Mickey Rooney’s newspaper days — on radio

Mickey Rooney stillMickey Rooney, who died Sunday at 93, was most famous for playing scrappy, funny and musical young men in the 1930s and ’40s. His starring role in this spring 1948 radio drama didn’t have any “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” musical numbers, but it put his tough city kid persona in a memorable newspaper title role, as “Shorty Bell, Cub Reporter” (first episode, MP3).

The series didn’t take off, perhaps suffering from part of the post-war career lull Variety mentioned in Rooney’s obituary: “The very qualities that had made him an appealing child star now began to grate. His energetic cockiness seemed forced and egotistical in an adult.” The series began at the end of March and was replaced by a musical variety series in July, but a few sample episodes have made it into collectors’ archives online.

That energy and cockiness were certainly characteristics that suited Shorty Bell, a World War II vet convinced that he has printer’s ink in his blood. But Rooney’s charm and self-effacing sense of humor come through too.

Shorty’s father, the character tells us, was a Linotype operator, and from him the young man inherited a passion for the news and a dedication to his father’s paper, which he delivered as a boy before going off to war. However, at the series’ start, the closest he has come to the newsroom is the driver’s seat of a newspaper delivery truck.

In this premiere he wangles a brief interview with his hero the editor, Don Robard, played by John Hoyt, which turns out to be a job-hunter’s nightmare. But he sums up his attitude in a sentence, “I’ll keep coming back.”

Shorty may not have news training and his “nose for news” needs some refining, but he has a classic naive enthusiasm for the news business — a characteristic popular in fiction, if not in all newsrooms. Richard Harding Davis wrote about it a half century earlier in “The Reporter Who Made Himself King“:

“Now, you cannot pay a good reporter for what he does, because he does not work for pay. He works for his paper. He gives his time, his health, his brains, his sleeping hours, and his eating hours, and sometimes his life, to get news for it. He thinks the sun rises only that men may have light by which to read it.”

Although there are only a few episodes in the Internet Archive radio collection, I think “Shorty Bell” is worth a listen. I’ve started an overview page about the series here, and will be back with quotes and discussion of other episodes.

This opening episode, dated March 28, 1948, is described by the announcer as a “premiere” and in some radio archives is labeled “aud” for “audition.” There is no studio audience, unlike the later episodes. The program is to be a “continuing novel written especially for radio…” and, as that suggests, the first-episode ending is a cliff-hanger, with Shorty’s hope for a reporting position hanging in the balance. Unfortunately, the available episodes do not include the second one, although it’s obvious from the later episodes that Shorty did land his job as a cub reporter, along with taking some night school classes.

According to the Buffalo Courier-Express for March 28, 1948, the program was conceived as a continuing “novel for radio,” to be written by two Hollywood writers who were former newspapermen, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and Richard Carroll. Brennan also had written Rooney’s film “Killer McCoy.”

Critics’ opinions of the debut were mixed. Seymour Peck of the New York tabloid “PM” was caustic:

“It was, in fact, a little shocking to have a highly touted radio show make its debut parading an utterly trite, uninteresting situation and a trite, lifeless set of characters. There wasn’t a surprise anywhere in the half hour…. Only Mickey, selling his own lively personality, giving vitality and warmth to a very deficient script, made the show tolerable.”

The episodes dated as being broadcast in June 1948 abandoned the cliff-hanger format and the original writers. Each broadcast presented a full story in a half-hour, with more attempts at comedy, although they do carry through the theme of Shorty learning his way around the newspaper job. They also have live-audience reactions, including loud laughter that sometimes seems to be prompted by things the audience saw, not heard.

While there are only four downloadable files at the Internet Archive’s “Shorty Bell Cub Reporter” page online, the computer file names and actual program names have been swapped between the episodes titled “Movie Script” and “Crooked Hero.”

In the more melodramatic plot, “Crooked Hero,” Shorty is sent to cover a gangster’s funeral, but a chance encounter on the train leads to a sports corruption story he’d rather not tell.

In the actual “Movie Script” episode, Shorty has written a newsroom-drama on the side, but an agent sells it to Hollywood as a Lassie-type dog adventure, based on doggedly reading just the title. Meanwhile, his editor insists that anything written on company time belongs to the newspaper anyway.

J.David Goldin’s “Radiogoldindex.com” list of his pioneer radio collection shows an additional “first episode,” which is not in the Internet Archive files.

The Digital Deli Too Definitive Shorty Bell Radio Log with Mickey Rooney and William N. Robson features a longer episode list and some different dates, based on extensive research on Rooney’s radio appearances as well as the show itself. It lists cast and staff, newspaper program logs, and write-ups from radio trade magazines to document the shifts in plot, crew and format.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
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