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.

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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.

 

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.

Bradford Browne: Cellar Knight, Nit Wit, and More, Pt. 2

Originally published in the Old Radio Times, 2017

In the case of Browne and Llewelyn, however, there was a good deal of legitimate talent. A man working for Newark’s WGCP overheard the duo and persuaded them to appear on his station, possibly as early as 1925. Browne spent much of his free time hanging around the studios and one day a station announcer failed to appear at his scheduled time so Browne stepped in to cover the duty. Ownership was impressed and Browne was quickly hired to handle some announcing responsibilities, and within a short time he also found himself director of the station’s continuity.

In 1926 Bradford Browne wrote what is believed to be his first broadcast feature, a series called Cellar Knights. It featured him and Llewelyn as Ham and George, two black janitors in a New York City apartment. Within a year or two New York’s WABC, then a part of Alfred Grebe’s Atlantic Broadcasting Company, contacted Bradford and he left for a job at the larger station. He took his Cellar Knights program with him and when WABC became an affiliate of the new Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928, the network began airing the series over its web. A Milwaukee theater bill from this era indicates the two were also performing professionally at least on occasion on the dwindling vaudeville circuit.

Within a short time Browne found himself involved with a number of WABC productions including Cellar Knights, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (about the life of a hobo), The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe (a musical production), The Gossipers (about laborers on New York’s Lower East Side), SS Pumpernickel, Aunt Jemima, Then and Now, and The Nit Wit Hour. The latter show brought no small bit of acclaim to Browne and the series ended up running for nearly three years, from early 1929 to late 1931. The kernel of the program was created by Georgia Backus but it was Browne who fleshed out the details and brought it to the airwaves. Browne was so particular about broadcasting comedy that he later claimed to have written six 30-minute scripts before he felt comfortable with the material he wanted aired on the show’s debut. “They don’t care,” Browne explained, “who you are or what you might give them later in the program. It’s what you’re giving them every instant that counts and you either give them a thrill or a laugh a minute or you lose two or three million listeners.”

Browne wasn’t confined to just entertainment programs, however. At Herbert Hoover’s 1929 inauguration Browne was one of the reporters assigned to cover the ceremony for the entire CBS chain. He was regularly called on by the station to report local news stories.

From 1929 to 1931 while both employed by WABC, Browne and Llewelyn were paired up for a number of regular broadcasts. The pair engaged in songs and patter on Three Little Sachs, accompanied by Emery Deutsch and The Meridians. Sponsored by a salad dressing producer, the duo starred on Premier Salad Dressers with their so-called “synchronized conversation.” He and Llewellyn teamed up yet again for a three-times weekly program sponsored by La Palina during which they told jokes and sang as the Senator (Browne) and the Major (Llewellyn). Various musicians provided the music including Freddie Rich and his orchestra and tenors Larry Murphy and Ben Alley. This may have been an early incarnation of their Colonel and the Major routine that would be remembered for many years to come.