In Tribute to Jim French

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In Tribute to Jim French

 

James Rowley French, 1928 - 1917 

by Larry Albert
Member, Associate Producer of Jim French Productions

How do you talk about a man who changed your life, made you a better person and showed you the way to develop talents you never know you had? When it comes to my friend and colleague Jim French, who passed away just before Christmas, perhaps it’s best to begin at the beginning.

James Rowley French was born on Sept. 23, 1928, in the Southern California town of San Gabriel to James Forrest and Mabelle Rowley French. From an early age, he was fascinated by the medium of radio. He would spend hours in front of a mirror in the bathroom, because of the acoustics, reading articles from magazines and newspapers, pretending to be the announcer or reporter he heard every night coming through the loudspeaker of the family’s large walnut-cased family console radio. He was determined that was where his future lay, as the man he heard between programs saying “This is the NBC Network” (or CBS, Mutual or Mutual Don Lee). He was going to be a big-time national network voice.

Somewhere around 1944, he managed to wrangle a spot on local station KXLA as a as a piano player on a kiddie show. It was a start and, as far as Jim was concerned, a sure way to the meccas of Los Angeles or New York. However, as happened, in 1946 Uncle Sam had other plans. Jim joined the Army in August of that year and after several weeks of training, the military decided, in its strange and convoluted wisdom, to send the student whose math grades in high school weren’t anything to make his parents proud to artillery school, where a good working knowledge of mathematics was essential. On his completion of the course, Jim was sent to Japan as part of the occupation forces.

Luck was with him though, and shortly after arriving at his new duty station, his background in radio was pointed out and he was sent to the town of Kokura to be a part of the Armed Forces Radio team. His job would be to write, act in, direct and produce a weekly news show for the GIs in the area. The program used AFR talent to dramatize the week’s news items from home and around the world on a show called News in Review. He also had his own daily show, The Radio Shop, excellent training for what he wanted to do when his time in the service was done.   

Following his discharge, he returned to Southern California and began looking for work in radio. He landed his first professional job in 1948, joined AFRA and a career was born. During this time, he was the announcer for various big band remotes, once sitting in with the Stan Kenton Orchestra on the piano. During a remote with the Harry James Orchestra, he ended up holding film star Betty Grable’s leg on his lap after she injured her heavily insured limb while dancing with a serviceman as a favor. He did spot reporting of local events, at one time being with the legendary comedy team of Abbot and Costello as they opened the first Baskin-Robbins in Southern California. He spun records, played the piano and sang on a daily show, and interviewed the few celebrities that came to the station. He was, for a short while, Uncle Jim on a children’s show. It was during this time that he met up with a writer named Dick Carr and formed a writing team of sorts. Jim was good with dialog and Dick was strong on plots. They submitted scripts to several shows under Carr’s name, since he was a member of the Writer’s Guild and Jim wasn’t. In later years, French could only recall selling one script to the producers of Richard Diamond, Private Detective starring Dick Powell. As an actor, he vaguely remembered appearing on a couple of episodes of The Cisco Kid and The Count of Monte Cristo.

He enrolled in Pasadena Junior College, where he met his life partner Patricia Soule. They married soon after in 1950, a union that was to last for the next 66 years, until Pat’s passing in February of 2017. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to Honolulu, where Jim had been hired by a station to be the morning guy. Since Pat had a background in theater and radio, the two did a breakfast show called Breakfast with Jim and Pat. His other duties mirrored those of his first station, with the exception of doing a kiddie program. One day, Jim was assigned to interview Frank Sinatra, who was in town for a gig, accompanied by his then-wife Ava Gardner. Sinatra’s career was on a downward spiral, while Ava’s was going strong. A few months later, Frank co-starred in From Here to Eternity and he bounced back bigger than before, but at this point in time he was happy for work. He liked Jim’s style and invited Pat and him to come to his show and stay for dinner. There was a framed photograph in the French’s home commemorating the evening.

During Jim’s second year in Hawaii, Pat became pregnant. She wanted to have the child in Seattle, plus she may have been homesick. The soon-to-be-new-father agreed and, after sending his wife back to the Pacific Northwest and her parents, he began the nerve-wracking job of preparing and mailing out audition tapes to stations in and around the Seattle area. When he left Honolulu, he’d not heard back from any of them and was looking at becoming a new dad without a job. 

Joining Pat at her parents’, he set out to visit the stations where he’d sent the tapes, hoping to see if any of them might be hiring. His journey took him to KING-AM in downtown Seattle, where, when he walked in and introduced himself, he was greeted with the exclamation, “You’re Jim French! We’ve been looking all over for you.” It seemed the program director had heard Jim’s demo and placed a call to the numbers written on the tape, but by that time the young radio man had left the Islands without giving a forwarding address. The PD at KING was going to give it one more day and, if Jim still hadn’t made contact, he would have hired someone else. 

From his stint at KING, Jim went to the CBS affiliate KIRO, then to KVI and finally back to KIRO, a daily on-air career that lasted from 1952 to 1994. In 1994, he turned 65 and retired, but only from the daily grind, not from broadcasting. 

While he was working his first stint at KIRO, the Golden Age of Radio formally came to an end on Sept. 30, 1962, with the cancellation of the last network dramatic programs Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. An era had ended. A few years later, Jim got the idea to see if there was still an audience for full-cast audio drama. He persuaded his boss to let him write and produce a Western piece he called Rembrandt. If the response was favorable, perhaps more shows could be done. The show aired and the response was … nil. Puget Sounders weren’t interested in something as old hat as audio drama. But a few years later, things changed.

In the early ’70s, the first of the nostalgia crazes hit the country. What was old was new, and that included old-time radio shows. By this time, Jim was at KVI-AM doing an interview show and hundreds of commercial voiceovers. He’d pretty much given up the idea of writing dramatic shows until the powers at the station decided to devote an hour every day to replaying audio shows from the past. They called it The Theater of the Mind, and it originally aired at 10 p.m.. When the program was moved to 7 p.m., it really took off, and this more or less kick-started Jim’s brain into gear. He asked if he could be allowed to write a series of episodes for a proposed anthology show to be played once a week during the OTR slot. Permission was given and, for nine weeks, Jim wrote, cast and produced all the stories for the short-lived Tower Playhouse, thus called because the studios of KVI were in the Tower Building. This time the public response was positive.

In 1972, Jim began his first audio series with continuing characters. He called it Dameron, and it starred local radio legend Robert E. Lee Hardwick and former voice man for Hanna-Barbera cartoon studios Doug Young. Dameron, the title character, was a troubleshooter whose work took him to the far corners of the globe. Jim wrote a script a week, finally totaling 49 episodes, while at the same time doing his daily show and any remotes or publicity gigs the station required. If this wasn’t enough, toward the end of the show’s run, he had an idea for a new series of standalone plays. Each would deal with extreme danger, turmoil and unexpected events that could drive people to do something that was mad, horrible or without precedent. He would call the series Crisis, and when he could, he’d use famous celebrities who might be passing through town. Again the station said yes and, in 1974, the premier episode was broadcast. As with all of Jim’s shows then and in the future, all were recorded under an AFTRA contract. He would only use professionals unless the actor was a one-shot contest winner. Crisis ran to 144 scripts, a respectable run for any series, but this was the birthplace of a character that in some ways would define this phase of Jim’s professional life as a writer. 

In late 1975, Jim was given complimentary tickets to the new Phillip Marlowe film Farewell My Lovely starring Robert Mitchum. He didn’t care for the film, but he liked the musical score, and thought he could write a story about a down-on-his-luck private eye using that score if he could get the clearances needed. Earlier, he’d tried to interest CBS in letting him produce new episodes of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, since the network owned the rights to the show. He was turned down, but he wanted to do a P.I. play and this music spurred him on. He wrote an episode he called West for My Health about an unglamorous middle-aged gumshoe he called Harry Nile. The name was a play on the character played by Orson Welles in the film The Third Man and the radio series The Third Man: The Lives of Harry Lime. As for the music, he contacted the composer and was told he was under contract to the studio and the score was theirs. When he called the studio, they were not able to shed any light on who held the rights, so having done his due diligence, he used the soundtrack. From then to now it has been the foundation for the series.

The episode debuted on KVI at 7 p.m. on Jan. 1, 1976, starring Phil Harper as Harry Nile. Nothing special happened regarding the audience’s reaction and Jim didn’t do another Nile until a year later. This one he called Seattle Blues and he did get good feedback, so much so that he was asked to write a series. He titled it The Adventures of Harry Nile and Phil Harper came back to play Harry. Introduced in the episode The Twenty Dollar Trackdown was a one-shot female character called Murphy, no first name, just Murphy. Pat French played the part. Sadly, as happened in radio in 1978, a new program director was hired at KVI and much of the staff was let go, including Jim the day he walked into the station with the tape reel of the latest Harry Nile adventure under his arm.

Now with two children in the family, Jeff and Lee Anne, Jim decided it might be time to get out of radio and look for something less transient, so for two years the voice of Jim French was not to be heard over the airwaves. In the third year of his self-imposed exile from radio and while he was working at Boeing making movies, the program director at KIRO-AM approached him about doing a weekend interview show for the station. Jim agreed, thinking he could use the extra money. Shortly after that, he was offered the chance to get back into daily broadcasting. He accepted and his glory years began.

Jim had the midday daytime slot on KIRO, doing an interview program called, fittingly, Midday. During his run as host, he interviewed what he liked to call “the world.” Everyone from famous politicians to movie stars to people in the news. His was the voice folks felt comfortable with and he was invited into thousands of homes each weekday. He was so welcomed that years after he left the daily grind, people would walk up to his table in whatever restaurant he might be having a meal and tell him how much his aural visits to their homes had meant to them. 

It was in the late 1980’s that his boss at KIRO asked him who owned the rights to those shows he’d written and produced at KVI back in the ’70s. Jim told him that he owned them and asked why the PD was interested. He was told that the station would like to re-run them on Saturday nights, usually a dead time for AM radio, and what would Jim charge to use them? He was so thrilled to think his work would be heard again that he said, “You can have them for free. I’ll just cut out the references to KVI, put on new openings and they’ll be ready to go.” Oh, and that last Harry Nile that never made it on the air was finally broadcast just a mere 12 years after it was recorded. By the early ’90s, Jim was approached by the same boss about writing new episodes, both standalones and Harry Nile adventures. He said yes and from 1991 to his last completed script in 2016, his output was copious.

KIRO decided to air what they called The KIRO Mystery Playhouse, not only on Saturday nights, but on Sunday as well, where eventually all new material premiered. When the station decided to retire Jim from his five-day-a-week slot in 1994, he was asked two things: one, would he still do a Sunday morning interview show, and two, would he still create new material for the Playhouse? Jim said yes on both counts. He’d built a recording studio/office above his garage. Once a week, drivers would bring that weekend’s guest out to his home in Bellevue to be interviewed. Jim had a small sign that only the interviewee could see. All it said was “Tell me a story,” and under his quiet, patient guidance, they did. On Sunday mornings on the program titled This Week with Jim French, those stories were heard for several years.

In 1996, a fellow out of San Francisco named Dave Adams contacted Jim and said that he ran a company called Transmedia and that he was really interested in syndicating the radio plays across the country on a 55-minute show he had decided to call Imagination Theatre. He would pay Jim a weekly royalty and all he had to do was prepare the episode for shipping via satellite upload to Dave’s studio in Southern California. Needless to say, Jim’s answer was yes and a 21-year, 1,093-week run was born. Old shows were replayed and new shows were written, produced and sent. Harry Nile cases and standalones, naturally, but there were new series added as the years passed such as Kincaid the Strangeseeker featuring Terry Rose in the lead. An agreement with the estate of the daughter of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was reached to do brand new stories, first starring John Gilbert and later John Patrick Lowrie. I played Watson during the entire run. 

Following Holmes came shows like The Hilary Caine Mysteries; Mr. Darnbourough Investigates; Raffles, the Gentleman Thief; Kerides the Thinker; The Chronicles of Anthony Rathe; Masters of Mysteries; and Phoenix Rising. Some ran many episodes, some only a few, but all were written by Jim or new writers that he had discovered after they had discovered Imagination Theatre. Many came from the United Kingdom: M. J. Elliott, who eventually became our head writer; Matthew Booth and Jon Hall from England; and Iain McLaughlin, Claire Bartlett and Daniel McGachey from Scotland. In the States, there was Jeremy Holstein, Steven Phillips and several more, the most prolific of whom was Sable Jak.

When KIRO decided to move the show from its lineup and place it on a lower-wattage, less listened-to station, Jim began searching for a new home. He found it on KIXI-AM 880, whose program director picked us up so fast we didn’t miss a week of playing in the Seattle area. However, in 2006, when Adams, told Jim that he could no longer to afford to syndicate Imagination Theatre, it looked like the end had come. With KIRO no longer broadcasting the program, Jim’s weekend show had ended, and with this new cancelation, it appeared his career on radio was over. Wrong! Jim decided that he would take up the syndication himself, and with the help of the folks at Transmedia, that’s what happened. It continued until Jim French retired at the age of 88 in 2017.

His was an incredible career that took him from the Golden Age of Radio through the madness of the McCarthy era and the days of Elvis and the Beatles to the birth of the digital age and beyond. Over 70 years of microphones, headsets, records, audio drama and interesting people, Jim French was a staunch union man to his core. He carried his membership card with pride and made certain that all of his actors were members, using well over 300 of us in his plays over the many years he made audio magic. 

Jim passed away quietly in his home with his family by his side on Dec. 21, 2017. His passing left many of us heartsick and lonely, but he left a legacy that will live long after those of us who mourn him are gone.

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