Saturday, February 14, 2004

“On, King! On, you huskies!”

Since I discussed both The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet in previous blog entries here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, leave us tidy up the loose ends and devote some space to the third program of WXYZ’s juvenile adventure triumvirate—Challenge of the Yukon. Debuting over the famous Detroit, Michigan station on February 3, 1938, it would spend close to twenty years entertaining its young audience by venturing “back to the days of the Gold Rush with Sergeant Preston…and his wonder dog, Yukon King.”

That’s what pretty much set Challenge of the Yukon apart from its two siblings—the hero in this series was an Alaskan husky. Oh sure, Sgt. William Preston might have received top billing—especially when the series was renamed Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, beginning in November 1951—but let’s be honest, folks…Preston was the faithful companion on this program. Why else would he close practically every episode with “Well, King—thanks to you, this case is closed.”

The year was 1938, and the success of the two earlier WXYZ programs prompted station owner George W. Trendle to consider a new adventure show—again, something along the lines of The Lone Ranger, only with a dog as the hero. The staff immediately ruled out the concept of a Lassie-like dog, since they wanted a working pooch in an action series. Writer Tom Dougall solved this dilemma almost immediately; he had already been fiddling around with a northwest motif (inspired by the poems of Robert W. Service) and a working dog in that neck of the woods would almost have to have been a Husky—with a Canadian Mountie as its master.

Challenge of the Yukon—as with The Green Hornet—borrowed many of the successful devices used on The Lone Ranger: real he-man adventure with a larger-than-life hero, set to a classical music theme in Von Reznicek’s Donna Diana Overture. (This piece had often been used as part of the background and bridge music on Ranger.) Preston also had a horse, just like the Masked Rider of the Plains, though the sergeant generally used his steed (named Rex) only in the summer months. Many of the same actors, writers, and crew members from the other two shows also toiled on Challenge as well: John Todd (a.k.a. Tonto and Dan Reid on Hornet) was Sgt. Preston’s superior officer, Inspector Conrad, on this series and Brace Beemer himself essayed the role of Preston during the program’s final year on radio. The part of Preston had previously been played by Jay Michael (1938-47) and Paul Sutton (1947-54), with soundman Dewey Cole trodding the boards as the barking Yukon King.

Last night I entertained myself with four 15-minute episodes of Challenge of the Yukon from its WXYZ days in 1943. They’re all pretty interchangeable (plus I prefer the half-hour shows as a rule), but “Meeting the Terms of a Contract” is a good representative example, originally heard July 15, 1943. Vance and Duval, a pair of no-goodniks, have hatched a scheme to scam the local trappers: they’re going to burn down a warehouse where the trapper’s priceless pelts are stored, only they’ve substituted the valuable merchandise with cheap dog and wolf furs so that no one will be the wiser. When Preston stumbles onto their scheme, they tie him up in the warehouse, and it looks pretty bad for our favorite Mountie until King chews on his ropes and frees him. The other three episodes involve the discovery a murdered man in the snow, an elderly couple bilked in a shady land deal, and a friend of Preston’s accused of murder. I would say that he remains quite the busy boy for the entire hour, were it not for the fact that the damn dog does most of the work.

WXYZ maven Terry Salomonson has compiled a log for Challenge of the Yukon, and notes that there were 484 episodes broadcast during the show’s local Detroit run. The series really didn’t start becoming popular until it moved to ABC Radio on June 12, 1947. (The show later went over to Mutual on January 2, 1950, where it completed its run June 9, 1955.) During the network years, Challenge of the Yukon was sponsored by Quaker Oats—specifically, Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice: “The breakfast cereal shot from guns!” Even today, members of The Old-Time Radio Digest often discuss the subject of a once-famous promotion from the series, the “Deed to One Square Inch of Yukon Land.” The Quaker Oats people bought over 19.11 acres of land near Dawson (for the princely sum of $1,000) and divvied it up into square inches and printed 21 million “deeds,” packing them in cereal boxes. It was one of the most successful premiums ever, with all that cereal being snatched up by consumers in a matter of weeks. (The sad story is, the Quaker Oats people—realizing that it would be next to impossible to register 21 million separate deeds—set up a company called The Klondike Big Inch Land Company as the registered owner…which ended up losing all of the land in 1965 due to an unpaid tax bill of $37.20.)

Challenge of the Yukon’s place as a pop culture classic is still relatively secure; it later made the successful leap to TV in 1955 for a three-year stint on CBS starring Richard Simmons (no, not that one) as Sgt. Preston, and was even the subject of a novelty hit by singer-songwriter Ray Stevens. The series remains entertaining today, and if it doesn't possess the same luster as its WXYZ comrades it's only because, as author Gerald Nachman points out, the show “was really the Lone Ranger on ice.”

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