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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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Early Air Adventures of Tailspin Tommy
by Karl Schadow, ©2013
(From Radio Recall, October 2013)

"All right, Skeeter," Tommy exclaimed to his pal, "...let 'em have it!" There was a roar of machine gun fire. Were these two gangsters making a hit on a rival mob? No, indeed. This was one of the exhilarating scenes highlighting a 1941 radio episode of the aviation thriller, Tailspin Tommy. This article will provide an introductory overview of Tailspin Tommy focusing on his radio exploits.

The characters Tommy Tomkins (often erroneously spelled as Tompkins), Clarence "Skeeter" (or "Skeets") Milligan and Tommy's love interest, Betty Lou Barnes first graced the comic pages of the daily newspapers in April, 1928. Created by Glenn Chaffin and Hal Forrest and distributed via The Bell Syndicate, the strip is often touted as the initial aviation venture though it appeared a few months after the United Feature Syndicate (UFS) Skylark (by Elmer Woggon & Eddie Stinson).

Tailspin Tommy expertly flew all kinds of aircraft
Tommy expertly flew all kinds of aircraft including WWI biplanes for a movie being filmed at Three-Point in 1934. Original copyright 1934 Hal Forrest.

Both of these followed Hal Forrest's self-syndicated, short-lived Artie the Ace (ca. 1926-27). In 1933, Chaffin left Tailspin Tommy. In 1935 Forrest once again had a partner as Reynold Brown contributed excellent artistry throughout the remainder of the strip until it ceased in 1942 (www.reynoldbrownart.com). The strip had been syndicated by UFS from July, 1939 through its completion.

Tailspin Tommy benefited from the great aviation boom of the late 1920s, resulting in a Sunday comic page added in October, 1929. The strip was adapted to the silver screen with a Universal serial in 1934 starring Maurice Murphy (Tommy), Noah Beery, Jr. (Skeeter), with Patricia Farr as Betty Lou. The following year, another Universal serial was released with Clark Williams as Tommy.

Four feature films appeared in 1939 from Monogram Pictures. During the 1930s and 1940s, Tailspin Tommy appeared in numerous comic books, a dozen Big (Better) Little Books, several Big Thrill Chewing Gum Premium Booklets and two issues of a pulp magazine in 1936-37. More on Tailspin Tommy may be found in the comics histories by Maurice Hom and Ron Goulart, and at Steve Remington's aviation site (www.collectair.com).

During its early years, radio was often scorned by the fourth estate over issues from advertising expenditures to news coverage. Thus one of the initial radio adaptations of Tailspin Tommy was a fascinating enterprise; the result of the promotional campaign for the newspaper strip which was to debut on Monday, June 24, 1929 in the Pittsburgh Press.

The Press went all out in advertising its new daily feature with a "Tailspin Tommy" aviation ball, an aviation day at the local Bettis Field and at 3:00 pm on Thursday, June 20, 1929 a 30-minute drama on KDKA. This production entitled, "Tailspin Tommy Flys to Fame" was written and directed by Marjorie Stewart, though blind since childhood was a major contributor to the excellence of Pittsburgh radio, having joined KDKA in 1922 as one of the medium's earliest critics.

Although a script has not been located of this endeavor, the plot was culled by Miss Stewart from a years-worth of adventures in the newspaper. Tommy had grown up in Littleville, Colorado as an auto mechanic so obsessed by flying that all he talked about was aviation. Then the locals later anointed him his nickname, "Tailspin" (originally "Tail-Spin").

After assisting in the repair of a downed mail plane, he was offered a job as an airplane mechanic at the plane's firm, Three-Point Airlines (with Paul Smith, President) which brought him to its home base in Texas. There he got his friend Skeeter a job as a fellow mechanic and met the girl of his dreams, Betty Lou Barnes. All three eventually became expert pilots which took them on adventures from the routine mail routes, thwarting gangsters, and dictators in foreign countries.

There was much publicity in the Press afforded the Pittsburgh broadcast including cast members who were current students or recent graduates from the Carnegie Tech Drama Department (now Carnegie Mellon University Drama School) including: Jack Woolley, R. Theodore Shaw, Albert J. Carles, Donn Sonhoff, Ruth Aston, Ben Avon with Frank Clegg providing sound patterns. This contingent was complemented by two area radio veterans, pianist Earl Truxell and Jack Thompson, well-known humorist and dialectition.

Sponsored by the recently established Good Will Federation, an association of local civic groups and clubs whose executive secretary Mrs. William Gardner and local radio executive David Feigley spearheaded its radio activities, the endeavor was also produced through the auspices of the Aero Club of Pittsburgh. This group of flight enthusiasts had been founded in 1909 to promote aviation in Western Pennsylvania.

Thus, this local production of Tailspin Tommy lead the way for Smilin' Jack and Terry & the Pirates among others who had begun on the newspaper comic page and had flown via etherwaves. To learn more about Tommy's fellow aviators and aviatrixes, see the links at the end of this article for works by Jack French, Maury Cagle and Mike Gretz.

Though audio remains elusive of the KDKA broadcast, fans of Tailspin Tommy have the opportunity to enjoy two, 15-minute episodes (available at www.otrrlibrary.org). These may be part of any of three possible series which were attempted in the 1930s. The Billboard (June 16, 1934) announced that Tailspin Tommy was being auditioned that week for Scott's Emulsion and slated for CBS through the N.W. Ayer agency.

The two episodes cited above appear to be from a proposed daily series. The plots involve two different stories, the first with Tommy and Skeeter traveling via ocean liner to Carablanca where they sojourn to a mysterious castle. At the close of the episode, Tommy and Skeeter journey to the microphone to say hello to all of their fans and encourage them to request their own Tailspin Tommy Flying Wings or Flying Cap. A Tailspin Tommy Wings Badge is pictured in Hake's Guide, however no radio program is mentioned.

Tailspin Tommy Tower Chatter
Duty calls as Tommy and Skeeter often flew in two-seaters as in this adventure from 1932. Original copyright 1932 Glenn Chaffin & Hal Forrest.

In the other episode, we join Tommy and Skeeter in the air as they battle a fire in an oil well which is owned by John Barnes (Betty Lou's uncle). Although Tommy and Skeeter don't speak directly to listeners in this adventure, they are identified by announcer Wendell Niles as Maurice Murphy and Noah Beery, Jr. The actress portraying Betty Lou is not credited but could be Patrcia Farr. You may recall that this trio starred in the first Universal serial in 1934. Was the radio program an attempt to promote the movie? In both episodes a Tailspin Tommy Flying Club and CBS cue are included. A Club was a featured alongside the Sunday Comics from ca. 1935-1938.

Though the scriptwriter of these episodes is not credited and remains unknown, the author of a work dated July 1, 1937 entitled, "Tailspin Tommy No. 1" is credited as Robert Lewis Shayon. This recent discovery is the result of the diligence of Laura Russo who unearthed this gem in the collection of Mr. Shayon's papers housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Highly regarded as a writer/producer/director and critic in radio, Mr. Shayon was a member of the Fanchon & Marco (F & M) talent agency production staff in 1937. The June 19, 1937 issue of The Billboard indicated that Samuel Shayon of F & M had both the radio and picture rights to Tailspin Tommy. Both Shayon's had collaborated on other F & M radio productions.

By 1938, the character was being handled by West Coast freelance promoter, Sig Schlager. A radio audition produced by American Radio Features Syndicate (ARFS) was disclosed in the August 15th issue of Broadcasting. This firm was founded in the early 1930s by Frederick Dahlquist. Interestingly, there is no mention of Sig Schlager in this announcement. However, an ad in the October 24, 1938 issue of Daily Variety indicates that radio and playrights are in negotiation.

Incidentally, the main thrust of the ad was the recent procurement of Paul Malvern Productions as the firm to film the four Monogram Pictures. Late in October, 1938, ARFS was dissolved by Fred Dahlquist. Thus, the fate of this and the other auditions remain to be elucidated. Are those two 15-minute cliffhangers part of the proposed 1934 CBS series?

Audio is also available (courtesy of Jack French) of two, 30-minute episodes of another CBS Tailspin Tommy series. Broadcast from the KNX studios in Hollywood, each of the extant episodes is a complete story. This series of thirteen episodes commenced as a sustainer on Friday, September 5, 1941 at 8:30 pm (PST) and was heard over a regional network of West Coast and Rocky Mountain stations.

As of October 5, 1941 , the program was broadcast on Sunday afternoons at 4:30 pm (PST) and continued into December. Though no cast is credited in the two extant episodes, publicity in the trade (and confirmed by this author) indicated the following: Jack Arnold (Tommy), Earl Hammond (Skeeter), with Dorothy Scott as Betty Lou. Ted Bliss was the producer with Bob Lemond as announcer.

The first of the extant episodes is the series opener of September 5th, in which Tommy and Skeeter rescue the rightful owner of a tungsten mine unlawfully taken over by gangsters. The other story is from the initial Sunday broadcast (October 5th). There was much excitement and danger (per opening paragraph) as Tommy, Skeeter and Betty Lou attempt to solve the murder of a stunt pilot during the filming of a movie at Three-Point.

Tailspin Tommy Bails
A perilous situation from a 1936 escapade. From L-R: Tommy, Skeets and Paul Smith with Betty Lou at the controls. © 2013 Estate of Reynold Brown / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Subsequent critique of this series will await the perusal of the remaining eleven scripts as
Patrick Kerwin (Library of Congress) and Fuller French (ARTS Library, Ft. Worth, Texas) have
updated this author on the holdings of these respective collections.
Author contact bluecar91@hotmail.com

Links to articles:
Jack French
Maury Cagle
Mike Gretz