James Gleason and Robert Armstrong have always been personal favorites--and we doubt we're alone in that observation. Their work on the Stage and in Film, Radio and Television dated as early as the 1920s. The recent rediscovery of a significant example of their early work over Radio--as a team--was one of 2010's most interesting and fascinating revelations. First airing in 1931, Gleason and Armstrong's comedy serial, Knights of the Road, has further underscored their comedic talents as both a team and as highly successful actors in their own right. The preeminent current expert on Knights of The Road is our good friend, Doug Hopkinson, who has generously permitted us to add his excellent paper on Knights of The Road to his previous contribution of Cecil and Sally within our pages. Here follows his comprehensive report on another of early West Coast Radio's most entertaining--and popular--programs:
Gleason & Armstrong: Knights of the Road
James Gleason and Robert Armstrong were both first and foremost stage and film performers. They both began on stage and they both went into motion pictures. Their first success together was in the 1925 Broadway play (written by James Gleason and Richard Taber) Is Zat So? (An interesting side-note is that Fannie Brice was a major financial backer of this play.) This marked the beginning of both Robert Armstrong’s and James Gleason’s meteoric rise in the entertainment industry. It was the play that launched their careers and set them on the road to fame and fortune. It was so popular they eventually took it overseas to England and then on to Hollywood. In truth, it was Gleason and his wife Lucile Webster that were the driving and creative force which powered their initial journey. That is not to say that Robert was not a talent in his own right. Time has proven beyond any doubt that he had plenty of talent, but in 1925, Armstrong just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch a ride. A ride that enabled him to begin and sustain a long and successful career of his own apart from the Gleason’s who were accelerating on a track which would take them to achievements they never dreamed possible.
With the immense success of Is Zat So? Hollywood scouts were watching Robert Armstrong and he soon had a studio contract. He appeared in his first film in 1927 and quickly did ten more films in 1928. James Gleason had already done his first film in 1922 but turned most of his efforts towards writing after that. He did one movie in 1928 and six more in 1929. Of those six, one co-starred Robert Armstrong and the other five co-starred Gleason's wife Lucile. Gleason and Armstrong each appeared in well over 100 other movies. They appeared together in a total seven different movies between 1929 and 1936. Twenty years later in 1956, they both appeared together on an episode of the television show Cheyenne.1
Previous researchers and authors have provided much of the information that follows about the radio shows in which our two subjects appeared in during their careers. There may well be some appearances by either one that are missing. Armstrong’s career was solidly set as an actor in the film industry but Gleason’s was much more diverse. James Gleason’s career included acting, writing, directing, producing and even a bit of politics. While all this is very interesting it has nothing to do with radio which is meant to be the main thrust of this article.
In searching through many tomes on the subject of radio, this author found only one reference to Robert Armstrong ever appearing on a radio show. That show was a 1936 Lux Radio Theater production of Is Zat So? in which Armstrong portrayed his same character from the 1925 stage production. Interestingly, Gleason did not appear on that particular show although he did make six different appearances on Lux Radio Theater between 1936 and 1944.2 Gleason was a regular member of the cast on the Bob Burns Show from 1943 to 1946.3 He also had his own short-lived 30 minute show which lasted only 1 month on the ABC network from January 21, 1945 to February 25, 1946 titled Jimmy Gleason’s Diner. His longtime wife Lucile was his co-star and they portrayed themselves in the show. The basic premise of the show was conversations with his customers at the diner.4 Jimmy was the cook and Lucile was the waitress.5 One could speculate as to whether or not the tragic death of their son (less than 4 weeks prior to the premier) led to the early demise of this radio show. To date, no episodes of Jimmy Gleason’s Diner are known to exist in general circulation.6 James Gleason is also credited with 4 appearances in the various incarnations of The Screen Guild Theater between 1941 and 1946 and at least one appearance each on Cavalcade of America (1/10/1944) and Old Gold Comedy Theater (2/18/1945).7
There is one radio show which both Jimmy Gleason and Robert Armstrong appeared in together that seems to have escaped the notice of radio historians. This show was The Gleason and Armstrong Show and it is the main subject of this article. The Gleason and Armstrong Show (aka Knights of the Road) is until now, a relatively unknown, short-lived, 15 minute syndicated radio program from 1931. It starred James Gleason and Robert Armstrong who were two very popular character actors at that time. Although they worked very well together they were not a team per se like Laurel and Hardy or Moran and Mack. One could liken them to Hope and Crosby. When they performed together they charmed the audiences yet they were both very successful on their own.
The show is about two characters named, appropriately enough, Jimmy Gleason and Robert Armstrong (referred to as Robbie), who want to buy a property from the father of Elizabeth Frost (Robbie’s girlfriend) so they can build and operate a gasoline service station of their own. They plan to tour the United States for one year, observing other service stations in order to educate themselves as how to make their future service station the best. Mr. Frost draws up a contract for the sale of his lot with all sorts of clauses which include having them sell his patented “Frost tire puller” as they travel and a morality clause (that Jimmy is indignant over). The contract calls for the duo to earn $2000.00 in an honest way during their trip. The clause that most concerns Robbie is the one that promises Elizabeth’s hand in marriage should he and Jimmy fulfill the obligations set forth in the contract. They sign the contract and begin their trip from Elizabeth, NJ in a $35.00 Model T that Robbie had purchased. The ensuing episodes are all situational comedy with occasional drama and action thrown in. All the episodes are sequential following the basic storyline as the partners travel through various towns and cities across the United States. The boys head west and never seem to make much money but always manage to make enough to push on to the next town. Robbie tries his luck as a pugilist in one episode trying for a $100 prize but ends up losing because he led with his jaw instead of his left. Another episode finds them in “Pittsboig” accepting a reward of $1000 for capturing a bank robber. After this windfall they meet up with a teenage boy named Oswald who they take with them as their chauffeur. Oswald is not a very good driver but he is good at eating (especially beef stew) and sleeping. The trio wend their way to St. Louis, MO and take jobs at the zoo there. Robbie becomes a hero for saving a little girl from an escaped lion (for which he was responsible) and gets a $500 reward from her father. In Oklahoma City, Oswald parts ways with Jimmy and Robbie who are heading to Texas. In El Paso they gain a canine friend that they name Scram. In Santa Fe, New Mexico they meet up by chance, with Oswald and catch the mumps from him. Oswald’s parents agree to let him travel as far as Hollywood with Jimmy and Robbie and so the trio is reunited. The last episode this author was able to find and listen to (episode 103) finds the trio in Los Angeles and being apprehended by the police for the purpose of giving them reward money for some smugglers they had previously helped capture while they were in Mexico.
The earliest broadcast this author has identified appeared in an L.A. Times daily radio listing on May 4th, 1931.8 [Editor's Note: the series also began airing over Hearst-owned KYA, San Francisco on May 4, 1931.] The following day there was a large advertisement in the newspaper featuring pictures of James Gleason and Robert Armstrong and proclaiming their show “Knights of the Road” as being “ one of 1931’s greatest radio features” and that it was sponsored by Union Oil.9
Author's spot ad from the May 5, 1931 edition of the Los Angleles Times
A similar spot ad from the May 5, 1931 edition of the Oakland Tribune. Oakland-native Gleason was a home-town favorite.
It is interesting to note that the daily radio listing of May 4th cited the show as “Knights of the Road”, as did the large ad on May 5th; yet the radio highlights on both dates read “Gleason and Armstrong”. The daily listing of May 5th fails to indicate the show at all. All of the following daily listings that this author was able to peruse, referred to the show as either “Gleason and Armstrong” or “Knights of the Road”. There was no discernable pattern or logic as to which title the paper decided to print on any given day.
It should also be noted that the labels on 94 transcription discs of this show (currently held in a private collection) all bear a Hollywood Broadcast Features label and only make reference to a show title as Gleason Armstrong. In fact, the title “Knights of the Road” in reference to Gleason and Armstrong, did not appear in print anywhere again (to this author’s knowledge) until October 4th, 1937 when the Ogden Standard Examiner of Ogden, Utah announced that beginning that night station KLO would begin airing Gleason and Armstrong appearing as “The Knights of the Road”.10 It is unclear, yet doubtful, that these KLO broadcasts were live appearances or new episodes. It is more likely that KLO acquired the then 6 year old electrical transcriptions and began broadcasting them. The last L.A. Times listing found for Gleason and Armstrong is for September 22, 1931.11
Initially, the show began as a 15 minute daily Monday through Friday broadcast. A detailed research of all the daily listings in the L.A. Times shows that on many occasions it was not listed as airing on Mondays but it was scheduled for 30 minutes the following day. As all good researchers know, depending solely upon newspaper broadcast listings is not the most reliable way to document a series log. The listings also indicate intermittently, non-broadcast days as well as other days that cite a 30 minute time slot. What is interesting is that there are 103 episodes known to exist and if one were to count the number of days from May 4, 1931 (first listing) through September 22, 1931 (last listing) excluding weekends, one arrives at the number 103. This is not an attempt on the author’s part to create a Stonehenge or Great Pyramid type of mathematical mysticism. It is merely being pointed out because the source of the transcription discs (used for this article) had stated that 103 episodes comprised the entire run of the show. While it is purported that episode 103 is the last episode made, there is no direct evidence (to date) to support this as fact.
James Gleason Mini-Bio
James Austin Gleason was born on May 23, 1882 in New York City, NY. His parents, William J. Gleason (a well known comedian-actor-producer-director)12 and Mina Crolius Gleason (long time actress with the Boston Museum Stock Company)13 were both theater performers, so acting came rather honestly and naturally to him. Gleason was a veteran of the military and served in the Spanish-American War14 and World War I. Just prior to WWI he had rejoined the army and headed to Texas when Pancho Villa had started some trouble on the border.15 In 1906 he married Lucile Webster, a young actress who worked in and around his hometown of Oakland, CA.16 He remained married to Lucile until her death in 1947.17 Together they had one son, Russell, who became an actor in his own right. Tragically, Russell died at the age of 36 on Christmas Day in 1945. His death was the result of a fall from a fourth story hotel window.18
Of all the write-ups this author has read on Russell’s death, none mention the word “suicide” although it is heavily implied. One newspaper did run the storyline as “Son of Actor Jimmy Gleason Ends Own Life”.19 James Gleason passed away on April 12, 1959.20 No cause of death was listed in the many published obituaries other than “after a long illness” although at least one article mentioned that he had gone in for prostate surgery in December of 195821 and another mentions that he had been in the hospital almost a year due to chronic asthma.22 This mini-biography of James Gleason hardly does justice to him and all his accomplishments. To do proper credit to his life story would require an entirely separate article.
Robert Armstrong Mini-Bio
Robert Armstrong was born Donald Robert Smith23 or Robert William Armstrong.24 (depending upon which source you prefer) on November 20, 1890 in Saginaw, MI.
His father ran a profitable business providing the use of his small fleet of boats on Lake Michigan. Despite his success in Michigan, his father was lured to the Pacific Northwest by the news of gold being discovered in Alaska.25
Robert attended school in Seattle and went on to law school at the University of Washington. He chose to drop out during his senior year to join a touring vaudeville company. In New York, he went to work with his uncle Paul Armstrong who was a writer and producer. He moved the family to Seattle, WA when Robert was very young.26
Paul Armstrong’s claim to fame was playwriting Alias Jimmy Valentine which was originally a short story titled “A Retrieved Reformation” written by O. Henry. Alias Jimmy Valentine the play, opened in January of 1910. It was made into a movie no less than three times. It should also be mentioned that Paul Armstrong’s son, Paul Armstrong Jr., continued the Jimmy Valentine legacy by penning two additional stories that were turned into movies.27
Robert toured the country doing small performances and while out west joined up with a stock company that was owned by Mr. and Mrs. William Gleason. He went back east to New York with them and began to learn acting in earnest. His first major Broadway role was in 1925 when he was given one of the lead roles in Is Zat So?. Robert joined the Army during WWI and served as a private in the infantry.
He was married four times during his life with the last one taking place on January 1, 1940 to Claire Louise Frisbie Armstrong. This marriage lasted until his death in 1973. An interesting note is that both Robert and Claire divorced their respective spouses the day before their wedding. Also of note is that Claire’s married name had been Armstrong. She had divorced Rolfe Armstrong to marry Robert Armstrong. A strange coincidence and for the record, Rolfe was not related to Robert.28 Sadly, this author was unable to discover any additional information regarding Mr. Armstrong’s personal life.
He was, and still is, best known for and associated with, the character 'Carl Denham,' the fast talking movie producer that brought a giant ape to New York city in the original 1933 film King Kong; this despite the fact that he appeared and starred in well over 100 movies and almost 50 different television shows. He passed away on April 20, 1973 in Santa Monica, CA after what was termed “a short illness”.29 Even in death his obituaries focused primarily on his King Kong role, especially because he died within hours of Merian C. Cooper who was the producer and co-director of the classic film.
The Gleason and Armstrong Show
The Gleason and Armstrong Show is quite entertaining if you enjoy the nostalgic aspects of the early 1930’s. Their eastern dialect and period slang offer insight to the common man of that time. To hear Gleason say to Armstrong “Boy am I crisp!” when he gets mad about something or the way they both say “Why Soiteny” and refer to other men as “mugs” and using terms such as dame, swell, elegant, hunky-dory, dome (for head) and beak (for nose) and of course the ever popular “how do you like dem apples”, somehow takes one back to the Depression Era even if one was never there before. The running joke throughout all the episodes is Robbie slamming the door shut every time he enters or exits the car despite Jimmy imploring him not to. In several episodes the two briefly showcase a talent for singing, when they harmonize a cappella. (This author particularly enjoyed their rendition of Ragtime Cowboy Joe.) It’s amazing to hear that a five course meal costs 50 cents or that they filled the gas tank and topped off the oil for 90 cents or that they had the engine overhauled for 12 dollars. As one might expect, a common subject throughout the series is money; mostly the lack thereof but also staggering amounts (for that time) in the form of rewards and prizes. In several episodes they allude (in words or by actions) to their distrust in banks, a common sentiment of the times after the collapse in 1929. The show was definitely aimed at a general audience of all ages. It wasn’t too simple nor was it complex by any means. It was imbued with all the classic American values; honesty, integrity, family, baseball and apple pie. The show itself served as another vehicle to further promote the duo’s talent and names. From the standpoint of an OTR researcher and enthusiast, it was not a show that set the radio world on its ear (so to speak) and it certainly appears it was quickly forgotten once it left the airwaves, yet it is a perfect testimony of how these two performers worked so well together and why they became so popular. From the standpoint of today’s world, it is just another ancient radio show unburied from the sands of time and held aloft in briefest triumph until the next one is found and our attention is once again drawn away.
1 The IMDB http://www.imdb.com
2 Lux Presents Hollywood by Connie Billips and Arthur Pierce
3 The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning
4 Archives of the Airwaves Vol 2 by Roger C. Paulson p.195
5 The Coshocton News (OH) 1/27/1946 p.7
6 The 3rd Revised Ultimate History of Network Radio Programming and Guide to ALL Circulating Shows by Jay Hickerson
7 Radio Drama American Programs, 1932-1962 by Martin Grams Jr.
8 Los Angeles Times 5/4/1931 p.14
9 Los Angeles Times 5/5/1931 p. 3
10 Ogden Standard Examiner 10/4/1937 p. 8
11 Los Angeles Times 9/22/1931 p. 13
12 Oakland Tribune 8/22/1906 p.7
Daily Review (Hayward, CA) 4/13/1959 p.3
Eau Claire Leader (WI) 12/27/1919 p.4
13 Eau Claire Leader (WI) 12/27/1919 p.4
14 Des Moines Daily News (IA) 10/10/1909 p.10
15 Daily Review (Hayward, CA) 4/13/1959 p.3
16 Oakland Tribune (CA) 8/22/1906 p.7
17 Reno Evening Gazette (NV) 5/19/1947 p.2
18 Racine Journal Times (WI) 12/26/1945 p.7
19 Statesville Daily Record (NC) 12/27/1945 p.3
20 Oakland Tribune (CA) 4/13/1959 p.1
21 Charleston Gazette (WV) 12/5/1958 p.6
22 The Moberly Monitor (MO) 4/13/1959 p.3
23 The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors p.21
24 The IMDB http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0035877/bio
25 The IMDB http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0035877/bio
26 The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA) 4/23/1973 p.5
27 The IMDB http://www.imdb.com
28 Nevada State Journal (Reno, NV) 1/1/1940 p.7
29 Ogden Standard Examiner (UT) 4/22/1973 p.1
Editor's Observations, Additional Information
Peggy Allenby, ca. 1929
One of Robert Armstrong's four wives was lovely Peggy Allenby of Stage, Radio [Phyl Coe Radio Mysteries and It's Higgins, Sir, among others] and Film fame. When she divorced her stage actor husband of two years, Robert Armstrong, the public was somewhat shocked to discover that she hadn't sought alimony from Mr. Armstrong. Indeed, she refused any alimony, famously quoted for the following observation on the topic of alimony in general:
I think some women have an awful nerve to cease loving a man, but go right on loving his money.
. . . thus instantly endearing herself to every eligible--or ineligible--bachelor in America--and probably just as equally alienating as many females--married or single.
'Knights of the Road' commonly referred to 'hobos' during the post-Depression years, hence Gleason and Armstrong's possible selection of the title for the canon. The somewhat loftier appelation leant a patina of adventure and romance to the vagrants and 'rail-riders' of the post-Depression Era. Over the years, the term has been revived--and reinvented--to represent retired and semi-retired bikers, R/V'ers. and other carefree vagabonds of the road. Knights of the Road reappeared in the mid-1940s as the title of a country-western variety series from Hank Lawson.
Union Oil's Union 76 Gasoline logo from 1932
Union Oil Company of California was a regular West Coast sponsor of Radio from the earliest days, most notably the Hollywood Bowl concert series' Symphony Under the Stars and Starlit Symphony during 1928 and 1929, respectively. In addition to Knights of The Road, Union Oil began sponsoring Disturbers of The Air, a 1932 adventure-comedy-variety program starring 'Ziss' Black and 'Mort' Harris. 1932 was also the year that Union Oil Company launched their 'Union 76 Gasoline,' thereafter becoming a West Coast staple for the following seventy-two years.
Those of you who read Doug's amazing article more carefully, may be wondering: "What ever happened to the Union Oil Company Contest for the $1,000 prize?"One of the more intriguing aspects of the promotion of Knights of The Road was Union Oil's contest for submitting proposed gags or situations to the program for possible future incorporation into the series. Ostensibly offering $1,000 in cash prizes to the winners, little more is announced about the results in either the print media or over Radio. If indeed the promotion was followed through, it would have been an inspired scheme. We believe James Gleason and possibly his wife, Lucile, to have been the writers for most of the series. Getting gag and situation ideas from the listening audience would certainly have helped both of them in the struggle to develop new scripts for the series, leaving The Gleasons only continuity and dialogue to deal with.
The first two stations believed to air Knights of The Road were an interesting study in contrasts. Hearst-owned KYA, in San Francisco, saw James Gleason--and his wife, Lucile--as a favorite son and daughter, and would have been a natural choice to debut the Gleason & Armstrong series. KFWB in Hollywood, by contrast, was still owned by Warner Bros. in 1931. But both Robert Armstrong and James Gleason were, at the time, under contract to RKO-Pathé, so one is left wondering at that connection. Perhaps it was due to the series being recorded in Hollywood--perhaps even at the KFWB studios. Equally interesting, Hearst also owned Radio station KEHE in Los Angeles, which, one might reasonably conclude, would have been the other obvious choice to debut Knights of The Road in the Southland.
Knights of The Road was one of several similarly themed post-Depression Era 'buddy sitcom adventures.' In addition to Mack and Moran and Laurel and Hardy, as already mentioned by Doug, the mid-1920s to mid-1930s also brought Detec-a-tives Black and Blue (1931) and The Mis-Adventures of Cy and Elmer (1931), among several others. The overarching theme uniting all of these 'road-warriors' was a couple of unlucky bumpkins trying to make the best of a--usually--unwieldy friendship by attempting every get-rich-quick scheme to come down the 'pike. But what clearly set Knights of The Road apart was the extraordinary Stage and Film successes of the series' stars, both of whom enjoyed greater popularity and fame with each passing year after Knights of The Road first aired. Knights of The Road was not Gleason & Armstrong's first successful collaboration. Apart from the Films in which they co-starred, Gleason & Armstrong had blazed a trail similar to their protagonists in Knights of The Road between 1928 and 1931, enroute to their individual fame in Hollywood.
As a final editorial observation, I must confess my eternal admiration of James Gleason's immense talent, just plain likeability, and his extraordinarily memorable array of characterizations. From crime and mystery films to seasonal favorites to World War II films, James Gleason's characters invariably stole the limelight whenever he was before the cameras. I'm particularly reminded of his characterization of Sylvester, the skating cab driver in The Bishop's Wife (1947), which has become one of my three favorite Christmas Season films over the years. Though on film less than five minutes, Gleason clearly steals every scene he's given--which is saying something given the scene-stealing of Loretta Young, Elsa Lanchester, Karolyn Grimes, Gladys Cooper, and Monty Wooley.