Friday, February 14, 2020

Memories of Robert Conrad

Earlier this week we heard about the passing of Robert Conrad, the athletic, two-fisted actor who starred as Secret Service agent James West on the television program, The Wild Wild West. He was 84. Conrad was among the many actors employed by Warner Bros. Television to appear on the studio's stable of programs starting in the 1950s, and first gained attention for playing Tom Lopaka, a partner in a detective agency, on ABC's Hawaiian Eye. Rarely screened on television today, Hawaiian Eye was among the detective programs worthy of revisiting -- including 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside Six and Bourbon Street Beat.


In 2016, Robert Conrad was among the celebrity guests at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. You know that event where Hollywood actors spend three days signing autographs for fans outside Baltimore, Maryland, every September? Yep, Conrad was there. And he was a real trooper, too. Where most celebrities stopped signing to get dinner around 5 or 6 pm (which is when the autograph lines tend to die down for the day) Conrad's line was still outside the hotel. People reportedly stood in line for four hours to get his autograph.


Perhaps no better tribute to Robert Conrad can be found than the following story Carla Cathcart, an attendee of the convention, posted on Facebook.

I met him that day. He was amazing. The line was long, and just as I got to his table, one of the staff announced, "Mr. Conrad will be taking a break now." To which Robert announced, "The hell I will! These wonderful people have been waiting for a long time, and I'm gonna sit here until I can't sit any longer or my hand gives out, so why don't YOU take a break?!" The staff member just laughed and asked him to let him know if he needed anything. Then, it was finally my turn to meet him, and his smile and those blue eyes still looked wonderful. I joked with him, and said "tough guys don't take breaks, do they?" He laughed, and said, "That's right, Sweetheart." After getting his autograph, I got a photo with him. I'm so very thankful that I got to meet him.

Thank you, Mr. Conrad, for your never-give-up, and be-comfortable-being-yourself attitude. Meeting you was REALLY special and inspiring!!! I won't forget that day - or you.




Friday, February 7, 2020

The Origin of OUR MISS BROOKS

A few weeks ago, while finishing a brief write-up about the origin of radio’s Our Miss Brooks and having consulted archival documents and industry trade columns, I made the mistake of browsing the web for consultation. 

Wikipedia, always proving the adage that you should never believe everything on the internet, incorrectly claims Lucille Ball was second in line for the role after Shirley Booth departed. “Lucille Ball was believed to have been the next choice, but she was committed to My Favorite Husband and did not audition. Then CBS chairman Bill Paley, who was friendly with Arden, persuaded her to audition for the part.” Wikipedia cites John Dunning’s On the Air (1998, Oxford University Press) as the source for this information but a careful review of Dunning’s book verifies the author never made such a statement.

Dunning’s book never even acknowledges Lucille Ball, let alone the Shirley Booth audition. As evident more often today than it used to be years ago, false attribution is now commonplace on Wikipedia. Many people (though not all of them) who submit information on Wikipedia have, on numerous entries for old-time radio programs, deliberately puffed up the credentials or credibility of a source to enhance an argument that was not accurate to begin with. 

This is not to say Lucille Ball was not proposed for the role of Connie Brooks at one time but, at present, nothing has been found to verify this claim beyond Internet blogs and Wikipedia. News blurbs in a number of industry trade papers, however, claim Joan Blondell was immediately up for consideration following Booth. The April 21, 1948, issue of Variety reported that Shirley Booth was no longer involved and “CBS is now trying to line up Joan Blondell instead.” One week later, on April 28, Variety provided a follow-up: “Negotiations for Joan Blondell to step into the lead role of the new CBS comedy initially intended for Shirley Booth have been temporarily stalemated. Miss Blondell is embarking on a vaudeville tour with Milton Berle, opening at the Pittsburgh Gardens April 30. Although the deal appears set for her to take on the radio program, it’ll probably mean holding up the audition for a couple of months until she is at liberty again.” (Note how I cited my sources for these factoids, which anyone can verify by consulting April 21 and 28 issues of Variety.)

So it seems proper as the new school season begins during this time of the year that we revisit the true origin of Our Miss Brooks, which premiered on CBS Radio, July 19, 1948. Within eight months of its launch as a regular series, the show landed several honors, including four for Eve Arden, who won popularity polls in four individual publications of the time. Not bad when you consider Eve Arden was the third choice to play the title role.

Seven months before the premiere, on December 19, 1947, Shirley Booth was approached by Harry Ackerman, at the time CBS’s West Coast director of programming, to star on a weekly radio comedy. Booth was presently playing the recurring role of Dottie Mahoney on Fred Allen’s radio program, reprising the same Brooklyn accent she emanated on Duffy’s Tavern. The actress played the role of Miss Duffy until 1943 when she divorced Ed Gardner, her real-life husband and star of Duffy’s Tavern. CBS was at that time conducting business deals with numerous radio personalities affiliated with NBC, including Jack Benny and Amos and Andy, and it was William S. Paley’s suggestion that Booth could be shaped into a new radio personality that would dominate prime time. 

On December 22, Booth agreed provided the radio program originated from New York City, where she was entertaining offers to do Broadway. Paley personally took control of the negotiations, ensuring the actress that the radio program would be pre-recorded to accommodate her potential stage career.

By mid-February 1948, Don Ettlinger completed the radio script in which he ensured Paley, “Shirley will get completely away from her Miss Duffy identity, and play the straight role of a school teacher.” The script was twice tweaked by Norman Tokar, script writer for The Aldrich Family,until the last week of March when Edward Downes joined the CBS network staff to produce the radio sitcom and take over direction for Marriage for Two

On April 9, 1948, an audition was recorded at the studios of CBS. That audition recording exists and today provides us with a fascinating rendition of the program, for comparison, against the Eve Arden broadcasts that were to follow. A few days later, Paley listened to the audition and voiced disapproval on the grounds of Booth’s performance. 

Shirley Booth used her ever-familiar Brooklyn accent and Paley wanted to avoid a New York motif. On April 16, a second audition was recorded with Booth performing without her trademark Brooklyn accent. This led to Booth and Paley exchanging opinions on how she should play the role. Troubles and temperaments abound, which led to Booth walking away and Paley asking Ackerman to seek a new actress for the lead.

CBS, meanwhile, was working on a new Cy Howard-inspired program titled Little Immigrant. The audition would be recorded in mid-June 1948 with J. Carrol Naish in the lead; re-titled Life with Luigi in mid-September. Development of new CBS radio comedies were part and parcel of the network’s recent policy to develop in-house without advertising agencies. Paley assured the board at CBS that television was around the corner and programs that build a following on radio would transition well to television. With CBS owning fifty percent, profits were assured. Up until 1947, CBS acted primarily as a conduit between ad agencies and sponsors, providing the facilities for broadcasting at a rental price. Paley wanted the network to own a piece of the action and programs such as Our Miss Brooks was, in his mind, a sure-fire means of accomplishing this goal. 


The second actress to be consulted was Joan Blondell, as referenced earlier in this article. To date there has been nothing to lead historians into believing an audition was recorded with Blondell in the role.

In May of 1948, Eve Arden stopped over in Chicago (on her way back from a publicity tour in New York City) to meet with Paley, who was in the Windy City for business. The two dined in the famous pump room of Ambassador East, danced for a spell and discussed the possibility of her starring in a weekly radio comedy. A few days later Arden met with Harry Ackerman and Hubbell Robinson at the Beverly Hills Hotel to read the script. “When they sensed that I wasn’t too interested in the script or in doing radio, they said that two very good new writers, Al Lewis and Joe Quillan, had been given the script and would have a new one for me to read soon,” Arden later recalled. “A week later, Harry took me to dinner at Chasen’s and the script was so vastly improved that I laughed out loud as I read it between courses.”

On June 8, 1948, Eve Arden agreed to play the lead role for Our Miss Brooks, signing on the bottom line during that same week. Interestingly, Arden never cut a rehearsal recording or audition until June 23. The initial intention was to launch Our Miss Brooks on July 5, later pushed to July 12 and again to July 19, after producer Larry Berns informed the network that it would take a week or two longer to avoid rushing into production. On July 1, Paley listened to the audition and signed off with his approval, acknowledging Eve Arden was perfect for the role and “an improvement” compared to Shirley Booth. (Both Booth auditions, and the Eve Arden audition features different supporting cast members and a different theme song than we are familiar with today.)

On July 19, 1948, Our Miss Brooks premiered as a sustainer, with the network seeking a sponsor. Colgate reportedly dropped the Kay Kyser show and was seeking a new program, including a radio version of I Remember Mama under development. Our Miss Brooks was heavily pitched to the ad agency representing Colgate, with a proposed $8,000 weekly price tag (plus agency commission). The company responsible for tooth paste signed on as a sponsor after listening to the first three broadcasts and a careful review of the ratings that were steadily climbing.

“The only problem was that I’d planned to spend the summer in Connecticut with my kids,” Arden later recalled, “at the Amsters’ farm. I said if they could tape the 13 scripts before I left, it would be fine… one day Frank Stanton, then president of CBS, called me at the Amsters’ farm and said, ‘Congratulations!’”

“‘For what?’ I asked.”

Our Miss Brooks is the number one program on the air,’ he answered.”

Showing no hard feelings against Shirley Booth, at Paley’s suggestion, CBS made the actress a firm offer for the weekly supporting role of Jane Stacy on My Friend Irma, to replace Joan Banks. The letter, dated October 10, 1948, offered Booth 13-week cycles after an eight week “probationary” period. Cathy Lewis, who played the role of Jane Stacy, was on leave by doctor’s orders and Joan Banks was merely filling in temporarily. By this time Booth had signed for Goodbye, My Fancy, set to premiere on November 17, and required free time to participate in rehearsals. She declined the offer. (Booth would ultimately receive her first Tony Award for Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) for her performance as Grace Woods in Goodbye, My Fancy.)

Eve Arden never won a Tony Award but she would receive numerous awards for her role as Connie Brooks on both the radio and television renditions of Our Miss Brooks. She won a radio listener’s poll by Radio Mirror magazine as the top-ranking comedienne of 1948-49. A winter 1949 poll of newspaper and magazine radio editors taken by Motion Picture Daily named her the year’s best comedienne. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, she was made an honorary member of the National Education Association and received a 1952 award from the Teacher College of Connecticut’s Alumni Association “for humanizing the American Teacher.”

Just three months ago CBS finally released the first season of the TV series. We can only hope for Season Two in the near future. 

MYTH DEBUNKED
Debunking another myth that has is circulating on the Internet, Eve Arden’s adopted daughter, Connie, was never named after the character Arden played on radio. Connie was adopted months before Arden was even approached to play the role of Connie Brooks, schoolteacher, and Arden’s own confession in her autobiography verifies this: “I named the baby Connie, for my friend Connie Raffetto.”

TRIVIA
For amusement, check out the November 1, 1948, broadcast of Let George Do It, titled “The Flowers That Smelled of Murder.” Jeff Chandler, as fans of the radio comedy know, played the role of Mr. Boynton on Our Miss Brooks, and plays a brief role in the detective story. In this episode, a co-ed suspects that her professor of botany is about to be murdered. Jeff Chandler played the na├»ve, bashful biology teacher talking with George Valentine’s pretty assistant (whose name is Miss Brooks). 

POST-SCRIPT
This article appeared in the August 2019 issue of RADIO RECALL. As Wikipedia changes by the day (some entries by the hour), the statement above about the Lucille Ball reference may not be on Wikipedia by the time you read this. Be assured, the incorrect statement of Lucille Ball and false attribution was there, with screen capture below to verify.



Special thanks to Mark and Martha Bush for assistance with this article.