Circus Time on the Air
by Melanie Aultman. © 2014
(From Radio Recall, February 2015)
Laaaaadies and Gentlemen! Readers of allllllll ages! Step right up for a preliminary peek at how the circus was represented in old-time radio. In some series the circus was the main premtse, while others featured a story arc or single shows only. Some were comedic and others mysterious "whodunnits." Content represents practices and commonalities of the time. Radio shows with circus themes usually included typical music and sound effects although some were less lighthearted.
Jerry of the Circus (1937), a 15 minute serial sponsored by Baird's Bread and syndicated Transco, was aimed at a juvenile audience. This 7 "year in the life" story features the adventures of Jerry Dugan, his dog Rags, and a cast of circus characters through a season with the Randall Brothers Circus. All but two of the 130 shows are known to exist today.
Based on the musical "Jumbo" by Rodgers & Hart (Nov. 1935 to April 1936) and sponsored on NBC by Texaco, The Jumbo Fire Chief Program (Oct 1935-Jan 1986), was a more adult offering. It featured Jimmy Durante among other performers from "Jumbo" and was broadcast from the New York Hippodrome.
The 52 thirty-minute episodes of The Clyde Beatty Show were aired on Mutual, sponsored by Kellogg's and syndicated by Commodore (Dec 1950- Jan 1952). Plots ranged from actual Beatty experiences to those requiring suspension of disbelief. Though she had died by the time the series aired, the character of Clyde's wife Harriett features prominently in these shows, suitable for adults and youth.
Ted Drake Guardian of the Big Top (or The Circus Detective) (June-Sept 1949) was a thirty minute Mutual summer replacement for The Adventures of Superman intended for juvenile audiences starring Vince Harding and Fred Rains. We have MWOTRC member Bob State to thank for most of what is known of this series. (see RADIO RECALL, April 2005)
Sponsored by Horlick's Malted Milk in March and April of 1935, Mutual's Lum and Abner featured a story arc in which our loveable duo get involved in the ownership and running of a circus. Hillbilly hilarity ensues for fans of rural humor.
Radio series that featured a comedic view of the circus included NBC's The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (1948-1954). "The Circus" aired 4-10-1949 on NBC sponsored by Rexall. Phil and family, including Frankie, head for the circus. When they don't have enough money for all the tickets, Frankie and Phil try to sneak in to humorous result.
Husband and wife team Jim and Marion Jordon as Fibber McGee and Molly (April 1935-0ct 1959) aired "The Circus Comes to Wistful Vista" (May 1940) on NBC sponsored by Johnson's Wax. It is mostly banter and mentions of current people as Fibber claims to have worked elephants in the "Wagenbeck-Hallace" outfit. (Note: Hagenbeck-Wallace was a real circus.)
A Fibber McGee and Molly spin-off, The Great Gildersleeve (Aug 1941 to March 1957) featured an episode entitled 'The Carnival" (Nov 1949), affording Gildy (Harold Peary) the opportunity to serve as ringmaster. It was on NBC sponsored by Kraft Foods' Parkay Margarine.
Representing a more serious side of the circus/carnival are some of our beloved OTR detectives. Yours Truly Johnny Dollar (March 1949) on CBS featured Charles Russell in "Murder is a Merry-Go-Round" replete with "accidents", grand larceny and snake charmers. In an episode broadcast on December 10 of that same year, a rare black leopard is involved in a gemstone heist. Johnny signs off as Johnny "Frank Buck" Dollar, a nod to the famed big game hunter.
Dick Powell did the honors as Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1949-1953) transcribed on ABC and sponsored by Camel Cigarettes. In a show about a carnival, Diamond solves a mystery amid a tent fire and mirrored funhouse.
A Mutual offering based on a British import, Bulldog Drummond ( 1941-1949) was syndicated by Fredrick W. Ziv. The show "Death Under the Big Top" involved both a trapeze accident and insurance fraud.
Boston Blackie, based on a fictional bad guy, started as a summer replacement for Amos 'n' Andy (June 1944) on NBC. It was sponsored by Rinso and featured Chester Morris. In April of 1945 Richard Kollmar portrayed the detective, butting heads with Police Inspector Farriday (Maurice Tarplin). At least three episodes involved the circus: One was about a sword swallower, another a trapeze incident, and a merry-go-round was the center of action in another episode. The later shows (through Oct of 1950) were syndicated by Frederik W. Ziv to various networks, including Mutual, with a variety of sponsors. Dramatic organ music is heard throughout.
While not exhaustive, perhaps this introduction to radio shows with circus content will inspire further inquiry. There does seem to be some confusion at times about actual show dates and titles. My thanks to John Abbott, Jack French, Martin Grams, Jr., Doug Hopkinson, Charles Niren and Derek Tague for providing leads to or copies of shows.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Melanie Aultman lives in Gainesville, FL and is a Senior Library Specialist at the Waldo Branch of the Alachua County Library District. She has been a member of MWOTRC for a decade.