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Happy Birthday, Jack Benny!

bennyvalentine

It’s Valentine’s Day! Time for the traditional exchange of cards, candy, flowers and other affectionate gifts with our loved ones! If you listen closely, you can hear the sounds of cash registers ringing, and perhaps even the rubbing of hands in gleeful anticipation of the windfall visited upon greeting card companies, confectioners, florists and anyone else who stands to make a hefty profit from the February 14th holiday.

jack&mary4I can’t help but smile, however, when I think of the many ways that the person born in Chicago, Illinois on this date in 1894 (celebrating the 83rd anniversary of his 39th birthday, as it were) would surely have devised to get on that Valentine’s Day gravy train. He’d have his manservant Rochester growing roses in the backyard, or cooking candy in the kitchen. And as for greeting card verse?

Roses are red
Violets are blue
But then so are my eyes
Happy Valentine’s to you

jackbenny2It would be no exaggeration to state that Benjamin Kubelsky—better known to old-time radio fans as Jack Benny—remains the most beloved mirth maker from Radio’s Golden Age. Jack was unquestionably one of the most popular of the radio comedians; his program would become a Sunday night institution on both radio and TV for thirty years. Whenever longtime Jack Benny Show cast member Eddie “Rochester” Anderson would answer his employer’s ringing telephone with “Star of stage, screen and radio,” he was reminding listeners that Benny also drank deeply of success in vaudeville and on the silver screen as well.

On stage, he started out as a violinist; his parents had a dream that their son would one day become a professional, but Jack gave up on that when he discovered he was more proficient at making audiences laugh. (He never completely abandoned the string instrument, however—using it as a prop to punctuate his low-key style of humor [and as the inspiration for a million “bad-violin-playing” jokes.]) As for the movies, his agent persuaded M-G-M’s Irving Thalberg to catch his client’s act at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles in 1929, and Jack soon found himself the beneficiary of a five-year-contract with the studio, appearing as the “Master of Ceremonies” in The Hollywood Revue of 1929.

jackbenny9Although Jack appeared in a number of feature films and shorts, he was never really satisfied with his forays into motion pictures. Part of this was due to the fact that he was a victim of his own radio success: many of the movies in which he appeared either had him playing himself or a Jack Benny-type character—Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), Love Thy Neighbor (1940), The Meanest Man in the World (1943), etc. There were, however, some movies in which he did approve of his acting: he was quite fond of Charley’s Aunt (1941) and George Washington Slept Here (1942), and considered To Be or Not to Be (1942) his greatest cinematic achievement (and rightly so, in my opinion). His final starring film, The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), would provide delightful comic fodder for his radio and television series, despite the fact that it’s not nearly as bad as he pretended it was.

jackbennygang1Jack Benny’s comedy remains timeless, even when the jokes of many of his fellow funsters from that era can’t help but come across as a bit dated. The reason for this is simple: Jack was a disciple of character-based comedy—he may have begun his radio career with vaudeville-style humor, but writers like Harry Cohn, Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow soon developed a “switcheroo” formula. They made Jack the target of barbs from his “gang,” instead of just using his co-stars to set up punchlines. The exemplary supporting cast included his wife Mary Livingstone (who played Jack’s sardonic Girl Friday), announcer Don Wilson, bandleader Phil Harris, tenor Dennis Day, and as mentioned, Rochester. The regulars were aided and abetted by some of the best second bananas in the business: Sheldon Leonard, Joseph Kearns, Verna Felton, Frank Nelson, Artie Auerbach, Bea Benaderet…and most importantly of all, Mel Blanc. (The Jack Benny Program without Mel Blanc would be like a Bowery Boys film without gangsters.)

bennybirthdayThe real reason why Jack Benny remains so beloved among his fans is that the man essentially functioned as a funhouse mirror, exaggerating our imperfections and weaknesses in order to help us cope with them by laughing uproariously. The person Jack played on his radio and television shows was not the most attractive of individuals. He was a money-grubbing miser, a martinet who demanded complete fealty from his employees, and a bon vivant who had persuaded himself he was catnip as far as the ladies were concerned. He was none of these things in real life, of course, but the fact that he convinced listeners and viewers that he was stands as a testament to his skills as a performer and actor. And yet, I don’t think any comedian among Benny’s peers was able to convey so well that adored Everyman persona—the individual who immediately won our sympathy the moment he came up against a figure of authority…say, a condescending store clerk (usually played by Frank Nelson).

Jack Benny stopped production on his weekly TV series at the end of the 1964-65 season, though for many years afterward he continued to be a fixture (and elder statesman) with a series of highly-rated television specials. But on December 26, 1974, Jack left this world for a better one—a devastating turn of events for many. As his longtime friend Bob Hope so memorably said as he delivered Jack’s eulogy: “For a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you’d have to say that this was the only time when Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon.”

20504So here’s the age-old argument, even more pressing than “Which came first—the chicken or the egg?” It’s “Was Jack Benny better on television or radio?” Well, Radio Spirits refuses to take sides (we think he was great in both mediums), but we do give you an opportunity to sample the visual contributions of today’s birthday boy in the DVD collection The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes. (We even have a review of this set in our voluminous blog archives.) If you’re inclined to argue the radio side, we have you covered. You can check out Benny broadcasts on such potpourri compilations as Comedy Goes West, Great Radio Comedy, and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell…not to mention Yuletide celebrations in Christmas Radio Classics, Radio’s Christmas Celebrations, and The Voices of Christmas Past. You should also look into our Burns & Allen presentations of Muddling Through and Burns & Allen and Friends, which feature shows with Jack as guest star.

20933Bah and feh! I hear you saying. You’re past all that, and demand pure, undiluted Benny. Radio Spirits offers up plenty of those collections as well—I’d highly recommend Be Our Guest, which presents Jack in various venues such as Suspense and The Lux Radio Theatre. In addition, we feature two sets that allow Jack to square off with his longtime radio nemesis (though in real life they were the best of friends) Fred Allen: The Feud and Grudge Match. Finally, binge on Benny with such collections as Jack Benny & Friends, Jack Benny International, Maestro, Neighbors, Oh, Rochester!, Tall Tales, and Wit Under the Weather. Happy birthday, Jack!

The Older-And-No-Wiser Matter

Old Phone

He picked up the receiver on the first ring of the phone. “Johnny Dollar.”

“Johnny? Pat McCracken, Universal Adjustment Bureau…”

“Pat, if this is about an assignment…I’m going to have to take a rain check. I’m planning to get some fishing in; I hear the bass are running like dishonest Congressmen…”

“No assignment, my friend—I just wanted to wish you ‘happy anniversary’!”

Dollar was puzzled. “How’s that again?”

19881“Come on, Johnny…surely you haven’t forgotten that sixty-seven years ago on this date, CBS Radio premiered a radio series based on your exploits…they even named it after you: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar!”

There was a pause, and Johnny continued. “I suppose I didn’t really forget, Pat…I’m just amazed that you remember.”

“Your show and the series Suspense were there to close out the era known as ‘Radio’s Golden Age’ on September 30, 1962, chum. That’s not something easily erased from one’s memory.”

“True, true…but you have to admit, the program had a rather inauspicious beginning—I’m amazed that it lasted as long as it did. They couldn’t even keep Dick Powell interested in the premise—he decided to go into the private eye business instead.”

McCracken chuckled. “I recall the early broadcasts with Charles Russell playing you…how he had that corny affectation of tipping the service staff silver dollars…”

“Yeah, that went by the wayside rather quickly. As you could imagine, it started to run into a bit of money and I wasn’t able to camouflage it in the expense accounts after that.”

edmondobrien-233x300“You remember Edmond O’Brien, right?” asked Pat.

“The actor?”

“Yeah! He took over the role from Russell in January of 1950. Always thought that was appropriate, seeing as how he played an insurance investigator in that 1946 film, The Killers.”

“O’Brien built up quite a resume in those movies they now call film noir,” mentioned Johnny. “If my memory hasn’t failed me, I think the next actor in the role was John Lund.”

“Correct. Lund played you from November of 1952 to August of 1954. Interestingly, it was during the Lund years that Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar saw its bills paid by an actual sponsor, Wrigley’s Gum.”

Dollar grimaced. “That’s something I’ll never forget. I couldn’t get rid of that gum fast enough.”

McCracken continued. “A lot of people were convinced at that time that when Wrigley’s bowed out, that would be the end of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. But CBS wasn’t ready to close the lid on the coffin just yet. They experimented with actor Gerald Mohr and a quarter-hour audition in August of 1955…”

“Gerald Mohr…the guy who played Philip Marlowe on the radio, right?”

“Right. They wound up not using him, but the network liked the concept of a five-day-a-week quarter hour series in serialized form. They turned this over to producer-director Jack Johnstone, who, with the help of writers like Les Crutchfield and Robert Ryf, refashioned the series to concentrate on longer, meatier stories and well-developed supporting characters. And you’ll never guessed who they recast as…”

bob-bailey“Don’t say it,” wailed Johnny in a chagrined tone. “Bob Bailey. I wish I had a silver dollar for every time I’ve been mistaken for that guy. Sometimes I wish he had continued to just ‘Let George Do It.’”

“You may not like it, Johnny…but you have to face facts. Not only was Bailey the most popular of the radio Dollars, he had the gig the longest. Oh, sure—he handed off the part to Robert Readick when the series moved to the East Coast in November of 1960…but for many Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar fans, Bailey was the best and brightest.”

“Wasn’t there some other actor who played me after Readick? Kramer something…”

“Mandel Kramer,” corrected Pat. “He took over in mid-June of 1961…and at the risk of being facetious, kept filling out expense reports until the show took its final bow at the curtain. It was one heck of a run, Johnny.”

“Look, Pat,” Johnny said, the words stuck in his throat, “I’m touched by your well-wishes and your amazing capacity to recollect all this trivia. But all that was over fifty years ago and I reiterate…nobody even remembers it anymore.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, pal…I have two words for you: Radio Spirits.”

Johnny couldn’t suppress his snicker. “You got a poltergeist in your Bakelite, Pat?”

“I’m talking about the leading publisher and marketer of what’s known as ‘old-time’ radio programs, you joker. Radio Spirits’ mission is to preserve and popularize radio entertainment from every era for generations old and new. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ranks among the most popular and best-selling series in their inventory of tens of thousands of broadcasts!”

“Seriously, Pat, pull the other leg…it’s got bells on it.”

21018“This isn’t a rib, Johnny. Fans of your series can sample it on such collections as The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, which allows them to listen to all of the actors who played you during the series’ fourteen years on the air. You can do something similar with Mysterious Matters, except those sets don’t feature Dick Powell or Gerald Mohr.”

“Keep ‘em coming, Pat…I’m writing all of these down.”

“In addition, there’s Confidential, Expense Account Submitted, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, and Wayward Matters. And of course, the appropriately-named Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.”

“Pat, I’m…overwhelmed…I had no idea people still enjoy listening to that show.”

“It’s not for nothing that they call you ‘the man with the action-packed expense account,’ my friend. But hey…I’ll let you continue with those fishing trip plans. And Johnny?”

“Yes, Pat?”

“You have no idea how relieved I am not to hear the words ‘expense account total.’ This may very well be the first phone conversation I’ve had with you that didn’t cost me money!”

Johnny was laughing so hard he was barely able to get out a leave-taking “Yours truly…Johnny Dollar.”

Happy Birthday, William Johnstone!

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Old-time radio fans know that when Orson Welles made the decision to abandon his role as Lamont Cranston (aka The Shadow) and go on to better things (scaring the daylights out of listeners on Halloween, for example), actor William Llewellyn Johnstone was there to take his place as the “wealthy young man-about-town.” Johnstone, born in New York City on this date in 1908, was no doubt well-acquainted with wunderkind Welles, having worked with Orson when the two were employed on CBS’ The March of Time (where Bill impersonated Cordell Hull and King Edward VIII). The two actors would also share a microphone on Welles’ first Mercury radio presentation, Les Miserables, in 1937.

johnstone2In fact, you can hear Johnstone on Welles’ first Shadow broadcast, “The Death House Rescue” (09/26/37)—Bill plays the innocent man headed for a date with the electric chair. The actor would work on The Shadow several more times before donning the slouch hat and cloak in the fall of 1938…and though Johnstone always performed in an exemplary style, more than a few people thought he sounded a bit too grandfatherly to play the considerably younger Lamont Cranston. (I’ve joked in the past that Bill was more of a “wealthy old man-about-town.”)

Bill Johnstone’s early radio career was dominated by a genre not uncommon to radio artists: soap operas. He emoted on a good many of them, including Five-Star Jones, Irene Rich Dramas, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Valiant Lady, and Wilderness Road. His exposure on The Shadow led him to become one of the busiest actors in the radio business, working on such anthologies as Arch Oboler’s Plays, The Columbia Workshop, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, The General Electric Theatre, Great Plays, Hallmark Playhouse, The Railroad Hour, Romance, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood, The Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Romance. He was practically a regular on The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre, and later continued his association with Orson Welles with appearances on Campbell Playhouse, The Mercury Summer Theatre, and This is My Best.

johnstone4Bill appeared many times on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, in the early days of that long-running anthology…and during its sponsorship by Auto-Lite, he would interact with announcer Harlow Wilcox in the role of “Hap the mechanic.” Escape and The Whistler also called upon his talents (Johnstone even briefly played the titular narrator on the latter program). To list every show on which Johnstone collected a paycheck would be a Herculean task, but some of the better-known programs include The Adventures of Frank Race, The Adventures of the Abbotts, The Adventures of the Saint, Broadway’s My Beat, Crime Classics, Dangerous Assignment, Diary of Fate, Dr. Sixgun, Dragnet (a powerful performance in the Yuletide classic “.22 Rifle for Christmas”), Ellery Queen, The FBI in Peace and War, I Was a Communist for the FBI, Let George Do It, The Man Called X, The Mysterious Traveler, Nick Carter, Master Detective, Night Beat, Pursuit, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, The Roy Rogers Show, The Silent Men, The Six Shooter, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI, T-Man, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

johnstone6William Johnstone was the first actor to play Sanderson “Sandy” Taylor, sidekick of sleuthing San Francisco importer Gregory Hood on The Casebook of Gregory Hood (he was replaced by Howard McNear), and enjoyed stints as Lieutenant Ybarra on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe and as Inspector Cramer on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. The actor’s range was such that he was also adept at comedy, with roles on such sitcoms as Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Bill Goodwin Show, The Halls of Ivy, My Favorite Husband, Our Miss Brooks, The Penny Singleton Show, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Early in his radio career, Johnstone played “Wilfred Mason,” the father of the teen heroine on Maudie’s Diary, a sitcom that predated the better-known A Date with Judy and Meet Corliss Archer. In the summer of 1946, he would reunite with his former Shadow leading lady Agnes Moorehead on her sitcom The Amazing Mrs. Danberry.

20587Outside of his turn as Lamont Cranston, Bill Johnstone’s best-known radio gig would inarguably be that of Lieutenant Ben Guthrie on the police procedural The Line-Up, an outstanding crime drama that aired on CBS Radio from 1950 to 1953 featuring Wally Maher and, later, Jack Moyles. The series would later make a successful transition to television (and produce a big screen version in 1958), but Johnstone was not asked to reprise his role when it was brought to boob tube audiences. Bill would never completely abandon radio; he was heard in a version of Pepper Young’s Family in 1966, and made a number of appearances on The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre in the 1970s.

While William Johnstone’s radio career was an industrious one, he didn’t appear in many feature films. But when he did step in front of the cameras, he displayed the same professionalism that was evident when he stood before a microphone. You might know him as John Jacob Astor in 20th Century-Fox’s 1953 Titanic release, and his movie resume also includes All My Sons (1948), The Magnificent Yankee (1950), My Favorite Spy (1951), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and Down Three Dark Streets (1954—a personal favorite). On the small screen, Bill reprised his turn from “.22 Rifle for Christmas” when it was done on the TV Dragnet, and he also guested on such series as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Four Star Playhouse and The Big Story. For many years, Johnstone was the law in the fictional city of Oakdale as Judge James T. Lowell on the daytime drama As the World Turns, a gig that ran from 1956 to 1979. William Johnstone would pass on in 1996 at the age of 88.

21089If you were to ask us (rhetorically, of course) “Might there be some Radio Spirits collections featuring today’s birthday boy?” we would chuckle in a sinister manner, mutter something along the lines of “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit,” and invite you to check out Bill Johnstone’s signature role as The Shadow on Bitter Fruit, Crime Does Not Pay, Dead Men Tell, Dream of Death, Knight of Darkness, Radio Treasures, Silent Avenger, and Strange Puzzles. Our set of broadcasts from The Line-Up (Witness) also features some of Bill’s outstanding radio work. In addition, there’s The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Amos ‘n’ Andy (Volume Two), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Defense Attorney, Escape (Essentials), The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (Parties for Death), Night Beat (Human Interest), The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show (Smoother and Sweeter), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel, Special Edition), Stop the Press! (with the Night Beat episode “Doctor’s Secret”), Suspense (Around the World, At Work, Ties That Bind), Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Weird Circle (Toll the Bell), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar). Last—but certainly not least—listen to Mr. Johnstone “walk by night” as one of the many Whistlers in the new Whistler: Voices compilation! Happy birthday to one of the true radio greats!

“He hunts the biggest of all game! Public enemies who try to destroy our America!”

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In the annals of radio broadcasting, Detroit, Michigan’s WXYZ was a truly remarkable station. It would introduce one of the medium’s larger-than-life heroes (and a genuine pop culture icon) in The Lone Ranger in 1933. Ten years later, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (described by more than a few as “The Lone Ranger on ice”) was added to its panoply of juvenile heroes. In between those successful programs came The Green Hornet, which premiered over WXYZ eighty years ago on this very date.

greenhornetIt was station owner George W. Trendle, giddy over the success of The Lone Ranger, that suggested to WXYZ director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker that they pursue a second radio series along the same lines. After kicking ideas back and forth, it was decided to tweak the Ranger formula (an individual facing off against the forces of corruption prevalent in both politics and society) to give it a modern-day bent. The legend has it that Trendle was obsessed with using a bee as a symbol for the new hero, purportedly due to an incident in which he spent a sleepless night in a hotel room with a trapped bee buzzing constantly.

The show’s original title was The Hornet. Trendle wasn’t completely satisfied with this; he was concerned about possible legal problems since that same title had been used for a previous radio series. After a discussion on the color of the hornet (pink, blue, chartreuse), it was decided that their hornet would sport a hue of green. (I read somewhere that “green hornets” are the angriest of their kind—but I am not going to say this with any degree of authority, because I make it a point to stay away from any kind of hornet, regardless of their color.)

katoIt probably didn’t escape the notice of those listeners who tuned into The Green Hornet that there were a number of similarities between the series and the earlier Ranger. The Ranger’s mode of transportation was “his great horse Silver,” while the Hornet tooled around in a sleek, black automobile dubbed “The Black Beauty.” Both heroes operated outside the law (though they themselves were not lawless), and for their trouble were occasionally believed by law enforcement to be engaging in criminal behavior (though it always seemed that The Hornet got the worst of this—all the Ranger had to do was show skeptics a silver bullet to remove all doubt). And like the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion Tonto,” the Green Hornet had his own sidekick in a Filipino valet named Kato. Kato, like his boss, was not what he seemed: he functioned as the Hornet’s chief-cook-and-bottle-washer, but he was quite schooled in chemistry (the Hornet’s gas gun and smokescreens were his designs) and the art of Oriental combat. Kato also knew the Green Hornet’s true identity: Daily Sentinel publisher Britt Reid.

19997That last name may ring a familiar bell. As the mythology of The Lone Ranger developed over the years, the folks at WXYZ gave their masked hero a certain backstory: he had been Texas Ranger John Reid. And in a number of Lone Ranger episodes, he would ride with his young nephew, Dan Reid. The Green Hornet’s writers later capitalized on this familial connection by revealing that Dan Reid was the father of Britt, who had quite a surprise for his pa when he revealed that he was more than just a callow millionaire playboy. As the cherry on top of this sundae, the elderly Dan Reid was played by John Todd—who played Tonto on The Lone Ranger. (You can explore this fascinating history in the Radio Spirits collection Generations, which contains episodes of both The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet that examine the bridge between these two iconic heroes.)

caseyaxfordDid anyone else but Kato (and later Dan Reid) know that Britt Reid and The Green Hornet were one and the same? Well, Britt’s secretary Lenore Case (“Miss Case” to Britt; “Casey” to pretty much everyone else) certainly suspected that something was up. In the final years of The Green Hornet’s radio run, she had put two and two together…but kept the information to herself. One person who did not suspect was Michael Axford, a cantankerous Irishman who started out on the series as Reid’s bodyguard, but eventually wound up as one of the Sentinel’s reporters. (And you thought Sean Penn was responsible for the death of journalism.) Axford could certainly handle himself in a tough scrape, but he served mostly as the program’s comic relief, forever railing against “that no-good spalpeen, the Har-nut!” Other Sentinel employees included the paper’s ace reporter Ed Lowry and resourceful female photographer “Clicker” Binney.

20934When The Green Hornet premiered over WXYZ in 1936, the titular hero was played by actor Al Hodge. Hodge became so identified as “the Har-nut” that when Universal brought the crime fighter to the silver screen in the form of a 1940 serial, they had Hodge dub the voice of the Hornet. (He was physically portrayed by Gordon Jones.) Hodge would be replaced by Robert Hall in 1943, and Hall himself would be relieved by Jack McCarthy in 1946. McCarthy continued in the role until the series rounded up its last evildoer on December 5, 1952 as the familiar strains of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee played the program out. (Another similarity to The Lone Ranger was the use of familiar classical music pieces as their theme music.)

Radio Spirits has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Green Hornet broadcasts on CD. There’s the previously mentioned Generations, of course, as well as Spies & Rackets, The Biggest Game, Fights Crime!, Underworld, Sting of Justice, and The Green Hornet Strikes Again. For those of you who were brave enough to sit through the 2011 “revival” film and found it wanting, we’ve got just what you need to wash that acrid taste out of your month: printed collections of brand new Green Hornet tales in the form of The Green Hornet Chronicles (hardcover and softcover), The Green Hornet Casefiles (hardcover and softcover) and The Green Hornet: Still at Large. There’s plenty here for fans to enjoy as bad guys and evildoers are brought to justice “by the sting of The Green Hornet!”

Happy Birthday, Wyllis Cooper!

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Radio writer and playwright Arch Oboler once had these words of praise for the man he would eventually replace as the mind behind the mayhem that fueled the horror series Lights Out: “Radio drama (as distinguished from theatre plays boiled down to kilocycle size) began at midnight, in the middle thirties, on one of the upper floors of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The pappy was a rotund writer by the name of Willys [sic] Cooper.” Okay, maybe Arch could have worked on the spelling of his mentor’s name a bit; he’s referring to Wyllis Cooper, who created the series that featured the intonation of “Lights out, everybody!” before presenting plays guaranteed to chill the bone marrow. After spending a brief sojourn in Hollywood, Cooper—born Willis Oswald Cooper in Pekin, Illinois one hundred and seventeen years ago today—would later follow up that success with the underrated Quiet, Please in the 1940s.

cooper2Pekin was also where the young Willis attended high school, and after graduating in 1916 he joined the U.S. Cavalry—eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant as he served along the Mexican border. The following year found him in France during the First World War as a signal corpsman, and though he was gassed at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive as part of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, he continued to serve until 1919…and for many years after, was a member of the Illinois National Guard and the Cavalry Reserves. Advertising, however, was the civilian field in which Cooper chose to toil. After working as a copywriter for several agencies (including a brief stint at one he founded himself), Willis got into the ground floor of radio at NBC in Chicago, where his first assignment was for the Western drama The Empire Builders.

cooper6After writing for Empire Builders, Cooper worked at rival CBS as a continuity editor, and generated scripts for such series as The Witching Hour and The Lost Legion (Tales of the Foreign Legion). His loyalty then reverted back to NBC when he was hired to do the same continuity editor job, and he continued to write prolifically with such contributions as Desert Guns and Fifty-Fifty. Willis would create the program that would become his radio legacy in 1934: a fifteen-minute horror program broadcast at midnight known as Lights Out.

Lights Out began as a quarter-hour in January of 1934, but its popularity convinced NBC Chicago to grant it half-hour status three months later. Lights Out’s midnight time slot allowed Cooper to go a bit beyond broadcasting’s usual norms by concentrating on gory sound effects and terrorizing subject matter, and it attracted such a devoted following that even when the series was discontinued in January of 1935 to ease its creator’s workload, public outcry brought Lights Out back a few weeks later. In April of 1935, the program made its debut national on NBC Red after a positive reception to test broadcasts in New York City.

cooper7Willis Cooper stayed with Lights Out until May of 1936 (allowing Oboler to take over and put his distinctive stamp on the show), when he answered the siren call of Hollywood and moved west. After doing uncredited work on such films as Pigskin Parade (1936), Wild and Woolly (1937), and She Had to Eat (1937), Willis received his first onscreen credit by contributing “additional dialogue” to Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937). Cooper would receive screenplay credit for Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937) and story credit on Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), two entries in the popular 20th Century-Fox franchise starring Peter Lorre as the Japanese sleuth created by John P. Marquand. Willis’ best-remembered screenplay was 1939’s Son of Frankenstein—the third in Universal’s highly successful horror series, and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. (Willis also participated in projects that never materialized on the silver screen…though he earned a place in the hearts of cheesy movie fans by scripting the Universal serial The Phantom Creeps [1939].)

cooper4During his sojourn in Hollywood, Willis Cooper had kept his hand in radio by writing scripts for the popular Hollywood Hotel program, and in 1940 he returned east (New York City) to continue in broadcasting and contributing to such shows as Charlie and Jesse and The Campbell Playhouse (the new name of The Mercury Theatre On the Air after creator-star Orson Welles landed a sponsor). By this time the writer was signing “Wyllis Cooper” on his scripts, purportedly changing the spelling of his first name “to please his wife’s numerological inclinations.” Cooper’s experience in World War I landed him a position as consultant to the Secretary of War during the Second World War, and part of his new job involved producing and directing The Army Hour, a weekly propaganda show with elements of both news and variety.

cooper3After the war, Wyllis was hired by the radio department of Compton Advertising in New York, and many of his old scripts for Lights Out would be utilized when the series enjoyed three summer runs in 1945, 1946, and 1947. In June of 1947 Mutual premiered what many consider to be Cooper’s most exemplary contribution to radio drama: Quiet, Please. A horror anthology that was much more understated than the previous Lights Out, Quiet, Please didn’t attract much attention during its initial run (it lasted a year on Mutual before moving to ABC for its second and final season), but has since become recognized by historians as one of the medium’s most outstanding shows. John Dunning praised Quiet, Please as “a potent series bristling with rich imagination,” and University of Glamorgan professor Richard J. Hand declared the show’s creator “one of the greatest auteurs of horror radio.”

20904Wyllis Cooper made a grab for small screen achievement with contributions to TV shows like Escape and (of course) Lights Out, but his own productions of Volume One and Stage 13 never caught on in the way that his radio contributions did. He would enjoy one last success with one final radio series, Whitehall 1212—a 1951-52 NBC crime anthology (featuring an all-British cast) that dramatized stories based on artifacts held at Scotland Yard’s Black Museum (Whitehall competed with a similar Orson Welles program on Mutual, The Black Museum, and there has occasionally been confusion between the two). Wyllis Cooper passed away in 1955 at the age of 56.

Radio Spirits features an outstanding collection of broadcasts from Wyllis Cooper’s final radio series, Whitehouse 1212, in This is Scotland Yard, and there’s also some choice Quiet, Please tales on the sets Great Radio Horror (which also features Cooper’s Lights Out drama “The Haunted Cell”), Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures, and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell. For a taste of our birthday boy’s contributions to the boob tube, check out “Dead Man’s Coat”—available on the Lights Out: Volume Five DVD!

“Fortune: Danger!”

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It’s safe to say that without author Dashiell Hammett, the crime rate in Radio Land would be at risk of going on an uptick. Hammett’s legendary gumshoe Sam Spade—introduced in his novel The Maltese Falcon—would become “the greatest private detective of them all” over the airwaves (in The Adventures of Sam Spade), and the Nick and Nora Charles characters from his book The Thin Man (purportedly inspired by Dash and longtime lady friend Lillian Hellman) also enjoyed much radio success (The Adventures of the Thin Man). Seventy years ago on this date, Hammett created a radio “hat trick” when The Fat Man made his debut over the ABC Radio Network.

fatman2The titular sleuth was Brad Runyon, who topped the scales at a hefty 237 pounds…and the reason why listeners knew this was because it was incorporated into the show’s unforgettable opening each week:

WOMAN: There he goes into that drugstore…he’s stepping on the scale…
(SFX: Penny tumbling onto scale)
WOMAN: Weight? Two hundred thirty-seven pounds…
(SFX: Click of card popping out of scale)
WOMAN: Fortune…danger! (Music sting) Whooooo is it?
RUNYON: The Fat Mannnnnn…

The actor who played Runyon (and who actually weighed a bit more than his fictional counterpart, coming in at 270) was radio veteran J. Scott Smart, tabbed “The Lon Chaney of Radio” by his peers for his talent in playing character parts. Smart had worked on such programs as The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre, in addition to being a member of Fred Allen’s popular “Allen’s Alley” as windy politico Senator Bloat. Smart’s deep bass voice had a distinctive rumble to it, so when he pronounced “murder” it came out as “murrr-derrr.” Suffice it to say, he was perfect casting for the role of Runyon, a man who despite his girth and “tough as nails” demeanor was also a charming ladies’ man (he could have double-dated with The Great Gildersleeve), which added an interesting dimension to his ability to bring down any suspect before his half-hour came to a close.

fatman7The origins of The Fat Man have often been a topic of discussion amongst fans of the series. Some argue that the character of Casper Gutman in Falcon inspired the portly sleuth (one of the chapters in Falcon is titled “The Fat Man”), while others posit that radio’s Runyon bears a striking similarity to the nameless detective Hammett created known to fans as “the Continental Op” (so named because he worked for the Continental Detective Agency). There’s even disagreement as to how much involvement Hammett himself had in the creation of The Fat Man; a number of sources suggest that he might have penned a few of the program’s early scripts before allowing staff writers to take it from there. I myself remain skeptical about this, particularly since Hammett himself declared in 1949 (regarding the radio versions of his literary efforts): “My sole duty in regard to these programs is to look in the mail for a check once a week. I don’t even listen to them. If I did, I’d complain about how they were being handled, and then I’d fall into the trap of being asked to come down and help. I don’t want to have anything to do with the radio. It’s a dizzy world—makes the movies seem highly intellectual.”

fatman3Whether or not Hammett was ghost-writing The Fat Man, the fact remains that the show—under the sponsorship of Pepto-Bismol, a match made in heaven—was a very popular one for ABC, frequently occupying the Top Ten in the radio ratings. It was such a smash that, in 1951, Universal brought J. Scott Smart (reprising his Brad Runyon role) to the big screen with a feature film adaptation of The Fat Man that also spotlighted the talents of Julie London, Rock Hudson, Jayne Meadows, John “Lawman” Russell, and legendary clown Emmett Kelly. (The movie, directed by future schlockmeister William Castle, features a climax set against the background of a circus). Sadly, the critical reaction to the movie was rather tepid (one wag remarked that J. Scott “was better behind the microphone than in front of the camera”) and it eventually was relegated to Late, Late Show status allowing television listings to have a bit of fun (“Rock Hudson as The Fat Man”).

20291It was perhaps for the best, for the radio Fat Man was also having trouble. Despite the program’s popularity, there was pressure being put on ABC to give the rotund detective a pink slip—mostly due to the association it had with Dashiell Hammett, who was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee at that time for his political affiliations. Hammett’s other creations suffered a similar fate: The Adventures of The Thin Man left a vacant microphone in 1950, and The Adventures of Sam Spade would have followed had not an outcry from its fans given the series a temporary one-year reprieve. The Fat Man was the last Hammett-inspired show to take its final bows at the curtain, departing ABC’s schedule on September 26, 1951.

Time was not kind to The Fat Man. Less than a dozen broadcasts of the 1946-51 series survived, though about three dozen episodes from the Australian version (which went on the air in 1954, starring actor Lloyd Berrell) were saved, and a mixture of episodes from the U.S. and Australian series comprise the content of Radio Spirits’ classic radio detective collection of The Fat Man. At the height of his popularity, the corpulent Brad Runyon was heard by six million listeners weekly, and after listening to his adventures on this set you’ll gain a new appreciation for the sleuth adept at dealing with the art of “murrr-derrr…”

Happy Birthday, Herb Ellis!

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It’s not often that we here at the Radio Spirits blog get an opportunity to blow a noisemaker and celebrate the natal anniversary of an old-time radio performer who’s still with us—but that’s what we intend to do today, as we commemorate actor Herb Ellis’s 95th birthday! Herb, born Herbert Siegel in Cleveland, OH on this date in 1921, was a longtime collaborator with Dragnet actor-director-producer Jack Webb. In fact, it was once recalled in an interview that the police procedural, lauded for revolutionizing crime drama in both radio and television, was mapped out on Ellis’ kitchen table. (Jack and Herb wanted to sell the idea to television as Joe Friday, Room Five—but their small screen efforts would have to take a detour towards a radio microphone first.)

20334Herb Ellis began his radio career as an announcer, presiding over many a jazz band remote (broadcast under the aegis of One Night Stand). He would eventually land work at San Francisco’s KGO…a station where Jack Webb also found employment. Ellis worked with Webb on Jack’s Pat Novak for Hire, both during its KGO years and its brief run on the ABC network. Herb could also be heard on Jeff Regan, Investigator, on which Jack played the titular gumshoe. But Herb really became indispensable on Dragnet, becoming a solid member of Jack Webb’s “stock company” of performers, hewing to the creator’s insistence on realism. (In Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast, Ellis recalled that he had reservations about Webb’s style of monotone acting on the series. “He was so vertical in the way he wanted everyone to play,” reminisced Herb, “that I felt there was no humanness, because we all talked the same way. Why it struck America and struck a chord, I don’t know, but it did.”) Ellis was the first actor to portray Officer Frank Smith, which he did for eight episodes in the TV transplant before being replaced by radio veteran Ben Alexander. Herb later had a co-starring role (as Frank La Valle) on the Jack Webb-produced series The D.A.’s Man in 1959. In 1967, when Dragnet was revived for NBC, Ellis made appearances on that as well.

ellis4However, to suggest that Herb Ellis owed his long career to a fruitful association with Jack Webb would be doing the actor a tremendous disservice. Herb’s work on Dragnet shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he was in high demand as a radio actor, working on other crime dramas such as The Adventures of the Saint, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Broadway’s My Beat, Jason and the Golden Fleece, The Line-Up, Mike Malloy, Private Cop, Night Beat, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Tales of the Texas Rangers, and This is Your FBI. Ellis was even a member of the “revolving door” fraternity that took a crack at satisfying star Sydney Greenstreet’s standards for an actor to play sidekick Archie Goodwin on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (unfortunately for Herb, the gig lasted for one solitary broadcast). Ellis’s radio resume also includes Dangerous Assignment, Dr. Christian, Escape, Family Theatre, Fibber McGee & Molly, Frontier Gentleman, Gunsmoke, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, Hallmark Playhouse, The Halls of Ivy, The Lux Radio Theatre, The NBC Star Playhouse, Rocky Fortune, Rogers of the Gazette, Romance, The Six Shooter, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Suspense, The Whisperer, Wild Bill Hickok, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Even after the casket belonging to Radio’s Golden Age had long been lowered into the ground, Herb Ellis worked on the shows that nobly wanted to keep radio drama alive including Heartbeat Theatre, Horizons West, and The Sears/Mutual Radio Theatre.

ellis2When radio was “down on its uppers,” Herb turned to television to make a living, and found that his talents as a character actor were welcomed by a number of shows that signed him on as a semi-regular. On Peter Gunn, he played a character named “Wilbur”—who owned a bistro and did a little sculpting on the side. He was “Dr. Dan Wagner” on the Jackie Cooper comedy-drama Hennesey, and “Lou Porter” on the short-lived Peter Loves Mary. Ellis made guest appearances on such television classics as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, The Fugitive, M Squad, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, My Favorite Martian, and Perry Mason. On the silver screen side of the Ellis resume, we have such movies as Rogue Cop (1954), Naked Alibi (1954), The Killing (1956), The Fortune Cookie (1966), What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), and The Party (1968)—not to mention the Jack Webb feature film Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and the big-screen version of Dragnet in 1954.

21120Radio Spirits invites you to listen to some of Herb Ellis’ work on our newest Night Beat collection, Human Interest, and we’ve also got Herb working with his pal Jack Webb in Pat Novak for Hire: Pain Gets Expensive. In addition, Herb is Archie Goodwin for a night in Parties for Death, a set of broadcasts from The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. Round out your Ellis library by acquiring Escape to the High Seas, Frontier Gentleman, Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Homicide Made Easy, Romance, The Six Shooter (Grey Steel and Special Edition), Suspense at Work, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Expense Account Submitted, Mysterious Matters, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, Wayward Matters) in honor of this versatile actor’s milestone birthday!

Happy Birthday, Morton Fine!

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Before embarking on a rewarding career as a radio, television and movie writer, Morton S. Fine—born a Christmas Eve baby in Baltimore, MD on this date in 1916—was a “jack-of-all-trades.” He worked in an advertising agency, toiled in a bookstore, and punched a card at an aircraft factory (before the work at that factory inspired him to join the Army Air Force in 1942). Though he had previously graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis before his hitch in the service, he returned to the “halls of ivy” (the University of Pittsburgh) upon being mustered out in 1944 and earned a Master’s in English. Mort tried to put that degree to use as a writer for magazines, but had no success in that field…causing him to decide that he ought to be in California instead. He found work as a radio scribe on shows like Let George Do It, and then teamed up with David Friedkin (who was four years his senior) in 1948 to form one of the medium’s most fruitful writing partnerships. Together, they delivered scripts for such series as The Front Page and The Philip Morris Playhouse.

20546Fine and Friedkin played a large role in the success of Broadway’s My Beat, an Elliott Lewis-produced crime drama that was heard over CBS Radio from 1949 to 1954. Broadway’s My Beat established the template for the gritty, realistic cop show that many (including myself) associate with Dragnet—even though Beat premiered before Jack Webb’s seminal police procedural by several months. Beat originated in New York from February to June of 1949 in its first season, and then moved to the West Coast. The series showcased first-rate acting from its star, actor-announcer Larry Thor (as Detective Danny Clover), and a superlative supporting cast that included Charles Calvert (as Sergeant Gino Tartaglia) and Jack Kruschen (Detective Muggavan). Mort and David’s scripts for the series were an interesting blend of introspective prose and hard-hitting social commentary (they often tackled controversial subjects like juvenile delinquency and anti-Semitism), and were praised by radio historian Fred MacDonald as “a striking example of a writing flair which was generally absent from radio.”

20850Morton Fine and David Friedkin also contributed scripts for Elliott Lewis’ directing-producing efforts on Suspense and On Stage, and in addition set the tone for the puckish black humor that became the hallmark of the offbeat anthology known as Crime Classics. Classics presented historical tales of murder and mayhem laced with a very dry wit; Messrs. Fine and Friedkin once commented about their macabre efforts: “You can afford to laugh at murder as long as you’re safely a century or so away from it…the killers we make fun of are good and dead. If they weren’t, we know a pair of writers who would be.” Though Crime Classics had but a brief sustained run over the CBS Radio Network (from June 15, 1953, to June 30, 1954), it remains a firm favorite with old-time radio fans today.

ventureOther series on which Fine and Friedkin turned in scripts include Escape, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Line Up, Pursuit, Romance, San Francisco Final, and Sara’s Private Caper. The writing duo also had a hand in the blueprint of what would eventually become radio’s Gunsmoke (they penned the 1949 audition script, “Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye”) after CBS President William S. Paley suggested a series that would echo “Philip Marlowe in the Old West.” In addition, Fine and his partner can take a little credit in luring Humphrey Bogart to a stand-up microphone. Long reluctant to commit himself to the rigors of a live weekly series, Bogie liked Fine and Friedkin’s pitch for Bold Venture, an adventure program that would co-star Mrs. Bogie (Lauren Bacall) and allow them to record 3-4 shows in advance while he and Baby concentrated on their film careers. Bold Venture would go on to become one of the Fredric W. Ziv radio syndication company’s biggest hits, awarding the husband-and-wife team a princely sum of $4,000 per episode.

frontierLike many of their radio brethren and sistren, Fine and Friedkin decided to try their luck writing for that newfangled upstart television…and were quite successful for the most part, contributing to the likes of Climax! and Suspense, and later shows such as Bat Masterson, The Aquanauts, and Bold Venture (brought to TV in 1959 with Dane Clark and Joan Marshall). One of their interesting “failures” was an anthology entitled Frontier, which tried to do for the Old West what the duo had previously done for “murder-throughout-the-ages” on Crime Classics. Episodes from the series netted the duo Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominations (they lost both); still, Fine was able to add “producer” to his resume with Frontier, which led to future gigs on The Virginian, Breaking Point, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Morton Fine and David Friedkin’s most successful television collaboration was I Spy, the tongue-in-cheek espionage series starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as a pair of globetrotting secret agents masquerading as a tennis amateur (Culp) and his trainer (Cos). Though nominated three times as Outstanding Dramatic Series for every season it was on the air (Fine and Friedkin were the producers), I Spy was only Emmy-lucky for Bill Cosby (who scored a hat trick as Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series). Morton and partner David did get a nice consolation prize in Writers Guild of America honors for their screenplay for The Pawnbroker (1965), which still remains one of the important films from that era.

T8DMODE EC003By his lonesome, Morton Fine contributed scripts (as Mort Fine) to such 1970s TV favorites as Barnaby Jones, Kojak, and The Streets of San Francisco. With partner David Friedkin, Fine attempted a few more series like The Most Deadly Game (which the two created) and Bearcats!; their last collaboration was a short-lived cop drama starring Paul Sorvino as Bert D’Angelo/Superstar (I am not making that title up) before Friedkin’s passing in 1976. Morton Fine busied himself in the meantime with writing for TV movies and feature films like The Greek Tycoon (1978) and Cabo Blanco (1980) before his death in 1991.

20944Here at Radio Spirits, we’re pleased to honor Morton Fine’s birthday with collections featuring his rewarding partnership with David Friedkin. We have plenty of Broadway’s My Beat on hand, in the form of Murder, Neon Shoals, and Great White Way. The duo can also take credit for the content on Crime Classics, and its sequel The Hyland Files. But be sure to check out Mort’s fine work on the likes of Escape (Escape Essentials, Escape to the High Seas), The Line Up (Witness), Suspense (Ties That Bind), and San Francisco Final (on our Stop the Press! compilation) as you help yourself to ice cream and cake!