Ethel Park Richardson created "Hillbilly Heart-Throbs" in 1933 on NBC Radio
Although she created, wrote and produced the first "song-stories" on radio and is best remembered today for her role in the dissemination of hillbilly and mountain ballads on a national level, Ethel Sloan Park was born in the small town of Decherd, Tennessee - in the shadow of Cumberland Mountain - on December 13, 1883. Her father, Lunsford Yandell Park, a native of Seguin, Texas, was an excellent old-time fiddler, and her mother, Isabella Barron, played the piano. One of ten children of railroad depot agent/telegrapher Lunsford Park, Ethel grew up surrounded by music, developing a special fondness for the folk songs sung by mountaineer acquaintances, the traditional melodies of African-American friends whose church services she periodically attended as a child, and the sentimental parlor songs of the 19th century. All her siblings sang. When they moved to Chattanooga in the early 1890s, the Park children formed virtually the entire choir of The Central Baptist Church.
A good student, Ethel loved to write both poetry and prose. Because no schools then existed in Decherd, she began to read and write by learning and listening to her father's Morse code messages. Beginning her formal schooling later in Chattanooga, she was in her late teens when she met Paul Jordan Smith, who was taking a needed course at Chattanooga High School. Kindred spirits, the two writers who shared a love of literature and poetry and a desire to engage in creative work entered into a correspondence and, much against parental wishes, were secretly wed in 1904.
Ethel and Paul moved to Illinois, where he attended college and subsequently studied for the ministry. A charismatic public speaker, Paul was surrounded by admirers and found himself in great demand after the couple relocated to Chicago with their three small children. The marriage disintegrated, and the Smiths' friend, Clarence Darrow, handled their divorce - some eight years after they had slipped away to be married.
With three small children to support, Ethel baked, took in sewing, and worked as ghost-writer for the syndicated newspaper column of a well-known poet. A deacon in the church Paul had lately served as minister, James Perkins Richardson, befriended Ethel, hiring her to work for him at a small prep school he was conducting on a Missouri apple farm he had acquired. By 1914, Jim Richardson and Ethel's three small children had moved to Houston, Texas, where he physically constructed and opened the Prosso Preparatory School. There, Ethel wed the older gentleman - who had three grown children - and Ethel Park Smith became, for the rest of her life, Ethel Park Richardson.
Although both were busy teaching adolescents at Prosso and running the affairs of the school, they journeyed East for one of Jim's Yale reunions. Riding in an elevator with former President William Howard Taft, Ethel pulled his coattails, telling the astonished ex-Chief Executive that she only hoped to tell others that she "knew a President well enough to pull his coattaiils." President Taft slyly winked at Jim Richardson and then, extending his hand to Ethel, said, "And, if you will be so gracious, you may add that the President shook hands with you!" In 1919, Ethel went to New York to spend the summer studying dramatic writing at Columbia University.
Ethel wrote and produced a play, The Bridge to Dreamland, in Houston, also working on other plays and writing poetry. After the death of Jim Richardson, she carried on with Prosso single-handedly for a time. Students, in addition to her own children, included Howard Hughes and pianist Seger Ellis. The school closed and a new life began for the 5'1" woman from Decherd when musicologist/author Sigmund Spaeth came to Houston, lecturing under the auspices of the Knabe Piano Company. He had just come out with a popular book on the sentimental songs of the 19th century, entitled Read 'em and Weep, and it amazed him to visit in Ethel's parlor and discover that she knew literally hundreds of old songs.
By coincidence, Spaeth had been approached by a New York publisher, Jae Greenberg, to compile a book of American mountaineer songs. Extremely busy at the time, he suggested that perhaps Ethel Park Richardson might like to undertake the project. Delighted beyond description, Ethel signed a contract with Greenberg on August 10, 1926, stipulating that she was to deliver a completed manuscript no later than November 15 of that year. Swiftly putting a close to her affairs in Houston, Ethel returned to Chattanooga and set about to compile - in three short months - a collection of mountain melodies!
She was not a folklorist by training. Whether she was personally acquainted with Francis J. Child's volumes of ballads or not is anyone's guess. She did journey to remote parts of Kentucky, Virginia, North Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina - in enormous haste - and she also visited with such early country recording artists as Gid Tanner. She made a 16mm motion picture in Appalachia, conducted a folk festival in Chattanooga, visited and obtained authentic mountaineer clothing from WWI hero Sergeant Alvin York's mother, gathered many fine songs, and began broadcasting on WDOD in Chattanooga. On one occasion, she played a banjo with one hand and a dulcimer with another as she accompanied her singing of a folk song she had found in the hills.
When she left Chattanooga to personally deliver her manuscript of the book, American Mountain Songs, to Greenberg , she brought along a letter of introduction from WDOD to personnel at the newly-formed National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in New York City. The Chattanooga station had given Ethel an opportunity to broadcast "hillbilly" songs, to sing African-American melodies, and to act. She'd had her taste of radio and adored it.
Her first audition was for John Babb at NBC, and she sang hillbilly songs for him. Her first actual contract came when she gave an "on the air" audition of African-American songs that happened to be included in an international hook-up. Ten days later, she was signed to co-star as "Mandy" with Phil Cook in The Cabin Door.
It is perhaps difficult for contemporary readers and researchers to understand how Ethel Park Richardson, closely associated with early country music, devoted much of her early career to the presentation of African-American folklore on radio. It was then acceptable for European-Americans to represent African-Americans on radio, recordings, and the stage. Gosden and Correll, as "Amos and Andy," scored the biggest hit in the early days of American radio, with a program genuinely beloved by the masses. Ethel, who had attended church services as a child with her black friends, did all Southern dialects - black and white - convincingly and with affection. She auditioned and won the part of "Camilla Crow" with radio's Moran and Mack ("The Two Black Crows") and the huge number of losing candidates for the coveted role gave her such hateful glances that the producer advised her to leave the audition room by the back door. She often re-wrote her dialect lines if they were inaccurately conceived. Ethel recalled, on one early broadcast of the Grunow Majestic Radio Hour that Charley Mack lost his place in the script and "got the jitters." Ethel ad-libbed many questions to him until he'd found his place, and the producer subsequently thanked her profusely. On another network broadcast, her performance in telling the story of David in Goliath, in dialect, so impressed guest-star George Arliss that he came to her with congratulations afterward.
On New York station WOR, Ethel portrayed a housekeeper named "Cindy." There were then no commercials on daytime radio, but WOR was owned by Bamberger's, a large department store in the New York area. Against the wishes of Mr. Bamberger, Ethel - as "Cindy" - began folksily talking about the new dishes available at the store. Within a couple of hours, Bamberger's had sold the entire stock...during the Depression. The daytime radio commercial had come into its own. "Cindy" had a large following in Harlem, and Ethel became a friend of such prominent figures as Julius Thomas, of the Urban League.
Early in her radio career, Ethel actually played hillbilly 78 rpm recordings on a series - functioning as what was much later termed a "disc jockey." For her signature, however, she played the zither and sang "Sourwood Mountain," live.
As a writer/producer, Ethel created such series as Little Theatre of Radio, but her best-loved show was undoubtedly The Wayside Cottage, which aired three times a week on WOR in the heart of the Depression. William Adams and Vivia Ogden portrayed two characters known only as "Pa" and "Mother," who lived in a little house by the side of the road, and who had the uncanny ability to straighten out the problems, soothe the heartaches, and bring miraculously happy circumstances to all the troubled passersby who paused for a cup of cool water from the spring flowing near the little house. Sponsored by Kopper's Seaboard Coke Company, fuel distributors, the series attracted a devoted following. New York Daily Mirror columnist Nick Kenny became Ethel's biggest fan, praising her in his columns and calling her "the mother of radio's hillbilly sweetness." The Wayside Cottage later resurfaced on CBS as The House Beside the Road.
Her desire to dramatize old songs caused her to do much writing and to ultimately generate a series concept, Hillbilly Heart-throbs, which consisted of the telling of a story constructed around a country or "hillbilly" ballad, by actors using mountaineer dialect. Instead of organ music serving as a transition between scenes, singers would perform parts of the ballad to advance the story. NBC bought the concept, and Ethel signed a contract on May 15, 1933. She was to receive $25 for each script, if the series aired on a sustaining basis. If a sponsor could be located, her fee would rise to $100. She received an extra salary for acting in the program, as she almost always did.
NBC scheduled Hillbilly Heart-throbs as a summer replacement at first, running for thirteen weeks in 1933. For the key musical role, Ethel was fortunate in getting the Frank Luther Trio. Frank was one of the most popular country artists on records at that time, gifted with a superb tenor voice. In his trio were his wife, Zora Layman, and gifted baritone Len Stokes. On many occasions, their friend Carson Robison joined them as both singer and instrumentalist. A steel guitarist named Sven sometimes worked with them, as did Johnny Cali and other renowned musicians. For the dramatic roles, Anne Elstner and Curtis Arnall, Jack Roseleigh and many others played characters Ethel created. The signature song performed by the Frank Luther Trio, "Sing Me a Hillbilly Heart-throb," was written and composed by Ethel herself.
No sponsor was forthcoming in 1933, with the Depression deepening. The summer season concluded, and so did the series - but it was resumed on February 6, 1934. NBC sought sponsorship, but - although the show had a large and loyal following - no prospective sponsor stepped forward. Eleven weeks into the second run of the program, it was decided to alter the title in such a way as to remove the sometimes controversial term, "hillbilly." Beginning May 13, 1934, the series became Heart-throbs of the Hills. Originally a fifteen-minute program, the show grew to a full 30-minutes. Initially, the first ten minutes would be devoted to a recital by the incomparable Frank Luther Trio. When Zora Layman, the first country female artist to enjoy a major solo hit record, sang her big song - "Seven Years With the Wrong Man" - on the series, the NBC switchboard lit up for a prolonged period.
With a faithful audience and critical praise from Nick Kenny and many others, Heart-throbs of the Hills continued on NBC through 1934 and into 1935. During this period, Frank Luther had signed with Decca and had revolutionized the field of children's records with his landmark album sets, "Mother Goose Songs" and "Nursery Rhymes." He was also making short films for release through Educational Pictures and appeared non-stop on radio. It became necessary for the Frank Luther Trio to withdraw from the series. Ethel asked the amiable Carson Robison to bring in his own group. He performed on the show until October, 1935, and Ethel even wrote dramatizations of some of Robbie's famed original compositions, including "Oklahoma Charley,""Left My Gal in the Mountains," "The Wreck of Number 9" and several more.
There were a lot of old 19th century songs Ethel wanted to dramatize, but which really had no connection to Appalachia or to country music. Thus, on November 6, 1935, the program became Dreams of Long Ago. In the Depression, sponsors were not easy to come by - and NBC and various advertising agencies were still unable to unearth one for Ethel's show, but they persisted. With a new series title came new singers: The Vass Family. A family group from South Carolina, by way of North Carolina, the five Vass siblings were harmonizing after moving to Darien, Connecticut, somewhere around 1931, when their aunt, who was in show business and was impressed with the youngsters' blend, got them an audition at NBC - and they soon had their own morning program. They first met Ethel Park Richardson in 1934, when they appeared in a sketch she did on NBC's The Children's Hour. By the autumn of 1935, the amazingly gifted family was ready to perform with Ethel every week, bringing old songs - both country and "city" - to life in dramatic form. Virginia, Frank, Emily, Sally, and Louisa Vass played dramatic parts on the series, too, in addition to providing the music. Actors such as Helen Claire, Curtis Arnall, Bud Collyer, Dick Kollmar, Cecil Secrest, John Tucker Battle, Jackie Kelk, Walter Tetley, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Tex Ritter, Bob Porterfield, and many others appeared on the series.
Dreams of Long Ago did not find a sponsor, though the series continued through 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1938. It held the dubious distinction of being the longest-running NBC sustaining series of its day, beginning as Hillbilly Heart-throbs in 1933. Despite NBC's faith in the series, however, nothing was happening. Beginning to experiment with other avenues to keep her writing fresh, Ethel brought into the series short adaptations of Shakespeare in "hillbilly" dialect, which had nothing to do with dramatized ballads. The Vass Family landed on a sponsored series and departed in 1937, soon turning up in Chicago on the "National Barn Dance" and other programs, in addition to their own morning series. At this point, Ethel formed her own musical group, The Richardson Singers, featuring her niece, Bella Allen, and Texas Jim Robertson, George Petrie, and Wally Russell. This group did not quite pan out, so a new one was assembled. Margaret and Travis Johnson, with Bella Allen, later became known on records as "The Song Spinners." They were first The Richardson Singers, and later The Hilltop Harmonizers. They were there when NBC quietly retired Dreams of Long Ago on October 30, 1938.
Ethel left the NBC network, but her association with NBC continued. On April 12, 1939, less than 6 months after the network series ended, NBC offered Ethel a new contract to write, produce, and furnish all talent for a syndicated, quarter-hour version of Heart-throbs of the Hills, to be distributed on 16" vinyl discs to stations around the world wishing to lease it from NBC Program Services. She was paid $81 per program for her services, and 52 quarter-hour shows were recorded. With budgets far lower than her network shows, each program ran approximately twelve-and-a-half minutes. Recorded in the NBC studios, under the supervision of Gilbert Ralston, the programs featured Robert Porterfield, Bella Allen, Robert Strauss, Ethel Park Richardson, The Hilltop Harmonizers (Margaret and Travis Johnson, Bella Allen, Johnnie Rogers), and Ethel's favorite announcer, Kelvin Keech.
The syndicated Heart-throbs of the Hills programs ran throughout the 1940s. Strangely, none of the 16" discs are known to survive, except for five of the first 13 episodes, which were in the NBC Library at Radio City, and are now in the Library of Congress' NBC Collection.
Ethel's manager, Jean V. Grumbach, got her a job writing scripts for a recorded series, Uncle Natchel, which was sponsored by Chilean Nitrate, a fertilizer used chiefly in the Southern states. Uncle Natchel was portrayed by Frank Wilson, renowned African-American radio actor who appeared frequently on Ethel's shows. Ethel's young niece and nephew, Kathryn and Jimmy Allen, were also regular cast members. Historical fiction - with some music - Uncle Natchel , which ran for several years, was probably Ethel's least-favorite radio assignment...and it proved to be her last. Shortly after the United States entered World War II, the Chilean Nitrate contract was canceled, and Uncle Natchel ceased production. No discs are known to have survived.
Ethel Park Richardson was ready for a rest. In 1942, she left New York in a house-trailer she personally designed, and settled in California, where a daughter and son lived. Ironically, she found a spot for her trailer not far from the home of her first husband, Paul Jordan Smith, who had become Literary Editor of the Los Angeles Times. With her small trailer permanently parked in the yard of Mr. and Mrs. Boyd in Los Angeles, Ethel embarked on a plan to get into writing for motion pictures. Her play, A-Lovin- and a-Feudin', a hillbilly interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, had been produced at the Pasadena Playhouse, but Ethel lost interest in a proposed Broadway run, preferring to concentrate on getting into films. This proved impossible. She augmented her Social Security income by making exquisite, intricate dollhouse furnishings for a Los Angeles boutique, never ceasing to strive for a radio comeback or a motion picture job.
In the mid-1950s, Ethel did succeed in landing a spot as a contestant on a radio quiz program called Walk a Mile. The sponsor was Camel Cigarettes and the M.C. was Bill Cullen. Her spot as a contestant drew a lot of fan mail. Shortly thereafter, the television success of the quiz program, $64,000 Question, caused networks to create similar programs. In 1955, NBC began to air The Big Surprise, a program offering a top prize of $100,000 -- then the largest amount ever offered on a program of this nature. The producers remembered the grandmother from Tennessee - now residing in a trailer in Los Angeles - and offered her the opportunity to become a contestant. Her category was "American folklore," and they wanted her to sing a song on each show in which she appeared. For several weeks, the 72-year-old Ethel appeared on The Big Surprise. Special "expert" guests, ranging from the Governor of Tennessee to country singer Eddy Arnold, appeared to submit or help with asking the complex questions. Each week, Ethel knew the answers. Finally, she became the first contestant to win the top prize: $100,000. Her book of mountain songs was re-printed, with a dust jacket reflecting her new celebrity status. She did TV commercials for the Social Security Administration, appeared on other programs and prospective program pilots, was invited to be a guest on the Grand Ole Opry, and saw revived interest in her life and career. The excitement took its toll on her health, but she would not have had it any other way.
Her appearances on the NBC TV quiz show made her a celebrity in ways she'd never known before. After winning the $100,000, her picture appeared on the front page of newspapers around the world. She continued to plan show business-related ventures for the next five or six years, but was ready - by 1962 - to leave her trailer and move to Fresno, where her daughter operated a farm, and to retire. Interviewed a few times, she lived quietly in Fresno until her passing on April 11, 1968. A centennial stage celebration of her life, presented in 1983, bore the title Ethel once selected for her own epitaph: "She Kept on a-Goin'." On the centennial of her birth, her hometown of Decherd, Tennessee, had a small celebration in her memory. Writer, composer, singer, actress, producer, playwright, and folklorist Ethel Park Richardson loved and respected the songs, speech, and folkways of the American mountaineer. Throughout her career, she shared these things with audiences everywhere. She would be pleased, "more than all the telling" - as she liked to say - to be remembered for her work.