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

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Billy Jack Long is a professional musician and author from Southern California. Any paid advertising you see on this page was not put her by Bill. Ignore it and it should go away.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

And now, a word from our sponsor...

Sponsors on radio did more than just promote their products so the programs could be produced. They actually owned the shows. The sponsors, not the networks, usually had more to say about the content of the program or the content of it. Many programs on OTR (Old Time Radio) often gave up sponsorship because of the way the performers acted in public.

That isn't to say the networks had nothing to say take Ex-Lax. How did such a product as a laxative get promoted when such words as toilet, bowel movement, poo, or stronger words that aren't used in this 'blog couldn't be heard on the radio?

The sponsor had to figure how to get prospective customers to use the product with a direct message without offending anyone. So they'd used expressions like, regular, meaning one has at least two bowel movements a day, or irregular, meaning that one has one bowel movement a week and it comes out like concrete. Everyone was happy and Ex-Lax sold as well as Hershey bars.

Speaking of Hershey bars, did you know that this was one product which was never promoted on radio? The original great American chocolate bar, as it came to be known in its first commercials (on television) in 1982! To some people this is absolutely shocking. In the movie that won the first Oscar for Best Picture, Wings (1927), Gary Cooper, in his screen debut offered the hero of the story, Buddy Rogers, a Hershey bar before going off into battle. Rogers survived. Cooper didn't. And it was a pretty good picture of the bar, too. It was a lot like the picture here. Today, I'm sure with product placement (something that didn't exist until the 1980s), the Hershey Food Corporation would get several thousand dollars for that promotion. Yup, that's how they see it now. The candy bar gets more money than the background actors.

Another product that wasn't promoted on radio was Levi's jeans. This is interesting because EVERYONE wore them. Now there are some interesting facts about Levi's:
  • Until the 1960s, Levi's only made jeans and jean jackets.
  • All the jeans the company made through 1965 were Lot 501, Shrink-to-Fit. There was a complicated way to know one's size, since there was substantial shrinkage from the marked size. (501s are still very popular today.)
  • The company made bib overalls from the 1870s through the beginning of World War II.
  • The first "non-jeans" product the company made was colored jeans.
  • The first non-shrink product the company made was children's jeans.
  • Women's clothing were not made until the late 1960s.
  • Until the late 1970s, all the products sold with the Levi Strauss label were manufactured in the United States.
  • The first dress slacks made by Levi Strauss were called Nuvo (Nouveau). The material used to make them was similar to burlap. They were introduced in 1967. (Bill's Note: They itched, but they looked good, so we never complained!)
  • Levi's were banned schoolwear (along with plain white T-shirts) until the late 1960s. Girls were not allowed to wear pants/trousers (slacks) to school until the 1969-70 school year.
Some products were advertised on radio that were never advertised anywhere else. One such product was Horlick's Malted Milk. The product is quite popular in the United Kingdom to this day but it never got a lot of exposure in the United States. Horlick's is still made today (as Horlicks) in England. But in 1935, Lum 'n' Abner found itself suddenly without a sponsor. Ford sponsored the show. When that contract ran out, Quaker Oats took over. For a few weeks, the program was sustaining, meaning it didn't have a sponsor.

William Horlick, the founder and CEO of J. & W. Horlick of Racine, Wisconsin, wrote to NBC in Chicago and expressed interest in sponsoring Lum 'n' Abner. He explained how much he loved the program and that he would like to have his company's product linked with it. Chet Lauck and Tuffy Goff said, "I guess, they think we really are a bunch of hillbillies here. Who uses this stuff?"

Previously, Horlick's put his name on a band that was on the show, the A & P Gypsies in the early days of NBC. It wasn't a true radio sponsorship, but it was heard on radio. When Horlick's sponsored Lum 'n' Abner, many stations on the network quit airing the show. In fact they all did, except WCCO in Minneapolis! In time, the program got a new sponsor, Alka-Seltzer. All the stations were back playing the program. William Horlick died in 1936 at the age of 90. Younger brother James's sons ended up going back to England where the business thrives.

One program which united the idea of the product and the program was Death Valley Days (aired on radio 1930-44 and on TV 1952-75). The radio program was sponsored by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Borax was gathered from Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, located at Death Valley, California, and taken by wagons pulled by 20 mule teams. Actually, these teams consisted of 18 mules (a mule has a donkey father and a horse mother) and two horses. The wagons went from Death Valley to Mojave, California, not far from the towns of Palmdale and Lancaster. Pacific Borax had a company town nearby called Boron (which is one of the components of borax). The refined product which is still found in many American homes is 20 Mule Team Borax. One thing noticed in listening to older radio programs is how the pronunciation of borax has changed over the past 78 years. It has changed for BOH-rucks to BORE-ax. In 1957 the U.S. Potash Corporation merged with the Pacific Coast Borax Company to create the U.S. Borax Corporation. U.S. Borax was acquired by the British-Australian-American mining conglomerate Rio Tinto in 1988. The products Boraxo, Borateem, and20 Mule Team Borax are manufactured by the Dial Corporation.

The first program to make commercials an integral part of the show was Fibber McGee and Molly. When it debuted over the NBC Blue Network in 1935, the sponsor was S.C. Johnson and Sons. The show's announcer was Harlow Wilcox (1900-60). He was the announcer for many shows and many other sponsors. On the McGee show, Fibber would call Harlow, "Waxy." Well, that was when the sponsor was Johnson's Wax. The show would have two other regular sponsors before it became the property of the network in 1954, when the show went from a weekly 30 minute show with one sponsor to a daily 15 minute show with several sponsors. That version was actually recorded in the home of Jim and Marion Jordan in the Los Angeles/San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Encino, as Marion was deathly ill. The commercials were no longer an integral part of the show and were recorded at an advertising agency, either in Hollywood or New York.

The second sponsor was Pet Milk. Harlow then became "Milky." Besides selling evaporated milk, sometimes the shows would offer tips by Mary Lee Taylor, who had a weekly Saturday morning cooking show. The original Mary Lee Taylor, Erma Perham Proetz (1891-1944) had been dead for four years when these programs aired, so the Mary Lee Taylor heard was played by another woman.

The third sponsor was Reynolds Aluminum. Of course, today the Reynolds Metal Company is known as one of the greatest manufacturers of aluminum foil in the world (for those who live outside the United States, that's aluminium foil). Now here is some trivia about aluminum foil. Reynolds was the first aluminum foil. The company that made it was the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The original purpose of aluminum foil was to line cigarette packages!

Harlow Wilcox was best known, outside of Fibber McGee and Molly as the spokesman for Auto-Lite. The company still exists today as Autolite. That was on Suspense. On Amos 'n' Andy, Harlow was the spokesman for Rinso. For many years, Rinso was the main laundry detergent of Lever Brothers (now Unilever). Developed by the Hudson Soap Company (of England), that company was bought by Lever Brothers (also in England) in 1908. Ten years later, Lever Brothers (in the United States) began marketing Rinso as its premier laundry product. It was replaced by Surf in the 1980s, even though that brand was introduced in 1953.

If one listens to a lot of OTR (old time radio), it's possible to hear Harlow Wilcox selling almost everything. He was especially talented at handling public service announcements.

Feen-a-mint was the sponsor of Double or Nothing (starring John Reed King). Very rarely seen anymore, this was a chewing gum with some laxative thrown in. The announcers, like Ex-Lax, were always very careful to use euphemistic terms as not to offend anyone.

Archie Andrews was a very popular Saturday morning radio show. Based upon Bob Montana's comic book characters, it premiered in 1944 on NBC and had several casts, but the best known group had Bob Hastings in the title role. For most of the time Archie was on the radio, it was sustained, meaning that it had no sponsor. However, when Bob Sherry was the announcer, he pitched Swift's Premium Franks. There was a little jingle that went with the Swift hot dog ads:

Tender beef!
Juicy pork!
Known from the West Coast
To New York!
Swift's Premium Franks!
Swift's Premium Franks!

Now, it should be worth noting that the music for all of the Archie Andrews shows was done on a Wurlitzer theater organ, played by Felix McGuire. It's the typical hoky-ish stuff that we all love to hate!

The Gene Autry program and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar (in 1949-50) were sponsored by Wrigley's Gum. Those commercials made chewing gum sound like a health aid. The announcer pointed out all the healthful benefits of gum, although they are careful not to say chewing gum is nutritious!

The J.L. Kraft Company of Chicago, Illinois, sponsored many radio programs from the Kraft Music Hall to the Great Gildersleeve. Listening to Gildy, one would have heard many products which are still in production today: Kraft Dinner (now called Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, except in Canada, where it's still called by its former name), Velveeta, and Parkay margarine (now made by ConAgra Foods). Parkay was one of the first margarine products which actually claimed NOT to be margarine, although it was labeled as such through the 1980s. (Bill's Note: Checking a Parkay package, it doesn't say margarine anywhere.)

In the 1950s, programs began being sold by the advertisers to the networks. Originally, network owned shows were sustaining, without a sponsor. But this changed and the network shows would get a pool of sponsors. Have Gun Will Travel would have all these sponsors in one episode:
  • Rambler (cars--American Motors)
  • Pepsi-Cola
  • Crusade for Freedom (charity, but they were paying commercials)
  • Kellogg's All-Bran (reliable, effective)
  • Winston (cigarettes--Winston tastes good, like a cigarette

These ads are great, aren't they? Those Ramblers were great. Pepsi has had more reformulations than Coke ever thought of (Bill is a Coca-Cola drinker!) The man in the Crusade for Freedom picture is Tom Dewey, former New York City District Attorney, former New York State Governor, and former Republican candidate for U.S. President who lost to Harry S Truman (unless H.V. Kaltenborn's report after the 1948 election was true!) Bill would love to get one of those four way spoons! And, even though the resident blogger is a militant nonsmoker, the Winston advertisements sure bring back the memories.

If you collect old-time radio programs, make sure you can get as many commercials as you can. They are almost as much fun as the shows themselves. Sometimes more fun.

See you all on the radio!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Damon Runyon (1884-1946)

Alfred Damon Runyan was born October 4, 1884, in Manhattan, Kansas. He grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, and later moved to Denver. His family was good friends with William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, who found him work as a sportswriter (which Masterson also did) in New York. He tried to start a minor baseball league in Colorado but when that didn't work out, he moved to New York, with the help of Bat Masterson.

He became the reporter for the New York Giants. When a proofreader incorrectly edited the spelling of his name, so Runyan became Runyon. The editor also left off his first name Alfred.

In 1911, he began courting Ellen Egan. Runyon was a hard drinker and a heavy smoker. The drinking almost lost him the love of his life. He quit the drinking and he got to keep the girl. Runyon remained a heavy smoker.

Runyon was the leg man for both Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell when they started their careers as gossip reporters. He developed friendships with many of the notorious New York City gangsters of the era. He took notes and wrote stories about everything.

With Ellen, he had two children, Mary and Damon, Jr. Their marriage was broken up in 1928 when he began seeing a woman from Mexico he met several years earlier when he was reporting on raids by Pancho Villa. Mary died of cirrhosis in 1932 and Runyon married that woman, Patrice Amati del Grande. Just before Runyon died, Patrice left him for a younger man.

Runyon wrote many short stories for several periodicals involving gangsters, whose names he changed. They were immensely popular. Some of the stories were, The Lemon Drop Kid, Little Miss Marker, Guys and Dolls, The Palm Beach Santa Claus, Lady for a Day, and there were many, many more. In the stories, mobsters are not seen as being bad, just naive. There's very little in the way of any violence. Many of these stories were heard on radio programs in the 1930s and 1940s.

As he was a heavy smoker, Damon Runyon died of cancer in New York City on December 10, 1946. A friend to many celebrities, his will stipulated what to do with his body when he died. It said that Eddie Rickenbacker fly first over Broadway and scatter his ashes on the street. Then he was to go to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and fly close to his first wife's grave. He did it.

Walter Winchell set up the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund which has been one of the most successful charities in history. After Winchell succumbed to cancer himself, the name was changed to the Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Fund.

In January 1949, Alan Ladd's Mayfair Syndication Company began producing a radio comedy series based upon the stories of Damon Runyon. The Damon Runyon Theater aired for about a year.

Alan Ladd (1913-64)

Alan Walbridge Ladd, Jr., was born September 3, 1913, at Hot Springs, Arkansas. His parents were Alan Walbridge Ladd, Sr., and Ina Raleigh. When he was four, his father died. His mother moved the family to Oklahoma City, where his mother married Jim Beavers, a housepainter. (Consequently, the Jr. part of his name was dropped.) The family moved again to the Los Angeles neighborhood of North Hollywood, known as NoHo by the locals..

A small man, only 5'5" (168 cm), he hated his nickname, "Tiny," and tried to do everything to prove that he was a big man. He was a champion swimmer and diver at North Hollywood High School. He got involved in school dramatics. And he opened his own hamburger stand, which he called "Tiny's Patio," to prove to those who knew him that he could take it. He also began working at Universal Studios as a carpenter, which was the same job his stepfather did. He was in dozens of movies in the 1930s in uncredited bit parts.

He married Marjorie Jane (Midge) Harrold in 1937. They had a son whom they named Alan Ladd, Jr., who was born in late 1937 (remember that Alan had dropped the Jr. from his name when his father died.) Alan and Midge divorced in 1941.

His dream was acting. From living where he did, he was able to get work as a radio actor. But he wanted to do movies. Universal said he was too short. But he didn't let that stop them. Working on radio was fine. He began working on the children's soap opera, Jerry at Fair Oaks, in 1937. He became part of the regular fill-in cast on the Lux Radio Theater. In 1940, he began getting parts with his name attached to them. But it is worth noting that his last bit part was that of a pipe smoking reporter in the final scenes of Citizen Kane (1942).

Alan's mother, who suffered terribly from clinical depression committed suicide. From what was said about her, he knew that he also had the same problem. He had a terrible drinking problem and there was also some drug abuse.

In 1942 he married Sue Carol (born Evelyn Lederer/1906-82), his manager, who was also an actress at one time. They would have a son and a daughter: David (born in 1947) and Alana (born in 1943). Although beset with problems of drugs, alcohol, and depression, the couple did the best to stay together. After all, she did help him to get the roles which would make his name a household word.

The first big movie he did as a star was This Gun for Hire (1942). It was an instant sensation. This was the first film in which he worked opposite Veronica Lake (1919-73), who would be considered his best co-star. Alan liked her because she was only 5'2" (157 cm) and he didn't have to stand on a box when they got close, even if she was wearing three inch high heels. The studios liked that, too.

In 1948, he started his own production company, Mayfair Productions. Mayfair created programs for radio, including Box 13 (in which Alan was the star) and the Damon Runyon Theater (which didn't have Alan in it at all). The company also created several movies, including a movie based on Box 13, which was never released and possibly never finished.

The most successful movie produced by Mayfair was Shane (1953). This western, which also starred Jean Arthur, was the story of how a gunslinger got involved in the disputes of homesteaders versus cattlemen.

In 1958, Alan and Sue Ladd moved to Palm Springs. When trying to fix their house as they moved in, they went to the only hardware store in town. He was happy with their selection but not so much with their service. When he asked the manager if they could deliver some supplies, the manager said, "No, and we're the only hardware store in town." Alan quipped, "Maybe today, but tomorrow there will be two." And he opened his own hardware store after that.

Ladd Hardware (later Ladd Hardware and Gifts) became so successful the other store went out of business. It became so successful that the motto of the store was, "Palm Springs wouldn't be Palm Springs without us!"

Alan had several episodes of depression. In 1962 he shot himself in the leg, which caused him to limp for the rest of his life. He had several ways of explaining how this happened. He remained busy but he also became depressed.

Death came to Alan at the age of 50. It was the result of a deadly combination of alcohol and sleeping pills. Some biographers think he was trying to commit suicide. Those who understand depression think it was another episode of a bad choice. Whatever happened, he died on January 23, 1964, at his home in Palm Springs, California. His body is entombed in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. His wife would join him 19 years later.

In 1969, Sue Ladd threw herself into the hardware store business. She made it into a store, not just for the locals to get paint and wallpaper, but also for tourists to get souvenirs. Sue stayed busy with it until the end. She died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on February 4, 1982.

Jimmy Dean (1928- )

Jimmy Ray Dean was born August 10, 1928, in Plainview, Texas. He loved to sing as a child and was active in music ministries at the Seth Ward Baptist Church in Plainview. As a visiting amateur singer, he was heard on the Hollywood Barn Dance and the All-Star Western Theater in the mid 1940s, when he was stationed in Southern California during his military career in the U.S. Army Air Forces/U.S. Air Force (the Air Force broke away from the Army before his discharge). When he was discharged from the Air Force in the late 1940s, he was in the Washington, DC, area. His prior work in Los Angeles helped him get work as a TV host on Washington television.

He had a very popular show, Town and Country Time, which was where singers Roy Clark (1933-) and Patsy Cline (1932-63) got their starts as professional entertainers. Roy Clark was fired for his constant tardiness and was replaced by Billy Grammer. He had one hit song at this time, "Bummin' Around." His time he spent in California in the 1940s helped him to have a liking for burritos.

Trying to improve his musical career, he moved to New York in the late 1950s. He got a recording contract with Columbia Records. This also helped him to have a morning radio program that aired on CBS before Captain Kangaroo on weekday mornings in 1958. There were many other shows. His program on ABC in the mid 1960s was the nation's introduction to Jim Henson's Muppets. (Both Jim Henson and Jimmy Dean got their starts in the Washington, DC, television market.) In 1961, he sang (actually SPOKE) his first hit song, Big Bad John.

In 1969, with brother Don and James M. Dean (a relative with connections to the Dean Milk Company, now known as Dean Foods), he began the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company.

Jimmy remained busy in the music industry through the mid 1970s. In 1971, he had an important acting role in the James Bond 007 film, Diamonds are Forever, as Willard Whyte, who was based on Howard Hughes.

In 1976, he devoted all of his time to the manufacture of his sausage. He was in charge of every aspect of creating the sausage and it became the best selling sausage in America. He also appeared in every television commercial for many years. Jimmy would later say that this was the biggest headache in his life and it caused a lot of distress and depression.

He sold the company in 1984 to Consolidated Foods (today known as Sara Lee). Jimmy would continue being the spokesman for the company in TV ads. In 2004, his contract was not renewed and he now has no connection with the company except that he started it. After this, he wrote his autobiography, 30 Years of Sausage, 50 years of Ham.

Today he lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his second wife Donna Meade. His three children came from his first marriage to Sue Wittauer.

Will Rogers (1879-1935)

William Penn Adair Rogers was born November 4, 1879, in Oologah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), into a prominent Oklahoma family, on the Dog Iron Ranch. Both of his parents were of Cherokee heritage. Clement Vann Rogers (1839-1911) was a politician, attorney, and judge. His mother, Mary America Schrimsher Rogers (1838-90), died when Will was 11 years old. Clement would marry within two years.

Will was the youngest of eight children. Only four of the children survived into adulthood: Sallie Clementine, Maude Ethel, May (Mary), and Will. The children all attended the Willow Hassel School in Neosho, Missouri. Will began high school at the Kemper Military Academy in Boonville, Missouri, but quit after the tenth grade. He said he was more interested in cowboys and horses. After quitting school, he went to work at the Dog Iron Ranch.

Now the story starts getting interesting: In 1901, Will went to Argentina to work as a gaucho with a buddy. Unfortunately, the two young men lost all their money trying to live. Embarrassed to send home for more money, Will headed to South Africa where he got a job getting horses prepared for the Boer War with the British Army. But the war was over. So Will joined Texas Jack's Wild West Circus as a trick roper(this was in South Africa). Texas Jack was an experienced showman and Will liked him a lot. However, Will was interested in scoping out new territory. He moved to Australia. He got a letter of reference from Texas Jack and joined the Wirth Brothers Circus which went all over Australia and New Zealand.

Returning to the United States in 1904, Will entered vaudeville. He became one of the best known entertainers throughout the country. At New York City's Madison Square Bowl, when he was trying to rope a steer, the animal broke loose and started climbing up the viewing stands. Will was able to rope the steer and pull it down. There were no other incidents. Will was written up in several newspapers and was declared a hero. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 he helped make sure that the shows would go to Oklahoma and the folks there were some of the best audiences.

Will married Betty Blake (1879-44) in 1908. They lived in New York but spent summers in Oklahoma. Eventually, they would move to California. The couple had four children. The first was William Vann Rogers (1911-93). He was known as "Bill." After Bill finished his B.A. at Stanford University, he became the publisher of the Beverly Hills Citizen. He was elected as a Democratic congressman from California, but his political career was interrupted by military service. He enlisted as a private but was soon an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. Wounded in action while fighting in Europe, he received a Bronze Star and was honorably discharged in 1946. He remained in politics and continued as newspaper publisher until 1953. He portrayed his father in two movies under the stage name, Will Rogers, Jr. Mary Amelia Rogers (1913-89) was a Broadway actress in the 1930s. As Mary Rogers, she starred in two Broadway comedies. She became an actress completely without her father's help. Before and after leaving Broadway, she acted in about 30 small roles under the names Mary Howard, Mary Thompson, and Mary Rogers. She married three times before marrying Walter Booth Brooks, III, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1950 at the age of 37. It was a short, rocky marriage, but she would never marry again. For the rest of her life, she was known as Mary Amelia Rogers Brooks. By many popular historians, Mary Rogers is considered the Paris Hilton of the 1930s. James Blake Rogers (1915-2000) was known as Jim. He worked with his brother Bill on the newspaper. He also acted in a few movies. In the waning years of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Fred Stone Rogers (1918-20) died of diphtheria at the age of two. In 1911 Will bought a ranch near Claremore, Oklahoma, for $500 an acre. This became the family's summer home.

In 1915, Will joined Zigfeld's Follies. His act was very simple: He started talking to the audience, as talking to friends. He'd be spinning a rope, a lariat, a lasso. Every once in a while, he'd do a few rope tricks. Some were great. This simple presentation became the hit of the whole show.

This launched Will into the motion picture industry. At this time in history, many of the movie studios were still in New Jersey. He got a contract with the Samuel Goldwyn Studios. His first film was Laughing Bill Hyde (1918). He remained with the Zigeld Follies until 1925.

In 1919, Will moved permanently to California. The family moved into a mansion in Pacific Palisades, a neighborhood in the city limits of Los Angeles.

Will's life was getting exciting. He was doing live shows in New York City, acting in Hollywood movies, and touring the world. He had such an easy going personality that no one could hate him.

In 1932 he added a new medium to his repertoire: radio. He was first heard on the radio version of Zigfeld's Follies. As this was performed in front of a live studio audience, he did his famous rope tricks while he was talking. The audience would often make sounds, oohs, ahhs, and so forth when the listener had no idea what was happening.

Eventually, Will had his own radio series, the Good Gulf Radio Program, which was heard on the NBC Blue Network. When it moved to CBS in 1935, it was known as the Gulf Headliners. On the Gulf show, Will didn't do the roping anymore, he just talked. Some people who hear him today consider him to be sort of a Rush Limbaugh with a heart. Actually, that's not true. Will didn't only condemn Democratic politicians. Well, that should be rephrased. He didn't condemn anyone. He only condemned their actions. Will Rogers found something wrong with all politicians. He was never arrogant or pretentious. He merely reported on what people said or what they did and asked questions. And it was entertaining.

According to Will Rogers, the greatest thing in the world was flying. He became friends with an aviator from Oklahoma named Wiley Post (1898-1935). When he was off one summer Wiley took Will with him on a flight which was going to take him around the world. Unfortunately, after experiencing some problems at Point Barrow, Alaska, the airplane (which was laden too heavily) crashed on takeoff. Wiley and Will slammed into a nearby lagoon and the men died on impact. It was August 15, 1935. Will was 55 and Wiley was 36. At the time Will died, he was the number two ranked Hollywood film star after number one Shirley Temple.

Will was buried first at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. However, when his widow Betty died in 1944, he was exhumed and moved to the ranch in Claremore, Oklahoma, which is now the site of the Will Rogers Museum. The cemetery there includes sons Fred and Jim, as well as daughter Mary. Son Bill is buried in Tubac, Arizona.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Charlie Ruggles (1886-1970)

Charles Sherman Ruggles was born February 8, 1886, in Los Angeles, California. His parents were Charles Herman Ruggles, a pharmaceutical salesman, and the former Maria Theresa Heinsch. They had two sons. After his mother was killed in a robbery attempt, his father left with his two sons from L.A. and they grew up in San Francisco. Charlie began acting in stage plays in 1903, at the age of 17, in community projects.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the biggest event in his life. One evening, while the family was eating outside on the sidewalk (their house wasn't destroyed, but they were afraid of aftershocks), a police officer approached Charlie and asked if he knew how to use a firearm. He said he did and the officer gave him a loaded revolver. "Be careful, son."

In 1913 he had a major role in L. Frank Baum's The Tick Tok Man of Oz, at the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles. He moved on to Broadway plays one year later. And he became active as a motion picture actor one year after that. At this time, he married silent movie actress, Adele Rowland (1883-1971). Charlie divorced Adele in 1921.

He had a brother, Wesley H. Ruggles (1889-1972), who had been acting in some popular comedy films around 1915 when he shifted his interest to directing movies. After immense success as a silent film director in the 1920s, when movies had sound, Wes had some minor success directing minor comedies. After World War II, the J. Arthur Rank Organsation of the United Kingdom put him on a contract to create musicals for British audiences. The first such movie was London Town (1946) and featured Petula Clark. It was the first high budget British film made in Technicolor. It was also the biggest financial flop in British motion picture history. After it premiered and played to booing crowds in England, Wes proverbially tucked his head between his legs and never made another movie. He reedited that movie and released it in the United States as My Heart Goes Crazy in 1953.

But Charlie was successful. He was willing to portray almost any character. Appearing in more than 100 films, he developed into a mature, yet naive, character who could be drunk, rich, poor, or scatterbrained. His trademark line became, "Oh, my, my, my!"

During this time, Charlie worked in his best known movie, Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). Despite sounding to the contrary, the title role of was played by Charles Laughton. Charlie's role was Egbert Floud.

In 1941, being confident in his abilities as a comedian, he hosted his own radio comedy series, Barrel of Fun. It was heard over the Mutual Broadcasting System and the shows were produced at radio station KHJ on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood.

In 1942 Charlie married Marion La Barba, the ex-wife of featherweight boxer Fidel La Barba. Marion was a small, beautiful woman. Past her childbearing years, the Ruggles turned their Hollywood home into a literal zoo, having some 94 animals.

When television became popular, Charlie had a popular situation comedy in the early 1950s, The Ruggles (1949-1953). In it, he was married with four children. His wife was Margaret, played by Irene Tedrow (1907-95) in the first year, then Erin O'Brien-Moore (1902-79) subsequently. Their children were Sharon (a student at UCLA), Tom (a high school student), and nine year old twins Donald and Donna. One of the few programs of its type that had a planned ending, daughter Sharon got married in the final episode. In 1957, ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) had a couple of episodes of a radio series with the same premise made as pilots. The part of Margaret was played by Lurene Tuttle (1907-86).

Proving he didn't just act in movies and television, in 1958 he won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor for his part of Mackenzie Savage in the Broadway comedy, The Pleasure of His Company.

The following year, he was honored by being the guest of honor on Ralph Edwards's This is Your Life. When, on the series, he realized that he was the guest for the evening, his reaction was, "Oh, my, my, my!"

During the 1960s, Charlie gave Aesop his voice on the Bullwinkle Show. He was also Milburn Drysdale's widowered father in law on the Beverly Hillbillies. He was also on many other TV series.

Knowing that his career was winding down (as well as his life), he donated several personal artifacts to UCLA in 1965. As most everything he attempted in his life was seemingly successful, he was interviewed by a reporter. When asked what his next big project was going to be he calmly replied, "Forest Lawn. After you've played everything I've done, there ain't no more."

Suffering from terminal cancer in 1970, he regretfully divorced his wife so he could live his last days alone. He was admitted to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica on September 30, 1970. He died there on December 23. (Most Internet sources state that he died at his Hollywood home; however, the death certificate states that he died in the hospital). With no children and no wife, he was utterly alone. His wife still loved him. She bought the tombstone, which had the wrong year put on it. He's buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ben Alexander (1911-69)

Nicholas Benton Alexander, IV, was born May 26, 1911, in Goldfield, Nevada. Bennie's family moved to Los Angeles in 1915. Involved in the entertainment industry, Bennie was acting in films of D.W. Griffith as soon as he got there, at the age of three. Actually, his real career started a little later, when he was 15. His best known film of his youth is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).


Despite working in movies, Ben went to regular classes at Hollywood High School. He wasn't one of the best students at Hollywood High but he did graduate. Ben was well liked by everyone and the girls thought he was good looking.

In this page from the 1928 edition of the Hollywood High School yearbook, Ben Alexander is seen in the second row, second person. It's easy to see that, reading his comments about himself, he never took himself seriously.

Ben worked steadily in the movie industry until about 1943, when he began working as a writer for radio programs. He would also appear as a support cast member.


When television broke out in Los Angeles (1947), Ben was working as a host and interviewer in several shows. He was part of the cast of the Martin and Lewis Show from 1949 to 1953. During this time, Barton Yarborough, who played the part of Ben Romero on Dragnet, who died in December 1951. Barney Phillips played the first of Joe Friday's relief partners, Ed Jacobs. His second partner was Frank Smith. Frank was originally played by Herb Ellis. But after a few months, it was decided to have Ben Alexander to do the part. One of the reasons for this was that Ben was a capable writer and would be able to write scripts for both the radio and the television versions of the program. Also, Ben was already under contract to the Marin and Lewis Show, which had the same sponsor as Dragnet.

This might seem a bit strange today, but sponsors actually used to be sponsors. When a company sponsored a radio or TV show, it owned it and, usually, all the members of the cast, as well. The sponsor of Dragnet was Liggett and Myers, the company that made Chesterfield and Fatima cigarettes, as well as L & M cigarettes.

When Ben would look back at the six years he spent on Dragnet (on both radio and TV) he often mentioned it was the best time he ever had in show business.

However, when Dragnet returned to the air in 1967, Ben had an obligation as he was already working in a police show, Felony Squad, on ABC. That would be Ben's last work as an actor.

Ben died at the age of 58 in Los Angeles.

One of the things about Ben that most people didn't know about was that he liked to stay busy. In 1953, Ben bought a car dealership. Until 1969, Ben Alexander Ford was one of the highest grossing Ford dealerships in America. It's one reason why, on all of the Dragnet shows (even the ones in the 1960s) the police cars were all Fords.

Robert L. Ripley (1890-1949)

Leroy Ripley was born Christmas Day, December 25, 1890, in Santa Rosa, California. His parents were Isaac Ripley and the former Lillie Belle Yocka. The oldest of three children, his father died in 1905 and Leroy dropped out of Santa Rosa High School. Leroy played for a semi-pro baseball team in his native Santa Rosa before moving to the big city to play for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1906. He also began selling his first cartoon work at this time for money. Leroy was given a job as cartoonist for the San Francisco Bulletin (later for the San Francisco Chronicle. He quit baseball briefly in 1908 to draw cartoons for Life magazine and to stay in Santa Rosa to care for his mother and young brother, Doug.

In 1912, he left San Francisco to move to New York to work for the New York Globe (where he had was also a sports writer) and to try out for the New York Giants, but he injured himself during the tryouts in early 1913. He took his first trip to Europe in 1914. He married his wife, Beatrice Roberts, in 1919 (they were divorced in 1926 and had no children). Later that year, on December 19, his first regular cartoon strip, Chumps and Champs, first appeared in the Globe, which became very famous throughout the country.

He hired an agent who said that his given name, Leroy, sounded too feminine, so he added the first name Robert. In most public venues, he was called Bob, but in private and among his closest friends, he was Rip.

Rip traveled all over the world to find information on weird sports for his cartoon column. In 1929, William Randolph Hearst commissioned him to create a new column, Ripley's Believe It or Not. This opened a whole new empire.

In his November 3, 1929, column, Rip wrote that the United States had no national anthem. He liked the idea of having John Philip Sousa's stirring march, The Stars and Stripes Forever, serve in that capacity. However, President Herbert Hoover, who was a regular Believe It or Not reader, suggested that The Star Spangled Banner (by Francis Scott Key) be used, with the tune of an old English drinking song. Of course, when Congress approved Hoover's wishes in 1930, the fact that the American national anthem was an old English drinking song was also mentioned in Rip's column.

Later in 1930, he began his radio show, which was nothing like the later television shows. It was more of a variety show which featured lots of music (either B.A. Rolfe or Ozzie Nelson leading the orchestra) with songs sung by a pretty girl (either "lovely" Linda Lee or Ozzie's girlfriend, and later wife, Harriet Hilliard). But it did give lots of information about strange facts, complete with sounds, remote broadcasts, and interviews. The program began on CBS in 1930. There are only about 50 episodes left of the series, which lasted until Rip's death. It had a variety of sponsors: Post Huskies (similar to Wheaties, endorsed by Lou Gehrig, a frequent guest of the show); the Bakers' Union; Royal Crown Cola (interesting in that while the drink was only sold in the South at that time, the show was performed in New York City... the bottles of RC which were used for the show were hauled in from Maryland); Fleischmann's Yeast; Post 40% Bran Flakes; Pall Mall cigarettes; Philco Electronics; and many were sustaining.

After taking a trip to Asia in 1932, Rip opened his first "odditorium" in Chicago at the Century of Progress International Exhibition (Chicago World's Fair). This was his first of many which would be seen around the world. Unlike most museums, the odditoriums were a display of ideas, not actual exhibits, although, most of the things shown in Chicago were real.

In 1932, he published the first cartoons of a little boy from his home town of Santa Rosa, California, about a beagle dog. That boy was Charles M. Schulz (1920-2000), best known for his strip, Peanuts.

Rip was seen in a number of motion pictures produced by Warner Brothers/Vitaphone in the early 1930s.

A collector of all kinds of "junk," including a Chinese junk, it was said by his ex-wife, "either the junk goes or I go." She went.

In 1949, Rip began a syndicated television series, which was filmed at his mansion on Long Island. While he was working on his thirteenth episode, he succumbed to a heart attack. He was reporting on the history of "Taps," the bugle call used at military funerals. It was May 29, 1949. Rip had been lying about his age all those years, telling people he was born in 1893. So when his death announcement came out in newspapers the following day, his age was listed as 55. He was 59.
Death has not diminished Rip's popularity. Rip's personal files of odd trivia have not yet been exhausted, although new information is being gathered by the organization that still puts out his comic strip every day in newspapers all over the world.

There have been other TV series, the latest from a few years ago with actor Dean Cain as host.

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