Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Children of the Radio

For every Ron Howard, who people watched as a young child and followed his show business career into adulthood, there are a bunch of Muriel Harbaters.

Muriel, for those of you who don’t know, co-starred on the radio show “Jolly Bill and Jane” in the late 1920s and early ‘30s on NBC. She was under 10 when she started. She quit the show in 1935. By 1940 was toiling as an office worker for a wholesale stationery company. The show biz in her blood turned anaemic.

Here’s a neat story from the National Enterprise Association from 1931 talking about the child stars on the radio at the time. Two of the people in the story you’ll likely have heard of; they took their careers into adulthood. After childhood, Rose Marie sang and did impersonations in nightclubs, then landed the role she’ll always be known for on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Walter Tetley may have had the biggest radio career of the lot of the young people listed, with regular roles on The Fred Allen Show, then The Great Gildersleeve, then The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. When television came around, he voiced Sherman in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and that’s probably how you know him best.

The others in the story below had varying degrees of a post-kid life in entertainment. Jimmy McCallion won bit roles in movies and TV. Conversely, I can’t find a thing about Bobby Jane Allert outside this story; I wonder if the author got the name right. And we hope the story is correct and young Muriel retired to a life of independent wealth from her glamour days with Jolly Bill.

Child Radio Artists Outdo Their Dads as Money Earners; Broadcasting Offers New Field for Talented Baby Stars
NEA Service Writer
NEW YORK, Feb. 13. (NEA)—In more ways than one is radio an infant industry. Scores of its artistic little proteges, many of them too young to read their scripts before the microphone, are bringing home bankrolls that make their fathers' salaries look like pin money.
The young idea in the broadcasting business had twisted an old maxim around to "Children should be heard, and not seen"—but the sooner television comes along, the better they'll be satisfied. For talented children are adopting the radio as their own special medium, and another decade or two will find hundreds of highly-paid entertainers who literally have made broadcasting their life work.
Just now, with most of the baby stars, a radio career is pretty much in the nature of a lark. The sights they see in the labyrinthine studios, the rehearsals which are scarcely more than afternoon parties, and the stories and plays in which they take part all are far more exciting than their pay-checks.
As a matter of fact, their salaries are not large in comparison to those of adult performers and, contrary to reports of fabulous amounts and long term agreements, only one young star today is working under contract to a broadcasting company. This is Baby Rose Marie, 7-year-old bundle of hard-boiled precocity, love-crooning, blues-shouting tenement-house daughter of an Italian father and a Polish mother. Their name used to be Mazetta; it's Curley now, and they're managing Rose Marie, teaching her jazz songs and banking something less than $1000 weekly from a vaudeville contract. She has been in the movies, too, and soon will return to the air.
But though many of radio's baby stars are the children of foreign-born parents, few are such unchildlike sophisticates. Winifred Toomey, for instance, an Irish colleen of 10 who has had six years of broadcasting experience. Apparently as simple and unaffected as any youngster of her age, she plays most of the important little-girl parts you hear over the NBC networks. She attends a professional children's school, is a full-fledged actress and earns about $5000 a year.
Winifred has an Irish partner in many of her broadcasts, Jimmy McCallion, 11, who is more of a child of the stage. Jimmy has appeared in several Broadway shows, has had parts in 25 movies, and began his radio career four years ago. He makes a lot more money than Winifred.
Radio Is Play to Him
"Radio is just a lot of fun," said Jimmy seriously. "It's mostly like playing with a bunch of kids at your own house. The movies are just hard work, but I like the stage because I can tell when people like me.
Another highly-paid baby star is Muriel Harbater, who is "Jane" with "Jolly Bill" Steinke on NBC networks every morning. She is the daughter of a plumber in the Bronx who is sticking to his pipes and faucets while Mrs. Harbater manages Muriel and makes sure that her education doesn't suffer. It's a strict routine, rising at 5 o'clock every morning and doing two broadcasts at the studio, but all of her salary is being banked against the time she is of college age and should be independently wealthy.
Miss Madge Tucker, who directs the juvenile activities of the National Broadcasting Company, manages and acts in the widely-known "Lady Next Door" program. Since she deserted the stage for radio six years ago, she has given thousands of children has given thousands of children's auditions and has discovered most of today's youthful entertainers. About 75 of them appear regularly on the programs she supervises.
"And practically every one of them,” she declared, “is the child of hard-working parents who never would dream of exploiting their youngster’s talent. There is some jealousy, of course, but generally we get along better than adult entertainers.
“The children themselves are quicker to learn than most grown-ups. Their charm is in their naturalness for they seldom try to ‘act.’ I treat them like intelligent people because they are. Pure animal spirit sometimes makes them a little unruly at rehearsals but they really take pride in their discipline and almost never show stage-fright.”
Miss Tucker and Miss Nila Mack, director of children’s programs for the Columbia Broadcasting System, both predict that nearly all of their audition discoveries will go far in the entertainment world. There is Walter Campbell Tetley, the “Wee Harry Lauder” of NBC, who was discovered only a year ago and already is appearing regularly in four programs, including “Raising Junior” and Ray Knight’s Cuckoos. Another, Eddie Wragge, (“Shrimp” to you) is 10, tiny and blond, but he already has experience with the Theater Guild.
Howard Merril, at 14, has appeared in scores of movies and plays and is considered one of the best child actors on both Columbia and National Broadcasting programs. Pat Ryan, 10, and Estelle Levy, 8, principals in the “Helen and Mary” broadcast on the Columbia network, both are audition discoveries and come from modest New York homes. Bobby Jane Allert, 4, who has to memorize her script and songs, plays a ukulele almost as big as herself.
When a shabby little Russian girl of 8 walked into the Columbia studio for an audition recently and nearly shattered the microphone with her full-toned blues voice, the orchestra laid down its instruments and applauded. Her name is Ruby Barth, and you’ll be hearing her one of these days.
Their Incomes Vary
Alfred Corn, in NBC’s “Rise of the Goldbergs,” is 14 and gets heaps of fan mail. Laddie Seman [sic] of Norwegian and Dutch parents, has had theatrical experience and seems destined to go far. Donald Hughes, another veteran of 12, has graduated from children’s programs to the very profitable role of Rollo in J.P. McEvoy’s skit on the Columbia network.
But radio's babies have their ups and downs, for only a fortunate few have contracts on commercial programs. Others are "at liberty" for small bits which may last months or only a day. Jimmy McCallion, for instance, until recently appeared in seven different programs on various networks, and made from $15 to $50 weekly with each of them. But some of the broadcasts have been discontinued, and now Jimmy isn't making any more than his papa!
While the field for child talent is growing, program directors say it by no means is keeping up with the host of prodigies whose parents are constantly seeking auditions. Chances are slim indeed for young geniuses of piano or violin, since nothing of their fresh young personalities can be conveyed through the ether. The demand is only for dramatic actors and singers, and not more than one in a hundreds of these is outstanding enough to win a place in broadcasting.


  1. Walter Tetley would have been 15 or 16 at the time this article was published, not 12 as indicated in the picture, but then he was often portrayed as younger than his actual age.

    Howard Merrill--the only other name I recognized besides Rose Marie--went on to success as a writer for radio and TV. He co-created (with Allan Sherman) "I've Got a Secret," had a syndicated newspaper column, and produced a Broadway musical.

  2. Interesting that Tetley was billed as a "wee Harry Lauder," a junior version of the popular Scottish comedian, and garbed in like fashion... he probably had to speak (and sing) in a Scottish dialect.
    And Rose Marie had an Italian father and Polish mother - Liberace had the same heritage.

    Nila Mack is best remembered as the creator/producer of "Let's Pretend," which had a long, respected run on CBS radio.

  3. I suspect he did, rn. I'm pretty sure he did in a few sketches on Fred Allen's show and, of course, there was "Georgie and the Dragon" for UPA.