Wednesday 26 August 2015

Before He Was Menaced By Dennis

Television was a blessing and a curse for radio actors. One on hand, if the won a regular supporting job, fame and good money came their way. On the other hand, TV involved memorisation and days of rehearsal. Radio, on the other hand, required minimal rehearsal time, so an actor could dash from show to show to show and pile up a good pile of money.

The other problem with television was typecasting. On radio, a supporting actor was basically anonymous. The actor could do comedy, drama, mystery, dialects, and few would be the wiser. But on TV, the audience could see someone, and wasn’t prepared to accept that actor in any other kind of role. So it was that many accomplished radio actors only used a fraction of their talent after they made the transition to television.

One of them was Joe Kearns. If he’s remembered today, it’s for his role as Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. Kearns died suddenly in 1962, five days after his 55th birthday. Kearns was perfect as an exasperated grump. After his death, he was replaced by Gale Gordon, who specialised in exasperated grumps, but the show went downhill; Kearns brought something extra to the role. Kearns (and Gordon, for that matter) could play more than exasperated grumps—and did on radio. It’s a shame he and many others never got the chance to show their full talents on the tube.

The fan magazine Radio Life published two fluff pieces on Kearns less than two years apart. There’s not a lot of meat (despite the title of the first story) but they’re still interesting. The photos you see below were published with the magazine (network publicity shots, I suspect; the scans are pretty fuzzy).

The first was published on June 3, 1945.
Microphones Are His Meat
Radio Isn’t Easy When You Do It Every Day, Says Joe Kearns, But He Sometimes Wishes He Could Do Two Shows at Once

By Shirley Gordon
THE phone rang for Joe Kearns while we were talking to him, and when the actor returned from taking the call, his face was furrowed into a frown. “Conflicts drive me crazy,” he complained. “I hate to turn down a show.”
When it comes to revealing the names of the shows on which you hear the voice (or rather, voices) of Joe Kearns, it is easier to list the very few on which he hasn’t yet managed to appear—usually because of the “conflicts” of which he spoke. He frequently has to turn down one show because he is working or rehearsing on another at the same time.
Radio-dialers hear him as the narrator on “Suspense,” as the little guy who watches the safe down in the basement on the Jack Benny program, and as any number of other people on such top-flight shows as “Screen Guild,” “This Is My Best,” “Judy Canova,” “The Adventures of Harriet and Ozzie” and “Sherlock Holmes.” His outstanding work as one of radio’s usually- unsung supporting performers won him honourable mention in Radio Life’s Second Annual Distinguished Achievement Awards, announced in our April 15th issue.
Radio Nerve-Wracking
Of radio work, Kearns has this to say: “The public may sometimes think that a radio actor’s job is a soft one. It isn’t; it’s nerve-wracking. We often work week after week without a day off. But we also love it.”
Of his own work in particular, the actor expressed a preference for comedy, but likes “meaty” roles, as well—those such as he does on “The Whistler.” Only once has he missed a show for a reason other than illness. That time, he wrote down “Thursday” as the day of the program, went unconcernedly to the movies on Tuesday, the actual day of the show’s airing, arrived at the studio Thursday, according to the memo he had made, and discovered his mistake.
Joe confessed that he is absent-minded, and can never remember phone numbers. He also admitted that he is sometimes “moody.” But his co-workers call him "a good listener”—“the kind of a guy you save things to tell, because you know he’ll enjoy them.”
Writes Plays
During rehearsals, when he is not at the microphone, Kearns remains devoted to a deck of cards, and he is lucky with them. When not working, he likes to go to the beach. He reads “incessantly,” likes good novels and non -fictional works, just recently finished “The Fountainhead.” He also likes to read plays, and has written a number of them himself, including three 3-act productions still playing in eastern stock theaters and a radio script, “The Man From Out of the East,” which was aired on “The Whistler.”
Joe Kearns was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, toured at an early age in vaudeville with a child act called “The Rising Generation,” in which he sang “Salvation Lassie of Mine.”
He attended dramatic school and played in stock, and, during one of his stays in California, appeared in a coast production of “What Price Glory?”
Back in Salt Lake City, he played Louis XI (“a non-singing part!” pointed out Joe) in “Vagabond King,” after which he became a staff member of radio station KSL, remaining there for the next six and a half years.
In 1936, he came to California and with the help of his friend, True Boardman, started his career in Hollywood radio.
Joe lives in Hollywood in a studio apartment which he designed and built himself. It is sem-colonial, has a 24x18-foot drop living room with a gabled ceiling and a big fireplace, and is equipped with a Hammond organ, which the actor plays a good deal of the time that he is home. Joe also has a pet cockateel named “Butch.” “He doesn’t talk,” Joe informed us, “he just whistles.”
Is Night Owl
Kearns calls himself a “night owl,” and hates to get up in the morning. The thing that annoys him most is loud talking. He is also annoyed when he finds himself sick so often. His fellow actors declare that Kearns has been in as many hospitals as radio programs. He buys so much medicine that he practically owns the corner drug store.
Last year, when he finally got away from Radio Row long enough to take a vacation, he went to Mexico City, where he promptly became ill. He has no desire to see Mexico again, and does not like Mexican food. He likes to travel, however, (particularly on boats) has spent several years in Australia and the South Seas, and desires to go to Europe. Whenever he decides to take a vacation, he has to get “clear out of town.” Otherwise, he finds himself answering his telephone and accepting an immediate call back to the microphones again.
This story was in the edition of March 23, 1947. At this time, Kearns was part of the starring cast of the Mel Blanc Show, which lasted one season and would be off the air within months.
Kearns Carries On
Like Most Radio Veterans, Joe Kearns Has Experienced Radio at Its Best—And Worst! Busy Kearns Takes Time to Tell Us of His Work and Hobbies

By Joan Buchanan
JOE KEARNS is a radio young-old timer, but even he isn't immune, he admits, to those radio nightmares! “I have a recurring dream, Joe told us, “in which I have a dirty old purple ditto copy of the script and I desperately try to read and ad lib through it!”
Joe is kept so busy in radio running back and forth between shows that he claims that if he broke a leg his career would end. You hear Joe as the voice of “Suspense,” on the “Maisie,” Judy Canova and “Sam Spade” shows, and as “Mr. Colby” on the Mel Blanc show. He does as many as eleven network programs a week and, amazingly enough, he doesn’t have to chart his time to remember where and when he is due.
Joe’s longest hiatus from the airways was a six-week siege in the hospital. He plans to get away for a trip this summer—and hopes it’ll be to Sweden.
Getting back to that nightmare, Joe recalls that incidents of nightmarish proportions have occurred to him while in front of the mike. The most recent was a heckler in the Canova show audience. Not content with trying to get into the act from the sidelines, the interloper jumped from the audience and ran up to the stage to join Joe. "Mel Blanc and George Neice grabbed hold of him and bore him out into the wings while the rest of us carried on,” Kearns related.
Too Smart
Joe’s worst memory of radio, however, was on an experimental show called “Your Witness.” The show was presented as a stage play. The actors had to memorize their lines and contend with props in addition to worrying about getting over the air. Joe, discovering that much of his scene was played from a phone booth on the stage, decided to pin up the pages of his script in the booth and read it then and there. “I was smart,” commented Joe. “I was going to save myself a lot of trouble! When we went on the air I discovered that it was so dark in the booth I couldn’t see to read—I had to ad lib practically my whole part!”
Joe also recalls the time the lights went out in the old KNX studio while he was at the mike doing a part in the “Scattergood Baines” series. The soundman lit candles and held them over the actors’ scripts while they tried to read by the dim light. “Unfortunately, though," Joe smiled, “the hot tallow from the candle kept dripping on my hand. I couldn't move my script away because I couldn’t have been able to see it and I couldn't stop and tell the sound man that he was burning my hand off in the middle of the broadcast!” Ah, yes, that soft life you actors lead!
But Joe still loves radio. He names Fred Allen, Henry Morgan, all the good musical programs as among his favorites. “And I like the quiz shows, too,” he added, “They're very stimulating.”
Music has played an important part in Joe’s life—and it still does. Joe was a theater organist in silent days. Remember the guy who played for community sings while the slides were thrown on the screen? Well, that was Joe. Locally he played at Talley’s Broadway downtown.
Played Local Boards
Joe started his career as both organist and actor in Salt Lake City. He first ventured into radio there as an actor and writer in connection with his stock company work. Later he played stock and legitimate stage locally. Joe recalls that two of the people with whom he was associated in those days were Lurene Tuttle and Victor Jory.
Music, cooking, writing, reading and movie-going all have their place in Joe's spare moments. He’s enthusiastic about good food and holds a card in the exclusive Societe des Gentilhommes Chefs de Cuisine, which you can probably decipher as Society of Gentlemen Chefs. According to Joe, the purpose behind the club is to trade original recipes with other club members. The only way to be tapped for membership is to he recommended by another member as astute in the way of food as you are.
Joe also “gobbles up” books and especially likes anything unusual in the way of psychological studies and novels. He admits that writing takes up so much time that he has neglected it lately, but in the past he has contributed scripts to “The Whistler,” and he was the scripter of a syndicated series, “Radio Writer’s Laboratory.” He loves the movies and was currently raving over “The Best Years of Our Lives” when we asked for a preference.
Joe still plays the Hammond organ and has a large collection of opera recordings. He also loves cards and claims he never cheats, even at solitaire. Calls himself a “very dull dresser” because he prefers nothing more original than blue!
Kearns mentioned Fred Allen, Henry Morgan and quiz shows. Ironically, he didn’t work with Allen, nor did he appear on game shows, at least not regularly. Allen generally broadcast from New York, and that’s where many of the quizzes were based. Kearns worked with Morgan on a West Coast jaunt, taking up roles normally performed back east by Charlie Irving (announcing and as one of the players in the radio salesmen sketches).

Variety reported in the first part of the ‘30s about Kearns’ stock company work and play writing (and a vacation to San Francisco from KSL Salt Lake City in September 1935), but the first mention of his radio work on the West Coast came in 1936 when he was tapped to play the title role in a four-part, non-sponsored presentation of Peer Gynt on KECA. The first broadcast was on November 17th. Variety’s reviewer wasn’t impressed. From the December 2nd edition:
Red Meat for the Ibsen fans and class mob but unlikely there’s enough of them to warrant the production outlay. Well enough done but too heavy and too noisy for the average dialer who might stumble across it while cruising. First of the four episodes had a narrator explain the different passages as a prelude to the dramatic action. Opening sally was that the station would present it as it was intended, ‘gay, fresh and exuberant.’ It didn’t exactly fit that gay mood. Joe Kearns, as the vagabond Peer, gave it a breezy characterization but all too often he was submerged by the crowd noises. Others were equal to their parts.
It’s a long way from Ibsen to being knocked off a ladder while painting by a pain-in-the-butt kid in overalls, but that was Kearns’ journey in broadcasting. He had plenty of stops in between, stops remembered by fans of old radio comedy and drama.


  1. He had two memorable roles on Jack Benny's radio show. Most famously that of Ed, keeper of the vault, but he also had a funny recurring role in 1951 as the IRS agent who would keep saying, "Mr. Benny, we're only trying to help you!" to which Jack would keep responding, "I KNOW, I KNOW!"

  2. No doubt Kearns had a fondness for "The Whistler' - he was, after all, the original Whistler, before Bill Forman took over the role. (Interestingly, Gale Gordon played the Whistler in the show's audition episode.)

  3. I'll be darned, rnigma. I didn't know Gordon did the audition. Thanks.
    I'd have to look it up, but when Jack Benny did his parody "The Fiddler" for the first time, a mysterious voice was heard at the outset. I don't know why he didn't use Kearns for it, but it was neither Kearns nor Forman.

  4. Yes, and the audition episode survives; Sirius XM Radio Classics played it not long ago.
    I think it was Forman who played the Whistler in the Benny sketch; this was also played on the Radio Classics channel, and Greg Bell said that Benny specifically hired Forman for that bit.

  5. Laura Leff of the Jack Benny Fan Club went through all the scripts. George Balzer plays the voice. Forman never appeared on the Benny show at all.

  6. I can name one early radio appearance in the 1930s of both Gordon AND Kearns, and along those lines, Frank Nelson and a who's who--1937's childrens serial _ "The Cinnamon Bear".

    Only Kearns (as the dragon) is a villian, but a cartoonishly voiced type, not a "grump. In Disney's Alice in Wonderland, he played a helpful (original character alert) "Goofy" like Doorknob. I've read that he was in a Droopy cartoon (source: Graham Webb, "The Animated Film Encyclopedia",2000), and he may have been in some Warner and other cartoons, but I have no idea at all. Mel Blanc(?) as the owl in the 1940 Sniffles/Bookworm cartoon (my favorite of the series) "The Egg Collector" sounds ALMOST like Mr.Kearns in his normal "Mr.Wilson" voice saying "I used to have an egg,too",to Sniffles...(too bad that Dennis wasn't on the radio even as a last attempt at the form./.)SC

  7. Also, besides letting actors, or supporting ones at least, do different parts and allowing them , to go on with no rehearsal,
    the third advantage radio did present was, an actor, such as relevant to this article, Joe Kearns as Mr.Wilson and Jay North as Dennis, had the sitcom been a radio show, not needing (for kid knocking guy off of ladder scenes) any actual physicality (imagine the Three Stooges as radio artists..)..

  8. Thanks for the detail about the cooking society. My foster father belonged to the Oakland chapter, and I am trying to find out more information about the society.

  9. Thank you for the wonderful post about Joe Kearns. He was my cousin and our family lived in Hollywood in four connecting properties where I knew him well until his early demise. So many silly things were written about Joe in "fluff" articles. He was certainly not a devout Mormon, he wasn't a night owl because of his working schedule, etc. If you notice in his TV roles, he wore many colors other than a drab blue. My parents used to visit with Joe in the early 1930s after he signed KSL radio off the air and he would play the studio organ and they would sometimes dance to the music in the empty studio. My mom told he could tell dialect jokes that would have her convulsed with laughter.

    1. Jim, thanks for writing. He was one of radio's top character actors in radio and drama, and I'm happy to see he got some fame after moving into television. I was listening to him this morning on an old Jack Benny show getting laughs with a crack he made at Phil Harris.