Here's an interview I conducted with OTRR member Joe Webb about the show, Casey, Crime Photographer:
OTR BUFFET: First of all, thanks so much for joining me and doing the interview. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into OTR.
JOE WEBB: I started when I was 16, and here I am 39 years later having more fun in the hobby than I ever have before. The convenience of digital technology compared to the way we were collecting on reels is just incredible. When I'm not having fun with OTR, I'm a management consultant and a business columnist. Most of my work for the last 30+ years has been in the printing industry, and I'm now writing about the economy in a national business news website at CEONews.com.
OTR BUFFET: How did you get into Casey, Crime Photographer?
JOE WEBB: One of the books I got from the town library decades ago was “Radio's Golden Age” by Frank Buxton and Bill Owen, which would later be released as a revised edition as “The Big Broadcast.” It listed shows and casts and some brief background on each series. Since I was collecting on cassettes at that time, I got the catalog of a company called “Old Time Radio” in Allentown, PA, and they had two cassettes with four shows of the series. I liked them, and bought another cassette from a department store of two more shows. That cassette was from a company called Pastime Products, in Texas. Perhaps some other collectors remember those companies. Then, I got hold of a catalog from a company called Remember Radio, run by legendary OTR collector Don Maris, and he had a whole reel of shows. I got a friend who had a reel-to-reel to transfer those 12 shows to cassette for me. I eventually bought my own reel decks, and had about 3000 reels at one time. But for years, there were only about 18 shows circulating. In 1979, a load of Anchor Hocking shows came out, and suddenly Casey fans had about 50 or so shows. Since then, we gotten a few more, but considering how long it was on the air, the 75+ shows circulating is a relatively tiny proportion of the series.
OTR BUFFET: The show name seemed to change often. By my count it was known by at least three different titles. Can you expound on that at all?
JOE WEBB: I think they were just trying to figure out what would work. The “Flashgun Casey, Press Photographer” was more related to the title of the character in the pulp magazine Black Mask. Then it became “Casey, Press Photographer.” I suspect Alonzo Deen Cole inspired that when he took over the writing a few weeks into the series when they stopped referring to the character as “Flashgun” and always as “Casey.” Then the show was “Crime Photographer,” and then “Casey, Crime Photographer,” and then back to “Crime Photographer.” I have had some transcription discs of the series over the years and it's usually been just “Crime Photographer” on the label. It doesn't really matter much, does it? The characters all stayed basically the same, and it was usually called “Casey, Crime Photographer” by most listeners at that time. Collectors call it that, too, and everyone knows what series they're referring to no matter what part of the run might be being discussed.
OTR BUFFET: What are your overall impressions of the show?
JOE WEBB: The show is inconsistent, with some really good episodes, and some real clunkers. The main attraction is the interplay of the cast. They worked quite well together. The really bad run of the series is when Toni was the sponsor starting in mid-1948. Anchor Hocking decided that sponsoring the show for two years did not give them the desired increase in sales. Toni came in at the last minute and they decided to focus the show more to a female audience, and cut back on some of the action in it. It was a disaster. The show “Holiday” is the better of the circulating shows in this run, but most of it is rather disappointing. It got back on track when Philip Morris picked up the sponsorship and the usual plotlines returned.
The interplay of the characters is what keeps me interested in the series. Casey and Ann is always fun with its occasional playful romantic tension, Casey's bullheadedness and embarrassments, Logan's gruffness, and of course, Ethelbert the bartender's malapropisms and observations about life.
The Anchor Hocking shows are truly an example of what a big network Golden Age show was like at its peak, with a full orchestra, a well-known sponsor, and a live audience. It would be just a few years later when we would get prerecorded musical bridges and multiple sponsorships or no sponsor at all, and no audience. It was also one of the better evening network detective shows to be done in New York.
OTR BUFFET: Do you know how did they get the idea of using a crime photographer as the main character of a show?
JOE WEBB: It was pulp writer George Harmon Coxe who came up with the idea for the short stories that appeared in Black Mask magazine. It was common to adapt pulp characters to radio, the Shadow being the most obvious example. It seems that one of the editors at Black Mask added “Flashgun” to the name.
OTR BUFFET: I truly do not remember Casey every photographing anything. I'm sure he did but it seems like there was little photographing going on. Am I mistaken?
JOE WEBB: You are. It's one of the first things that he does when he gets to a scene in many episodes, but it's rarely a factor in the story. With a title like “Crime Photographer” you'd expect some kind of great revelation in developing the crime scene films, almost like in the famous Jimmy Stewart film Call Northside 777 except it would be happening every week. But having Casey be a crime photographer is basically just a device that allows an amateur detective to have access to crime scenes that the police always seem to incompetent or too hand-tied to solve on their own.
OTR BUFFET: Is the Casey character based on a real life crime photographer?
JOE WEBB: The book by Randy Cox and Dave Siegel, the most comprehensive about the Casey character and radio series, explains that Coxe's newspaper experience exposed him to the details of reporters and photographers. He felt reporters were always getting all the attention and that it might be interesting to use a photographer as a central figure in some of his writing.
OTR BUFFET: How important is the Blue Note Cafe to the show?
JOE WEBB: I never thought much about it, but in reading about the series, it's quite clear that it had quite an effect. From the show's perspective, it became a gathering place for the characters to explain facts about the crime or to tie up some loose ends. During the show it was used to move the action along or reveal a clue. But it inspired many restaurants to adopt the name. One thing I've found quite interesting was that budding jazz pianists used to listen just to hear Herman Chittison play. Early in the series, the pianist had a speaking role, as can be heard in “Clue in the Clouds,” but it would later be just for background music. If you carefully listen to the music, you can hear why pianists would be impressed by Chittison's playing, and also the fact that he had a regular gig on a popular network show.
OTR BUFFET: I think one of radio's greatest characters is on this show and I'm talking of course about Ethelbert, who was played by John Gibson. Gibson was everywhere in the Golden Age of Radio. Would you talk about Gibson and his role of Ethelbert?
JOE WEBB: Gibson was actually on the show longer than Staats Cotsworth. He was a marvelous talent, especially in playing someone as clueless as Ethelbert was supposed to be. People can see him in one of the more popular Honeymooners episodes, “The Golfer,” and in three others, uncredited, as a Raccoon Lodge member. For as clueless as Ethelbert was, some plots revolve around him making some corny crack at mid-show that gives Casey an idea that solves the case. And of course, many of the shows end with Ethelbert relating one of his sister Edna's life-illuminating maxims. Ethelbert gets to try his hand at detecting in one of the Toni-sponsored shows, “Scene of the Crime,” and realizes it's better to be a bartender.
OTR BUFFET: Were crime photographers big during the 40s? Nowadays they seem nonexistent.
JOE WEBB: They were really needed then, but we have TV crews now and handheld video. Most reporters today are responsible for taking their own pictures with digital cameras or even with their iPhones. Back in the 1940s, when the show took place, you had to lug around a lot of equipment, and know a great deal about how to expose and process film, and especially lighting. The crime photographer at that time could not choose the conditions under which they could shoot their pictures. They didn't have the luxury of people dying in photographer studios with proper lighting. They had to assess the crime site, the lighting, and the angles, very quickly, without impeding the police. The difficulty of their jobs was probably unappreciated at the time, which is probably why Casey was always complaining about money.
OTR BUFFET: Do you have any cool Casey trivia? Anything else you'd like to add?
JOE WEBB: The original choice for the part was Frank Lovejoy, but he decided to work on a Broadway-bound play instead. The play was “The Snark was a Boojum,” and rehearsals were in Cape Cod and previews in Boston. When it finally opened on Broadway in the Fall of 1943, it was so bad it closed after four or five performances. But we'd later hear Lovejoy as a reporter on Night Beat, of course. But eventually, Staats Cotsworth would get the part, and he was perfect.
The continuity of the series can be a bit haphazard. In some shows, the wide age difference between Casey and reporter Ann Williams is noted, and other times, it's implied it's just a few years. The show is supposed to be in Boston, but over the episodes, there are more references to New York City.
The only thing I have to add is that if someone has never heard the series before, listen to some of the early Anchor Hocking shows from 1947. Be sure to avoid the shows “Great Grandfather's Rent Receipt,” “Mysterious Lodger,” “Woman of Mystery,” “Thunderbolt,” and most of the Toni-sponsored run, though I did mention two earlier that are just okay from that series. The rest are generally fine. “Demon Miner” was originally a Shadow script written by Cole, but Blue Coal rejected it because the crimes occurred in a coal mine. Cole adapted it to Casey quite well, but it doesn't have the same feel as the other shows. It does end up being one of the better episodes, however. But perhaps I feel that way because it was the first episode I ever heard.
OTR BUFFET: Awesome stuff, Joe! Thanks for the interview.