Monday, November 08, 2021

Whistling J. Donald Wilson

Our story starts with two radio announcers born only a few years apart with similar names, both working as radio announcers on national networks. Donald Harlow "Don" Wilson and John Donald Wilson. With John and Don being relative homonyms, some confusion was inevitable. Multiple sources claims that in 1938, he had adopted the name "Norman Wilson, but later changed it back to J. Donald Wilson. This is correct and is  documented in the January 1, 1938 issue of Broadcasting Magazine [LINK] which states (on pg 50) in their Behind the Mike column the following:

"J. Donald Wilson, Hollywood announcer on the 'Charlie Chan' and 'Strange as It Seems' transcription serials produced by Raymond R. Morgan Co... has changed his name for professional purposes to Norman Wilson. To avoid confusion with Don Wilson, announcer of the NBC Jack Benny program, J. Donald Wilson, a year ago inverted his name, but it didn't sound right. He has now taken the new name."

The timing of this text is apropos, because on page 19 of the same issue it reports that the other Don Wilson repeated his 1936 victory and was chosen as the best announcer of 1937. (This happened almost annually thru about 1952) John clearly felt like his career was in the shadow of the other Don Wilson. But the newsy, present-tense delivery of the text makes a mess of the chronology. Is his real name Donald John Wilson or John Donald Wilson, which is the inverted form?  His headstone reads "John Donald Wilson" so I take that to be his real name. But that means that his resume may be divided over three pseudonyms.  

The choice of  the name "Norman Wilson" has no clear origin. It was the name of the short-lived bandleader of the Norman Wilson Orchestra on KRKD in Los Angeles. A decade later but there was also a Norman Wilson Co. record distribution company located at 2562 Holmes St. in Kansas City, MO. They operated from at least 1952 - 1960 moving London, Mercury and Hollywood records. They appear in both issues of Billboard and Cashbox in that era. Norman Wilson Distribution had moved to 1914 Washington Avenue in St. Louis. 

Our John Donald Wilson was born on June 5th, 1904 and was a radio and film writer, producer, and voice actor, born in Kansas City, MO. There lies the only connection to that record distribution company. But based on that I'm guessing there is at least a family connection there. It's too much of a coincidence.  But his fame centers mostly around his writing on The Whistler. The Whistler began as a radio mystery drama which debut on May 16th 1942 and ran until September 22nd 1955 on CBS. That's a 13-year run.  There were 692 episodes. This was followed by a series of 8 Columbia films, (below) and a short-lived syndicated TV version in 1954. That's a home run by any measure.

  • The Whistler – 1944
  • The Mark of the Whistler – 1944
  • The Power of the Whistler – 1945
  • Voice of the Whistler – 1945
  • Mysterious Intruder – 1946
  • The Secret of the Whistler – 1946
  • The Thirteenth Hour – 1947
  • The Return of the Whistler

As both a writer and producer on the radio series, you would hope J. Donald Wilson would have earned some decent royalties and licensing fees. Not that Wilson was the only writer on the series; George Allen was the main writer on most of the later episodes, taking over duties in 1944. Allen donated over 100 of those scripts to UC Santa Barbara [LINK] making for a nice research library. Allen actually made some pretty significant changes to the structure of the series, even changing The Whistler from a participant to an observer. Nonetheless, when the first film was in development, it's producer Rudolph Flothow hired J. Donald Wilson to draft that story. More here and here.

Despite writing and producing The Whistler, Wilson wasn't the announcer for The Whistler.  That duty went to Joe Kearns and Gale Gordon in the early episodes and later Bill Forman. Forman was an odd pick. His prior resume included no acting credits at all, and his big gigs were the Fitch Bandwagon and Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge. But Forman was a natural, and later even co-wrote scripts. More here.

But there was a fourth narrator, Everett Clarke. At the same time Signal Oil was sponsoring it's broadcasts on the West Coast (KNX, KQW etc.) from Feb. 1946 to Feb. 1947, a completely separate and local broadcast of The Whistler was airing Sunday nights at on WBBM in Chicago sponsored by Meisterbrau beer.  They used the same scripts and music as the Los Angeles-based production but broadcast it as a live performance, with an audience and of course, a completely different cast.  It even aired with the same opening narration:

"I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak. And so I tell you the amazing story of..."

In addition to the radio series "The Whistler", J. Donald Wilson also wrote, produced, and/or directed The Adventures of Bill Lance, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, and Dark Venture. Wilson also did his own voice work in radio in the 1930s.  He voiced Mickey Mouse in select 1938 broadcasts of The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air as well as other characters in Disney productions such as The Reluctant Dragon. He was the announcer on Strange As It Seems and Charlie Chan. After more than a decade of acting on radio, in march of 1945, he became production head of NBC Blue (aka ABC) and later was promoted to vice president. More here.

The Adventures of Bill Lance, private eye, aired in two non-consecutive runs. This detective series first aired on CBS was from April 1944 into September 1945. Wilson rebooted the series at ABC and it ran from June 1947 into January 1948, sponsored by planters peanuts. John McIntire portrayed Bill Lance in the first run, and Gerald Mohr took on the role in the second run.  Mohr  had been in the Mercury Theatre and was quite good. Wilson didn't write the scripts in that second run. A short news piece in The Winona Republican-Herald claimed that ABC hired writers specializing in criminology for the series.  Dick Joy announced both runs, with some fill in by Owen James. Adam Graham will tell you anything you want to know about it More here.

Nero Wolfe was different. That detective already existed, and Wilson just re-worked it for radio. By the time the Nero Wolfe series aired in 1950, author Rex Stout had already published 17 detective novels in the series. The radio series only ran into 1951 but the books kept coming for another 25 years.

The more famous, Donald "Don" Wilson was born on September 1st, 1900, was an American announcer and actor in radio and television. He was sometimes described as having a "Falstaffian" voice. This term is usually used to describe a fat jolly fellow who's a bit mad kind of like John Belushi. The reference is very old, it alludes to Shakespeare's character Sir John Falstaff in the play Henry IV from 1597. You can't be too debauched on the radio, so Wilson was just a bit cheeky. The reputation comes from his time as the rotund announcer and comic foil to the star of The Jack Benny Program. That reputation came from Jack Benny himself, who made Wilson the butt of numerous fat jokes. When they made the jump to television, Jack toned down the fat jokes a little.

His career has been written about much more extensively so I'll just hit the pre-Jack Benny highlights.Wilson began his radio career as a singer over Denver radio station KFEL-AM in 1923. By 1929, he was working at KFI-AM, and shortly afterwards for Don Lee at KHJ-AM, in Los Angeles. Though best known for his comedy work with Jack Benny, Wilson had a background as a sportscaster,  right before working with Benny he was actually the announcer on the George Gershwin series. Wilson first worked with Benny on his April 6, 1934 broadcast. The program ran for 30 years.

Don Wilson died April 25th, 1982 and J. Donald Wilson outlived him by 1 year and 9 months, dying on January 26th, 1984. 

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