Bobby Benson: Radio's Cowboy Kid

by Jack French ©1996

Orange Rule

The BOBBY BENSON radio series, in its two versions a decade apart, was unique in broadcast history since it straddled both the origin and the demise of the Golden Age of Radio.

When the show debuted in 1932, the only other juvenile shows on network radio were LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, LONE WOLF TRIBE, and THE SINGING LADY. So the first BOBBY BENSON series pre-dated THE LONE RANGER, TOM MIX, and JACK ARMSTRONG.

The second version of BOBBY BENSON, which began in 1949 and aired until June 1955, outlasted virtually every other kids' dramatic show, including SUPERMAN, GREEN HORNET, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, SKY KING and STRAIGHT ARROW.

The creation of this remarkable Western series rests in the genius of a British citizen in Buffalo, NY who had never been west of Chicago. Herbert C. Rice, an energetic immigrant from England, had been working since 1928 at what he termed "the American BBC" (Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation consisting of WGR, WFBL, WKEN, and WKBW, all under one roof in the Rand Building.)

Rice was a radio director, writer, and actor of amazing versatility. He was the first to pair "Budd and Stoopnagle" and Rice discovered an 11 year old boy-musician who would grow up to be "Buffalo Bob" on HOWDY DOODY. Prior to BOBBY BENSON, Rice had created dozens of local dramatic series, including POLICE STORY, THE GREEN ROSE, FEARBOUND, THE COBRA, and CLOUD TRAIL.

In 1932 the Hecker H-O Company of Buffalo approached Rice and offered to sponsor a kid's radio series to promote their cereal products. The "H-O" in their title suggested a cattle brand to Rice and he quickly drew up a story about an orphan named Bobby Benson who inherits an H-Bar- O Ranch in Texas. Rice not only sold his idea to the Hecker advertising people, he also convinced CBS to give his new show a network slot.

This new series, called THE H-BAR-O RANGERS, began on October 17, 1932 at WGR with a cast of Buffalo actors. Richard Wanamaker, an 11 year old son of a local attorney, played Bobby while Rice, in addition to writing and directing the show, was also the voice of Buck Mason, the foreman, and Wong Lee, the Oriental cook. Others in the cast were Fred Dampier and Lorraine Pankow (whom Rice had married the previous year.)

The success of the series was nothing short of phenomenal. Within months, the Hecker Company had to assign twelve women full-time to answer the fan mail and process the box tops of H-O Oats that were arriving daily in exchange for premiums advertised on the show: Bobby Benson code books, cereal bowls, drinking glasses, card games, etc.

Locally Rice promoted the show through many personal appearances by Wanamaker, dressed in a cowboy costume and riding a pony named "Silver Spot." The youngster, who was doing three radio shows a week, appeared with Ben Turpin and Snub Pollard at Shea's Buffalo Theater and later visited with Monte Blue when he came to Buffalo. Wanamaker was also part of the contingent who welcomed Santa Claus to the Buffalo Airport.

When the first season of 78 episodes ended in March 1933, the series was so popular that CBS ordered the production moved to New York City where they re-cast the entire cast and crew. When it resumed that fall, 12 year old Billy Halop. later to achieve fame in "The Dead End Kids", became the new Bobby. The show was still officially THE H-BAR-O RANGERS, but most of the listeners (and the broadcasting publications) were calling it THE BOBBY BENSON SHOW.

Halop's sister, Florence, played "Polly" on the show. Buck Mason was changed to Tex Mason and the character of Sunny Jim (the sponsor's symbol) was gradually phased out. Diogenes Dodwaddle, Windy Wales and Harka the Indian were added to the show.

The identity of the director of this series in Manhattan is still unknown, but a prominent author, Peter Dixon, who was writing for several network shows including SKIPPY, was hired to produce the scripts. Craig McDonnell played Harka and other roles, including youngsters in a falsetto voice.

Woodward "Tex" Ritter, then 28 years old, was on other radio shows including COWBOY TOM'S CAMPFIRE, LONE STAR RANGERS, and MAVERICK JIM. Ritter played occasional roles on the BOBBY BENSON show , but it's unlikely he played Tex Mason, as some sources claim.

Billy Halop was given even more star treatment than Wanamaker; photos of Halop were distributed in several radio premiums and he toured summers as "Bobby Benson" in the W.T. Johnson Circus Rodeo.

This 15 minute show enjoyed substantial success and logged over 700 episodes before it went off the air in December 1936. (By this time Halop had left the radio show to join the Broadway cast of "Dead End" but the identity of the boy who replaced him is unknown.) Despite the length of the series, not one recording from this 30s program is known to exist today.

It would be thirteen years before the program was resurrected. In 1949, Rice, by then a U.S. citizen, was a Vice President with the Mutual Network and he put the show back on the air. With no sponsor in sight, he re-named the ranch "The B-Bar-B" and pared the cast down to five regulars:Bobby, Tex, Windy, Harka, and a new character, Irish. The versatile Craig McDonnell was again in the cast, playing both Harka and Irish with completely different voice characterizations.

Don Knotts (who would later go on to TV and movie fame) was then in his mid-20s and got the part of the old geezer, Windy Wales. Ivan Cury, a talented 12 year old with over two years in radio acting, beat out several audionees to win the lead of the "Cowboy Kid." Rounding out the cast as Tex was veteran actor Charles Irving.

A young director, Bob Novak, was in charge and Peter Dixon returned to write the scripts. However his age and illness prevented him from keeping pace with this series, which required several scripts a week. (By 1950 this 30 minute show was on Monday through Friday at 5:30 pm and also Monday at 8pm, Saturday at 5 pm and Sunday at 3pm, all from the studios of WOR.)

Dixon's son, also a writer, helped out with some of the scripts but the problem was not solved until Jim Shean arrived. A young man fresh out of the military, Shean quickly took over the bulk of the script writing duties.

The series would remain on network radio for about six years, and it was a sustaining show for all but one season, when Kraft Foods paid the bills. The modest budget of the series gradually shrunk, i.e. three live musicians were replaced by one organist and later the show just had transcribed music.

Herb Rice always pushed the personal appearances of his young star. So when he wasn't on the air, Ivan was dispatched to parades, rodeos, and festivals throughout the East Coast, accompanied by his parents. But when Rice tried to send "Bobby Benson" overseas (the show was also popular on AFRS), Ivan's mother put her foot down and refused permission.

So Rice corralled a juvenile singer, Bobby McKnight, dressed him up as "Bobby Benson" and sent him on a ten day tour of Europe. Thereafter McKnight handled most of the public appearances in the U.S. while Cury had all the radio duties. Later Rice designated his executive assistant, Mary Jane Williams, to be the "Bobby Benson" chaperone.

In early 1951 Ivan left the B-Bar-B for a role on PORTIA FACES LIFE and more free lance work on network radio. McKnight was pressed into service as the new Bobby Benson but he lacked radio experience and, as his voice was starting to squeak into maturity, another replacement was sought.

Rice looked no farther than his next door neighbor in Stamford, CT, a nephew of his, Clive Rice. This ten year old lad was born in Surrey, England and had immigrated to the U.S. the preceding fall with his parents. Herb had him audition for the role under the name of Clyde Campbell so the decision of Mutual executives would not be influenced unfairly. Clive won the role, and after some quick diction lessons at the Alfred Dixon School to "Americanize" his dialect, he joined the cast in the WOR studios in April 1951.

Jim Goode was the sound effects man, with occasional assistance of Barney Beck. Frank Milano did all the animal voices and the announcer was "Cactus Carl" Warren. Other regulars on the show were Bill Zuckert, Earl George, Gil Mack, Ross Martin, Jim Boles and his wife, Athena Lord. In the summer of 1951 Bob Haig took over the role of Tex Mason from Charlie Irving.

"Bobby Benson" was once played by a girl! Clive's sister, Rosemary Rice, (not the radio actress with the same name) was in the studio to observe his rehearsal and a live performance. Just before the "On The Air" sign lit up, Clive developed a profuse nosebleed. As others tried to stop the bleeding, Rosemary took his script, raced to the microphone, and delivered his lines until Clive recovered. Since her voice sounded so much like her brother's, no one in the vast radio audience noticed the switch.

There were two BOBBY BENSON television shows that WOR-TV produced for local airing. With Ivan Cury and the rest of his radio cast (except that Al Hodge played Tex Mason because Charlie Irving looked too old for the role) , the show was shot live at the New Amsterdam Theater. Shortly thereafter it was moved to Channel 9 Studio on West 66th. This TV series, a 30 minute drama, was sponsored by Foxe's "U-Bet" Chocolate Syrup and they gave away a live pony to contest winners.

A second TV series was shot in the mid-1950s with Clive Rice, also at the Channel 9 Studios. The set, adjacent to that of "The Merry Mailman" was a tiny bunkhouse. The cast consisted of only three people: Clive, Tex Fletcher (real name Jerry Bisceglia) a cowboy singer from Harrison, NJ, and a comedian named Paul Brown. The show was sponsored by Wilrich's Grape Drink.

The radio show lasted to mid-1955, totaling over 350 episodes. Besides the radio and TV duties, Clive was kept busy touring the country with Mary Jane Williams. They literally went coast to coast promoting the series and related "Cowboy Kid" merchandise. And starting in 1950, there were 20 issues of a Bobby Benson comic book published, the last issue in 1953.

In addition to the comic books, merchandise from both series (including one Big-Little Book) our legacy from this popular program includes 16 half hour episodes (plus one from Australia) and five of the 5 minutes shows from 1952, all of which are currently being traded among the BOBBY BENSON fans today.

Very few of the cast and crew are still alive. Don Knotts lives in the Los Angeles area and is still active in show business. Ivan Cury lives and works there too, teaching communication courses in college and directing some television shows. Clive Rice is a cabinet maker in Virginia and does Civil War research in his spare time. Jim Shean is still writing full-time in the Los Angeles area. Mary Jane Williams is retired in Virginia and spends most of her time on the golf course. Barney Beck is a regular on the circuit of OTR conventions.

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Jerry Haendiges Productions 1996