Bruce Bairnsfather and NBC Radio

In his 1939 autobiography Wide Canvas, Bruce Bairnsfather writes of having made several radio broadcasts in America in the mid 1930's, from both NBC's Radio City studios in New York, and the CBS studios. He even related how he was "very nearly booked for a big commercial series," but "at the last minute the project fell through."

Three appearances by him have been traced on the NBC network, and while none of the original recordings survive, it has been possible to gain a brief idea of their content, from newspaper reports and other archival sources.

Bruce Bairnsfather was first heard over the airwaves on Thursday, 20 December 1934, on WJZ, NBC's Blue network in New York city. In a 15 minute slot from 6.15pm-6.30pm he was interviewed by William Lundell, and commented on the changes in American life and customs since his last visit. The interview was also run by WCKY, WENR and KGO.

Exactly one year later, on Saturday, 21 December 1935, Bairnsfather was on the air again, as a guest on the weekly 'Sports Page of the Air' show hosted by well-known sports journalist, broadcaster - and fellow cartoonist - Thornton Fisher, on WCAE/KFYR.

Bairnsfather's appearance on this popular show merited a few lines in the radio columns of a handful of newspapers, and it was noted that Old Bill would be appearing with his creator: "Old Bill will discuss cricket and baseball, while Capt. Bairnsfather compares British rugby with the American version, and touch on the habit of British fighters of bouncing on canvas."

Old Bill's creator would certainly have been at ease in the company of the Sports Page of the Air host. Thornton Fisher (1888-1975) had made a living as a sports writer and cartoonist before breaking into radio. He worked as an artist for the Cleveland Leader and New York Daily News and a gag cartoonist for the St Louis Republic and Washington Star before becoming successful with comic strips and panel series including Wishing the Wisp (New York Herald, 1913-14), Raising the Family, The Marrying of Mary and Betty's Brother Bobby. In the 1920's his sports cartoons, published across America through the World Syndicate, proved very popular. Fisher also sketched many sporting celebrities and other personalities, including a portrait of Bruce Bairnsfather, probably done at the time of the aforementioned broadcast.

In October 1935, a few weeks before Bairnsfather appeared on Thornton Fisher's show, NBC had announced the forthcoming debut of a new weekly musical and dramatic series, 'Matt Clemens, Melody Master.' the programme would "present enduring melodies against a script background written by Homer Croy, noted author and one of the foremost delineators of American life. Embodying the mood of the family and the home, the programme will have as its setting the home of Matt Clemens, local philosopher and homespun editor of the Willow Heights Journal, who is one of the towns leading lights." 

The half-hour show took the form of a weekly gathering at Matt's home in the fictitious town of Willow Heights, where friends and neighbours would participate in singing and conversation, joined each week by a well-known guest. Scheduled for the 11pm slot, it was significant in that it would be the first commercial broadcast to air that late on a Sunday evening.

Having Homer Croy as scriptwriter was a great asset to the new show. Croy (1883-1965) was a very well-known author, most famous for his book and screenplay They Had to See Paris (1926) - the first talkie starring Will Rogers. He went on to write more than half the films in which Rogers starred, and also wrote a biography of the actor.

Matt Clemens, Melody Master aired for the first time on Sunday, 20 October 1935. Three months later, on Sunday, 26 January 1936, Bruce Bairnsfather added his name to the list of celebrity guests to have 'dropped in' to the "mythical" town of Willow Heights. He joined the weekly gathering at the Clemens home, "satirizing broadcasting as it is practised in England, with a burlesque of English "wireless" announcing."

A fourth broadcast featuring Bairnsfather, aired on NBC's WTAM, WMAQ and KVW stations at 10pm on Sunday, 1 March 1936, appears to have been a repeat of the show from 26 January. Radio schedules list it as "The Melody Master. Bruce Bairnsfather guests."

The Melody Master appears to have been a commercial show, sponsored by I.E.S. Better Lamps (whose motto was 'Better Light Better Sight') and in a 1936 promotional pamphlet for the programme, Bruce Bairnsfather was pictured in an advertisement for the sponsor's Better Sight Lamps.