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Happy Centennial Birthday, John Dehner!

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For an actor who once set out purposely not to be typecast in Western roles, John Dehner—born John Forkum one hundred years ago on this date in Staten Island, NY—appeared in a lot of oaters across the entertainment spectrum of movies, television and radio. While his extensive radio resume certainly put Dehner’s talent for both comedy and drama on full display, for many old-time radio fans he’s the thespian who auditioned for four of the medium’s best remembered westerns. Dehner turned down the leads in Gunsmoke and Fort Laramie, and agreed to portray the protagonists on Frontier Gentleman and the radio version of Have Gun – Will Travel—a series on which he was billed as Mister John Dehner. (I often joke about this designation at my nostalgia blog, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, but to be honest—he earned every inch of that respectful title.)

dehnerdisneyJohn Dehner was born the son of an artist, a man who took the Dehner family to various spots around the globe, allowing the younger Dehner to attend grammar school in Norway and France (incidentally, John learned to speak four languages as a result of his travels). Graduating high school in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, John then decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying art at the University of California…but by the time he had diploma in hand, he had set his sights on a career in acting instead.

The problem for Dehner was that theatrical acting jobs were scarce as a result of the Depression. After having no luck finding work in the Big Apple, John decided to head back to sunny California on the principle that if he was going to starve, he’d be better off doing it in a more temperate climate. Dehner wasn’t on the unemployment line for long: he found work as the musical director of a touring stock company and a bandleader, in addition to securing gigs as a professional pianist. His most impressive feat was being able to fall back on his art schooling by obtaining a position as an assistant animator at the Walt Disney studios. John worked on sequences for such feature film classics as Fantasia (the Beethoven sequence) and Bambi (the Owl), and sharp-eyed viewers can spot him as one of the men in the story department in the 1941 release The Reluctant Dragon (his feature film debut).

John-Dehner-Frontier-GentlemanTo “do his bit” for World War II, John Dehner enlisted in the Army…and again, his background in languages and media secured for him a position as a public relations officer during the conflict. Once mustered out, Dehner decided to try acting again—this time taking a job as an announcer and news editor at such California stations as KMPC and KFWB. His work in radio news won him a most prestigious accolade: a Peabody Award for his coverage of the first United Nations news conference. The news business, however, couldn’t satisfy that acting itch, and so John found himself drifting back towards his first love. While the term “journeyman” is often used to describe an individual whose work is uninspired—in Dehner’s case, it needs to be utilized to explain that he became a very, very busy actor in front of the mike.

dehner12One of John’s earliest acting jobs was for the station that also employed him as an announcer and news reporter. He played “the Hermit” on the horror anthology The Hermit’s Cave when it aired on KMPC from 1942 to 1944. He would go on to construct a radio curriculum vitae that encompassed such favorites as California Caravan, The Cisco Kid, The Count of Monte Cristo, Crime Classics, Lassie, Let George Do It, The Man Called X, Mike Malloy, Private Cop, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, The Silent Men, Smilin’ Ed’s Buster Brown Gang, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Whistler, and Wild Bill Hickok. Anthology series on which Dehner appeared include The CBS Radio Workshop, Family Theatre, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Lux Radio Theatre, NBC Presents: Short Story, The NBC University Theatre, On Stage, Screen Director’s Playhouse, and Stars Over Hollywood. He starred in a short-lived NBC sitcom that aired in 1950 and 1951 entitled The Truitts, and replaced Ted de Corsia for a brief period of time as Inspector Peter Black on CBS’ Pursuit.

dehner11For most of John’s career in radio, however, he was a member-in-good-standing of the stock company overseen by producer-director Norman Macdonnell. Dehner started out working on the likes of Escape and The Adventures of Philip Marlowe before becoming a regular presence on such shows as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (both during the brief period that Macdonnell oversaw the show, and in the later seasons as well), Suspense, Romance, Rogers of the Gazette, The General Electric Theatre and The Bakers’ Theatre of Stars. As mentioned previously, John nixed doing Gunsmoke and Fort Laramie on a regular basis…but as far as the dean of radio westerns went, Dehner emoted on 234 of Gunsmoke’s 480 broadcasts—a percentage of around sixty percent. He did fourteen episodes of Fort Laramie, out of that program’s brief run of forty broadcasts.

dehner9On February 2, 1958, CBS debuted Frontier Gentleman—a series some consider second only to Gunsmoke as radio’s finest western. Created by Antony Ellis, John Dehner starred as J.B. Kendall—an English newspaperman who wandered throughout the West, looking for people or incidents to write articles about for The London Times. Gentleman offered up superb character portraits of the individuals Kendall encountered in his travels, while always taking care to downplay Kendall’s proficiency with a gun (he wouldn’t use it unless absolutely necessary). In marked contrast to Gentleman, John also portrayed the skilled gunfighter Paladin on Have Gun – Will Travel, a radio version of the popular CBS-TV western that had been a hit for the network since the fall of 1957. Have Gun’s radio debut occurred one week after Gentleman departed the airwaves, and more than a few people have bemoaned the fact that Have Gun replaced the superior program. The radio Have Gun was an example of one of the few times when a TV series transitioned to the aural medium, rather than the usual custom of radio-to-TV. To Dehner’s credit, he made a point not to copy Richard Boone’s boob tube portrayal of Paladin (“I don’t imitate,” he declared in an interview years later). The radio version left the air on November 27, 1960, while the small screen edition continued on until 1963.

dehner6Despite John Dehner’s reluctance to be identified chiefly as a Western actor, the man good-naturedly took on many jobs that explored his range from dishonest gambler to sympathetic rancher. He was a frequent guest star on TV’s Maverick, including a classic role as the crooked banker (“…if you can’t trust your banker, whom can you trust?”) in the legendary “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.” John’s resume of TV westerns includes favorites like Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Westerner (as Burgundy Smith), The Rifleman, Tales of Wells Fargo, Rawhide, The Virginian (he starred for a time as Shiloh Ranch owner Morgan Starr)…and of course, Gunsmoke. Dehner’s regular roles were on such TV series as The Roaring 20’s, The Baileys of Balboa, The Doris Day Show, The New Temperatures Rising Show, Big Hawaii, Young Maverick, Enos, and Bare Essence. On the silver screen, John notched up over one-hundred-and-fifty films, with favorites including Scaramouche, The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, The Fastest Gun Alive, The Left Handed Gun, Man of the West, The Hallelujah Trail (John narrates this film), and Support Your Local Gunfighter. Dehner’s rewarding acting career came to an end in 1992, when he passed away at the age of 76.

19602To celebrate John Dehner’s centennial in grand style, Radio Spirits offers up a shopping cart full of audio entertainment goodies to satisfy his fans. We have collections of his signature series, Frontier Gentleman, on hand—including the sets Aces and Eights and Life and Death. You can hear Mister Dehner’s work with radio legend Norm Macdonnell on Escape (Escape Essentials, The Hunted and the Haunted, Escape to the High Seas), Fort Laramie (Volume 1 and Volume 2), Suspense (Around the World, Ties That Bind), Romance, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road), and episodes of Rogers of the Gazette on our Stop the Press! compilation. For a palate cleanser, be sure to check out John’s work on Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Homicide Made Easy), Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (Volume One and Volume Two)…and last but certainly not least—Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Wayward Matters, Mysterious Matters, Murder Matters, Confidential, Expense Account Submitted)!

Review: Entertaining the Troops

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In June of this year, MVD Visual released to DVD a wonderful 1994 documentary entitled Entertaining the Troops—a ninety-minute special originally shown on PBS stations during their fundraising drives. (There’s even a plea to donate from the legendary Mel Blanc at the end of the documentary, allowing him to do some of the cartoon voices that made him famous.) Written, directed and produced by filmmaker Robert Mugge, Troops contains wonderful film highlights from Hollywood’s top stars as they “did their bit” – whether it was selling war bonds, boosting morale…or, in some cases, enlisting in the service.

troops1Radio played a large role in World War II. Top comedy stars like Jack Benny and George Burns & Gracie Allen would often take their shows to bases to perform for those stationed there. The King of Going Overseas being Bob Hope, of course, and his name actually appears before “Entertaining the Troops” on the DVD’s box cover. The last half-hour of the presentation features “war stories” from the comedy legend as he’s reunited (in 1988) with several members of his “troupe”: vocalist-comedienne Frances Langford, dancer Patty Thomas and guitarist Tony Romano. Bob recalls the first time he was asked to do one of his radio broadcasts at a local military base; the comedian soon discovered he was playing to a more appreciative audience than the jaded throng who regularly attended his program. In between the group’s reminiscences, footage of Bob and the gang from their trips overseas is shown, with some hilarious interactions with Hope’s favorite stooge, “Professor” Jerry Colonna.

troops3Hope’s old “Road” companion, Dorothy Lamour, is also present and accounted for on Entertaining the Troops. The “Bond Bombshell” describes how she earned that nickname by selling 300 million worth of war bonds, and tells a poignant story of how she suggested to the government that Carole Lombard would be the ideal actress to aid in the selling of same. (Lombard’s death in January of 1942 occurred as the result of a plane crash when she was returning home to husband Clark Gable after a successful bond rally.) Dottie is also featured in a clip from a 1944 movie short, Mail Call, singing I’m the Secretary to the Sultan. The Mail Call short was a visual tie-in to the popular Armed Forces Radio Service program and also features announcer Don Wilson, Cass Daley (crooning They’re Either Too Young or Too Old as only she can) and Abbott & Costello performing “Who’s on First?”

troops5Generous portions of a 1944 short depicting a broadcast of G.I. Journal are also included in Troops, with Mel Blanc playing Private Sad Sack and joshing with the likes of Colonna, Kay Kyser, and Lucille Ball. (Mel also reminisces about his days as “Private Snafu,” the animated hero in a series of short instructional cartoons produced between 1943 and 1945 as part of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine series.) Another popular AFRS offering, Jubilee, is given a visual treatment. Ernest “Bubbles” Whitman trades quips with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who then brings out Lena “Dish-a-licious” Horne. (I know that’s not a nickname for the divine Miss Lena—I just didn’t want her to feel left out.) Lena and Rochester duet on Life’s Full O’Consequence, a number they made popular in 1943’s Cabin in the Sky, and Lena solos on The Man I Love.

troops9Maxene Andrews describes the experience of recording “V-discs,” a series of 12-inch, 78 rpm vinyl records that were specifically produced for the use of military personnel overseas…and as you would expect, there’s footage of her and sisters Patty and Laverne doing a sprightly version of their signature Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. Old-time radio fans will love seeing performances from Red Skelton (“Guzzler’s Gin”), Jack Benny (with harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler) and Danny Kaye. Classic movie fans will thrill to clips featuring Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney (with Edward Arnold) and Bette Davis (the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, also featured in the documentary). My personal favorite is the tail end of a comedy sketch featuring Hope and William Bendix (Bob’s co-star in one of my favorite Hope vehicles, 1947’s Where There’s Life) that features an uproarious punchline from Professor Colonna himself.

Entertaining the Troops, available for purchase from Radio Spirits, is a delightful journey into the nostalgic past — when what Tom Brokaw once described as “The Greatest Generation” tackled the toughest of jobs with an assist from “more stars than there are in heaven.”

Happy Birthday, Fanny Brice!

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Show business’ original “Funny Girl” was born Fania Borach in New York City on this date in 1891. As Fanny Brice, she dominated the worlds of stage, screen and radio: as a major headliner with the Ziegfeld Follies beginning in 1910, and as a motion picture star with vehicles like My Man (1928—sadly, a lost film) and Be Yourself! (1930). Old-time radio fans in particular revere the considerable comedic talents she brought before a ribbon microphone; over the ether, Fanny brought to life one of the most beloved brats in the aural medium—“Baby” Snooks Higgins.

fannybrice17Fanny was the third child in a family of four; her parents Charles and Rose were saloon owners, and Fanny set her sights on a show business career from the age of twelve—singing on street corners in South Brooklyn to earn pocket money. By 1908, she was so determined to shoot for the stars that she dropped out of school to join a burlesque revue. (Brice was one of a select group of radio performers—including Abbott & Costello and Red Skelton—who honed their craft in that uniquely American theatrical art form.) After seeing her perform in a production of College Girls in 1910, impresario Florenz Ziegfeld hired her to appear in his latest Follies revue that same year, as well as the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911. Fanny worked for Flo off-and-on throughout the 20s and early 30s, notably in a 1921 Follies where she introduced her signature tune, “My Man”…as well as another Brice standard, “Second Hand Rose.” (Her Broadway resume included such shows as Fioretta, Sweet and Low, and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt.)

fannybrice9The origins of her radio alter ego, Baby Snooks, were perceived to be a Follies skit co-written by legendary playwright Moss Hart. But Snooks was also inspired by various “little girl” roles that Brice often played onstage, as well as a memorable musical showcase at a party she attended where she performed “Poor Pauline” in a high-pitched voice to an appreciative crowd (Fanny later appropriated “Pauline” as an encore during her stage performances). By 1936, Fanny was doing the Snooks character on CBS’ Ziegfeld Follies of the Air—opposite radio veteran Alan Reed, who essayed the role of her exasperated father. Fanny went west a year later (Reed elected to stay behind), and revived Baby Snooks for NBC in December 1937 for the Good News variety program, sponsored by Maxwell House (though some have joked that with the presence of so many “stars as there are in heaven” it was actually sponsored by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

fannybrice3Replacing Reed as Lancelot “Daddy” Higgins was character actor Hanley Stafford—who made the role his own, adding that impeccable touch of aural frustration as Fanny’s foil. (In later years, Brice described the outstanding chemistry she had with her co-star: “He was perfect. We didn’t need to hear anyone else.”) Fanny and Hanley continued as regulars on Good News until 1940, when the sponsor instituted a new variety show in the fall entitled Maxwell House Coffee Time. Brice joined forces with fellow Good News player Frank Morgan for a half-hour show that, oddly enough, rarely had the two performing together—they staked out different halves of the show, and competed to see who would get the loudest laughs each week. Maxwell House Coffee Time ran until 1945 (in the fall of ’45, they would sponsor George Burns & Gracie Allen), with Morgan welcoming M.C. Robert Young and singer-comedienne Cass Daley in the final season.

fannybrice2By that time, Fanny had decided to strike out on her own with a series originally titled Post Toasties Time (a nod to the sponsor)…but which gradually came to be identified as The Baby Snooks Show (General Foods and Jell-O paid the bills in later seasons). The Baby Snooks Show adopted a situation comedy format, allowing Brice’s Snooks to be a holy terror for a full half-hour instead of her former fifteen-minute sketches. Stafford continued playing the patriarch of the family, with actresses Lalive Brownell, Lois Corbett and Arlene Harris all taking turns as Vera Higgins, Snooks’ mother. Child impersonator Leone Ledoux was Robespierre, Snooks’ baby brother, and other characters included a young Danny Thomas as Jerry the mailman and Alan Reed (reuniting with Fanny!) as Mr. Weemish, Daddy’s demanding boss. (Ken Christy later took over the role of Weemish.)

fannybrice21Fanny Brice earned a reputation as being a dedicated performer…and playing the weekly role of Baby Snooks was no exception. She would often become completely immersed in playing radio’s favorite female brat: “I love Snooks, and when I play her I do it as seriously as if she were real,” she once said. “I am Snooks. For twenty minutes or so, Fanny Brice ceases to exist.” She continued to express her love playing Snooks until 1948, when the show took a hiatus for a year after CBS requested she take a cut in salary. Brice refused to do so, which explains why she returned to do The Baby Snooks Show for NBC in the fall of 1949. (Take that, talent raids!) Fanny could have conceivably played the part until the Golden Age of Radio took its final bows at curtain…but on the day of the May 29, 1951 broadcast, Brice succumbed to a sudden cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 59. A musical tribute was featured instead, supplemented with a moving eulogy from her long-time co-star Stafford: “We have lost a very real…a very warm…a very wonderful woman.”

fannybrice23Fanny Brice’s only appearance on television was on an installment of CBS’ live Popsicle Parade of Stars in June of 1950; fittingly, she performed a sketch with Hanley Stafford as “Baby Snooks and Daddy”…but later observed that the character just didn’t work on TV. Brice’s film appearances were sporadic at best; she was delightful alongside Judy Garland in Everybody Sing (1938), and she also appeared in the likes of The Man from Blankley’s (1930), The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Ziegfeld Follies (1945). For many, however, her antics of the mischievous little girl who would innocently ask “Whyyyy, daddy?” marks her legacy.

20697Sadly, not much care was taken in preserving the half-hour Baby Snooks Show episodes…but many of the uproarious sketches from Good News and Maxwell House Coffee Time did survive, and are available on the Radio Spirits CD collections Why Daddy? (liner notes by yours truly!) and Smart Aleck. The liner notes for Aleck were written by my good friend Ben Ohmart, who studiously edited and assembled original scripts by comedy writer Phil Rapp in the compilations The Baby Snooks Scripts and The Baby Snooks Scripts Volume 2. For a look at the musical side of Fanny Brice, why not check out her rendition of “Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love,” one of many numbers by a virtual glittery array of singing stars on Decade of Hits: The 1930s? Happy birthday to our favorite Funny Girl!

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!