that Claire got her statuette for this film…because in appearing opposite Robinson, it’s almost like watching their Big Town characters, Steve Wilson and Lorelei Kilbourne, in some Bizarro-universe where Steve quit the newspaper game to join the rackets.

trevor7Claire Trevor started out in life as Claire Wemlinger—the only daughter of Benjamina (“Betty”) and Noel, a Fifth Avenue merchant tailor.  Though born in Bensonhurst, Claire spent her formative years in Larchmont, NY, attending high school in Mamaroneck before going on to Columbia University (where she studied art) and then the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (she had wanted to be an actress since the age of 11).  By the late 1920s, Trevor was performing in theatrical stock companies and made her Broadway debut in 1932 in Whistling in the Dark.  (Her co-star, Ernest Truex, would reprise his starring role in that play in a 1933 film adaptation…but Claire’s part was portrayed in the movie by Una Merkel.)

trevor3While performing on Broadway, Claire Trevor got an apprenticeship appearing before the motion picture camera by making shorts for the Vitaphone company, like The Meal Ticket (1931) and The Imperfect Lover (1932).  When a play in which she had a starring role, The Party’s Over, was an enormous flop, Claire was fortunate that 20th Century Fox offered her a five-year contract—though she was disappointed that she couldn’t continue to work in the theatre, economic realities (jobs were scarce) dictated she move to Hollywood in 1933.  Her stay at Fox was marked by a series of programmers in which she played a lot of tough, hard-bitten female reporters; most of these films rarely see the light of day on Turner Classic Movies or Fox Movie Channel, save for exceptions like 1934’s Baby Take a Bow (Claire plays Shirley Temple’s mother) and Dante’s Inferno (1935), in which she acted opposite Spencer Tracy.

deadendClaire Trevor would eventually leave Fox for better roles…and landed one almost immediately in 1937’s Dead End—where she played a tubercular prostitute and the old flame of gangster Humphrey Bogart.  That role earned her the first of her three Academy Award nominations and, in a sense, became her cinematic stock-in-trade: gangster’s molls in crime pictures and dance hall girls in Westerns.  She returned as Bogie’s girl in The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse (1938—which also featured her Big Town co-star, Eddie G.) and gave mobster husband George Raft moral support in I Stole a Million (1939).  Trevor received top billing in Stagecoach (1939)—the movie that cemented John Wayne’s stardom—as a bar girl run out of town by a contingent of nosy biddies.  Claire would later appear opposite The Duke in Allegheny Uprising (1939) and Dark Command (1940) …and in 1954, as a member of the all-star cast in Wayne’s The High and the Mighty, she earned her final Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

trevor8In the world of film noir, Claire Trevor had no equal when it came to playing femme fatales—witness her in Street of Chance (1942), in which she misleads Burgess Meredith (suffering from amnesia) into thinking he’s wanted for a murder.  One of her finest roles (and my personal favorite) is in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet as Helen Grayle, the seductive temptress who turns the knees of P.I. Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) to jelly.  Claire followed this with a succession of turns in such noir classics as Johnny Angel (1945), Crack-Up (1946), Born to Kill (1947—her nastiest femme fatale onscreen, hands down), Raw Deal (1948), Borderline (1950), Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), and Hoodlum Empire (1952).  Other vehicles that are all the better for featuring Trevor include Texas (1941), Crossroads (1942), The Woman of the Town (1943), The Velvet Touch (1948), and Best of the Badmen (1951).

bigtownFrom 1937 to 1940, Claire emoted opposite Edward G. Robinson on the previously mentioned radio series Big Town.  Trevor would relinquish her role to Ona Munson after complaining that the part had been reduced to two lines: “I’ll wait for you in the car, Steve” and “How’d it go, Steve?”  But Claire never completely abandoned the aural medium: her radio resume includes appearances on such radio anthologies as Academy Award TheatreThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Gulf/Lady Esther Screen Guild TheatreHollywood Star PlayhouseHollywood Star TimeThe Lux Radio TheatreScreen Director’s PlayhouseSuspenseThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Romance.  Claire stood before the mike on AFRS broadcasts of Command PerformanceG.I. Journal, and Mail Call, and guested on programs headlined by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Jack Carson, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.  Trevor would also appear with Lloyd Nolan on Results, Inc.—a lighthearted comedy-mystery program heard briefly over Mutual in 1944.

twoweeksClaire Trevor continued to work regularly in motion pictures until 1967 (though she would return for a small role as Sally Field’s mother in 1982’s Kiss Me Goodbye) with memorable turns in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962—her third and final outing with Edward G. Robinson), and How to Murder Your Wife (1965).  The actress also began making appearances on the small screen with guest shots on boob tube hits such as Wagon TrainAlfred Hitchcock Presents, and Dr. Kildare; one of her major television triumphs was winning an Emmy Award for her performance in a 1956 production of Dodsworth on NBC’s Producers’ Showcase.  After retirement, she maintained an active interest in stage work and, with her third husband, contributed close to $10 million to The School of Arts at the University of California-Irvine.  With her death in 2000 at the age of 90, UCI renamed the school The Claire Trevor School of the Arts…with her Academy Award for Key Largo also finding a permanent home there, displayed in a glass window located in the school’s arts complex.

21276One of the many movie actors who worked alongside our birthday girl was westerns icon Randolph Scott—and the two films they made together, The Desperadoes (1943) and The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), are available in the DVD collection Randolph Scott Round-Up Volume 2, available for purchase here at Radio Spirits.  We’ve also Claire to spare in the Big Town collection Blind Justice—a collection of classic broadcasts including a few rarities from Trevor’s years on the program.  For dessert? Sample two of Trevor’s guest star appearances on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills” with Suspense: Ties That Bind (“The Plan,” from May 16, 1946) and Suspense: Wages of Sin (“Angel Face,” May 18, 1950).  Happy birthday to one of our favorite “wanton women” from the movies!

Happy Birthday, Jim Backus!

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He was an actor who did it all: stage, television, movies…and for us fans of the aural medium, plenty of old-time radio.  James Gilmore Backus arrived in Cleveland, OH on this date in 1913, and for most of his show business career was identified as a consummate comedic character actor…though he could, on occasion, show off impressive dramatic chops as well (witness his amazing turn as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause).  Dedicated couch potatoes like myself remember Jim Backus as the obscenely wealthy Thurston Howell III, one of seven stranded castaways on the popular TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island (1964-67) …and the man who gave voice to the nearsighted Quincy Magoo.

backus8Raised in the wealthy enclave of Bratenahl, Jim Backus’ early years in education were spent in preparatory school in East Cleveland—one of his teachers was Margaret Hamilton, who later achieved silver screen immortality as The Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.  His interests at that time were golf (which remained a lifelong passion) and acting.  In his teens, he worked for a stock theater company, where he would get small roles in various productions.  His father Russell, a mechanical engineer, wanted his son to focus on academics…so he enrolled young Jim in the Kentucky Military Institute (one of Backus’ classmates was another struggling young thespian, Victor Mature).  Backus’ stay there was not a lengthy one—purportedly he was expelled after riding a horse through the school’s mess hall.

backusradioJim persuaded his father to allow him to forego traditional college and try his luck at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.  He graduated in 1933, and since acting jobs were often difficult to come by, Backus decided to try his luck in radio as an announcer.  This led to freelance work on daytime dramas and The Kate Smith Hour.  Jim also achieved success on stage in the hit Broadway comedy Hitch Your Wagon in 1937, and a dramatic role in Too Many Heroes that same year.  Surviving audio recordings from the 1940s feature Jim on such shows as Great Plays, The Shadow, Forecast, and The Kay Thompson Show (these last two programs showcased his talents as a writer!).

On the radio series Society Girl, Jim Backus played a millionaire aviator named Dexter Hayes…a character that would more-or-less become his stock-in-trade in his varied radio roles.  The actor himself once described these characters as parodies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered through a sort of “patrician lockjaw.”  For example, on The Mel Blanc Show, Backus was the conceited Hartley Benson, and on The Great Gildersleeve’s later run, he took over for Gale Gordon as Gildy’s stuffed-shirt neighbor Runsom Bullard.  But Jim’s best-remembered radio persona was that of rich playboy Hubert Updike III on The Alan Young Show; Hubert’s favorite expression was “Heavens to Gimbels!” and he would issue veiled threats to the show’s star like “Careful, or I’ll have your mouth washed out with domestic champagne!”  Backus’ portrayal of Hubert proved so popular that he later reprised the character on comedy programs headlined by favorites like Judy Canova and Bob Hope.

jimbackusOn The Sad Sack, Jim Backus played the conniving Chester Fenwick, roommate to the titular hard luck ex-serviceman portrayed by Herb Vigran.  In addition, Jim was Mr. Hendricks, boss to Bill Goodwin on the announcer’s self-titled sitcom, and real estate partner Horace Wiggins on The Penny Singleton Show.  Backus made the rounds of such radio sitcoms as The Aldrich Family, December Bride, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Halls of Ivy, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, Lum and Abner, The Magnificent Montague, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, My Favorite Husband, Our Miss Brooks, and The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show.  The actor also served as a solid second banana on shows starring the likes of Don Ameche, Jack Benny, Bob Burns, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Cass Daley, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, Jack Kirkwood, Jerry Lester, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and Ed Wynn.  As the decade wore on, Jim headlined his own self-titled comedy-variety show on Mutual from 1947 to 1948 for Pharmaco, and in the summer of ’48 hosted The Great Talent Hunt on that same network, a parody of musical participation programs.

Before Staats Cotsworth began his weekly emoting as Casey, Crime Photographer…Jim Backus played the titular shutterbug for a few shows.  This gave Jim experience that he later used in supporting roles on episodes of Suspense, and on detective dramas such as Jeff Regan, Investigator, The Line-Up, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and This is Your FBI.  Rounding out Jim’s radio resume are credits on such series as Encore Theatre, Family Theatre, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Man Behind the Gun, The Railroad Hour, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and The Screen Guild Theatre.

backusmagoo2Backus’ extensive radio experience made him a natural for voicing cartoon characters—he was a memorable genie in the classic Bugs Bunny short A-Lad-in His Lamp (1948) (Bugs refers to him as “Smoky”).  It was a successful audition for a 1949 cartoon entitled Ragtime Bear that would bring the actor his greatest fame, however; it was the first of several outings featuring the myopic Quincy Magoo, a vision-impaired individual who frequently found himself in funny situations due to his stubborn refusal to make an appointment with his optometrist.  Jim provided the voice of Magoo in over fifty shorts until 1959 (becoming the UPA studio’s most famous character), then followed those with a feature film (1001 Arabian Nights) and a 1960 TV series.  Magoo would later be the focus of a primetime animated show from 1964 to 1965 (The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo) and a Saturday morning revival in the 1970s, What’s New, Mr. Magoo?  (In addition, Jim could be heard in commercials for General Electric, since the company hired Magoo as a spokesman.)

deadlineusa21949 was the year that Jim Backus also received his first onscreen film credit in the Warner Brothers romantic comedy One Last Fling; he would appear in four additional features that same year, including Father Was a Fullback (billed as James G. Backus), Easy Living (starring his old pal Victor Mature), and The Great Lover, an underrated Bob Hope comedy.  To list all of Jim’s film credits would eat up our allotted bandwidth rations…but a few of our favorites include Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), M (1951), His Kind of Woman (1951), Here Come the Nelsons (1952), Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Macabre (1958), Boys’ Night Out (1962), and The Wheeler Dealers (1963).  Backus was one of the many funsters to appear in the all-star comedy spectacular It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), playing a tipsy amateur airline pilot named Tyler Fitzgerald.  (Fitzgerald’s observation “it’s the ooooonly way to fly” was an in-joke reference to some Western Airlines TV commercials of the 1950s, in which Jim voiced the character of Wally the Bird.)

gilligansislandOn the small screen, Backus became well known for supporting Joan Davis on her 1952-55 sitcom, I Married Joan (he played her husband, Judge Bradley Stevens).  One of Joan’s writers was Sherwood Schwartz, who had also penned much of Hubert Updike’s dialogue on The Alan Young Show…and when Schwartz got the idea for Gilligan’s Island, he couldn’t get Jim out of his mind when he created the character of Thurston Howell III.  In an interview with Jordan R. Young, Schwartz recalled that when he learned that Backus was available he begged Jim to do the part…but was chagrined because the role was so small since he hadn’t had the time to flesh out the character.  (After reading the script, Jim joked: “My part is shorter than the wine list on an airplane.”)  Despite this, Backus agreed to the role…and not only spent three successful seasons as TV’s favorite blue-blood (with support from Natalie Schafer as his wife “Lovey”), but reprised the part in three “reunion” TV-movies that aired during 1979 and 1981, as well as two animated spin-offs: The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-75) and Gilligan’s Planet (1982).

hotoffthewireJim Backus’ other contributions to TV include a 1960-61 syndicated sitcom, The Jim Backus Show (also known as Hot Off the Wire), and portraying the irascible J.C. Dithers in a sitcom based on Chic Young’s Blondie in 1968 (with his real-life wife Henny as Mrs. D).  He was constantly in demand as a guest star on any number of popular boob tube programs, from The Beverly Hillbillies to The Love Boat, but in the 1980s his acting began to be hampered by Parkinson’s disease—his last feature film credit was 1984’s Prince Jack, and his television farewell came in the form of an Orville Redenbacher Popcorn commercial that reunited him with his Gilligan’s Island spouse, Natalie Schafer.  Backus passed away from pneumonia in 1989 at the age of 76.

20585On a personal note—while I was aware that today’s birthday boy did radio…I had no idea he did a lot of radio.  Radio Spirits features Jim Backus on a slew of collections: Bergen & McCarthy: The Funny Fifties, Burns & Allen: Muddling Through, Fibber McGee & Molly: For Goodness Sakes, Life with Luigi, The Line Up: Witness, The Man from Homicide, Our Miss Brooks: Good English, Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Dead Men, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Mayhem is My Business.  On our compilation Comedy Goes West, you can check out a May 23, 1947 broadcast featuring Jim Backus’ signature radio role (Hubert Updike III) as the star of The Alan Young Show pays a visit to Hubert’s million acre ranch.  Happy natal anniversary to Jim Backus—as a comedic actor without peer in every aspect of show business, you might say his career was (in a nod to his 1958 novelty record, which was a Top 40 hit) “Delicious!”

Happy Birthday, Alonzo Deen Cole!

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Before radio audiences eagerly anticipated each week the memorably unsettling sound of a creaking door (on Inner Sanctum Mysteries) or an ominous gong signaling that they should dim the lights (Lights Out), they had to tune into The Witch’s Tale for the proper raising of goosebumps.  Tale was the true granddaddy of radio horror, premiering over New York’s WOR on May 21, 1931 and running until June 13, 1938.  The creative mind behind this series—who would later introduce radio listeners to the thrilling crime adventures of “Flashgun Casey”—was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on this date in 1897: Alonzo Deen Cole.

cole2Young Alonzo made the decision to be a writer at an early age, perhaps spurred on by winning a statewide competition among Minnesota schoolchildren at the age of 11.  (He took first prize at the Minnesota State Fair for a scenario he contributed to a military pageant.)  In high school, he kept in close contact with his creative muse by writing plays performed by the school’s dramatic society—in addition, he directed and starred in those same productions.  He graduated from high school at the age of 16, and took up study at the Minnesota Academy of Arts…this was soon discarded in favor of his acting ambitions, and he found work with stock companies in Minneapolis and St. Paul, eventually earning the princely salary of $15 a week.

World War I interrupted Deen Cole’s acting career temporarily.  He enlisted in the Army as a medic and, after serving briefly in France, he received a transfer to the Entertainment A.E.F.  After the Armistice, he was assigned to a repertoire company comprised of actors in uniform.  A return to civilian life in 1919 proved difficult for Alonzo where acting was concerned; finding steady acting work was tough due to the Equity strike. (Stage performers, led by Ed Wynn, had squared off against producers and theatre owners for better wages and working conditions.) However, he eventually secured a contract that ensured him gainful employment in both vaudeville and legitimate theatre until the stock market crash and the Depression.  It was during this time that Deen Cole met (and later married) an actress named Marie O’Flynn, who would become his vaudeville partner.

witchstale1Alonzo and Marie also teamed up for a WOR daytime serial broadcast as Darling and Dearie, which ran for a little over a year on the New York station.  Deen Cole, a voracious reader and efficacious raconteur, sold the station on the idea of doing a supernatural horror series in the late evening hours as counterprogramming to the various music broadcasts airing on rival stations.  Both Alonzo and Marie would perform the various male and female parts in his scripts on The Witch’s Tale.  The role of “Old Nancy,” the elderly, cackling witch who served as the series’ narrator, was essayed by Adelaide Fitz-Allen…who was seventy-five at the time she began playing the part before the microphone.  The long tradition of featuring a host-narrator for horror programs—think of the later Raymond (Edward Johnson) on Inner Sanctum or The Mysterious Traveler (Maurice Tarplin), for example—began on Tale.  Nancy was also accompanied by a black cat named “Satan” …with Deen Cole getting in touch with his feline side as the narrator’s familiar.

miriamNot long after its WOR debut, The Witch’s Tale was a solid hit with listeners and critics.  Dorothy Kardel of The New York Daily News gushed in a June 12, 1931 review: “Thrill seekers miss plenty when they fail to hear this new dramatic series.”  Even the death of Fitz-Allen (she passed away on February 26, 1935, having never missed a performance) didn’t slow down the series.  After auditioning several contenders for “Nancy,” Alonzo selected thirteen-year-old Miriam Wolff to continue as the cackling host.  (Wolff had previous appeared on the children’s series Let’s Pretend—in fact, it was the creator of that program, Nila Mack, who recommended Miriam to Deen Cole as she and Alonzo had formed a strong friendship during their years in vaudeville.)  Though The Witch’s Tale aired its final episode on June 13, 1938, Alonzo Deen Cole recorded enough of the live broadcasts to ensure that the show lived on in syndication for an additional six years.  (Sadly, Deen Cole destroyed his collection of recordings in 1961 after moving to California—he didn’t think they had any commercial value.)

crimephotographer3Alonzo kept busy in radio after that, contributing scripts to such series as The Shadow and Gang Busters.  In the summer of 1943, he signed a contract with CBS to write, produce, and direct a program based on a pulp magazine creation by George Harmon Coxe.  The show premiered on July 7, 1943 as Flash-Gun Casey and, though it went by several names (Crime PhotographerCasey, Press Photographer, etc.), old-time radio fans know it best as Casey, Crime Photographer.  The titular shutterbug (portrayed at various times by Matt Crowley, Jim Backus, and Staats Cotsworth) worked for The Morning Express.  When Casey wasn’t plying his trade at crime scenes (where he would often find himself in the role of amateur detective), he spent a copious amount of time at a watering hole known as The Blue Note Café.  There he would hold forth with girlfriend Ann Williams (played by Jone Allison, Alice Reinheart, Lesley Woods, Betty Furness, and Jan Miner), a reporter at the paper, and bartender Ethelbert (John Gibson).  The popular series was a solid favorite with listeners until 1955.

20337Casey, Crime Photographer enjoyed a brief run on television from 1951 to 1952, and Alonzo Deen Cole had hopes that The Witch’s Tale could establish a beachhead on the small screen as well.  But a pilot (filmed in 1958) never got off the ground (Alonzo admitted later that the cheapness of the production worked against its favor).  After a lifetime of writing for radio—he churned out 332 Witch’s Tale scripts, not to mention the entirety of Casey, Crime Photographer (384 in all)—he had earned a well-deserved vacation.  What ultimately sidelined Deen Cole was a diagnosis of a heart condition in 1962—and though he adopted a regimen of proper medication and a salt-free diet, he finally succumbed to his heart ailment in 1971 at the age of 73.

Not many broadcasts of The Witch’s Tale have endured for a new generation of old-time radio fans to enjoy…but what have survived can be found in the Radio Spirits collection The Witch’s Tale, a 10-CD set with liner notes by the late David S. Siegel.  (David also edited a book containing thirteen scripts — how appropriate — from the series that’s well worth seeking out if you have time on your lunch hour.)  You can also find a classic Tale (“Rockabye Baby,” from 1934) on our supernatural radio compendium Great Radio Horror.  For those of you who gravitate more to crime stories, our birthday celebrant’s other series, Casey, Crime Photographer, is well represented here with the sets Snapshots of Mystery and Blue Note.  Happiest of birthdays to one of radio’s true masters of chilling and thrilling drama!

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Durante!

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From the 1920s and onward, James Francis Durante—born in Manhattan on this date in 1893—was the entertainer who advised audiences that they have to start off each day with a song.  Durante’s large proboscis earned him the nickname “Schnozzola,” and he became known for singing jazz/ragtime-influenced songs in his trademark gravelly voice while wearing a battered hat.  Jimmy’s lengthy career in show business—which spanned stage, screen, radio, and TV—was fueled by audiences who were genuinely fond of his larger-life-personality.  Fans eagerly repeated his famous catchphrases (like “Everybody wants to get inta the act!” and “I got a million of ‘em!”) with gusto.  As his longtime vaudeville partner Lou Clayton once observed: “You can warm your hands on this man.”

youngjimmyThe youngest of four children born to Italian immigrants Rosa (Lentino) and Bartolomeo Durante, Jimmy’s interest in show business began when he reached the age of seventeen.  He began performing in various venues around Coney Island, and in a club owned by a man named Terry Walsh (Jimmy played piano while a waiter named Eddie Cantor sang).  Durante had formed a Dixieland combo in Harlem’s Club Alamo, and it was here that he honed the routine that became his fame and fortune: frequently interrupting his own musical numbers (“Stop da music!  Stop da music!”) to tell jokes.  It was here that he met his longtime associate Eddie Jackson.  Durante, Jackson, and a third performer named Lou Clayton opened a nightclub in 1923 known as the Club Durant.

durantekeatonThe Club Durant, successful as it was, would eventually have its doors nailed shut by Prohibition agents.  Unbowed, Clayton, Jackson and Durante continued in vaudeville and eventually hit it big on Broadway before the team agreed to an amicable split in the 1930s.  (Clayton and Jackson continued their tight-knit friendship with Jimmy, even becoming his business managers later in his career.)  Durante’s film debut was in 1930s Roadhouse Nights (Clayton and Jackson also appear, along with the legendary Helen Morgan).  From that moment on, he was a star at MGM in such vehicles as New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), The Wet Parade (1932), Meet the Baron (1933), and Hollywood Party (1934).  The three vehicles that teamed Jimmy with silent comedy great Buster Keaton—The Passionate Plumber (1932), Speak Easily (1932), and What—No Beer? (1933)—were big hits at the box office…but Keaton’s struggles with both the studio and alcoholism put an end to their partnership.  Jimmy would continue to maintain quite a presence in motion pictures, notably in the 1942 Christmas film classic The Man Who Came to Dinner.

durante7As Jimmy Durante busied himself with movie success, he began to explore fields in the aural medium.  He appeared on Eddie Cantor’s popular The Chase and Sanborn Hour from September to November 1933, and then became the show’s host in April of 1934.  The ratings for the show had already started their decline by the time Durante came aboard, so it may be a little unfair to blame the entertainer for its eventual cancellation in the fall.  But Jimmy’s determination to establish himself as a radio star hit another bump in the road when he was put in charge of The Jumbo Fire Chief Program in October of 1935. The once-popular series (previously hosted by the madcap Ed Wynn) had started to fall out of favor with listeners through no fault of Durante’s, and the show rang down the curtain in February of 1936.

durantemoore2Despite these initial setbacks, Jimmy Durante would eventually find the radio success that eluded him in the 1930s.  In 1943, while he was packing them in at New York’s famed Copacabana, he accepted an offer to be a guest on NBC’s popular Camel Caravan.  On that very broadcast, director-producer Phil Cohan was struck by the contrast between the veteran Durante and an up-and-coming young funnyman named Garry Moore.  Though Moore had been given the greenlight to host the summer replacement for The Abbott & Costello Program (also sponsored by Camel), Cohan approached both Durante and Moore to see if they were interested in teaming up for a possible series in the fall (the sponsor was a little nervous about Garry’s ability to carry a series).  Jimmy and Garry would begin their partnership sooner than they expected: when Lou Costello found himself confined to bed rest with a severe case of rheumatic fever, Durante and Moore found their show rushed into production (in just two weeks) as Abbott & Costello’s replacement.

durantemoore1“The Nose” (Jimmy) and “The Haircut” (Garry) were a smash hit, and Camel continued to sponsor The Camel Comedy Caravan (later to become The Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore Show) on CBS beginning in the fall of 1943.  The two men were given ample opportunity to shine as both solo performers and a team; their coupling took on a father-son relationship, with Jimmy frequently referring to Garry as “Junior” and introducing the catchphrase “Dat’s my boy dat said that!”  (Many listeners were convinced the duo really were father and son.)  Rexall Drugs took over sponsorship in 1945, and two years later Durante and Moore agreed to a harmonious parting of the ways.  (Moore would go on to host the radio quiz show Take It or Leave It, and on television he headlined a popular TV variety series from 1958 to 1964 and was the longtime moderator of the successful panel quiz I’ve Got a Secret.)

duranteballBeginning on October 1, 1947, Durante returned to NBC with The Jimmy Durante Show, a half-hour comedy-variety program also sponsored by Rexall.  Durante—accompanied by Roy Bargy’s orchestra—would open each show with a rendition of his theme Inka Dinka Doo (a classic ditty he introduced in the 1934 movie Palooka).  Bargy was a holdover from the Durante-Moore years, and the new Rexall show also brought back announcer Howard Petrie and regular supporting stooges Elvia Allman and Candy Candido (“I’m feeling mighty low…”).  Also joining the “Schnoz” on his new series were Florence Halop (as sexy Mae West clone “Hotbreath” Houlihan), Arthur Treacher (as Jimmy’s butler—Durante must have lured him away from Jack Carson, who had previously employed Arthur on his show), Dave Barry, Alan Reed, and Victor Moore (who was promoted to regular after a series of guest appearances).  Musical numbers were contributed by the Crew Chiefs and a young Peggy Lee…and of course, Durante himself would warble any number of his hits, like I Know Darn Well I Can Do Wit’out Broadway and I’m Jimmy, That Well-Dressed Man.

allencantorduranteCamel resumed sponsorship of The Jimmy Durante Show in the fall of 1948, and Durante would rekindle the father-son relationship he had enjoyed with Garry Moore when Alan Young joined the show. (Young had enjoyed previous radio success with a self-titled series heard over ABC from 1944-47.)  When Young’s show was given a new lease on life by NBC in April of 1949, Don Ameche took over as Jimmy’s sidekick (Barbara Jo Allen—a.k.a. “Vera Vague”—would also become a regular) and the two men kidded and joked until Durante called it quits on June 30, 1950.  Jimmy didn’t completely abandon radio, however—in addition to guest appearances on the likes of Family Theatre and Fibber McGee & Molly (yes, you read that right), he became a frequent presence on The Big Show…the all-star NBC radio spectacular hosted by Tallulah “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” Bankhead.

durantefrostyLike so many of his fellow radio stars, Jimmy Durante would make a successful leap to the small screen.  He hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour on several occasions, was one of the rotating hosts of All Star Revue/Four Star Revue from 1950 to 1953, and was the star of The Jimmy Durante Show from 1954 to 1956.  He continued as a favorite guest star on TV variety shows in the 1960s (not to mention headlining The Hollywood Palace and Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters) and appeared in feature films like Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962—“What elephant?”) and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).  My generation knew Jimmy as the narrator of the animated Christmas special Frosty the Snowman (which first aired in 1969) and a pitchman for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.  A stroke rendered Jimmy wheelchair-bound in 1972, and in 1980 Durante went to join his beloved “Mrs. Calabash” (he frequently closed performances with the memorable “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash…wherever you are”) at the age of 86.

21479Radio Spirits has just recently introduced a new CD set in The Jimmy Durante Show, sixteen half-hour broadcasts from Durante’s 1947-48 season for Rexall on NBC, and featuring the likes of Dorothy Lamour, Van Johnson, and Victor Moore as guests.  (This collection also features a celebrated radio reunion of Clayton, Jackson and Durante!)  Episodes of Jimmy’s show are also available on Great Radio Comedy and Christmas Radio Classics, and our CD compendium Wonderful Christmas: 75 Essential Christmas Classics contains the Schnozzola’s rendition of the Yuletide classic Frosty the Snowman.  Both With a Song in My Heart: Hooray for Hollywood and You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet! Showstoppers feature Jimmy belting out Start Off Each Day With a Song, and as the cherry on the sundae our birthday boy is featured along with a score of his fellow mirthmakers on the DVD collection Funniest Moments of Comedy.  You can’t afford to be without any of these hilarious Durante performances—as the man himself might say: “It would be a complete catastastroke!”

“On, King! On, you huskies!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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