Archive for old time radio

The Pickens Sisters: Singers of High Society

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2017 by travsd

Jane Pickens (1908-1992) of the Pickens Sisters was born on this day. She’s chiefly on my radar because I’ve lived and recreated in Newport, Rhode island, where she was a longtime resident (summer and otherwise) and there is a theatre there named after her.

Jane was the musical leader and arranger of the trio that first included her sisters Grace and Helen. Grace later became the group’s manager, replaced by the fourth sister Patti. The girls were Southern belles from Georgia, taught to harmonize by their mother. Their father, a wealthy cotton broker, loved to accompany them on piano. In the early 1930s, they moved to New York’s Park Avenue and became involved in New York, Long Island and Newport Society. They often sang at private functions, with a specialty in what were then called “Negro Spirituals”. Fortunately, a search was on at the time to find female trios to compete with the popular Boswell Sisters. The Pickenses were spotted at a party and quickly landed both a radio deal and a recording contract.

Their radio shows ran from 1932 through 1936. They appeared in the 1933 Vitaphone short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, and in the 1933 feature Sitting Pretty. Next came the Broadway revue Thumbs Up! (1934-1935). Jane sang solo in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

The group split up when several sisters left to get married. Patti married radio actor Bob Simmons, with whom she performed for a time as Pickens and Simmons. Jane, the most serious about music, studied at several prestigious schools, and continued her career as a solo. She appeared on Broadway three more times: in the revue Boys and Girls Together (1940-1941), as the title character in Regina, a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1949), and the musical Music in the Air (1951). She also made several appearances on television variety shows through the mid 1950s, and even briefly had her own such series as a replacement in 1954.

Jane was married thrice, to T.J. Russell Clark (whom she divorced), stockbroker William Langley, and Walter Hoving (the head of Tiffany and Bonwit Teller, and father of the Met Museum’s Thomas Hoving). In 1972 she ran as the Republican against Ed Koch for a New York Congressional seat (unsuccessfully, of course). Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater, named after her, opened in 1974. She died in Newport in 1992. Patti, the youngest sister, was in the midst of plans to record a tribute album to her deceased sisters when she too passed away in 1995.

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Voice Over Actor Paul Frees (Boris Badenov) Got His Start in Vaudeville

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impressionists, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by travsd

Paul Frees (Solomon Hersh Frees, 1920-1986) made his entrance on a June 22. Seldom has there been a voice so well recognized without an equally well-recognized face to go with it. For well over four decades Frees’ voice was a staple of animated cartoons, radio, tv commercials, children’s specials, and film narration and voice-loops. And occasionally, just occasionally you would get the whole actor.

Frees began his career as an impressionist in what was left of local Chicago vaudeville in the the late 1930s as a comedian and impressionist under the name Buddy Green. In 1942 he broke into radio. Much like Orson Welles and William Conrad he was gifted with a voice PERFECT for the medium. Once he was in the door he worked all that he wanted; probably MORE than he wanted. In addition to his radio jobs, he worked for just about all the major animation studios starting in the 1940s. He was unique among voice over artists in that he could be the straightest of straight (serious, square) narrators, but could also do very funny characters. So on the one hand, we associate him with being the voice of dire portent in science fiction films, on the other, he could descend into wackiness.

His best known character is Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I also associate him strongly with all the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. He plays several characters in Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (as the Burgermeister Meisterburger), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail, among about a dozen others. And lots and lots of Disney. But he’s also highly present in several sci fi classics, most notably War of the Worlds (1953) and The Thing from Another World (1951). So distinctive is Frees’ voice that it is highly jarring, even alarming when he makes an on-camera appearance, as he does in both films. Even more unsettling is when his voice was used to replace that of another actor whose performance somehow marred the audio-track (e.g., because of a thick accent). In both  Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Midway (1976), a Japanese officer will open his mouth to speak, and Paul Frees’ voice will come out.

By then, producers should have known better, and by the ’70s Frees’ voice as so recognizable that it had essentially become camp. Ernie Fosselius wisely employed his talents in this fashion in the spoof classic Hardware Wars (1978). But camp or not camp, Frees remained in demand until the day he died. He never stopped working. That’s the goal of all performers.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including youthful impressionist like Paul Frees, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. 

 

Oklahoma Bob Albright: Cowboy Tenor

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by travsd

That’s him, fairly far down the billing and at Poli’s (the local Connecticut circuit) no less. His act, the ad says, is “characteristic”. Even his hype is unenthusiastic! But that’s unfair, he also played the big time Keith circuit and was well known from record albums and radio

I’ve only managed to gather a few scraps about cowboy singer Oklahoma Bob Albright, who has managed to rise from beyond the grave thanks to his 1929 Vitaphone short Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers. I find references to him in newspapers from the mid teens through 1952. He is described in old reviews as “magnetic” and “good natured”, with an act that consisted of singing, uke playing and storytelling. Author Timothy E. Wise, in his book Yodeling and Meaning in American Music, postulates that Albright may have influenced Jimmie Rodgers and other country singers by introducing yodeling into Appalachian style music in tunes like “Alpine” Blues” and others.

You see references to him on the Keith Circuit in the teens, but later he seems closely associated with the Pantages Circuit, and later even appears to have managed a Pantages theatre in the Los Angeles area with his father and brother. He was married to Murtle King, daughter of nickelodeon magnate John H. King. When vaudeville died, Albright did lots and lots of radio at least through the 1930s. He appears to have been alive at least through 1952 (I saw a contemporary reference to him that year in Billboard),

I’ve not seen the Vitaphone short, but just about every reference to it I’ve seen uses words like “disturbing”, “uncomfortable” and “un-p.c.”. Now I’m mighty curious!

To learn more about vaudeville and artists like Oklahoma Bob Albrightconsult 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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 W.C. 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-starred 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)….Fields returned to radio yet again. 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.

You’ll find many of them here at Old Time Radio Downloads. 

When, How and Why “Classic Comedy” Died

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , on June 16, 2016 by travsd

My aim in this post is to get a handle on my passionate (but until recently, too vague) conviction that “The 40s sucked! Comedy died by the late 30s!”

Right away clarification is in order, because after a moment one can immediately see that the opposite is actually just as true. One could argue that the greatest comedies EVER, by the likes of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, and written by Billy Wilder and others, came from this era. But note just as quickly that these are all directors and writers. What I am trying to get at is that in these years the era of the great vaudeville comedy performer/auteurs of the silent and pre-code eras passed from the scene (people like Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Mae West and the Marx Brothers) and were replaced with several formulaic and indifferently made comedy series.

Whenever 1939 is spoken of, as it so often is, as “Hollywood’s Greatest Year”, I often find myself saying “Yeah? Well, not for comedians!” Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights are among the year’s highlights. And yes, the Wizard of Oz FEATURES incredible comedy but the star is Judy Garland. I saw a documentary about that year in film…the Marx Brothers are represented by At the Circus. Rather a sad showing in “Hollywood’s Greatest Year”, wouldn’t you say? Somewhere beneath The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in prestige.

In fact 1939 was year zero for a major shift in how Hollywood approached comedy for the masses. Yes, there were “A” comedies by the admired directors and writers listed above, normally grouped into the genre called “screwball”.  But they also churned out comedies for the Great Unwashed, which were, in a word, less sophisticated. In the past, no such division had applied. The films of Chaplin or the Marx Brothers could be appreciated both by children and the most high-brow critic. Now things changed.

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It has been my custom to lay all this at the feet of Abbott and Costello, whom I have blamed for everything from the Bubonic Plague to Global Warming. But dispassionate analysis reveals their atrocious films were part of a larger trend with numerous causal factors.

One was the diminishing exhibitor demand for comedy shorts. By the late 30s, almost all comedy shorts series had passed from the scene, with the exceptions of Our Gang at MGM, and the Three Stooges and some others at Columbia. Shorts were not just a vital incubator for the world’s best comedians, they were also in many way the perfect and only effective vehicle for their talents. I can name scores of silent and early sound comedians who RULED in comedy shorts; the number who made watchable comedy features can be counted on one hand (I hope I don’t have to name them for you). And this is also true in the talking era. Laurel and Hardy knew this about themselves. While many of their shorts are masterpieces of comedy film, no Laurel and Hardy feature is a comedy masterpiece. They are essentially just shorts stretched and padded to feature length. Eddie Cantor’s and Joe E. Brown’s features, which largely adapted Harold Lloyd’s formula, are likewise largely padding. And this deficiency never vanished. I contend that shorts REMAIN crucial to certain kinds of comedy, and to this day most comedy films don’t merit feature length. For years, decades, as a general rule, the best realized comedy has been on television, whereas most comedy films have largely been something to endure and roll one’s eyes at.

You know what’s roughly the length of a two-reel comedy short? A sit-com! Perfect length for most comedies: 20-30 minutes. Which brings us to another major factor in the shift in comedy tastes in the ’40s: radio. That’s probably been my main revelation of this analytical process. Radio influenced films immeasurably during these years. The entire notion of a “series” starring the same cast playing the same characters seems heavily derived from the weekly format of the radio sit-com. In fact, watching these film series is very much like watching a kind of dry-run for television sit-coms a decade and more later. The Blondie series (1938-1950) with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake, based on the popular comic strip, was simultaneously a film and radio franchise, as was Ann Sothern’s Maisie (1939-1947), and Fibber McGee & Molly/ The Great Gildersleeve (1941-1944). In 1939 and 1940, Jack Benny briefly transplanted his sit-com universe over to three popular films, but he seemed bored with the experiment; his subsequent films were regular star vehicles, often based on plays (and more in line with the prestige screwball comedies of the time, as were, for that matter the films of Bob Hope, with and without Bing Crosby).

The radio model is significant. A weekly show is disposable. It airs, people experience it, they forget about it, then tune in for the next one. Comedy films began to follow that format. Once Chaplin had made comedies after the fashion of D.W. Griffith, the model being a play or a novel, a substantial work of art to last forever. Now there appeared to be no higher agenda than to get your ass in and out the door of the cinema.

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Also from radio came certain cherished plot material. Leaving much to the imagination, radio drama was especially adept at telling thrillers, mysteries and ghost stories. The mystery and spook comedy became a major “episode” idea for the comedy film series, as did the western spoof, and the spy story.

Other franchises grew out of the monster success of the lead characters in films initially not intended as series, such as Dead End Kids/ East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys (1937-1958), Mexican Spitfire (1939-1943), and Ma and Pa Kettle (1947-1957). The format of these films, too, seemed based on the radio sit-com plot model.

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There is a tendency to regard the films of these series as “classics” because they are old, but to my mind, they don’t merit the same degree of veneration as the comedies of, say, Chaplin or Keaton, or the best of Mae West. I often cherish these B movies solely as historical objects, in the same way that we love vintage advertisements, fashions, and so forth. Generally I’ll find myself much more interested in what people are wearing or driving or what the set looks like than what the characters are saying and doing. Normally these movies will have their moments, but they are few and far between. Pound for pound the films are all filler, and by definition, dull.

The success of these types of comedies with audiences caused studios to now model their “comedian comedies” on the format, as well. The most successful example of this trend was Abbott and Costello (1940-1958), who also had a simultaneous radio show. Personally I enjoy the team in short format: their half hour tv sit-com, or on radio, in individual sketches in their films. At feature length I lose interest. Abbott and Costello are not actors. We don’t actually “care” what happens to their characters.  And so their films are padded out with secondary plots featuring boring romantic leads. Can anyone honestly tell me they WANT that? Yet, it seems it’s a heresy to say their movies are terrible. But they are! Whatever their (debatable) merits, the comedians are scarcely even in their own movies!

But Abbott and Costello movies were a hit with audiences. The doleful result was that studios began to try to shoe-horn some of their older generation classic comedians into the same format, the primary examples being Laurel and Hardy, whose comedies for Fox and MGM (1941-1945) are sad spectacles to behold, and the Marx Brothers, whose last two films for MGM Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941) were grossly uncharacteristic (the obligatory western comedy and detective comedy). In both cases, the teams retired rather than continue to make such pictures. This is one principal reason why some classic comedy fans have such a grudge against this period in comedy films. It seems like the philistines have taken over.

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The feeling is reinforced by the fact that these films coincide with the era in which the censorial Production Code was applied to its greatest extent (especially fatal to the career of Mae West), COMPOUNDED by the cultural conservatism of the War Years. Comedy needs freedom in which to breathe. Space to be irreverent is crucial to its existence. Every aspect of life needs to be on the table. Having major parts of human existence (sex, the body) be completely off limits is like shutting off a spigot of humorous potential (sorry, that was gross, wasn’t it?) As is the inability to poke fun of authority figures. War time is all about conforming, joining the effort, getting with the program, conserving resources. The movies of this period privilege these messages, which are the very opposite of hilarious. Most of the major franchises went so far as to have at least one army comedy, and one navy comedy, and there were also some air corps comedies. I don’t know about you, but I find almost all service comedies unbearably tedious, with their endless, repetitive, derivative “fucking up at basic training” scenes with some annoying sergeant character barking at the heroes. Give me Stanley Kubrick’s take on this topic any day.

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One very interesting exception to all this. Contrary to all trends of the time, one old time vaudeville clown did his best and most lastingly popular work. The years 1939 through 1942 were years during which W.C. Fields did some of his most artistically rewarding screen work. But only a unique set of circumstances allowed it. Paramount had dropped the physically ailing Fields, but his success on radio gave him the juice to throw his weight around at Universal. Further, he was successful on radio only as a guest star, which meant he didn’t need to drag some stupid sit-com formula along with him.For a while anyway he had a blank check to write whatever crazy, surreal, one-of-a-kind screenplay he wanted for himself to star in. AND he was too old to do some dumb comedy about getting drafted. AND his whole thing was to tell busybodies to fuck off. So we’re spared in those movies from the stultifying conservatism that mars most other comedies of the time. But Fields died in ’46, and much that was good died with him.

The Cold War proceeded to inhibit American comedy-making for almost two more decades. And then, in the late 60s, a new generation discovered the rebellious glories of Fields, the Marx Brothers and Mae West again. And new ways were found to bring irreverence (if not vaudeville precisely) back to the big screen.

In Which Mae West Offends the Public in Her 4th Medium (Radio)

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Mae West, Radio (Old Time Radio), Women with tags , , , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd

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In continuing celebration of Mae West’s birthday….a little post about a historical event which occurred on December 12, 1937. That is the date on which Mae appeared on The Chase and Sanborn Hour starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Thus far in her career West had run afoul of the authorities and producers in the fields of vaudeville, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood films. She had been banned, censored, fined, arrested and even incarcerated for her naughty mouth and equally naughty pen. But thus far she’d had no run-ins with the radio networks (probably because she hadn’t done much radio). All that was about to change. Her appearance on the show featured a sketch where Don Ameche played Adam, and Mae played Eve – – an Eve who was all too willing to eat the apple of temptation, and only too glad to blow the boredom of Eden, which her character refers to as a “dump”. Then she did a skit with Charlie McCarthy where she said suggestive lines like “Honey, I’ll let you play in my wood pile”.

A massive protest write-in campaign occurred (mostly from religious groups) and Mae was banned from NBC for 12 years. Aside from Orson Welles’ “little green man” prank, this is one of the most notorious incidents of the classic radio era.

Curious to know what all the fuss was about? You can hear it here:

http://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/variety/edgar-bergen-and-charlie-mccarthy/adam-and-eve-mae-west-1937-12-12

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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