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
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