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Struts and FretsBy Harry Bartell
Going to work at KFWB in the early 1940s was like checking in at a ghost town. The studios were located on the old
Warner Brothers motion picture lot at the corner of Sunset and Bronson in Hollywood and besides the building housing
the radio studio and one or two others used as warehouses there was a collection of silent stages. It was an eerie feeling.
There should have been crew members wheeling bits of set - pieces or props and at least a few actors in makeup and
costume walking around. Sound stages have a mystique all of their own. They have a distinctive smell for one thing. It
consists of a slight musty, dusty odor combined with hints of shellac, raw wood, makeup and a few other odd ingredients.
They are nearly always quite dark, the only light coming from the set where the company is working.
My being there was the result of a disc jockey with the improbable name of Peter Potter being drafted. Pete was from
Oklahoma I think and had never lost his native sound. He was a rival of Al Jarvis, the West Coast Martin Block. The
advertising company handling the account was the same one that had handled the Dixie Hospitality Store. They had heard
my untamed accent and I was a proper replacement for draftee Potter. Apparently the country sound was an important
feature of advertising used cars and I was crowned with the magnificent title: Cottontop. I wasn't thrilled with the idea. It
didn't fit very snugly in the megastar program, but Bev and I had just returned from a miserable, freezing winter of
frustration in New York and the job paid $25! For that, all I had to do was go on Friday to the sponsor, pick up a list of
used cars he wanted to feature, go to the station and choose three hours worth of records and list them in order for the
engineer and myself, come back at 8:30 AM Sunday to prepare for a 9:00 o'clock air time and do the show until 12:00
One of those Sundays was December 7, 1941. It was about 10:30 when the staff announcer came into the booth where I
was working and handed me a tear from the news wire. It was datelined Oahu and the whole message read, "Pearl Harbor
reported bombed by enemy planes". The announcer, Bob Greene, whose appearances on my program were five minute
newscasts on the top of the hour said, "What do you think I should do?" I said, "It must be a mistake. Why don't you wait
and see what happens?" Well, it happened. It happened very quickly. Additional stories kept pouring in and put on the air
as soon as they were received. I had to fill out an hour and a half of pop music while the world was coming to an end. It
was especially rewarding three and a half years later when I was able to celebrate the end of the war as part of Norman
Corwin's VE day program.
Cottontop's sponsor called his establishment The Smiling Irishman. I think that was supposed to imply warm, friendly
and generous attention. Because I was being paid I couldn't very well tell my listeners not to believe everything they
heard. And I couldn't very well apprise the public of the rumor that worn out brakes were being repaired with sawdust and
molasses. With the country at war, new car production was stopped and the demand for used cars rose even with gasoline
rationing and price controls. I never could understand why the Smiling Irishman always had a fistful of gas ration coupons
when other people had one or two. And I could never meet his demand that I describe his cars as gems in the Cadillac class
when they were quite obviously clunkers even when washed. I had some leeway when I was on the air because the only
written copy I used was the classified ad section listing his cars. The ad lib structure had a number of advantages. It also
had potential pitfalls. The show came on the air with a theme which faded for my opening line which was some inspired
remark like "Hi, y'all. This is Cottontop saying..." One morning the theme came on, I punched the announce button,
opened my mouth, and nothing came out. I couldn't think of one word, not even my name. There was a long, unscheduled
pause and then I just broke up. I was still laughing when the theme played out but I managed to get out a song title.
That announce button that opened the mike was right next to what was called a cough button which cut the announcer
temporarily off the air exclusive of the engineer. In the middle of a commercial one day I knew I was either going to have a
burp or expire on the spot. I found a logical pause in the sentence, hit the cough button and let go with a real roarer. I
started to open the mike again when I looked at the desk and to my horror noted the red light was still on. It was then that
I looked into the control booth. The expression on the engineer's face was a marvel to behold. I suppose the audience
couldn't figure out why there was a thunderstorm in the middle of a sunny day.
My dear sponsor, the Smiling Irishman, did come in very handy. In 1941 Bev and I had departed New York in a 1936
Plymouth sedan for which we had tearfully paid $250. We got as far as Virginia on a Sunday afternoon when I suddenly
noticed that the rest of the car wasn't paying any attention to the steering wheel. I managed to pull over into the red dirt
and turned off the engine. That used up my knowledge of what to do. We sat there wondering if there was anyone we could
call if there was a telephone we could find when a pickup truck pulled up ahead of us and a man got out and inquired if we
were having trouble. I agreed that was our situation and he volunteered to take a look. After a rather quick inspection he
informed us that we had thrown a tie rod end, whatever that was. He couldn't fix it but he said he knew a man in the next
town who could. With that he drove off and we sat wondering if we would ever see civilization again. About a half hour
later, he was back with another man who apologized for the delay because he had to find a part. Our tie rod was put back
together. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I asked the two how much I owed them and the first savior said
rather bashfully, "Would two dollars be all right?" Ah, the remembrance of things past!
We didn't have any more car trouble until the radiator gave out but we finally made it to California. The Plymouth was
performing well in the voyages back and forth between KFWB and Santa Anita Oaks, about a 45 minute drive, until one
day when I started to leave the radio station I discovered that the only gears functioning were third and reverse. That did it.
But the Smiling Irishman came to the rescue. He let me have a 1940 Studebaker coupe at a tremendous discount which
meant that it was the price he would normally charge. I have to admit one thing. It really was an excellent automobile.
To the best of my knowledge KFWB never was a network affiliate but they did considerable local dramatic programming
that was quite popular in the Los Angeles area. Sometimes their studios were used when network stations were short of
studio space. It was there that Edward G. Robinson was doing the Big Town broadcast. I didn't know Mr. Robinson well
even after working on a miserable film called Black Tuesday in which he starred. However, I enjoyed watching him
produce a truly impressive tirade in which I was involved. When our daughter was born I wanted to take out some
additional life insurance. My application at Equitable Life was turned down. I couldn't understand why when I was told
that it was a result of the physical exam because I knew that the excuse was false. Through some back door inquiry I found
out that the real reason for the refusal was that being an actor I was a bad moral risk. There had been no investigation of
my personal life. This was a class action. I was still steaming when I went to a Big Town rehearsal and mentioned what
had happened. Mr.G. took my problem as a personal insult to all actors and shouted that he was going to take this to
Screen Actors Guild, the President of the United States and even higher authorities if necessary. For a small man he was
able to sound very tall. Later New York Life turned me down because Equitable had. It had a happy ending finally when a
third company wrote the policy I wanted with no objections.
The KFWB staff included two names with which I had a lot of future contacts. One was John Dehner. John did the news
breaks on the hour and always sounded very official. I used to drive him crazy with zany introductions and he had to
regroup before he started his news. I had no idea then that ten years later we would work together time after time on a show
called Gunsmoke. I'll always remember and be grateful to John for something he did for me. We were talking one day, or
probably I was moaning and he was talking. I had reached the stage of an employment slump when I couldn't figure out
what I had done wrong or whom I had insulted but I knew that everyone hated me and I would never work again. This
kind of a situation was not unusual for a freelance actor. John said some consoling words to the effect that this sort of
thing was part of the business and that was the end of the conversation. The next time I saw him he handed me a little box
that contained a small mustard seed in plastic on a chain, and a note: Matthew 17:20. By the time I lost it many years later
I knew he was right.
The other staff member was announcer Neil Reagan. Neil went to CBS as an announcer, became an assistant director, then
a director , especially of the Dr. Christian series, then to McCann-Erickson of which he later became head honcho. My
first contact with him as a director was on Romance of the Ranchos. In passing, my first Dr. Christian show provided me
with some unwanted excitement. The scripts were printed by a Ditto copier that produced a light purple image. There was
nothing wrong with that although it was not quite so easy to read as a black copy from a mimeograph duplicator.
Everything went smoothly in rehearsal but when we went on the air before an audience, the microphones were lit by
spotlights that wore a magenta filter over them. I walked from my chair to the microphone and all the text disappeared in
the magenta light. For a moment I was totally lost until I figured out that by tilting the script slightly away from the
direct light the text reappeared.
A log says that I did 42 shows of the Dr. Christian series and to me that indicates that I was on more than casual
speaking terms with Neil beginning at KFWB. As he grew in importance I sensed that he had changed somewhat from the
laidback guy he had been. Part of that had to do with Rosemary DeCamp who played the nurse in the good doctor's office.
Rosemary was a very warm, friendly lady who nevertheless had strong political feelings that turned out to be considerably
more toward the left than Mr. Reagan's. There were frequent jibes between the studio and the booth and some of them had
more of an edge than mere joshing. This was during the McCarthy hysteria when everyone was being accused of
something. As a non-contracted player I was very silent until one day Neil started off on an anti-communist discourse
headed with the phrase "If you only knew..." which indicated that he had a personal pipeline to all intelligence services,
and ending with the promised execution of all suspects. I made the mistake of asking, "What if they are innocent?" I
haven't been shocked by too many things but his answer was one of them, "I don't care if there are a dozen innocent men if
we get one of those bastards!" At that point my future relations with Neil indicated extreme caution.
Then came my being blacklisted. I never made the Big Time like Red Channels, nor was I ever called before an
investigating committee. In fact, I didn't know I was being blacklisted until Peter Leeds, an actor friend who did a lot of
work with Bob Hope and Stan Freberg asked me if I was aware of the fact. Some dolt who was doing recordings for the
American Red Cross had set himself up as the Los Angeles Führer and using criteria unknown to me had disseminated a
list of actors whom he had personally selected for unemployment. In light of this new unpleasantness I went to see my
buddy Neil Reagan, the Man Who Knew. The ensuing dialogue went something like this:
Harry: What the hell is all this about?
Neil: Well, you brought it on yourself.
Harry: What do you mean?
Neil: Hanging around the Actors Lab for one thing.
Harry: Neil, not only have I not been hanging around the
Actors Lab, I haven't even seen one of their productions.
Neil: And then you were having coffee with Paul McVeigh at Brittingham's....
Harry: Am I supposed to ask a man's politics before I can have a cup
of coffee with him?
Neil: I'm not telling you what to do. I'm simply answering your question.
I never worked on Dr. Christian again. Neil became a big name in advertising.
The Actors Lab to which he referred was the West Coast sibling of the Actors Studio in New York. It was a lineal descendant of the Group Theater and responsible for the popularity of The Method in acting. Paul McVeigh was a character actor in radio and film. I know nothing of his background except that he seemed to be liberal in politics. The real irony of the blacklisting, which didn't put me out of business but did cost me, was at that time I was working regularly on Gunsmoke and Dragnet. Every actor cast on Gunsmoke had to be cleared in New York by the vice president in charge of Red Channels. Dragnet actors were cleared by the Los Angeles Police Department. Not only that, my wife and I had been checked out by the FBI when her brother applied for and was accepted as an FBI agent.
There was another encounter with the FBI. It came about in connection with an organization called the Hollywood
Independent Citizens Committee for the Arts, Sciences and Professions. The acronym by which it was known sounded like
a drunken snake: HICCASP. It was formed ostensibly to support Roosevelt in 1944 and presented itself as a liberal
political group. In hindsight it is easy to make out the heavy communist influence. Early on it was studded with big
names from motion pictures, and imbued with a budding interest in politics, I joined. After some months I received notice
they were forming a subcommittee of radio performers and I was asked to serve on the board. It didn't take too long to find
out that plans were being dominated by two actors, John Brown and Georgia Backus. There hadn't been much noise in
AFRA circles about those two setting out to overthrow the government by force and violence and I had paid no attention
to the original meeting being held in the home of John Howard Lawson, a highly suspect screen writer. After all, screen
writers did not hire radio actors. In a planning meeting one afternoon, John and Georgia made a suggestion that I could not
follow. I objected that it was too difficult to understand. My reasoning was that if I didn't know what they were talking
about, the man on the street certainly would not. They then indicated that I should sit down and shut up; their plan would
be used. That was when I resigned and sent a letter to HICCASP to that effect.
Despite my resignation I started receiving mail from the Los Angeles Communist Party and the Progressive Party
sponsoring Henry Wallace for President. I wrote both of them to say I was not interested and wanted my name taken off
their lists. When all the blacklist noise hit me I went to the Los Angeles office of the FBI to complain. I had copies of the
letters I had written. They made copies of those and then said, "Who do you know who are communists?" I answered quite
truthfully that I didn't know anyone I could say was a communist and what about the fact that my livelihood was being
threatened by false charges. The reply: "If any authorized government agency makes an inquiry we will show them the
letters." I love the FBI.
Neil Reagan had a younger brother, Ronald. I came athwart him in 1947 when I was a member of the national board of
AFRA, the American Federation of Radio Artists. My being there included some previous hassles. In the last union
election, for the first time there had been political campaigning with broadsides written and distributed. There was a very
strong right wing element which had controlled the local and national boards. A group more liberally inclined put up an
opposition slate which was unusual in itself and asked me to run. I agreed. Union elections, for the most part have all the
animation of a stockholders proxy vote but revolutions do sometimes crop up. In this case one side wanted more
representation by the members, the other side wanted to save the union from the dastardly deeds of the communists who
were going to destroy it. I don't know how or why but I was elected.
There was a new player in the union field, a thing called television. Actors Equity claimed control because almost
everything was done live in New York. The writing on the wall pointed toward production on film and/or magnetic tape.
With a very possible war in the offing, the idea which had been proposed before was brought up again. Why not have a
single union to cover actors in all fields? The idea suffers from being entirely logical. In the early arguments, Reagan was
making hard distinctions between screen actors and radio actors. The fact that every one in the meeting carried cards in both
unions didn't seem to register with him. He was busy protecting the Screen Guild treasury which was much fatter than
AFRA's -it probably still is- and saving it from the peasants who were not real actors because they worked only on the
stage or in radio. As a member of the Screen Guild hierarchy he was known as the representative from General Electric.
The thing that finished me with Ronald Reagan occurred when he was head of SAG. At a membership meeting that was
dealing with contract negotiations the subject of residuals for motion pictures came up for discussion. Frank Nelson who
had been national president of AFRA pleaded from the floor for a strong clause for payments for repeated use of films in
television. Reagan took the stance that the actor had been paid for his work and that was that. Frank argued that it was a
disastrous mistake to allow unlimited use of film thereby cutting the actor's employment opportunities. Reagan got angry
and accused Frank Nelson of being a communist. I walked out of the meeting and never attended another one.
Frank Nelson was a very conservative Republican who had devoted his life to the union cause. He even voted against the
Republican candidate for governor of California, William Knowland, who had opposed unions with a Right to Work
program. There was a very sound reason for Nelson's argument and I can prove it. When I worked on I Love Lucy before
there was any union coverage for TV I was paid $75 for five days rehearsal and filming and I had to sign away any claim to
future payment in order to get the job. It is still playing fifty years later. Unions have been maligned, often with just
cause, but in situations like that the actor was at the mercy of the producer. More than trying to establish better basic salary
levels, the three unions to which I belong have all paid pensions and two of them provided health benefits for surgeries,
dental work, and prescriptions for me and my wife that would have been impossible to cover otherwise. And at least in the
entertainment field the unions have been run by the members' elected boards not hired executives.
Harry Bartell maintains that his major accomplishment as a professional actor for forty years was to survive with his mind, morale and marriage intact.
Born in 1913 in New Orleans, he grew up in Houston and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University in 1933. After a stint at Harvard Business School and a couple of years forced labor in a department store he moved to Hollywood and stayed there for the next fifty-one years. Three seasons at the Pasadena Playhouse led to work in 185 radio series and 77 TV series plus a dozen or so properly forgettable motion pictures. He passed away on February 26, 2004.
These columns were originally written for the Internet Old-Time Radio Digest.