STORIES OF THE BLACK CHAMBER
by Jim Widner, © 2004
(From Radio Recall, October 2004)
In the early thirties radio carried a number of programs with stories about exotic locales, mystery and suspense. Programs such as Lights Out and Majestic’s Master of Mystery were among the programs listeners tuned in to hear. Advertising agency McCann-Erickson, Inc. was looking for such a vehicle for one of their clients, The Forhan Company, a manufacturer of products including tooth powder and paste. They found it in a juvenile series put together by Tom Curtain called Stories of the Black Chamber.
The series was based loosely on a book by Herbert Osborne Yardley called The American Black Chamber, which detailed the work of MI8.
During World War One the United States utilized code breaking techniques against the Germans using telecommunications broadcast to other countries. The cryptologists were part of an organization of the U.S. Army called Military Intelligence, Section 8 or MI8. The head of this section was a young Lieutenant, Herbert Osborne Yardley whose organization had broken nearly all of the German diplomatic and Abwehr codes during the war. His work helped capture a German saboteur, Lothar Witzke, for which Yardley was promoted to the rank of major.
When the war ended, Yardley was told that his services were no longer needed, but he convinced the Army otherwise stating that code breaking was even more important in maintaining the peace. Thus MI8 became a part of the State Department but the law at the time did not allow them to set up shop in Washington D.C. The new organization internally became known as The American Black Chamber and outwardly, it appeared as a separate company based in New York City called The Code Compilation Company. It operated for ten years from 1919 through 1929. Little was known about its real activities or methods of getting information, but it was shady enough that then Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, ended the organization in 1929.
Suddenly out of work, Yardley, a rather pompous fellow, wrote a book about his work much to the chagrin of military intelligence. Like books about government scandal today, The American Black Chamber became an instant best seller. The book supposedly even prompted the Japanese, who were beginning their rise to power in the international community, to change their encryption codes.
When McCann-Erickson was looking for a series with suspense and intrigue, it approached Yardley and Curtain (who purportedly worked with Yardley at MI8) about turning some of the intrigue in his book into a radio program geared mostly toward young boys.
Stories of the Black Chamber was most likely not written by Curtain (more likely, he was an advisor), but the program gave the impression that he provided the plots which were mystery and spy thrillers full of espionage and murder involving The Black Chamber. The stories were serialized and ran for approximately one month before a new serial began. The leading character based upon Yardley was “Bradley Drake” played by Jack Arthur who was best known as the longtime narrator on Grand Central Station. Drake was the head of the American Black Chamber and his right hand man (who did not seem to have a last name in the series) was called “Steve” and played first by Walter Soderling, whose film credits (or non-credits) are rather extensive, then afterwards by Paul Nugent.
Soderling was only in the first serial titled “Secret Ink” and Nugent appears in the second one: “The Spy Exchange.” Helping out in the laboratory was the chemist, “Gus Kramer”. Like other serialized children’s drama on radio at the time, the Gus character was an older, brilliant man who also acted as a foil to the more dashing Drake. In the first series, Drake’s secretary, Betty Lee Andrew was portrayed by Helen Claire.
There are no known surviving audio copies of the series. However, the scripts of the series are available in the Library of Congress in the archive of the National Broadcasting Company.
Though children were the intended audience of the series, a sponsor selling tooth powder was not a good fit; dental hygiene was not of importance to young boys and they were certainly not the paying consumers of such products. (Like the Skelly Oil Company which sponsored Captain Midnight before Ovaltine.) The serialized stories appeared three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7:15 P.M. Eastern Standard Time. It debuted over NBC on January 21, 1935 and continued for thirteen weeks initially.
Not a lot is known about how the show sounded, but the opening signature began with the sound of a wireless buzzer sounding Morse Code: Dot-Dash-Dash-Dot … Dash-Dash-Dash … Dash-Dash-Dot-Dot … followed by a “Metalic Tone.” The Morse Code spelled out P-O-Z, which was supposed to be a station location in Germany. After the “Metalic Tone” a voice was heard repeating “Station POZ, Germany … Station POZ, Germany.” The script originally lists the location as Berlin, but it was crossed out and replaced with the more general location of Germany.
Then the announcer, Howard Petree, would come on with this:
“That mysterious wireless message you just heard signifies the opening of a new air drama we are about to present. There’s always a thrill to an opening night … but we think this program you are about to hear has a larger share of thrills than any on the air waves. It is a story of THE BLACK CHAMBER and its name is “Secret Ink.” … it is a drama of expert sleuthing, mystery, adventure, and high romance, by Major Herbert Yardley and Tom Curtain, who have lived the secret service and spy game from the inside. The Black Chamber … where secret inks, codes and ciphers are used to solve mysteries and track down spies. At the end of tonight’s program, you will hear how Major Yardley, former chief of the Black Chamber, plans to send secret ink into your own home.”
Even when not compared to other radio shows of a similar genre from this period, the writing does not hold up well for interest to adults let alone children. The first series was based upon the plot of ciphers and disappearing ink. The action is minimal with such stilted dialogue as:
PARADINE: (Sharply) Stop! One moment, Drake! That is not a straight cipher.
DRAKE: Of course not. Every other letter is meaningless. Surely, Paradine, you should know that we call such dead letters “nulls.”
PARADINE: Certainly I know that. But you did not say you were going to use “nulls.”
DRAKE: They’re legitimate. And now that you know I am using them, I’ll finish enciphering the message: ANNKS...DTOOG
PARADINE: (Sharply) Stop!
PARADINE: Stop, I say! If you try to trick me I will kill you!
It hardly holds you on the edge of your seat! But despite this, Forhan Tooth Powder decided to pay for another thirteen weeks which began April 22, 1935. During the next thirteen weeks, the second story in the serial which began in the first thirteen weeks continued.. It was called “The Spy Exchange” and began on March 11th.
It was during this series that one of radio’s early premiums was introduced. Called a “Revolving Disc Cipher” which like other premiums you could get by sending your name and address on the Forhan Toothpaste cardboard box. The disc was similar to the cipher discs later offered on Captain Midnight but of cheaper cardboard quality. There were two discs fastened together that revolved creating a substitution cipher such as A=C, B=D, etc.
Unlike similar shows of the period such as Little Orphan Annie the program claimed it would include ciphers within the program for kids to decode.
“Major Yardley and I are going to put a lot about codes and ciphers into our Black Chamber stories. We’re going to show you a lot about codes and ciphers. So we ask you to begin by getting this revolving disc cipher.”
When the show first presented the cipher disc, Tom Curtain attempted to explain it as the program tried to build interest:
ANNOUNCER: “If this were television, you would see our friend Tom Curtain standing about a yard away from me with a peculiar sort of gadget in his hand. Tom’s been having a fine time,...in fact making quite a hit for himself here in the studio tonight...showing our guests how this gadget works.”
TOM: “What I have here, my friends, is known as a Revolving Disc Cipher. It isn’t just a toy that quickly passes. This intriguing little instrument was used by Major Yardley in the Black Chamber when he wanted to make up secret messages...which we call en-ciphering; or unravel the other fellow’s secret messages,...which we call de-ciphering. The same thing, or something very similar to it, is used by the secret communications bureaus of the leading nations of the world today.”
The third serial in the series was called “The Girl from Soho” which began on May 1, 1935. This provided a plot to the end leaving a couple more days before the series was yanked from the air on July 19, 1935. The final serial, which never completed was called “The Eagle’s Claw.”
Why the series was removed is not known for sure. It’s ratings were very low since it was on opposite some of the serial dramas on CBS. Possibly Forhan was not profitable and could no longer fund a radio series. What ever the reason, this program would eventually be lost to the ether never to be heard from again.