Embarrassing Treasures Field Trip: The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention 2013

They had me at Margaret O’Brien.

I don’t remember what made me browse the web site for the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention earlier this year, but as soon as I saw Margaret O’Brien on the celebrity list, I ordered my tickets.

MANC takes place each fall in Baltimore. For three days, celebrities make themselves available for autograph signings and Q&A sessions; experts hold seminars on old-time radio, classic television, and classic movie topics; vendors sell movie posters, books, and other collectibles; and classic screen performances play in the Movie Room.

I’ve thought about attending before (and I really wish I’d attended in 2009, when Johnny Whitaker and one-time Family Affair guest star Lee Meriwether were guests). The chance to see my favorite child star in person stirred me into seizing the moment. It’s a sad reality that few golden-age stars remain with us, and we lose more every year.

This was the first nostalgia convention I’ve attended, and what follows is a brief, impressionistic review. Unfortunately, it lacks photos—I forgot to pack my camera, and my iPhone images didn’t turn out well.

Educational Sessions

Mornings at MANC are devoted to presentations on vintage entertainment topics. The presenters are people who’ve invested enormous time into learning about their subject. John C. Abbott, for instance, has produced an exhaustive three-volume work called The Who is Johnny Dollar? Matter about radio’s famous insurance investigator. He’s analyzed not only the remaining recorded episodes but those that exist only in script form. He can tell you everything from Johnny’s address to how many times he’s been shot.

Sally Stephens talked about Gracie Allen’s 1940 run for the presidency, a months-long joke that played out on several radio shows and in live appearances. Stephens effectively integrated radio clips into her presentation, which made her topic come alive.

Joanna Wilson gave a great presentation on TV adaptions of A Christmas Carol. I’d been eagerly anticipating this presentation for two reasons:

  • I love TV Christmas specials and episodes.
  • Wilson is a fellow Classic TV Blog Association member, and I hoped to meet her and to purchase her book, ‘Tis the Season TV.

Wilson’s presentation didn’t disappoint–her passion for her subject matter really came through, and the audience responded with similar enthusiasm. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of straight A Christmas Carol adaptations. (What does it say about me that my favorite theatrical version features the Muppets?) I still enjoyed learning about all the versions TV has produced, and I was glad that Wilson touched on many of my favorite Dickens-influenced TV episodes, including ones from The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, The Avengers, and Family Ties.

It was fun to meet another blogger, and I’m enjoying Wilson’s book, which I highly recommend to all Christmas TV fans.

(Be sure to read her convention recap, too–it has pictures!)

Author Gene Blottner did a presentation on film noir star Audrey Totter and made good use of clips from Totter’s career.

Garyn Roberts, a noted Ray Bradbury scholar, hosted a celebration of the author and gave another talk about Dick Tracy in popular culture.

Celebrity Appearances

As Ed Asner walked into his Q&A session, his cell phone rang. Nodding to the audience, he quipped, “It’s for you.”

This was the perfect introduction for Asner, who was as gruff, unfiltered, and entertaining as you would expect. He had high praise for many of his former co-stars, especially Ted Knight from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Nancy Marchand from Lou Grant. (He also had high praise for Marchand’s legs.) 

Johnny Crawford from The Rifleman appeared on a panel with Jeff Connors, real-life son of Rifleman star Chuck Connors. Both men recalled the elder Connors with affection. Crawford said that Connors was protective toward him on the set; no director who treated Crawford unkindly would continue working on the show.

Crawford reminisced about some of his favorite guest stars on the show, including John Anderson and Royal Dano. He especially enjoyed working with two-time guest star Sammy Davis Jr., who loved Westerns.

His favorite episodes from the show are “The Pet” and “The Sharpshooter.” (Sam Peckinpah wrote the latter’s script.)

All the talk about the show’s warm father-son dynamic inspired me to make The Rifleman a regular part of my Me-TV viewing.

Crawford also talked his experiences as a first-season Mouseketeer and joked about his crush on Karen, which Cubby thwarted.

Julie Newmar shared a Q&A session with Elizabeth Shepherd, a British actress best known for her role in 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia, as well as her status as The Avengers‘ first Emma Peel. (Producers quickly replaced her with Diana Rigg, and the scenes that Shepherd shot for the show no longer exist.)

Newmar and Shepherd made an interesting study in contrasts. Newmar was expansive, dramatic, and occasionally random. (She sometimes interrupted Shepherd to ask her an off-the-wall question.) Shepherd was down-to-earth and good at telling stories, as when she described her perilous encounters with trained ravens during the filming of The Omen II.

Newmar said her ballet background gave her the cat-like physique that served her well in her famous Batman role. Her most challenging role was on the short-lived series My Living Doll because it was difficult to find the humanity in her robot character.

An experienced Shakespearean stage actress, Shepherd made an interesting point about theater being a burgeoning new field to the Elizabethans, as social media is to us today. She treated the MANC audience to an excellent dramatic recitation from Shakespeare.

(Note to the loud talker behind me who rarely shut his mouth throughout the Newmar and Shepherd Q&A: Not cool. Seriously. When everyone around you is glaring, it’s time to shut up.)

Margaret O’Brien exuded graciousness throughout her presentation.

She had good things to say about nearly everyone she worked with, from Charles Laughton (“He was wonderful”) to Lionel Barrymore (“He was almost like a grandfather”) to Judy Garland (“She loved children”).

She even had a good relationship with studio head Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to marry her mother, glamorous flamenco dancer Gladys Flores.

O’Brien talked again and again about the supportive, protective role her mother played in her life. Flores made sure that O’Brien got the salary she deserved for Meet Me in Saint Louis. She kept O’Brien in line during the perilous teenage years, once busting her at a nightclub after she sneaked out with Natalie Wood. She kept the child-hating Wallace Beery from stealing O’Brien’s hot lunch on the set of Bad Bascomb. (Beery seemed to be the only person in Hollywood to earn O’Brien’s ire.)

It’s apparent that her mother’s influence kept O’Brien from the pitfalls of child stardom and enabled her to simply enjoy the movie-making process.

O’Brien, who traveled to Japan in 1952 to make the movie Girls Hand in Hand, talked about the importance of travel and getting to know people from other cultures. Again, she praised the influence of her mother, who served as her role model as a strong, independent woman.

“I never feel that I can’t do something,” O’Brien said.

Autographs and Vendors

The welcoming letter in the convention program noted that some people attend only to collect autographs, while skipping all the sessions. I took the opposite approach. I’ve never been an autograph collector, and I feel awkward approaching celebrities–there’s nothing that I could say that they haven’t heard thousands of times. MANC attracts a knowledgeable crowd, so audience members covered most of the questions I would have asked during the Q&A sessions. (I did hope to ask Robert Loggia about his work with Brian Keith on Disney’s Elfego Baca, but Loggia is in frail health, and I couldn’t bring myself to bother him.)

For those who do want to collect autographs, MANC is ideal. Celebrities are available for long periods throughout the three-day conference, so lines stay short, and fans have time to chat with their favorite stars.

Vendor tables lined the main hallway leading to the seminar room. When I didn’t see anything I wanted there, I figured the spending money I brought with me was safe. On the second day, I realized that many more vendors were offering their wares on another floor. I picked up a few vintage books and magazines and a set of Dr. Doolittle paper dolls. I also bought several current books, including books about Peggy Ann Garner and 1950s live television by author Sandra Grabman, who attended the convention.

My only regret was that I didn’t find any good games for future Spin Again Sunday posts.

My overall experience at MANC was wonderful, and I would highly recommend it to all fans of vintage entertainment. The $15-a-day admission price is a small price to pay for seeing your favorite stars in person and hearing from experts on interesting topics. I hope to go again in coming years. (I definitely will if Kathy Garver appears–I’m not missing another Family Affair star!)

Old Time Radio Episode Spotlight: CSI, 1940s Style

It’s always freaky when several of my interests collide. Crime, old-time radio, and classic movies–it all comes together in this photo of the FBI photographing Margaret O’Brien.

“The 91 million prints we have on file here at the FBI are the biggest man trap ever devised.”

Adventure Ahead, August 26, 1944

This is not a great radio show. In my experience, the cheese factor in old-time radio correlates directly with the number of organ flourishes a show contains. But this show’s subject–how the FBI lab helped police solve crimes in the 1940s–intrigues me.

Adventure Ahead was a Saturday morning show aimed at young boys. In this episode, a boy tours the FBI crime lab and learns how agents help solve crimes through blood and hair analysis, ballistics, and fingerprint identification.

(This show uses what TV Tropes calls the Little Jimmy trope: “Little Jimmy is a young character without any distinguishable traits other than complete ignorance related to the subject at hand. Most likely found in educational films, commercials, and public service announcements. Their only job is to represent the young and stupid viewers of the film who know nothing about common sense and would very well get into a car with a stranger offering candy unless some superhero or other fictional character comes along and tells them that it’s wrong. He’s typically young, white and freckled.” Here, our Little Jimmy is named Tommy.)

Because I live near America’s largest fingerprint database, I paid special attention to the information about FBI fingerprint files. After listening to the show, I couldn’t resist doing some research on the history of fingerprint identification and how the FBI collection has changed over the years.

Soon after J. Edgar Hoover became FBI director in 1924, the Bureau established an Identification Division.
Within nine years, it contained 5 million cards. By 1944, when this radio show aired, these numbers had soared to 91 million. Actress Margaret O’Brien provided the Bureau’s 100 millionth set of fingerprints two years later.

This radio show describes a fingerprint matching system that involved punched cards and “steel fingers.” The FBI first used computers to search fingerprint files in 1980, but didn’t establish a fully computerized system, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, until 1999.

The FBI is now building a huge database of other biometric information, from iris scans to tattoos.

Old-Time Radio Playlist: London Calling, Part 1

As a fan of old-time radio, I like to organize shows into topical playlists. The recent Olympic games inspired this list of London-themed episodes. (Part 2 of this playlist.)

“Journey for Margaret”


Screen Guild Theater, April 5, 1943
“A man can’t go on feeling forever. There’s a limit. By and by, he finds himself dead. That’s why I can’t get mad; I’m dead.”
Notable Cast Members: Robert Young, who shows off his fatherly side well before Father Knows Best appeared on radio and then TV, and 6-year-old Margaret O’Brien, recreating the movie role in which she made a name for herself, literally and figuratively. Four-year-old actor Billy Severn also appeared—it must have been terrifying for the director to rely upon such young children in a live radio drama. O’Brien does a great job, and Severn is adorable.
About Screen Guild Theater: This was one of several shows that condensed popular movies for radio audiences. At least the better-known Lux Radio Theater had 60 minutes to work with; 30 minute shows like Screen Guild Theater often leave only a sketchy outline of the movie plot. As John Dunning put it in The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, “Screen Guild always seemed like the quick economy tour, jerky and uneven, scenes knit together by thin thread and taxing a modern listener’s willingness to suspend disbelief.”
Story: A war-weary American journalist and his wife, in London during the Blitz, lose their unborn child and decide to adopt a traumatized war orphan.
Based Upon: The successful 1942 movie of the same name, in which Young and O’Brien also starred. The movie, in turn, was based upon the novel by journalist William L. White, and that was based on his true story of adopting a British war orphan. Life ran an interesting story on the “real Margaret” (not revealing that her name was actually Barbara), who would grow up to carry on her family’s journalistic legacy.
Google-worthy References: Ack-ack—Anti-aircraft guns.
Also, when the pregnant wife and her husband share a toast, she drinks milk. This surprised me and got me wondering how long doctors have been advising pregnant women to avoid alcohol. I didn’t find a definitive answer, but this history suggests alcohol’s potential harm has long been common knowledge.
My Verdict: These short movie adaptations work best when you haven’t seen the movie, which I haven’t in this case (although I want to now). As a radio story, it feels complete, and Robert Young and the children give enjoyable performances.

“Berkeley Square”
Everything for the Boys, February 8, 1944


Dangerously Yours, September 24, 1944


Hallmark Playhouse, March 3, 1949


“Out of what’s wrong with this world came a better time, and somehow the same will happen out of the struggles of my world.”
Based Upon
: The John L. Balderson play Berkeley Square, which was a hit when it opened in 1929. This time-travel romance was also a hit with old-time radio audiences, if you can judge by the number of shows that adapted it.
Story: Peter Standish longs to leave the 20th century behind. Obsessed with the diaries of an 18th century ancestor, he soon finds himself living his ancestor’s life. Complications arise when he falls in love with the sister of the woman his ancestor married.
Setting: Berkeley Square, a perennially fashionable London neighborhood.
Notable Cast Members: Ronald Colman plays Peter on Everything for the Boys, a wartime dramatic anthology. Greer Garson plays his love interest, Helen. Victor Jory stars in the Dangerously Yours episode. David Niven stars in the Hallmark Playhouse version.
About the Programs: Everything for the Boys ran for 21 weeks, with Colman hosting and starring in each episode and the legendary Arch Oboler writing and directing. Each episode ended with a short-wave call to fighting men overseas—this was a major technical challenge then and didn’t always work. The romantic anthology Dangerously Yours was also a short-lived 1944 show with a regular leading man—Victor Jory. After 16 episodes, it morphed into Vicks Matinee Theater. The high-toned Hallmark Playhouse presented Hollywood stars in literary adaptations.
My Verdict: Without having seen or read the play, I can’t say which version adapts it most faithfully. In all three versions, the time travel is abrupt and unexplained. The Everything for the Boys script adds an extra layer of resonance to the play by giving it an explicit World-War-II context. This makes it easier to see why Peter wants to escape the 20th century, why Helen is so horrified by her vision of the future (she sees men, women, and children being herded into open graves), and why Peter feels he must return to his own time and address its challenges.
Final Fun Facts: Oboler and Colman did not enjoy their collaboration. In fact, Dunning quotes Oboler as saying, “We hated each other’s guts.”
Also, Leslie Howard starred in the original Berkeley Square play and the 1933 movie version.

“It’s Always Tomorrow”


Words at War, January 2, 1945
“I’m gonna keep an eye on certain people here in England…and if they try to cheat us out of anything we’ve won in this war, then we’ll see if we can arrange another direct hit, especially for their benefit.”
Based Upon: It’s Always Tomorrow by Robert St. John, a journalist whose life spanned the 20th century and whose adventures spanned the globe. (He reminisces about his career in Studs Terkel’s Coming of Age—thanks, old-time radio, for making my to-be-read list even longer.)
Story: An American journalist assigned to London finds himself disgusted by out-of-touch, imperialist aristocrats. He falls in love with Polly, a bitter working-class woman, who refuses to support a war she thinks will benefit only the rich.
Notable Cast Members: Cathleen Cordell, who plays Polly, went on to have a long career as a character actress in television. I think William Quinn, who plays Dave, may be the same person as Bill Quinn, another prolific TV character actor.
About the Program: Words at War was a dramatic anthology that told timely stories from the world’s literal and figurative battlefronts. The New York Times called it “the boldest, hardest-hitting program” on the air.
My Verdict: Once you get past some heavy-handed British stereotypes, this is an interesting, nuanced story. Polly is a shockingly unpatriotic character by wartime radio standards. At one point, she even cries, “Let Germany win! Let Germany win!” Dave, playing devil’s advocate, tries to convince her that World War II is a “people’s war.” He interviews working people who are glad to make sacrifices and an aristocrat who is paying 97.5 percent of his income in taxes, but Polly remains unconvinced. When Dave loses his leg in a bombing, I thought sure the writers would give Polly a quick attitude change. She does agree to take Dave’s place in a war plant (where he’s begun working because his newspaper superiors banned him from writing about war’s effect on “the little people”). She stresses, however, that she’s making this choice based on love, not patriotism. A reviewer of St. John’s novel noted favorably that the book “makes a passionate plea for general understanding of the bitter hatred the common people in war-torn countries feel toward rulers who quit them ingloriously, shamefully, taking with them their loot and their foolish hides.” In the 1950s, author Robert St. John was blacklisted as a Communist, a label he disavowed. It’s sad but not surprising that his concern for the world’s common people would suggest Communism to 1950s red hunters.
Final Fun Fact: At one point, Dave and Polly visit a pub, where the crowd sings this song.