Network radio still has a decade to go before its corpse is laid to rest at last. Arguably, the patient is clinically dead somewhere between 1951 and 1953, when the big advertising budgets fall almost entirely toward television, but it will take the better part of a decade before the last of its life support is removed.
The irony is that some of the best old-time radio will be created, produced, and performed between 1953 and 1962, mostly because many of the medium’s best such creators stay aboard because they love it deeply enough. Two of those—husband and wife since 1943, occasional co-workers over the same period—work up one of the best, and shortest-lived, dramatic anthologies.
On Stage is the formal title, but it airs as Cathy and Elliott Lewis On Stage, and the air designation seems only too appropriate. It is not for nothing that the Lewises have earned an inside nickname of Mr. and Mrs. Radio.
Both have made reputations as versatile actors capable of playing just about any character in any mode, from leading characters to psychopathic stooges and back to quiet supporters, with singular flair. Elliott Lewis has also made a reputation as a deft producer and director, not to mention playing the comic role of a lifetime as the drink-a-minute solvent Frankie Remley on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, while Cathy Lewis also holds a regular slot as sensible Jane on My Friend Irma.
When the Lewises conceive On Stage, Elliott Lewis is also producing and directing Suspense and Broadway is My Beat, and the couple begins creating their Haven Radio Productions (after their Beverly Hills home) to deliver the show once CBS gives them approval in late 1952. They draw upon their fellow Radio Row performers in southern California for support, and engage Broadway is My Beat‘s writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin, plus E. Jack Neuman and Shirley Gordon, to write scripts anchored in male/female interaction in which each partner has particular strength.
The good news is that On Stage will garner some of the best reviews of the Lewises’ careers, both in the show’s own too brief era and through historical retrospective, such as that of John Dunning:
On Stage was a groundbreaking dramatic series capping the radio careers of Cathy and Elliott Lewis. It came in what might have been a watershed era but was instead radio’s last hurrah . . . People still wanted to work in radio: they remained because it was a dear first love, terminally ill, and soon to disappear . . . people who loved what they were doing: some would mourn its final loss so deeply that they spoke of it reluctantly even two decades later. It was in this time that the Lewises produced On Stage, by some accounts the best radio anthology ever heard.
The bad news is that you won’t be able to know it by the show’s precise rating. Because the show airs on a sustaining basis, with no commercial sponsor, Neilsen keeps no track of its performance. (It can’t help that the show will shift nights back and forth, between Thursday and Wednesday, for the nine months it airs.) And, unless recordings unearth in due course, it will appear that only twelve episodes will survive for hearing by 21st Century listeners.
The worst news will be the Lewises’ marriage ending, three years after On Stage does (though their careers will continue apace, even into television), and ten years before Cathy Lewis dies of cancer at 50. Elliott Lewis will re-marry, to radio veteran Mary Jane Croft (who performs roles in On Stage, among numerous other radio credits), and continue his career in television and periodic attempts to revive classic radio, until his own death of heart disease at 72.
Proud of the attention women give her advertiser/pianist husband (Elliott Lewis), a New York wife (Cathy Lewis) lures him into remembering how they romanced in the first place—and wearing the string bow tie that helped bring them together on an earlier advertising shoot—until a jealous husband (Sheldon Leonard) kidnaps them on the way to a New Year’s Eve celebration.
Mrs. Bailey: Mary Jane Croft. Woman on Subway: Martha Wentworth. Additional cast: Vivi Janiss, Byron Kane. Announcer: George Walsh. Music: Ray Noble, Fred Steiner. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writers: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.
Further Channel Surfing: Happy New Year!
Fibber McGee & Molly: Tall Story Contest (comedy; NBC, 1946)
Our Miss Brooks: Babysitting on New Year’s Eve (comedy; CBS, 1950)
Fibber McGee & Molly: New Year’s Day Visiting (comedy; NBC, 1952)
Fibber McGee & Molly: A Quiet New Year’s Day at Home (comedy; NBC, 1954)