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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THE BIRD MAN FROM CHICAGO
by Stewart Wright © 2015
(From Radio Recall, August, 2015)
During my years of researching Old-Time Radio, I have often been intrigued by the performances of actors of whom I was not familiar. This article is the result of one of those performances. To add an element of mystery, I will not reveal the actor's stage name until the end of the article.
Victor Herbert Erpelding was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 2, 1908. While he was still a student in high school, he began his professional acting career. By performing in local stage productions during the school year and in touring productions during the summer, he became skilled in acting, singing and dancing. The young man became proficient at doing dialects by walking around various neighborhoods in Chicago and its environs and listening to how people spoke and then practicing what he heard.
In the 1930's Erpelding left Chicago to tour around the country with stage productions. He lived in Los Angeles for several years where he ran a dance studio and sang in the Los Angeles Opera and the Civic Light Opera Companies. He also performed in motion picture musicals in chorus line work. Victor also wrote dance reviews for a Los Angeles newspaper. When he returned to the Chicago area in about 1940, he initially worked in stage and opera productions.
Amazingly, this multi-talented actor didn't get involved in radio until the last decade of his short life, prior to his initial performance on the Theatre of the Mind in 1942. It didn't take long until Victor had landed his first leading role in a radio series: he played Keith Armour in Lonely Women; a soap opera that later became a resurrection of Today's Children. He also had continuing roles on Ma Perkins (as Mr. Garrett) and Judy And Jane (as Jerry) and other series. Soon he was one of the busiest actors on the shows originating from the Windy City.
One of Victor's hobbies became a unique credential in his radio repertoire. He was a collector of rare, tropical birds and built a state-of-the-art aviary for breeding them. In addition, he studied the sounds they made. Trips to zoos provided him with opportunities to learn the sounds that were made by 0th.er animals. Erpelding became so adept at mimicking birds and other animals that he was often wanted by Chicago radio sh.ows to reproduce their sounds on the air. On the soap opera, Tena and Tim, in addition to his role as Mr. Hutchinson, he portrayed two parrots: Mavoureen and Henry VIII. During its origination from Chicago, he was the voice behind the animal characters on Those Websters.
One of Erpelding's last Chicago radio assignments was as the narrator on an offshoot of NBC's University of the Air. Tales of the Foreign Service. This series had the full support of the U. S. State Department. The episodes were not dry stories of diplomatic negotiations, but were based on actual events and personal experiences some of which had been classified for many years. These events lent an atmosphere intrigue and adventure to the episodes. Nearly all of the 21 episodes in the run of this well-received, late Spring to early Fall 1946 series are in circulation. A little-known gem that is well worth acquiring and listening to.
His other Chicago radio credits included Grand Hotel, World's Greatest Novels (aka World's Great Novels), Author's Playhouse, We Came This Way, Hymns Of All Churches, Freedom Of Opportunity, The Buster Brown Show, First Line, Authors' Playhouse, Crime Files Of F/ammond, Lights Out and many other series.
In September, 1946 when the production of Today's Children moved to Hollywood, Erpelding picked up stakes and moved again to Tinsel Town to continue his lead role in the series and his work on Those Websters. He was soon working regularly on all of the networks originating out of Hollywood. In 1948 he got a featured role on a West Coast regional radio series, Jeff Regan, Investigator. From July 10th to September 18th of that year Victor played Anthony J. Lyon, Jack Webb's unscrupulous and parsimonious boss. His West Coast credits included such series as Lux Radio Theatre, A Man Named Jordan, Rocky Jordan, Favorite Story, The Line Up, The Whistler, 9 Mr. President, Adventures Of Frank Race, Screen Directors' Playhouse, Your Movietown Radio Theatre, The Story Of Doctor Kildare, Tales Of The Texas Rangers, Night Beat, The Adventures of Ellery Queen and several others.
Victor was an early member of Norman Macdonnell's stock company; racking up over 50 performances in less than 3 years. During the time period that he worked with Macdonnell, from 04/11 /1948 to 02/11 /1951 , only three actors had more performances. One was Gerald Mohr who was the star of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe and another was Larry Dobkin who had a continuing role on the same series. Another Macdonnell stalwart, John Dehner was the third actor. Erpelding's first outing with Macdonnell was in an Escape episode "The Brute." Included in his performances were seven appearances as the Voice of Escape during its 1949 eight week Summer run. Only William Conrad, Paul Frees, and Lou Krugman would have more performances as the Voice; one of the most memorable roles of the Golden Age of Radio. One of Erpelding's finest performances on the series was playing the title character in the episode "John Jock Todd," one of my favorite Escape shows. He also appeared in other Macdonnell-directed series including Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Romance, Suspense, and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar.
Erpelding quite frequently was required to "double;" that is perform two roles in a single episode. This talent was most apparent on the series he is best known for, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, in which he played continuing dual roles of the oafish Sgt. Otis and the refined Francis - Helen Asher's elderly butler.
Appropriately, Victor Erpelding's last radio performance was on this series. It was recorded on February 14, 1951 less than three weeks prior to his death. This show aired on March 9, 1951 just a few days after he died. He was heard post-mortem during a 1953 summer run of 16 Richard Diamond episodes that were rebroadcasts from 1950 and 1951.
Victor Herbert Erpelding was just 42 years old when he died from a long-standing medical condition after a brief illness on March 5, 1951.
During his relatively brief radio career in Chicago and Los Angeles, he compiled a quite respectable radio resume of at least 2,000 performances spread among more than fifty series. Our mystery actor's stage name was a combination of his mother's maiden surname and his own middle name: Wilms Herbert.