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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Christmas in Death Valley
by Martin Grams, Jr. © 2014
(From Radio Recall, December 2014)
Formulaic and weekly radio broadcasts often steered away from the established formula – briefly – during the holiday season. When Death Valley Days premiered in the fall of 1930, the majority of radio broadcasts consisted of musical offerings and during the holiday season, Christmas Carols that the American public often found on street corners and the local church.
Hoping to provide a lighthearted look of peace and forgiveness through an intrinsic part of the regular broadcast season, Death Valley Days provided some of the more touching reminders that Christmas was a strong belief –– not something physical. Because the program was a Western anthology, based on true accounts reported in newspapers and published reference guides, Death Valley Days was unable to reflect current domestic issues with a touch of the festivities.
Since most radio programs ultimately accomplished that goal every December, Death Valley Days provided a unique perspective of a nostalgic time gone by ... and in one case sprinkled their offering with opera. Where horror programs provided a more Charles Dickens-style of gothic storytelling, and comedic sitcoms provided annual musical tributes, with grumpy characters displaying a soft–heart, Death Valley Days chose to offer a slice of commercialism in the form of product placement.
The Furnace Creek Inn was built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company (of the Twenty Mule Team fame) as a means to save their newly built Death Valley Railroad. Mines had closed and shipping transportation was no longer needed, but mining tourist pockets seemed a sure way to keep the narrow-gauge line active. The Borax company realized travelers by train would need a place to stay and wealthy visitors accustomed to comfort would be attracted to a luxury hotel.
First opened for business in 1927, the Furnace Creek Inn was an immediate success. Unfortunately for the mining company, their railroad closed forever in 1930 when it became apparent tourists preferred the freedom of arriving to Death Valley in their own cars. This was where radio came in. The Mccann-Erickson Advertising Agency gained the Pacific Coast Borax Company as a client in 1925, when they began a heavy magazine and newspaper campaign.
In the summer of 1930, they encouraged their client to sponsor a radio program, Death Valley Days, and each week the dramas helped promote the strive of human nature amidst the conflict of man, beast and mother nature. Beginning in late November 1930, each broadcast closed with a mention about the Furnace Creek Inn, and radio listeners could write for a free pamphlet providing all the necessary details to vacation there during the holiday.
For the broadcast of December 23, 1930, "Christmas at Furnace Creek Inn" provided two, fifteen-minute stories. A dramatization of the first Christmas that was ever observed in Death Valley, in 1849, when a group of emigrants looking for a short cut to the California gold fields, stumbled into Death Valley by mistake. The party of pioneers found themselves trapped in the Valley for months but never lost their faith and courage.
Then The Old Ranger participated as a cast member in a dramatization of last year's Christmas Party at Furnace Creek Inn, 1929, with Frank Tilton (retired driver of the 20-Mule Teams), John White (a.k.a. the Lonesome Cowboy), and a crowd of holiday visitors. White sang two Christmas songs and a young man recited a Death Valley version of 'The Night Before Christmas." A Wandering Minstrel performed a couple songs, and the cast closed the broadcast with a rendition of "Silent Night." (One wonders since The Old Ranger was a fictitious character, was this drama historically accurate?)
A story from the pages of O. Henry was recycled for the December 21, 1931 broadcast, titled "Santa Claus Visits Death Valley." In the mining camp of Yellowhammer, a white man named Cherokee purchases a seal-skin coat, a team and a red sleigh, along with hundreds of toys. Having served as the civic father of the town, leaving to strike a vein and return a wealthy man, he returns to Yellowhammer for Christmas in the regalia of a fat man from the North Pole, complete with tinsel and trees ... unaware that there are no women or children in town.
The youngest kid in Yellowhammer packs a .45 and a safety razor. It didn't take long for the whole town of Yellowhammer to approve of the scheme of importing a load of kids for Cherokee's Christmas party. Everybody who knew of families with offspring within a forty-mile radius of the camp, came forward with information. But folks didn't think kindly to the idea of parting with their children with strangers. The only child they could round up was a ten-year-old spoiled brat named Bobby, armed with a sharp tongue who likes to smoke.
His widowed mother has been too busy putting food on the table to take care of his table manners. Bobby won't cooperate during the festivities and Santa, a.k.a. Cherokee, arrives to discover his entire Christmas is spoiled for lack of children ... until he discovers that Bobby's mother has a photo of Cherokee in her bedroom. It only takes a couple minutes for Cherokee to realize that regardless of the fact that there are no women or children about... his Christmas is best served with the family he thought he lost - Bobby is his son.
Topical subject matter of the times, this episode opens with a man and woman seeking a child for Christmas, local charity organizations, church and an orphan asylum, only to discover that the demand for youngsters at Christmas time was so much greater than the supply.
In "Death Valley Pete's Christmas Party," broadcast December 22, 1932, a gathering of the relatives of Death Valley Pete on Christmas Day, 1883, is dramatized. In the old mining camp of Darwin, just beyond the Panamints, Death Valley Pete is longing for his own kin ... but he knows of no one alive with his own flesh and blood, named Abercrombie. Taking advice from a lawyer, he places an ad in the newspaper. Pete struck a gold claim and made a hundred thousand dollars - and now fears that fakers from all over will stake a claim on him.
But Pete wants only the legit for a Christmas dinner, completely surrounded by relatives. His fiancee, Madge, won't have anything of it until she sees the black sheep of the family – every visitor arriving in town – and how Pete acts like a real gentleman on the occasion. After all, a man can't help the relatives he's got but thank God he can pick his own wife! (And yes, the Furnace Creek Inn was also promoted at the conclusion of the broadcast.)
Christmas was acknowledged in "Rates on Request," broadcast December 21, 1933, but the drama did not take place during the holiday. The December 28 broadcast took place in a snowstorm, but again, did not take place during the holiday season. A seasonal offering was provided on December 20, 1934, "While Rome Burns," dramatizing the events of December 23, 1923 . Preparing for a Christmas party in a Nevada mining camp, the Christmas celebration put on by the church used to be a real community affair and everybody in the camp was invited. It didn't make any difference who they were. But dance hall girls, tin-horns and bartenders were no longer invited.
Late that evening, a fire broke out and several buildings caught flame as a result of the wind. Everything in the business section was wiped out along Main Street. Every store and restaurant and rooming house – and both churches. Everything went up in smoke – Christmas trees, gifts and everything necessary for the festivities. When dance hall girl Goldie discovers that children will go without presents or Santa Claus, she orchestrates a Christmas that the families will never forget. In the surviving church on the hill that night, a great tree glittered. Santa Claus distributed presents to every beaming child. And the prejudice found contentment at the organ as the crowd sang Christmas carols - three religious communities acting as one again.
The December 19, 1935 broadcast offered a special "National Park Program," dramatizing multiple events when people celebrated Christmas in Death Valley. The holiday theme provided a major public service: awareness of the United States National Park Service. Mr. Arno B. Crammerer, director of the U.S. NPS, gave a speech at the conclusion of the program, reminding them that Death Valley was one of the National Park monuments and the National Park was a logical product of our democracy.
In "Children's Faces, Looking Up," broadcast December 25, 1936, widow Lottie Marvin is forced to stay home after the death of her husband, in order to care for her young son, severely injured in a fire. At first she debated going back to work, but when other employees of the mining office discovered she could baby-sit and feed their children for a small fee, she ultimately opened up a full-fledged day nursery. On Christmas Eve, she is offered her old job with more pay and weighs the heavy burden of making an important decision. When the children she took care of paid her a late-night visit singing Christmas Carols, she agrees that her self-employment is more important and counts her blessings.
The Old Ranger invites the radio listeners to imagine opening night of "Piper's Opera House" on the evening of December 23, 1937, which opened doors for the first time on July 2, 1863. Virginia City had more money to pay for good entertainment and actors who had avoided mining camps, offered to appear at Piper's. Singers touring the country included Virginia City in their itinerary. Famous lecturers traveled there. The drama included excerpts from the stage productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Hamlet and Rip Van Winkle, to name a few. The highlight came on December evening: the appearance of Adah Isaacs Menken in the role of the young hero in Mazeppa - the Wild Horses of Tartary ... the most breathtaking experience that Piper's ever offered.
In ''The Stranger Who Sang," broadcast December 23, 1938, The Old Ranger recounts some years ago when the Furnace Creek Inn had just been built; just enough to accommodate a handful of guests. Roads through the desert were still questionable. There was no direct telephone communication to and from the Valley. It was no wonder that the little group of guests who gathered around the big stone fireplace at the Inn on that particular Christmas Eve felt drawn together by their sheer remoteness from the rest of the world. Fresh logs blazed up on the hearth, reflecting the frosty silver of desert holly, massed in bowls around the room. Stockings were hung from the mantle place for the only two children in the place.
When The Old Ranger asks the children why they made the trek from Michigan to Death Valley, young Judy explains that her mother had pneumonia and the doctor said she has to be where it was warm and dry. With mother in bed resting, Judy is upset when the tradition of having "Away in a Manger" sung to her on Christmas Eve is thwarted – even though her mother said Christmas is still Christmas no matter where they are. A stranger shows up at the Inn, seeking tobacco to smoke, and hearing the children's dilemma, sings the song. This leads to "Silent Night," "Good King Wencelas" and "Oh, Holy Night."
The stranger takes leave of the Inn but before he goes, he thanks the children "for helping me to find again what I thought I had lost forever." Judy asks if he is referring to his voice and the stranger replies, "Something infinitely more precious than that: Peace on earth." The stranger was gone before any of them had time to realize that they never caught the name of the stranger. Several months later, The Old Ranger happened to pick up a copy of a San Francisco newspaper with the headline, "Singer Returns to the Concert Stage." It read that Eric Holden, famous baritone who had not returned for over a full year since the death of his little daughter.
Pacific Coast Borax obviously used Death Valley Days as a thirty-minute commercial for their vacation lodge, as well as promoting the benefits of Borax for use about the house. Christmas offered many challenges for Ruth Woodman. This creator and chief writer of Death Valley Days was determined to find real stories about real people, for use on the program. But one thing was certain: Christmas was still commercial.