Membership Clubs and their membership cards, ephemera and premiums were an enduring staple of Golden Age Radio History and its promoters. I'm hard pressed to recall any of my pals growing up--male or female--that wasn't a member of one radio or television club or another. If it wasn't Radio Orphan Annie, it was Red Ryder, or Roy Rogers, or Superman, or Batman, or Wonder Woman, or Howdy Doody, or Captain Kangaroo, Captain Midnight, or Captain Marvel. Some were interwoven in multiple ways, combining radio, comics or magazines, television and even movies or serial films. The marketing angle was brilliant, naturally, but even more, the sense of bond or kinship with one's particular club or fan group was all the more heightened when it was a 'secret' society of one kind or another. And it wasn't even as if the marketers or sponsors were getting a lot of return from those promotions, working through us kids to get to our parents, such as it was back then.
Sylvania's Buck Rogers Space Rangers Membership Card, circa 1933
Wilma Deering (Adele Ronson), Dr. Huer (Edgar Stehli), and
Buck Rogers (Curtis Arnali) examine Dr. Huer's new rocket gun.
Buck Rogers cast - Adele Ronson, Edgar Stehli and Curtis Arnali
Folgers Coffee offer to obtain a genuine
detective outfit, FREE, by listening to
Detectives Black and Blue from 1933
Buck Rogers Satellite Pioneers 'Confidential Bulletin' entrusted
only to official registered members of Buck Rogers' Satellite Pioneers
Heck, my dad didn't even own a car of his own until well into the Batman TV years, let alone the Mickey Mouse Club and Superman years, so Skelly or Standard Oil or Texaco didn't get much bang for it's buck with my folks through me. And when I think back on it, the only three real tie-ins I ever really bought into during those years were all the Shredded Wheat, Wheaties and Ovaltine promotions; all of which I eagerly participated in. But in all honesty, I already loved Shredded Wheat and Wheaties anyway . . . and once Ovaltine started pushing the chocolate malt flavor, drinking even that was no great sacrifice. I was also blessed by a younger sibling, so whenever a competing cereal would undertake an especially appealing campaign targeting me via radio or television, I'd simply convince my Mom that my little sister was just dying to try Cheerios, or Grape Nuts Flakes, or even Quaker Oats and Malt-O-Meal for Pete's sake! Ick! Back then I could get my little sis so worked into a froth over a new cereal or breakfast drink that by the time we'd go to the store with Mom, sis would be beside herself begging Mom for it.
Buck Jones' Ranger Club Membership Card, circa 1938
Naturally all I was really after was the premium either inside the box, or part of the box. And so it was that with our first communal breakfast after grocery shopping, I'd artfully dig the premium out of the bottom of the box, or if such was the need, empty the cereal into a Tupperware container so I could get my gubby mitts on the cereal box premium. I'd never touch that cereal again--not to consume any of it anyway. And after all, it wasn't me begging for the cereal it was my sis! But bless her heart, I worked that ploy for years with my sis. She 'claims' she never really caught on until she was into her teens. I find that hard to believe, but I have to remind myself what simple and naive days those still were back then.
One of the era's most prized premiums;
The Supermen of America Secret Code Book
This is the Super-Secret side of The Supermen of America Secret Code Book
Gilbert Shoe Company 'Dick Tracy Radio Club'
Membership Card, circa 1939
Also, quite understandably, holiday shows like 'Christmas Story' spring to mind., with it's Radio Orphan Annie, and Red Ryder sub-plots skillfully and nostalgically woven into the main plot. But it wasn't only Jean Shepard's consummate imagination or yarn-spinning skill that evoked, in Shepard's own words, such a 'a rich tapestry'. Not a rich tapestry of profanity, naturally--well let's hope not anyway, for your sake, but rather a rich tapestry of shared nostalgia; memories of a rich and varied childhood, and far less a simple marketing ploy. Rather, they reflected a very visceral, proudly held allegiance to one's favorite childhood heroes, be they sports heroes, comic superheroes, radio heroes, or even early television and film heroes--and heroines as well, naturally.
Captain Midnight 'Flight Patrol' Membership Card, circa 1940.
It goes without saying that it was the various marketers, advertising agencies, promoters and sponsors that brought us these little gems to further enflame our imagination well beyond the experience of the glowing dial. Indeed one has to force one's recollection of the fact that the great majority of those episodes we scheduled our entire lives around were at most 9 to 12 minutes in duration per day--sometimes per week! And yet we'd rarely, if ever, miss a single episode.
Captain Midnight 'Secret Squadron' Membership Card, 1957 Version.
But promotions they were. There's no disputing it. More's the pity that one must struggle to imagine a similar paradigm in our frenetic, modern lives to match it. Sure there are the mindless adherents to American Idol, and Survivor before that, and of course the Dallas cliff-hangers of the 1980's. But puhleeze, in all fairness, could any American Idol or Survivor episode even remotely hold a candle to the creativity and imagination-stirring juvenile adventure dramas of the 1930s and 1940s? Indeed, well into the 1950s and 1960s, despite the tremendous inroads television was making into our cultural lives by that time.
Earlier Skelly Oil sponsored Jimmie Allen
Flying Club membership offer circa 1933
Richfield Oil Company 'Jimmie Allen Flying Club'
Membership Card, circa 1936
1937 offer from Remar Baking to join The
International Secret Police with Speed Gibson
Sure the premiums were very cool for their time--and moreso, apropos of our tender sensibilities during that era. Rings were very cool, but they'd invariably turn green or blue. Code devices were even cooler, but the marketers would get too cutesy by half on occasion and go back to that well one time too many; much like the fictitious "Drink Your Ovaltine' ripoff depicted in 'Christmas Story.' Cardboard premiums had a shelf-life of at best forty-eight hours in most cases, with either their novelty dropping off precipitously, or through simply beating a cardboard novelty to death amongst ones friends. Cardboard character masks, planes, boats [now that took a real rocket scientist to think up--a cardboard boat. sheesh] , and trading cards--all had real durability issues. The trading cards had potential, but presented as they were as part of the cereal packaging didn't make for the kind of cards on which you'd base a serious collection.
Wheaties Jack Armstrong 'Members Only'
Secret Whistle Code Card, circa 1939
And then of course there were the kazoos, and the glow in the dark novelties that would glow for about a week then peter out--even if you subjected them to Klieg lights. There were whizzing novelties you'd either blow into or swing around to make their sounds. And there were those 'pin-backs' that would rust and corrode within a couple of weeks. Oh, and those little teepees and forts and log cabins and circuses you could cut out and play with for about 30 minutes, once you spent two hours assembling, gluing, taping, painting, or coloring them.
Bond Bread's 'Lone Ranger Safety Club' Membership Card, circa 1939
'Roy Rogers Rider's Club' Membership Card, circa 1941
The Lone Ranger Official Seal, circa 1942
The Long Ranger promotion circa 1945
over the Blue Network for General Mills
The Lone Ranger Official Weber's Cryptograph Decoder Card, circa 1943
But let's be honest, the only cardboard and paper novelties or premiums you'd somehow find yourself holding onto were the membership premiums. After all, you didn't just get those in your Cracker Jack or cereal boxes. You'd have to actually send away for them. That had to be a sponsor's dream--and greatest risk as well, perhaps. Given the time it took to get back the membership package or materials, it seemed that the sponsors would wait to accumulate a target quantity of responses to a premium or membershiop offer before they'd ever make the financial commitment to actually 'fork over the goods'. But given a young person's attention span, I'm sure the sponsors and advertising agencies were simply banking on the fact that it would take us a while to wonder where our premiums were, even months after sending in the response.
Signal "Tarzan Club' Membership Card, circa 1938
'Membership'. The concept alone was so appealing. Especially to young people, what with competing schoolyard and playground cliques vying for one's interest or attention. The desire to belong, but not always being accepted by the group one wished would welcome him or her. But you could be a 'member' of something you perceived valuable simply by responding to a premium promotion. And as mentioned in our opening paragraphs, the more 'secret' the society the better. What with decoder discs, or cards, or rings, or boxes and the like, one could convince oneself of a higher, joint purpose. A secret kinship that some of us never truly grew out of. And the more elaborate and convoluted and detailed the 'secrecy' surrounding the membership the better . . .with secret pledges and secret codebooks and secret disappearing ink, even! For indeed it was those pains-taking procedures one had to follow that inflated the importance of that secrecy, and by extension created the self-fulfilling prophecy nature of those membership promotions.
Hopalong Cassidy's 'Special Agents Pass' and ID Card, circa 1950 [Front]
Hopalong Cassidy's 'Special Agents Pass' and ID Card, circa 1950 [Back]
But alas, one inevitably discovered that the powers behind the secret 'club' or 'society' or 'troop' had feet of clay. These were the leaders that you were sure would continue to be there for you, guide you, and show you how to be a good American. In reality, they might string you along for a couple of months, or even a couple of years, but despite their best intentions, ad agencies simply didn't have the reources to meet the demands of their most avidly loyal young members. Their elaborate graphics and devices and branding themes simply petered out eventually and left even the most loyal young members disillusioned in the end. And let us not forget that the big corporate ad agencies took a real beating for a few years, right around the time of the exponentially growing popularity of Television, and exacerbated by revelations such as those by Vance Packard, revealing the manipulative schemes behind modern corporate advertising psychology.
Hopalong Cassidy's 'Trooper's Club' Membership Card, circa. 1953 [Front]
Hopalong Cassidy's 'Trooper's Club' Membership Card, circa. 1953 [Back]
Getting the ideological stuffing beaten out of us in the 1960s didn't exactly help sustain such naive and blind trust and belief either. And so it was that the era of the most elaborate premium programs, and their memberships and secret societies disappeared just as the Golden Age Radio disappeared.
Joe DiMaggio Sports Club Membership Card, circa 1950
Golden Jersey Milk 'Green Hornet Club' Membership Card, circa 1947
Jim Hawthorne's 'Royal Order of Hoganites' Membership Card, circa 1950s
State Theatre 'Junior G-Men Club" Membership Card, circa 1938
Archie Andrews 'Archie Club' Membership Card, circa 1956
The Tooth Fairy's 'Tooth Ranger' Membership Card, circa 1974