Friday, March 11, 2011

Interviewing Donnie Pitchford about Lum and Abner

Donnie Pitchford is the President of the National Lum and Abner Society (and webmaster of that same site.)

He's a walking encyclopedia of Lum and Abner information and I am very honored he did this extensive interview with myself this past week.

If you are a fan of Lum and Abner, I am pretty sure this interview will make you say, "Well I'll swan to goodness!" -- that is to say, Donnie did a fabulous job.

OTR Buffet:  Thanks so much for doing this interview with me.   Can you tell us a little about the National Lum and Abner Society and a little about yourself?

Donnie Pitchford:  Thanks for asking! The NLAS was organized almost 30 years ago when Sam Brown of Illinois, Tim Hollis of Alabama, Rex Riffle of West Virginia and I got together and decided to do something about preserving the history of the "Lum and Abner" radio program. I contacted Chester Lauck Jr., who owns the trademark to the title "Lum and Abner," and he granted permission. Tim Hollis became the editor of our publication, "The Jot 'Em Down Journal," and starting in August 1984 we were up and running, publishing bimonthly, or six times a year.

Beginning in 1985 the NLAS held an annual convention in Pine Ridge and Mena, Arkansas, and we were blessed to have some incredible guest stars each year. I don't want to turn this into a mini-encyclopedia, but let me say we had actors, announcers, writers, producers, etc. who'd worked with Lum and Abner, either on radio or in films (or both). You can check our website ( for more information on many of these folks.

After our 20th NLAS Convention, we decided to take a break. It was almost impossible to find guests who had worked with "the old fellows" by this time. We also decided in 2007 to cease publication of the "Journal." Tim was simply too busy to carry it on, and both Sam and I (Rex resigned in 1991) were as busy as could be with our jobs and family illnesses. Our webmaster was a fine gentleman named Jim Temple, and he'd established a website even before there was in Internet, I think, so I proposed an "online Journal" and started building it in 2007, but I was still very busy otherwise. Jim, sadly, passed away early in 2010, about the time I retired from my teaching and broadcasting job, so I expanded the "Journal" site into our current NLAS site.
As for myself, I retired in January 2010 from my then-current job after 25 years of teaching broadcasting and producing radio, television and Internet programs for Carthage ISD in Carthage, Texas. For more information on that, I invite you to visit my "CHS-TV" website at  Incidentally, part of CHS-TV's work included a 1995-2010 OTR radio series we called, for want of a better title, "The Golden Age of Radio" (maybe there IS no better title). My students would research, write scripts, announce vintage music and OTR shows, and edit the programs. We started live on our local cable access channel (using audio only to simulate radio) but from 2004-2010 we produced a one-hour show 52 weeks a year for KZQX-FM here in East Texas. Sadly, that station canceled all their OTR programs right about the time I retired (I'd hoped to be able to produce it privately for them).

Right now I'm working with Argo Press in Austin, Texas on a magazine called "Charlton Spotlight" which celebrates the history of a comic book company often thought of as "the bottom rung" in the industry, but one that produced some great material and gave a start to some of the finest talents in the business. So far I've done a lengthy interview with editor and Popeye artist George Wildman, I've painted the cover and before I started visiting with you I finished part of a painted advertisement. (My original college major was art.) Argo's editor, Mike Ambrose, is working on a new website which can be viewed at I expect everyone reading this to buy everything listed there. (Only kidding!)

OTR Buffet:  Please tell me how you first got into OTR and some early memories you have of radio?  And how did you get into Lum and Abner?

Donnie Pitchford: I was born in 1958, so I barely remember the final days of radio drama. It fascinated me, and I wondered why my mother's old radio-phonograph, a Zenith with a "Cobramatic" tone-arm (it looked like a snake!), was able to pick up what I thought were TV programs. We didn't have a TV set for a time, and she'd have the radio on as I was wandering about. This memory goes back to age two or before.

Later, when I'd see "The Lone Ranger" or "Sky King" or "Amos 'n' Andy" on TV, my mother would say, "I used to listen to this on the radio." Finally, I asked, "You mean they played TV shows on radio?" and she explained what had been puzzling me since my diaper days:  "No, they were shows just acted out for the radio. This is before TV was invented." I immediately though of the Disney "Uncle $crooge's Money Rocket" 45 I had, or a couple of 78s, which featured audio stories, and the connection was complete.

When I was about eight, my dad took me to a Lum's Restaurant in Memphis (where we lived at the time). I ordered one of their big, juicy hot dogs (and was somewhat shocked to read "steamed in beer" on the menu, thinking I'd be drunk in a few minutes) and asked my dad, "What kind of a name is 'Lum' anyway?" and right then and there he told me all about the old "local Arkansas" radio show he heard with his family, "Lum and Abner." He compared it to "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Andy Griffith Show" and I was instantly curious. I asked if some of these old shows might have been recorded, and he said, "Oh, no, that was just an Arkansas show, and they didn't have tape recorders back then. It was all live."

OTR Buffet: Take this question anyway you'd like to: what's the proper way to listen to Lum and Abner?

Donnie Pitchford:  "With both ears flappin'," to quote a character from "Amos 'n' Andy."  No, to be honest, I suppose the right mood would be created in a semi-darkened room, possibly feeding the recordings through the big speaker of a floor model vintage radio, and hearing one 15-minute show per evening. Actually, that's almost the way I first heard them, because they were being aired one per weekday. It is fun to get a "daily dose" that way, and wonder, "How will they get out of this?" for the next 23 hours and 45 minutes, but being realistic, I've listened to lots of them while driving or doing all kinds of work around the house. I'd say any way a person feels most comfortable listening is the best way for him or her.

OTR Buffet: I wonder if you feel like I do - that the 30 minute show (late 1940's) is inferior to the serial?

Donnie Pitchford:  Well, I don't want to say "inferior" because there are lots of fans of the half-hour show out there and I certainly don't want to offend them. I'll say it's "different." Personally, I prefer the original "strip show" format of 15-minutes three, four or five days a week (whatever the schedule was at the time). Those programs took a little getting used to because I'd heard a half-hour show first, plus I was accustomed to the pace of programs like "The Jack Benny Program" and "Fibber McGee and Molly." Once I caught on, I got really interested in the 15-minute shows, and couldn't wait for the next episode.  I like the half-hour shows also, but I prefer the original format. Apparently so did the listeners in 1948-50, since it didn't last.  Here is a true story. Roz Rogers, their head writer for many years, said they got mail from some folks who asked, "Who are all those people laughing in the Jot 'Em Down Store on these new shows?" Apparently some folks actually believed they were hearing situations broadcast from a general store!

OTR Buffet:  I'd like to know your first memories of the show and what got you interested in it?

Donnie Pitchford: Well, I finally started finding OTR recordings in the mid-70s, first on LP and then on reels. A local Longview, Texas radio station was running an OTR type program and I was hooked. On March 12, 1977 (coincidentally Tim Hollis' 14th birthday) I found a "Lum and Abner" LP! I was pretty excited, even though the program (one from 1950) didn't do much for me.

I took a break from college to work and when I went back, in the fall of 1980, I found the Stephen F. Austin State University radio station was running OTR. The faculty manager was a gentleman named Dr. Joe Oliver, who later became a member of the NLAS and a good friend. For Halloween, he ran several programs to fit, one of them being the 1944 "Lum and Abner" Halloween show, which I recorded on cassette. In the summer of 1981, my dad discovered the show was running weekdays on KHYM, a Christian AM station in Gilmer, Texas, and I rigged a timer and cassette recorder to capture them, and after a few weeks I was hooked. They were into the storyline about Diogenes Smith at that time.

OTR Buffet: Lum and Abner go through a variety of crazy side-businesses. What are the ones that stick out to you and some recollections of those?

Donnie Pitchford: I just mentioned Diogenes Smith, and I have to say that era stays with me, when Lum wants to get into the publishing business and so on. In 1992 we unearthed the big collection of transcriptions and I started transferring the original Horlick's discs to tape, so some of those businesses are strong in my mind, like the era of the circus, the movie theater, and the rolling grocery store.

OTR Buffet: Since Chester Lauck and Tuffy Goff (Lum and Abner) do most all the voices, we really never get a chance to hear Cedric and Lum having a conversation (and there are a variety of other conversation we never get to hear because of the fact there are only 2 people doing the voices.) Would you consider this a hindrance to the show in any way? And if you would, can you tell us what kind of conversations you think Lum and Grandpap or Lum and Cedric would have?

Donnie Pitchford: I have to disagree a bit here, because there are some shows where Chet Lauck had to carry on alone, and also some where Abner did the same. If they planned ahead, they might have an outside actor like Jerry Hausner or Clarence Hartzell to come in and assist, but I've heard several where one person carries the entire show. Tuffy Goff once said his problem was he couldn't swallow and saliva would collect in his mouth, so he'd arrange for a sound effect like the ringing phone to break the ongoing talk so he could swallow.

Those men were incredible, because I've heard programs where just the two of them create what sounds like six or seven people arguing! Their timing was excellent.

That doesn't answer regarding what type of conversations they'd have, but I think the programs themselves will answer that. I can't pinpoint a specific date, but they're in there.

OTR Buffet: Do you have a favorite character?

Donnie Pitchford: Wow, that's a tough one. I think I am partial to Squire Skimp because I impersonated him several times for our convention scripts. He's a colorful con man, and Tuffy's voice for him was masterful. I've often wondered why Tuffy didn't go into the business of voicing characters for animation. He certainly had the talent for creating varied voices. And I'm not trying to slight Chet Lauck either. When I try to pick a favorite character, it makes my head hurt! I will say that I preferred Mousey Gray over Ulysses S. Quincy. When Mousey left for the army, I felt Ulysses was a poor substitute.

OTR Buffet: Lum is very egotistical. As a matter of fact, if he weren't "Lum Edwards" I am afraid we really wouldn't like him - just for the fact that he is so full of himself. Listening everyday, you can tell that Abner knows he's not as smart as Lum but he also knows Lum is not near as smart as he thinks he is. Could you tell us what you think Abner actually thinks of Lum and vice-versa?

Donnie Pitchford: Jimbo, you're getting deep! Wow. I think Lauck and Goff, and later Roz Rogers, tended to adjust the characters a bit depending on the situation at hand. For example, early on, Abner seemed to stand back in amazement at Lum's "out-loud talkin'" ability, and his "lawyerin'" talent. Later, Abner might be more cynical. He went from praising Lum's public speaking to moaning about "that same ol' speech."

Perhaps they allowed Abner to "wise up" a bit as the years passed. I think, generally, Abner felt he often had the upper hand on Lum, and he was able to see Lum's vanity, and more than once he was able to shoot down one of Lum's "big idies," but generally I think he loved Lum like a brother. Both would fit the "man-child" category I think. They were naive enough to get into some humorous jams, but wise enough to eventually get out of them.

OTR Buffet: To some extent, Dick Huddleston and Squire Skimp (both pretty intelligent characters on the show) kind of ruin the fun when they are around. Dick will talk Lum (or perhaps Abner) out of some stupid plan he's got cooked up and Squire does basically the same thing (albeit in an entirely different way.) Who played the character of Dick Huddleston and why is he missing for years and years?

Donnie Pitchford: You probably know this, but Dick Huddleston was a "real person" who knew "the boys" when they were young men. Dick ran his own general store in Waters, Arkansas, and Lauck and Goff based many situations on this little town. In 1936, thanks to Mr. Huddleston, Waters' name was changed to Pine Ridge! One of our most exciting finds was a set of 12-inch discs containing the network broadcast of that event, recordings thought lost for decades. On radio, Tuffy Goff portrayed Dick Huddleston in his natural voice.

Roz Rogers told us they decided to keep Dick in the background more, and for the very reason you mentioned. Every time Lum got a new "big business idie," Dick could walk in and say, "Why, Lum, you can't sell stock like that!" or "Lum, you can't open a bank without a charter!" and so on. In fact, I didn't hear Dick until one day KHYM ran the episode where Lum, I believe, walks across the street to visit a travel agency Mousey and Cedric have set up. He speaks to Dick in passing. Of course, a bit later in the 1940s Dick returns in storylines reused from 1930s scripts, like the time L&A are trapped in a silver mine cave-in. I always enjoyed hearing Dick on the show. For a time I worked with a guy named Dick, and amazingly, he sounded so much like Tuffy Goff that when I hear the shows I picture this former coworker!

OTR Buffet: Whatever happened to Mary, the girl that Abner adopted? After that happened, she might have shown up in 4 or 5 shows - then as far as I know, was never heard of again. Any idea what happened there? Any idea who played the part of Mary?

Donnie Pitchford: Of course, she started out as Ellie Connors, and she'd escaped from a state home for girls, a sort of orphanage or reform school, perhaps. They started calling her "Mary Edwards" and pretending she was a niece to Lum, I think. That was a touching series. And yes, we know who played her. It was the incredible actress Lurene Tuttle. Miss Tuttle was in several episodes. You probably remember her as Nurse Lunsford, Sgt. Hartford, the mother of the abandoned baby, and I'm sure other parts. As for what happened to her, I think they allowed her to fade into oblivion because I don't remember the story being resolved. I asked Tim Hollis and he replied, "Seems like we talked about the Ellie/Mary non-ending before, but as I recall they never actually wrote her out... sort of like how Phinus was never written out until a year or more later when Abner thought they were near Brentwood, Tennessee and wanted to visit him."

Actually, Mary did return, but it was in 2004, and she was portrayed by Dick Beals! At the REPS Showcase, one of the scripts was performed, directed by Dick Beals, with Art Gilmore and Ed Scott announcing, Frank Buxton as Lum, Dick Beals as Mary and Speedy Alka-Seltzer in an added commercial, Ray Erlenborn on sound effects, Bill Edwards (Sam Edwards' son) performing the music, and some no-talent bum named Donnie Pitchford playing Abner.

Let us not forget two major "Lum and Abner" anniversaries coming up in April. On April 26, the "Lum and Abner" program turns 80, and the town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas will be 75!

OTR Buffet: You might not like me after this but I was not a fan of the whole Diogenes Smith stories. I'm not really sure why, either! But I don't like them. How do you feel about Diogenes - do you like him - and if not - do you feel that way about any character or storyline?

Donnie Pitchford: I won't hold it against you, but that was one of my favorite series. Possibly it's because it was the first one I heard. Diogenes was played by an actor named Frank Graham who returned to do other roles. Perhaps you felt he was something of an "intruder" into the shows. I have a friend who felt the same way and didn't enjoy them at first, but when he heard them a second time he loved them.

To be honest, at first I disliked Ben Withers. I had only heard him in the half-hour shows, and I found him too strange and out-of-place. He didn't have an Arkansas accent. He was irritating to me. Two things happened. First of all I heard some of the original shows where his character was introduced, then I met Clarence Hartzell, the actor who played the part. I woke up one day saying, "Ben Withers is okay after all!"

I must say I wasn't overly fond of Dr. Snyde, and was glad to see him leave the series. There was a "slow" period in there where we were getting into the Golden Era Discussion Club, and Ulysses was saying "Okay" over and over, and I missed the momentum of the earlier programs somehow.

OTR Buffet:  I really hate to even bring this up but I feel like I have to.  I thought all the Lum and Abner films were just terrible.  And I wish I had never seen them because in a way they ruin this picture I had in my head of them.  How do you feel about the films in general and have they messed with your imagination about the show?

Donnie Pitchford:  I've spoken to others who feel the same way. I don't see them as "terrible," but "different." At least Lauck and Goff played their main characters, and in a couple of the films they borrowed from the radio series for some of the situations. I like the films, for the most part, but I understand what you're saying. Remember it was tough for Lauck and Goff to try to present a visual version of their characters and locations. To me, nothing "looked right." I'd heard the shows and it was jarring to see these guys in makeup. After several years, it's easier to accept, of course. I will say we've had a marvelous relationship with some of the folks who were in the films (Bobs Watson, Louise Currie, Jerry Hausner, Kay Linaker and Shirley Lauck Babcock) who have been our convention guests, and the screening of the films was always a success for us in Mena. They were also shown out in Pine Ridge when Lon and Kathy Stucker who operate the Lum and Abner Museum were involved in a Lum and Abner Weekend for many years.

To me, watching the films is similar to listening to the half-hour show. I can also compare it to my interest in comic strips, comic books and animation. I consider the 15-minute shows "the real Lum and Abner" and the others to be "adaptations." It's the same with the character of Popeye. The "real Popeye" is the one who was in Elzie Segar's comic strip from 1929-38. Everything else is "an adaptation."

OTR Buffet:  Sometimes the show would go through different sponsorships and when this happened they often went back and rehashed some old scripts.  I suppose back then that wasn't a big deal but listening at the pace we can and do today, this flaw is easily recognizable - especially when they gave no memories like, "Oh remember when I faked my broke leg that time..." (etc.)  My question is, do you think this hurts the show's credibility at all with today's critics?

Donnie Pitchford:  It probably does, but we have to realize Lauck and Goff never expected the series to be preserved and rerun decades later. If a modern critic is bothered by the repeated scripts, he or she needs to have been in my broadcast journalism classes and studied the history of radio. In fact, send them to me now! I'll straighten them out!

I'm kidding, of course, but I think the longevity of the program indicates it was a winner, and in many ways we need to be thankful they did repeat some scripts, because otherwise some stories would be lost forever, since not all the programs exist today.

OTR Buffet:  Have you looked at the Lum and Abner Dictionary?  What do you think and do you have any new words to offer up?

Donnie Pitchford:  I have run across it, but to be honest, I need to go over it in detail. I was impressed with what I saw, and if I can think of some new words I'll let you know.  As Lum said, the only words Mr. Webster left out of his dictionary were "ain't and ort!"  I think it's an excellent idea. I tried to start one myself years ago, but didn't get far. Another idea I had was to establish a Pine Ridge Phonebook, listing all the "rings," but I think I found they reused various rings for different characters!

OTR Buffet:  Thanks Donnie for the interview, I had a lot of fun!

Donnie Pitchford:  So did I! Please contact me again, any time, if you have additional questions. If I don't have the answers, I can find someone who does. I'll be sure to add links to your offerings on our site, and I invite everyone to check us out. It's free to join! "Wonderful World!"

©Jimbo 2010/2011

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