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Happy Birthday, Lawson Zerbe!

Happy Birthday, Lawson Zerbe!

Posted by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. on Mar 20th 2021

In her 1968 autobiography Tune in Tomorrow: Or, How I Found the Right to Happiness with Our Gal Sunday, Stella Dallas, John’s Other Wife, and Other Sudsy Radio Serials, daytime drama doyenne Mary Jane Higby relates an amusing anecdote about one of her fellow radio thesps—Lawson A. Zerbe, born on this date in 1914. It seems that Lawson was entertaining himself by playing around with a set of handcuffs belonging to the sound effects man, receiving hearty laughter after snapping the “bracelets” on himself. There was even more laughter when the sound patterns artist explained to Mr. Z that he didn’t have a key to the handcuffs…but as it turns out, he wasn’t joking. The network (NBC) didn’t have a key, either. Fortunately for Zerbe, he wouldn’t ever have to explain the handcuffs to the curious (he was eventually “sprung”) and he continued with his successful radio career.

Lawson Zerbe was born in Portland, Oregon to Charles and Nell Zerbe but became a resident of the Buckeye State at an early age, residing in Dayton, Ohio with his family. He attended Fairview High School, followed by a stint at the Dayton Art Institute. Zerbe would establish a foothold in radio by working as an actor-writer for a Dayton station, then moving on to Cincinnati’s WLW in 1934. From there, a move to New York City to seriously pursue an acting career, which he found awaiting him in the aural medium. An unidentified announcer in a May 1949 Radio Mirror article described Lawson thusly: “Lawson is the man of a thousand voices. He can play any kind of character a script writer can dream up. And double! He can play two characters on the same program—switch flawlessly from one to the other without batting an eye.”

Busy radio actors—and particularly those based in The Big Apple—made a most comfortable living emoting on “the soaps,” and Lawson Zerbe was certainly no exception. Zerbe portrayed “Jeffery Clark” on Valiant Lady, “Pascal Tyler” on Against the Storm, “Rex Lawton” on Lora Lawton, and “Peter Harvey” on Rosemary. He also played, at various times, “Fred Brent” and “John ‘Butch’ Brent” on Road to Life. Lawson’s best-remembered daytime drama job might be that of “Larry ‘Pepper’ Young, the hero of Pepper Young’s Family. He inherited the part from Curtis Arnall in 1937 and would relinquish it to future Smucker’s spokesman Mason Adams in 1945. (Adams had previously emoted as Pepper while Zerbe was in the service). Other dramatic serials making use of Lawson’s talents include By Kathleen Norris, The Life of Mary Sothern, Married for Life (there’s a concept for you), and The O’Neills.

Lawson Zerbe would soon add prime-time programming to his radio acting resume. He portrayed photographer Dusty Miller on the popular Big Town, Agent Williams on Treasury Agent, and recurring parts on Best Plays, Crime and Peter Chambers, Dick Tracy, Exploring Tomorrow, Gang Busters, Grand Central Station, Murder by Experts, The Mystery Man, Roger Kilgore, Public Defender, and Strictly Business. Zerbe had the starring role on The Adventures of Frank Merriwell, a Saturday morning favorite heard over NBC Radio from 1946 to 1949 (based on the dime novels by Burt L. Standish – a.k.a. Gilbert S. Patton). (Merriwell was “an All-American boy” several years before Jack Armstrong answered the call.)

Listing every item of Lawson Zerbe’s “radioactivity” would be a particularly daunting task, but among the notable programs on his c.v. are Adventure Ahead, American Portraits, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Casey, Crime Photographer, The Cavalcade of America, The CBS Radio Workshop, The Chase, The Columbia Workshop, Counterspy, Crime Club, Dimension X, High Adventure, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, Murder at Midnight, The Mysterious Traveler, NBC Star Playhouse, Official Detective, The Radio Hall of Fame, Rogue’s Gallery, The Sportsmen’s Club, Squad Room, This is Our Enemy, Twenty-First Precinct, Words at War, and X-Minus One. Zerbe would keep busy up to the end of Radio’s Golden Age on the likes of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar…and beyond that on shows like The Eternal Light. Lawson passed away in 1992 at the age of 78.

Radio Spirits has on hand a collection of broadcasts from the syndicated series The Avenger, featuring today’s birthday boy as the irascible Inspector White. We also invite you to check out our sets of Crime Club, Dimension X (Future Tense), Inner Sanctum Mysteries (Pattern for FearShadows of Death), Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures, Suspense (Final Curtain), Words at War: World War II Radio Drama, X-Minus One (Countdown), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersMysterious Matters). An incredibly happy birthday to Lawson Zerbe!