Dennis Morgan Began as a Radio and Sports Announcer

Photo of the actor and singer Dennis Morgan and his wife Lillian Vedder
Dennis Morgan and his wife Lillian Vedder

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

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