Bobby Benson was one of those rare network shows that had two distinct radio series, with over a decade separating both runs. The original show was aired on CBS from 1932 to 1936. Thirteen years after its demise, it was resurrected with a new cast on Mutual in 1949 and it continued on the air until 1955.
Despite the fact that both versions were of relatively short tenure, and were aimed almost exclusively at a juvenile audience, the Bobby Benson show did accomplish at least two significant things. It permanently forged the personality of the leader of the Dead End Kids and it launched the career of a comedian who eventually won five Emmy Awards on network television.
Herbert C. Rice gets the credit for creating the Bobby Benson show. The premise of this kids' adventure program was that a young boy inherited a ranch in the Big Bend country of Texas, near the banks of the Rio Grande River. Aided by his foreman Texas Mason (originally named Buck Mason) and a bunch of other adult cowpokes, including Waco, Harka and Irish, this young lad rode the range to adventure and mystery on a white horse named Silver Spot.
The 1930s show was sponsored by the Hecker H-O Company, the makers of H-O Oats, Hecker's Cream Farina, Presto Cake Flour and other grain products. In deference to the sponsor, Bobby's cattle spread was called the H-Bar-O Ranch.
I haven't determined how many youngsters were the radio voice of the Cowboy Kid in the 1930s version, but the principal one was Billy Halop, who was about 12 years old at that time. His sister Florence was also in the cast and she played Polly Armstead, Bobby's companion. Both of the Halops had started early in New York City radio; Billy was on Skippy, The March of Time, The Children's Hour and Lady Next Door.
Billy Halop was given star treatment as Bobby Benson; his photo was prominent in several radio premiums and he toured the U.S. in W.T. Johnson's Circus Rodeo as a feature act. It was heady stuff for the young radio actor and Halop never got over it, despite his later success on Broadway and in Hollywood.
In the fall of 1935 Billy left the Bobby Benson show to join rehearsals of Sidney Kingsley's new play Dead End, which opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theater on October 29, 1935. Halop, then 16, portrayed the leader of a gang of street urchins, some of whom were played by other young radio actors. Henry Hall, using his childhood nickname of Huntz as his stage name, was the same age as Halp and had been in many a series: Coast to Coast on a Bus, Home Sweet Home, The Rich Kid and Life of Jimmy Braddock. Bobby Jordan, youngest of the gang at 13, was also on several radio programs, including Peter Bachelor.
Rounding out the Dead End Kids in the play were Sidney Lumet, Gabe Dell (who was born Gabriel Del Vecchio), Charles Duncan, Bernard Punsley and the Gorcey brothers, Leo and David. Dell, Duncan and Punsley had some stage experience but none on radio. The two Gorceys had no acting experience at all, but their father, diminutive Bernard Gorcey, had been a lead in Broadway's long running Abie's Irish Rose and also played radio's Popeye. Billy's sister Florence was not cast in Dead End but Gabe Dell's sister Ethel was.
Dead End did not open to critical acclaim, but it slowly built its popularity and eventually ran for 687 performances, a fine record for those days. For comparison, the original Broadway runs of Our Town and The Little Foxes totaled less than 300 and 400 performances, respectively.
Duncan, who had the secondary lead in the gang, quit the show in the summer of 1936 to take a major role in another drama called Bright Honor. Leo Gorcey, his understudy, took over the role. Bright Honr was anything but; it closed after 17 performances and Duncan disappeared with it.
By that time Warner Brothers had bought the movie rights to Dead End and all the major kids in the cast (minus Duncan and Lumet) headed for Hollywood. The wise-cracking hoodlums made about half-a-dozen successful films for Warners, supporting leads like Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Ronald Reagan. Eventually, minus Halop, the boys went on to make nearly a hundred movies as the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys.
In August 1974 I interviewed Huntz Hall in St. Louis where he was making a stage appearance on the Goldenrod Showboat, a riverboat theater. Speaking of his Dead End Kids days in New York and Hollywood, Hall said, "It's sad, but Billy never got along with us and we never got along with him. He just never got over being Bobby Benson. He had to be the star and insisted on making more money than the rest of us. It just wasn't fair. Between movie scenes at Warners, Billy would be arguing for more money in his contract while the rest of us kids were playing on a mock-up pirate ship on the back lot."
Jack French in OTR Digest, May to June 1991
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