Friday, April 29, 2016

GANG BUSTERS: Old-Time Radio's Crime Fighters

When Phillips H. Lord created Gang Busters in January of 1936, crime was so rampant that it was almost tolerated. Obedience to the laws and respect for law-enforcement agencies was at a low ebb. Criminals and their methods were highly publicized in glamorous episodes. 

Lord, as an amateur criminologist of note and a man who had delved into criminal behavior by inclination, was appalled. He had just finished his G-Men series which dramatized FBI cases and he knew how the criminals lived, what they were like and how they operated. Civic-minded citizens, law enforcement officers and police organizations were approached. They were enthusiastic in their approval and unstinted in their cooperation. They turned over their files and Lord made radio history with his exposes.

At first Lord appeared on the program and interviewed the guest police officials. Later, as his other radio programs demanded more attention, he turned the hosting chores over to West Point graduate Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who for twenty years was nationally prominent in police circles. When the Colonel was recalled to active duty, Lewis J. Valentine, former Commissioner of Police of the City of New York, took over. Before any case was presented to the radio audience, it was triple-checked. A Gang Busters representative gathered the material from law enforcement bureaus scattered all over the country. The Chief from each bureau had to approve every fact in the report before it was used. Then the script department started to work, with instructions to “make it dramatic, but be sure it’s accurate.”

Every Gang Busters broadcast featured nationwide clues, which consisted of last-minute reports of wanted persons, received from the police and FBI. One hundred requests weekly was the average number of police bulletins received by Gang Busters. They were boiled down to one or two clues, selected for importance, color and ease in remembering the descriptions. Gang Busters files show that among those criminals apprehended by such nationwide clues were Lawrence Devol, Hoffman and Penning, Edward (Wilhelm) Bentz, Howard Hayes and Charles Jones, Claude Beaver, and Percy Geary. In addition to those named, by May of 1942, more than 277 other criminals had been apprehended by Gang Busters clues.

Known as the “Number One Idea Man” in radio, Phillips H. Lord – who was once presented on the floor of Congress as the “source of more enjoyment than any person living today in the United States” – conceived the program at a time when crime was rampant. It was his purpose to give credit to outstanding police work throughout the country and, at the same time, to implement the enforcement of law with real public service features for radio listeners. Mirroring the drama of a lawless era and sounding the tocsin for a crusade against crime, Gang Busters started a completely new trend in radio shows. The depression years accentuated the American citizens’ awareness of social ills, people began demanding more realism in their entertainment, and Gang Busters filled the bill. 

Gang Busters dramatized the war of society against crime and how the program evoked praise not only from law-enforcement officials, but from parents who saw in much of the present-day writing, a tendency to depict the lawbreaker as a picturesque and colorful Robin Hood, deserving the admiration of every hero-worshipping adolescent. The raw case histories presented on Gang Busters without a painful warping or twisting to secure an obvious “moral,” pointed out an ancient truth: that society’s way is the best way and that he who flagrantly defies law and custom never wins and usually pays a stiff price for his boldness. Human nature being what it is, this is a law that requires (even today) constant reiteration. Gang Busters accomplished that in a singularly successful fashion, and thus achieved social importance.

In 1937, Charles Michelson got into the radio business when his father’s export company began receiving requests for the first RCA/Victor electrical transcriptions available on phonographic discs. As radio was eclipsed by television in the early 1950s, Michelson formed what was to become a 30-year relationship with newspaper magnate Sir Frank Packer’s TCN 9 Network in Sydney, Australia. Michelson was on hand to bring the world closer together in the early 1970s when satellite technology first became available. During the 1940s, Michelson started a company to syndicate The Shadow and many other radio programs to stations all across the country. He entered into agreements with the producers/owners of the series to distribute them, including Gang Busters.

From November 1935 to January 1936, Phillips H. Lord was in constant communication with Charles Michelson, then the Director of Publicity for the Democratic National Committee of the National Press Building in Washington, with a proposal for a radio series endorsed by the Democratic National Committee. The proposal never blossomed into a regular radio program. Twenty years later, Michelson contacted Lord regarding the ownership of the radio program, Gang Busters. After learning that the rights reverted to RKO Teleradio Pictures, Inc., Michelson struck a deal with RKO to distribute recordings of the Gang Busters radio program for syndication. 

At present, it is estimated that 93 radio broadcasts are known to exist in corded form, from the long-running Gang Busters radio program. At least 52 of them exist courtesy of Charles Michelson's syndications. His syndicated versions are altered, however, with original network commercials deleted, alternate titles assigned and organ music replaced with orchestral pieces courtesy of LP records. The earliest surviving episodes are May 26 and June 2, 1937. So in the nature of gift-giving this holiday season, I offer you this early Christmas gift. The script titles, broadcast dates and plots for the first 15 or so episodes of the radio program.

Small note: With special assistance to Bill Abbott and the folks at the Library of Congress, in 2003 and 2004 I was able to compile an episode guide in the same manner you see below. It was published by OTR Publishing in late 2004. Since then (not beforehand), all of the titles and airdates have been lifted from the book and posted on the internet without proper authorship. It seems a number of people felt the need to take that information and post it on their website. Normally, I would not have had an objection but they never stated the source of their information (the book) or that I compiled the info. As a result, they are mis-leading web browsers into thinking they did the log. Thankfully, a couple kind souls rectified the situation by making mention of the book as the source. Others have yet to do so, believing they are doing a service for OTR fans. But what kind of service are they providing when they are stealing material and taking credit? Anyway, enough of my soap box preaching. The book speaks for itself. Enjoy the episode guide below!

EPISODE #1 (Broadcast January 15, 1936)
Having robbed a sporting goods store, a theater and the Needham Trust Bank, the murdering Massachusetts Millen Brothers became legendary with a reputation for shooting anyone who defied them or stood in their way. The Public Safety Commissioner put his two best men on the case. They traced the criminals by placing an advertisement in newspapers, asking for information for the repair of a special type of car battery. The battery had been found in a burning car, which the criminals had set ablaze.

EPISODE #2 (Broadcast January 22, 1936)
Detectives Mark and Biggs were assigned to investigate a case involving the shooting of three New York policemen outside a rooming house. A fingerprint found on a mirror led to the identification of Jean McCarthy, wife of the notorious gangster, Fats McCarthy. The detectives watched all movie houses, dives and saloons for four months searching for Fats. A close study of the criminals and their habits led to a small house at the end of a lonely road…where a gun battle took the life of Fats McCarthy, and apprehended his gang.

EPISODE #3 (Broadcast January 29, 1936)
William N. Hallanan, Chief of Police of Sacramento, Calif.
STORY: Three thugs staged a daring hold-up of a United States mail truck on route to a local post office. The men overpowered the guards and escaped with $250,000 worth of valuables. Sacramento police followed every lead until it was discovered that the gangsters discarded license plates on their get-away car. This meant that the same gang committed two robberies in different cities. Detectives from Sacramento flew to Salt Lake City to continue their chase and during a violent struggle, subdued Barry Dwyer and his gang.

EPISODE #4 (Broadcast February 5, 1936)
Vincent Regan, working his way through college by driving a taxicab, was found with a serious gunshot wound. He was rushed to the hospital where he died, shortly after giving a police inspector information about his strange passenger/assailant. Inspector Barnes was assigned to the case. Through laboratory tests and the enlisted help of two convicts, Barnes investigated a three-year-old case involving stolen revolvers, discovering that a criminal named Reppin had cleverly changed the last figure of the serial number on the murder weapon. This almost put the police completely off track in tracing the gun, had they not been able to detect the change by careful laboratory testing.

EPISODE #5 (Broadcast February 12, 1936)
Clyde Barrow was an ex-convict out on parole. Bonnie Parker was an attractive girl who liked fine clothing, and had flaming yellow hair and a passion for smoking big black cigars. The couple agreed on certain principles – to shoot anyone who stood in their way, to operate within a very wide area and to keep moving fast. Within five weeks, they committed 18 crimes. They raced from one state to another, robbing and beating up citizens, breaking into banks. The pair eventually broke into a National Guard Armory stealing large quantities of guns and ammunition.

Trivia, etc. This episode (and the February 19 broadcast) actually has two titles. According to the script, the drama is also titled “The Bloody Barrow Gang.” This is not uncommon, by the early-mid forties, every episode of Gang Busters had two titles. One title featured on the cover of the script and another title delivered by the announcer.

EPISODE #6 (Broadcast February 19, 1936)
Clyde Barrow’s brother, Buck, pardoned from a penitentiary, got married and the couple joined the Barrow-Parker gang. The governor appointed Captain Hamer to smash the gang. He was a six-feet-three Texas Ranger who had killed sixty-three bandits in the line of duty. Hamer set a roadside trap for the pair staging the scene as if there had been an auto accident. Hamer and his men waited in the brush along the road. When Bonnie and Clyde stopped their car to find out what was wrong, gunfire and machine guns roared. Bonnie and Clyde attempted to leave the scene but lost control of their car and it crashed. Hamer and his deputies found the criminals dead inside, riddled with bullets – their car loaded with ammunition.

EPISODE #7 (Broadcast February 26, 1936)
About two o’clock one morning, a night watchman making his rounds heard a mysterious tapping and phoned the police. Inspector Moore and a detective gathered some complicated equipment and began investigating. It was soon discovered that bandits were tunneling through a sewer in order to break into the underground vaults of a bank. The detectives investigated a prior trolley car accident possibly linked to the crime and some plumbers’ candles, a flashlight and half-eaten sandwiches found at the scene of the digging. Without knowing the identities of the bandits, the detectives applied a clever ruse to make the true criminals reveal themselves.

Trivia, etc. This episode was previously titled “The Case of the Gray Anthony Gang.”

EPISODE #8 (Broadcast March 4, 1936)
After robbing one office, Midget Fernekes dashed into another, placing his guns under some newspapers and pretended to be a photographer.  No one in the room dared tell the police that he was the robber they sought. His ruse failed to trick the police. Midget was sentenced to prison where he attempted to break out by blowing a hole in the prison wall with a homemade explosive. After numerous other escape attempts, he finally succeeded and fled. Posing very successfully for several years as a small-town businessman, Midget’s cover was once again revealed, sending him back to prison.

EPISODE #9 (Broadcast March 11, 1936)
Grace M. Poole, Dean of Women of Stoneleigh College.
STORY: Midget Fernekes proved to be too clever for police when the criminal escaped from prison by using an improvised disguise. He bleached his blue jeans white with lemon juice and wore a mustache he had grown unnoticed by faking an infected upper lip and keeping it bandaged. The prison guards unsuspectingly allowed him to walk out, believing he was a visitor at the prison. Midget’s habits of making pencil sketches in public library books eventually lead to his capture. Scheduled to go to the electric chair, Fernekes saved the state an electric bill by slipping something into his own coffee. Before the guard could open the cell door to stop him, he drank the coffee and fell dead.

EPISODE # 10 (Broadcast March 18, 1936)
The day after Filkowski was released from prison he called together eight underworld characters at an appointed hour in a deserted cellar in the Flats, the slum section of Cleveland. He informed them they were going to start operating together with him as their leader. He soon became known as “The Phantom” because no one ever saw him enter or leave the scene of his crimes. Two old-time detectives assigned to the case enlisted the aid of a rookie to help apprehend the Phantom, who apparently carried an explosive device with him in the event of his capture. Tracking Filkowski to a New York hotel, the police quickly knocked him unconscious and handcuffed him, guarding against the explosive.

EPISODE #11 (Broadcast March 25, 1936)
Leonard Scarnici, a racketeer from Springfield, came to New York to get into the Dutch Schultz Gang as a professional killer. Schultz ordered him to kill Wilson, Scarnici’s best friend in Springfield, as a test of his abilities. Wilson had complete faith in Scarnici and readily accompanied him to a place where Scarnici asked him to dig a hole six feet long and three feet wide. Then Scarnici shot his friend and buried him alive. New York police noticed that Scarnici and his accomplices had been conspicuously absent, and warned Boston police to be on the lookout for them. But it was too late. A prominent Boston businessman was kidnapped and tortured because he refused to sign a ransom note.

EPISODE #12 (Broadcast April 1, 1936)
Detective Jimmie Stevens was in his office at Rensselaer, New York, completing his retirement papers when the bank alarm sounded. Stevens and a police officer reached the bank and exchanged gunfire with the Scarnici gang. Scarnici fatally wounded Stevens, who died soon after. After following many leads and holding numerous interviews, officers in a patrol car spotted one of Scarnici’s men driving toward New York. The police followed discreetly, but relayed by radio which way the car turned at intersections. The car stopped at a Bronx apartment. Three detectives broke down the apartment door and found Scarnici and his men inside cleaning their guns. They were caught off guard, pounced upon, and taken into custody. The most cold-blooded of killers, Scarnici, was electrocuted in Sing Sing for the murder of detective Stevens.

EPISODE #13 (Broadcast April 8, 1936)
Dago Peretti was the leader of a gang responsible for a series of murders and robberies in the Chicago area. His real name and his residence were unknown, even to members of his gang. It took two small pieces of dirty cardboard and a bottle of toothache pills for the police to get the break they needed. With the delivery address attached to the bottle, law enforcement was able to learn the identity of Dago Peretti. Applying a trick forcing Dago out the kitchen door of his apartment, Dago was drilled “full of lead” by the guarding police.

EPISODE #14 (Broadcast April 15, 1936)
St. Paul was dubbed “the Poison Spot of Crime” because of the large number of criminals who lived and operated there. Citizens held a meeting calling for unified action against the underworld. The worst of these criminals were Homer Van Meter and Eddie Green. To draw them out, police placed phony newspaper advertisements for a specially-designed automobile having a high-speed gear designed to be able to outrun police cars. Van Meter and Green answered the ad and were apprehended.

Trivia, etc. This script was originally titled “The Capture of the Dillinger Gang” since Homer Van Meter and Eddie Green both worked with Dillinger and his moll. While Dillinger’s reputation had been blown up by the media, Van Meter and Green were the real triggermen so Phillips Lord decided it would attract a large radio audience to learn about the criminal actions of Van Meter and Green.

EPISODE #15 (Broadcast April 22, 1936)
High in the rugged Siskeyou Mountains, 17 miles from Ashland, Oregon, the Southern Pacific Railroad was robbed by two men who jumped onto the coal tender and climbed forward to the engine cab. At gunpoint, they ordered the engineer to stop the train in the tunnel and jump off. Hugh D’Autremont, older brother of twins, Roy and Ray, joined them. Hugh and Ray robbed the mail car by lowing up part of the car with dynamite. They left three clues behind: the pistol dropped by Ray, the dynamite switch, and an empty knapsack.

EPISODE #16 (Broadcast April 29, 1936)
When the police were certain the D’Autremont Brothers were responsible for the train robbery, they had the F.B.I. send 2.5 million circulars worldwide, particularly to barber shops, lumber camps, opticians and dental offices. Five years passed but the police continued their search. Their big break came and Hugh was arrested in the Philippines. Roy and Ray were arrested in Columbus, Ohio where police noticed that the brothers had duplicated scars on each other’s bodies in order to throw the police off the track in case they were picked up.

1 comment:

Dave said...

The radio station I worked for in the 1980s used to run some of Charles Michelson's shows. He had rights to quite a few of them. Besides Gangbusters, I remember that he had Fibber McGee and Molly, Suspense, Dragnet, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Gunsmoke, The Black Museum, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Don't know that that was all he had. Those are just the ones I remember. Michelson was always careful to make sure he had legal clearance to those shows and that all the proper clearances were signed. I remember that, from time to time back then, small outfits would pop up trying to peddle packages of old radio shows to radio stations, but then would disappear fast because they were apparently assuming all that stuff was in the public domain and nobody was going to care. People did, though, and Michelson was always quick to run down any station that was running shows he had rights to without clearing it through him.

Post a Comment