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.
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.
Though Jessye’s prime radio years during the medium’s Golden Age were over by World War II, she continued to lead the Eva Jessye Choir for years to come and later made some film appearances. Jessye continued to be engaged in musical endeavors during her later years and in the 1970s and early 1980s she was associated with the University of Michigan and Pittsburgh State University in Kansas. She died in 1992.
The most famous of Kansas’ Golden Age radio actors might Ruby Dandridge, the mother of Vivian and Dorothy Dandridge, the latter of whom made a considerable name for herself in film. Her birthplace varies depending on the source but the most authoritative, Dandridge historian Donald Bogle, provides convincing evidence that she was born in Wichita, KS, on March 1, 1899. Sometime around her twentieth birthday Dandridge moved to Cleveland, OH, to escape the limitations she felt in central Kansas. In Cleveland she married Cyril Dandridge and gave birth to both daughters. The marriage would not last, nor would her satisfaction with Cleveland. With the onset of the Great Depression Dandridge, her friend Geneva Williams, and Dorothy and Vivian headed west and settled in Los Angeles where African-Americans were finding parts in motion pictures.15
Dandridge claimed in the early 1950s to have started on radio with the WPA during the 1930s but supporting evidence for this assertion has not yet been discovered. She did do considerable stage work in the Los Angeles area during the 1930s and it’s possible some of the productions were broadcast. The first and most popular radio series on which she was hired was The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, a comedy which debuted in 1928 and featured two white men – Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll – as two African-American men in Harlem. During the 1940s the radio program included numerous black performers in addition to Dandridge, including Ernest Whitman, Hattie McDaniel, and Amanda Randolph.16
Take a look at the biggest names in radio entertainment in 1925. Very few were still drawing audiences by 1930 as the medium entered its Golden Age. Notice Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden at the top of the right-hand column for their program Kinky Kids Parade. Amos ‘n’ Andy was still a couple years in the future.