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. 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.