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Obituaries

Les Tremayne, 90; Radio Icon's Acting Career Ran 6 Decades

December 23, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Les Tremayne, one of the best-known actors on radio in the 1930s and '40s who starred in "The Thin Man" and "The Falcon" but is best remembered as the longtime leading man on "The First Nighter," has died. He was 90.

Tremayne, whose film credits included the science fiction classic "The War of the Worlds," died of heart failure Friday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica.

In a six-decade career that began on radio in Chicago in 1930, Tremayne once estimated that he had worked on more than 30,000 broadcasts, with as many as 45 radio shows a week in the 1930s.

In various polls, he was voted the No. 1 dramatic actor in the highly popular commercial medium.

Tremayne was so familiar to radio audiences that in one poll in the early 1940s, he was cited as one of the three most famous voices in America. The other two were President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bing Crosby.

"He had a silken, wonderful voice -- it was in the Orson Welles timbre; it kind of was honeyed in the best sense," Norman Corwin, the renowned radio writer, director and producer of the 1930s and '40s, told The Times on Monday.

"Les Tremayne," Corwin added, "was always a name that had considerable luminescence in the profession."

Marty Halperin, vice president of Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters, the social-professional organization that Tremayne helped found in 1966, said the actor's voice "was very authoritative and cultural, but he could do all sorts of accents."

Calling Tremayne "one of the icons of radio," Halperin said Tremayne "was a very warm, friendly person -- and funny. I have recordings of phone messages he left me in different dialects."

In the mid-1980s, Tremayne co-hosted and co-produced "Please Stand By: A History of Radio" for the Southern California Consortium of Community Colleges, an accredited course of 30 half-hour programs.

Tremayne, who was a charter member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.

Born in Balham, England, Tremayne moved to Chicago with his family at age 4. He learned to hide his British accent after he was beaten up by bullies, said his wife, Joan, on Monday.

In 1927, after a year in high school, Tremayne's father forced him to quit and go to work. His mother encouraged him to become an actor, and he worked in community theater, danced in vaudeville and was an amusement park barker before landing his first radio job in 1930.

He went on to appear on numerous radio shows, including "Grand Hotel," often without benefit of rehearsal.

"It was the greatest training for actors that ever existed," Tremayne said of radio in an interview published earlier this year in Nostalgia Digest. "You'd arrive at the studio, they'd hand you a script, and it was air time. You just hoped you'd get the voices right and you had to figure out ways of getting from one [studio] to another as quickly as you could."

Tremayne received his big break in 1936: He replaced Don Ameche as the leading man on "The First Nighter," a weekly program of original half-hour radio dramas set in the fictional "Little Theater off Times Square."

The show, which was presented as if listeners were attending a Broadway opening of a new play each week, was broadcast in front of a live audience in Chicago.

To complement the glamour of an opening night, Tremayne was known to wear a top hat, white tie and tails and carry a cane, while his leading lady, Barbara Luddy, wore an evening gown.

Tremayne, who was the original leading man on "The Romance of Helen Trent" and also starred on "Betty and Bob," left Chicago in 1943 for Los Angeles and later New York.

In Los Angeles, he co-starred with Bob Crosby on the "Old Gold Show," and after the show moved to New York when Crosby left for military service, Tremayne co-starred with a relatively unknown comic named Jackie Gleason.

While in New York, he starred in "The Thin Man" and "The Falcon." He also teamed up with his second wife, actress Alice Reinhardt, on "The Tremaynes," a WOR breakfast talk show that aired six days a week. He also appeared for 18 months in "Detective Story" on Broadway.

Tremayne made numerous guest appearances on television. He also was a regular on "One Man's Family" (1950), played Inspector Richard Queen on the 1958-'59 NBC series "Ellery Queen" and played Mr. Mentor on the children's series "Shazam!" (1974). He later had a featured role on "General Hospital."

Among his movie roles, Tremayne played the auctioneer in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and had a substantial part as the no-nonsense Maj. Gen. Mann in "The War of the Worlds," co-starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.

On Monday, Robinson remembered being "absolutely thrilled" to work with Tremayne on the 1953 film.

She had grown up listening to "The First Nighter," she said, "and here was one of my favorite idols, Les Tremayne, and a voice you'll never forget as long as you live, a magnificent voice."

In addition to his wife of 23 years, he is survived by his brother, Charles Henning.

A celebration of life will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 7 at Westwood Village Memorial Park, 1218 Glendon Ave., West Los Angeles.

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