|Lum and Abner is a deceptively simple show. With its
limited cast of usually only two performers, very few
sound effects, and slow-paced style, many listeners
probably thought the show actually was being broadcast
from a little general store in Pine Ridge, Arkansas. But it
is important to realize that, for all its simplicity, Lum and
Abner was as much a network radio production as any
other show on the air, and as such, its
behind-the-scenes doings had just as much influence on
it as they did on any show of more elaborate nature.
This especially applied to the relationship between the
show and its sponsors. It cannot be overemphasized
that in the days of radio, the sponsor was the
all-powerful force that any show had to reckon with...
and, to take the process one step further, it was the
advertising agencies that controlled what the sponsors
(their clients) did. In the case of Lum and Abner, the
longest-running sponsor (from May 1941 to September
1948) was Miles Laboratories of Elkhart, Indiana...
makers of Alka-Seltzer, One-A-Day Vitamins, and Miles
Nervine. The fate of Miles Laboratories, in turn, was in
large part controlled by the Chicago firm of Wade
Wade Advertising gets the credit for elevating Miles from
its patent-medicine roots to a major American
pharmaceutical company through one route: RADIO.
Miles, via Wade Advertising, was one of the busiest
sponsors on the airwaves. In the 1930's and early 1940's,
Wade put Miles on the networks as sponsor of The
National Barn Dance, The Quiz Kids, The Alka-Seltzer
News, and other more minor productions. For each of
these shows, the agency assigned a producer to
oversee the production, handle rehearsals, and generally
be in some sort of control.
When Wade Advertising took on Lum and Abner as
another of its shows in the spring of 1941... first only on
the West Coast, and then finally on a national basis that
fall... they followed this same procedure. From 1941 to
1946, a distinguished agency man by the name of Bob
Dwyer handled Lum and Abner's production chores; in
April 1946, he was succeeded by our good friend (and
1996 NLAS Convention guest) Forrest Owen.
Owen's first forays into radio had nothing to do with his
future career in the advertising end of the medium. His
initial ambition was to be an announcer, and he got his
first taste of this profession between high school and
college. "We discovered that by lowering the voice and
speaking close to those old microphones, we could
make our voice sound much older than we really were,"
he recalls. Owen continued to pursue his intended
announcing career while a student at Michigan State
University. After a stint at the legendary WXYZ in Detroit
(home of The Lone Ranger), he got what appeared to be
the greatest offer of his fledgling career.
One of his former professors from Michigan State
decided to start his own radio station in Waterloo, Iowa,
and he offered Owen the position of chief announcer.
Another of Owen's college peers, who was laboring at
station WWJ, was to be the new station's news director.
The proposed station, KXEL, would be a 50,000-watter,
and as such would mean unheard-of exposure for these
new inductees into the world of radio. Unfortunately, as
Owen puts it, "It was a disaster. It was awful; it was all
over in three to four months."
Returning to Chicago, Owen auditioned unsuccessfully
for an announcer position at WGN, and soon began to
have second thoughts about his intended career. It
began moving in another direction when he signed on at
WTOL in Toledo, Ohio, not as an announcer but as a
production manager. From that position, he graduated to
a small Toledo advertising agency as a radio producer,
and eventually worked his way up the corporate ladder
to Wade Advertising in Chicago.
It was now 1944, and Lum and Abner was one of Wade's
several prize radio series. However, it was being
broadcast from Hollywood at the time, so Owen's first
experiences with Wade Advertising's radio work came
from the Chicago-based Quiz Kids. About a year later,
Owen finally got his first meeting with his future stars
from Mena. He explains:
"Chet and Tuffy would come to Chicago once a year to
meet with the client in Elkhart, Indiana... take him to
dinner, and so forth. They would entertain the client, and
they were experts at schmoozing and doing the
salesmanlike thing they needed to do every year prior to
renewal time. They were as entertaining in person as
they were on the air.
"They originated their show in Hollywood, and came to
Chicago this particular year to do what they did, and I
was assigned to be the temporary producer for two
weeks. I didn't know that I was being 'tried out;' I just
thought it was great. They did everything themselves,
just sitting across a table from each other. They let me
produce the show, and after it was over, my boss, Jeff
Wade, made me an offer to go to Hollywood to be the
agency producer for Lum and Abner."
The weeks during which Forrest Owen was "auditioned"
as L&A's producer were September 3 through 27,1945.
An incident he recalls particularly well occurred during
one of the very first of those shows. It seems that the
screen door they used for their sound effect was not
weighted down properly, so when Chet Lauck, on cue,
gave the cord a mighty pull, the whole door apparatus
fell to the floor with a crash... on the air, mind you. This is
the broadcast of September 6, 1945, which can be found
on Tape #180 of the NLAS Tape Library, and which has
become something of a classic among L&A collectors.
As Grandpappy Spears talks on the phone in the Jot 'Em
Down Store, Abner makes his entrance singing "They
Cut Down the Old Pine Tree." When the door closes and
falls over, a session of ad-libbing and giggles ensues
throughout the rest of the show. Tuffy/Abner's initial
reaction is, "Oh doggies, Lum, did you hurt yersef?"
before he remembers that it is Grandpap to whom he is
supposed to be speaking. Much hilarity follows, as
Grandpap continues to insist that "that fall musta addled
me," and Abner remarks that Grandpap will "break yer
neck stumblin' over stuff thataway." Until May 1996,
Forrest Owen had only his memories of this blooper, and
when he at last heard the actual recording of the show
he was somewhat surprised to learn that the sound of
the falling door did not come across nearly as bad over
the air as it did live in the studio.
In March 1946, Owen married his sweetheart Mary Lee,
and the following month the newlyweds packed their
valises and hopped the mail hack for Hollywood, where
Owen became the official producer in charge of Lum and
Abner. He soon found that Chet & Tuffy had a rather
loosely-constructed method of getting their show on the
air. "They were both good businessmen, so they did
insist on rehearsals and script read-throughs at the
beginning of the week, which the agency went to in their
office. The rehearsal would be about an hour before the
show each day, and it would be a read-through, done
informally more for the mechanical things. They just
loved to talk and tell their stories and go off in one
direction or another. The only thing I knew was that it
was very important that I get the show on and off on
time, and very important that we remain friends!"
Owen points out that Lauck and Goff really didn't need a
producer from their own standpoint, as they had been
doing their show basically the same way for 15 years,
and, in his words, "had seen producers come and go."
But they happily submitted to the custom of having a
producer for the sponsor's sake, and everyone seemed
pleased with the whole setup.
Most people associated with the show agree that Lum
and Abner was nothing if not a family affair, and when
the Owen couple had their first daughter on April 21,
1947, L&A even worked a reference to that into their
show of that date. (This was another incident that the
Owen family was surprised beyond belief to discover
existed in recorded form.) Other highlights during his
time with the show included the hiring of Clarence
Hartzell as Ben Withers in November 1946, and the
on-the-air "surprise party" given for Chet & Tuffy on the
occasion of their 16th anniversary in radio in April 1947.
In October 1947, the show moved from the ABC network
back to CBS (where it had last been heard in 1940), but
other than the fact that it was now heard five days a
week (the ABC run was four days a week), nothing much
Forrest Owen's and Alka-Seltzer's connection with Lum
and Abner came to an end on Friday, September 24,
1948. After that date, the show switched to a weekly
half-hour format sponsored by Frigidaire. Various
reasons have been given as to why this switch was
made, but the general consensus is that Lum and Abner
was treated as something of a second-rate show as long
as it was in its daily spot; there seemed to be more
prestige associated with a big weekly prime-time sitcom.
Be that as it may, Miles Laboratories and Wade
Advertising still controlled the 5:45 p.m. Eastern Time
slot recently vacated by Lum and Abner, so instead of
the Pine Ridge duo the sponsor put in a daily comedy
starring Herb Shriner.
"Herb Shriner was a bomb," recalls Owen, "and after
having success with Lum and Abner and enjoying a long
run, the Shriner show just didn't make it." In his capacity
with Wade, Owen found himself assigned to various
others of Miles Laboratories' shows, including the
well-known game show Queen For A Day and the
long-running saga of One Man's Family.
As radio slowly gasped its last (for the time being,
anyway), Owen remained with Wade Advertising,
although he did return to Chicago after his producing
days in Hollywood ran out. In 1952, the Wade agency
introduced TV audiences to one of the most beloved
advertising characters of all time, Speedy Alka-Seltzer.
As with any famous cartoon personage, many different
people can claim part of Speedy's creation; in Forrest
Owen's case, his radio connections were instrumental in
his casting of veteran broadcaster Dick Beals as
Speedy's inimitable voice.
Wade Advertising continued to handle the Alka-Seltzer
account through the early 1960's, when they sponsored
such highly regarded series as The Rifleman and The
Flintstones. But times changed in the world of
advertising just as they did for radio, and by the middle
of the decade Wade Advertising had sold the Miles
account to a larger agency and closed up shop. Forrest
Owen moved on to another well-known agency, BBD&O,
and remained perfectly happy in his advertising career
until his retirement.
In 1984, Owen became one of the first Honorary
Members of the NLAS, thanks to his good friend Roz
Rogers, who was living in the same community at the
time. Even at that, it took 12 years before Owen finally
made the pilgrimage to Mena and the REAL Pine Ridge,
to actually see the area he had produced a radio series
about so many years earlier. For his efforts and help to
the NLAS, he was presented one of five 1996 Lum &
Abner Memorial Awards.
While the actors, writers, and performers who were
associated with Lum and Abner all have their own
stories to tell about their work with the show, it is
obvious that someone from the production end, such as
Forrest Owen, has his own unique perspective on the
behind-the-scenes aspects of the program. We at the
NLAS feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear
Mr. Owen's history of his L&A association, and we hope
all of you have enjoyed getting the story as well! And
"WHEN YOUR TABLETS GET DOWN TO FOUR,
THAT'S THE TIME TO BUY SOME MORE!"
- Tim Hollis
UPDATE: Forrest Owen passed away on April 23, 2014.
We of the National Lum and Abner Society offer our
condolences to Forrest's family and friends.
CLICK HERE to read an obituary from The Boston Globe.
CLICK HERE for an obituary from Advertising Age.
CLICK HERE for an article about DICK BEALS.
||Lum & Abner take time out during the filming of THE BASHFUL
BACHELOR to pose with the sponsor's display, which was a part of the
actual movie set.
||Forrest Owen and Gene Baker (standing), Chet Lauck and Norris Goff
(sitting), with newborns Kathy Lee Owen and Karen Baker, 1947.
||Mena, Arkansas, 1996: NLAS Guests-of-Honor arrive!
|Mena, Arkansas, 1996: Standing: Sam Brown, Tim Hollis, and
Donnie Pitchford. Seated: Forrest Owen, Linda Lou Crosby,
Cathy Lee Crosby.
|Mena, Arkansas, 1996: Donnie Pitchford presents Forrest
Owen the Lum and Abner Memorial Award.