Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Merry Christmas Matter

One of the most striking differences between British and American television is that, while British broadcasters tend to show their most popular programs around Christmas, American networks seem to act as though no one actually watches television between Christmas and New Year's. it wasn't always like this. During the golden age of radio, Christmas-themed installments of shows actually actually aired close to Christmas. 

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was no exception. Some of its most memorable, which is to say emotionally affecting stories, had late December air dates. The Rasmussen Matter, a favorite of Johnny Dollar biographer John Abbott that I've written about previously, is a key example, but it's not the only one.

Currently, WAMU's old-time radio showcase The Big Broadcast is presenting The Nick Shurn Matter, a five-part serial that originally aired between the 19th and 23rd of December in 1955. Though it was early in Bob Bailey's time as Johnny Dollar, it typified the qualities that placed that period of the show among of the best loved in the history of radio. Not only does it offer a winding plot and colorful characters but also a central character who was equal parts urbane and humane. 

That second quality always seemed especially prevalent in the Christmas stories during Bailey's run. No matter how many troubling turns a case  might take, his version of Johnny Dollar never gave in to cynicism. He may have been hard on the outside but there was no doubt that his heart was in the right place. And in that way, the Christmas stories exemplify Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar - especially in the Bob Bailey/Jack Johnstone era - hard on the outside but with their heart absolutely in the right place. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Conventional Speaking

This past week I spent some time at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. While I enjoyed browsing the dealer room and was tempted to spend some money getting my picture taken in a replica of the TARDIS from Doctor Who, my main purpose for coming was to interview radio historian Jim Widner. Though we had a hard time finding a quiet(-ish) place to talk, we ultimately had a great chat not just about Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar but also the later years of network radio. Not surprisingly, Bob Bailey's portrayal of the title character was a central topic as seen in this brief clip.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Voices from the Past

One of the challenges in making a film about a program that ended over 50 years ago is that the key participants are for the most part no longer with us. In the case of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, that list includes Jack Johnstone, Virginia Gregg and Bob Bailey to name just a few. Thankfully, as befits key players of the radio medium, many of these individuals can still offer their insights thanks to the generation of old-time radio enthusiasts who were able to interview them before they passed away. In particular, researcher John Dunning's interview with Jack Johnstone gives a fascinating glimpse into the process of making radio drama, especially in the period when the distance between the potential of the medium and the networks' apparent regard for it could hardly have been wider. Sadly, there don't appear to be any interviews with Bob Bailey, doubtless because of the stroke he suffered in the 1970s, but Dunning's conversation with Bailey's daughter, Roberta Goodwin, is equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking as she recounts both good times and bad with her father. In a way, these interviews are themselves a vindication of the radio medium - unforgettable stories brought to life in your mind thanks to the power of the human voice.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

237 And Counting

A friend quite rightly suggested online that we should all take a moment to remember what the July 4th holiday is about (beyond food cooked on a grill, that is). This brought to mind the musical 1776. Though it takes some liberties with historical facts, the show masterfully depicts the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

What makes it especially relevant for us today is the way it shows government and the men who formed it (with not inconsiderable contributions from women) for what they really are and always have been in our history. These founding fathers are neither the infallible icons nor the over-entitled patriarchal devils of political extremists' fantasies. Rather, 1776 shows them as flawed but nonetheless gifted men who were able to recognize and seize a moment in history. Likewise, the republic they founded - and the process if governing it - is messy and imperfect, especially when it comes to matters of great importance.

This trailer for the early-70s film version encapsulates that quite nicely amid the singing (sorry that the sound quality is iffy in spots).

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Lost Pilot(s) Matter

Though television ultimately put an end to radio drama as a mainstream form of entertainment, the medium also gave second (and, in many cases) longer lives to of radio's best loved dramas. Sometimes the shows had completely different casts, such as Gunsmoke where the radio cast was never seriously considered, while others were very much the same as their radio incarnations. Jack Webb's Dragnet and the soap opera Guiding Light are two such programs, the latter being the ultimate example by virtue of the TV and radio versions having been produced simultaneously for a number if years using the same scripts and cast.

Many other radio shows fell quickly into obscurity in television's wake, and others gave it their best shot but fell a bit short. The latter was Yours Truly Johnny Dollar's fate. Not surprisingly, considering the off-beat nature of the radio version, the attempt to transfer the program to television has a murky history in its own right.

One of the few things that's certain is that at least one Johnny Dollar pilot got made. Produced in 1962 by Blake Edwards, who also wrote for the radio series, it starred character actor William Bryant in the title role and martial-arts pioneer Ed Parker is known to have worked on it in some capacity. Beyond that, very little else is clear.

It's not even clear whether this was the only attempt at adapting Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar for television. In his book The Encyclopedia of Television Pilots, media historian Vincent Terrace refers to the 1962 pilot as the second attempt but there's very little that can be determined about this predecessor. A pre-1962 timeframe, when the radio show was still going, suggests that this earlier version would be the one for which Bob Bailey was supposedly rejected for not being the right physical type, but even that's pure speculation. The main thing we know is that the efforts to put Johnny Dollar on TV were ultimately unsuccessful.

That's probably for the best, though, because I don't think the medium would have been kind to the man with the action-packed expense account. On radio, Dollar's narration could take us anywhere in the world and, though they occasionally got details wrong (as any Maryland resident who's listened to "The Chesapeake Fraud Matter" can attest), it was always believable. The budget restraints of television would not have been so forgiving. Similarly, the supporting characters couldn't possibly be quite as colorful as those that populated the radio series. Even if Bob Bailey had played the title character on-screen, the character of the show would have been fundamentally different. Fortunately, we'll always have radio.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Wit & Wisdom Matter

Very often the finest moment of any story on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar comes at the end when Johnny finishes his report and offers his remarks on the case. In many ways, particularly during Bob Bailey's tenure, it was a microcosm of what made the show so great. Even in a genre whose success often hinged on the quality of the main character's narration, Bailey's delivery of the various writers' sardonic dialogue under Jack Johnstone's direction typically added up to something special.

Two particular examples have stuck with me as I've been revisiting these programs, one from The Cui Bono Matter (by Les Crutchfield) and the other from The Markham Matter (by E. Jack Neuman, writing as John Dawson). Both are noteworthy not just for how they speak to the plot but also the way they display Johnny's character.

The Markham Matter: "In the end it was his attempt to run away, and it didn't work. It never works. Even if you get away, you find something new to run from."

The Cui Bono Matter: "When you gave me this assignment, Don, you asked a question, a phrase in Latin: cui bono? Who benefits? So, here is your answer: nobody."

If you've never heard these stories before, and even if you have, they're both well worth a listen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Direct Approach

It's a testament to the allure of radio's golden age that one of the very best books about the era was the work of a self-identified "child of the TV generation" who missed out on radio the first time around. Leonard Maltin's The Great American Broadcast is perhaps not comprehensive the way books like John Dunning's Tune in Yesterday and On the Air aspire to be, yet it many ways it paints a much more richer portrait than those encyclopedic works. Rather than a purely chronological approach, Maltin explores the period by focusing on the people whose work made the programs what they are.

Among the actors, sound-men, writers and directors, Maltin gives us a look at quite a few people who did more than one of those things during their careers. One of these figures was, of course, Jack Johnstone and Maltin offers some interesting details about his life and work, both on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and other programs. One of these anecdotes about Johnstone's approach to directing hints at why Johnstone may have found TV an unappealing option when radio drama finally left the air.

Even though Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was a transcribed program, using relatively new tape technology that permitted editing, Johnstone avoided doing so. In order to get the best possible performances out of his cast, he insisted that each fifteen-minute episode be recorded from start to finish in a single take. If an actor made a mistake in the middle of the taping, the whole team would go back to the beginning and start again. Despite initial resistance on the part of some actors, Johnstone's live-to-tape approach ultimately won them over because "everybody [being] on his toes" resulted in better performances. While this very particular approach to perfectionism made Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar one of radio's best dramas, it seems unlikely it would have translated to the very different production demands of television, assuming a sponsor would even have allowed Johnstone that level of control.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Amerigo Marino Matter

One of the most striking elements of the Bob Bailey years of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar is its use of music. This can be credited, at least in part, to the input of Musical Supervisor Amerigo Marino. The regard those making the show, especially writer/producer Jackstone, had for Amerigo is underscored by the memorable 5-part story The Ricardo Amerigo Matter, the only Johnny Dollar case to explicitly refer to a member of the show's production crew. Amerigo, who was born in 1925 and worked for CBS for many years, is somewhat unique among the key figures of the show's mid-50s heyday. While Bob Bailey and Jack Johnstone for the most part withdrew from the spotlight after the end of the golden age of radio, Amerigo arguably went on to much bigger things. In 1964, he became the Music Director and Conductor of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, a role he held for two decades during which the ensemble - and Marino himself - attained national acclaim.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rethinking the Golden Age

Like many old-time radio fans, I've tended to think of the golden age of radio as a single amorphous era. As I've been researching for this project, an intriguing book by radio historian Jim Cox entitled Say Goodnight Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio has made me realize how important seeing radio's heyday as a series of eras within the larger era is to understanding the development of old-time radio and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar in particular.

The show's early years intersected with the period where television was truly starting to erode the mass audience for whom radio had been the primary form of entertainment. As the 1950s went on, many long-running radio shows ended, including icons like The Shadow. Some found a second life to television, while others simply vanished. Much of this was driven by the sponsors who once supported the lion's share of radio programming deciding that television was where they wanted to put their resources. And though many classic shows suffered as a result, there was also a curious, and in some ways beneficial, flip-side to that shift.

Though both audience sizes and sponsor support for radio programming were declining, there was still a substantial audience for the networks to serve and - more to the point - airtime that the networks needed to fill and, as much as possible, fill cheaply. Those factors turned out to be a genuine boon for radio drama. Unlike the star-driven music and variety programs which required large (i.e. expensive) casts and orchestras, dramas could be made for a fraction of the cost. Cox cites the average weekly production cost of a variety program as $40,000, whereas a detective series might only cost $4000-$7000. Clearly, the economics favored scripted drama (a marked contrast to today's TV environment but that's another story).

It wasn't just economics that benefited the detective show and other dramatic genres, which is of particular note for Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. By the middle of the decade, the audience that was still loyal to radio drama was also a more discerning audience that desired more substantive story-telling of the kind offered by writer-driven programs like Gunsmoke and X Minus One. This was the environment into which Bob Bailey and Jack Johnstone stepped in 1955 when the program began its year-long run of character-driven long-form narratives. As we know, it turned out to be the perfect one. That the same factors that ultimately doomed radio-drama in America were also a factor in some of its greatest shows is the sort of irony that would have been appreciated the character Bob Bailey played (and Jack Johnstone wrote) so well.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Casting as Destiny Matter

A few weeks back I had the honor of interviewing broadcasting legend (and Radio Hall of Fame inductee) Ed Walker. walker is the current host of WAMU's weekly old-time radio showcase The Big Broadcast and by extension the man who introduced me (and many others) to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Among the many topics discussed was, of course, Bob Bailey. Mr. Walker had some interesting observations about the man who's the consensus pick among fans as the best of the many actors to portray Johnny Dollar. Check back soon for more excerpts from the ongoing interviews for The "Whatever Became of Johnny Dollar?" Matter.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Man with the Action-packed Expense Account (and a Big Heart)

One of the big differences in American broadcasting between today and the golden age of radio is that back then popular shows actually aired new episodes around the holiday season. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was no exception, and the season often found Johnny Dollar with his heart on his sleeve, especially during Bob Bailey's tenure. Sometimes the stories were overtly Christmas themed, as in 1956's "The Missing Mouse Matter", but even if they weren't Johnny's cases could still tug at your heart.

A case in point is the episode that aired the week before "The Missing Mouse Matter". "The Rasmussen Matter" tells the story of a dying man grieving for a dead son and consumed by the mystery of a daughter-in-law he's never met. It should surprise no one that Johnny Dollar is up to the challenge of solving this particular mystery, however, the path the script by E. Jack Neuman (aka John Dawson) takes him on is among the show's best and by extension among the best of radio drama.

If you're a fan and haven't heard it, you owe it to yourself to listen to it. If you're a fan and you have heard it, you owe it to yourself to listen to it again. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Brief History of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar

In this clip from our recent conversation, John Abbott - writer of The "Who Is Johnny Dollar?" Matter - gives a brief overview of the history of this classic program.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Big Broadcaster

Radio Hall of Fame inductee Ed Walker has been working as a broadcaster in the Washington DC area for six decades. For the last couple of those decades, that work has included hosting WAMU's weekly old-time radio showcase The Big Broadcast. Since that was where I first heard Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, I was very grateful that Mr. Walker agreed to sit down for an interview about the show and the golden age of radio that ended when Johnny filed his last expense report. I encourage anyone who loves old-time radio to seek out his weekly show which is accessible just about anywhere via the internet.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Expense Account Item Number One

I'm happy to say that shooting started the other day in the form of an interview with John Abbott, writer of The "Who is Johnny Dollar?" Matter. Not surprisingly for the man who devoted so much time and effort to that three-volume chronicle, Abbott was enthusiasm and insight about Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and its enduring popularity. I'll be posting some clips over the next couple weeks as work on the project continues. In the meantime, if you're interested in the answers to questions like how much expense account money was racked up for any given company, you should check out the book via Amazon or directly from the publisher.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Knowing Jack

Next to Bob Bailey, perhaps the most important figure in the history of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was writer-producer Jack Johnstone. A veteran of numerous successful programs, Johnstone shepherded the transition to the 15-minute daily episodes in 1955 then back to half-hour weekly stories a little over a year later. When the show moved production from Los Angeles to New York, Johnstone was replaced as producer but continued to contribute scripts until the end of the show (and by extension the end of the golden age of radio) in 1962. Johnstone resisted the temptation to work in television and seems to have largely stepped back from public life until his death in 1991. Consequently, his later years are an enigma worthy of Johnny Dollar. Back in 2011, the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club published an interesting piece about this very question. It's especially interesting reading for anyone who's heard references to nearby locales while listening to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar

Bob Bailey in his natural element.
When Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar began as a regular series on CBS in February of 1949, the show was already on its second leading man. The first one, movie star Dick Powell, took the lead role in another program after doing just a single audition show - a pilot episode used to convince network executives and sponsors of a show's potential. By the time the show's run ended in 1962, a total of eight actors had played the title role, including Powell and one other actor who had appeared only in audition shows. Of the leads who did more than a single episode, Edmond O'Brien may be best known to general audiences from his starring role in the classic movie D.O.A., but for aficionados of old-time radio the man who defined the role was Bob Bailey who filed his first expense report in 1955.

Though Bailey had appeared in several feature films, including two with Laurel & Hardy, he was best known as a radio actor. From 1946-1954, he had been playing another title role, that of George Valentine in the detective series Let George Do It. The start of Bailey's tenure coincided with another key change in the show, the shift from weekly standalone episodes to serialized storylines that ran each weekday night. While this alternative approach to storytelling was a big part of the show's appeal, Bailey's approach to the character was also key.

Aside from the insurance-based nature of the cases, neither the original incarnation of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar nor its leads were all that different from the multitude of hard-boiled detectives that came  and went during the golden age of radio. The additional air-time provided by the shift to daily installments allowed the writers to adopt a more character-driven approach to stories aided by a repertory group that included radio mainstays such as Robert Conrad, John Dehner and Bailey's Let George Do It co-star Virginia Gregg. It wouldn't have worked as well, though, had the show's lead not been on the same level as the supporting players.

Though Bailey's Johnny Dollar could be as tough as any detective this side of Sam Spade and wasn't above skirting the law in the interests of justice, there was also a streak of sensitivity that distinguished him from more traditional private eyes. This trait came to the forefront when the program reverted to individual weekly episodes and more emphasis was given to recurring characters and plot threads that dealt more with Johnny's personal life.

Bailey left the show after five years and hundreds of episodes, one of which he wrote, and $135,311 in expense reports (over a million dollars by current rates). Johnny Dollar would get two more voices before filing his final expense report in 1962. Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer were good in their own right and the continued input of Jack Johnstone as a writer ensured that Dollar's cases were still engaging. For most fans, though, the true voice of Johnny Dollar will always be a guy named Bob.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Enduring Appeal of the Man with the Action-packed Expense Account

September 30, 1962 marked the end of the golden age of radio, as the last two network radio dramas aired their final episodes. One of them, the long-running dramatic showcase Suspense, was among old-time radio's most iconic programs. The other was lesser-known series but no less remarkable. Despite a lack of big-name stars or even a sponsor for most of its run, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had been running almost continuously since 1949 and endured long after many better known radio shows had either transitioned to television or been canceled all together. 

Johnny Dollar - both the show and the character - started out little different than dozens of other detective shows from the heyday of radio drama. The employers may have been insurance companies rather than suspicious spouses, but the methods employed were virtually indistinguishable, aside from the weekly accounting of his "action-packed expense account". That changed in 1955 with the debut of new leading men both on-air and behind the scenes. Five actors had already played the title role before radio veteran Bob Bailey took over, but Bailey is the one who is not just best remembered but also best loved by fans, due to a portrayal balanced the hard-boiled elements with a more humanized take on the character. At the same time, under the guidance of veteran writer/producer Jack Johnstone, the program shifted from a standard once-a-week presentation to serialized stories that ran five days a week. The new format allowed for a more character-driven approach and, though, the daily format only lasted a little over a year those stories remain the most popular and are still repeated on old-radio showcases all over the country.

My documentary The "Whatever Became of Johnny Dollar?" Matter examines this unique program that continues to find not just new fans but also fans who are as devoted today as they were five decades ago. The film will do so in the manner of its inspiration - interviews with experts, pounding the pavement and, of course, with every expense documented (and then some). If you want to learn more about the project, come back to this blog for updates. Enjoy.