“Call for Phillip Morris…” was the opening slogan by Johnny Roventini, the world’s first living trademark, complete in red coat and brass buttons, “stepping out of thousands of store windows and counters all over the country,” as described in the beginning of every broadcast of The Phillip Morris Program. Celebrating 94 years of the famous cigarette, and using the medium of radio to advertise the cowboy killers that became socialized acceptance as a result of the glamour portrayed in cinema, Phillip Morris sponsored a weekly half hour of divergence with a combination of both music and drama. The Ray Bloch Orchestra supplied the music; upbeat tempos that included such classics as “How About You,” “Everything I Love,” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
For the dramatic portion of the program, consisting of 12-minute dramas, Tallulah Bankhead was hired as the female lead, succeeding Una Merkel, who wound up a 13-week run on the show. Convincing the stage actress to sacrifice 12 minutes of her time behind the microphone was no easy task. This required her attendance for the entire 30 minute broadcast (8:00 to 8:30 p.m. EST), scheduled time for rehearsal prior to the broadcast, and a repeat performance for the West Coast (11:30 p.m. to midnight). Weeks before Merkel’s 13-week engagement expired, Charles Martin, then a member of the Biow Agency in New York City, arranged for a meeting with Bankhead to convince her to replace Merkel as the lead in a series of mysteries – Susan Bright, a female detective. Merkel was playing a sob sister in a series of dramatic sketches known as “Nancy Bacon, Deporting.” Effective with the broadcast of December 23, Merkel began playing the lead for a different series, “Susan Bright, Detective.” Martin created the female detective and according to a memo in the Biow archives, the director hoped a weekly, half-hour radio program based on his creation would come from the vignettes.
During this time Bankhead was appearing at the Belasco in New York, as Mae Wilenski in Clifford Odets’ drama, Clash by Night. Weeks before the demise of the Odets play, the great stage actress, in need of additional income, signed a contract with the Biow Company, an advertising agency which represented Philip Morris cigarettes, to perform weekly on a radio program called Johnny Presents. In those simpler, pre-cancer days, to sell cigarettes was a perfectly respectable and profitable endeavor. The stage play concluded a week prior to her initial contribution on Presents and the radio program offered not additional income, but steady employment which, she quickly discovered, was needed to fund both her utilities and her vices. At Martin’s request, Bankhead listened to one of the Susan Bright mysteries and she promptly rejected the idea. Bankhead insisted on doing adaptations of modern stories and sketches, demonstrating her versatile abilities to play various characters, all possessing strong emotional qualities. After all, she was a stage actress. Nothing less would do. Martin assured the actress that he would personally oversee the adaptations of love stories by Dorothy Parker (a favorite of Bankhead), Daphne DuMaurier and Arnold Bennett. Whatever the subject matter, be it comedy or drama, the weekly dramas were designed for only one purpose; to star Tallulah Bankhead, attracting new radio listeners who were fans of her stage work… and to sell a few cigarettes as well.
Bankhead’s contract was for 13 weeks, with optional renewal at the agreement of both the agency and the actress. One trade column reported she was contracted for a “48-week series” but this seems unlikely since Merkel’s contract was also 13 weeks and the sponsor’s contract with the network (NBC Red) was also optional in increments of 13 weeks.) The sponsor could not have ensured steady employment beyond 13 week increments, beyond their contract with the network. Bankhead’s salary was $2,750 for each week’s appearance in a 12-minute playlet.
On opening night, February 3, 1942, emcee Nelson Case introduced Ray Bloch’s Orchestra with a “Phillip Morris salute” to Georgetown University with “Hail Hoya Men,” Audrey Marsh sang “You Made Me Love You,” and Jack Smith wound up the session nicely with a Latin-American samba rhythm, backed by the Bloch Orchestra. Plugged more than twice on the program as “one of the great actresses” on the American stage, Tallulah Bankhead opened the segment with an authoritative delivery while providing narrative (reading from a diary) for the dramatic portion of the program. With support from Vincent Price and George Coulouris (a bit part as a discarded suitor), an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Philomel Cottage provided the center stage for Bankhead as a woman who kills her three months-wed husband via the arsenic route upon discovery that he is a fugitive Bluebeard, with several murdered wives to his credit. A reviewer for Variety remarked how the dramatic portion “moved smoothly and held attention” and “was all done with impeccable artistry and telling effect.” The same reviewer then questioned “whether the splicing of a morbid horror tale into a half-hour musical program adds up to sound showmanship is something else again. Skits in warmer, more cheerful vein would be more appropriate with a band show of this type… Given material in harmony with the general program idea she should be a more potent asset.”
“My employer, Charles Martin, an ebullient impresario, operated on an intensive treadmill,” recalled Max Wilk, the scriptwriter responsible for most of the broadcasts (even though Martin – on occasion – received air credit for authorship). “Sundays and Mondays he wrote. Tuesdays he rehearsed and directed Miss Bankhead, and Tuesday night she went on. Wednesdays he locked himself in his office with a secretary and worked on a half-hour show called The Philip Morris Playhouse, which on Friday nights presented movie stars in truncated versions of current films. By Sunday, he was again prepared to attack Tuesday’s show. To survive for any length of time around Charles Martin and that frenetic stopwatch operation, one needed considerable energy, a rich vein of masochism, and a cast-iron stomach.”
|Bankhead at the microphone circa 1940s.|
The rehearsals early Tuesday mornings at Radio City consisted of the script writer, director Charles Martin and his secretary, the entire dramatic radio cast, Tallulah Bankhead and her agent from William Morris. The actress was known for taking stimulants other than alcohol, and not acceptable as a morning person (a fact she would later disclose many times on The Big Show). She often woke with a frog-like voice until she drank a paper cup of Coca-Cola, in which Bankhead would decant a half-inch of spirits of ammonia. This peculiar potion would be tossed off in one gulp, after which the actress would prepare for battle. “All right, darlings,” she would groan, “what piece of nonsense are we playing this week?” The actress quickly built a reputation during the first rough reading for making notes in her script, marking her lines, and addressing any concerns she had such as the leading man’s speeches coming close to the number of dramatic speeches she would deliver. No one would be permitted to carry the drama. One script reportedly suffered two pages worth of cuts from the leading man’s solo monologues.
Half an hour before air time, Charles Martin would insist on changing from business clothes (suit and tie) to a dinner jacket and making a grand entrance and taking a bow (while the studio audience, led by a stage manager, dutifully applauded). Martin would then present his cast one by one to the audience. All of this, along with the stage manager’s instructions directed toward the radio audience on how to behave during the actual broadcast, was a repeated, weekly ritual. During the actual broadcast, Martin would stand on a dais, his script pages spread out before him, and direct his actors. “Charlie had a considerable flair for the dramatic, which extended down to the actual studio production of his radio shows,” Wilk recalled. “Needless to say, such ‘direction’ as Charlie provided was totally superfluous. The radio actors of that era took their cues and read their lines from their scripts. They all knew to the second what was required of them, and they needed Charlie’s hand signals as much as they required a sixth toe. But the studio audience out in the theatre was impressed.”
|Tallulah Bankhead at Paramount Studios|
At the close of every broadcast, Tallulah Bankhead stepped before the microphone to offer a patriotic message, usually encouraging the audience to donate money for the war cause. “This is Tallulah Bankhead, Ladies and Gentlemen. I want to remind you that we should all do our part for America. Buy Defense Bonds and Stamps – as often as you can – as many as you can.” (The only exception was the broadcast of February 10. Originally scripted was a plea to give generously to the Red Cross Roll Call. Due to timing that evening, the public service announcement was never delivered.)
After the repeat performance, for the benefit of the West Coast, Bankhead would invite the entire cast and crew back to her suite at the Ambassador for a midnight snack, and a private party that involved Alabama politics, the baseball scene (her undying passion), news of the day (usually consisting of war news), the ghastly days at Paramount, and her love for President Roosevelt. This was the weekly ritual for Johnny Presents. And the audience loved her.
Broadcast of February 10, 1942
Tallulah Bankhead played the role of widow Jenny Tannerton a former opera singer, in an adaptation of George Calderon’s The Little Stone House. Jenny devoted her life to her only son, Richard, a child prodigy. At the age of eighteen, Richard was composing a symphony when he left the countryside to New York, destined for a career in music. Hours later, the police alerted Jenny of the news: her son died in a horrible auto accident and burned in a fire. Only the remnants of his uncompleted symphony remained. Over the years, Jenny’s mental condition is questioned as she paid multiple visits to her son’s grave, exchanging with his spirit what she believes is the remainder of his composition. She opened a boarding house and fed tramps that took shelter from storms, never turning down the hungry. Ten years later, having saved her money, Jenny contracts an engineer to construct a little stone house over his grave as a memorial, with the “dignity and grandeur that my son had.” Late one dark and stormy night, Richard shows up at the door, dressed as a tramp, confessing to his mother that he was not the child prodigy she wanted him to be. Having committed a robbery and killed a man, Richard faked his death and spent ten years in prison with the stolen money waiting to be recovered. “I watched you cry over my body,” Richard explains. “I came back to tell you not to cry anymore.” Unable to cope with the news, Jenny orders him to go away and take his lies with him. When Nora, her maid, learns that Jenny told the tramp to leave, she comments “You never turned anyone away before.” Jenny Tannerton remarked, “There was nothing in him that deserved any kindness.” And Jenny orders the contractor to commence with the construction of the little stone house.
Much of the drama was delivered in flashback, with the maid, Nora, played by Flora Robson, bridging the scenes as she tells the story to a tramp who was momentarily taking shelter at the boarding house. Playing un-billed supporting roles were House Jameson and Alan Hewitt.
Broadcast of February 17, 1942
With Charles Martin’s preference of the macabre, the third offering was an adaptation of Guy deMaupasant’s The Necklace, referred to as “The Necklace” during the broadcast. Bankhead plays Mathilde Loisel, wife of a clerk with the Ministry of Education, who receives an invitation to a fancy ball thrown by her boss. Hoping to leave an impression by borrowing a gorgeous diamond necklace, Mathilde’s evening proves wonderful but when she returns home, the necklace is missing, Embarrassed, she and her husband sek a replacement at a jewelry store. The cost, however, is 36 thousand franks and is twice the amount of all the money they have to their name. The couple go into debt and spend the next ten years paying off the loan. They lose their house, their maid and their comfortable lifestyle. Ten years later, with all the debts paid off, Mathilde meets Mme. Forestier, the woman who lent her the necklace. Only then did she discover the necklace she lost was just a fake.
Vincent Price, playing the male supporting role opposite Bankhead in every other broadcast, played the role of Mr. Lorelle. Ann Andrews played the brief role of Alma, the maid. Bit parts were played by William Johnstone and Betty Garde. A columnist for Billboard remarked, “Tallulah Bankhead hailed from the Deep South, as any Yankee would know, but to star a Bankhead of Alamaba sub… commit’s a crime against the French author, for it robs him of his irony and leaves only ‘Good Lawd, Geo’ge.’”
Broadcast of February 24, 1942
Morgan Farley played opposite Bankhead in an adaptation of Dorothy Sayer’s Suspicion, a chilling tale of a suspicious husband who suspects his hired cook is the notorious poisoner, described in the local papers. His suspicions are founded when he has his coffee analyzed and trace amounts of poison are found. The cook, with no possible motive, pleads innocence when she is taken into custody by the police… only then does the radio listener learn the truth as his wife offers him a cup of tea… Playing bit parts (un-billed) were Charles Cantor as (Mad, Mr. James and Mrs. Andrews), and Alice Frost as the maid.
Broadcast of March 3, 1942
Vincent Price and Morgan Farley play rivals for the affections of Tallulah Bankhead, in Walker Mason’s short story, “Decision.” Anne Sinclair, concert pianist, wakes in the hospital from a train wreck, only to discover she is suffering from a severe case of amnesia. Six months later, she finds herself in love with Doctor Paul Foster, engaged to marry. His best man, Tom Phillips, is shocked when he meets the bride-to-be, his fiancée prior to the accident. Tom went through the anguish of believing she was dead and searched the whole country for her. Foster, aware that he would commit a crime against her inner self should he marry, allows Tom to unlock her past. She doesn’t remember the house, but after playing a few notes on the piano, her memory comes back and she finds herself cured. Hours later, Anne confesses to Tom that she still plans to marry Foster. In bringing back her memories, Anne recalled a life that she was not really suited for. The quarrels they had were enough to convince her to reconsider – the purpose of her travel on board the train was to take time to consider the engagement. She hopes to remain friends with Tom, and breaks the news to her fiancé, Doctor Paul Foster.
Minerva Pious played the role of Nora, the nurse.
Broadcast of March 10, 1942
In Fanny Hurst’s “Dolly and the Colleagues,” Tallulah Bankhead plays the role of Dolly Brown, a gold digger the size of Mae West, and a screen role that would have best suited West. On board a train from Atlantic City bound for New York, Dolly meets Charlie Hoxie, a self-made widower who likes his women tall. Dolly instigates a whirlwind romance and the two soon marry. Hoping to take him for all he is worth, Dolly finds her needs never outweigh that of her daughter, Louella. Louella and her husband, and her friends, splurge on Dolly and Charlie’s money until Dolly is ashamed to look her husband in the face. When a rumor starts circulating that Charley made out his will and left all his money to the Denver Hospital for Consumptives, Dolly conspires to make her husband drunk so he will tell about the will and won’t remember in the morning what he spoke. Seven consecutive nights at clubs develops a chest cold, which leads to pneumonia. Lying in the hospital bed, dying, Charley asks Dolly to sign a new will drawn up by his lawyer. The money goes to his wife, but with an option to sign off the funds to the Denver Hospital. “I want you to spend the rest of your life helping those people fight their way back. That’s what I want to leave you. A chance to help others,” he explains. Dolly signs the will and orders her kin to sign as witnesses, leaving a monument to people. Providing supporting roles were Charles Cantor, House Jameson, Frank Readick and Ann Thomas.
Broadcast of March 17, 1942
Supported by Vincent Price, Bankhead played the role of Helen Evans in a special prize award story, “Train Ride.” Striking up a strange romance with a voice over the phone, who calls himself Arthur Medbury, Helen decides one evening to file for a divorce from her husband, Henry. Her husband will not grant per permission because of his recent ambition in politics. When Henry hires a political writer, Arthur Medbury, Helen’s desperation turns to murder and shoots her husband dead. Arthur, protecting the woman he loves, confesses to the crime. On route to the death house, Helen confesses her crime to a pastor – no one else will believe her. When the Warden and Governor ignores her pleas, Helen is forced to spend the remainder of her life in the streets, with her mental stability in question, trying to convince anyone on the streets who will listen that she was guilty of murder. Even the street urchins won’t listen to the lunatic. Five years later, Helen bumps into the pastor and questions, “Why won’t somebody punish me?” The pastor looks at her and responds, “Helen, you have been punished.” Providing supporting roles were Charles Cantor, Walter Greaza, Garney Wilson, Art Gentry and Arnold Stang.
"Train Ride" was originally dramatized on The Silver Theatre on the evening of May 7, 1939, with Joan Crawford in the lead. The Johnny Presents version was edited to the confines of time allotted on the program.
Broadcast of March 24, 1942
Reprising her stage role of Judith Traherne in George Emerson Brewer, Jr. and Bertram Bloch’s Dark Victory, Tallulah Bankhead made the first of what became only two radio re-creations of her stage role. There was an apparent feud between Bankhead and Bette Davis when the latter was awarded the screen role Bankhead originated on the stage. Bankhead’s determination to prove to the non-theater-going public that she could perform the role better than her adversary, Bankhead convinced director Charles Martin to allow her the opportunity on Johnny Presents. (Less than ten years later, Davis played the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve, reportedly modeling her screen persona to Bankhead’s.) The supporting cast for the radio version included Morgan Farley, Frank Readick, and S. Rogle.
Only a section of the stage play was dramatized in the 17-minute time frame, extended five minutes longer than the usual 12-minute segment devoted to drama.
Broadcast of March 31, 1942
An adaptation of Adelaide Carlisle Adams’ prize-winning story, Break My Heart. Faith Hawley is a writer all the world associates with love. When her secretary, Cecil Jarvis, experiences a true romantic interest with a woman, he attempts to prove to Faith that her false notions about romance in the novels she writes are pure fiction. “Lovers don’t talk about those things,” he explains, “they just do them.” Faith, suspecting truth in the cynical prognosis, sets out to find a man who would swoon her off her feet. She finds romance, daring to describe love in realistic fashion in her next novel. When she suffers heartbreak from the short-lived romance, Faith swears off writing the next novel. Hoping to save her from financial disaster, Cecil arranges for a meeting between the scorned lovers and proves to Faith that the man was only after her money. Now suffering anger and resentment instead of heartbreak, Faith sits down to dictate her latest novel… the story of a real love relationship… the one she just experienced.
Supporting cast included Alan Reed, Charles Cantor, Morgan Farley and Garney Wilson.
Broadcast of April 7, 1942
Thyra Samter Winslow’s short story, “The Will.” Tallulah Bankhead plays the role of Bertha Schoop, a married woman suffering from the curse of a controlling husband, Victor, twenty-five years her senior. Suffering from pity for the curse her older husband endures, including cirrhosis of the liver, Bertha’s hate grows with each passing week. Soon after falling in love with a young painter, Bertha learns that her husband made out his will. The facts of his will undisclosed, Bertha panics and takes drastic action. Using a bottle of bi-chloride of mercury, she poisons her husband. When doctors request permission for an autopsy, and Bertha discovers the young painter is getting married to another woman, she panics and takes the same medicine. During the double funeral, passersby discuss the peculiar case. Her husband truly died of cirrhosis of the liver and the poison never effected him. In his will, the old man left everything to the wife… who is now dead. “They say you can’t died of a broken heart but this just shows that you can’t live with your heart broken,” remarks one of the passersby.
Supporting cast included Charles Cantor, Morgan Farley, Will Geer and Frank Readick.
Trivia: “The Will” was originally scheduled for March 17 but pushed ahead to April 7. The switch to “Train Ride” was made four days before the broadcast but press releases had already been sent out more than a week in advance. As a result, radio logs in newspapers cite (in error) “The Will” on March 17.
The original intended presentation for April 7 was an adaptation of “You Can’t Do Business,” author unknown. A number of newspapers reported the title of this drama as "Effort Wasted," but this is inaccurate. The press release sent out to radio stations, who in turn distributed the releases to the local newspapers, described the plot of Winslow's story and made an error citing the title as "Effort Wasted."
Broadcast of April 14, 1942
Frank Condon’s unusual comedy, “Reno Rebound,” tells the story of Greg, a celebrated author, who proposes to his secretary, Theo (played by Bankhead). Theo was Greg’s motivation for writing love stories and comedies so it seemed only natural for him to sweep her off his feet. The marriage turns sour, however, when Greg proves to be a workaholic and Theo’s ideas of marriage meant settling down and having children. Out of desperation, she met a man named Stacey and the two start a love affair. Greg hires a secretary and agrees to a divorce. Six weeks later, all four are on board a train bound for Reno so Theo and Greg can file the final paperwork for the divorce. On route, Greg confesses that his new secretary cannot spell. Theo confesses that she is expecting. Discovering the two suffered a case of a comedy of errors, they reconcile. And Greg proposes making their recent love affair the subject of the next story.
Supporting cast included William Johnstone, Audrey Marsh, Alan Reed, and Ann Thomas.
Broadcast of April 21, 1942
Bankhead was supported by Leon Ames and Alastair Kyle in an adaptation of Martha Foley’s short story, Yes to Live. Edith and Richard Sayville contemplate having a child but Edith hesitates: the world is not the same as it was five years ago, with bombing raids over England. Edith insists their job is to win the war, not to have babies. She even threatens divorce if her husband is insistent about having children. Late one evening, when survivors of a torpedoed ship are brought to shore, Edith is shocked when the doctors have only one pulmotor and choose to use it on a number of passengers, not a dead child. Praying and hoping for the best, she tries to revive the little boy and succeeds. While serving hot stew to the lad, Edith discovers the boy’s mother sacrificed herself for another child. His father was killed in Dunkerque. All alone in the world, the child expresses the beauty he has seen in the world, regardless of the bombs and bullets. After the boy’s aunt shows up to take him home, Edith discovers how the boy made her feel ashamed of herself. Edith turns to her husband and agrees that they should start a family.
Broadcast of April 28, 1942
In Lou Wylie’s Gangster’s Girl, Tony Willard goes to the electric chair, having shot and killed a night watchman. In court, he testified that his gun moll, Millie, had nothing to do with the caper. A desperate write who believed that in order to write about murder she had to commit one, Millie met Tony at a Social Hall and he agreed to introduce her to real gangsters. Her stories are not very good, however, and Tony strikes a deal with the editor to publish her stories and in return Tony and his goons eliminate the opposition magazines are kept off the newsstands. When Tony committed the caper that put him in line for the electric chair, Millie discovers herself living the lie. A member of Tony’s gang show up to eliminate Millie, fearing she will talk after the execution. The newsboy shouts the headline of a gun moll’s lips sealed by death and Millie’s mother writes another letter to her daughter suggesting that “whatever happens, your mother will always be waiting to take you back home.”
Supporting cast included Art Gentry, Walter Greaza, William Johnstone, Beverly Mahr, Frank Readick and Alan Reed.
During the second week of April, while a replacement was being sought for the Johnny Presents dramatic segment, Bankhead renewed for an additional three weeks, carrying her through May 19. Her regular 13-week contract ended April 28. This bought the Biow Agency (handling the dramatic spot on the program) time to secure Margaret Sullavan, whom they propositioned, to follow in Bankhead’s footsteps. Helen Hayes was the first to be offered the spot, but the actress couldn’t accept because she was scheduled to tour the balance of the season with the Maxwell Anderson’s Candle in the Wind.
Broadcast of May 5, 1942
An adaptation of Elmer Davis’ The Road to Jericho. Driving along a dark and deserted road outside Long Island one night, hoping to make it home before her husband arrives and discovers her illicit affair, Janice and her lover Don come across a car wreck and a dying man who was scheduled to testify against the mob. Before the man dies, he names the person responsible for his murder and hands them evidence for the District Attorney. The next morning, when the newspapers report an innocent man accused of the crime, Janice visits Don in an effort to convince him to visit the police. Don wants to remain silent, thinking of his own reputation as well as hers. Janice prefers civic virtue, even if it means a scandal for her family. Realizing Don is not the man she thought he was, she returns home to confess her crime. Her husband forgives her for the crime and admits, “it won’t be much fun for any of us, but you’ve got to play the hand the way it’s dealt.”
Supporting cast included Vincent Price, Morgan Farley and Charles Cantor.
Broadcast of May 12, 1942
Bankhead was supported by Everett Sloane in Vina Delmar’s Cosmopolitan Magazine story, “Runaway.” Bankford played the role of Anita Clifford, known to the world as Alice Blue, the radio singer, who backs out from a necessary life-or-death surgery and flees half-way across the country. Through a chance meeting with her ex-husband, Chappie (Everett Sloane), Alice decides to play the nightclub circuit one last time. When he invites her to his house to meet his family, she discovers she was tricked into visiting a doctor’s office. Chappie read the papers. “You ran out on me once,” he explains. “Now you’re running out on yourself.” The cast included Charles Cantor, Art Gentry, House Jameson, Alan Reed, and Garney Wilson.
Broadcast of May 19, 1942
Selma Robinson’s story, “Departure.” Bankhead plays the role of Norah Arthur, the grieving fiancée of Kenneth Stone, who continues to have visions of the dead man. Her doctor insists she is sick with a suffering mind, but late that night she encounters the spirit if Ken, who materializes in front of her. The spectre holds her in his arms and explains that he has a long trip ahead of him. Ken asks Norah to accompany him. “You may be frightened. You may even regret it,” he explains. But he cannot pay her another visit. Norah agrees to walk out on the window ledge and holding onto Ken’s hand, takes a leap of faith. Supporting cast included Vincent Price, Alan Reed and House Jameson.
NBC issued a press release pre-maturely, claiming Bankhead was going to read Dorothy Parker’s The Telephone Call on the evening of May 19. She never did but Bankhead was a fan of Parker’s writings and later recited The Telephone Call – twice -- on The Big Show (1950-1952). Beginning with the broadcast of May 26, Charles Martin returned to the suspense genre with a mystery serial titled "The Perfect Crime."