Friday, June 3, 2016

This Is Your Life: King Kong and Audie Murphy

When you think of popular long-running television programs that started on radio and made the transition to television, you don't usually think of This is Your Life, but the program did air over NBC radio for two years before moving to television. Ralph Edwards acted as the “guide” to the honor guest whose “life is being reviewed and previewed.” Each week the program focused on the life story of a living American, an average citizen – war veteran, working man or woman, student – only an occasional celebrity as the celebrity treatment became center focus when the television program took root. The candidate, who did not know that he had been selected for his “life review” until he was actually brought to the program in person with no rehearsal beforehand, was given the chance to relive certain high points in his life and to meet face-to-face on the program people who figured in that life – perhaps the kid next door whom he hadn’t seen since grade school days, the minister who presided at his wedding, a favorite teacher or boss, a relative he had not seen for a long time, or maybe the lad who saved his life in the War but whose name he never knew. 

Ralph Edwards
All of the radio broadcasts were recorded in advance. Some in the Hollywood studios, others on location in Chicago, Nebraska, etc. The candidate himself was invited to Hollywood -- or to some other NBC station if necessary -- “to participate in a broadcast during a certain week,” following research by program staff to find the person whose life story offered good human interest material. Following the re-enactment of various scenes in the candidate’s life, going from the present to the past, sometimes back to the day of the candidate’s birth, Ralph Edwards looked into their Future. It was during the second spot that the honor guest was presented with a special reward coinciding with some particular need or ambition that he had. This reward came in the form of cash, a college scholarship, a new home, business equipment, medical care, etc., and was known as the “Philip Morris Future” gift for the candidate.

Commercial announcers are Ken Roberts, John Holbrook and Art Bellinger.
Music by Alexander Laszlo and his Orchestra.
Johnny the Philip Morris Boy was done by Freddy (Buddy) Douglas. 
Producer is Al Pashal, with Ralph Edwards also taking part in over-all production.
Scripts by Ralph Edwards and Axel Gruenberg.

Director of production is Axel Gruenberg.

Having documented each and every radio broadcast (a recent project of mine), I stumbled upon half a dozen episodes that absolutely piqued my interest and I thought they might intrigue you, as well.

Episode #16, “HONOREE DR. DAVID D. OAK”
Broadcast February 22, 1949
 Summary: Dr. David D. Oak, rural doctor of La Crosse, Indiana, is the honor guest, chosen as “Family Doctor of the Year” for the state of Indiana in 1948. Appearing on the program in addition to members of Dr. Oak’s family including his son who is also a physician, are Dr. David Oak’s nurse, Mary McDonald, who has been serving the doctor in that capacity for 30 years; and Clark Elking, now on the staff of Jim Handy, producers of commercial films. Clark was the first baby brought into the world by Dr. Oak – the doctor has delivered over 3,000 babies! Also on the program were other friends and patients. For Dr. Oak’s “Philip Morris Future,” he received a Fisher Electric Automatic Diathermy Machine to replace the one that he recently lost in an explosion in his office; arrangements to have his entire office and home equipped with Venetian Blinds; and an outboard motor boat to take the doctor on his favorite sport expedition – fishing!

Episode #17, “HONOREE LEE ROY ‘LASSES’ WHITE”
Broadcast March 1, 1949
Summary: Lee Roy White, better known as “Lasses” White, the old-time minstrel man currently playing roles in movies and appearing as Harold in the Beulah radio program series, is guest of honor. Twenty-five years prior, Lasses White was one of the top minstrel men of the land. Many of his old friends and fellow minstrel stars were on the program to help “review” his life. With the help of these special guests and through the cooperation of Mrs. Lee Roy White, Lasses’ wife and helper for 28 years, one of the old minstrel routines was re-enacted on the program with Lasses in his old role as “end man.” Mrs. White brought in the original scripts, etc., for the occasion. Taking part with Lasses were: John Swar, one half of the Moran and Mack team of “Two Black Crows”; Billy Beard, one of the great monologists of the minstrel shows; William Speath, who helped Lasses back the “Lasses White Minstrels” and keep it on the road for nine years of successful seasons; Skeets Mayo, the man who played the end man opposite Lasses; Chester Wilson, dancer and singer with the “Lasses White Minstrels”; Chill Wills, famous for his comedy characters in movies but getting his start with the minstrels; Peeny Elmo, another great minstrel man; Jimmy MacDonald, now a picture-writer in Hollywood, once a singer in “Lasses White Minstrels”; Ernest Reeves, featured singer with Lasses; Verne Phelps, of Nashville, Pennsylvania, who gave Lasses his first chance by putting him into a play called Jessie James, and who acts as “Interlocutor” for tonight’s minstrel show; and Neal Abel, one of the great minstrel men of 1914, who got Lasses a place with the Honey Boy Evans Minstrel Shows in New York.

In this evening’s performance, Lasses White sings his own ballad, “Mine, All Mine.” For his Philip Morris Future, Lasses White and the “missus” get a combination radio-phonograph-television set, a wall-to-wall carpet for their living room; a week’s vacation at a great fishing resort, the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, with an express courier at their command during the entire stay, and an honorary title for Lasses of “Rear Admiral of Lake Mead”; plus the setting aside by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce of a special celebration to be held annually as “Lasses White Day.”

The name “Lasses,” as explained on the program, was given to Lee Roy White because he was so fond of molasses when he was a boy – White was born on a ranch near Willis Point, Texas, August 28, 1888. An announcement is made during this broadcast that This is Your Life was named the “outstanding new program of 1948” in the Annual Distinguished Achievement Awards presented by Life magazine.

Episode #18, “HONOREE AUDIE MURPHY”
Broadcast March 8, 1949
Summary: Audie Murphy, 24-year-old actor, known as “the most decorated soldier of World War II,” holder of 24 decorations including every American medal given for valor, is the guest of honor. Audie Murphy was born the son of a share cropper near Kingston, Texas. Helping Audie Murphy “review his life” are his wife, movie actress Wanda Hendrix; his cousin, Elizabeth Lingo; his teacher when he was in the second grade, Mrs. Biff Connelly, now with the Telephone Company in Celeste, Texas; his childhood fishing-and-hunting pal, Monroe Hackney, of Celeste, Texas; his buddy in Company B, 15th Inf. Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, Martin L. Kelly, now of Bar Harbor, Maine; his machine-gunner sergeant, Sgt. James R. Fife, an American Indian, who was severely injured at Anzio Beachhead; the Colonel who pinned the Gold Bar of First Lt. on Audie Murphy, Lt. Colonel Hallet Edson; one of the 32 men who were trapped in the Battle of the Colmar Pocket with Audie Murphy’s directing the field artillery fire, Lt. Walter W. Weispfennig; movie star James Cagney who first invited Audie to Hollywood and thus started him on his movie career; and Claudine Tipton, the 15-year-old daughter of the late Lattie Tipton, of Erwin Tennessee. Lattie Tipton, who was killed in action, was one of Murphy’s best buddies. Audie Murphy shared Tippy’s letter from his daughter and for the first time he met Claudine personally. 

For his Philip Morris Future, Audie Murphy and his wife, Wanda Hendrix, present in their names, a complete high school Commencement wardrobe designed by Dee Dee Johnson, to Claudine Tipton, plus a gold and diamond Bulova wrist watch engraved “From Wanda and Audie Murphy,” a “person gift,” Audie is presented with a deer rifle and a special plug asking listeners to buy Audie’s book about the War, To Hell and Back

Episode #22, “HONOREE MERIAN COOPER”
Broadcast April 5, 1949
Summary: Merian C. Cooper, movie producer and director, combat pilot in World War I and World War II, reporter, adventurer, and an “all-around-great guy” is the honor guest. Taking part in the tribute to Mr. Cooper are his wife and children. His wife is the former Dorothy Jordan, actress; Fay Wray, movie star; Ginger Rogers, who was “made" in the dance team with Fred Astaire under Cooper’s direction; Fred Astaire presented in a recording made before the original transcription because Astaire was unable to be present for the broadcast/transcribing; Edmund C. Leonard of Chicago, who served as Cooper’s plane gunner in the 1918 War and whose life was saved by Cooper during that time; Rev. Hugh Taylor who was a missionary in Siam and Burma during 1925 and 1926 and who became a staunch friend of Cooper while Cooper was seeking filming adventures for his great picture Chang; Arthur Bliss Lane, author of I See Poland, Merian Cooper fought in Poland in 1920 when Mr. Lane was American Ambassador to Bland. Cooper’s statue today stands in Warsaw along with that of Lincoln and Washington; John R. Allison, former Flying Tiger, now Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aviation; and General George C. Kenney, U.S. Air Force (Gen. Kenney is now in command of Air University, Maxwell Field, Alabama).

For his Philip Morris Future, Cooper receives a set of matched grain Camoys pipes for his pipe collection, a television set, and a Victor Anamanigraph Sound Motion Picture projector and camera.

Episode #42, “HONOREES GEN. JAMES W. MOORE and COMMANDER THEODORE A. PENLAND” (PARTS ONE AND TWO)
Broadcast November 23, 1949 and November 30, 1949
Summary: Highlights of the broadcasts include the boyhood and enlistment of the two veterans in the Union and Confederate Armies – both of whom fibbed about their ages in order to get into uniform. Their experiences, the reactions of their fellowmen as the bitter War years ended, etc. The later years of the veterans’ lives was honored on November 30. Which demonstrates just how historically significant the radio broadcasts of This is Your Life remain today. Only a handful of recordings circulate among collectors but all of the episodes do exist in recorded form and hopefully one day we will have the opportunity to listen to them.

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