This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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EMPIRE IN LIGHT AND SHADOW:
ON THE TRAIL OF RADIO’S ODD COUPLE
by Edgar Farr Russell, III
Book Review © 2003
(From Radio Recall, October 2003)
This review asks that intriguing question: Can an “odd couple” of the airwaves, find love, wealth, and fame by creating and successfully running a broadcast empire; the likes of which has never been seen before or since? The engaging answers are provided in a new book written by Jim Cox entitled Frank and Anne Hummert’s Radio Factory.
Author Cox, who did such a marvelous job in recounting the demise of Golden Age Radio in his book, Say Goodnight Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio, (reviewed in the August 2002 issue of Radio Recall) returns with a volume designed to satisfy both scholarly and nostalgic readers. This time he disguises himself as Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of the Hummerts-- the most prolific creator-producers in the history of broadcasting as well as the most reclusive. (Read more about Jim Cox in our interview.)
They earned the title “most prolific” because they created and brought to the air at least 125 different series. They could also lay claim to the title “most reclusive” since the couple rarely made public appearances and went out of their way to avoid being seen by nearly everybody. Even when dining in a restaurant with the head of CBS, William S. Paley, the Hummerts insisted on being seated behind potted plants outside the view of other patrons.
Many fans of vintage radio think of the Hummerts in connection with their serialized melodramas. But most are probably not aware that their expertise extended far past those soap operas into the genres of music, mystery, juvenile, adventure, quiz, sports, news, comedy and dramatic theater. A brief listing of some of their most popular shows would have to include: Stella Dallas; Backstage Wife; Manhattan Merry-Go-Round; Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy; and the Hummerts’ apparent personal favorite - Just Plain Bill.
Cox is particularly effective in offering a deeper appreciation for this dynamic duo. Through the structuring of his book, he first offers an overview of their impact upon radio for more than 25 years. At one point they were responsible for filling 25 to 30 hours a week of network broadcast time. The number of words written under their supervision equaled 65 novels a year. Indeed, as the author points out, the next six most prolific producers created a combined total of only 101 series, 24 less than the Hummerts!
Then, with much new research, the author reveals their early years, the event which brought them together, and the qualities that defined the success they found in their careers. Born in 1884, Frank Hummert excelled in such diverse careers as real estate, journalism, and rewriting theatrical scripts. But it was in advertising where he made his first great mark. By 1920, he was earning fifty thousand dollars a year.
Anne Schumacher, born in 1905, was recognized early for her “strong motivation and superior intellect.” She also went into journalism. Both had been married before. His marriage ended with the death of his wife; hers in divorce. Their paths crossed in 1930 when she was hired as his editorial assistant. Frank was “tall, thin, solemn-looking.” Anne appeared “small, slender and cheerful-looking.” An odd couple to be sure; but each quickly recognized remarkable qualities in the other. Both demonstrated a penchant for coming up with just the right advertising idea, displayed incredible organizational skills; and possessed an immense capacity for work-- 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
Succeeding chapters of the book focus on the different types of shows they created as well as introduce us to some of the writers, directors, and actors who skillfully brought their shows to life under conditions that were often frustrating and sometimes frightening. With no chance to add their own creativity, writers had to follow strict guidelines in fleshing out Hummert plot outlines. Actors who were five minutes late to rehearsals would receive scathing telephone calls with promises to fire them if it happened again. The vivid reminiscences featured in these interviews help paint a picture of the Hummerts as a couple capable of great cruelty to some and intense loyalty to others.
Cruelty came in many forms. Casts and crews dreaded the infrequent unannounced visits made to the studio by the Hummerts. The pair also held secret auditions for possible recasting of roles already performed for years by the same actor or announcer. On the other hand, although they paid minimal salaries, the Hummerts were extremely loyal to a small group of actors, writers, and musicians they liked; using them in numerous different productions. In addition, perhaps the most impressive display of loyalty to their casts and crews occurred during the communist scare of the 1940s and 50s. While other producers caved in to outside pressure and subjected many individuals to blacklisting, the Hummerts ignored such calls and went about business as usual to the eternal gratitude of their employees.
The appendices, which follow the chapters, offer listings of Hummert shows and those of their competitors, a Hummert chronology, typical program schedules, and a revealing look at their personal broadcast philosophy. This jam-packed 236-page volume is well illustrated with photographs.
The softcover book retails for $32.50 and can be ordered from McFarland and Company, Inc. by mail at Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640, by telephone at 1-800-253-2187, or from www.mcfarlandpub.com.
For those who want to gain a fuller understanding and appreciation for their amazing accomplishments, Frank and Anne Hummert’s Radio Factory illuminates those achievements which have been kept in the shadows for far too long.
Edgar Farr Russell, III is a playwright, actor, and director whose work has been performed on National Public Radio, local cable television, and on stage. He is a longtime enthusiast of Old Time Radio and is a member of the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club.