Rest in Peace, Bob Burchett

The downside of falling into the hobby of old-time radio is that it’s participants are increasingly gray- and white-haired. Which means that accidents, illness, and mother nature take their toll and seem to diminish our ranks to quickly. Many of the founders of the hobby enjoyed OTR as children when it was originally airing in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Their nostalgic yearnings to rediscover the programs of their childhood led to hobbyists in the 1960s and 1970s salvaging so many recordings and selling and trading amongst themselves.

Often in their 20s and 30s then, many of them are now in their 70s and 80s. While the vast majority of the stars of radio’s Golden Age passed on from the 1970s-1990s, now many of the first generation of collectors and hobbyists are leaving us.

Bob Burchett was one of those old-timers. He was deeply involved in the creation of the Cincinnati Old-Time Radio Nostalgia convention that ran from the mid-1980s until just a few short years ago, the only such gathering in the Midwest and one of the last to finally shutter its doors. He also founded the Old-Time Radio Digest, a bi-monthly and then quarterly publication of research articles, program reviews, and vintage reprints. For many years he operated his own old-time radio business, selling shows via cassettes. He was also active in one of Cincinnati’s OTR fan clubs.

Though I’d not seen Bob since the Cincinnati convention closed its doors, I am saddened knowing I’ll not have the opportunity to again hear the boisterous laugh of a man who loved old-time radio and was a true blue friend.

Here’s a nice pic of Bob posted by Martin Grams.

Bob

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George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 9

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

George Brown after Real Folks

            Taking a break from Real Folks, work that had consumed him for the last four years, Brown turned to motion pictures. In late 1933 Universal announced plans to produce a series of 13 newsreel satires under the Goofytone label. At least four were produced, maybe more. The Goofytone satires didn’t take off so Brown once again turned his attention to radio where he created yet another series that would allow him to milk the caricatures that had been his bread and butter since the late 1920s.

After an extended time spent reflecting on his life in the peacefulness of his upstate New York farm, Brown began planning a radio comeback in 1935. He began experimenting again with voices, his original ticket onto radio a decade before. One night he was at a get-together that included an old friend, Mario Chamlee, and on the spur of the moment decided to greet him in dialect. Chamlee didn’t hesitate and responded in his own rapid fire Italian dialect. Onlookers were delighted and the pair began hashing out a routine.

It was an unexpected turn for Chamlee, the son of a Methodist minster who had spent the last twenty years singing with the world’s premier opera companies and recording on the Brunswick label. His initial taste of radio came in the spring of 1935 when he sang for thirteen weeks on The Garden Hour. But he was easily talked into becoming the Italian Tony for a new series, Tony and Gus. Tony was an aspiring opera singer while Gus was an aspiring prizefighter. Brown immediately recruited his old colleague Else Mae Gordon to be the show’s Kansas rooming house keeper, Mrs. Grange. Charles Flattery played George, a prizefight manager. Arthur Anderson played the part of Buddy, an orphan. Tim Ruffner announced and Joseph Stopak led the small orchestra while Charles Magnante provided more intimate accordian arrangements.

Reviving his old Swede character, Gus, Brown and Chamlee went on the air portraying two immigrants befuddled by their newly adopted homeland. General Foods bought sponsorship for their Post Toasties and Post 40% Bran Flakes cereals for 26 weeks, five nights per week immediately following Amos ‘n’ Andy beginning April 29, 1935. It was a nice revival for Brown but after four months Tony and Gus left the airwaves.

In a small afterward, Tony and Gus landed Chamlee in court. Radio writer Wilbert Newgold claimed in a 1936 suit filed against Chamlee that the singer had agreed to a contract for a radio series to be called The Organ Grinder for which Newgold would receive a commission in exchange for getting a John Weaver to write the scripts. However, Newgold claimed that contract was breached when Chamlee signed on with Brown for their 1935 series. He thus sued Chamlee for 25% of his take from Tony and Gus, a cool $9,000. Ultimately, a jury dismissed the suit saying there were few similarities between the two series and there was not sufficient evidence of an agreement between the parties.

Postscript

            For all his radio acumen, George Frame Brown was essentially out of the game once Tony and Gus folded. In 1942 he ventured to California and performed at some USO shows with Chamlee but his performing career never got back off the ground. What money he had made in radio dwindled away in a Glendale restaurant investment that didn’t pan out.

While he continued to write, the second half of Brown’s life was spent scraping by with menial work such as mowing lawns or gardening. Brown was so broke that a kind neighbor would leave him food and new clothes. After retirement he made ends meet on Social Security and a meager military pension, passing away in obscurity in Hollywood in 1979. His companion of twenty years, Gene Lockhart, claimed that Brown had a treasure-trove of memorabilia from his vaudeville and radio days, including scripts for all the shows he ever wrote. Where is that material now? It hasn’t been turned up in the special collections of any universities or libraries so hopefully it may yet be uncovered in private hands.

George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 8

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

Main Street Sketches after Brown

About four months after leaving Main Street Sketches Brown left to create Real Folks on NBC, as documented above. He was immediately replaced by Don Carney who took on both acting and writing chores. Beatrice Moreland took over the role of Sara Higgins vacated by Virginia Farmer. Other cast members as of 1929, a year and a half after Brown’s departure, were Harris Peters, Roy Smeck, Sawne Taylor, and Virginia Newburger. George Kelting, another series performer, was represented by Minnie Webster who in 1929 was negotiating with various film companies to get Kelting into some shorts.

Don Carney, Brown’s successor, was the host – as “Uncle Don” of a wildly popular daily children’s program that ran for many years. His radio career, which has been documented elsewhere, started on New York’s WMCA after practically demanding a job that, to his surprise, he got. The program director at WOR heard him and recruited Carney to take over the role of Mayor Luke Higgins as well as writing duties on the weekly Main Street Sketches. This was no small feat as each weekly script ran over 40 pages on top of all his other station responsibilities. Carney is probably best known among OTR fans for apocryphally leaning back after the end of his children’s broadcasts and snidely commenting “There, that ought to hold the bastards for a while,” or something along those lines. Generally regarded now as an urban legend, Carney is no less a giant in the annals of radio history.

A 1931 Variety review gives insight to Main Street Sketches’ sound after three years on the air. The week’s episode focused on Mayor Luke Higgins’ attempts to uplift the moral qualities of Titusville. One of his proposals was to prohibit underwear from being hung out to dry so it wouldn’t fill up provocatively when the wind blew. The reviewer believed the “bucolic sketches” were “innocently funny, and quite humorous.” The show’s musical interludes “attempt[ed] to reach Toscanini heights but intentionally [fell] flat all the way.” At the time, it was sponsored by Ivanhoe Products and their wares were plugged throughout the show’s script. Thought sources differ on when exactly Main Street Sketches ended, this author believes the original series left the air in mid-1931. Because of very similar series that followed (explored below) with nearly identical – sometimes identical – characters, some post-Main Street broadcasts likely are mistaken for episodes of the original WOR series.

Cox stayed with the series for only two years before departing WOR and heading South where he took a position as program director with Miami, FL’s WQAM at the end of 1930. One year later he was signed by the Mark O’Dea & Co., agency to create a series of 15-minute transcriptions called Centerville Sketches for the Charles E. Hires Co. (Hires Root Beer). When the series debuted in January 1932 it sounds like it was a rehash of Main Street Sketches with the same Titusville characters. In fact, 11 of the 19 Main Street players appeared on the transcribed series. Centerville Sketches aired Tuesdays and Fridays by transcription over KDKA, WLW, KYW, WOR, and KNX. WFAA (Dallas) was added in April. The program had one last gasp when it turned up in Los Angeles as Hometown Sketches over KNX in 1935 where Cox was program manager. Set in Centerville, Lela Vaughan and Francis Trout – both veterans of the original productions, played Aggie Spinks and Cap Albury respectively. Ralph Scott, the French Lieutenant from the earlier Tarzan transcription series, played Lem Weatherbee.

Elsie May Gordon

Elsie May (Mae) Gordon was an actress whose impersonation and monolog skills earned her time on radio as early as the mid-1920s. She later recounted that a job in a five-and-dime gave her the opportunity to study a wide variety of men and women, allowing her to build her impersonation repertoire. Whereas many of her contemporary radio stars of the late 1920s had washed up in the medium by the mid-1930s, Gordon managed to turn her early job experience into a long if undistinguished career on various dramatic programs through the 1930s and 1940s. Her earliest identified series credits are Hank Simmons’ Showboat (as Maybelle through at least 1932) and Real Folks, both ca. 1929. Some of her other programs that can be dated are Wallace Silversmith Show (1931), Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour (1934), Tony and Gus (1935), Dreams of Long Ago (1936), Columbia Workshop (1938, 1939, 1942), March of Time (1938), Star-Spangled Theatre (1941), Hasten the Day (1943, for the Office of Civilian Defense), Treasury Star Parade (1943), Anything Can Happen (1944), and The Gardeners (1944). Gordon also appeared on Al Jolson, Aldrich Family, Easy Aces, Fred Allen, Report to the Nation, Shadow, Stage Door Canteen, Saturday Night Barn Dance, and When A Girl Marries. By the end of the 1940s Gordon was performing on stage in such productions as “Gentleman from Athens” (1947). She was married to Norman White and had a son, Graham White-Gordon.

The University of Iowa has a late 1940s promotional pamphlet with highlights of her career here.

Gordon1

Gordon3

 

George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 7

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

Without any known recordings of Real Folks, the closest we can currently get to hearing that classic series is a partial re-enactment broadcast on the November 17, 1940 Behind the Mike. The episode can be found online at different sites (http://ia802502.us.archive.org/13/items/Behind_The_Mike/Behind_The_Mike_40-11-17_ep09_Making_A_Living_By_Dying.mp3) and the Real Folks segment begins about ten minutes in. In it George Frame Brown, Elsie Mae Gordon, Irene Hibbard, and Edwin Whitney gathered to reprise their roles. We can also get a sense of the show through contemporary accounts and some continuity that was reprinted in one radio publication of the era. Various story lines focused on the discovery of oil, starting a newspaper, graduation, a talent show for the local orphanage, knitting contests, and adoptions. A portion of the one known script excerpt is included below:

Elmer: Eleven goes in 78 – seven times and one to carry –

(Prince whines and scratches at the door.)

Elmer: Hello Prince, old boy, what’s the matter? You want out? All right, I’ll let you out, old boy. Betcha smell a rat, huh?

Matt: He Elmer!

Elmer: Yes, Uncle Matt.

Matt: Where you goin’?

Elmer: Prince wants out –

Matt: You sit down there and finish your homework – I don’t want to see any such report card as you brought home this week.

Elmer: But gee, Uncle Matt, he’s scratchin’ and beggin’.

Matt: He’s beggin’ for one of them peppermints you’re nibblin’ on.

***

Elmer: Come on Prince.

(Prince barks)

Martha: Here, Matt, I got another kerosene lamp fixed.

Matt: Thanks, Marthy, I’ll just put this one over near the potato bin. My golly, it seems funny dependin’ on these old kerosene oil lamps after spoilin’ ourselves so long with electricity.

Martha: If you ask me, I still think they’re as good as bulbs.

Matt: That’s a fine way for you to talk – and me president of the light and power company. It’s a lucky thing we got the mail out before the fuses blew –

Martha: I thought there’d be more folks in askin’ for their mail. I guess maybe it’s too cold.

(Door slams)

Martha: That sounded like the front door.

Matt: Who is it?

Bill: It’s Bill Perkins. I brought some company over from the station.

Matt: Come on in and get warm.

***

Mitchel: Ah, I do not sell my work, but rather offer it for approval. I have known the acclaim of the crowned heads on the continent, I have been the guest of governors, municipal dignitaries, and scions of the country’s oldest families. My name and picture have been posted in all the great cities to awaken the anticipation of a grateful multitude.

Matt: Did you ever play on Broadway in New York?

Mitchel: New York! Bah! Illiterate boors with no taste or cultivation. A great artist could perish in the street without a second look. No, not in New York, but my career – my career … my … my career … a … a … a … has taken me to every important city … my … my … greatness … has …

(Voice fades – sound of body falling.)

Martha: Oh, gracious! What’s happened?

Matt: Sh-sh-sh … I guess he’s fainted. I can’t see his face in this light. Marthy, go in and make some strong coffee and warm some hot broth. I think I know what’s the matter.

By 1931 Real Folks had moved to WABC where it was broadcast over the CBS network with a new sponsor, Log Cabin Syrup. Brown hoped that the move to Sunday afternoon that came with the station change would restore the series’ children audience, many of whom had stopped listening as Real Folks had earlier settled into evening time slots.

By the next year, 1932, and four years after Real Folks had debuted, the program was running out of gas. Whether the quality had declined or the sophistication of radio listeners had simply passed it by, a Variety reviewer found little to like. The reviewer noted that motion pictures had left behind the rural sketches but radio was slow to catch on to that trend. He also indicated that the 30-minute length was too much compared to the quarter-hour length of similar shows. While nothing was overly poor about Real Folks, there was simply nothing out of the ordinary about the broadcast. As best can be determined, Real Folks left the air in the first quarter of 1932.

For the next few months Post Toasties sponsored George Frame Brown in a series of personal appearances during which he performed monologs with some of the radio show’s characters. Later in 1932 H. Emerson Yorke, who had previously worked for Paramount Long Island as a casting director before moving into radio production, filmed a trailer of Real Folks with members of the radio cast that was used to promote Brown’s personal appearances.

Brown’s one-man show was re-conceptualized as a full-cast stage version of radio’s Real Folks and it transitioned to the Broadway stage in fall of 1932. Brown headed the cast, with Virginia Farmer, Irene Hubbard, and Phoebe Mackay continuing from the airwaves and new actors George Usher, George Shields, Earl Redding, Flavis Arcaro, Gene Cleveland, Edward D’Oisy, Sam Monroe, Phillip Robinson, Norman Williams, and Elizabeth Erich joining them.

The play was renamed “Thompkins Corners” and a cross-country tour was scheduled to begin September 26, 1932. Audience enthusiasm for Brown’s creation had indeed dimmed, and after four weeks playing town halls and auditoriums the show folded in Syracuse. NBC had to step in and ensure that the actors got their promised pay. Interestingly, though it was the most publicized stage version of Real Folks, it wasn’t the first. Back in 1929 Brown had performed some Real Folks sketches on the Keith’s vaudeville circuit.

George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 6

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

            Real Folks announcer, Alwyn Bach, was an award-winning speaker with a lengthy history in radio even by the late 1920s. Bach was born to a Danish mother that he felt contrasted with his 6’ 2” frame accented by dark hair and eyes and olive complexion. Bach had very distinct childhood memories of his mother poring over a dictionary and pronouncing words at all times, even while stirring soup on the stove. She insisted on perfection diction from her son, admonishing him “Alwyn, I’m ashamed of you. For heaven’s sake, use your lips.” At 16 Bach began formally studying singing and within a year he was conducting a 32-voice chorus in a local church and singing in the choir of a second church. Bach also directed a number of musical productions.

As a young man Bach served in World War I with the 44th Coast Artillery Corps and saw action on the Somme-St. Mihiel front. After the war he went into the printing business and he learned the ins and outs of English grammar. Bach claimed he got into radio in October 1922 announcing for Springfield, MA’s WBZ where he announced the Boston Symphony broadcasts. A humorous episode in which Bach was involved happened in 1924 at the Democratic Convention in New York City.

Recognizing that the nomination process was going to extend well into the night Bach decided to freshen up and take a bath at 2:00 in the morning. Without warning just as Bach had lathered up in his hotel tub, the WBZ engineer burst in on him, microphone in hand, and Bach began broadcasting the latest updates without hesitation. Bach’s intuition was correct; the convention would be the longest nominating process in election history.

In 1926 Bach moved to sister station WBZA in Boston and then to NBC in 1927. By 1930, after Real Folks had been on the air two years, Bach was announcing a number of shows including The Davey Hour, The Hour With Shakespeare, Reminscences, Around the World with Libby, Enna Jettick Song Birds, Famous Loves, and shows sponsored by Iodent, Enna Jettick Shoes, Beacon Oil, and Natural Bridge Shoes. That same year Bach won the Medal for Good Diction given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an award that would be won over the years by such notables as Edward R. Murrow (1957), Garrison Keillor (1990), and President Bill Clinton (2004).

Real Folks was produced and directed by none other than Raymond Knight who had joined NBC in 1928. He was behind a number of the network’s programs in 1929 such as The Gold Spot Pals, Embarrassing Moments in History, Hello, Mars! Triadamas, Empire Builders, and most famous of all, Station KUKU, also known as The Cuckoo Hour. NBC music director Harry Salter was in charge of the series musical background. He wrote the music and led the Thompkins Corners Firemen’s Band and also the Ladies’ Augmented Orchestra. The Firemen were noted for playing all their songs just a step out of tune.

George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 5

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

Real Folks

Surely disappointed but not discouraged by the outcome of his lawsuit, Brown quickly moved to the NBC chain and premiered a new program under his control, Real Folks, that was essentially Main Street Sketches with some minor tweaks. Real Folks, sometimes referred to as Real Folks of Thompkins Corners, debuted in August 1928 under the sponsorship of Cheesbrough Mfg. Co.’s Vaseline over nearly a dozen stations: WJZ, KDKA, KWK, KYW, WBAL, WBZ, WBZA, WHAM, WJR, WLW, and WREN.

In the premier broadcast all of Thompkins Corners is gathered for a fire sale auction of one of the neighbor’s homes. As items were put up for auction the individual characters of the show were introduced to listeners.

Brown again assumed the show’s lead, Uncle Matt Thompkins, owner of the general store, owner of the local power plant, Grand Exalted Ruler of the Independent and Benevolent Order of the Knights of the Silver Falcon Lodge, and mayor of Thompkins Corners. Brown played other colorful locals as well including Ah Sing Wong, the Chinese laundryman, a woman, the wealthy and snobbish Mrs. Templeton Jones, and Swede Gus Olson, Mrs. Jones’ chauffer and a master of talking but saying nothing. His wife, Martha Thompkins, was played by Virginia Farmer, Broadway actress and formerly of Main Street Sketches. Matt and Martha adopted their nephew, Elmer Thompkins, played by a young Tom Brown (no relation to George Frame Brown). Tom Brown studied at New York’s Professional Children’s School, a prep school for hopeful performers, and within a couple years left New York for a film career in Hollywood.

Phoebe Mackay, born in the UK in 1890 to a Royal Army officer, studied to be a dancer before becoming a full-time actress. She played Mrs. Effie Watts, keeper of the Thompkins Corners boarding house. Phil Cook, a busy radio actor and singer in New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s appeared on Real Folks as early as January 1929. Roles he is known to have held were Fred Tibbets, the town barber, and Tony the Italian bootblack. Both of these roles were later taken over by G. Underhill Macy.

Elsie Mae (May) Gordon had a number of roles on Real Folks including Bessie Stevens, the village dressmaker and gossip, Flora May Harbart, the school teacher, Delia, Mrs. Jones’ Irish maid, Elmer’s friend “Sneed” Yeager, and even a baby named Community. During this same period Gordon was also playing Maybelle, the weepy heroine of WABC’s Hank Simmons’ Showboat. Gordon had trained at Emerson College of Oratory (now just Emerson College) in Boston and while an undergraduate performed at Boston’s Little Theatre. After college Gordon spent seven years performing the Chautauqua circuits that were popular during the era before returning to the East Coast and scratching out a living in Broadway and vaudeville shows before entering radio. Gordon stayed active in radio for many years after, at least to the mid-1940s.

Edwin Whitney was yet another cast member with a notable theater background who was very busy in New York radio at the turn of the decade. Originally from Parma City, NY, Whitney sang with the Whitney Brothers Quartet (also Alvin, William, and Yale Whitney) and he even recorded a number of songs for Victor between 1908 and 1910. His bestseller was the now-cringeworthy “Darky and the Boys.” On Real Folks Whitney played the nap-prone Judge Whipple, Gran’pa Overbrooks, Bill Perkins the station agent, Colonel Weatherbee, and a dog named Prince. Elsewhere on the dial he played Cap’n Jimmy Norton on Harbor Lights, various roles on Death Valley Days, and appeared on The Esso Hour.

G. Underhill Macy, who had two main roles as Mrs. Jones’ gardener Tony the Wop, and later Fred Tibbets, Thompson Corners’ local barber who hoped to win the hand of Flora Mae Harbert. Both of these roles originally were held by Phil Cook. A theatre and vaudeville veteran, Macy also played the lead role in WABC’s Hank Simmons’ Showboat for a time before being replaced by that show’s producer, Harry Browne.