Archive for the Radio (Old Time Radio) Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1034: George Shelton

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2017 by travsd

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GEORGE SHELTON: IT PAYS TO BE IGNORANT 

Today is the birthday of George Shelton (1884-1971), best remembered (when at all) as one of the panelists on the popular radio show It Pays to Be Ignorant. Born on New York’s Lower East Side, he started out playing tent shows in Iowa, served in World War One, then returned to play vaudeville solo for a time before teaming up with Tom Howard, his partner in vaudeville and numerous comedy shorts for Paramount and Educational pictures (1932-1936). He also appeared in shorts without Howard through 1938, and had bit parts in a couple of other movies through 1945. He was a regular on It Pays to Be Ignorant from 1942 through 1951. Among his other skills, he was known as a Bobby Clark impersonator, and even understudied and replaced him in some shows. His Broadway credits included The Governor’s Lady (1912-1913), Three of Hearts (1915), and Keep Moving (1934). He died in a tragic fire in 1971.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

R.I.P. Rich Conaty

Posted in OBITS, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd

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Well, I’m, very blue today to hear that Rich Conaty has passed. I’d heard that he was very sick, but I somehow missed the news that he’d left us. I’ll let my 2009 profile on him stand as my tribute.

I had the pleasure of Rich’s company many a time — got to ride shotgun as he hosted his influential WFUV radio show The Big Broadcast, and hung out with him at Vince Giordano’s gigs. In fact it was Rich who introduced me to Vince, back when he and the Nighthawks had their weekly engagement at a very funky old place in Chinatown. Rich was a generous guy and (it seemed to me) oddly lonely for someone so well known and loved. And I was always really perplexed and intrigued by the fact that he’d discovered that early big band music on his own; it wasn’t handed down to him by an elder practitioner. (I don’t know why it seems that weird to me; it parallels my relationship to vaudeville). At any rate, I find I’m beginning to eulogize him and I doubt I will top my previous appreciation so here it is.  Bon Voyage, Rich — thanks for all the pleasant sounds.

Stars of Vaudeville #1019: The Revelers

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by travsd

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The Revelers were a popular and influential vocal group of the Jazz Age. The act consisted of a vocal quartet plus a pianist. The quartet, originally known as The Shannon Four, began performing together in 1918. They added the pianist in 1925 and began calling themselves The Revelers. The line-up was:

Franklyn Baur (tenor, later replaced by Frank Luther, then James Melton)

Lewis James (tenor)

Elliot Shaw (baritone)

Wilfred Glen (bass)

Ed Smalle (piano, later replaced by Frank Black)

The group was popular in big time vaudeville, enjoyed several hit records, were popular on radio (1927-1931), and made two Vitaphone shorts in 1927, which is how I first came to know of them. Starting in the late ’20s they were also enormously popular on European stages. Their hits included “Baby Face”, “The Birth of the Blues”, “Dinah”, and “Old Man River.” For a group so fun and playful and so essentially “pop”, the members were seriously skilled singers: Baur was a third generation vocalist and principal tenor at the Park Avenue Baptist Church who also had a flourishing career and performed with numerous popular orchestra; Melton (one of his replacements) sang with the Metropolitan Opera; and Glen had a range of two and a half octaves and sang at Carnegie Hall.  The group also performed as “The Singing Sophomores” and “The Merrymakers”.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

W.C. Fields and Radio

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Radio (Old Time Radio), W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 17, 2016 by travsd

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We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here

Tonight at 7pm (EST) we will be appearing on Rachel Cleary’s “Hear and Now” show on Radio Free Brooklyn (please tune in!) so I thought it would be an appropriate time to re-post my earlier piece on W.C. Fields’ radio work:

Fields conquered every medium going in his day: vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, silent films, talkies…but unlike almost every vaudeville comedy star of his day he was late getting around to radio. Whereas friends like Eddie Cantor, and Burns and Allen got in on the ground floor in the mid-1920s, Fields didn’t make his broadcast debut until 1931, as part of the promotional push for the Broadway show Ballyhoo. He didn’t much like the experience. In 1935 he turned down a major network offer for his own show, fearing that the weekly exposure and smaller salary would diminish his negotiating power in Hollywood, and suggesting (perhaps half jokingly) that he was holding out for television. (He often made comical references to the then-experimental medium of television in his films in the 1930s. Ironically, if he had lived just a couple of years longer, his whimsical notion of being on tv could conceivably have come true. It’s the sort of thing that fans bewail, but really, why? I can live without seeing a snowy kinescope of an ailing, sick elderly W.C. Fields, can’t you?)

It was that very sickness that finally brought him around to radio. In 1936 he fell desperately ill, so ill that he barely made it through filming Poppy and most people thought it would be his last picture. As he recuperated and began to feel a little better, it began to dawn on him that radio would be the perfect medium for his predicament. It was a way of keeping his career going in his weakened condition.  It didn’t take much energy to stand there and read your lines from a script. So in 1937 he signed on as a regular on the Chase and Sanbourn Hour — fortuitously at the same time as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The two seasoned vaudeville pros Bergen and Fields rapidly developed a chemistry (with Charlie and Fields exchanging insults) that became a hit with audiences. After a few weeks however, Fields walked out in anger in the middle of a program when Bergen wouldn’t stop razzing him about the failure of The Big Broadcast of 1938 and his declining fortunes at Paramount. (While we’ve come to consider the film as a classic because it contains Bob Hope’s first screen appearance and the debut of his theme song “Thanks for the Memories”, in its day it was considered a debacle. It was the last of the Big Broadcast series and W.C. Fields’ last film for Paramount)

But this is W.C. Fields we’re talking about. His career had been “over” many times — he always came back with a vengeance. First he did more radio, including a 1938 version of Poppy for Lux Radio Theatre, and his own show for Lucky Strike, Your Hit Parade (which Fields quit after a few weeks).

Then he kissed and made up with Bergen and co-starring with him in his first film for Universal You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), which recreated many of their radio routines. This led to several more Universal films. And after his last starring vehicle Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)….he returned to radio. While he made a handful of brief appearances in his remaining years, radio became the primary medium through which Fields reached his audiences, primarily appearing with Bergen and McCarthy on The Chase and Sanbourn Hour and The Charlie McCarthy Show between 1941 and 1946, although he occasionally guested on other shows as well. And we have much to be grateful for, as so many of these programs were preserved, and we get to hear the raspy curmudgeon utter many a quip that never made it to his films.

Here much more about Fields at 7pm tonight at http://radiofreebrooklyn.com/

Hall of Hams # 110: Norman Lloyd

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2016 by travsd

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Happy 102nd birthday to Norman Lloyd (Norman Perlmutter, b. 1914), who has enjoyed surely one of the most amazing theatrical careers in history.

Lloyd has been a performer since 1923 — over 90 years. He started out taking lessons and performing at clubs and benefits in his native Brooklyn at the age of nine. He was a prodigy. He graduated from high school at age 15 and enrolled NYU, later dropping out because he said it seemed senseless during the Depression to waste money on an education for a job that likely wouldn’t be there when he graduated. So he focused on the theatre, becoming (at 17) the youngest apprentice at Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre. His first Broadway show was Andre Obey’s Noah (1935). In the 1930s, he worked with the Group Theatre, the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper Unit, and the Mercury Theatre, for which he played Cinna the Poet in Orson Welle’s legendary production of Julius Caesar (1937-38).

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He initially went to Hollywood in 1939 with the Mercury company to appear in their first planned production at RKO, which was to be Heart of Darkness. When that production appeared to be not forthcoming, he returned to New York, missing the opportunity to be in Citizen Kane. He appeared in a few more Broadway shows, then came back to Hollywood to play a memorable Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), later appearing in Spellbound (1945), as well. He was in a number of memorable movies throughout the ’40s and early ’50s: The Unseen (an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, 1945), Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945); the all-star World War 2 picture A Walk in the Sun (1945), the Burt Lancaster swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow (1950), and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952).

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About to fall off the Statue of Liberty’s torch in “Saboteur”

In the ’50s and ’60s, he became heavily involved in television as an actors, producer, and director, most notably and consistently on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958-1962) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1964). In the ’70s, he produced and directed several made-for-tv movies. He appeared in the terrible comedies FM (1978) and The Nude Bomb (1980).

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Then, at 68 years of age he began to play what may be the best known role of his career, as the crotchety Dr. Auslander on St. Elsewhere (1982-1988). And he never stopped! He’s in Dead Poet’s Society (1989), The Age of Innocence (1993), and movie and tv credits right up nearly to the present day — he was in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck last year (2015)!

Unusually, his essential persona seems to have changed little in all that time. As a young man, he already read as “old man”, bookish, serious, and perhaps a little frail. But that last of course is an illusion. A man who’s still doing movie shoots in his second century is anything but frail. Hat’s off to you today, sir!

Hall of Hams #106: William Conrad

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of William Conrad (John William Cann, 1920-1994).

Conrad was one of those figures I frequently write about who were cheated of respect by their times. Conrad was a show business veteran with an amazing resume stretching back decades: an actor, director and producer who was successful in all three media: radio, television and cinema. And yet to millions of Americans in the 1970s, he was just “the fat guy on Cannon“.

My dad was a fan and had remembered him from his radio stardom, so as a kid I had an inkling that Conrad was more than just the portly tv detective. Conrad studied drama at Fullerton College, and was already writing, producing, directing and acting in local Los Angeles radio in his early 20s. Gifted with one of the best voices in the business, deep, resonant, forceful and stentorian, he ranks with Orson Welles as one of the medium’s most successful actors, playing over 7,500 roles over the decades, most famously Matt Dillon in the radio version of Gunsmoke (1952-1961).

Unlike Welles, Conrad was not associated with classics and literature so much as noir and crime stories and the like. By the mid 40s, he had broken into films, too, and you can see him in such gritty classics as The Killers (1946), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Naked Jungle (1952). Among other movies, he also produced and directed the camp horror classic Two on a Guillotine (1965), as well My Blood Runs Cold and Brainstorm (both also 1965–busy year!), and produced the rock and roll musical The Cool Ones (1967), and the early Robert Altman film Countdown (1968).

In the post radio days he was still in demand as a voiceover artist and narrator. That’s him as the announcer on the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle  (1959-1964) and The Fugitive (1963-1967), in the 1970 John Wayne film Chisum, and the tv nature series The Wild, Wild World of Animals (1973-1978).

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And of course, his trilogy of portly policemen on Cannon (1971-1976), Nero Wolfe (1981), and Jake and the Fat Man (1987-1992). One of his last gigs was narrating the movie Hudson Hawk (1991).

These are just a few benchmarks. To truly detail all of his career accomplishments would take a blogpost many times this length. One of the things that interests me a great deal is the parallelism with the career of Orson Welles, and the ways in which they diverged. In a way, Welles was a prisoner of his brilliance as an actor and director — ironically it kept him from getting more of the bread and butter type work that paid the bills and that he was fully qualified to do. He barely achieved even a toe-hold in television. Whereas Conrad was admittedly much more of a journeyman. Because of it, there was room in his life to become the major television star he was during his last couple of decades. But that came with its own ironic twist — very few people knew about his own credits behind the cameras.

And then there’s the obvious fact that they both possessed similar body types, especially in later years. I imagine the pair of them butted heads over many a gig over the decades.

At any rate, a man to be celebrated — he kept millions of people entertained for over half a century.

Your Guide to Gildersleeve

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of radio and screen comedian and voice-over artist Harold “Hal” Peary (1908-1985)

Peary is best known for creating the popular radio character Throckmorton Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly Show in 1939. The big blowhard was so popular he got his own spin-off radio show from 1941 to 1957 (though Peary left in ’50) and he starred as Gildersleeve in several movies. You know Peary’s work whether you know his name or not — after the various incarnations of Gildersleeve went off the air he was a constant presence as a character actor on tv sit coms and a voice over actor for cartoons for decades. And I swear he was at least a partial inspiration for Don Messick’s characterization as Scooby Doo (that deep throated horse whinny type thing he does). At any rate, the fad for Gildersleeve movies was short. Here’s my take on the handful that got made.

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The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

Peary’s breakout starring picture (though he’d been in a couple of Fibber McGee and Molly pictures). He was a huge star in radio with this character, but frankly it’s a bit strange and underwhelming to see him in movies. He looks appropriate with his ample girth, toothy smile, and vanity in groom and dress, but his voice is just so good and strange and over the top that the visuals still don’t come up the mark. He’s more of a voice than a full fledged character. Gildersleeve has traits…he’s pretentious and gets flustered…but he’s not a person.

Add to this the fact that, like so many movies of the period, the scripts are just disposably weak. Peary carries over all his signature catch phrases from radio (“You’re a harrrrrrd man”, and “Everything always happens to me”, etc as well as his friend Peavy the druggist’s”I wouldn’t say that”). By the time this film premiered , Fibber McGee and Molly mysteriously don’t exist. Gildersleeve is guardian of his nephew Leroy and his teenage niece Margie, with frequent visits from his Aunt Emma and the steadying presence of Amanda Randolph as the maid.

In this, the first of the series, a scrawny crone wants to marry Gildersleeve but he rejects her. Her brother the Judge (another regular character) is going to take away custody of the kids as revenge. The kids have a plan:  they mount a huge popularity p.r. campaign. At the same time, the governor of their (unidentified) state is sick and ends up convalescing at Gildersleeve’s house. Gildersleeve becomes so popular in town the judge can’t very well take the kids away. Also the judge is humiliated when he plays practical jokes on the governor, thinking he is an imposter. All in all, this is a sit com episode stretched past its limits to fill the big screen.

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Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

Maybe the weakest of the four Gildersleeve films. It stretches credibility to the breaking point. Gildersleeve is called for jury duty (along with all his other friends. This town is so small, why aren’t they always on jury duty?) Some crooks attempt to bribe Gildersleeve but he doesn’t receive their message. Then it turns out Gildersleeve is the lone holdout on the jury so it seems like a mistrial is expected anyway. (There is a lengthy segment, the most implausible part, where the judge makes Gildersleeve feed and house the jury at his own home while they deliberate). Meanwhile the kids keep trying to get a message to him. Then the crooks rob the judge in order to pay Gildersleeve for the seemingly faked verdict. Then Gildersleeve mistakes the cash for a donation to the “canteen” to raise money for the soldiers (this is the middle of WWII). Gildersleeve gives the money to the judge. Then the crooks steal it again. At the same time, Gildersleeve is trying to steal it himself so can return it to the judge. And then he is caught. The crooks kidnap him in a cop car, but he flips the two way radio on so the authorities can hear the truth about the crime. Zany? Wacky? Nah, sleepy.

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Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

Well that was quick! The shark has already jumped after only two films. This one violates the sit-com’s situation by transplanting the entire cast to the night clubs and hotels of New York City. Gildersleeve follows Margie’s fiancé to NYC to keep tabs on him, because he thinks he’s playing around. So he follows Peavy to a druggists convention in the big city. Unfortunately he gets tangled up with women, incriminating himself (he has a fiancé of his own). One of the women Gildersleeve keeps running into is Billie Burke, the dotty (as always) present of a pharmaceutical supply company. Another is a gold digging woman who thinks he’s rich (because he’s pretending to be). Some mishigas happens with a fur coat, Then the kids and his fiancé show up, causing a brouhaha. And it turns out that the boyfriend wasn’t even screwing around. There is one funny bit with Gildersleeve encountering Jack Norton as a drunk on a window ledge.

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Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

This is the first one I saw in the series and it’s my favorite. Because it is a spook comedy and it has a gorilla. It’s kind of less boring than the other three. It starts out with Peary as two of Gildersleeve’s ghostly ancestors, who set up the story. Then they disappear and never come back, causing me to scratch my head about the title. It’s straight up formula stuff. Gildersleeve is running for water commissioner, making it important that he not appear insane. Unfortunately a gorilla comes into his kitchen one night….and he keeps seeing things no one else does. The trail leads him to a haunted house where mad scientists are experimenting on an invisibility drug. Their two subjects are the gorilla and a beautiful burlesque chick. There is also a beautiful French maid. Ooh la la, I hardly know which way to turn! Of course all the other cast members show up (including Nick Stewart as the obligatory terrified black chauffeur) and they all have to spend the night in the haunted house because because there is a bad thunderstorm. Eventually….the truth comes out so they don’t have to bring Gildersleeve to an insane asylum.

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That was the end of the Gildersleeve films, but the character thrived for another 13 years on radio. Peary left the series in 1950. After that, it was the occasional TV guest appearance — folks my age may remember his as Mr. Goodbody on the “Amateur Night” episode of The Brady Bunch!

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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