This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Santos Ortega: Any Detective He Didn't Play?
by Jim Widner, ©2013
(From Radio Recall, August 2013)
When Santos Ortega died in 1976, he was still
portraying the role of Will "Grandpa" Hughes on the
television daytime serial As the World Turns. He
continuously played that role on the television soap
for over 20 years. Because of the love of many fans
of the soap and as a tribute to the actor, the writers
on the drama did a rare thing by writing in a memorial
tribute to both the character and the actor including
a eulogy for Ortega himself.
Though he had the long running role on
television, and viewers raised with the soap only
knew Ortega as "Grandpa" Hughes, many outside
of old time radio fandem were not aware of his
strong credentials in radio drama. Ortega was
everywhere it seemed, and most always it was
playing major character roles in detective thrillers.
From Commissioner Weston on The Shadow to
Charlie Chan, Inspector Richard Queen on Ellery
Queen and many other detective series, Ortega
was ubiquitous on East Coast network radio.
Yet not a lot is known about his life or how an
actor with the interesting name of "Santos Ortega"
came to American radio. He was born in New York
City on June 30th, 1899 to Rafael and Isabella
Ortega. His father, of Spanish origin, was born in
Venezuela and his mother Isabella Corbett was
from Dublin, Ireland. His father is believed to have
been a cigar maker who found himself in New York
City by 1890.
Santos Ortega was a prolific cigar smoker and
was known to have his cigars with him while acting
his roles. The mythology says he often set the
Scripts of other actors on fire with his lighted cigar.
A number of publicity shots exist showing him with
cigar in hand.
Santos' sister, Isabelle, was born in 1891 and
Santos in 1899. Though he had a Spanish name,
he spoke distinctly with a New York accent.
Schooled in Manhattan, he became interested in
the stage and in his early 20's he appeared in an
extravaganza at the old Hippodrome Theater.
Soon after that he toured with a singing group, but
soon found himself back in the City trying for rotes
on Broadway. Several of the plays in which he
appeared were What's the Use (1926), What Never
Dies (1926), and Marilyn 's Affairs (1933).
Ortega's first appearance on radio came in
1929 in the music-and-short-skits series named
Blackstone Plantation with Frank Crummit and Julia
Sanderson. His character role was 'Don Rodrigo '
and listeners wrote in wondering if it was a real
Spaniard playing the role. According to one news
report, he was hired because his real name
Ortega confirmed that in an interview saying, "It
was not that I had a Spanish dialect, or that I'd ever
done a Spanish dialect before; it was just that my
name being so Spanish, that one of the casting
directors said 'Well, certainly, this guy ought to have
a Spanish dialect ' ... I was called for it and since I had
spent 8 or 9 months in Caracas, Venezuela I said
well, do what I heard there. I did and I got the part.' While
he continued with various roles on the stage ,it was radio that became his home for the next 25
Ortega's ability to assume almost any accent
guaranteed continuous and sometimes major roles
in various radio dramas. Being a New York
actor was also a boost as he appeared mostly in
crime and mystery programs, but also some radio
daytime serials many of which originated from New
York City. With his voice he was able to manipulate
it to take on virtually any ethnic role as well playing
both good guys and bad. His contributions to the
mystery genre were huge. When he was asked why
he was chosen for all the detective roles, he said "I
don't know. I'm not a detective fan reader. I really
don't know. I was accepted for one, [and they said]
well he can do the other, I suppose. That's just the
way it happened."
One of his first major detective series was as
Inspector Richard Queen, father of detective Ellery
Queen. Ortega was heard in that role for over 7
years before he left. He got the job when the
series was first developed and became the first to
portray that role on radio. (He had recently left his
character of "Lee Kirby", a boyfriend to Marge on
the series Myn and Marge to take up the new
character.) He continued in the Inspector role until
early 1947. Of his role and the series Ortega said "I
thought it was a fine hour show ... because the
character of the Inspector had so many facets, so
many sides. Of course, when they cut it down to
half-hour, commercial, it was quite another thing.
You couldn 't get all the things into it because, after
all, your star and your hero, was Ellery, who I always
thought was a stuffed shirt."
In that same year he moved to the title role in
The Adventures of Charlie Chan. There appears to
be no known copies of Ortega's performance in
circulation, so how he fared next to other radio
actors who portrayed the role can't be determined.
According to Variety over a dozen actors tried out
for the role of Chan and four, inqluding Ortega,
were selected and sent for a final decision to the
sponsor, Chooz Antacid Gum, who selected
Ortega. The series only lasted for one year over
Mutual when it left the radio airwaves forever.
It was not unusual for many radio actors to
take on simultaneous roles just to keep a paycheck
coming in. For Santos Ortega, he had major roles
running simultaneously while he was appearing in
Ellery Queen including as Bulldog Drummond from
1942 to 1943. When he left the Drummond role,
he hired on, for a short while, to the role on daytime
radio as Perry Mason, all the while continuing as
Inspector Queen. In addition, he became Nero
Wolfe in The Adventures of Nero Wolfe on ABC in
1943 continuing in that role for two seasons. It is
amazing to think that within a one year period,
Ortega was holding down the lead roles on three
crime programs (Bulldog Drummond, Perry Mason,
Nero Wolfe) while appearing as a supporting role in
another (Ellery Queen).
After he left the Queen role and while he was
doing Charlie Chan, Ortega found himself in
another mystery series in a role he would continue
in until the program's demise in 1954. In 1947 he
found himself in the role of Commissioner Weston
in the popular mystery series The Shadow. Since
the character did not appear regularly, Ortega was
able to continue his other radio roles without much
difficulty or conflict.
By 1949, the detective serials were
ubiquitous. In May 1949, Himan Brown was
producing a new detective vehicle starring Ortega
as the erudite small-town detective Peter Salem
who used his wits to thwart big city criminals. The
series was known for its superb writing by scripter
Louis Vittes whose other radio credentials included
The Saint, The Thin Man, and Mr. & Mrs. North
among others. Vittes' ability to write dialogue
naturally is evident in the clips that exist. Until
several years ago, no known copies of this series
were known to exist. Then two clips were
discovered in separate circumstances providing us
with good examples of Ortega's voice in a lead role.
The series continued on radio until April 1953.
Sadly, this was a well-written series in which only
the two short clips are known to exist. It would be
exciting to be able to hear a complete episode.
While he continued as Peter Salem ,Ortega was
hired to portray the title role of what appears to be a
forgettable series called Hannibal Cobb, about an
investigative reporter. There was simultaneously a
television version of this series starring Chuck
Webster. Not much is known about the radio series
and though Dave Goldin lists three episodes, none
are known to be circulation. By the time The Affairs
of Peter Salem ended in 1953, Ortega was
beginning to make the transfer to television
daytime serials. He still continued to act in radio,
but mainly in "one-off" appearances.
The actor was married in 1926 to Evelyn
Fairbank but they later divorced with no children. In
his late forties or early fifties he married Cynthia
Becket. She was twenty years younger than
Santos, but they did have two children. In 1976,
Ortega was in Ft. Lauderdale when he became ill
and died. He is buried in New Jersey. In its tribute
to Ortega on As the World Tums it was said that
Ortega was "too much a human being to his
colleagues; too much a friend to millions of As the
World Turns fans." With his different character
interpretations of many radio detectives during the
Golden Age of radio, Ortega provided listening
pteasure for many radio drama listeners as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Widner is an old·time radio
researcher and historian in
Dayton, Ohio. He is the webmaster
http://www.otr.com (Radio Days) . Jim is a frequent
contributor to OTR joumals.