In the Golden Age of Radio, NBC produced some of the medium’s best crime dramas, programs like The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of Sam Spade, Confession, Dragnet, and Tales of the Texas Rangers. Another — although sadly not well-remembered today — was Night Beat, which debuted on 6 February, 1950 and aired not just in the US, but Australia and South Africa as well.
The plot of Night Beat revolves around a reporter named Randy Stone who works for the fictional Chicago Star newspaper. In the process of writing his human interest column, “Night Beat,” Stone passes in and out of the lives of night owls, underworld figures, lost souls, and other denizens of an improbably noir Chicago.
Night Beat‘s first audition aired in May of 1949. Taking a grittier approach than is found in the final product, it starred the well-known celluloid tough guy Edmond O’Brien (A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob, An Act of Murder, White Heat, D.O.A.), was directed by William Rousseau (Pat Novak… for Hire), and written by Larry Marcus (Backfire, Dark City, and a few years later, Witness for the Prosecution).
By then radio was then rapidly losing its audience to television. Although NBC television programming began in 1940 with Meet the Wife, it wasn’t until 1948 — when the Milton Berle vehicle Texaco Star Theatre debuted — that NBC seemed to lose all interest in its radio programming. As television raked in the dough by focusing increasingly on children’s programing and family-friendly fare, radio attempted to remain relevant by producing innovative and intelligent programming that television had no room for.
Nonetheless, eager to please skittish network executives unsure about radio’s future, the National Association of Broadcasters self-imposed a curfew on crime dramas, relegating them to later time slots than other sorts of programs. Sponsors had to be pleased and using the same script, a second audition for Night Beat was produced under the direction of Bill Karn (Gang Busters, Dangerous Assignment, and Ma Barker’s Killer Brood) and starring Frank Lovejoy. The softer version was OKed and the program was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and Wheaties.
Frank Lovejoy was a seasoned radio and film actor who’d earlier starred on Gang Busters and played the Blue Beetle (one of the few, almost completely-forgotten Golden Age of Comic Books superheroes) on the radio program of the same name. He was born Frank Andrew Lovejoy, Jr. in the Bronx in 1912 and grew up in New Jersey. Lovejoy’s portrayal of Stone wasn’t just more audience (and sponsor) friendly, it was sensitive and nuanced, balancing Stone’s hard-boiled toughness with sensitivity, compassion, and likeability.
Stone was equal parts reporter, crusader, and nocturnal flâneur. Week after week Stone somehow finds the strength to fight battles in an unwinable moral crusade, get into all sorts of trouble in the process (often ending up worse for wear as with his detective peers), and type up his piece in time to yell “copy boy” so that it can go out with the early edition.
Perhaps the frequency with which Stone became deeply involved in murder, mayhem, Tong wars, et cetera and the speed and facility with which they’re wrapped up is, well, ridiculous but unlike most series of its sort there was a measurable degree of continuity from episode to episode. At it’s worse Night Beat was formluaic but above average — at its best it’s among the best of the genre.
From the beginning, Larry Marcus stayed on the series with Mary Marcus, both serving as editors. Warren Lewis (Cavalcade of America, Four Star Playhouse, Yancy Derringer) was brought on as director. Frank Worth composed the timpani-fueled intro and wonderfully Gershwin-esque score. The announcer was Donald Newton Rickles (The Whisperer, The Great Gildersleeve, and The NBC University Theatre). Supporting actors included many of radio’s biggest and most-prolific talents including Ben Wright, Howard McNear, Jack Kruschen, Jeff Corey, Joan Banks, Lawrence Dobkin, Lurene Tuttle,Martha Wentworth, Parley Baer, Paul Frees, Peter Leeds, and William Conrad.
Radio being the “theater of the mind,” a lot of series’ artistic success hinged on the show’s wring and the writing on Night Beat was usually top notch. The pictures it created are vivid and, in the case of Stone’s journalism, enjoyably florid but never quite over-the-top. Some of the series’ best writers were E. Jack Neuman (Suspense and The Adventures of Sam Spade), Kathleen Hite (CBS‘s first female staff writer and later writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke), and Russell Hughes (The House Across the Street, Customs Agent, and later, Them!). Other writers include David Ellis, Irwin Ashkenazie, Joel Hunt, John Bagni and Gwen Bagni, John Robinson, Larry Roman, Lou Rusoff, Marty Wilkenson, Merwyn Gerard, Russell Bender, and Selig Lester.
NBC seems to have never believed in Night Beat and for most of its run was happy to bounce it around various nights and time slots. There were about 104 episodes and roughly 74 are currently in circulation. The final episode aired 25 September, 1952. Night Beat was adapted for television with an episode of the anthology series, Four Star Playhouse titled “Search in the Night.” In it, Lovejoy resumed his old role and it aired on 5 November, 1953. It’s possible that it was produced as a pilot for a television series but whatever the case, that didn’t happen.
Ironically, after he was replaced by Lovejoy, O’Brien went on to play the truly bland (and therefore much more popular) title character on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar — a radio drama whose conclusion in 1962 is usually viewed as the end of old time radio. Lovejoy went on to appear on Suspicion and star in Ida Lupino‘s The Hitch-Hiker. He died on 2 October, 1962 from a heart attack at his residence in New York City. Recordings of Night Beat and other Old Time Radio shows can be found in Amoeba’s Spoken Word section.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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