Wednesday 1 March 2023

It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's St. Elmo!

Distinctive voices decorated the landscape of the Golden Age of Radio, people you’d never mistake for anyone else. The same unmistakeable voices gravitated to animated cartoons, where the actors have achieved unexpected longevity, if not an almost immortality.

If you see the words “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Su-perman!” one voice likely comes to mind. It belonged to Jackson Beck.

Those of you who come here to read about cartoons know Beck’s accomplishments—Bluto and Buzzy the crow for Famous Studios, King Leonardo for Total Television are among them. Jack Benny fans will have recognised Beck on Benny’s post-war shows broadcasting from New York—roles included a cab driver, a theatre manager, and an on-the-take waiter. And he can be heard in countless old commercials—a hunt on-line will reveal he was the voice of Studebaker on TV for a time, while on radio, he growled “If every smoker knew what Philip Morris smokers know...” when he wasn’t pushing Kellogg’s Pep on Superman.

Let’s pass along a couple of articles from the 1940s about Beck on the air. The first one likely came from the New York World-Telegram. Beck was starring in “Joe and Ethel” on NBC at the time. This is dated August 29, 1943.

Jackson Beck Answered Ad And Now He's A Radio Star
'Cisco Kid’ Comes by His Acting Naturally, for His Dad Was a Professional 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 of 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, complained that 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," says 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 Gun. 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 right 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 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 last was seen on Broadway in the play, The More the Merrier, no relation to the recent movie. "He was the one who drew mustaches on the 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.

The next story is the kind you hear about every once in a while in the Golden Age. It is from the Buffalo Evening News, January 30, 1946.

Jackson Beck Saves the Day

Few people listening to Quick-as-a-Flash last Sunday realized that real radio drama was being enacted under their very ears. Only the fast thinking of one Jackson Beck, who did such a swell job as "Stonewall Scott" in “Mystery in the Air," saved the program from being a complete flop.
Jimmy Meighan was the guest star, enacting a scene in which contestants were to find clues leading to the solution of an adventure of the Falcon, played by Jimmy on the air. He stepped to the mike, started the playlet, gasped “I can’t go on” and left the air. Jackson, a seasoned radio actor playing a supporting part, stepped in and took over Meighan’s role; one of the others grabbed Beck’s part and on they went. With hardly a noticeable break the play ran smoothly to its conclusion.
This is one sample of why a few actors get the bulk of the work in radio. Imagine the director’s feeling when Jim Meighan (suffering from flu) folds up and leaves him high and dry! That’s why directors hesitate to use someone whose work they’re not sure of in any situation, and one of the things you must be prepared for if you intend to become a radio actor.

To the best of my knowledge, Beck’s cartoon characters never included a mouse—Arnold Stang got that role at Famous Studios in New York—but he had experience with one as we read in the August 4, 1957 edition of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

Mouse His Undoing
Jackson Beck, as Special Agent Stevens on CBS Radio’s “FBI in ePace and War,” [sic] always gets his man. But the other day, a mere mouse got him.
The animal-loving actor, who owns five cats and four dogs, was relaxing in the garden of his Huntington, L. I., home when he noticed his cats ganging up on a little brown field mouse. Gallantly springing to the rescue, Beck grabbed the intended victim, which was already groggy, before the cats could finish their dirty work. But the rodent, not realizing that a special agent is always on the side of the undermouse, bit Jackson in the finger, leaving it bleeding.
Just to be safe, Beck went to his doctor who gave him an anti-tetanus injection as a precautionary measure. In addition, the physician insisted that the mouse be tested for possible rabies. If the result is positive, Jackson will have to undergo a series of painful rabies shots. So will his cats.
And, just to make the day more complpte. Beck picked up a severe case of poison ivy during his rescue mission.
Special Agent Stevens swears that, from now on, he’ll let the mice fight their own battles.

Beck voiced commercials until the mid-1990s when his health couldn’t hold up much longer, a 60-plus-year career on the air. They made him wealthy. Friend Jeff David noted Beck “took care of a lot of people and no one will ever know who they are. He always sent his friends money; broken-down actors, radio and TV people.” His agent Fifi Oscard called Beck “one of the giants” and “the last of the grand old guard of radio performers.”

Beck was 92 when he died in 2004.


  1. Watching so many Famous Popeyes growing up made me appreciate Beck very much (He's definitively my favorite Bluto).

    1. Mine, too, though Wicke's voice suits the mid-30s shorts.
      The irony is the cartoons Beck was in devolved into predictable formula.

    2. Very true, but he at least made those shorts bearable to sit through for repeat viewings (along with Mercer and Questel). I don't mind sitting through formula as long as it's anchored by good banter ("You ain't calling no Olive for no date!").

  2. Beck's auditioning with "Here comes the prince" reminds me of a scene in some comedy film (whose title I can't dredge up at the moment, help me here) in which a hopeful player rehearses auditioning with different readings; "Here comes the PRINCE. Here COMES the prince. HERE comes the prince. Here comes the PRINCE???"

    1. Reminds me of a Bob and Ray show with guest Norm Prescott mulling over how to read "First News First," the opening to WHDH's 1:30 headlines.

    2. It suddenly came to me; it Jan Duggan as Cleopatra Pepperday in W.C. Fields' The Old Fashioned Way.

  3. Hans Christian Brando2 March 2023 at 00:49

    Even Woody Allen was a fan, using Beck in voiceover work in movies like "Take the Money and Run" and "Radio Days."