Phenomenon: Traveling back in time to the 1930’s


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.


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:|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:|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:|titles=A story from Abraham Lincoln|artists=Phenomenon Program No. 50]


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.

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.

Wartime woes with Whitehouse

Vic & SadeNowadays, the experience of living in a country at war often appears to affect only those Americans whose friends and family members deploy to combat zones. In the 1940s, however, the experience of war pervaded nearly every aspect of everyday life in America. For people living during those dark times, listening to Vic & Sade — one of America’s most beloved radio dramas — was no exception. The show, which centered on the life of a married suburban couple, Victor and Sade Gook, and their adopted son, Rush, had been extremely popular among radio listeners for almost a decade prior to America’s entrance into the Second World War. The demands of the war, however, quickly tested the program’s durability. According to Wikipedia:

“During World War II, the actor who played Rush, Bill Idelson, was called into military service, and he left the show. The spring months of 1943 were a tumultuous period, but eventually a second son figure, Russell Miller (David Whitehouse), was brought in, and the program continued as it always had. The show faltered somewhat with Whitehouse, who sounded as if he was reading his lines aloud in school. Idelson later returned as Rush.”

The Arthur B. Church collection contains numerous episodes of Vic & Sade from the program’s later years on the air. While cataloging, we’ve come across only one episode from the Whitehouse run. Nevertheless, it was enough to convince us of the fairness of Wikipedia’s assessment. Listen to a sample here. [audio:|titles=Vic and Sade]

It might be a stretch to propose that the failure of this substitution led to the discontinuation of the show only shortly after Bill Idelson’s return in 1945. Nevertheless, listening to the sample that you’ve just heard lead us to believe that it contributed to what was likely a premature end.

Christina Tomlinson, KMBC Project staff/History (MA) student

Phenomenon: Electrifying history, but not advertisers

PhenomenonOf the numerous radio programs produced in the 1930s, few seemed to have caused more stress for Arthur B. Church than Phenomenon: Electrifying History. Written by long-time radio personality Ted Malone, this series is one that always proved to be entertaining for the listeners, but fell short of attracting lucrative sponsors.

After days of listening to the series, a number of us considered Phenomenon a favorite among Church’s productions. It can only be described as a science-fiction historical drama, rife with all the archetypes that make such shows enjoyable. The story follows the adventures of Jerry Powers, your typical man about the world. He has all the character traits of the overly confident hero, always finding a way to get out of a tight spot. Dr. Light is your mad scientist to the townsfolk, but a real genius among his friends and family. Light’s daughter Katherine is naïve but sweet, naturally playing the role of the sheltered damsel. She falls in love—and danger—at the drop of a hat. Then there are comedic caricatures like the stereotypical mobster henchman Slim McGuiness or the always-helpful-but-difficult-to-understand Chinese manservant Charlie Wong.

The dynamic cast of characters is met with an extraordinary invention: Dr. Light’s anachrophone, a device that harnesses radio waves and uses them to propel a person back in time. With the anachrophone Dr. Light hopes to be able to pinpoint time-travel with the intent to find his late wife, but to test the machine he requires the brave services of Jerry. As Jerry travels back through time, he is charged with the mission to persuade historical figures to embrace electricity, thereby changing history for the better. In a typical episode, it is not surprising to find Jerry in the presence of a great ruler urging them to build a power plant in their ancient city. In fact, his salesmanship often produced positive results; in one episode Jerry convinces a number of Founding Fathers to build a telegraph network to help the colonies communicate in case of danger. As a result, they are able to warn each other that the “British are coming” and prepare for battle. Notice how Paul Revere didn’t get the credit for that one? What’s more is that these happy historical moments are often met with cruel twists in the plot as the local Murdoch gang repeatedly attempt to steal Dr. Light’s anachrophone invention and use it to gain power.

It had everything: action, suspense, humor, drama, and romance. Throughout the Phenomenon series we found ourselves interested in the next chapter, emailing summaries to each other so we were ready for the next twist in the plot. And now that it’s over, I must say it’s rather sad we don’t have the final episodes of the original run. What is sadder is that Phenomenon, with all of its time-traveling, has all but disappeared from history.

Phenomenon was originally produced in partnership with KCP&L to advertise electricity. After it became a local success, Church approached World Broadcasting System in early 1932 to record the series. Church pushed for syndication the following year, but the demand was insufficient. In the mid-1930s, it was made clear that KCP&L was satisfied with the original six month run and did not wish to record more episodes. Church, likely frustrated at being snubbed, then tried selling the series to other power companies and radio stations in the Midwest, broadening Phenomenon’s audience.

The series was re-recorded with a Hollywood cast in 1937 and broadcasted to new regions throughout the 1940s. National reviews for the show were mixed. A number of telegraphs to KMBC indicate that audiences enjoyed the series. It was argued that the war in Europe allowed audiences to be more publicly aware of the global locations discussed in the show and were therefore more interested in the story. In spite of the positive reception, those that were in charge of actually purchasing the program were hesitant. One of the reasons, as suggested in a meeting among KMBC executives, was that the power and light companies that were being targeted for the show either weren’t interested or didn’t understand the need for radio advertisements. They were more likely to spend their money on newspaper ads or persuading local government to achieve success rather than use radio.

In 1943 Church’s Chicago-based salesman George Halley suggested in a memo that Church pursue national advertisers for the show and abandon the urge for local power and light sponsorship. It was also suspected—and feared— that Ted Malone was considering selling his idea elsewhere. One can get a sense in the forties that some big changes were needed to salvage the dwindling program. Sadly, the national sponsor that Halley had hoped for was never found and the tangles among the local stations’ executives were never solved. As a result, future episodes of Phenomenon were never recorded. Church’s business records follow Phenomenon until the late forties and then drop like a brick in the wake of Texas Rangers’ national syndication and rapidly growing fame.  This program ran for more than ten years, yet all we have left is a treasured collection of episodes and a couple boxes of paperwork that reveal its struggle for success.

Selected episodes and resources from Phenomenon:

•    The first episode.
•    How electricity was advertised.
•    How Jerry Powers played a vital role in the American Revolution.
•    For information on electric products advertised on Phenomenon, see Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, box 1, folder 29 in LaBudde Special Collections.
•    The promotional portfolio.
•    For transcripts of the conferences on Phenomenon and Church’s plan for the show’s national success, see Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, box 1, folders 4 and 5 in LaBudde Special Collections.

Christina Tomlinson, KMBC Project staff/History (MA) student

“The Nazis must have loved children– they stole so many of them.”

2011-11-14_Nazis_Goldin_elevenAllan Sloane knew the shock and venom of this statement when he wrote it into his documentary Eleven Memory Street (1950). This piece of creative radio journalism tells the story of a girl who was a victim of a seditious Nazi program. Lebensborn, or Fount of Life, was a program meant to purify the German race by encouraging Aryan breeding. The program which provided care for racially acceptable mothers and their children is also associated with the planned kidnapping and relocation of thousands of Polish children. These children were chosen for their racial traits for the purpose of Germanization.

Yovinna Solyska, was one of those children, and starting with a letter from her mother (whose return address became the title of the radio play), Eleven Memory Street traces a detective hunt by a team of U.N. workers to reunite the mother and daughter. Allan Sloane, a reporter for the U.N., traced the development of the case with a microphone, and mixed the audio with his poignant narration.  The result is a powerful documentary.

The United Nations, since its beginning, has used the medium of radio as one of its ways to inform the world of its aims and activities. And Eleven Memory Street is a prime example of why. Article 1 of the U.N. Charter states that one of the purposes of the U.N. is “To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character.” At one point in the investigation, Sloane stopped to consider the significance of what he was involved with. He recounts, “Something began to dawn on me. This is the United Nations really at work. A British bureau chief, working with a Danish assistant to find a Polish child who might be in Czechoslovakia and an American reporter standing by.”

Marr Sound Archives is now a wealth of information on U.N. historical radio. The J. David Goldin Collection includes over 400 episodes of “The United Nations Today,” a program of radio reports, interviews, and sound clips by the U.N. The collection has over sixty episodes of “U.N. Story,” a dramatic series. There is also a large collection of special documentaries similar to the one discussed here.

Eleven Memory Street stands out among these radio documents. It is an important experiment in international journalism and documentary making. And it shows the ugliest result of war. The children, the innocent, are lumped into the statistics of casualties and missing people. This story shows how much cooperation and energy it takes to change one of these statistics by a barely noticeable amount – and how much it is worth it.

For an introduction to U.N. Radio on the web check out the U.N. Radio Classics archive.

Troy Cummings, guest contributor

Miss Liberty goes to town

“My, the fresh air is wonderful,” says Ulysses S. Grant to the Statue of Liberty as they exit Grant’s Tomb. “Say now, the first thing we might do ma’am, is to step across the street into that bar.” “Well, perhaps just one little drink Ulysses, but later,” Miss Liberty replies.

This is not the beginning of a joke. It is part of the radio play Miss Liberty Goes to Town, written by Norman Rosten for the series “Treasury Star Parade.” This series, which ran from 1942-1944 on over 800 radio stations across the U.S., was produced by the Treasury Department in order to help stimulate the sale of war bonds.

Many of the plays in this series use harsh realism to press the need to buy war bonds. In one play, Paris Incident, Bette Davis plays a French woman defying the Nazis. She is whipped when found out, the strikes forming the percussive rhythm to the musical score. However, in Miss Liberty Goes to Town, fantasy is used to create an entertaining plea for generous giving.

In this radio fantasy, Miss Liberty gets tired of staring out to sea, and to the surprise of nearby airplane pilots and the passengers on the Staten Island ferry, she shrinks down to human size and hales a cab. She wants to go somewhere historical that she remembers when she first came to America. The taxi driver suggests Grant’s Tomb. Here she wakes the ghost of Grant. They make introductions. The general ghost tells the lady statue that she still looks good, “a little tarnished,” but still good. The lady statue explains why she left her post, “I want to see what is going on behind my back, Ulysses. I keep looking out to sea all the time, and sometimes I wonder if the people behind me are the same. If their still worthy of the torch I hold aloft for them.”

They stroll for a few minutes on Riverside Drive, and the Statue of Liberty is satisfied that people are still patriotic enough. The strange couple sees women working at a manufacturing plant proudly making shell casings. They pass a long line of men waiting to buy war bonds (this really convinces her). Before they part Grant proposes they continue to see each other.

“Miss Liberty,” he solemnly begins, “I’m a man of few words. I kind of took a fancy to you today. Neither of us is getting any younger.  Will you marry me?” She politely turns him down.

Miss Liberty Goes to Town is a good example of the imaginative thinking and persuasiveness that produced some of the best radio in American history. Hopefully, this will spark some more interest in the vast collection of historical radio recordings that make up the J. David Goldin collection at UMKC. And, it shows us two main ways that we can approach this collection.

First, the men and women involved in producing these historic recordings were artists–artists in imagination and persuasion–artists in sound. Listening this way encourages aesthetic and analytical approaches to the works as pieces of art. Secondly, these recordings are history. History captured on discs, straight from the mouths, hands, and minds of the people of the time. When we drop the needle, a little of that history comes alive in the air around us and gives us an invitation to understand the culture and times that produced it. Good listening!

Troy Cummings, guest contributor