Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hal Smith, Alias Otis Campbell, Massena’s Shining Star (Part 3)

In early January 1938, Hal Smith, described as an “impersonator, vocalist, and musician,” left WIBX in Utica to sing, do impersonations, and perform production work for stations WGR, WKBW, and WEBR in Buffalo. Without missing a beat, he was soon serving as master of ceremonies at high-profile events, and leading a band known as Pop Martin and His Boys while hosting a radio show by the same name. He was also regularly featured on WEBR with well-known Buffalo singer Joan Hutton, on a pair of shows titled “Music is My Hobby” and “Linger Awhile.”

Despite doing well in Buffalo, Hal returned by mid-year to WIBX in Utica. One reason for the move may have been his relationship with the station secretary there, Vivian Angstadt. In early August 1938 they applied for a marriage license, and were wed in Utica on the thirteenth. After a stay at Lake Placid while touring the Adirondacks, they returned to work at WIBX.

As was true throughout his life, there was no slowing Hal down. By mid-1939 he was the program director at WIBX, but still played countless gigs with the band, hosted fundraisers as a much-sought-after master of ceremonies, organized and directed entertainment for important events, and continued expanding his repertoire of voices and impersonations that delighted crowds everywhere. Among the new characters he introduced on the radio was Professor Kwizz, who conducted “Kreckt Kwizz.” He also took Professor Kwizz on the road to places like Schine’s Rialto Theater in Little Falls, offering prizes of cash and gifts for those who answered questions correctly. Known widely as genial Hal of WIBX, he also regularly led community singing at concerts in Utica’s Roscoe Conkling Park, at times guiding up to 5,000 citizens as they swayed and sang to the music. And as always, there were regular return visits home to visit the folks back in Massena.

Hal’s career was flourishing, but in 1943, all of it — band performances, comedy shows, hosting, emceeing, singing, the radio shows — changed when he joined the army in late April. The military well knew the importance of entertaining the troops, and Hal’s talents were recognized with an assignment to the Army Air Force Special Services. (In private life he had become an avid flyer, so the army air force seemed an apt choice.)

Late in the year, he was stationed at Gulfport Field in Mississippi, but did end up going overseas. In 1945, after a six-month period in the South Pacific, Hal wore the American Theater Ribbon, the Asiatic-Pacific Ribbon, and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon. In Manila, he was made assistant manager of the enlisted men’s club at the Far East Air Force (FEAF) headquarters. As such, he was responsible for planning and directing shows for the troops, tasks he had recently handled during several years of civilian life. His own performing skills were utilized as well, and late in the year, in a show titled “Strictly from Hunger,” Sergeant Hal Smith sang songs and performed several impersonations he had perfected back in central New York. His latest efforts were well received, filling the new FEAF outdoor theater to capacity.

In April 1946, shortly after being discharged from the service, Hal headed for California with plenty of talent and a recommendation from a friend he had met during the pre-war days in Utica — Arnold Stoltz, an actor-turned-show-business-executive for PRC Pictures. PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) became known for creating low-budget B movies, but they helped give Hal his start. Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, he joined a touring company, performing as a comedian in a show promoting the movie Down Missouri Way, a PRC production featuring John Carradine. Hal was then given a role in Stars Over Texas, another PRC movie in which he didn’t star, but was the comedy lead.

By 1948, he had played small movie roles, was a radio announcer on KIEV, and twice that summer played murderers in Paramount Television Network’s Armchair Detective series. But it was not an easy time, and his future in show biz was hardly certain. As Hal explained about the TV work, “They would call me up each week to do the show — for nothing. They said they were letting me in on the ground floor. So I’d pay a guy $18 to take my KIEV shift for the day. The more I worked the broker I got.”

He became lead announcer for radio station KFI, which opened the door to other opportunities, and did a nationwide radio sports show each week with Heisman Trophy winner and NFL player Tom Harmon, who had helped get Hal into television. Through it all, Hal remembered his roots. In September of that year, he traveled from Santa Monica to visit folks back in Massena — after first picking up his parents in Old Forge, where they had moved after Jay retired from Alcoa in 1946.

Hal and Vivian were divorced by then, and he remarried in 1948. In 1950, he and his second wife, Louise (Curtis), had a son, Terry. By this time Hal was working nonstop, appearing on many television shows and winning small parts in movies, mostly for his comedic talents. Late in the year he had a role in a Jimmy Durante and Donald O’Connor film titled The Milkman. With each job, he gained not only experience but business connections that led to other opportunities. He had also been a TV regular for the past year on a very popular show, The Ruggles, which had the same effect: the more he worked, the more work came his way. After just a few years in the business, he was not widely known to the public, but Hal Smith was one of the busiest men in Hollywood. While acting on The Ruggles and performing in movies, he was also the announcer on several TV programs, played comedic roles in others, and did commercials as well.

Folks back home followed his career, watching for him in local theaters when movies like Ma and Pa Kettle at the County Fair were playing, and on television shows like I Married Joan and Ozzie and Harriet. In a peek at the future, Ozzie and Harriet featured him twice as a drunken character.

Next: Hal Smith, Part 4. (A nod goes to Tracy Negus Robertson, whom Jill and I met when we were guests at TAUNY in Canton in early December. While perusing one of my books, she noticed a story about a character from The Andy Griffith Show, Arnold Winkler, who was played by a child actor from Plattsburgh. She mentioned that Otis was from Massena, and that started me digging, which culminated in this five-part review of his remarkable life. Thanks, Tracy!)

Photos: Hal Smith at WIBX (1940); Vivian Angstadt, Hal’s first wife and fellow WIBX employee (photo from 1936); Massena theater advertisement with special notice about Hal Smith (1950)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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