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Happy Birthday, Bret Morrison!

Happy Birthday, Bret Morrison!

Posted by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. on May 5th 2023

Although it was often difficult to tell on radio, actor Bret Morrison—born in Chicago on this date in 1912—was considered quite the practitioner of sartorial splendor. (That’s just my fancy way of saying he was well-dressed.) Morrison was often singled out by both his peers in the industry and devoted fans as being one of the best-dressed thespians in radio. An anecdote related in a February 1937 edition of Radio Guide notes that during a broadcast of The First Nighter Program (“Mr. First Nighter” being portrayed by Morrison himself), Bret introduced the show’s cast while toting a pair of crutches that he needed after injuring his foot in an ice-skating accident. Since the actors on First Nighter were required to dress in formal clothing, Morrison was using a monogrammed set of black crutches. Completing his ensemble were jet-black bandages around his foot (in lieu of the traditional white wrappings).

Bret Morrison was educated at Nicholas Senn High School in the Windy City, where he excelled at track, swimming, and dramatics (he was president of the Drama Club). He briefly attended the Art Institute after graduation, but the acting bug bit hard and soon he was working at the Chicago Art Theater. From there it was trodding the boards for stock companies and Bret also served a stint at the Pasadena Playhouse during a brief sojourn in California. Chicago was really where Morrison made his acting mark, however. His experiences in front of a microphone began while he was still in high school; Bret made his debut as an actor-singer on WCFL’s popular The Voice of Labor. In 1931, he walked into a radio studio and asked for a small part in a production of Dracula; he won the role and would eventually play the lead. Later, Bret was hired as the lead on a daytime musical soap opera program, Love Song.

Bret Morrison soon became one of the busiest radio actors in Chicago, chiefly playing the titular role on the popular The First Nighter Program (he gave up the part to Marvin Miller in 1940). Other programs on which he appeared include Attorney at Law, The Chicago Theatre of the Air (again allowing him to sing and act), Fifth Row Center, In Chicago Tonight, The Wayside Theatre, and Win Your Lady. Since the very definition of an industrious radio actor was making the rounds on the medium’s numerous daytime dramas, Morrison’s resume is choc-a-bloc with soap operas, beginning with the Chicago-based Lucky Girl. During his lengthy radio career, Bret appeared on Arnold Grimm’s Daughter (as Stanley Westland), Front Page Farrell (as Emil Rand and Victor Hillier), The Guiding Light (Clifford Foster), Road of Life (Linden Ware), The Romance of Helen Trent (Jonathan Hayward), Stella Dallas (Leo Kingsley), The Story of Mary Marlin (Mario Del Costillo), Woman in White (Dave Talbot), and Young Widder Brown (Conrad Phillips). Morrison also worked on Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories (as well as contributing scripts), Big Sister, and Ma Perkins.

Bret Morrison’s resonant voice attracted the attention of many radio programs in need of an effective announcer and/or narrator. One of his best-known gigs was “The Speaker” on The Light of the World, a long-running dramatic serial inspired by The Bible. Bret also served as the host of Listening Post, another dramatic program featuring stories adapted from The Saturday Evening Post. Among the shows Morrison worked on as announcer and/or narrator include Best Sellers, Clara, Lu, and Em, Melody Theatre, and Musical Bouquet; Bret could also be heard on Adventure Parade, American Caravan, The Camel Caravan, The Carnation Contented Hour, Enchanted Seas, English Coronets, Hollywood Hotel, Manhattan Mother, Parties at Pickfair (as Mary Pickford’s leading man), Post Parade, Tent Show Tonight, and Vicks Open House.

In the summer of 1941, Bret Morrison co-starred with actress Barbara Luddy (the two had worked together on The First Nighter Program) on Great Gunns, a comedic serial about a prominent theatrical family. Morrison’s best-remembered radio gig would come along two years later; he won out over 110 applicants to become the new voice of Lamont Cranston, the “wealthy young man about town” whose secret identity was…The Shadow! Bret portrayed Cranston for about a year before doing a hitch in the First Service Command during WW2. John Archer and Steve Courtleigh filled in for him during his absence and when Morrison returned in October of 1945, he portrayed the superhero detective until the show departed the airwaves on December 26, 1954. In addition, Morrison would reprise his role as Cranston from time to time on Mutual/ABC’s Quick as a Flash, a quiz show that featured mystery plays solved by radio’s most popular gumshoes (Nick Carter, Mr. District Attorney, etc.).

In his essential reference book The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program, 1930-1954, OTR historian Martin Grams notes that several broadcasts (which, sadly, apparently have not survived) took advantage of Bret Morrison’s singing talents by placing his Lamont Cranston undercover as a nightclub crooner, cabaret singer, etc. Bret further flexed his songbird muscles as the star of Song of the Stranger, a 1947-48 radio serial in which Morrison’s character, French patriot Pierre de Varney, went undercover as a singer in his mission to defeat the enemies of France. Existing episodes of that series are rare, but fans can get an inkling of what Morrison’s Stranger role was like in the Shadow episode “Murders on the Main Stem” (12/15/46).

Filling out Bret Morrison’s radio resume are appearances on shows including The Adventures of the Falcon, The Adventures of Superman, The Adventures of the Thin Man, Beyond Tomorrow, By the People, The Eternal Light, Exploring Tomorrow, The Haunting Hour, Home is What You Make It, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, The Kemstone Hour, The Lux Radio Theatre, The MGM Theatre of the Air, The Mysterious Traveler, Screen Test, Strange As It Seems, Suspense, Treasury Salute, The Weird Circle, and X-Minus One.

Post-Shadow, Bret Morrison was the host of Paging the News, described by Martin Grams as “a 15-minute program dramatizing best-seller books in the same nature as the former Best Sellers program.” Morrison’s TV appearances were sporadic; he briefly portrayed District Attorney Bruce Thompson on the daytime soap The Edge of Night from 1957-1958, and guest starred on popular favorites like Cannon and The Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s. Bret did most of his movie work dubbing foreign movies into English. He was truly a creature of radio, and until his passing in 1978 at the age of 66 worked on many radio revival shows like The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, The Hollywood Radio Theatre, and Theatre Five. In fact, he succumbed to a heart attack shortly after finishing a taping of Heartbeat Theatre.

To celebrate Bret Morrison’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to check out two collections spotlighting his work: The Mysterious Traveler: Out of the Past and The Weird Circle: Time Worn Pages. You’ll also find Mr. Morrison on Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures, too. In our digital downloads store, the birthday boy is well represented on The Falcon: Private Eye to Super Spy, The Haunting Hour, Suspense: Omnibus, and X-Minus One: Archives Collection Volume One. Happy birthday, Bret!