Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Gil Stratton, Jr., Superstar

As most of you may know, I am more than just a casual aficionado of Old Time Radio. Radio drama is something you can enjoy when driving, sewing, cooking, or almost any other quiet activity. You don't lose concentration and it makes the time go by so quickly.

Radio had its own cadre of stars. There were performers who specialized in radio drama. One of those was Gil Stratton, Jr. It was a name often heard in end show credits, although on many shows, he was unbilled. 

Gil was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 2, 1922, as Stuart Gilbert Stratton, Jr. His father was known as Stu and Gil was Gil. They never used the Jr. or Sr. tags except on government documents (which Gil said he never used after he left New York). Gil took dancing, singing, and acting lessons while growing up. He worked on Broadway as a chorus dancer but on October 1, 1941, he took the lead as Cadet Bud Hooper in the stage version of Best Foot Forward. It was popular enough for Harry Cohn to buy the filming rights for Columbia Pictures. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got wind of this and paid Cohn $150,000 for the rights. MGM knew this would be a great way to showcase some of their star performers and other Hollywood notables. By the way, the old MGM studios (now the Sony Pictures Studios), despite the tag in the credits stating "Made in Hollywood USA." was actually in Culver City, a separate municipality incorporated in 1917, six miles from Hollywood. Hollywood was a sleepy community which was incorporated as a city in 1903 but annexed into Los Angeles less than a decade later. Interestingly, while MGM was always flaunted as being a part of "Hollywood," Hal Roach had his studio in Culver City about eight years before and he always said he was in Culver City "...to get away from the madness that is Hollywood."

For those who don't know this movie (when I was growing up it was one of those movies they showed on local TV stations on a weekday afternoon when they have "reality" shows today), the story is about a Pennsylvania military residential high school for boys (Winsocki Military Academy) which was to be visited by a famous beautiful Hollywood actress. In the musical play, the star was Gale Joy (a created person for the show), who was played by Rosemary Lane (1914-74), who had been in the movies, although she wasn't what you would call a superstar. Gale Joy's publicity agent tried to make a phony scandal to get his client some notice, so they snuck her into the dorm of the academy, into Cadet Bud Hooper's room (Bud was also the cadet brigade commander), which made his girlfriend jealous. It ended with a Saturday night dance. And that was the whole story. Everything works out in the end, simply because nothing happened in the first place. We were so easily entertained back then. 

In the motion picture version, since MGM was making the movie, they decided to use a real star. They wanted to get Lana Turner. But by the time they were ready to begin filming, Miss Turner was noticeably pregnant with daughter Cheryl Crane. So they got whoever they could and they got Lucille Ball. Although this phony scandal seemed like something that would happen on the I Love Lucy television show a decade later,  Miss Ball was treated with utmost dignity in the most embarrassing of situations. 

Gil Stratton was sent to California play the part of Bud Hooper, along with a few other of the original Broadway performers. But when they saw what Gil looked like they gave his role to Tommy Dix, who also came from Broadway. Tommy sang the song, "Buckle Down Winsocki," in the Broadway show as Cadet Chuck Green. MGM wanted Tommy to sing the song. They also wanted Bud to sing the song. So they made Tommy Dix play the part of Cadet Bud Hooper and Gil Stratton, Jr., played the part of Cadet Chuck Green. But the only thing Chuck really did in the Broadway production to get notice was to sing that song. So Gil was left out of the movie credits. 

But MGM had Gil under a contract so, despite not being a "star" he was going to survive pretty well. Health problems gave him a 4-F status with the draft board (Tommy Dix had the same condition which had to do with heart problems.) Gil continued as an actor in movies until 1954. His best remembered roles are Cookie in Stalag 17 (1953) and Mousie in The Wild One (1953). He worked as a television actor and as a radio actor. He was a well-natured, hard working performer. 

In 1954,  he was hired by KNXT (now KCBS-TV), the CBS owned and operated television affiliate in Los Angeles, to be its regular sportscaster. This led to regular live announcing gigs for the Los Angeles Rams (when they were playing in the Colisseum) as well as the horse racetracks, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar.

He retired in 1984, at which time he divided his time between Hawaii (where he owned a radio station) and Los Angeles (Toluca Lake). Gil died at his Toluca Lake home on October 11, 2008, from heart problems.

As for Tommy Dix, who was born Thomas Paine Brittain Pavard in New York, New York, on December 6, 1923, he struggled as an actor until he got out of the business in 1950 and joined his father-in-law's construction company in Alabama. He began using the name "Bobby Brittain." In 1959, he divorced his wife then moved to Northern Virginia (Washington DC area) where he prospered in real estate. He remarried. As of this writing he is alive and well at the age of 91.


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