Sunday, February 3, 2019

Debunking the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon Myth

There is a phrase that circulates among historians and scholars: "Fifteen books can be wrong and one hundred websites are wrong." The adage relates to the fact that few people do the legwork when it comes to research... which is often the cause of the same mistake being reprinted over and over. While I agree with those who debate that it is easier (and cheaper) to consult prior published reference guides and websites, that method cannot ensure facts. What ultimately results in this flaw is the reprinting of mis-information, giving people the false assumption that if something is printed in five or six books, it must be the gospel. And such methods is nothing more than cut-and-paste applying grammatical cosmetics. No better example can be found than the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon radio program.

Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounties who, with his wonder dog Yukon King, set about on weekly adventures to thwart the schemes of fur thieves, claim jumpers and murderers. For many who lived in Detroit, Michigan, where the radio broadcasts originated, this was a brass-buttoned, red-coat rendition of the successful Lone Ranger radio program. Preston had a magnificent steed, Rex, who raced steadfast to the scene of the crime when King, usually leading the sled dogs, could not assist with transportation as fast as his four-legged friend... but King, take note, with sharp teeth was able to disarm villains with guns and save Preston from harm.

There were multiple people who played the role of Sergeant Preston, from Jay Michael, Paul Sutton and Brace Beemer - the latter also voiced The Lone Ranger on radio for more than a decade. (Recent archival digging will soon provide us with additional information for another actor, previously undocumented, playing the role. We can thank historian Karl Schadow for that information when he publishes his findings later this year.)

The radio program began in January 1939 as a fifteen-minute program titled Challenge of the Yukon, created and scripted by Tom Dougall, who was responsible for a daytime soap opera over the same Michigan radio station, Ann Worth, Housewife. Within a year many of the episodes were recycled plots from Lone Ranger radio scripts. In September 1948 the program evolved into a half-hour format and this proved to be ironic when you consider the fact that a half-hour audition dated December 27, 1943 suggested a possible half-hour expansion a few years prior. Many people mistakenly believe Fran Striker, author of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet radio programs, of creating the Sergeant Preston character, especially when you consider the fact that Striker was responsible for Preston's origin in April 1954, which was adapted into children's records. (Striker himself wrote to Trendle at one time and asked that he write the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon novel, should a publishing contract become reality like the 18 Lone Ranger hardcover novels. Striker himself wrote a backstory for the novel that was never published.)

In September 1950 the name of the program changed to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. The reason for the name change, recently unearthed while reviewing archival documentation, was to protect the property of the fictional mountie. It was impossible -- legally -- to copyright or trademark a fictional character as Canadian Mounties were commonplace before the creation of the radio program but the name of the character was a different matter and copyrighting each radio script under the name of the program (ala name of character) would hold court with legal defense.

A recent article in the February 2019 issue of Radio Recall, written by historian Karl Schadow, confirms what many never suspected... Challenge of the Yukon premiered on the evening of January 3, 1939. So why do hundreds of reference books and websites claim February 3, 1938? Karl goes into detail to debunk the mistake, incorporating reprints of archival materials to verify the 1939 date, backing up his facts. (For the record, there are no newspaper or trade papers from 1938 indicating Challenge of the Yukon ever aired on radio.)

In answer to the question above, too many people believe what they read on the Internet and are quick to reprint the facts without doing any real legwork. If two dozen books say 1938, and hundreds of websites claim 1938, then they assume 1938. But had anyone actually done what Karl took time and effort to accomplish, browsing through the original radio scripts, consulting historical documents in archives, and numerous other sources, they would have realized the 1939 is carved in granite. Which leads us back to that phrase that circulates among historians and scholars: "Fifteen books can be wrong and one hundred websites are wrong."

Good job, Karl.

Copyright registration card at the Library of Congress verifying
Challenge of the Yukon premiered in January 1939, not February 1938.

Karl's article also debunks a number of other myths and misconceptions about the Sergeant Preston radio program, not just the premiere broadcast date. For anyone wanting to read Karl's article, a free PDF of the February 2019 issue of Radio Recall can be read below, reprinted with permission. (And I encourage everyone reading this to sign up and become a member of the club -- the newsletter publishes numerous articles like this bi-monthly, often debunking myths and misconceptions in every issue.)