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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RIDING THE CROSSVILLE TRAIL
(Looking for Tonto’s Birth Certificate)
by Mark Anderson © 2009
(From Radio Recall, December 2009)
Eventually, even in a modest genealogical search, you will have to hit the pavement. Recently I bicycled paved roads and dirt roads in and around Crossingville, Pennsylvania searching for evidence of Fred McCarthy, perhaps better known to OTR enthusiasts as John Todd. Opposite Brace Beemer, Todd played the part of Tonto in radio’s Lone Ranger series in the 1940s. Todd was then in his mid-60s, having been born, best we know, on August 14, 1876, in the Crossingville/Edinboro area of Pennsylvania.
Details are scant indeed on what brought Irish immigrant Dennis McCarthy (b. 1831) and his wife Sarah Dorcas (b. 1840) to the lovely Vernon Valley of northwest Pennsylvania. State Route 98 runs the north-south length of the area now, encompassing Avonia near the Lake Erie shore, and the towns of Lavery, and Crossingville some 20 miles south and 8 or so miles southwest of the college town of Edinboro.
No one can say when he left Crossingville, but McCarthy took the name John Todd when he became a stage actor in the late 1800s. He quickly worked his way up to top stock companies in the Midwest and even appeared in some Broadway plays, his last apparently about 1932. By this time the “talkies” were replacing live stage plays in popularity. Todd had to seek other employment and he ended up at WXYZ in Detroit.
He also had a good career in the world of broadcasting, by all accounts. Roles such as Sgt. Preston’s supervisor, and recurring roles on The Green Hornet must have kept him on the run with scripts tucked under his arm. John Todd’s place in the annals of OTR was assured by his character of Tonto.
It is generally known that he enlisted in the U.S. military to serve in World War One. To do that he evidently gave his age as younger than he truly was.
I began my search some weeks ago, hoping to find McCarthy’s birth certificate. I found neither birth certificate nor record of baptism. County records in the northwest counties of Crawford and Erie go back only to 1906. U.S. Census records for 1880 and 1890 reveal numerous Heads-of-household “Dennis McCarthy”, but none with a “Fred” as son.
After phone calls and on-line searching, I got an intriguing reply to a letter I had written to a source in Crossingville. They wrote: “I know where he is buried and the house where he grew up.” I wrote back, gently, “Where, did you say?” Alas, I did not hear back.
The afternoon of my bike ride was cool with bright blue skies. I parked my wagon on a side road, as hunters and fishermen often do. I unloaded my bike and off I went. First I rode on 98 where it crosses a creek (the West Branch of Cussewago Creek, I hasten to add), then headed east on a road that skirted the State Game Lands. I doubled back and paused at the crossroads.
I could not begin to imagine finding a childhood home. I contemplated things, virtually in the shadow of the high white spire of St. Philip Catholic Church. The town is well-attended by saints. I had ridden past St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church as well. The stores were quiet – a custard shop, a hair salon, an auto parts store. People were in their yard; across the way some men were constructing something. I had driven from the north and ridden east. Why not ride west? Were there other saints to be praised on my ride?
The road opened onto fields to the south and wound past a cattle farm. A distant hillside came into view and as I approached I made out gravestones and a black wrought iron fence. I rode up the slope and into St. James Cemetery. The chapel up the hill was of brown wood, and the view was magnificent, southwest across a field where cows were walking and munching along the curving West Branch. Beyond, a forest......
The sign that listed cemetery regulations had a small box attached to its post – a brochure, names by section, perhaps? I went to lift the lid, but couldn’t; it was a birdhouse.
Small American flags fluttered in the breeze next to old weathered stones and new ones alike. No McCarthy yet, as I walked and gazed at names. I actually did not feel like wandering too far in so I walked my bike back along the small macadam road below the chapel. Beside the road, just a few feet in, there stood a wide gray granite stone: McCARTHY. It was newer, polished gray; and it sat on a wider base. An old concrete slab lay in front, cracked, tilted, and sunken into the ground. The new stone was fine and bore the names of Dennis 1831-1902; Sarah Dorcas 1840-1930 on the stone; these four children on the base:
Winnie 1864-1940; Eva 1869-1936; Fred 1876-1957; Leo 1878-1902
The names Dennis, Sarah, and Fred coincided with the information that I had. One source had quoted to me “eight children.” This family plot appeared to have these four. I felt that I was as close as I could be to the grave site of Fred McCarthy, “Tonto” of radio fame.
I was reminded of an article in “Radio Recall” from April 2005 (“OTR Stars Buried with Former Baseball Greats”). Joe Webb writes about the Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla New York, where among others (including James Cagney, Babe Ruth and Billy Martin) a friend of his - sound effects man Ed Blainey - is buried. And, Webb adds: “in a grave as unassuming as one can have,” Fred Allen is buried. Webb obviously felt comforting thoughts at knowing where “radio’s most intellectual comedian” is modestly laid to rest. Myself, even having just recently learned about John Todd, I am pleased to pass along this small bit of information to the OTR community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Anderson is a longtime MWOTRC member who retired from the Fairfax County Library System and moved to Erie, PA . He was our audio librarian and editor of “Gather Round the Radio.” In Erie, he is a dedicated volunteer, attends college part-time, and is a skilled writer on all things OTR.