Wanting to put a face to a name—that is a widely exploited weakness common to radio listeners. Studio broadcasts, picture magazines, and touring shows supplied what those tuning in were led to think of as being in need of supplementation. There is thrill and satisfaction in getting the picture, in finding out whether it matches the one a voice imaged forth. Another one of my recent additions to my library of books on so-called old-time radio is such a supplement to our mental portrait galleries, a catalogue of all those radio personalities with whom Americans were so intimately acquainted in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Robert Eichberg’s Radio Stars of Today (1937), on which I first laid my greedy hands while researching my dissertation at Hunter College in New York City, is rich in photographs of those luminaries now dim who used to brighten the days of millions during the years of the Depression and the Second World War: The Easy Aces, Fred Allen, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Jack Benny, Major Bowes, Bob Burns, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Jessica Dragonette, Nelson Eddy, Helen Hayes, Guy Lombardo, Lily Pons, Dick Powell, Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, and Irene Wicker are among the household names Eichberg dropped and placed into captions.
Passing the likenesses of Walter Damrosch, Lowell Thomas, and Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley, my wandering eye was arrested by the sight of Virginia Verrill (pictured, left, next to her mother, erstwhile Vaudeville actress Aimee McLean). The name did not sound any chimes. “Vee,” as Eichberg informs us, “made her debut at the age of three, singing with [orchestra leader] Paul Whiteman,” who was a “friend of her mother’s.” By the age of thirteen, she was heard on local broadcasts and, a year later, was “doubling for Barbara Stanwyck.”
What readers back then could not have known, even an altered hairline did little to secure her leading lady status in Hollywood. Her film career, begun at the age of sixteen, did not take off; producers noted that Verrill “screened too much like Myrna Loy.” They noted, too, that she could “double” for those in need of a dubbing. It is hardly a path conducive to fame.
Loy’s looks and Hollywood’s trompe l’oreille may have stood in her way to stardom on the screen; but the largely invisible Verrill nonetheless made a name for herself on radio, to which her inclusion in Radio Stars attests. Verrill was heard on 1930s programs like Socony Sketchbook, Wonder Show and Log Cabin Jamboree. Just today, two of her Socony performances were brought to our ears courtesy of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and their latest contribution to the Internet Archive.
Airing on 14 June 1935, the very first Socony Sketchbook broadcast features teenaged Verrill’s rendition of “Reckless.” Songwriter-composer Johnny Green did not hesitate to give Verrill the credit due to her:
Hollywood made that tune famous through the picture of the same name starring William Powell and Jean Harlow. Virginia Verrill did her part to make it famous, too, for it was her singing voice you really heard in the film.
“Gee, Johnny, you shouldn’t have mentioned that,” Verrill adds coyly before performing her number. Yet, as those in radio knew, it pays to be “well advertised” (to quote a line from the song). Nor does it dull the Milky Way when one star washes the hand of another. A week later, on the 21 June 1935 broadcast, Verrill got the chance to return the favor by reminding listeners that her latest song—”How Can I Hold You Close Enough?”—was “written by the pianist-composer Johnny Green.” I might as well give them both a hand before I return to flicking the pages of Radio Stars, especially since Green passed away on this day, 15 May, in 1989.