A Eulogy For Bob Baileypermalink categories: eulogies originally posted: 2017-08-13 15:51:45
Bob Bailey died 34 years ago today. And while our story ends there, it doesn't start there. Instead, we start with—
The Strangely Specific End Of The Golden Age Of Radio
Technologies, particularly entertainment-delivery technologies, have a finite lifetime. They're invented, they become obsolete, and if they're lucky they get some use in between. The most dominant technologies are often said to have a "golden age".
Consider the Compact Disc or "CD". CDs were first released to the public in 1982, and in 1992 became the dominant medium for selling and distributing music when CD sales overtook cassette sales. A scant ten years later saw the rise of iTunes, and more recently online streaming services like Spotify. So one could say the "golden age" of the CD started in 1992 and ended sometime in the 2000s.
This story repeats itself over and over back through history. Before the CD there was the compact cassette. Before that, the 8-track, and the vinyl record. And before that the wax cylinder. No doubt something will come along in the future and displace the online streaming services. All these technologies have had, or will have had, their "golden age".
Now consider this: usually it's hard to nail down a definite beginning or end to these "golden ages". You can usually narrow it down to a specific year, maybe even a specific month. But I doubt you could identify one particular day that was the beginning, or the end, of the golden age of the CD. It's all a bit fuzzy.
However! Not so with the golden age of radio. While the beginning of the golden age of radio is a bit hazy—sometime in the 1920s or 1930s—radio historians generally agree that the golden age of radio ended not only on a particular day, but at a particular time: 7pm Eastern Time, September 30, 1962.
How did they decide that? Radio had already been on the decline for a number of years. Television was in its ascendancy, and it got its audience by drawing away radio listeners. By 1962 CBS was the only national radio network left in the United States, still creating radio shows with original scripts. And that's really what we're talking about—the end of radio as a primary source of entertainment for the home, and the end of the nationally broadcast scripted radio show.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
On this fateful last day of the golden age of radio, CBS only had two programs still on the air, both dramas. The very last show, starting at 6:35pm, was the long-running Suspense, a weekly anthology series with no connecting plot or characters. The hallmark of Suspense was its chosen genre, as summarized by the show's tag line: "A story guaranteed to keep you in... suspense!"
The first of the two programs to air that night, starting at 6:10pm, was the now largely-forgotten Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. This was a weekly adventure show about Johnny Dollar, "America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator". Perhaps "freelance insurance investigator" sounds a bit dull. But it's actually quite suitable as a starting point for an adventure show. Since he's called in to investigate insurance claims, that often leads directly to investigating a crime—a murder, or a jewel heist, or the work of an embezzler. Or he might be called in to prevent crime.
The show was narrated by Johnny himself, and used him recounting his expense account as a framing device. As they put it each week, he was "the man with the action-packed expense account." Originally Johnny specialized in padding his expense account, enjoying the high life at the expense of his employers, a contrivance that was mostly left behind as the show evolved. As an example, here's how the pilot episode started, with famous radio actor Dick Powell playing Johnny:
Expense account item one: cab fare to your office, in response to your original call, 75 cents. Tip to driver: 1 dollar. Expense account item two: shoe shine, 25 cents. You'll remember I got my shoes scuffed when I unsuspectingly walked in to your private office.
(Rule of thumb: multiply all dollar amounts by 9 to convert to 2017 dollars.)
There are a couple notable things about Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. First, although the show ran for 13 years, it virtually never had a corporate sponsor. Most popular radio shows of the time had a weekly sponsor—Jack Benny was brought to you by Jello, Fibbar McGee & Molly by Johnson's Wax, and Burns and Allen were sponsored by Hormel (and Spam!). But only rarely was Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar sponsored by anybody. Generally it was just paid for by CBS itself and ran the usual advertisers.
Second, a total of six different actors played Johnny on the air during its run. Most radio shows wouldn't outlive the original actor departing. But Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar endured a surprising amount of changeover during its 13-year lifetime. These two facts together make me suspect Johnny had a "champion" in CBS Radio management—an executive that liked the show and fought to keep it on the air.
The 1955 Season Of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Part One
That's especially interesting considering that the show did go off the air... for a whole year! The show went "on hiatus" in 1954 following the departure of lead actor John Lund. While "hiatus" is often used in the entertainment industry as a codeword meaning "cancelled but we don't want to admit it", in this case the show really was just on hiatus. And during its year off the air it got retooled.
The first big change: giving the show over to Jack Johnstone. Jack Johnstone was a longtime radio stalwart; he wrote, directed, produced, and occasionally acted in hundreds of shows over his thirty-year radio career. These spanned a wide gamut of content, from kid stuff like "Buck Rogers In The Twenty-Fifth Century" all the way to ultra-sophisticated fare like the inventive "CBS Radio Workshop". Jack Johnstone became head writer for the rest of the show's run, writing many of the scripts himself; he also produced the show for the next five years.
Jack Johnstone running the show led directly to the second big change. Up to that point, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had been a half-hour show aired once a week. Jack Johnstone had previously worked on several kid's shows which had been aired as a five-part serial in 15-minute segments played every weeknight. Jack Johnstone convinced CBS executives to try this format for Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and they went for it.
The show also needed a new star to play Johnny Dollar—and it found one in Bob Bailey.
Robert "Bob" Bainter Bailey was born in 1913 in Toledo, Ohio. As his daughter tells the story, he was "born backstage in a theater trunk"—in show business from the moment he was born! His parents were entertainers, and Bob wanted to be an entertainer too. He was performing on stage at the tender age of six. And as a young man he followed an acting career on radio in Chicago.
Bob moved out west to Los Angeles shortly after America entered WWII. This was good timing, because the war led directly to a shortage of male actors in Hollywood. He got signed by 20th Century Fox for a year-long contract. (This was back during the "studio system" where the actors were under contract to a specific studio.)
Here we must consider an unpleasant fact: Bob simply wasn't an attractive man. Oh, he was passable. But he was simply not leading-man material. He was a bit short for Hollywood, and definitely on the scrawny side. He made seven movies during his contract, including two of the final "Laurel And Hardy" comedies. And then his contract simply wasn't renewed. Bob would continue to get only occasional movie and television work for the next two decades.
Bob did have one world-class feature: a tremendously talented, gifted voice. He was simply interesting to listen to. As he put it: "If you know how to handle your voice in radio, itâs almost impossible to destroy an illusion." So he returned to radio and got steady work, although mostly minor roles.
Finally in 1946 he got his first big break: the lead role on the new show Let George Do It. This was a weekly half-hour adventure show, sort of a 1946 precursor to The A-Team. Bob played George Valentine, a freelance problem-solving detective adventurer. Got a problem? Don't know what to do or where to turn? Let George Do It! Let George Do It ran until 1954, with Bob Bailey starring up until the show's final year. Bob played George Valentine in over 200 episodes.
The 1955 Season Of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Part Two
In August of 1955 Jack Johnstone produced a pilot episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar starring famous actor Gerald Mohr. They actually thought he'd accepted the role, going so far as to publicly announce the good news. But Mr. Mohr ultimately declined the role, as he was too busy with television and movie work.
CBS had to move quickly as Johnny Dollar was due to start airing in early October. In mid-September Jack Johnstone held open auditions for Johnny Dollar. He tried more than a dozen actors, including well-known voices like Paul Dubev, Larry Thor, Jack Moyles, Tony Barrett, Vick Perrin, Barney Phillips, Hy Averback, Frank Gerstle, and—amazingly—Chuck Connors. They each read a five-page audition script, performing with actress Lillian Buyeff. But the role went to Bob Bailey, and less than two weeks later Bob was recording his first episode.
The 1955 season was a radical departure from the previous shows. Obviously, the new format more than doubled the time devoted to each story, from 30 to 75 minutes. This let the story breathe a little more. In the half-hour shows, the writer had to establish the setting, the characters, and the events that set the story in motion, work in one big plot twist, then land the resolution. That's a lot to do in 30 minutes (minus commercials), and the stories often felt a bit cramped and rushed. With 75 minutes, the writer could spend more time exploring the characters, describing the settings, and working in more plot twists. In fact, the five-part format meant the story had four natural places for cliffhangers—at the end the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night programs.
The show also took on a more mature, realistic tone. In previous years, scripts could verge on the fantastic—I remember one episode in which Johnny investigated a voodoo curse (!). In 1955 the scripts became more grounded and believable. Jack Johnstone even concerned himself with minor details—for example, when Johnny had to fly somewhere, Mr. Johnstone would often call the airport and find out how much that flight would cost that week.
Finally, Bob Bailey's performance as Johnny Dollar was sublime. His Johnny could convincingly go from tough to tender to introspective all within a single episode. As frequent Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar costar Harry Bartell put it: "Bob was a stylish, very professional actor whose voice fit perfectly into the two characters by which he is best known."
The 1955 season of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar is often held up as the finest radio drama ever produced. I can't authoritatively say that's true—all I can say is, it's easily my favorite.
The Decline Of Radio And Johnny Dollar
Sadly, like all good things, this format had to come to an end. At the end of the 55th five-part episode, "The Silent Queen Matter", Bob Bailey made this announcement:
I think you'll be glad to know that, beginning Sunday, instead of five times a week, we'll be on the air only once a week. But with a complete half-hour story!
No doubt this was far more convenient for the show's audience—in an age long before home recording and portable radios were common, listeners had to be in front of their radio set at home for five weeknights straight if they wanted to hear the entire story. Sadly I think the half-hour format just isn't as good, and as a result the show lost much of its lustre.
At this point in our story we're nearing the end of 1956, and radio was already well into its decline. As television audiences grew and grew, radio audiences shrank and shrank. This meant radio advertising dollars shrank, which meant that the radio business as a whole shrank. As Jack Johnstone put it in a 1952 interview, when he was hiring for radio shows in the early 1940s, he could offer big stars $5000 or more per week. By 1952 pay was down to $1000 a week or less.
(We actually know what Bob Bailey was paid for his work on the 1955 season; for a standard five-part episode, he got $300. That's a respectable $2700 per week in today's money. And consider: that's only a single day's work. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was generally recorded on Sundays, as Jack Johnstone discovered it was easier to schedule the supporting actors—they were usually free.)
Bob Bailey continued to play Johnny Dollar for several more years. Then in 1960, CBS announced that as a cost-cutting move it was relocating all radio operations to New York City. Up to that point Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had always been recorded in Hollywood, California. Bob Bailey announced that he wasn't going to move. And, if you read between the lines a little, you might get the impression that the staff of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar thought CBS was bluffing.
Each Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar story had a title announced on the air. After the first year the titles settled into a familiar pattern: each week Johnny would recount his investigation of "The _____ Matter". Some examples include "The Forbes Matter", "The Indestructable Mike Matter", and "The Laughing Matter". The final episode to be recorded in Hollywood was titled "The Empty Threat Matter". Many folks, including myself, interpret that as a sort of inside joke, Jack Johnstone thumbing his nose at CBS corporate headquarters, daring them to follow through with it.
But CBS wasn't joking. The following week, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was recorded in New York City with Robert Readick in the lead role. Bob Bailey was out of a job.
Jack Johnstone stayed with the show, writing new scripts almost weekly until it ended. Coincidentally he wrote the scripts for both shows aired on the fateful final day of September 1962. After that, as the story goes, Jack Johnstone simply packed up his office and left—retiring, never to work again. The claim is, he was "suspicious" of television and didn't want to work in such a despicable medium. Little is known about his final decades, though he was reportedly a member of a lawn bowling club in his beachfront mobile home community in Santa Barbara. Jack Johnstone died of cancer on November 16, 1991.
Bob Bailey's Final Years
With the loss of his role on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Bob Bailey's radio career was over. In the early 1960s he got a little acting work in movies and on TV, and a little writing work, but eventually all that dried up too. His last known credit is from 1964.
So what happened next? Where did he go, what did he do? For years this was a mystery. But it seemed like there was something dark being hidden. Rumor has it that his frequent Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar costars, when asked, clammed up when asked what happened to Bob.
Finally, on February 7th, 1982, Chicago-area old-time radio revival broadcaster John Dunning interviewed Bob Bailey's daughter Roberta Goodwin. In that interview, she talks several times about her father's life after the end of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Below are her statements, lightly edited for clarity.
First, Roberta talked about the possibility of bringing Johnny Dollar to television:
By the time his radio show was over, he was almost 50, and he weighed about 150 pounds, stood about 5' 9.5" tall, and the television producers and said "You're not Johnny Dollar!" And he said, "But I am! I've been!" And they said, no, no, we need to get a 6' tall guy, that weighs about 200 pounds, to play the part. Consequently it never came to television, nor did "Let George Do It".
It never got on the air. They talked about it; my father even went to New York. They got him in front of the camera and decided the voice didn't match the body...! And they never cast anyone else because they felt no-one else would be accepted. So it never got on the air.
(Reports differ whether or not a pilot for a TV version of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was actually made. The most authoritative answer I've seen claims one pilot episode was made: filmed in late 1961 or early 1962, it starred William Bryant, was produced by Blake Edwards, and had music by Henry Mancini. There's literally no record of a second pilot starring Bob Bailey. Roberta also says she has a copy of a script written for a Let George Do It TV show, but that was never filmed.)
Roberta Goodwin continues:
My father had nothing to fall back on. He'd been an actor all his life.
My father had a drinking problem, and for almost twenty-two years he controlled it by going to Alcoholics Anonymous. But then, in 1962, when my mother divorced him and they seperated, and when radio died, and he saw his life kind of crumbling before him... he kind of gave up a little. And he went back to drinking quite heavily. He lost his house, lost his car, and couldn't hold down a job. And then he just... drifted away. And I married, and I looked for him, but I was never able to locate him. None of his friends knew. I even tried through the studios, and through the William Morris Agency and all the different agencies. Nobody knew where he was.
Nine years later, in 1971, one day the phone rang. I picked it up and he said "Hello, this is your dad." I said "This is not funny, whoever's playing this joke on me—!" And he said "No, it's me!" He had been rehabilitated up at the Antelope Valley Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center in Castaic, California. And for about two years he was doing wonderfully! He was helping out at this rehabilitation center, helping other alcoholics to get back on their feet again, and then out of nowhere, in 1973, he suffered this stroke. And since then he's been in the Antelope Valley Healthcare rest home in Lancaster, California.
He'll be 70 in June. Ten years ago he suffered a massive stroke which left him completely paralyzed on one side. His memory is slow, and he has trouble talking. But the tone of his voice is the same. Just the same. You'd know right away that it's him.
[After] about ten minutes [on the phone], he gets too tired. And like I say, some things he remembers like they were yesterday, and then other things he cannot remember at all.
Seven months later, on August 13, 1983—exactly two months after his 70th birthday—Bob Bailey died of complications from his stroke. He was cremated, and his ashes interred in his family columbarium niche at the Chapel Of The Pines Crematory in Los Angeles, CA.
The Legacy Of Johnny Dollar
Johnny Dollar began and ended with radio. It was never made into a movie, never adapted for television. A few short stories have been written using the character, and even a single officially-licensed comic book in the early 2000s from Moonstone Books. There have also been two original amateur radio shows produced using the character. And that's literally it.
The radio dramas continue to be enjoyed to this day. The Sirius XM channel "Radio Classics" is devoted to old-time radio shows, and channel host Greg Bell claims that the five-part Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar shows are his single most popular show. He airs one or two complete five-part dramas every single week.
Happily you can listen to them for free! MP3s of the show are compiled by the excellent "Old Time Radio Researchers" group and made available for download on archive.org. This page has just the 1955 season, and you can play the shows right inside your web browser:
But if you're a completist like me you'll want the "OTRR Certified" download:
This 14.5GB download contains 721 distinct episodes, spanning all the actors to ever play Johnny Dollar. There's lots of other neat stuff in there too, including scans of the front page of most of the scripts!
My favorite episode is "The Confidential Matter" from September 1956. Johnny learns that a friend of his from the business might not be dead after all—and worse yet, might be an embezzler. Actually, my favorite scene in all of Johnny Dollar is the verbal sparring over breakfast at the start of episode 4. Click on the title to listen to the complete episode right now!
But I can't stop at just one recommendation. Let me recommend loads more episodes:
- "The Molly K Matter" from October 1955. A freighter goes down in San Francisco Bay under mysterious circumstances, quickly embroiling Johnny in dangerous intrigue.
- "The Alvin Summers Matter" from October 1955. Johnny heads to a sleepy Mexican resort town track down embezzler Alvin Summers. But has his mystery informant sent him on a wild goose chase?
- "The Lorko Diamonds Matter" from November 1955. After a courier drops dead in the Algiers airport, the diamonds he was carrying simply disappear. This one is full of amazing accent work—Jay Novello's wonderful French accent, Forrest Lewis's fantastic Peter-Lorre-inspired portrayal of the ruthless "Bobo", and the worst Dutch accent you'll ever hear!
- "The Lansing Fraud Matter" from December 1955. How could Charles Lansing die of malnutrition, when he had a fully paid-up $50k life insurance policy? Featuring the versatile Howard McNear as Hilary Franks.
- "The Nick Shurn Matter", the Christmas episode for 1955. Violent NYC thug Nick Shurn murdered his business partner, and the only witness is a hat-check girl who's gone missing. Can Johnny find her before Nick's boys do?
- "The Ricardo Amerigo Matter" from January 1956. A talented, tragic violinist goes missing—along with his $30,000 violin. But is he actually dead?
- "The Bennet Matter" from February 1956. William Bennet's new $500k building in San Francisco went up in flames. Bennet says it was arson—and he knows who did it! Listen for Hans Conreid as "Foley" in episodes 4 and 5.
- "The Clinton Matter" from March 1956. When the new schoolhouse in Clinton, Colorado goes up in flames, it seems obvious who's behind it, and why—but can Johnny do anything about it in a town this crooked?
- "The Jolly Roger Fraud Matter" from March 1956. Did international criminal Paulus Zanagian really blow up his own boat? And why is he so concerned about collecting the insurance money—that should be pocket change for a man of his means!
- "The Matter Of Reasonable Doubt" from May 1956. Why did Mrs. Gramely suddenly abandon setting up a trust for her beloved granddaughter? Is she senile, or is something more sinister going on?
- "The Midas Touch Matter" from July 1956. Johnny goes fishing for Lake Mojave bass while investigating a $3m life insurance claim following a suspicious gold mine cave-in.
- "The Star Of Cape Town Matter" from July 1956. A playboy is murdered and his fabulous heirloom jewel is stolen—but by who? Radio lends itself to jet-setting stories like this, which sees Johnny going from Cape Town to Dakar, by cruise liner... and helicopter!
- "The Primrose Matter" from October 1956. A tense little thriller about violent thugs who take over a remote Arizona motel.
Roberta Goodwin (nee Bailey) radio interview from 1982:
Requiem For Bob Bailey:
Calling Johnny Dollar (a biographical article on Bob Bailey):
"Sept 30, 1962: Fifty Years Ago Radio Ended":
The 1955 Auditions For the Role of Johnny Dollar:
Paying (the voice of) Johnny Dollar:
All the actors who played Johnny Dollar, to date:
An online Johnny Dollar forum:
The "Find-a-grave" entry for Robert Bainter Bailey:
IMDB entry for Bob Bailey:
IMDB entry for Bob Bailey's TV writing career under the name of Robert B. Bailey:
Harry Bartell on Bob Bailey:
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar TV pilots:
"The Johnstone Matter", an article on Jack Johnstone:
The LA Times obituary for Jack Johnstone:
NPR on the 40th anniversary of the end of the golden age of radio: