Friday, July 31, 2020


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.

Friday, July 24, 2020


Five hundred miles through the frozen wastes of the north Renfrew hiked, until he reached the missionary who was found mad, isolated for far too long and victim of the lonesomeness of his northern post. Then began their long trek back to civilization. In his madness the missionary fought Renfrew, so he was tied down to the sled. To feed him and prevent the bonds from stopping the flow of circulation, Renfrew would release the poor fellow a few times a day, and then the man would fight with a maniac’s strength. Renfrew would have to chase him, wallowing in the snow, and drag him back to camp to feed him.
The first settlement they reached proved not to be the hoped-for haven. Renfrew, now weak from exhaustion, found the place taken over by drunken half-breeds. But the authority of the Royal Canadian Mounties could not be left in question. So, by sheer courage, he tore into the mob of hoodlums, arrested the ringleaders, and proceeded on his almost impossible journey. Finally, he reached Port Saskatchewan, where he imprisoned the half-breed outlaws and turned the lunatic over to the hospital.
The heroic deeds of the fictional Inspector Douglas Renfrew, as dictated from the imagination of Laurie York Erskine, avoided the trappings of the silver screen. The heroic exploits of the Canadian Mounties, left to Hollywood, projected the American image of the force with applied diction that “the Mounties always get their man,” complete with clean red garb and shiny brass buttons. Depending on which rendition you view, the Mounties demonstrate superb vocal talents, in their effort to serenade the white oak and rich canyons. Others received second billing below the dog, both star and hero of the picture, inspired by the popularity of Rin-Tin-Tin, leaving the actor to wonder who was paid more for their time and talent. Literary renditions, however, of which there were many, were more faithful to the legend and lore. Most authors based their character on the mythos recorded in history books.
Authors John Mackie, Harold Bindloss, James Oliver Curwood, Charles Gordon, and Gilbert Parker, among others, dramatized the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as peacekeepers who were respected among whiskey traders, trappers, and prospectors. Deceptions against the crown were punishable by law, but not before due diligence and an exchange of fisticuffs. This was embodied in the ubiquitous “get their man” cliché, that phrase coined by an American newspaper and later perpetuated by popular writers describing romantic images of the force.
Laurie York Erskine on radio.

As depicted through Erskine’s printed prose, Renfrew rarely wore his uniform because most of his combatants were not killers, fur thieves, or claim jumpers; they were the roaring rapids from a spring thaw, the hidden quicksand bogs, and long treks through uncharted territory. Erskine provided feats of fury on Yukon-sized trails, rivers, mountain vistas, midnight sun, and northern lights, avoiding the Hollywood fantasy in an effort to satisfy his readers with a craving for authentic, unspoiled wilderness.
Although it has been said that Canada had no Wild West because the Mounties got there first, the truth is that before their heralded arrival Canada’s frontier was as wild as any Wild West dime novel. Native murders and whiskey traders were so common that such vandalism could never be depicted accurately on screen. Erskine made sure to apply a realistic approach with his Renfrew stories, choosing to incorporate romantic prose for the natural beauty of the Northern wilds, with nature a harsher enemy of the Canadian Mounties. Extremely well-written and highly treasured among aficionados of adventure fiction, the novels are still in demand among collectors — with greater demand for the fragile dust jackets that outlived most of the books themselves.
Following a series of short stories in American Boy magazine, and a number of published novels, Renfrew of the Mounted made a transition to radio in the mid-thirties, five days a week, and children followed his daily adventures with maps, lapel pins, and schoolbooks. Such tall tales were acceptable to parents, knowing the perils of the wilderness could only enhance survival instincts and sharpen cunning. A champion who could be looked up to was approved by social-minded guardians; the Parents and Teachers Association even voted Renfrew of the Mounted one of the top programs for children. To the millions of fiction readers who delighted in stories of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Inspector Douglas Renfrew was a favorite character — the embodiment of the adventurous spirit for which those troopers were famous. Little did they realize that the author was merely reliving his own experiences in the Canadian wilds, augmenting those from the records related in history books.
The story of the missionary driven mad was a true tale of heroism. Constable Albert Pedley’s impossible journey in 1904 did not end well. After turning the lunatic over to the hospital in Fort Saskatchewan and a long sleep, the British-born Pedley had to commute to Edmonton for dental work. The dentist gave him gas to extract an infected tooth. Not wanting to rest, Pedley set out again for his post in the north. He never reached it. Alarmed by the failure to report from Vermillion, high in the north, a search party was sent out. He was found wandering in the winter wilderness, singing snatches of songs from his native Devonshire. As Commissioner Aylesworth Bowen Perry wrote in his 1905 Annual Report, Constable Pedley “went violently insane as a result of the hardships of the trip and his anxiety for the safety of his charge.” Under the terrible strain of his achievement, Pedley’s mind had cracked. He was never to return to the north again.*

The story of Constable Pedley was adapted into a motion-picture, The Wild North, in 1952, but it little resembled the true events.

The Renfrew novels were written and published partly out of necessity; Erskine donated the profits from his handiwork to the funding of a private boys’ school. The school needed what money Erskine could chip in — far more than it needed his presence — which kept him busy at writing, and often took him away for prolonged absences. He always came back, and everyone on campus recalled his writing always played second fiddle to his interest in the educational influences of the school. It was this financial responsibility that sustained unceasing production of Renfrew of the Mounted adventures in both short story and novel form.
Inspector Douglas Renfrew was a composite of all the brave men of the scarlet-coated Royal Mounted Canadian Police — and the fictional creation of a Battle Creek, Michigan, journalist named Laurie York Erskine, then former city editor of the Moon-Journal. (The first of the stories was written in Battle Creek, now famous not for the home of a fictional literary hero but of Kellogg’s, a breakfast cereal company.) After a series of short stories for American Boy magazine, followed by a number of Renfrew novels, the character made the transition to radio. 

One afternoon in late 1935, Laurie York Erskine happened to be in New York and was determined to look up an old friend, Douglas Storer, whom he had not seen in a number of years. When the two finally met, they indulged in pleasant reminiscences for a while and then, suddenly, Storer had an idea.
“Why don’t you put Renfrew on the radio?” he asked. Despite the fact that Blair of the Mounties was syndicated through Canada and Australia by early 1936, the program was considered a failure from a business standpoint. Storer knew about this from what he read in the trades, and from his discussions with advertising executives who were seeking program proposals for their clients.
Erskine thought about the idea for a minute, then smiled: “I might, but I don’t know how to go about it.” Storer knew of an ad agency that was seeking just such a program.
No literary author of means, Laurie York Erskine concluded, could possibly succeed without a steadfast agent to handle the business doings through representation. Douglas Storer, a radio producer, talent agent, and script writer, was responsible for introducing such luminaries to the radio listening audience as Robert L. Ripley, Dale Carnegie, Bob Considine, and Cab Calloway. From 1933 to 1949, he produced the popular Believe It or Not radio broadcasts on several networks and developed a close personal relationship with Robert L. Ripley.
Although Ripley entrusted Storer with nearly all of his business affairs, Storer later claimed that the two never signed a formal contract and that Ripley “never asked for an accounting.” It was Storer’s close association with Robert L. Ripley that convinced Laurie York Erskine to sign a contract after Christmas 1936. Though Erskine created the popular Renfrew character through literary assignments, it was Storer who knew the radio business and takes credit (at least fifty percent) for bringing Renfrew of the Mounted to the CBS airwaves.*

While Storer succeeded in representing Erskine for the radio program and motion-pictures, their partnership was freelance on consignment beginning January 8, 1937, for one year, later renewed January 8, 1938, then for two-year renewal terms, when Storer agreed to act as “sole personal representative for the purpose of promoting and negotiating” future writing, motion-pictures, and radio assignment, in exchange for 20 percent of all profits. Renewed every two years in January 8, 1940, and January 8, 1942. (Their official partnership would eventually lead to a 50-50 arrangement years later.)

Batten, Burton, Durstine & Osborne, the advertising agency that pitched Renfrew of the Mounted to executives of the Continental Baking Company, ensured a national coast-to-coast hook-up would do better than Blair of the Mounties, which was syndicated across the country. Executives at Continental were seeking radio promotion for their product, Wonder Bread, and what was pitched to them was an adventure serial along the lines of Little Orphan Annie and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.*

* B.B.D.&O. handled the Continental Baking account until January 1, 1937, when Benton & Bowles took over and represented the client for Renfrew of the Mounted.

House Jameson as Renfrew on
the radio program.

It was Storer who negotiated on Erskine’s behalf, contacting a number of agencies in New York and Chicago, hoping one of them would be interested in pitching the idea of a daily Canadian Mountie series for one of their clients. The success of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy prompted Arthur Pryor of B.B.D.&O. to convince their clients at the Continental Baking Company to reconsider their branding strategy. Prior to this, Continental promoted the benefits of Wonder Bread on such programs as The Happy Wonder Bakers and the daily Tatters Sports Review. Wonder Bread was popularly associated with the Little Jack Little orchestra, a favorite of Frederick Seaman, ad manager for Continental. After listening to a couple broadcasts of Jack Armstrong, Seaman found himself on the fence, proposing a test series of transcriptions to be aired over one station for a limited time, allowing the executives at Continental to measure the results and consider a coast-to-coast hookup over a major network. Negotiations between Arthur Pryor and Douglas Storer were conducted through December of 1935.
In early 1936, one 15-minute recording was created as a test series, with Laurie York Erskine delivering the narrative much like a storyteller at the campfire. “At the very beginning I wanted to tell about Renfrew’s adventures myself,” he later recalled. “I was overruled then, but I still think I was right. A good story-teller can cover as much ground and build up as much characterization and suspense in 15 minutes as a drama can in half an hour.” The executives at B.B.D.&O., however, insisted on dramatic appeal in an effort to compete against the other serials aimed toward children.
On January 6, 1936, Erskine agreed to the terms and signed a letter to that effect, for Douglas Storer to commission the agency to negotiate the time slot on a network of their choosing. A contract between the Continental Baking Company, an executive at B.B.D.&O., and Laurie York Erskine, was signed in late February, with the option of attending one rehearsal for each script written and assist in the editing as thought advisable. Radio scripts were to be copyrighted by Erskine, to assign statutory rights in both script and story, so there would be no misunderstanding between the sponsor and Erskine as to the ownership of the character. This was a smart move on Storer’s negotiating as many who created adventure serials for radio sponsors would later discover that the sponsors would claim ownership, even when the creators/authors were no longer involved.
The contract also featured a provisional clause: “In event of your death, we shall thereafter have the continued right to use, at any time or from time to time, the Renfrew characters and theme as the structural basis for such further scripts as we may, in our discretion, determine to procure from other authors that we may employ, in which case we shall pay your estate $25 with respect to each script we shall have had written and have broadcast, or $100 per week minimum should the program air five times a week.”
A similar clause was included in the contract for the Tom Mix radio program — ultimately leading to a momentary legal squabble after his death in October 1940 — referred to by many in the industry as “the Tom Mix clause.” The estate left by Mix, believed to be over $1 million, was dwindled to $115,000–$100,000 in real estate and $15,000 in personal property. Mix was once among Hollywood’s highest salaried actors, but his earnings were depleted by scores of lawsuits and settlements as a result of accidents when performing on his rodeo tours, the Internal Revenue charging him $177,000 for neglected income taxes, a part of his early earnings invested in securities which collapsed in the market crash of 1929, and the largest single outlay to his former wife. Mabel Mix, his widow, arranged for a court appeal for an allowance of $400 or $500 per month while the attorney for the estate insisted that it was the actor’s decision to split the entire estate equally among her and his daughter, Thomasina. Weeks after his passing, the ex-wife came out of the woodwork with a $50,000 promissory note; his widow asked the court to name a new executor for the estate, and on May of 1941 the actor’s possessions were auctioned off — including Tony the Second, his horse. Ultimately it was agreed that all three parties (ex-wife, widow, and daughter) would share equal ownership in the estate.
The radio program was the next to fall victim to materialism when Ralston stopped sponsoring the program, and a representative from the estate asked the advertising agency not to renew the adventure serial for an additional season unless a higher fee was paid to the estate. Mix himself never appeared on the radio broadcasts. His voice was damaged by a bullet to the throat and repeated broken noses from stunt work during productions of his movies, so he licensed the use of his name under contract; the character of Tom Mix was played by radio actors. Continued use of Tom Mix’s name was considered “unauthorized,” according to a representative of the estate, but the original contract was upheld in a court of law. Hence the clause similar to that in Erskine’s contract was referred to as “the Tom Mix clause.”

Another agreement in Erskine’s contract stipulated that the sponsor was granted permission to produce a book edition of Renfrew of the Mounted, to sell at low-unit cost for mass circulation, referred to as a “giveaway premium,” created to gauge the size of the listening audience for consideration of sponsorship renewal. The radio sponsor also retained the rights to syndicating a newspaper strip of Renfrew (non-commercial) in newspapers to promote the radio program. Erskine also signed over motion-picture and stage productions intended for trade, industrial, and advertising purposes. This also included the use of electrical transcription discs. Erskine signed the contract, even thought he was against the use of radio premiums, believing such gimmicks would diminish the value proposition for his franchise.
In consideration for accepting the use of radio premiums, Erskine’s salary would go up $100 per week after the first 13 weeks, and another $100 per week beginning with week forty. Beginning with the one-year anniversary of the program’s premiere, Erskine would receive an additional pay raise at the following scale: After first 52 weeks, $715 per 5-week. After the first 104 weeks, $780 per 5-week. Erskine’s salary was not to exceed $800 per week (3-week program), $920 per week (4-week program) and $1,040 per week (5-week program) if and when his salary rose to that level. Should Erskine become mentally or physically incapacitated to the extent that he was unable to perform the task, the advertising agency had the right to employ someone to write the scripts and Erskine would be paid $100 per week, with statutory copyright in such scripts in the name of the agency.
The agency granted Erskine complete freedom to plot his scripts, without interference, except for two requests. The first was to incorporate both a boy and girl in recurring roles so the young listeners could associate. The second was a plot line that involved a lengthy trek through the Canadian wilds, so a giveaway premium could be incorporated (a map that listeners could mark along the way). Because the Canadian Mounted Police had a strict code, it was not possible to do a series based strictly on their files because no dramatic license would be allowed. With the exception of character names from his published novels, Erskine wrote original material for most of the 1936–1937 program. Like many of the novels, some of the lengthy story arcs paused momentarily (usually for one week from Monday to Friday) for Renfrew to recount a thrilling adventure to David and/or Carol, before returning to the lengthy trail they were then traveling. (For the 1939–1940 half-hour series, Erskine recycled much from his short stories and novels, which were loosely based on true cases from the annals of the Canadian Mounted.)

Friday, July 17, 2020

EARTH ABIDES: An Escape Into the 1950 CBS Radio Drama

With general consensus among fans of old-time radio that the two-part adaptation of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides is among the best presentations on Escape (CBS, sustaining, 1947-1954), motivation to read the post-apocalypse novel provided an opportunity for comparison. Stephen King confessed Earth Abides was the inspiration to write his own post-apocalypse novel (The Stand). Jimi Hendrix claimed that Earth Abides was his favorite book and his song. “Third Stone from the Sun,” was inspired by the novel.

Published in 1949, Earth Abides offers sober examination of not only human integrity, but also the questions of what makes civilization work. When a plague of unprecedented virulence sweeps the globe, the human race is all but wiped out. In the aftermath, as the great machine of civilization slowly and inexorably breaks down, only a few shattered survivors remain to struggle against the slide into barbarism . . . or extinction. The story follows one survivor, Isherwood “Ish” Williams, an intellectual loner who embraces the grim duty of bearing witness to what may be humanity’s final days. But then he finds Em (short for Emma), a wise and courageous woman who coaxes his stunned heart back to life and teaches him to hope again, he chose to start life anew. Together, they faced unimaginable challenges as they sowed the seeds for a new beginning.

The structure of the novel was different from contemporary novels. The first half of the book centered on Ish as he set out on a cross-country tour, from San Francisco, California, to New York City, and back again. During his travels, he found small pockets of survivors, but had doubts about humanity’s ability to survive the loss of civilization. One survivor who took to the bottle, provided little hope and only after Ish later realized that the drunk was human and deserved an attempt at sobriety and a future, returned the day after to find the drunk dead from alcohol poisoning.

Actor John Dehner as Ish Williams
Like the lead protagonist in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Ish wanders the remains of what was once a thriving human empire only to cynically observe the worst in human nature. From religion to military, peace camps to new-formed government, the problem of surviving in a post-apocalypse world is people – not the crisis. Through Ish’s travels, The Secondary Kill was at work. Once he saw a woman whose mind had failed. The clothes indicated she was scarcely able to care for herself and could certainly not last through a winter. Several survivors told him of others who had committed suicide. 

Wandering the streets of Manhattan, including the Wall Street that built the city, Ish observed Buffalo grazing, unfinished construction projects that would remain unfinished, and on Fifth Avenue the end of a verse: “Now all your victories are in vain.” There he met Milt Abrams, who escorted Ish to a pleasant apartment on the second floor. There, Milt introduced a blond-haired woman, of about forty. “Meet – the Mrs.,” said Milt Abrams, and from the way he hesitated, Ish knew that the Mrs. Merely covered up his embarrassment. (This scene was downplayed on the radio broadcast (referred to as Mr. Carson, not Milt Abrams) to avoid the suggestion and Ish’s cross-country travels to New York City was never dramatized, only referenced. His encounter with Milt Abrams was in San Francisco.)

And yet, though sometimes he wondered, Ish himself was conscious of no great strain either of shock or of loneliness. He attributed this to his maintenance of interest in the whole progress of events, and to his own peculiar temperament. He thought many times of his qualifications for the new life, as he had once listed them. It was then that Ish realized that our human control is often an illusion, and we are all merely a speck of dust in the blink of the universe. At the conclusion of the first half of the book, titled “World Without End,” Ish meets Emma and he experienced a newfound spark for continuing existence. (In the radio version, Ish observed the lights on in her house and investigated. In the book, Ish had a pet dog named Princess (never featured in the radio drama) who ran into the house and both Em and Ish laughed at the dog’s impetus. After an hour of conversation and introduction, they went to bed. (For radio, Ish and Em swore allegiance to each other with a Bible, to simulate a marriage between the two, no doubt to appease the censors at CBS.) Em was, at least partially, African-American in the novel. The radio drama made no reference to her race.

The second half of the book is titled “The Last American,” which took place 22 years later. A brief summary of the events in between was featured in the novel, bridging the two scenarios, which was incorporated into the radio drama with narration describing “Year One,” “Year Two,” and so on. For the most part, with the exclusion of the dog named Princess and the cross-country trip to New York City and back, the first half of the Escape presentation was fairly accurate. The second half, however, eliminated much needed material and fails to go in depth with Ish struggling to guide the nascent society that he believes is not effective. His insistence to grow crops and dig for water wells was founded only after scrounging for food and the water pipes ceasing flow created momentary confusion among the colony. 

Among the most notable contributions that was excised from the radio adaptation was Ish functioning as a school teacher to help guide the younger generation into a new world – including fixing an automobile and providing a map for the older boys to explore cross-country as Ish had done decades prior. After educating the boys on the engineering of fixing a car, he left them to their own devices and months later they returned with a summary of their findings. They were only able to reach as far east as Chicago, with roads and bridges crumbling from the force of nature. The boys brought back with them a derelict named Charlie, who brought with him pestilence in the form of lust: Charlie longed for the affections of Evie, a mentally challenged girl, who Ish and the others agreed should not have the right to reproduce. While the entire community lived without law and order, nor any form of established government, a vote on murdering Charlie for the betterment of the community was cast anonymously on paper.

On the radio version, adapted by David Ellis, reference to the boys as they were educated on mechanics was not extant. Ish worked on a far with Emma assisting him, for the purpose of local transportation into town, and Charlie was a derelict who found himself wandering on foot into the community. Charlie provided trouble by shooting someone dead with his gun, eliminating any reference to the mentally challenged girl, and with Ish referring to himself as elected to leadership in the town. The vote to murder Charlie was decided verbally, not on paper.

As the two-part broadcast aired over the CBS Network on the evenings of November 5 and 12, 1950, the suggestion of a community not belonging to or affiliated with any government (or elected officials) might have been scrutinized heavily in an era where Communist infiltration was suspected from all fronts. (The two-part drama was rebroadcast on a few radio stations across the country, including Elmira, New York, on the evening of November 25 and December 3, 1950, by popular request.)

At the end of the novel, as Ish continued to age, having seen everyone from the old world pass on – including his beloved Em – the new generation considered him “The Last American,” though it was apparent that few understood what an American was. Society had reverted to using the bow and arrow, relics of the past crumbled away due to lack of use, and Ish himself questioned whether the human race would manage to survive without the conveniences of the past – or the motivation to explore what could help advance society. Man reverted backwards two centuries and the world was, as Ish eventually rationalized, better. Radios would never broadcast Charlie McCarthy, ice boxes would never operate without electricity, cars would rust away underneath the thick overgrowth of weeds and vines. But the human race continued to thrive in due course, regardless of lack of skillset or trade. It was at the very end that Ish’s lasting impacts were subtly revealed.

Throughout the novel, Ish carried with him a hammer. Used to smash open doors, protect himself against wolves, repair and construct, and to annually carve the years into rock. The hammer was depicted in the radio drama as a symbol of the old world, which Ish hoped would return over time, but emphasized in depth amongst the 300+ pages of prose.

Summed up, the first half of the novel was adapted fairly well for Escape in 1950. The second half was abridged with numerous changes. For the sake of dramatic appeal, Escape accomplished the task of the events as they unfolded, utilizing Ish’s narrative observations for radio narrative (aptly handled by actor Larry Dobkin). Often above-average radio dramas inspire folks to seek out the original source material to read and enjoy. The question of whether the novel offers much more material than presented through the adaptation of David Ellis can be answered in one sentence: If you want to dig deeper into the story, with more detail and narrative, and gather further insight into the novelist’s intention, the novel is recommended. 

"Men go and come, but Earth abides."
Ecclesiastes 1:14

Friday, July 10, 2020


In November of 1942, it was publicly reported that Information, Please was going on tour for the War Savings Staff of the Treasury Department. Never seen outside New York except for the movie versions, the program visited cities along the eastern seaboard in an ambitious attempt by its creator and owner, Dan Golenpaul, to raise several million dollars for the war effort. The first stop was Symphony Hall, Boston, on December 4, 1942, where it was hoped that at least $1,500,000 would be realized.

The three regulars, Levant, Adams and Kieran, and their presiding officer Fadiman, participated on the tour, which for starters was limited to one out-of-town appearance a month. According to a press release, a visit to Philadelphia was scheduled in January of 1943 and, if all went well, future visits in Baltimore, Washington, Hartford and perhaps Rochester or Buffalo.

Dan Golenpaul, who was meeting the expenses of the tour, said that tickets would be priced from a $25 Bond for balcony seats to perhaps as high as $50,000 for an aisle chair in Row A. In Boston, the ticket distribution would be handled by the local War Savings Staff. The day before the Friday broadcast, Adams, Kieran and Levant were on hand for a little personal bond selling at strategic points in Boston.

Aside from the regular broadcast, bond buyers would see the usual “warm-up” period of questions before the formal program and, in addition, Adams and Kieran, who were considered “wonderful material for vaudeville” by Golenpaul, would do a little extra business. Levant also addressed himself at the piano. Golenpaul was not inclined to reveal the names of guest experts far enough in advance for local areas to advertise, pending their acceptance of invitations to participate.

Golenpaul’s initial intention of selling $1,500,000 worth in bonds was realized by their second visit. The January 9, 1943 issue of the New York Times reported: “Philadelphia, Jan. 8 – Thirty-four hundred persons who crowded the Academy of Music tonight to hear the Information, Please radio program, now on tour, bought a total of $6,314,123 in war savings bonds. The experts of the show were joined by Representative Will Rogers, Jr. of California, son of the humorist.” Evidently the war bond drive was extremely successful, and Golenpaul extended his tour along the East Coast for the rest of the 1943 calendar year.

For the broadcast of June 28, 1943, Chicago got its first look at Information, Please in action. The 3,500 or so people who filled all but a couple of the seats in the giant Civic Opera House enjoyed the radio experts’ performance to the maximum, and went home feeling that the price of admission—a war bond from $50 to $5,000 in denomination—had been well-spent in more ways than one. The total war bond “take” for this trip was $6,818,107.

Richard K. Bellamy, radio editor of the Milwaukee Journal, was in the audience to get a first look and report on the visual aspect – the part a radio audience could not get at home. “As a radio show this one is very smartly staged,” Bellamy wrote. “Even to the lone feminine aspect, a lovely, anonymous girl with a rose in her hair who sang several snatches to illustrate a song question on the broadcast. First Levant played some Gershwin on the piano with professional skill. Then Kieran arose, strapped on an accordion and slaughtered ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’ (we think that’s what it was) as cruelly as any tavern player has ever slaughtered it. He grinned from ear to ear all the while, and the crowd loved him. Adams put a pencil in his teeth and knocked off an unidentified melody on that crude instrument with his fingers. Kieran and [Walter] Yust closed the performance with a piano duet, ‘Chopsticks.’ It’s amazing how little it takes to win over 3,500 people. At 9:15 Fadiman started asking some preliminary questions to get the board into the swing of things. He warned the audience: ‘You, the cream of Chicago, will know the answers before these lugs up here on the stage. But please don’t coach them.’ Even during the broadcast Fadiman seemed perfectly relaxed, always waiting, like a cat, for an opening. He seizes openings lightning fast and without any visible effort.”

In Chicago, Golenpaul played the role of director with perfection. He often sat with Fadiman, whispering occasional comments, and once or twice he crossed to the other table and nudged Yust a little closer to the microphone. He had decreed, “No photographers at the broadcast.” Apparently his rule was law because no pictures were taken.

“We did a lot of travelling with Information, Please,” recalled Oscar Levant, “and we were celebrities wherever we went. In Hartford, we dined at the governor’s mansion. Fadiman sometimes wrote the speeches with which the dignitaries welcomed us. In Cleveland, Senator Lausche – the alleged Democrat who was to the right of Goldwater – was the mayor and greeted us. In Toronto, Lester Pearson made a speech, presented us with gifts, and thousands of crack troops paraded in front of us in tribute. It was mighty flattering but I was embarrassed. I didn’t think we rated that.” 

On September 27, 1943, Information, Please originated from the stage of the Mosque Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, with two very special guests: Vice President of the United States Henry A. Wallace and Representative James W. Fulbright of Arkansas. Exactly $277,398,975 in war bonds were sold that evening as a result. $275 million dollars of the total came from a group of local business concerns. V.P. Wallace said that the “common man” was buying 50 percent more bonds in 1943 compared to 1942.

Photo courtesy of Richard Glazier (

“And he is going to do still better,” he added. “He must do better so as to put our armies into Berlin and Tokyo as soon as possible. He must be better if we are to have a stable peace without inflation.” Asked by reporters after the broadcast what he had meant by his reference to a “partial alliance,” Henry A. Wallace laughed and said, “You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.” The Vice President, incidentally, was to have appeared as a guest on the quiz program, but he shuddered at the prospect and took no part in it other than to give a brief talk during the opening minutes. Representative Fulbright substituted for him in the question-and-answer period. Clifton Fadiman announced that the war bond total had been contributed by 3,277 people for the broadcast, all of whom bought bonds ranging from $50 to $5,000 to gain audience admission to the broadcast.

For more information about the radio program, visit the Information, Please page on