This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.
George Frame Brown knew he had a radio hit on his hands in 1928 with Main Street Sketches and there were several profitable avenues he could potentially follow. But first he had to get his creation away from WOR, and that station’s executives also recognized a moneymaker and had no intention of letting Brown walk out the door with the show. To understand how Brown’s Real Folks made it to the air, it’s necessary to understand events stretching back to the year before when its predecessor, Main Street Sketches, was first conceptualized.
A few days before Thanksgiving, 1927, New York’s WOR was in a bind. A special broadcast that staff had been planning fell through and they were now looking at a hole in their schedule on the big holiday. Station head Charles Gannon scheduled a meeting with his program director, Leonard E. L. Cox to discuss their options. On his way to the meeting Cox stopped to see his good friend George Frame Brown. Cox, on a whim and remembering Brown’s extensive performing background, invited Brown along to discuss the Thanksgiving broadcast with Gannon.
After throwing out different ideas the three men coalesced around a sketch built around an all-American Main Street and the assorted characters inevitably found in these small town shops and cafes. Cox went straight home and typed out a script based on the day’s conversations, using a general store for the setting. Brown, a gifted voice artist, supplied most of the voices for the program and after its Thanksgiving airing it received overwhelmingly positive letters from listeners.
Encouraged by the response, Gannon, Cox, and Brown began planning a follow-up broadcast for Christmas. That show, called “Christmas Eve in the Grange Hall,” evoked memories and images of the Grange, a post-Civil War rural organization focused on advocating for the small farmer in the face of growing corporate agricultural interests. Though of little direct relevance to urban listeners, the broadcast nevertheless found an enthusiastic audience and Gannon immediately assigned Cox the task of producing a weekly show based on the themes and characters proving so interesting to listeners.
Cox was not previously connected directly to production work with the station but Gannon gave him a weekly budget of $75 to bring the series to the airwaves. Most of that budget went to Brown, on whom Cox called to voice most of the characters initially. Cox himself did not receive extra pay for the new duties.
Fearful of a lawsuit by Sinclair Lewis, author of 1920’s Main Street, Cox’s sketch series was renamed Main Street Sketches at the last moment before going on the air for the first time Tuesday, January 3, 1928.
To understand the immediate appeal of Main Street Sketches it’s necessary to explore the unique talents brought to the effort by George Frame Brown and Leonard E. L. Cox.