The Faint Glow of Harbor Lights

Harbor Lightswas an early dramatic radio program that aired across NBC between 1929 and 1931. Originally airing at 10:00 on Tuesday nights, it eventually moved to Sunday evenings. Originating from the network’s WEAF studios in New York City, Harbor Lightsfocused on stories of the sea and each week’s episode dramatized an adventure told by the show’s central character, Captain Jimmy Norton, to a young friend. The Norton character was portrayed as a crusty old ferry boat skipper who plied the waters of New York Harbor, providing the scriptwriters with an endless well of ocean-going fare around which they could build scripts. Every week the NBC announcer intoned to his audience, “All aboard! The Harbor Lights are beckoning!”

Considerable credit was given to the series’ lead writer, Burr Cook, who was both a former seaman himself and who was also willing to spend time in the haunts of Sailor’s Snug Harbor on New York’s Staten Island. Sailor’s Snug was a privately bequeathed and funded home for old seafarers who had no better retirement prospects. Though the facility hits its peak in the late 1800s, in 1931 there was still a large number of salts living there who were willing to share their experiences and tales – real or imagined – of lives spent on the ocean. Burr Cook was also behind the Friday feature The Eternal Question but his contribution to radio is overshadowed by the career of another Cook, his brother of Phil Cook who was a prolific voice actor busy in the industry through the 1930s.

Edwin M. Whitney was the lead actor of Harbor Lights, bringing to vivid life the character of Captain Jimmy Norton. Whitney had a considerable theater background and was very busy in New York radio productions at the dawn of the 1930s. Whitney claimed Parma City, NY, as his home and sang with the Whitney Brothers Quartet (Alvin, William, and Yale Whitney) when he was younger. Whitney recorded a number of songs for Victor between 1908 and 1910, the bestseller of the lot bearing the cringe-worthy title “Darky and the Boys.” Perhaps Whitney’s most memorable role was that of Judge Whipple on Real Folks, though on the same show he also played Gran’pa Overbrooks, Bill Perkins the station agent, Colonel Weatherbee, and a dog named Prince. Other radio credits included various roles on Death Valley Days and The Esso Hour.

Harbor Lights was noted for its sound effects, and NBC director Vernon Radcliffe was given credit for their detail and realism. He created the unique opening aural sequence of vehicles driving onto a ship, gates closing behind them, the tinkling of bells, followed by the great blasts of the ferry’s whistle and the sound of its mighty engines. Other performers on the program included Leslie Joy, Walter Soderling, Ray Carter (announcer), Helene Handin, and Tom Moore.

Unfortunately, recordings of Harbor Lightsaren’t known to circulate among collectors chances are probably slim that any will turn up of such an early program. However, interested readers can access a recreation of a Harbor Lightsepisode that was originally broadcast during the last ten minutes of the January 12, 1941 episode of Behind the Mike. Similarly, one full script can be read in Peter Dixon’s 1931 book Radio Writing, a copy of which can also be found online with a little searching.

Advertisements

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.