A Pause to Say Thanks

Today is a good day. I’ve had a couple of them lately. Dancing, cooking, listening to Benny Goodman. Getting back to work with some lovely colleagues. I like my January like this and now that it’s coming to an end, I just felt like saying thanks.

Thanks to my family and friends for being there for me and for entrusting me with your joy, pain and secrets. Thanks to Pema Chödrön for writing such inspiring books and to every author who’s giving me an insight into the Baha’i Faith.

Thanks to all the artists who came before me and created uplifting pieces, especially to Patty Andrews and her Sisters who are now reunited in heaven, passing on a legacy of beautiful tunes for us all to enjoy. Thanks also to Eve Arden for her splendid memoir and to her Golden Hollywood peers for treating me to so many gems I can’t get enough of the older I get.

Thanks to the wonderful team of Vintage Life whose e-mails are always most encouraging and to all of you who stop by to read my reviews. And last but not least, thanks to a lady I just met who sent me the most surprising message. On this last day of January, talking to you just put the icing on my cake.

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Beyond Kit Carson

Remembering the Charm and Talents of Bill Williams

Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Wilhelm Katt, Bill Williams started his career in Vaudeville, touring the US and Europe as an adagio dancer until he joined the army in WWII. Following an honorable medical discharge, he returned to show business, starting out as an extra in Hollywood and playing small, uncredited parts before he finally landed a deal with RKO in the mid 1940s. As a contract player, he was slowly cast as a budding co-star, opposite popular colleagues such as Spencer Tracy in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Robert Young in Those Endearing Young Charms, Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time and Susan Hayward in Deadline at Dawn while in private life he quietly divorced his first, long estranged wife. In 1946, two years after shooting West of the Pecos, a small Western featuring RKO starlet Barbara Hale whom he had previously been introduced to by acting coach Lillian Albertson, he got married to his former co-star gone studio sweetheart and saw a bright future laid out before him. Considered for a series of pictures following A Likely Story co-starring his young wife, Bill’s stream of luck ended with the sudden death of RKO president Charles Kroener and the structural changes that followed at the studio.

After serving as good-will ambassador from Hollywood to the public in 1946 and 47 for several months, keeping his popularity afloat by touring he country, he was struck down by an old injury that would further interrupt his career while Mrs. Williams was expecting their first child. With A Likely Story under his belt, however, the press didn’t lose interest in him and focused on the private life of the growing Williams family instead, presenting them as happy, lovely and homey. After bowing out of The Window, his second would-be collaboration with wife Barbara, Bill regained his health and starred with her in The Clay Pigeon. Shortly thereafter, the couple faced a new challenge in their conjoined careers when Howard Hughes entered the scene to change the course of RKO by letting all the contract players go. While his wife managed to land a career-breaking part in Jolson Sings Again and a follow-up contract with Columbia Pictures, Bill Williams continued working as a freelance actor, starring in a number of small Westerns and memorable films like The Stratton Story until he got his big break on television in 1951. Landing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Bill breathed life into a character who soon turned into a kids’ favorite and guaranteed him long hours on set. Successful for four consecutive seasons, the show turned Bill into a household name and Western hero, a good fortune he tried to continue with Date with the Angels in 1957. Starring opposite TV darling Betty White, Bill was seen as a newlywed husband who showed splendid comedic timing. Although promising, entertaining and less strenuous to work on than his predecessor series, the show did not last longer than a season. Instead, his wife Barbara Hale started an unexpectedly long career on television when she agreed to star as Della Street on Perry Mason, a show that would last from 1957 to 66. After years of putting her family first, it was Bill now who spent more time at home with the three children. He did not return to the small screen until 1960 when he starred in Assignment: Underwater, an underwater adventure show modeled after Sea Hunt, a surprise hit Bill Williams himself had turned down in 1958. Following the show’s cancellation, Bill returned to being a working actor and guest starred on a variety of popular programs including his wife’s great success and her co-star Raymond Burr’s follow-up smash Ironside until he retired from acting for good in 1981.

Although originally a city boy with a defining Brooklyn accent, Bill was frequently cast as a handsomely talented cowboy throughout his career. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athleticism, he was the perfect ‘good guy’ when he was young and a credible character actor when he got older. Always deeply committed to his craft, he worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and earthy charm. Not unlike his darling wife, Bill Williams is now often remembered for his one career-defining role as Kit Carson, but it would be a pity to forget all the other characters he breathed life into, including the many different men he played opposite Mrs. Williams – from their first feature West of the Pecos in 1945 to their last in 1976, Disney’s Flight of the Grey Wolf.

Twenty years ago, on September 21, Bill Williams died in Burbank, California at the age of 77. He left his wife of 46 years, two grown daughters and his son, William Katt, a working actor who continued the tradition of keeping the business in the family by repeatedly working with his mother, Barbara Hale, on the same projects. By his fans, he is still remembered with great fondness, especially by those who grew up loving Westerns.

* Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. (Thanks for the mention, Gina!) Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.

A Radio Treat

Two days ago, I listened to a radio broadcast from 1950, a live recording from March 23 to be exact, the day of the 22nd Academy Awards. Presented by Paul Douglas at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood with radio comments by Ken Carpenter, Eve Arden and Ronald Reagan, the show was a good two hours in length and filled with lots of joyful moments.

The show – although already exciting for any classic movie buff without great names such as James Cagney, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell and June Allyson, Anne Baxter and John Hodiac, Cole Porter, Ruth Roman and Barbara Hale – was entertaining from the start and blessed with a beautiful score presented by Gene Autry, Dean Martin and other wonderful performers. Despite the many differences in presentation compared to the lengthy ceremony I’ve long stopped watching each year, it amused me to find one announcement already existed back in 1950: the request for the winners to cut their thank you’s short. And trust me, the few people who said more than a heartfelt thank you, didn’t take center stage to present a short story about their lives. How refreshing to hear there once was a way to go about this differently, when recipients were in tears about their accomplishment without dwelling on it. How surprising to hear a young boy thank his parents and God – at least by today’s standards.

I know not everyone will share my sentiment, but I loved the mix of glamor and simplicity, such a charming combination. Stars and winners aside, the radio hosts also won my heart for their lively presentation and supportive attitude. Without making a fuss, they added to the style of a show that still showed signs of gratefulness and modesty towards their peers and audience. A different world, Hollywood in 1950, both good and bad, and so much fun revisiting with your eyes closed.

For Your Commercial Interruption…

I don’t know about you, but I’m easily annoyed by commercials. These days I should probably add because I have fond memories of re-enacting the most popular commercials for my family when I was little, giving them all a good laugh at the dinner table. It must’ve looked positively silly though, when I repeated all those slogans I barely understood at five or six. After all, my family has always been utterly unimpressed by all things Hollywood. I, however, have always loved it, for as long as I can remember, and when I grew up I didn’t only practice smoking by buying chewing gum cigarettes and filling my toothpaste cap with ice-cold water to resemble booze and learn how to chug-a-lug (which TV had taught me was something you just had to have down to a tee to become an adult), no, I also loved to watch commercials and learned the slogans and jingles by heart without the use of a VCR.

Today, my fascination is but a mere memory of that time long gone, of an era when classic stars were still regulars on a vast variety of TV programs. Looking further back, I now find great joy in looking at ads and commercials from the 1940s and 50s, when car companies, soap manufacturers and cigarette labels sponsored entire programs: Ford Television Theatre, Lux Radio Theater or General Electric, just to name a popular few. Apart from those anthology series, other shows were also endorsed by companies and products; Date With the Angels, for example, was presented by a single sponsor, the Plymouth Dealers of America, following in the footsteps of many others while Perry Mason was supported by a variety of sponsors in its almost ten production years. Depending on the target audience, brands like Procter & Gamble’s Tide, Palmolive and Lux soap often sponsored afternoon programs on the radio, directly aiming at America’s housewives and their interest in beauty and their homes. Yes, also in the golden days of Hollywood, marketing companies ruled our world of entertainment.

It may be shallow to admit that those classic ads don’t bother but rather appeal to me – on Radio Vintage or Old Time Radio, it doesn’t matter: I love the jingles and the time they used to take to sell their products, time that has gotten more and more expensive over the years. I also like to look at my favorite stars in many ads – their pictures always beautiful in that way commercial art worked back in my favorite era. Just have a look at Barbara Hale (and her husband Bill Williams) below. In her fifty year career, she was not only the video spokesperson for Amana Radar Range in the 70s, she already plugged for Chesterfield cigarettes, Lux, Max Factor, Sunnybank Margarine and Matson back in her RKO, Columbia and Perry Mason years. Aren’t those pictures just darling, the colors vibrant and delicate, the smiles warm and inviting?

I may be in the minority, but apart from being tired of looking at undernourished teenage models these days, those airbrushed faces with their blank expressions also make me feel depressed. I prefer to see happy faces and not someone who is starving herself to look smaller than Twiggy in the 60s. So yes, I admit vintage commercials are my guilty pleasure and this link is meant for anyone who’s with me on this topic. Have fun listening to those jingles or tune in to listen to Radio Vintage like I often do, always getting giddy about those commercial interruptions which bring me back to “the good old days”.