Special Feature on Special Collections

Murder, Bug Bombs, Delusions, and Disagreements: The Stories behind the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection at UMKC

Sandy Rodriguez, Special Collections Metadata Librarian (UMKC)

Just over two years ago, I found myself driving by the Pickwick Hotel at 10th and McGee Streets in downtown Kansas City. I wish I could say that I did this to satiate some intellectual curiosity to see the building in which former president Harry S. Truman wrote his autobiographical Pickwick Papers; or that I did it to fulfill a romantic notion that I should see that place which once housed the penthouse headquarters of radio station KMBC, the station whose collection I had been cataloging for the past several months. It was for neither of those reasons I ventured out on that inconspicuous evening.

Pickwick Hotel. Credit: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

The truth is hard to admit. In the midst of working with the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, I had run across KMBC program producer and sometimes announcer, Fran Heyser, and as any good cataloger is wont to do, I set about establishing his name in the LC/NACO Name Authority File. When I discovered in horror that he had been beaten to death with a metal table lamp at the Pickwick, I had the irresistible urge to investigate. I recently learned that this abandoned hotel is slated for redevelopment as apartments for “young urbanites.” Imagine them moving in with their reclaimed wood coffee tables and vegan faux leather couches (hey, wait. I have these things…), having no idea their new apartment could be haunted by the ghost of Fran Heyser. I would totally watch that episode of Paranormal Witness on SyFy.

In October 2012, the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Marr Sound Archives completed an 18-month National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog and preserve the nearly 3,000 broadcast recordings in the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection. I served as the project cataloger, managed three students, and coordinated with sound archives staff on the preservation and digital reformatting of the recordings. When pondering what I might write for the MLA Newsletter, I thought it might be sensible to highlight some unique items in the collection or maybe talk a little about the project, but then I realized that I don’t normally make any sense, and when I do, it puts everyone to sleep. Instead, for the amusement of all, I want to share some anecdotes.

It seems like anyone who works with unique collections has some interesting experience to share; gains some knowledge and insight into the time, people, and place represented in the collection; and develops some personal connection to some fascinating find from the collection. In order to tell the stories from our NEH grant project, I have to (1) set the stage by giving a little background about the collection, and (2) ask everyone to imagine that I’m your grandmother (the cool one), sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch. In fact, read this with a frail, shaky voice in your head. That might be fun.

About the collection
Arthur Church, Jr. donated the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection to UMKC in 1996. Focusing on radio pioneer Arthur B. Church's involvement with the Kansas City, Mo.-based KMBC radio station, the collection includes a timeline, business correspondence, ledgers and contracts, as well as the sound recordings (which date from the 1930s through the 1950s) and disc stampers, the metal plates used to press (or stamp) vinyl discs. Promotional material related to KMBC is included, as well as scripts to the programs Phenomenon and Life on the Red Horse Ranch. The collection includes items related to the Texas Rangers, including songbooks and record labels for numerous pressings produced by Church. Other items found in the collection include internal and external station newsletters, newspaper clippings, music scores, and memorabilia.

Texas Rangers
KMBC's The Texas Rangers. Credit: Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, Marr Sound Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City

The sound recordings include a wide range of Church's original programming which gained national prominence as a CBS-affiliated station. Among the highlights are a number of library transcription service discs from Arthur B. Church Productions featuring the catalogs of the Tune Chasers, Bonnie King, Harry Jenks, Rhythm Riders, Tex Owens, notable Western swing group-turned-Hollywood film musical sensation, The Texas Rangers, along with live performances and rehearsal recordings of the Kansas City Philharmonic. Additionally, the collection includes over twenty hours of The Brush Creek Follies, an immensely popular barn dance show which ran Saturday nights on KMBC for over twenty years, as well as rural programming (Night Time on the Trail, Happy Hollow, Life on Red Horse Ranch), and nationally syndicated soap operas (Vic and Sade, Bachelor’s Children).
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Special Collection, continued

Beyond entertainment, the collection includes many historically significant news and political items, including CBS’ The World Today featuring John Charles Daly, Edward R. Murrow and William L. Shirer; news coverage of the war including speeches by Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Pope Pius XI, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur, and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz; and Kansas City 1942 election coverage and political ads. Many radio personalities began their careers at KMBC, including John Cameron Swayze, Ted Malone, Walter Cronkite, and Caroline Ellis, and their early recordings can now be heard. A Web site highlighting the contents of the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection can be found at http://library.umkc.edu/spec-col/KMBC/index.html.

The stories behind the collection

The stampers under the stairs (not surprisingly, full of spiders)

Stampers in original crates. Spiders, too. Credit: Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, Marr Sound Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Shortly after I had hired the project students, I received that news that we all dread hearing. It goes something like, “Oh, by the way, we found a bunch more stuff that belongs to that collection you’re cataloging for that grant.” Ours was more like: “Oh, by the way, we found a bunch of metal stampers at the bottom of a stairwell. I think there’s about 1,000 of them, and they all belong to the KMBC collection.” Actually, it was exactly like that (and there were 1,400 of them). But since I’m always up for a challenge, I came up with a workflow, drew up some guidelines, and unleashed one of my deadliest students. She was a quick-witted graduate Public History major armed with a vast knowledge of home health remedies, construction cleanup experience, and a nice Southern accent with a “no bull” attitude who drank her French press coffee black. She was perfect for the job.

I often walked into the dusty space she was working in to check on her. I felt bad for subjecting her to all the dust and forcing her to handle the heavy stampers, but she didn’t complain much about it. She had accepted the job and planned on doing it right. As it turns out though, some complaint was warranted. About two weeks in, I received a call from the head of the sound archive informing me that they had sent the student back upstairs and she was forbidden to re-enter the space until it had been bug bombed. I was confused. What had happened? Apparently, when asked how things were going, the student casually mentioned the brown recluses crawling out of the crates. That generated an appropriate response of alarm and concern for the safety and health of the student and the archives staff. Her response: “I was just killin’ ‘em with two by fours. I had planned to keep killin’ ‘em.” Like I said. Deadly.

Hollow cast members
Happy Hollow cast and others, including Brookings Montgomery, outside entrance to Pickwick Hotel at the start of troupe's European and African tour. Credit: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

Happy Hollow is a real place

Rural programming was pretty common in the 1930s and ‘40s, and KMBC had its own in the town of Happy Hollow which gave listeners a peek into the daily lives of Aunt Lucindy, Uncle Ezra, Harry Checkervest, George Washington White (their own blackface character), and other town folk, along with musical interludes by the Humdinger Quartet.The program’s creator, Ted Malone, would have a long and successful career in radio broadcasting, mostly known for his storytelling and poetry reading, and as we later discovered by going through his fan mail,  he was very popular with the housewives…in an uncomfortable way.

Listeners engrossed in the goings-on of Happy Hollow could find out more by subscribing to the newsletter Happy Hollow Bugle. We came upon the newsletter when I sent my most enthusiastic student upstairs to Special Collections to see if he could find out more about the program, specifically, what radio actors were cast in the various roles. My instructions were simple: Look over the finding aid and pull whatever seems like it might contain some information about the show. I figured this wouldn’t take long since there didn’t appear to be much in the Church-KMBC Collection finding aid. About ten minutes in, I received a phone call from my very excited student telling me that one of the Special Collections staff pulled a newsletter called Happy Hollow Bugle from the Ted Malone Collection, and that there was all kinds of helpful information in it. Relieved that he had found something useful, I instructed him to gather up the relevant data for identifying the characters in the show.

Over an hour passed by, and just as I was beginning to wonder what was going on, he walked in. I saw him from a distance, all wide-eyed, headed straight toward me clutching a pencil and papers in his left hand, and I thought, “This is it. He’s going to tell me how he hit the jackpot of details on this show, and I might even be able to establish some names in the authority file.” He had spent an hour and a half in the archives, after all. But instead, he approached and exclaimed, “Happy Hollow is a real place!” As I was laughing (hard), he proceeded to tell me about the legal troubles that Uncle Ezra had found himself in, how some of the townsfolk had traveled to Africa, and other documented occurrences that had convinced him of its realness.

Tried and tried as I might to crush his new-found beliefs so suddenly (e.g., “So there’s just a guy in town who likes to walk around in blackface?”), he remained convinced and I remained amused. The good news: we were able to identify some of the actors. In fairness to my student, the cast of Happy Hollow and other KMBC stars did tour Europe and Africa. Kudos to KMBC for blending fiction and reality in their marketing so effortlessly. They had at least one person convinced 80 years later! (scroll down to continue)


Special Collection, continued

Disc(h)ord on the ranch
It seemed like everyone on the project team had discovered some new interest when working with the collection. One student became so engrossed in the developing drama on the show Vic and Sade, she hoarded all the discs to herself. For me, it was the Western swing group, The KMBC Texas Rangers. The unedited cuts of this musical octet perfectly demonstrate the unique chemistry the group had. It was hard not to be captivated by them, with names like: Clarence “Idaho” Hartman (bass fiddle), Gomer “Tenderfoot” Cool (fiddle), Joe “Monty” Strand (accordion), Herbie “Arizona” Kratoska (guitar and banjo), Fran “Irish” Mahaney (tenor), Rod “Dave” May (tenor), Robert “Captain Bob” Crawford (baritone), and Edward “Tucson” or “Tookie” Cronenbold (bass).

Texas Rangers
The KMBC Texas Rangers "Gentlemen in the White Hats." Credit: Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection, Marr Sound Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Garbed in Western wear, topped with classic white hats, their versatile musical repertoire included hymns, cowboy songs, novelty, and western swing. When I guest lectured for the Conservatory (UMKC), I ended with the Texas Rangers’ rendition of “Hand me down my walking cane” which inevitably got stuck in everyone’s head. It’s entertaining and hopefully served as a distraction from the terrible guest lecture they just sat through. (Editor: I’m sure it was fantastic.)

Tex OwensAs we soon discovered, the Texas Rangers weren’t without their own drama. In their early radio programs, they were often fronted by special guest, Tex Owens. Owens, who played guitar and sang with the group on occasion, was never officially a member, but somehow left his mark in history as “The Original Texas Ranger.” There seemed to be a great deal of tension between Tex and the boys which reached its climax when Texas Governor, James V. Allred, commissioned the musical group The Texas Rangers, along with Tex Owens, as honorary members of the state’s famed law enforcement group. The honor bestowed upon the Rangers prompted them to compose an interoffice memo expressing their disappointment that Tex would be honored alongside them considering he had not been a member. The memo also included some disagreements between the group and Tex. You can read more about this controversy, see the original memo, and learn of the outcome from a blog post written by one of the project students: http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/archives/248.

Image above: Tex Owens, the original Texas Ranger?
Image courtesy of Orlene "Kit" Johnson and
Irene "Kay" Dierks

The End

If you made it this far, I wonder about your mental state. If you made it this far with that frail, shaky grandma voice in your head, we should be best friends because my own mental state is questionable. If you’d like to learn more about the collection, check out the Web exhibit HERE, or feel free to contact Chuck Haddix, Marr Sound Archives (HaddixC@umkc.edu; (816) 235-2798; http://library.umkc.edu/marr). If you want to read more stories, we are documenting them on our blog, Scripts & Grooves. If you’d like to tell stories of your own, we should share a drink at the annual meeting (rodriguezsan@umkc.edu; (816) 235-2229).