THE WAYSIDE COTTAGE
Vivia Ogden and
(left) were "Mother"
and "Pa" on the
WOR version of
on its subsequent
run on CBS radio.
"Mother" on the
first WABC run of
BESIDE THE ROAD, in 1931.
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.