Friday, April 29, 2016

GANG BUSTERS: Old-Time Radio's Crime Fighters

When Phillips H. Lord created Gang Busters in January of 1936, crime was so rampant that it was almost tolerated. Obedience to the laws and respect for law-enforcement agencies was at a low ebb. Criminals and their methods were highly publicized in glamorous episodes. 

Lord, as an amateur criminologist of note and a man who had delved into criminal behavior by inclination, was appalled. He had just finished his G-Men series which dramatized FBI cases and he knew how the criminals lived, what they were like and how they operated. Civic-minded citizens, law enforcement officers and police organizations were approached. They were enthusiastic in their approval and unstinted in their cooperation. They turned over their files and Lord made radio history with his exposes.

At first Lord appeared on the program and interviewed the guest police officials. Later, as his other radio programs demanded more attention, he turned the hosting chores over to West Point graduate Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who for twenty years was nationally prominent in police circles. When the Colonel was recalled to active duty, Lewis J. Valentine, former Commissioner of Police of the City of New York, took over. Before any case was presented to the radio audience, it was triple-checked. A Gang Busters representative gathered the material from law enforcement bureaus scattered all over the country. The Chief from each bureau had to approve every fact in the report before it was used. Then the script department started to work, with instructions to “make it dramatic, but be sure it’s accurate.”

Every Gang Busters broadcast featured nationwide clues, which consisted of last-minute reports of wanted persons, received from the police and FBI. One hundred requests weekly was the average number of police bulletins received by Gang Busters. They were boiled down to one or two clues, selected for importance, color and ease in remembering the descriptions. Gang Busters files show that among those criminals apprehended by such nationwide clues were Lawrence Devol, Hoffman and Penning, Edward (Wilhelm) Bentz, Howard Hayes and Charles Jones, Claude Beaver, and Percy Geary. In addition to those named, by May of 1942, more than 277 other criminals had been apprehended by Gang Busters clues.

Known as the “Number One Idea Man” in radio, Phillips H. Lord – who was once presented on the floor of Congress as the “source of more enjoyment than any person living today in the United States” – conceived the program at a time when crime was rampant. It was his purpose to give credit to outstanding police work throughout the country and, at the same time, to implement the enforcement of law with real public service features for radio listeners. Mirroring the drama of a lawless era and sounding the tocsin for a crusade against crime, Gang Busters started a completely new trend in radio shows. The depression years accentuated the American citizens’ awareness of social ills, people began demanding more realism in their entertainment, and Gang Busters filled the bill. 

Gang Busters dramatized the war of society against crime and how the program evoked praise not only from law-enforcement officials, but from parents who saw in much of the present-day writing, a tendency to depict the lawbreaker as a picturesque and colorful Robin Hood, deserving the admiration of every hero-worshipping adolescent. The raw case histories presented on Gang Busters without a painful warping or twisting to secure an obvious “moral,” pointed out an ancient truth: that society’s way is the best way and that he who flagrantly defies law and custom never wins and usually pays a stiff price for his boldness. Human nature being what it is, this is a law that requires (even today) constant reiteration. Gang Busters accomplished that in a singularly successful fashion, and thus achieved social importance.

In 1937, Charles Michelson got into the radio business when his father’s export company began receiving requests for the first RCA/Victor electrical transcriptions available on phonographic discs. As radio was eclipsed by television in the early 1950s, Michelson formed what was to become a 30-year relationship with newspaper magnate Sir Frank Packer’s TCN 9 Network in Sydney, Australia. Michelson was on hand to bring the world closer together in the early 1970s when satellite technology first became available. During the 1940s, Michelson started a company to syndicate The Shadow and many other radio programs to stations all across the country. He entered into agreements with the producers/owners of the series to distribute them, including Gang Busters.

From November 1935 to January 1936, Phillips H. Lord was in constant communication with Charles Michelson, then the Director of Publicity for the Democratic National Committee of the National Press Building in Washington, with a proposal for a radio series endorsed by the Democratic National Committee. The proposal never blossomed into a regular radio program. Twenty years later, Michelson contacted Lord regarding the ownership of the radio program, Gang Busters. After learning that the rights reverted to RKO Teleradio Pictures, Inc., Michelson struck a deal with RKO to distribute recordings of the Gang Busters radio program for syndication. 

At present, it is estimated that 93 radio broadcasts are known to exist in corded form, from the long-running Gang Busters radio program. At least 52 of them exist courtesy of Charles Michelson's syndications. His syndicated versions are altered, however, with original network commercials deleted, alternate titles assigned and organ music replaced with orchestral pieces courtesy of LP records. The earliest surviving episodes are May 26 and June 2, 1937. So in the nature of gift-giving this holiday season, I offer you this early Christmas gift. The script titles, broadcast dates and plots for the first 15 or so episodes of the radio program.

Small note: With special assistance to Bill Abbott and the folks at the Library of Congress, in 2003 and 2004 I was able to compile an episode guide in the same manner you see below. It was published by OTR Publishing in late 2004. Since then (not beforehand), all of the titles and airdates have been lifted from the book and posted on the internet without proper authorship. It seems a number of people felt the need to take that information and post it on their website. Normally, I would not have had an objection but they never stated the source of their information (the book) or that I compiled the info. As a result, they are mis-leading web browsers into thinking they did the log. Thankfully, a couple kind souls rectified the situation by making mention of the book as the source. Others have yet to do so, believing they are doing a service for OTR fans. But what kind of service are they providing when they are stealing material and taking credit? Anyway, enough of my soap box preaching. The book speaks for itself. Enjoy the episode guide below!

EPISODE #1 (Broadcast January 15, 1936)
Having robbed a sporting goods store, a theater and the Needham Trust Bank, the murdering Massachusetts Millen Brothers became legendary with a reputation for shooting anyone who defied them or stood in their way. The Public Safety Commissioner put his two best men on the case. They traced the criminals by placing an advertisement in newspapers, asking for information for the repair of a special type of car battery. The battery had been found in a burning car, which the criminals had set ablaze.

EPISODE #2 (Broadcast January 22, 1936)
Detectives Mark and Biggs were assigned to investigate a case involving the shooting of three New York policemen outside a rooming house. A fingerprint found on a mirror led to the identification of Jean McCarthy, wife of the notorious gangster, Fats McCarthy. The detectives watched all movie houses, dives and saloons for four months searching for Fats. A close study of the criminals and their habits led to a small house at the end of a lonely road…where a gun battle took the life of Fats McCarthy, and apprehended his gang.

EPISODE #3 (Broadcast January 29, 1936)
William N. Hallanan, Chief of Police of Sacramento, Calif.
STORY: Three thugs staged a daring hold-up of a United States mail truck on route to a local post office. The men overpowered the guards and escaped with $250,000 worth of valuables. Sacramento police followed every lead until it was discovered that the gangsters discarded license plates on their get-away car. This meant that the same gang committed two robberies in different cities. Detectives from Sacramento flew to Salt Lake City to continue their chase and during a violent struggle, subdued Barry Dwyer and his gang.

EPISODE #4 (Broadcast February 5, 1936)
Vincent Regan, working his way through college by driving a taxicab, was found with a serious gunshot wound. He was rushed to the hospital where he died, shortly after giving a police inspector information about his strange passenger/assailant. Inspector Barnes was assigned to the case. Through laboratory tests and the enlisted help of two convicts, Barnes investigated a three-year-old case involving stolen revolvers, discovering that a criminal named Reppin had cleverly changed the last figure of the serial number on the murder weapon. This almost put the police completely off track in tracing the gun, had they not been able to detect the change by careful laboratory testing.

EPISODE #5 (Broadcast February 12, 1936)
Clyde Barrow was an ex-convict out on parole. Bonnie Parker was an attractive girl who liked fine clothing, and had flaming yellow hair and a passion for smoking big black cigars. The couple agreed on certain principles – to shoot anyone who stood in their way, to operate within a very wide area and to keep moving fast. Within five weeks, they committed 18 crimes. They raced from one state to another, robbing and beating up citizens, breaking into banks. The pair eventually broke into a National Guard Armory stealing large quantities of guns and ammunition.

Trivia, etc. This episode (and the February 19 broadcast) actually has two titles. According to the script, the drama is also titled “The Bloody Barrow Gang.” This is not uncommon, by the early-mid forties, every episode of Gang Busters had two titles. One title featured on the cover of the script and another title delivered by the announcer.

EPISODE #6 (Broadcast February 19, 1936)
Clyde Barrow’s brother, Buck, pardoned from a penitentiary, got married and the couple joined the Barrow-Parker gang. The governor appointed Captain Hamer to smash the gang. He was a six-feet-three Texas Ranger who had killed sixty-three bandits in the line of duty. Hamer set a roadside trap for the pair staging the scene as if there had been an auto accident. Hamer and his men waited in the brush along the road. When Bonnie and Clyde stopped their car to find out what was wrong, gunfire and machine guns roared. Bonnie and Clyde attempted to leave the scene but lost control of their car and it crashed. Hamer and his deputies found the criminals dead inside, riddled with bullets – their car loaded with ammunition.

EPISODE #7 (Broadcast February 26, 1936)
About two o’clock one morning, a night watchman making his rounds heard a mysterious tapping and phoned the police. Inspector Moore and a detective gathered some complicated equipment and began investigating. It was soon discovered that bandits were tunneling through a sewer in order to break into the underground vaults of a bank. The detectives investigated a prior trolley car accident possibly linked to the crime and some plumbers’ candles, a flashlight and half-eaten sandwiches found at the scene of the digging. Without knowing the identities of the bandits, the detectives applied a clever ruse to make the true criminals reveal themselves.

Trivia, etc. This episode was previously titled “The Case of the Gray Anthony Gang.”

EPISODE #8 (Broadcast March 4, 1936)
After robbing one office, Midget Fernekes dashed into another, placing his guns under some newspapers and pretended to be a photographer.  No one in the room dared tell the police that he was the robber they sought. His ruse failed to trick the police. Midget was sentenced to prison where he attempted to break out by blowing a hole in the prison wall with a homemade explosive. After numerous other escape attempts, he finally succeeded and fled. Posing very successfully for several years as a small-town businessman, Midget’s cover was once again revealed, sending him back to prison.

EPISODE #9 (Broadcast March 11, 1936)
Grace M. Poole, Dean of Women of Stoneleigh College.
STORY: Midget Fernekes proved to be too clever for police when the criminal escaped from prison by using an improvised disguise. He bleached his blue jeans white with lemon juice and wore a mustache he had grown unnoticed by faking an infected upper lip and keeping it bandaged. The prison guards unsuspectingly allowed him to walk out, believing he was a visitor at the prison. Midget’s habits of making pencil sketches in public library books eventually lead to his capture. Scheduled to go to the electric chair, Fernekes saved the state an electric bill by slipping something into his own coffee. Before the guard could open the cell door to stop him, he drank the coffee and fell dead.

EPISODE # 10 (Broadcast March 18, 1936)
The day after Filkowski was released from prison he called together eight underworld characters at an appointed hour in a deserted cellar in the Flats, the slum section of Cleveland. He informed them they were going to start operating together with him as their leader. He soon became known as “The Phantom” because no one ever saw him enter or leave the scene of his crimes. Two old-time detectives assigned to the case enlisted the aid of a rookie to help apprehend the Phantom, who apparently carried an explosive device with him in the event of his capture. Tracking Filkowski to a New York hotel, the police quickly knocked him unconscious and handcuffed him, guarding against the explosive.

EPISODE #11 (Broadcast March 25, 1936)
Leonard Scarnici, a racketeer from Springfield, came to New York to get into the Dutch Schultz Gang as a professional killer. Schultz ordered him to kill Wilson, Scarnici’s best friend in Springfield, as a test of his abilities. Wilson had complete faith in Scarnici and readily accompanied him to a place where Scarnici asked him to dig a hole six feet long and three feet wide. Then Scarnici shot his friend and buried him alive. New York police noticed that Scarnici and his accomplices had been conspicuously absent, and warned Boston police to be on the lookout for them. But it was too late. A prominent Boston businessman was kidnapped and tortured because he refused to sign a ransom note.

EPISODE #12 (Broadcast April 1, 1936)
Detective Jimmie Stevens was in his office at Rensselaer, New York, completing his retirement papers when the bank alarm sounded. Stevens and a police officer reached the bank and exchanged gunfire with the Scarnici gang. Scarnici fatally wounded Stevens, who died soon after. After following many leads and holding numerous interviews, officers in a patrol car spotted one of Scarnici’s men driving toward New York. The police followed discreetly, but relayed by radio which way the car turned at intersections. The car stopped at a Bronx apartment. Three detectives broke down the apartment door and found Scarnici and his men inside cleaning their guns. They were caught off guard, pounced upon, and taken into custody. The most cold-blooded of killers, Scarnici, was electrocuted in Sing Sing for the murder of detective Stevens.

EPISODE #13 (Broadcast April 8, 1936)
Dago Peretti was the leader of a gang responsible for a series of murders and robberies in the Chicago area. His real name and his residence were unknown, even to members of his gang. It took two small pieces of dirty cardboard and a bottle of toothache pills for the police to get the break they needed. With the delivery address attached to the bottle, law enforcement was able to learn the identity of Dago Peretti. Applying a trick forcing Dago out the kitchen door of his apartment, Dago was drilled “full of lead” by the guarding police.

EPISODE #14 (Broadcast April 15, 1936)
St. Paul was dubbed “the Poison Spot of Crime” because of the large number of criminals who lived and operated there. Citizens held a meeting calling for unified action against the underworld. The worst of these criminals were Homer Van Meter and Eddie Green. To draw them out, police placed phony newspaper advertisements for a specially-designed automobile having a high-speed gear designed to be able to outrun police cars. Van Meter and Green answered the ad and were apprehended.

Trivia, etc. This script was originally titled “The Capture of the Dillinger Gang” since Homer Van Meter and Eddie Green both worked with Dillinger and his moll. While Dillinger’s reputation had been blown up by the media, Van Meter and Green were the real triggermen so Phillips Lord decided it would attract a large radio audience to learn about the criminal actions of Van Meter and Green.

EPISODE #15 (Broadcast April 22, 1936)
High in the rugged Siskeyou Mountains, 17 miles from Ashland, Oregon, the Southern Pacific Railroad was robbed by two men who jumped onto the coal tender and climbed forward to the engine cab. At gunpoint, they ordered the engineer to stop the train in the tunnel and jump off. Hugh D’Autremont, older brother of twins, Roy and Ray, joined them. Hugh and Ray robbed the mail car by lowing up part of the car with dynamite. They left three clues behind: the pistol dropped by Ray, the dynamite switch, and an empty knapsack.

EPISODE #16 (Broadcast April 29, 1936)
When the police were certain the D’Autremont Brothers were responsible for the train robbery, they had the F.B.I. send 2.5 million circulars worldwide, particularly to barber shops, lumber camps, opticians and dental offices. Five years passed but the police continued their search. Their big break came and Hugh was arrested in the Philippines. Roy and Ray were arrested in Columbus, Ohio where police noticed that the brothers had duplicated scars on each other’s bodies in order to throw the police off the track in case they were picked up.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Jungle Book: 2016 Movie Review

While this is only April, Disney's live action version of The Jungle Book is the best film of the year.

The 1967 animated movie was the last film produced by Walt Disney. He passed away before the movie was completed and personally, I found it to be among his lesser features (alongside Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan -- the latter of which works as a stage play but never in film). The original concept created by his animators and songwriters was darker in tone but Disney insisted on a more lively and high-spirited rendition. Perhaps his death inspired the animators to complete the film as Uncle Walt insisted. The movie was financially successful for the Disney company in 1967 and may have been more successful had the film retain the initial concept of a darker tone. Only historians can speculate. In case you have not seen the 1967 original in some time, the vultures spoofing The Beatles only adds age to the picture. The saving grace was Phil Harris as the voice of Baloo the bear, which I assume many will agree with me. 

With Disney's new live action rendition Bill Murray, who receives top billing, voices Baloo and does a job equal to the task. In fact, all of the actors providing voices did a spectacular job and Idris Elba, voicing the villainous Shere Khan, is fast becoming one of my favorite actors today. Neel Sethi makes his screen debut as young Mowgli and he was perfect for the role. You can see this kid has a future if he sticks with Disney for a few years. 

For anyone who remembers the live action version in 1994 and the direct-to-video animated sequel in 2003, you'll be pleased to know that this follow-up to the 1967 movie proves the adage that the third time is the charm. You do not have to see the 1967 original to enjoy this picture, but knowing "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" songs, which are reprised for the new movie, is a plus. And the vultures, sans The Beatles impersonation, make a quick cameo. Don't try looking for them. You'll see them.

If I read the closing credits properly, the movie was never filmed in the jungles of India. 100 percent of the movie was filmed in a warehouse in Los Angeles. Unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens that applied puppets and costumes and props, this movie relied heavily on green screen. I would estimate 99 percent of the movie was green screen. Replicating reality has been an argument fought against by those in the industry who rely on their trade. Unless Mowgli had to jump over a log, slide down a muddy hill or climb a tree, there was little constructed in the physical sense. With knowledge before me, the trailer promoting this movie did not impress me. But my curiosity was piqued. The problem with computer-generated animals is that they never have the natural mannerisms that real animals have. Nor the intricate details such as 4,000 strands of hair on a wolf or tiger. The computer-animated renditions always look like a cartoon. In The Jungle Book, the computer-generated animals are the best I have ever seen. The bar was raised and whatever money Disney paid to have such top-notch computer effects, the studio got their money's worth. 

While I have made it known that I am not a fan of 3-D, my wife and I agreed this was the best 3-D movie since Avatar. Director Jon Favreau understood depth perception and there are moments where you really feel you are in the jungle. With Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Maleficent as live-action adaptations of Disney's animated classics, with an applied darker tone that did not fare well with many critics, I am pleased to say The Jungle Book is a winner on all sides. I have always asked for one thing when watching today's movies: if you cannot impress me, entertain me. Disney accomplished both.

Family Values
Anyone concerned about scenes a bit intense for children, fear not. Only three animals die in the movie and you never really see their deaths on the screen. All three make a cartoon appearance during the closing credits to show young children that they did not die -- should the parents want to take advantage and comfort the kids. I doubt those scenes would scare any child over the age of five -- after all, this is Disney and they have a standard to maintain. If you are looking to get out of the house this weekend and want to spoil yourself -- or your children or grandchildren -- this is the family movie worth paying. (There is no post-credits sequence, FYI.)

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history. Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman. She published her findings in 2014 in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a book I highly recommend if you want to gain an appreciation for the fictional crime fighter.

Beginning in his undergraduate years of Harvard, William Moulton Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. When his wife disapproved of Olive's residence in their home, he confessed they were lovers and drew a line in the sand. Ultimately, all three of them lived together under the same roof in extraordinary nonconformity. As an expert on truth, he invented the lie detector test. Do these fact surprise you? 

Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman
Jill Lepore traveled to numerous depositories, both private and public. From the archives of Columbia University, Mount Holyoke College, the University of Minnesota, Saint Louis University, the Smithsonian, the University of Virginia, and the Library of Congress, among others, the author did the legwork and her finished product is top-notch as a result. While most people in this day and age believe in writing a book based on standard web browsing, in what academics refer to as "cut and paste," Lepore compiled what is the most comprehensive biography of William Moulton Marston, and a deeper understanding of the various elements that make up Wonder Woman. To understand the formation of the character is to understand the creator.

If you want to read the vintage 1944-1945 newspaper strip, which was short-lived, you have a chance to buy a copy of a hardcover compilation here:

One of the more amusing entries in the legend and lore of Wonder Woman is the 1974 made-for-TV movie which is now available commercially on DVD through Warner. A review from Variety magazine is reprinted for your amusement. And they hit the nail right on the head.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman will be consulted in years to come by historians and with the addition of two other books focusing on the comic adventures of the Amazon goddess, make up the essentials for your bookshelves. This is the kind of book that needed the treatment Lepore provided and regardless of the fact that some fans of Wonder Woman may not find this book as entertaining as an encyclopedia documenting every facet of the comic adventures, required a wide distribution from Alfred Knopf. Not only can the untold story be brought to light, but through her efforts the details of Marston and the influence that became Wonder Woman is now preserved. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Origin of This is Your Life

In the aftermath of World War II, there were many ex-G.I.’s recuperating from battle wounds in military hospitals; a percentage emotionally paralyzed, despairing of readjustment to civilian life. Having tapped the resources of Truth or Consequences to assist in the war effort, there was now a fresh opportunity to help in a post-war era. Little did he know that a “good gesture” act for one particular contestant, physically crippled, would ultimately lead to the creation of another successful radio/television program, This is Your Life.

“Shortly after the end of World War II, General Omar Bradley, impressed by our bond efforts, asked if we could help with the disabled veterans, particularly the paraplegics,” Ralph Edwards later recalled. “The hospital doctors told us many were afraid to go home for fear they wouldn’t be accepted and properly cared for.” Known as the “invisible wounds of war,” the result of prolonged exposure to combat-related stress, many of the wounded were depressed and reluctant – ashamed – to have family and friends see them in their debilitating condition. Edwards had multiple discussions with Al Paschall and the idea men to create a means by which the radio program could offer a second chance for veterans to advance their lives beyond a hospital bed, and double as a public service message to radio listeners from coast-to-coast.

A paraplegic at Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys, California, Lawrence Tranter, was selected as the first honoree. (It was at the suggestion of a doctor at the Rehabilitation Department of Veterans Hospitals, that a soldier paralyzed from the waist down be selected.) The doctors and psychiatrists were in full support that the radio program try to encourage paraplegics to talk about their past, and welcome their new future. The public needed to know the reason why the wounded, in both heart and body, were fearful of returning to their home and native communities because they felt a lack of acceptance. “We selected a paraplegic soldier from a Navy hospital in California, researched his story, and had him brought to our stage in Hollywood in a wheel chair,” Edwards later recalled. “We decided to present a young ex-Marine, Lawrence Tranter, of Murray, Utah, on Truth of Consequences and surprise him with a show of love and pride from all his family and school pals, his boss at the drug store and his favorite teacher.”

On the evening of April 27, 1946, 21-year old Lawrence Tranter, weighing a mere 91 pounds, confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down as a result of wounds he suffered on Luzon, appeared on stage as a contestant. Mentally, prior to the radio broadcast, he was close to death. Physically, he wasn’t much better. His only control was over his fingers, which he could move freely. As usually happened when a special contestant had been “set up” in advance, he couldn’t answer the question and therefore had to pay the consequences: an emotional revisit of his past. One by one, old friends, family and neighbors, were reunited with him on stage – beginning with the chief clerk of his draft board. The profile of a returning hero was dramatized through a series of dramatic flashbacks with leading events and personalities who played a part in Tranter’s life from his high school days, through his induction into the Army. One scene dramatized the day of his birth. The appearances of friends and family were a complete surprise to Tranter. Mrs. Louise Erickson 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 had since died. Mr. Varion Morteson, the High school principal who gave Lawrence his high school diploma spoke praise of the student who impressed his teachers. Irving Olsen, Junior Madsen and Orlan Parker, friends who Lawrence used to “gang up” at Hammond’s Ice Cream Parlor back in Murray, Utah, recollect Lawrence’s job as a soda jerk in 1940. Lawrence’s brother (Leonard) and sister (Mildred), made an appearance. Mildred was now married and has a young daughter. Dr. Warren Shepherd, the physician who brought Lawrence into the world, back in 1925, re-enacted Lawrence’s first day on Earth. Frank and Lorene Tranter, father and mother, reunited with their son.

After the reunion on the stage, Lawrence was given a glimpse of his future… While Lawrence was in the hospital recovering, he was studying watch repair and had often said that he would like to make a life business of repairing watches.

Prior to the broadcast, Ralph Edwards made arrangements with the Bulova Watch Company, located at 630 Fifth Avenue in New York City, to receive complete free training, plus a regular weekly salary, while attending the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking for Servicemen in New York. John H. Ballard and Arde Bulova, along with their associates, through the Bulova Foundation, had established the school for people like Tranter. Alex Cohen, in charge of public relations at Bulova, helped work out the arrangements for this radio broadcast. A place to live would be provided for Lawrence during his attendance at the Bulova School. He was also 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 store. Meanwhile, until arrangements for Tranter’s trip to New York’s Bulova School were completed, he was provided a few days to spend in Hollywood with his family and friends who came to visit him for the radio program. (Edwards closed the ceremony by informing “the gang from Murray, Utah” to be 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 pullover wristwatch.)

In New York, the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking had been established to teach a craft to veterans who needed a new field in which to earn a living. Since Tranter had not yet recovered sufficiently from his injuries for the hospital to allow him to travel to New York immediately following the program, Gen. Omar Bradley and the Veterans’ Administration requested the Bulova School to open a branch at Tranter’s hospital. Once he was well enough, he would go to New York and complete his studies. Between tears of joy, the war veteran accepted the proposition. And, according to two separate accounts from staff members who were involved with the surprise consequence, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.

Edwards closed the act with these words: “This is a great example of what an industry can do to help the disabled veteran. Boys paralyzed as Lawrence Tranter or otherwise disabled in battle. The Veterans’ Administration hopes other industries will set up similar rehabilitation programs for veterans in hospitals. Training courses such as this help speed the recovery of these disabled G.I.’s and it may start them on a new career as it did Lawrence. Those boys didn’t forget you, folks. Let’s not forget them.”

On Truth or Consequences, surprising a contestant with family relatives was done a number of times, especially for soldiers stationed at training bases during the War who longed to see their mother, wife and/or children. The war might have been declared over, but the urgency of family reunions was still essential. Emotions rose on stage and in the studio audience, attesting Edwards succeeded beyond anything he and his crew expected. If there was any question whether the quiz program succeeded in delivering a public service message, there could be no doubt by the letters, telegrams and feedback, numbering in the thousands.

            “I have been advised by our Radio Director, Mr. Brechner, of your help in preparing the Truth or Consequences radio broadcast of April 27 involving a patient from the Birmingham Veterans Hospital. This outstanding broadcast, which I thoroughly enjoyed, was a fine contribution to our Medical Rehabilitation Program. Will you please accept my thanks and extend my appreciation to Mr. Al Pasqual and other members of your staff who helped prepare this worthy broadcast.”
                        -- Omar N. Bradley, General, U.S. Army,
Administrator of the Veterans Administration

            “I listened to your very fine program on April 27, 1946, and I want to express my great appreciation to you for your fine work in the rehabilitation of Lawrence Tranter, Murray, Utah. This young, according to your introduction, served in the Philippines and was wounded there while taking part in the Liberation of the Philippines. It gave me a great sense of pride to learn that he had received a disability that would perhaps handicap him for the rest of his life The great deed that you have performed in his rehabilitation and of other young men deserves great praise and I hope that you and others will continue the good work for the men who have given all they had for humanity.”
                        -- Joseph P. Hyman, National Commander of the
                                    National Society – Army of the Philippines

            “I listened to Truth or Consequences Saturday night and still can’t get the show out of my mind. I’ve heard many human interest spots before, and during the war had occasion to handle a number of them myself, but can honestly say that I have never heard anything done so well.”
                        -- Warren Lewis of the National Broadcasting Company

            Ralph Edwards did not forget Lawrence Tranter. Almost two years later, on the evening of April 24, 1948, the same chair was wheeled up to a microphone on the Truth or Consequences stage. Tranter had begun a new interest in life. He became mentally stimulated because he had found something to occupy his alert mind and supple fingers. He learned a trade and improved physically. Tranter had completed his course and put on 45 pounds. Edwards moved over to Tranter’s microphone to bestow his promises: a lease for the store which Tranter then signed; a check for the first year’s rent; an inventory of the stock guaranteed in writing; and a $1,000 check to open the store’s bank account from John Ballard and Ardie Bulova of the Bulova Foundation. Edwards then informed Tranter that a group of Salt Lake City jewelers had formed a committee to help him with the number plate for his store: 4881 South State Street, in his hometown of Murray, Utah.

            With the formalities over, Edwards walked back to his own microphone and said, “Oh, Lawrence, there’s just one more thing. You can’t get in the store without a key. Here’s the key, fellow… come and get it. Remember, two years ago they said you’d never be able to get out of that wheelchair. This is the future, Lawrence. This is your key to the store. Come and get it.” Slowly, Tranter rose from the chair. Leaning on a large table, the ex-Pfc. made his way across the stage, slowly walking, and took the key. “I had purposely encouraged this to demonstrate the tremendous rehabilitation that had taken place in the boy’s previous physical and psychological deficiencies,” Edwards later explained. “The audience stood and applauded.” Tranter could now get along with crutches.

Bob Barker and Ralph Edwards

            It was during this broadcast that Tranter had a surprise for Ralph Edwards. He announced that he had gotten married four months earlier, and introduced his wife, Dorothy. She was the lovely red-haired lady who served as his nurse at the Bulova School of Watchmaking. Together they stood on stage for the official presentation of his diploma from the Bulova School of Watchmaking, made by former head of the Veteran’s Administration, Chief of Staff of the Army, General Omar Bradley, speaking from Washington, D.C.:
            “Hello, Lawrence. I’m going to step out of my job as a soldier for just a minute this evening to back to those days when we were working for you in the Veterans’ Administration. I like to recall them because they were busy and productive days when we could do a little for those of you who did so much for us. Tonight, as you leave the Bulova School, as you put the hospital behind you to take your place as a business man in your home town, you are helping to prove what millions of veterans everywhere have claimed when they say to the American people, ‘Give us the chance – give us the opportunity – and we will make good.’ Lawrence, the burden of proof is not so much upon you as it is upon us, the American people, to whom you have come back. For it us up to us to show you that democracy is the measure not only of a man’s personal freedom but his economic opportunity as well. If only we will remember that this great country of ours is peopled by young men like you, men and women with the spunk and courage to make it an even better place in which to live, we will make democracy mean a great deal more to our children – yes, and to the puzzled people who live tonight in nations around the world. Again, congratulations. My good wishes to you and Mrs. Tranter for a full and happy lifetime.”

            Ralph Edwards thanked General Bradley and then spoke the works he was to repeat many times to millions of radio listeners: “This is your life.”

            Behind the scenes, the Decker Jewelry Company, wholesale jewelers, supplied the opening stock for the store. As promised on the broadcast, Tranter was given a completely-stocked jewelry store, including electric sign, all interior fixtures, window trims, a watchmaker’s bench, a safe, interior work, and other necessities. The merchandise itself, the bill of goods, was given to Lawrence Tranter. The Bulova Watch Company agreed to underwrite his credit, but Tranter had to pay for the merchandise. His stock, like any business, was to be paid for out of his profits, since, of course, he would be selling the goods and realizing the difference between the wholesale and retail price. Edwards explained this to Tranter on the evening of his initial consequence, and reminded on the evening of his return to the program, and Edwards himself agreed to underwrite his credit to the extent of $500. When it was discovered that $500 would not even complete window dressing for one of the two display windows, the Murray City Chamber of Commerce got involved and explained to Edwards that tentative dates set for the grand opening of the store had been pushed back to ensure the store would be fully furnished as promised on the program. As a result, Bulova extended Tranter with $2,000 worth of credit.

            His first customer was supposedly Gov. Herbert B. Maw of Utah.

The Lawrence Tranter broadcast was so overwhelming that Ralph Edwards discussed the proposal of doing a weekly “good gesture act” covering the life of an exceptional individual who deserved more than verbal gratitude. A few months later Truth or Consequences featured a consequence imposed on Lester Hansen, who was asked to “act” in a little dramatization in which he was assisted by radio actors Jack Moyles and Iva Green. The dramatization portrayed the actual heroism and experiences of the veteran, but the contestant was not aware until he read 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 marrying soon; a complete wardrobe for civilian life including two Hart Schaffner Marx suits and top coats; and all-expenses-paid for equipping his new car (he already had the 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.

Lester Hansen, 28, was paralyzed from the hips down. An artillery lieutenant in the war, Lester Hansen was wounded in the back in a battle on Biak Island, a dot in the Pacific Ocean off New Guinea. After two and a half years spent in army hospitals at Walla Walla and Los Angeles, he was discharged from the army as a major. In 1947, he was 28 years old, busy laying out a doctor’s career for himself. He was living in Los Angeles with his wife, Ethel, whom he married less than a year prior after meeting her in the Walla Walla hospital, where she served with the Red Cross. Doctors were puzzled by Hansen’s ailment, saying they knew no reason why he could not walk, except that nerves had been shocked. And, they claimed, another great shock might undo the damage and enable Hansen to walk again.

Two days later, on October 6, 1948, an audition disc was recorded (never aired) focusing on the life of Lester Hanson, a paralyzed war veteran from Spokane, Washington. Hosted by Harry Von Zell, who would obviously be replaced by Ralph Edwards when the radio program premiered in November, the demo was played back for potential sponsors. Hanson played the role of a “surprised” guest, with full understanding that his demo could convince a sponsor and a network to feature a similar program on a weekly basis.

The first radio broadcast of This is Your Life aired on the evening of November 9, 1948. Sponsored by Philip Morris and broadcast over NBC, the premiere episode was modeled after the Lawrence Tranter show, which was the forerunner of This is Your Life. Paul Jackson, a paraplegic, was chosen to be the first “victim” of the new radio program. Jackson was wounded and buried in the snow in the Battle of the Bulge. A medic tripped over him and saved his life. Jackson never knew who the medic was so Edwards and his crew ran down the files and presented to Jackson the young man responsible for saving his life. For his future, they provided complete equipment for a gun shop in a place he was starting in Tulare, California.

And now the good news...
A complete inventory was recently made on the scripts, along with Ralph Edwards' personal scrapbooks, newspaper clipping files, photographs and loads of other materials pertaining to the radio version of This is Your Life was recently unearthed and digitally scanned. Unlike the television version which glamorized celebrities, the radio version for the most part focused on every day citizens and until now proved a challenge identifying exactly who each of the "contestants" were -- until now. Crossing fingers, all of this material may go to print in book form within a year or two. Again, crossing fingers...

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Three Stooges Convention in Philadelphia

There are Doctor Who Conventions, Star Trek Conventions and Comic Cons. Did you know there are also Three Stooges Conventions? For many years throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Three Stooges Conventions were abundant. But over the years they have become less frequent and few in fandom even know they exist. There was one in St. Louis, Missouri, and another in Amber, Pennsylvania in 2014, there was a Three Stooges Fan Club Convention in 2013, and this weekend right outside Philadelphia there will be another... this one featuring the family relatives of The Stooges, along with the cast of the 2012 motion-picture. Heavily promoted, this event may just be the largest on the East Coast in many a year.
I grew up watching The Three Stooges, thanks to rabbit ears and a TV antenna. I was able to pick up a channel from Philadelphia and tune in each week to watch three classic comedies in a given hour. It was not until I was about twelve when I read an interview with Emil Sitka in Filmfax, that the shorts were originally created as fillers for Columbia motion-pictures and not for television broadcasts. (Hey, I was 12 at the time. I know better now.)

The Three Stooges were not the only comedy shorts being produced by Columbia Pictures. Vera Vague, Hugh Herbert, Charley Chase and many others were filmed on rotation and just as funny. Sadly, The Three Stooges overshadowed the others and only die-hard film buffs are even aware of who Hugh Herbert and Vera Vague are. A number of Andy Clyde comedies appeared as bonus films shorts on a Three Stooges DVD, as well as a number of Shemp Howard solo films which are equally fascinating because you see Shemp recycling some of the same comedy bits that would later appear in Three Stooges comedies. 

Die hard fans of the knuckleheads will assert lost Three Stooges discoveries every year. In 2012, Surprise, Surprise! (1937), a Columbia comedy short shot in color with Moe, Larry and Curly, was screened at the 32nd Annual Cinefest Film Festival in Syracuse, New York. It was, briefly, a comedy short specifically designed to promote Farina breakfast cereal, manufactured by Pillsbury. The theater audience was reminded to pick up two boxes of the fluffy stuff on the way back home and their purchase would qualify them to acquire a toy movie viewer. Pillsbury and Columbia put a lot of work into the short and The Three Stooges certainly do not appear as to have just walked off one set in costume and began filming another. Pillsbury, in 1937, even promoted the toy movie viewer in newspapers, store displays and during the commercials of Today's Children, a radio program Pillsbury was sponsoring at the time. This comedy short has rarely been mentioned or listed in Stooge filmographies or reference books, hence the rarity of the short. Until recently, it was thought that the short was not known to exist and was "lost."

Two years ago a comedy film short, Hello, Pop! was discovered, a "lost" Three Stooges film, and has since been restored and commercially released on DVD. Who knows what new Stooges discoveries will be found in the coming years?

Fans of the shorts believe the comedy went by the wayside when Curly Howard made room for Shemp, but in fairness, the Shemp shorts are funny. Moe, Larry and Curly had just as much chemistry as Moe, Larry and Shemp. But one has to remember that The Three Stooges were created during the height of the Depression. You can tell by watching the first half dozen shorts that they were unable to figure out how to create the comedies. In "Women Haters," the boys are doing their schtick in rhyme. In "Men in Black," they were attempting to be as zany as the Marx Bros. Eventually they discovered a formula that worked with Laurel and Hardy and the Our Gang comedies: established victims of the Great Depression and routinely create disaster for the wealthy, upper class. This is why The Three Stooges are painters, plumbers, milk men, ice men, garbage men, pest exterminators, and so on. The upper class laughed at the "stooges" on the screen and the lower class laughed at how they messed up the rich woman's plumbing or crashed a wedding party with a cake fight. It was a formula that steered off in another direction by the time Curly was making his departure and Shemp was entering the picture. By the early to mid-forties, they were the owners of a respectable tailor shop and knights attempting to rescue a princess. The formula worked best when they were Depression-era stooges. 

When I was a kid, I enjoyed the slapstick. As an adult, I now enjoy the one-liners. When the Stooges enter a mansion owned by a wealthy industrialist, Moe remarks, "Just look at the joint!" And Larry adds, "Kind of reminds me of reform school." When the Stooges were doctors and asked, "What did you do for the patient in room 234?" Moe remarks, "Nothing. What did he ever do for us?"

The Chronological Series -- a must have!
From April 1 to 3, 2016, Baron Conventions, LLC, will be hosting a Three Stooges Convention at the Radisson Philadelphia Northeast Hotel in Trevose, Pennsylvania. The three day weekend will celebrate the mirth, merriment and mayhem of The Three Stooges. Authors of recently-publish books will talk about their favored subject matter, family relatives will talk about the actors who played the leads, and the cast of the 2012 motion-picture will talk about making the movie. Could there be a sequel in the works? Only the cast can divulge the truth.

There will be a gallery of rare Three Stooges collectibles, a screening of a new Three Stooges documentary, autographs from actors who worked with the Stooges, Saxon Sitka talking about his father, Emil Sitka, a history of Ted Healy and much more.

For more information, visit the website: