Famous Radio Programs of the 1960s
By the early 1960s, many of the more popular radio shows either made the transition to television or were cancelled, and only a few fan favorites remained. Though the format of the radio drama all but evaporated, the future of radio was given new life with the introduction of the transistor radio. Portable radios, rock and roll and the youth of America played a large part in helping radio stations to flourish in the 1950s and 1960s. While news was still a mainstay, programming generally made the shift from story segments to mostly music. AM and FM stations began to take divergent paths in their programming and remain so even today. Because of better sound quality, FM stations became the frequency of choice for music programming, while talk radio and news was generally, though not exclusively, broadcast on AM stations.
The dawning of a new age in radio was clearly undeniable, but a loyal following of die-hard fans kept a
hand-full of shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense on the air until the early 1960s.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
|Radio Actor Bob Bailey
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was one of the most popular and longest running crime dramas in radio history. The show ran for over 12 years and recounted the cases of insurance investigator Johnny Dollar. The name of the show was derived from the closing narrative. Johnny, who notoriously padding his expense account, closed
each episode by totaling his expense report and signing it
“End of report…Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.”
Johnny Dollar employed some of the most creative writers in the industry who used several interesting devices to set the show apart from other crime stories. For example, as a freelance investigator, Johnny’s cases took him all over the world. Also, there was no partner, assistant or secretary for Johnny and frequently, characters on the show would mention that they had heard about his cases on the radio. Because of the excellent writing and creative storylines, the show was never at a loss for first-rate radio talent in the guest star and supporting cast roles. In “The Price of Fame Matter”, Vincent Price co-starred as himself and traveled to Europe with Johnny on the case, and Virginia Gregg played many roles including Johnny’s girlfriend, Betty Lewis.
Eight different actors played the role of Johnny Dollar, but Bob Bailey, who took over the part after the show took a hiatus from 1954-55, was considered the favorite. Most actors played the character as the stereotypical hard-boiled investigator, but Bob Bailey humanized the part. His Johnny Dollar was smart and tough when he needed to be, but also became emotionally involved in some of his cases.
After the one year hiatus, Johnny Dollar changed time slots and became a daily continuing serial airing five
15-minutes segments per week. This new format gave the show the opportunity to more fully develop the storylines and give the characters added depth. The result was one of the most interesting crime dramas of
its genre. When the final episode “The Tip-Off Matter” was aired on September 30, 1962, many hailed it the end of an era – the end of the Golden Age of Radio.
Despite its immense popularity, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was one of the many casualties of the transition from radio to the small screen. Although Bob Bailey was the most popular Johnny Dollar on radio, he was considered to be too small in stature to play the role on television, and the producers of the TV series did not believe that the public would accept another actor in the part.
Advertised as “Radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”, another classic of the Golden Age of Radio was a program aptly named Suspense. The show’s originator and producer, William Spier, has been named among great masters of the suspense genre along with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. The storylines were tightly woven thrillers based on plausible real-life situations – simple ordinary people caught up in circumstances that spiraled out of control.
Spier also became famous for getting great performances out of the show’s stars by using a special technique of under rehearsing the actors in order to keep them slightly on edge to enhance the level of tension during an episode. This method, along with excellent scripts, worked so well that in 1943, Cary Grant was reportedly quoted as saying that ‘if he ever did any more radio work, he wanted to do it on Suspense, where he would get a good chance to act.’ Suspense attracted some of the best actors of Hollywood along with the great stars of radio including Agnes Moorehead, Charles Laughton, Eve Arden, Rita Hayworth, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, William Conrad, Loretta Young, Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelley, Jack Webb and Cary Grant to name a few.
By far, the most popular episode of Suspense was “Sorry, Wrong Number”. It was written by Lucille Fletcher who was one of the more noteworthy radio writers of the day. Veteran radio actor Agnes Moorehead played the lead role in this episode in which a panicked, invalid woman tries to convince a telephone operator she has overheard someone plotting a murder on a crossed phone line. “Sorry, Wrong Number,” was first broadcast on May 25, 1943, and was repeated seven times with the last on February 14, 1960. In 1948, the radio broadcast was turned into a blockbuster movie with Barbara Stanwyck playing the lead role. Another famous episode was “The Hitchhiker” starring Orson Welles, which was also written by Lucille Fletcher. The Hitchhiker” has been reproduced time and time again as television episodes and movies throughout the years.
An interesting anecdote to Suspense regards June Havoc, the wife of William Spier, the show’s creator/producer. Once known as Dainty June, the famous vaudevillian child star, June Havoc is also the sister of the burlesque stripper
Gypsy Rose Lee and the co-subject of the famous movie
Gypsy Rose Lee starring Natalie Wood. Pushed into performing by her overly ambitious stage mother, June
began playing bits in silent film shorts at the age of two.
She appeared in twenty-four Hal Roach comedies and was earning $1500 a week as a vaudeville headliner by
the time she was five. In an attempt to escape a traumatic childhood and have more control over her life, she married the first of three husbands at age 13. By the time she reached her late teens during the Great Depression, vaudeville was ending, so she modeled and participated in dance marathons to make a living.
She still holds a record for marathon dancing in 1933.
Although never fully achieving the success she desired in films, June was an accomplished actress on Broadway and on television. In 1944 she won a Donaldson Award, in 1959 she authored an autobiography, Early Havoc, and wrote and directed the autobiographical Broadway play Marathon 33 in 1963.
Another interesting anecdote is the account of a dangerous mishap during a broadcast of a Sam Spade episode, prior to June’s marriage to William Spier. Sam Spade is a crime melodrama that was also produced
At one point during the live broadcast, a gunshot sound effect went off too close to June and set her skirt on fire. Being a long-time acting veteran and a consummate professional, she calmly kept reading her script while the control booth was panic stricken and the props guy threw some water on her to extinguish the fire. According to Tana Sibilio, June’s personal assistant, “If Bill Spier hadn’t been in love with her already, her
sang-froid while literally on fire, let alone under it, would have sealed the deal! And Miss Havoc says that’s
what won her admission in the special cadre of radio actors.”