The Faint Glow of Harbor Lights

Harbor Lightswas an early dramatic radio program that aired across NBC between 1929 and 1931. Originally airing at 10:00 on Tuesday nights, it eventually moved to Sunday evenings. Originating from the network’s WEAF studios in New York City, Harbor Lightsfocused on stories of the sea and each week’s episode dramatized an adventure told by the show’s central character, Captain Jimmy Norton, to a young friend. The Norton character was portrayed as a crusty old ferry boat skipper who plied the waters of New York Harbor, providing the scriptwriters with an endless well of ocean-going fare around which they could build scripts. Every week the NBC announcer intoned to his audience, “All aboard! The Harbor Lights are beckoning!”

Considerable credit was given to the series’ lead writer, Burr Cook, who was both a former seaman himself and who was also willing to spend time in the haunts of Sailor’s Snug Harbor on New York’s Staten Island. Sailor’s Snug was a privately bequeathed and funded home for old seafarers who had no better retirement prospects. Though the facility hits its peak in the late 1800s, in 1931 there was still a large number of salts living there who were willing to share their experiences and tales – real or imagined – of lives spent on the ocean. Burr Cook was also behind the Friday feature The Eternal Question but his contribution to radio is overshadowed by the career of another Cook, his brother of Phil Cook who was a prolific voice actor busy in the industry through the 1930s.

Edwin M. Whitney was the lead actor of Harbor Lights, bringing to vivid life the character of Captain Jimmy Norton. Whitney had a considerable theater background and was very busy in New York radio productions at the dawn of the 1930s. Whitney claimed Parma City, NY, as his home and sang with the Whitney Brothers Quartet (Alvin, William, and Yale Whitney) when he was younger. Whitney recorded a number of songs for Victor between 1908 and 1910, the bestseller of the lot bearing the cringe-worthy title “Darky and the Boys.” Perhaps Whitney’s most memorable role was that of Judge Whipple on Real Folks, though on the same show he also played Gran’pa Overbrooks, Bill Perkins the station agent, Colonel Weatherbee, and a dog named Prince. Other radio credits included various roles on Death Valley Days and The Esso Hour.

Harbor Lights was noted for its sound effects, and NBC director Vernon Radcliffe was given credit for their detail and realism. He created the unique opening aural sequence of vehicles driving onto a ship, gates closing behind them, the tinkling of bells, followed by the great blasts of the ferry’s whistle and the sound of its mighty engines. Other performers on the program included Leslie Joy, Walter Soderling, Ray Carter (announcer), Helene Handin, and Tom Moore.

Unfortunately, recordings of Harbor Lightsaren’t known to circulate among collectors chances are probably slim that any will turn up of such an early program. However, interested readers can access a recreation of a Harbor Lightsepisode that was originally broadcast during the last ten minutes of the January 12, 1941 episode of Behind the Mike. Similarly, one full script can be read in Peter Dixon’s 1931 book Radio Writing, a copy of which can also be found online with a little searching.

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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.