Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Who's Going to Play God?": The Way It Was, 21 January

1921: CASTING THE ALMIGHTY?---She is born long enough years before her reputed question would be answered in a charming film performance by George Burns, in Oh, God!

But born today, in New York City, is the baby girl destined to become an old-time radio footnote when she asks the wrong question, so the mythology has it, of her employer, radio soap opera giant Anne Hummert. Mrs. Hummert will insist upon references to God in just about every program produced and programmed by herself and her husband, Frank. Upon learning of that insistence, our heroine will ask---whether puckishly or impertinently depends upon one's viewpoint, perhaps---"Who's going to play Him?"

If indeed Anne Hummert will make of Manya Starr an old-time radio footnote following that query, radio's loss will prove film and television's gain, as Starr will go forth to forge a respected career as a screen and (particularly) television writer, whose credits will include Lux Video Theater, The Egg and I, and The ABC Weekend Specials.


1945: "A SHORT, HEAVY, HARD-FISTED, CHARMING, SENSITIVE PROFESSIONAL"---Based on character ideas drawn from the writings of Dashiell Hammett, old-time radio crime drama The Fat Man premieres on ABC. The show’s name and premise seem to have been a gentle self-parody of Hammett’s famous stories of The Thin Man; veteran stage and radio performer J. Scott (Jack) Smart stars as Brad Runyon, the Fat Man himself.

WOMAN: There he goes . . . into that drugstore. He’s stepping on the scales.
SFX: (Coin clinking.)
WOMAN: Weight . . . two hundred and thirty-seven pounds.
SFX: (A card falls.)
WOMAN: Fortune . . . danger.
MUSIC: (Stinging sound.)
WOMAN: Whoooooo is it?
MAN: The Fat Man!
---The show’s typical opening sequence.

Part of a Monday night block of four programs that also include I Deal in Crime (with William Gargan as Ross Dolan), Forever Tops, and Jimmy Gleason’s Diner, The Fat Man will be a sustaining program until 1947, when Norwich Pharmaceutical Company signs on to sponsor the show for Pepto-Bismol and Unguentine; it will become a sustaining show one more time, for its final season of 1950-51.

Where Nick Charles, the "Thin Man," was a tall, suave, married, aristocratic, martini-sipping amateur, Brad Runyon was a short, heavy, hard-fisted, charming and sensitive professional. He was closer in some respects to yet another successful Hammett character running on radio at the time, Sam Spade---a character based upon Hammett's detective in the Maltese Falcon.

According to William F. Nolan, Dashiell Hammett, faced with a writer's block, decided to cash in on the popularity of his Thin Man series which ran on radio from 1946 through 1951 on CBS, and created The Fat Man. Just how much of the "creation" was Hammett's, and how much that of others who were commercially involved in radio seems to be an open question. Diane Johnson feels that Hammett was already involved with the producer, E.J. Rosenberg, who had also sold the Sam Spade series and who "helped develop another series, The Fat Man inspired by Gutman of The Maltese Falcon . . . " However, Nolan' s view is that Brad Runyon was not a copy of Casper Gutman, but was more a mixture of the urbane Nick Charles with the hard-boiled Continental Op., another of Hammett' s better known characters. Besides, Gutman was a heavy, and not anything like the Brad Runyon character. John Dunning, another old-time radio authority, gives the creative credit to Hammett. Hammett made more money when the Sam Spade series aired from 1941-1950 starring Howard Duff.

Hammett refused to get immersed in writing or giving critiques of any of the radio shows based on his characters. How much money he received for his radio shows is uncertain. Julian Symons says that The Fat Man brought him $1300 a week. Nolan says all the radio shows paid him upwards of $6000 a month. Hammett's attitude toward all these programs was cynical. He is quoted by Johnson as saying, "My sole duty in regard to these programs, is to look in the mail for a check once a week. I don't even listen to them. If I did, I'd complain about how they were being handled, and then I'd fall into the trap of being asked to come down and help. I don't want to have anything to do with the radio. It's a dizzy world, makes the movies seem highly intellectual."

---Charles Laughlin, author of J. Scott Smart, a.k.a. The Fat Man.

Charles Irving announces the show and Clark Andrews and Charles Powers direct it. The cast includes Ed Begley (as Sergeant O’Hara) Other cast will include Linda Watkins, Mary Patton, Vicki Vola, Nell Harrison (as Brad Runyon’s mother), Dan Ocko, Roily Bester, Robert Dryden, and Amzie Strickland as Brad Runyon’s girl friend, Cathy Evans. (Strickland in due course becomes one of the most familiar unidentifiable faces on television and in film, playing what will seem as thousands of character roles.)

The writers include Richard Ellington, Lawrence Klee, Dan Shuffman, and Robert Sloane; the show’s music is provided by Bernard Green, who composes the show’s arresting theme.

The show's withering wit isn't a mere accident: Smart---whose vocal versatility earned him the sobriquet "the Lon Chaney of radio"---was long familiar to radio audiences as one of Fred Allen's Mighty Allen Art Players and, in due course, Senator Bloat in the original "Allen's Alley" sketches. The cast also includes two alumni of legendary serial comedy Easy Aces: Betty Garde (who played Jane Ace’s friend Dorothy late in the show’s life) and Paul Stewart (who played Jane’s ne’er-do-well brother Johnny).

The Fat Man will end almost simultaneously with other Hammett-involved radio shows, after Hammett's Communist or Communist-tied activity becomes subject of a court case: Four Communists, tied to the New York Civil Rights Congress, to which Hammett belongs, are arrested for conspiracy and flee after Hammett himself raised their bail bond, and Hammett refuses to give the court information on the four, resulting in a contempt of court citation and six months in jail.

In short order, however, Hammett will be subpoenaed to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, refusing once again to disclose information on anyone other than himself. He will turn up on the "second" Hollywood blacklist* (he had earned a comfortable living as a film story writer since the 1930s) and battle with the Internal Revnue Service over a tax delinquency; both events finish his writing career until his death of lung cancer in 1961.

Scott eludes the reach of the brush that finishes Hammett and The Fat Man, but his career will have peaked by the time the show leaves the air. After making a film version of The Fat Man (it provides the first major screen roles for Rock Hudson, Julie London, and Jayne Meadows), Scott will land the lead in another ABC radio crime drama, Top Guy, co-starring future Wild, Wild West sidekick Ross Martin.

The show will last two seasons; Scott will move to Ogunquit, Maine to pursue his passion for painting; he retires from acting completely enough after playing Pozzo in an early but ill-fated production of Waiting for Godot in Florida, being replaced when the production moves to New York. He will die a year before Dashiell Hammett.

1927: A DEVILISH GOOD SHOW---Portions of Gounoud's Faust are broadcast out of Chicago, marking the first known broadcast of an opera performance on American radio.


1943: JANE HELPS THE WAR EFFORT---Jane (Ace) and her girl friend Dorothy (Betty Garde) hire on as wartime bus drivers, part of a program putting the ladies into the workforce while the gentlemenfolk fight the war or provide for it. What a surprise: Jane drives her bosses to drink faster than she gets the war workers to their wartime jobs. Isn't that awful: They'll be guzzling by the gallon when Jane ropes them into debating manhours versus womanhours, on tonight's edition of Easy Aces. (CBS.)

Additional cast: Unknown. Announcer: Ford Bond. Writer: Goodman Ace.


TALLULAH BANKHEAD: Everybody knows you're famous for taking off clothes.
GYPSY ROSE LEE: Everybody knows you're famous for taking off birthdays.

TALLU: I've played before every man and woman in the world.
GYPSY: I must admit, honey, I've only played to half your audience.

That is how you open an evening with Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Portland Hoffa, Judy Holliday, Vaughn Monroe, Patrice Munsel, and Meredith Willson, on tonight's edition of The Big Show. (NBC.)

Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Meredith Willson and the Big Show Orchestra and Chorus. Writers: Goodman Ace, Fred Allen, Selma Diamond, Mort Greene, Frank Wilson.

1953: EISENHOWER's INAUGURATION; OR, JUST BE CALM AND COOL, LIKE I AM. (RROOWWWRRRRR!)---This may come as a bit of a shock, but once upon a time Zsa Zsa Gabor really did perform. The fact that it may have been as far back as the Eisenhower Administration is completely irrelevant, even in light of her host having his usual arch fun over Eisenhower's inauguration, on tonight's edition of The Bob Hope Show. (NBC.)

Additional cast: Margaret Whiting. Announcer: Bill Goodwin. Music: Les Brown and His Band of Renown. Writers: Al Josefsberg, Hal Block, Larry Marks, Albert Schwartz.


1897---J. Carrol Naish (as Joseph Patrick Carrol Naish; actor: Life With Luigi; Suspense; Philco Radio Time), New York City.
1904---Allen Prescott (host: Wife Saver; Prescott Presents), St. Louis.
1915---John Dunkel (writer: Escape; Gunsmoke; Fort Laramie), Springfield, Ohio; Alan Hewitt (actor: The Romance of Helen Trent; This Is Nora Drake), unknown.
1919---Jinx Falkenburg (actress: Duffy's Tavern; hostess: Hi! Jinx; Tex and Jinx; Weekend), Barcelona.
1922---Telly Savalas (as Aristotelis Savalas; actor: The U.N. Story), Garden City, Long Island.
1924---Benny Hill (as Alfred Lawthorn Hill; comedian: Educating Archie), Southampton, UK.

* - There has been the thought, long enough, that there was an earlier blacklist of sorts, at least an attempt at one, against actors, writers, directors, and other film industry personnel who were known to be anti-Communist. Among those who testified to that effect before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1940s were, alphabetically, Roy Brewer, Adolphe Menjou, John C. Moffitt, Ronald Reagan, and Morrie Ryskind (one of the Marx Brothers' premier writers).

Moffitt, a screenwriter (his credits included St. Louis Blues and Passage to Marseilles) and critic, had in fact told the committee Hollywood's Communists had engaged in "the most dangerous censorship that has ever occurred in the history of the motion picture industry and the history of American thought."


Blogger Harry Heuser said...

Seems we had the same Smart idea (a fact I duly acknowledged). The Fat Man was ten pounds heavier that night. Having read Jack Gould's review, I attribute the weight loss to flop sweat.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

Harry---Warped minds think alike?---Jeff

3:05 PM  

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