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.

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George Frame Brown and His Real Folks, Pt. 3

This article originally appeared in Radiogram, January 2016.

Leonard E. L. Cox

Leonard E. L. Cox is no less fascinating a character, with nomadic tendencies that few could match. He was born in Chandi, British Central Africa (present-day Malawi) to a father who was a Chief Commissioner. At the age of eight he was sent from his home in Africa to London to live with relatives for a brief time. Within a short time his parents retrieved Cox and the family toured Europe until the outbreak of the second Boer War I in 1899 whereupon his father had to return to Britain’s service.

After a year of service there the Cox family once again packed their bags and set off for Canada where they settled about 90 miles from Calgary and started ranching. The endeavor didn’t pay off and the family headed due south, settling into a water station on the Southern Pacific Railroad somewhere between Tehachapi and Bakersfield, CA, where his father worked filling locomotives with water as they passed by.

Upon moving to Mojave Cox, now a young man, went to work in the area’s gold mines and finally learned to read and write English, supplanting his native French. A year in the mines was enough and Cox finally set off from his family and made his way to Los Angeles by 1902. He got back into ranching working for a Basque landowner who continued teaching him English and from there Cox went to work in a L.A. bookstore and he continued his English studies at night school.

Cox’s English improved enough that he was able to land a job with the Los Angeles Times as the editor of the yachting section. This position lasted for several years until the 1910 bombing of the Times building by the McNamara brothers. Once again Cox began to wander, taking a number of jobs in the Northwest lumber camps, Alaskan fish packing warehouses, and Southwestern farms and ranches.

Within a year or two Cox got his first taste of radio as it existed in the early 1900s. While working as an office boy for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company he studied telegraphy, the wireless transmission of messages by Morse code, and subsequently earned his operator’s license and was placed in charge of some small stations in the South Pacific. Still, Cox’s job carousel was not complete.

San Francisco was Cox’s next stop, whereupon he worked as a crane operator in a ship plant and then as a waiter and hotel clerk in Los Angeles. He experimented with another emerging technology, airplane flight, after getting to known aviator Ralph Newcomb.  The pair flew a Curtiss plane cross-country from Los Angeles to Florida’s Daytona Beach. After a fruitless job search in New York, Cox returned to California where he got work as an extra with the Kalem Motion Picture Company, Vitagraph, 101 Bison, Fox, Essanay and Triangle movie companies.

World War I broke out and in 1914 Cox enlisted with the Canadian Engineers and was shipped overseas to France. Transferred then to the Royal Flying Corps, he was wounded at Liege and sent to Greenwich, England for recovery. After returning to the States Cox was reinjured working in a shipbuilding yard when a bilge fell on him. Bad luck followed him to Arizona where, after two days in a copper mine, Cox was buried for 72 hours in a cave-in nearly 1,500 feet underground. Out of the hospital for the third time, Cox decided on safer work and became a travelling salesman of car accessories and appliances.

Tiring of that work, Cox ended up back on the East Coast selling radio sets in Boston and editing the radio section of the St. Augustine News in sunny Florida. His interest in radio was truly sparked now and he spent the mid-1920s traveling the riverways operating a radio shop from his motor boat. This segued into radio work at New York’s WJZ as a part-time announcer and producer. Cox switched to rival WABC after one year and began creating various programs, some reformatting the vaudeville sketches of earlier decades. One such program was Nights at Tony Pastor’s. Finally in December 1927, after the successful Thanksgiving broadcast Cox officially took a position with WOR where, as program director, he was responsible for a number of series in addition to Main Street Sketches.

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.