Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Lux Radio Theater—Where the Biggest Stars Lit Up the Airways

Robert Taylor, Jean Harlow, Claude Rains and C. Henry Gordon in a Lux Radio Theater 1937 production of Madame Sans-Gene which aired shortly before Harlow's death.

The final curtain went down on a dazzling era when the last broadcast of the Lux Radio Theater signed off on June 7, 1955.  The final program was an adaptation of MGM’s 1949 melodrama Edward My Son with Walter Pidgeon in the part played by Spencer Tracy on the big screen.  For more than twenty years the show had brought the biggest stars first of Broadway and then of Hollywood into American living rooms.  At the peak of its popularity that star power attracted audiences on a par with the hyper-popular radio comedians like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy, and Bob Hope.
The program originated on the NBC Blue Network from the studios of WJZ in New York City on October 14, 1934.  Conceived as a prestige production and frankly aimed at women with cultural interests and aspirations, it was aired on Sunday afternoons.  Lever Brothers’ top tier product Lux Soap was the sole sponsor and would remain so throughout the long run. 
The idea was to air one hour adaptations of well-known stage plays staring the top actors from Broadway and supported by a stable of reliable radio performers.  Each show would begin with a casual discussion between a fictional Douglass Garrick—the name a play on the famous 18th Century English actor/producer David Garrick and the stars of that week’s episode introducing and setting up the production.  His equally fictitious assistant Peggy Winthrop conversationally managed to deliver monologues extoling the virtues of the sponsor’s soap.
The first program was Seventh Heaven, a hit 1927 romantic melodrama set among the Paris lower classes during World War I.  Miriam Hopkins and John Boles starred.  The story was also familiar to movie audiences—the silent version starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell reaped the first ever Academy Awards for Gaynor and director Frank Borzage.
The program was a success, but Lever Brothers decided that the audience would be even bigger if the show moved to the West Coast and switched emphasis to film adaptations and the movie stars who were house hold names even in small towns far from the lights of Broadway.
The program jumped to CBS and began airing from Los Angeles on June 1, 1936.  The Garrick character was jettisoned and instead legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, with his carefully cultivated, clipped speech, was brought on as host.  It was the beginning of shows take off to top rung popularity.
The first production set the tone.  The Legionnaire and the Lady, starred Marlene Dietrich in the role she first played in the 1930 film Morocco and Clark Gable, played the part originated by Gary Cooper.  The next week both of the stars of 1934 The Thin Man, William Powell and Myrna Loy were on hand to recreate their most famous parts.
At first some of the studios were reluctant to release their titles for adaptation.  But they soon discovered that the big radio audiences translated to cash at the box office when the stars were able to plug their current films.  Several films also got a boost in re-release. 
Lever Brothers was prepared to lay it big money to lure even the biggest stars to its microphone.  $5,000 was the standard fee for big stars and major supporting players were also generously compensated.  In Depression Era that was a lot of money for two days work—a table reading and full rehearsal one day and the live broadcast the next—even for the biggest stars.  Hardly anyone ever turned them down.
Whenever possible the show cast the original actors from the films in the radio version.  But if someone was unavailable, other stars were pulled in, giving audiences a kind of alternative version of their favorite films.  Joan Crawford, for instance, took Katherine Hepburn’s part in Mary of Scotland and real reporter Walter Winchell and reliable character actor James Gleason starred in a version of The Front Page.   And sometimes actors got to stretch, playing parts outside of their usual genres or type casting like Robert Montgomery with his New York accent in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Some shows broke the mold like This Is the Army, Irving Berlin’s musical with no stars but an all GI cast or Walt Disney presenting Snow White with the cast uncredited.  Several films, including Seventh Heaven were done more than once over the shows long run with entirely different casts.
A short list of just some of the stars who appeared on the show included, Lauren Bacall, Wallace Beery, Jack Benny, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, Betty Hutton, Fredric March, Robert Mitchum, Paul Muni, Tyrone Power, Mickey Rooney, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, John Wayne, and Orson Welles.
The show was broadcast in front of a live audience at the Lux Radio Playhouse at 1615 North Vine Street in Hollywood, a theater building owned by Howard Hughes.
DeMille’s long tenure as host came to an acrimonious end, a result of class politics and the post-World War II Red Scare.  DeMille was one of Hollywood’s most outspoken conservatives and an anti-communist who not only cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee but led the charge to get leftists out of the industry and especially out of the unions.  In order to appear on the radio DeMille had to be a member in good standing of the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA).  The union was part of a campaign to convince the California Assembly to pass closed shop legislation which DeMille voraciously opposed.  The union assessed each member for a one-time payment of $1 to support the campaign.  DeMille refused to pay and was suspended by the union.  By contract with CBS he could not continue on the air.  DeMille later claimed that whole thing was a Communist sham to get him off the air.
The show continued with other hosts, but was soon facing other challenges, chiefly the rise of television which was disrupting both the radio and movie businesses.  With ratings falling, the show left CBS and returned to NBC in the fall of 1954, going off the air at the end of its second season there.
  Meanwhile Lever Brothers launched Lux Video Theater as a half hour program on CBS-TV in 1950 broadcasting from New York.  In ’53 it, too, relocated to California and the next year expanded to an hour and jumped to NBC.  That show competed with other Golden Age of Television anthology shows like Playhouse 90, and the U.S. Steel Hour until it went off the air in 1957.

Today many episodes of the Lux Radio Theater have been packaged on CDs and are available by download to I-Pods and computers.

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