The personalities depicted in the newspaper strips and comic books were a
natural to find their way to the radio microphones. Whether they were funny,
heroic, or somewhere in-between, their popularity in one media gave them a
distinct advantage in conquering another. This does not mean that every comic book character that got their own radio show was a success, in fact some were downright flops. But enough of them gathered large enough listening audiences to motivate radio producers and advertisers to keep bringing more to the airwaves.
One of the very first comic strip characters to reach radio was Little Orphan
Annie . Harold Gray had created her in 1924 and six years later, WGN put her
on the air. A year later, in 1931, NBC-Blue picked up the series and Annie,
sponsored by Ovaltine, was on network radio. The following year, three more
comic strip heroes achieved a radio presence but only one would have any
staying power. In 1932 Joe Palooka,, Tarzan and Buck Rogers made their
debut; the first two would be off the air within two years while Buck lasted
until 1947. (The King of the Jungle, however, would continue in syndication, offand on, until the 50s.)
Certainly two of the more famous comic book characters not only made a ton ofmoney for their publishers but also rated very high with radio audiences: Superman and Archie Andrews. The first was the product of two inventive Jewish teenagers from Cleveland,Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and their hero’’s first appearance in a comic book was in June 1938. (Incidentally if
your mom hadn’’t thrown your copy away, you could sell it now for $ 78,000 to 140,000, depending on condition.) By 1939, four additional radio shows of Superman were produced although it would not be syndicated on the airwaves until 1940. The series began as a syndicated, 3 times a week program, beginning Monday, 12 February 1940, sponsored by Heckers H-O Cereals. Ten weeks after its debut, "Superman" achieved a Crossley rating of 5.6, the highest of any thrice-weekly program on the air. Heckers even got ““Superman”” to appear at the New York World’’s Fair on July 3, 1940, having hired an actor named Ray Middleton to dress up in Superman’’s costume.
The series did well, and by the time Kellogg's Pep took over the sponsorship in March,1942, and it quickly became one of the most popular kids’’ shows on
Mutual. Clayton “Bud” Collyer played both Superman and Clark Kent and he
was pleased that he was uncredited as the voice of the flying hero . Agnes
Moorehead did not remain long on the show, although she played both “Miss
Lane” and Superman’s mother in some early episodes. Joan Alexander played
Lois Lane longer than any other woman. There was a cross-fertilization
between the comic book and the radio version; Jimmy Olsen, kryptonite, and
Editor Perry White were all created by the radio script writers and they were
later incorporated into the comic book pages.
The Adventures of Superman , with Jackson Beck as announcer and narrator,
was a 15 minute show which aired five times a week through the 40s. It was
transcribed by Mutual and remained just as popular with the youngsters as
was the Man of Steel in D.C. Comics. In late 1949 it became a half-hour show
aired once a week and by June 1950 ABC took over, but Bud Collyer had left
for some better paying assignments on the emerging television venue so
Michael Fitzmaurice took over the role. The series ended in March 1951.
Because it was a transcribed series, an inordinate number of episodes have
survived; at present over 1,200 are in circulation.
The most popular teenager in comics, and possibly on the radio also, was
Archie Andrews. In 1941, Bob Montana, then a 21 year old staff artist for MLJ
Publications was told to create a high school boy to cash in on the success of
the radio series, The Aldrich Family, as well as the movies of Andy Hardy.
Montana came up with Archie Andrews, a red-haired teenager with a beaver
smile, whose first appearance was in ““Pep Comics”” in December 1941. (The
value of Archie’’s debut has not equaled Superman’’s, but still reached $
1,500.) At the time, Montana was also working on three other MLJ comic
heroes, The Black Hood, The Fox and Steel Sterling. But Archie and his gang at Riverdale High School became so popular that Montana was taken off these jobs to do Archie full time. Over the next few years, Archie Andrews would not only push out all the caped crime-fighters from the pages of his comic book, the publishing firm was eventually re-titled with his name. Today you still see Archie and Jughead beaming at you from the covers of their books at every grocery check-out lane.
Archie came to radio on the Mutual network in May 1943 and would air live until 1952. The youngster was played by several actors over the years, most notably Bob Hastings, a boy singer who occasionally sang on the program. His best buddy, Jughead, was usually played by Hal Stone. Both of
these gentlemen were frequent guests at Old-Time Radio conventions on both coasts in recent years. (Stone died February 21, 2007 after complications from valve transplant surgery.) Veronica was portrayed by different girls, including Vivian Smolen, while Rosemary Rice played Betty. It was a Saturday morning half-hour show, sometimes sponsored by Swift’’s Premium Meats. Since it was not transcribed, only 32 episodes have been found to this date.
Two other comic book heroes, while popular on the printed page, did not do
nearly as well with their radio shows: Blue Beetle and The Black Hood. The
first one was created by Charles Nicholas for Fox Features to appear in
““Mystery Man”” Comics. The debut of this crime-fighter was August 1939. I
have a theory, which I haven’’t proven yet, that the inspiration for Blue Beetle was the WXYZ radio show, The Green Hornet; it had aired regionally on WXYZ from 1936 to 1938 and Mutual picked it up as a network show in April 1938.
The two crime-fighters had similar names, similar goals, and while they
appealed to the same audience base, there were obvious differences too.
The Blue Beetle was drawn by Jack Kirby, a Jewish artist (real name: Jacob
Kurtzberg) who would go on to create many famous super-heroes, including
Captain America. By drinking formula 2X, a rookie policeman, Dan Garrett,
became the powerful Blue Beetle , wearing a thin blue armor that stopped
knives and bullets. No one knew the two were the same man, including his
older police partner, Mike Mannigan , and his girl friend, Joan Mason. This
comic book would continue until 1957 and then was resurrected in the 1960s
for another successful run.
The radio version was a syndicated series of only 36 episodes (all of which are still in circulation) and non-network stations began airing it in May 1940. Most of the adventures are told in one, two, or three 15 minute shows. Frank Lovejoy was one of the men who portrayed this crime fighter on radio. One of the reasons that contributed to its lack of success on the airwaves
could have been that The Blue Beetle was written in a rather ““campy”” style, almost as though the script authors were making fun of him. He is thrown into situations where no one has ever heard of him and they scoff at his funny costume. Since he has no super powers, he has to rely upon a new invention each week, created by a friendly scientist, Dr. Franz, the only one who knows his secret identity. One week it might be a fluid to make him invisible, the next week a ring that detects poison, and the following week a liquid that melts locks. Respected OTRhistorian, Jim Cox, has correctly characterized this series as ““juvenile drivel.””
The Black Hood also suffered in his transition from the comic books to the
radio airwaves. In the pages of the comic books, he was a domineering warrior who out slugged and outwitted evil doers. But in the radio version, he seemed less able to handle the crime fighting duties of a superhero. His debut was arranged by Harry Shorten, an editor for MLJ Publications (yes, the same one that gave us Archie Andrews) in October 1940 in ““Top Notch Comics.”” His origin story was not unique: Kip Burland, a good cop, framed by the bad guys, is turned into a secret vigilante. Over the years, The Black Hood, usually in a canary yellow leotard with black hood, gloves, and musketeer-style books, overcame dangerous criminals, frequently accompanied by graphic violence, torture and bondage. His style led to his own pulp magazine, ““Black Hood Detective Magazine.””
He was probably at the height of his popularity when he was brought to
Mutual’’s lineup in July 1943. He would remain there until 1945, and failing to
capture a large enough listening audience or a sponsor, was taken off the
airwaves. (His counterpart in the comics, however, would continue to 1947 and then went through several revivals until 1965.) Radio’’s Kip Burland brought his girl friend, Barbara Sutton, with him, although she was not nearly as feisty as she was in the comic book pages. Scott Douglas was the voice of Burland and the Black Hood; Marjorie Cramer voiced Sutton. The program’’s theme music was a strange choice, ““The Sorcerer’’s Apprentice”” which because of Walt Disney’’s 1940 animated film, ““Fantasia”” probably had most listeners thinking of Mickey Mouse and water buckets carried by marching broomsticks.
Only one recording has survived and that may be a blessing. It starts out with a robber confronting Sutton in her residence and demanding a ring she
obtained from a voodoo doctor called ““The Miracle Man.”” Within seconds,
Burland, who was outside, changed into his Black Hood costume, and crashes
in to see the robber escape, without the ring. Later Sgt. McGinty, comic relief in a show that doesn’’t need any, plans to visit the Miracle Man that night.
Meanwhile Burland and Sutton, parked in his car in the moonlight, discover a
secret compartment in the ring which may contain poison. When Sgt. McGinty
gets access to the home of The Miracle Man, his female servant, Wamba, bonks him on the beezer with African crockery, rendering him unconscious at the end of the episode.
A flint-jawed police detective arrived in the newspapers in October 1931 and
became a cultural icon lasting over three-quarters of a century. Dick Tracy has survived dozens of strange-faced criminals, has been portrayed in the movies by Ralph Byrd and Warren Beatty, been parodied by Al Capp as ““Fearless Fosdick”” and has proven that ““crime does pay”” at least to whomever own the rights to his name.
His creator, Chester Gould, was born in Oklahoma, graduated from Northwestern University, and spent virtually all of his life on this one character. Gould never stopped learning about police procedures from both the Chicago Police Lab and the forensic scientists at Northwestern. But
that did not mean he was bounded by realism; he drew outrageous, monstrous villains and veered into science fiction with Tracy making trips to the moon, before our own astronauts reached its surface.
The radio series arrived in 1935, only four years after the newspaper version. It would run for 13 years, NBC for the first five, and ABC for the remainder.
There were many cast changes, and sponsors, over the years. Two of those who played Tracy were Matt Crowley and Ned Wever. Jackie Kelk was one of the boys who portrayed Junior and Ed Herlihy was one of five different announcers on the series. Probably the low point in the series occurred in the mid-40s when Tootsie Rolls as the sponsor changed the Tracy’’s theme music to ““Toot Toot Tootsie.”” Approximately 58 episodes are being traded among collectors today.
A newspaper strip didn’’t have to have a hero or even a story line to merit
getting its own radio series as Believe It Or Not certainly proved. This
syndicated feature, the creation of a sports cartoonist named Ripley would not only become one of the most talked about features in the newspaper, it would also make him a millionaire. The cartoonist’’s name was Leroy Ripley and he was born in Santa Rosa, CA in 1890 and as a shy, stuttering buck-toothed kid, he seemed unlikely to go far. His newspaper editor in Chicago made him change his first name to Robert as Leroy wasn’’t masculine enough. By 1918, Ripley found modest success in a feature he first called ““Champs and Chumps”” which illustrated unusual aspects of sports. He then expanded it to include oddities from around the world and re-titled it Believe It Or Not.
By 1930 Ripley’’s syndication rights on his feature netted him over $ 100,000 a year, which included the royalties on his radio series which began that year. It would be on and off the air until 1948, and sometimes under different titles: Believe It or Not , Baker’’s Broadcast, and Romance, Rhythm and Ripley. For a few years Ozzie and Harriett were the leads on the show. But whatever variety form the show took, it contained plenty of odd facts and stories gathered by Ripley and his staff. There are 25 shows from this series that survived to today.
Ripley died of a heart attack at age 59, but his legacy continues in a syndicated TV series and a string of his museums, called ““Ripley’’s Odditoriums”” around the country.
If you remember Buster Brown then you are remembering a comic strip
character that is 105 years old. This humorous newspaper strip of a 10 year
old boy with a dog named Tige debuted in 1902, the creation of cartoonist R.F.. Outcault. It was an immediate success and Outcault marketed the name and likeness of the lad and his dog to every business he could.
By 1910, Buster Brown was featured prominently on cigars, bottles of whisky, children’’s clothes, and shoes. Although the strip ended in 1926. Buster Brown shoes continued to release his adventures in free comic books. It took quite a while for Buster Brown to make it to radio. An exvaudevillian,
Edward McConnell, billing himself as ““Smilin’’ Ed”” was on radio at various times doing a kids’’ variety show from 1932 to 1941. Then in 1944, Buster Brown Shoe Company hired him to return to radio with a kids series called The Buster Brown Gang. Accompanying himself on a honky-tonk piano, ““Smilin’’ Ed sang, told jokes and stories, and portrayed a host of imaginary characters with just his own voice. Both he and his sponsor were delighted with the listener response and the radio show stayed on the air for nine years, until 1953. A total of 27 audio copies of this variety show still exist.
Lee Falk created at least two comic strip heroes that became, and have
remained, very popular with the American public. The Phantom , a purple clad, masked man, brought justice to the African jungles, the surrounding seas, and other regions. While he has remained a familiar pop culture figure for over 70 years in books, movie serials, and movies ““The Ghost Who Walks”” never got his own radio show. However a second creation of Falk’’s, who with a 1934 debut predated The Phantom by two years, Mandrake the Magician did make the transition to network radio. Incidentally, Falk was the creator and writer on both of these strips, not the artist. He hired different people to do the actual drawing. In addition to the King Features syndication in hundreds of newspapers, Mandrake got his own comic book in the 1940s which ran through 1967, the latter issues being drawn by the wife of the original artist, Phil Davis, and later by Fred Frederick.
Mandrake the Magician came to the Mutual Network in 1940 and they aired it
as a 15 minute show, five times a week. The senatorial tones of Raymond
Edward Johnson made him a natural for the title lead. Two other main
characters from the comic strip followed Mandrake to the microphone. His
servant, a Black giant named Lothar, was played by Juano Hernandez and his
““love interest””, Narda was voiced by Francesca Lenni. The series lasted two
full seasons, until 1942. Twenty-Eight episodes in audio form are in circulation today.
Today, seventy-seven years after it began in a newspaperstrip, Blondie is as popular as ever and you can read of the antics of the Bumsteads in your daily newspaper. Murat Young, who preferred to be called by his nickname, ““Chic””, created this comic strip in 1930 which for the first three years told the tale of a high society bachelor, Dagwood Bumstead, pursuing the hand of social butterfly, Blondie Boopadoop. Their readers of the February 17, 1933 strip saw them get married and shortly thereafter it rose to great heights in popularity. After marriage, Dagwood losthis inheritance and had to become a working stiff which immediately made him more relevant, and loved, by his fans. A total of 28 movies featuring the couple, their two kids, and their dogs were released from 1938 to 1951, with Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton starring in most of them.
The newspaper strips and the movies success resulted in the radio series,
which fortunately started in 1939 with the same two leads. Singleton would
eventually leave the radio show, but Lake remained to the end in 1950,
achieving one of the closest relationships of actor and character. Their
neighbor, Herb Woodley was first played by Frank Nelson and later Hal Peary.
This half hour of weekly comedy had several announcers, one of whom was
Harlow Wilcox. A total of 31 radio episodes survived. The radio series was
followed by two television series, 11 years apart and both running only one
season. NBC aired the show for the 1957-58 season with Lake and Pamela
Britton as the Bumsteads. CBS brought it back for the 1968-69 season and it
featured Will Hutchins and Patricia Hardy in the leads with Jim Backus
playing Dagwood’’s boss, Mr. Dithers.
A gifted artist, Alex Raymond, was invited by King Features to create a strip to compete with the success of Tarzan, so in January 1934 Raymond produced the first appearance of Jungle Jim, a hero who was, essentially, Tarzan with more clothes and a larger vocabulary. Jungle Jim was as successful as King Features had hoped and they kept it in print until 1954, although it was by drawn by Austin Briggs during WW II as Raymond had
enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. The comic book of Jungle Jim was usually drawn by Paul Norris. In the 40s and 50s, Johnny Weismuller, famous for playing Tarzan, portrayed Jungle Jim in about ten movies and an unsuccessful
television series. The radio version never reached the networks but as a
syndicated series it still reached thousands of listeners from regional stations. It was sufficiently popular to keep it in syndication in various markets from 1935 to 1954. Most of the time, Matt Crowley was playing the title lead and his sidekick, Kolu, was the voice of Juano Hernandez, who also played Lothar, the servant of Mandrake. Glenn Riggs was one of the announcers the series utilized. Since this series was a lengthy syndication, an exceptionally large number of shows survived and there are over 500 episodes in circulation now.
Another comic strip character with phenomenal staying power has been a little red-headed girl with no eyeballs accompanied by her dog, Sandy. Little Orphan Annie , whose first appearance was in The New York Daily News on August 5, 1924. Harold Gray, who was born in Kankakee, IL in 1894,
created the strip with a little boy in the lead, ““Orphan Otto”” but his editor had him change the gender and retitled it, using one from a popular poem by James Whitcomb Riley, Little Orphan Annie. Gray wrote and drew
the strip for 45 years until his death in 1968. The radio series, sponsored by Ovaltine, began in 1931 and would run until 1942. Quaker Oats was the sponsor for the last two years. Ovaltine’’s advertising agency were fairly
certain that the exciting adventures of a little girl would capture as many
female juvenile listeners as young boys. They were quite surprised when the
requests began pouring in for premiums advertised on the show and the vast
majority were from little boys. Several girls played the role of Annie over the
years, including Shirley Bell, Bobby Dean, and Jane Gilbert. Annie’’s frequent
companion, a lad called ““Joe Corntassel”” at one time was played by Mel
Torme, the popular singer who got his show-biz start as a child actor at WGN.
Although the series was on the air for eleven years, it was seldom transcribed and only 31 episodes have surfaced as of now. But not to worry, Annie willalways be with us, in dolls, books, two recent movies, and a Broadway musical that will be revived for your grandchildren.
Depending on your age, when comic strip artist Milt Caniff is mentioned, you
immediately think of either Terry and the Pirates or Steve Canyon . He created the first one in 1934 and gave it up in 1946 to create the second. Caniff, who was born in 1907 was an Eagle Scout as a youngster and after graduation from Ohio State became a full time comic strip artist. His first success was Dickie Dare in 1933 but Terry and the Pirates far exceeded it in syndication and readers. This adventure, set in and around China, later spawned a movie serial as well as a long term radio program and a short-lived television series.
The radio show began in November 1937 and would run until June 1948.
There were several different sponsors over the years, including Dari-Rich,
Libby’’s, and Quaker Cereals. The program probably had the largest cast of
unusual characters, most of whom began in the newspaper strip, including
Burma, Pat Ryan, Big Stoop, Connie, Captain Judas, Pyzon, General Klang,
and the Dragon Lady. There were many actors who appeared in the show over
the years, but few of them were well-known then or now. A few exceptions are Bud Collyer, one of those who played Pat, and Agnes Moorehead who was The Dragon Lady for a short period. When Libby’’s was sponsoring it, the show was transcribed so a large number (180) of episodes still exist for us to enjoy today.
““America’’s Fighting Cowboy””, Red Ryder, was created in 1938 by a cowboy
artist, Fred Harman, who in the 1920s was a cartoonist for a small animation
firm in Kansas City, working next to another young struggling artist, Walt
Disney. Red Ryder appeared in newspapers both in daily and Sunday editions.
Set in the 1890s, it told of the adventures of a red-headed, broad shouldered
cow poke and his young Navaho ward, Little Beaver. The strip spawned Big
Little Books, several movies, a brief television series, and over a hundred issues of Red Ryder comic books, beginning in 1940. However after a few years, Harman drew only the covers; the inside stories were by Dick Calkins, who also was the artist for Buck Rogers. Red Ryder also sound more B-B guns than anyone in U.S. history. The Daisy Manufacturing Company, in business since the 1880s, never had a more successful salesman
than Red Ryder. From 1940 on, both Red and Little Beaver (and frequently their horses, Thunder and Papoose) were prominent in full page ads extolling the merits of Daisy B-B guns which appeared on the back covers of juvenile
magazines and comic books. The best selling model quickly became the ““Red Ryder Saddle Carbine”” with leather saddle thong; it sold for only $ 2.95 in 1941. Daisy even sponsored marksmanship contests in which the winners were transported to Harman’’s ranch in Pagosa Springs, CO.
The Red Ryder radio series came to the airwaves about 1941 as a local show in the Los Angeles area and while it was picked up by NBC Blue, the network
broadcast it only on the West Coast. It was a 30 minute show, and aired either two or three times a week, depending on the year. It continued on for nearly ten years, folding about 1950. It’’s possible that as many as 900 episodes were produced, but virtually all were live and so today, we have located only about 55 audio copies. The title lead was Red Hadley and later Carlton Kadell while at least four different boys voiced Little Beaver at different times: Tommy Cook, Henry Blair, Johnny McGovern, and Frank Bresee. ““The Duchess.”” Red’’s aunt, who was prominent in the comic strip, found herself virtually eliminated from the radio scripts. The writers alternated with two other adult companions for Red, both male, ““Buckskin”” and ““Rawhide”” who were not in the comic strip.
The most popular, best selling novelist in 20th century America was not Zane
Gray, Louis L’’Amour, or even Danielle Steel. The author who has sold more
than 100 million copies of his novels in 56 languages is Edgar Rice Burroughs. And of course his most famous creation was Tarzan. ““The King of the Jungle”” first came to print in the pulp magazines and followed this quickly in 1914 with Rice’’s first novel starring the white man raised by the apes in an African jungle. Tarzan was a tremendous success and he was the subject of dozens of motion pictures, beginning with the silent films in 1918.
A total of over 40 moving pictures featuring Tarzan were produced from 1920 to 1970 and several more have been released in the past 35 years.
The comic strip of Tarzan began in 1929 when Campbell-Edwards got the
rights to market it to United Features Syndication. They hired one of the most skilled artists, Hal Foster, and he did the strip until 1937 when he left to create and draw Prince Valiant. However Tarzan continued in both the newspaper syndication and comic books until the mid-70s, drawn by other artists.
A syndicated radio version of Tarzan was marketed from 1934 to 1936 with the title lead played at different times by James Pierce and Carlton Kadell. The daughter of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joanne, voiced the character of Jane. The hero of the jungle, played by Lamont Johnson, returned briefly to the air on Mutual from November 1951 to February 1952, but only for their West Coast affiliates. Listeners must have got a kick out of the commercials; the
run was sponsored by Ross’’ Dog and Cat Flea Powder.
When Mutual gave up the series, CBS picked it up, got Post Toasties to sponsor it, and aired it for about 15 months, ending in June 1953. There was also an Australian version of Tarzan which aired in the early 1950s ““down under.”” Over 200 audio copies have survived, most from the syndicated series.
Probably no artist could have been more qualified to create and draw the Mark Trail newspaper strip than Ed Dodd. He was born in Georgia in 1902 and
beginning as a teen-ager, worked at Dan Beard’’s Boy Scout Camp for thirteen summers. As an adult he was first a rancher and then a Park Service guide, all the time observing and drawing nature and its creatures. So he was steeped in the arts of the forest, rivers, and ranches when in 1946, at the age of 44, he began the Mark Twain strip for the New York Post. As a dedicated environmentalist and conservationist, Dodd actually predated the ecology movement by two decades with his champion of nature. His syndicated strip was soon being featured in hundreds of newspapers.
Mark Trail first came to radio late in the Golden Age, in January 1950 on Mutual. It was there as half hour show three times a week for one year and then switched to ABC for the following season, ending in June 1952. The ABC
version was only 15 minutes in length. Kellogg's sponsored it the first year, but ABC could not find one so they aired it as a sustainer. Matt Crowley was the first to play the title lead but later Staats Cotsworth took over. Scotty, Trail’’s junior sidekick, was played by Ron Liss, who was also ““Robin”” when the Dynamic Duo appeared on The Adventures of Superman. Liss would have known well the Mark Trail announcer , Jackson Beck, since he was also Superman’’s announcer. A total of 42 audio copies are in existence today. Although the radio series ended after only two years, the newspaper strip never ended. Dodd drew it daily until his death in 1991 at which time it was taken over by his longtime assistant, Jack Elrod, who is still producing it for today’’s readers.