Friday, July 19, 2019

Library of Congress Needs Your Help

Here is your chance to help the Library of Congress. For a little more than a year Cary O'Dell of the library's National Recording Preservation Board posted scans of photographs that remained unidentified. This is not an uncommon situation among many libraries and museums across the country where photographs are preserved and digitized, but lacked proper identification. 

Cary's idea was to post dozens and dozens of unidentified photographs on the library's blog and ask people to help identify people from the world of film, television and music. They had a success rate of over 50 percent but there still remain a few unidentified. The following two links have some of these photos so take a moment and see if you recognize any of the people in them. Small note, though. Make only suggestions if you are definite. There is no shame in saying you do not recognize anyone but the library really needs 110 percent identification. Guesswork will only add confusion.

Actor Paul McGrath has been identified on the right.
The woman on the left remains unidentified. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Bill Scott, Forest Ranger

One of the more obscure radio programs of the 1940s is Bill Scott, Forest Ranger. For years I have had four episodes, each 15-minutes in length, and very little was documented to help assist in learning exactly how many episodes were recorded and broadcast, who the cast was, and other information. One thing I was certain of, however, was that I enjoyed listening to them. 

So imagine my surprise when, a few years ago at a recorded sound conference in San Antonio, Texas, a slide show seminar focused on preservation of this obscure Mark Trail-style radio program. The central hero is Ranger Bill, affectionate name of Bill Scott, ranger of the Beaver Dam National Forest. Along with his niece, June Cameron, they meet two boys named Sam Freeman and Joe McGuire who, while employed as dishwashers in a summer logging camp, get lost in the woods, fight a forest fire, and participate in many tense adventures while at the same time educate the listeners on the importance of forestry and forest conservation. 

Produced by the radio staff at WNYE and the Board of Education of the City of New York, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and state conservation and forestry departments, a total of 16 episodes were recorded for the purpose of syndication.

The program received a special citation at the Tenth School Broadcast Conference on October 28, 1947. The contest judges commended the programs for their effective combination of "exciting" forest drama with practical conservation messages.

The programs were written by Bill Bergoffen of the U.S. Forest Service, produced by many of the student actors in the New York City's School Radio Workshop, under the skillful supervision of Van Rensselaer Brokhahane, production manager for station WNYE. 

Syndication was a means in which the episodes would be duplicated on transcription discs and then sent out to radio stations across the country to air during their convenience. Supposedly premiering over WTAW in Bryan, Texas, in April of 1947, the program was also heard over KWSC in Seattle, Washington in the summer of that year. Initially only six episodes were recorded but it quickly became apparent that the reason so few stations agreed to air the programs was because six episodes were not enough. So a year later an additional ten episodes were recorded including a four-part adventure. This second run began in January 1949 over WEBQ in Harrisburg, Illinois, and Lafayette, Louisiana; WWHG in Hornell, New York and WCMD in Denton, Maryland, in the spring of 1949; WRHP in Tallahassee, Florida in the summer of 1949, and WHA in Madison, Wisconsin; and WABE in Atlanta, Georgia, in autumn of 1949. You get the idea.

Students at Beckley College rehearsing a Bill Scott, Forest Ranger
radio drama at WCFC, circa 1947.

The Texas A&M Forest Service Radio Broadcasts Collection presently features over 27 hours of digitized wildfire prevention radio public service announcements from the late 1940s through the 1950s. The collection, spanning over sixty 16” radio transcription discs, was digitized to commemorate the 100thanniversary of the Texas A&M Forest Service in 2015.

Now you can listen to all 16 episodes of Bill Scott, Forest Ranger, from the Texas A&M website, along with other intriguing syndicated radio programs including The Singing Woodsman and the Sons of the PioneersTales of Texas and Smokey Visits the Stars. The latter program featured a number of Hollywood celebrities including Clint Walker, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Dale Robertson, Hugh O’Brian, Roy Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Broderick Crawford, Ward Bond, James Arness, Danny Thomas, Dick Powell, Raymond Burr, Michael Ansara, Andy Devine, George Montgomery, James Garner and others.

You can visit the website through the link below and listen to all these programs for free. Whether you enjoy country music from the Sons of the Pioneers, stories of the Texas Rangers, children's programs such as Bill Scott, Forest Ranger or simply want to hear a bunch of vintage public service announcements with Hollywood stars (television stars to be exact), there is something for everyone to listen to. 

Monday, July 1, 2019


Set against the colorful background of the Klondike gold rush, the square-jawed, straight-shooting Canadian Mountie and his “wonder dog,” Yukon King, were responsible for policing a sweeping, snowy Yukon territory. The presence of gold in the area led less-than-honest men to the kind of temptation that frequently stepped over the line of law and order. That was when young radio listeners could witness Sergeant Preston and Yukon King race into action, swiftly bringing these miscreants to justice.

Facing against limitations such as King’s primary talent of smelling an article of clothing and leading the sled dogs on the trail like any faithful bloodhound, and on occasion jumping into action to hold a criminal-at-large at bay long enough for his master to pull out his handcuffs, Yukon King did very little else but howl, growl and whine. Yet, as I listen to these radio broadcasts, I find myself rooting for the dog. But make no mistake: this Canadian Mountie program (clearly inspired by the likes of Renfew of the Mounted and Blair of the Mounted) was well-written and expertly produced.

Many mistake the program as a creation of Fran Striker, who was responsible for the creation of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, which also originated from the same radio station in Detroit, Michigan. The program was created by Tom Dougall, the same radio staffer responsible for the daytime soap opera, Ann Worth, Housewife. Though it should be noted that for the radio broadcasts of April 20 and 22, 1954, it was Fran Striker who wrote the origin story for Sergeant Preston and his wonder dog Yukon King.

Having recently listened to a few episodes in my car on the way to a film festival I came across what might be one of the best episodes of the series, “Brotherhood of Man,” broadcast February 19, 1952. Here, Sergeant Preston taught by example that anyone who accepts the Fatherhood of God should also accept the Brotherhood of Man when an Eskimo, victim of prejudice in a small mining town, risks his life to rescue the son of a mine owner. Two employees of the mine were secretly stealing gold and, upon learning a Mountie was investigating under suspicion, rig a detonation inside the cave. The young boy, however, was in the mine at the time of the explosion and while men quickly race to dig the youth free, only a small tunnel was opened. Preston climbed inside and then called out for help – lifting the beam to ensure the youth’s escape would be a two-man job. Regardless of the $10,000 bonus offered to the men by the owner of the mine, no one was willing to risk their life… except the Eskimo who insisted he does not need the money.

In the next episode, “Killers Live to Die” (broadcast February 21, 1952), a Russian named Igor Jamble had only one thing on his mind: flight to the Arctic shores. He knew that the killing of Corporal Palmer of the Mounties, who was investigating rumors of stolen furs, meant relentless pursuit by Sergeant Preston. Jamble sought haven from a seal-hunting vessel that was scheduled for departure, unaware that Preston would risk his life amongst the roaring rapids to apprehend the killer. In this episode, Preston displayed a darker side rarely exemplified on the program as the killing of a fellow Mountie was taken personal.

Racial prejudice was again the underlying them in the episode “The Missing Heir,” broadcast February 26, 1952. Ernest Demming, Lord Demming’s heir, was British by birth but raised by Eskimos after his parents, both missionaries servicing those facing an epidemic in Canada, died during quarantine. Jeffers Hooker, the boy’s crooked uncle, hires a scoundrel to seek and destroy in an effort to inherit the fortune. Sgt. Preston travels to the Forty Mile Trading Post in the hope of finding the boy before Hooker, then ventures to the village of Ka-Lock, his Eskimo guide. Ka-Lock has been courting a white woman whose father displayed disgrace upon confrontation with his daughter. Only on route does Preston discover Ka-Lock’s true parentage and prevents Hooker and his hired rogue from committing the crime. Later, the prejudicial old man is shamed when Ka-Lock’s true identity is revealed to him.

“Laurie and the New Recruits,” broadcast February 28, 1952, told the story of Lige Walker and his young friend, Bucky, who witness a murder in the snow-capped valley of the Yukon, the theft of gold and a man-made avalanche to hide the body. Racing back from the ridge of Wishbone Range, Lige reports to the Mounties who quickly makes out a warrant for the arrest of Ben Pierce for the charge of first-degree murder. Pierce is quickly taken into custody but a fire breaks out in Dawson, providing the murderer a chance to escape and flee the law, taking with him Lige Walker’s sled and sled dogs (unaware the lead sled dog is expecting). Preston once again sets out to apprehend his prisoner, now leading to a ghost town where Ben Pierce hopes to retrieve the stolen gold he hid. Thanks to the assistance of the sole occupant of the ghost town, Ben Pierce is again taken into custody… and just in time as Lige Walker’s lead sled dog, Laurie, gives birth to six new pups. 

The radio program originated from radio station WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan, produced by the same folks responsible for The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. The program premiered on the evening of January 3, 1939, as a 15-minute program aired twice weekly under the title Challenge of the Yukon. The productions of those early adventures are not as well polished as the later episodes; they come off like rehearsals with stale acting and less than stellar direction. Some might debate with me as one person told me he enjoys the 15-minute length better than the 30-minute renditions. A small number of the half-hour shows were expanded from 15-minute adventures. Fan boys like myself have also observed plots from The Lone Ranger recycled for use on Sergeant Preston. By the time the program became a half-hour entity on June 12, 1947, production had improved and I often recommend to fans of old-time radio who never heard the program to listen to the 30-minute adventures, not the 15-minute broadcasts.

Beginning November 6, 1951, the name of the program was changed from Challenge of the Yukon to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. The reason for the change was through a suggestion from Raymond Meurer, legal counsel at the radio station. Meurer insisted that the radio producer, George W. Trendle, could not lay claim to ownership of a fictional Canadian Mountie, only the trademarks – hence the name of the program representing the fictional character to protect his property.ActorPaul Sutton played the title role for the majority of the run, while playing on occasion a small supporting role on other programs such as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Sutton was replaced in the summer of 1954 by Brace Beemer, radio’s Lone Ranger and I have a difficult time listening to those later episodes without envisioning The Lone Ranger in the role as the voice of Brace Beemer is so identifiable with the masked man. The program went off the air in June of 1956 after 1,260 radio broadcasts.

By January 1952, Variety reported “Sky KingClyde Beatty and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon topped the daytime list, which would indicate that the soap operas are losing favor with the far west hausfraus and not a Godfrey in sight.” By 1954, the same magazine reported the top three children’s programs on radio wereSky KingThe Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, according to a popularity poll. Yes, it remains difficult to believe Sergeant Preston was more popular than The Lone Ranger during these years, but one has to remember this is radio and The Lone Ranger was extremely popular on television beginning in 1949.

Equally fascinating are the Quaker Oats commercials, hocking Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice, with a commercial spokesperson attempting his best Gabby Hayes rendition with the actor’s trademark “yer durn tootin’.” From the outset one might wonder if Gabby Hayes took offense to the catch-phrase but considering Quaker Oats was a sponsor for his weekly television program (three different incarnations from 1950 to 1956, to be exact), the commercials come as no surprise.

For the last few years, Radio Spirits has been licensing the radio program from Classic Media (present copyright holders of the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon) and producing like clockwork CD box sets, each containing eight CDs with 16 half-hour adventures. The four plots above originate from the first four recordings in the Arctic Odyssey box set. These box sets are not labeled by volume number, but rather as subtitles (see photos in this blog for example). Through this licensing agreement, Radio Spirits has access to the archival DAT tapes supplied by Classic Media, which were originally produced by the Jack Wrather Corp., who transferred all of the radio programs from the 16-inch transcription discs. In the long run, they will all be made available as long as sales remain strong enough to warrant continued production. While the company continues to combat an aging fan base, sales of these box sets are more important than ever. Some might feel the $32 per box set retail is a bit pricey but when you consider the fact that the cost comes down to $4 per CD, with professional packaging, the retail price is a bargain. And Radio Spirits offers discounts with sales from time to time. So why not treat yourself to a box set (or two) from Radio Spirits to ensure continued releases? A link is provided below for ease of access.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir

Fay Wray
Fay Wray made more than a hundred films, some with outstanding producers and directors of the era and opposite the greatest leading men: Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Victor Jory. She used her earnings to buy her family a home in Hollywood and support them in comfort. She had an infatuation with Cary Grant after they starred together on Broadway, a brief romance with Howard Hughes, and a serious one with the playwright Clifford Odets. The most famous of her leading men, however, was a giant ape known as King Kong and never did she have a single regret.

Robert Riskin was a playwright responsible for numerous classics that helped define American to itself and the world: Lady for a DayThe Whole Town’s TalkingIt Happened One NightMr. Deeds Goes to TownYou Can’t Take it With YouLost HorizonMeet John Doe and It Happened One Night. The latter of which was the first film to sweep the five top Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor and Actress. A record matched only twice in the three-quarters of a century since by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. As a result of such success, Riskin is credited for pulling Columbia Pictures out of a poverty row status, and was frequently called on by Harry Cohn to give judgments on most pictures Columbia put int production. 

Robert Riskin and Fay Wray

Both Fay Wray and Robert Riskin met at a Christmas Eve party in 1940 but it was not until two weeks after Pearl Harbor that they found each other again. They connected and a life-long relationship followed. Some of their movies (at least two of Wray’s and sections of Riskin’s Lost Horizon) remain “lost” to this day, providing film buffs something sought after both in legend and newspaper/industry trade briefs. Thankfully, their daughter, Victoria Riskin, wrote a Hollywood memoir that documents both the personal and professional careers of her parents.

I have always said that the best way to write a biography is to contact family relatives and get the scoop – including scans of family photographs, recollections passed down through generations, etc. Sadly, many today stockpile newspaper clippings and magazine articles and document the careers of Hollywood actors chronologically, providing lengthy plot summaries for motion pictures to pad their text, and reads like a standard filmography in prose form. Rarely are any of these books worthy of reading; if anything, they inspire others to fulfill the task properly. Thankfully was have Victoria Riskin, daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, to not only provide us with the much-needed background but also a passion and love for the material. 

Granted, Fay Wray wrote her own memoirs a long time ago titled On the Other Hand, but Victoria Riskin felt everyone already read the book and instead devoted most of her tome on the details never disclosed in her mother's autobiography. (Though, to be fair, a few passages in Victoria's book are reprinted from that other book, which she appropriately notes, for the importance of certain passages.)

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir (2019, Pantheon Books) is a magnificent read. She avoids discussing King Kong behind the humorous anecdotes that Wray encountered in the years following production, and instead focuses on her career as a whole. Robert Riskin accomplished so much in Hollywood yet so few realize just what movies he was responsible for, and the direction Frank Capra took as a result of his influence. Behind-the-scenes anecdotes during production of their movies, rare never-before-published photographs and how the two participated in the war cause are reason enough to buy this book. But perhaps the biggest compliment I can give is Victoria’s description of movies I knew about (such as Lady for a Day) that were so fascinating that I was inspired to sit down and watch half a dozen. No other book has prompted me to pull off DVDs from my shelf in the living room and take time from a busy schedule to watch them. If you are looking for a book to read at the beach this summer, or planning to read only one Hollywood memoir this year, this is that book.

A link to buy a copy of the book today: