Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Whoa, Nelly

Dick Lane was likely the first big TV celebrity west of the Mississippi, making regular appearances before there were networks.

Lane had appeared in all kinds of feature films and radio shows; he played Jack Benny’s publicity agent, for one. He was hired by Paramount’s video station to appear on camera during its limited schedule. The station was still named W6XYZ at the time. By 1945, Billboard was critiquing his appearances. One of his shows was “Fashion Guide,” a 15-minute effort featuring designer Edith Head. Another saw him and Keith Heatherington read comic strip dialogue balloons over slides of artwork. And he emceed and acted as straight man on a variety show named “Hits and Bits.”

But Lane made his lasting television fame when he began calling wrestling matches. He admitted he invented names of some of the holds out of sheer necessity. And just like Dennis James’ “Okay, mother” on the Du Mont TV wrestling shows in New York, Lane had his own phrase, shouting “Whoa, Nelly!” when a particular piece of action struck him as astounding. He handled blow-by-blow for boxing and roller derby as well.

Appearing in front of a camera or microphone wasn’t Lane’s only source of employment. I would say “source of income” but the income appears to have been minimal in his other ventures. This United Press story is from March 19, 1944. There’s no mention of television, let alone his involvement in Columbia’s Boston Blackie serial.

Dick Lane Puts Acting On Mass Paying Basis

HOLLYWOOD, March 19 (U.P.) — There are 52 weeks in the year for everybody, except Dick Lane, the movie actor. For him the average year has around 70 weeks of paychecks.
Richard is a phenomenon of Hollywood. No movie actor ever was so busy. The producers have to stand in line for his services in grease paint, his agents operate on the basis of first come first served, and Richard has issued one ultimatum: accept no job unless it carries a two weeks guarantee.
A while back he worked one day in a Jack Benny picture, but he was paid for two weeks. Another time he went to work in an Abbott and Costello movie at 9:30 a.m., and finished the chore at two p.m. He got his two weeks' pay nonetheless. Four figure pay, per week.
At this writing the Lane is playing an army sergeant in the Edward G. Robinson picture, "Mr. Winkle Goes to War." He had a day off the other day and used it to collect two weeks' salary as an admiral in somebody else's film. So you can gather that he is quite a guy.
"I left George White's 'Scandals' in 1937 to come out here under contract to R-K-O," he said. "I was with that studio for 18 months and in that time I worked in 33 pictures. It was good practice for what was to come."
So far he's played in 167 features; nobody else has worked in so many in so short a time. So you're probably wondering what he does with his spare time.
Well sir, Richard bought himself an automobile agency a few years back. He established a Venetian blind factory. He began raising silver foxes. He subsidized a dentist. He bought himself three wrestlers.
He went into the chemical business for the growing of tomatoes in water tanks. He invented a candy bar and began the manufacture thereof. He had a few other businesses, too, but he doesn't exactly remember them all, because he also was working on the radio at night and making a few appearances in army camps. So far he's done 380 shows for service men.
The chemical tomatoes didn't go so well. The war ruined the automobile business. And the Venetian blind business fell off because nobody could build houses. He had to lend his three wrestlers to his Uncle Samuel for the duration. He sold the silver fox farm. The dentist paid up his debt.
That left Lane collecting royalties on his candy bar. He had time on his hands.
"And I met a young fellow who had invented a new kind of paint remover, that would take the paint off the wall, but not the skin off the painter's hands," he reported. "You spray this stuff on and whoosh, off comes the paint in sheets. Fortunately it is not explosive."
So the paint remover factory is working 24 hours a day, trying to keep up with the demand, most of which is coming from the navy. For the first time in history paint remover, Dick Lane's paint remover, is listed as being safe for carrying in ships' stores.
This has been a break for sailors, who have been forced — since the days of galley slaves — to spend most of their spare time chipping old paint off and slapping new paint on. Now all they need to do is squirt on a little of Richard Lane's dope, wait 30 seconds for it to do its work, and half their job is done.

Theatrical features and shorts weren’t the only kind of films Lane made. He was also hired for industrials. There’s a U.S. government film called Don't Be a Sucker (1947) where he plays a bigoted agitator (Catholics, "negros" and foreigners are bad for America, his misguided character shouts. So are Freemasons). The one below is Telephone Courtesy, released by Wilding Picture Productions in 1946 (according to this site). It’s missing part of the beginning. Lane plays Henry Burton, who has the nicest, most efficient switchboard operator in the history of business telephony. Of course, she wasn’t always that way. But watch the film for more.


  1. Thanks for doing this post on the career of Richard Lane, Yowp. The "Telephone Courtesy" film was fun to see. Also, Dick Lane was a featured second banana on many of Joe Penner's radio programs in the 1930s. Most often, Mr. Lane did his "fast talking" routine, in which he told a famous story like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" in just 30 seconds, much to Joe Penner's confusion. He was a player in the following Joe Penner feature films at RKO: New Faces of 1937, The Life of the Party (1937), Go Chase Yourself (1938), I'm From The City (1938), Mr. Doodle Kicks Off (1938) and The Day the Bookies Wept (1939). Dick Lane is also featured in a Disney Pluto cartoon: "Cold Turkey" (1951), in which his voice is used to narrate a TV wrestling match, including his "Whoa Nellie" yell. Dick Lane also narrated "Roller Derby" shows on Los Angeles TV in the 1960s, also using his famous yell.

  2. Is this the Richard Lane who was paired with Gus Schilling for a few two-reelers at Columbia in the late '40s?

    1. Yes, this was the same Richard Lane as was paired with Gus Schilling. I wonder what he thought of Jules White's sense of humor?