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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Reconstructing Talbot Mundy's
JACK ARMSTRONG RADIO SERIALS
by Brian Taves, © 2006
(From Radio Recall, August 2006)
JACK ARMSTRONG–THE ALL AMERICAN BOY is still one of the most well-remembered radio shows in radio aimed at the teen and pre-teen audience. It debuted July 31, 1933, as a daily serial, yet until the Fall of 1940, only about a half-dozen of the actual shows survive. A mere outline was known of Jack Armstrong's adventures during those seven years.
I learned about JACK ARMSTRONG while researching a biography of the adventure writer Talbot Mundy, who took over the show at the beginning of the 1936 season, writing all of the episodes until his death on August 5, 1940. When the show's producers turned it over to Mundy, they wanted an established, quality author, to raise the show's caliber of writing. Such classic Mundy novels as *King–of the Khyber Rifles* had already been adapted for the screen.
Mundy was hired at the time that JACK ARMSTRONG switched from CBS to the NBC-Red Network, on August 31, 1936, and his authorship was advertised. Publicity announced that Jack Armstrong would travel to India, Tibet, China, the Himalayas, and the Gobi Desert--a clear sign that Mundy's favored locales were now accepted as the center of the action, and that the show would reflect the motifs of his adult fiction.
Like the teenage hero whose adventures Mundy was now imagining, his own early years were marked by travel. In 1895, at 16, he fled the strait-laced Victorian upbringing of his native England. He crossed the entire northern frontier of India, into Tibet, and spent four years in Africa; later he traveled the Middle East in the wake of World War I.
Colonial odysseys of the time led most writers to echo Rudyard Kipling's support of British imperialism, Sax Rohmer's "yellow peril," or Joseph Conrad's "heart of darkness." Not Mundy. His fantasy-adventure books challenged assumptions of Western cultural superiority. Fascinated by Eastern religious teaching, he joined the Theosophical Society in San Diego, California, where he wrote *Om–The Secret of Ahbor Valley*.
As a long-time OTR fan myself, and as a film historian, I was determined that Mundy's radio writing should receive its full due in a biography. While Mundy is best known for his 45 books, his broadcast work contained enough plots to make the equivalent of at least nine novels--some 700 scripts, almost 120 hours of airtime. Yet, only one script and three of the broadcasts Mundy composed survive. I sought to reconstruct those four years of his writing JACK ARMSTRONG, and was able to do so by combining this evidence with promotions from the show, Wheaties box tops, Big Little books, Mundy's letters, together with the plots of several of his previous novels which he adapted for radio and those he was writing concurrently. Fred King, whose years of meticulous research into JACK ARMSTRONG had appeared in two self-published books, offered invaluable advice.
The most obvious way to recreate JACK ARMSTRONG would be through the scripts. Mundy composed these via dictation to his wife at the typewriter. Then, each day, just before five o'clock, the family would quietly gather around the radio. Mundy's mother-in-law would bring in the script for that day's episode; he had a contract that the producer could not change any of the wording. However, after the broadcast and transcription, none of the participants, even the producers, saved the scripts. Transcripts of the NBC-Red Network given by the network to the Library of Congress provide simply airtimes, as one of the shows emanating from Chicago.
JACK ARMSTRONG had begun with sports tales centered around Hudson High, but like most series fiction quickly outgrew its own locale. Jack assisted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, foiled cattle rustlers in Arizona ranch, searched the jungles of South America, became stranded on a desert island and journeyed to the Arctic.
Mundy's first radio adventure with Jack Armstrong took him aboard the China Clipper from America to Manila, and on to Shanghai by boat to meet the series' adult figure, the renaissance man Uncle Jim Fairfield. A jade talisman has been placed in Jack's care. Together with perennial friends Billy and Betty, they stop at Malaysia, and the seas of Southeast Asia, the only time Mundy fictionalized his own youthful experiences on tramp steamers all the way from Cape Town to New Zealand.
Jack and his friends meet Su-li Wing, a woman who would appear as a villain a year later in Mundy's novel, *The Thunder Dragon Gate* (1937). By September, 1936, 150,000 listeners sent in a boxtop and three cents for a dragon talisman and a chart game map of Jack's wanderings in the East. (This episode and all the plots of JACK ARMSTRONG outlined below are described in considerably more detail in my book, *Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure*, published by McFarland.)
While the first JACK ARMSTRONG serial reflected the book that Mundy was composing at the time, *The Thunder Dragon Gate*, for his next sequence he decided to adapt one of his past novels. *The Ivory Trail* (1919) had already been converted to movie serial form in 1932 with Universal's THE JUNGLE MYSTERY. In January, 1937 Jack went to Africa to search for the Elephants' Graveyard with its fabulous ivory treasure.
The only surviving Mundy script from JACK ARMSTRONG, published in a 1938 radio anthology, *Radio Continuity Types*, is from this period in the show, and the overall sequence was adapted in the Big Little book, *Jack Armstrong and the Ivory Treasure*, by Leslie J. Daniels, Jr. A "Moviescope" premium was offered, with over 225,000 sold for a dime and the sales slip to a package of Wheaties; one of the five 35 mm. filmstrips offered elaborately-created scenes with human and animal figures amid jungle brush. For instance, Billy photographs a riverbank just before Jack and Uncle Jim shoot a crocodile, and Betty snaps a picture of a native war canoe as it went past their camp on the Congo River.
JACK ARMSTRONG returned in the Fall of 1937 with a search for Captain Hughes, one of the original 1933 characters on the show. Talbot wrote to his brother Harold, a former officer of the Egyptian Camel Corps, for some Arabic phrases of command. On the show, Jack was going to be invited to join the Camel Corps and pursue thieves near the Great Pyramid.
The January 1938 premium was an adjustable whistling ring, with a code sheet of the signals used on the program, and attracted orders from three-quarters of a million readers. Such a ring, given by Sheik Mahmoud to Jack, had saved his life. The ring contained the symbols of long life, good luck, and secret power, with the Ick bird ("and Lotus mean the glorified being in the sky") in one corner, and the image of Osiris ("the sun god source of life and judge of the dead") on one side, and the Ankh ("means secret power") on the reverse side, popularizing these ancient symbols for modern listeners.
Jack returned to radio in September 1938, traveling to the coast of Zanzibar, helping Uncle Jim recover valuable art objects from a ship sunk by pirates in the Indian ocean. Jack rescues the crew and learns deep-sea diving to search the ocean bed (as shown on a Wheaties boxtop).
One of the crew saved by Jack and his friends give him a strange key, which proves to be from Karachi. The details of the following sequence can be found in the second "Better Little Book" based on the show during the Mundy years, published by Whitman in August 1939 and entitled *Jack Armstrong and the Mystery of the Iron Key*. Their key emits a whining buzz sound, when Uncle Jim holds it over his head, while it becomes quiet when he lowers it.
Such ideas were perfect for the radio show's sound effects, which were noted for their particular excellence in the India settings. While visiting a Maharajah, his groom, Sidiki, is assigned to protect Jack. Sidiki's constant sharpening of his sword, making a sound of whetstone against saber, was long remembered by listeners, according to Fred King.
Uncle Jim advises in *Jack Armstrong and the Mystery of the Iron Key*, in an almost direct quote from Mundy's other writings, "Magic, so-called, is only a functioning of some natural law scientists haven't been able to explain." The sequence resembles portions of Mundy's novel Jimgrim, and both contain elements of science fiction. Here, the keys are reacting to the strange rays emanating from a meteor crater, drawing lightning from the clouds which is absorbed and given off in pulsating waves. There are echoes of other Mundy books, including *The Nine Unknown*, *Om* and *Full Moon*.
Jack next joins an airplane race to Rio de Janeiro, encountering a gang in an underground city in the jungle. This was Mundy's first opportunity to use his research on Mayan culture for the next volume (sadly, never written) in his "Tros of Samothrace" books. Jack locates the secret "Phantom" submarine hideout of Captain Quinto, a soldier of fortune, whose base is at the foot of a Mayan temple (as shown on a Wheaties boxtop). Jack, Billy, and Uncle Jim find Betty by using a "Hike-O-Meter" (offered as a premium) to guide them through the labyrinth of winding passages and tunnels (a motif of Mundy novels).
In the Spring of 1939, Jack delivers, all the way from America, an ancient manuscript to the Great Grand Lama of Tibet, which had been stolen. Wheaties box tops provide some details of the sequence, and the last program of the 31-week season, heard on April 28, 1939, is the first surviving radio program from the Mundy years. The April 28 episode embodies all that Mundy sought to achieve with JACK ARMSTRONG, suffused with religion and philosophy, as Jack and his friends experience the spirituality of the Grand Lama. At the time Mundy was writing another novel of Tibet and the Dalai Lama, his last book, *Old Ugly-Face*, published in 1940.
JACK ARMSTRONG returned to the airwaves in September 1939, going on a hunt for pirate treasure buried in the West Indies. (Pirates, a motif of JACK ARMSTRONG, had been the subject of two of Mundy's magazine stories, "Christening Cannon Rock" in 1912 and "Black Flag" in 1931). Jack uses a new kind of flashlight to send signals in Morse Code--and the "Safety Signal Light Kit" became the October 1939 promotion.
A diamond hunt leads Jack and his companions to Egypt, where they use a "Magic Answer Box," that when held in the hand, suggests whether the holder is truthful or not. The "Magic Answer Box," decorated with a scarab, ankh, and pyramids, became the premium early in 1940. They meet "the Babu" who serves as a source of humor and causes frequent trouble, while also advancing the narrative. He resembles the similarly-nicknamed trickster of Mundy's prose, Chullunder Ghose.
In Macao, Uncle Jim flies to Easter Island, and the second surviving Mundy episode of JACK ARMSTRONG was broadcast in the spring of 1940. Jack and Billy examine thirteen gold statuettes given for safekeeping by an East Asian prince. Uncle Jim believes the statues are of kings from 50,000 years ago. Billy notes that the statuettes, with their long neck and unusual-shaped ears, resemble the unexplained stone statues on Easter Island–but the gold statuettes were found on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Within the guise of a fantasy-adventure, Mundy has advanced theosophical theories of the ancient origins of humanity, a subject even more occult than his invocation of Buddhist doctrine in Jack's visit to the Grand Lama.
When Mundy died suddenly in 1940, only two more scripts in the current sequence remained to be completed, according to his wife, Dawn. Knowing his plans, she finished them, in collaboration with neighbor and writer Wyatt Blassingame. The conclusion of the Easter Island series is the only other episode that survives, and lacks the coherence, logic, and skill with dialogue that had marked Mundy's other episodes.
Ironically, for the year immediately after Mundy passed away, many of the JACK ARMSTRONG programs survive, as Jack goes to the Philippines on the trail of uranium.
They were written by Mundy's successor, Colonel Pascal N. Strong, an Army veteran and a writer of sports and adventure stories for boy's magazines. He inherited one aspect of JACK ARMSTRONG upon Mundy's death; Strong had to work in to the plot a "Dragon's Eye Ring" already tested in the spring as a fall 1940 premium. The sponsor had to secure Mundy's collaboration on the development of the commercial tie-ins, because of the necessity for the plots to reflect the premium marketing. This "Dragon's Eye Ring" was to be a centerpiece in whatever new JACK ARMSTRONG serial Mundy had planned before his death. Mundy's mystical interest and Eastern beliefs were substituted by Strong with the appeal of modern science, and soon wartime propaganda became an essential part of the program.
A children's radio serial would hardly seem a possible outlet for Mundy's talents as a writer, yet he found it a challenge. The program had come to him with a list of all the "can't do's" dictated by the sponsor, barring religion, philosophy, the supernatural or superstition. As Dawn recalled, "You tell Talbot 'don't', and you hoist the red flag for the bull." He infused the show with his own, theosophical perspective, a fact that was never caught by a sponsor, pleased to have an audience estimated at nine million.
The premiums typically sold from a half million to a million listeners, indicating the close attention given the show by at least one in every seven young Americans, as Fred King noted. JACK ARMSTRONG gave Mundy a bully pulpit to impressionable youth, open to word of far horizons, and he was able to communicate his fascination with Eastern thought to more people than even his mostly widely-read bestsellers.
Mr. Taves' book, Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure, published by McFarland, is available at their web site, plus Amazon.com and others.