Monday, February 9, 2004

”And now, let’s see what’s going on down in Pine Ridge…”

In my inaugural post for this blog, I credited Lum and Abner for fueling my life-long passion for Radio’s Golden Age. This long-running series (heard over NBC, Mutual, Blue, ABC, and CBS for nearly twenty-three years) about the comical misadventures of two general store proprietors in a sleepy little Arkansas hamlet still holds a special place in my heart, for I spent my formative years in a similar town in West Virginia. The locale was certainly different (the Appalachians versus the Ouachitas) but the depiction of small-town rural life is still the same.

In the early 1970s, radio station WCAW in Charleston, the state capital, introduced me to Columbus “Lum” Edwards (Chester Lauck, b. 1902) and Abner Peabody (Norris “Tuffy” Goff, b. 1906) as the show was being rebroadcast in syndication as part of that time period’s “nostalgia boom.” What I remember most about the show was the ringing of the store’s telephone, three times in succession, and then the voice of Lauck answering “Hello, Jot ‘Em Down Store…this is Lum and Abner…” My family and I often visited my father’s parents on Sundays, and they shared a party line in the town where they lived (Spelter, WV). I often wish I would have said, “Ay grannies, Grandma, I b’lieve that’s your ring.” Through the years, I have developed an affection for Lauck and Goff’s right-on-the-money mountain dialect, their quaint figures of speech, and their quirky and eccentric characters that populated the town known as Pine Ridge.

Chester Lauck and Norris Goff developed a life-long friendship while in grade school when both of their families moved to Mena, Arkansas (pop. 4,000). They learned to imitate the voices of the folks around them, mimicry which became the embryo for what would later be known as Lum and Abner. Contrary to their “hillbilly” characters (as a West Virginian, I have no problem with the word, although both men preferred “hill people” as a substitute), the pair had received some college education and had settled into regular jobs, only experimenting with comedy in their spare time. They participated in a fund-raiser for flood relief for radio station KTHS in Hot Springs in 1931, and had planned to perform a blackface act as their contribution. Upon their arrival, they noticed that all of the other performers had pretty much the same idea (by this time, the popularity of Amos ‘n’ Andy was at a peak) and so they decided at the last minute to switch to their “fellers from the hills” material. This launched them into a regular spot on KTHS for about two months before Lauck and Goff decided to audition for a spot on a NBC Chicago station for Quaker Oats. As the story goes, they were concerned that their act wouldn’t go over with the Quaker folks (they were in their 20s, playing elderly characters) so they asked the company’s representatives to turn around and face the wall in order to listen. Quaker Oats liked what they heard, and gave them the job.

Lum and Abner focused on the various comings-and-goings of two old-timers who owned the Jot ‘Em Down Store in the tiny town of Pine Ridge. Lauck and Goff not only played the title characters, but also the other denizens of the town as well. Chet was Cedric Weehunt (son of Caleb Weehunt, the town blacksmith), Snake Hogan (the local tough), and Milford “Grandpappy” Spears, a cantankerous old cuss whose relative Luke owned the local cafeteria. Norris took on the roles of Dick Huddleston (the town postmaster), Mousie Gray, Doc Miller, and Squire Skimp (the show’s villain—a combination of con man and loan shark). Lum and Abner followed a precedent set by Amos ‘n’ Andy in that the female characters—like Sister Simpson, Aunt Charity Spears, and Abner’s much-talked about wife Lizzabeth—were rarely heard on the show, usually referred to offstage.

Lum and Abner has often been referred to as a rural version of Amos ‘n’ Andy, and it’s true that the two programs shared similarities in that they both mined laughs from dialect humor and employed a successful formula of two parts comedy to one part soap opera/serial. But in an essay written by old-time radio historian Elizabeth McLeod, she deftly points out the major difference in the two OTR favorites:

Where Amos and Andy struggled thru the stark, often grim business of earning a living in Depression-era Urban America, Lum and Abner lived in a world quite isolated from the realities of the 1930s. Pine Ridge was an escape from the struggles of the Depression, not a reflection of them. And even more, Pine Ridge was a world built on absurdity.

In the creation of loopy nonsense, Lauck and Goff had few peers. Only in Pine Ridge would the citizens eagerly buy discount eyeglasses from a man at the carnival—and then spend a full week wondering why they kept crashing into each other. Only in Pine Ridge would Lum decide to corner the market on hogs by starting a chain letter—and then decide to celebrate his success by having a statue of himself constructed from poured concrete. And on and on it went.

Night after night, Lauck and Goff presented a world where the rules of common sense didn't apply—and where it was just so easy to forget about those bills you had to pay, that job you didn't have any more, those men from the finance company pulling up the truck outside. When the real world looked like that, who wouldn't rather head on down to Pine Ridge? During the thirties, Lum and Abner offered some of the finest pure escapism on the air.

Like Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, Chet Lauck and Norris Goff wrote all of the scripts presented on Lum and Abner, though in 1941 they took on some extra scripted help from writers Roswell Rogers and Betty Boyle. It was about this time that some of the show’s classic sequences were showcased, including one storyline that ran for 40 episodes in which Lum is saddled with a baby that has been abandoned by its mother; a name-the-baby contest in Radio Guide ran in conjunction with this story, offering listeners a prize of $750 in war bonds. My all-time favorite L&A continuity also shows up around this time, the 1942 saga of Diogenes Smith (played by Frank Graham) which, according to McLeod, "stands, hands down, as one of the great radio serials of all time--an expert mixture of high comedy, pathos, philosophy, and social commentary."

Lum and Abner’s popularity on radio was such that RKO Pictures brought them to the silver screen in 1940 with the feature film Dreaming Out Loud, and the characters went on to star in five more RKO releases between 1942-46. (A seventh film, Lum and Abner Abroad, was released in 1956, consisting primarily of three half-hour segments originally filmed for a proposed Lum and Abner TV series.) But perhaps the most important tribute to the program’s success occurred in 1936, when in honor of the show’s five-year anniversary the town of Waters, Arkansas officially changed its name to “Pine Ridge.” Today, the town serves as the location for the Jot ‘Em Down Store and Museum, which has a website available here.

Last night, I listened to a pair of shows from 1948—the year that Lum and Abner followed what Amos ‘n’ Andy did earlier (in 1943) and switched to a weekly half-hour comedy format. The new production was slicker, with a full orchestra, live audience, and additional writers in Jay Sommers (pre-Green Acres) and Hugh Wedlock and Howard Snyder (both of whom wrote for The Jack Benny Program from time to time). Joining Lauck and Goff in the cast were Clarence Hartzell (a fellow West Virginian!) as Ben Withers, a slightly addled character that had been introduced in the still-serialized version of the show in 1946. (Hartzell achieved OTR fame in the part of Uncle Fletcher on the beloved Vic and Sade.) The following season, additional regulars were added in the form of ZaSu Pitts, Andy Devine, Cliff Arquette, Opie Cates and Francis “Dink” Trout. This season, however, would be the show’s last in its half-hour format.

I previewed the program’s half-hour premiere from October 3, 1948; Lum and Abner discover that the Jot ‘Em Down Store is hanging off their property onto someone else’s lot and when moving the store proves too pricey, they attempt to buy the additional footage from the owner. This is a very funny program—in fact, I actually like the half-hour shows, although I will admit they can’t quite measure up to the serialized ones. I was amused while listening to this particular show because the actress playing “Sister Simpson” (Vivian Lasswell) experiences an embarrassing moment when she goes “up” momentarily on her lines.

The other program was broadcast a week earlier (September 26) and is a real curio: it’s not an audition program per se, but a comedy-variety special disguised as a “surprise party” to welcome Lum and Abner to their new thirty-minute format. The guests include announcer Wendell Niles, columnist/hat-wearer Hedda Hopper, Red Skelton (who has a field day when Hopper mispronounces “Kadiddlehopper”), and Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna as transcribed invitees from New York. The cast of CBS’ Club Fifteen is also featured, performing musical numbers: Bob Crosby (“You Were Only Fooling”), Margaret Whiting (“Tree in the Meadow”), and the Modernaires (“Love Somebody”). (Bob and Maggie also duet on “Dancing in the Dark.”) This, too, was very entertaining—Skelton is in particularly fine form—but Lauck and Goff receive incredibly short shrift; I clocked their total appearance time at 1:20.

One of the happiest stories of old-time radio is that much of Lum and Abner from 1935 on has been preserved for modern-day listeners; close to 1,500 near-consecutive episodes are extant and available for syndication to radio stations from the National Lum and Abner Society in Dora, Alabama. But into every life, a little rain must fall—as John Dunning recounts in On the Air:

There are, sadly but not surprisingly, pitifully few takers as this is written in 1996. These quarter-hours bristle with wit, so unlike the cookie-cutter, throwaway radio of today. They are ideal for drive-time listening, but remain unknown to the vast majority of program directors, who prefer to crank out noises and appeal to the lowest common denominators.

As Abner would say, “Bless his heart…buh-less his little heart!” Brother Dunning has me in his Amen corner, but I would suggest you eliminate the middle-man and check out instead some of the CD collections from Radio Archives, which feature Lum and Abner broadcasts from 1935. You won’t be disappointed.

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