Near the dawn of radio and early programming in the 1920s, most Americans began experiencing what radio historian Susan Douglas referred to as "gossamer connections to an imagined community of people we sensed loved the same music we did." She was speaking of a later time, but was referring to the bonds created by the radio listening experience. It was probably even more intense in the 1920s when Americans, many of whom were isolated in small rural locations, began allowing these ethereal voices into their homes.
One of the first popular examples of this programming came from a series, an excerpt of which only surfaced in the last ten to fifteen years and which began on radio in 1928. The program was called Main Street Sketches featuring a leading citizen of a small-town called Titusville whose name was Luke Higgins. The program coincides with the formation of the National Broadcasting Company, though it spent its life on New York radio station WOR. Radio historian Elizabeth McLeod said this excerpt from May 15th, 1928 is probably one of the earliest known airchecks of a live dramatic program.1 Typical of much of radio of this period, it seems a little stilted in presentation, but is humorous and entertaining nonetheless despite our 21st century glasses. Luke was one character among a number of others including members of his family - Wilbur and Sary Higgins, Emily Snodgrass, Fleck Murphy, Charlie Ellis, Spot Haywang, Dave Kraus, Ivalutty Pewitt, Sadie Westphal, and Horace Peters. Much of the town's activity was centered around the arrival of the daily train at the depot sometimes bringing a guest who might appear on the program.2 Hearing the excerpt one can sort of get a sense of from where Paul Rhymer was coming when he created his characters for the Vic and Sade program. The humor on Sketches is generally low-key just as on Vic and Sade.3
The series was initially the brainchild of Leonard E.L. Cox, who at the time was in the sales department of WOR. According to one source, he had been considering the idea, but had not formulated in his mind yet as how to present it. Cox says he got the final inspiration when a singer who was on a program on WOR asked him to listen to her singing. When he asked her the name of the song she was going to sing, she said it was called "The Country Store" and that, he says, gave him the idea that his program should originate in a country store.
In November 1927 he got a call from Charles Gannon, who then was in charge of WOR, asking for his help in coming up with some programming for a special Thanksgiving Day broadcast. A luncheon meeting was set up in which George Frame Brown was also present. Brown who was a monologue performer had created characters such as Ole Olsen, a Swede, along with several small-town country-type characters.4 Between the three of them, the program idea was formulated similar to what Main Street Sketches ultimately became. Cox then created a script for the Thanksgiving show about life in a small town incorporating Brown's monologues into the script. On Thanksgiving Day, in 1927, the final program was broadcast over WOR and became a big hit. It was successful enough that another was planned for Christmas and called "Christmas Day at Grange Hall." Cox was then asked by L. Bamburger & Co, to create a series for this program concept for WOR. He was promoted to Program Director at the station so he could focus on creating the show at a cost of $75 per week. Most of the expense went to George Frame Brown and the rest of the cast.5 In the scripts, the small town was named Titusville where the chief event of the day was the arrival of the train at the depot. They wanted to call the program Main Street representing the common name of many streets in rural America, but author Sinclair Lewis already had that title for his famous book, so the name was changed to Main Street Sketches. The show went on the air on in the evening of January 3, 1928, a Tuesday. It was sponsored by the Reid Ice Cream Company and the Merlin Products Corporation, which produced a household cleaning product, and continued every Tuesday thereafter becoming one of radio's early successes. Despite that success, early trouble was brewing just around the corner.6
Sometime in April or early May, George Frame Brown became disenchanted with how the sponsor and L. Bamburger & Co. compensated him for the popular radio show he felt he helped conceive. Since the characters were essentially created by him, he apparently felt he was not getting his just portion. Apparently, Leonard Cox had already agreed that while the framework was his, the thrust of the series belonged to Brown. Disappointed, Brown left the series and sued L. Bamburger & Co. for exclusive rights to the program concept. Despite his leaving, the series continued, now with radio personality Don Carney in the role. This was the same Don Carney known later for his creation of Uncle Don, the children's' show host heard over WOR in the thirties. For his part, Brown moved to the new NBC network chain in a similar program called Real Folks. In the new series, Brown attempted to create a program similar to Main Street Sketches using the character of Luke Higgins as well as the Titusville location he portrayed on WOR but with new names. A legal battle ensued between the L. Bamburger organization and Brown over the rights to the character concept. Brown sought an injunction against WOR claiming all rights to the character had been given to him by Leonard Cox before Brown left the series. According to the N.Y Law Journal of May 31, 1928, with the decision by Mr. Justice Valente, who wrote:
[Brown] "alleges that he created this character, together with the others, in collaboration with one [Leonard] Cox, an employee of the defendant [L. Bamburger & Co.], and that the latter assigned all interest to him…In the early part of the month [Brown] severed his connection with [L. Bamburger & Co.], who thereafter continued to produce Main Street Sketches, presumably with different material, but with the same characters and names."
The court case attempted to cite a similar case between the New York American publication and the producer of the comic strip, Mutt and Jeff, in which an injunction against the magazine was granted. However, Justice Valente felt that the station, which created the Sketches program, was not competing with Brown and consequently no injunction was forthcoming. And so the program continued but now with Don Carney in the role of Luke Higgins.7 Brown continued to use the character and locale formats in various appearances as he wished.8 Main Street Sketches continued at least through 1934.
George Frame Brown went on to other successes on radio including as part of a team of two more ethnic-oriented characters in 1935: Tony and Gus with operatic star Mario Chamlee as Tony, an Italian with hopes of an operatic career and Gus, a Swede, who wanted to be a world heavyweight champion; prior to that he starred as Mayor Matt Thompkins from Thompkins Corners in Real Folks on the NBC Radio network and which was, loosely, Main Street Sketches as previously mentioned. Frame, who became a millionaire only to lose it all on an unsuccessful restaurant venture, died on November 19, 1979 at age 83.9
Susan Douglas wrote in Listening In "When the radio boom first swept through America in the early 1920s, the word miracle was used repeatedly…the magic was - and is - the act of listening itself, in relying on and trusting your ears alone to produce ideas and emotions."10 Main Street Sketches with George Frame Brown, as one of the earliest dramatic productions on radio, made Titusville come alive for its countless listeners in the late 1920s when radio was indeed truly a miracle.