Saturday August 31, 1935, was the beginning of the Indiana State Fair, and was also quite a gala night for two boys from Mena, Arkansas. The Indianapolis Star and the State Board of Agriculture sponsored an amateur contest, to be held in the coliseum of the fairgrounds. And out of the world of headline radio stars, Lum and Abner were the unanimous choice to act as masters of ceremony. There they were, keeping the audience laughing and applauding from beginning to end.
Lum said he felt just like Major Bowes; and Major Bowes, with all his experience, couldn't have carried an amateur contest off with more poise or ease, or have conducted a more successful one. They had all of the "hand-slapping" (as the Pine Ridge two express it) that a most exacting favorite could have desired, from the time they were drawn up to the stage in a little covered wagon pulled by two big black oxen. They were then Lum and Abner in all their regalia. At the last of the show, they finally came out on the stage as Chester Lauck and Norris Goff, two nice-looking young fellows from Arkansas.
All during the show, Abner was trying to enter the contest and sing "Just a Bird in a Gilded Cage". Lum would keep stopping him. He would leave the mic, but would each time come back in a new and funnier disguise. Once he was a little old lady in a big red plaid dress and sunbonnet. The audience cheered wildly as he sang almost through "Gilded Cage" before Lum got a chance to take off the poke bonnet and prove to himself that it was really Abner.
Next, he came back as an admiral of the Navy, with a Jimmy Durante nose, funny blue uniform, big plumed hat -- saber and all. He kept Lum and his distance with drawn sword until he sang most of his song again.
The winner of the amateur contest was to be the one who received the most applause. Abner the songbird got that, but since he wasn't a contestant, the cheering had to signify a very successful master of ceremonies.
It is a wonder the boys do not get writer's cramp from doing so much autographing. The show was to have been over at 10, but it was 12 before we left. Chet and Tuffy both said they were awfully tired, but they looked extremely happy too. One of our papers here has this to say of them:
"In the space of four short years, Lum and Abner have emerged from the practical obscurity of a small Arkansas town to join the ranks of the highest-salaried stars in the radio world today. They are rated one of the best backwoods philosophy bets on the air. Not bad for the Mena lads, not bad at all; and they are also putting that small Arkansas town on the map."
From The Mena Star, September 4, 1935
The nicest Christmas present Paul Douglas ever received was a neat little typewritten notice informing him that two weeks from date his services would no longer be required.
For he walked right out of radio station WCAU in Philadelphia, where Santa Claus brought him the odd gift, into the offices of the Columbia Broadcasting System, and there, in the short space of a year, won his way into the front rank of big league radio.
For the average individual, being fired at any time would be pretty tough, but being fired on Christmas would be a catastrophe. But catastrophes are never catastrophes for Paul Douglas. He's had plenty of them in his brief career -- more perhaps at the age of 26 than fall to the lot of the average mortal in a normal lifetime -- but he's always been able to laugh them off.
Years earlier he had scraped up carfare to Philadelphia and wandered into the studio of WCAU. He'd never had any radio experience, but he did get an audition, and landed a job on the announcing staff of the Quaker City station then and there.
In no time at all, he was WCAU's star announcer, attested to by the fact that when a new $5 million slaughterhouse was opened in Philadelphia, and WCAU was entrusted with the job of broadcasting the two-hour dedication ceremonies, Douglas was given the assignment.
If you have never dedicated a slaughterhouse, you have no idea what a tough job it is to keep things zipping along for two hours. But just when it began to appear that the final hour of the dedication would develop into one hour of silence in respect to the ill-fated cattle, the mayor of Philadelphia hove in sight.
Douglas seized upon His Honor eagerly, and explained that the going was getting pretty rough, and the mayor responded with a one-hour address of the general subject of Forward Strides in City Dressed Meats which saved the day.
Under Douglas' direction, WCAU instituted the first sports period over the radio in Philadelphia. It soon won a tremendous following, and Douglas became widely known to sports fans. His inability to take seriously any of the current luminaries of the world of sports gave his daily column a spriteliness that won the young radio sports editor wide acclaim.
One night, when the sports world happened to be in the doldrums, and there wasn't much of anything to spend 10 minutes in saying, Douglas hit on the idea of presenting the entire period in satiric verse. So many requests were received for copies of the broadcast that it was necessary to have it mimeographed to satisfy the demand. Thereafter, when things were dull, he followed that practice, and WCAU's sports listeners came eventually to prefer dull days to busy ones.
There are times, Douglas says, when he wishes faintly he were back at WCAU instead of being one of the Columbia network's aces, just so he might be conducting that sports period again.
And in his specialty, sports, Douglas pulled a radio boner that made history -- and no one except Douglas himself ever noticed it.
Handling the broadcast of the Penn State-Notre Dame football game in Philadelphia, Douglas obtained a copy of the starting lineups from both coaches. However, Knute Rockne made a last-minute change in his plans and sent in a second string backfield to start the game, in place of the famous quartet of Brill-Savoldi-Schwartz-Carideo.
Douglas didn't hear about that, and for eight minutes of thrilling play, he proceeded blissfully ignorant to credit various members of the star backfield with one touchdown after another. It wasn't until Rockne sent in the regular backs, and the change was announced, that Douglas became aware of his error. But he went right on as if nothing had happened, and the station never received a single letter calling attention to the miscue.
Stanley Yates in Radio Guide, Aug. 27-Sept. 2, 1933
Radio has started countless thrills coursing through space but few, if any, have caught hold of the world's imagination in the same way that the broadcast of William Beebe, scientist and student of ocean life, will do when he talks to the anxious world from the ocean bottom on Sunday Sept. 11 over the NBC networks.
Hundreds of thousands of radio fans will travel in imagination with Beebe when he enters his frail bell-shaped craft and is lowered -- gently -- slowly until he signals that he is within one mile of the ocean bottom. No one has ever done that before. Maybe Beebe, great scientist that he is, won't succeed.
Should the smallest plan miscarry, Beebe will never more be heard from. Every possible precaution has been taken. Oxygen tanks, delicate instruments, air-tight compartments have been provided. But who is there to know what sort of dangers this one human being floating 2,640 feet below the surface of the sea may encounter? No human has even before succeeded in penetrating to such depths. Suppose a long-armed octopus should twine its deadly coils about the slender line that connects Beebe's craft with the S.S. Ready up on the surface. Suppose the pressure should prove greater than was anticipated and the ball cracks. Suppose water begins seeping in -- one drop and Beebe would be lost to the world. There are many things that could happen to make success an illusion.
Beebe will broadcast from the ocean depths. If you are listening in on your radio and the broadcast stops suddenly, it may mean that you are an actual earwitness to a world tragedy. One of the million unforeseen possibilities for failure may at that moment have befallen one of our most noted scientists.
Encased in a steel ball, especially reinforced to withstand the tremendous pressure of the water and suspended by a chain from the S.S. Ready, Beebe will slowly be lowered to a depth of 2,640 feet beneath the ocean's surface. His strange craft will be equipped with oxygen tanks and lighted by electric torches. A powerful headlight will search out the fishes and exotic life that inhabit the eternally darkened underworld.
The floor of the ocean, at its depth near Nonsuch, 10 miles off the coast of Bermuda, where Beebe will do his work, is dark beyond description, the scientist says.
There is not the slightest ray of light anywhere beneath a few hundred feet of the surface and no vegetable life exists at all in the stygian depths. The fishes are entirely carnivorous and the law of eat or be eaten has full play. Should anything happen to Beebe's bell-like craft he would not have the least chance of rescue. The frigid water would kill a human being practically instantaneously and the marine life devour a man in a matter of minutes.
The bell in which Beebe will be temporarily sealed is only large enough comfortably to accommodate the scientist, but an NBC microphone at his elbow will make the entire radio world his companion. Ford Bond, NBC announcer from the deck of the S.S. Ready, will describe the preparations for Beebe's descent at 11 a.m., and the scientist himself will be heard just before he is locked in his cell. He will also speak after being sealed in the steel sphere.
As Beebe disappears beneath the waves, the broadcast will be discontinued until 2 p.m. when the ball will have descended to the expected half-mile depth. Beebe's furthest descent to date beneath the surface has been 1,426 feet, or a quarter of a mile.
Combined NBC networks will carry a complete account of the trip, and Beebe himself will describe his sensations as he sits in the pendulum-like shell 2,640 feet under water. The scientist will peer through a window of heavy quartz class, and by the aid of his searchlight describe what he sees. The broadcast will end at 2:30 p.m.
Louise Boyd in Radio Guide, Sept. 11-17, 1932
It certainly looks easy. All you have to do is walk into a studio, tell a few jokes, or sing a few songs, and walk out with five thousand dollars. Think of it: $5,000 for a half hour's work. Pretty soft!
But is it? Is this business of being a radio star as easy as it looks? Is that whopping big weekly fee just so much pure gravy -- or does it take a lot of time and money to get up to the table, and is a lot of the gravy spilled on the way back?
Well, let's find out. The thing to do is to take some top-ranking stars in radio and see what it costs to stay on top. Probably we're due for some surprises. There aren't many stars in that charmed circle who receive $5,000 per broadcast -- which is just about the highest regular salary in radio -- but, anyway, we'll scramble up to the top and take a look around.
How would you like to take over Ed Wynn's expense account, for instance? The good old Fire Chief is generally credited with being the star who established $5,000 a week as a salary for top attractions, and he is also credited with being the man who started the present overwhelming vogue of comedians on the air.
Wynn maintains on his personal payroll a full-time business manager, a full-time secretary and physical trainer, and a secretarial force of three persons. These are high caliber people on Wynn's personal staff, and their combined salaries total just about $550 per week.
Wynn writes his own scripts, with the help of some highly expert research assistants, who maintain his reference library and dig up facts and humorous situations for him to make quips about. This costs him $250 per week and, even so, the figure is far below that paid by other comedians who must buy their scripts from outside sources.
Once you start whittling down a salary in $550 and $250 weekly chunks, you begin to see where the money goes! Here comes another $200 weekly item -- the cost of answering fan letters and sending out photographs. A fully equipped rehearsal studio for rehearsing and trying out program ideas costs $100 per week; insurance, replacement and maintenance of costumes costs $100; and telephone, telegraph and taxi bills (radio time waits for no man) take up another $100 per week. A star, to keep his position, must do a certain amount of obligatory entertaining (on a star's scale) and at even the most informal restaurant meal or club evening he must always be ready to grab the check. These items, frequently irksome but always necessary, some times run as high as $150 in a week.
Once the decks are supposedly cleared, then comes the worst blow of all, the nightmare that haunts the sleep of every star in radio -- the income tax. The bigger the salary, the higher the tax, and a good estimate of what Wynn must pay for his federal, state and local taxes would be $1,500 per week. If you are following the arithmetic of these computations, you will find that at this point approximately $3,000 of the $5,000 is already gone!
That much is gone before you even start on Wynn's personal expenses, his rent, his food, his clothing, money for his family and the maintenance of his son in college, and his constant and heavy contributions to charity, about which he says nothing.
Wynn IS one of the grandest and best loved characters in radio; and, far from rolling In wealth, as his salary might indicate, it is not likely that much more than a small part of his earnings actually filter down to him for his own use.
Well! After going through a set of figures like those we begin to realize that even top salaries in radio can melt away as fast as snow in April. It is the ancient story of the amusement world -- the star of today is the bit player of tomorrow -- and radio stars differ from the stars of the theater or the movies only in that, generally speaking, radio stars are a little more like homefolk, a little more friendly and neighborly, and a little more likely to try to put some money aside to take care of them in their old age.
One heavy item of expense that most people don't think of is Wynn happens to be a lucky one. He acts as his own agent; but the stars who are booked through the artists' service of the National Broadcasting Company or the Columbia Broadcasting System must pay 10 percent of their weekly salaries as commissions. This is the lega1 figure, and if a star is booked through one of the numerous independent booking offices, the weekly commission, possibly arranged as a legal partnership agreement, sometimes may go much higher.
All you have to do is to compute 10 percent of $5,000 and you see that a slice of $500 comes off the salary before any other expense even starts.
Guy Johnson in Tower Radio, March 1934
Although I had been playing various roles on Grand Hotel since 1933 and The First Nighter since 1934, my first audition to replace Don Ameche in both Grand Hotel and The First Nighter was on August 21, 1935. I was accepted as the lead on Grand Hotel and played it for a couple of years. This meant that I was already working for the same sponsor, the Campana Corp. But since The First Nighter was their bigger show of the two (and one of the biggest and most popular dramatic shows on the air at that or any other time), they wanted to make sure they were doing the right thing, I guess, by scouring the country from New York to Hollywood and points in between, as well as overseas -- something unheard of in those days!.
I sweated it for quite a while and then finally went to Tom Wallace, the head of the agency, and Emo Oswalt, the president of Campana, and asked why I wasn't even being considered. I had already replaced Ameche in all those other shows, which I was still doing, and was at that very moment playing the lead in their other half-hour drama on Sunday afternoons, Grand Hotel.
It surprised them, I guess, because they said that was a good idea. I assume they hadn't given me another thought after the original audition which won me Grand Hotel. I also believe they were looking for some sort of movie name.
Anyway, call it intuition or what you will, it seemed I really had the drop on everybody because I knew and had worked with Ameche, knew his voice and his delivery and I also knew why Campana couldn't find a new leading man. They wanted Don Ameche! I knew that if you didn't or couldn't sound like Ameche, your chances would be pretty slim. He and they had been eminently successful together.
When they told me to come in and audition, the first thing I did was call one of the sweetest girls in the business and a friend of all the Chicago actors, long lean Betty Mitchell at RCA in the merchandise mart, and asked her to get out one or two of Ameche's old Betty and Bob records for me to listen to, which I did.
I timed it so that immediately after listening to them to refresh my memory, I went on up to NBC in the same building and went into the studio where they were waiting for me. I was given a one-page soliloquy from a former First Nighter script which I read for them a la Don Ameche -- or a reasonable facsimile of same.
I knew this was the only thing that would make any impression on them and it worked! They fell on the floor, so to speak, and the rest is history.
For me, The First Nighter program was the greatest "I.D. point" of my career. Even today, 41 years after leaving it (and indeed, that was a wrench), the First Nighter is the first vehicle people I meet mention in connection with me. I've been in radio for 54 years, TV since 1939, theatre since 1920, motion pictures since 1916 (I started at age 3 in London with my mother). I've spent 68 years in show business, with three plays on Broadway (one of them, Detective Story, a hit that ran for 18 months). I've made at least 35 motion pictures and worked my tail off in practically all of the live television shows of the 1940s, '50s and '60s. And most of it could have been for naught if it hadn't been for The First Nighter.
The program was neck-and-neck in the polls, year after year, with various top shows, loaded with movie names and at 10 times the budget. Buddy (Barbara Luddy) and I were voted number one actor and actress many times in the same polls. In the 1940s I was voted one of the three most famous voices in Amrica, along with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bing Crosby. All because I had a place to show my wares. How lucky can you get?
In September 1943, I was out in Hollywood working with Bob Crosby and the BobCats on our Sunday afternoon half-hour show. Campana inquired as to whether I would be interested in returning to The First Nighter. Sadly enough my answer was no. I felt I needed New York and Hollywood to round out my career.
Another interesting comment about what life deals out to you: In 1982, I discovered that 20th Century Fox had written to me in care of the ad agency that handled The First Nighter to ascertain whether they could negotiate a contract with me. That was 1936, right after I had taken over the First Nighter lead role. The letter never reached me. Campana had been burned once before with Ameche and 20th Century.
I learned of Campana's negation of any discussion with me about signing with 20th 46 years too late! The irony is that they had no right to do what they did. I was not under any sort of exclusivity with Campana. The company simply overlooked informing me of 20th's feeler. But by now, the statute of limitations has run out and the people who were involved are either retired or dead, along with the kind of dramatic radio I've been talking about.
Les Tremayne in Sperdvac Radio Magazine No. 5, 1984
Hugh O'Brian took a deep breath as the car pulled up to the little funeral parlor. He knew that the others in the car were watching him out of the corners, of their eyes, to see if he'd begin to break down, begin to cry. But he took a deep breath and clenched his fists and he had a hard time not shouting out, "There aren't going to be any tears or any breaking down, folks -- because Mary isn't dead, Mary couldn't be dead, Mary couldn't really have died just like that and left me!"
The car stopped. "Hugh," his mother said, softly, as she took his arm. "Hugh ... we're here." The tall, eighteen-year-old boy didn't move. Instead he stared out the window to his right, at a highly-polished plaque on which somebody had carefully and coldly chipped out the words: Undertaker: Day and Night Service. "Hugh," his mother said again. The boy fought back the tears as he nodded, finally, and opened the door.
The others remained in the car while they watched him walk very slowly to the door of the funeral parlor, open it, stand rigid for a few moments and then go inside. Two girls were standing in the lobby, their eyes red, their hands clutching at their pocketbooks, as Hugh walked in. One of them came over to him. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry, honest." Hugh looked at her. He tried to smile. He tried to say, "What are you sorry about? What's wrong with everybody, anyway?" But instead he took another deep breath and the heavy smell of carnations from another room, a room not too far away, nearly choked him and he walked past the girl without saying anything.
The next few steps were the longest he'd ever taken in his life. And then suddenly, without any warning, he was standing in the doorway leading to the big room with the carnations and the other flowers -- and he saw her. "Mary?" he called, as though by some miracle she might answer him. "Mary?" he called as he ran across the room and past the people who were seated silently in the neat rows of bridge chairs which fanned out from the back wall. "Mary?" he called as he grabbed the sides of the smooth white coffin and stared down at the girl he'd loved so much. "It's Hughie, Mary," he said, his voice breaking. "I got the telegram that you wanted to see me ... and now I'm here, Mary ... I'm here."
Finally, he cried. Mary was dead and, without shame, he stood there and looked down at the beautiful, almost-smiling face and cried, until someone came over to him, took his arm and led him over to a chair where he could sit and cry some more and take a long last look at his girl and remember.
"I remember," Hugh says now, "how I met Mary, that first day of school in Winnetka, Illinois, when the teacher assigned us to seats and Mary's was at the desk next to mine. She was very pretty, the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. I remember how the first time I saw her I just enjoyed looking at her and how a couple of days later, after we got over our first shyness, we began talking to each other. It's fantastic, but for the next 10 years we were together all the time, practically every hour of practically every day.
"Mary lived only a few blocks from me and every morning I used to call for her on her porch and we'd go to school together. Then, at lunchtime, we'd always eat together -- if we went to Mary's house her mother would usually make bacon and peanut butter sandwiches, which we used to gobble up, Mary two and me three. Or we'd eat together at my house. My mother usually had a stew for us or spaghetti, and Mary always used to say, 'Mrs. O' Brian, when I get big, will you teach me how to make this for Hughie?'
"After lunch, Mary and I would go back to school and you'd probably figure that at three o'clock, for a few hours at least, Mary would go her way and I would go mine. But no, Mary would come with me, wherever I wanted to go. If I went to play baseball or football or anything, Mary would always tag along with me. Some of the other kids didn't think very much of this, but it always made me feel nice to know that she was there, just watching me, just with me.
"At night, after supper, we'd get together and do our homework. Then, if we were at Mary's house, we'd sit and listen to the radio. Or if we were at my house, we'd listen to my mother talk about life. My mother had a feeling about living -- I learned it from her, and follow it to this day: I enjoyed yesterday, I love today I look forward to tomorrow. Or she'd talk about the theater and movies and acting. She thought it was very glamorous and a lot of fun and she would tell us how she wanted to be an actress when she was a young girl, and she'd always add, 'And maybe, Hughie, you'll want to be an actor some day?'
"The thought of being an actor seemed so silly, then. But I guess some of that talk rubbed off on me those nights I used to sit there with Mary listening, all wide-eyed, to my mom. 'Wouldn't that be nice,' Mary would say to me as I walked her home, 'if someday you did become an actor and I was your wife and we went to the movies every night and just sat looking at you!'
"I don't know just when, during all those years, Mary and I fell in love -- or just how. But we did come to love each other. And now, looking back on it, I can't help feeling that no matter how young we were, how unknowing we were, it was as strong a love as two people could ever know.
"Mary wasn't happy when I had to leave to go into the Marines. I wasn't happy about leaving her, either. But there was a war on, I was 18, my dad was a Marine captain -- and I'd always wanted to be a Marine, too, for a while, at least. We loved each other, I told her, and it was a cinch the war had to be over someday and then we'd get married and everything would turn out okay. We'd live happily ever after, forever, Mary and Hughie ...
"Well, everything didn't turn out okay. Mary got sick soon after. Forgive me if I don't make public the details of her illness. And then, she died. It's hard to tell you exactly how I felt when I realized that she was dead. I guess that sometimes, even now, it's hard for me to feel that she really isn't here any more ...
"Anyway, Mary was dead and everything inside me seemed to have died, too."
After the funeral, Hugh returned to his Marine base in California. He was promoted to drill instructor -- the youngest in Marine history. He was lucky: hour after hour, in this tough new job, he was out on the dusty marching field growling out orders to hundreds of green leathernecks, yelling for perfection, hup-hup-hupping his lungs out from dawn to dark, sweating out some of his sorrow; so dog-tired at the end of the day that he'd be in his sack by 10 and fall right to sleep. And forget about Mary, for a little while at least. Except for dreaming about her. But in the dreams she was always alive and laughing, so that was all right.
That year was a bleak one for Hugh. Especially the Sundays, when his buddies would go out on passes or their girls would come visit them on the base. Hugh rarely left the base on these days. Twice a good friend of his had his girl bring along another girl -- just to sort of casually introduce to Hugh and maybe get him to smile and talk a little. But both times Hugh simply shook hands with the girls and then made some kind of excuse about having to go somewhere and do something and he'd take off for his barracks, to sit for hours and write a letter to his mother. Or maybe pick up a book -- usually something on law. He'd always figured he'd eventually wind up being a lawyer. And then he'd just fall back on his sack and wait for the chow bugle, then a movie, then back to his sack and to sleep again.
It was at about the end of that first year after Mary's death when one of his buddies, who thought it was high time his pal snapped out of it -- got an idea. It was going to take what some might call psychology, his buddy figured, but it was sure going to be worth the try. "You want a date, O'Brian?" he asked after drill one day. knowing just what the answer was going to be.
"No, thanks," Hugh said.
"Aw, come to think of it, you probably couldn't get this one anyway. It's with me of those big, beau-ti-ful movie stars."
"I said I don't want a date, period."
"And I said you probably couldn't get this one anyway!"
It worked. After about half an hour of fake taunting, Hugh got his Midwestern dander up and the next morning he was standing stiff at attention in front of his colonel asking for a 72-hour pass.
"What do you want it for?" the colonel grunted. "Well, sir," said Hugh, "there's a radio how up in Los Angeles I'd like to go on. It's called Blind Date."
"Blind Date?" asked the colonel, squinting his eyes a little bit. "Well, sir, some of the boys were kidding me about ..." Hugh started to say.
The colonel, who'd been studying Hugh's record and noticed that this was the first special pass he'd ever asked for. interrupted him. "You can go, O'Brian," he said. "But," he added, "don't bother to come back here if you don't win!"
Hugh went up to Los Angeles and met both his friends' and his colonel's challenge. He won. His prize was a date with Virginia Mayo. Hugh had a lot of fun that night, the first fun he'd had in a long, long time. They went out to dinner, then dancing, and Virginia didn't mind at all when she felt his arm tightening around her in that tender way that always meant a boy was dreaming he held someone else in his arms. Then they went somewhere for a nightcap.
As they said good night, Virginia invited him to come visit her on the set the next morning. She was making a movie with Danny Kaye. "You'll really have a ball," she urged, waiting for an answer, remembering the once or twice during the evening Hugh had let something slip about a girl he'd had. Hugh refused the invitation at first. But Virginia insisted. "You don't want to be the only man in the world who'd turn down a chance to meet a whole flock of Goldwyn Girls, do you?" she asked. "Well, " Hugh said, giving it some serious thought. "No."
"Then," said Virginia, pausing to give the big Marine a kiss on the cheek, "I'11 see you at the studio tomorrow morning."
Hugh O'Brian fell in love that next day. Not with any of the gorgeous Goldwyn Girls -- and Virginia made sure he got to meet them all. Not with any girl, as a matter of fact -- Mary was all the girl he'd ever want. But in one fell swoop, he fell in love with that thing his mother had been talking about all these years -- the excitement of Hollywood, the lights, the tremendous cameras, the fuss and tension and camaraderie. The tremendous thought of maybe someday becoming an actor.
The memory of those few hours on Virginia's set remained with Hugh all the way back to the base that afternoon, and all during the remainder of his hitch in the Marines -- while he ate, drilled, dreamed. When he left the Corps in 1947 he didn't know exactly what to do. Do you want to be a practical young man? one part of his conscience would ask him, and become the lawyer you originally wanted to become? Or, the other half of his conscience would ask, do you want to struggle a little bit and become an actor?
The first half of Hugh's conscience won out -- for a while. Maybe because so much of that dream had been lived with Mary. He applied for entrance to the law school at Yale. He felt pretty good about his choice, right up until he got a letter telling him that he'd been accepted. He read the letter over a couple of times. Security, the first half of his conscience smiled at him. Aren't you glad?
Hugh shook his head, very emphatically. No! he thought, out loud. Then he reached for a phone and called Jack Holland, a friend who ran a small theater group in Hollywood known as The Stagelighters. "Can I come out and try for a part in one of your plays?" asked the young man who'd never had any experience. Next thing he knew, Hugh was packing his suitcase.
Hugh got his first role, a lead, in an elegant little comedy by Somerset Maugham called Home and Beauty. "He was pretty rough around the edges," says Jack Holland, reminiscing about those early days, "but he worked hard!"
"Hugh didn't come from a poor family," another friend will tell you, "but when he decided to become an actor he also decided to do it completely on his own."
To supplement the few dollars he got from his acting at the little playhouse at night. Hugh became a private businessman by day. The businesses included gardening, garbage collecting and selling nylons.
"While I was doing all this," Hugh remembers. "I was living at a boarding house called The House of the Seven Garbos. I remembered hearing about this wonderful place from some of the Goldwyn Girls I'd met on that set a few years earlier. They'd said it was nice and cheap and this was definitely for me at the moment. You could have knocked me over when I got there with my suitcase in hand that first day. What I expected to be a run-of-the-mill boarding house turned out to be a mansion on top of a hill with a swimming pool and a couple of tennis courts. The woman who operated it, bless her, had bought if from somebody who'd been very anxious to sell it fast and she'd converted it into a palace of rented rooms for young kids trying to break into the movies -- Ruth Roman was one of us sharecroppers at the time.
"For fifteen dollars a week. I got a room and a good hot family-type dinner every night. For breakfast and lunch there was an honor system in the kitchen that worked something like this: you marked down everything you took from either the icebox or the pantry on a big master pad. If you took a couple of slices of bread, you marked down two cents, I think it was. If you took a wad of peanut butter, you marked down threee cents. Tomatoes were four cents apiece, I think. "Actually, though, the best eating came at about one o'clock in the morning when most of the girls would come back from their dates. We poor guys were so broke we used to have to sit around alone on nights we weren't acting over in the playhouse -- reading or studying new part or just chewing the fat. This wasn't only lonely -- but a fellow can get pretty hungry just sitting around like that for hours.
"Well, the girls took good care of this. Somehow they would hoodwink their dates at Ciro's and Romanoff's and Mocambo into getting them an extra steak for their 'dog' or a slab of roast beef for a 'poor roommate who's sick tonight, poor thing, and didn't even have the strength to go down to supper' -- I'll never forget the cute little blonde from Tennessee who would always finagle an apple pie 'for my blood condition' from whichever guy she went out with -- and what a feast we fellows would have when the girls got back, called out goodbye to the departing Cadillacs and Jaguars and came rushing up to our rooms with whatever they'd managed to get their hands on, shouting, 'Come on, boys, it's indigestion time!'"
Hugh was still living at the House of the Seven Garbos a year later when he got what looked like his big break. A talent scout had seen him in a play at the Stagelighters on a Saturday night and phoned him Monday morning, first thing. The scout told him that a big producer at a big studio needed a tall, young type for an important role and that he'd just arranged for Hugh to meet the producer on Wednesday morning.
"'This is it,' I told myself," Hugh says now. Or maybe he was telling Mary -- forgetting that it wasn't both of them anymore that he was dreaming and working and planning for. Only -- it was, always. Because the dreams were just work if there wasn't Mary. "This was the big chance I'd been waiting for. I went to the producer's office, all right. And I was out of his office a couple of minutes later, minus any big break and any part in any picture. Looking back, I'm glad it happened that way. I'm glad now that the next 25 interviews, too, went exactly that way. After all, I needed experience and experience takes time, lots of time. Yep, I'm glad now -- but it sure hurt bad when it was happening."
It took more than another year before Hugh really began to hit it right. He was selling hosiery as a sideline by this time -- "Having given up as a gardening and garbage tycoon," he says -- and, wisely, he made a point of calling on producers' and agents' secretaries a couple of times a month and asking them (1) did they need any stockings, and (2) did their bosses need any fresh talent?
One day the secretary to agent Milo Frank greeted him with a big smile. "Park the valise, Hugh," she said, "straighten your tie and come with me." She took his hand and led him into Frank's office. "This is the young man I was telling you about," she said to her boss. Frank nodded. "Can he act?" he asked his secretary.
Hugh answered for himself. "Yes, sir," he said.
"We'll see," Frank said.
That evening the agent watched Hugh in a play and two days later, Hugh was screen-tested for the Ida Lupino movie, Young Lovers. Three days later, he got a call from Frank's secretary. "You've sold your last pair of nylons, Hugh," she said happily. "You're in the movies now!"
After Young Lovers was finished, Hugh went back to Winnetka to spend Christmas with his folks. His thrilled mother met him at the railroad station, bursting with pride. "You've made good in Hollywood," she whispered, over and over again, hugging him, kissing him.
"Well, you can't say I made good yet," Hugh tried to say.
But Mrs. O'Brian would have none of this. "You've made good," she said, "and you've made today the happiest day in my whole long life." At Christmas dinner that evening there was lots of good food and talk, and even a little laughter when Hugh could blot from his memory the little girl, the grown woman, who had sat at this table with him so often during the years they had had each other. The few happy hours And immediately after dinner, Hugh handed his mother a gift. "This is for you and Dad," he said as he handed her a large, red-ribboned envelope. "I guess I should wait till midnight, like we always do, but I'm kind of excited and I'd like you to open it now."
His mother wept, just like that and right there at the table, when she saw what the present was -- two round-trip tickets to Hollywood and two special preview tickets for Hugh's first picture on the night after they got there. "Hughie," she cried and took his hand. She couldn't say anything more. It should be three, Hugh thought, and he could feel the tears that wanted to fall. Oh Mary, it should be three tickets!
"Well, Mom," Hugh said, smiling, "you're the one who prayed me into becoming an actor. So I guess you should be the first one to have to see me in a movie."
Mrs. O'Brian nodded. Then, suddenly, she got up from the table, walked into the adjoining living room and placed the envelope on the big Christmas tree at the far end of the room. "No sense getting all these tickets blurred with my tears," she called out. "The usher at that theater in Hollywood's liable not to let us in if he can't read what it says."
"The next few hours were very happy," Hugh remembers. "We opened the rest of our presents at midnight and we sat around and talked some more and we sang a little -- carols and songs we used to sing when I was a boy. And then it was time to go to bed. I shook hands with my father and brother, kissed my mother and we all went to our rooms.
"The house was very quiet the next morning when I woke up, much quieter than I ever remembered it being. I got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. My father was in the kitchen along with a few of our neighbors. They were just sitting there. None of them was saying anything. Then one of them came over to me and asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee, like he was saying, Hughie, I could cry for you.
"'What's wrong?' I asked. He couldn't answer. Then a neighbor woman came over and told me, as gently as she could, that Mom had died in her sleep sometime during the night. Just like that, Mom was gone."
When Hugh got back to Hollywood after the funeral, his determination to make good, really make good, was stronger than ever. "I know," he says, "that the Good Lord gave my mom a choice seat up there so that she could watch me down here -- and I wanted her to be proud of me, as proud as she had been that Christmas Eve. I wasn't going to let her down."
It was a tough fight for the next nine years, with too many hours of solitude hours spent remembering two tickets tha should have been three, that shockingly, suddenly need not even have been two.
Hugh got parts, nice parts, in pictures now and then, and everybody thought he was a fine young actor and all that. But somehow that lucky firecracker that explodes under one-in-a-thousand actors in Hollywood and sends them zooming to fame wasn't having any truck with Hugh O'Brian. That is, not until the day not to long ago when a friend called Hugh and asked him if he wanted to try out for a half-hour television series about someone named Wyatt Earp.
"About who?" Hugh asked.
"Wyatt Earp," came the answer. "The Wild West marshal, one of the greatest law officers of all time."
"Wyatt Earp," Hugh mumbled.
"Yeah." "Sure I'll try," said Hugh.
The success of his try was, as everyone now knows, phenomenal. The pilot film which Hugh made rang up the quickest sponsor sale in TV history and, soon after Wyatt Earp became one of the most popular shows in the country. Wrote one TV critic: Here at last is a actor playing a Western hero. Said another critic: The kids love him. The ladies adore him. And I've never heard a man-critter say a word against him. Here's one guy who's really going places.
And how does Hugh O'Brian feel -- now that he's really going places? About his career, he'll tell you, "It feel great, of course. A lot of hard work went into it, goes into it, will continue to go into my becoming the kind of actor I want to become."
About life in general, Hugh will tell you, "I'd like, very sincerely, to get married. I'm a little over 30 now; I've got a good job; I've got a lot to be thankful for. But there's something missing, and that's somebody to share my life with-- and my good fortune," he adds, with a laugh that's so rare from Hugh.
"Just between us, I think maybe I've found the girl. I don't feel I should tell you her name right now. I don't think it's right to say anything specific about her now. But I'll tell you this. She's a girl who is sweet, and gentle, and understanding and who makes me feel like a man. Not just like another human being who happens to be hanging around -- but a man. And she's a companion to me. Maybe I it sounds silly and unromantic to use the word companion, but to me there's no more beautiful word in the English language. It means she's interested in the same things I'm interested in, shares the things I love -- she's a companion. hat's really something to build a life on!
"Yep, I think I've found the right girl. It's going to take a little more time for both of us to be sure. But I think we may be making a nice announcement very soon. If we do, I know it'll make me very happy."
And as he talks about his new girl and their possible marriage, you can't help but get the feeling that Hugh's mom and his Mary -- watching from up there -- will be made very happy, too.
Ed DeBlasio in Modern Screen, June 1957
Always up to something, that was "Tuff" Morner. The first kid, if he could run fast enough, to smash the glass and blow the siren when somebody yelled "Fire!" First to grab the handles of the hose trailer and help the shouting, sweating men haul it the night the bank burned down. A busy kid, "Tuffy." Youngest trombone player in the city band, the boy tenor star of practically every get together and bang-up event in Southern Price County, Wisconsin. The smallest hunter to get his deer and haul a giant muskellunge out of the Jump. The busiest and best young actor in town, too, and so advanced about it that they had to co-star the principal's wife with him in the school graduation play to make it look even.
Maybe a good part of the reason that "Tuffy" Morner, whose folks called him Stanley, grew up to become Dennis Morgan, Hollywood's golden-voiced star and Prentice's pride, is because he kept "up to something" all along the way. Through athletics, acting, debate, music and culture in high school and in college. And afterwards, refusing to settle for a steady, secure business life, through Chautauqua, radio, night clubs, concerts, opera -- through the build-ups and let-downs, fiascos and lucky breaks of Hollywood, where he finally faced the greatest job of keeping busy yet -- until he clinched his chance.
So at Carroll College, as at Prentice and Marshfield Highs, Stan Morner was strictly a ball of fire. Stan sang Sundays in church and at funerals, too. He got a fee. He was a professional. The local movie house, the Park Theater, began to feature the golden voiced college tenor, Mr. Stanley Morner, in brief concerts between reels. One yellowed ad Morgan still has announces grandly that there will be "a special musical number, The Indian Love Call, featuring Stanley Morner with unique stage effects." On top of everything else, Morgan took time out twice to win the Wisconsin state championship in the Atwater Kent radio singing contests -- a nationwide radio talent search back around 1930. At the finals in Milwaukee for the 10 midwestern states, Morgan stopped off on his way back from Lawrence College where he had just played Carroll College's big game in a snowstorm. He sang "Ah, Moon of My Delight" and rejoined the team. On the train one of his teammates started razzing him.
"Look who's in the newspaper -- old 'Moon' Morner!" He'd won second place for the whole Midwest, right off the cuff like that. Morgan and Lillian Vedder graduated together from Carroll College in 1931. That summer Morgan travelled on a Chautauqua tour all through the Midwest states with the Carroll College Glee Club, and Lillian went home to Marshfield. They had marriage definitely in mind by then but there was the small business of making a living. They made plans to wait. Morgan would go to Milwaukee and get a job that fall. Lillian accepted an offer to teach school in a small Wisconsin town, Shawano.
In September, Morgan packed his clothes and left Park Falls for Milwaukee. He made the rounds of the big lumber companies because didn't he know lumber? In spite of all his singing and acting triumphs, it still didn't occur to Morgan that you could make a living that way. With his conservative thinking and his dad's advice, the lumber game seemed to offer the best chance for him to become a solid citizen and marry Lillian.
Luckily for a lot of people, including Morgan (although it didn't seem so then) -- there weren't any jobs in Milwaukee even for a guy who knew his stuff like he did. There was a blighting thing on called the Great Depression, then wallowing in its lowest ditch. Bewildered, Morgan walked one day over to WTMJ, the Milwaukee Journal's radio station. He had a friend, Russ Winnie, who was chief announcer there. Right away his Atwater Kent publicity paid off. Winnie landed him a solo spot on a musical program for a starter and then offered steady a staff announcer's job. Morgan grabbed it.
For the first six months Morgan worked the graveyard shift at WTMJ. He announced the hotel bands that played nightly dance music. He gave out with the weather reports. He read poetry in between organ recitals. Sometimes he sang a number to fill in.
One day Winnie said, "You're quite an athlete. Think you can announce sports?" Morgan knew all sports and all about them. "Sure," he replied confidently. "Okay," said Winnie. "Take over the Indianapolis-Milwaukee game this afternoon and make it live."
Morgan sent Lillian a wire to listen in that afternoon. He was pretty happy about the break. Sports announcers around Milwaukee got about as famous as the players. It was definitely a break. And down in Shawano, Lillian rushed from her classes to her radio in time to hear Morgan tossing personality around recklessly over the air. Maybe it was too reckless, because in his enthusiasm, Morgan was burning up the air waves -- and getting himself in a jam about every other minute.
It was one of those games, to start with -- a wild one -- score 18 to 12. But that was only half the reason Morgan got off the beam. He was trying to give it too much red hot pepper. "There it goes -- there it goes!" he'd yell into the mike, "Out of the park for a homer!" Then "N-o-o-o-o-o, the fielder caught it. He's out."
Or "He's sliding, he's sliding -- he's safe at home to put Milwaukee out in the lead!" And a few seconds later, "No, that's wrong. The catcher tagged him out." He got the score all balled up, the players' names and positions mixed. He was pretty awful. Even Lillian, who loved him, could tell that.
But Morgan learned, even sports announcing. He helped out Winnie around WTMJ for over a year while Lillian taught English at Shawano. But Morgan was restless. He wanted to get married. He needed money. There was no radio future for him in Milwaukee worth sticking around for.
That he could see. Chicago was the big radio town and the World's Fair was getting started there. Morgan found Chicago rocking and rolling with a boom in the amusement world. The Fair had busted the town wide open. Anybody who could entertain the huge crowds pouring in was set, and once he opened his throat, Morgan had no trouble.
He landed a job at once singing on the stage of the Chicago Theater. Then the State Lake. The Fair itself. A friend at the State Lake introduced him to Vernon Buck, who led the orchestra in the famous Empire Room at the Palmer House, Chicago's greatest hotel. A good-looking, golden-voiced, manly guy like Morgan couldn't miss. After a week he had a contract in his hand -- six weeks (he later stayed 48 straight) at $150 a week.
Up out of Morgan's subconscious all of a sudden popped the scene back in Prentice. His dad counting the water crinkled greenbacks on the bed after the bank burned down. He heard his dad's words, "When you like something you're usually good at it, too!" And his own, "I like to sing." Decision ... why, sure! Why not make his living, found his future on what he really liked, what he was good at? Why not sing, and act and entertain?
Morgan's lingering doubts flew away like dusty moths out of a closet. He raced for the nearest phone and told the operator. "Get me Shawano, Wisconsin, and hurry please!" In a minute the voice he'd missed all these months was on the wire. "Lillian, darling," sputtered Morgan, still talking too fast. "I've got a contract singing at the Empire Room. I'm in the money. Let's get married."
But Lillian understood every word he said. And of course she answered "Yes!"
Kirtley Baskette in Modern Screen, March 1946