Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve radio: SUSPENSE "The Old Man" (Dec. 31, 1961)

As we prepare to ring out the old year, it's worth noting that not all old years are ready to go. 2016 feels like one that most people are anxious to have done with, but the sentiment isn't new. Here it illustrated in a late-run installment of Suspense from New York, broadcast over CBS on New Year's Eve, 1961: "The Old Man."

Here we have an atypical late-run installment of Suspense. It's not very suspenseful, *but* it's also one of the better shows from the waning years, when the series returned to New York. The cast (more on them as we go along) is headlined by Leon Janney in the title role, and Reynold Osborne (who did SUSPENSE and YOURS TRULY JOHNNY DOLLAR periodically between 1961-1962, but I can't find anything else about him). The "heard in tonight's story" crowd are a seasoned bunch, in order of billing, Lawson Zerbe, Ivor Francis, Larry Haines, Ralph Camargo, Rita Lloyd, and Guy Repp (in a one-liner as Johnson).


By 1961, radio was an old man itself. To save money in the waning years of network radio, CBS relocated both Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to New York (where the radio soaps were still going), in the fall of 1959. By the end of 1962, the soaps were long gone (or moved to TV) and the theater of thrills and the man with the action packed expense account were both axed. Even by 1959, the heyday of Hollywood stars like Cary Grant or Ida Lupino emoting on Suspense had passed; the last few Hollywood years were dominated by the radio stalwarts (and a few names like Vincent Price who might drop in because they still loved the medium). The NY talent pool (old radio pros, stage veterans, a few early TV folks) was more than capable (some like Ian Martin even worked Suspense from the beginning, *before* the Hollywood move).

The real problem lay with the scripts. The show had run through the classics by this point, and it was so hard to get good writers that often the actors (or even technical staff) would contribute (with results ranging from decent to abysmal). "The Old Man" is better than I expected, a fun fantasy reminiscent of Norman Corwin (especially "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones" or "The Undecided Molecule.") This was writer Bob Corcoran's first of three scripts for Suspense, when he was a staff writer for CBS's Stagestruck (blend of variety and interviews, focused on the theater) and TV variety shows (Patti Page), but also dramatic scripts for radio's Rocky King and Modern Romance.

We open with a radio announcer (Camargo) along Broadway interviewing people on New Year's Eve (and trying to keep them from stepping on his wire). One of the folks he encounters is an inebriated gent identified in the credits as "The Tippler" (played by the great Larry Haines). After interviewing senior cab driver Joe Walston (Zerbe), the announcer shrewdly bundles the drunk into the cab.

Meanwhile, in some sort of celestial bureaucracy (Times Past, Present, and Future), the Director (Osborne) and secretary Miss Fowler (Rita Lloyd) discuss the retirement party for "the old man." He knew it was a short-term job, after all. The pompous director harries his assistant (Ivor Francis) but is aware that he has to answer to... "the Chairman of the Board" (heavily implied to be God).

The old man himself resists the notion and the standard gold watch, since he already has his own timepiece (the big hour glass, no doubt). He makes his way to earth... and explicitly, to the New York street where Walston and his pickled passenger spot him. Assuming he's headed to a New Year's Eve costume party, Walston picks him up, talks about retirement age... and then they find themselves transferred back to those otherworldly offices of time and space (snatched by the assistant, though his director chides him for getting those "other two clowns.") Walston's reaction is priceless, thinking the cab must have cracked up and now, "we're deadsville or something?" The pompous director resents that assumption (and word). "Nutsville?!?"

From here, the Old Man tries to argue that he can still fix the problems of 1961 (and thinks the baby new year 1962 looks rather stupid). Walston, now fully aware of what's going on, points out that a lot of people (including himself) will not be sorry to see Old 1961 go (sound familiar?) and encourages him to let the new year take its place, for good or ill. Will the new year of 1962 commence or not? Will the year chime? What will become of the calendars?? Listen and find out.

The sound on the above link is fuzzy in spots and pitch sounds a trifle off, but it's still a good show (and familiar voices like Ivor Francis and Larry Haines are still recognizable).

Cast notes:
Leon Janney, who does a great cranky old man voice here, was 44 at the time, but he knew all about aging out of a job. He had been a former child actor in the late twenties and early thirties, starring in Penrod and Sam (as Penrod) and he was featured in exactly one "Our Gang" entry, Bear Shooters. In adulthood, he worked heavily on radio (including Number One Son on Charlie Chain, John Cole and other suitors on The Romance of Helen Trent), and by this point was appearing near weekly on Suspense. TV included episodes of Car 54, Where Are You and The Defenders. He was later heard on the revival series CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and on National Lampoon Radio Hour (narrating the "Flash Bazbo" segments)

Lawson Zerbe was one of the busiest voices of NY radio, from at least 1937 onward, from soaps and serials to anthologies. He starred as the title characters on The Adventures of Frank Merriwell and Pepper Young's Family (for a time anyway, preceding Mason Adams). He played photographer Dusty Miller on Big Town and was heard at various times on the soap The Road of Life as Dr. Jim Brent's brother Fred and later as his adopted son Butch. Lots of X-Minus One (along with nearly everyone in this episode), Inner Sanctum, Mutual's mystery anthologies, and more.

Unlike most of the others in "The Old Man," Zerbe didn't do on-camera work or even Broadway. He stayed behind the mic, heard in children's records for MGM from the sixties through the seventies (playing the Gingerbread Man, for example). He continued to be heard on NBC's The Eternal Light (which, under their public affairs division, continued to broadcast, finally ending in the eighties.)

Ivor Francis (as the assistant to the director) is a personal favorite of mine. He was heard all over the New York airwaves, including Studio One, X-Minus One, and others. He was most familiar on-camera, however, with his weary face popping up in character roles, often as gentle but absent-minded professor types, doctors, or clergy. He had a regular role on the not-so-hot "Gilligan in the Old West" series Dusty's Trail (as the wealthy Easterner, the millionaire counterpart), recurred on Room 222 as old-fashioned English teacher Kenneth Dragen, was a frequent arrestee on Barney Miller (as shown above), and had guest turns on The Defenders, Kojak, Quincy, Happy Days, Get Smart (as a Stanislavsky-style acting coach), and countless others.

Larry Haines often played crooks, bartenders, tough guy detectives, or general blue collar types. An obvious New Yorker, he could lend menace or humor to his roles, depending, heard on several prior (and subsequent) Suspense installments, Gangbusters (of course), Treasury Agent (starring as the lead, Joe Lincoln), That Hammer Guy (as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who fared better on TV), X-Minus One, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and hundreds more (including soap stints, such as The Second Mrs. Burton as Lew Archer and on Rosemary as Lefty Higgins, another gangster type, but this one tried to reform). He transitioned well into movies and TV, highlighted by playing poker buddy Speed in The Odd Couple and a long stint on Search for Tomorrowt as Stu Bergen. He also worked Broadway (billed as "A. Larry Haines," for some reason), originating the part of Jason Robards' brother in A Thousand Clowns, as well as the lead in Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Dr. Dreyfus in Promises, Promises.

Ralph Camargo, as the above industry ad indicates, acted, announced (on the Marine Corps recruitment series Marine Story), and narrated (including on the 1959 Suspense version of "The Country of the Blind.") He was a perennial "featured in the cast were" player on X-Minus One and other NY series. ON TV, he sometimes played judges on soaps.

Rita Lloyd worked New York radio (notably the children's series Let's Pretend) but later became a staple of TV soaps, usually as matriarch figures trying to control the lives of their children (usually daughters). Lucille on The Guiding Light was typical of the breed.

So, farewell to the old year, in with the year, even if it does seem like discrimination against the elderly. A better year for anyone reading this, and as the CBS announcer reminds us, "unscheduled stops for many this night of nights will be emergency wards, hospital beds, and the morgue... Be extra careful, extra courteous, and moderate in tonight's celebration." (And don't start a forest fire while you're at it.)

No comments: