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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Conquerors of the Sky: How Bill Robson Entered Radio
by Karl Schadow © 2016
(From Radio Recall, February, 2016)
To promote one of their new programs of 1933, Leslie Mawhinney publicity director of Los Angeles station KHJ instituted a plan that had been used successfully by the film industry for years. The headline in Variety (April 25, 1993) proclaimed this venture, 'COAST'S RADIO TRAILER A LA SCREEN TEASERS.' A week prior to its April 28th premiere, listeners were enticed via a five minute preview to tune in the new aviation thriller, Conquerors of the Sky.
It is unknown how often these trailers were aired or if they continued once the program commenced. Conquerors of the Sky featured true exploits of World War aviators. This was in contrast to the transcribed syndicated program released the previous year, Air Stories of The World War which was based on the fictional yarns of George Bruce. Whereas this latter program has received attention in previous articles in Radio Recall and other publications, the former is chronicled here for the first time.
Of the program, Variety stated in its brief review of May 30, 1933 "… is backgrounded by a good score…Cast work is adequate, but bill has its chief pull from the excellent sound effects which put over the plane fights. "There were no cast or production credits listed for this sustainer which was heard over the current twelve stations of the West Coast's Don Lee Broadcasting System. Thus newspapers covering these twelve markets and trade periodicals were scoured for additional information.
Directed to an adult audience, the thirty-minute dramas were initially heard Friday evenings at 9:30. The first adventure celebrated the destiny of Arizona native Frank Luke, Jr. who in 1918 became known as the "Balloon Buster'' for destroying several of those key components of the German war machine. During subsequent weeks, aces of both sides of the War were profiled: Manfred von Richtofen ("The Red Baron"), Georges Guynemer (France), William Bishop (of Canada who became a British ace), and Eddie Rickenbacker.
As of the eighth episode (June 16, 1933) emphasis shifted to prominent civilian aerialists including the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart. In late June of 1933, Los Angeles was host to the National Air Races where representatives gathered from around the globe. Two of these attendees were interviewed during the episode of June 30th, War veterans Ernst Udet from Germany and Italy's Tito Falconi.
The following month, Conquerors of the Sky moved to Tuesday's at 8:30 pm with escapades of the Post-Gatty flight. This was the 1931 around-the-world flight of Wiley Post and Harold Gatty. The plight of Floyd Bennett was the story heard on August 1st. An integral player in Richard Bird's 1926 North Pole sojourn, in April of 1928 Bennett developed pneumonia during the rescue attempts of the crew of the Bremen, a plane that had crashed on Canada's Greenly Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Piloted by a German crew, the Bremen was attempting to make the first ever transatlantic flight from East to West.
On August 10, 1933 Conquerors of the Sky was heard at a new day, Thursday's at 9:30 pm with the ill-fated journey of Sweden's Salomon Andree in his 1897 bid to fly over the North Pole in a balloon. The final chapter of the program on August 17th was entitled "Flight of the Southern Cross." Aboard the Fokker F.Vllb/3m named Southern Cross, a team of two Australians and two Americans commanded by Sir Charles Kingford Smith was the first to successfully navigate the Pacific Ocean in a 1928 flight from Oakland, California to Brisbane, Australia.
Individual cast members of Conquerors of the Sky remain to be identified. The music was composed and conducted by KHJ musical director Raymond Paige. The all-important sound effects were performed by Bill Goodwin, Sam Pierce and Fred Bowen. The studio booth control board operator (or mixer) was A. W. Murray who wrote about his career at KHJ in the September 1934 issue of The International Photographer. Though this article provided enlightening fare of the team work of engineers and sound effects for programs other than Conquerors of the Sky, details of the series were recalled some forty years later by the person who created this endeavor.
In a 1976 interview on The Golden Age of Radio (WTIC, Hartford), William N. Robson informed the program's astonished hosts Dick Bertell and Ed Corcoran that Conquerors of the Sky was his first radio assignment. (For audio, see link at end of article.) A Pittsburgh native, Robson had studied at Yale under famous dramatist George Pierce Baker. Following graduation, he moved to the West Coast and was a writer at various movie studios before convincing Don Lee that he could write (without divulging his lack of experience) for radio.
In that WTIC interview, Robson admitted he knew nothing of the roles in which music and sound were utilized in radio drama. He recalled the Frank Luke, Jr. episode in that machine gun fire was accomplished by employing a shot pad which consisted of a leather pillow with a slat that the sound man hit in rapid succession. Another innovative effect was the whine of a shell as it was approaching its target. For this, Robson instructed the orchestra's First Violinist Gino Sivieri to perform a glissando on the G string.
Following Conquerors of the Sky, Robson also wrote and produced two noteworthy endeavors, the nautical drama Snug Harbor and then in November of 1933, one of the earliest police procedurals Calling All Cars. In 1934 he quit KHJ and joined the Hixson-O'Donnell-Seymour advertising agency which had as one of its clients Rio Grande Oil, the firm that was sponsoring Calling All Cars. In 1936 he moved to New York where he rejoined CBS. He was instrumental in the achievements of The Columbia Workshop and would become a Peabody Award winner with such shows as The Man Behind the Gun and An Open Letter to The American People. Returning to Hollywood following the war, his success continued with such ventures as Escape and Suspense. However, he considered the 'real' Golden Age of Radio to be the period of 1937-1945.
Late in the run of Conquerors of the Sky, Broadcasting (August 1, 1933) reported that the Los Angeles-based cosmetics firm Osborne Company was signing on to bankroll a proposed fifty-two episodes of the program. That advertisers considered the program worthy of their investment was an accomplishment, though, the actual number of sponsored episodes is unknown. Extensive documentation of Conquerors of the Sky is thwarted by the current lack of extant scripts and audio.
Author contact "firstname.lastname@example.org". Link to interview at Bob Scherago WTIC website: "www.qoldenage-wtfc.org/gaor-70.html".