Sunday, August 12, 2007

Some Early KPRC Performers

Frank Tilton

Twenty-two year old blind pianist Frank Tilton showed up to perform on KPRC just days after it signed on. His concert included a time for requests at the end. Tilton’s playing so impressed station officials and the listeners that he quickly became a regular on the new station, appearing daily almost without fail and sometimes filling 2 and 3 program slots a day. He might give a midday concert, then return for an early evening concert from 5 to 6, then be on after the main program of the day, starting at 10pm or later, playing into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes, he was the main programming of the evening, starting around 8 or 8:30 and playing for 2 or 3 hours. The Post-Dispatch quickly dubbed him ‘Wonder Boy.’

Tilton was to be a staple of the Houston airwaves for over a decade. In 1932, he was a regular on KPRC’s sister station KTLC when it folded and his concerts were sometimes carried simultaneously on WRR, Dallas. In 1938, he had a regular program on KXYZ sponsored, ironically enough, by an optical company.

He drew lots of fan mail. The Post-Dispatch for years printed features about the fan mail received by its radio station and the performers. In the early days these appeared daily in the paper and might stretch over several columns with additional comments received by phone, post card, wire and letter used as filler between other stories. On at least one occasion, the paper pleaded with readers to use post cards rather than letters to help cut down on the time necessary to read all the mail that was received.

Many of the compliments were for the station itself, as the Post-Dispatch helpfully summarized on May 20th, “Ether devotees without exception expressed amazement and delight at the ease with which the powerful KPRC waves penetrated to distant parts of the continent, defying static and other atmospheric handicaps.” In just the first week, letters had come from as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia, Havana, Cuba, and Puerto Barrien, Guatamala.

It was apparent from the number of compliments that were reported that Tilton drew the most fan mail of anyone on KPRC. Some of the letters were very moving. One came in on behalf of a blind girl in Indiana who had been furnished a radio by the American Foundation for the Blind. She had discovered Tilton and regularly tried to tune him in as she found he inspired her both with his success story and his playing. Another came in from the Prisoner’s Committee of the Louisiana State Prison at Baton Rouge. The prisoners, confined to their cells with lights out by 8pm each evening, had asked for donations to buy a radio. So much money was collected a radio was also bought for the prison at Angola. Though there were radio stations on the air in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport and Beaumont, the prisoners voted repeatedly to listen to Frank Tilton on KPRC whenever he was on and the broadcast could be picked up. The concerts were said to be particularly appreciated by some of the older prisoners, some of whom had lost their eyesight in prison and were confined to their cells all day long.

Another letter came from a listener in New Orleans who stated his only complaint about KPRC was that it signed off so early, to which the Post-Dispatch replied the correspondent must be quite a night owl, since KPRC was frequently on the air past 1am. Often that would be Frank Tilton playing requests but other musicians who appeared on the schedule might also extend their concerts, such as the Tokio Royal Orchestra from the Gardens of Tokio in Galveston, whose leader told the Post-Dispatch the boys in the band were always willing to pack their instruments into the car for the 4 hour trek to Houston to appear on KPRC.

Tilton played serious as well as popular music; some of his concerts were planned in advance but almost always they included time at the end of the concert to take requests and many of his concerts were all-request.

In 1929, when KPRC was moving to a new transmitter at Sugar Land and the Post-Dispatch published a special section covering the upgrade in the station’s facilities, the newspaper’s radio editor, Milton G. Hall, wrote that Tilton’s name was known coast to coast from his KPRC concerts and no other performer in the history of the station had ever received more fan mail.

Unfortunately no where have I encountered any good statement of just what his appeal was. Given how long he was a staple of the airwaves it certainly wasn’t just out of sympathy for his disability that people wrote and listened, but what was there about his style? Did he have an amusing patter to accompany his playing, a la Victor Borge?, or some dramatic flare, a la Liberace? Or was it simply that he took requests and was able to play a huge variety of tunes? He survived into the era when the stations would have had electrical transcription devices and would have been able to record his concerts and re-air them, but whether any have survived is not known, nor, for that matter, if anyone might have thought to take him into a recording studio and make some phonograph records.

The Microphone Performer

If Frank Tilton received the most fan mail he may have exceeded that received by announcer Alfred P. Daniel by only a little bit. There were frequent mentions in the Post-Dispatch’s reports on fan mail received by the station of the excellence of ‘the microphone performer,’ who was called ‘the best in the air’ and ‘better than all the rest.’

Alfred P. Daniel had been familiar to Houston radio listeners for years from his broadcasts on WCAK and WEV and his amateur stations. Born in 1889 in Austin, his family moved to Houston in 1893 and he always lived in the part of town now known as Midtown. He was a life long bachelor.

As a lad he had climbed a tree in his yard and seen an antenna being erected on the north side of Buffalo Bayou. Pedaling his bike over to investigate, he met representatives of Lee DeForest’s American Wireless Telegraph Company who advised him to learn about wireless. He built his own equipment and, like other boys his age, was fascinated by the new ‘science.’ In at least 2 retrospective articles published over the years, it was claimed he was the first person to ever transmit voice in Houston, on September 1, 1921, and also the first to ‘broadcast’ a ‘program,’ but there are competing claims for both accomplishments and the former is actually rather late. It has also been claimed that the home-made equipment he used for that episode in 1921 was the same he used in putting KPRC on the air 4 years later!, which is extremely improbable.

Enlisting in the service in World War I, he was sent to school at UT, Austin, to learn wireless, then returned to Ellington as an instructor. While there, so another retrospective article claimed, he had his fortune read by a palm reader who foresaw a long life in radio for him.

He was the first (and only) announcer on KPRC in 1925 and served as Program Director until the late 1930s. He worked for the company until just a couple of months before his death at the end of January, 1955, and came to be acknowledged as the Dean of Houston Radio.

Daniel persevered in the radio business not only through the era of electrical transcription devices but also wire recorders and reel-to-reel tape recorders, but whether any recordings of his voice have survived is unknown. I have found only one clear indication of what he sounded like – his voice was described as homey – but another reference seems to indicate it was actually thin and reedy, which might have been an asset, given the equipment in the early days.

Uncle Judd

Another qualifying comment: if Tilton and Daniel were the recipients of the most fan mail it may only have been because many of the ‘ham-fisted’ fans of Uncle Judd Mortimer Lewis had to depend upon their Mommies and Daddies to pen their fan mail for them. Judd Mortimer Lewis had been born in New York and came to Texas where he eventually wound up working for the Post-Dispatch. He was much in demand as a story-teller, entertainer of children, and poet. He appeared on KPRC on the first evening’s broadcast and had a daily 7pm slot for Uncle Judd’s Kiddie Hour which became one of the most popular regular features on the station. As one correspondent put it, “The twilight program at 7 o’clock with the new feature Uncle Judd’s Kiddie Hour, with Uncle Judd and his fairies, princesses and bears, left the children delirious with joy.”

When Uncle Judd was away from the microphone on a personal appearance, his daughter filled in for him.

When the Texas Legislature created the post of Poet Laureate of Texas in 1932, Judd Mortimer Lewis was named to the post first.

Judd Mortimer Lewis in the Handbook of Texas.

A website devoted to the poetry of Judd Mortimer Lewis by his great grandson, Judd Perry.

Eugene Davis, Psychic

A few days after the station signed on, the Post-Dispatch carried word in its daily report on the station that something new was going to be tried - the services of a psychic were going to be engaged and the readings and prognostications broadcast for all to hear. Listeners and readers were invited to send in their questions by mail and the mail poured in.

When Eugene Davis appeared for the first time, the response was overwhelming and she was so taxed (Eugene was a woman) that she withdrew from the program before the allotted time was used up, claiming that peering into the future for so many had exhausted her and she could not go on. Those who heard her were very impressed, however, and on the 29th of May, as part of a half-page article summarizing mail that had been received, it was announced that Eugene Davis would be appearing regularly on KPRC.

To Be Continued

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