James Curtis: L.A. Voices

Dick Lane, Sioux City Sue
Photo: Dick Lane and Helen Wallace in “Sioux City Sue,” 1946.

In 1975, while still in college, I did a short series of interviews. There was no real purpose to these, other than they were with people who interested me on some level, and I had a sort of childlike faith that an outlet for them would appear. As it happened, one of those interviews did lead to a life-changing event, resulting in what was to become my first book. I went on to a career in business, but eventually went back full time to writing. In the last 35 years I’ve interviewed a lot of people–and have shoeboxes full of cassette tapes to show for it. Those original reel-to-reel talks, however, never were of any use to me.

Last year, contemplating a new project, I took the plunge into digital recording, replacing the old imperfect cassette tape with the new imperfect (so they tell me) SD card. Coming up to speed, I consulted with the people in the Oral History program at Cal State Fullerton, who very kindly gave me pointers. Soon, I was making sound files, converting them to MP3s, and e-mailing them to a typist halfway across the world.

My encounter with the oral history people reminded me of those reels of tape stored out in my garage. Were they still playable? Would the Sony quarter-track deck that recorded them still work? And could they be converted to digital files and put on CD?

Happily, the answer to all these questions was YES. And so, slowly, I digitized them, made preservation CDs, and backed them all up as recommended. But I still didn’t have a use for them, other than to maybe donate them to the Herrick library. Then the Daily Mirror became an independent entity, and Larry said that he would welcome any content I might wish to contribute. It didn’t occur to me at first that a transcription of one of these stone age interviews might be appropriate to the Mirror, but then one day it hit me–I did indeed have a voice that still rang in the ears of generations of local TV viewers.

Whoa Nellie!
Photo: “Dick Lane’s Wrestling Book,” listed on EBay at $45.

What Angeleno of a Certain Age doesn’t remember Dick Lane? He started with KTLA back before it was KTLA, pioneered TV wrestling, roller derby, shilled for Spade Cooley, and made “Whooooa Nellie!” part of the local vernacular. I met him at Richard’s Market in Newport Beach, where the adjacent hangout was a coffee shop called Goofoffers. I think I sought him out because I was interested in the story of Klaus Landsberg and thought there might be a book in it. I didn’t realize what an expansive career he had apart from early television, and so I decided to take him through his entire life if he’d let me. We met on the afternoon of April 25, 1975, and he was a chipper, vital guy in a pale blue cardigan and golfer’s cap. He was 75 years old and, thinking back, I’m very glad I did this, even with no real purpose in mind, because I don’t think anyone else ever thought to do it. And now Larry has created an appropriate forum for posting it.

The plan is to transcribe and post about 20 minutes of material each week. We may even be able to post a sound file to give you an idea of how it went. So here, for the first time anywhere, is my conversation of 36 years ago with KTLA’s Dick Lane.

JAMES CURTIS: How long would it take to make a Boston Blackie?

DICK LANE: Well, it’s funny. When we started we got a 24-day schedule. And we came in three days under it. So the next one we made was in 21 days. And we went on cutting down and down and down until during the war–Columbia was in real trouble, you know, as far as film was concerned, and time–they gave us 60 shooting hours. Six ten-hour days. That was it.

JC: And you did it.

DL: Well, sure. That’s nothing. Nowadays they make these television things in two days, two and a half days, three days sometimes. During the war, everything was squeezed right down. For instance, normally in the making of a picture, they take a master shot. And they go back there twelve, eighteen feet or more. And the scene runs three minutes, three and a half minutes. They take the three and a half minutes. And then you go in and cut it up into close shots, two shots, or over the shoulder things. We got a law that was handed down that if you didn’t have your master shot in three takes, forget it–move in and do it all in close ups. On account of the shortage of film.

JC: Where would a dictate like that come from?

DL: Harry Cohn, from upstairs. He said some funny things. During the time of the war, everything was short. One of the boss carpenters complained that they couldn’t get nails. He said, “I haven’t got a 16-penny nail on the lot.” He said, “Well, you dumb ox, use two eights!” Those are the smart things he said.

JC: Mr. Lane, I dug up a couple of studio biographies of you that were written during the forties–one from RKO and one from Columbia–and they’re both dated the same year–1944. Basically what they have to say, cutting out all the hype, is that you came to Hollywood in 1937.

DL: Right.

 Dick Lane, Charlie Chan in Honolulu
Photo: Dick Lane, right,  and George Zucco in “Charlie Chan in Honolulu,” 1938.

JC: I don’t know if this is an exaggeration, but I found what appears to be a pretty concise list of your films, and you seemed to average seven or eight, sometimes ten features a year. the biography says you averaged 24 pictures a year.

DL: My agents and I looked it up about a year ago, and they found the assignments I had since 1937 up to 1969–256. Now that includes some of the educational things we did for the services, you know, shorts–everything. Features, I think we had 181 feature films.

JC: That’s quite an output.

DL: That’s an apprenticeship.

JC: Later on, it says you did camp shows for the servicemen.

DL: Oh yes.

JC: Present total in 1944, they said, was 425, the majority in California, although you traveled to 31 other states.

DL: That’s right.

JC: Your wife is Esther Lloyd, a former musical-comedy dancer. You were married in 1929.

DL: Yes.

JC: You enjoy sports, cooking, and they describe you as “a tinkerer.”

DL: A tinkerer. I guess that’s the word. I can tinker with things until they fall apart, and then I give up and let someone else finish it.

JC: I get the impression you were born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin.

DL: That’s true.

JC: And you started on the stage at eight years old?

DL: Right.

JC: How did that come about?

DL: I was a rather precocious kid in school. I could memorize quickly. I had a poem or a recitation for every period in the year. Arbor Day, Decoration Day, the Gettysburg Address, I memorized all that. Even “The Chambered Nautilus.” And whenever they needed anybody to talk out loud, I was there. That summer, I was in the third grade, and my teacher was Mrs. Cavanagh. She had some friends who were actors; they had a repertory company. They came up from Chillicothe, Ohio to spend the summer up in the lakes of Wisconsin. And they told her that they were putting a couple of  new plays in their repertory and they needed a little boy and a little girl but didn’t know where to find them. She said, “I’ve got the boy for you.”  So they came down to our farm, and I recited for them, naturally. And they thought, “Oh, yeah, it is going to be all right.” But my parents were dead against it. But during the summer they prevailed upon my people–my mother liked them–and they finally let me go with them.

JC: Did you want to be an actor, or did you want to get out of school?

DL: I wanted to be an actor. Oh, my. Anyplace where people would sit still and listen. I went with them and we did a play called “Stars and Stripes” and another one was “Noble Outcast.” “Tol’able David.” “Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.” Things like that. I stayed with them from early August until the middle of November, then the school board decide I should be back in school, so I had to come back. But I was stuck from then on. Each year I tried to go somewhere–home talent plays, anyplace a crowd would gather. If they needed me, I was there.

JC: Did you finish school?

DL: Oh, yes. I finished high school, and later I went on to the University of Wisconsin for a couple of years.

JC: Did you study drama there?

DL: Oh, no, no. Design engineering to satisfy my parents. My parents were against show business in any of its forms.

JC: Did you have any ambitions for a vocation other than drama?

DL: No, I didn’t. Never did.

JC: What was the first acting job you got paid for?

DL: I think that was the show–with the Lyric Dramatic Players. Mr. and Mrs. Dillenbeck.

JC: What was the pay like?

DL: Eleven dollars. I got eleven dollars for five days–we didn’t work on Mondays or Tuesdays.

JC: That was pretty good money for those days, wasn’t it?

DL: You bet it was. In addition we stayed in hotels or boarding houses, and they paid that, so I got board and room in addition to the eleven dollars.

JC: So they were pretty successful.

DL: Yes, it was a good company.

Big Boy, Al Jolson JC: Later on, you made your way to Broadway. What was that in?

DL: That was in ‘27 with Al Jolson’s “Big Boy.”

JC: Did you have a big part in “Big Boy”?

DL:At the Winter Garden. I played “Bully” John Bagby, the heavy. Jolson closed the show in Syracuse and went to Florida because he had laryngitis or something, and I went into a show called “Present Arms.” That lasted, oh, I guess 26 or 28 weeks. Then I went into “Connecticut Yankee.” Stayed with that until 1931.

JC: Was Jolson a difficult fellow to work with?
DL: He was difficult if you let him be difficult. He was a tough taskmaster. Everyone had to deliver as far as Jolson was concerned, because he delivered. He gave everything, all he had, every show. And everybody else had to do the same.

JC: One gets the impression he was rather egotistical.

DL: He was a great deal like many other actors I’ve known, that they were two different people. I’ve seen him so nervous before a show that the perspiration would just run off his hands and he would almost become nauseated. But when the curtain went up he was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Another one who was very similar that I worked for many, many weeks was Bert Lahr. Bert would twist buttons on his wardrobe until they’d come off and he’d wonder how he got that thing and put it in his pocket and twist another one off. Or he’d get a little piece of hair and twist it and twist it and pull it, twist it and tug on it. But when he was on stage, calm… solid.

JC: He was afraid of being upstaged, wasn’t he?

DL: Oh, yes. Nobody would catch flies. You know what “catchin’ flies” means?

JC: No.

DL: That’s when you stand behind somebody and wave your handkerchief or fix your hat or pull up your coat sleeves or wave your arms around. That’s called catching flies–detract from the principal actor. Nobody caught flies on him. Nobody tried to, because he paid well and his shows usually ran well.

JC: Did you get into films about that period? Or even earlier than that?

DL: Well, during that time in New York you worked in films, too. At that time there were studios out  at Avenue M–the old Vitagraph Studios. Vitagraph or Vitaphone, I’ve forgotten which. Warner Bros., anyway. I worked in some shorts out there; you could make those in two days. I did one with Danny Kaye–

JC: Danny Kaye? Back then?

DL: Yeah, he came down from Grossinger’s up in the Catskills. He was a very funny man, too. I later worked with him in some features out here at Goldwyn studios. I did the Joe Palooka series there with Joe Kirkwood. I also did a two-reeler with Bob Hope while we were in shows in New York. I went from “Connecticut Yankee” into “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” another show.

JC: Olson and Johnson?

DL: No, no. “Fifty Million Frenchmen” was a New York play, a musical show. Billy Gaxton opened the show, and I took the show when he closed and took it on the road. Then I went from that into “George White Scandals.”

JC: And that brought you to California?

DL: Yeah. We played the Biltmore Theatre.

JC: What were the problems in making shorts in the real early days of sound? Had you made silent films at all?

DL: Yes, but I don’t even remember the names of the things. It wasn’t considered the right thing to do if you were a “legit” actor–to get caught making pictures. A couple of times we went out to Fort Lee, New Jersey. If you worked in pictures out there you didn’t say anything about it to anybody, because that was sort of cheatin’.

JC: Did that attitude seem to change when Jolson made a film?

DL: Yes, it did. Well, a lot of things changed. When they found that they needed the same abilities that you require on the stage–the ability to speak intelligibly, and remember your lines, and suit the action to the word (not all action–you had to have words and action). You had to go back to the elementary, basic, fundamental things of show business that you find in Hamlet’s advice to the players: Speak the speech I pray you… trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth your words as some are wont to do… Those are the things that were required when talkies came in. And some of the great silent people fell out because they didn’t have the proper pitch to their voice, it wasn’t modulated or pleasant to be heard. John Gilbert, for one. William Haines for another. A lot of them just didn’t quite have it. They had experience in silents, but it was all action, no words. And the ability to memorize lines and suit them to the action is something they just didn’t have.

Martha Raye
Photo: Martha Raye in an undated photo listed on EBay for $10.

JC: When you went into “George White Scandals”–was that a musical revue?

DL: Yes, it was one of many he did. They did one each year. I had closed with “Fifty Million Frenchmen” and was doing an act with Martha Raye at the time. We were playing vaudeville; we were playing the Loew’s theaters.

JC: What was that act like?

DL: I’d open the show singing, and she would come up from the audience, as a sort of tipsy gal, for an autograph, interrupting the act. She used to take some tremendous falls. We called ‘em “chest rolls” if you know what they are.

JC: What’s a chest roll?

DL: You fall flat on your face. Or the part that strikes first, with her. She’d do about four or five of those falls and that audience would be screaming. And then I’d talk her into singing, Once they found out who she was, and that she wasn’t a drunk coming up from the audience, she was accepted because Martha Raye was Martha Raye.

JC: It’s hard to imagine Dick Lane as a singer. Did you have a good voice?

DL: I usually had a voice, but it’s been a long time since I’ve sung anything. In a musical show, you’ve got to sing and you’ve got to dance, and I did both passably.

JC: What did you do in the Scandals?

DL: I did sketches. I did one with Willie and Gene Howard. Another one with a girl by the name of Estelle Jayne. Another one with Bert Lahr, nearsighted professor. They were funny scenes. Luckily, I got some laughs in those things, and when I got here to Hollywood, I was invited to come out and make tests at three different studios.

JC: Which three?

DL: Fox, M-G-M, and RKO. I liked Dave Freidman, who was the casting man from RKO. I went out an made a test for them while we were playing two weeks here at the Biltmore, and a couple of days before we were to go away again, he called and said, “Come on out. People want to see you out here.” So I went out there, and they told me they had seen my test, liked it, and that they were going to take a 90-day option. I was very independent because we had 40 more weeks to do with “George White Scandals.” I said, “If you don’t know in ten days, you’ll never know.” They said, “All right–ten days.” So at the end of ten days, the company and I were in Dallas, Texas. I received a telegram saying that they elect to and hereby do exercise Option A on my contract. Which meant at the close of the show, return to Hollywood and pick up your contract. Which I did. We closed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in January, 1937. I flew out and have been here ever since.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1975, Books and Authors, Film, Found on EBay, History, Hollywood, James Curtis, L.A. Voices, New York, Stage, World War II and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to James Curtis: L.A. Voices

  1. Mary Mallory says:

    Great. There are so many people that it would be wonderful to know more about, but probably won’t ever get biographies. Thanks for giving us more background on Los Angeles related people.


  2. MichaelRyerson says:

    Dick Lane. What a perfect Daily Mirror character. Great stuff.


  3. Rinky Dink says:

    That was a fun read. Thanks. (The part about catching flies will make me more aware now when I watch films, trying to catch someone doing it.)


  4. Dick Morris says:

    Thanks for the interview. I remember Dick Lane’s Whoa Nellie! very well. I wasn’t much of a wresting fan but remember him from jalopy racing, probably televised from the track in Gardena. I always thought his talents were limited to being a sports announcer and didn’t know he had been an actor.


  5. Riley says:

    A great voice and personality. I loved to watch Dick Lane sell used cars on local LA TV. He’d describe the car, slap the fender to “take it away” and another would roll up. There was the well-known time when the fender fell off. Thanks for this, Larry. Daily Mirror is getting better and beter.


  6. Marc Stern says:

    Thanks for the story. Dick Lane was the voice of Roller Games and the Los Angeles Thunderbirds. He also did Roller Derby for KTLA in the 50’s. He was elected into the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame.


  7. AG says:

    One of favorites regular guys in Hollywood. I’m ‘Fav’ this Blog. Keep ’em coming….


Leave a Reply. Note: Your IP is logged with your comment so a fake name and email address are useless.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s