This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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MR. KEEN, TRACER OF LOST PERSONS
A Complete History and Episode Log of Radio's Most Durable Detective
by Jim Cox
McFarland and Co., 2004, 364pgs.
Reviewed by Maury Cagle
(From Radio Recall, October 2004)
Did you know that the kindly sleuth who graced the nation’s airwaves for 18 years was named Westrel Keen? On the air, he never had a first name—it was always just “Mr. Keen,” or “Boss.” That’s only one of the facts you’ll learn by reading Jim Cox’s latest book on OTR.
Mr. Keen was the product of the imagination of Robert W. Chambers, and was the subject of a novel published in 1906, entitled “The Tracer of Lost Persons.” In the original book, Mr. Keen was primarily involved in romantic matchmaking, and never the life-threatening intrigue that made the later radio program so popular with millions of listeners.
The radio version was one of the huge stable of successes aired by the driving entrepreneurship of Frank and Anne Hummert, who brought so many of radio’s major programs to listeners for well over 20 years.
Many of the Mr. Keen scripts were written by Lawrence M. Klee, and today, 618 of his scripts still exist. On some 1300 episodes of Mr. Keen (1937-1950), the title role was played by William Bennett Kilpack. Philip N. Clarke took over the role when Kilpack left the show.
The program first aired at 7:15 pm on the NBC Blue Network on Tuesday, October 12, 1937, with “The Case of the Girl Who Couldn’t Be Found.” The last episode, “The Case of Murder and the Broken Promise,” was aired by CBS on Monday, September 26, 1955.
In the first six years, Mr. Keen was an engaging personality, compared to the all-business private eye he would become. His persona and success in solving cases led to huge amounts of fan mail, asking him to find real life missing persons.
For the first few years of Mr. Keen’s radio series, Ben Grauer was the announcer. In those years, Mr. Keen truly concentrated on finding lost persons in melodramatic plots. Beginning in 1943, the emphasis began to change to darker themes, and Mr. Keen began to pursue killers.
The theme music for Mr. Keen was one of the most identifiable in radio—Noel Coward’s haunting “Someday I’ll Find You,” which was used for all but a few years when Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromtu” (I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”) was substituted. Mr. Keen is always linked to his not-too-bright Irish stereotypical sidekick, Mike Clancy, given to saying things like ”Saints preserve us, boss, you don’t mean….” While never contributing much to the solving of a case, Mike’s role was to make Mr. Keen’s intellect shine; basically, a more simplistic version of Sherlock Holmes’ Doctor Watson. It worked.
The show was consistently popular. But its format led to some hilarious takeoffs. The best of these was Bob & Ray’s “Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons,” with Mr. Trace’s sidekick Spike even more bumbling than the original, as they dealt with such epics as “The Case of the Poisoned Jelly Doughnut.”
While this book is 396 pages long, prospective readers should know that the actual meat of the book runs only from page 7 to page 76. The rest is an exhaustive guide to every episode, listing time, network, director, writer, editor, announcer, sponsors, and a brief story line.
To me, the most valuable parts are the first few chapters, which trace the development of the private investigator into one of radio’s key genre, and backed up by statistics that show how profitable these shows were compared to music, comedy, and classical music programs.
Like all his previous books, Jim Cox has done a great job of research, and his writing is excellent. But this is a book that will appeal only to hardcore fans of Mr. Keen. That said, it is a fine profile of one of the most enduring shows of the classic period of radio.
This book is $65, plus $4 S&H from McFarland & Company, Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640, phone 800-253-2187 or visit www.mcfarlandpub.com