This is an online encyclopedia of personalities of Old Time Radio. It is designed for educational and entertainment purposes.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Al Helfer (1912-75)

George Alvin Helfer was born in 1912 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He played football and baseball as a student at Washington and Lee University. In 1935, he was playing baseball when Connie Mack tried to get Al to play for the Philadelphia Athletics, but he said, no. His heart was set on broadcasting. Al had already been broadcasting recreated games for the Pittsburgh Pirates on WWSW radio in Pittsburgh beginning in 1933.

After graduation, Al joined Red Barber in announcing games for the Cincinnati Reds. In 1937, he joined CBS and traveled all over Major League Baseball to cover games. Red Barber joined him for Brooklyn Dodgers games in 1939. In 1941, Al was drafted into the US Navy and was honorably discharged in 1946. At that time, the Dodgers position was taken by someone else.

During his service time, he met and married the actress simply known as Ramona (born Estrild Raymona Myers, 1909-72). They would have one daughter named Ramona.

Al went back to work for CBS until he was called upon by NBC. He broadcast every domestic radio broadcast of the Rose Bowl game from 1951-64, for NBC. Al stayed with NBC radio until his retirement in 1969, at the age of 57.

He had a voice similar to Keith Jackson (ABC Sports). In fact, listening to him give the play by play for the 1953 Rose Bowl, it's hard to believe it isn't Keith Jackson. Al was the first man to give the on air commercial for Gillette Razors, "Men, how are you fixed for blades?" This phrase is heard over and over in that Rose Bowl game.

After retiring, Al and Ramona moved to Sacramento, next to a golf course, to live a quiet life. Ramona became ill with ovarian cancer in April 1972 and died in early December.

A few months later, Al married a young lady named Margaret. He died less than three years later at his home in Sacramento, on May 16, 1975, at the age of 63, the same age as his first wife when she died.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Paul Lavalle (1908-97)

Joseph Usifer was born September 6, 1908, in Beacon, New York. Joe played clarinet in his high school band and wanted a career in music but, in order to please his parents, told them he planned to study law at Columbia University and got a scholarship to go there. However, on the way there, he decided to go to the Julliard School to study music. He studied composition with Joseph Schillinger. In the 1930s, he moved to Havana, Cuba, to play clarinet and saxophone in bands down there. It was in Cuba that he became Paul Lavalle. After this, he changed his style of music and joined the newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. While working at NBC, he also completed a number of his own arrangements and compositions, most of which were heard on the radio.

In 1944, he became the composer and arranger for the Chamber Society of Lower Basin Street, heard on NBC. It was on that show, he met an up and coming arranger named Frank DeVol (1911-99), who would end up being one of the most famous composers and arrangers for television. He continued playing clarinet with the Symphony until 1948, when he organized the Band of America. The original sponsor was Cities Service service stations, today known as Citgo. The Band of America would have several sponsors. It would eventually move onto television and would function as a professional band until 1965, when it played daily at the New York World's Fair. Paul wrote a number of compositions for the band, including the march Big Joe, the Tuba. That march, written with melody lines in the bass (tuba) part, was especially written as a solo for Joe Tarto (1902-86). Joe was one of the few tuba players who played tuba with name bands during the Swinging Years (1936-54). Joe had a very special tuba made which was huge. He named it after himself, Big Joe. This was the tuba that Paul Lavalle wanted Joe to use when he was playing that march. Other tuba players in that band included William J. Bell (previously mentioned here).

When the Band of America disbanded, Paul Lavalle became the orchestra leader for the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. A few years after he took that post, he led the McDonald's All-American Marching Band. This was a band of 102 members, which featured two high school musicians from each of the fifty states, plus one each from the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The band performed at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The band had each of it's members wear his/her own school uniform, plus an overlay to go over it which listed the member's home state, plus matching shakoes (hats). In later years, the sousaphone players didn't wear the same hat as the others and wore berets. Paul Lavalle was succeeded by Dr. William P. Foster (1919- ), director of the Florida A & M University Marching 100 in 1980. The McDonald's band was last seen and heard of in 1992.

In his personal life, Paul Lavalle married late. He wed English singer and motion picture actress Muriel Angelus (born Muriel Angelus Findlay, 1909-2004). They had a daughter named Suzanne. Paul Lavalle died at home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, June 24, 1997, at the age of 88.

Phil Harris (1904-95)

Wonga Philip Harris was born June 24, 1904, in Linton, Indiana, at the home of his grandmother. In 1916, when Phil was eight years old, his parents, Harry and Dollie Harris, who were circus performers, moved to their roots in Nashville, Tennessee. His father was a circus bandleader and hired Phil to play drumset for the circus. He also cultivated a pleasant popular singing voice.

Phil started his show business career, in all earnestness, as a drummer with a band led by Carol Lofner at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, in the 1920s. In 1927, he married Marcia Ralston (born Mascotte Marcia Henderson, and usually called "Mascotte"--1906-88) in Australia. At this time, he was drummer of the Lofner-Harris Band, which was traveling around the world at that time. Mascotte was a woman Phil met in Australia and the two fell in love. They would eventually adopt a son whom they'd name after Phil (born March 18, 1935).

In 1932, he broke up with Carol Lofner and became the successful bandleader at the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. He met Alice Faye in 1933, who would later become his second wife. Phil made his nonmusical radio debut on Hollywood On the Air, May 29,1933.

Also in 1933, Phil did a lot of acting: In June, Phil appeared in the feature, Melody Cruise. So This Is Phil Harris debuted in August. This was the first of several such attractions whose other titles included Harris in the Spring and Double or Nothing. This is Phil Harris won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject Comedy at the Sixth Academy Awards at the Ambassador Hotel in March 1934. Phil's movie career basically lasted until 1945.

Besides acting, Phil continued his music, leading the band at the Cocoanut Grove until 1936, when he was hired as bandleader for the Jack Benny Program. At the same time, Mahlon Merrick, was hired as the musical conductor and arranger. Mahlon was actually in charge of the band and played alto saxophone with the group. He also wrote all of the band's arrangements. Phil was not just a "ringer," but he actually did lead the orchestra. But the way his position was set up, he would only need to rehearse the band on Sunday morning. The band had one other rehearsal on Saturday morning with Mahlon leading.

The character Phil Harris played on Jack Benny's show was nothing like the real Phil Harris. He was made into an ignorant, selfish womanizer who didn't understand anything and liked to get drunk. He was genuinely funny.

In 1939 Phil divorced Mascotte. He had a relationship with actress/singer Alice Faye, who was going through a divorce with her husband, Tony Martin at the same time. Prior to the divorce, in 1938, there was a fist fight between Phil and RKO Studio mogul Bob Stevens at the Trocadero Nightclub in Hollywood to win Alice's hand. Phil won and Bob ended up with Sharon Gunn, a dancer.

Phil married Alice on May 12, 1941. They had two daughters, which Alice had by Caesarian section, Alice (born May 19, 1942) and Phyllis (born March 26, 1944). And the couple would remain married for 54 years, somewhat of a record for show business performers.

In December 1942, Phil and his entire band joined the Merchant Marine, stationed at Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast, which allowed Phil to work on the Jack Benny show from time to time. They all returned to their regular places when World War II was over.

Phil and Alice were invited to star in the Fitch Bandwagon in 1946. The program started in the 1930s as a vehicle to display the best bands and musicians and their talents. Since Phil and Alice were musicians, it was thought they would follow suit. However, it was transformed into a situation comedy. Besides Phil and Alice, Jeanine Roos and Anne Whitfield were cast as their daughters, Alice and Phyllis, as their parents wouldn't allow them to act (and they were very young at this time). Bill Forman was the announcer and the music was led by Walter Scharf (and Phil was not the leader of this group).

While the Fitch program was going on, Phil still functioned as the bandleader and featured actor on Jack Benny's program. Both shows aired on Sunday night. Jack's program aired at 10:00 pm (in New York, which was 7:00 pm in Hollywood, where the show was done) while Phil's program aired at 10:30 (which was 7:30). As both shows were done in the same general area of NBC Radio City West, Phil would have to leave Jack's program at 7:24.

As Alice and Phil's radio program became more popular, more actors were added. Elliott Lewis was cast as Frankie Remley (1901-67), an actual member of the Jack Benny Program's orchestra who played guitar. He had a reputation for getting things wrong and over doing things. Walter Tetley (born Walter C. Tetzlaff--1915-75), who never finished going through puberty, was cast as Julius Abruzzio, the delivery boy for the grocery store. Robert North was Willie, Alice's not-so-funny deadbeat brother. The program title was changed from the Fitch Bandwagon to the Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show in October 1948. The sponsor was Rexall Drug Stores.

Jack Benny's program last aired on NBC on December 26, 1948. It first aired on CBS on January 2, 1949. Phil Harris-Alice Faye remained on NBC. NBC Radio City West was quite a bit further than where he had to go when both shows were in the same building. He ended up leaving nine minutes earlier, at 7:15, but still getting paid the same. Even leaving ten minutes earlier, he would often walk into the studio two or three minutes past the opening. He had been wearing soft soled shoes. In 1950, the program's sponsor was RCA electronics.

Phil remained with Jack Benny until 1952. This was amicable and Phil and Alice remained close friends with Jack and Mary Benny until they passed away. Phil was replaced by Bing Crosby's brother, Bob, on Jack's show. Not having a program to do immediately before his show, Phil began a warm-up program which wasn't aired to the radio audience. It would start at 7:15, include some racy dialog not normally heard on radio at that time, and was usually more entertaining than the radio show. Bill Forman moderated this and many of these 45 minute shows (the 15 minute prelude plus the 30 minute broadcast) were recorded.

In 1954, Phil appeared in The High and the Mighty, probably the first film about an air disaster told from the viewpoint of the passengers and crew. It was a drama which starred John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Phil Harris, Alfalfa Switzer, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Joy Kim, William Hopper, Regis Toomey, and William Schallert. This was one of the most unlikely casts of all time and is considered one of the greatest films of its kind.

After Phil and Alice left their radio show in December 1953, Phil acted in a handful of more movies. He did guest parts on other radio and television shows. His last major motion picture feature was the Jerry Lewis film, The Patsy (1954) [actually, the last film was a very unknown production called Cool, Baby, Cool (AKA The Cool Ones) (1967), starring Roddy McDowall, Deborah Walley, and Glen Campbell).] And then came animation...

His first animated feature was Disney's The Jungle Book (1967), in which he did the voice of Baloo, the bear. Youngsters who were too young to hear Phil sing "That's What I Like About the South" and "Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette," could enjoy him singing songs they could relate to. He was also Thomas O'Malley in Disney's The Aristocats (1970), Little John, the bear, in Disney's Robin Hood (1973), and Patou in Don Bluth's Rock-a-Doodle (1991), which starred Glen Campell. This was Phil's final performance.

Phil and Alice were virtually retired from regular show business when Phil turned 65 in 1969. At that time the couple moved to the Palm Springs area, where they spent the rest of their lives. They would do casual television spots for real estate and golf developments in the area.

Death came on August 11, 1995, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 91 years old. His remains were cremated and placed into a decorative urn with three brass dolphins. This was placed next to his wife's remains, after she died three years later, at the Palm Spring Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cathedral City (near Palm Springs).

Mahlon Merrick (1900-69)

Born January 28, 1900, in Farmington, Iowa, the family of Mahlon Merrick moved to Centralia, Washington, which he considered his hometown. In 1923, Mahlon graduated from Washington State College (now Washington State University). After three years of teaching school music in Redmond, Washington, he put aside teaching and began work as a professional saxophonist. By the end of the decade, he was in Los Angeles, working as a radio orchestra musician.

In 1937, he joined the staff of the Jack Benny Program. He went on at the same time Phil Harris was hired to be the "bandleader." To be honest, Phil Harris was a musician... a decent drummer and a wonderful singer. But he was hired by the show to be the comic relief. When the show was aired, the live studio audience would see Phil lead the band while Mahlon sat in the sax section. Jack Benny always admitted himself that he never actually hired Phil to be the bandleader. Mahlon Merrick was hired for that job.

In the 1940s, Mahlon wrote his two most important compositions: The Gillette Look Sharp March and the Washington State College (University) Marching Song.

After the Jack Benny Program went off the air, Mahlon began to throw himself in to television. He created a fake name for himself, Gene LeGrande. This name would be seen on many TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s. The truth is that person was, in fact, Mahlon Merrick. He was also creating some music for Hanna-Barbera cartoons. H-B's main composer/conductor/arranger was Hoyt Curtin (1922-2000). He also did many other cartoons.

Merrick worked continually until his death . He died sometime in August 1969 at his home in Palm Springs.

R. Meredith Willson (1902-84)

Robert Meredith Reiniger was born May 18, 1902, in Mason City, Iowa. His family was very musical and he had piano lessons from an early age. (To answer the trivia question, What object in the living room did the console radio take the place of?, the answer is the piano.) Meredith (the family name was changed to Willson in early childhood) learned how to play the flute in school and was the first chair piccolo player at Mason City High School and won a scholarship to what would become the Julliard School. He didn't finish his studies there. Rather, he won the position as flute/piccolo soloist with the John Philip Sousa Band. He played with Sousa from 1921 to 1924. This was the same time William J. Bell played tuba with the band. Bill Bell left to play tuba with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra while Meredith left to play with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini.

While playing flute for Toscanini, Meredith was able to get some connections in the new business of radio broadcasting. In 1929, Meredith and his wife, Elizabeth Wilson (same name, different spelling), packed up the car and headed west to San Francisco, where Meredith was the concert director at radio station KFRC. Then he quickly headed south to Los Angeles to become the West Coast Musical Director for the NBC Network at Hollywood. (Bill Bell would join the NBC Network in 1937 as the tuba soloist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. But he would be out of broadcasting by 1943, when he joined the New York Philharmonic.) Meredith assumed his new position when the first of two NBC Radio buildings opened in Hollywood in 1935.

Not only did Meredith write and conduct music for radio, but also for the movies, including Charlie Chaplins, The Great Dictator (1940).

At the same time that picture came out, Meredith began not just making music for radio series, but acting in them as well. His character on the George Burns-Gracie Allen Show was that of a shy bachelor. He would continue in this role for ten years.

In actuality, Meredith married Rose Wilson when he was playing flute and piccolo with the Sousa Band. They would divorce in 1948. Exactly one week after his divorce, he married Ralina "Rina" Zarova. She died in 1968 (she is the woman in the picture at the top of the page with fellow Iowa composer, Karl L. King). In 1968, he married Rosemary Sullivan. He had no children.
In World War II, Meredith was hired by the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) to be its music director at the studio it had in Hollywood. This was considered a military position and he held the rank of major.

After the war, he was the musical director on NBC's The Big Show, which starred Tallulah Bankhead. This was considered to be the last high budget radio program, hence its title.

He then made some guest appearances in television, mostly on game shows.

This isn't to say that his career was over. He had written some popular songs, some of which are considered standard, such as It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, which was actually written as a standard 6/8 time military march.

He two wrote books: And There I Stood with My Piccolo (1948) and But He Doesn't Know the Territory (1959) .

What would make him famous, though was Broadway musicals: His first was The Music Man, which he wrote with Franklin Lacey (1917-88) in 1955, began its run on Broadway in 1957, and became a motion picture in 1962. It won the Tony Award for best musical play in 1958. The movie won an Oscar for the best adaptation of music which had previously been composed. This is the story of a con man who came to a small town in Iowa, in about 1914, to sell musical instruments and start a band. The second musical was The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which he wrote with Richard Morris (1924-96) in 1959. It was a Broadway play in 1960 and a motion picture in 1965. This was the fictionalized story of Margaret Brown, one of the survivors of the RMS Titanic in 1912. There were two other musicals, which were not nearly so successful: Here's Love (1963), a musical adaptation of the movie, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and 1491, the story of how Christopher Columbus tried to finance his 1492 voyage from Europe to the New World. It played in Los Angeles for a time and never showed up again.
He also wrote two symphonies for symphony orchestra.

Meredith died at his home in Santa Monica, California, on April 15, 1984, at the age of 82.

Wilbur Hatch (1902-69)

Wilbur Hatch was born May 24, 1902, in Mokena, Illinois, a village near Chicago in Will County. He began working as a musician in radio after attending from the University of Illinois in 1922. He first worked at station KYW in Chicago. He became the musical director for CBS in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles shortly after Columbia Square was finished in Hollywood.

He did a number of programs at Columbia Square, but the first program on which he received rave notices was The Whistler in 1942. He wrote a haunting theme, consisting of 13 notes, which repeated, whistled by Dorothy Roberts for the entire 13 years the show was on the air.

Other shows for which he composed and arranged music included My Favorite Husband, Broadway is My Beat, Meet Corliss Archer, Suspense, Campbell Theater, Our Miss Brooks, and Luke Slaughter of Tombstone.

In 1950, Wilbur Hatch joined forces with Desilu Productions to compose and arrange music for I Love Lucy. Desilu would stay in business through most of the 1960s. He was the conductor/composer for most of the shows the company produced, including Star Trek, although he wasn't the regular conductor of that show and didn't compose the theme. He also worked on one episode of the Twilight Zone.

He died at his home in Studio City, California, on December 22, 1969, at the age of 67.

Major Edward Bowes (1874-1946)

Edward Bowes was born June 14, 1874, in San Francisco, California. He started out life as a real estate agent and he earned a lot of money as a real estate agent in his native San Francisco. The Great 1906 Earthquake caused him to reevaluate where he was and what he was doing. He still had his financial assets. So Mr. Bowes moved to New York City, where he got involved in the entertainment business. Having a musical background (he studied music for many years and was an accomplished pianist, conductor, arranger, and composer), he worked as a conductor and composer for Broadway musical revues and, later, Broadway plays. He was married to Broadway actress Margaret Illington (born Maude Light in 1879) from 1910 until her death in 1934. Mr. Bowes was the owner/manager of the Capitol Theatre in New York City.

During World War I, Mr. Bowes served as an officer in the Reserve Army Corps. Because of his management skills, he was given the rank, Major. He kept this rank with him for the rest of his life. He was a very formal man and never liked to be addressed by first name. Having the rank title actually made some people think that Major was his given name and that actually helped break down some of the barriers his formality had brought him over the years. In actuality, Major Bowes was a kindhearted man who would give you the shirt off his back if he weren't so rich (since he was rich, he'd just go to Barney's and buy you the best shirt they had.)

In 1934, Major Bowes started a radio program on station WHN in New York City called Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour. He had actually sponsored several similar shows in different parts of the country, usually isolated from big cities. The idea was to find new talent to make new stars. It was similar to today's American Idol on TV. One big difference, though, was that Major Bowes completely controlled the voting. People actually did call in on the telephone and make votes on the entertainer they thought was the best. When the sponsor was Chrysler automobiles, the listeners telephoned their local Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, or DeSoto dealership. It actually sold a lot of cars! There was no rule back in those days about those who were involved with the advertising being contestants.

One major difference between American Idol and the Amateur Hour was that the Idol show has only singers. The Amateur Hour had singers, magicians, instrumentalists, bands, dancers (right, dancers on the radio!), storytellers, comedians, and animal callers. It calls to mind the bird callers that appear from time to time on the Tonight Show, a tradition which Johnny Carson started which stays on with Jay Leno.

Some of the people Major Bowes discovered include Frank Sinatra, Paul Winchell, Jack Carter, Beverly Sills, Lily Pons, Robert Merrill, and Teresa Brewer.

One of the things that caused the Major to start up this radio show was the death of his beloved wife after 24 years of marriage. They had no children and his life was empty. He was a very resourceful man.

The Major died on his 72nd birthday at his home in Rumson, New Jersey, after a lengthy illness. One week after his death, Ted Mack (1904-76, born William Edward Maguinness) took over the reins. The show lasted on radio until 1952. It lasted on television from 1948 to 1970.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Walter Winchell (1897-1972)

Walter Weinschel was born April 7, 1897, in New York City. He quit school after the sixth grade and went into vaudeville in a group called the Newsboys Sextet. As he grew up, he got caught up in some of the gossip that went on backstage in vaudeville. He parlayed this into a journalistic career in the 1920s with the New York Daily Mirror. In 1930, he began doing a 15 minute gossip spot on Saks on Broadway (CBS radio). Two years later, he got his own radio show, still only 15 minutes of airtime, the Jergens Journal (NBC Blue). He had a gimmick being a telegraph key he tapped quickly, while he spoke quickly and staccato. It made everything seem extremely exciting.

Walter reported on the kidnapping of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. (1931-32), the son of the great aviator. Listeners believed everything he said. It's said that his own prejudice about the case is what sent Bruno Hauptmann (1899-1936) to the New Jersey electric chair.

After the Lindbergh case, Walter became more involved with things outside the entertainment world. Originally, he was a political liberal who was loyal to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1884-1945) and his programs. But as the years went by he became worried about Communism. When the House on Unamerican Affairs Committe (HUAC) began discussing the possibility of Communist sympathizers in the entertainment industry, He was instrumental in getting Josephine Baker (1906-75) deported, even though she was a native born American citizen. Walter Winchell was one of the most hated people in America. When he started out with the Blue Network (later to become ABC) his contract stipulated that he could say anything about anyone and get away with it. He sided with Senator Joseph McCarthy (R., Wisc./1908-57), which didn't help things much after Senator C. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn./1903-63) set him straight.After McCarthy's death, Walter moved out to California and became the narrator of the TV police series, The Untouchables. After that series, he had a minor role on one of Lucille Ball's TV situation comedies.

In his personal life, Walter married Rita Green in 1919. Rita was one of the other performers in his vaudeville act. Maybe they worked together on the stage well, but they were terrible as husband and wife. The couple adopted a little girl, Gloria (1924-33), who died of pneumonia at the age of nine.. Walter would later call this, "the only tragedy of my life." Before the couple divorced in 1928, they separated and Walter moved in with June Magee (d. 1969). They had a daughter, Eileen Joan, whom they would call Walda (1927- ). For many years, they kept the fact that they weren't married, but living together, a secret, as this was stigmatic at that time in history. Walter refused to get married to June because it would show that Walda was an illegitimate child. Walter Winchell, Jr. (1935-68) was born and would have a very sad life. Walt was working as a dishwasher in Santa Ana, California, when he committed suicide at the age of 33. The following year, June died

As for Walt (Jr.)'s father, he died following suffering for many months with prostate cancer. Even though he had announced his retirement in 1969 after the death of June, his career was really over years before. Walter Winchell died a the age of 74 in Los Angeles. When they had his funeral, the only person who showed up was his daughter Walda. She was the only member of the family left. He is buried in Phoenix, Arizona, at the Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery.

Paul Winchell (1922-2005)

Pinkas Wilchenski (later shortened to Wilchen) was born December 21, 1922, in New York City. As a boy, Pinkas had a terrible stuttering problem and tried to learn ventriloquism to overcome it. He considered his hero to be Edgar Bergen (who moved his mouth when he made Charlie McCarthy speak). Eventually, he became a good ventriloquist. In 1936, he went on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour with a dummy named Terry. Terry was made by ventriloquist dummy maker, Frank Marshall. His appearance on the program was the first time he used his stage name, Paul Winchell. Paul won the program. With part of the money he won, Paul, who was only 12 years old at this time, told Frank Marshall he didn't like how Terry looked. So Frank took Terry bank and took a manufactured dummy called Noseyboy and with a few modifications Jerry Mahoney was born. Major Bowes got Paul and Jerry work in several venues all over New York City.

Planning to be a graphic artist, Paul continued through school. He attended Columbia University (on a scholarship but ended up dropping out). This was at the beginning of World War II but Paul wasn't called. He did a few radio pilot shows and ended up having his own radio series, the Paul Winchell Show, on Mutual. Listening to the program, it was a great show. However, it was a sustaining program (meaning it had no sponsor) and it had a virtually unknown host, even if he was really funny. Yes, he won Major Bowes'. At the same time, Frank Sinatra, who lost on Major Bowes', was one of the most successful singers of the period.

In 1939, Paul lent his voice to a ventriloquist dummy in the film, Everything's On Ice (Frolics on Ice).

Paul did guest spots on other programs. Eventually, he hosted a game program with Jerry Mahoney over radio station WOR in New York City in 1948.

In a couple of years after this, he began working on television. He was often seen on the Ed Sullivan Show (Talk of the Town) as well as other programs. His first appearance in TV was actually as an actor on the TV version of Lights Out in 1950. The character, Knucklehead Smiff, was first seen in 1950 for another game program he was doing, except that this one was on television. He did many other TV shows along the same idea as his character in the Lights Out episode throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1962, he began doing voice work for Hanna-Barbera Studios. The first work he did was on The Jetsons. After this, he began doing local children's television for KTTV, channel 11, in Los Angeles. The program was Winchell-Mahoney Time. (Bill's Note: Hit this link and hear the theme music.)

After Winchell-Mahoney Time went off the air in 1966, Paul had an extremely lucrative career in voicework in cartoons. Not only was he working for Hanna-Barbera, but he was also doing work for several Disney characters, including Tigger, of Winnie the Pooh fame. His voice became an everyday feature in many commercials, too.

Besides doing this, he also did some work in areas not involving entertainment. He was an amateur inventor, a medical hypnotist, an acupuncturist, and an evangelist of sorts. Until he died, he had a website called, Protect God. In it, he ascertained that God is not a nice God. It upset many Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Paul was Jewish by heritage, but his parents believed that God was very vengeful and all suffering comes from Him. (Paul, uh Pinkas, didn't have a very happy childhood.)

He didn't seem to have a very happy adulthood, either. He was first married to Dorothy Movitz. Paul called her "Dottie." Paul and Dottie had a son, Stacy Paul, and a daughter, Stephanie. After divorcing her, he married Nina Russel in 1961. Their daughter April was born in 1960. Paul divorced Nina in 1972. Two years later he married Jean Freeman. She had two young sons, whom Paul adopted--Larry and Keith.

Paul managed to finish his education at Columbia University in 1958. He received a Doctor of Divinity degree from National Christian University (Bill can't find it listed anywhere!) and a doctoral degree in acupuncture from the Acupuncture Research College in Los Angeles (it's legit).

Some of the things Paul invented include: a flameless cigarette lighter; an artificial heart; and his first one, a disposable razor. He made the first one.

Paul retired from the entertainment business in 1996. He moved with Jean to their home in Moorpark, California, just east of the westernmost part of Los Angeles at Woodland Hills. He died on June 24, 2005, of natural causes.

When he died, he didn't want his children to know about it. Daughter April found out through a family friend. The other children heard it on radio or TV before they were invited to the funeral.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dick Crenna (1926-2003)

Richard Donald Crenna was born November 30, 1927, in Los Angeles, California. Dick's mother, Edith Crenna, who was divorced, managed a modest hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Dick's father, Dominick Crenna, was a phamacist. Dick went to Virgil Junior High School, which was located across the street from Earle C. Anthony's radio stations, KFI and KECA. It was there, before he attended Virgil, at the age of 11, that he acted in his first radio show, Boy Scout Jamboree (yes, he was a Boy Scout!), which was heard over KECA. He also did a few guest spots on the George Burns-Gracie Allen Show. From Virgil, Dick went on to Belmont High School and then went to the University of Southern California. He was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity.

Upon graduation, Dick acted in several radio situation comedies, starting with The Great Gildersleeve, in which he played Marjorie's boyfriend. Later on that show, Dick would portray another of Marjorie's boyfriends, whom she would marry named Bronco (which was spelled "Broncho" back in those days, but still pronounced "Bronco"). His first regular role was Oogie Pringle on A Date with Judy. The next show he was heard on was My Favorite Husband, which starred Lucille Ball. Dick had a close personal and working relationship with Lucille and her husband, Desi Arnaz. His most memorable role was that of Walter Denton on Our Miss Brooks (in the picture above, Dick is seen on the far left in his Walter Denton role on TV, this was a few years after the radio series went on). That radio series became a TV series.

Eventually, long after the radio series went off the air, Walter Denton's role mysteriously disappeared from the script. It was at this time, Dick starred in a TV sitcom, The Real McCoys (later just known as The McCoys). He played the part of Luke McCoy, who came to California from West Virginia with his wife (played by Kathy Nolan, born 1933) and little brother, who was also named Luke (played by Michael Winkleman, 1946-99), as well as his grandfather Amos (played by Walter Brennan, 1894-1974). After this went off the air in 1963, Dick did a few other TV shows, although now he was getting more into serious dramatic roles, rather than comedy. When this change started taking place, he became listed as "Richard Crenna," although, to his friends, he was still Dick.

Dick had an impressive career as a motion picture actor, director, and producer. His first movie was made when he was still a radio actor, Let's Dance (1950). Since he was uncredited and he never mentioned this movie, some people aren't even sure he was in the movie, in which he was thought to be one of the dancers. His first really big role was as Paul "Daffy" Dean in Pride of the Yankees (1952). The rest of the movies were some of the greatest movies made in Hollywood of their period and he always did a wonderful job.

Richard Crenna was married twice, first to a college sweetheart, which ended in divorce, and his second marriage was to Penni Sweeney, a divorcee herself. He had two children with Penni, plus a stepdaughter from her previous marriage.

In 2003, Dick contracted pancreatic cancer. This is one of the fastest cancers, which also killed Jack Benny. He died January 17, 2003, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Hollywood, surrounded by family members, at the age of 76. Seeing that he was born, grew up, worked, and died within the city limits some people who didn't know anything about him might think he hadn't gone anywhere with his life. How wrong they would be.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dick Beals (1927- )

Richard Beals was born March 16, 1927, in Detroit, Michigan. He never went through puberty and is only 4'7" (140 cm) and weighs just under 70 pounds (32 kg). He had a normal childhood in suburban Detroit. After graduating from high school he attended Michigan State University. He majored in broadcasting. Dick always dreamed of becoming a sportscaster. He loved sports and was a member of the MSU cheerleading squad (he dressed like a girl with a skirt, fake breasts made from balloons, and a long blonde wig). However, the staff at WKAR, the radio station at Michigan State, knew that the best place for Dick was in radio drama.

In 1949, a few months before his graduation from MSU, Dick was called on by radio station WXYZ (the station which brought such programs as the Lone Ranger, Sergeant Preston, and the Green Hornet) in Detroit to perform a commercial. From that time, he began acting in programs heard on that station in child parts.

In 1952, Dick was called by an advertising agency to be the voice of Speedy, the animated spokesman for Alka Seltzer after he was heard on an episode of the Green Hornet. He moved to Los Angeles and quickly became involved as the voice for other products (Oscar Mayer, Vaseline, Campbell's Soup, and Bob's Big Boy). He was heard on many great radio dramas from OTR's final decade, most notably on Gunsmoke.

Dick's voice became one of the most familiar voices in America. He was Davey on the Lutheran TV series, Davey and Goliath. He was Gumby. He also did cartoons for Warner Brothers as well as many Saturday morning's kids shows on TV.

Additionally, he could also be seen on several TV series in which he was a ventriloquist dummy or an alien from outer space.

Dick announced his retirement in 1996. He still works occasionally doing voice work in cartoons.

He is a licensed airplane pilot. He has no problem flying most small airplanes with control extensions.

Dick lives in Escondido, California, where he heads an organization called "Think Big."

Dick Lane (1899-1982)

Richard Lane was born May 28, 1899, in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Born on a farm, Dick had a talent for telling poetry quickly and was known as the Iron Jaw. He ran away from the farm and went into vaudeville. He also worked as a circus drummer and spent time in Australia and Europe before going back to America in the 1930s. When vaudeville died, he went into radio. He played Inspector Faraday on the Boston Blackie series. Dick could be heard on many other radio programs at this time. With his rapid fire method of delivery, Dick could make any wordy statement in record time. He also got a motion picture contract with Paramount Pictures. During World War II, he was an entertainer for the United Services Organizations (USO), where he was the emcee for several acts based in the Los Angeles area.

Dick Lane was one of the few people who was faster than Groucho Marx. Not only could he speak quickly, but he was quick witted. In one Command Performance (Armed Forces Radio Service) show, Groucho Marx played a quizmaster for a radio game show. Dick played the contestant (Richard Lane from Toledo, Ohio). Both actors improvised their lines and, hearing this sketch today, it sounds just as bright and as humorous as it did when it first aired in 1944!

Since Dick was under contract to Paramount Pictures, he had the opportunity to see a bright young man named Klaus Landsberg (1916-56) whom Paramount hired in 1940 to begin the studio's television station, W6XYZ, channel 4. W6XYZ's rival was W6XAO, channel 2, owned by the Don Lee Network, which also owned radio station KHJ. The programs aired by W6XAO, which had been on the air ten years longer that W6XYZ were more of the entertainment type: boxing, motion pictures, soap operas, and the Tournament of Roses Parade from Pasadena. Somehow, even though all the conditions weren't met, W6XYZ was able to get a provisional commercial license and, on January 17, 1947, was able to go on the air as KTLA, channel 5. To compete with its older rival, which was still popular, despite that it was only on the air three days a week, was for W6XYZ to provide entertainment that W6XAO couldn't provide. Being owned by Paramount, it had resources that no other television station could touch.

Klaus Landsberg decided to draft Dick Lane to announce various sporting events. He actually began announcing in 1946, a few months before KTLA went on the air. Dick announced wresting, boxing, and roller games. Roller games (Roller Derby) was a popular fad team sport in the 1960s-1970s in Southern California. Skaters wearing what resembled football uniforms skated around a banked oval track in a clockwise motion. Basically, there were two teams: the Los Angeles Thunderbirds (T-Birds) and their opponent, who would take on a different name each week. People in the Los Angeles TV market had trouble believing that they were the only ones who could watch these games, which had different ways of scoring and the rules could change at a moment's notice. He was also master of ceremonies for several of KTLA's musical shows, including the Spade Cooley Show, in which he wore a complete cowboy outfit and went by the name, Leather Britches.

Dick Lane is probably best remembered in movies for the part of the race car owner, Reno Riley, in The Big Wheel (1949). He died September 8, 1982, in Newport Beach, California, at the age of 83.

Barton Yarborough (1900-51)

William Barton Yarborough was born October 2, 1900, in Goldthwaite, Texas. As a boy, Bart ran away from home to join a vaudeville troupe. He loved to sing and dance. Despite his Texas drawl, he rarely sang cowboy songs or "western" dances. Rather he did the usual popular songs of the time.

In time, Bart studied with the Eva La Gallienne Company. Bart was active on the stage, in movies, and on television, but it would be radio for which he was remembered. He began working in that field in the 1920s.

He began the role of Cliff Barbour on One Man's Family Friday, April 29, 1932, over NBC. On that show, he was probably the one performer who lasted the longest. He would do many other radio programs over the years. The shows included I Love a Mystery, Adventures by Morse, and Dragnet in starring roles as well as many other shows in which he was a supporting player.

Bart did a handful of movies in the 1940s, including one which was based on the I Love a Mystery radio show.

In 1948, Bart was a guest star on the radio series Jeff Regan, when he became friends with the star, Jack Webb. It was decided that Bart would become Sgt. Ben Romero, the partner of Sgt. Joe Friday, the character played by Jack Webb, on the new radio crime series, Dragnet. The history of that series can be read about on the page of Jack Webb's biography on this 'blog. Bart was on the series until he passed away of at heart attack at age 51 on December 19, 1951, at his home in Pasadena, California. He was unmarried at that time but had been married to Barbara Jo Allen, who was known on the Bob Hope Show as Vera Vague.

On One Man's Family, after Bart's death, the part of Cliff Barbour simply disappeared and wasn't heard about. On Dragnet, the imaginary lives of two Los Angeles cops and the real death of the actor who played them were combined together. The episode was called, "The Big Sorrow." Bart and Jack had filmed two episodes of the TV version of the series before Bart's death. The episode of Bart's death on radio was redone for television and titled, "The Big Death."

Barbara Jean Wong (1924-99)

Barbara Jean Wong was born in Los Angeles on March 3, 1924. At the age of five, she became a performer, working on radio (she could read and she had a good, clear speaking voice). She was known as the "Chinese Shirley Temple"... her parents had her hair permed into a similar style to that of Shirley's. Jean (she used her middle name) began working in movies a couple of years after that. In 1937, she began doing some programs for CBS. One of her first projects was the Christmas special series, The Cinnamon Bear, in which she played the part of Judy Barton. This was supposed to be incognito. None of the actors on this series were credited and the producers didn't want anyone to know who the actors were. Some of the surviving actors (including Jean Wong) came out in the mid 1990s and told who the performers were. They could remember who everyone was, except who played Jimmy Barton, Judy's twin brother. Soon after this, on another network (NBC), Barbara Jean Wong began portraying Arbadella Jones, the daughter of Amos Jones on Amos 'n' Andy. (Radio was the first medium to recognize that an actor of any race can play any part. Some people are critical of two white actors portraying black characters, but these weren't demeaning in any way. It should be pointed out that all Asian parts on radio, until relatively late in radio history, were played by white performers!)

Jean began working in the movies, playing the part of one of Charlie Chan's daughters in the Charlie Chan movie series. Her featured part movie career lasted from 1938-55. Her last role was uncredited, a nurse in the epic motion picture, Love is a Many Splendored Thing. In most of her movies, she was a backdrop, part of the scenery.

Radio was the bread and butter of Jean's career. She was heard on several episodes of the Lux Radio Theater, Hallmark Playhouse/Hallmark Hall of Fame, Cavalcade of America, and many other shows.

Educationally, Jean earned degrees in drama and English from the University of Southern California and Columbia University. After she decided to get out of the motion picture business, she earned a California teaching credential from Cal State Los Angeles and taught school in Los Angeles until her death of respiratory problems on November 13, 1999. She died at her home in the Tarzana section of Los Angeles. She was preceded in death (1988) by her husband, Robert Wah Lee, whom she married in 1950.

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