Please Keep These Pages Free; Check Out Our Sponsors by Clicking the Banner!

Your Advertisement Could Be On This Page!

Your Advertisement Could Be On This Page!



If you appreciate The Nostalgia Pages,
The OTR Digest, The Forums, The Blog,
and our other services, please consider
contributing to their maintenance.


 


Quick-Poll!

OTR attracts people of all ages; how old are you?

< 10 years old
10-19 years old
20-29 years old
30-39 years old
40-49 years old
50-59 years old
60-69 years old
70-79 years old
80+ years old


Channels
Nostalgic Rumblings Blog
The Nostalgia Pages

  Nostalgia

  Mailing Lists

  Book Reviews

  Monthly Columns

    Retro-Views

    Radio Moments of Century

    The Curmudgeon

    Struts and Frets

      On Fame

      On Interpretation

      On Critics

      On George Reeves

      On Questions

      On Music and Sound

      On Hans Conried

      On Writers

      On Dwight Hauser

      On Auditions

      On Directors

      On KFWB

      On Recording

      On Sylvester Gross

      On Radio Acting

  Charlie's OTR Pages

  FOTR Con Info

  Quick-Poll Vote Results

  Gotham Players

  Bartell on IRC

  Shows Page

  Search Page

  Episode Logs

  The Phorums

  Credits


Proud Affiliate Of


Contact Webmaster


Other Areas

Advertising Rates

L.O.F. Communications


Search


Nostalgia Pages  Web


Page Last
Modified

Sat, Feb 28, 2004
01:45:57 PM EST

Contents and Source
Material Copyright © 2004,
L.O.F. Communications
All Rights Reserved

 
In Celebration:
Harry Bartell
1913-2004


Struts and Frets
By Harry Bartell

On KFWB

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 noon.

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.