Phillips Lord Gives Voice to Bums of the Bowery

Photo of Phillips Lord
Seth Parker portrayer and creator Phillips Lord

Criminals, bop-heads, panhandlers and other breeds of down-and-outers of New York's Bowery have combined with one of radio's best-known characters to present a series of programs over National Broadcasting Company networks, hailed as one of the unique broadcasts of the year.

America's radio audience demanded variety, and Phillips H. Lord, 28-year-old creator of Seth Parker and His Jonesport Neighbors, supplied it.

In a dingy, smoke-filled basement room, whiskey tenors blend in harmony with muggled baritones, and the unwashed of New York's rickety district forget their plight when Phil Lord stages a party and a Bowery broadcast.

Lord dropped the role of Seth Parker, the kindly old philosopher, when he went to the Bowery in an effort to aid some of the deserving in the street of lost men. Instead he was the natural athletic young man of 28, dressed in worn clothes and wearing a cap pulled to the side of his head. He acted as tough and rough as the best of the 300 men who crowded into the narrow basement room which once housed the notorious Tunnel saloon.

It is a strange sight, the crew of motley men who crowd into that dingy room under the sidewalks of a Bowery street. It is a spacious room to most of the Bowery visitors -- so much better than many are accustomed to, who sleep under stairs or in the open. Over the rumbling of their voices can be heard the scream of an occasional police car, and the roar of the elevated trains overhead.

Men and women, who sit in the quiet of homes over the United States hear only a bit of the pathos, can sense little of the grime, nor know nothing of the wrecks of humanity which Lord gathers there and aids.

His "studio" is a dirty, smelly place -- reeking with unwashed bodies, the stench of cheap liquor, and canned heat which Bowery sots consume for lack of nothing better to drink, or nothing better to do. The microphone and the smiling face of Polly Robertson, who plays the organ in the Seth Parker and His Jonesport Neighbors programs, usually are the only bright things in the room. Polly, as the hoodlums call her, is the goddess of the old Tunnel crowd.

Even Lord's face betrays a certain grimness as he leads the men in singing. One can scarcely wonder at that, however, after you look from the tiny platform across the 300 faces, betraying as many types, and as many emotions.

These men, who frequent Lord's mission, and who take party in his NBC Bowery broadcasts, are more often than not rough men -- tough men -- desperate for food, liquor, narcotics, and capable of almost any passion. Some of them are known to have served long prison sentences. Many come to the old Tunnel saloon hopelessly under the influence of narcotics.

The sordid atmosphere of the crowd is lessened only as the air in the low, unventilated room becomes filled with smoke from the cigarettes that Lord always gives the men. Then the gray smoke shrouds the harsher aspects.

Lord acts as master of ceremonies only -- the men stage their own party. He sings only when he is leading the singing. Solo numbers, quartets and other features are presented by the men. As the singing gets underway, and such songs as "When Good Fellows Get Together," ring through the room, more often out of than in harmony, the "guests" begin to smile -- toothless smiles, crooked and leering.

Whether Lord is broadcasting his parties or not, he proves himself the natural showman. The men are at ease as soon as they enter the room. It is impossible for him to rehearse for a Bowery broadcast and be certain that the participants will be on hand the following night to take part. It is necessary for him to draft new "artists" at the last moment. The original artists too often do not appear, or when they do, are too intoxicated to participate.

It is, however, a surprisingly orderly aggregation of hoodlums, drunkards, thieves and down-and-outers, when one considers they eat only when they can beg or steal a meal, and spend their nights in Bowery flophouses or on the streets. Perchance it is the novelty, or perhaps husky Don Murphy, self-appointed bouncer for Lord's Bowery parties, that keeps them under control.

Murphy, who has a criminal record, is the life, as well as the terror, of the gatherings. His wit brings laughs from all, and his frown with a curt "cut the gab" brings silence. Murphy thinks Lord's name is typical of the sort of fellow Phil is.

During one of the broadcasts a man, drunk and cursing, insisted upon talking into the microphone which was sending the program over a nationwide NBC network. Lord was forced to knock the man into the aisle. Murphy, who had reached the platform, nodded his head for the man to leave. Soon Murphy and some of his aides disappeared. When he reappeared Murphy confided to Robertson, in a matter-of-fact way, that "the bozo was beat up and wouldn't bother no more."

The Bowery likes Lord -- as the visitor can see in a moment's glance across the crowded room of black and white faces as he enters. He has proven himself a swell guy, to their way of thinking, because he provides a meal ticket, a pass to his show, and small change each time they gather.

Their banter at Bowery parties is good-natured. When one of their number stands before them to sing, or recite some of his poetry, the performer can deduce after a moment whether he will be able to finish. If it pleases they are quiet. If they are not pleased the only reason rotten cabbages are not tossed is because not are available.

Charlie, the toothless Chinese baritone of Doyer street, is one of the Bowery's most popular entertainers. When he sings "Jesus Loves Me," in broken English, tears come to the eyes of his listeners, and if he is broadcasting, one can count on a heavy fan mail. He has proved one of Lord's most popular finds.

The Tadpole, who with his musical saw has toured every civilized country in the world, is another whom Lord can usually depend upon to be on hand for a broadcast. Tadpole has the Driftwood orchestra which consists of three pieces, his saw, a violin and a guitar. It is hard, he admits to Lord, to keep so many men together, especially now that the spring is here.

Chatham Square has its Harry Lauder. He is Sunny Scotty and sings ditties which were popular in his native heath when he was a boy. He still sings well but his Bowery audience often interrupts with comments regarding Scotty's read nose -- which easily betrays his failing.

The talk of the evening usually is delivered by Dan O'Brien, King of the Hoboes. He just closed the New York Hobo College, of which he is dean, for the season -- mostly because, he admits, the students felt the urge of wandering feet.

O'Brien uses the language of the pedagogue in speaking, but at all times appears in the uniform of the hobo.

"The Bowery has talent," O'Brien said. "These men are ambitious, they are proud. We have great singers, great musicians, and great dramatists among us. What we needed was the chance Lord is giving us."

Because of the Depression, O'Brien explained a new course in the art of panhandling has been introduced at the Hobo College.

The theme song of the Bowery broadcast was written by Jack Sellers, a Bowery poet and melody maker, who in better days served his country in the United States Navy.

"What would you like now, boys?" Lord asked as he drew his party to a close.

"Ice cream and onions," was the reply as if but one giant voice had answered; sure sign, according to Lord, that the party "went over."

Barry Holloway in Radio Digest, June 1932

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