Happy Birthday, Ralph Bell!
Posted by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. on Nov 27th 2021
It would be no exaggeration to state that the actor born Ralph Scognamiglio in New Jersey (though sources also state his place of birth as New York City) on this date in 1915 had a lifelong love affair with the aural medium. Scognamiglio -- who later changed his professional name to “Ralph Bell” -- continued to send his voice out over the airways (on series like Theatre Five and the long-running The Eternal Light) long after the curtain fell on prime time radio drama. Bell was there when Himan Brown tried to resurrect the art form in the 1970s with The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (he would do some one-hundred-and-twenty Mystery Theatre broadcasts). He also emoted on Brown’s The General Mills Adventure Theatre (also known as The CBS Adventure Theatre) and NPR’s Earplay. In addition, Ralph Bell continued to pay the rent with voice-overs for TV commercials and the like.
Whether you consider him a native New Yorker or not, Ralph Bell spent much of his formative years in The Garden State—Hackensack, to be precise. Ralph did his higher learning at the University of Michigan (go Wolverines!), where his interest in acting was stoked by attending the college’s Drama School as he majored in English. Upon graduating in 1937, the university offered him a job teaching drama and producing plays, which Bell happily accepted. He spent a year teaching at his alma mater and then decided to strike out on his own, putting his acting skills to practical use.
Moving to New York City, Ralph Bell landed a small part in What a Life! (1938)—the Clifford Goldsmith-penned play that would later be adapted for radio as The Aldrich Family. (Bell later replaced Jack Byrne in the role of “Mr. Patterson” in that same Broadway production.) Ralph’s stage credits include See My Lawyer (1939), Banjo Eyes (1941), Native Son (1942), and The Great Big Doorstep (1942). In later years, Bell would return to his footlights origins with appearances in such plays as The Crucible (1953), A View from the Bridge/A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1969), The Time of Your Life (1969), and Camino Real (1970).
Like most stage actors, it didn’t take long for
Ralph Bell to realize that moonlighting in radio could reap substantial financial
benefits...and for Bell, his voice (described by some as “nasal” and
“sing-songy”) was ideal for playing gangsters, villains, and other sinister
types. One of Ralph’s early high-profile gigs was on the daytime
drama This is Nora Drake. He played a no-goodnik named
Spencer on that long-running soap, but he also acted as the titular heroine’s
“lost” father Alfred (after the performer who was playing Daddy
Drake, Everett Sloane, had to take a leave of absence from the program to work
on the motion picture Prince of Foxes ). Bell could
also be heard as “Joe Peterson” on Lorenzo Jones, “Charlie
Gleason” on The Strange Romance of Evelyn Winters, “Jack
Eastman” on Valiant Lady, and various parts on Big
Sister, The Guiding Light, and The Right
Throughout his lengthy radio career, Ralph Bell made regular appearances on such favorites as $1000 Reward, Cloak and Dagger, Columbia Presents Corwin, Crime Doctor, David Harding, Counterspy, The FBI in Peace and War, Gang Busters, The Marriage, Mr. District Attorney, New World A'Comin', and Treasury Agent. In the early New York years of Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, Bell portrayed Craig’s nemesis on the force, Lt. Travis Rogers, from 1951 to 1953. Other shows on Ralph’s radio resume include 2000 Plus, ABC Mystery Time, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of the Falcon, Best Plays, The Big Story, The CBS Radio Workshop, Casey, Crime Photographer, The Cavalcade of America, The Chase, The Columbia Workshop, Crime and Peter Chambers, A Crime Letter from Dan Dodge, Dangerously Yours, Dick Tracy, Dimension X, Dr. Six-gun, Easy Money, Inheritance, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, The Kate Smith Hour, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Magnificent Montague, The Mollé Mystery Theatre, Mr. I.A. Moto, Murder by Experts, The Mysterious Traveler, NBC Star Playhouse, The Radio City Playhouse, Romance, The Search That Never Ends, The Shadow, This is My Story, The Theatre Guild On the Air, Top Secret, Treasury Salute, True Detective Mysteries, Under Arrest, X Minus One, and You Are There.
Ralph Bell is listed among the 151 names from
the entertainment field in Red Channels, the anti-Communist booklet
published in 1950 that did significant damage to the careers of those
performers unfortunate to be featured in its pages. (Ralph’s then-spouse,
Pert Kelton, is also named in the pamphlet.) A website (with an anonymous
author) that declares the Hollywood blacklist to be a “myth” argues that Bell
was not blacklisted despite appearing in Red Channels because
-- according to one of Ralph’s neighbors -- the actor “harbored
no political leanings at all.” The neighbor must have been unaware of
Bell’s participation in Stage for Action, a social activist organization of
performers founded in the 1940s that, in the words of author
Chrystyna Dail, “amplified the voices of the some of the most radically
anti-racist, anti-fascist, and pro-union thinkers of the era.” The website
also posits that because Ralph continued to work in radio and on stage in New
York this means he wasn’t on anyone’s list, ignoring the “Hollywood blacklist” part.
(Blacklisted performers did find radio/stage work on the East Coast,
but it was hardly a walk in Central Park.) As such, Ralph’s
early small screen acting work was limited to appearances on television soaps
like The Edge of Night and the boob tube version of
radio’s Suspense, while contributing scripts to such series
as The Loretta Young Show.
Eventually Ralph Bell found himself being offered work on television favorites like The Andy Griffith Show, The Defenders, East Side/West Side, Hawaiian Eye, Hawk, The Patty Duke Show (as William Schallert’s boss), The Tom Ewell Show, and Wanted: Dead or Alive. In later years Bell appeared on the likes of Kate & Allie and Law & Order while landing roles in theatrical features like Wolfen (1981) and Zelig (1983). A longtime member of the Screen Actors Guild (where he served as a national board member beginning in 1965 and concluding in 1994), Ralph Bell left this world for a better one in 1998 at the age of 82.
Ralph Bell was part of the floating repertory company that acted on Dimension X and later X Minus One…and you can hear his familiar tones on the Dimension collections Adventures in Time and Space and Future Tense and our X Minus One sets Countdown and Time and Time Again. Ralph’s also present and accounted for on Great Radio Science Fiction and Science Fiction Radio: Atom Age Adventures, as well as The Mollé Mystery Theatre: Close Shave, The Mysterious Traveler: Dark Destiny, Sherlock Holmes: Well Staged Murder, Suspense: Final Curtain, Theatre 5, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Mysterious Matters.
You’ll also find today’s birthday boy in our digital downloads store, beginning with his signature role on Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator. That’s followed by Casey, Crime Photographer: Snapshots of Mystery, The Falcon: Private Eye to Super Spy, Gang Busters: Crime Wave, Great Radio Spies, The Mysterious Traveler: Out of the Past, Murder by Experts, and Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama. Happy, happy birthday, Ralph!