The Echoes of Long-Bell

This Jingle for the Long-Bell Lumber Co. was recorded exactly 65 years ago today, on March 28 1952:

The recording is fascinating and rather unusual for its time because of its utilization of tape delay to imitate the sound of a ringing bell via the human voice. Recorded by local studio forerunner, Vic Damon, the recording highlights all of the home improvement products sold at the retail store at the Gregory and Wornall intersection in Kansas City, MO.

Damon is pictured here in his studio with record cutting lathes.

The radio announcement is certainly unique because of its technique. However, it is also interesting because of its significance to the Long-Bell Lumber Co. and the Robert Alexander Long legacy in the Kansas City area. In 1956, just four years after Damon recorded the radio announcement, the once prominent Long-Bell Lumber Co. was absorbed by the International Paper Corporation. The timeline of the Long-Bell Lumber Company runs a tumultuous course where the success and wealth of the company were challenged. What started off as a booming enterprise eventually declined and faced several challenges from internal conflicts, litigation, and the Great Depression.

Local historian Lenore K. Bradley referred to the early success of the Long-Bell Lumber Co. as the “Gilded Age” in her biography of Long, and it was certainly that. Long spared little expense in the creation of the ornate structures he left behind.  Remnants of R. A. Long’s affluence are dispersed throughout the Kansas City area. Landmarks included in his legacy are Liberty Memorial, Longview Farm, and the Kansas City Museum.

View of the west side of Corinthian Hall, now the Kansas City Museum.

For additional photos, check out R.A. Long’s City and Country Homes Photo Album

Sources

Bradely, Lenore K. Robert Alexander Long: A Lumberman of the Gilded Age. (Durham, NC: Forest History Society, 1989).

R.A. Long’s City and Country Homes Photo Album. LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC.

Vic Damon Collection. LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC.

Content sharing in the ’30s

It’s probably 16 inches wide, and you hold it carefully by the edges. It could be made of glass or aluminum, coated with black cellulose nitrate. If you’re lucky the coating hasn’t started flaking off yet. Alternatively it might be made of vinyl, like an LP, but bigger. It plays at 33 1/3 RPM, holds 15 minutes of recorded sound, and was a key tool in the development of syndicated radio programming in the United States. We’re talking about transcription discs.

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A cellulose nitrate over aluminum transcription disc. Note where the coating has flaked off. When that happens, that part of the recording is lost.

In the 1920s, radio stations needed a way to replicate and share programming consistently. They weren’t allowed to play commercially released records on-air because musician’s unions believed that hurt record sales. So radio content had to come from somewhere else. Live broadcast was inconsistent, time consuming, and expensive. Not every radio station could afford to have its own in-house musical groups, but all stations wanted to attract more listeners. At this time the first radio networks were beginning to form. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was created in 1926, and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was formed in 1927. As these networks made more programming and acquired more satellite stations, they needed a way to distribute programming. Larger radio stations were creating programming of their own that they wanted to share with the networks. In short, there was a huge market for pre-recorded radio programming, but distribution of content was still a major hurdle. Transcription discs were the solution.

By the 1930s, transcription disc recorders had become ubiquitous at larger radio stations. Program producers were able to pre-record a program, make copies, and distribute it to other radio stations for future broadcast. This meant that stations in networks could all get the same programs. Individual stations could also add out-of-network programming to their repertoire by purchasing them from distributors. A station could also record its own unique local program using transcription discs, and then re-use it later. As a result, small stations could avoid the expense of live programs. Bigger stations and networks could get their shows to a wider audience. This meant listeners in Boston, Kansas City, and San Francisco could hear the same program at the same time. The ability share programming is a big reason why radio contributed to the growth of popular culture across America. To paraphrase Marr Sound Archives director Chuck Haddix, “radio was like the internet” because it brought people closer through information sharing. Everybody got to hear the same radio programs and news broadcasts, giving people similar cultural and political knowledge. We take this for granted today. Imagine for a moment a conversation with someone from two or three states away. They hadn’t heard Adele’s latest song or weren’t able to listen to that Ted Talk that enthralled you. Of course the opposite would be true as well. Its 75 degrees here in Kansas City. What snow storm in Ohio? That political protest in Washington that they went to? You had no idea until weeks later. Certainly newspapers allowed content-sharing, but radio was a huge leap forward, and it’s largely thanks to the humble transcription disc. One of the big 1930s radio stations that made a lot of transcription discs was KMBC here in Kansas City. Many of these discs are now held in the Marr Sound Archives.

KMBC joined CBS in 1928 as the 16th affiliated station. In 1930 station moved to the eleventh floor of the Pickwick Hotel. Under the direction of Arthur B. Church, KMBC became a model for other stations. Church and KMBC produced a wide variety of syndicated shows which were recorded on transcription discs and then distributed. One of these programs was the Texas Rangers. Another example from the KMBC collection that highlights the importance of transcription discs is a recording of one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” The recording can be heard below. It was made by CBS at the White House on May 2, 1943. It was then presumably broadcast by all CBS network stations, including KMBC. FDR could not have reached the entire country without transcription disc technology.

Sources

Museum of Broadcast Communications. Encyclopedia of Radio. Edited by Christopher Sterling. Vol. 3. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

 

Ride the West Wind

On May 26, 1934, a brand new train covered 1,015 miles from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours and 5 minutes, setting records for speed and time. A fine specimen of art deco styling, rendered in gleaming stainless steel, it was the first of a generation of revolutionary new streamlined trains built for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad. These trains were known as “Zephyrs,” after Zephyrus, the Greek god of the West Wind. For the next three decades, Zephyrs from Chicago and Kansas City crisscrossed the western US. Their service spanned a time of transition in American transportation; it began in the depths of the Depression and ended with the expansion of air travel and interstates during the 1960s.

John E. Lynn was a General Passenger Agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) office located in Kansas City during the era of the Zephyr trains. The J.E. Lynn collection in LaBudde Special Collections contains many of the Zephyr-related items Lynn collected during his life. This post showcases some of those items, and explains how the Zephyr trains represent one of the high water marks of American railroading during the 20th century.

Zephyrs were built by the Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia, PA. They utilized a unibody design that reduced the number of components in the drive system and saved weight. Stainless steel sheetmetal as thin as 0.012 inch was formed into boxes and rectangles to create a strong skeleton that was lighter than traditional components like wooden braces or thick steel bars and plates. The roof was made of stainless steel just 0.022 inches thick, corrugated to give it rigidity. As a result, three of Budd’s “Zephyr” cars weighed the same as one contemporary Pullman coach car. The Pioneer Zephyr was powered by General Motors’ latest diesel-electric powerplant: a 660 horsepower diesel engine that drove an electric generator. GM upgraded later engines to produce about 1000 horsepower. Architect John Harbeson designed the train’s exterior to be both beautiful and functional. Stainless steel meant paint was unnecessary, and besides, who would want to hide that shine? Wind tunnel testing at MIT revealed the Zephyr had over 40% less drag compared to older designs. CB&Q hired the head of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture department to design the ultra-modern interiors. Each compartment had heating and air conditioning – good luck finding that in a 1930s car or plane. All the innovation by Budd, GM, and CB&Q resulted in new flagship trains that were thoroughly modern in appearance and function.

From 1934 until about 1960, the Zephyrs were the way to travel in comfort, speed, safety and style. They were the 1940s equivalent of flying first class. Other railroads imitated the CB&Q’s design, but the Zephyrs in particular became cultural icons, like jetliners and cars would in later years. The film Silver Streak (1934) was inspired by the train’s inaugural speed run. The film told the story of a heroic train designer whose revolutionary design helped stop a polio epidemic at a dam construction site by bringing iron lungs from Chicago to Denver (the same route, but opposite direction of the real-life run). In 1949 Hank Williams released the song “California Zephyr” as a tribute to the train of the same name.

Several Zephyrs offered service to Kansas City. After its speed run, the first train was renamed the Pioneer Zephyr and entered regular service between Omaha and Kansas City. In 1939 The General Pershing Zephyr (the ninth one built by Budd for CB&Q) began offering service between Kansas City and St. Louis. From 1953 to 1968, two Zephyr routes ran between Chicago and Kansas City. The daytime route was known as the Kansas City Zephyr while the nighttime route was called the American Royal Zephyr. The average journey time between Kansas City and Chicago was just under nine hours, with no need to stop for dinner.

Historical hindsight shows us that Zephyrs were a finale of the golden age of American railroads. Even though ridership never regained its 1910s-1920s peak, Zephyrs were a shining technological and cultural triumph that emerged during the darkness of the Depression. They were the pinnacle of railroad engineering: faster, more comfortable, and more efficient than any train before them. They were also superior to cars and planes in key ways. Finally, they were a “halo technology” – they did not carry most of the people most of the time, but they did it faster and with more style than anything else on wheels. Zephyrs symbolized convenience, glamor, freedom, excitement, and modernity, all wrapped in brilliant stainless steel.

 

Sources

J.E. Lynn Railroad Memorabilia Collection, MS32. LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri, Kansas City

Harold Cobb, “The Burlington Zephyr Stainless Steel Train.” Advanced Materials and Processes, 2009: 24-28.

Steve Glischinski, “Zephyrs and Diesels.” Encyclopedia of North American Railroads, edited by William D. Middleton, George Smerk, and Roberta L. Diehl, 221-222. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Tales from the Archives: Disc(h)ord on the Ranch

In October 2012, the Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Please enjoy this series of anecdotes recounting the unusual discoveries and amusing happenings in the course of working with this collection.

This is the fourth in a series of Tales from the Archives.

Disc(h)ord on the Ranch

The KMBC Texas Rangers

The KMBC Texas Rangers “Gentlemen in the White Hats.” Credit: Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, Marr Sound Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

It seemed like everyone on the project team had discovered some new interest when working with the collection. One student became so engrossed in the developing drama on the show Vic and Sade, she hoarded all the discs to herself. For me, it was the Western swing group, The KMBC Texas Rangers. The unedited cuts of this musical octet perfectly demonstrate the unique chemistry the group had. It was hard not to be captivated by them, with names like: Clarence “Idaho” Hartman (bass fiddle), Gomer “Tenderfoot” Cool (fiddle), Joe “Monty” Strand (accordion), Herbie “Arizona” Kratoska (guitar and banjo), Fran “Irish” Mahaney (tenor), Rod “Dave” May (tenor), Robert “Captain Bob” Crawford (baritone), and Edward “Tucson” or “Tookie” Cronenbold (bass).

Garbed in Western wear, topped with classic white hats, their versatile musical repertoire included hymns, cowboy songs, novelty, and western swing. When I guest lectured for the Conservatory (UMKC), I ended with the Texas Rangers’ rendition of “Hand me down my walking cane” which inevitably got stuck in everyone’s head. It’s entertaining and hopefully served as a distraction from the terrible guest lecture they just sat through.

Tex Owens

Image above: Tex Owens, the original Texas Ranger? Image courtesy of Orlene “Kit” Johnson and Irene “Kay” Dierks.

As we soon discovered, the Texas Rangers weren’t without their own drama. In their early radio programs, they were often fronted by special guest, Tex Owens. Owens, who played guitar and sang with the group on occasion, was never officially a member, but somehow left his mark in history as “The Original Texas Ranger.” There seemed to be a great deal of tension between Tex and the boys which reached its climax when Texas Governor, James V. Allred, commissioned the musical group The Texas Rangers, along with Tex Owens, as honorary members of the state’s famed law enforcement group. The honor bestowed upon the Rangers prompted them to compose an interoffice memo expressing their disappointment that Tex would be honored alongside them considering he had not been a member. The memo also included some disagreements between the group and Tex. You can read more about this controversy, see the original memo, and learn of the outcome from a blog post written by one of the project students: Tex Owens: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

Find out more about the Church-KMBC collection.

Phenomenon: Traveling back in time to the 1930’s

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65 episodes of Ted Malone’s radio serial Phenomenon are available to researchers at the Marr Sound Archives via the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Malone’s personal collection of photos, manuscripts, and correspondences is held in LaBudde Special Collections.

“Wanted: a human life. Will pay $1,000.00.”

This is the ad that sends the hero of Phenomenon (story by Ted Malone and offered by Arthur B. Church’s company Midland Broadcasting Company) on the beginning of his many adventures through time.

Time travel is a concept that has been in the public since H. G. Wells first wrote The Time Machine in 1895 and it has been a staple of science-fiction ever since. While today we are constantly hit with the idea (Dr. Who, Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, Interstellar), it was still a fresh concept in the early half of the 20th century. Phenomenon ends up being something between a science-fiction series and a 1930’s time capsule. Buck Rodgers had just made his appearance a few years before, so science-fiction was on the minds of the young and inspired their imaginations

The modern setting for most of the story takes place in the office of Dr. Light, the inventor of the anachrophone. This is the device that allows the hero of the story, Jerry Powers, to travel back in time by harnessing radio waves. Throughout the show Jerry travels to several locations and historical time periods almost always finding himself in the middle of some major event of that time.

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Queen Cleopatra (pictured) appears in episodes 5-7 of Phenomenon, an original KMBC Radio production. Photo Courtesy the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection at LaBudde Special Collections.

Some examples include Cleopatra’s Egypt, the Salem Witch Trials, the Boston Tea Party, and the building of Solomon’s Temple. Jerry has all the makings of the typical hero. He’s bold, witty, overly confident, and always manages to find his way out of a tight spot. It’s where some of the other characters are involved that you begin to remember you’re listening to a 1930’s radio program.

Dr. Light’s daughter Katherine and their Chinese servant Charlie Wong very much get the stereotypical treatments of the time. Katherine is highly naïve and often treated as a second-class citizen. She is barely in the show for five minutes before you realize her duties are to do chores, flirt with Jerry, and be corrected. She is also very often told by Jerry when she is interrupting his and another male character’s conversation.

[audio: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/katherine.mp3|titles=Katherine’s Entrance|artists=Phenomenon Program No. 2]

Charlie Wong’s character is nothing short of a racial slur with his fast, hard to understand, and often childish sounding speech. Both remind you of the time in which the show was produced and unfortunately this continues into the introductions when sometimes the announcer will refer to electricity as a maid (or even a slave) who washes, cleans, and cooks for you.

[audio: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Phen_Lincoln_03.mp3|titles=Phenomenon Introduction|artists=Phenomenon Program No. 49]

It is important to point out that the main drive behind Phenomenon was to sell electricity to the public, a fact that the Midland Broadcasting Company made no attempt to diminish stating, “It entertains, it educates, it sells every member of the American family” right on the second page of their booklet about the program. This sentiment continues within the program itself almost every time the announcer begins each show often stating how much electricity can and is doing for the home. A more focused look on this aspect is found in Christina Tomlinson’s entry, “Phenomenon: Electrifying history, but not advertisers” on the Labudde Special Collections Blog.

The unfortunate result is that it’s hard to look past these and see the show for what it is at its core. They need to be taken with a grain of salt, however, and seen for what they are: a product of their time. It’s important to step back and try to look past them and listen with the ears of a 1930’s listener. Most of those things were common place and, though unfortunate, wouldn’t have distracted from the show and the program does offer some magical moments; my personal favorites were the pair of episodes that had Jerry Powers walking and talking with Abraham Lincoln through camps during the civil war (episodes 49-50). Phenomenon is not the Doctor and his companions traveling through time and space and righting wrongs but to people of the first half of the 20th century it was most likely an exciting experience and possibly sparked the imaginations of many as science-fiction has continually done.

[audio: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Phen_Lincoln_01.mp3|titles=A story from Abraham Lincoln|artists=Phenomenon Program No. 50]

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Tales from the Archives: Happy Hollow is a Real Place

In October 2012, the Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Please enjoy this series of anecdotes recounting the unusual discoveries and amusing happenings in the course of working with this collection.

This is the third in a series of Tales from the Archives.

Happy Hollow is a Real Place

Happy Hollow cast

Happy Hollow cast and others, including Brookings Montgomery, outside entrance to Pickwick Hotel at the start of troupe’s European and African tour. Credit: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

Rural programming was pretty common in the 1930s and ‘40s, and KMBC had its own in the town of Happy Hollow which gave listeners a peek into the daily lives of Aunt Lucindy, Uncle Ezra, Harry Checkervest, George Washington White (their own blackface character), and other town folk, along with musical interludes by the Humdinger Quartet.The program’s creator, Ted Malone, would have a long and successful career in radio broadcasting, mostly known for his storytelling and poetry reading, and as we later discovered by going through his fan mail,  he was very popular with the housewives…in an uncomfortable way.

Listeners engrossed in the goings-on of Happy Hollow could find out more by subscribing to the newsletter Happy Hollow Bugle. We came upon the newsletter when I sent my most enthusiastic student upstairs to Special Collections to see if he could find out more about the program, specifically, what radio actors were cast in the various roles. My instructions were simple: Look over the finding aid and pull whatever seems like it might contain some information about the show. I figured this wouldn’t take long since there didn’t appear to be much in the Church-KMBC Collection finding aid. About ten minutes in, I received a phone call from my very excited student telling me that one of the Special Collections staff pulled a newsletter called Happy Hollow Bugle from the Ted Malone Collection, and that there was all kinds of helpful information in it. Relieved that he had found something useful, I instructed him to gather up the relevant data for identifying the characters in the show.

Over an hour passed by, and just as I was beginning to wonder what was going on, he walked in. I saw him from a distance, all wide-eyed, headed straight toward me clutching a pencil and papers in his left hand, and I thought, “This is it. He’s going to tell me how he hit the jackpot of details on this show, and I might even be able to establish some names in the authority file.” He had spent an hour and a half in the archives, after all. But instead, he approached and exclaimed, “Happy Hollow is a real place!” As I was laughing (hard), he proceeded to tell me about the legal troubles that Uncle Ezra had found himself in, how some of the townsfolk had traveled to Africa, and other documented occurrences that had convinced him of its realness.

Tried and tried as I might to crush his new-found beliefs so suddenly (e.g., “So there’s just a guy in town who likes to walk around in blackface?”), he remained convinced and I remained amused. The good news: we were able to identify some of the actors. In fairness to my student, the cast of Happy Hollow and other KMBC stars did tour Europe and Africa. Kudos to KMBC for blending fiction and reality in their marketing so effortlessly. They had at least one person convinced 80 years later!

Find out more about the Church-KMBC collection.

Tales from the Archives: The Stampers Under the Stairs

In October 2012, the Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. Please enjoy this series of anecdotes recounting the unusual discoveries and amusing happenings in the course of working with this collection.

This is the second in a series of Tales from the Archives.

The Stampers Under the Stairs (Not Surprisingly, Full of Spiders)

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Stampers in original crates. Spiders, too. Credit: Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, Marr Sound Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Shortly after I had hired the project students, I received that news that we all dread hearing. It goes something like, “Oh, by the way, we found a bunch more stuff that belongs to that collection you’re cataloging for that grant.” Ours was more like: “Oh, by the way, we found a bunch of metal stampers at the bottom of a stairwell. I think there’s about 1,000 of them, and they all belong to the KMBC collection.” Actually, it was exactly like that (and there were 1,400 of them). But since I’m always up for a challenge, I came up with a workflow, drew up some guidelines, and unleashed one of my deadliest students. She was a quick-witted graduate Public History major armed with a vast knowledge of home health remedies, construction cleanup experience, and a nice Southern accent with a “no bull” attitude who drank her French press coffee black. She was perfect for the job.

I often walked into the dusty space she was working in to check on her. I felt bad for subjecting her to all the dust and forcing her to handle the heavy stampers, but she didn’t complain much about it. She had accepted the job and planned on doing it right. As it turns out though, some complaint was warranted. About two weeks in, I received a call from the head of the sound archive informing me that they had sent the student back upstairs and she was forbidden to re-enter the space until it had been bug bombed. I was confused. What had happened? Apparently, when asked how things were going, the student casually mentioned the brown recluses crawling out of the crates. That generated an appropriate response of alarm and concern for the safety and health of the student and the archives staff. Her response: “I was just killin’ ‘em with two by fours. I had planned to keep killin’ ‘em.” Like I said. Deadly.

Find out more about the Church-KMBC collection.

The Association for Recorded Sound Collections Seeks New Members

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Why should you join The Association for Recorded Sound Collections? Subscribe to the ARSC recorded sound discussion list and get your questions answered or check out the ARSC YouTube page for more insights into the organization’s benefits.

While brushing up on editing skills and best practice for video preservation, I had the opportunity to complete a video project for The Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) in conjunction with their 2015 membership recruitment drive.

The videos, now on the ARSC Youtube page, feature ARSC members delivering personal testimonials, encouraging interested parties to join up with the organization. Being an ARSC member myself, I was able to utilize my connections to gain professional experience and enhance my resume.

Joining a professional organization, such as ARSC, can be critical for graduate students and professionals alike. Here is a glimpse into their mission:

The Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and study of sound recordings – in all genres of music and speech, in all formats, and from all periods.

Founded in 1966, ARSC is unique in bringing together private individuals and institutional professionals. Archivists, librarians, and curators representing many of the world’s leading audiovisual repositories participate in ARSC alongside collectors, dealers, researchers, historians, discographers, musicians, engineers, producers, reviewers, and broadcasters.

Supplementary education for audio-visual specialists and students is key to professional development as well as networking with individuals in one’s field of choice. For instance, The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) may be a good fit for film and video specialists whereas The Society of American Archivists (SAA) would benefit archivists of all kinds.

ARSC, however, is geared toward audiophiles, record collectors, and individuals who work with audio materials. ARSC members receive the ARSC Journal and Newsletter, discounted registration fees for the annual conference, as well as access to past conference recordings via the homepage.Topics from the 2014 conference ranged from southern folk music, to new open source preservation tools, to metadata, metadata, metadata.

Here’s a pitch from LaBudde Special Collections’ Metadata Librarian and Chair of the ARSC Membership Recruitment Task Force, Sandy Rodriguez:

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The Sound of Literature: The Commercialization of the Audiobook

audio-stockJune is national Audiobook month, and as such let’s take a brief look at the history of the format. Though many of the earliest recordings were speeches and excerpts from stories, the first full audiobooks, or talking books as they are sometimes known,  were pressed and made available in the early 1930s as an effort to make literature more accessible to the blind. Some of the earliest test pressings were of Helen Keller’s Midstream and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. As we know today, audiobooks have become a popular and relaxing way to engage in reading without cracking open a book and can make a long car ride a little less dull.

vonnegut imgOne of the leading pioneers in the talking book industry was Caedmon records. Prior to the 1950s most talking book efforts were undertaken by small organizations responding to the need from soldiers who’d lost eyesight in World War I and II. Typically founded by womens’ auxiliary groups, they often recorded everything in house, pressed the records and mailed them out themselves. Caedmon, founded in 1952 by two women fresh out of college, took advantage of the recent innovation of the 12-inch LP record to make and package longer works for commercial production.

One of their first releases was Dylan Thomas reciting his own poetry, which made the 2008 list of the National Registry of Historic Recordings for being a seminal work in the commercialization of audiobooks. Caedmon also released a number of childrens’ storytelling recordings like Boris Karloff reading the “Three Little Pigs,” and more scandalous volumes like the works of french writer, Jean Genet.

The Marr Sound archive holds a substantial number of Caedmon releases including many works of William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, collections of Childrens’ stories, original readings of passages from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce–in case you’re up for a Bloomsday celebration on the 16th–and countless other excerpts and full-length works of literature. The label was critical in reaching a broad audience of listeners with professional voices and re-released nearly obscure recordings (such as the Joyce) to bring the sound of literature to the masses. It shaped the way the American public would come to love and voraciously consume audiobooks today. Audiobooks have evolved with audio formats to suit the needs of the public: 12-inch LP sets, soft-cased cassette sets, CDs, the more recent isolated mp3 Playaways, and uninterrupted mp3 download services (no changing or flipping tapes or discs!).

The Faces of Radio: Behind the KMBC Microphone

In 1935, KMBC was blooming into a Kansas City media empire under the direction of Arthur B. Church. Though a few years before the advent of the Brush Creek Follies–a program that would become one of KMBC’s staple programs–the station was already proving to be a fruitful grounds for talent of all varieties.

Listeners of KMBC mostly knew the voices of the radio talents: the wisdom of Uncle Ezra and the folksy organ-backed tales of Ted Malone; the radio-drama, Life on the Red Horse Ranch, and the songs of Herb Kratoska and Tex Williams. But in 1935 the station produced a film reel to give the public a chance to view the faces behind their favorite programs.

The reel, “Microphone Personalities: Camera Flashes of Program Features that have clicked with millions of Columbia Network Listeners” was a feature designed to sell KMBC programs to other networks. And it appears in the Marr Sound Archives from the Arthur B Church video collection.

Uncle Ezra Butternut of the Happy Hollow program is one of the first personalities to face the camera. He claims to be no actor, just a man with some opinions, and that much is evident from his odd stares into the lens. Similarly, Ted Malone and his organist are backlit silhouettes, not facing the camera for their demonstration.

The musicians, however, seem to have an easier time with the visual medium. Tex Williams appears decked out in cowboy regalia, custom made chaps with “TEX” applique-d on the leg. Herb Kratoska’s easy-going jazz guitar and vocalizations bring more energy, but eye contact still seems to be an issue. If there’s a fourth wall here, no one knows about it.

A young Paul Henning–before he took up the typewriter and moved to Cali-for-ni-ay–sings a saccharine song into the camera, calm and easy, but seeing this makes me glad he pursued television writing instead.

The most natural performances come from the cast of Life on the Red Horse Ranch. Unlike old Uncle Ezra, these are actors, and adapting to the visual medium much better. Even a glimpse at the sound-effect man, turning a wheel to make the prairie wind, rattling metal sheets and shutting small doors is a treat to watch. Following their brief radio-play the band closes with a hoe-down number of banjo, stand-up bass, and accordion solos.

KMBC became most widely known for it’s “country” themed programming that started with the hillbilly antics of Happy Hollow and evolved into Brush Creek Follies, which ran for 20 years. Other very popular programs were western and cowboy-oriented programs like Life on the Red Horse Ranch and The Texas Rangers program. KMBC oversaw national distribution for many of these shows, which led to great success for Arthur B. Church and is a vital facet of the station’s legacy.