George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 9

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.

Postscript

            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.

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George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 8

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

Main Street Sketches after Brown

About four months after leaving Main Street Sketches Brown left to create Real Folks on NBC, as documented above. He was immediately replaced by Don Carney who took on both acting and writing chores. Beatrice Moreland took over the role of Sara Higgins vacated by Virginia Farmer. Other cast members as of 1929, a year and a half after Brown’s departure, were Harris Peters, Roy Smeck, Sawne Taylor, and Virginia Newburger. George Kelting, another series performer, was represented by Minnie Webster who in 1929 was negotiating with various film companies to get Kelting into some shorts.

Don Carney, Brown’s successor, was the host – as “Uncle Don” of a wildly popular daily children’s program that ran for many years. His radio career, which has been documented elsewhere, started on New York’s WMCA after practically demanding a job that, to his surprise, he got. The program director at WOR heard him and recruited Carney to take over the role of Mayor Luke Higgins as well as writing duties on the weekly Main Street Sketches. This was no small feat as each weekly script ran over 40 pages on top of all his other station responsibilities. Carney is probably best known among OTR fans for apocryphally leaning back after the end of his children’s broadcasts and snidely commenting “There, that ought to hold the bastards for a while,” or something along those lines. Generally regarded now as an urban legend, Carney is no less a giant in the annals of radio history.

A 1931 Variety review gives insight to Main Street Sketches’ sound after three years on the air. The week’s episode focused on Mayor Luke Higgins’ attempts to uplift the moral qualities of Titusville. One of his proposals was to prohibit underwear from being hung out to dry so it wouldn’t fill up provocatively when the wind blew. The reviewer believed the “bucolic sketches” were “innocently funny, and quite humorous.” The show’s musical interludes “attempt[ed] to reach Toscanini heights but intentionally [fell] flat all the way.” At the time, it was sponsored by Ivanhoe Products and their wares were plugged throughout the show’s script. Thought sources differ on when exactly Main Street Sketches ended, this author believes the original series left the air in mid-1931. Because of very similar series that followed (explored below) with nearly identical – sometimes identical – characters, some post-Main Street broadcasts likely are mistaken for episodes of the original WOR series.

Cox stayed with the series for only two years before departing WOR and heading South where he took a position as program director with Miami, FL’s WQAM at the end of 1930. One year later he was signed by the Mark O’Dea & Co., agency to create a series of 15-minute transcriptions called Centerville Sketches for the Charles E. Hires Co. (Hires Root Beer). When the series debuted in January 1932 it sounds like it was a rehash of Main Street Sketches with the same Titusville characters. In fact, 11 of the 19 Main Street players appeared on the transcribed series. Centerville Sketches aired Tuesdays and Fridays by transcription over KDKA, WLW, KYW, WOR, and KNX. WFAA (Dallas) was added in April. The program had one last gasp when it turned up in Los Angeles as Hometown Sketches over KNX in 1935 where Cox was program manager. Set in Centerville, Lela Vaughan and Francis Trout – both veterans of the original productions, played Aggie Spinks and Cap Albury respectively. Ralph Scott, the French Lieutenant from the earlier Tarzan transcription series, played Lem Weatherbee.

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.

George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 5

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

Real Folks

Surely disappointed but not discouraged by the outcome of his lawsuit, Brown quickly moved to the NBC chain and premiered a new program under his control, Real Folks, that was essentially Main Street Sketches with some minor tweaks. Real Folks, sometimes referred to as Real Folks of Thompkins Corners, debuted in August 1928 under the sponsorship of Cheesbrough Mfg. Co.’s Vaseline over nearly a dozen stations: WJZ, KDKA, KWK, KYW, WBAL, WBZ, WBZA, WHAM, WJR, WLW, and WREN.

In the premier broadcast all of Thompkins Corners is gathered for a fire sale auction of one of the neighbor’s homes. As items were put up for auction the individual characters of the show were introduced to listeners.

Brown again assumed the show’s lead, Uncle Matt Thompkins, owner of the general store, owner of the local power plant, Grand Exalted Ruler of the Independent and Benevolent Order of the Knights of the Silver Falcon Lodge, and mayor of Thompkins Corners. Brown played other colorful locals as well including Ah Sing Wong, the Chinese laundryman, a woman, the wealthy and snobbish Mrs. Templeton Jones, and Swede Gus Olson, Mrs. Jones’ chauffer and a master of talking but saying nothing. His wife, Martha Thompkins, was played by Virginia Farmer, Broadway actress and formerly of Main Street Sketches. Matt and Martha adopted their nephew, Elmer Thompkins, played by a young Tom Brown (no relation to George Frame Brown). Tom Brown studied at New York’s Professional Children’s School, a prep school for hopeful performers, and within a couple years left New York for a film career in Hollywood.

Phoebe Mackay, born in the UK in 1890 to a Royal Army officer, studied to be a dancer before becoming a full-time actress. She played Mrs. Effie Watts, keeper of the Thompkins Corners boarding house. Phil Cook, a busy radio actor and singer in New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s appeared on Real Folks as early as January 1929. Roles he is known to have held were Fred Tibbets, the town barber, and Tony the Italian bootblack. Both of these roles were later taken over by G. Underhill Macy.

Elsie Mae (May) Gordon had a number of roles on Real Folks including Bessie Stevens, the village dressmaker and gossip, Flora May Harbart, the school teacher, Delia, Mrs. Jones’ Irish maid, Elmer’s friend “Sneed” Yeager, and even a baby named Community. During this same period Gordon was also playing Maybelle, the weepy heroine of WABC’s Hank Simmons’ Showboat. Gordon had trained at Emerson College of Oratory (now just Emerson College) in Boston and while an undergraduate performed at Boston’s Little Theatre. After college Gordon spent seven years performing the Chautauqua circuits that were popular during the era before returning to the East Coast and scratching out a living in Broadway and vaudeville shows before entering radio. Gordon stayed active in radio for many years after, at least to the mid-1940s.

Edwin Whitney was yet another cast member with a notable theater background who was very busy in New York radio at the turn of the decade. Originally from Parma City, NY, Whitney sang with the Whitney Brothers Quartet (also Alvin, William, and Yale Whitney) and he even recorded a number of songs for Victor between 1908 and 1910. His bestseller was the now-cringeworthy “Darky and the Boys.” On Real Folks Whitney played the nap-prone Judge Whipple, Gran’pa Overbrooks, Bill Perkins the station agent, Colonel Weatherbee, and a dog named Prince. Elsewhere on the dial he played Cap’n Jimmy Norton on Harbor Lights, various roles on Death Valley Days, and appeared on The Esso Hour.

G. Underhill Macy, who had two main roles as Mrs. Jones’ gardener Tony the Wop, and later Fred Tibbets, Thompson Corners’ local barber who hoped to win the hand of Flora Mae Harbert. Both of these roles originally were held by Phil Cook. A theatre and vaudeville veteran, Macy also played the lead role in WABC’s Hank Simmons’ Showboat for a time before being replaced by that show’s producer, Harry Browne.

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.

George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 2

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

George Frame (Francis) Brown

On March 1, 1896, Brown was born near Seattle, WA, a continent away from the rural New England hamlets that would serve as backdrops his future radio shows. His parents were pioneers in the region and his father ran a small store and supply company. As a young man Brown planned a career in architecture but got sidetracked when the United States entered World War I. He shipped out overseas and saw action in France with the American Expeditionary Forces. During his time in the service he suffered from gas attacks that caused injuries from which he would periodically suffer for years to come. After returning from Europe Brown enrolled at the University of Washington where he modified his original plans and studied theatrical architecture and stage settings.

Exposure to the stage changed Brown’s mind yet again and he started to act in small parts in local productions. After writing a one-act play that ended up getting produced, Brown decided to try and make a full-time living in the theatre. Some time spent in Washington’s stock theatre scene convinced Brown to move to New York City and the lights of Broadway. He quickly found, however, that the lights can dazzle the eyes but they don’t fill the stomach. By his own account Brown was practically starving and had to perform what janitorial work he could find just to survive.

Even when a bit of luck fell his way something was sure to blow it. At one point Brown was offered a part for a tidy $100 per week, big money for a man with barely two nickels to his name. But at the worst possible time he experienced a lung hemorrhage and had to back out of the role, just one example of the gassing Brown experienced in France returning to haunt him.

Brown’s first appearance on radio was not planned and even a bit ironic. He earned a part in a stage production, “The Manhatters,” in the fall of 1927 that also featured future radio stars Raymond Knight and William Johnstone. The play made light fun of the then-new phenomenon of radio, but portions of the production were then actually broadcast over the air.

Intrigued by the idea of radio, Brown broadcast an early morning radio monolog that he later described as a “travesty.” He delivered cooking lessons and led exercises on the broadcast dubbed Cretonna in the Home. WRNY’s station manager liked it enough to invite Brown to do some monologs over his station. Brown agreed and subsequently did some broadcasts over WABC including a program called The Music and Musings of Dr. Mu in which he talked about a variety of topics in the guise of an old Chinese philosopher.

 

George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 1

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.