George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 4

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

Main Street Sketches

Main Street Sketches upon its January 1928 debut was immediately popular. In the imaginary town of Titusville Brown, Brown – a monologist and master of voices from his theatre days – led the cast and played many of the parts himself. Most notable among them was the role of Luke Higgins, a “lovable soul of the great open spaces” and mayor of Titusville. Virginia Farmer was cast as Sarah (Sary) Higgins, Luke’s wife. The music was provided by the Titusville Hook and Ladder Band and sometimes the Green River Hose Company Concert Cornetists. Roger Bowers was producer and director of Main Street Sketches as well as portraying Fleck Murphy. He had entered radio in 1927 as an announcer for WMCA before moving to WOR in 1928. A number of other characters have been identified from the series but the actors who played them are still unknown. The characters included Ivalutty Pewitt, Sadie Westphal, Horace Peters, Spot Haywang, Charlie Ellis, Dave Kraus, Wilbur Higgins, and Emily Snodgrass.

A sample episode focused on a benefit given by the citizens of Titusville on behalf of the Widow Clemmens whose house was lost in a fire. The Titusville Ladies’ Literary, Shakespearian and Browning Society provided some of the benefit’s entertainment as did the Hook and Ladder Company Band with Luke Higgins acting as master of ceremonies.

For the first couple months it was on the air WOR could not find a sponsor for Main Street Sketches. Then, when station salesmen inadvertently promised the program to two different sponsors WOR took it off the air briefly so neither company would benefit from its broadcast. Both commercial interests backed out of the deal upon discovering the confusion. The show was drawing listeners, however, and Reid Ice Cream stepped up to sponsor it. It was in the midst of this confusion that Brown was offered the opportunity to take his characters to cartoon strips, motion pictures, and the theatre. Thus, he departed WOR seeking to use his voice talents and characters in bigger opportunities under the assumption the station would cancel the series. Executives at WOR had other ideas and continued Main Street Sketches with replacement cast members. Brown was livid and sought relief in court.

In a situation reminiscent of Freeman Gosden’s and Charles Correll’s attempt at nearly the same time to take their Sam ‘n’ Henry creation to a competing station, Brown claimed that his characters, including Luke Higgins, were his creation and thus his property, not the property of the station. Lawsuit filed, Brown left WOR along with Virgina Farmer, a fellow Main Street Sketches actress who would follow Brown to his next radio production. Fallout from the rift also resulted in Gannon and WOR sales executive R. D. Newton leaving the station and George Coats of the Arthur Judson Radio Program Corp. that placed material on WOR leaving his position as well. The latter three were accused of trying to sell Main Street Sketches to rival networks and summarily excused from their responsibilities.

Ultimately New York Judge Valentine ruled in favor or WOR’s owner, the department store L. Bamberger & Co., “as to the imitation by defendant’s [WOR’s] employees of his mimicry and of the principal character he represents, this is no more the subject of exclusive appropriation than the method of portrayal of a role in a new opera by an artist who ‘created’ it, in the sense of being the first to portray it.” Thus stations were given first rights to material broadcast over their facilities and were fully entitled to use any performers they chose in those broadcasts.

Recordings from these primitive days of network radio are extremely rare but there is a recording of Main Street Sketches that survives on a Diamond Disk (EXP-159-B) and is available for listening online (https://wfmu.org/playlists/shows/9526). It runs about 15 minutes and was recorded on an experimental long-play record format from May 15, 1928.

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Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 6

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