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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Women in Crime and the Twilight of the Pulps

 Note: Some of this appeared on a page linked our HIL-GLE website. This page and a few others are in the process of becoming defunct. (After a mere fifteen years of my free use. Capitalist bastards!) Prior to starting HIL-GLE and this blog, I had a number of free webspace ventures where I covered much the same material that I do now. I’m not quite egoist enough to port it all over to this blog simply for the purposes of preservation, but there are some topics which I know a bit more about than I did before which I would like to cast new light upon.  We are starting this updating venture with Women in Crime.


There’s really no excuse for Women in Crime. Whenever people claim entertainments of the past were tame in contrast with today, I am reminded of Dick Tracy blowing folks’ brains out in four color Sunday Funny Page glory, Popular Publication’s Horror Stories, newsreels of Chinese monks being shot by the Japanese and… Women in Crime.

It really should be called ‘Sex-Crazed Female Murderers on Drugs’ since that is its entire literary slant. Women in Crime occupies an odd place in the history of pulp magazines. It spans the transition from pulp paper to photo offset and from painted covers to color retouched black and white photos.


Women in Crime owes its existence to a ban on the importation of pulp magazines into Canada which was instituted at the start of WWII. (1)  With the flow of comics and pulps from the US suddenly cut off, Canadian publishers rose to the challenge, fulfilling their patriotic duty by producing a slew of slam-bang knockoffs of every genre with a following. In general, most of these simply reprinted or repackaged US offerings under another title. Not to cast dispersions upon dead folks, but many supposedly Canadian pulps were more or less smuggle jobs sent over the border and haphazardly distributed by front companies. Women in Crime is not. It is a homegrown, all original, all Canadian publication. Moreover, it was something of an export in its day: perhaps the only Canadian pulp to be widely distributed into the United States.

Its secret? Focus. The publisher only had one magazine and he put all of his efforts just into it. Unlike others in the trade, the publisher, whom I will call Merchant House, did not have any connections to legitimate avenues of magazine distribution prior to the war. Instead, it had spent its entire pre-war existence as an advertiser in pulp magazines--a mail order distributor of flatware, novelties, and paperback editions of well- known classics. From its start as a publisher of any kind-- offering paper bound editions of the 100 Greatest Books of Western Civilization for $10.00--it branched out to commissioning original works, starting with manuals on the subjects of art and photography. It is from the production of these manuals that it evolved into its true publishing niche.


The ban on American pulps was a boon to other Canadian publishers, but sort of a pain to Merchant House. From their perch on King Street in Toronto, Merchant House had been able to service the novelty needs of both the US and Canada by placing ads in US based pulps. At the time, there was a good postage deal for Canadian mail order firms shipping into the United States. In the wake of war rules, that economy had vanished. Moreover, the new Canadian pulps were restricted in page count, had limited advertising space and were possessed of far more stringent editorial standards for advertising material than the types of pulps Merchant House was used to advertising in. The Canadian pulps had slated themselves as strictly kid’s stuff—and that wasn’t Merchant House’s market. Finding a vehicle for their advertising seems to have been Merchant House’s sole motivation for getting into the pulp magazine business.

That is, if they were in the pulp magazine business at all. Every physical copy of Women in Crime that I have is built around their advertising. As I will touch on later, this does not necessarily make them the publisher.  The entirety of Women in Crime’s editorial is a tease for the firm’s other offerings. And what offerings they are!

As a novelty house and a purveyor of gadgets, they were closer to Harriett Carter than they were to Johnson Smith Company (a dealer in fake dog vomit). It was in literature that they were truly distinct. By the time WWII rolled around, Merchant House was publishing sex manuals almost exclusively. Due to restrictions on such vividly illustrated matter being imported into the US, also brought on by the war, the publisher had repackaged some of its catalog of naked women as photographic study manuals. Not much of an innovation. And they were certainly not the first to think of this. What they were the first to think of was publishing fast fiction with the spurty bits fully detailed. Not only that, but Merchant House’s core literary theme was Depraved Girls Who Do It in Depraved Ways.

As the blurb advertising the best-selling, exclusive to readers of Women in Crime novel ‘Diana’ from Dr. Victor Robinson states: “The Publishers wish it expressly understood that this is not a work of fiction. It is a true story, fearlessly told, of women you have heard whispered about. It is the frank autobiography of a woman who tried to be normal but couldn’t. Although the author has found it necessary to hide the identities of the women whose life stories have fused with hers, she boldly tells the truth about them and herself.”

This ad is not hidden in the back pages. It is full page, page one, across from another Merchant House offering for a Pre War Quality Cutlery Set from a Renowned Manufacturer.

Besides setting a sort of standard for original smut, Merchant House was also in the business of spicing up the classics. One ad promises that their offering of the Three Musketeers is Definitely not the book you read at school!

Even today this would be considered a shocking cover. The artwork on the cover is a black and white photo with an overlay, not an actual color photo. As these things go, it is rather well done. Like most pulp publishers, Merchant House shot its production budget wad on the cover and then cheaped out everywhere else. 

Merchant House may have taken economy one step further by importing some of its interior staged photographs from Argentina. Very similar magazines with very similar themes had been popular there since the 1930s. As per the Argentine convention, many of the models in Women in Crime seem spectacularly overdressed for their given situations. There is also a certain style to the Argentine form which Women in Crime seems to match.

The end of the war killed the Canadian pulp magazine industry. Without the tariff barriers and restrictions, the poorly executed Canadian pulps were swiftly swamped by their US cousins. Seeing as how most of them were simply fronts to begin with, it was no real loss. Women in Crime, however, marched blithely on.

And here is where my extrapolation from the original essay goes entirely astray. As per my introduction, I know more now than I did before. I initially wrote off Women in Crime as some sort of one-off smut purveyor’s advertising vehicle, stating that it was probably using the porn and digest distribution system, and that rather appearing on newsstands, it was sold in barber shops and pool halls. While that may be largely true, I no longer believe that it was an orphan sole publication but rather the progenitor of what turned out to be a healthy line of pulps from a 4th Wave publisher.

I have seven or so issues of Women in Crime, all of which are from the war years. Sources on this title are spotty. It could simply be a title that several publishers have used over the years with no real relationship between any of the runs.  The variance in titles would indicate as much. Except that the variance in titles and cover presentations are with the book from the start. This is the cover of what I believe is the first issue. The photographic bondage cover from above is either the second or third issue


After the bondage cover, Women in Crime mostly went back to using retouched paintings which first appeared in other pulps. The interiors, interior stock, and binding remain consistent—as does an early photo-offset interior print job. The staged crime photographs reproduce poorly and the lay-out is not quite up to snuff. It’s not scaled correctly. All in all, it is shameful and shoddy—matching the layout stride for bad stride with the ads from Merchant House itself. Clearly all the work of the same all-thumbs hands.

Women in Crime was published from 1942ish to 1961ish, with about 30 total issues. If we could find evidence of six more issues, it might even classify as a biannual. But it was not published at all regularly, is not dated, and sources vary as to its publisher. Only Merchant House is willing to fess up on the issues that I have. Sources cite Alval (Canada), Detective House Inc and Skye Publishing as its producer(s). The long and short of my current thinking is that these are three names for the same publisher. The publisher became known as Jalart (like Alval, the contraction of two first names. My own personal preference is that Jalart is a contraction for Jail Art, but I have no substantiation for this).

Like people, publishers have affinity orbits. Several sources state that Detective House is related to a low rent smut digest producer who fronts for Lev Gleason (Comic House), and that Gleason and a pal of his are also affiliated with Skye, and that Skye and Voliant are the same firm. I have no doubt that all of these people are thick as thieves and that all of them surround Lev Gleason in some way. That said, I have good evidence that Jalart and Skye are the same firm. 


My evidence, such as it is, comes from January of 1956. A lot of things could have changed between the time Women in Crime debuts in 1942, and 1956. In 1942, Lev Gleason is printing money in comic books and has no reason to dabble in near-smut smut advertising vehicles. Gleason doesn’t start dabbling in other publications until the middle 40s. Moreover. Gleason is at least a middle production quality publisher. Nothing as poorly done as Women in Crime came out of his shop. It’s not Lev. Enough said.

While Lev Gleason and a few others are doing well in comic books, not everyone in the pulp adjacent industry is weathering the storm of price controls, restricted markets and paper rationing brought on by the war. Under war time rationing, publisher paper volume was itemized by gross weight and allotted based on a fraction of previous average use. Everyone is getting a 35% haircut—and that’s if you are in business before rationing started. Your ration is zero if you weren’t in business before then. This means that the number of new publishers for pulps, comics and anything else low brow would be zero for the war. For the most part, this turns out to be true, with the exception of Women in Crime and a handful of other Canadian pulp publishers. 


The Canadian publishers, by contrast, are getting a fresh start in a now protected market. Their ration is based on the circulation of pulp magazines into Canada—mostly from American publishers. Prior to the war, there is no Canadian pulp or comic book industry to speak of. The canuks are being given a competition-free interval to start this industry. Women in Crime is unique as a Canadian publication, inasmuch as it does not seem to be intended for the Canadian market.

Printing in Canada for US consumption and thus bypassing rationing was attempted by a few other firms later in the war. (2) Women in Crime goes this one step further, since the magazine would have been illegal to distribute in Canada. Not to paint the Canadians as prudes, since Women in Crime would not have passed American standards for decency during the war years, either. For this reason, Women in Crime spends its first span of ten or so issues stripped of any sort of publisher information whatsoever. It just sort of mysteriously appears at your barbershop, pool hall or liquor store when it feels like it.

US pulp publishers were largely playing by the rules. (3) The rationing and price control regime forced a majority of them to cut titles and focus on their most profitable lines. Comic books were the best bang for the buck, provided the publisher had the enormous amount of up-front cash required and the network of special connections to pull it off. This was a you snooze, you lose industry. If you weren’t in comic books by 1942, you weren’t getting in. A number of pulp publishers simply blinked and bungled it. Popular stayed out of comics and decided to convert its flagship pulp Argosy into a slick magazine. Macfadden blinked and watched its circulation shrink in half. Fawcett killed its pulps in favor of comics. Street & Smith got into comics at the sacrifice of both pulps and dime novels. Staying pat in pulps meant accepting higher prices and diminishing profits, leading publishers such as Martin Goodman to bail out entirely. A few publishers also began dabbling in the digest market, producing various prototype paperback formats. 


While all of this is well and good for the publishers, it leaves the pulp’s stable of advertisers, such as Merchant House, in the lurch. Comics are a juvenile medium. Digests carry few advertisements. The remaining pulps have cut page counts and frequency. The majority of pulp’s fine advertisers have been frozen out.

Enter some enterprising pulp insider, someone privy to the ins and outs of distribution and printing, but with rather light pre-press skills.

Jalart does have a provenance. The firm remained in business perhaps as late as 1990. It was a substantial publisher, although in about the lowest wrung of the field as one can get. Except for a brief period in the 1950s, their works have a family resemblance, much the way that Charlton Comics had one. Women in Crime seems to have been their first child.

Jalart was only tangentially in pulp magazines. Headquartered in Scottsdale Arizona, Jalart’s stock and trade was sports fandom. It produced one of the first catalogs of baseball cards. They published pre-season predictions for baseball and football—and special off-season baseball updates for the hot stove leagues. Initially focusing on baseball, football, and hockey, they came to promote and cover boxing, auto racing, and roller derby. They were one of the early prime promoters of professional wrestling. The firm occasionally spit out sports cards of their own as well as a few comic books, posters, and sticker sets.


 The only name we have to hang on Jalart is Leonard Greene and that’s from a 1967 edition of True Crime. Jalart is very weird when it comes to information they are required to disclose in magazines, producing such gems as “published bi-monthly except for summer and spring” and charging the full cover price plus unspecified shipping for subscriptions (in type you would need a magnifying glass to read). (4)

Pinning a start date to Jalart’s sports publications is currently beyond me. Although sports fandom is healthy, it’s history is unexamined. Whether Jalart started in sports publishing or came to it is unclear. If they were in it as of 1942, then they had motivation to try something else. The audience for their materials was leaving for war. The leagues themselves were contracting or suspending operations. If they had a paper ration as a publisher of sports annuals it was probably cut to zilch.

The way I believe the deal with Women in Crime went is that Merchant House paid for the printing and then let Jalart keep whatever they could get for the magazine. To Merchant House, it’s like having their catalog printed up and then getting its distribution for free. For Jalart, it’s largely a shlepping exercise involving a little smuggling and some low rent adventures in clandestine wholesaling. Women in Crime used the same distribution method that was being used for proto-paperbacks. (5) As propositions of this kind go, it was worth a shot. Merchant House didn’t have too many other options. It seems to have been worthwhile enough to do ten or so times.

After the war ended Merchant House went back to its normal advertising venues. Since I do not have a copy of the post war Women in Crime issues, I will have to take it on faith that they are listed to Detective House and Skye in the early 1950s and to Jalart from 1955 on. From the end of the war on, Women in Crime and the digests matriculate into the drug store distribution system where they and a slew of similar materials will enjoy a ten-year heyday. 

There was something in the post-war air. For a few brief years it seemed that America was destined to become a version of France. We had just defeated totalitarian book burners. Stuff like Women in Crime became neo-kosher. All sorts of magazines sprung up. And nearly every pulp title from before the war came back, mostly in the form of digests or short run photo-offset magazines. Women in Crime remained an infrequent presence on the magazine racks, probably because Jalart had developed better titles. Although no one dominated this market early on, Martin Goodman and Jalart were the two largest publishers.

Every publisher we have covered has a unique spin to his business model. I intend to do a publisher’s biography of Jalart at some time when I know a bit more, but from what I can tell their guiding light seems to be ATTRACT MALE EYES. In this respect Jalart is typical of magazine publishers. It has a targeted demographic and everything it publishes is designed to reach that audience. Jalart does have a few interesting twists to its formula.

Other than the sports titles, nothing they produce has a regular publication schedule. And even the initial sports magazines are essentially annuals. The pre-season for baseball comes out in March. The football prognostications, both college and pro, hit shelves in late July or August. The hockey preview is out in September. Then there’s the post-season in anticipation of training camp baseball thing, which shows up sometime after the baseball winter meetings, covering trades and coaching changes and whatnot. That has a shelf-life through January. In effect, this is a quarterly advertising buy. As in Women in Crime, Jalart is driven by advertising packages. 


The package is initially built out through expansion in sports magazines. The objective is to hit the next benchmarks for newsstand exposure advertising buys, from quarterly, to bi-monthly, to monthly. At its height in the mid-1950s, Jalart is spitting out two magazines a month, a bi-weekly publishing schedule. This makes them a perfect avenue for advertisers with seasonal or short run goods. All in all, Jalart is your one stop shop for the entire false teeth, watch, technical school, novelty, and rupture truss mail order industry. (6)

Moreover, most of the sports magazines don’t cost them much to produce. The information they are peddling with the mainstream sports is provided, or at least produced, by the leagues themselves. The contents of these magazines are mostly grids of numbers, with the occasional square photograph or “Crimson Tide hopes for top national ranking” blurb thrown in to round out pages. The editorial objective of the layout for these magazines is uniformity and ease of use.  It’s even two-column pages, straight through the magazine. I think this focus explains their problems when it comes to the lay out of pulps, wherein the objective is to cover as much paper as you can with something fetching. If they are using the same layout boards (or personnel) from the sports magazines, then they are winging it.

Compounding their production quality issues further, I believe that Jalart is wedded to its printer. The same bad layout and photo-offset print job found on 1940s era Women in Crime is also evident on 1950s and 1960s issues of True Crime and other Jalart offerings. If Jalart is just the sales office of a printer, their focus is on prospecting for advertising and conceiving ad vehicles (magazines of male interest) and they probably have no say in the lay out, other than in the provisioning of art elements. 

Women in Crime uses a lot of found objects as art elements, from the cover to the interiors. Some of the covers are sourced from decade-old pulps, others from digests, and others from hardbound dust jackets from circulating lending library materials. At least on the war era run, Women in Crime’s editorial seems to be original. It may be written to order based on obtained photographs, but it does not seem to have appeared elsewhere first. This would not be true of Jalart’s other pulps.

Jalart did build out its editorial capacity. The materials for auto racing and wrestling and roller derby need to be hand-crafted, need to be columns of words, since these sports are more spectacle than statistics. It’s doubtful the same writers they contract for the sports magazines are also the ones they used for their Ten War Stories pulp. From what I’ve seen, all of their pulps are entirely made of recycled editorial. True Crime magazine in both its 1950s and 1960s incarnations is wall to wall reprints—from other true crime magazines—some of it quite ancient. (7) Jalart hoovered up a bunch of old pulp material and repackaged it over and over. Or seems to have. 

The firm became something of a multi-media enterprise. Several sources cite Jalart as the producer and syndicator of first roller derby and then wrestling programs for the burgeoning UHF market. They certainly went all in on these efforts on the publishing side. The firm also produced a weekly supermarket tabloid, but it is unclear which one. I suspect it is Confidential Flash, which would tie the firm back to Toronto printing interests. In fact, a lot of things seem to tie Jalart back to Toronto. Given that Merchant House is itself a publisher, Jalart may be part of the same entity—perhaps not legally, but the same fluid partnerships parading around under several names—the same set group of people engaged in various different ventures. If that is the case, then this is a business story which went on a long, strange trip—from Women in Crime to videotaping men smash each other with fake chairs.

WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING! YOUR COMMENTS, CRITICISM AND CORRECTIONS ARE ACTIVELY ENCOURAGED. AS WITH ALL OF OUR POSTINGS ON HISTORICAL TOPICS, THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS.

(1)    Canada loves to ban magazines. This is actually a reimposition of a ban which dates back to the 1920s. The original ban was against flapper fiction titles such as Breezy Stories and the Smart Set.

(2)    Both Archie and Harry Chesler both had Canadian operations which served that market and then occasionally slipped titles into the United States. Chesler can be given a pass, since he is an art studio which only tangentially dabbled in publishing. Once wartime provisions took hold, he sold his going Dynamic line of comics to a Canadian firm who continued them, serving both sides of the border. Archie seems to have reached an agreement with something called Greene Publications, which comically put new covers on Archie titles and then offered them in Canada. On occasion this firm would ship two-year-old re-covered and re-titled Archie content into the United States.

(3)    The rules had set prices for everything, including author’s rates. But the rules only covered existing types of products. What the rules did not cover were the creation of entirely new types of products, which the publishers could charge whatever they wanted for. This is what was leading the evolution of the digest, a type of paperback. Whereas most pulps were price-controlled and mandated to sell for ten cents a copy, digests were comprised of one third of the paper and typically retailed for twenty-five cents.

(4)    Jalart does not quite go into the conniption fits that Dell and Martin Goodman did about changing titles of magazines to make use of a limited number of special rate mail permits for subscription fulfillment. In order to qualify as periodical literature of any kind, the publishers were required to offer subscriptions. This was a provision enacted by the Post Office to thwart the dime novel industry’s practice of using the mails at a reduced rate, and it carries over to this day. Jalart simply did what it could to discourage subscriptions of any kind on magazines whose frequencies depended entirely on the volume of demand for advertising space.  Per the terms they offered it is entirely unclear what a prospective subscriber would receive and for how long. My best guess is that those confused enough to subscribe would wind up on the mailing list with Jalart’s advertisers, being sent whatever the publisher was printing that month.

(5)    The system is similar to how comic books are distributed today. The publisher pays his printer. The distributer pays the publisher. In modern times, the distributor is in turn paid by the retailer. There’s no credit extended anywhere in the process, with the ultimate risk being shouldered by the retailer. In the digest system there’s a middleman between the retailer and the distributor, the regional distributor, who is actually the party taking the risks. Retailers only paid for copies that they actually sold—or wanted to keep around, for whatever reason. The regional distributor generally moved his unsold inventory around to a succession of outlets until they all found a home. The system’s primary outlets were liquor stores, pool halls, taverns and street corner grocery stores, and usually in that order. This is in contrast to the typical system, wherein only the printer is paid off and everyone else gets a slice only if the magazine sells. In the depression printers often were involved in extending credit and accepting payment on the basis of sold magazines.

(6)    Jalart came to also stray into female slanting titles, thereby picking up potential for diet pill, weight loss, cosmetic and lift bra advertising. In the end, they had a whole mail order panorama of advertisers.

(7)    In pulps the rights to content remain with the publisher in perpetuity. (That’s what their contracts say.) There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to Jalart’s sourcing from other pulps early on. It’s unclear who they are buying this stuff from and under what conditions. They do come to own a number of once-promising pulp titles, mostly in the true crime category. In the mid 50s they bought out Skye, which seems to have been the repository of some MacFadden material. Whether they were plying an asset sale or making ad hoc purchases is up in the air—at least from my standpoint. A few True Crime issues appear to have content from Police Gazette and other dime novel era publications.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

New Cover Reveal

 


Not all of my ideas are wonderful.  Shocking, I know, but true. I showed you our previous new cover along with my colored version.  That turned out about as well as I expected, with minimal muss and fuss. Our other cover was based on this model, which I made from an old comic and some clipping from a Sweat magazine.  Here it is...


Great idea, not very well done by yours truly.  I then handed the model off to an artist. 

Great guy. Real trippy Asian style. He indicated that he was inspired and would be back to me with something eye-opening.  Then... he came back and asked for more time.  Which I granted him.  Then... he said he was on it, but needed a little more time... Long story short, he was not able to do it and refunded my payment.  

So I was, a month or so later, off to the next artist. (Perhaps I should have gone back to Atula. Atula will get the next one, should I need it.) The next guy had no issue getting things done and sent me back this...


Loses a bit as line art. The model is actually the combination of two paintings. Using the model as my guide, I started to color it. 


The artist I chose does have a style somewhat similar to what I was shooting for, but without being so close as to get me into issues. What was going to make this thing sail or fail were the clouds and lighting effects.  I will spare you my efforts here. At some point it dawned on me that this was beyond my humble abilities. So I sent it to a professional colorist...

I'm still not sure how well this actually works or even if this is a good idea.  Weirdly, I now need three covers. More on that later... 



Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Phil Cook Old Time Radio Star

 


His Own Show

A Partial History of Early Radio Sensation Phil Cook

I can tell you that Phil Cook was not his legal name. I think he was born in the late 1880s. He played an instrument called a tiple, a type of guitar native to Columbia. He spent the early 1920s writing songs and patter for various Broadway musical reviews, including Jack Benny’s first show.

In 1930 he was anointed The Quakerman, spearheading the first morning program ever offered on the three-year-old National Broadcasting Company network of 37 stations. At 7:30 AM a light will go on and the show will start. A play based on a topic ripped from yesterday’s headlines will begin, featuring seven different roles. Near the end of the fifteen-minute skit, one of the characters will break into an original song with live accompaniment.

 “Blond, blue-eyed, six feet tall, broad-shouldered, he looked like an all-American halfback ready to entertain his classmates at a college smoker.”

Phil Cook did not attend college. He is the only performer in the show. Although he seldom speaks, his is the only voice that will be heard. Every word, every lyric is his. Should any of the instruments be called for, he will play them.

“I witnessed a phenomenon the like of which I have never seen. With each character he took, Phil completely changed his voice without a moment’s pause for transition, switching the quality back and forth in the dialogue like a juggler keeping several balls in the air at once… Though reading his material from a manuscript on the music stand, he succeeded in creating the illusion of improvising it on the spot. Through it all, he managed to keep an eye on the man at the mixing panel in the control room, separated from the studio by a window.” (John Lodge, Popular Science December 1930)

He will be doing this for the next twelve years, largely in the same timeslot and on the same stations. He is radio’s first big star. Despite this, not much has been written about Phil Cook. He was well thought of during his era. Other than to admit to being a control junkie and a workaholic—two aspects he could not hide—Cook seldom let slip with any personal information.  Nor was he fond of focusing on his material. He would rather talk about his technique, his process.

Phil Cook is a success story--and I believe one with a happy ending. What it does not have are a lot of trappings or telling relics we can look to here in the present. There are no recordings of any of his broadcasts available. Although well executed, his material is problematic from a modern perspective. His face is on a million spoons listed on Ebay, along with Quaker dolls and a goofy signed picture. None of that tells the story.



To be generous, Phil Cook is the originator of the Morning Zoo format. It’s a type of wacky DJ act wherein the host brings in characters to comment on the day’s events. In most modern Zoos, these parts are usually performed by semi-pro fans or actors, brought in for teaser segments wedged between news, traffic, weather, and the smoky hits. Some Zoos rely on recorded non-sequiturs which the host reacts to on a spur of the moment basis. In Cook’s iteration, there are no recorded bits and no other actors. In effect, the entire program is packaged as a segment. Cook’s vocal characterizations are on a par with Mel Blanc, sans the mouth effects. The music is first rate, having come off the pen of one of Broadway’s more versatile composers. (If they minted gold records at the time, Cook would have had a half dozen of them before taking this gig.) It’s witty, goofy voices, waxing moronic about the day’s events, complete with occasional singing, fortified by a Quaker Crackels pitch before signing its merry way off. It’s fifteen minutes of well-produced material that the station can use as an audience draw with their local programming. All in all, a good deal for the affiliates.

To be less generous, at its base, it’s a minstrel act.  Cook is a dialect comedian. His characterizations are more reinforced stereotypes than they are detailed personifications.  Cook’s inventive routines are occasionally diluted with some very old gag construction. More often than prudent, Cook goes for the cheap laugh or the laugh at the expense of one of his minority-stand-in characters. It is majoritarian derision piled on all who are outside the WASP demographic. And the show does not evolve beyond this. 

It’s a six day a week, fifteen-minute mini operetta about the news of the day. Regardless of the content or theme, producing a daily quality bit of musical theater is heck of a trick. Doing it largely solo, even more so. If there is a defense for the more odious material, there was a lot of similar work around at the time. Minstrel singer Al Jolson was the biggest recording artist of the day. The later Amos ‘n’ Andy would go onto become the most popular program of radio’s heyday. Cook is serving up something he knows sells. All of that said, none of his characters are defenseless or slow-witted; each is an equally capable member of the clown chorus. It’s more Marx Brothers than put-down comedy, with the absurdities of the day being the butt of most jokes.

During the initial eighteen-month contract for Quaker, Cook was giving three performances, performing two separate shows per day.   His morning program was repeated live an hour later to service stations in the middle and western portions of the country. Then he came back on the air for a fifteen-minute dinner performance with an entirely different show. It was claimed that he worked nineteen hours a day. (1)

Not much is known about Cook’s earlier career on Broadway. He worked for the varieties, burlesque houses, and vaudeville. Some of these were set theatrical productions, with fixed scripts and musical numbers, and others were showcases for a rotating cast of headliners. Cook gives conflicting accounts about his own efforts as a performer. His stage career was brief and infrequent, although adequate enough to provide him with theatrical connections. His niche became writing music for others. Much of this is hard to track. He isn’t a Tin Pan Alley song salesman. His music isn’t published. Rather, he composes for performers or presents his work to performers for their acceptance. His work goes from pen to stage.

Except if it gets popular. At some point a sheet music firm should print it. For unknown reasons, Cook’s works don’t leave much of a paper trail until they are recorded.

In June of 1924 two of Cook’s compositions are issued as records for retail sale. There is no information as to which show either of these works originated. All we can go on is the reputation of the recording artists. Plain Jane was released from Victor by Ace Brigode and His Fourteen Virginians.  Brigode is a dance music performer working the Collegiate Hot style.  It’s sort of an up-tempo ragtime, at the peak of popularity at the time. He generally adapts compositions from the mainstream to fit this fad. Brigode toured widely and may have heard Plain Jane while in New York. Don’t Take Your Troubles to Bed was released from OKeh by International Novelty Orchestra. This is OKeh’s house band. They record top selling sheet music. All of this indicates that the two tunes had reached a level of popularity not normally enjoyed by variety show fare.  

Cook’s It Don’t Do Nothing But Rain was released on record by three different artists in March of 1926. This indicates something of a rush, however the reasons for such are lost to the mists of time. Again, the show this tune was involved with is unknown. Art Gillham and the combo of Bob Thomas and Billy West both released for Columbia. Al Bernard’s recording was issued by Vocalion. Of the initial three artists, the most important is radio pioneer Gillham, who recorded over 300 of his own compositions. The song had legs and was further recorded by Harry Hudson’s Melody Men, Lew Childre, and Milly Mayerl. It became an international hit, recorded in England by Al Starita and the Piccadilly Players.

There are numerous stories of how songwriters are often screwed out of their royalties. For various reasons, I do not believe that this is the case with Phil Cook. I’m not sure what an international hit at this time nets, but I am confident that Cook got whatever he was entitled to. While it may or may not have made him wealthy, It Don’t Do Nothing But Rain opened all sorts of doors for Phil Cook. If he had been obscure, he was obscure no longer.

In November of 1926 Cook released the first of his comedy recordings on Victor, Ridin’ the Subway and Oh! Doctor.

In 1927 he started a collaboration with fellow vocalist and comedian Vic Fleming, doing a musical mistral act variously billed as Phil Cook and Vic Fleming (for Victor) and Two Dark Knights (for Edison) which eventually morphed into a radio program for Sealy Mattress billed as Cotton and Morpheus, who recorded for Brunswick. Titles in the series include In Jail and Love Affairs (released simultaneously by Victor and Edison, but billed differently), and Motoring, Pullman Porters, Mule Mileage, and All at Sea for Edison. The Two Dark Knights had at least four additional releases on Edison in 1928.  I am not sure how much Cook had to do with the later Cotton and Morpheus recordings, since he is only listed as a composer on two of their eighteen records. (2)

Cook had other things to move onto. In 1927 and 1928 Cook also released two additional series as a solo artist and embarked on his first major broadcasting venture.

Billed as Phil and Jerry, Cook produced at least four records in The Ventriloquist and His Dummy series for Edison. As the name implies, this is a recording of a ventriloquist act. Cook was not a ventriloquist, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. After all, it’s a recording and no one will see if his lips move. (An idea which occurred to Edgar Bergen later.) Cook eventually folded the character of Jerry into his core routine, making the dummy-less dummy the only one of his many fictional voices to actually be presented as a phony entity—the only voice other than Cook’s attributable to Cook.

Cook’s other series picked up from the original comedy efforts of 1926. This includes a 1929 rerelease of Oh! Doctor and at least four other recordings. These recordings best reflect the crux of what became Cook’s act. It is the mix of the multiple voice patter and original compositions which makes the act unique. It’s a virtuoso riff done in a concentrated blast. The whole routine wraps up before it can overstay its welcome. As with the other series, this is one fine formula for producing novelty records. It’s aces on radio.


And radio is where Cook is heading. Per an interview with Cook in 1940, he had been appearing on radio regularly since 1923. While this is entirely possible, there is nothing regular about radio in 1923. It was still largely a hobbyist medium. What money there was in radio was in selling transmitters. The airwaves were a bleating chaos with thousands of low powered (and some not-so-low-powered) broadcast outlets, none of which had set frequencies. Theaters, department stores, and hardware stores were the usual entities behind these stations. Their programming might consist of anything. Better funded entities featured live music performances from their studios. The less well-endowed might play records (until the musician’s union cracked down on that) or simply spew unending promotions for the entity which owned the station. (3)  The 1920s experience of fishing for entertainment on one’s crystal set was not consistently rewarding. Instead, 1920s home entertainment was dominated by the phonograph. It wasn’t until the focus shifted to selling radio receivers that the airwaves started to straighten out. Even after the federally mandated massacre of 99.9% of the radio stations, and the assignment of actual frequencies, the commercial viability of radio as a medium was unknown. It isn’t a mainstay of the American media landscape until the early 1930s. Cook would be instrumental in proving radio’s appeal as an advertising vehicle.

There is a third leg to Cook’s stool of talents which I have not touched on. Although he is a composer of Broadway hits and a comedian, what he is not, is a gypsy. Mister Cook does not tour. He does not play clubs. He does not give performances to live crowds. He turned down a vaudeville circuit contract at the age of 14.  At 16, he walked into an advertising agency, attempting to get freelance work in the art department. On top of everything else, Cook was a gifted illustrator and painter. He was hired on as an office boy and within two years was made a partner at the firm. This is his core gig. He is a Madison Avenue advertising executive. It is from this perch, perhaps for as many as fifteen years, that Cook starts dabbling in Broadway entertainment ventures. (4)

And fifteen years later It Don’t Do Nothing But Rain is raining money as an international hit. Within a year of that he has established himself as a recording artist in his own right. He’s on a roll, but he’s hardly an overnight success. And then it’s off to pioneer the world of radio syndication.

1927 is a little early to be trying to launch a show on multiple stations. The only actual network, NBC, is less than a year old. From this point on, Cook’s discography becomes disjointed. Some of his output are novelty recordings meant for personal purchase, others are transcriptions meant for airplay. They are physically identical to each other, both emblazoned with the Victor stamp. (RCA Victor is the parent company of NBC.) Their distinction is in legalisms and use. The transcriptions have a commercial embedded in them and the station has been paid to play them. (5)

How many stations Cook’s first transcribed show The Aunt Jemima Man appeared on has been lost to history. It was a coast-to-coast effort. Whether Cook had backing from RCA or to what degree they were helping him out is also unclear. The show itself was a five-minute concentrated version of Cook’s Two Dark Knights routine. It’s hideously racist—a minstrel selling the virtues of a phony negro’s prefab pancake glop.

Only two episodes of The Aunt Jemima Man in recorded form are known to exist. How many were produced or played is unknown. This touches on the overall downside of transcription syndication. While technology made it possible for an idea to go from notes scratched on the back of an envelope in the morning to pressed recordings out the door by 5:00 PM, the process then heads sideways. After you have carefully packed your fragile 78 RPM recordings, you hand them off to the post office, which then probably delivers them whenever, only to have the thing uncarted by whatever passes for the radio station’s office help. Assuming it gets to the hands of the manager, he will then find a check and a contract attached to the record’s sleave. If the manager cashes the check, he has promised to play the show at a certain time a certain number of times per week. That’s a lot of moving parts. All the advertiser can verify, circa 1927, is how many records were pressed, how many were sent out to stations, and how many of the checks from Mister Cook’s advertising firm were cashed. After that, the advertiser has to watch his sales and hope for the best. It’s hard to gauge, compared to running coupons in the newspaper.

At least as a proof of concept, it seems to have been successful. Cook followed up with The Radio Chef, which I have unfortunately not heard. This is a more typical radio program, similar to Cook’s solo comedy recordings and what would become the format for all of his other programs. Here the topic is cooking and home economics, in fifteen-minute slices. Unlike The Aunt Jemima Man, this transcription comes without a contract or a check. It can be played at any time in the schedule, assuming that the station finds it has merit. Whereas a normal recording would cost the station a royalty fee to the artist, the transcription is free to play as long as the imbedded commercial is not occluded. This became the model for most transcription syndicated programs, especially soap operas. Most stations earned their money by selling commercial time before or after the transcribed program. Other stations ran transcriptions in low demand time slots.

The Radio Chef gained enough traction that it was slated for prototype networking. One to many networking was the idea behind radio networks. (6) An outgrowth of the remoting tactic, the intention was to facilitate long distance communication and assure program quality. In networking each station was connected to the central studio by a dedicated phone line. The programming originated in the central studio could then be instantly broadcast by each of the connected stations. At this stage in radio’s development, the emphasis was on selling radio receivers. The thinking at NBC/RCA was that providing national coverage of the news was enough of a draw to make radio an essential media institution. (7) Not much thought was given to revenue streams for the now pruned down stations themselves. It was assumed that most stations would remain as not for profit appendages for other businesses or institutions. RCA was unique in its position as the owner of many of its large market stations. Unless it intended to perpetually sell radios, it needed to come up with an income stream for NBC. Assuming public interest hurtles could be spanned, advertising looked like the best bet. Networking had its advantages to advertisers, assuring both quality content and proof of delivery. It was, however, exceptionally expensive. (8)

In walks Quaker Oats with a product launch for a ready to eat cold cereal called Quaker Crackels. It’s a spare no expenses effort. They want as many stations as the network can reach. NBC takes this as its cue to scale up one of their prototypes. Phil Cook The Radio Chef becomes Phil Cook The Quakerman. (9)

Per the December 1930 issue of Popular Science, “Cook’s salary is said to be $50,000 a year. And he has the satisfaction of knowing that his shows are broadcast over the largest network used for any “single” act—thirty-five stations in the morning and thirty-seven in the evening. Then, too, many listeners write him letters, telling him how much they enjoy his work. In August, he received more than 10,000 letters, the record mail for any solo performer on the air.”

The eighteen-month period which the Quakerman program ran was the apex of Cook’s career in radio. His was one of a trickle of entertainment programs originating from NBC, which was still in the process of building out. The ball was now rolling. The next sound you hear will be the golden age of radio.

While the Quakerman was successful in spreading the word of network advertising, as well as spoons with Cook’s face on it and Quaker dolls from coast to coast, it came to an abrupt and dubious end. The issue had nothing to do with Cook.  To be blunt, Quaker Crackels sucked. (10) Although many were prompted to try Crackels, few who did came back for more. It was a gigantic flop.

Thankfully, Cook wasn’t tarred with it. With the reach of network advertising now proven, a two-fold power struggle commences. First, the advertisers don’t want to buy their programming from NBC. The advertisers want to produce the programming themselves, controlling the casting and scripts. Second, the moment radio starts to smell like money, Hollywood descends, kicking Broadway to the curb. Big time radio shall henceforth be scripted, orchestrated, lavished with sound effects, and populated by visitors from the silver screen. One-man bands like Cook are rendered instantly obsolete, relegated to positions on local stations as versatile staff announcers, reading the hardware store pitch after the NBC bells have tolled on the network show signing off. Sort of.

As for Phil Cook, he isn’t going anywhere. There is some virtue in being first at something. And there aren’t too many A-Listers willing to contest Cook for his 7:45 in the morning slot. It’s his fifteen minutes for as long as he wants it. The program became known as Phil Cook’s Almanac but was normally listed simply as Phil Cook. The golden age of radio will proceed to happen around him.  Per an interview in 1940, he was still going at it, with very little variation to his act. His fifteen-minute encapsulated format and early morning timeframe made his spot easy to accommodate.

There is something unique about all of the long-running radio shows. None of them were press-stamp affairs. By the time Cook started, no one was doing a fifteen-minute topical vaudeville act with music on the radio. And no one copied him. It was similar to the position Paul Harvey was in. No one can really be you.

Cook was more of a curiosity than an influence. I say that with some caveats. Without the novelty of knowing that one person is doing all of the voices, is the show any good? Again, no copies of the show exist. All I can go by are his records. Cook’s a topflight composer, an excellent musician, has impeccable comedic timing—and a pleasant, professional singing voice. Check out the Cotton and Morpheus recordings and you will hear his singing. He’s the goods. The show was probably wonderful.

There were other men of a thousand voices plying careers on old time radio. Mel Blanc is the one that most comes to modern minds. For the most part, Blanc was a bit player in radio, his highest profile role was as Jack Benny’s car. His belated fame came from his involvement with animation. Blanc’s own show on radio lasted one season. Many of the other voice guys worked in children’s broadcasting or, weirdly, in horror. A few had syndicated programs, but none long-lasting. And I don’t think Cook had any influence on any of them.

I do think that Cook had some influence on several performers. Cook goes into high windage mode when discussing microphone technique in interviews. Much of what Cook said in 1930, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (Amos ‘n’ Andy) nearly repeat in an interview in 1942.  The much later Arthur Godfrey gave several dissertations detailing this same method. All of them claim to have invented it. Obviously, the dominos start somewhere. We can eliminate the pretentious Godfrey, whose act seems more than a little influenced by Cook’s, straight down to the ukulele. Ditto Fred Allen’s Allen’s Alley routine, which is Cook’s act without music. (11)

Whether Cook had any influence on the wacky DJs of the 1950s is hard to say. His show just barely scraped into 1951 as a weekly transcription, probably intended for evening play. What finally dislodged Cook was that his slot became valuable. Although radios in cars and rush hours would eventually lead to the rise of DJs with acts similar to Cook’s, that did not happen in earnest until the middle 1950s. Cook’s show instead became a casualty of war coverage. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, people were tuning into the news first thing in the morning. That news coverage is coming out of the same studios that Cook is broadcasting from, and over the same lines. He’s being preempted. Also, with a war on, doing silly songs about the day’s news seems out of place.

But I cannot be sure of what prompted the rapid changes in his program. The above is a guess. At some point, round about Pearl Harbor, Cook’s show flipped to transcription syndication, changed its focus from topical news to history and jumped networks from NBC to CBS. The network change is nothing ominous. NBC and CBS raided each other routinely. The transcription flip is probably a war-time measure, assuring that the show isn’t cancelled utterly due to breaking news. This means that Cook cannot be yesterday’s headlines topical anymore. Probably after some flailing around and dusting off the Radio Chef material, he settles on riffing this day in history. Post war, the show is cut to once-a-week transcription.

Phil Cook was a Jazz Age composer and novelty records star who extended the life of his act by twenty years through radio. Some people need fame. Some performers need an audience. Most people in show business will do whatever it takes to increase their star power or just hold onto it for one second further. Everything I found on Phil Cook indicates that this was not the case with him. Radio was just a profitable outlet for his talents, of which he had many. In the last interview I can find, he is depicted as putting the finishing strokes on an illustration at his advertising agency. The war, the flash depression after the war, and the rise of television sucked the money out of radio. The new wacky DJs of the 1950s weren’t making $50,000 dollars—or near whatever Cook’s last CBS contract was. As the money left radio, Cook scaled back his involvement with it.

WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING! AND SOME OF THE THINGS I’VE SAID ARE PROBABLY DEAD WRONG. YOUR COMMENTS ARE ACTIVELY ENCOURAGED.

Like all of our postings, this is a living document and is open to revision.

Notes:

(1)   With all due respect, I don’t believe about half of what Cook or his PR people say.  I think Cook would tell us he’s the green man from the moon if he credibly thought it would buy him another column inch of publicity. I have no doubt that Cook is in charge of his show, but the claim that he writes all of the material for each of the twelve productions he puts on weekly is massively improbable. Moreover, similar claims by other people with daily deadlines have turned out to be universally untrue.

(2)   Phil Cook is Morpheus or plays the part of Morpheus on all eighteen of the recordings. The show appears to have been transcribed and weekly. The other minstrel is John Mitchel, who may also be Vic Fleming. Neither are credited as performers on the recordings.

The one thing Phil Cook can’t do on his own is harmony. And vocal harmony is the point of the various Dark Knights acts. For the first two shows, Cook seems to be the chief cook and bottle washer of this affair. After the third program, other composers and writers are brought in, probably by the sponsor. I am not sure how this set with Cook, other than his name is not on any of the following recordings. It also marks the end of the Dark Knights act. From this point forward, Cook works alone and performs only his own material. It should also be noted that the probable broadcast dates of this show nearly overlap with the start of the Quakerman broadcasts. It is either the last thing he did before taking the network gig, or he is working both shows early on.

Conversely, Cook could have been the producer of this program from start to finish. In that case, his scaling back on further radio productions may have been motivated by purely economic considerations.

A word of caution about Cotton and Morpheus. If The Aunt Jemima Man takes the overt racism up to 9, Cotton and Morpheus takes it to 11. The premise of the show is that Cotton and Morpheus are a pair of hobos who move about the country, seeking work at various Sealy mattress factories. But of course, they cannot obtain these positions, because they are filthy negros. At some point in their dejected quest, they turn on a magic radio they lug around with them called Hector, which produces the vaunted Sealy Air Weavers orchestra to accompany their closing song.

It’s very well produced by the standards of the day and showcases Cook’s abilities as a musician and vocalist. That so much effort should be expended on this, and that this would be considered mainstream entertainment, makes the whole affair that much more horrific.

(3)   RCA/NBC and the other broadcasters felt that musicians would be paid through increased record sales spurred by on the air exposure. The other record companies and the musician’s union believed that the artists and composers should be paid live scale for each playing. The broadcasters lost this round and for the next fifteen years it was actually cheaper for stations to have a house band than it was to play commercially available recordings.

(4)   If I have this wrong, it’s entirely Cook’s fault. This is taken from his authorized publicity. We are to believe that Cook’s parents aren’t willing to let him run off to vaudeville, but an advertising agency is fine. What I do believe is that Cook didn’t trust show business to provide him with a steady income. An early source indicates he left the advertising agency and went off to vaudeville. A later primary source has Cook back at the agency, or his own agency, as of 1940. It is likely that he stayed in advertising during most of his career in radio.

I have my own suspicions, based on conjecture. The percentage of non-Columbians who play the tiple is zero. Buying the instrument in this country would be difficult. Everyone as gifted with multiple instruments as Cook is, played professionally as children. I believe Cook was part of a musical family act from Columbia, probably making their living touring burlesque houses. If the folks don’t want him to leave for vaudeville, it’s because they don’t want to break up the family act. By 16, he’s sick of the vagabond lifestyle and heads to the world of advertising.

As I paint it, Cook’s entire quest in life is for a normal existence, or at least a grounded one. He does not want to be an impoverished trained seal, shlepping from one miserable hotel and theater venue after another. In 1930 it is reported that Cook’s “Family, wife and baby daughter” live in swanky NYC exurb Avon-by-the-Sea. That can be read two ways. Either the entire family clan is now mooching off of him and his young wife—or—at the tender age of forty-something, Cook has achieved one of his life-norming objectives. From this point on, Cook never professionally leaves New York and all of his performances are given over electronic mediums. This points to a rather normal and noble set of priorities.

(5)   And just to make life more confusing, sometimes commercial recordings are made from broadcast material, as is the case with the Cotton and Morpheus records released by Brunswick. Eventually transcriptions become their own format; etched on metal, sixteen inches across with four center anchor holes and requiring a special turntable to play them. This new format started in the 1930s and is intended to survive mailing.

(6)   The idea was to save on production costs and assumed that the entertainers only had to be paid for one live performance, no matter how many stations broadcasted the show.  Tactics like this kept RCA/NBC in court constantly.

(7)   This effort was massively successful. By the middle 1930s half of the nation’s newspapers and magazines had been put out of business.

(8)   RCA/NBC did not own Ma Bell. Early on, AT&T charged RCA/NBC $1,700.00 a minute to maintain its network.

(9)   It would be interesting to know who sold this account. It certainly would make for a better story if Phil Cook brought in this deal himself. Cook is a good on-air pitch man and certainly savvy enough to handle the business end of his own affairs. And all advertising executives are essentially salesmen. That said, Cook is far too busy to put a deal like this together. Although he is an owner of an advertising agency, he is a lead creative in the print department and not a prospector. In all probability, this deal came directly to NBC. The network had something new and powerful and Quaker Oats was willing to roll the dice on it.

(10)                       Breakfast foods have long and expensive development cycles. This was one of Quaker’s first swings in the cold breakfast category. The pictures indicate that Crackels are highly similar to Captain Crunch. If there is a difference, it is that Captain Crunch is encapsulated by a sugar glaze to keep it from getting soggy. This encapsulation technology is what Captain Crunch is meant to take advantage of. Per available sources, the biscuit itself was recycled from a previous product—which I think is Crackels.

(11)                       In defense of Allen, they probably both stole the idea from someone else. Both Cook and Allen treated vaudeville material as if it were a vast public domain pile of old clothing. You put on what fits you best. There is no pride of authorship, other than what you do with it. In Cook’s case, he works the bit into a silly song. In Allen’s case, it is a springboard for ad-libbing.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Warlords of Wonder World Cover Reveal

 When last I left you, I was musing over having some concept art redone for use as promotion for Weird Detective Mystery Adventures.  One of my ideas is still in the shop, but one has come back. For reference, my concept was based on this old Thrilling cover. 


An odd bit of pulp BEM horror, to be sure. With a little (sloppy) image manipulation, I turned it into this chunk of concept art. 


A bit more on-topic, as far as my game is concerned.  I then shipped the idea off to someone with actual artistic talent. 
As soon as I am done with the final edit on Weird Detective Mystery Adventures, I will find a colorist for this and do what I can for a logo. Atula did a wonderful job on this and I need to make sure that the colorist does not strip out his detail.  That may be a hit or miss proposition.  

I will share the Worlds of Fear cover if it ever comes in. 

Update: Ok, I didn't wait.  This is our new working cover. 

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