Friday, October 17, 2014

The "lost" Mysterious Traveler Episodes

Mysterious Traveler comic book
In recognition of Halloween, here are a few goodies related to The Mysterious Traveler. Romantically, fans of old-time radio (and fans of old horror radio programs) rave about The Mysterious Traveler. Chilling tales of murder -- and on occasion -- science fiction and horror. One can easily compare the stories to those of E.C. Comics (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, etc.) and while the series today ranks among the most popular of radio chillers (as opposed to the often overlooked and underrated Quiet, Please series), in reality it was not as popular at the time it was first broadcast. The best example I can come up with at the moment is the motion-picture, It's a Wonderful Life. Never reaching box office success at the time of release, it's become a pop classic today. In reality, The Mysterious Traveler was a sustaining filler for time slots on the Mutual Broadcasting System's irregular schedule. A sustaining program was simply as it suggests: the network forked up the production costs in the hopes that a sponsor would buy what network executives believed was a promising program. Ford was a temporary sponsor in 1950, but only for a few broadcasts. (Ford did the same for a large number of radio programs in the same manner in late 1950.)

The radio program spawned a short-lived series of comic books and four mystery magazines. These collectibles vary in price depending on the quality of the comics and magazines. The front and back cover, and the tightness of the spine, are inspected for grading quality so if the magazine is in superb condition but half the front cover is torn, the value is so cheap you can pay $5 bucks for it. The usual going price for a good condition copy of the magazine is $20 per issue.

Mysterious Traveler mystery magazine
The series was created and scripted by Robert Arthur and David Kogan. I suspect (and am presently working on digging for proof) that they rarely co-wrote a script together. Instead, they wrote the scripts solo and shared joint authorship for every radio script broadcast. (In the same manner as Lennon and McCartney as The Beatles.) Many of the episodes were reused for The Sealed Book, The Strange Doctor Weird and a couple recycled for the later episodes of Suspense. Robert Arthur later adapted a number of his Mysterious Traveler scripts for short stories in magazines. During the late fifties and early sixties, Arthur ghost wrote the introductions for Alfred Hitchcock in the paperback and hardcover anthologies. You can always tell if Arthur was the editor because there was always one story among the selection penned by Arthur -- many of which were adaptations of Mysterious Traveler scripts.

Regardless of what is reported on a number of internet websites, The Mysterious Traveler did not inspire other mystery radio programs such as Dark Venture, Murder by Experts and The Teller of Tales. Anthology programs were a dime a dozen and rarely was one radio program the inspiration for another. In fact, producers insisted on their own variation-on-a-theme so they could avoid potential lawsuits. One website goes as far as to suggest that The Mysterious Traveler competed against Inner Sanctum Mystery and Lights Out! and that "the same big three networks were forced to continually shuffle their offerings back and forth on the radio dial to continue to fend off the upstart Mysterious Traveler." This, naturally, is incorrect and merely an assumption. The same site claims: "While simply a road-bump to MBS, the blacklisting of one of radio's greatest writing teams effectively ended their radio writing careers with the cancellation of The Mysterious Traveler." This is not true. Executives at Mutual made a financial decision to cancel the program after it was determined that selling the series to potential sponsors in an era where it was acknowledged that television was going to dominate the field was not feasible.

Maurice Tarplin as The Mysterious Traveler
Transcription discs for "lost" episodes are expensive because they rarely turn up on eBay. Just a hair over 70 episodes are known to exist and while unscrupulous mp3 vendors have been altering episodes of The Sealed Book and retitling them to fool gullible consumers into believing they are buying over 100 episodes, discs do seem to turn up from time to time. I recently paid $225 for three transcription discs and they are presently being transferred to audio CDs. The dates on the disc labels do not cohere with the radio scripts so whether they are "lost" recordings or simply ones that exist already has yet to be determined until the discs and CDs arrive and I can listen to them. So in the meantime, here are a few plot summaries for five "lost" episodes for you to enjoy. I'll try to post additional plots in future posts.

 Episode #126  "INVITATION TO DEATH"
Broadcast October 28, 1947
Plot: A Halloween party is being given by Jerry Mason, who has picked out a very appropriate spot for it -- a deserted old mansion in the woods, reputed to be haunted. An hour and a half before midnight, Jerry plots with Sally to murder her husband, due to arrive in a few minutes. With everyone masked in costume, it would be easy for Sally to lure her often-drunk husband, Carl, out to the old rock quarry where Jerry can throw his rival over the edge. They would then return to the party and act as if nothing has happened. What Jerry ad Sally are not aware of is the recent auto accident at Dead Man's Curve, a notoriously dangerous spot a short ways out of town. A motorcycle officer saw the accident and is shocked when the dead body, dressed in a skeleton costume, vanishes from the scene. When Carl arrives at the party, Sally and Jerry commit the crime and return to the party only to discover Carl alive and well. A second attempt seems successful but when Carl returns from the dead again, the lovebirds strike the dead man with a rock and toss his body into a car. Their third attempt involves propping Carl up behind the wheel and pushing it over the edge of a blind curve down the road. Carl wakes from the dead once again and takes the wheel, causing the car to crash with the murderers restrained inside. When the motorcycle officer arrives at the scene, he is surprised to find the second car right smack on top of the green roadster that crashed there earlier that night. "Chances are a thousand to one against a thing like that," the officer remarks. "Death must like that spot." And the dead body of Carl, still in the skeleton costume, is found lying beside the rocks where he first vanished.

Broadcast November 4, 1947
Plot: In the courthouse auditorium, Walter Thayer, the county prosecutor in a little town in New Mexico called Sandy Island, questions a number of suspects in an attempt to settle the unsolved disappearance and potential murder of Professor Leonidas Jordan. Mr. and Mrs. Frisbee took in the 300 pound professor as a boarder and soon after discovered he had a lot of money. After convincing the professor to allow him to invest the funds in the stock market, Mr. Frisbee suffers a total loss as a result of a recent drop in the market. When the Professor finally perfects his latest invention, the couple are invited to participate in an experiment. The Professor explains that when certain radioactive isotypes are concentrated, they produce a curious effect on the energy stream of time itself. After tearing a hole into the fabric of time, the Professor uses his camera to capture photographs of what it was like 50,000 years ago. Tearing the hole even wider, the Professor wheels himself straight into the circle of light. Mr. and Mrs. Frisbee follow and it doesn't take long for them to realize they are the world's first time travelers. Taking advantage of the situation, Mr. Frisbee murders the Professor by smashing his skull in with a rock and then returns to the present. The police are called in to investigate the case of a missing person, but forensics prove murder. The skeletal remains of the Professor were recently discovered and dental records match the gold fillings found in the skull. A special-delivery package from the FBI in Washington verify the fingerprints on the rock match that of Mr. Frisbee. The fingerprints, made in clay that later hardened to become part of the rock itself, cinch the truth. In desperation, Mr. Frisbee turns on the time machine set up in the corner of the courthouse -- among the may exhibits in the trial. Mr. and Mrs. Frisbee escape into the past and shoots out the tubes to ensure their passage be closed forever. When everyone in the courtroom calms down from the excitement, Thayer questions whether the murderers, having escaped into the past, have become the ancestors of the human race. After all, homo sapiens appeared on earth just about that same time according to one scientist...

The above episode features two different script titles as revealed in the scan of the script cover and the first page of the script. (See photo scans of the script below.)

Episode #128  "MY DATE IS WITH DEATH"
Broadcast November 11, 1947
Plot: John Hart, a partner in the Sharon Fabrics Company, meets a stranger with a glowing face who represents himself as Mr. Death. While waiting for his train at Rosedale, John Hart attempts to evade the stranger only to wake and find his entire experience a nightmare. At home, he discovers the stranger handed him a newspaper predicting his death in two days. "John Hart was found scalded to death early this morning in the steam testing room of the plant, where new fabrics are subjected to intense heat," the newspaper reports. Suspecting one of his partners, George Hutchinson, of eliminating his business partner in the same manner as depicted in the newspaper, John cleverly finds a way of killing George on a lonely, deserted road. The next day, John meets his other business partner, Tom Fearing, only to discover Tom was the puppet master. Tom was the stranger in the waiting room, wearing powder that glowed in the dark. The newspaper was fake, planted by John's wife, Diana. Framed for murder, John is ordered to leave town -- or else. John, however, removes an ace up his sleeve when he pulls a gun on Tom and orders him into the steam testing room. Locking themselves in the room, John turns up the steam and throws the key down the ventilator. Tom screams out of desperation to avoid being scalded to death. John wakes to find himself still sitting in the train depot, having fallen asleep next to the stove. Was his dream a premonition?

Maurice Tarplin's artwork of The Mysterious Traveler
Broadcast December 2, 1947
Plot: Paul Edgar, a quaint little man who runs a bookstore, is a modern-day miser who saves every dollar he can, regardless of the precautions he put into effect -- including installing a burglar-proof safe in his home. Late one evening his brother Joe arrives, bleeding and begging for $2,000 cash. It seems Joe was playing cards and got into a fight. He snatched up a knife and stabbed a card player. With a police dragnet searching for him, Joe begs his brother for money. Offering to sign off on a $20,000 endowment policy carefully arranged by their father, Joe forfeits the policy to his brother in return for $2,000. Paul agrees and months later cashes in on the policy because his brother's dead body was found by police. Hours after receiving the claim, Paul receives another visit from his brother. Joe confesses how he switched his wallet and watch o the dead body of a tramp and tricked both the police and his brother into thinking he was dead. Joe wants half of the money, $10,000, or he will turn himself over to the police. It seems the man he stabbed never died and Joe is no longer wanted by the police. Paul attempts to stall for time while romancing Gladys, the secretary at the insurance firm. Gladys knows Joe is alive and well and agrees to marry Paul in return for the money -- the firm she works for has other options, including legally forcing for the return of the money. Paul reluctantly agrees. But when Gladys and her boss, Andrews, arrives at Paul's residence, they find Joe reluctant to surrender the money. "I couldn't bring myself to give back the money," Paul explains, "But it's all right -- it's perfectly all right." Opening a door, Paul reveals the horror -- Joe Edgar is dead, hanging from the chandelier.

Broadcast April 27, 1948
Plot: Lying on a hospital bed in an Eastern metropolis, Johnny Becker recounts to Lieutenant Morris, of the Homicide Squad, the events of the past week that led him to his present situation, while trying to prevent crying out in pain. Johnny was a habitual gambler who discovered that Maxie, an employee at Barney Sloan's pool parlor, has a rare gift. Maxie is not smart enough to do anything but sweep floors and cannot remember anything two minutes after someone tells him... but he swears he can communicate with his dead brother, Siggy. Maxie shrugs it off until Siggy (through Maxie) is correctly able to predict the winners of the races. Maxie soon strikes a bargain with Siggy (who communicates only with Maxie). Siggy provide a list of winners for upcoming races and Maxie will pay for a bigger tombstone for Siggy's grave. The partnership works out to perfection -- until Big Ed wants a private meeting with the habitual winner. Big Ed suspects Johnny has an inside source and proposes a percentage of the winnings if Maxie provides a list of his intel. The healthy share of dividends turns foul, however, when Big Ed wagers most of the Syndicate's money on a prize fight that Johnny swears: "Mike Sanders will win by a decision." When Killer Lewis wins the fight, the Syndicate puts the heat on Johnny, who is promptly shot in the streets. Back in the hospital bed, Johnny finishes his story moments before he dies and Lieutenant Morris is shocked to learn from the doctor that the newspapers are reporting that Killer Lewis did not win the fight last night. "That last punch he hit Mike Sanders was low," the doctor explains. "Sanders claimed a foul. The motion pictures proved he was right. The boxing commission reversed the decision, and awarded the championship to Sanders."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Claude Rains in "MIDNIGHT BLUE"

A friend of mine said he is a fan of Claude Rains and was complaining that some of the actor's radio appearances are not known to exist in recorded form. He wishes recordings would be found so he can listen to them. Well, knowing Bill reads my blog, I am presenting a surprise for him.

On the evening of Sunday, January 6, 1952, from 6:45 to 6:57 p.m., Claude Rains played the lead in an adaptation of creepy little story by John Collier titled, "Midnight Blue." His performance was the highlight of the weekly NBC radio program, The Big Show. Most of the second season broadcasts of The Big Show are not known to exist in collector hands -- but thankfully, they do exist. But seeing that it might take another decade before the recording surfaces, I am offering the next best thing: a scan from the original radio script featuring that very performance. If you can envision the voice of Claude Rains, you'll enjoy this little treat.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Cinefest 2015: The End of an Era

Since a number of people over the years complimented me on using my weekly blog to keep folks abreast of the latest developments in the hobby, this posting will maintain that status quo. Cinefest, an annual film festival held in Syracuse, New York, announced this year's dates: March 19 to 22, 2015. But it appears that Father Time is playing a serious toll against the very society that puts the film festival on and as it was announced earlier this week... the 2015 Cinefest will be their last... closing doors to 35 grand years.

The Syracuse Cinephile Society was founded by Phil Serling in 1967, with the intention of gathering every month to watch old movies and talk about the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In 1978, they hosted the first Cinecon Film Festival and out of that success grew Cinefest, first held in 1981. There have been three major themes motivating the annual migration of cinephiles to Syracuse. Bringing film historians, educators and archivists together with private collectors for their mutual benefit, screening "lost" and obscure vintage films, and involving students of film history, restoration and preservation. The Board of Directors, who handled the monumental task annually, succeeded on all counts. Last year I recall chatting with film students from the George Eastman House who were eager to learn more about classic movies, offering a promising future for film preservation. Those students were not afraid to ask questions and learn something new.

Pee break in between movies in the massive movie room at the hotel.

When Phil Serling passed away in 2002, a number of people speculated an immediate end of the organization. When founding fathers pass away from an untimely death, or convention promoters pass the torch to someone younger and able, there always seems to be a few contentious and argumentative who believe "change" is for the worse. But Cinefest held on and the dedication and hard work of the Syracuse Cinephile staff kept the show going for an additional 13 years following his death.

It seems in an era when Comic Cons are the new rave, drawing in a younger crowd eager to dress in costume and pose for cameras, conventions with a nostalgic theme seem to be suffering from dwindling attendance. The reasons are many... ranging from an aging fan base, lack of enthusiasm from the younger generation, and a temporary declined economy. Take your pick. Everyone has a theory (stubbornly insisting they themselves know the exact answer) but the general consensus is what can be obvious from repeat attendance: an aging fan base. If the attendance was growing every year instead of shrinking, the continued success of any convention is strength in numbers. I remember at an old-time radio convention a celebrated film historian pounding his fist on the table and exclaiming, "the hobby needs younger people and more preservation." The room clapped and cheered in agreement. One year later, I saw no new young people and no movements to preserve OTR beyond what was already a collector market. Everyone agrees, everyone complains about what is wrong, but very few make an effort to patch the cracks in the walls. (I am proud to say that I do my part in attracting a few people to the conventions I attend, every year, and have succeeded in helping to build the attendance, no matter how large or small.)

A friend of mine recently agreed with me, adding: "I have also noticed that many collector clubs, beyond the film related ones, are suffering the same preponderance of white-haired members. We are turning into a society where out younger member's focus is firmly on mobile phones and tablets -- and our sociability is measured solely on the number of Facebook friends. Many tweet or text, rather than talk or engage. Earbuds have replaced speakers. Free illegal downloads and file swapping is killing pop culture media which needs fiscal dollars to survive. To quote Miss Garbo, we want to be alone and now have the tools to facilitate it."

Lots of vendors selling books, magazines, film prints and more!

I agree with Bob when it comes to "circulation" and "exposure." Young people will get into classic movies if they are exposed to them. The dwindling attendance at classic film festivals mirrors what happened to old-time radio conventions. For years, conventions recognizing and celebrating vintage radio broadcasts (The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Jack Benny, etc.) boomed large with attendance. But when radio programs became "free downloads" as a result of a compressed (and on a technical side, inferior) format, the conventions began hurting. Consensus was divided in two. Half the room insisted the dwindling attendance was an aging fan base and lack of younger enthusiasm. The other half insisted the internet was the culprit. Vendors who paid for table space to sell old-time radio shows (usually un-circulated and newly-discovered "lost" shows) ceased coming to the shows because sales were down and former customers admitted that free downloads were economical -- and you cannot beat free. Vendors responsible for buying transcription discs of "lost" radio programs stopped investing the money. Three days after Ted Davenport spent $1,000 on dozens of 1939 Shadow of Fu Manchu radio programs and released them to his customers, they were available for free downloads on the internet. They were the last of the "lost" shows Ted invested in. When vendors began dropping, so did the attendance. Others debate that the internet exposed old-time radio to a crowd that might otherwise not have jumped into the hobby, and I would agree that the new technology has both pro and con. In relation to classic film festivals, the pro is only at the advantage of the collector. The con is that film festivals are suffering from this problem.

The costs to have film prints transported to Syracuse every year from the Brigham Young, Library of Congress, George Eastman House and private collectors continues to rise. These increased costs need to be counter-balanced by paid attendance. The hotel where the event is put on will not donate the facilities out of charity. People who used to attend the show for years and have since stopped attending have been asked why... and they continue to provide a common answer: "Why should I pay to attend a film festival when I can watch old movies on TCM in the comfort of my own living room?"

Film festivals like Cinefest offer a few advantages you cannot find within reaching distance of your remote control. Meeting people who share a common interest in the same films you like to watch, sharing your passion for old movies, and building friendships with folks you wouldn't otherwise meet outweigh the admission cost. Friends at the festivals recommend titles you never knew existed. You learn about what goes on behind-the-scenes in the hobby (ranging from recently film discoveries, up-coming DVD releases and new restoration techniques). For folks who live in upstate New York, the opportunity to attend an annual gathering and join the excitement was convenient because of location. There are other film festivals along the East Coast but travel distance is sometimes taken into consideration.

The Cinefest organizers site a number of reasons for the finale. Changing technology is one. Every Saturday at the convention, for the last few years, a local movie theater opened the flood gates for the screening of 35mm archival films. Attendees hopped on board a bus and went down the road a few miles to watch classic black and white gems not available anywhere else. Last year, the transportation was cancelled. The local movie theater converted to digital projectors and 35mm format was obsolete. So the Saturday afternoon screenings remained in the hotel with 16mm reels... as it was throughout the rest of the weekend. Once again, the contentious and argumentative took a pessimistic view.

Finding "lost" films has also become a challenge. One of the highlights of the film festival was to watch movies you could not see anywhere else -- literally. But with the movie studios opening their vaults to MOD (Made-On-Demand) custom DVD releases on DVD-Recordable format, rare gems are becoming difficult to find. Years ago, no one in the hobby would have dreamed that the 1930 Billie Dove classic, One Night at Susie's, would have been released to DVD. Now, Warner Archive has made that available. (If I am not mistaken, it airs in a few days on TCM.) Thankfully, I had the pleasure to watch a color commercial made for movie theaters starring The Three Stooges, which has yet to be released to DVD even on the grey market. Mickey Rooney's early screen appearance in a delightful film, Orchids and Ermine (1927), was a pleasure to view. Boris Karloff in an RKO Information, Please film short was a Friday morning treat that has yet to be repeated anywhere else. None of which are easy to acquire even on the "grey" market. As recently explained by the Syracuse Cinephile Board of Directors, "this has also made the Cinefest programming of rare titles that cannot be seen anywhere else increasingly difficult."

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Billie Dove in One Night at Susie's (1930).

The well-deserved retirement from the organization of several key staff members can also be added to the numerous reasons why the March 2015 will be the final convention. The group will continue their monthly gatherings of old movies, but the big event held annually will cease after 2015.

Running a convention is no easy task. As a convention promoter myself, I understand how the "little things" can weigh heavily on one's shoulders and, over the years, continue to build until the promoters either pass the torch to someone more energetic or close the doors indefinitely. For that reason, I would like to publicly thank all of the individuals responsible for Cinefest over the years for all the hard work and hours of entertainment.

Reporting sad news is never a highlight of this blog and with luck, I won't have to report sad news for quite a while. But if you are reading this and always had an itch to attend Cinefest, make plans to attend the film festival in March. They are going to close with a very special and exciting finale, and it would be better to say you were there to experience the fun than the oft-quoted phrase, "I always wished I could go." My motto has always been to do -- or not do -- to prevent regrets tomorrow. Don't create reasons why you should stay home this March. Instead, pick up the phone and book your hotel room and ask the boss to take a few days off work. All the necessary information including hotel contact can be found on the convention website:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Death Valley Days: The First Year

The Old Ranger on Death Valley Days
Follow along the State line that separates Nevada, from the California side, to a narrow rent in the Earth that bares the grim name of Death Valley. The Paiute Indians claimed that the Gods created Death Valley as a terrible punishment to mankind; that they tore a great gash in the face of the Earth, blew the tops off nearby mountains, split and twisted and stood on end another gigantic range, dried up the valley, and left it. Considered the lowest spot in the United States, Death Valley is hemmed in by the country’s highest peaks.

If that legend be true, then the Gods tempered their punishment by putting in Death Valley one of the world’s greatest treasures… borax. The thrilling story of man’s conquest of Death Valley and its treasures had for years been written only in the minds of a few men, newspapers, reference books and promotional pamphlets distributed to hundreds of druggists and grocers from coast-to-coast. Beginning in 1925, the producers of the famous 20 Mule Team brand of borax, the Pacific Coast Borax Company, devoted a percentage of their allocated advertising for the new medium of radio. For five years the company sponsored orchestral and vocal music until 1930, when the advertising executives at McCann-Erickson shifted toward a dramatic offering. Each week at the same hour on Tuesday evening, radio listeners were treated to the stories recalled by The Old Ranger, wherever he happened to be “rangin’ round.” The radio program was titled Death Valley Days.

Lead-ins for each story invited radio listeners into the fold through association. Termed “relationship marketing for the mass medium,” the audience was subconsciously accepted by The Old Ranger who each week shared a heart-warming story. As an example, for the broadcast of October 28, 1930, The Old Ranger was a guest at the New England home of Mrs. Winthrop. Radio listeners could associate with the broadcast because they too were inviting The Old Ranger into their own living room. Mrs. Winthrop’s hospitality reminded him of a story, then dramatized via flashback for the benefit of the radio listeners. This format of The Old Ranger recollecting a story to a civilian was utilized for many years.

One episode offered a unique perspective of the times, worth reprinting below. For the broadcast of November 4, 1930, The Old Ranger was in up-state New York, standing with a small crowd on the sidewalk in front of a radio shop, listening to election returns on the radio. At his elbow are a couple of voters… a man and his wife.

MAN: Come on, Helen, let’s go home and hear the rest of the returns over our own radio. This citizen likes to get his political news in an easy chair in front of an open fire.
WOMAN: But it seems so stupid on election night, Ralph. I suggested coming downtown just so we could be in the midst of the excitement… if any.
MAN: That’s just it. There isn’t any. Since the days of radio, everybody stays home where it’s warm and comfortable.
WOMAN: I suppose so. But, oh dear! I used to love election night years ago… with all the horns and confetti and big good-natured crowds milling around.

Naturally, this leads to The Old Ranger overhearing their discussion and injecting himself in the conversation regarding election night in Death Valley… which ultimately leads to the week’s story.

A collector item from the 1930s.
The brainchild of the radio program remains unknown, except for the fact that the series was created by executives at the advertising agency of McCann-Erickson. The script writing chores were designated to Ruth Cornwall Woodman, a staff employee at the agency. Born in England, 1894, she received a degree from Vassar in 1916 and was part of Phi Beta Kappa. Her first job was with the Century Company, as secretary to the editor of St. Nicholas Magazine, whose position she expected to take over within a short time. When Woodman learned that several employees who had been with the company for over thirty years expected to receive the same promotion/position, she looked for work elsewhere. This search landed her in Turkey, where she worked with an American organization on a survey of Constantinople after World War I. Spending the winter of 1921-22 in Constantinople, she taught English to refugee boys and served as amanuensis to the head of the Language School for missionaries in Scutari. Ruth Woodman traveled from Constantinople to Egypt, India, and China before returning to New York City.

Woodman’s first article about Turkey appeared in the New York Times Magazine Section, from which she made forty dollars. A vice president of the H. K. McCann advertising agency read it and offered her a job with the company as copywriter. She wrote magazine and newspaper copy for five years. In 1928, she began writing for radio, turning out scripts for a number of programs, including a few for the Pacific Coast Borax Company, more than half of which will probably never be documented simply because of the lack of preservation during that era of network broadcasting. (Don’t worry, progress continues to be made…)

Archival Document. Click to enlarge.

Death Valley Days, true stories of the West, premiered on the evening of September 30, 1930, and Woodman was selected as the primary writer. (Contrary to popular belief, Woodman eventually designated script writing duties (circa 1935 or 1936) to other employees including Jack Hasty.) The program’s sponsor, the Pacific Coast Borax Company, agreed with the executives at McCann to offer a weekly drama with the purpose of providing educational entertainment, and agreed that the writer should have a first-hand knowledge of the Death Valley region. The earliest broadcasts of the series, circa 1930 and early 1931, focused on historical aspects documented by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Story material originated from research data provided by the sponsor, including an extensive draft for The History of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which was later published in greatly reduced form. This included information about the discovery of Teel’s Marsh, the Nevada Marsh Operations, and the building of the T and T Railroad.

Rare Death Valley Days magazine.
Features adaptations of radio scripts. 
As the months passed, story material dwindled and Woodman optioned for published reference guides. This, however, was only a temporary solution. With the approval of the advertising agency and sponsor, Woodman began making summer excursions to Death Valley to gather material. If a publicity release could be taken as the gospel, her first trip was in a Model A Ford, where she gathered interviews from people in Death Valley and researched local newspaper files. She was accompanied by W. W. (Wash) Cahill, an employee of the company, considered an expert on the desert. Following her first excursion to Nevada, the majority of her story material henceforth originated from interviews with old-timers and from the files of mining camp newspapers. This continued until July of 1945. (As you might suspect, the stories circulating of Woodman spending several months each year in the Death Valley region, including quotes from local residents regarding Woodman’s determination, originate from press releases furnished by the advertising agency, which provided material for magazines and trade columns, and should be taken with a grain of salt.)

With radio in its infancy at the time Death Valley Days premiered, it comes as no surprise with hindsight that the program was a blatant half-hour infomercial for Borax and the company’s business interests. Many of the stories explored the origins of the 20 Mule Team, the discovery of borax, and/or vacationing at the Furnace Creek Inn. Beginning with the episode of October 28, 1930, the announcer promoted this vacation spot as “a healthful vacation,” where radio listeners “can explore on horseback or by motor the very scenes you are hearing about in these radio programs.” At the conclusion of the December 2, 1930 broadcast, the announcer disclosed the fact that Furnace Creek Inn was owned and operated by the Pacific Borax Company and any listeners considering a visit during the winter season could write for a free pamphlet. (The same episode opened with The Old Ranger recollecting his weekly adventure to a young couple making their way to Furnace Creek Inn.) Furnace Creek Inn was originally built to accommodate Borax Company officials who traveled to Death Valley to check on daily operations. It would later become a luxury resort in an effort to diversify investments and increase profits.

One of many postcards from the Furnace Creek Inn.
The pool was heated by natural springs and a highlight of the resort.

The Old Ranger was fictional, possibly inspired by a number of radio anthologies of the time, which often had a host to introduce and close each story. Described as an emigrant, a prospector, a guide and finally as a 20 Mule Team driver for the Pacific Borax Company, the teller of tales was now in the twilight of his life and spent his retirement wandering the country relating his incomparable reminiscences. The Old Ranger would happen to be within an earshot of the conversation and like a door-to-door salesman, place his foot in the door to lead in with another story.

The script for the broadcast of October 7 featured a section of the announcer’s opening remarks, scratched out. Reprinted below is the section that was deleted during rehearsals, when referring to The Old Ranger. 

“He has heard thrilling tales from the lips of the old 49ers themselves who gave Death Valley its grim name… he has smoked his pipe with the Paiute Indians… worked the Valley as a prospector… and even driven one of the famous 20 Mule Teams that carried their precious loads of Borax over the scorching sands and down the ragged ravines of Death Valley to the waiting world outside.” 

In the second episode of the series, it is revealed that The Old Ranger was a prospector who joined the silver rush to Panamint back in 1872. (And, of course, he did not fail to mention Borax being discovered a few years later.) Indication of The Old Ranger’s age is suggested in the broadcast of October 21, when he makes reference to hearing his mother talk “all of seventy-five years ago.”

Strategically, the opening scene involving The Old Ranger lasted no more than a page-and-a-half so the introductory cast could double for supporting roles using other voices in the same script. The female usually made reference to using borax for her daily grind about the home, one of the earliest forms of product placement without involving the renaming of an orchestra to suit the sponsor’s product. On December 9, for example, the episode opens with the female customer asking the owner of a general store for Borax by the box so she can do the laundry.

Now the Good News!
Until recently, radio scripts for the series were few and far between. According to Jay Hickerson’s Ultimate History of Network Radio Programming (updated every year with supplements), only five recordings are known to exist from the series.

August 27, 1936, “Sam Bass”
October 29, 1937, “The Whitney-Death Valley Highway Dedication”
June 17, 1938, “The Burro That Had No Name”
December 2, 1938, “Pete Kitchen, Pioneer”
June 16, 1939 “Shoo Fly”

A sixth possible recording exists, misdated September 17, 1940, but this has not yet been verified. An audio recording circulating with the title of “Dear Teacher” is actually the audio of a Death Valley Days television episode and should not be mistaken as a radio broadcast.

An explanation as to why very few recordings are known to exist is because the network, the sponsor and the advertising agency had no desire to go to the additional expense of having transcriptions produced. It is a fair assumption that the broadcast of October 29, 1937, exists today because of historical purposes. The highway dedication lasted three days (October 29 to 31) involving other radio programs and celebrated personalities including Gene Autry and James Gleason.

Scan of a script cover for October 7, 1930.

With few recordings known to exist, fans and historians of the radio and television program have to resort to the radio scripts. Earlier this year, ten consecutive years of radio scripts (1930 to 1941) have recently become available to scholars and historians, now providing us with an opportunity to document cast, script titles and plot summaries. This includes the proper spelling of fictional characters, titles of songs and exact punctuation for script titles. Recent discoveries include verification of John White’s participation beginning with the first episode of the series. White supplied the musical vocals that bridged scenes and whose songs were somehow written into the dramas. White was a sports writer on a Washington, D.C. newspaper before entering a career in radio broadcasting. White became a celebrity as a result of the Death Valley Days radio broadcasts, appearing on sheet music and receiving invitations to perform in clubs throughout New York City. White also played supporting roles on each of the broadcasts. On November 11, he played the role of Jake, who sang a few songs to those with an open ear. On November 18, he played the role of Jeff, a prospector, who provided a singing voice to those in need. On December 30, he played the role of Curly, an ex-cowpuncher who sang at the saloon. Thanks to the radio scripts, we have verified White’s participation beginning with the first broadcast. In later broadcasts, White would become a recurring character known as “The Lonesome Cowboy.” Because he played different roles in Death Valley Days in 1930, as you will discover from the episode guide below, White was not referred to as “The Lonesome Cowboy,” except for the December 23 broadcast, where he played himself. (An odd bit of trivia: Mutual’s Tex Fletcher, a singing cowboy, once underwent the name “The Lonesome Cowboy” in 1939 and 1940, causing a momentary dispute between the singers regarding the name ownership.)

One of many sheet music sold in stores.
The exact date of when John White began a recurring role billed as “The Lonesome Cowboy” remains unknown. We hope to answer that question before the spring thaw. Throughout the winter months, as the scripts are scanned into pdf format, a number of volunteers will be reviewing the radio scripts to help document Death Valley Days beginning with scripts from 1931. The speed at which it takes to scan the scripts and the time it takes for volunteers to read them will determine how far and fast we can speed through this project. The goal is to have the first five years documented by spring.

For decades, reference guides claim Jack MacBryde was the first person to play the role of The Old Ranger. Known as “John” to his friends, the earliest date was 1931, cited by John Dunning. We can now cite 1930. Sadly, cast names were not documented on the first twelve radio scripts. Beginning with episode thirteen, the broadcast of December 23, 1930, MacBryde was listed among the cast. Further archeological digs in the coming months will hopefully verify his involvement beginning with the first episode. The announcer for all of the 1930 broadcasts was George Hicks. The cast for episode 13 and 14 have been verified: Joseph Bell, Virginia Gardner, Jack MacBryde, Elsie Mae Gordon, William Shelley and John White.

A number of reference guides claim the program originated from San Francisco when the series first premiered. This appears to be inaccurate. The entire series, from the very beginning, originated from station WJZ, the flagship station of NBC Blue, in New York City.

Enclosed is an episode guide for the first 14 episodes representing the entire calendar year of 1930.

Broadcast Date: September 30, 1930
Script completed: September 22, 1930
Plot: When a young couple from New York find themselves stranded at the edge of Death Valley, their automobile having run out of water, The Old Ranger comes to the rescue. During supper, he shares with them a story of the Sand Walking Company: ambitious folks who, in covered wagons drawn by oxen, packed up their household goods, and their children, bound for California. This was shortly after 1849 when gold was first discovered in the West. The party consisted of numerous families, including the Bennetts and their three children, the Arcanes and their two boys, among others. They attempted a shortcut while risking their lives during the first trek across Death Valley. Against all odds, they succeeded.

Broadcast Date: October 7, 1930
Script completed: September 25, 1930
Plot: The Old Ranger is aboard a Pullman train, just pulling out of Los Angeles. When he overhears two passengers talking about the Panamint Mountains, he recalls a story of what happened in 1872 when his partner, Jim Bridges, was sweet on a little Spanish girl named Chita. When Jim learns that Terry, a man behind all the Wells Fargo hold-ups, is in town and attempting to woo Chita, Jim offers a proposition. Terry owes the sheriff $5,000 to pay off a debt or face jail time. Jim offers Terry the money he needs in return that he leave town for good. Terry takes the money but later returns for the town celebration (Fourth of July is celebrated in the spring due to the extreme heat in July) and like any crook, attempts to kill Jim. Chita warns her lover and Jim quickly shoots Terry in self-defense. “The town is better off without his kind,” someone on the street remarks. Terry comforts his bride-to-be.

Episode #3  “SHE BURNS GREEN”
Broadcast Date: October 14, 1930
Script completed: September 29, 1930
Plot: When a young bride named Rose shows off her new kitchen to The Old Ranger, he recounts another Rose – Rosie Winters – who helped make the real big discovery of Borax fifty years prior. The Spanish-American girl and her husband, Aaron Winters, were pioneers and prospectors in Death Valley in 1880. They spent their months in a little one-room shack on Ash Meadows near Death Valley. Rosie wants to leave the hell hole but Aaron fears going to jail for a murder he committed 20 years past, should he be recognized by someone outside. One hot afternoon, a wandering traveler named Joe Gibbons arrives and explains that he is searching for Borax, rumored to be in the Valley. He brought with him a chemical that will burn green if the discovery is indeed Borax. Against his better judgment, Aaron Winters agrees to put the stranger up for the night and after he leaves, Aaron gets gold fever (in this case, Borax fever) and decides to pitch camp on Furnace Creek, searching for mass quantities of deposit resembling the precious Nevada Borax. Remembering where he saw the crystals described by Gibbons, Aaron lights a match and applies the chemicals. His hunch was correct. His discovery soon spread like wild fire and he ultimately soon sold his claim for $20,000. The Winters later moved to Pahrump Oasis in Nevada and settled down in the home of their dreams.

During the drama, Joe Gibbons tells his new friends at least a dozen uses for Borax, thus serving as a commercial in the middle of the story.
This episode featured the first of many mentions of the Furnace Creek Inn, which opened to the public on the first of November – a vacation lodge owned by the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
Many of the radio scripts for this series were repeated again in later years. This episode would be dramatized more often than any other radio script. This radio episode would later be adapted into a television episode of Death Valley Days.

Broadcast Date: October 21, 1930
Script completed: October 2, 1930
Plot: In a sequel to last week’s episode… Rosie Winters, a Spanish American wife of old Aaron Winters, discovered Borax in Death Valley in 1880. Aaron sold his claim to Coleman and Smith for $20,000 and bought a ranch north of Death Valley at Pahrump, Nevada. In 1881, while the big operations in Death Valley, to the Northwest of Furnace Creek, commenced with every able-bodied prospector, Aaron discovered that finding a servant to help tend the ranch was beyond scarce. On his way into town one day, Aaron was held up by two shady characters. After shooting and killing one of them in self-defense, Aaron discovers the other merely went along for the ride. His name was Sandy and he used to work as a ranch hand in Arizona. After helping to deliver the body of the wanted man to the Sheriff, Aaron decides to keep silent about Sandy’s involvement with the attempted hold-up and instead, hires Sandy as a ranch hand… Years later, Aaron claimed Sandy was the best ranch hand he ever hired.

Broadcast Date: October 28, 1930
Script completed: October 17, 1930
Plot: The prospector named Bellerin’ Teck got his name from a little habit he had of raising his voice when he wanted especially to make himself understood. Teck went into Death Valley about 1870 and settled down in his own oasis of 100 acres. Everything was peaceful and relaxing until a prophet named Jackson, leading oxen through Nevada, showed up and joined partnership with Teck at Greenland Ranch. When the men agree to take on a new ranch hand named Lee, an army deserter who swears he recognizes Jackson as a wanted cattle thief back in Wyoming, Jackson protests his innocence. Teck overrules the protest and while the Lee family (half Indian) resides on the ranch, Jackson attempts to convert the Lee family to Christianity. But Lee later proves his memory was infallible. Once the truth came out, Bellerin’ Teck orders Jackson to leave – at the point of a gun. Jackson fled and was never heard from again. Over the years, the name of Greenland was changed to Furnace Creek Ranch… as it is known today.

The word “hell” was replaced with “Cain” during rehearsals as a result of a network censorship request.

Broadcast Date: November 4, 1930
Script completed: October 22, 1930
Plot: Frank Abbott, one of the early “Borax Kings,” learns that the Eagle Borax Works in southern Death Valley has closed business for the same reason the Pacific Coast Borax company is considering: the problem of shipping an inexhaustible supply of borax out of the valley. The trek consists of 165 miles through treacherous dry country. At the suggestion of his wife, Frank calls on Mr. Perry, an employee, who knows the desert like the back of his own hand. Combatting cloudbursts, avalanches of boulders and desert sandstorms are only part of the problem Mr. Perry has to take into consideration. Weeks later, in the form of a Christmas gift, Perry offers a solution. A 20-mule team to haul a specially-designed and constructed wagon that could haul 40,000 pounds of borax in one haul, through a specially-guided map, with dry camps in between the few water wells. It would take an estimated eleven days to travel each way. Abbott approves of the idea after careful consideration.

Broadcast Date: November 11, 1930
Script completed: October 28, 1930
Plot: In a sequel to last week’s episode… While chatting with a local grocer about Armistice Day, The Old Ranger said the celebration of 1918 didn’t hold a candle to the excitement in Mojave back in the 1880s… the day “Borax” Bill Parkinson drove his 20-Mule Team into town, after their first round trip through Death Valley. At the Mojave Club owned by Jake and Nellie, folks were counting the days when Bill would return. He was two days overdue. Following Perry’s exact directions and orders (as described in the last episode), Bill told very few people that he was three months married when he set off on the venture. Her name was Margaret Howard and she came from Indiana. Bill rescued her family when they were bleaching in the sun, having failed in their trek West, bound for the promise of gold. Perry assured Margaret that he wouldn’t have sent a man into the desert if he did not feel certain of a return trip. He calculated every aspect of the trip. Just when all was though to be dismal, a small dust cloud grew in size as witnesses observed Bill’s triumphant return. Shouts of joy and excitement filled the air. And Bill expressed his eagerness to rush out and gather another 40,000 pounds of Borax for the freight car… but first, he needs a bath.

Broadcast Date: November 18, 1930             
Script completed: November 10, 1930
Plot: Just East across the state line in Nevada lay a ghost town that was once known as Bullfrog. After Shorty Harris first made his strike in 1904, people swamped to the small town, consisting of tents and two frame buildings: Mickey’s store and the Ferris restaurant. The Ferris family had one daughter, Mame, known as “The Little Bullfrog Nugget,” because she was worth her weight in gold. Her favorite meal was eggs, which she served to people every day. When she rejected the offer of marriage from Buck, a young prospector, he cornered the egg market by purchasing every egg from the local farmers. A week later he returned to Bullfrog where Mame is desperate for eggs… both for business and for personal pleasure. Buck brought in a dozen eggs and asked her to cook them for him. Mame preferred to buy them but he said the only way that would happen would be if he came with the purchase. Mame confessed that she loves Buck and she was just too mean to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. Thus the only time a man paid as high as a dollar a piece for eggs… and as a wedding present for his bride.

Broadcast Date: November 25, 1930
Script completed: November 17, 1930
Plot: The Old Ranger recounted the story of Jacob Breyfogle, a blacksmith in the little town of Austin, Nevada. Hired to guide a party of Southerners from Austin down across the Death Valley country to Arizona, so they could serve for the Confederacy, Breyfogle promised his wife, Greta, that he would have enough money from the job to take her to San Francisco. After all, no one knew Death Valley better than he. The year was 1864 and months passed and no word came of him. When Breyfogle returned, pockets rich with gold, it was discovered that his mind was clean gone. Blood on his head and hands suggested either an accident or foul play. Breyfogle remembered succeeding in getting his party to Yuma, but on his way back he got lost along the Amargosa Range, through the Funeral Mountains. He struck gold and a whole mountain of it. He filled his pockets and made for home. Indians stole his horse and water but he managed to make it back alive. That was the story that became legend. Years passed by and the lost Breyfogle Mine became one of the big mysteries of Death Valley. No matter how hard he tried, grubstake after grubstake, Breyfogle never found his claim. Greta died in 1900 and Jacob Breyfogle died a year following. Then in 1906, a young man named Bud found what was probably the lost Breyfogle mine. And he wasn’t even looking for it. “Death Valley’s like that,” his friend Carl explained. “Breaks the old hard-rock miners’ hearts an’ backs… mocks ‘em… cheats ‘em. An’ then sudden like turns around an’ yields up rich treasures to some young sandbank miner like yourself, who’s hardly struck his pick in the ground.”

This is the only episode in which a male singer is not provided. Greta, a female, sings a song with guitar accompaniment. The name of the female singer remains unknown.

Broadcast Date: December 2, 1930
Script completed: November 14, 1930
Plot: During the late 1880s, a young prospector named Philander Lee stumbled into Death Valley. Saved from dehydration by Tavn, a Shoshone princess, the two fall in love. Tavn later explains that her father, the chief of the Shoshone tribe, has betrothed her to a warrior the same age as her father. Philander forbids the ceremony. She insists nothing can be done to prevent the marriage. On her wedding night, under the moonlight and ceremonial fire, Philander overhears the chief's story of the gods riding into Death Valley on a black stallion to sweep a Shoshone maiden for his bride and this gives Philander an idea. He decides to mimic the legend, whisking his bride away. The ruse works and the lovebirds spent the remainder of their lives at Philander's ranch and ultimately had nine children... some of whom became employees for the Pacific Borax Company. 

Broadcast Date: December 9, 1930
Script completed: November 25, 1930
Plot: The Old Ranger tells Mr. Sprague, a neighborhood druggist, and Mrs. Martin, a customer, the story of Joe Salsuepedes, also known as Swamper Ike, the most famous of mule skinners. Joe helped lead the team of mules for Borax, always believing he was a Cocopah Indian... a half-breed, anyway. During one of his routine travels, he discovered Indian pyroglyphics that coincidentally documented his childhood. This proved he was a white man. His parents died in Death Valley and the Indians, taking pity on the youth, adopted the newborn baby as their own. 

Broadcast Date: December 16, 1930
Script completed: December 1, 1930
Plot: The year was 1890. Frank Mills and his wife, Carrie, settle at Furnace Creek Ranch, one mile below the Old Harmony Borax works. Carrie wasn’t happy. Day in and day out she saw everlasting sun… and sand… and silence. When her husband left for a one-month trek hauling Borax across the desert, a thief named Pablo showed up and took advantage of Carrie's hospitality. Pablo knew how to impress a woman and she started to believe there was a better life of love and laughter. The lovers attempted to flee the desert and might have made it if it had not been for a sand storm that dominated the situation. Pablo, through self-preservation, showed his true colors by deserting Carrie in the storm. She miraculously survived the ordeal and her husband found her in the desert. After hearing her story, he carefully weighed his options and forgave her for her trespass and took her back home.

This episode opened where a woman in the street said she uses Borax in the home for all her housecleaning.
The Old Ranger, talking about sandstorms in the beginning of the episode, made reference that some people vacationing at Furnace Creek Inn get to see a real sand storm.

Broadcast Date: December 23, 1930
Script completed: December 13, 1930
Plot: The episode opens with The Old Ranger meeting a couple leaving Ludlow, California, about 175 miles from Death Valley, heading home to Kansas City for Christmas. The Old Ranger mentions he is traveling on the Tonopah and Tidewater, the railroad that the Pacific Coast Borax Company built to haul Borax. This episode featured two, fifteen-minute stories. The first dramatized the first Christmas that was ever observed in Death Valley, in 1849, when a group of emigrants looking for a short cut to the California gold fields, stumbled into Death Valley by mistake. The party of pioneers found themselves trapped in the Valley for months but never lost their faith and courage. Then The Old Ranger joined in a dramatization of last year’s Christmas Party at Furnace Creek Inn, 1929, with Frank Tilton (retired driver of the 20-Mule Teams), John White (a.k.a. the Lonesome Cowboy), and a crowd of holiday visitors. White sang two Christmas songs and a young man recited a Death Valley version of “The Night Before Christmas.” A Wandering Minstrel performed a couple songs, and the cast closed the broadcast with a rendition of “Silent Night.”

Broadcast Date: December 30, 1930
Script completed: December 22, 1930
Plot: This episode opened with The Old Ranger meeting two young women, raising money for the local Emergency Unemployment Fund. After making a donation with five silver dollars, he tells the story that took place in a Nevada mining camp in the hills of Rhyolite, east of Death Valley (a boom town that today is now a ghost town). The year was 1907 and Davey MacDonald and his wife, Jennie, paid a visit to Jim Baxter’s saloon where Tiger Lil climbed up on tables, sang vulgar songs and showed off her leg clear above the knees. Jennie was appalled and preferred to stay home and avoid the kind of woman Tiger Lil was. Jennie looked after the children and tried to make Dave’s low wages stretch as far as possible… forgetting what kind of horrid entertainment her husband frequented after a long, hard shift. One afternoon, men arrived at the front door with Dave’s body. A cage dropped down the mineshaft, they explained, and Dave was now paralyzed. A Nevada winter was approaching and with four children to look after, Jennie had not a cent of money coming in. Tiger Lil, upon hearing the news, started a purse, asking every man in town to donate a day’s wages. A big city doctor, surgeries and nurses would cost a lot of money but she managed to raise $5,000 for Jennie MacFarland. When the men delivered the money and explained how a woman anonymously arranged for the donation, Jennie remarked: “I’ll remember her in my prayers every night… and thank God there are such good women in this world!”