Young Radio Days

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When I was in my early youth I entertained the neighbor children with plays, talent shows and whatever else seemed of show value. I guess I was bitten by the acting bug early on.

Sometime, about the time I was 11, my father would invite neighbors in for backyard patio barbecues early Saturday evenings with prime rib roasts, baby back ribs and other great meat dishes. This was toward the end of World War II and meat was hard to come by in those days. Dad had connections somewhere so the neighbors flocked to his barbecues.

I grew up in Los Angeles, when it was a great city, and have fond memories of the place. LA was a growing, modern, and had a near perfect climate and I loved it. There were so many things for a youngster to do. The beaches were the best and I would ride the red-cars to Santa Monica for a day of sunning and swimming. The hamburgers on the pier tasted the best in the world.

At one of these Saturday evening barbecues a neighbor, Fred MacKaye, suggested to my mother that she enroll me in a radio school so that I would be trained for radio acting. Fred was at that time the director of a popular CBS network weekly radio show titled Lux Radio Theatre.

This program featured radio versions of popular motion pictures of the time. Mr. MacKaye told my mother that if I did well with radio acting classes he would cast me on his show at some point.

The next week Mom scouted around for the best radio acting teacher she could find in Hollywood and I was driven to Mildred Carr’s studio on Sunset Boulevard to meet her, the staff and see the studio. It was a nice facility with two radio studios, control rooms and plenty of microphones ready for students to practice acting. I think the recorders were of the wire variety, but I can’t be sure. Miss Carr gave me some scripts to read and after a few minutes of “audition” told my mother that I could be her student.

From that point on, every Saturday morning mother would drive me to Miss Carr’s studio for acting lessons. I had found my first career.

The acting class was comprised of about six or eight other students and we would read radio plays standing in front of the RCA 44 microphones. We felt “big time” just standing in front of the professional microphones. From time to time experienced radio actors of the period would drop into our class and give important microphone techniques as it pertains to radio acting. Two of these radio people were Laurene Tuttle who played the role of Steffi on Sam Spade and Elliott Lewis who played many roles on network radio at the time. Other famous radio actors would drop in, but these two were quite regular.

After some 10 or 11 months of classes, Fred MacKaye said he would like to audition me for a boy’s role in a radio version of Coney Island, which was to air the next month. Mom drove me to the CBS studios on Sunset in Hollywood and in Studio 2 Fred was holding auditions for a couple young actors he required in the radio play. I was so nervous I almost lost my voice! Mr. MacKaye was in the control room and asked me to step up to the microphone and read the part of this young boy. I can’t remember the name of the character I did, along with the professional actors. At the end, Fred said, “Congratulations Ken, you have the part. We’ll see you at the CBS Lux Radio Theatre” for rehearsals, with the show to air the same night.

I could hardly believe it! I was going to be on network radio on a big nighttime show! I was only 12 and this was a big deal for a kid. That night Mom prepared my favorite dish for dinner — spaghetti.

When the big day arrived, I was excused from school and Mom drove me to the CBS Radio Theatre on Vine Street for the start of rehearsals. The cast sat around a long table, scripts in hand, and Mr. MacKaye started the rehearsal. He would make comments during the readings, which were helpful. The show was an hour in length. After two readings we began a more formal rehearsal performing at the microphones with two sound-effects men doing their duty in a corner. Later, the 25-piece orchestra took their seats and to play for the so-called dress rehearsal. The show ran long, so Mr. MacKaye cut a few lines so that the show wouldn’t run over-time.

At 4:30 p.m. a studio audience of 1,300 came into the theatre and found their seats. At about five minutes to 5 p.m. the show’s announcer did what is called a warm-up. He welcomed the audience and told them a little about the night’s program. We cast members sat in chairs in front of the orchestra. At exactly 5 p.m. the program went on the air live for the Midwest and East Coast. In those days, recorded programs were not allowed — for what reason I can’t remember. All went well with no major problems. At 8 p.m. we repeated the same show for the West Coast. It went even better.

So now, I was a professional radio actor! The next week I had secured an agent who then booked me into other shows requiring a young male voice. I also was invited to join the actors union, which I did. Without that you really couldn’t work outside of your first program.

Soon, I did appearances on many shows originating on the West Coast. Some I remember were: Dr. Christian, Sam Spade, Suspense, Escape, Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Director’s Playhouse and many more.

About a year after my “first break” I auditioned for a part in a radio “soap opera” and got it. This changed my life a bit because I left school at noon each weekday and was driven to CBS in a company limo, which picked up two other actors on the way to the studio. In those days the State of California required a teacher to be on premises to tutor me between rehearsals.

The “soap opera” ran a half-hour each weekday and was really quite easy. We would sit around a long table and do two readings before doing the more formal rehearsal in front of microphones. Since we were always playing the same part, it was not difficult. Just new lines each day. We would receive the scripts two days in advance so there were no surprises. For this show, there was no audience or orchestra. The music was provided by a creative organist on a Hammond.

I continued on the show until the month I graduated from high school in 1951.

During this time I continued to do nighttime shows when I could do only one rehearsal and the air program. Radio for me was easy.

I have XM Satellite Radio in my car and once in awhile I hear myself on these old shows, which are played on channel 164, Classic Radio.

During these early days of my radio career I was able to work with the best radio actors on the West Coast and continued to learn a lot working with them. I also enjoyed working with some of the major movie stars of the period who appeared on the shows with me. I was always “star-struck” and never did get over the fact that I was working on the same shows they were.

I’ll never forget these radio days of my youth and they will remain with me to the end.

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