This one's about the Blues, Pete Kelly's Blues

Posted by Eric Brightwell, August 12, 2014 01:40pm | Post a Comment

Today Jack Webb is best remembered for his portrayal of Detective Sergeant Joe Friday on the radio and television series Dragnet. Friday – a stiff, slouching, robotic cop who chain smokes as he rails against drug abuse – embodies for many folks the definition of a hypocrite and a square. However, the real Webb was also quite the hepcat, an amateur jazz musician with a massive collection of records. In addition to playing hard-boiled detectives, he also used radio to attack social injustices (on One out of Seven) and, with Pete Kelly's Blues, indulge his lifelong love of jazz and Chandler-esque noir.

Pete Kelly's Blues lobby card

Pete Kelly's Blues began as an unsponsored replacement series for The Halls of Ivy after a 13 February audition. It debuted on NBC on 4 July, 1951 and aired on Wednesday nights in most markets (Saturdays in others). It was created by Richard L. Breen, who'd previously worked with Webb on the wonderful and not-at-all dissimilar radio noir series, Pat Novak, for Hire, which Webb had left in 1947. Throughout the series' short run, Webb continued to star on both the radio version of Dragnet, which ran from 1949 until 1957, and the television version, which began a few months after Pete Kelly's Blues and continued to air until in its first run until 1959).

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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.

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Somebody Knows and Wanted -- Golden Age Radio's great unsolved mysteries

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 2, 2013 12:31pm | Post a Comment

In the wake of Dragnet's success for NBC (after having been rejected by CBS), radio audiences more and more craved authenticity from their crime dramas. Programs like Gang Busters (1936-1957) and This is Your FBI (1945-1953) claimed to be based on authentic cases, but were less realistic and adult in tone than the true crime series of the 1950s. Most of the scores of earlier hard-boiled detective shows were often utterly implausible, even when enjoyable. As they often did, in the summer of 1950, CBS and NBC went head to head with two similar programs that aimed to up the authenticity stakes, Somebody Knows and Wanted.



Somebody Knows debuted on 6 July, 1950 as that year's summer replacement for Suspense (1942-1962). Through narration and dramatizations, the known facts of unsolved crimes were presented and listeners who provided information leading to the conviction of a criminal in one of the profiled cases would get $5,000 for their effort (more than $47,000 in 2013, adjusted for inflation). Unable to find a sponsor, independent series creator Jimmy Saphier put up $40,000 of his own money. In a promotional interview Sapphier stated, "I don't care if we only have one listener. As long as he's the guy who knows who did it--and will rat on his pals." 

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Dragnet - The greatest police procedural and realest of the real

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 12, 2013 06:27pm | Post a Comment

Though nowadays the Dragnet franchise is best  emembered today as a TV series (or two TV series), it began existence as was most exceptional as a radio dramaDragnet starred Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, an LAPD detective who, when the series began, lived at home with his mother and later on his own in a Silver Lake bachelor pad. It first aired on 3 June, 1949. The day was a Friday; it was warm in Los Angeles

Jack Webb had previously starred on three hard-boiled detective shows: Pat Novak, for Hire, Johnny Modero, Pier 23, and Jeff Regan, Investigator. He played a crime lab technician in the film, He Walked By Night , shot in quasi-documentary style with technical assistance provided by an LAPD dick. It reportedly sparked within Webb the idea for Dragnet -- a dark and realistic police procedural that would stand in stark contrast to the breezy tone of contemporary/rival detective shows like CBS’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and ABC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective (although Dragnet is hardly without its own odd sense of humor).


For most of Dragnet's run, William Parker was LAPD's police chiefParker’s predecessor, Clemence B. Horrall had resigned a few months after Dragnet’s debut under pressure from the mayor amidst an investigation into police corruption following the exposure of the department’s ties to the Jewish Mob. Horrall’s department had already famously (mis)handled the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in 1942, the anti-Latino (and to a lesser extant black, Pinoy, and other working class) Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the high profile (and unsolved) Black Dahlia murder of 1947, and the longstanding, de facto racial segregation that only ended when the supreme court intervened in 1948.

William H. Parker III became the LAPD’s new police chief on 9 August, 1950. Although he is and was often maligned for having institutionalizing many of the LAPD's militaristic strong arm tactics, compared to most of his predecessors, he was incorruptible and unfriendly to organized criminals and he let it be known that no longer could LAPD officers “be bought for a ten-dollar bill.” 

Parker wasn't just tough on mob criminals, though, and by most accounts he went well out of his way to make life hell for innocent blacks, Latinos, gays, and Communists, and other already harassed and marginalized Angelenos. His shiny reputation for upholding his own brand of justice was likely small comfort to the innocent Mexican-Americans beaten within inches of their lives by drunk cops during 1951's Bloody Christmas, or to the transgender community -- who fought back at abusive cops at Cooper’s Donuts in 1959, or to the poor blacks who revolted in the Watts Rebellion of 1965, or to the gays who rioted after years of unjust imprisonment in Lincoln Heights’ so-called Fruit Tank (and who rioted at Silver Lake’s Black Cat Tavern a few months after Parker’s retirement in 1966).

Parker was keenly aware of the LAPD’s tarnished image and sought to use the radio, film and TV to changer the public's perception. He collaborated closely with Webb and Sergeant Marty Wynn on Dragnet, giving the series an unparalleled realism. The main characters spent more time sitting in cars, talking about sandwiches and diets, and fighting off boredom than engaging in shoot-outs and chases with criminal arch-villains. The antagonists were more likely to be guilty of check fraud than diamond heists. Tellingly, the public usually depicted as obstacles to justice -- threatening the working class heroes of the LAPD with lawsuits and generally uncooperative, petty and seemingly abusive without reason.

Although Dragnet was often lampooned for being square and conservative, it was in some ways progressive. The heroes were racially sensitive and Friday's first partner, Ben Romero, was Latino. Friday was motivated by a colorblind adherence to law, logic and facts (although he never actually said, "Just the facts, ma'am). To underscore the series' depiction of reality, each episode began with Friday intoning matter-of-factly, “The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” 

CBS launched a much-publicized series of talent raids on NBC of 1947 and ’48 which resulted in much of NBC’s talents defecting to its then-chief rival. Even though Webb had already made quite an impression on radio for Pat Novak and Johnny Madero, Dragnet had trouble getting off the ground -- perhaps because it's tone was so different from that of any earlier radio dramas. CBS passed on it for not being “enough like Sam Spade” and NBC only picked it up as a summer replacement. 

After a slow start, Dragnet was a bona fide hit. Although the TV version of debuted on 16, December, 1951, and despite the fact that by 1952 it was obvious that TV was going to spell the end for radio drama, new episodes of the radio series continued to air until 1957. Reruns continued to air until 1959. (The last prime time radio dramas finally stopped airing in 1962).

One of my favorite aspects of the series, besides the realism and odd humor is the series' specificity and pan-Los Angeles locations. Addresses are almost always often given -- something sereis like The Adventures of Philip Marlowe did too -- but whereas most earlier Los Angeles-based shows took place between Downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood, Dragnet was like a celebrity-unimpressed tour guide to the city and offers glimpses into the way things were at the time. Boyle Heights is diverse, there's the old Hollywood Subway, and many now-urban County areas are comparatively undeveloped. 

Additionally, the dialogue is snappy, dry, and usually deadpanly humorous – somewhat reminiscent of the writing of James Cain. The sound effects department was first rate and really helps complete the vivid mental pictures that form in the listener's mind. The plots range from the titillating to the mundane and treat them the same pragmatism. An early review in a 1949 edition of the Oakland Tribune summed it up nicely when their writer called it “an astonishing cops-and-robbers job simply because nothing very astonishing happens on it.”


The Dragnet TV series debuted on 16 December, 1951. Whereas most TV series were tame compared to their radio predecessors (which could get away with suggesting far more than the family-oriented boob tube could show) adult and unsensationalist Dragnet played similarly on both formats.

A Dragnet comic strip ran from 1952 to 1955. The movie, not surprisingly simply titled Dragnet, opened in theaters in September 1954 and was directed by Webb.  The TV series, like the radio one, was incredibly popular finally ended only because Webb ultimately desired to pursue other projects. None of those projects came close to Dragnet's success and before long, Webb returned with a color, made-for-TV-movie called Dragnet 1966.

Though Dragnet 1966 didn’t air until 1969, it convinced the network to revive Dragnet yet again as a TV  series the following year, Dragnet 1967. That series aired (with its name changed to reflect the then-current year) until 1970. Though it retained some of the series’ characteristic humor – usually in the form of conversations between Friday and his partner, Frank Gannon, about domesticity and dating, Friday was by then as stubbornly close-minded and uptight as the countless parodies had depicted him as being in the 1950s.

Wheres before he had busted murders and shoplifters with equal amounts of measure, in the revived series he was frequently wound up by an youth culture he was painfully out of touch with. He often lost his temper debating flaky hippies and other defenders of drug experimentation, decried the revolutionary methods of activists, and generally sweat a lot as he did so, looking sallow and increasingly unhealthy as he chain-smoked the tobacco cigarettes that were killing him and oblivious to irony lectured longhairs about the dangers of marijuana and other drugs. Though enjoyable, it was as unintentional camp. Jack Webb, who long promoted the healthy benefits of cigarettes, died when he was just 62 in 1982. Timothy Leary on the other hand -- born the same year as Webb and debated by Friday and an obvious stand-in an episode titled "The Big Prophet," lived until 1996.

Five years after Webb's passing, Dragnet was once again revived, albeit as a wacky comedy rather than intelligent drama. In 1989 Dragnet reappeared on TV as The New Dragnet. From 2003 to 2004 it was revived as a TV series L.A. Dragnet (starring Ed O’Neill). 


In addition to the aforementioned parodies -- including Stan Freberg’s “St. George and the Dragonet” (which first coined the phrase, "Just the facts, ma'am"), Dragnet's influence was felt in mostif not all of the best crime dramas that followed. Somebody Knows (1950) was an early crime documentary, recounting the events of unsolved crimes and offering a $5000 reward for information resulting in the crime’s resolution. Tales of the Texas Rangers (1950-1952) was like a Lone Star State version of Dragnet. The Line-Up (1950-1953), while entirely fictional, strove for a Dragnet-like realism. Confession (1953) was like the flip-side of Dragnet, offering the criminal’s perspective following the announcement, “The confession you are about to hear is an actual recording.” Crime Classics (1953-1955) was also a crime docudrama, although it focused on infamous cases and had a more humorous tone than most of Dragnet’s followers. 21st Precint (1953-1956) was like Dragnet relocated to New York City. The first reality show, Night Watch (1954-1955), followed Donald Reed as he rode with and recorded the routine of Culver City PD officers. ABC's entry into the genre was Unit 99 (1957-1958).


Dragnet's famous theme music is still recognized by people who’ve never listened to or watched an episode of the series. In rap it was famously sampled by The Showboys in their song, “Drag Rap,” which begins "The rhymes you are about to hear are true MC's names have been changed to protect the innocent."

Since then it's been sampled and referenced by seemingly every
bounce or rap producer in New Orleans -- most unforgettably by Mannie Fresh for UNLV’s “Drag ‘em in the River.” Rap music, especially gangsta rap, was often accused of sensationalism and just as often defended as a sort of fact-based reporting from the streets. Real recognize real, as they say, and Dragnet remains the realest.

Credit to the folks at Digital Deli Too for their research, accuracy, and the images.


Happy Birthday, Johnny Madero, Pier 23

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 24, 2013 05:30pm | Post a Comment
On this date (23 April) back in 1947, the radio drama Johnny Madero, Pier 23 made its debut. It
 was the second detective drama that resulted from the collaboration of Jack Webb and Richard L. Breen

St. Regis Hotel in 1904

Jack Webb was born 2 April, 1920, in
Santa Monica, California, the son of Margaret (née Smith) and Samuel Chester Webb. Samuel split before Jack’s birth and and thus the child was rasied by his mother and maternal grandfather, who lived together in Bunker Hills St. Regis Apartments.

As a child Webb attended school nearby in Filipinotown at Our Lady of Loretto Elementary School. He attended high school at Belmont High, in Westlake. He later studied art at St. John's University, Minnesota. During World War II Webb enlisted in the Army Air Forces. After receiving a hardship discharge, he moved to San Francisco where hefound work as a radio DJ. In February, 1946 at ABC’s local affiliate, KGO, Webb first hosted half-hour comedy, The Jack Webb Show, written by Jim Moser. In March writing changed hands to Richard L. Breen.

Richard "Dick" Breen was born in Chicago. After returning from World War II, during which he served in the Navy, he moved to San Francisco and became roommates with Webb. In August, Webb and Breen debuted their hard-boiled detective creation, Pat Novak… for Hire. Pat Novak… for Hire is one of the great hard boiled radio noirs, most immediately notable for Breen’s over-the-top Chandler-esque writing. The two left the program in over creative differences with KGO’s management. The show continued, less memorably, with Ben Morris in the lead role and Gil Doud -- formerly of The Adventures of Sam Spade -- taking over the writing. 

1947 - The San Francisco of Johnny Madero... and Pat Novak

Relocating to Hollywood, Webb and Breen pursued work with the latter scoring the first big success, penning the screenplay for A Foreign Affair. Webb’s first major gig was in January 1947 as an ensemble performer on Murder and Mr. Malone, starring a pre-Nightbeat Frank Lovejoy. A few months later Webb would again host his own show.

Johnny Madero, Pier 23 debuted in April at MBS, with Breen acting as a writing consultant. JohnnyMadero, like Pat Novak, was a San Francisco boat-renting detective for hire. Where Novak often turned to Jocko Madigan, an alcoholic ex-physician, Madero often consulted a similar character named Dipso. The antagonists of both programs were sadistic SFPD inspectors (Johnny Madero’s was played by the wonderful William Conrad, five years before he starred on Gunsmoke). Novak lived at Pier 19 and Madero at Pier 23. ABC were not happy with the two programs’ perceived similarities and subsequently sued their rival network.

MBS replaced Dipso with Father Leahy, changed the opening theme music, and satisfied, ABC dropped their suit. 26 episodes were ordered of the series and it was a hit -- almost immediately there was discussion of a Johnny Madero film. The series was also controversial. Complaints were made about the violent content and MBS abruptly cancelled the series after airing the twentieth, on 3 September, 1947. No Madero film materialized.

Webb next starred on a similar series, CBS’s Jeff Regan, Investigator. In 1949 he returned to Pat Novak… for Hire where he resumed role of the title character. After completing one season of Novak, he debuted the character with which we would forever after be associated, Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet

Breen and Webb again collaborated in 1951, on Pete Kelly’s Blues, about a jazz musician (Webb was a huge jazz aficionado) in Kansas City, Missouri. The snappy dialogue showed that Breen still had it but Dragnet remained Webb's main vehicle. They again collaborated on Appointment With Danger (1951), a film version of Pete Kelly's Blues (1955, dir. Webb), 24 Hour Alert, and both runs of the Dragnet TV series.

Johnny Madero, Pier 23 -- "Episode No. 9"

Today only two episodes of Johnny Madero, Pier 23 are known to survive. "Episode No. 9" features the great John Garfield. The other episode is "Episode No. 10." 

Credit to the folks at Digital Deli Too for their research, accuracy, and several of the images.


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