Sunday, August 9, 2020


by Martin Grams, Jr.

The Renfrew novels were written and published partly out of necessity; Erskine donated the profits from his handiwork to the funding of a private boys’ school. The school needed what money Erskine could chip in — far more than it needed his presence — which kept him busy at writing, and often took him away for prolonged absences. He always came back, and everyone on campus recalled his writing always played second fiddle to his interest in the educational influences of the school. It was this financial responsibility that sustained unceasing production of Renfrew of the Mounted adventures in both short story and novel form.

Inspector Douglas Renfrew was a composite of all the brave men of the scarlet-coated Royal Mounted Canadian Police — and the fictional creation of a Battle Creek, Michigan, journalist named Laurie York Erskine, then former city editor of the Moon-Journal. (The first of the stories was written in Battle Creek, now famous not for the home of a fictional literary hero but of Kellogg’s, a breakfast cereal company.) After a series of short stories for American Boy magazine, followed by a number of Renfrew novels, the character made the transition to radio. 

One afternoon in late 1935, Laurie York Erskine happened to be in New York and was determined to look up an old friend, Douglas Storer, whom he had not seen in a number of years. When the two finally met, they reminiscenced for a while and then, suddenly, Storer had an idea.

“Why don’t you put Renfrew on the radio?” he asked. Even though Blair of the Mounties was syndicated through Canada and Australia by early 1936, the program was considered a failure from a business standpoint. Storer knew about this from what he read in the trades, and from his discussions with advertising executives who were seeking program proposals for their clients.

Erskine thought about the idea for a minute, then smiled: “I might, but I don’t know how to go about it.” Storer knew of an ad agency that was seeking just such a program.

Concluding that no literary author of means could possibly succeed without a steadfast agent to handle the business doings, Erskine had Storer help with representation. Douglas Storer, a radio producer, talent agent, and script writer, was responsible for introducing such luminaries to the radio listening audience as Robert L. Ripley, Dale Carnegie, Bob Considine, and Cab Calloway. From 1933 to 1949, he produced the popular Believe It or Not radio broadcasts on several networks and developed a close personal relationship with Robert L. Ripley.

It was Storer’s close association with Robert L. Ripley that convinced Laurie York Erskine to sign a contract after Christmas 1936. Though Erskine created the popular Renfrew character through literary assignments, it was Storer who knew the radio business and takes credit (at least fifty percent) for bringing Renfrew of the Mounted to the CBS airwaves.*    

Batten, Burton, Durstine & Osborne, the advertising agency that pitched Renfrew of the Mounted to executives of the Continental Baking Company, ensured a national coast-to-coast hook-up would do better than Blair of the Mounties, which was syndicated across the country. Executives at Continental were seeking radio promotion for their product, Wonder Bread, and what was pitched to them was an adventure serial along the lines of Little Orphan Annie and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.**    

The success of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy prompted Arthur Pryor of B.B.D.&O. to convince their clients at the Continental Baking Company to reconsider their branding strategy. Prior to this, Continental promoted the benefits of Wonder Bread on such programs as The Happy Wonder Bakers and the daily Tatters Sports Review.

Wonder Bread was popularly associated with the Little Jack Little Orchestra, a favorite of Frederick Seaman, ad manager for Continental. After listening to a couple broadcasts of Jack Armstrong, Seaman found himself on the fence, proposing a test series of transcriptions to be aired over one station for a limited time, allowing the executives at Continental to measure the results and consider a coast-to-coast hookup over a major network. Negotiations between Arthur Pryor and Douglas Storer were conducted through December of 1935.

In early 1936, one 15-minute recording was created as a test series, with Laurie York Erskine himself delivering the narrative much like a storyteller at the campfire. “At the very beginning I wanted to tell about Renfrew’s adventures myself,” he later recalled. “I was overruled then, but I still think I was right. A good story-teller can cover as much ground and build up as much characterization and suspense in 15 minutes as a drama can in half an hour.” The executives at B.B.D.&O., however, insisted on dramatic appeal in an effort to compete against the other serials aimed toward children.

On January 6, 1936, Erskine agreed to the terms and signed a letter for Douglas Storer to commission the agency to negotiate the time slot on a network of their choosing. A contract between the Continental Baking Company, an executive at B.B.D.&O., and Laurie York Erskine was signed in late February, with the option of attending one rehearsal for each script written and assist in the editing as thought advisable. Radio scripts were to be copyrighted by Erskine, to assign statutory rights in both script and story, so there would be no misunderstanding between the sponsor and Erskine as to the ownership of the character.

This was a smart move on Storer’s negotiating as many who created adventure serials for radio sponsors would later discover that the sponsors would claim ownership, even when the creators/authors were no longer involved.

The contract also featured a provisional clause: “In event of your death, we shall thereafter have the continued right to use, at any time or from time to time, the Renfrew characters and theme as the structural basis for such further scripts as we may, in our discretion, determine to procure from other authors that we may employ, in which case we shall pay your estate $25 with respect to each script we shall have had written and have broadcast, or $100 per week minimum should the program air five times a week.”

A similar clause was included in the contract for the Tom Mix radio program — ultimately leading to a momentary legal squabble after his death in October 1940 — referred to by many in the industry as “the Tom Mix clause.” The estate left by Mix, believed to be over $1 million, was dwindled to $115,000–$100,000 in real estate and $15,000 in personal property. Mix was once among Hollywood’s highest salaried actors, but his earnings were depleted by scores of lawsuits and settlements as a result of accidents when performing on his rodeo tours, the Internal Revenue charging him $177,000 for neglected income taxes, a part of his early earnings invested in securities which collapsed in the market crash of 1929, and the largest single outlay to his former wife. Mabel Mix, his widow, arranged for a court appeal for an allowance of $400 or $500 per month while the attorney for the estate insisted that it was the actor’s decision to split the entire estate equally among her and his daughter, Thomasina. Weeks after his passing, the ex-wife came out of the woodwork with a $50,000 promissory note; his widow asked the court to name a new executor for the estate, and on May of 1941 the actor’s possessions were auctioned off — including Tony the Second, his horse. Ultimately it was agreed that all three parties (ex-wife, widow, and daughter) would share equal ownership in the estate

The radio program was the next to fall victim to materialism when Ralston stopped sponsoring the program, and a representative from the estate asked the advertising agency not to renew the adventure serial for an additional season unless a higher fee was paid to the estate. Mix himself never appeared on the radio broadcasts. His voice was damaged by a bullet to the throat and repeated broken noses from stunt work during productions of his movies, so he licensed the use of his name under contract; the character of Tom Mix was played by radio actors. Continued use of Tom Mix’s name was considered “unauthorized,” according to a representative of the estate, but the original contract was upheld in a court of law. Hence the clause similar to that in Erskine’s contract was referred to as “the Tom Mix clause.”

Another agreement in Erskine’s contract stipulated that the sponsor was granted permission to produce a book edition of Renfrew of the Mounted, to sell at low-unit cost for mass circulation, referred to as a “giveaway premium,” created to gauge the size of the listening audience for consideration of sponsorship renewal.

The radio sponsor also retained the rights to syndicating a newspaper strip of Renfrew (non-commercial) in newspapers to promote the radio program. Erskine also signed over motion-picture and stage productions intended for trade, industrial, and advertising purposes. This also included the use of electrical transcription discs. Erskine signed the contract, even though he was against the use of radio premiums, believing such gimmicks would diminish the value proposition for his franchise.

In consideration for accepting the use of radio premiums, Erskine’s salary would go up $100 per week after the first 13 weeks, and another $100 per week beginning with week forty. Beginning with the one-year anniversary of the program’s premiere, Erskine would receive an additional pay raise at the following scale: After first 52 weeks, $715 per 5-week. After the first 104 weeks, $780 per 5-week. Erskine’s salary was not to exceed $800 per week (3-week program), $920 per week (4-week program) and $1,040 per week (5-week program) if and when his salary rose to that level. Should Erskine become mentally or physically incapacitated to the extent that he was unable to perform the task, the advertising agency had the right to employ someone to write the scripts and Erskine would be paid $100 per week, with statutory copyright in such scripts in the name of the agency.

* While Storer succeeded in representing Erskine for the radio program and motion-pictures, their partnership was freelance on consignment beginning January 8, 1937, for one year, later renewed January 8, 1938, then for two-year renewal terms, when Storer agreed to act as “sole personal representative for the purpose of promoting and negotiating” future writing, motion-pictures, and radio assignment, in exchange for 20 percent of all profits. Renewed every two years in January 8, 1940, and January 8, 1942. (Their official partnership would eventually lead to a 50-50 arrangement years later.) ** B.B.D.&O. handled the Continental Baking account until January 1, 1937, when Benton & Bowles took over and represented the client for Renfrew of the Mounted.

Editor's Note: Be sure to read part 1. Also, tune in next week when we publish part 3, the final chapter of A Brief History of "Renfrew of the Mounted." --Carrie Aulenbacher


Martin Grams Jr. is the author and co-author of more than 40 books including one about THE GREEN HORNET, and is co-author of the up-coming THE LONE RANGER: THE EARLY YEARS, 1933-1937.

Please review Martin's author page: click here!

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