Wednesday, 1 June 2016

He's Got to Be Shovelling Off

Radio actor John Brown successfully made the transition to television—but he couldn’t overcome grandstanding politicians and bottom-feeding busybodies willing to make a buck on imaginary fears.

Brown was a character actor. He had regular and popular roles on a number of radio shows, and appeared on an Emmy-winning television show in 1949. But then the U.S. House Un-American Activities Sub-Committee got in the way. Reported Variety in February 1954:
Suspension from AFTRA faces John Brown, actor-member, if he fails within 90 days to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Union's board of directors made this ruling yesterday after hearing charges against him for standing on the Fifth Amendment at a recent Committee hearing [in late November 1953]. In his appearance before the AFTRA board, Brown denied he is now a member of the Communist Party and stated that he had signed the AFTRA loyalty oath. He declined to answer questions as to his membership in the Party prior to the time such affidavits were required.
AFTRA ruling on Brown's suspension provides that members testify concerning their Communist affiliation before Congressional committees or face disciplinary action by union.
With that, the man who received applause and laughter for years as “The Friendly Undertaker” on The Life of Riley was blacklisted. But America was safe from Communism as a result.

Brown never had time to clear his name. He died of a heart attack at the age of 53 on May 16, 1957.

However, let’s go back to a more pleasant time. Here’s a Radio Life feature story on Brown from its April 1, 1945 edition. Brown had been a regular on Fred Allen’s radio show in New York—uncredited—and was one of the original denizens of Allen’s Alley as the Brooklynesque John Doe; he used a similar voice in the MGM cartoon Symphony in Slang some years later. Then he headed West, where he remained until his death.
Let Us Be Grave
By Betty Mills

THERE'S A FELLOW in radio who's making quite a name for himself by "ac-cent-chu-ating the negative and eliminating the positive." He says you've "got to spread gloom up to the maximum"—and means it. He has somber blue eyes, wears drab blacks, and thinks "Arsenic and Old Lace" with its two bloodthirsty spinsters was "awfully gay."
Weekly, radio's gloomiest man spreads his Sabbath "cheer" to millions—and they love him. "Digger," the morbid mortician of Blue's "Life of Riley," is motivated by other people's misfortunes. Usually they're last ones. His favorite greeting is, "Don't bother to get up. Just lie there. You look so fine—very natural."—or—"Why walk around half dead, when I can bury you for $40."
The story behind "Digger" began a good many years ago when actor John Brown was a lad of seventeen. John, newly-arrived from Australia, wanted a job. A New York agency sent him to an unknown address and before he knew it, he had been hired as secretary. The wool had been pulled over his eyes because not only did he sign a contract binding him to the same salary for a year, but he had become confidential secretary to the town's leading undertaker. And the sight of a dead body made him sick!
Poor John stuck it out for the year. Every day he'd comfort himself by thinking that some day he'd get even. He didn't know how, but he would! In 1944 his chance for revenge came. Into the script of "Riley" had been written a small part for an undertaker. Ah, thought John, this will be fun. The payoff came when Brown's satirization was an overnight success. Thousands of fan letters poured in asking who was the mortician. And "Digger" was born, not only becoming one of John's most popular characterizations but his favorite!
Goes Dramatic, Too!
English-born John got his start in radio by satirizing. He recently told Radio Life over the luncheon table that all of his characters are done with tongue in cheek. He likes to use himself as model, such as the laughable "Father Foster" on "Date With Judy." But he doesn't confine all of his radio acting to comedy. Some of the twenty -five shows a meek he used to do in New York were deadly serious. Such as the one on which he was heard as the villain who died, the policeman who killed him, and the judge who heard the policeman's story—all in fifteen minutes.
His first air job was with Eddie Cantor. An excited John appeared at the rehearsal. He was handed his script. It said: Brown—Cackle like a chicken. "Me?" said John, pointing to the spot. "Uh huh," they nodded. "Huh uh," answered John, putting on his hat and leaving.
But the very next week he won an audition for Fred Allen and was signed to a ten-year contract. It was then Charlie Cantor, Harry Von Zell, and he were known as the "Sad Macks"—probably not too distantly related to Sad Sack.
To California
When Fred Allen left the airlanes, Brown joined Jack Benny's group and in 1943 came to California. Today he does innumerable shows, including "Duffy's Tavern," "The Saint," the Charlotte Greenwood, Jack Carson and Bob Burns programs.
The Fred Allen influence still plays a prominent part in his life, for his old cronies. Charlie Cantor and Harry von Zell, live several houses down from John on a street they've dubbed "Allen's Alley."
Away from the mike, Mr. Brown's prime interest is his family, wife June, nine-year-old son, Jarod, and four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Julie. John smilingly admits he chose his son's unusual name so that their initials would coincide and the boy could use his luggage. "Besides," he added, "I wanted him to have a monicker nobody could pin a shortcut to." Asked if his son did have a nickname, he raised his eyes heavenward and grumbled, "Yep, Jerry."
Precocious Jarod has already exhibited acting tendencies. "He'll 'ham' at the drop of a hat," grinned John. "In fact a year ago he hounded me day and night to get him a job on radio. I tried to explain that the actors were older. But one day he saw pictures of several children in the RATE magazine and without telling me, sat down and wrote a letter to CBS:
"Dear CBS:
"I am Jarod Brown. I am seven years old. I want a job as an actor."
"CBS was very kind and wrote him a long letter in return, promising to keep his application on file. It pacified him—but it didn't give him a job."
Apparently Jarod keeps John on his toes trying to guess what his offspring is going to do next. John's favorite story concerns the time he took Jarod out to MGM with him to see Norman Corwin. When Jarod thought his father was looking the other way, he cornered Corwin. "Mr. Corwin," he whispered out of the side of his mouth, "I've got a couple of screen plays here I wrote and if you'd be interested—"
"What a kid!" exclaimed John. "He's my best critic—and darn it he's usually right. My wife says we're quite a pair." "Speaking of my wife, I'd better not forget it's our wedding anniversary. Ah, anniversaries," he mocked in Digger's somber tones, "A faded orange blossom pressed in the book of memory. I adore anniversaries, they're so gay!"
Jared Brown didn’t go into radio, from what I can tell, but co-mounted a musical revue as “a precocious teenager” at Harout’s Ivar Theatre at the same time his father’s name was being smeared. The younger Brown became a professor of theatre at Western Illinois University and wrote a number of books, including a biography of Zero Mostel, an actor who triumphed over McCarthyism. It’s a shame John Brown never got the same chance.

1 comment:

  1. Brown often played New York types; he was "Broadway," the narrator of "The Damon Runyon Theater." And on "The Life of Riley," in addition to Digger, he also played Gillis, Riley's pal and neighbor. (He played Digger in the "Riley" movie, but Gillis was played by James Gleason.)
    One of Brown's last roles was dubbing the voice of the gorilla-suited alien "Ro-Man" in the notorious SF turkey "Robot Monster."