Wednesday, July 14, 2010


THE VASS FAMILY on Dreams of Long Ago

The talent exhibited by radio's Vass Family was amazing in every respect, and it explains the fact that they worked non-stop throughout the Depression - on radio, on stage, and in motion pictures - from the time they officially entered show business until the outbreak of World War II. The fact that they excelled in so many different ways, that they performed virtually every type of music and did dramatic parts with equal success, and that they worked in New York, Chicago, and Hollywood, causes the Vass Family to defy simple categorization. They shared Ethel Park Richardson's love for mountain songs, as well as her interest in dramatic acting and writing. They beautifully sang the antiquated popular songs Ethel also cherished, and - when sponsors requested it - they could perform the current pop hits of the day with clever arrangements and intricate harmonies. With never a lull in their career as a group, the sweet singing family from South Carolina achieved remarkable success, and yet their versatility and their constant movement from one assignment to the next have probably contributed to the lack of attention they've received from historians and chroniclers of that era in radio, in country and popular music, and in the Depression-era entertainment world.
The story begins with a history professor and Baptist minister, Dr. James Leland Vass, and his wife, Hallie - a former teacher - both of South Carolina. Dr. Vass taught at Furman University in Greenville, where all his children were born, beginning with James Leland Jr. in 1908. Several months later, Dr. Vass' older sister, Lula, left South Carolina for New York City, to continue her career as an actress. Seven more children were born to the Vasses: Frank (in 1911), Harriet, Sally (in 1912), Virginia, Louisa, Emily, and Susanna.
Moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, Dr. Vass opened a private school. As the Depression was getting underway and economic conditions were unfavorable, the school burned to the ground - and there was no insurance to cover this tragic loss. Trying to come up with a viable plan of action, the Vasses were contacted by Aunt Lula. Her second husband, Christian Railing, had died. At the time, Lula was managing a large and beautiful inn and resort called Green Pastures, on the Post Road in Darien, Connecticut. She suggested that her brother and the family come to help her run the place. It was a large property, at one time in the news as the proposed site of a small airstrip to transport commuters by air from Darien to New York City. North to Darien, Connecticut, went the Vass Family, to help run the inn.
The Vasses loved to sing. In the evenings, after attending to tasks at the inn, the young people would harmonize. Their aunt, who had been in show business and still occasionally did some work on NBC radio, took them to Radio City for an audition - and NBC hired the gifted group. They were first placed on Madge Tucker's "The Children's Hour," a very popular broadcast which featured many juvenile performers who went on to achieve considerable success in the entertainment field. By the autumn of 1932, The Vass Family had its own quarter-hour morning series on NBC. Mrs. Vass played the piano, Aunt Lula played character parts, and Frank, Sally, Virginia, Louisa, and Emily sang songs and portrayed themselves in brief sketches. Originally heard from 10:00 to 10:15 in the morning (following a quarter-hour by hillbilly singer "Pie Plant Pete"), The Vass Family was first billed as "Seven North Carolina children, singing in harmony." Leland and Harriet dropped out of the group, and the mother eventually ceased playing piano for them. Frank became adept at the harmonica, and Virginia played ukelele and guitar for accompaniment.
As far as may be determined, the Vass Family first worked with Ethel Park Richardson in 1934, when Madge Tucker invited her to do a brief "Hillbilly Heart-Throbs" sketch on NBC's "The Children's Hour." Ethel regularly worked with such juvenile performers as Florence and Billy Halop, Jackie Kelk, Charita Bauer, Walter Tetley, Jimmy McCallion, and Laddie Seaman - all of whom were likewise frequent members of the cast of "The Children's Hour." Emily Vass, youngest of the family, was a very gifted dramatic performer as well. Ethel would go on to write a number of parts for her after her splendid performance in the "Charmin' Billy" sketch presented on "The Children's Hour." Frank, Sally, and Virginia - while young people - were not really children when they first met and worked with Ethel Park Richardson. They provided the musical interludes between dramatic scenes on that first sketch, as Frank Luther's Trio was then doing on the regular "Hillbilly Heart-Throbs" broadcasts, and they were already extremely polished and highly professional. With beautiful voices, a wonderful blend, and possessing sophisticated musical skills, The Vass Family wrote and re-arranged their material so that it splendidly suited every application.
Ethel Park Richardson's NBC shows were sustaining. In those grisly Depression years, few sponsors came along. Frank Luther found himself too busy with commercial shows to continue doing the "Heart-Throbs of the Hills" series (the title having been changed from "Hillbilly Heart-Throbs"). Carson Robison carried on for a time, but he likewise found himself in demand on commercial programs and had to bow out. At this point, Ethel changed the show's title and concept. "Heart-Throbs of the Hills" ended - and, with it, the show's basic premise: the dramatization of hillbilly or country ballads. The series became "Dreams of Long Ago." Songs were still dramatized - but they were now old songs...old popular songs, some country songs, and various time-tested standards. With the new series title came a new musical group: The Vass Family.
From the beginning, Sally sang the lead in the trio, with Virginia singing harmony and playing guitar, while Frank sang the third part and played harmonica. Louisa and Emily played character parts. On a few occasions, Ethel had "Mama Vass" written into the scripts. Virginia was then known as "Jitchie" and Louisa as "Weezy." Ethel began to write dialogue for Virginia, Frank, and Emily, who played dramatic roles in many of the stories. Week after week, month after month, Ethel and the Vasses did "Dreams of Long Ago." At the same time, the Vass Family continued with its own quarter-hour NBC morning series. Initially, Mrs. Curtis Burnley Railing (The Vass' Aunt Lula) wrote the scripts for the Vass Family series. Sally took over the writing after her Aunt Lula left to do other projects, showing considerable talent and ability in that field. Their mother, who served as their manager, was also heard on the show - but their father did not perform with them.
On August 4, 1937, the Vass Family made its only commercial phonograph recordings, for Decca in New York City. The session consisted entirely of Ethel Park Richardson's collected versions of a variety of old songs. One wonders whether she might have been in the studio with them when the session was done. The Vasses sang the songs precisely the way Ethel liked to have them sung.
62495 A Paper of Pins Decca 5425
62496 Soldier, Won't You Marry Me? Decca 5432
62497 Deep Blue Sea Decca 5432
62498 Hawg Foot unissued
62499 Blue-Eyed Ellen unissued
62500 My Grandmother unissued
62501 Jimmie Randall Decca 5425
62502 Skip to My Lou unissued
Although their Decca session focused on hillbilly songs the family performed with Ethel, the Vass Family saw their career taking a different direction within the next few weeks. Soon after their Decca session, the family did a remote broadcast from New York to be used "live" on "The National Barn Dance," originating in Chicago. They were signed to appear on Ben Bernie's popular half-hour network show. They appeared in a remarkable sequence in the RKO motion picture, RADIO CITY REVELS, singing "There's a New Moon Over the Old Mill" with Kenny Baker. They found themselves with commercial engagements, and they left "Dreams of Long Ago."
In 1938, Alka Seltzer signed The Vass Family to do a thirteen-week series of "guest appearances" on "The National Barn Dance" in Chicago. They relocated to the windy city, doing their morning shows from there, appearing as guests on "The National Barn Dance" and also doing a number of sustaining programs on NBC. Before long, they became cast members of Don McNeill's popular "The Breakfast Club." They also appeared with pianist Alec Templeton on his series.
Journeying to Hollywood with Alec Templeton, the family did a screen test for Universal Pictures.
Back in Chicago in 1940, The Vass Family joined the cast of a stage musical, "Hold On to Your Hats," with Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and Jinx Falkenburg, on a Broadway try-out. They left the show before it moved to New York, where it ran only a few nights.
In 1941, the Vass Family appeared in Republic Pictures' COUNTRY FAIR, with Eddie Foy, Jr., Lulu Belle & Scotty, Hal Peary, Whitey Ford, June Clyde, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, William Demarest, Harold Huber, and Ferris Taylor. A musical comedy directed by Frank McDonald, COUNTRY FAIR has not been shown anywhere in recent years - but the Vass Family had a good sequence in which they sang their own arrangement of "Sierra Sue."
It should be noted that the Vass Family did not have formal vocal instruction as such, but that - when sponsors wanted more intricate arrangements of pop songs in the earlier part of the Vass' career - they turned to Dr. Harry Wilson, of Teacher's College, Columbia University, who assisted with the more complex harmonies and critiqued their voices.
Virginia Vass wed Robert Scott in 1938. Sally Vass and Richard Waters were married in 1941. By 1942, The Vass Family closed its performing career.
Virginia, however, had married an actor. She continued her career as a soloist, singing for several weeks on Gene Autry's CBS Melody Ranch series, and appearing on a number of dramatic serials, such as "Buck Rogers in the Twenty-First Century" and several popular daytime "soap operas." In 1943, she joined the cast of the Broadway play, "The Home Front."
After the war ended, Virginia Vass continued her career as a musical entertainer, dramatizing the mountain songs in a way similar to what she and her family had done on "Dreams of Long Ago." In the 1950s, she and Ethel Park Richardson met again, in Los Angeles, and Ethel enthusiastically wrote a couple of scripts for a series she called "The Patchwork Quilt," in which she hoped to star Virginia Vass. The series proposal found no willing producer or advertiser, but the reunion was a happy one.
Today, Virginia Vass - still full of talent, still lively and attractive - remains active, performing frequently in the community where she resides. Some years ago, her beautiful voice was showcased on a series of splendidly entertaining CDs of dramatized folk songs, with her own autoharp accompaniment. Emily Vass is likewise active today, residing in Oregon. It is most unfortunate that The Vass Family made few commercial recordings. A few airchecks of their radio work remain as evidence of their artistry. Theirs is an important place in the Ethel Park Richardson saga, and they are remembered today as a wondrously gifted family with astonishing versatility and charm.

Sunday, July 11, 2010



Vivia Ogden and
William Adams
(left) were "Mother"
and "Pa" on the
WOR version of
on its subsequent
run on CBS radio.
Leslie Bingham,
(above), portrayed
"Mother" on the
first WABC run of
Ethel Park Richardson, native of Decherd, Tennessee, was at the Pierpont Hotel in Brooklyn, New York, on October 16, 1929, at which time she wrote these lines: "This is to certify that the dramatization of Sam Walter Foss' poem, The House By the Side of the Road, employing also Edward Carpenter's Toward Democracy and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet and Forerunner and other ethical classics, is my own conceived idea and work, and no other's. To this fact, I can call as witnesses Eunice Osborne and John Carlisle, to whom I outlined my plan even before I had written the accompanying script." She signed the paper and had it notarized, intending to turn THE HOUSE BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD into a dramatic quarter-hour radio serial.
By the time Ethel began writing the second episode, her format had crystallized. The series title was now THE HOUSE BESIDE THE ROAD, and the story opened with a melodion playing a few bars of "A Perfect Day." The announcer reads portions of Carpenter's and Foss' works and then introduces the main characters, "two gentle people whom sorrow has touched and softened." They are identified only as "Pa" and "Mother," characters based to an extent on Ethel's fond recollections of her own parents. The announcer goes on to explain that "...a beloved son, who went bravely away to the Great War, has not returned. But they will not give up hope that he will return! And, as proof of their faith, they have set, each night through all these years, a candle in the window to welcome him home." We find the gentle old couple in their cottage, where they are soon startled by a thud outside their front door. A young woman with desperate difficulties has happened along - and thus is established the basic premise of the series. Pa and Mother are there to do good, to model gentleness and compassion and sincerity, and to help others who pass the cottage and stop for a dipper of cool water from the spring near the front door.
Early in 1931, THE HOUSE BESIDE THE ROAD found a sponsor: The American Mutual Liability Insurance Company! The series was heard as a quarter-hour "dramatic sketch" on New York's WABC radio, from 7:15 to 7:30 on Tuesday and Friday evenings. The lead-in on WABC was "The Morton Downey Show," and Ethel's series was followed by "The St. Moritz Orchestra." Although well-received, the series only ran for thirteen weeks. It is possible that the Depression economy caused sales for American Mutual to be disappointing or that they felt they would have greater success with a musical program. At that time in the history of radio broadcasting, singers and orchestras far outnumbered dramatic "sketches." Compounding the problem was that radio's wildly popular "Amos 'n Andy" was running from 7:00 to 7:15 on NBC, proving to be a powerful lead-in for any program which followed it.
In late summer of 1932, however, the N. W. Ayer agency found a client interested in sponsoring Ethel's series on New York's WOR: Kopper's Sea-Board Coke Company. Heard as a quarter-hour series three evenings per week, the series' title was changed to A WAYSIDE COTTAGE. The opening signature became "Just a Cottage Small By a Waterfall." The series premise, however, was unchanged. "Pa" was played to perfection by Bill Adams, who had a long and distinguished radio career, and "Mother" was now portrayed by Vivia Ogden. In the opening segment, "Copper in the Soil," two shady characters - one of whom was played by Brian Donlevy - attempt to persuade Pa and Mother to let them destroy the spring in front of the cottage (along with, of course, the series' premise) by mining for copper. At one point, they plan to secretly file for the mineral rights on their own. The gentle goodness of Pa and Mother brings about an understanding of deeper values, however, and the selfish characters repent by the end of the story.
Nick Kenny, columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, became a devoted admirer of Ethel's, praising her programs on a regular basis, and A WAYSIDE COTTAGE received more fan mail than any other show with which Ethel Park Richardson was ever involved. With three scripts to turn out each week, she wrote frantically. Her semi-regular characters had amnesia, saw startling coincidences reform their lives, and were reunited with long-lost loved ones. Husband and wife, child and parent, neighbor and neighbor were all brought closer together through the goodness represented by Pa and Mother.
Two-part stories were not at all unusual. In one memorable pair, "Noisy Neighbors" and "If I Knew You," a department store owner escapes his unhappy city life for a rural drive, passing by the wayside cottage. He tells of a hateful neighbor in his apartment building, who disturbs his rest and is the antithesis of what he views as good and desirable in human nature. He seeks solace in the broadcasts of "Jolly Joe," a homespun radio philosopher whose cheerfulness and wisdom he admires. By the end of the two-part story, we find that the despised neighbor (whom he's never actually seen) is in reality "Jolly Joe" himself. Pa and Mother show both visitors that getting to know and understand others is the key to enduring peace.
A three-parter, "Measles for Sale!", "Sir Knight," and "Ga-loop!," presents Billy Halop as a runaway boy who is understood by Pa and Mother and swiftly reunited with parents who will subsequently understand him better. Billy Halop, a frequent guest on Ethel Park Richardson's programs, was joined by fellow youthful radio actors Walter Tetley and Jimmie McCallion in a special WAYSIDE COTTAGE Halloween episode as well.
The well-written series resonated with Depression audiences. Late in Ethel Park Richardson's life, when the subject of her radio career came up in the presence of strangers or casual acquaintances, the one series best remembered by most was A WAYSIDE COTTAGE, although the show never enjoyed a truly lengthy run. The WOR version reached an end in dismal 1933. It is possible that Kopper's Sea-Board Coke Company could no longer afford to sponsor a series in the heart of the Depression, and A WAYSIDE COTTAGE would have proved too costly a show for WOR to run on a sustaining basis at that point in time. For Ethel Park Richardson, however, a new adventure was beginning. NBC was running HILLBILLY HEART-THROBS in May of 1933, as a sustaining series in search of sponsorship. At the very moment A WAYSIDE COTTAGE entered a dormant phase, another venture moved into the forefront.
CBS then decided to bring the series back as more-or-less a summer replacement program on the network, to run from 7:15 to 7:30 on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, beginning July 10, 1934. It was first decided to revert to the 1931 title, THE HOUSE BESIDE THE ROAD. After a few episodes, a decision was made to cash in on the program's more recent popularity on WOR, and so it became THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE. David Ross was the announcer. William Adams and Vivia Ogden were "Pa" and "Mother." Others heard on the show included Anne Elstner, Fannie Mae Baldridge, Jackie Kelk, Warren Colston, Mary Smith, Artels Dixon, Walter Soderling, Alice Davenport, Charles Bellin, Ruth Russell, Laddie Seaman, Cecil Secrest, Henry Gurvey, and Ethel Park Richardson herself.
The program's CBS run generated a great deal of fan mail, and Ethel answered all of it. Pittsburgh columnist S. H. Steinhauser wrote about Bill Adams' role in the show in a column published on September 16, 1934: "...Adams...portrays a kindly farmer who lives in a wayside cottage. He leads his neighbors in saving others' homes from foreclosure, raises funds for the relief of the needy, and shows the more fortunate how to help their deserving fellowmen. Currently, Adams is starring in a Columbia presentation called The Wayside Cottage, a homey type of tragedy-drama that takes one by the throat, chokes him up, and brings tears from his eyes, if he has an ounce of human kindness in his makeup...."
Dramatic "sketches" presented in the evening hours were not attracting the few advertisers' dollars in the 1930s, and particularly on the networks. Radio comedians were on the rise - and Ethel Park Richardson had some comments on that subject which indicated her lack of appreciation for the efforts of many such performers - and so were several well-known vocalists, orchestras, and bands. It was not the right moment for dramatic stories which touched the heart. THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE ended its run on September 13, 1934, with a two-character play in which Pa and Mother reminisce. At the end of the story, David Ross read these lines: "Vivia Ogden and William Adams, as Pa and Mother, regret to bid their kind friends goodbye, but THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE will be heard no more. Ethel Park Richardson, the author of THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE, wishes to thank the many friends for their letters of appreciation, and hopes some day again to be able to present these little tales of the simple kindness of the two we have come to love in memory of our own Father and Mother. This is the COLUMBIA......BROADCASTING SYSTEM."
For thirty years after the final broadcast of the series, Ethel dreamed of bringing it back in some way. She began a novel based on the program, but never went beyond the first few pages. When television came along, she endeavored to turn THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE into a TV series, which would have been challenging. A late 1930s contract with her agent made a passing reference to the existence of recordings of THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE, but none are known to exist. Many of the original scripts, however, do exist. They are imaginative, lively, and beguiling. They speak of an era in which the concept of profoundly good, unselfish, and kindly senior citizens living in a little house beside a country road and helping all passersby could be taken seriously and accepted without reservation. Although better remembered today for her pioneering work in the country music field with HILLBILLY HEART-THROBS, Ethel Park Richardson retained a special place in her heart for Pa and Mother of THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE.