BY JIM WIDNER
The ending gong of midnight...the roar of the airplane engine, at first in the distance...then stronger as it sounds in a dive...This was Captain Midnight!
The series had its beginnings in 1938 on Chicago radio station, WGN. Created by Robert M. Burtt and Willfred G. Moore, the creators of The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen, the series was sponsored by the Skelly Oil Company. The program was syndicated, recorded on 16" glass discs at a studio in an office building at LaSalle St and Wacker Drive at the ad agency of Blackett, Sample and Hummert. The discs were then regionally distributed to participating radio stations.
In the beginning, "Captain Midnight" was simply an undercover name for Jim "Red" Albright, who regularly piloted cargo and passengers. As an undercover agent, Albright was trying to gather information on a gang of criminals. However, by the end of the first run, ending in a summer hiatus, the Captain Midnight persona was beginning to stick and many knew him only by that name. Captain Midnight was constantly trying to stop the plans of the evil Ivan Shark and his daughter Fury. Shark remained as Midnight's evil nemesis throughout the length of the radio run.
Captain Midnight was helped in his efforts by Chuck Ramsey, who was a member of his Secret Squadron and Patsy Donovan (later, Joyce Ryan). In the national versions (though he appeared briefly in the Skelly shows), there was also Ichabod Mudd, Midnight's mechanic. There were a number of different actors playing the various roles over the long run. The series grew in popularity and was broadcast over the Mutual Network beginning in 1940 sponsored by Ovaltine. Ovaltine had recently dropped its long-running sponsorship of another juvenile staple - Little Orphan Annie. That show was tired and was beginning to wane when The Wander Company, makers of Ovaltine brought the regional Captain Midnight series to a national audience. For the national run, the series moved first to the Mutual network via WGN on the 11th floor of the Tribune Building beginning in September 1940. Then it was picked up in September 1942 by the Blue Network. The studio moved to the 19th floor of the Merchandise Mart. Once more when the government split up the Blue Network from NBC, Ovaltine moved it back to Mutual beginning in September 1945 where it remained until it went off the air.
With the network show, there were some cast changes. The announcer for Ovaltine, Pierre Andre, came over from the Little Orphan Annie series to do Captain Midnight. Don Gordon was out. The character of Patsy Donovan became Joyce Ryan and Ichabod Mudd was added as a regular. Jack Bivans took over the role of Chuck Ramsey when Billy Rose left to join the army in 1942. Bivans left in 1943 when he turned 18 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Johnny Coons took over the role of Chuck until Bivans returned from military service in 1946.
Captain Midnight was one of many series to offer exciting premiums (see example below and lower left, plus a Flight Patrol Newspaper). Young listeners could also be a part of the Flight Patrol by signing up usually via the premiums and receiving premium items, etc. Despite the adult sponsor, Skelly advertised by telling the kids to be sure their dads go to the gasoline stations to get the premiums and, of course, Skelly products. Ovaltine continued the premiums via their foil tops and labels which offered the chance to join the Secret Squadron. Often the premium played a big part in the series. Chuck would use his Code-o-graph to contact Washington to get the duo out of a difficult situation. As a part of the Secret Wing of the Secret Squadron, each person who received their code-o-graph was encouraged to sign the pledge within the manual. Other than Midnight who was designated SS-1, Chuck Ramsay and Joyce Ryan were the only agents of the Squadron to have numbers lower than 10: Ramsey was SS-2 and Joyce SS-3. Agent (William) Lyle Kelly, who was Captain Midnight's contact to Major Steele was assigned SS-11 and was usually referred to "Agent SS-11, Kelly" in the series.
Eventually, the series moved from radio to film and finally to television. The films were created by Columbia Pictures and directed by James Horne, a Laurel & Hardy director. Midnight was portrayed by former stuntman, Dave O'Brien. The essence of Captain Albright's history and his relationship to Major Steele was retained, though "Captain Midnight" became more of a secret identity. Sometimes the character would be masked and other times not. Ivan Shark returned though he did not appear as evil and ruthless as the radio Shark. Chuck Ramsay is portrayed by radio actor Sam Edwards (Gunsmoke, Six Shooter, Speed Gibson). One fifteen episode serial was created wherein Shark meets a shocking death.
Many know the character from the television run starring Richard Webb. If you have an opportunity to view some of the old television shows, note the actor playing Tut, the scientist for the Secret Squadron. This is the great radio actor Olan Soule (Mr. Firstnighter, One Man's Family, and others).