Sunday, 21 September 2014

Rangoon Wilson

Publicity agents made up wild stories. Stars invented their own past. Who was to know otherwise?

Anyone remotely familiar with the Jack Benny show can name his jolly long-time announcer. And fans are pretty much aware that Don Wilson was raised in Denver, Colorado, that he worked in radio there and a singing career took him to the San Francisco Bay area, thence to Los Angeles. But that isn’t what’s contained in one amazing biography published by the New York Sun (motto: “If you see it in the Sun, it’s true”) as Wilson was starting to gain some fame.

The story was in the paper’s radio and television section of January 13, 1934 (yes, there was television then). Wilson wasn’t on the Benny show yet. He was an NBC staff announcer who had specialised in sports on the West Coast before moving to New York City. His biography in the Sun is bogus and you have to wonder if someone was playing a joke. The biography in the story for Ken Carpenter, best known as Bing Crosby’s announcer on The Kraft Music Hall and other shows, is accurate, as least off the top of my head. There’s no byline on the story, so I suspect it was by a Sun staffer rewriting an NBC publicity handout.

Announcers at Rose Bowl Little Known in East.

Two men, both experts in their field but practically unknown in the East, acted as sports announcers at the Stanford-Columbia game in the Rose Bowl at Pasadena on New Year's Day, and although working under conditions as revere as observers ever encountered, thrill the nation with the accuracy and completeness of their description. Their work brought praise as fulsome as that which the press and public gave to the winning team from Morningside Heights. Yet because both announcers were Westerners few of the millions who listened to their unruffled explanation of plays knew more about them than their names. Kenneth Carpenter and Don Wilson were the pair who were assigned to the year's greatest football spectacle. Wilson was brought East for several gridiron games last fall, but Carpenter, being a member of a Los Angeles station, had limited his circle of admirers to the West Coast.
Into Radio by Accident.
Kenneth Carpenter, 33 years of age, was born in Avon, Ill., the son of a Universalist minister. After graduation from Lombard College in literal arts he was, successively, a copy writer for a department store and advertising agency. His introduction to radio was accidental. He approached an auto agency owner, Earle C. Anthony, who also controlled several West Coast stations, with a plan for automobile advertising, and us more of a prank than anything else was tried out as an announcer. He met every requirement and immediately concentrated his interest on radio. He is now chief announcer at KFI and specializes in the descriptions of sports besides assuming duties in the continuity and production departments. He is married and the father of one child.
Born In Rangoon.
Don Wilson, the other announcer, was born in Rangoon, India, but spent his boyhood in California and on an Oregon ranch. At 15 he ran away from home and in three months traveled 15,000 miles with a company of Chautauqua entertainers. Tiring of this life he returned home and later matriculated at the University of Redlands, where he acquired eleven letters in various sports. A season with an oil company was followed by twenty-five games of professional football. In 1928 he joined KPO, San Francisco as a continuity writer, but he couldn't keep away from the gridiron. As assistant to the regular sports announcer, Wilson was given the job of keeping the windows of the field booth clean. One day when the regular announcer failed to show up, Wilson found himself in lone charge of the microphone. From that day to the present Don Wilson has followed the pigskin East, West, North and South, always adding to his reputation for knowledge of the game and for his uncanny ability to supply, a smooth, placid but nevertheless thrilling description of plays and players.

I suspect the closest Don Wilson ever got to Rangoon was when he drove past some Burma Shave signs. Wilson was born in Lincoln, Nebraska to Lincoln and Charlotte Louise (Hatch) Wilson. His father was a druggist. The family was in Denver by the time Don was ten and that’s where he went to school and then into radio.

While we’re talking about Wilson facts and fancies, I was always curious whether his middle name really was “Harlow” or if that was something the Benny writers invented. If you’ve had the same question, take a look at Donsey’s World War One draft file card. That should settle the question.

Wilson took over the announcing chores for the Benny show when it changed sponsors from Chevrolet to General Tire in April 1934; Alois Havrilla didn’t move with the change of sponsors and Wilson won an audition. He remained with Jack through his television series that ended in 1965. Jack’s later TV specials used off-screen announcers (I believe Bill Baldwin was one), but Wilson made cameo appearances. We’ll have a more accurate newspaper feature on him here next week.

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