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. 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. 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.