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“And now, let’s see what’s going on down in Pine Ridge…”

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Eighty-two years ago on this date, radio listeners paid their first visit to the sleepy little Arkansas hamlet of Pine Ridge to sit around the stove at the general mercantile known as “The Jot ‘Em Down Store.”  An emporium run by partners Columbus “Lum” Edwards (played by Chester “Chet” Lauck) and Abner Peabody (Norris “Tuffy” Goff) was at the center of a long-running comedy serial that detailed the offbeat goings-on in a small town nestled in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.  That program, Lum and Abner, premiered over station KTHS in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1931…and would be heard over nearly every major radio network (NBC, Mutual, Blue, ABC and CBS) for the next twenty-three years.

 

l&a1Chester Lauck and Norris Goff developed a life-long friendship when their respective families moved to the town of Mena, Arkansas (pop 4,000) in the 1910s.  Both men graduated from the University of Arkansas, and formed a partnership doing blackface comedy as a hobby while working regular jobs.  At a fundraiser for flood relief at KTHS in 1931, Lauck and Goff had arrived and were prepared to do their blackface act…and then noticed that all the other acts auditioning had planned to do the same (the radio serial Amos ‘n’ Andy had reached the peak of its popularity by this time).

 

lumabnerSo the two men decided to perform some of their “fellers from the hills” material instead.  Lauck and Goff had learned to imitate the dialects of friends and relatives from the Mena area—individuals the duo called “hill people.”  (A group that I, as a native West Virginian, affectionately dub “hillbillies.”)  The success of their audition led to a spot on KTHS for two months before “Lum and Abner,” as their characters became known, auditioned for a spot on an NBC station in Chicago for some executives from Quaker Oats.  (The story goes that the duo was nervous that their “old men” act wouldn’t go over with the suits so they asked the company’s representatives to turn around and face the wall while listening.  Quaker Oats liked what they heard, and gave them the job.)

 

l&a7Lum Edwards (pronounced “Eddards”) was the levelheaded member of the team, while Abner Peabody (a fanatical checkers player) was the more naïve of the two.  It was, in many ways, a rural version of the popular Amos ‘n’ Andy: in addition to Lum, Lauck played Cedric Weehunt (the slightly dense son of Caleb Weehunt, the town blacksmith), Snake Hogan (the local tough), and Milford “Grandpappy” Spears (a cantankerous old cuss whose son Luke owned the local cafeteria).  Goff took on the roles of Dick Huddleston (the town postmaster), Mousie Gray, Doc Miller, and Squire Skimp (the show’s villain—a combination of con man and loan shark).  Lum and Abner also followed the precedent set by Amos ‘n’ Andy in that many of the show’s female characters—Sister Simpson, Aunt Charity Spears, and Abner’s much-talked about wife “Lizzabeth” —were rarely heard on the show.

 

l&a5Both L&A and A’n’A mined laughs from dialect humor, and employed a successful formula of two parts comedy to one part soap opera/serial.  But, OTR historian Elizabeth McLeod once drew the definitive distinction between the two shows in an online essay many years ago, pointing out that while Amos ‘n’ Andy “struggled thru the stark, often grim business of earning a living in Depression-era Urban America,” its hillbilly counterpart went the opposite direction, offering up a (wonderful) world of hilarious escapism and absurdity:

 

In the creation of loopy nonsense, Lauck and Goff had few peers. Only in Pine Ridge would the citizens eagerly buy discount eyeglasses from a man at the carnival—and then spend a full week wondering why they kept crashing into each other. Only in Pine Ridge would Lum decide to corner the market on hogs by starting a chain letter—and then decide to celebrate his success by having a statue of himself constructed from poured concrete. And on and on it went.

 

“When the real world looked like that, who wouldn’t rather head on down to Pine Ridge?” asked McLeod…and during the course of its lengthy run over the airwaves, audiences made Pine Ridge one of their favorite fictional towns.  (So much so that the burg of Waters, Arkansas legally changed its name to Pine Ridge in 1936…and put up their own Jot ‘Em Down Store [and Museum], which is still standing today.)

 

partnersintimelobbyThe success of Lum and Abner led to six feature films (released through RKO) starring Chet and Norris in the radio roles that made them famous, beginning with Dreaming Out Loud in 1940 and ending with the delightful Partners in Time in 1946.  (A seventh film, Lum and Abner Abroad, was released in 1956—but was essentially three half-hour busted TV pilots stitched together to make a feature.)

 

l&a6For the most part, Lum and Abner was a fifteen-minute, five-day-a-week broadcast, sponsored at various times by Horlicks Malt, General Foods and Miles Laboratories.  But, in the fall of 1948, the program became a half-hour series for Frigidaire, with a live audience and orchestra.  Joining Lauck and Goff were Clarence Hartzell (using his Uncle Fletcher voice from Vic & Sade) as Benjamin Franklin Withers (a half-deaf old codger), and well-known personalities like ZaSu Pitts, Andy Devine, Opie Cates, Francis “Dink” Trout and Cliff Arquette.  After a second season where Ford paid the bills, the show reverted back to its quarter-hour format briefly in 1953-54 before leaving the airwaves for good.

 

19672One of the happiest stories of old-time radio is that much of Lum and Abner from 1935 and onward has been preserved for modern-day listeners.  I’ve always been pleased to trumpet the fact that Lum and Abner was my official introduction to the world of old-time radio; I heard the program as a youngster over WCAW in Charleston (it’s still heard in WV today, over WVOW in Logan), and I’ve been a fan of the show ever since.  But, you don’t need to move to the Mountain State to get your Pine Ridge fix—Radio Spirits has a slew of CD collections (four volumes, to be exact—and a fifth one is on the way this spring!) featuring some of the program’s classic broadcasts from 1942.  (As Abner would say: “Bless their hearts…buh-less their little hearts!”)

15 Comments

  1. Marty Dowell says:

    Such a fascinating history. I enjoy listening to these shows today. Such fun! It amazes me how they kept this going for so long with just two principle actors. Certainly an incredible accomplishment by any standards.

  2. Bill Crider says:

    My grandfather owned a little country store early in the 20th century, and this was one of his favorite shows. Naturally it was one of mine, too, because I liked whatever he did.

  3. Cam Aulds says:

    Best radio show ever! I love the characters they created and like many listeners, they remind me of people I knew growing up. I listen to them on SIRIUS and wish they played more episodes, more often.

    As most of our home phone calls are from non family or friends (we all have cell phones), I answer that line “Jottem Down Store & Library…Abner Peabody doing the talking” in character of course. The reactions are often priceless and on rare occasion the caller actually recognizes its from the show.

    If only modern America were more like the wonderful simple characters in Pine Ridge, Arkansas.

    I love “Lum n’ Abner!”

  4. Bruce Shand says:

    Absolutely my favourite OTR comedy!! My preference, though, is for the shorter episodes – from the mid-1930s to the mid-40s. The fact that Lauck and Goff played so many characters truly amazes me. They did it brilliantly!

    I’ve saved my favourite episodes, many of them on CDs. And sometimes, there’s just nothing I’d rather be doing than lying back and listening to my much-loved friends down in Pine Ridge. I feel sorry for people who don’t know Lum ‘n’ Abner. As Mousey would say, they’re like a mother to me.

  5. Leslie Buhre says:

    I am so glad that there programs are available to the public and that there seems to be a large fan base for old time radio. My grandfather, “Abner Peabody” Norris Goff, would be humbled to know that these programs still make it into peoples homes and that after all of these years, you’re all still listening. Well done Radio Spirits!

    • It’s wonderful to have your input, Leslie! Lum ‘n’ Abner is undeniably one of the best comedies old-time radio has to offer, and you should be proud to be a descendant!

      • Leslie Buhre says:

        Thank you for your kind words! Unfortunately, I was not alive when the Lum & Abner program was on the air, however I have some very fond memories of sitting in the front room with Grandad making the whole room laugh until we were falling off of our chairs! He and Chet were definately “characters”.

  6. What’s up, I log on to your blog regularly. Your humoristic style is witty, keep up the good work!

  7. Dan Drane says:

    Luke Spears was Milford’s nephew. There was never a reference to Grandpappy having any children of his own.

  8. Leslie Buhre says:

    I have been trying to obtain volume one & volume 3 of the radio series for just about a year now. Every time I contact Radio Spirits or the customer service center, they are unable to give me any information about the two missing volumes. Does anyone know where to get them? It’s important for me to get these. I would like to have full sets for Abner’s Great-Grandchildren.

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