Bradford Browne: Cellar Knight, Nit Wit, and More, Pt. 2

Originally published in the Old Radio Times, 2017

In the case of Browne and Llewelyn, however, there was a good deal of legitimate talent. A man working for Newark’s WGCP overheard the duo and persuaded them to appear on his station, possibly as early as 1925. Browne spent much of his free time hanging around the studios and one day a station announcer failed to appear at his scheduled time so Browne stepped in to cover the duty. Ownership was impressed and Browne was quickly hired to handle some announcing responsibilities, and within a short time he also found himself director of the station’s continuity.

In 1926 Bradford Browne wrote what is believed to be his first broadcast feature, a series called Cellar Knights. It featured him and Llewelyn as Ham and George, two black janitors in a New York City apartment. Within a year or two New York’s WABC, then a part of Alfred Grebe’s Atlantic Broadcasting Company, contacted Bradford and he left for a job at the larger station. He took his Cellar Knights program with him and when WABC became an affiliate of the new Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928, the network began airing the series over its web. A Milwaukee theater bill from this era indicates the two were also performing professionally at least on occasion on the dwindling vaudeville circuit.

Within a short time Browne found himself involved with a number of WABC productions including Cellar Knights, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (about the life of a hobo), The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe (a musical production), The Gossipers (about laborers on New York’s Lower East Side), SS Pumpernickel, Aunt Jemima, Then and Now, and The Nit Wit Hour. The latter show brought no small bit of acclaim to Browne and the series ended up running for nearly three years, from early 1929 to late 1931. The kernel of the program was created by Georgia Backus but it was Browne who fleshed out the details and brought it to the airwaves. Browne was so particular about broadcasting comedy that he later claimed to have written six 30-minute scripts before he felt comfortable with the material he wanted aired on the show’s debut. “They don’t care,” Browne explained, “who you are or what you might give them later in the program. It’s what you’re giving them every instant that counts and you either give them a thrill or a laugh a minute or you lose two or three million listeners.”

Browne wasn’t confined to just entertainment programs, however. At Herbert Hoover’s 1929 inauguration Browne was one of the reporters assigned to cover the ceremony for the entire CBS chain. He was regularly called on by the station to report local news stories.

From 1929 to 1931 while both employed by WABC, Browne and Llewelyn were paired up for a number of regular broadcasts. The pair engaged in songs and patter on Three Little Sachs, accompanied by Emery Deutsch and The Meridians. Sponsored by a salad dressing producer, the duo starred on Premier Salad Dressers with their so-called “synchronized conversation.” He and Llewellyn teamed up yet again for a three-times weekly program sponsored by La Palina during which they told jokes and sang as the Senator (Browne) and the Major (Llewellyn). Various musicians provided the music including Freddie Rich and his orchestra and tenors Larry Murphy and Ben Alley. This may have been an early incarnation of their Colonel and the Major routine that would be remembered for many years to come.

Bradford Browne: Cellar Knight, Nit Wit, and More, Pt. 1

Originally published in the Old Radio Times, 2017

            In 1929 Edson Bradford Browne found himself one of the busiest men in New York City radio. For a man who just a few short years earlier was earning a paycheck as a department store floor walker in Newark, Browne saw nearly unlimited in the rapidly developing world of commercial broadcasting as a new decade was about to begin.

Born December 31, 1890, when the very earliest radio experiments were just getting under way in laboratories around the world, no one in North Adams, MA, could have anticipated his future career at the time of his birth. His parents were Isaac Snell Browne and Elizabeth Tobin, neither of whom held a position that would naturally lead a boy into radio. But then, most of the medium’s earliest professionals happened into the field by chance, and such is Bradford Browne’s story.

As a child Browne entertained family and friends banging on the piano and plucking the banjo. He never took lessons nor ever seemed to seriously consider a performing career. Perhaps seeing his father’s work as a minstrel end man lead to little, Browne chose a different path. Instead, he decided he might want to pursue law. Browne enrolled in Georgetown University where he eventually graduated with honors from the law program. Within a few years the United States entered World War I and he enlisted and was subsequently assigned to the 101st Regiment as a personnel corporal. In the middle of war Browne returned to his childhood roots, entertaining and writing songs he performed for his brothers in arms.

With little direction Browne wandered from job to job after leaving the Army. He worked as a stenographer in Washington, D.C. and as a lawyer before going to work as a floorwalker for a department store in Newark, NJ. On his own time he began singing with a man named Al Llewelyn, a former steel plant manager who had lost his job and was then staying at the same boarding house as Browne.  Unbeknownst to both, a doorway to radio was opened to them. Station managers at the time were ever on the lookout for talent to fill airtime; talent was secondary to reliability.