Sun 8 Mar 2015
RADIO SERIES: NBC. 4 July to 19 September 1951; 30 minutes. Cast: Jack Webb as Pete Kelly, Meredith Howard as Maggie Jackson. Pete Kelly’s Big 7: Dick Cathcart, Matty Matlock, Moe Schneider, Ray Schneider, Bill Newman, Marty Carb and Nick Fatool. Announcer: George Fenneman. Created by Richard Breen. Writers: James Moser and Jo Eisinger.
TV SERIES: NBC / Mark VII Ltd., 1959; 30 minutes. Cast: William Reynolds as Pete Kelly, Connee Boswell as Savannah Brown, Than Wyenn as George Lupo, and Phil Gordon as Fred. Music by Dick Cathcart. Additional Music by Matty Matlock, Gus Levene and Frank Comstock. Produced and directed by Jack Webb.
Pete Kelly was born from Jack Webb’s love of jazz and survives because of the music. Pete Kelley’s Blues began as a summer replacement series on radio in 1951 (On The Air – the Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning (Oxford University Press, 1998. The radio series lasted just thirteen episodes but that was not the end for Pete Kelly.
There was a film, a television series and the music. Besides the more famous film’s soundtrack there was music released from both the radio and TV series. Capitol Records released music from the radio series featuring Pete Kelly’s Big 7 led by Dick Cathcart with singer “Maggie Jackson,” including the song “Funny Man” (1951). An on the air credit announced the TV series music was available from Warner Brothers and featured the sounds of “Pete Kelly’s Big 7” (Dick Cathcart, Eddie Miller, Jud De Naut, George Van Eps, Moe Schneider, Nick Fatool and Ray Sherman).
While the TV series had been planned to follow the radio series (more on that later), it would have to wait until 1959 when it aired on NBC as a summer series that lasted only 13 episodes.
Both the radio series and the TV series focused on the daily struggles of Pete Kelly, a cornet player and leader of a Dixieland jazz band called Pete Kelly’s Big 7. All Pete wanted was to avoid trouble and play his music but it was the 1920s in Mob-run Kansas City, and even accepting the corruption was not enough to keep Pete out of trouble.
Surviving TV episodes are a rare find. Thanks to the collector’s market I found one episode of the TV series, “Poor Butterfly Story.”
“Poor Butterfly Story.” Teleplay by Jack Webb. Based on Radio Play by Jo Eisinger. Produced and Directed by Jack Webb. Guest Cast: Whitney Blake, John Hudson, and Marshall Kent. *** Pete finds himself trapped, surrounded by a deadly romantic triangle involving Matty his record producer, Matty’s ex-wife Zelda and Zelda’s new husband gangster Johnny Angel.
Zelda begs Pete to help her get a record back from Matty. The record featured the Pete Kelly’s Big 7 performing “Poor Butterfly.” Matty and Angel are not happy about Pete getting involved. Pete is not happy about his involvement either, especially when finding that record becomes a matter of life or death — his.
While I have been unable to find any TV episode of Pete Kelly’s Blues available online to watch, the radio version is available. It was common during the fifties for TV series based on radio series to reuse the radio scripts. The TV episode “Poor Butterfly Story” was a remake of the radio episode “Zelda” that aired originally September 5, 1951 on NBC. The Great Detectives website has all six of the known surviving episodes of the radio series. Click on the link and scroll down for the episode “Zelda.”
The story and most of the dialog from the radio show remained the same in the TV version. Different songs were used but in the same style, with Dixieland for Pete Kelly and the blues for Maggie Jackson (in radio and film) and Savannah Brown (in television). The most noticeable difference was changes in two characters. Pete’s friend “across the river” blues singer Maggie Jackson (on radio and film) got a new name Savannah Brown in the TV series. Pete’s other friend, the failed bootlegger and loquacious drunk Barney in the radio series was replaced by the band’s piano player, a Southern with a folksy sense of humor, named Fred.
I preferred the radio version mainly because of the cast. Webb was the better Pete Kelly. When Angel confronts Kelly about Zelda, Webb’s voice in the radio version ranges in emotion from fear to anger while in the TV versions Reynolds failed to show those emotions. Known best for his role in The F.B.I (1965) as Special Agent Colby (1966-74), William Reynolds was a bland actor at best. Webb was visually limited in range as an actor, but his voice talent was among the best in radio.
Webb’s former high school classmate, Meredith Howard as radio’s Maggie had the voice and acting ability to make you believe she lived on “the other side of the river” (the black side). Ella Fitzgerald made the character of Maggie her own in the film. Connee Boswell as Savannah had the voice but being white and shot in the pre-Elvis TV style (where the singer stands stiff and still as he or she sings) ruined the character. But it did allow Southern NBC stations to carry the series.
According to TV Tango, TVGuide.com and IMDb the TV episode aired April 26, 1959, Sunday at 8:30pm. There is some confusion over dates the show aired. The NBC series premiere date is uncertain. Broadcasting (April 6, 1959) and Billboard (March 30,1959) claim Pete Kelly’s Blues premiered on Tuesday March 31, 1959 at 8-8:30pm. Yet today’s databases and books give the premiere date as Sunday April 5, 1959 at 8:30pm. IMDb has the skill to disagree with itself. The database gives March 31, 1959 as release date for TV series but the episode index list April 5, 1959 as the premiere’s airdate.
Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh (Ballantine, Ninth Edition) claim the series debuted April 5, 1959 and aired on Sunday until July when it move to Friday at 7:30 pm until its final broadcast September 4, 1959. The episodes on Friday were probably reruns as the series lasted just thirteen episodes. TVTango.com agree with the Sunday and Friday time slots.
It took jazz fan Jack Webb several years to get the TV series on the air. While the radio series aired first, there were plans for a TV series from nearly the beginning. In Broadcasting (December 22, 1952), details of the proposed TV version of Pete Kelly’s Blues was reported with shooting to begin in June 1953 and Webb as director, Stan Meyer as executive producer and Michael Meshekoff as producer. There was no mention of the cast.
In July 13, 1953 Broadcasting, during a report about Dragnet starting syndication in the fall under the title The Cop (that would be later changed to Badge 714), the article mentions Webb’s plans to do a Pete Kelly’s Blues TV series in color with Webb as star.
According to Hedda Hopper (Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1954), Webb had originally planned to follow the radio series with a TV series version, but “instead of which he’ll make it into a movie, playing the title role, a trumpet player.”
Plans to make a TV series continued as the film version played in the theatres (Broadcasting, March, 28, 1955). Billboard (May 27,1957) reported Jack Webb and ABC were in talks for a Pete Kelly’s Blues weekly TV series with sixty-minute episodes.
The December 16,1957 issue of Billboard claimed Bob Crosby was being considered for the part of Pete Kelly in the possible TV series. A few months later Broadcasting (February 17, 1958) noted that Bob Crosby would not star due to commitments he had with CBS. A new lead was been sought. The magazine added that Webb would supervise production with Harper Goff as producer and George Stevens Jr. and Joseph Parker also involved in production. Plans were to start shooting in May.
In a Chicago Tribune (April 30, 1961) interview Webb said he thought the failure of the TV series was in part due to timing. He believed airing Pete Kelly’s Blues at the end of the season rather the beginning hurt and regretted it aired only a year or so before interest in the 20s music, fashion, and crime would explode among the public.
I doubt timing was the problem. The more entertaining ABC’s Roaring 20s (1960) had the timing but lasted only a season and a half. The real problem with both the radio and television series was with the protagonist Pete Kelly, who lacked the qualities of the type of hero the audience at the time wanted. Joe Friday would have disapproved of Pete Kelly. I think the audience did as well.
Editorial Comment: The video clip obviously comes from the movie version of Pete Kelly’s Blues, and more than likely the two photo images do, too. I apologize for that, but I thought it was more important to give you an idea of what the radio and TV series were like, in spite of the bit of inaccuracy involved.