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A new channel showing vintage American classics recently launched in Britain.

BonanzaBonanza (Freeview 64) not only shows a lot of episodes of the famous Western, as its name implies, but also an eclectic variety of American television classics from the 1950s and 1960s including The Lone Ranger and the original Dragnet.

Having grown up on the second incarnation, still with Jack Webb as Sgt Joe Friday, but with Harry ‘MASH’ Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon, I was surprised to see old black and white versions.

Yet, it is instructive to find that crime hasn’t changed much since the postwar years and Los Angeles had its fill even then of armed robbery, murder, gang fights and immigrants innocently skirting the periphery of the dark side of the City of Angels.

Chesterfield sponsored the original version of the show and during the commercial breaks Webb would have given a short, scripted spiel. (Photo credit: LAmorguefiles.com) That is how advertising was done then. A network pitched a show to a well known corporation which then sponsored the programme. The show’s stars then advertised that company’s products at the beginning, middle and end of the programme: often cars, a brand of petrol or home appliances. This type of star-delivered advert disappeared in the early 1960s but was preceded by an announcer in the background solemnly saying:

And now a word from [about] our sponsor …

As you can see, the adverts translated nicely into print. They reminded the reader to watch the show and buy the sponsor’s products.

If I remember rightly, radio is where the star-sponsor advert style began and carried over into television.

Jack Webb himself was the brains behind Dragnet, which began life as a radio show. Although I greatly enjoyed Dragnet‘s run from 1967 through 1970, I began watching the old 1950s black and white episodes with greater concentration.

I notice that in many of the episodes from 1957, Webb’s narration, which ties in with contemporary film from Los Angeles, mentions the Church. The camera shows at least one church, normally in California Mission style, and, on occasion, shows another. Of course, Webb is matter of fact in his presentation, but the camera lingers on them as if to impart a suggestion to the viewer just as he is about to see a true crime story.

It is this mention of churches which made me interested in Webb as a person.

What you are about to read is true. Unlike Dragnet, however, the names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

The Old Time Radio Bulletin features a revealing article from The Milwaukee Sentinel which appeared on September 12, 1954. Maurice Zolotow, the journalist, tells us ‘The True Story of Jack Webb’. Not only did he meet Webb, he also looked for interviews with his mother to get the inside track. Some of Zolotow’s discoveries appear below.

Childhood

Jack was born on April 2, 1920 in Santa Monica, California, to Margaret ‘Maggie’ Smith, a Catholic of Irish and Native American ancestry, and Samuel Chester Webb, who was Jewish.

The two fell in love just after the First World War. Jack never knew much about his father except that he was, in Zolotow’s words, ‘a wartime hero’. The couple married, his father still in uniform, and Jack was born a year later. In 1921, the Webbs divorced.

Jack never knew his dad. He had fled the scene for good. Mrs Webb never mentioned him and, even as a child, Jack never asked.Yet, he could sense he stood apart from other boys his age; he had no one to teach him the things boys learn — from dads.

Incidentally, I knew a boy in the same situation. As much as he loved his mother, psychologically, things were very difficult for him growing up. School projects and discussions about Father’s Day drove him to tears. (In his country, school is still in session in June.) To this day — he would now be in his early 30s — I do not think he knows his father’s identity.

Mrs Webb returned with Jack to her mother in San Francisco. Grandma Smith lived on a huge estate left her by her late husband who worked for the railroad. There should have been enough money for all three of them for a long time, however, within three years it was gone.

Zolotow says they moved to Los Angeles when Jack was three. Wikipedia specifies that it was the Bunker Hill neighbourhood. (This part of town underwent slum clearance in the 1950s and was transformed into a modern high-rise business district.)

Zolotow describes the Webbs living at Third and Flowers Street, just south of Main. They had a one-bedroom flat with a kitchen. The communal bathroom, shared by 12 tenants, was down the hall. That was no place for a little boy to be.

According to Zolotow, Mrs Webb helped to run the block of flats during the day. At night, she was the cashier in a neighbourhood cafe. Jack knew his mother was too well educated and too much of a lady to be in that situation. He couldn’t fathom what had happened.

In the late 1920s, he and his mother moved from Bunker Hill to Echo Park. Jack attended Our Lady of Loretto School and served as an altar boy.

Zolotow’s article tells us that, previously, Jack dreaded school. He was a sickly child; his slight frame and jug ears made him a target for bullies.

On one occasion, Mrs Webb, working as a shop clerk in Bunker Hill at the time, managed to save enough money to buy him a new shirt and a leatherette pencil case for his seventh birthday. Not long after, on the way home, a bully confronted Jack, grabbed his shirt and, in doing so, pulled off the buttons. The bully’s pals then stepped in to beat up little Jack, alone and defenceless, leaving him wondering if he would survive.

Just then, Zolotow’s article says that Jack felt an adult’s arm and saw a blue sleeve. It was a policeman who sent the bullies packing then got down to the business of putting Jack’s pens, pencils and eraser back into his new, but probably scuffed, pencil case.

Zolotow reasons (emphases mine):

A lot of kids think of a cop as a mortal enemy.  To Jack this cop represented decency and justice.  Maybe he also represented a symbol for the father he was always unconsciously seeking.  Maybe what Webb has done in Dragnet, in paying tribute to the hard-working men of the police force, is his way of saying “thanks” to the cop who befriended a small boy 27 years ago.

After finishing his studies at Our Lady of Loretto, Jack attended nearby Belmont High. Both schools are close to downtown Los Angeles.

At Belmont, he was elected student body president. This was no mean feat as it was the largest high school in the city at that time. His words to the students in the 1938 edition of Campanile, their high school yearbook, read:

… you who showed me the magnificent warmth of friendship which I know, and you know, I will carry with me forever.

Influences

Both Our Lady of Loretto and Belmont High gave Jack the opportunity to read and discover the world of imagination. Zolotow says Jack suffered from asthma from the ages of 8 to 17. In all seriousness, I imagine he began smoking later on in high school and the symptoms cleared. I’ve known several asthmatics; some respond well to smoking and others do not.

In any event, during his asthmatic years, as he couldn’t tolerate too much physical activity, Jack began reading library books, especially adventure classics.

But there is something else. Zolotow’s article tells us that Mrs Webb said in a previous interview:

Almost any time I looked out the window, my boy was looking in trash cans.  Always searching for something.  He didn’t know what. 

The armchair psychologist in me says this might have been a subconscious displacement activity in looking for a lost father.

One day, whilst rummaging around, young Jack found a broken crayon. He began drawing on old paper bags. Mrs Webb saved up enough money to buy him crayons and a proper sketch pad. Jack took to drawing and, according to his mother, sketched anything and everything.

Along with art and reading came a love for jazz, nurtured by a neighbour living in the same building. The man was once a professional cornet player; then he fell on hard times, aggravated by alcohol. He played the cornet for Jack and introduced him to Bix Beiderbecke. Jack listened to the records the neighbour played on his Victrola; these gave him a lifelong love of jazz and Beiderbecke’s music. When the neighbour was evicted for rent arrears, he gave Jack a copy of Beiderbecke’s 1930 recording of At the Jazz Band Ball. Jack went on to collect more of Bix’s music and, along the way, also became a fan of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. When Zolotow met him, Webb had managed to collect a copy of every record Beiderbecke had ever made.

Tantalisingly, the other instalments of Zolotow’s article on Webb are lost to history. The next one would have revealed (italics in the original):

how Jack Webb passed up a chance to inherit a prosperous plumbing business, and a scholarship that might have led to a career as an artist, to hang around radio studios and pick up many of the tricks at which he later became a master. 

The start of a career

After graduating from Belmont High, Webb studied art at St John’s University, Collegeville,  Minnesota. Even today, the university continues to follow the Benedictine values modelled after Christ’s life.

When the United States entered the Second World War, Webb enlisted in the US Air Force but ‘washed out’ of flight training. He obtained a hardship discharge as he was the sole provider for his mother and grandmother.

In 1946, Webb got his own eponymous comedy show in San Francisco on ABC’s KGO radio. By the end of the decade, he had switched from comedy to drama via another radio show, this time on KFRC, called Pat Novak for Hire. It was about an unlicensed private detective and co-starred Raymond Burr.

Webb also broke into film in 1948 with a role as a crime lab technician in He Walked by Night, the true story of a California Highway Patrolman who was murdered in 1946. That was the time when film noir with its dissolute criminals and corrupt police was highly popular. He Walked by Night, however, was semi-documentary in style with Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn (LAPD) providing technical assistance.

Dragnet

During filming, Webb considered a series which would profile more real-life crime cases. He talked his ideas over with Wynn. Dragnet premiered on NBC radio in 1949 and ran until 1957.

NBC television picked up a few episodes each season starting in 1952. It seems the television series began in earnest once the radio show ended. The television series ran until 1959.

Dragnet was a near-instant hit as soon as it aired — on television and radio. Webb wanted to portray the police to the public and LAPD superiors as underrated working class heroes. However, if there was wrongdoing or corruption on the part of the police, he would air it. The LAPD at the time was known for not paying decent wages and for dismissing officers who had become ill or injured in the line of duty.

The show was largely produced under the aegis of Webb’s Mark VII production company. Mark VII began in 1951 and operated until Webb’s death in 1982. If you’ve ever watched to the end of a Dragnet episode, the following will be familiar:

The Mark VII production logo depicted a pair of grimy, sweaty hands working on a silver sheet of metal, holding a stamp in place and hitting it twice (and, in later years, once) with a hammer. From 1954 to 1977, a drum roll sounded. When the hands and tools pull away, a “VII” is seen imprinted on the metal. Above the Roman numeral in white is the word “MARK,” and below “LIMITED.” The hands were later revealed to be those of Jack Webb himself. There are several different variations of this logo.

Imdb.com describes Webb’s production values as follows:

his Mark VII productions routinely used minimal sets, even more minimal wardrobes (Friday and Gannon seem to wear the same suits over entire seasons, which minimized continuity issues) and maintained a relatively tight-knit stock company that consisted of scale-paid regulars who routinely appeared as irate crime victims, policewomen, miscreants and clueless parents of misguided youth … During the production of Dragnet 1967 (1967), he maintained a rigorous daily work schedule while ignoring his health. He loved chili dogs and cigarettes, enjoyed late nights playing cards and drinking with cast members who were amazed to find him fully alert at 7 a.m. the next day, expecting the same from them. The combined effect of this lifestyle made him appear older than he actually was by the late 60’s.

What Imdb.com doesn’t mention are the tight scripts, the interesting stories, the varied main characters, scenes and witnesses. All these combined — and this was the genius of Jack Webb — make a compelling half-hour crime drama based on real police cases. Actually, less than 30 minutes, once one factors in ad breaks. Wherever it’s shown today, people still tune in. Maybe they’ve seen the series or the episode before. Maybe they haven’t. It’s excellent, timeless television — including the second series which aired from 1967 to 1970 and was still getting good ratings when it ended.

Subsequent series

Webb was ultimately interested in more than Dragnet, which isn’t surprising, given that he had spent the 1940s and 1950s on radio, television and in film at the same time. It seemed, therefore, that Dragnet was part of his life but he didn’t intend for it to define him.

Webb had roles in two minor films in 1959 and 1961. Neither did well at the box office.

In 1963, Warner Brothers Television hired him as Head of Production. One of his duties was to revamp 77 Sunset Strip. Some readers might remember the theme tune. Ratings plummeted and Webb pursued other options.

Interestingly, one of these concerned Jeffrey Hunter, who had played Jesus in the 1961 version of King of Kings, directed by Nicholas Ray.

Webb and Hunter set up their own company, Apollo Productions, to make the television series Temple Houston which ran between 1963 and 1964. It was Hunter’s only television series in which he regularly starred. And it was Webb’s only successful series sale to a television network — NBC — whilst he was Head of Production at Warner Brothers Television. The show was a light version of the cases which Sam Houston’s son Temple Lea Houston dealt with as a lawyer. A critic described it as ‘Perry Mason out West’. Although it was short-lived, 26 episodes aired.

Dragnet reappeared after an updated pilot film in 1966. Harry Morgan co-starred as Officer Bill Gannon in the new series with Webb in 1967. However, times were changing and, although it was popular with audiences, young adult viewers sided more with the criminal than Friday and Gannon. This was the Vietnam War era, after all, and putting someone in the slammer was pretty uncool; police were seen as oppressors.

I remember great episodes though, most of which explained the psychological aspect to the crime. One particularly sad one dealt with a young rapist who never knew his father. His mother, then his grandmother brought him up, rather harshly. He grew to become a misogynist. His way of getting back at the women in his family was by raping other women. It was very sad, indeed.

Webb had more luck with the 70s and 80s generations. His subsequent productions  included Adam-12 and Emergency. He had no televisual role in either.

Private life

Webb was married four times. His first wife, the beautiful actress Julie London, bore him two daughters, Stacy and Lisa. Stacy collaborated on a book of Webb’s life called Just the Facts, Ma’am; The Authorized Biography of Jack Webb, Creator of Dragnet, Adam-12, and Emergency! She died in a car accident in 1996 three years before it was published. Lisa, born in 1952, survives her.

Webb and London divorced in 1954 after being married for seven years. He married Dorothy Towne in 1955 and divorced her in 1957. He married former Miss USA Jackie Loughery in 1958, divorcing her in 1964. Then came a long hiatus until he married Opal Wright in 1980.

Webb died in 1982 at the age of 62. The LAPD gave him a funeral with full police honours. They also retired the badge number he used in Dragnet: 714.

At the time Webb suffered his fatal heart attack, he was putting together a third series of Dragnet with a new co-star, Kent McCord.

I couldn’t find out how or if Catholicism fit into Webb’s later life. Perhaps the divorces created a perceived state of no return for him.

However, the self-discipline he must have learned at Our Lady of Loretto and the Benedictine values at St John’s University served him well professionally.

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