Tuesday, September 29, 2015

300929 - The Hill Trail

Advertisement from the Spokane Spokesman-Review, September 29, 1930

On Monday night, September 29, 1930, Empire Builders came on the air from NBC’s Studio D in Chicago, near the top of the 18-story Merchandise Mart (that’s not counting the building’s tower section, which rises to 25 stories). Regrettably, I have neither a recording of this broadcast nor a continuity. However, since this broadcast introduced a cast and crew that was almost totally retooled compared to the earlier New York production, I will use this occasion to introduce most of those new players.

As Empire Builders returned to the air for their final season on radio, the GN issued another (and possibly final) flyer advertising the programs and their content over about a 6-week span. I have not come across any later flyers for the radio programs, so this may be the last one they published. Here is the write-up for the September 29 broadcast:

(L-R): Harvey Hays is welcomed to Chicago
 by Don Bernard, Bernardine Flynn,
 and Don Ameche.
Dirt begins to fly on the Great Northern’s extension into California! Central Oregon is rejoicing! The first shovelful of dirt has been scooped and the Old Timer tells a story of central Oregon before the coming of the Iron Horse – a romance of the Old West in which cattle rustlers, courageous homesteaders, James J. Hill and the coming of the railway play a part. Klamath Falls and Bend, two fast growing little cities on the Great Northern’s new route to San Francisco, are locales for “The Hill Trail,” the name of this story. It was written especially for Empire Builders and is an entertaining combination of fact and fiction.

This same little flyer also provided some background about the practical advantages to relocating production of the series to Chicago:

Empire Builders this year will be broadcast from Chicago – from the largest and most modern broadcasting studios in the world, which, incidentally, are located in the world’s largest building, the Merchandise Mart. The facilities of this broadcasting plant, together with the closer supervision made possible through the moving of the programs to Chicago, will enable us, it is believed, to offer our radio friends an even better half hour of entertainment each week. Also it seems particularly fitting to originate a program such as Empire Builders at the threshold of the country with which these programs deal, and from the city which is the eastern terminus of the Great Northern’s luxurious transcontinental trains – the Empire Builder and the Oriental Limited.

With the relocation of the Empire Builders broadcasts to Chicago, wholesale changes took place among many of the various contributors to the production. Allow me to introduce some of them to you.

Bernard Schweitzer, a.k.a. Don Bernard - Program Director, Empire Builders. Author's collection.

Don Bernard, program director  (1902-1958)

NBC’s production manager in Chicago was Don Bernard. He was assigned to personally direct the Empire Builders productions for the new season. Born Bernard Schweitzer on August 19, 1902, in Delaware, Ohio, he entered Ohio Wesleyan in the fall of 1918, majoring in Music. Bernard sang and played violin, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1922. He also attended the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago, acting on his childhood ambition of becoming a professional singer. He became a tenor soloist and performed in theater and on radio station KYW, but was lured away from theater by the burgeoning world of broadcasting. One of his stage appearances led to his adapting the professional name of Don Bernard. He was in a Chicago production of “The Bad Man,” a story set near the border with Mexico. Schweitzer played one of the Mexican characters, but the play’s producer complained that his name didn’t fit the role, and started calling him “Don Bernard.” He liked it, and the name stuck.

Bernard started his radio career in earnest by filling a variety of roles at a small radio station in Ohio (WAIU in Columbus), but soon became associated with NBC. In fact, Don Bernard was recruited to join NBC by John Elwood in the earliest days of the new radio corporation, reporting to NBC in New York in the fall of 1926. Bernard was assigned in 1927 to oversee development of NBC’s new broadcasting studios at the Merchandise Mart.

Josef Koestner, Musical Director, Empire Builders. Author's collection.

Josef Koestner, musical director  (1901-1990)

Koestner became Musical Director of
the Union Pacific Railroad's radio
series "Your America" in January, 1944.
This was said to be the first weekly radio program
put on the air by a railroad since Great Northern's
Empire Builders.                     Author's collection.
It was in the Bavarian town of Willersdorf that Josef Koestner was born and raised, and was said to have begun his musical education at the age of four, continuing his studies with some of the finest masters of Europe. He coached at the Leipzig Opera House for two years, after which he came to America (in the early 20’s) to accompany a noted opera singer named Claire Dux. An article in the Great Northern Goat magazine (January, 1931) stated that Koestner had:
… a thorough knowledge of modern American dance music. He has served as conductor in many of the leading theaters of the country, where he was called upon to interpret all types of music and also has done some recording for sound pictures. He is also known as a concert pianist of unusual ability and as a composer of classical compositions.

Fred G. Ibbett, sound effects engineer (1893-1956)   -- sorry, I do not have a photo of Fred Ibbett at this time

With a radio career that began in his native England with the BBC, Ibbett went on to have a lengthy and successful career in radio in the United States. Although his tenure with Empire Builders was specifically in the arena of sound effects, his later work in radio branched out into opportunities to direct radio productions. One such production, with which Ibbett was associated not long after Empire Builders went off the air, was a very popular radio series called “Fu Manchu.” Ibbett served as director of this weekly series from the fall of 1932 to the spring of 1933. In the small world of radio performers of that day, the leading actor (playing the part of evil Dr. Fu Manchu) was John C. Daly, who also performed on Empire Builders in supporting roles. Joining Ibbett and Daly on Fu Manchu was Empire Builders veteran Bob White, who performed as Dr. James Petrie. White’s wife, Betty – also a featured performer on Empire Builders – is said to have had a few uncredited appearances on Fu Manchu.

Lucille Husting, ingĂ©nue of Empire Builders in the show's final season. 
Author's collection.

Lucille Husting, actress  (1898-1972)

Max and Anna Husting of Fargo, North Dakota, were married in 1896. They had an only child, Lucille, born in 1898. Lucille’s father Max (1868-1950) was in the newspaper business, and was the third son of Jean Pierre and Marie Juneau Husting. Lucille’s great-grandfather (her grandmother’s father) was Solomon Juneau, a French trader who is credited with founding the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Lucille became interested in acting while still just a school girl in Fargo. She progressed to acting opportunities in Minneapolis and by the mid-1920s was performing on Broadway in New York City. As I’ve written previously, Lucille Husting actually crossed paths in New York with both Virginia Gardiner and Harvey Hays. This probably had some influence in her relocation to Chicago and addition to the Empire Builders troupe of players. While still in New York, however, Husting appeared on the Collier’s Hour radio program. Husting and Bernardine Flynn alternately took on leading or supporting female roles on Empire Builders during the final ten months of its run.

Bernardine Flynn, featured actress on Empire Builders.

Bernardine Flynn, actress  (1904-1977)

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and a native of the college town of Madison, Bernardine Flynn left her home state soon after graduating and was off to the proverbial “bright lights of Broadway.” This talented actress did indeed find initial success in New York, but with the Great Depression waging havoc on the economy, she found herself to be a mighty small fish in a very large pond. Acting opportunities were exceptionally hard to come by, with many veteran actors and actresses out of work. Someone suggested opportunities in radio, and so she went back west and tried her luck in Chicago. It was the summer of 1930, and the McJunkin Advertising Agency had put out an open call for auditions for the upcoming season of Empire Builders. Flynn was selected in favor of dozens of other talented prospects. The attractive young actress was also endowed with a pleasant singing voice, which certainly enhanced her versatility over the airwaves. After her run with Empire Builders, Bernardine Flynn found radio stardom in her role as Sade Gook on “Vic and Sade.” But one of her other, less-heralded legacies to the world of popular entertainment came in the form of a suggestion. It was at the urging of Bernardine Flynn that a friend and fellow actor from her days at the University of Wisconsin likewise left his acting struggles in New York behind, and followed her lead by coming back to Chicago to audition for Empire Builders. Her old college chum was Don Ameche.

Don Ameche, whose career took off when he gained notoriety
on the Great Northern Railway's Empire Builders radio series.
Author's collection.

Don Ameche, actor  (1908-1993)

Born Dominic Felix Amici in 1908, Ameche went to college in the mid-1920s to study law. He caught the acting bug, however, and poured his energies into developing his skills as a thespian. Much like his friend Bernardine Flynn, Ameche travelled to New York City, filled with grand hopes of breaking into the acting business. Also like Flynn, Ameche found initial success, performing in “Jerry For Short” and in vaudeville with Texas Guinan.  But times in the Big Apple were hard. Ameche scraped by for much of the time by appealing to an old professor in Madison, who obliged with occasional letters of encouragement, sometimes accompanied by a five dollar bill. There were times, Ameche later related, when he survived on a single can of beans a day. But Bernardine Flynn knew of Ameche’s struggles, and she encouraged him to come back to Chicago and try his hand at radio. He won out against a large pool of other hopefuls, and on September 29, 1930, Don Ameche’s voice went out over the air for the first time, on Empire Builders. His later career was arguably the most successful and longest-lasting of any of the Empire Builders alumni. His radio endeavors included a featured role on First Nighter. He also starred on Rin-Tin-Tin and the Chase and Sanborn Hour. In Hollywood, Ameche appeared on film beginning in 1935. One of his most impactful roles was that of Alexander Graham Bell. For decades after this film role, the word “ameche” was used as a synonym for telephone (as in “you’re wanted on the ameche”). He remained a Hollywood fixture throughout the 1940s and 1950s, although his stardom receded somewhat in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, at a time when many Hollywood veterans seem to disappear from the public’s collective consciousness, Ameche enjoyed a professional resurgence when he was cast in 1983 alongside fellow acting veteran Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places. Ameche was once again in demand, starring with several other aging Hollywood icons in Cocoon (for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Ameche succumbed to prostate cancer and passed away in 1993.

Bob White, in costume with Lucille Husting for a press photo.
Author's collection

Bob White, actor  (1903-1984) – dates not confirmed

Robert Grubb (“Bob”) White, Jr., was born in Pennsylvania. He was first exposed to acting in his school days. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, White joined a Chautauqua performing company (tent show circuit) in the early 1920s. He left the circuit and joined a stock company, then went on to perform in stage productions, including “Three Wise Fools,” “Companionate Marriage,” and “Journey’s End.”

White met his future bride, Betty Reynolds, while they were both performing in "Three Wise Fools." After knowing each other for only a month and a half, the two were married on stage one evening, between rehearsal and the main performance. Bob and Betty each took parts in various theatrical performances over the next six months, but reunited on the Redpath Chautauqua circuit in Chicago when they both appeared in "Shepherd of the Hills." White had off-and-on theatrical roles in Evanston. Betty went back to her hometown of Grinnell, Iowa, to give birth to their first son, Robert White, III. This was New Year's Eve, 1928. Bob White was performing in "Companionate Marriage" in Evanston, when he was announced from stage as a new father.

White continued to bounce around from one acting role to another, going back and forth between the Chicago area and Michigan. In the summer of 1930, Bob and Betty White landed jobs as cast members of Empire Builders - all the while continuing to perform in various other theatrical plays and radio performances. Their ties to Empire Builders were not exclusive.

After Empire Builders went off the air in June, 1931, Bob White continued working in radio for many years. He was Dr. Petrie on “Fu Manchu,” and he teamed up with Don Ameche on “Milligan and Mulligan.” He served as director on “The Adventures of Dick Tracy.”

Petite Betty Reynolds White, Empire Builders actress who specialized in children's voices.
Author's collection.

Betty White, actress  (1904-1988)

Born Elizabeth Myrtle Reynolds in Grinnell, Iowa, Betty was the third eldest of four sisters whose parents both died when their girls were young. Betty’s mother died in 1911, and her father passed away in 1918. After their father’s death, Betty’s oldest sister Odessa (nicknamed “Dessa”) looked after her younger siblings as the de facto head of household. With the kindly assistance of Dr. Evan Evans and his wife, who lived nearby, Dessa helped raise her sisters as best she and the girls could collectively manage. Betty Reynolds left home after high school, and attended Grinnell College. She became a school teacher for a couple of years. Ironically, Betty Reynolds went to Chicago largely to see a young Ralph Bellamy on stage. She had an enormous crush on Bellamy. It would have been interesting to know her reaction to seeing her old pal Don Ameche acting alongside Bellamy decades later in Trading Places.

Bob and Betty White counted Don Ameche and his wife Honore (“Nora”) among their closest friends. In fact, Betty White served as Matron of Honor when the Ameches were married on November 26, 1932.

A petite 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Betty White specialized in portraying the voices of children. There were times in commercial radio, even in those early years, when youngsters did appear on radio (some gaining significant notoriety). Even on Empire Builders, there was at least one occasion when a young boy took a significant role on air. But Betty White’s talents were utilized several times to portray a young girl or boy.

In the Empire Builders program of November 24, 1930, Betty White played the part of a little girl. When listeners wrote in to the Great Northern asking about the remarkable work of the young girl, the railroad responded by saying it was Betty White who was heard on the air, although “she has a daughter old enough to fill the part visually that she took vocally.” This comment is utter misinformation, pure puffery, or possibly an intriguing mystery.

Bob and Betty White had three sons, two of whom I’ve interviewed. The oldest of the three boys, Robert G. White, III, was born in 1928.  Their second son, Bradley Reynolds White, was born on March 30, 1931 – right in the midst of the last season of Empire Builders. The youngest brother, Evan, described his mother as a real dynamo, saying he was not in the least surprised that his energetic mother would have continued working while pregnant, and returned to work shortly after the birth of her son. Both Robert and Evan insist they never had a sister – at least not one they ever knew about.


So…. This odd reference to a heretofore unknown daughter of Bob and Betty White notwithstanding (who to the best of my ability to track down to this point, simply does not and never did exist), let’s get something straight here. Elizabeth Myrtle Reynolds, later known as Betty Reynolds White, was an actress on Empire Builders for multiple broadcasts between September, 1930, and June, 1931. The woman known to many Americans as Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show; Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls; and Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland – the woman named Betty Marion White, who was born January 17, 1922, near Chicago but moved with her parents to California when she was only 2 years old – THAT Betty White NEVER appeared on Empire Builders. Ever. That’s my story, and I stand by it. Unless of course someone comes along with documented proof to the contrary. I’m not holding my breath.

Obed "Dad" Pickard serenades Harvey Hays (the Old Timer) and his hound dog, January.
Author's collection.

Obed “Dad” Pickard, musician/singer  (1874-1954)

Obediah Pickard was the patriarch of an exceptionally talented family who made music together for their own entertainment and relaxation. Dad was a travelling salesman. One day in the mid-1920s, one of his daughters accidently killed his son Charlie. Dad was out on the road somewhere, so with no other means of contacting him, an urgent call went out for him on the radio to return home at once.  George Hay was the man who made the radio announcement to get Dad back home. Hay and Pickard became friends, and eventually Hay invited Dad and his musical family to appear on a radio program out of Nashville called the WSM Barn Dance. By 1928, this radio program was known as the Grand Ole Opry. The musical Pickard Family later travelled to Chicago to perform on National Barn Dance, on WLS. Known as the “one-man band,” Dad Pickard was performing with virtually every conceivable instrument – except the clarinet. He didn’t like the sound of it. He also earned a reputation for being talented on the Jews Harp and the harmonica. During the last Empire Builders show of Season 2, Pickard wowed the audience with his rendition of a locomotive – on the “mouth organ.” He performed “Little Red Caboose Behind the Train” during the Empire Builders special on June 10, 1929, during which the new Empire Builder train was introduced to the country.   In his lengthy tenure in the entertainment business, Dad Pickard also appeared on film. In 1940, he played “Rocky” in the western “Frontier Vengence” and then himself (along with the entire “Pickard Family” ensemble) in “Tickled Pinky.”

Marcus "Marc" Williams, the Cowboy Crooner.

Marc Williams, musician/singer  (1903-1974)

Born Marcus Dumont Williams, the “Cowboy Crooner” made his first appearance on radio with Empire Builders in March, 1931, on the Charlie Russell episode. Oddly, it seems an interest in the law was a common theme among eventual performers on Empire Builders. Not unlike Bob MacGimsey and Don Ameche, Marc Williams initially set out to study law - in his case, at the University of Texas. As a young man he also worked as a cowboy in his native Texas, before turning up on Dallas radio station KRLD in the late 1920s. Williams recorded a number of records from 1928 to 1930 for Brunswick and later Decca records. After several years of professional performances, Williams returned to his interest in the law. He attended Wayne State University in Detroit and then went into the law practice. Williams appeared on several Monday night broadcasts of Empire Builders, and accompanied Harvey Hays (the Old Timer) in escorting a special tour of Empire Builders enthusiasts through Glacier National Park in July, 1931.

Ted Pearson, NBC Announcer for Empire Builders.

Ted Pearson, announcer  (1902-1961)

Ted Pearson served as announcer for Empire Builders for the final 39 broadcasts of the series. He typically provided the opening and closing credits, which sometimes included some light banter with the Old Timer. After Empire Builders, Pearson appeared on The Adventures of the Thin Man and Cavalcade of America. Pearson later appeared in several Hollywood movies. In the 1930’s, he took roles in “Dick Tracy’s G-Men” (1939), “You’re Only Young Once” (1937), and “Test Pilot” (1938). Late in his career he played a Colonel in the sci-fi classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951).

 Until next time, keep those dials tuned to Empire Builders!

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