Monday, 5 February 2018

Holy Scrawny Guy, Batman!

How could Batman be played by a 59-year-old, 135-pound man?

Quite easily. When Batman is an animated cartoon.

So it was that Olan Soule became the Caped Crusader. At least his voice did.

If you watched a lot of TV in the ‘60s like I did, you would have recognised Soule’s voice. He worked a lot, generally playing mild characters, though it seems to me he was a bad guy on one Perry Mason episode. He even appeared on the Adam West Batman series as a TV news reader, though I’ve found a news clipping that the two never worked on set together until they guest starred on The Big Valley.

Soule’s acting career began long before television. It started in Des Moines, Iowa. We know he moved there by 1918 because, at age 9, he penned this letter to the editor of the children’s section of the Des Moines Herald newspaper. It was published June 27th. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him a bit.

Dear Cousin Eleanor,
I wish to join the Kiddie Klub. Enclosed find six coupons tor a Kiddie Klub pin. I am new in Des Moines and so I hope some of the kiddies will write to me. I have just been out of the hospital at Kirksville, Mo., about four weeks. We just moved here from Kirksville, Mo. I hope my letter will be in print. I would like to have my pin as soon as possible. Guess I will close.
Olan Soule,
3519 University Ave., City

Young Olan was musically inclined. He was playing second violin for the Des Moines YMCA Boys Orchestra in 1923 and joined the Boy Scouts that March. He also began acting. In September 1925, he was studying dramatics under Mrs. Ada Heist Oberman and had been on a state tour with her. A month later he was elected Treasurer of the Roosevelt High School Dramatic Guild. That led to a job later that month with the Princess Stock Company at the Princess Theater in Des Moines. Salary: $1 a show. Billboard followed his early career. He was in the Jack and Maude Brooks Stock Company in 1927 touring several Midwest states, was a member of the Gifford Players the following year, spent 1929 as a member of the Lane Shankland Stock Company, playing juveniles and drums and even writing a mystery play, before playing with a road company in the east. Meanwhile, Soule and his classmates produced the first motion picture made by high school students in the U.S. Soule drew the title cards and acted as emcee when Framed was shown before 2,000 people.

However, radio beckoned. He returned to Des Moines and found a job on KSO, then made his way in 1933 to WGN in Chicago, a bustling hub for the networks in the 1930s, especially when it came to soaps. Among the Chicago radio acting population, by the way, was Marvin Miller, who was also a super hero in a Filmation cartoon series (Aquaman) and Jane Webb, who later fought Soule’s Batman as Catwoman. The list of radio shows he appeared in is insanely long. By 1935, he was starring in The Couple Next Door, narrating Grand Stand Thrills and had originated the role of Sam Ryder in Bachelor’s Children (yes, that one was a soap, live from WGN Studio II)—and was appearing elsewhere. His best-known radio job was co-starring with Barbara Luddy on The First Nighter after Les Tremayne quit in March 1943 to go to Hollywood. Despite the opening which proclaimed listeners were being transported to “the little theatre off Times Square,” the show originated in the studios of WGN until October 1947 when it moved to Columbia Square at 6121 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Television was growing in Los Angeles at the time. And television wouldn’t provide leading man parts to the mousey Soule. He was signed for a family comedy on KNBH in 1949 but it appears his first starring TV roles were local shows on KTTV in 1950—The Home Magazine of the Air and Home Shop Show, where Soule demonstrated how small power tools were used. His big television break came in 1954 with a regular role on Captain Midnight and a recurring role on Dragnet. Lots of other appearances as desk clerks and so on followed, but Soule made his money in commercials—he was pulling in six figures by 1967, according to a Los Angeles Times piece that year.

This brings us to the Filmation version of Batman. Soule was actually interviewed about it. This was published in the Niagara Falls Gazette of July 14, 1968. Interestingly, the Times ran a story with some of these paragraphs, almost word-for-word, under a different byline about two weeks later.
Olan Soule, A Batman You’ll Never Believe
HOLLYWOOD — There was a moment of indecision at Filmation recently. The company that produces animated films was without a voice, for a superhero.
Filmation is making the new Batman cartoon strip for CBS-TV in the fall, starting Sept. 14.
It wasn't revealed whether Filmation attempted to get the services of Adam West, who popularized the longjohns-clad warrior on ABC-TV the past couple of seasons. Anyway, just doing a voice-over might damage his TV image.
So, producer Norman Prescott put in a hurried call to the Jack Wormser Agency, specialists in supplying commercial talent, and they sent over one of the best-known voices of radio's golden era.
"I heard it was an audition for what I thought might be a narration," said Olan Soule, veteran of over 7,000 shows in 25 years. "And I never dreamed I'd get the lead voice for Batman. I’ve only done voice-over for what they call soft-sell spots in commercials.”
Adding to Soule’s perplexed state is the incongruity of his new position. Soule is a man in his late ‘50s completely devoid of the physical characteristics found in heroes. Smallish of stature, he has never weighed over 135, and has always worn glasses. But a voice that can sound authoritative does wonders for the imagination.
"The closest thing I've ever had to playing a dynamic character before was when I did coach Hardy in the Jack Armstrong show," laughs Soule, who also revealed this is the first time in his 42 years in show business that he's done an animated show.
The TV commercial field has proven a boom to ex-radio performers like Soule. Their ability to sight-read with cultivated voices is an essential commodity to sponsors and agencies desirous of getting their messages across clearly and concisely within 30-60 seconds.
Soule grinned recalling when he joined the Wormser agency 10 years ago: "On some of those first interviews a producer would hand me a script and ask if I wanted to go out in the reception room and study it a while. They were always dumbfounded when I'd ask how they wanted it read, then I'd do it right on the spot."
The Batman/Superman Hour lasted one season but Soule continued to pop up as the voice of the animated Batman through the early ‘80s.

Soule had another interesting accomplishment. He created a TV show. He came up with the idea of a series about a disabled veterinarian and took it to his Dragnet boss, Jack Webb. Noah’s Ark aired on NBC in the 1956-57 season. He was the associate producer of the pilot, according to Variety at the time.

His ancestors had come to North America on the Mayflower, but he told radio historian Chuck Schaden his name of Olan Evart Soule had nothing to do with that. His mother and father were Worthy Matron and Worthy Patron of a local chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star when he was born in 1909. His name was picked to give him the initials O.E.S. Soule apparently joined the Masonic-sponsored Alderson Chapter, Order of DeMolay, as Broadcasting magazine reported in June 16, 1941 that he was the first radio actor to receive the Order’s Legion of Honour. The second, incidentally, was another chap out of Chicago radio named Marvin Miller.

Another note: Soule was a published author. A poem of his was published by the Des Moines Tribune on August 22, 1921. Can you say the same thing about any other Batman?

[Elementary School].

A boy has pecks of troubles.
Even bushels, so they say.
They shovel walks and dishes wash.
And never a cent of pay.

He rocks the baby and soothes him
When mother has gone to the club.
And then he gets the dickens
If he's not every second with Bub.

There's never a time in this world for play.
And that is no kind of a joke.
While sis is taking in movie shows.
He stays at home 'cause he's broke.

And he must earn enough money
To buy him clothes to wear.
While sis simply goes to father
She has ne'er a worry nor care.

And the boys that carry papers.
In the early, early morn
Never get more than a wink o' sleep,
It's no wonder they look worn.

And so many more troubles the boys have
That I cannot name them all here.
For if I should ever attempt it
I'd be writing this time next year.

Soule died in Los Angeles on February 5, 1994, 24 years ago today. Batman lives on. Just not quite the way Soule played him. In fact, I’ll bet that ridiculous batsuit they use in the movies now weighs almost as much as he did.


  1. Soule also starred in the "Wayside Theater" radio show in the mid-'30s, sponsored by Chicago's AAA Motor Club. It was a sort of precursor to the "First Nighter" program, and Soule was very good in various roles. Several episodes survive; they were available on the now-defunct site.

  2. I used to love it when Olan Soule and Bill Baldwin would appear in the same episode of a " Dragnet " or some other show.. These two little guys with the glasses and smooth baritone voices. Cut from a different cloth, but pulled from the same shelf, in a way.

  3. West - and Burt Ward - would eventually voice the Dynamic Duo for Filmation in 1977.

    1. Sad, indeed, even 1970s Hanna-Barbera was better, anyway, he had a great non-animation career. Thanks a lot, Yowp! :) SC

  4. Aside from 'Dragnet' Soule was a regular supporting player in a number of shows on the Revue/Universal lot in the 1950s and 60s, along with playing the choir director -- and dealing with Barney's bad singing -- on "The Andy Griffith Show" (his most unusual part may have been playing a smarter-than-you-think-he-is Polynesian native in an early episode of "McHale's Navy").