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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dick Beals Thought Big

Dick Beals
The sad news came this morning via Mark Evanier's website. Richard Beals died yesterday. Born March 16, 1927, he turned what many with his dreams would have termed an insurmountable disability into a triumphant career. His autobiography is appropriately titled Think Big, and its back cover summarizes, "Was he just lucky? No. Dick believes that 'Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.' Dick prepares, and then gives life's challenges everything he has in his 4'6", 68-pound frame." He loved sports - but his size kept him off the playing field. Except that it didn't - because he adapted his role to that of cheerleader and commentator. He loved acting - but his size and eternally youthful voice would have been an impediment to most other performers. Nevertheless, he turned that voice into an asset, by daring to move to California in 1952 to try to make a living in a highly competitive field.

I quote from Think Big, page 81:

It happened on a day when a bunch of us were sitting around in the lobby of CBS.

"Hey, busy actor," [Virginia Gregg] said, grinning at me. "Which of the directors upstairs here have you met?"

"Well, none, actually," I said. "I got to see Mr. Del Valle's secretary, but she told me not to bother seeing the directors at CBS."

"Why not?" Ginny cried in disbelief.

"She said Mr. Del Valle's wife does all the kid's parts and I wouldn't stand a chance."

"She said what?" Her eyes flashed all sorts of colors. "You come with me." With that she grabbed my wrist and hauled me to the elevator. When the door opened, she yanked me in and smashed the button for floor three and tapped her foot as the elevator slowly responded. It opened and down the aisle we went. She dragged me past the first secretary into the first director's office as a startled Elliott Lewis looked up.

"Elliott, from this moment on, never use me for kid's parts, on Suspense or any of the other shows you direct. Use Dick Beals. Is that clear? He's better than I will ever be."

And without waiting for an answer, down the aisle we went to the next office and the next one and the next one. Same story. Same startled director. When we got to the last office there sat Mr. Del Valle's secretary. Ginny, followed by my wrist and then me, flew into Mr. Del Valle's office. The man behind the desk, tanned, steel-gray hair, crew cut, ex-marine type, continued reading the script on his desk. He slowly raised his arm and waved a hello.

"Jaime, listen to me for a second," she began impatiently. "This is Dick Beals. He does kid's voices. Use him. Don’t use me ever again." Silence. Long pause. "Are you listening, Jaime?"

He never looked up. "OK, dear, anything you say," he murmured. "Be talking to you soon, Dick." Silence. Longer pause. "What are we having for dinner, honey? I'll be home right after the show … 'bout 6:30."

Mission accomplished. In less than five minutes I was locked in to every CBS radio show. Shows like Suspense, Lineup, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Amos and Andy and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The last CBS radio show … Gunsmoke … went off the air six years later. God bless you, Virginia Gregg, wherever you are.

I first met him at a Friends of Old Time Radio convention in Newark a few years ago where he was appearing as one of the celebrity guests. The voice of Speedy Alka-Seltzer, both Yank and Dan of Roger Ramjet's American Eagles, and more, more, more (including roles in those CBS shows he cited) - he was a wonderful choice as a guest. I was fortunate enough (Thanks, Anthony Tollin!) to appear in a Superman re-creation as Lois Lane, interacting with Beals as Jimmy Olsen - which meant I saw at first-hand how unfailingly professional and supportive he was, whether working with professionals or amateurs. He remains an example for us all of how to triumph over challenges.

Think Big, folks! He did.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Barnaby May Be the Best Comic Strip You've Never Seen. Until Now.

Free Comic Book Day 2012 was terrific, and I made my customary run to Madison, Wis., to visit the comics shops there, checking out the FCBD offerings and comparing this event to those of years past. (I even began with the "in memoriam" drive-by of what had seemed to be a busy suburban comics shop north of the city - disappeared between one FCBD and the next three or four years ago.) The shops on my route (as I travel west to east) are: Westfield Comics, 7475 Mineral Point Road; Capital City Comics, 1910 Monroe Street; and Westfield Comics, 944 Williamson Street. And, frankly, it's a route I recommend, with each shop offering a different "feel." Each, too, this year was experiencing an even higher community participation, with shoppers young and old happily enjoying the annual celebration. I'll eventually revisit the event as I plow through the FCBD handouts (not to mention my purchases - because it's all about finding the treats in plain view in today's shops). But at the moment, I want to single out something you may have passed by. Just. In. Case.

Over the years, I hear many things, lots of behind-the-scenes news, gossip, comments, etc. Often, I'm asked to keep things quiet. "I know you'll be excited to hear this, Maggie, but don't tell anyone." So sometimes I actually push the information as much as possible out of my memory so I don't accidentally mention something that isn't to be common knowledge. And so it was that I exclaimed with surprise as well as delight to see the Free Comic Book Day release from Fantagraphics: a hint of the volumes to come that will provide the world at last with The Complete Barnaby. I'd been told about the project last year but it was with the request that I keep it quiet - and told that putting together the collections was complex and could take quite a while. But here it is! With the first volume due this summer!

Yet at each shop, as I waved the introductory booklet at people, I was met with friend after friend who hadn't heard of the strip. I hope that, by the end of FCBD, at least a few people have begun to anticipate the release of the first collection. Cushlamochree!

"Crockett Johnson" was the penname of the brilliant David Leisk (1906-1975). His ongoing legacy is (or was until now) the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, and he also illustrated a number of other children's books, four of them written by his wife, Ruth Krauss. Those tended to feature characters slightly younger than Barnaby, whom he introduced as a daily-newspaper character in 1942. The concept of the strip was simple: Barnaby is a little boy who wishes for a fairy godmother; what he gets is Mr. O'Malley, a winged, cigar-chomping character who is never seen by Barnaby's mother or father or other adult. Not that Mr. O'Malley is invisible; coincidence simply continues to complicate Barnaby's life, as adults think he has imagined the ever-increasing fantasy elements of his life.

There have been a few earlier attempts to bring the characters into wider circulation. There were two book collections (1943 and 1944, with at least some of the strips redrawn for the presentation), a Barnaby Quarterly magazine in the mid-1940s, and several mass-market paperbacks from Ballantine in the mid-1980s (with strips reproduced so small the text is occasionally hard to make out) that tend to be pricey, when you can find them. Are they fun for kids? Well, for years as I was growing up, I read and reread one of the copies of the Quarterly - and, even though I had no idea there was something called "hoarding" during World War II, I loved what I read. Part of which you'll find in the Fantagraphics sampling. Check it out. I can hardly wait for the completed Volume One.


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