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Tuning In To Radio's Golden Age
Hal Schindler
Published: 01/29/1995 Category: Features   Page: J1

It's time for Jack Armstrong . . . The All-American Boy!!! More than two generations ago, those words were as familiar to radio listeners as the television catch phrase "The Thrill of Victory; the Agony of Defeat" is today. For it was the Golden Age of Radio in America and folks spent their evenings huddled around a Philco, an Emerson or Zenith, or if they were really well-off, a Sears Silvertone that stood three feet tall in a position of importance in the home equal to that of the family piano.

It was how America entertained itself in those tough Depression days and the years of World War II. For youngsters who grew up in that era, whose childhood began with the Stock Market Crash of '29 and only began to improve with the postwar Fabulous '50s, it was a time for escapism into the world of imagination and radio adventure serials. And to make that world more real and exciting, there were the "premiums," those precious prizes earned by mailing a required number of cereal box tops ("or reasonable facsimile"), along with 10 cents in coin, to the most famous mailing address in America: Battle Creek, Michigan, the breakfast-cereal empire where these marvelous and mysterious treasures were produced.

Adventure serials came into being in the early 1930s with programs like "The Lone Ranger," but even before that, a nightly 15-minute comedy called "Amos 'n' Andy" turned the infant medium of radio upside down. Sales of radios surged, from 650,000 sets in 1928, to 842,548 the next year, as the antics of Amos, Andy, the Kingfish, the Judge, the Bailiff, Lightnin', and the Fresh-Air Taxicab Company made America tune in--and stay tuned in for twenty-five years, until its younger brother, television, muscled radio aside.

In those early days there were NBC (formed in 1926), CBS (1927) and Mutual Broadcasting (1934). In Utah, KDYL Radio was the NBC affiliate, and KSL was the CBS station. Dramatic serials occupied the morning hours, say, from 9:15 a.m., with "The Romance of Helen Trent," which set out to prove (for nearly two decades) that romance could live on for a woman at thirty-five and even beyond. Unfortunately, most of Helen Trent's lovers met violent death. (How else could a program continue for twenty years?)

Daytime radio gave "soap operas" their name and reputation. "Ma Perkins" owned the longevity title, making its debut on December 4, 1933, and continuing without a break for twenty-seven years--7,065 broadcasts with the same actress, Virginia Payne, in the title role, and the same sponsor: Oxydol soap.

But back to the evening adventure serials and the premiums. Those who remember Jack Armstrong and his sidekick cousins Billy and Betty Fairfield and the show's father image, Uncle Jim Fairfield, who was an explorer and pilot of his own amphibian, also recall the neat stuff offered for a Wheaties box top and a dime: the mysterious "Dragon's Eye" ring that glowed with green luminescence in the dark, Jack's Explorer's Sun Watch, and his famous Pedometer, which, fastened to belt or pocket, would count every step its wearer took.

As Jim Harmon, radio-premium historian, wrote, "Using it, Jack was able to follow the instructions in an old pirate map and keep Billy, Betty, Uncle Jim and himself on the correct course out of the bottomless-pit death traps laid by the Cult of the Crocodile God." Wow! And premiums were patriotic, too. For instance, "Junior G-Man" members were issued a Manual of Instructions To All Operatives (obtained with Post Toasties box tops) right from the Chief Special Agent-in-Charge, Melvin Purvis. Purvis described secret codes and signals, passwords, whistles and "danger" code signs. He detailed instructions for solving crimes and apprehending criminals, how to "shadow" a suspect, and how to judge and compare fingerprints.

Yes sir, with Melvin Purvis heading up the corps, how could a red-blooded American youngster go wrong? After being cautioned never to reveal the secrets of the Junior G-Man Corps, Purvis went on to explain how he made it a rule to eat Post Toasties for breakfast every morning, why he thought all Junior G-Men ought to follow his example: Because it was good for you (and what better way to collect box tops for other Junior G-Man equipment?).

Purvis, for those unfamiliar with the deeds of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was the special agent-in-charge of the Chicago FBI Bureau who all but crowded director J. Edgar Hoover off the front page with his escapades involving Baby Face Nelson and other public enemies. Purvis arranged the ambush at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago and was the agent who killed John Dillinger. Hoover eventually made life so miserable for the publicity-minded Purvis that he resigned from the bureau. Purvis managed to sell himself into the "Junior G-Man Corps" radio promotion in 1936, but the serial was rather short-lived. Still, it recruited a lot of Junior G-Men for its time.

If being an All-American high schooler or a Junior G-Man wasn't enough, there was Tom Mix and the TM-Bar Ranch for all the "straight-shooters" in radioland. His premiums were really nifty: Tom Mix's Compass-Magnifying Glass, his Signal Arrowhead with a magnifying lens and a reduction lens (called a "smallifying" glass) also sported a spinning whistle siren all in one.

In 1938 Mix offered the clicker-key Postal Telegraph Signal Set (two Ralston cereal box tops or one box top and 10 cents). Tom encouraged listeners to "get your neighbor to send for one, too, so you can hook both sets together and send messages between your house and next door." The sets were made of cardboard and didn't weather too well, but, golly, they were "official" Tom Mix Telegraph Signal sets, and that was worth a lot. Over the years, Tom gave away Tiger Eye rings, Siren rings and Tom Mix TM-Bar brand rings. It was the berries. Ask anyone.

There was a definite motive behind all these so-called giveaways, the "Little Orphan Annie" Ovaltine shaker mug and "The Lone Ranger" decoder card, aside from all the cereal that was sold. It was the sponsors' way of determining how many listeners their programs were attracting. There was no Arbitron or Nielsen service then to provide demographics; all sponsors had to go on was the million or so envelopes that poured into Battle Creek after each premium was announced.

Imagine for a moment a youngster filling out a request and addressing an envelope ("be certain the return address is clearly printed") and carefully including the box top and coin, adding a stamp and posting the letter. Rare is the boy or girl of those marvelous days who will deny waiting impatiently the next morning, and the mornings for a week after, for the mailman to deliver that wonderful gift. Six weeks later, and all but forgotten, the treasure would arrive, and its proud owner could listen to the program with renewed enthusiasm.

As for the secret code messages, they would invariably end with the same pronouncement: Don't forget, boys and girls, to tune in tomorrow, same time, same station, for the next exciting episode of..And we never forgot.

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