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WHAT DOES JOE FRIDAY’S mother have in common with Orson Welles’ Lady Macduff?
They were portrayed by the same talented actress, Peggy Webber. What’s more, she’s founder and continues to be guiding light of the California Artists Radio Theatre. Not bad for, as Peggy calls herself, this “somewhat nefarious” kid from Laredo, Texas.
Peggy’s father was a wildcat oil driller, so she resided in lots of places as a kid, among them Laredo, San Antonio, Tucson, and Los Angeles. At age 2 1/2, Peggy began an informal dancing career during movie theater intermissions (once performing 21 encores for the audience). By 11, she was doing Saturday radio plays for kids on San Antonio’s WOAI. A few years later, Peggy had her own show on Sundays on Tucson’s KVOA.
When Peggy and her mother moved to Los Angeles after her father’s death, she enrolled in USC’s School of Speech. Its co-director William DeMille (brother of Cecil B., father of Agnes) urged her to continue studies in theater, but she preferred trolling talent agencies for radio gigs. Peggy recalls she was either 16 or 17 at the time. Before long, she was working 21 shows a week; her USC degree came later.
Among other greats, Peggy worked with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce on radio’s Sherlock Holmes. Other radio program colleagues included Lionel Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Peter Lorre, Lee Marvin, and Vincent Price.
Did Flynn ever make a move on her. Peggy is quoted in Leonard Maltin’s Hooked on Hollywood, “I was probably too young to appeal to him; whatever it was, he never, never made a move…. He was just a very nice man.”
Peggy’s first assignment with Orson Welles was when she played opposite him on a radio broadcast—on short notice, live before an audience. Impressed with her skills, Welles selected her to portray Lady Macduff in his Republic Pictures version of Macbeth, 1948.
Welles was known for being imperious, but Peggy recalls, “… generally speaking, Orson loved actors and didn’t give them a bad time…. But when we were working on the movie, he was very cruel to the workers, the sound men and the grips. If they weren’t paying attention, he would then whiplash them with words they had never heard before.”
Peggy first worked with Jack Webb on his Pat Novak for Hire radio series in the late 1940s. In 1949, both also had gigs on a This is Your F.B.I. radio episode. After the show, Jack said, “Peg, why don’t you stick around?”
He had an idea for a new radio program: Dragnet. It would have a Los Angeles Police Department detective named Joe Friday. Joe was a bachelor; his mother called him “Joseph.”
Peggy, known for her wide range of voices, played the concerned mother of this L.A.P.D. detective. She was 24 at the time. Hearing Dragnet today as a regular feature on SiriusXm “Radio Classics,” I am always impressed when Friday comes home at some unGodly hour and mom invariably has some meatloaf in the icebox for her Joseph.
Unlike some radio stars (Bill Conrad of Gunsmoke, for one), Peggy made the transition to TV. She had regular appearances, in these, playing her age, on TV’s Dragnet.
As recently as 2015, LA Weekly ran an article by Jeffery Burbank, “Radio Theatre’s Peggy Webber is 90—and Cooler Than You.” Peggy’s California Artists Radio Theatre has produced contemporary classic tales from Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. CART repertory players have included Ed Asner, Samatha Eggar, Roddy McDowall, and William Shatner.
The California Artists Radio Theatre catalog includes tantalizing titles such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Selecting a Ghost,” “Forever Tonight: Hamilton Jefferson Burr,” “The Seven-Layer Arsenic Cake of Madame Lefarge,” and “The Bloody, Bloody Banks of Fall River.”
Let’s celebrate Peggy Webber and radio theater arts. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019