Friday, January 10, 2014

Jack Armstrong: Bound for Obsolescence

Jack Armstrong Big Little Book

Among my favorite radio programs is Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, created in Chicago in the spring of 1933 by the advertising agency Blackett-Sample-Hummert and writer Robert Hardy Andrews. The daily broadcasts originated from WBBM in Chicago, a CBS affiliate, premiering on the afternoon of July 31, 1933. The radio program centered on Hudson High School student Jack Armstrong and his friends Billy and Betty Fairfield who, along with Uncle Jim, went on a number of globe-trotting adventures. They fled for their lives when natives in South America took pursuit. They fought hand-to-hand combat with a mad scientist and his weapon, a death ray that was strong enough to bring down airplanes. They fought the bitter cold in Alaska when they were determined to find the solution to the murder of a highway patrolman.

The program was originally created for General Mills, in an effort to brand a good image to young radio listeners who idolized the fictional lad and asked their parents to buy a box of Wheaties so they too could be transformed into "the Breakfast of Champions." Decoder rings and other premiums were worked into the program's story lines, adding product loyalty for the cereal company. (By the way, that slogan became a marketing phenomenon that continued for decades, outliving the radio program.)

During the 1950-51 season, Jack became a government agent and the show was renamed Armstrong of the SBI. But for folks who crave true blood and thunder, look no further than Jack Armstrong. Less than 200 radio broadcasts are known to exist in recorded form. Folks like me are desperate enough to pay small ransoms for uncirculated episodes. 

The Jack Armstrong Pedometer
The radio program was extremely popular, spawning a series of premiums, collectibles, comic books, Big Little Books and much more. Collectors today value these premiums and prices are gauged based on the condition and the demand for the item. Yet, oddly, Jack Armstrong is fading into obscurity. Ask any child on the street today who The Lone Ranger or The Green Hornet is, and their memories of the recent major motion-pictures will provide an acceptable answer. Ask a child who Jack Armstrong is, and the answer is dead silence... or a funny guess. (My favorite answer was a baseball player for the Oakland A's.) Some theorize the downturn of interest on an aging fan base. Others believe not enough has been written to re-establish the identity of Jack Armstrong. Perhaps the answer is both.

The Jack Armstrong Camp Lantern
Scholarly books published in the last two decades have kept the image and name of Captain MidnightThe Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet alive. At this late date, you would think someone would have done a book on Jack Armstrong... but this is not the case. A recent article in a New York newspaper cited the Jack Armstrong radio program as a major influence for young boys seeking fatherly guidance when the medium of radio proved to be a determining factor in the development of young men during the second world war -- after all, fathers were off fighting the battle. The same article cited Kellogg's as the sponsor. Gasp! What a big mistake! Every historian and fan knows it was General Mills... but wait... there is no scholarly book on the subject. So what happened is a fault all too common today. Today's newspaper columnists browse websites for what they think are "facts" and with strict deadlines, rush their stories to print. And this kind of error will continue to grow. The folks at General Mills might consider this an isolated incident and feel assured that the company name and image will prevail when Jack Armstrong is referenced elsewhere... but they might be wrong in that assumption.

Jack Armstrong comic book
A few years ago I contacted an individual who, according to a number of people in the old-time radio hobby, purchased a complete set of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy radio scripts. The entire run hardbound in volumes. It was an auction that many people told me about -- after the auction ended. I contacted the buyer and offered to pay them the exact amount they paid for, if I could borrow the scripts for a short time to help amass a broadcast log for a potential Jack Armstrong book. They said they were not interested. (Considering it was a four-digit figure, I would have thought the offer would have been enticing.) I revisited the same collector a year later with the same off and he told me he since sold the books and asked me to go away. I have always said that the hobby of old-time radio will diminish as long as men and women in the hobby fail to participate by subscribing to radio clubs and newsletters, find reasons (or make excuses) why they cannot attend old-time radio conventions and play a part (small or large) in preventing any preservation of old-time radio from becoming a reality. This is just one example of a growing trend: people failing to see the importance of said preservation and for reasons unknown, prefer to put up a road block in an effort to preserve radio's past. But if you think Jack Armstrong is going to fall into obscurity, wait till you hear the other horror tale.

Two years ago I wrote to the attorneys at General Mills, seeking permission to write a scholarly study on the radio program. I also included a couple copies of books I wrote (The Shadow and The Green Hornet) so they could see a perfect example of how their program would be documented. To date, I have amassed over 2,000 newspaper and magazine articles, a dozen interviews with actors who were on the program, copies of over 800 radio scripts (and that number continues to grow every month), a copy of every circulating radio program known to exist, all of the comic books... and I was hoping that the company would be pleased with the idea that someone would immortalize the legend of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. After all, the radio program has been documented a few times in brief one-and-two page entries in encyclopedias. Shouldn't the Jack Armstrong program warrant larger treatment? Apparently not. I received no response from General Mills. The package and letter was mailed with a tracking number so I know they received the package. Maybe I was not worth a postage stamp. Six months later, I mailed the same letter and another two copies of the same books. This time I received a response. With no explanation, an attorney told me I could not have official permission and thanked me for my time.

Jack Armstrong cliffhanger poster
A little more than a year later, on February 10, 2013, I drafted a letter to Ken Powell, the Chairman of General Mills, along with another two copies of my books. It was my assumption that the attorney did not fully understand my request. Maybe Mr. Powell would. Six months later, having received no response from Mr. Powell's office, or any representative of General Mills, I resent a copy of the same letter, along with another two copies of my books. To date, I still have not received any response.

For the record, I am not asking General Mills to finance my project. I am not asking for them to write the book for me. My request is so simple it can be summed up in one sentence: I am asking for permission to write a book documenting a radio program they once sponsored from 1933 to 1950. Simple as that.

General Mills revolutionized the milling industry, marketed children's products, provides wholesome products for today's grocery stores and our kitchen cabinets. Maybe the company likes to focus on the future than spend five minutes granting someone permission in writing to document the history of their past. General Mills sponsored a radio program that ultimately helped the company become what it is today. And the pride of their past should never be discarded. I get asked all the time at nostalgia and collectible shows why a Jack Armstrong book has not yet been written. (I guess people ask me because they know I have a track record of writing books on old-time radio and it is no secret that Jack Armstrong is among my favorites.) I have to give them the long story and they all shake their heads and proclaim their regrets and opinions. This is why I suspect 20 years from now, no one will even know who Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy is -- a franchise that died away because the people who could make it happen do not see the historical significance. (Major film studios and major corporations have all taken the time to license authorized historical texts. The studios love receiving royalties for book sales.) So anyone today wondering why there is no book about Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy... you can ask General Mills. They haven't provided me with an answer.

Reprinted below is the very same letter I sent to Mr. Ken Powell.

February 10, 2013

Ken Powell
Chairman of General Mills
Number One General Mills Boulevard
Minneapolis, MN 55426

Dear Mr. Powell,

I am seeking your assistance on a project that will at last definitely document for posterity the true story of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, the first original radio adventure character created specifically for American children.

My name is Martin Grams and I have dedicated the last 15 years of my professional writing career to setting the record straight on some of the most iconic fictional characters of the 20th Century. I specialize in radio and television history and the 22 books I penned have become the authoritative reference works on those subjects. My mission is to assimilate original source documents, interviews, contemporary news reports, recordings and other pertinent information in order to preserve the truth for future generations. It has been my honor to clear up myths and misconceptions about radio programs such as The ShadowThe Green Hornet, and the television series titled The Twilight Zone, among others, and in the process bring to light the contributions of the creative and business minds that made them possible. My credibility depends on the quality of my research and each book has been completed only when I have reviewed every known archive and repository of information.

It is time to give that treatment to Jack Armstrong, a character in danger of slipping into obscurity despite the fact that this historic property literally defined children’s adventure programming. As you are aware, when Jack Armstrong was created in 1933, General Mills was at ground zero for introducing a wholesome role model to young boys and girls during the depths of the Depression. As a result, for 18 years “the All-American Boy” took up the mantle left by Horatio Alger and Frank Merriwell. Jack Armstrong was the first character to be included on the back of a cereal box; his success encouraged Wheaties to put sports personalities in their advertising and on the boxes. It is probably no accident that the two characters most associated with General Mills -- Jack Armstrong and The Lone Ranger -- share the same value systems (honesty, patriotic, straight-shooters, etc.). At its peak, millions of children tuned in every weekday to follow his exploits. I want to tell the true story of the program and you hold the key to making that happen. I need your help to give General Mills recognition for this fantastic chapter of American history.

As an award-winning author, I share the same reputation in the nostalgia and publishing community. I can understand if the trademark department is influenced at keeping usage limited; after all, each use makes a licensing opportunity less exclusive. The fact that Jack Armstrong is an eighty-year-old fictional character sometimes warrant uncertainty and therefore inclined to generate a rejection. Today, there are thousands of fans who collect vintage radio premiums and collectibles bearing the image of Jack Armstrong. As the years continue to pass, memories become faded and more collectors have difficulty associating the brand name that once represented the wholesome appeal of Jack Armstrong.

Re-establishing the brand name of General Mills with the name of Jack Armstrong, through a book documenting the history of the radio program, would also assert good public relations. I am certain your company is proud of the Jack Armstrong character and heritage. But what little has been written and documented is restricted in minor write-ups such as encyclopedias, magazine articles and Wikipedia. It is regrettable that the name of General Mills is not featured prominently in said documentation. Authorized histories, similar to what I have written for other corporate trademark owners, influence future entries in encyclopedias and reference guides.

Almost all of the books I have written are licensed with the cooperation of the trademark holders, who also granted me access to their archives to ensure the highest quality product. The owners of these properties are appreciative of my efforts for two reasons. One, these books provide a one-stop source for any and all information about the subject which their legal and archival departments can refer to with ease. Secondly, books I write have been referenced in legal cases when the license holder was forced to defend themselves in a court of law when someone challenged their ownership status. A book about Jack Armstrong would help establish General Mills as the licensee and owner of the property in the minds of today’s public. Such a book would settle the “curiosity gene” for fan boys across the country who want to know more about the program. It would set the record straight regarding details that are necessary.

We can only imagine the damage if someone incorrectly assumed Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy was sponsored by Kellogg’s and mention this on the internet or in a future magazine article. The majority of the public believe everything they read and once a “fact” is put into print, it is taken as the gospel. Such incorrect statements for other radio programs have crept in published reference guides and created confusion among fans and historians. Not a year goes by that someone doesn’t write an article about Jack Armstrong for a fanzine and sadly, errors are starting to occur more often in these write-ups that only historians like myself can spot.

While it appears that you still retain the trademarks for “Jack Armstrong,” I would like your permission to do a definitive history authorized by General Mills that carries the weight in the scholarly field. This would solidify in the public’s mind, your ownership of “Jack Armstrong” with a new licensed product. I also verified that your historical archive contains a wealth of material involving the radio program, which would speed the publication of the book. For example, the Library of Congress and multiple University libraries have radio scripts in their archive, available to the public. Reviewing the complete collection of scripts in your archive would ensure my work more accurate.

I have superb qualifications to do your property justice, further identifying the association in the public mind of General Mills and Jack Armstrong. It is my hope that such a book will preserve the good name of General Mills for future generations that refer to my reference guide, rather than information cooked up by hazy memories cited on the internet.

I am writing to ask you to consider my request and please contact your Historical Archive to allow me access to your files related to the Jack Armstrong radio program. Also your Legal Department to grant me an official use of the trademarked name of “Jack Armstrong.” As with other Corporations with whom I have worked, production of the book would be entirely at my expense. There would be no obligation to your company time or expense. Your company would have the final say after reviewing the final draft of the book before it goes to print.

I am hopeful you will agree with me and provide approval for my request to visit your organization and archives, which I understand is open to the public upon prior approval. I would honor any terms and conditions related to browsing your archives.

Thank you for considering this significant opportunity.

Sincerely,

SIGNATURE

Martin Grams Jr.

1 comment:

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