The Adventures of Frank Merriwell
In the winter of 1895, the publishing firm of Street and Smith contacted a twenty-nine-year-old writer named Gilbert Patten with an attractive proposition. Patten had written stories for them in the past and now they wanted him to create and develop a heroic character to be featured in their new magazine, "Tip Top Library" -- a periodical designed to appeal to America's youth and add another title to their highly lucrative series of weekly publications popularly known as "dime novels". Street and Smith correctly presumed that a leading character with admirable attributes like good looks, intelligence, indefatigable good sportsmanship, ethics, and an outgoing personality would be just the thing to make their new youth-targeted "dime novel" a success - and, in Gilbert Patten, they found just the man who could do the job.
Born in Corinna, Maine on October 25, 1866, Gil Patten developed an interest in writing at an early age. Like many boys of the time, he found his favorite literature to be the "pluck and luck" stories of the "dime novels" - stories by writers such as Horatio Alger, Jr., which demonstrated that anyone could be a success so long as he worked hard, grabbed opportunity when it knocked, remained optimistic, and never gave up on himself. When it came to creating his own hero, Patten knew instinctively that he had to be a strong role model for his readers - right down to his name. As Patten later explained, "The name was symbolic of the chief characteristics I desired my hero to have: Frank for frankness, merry for a happy disposition, well for health and abounding vitality." Adopting a standard practice of the time, which allowed well-known writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair to moonlight by writing short stories for the pulps, Patten also created a pseudonym for himself and chose 'Burt L. Standish' as the name under which all of the new stories would be written.
The first Frank Merriwell story appeared on April 18, 1896 and was an instant success with readers. Boys and girls of the era took to Merriwell immediately, seeing the character as both a role model and an inspiration. Thanks to Patten's exciting, fast-paced writing style and the fact that a new story was published almost every week, the nation's youth soon came to feel that, somewhere, a real Frank Merriwell existed and that Mr. Standish was merely recounting his exciting deeds. Street and Smith published Merriwell's adventures for nearly two decades and an enduring literary legend was born.
Since the character of Frank Merriwell was well established in the minds of turn-of-the-century American youth, it was only natural that, as his readers grew up, they would see him as a good candidate for adaptation to other mediums. 1931 saw Merriwell as the lead character in his own daily comic strip, which continued through 1934 and was later reprinted as a series of Big Little Books. 1934 was also the year in which a film serial titled "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell" was released to theaters by Universal Pictures. Starring Donald Briggs in the title role and Jean Rogers as his chaste but loving girlfriend, Elsie Bellwood, the twelve-part weekly cliffhanging adventure found Merriwell the sports hero leaving school to search for his missing father. After run-ins with the usual serial fare - mystical rings, lost treasures, and exotic tribes of natives - he finds his father and returns to school just in time to defeat his team's bitter baseball rivals. Briggs also starred as Frank Merriwell in a radio adaptation of the stories, a three-times-a-week serial sponsored by Dr. West's toothpaste that ran for a single season in 1934.
The years between 1934 and 1946 saw many changes in the American lifestyle and, thanks to World War II, many technological advances as well. Radio programming for young people reflected those changes, as heroes for juvenile audiences progressed through the exploits of Little Orphan Annie, the high-flying escapades of Jimmy Allen and Captain Midnight, the old west adventures of the Lone Ranger, the cops-and-robbers action of Dick Tracy and the Green Hornet, and the often blood-curdling adventures of a later Street and Smith creation, "The Shadow". The National Broadcasting Company, responding to frequent parental complaints that modern juvenile radio fare too often emphasized violence, murder, and mayhem over morality, felt it was time to reintroduce the stalwart Frank Merriwell to a contemporary audience. And so, on October 5th, 1946, "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell" returned to the airwaves in a half-hour series of weekly adventures, aired primarily on Saturday mornings as a lead-in to the popular "Adventures of Archie Andrews". Broadcast from New York, the new series starred Lawson Zerbe as Frank, with Hal Studer as his pal Bart Hodge and Jean Gillespie (soon replaced by Elaine Rost) as his girlfriend, Inza Burridge. Unable to secure a sponsor for the series, NBC aired the show on a network-supported sustaining basis and hired Ruth and Gilbert Braun and William Welsh to create new adventures for Frank and his cohorts. The programs were put under the supervision of NBC staff directors such as Joe Mansfield, Morrie Robinson, and Ed King and the spirited pipe organ accompaniment to each program was largely entrusted to veteran keyboardist Paul Taubman.
Because the characters were best remembered from an earlier time, NBC chose to make "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell" a period piece - complete with horse-drawn buggies, the occasional horseless carriage, and limited use of telephones and other more modern conveniences. However, they knew from the start that they had to draw a contemporary audience, so the stories were designed to be mini-mysteries - fast-paced tales in which Frank, Bart, and Enza investigated mysterious happenings, robberies, and underhanded dealings that de-emphasized the turn-of-the century period in which they were set. Zerbe, Studer, and Rost were all experienced radio actors and brought enthusiasm, talent, and believability to their roles. Thanks to their talents - and to the fast-paced scripting of the writers - each broadcast was an engrossing and action-packed half-hour mystery subtly emphasizing that success and popularity was best obtained through good sportsmanship, academic study, and athletic achievement. Thus, Merriwell and his cohorts continued to be the sort of positive role models they had been for half a century.
Despite a three-year run on the network and considerable popularity with young audiences, NBC never attracted a sponsor willing to underwrite the show on a long-term basis. However, given the continuing good press the network received by airing the show, NBC saw "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell" as an image-enhancing program and continued to foot the bills for production through June of 1949.
Heard today, "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell" may well remind listeners of the equally timeless exploits of more contemporary juvenile characters such as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown. There's no question that Merriwell's adventures are clean-cut and wholesome but, as this ten-hour Radio Archives collection demonstrates, when such attributes are presented in a tightly plotted and entertaining way, they can make for delightful radio listening. Here is the complete content of this fully restored audio collection:
The Clue of the Numbers, or Justice Triumphant
Saturday, October 19, 1946 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Big Top Adventure
Saturday, March 15, 1947 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Riddle of the Dry Well
Saturday, August 9, 1947 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Harris Heirlooms
Saturday, December 13, 1947 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Snow Trap
Thursday, January 15, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Unexpected Game
Friday, March 26, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The April Shower Adventure
Friday, April 2, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Mystery of the Iron Door
Saturday, May 22, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Missing Mascot
Saturday, May 29, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Unreasonable Aunt
Saturday, June 5, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
Saturday, June 12, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Stolen Masterpiece
Saturday, June 19, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Mystery of the Millionaire's Yacht
Saturday, July 10, 1948 - NBC, sustaining
Sold at Auction
Saturday, July 24, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Five-Mile Race
Wednesday, August 18, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Magic Lantern Mystery
Saturday, September 4, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Live Ghost
Saturday, September 11, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Professor's Decision
Saturday, September 25, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Ransomed Football
Saturday, October 2, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
The Yale Bulldog
Saturday, October 9, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining