In 1943, after having published some twenty odd successful whodunits, Erle Stanley Gardner signed a contract with Procter & Gamble to bring his fictional lawyer and his team to America’s living rooms. Although scarred by his experiences with Hollywood and Warner Bros’ six reluctantly successful screen adaptations, he agreed to broadcast Perry Mason as an afternoon program to entertain his target group and thus promote his books. Despite Gardner’s own deficiencies to turn his narratives into suspenseful scripts, Perry Mason premiered in the fall of 1943 and underwent several revisions until the author finally came to like the radio version of his famous character three years later. Improved by writer Irving Vendig in 1946, Perry Mason was brought to life by several actors, among them Donald Briggs, John Larkin, Sanots Ortega and Bartlett Robinson. They presented a sophisticated, multifaceted lawyer who was in the habit of defending friends and enjoyed good food. He was supported by an ever-loyal and savvy Della Street, played by Joan Alexander, Jan Miner an Gertrude Warner. Their relationship, like in the books, remained a riddle: close-knit and intimate, yet respectful and professional, they shared a kiss more than once. Paul Drake, the smart-mouthed, brisk detective, was played by Matt Crowley and Charles Webster. Always kept on his toes by Perry’s cases and eager to banter with Della, he was an important ingredient to the slowly blooming success of a soapy yet suspenseful show. Broadcast five days a week in fifteen minute segments, Perry Mason solved his cases with the help of recurring guest characters such as Helen and Jake Jacobson, two news reporters who helped fool suspects or the prosecution more than once. Designed as a suspense program with melodramatic elements, the show lasted twelve consecutive seasons and was finally terminated in 1955. Followed by the still popular Perry Mason TV show (CBS 1957-66, NBC 1985-95) and The Edge of Night (CBS 1956-75, ABC 1975-84), selected episodes of the Perry Mason radio program are now available on The Internet Archive and Old Time Radio. Although incomplete and rather different in quality, the episodes are a wonderful treat for any Perry Mason fan, novice or seasoned, and a great addition to any radio detective collection.
Everyone who knows me is aware of this: I’m a big fan of Della Street. I have been for many years, ever since I was a kid and watched the Perry Mason TV movies until my grandma introduced me to the original show from the 1950s and 60s. That’s when I liked her even more, for her skills, her style, her elegance. She’s the epitomized girl Friday who was brought to life by Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, June Travis and Ann Dvorak in the 1930s, by Gertrude Warner, Jan Miner and Joan Alexander from the mid 40s to 50s, and ultimately by my favorite, Barbara Hale, in the classic TV show and movies.
Created by Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933, Della Street entered the scene along with her famous boss, attorney-at-law Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws. Included from the first novel on, Della was a little feistier upon introduction, but every bit as skillful and loyal as in the following eighty-one whodunits. It was made clear from the start that Della had quite an influence on Perry, that their relationship ran a little deeper than that of an employer and his confidential secretary. Always supported by their friend, private eye Paul Drake, their cases took center stage however and the couple never went beyond an ardent kiss. Proposing to her a couple of times, Perry Mason was generally turned down by his irreplaceable office pearl who understood that he wasn’t the type to settle down, nor was she willing to spend her life without him in a large home as a housewife and mother. So she stuck it out with him through hundreds of cases in the books and movies, on radio and finally on TV.
Always a little altered in the adaptations, Della remained steadfast, pretty and faithful to her boss and got marry to him once in Warner Brother’s very free version of The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1936. In general, Della Street was quite sassy in the Perry Mason films of the 1930s and frequently involved in taking flight from the police on radio a decade later. With television being a more conservative medium in the late 1950s, Barbara Hale did not get to flirt with Raymond Burr’s Perry as much as her predecessors, but thanks to their on screen chemistry and her intuitive acting, the seething romance between Della and Perry continued in the hearts and heads of many Perry Mason fans until a kiss in 1993’s The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host finally confirmed their relationship.
Never described as anything but beautiful in Gardner’s original books, Della Street donned platinum hair and brunette curls, as well as alluring outfits that were appropriate for the office. As the Della Street who’s left a lasting impression on her audience, Barbara Hale wore outfits that were typical of the time between 1957 and 66: figure-hugging, feminine and always covering her knees. Upon the insistence of executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, Della did not follow every trend when the 60s introduced new hemlines every year and thus stressed the classy elegance Ms. Hale had established for her TV alias. With her limited collection of clothes, Della often changed her outfits by combining her blouse or sweater with another skirt. Her trademark look can be pinned down to waist shirt dresses (including one with her embroidered initials), pencil skirts, cardigans and blouses that embellished her neck with a bow. In the first season, Della was also constantly running around on mules which she later replaced with a classy pair of heels. As an accessory, Della often wore a pearl necklace or a charm bracelet on her left wrist while her little finger frequently showed the presence of a simple ring, matching her boss’ on his own hand. From time to time, Della was also seen wearing a necklace with a pendant showing her initials, long before Carrie Bradshaw made it fashionable for a whole new generation.
In the 1980s, Barbara Hale returned to TV with her longtime screen partner Raymond Burr and continued the tradition of presenting Della as efficient, warmhearted and dressed to the nines. Again, following contemporary but conservative fashion, Della combined over-knee skirts with stylish boots, turtleneck sweaters, blazer jackets and two layers of pearls. Without changing her hair as much as on the original show (while avoiding the beehive), Della Street kept her cropped, practical curls which added credibility to the on-screen depiction of Perry Mason’s tireless associate.
Today, Della’s look can be re-examined on DVD and copied thanks to the many vintage stores and new designs that are inspired by more graceful times. With a circle skirt and scarf, a classy faux vintage suit or classy heels, it’s easy to feel as sophisticated and charming as Della Street. Add a full head of curls, matching intimates and a petticoat to your outfit and you’ll perfect the sentiment. From where I’m standing it is worth the effort, paying tribute to a character many real life secretaries still love to look at for inspiration.