Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Bluto Answered an Ad

No one ever compared Jackson Beck to Victor Mature. But, on radio, looks don’t count, and as far as some radio listeners during World War Two were concerned, Beck and Mature were one and the same. A Girl Scout troop in Brooklyn chose the short, roundish Beck as their Pin-Up Boy for July 1943.

We know Beck today for his role as Bluto in the Popeye cartoons produced by Famous/Paramount studio and his narration on “The Adventures of Superman” radio serial. But the Girl Scouts picked him because of his manly portrayal of the romantic Cisco Kid.

Beck had been around radio for awhile at that point; he started in the business in 1932. How it happened was chronicled by Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram in 1943. She was eight years younger than Beck, by the way.

As an aside, I bashed Van Horne in an earlier post on this blog. She didn’t seem to like, let alone respect, the broadcast media she was covering. However, in this profile of Beck, which appeared in syndicated form on August 29, 1943, she stuck to the facts and left out her opinions.

Jackson Beck Answered Ad And Now He’s A Radio Star
‘Cisco Kid’ Comes by His Acting Naturally, For His Dad Was a Profession on the Stage

I’ve yet to meet a successful writer who got that way answering one of those ads—“How do you KNOW you can’t write?”
But the other day I met a successful actor who broke into radio by the simple expedient of answering an ad that asked, “Do YOU want to get into radio?”
That was 11 years ago, and round-faced Jackson Beck has been living by the mike ever since. He works 10 hours a day, appears on some 20 shows a week and earns considerably more than $10,000 a year.
“And when I answered that foolish ad,” he says frankly, “I was living on animal crackers and water.”
Not that a chance newspaper item immediately turned the animal crackers to guinea hen under glass. There was, it developed, a catch to the ad—something thousands of hopefuls found out in 1932.
Here the gimmick was a solemn audition behind a curtain. Aspiring radio artists were given a speech out an ante-bellum elocution book. Jackson recalls that his ran something like: “Ah, here comes the Prince! But little does he dream that I am the true love of his lady fair.” No matter how you read it, the result is the same. You had an excellent chance of breaking into radio, the advertiser explained, IF you took his course in radio dramatics. Jackson put up an argument, complaining the ad was misleading. “Result was that I wound up as an instructor,” he chuckles.
Glutted with radio school tricks, most of which turned out to be more hindrance than help, Jackson made his bow in a series of dramatized love stories on a now defunct station. It was the only English program on the station, and did little to adjust foreign-born listeners to their new land and its quaint customs. “The show didn’t run very long,” said Jackson. “It was directed by a guy with a glass eye and inhibitions.”
During the next five years Jackson says he worked for all the 26 stations that have, at one time or another, flashed their signal from New York. He was actor, announcer, director, producer. He also sold time, swept out and answered the phone. “I did everything but sing,” he says ruefully. “That’s an ambition I have yet to realize.”
Today Beck’s radio roles include everything but vocalizing. They range from Louie the Lug on the Archie Andrews series for kids, to the tensely dramatic Man Behind the Fun. He plays The Skull in another juvenile thriller, The Black Hood. And, as almost everyone knows by now, Jackson is the Cisco Kid. This role, a romantic vagabond who halts injustice, solves crimes, aids the poor and sweeps young senoritas off their balconies, fetches in a bale of fan mail. Most of it is from little girls.
On the program, Eye Witness News, Jackson is the “voice” of some famous bylines, including Drew Middleton and Clark Lee. He is also the narrator of the new Coast Guard Technicolor film, Task Force, soon to be released.
Jackson’s father is an actor. His mother reads romantic novels. The senior Beck was last seen on Broadway in the play, The More the Merrier, no relation to the recent movie. “He was the one who drew mustaches on corpses,” Jackson explains.
One thing above all else is Jackson Beck grateful for. Some kind soul dissuaded his mother from naming him St. Elmo after the novel she was reading in 1912.

When network radio dried up in the early ‘50s, Beck found lucrative employment in the world of commercial voice-over work. Here’s just one of his many national spots. Alas, Beck’s familiar hard-sell pitch couldn’t save the Studebaker.

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