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Old-time radio, 8 August: The mighty Thor

Not even his brilliance as "Broadway is My Beat"'s Danny Clover helped Larry Thor sustain broadcast and film roles beyond playing the announcer he usually was . . .
CBS

Larry Thor’s resonant performance as Det. Danny Clover in Broadway is My Beat was an exception, not a rule in his long career, mostly because he was rarely allowed---whether in radio, on television, or in films---to escape his first radio profession, as an announcer.

Thor proved his acting chops as Clover, but he was employed customarily as an actual announcer or to portray one after Broadway is My Beat ended. This was somewhat unfair to a man who personified one of old time radio’s very few genuinely realistic police leads.

Born Arnleifur Lawrence Thorsteinson of Icelandic stock in Manitoba in 1916, Thor entered radio in 1937 when he found no work in the local mines, working at various Canadian stations before migrating to Los Angeles in 1946. There, stations KFAC and KNX engaged him, the latter assigning him to announcing such programs as Tomorrow’s Calling and It’s Fun to Be Young, before earning his first high-profile job on Rocky Jordan.

A resurrection of the earlier A Man Named Jordan, the show starred Jack Moyles as a cafe owner in Egypt (the earlier offering set it in Istanbul) who stumbled into intrigue and butted heads often enough with Jay Novello as police lieutenant Sam Sabaaya. One of the first realistic crime dramas radio offered, Rocky Jordan‘s grittiness was enhanced by Thor’s announcing style. It may have helped push him toward announcing such like-minded series as Young Love, Pursuit, and The Green Lama, not to mention getting him occasional news broadcasting gigs on CBS, ABC, and Mutual.

Thor would become so identified with Broadway is My Beat that it would be forgotten readily enough, by enough old-time radio fans, that he didn’t originate Danny Clover. Created and premiered in New York, the show wasn’t three months old when CBS elected to move its production to Hollywood but the series’ original lead, Anthony Ross, chose not to move with it.

There, in a delicious irony, a native New Yorker named Elliott Lewis—a longtime denizen of the West Coast’s legendary Radio Row group of performers, writers, and directors, a familiar figure to listeners of such shows as Suspense, Escape, and The Whistler before making a career turn as wastrel Frank Remley on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show—was handed Broadway is My Beat as his first significant directing opportunity. Hiring Thor to play Clover was merely his masterstroke.

As Lewis steered Broadway is My Beat to reflect precisely the noisy, busy New York he knew too well, Thor gave Danny Clover both the unpretentiousness of the cop who’s barely avoided jadedness and the easy manner of a man who knew too well where he worked and strove to see and understand the nuances hidden in the grit, the noise, and the human fallacy.

Another actor might have taken Broadway is My Beat‘s conscious aim at poetic metaphor (John Dunning’s phrase) and made a ludicrous self-parody of it. Thor’s effort to avoid “acting” is all over the show (though you could hear him pressing himself to avoid “announcing” in his early episodes), made it seamless and natural. Right through the show’s end, when he repeated the introductory tag line (“It’s Broadway, from Times Square to Grand Central, the gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world”) as a lead-in to the aching closing theme, a piano-led take of “I’ll Take Manhattan” that might have been the single most hopelessly poignant closing theme in radio.

But CBS could never make up its mind about Broadway is My Beat, even after the show moved west and its sterling cast and writing (Morton Fine and David Friedkin, who did move west with the show) solidified. From its February 1949 premiere to its August 1954 finale, the show found neither a steady sponsor (in fairness, it was born and hit real stride when sponsors began gravitating toward television) nor a consistent time slot from which to solidify the audience it deserved, except for Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. September 1951-May 1952, and Saturday night at seven run from October 1952-October 1953.

Before Broadway is My Beat ended, Thor found other radio work including a turn as one of Suspense‘s announcers between 1951 and 1956. Lewis thought well enough of Thor to use him on other radio properties over which he had some control, including Crime Classics and, especially, the dramatic anthology Lewis created with his then-wife Cathy Lewis, On Stage.

Thor also wandered into television and film, most memorably as an announcer in The Pride of St. Louis (the film bio of baseball legend Dizzy Dean—himself making a post-pitching career as a baseball announcer) and, in due course, The Amazing Colossal Man. (Thor played the Army doctor.) He would turn up in guest shots on such television series as M Squad, Leave it to Beaver, Rawhide, Perry Mason, The Andy Griffith Show, I Spy, and Hazel, not to mention a five-episode run as Jim Hendricks in Mr. Novak. (He even had a guest role in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.–as an announcer, in an episode called “The Thor Affair,” of all things.)

In time, Thor played a small part as a major general in Tora! Tora! Tora!–in the same year he voiced Tock the Watchdog in the animated The Phantom Tollbooth, a film that proved an old-time radio reunion of sorts, since the voices included those of Mel Blanc, June Foray, Hans Conreid, Shepard Mencken, Les Tremayne, Daws Butler, and Candy Candido.

Thor died at 59 in 1976, survived by his wife and three sons. It would take future generations of old-time radio collectors to remember him permanently in his signature role on a crime drama that should have been considered Dragnet‘s equal, and occasional superior, for realistic radio drama.

TUNE IN TODAY:

Broadway is My Beat: The Hilda Bruce Murder Case (CBS, 1953)

She’s a divorcee whose shocked teenage son (George Peroni) says he came home to find her dead on the kitchen floor; whose neighbour tells Clover (Larry Thor) she saw a man flee the Bruces’ apartment building; and, whose former husband (Sheldon Leonard), a struggling, hard-drinking appliance repairman, struggles with his lingering, unexpressable love for the former wife who finally tired of seeing him again a few months earlier.

Muggavan: Jack Kruschen. Additional cast: Martha Wentworth, Lawrence Dobkin. Announcer: Bill Anders. Music: Alexander Courage. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writers: David Friedkin, Morton Fine.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Lum & Abner: Tiring of High Society (Serial comedy; NBC Blue, 1935)
Vic & Sade: Russell’s in Charge of Howard (Comedy; NBC, 1944)
Suspense: Dead Ernest (Mystery/thriller; CBS, 1946)
Gunsmoke: Sky Rehearsal (Western; CBS, 1953)

The Couple Next Door: Brownie Bites a Policeman (Comedy; CBS, 1958)