Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mystery of the Radio Spirit -- Solved!

[Announcer] In the previous episode, our intrepid detective was last seen  staring at his computer screen, intently pondering the puzzle before him. His decades long search for information about the fabled Spirit radio program had produced little other than a single crumbling letter found among the late Will Eisner's correspondence. The futility of his quest left him no choice. Setting pride aside, the humbled gumshoe made a plaintive cry for help into the vastness of the Internet. A cry that was heard and answered in this exciting conclusion of...The Mystery of the Radio Spirit!

     I have always been thankful for the help I've received from other comic fans. Kindred souls who share the same interests and passions as I. But for once, the help didn't come from them, it came in the form of a Schadow. Specifically, Karl Schadow.
     Karl, a brilliant radio historian and writer, happened to read of my request for information regarding the legendary Spirit radio show on an old-time radio chat list. Not long after, he emailed me.
      "There definitely was a program on WFIL in Philadelphia from 1940- ca. 1942," he wrote as he briefly recounted a few details he had retrieved from various trade magazines. "I'll be more than happy to send you copies of the reviews and anything else I find on this program, " Karl promised. And true to his word, he did. 

     "THE PHILADELPHIA RECORD, in a swap deal with WFIL, Philadelphia, inaugurated on Oct. 26 a weekly 15-minute dramatization based on the three crime-fighting comics carried in a Sunday special comic section. Each Saturday, the program will alternate between  "The Spirit", " "Lady Luck", and "Mr. Mystic," comprising the Sunday comic special. Although every newspaper in the city has special swap deals with every station, the Record is the first to tie in a regular newspaper feature with a with a regular air show, all others using the time for institutional and spot campaigns."[BROADCASTING, Nov. 1, 1940]

     Amazing. My years of searching for clues about this program had returned naught. Yet Karl had found this revealing mention that answered most the questions I had about the show.
     It premiered much sooner than I had speculated; actually not long after the strip debuted in June, 1940. To be sure, the PHILADELPHIA RECORD was one of the earliest proponents of Eisner's creation, as demonstrated by this ad.

[image courtesy of Charlie Roberts]
     Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the clipping Karl sent, was the revelation that not only did The Spirit strip get a radio drama-tization, but so did his Sunday section partners, Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic
     Given the date, it follows that the first Spirit episode was based upon the October 27th strip, which found him contemplating joining the military.

THE SPIRIT section (Oct. 27, 1940) 
[as reprinted in the 1973 "Spirit Bag"]
     Karl's research didn't end with that one clipping. Included as well was a full-blown review of The Spirit from THE BILLBOARD, by legendary music critic, Maurie Orodenker. Orodenker (who would soon coin the term, "rock and roll" ) was effusive in his praise of the show.

     Considering the The Spirit, crime adventure comic in the paper's Sunday editions, is fast chasing Dick Tracy into a rumble-seat position in popular favor, this stanza has practically a ready-made audience for itself. And the the dramatic efforts of the actors are worthy of the advantage.
     Each dramatization is complete, based on the following morning's story. When caught, a frantic telephone call tells of a corpse in a college dormitory. The Spirit (Sam Serata) with his down-South Ebony (Salvatore Benigno) comes thru with his usual flair, battles the criminals and winds up with lipstick all over his face.
     Interest is sustained thruout. Mill Spooner at the organ tying together the scenic changes. Enid Hager, of the Record staff, scripts and produces. Gal was formerly with the station's production department, and does an excellent job. 
     Commercial palaver limited to bally on the paper's Sunday comic section.

     While Orondenker's estimation of The Spirit's popularity may be a bit off (it never truly challenged Dick Tracy), his evaluation of the program is enlightening. Now we know the actors who played the lead--Sam Serata--and Ebony--Salvatore Benigno. The characterization of Ebony as "down-South" is a reflection of Eisner's own portrayal; at once unfortunate, but consistent with contemporary media (e.g., Amos 'n' Andy). Since the lead to the review lists just The Spirit, it appears that somewhere along the way, both Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic lost their turns in the Saturday at 7:00 PM line-up.
     Not stopping with just this one review, Karl found yet another, from the February 4, 1942 issue of VARIETY.

     The Philly Record has evolved a novel method for plugging one of its prize Sunday comics by dramatizing part of the sequence the night before over the air and leaving  the Spirit, hero of the strip, in dire danger at the end of the dramatization. If the listener wants to know how Mr. Spirit gets out of this jam he has to buy the Sunday Record. Simple.

     The use of a cliffhanger not only took a popular device from the movie serials of the day, but provided a clever newspaper selling technique, which after all, was the purpose of the program in the first place. The date of the VARIETY piece reveals that the show ran well over a year; not as short-lived as its obscurity would indicate.
     But the search goes on. Karl is continuing to follow-up on several leads, and I can assure you, my quest will not stop.
     Do any recordings of  The Spirit program exist? And what happened to the scripts Hager sent to Eisner as mentioned in his letter? 
     Who knows what revelations are yet to come?
     If I had to bet, I'd bet Karl Schadow knows.


     It has been suggested to me, by Denis Kitchen and others, that the 1987 Spirit Picture Disc record may contain excerpts from the radio program.
     Alas, this is not so.

The Spirit Picture Disc  (1987)
      The clips heard on the record come from a short-lived 1948 Spirit television show. This show, produced by Alan R. Cartoun Associates, apparently used panels from the strip accompanied by voice-overs by actors. Once again, the incredible Karl Schadow comes through with the info.
     A series of five, five-minute television productions, for an across the board weekly schedule, has been completed by Alan R. Cartoun, radio and television producer, Scarsdale, New York. An animated version of the syndicated comic strip, "The Spirit", the open-end package is available to local advertisers and TV stations throughout the country. 
     The episodes are delivered as a unit on specially prepared film strip with voice and sound track effects.
[BROADCASTING, Nov. 8, 1948]

     While there is undoubtedly a story yet to be told behind THAT venture (as well as the proposed 1966 Irwin Allen Spirit show), it is a story for another day. One mystery at a time, please.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Mystery of the Radio Spirit

     Sometimes its just the incidentals that intrigue me. The flotsam and jetsam of comic book history that float along outside the mainstream issues. It doesn't take much; sometimes it's just a letter.

 November 29, 1941
Miss Enid Hager
The Philadelphia Record
Broad & Wood Sts.
Philadelphia, Penn.
Dear Miss Hager,
Thank you for the copies of the radio scripts of the Spirit show, they were fine. I'm really sorry that I can't get the show on my set here in New York. Your handling of the dialogue is great and the continuity positively absorbing. I am hoping that we can spread this idea around far and wide. Incidentally, I notice that the authorship, 'Will Eisner', is not mentioned after the opening. I'd deem it a great favor if you would include the 'by'-line after the Spirit, since the plots are identical with those in the section. Thanks, and my best regards.
Will Eisner

     This was not the first I'd heard of The Spirit radio program, but the crumbling letter in my hands verified its existence. "At one point," wrote Jim Steranko in his HISTORY OF COMICS 2, "The Spirit became so popular, a radio show recounting his adventures played in cities like Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore."
     Not much to go on, but it seemed to be a simple enough quest. The PHILADELPHIA RECORD was one of the original papers running The Spirit Sunday supplement and had reportedly profited nicely from its publication. Hoping to capitalize even more, the RECORD pushed for a daily version of the strip. And on October 13, 1941, it got its wish.

THE SPIRIT daily strip (Oct. 13, 1941)
[as published in THE ART OF WILL EISNER] 
     An article by Norman Abbott published the same day, trumpeted Eisner's strip and his personal accomplishments. It's obvious the RECORD was pushing this strip hard and evidently it decided to create a radio program to accompany the daily's beginning.
     The RECORD already owned a radio station, WHAT, but its usual content leaned toward ethnic Italian and Polish programming and sober music shows. None of the gee-whiz kids adventure shows like Jack Armstrong or Captain Midnight that would seem to be fit companions to The Spirit. Enid Hager, the paper's promotions chief, was apparently given the task of the writing the show. 
     Hager's forte was promotion, but she must have had ambitions beyond her job title. Within a few years she had jumped to a similar role at rival WPEN, owned by the competing PHILADELPHIA BULLETIN. By 1943, she moved on to New York, " join a publishing house".  Things must not have worked out there, though, as by 1945, she was back in Philly heading up the city's Seventh War Loan and Salvation Army campaign. Under her married name of Enid Hager Clarke, she appears once more as co-author of a 1946 radio script.
     But what of The Spirit program itself? What time slot did it have? Was it on every day? How long did it run and who were its stars?
     I began my searches where I usually do. Newspaper archives and databases. Frustratingly, the PHILADELPHIA RECORD is an elusive beast. Few microfilm rolls of it exist and the one source I did find with a fairly comprehensive collection of it was missing the needed years of 1941-42. I purchased a yellowing copy of the December 11, 1941, issue, but its radio listings gave no indication of the show.
     I reached out to Philadelphia old-time radio expert, Alan Boris, but even he had never heard of the program.
     And that, dear reader, is where it stands.
     So I turn to you. Does anyone know more about this nearly mythical radio show? Was there an article or ad touting the show?
     If anyone has anything to add, please let me know so I can put this case to rest.