Friday, July 31, 2020

A HISTORY OF RENFREW OF THE MOUNTED (PART TWO)

Radio premium with
Renfrew on the cover.
Renfrew of the Mounted premiered over CBS Radio on the evening of March 3, 1936, over CBS, the same network airing Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy earlier in the evening. Whether the ad agency wanted the program to air on the same network remains questionable based on inter-office communication, but such a game plan was short-lived. On the same day Renfrew made his radio debut, the trade papers reported General Mills announcing plans to move their program to NBC Red in early summer (which truly happened as of August 31), in an attempt for the company to diversify their ad programs on all of the stations.
Thus by late 1936 every network featured juvenile adventure programs during the evening hours. Mutual had Dick Tracy, NBC Blue had Little Orphan Annie, NBC Red had Jack Armstrong and the Tom Mix Ralston Straight-Shooters, and CBS had Popeye the Sailor, the Bobby Benson program, and Renfrew of the Mounted.
A total of 256 radio broadcasts aired from March 3, 1936, to March 5, 1937, consisting of five brief adventures, followed by four lengthy story arcs. These are broken down in detail below.

“Preview Special” (1 chapter, March 3, 1936)
“The Driverless Dog Sled” (2 chapters, March 6 and 7, 1936)
“The Man-Trap at Moosamin” (March 10 to 14, 1936)
“Wings Over Hudson’s Bay” (March 17 to 21, 1936)
[Title Temporarily Unknown] (March 24 to 28, 1936)
“The Wonder Valley of Gold” (77 chapters, March 30 to July 16, 1936)
“The Land of the Totems” (56 chapters, July 17 to October 2, 1936)
“The Sunken City of the Arctic” (85 chapters, October 5, 1936, to January 29, 1937)
“The Wilderness Trail” (26 chapters, February 1 to March 5, 1937)

The radio program was a tremendous success from multiple viewpoints. Radio premiums from pins to campfire booklets were given away during the program’s run. It was during “The Wonder Valley of Gold” story arc that motivated children to write in for a free map so they could follow Renfrew and his friends as they traveled the wilderness. Routinely on a number of radio broadcasts, the announcer would tell children where Renfrew and his companions were on the map. Throughout the 1930s, radio premiums often consisted of cast photographs, but by 1936 it was believed children would write in for something of substance — police badges, code books, and magic tricks among them. According to a report generated by the advertising agency, Renfrew of the Mounted acquired 1,700,000 requests for “giveaways,” including the map and later a pin.

1938 issue of American Boy with
Renfrew of the Mounted on the cover.
About two-thirds of the way through “The Sunken City of the Arctic,” Erskine felt the strain of turning out five episodes weekly, always with sound effects, which threatened the author’s sanity. Foreshadowed months prior in a press release: “Laurie Erskine, who writes Renfrew for CBS says after a long script session he relieves nervous tension by standing on his head.” When a sudden illness came on or other similar emergencies caused a cast member of Renfrew of the Mounted to miss a broadcast, Erskine would pinch-hit for the role. (Before becoming a noted writer, he was a stage actor.) When the Renfrew program featured Native Indians, Erskine often received several fan letters from red-skinned gentlemen, whom he met as a youngster in his teens — supposedly the characters on the program were named after them. For a few weeks a new script writer was brought in to write the scripts based on five-page plot synopses composed by Erskine, but the script writer never maintained pure continuity, leaning more toward science-fiction that surpassed the high adventure of Jack Armstrong. Erskine was frustrated over the developments so a second script writer was brought in — Grant Terry — but they never lasted more than a week in January 1937. (Terry co-wrote Justice of the Peace with Elwell Cobb in 1935, among other short-lived radio programs.) Erskine returned to close down the story arc and begin a new one: “The Wilderness Trail.”
            The contract between the network and the ad agency was drafted in cookie-cutter format, applying the usual terms of 13-week extensions. (13  4 = 52 weeks.) Arthur Pryor notified the network that after the remaining 13 week extension, the program would go off the air, giving the network plenty of time to find replacements for the time slot. There were three reasons for the program concluding after 52 weeks. According to his friend Robert Shaw, Erskine “disposed of his hero after a vain effort to sell a comic strip version for which Pete Keenan, New Hope artist, would do the drawings.” Erskine informed the agency that he would no longer write the scripts at the conclusion of the 52nd week.
The second reason — and the weightiest of the three — was that the company conducted an extensive study made in the market that revealed almost 90 percent of the bread purchased was purchased by adult females. The agency felt, and the sponsor agreed, that they would do a better job appealing to the adult females rather than the children. The third reason was because the Continental Baking dropped sponsorship because the company did not use premiums in their business and the agency representing Continental felt their client was not getting the fullest value of the program. (Ironic when you consider the fact that Douglas Storer was not only in favor of program premiums, but wrote an article focusing on radio premiums including dealer displays, photographic reproductions of the radio cast and clever sound gadgets, for the January 1934 issue of Broadcast Merchandising.)
Renfrew of the Mounted returned to the air as a weekly half-hour adventure program, launched on the evening of January 7, 1939. In late 1938, when NBC-Blue agreed to produce a 30-minute weekly program with the hope that a sponsor would be interested in signing on the bottom line, producer Phil Goldstone of Criterion Pictures, responsible for the big screen adventures of Renfrew, created a momentary stir when he consulted the network about a clause in his contract that stipulated his rights to have a market tie-in with the cast of the motion pictures. To avoid conflict of interest with the movie studio, executives at NBC-Blue agreed to allow James Newill, the screen Renfrew, to play the starring role if the program moved to the West Coast. In the meantime, the new half-hour format would originate from the studios in New York City, known to all interests as “a substitute cast,” although House Jameson and Brad Barker were merely reprising their roles from the 1936–37 series.
These thrillers included enticing titles such as “The Lost River Mine,” “Chief Calf Robe’s Hidden Treasure,” and “The Rainbow River Gang,” among others. This second incarnation ran a total of 89 episodes, now extended to a half-hour format and broadcast over the NBC Blue Network instead of CBS. George Ludlam was hired to write the scripts, based on 14-page plot summaries by Laurie York Erskine, who had no time to write two drafts of a weekly half-hour radio script. Ludlam, an experienced script writer with such credits as For Men Only and Spy at Large under his belt, would eventually go on to establish The Adventures of Superman for radio in early 1940. Without the continuation format of a daily serial, these half-hour stories were superior on many levels.
The adventures dramatized during the half-hour rendition of Renfrew of the Mounted consisted of both single-episode adventures and multi-episode story arcs. A number of recurring characters bridged continuity even when Renfrew was solving cases within one radio broadcast. Some of the half-hour adventures were adaptations of short stories written years prior by Erskine, others recycled material from short stories with revisions, and a number of them were originals. The episode “Redheads Won’t Stay Down,” broadcast February 18, 1939, was adapted from a story in Renfrew Rides North (1931). The episode “Signals in the Dark,” broadcast June 29, 1940, was inspired by the sea-faring stories of the ships that mysteriously wrecked in the fog at San Francisco Bay — one in particular that disappeared without a trace but today is assumed to have wrecked and sunk. The half-hour program would run until October 1940.

Later illustration from a 1948 magazine of Renfrew.

A third rendition of Renfrew returned to the airwaves beginning August 18, 1941, and would run a total of seven months. Passport to Adventure was a fifteen-minute program, broadcast five days a week, and featured no cast, script or sound effects. Instead, Laurie York Erskine would narrate stories as someone would tell campfire tales. Trading dramatic presentation with that of narrative, Erskine simply composed a 15-page story and told of Indian fights, ships that sailed the seven seas, adventures in the Arctic and below the Equator. Every two or three weeks one of those stories would feature either Renfrew in a thrilling adventure, or one of Renfrew’s Canadian Mountie friends.
Passport to Adventure came to an abrupt close when Erskine was recruited by the U.S. Army to help train fighter pilots. A pilot himself during the first World War, Erskine was more than willing to help aid his country in the fight against the Japanese. Sadly, after his return to the United States, he and Douglas Storer found it difficult to sell the program to any network or sponsor. 
By the late 1930s, every movie studio in California attempted to cash in on the popularity of the Canadian Mounties. Cowboy stars Kirby Grant, Russell Hayden, and Charles Starrett swapped riding chaps and six-guns for scarlet coats with shiny brass buttons. As multiple film critics pointed out, Saskatchewan might as well have been in Texas, a few movie critics remarked. Beginning January 1939, Challenge of the Yukon premiered over WXYZ in Detroit and would soon become syndicated across the country.
It would take seven years after the conclusion of Passport to Adventure before the character of Renfrew would return to radio — one last time. On the evening of Monday, March 15, 1948, from 6:30 to 6:45 p.m.(Eastern), WNBC in New York presented a one-time broadcast of Renfrew of the Mounted. Instead of audition by recording, the broadcast aired live and was intended to show prospective sponsors (all of whom received a letter dated March 11, requesting they listen to the broadcast), how the program could be handled in an inexpensive way, broadcast daily or weekly. The audition broadcast featured Laurie York Erskine as the narrator and was heard only within reception coverage of New York City. (The remainder of the NBC network presented musical offerings across the country during the same time slot.)
Through historical retrospect, the disadvantages waging against Erskine were many. Popularity polls confirmed children preferred cowboys over Canadian Mounties. Challenge of the Yukon (later re-titled Sergeant Preston of the Yukon) was so widely syndicated that most radio stations never sought interest in two Canadian Mountie programs. Storer’s cash cow was the Robert Ripley franchise and he devoted more time on the program than Erskine’s baby. Even a 1953 television pilot on the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars never garnered interest in potential sponsors following the initial telecast, serving as a backdoor pilot for a proposed weekly program. 
When Erskine passed away in 1976, he bequeathed his franchise to a University. Sadly, the property fell into orphaned status as copyrights to the ten Renfrew of the Mounted novels were never renewed, nor licensed for reprinting. At one time Douglas Storer took inventory to discover he had more than 100 transcription discs of the radio program from 1936 to 1937. Sadly, only one dozen recordings are known to exist today. 
Five years ago, author and historian Garyn Roberts (and his wife Virginia) gave me four of the Renfrew novels as a gift, and it was here that I was first exposed to the character. From their encouragement I was motivated to read the first of them, Renfrew of the Royal Mounted (1922); followed by Renfrew Rides the Sky(1928). These two books in particular are the best of the bunch and come highly recommended. As a result of this newfound interest, like many in the hobby of old-time radio who seek to further deeper insight into the recordings they listen to, family relatives and archives across the country were sought out. As of this year, every radio script had been found and scanned into pdf format for digital preservation, along with the discovery of half a dozen un-circulated Renfrew of the Mounted radio broadcasts, and a new 500-page book documenting the history of the program – due for publication in December. What little was documented prior about the radio program (brief entries in encyclopedias) has been extensively covered in book form to ensure the character of Renfrew of the Mounted does not fade away into obscurity.

No comments:

Post a Comment