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Radio Dramatist Paid His Dues:
An OTR Article by Read G. Burgan
Published In RADIO WORLD December 26, 1997:


Read G. Burgan

"Radio can do very well without you!" Those words etched themselves into the memory of young Lon Clark. In the 1930's Chicago was a leading center of radio production and Clark was making the rounds of Chicago radio stations when a director dismissed him with those words. Words he would remember decades later.

Lon Clark was born of Scandinavian stock on January 12, 1911, in southern Minnesota. His nineteen year old grandfather had immigrated from Norway and founded the town of Frost, MN, where Clark lived as a child after his father died in World War I. When his mother remarried, Clark moved to a farm near Lakefield, MN. In the midwestern countryside Clark formed the values that would guide him for a lifetime. " I have the soil of the country under my fingernails and the dedication to what the soil of that country provides for all of our futures and the kind of democracy that we have today," Clark says.

During his high school years Clark pursued two interests that would parallel his life's vocation: music and drama. To the amazement of his high school band master, he placed second in the Minnesota State Music Contest playing the saxophone. At the same time he entered all of his school's class plays. "I enrolled in all of the oratorical and declamatory contests and I was always winning. One year I won both the dramatic and the humorous competitions," Clark recalls.

After graduating from high school, Clark hitchhiked to Minneapolis and enrolled at Macthail School of Music. But it was a private drama teacher who had the most influence on him. Clark still remembers her with gratitude: "She knew I was on the brink of penury all of the time, washing dishes, playing in orchestras and wherever I could get a job to get by. So she took me on as a student without charging for it. I said, 'Why do you want to do this?' She replied, 'Do you know how much it means to a teacher to have a student who really wants to learn?'"

Clark continues, "Many years later she said, 'I only had four real students that I adopted as my own children; you were the favorite of the two boys.' I didn't ever finish college because I never had enough money. She opened up a world of understanding poetry and the significance of drama."

While in Minneapolis Clark had his first introduction to radio broadcasting: "When I was going to the Macthail School of music, I was singing in a choir and the first broadcast I ever did was a solo in that choir that was being broadcast at Christmas. I remember it because I had sent a telegram in which I had said, 'Dear mother, I'll be home late for Christmas because I'm singing in a Christmas program being broadcast on WCCO, Minneapolis.' That telegram was dated December of 1928. That was the first sound of my voice going over the air in radio."

Clark and a friend formed a musical team and began broadcasting over local radio stations in Minneapolis. He also had his own dance band. Then he received an offer to work with a dramatic company in tent shows.

"Back in those days the country was jotted with tent shows that would move from town to town. They would stay in a town for a week and do a different play each night and then move on Sunday. That was my first excursion into drama, and I can't think of a better training for a person who wants to get experience because you're playing a different part seven nights a week. I played in the orchestra and then ran backstage and put my makeup on for whatever part I was playing. I did that for quite a few years."

The director of the tent company urged Clark to take his talents to Chicago and try the increasingly popular medium of radio. After a spending time working in Chicago radio, Clark received an offer from WLW at Cincinnati, Ohio, where they had a stock company.

"They hired a group of about ten actors. That really gave me a good working out and a wonderful opportunity to learn the medium. I was there for four years playing all kinds of parts -- leads, character parts and all the rest of it -- and getting nice reviews for what I was doing. So I collected all of my reviews and had a brochure made up and I got married there."

Clark had two choices: Hollywood or New York. Hollywood had the added attraction of a potential film career; New York offered the possibility of work in the legitimate theater. Clark chose New York.

"It was 1941. My wife was six months pregnant. I had no job in sight but some hopeful leads. When I got to New York, within my first month I had made close to a thousand dollars, which was very unusual for those days."

Clark found himself in constant demand in New York radio circles. One of those who appreciated Clark's talent was Norman Corwin. "To be able to work for Norman Corwin was like being declared to have graduated from college cum laude, because his works were so remarkable. Everybody wanted to be on his show even though most of the time it was noncommercial. It had prestige. And so I wanted the good stuff even though it didn't make me as much money as I might have on another show. I did maybe thirty shows for him."

In 1943 the Mutual Broadcasting System decided to produce a new detective series based on the pulp fiction detective hero Nick Carter. "When a new show came on the air, directors had a list of actors that they would audition for the part. They would audition about fifty people for it. They tapped me for Nick Carter. I can still remember the night I got the telephone call: 'This is Jock MacGregor. I'm happy to tell you that if you are available, we want you for Nick Carter.' So that's how I got the role on WOR."

"After that phone call, when I went to the next rehearsal of Corwin's show, I said, 'Gee, Norm. I have a problem here. I've been offered a contract to play this private eye who's a famous dime novel character. It's going to be aired on Tuesday nights.' He said, 'Lon, you have to take it, because you are going to get more money for that than I'm paying you, plus I want to see you enjoy yourself as much as possible in building your career. But if the show ever goes off the air and is a non-confict for me, let me know and I'll have you back again.' He was just marvelous."

The Nick Carter series proved popular and it established Lon Clark as a major radio actor. Then came a crisis. "All of a sudden they changed our hour on Mutual to opposite Jack Benny on Sunday evenings. I remember going home and saying to my wife 'I guess we had better save our money very carefully.' She said 'Why?' And I said, 'They've moved Nick against Jack Benny and how could anybody survive against the Jack Benny show.' It developed that Nick Carter received the highest rating of any show that was put against Jack Benny. I was surprised at that, very surprised at that!"

What was an average Nick Carter broadcast like? "You went in and you picked up your script. Rehearsal time for Nick Carter was 1:30 until about 5:30. You'd go into the studio and get your script and have a read through on it. The director would time the first read through and say 'I guess we're about four minutes long and we need to make some cuts.' So they'd take a little break of ten or fifteen minutes while he made his cuts. And then he'd give them to the cast."

"We had many different writers on the show and each wrote differently. The dialogue would be differently styled and in a different vocabulary. When I look over the scripts that I've saved over the years, a great deal of change in my scripts in pencil indicates that I had to rewrite in the studio the manner of speech and vocabulary that Nick had established."

"The people who wrote those scripts had to turn them out in the matter of a week's time. It was always a problem to get each new writer to stick to the style that had been created. Different ones of these leading men had different kinds of terminology in whatever they were doing. Many of us in those days were party to editing the scripts."

What made Nick Carter stand out from the many other radio detective series? "Nick Carter was a show that we settled into on Sunday evening around dinner time so that the children, the parents and the grandparents could sit there and listen. In all the time the show was on the air with Patsy his girl Friday, there was never an overt suggestion that there was a sexual relationship between them except that they were a devoted team to do what they could to catch crooks."

"I never killed a man in all those years. That's unusual. And he had established a downtown boys club."

"And never was there any conflict between Nick and the police department as there were on some other shows. On our program, you heard Sgt. Mathison who was Nick's sidekick and we always worked together. We received several awards for helping the image of the police department."

During his peak years, Clark appeared on an average of twenty radio broadcasts a week. "I used to have standbys who would come in and stand in for me and mark my script and I might show up only for the dress rehearsal." He was particularly in demand for programs like "The March of Time" and "Report To The Nation" that required a variety of foreign accents in a single episode.

Many of us who grew up in the 1950's listened faithfully to "The Comic Weekly Man" dramatize the Hearst Newspapers Puck The Comic Weekly funnies. Very few people knew that Lon Clark was the Comic Weekly Man, and that he wrote, produced and did all of the voices except those of the female roles, which were done by his "Miss Honey."

Clark was never identified on the program's credits and he didn't emphasize his relationship with the program in those days. "I didn't publicize it very much because I was hoping my career would be advanced more in serious and mature roles. You think you're going to play Hamlet and you don't want to say this is the Comic Weekly Man and I want to audition for Hamlet."

The Comic Weekly Man began with Clark singing, "I'm the Comic Weekly Man, the jolly Comic Weekly Man, and I'm here to read the funnies to you happy boys and honies." After a short repartee with the "little girl" Miss Honey, Clark would introduce each comic strip with a tongue twister like: "Hippity, hoppity, make it a habit, to give us music for old Br' Rabbit" or "Ramafoo, ramafum, zim, zam, zombee, Let's have music for Dagwood and Blonde."

Each comic strip was treated like a mini-program, complete with dialogue, sound effects and music. Clark produced an amazing number of diverse voices in quick succession, and listening to the program today it's easy to speculate that if Clark had been on the West Coast, he could have made a fortune doing voices for animated cartoons.

Originally Clark was asked to simply audition as an actor for the role of the Comic Weekly Man. "I was, among others, called in to audition for it. Being quite versatile to change my voice from one character to another, like, oh let's say Dagwood, I'd try to get a high freakish voice. I'd switch around. I did Maggie and Jiggs with an Irish accent. So I auditioned for it and I got a call saying I was the person they wanted to do it."

"I came in and they handed me a script and I took it home. It was written by a very good writer, but he apparently didn't have a feel for childhood stuff and what kid's would like. So I went home and re-wrote my own version of the script and took it back to Mildred Fenton the producer and I said I think this is the way the script should be. Read it and call me back. She called me back and said 'I've read the script and you'll be writing it, too'"

"Eventually she got married and moved away and they engaged me to be the producer of it as well during the last two to three years. I had three different girls who played Miss Honey. There were just the two of us who did that show. It was quite a versatility job for both her and me. I had a lot of fun with it. I really, really did."

Clark was an early member of AFTRA and is proud of his affiliation. "I was the first AFTRA man to walk in its first strike in Cincinnati. And I'm being given a special AFTRA award for having given meritorious service to the union."

One day when Clark was building a new home in Woodstock, NY, disaster struck. Hospitalized with an injured back, several months worth of pain killers damaged his vocal cords. At the time he was a member of the board of directors of the Episcopal Actors' Guild that was dedicated to helping show business people who were down on their luck. They asked Clark to administer their organization, so he embarked on a new career that he continued until his retirement in 1995.

Does any particular radio program or series stand out in Clark's memory? "One I was really thrilled to do was sponsored on Sunday's by the Catholic Church. During W.W.II, they did a lot of broadcasts about men in the service. There happened to be a man by the name of Lt. O'Shay in the Navy, and the ship went down with him on board, and he had written a letter to his children that was published in all of the newspapers about what he was fighting for."

"I was called to be in the cast for that show, and in the middle of the rehearsals the director said I think I need to change a few characters around for balance of voices and he switched me into the lead role. I've never forgotten how difficult that broadcast was because I had two little boys at that time and to read that man's letter to his baby boy was just too hard for me to contain myself. But I finally got it so that I did it the proper way."

"I've never forgotten it because the director came to me afterwards and said, 'thanks very much for saving my show.' I didn't tell him that I had auditioned for him in Chicago and he said "I think radio can do without you." He never knew that the guy who saved his show was the guy who he told that radio could do without you."

-- The End --

This article is based on a telephone interview conducted by the author on April 1, 1997.

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 rgb@up.net.