The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 3

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In this installment, Haenschen takes us inside Frank and Anne Hummert’s radio programming empire and offers a glimpse of a coming sea-change in the recorded-sound industry — the introduction of tape mastering and editing.

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

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After the “Champion Spark Plug Hour,” your files indicate that your next major radio appearance was the “RCA Demonstration Hour,” a mid-afternoon program on the NBC Blue network in August 1929. What are your recollections of that program?

That was a one-time program that [RCA founder and president David] Sarnoff wanted. He specified that he wanted familiar classical melodies featured on that program.

 

According to newspaper accounts of the broadcast, you conducted “Gustave Haenschen’s Little Symphony Orchestra” and also “The Singing Strings.” Do you recall any of the arrangements you used on the “Demonstration Hour”?

Only a few that Frank [Black] had arranged for our “Singing Strings”—the Meditation from Thais, an arrangement of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, familiar classical melodies of that sort. The program was very well received because NBC and RCA really promoted it. That was the advantage of being with NBC during its early days. [NBC founder David] Sarnoff was very accessible to us, and his energy and vision were inspiring because radio was still new, and we were new to radio.

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Program listing for the “RCA Demonstration Hour” (July 1929)

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With very few exceptions, your radio shows were owned by Air Features, Inc., and from your personal archives I gather that you and all of the artists who performed on those programs were also employed by Air Features. Was Air Features a subsidiary of NBC or an independent production company?

The short answer is that Air Features was the name that two of the most important and powerful people in the radio industry came up with for their incorporation papers. From about 1930 till 1950, these two people, Frank and Anne Hummert, produced, directed and controlled 135 radio programs of every kind imaginable. Soap operas, which they essentially invented, were their bread and butter as far as most of the public knew, but they also produced and aired cooking shows, detective shows, kids’ shows, game shows, and of course musical programs.

To appreciate what Frank and Anne built, just add up the number of hours each week that their programs were on the air—an average of 36 hours of airtime every week. That was unheard of from independent producers, and it’s still the most airtime any producer or for that matter any performer has ever had on the air at the same time.

 

That’s more than Arthur Godfrey, who seemed to “own” television and radio in the 1950s, had on the air every week.

Not just “more,” but much more. At his peak, Godfrey accounted for about 15 hours a week on the air—not quite half of the total weekly airtime the Hummerts’ shows commanded. And their shows were on all three networks: the two NBC networks, the Red and the Blue, and on CBS.

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Anne and Frank Hummert

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In your archives, there are few photos of the Hummerts, and they look more like a father-daughter team than a husband and wife. Frank Hummert appears to be considerably older, very bony-looking, with thinning hair and a slight curvature in his neck. Anne Hummert, on the other hand, looks like she could be his daughter. Her personal trademark seemed to be her white-framed glasses and ever-present stenography pad. Were they as eccentric as photos of them suggest?

“Eccentric” fits them pretty well. They had become very, very wealthy from their radio shows, although Frank had been wealthy by most any standards before he hired Anne as an assistant. Frank had been an advertising executive for most of his working life, and had also made a lot of money in residential real estate when he was young. But that was years before he met Anne, when he was married to his first wife. She died young, and as often happens when a man loses his wife, Frank threw himself into his work. His work became his whole life. Then years later, he married Anne.

 

Do you know how they met?

Sure, of course. Her name was Anne Schumacher at that time. She was a college graduate [of Goucher College] with a real gift for writing. She had gotten a job writing for The Baltimore Sun while she was still in college, and the city desk editor, John Ashenhurt, took a liking to her. He and Anne got married in the late-1920s, I think in 1927 or 1928, and Anne became pregnant not too long after they got married.

Then Ashenhurst got an offer from one of the newspapers in Chicago, so they moved there. It was all right at first, but Anne had been used to working and was now stuck at home raising their baby. She was eager to find any kind of writing job she could get, and could work from home as much as possible.

Chicago was home to a lot of advertising agencies, and one of the biggest was called “Blackett-Sample-Hummert.” From what Frank told me, he had been offered a partnership in the agency but turned it down because he didn’t want to be tied to them. He and they compromised by putting his name on the agency because Frank was the key to their success. He turned out so many catch phrases, or slogans, for all kinds of products, and he was raking in money for the agency, so he was able to have his name on the agency without being tied to them.

 

When did he meet Anne [Ashenhurst]?

Frank was known for working almost around the clock, so he had several assistants—that agency was a very big operation—but a lot of them didn’t last because they couldn’t keep up with the workload he demanded. He happened to hire Anne to fill one of those assistant jobs when somebody quit. Well, he soon found out that she could outwork anybody. He kept testing her by giving her more and more to do, but the more responsibilities he gave her, the more ads she turned out. She was as driven and as meticulously organized as he was.

 

Was it Anne Hummert who conceived of the so-called “soap opera”?

No, no—that was Frank’s idea. Around the time [William S.] Paley got into radio in the late-1920s, his new network, CBS, was following the lead of NBC for daytime programs. It was obvious that women, or “homemakers” as they were called, were the audience for daytime radio. The two NBC networks put on daytime programs that were geared to women, including dramas, but those programs weren’t “serials”—in other words, Tuesday’s program didn’t pick up where Monday’s left off.

Frank had always been a movie fan, and like most of us who went to the movies in the 1910s, he saw how popular a serial called The Perils of Pauline was with movie audiences. That serial was so popular that other movie studios started producing serials, and they sold a ton of tickets.

What Frank [Hummert] did was to take the movie-serial concept and put it on radio. Then he got companies he was dealing with as an advertiser to sponsor them. Procter and Gamble was one of his biggest clients, and he got them to sponsor these daytime radio serials. That’s where the phrase “soap opera” came from. The “soap” was from Procter and Gamble, and “opera” was from the plots of these daily dramas, which had more twists and turns than Il Trovatore.

 

So, then, Frank Hummert came up with the idea of a daytime radio serial—but didn’t Anne Hummert write most of them?

Oh, no—that would have been impossible! It’s really hard to imagine today how many programs Frank and Anne Hummert had on the air on all three networks. They were producing sixty soap operas every week. Each of those shows aired Monday through Friday, so that meant that they had to have 300 scripts a week just for the soap operas—and soap operas were only part of [the Hummerts’] weekly schedule. There were all of the musical programs, not to mention the detective shows, kids’ shows, sports programs, and all the other shows they were responsible for every week.

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The Hummerts’ “soap opera factory” (1944)

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How did the Hummerts manage so large an operation?

Well, there are two answers to that question: their drive, which was phenomenal, and their ability to stay ahead of the growth of this empire that they built. Those two ingredients—the fact that both of them were so driven, and the fact that they could create and produce so many programs every year while also thinking up new ones and foreseeing how to manage their current programs and preparing the new ones simultaneously—that’s what made them so successful.

 

Yet they could walk down the busiest streets in Manhattan and no one knew who they were.

That’s right, and that’s just how they wanted it. You have to understand that they were in the entertainment industry. They were in show business but they weren’t entertainers—they weren’t “show people,” they were business people. For them, all of the trappings that entertainers typically want—their name in lights on a marquee, crowds of fans wanting autographs, and all of that fluff meant nothing to Frank and Anne Hummert. What mattered to them was power, wealth, and above all anonymity. The name of their holding company was Air Features, Inc., not Hummert, Inc.

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Anne and Frank Hummert (center and right) at CBS

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How would you describe your role in Air Features? What was the range of your responsibilities with the company?

I was the Director of Musical Programs for the whole corporation, so I was responsible for putting together, overseeing, and in several cases arranging and conducting all of the Hummert musical programs. There were fifteen different programs every week during the 1930s and 1940s, and I was the one who had to put together the orchestras, choruses and soloists, review and approve all of the [musical] arrangements for every program, review every script for the announcers, and oversee all of the rehearsals for every one of those programs.

 

How in the world did you do all of that?

I guess the way I would answer that is by saying that like the Hummerts, I was in the “business” of entertainment, and I had already had similar responsibilities at Brunswick, and even more when we created World Broadcasting and built it into a very large enterprise. I was used to getting the maximum amount done in a minimum amount of time. I could get all of the top studio musicians because they had worked with me already and knew what I was like to work for. The same with the arrangers, especially Frank Black. Between us, we hired dozens and dozens of arrangers.

 

Is it true that the Hummerts would only pay scale to musicians?

Well, that was their policy, but I had a lot of discretion about how much I could give as bonuses to players or singers who were making a lot of money for us. In the early 1930s, during the worst of the Depression, if you were a studio musician, steady work was the most important thing to you. If I approved hiring you at Air Features—and I would only do that for musicians I had already worked with, or ones who the best players recommended to me—then you had all the work you could possibly want. You might not like the music you had to play, but you were guaranteed long-term work as long as you were doing your best for us on the air.

 

About the selections for each program, did you choose them?

Technically, no—Anne Hummert picked every song for every program. But she was so busy with the soap operas and the other shows that I would draft the selections for each program, and she would approve most of them as soon as she read the draft. I knew what she liked, which was a mix of waltzes, love songs, operetta arias, and some “light” classical music, so I suggested what I knew she wanted to hear.

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Bob Hannon, Evelyn MacGregor, and Victor Arden reviewing music for the Air Features series, “Waltz Time.”

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How could she possibly monitor that many weekly music programs?

She couldn’t, any more than she and Frank could monitor sixty soap operas and the twenty or more other programs that they produced. They contracted for air-checks for all the programs, but they rarely had time to listen to them. But what they would do was to drop in unannounced at rehearsals. They could tell in two or three minutes how a rehearsal was going, and if they didn’t like some aspect of what they were hearing, whoever was responsible for that program would have a memo in his mail slot by the end of that same day, telling them what was good and what wasn’t good. The fact that they would drop in unannounced to any rehearsal is what kept the actors, announcers, and all the musicians in top form.

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The Hummerts drop in on a rehearsal.

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With your own schedule, being responsible for every facet of fifteen weekly musical programs on all three major networks at one time or another, how much rehearsal time could you put in before a broadcast?

I limited all of my shows’ rehearsals to thirty minutes before airtime. That meant the players and soloists were to be in the studio one hour before airtime, to spend the first half of that hour going over the arrangements and warming up. At exactly thirty minutes before airtime, they were to be in place, either sitting behind a music stand or on a riser if they were in the chorus, or standing near the microphones if they were soloists.

I would start the rehearsal by saying, for example, “Number 8, first ten bars of the refrain,” and whoever was scheduled to sing or play the eighth number on the program had to begin performing it immediately. As soon as I heard that it was right, I would motion for them to stop and then I’d pick another number and have the orchestra or the chorus perform several bars of that selection.

Keep in mind that these were many of the top studio musicians in the industry, so this was their livelihood. They knew that rehearsal time was kept to a minimum, and that if they weren’t in peak form and ready to go when the “On the Air” light went on, they weren’t going to be on the payroll anymore.

 

You mentioned that Frank Hummert was a widower when he hired Anne as an assistant. It seems as if she rose to the top of his agency in no time at all, and then was overseeing all of their soap operas—and somewhere during that timeframe, they got married.

Frank was in the advertising business, as I said, when he came up with the idea of matching clients with these daytime serials that he came up with. He had hired Anne as just another assistant, but what made her stand out was that she could conceive characters and scenarios for entire shows on her own. If my memory is accurate, she started at a fairly low rung on the ladder, but the whirlwind of shows she conceived and wrote is what made her stand out. Frank promoted her to a vice presidency after she had been there only two years, and he made her a partner in the firm about a year and a half later.

 

Considering the difference in their ages and backgrounds, what did they have in common?

There were several things, beginning with their frugality. They were living in Chicago when they got married, but the radio networks were in New York City, so for a year or more they commuted to Manhattan by train. They would take the Twentieth Century Limited on Sunday, stay in an apartment they rented in New York until Thursday afternoon, and then take the train back to Chicago. On the way there, they would listen to parts of Friday’s broadcasts while they were in their first-class cabin in the sleeping car.

When the money really started rolling in, they moved to Manhattan and took a palatial apartment on Fifth Avenue. They ran their household with the same efficiency as their radio shows. When my wife Roxie and I would be invited there for dinner, we’d always eat a light meal before we went there because all that Anne served was tomato soup out of a can, and some canned peaches or pears for dessert. Frank and Anne were non-drinkers—as we were—but they knew my tastes, there was always a cold bottle of Coke at my place at their kitchen table. My wife will tell you that I keep Coca-Cola in business.

Frank and Anne never “entertained” in the social sense of the word. Very few people were ever invited to their apartment. If you were among the few who were, and you were given a tour of their huge apartment, Anne would walk in front of you, pointing out this or that furniture and other décor—and as soon as she would take you from one room to the next, you’d hear Frank behind you turning off the lights!

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August 1933 advertisement for “The Maxwell House Show Boat”

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One of the most heralded shows you produced for Air Features took place on June 15, 1933, when the premiere broadcast of “The Maxwell House Show Boat” was aired “live.” All of the aluminum airchecks from that premiere have been saved and almost all are in remarkable condition. According to one of the stars of the premiere, Lanny Ross, you had scheduled Don Voorhees to conduct the program, but that he had taken sick an hour or so before the “live” broadcast and you substituted for him. Do you recall that last-minute turn of events?

Yes, but I insisted that because the program had been promoted heavily with Don as the conductor, the broadcast should be done with his name mentioned as the conductor. I had no need to have my name announced as the actual conductor, and Don was a good conductor whom we used a lot at World Broadcasting, so I wanted him to get the credit and the money for that premiere broadcast. I’m glad to know that the air-checks still exist, and I hope to hear them again.

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A different take on Voorhees’ departure from “The Maxwell House Show Boat” (Akron Beacon-Journal, December 25, 1933)

 

The next radio program I found in your archives was called “The Chevrolet Chronicles.” According to press clippings, the program was conducted alternately by you and Frank Black. What was the format of the program?

That program didn’t last long, and it was mainly because the format wasn’t right. The one broadcast I remember was with Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous American “ace” of the 94th Squadron in World War One, who spoke about the progress in air transportation and the need for the U.S. to have the best air force in the world. We arranged some World War One songs for that program, but the format didn’t leave much room for expanding it to something that listeners would wait for week after week.

 

Decades later, in the early-1950s, you were on radio again with Chevrolet, but in commercials rather than on a weekly program. In each of the commercials, you arranged the music to fit the repertoire with which the artist was most associated, and after the first verse of “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet,” each artist would say, “Thank you, Gus Haenschen, for your beautiful music.” Do you remember those commercials?

Oh, sure, very well. I was retained by the Campbell-Ewald [advertising] agency to come up with celebrity commercials endorsing the Chevrolet. Dinah Shore was already associated with Chevrolet, which was her sponsor. General Motors and Campbell-Ewald wanted a broader representation from famous singers, so I was given a sizable budget to recruit them. I’m please to say that the roster I put together included many of the singers I had performed with, and in some cases had helped their careers when they were young.

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Thomas L. Thomas, Margaret Daum, and Haenschen on the long-running “American Album of Familiar Music” (August 1950).

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Who were some of those singers, and what did they sing in these commercials?

What they sang was just the Chevrolet jingle, “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”  I called on John Charles Thomas, Thomas L. Thomas, Gisele Mackenzie, Dick Powell, Dorothy Kirsten, Jan Peerce, and even Lauritz Melchior to record these commercials.  We recorded them on audiotape and then pressed them on microgroove transcription discs, which were sent to stations across the country from all three radio networks at the same time.

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Dick Powell (left) with Haenschen, during production of Campbell-Ewald’s Chevrolet commercials (Gus Haenschen Collection)

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You allowed your name to be mentioned as the conductor, which seems unusual for you.

That was Campbell-Ewald’s idea, not mine. We allowed three takes for each commercial. Audiotape had come in by then, so it was much easier to edit and correct any mistakes.  Except for Melchior’s, almost all of the other commercials were recorded in one or two takes. But Melchior was having trouble with his top tones that day, and was also garbling some of the words, so his [commercial] took about six or seven takes. I can still hear him trying to sing, “See da You-Hess-Hay in your Chev-rrro-let / America is da gr-gr-greatest land of all,” and ending it with an A-natural on the last take, “And see it in your Chev-rrro-let!”

He couldn’t get the A-natural during take after take, so we finally had to have him sing the line a tone lower, and a bit slower, so that our engineers could increase the playback speed and splice in the A-natural. When it was aired, that commercial got the most attention because of the way Melchior sang it. That series of commercials won an annual award, and I got a hefty bonus by Campbell-Ewald. That was a very good year from me.

 — J. A. D.

 

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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