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.

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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.