Friday, April 29, 2011

Henry Aldrich's Mother: Katherine Raht

Fans of old-time radio are familiar with the radio program, The Aldrich Family. Whenever a discussion about the radio program is the topic of the minute at radio conventions, Clifford Goldsmith and Ezra Stone are mentioned by name more often than anyone else. But ask someone, "Who played the role of Henry Aldrich's mother on The Aldrich Family?" and no one seems to be able to answer the trivia question.

Katherine Raht was brought up to be a Chattanooga belle, and surprised her family by becoming a school teacher after graduation from Bryn Mawr. When she left teaching to attend a school of the theater, her family and neighbors all but swooned. Her first acting plum was the role of Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town

Until she had been chosen for the role of Henry Aldrich's mother, Katherine Raht didn't know she wanted to be in radio at all. Although she always had a yen for the stage, and sang Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in glee clubs, and studied costume design, she never consider the fledgling medium of radio as a career booster.

In the spring of 1939, a friend was so impressed with her sympathetic and motherly voice that he introduced her to Clifford Goldsmith, author of The Aldrich Family. Goldsmith was just beginning auditions for his radio program. It appears he heard her several times on small-known radio programs, but when she was paired up with House Jameson (Mr. Sam Aldrich), they made such a team that Goldsmith hired her to play the role.

"It was clearly an exception to the rule," Raht later explained in an interview. "Most radio stars come up the hard way. You can't learn anything in two weeks, as I told a certain ambitious young girl who had come to New York from the South and asked me where she could go to learn radio in record time. She wanted to go home a full-fledged staff announcer. She had the cart before the horse."

For years I have been criticizing the internet (the world wide web) as a reference source for all things old-time radio. For researchers like myself, who dig into archives and document our findings in books,  the internet is used as a tool for research, not as a reference. The difference? Using the internet to transfer files, find archives at University libraries, track down family relatives of celebrity actors, communicate with the script writers who are still alive, browse an archive like the New York Times, I think you get the idea. But if a web-site like Wikipedia claims Al Hodge played the role of The Green Hornet from 1936 to 1941, I would take it with a grain of salt. (There's already an 800-page book documenting The Green Hornet and  the correct answer can be found in there.)

I know of no respectable scholar, University professor or author who consults the internet as a reference, and hanging their head up high, they will tell you so with stern conviction. There's an old saying among researchers: everyone consults previously-published books on old-time radio and copies the same mistakes in their write-ups, but very few actually do the legwork. (One web-site in particular has built a reputation for stealing material from other people's web-sites, then claims they did their own "independent research," and sadly is misleading others into thinking they are "historians.") So why did I bring this up? Because two months ago on Charlie Summers' OTR Digest, I made reference to an episode guide for The Aldrich Family, which has been in the works for some time. Many years, actually. A kind soul (who admitted he has a few of my books and wanted to help contribute to the Aldrich Family project) mailed to me via Fed Ex, two large scrapbooks previously owned by Katherine Raht.

Most Hollywood actors do not keep a scrapbook of all the newspaper clippings, Variety reviews or other mementos. Some did, but most did not. But those who worked on the stage during the 1920s and 1930s, often did. Perhaps this rubbed off on Katherine Raht, but regardless of the reason, we now have a very comprehensive document of her stage and radio work. In an effort to preserve the scrapbooks (which were starting to fall apart at the seems) I used my digital camera to snap photos. Using the scanner was not possible since the pages were much larger than the scanner itself. Besides, it's the history and text we want to preserve.

As a treat for all you Henry Aldrich fans out there, enclosed are a number of clippings and telegrams and other goodies found within the scrapbooks. Sorry, but I am not including all 200 snapshots. But the samples are something to droll over. You'll probably have to click on each image to see them larger.

Be assured that I did create an off-site back up of the digital files so there's no fear of losing them. As for The Aldrich Family project, there's no insurance of a book in the works. At least, not yet. But as a researcher, I don't turn such opportunities down. I'm willing to take time and help preserve what I can of radio broadcasting history. So for the moment, the photos you see are being stored on the shelf until something comes up noteworthy.


P.S. If the web-site I mentioned above (or any web-site for that matter) copies the photos and pastes them on their site, thus giving the appearance they originated the snapshots, or go so far as to claim I stole them from their web-site, I'll quietly remove this posting and permanently cease offering future archival goodies. I'm extending a courtesy for the fans, not for credit hogs with huge egos.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bastardizing the DVD Market

Over the past weekend I bought a copy of MISS SUSIE SLAGLES from 1946. Veronica Lake gets top billing and she's the main reason why I wanted to see the film. It's one of the few Veronica Lake films I have yet to see. It's never been released on VHS or DVD commercially. The vendor told me that the quality isn't going to be "remastered," but it was definitely good enough to watch with no complaints. A friend of mine, who stood next to me, swore I was going to get ripped off. He was wrong and I enjoyed every minute of the movie. And the eye candy with her peek-a-boo hair style. And was surprised to find the great silent screen actress Lillian Gish in a small role. My purchase, however, and my friend's caution, reminded me of the stuck-up surgeon who annually attends a couple Western Film Festivals and swears that he'll only buy DVDs that have been commercially released because (in his mind) he's ensured that he has the best picture quality and the films (or TV shows) are uncut. Then he spends part of the time insulting the vendors who offer high quality DVDs, because in his opinion the price is not cheap enough. And worse, brags out loud in front of others about how he copies commercial DVDs and how he can make a copy of any DVD better than anyone else. What he doesn't realize is that he (and many others like him) are one of the reasons why the DVD market is dropping.

Last week, I got a copy of the first season of WKRP IN CINCINNATI and was not surprised to discover that more than three-fourths of the rock music was replaced with no-name instrumental rock music. What? Can this be right? They actually replaced the original music for some generic notes? Don't they realize that the music went along with the jokes?

In one unfortunate regard, “WKRP” gets no respect. At one point Johnny Fever cues up Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”; instead, what we hear is a generic rock instrumental. And that is repeated throughout the DVD box. Thanks to the high cost of licensing oldies, the period rock, funk, new wave and soul records spun by Fever and Flytrap have been replaced... and not for the better.

This isn't the first time that's happened. The episode "The Stolen Costume" on THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (starring George Reeves) obviously originated from a grainy 16mm master instead of a 35 archival print. Another episode from the same season box set no longer has the scene where the guy commits suicide by jumping out a window.

This is how they should have packaged it.

When Season Two of HAWAII FIVE-O came out, fans were shocked to learn that the episode, "Bored, She Hung Herself," was not included. Taking a second look at the cover art, the box states "The Second Season" ---- not "The Complete Second Season." In this particular episode, a person was found hung to death and it appeared they performed a stunt of Yoga so complicated, they they strangled themselves to death. In real life, a man who did Yoga wondered if that position would indeed strangle the breath out of himself. He tried it, he died, and the family sued. During the settlement, producer Leonard Freeman agreed not to re-air the episode in re-runs. And it seems CBS preferred not to include it that episode in the Second Season box set. Worse, Danny Williams was credited as "Danno" beginning with the Second Season but the episodes, instead, featured the First-Season Openers. (I'm pleased to announce, however, that with minor nit-picking, Season One and Three through Nine are much better.)

When MGM released THE ADDAMS FAMILY on DVD, the classic TV series with Carolyn Jones and John Astin, in one episode, the scene where Morticia sings at the harpsichord is not included. On the DVD release of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932), while the previously-deleted scenes were replaced, the scenes where Fu Manchu is applying electricity to Genghis Khan's sword are deleted. I was told from an inside source (definitive) that the studio did not want to give the impression that they risked the life of a human being to create those scenes, so they deleted them from the DVD release.

So what the heck is going on? Simple. The studios don't want to pay the extra dollars and offer the fans what they want to watch. Allow me to explain. Back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, there was no such thing as VHS videos and DVDs. When actors and musicians signed contracts, it was standard to include a clause that stipulated that reruns could include the music. This clause was perpetual which means today, tomorrow and fifty years from now they'll remain intact on TV airings. This is why today you can watch an episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI on television with the original music, but not on the DVD. In order for the companies to do this, they must track down the rights holders and acquire a new signed release, granting permission for the music to be included in the DVD release. If the studios cannot track down the license holder (which is extremely rare because I've personally seen studio paperwork on files and they know everything right down to who swept the floor after rehearsals), they are forced to delete the music or musical sequence. In some cases, the rights holders think they should be offered a million dollars -- for DVD sales that, realistically, don't stretch near 50,000.

Surprised? Don't be. When the Walt Disney Company released ZORRO with Guy Williams, Season One and Season Two individually, the tin sets included a certificate stating they were limited to a print run of 30,000. And six months after they were in the stores, companies like Best Buy were liquidating the stock they couldn't sell for as little as $15.95! That means classic TV shows don't sell like they used to. I mean, com'on! You mean the market is so dead that they couldn't even sell 30,000 of a DVD Zorro box set? As Little Beaver would say on Red Ryder, "you betchum'!" So if anyone believes there is a huge market for DVD box sets of classic TV shows, and wonders why shows like 77 SUNSET STRIP have yet to come out on DVD, there's a valid reason.

The movie studios have to pay a graphic designer to do the art work for the box sets. They have to pay for studio lab transfers to be made. They have to pay a studio (not a job in-house) to design the animated menu screens. They have to pay for glass masters for which the DVDs would be made. If they chose to add bonus material, that costs money too. Then they have to pay for advertising. And here's the worst part. Almost every company uses a distributor called Ingram. What doesn't sell in the stores, Ingram charges the movie studios a small fee for each item returned. So what doesn't get sold on store shelves after a few weeks, the studio has to pay... and then they still have stock they cannot sell (or they repackage it sometimes as a solution, or liquidate to warehouses and Wal-Mart). So why spend all that money for something that won't likely sell even 30,000 copies?

So who's fault is this? The studio? The music rights holders? The customers? Actually, all three. (gasp!) Why? Because the music rights holders, greedy for the extra buck, charge too much than the studios can afford. The studios should be ashamed of themselves for not paying the extra money or more importantly, spending time to work out a price that suits both parties. And the customers are at fault for sending a message to the studios when, a DVD set that retails $89.00, is considered too expensive to buy. Remember when the first season of LOST IN SPACE came out? Fans complained that it was too expensive for the entire box set. So the company came upon a solution. For the Second Season, they split it in half. Season Two, Volume One. The price was cut in half and the fans said they could afford that. Other studios followed their lead and began offering partial or half seasons. Of course, studios now like to split seasons in half just to stretch the money... ridiculous for shows that had such a short run that splitting a box set into two is needless.

When CBS put out Season Two and Three of THE FUGITIVE, fans were upset. The original theme music wasn't there. They started a campaign on Facebook and posted negative reviews on As a result, CBS heard their cries and now have a specific address where customers can mail their sets to and receive a replacement set with the original theme music. (Remember the studios have deadlines for this kind of offer so don't delay when you take them up on this offer.)

When Classic Media heard the complaints from fans of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, because Seasons One, Two, Three and Four were released individually, but the Fifth and Final Season was only available if you bought the complete series box set, because fans already bought Seasons One through Four, they agreed to make them happy and just recently released Season Five apart from the Complete Series Box Set. Thank you!

But there are still times when companies have excuse. I was disappointed when I discovered eight episodes from MISTER ED (Season One) were the syndicated edited versions (22 minutes instead of 26). Did I buy Seasons Two and Three? No. Why? The answer is obvious. When Shout Factory released THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, licensed from the Nelson Estate, I thought to myself, "Finally, I'll be able to watch the series uncut and in beautiful quality without having to deal with the horrible dollar-store public domain crap." The quality was beautiful, but the episodes were cut to 22 minutes. And this was the licensed set? (They actually put out a second set and those were also edited.)

I'll stop here. Don't get me started on that episode of the First Season of WISEGUY with the Moody Blues' "Night in White Satin" replaced -- totally destroying the scene with Vinnie and Sonny's final heart-to-heart...

The examples I listed above are just a small sampling of the bastardizing. Have the studios not figured out that they cannot insult the intelligence of the fans? Apparently not. While some people are not versed in the programs they want to see and might not notice a thirty-second scene missing, or music replaced with some generic simulation, it only takes four or five negative reviews on Amazon to hamper a percentage of sales. So if and when the studios are listening... do it right or don't do it at all. I know bootlegs float about on the internet and are sold on vendor tables at horror, science fiction and comic conventions. But sometimes, for my money, I'll support the little fellow knowing what I am getting is far better than what the studios have to offer.

In closing: I have always believed in letter-writing. Tell the studios what you think of their product. It'll make them consider going the right direction. As for WKRP IN CINCINNATI, I'm returning it to the store tomorrow. That'll cost the studio a couple more bucks out of their pocket. And don't think I'm not putting a small note inside the box set for the studios to read when they get it back, "You replaced the original music with generic music. Now I can't trust any DVD released from your company and I'll think twice before considering another purchase." Maybe they'll get the idea...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Windy City Pulp and Paper

The Windy City Pulp and Paper Show is an annual convention devoted to the pulp magazine, what organizers call a "uniquely American form of popular literature" that had its heyday between World Wars I and II. Every year a large gather of people who share a common interest – the enjoyment of collecting and reading old pulp magazines – gather to discuss their favorite reads. There's also a showroom of art and collectibles, auctions of rare items, a pulp art show, and screenings of films adapted from pulp magazines.

Sadly – and this might come as a surprise to some of you -- there are only two conventions held across the country with a primary focus on old pulp magazines. The PulpFest Convention in Columbus, Ohio, and the Windy City Pulp and Paper Show. (There is a small, one-day event like Rich Harvey’s AdventureCon where you can find a number of vendors selling pulp magazines, but after asking the opinion of a few, it’s not generally considered a “convention.”) But fans and attendees feel so strongly about these conventions that their enthusiasm often gives one the opinion that the pulp magazine market is HUGE. It isn’t. In fact, it’s a small niche market.

One of the vendor displays at Windy City.

Vendor Room as the vendors were starting to set up.

The name pulp, incidentally, comes from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Magazines printed on better paper were called "glossies" or "slicks." In their first decades, they were most often priced at ten cents per magazine, while competing slicks were 25 cents apiece. Pulps were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the magazines are best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of "hero pulps"; and pulp magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters, such as The Shadow (a favorite of mine), Doc Savage and The Phantom Detective.

Check out the prices for these pulps!

Here at Chicago, Doug Ellis and his wife put on a good event. A “fantastic event” if you happen to collect pulps. Since I’m spending the weekend here signing copies of my latest book, The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program, 1930-54, I am taking digital photos for you to get an idea of the dime novels, pulp magazines and even Big Little Books that are available for sale.
The convention lacks a number of presentations that are highly needed, but what the convention lacks, it makes up for with the highlight of the weekend – an auction where high-priced pulps can be purchased if you have the money. This year, a collection from the estate of Jerry Weist was auctioned off. Jerry was a regular attendee of Windy City, and he very much hoped to be here to see his friends and fellow collectors. Unfortunately, that was not meant to be, as Jerry’s long and hard-fought battle with cancer ended earlier this year.

Auction items are displayed on a big screen so people are reminded about what they were bidding on.

Among the items that went up for auction (and their final bids, sans buyer’s premiums, Paypal surcharge and other fees) included three issues of Headquarters Detective from 1936 to 1937 (sold for $300), the first issue of Detective Book from April 1930 ($140), five western/adventure pulps such as Western Adventures and Frontier Stories ($633), and the cover and spine for the premiere issue of Weird Tales (just the cover and spine, not the entire magazine) which went for $286. Issue number eight of The Lone Ranger (there were 12 issues printed from 1937 to 1938) was in such good quality that it sold for more than $800. A first edition of Tarzan and the Apes, without the original dust jacket, sold for $413. And a first edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Eternal Lover in very good condition sold for $525.

Canceled checks with legit autographs from Cornell Woolrich and Zane Grey.

If you don’t have this kind of money to buy first editions, you can also buy “reprints” of the pulp magazines. A number of companies have taken the effort to track down the literary rights and acquire licensing and permission to reprint the pulp magazines. So for $10 or $12 bucks, you can buy a reprint of an original magazine or novel just as they were graphically laid out in the originals.

Steering off the side for a moment, I met a number of people who are friends of mine on Facebook, including Patrick Cranford (a Facebook buddy of mine) and Roy Bright, who I see only two or three times a year. Meeting and chatting with friends is one of the main reasons I enjoy going to the conventions.

If you happen to live in or near Chicago, Illinois, I recommend you check out the 2012 Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention by clicking on the link. The dates will be April 27 to 29. The highlight is a celebration of Tarzan’s 100th Anniversary.

If you happen to live in or near Columbus, Ohio, check out the other event at Pulp Fest in late July at Stop by and say hello and we’ll share a photo on Facebook.

Personal note: This happens to be my very first blog post. Feel free to share any ideas or suggestions, especially what to add to my blog that will attract a bunch of people to the site. In the future, I plan to post about some cool, overlooked old time movies, a few book reviews, and commentary (such as why commercial release DVDs are often not as good as you think – bet you didn’t know that the second season of Hawaii Five-O is missing an episode?) Stay tuned! Martin