Monday, July 1, 2019

SERGEANT PRESTON OF THE YUKON: The Radio Program

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.



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