Old Time Radio Related Articles
Writers Toiled In Anonymity:
CARLTON E. MORSE
Read G. Burgan
Carlton Morse.... Ring any bells? "Creator of the Morse code?" Wrong. "Inventor of the telegraph?" Wrong, and getting colder.
Ironically, Carlton Morse entertained millions of people on an almost daily basis on radio for more than 25 years, yet he probably could have appeared anywhere in public without fear of recognition. Why? Because that's the curse of his profession. Mention Jack Benny, George Burns or Bob Hope, and you'll get instant name recognition. Mention Hilliard Marks, Harry Conn, John Whedon or Carlton Morse, and you'll be met with a blank stare. They were some of the hundreds of writers who turned out the scripts that made the stars of radio famous.
Carlton Morse was probably the most prolific of all the radio writers. His two most famous series were One Man's Family and I Love A Mystery. Morse was born in 1901 in Louisiana but grew up on a ranch in Oregon. He studied for two years at the University of California, but quit to take a job on the Sacramento Union. Writing was in his blood and he moved on to jobs at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Times.
In 1929, the stock market crashed, ending the fortunes of many. But radio was in its infancy, and new careers were emerging, including that of Carlton Morse who discovered that this new medium needed all the writers it could get. Morse joined the west coast staff of NBC in 1930. For a while he turned out a variety of scripts for comedy, dramatic and adventure series.
Morse intuitively sensed that radio listeners had the same appetites as readers of literature: women wanted romance; men wanted mystery and adventure. These two subjects would become the hallmark of Morse's writing to the end of his career.
Early in 1932, Morse approached NBC's west coast production department with the pilot script for a new radio series: One Man's Family. They were unanimous in turning him down. One executive called it "pure tripe!" Undaunted, the 30 year old Morse went over their heads and brought the script to NBC vice president Don Gilman. Gilman was only mildly enthusiastic, but radio desperately needed programming. He agreed to a six week trial period if Morse would write the script so that they could terminate the series succinctly after six weeks.
based on John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. Following a book format, the story was written with each episode constituting a chapter of a book. Each episode opened with the announcer saying something like this: "One Man's Family is dedicated to the Mothers and Fathers of the younger generation and to their bewildering offspring. Tonight we present Chapter Nine, Book Fifty-two entitled...." Paul Carson was organist for the series, and created his own theme entitled, "Patricia." (Carson made his first radio appearance in 1922, was a staff organist for both NBC and ABC, had his own program The Bridge To Dreamland and in the 1950's recorded dozens of organ albums for Hugh Edwards' Alma Record Company). While Morse created a radio dynasty, the program basically dealt with generational differences. This was something that every American family could relate to.
The program was about the Barbour clan who lived in the Sea Cliff district of San Francisco. Father Henry Barbour was the president of a bond house. He was an opinionated patriarchal figure who often lectured his sons and daughters. He was as immovable as an oak tree. Mother Fanny Barbour supported her husband, loved her children and served as a mediator between them.
Their oldest son Paul was wounded in World War One where he lost his bride and as a result of his experiences, loathed wars and remained single. Living in an apartment in the family home, he often provided the sympathetic ear to his younger siblings that their father could not provide. In the beginning there were four other children: Hazel, the oldest daughter, twins Clifford and Claudia, and the youngest, Jack, who began the series as a fifteen year old.
One Man's Family was added to the coast-to-coast NBC network on May 17, 1933. It was carried as a thirty minute show on Wednesday evenings. Eventually it moved to Friday evenings, and in 1939 moved to Sunday evenings where it continued for another ten years. In 1950 the program became a nightly fifteen minute series. Finally in 1955 it was moved into a daily matinee time period where it remained until 1959.
By today's standards, the stories are plodding and stodgy. But it was Morse's ability to craft detailed family scenes that made the program so popular. Millions of people identified with the Barbours and followed all of the twists and turns of their lives as if they were their very own.
Occasionally the program pushed the envelope. In the mid 1930's NBC received a series of letters complaining that the program was too sexually explicit. What was their specific complaint? Did they talk about pregnancy? Birth control? Masturbation? The problem wasn't what they talked about, but where. Morse was crafting conversations that took place in the Barbour bedroom. One listener wrote, ". . .We began to hear 'in bed' confidences of husband and wife -- so frightfully intimate, that one gasped, in anticipation of what might be next . . . ."
Morse gave credit for the success of the show to its actors. Morse's productions were very much like a family. Actors from One Man's Family also appeared in his other major radio show, I Love A Mystery. Michael Raffetto who played Paul Barbour played Jack Packard on I Love A Mystery. Barton Yarborough who played Cliff Barbour played Reggie Yorke. Two of the actors remained with the show for its entire 27 year run -- J. Anthony Smythe who played Father Barbour, and Page Gilman who began the role of Jack Barbour when he was only 12 years old. (In real life Smythe was a bachelor) Michael Raffetto remained with the cast to the end, but along the way switched from actor to assistant writer and director.
Occasionally, art imitated life and life imitated art on the show. In the 1940's Page Gilman who played Jack Barbour was a second lieutenant stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. During this period, the scripts were written so that he could appear on the program when he was home on leave. To accommodate this circumstance, the character of Jack Barbour was also in the army during this period.
On May 29, 1945, the program merged fiction and reality in an episode entitled, "Lieutenant Jack Barbour Leaves For The Pacific." The story was about Jack Barbour's attempts to say personal good-byes to each member of his family while waiting for the army jeep that would take him away for active duty in the Pacific. As the story began, the announcer informed listeners that Page Gilman who played the role of Jack would be shipping out for the Pacific that very week. The episode was touchingly written and undoubtedly rang true in the hearts of millions of Americans who had experienced similar scenes in their own homes. Such was the essence that endeared One Man's Family to millions of listeners for more than two decades.
I Love A Mystery began on NBC radio in 1939, first on just the west coast feed, and then on the entire network hookup. Where One Man's Family was originally a weekly show, I Love A Mystery aired as a fifteen minute week night program during its early years. It concerned the adventures of the members of the A-1 Detective Agency of Hollywood, California.
Jack Packard who led the team was a former medical student and methodical and level headed in the face of the most difficult circumstances. Doc Long was a red-headed Texan with a western drawl. Reggie Yorke sported a British accent.
Their adventures took them all over the world and included werewolves and vampires. Morse often didn't know how the story would end when he began writing, but he knew timing, and usually managed to bring the story to completion in three weeks. By today's standards, the shows are plodding. A considerable portion of each episode is taken up with one or more of the characters tediously recounting the incidents that brought them to today's episode. Since Morse often didn't know how the program would end, the listener was even more at a loss to successfully guess a program's outcome in advance. But a cult following has grown up around the program, and fans eagerly ferret out new sources of recordings of the series.
There were actually two periods of the I Love A Mystery series. The first ended on NBC in 1944. After a five year hiatus, the Mutual Broadcasting System resurrected the series using the original Carlton Morse scripts and producing the program in New York. In the new series, Russell Thorson was Jack, Jim Boles, Doc and Tony Randall played Reggie Yorke. This second series continued until 1952.
During his peak period, these programs kept Morse going seven days a week. Weekday mornings he churned out one I Love A Mystery script a day, and on weekends he concentrated on One Man's Family. He was one of the most prolific radio writers of his time. When One Man's Family ended, Morse had written 3,256 chapters comprising 134 books.
And his popularity continues. On a recent internet Old Time Radio Digest bulletin board, one fan left a message pleading for help because he has a recording of book 73, chapter 3 in which Paul announces his impending marriage; his wife is hounding him to find out what happens next. More than 25 years after the last episode, families are still hanging on Carlton Morse's every word. Interesting. Maybe each generation's not as different as we think. And . . . . maybe there's still a market for radio drama.
-- The End --
For further reading: The One Man's Family Album, Carlton E. Morse, 1988, Seven Stones Press, Star route, Box 50, Woodside, CA 94062.
Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at AH746@detroit.freenet.org.