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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Ann of the Airlanes
by Karl Schadow © 2015
(From Radio Recall, October, 2015)
Accompanied by a snappy musical theme, an airplane roars through a gale, we hear "Over valley and mountain, ... river and plain, ... through wind and storm, rides Ann of the Airlanes." This opening introduced each exciting adventure of Ann Burton and her cohorts in Ann of the Airlanes, one of radio's most unique aviation serials. Though this program may not be as well-known as Captain Midnight, Howie Wing or Tailspin Tommy, whose escapades have been chronicled in past issues of Radio Recall, Ann of the Airlanes has certainly received more attention (probably on the account of extant audio) than the vastly obscure Kelly Field Flying Times or Airlanes, Inc.
A major attribute of Ann of the Airlanes is that the lead character is a heroine instead of a hero. Though it is often touted as the sole member of this class, there were at least two other ventures, Angels in Blue and Kitty Hawk, Hostess of the Airwaves which promoted a female protagonist and that progressed to the audition stage and perhaps beyond. Though many current sources indicate that the program was attempting to capitalize on the popularity of Amelia Earhart's exploits, then why was Ann not aspiring to become a pilot instead of a hostess? Another erroneous quirk which has crept into the lore of the program is its commencement of 1932. However, this assumption has been debunked in that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which plays varying roles in the series, was created two years later, in June of 1934.
While the exact year the program was established remains to be ascertained, Broadcasting magazine (September 15, 1937) reported that National Radio Programs, Inc. (NRP) had obtained the exclusive rights to this title and several other transcribed programs. The Chicago based NRP was a separate entity created by Russell Comer president of his own advertising agency in Kansas City, Missouri. The NRP was a short-lived venture and the syndication of these programs was eventually integrated into the main Comer firm which had been founded in the late
Best known for his success in promoting The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen which took the airwaves by storm in 1933, Russell Comer was excited as to the potential of this complementary endeavor. The program offered a club certificate (see back cover of this issue) and at least one premium (link to photo at end of article).
Additionally, it was still offered for syndication into the 1950s (see WGNC ad below). Despite these achievements, its success paled in comparison to that of Jimmie and his friends.
Another significant event in the annals of Ann of the Airlanes also occurred in 1937 when scripts of the first four episodes were registered for copyright with the Library of Congress. Both the copyright holder and script author are credited to Russell Comer. However, publicity for the program in 1940 hometown Kansas City newspapers commensurate with the local WDAF broadcasts, cited Cecil Holman as writer. A staff member of the Comer agency, Holman wrote several of the agencies endeavors including the Western, Tommy Gale of the Box T Ranch. It is unknown the total number of scripts that comprise the canon of Ann of the Airlanes. Ultimately, 65 episodes were recorded in the late 1930s which disclose the story of a registered nurse who aspires to become an airline hostess (today's flight attendants). It is beyond the scope of the present study to provide plot summaries for all 50 episodes which are currently extant. What follows however, is a general overview of the events with selected highlights and major characters involved in the program.
© 1950 Gaston Gazette Reprinted from the September 25, 1950 issue of the Gastonia Gazette. Used with permission.
In the opening we find Ann and her friend Kay Thompson returning from a vacation to a fictional Midwest Springfield where Ann works as a nurse for Dr. Tyler at his private sanitarium. Kay is currently an air hostess for Interstate Airlines who had previously worked for the clinician. Thus, Kay serves as Ann's role model. The lead of the program is Jack Baker, a pilot for Interstate who will be at the controls during the flight to Springfield. Through a series of vehicular accidents before and after the flight, many of the major characters whether they are staff, patients, visitors, or nefarious characters find that their destination is naturally, the Tyler Sanitarium.
Pilot Jack Baker now a patient is kidnapped, removed from the facility and is forced to take the controls of a newly constructed air transport. The kidnappers are a duo of diamond smugglers, Vic Morgan and Joe Tolliver. Their leader is a mysterious figure known only as 'The Doc.' Jack is ordered to fly the plane first to Florida then onto South America and finally to the diamond mines in Africa. Unbeknownst to Jack and the smugglers, a second plane, a smaller Air Cat with Interstate pilot Pete Peterson at the helm, takes off with Ann and others in pursuit of Jack. Pete, who has adventures worthy of his own program is accompanied at various times by Ann, Kay, Ann's Aunt-Hattie Jackson, and Jack's kid brother Bobby- an amateur radio operator and also aviation enthusiast. It is through these interests that Bobby is befriended by Art Morrison of the FCC who is in the Springfield area investigating reports of an unusual radio operator. Ultimately, a secret radio room is found at the Tyler Sanitarium.
Pete's travels take him from Springfield to Florida where he hooks up with diamond buff Zeb Abercrombie, and then back to Springfield. During this trip, Ann parachutes from Pete's Air Cat and locates Jack's plane which has landed for fuel. A hurricane hits the Florida coast which complicates matters for all parties with Ann eventually becoming a stowaway on the air transport which is now enroute to South America. Following a first stop where Ann is discovered, the flight continues along the South American coastline where Jack lands the plane on a small island in order to save a wealthy plantation owner, Don Luis Cardoza who had been marooned there by bandits seeking the Cardoza fortune of hidden jewels. Jack and the group then embark to Cape St. Roque, Brazil on the continent where Ann utilizes her nursing skills to save the son of a native tribal chief from choking on a rather peculiar object. The air transport sets a course east to Africa but must a make a fueling stop on the Tristan da Cunha group of islands in the South Atlantic. Throughout this course, Pete along with Kay and Zeb have kept pace in following Jack to this cluster and arrive on one of the other islands. Independently, both planes then journey to South Africa.
Meanwhile Dr. Tyler, Bobby and Aunt Hattie have taken the Clipper across the Atlantic to Africa. Hans, the janitor at the Tyler sanitarium is also presumed to be on this Continent. Bobby has gone out on his own with a camera to take pictures, but gets lost in the jungle. He is befriended by a native boy and the two continue their escapades but fall into a lion pit. They are rescued by George Ross, another diamond aficionado. They hear Pete's plane overhead but are horrified when it lands in the vicinity of a tribe of cannibals. Pete, Kay and Zeb are then rescued by George Ross.
Elsewhere, Ann faces another challenge as she must attempt to restore the speech of Kobu, a member of another African tribe. If she fails, both of them will be sacrificed. The climax occurs at a scared temple which is avoided by all of the native tribes. Dr. Tyler, thought by many to be the leader lot the smugglers is exonerated. Hans is implicated as one of the gang and is captured. The identity of those who were Secret Service agents is also revealed. Finally, Ann receives a telegram indicating that her application to become an air hostess has been approved and her training will commence once she returns to Springfield.
Many of the cast have now been identified via a sundry of sources. Some of these names were easily recognized, several were garnered from press releases, while others by consulting issues of The National Radio Artists Directory. This latter source led to the discovery that Lynne Howard portrayed Ann Burton. Most intriguing is that Lynne Howard was a stage name used by actress Elia Braca, a Hollywood native. She appeared in various films and on numerous radio programs in the 1930s including Lux Radio Theatre before moving to Chicago and then onto New York in the 1940s. By the 1950s, she had amassed a 20-year career in network radio and appeared in several Off-Broadway shows and summer stock companies.
Moreover, she would later become an accomplished artist. A more in depth profile of her career will appear in a future issue of Radio Recall. There were only two other female roles during the series. Mary Milford portrayed Kay Thompson with Mary O'Donnell playing the overly pompous Aunt Hattie.
The lead actor in Ann of the Airlanes was Robert C. "Bob" Bruce, Jr. who portrayed pilot Jack Baker. He is also the first of the two announcers during the opening of each episode. Ironically, his career started in New York at WMCA. He then journeyed to Hollywood landing at the Warner Bros. Station KFWB where in addition to local and network radio performances, he did extensive voice-over work on cartoons. He was also involved in the NBC television cartoon Comeback in 1950.
Jack Baker's kid brother Bobby was played by Sam Edwards with John Gibson as pilot Pete Peterson, and Gerald Mohr as Art Morrison. Phil Kramer and Joe Forte were cast as the smugglers, Joe Tolliver and Vic Morgan respectively. Joe Du Val was heard as Zeb Abercrombie. Another familiar voice Berry Kroger played the villainous Hans. Lew Lauria had the brief role of Don Luis Cardoza. The actors portraying Dr. Tyler and George Ross along with a few others are still unknown. Moreover, the identity of the music conductor/composer, sound effects artists and studio engineer also remain a mystery.
Not only were the adventures of Ann and her companions exciting, they were also educational. Listeners were enlightened regarding a diverse plethora of subjects. One learned the manner in which electricity could be harnessed from ocean inlets. The geography of various islands in the Atlantic was explored. On the African continent, Safaris stayed clear of the most dangerous animals. There were many lessons of aviation including the proper fueling of planes and idiosyncrasies of flying at various altitudes. Even the villains contributed to the knowledge pool.
The program was not without its detriments, though these were indeed rare. One of the more blatant remarks was emoted by Aunt Hattie. While in Africa, she opines to a young native who attempted to make coffee, "…oh well, some of your relatives are probably dining car cooks.-" The program did receive favorable commendation in Radio Showmanship (June 1942), "Story is fast moving, definitely timely, since interest in aviation is now at a new high …In its favor is the fact that while children thrill to the series, their parents also give it the nod of approval." It is the parents of course, who are purchasing the sponsor's products.
During its two-decade run on radio, the series was broadcast on stations of all sizes. In addition to those already cited above, listeners dialed WKY (Oklahoma City), KFH (Wichita), WCKY (Cincinnati), KSD (ST. Louis), KT AR (Phoenix) and KDWT (Abilene, Texas) among others. The series was still being offered as late as 1955 when Harry S. Goodman Productions acquired from the Comer firm the program along with other adventure-theme entities featuring Jimmie Allen, Frank Farrell and Roger Gale.
(Courtesy of Susan Rappaport)
As previously mentioned, we learn that Ann has earned her trainee-ship, thus she never actually fulfilled the role of a hostess on a commercial flight during this series. Was this a teaser for an upcoming second series that never made to the recording studio? These and many other questions warrant further research. (author contact: email@example.com) Link: www.hakes.com/item.asp?Auction+210&1temNo=128533
Acknowledgments: The author thanks Susan Rappaport and Andy Rose (relatives of Elia Braca Rose), Jerry Haendiges, David Grabarek, Michael Banks, and Irene Heinstein for their invaluable assistance.