Continued from Part One
The Accidental Detective
Bob Bailey’s big break came in a most unexpected way. He recorded multiple auditions for the Don Lee Mutual Network and station Lost Angeles radion station KHJ for a series called Let George Do It, a comedy in which he played an ex-GI turned private detective named George Valentine whose hasty mouth gets him, his secretary Brooksie (Frances Robinson), and her brother Sonny (fellow Chicago radio alum Eddie Firestone). Bailey recorded three different auditions in the Spring of 1946, and the series went to air in the Fall of that Year.
Depending on the episode, program quality varied greatly, somewhere between bad and slightly above average. While the comedy was a mixed bag, Bailey did a good job when getting a few moments to play the detective role in a more straightforward manner, as happened in the episode “The Robber.” The network decided to junk the sitcom angle but keep Bailey and Robinson and turn the show into a straight mystery detective program with a few humorous touches here and there.
For years, it’s been a mystery to fans as to when exactly the show changed its tone. There’s a large gap in circulating recordings between the last available sitcom episode (November 29, 1946) and the next available episode, by which time the show had shifted to a detective mystery format (October 3, 1947). However, signs point to the change happening in late 1946, as seen in Press descriptions. For the launch of the series on September 20, 1946, the Valley Times referred to Let George Do It as a comedy based on the “misadventures of an overzealous ex-GI.” In the Hollywood Citizen News for December 6, 1946, a picture of Frances Robinson appears and says, “Frances Robinson, who played the secretary-helper role to various radio detectives, now aids Bob Bailey in KHJ’s Let George Do it.”
While I might be reading into it, the difference is striking. The September piece emphasized the show as a comedy without a whiff of mystery, while the December picture emphasized the show as a mystery with no indication of comedy. That indicated the network was getting ready to transform Let George Do It. The show’s initial comedic form annoys many fans. Yet the show’s original format may have been one of the most serendipitous moments in the Golden Age of Radio. Had the show begun as the sort of detective drama it became, there’s no way Bob Bailey would have been cast. Nothing in his career of soap operas, comedies, and light dramas would have made him a likely casting choice for a radio private eye. If not for the original format, we not only don’t hear Bob Bailey as George Valentine but he would have been cast as Johnny Dollar, either.
Thankfully, things worked out as they did, and the series became a hit. Lou Larkin writing in the Los Angeles Daily Mirror in 1950, declared, “The airlines are swarming with mystery programs, but a neatly tied little radio package called, “Let George Do It” aired over KHJ, gets the heaviest listenership of all on the West Coast.”
Bob Bailey became a Los Angeles area minor celebrity with his family vacation to Lake Mead becoming a news item. Bailey played George Valentine for seven consecutive seasons, which was unprecedented for a West Coast-based detective program. John Abbott found an issue of Radio Life Magazine on May 4, 1947 with an item that referenced Bob Bailey appearing on the cover. (Although the cover itself is missing from every copy of that issue that Abbott has found.)
After Let George Do It started, Bailey got the starring role in a daytime serial called Bob and Victoria, in which he played a man who raised his best friend’s eleven-year-old daughter after his friend died in an accident. The series only ran for five months. He also had a major role in The Story of Holly Sloan, which aired during the 1947-48 radio season. In his Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, John Dunning also indicates that Bailey had a recurring role in the long-running daytime soap Aunt Mary. Just as was the case with Bailey’s Chicago performances and recordings, only one verifiable recording from Bailey’s soap opera appearances is available. (This is sold by Radio Spirits.)
Meanwhile, Bailey settled into becoming an active pillar of the local community. The memorial for his grave by Lowell Thurgood describes Bailey as having a very active life in the community as Chairman of the local American Red Cross and the Boys and Girls Club as well as being a regular parishioner at the Presbyterian Church.
In addition to this, you would have expected him to be in demand in the same way that emerging stars like Jack Webb and Howard Duff were. However, that’s not what happened. In fact, after 1947, the number of circulating guest appearances for Bailey dwindled for many years, and those that he got played into the sort of light comedy background that he’d brought from Chicago or random short cameos. For my money, the best thing he did outside of detective programs was a 1949 Screen Director’s Assignment version of, The Perfect Marriage. While it is typical of the sort of light comedy, Bailey did a lot of, The Perfect Marriage was adapted from a movie script that starred David Niven and gave Bailey pretty good material to work with.
Bailey ran into frustration in his efforts to appear on the small screen. According to his daughter, Roberta Goodwin, there was a proposal made to bring Let George Do It television profgram. Some footage for the pilot was shot. However, filming for the pilot didn’t finish. The product team had seen enough. Despite his success on the radio, he didn’t look the part.
The superficial judgment of 1950s Television producers would be important to Bailey’s future because the Golden Age of Radio was headed toward its twilight years. While Bailey’s Private Detective George Valentine outlasted legendary radio sleuths like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and the Fat Man, he couldn’t go on forever. Bailey’s career would need a new direction.
This series continues in Part Three…
Next time: A new chapter, Howard Hughes takes a hand, an undersea disaster, and the greatest work of Bailey’s career.