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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 sounded Spanish.

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 years.

Ortega's ability to assume almost any accent guaranteed continuous and sometimes major roles in various radio dramas. Being a New York based 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.


Jim Widner is an old·time radio researcher and historian in Dayton, Ohio. He is the webmaster of http://www.otr.com (Radio Days) . Jim is a frequent contributor to OTR joumals.