I grew up in Los Angeles at a time when it was a great place to live. When I was about 5 years old, my mother would take me downtown from time to time. We would ride the street car and bus which was a thrill for me. So she could shop in peace she would place me in the Orpheum Theatre mid-mornings where I could see a 45-minute vaudeville show and movie. I still remember some of the stage shows. Many of the performers were “names” such as Nat King Cole. There was an orchestra in the pit and between shows the massive sounding Wurlitzer pipe organ was played. In those days it was safe for a young child to be in a theater alone — but not today. This began my interest in entertainment I suppose and as I continued to grow I began presenting “shows” in the garage with neighborhood kids as the audience. I can’t remember what those programs consisted of, but we had fun producing them.
My father often had barbecues on Saturday evenings in our patio and usually invited a couple neighbors in to enjoy the food. One neighbor was Howard Wiley and his wife. Howard was the director of a radio show titled “Screen Director’s Playhouse” which aired weekly on NBC and featured major screen stars re-enacting their rolls from films that had recently been released into theaters. One evening, Mrs. Wiley suggested to my mother that she should place me in a radio school to learn how to act before a microphone.
Well, mother did. My teacher was Mildred Carr who had a school I attended on Saturday mornings. Her school consisted of two studios, recording equipment, etc. After eight or 10 months, Mr. Wiley suggested I audition for his radio show to see if I could be cast in a role requiring a young boy’s voice. Being very nervous, my mother took me to NBC in Hollywood where I auditioned for the part. I got it!
After a day’s rehearsal I acted my first part on a big network radio show with movie stars no less. I was scared to death. The program was produced in a studio with an audience, full orchestra and large cast. I remember being afraid that I would drop my script or lose my place as the program progressed. Neither happened. I guess I did well. In those days network radio shows were not recorded, so being on the West Coast we did the show at 5 p.m. for the East Coast and again at 8 p.m. for West Coast. The second show was better since it gave us time to work out some of the nerves.
After that, I had an agent and was able to obtain parts on many of the network shows originating from Hollywood that required a young boy’s voice. When I was about 12 or 13 years of age, I auditioned for a “soap opera” that was to air Monday through Friday in the afternoons. I got the part! Every weekday I was picked up from school at noon, driven to the studio where I was provided lunch and we began rehearsals. A teacher was on hand to assist me with studies when not rehearsing. This was a requirement of California state law. We aired the program in the afternoons. I was then driven home and this was repeated each weekday.
What was most enjoyable was to roam the studio halls during a break in rehearsals and sneak into other studios to watch rehearsals for shows to be broadcast that night. These usually featured big stars of the period. I remember seeing Ethyl Barrymore seated at a table with a mike boom to cover her as she read her part. There was a large bottle of gin next to her on the table and for the 10 minutes or so that I could watch her she would take a few sips as she continued her part. After, when I would see her in films I would notice she looked glassy eyed and probably soaked in gin during filming. I could see Groucho Marx doing his thing, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, and many big stars of the time. I never got over being “star struck.” They never really looked as they did on the screen … usually older. Jack Benny seemed very kind and Bob Hope was also a very gentle person.
I did radio acting through high school and at 18 I graduated, quit the radio business and entered university. Following my education I began a career in television production and that is another story.