"Boston Blackie," a former thief, who now works on the side of the law, appeared in 206 episodes. The first episode aired 23 June 1944 and the last on 8 June 1949. Chester Morris starred in the first few episode, "The Rockwell Diamond." He was replaced by Richard Kollmer, when the show went into syndication, in 1945.
Dunning reports "Boston Blackie" ran on NBC, as replacement for "The Amos 'n' Andy Show," from 23 June 1944 to 15 September 1944. The show was scheduled on Friday at 10 pm. NBC aired 12 episodes.
From 11 April 1945 until 25 October 1950, "Boston Blackie" was syndicated by Liv. Local stations purchased the right to run each episode a certain number of times and insert local commercials in the shows. Ziv produced 184 episodes for syndication, all starring Richard Kollmer as Blackie.
The "Boston Blackie" story line is well-used. He's a modern Robin Hood, a successful crook who turns into a highly successful law enforcer. Not a police officer or private detective, Blackie's "a little on the gangster side, wise to all the tricks but always reversing to do a lot of good."
He amassed a fortune as a thief, which allows him the luxury of chasing down those up to no good, for free. In several episodes, he declines a fee for his services. Sometimes he simply says no, other times, to reinforce his supposed social responsibility, he asks the fee go to charity.
Blackie is the typical American hero. He supposedly lives on the edge; a loner, with the resources to buy all the autonomy he needs and wants. Unlike Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Blackie has a steady girlfriend, Mary Wesley.
The Mary Wesley character is interesting. In the 1940s, she's a strong, independent career woman, a registered nurse, of some means. Buying into a bit of conventional thinking, she still needs a man, Blackie, but has several "men friends," a few of whom seem proto-metro-sexual types.
In some ways, Mary Wesley parallels Margo Lane, gal pal of Lamont Cranston, "The Shadow." Margo presents as strong, independent and of some means: she signs an apartment lease, oversees renovations and is never portrayed as working. Laws of the time almost surely demanded a man at least sign and thereby take responsibility, but not for Margo Lane or Mary Wesley.
Over 18 years, Margo and Cranston go from flirtatious romantic interest to best friends to traveling together, not chaperoned, to far-off exotic places. The relationship was ostensibly asexual, and went unnoticed by the fanatic censors of the time. You can only image the fleeting glances, knowing glances, that Margo and Lamont exchanged under the bloodshot eye of the craven censors.
The appeal of Mary Wesley seemed more grounded. Blackie never wanted to go anywhere, let alone exotic locations. So, in settling for Blackie, Mary appealed to a generation of women forced back into the homemaker role, after working for a pay check during the war, and had to settle down. In part, the urge of this generation of women to work outside the home, for pay, fuelled suburbia, fast food and the necessity of a two-income family. There daughters lead the liberation of women movement in the 1970s; their grand daughters lead the same movements, today.
The Blackie character likely roots in an early 19th century series of stories by Jack Boyle. Laughlin, et al, point to "The Price of Principle," which ran in "The American Magazine" for July 1914, as a specific motivation for Blackie. The life of a crook is selfish, the detective-for-free is altruistic and thus heroic was the point.
As Robert Beaton points out, "There actually was a person called, Boston Blackie. He was known as the "King of the Hobos." His real name was George Folger. "I first heard of him researching old newspapers," says Beaton.
"On 27 March 27 1900, the original Blackie was shot in the face, point blank, by a bartender in Grand Haven, Michigan. He was taken to Mercy Hospital in Muskegon, Michigan and recovered. A year later he returned to the same Grand Haven bar, and had a drink with the bartender who shot him!
"There are number of articles about [Blackie], in the Grand Haven newspaper, at that time.
"I imagine their are many more articles about him in the Muskegon, MI and Charlene, MI newspapers, for that period, are after his hospital stay. One article, I have, says he was sent on to Charlevoix, MI, [for more treatment]."
Beaton adds that Boston Blackie is also "mentioned in early versions of "The Wabash Cannon Ball," an American folksong. "Now here's to Boston Blackie, may his name forever stand. And always be remembered by the ''bos [hobos] throughout the land. His earthly days are over, and the curtains round him fall. We'll carry him home to glory, on the Wabash Cannon Ball."
"Jack Boyle may have used the name of this hobo the 1914 magazine article. Originally, Boston Blackie was portrayed as a con man, of sorts. The late 19th century hobos were usually characterized as con men."
In one episode, "The Merry-go-round," Blackie is jumping onto a moving carousel. Mary Wesley says, "Be careful!" Blackie says, "Don't worry, I used to hop freight trains, when I was a kid."
Between 1941 and 1949, Chester Morris starred as Boston Blackie in 14 B-movies. As Maltin, et al, write, the role had "a delightful off-hand manner that kept the films fresh even when the scripts weren't." In addition to Morris, Richard Lane was a police inspector, positive Blackie was up to no good; George E. Stone played a talkative, ditzy best-buddy to Blackie -- "Shorty," on the radio series. Lloyd Corrigan was the millionaire pal -- "Kingston," on the radio series, who'd back anything Blackie wanted to do. The movies, as Maltin, et al, conclude are, "no classics, ... but a great deal of fun."
In 1941, network radio reached 90% of North Americans. Boston Blackie had built in appeal, shined by cross-media exposure. The scripts, by Kenny Lyons and Ralph Rosenberg, "ranged from good to excellent," and the likable-voiced actors, such as Morris, Richard Kollmer and Maurice Tarplin, to name a few, fit to a tee.
Still, the show lasted only the summer as a network show. In April 1945, Boston Blackie went into first-run syndication. An audience clearly existed for Boston Blackie, as its nine-season success in syndication confirms. NBC may have lost interest when Morris left after one episode, and was replaced by a local, New York City, disc jockey, Richard Kollmer.
Why Morris left is a mystery. It may have been planned that way. The nature of radio-as-work more likely influenced Morris.
The culprit, it seems, was the shock of radio-as-work. Morris was a movie star, used to hours of down-time during a shoot. One page a day is fast-paced movie making.
Network radio was a more intensive medium to work than movies. A weekly Boston Blackie script averaged 22 pages of dialogue, with coordinated sound effects (FX). The confusion of actors "doubling" or "tripling," that is, playing multiple roles.
First read-through was likely called for 2 pm, on the day of airing. An afternoon of rehearsing ended with a full dry-run about 5:30. Cast and crew then broke for dinner.
During the break, script and FX changes were inevitably made. This meant relearning parts of the script, in a hurry. Everyone returned around 8 pm for a last run through of the complete show.
At 10 pm eastern time, Boston Blackie went live-to-air. Unless recorded to disc, cast and crew hung around until 1 am, eastern, to redo the show for west coast listeners. A typical Boston Blackie Friday was long, intense and hectic in the extreme.
Richard Kollmer, who replaced Morris, had some stage and screen exposure. He was best known as one of the first generation of "disc jockies." Disc jockies (DJs) were radio announcers who rode the discs across a four or five or six hour shift. At first, DJs were an expedient way to fill non-network time on local radio stations. Listeners immediately took to personable DJs, who became an inexpensive way to generate huge profits in off-hours, that is, when the radio networks weren't feeding programming to local stations.
In the 1940's, Kollmer and wife, Dorothy Kilgallen, hosted, "Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick," on WOR. The show, writes Settel, airs live from their apartment in New York City. "[T]he microphones ... set on the table among the breakfast dishes. The couple chat naturally [sic] about family incidents, plays they have seen, parties they have been to, and people they know."
Kilgallen, "the best known newspaper woman" in America, according to Settel, was a syndicated gossip columnist. She's remembered as the most determined member of the panel on the game show, "What's My Line?"
Kilgallen was also the only journalist to interview Jack Ruby, assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, in his jail cell. She passed away, from a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol, a few days after interviewing Ruby. The interview was not published.
Boston Blackie was recorded, that is, transcribed at WOR or WNEW, in New York City. Transcriptions was made long into the evening. At least five and as many as seven or eight episodes were recorded in one session.
Maurice Tarplin, a seasoned character actor, plays "Inspector Faraday," in most episodes. Richard Lane and Frank Orth also worked this role; Lane played Faraday in the Boston Blackie movies. "Mary Wesley," girlfriend (sic) of Boston Blackie, is played, at various times, by Lesley Woods and Jan
Tony Barrett is the nervous, talkative comic relief named, "Shorty."
Harlow Wilcox was original announcer. Larry Elliot replaced Wilcox toward the end of the series.
Most of the cast doubled or tripled, that is, played multiple roles. Kollmer is most noticeable doubling. Tarplin is such an adept character actor, listeners miss him tripling, which he often did. Frank Lovejoy, a familiar voice on network radio drama, appears often, usually as the villain, and often doubling.
The long organ breaks, heard in each episode of "Boston Blackie," provide a musical bed for use by local stations. Over this bed, local announcers introduced the show, gave a time check or station break and read as many commercials as possible.
Though edited from many available episodes, each "Boston Blackie" show apparently began with a 36-second bed of organ music. The local announcer would read, "This is CFRA, and it's time for 'The Adventures Boston Blackie,' brought to you by Cabledeauz Pontiac, where you ...." The time check, station id, show introduction and commercial were timed to precisely (sic) hit the first line of the show.
Between acts, the organ would drone on for 60 or 90 seconds. At the end of the show, there was often time for four or five commercials and a brief teaser about the next episode of "Boston Blackie." Several episodes of the show were sponsored by a beer company; stations received the show free or at a substantial discount and placed local commercials before or after the show.
When "Boston Blackie" went into syndication, 23 June 1944, it was distributed as a vinyl record, about twice the size of the long playing albums, once the mainstay of the popular recording business. Vinyl albums had a diameter of 11 and 7/8th inches, recorded at 33 revolutions per minute (rpm). Syndicated radio show recordings were about 14 and 7/8 inches in diameter, recorded at 78 rpm.
Syndicated program recordings were usually bicycled from station to station, that is, mailed. Station A would receive the recording in the mail, air it and mail it on to Station B, which would do the same. In the early days of Public Broadcasting (PBS), the same process was used to distribute in a cost saving way.
Here are four shows from the syndicated version of "Boston Blackie."
The Case of the Three-way Split
Show 16, also known as "The Stolen $50,000" and "The Lavender Murder," aired 23 July 1945. Ann Martin writes a lavender letter to Blackie wanting him to give up the $50,000 her gangster husband, Harry Martin, hid before he died. Three of Harry's pals are released from prison and the chase is on. First line: "Well, Blackie, it's about time. Oh, I'm sorry, Mary..."*
The Brandon Jewel Robbery and Murder
Also known as "Jeweler Brandon Murdered," this is show number 43. It aired 5 February 1946. Blackie is addressed as Mr. Peterkin by a restaurateur and a cab driver. Mary asks him to buy a watch for her cousin at Brandon Jewelers. Sam Brandon waits on him, and also insists Blackie is Mr. Peterkin. Blackie must force him to take the $90 for the watch. An hour later Mary finds Brandon dead in his store. Blackie must discover the reason for the ruse and solve the crimes.* First line: "Blackie, you're a creature of habit."*
The Condon Ransom
Show 45 aired 12 February 1946. Marjorie Condon is kidnapped. Harry Condon arrives at Blackie's apartment asking for help in finding his wife, Marjorie. Her kidnappers are asking for $50,000 from her father, Mr. White. Blackie agrees to make the drop & gets Faraday's agreement of no police involvement. But Blackie drops a note to the kidnappers and keeps the money! First line: "Dad? Dad, where are you?"*
The $50 Shoe Shine
Show 125 aired 3 September 1947. Shiny Steel, the shoe shine boy, is a front for a counterfeit money ring, but he gets caught up in the conflict between Hanley and Arnold and is killed. Faraday doesn't get it, but Blackie polishes the case off nicely. First line: "You really put a shine on those shoes, fella."*
*All show summaries by Dr. Charles Laughlin, Arlene Osborne and Al Hubin (1999), "The Ultimate
Boston Blackie Log." Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, OTTAWA K1S 5B6.
Robert Beaton (2008), personal correspondence via e-mail. 27 April.
John Dunning (1998), "On the Air: the encyclopedia of old-time radio," is published by Oxford University Press. P. 110.
Douglas Harper (2006), "Good Company: a tramp lie. Paradigm Publishers. This book devotes a chapter to the original "Boston Blackie."
Leonard Maltin, et al (1996), "1996 Movie & Video Guide." Signet. Pp. 151-152.
Irving Settel (1960), "A Pictorial History of Radio," is published by Castle Books. P. 168.
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