By Ivan G Shreve Jr
Fifty-nine years ago on this date, a western — that old-time radio historian John Dunning once described (in Tune in Yesterday) as “the only serious rival to Gunsmoke in the radio Hall of Fame” — premiered over the Columbia Broadcasting System. Frontier Gentleman, created by Antony Ellis, was a Western adventure drama featuring rich and detailed character studies…all of which were filtered through the series’ main character: Jeremy Brian (J.B.) Kendall. A reporter for The London Times, Kendall roamed the territories out West in search of stories to submit to his publication on the other side of the pond.
Antony “Tony” Ellis was himself an Englishman who became a naturalized American citizen, and whose radio resume included some of the most prestigious programs the airwaves had to offer. He began his show business career as an actor, and then found that he had a flair for writing—which he used to contribute and adapt scripts for Gunsmoke, Romance, Suspense, Escape and Pursuit. It was on this latter series that he started to exercise his directorial muscles, and he later took the rudder on Escape and The CBS Radio Workshop as well. Ellis successfully transitioned into movies (one of his Gunsmoke scripts, “The Ride Back,” was fashioned into a 1957 Western starring William Conrad and Anthony Quinn) and TV (he wrote and produced the boob tube oater Black Saddle). But, his life was cut tragically short in 1967 with his passing, at age 47, from cancer.
There were a number of reasons why Frontier Gentleman was one of the true delights in the waning days of radio, and chief among them was the casting of character veteran John Dehner in the title role of Kendall. Dehner had actually been considered for the lead in both Gunsmoke and Fort Laramie (he would eventually appear frequently in guest parts in both venues), but turned them down because he felt it would typecast him in Westerns. Fortunately for radio fans old and new, he said “yes” to Kendall and played the wandering English journalist to perfection. (An audition record with Ben Wright as Kendall, however, also exists.) Though Frontier Gentleman primarily featured Kendall as an observer, listeners were not robbed of learning a few details about J.B.’s background. He was a principled individual with a passion for justice, and yet easy-going enough to possess a wry sense of humor, even enjoying it when he was the center of the joke. Throughout the series’ run, he encountered outlaws, gamblers and other colorful individuals doing whatever they could to survive the challenges of the frontier.
Joining Dehner on Gentleman was a repertory company of radio’s finest performers: actress Virginia Gregg was a semi-regular, with the versatility to play a Chinese slave girl one week (in the classic “Gentle Virtue”) and a prim schoolmarm the next. Jeanette Nolan made the rounds on the show, as did Jeanne Bates Lansworth—Lansworth, in fact, appeared on several broadcasts as Madame Verdi (an alias for Confederate spy Belle Siddons). Jack Kruschen, Barney Phillips, Harry Bartell, Joseph Kearns and Lawrence Dobkin are just a few of the many other talents who appeared on Gentleman…as well as three actors billed as Richard Perkins, Ray Woods and Waldo Epperson. (If these names don’t ring a bell, it might be because they were pseudonyms for Vic Perrin, Ralph Moody and Parley Baer, respectively.)
Tom Hanley and Bill James, the two men who did Gunsmoke and Fort Laramie’s “sound patterns,” also worked on Frontier Gentleman, providing an unsurpassed level of excellence to the sound effects that added to the realism of the series. An outstanding example of their work can be heard on “Justice of the Peace” (available on the Radio Spirits collection Life and Death), in which the work of a lynch mob is chillingly conveyed through the sounds of a horse being slapped, hoof beats…and then a short silence, followed by the creak of a twisting rope and faint background noise of clucking chickens. Composer Jerry Goldsmith, who would later provide music for movies and television (notably the theme for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), contributed a haunting trumpet theme once described by OTR historian Stewart Wright as “a slightly premature ‘Taps’ for the American Golden Age of Radio.”
Perhaps it was a prelude for the demise of Frontier Gentleman. Sadly, the series had a short run over CBS, with the show concluding on November 16, 1958. Star Dehner didn’t stay inactive too long; he began his two-year stint as Paladin on the radio version of Have Gun – Will Travel the following week. Still, one wishes The Powers That Be had been patient with Gentleman a little longer. All forty-one episodes of the series have survived, however, and are responsible for introducing a new generation of fans to one of the medium’s exceptional programs. You owe it to yourself to make the acquaintance of what John Dunning succinctly summed up as “a lovely piece of radio.”
Copyright 2014 Ivan G Shreve Jr and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.