America's Favorite Cowboy!
The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters are on the air! And here comes Tom Mix, America's favorite cowboy!
Tom Mix called, "Up, Tony! Come on, boy!" and launched into what had been one of radio's first singing commercials, always much the same, and to the tune of "When It's Roundup Time in Texas." It was a painless pitch, and often without a commercial with a more direct approach to selling, the program would plunge right into the story itself.
In spite of the fantastic powers of its hero, the program kept some touch with reality by giving its other characters such human emotions as fear, anger, and pride. Tom Mix, however, was the master of conviction. Tom Mix and his Straight Shooter pals even knew they were on the radio - many episodes detailed how they studied their scripts and re-created their adventures on the air. One particular Tom Mix broadcast was interrupted by a gangster from back East, Caesar Ciano, who didn't like the way he was represented on the show. "I a-have a-no got no a-accento! Let 'em have the chopper!" A blast of machine-gun bullets shattered the On the Air sign. "That won't put us off the air," Tom Mix said complacently. Only one thing could put them off the air, and, at gunpoint, the announcer said it. "This-uh-this is the Mutual Broadcasting System!" (Much later, Tom succeeded in reforming Ciano. He stopped being that stereotype of the gangster hated by all Italian Americans. Ciano became a barber. The cause of Italian-American friendship may not have been significantly advanced.)
The sense of realism this program had was heightened, no doubt, by the fact that its hero was a real man. The facts of his life are in never-ending dispute, but if half of the legends of him are true, he lead a remarkable life. Mix has been reputed to be of many ancestries, including Jewish and Cherokee, but his cousin and biographer Paul Mix has established from family records that he was of unrelieved Irish ancestry, the "Black Irish" of dark complexion like John Wayne.
Tom Mix served as town marshall of Dewey, Oklahoma, and a museum of his artifacts has been built there to commemorate his service. A local citizen remembered when Tom had brought in a horse thief, both men covered in blood from the arrest. Mix was also the unofficial mayor and chief law enforcement officer of LeHunt, Kansas, a rough and tough railroad town in the early years of the Twentieth Century.
According to his widow, Olive Stokes Mix, Tom would go out and capture "bad guys" on his own in the manner of a bounty hunter. He was also a champion rodeo cowboy, a bronc rider, bulldogger and roper, winner of the title "World's Champion Cowboy." There is no question about the authenticity of his background as a real cowboy and Western lawman.
For some reason, his publicity agents insisted on exaggerating his military career, and in fact, lied about it. He was in the Army during the Spanish American War and underwent some dangerous training maneuvers, but he did not see action in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Nor was he involved in the Boer War or the Boxer Rebellion. Tom could get carried away himself in enthralling an audience with his exploits, but his press agents must have just gone mad. In later years, he tried to take a more reasonable position on his personal history but the public did not want to hear it. They preferred the legend.
Tom's rodeo championship brought him to the attention of movie producer Colonel Selig. His small pictures, mostly two-reelers with Selig, caught the eye of mighty mogul William Fox, and soon he was a major star (once the highest paid in the World), in such films as Riders of the Purple Sage. While he liked to spend his Hollywood salary lavishly on expensive automobiles and other trappings, he was not content living in the movie capital. In the early thirties he left the West Coast to travel the country with his own Wild West Circus. While he was absent from the screen his agents and licensees kept his name before the public through toy and clothing merchandising, and Big Little Books of his exploits.
One of the biggest fans of Tom Mix was the owner of the Ralston Purina Company, William Danforth. One of his employees, Charles Claggett, was aware of that and suggested Mix as the subject of a new Ralston radio program. Danforth was enthusiastic, but a practical businessman. They would have to test the appeal of even the great Tom Mix. For years, wellknown stage and screen actresses had offered their photographs for soap wrappers. A good response to such an offer was two thousand replies. There would be newspaper ads that offered something of Mix. Perhaps not a photo. A toy wooden model of his six-shooter. (Even in the early thirties, most toy guns were shiny metal. A wooden gun, reminding people of the handmade toys of an earlier time did not seem that appealing, actually.) An ad campaign was tried. Figures vary on the results. Some say there were three million replies.
The Tom Mix radio program went on the air in 1933, with the true life of Tom Mix, and to an even greater degree, the life he led on the screen, serving as its basis. Contrary to folk legend, the quality of Mix's voice was not so poor as to ruin him in talking movies or, for that matter, radio. His voice was a somewhat nasal baritone and he could deliver lines in a believable, professional manner, as he did in a number of sound films such as the first Destry Rides Again. Tom Mix was not interested in working for the low rates paid actors on a daily radio program, however, and the show closed with the information that "Tom Mix" was impersonated. (Those who impersonated Tom Mix from 1933 on over the air were Artells Dickson, followed by Jack Holden and Russell Thorson (yes, the same Thorson who was later Jack on I Love a Mystery), and finally, and most lastingly, from 1943 to the end of the series, Joe "Curley" Bradley. Bradley, once a member of the real Tom Mix's corps of stuntmen in Hollywood, later a western singer in the Ranch Boys' trio, played the sidekick, Pecos, before taking over the title role.) Even after his death in 1940, his fame and the past success of the radio series carried it on until 1950, just as the series of Buffalo Bill dime novels went on for years following the passing of William F. Cody in 1917.
The broadcast series of Tom Mix was created for the Ralston Company by a St. Louis advertising agency staff headed by Charles Claggett, who was chiefly responsible for the format and early scripts. The air of conviction came into full force in 1943, however, under the authorship of George Lowther, a good enough writer to have had two plays published. (He was later to script a number of dramas for that fine medium now as lost as radio, live television.) Lowther was fortunate to be able to work from the perfect juvenile Western format developed by Claggett. It had the ideal hero (Tom), his wonder horse (Tony), his ranch (the TM-Bar), where his elderly sidekick (originally the Old Wrangler, and later Mike Shaw) and his two young wards, or adopted children (Jane and Jimmy), lived. The format was so good - hero, "wonder horse," ranch, senior citizen, boy and girl - which was similar to at least two other radio programs: Bobby Benson, which made the young boy its central character, underplaying the grown-up hero, Tex Mason, a character name once used by Tom Mix in films, and Sky King, whose Flying Crown Ranch had exactly the same layout as the TM-Bar. Schyler "Sky" King used his airplane more consistently than Tom Mix did his, although the radio series set in the fantasized "Modern West" did have Tom taking to the air on occasion.
By its second year the Tom Mix show had established the characters but not the characterizations or the style. The program began with thundering hoofbeats and the Old Wrangler crying, "Let's git-a-goin'!" After the pitch for Ralston, the Wrangler would return to tell the story directly to the young audience. "Howdee, Straight Shooters! Howdee! Huntin' down Killer Mike and his Terrible Six gang was one of the most thrillin' adventures we ever had." With that kind of assurance, the kids just knew they couldn't go wrong by listening.
Seeing the possibilities in pathos, the producers next saw to it that Tom Mix's wonder horse, Tony, broke a leg. There was nothing to be done but the inevitable. Grimly, Tom got out his rifle and a silver bullet he had won as a prize at a rodeo. (No doubt Tom's colleague, the Lone Ranger, presented the award at the competition.) Kneeling beside Tony, Tom loaded the rifle with the silver bullet. He talked softly to Tony of all they had gone through together - how Tony had carried Tom to safety after Tom had been wounded in a gunfight with rustlers down around the border; how Tom's drawling sidekick, Pecos, had ridden Tony through the flames of a forest fire, with an airplane propeller strapped to Tony's side, a propeller to replace the one on the downed plane in which the fire had trapped Tom; and, finally, how they had won the silver bullet together at the rodeo. It was all said then. Tom Mix stroked Tony's mane. He lifted the rifle...
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Wrangler and Jane sat in stunned disbelief, not being able to accept the fact that Tom was actually going to have to shoot Tony. A radio was playing in the background, reporting race results. The winner of the last race had, it was reported, been healed of a broken leg by the techniques of a certain Eastern doctor. Wrangler and Jane rushed headlong for the TM-Bar stables. Just then a shot rang out! What happened'? Tom missed! For once, tears had clouded the truest eye in the West.
The TM-Bar Ranch was located just outside the town of Dobie, which was surely one of the most harassed communities in all of fiction. It not only had to deal with the usual assortment of rustlers and gunslingers, but with the fantastic inventions of master criminals of the modern West.
One of the menaces Tom Mix ran into most regularly was an "invisible man." The invisibility itself was fantastic, but the explanations were generally mundane. Several times, the "invisibility" was merely the false testimony of lying witnesses. Once, it was a hidden loudspeaker. Perhaps a bit more originally, the illusion of an "invisible rider" was created by a hat and riding gloves suspended by wires above a saddle, the saddlebags of which contained a walkie-talkie that not only gave the "invisible rider" his voice, but supplied traveling instructions to the specially trained horse, who must have been almost as smart as Tom's Tony.
There were other implications of invisibility in "The Man Who Wasn't There," a story about a man who Could escape from watched and guarded rooms that were later thoroughly searched for secret panels. The mystery created so much excitement among the Straight Shooter set that Torn called kids on the telephone to ask for their solutions. Nobody got it. Like many of Holmes' deductions that when explained seemed obvious to Watson, it was fairly ingenious. There were no secret panels in the walls, but one whole wall in each of these specially constructed rooms slid back on a solid track. Tom had figured the wall was solid too. After all, any honest wall would shake a bit when tapped for sliding doors.
Some of the other tricky and kicky inventions Tom ran into came from his movie career. (Radio's Tom Mix also knew that he had made Western movies.) "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" presented a character who had the power to invisibly strike people dead on the streets of Dobie. His science fictional secret, a death-ray machine, we would call a laser beam today. A giant wind machine was used to erase the tracks of a stolen herd of cattle in one serial, and in another, a spider-web-making device was used to falsely age a house to divert suspicion from it.
The nice thing about some of the fantastic inventions on the Tom Mix program was that Ralston would send you some of them for a box top. Perhaps not death rays or spider-web machines, but you were offered other fascinating devices. Of course, the rings, the badges, the premiums, were always carefully worked into the story, first as a build-up to the offer, and then as an adjunct to it.
The radio program, off the air on vacation during this period, never got so far out, and no matter how fantastic the creatures and devices got on the radio series, the people in the stories always remained recognizably human. Tom Mix on radio was less a symbol of virtue than the Lone Ranger or Jack Armstrong. Like the movies made by the real Tom Mix, the radio series was not intended to preach any sermon of morality. It was intended to be fun and to sell the sponsor's product. The way Ralston was sold was fun, of course, and they even managed to incorporate the product's name into the title of the show. The program became a choice blending of credibility, commercialiry, and what is now known as "camp."
You bought the dialogue. How else did cowboys talk? You bought the pain, the agony, the whole bag. Then came information that was hard to believe. Our friend, the announcer, told us straight out that the pain was so great that Tom Mix groaned. Imagine - just imagine - the pain that could make Tom Mix cry out!
The frightful pain at this point was caused by the sudden release of his weight, jerking against the one wrist that was still tied. Yes, the fetter on the other wrist had been released. What had happened? Had the rawhide somehow broken? No! As Tom lay on the cool grass of the forest floor, he looked up and through the filtered light shining through the tree leaves he saw a flash of color. He saw a feathered arrow sticking in the tree trunk. That was the arrow fired by a mysterious bowman, the arrow that had cut the bonds of Tom Mix, freeing him from the Indian torture trap. (It was convenient to have friends like that, but what decent citizen wouldn't help Tom Mix out of a trap?)
The people in the radio program stories always remained recognizably human. Tom Mix on radio was less a symbol of virtue than the Lone Ranger or Jack Armstrong. Like the movies made by the real Tom Mix, the radio series was not intended to preach any sermon of morality. It was intended to be fun and to sell the sponsor's product. The way Ralston was sold was fun, of course, and they even managed to incorporate the product's name into the title of the show. The program became a choice blending of credibility, commercialiry, and what is now known as "camp." It made us believe and want to find out what happened to our "believable" friends. The final radio broadcast of Tom Mix, closed with: As Tom and Tony rode off into the Valhalla of an echo chamber, the announcer intoned, "In the heart and the imagination of the world, Tom Mix rides on, and lives on, forever."
Curley Bradley starred in the 1944 revival of the series, Curley Bradley used his own name, as he had in Curley Bradley, the Singing Marshal after Ralston dropped sponsorship of Mix. In 1982, Ralston was doing a revival of Tom Mix with his pictures on boxes of Ralston and offers for new premiums, the first of which was a set of cereal bowls with the name and likeness of Tom on them.
In 1985, Curley Bradley became very ill and died. Curley Bradley was no cardboard hero. He had his faults, but there was a spark of greatness in him that lived in his portrayal of Tom Mix, a greatness that would be recalled by one grown-up child for five decades. With a turn of memory or the playing of tape, Curley Bradley is Tom Mix once again, astride Tony, the Wonder Horse, no enemy too powerful for him to defeat, no mystery too difficult for him to solve.
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