Tune in for Boston Blackie …

February 29, 2016 at 8:13 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Richard Kollmar is the performer most associated with portraying Boston Blackie on radio, holding the distinction of having played the role more times than any other actor in any medium.  But in its earliest incarnation, as a 1944 summer replacement series on NBC, the Blackie radio program was an extension of the Columbia Pictures series of b-movies, and brought Chester Morris to the airwaves to reprise his starring role from the silver screen.  The following piece from the June 16, 1944 edition of The Bluefield Telegraph is one of the earliest announcements of Blackie’s transition to radio:

Bluefileld Telegraph 6-16-44

Amos ‘n’ Andy eventually came back from vacation to reclaim their spot on NBC, but Boston Blackie wasn’t about to relinquish his status as a radio sleuth.  Under the auspices of Ziv Productions, the series remained in production until 1951, and available in syndication well beyond that.  Not bad, for a character created nearly 40 years earlier.

JBF  2/29/16

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Jack Boyle at a Glance

April 6, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Much has been written here about Jack Boyle as the creator of Boston Blackie, all peppered with various hints and intimations about his checkered history.  But who was he, and why was he so uniquely suited to write the tales of the underworld which brought him such success in his lifetime?  While this subject could cover entire volumes, let’s take a look at the highlights of Boyle’s life at a glance.

Jack Boyle was born in California in 1881, somewhere in the vicinity of Oakland and San Francisco.  He grew up around Santa Clara, and in his early adulthood became a newsman and reporter (following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had both published newspapers in the 1800s).  Beginning around 1900, he was employed by various papers in San Francisco, and by 1907 had worked himself into editorial and managerial positions.  However, his professional success took a toll on him, and around 1909 he became a habitual user of opium, to combat the stresses of his job.  His habit soon became an addiction, which quickly spelled the end of his journalistic career in California.  His professional disgrace was followed by a rapid spiral into a life of crime, in order to feed his continuing opium craving.

By 1914, Boyle had run afoul of the law on multiple occasions, and had served prison sentences in both California and Colorado, on a variety of charges from forgery to armed robbery.  While serving out a sentence near Denver, he began writing stories from his prison cell.  These proved to be the first tales of his criminal hero Boston Blackie, and they were picked up for publication in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.  Late in 1914, Boyle was released from prison, and returned to working in the world of newspaper and magazine writing.  In 1917, he revived Boston Blackie for a new series of stories in THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE, and these tales found a strong following with the reading public.  The following year, his work continued to appear regularly in RED BOOK, and Boston Blackie came to the silver screen in the first of many feature films to be adapted from his adventures.  Soon the popularity of these features opened the door for Boyle to embark on a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter, while still producing fiction for nationally known magazines.  In just a few short years, Boyle had gone from drug addicted felon to successful and celebrated author.

However, to paint Boyle’s story as one of disgrace to triumph is a lopsided portrait, at best.  While it’s tempting to view his rise from the shadows of a prison cell to national prominence as a success story, the reality is far less black and white.  The entirety of Jack Boyle’s career is a strange mixture of success and scandal.

In truth, there are indications that his 1914 release from prison was acquired under false pretenses, and his subsequent activities in Denver culminated in his fleeing the state within a matter of months.  His February 1915 arrival in Missouri was no less turbulent, with Boyle being arrested in Kansas City just days after taking up residence there.  Despite his rocky start in the community, Boyle managed to establish himself in the city, securing a reporting position with THE KANSAS CITY POST, and setting up housekeeping with a woman named Violet.  During his time in THE POST’s employ, he traveled to Iowa gathering story material, and became embroiled in some questionable dealings relating to the investigation of a set of ax murders in the town of Villisca.  Boyle’s time in Kansas City ended as scandalously as it began, when he was arrested in January 1917, accused of running an opium den.  While legitimate speculations can be made about the veracity of this charge, and the possible political motivation behind Boyle’s arrest, what cannot be argued is that Boyle ultimately skipped bail and fled to Wisconsin.

With wife Violet in tow, he settled in the Baraboo, Wisconsin area in the summer of 1917.  At this point, he shifted his primary professional focus away from journalism, concentrating more on the production of fiction for popular magazines.  It was during this period that he renewed his acquaintance with editor Ray Long, and began contributing frequently to THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE.  The years of 1918 to 1920 were a time of prosperity for Boyle, with the popularity of Boston Blackie (both in print and on movie screens) reaching international proportions.  He continued publishing frequently in RED BOOK, but also signed a contract in 1919 to write Blackie stories exclusively for THE COSMOPOLITAN MAGAZINE.  His writings were also seeing print in newspapers and magazines overseas, and Hollywood was purchasing the screen rights to much of his output.  The world wanted to hear the stories that Jack Boyle had to tell.

But by the end of 1920, his fortunes started to shift.  While his career roared along full-steam, things in his personal life began to disintegrate.  In April, Boyle signed a mortgage on a second home, a ranch in Colorado, and in June he and Violet decided to spend the summer at their new property.  Sometime during this holiday, things turned sour.  Boyle separated from his wife around January 1921, leaving the taxes on the ranch unpaid, and moving to New York.  In July, Boyle officially lost his ranch to foreclosure, and the following month Violet filed for divorce from him in the Colorado courts.

Spending a year in New York, Boyle met and married a woman named Elsie Thomas, and moved to Los Angeles sometime in 1922.  While he continued to write for the magazine market, his move to the west coast also marked his leap into the world of screenwriting.  Spurred by the film industry’s continuing interest in adapting his magazine stories, Boyle began writing original scenarios directly for the studios.  However, in the summer of 1923 his new Hollywood life was thrown into turmoil, with the arrival of his first wife, Violet, and her claims that their divorce had never been finalized.  Over the next year, she publicly decried him as a bigamist, and made repeated demands for a financial settlement to complete their divorce.

Despite his success at transitioning into work in the film industry, scandal continued to plague Boyle throughout his Hollywood years.  In August 1924, he was arrested for passing bad checks in a Los Angeles grocery.  He had further run-ins with the law over the frequent escapes of his pet – a full-grown bear – which ran loose through the north Hollywood suburbs.  In September, newspapers reported a violent argument between his two wives, which ended in Elsie giving Violet a severe beating.  In October, Violet again filed for divorce from Jack, and Elsie was temporarily committed to a psychiatric ward after several unsuccessful attempts to kill herself.  Finally, in November the California courts awarded Violet her divorce, ordering Boyle to pay her one hundred dollars a month in alimony.

Around 1926, Boyle moved from Hollywood to a home in nearby Hermosa Beach. His magazine output had slowed over the previous years, though sporadic stories bearing his byline continued to appear while he pursued his work as a screenwriter.  But by ’26, even his screen assignments began to thin.  In 1927, he and Elsie moved back to New York, taking an apartment in Greenwich Village.  He was still reported to be dabbling in screenplays, and in December he published his last short story for RED BOOK.

Late in the summer of 1928, Boyle and Elsie took an extended trip back to the Pacific coast, where he engaged in some work as a publicist for the Oregon State Democratic Committee.  Late in the night of October 15, 1928, he suffered acute kidney failure in a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, and died just three days shy of his 47th birthday.

So ends the strange and sordid tale of Jack Boyle (or at least a thumbnail sketch of it).  Of course, Boston Blackie remained a popular subject of movies, radio and television shows well into the 1950s, with the character even seeing a minor revival in the 21st century as the protagonist in a pair of graphic novels.  But where Blackie has endured, Boyle has largely faded into obscurity.  Which is a shame, because in many ways his life was even more interesting than the yarns he wrote.  My upcoming book, THE COMPLETE BOSTON BLACKIE, will include a far more in depth look at the life and times of the author.  But in the meantime, be sure to check back here for further glimpses into the colorful life of Jack Boyle.

JBF 4/6/15

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Boston Blackie

April 26, 2011 at 7:46 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It’s probably unfair of me to call Jack Boyle forgotten.  Certainly, a simple Google search of “Boston Blackie” will turn up references to him, and there are snippets of info about his life buried in documents scattered across the Internet.  But virtually all of that material is DEEPLY buried, and Boyle’s name is scarcely a fraction as recognizable to the general public as that of his most enduring creation.

Not that Boston Blackie is a household name these days either.  Still, unlike his creator, Blackie has managed to maintain a toehold in the  consciousness of the American public.  He is mentioned in songs like The Coasters’ Searchin’ and (more recently) Jimmy Buffet’s Pencil Thin
Moustache.  And, of course, his adventures are fondly remembered by a great many fans of old-time radio and b-movie mysteries.

For the uninitiated among us, Boston Blackie is a hero on the wrong side of the law.  In his best-remembered incarnations (the movies, radio, and tv
series of the 1940s-50s), he is a reformed thief with a heart of gold, usually at odds with the police because of his criminal past.  However, this characterization is a far cry from the initial concept first presented in Jack Boyle’s earliest stories.  While his Blackie definitely possesses the benevolent streak which helped endear him to audiences for decades, he initially appears as a hardened criminal and opium addict.  Later tales wean him of his drug dependence, and move Blackie closer and closer to the reformed status he enjoys in later decades.  Regardless of which version of the character you prefer, Boston Blackie always makes for ripping good entertainment, and his creation was a defining moment in Jack Boyle’s life.

Of course, I was scarcely aware of most of this the day I unwittingly took my first tentative steps down the trail of Blackie and Boyle.  The afternoon I returned that reprint of BOSTON BLACKIE to the public library, and followed a whim to dig up Boyle’s earliest tales from THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE, I had no intention of embarking on a decades-long research project.  I just wanted to read a few more stories, and maybe find out a
little bit more about their author.  There was something magical about handling those crumbling magazines from 1914 though – almost intoxicating –
and the original illustrations by N.C. Wyeth alone were stunning enough to justify pulling the aged periodicals from the depths of the library’s
archives.  The autobiographical sketch published with these earliest Blackie tales was not credited to Jack Boyle, but appeared under the byline No. 6606 (Boyle’s convict number in the penitentiary where he was incarcerated).  With his identity obscured in this manner, the sketch provided little in the way of specific data about the author, instead relating anecdotes primarily related to his addiction to opium and his fall from grace as a journalist. So, while fascinating reading, the piece gave only vague clues to Boyle’s early life.

But what clues they were!  They spoke of a successful professional brought to ruin, the pursuit of a fugitive from justice, armed robbery, corruption in law enforcement, and an insider’s view of the criminal underworld. In many ways, Boyle himself was beginning to sound even more intriguing than
the fictional characters he wrote about.  Surely there was more I could ferret out about this man.  How could he have gone from success to disgrace to extreme success and then obscurity?  My intrigue was deepening.  So, putting aside those issues of THE AMERICAN, I began contemplating how I
could go about finding out more …

JBF 4/26/11

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It Began Innocently Enough …

April 13, 2011 at 8:01 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In many ways, this whole thing started for me with a man named Doyle, not Boyle.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a fresh-faced kid, a few years out of college and recently married, working in the records division of a downtown law firm.  Mr. Doyle was a gentleman also in the firm’s employ, who knew of my enthusiasm for all things nostalgic, vintage radio drama in particular.  One afternoon he gave me a box of cassette tapes he had purchased some years earlier, a sampler of programs from radio’s golden era.  Among the recordings were several episodes of BOSTON BLACKIE starring Dick Kolmar.  I had never heard BOSTON BLACKIE before, but recalled the title as one of a handful of shows that my parents had mentioned over the years as being among their families’ weekly entertainments.  Something about the title, and the fact that my folks had listened to the series long ago, sparked my interest, and I listened to those tapes first.

I can’t honestly say that the production held me riveted, but the shows were a pleasant afternoon’s diversion, and a reminder that I had once read that the BOSTON BLACKIE radio series had its basis in an older literary character.  At the time, I was an avid reader of early twentieth century crime fiction, so on a whim I looked up Boston Blackie at my local public library.  To my delight, they held a reprint of the sole volume published about the character way back in 1919.  I devoured the collection in a matter of days, thoroughly enjoying my first taste of the “real” Boston Blackie as originally conceived by his creator.  But who was this Jack Boyle, who had created such an amiable rogue as Blackie?

Fortunately for me, the reprint which I held contained an excellent introduction by mystery writer Edward D. Hoch detailing background on the author and his notorious brainchild.  However, I soon learned that precious little was known about Jack Boyle.  A former newspaper man, corrupted by drug addiction, Boyle had written his earliest tales of Boston Blackie from a prison cell.  They became popular with the reading public, and upon his release from incarceration a few years later, Boyle went on to a successful writing career with Blackie at its foundation.  Movies were made about Blackie as early as 1918, and continued to be made well into the 1940s.  His exploits were later successfully adapted to both radio and television, and mentions of him have even made their way into a few popular songs over the years.  But despite Blackie’s longevity, after the mid-1920s Jack Boyle seems to have just faded away.  Given the success of his work, how could this happen?

The day I went to return the book, I spotted a passage in its introduction which had previously escaped my notice.  Ed Hoch commented that the earliest Blackie stories, published in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE along with an autobiographical essay composed by Boyle to introduce the series, were not included in the 1919 book.  So there was more information available out there!  Issues of THE AMERICAN from the 1910s are pretty scarce, and the odds of my library holding copies were overwhelmingly slim, but I decided to check just on the off chance.  To my astonishment, our collection held precisely the issues I needed, and I scurried excitedly to the Periodicals Desk anticipating the intriguing new info I could be on the verge of unearthing …

So, with his random gift, Mr. Doyle unwittingly unleashed my curiosity, setting me on a collision course with Jack Boyle and his shady world of letters and lawlessness.  But at that point, I had no hint where my new-found interest was leading me …

JBF 4/13/11

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