Muzak, radio

2011-11-28_MuzakRadio_Goldin_typewriter75 blood red vinyl discs in the J. David Goldin Collection do not belong to radio history in the strictest sense. These discs are music–well, Muzak. The Muzak company began in 1922 with a mission to challenge the radio market by selling wired-in music to businesses. As the wireless radio sounded in homes throughout the USA, Muzak provided a wired sound track to daily shopping, factory working, lobby waiting, and elevator riding. The majority of the tunes were engineered to be unimposing, instrumental versions of popular melodies, and the product was comfortably bland. This gave Muzak the reputation of eroding the quality of music in general and blatantly packaging music as wallpaper.

But that is not to say that the composers and arrangers employed by Muzak should be dismissed. Alexander Semmler is a good example. His disc entitled Alexander Semmler and his orchestra is among dozens and dozens of discs titled with a man’s name followed by “and his orchestra.” He included an original piece called “Drifting Melody” in his Muzak session which exposes him as more than an arranger. But the music does not stand out (it’s not supposed to). The instrumentation was for violins, piano, and flute, a typical Muzak instrumentation meant to avoid “harsh” timbres. This music, however, becomes important when we understand more about Semmler.

Semmler conducts a radio orchestraSemmler was a very active composer and conductor at CBS in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. He mainly wrote and conducted music for radio dramas. It was normal for radio drama music to be unobtrusive; depending on the skill of the radio writer, the music could be an integral part of the drama and could go beyond the merely incidental. He worked with many talented radio writers including Nila Mack of Let’s Pretend, Orson Welles, and Norman Corwin the “Poet Laureate of Radio.”

Corwin especially appreciated Semmler’s music and made it prominent. Semmler’s score to Psalm for a Dark Year Corwin calls, “one of the finest ever composed for radio.” And in You Can Dream, Inc., Corwin commissioned Concerto for Typewriter No. 1 in D. The two minute piece features an orchestral introduction followed by a dialogue between the orchestra and typewriter. The orchestra imitates the rhythm of the typing, and after a minute there is a silence. The female typist sighs, returns the carriage, and the concerto continues. The sounds of the typewriter were common enough that they could communicate the mood of the person at the machine, and Semmler used this to add drama to this little composition. To end the piece, the tension builds musically with speed and volume in the orchestra while the typist seems to be in a whirlwind of inspiration, holding her breathe until the last letter is struck. The result is a jumbled, finger fatiguing coda.

Concerto for Typewriter No. 1 in D is a little gem that has fallen prey to the “ghastly impermanence” of radio. In fact, the whole field of historical American radio drama has yet to be treated seriously as a field for scholarship. Perhaps musicologists can start a new trend.

…so hidden away in a stack of 10,000 records is a disc titled Alexander Semmler and his orchestra. The music does not invite serious analysis, and the word “Muzak” on the label stereotypes the content. But with a little digging the disc becomes a one of a kind document about a great American radio composer. Could it be that every disc in this collection has something valuable about it waiting for discovery? Lets find out!

Troy Cummings, guest contributor

“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

Norman Corwin, radio legend dies at age 101

Norman CorwinOn October 18, Norman Corwin, radio’s “poet laureate,” died at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 101. Corwin was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1993 for his work as a writer, director and producer of radio plays for CBS. The Los Angeles Times has a wonderful obituary which highlights his long career and there’s a nice video tribute worth watching on YouTube (below).

In May of this year, I had the pleasure of attending a live performance (complete with sound effects) of his radio play, “The undecided molecule” in which Corwin himself was in attendance! It was truly an amazing experience. If you haven’t listened to the works of this gifted writer, you can request do so in the Marr Sound Archives. Click here for a list of Norman Corwin radio plays and other works held in Miller Nichols Library.

Sandy Rodriguez, Special Projects Catalog Librarian

Harry Jenks, as remembered by a friend

City Limits by Terry TeachoutIn the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, there are a set of recordings plainly titled “Harry Jenks.” The sound of Harry Jenks usually falls between the realms of classical organ or jazzy piano, and there is little that can be inferred about the man based on his music outside of the fact that he was a talented musician. It wasn’t until an internet search revealed City Limits, a memoir written by Terry Teachout, that we meet the real Harry Jenks. Teachout reserves an entire chapter for the man that he describes as his friend, “a man of a singular sweetness of character [but] wholly lacking in personal ambition.”

Teachout met Jenks through a personal friend while Jenks played at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Independence, Missouri. He had been a part of the Kansas City Jazz scene for many years, but as his eyesight started to fail he entered a sort of semi-retirement, only playing a few shows among old friends. Before their acquaintance, Jenks had a productive career in music. He served as the entertainment director of a troop-transport ship in the merchant marine during World War II. After the war, he worked for KMBC as a staff pianist until the station no longer employed musicians. He later became the organ player at the Royals Stadium and continued to play there until he could no longer read the scoreboard.

The strongest character trait that Harry Jenks had, according to Teachout, was his humility. Teachout admits that he himself struggled to understand why such a talented jazz musician like Harry Jenks never produced a single record. Jenks considered himself a “commercial” musician, able to play whatever the audience requested, but never pursued fame. In fact, he rejected it in many ways. Teachout describes an episode where he set up a local gig, but Harry pulled out three weeks before the performance claiming that he was having company and was too busy to make it.

It wasn’t until Harry Jenks’ old age that he and Teachout finally discussed making a record. Unfortunately, Jenks passed away from a bleeding ulcer before his first record could be made. In his book, Teachout remembers his good friend as a man of an older and more humble generation of artists, and wonders how many other brilliant musicians in cities like Kansas city were unknown, yet content. We can gladly say that are helping to preserve the memory of Harry Jenks and his jazz music for posterity’s sake.

Click here for a complete list of Harry Jenks’ music from our Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection.

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

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

Woo me with your golly poop

The KMBC Texas Rangers with their golly poopsEv’rybody come on down! Our very own Fran Mahaney, affectionately known as Irish, will serenade you with his romantic melodies. Herbie Kratoska, Arizona as we call him, will grab your attention with his fast-playing banjo skills. Good luck keepin’ up with him! How can anyone resist the “hottest guitar player this side of Half Day, Illinois”? That’s right folks, the boys are in town.

What? No, they’re not Country Music Television’s latest stars! They’re members of a popular novelty musical group from the good ol’ 1930s and 1940s. They are the “Gentlemen in White Hats,” the Texas Rangers of KMBC and CBS.

Browse KMBC’s promotional portfolio for the Gentlemen in White Hats for an entertaining introduction to the eight-man group, not to mention “one of the sweetest quartets on air.” Their musical performances offer a variety of tunes for listeners, including western ballads, contemporary songs, Latin tunes, novelty numbers of a hillbilly nature, as well as hymns, solos, and instrumental interludes. Regardless of one’s personal tastes, the Texas Rangers offer something entertaining for everyone.

Marketed nationally by Arthur B. Church Productions as having the “largest established audience for any musical group of its type [and time period] in America,” Texas Rangers’ music carried melodies and sponsors’ messages from coast to coast. The boys were nationally celebrated. Irish and Arizona, along with their bandmates Tucson, Rod, Tenderfoot, Pappy, Joe, and Captain Bob, collectively played a total of 20 different instruments. Such talent easily attracted lucrative sponsorships, and over the years the Texas Rangers advertised for several national brands including Wrigley’s, Kellogg, and Camel.

Among the more unique instruments in their saddles was the ocarina, a “musical sweet potato.” Of course, to the Texas Rangers, it was the “golly poop.” It came in various colors, sizes and sounds, but always guaranteed a laugh. If the name has piqued your interest, listen to the boys put on a golly poop performance for a fan on the Musterole and Zemo audition. [audio:|titles=Hand me down my walking cane]

The boys sure are a fun time to be had. Luckily, the Arthur B. Church KMBC Collection is home to an extensive range of Texas Rangers entertainment, including radio programs like Life on the Red Horse Ranch and the Texas Rangers Transcribed Library, a massive collection including over 300 individual selections.

Click here to see our collection of Texas Rangers favorites.

Chadi El-Khoury and Christina Tomlinson, KMBC Project staff

“Tune Chasing” the past

KMBC Tune ChasersEvery fall and spring since 1989, Johnson County Community College holds the Ruel Joyce Recital series. Offered as a free event for the public, the series brings together local classical musicians from the KC Metro area for a low-key performance. The series was created to honor Ruel Joyce, remembered by many as a talented classical musician and head of the local musician’s federation from 1977 until his death in 1989.

What the public seems to have forgotten is that Ruel Joyce was also a member of the Tune Chasers, a musical group featured often on KMBC radio. Any sampling of the Tune Chasers would demonstrate their versatility as performing artists. The majority of their sound is of a classical or jazz-like nature, but include uncommon instruments like the xylophone and washboard. They covered a number of popular folk songs and silly novelty numbers like “Grandpappy (He’s a champeen a-spittin’ down a crack).”

Additionally, the Tune Chasers contributed to the war effort in the 1940s by singing upbeats songs like “Shut my mouth (for Uncle Sam),” “There’s a helmet on my saddle,” and “Little Bo Peep has lost her jeep.” During the height of their popularity at KMBC, they not only had their own time slot every week, but they also guest starred on other KMBC programs like “Night time on the trail.”

The members of the Tune Chasers also played what I consider to be an abnormally large number of instruments. Ted Painter played double bass, guitar, and banjo. Vaughn Busey played the clarinet in virtually every song, but also played the sax and drums. Our friend Ruel Joyce played double bass, guitar, and sang vocals. The leader of the Tune Chasers, Charley Pryor, played drums, vibraphone, xylophone as well as a customized musical washboard. Playing nine instruments between its members, it is clear that the Tune Chasers had talent.

So why doesn’t anyone remember them? Perhaps their largely instrumental repertoire was a factor. The Tune Chasers played a number of local gigs in the KC Metro area, but don’t seem to have headlined any of them. Very little evidence of the Tune Chasers exists outside of their musical collection. Among the little bit of evidence we have found is a concert review from the February 18, 1948 issue of Variety Magazine. In the review, the Tune Chasers played at an outdoor concert that flopped. At $1 a head, the concert barely made $2000. Further, it seems that the members didn’t go on to bigger things after the Tune Chasers. The only name that actually makes a hit on the internet these days is Ruel Joyce, and that is only because of the local recital series. It’s rather
depressing: a truly talented musical group fades away over the years until all that’s left is a music festival, and the event description doesn’t even mention the group name.

Click here for a listing of Tune Chasers music in the Marr Sound Archives.

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

Welcome to UMKC Special Collections

Welcome to the UMKC Special Collections blog! We are the rare books and manuscripts department of Miller Nichols Library, and our department also includes the Marr Sound Archives, a collection of over 330,000 sound recordings!  The rare book collection centers centers on Western Americana, with an emphasis on Kansas and Missouri; the strength of the manuscript collection is music (particularly Kansas City jazz) as well as the recently formed Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America; and the Marr Sound Archives seeks to preserve the American experience as reflected in recorded sound. We serve the students, faculty, and staff of the University of Missouri–Kansas City as well as community researchers locally, nationally, and globally.

We hope to use this blog to keep you updated on interesting content from our collections, programming and other activities we sponsor, and special projects we are working on. One such project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, focuses on cataloging and preserving the transcription and lacquer discs from Kansas City radio station KMBC. These recordings form part of the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection along with promotional materials, a station timeline, business correspondence, ledgers, and contracts. The audio discs, containing local and national entertainment, news, special events, and speeches, reveal the history of Kansas City and the world from the 1930s through 1950s. Much of the national coverage originates from the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and follows war-time events and the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The project to catalog and preserve the contents of the audio recordings started in May and has already unlocked programming from over 350 discs! As we delve further into the KMBC collection and other collections in LaBudde Special Collections, we look forward to sharing our discoveries!

Stuart Hinds, Director of Special Collections, UMKC Libraries