Announcing Dick Lane: Whoa, Nellie!

What a colorful, enviable career was the portion of Richard “Dick” Lane (1899-1982), whose career encompassed vaudeville, radio, comedy shorts, B movies, major features, and television. He was both an actor and an announcer, and sometimes the two bled together when he “played” announcers in movies, especially in his later years. .

Lane hailed from Wisconsin, and studied at the state university before performing in vaudeville and circuses in the U.S., Europe and Australia, in a wide variety of capacities, such as song and dance man, pit drummer, and “iron jaw” acrobat. His first film appearance grew out of this variety experience: he appeared in the 1932 Vitaphone short Speaking of Operations with The Three X Sisters, Pick and Pat, and Lou Lubin.

Starting in 1936 he began appearing regularly in comedy shorts. These included They’re Off with The Yacht Club Boys, Shop Talk with Bob Hope, two Joe Palooka shorts (For the Love of Pete and Punch and Beauty), and Shake Mr. Shakespeare (all 1936); Should Wives Work with Leon Errol and Many Unhappy Returns with Ford Sterling (both 1937); and Ears of Experience with Edgar Kennedy, Hunting Trouble with Jed Prouty, and The Jitters with Leon Errol (all 1938). In the mid ’40s, Jules White paired Lane with Gus Schilling in a series of comedy shorts at Columbia. The comedy team of Schilling and Lane co-starred in Hight Blood Pressure (1945); Ain’t Love Cuckoo?, Hot Water, Pardon My Terror (all 1946); Training for Trouble, Two Nuts in a Rut (both 1947); Pardon My Lamb Chop, He’s in Again (both 1948); Flung By a Fling (1949); and Hold That Monkey (1950).

He also played supporting roles in classic comedy features, such as Go Chase Yourself (1938) with Joe Penner and Lucille Ball; The Day the Bookie Wept (1939) with Joe Penner and Betty Grable; the Harold Lloyd-produced A Girl, A Guy, and a Gob (1941) with George Murphy and Lucille Ball; Hellzapoppin’ (1941) and Crazy House (1943) with Olsen and Johnson; Ride ’em Cowboy (1942) and It Ain’t Hay (1943) with Abbott and Costello; A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) and The Bullfighters (1945) with Laurel and Hardy; and The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Jack Benny’s last starring feature.

Lane’s biggest roles in feature were in B movies. His breezy facility with language often got him cast as shady lawyers, reporters, and conmen; his heir of authority also got him cast as cops and D.A.s. He was best known in his day for playing the role of Inspector Farraday in both the radio and movie series Boston Blackie throughout the 1940s. Another major B movie films series he made appearances included The Saint, Charlie Chan, Mr, Moto, Junior G Men, and Joe Palooka (the Joe Kirkwood ones, a separate series from the shorts he had acted in a decade earlier).

In major films Lane played bit roles, but many of them are well remembered classics such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), Union Pacific (1939), Boom Town (1940), The Babe Ruth Story (1948), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Quicksand (1950), The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), and I Can Get it for You Wholesale (1951).

Another category of picture that makes up a major strand of Lane’s output included musicals and revues, such as New Faces of 1937; Radio City Revels (1938); Carefree (1938, with Fred and Ginger); Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943); Louisiana Hayride (1944); A WAVE, a WAC, and a Marine (1944), Hit Parade of 1947, and Miss Mink of 1949. 

During World War Two, Lane toured with the U.S.O. as an emcee for camp entertainments.

Most of Lane’s nearly 200 movies were made prior to 1951. In the mid ’40s, he began working as a newscaster at Paramount-owned KTLA out of Los Angeles and it gradually replaced film acting as his prime career focus. From news reading he quickly discovered his true metier, which was announcing the very flashiest of sporting events, especially professional wrestling and the roller derby, and occasional hot rod races and demolition derbies. He became a beloved local character, prized for his catchphrases, such as “Whoa, Nellie!” He did this kind of work at the station through 1972.

Concurrent with his time as a TV personality and for a short time afterward he played versions of himself in movies and TV. You can see him for example, in a Munsters episode, and in such movies as Jerry Lewis’s Visit to a Small Planet (1960), The Killers (1964, Ronald Reagan’s last film), Kansas City Bomber (1972, a roller derby movie starring Raquel Welsh), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), and Carl Reiner’s The One and Only (1978 — that movie where Henry Winkler becomes a professional wrestler)

Lane’s one starring feature film was Devil Ship (1947). Other genres he worked in included horror, such as The Creeper (1948), and westerns, such as The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937) and Riders of the Purple Sage (1941). The work in westerns got him cast as a regular character named “Leather Britches” on Spade Cooley’s music-variety program on KTLA. And thereby hangs a VERY juicy tale that will have to wait for another day.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.