Favorite Radio Stars



Parley Baer

by Ron Sayles

Parley Baer is a particular favorite of mine. At the 4th annual Cincinnati Old Time Radio Convention of April 20th and 21st of 1990, I had the distinct pleasure of having him all to myself for about 15 minutes. This was a rare opportunity, for you can imagine there were several people gathered around him at all times through out the convention.

I was sitting in the front row watching a rehearsal for the recreation of an episode of ESCAPE, "The Second Class Passenger". Parley, bless his soul sat down right next to me. Because this was a rehearsal, no one could be disturbed, so there I was next to Parley and no one could bother him, except me of course for I was sitting right next to him.

Because of my Mormon background I asked him about his name. Parey is a common Mormon name because of Parley P. Pratt, an early Mormon pioneer. This lead into a very nice conversation. It so happens that Parley is from Salt Lake City, but he is not a Mormon. He comes from six generations of performers, mostly in the circus. Parley himself worked in a circus for a short while as a barker.

His first radio job was at KSL Salt Lake City. I have a radio series called 'The Fullness of Times". It is about the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) By the way, I got the series from the MARE library. Although no credits are given, I am certain that I can recognize Parley's voice. It was done about 1935 so he would have been about 21 years of age.

By his own admission, he had done several thousand radio shows. Some of Parley's radio roles are Eb from "Granby's Green Acres", Doc Clemmens from "Rogers of the Gazette", Rene Michon from "The Count of Monte Cristo", Peter from "Honest Harold", Grandpa Truitt from "The Truitts", and of course his most famous and lasting role, that of Chester Wesley Proudfoot on "Gunsmoke". Parley's characterization of Chester is one of the finest, if not the finest in all of radio.

Parley was born August 8, 1914. He passed away on November 22, 2002 of congestive heart failure after suffering a stroke on November 11, 2002.

Parley was one of the great radio actors who made radio what it was, something wonderful.

Conrad, William

William Conrad

by Ron Sayles

Conrad is another particular favorite of mine. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky September 2, 1920.

He appeared in perhaps thousands of radio shows, averaging 10 to 15 a week. His defining role and the one that gave him lasting fame was that of Marshall Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” which ran from 1952 to 1961. Because of his portly physique he was not given the role for the television series. He was tested, but that was just a courtesy. He had that authoritative voice that was so needed for the Dillon role. Being no dialectician, he was once dubbed, “the man with a thousand voice”.

His speciality was drama, with roles in “Suspense”, “Romance”, “The Whistler” and “Lux Radio Theatre”. He also had the title role in “Jason and the Golden Fleece” which ran from 1952 to 1953.

Conrad got his first professional job at radio station KMPC in Beverly Hills, California at the ripe young age of 17. In a 1969 interview he said, “I was fascinated with radio and used to hang around with a dear friend who was an announcer, he’d let me do a commercial every now and then”.

He gained some valuable experience during World War II where he worked for the Armed Forces Radio Service.

After the demise of radio drama he guided effortlessly into television with such programs as “Jake and the Fatman”, (of course he was the Fat Man), “Nero Wolfe” and ”Cannon”. His films include “The Killers” and the radio favorite “Sorry, Wrong Number”.

Conrad’s voice was silenced forever on February 11, 1994 when he died of a massive heart attack at his home in North Hollywood, California at the age of 73.

He is another who has given me many hours of radio enjoyment. He was one of the great ones.

Kaltenborn CBS

H.V. Kaltenborn

by Ron Sayles

Born: Milwaukee, Wisconsin July 9, 1878

Died: New York City June 14, 1965

Being from Milwaukee, I have always had an interest in radio personalities from Milwaukee and Wisconsin. We have had our share of great ones. Some of the greatest include Orson Welles (Kenosha), Raymond Edward Johnson (also from Kenosha), Tommy Bartlett (Milwaukee), etc. However, I want to dwell on one of the greatest of newscasters who was born and raised in Milwaukee, Hans von Kaltenborn, or H.V. Kaltenborn for short.

Such was the reputation of H.V. Kaltenborn that his wife once said of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”. “Why, how ridiculous, anybody would of known it was no real war. If it had been, the broadcaster would have been Hans.”

Hans, as his wife so affectionately called him, was not only the first radio commentator in the United States, he became the personification of what an All-American radio commentator was. Millions respected his intelligence, many important people lionized him, and one president mimicked him.

Hans von Kaltenborn was born in Milwaukee, July 9, 1878. His father was a Baron, a former Hessian lieutenant, and an alcoholic. His mother died giving him birth. At the time of his birth, he had one sister, Bertha. His father soon remarried and two sons and a daughter were added to the Kaltenborn family. When Hans was 13, the family moved to Merrill, Wisconsin, a small town in north central Wisconsin. Although as a youngster in Milwaukee, Hans sold newspapers, it was nothing, but he gained valuable experience. He soon hired out as a reporter for the Merrill Advocate at $5.00 a week. A rather inauspicious beginning for someone who would rise to the top of his chosen profession.

Upon the outbreak of the Spanish American War, Hans enlisted in the army. He was turned down once for being too thin, but after fattening himself up, he made it the second time. While in the army, he picked up extra money by sending dispatches to the Milwaukee Journal and the Merrill Advocate. Because his German was flawless, he also sent dispatches to the Lincoln County Anzeiger in German.

When Hans got home, he decided to pursue a journalistic career in all seriousness. He got a job at the Brooklyn Eagle, where he rose steadily to city hall reporter. Hans always felt sensitive about his lack of education, so at the age of 27, he enrolled as a special student at Harvard. That one year at Harvard gave him a desire to continue his education, so he enrolled as a regular student. He graduated cum laude in 1909 with a BA in Political Science.

During the early years of World War I, von Kaltenborn, now married and still working for the Brooklyn Eagle, favored American neutrality. He felt that England incited the war and he had high regard for German culture. He was, however, dismayed at Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare. It was for this reason that he began denouncing the Kaiser and calling for a strong defense program. Because of strong anti-German sentiment, it was at this time that Hans von Kaltenborn became H.V. Kaltenborn. It was less Germanic.

Kaltenborn’s first exposure to radio was in 1921 when the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce held a special radio night to demonstrate the new device. Kaltenborn, himself an enthusiast himself who owned a crystal set, was the guest speaker.

It was another year before Kaltenborn had another chance at the new medium. This time it was station WVP, and he analyzed a coal strike from the points of view of the miner, a mine owner, and an average citizen. This is acknowledged as the first analysis of a current news event on radio.

It was another year before he began a weekly half-hour commentary on station WEAF. While at this stint, he criticized many things, including Secretary of State Hughes for sharply rejecting the Soviet Union’s request for diplomatic recognition. Kaltenborn said that Hughes could have been more courteous and the the United States could recognize the Communists government without approving what it stood for. Hughes was furious and the called A.T. & T., the owner of WEAF, to shut Kaltenborn up. Kaltenborn was told to cease and desist, but he refused. Although Kaltenborn was not fired, WEAF did not renew his contract.

On a trip to Germany in 1932, Kaltenborn had a chance to interview Adolph Hitler who was not quite at his Pinnacle of power. Kaltenborn found Hitler simple and sincere. He would regret this early judgment.

On a later trip to Germany in August 1939, one month before the Poland invasion, the Gestapo met Kaltenborn at the Berlin airport and forced him to take the next plane to London. They no longer wanted him on German soil.

It was Kaltenborn’s wartime broadcasts that have firmly entrenched him in radio history. In a career that spanned the entire history of radio, Kaltenborn is best known for his live battlefield broadcast in Spain in 1936, his twenty days of commentary in 1938 when he virtually had no sleep, and the President Truman imitation following the 1948 presidential elections.

In 1945, Kaltenborn won the annual citation of the Dupont Radio Awards Foundation. He won major awards in 1946 and 1952 when he was named the Radio Father of the Year. In 1953, he stopped regular broadcasting, but he would occasionally offer commentaries on radio and television, this in spite of his dislike of television. He didn’t like television because it forced him to do things totally unrelated to what he was saying, such as keeping his feet on chalk marks on the floor, or making sure that he was looking into the right camera. H.V. Kaltenborn said of television, “It’s a bastard art.” When he told a report this, he was already past 80 and if he chose not to belong to television, that was okay. He belonged to radio and a history of radio without Kaltenborn would not have been history at all. Kaltenborn lived until he was nearly 87. He died June 14, 1965. He is buried in Milwaukee next to his parents. In his eulogy, the minister said that H.V. Kaltenborn’s life did not end. It was completed.

Lowery, Fred

Fred Lowery, the Blind Whistler

by Ron Sayles

Almost everyone knows all there is to know about Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Orson Welles, etc.., but what about some of those who toiled in old time radio who are not well known.

Fred Lowery , the blind whistler, a sobriquet that he never liked was one of those who labored in relative obscurity. Lowery was born into abject poverty in the small town of Palestine in the Piney Woods area of East Texas on November 2, 1909. By the time November 2, 1911 arrived his mother had died, his father had absconded and he was left with only one percent vision in his left eye due to a bout with scarlet fever. One could say not a great start in life.

With all that adversity, how did Lowery rise above it all to become one of the world’s most famous whistlers.

He was raised along with his three sisters by his Grandmother Lucy White, who understandably held a grudge against Lowery’s father until her last breath. Years later Fred’s sister, Anna Mae, did some research into the disappearance of their father. She discovered that he had secured a position as a policeman with the Kansas City police department. After just a few weeks on the job he was killed while making an arrest. Maybe he would have returned, but more than likely not. His records in the police files listed no dependents.

In September of 1917 at the age of seven Lowery was sent to the Texas School for the Blind in Austin, Texas. It was here that he found his talent and love for music. He had always whistled, but it was at this facility that he learned how to put whistling and music together. It was also here that he received encouragement and discouragement.

Encouragement in the person of Peggy Richter. Miss Richter taught piano and was one of the few sighted teachers on the staff. Although determined, Lowery had no talent whatever on the piano. Miss Richter decided to stop Lowery’s piano lessons, she wanted him to concentrate on his whistling. She said, “I’ve been listening to you whistle, and I think you have a truly rare talent.”

Discouragement in the person of superintendent Bill Allen. Allen who was blind, was a gifted baritone. He had tried to make it in the sighted world as a singer, but failed. This gave him a very pessimistic view of show business. He felt any ambitions that a blind person might have about a show business career were doomed. Lowery however, was determined to break into the entertainment field and no amount of discouragement was going to stop him.

Lowery’s first job was at radio station WFAA in Dallas, Texas. This was in 1931. One of the more popular shows on WFAA was a lively early morning variety show called the “Early Birds.” Lowery became a regular cast member. One of the “Early Birds” was Dale Evans. This was long before she became “Queen of the Cowgirls.” While on this program Lowery was known as the Texas Red Bird. After his first performance he received more that four thousand fan letters, he was a hit.

While at WFAA Irish tenor Morton Downey paid a visit. Downey, no slouch at whistling himself, asked Lowery to whistle a couple of duets with him on the show that day. When it was over Downey told Lowery that with his talent he should give New York a try. He also went on to say that if indeed Lowery ever did get to New York to look him up.

Knowing that Dallas was a dead end, he took Downey’s advice. In January of 1934 Lowery, with a friend went to New York, hitchhiking part of the way to save money. Lowery’s determination knew no bounds, he wanted to break into the big time and nothing was going to stop him, not his lack of funds, not his blindness, nothing. Upon his arrival in New York he checked into the Hotel Chesterfield. It was not opulent, but it was sufficient. After a restless night he set out the next morning to hit it big. His first stop was at the offices of Morton Downey. Downey was on tour, but he did talk to Downey’s manager. Upon learning that Lowery was a whistler the manager’s advice was that he should high tail it back to Texas just as fast as his legs would carry him, not exactly what Lowery wanted to hear. The manager did however promise to talk to Downey. Lowery had doubts, but a few days later Downey called asking him to appear on his program. Lowery did, but it led nowhere.

With the help of his former accompanist at station WFAA, who was also in New York, he secured an audition to appear on Rudy Vallee’s variety show. Vallee’s program was the number one show on radio so this was big time. On March 15, 1934 Lowery appeared on Vallee’s show whistling “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” After his appearance he was expecting big things, but he didn’t get big things.

After a couple of months with just a few small engagements, Lowery was down to his last traveler’s check. Because he signed the check Loowery instead of Lowery the bank refused to cash it. Somewhat upset, he asked to see the manager. It was at this point that his life would take a dramatic turn for the better, although at the time he had no idea of this.

He was introduced to bank manager Jere Buckley who not only cashed the check for him, he loaned him three hundred dollars for living expenses. It seems that Buckley heard him whistle on the Vallee show and was impressed enough to help him out. The Vallee appearance helped in a most unexpected way. Besides the loan, Buckley took over the management of his income, which was almost nonexistent.

Not only that, Buckley introduced him to New York socialite Clara Bell. Bell was a close friend of bandleader Vincent Lopez and she arranged an audition for Lowery. At the audition he whistled his old standby, “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” Lopez hired him on the spot. This was in late 1934. For the first time since arriving in New York he had steady employment.

Reflect on this if you will, what would have happened had Lowery signed his traveler’s check the proper way. He would not have met Jere Buckley or Clara Bell, both of whom got his career moving in the right direction. There is no answer, but it is interesting to speculate.

Lowery was with the Lopez band until 1938 when through a most unusual circumstance he was fired . The Lopez band had an engagement at Billy Roses’s Casa Manana, a swank Broadway supper club that had become the “in” place for cafe society. After the first week of the engagement Rose approached Vincent Lopez’s business manager and demanded that Lowery be fired. “It makes me sick seeing a freak up on the bandstand,” Rose said. “He’s bad for business. Nobody at the Casa Manana wants to sit here paying big money to guzzle booze and watch a blind man tooting on the stage. Get rid of him!”

Lopez did just that. The way he explained it to Lowery is, the band needed the job so he had no choice. Once again Lowery was without a job and no prospects of getting another one. He did have an audition with the Fred Waring group, but Waring had no place for him.

Again fortune smiled. Through a friend Lowery heard that Horace Heidt was in town and that Heidt just had a big shake up. Alvino Rey and the King Sisters had quit and Heidt was looking for new talent. Lowery auditioned and got the job. He was with the Heidt band for six years

For most of the time that Lowery was with the Heidt organization his room mate and “eyes” was Art Carney. Many people asked Lowery what was Art Carney really like? According to Lowery, he was a talented impressionist, an average singer and crazy.

While with Heidt, Lowery was part of the “Pot-o-Gold” radio show which was dreamed up by Heidt. The premise of the show was that someone would be randomly called while the program was on the air. If the person being called answered the phone, one thousand dollars, a considerable sum during the depths of the depression, would be given to that person. All they had to do to win the money was to answer the phone, no question to answer, no problem to solve, simplicity personified. The program’s popularity was not unlike the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” television show of another era. The program was so popular that a movie was made about it. In the movie Lowery is on screen for about thirty seconds.

After Lowery’s stint with Heidt he went on tour for six years. criss crossing the country on one night stands. Lowery was married and he had a young son. His wife took over the managing of their affairs and she also did all the driving. His son went with them until he reached school age after which they settled in Chicago.

Lowery’s later years were spent giving performances at high schools across the country. He did this for more than two decades. This was not exactly the highest paid job that he had ever had, but it was the most satisfying.

Lowery’s biggest hit record and most famous was the “High and Mighty.” Although the record went on to sell nearly two million copies, all Lowery got was the fifty dollar recording fee. He figures that he got four dollars an hour for that job.

Lowery died in 1984 and is buried in Jacksonville’s Old City Cemetery in Texas.

Wons, Tony

Tony Wons

by Elizabeth McLeod

Anthony Snow (his real name) was born in poverty in Wisconsin in 1891. He quit school at thirteen to become a hobo -- wandering from job to job across the Midwest. At various times he worked as a laborer, a mill hand, a cowboy, a butcher, a trap-drummer, an accountant, and a salesman -- an then was drafted into the Army in 1917.

His war service was the turning point of his life: he was wounded in combat, and spent months in a military hospital. To pass the time, he began keeping a scrapbook -- clipping poems, interesting news stories, and other bits and pieces that caught his eye, in the manner of the popular "Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbooks" series of books. Scrapbook-keeping would remain a lifelong hobby.

Back in civilian life, Tony Snow settled in Chicago, and took a job in a factory. He spent his free time reading, working on his scrapbook - and listening to the radio. He was an early fan of the new technology, and early on realized that radio had considerable dramatic potential. He wrote and called the various Chicago stations of the early twenties, trying to convince them that a series of Shakespeare readings would be an interesting attraction -- and finally WLS agreed with him. But they took the idea a step further -- they invited Tony himself to do the program. He agreed, and made his radio debut with a condensed one-man reading of "The Merchant of Venice." Self-conscious about his radio debut, he performed under the name of "Tony Wons" ("Snow" spelled backwards.)

Under this new identity, Wons worked heavily in Chicago radio through the mid twenties, doing everything possible: announcing, writing continuity, performing violin solos, reading farm news. And then he hit upon the idea that would make him a household name -- he began reading bits from his scrapbook as on-air fillers. Listeners responded to the inspirational poetry, the aphorisms, and the simple philosophy -- and "Tony Wons' Scrapbook" quickly became a regular feature, first on WLS and later on WLW in Cincinnati. These presentations were heard all over the Midwest -- and in 1929, Tony published a selection of items from his broadcasts as the first edition of "Tony Wons' Scrapbook."

By 1930 Wons' show was picked up by CBS as a sustaining fifteen-minute feature, and he remained on the air off-and-on, in various formats for various sponsors for the next twelve years.

Most of the Wons shows were simple, intimate presentations -- Tony would start off with his catch-phrase "Are yuh listenin'??" and then segue into whatever material he had chosen for the day. His philosophy was based primarily on simple, non-judgemental human tolerance, and this basic theme became his trademark -- he might express it with a poem, a piece of music, a quote, or even an occasional joke -- but the central idea was always there. And even though he had a nasal, rather grating voice, his absolute sincerity made the program work.

Wons' most elaborate show came in 1934-35 -- "The House By The Side Of The Road," a Sunday afternoon half-hour on NBC Red for Johnson's Wax. This was a semi-dramatized feature, along the lines of Phil Lord's old "Seth Parker" program. Wons played the part of John Whitcomb, a retired Broadway actor who had achieved his lifelong ambition: to "live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man." Neighbors, family, and friends would drop by to listen to Whitcomb's stories -- which were augmented by a full orchestra, a singing team, and Harlow Wilcox. All this seasoning was a bit much for Wons -- and the series doesn't show him to his best advantage. A simple, one-on-one approach was far more appropriate to his style.

Tony Wons was considered a very peculiar person by those who knew him -- a Radio Guide profile from 1934 describes him as "strange and lovable." He was a small, frail man who worried constantly about his health, and was a compulsive hobbyist -- at various times he was involved with model making, boat building, cooking, and taking care of a large collection of stray animals. He was also extremely sensitive to criticism, and was deeply hurt by "sophisticated" radio writers who enjoyed ridiculing his programs as corny and over-sentimental.

In 1942, Tony Wons abruptly dropped out of radio. He retired to a small town in Wisconsin, and spent the rest of his life doing woodcrafts and making violins. From then on he avoided publicity, refused to be interviewed, and turned his back completely on broadcasting. He died in deliberate obscurity in 1967.