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.

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Tales of the Texas Rangers -- Police Procedural with a Lone Star Twist

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 8, 2013 12:42pm | Post a Comment

It took me a while to discover the brilliant radio drama, Tales of the Texas Rangers. I inferred from its name that it was a juvenile Western -- possibly a derivative of The Lone Ranger. Even though The Lone Ranger provided my childhood introduction I have never been a fan of white hat vs. black hat shoot 'em ups. The fact that the Ranger Reid and his taciturn buddy, Tonto, are once again galloping onto the screens of multiplexes does absolutely nothing for me besides lodging Gioachino Rossini's William Tell Overture into my head on a loop.

Luckily for me, Tales of the Texas Rangers is almost completely unlike The Lone Ranger beyond the fact that the protagonists of both are (or were, in the Lone Ranger's case) members of the Texas Rangers. Tales of the Texas Rangers isn't even a Western, really, any more than Bottle Rocket, Office Space, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, or any other film that happens to be set in Texas of the present day. Tales of the Texas Rangers is actually a police procedural, having more in common with Dragnet and the similarly-technology-fetishizing CSI franchise than even radio noir adult westerns like Gunsmoke. Like Dragnet, the episodes were supposedly based on actual cases handled by the rangers from the late 1920s to the then present. Also like Dragnet, after the apprehension of the criminal, the announcer would state the outcome of the case -- usually a sentence at Huntsville in place of San Quentin.

The program debuted on 8 July, 1950, on NBC. It was directed and produced by Stacy Keach, Sr, who'd initially tried to develop the idea into a film. Technical assistance was provided by retired ranger Manuel "Lone Wolf" Gonzuallas. Barney Phillips, Ed Begley, Frank Martin, Herb Vigran, Ken Christy, Lurene Tuttle, Parley Baer, Reed Haley, Tony Barrett, and Wilms Herbert frequently appeared in guest roles. The announcer was Hal Gibney, who began each episode by animatedly proclaiming, "Texas! More than 260,000 square miles! And fifty men who make up the most famous and oldest enforcement body in North America!"

The tone was measured and suspenseful and the detailed descriptions of crime scenes and forensics were more lurid than anything on TV at the time. Joel Murcott's (The Adventures of Frank Race, M Squad, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Bonanza) writing was consistently quite good and Monty Fraser's vivid sound effects are first rate. Of 95 episodes there are at least 92 episodes currently in circulation.

It starred Joel McCrea as Jace Pearson. South Pasadena-born McCrea was both a film actor and actual cowboy who operated three ranches and reportedly viewed acting as a hobby. In films he rode his own horse, Dollar, and chose his own wardrobe, disliking the distressed look favored by wardrobe departments.

McCrea was sometimes criticized for his supposedly limited range due to the fact that he refused not only to play villains or even less-than-perfect heroes. The only shade of gray associated with Jace Pearson was the fact that his horse was named Charcoal. He also refused to act in anything sponsored by cigarette or alcohol companies. For the first two months Tales of the Texas Rangers was sponsored by the suitably wholesome breakfast cereal, Wheaties. After that it was unsponsored.

Only a moderate commercial success, it ended its run on 14 September, 1952. From 1953 till 1959, Dell Comics ran its comic, Jace Pearson's Tales of the Texas Rangers. The series moved to TV (and CBS) where it aired on Saturday mornings from 1955 until 1958. Predictably the TV series was firmly oriented toward a young audience and offered standard cops 'n' robbers thrills. Less predictably it bounced around the Rangers' then roughly twelve decade timeline without explanation. One week Jace and company would find themselves chasing robbers in the 1950s, another week they'd be fighting Native Americans in the 19th century

Although the TV series is probably fine for young or nostalgiac audiences, the radio program holds up for and fan of well-made procedurals. Radio dramas can be found in Amoeba's Spoken Word section. Click here to connect with other Tales of the Texas Rangers fans on Facebook.

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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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