Amoeblog

Stories start in many ways -- a look back at old time radio's Night Beat

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 20, 2014 02:45pm | Post a Comment
In the Golden Age of Radio, NBC produced some of the medium's best crime dramas, programs like The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam Spade, ConfessionDragnet, and Tales of the Texas Rangers. Another -- although sadly not well-remembered today -- was Night Beat, which debuted on 6 February, 1950 and aired not just in the US, but Australia and South Africa as well. 

The plot of Night Beat revolves around a reporter named Randy Stone who works for the fictional Chicago Star newspaper. In the process of writing his human interest column, "Night Beat," Stone passes in and out of the lives of night owls, underworld figures, lost souls, and other denizens of an improbably noir Chicago

Night Beat's first audition aired in May of 1949. Taking a grittier approach than is found in the final product, it starred the well-known celluloid tough guy Edmond O'Brien (A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob, An Act of Murder, White Heat, D.O.A.), was directed by William Rousseau (Pat Novak... for Hire), and written by Larry Marcus (Backfire, Dark City, and a few years later, Witness for the Prosecution).

By then radio was then rapidly losing its audience to television. Although NBC television programming began in 1940 with Meet the Wife, it wasn't until 1948 -- when the Milton Berle vehicle Texaco Star Theatre debuted -- that NBC seemed to lose all interest in its radio programming. As television raked in the dough by focusing increasingly on children's programing and family-friendly fare, radio attempted to remain relevant by producing innovative and intelligent programming that television had no room for.

Nonetheless, eager to please skittish network executives unsure about radio's future, the National Association of Broadcasters self-imposed a curfew on crime dramas, relegating them to later time slots than other sorts of programs. Sponsors had to be pleased and using the same script, a second audition for Night Beat was produced under the direction of Bill Karn (Gang Busters, Dangerous Assignment, and Ma Barker's Killer Brood) and starring Frank Lovejoy. The softer version was OKed and the program was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and Wheaties

Frank Lovejoy was a seasoned radio and film actor who'd earlier starred on Gang Busters and played the Blue Beetle (one of the few, almost completely-forgotten Golden Age of Comic Books superheroes) on the radio program of the same name. He was born Frank Andrew Lovejoy, Jr. in the Bronx in 1912 and grew up in New Jersey. Lovejoy's portrayal of Stone wasn't just more audience (and sponsor) friendly, it was sensitive and nuanced, balancing Stone's hard-boiled toughness with sensitivity, compassion, and likeability. 

Stone was equal parts reporter, crusader, and nocturnal flâneur. Week after week Stone somehow finds the strength to fight battles in an unwinable moral crusade, get into all sorts of trouble in the process (often ending up worse for wear as with his detective peers), and type up his piece in time to yell "copy boy" so that it can go out with the early edition. 

Perhaps the frequency with which Stone became deeply involved in murder, mayhem, Tong wars, et cetera and the speed and facility with which they're wrapped up is, well, ridiculous but unlike most series of its sort there was a measurable degree of continuity from episode to episode. At it's worse Night Beat was formluaic but above average -- at its best it's among the best of the genre.

From the beginning, Larry Marcus stayed on the series with Mary Marcus, both serving as editors. Warren Lewis (Cavalcade of AmericaFour Star PlayhouseYancy Derringer) was brought on as director. Frank Worth composed the timpani-fueled intro and wonderfully Gershwin-esque score. The announcer was Donald Newton Rickles (The Whisperer, The Great Gildersleeve, and The NBC University Theatre). Supporting actors included many of radio's biggest and most-prolific talents including Ben WrightHoward McNearJack KruschenJeff CoreyJoan BanksLawrence DobkinLurene Tuttle,Martha WentworthParley BaerPaul FreesPeter Leeds, and William Conrad

Radio being the "theater of the mind," a lot of series' artistic success hinged on the show's wring and the writing on Night Beat was usually top notch. The pictures it created are vivid and, in the case of Stone's journalism, enjoyably florid but never quite over-the-top. Some of the series' best writers were E. Jack Neuman (Suspense and The Adventures of Sam Spade), Kathleen Hite (CBS's first female staff writer and later writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke), and Russell Hughes (The House Across the StreetCustoms Agent, and later, Them!). Other writers include David EllisIrwin AshkenazieJoel HuntJohn Bagni and Gwen BagniJohn RobinsonLarry RomanLou RusoffMarty WilkensonMerwyn GerardRussell Bender, and Selig Lester


NBC seems to have never believed in Night Beat and for most of its run was happy to bounce it around various nights and time slots. There were about 104 episodes and roughly 74 are currently in circulation. The final episode aired 25 September, 1952. Night Beat was adapted for television with an episode of the anthology series, Four Star Playhouse titled “Search in the Night.” In it, Lovejoy resumed his old role and it aired on 5 November, 1953. It's possible that it was produced as a pilot for a television series but whatever the case, that didn't happen.

Ironically, after he was replaced by Lovejoy, O'Brien went on to play the truly bland (and therefore much more popular) title character on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar -- a radio drama whose conclusion in 1962 is usually viewed as the end of old time radio. Lovejoy went on to appear on Suspicion and star in Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker. He died on 2 October, 1962 from a heart attack at his residence in New York City. Recordings of Night Beat and other Old Time Radio shows can be found in Amoeba's Spoken Word section.

Continue reading...

Happy Birthday, Gildy -- The Great Gildersleeve debuted on this day in 1941

Posted by Eric Brightwell, August 31, 2013 04:20pm | Post a Comment
The Great Gildersleeve was a radio sitcom and one of the first spin-offs. It was tremendously popular in the 1940s and led to four feature films and three 78 records.



The series centered on Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve (nicknames included "The Great Man" or just "Gildy"), a lovable windbag who first appeared on Fibber McGee and Molly in 1939. OnFibber McGee and Molly he was McGee's antagonist armed with a catchphrase ("You're a haaard man, McGee!"). He was originally expertly played by Harold Peary.

Gildersleeve was so popular that he soon got his own show, The Great Gildersleeve, which debuted on NBC on 31 August, 1941. It was sponsored by Kraft Foods whose advertisements promoted their Parkay margarine -- a weird, oily yellow spread that people turned instead of butter during the Great Depression but strangely continued to eat after butter was affordable again). On The Great Gildersleeve, the titular character retained some of his pomposity and general man-childishness but was made more likeable. And whereas he had a wife on Fibber McGee, on his own he was a lifelong bachelor and much of the plot revolved around his awkward romantic pursuits.

The show was set in the small town of Summerfield, where Gildersleeve inherited his late brother-in-law's estate and orphaned niece (Marjorie) and nephew (Leroy) -- making him a bit of a mid-century forerunner to Bernie Mac. The household was rounded out by Gildersleeve's cook and housekeeper, Birdie Lee. At the series' debut, Gildersleeve ran a girdle-manufacturing company but his character was soon recast as Summerfield's water commissioner.

The series is one of the few sitcoms of the era that for the most part holds up very well today. Whereas other comedies at the time such as Jack Benny Program, The Fred Allen Show, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, Burns and Allen, and Fibber McGee and Molly were rooted the vaudeville tradition and bore more similarity to revues or sketch comedies, the humor sitcoms like The Life of Riley, Father Knows Best, and The Great Gildersleeve seem comparatively modern (at least to me) as the genre's formula hasn't changed much in the last 75 years or so. One notable exception to the show's timelessness is the characterization of Birdie, the black housekeeper whose stereotypical portrayal is occasionally wince-inducing.



When The Great Gildersleeve began, it was written by Leonard Lewis Levinson, who mined for laughs from Birdie's (played by Lillian Randolph) apparent stupidity and impolitely loud speaking voice. Around the third season, however, as other writers came on board (including Sam Moore, Paul West, John Elliotte, Andy White, and the great John Whedon -- father of Tom Whedon and grandfather of Joss Whedon) Birdie was increasingly depicted as the true brains of the household.

Marjorie Forester was originally played by Lurene Tuttle and later Louise Erickson (who's incidentally still with us) and Mary Lee Robb. Over the course of the series, she grew up, got married and moved out (to a house next door). Leroy, on the other hand, remained the same age throughout and was played by Walter Tetley -- a famous child star who in real life never went through puberty -- supposedly because his mother had him castrated. Much of the show's humor revolved around his and Gildy's relationship (Leroy's catchprases of "Ah, you kiddin'?" and "Aw, for corn's sake!" usually came right before or after Gildersleeve's rumbling delivery of "Leeeroy!")

Gildersleeve's friends were Judge Horace Hooker (Earle Ross), pharmacist Richard Q. Peavey (Richard LeGrand), and barber Floyd Munson (Arthur Q. Bryan). In the fourth season, the friends -- along with Police Chief Donald Gates (Ken Christy) -- formed a clique known as The Jolly Boys, whose chief activities involved singing a cappella (this was the 1940s, after all). Aside from his work, the Jolly Boys, and raising the kids, Gildersleeve pursued numerous love interests -- almost marrying on three occasions -- most memorably to southern belle Leila Ransom.




Peary and crew starred in four RKO Great Gildersleeve films: The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Gildersleeve's Bad Day (2943), Gildersleeve On Broadway (1943), and Gildersleeve's Ghost (1944). He also released three children's records: Stories for Children, Told in His Own Way by the Great Gildersleeve (1945), Children's Stories as Told by the Great Gildersleeve (1946), and a second volume of Stories for Children, Told in His Own Way (1947).



The show jumped the shark, as it were, in 1950 when as a result of one of CBS's famous talent raids, Peary left NBC and signed a seven-year contract with their rival, believing that the show would come with him. Kraft, however, refused to sanction the move and replaced him with Willard Waterman. Waterman version of Gildersleeve sounds uncannily like that of Peary -- although Waterman refused to emulate Peary-as-Gildersleeve's signature laugh which was once described by a critic as "a national phenomenon almost as awe-inspiring as Yellowstone National Park." Waterman was fine as Gildersleeve -- it's nearly impossible to differentiate him from Peary -- but there are noticeably fewer laughs after 1950.

Meanwhile, over at CBS, Peary starred as Harold Hemp aka "Honest Harold the Homemaker" on The Harold Peary Show. It was remarkably similar to The Great Gildersleeve made moreso with the frequent reuse of plot devices and similar characters -- not just Honest Harold but his foil, Doc "Yak-Yak" Yancey, who was an obvious substitute for Judge Hooker. Its setting, Melrose Springs, was just like Summerfield. Without an estate to manage or children to raise, however, more of the plot revolved around romantic pursuits although Harold came off as a bit of a sleaze. Though enjoyable, it never came close to reaching the highs of The Great Gildersleeve and was cancelled in 1954.




Back at NBC, the Waterman Gildersleeve drifted aimlessly. Marjorie and Judge Hooker disappeared on several occasions for long periods and new characters were regularly introduced and just as quickly dropped. In 1954 the series was reduced from half an hour to just fifteen minutes. The following year it transitioned to television and aired for 39 episodes, ending its run in 1956. The radio version ended in 1957.

Recordings of Old Time Radio shows are filed in Amoeba's Spoken Word section.

*****
Become a fan of Eric's Blog on Facebook!

Happy Birthday, X Minus One - radio's greatest sci-fi anthology!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 24, 2012 11:23am | Post a Comment
Today is the 57th birthday of X Minus One, a science fiction anthology that debuted on NBC radio on 24 April, 1955. 

It began as a sort-of revival of pioneering sci-fi program, Dimension X and the first fifteen episodes were remakes from that series. The remainder of the episodes were originals from staff writers Ernest
 Kinoy and George Lefferts as well as their adaptations of new works by the likes of A. A. PhelpsJr., Alan Nourse, Algis Budrys, Arthur Sellings, Clifford Simak, Donald A. Wollheim, Evelyn Smith, F. L. Wallace, Finn O'Donovan, Fletcher Pratt, Frank M. Robinson, Frank Quattrochi, Frederic Brown, Frederick Pohl, Fritz Leiber, Gordon R. Dickson, Graham Doar, H. Beam Piper, H. L. Gold, Isaac Asimov, J. T. McIntosh, Jack McKenty, James Blish, James E. Gunn, James E. Gunn, James H. Schmitz, Katherine MacLean, L. Sprague de Camp, Mark Clifton, Milton Lesser, Murray Leinster, Ned Lang, Peter Phillips, Phillip K. Dick, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Richard Maples, Richard Wilson, Robert Bloch, Robert Heinlein, Robert Sheckley, Robert Silverberg, Ross Rockland, Stephen Arr, Stephen Vincent Benet, Steven Tall, Theodore sturgeon, Tom Goodwin, Vaughn Shelton, William Tenn, and Wyman Guin.

Each episode began with announcer (variously Ben Grauer, Bill Rippe, Don Pardo, Fred Collins, Jack Costello, Kenneth Banghart and Roger Tuttle) intoning:

Countdown for blastoff... X minus five, four, three, two, X minus one... Fire! From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you'll live in a 
million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds. The National Broadcasting Company, in cooperation with Street 
and Smith, publishers of Astounding Science Fiction presents... X Minus One.

As a result of renewed interest in Old Time Radio, Robert Silverberg wrote a new episode "The Iron Chancellor" in 1973 but did not result in a revival.

NBC was infamous for not showing much interest in their radio programs -- especially as radio waned and TV waxed -- and Dimension X suffered from being bounced around between Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and barely received any promotion. However, they didn't skimp on the writing and sound effects budget and the results were frequently amazing.

Ultimately the series ran for 124 episodes (plus the audition). Its last episode aired 9 January, 1958. Almost all episodes have been preserved and most can be listened to here. They also appear on CDs and Audio DVDs, which can sometimes be found at Amoeba. NB: the ongoing popularity of X Minus One has led to some unscrupulous folks splicing together various previously existing material from different sources to create "newly discovered" episodes. Special thanks to the folks at the Digital Deli Too for their hard work in the name of preserving OTR. Consult with them before splurging.




*****

Happy Birthday, Dimension X - Radio's pioneering sci-fi series

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 8, 2012 08:57am | Post a Comment
Dimension X debuted on NBC radio on this day (April 8), 1950. The first thirteen episodes were performed live whilst the remainder were pre-recorded. It was directed by Fred Wiehe and Edward King. The narrator and announcer was Norman Rose, who began each program with the introduction, "Adventures in time and space- told in future tense..." before "Dimension X!" boomed and echoed.


Dimension X wasn't the first adult science-fiction anthology program (2000 Plus debuted a month earlier on the Mutual network) but it was, perhaps, the best - drawing from writers like Clifford D. Simak, Donald A. Wollheim, E. M. Hull, Fletcher Pratt, Frank M. Robinson, Fredric Brown, Graham Doar, H. Beam Piper, Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, Jack Williamson, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, L. Ron Hubbard, Murray Leinster, Nelson BondRay Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Robert Bloch, Stephen Vincent Benet, Villiers Gerson, and William Tenn. Most episodes were adapted from pre-existing works by Ernest Kinoy and George Lefferts but the two also provided original
 works.
It was first auditioned as Out of This World, which it was originally auditioned as on February 23, 1950. Though one of the best sci-fi series ever, the famously clueless folks at NBC never gave it proper promotion or care, bouncing it around to various slots on four different days of the week.


It's influence can most easily be heard in X Minus One (1955-1958), many episodes of which wereremakes of Dimension X programs. On TV, Dimension X inspired shows like Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957), One Step Beyond (1959-1961), Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Way Out (1961), Outer Limits (1963-1965), The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1986), and Masters of Science Fiction (2007).


All fifty episodes (and a fifteen-minute preview, "Preview to the Future") have been preserved and most can be listened to here. They also appear on CDs and Audio DVDs, which can sometimes be found at Amoeba. Special thanks to the folks at the Digital Deli Too for their hard work in the name of preserving OTR.

*****

Happy Birthday, The Life of Riley! - or - What a revoltin' development this is!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 16, 2012 12:22pm | Post a Comment
On this day, in 1944, The Life of Riley premiered on the Blue network (later known as ABC).


The Life of Riley began with an audition taping on July 25, 1943 after its creation by Irving Brecher. Over the course of roughly 320 episodes, it established itself as one of the most enduringly funny sitcoms on Old Time Radio. It's final episode on ABC aired on July 8, 1945. After moving to the NBC radio network, it aired again from August 8, 1945 until its final episode aired on June 29, 1951.

The main character, Chester A. Riley, was played by William Bendix. His wife, Peg, his son, Junior, and his daughter, Babs, were all played by more than one actor. Both his co-worker/neighbor, Gillis, as well as audience favorite, Digby "Digger" O'Dell (the "friendly undertaker") were both played by John Brown. At various times it was sponsored by the American Meat Institute, Teel Dentifrice, Dreft, Prell Shampoo, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.

   

In 1949 it was adapted into a feature film that was co-written by Brecher and Groucho Marx. That same year it also debuted as a television series starring a pre-Honeymooners Jackie Gleason in the title role that ran for 26 episodes (Bendix's contract with RKO prevented him from appearing on NBC TV). It returned in 1953 with Bendix again in the title role and again with Marx as a writer. It proved much more successful and ran for six seasons until 1958, when it was also adapted into a Dell comic book.


The series followed the day-to-day doings of the working class, Irish-American Riley family, nominally headed by the bumbling Chester Riley, who supported his brood by working, like many post-War Southern Californians, at an aircraft plant, in this case as a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft. In reality, Chester Riley was the dimmest bulb in the drawer, and usually misinformed by Gillis. 

As originally developed (as The Flotsam Family), the title role was to have been played by Groucho Marx but the sponsors had difficultly envisioning Marx's brainy, unhinged comedy being reigned in for the much straighter role as the somewhat dense head-of-household. Bendix was cast after Brecher saw his appearance in 1942's McGuerins from Brooklyn and it was renamed. 

If you ask me, the humor, unlike that of a lot of radio sitcoms, still holds up today (the same thing can be said about The Great Gildersleeve). The sitcom formula of the confounded father who barely maintains even a semblance of authority over children can be seen and heard in comedies like The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, All in the Family, Robin Harris's Bebe's Kids routine, Married... with Children, The Bernie Mac Show and The War at Home

You can listen to episodes online by clicking here or check in Amoeba's back room for CDs, which come through used occasionally in the Spoken Word section. 

*****

Become a fan of Eric's Blog on Facebook!
<<  1  2  >>  NEXT