Friday, October 24, 2014

Boris Karloff on This Is Your Life

Boris Karloff in a studio publicity photo.
Ralph Edwards not only hosted This Is Your Life on television, but on radio as well. Before the series made the transition to the video screen, This Is Your Life was a short-run radio program, premiering on the evening of November 9, 1948. The format of the radio program was similar to the television counterpart, but with minor differences. Most of the television broadcasts centered on the life of a notable sports champion, musician, author or other notable celebrity. On radio, the "honor guest" was of a living American, man or woman, a non-celebrity who received 30 minutes of fame. They were selected in advance and were completely unaware until they were told on the broadcast that they were the "honoree" chosen for the show. Sometimes they were sent tickets to attend the broadcast (or the transcribing of the broadcast); occasionally, they were sent to the program by their boss on a "business trip," etc. Relatives and friends who  crossed the pathway of the "honor guest" would be contacted in advance by Ralph Edwards and his staff, and the friends and family were flown from all parts of the nation -- and foreign countries -- to take part in a dramatization of the honor guest's life story.

At times, Ralph Edwards took the show right into the place of business or even the home of the "honor guest," delivering the broadcast from the point of origin instead of from the studios, thus helping to build the surprise element. For the 1948 to 1949 season, broadcasts were transcribed from a San Francisco cable car with the conductor as honor guest, from an elevator going up and down a building with the honor guest being the elevator operator, and from a department store with a salesgirl as honor guest, etc. 

Ralph Edwards on This Is Your Life.
Honor guests were chosen for outstanding service because they gave simply by living and facing life cheerfully and courageously. The program reunited separated families and friends, making possible trips and entertainment for people who might not otherwise receive such opportunities. The person's life was previewed usually by starting with the story of their birth, moving chronologically forward to the present, highlighting outstanding experiences through the years such as marriage, even the recalling of some tragedy such as accident or death, showing that life is made of "smiles and tears," jobs and promotions, etc. When the "review" of the honor guest's life concluded, a preview of the "Philip Morris Future" bestowed the honor guest with special gifts that would help to make their dreams come true -- such gifts were "personalized" because they were planned in advance, after consulting with relatives and friends of the honor guest, to make them especially applicable to the person who would receive them. Sometimes cash, merchandise, a vacation, a car, or anything else the honor guest needed or long-desired was included in the "Philip Morris Future." (Yes, the program was sponsored by Philip Morris.) 

Amusing factoid: During the first season, 1948 to 1949, listeners were encouraged to submit suggestions for people they felt worthy of being chosen as "honor guest." For the second season, 1949 to 1950, the staff of the radio program had enough candidates from whom to choose, as a result of an overwhelming response from the first season, that listeners during the second season were no longer asked to submit suggestions. 

Undocumented in any printed reference guide is Boris Karloff's appearance on the radio program of November 2, 1949... until now. (This is not in reference to his 1957 television appearance on This Is Your Life.)

Boris Karloff publicity photo
During the past month, and continuing through November, archeological diggings through corporation records and production files related to Ralph Edwards' radio productions are bringing to light some surprising results. Among the recent discoveries is the April 27, 1946, broadcast of radio's Truth or Consequences, which deviated considerably from the usual quiz show format to offer a tribute to a wheel-chair bound veteran... and this deviation can easily be considered the "genesis" of This Is Your Life.

The Consequences program, which usually consisted of a modernized-style of the popular party game, provided contestants with "surprise consequences" that could best be considered "dares" in exchange for large prizes. On the evening of April 27, special guest Lawrence Tranter, of Murray, Utah, a young wheelchair veteran chosen to represent all of his fellow WWII buddies on the show, offered a tribute to Lawrence and his buddies in the nature of a “flashback,” with leading events and personalities who played a part in the life of Lawrence Tranter... from his high school days through his induction into the Army, plus one flashback to the very day when Lawrence was born. The novel aspect of the program was that these flashbacks are not mere dramatizations with “actors playing parts” – the real people who knew and loved Lawrence were on the stage in person to play the roles and to say “welcome back” to Lawrence. 

As Ralph Edwards narrated the story of the 21-year-old boy, the following people appeared on the program; their appearances are a complete surprise to Tranter. Mrs. Resmussen of the Murray, Utah, draft board at the time when he was inducted in 1943, spoke to him in behalf of the late Mrs. Glen Howe, who was chairman of the board when Tranter was called, but who since died. Mr. Varion Morteson, Principal of the High School who landed Lawrence his high school diploma from Murray High. Irving Olsen, Junior Madsen and Orlan Parker, boy friends who used to “gang up” at Hammond’s Ice Cream Parlor in Murray, Utah, where Lawrence was a soda jerk back in 1940. Lawrence’s sister, Mildred, who is now married and has a young daughter. Lawrence’s brother, Leonard. Dr. Warren Shepherd, the physician who brought Lawrence into the world, back in 1925. Frank and Lorene Tranter, father and mother of Lawrence. 

NBC publicity photo
After the reunion on the stage, Lawrence was given a glimpse of his future… While Lawrence was in the hospital recovering from wounds, which he received while fighting in the Pacific, he studied watch repair and often said that he would like to make a life business of repairing watches. During the broadcast, Lawrence learned that he would receive complete free training... plus a regular weekly salary while attending the Bulova Watch School for Servicemen in New York. A place to live was provided for Lawrence during his attendance at the school. He would be asked to choose the city in which he would like to open his own business for a jewelry store and watch repair shop… and that store would be set up for Lawrence Tranter, completely stocked with the merchandise he needed to open business, all the tools of the watch-repairing trade, and rent paid for one year in advance for the new store. 

Meanwhile, until arrangements for Tranter’s trip to New York’s Bulova School were completed, he had a few days to spend in Hollywood with his family and friends who came to visit him on the radio program. The good times began immediately following the radio program, when the “gang from Murray, Utah” were guests at a private supper at the expense of Truth or Consequences – and, so that Lawrence would not be late for any of his “future appointments,” he received a Bulova wrist watch -- the company that sponsored the gifts. 

On a side note, Charles Tranter would return to Truth or Consequences two years later for the broadcast of April 24, 1948. Over the air, Tranter acknowledged the dream gifts which consisted of a diploma and $1,000 from the Bulova Watch School of New York, in recognition of Tranter’s completion of a two-year training course as a watch repair expert in the Bulvoa School for Veterans. He would soon be opening his own watch shop with rent paid for one year. The shop was set up in Tranter’s home town of Murray, Utah, where the governor of Utah promised to be the first customer.

Boris Karloff
Truth or Consequences later restaged the future This Is Your Life format again, months later, on the same quiz program. The September 7, 1946, broadcast featured a consequence imposed upon an ex-G.I. contestant named Lester Hanson, who was still hospitalized and who was asked to “act” in a little dramatization in which he was assisted by radio actors Jack Moyles and Ivan Green. The dramatization portrayed the actual heroism and experiences of the veteran, Lester Hanson, but the contestant did not know until he read along in the “script” that he was acting out his own story. For his efforts as an actor, and in recognition of his exploits during the war, Lester received a $1,000-diamond engagement ring (and wedding band to match) to give the girl he was soon to marry; a complete wardrobe for civilian life including two Hart Schaffner Marx suits and top coats; and all-expense-paid for equipping his new car (he already had a car) so that he would be able to drive it without using his disabled limbs. Truth or Consequences arranged this special equipment for the car through consultation with the vet’s hospital. On October 6, 1947, Hanson participated in a 37 minute re-creation of the Truth or Consequences segment, expanded for an audition broadcast for This Is Your Life. Regardless of the stories circulating about the origin of This Is Your Life, the 1946 broadcast appears to be the genesis for the popular series that honored civilians who devoted time and money for just causes. Restaged again for the season premiere of 1947, with a different war veteran, followed by a new rendition for an audition, forms what we now know as the origin of This Is Your Life

Every episode of the This Is Your Life radio program were transcribed and copies exist in two private archives. About 20 episodes are known to exist in collector hands, many undated, including the October 6, 1947, audition recording, and another audition dated May 14, 1948, which has yet to be reviewed for verification of yet another audition.

The November 2, 1949, broadcast with Boris Karloff, is not known to circulate among collectors... but thankfully, producer notes this week unveiled a complete summary behind the broadcast. Such notes were summarized following each week's broadcast. Similar to a "review," and considered more substantial and definitive than a newspaper log which only cited what was "planned" for broadcast, we have a picture of what aired on that evening... and Karloff's participation.

Broadcast of November 2, 1949
Mrs. Erna Rex, real estate agent of Los Angeles, was honored at an abandoned house, located at 7060 Franklin Avenue, Hollywood, California. The house was referred to as "Boris Karloff's house." In keeping with the Halloween theme, Mrs. Rex was ushered into a house, "haunted" by her relatives and friends. Ralph Edwards was disguised as a "doctor" and Mrs. Rex was taken to the house by her daughter, who led her mother to believe that the "doctor" wants to sell his house. Mrs. Rex was chosen as "honor guest" because she represented a profession that rendered service to many, especially in the post-war days with housing situations as tight as they were. To make her work easier, Mrs. Rex received a Buick coupe for use in her contact work as a real estate agent (plus a radio-phonograph-television set to comprise Mrs. Rex's "Philip Morris Future"). Special guest during the last couple minutes of the broadcast to tell everybody to get out of his house was Boris Karloff.

Dozens of people across the country keep tabs on radio appearances of Hollywood celebrities -- many of them scholars, historians and authors. Some could be considered the "Keeper of the Flame" for preserving all things related to specific celebrities, including radio appearances. Such lists continue to grow over the years as new discoveries are made... Boris Karloff's radio credits among them. Originally such lists were comprised from existing sound recordings and mail order catalogs where vendors created lists of their personal holdings. Circa early 1980s, broadcast logs created by the late Ray Stanich became another source of reference. Of recent, newspaper listings have become a new and valuable source for information -- but such information remains "questionable." When a collector in Canada compiled a listing of titles, broadcast dates and guest appearances of radio's Suspense, originating from radio logs in The New York Times, he quickly discovered that one out of every four entries contained the wrong title and/or guest celebrity. It has been noted by the most knowledgable of historians that newspapers listed what was "planned" to be broadcast -- not what was definitely broadcast. This means any broadcast logs and celebrity guest appearances on radio programs, compiled from newspapers, "can" be statistically 25 percent inaccurate. Providing trivia such as the name of an actress originally slated for a role they did not perform is pretty cool... but regrettably, some historians have been quick on the gun: Without mentioning that many of the entries on their listings are still in "question" or "unverified," they mislead their readers into believing their lists are "definite." If newspapers listed the celeb as the scheduled guest, they assume the guest was definitely on the show... and this is not the case. Verification of a radio review, an extant recording or producer notes are needed to truly confirm. (One such list cites Karloff on radio in 1934 on a radio program known as The Show -- which was a tip-off that the scholar used newspaper listings to compile his list. Newspaper editors rarely provided the exact title of the program when the sponsor's product was part of the program title -- newspapers did not want to provide free advertising. One such example: The Lux Radio Theater was often listed in newspapers as "Radio Theater.")

Newspaper editors were not psychic. They could only tally a broadcast schedule from material furnished by their local radio stations. Station managers supplied information courtesy of press releases issued by the networks. Since some newspapers featured a week's worth of radio listings in advance, and dates on press releases confirm this, most of the information supplied to newspapers was planned more than a week in advance. Radio, being a live medium, was not certain to guarantee the accuracy of advance publicity. It is a known fact that one out of every five celebrity guests on Rudy Vallee's radio program in the 1930s was unable to appear -- and that was among the most prestigious and highest rated programs!

The reason why Boris Karloff's newly-discovered This Is Your Life radio appearance just came to light is because his appearance on the series was un-billed. Karloff was a "surprise guest." Yes, the series was transcribed, but with no recordings circulating among collectors (yet) and the radio program virtually being undocumented until now, you can understand how this one flew under the radar. Even newspaper logs would not have listed Karloff's appearance.

Next week on my blog I will post another Karloff radio discovery that, in similar vein, went undiscovered and undocumented until now.

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