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.

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Bradford Browne: Cellar Knight, Nit Wit, and More, Pt. 3

Originally published in the Old Radio Times, 2017

Yet another show for which Browne was responsible was Ward’s Tip Top Club, a variety show with Cookie’s Orchestra. During the summer of 1931 Bert Lown and his Biltmore Orchestra co-starred on the show and provided the musical accompaniment.

Browne’s Nit Wit Hour left the air early in 1931 to provide airtime for a sponsored program but was then brought back that summer. The show disappeared for good when Browne departed WABC at the end of 1931 to go to work for NBC. In December of that year he succeeded Ray Perkins as the master of ceremonies of WJZ’s Three Bakers with Billy Artzt’s orchestra, under the sponsorship of the Continental Baking Co. Another of Browne’s NBC responsibilities was hosting The Colgate House Party in 1934 that featured the singing of Donald Novis. He continued to partner with Llewelyn on the air in a 1933 series sponsored by the Household Finance Corporation, 1934’s The Tastyeast Program over WEAF, and an unidentified show sponsored by General Baking in 1935.

By 1938 Browne had mostly moved away from performing on the air and was working primarily behind the scenes as a studio director for N. W. Ayer & Son, one of the premier advertising companies of the time. Among the shows he worked on for the company were Al Pearce & His Gang in the late 1930s. In 1938 Browne was transferred by the company to its Hollywood office and he would spend his remaining years in California. One of his West Coast responsibilities was producing The Ford Summer Hour in 1940.

During the 1940s Bradford (now just as often referenced as Brad) Browne moved between several jobs, primarily in producer or director roles. Browne went to work for J. Walter Thompson Co. in 1941 where he replaced Tony Stanford as producer of The Gene Autry Melody Ranch on CBS. Two years later in 1943 he moved on to Ruthrauff & Ryan where he produced NBC’s weekly Gilmore Furlough Fun, an early Spike Jones series. Browne was also charged with producing the thrice-weekly Red Ryder, a responsibility he held until the late 1940s. In 1947 Browne replaced Paul Franklin as director of The Zane Grey Show over the Don Lee-Mutual network.

Browne’s radio career appears to have wound down with the end of the 1940s; he has sparse radio credits after that time and not much is known after this period. The family would gain a small amount of fame half a century later when his son, Harry Browne (perhaps named after his brother, the Harry Browne of 1930’s Showboat fame), ran for President of the United States in 1996 and 2000 on the Libertarian Party ticket. Few artifacts of Browne’s entertainment seem to have survived, just a 1930 book about The Nit Wit Hour and some sheet music, the result of writing and publishing hundreds of songs over his lifetime.