The Columbia Chain (CBS) began expanding its programming efforts beyond its traditional studio ensemble variety, daily and weekly sketch programs, and farm programming with the advent of the 1930s. In January 1931, CBS introduced an extensive and far more ambitious slate of new programming beginning on New Years Day 1931. Georgia Backus, CBS' head of the Dramatic Programming Division assembled an innovative team of CBS' engineers, directors and producers to mount CBS' first series of 'experimental' radio productions. The first result was CBS' Columbia Experimental Laboratory, an initial series of eight cutting edge--for the era--dramatic experiments airing on Wednesday evenings at 10 o'clock EST and 9 o'clock CST. The series premiered on January 14th 1931 and ran until March 11th 1931. While reportedly well received, Columbia Experimental Laboratory was more important for setting the stage for a remarkable history of experimental dramatic programming eventually spanning twenty-six years and retrospectives spanning over seventy years:
CBS continued its earlier 1931 series of experimental dramatic offerings with its Columbia Experimental Dramatic Laboratory which premiered on Sunday evening, June 5th 1932, running for eighteen installments until October 9th 1932. Equally well received, by the end of its run Columbia Experimental Dramatic Laboratory had introduced many of early Radio's most innovative and creative writers, producers, directors and engineers to the airwaves. Columbia's 1931 and 1932 experimental dramatic undertakings set the standard for hundreds of new programs that began appearing over 1930s Radio throughout the decade.
CBS undertakes its longest-running experimental drama series
The Columbia Broadcasting System's Columbia Workshop built even further on Columbia's earliest, ground-breaking experimental dramas. It continued--and greatly expanded--the initiatives by CBS engineers, writers and producers to demonstrate the full capabilities of many of the emerging communication and broadcasting technologies of the era. Initiated in 1936 by CBS playwright, engineer, and director, Irving Reis, Reis became the chief engineer, director and production supervisor for the series. Reis' initiatives inaugurated one of Columbia's longest-running network-sustained programming efforts, eventually spanning almost seventy years, on and off, the most famous of which was its Columbia Workshop series:
- Columbia Workshop Experimental Series
- Columbia Workshop Festival Series
- Columbia Workshop
- Columbia Workshop Time Out for Comedy cycle
- Columbia Workshop Post-War Series [1946-1947]
- Columbia Workshop Once Upon A Tune cycle
Columbia Workshop's final production was a unique spin-off, as well as a foreign import of sorts--Once Upon A Tune. True to Columbia Workshop's experimental roots, CBS Special Programs had first been aware of the CBC Trans-Canada production, 'Once Upon A Time,' during the summer of 1945. Written by Ray Darby, a Canadian scenarist, lyricist and children's book author, the 13-week summer run of Once Upon A Time garnered almost immediate praise from radio critics throughout North America.
From the June 3rd 1945 CBC Program Schedule:
The three men chiefly responsible for CBC's new Trans-Canada network summer series of drama-fantasies, 'Once Upon A Time' (beginning Sunday, June 3, at 5:00 p.m.) are here, as our whimsical artist has caught them. Left to right: Roy Locklsey, conductor; Esse Ljungh, producer; and Ray Darby, author. While the quaint figures of Darby's fancy float about in the pictorial stratosphere, Locksley wields his baton, Ljungh consults his stopwatch, and Darby shoulders a might pen.
"ONE of our biggest undertakings, which will strain our musical and dramatic resources to the limit," is Esse Ljungh's comment on his new series, "Once Upon a Time," beginning on CBC's Trans-Canada network Sunday June 3, at 5:00 p.m. from Winnipeg.
Ljungh, as Prairie Region drama producer; Roy Locksley, as conductor; and Ray Darby, as author, are combining their talents in this ambitious series, which will run for thirteen summer weeks. They will use large dramatic casts, a concert orchestra specializing in novel effects, and male and mixed choruses.
Author, conductor, and producer are aiming at originality in all phases of this work. The stories are original products of Darby's pen, Locksley is writing original music for them, and the production methods and effects Ljungh will use are new and striking.
The opening program, Sunday, June 3, is a repeat of Darby's successful play "Peter and the Bugs," done on CBC's Trans-Canada network on Christmas Day, 1944. The success of this program led author and producer to plan a complete series along cimilar lines. "Peter Smith and the Bugs" is based on Darby's book of that name.
The Sentimental Locomotive
Other titles in the series are: June 10 -- The Sentimental Locomotive; June 17 -- The Master of Hampstead Queen, and--in order not yet decided--The Wabbits of Warren, Time Incorporated, Old MacDonald Had a Farm, Two Trains, and a sequel to Peter Smith and the Bugs called Peter Smith and the Sky People. The stories are all in Darby's familiar whimsical manner. In the Two Trains, for example, two dreams meet in a collision--one the dream of a little boy, riding on the train with his mother, who wants to be an engineer; and the other the dream of a train's engineer, who wants to be a little boy again. Time Incorporated is an adventure with Father Time himself. In The Sentimental Locomotive, a hard-working engine named Hubert falls in love with a cute little French trick named Fifi, and puffs all the way to Montral to learn enough French to woo her. Alas! he learns it all from signs in the roundhouse and it turns out to be stuff like--"Voyez lentement' danger en avant" and "Removez la grease excess des essieu et les roux!"
The wise and venerable beetle of Ray Darby's "Peter Smith and the Bugs," which will open the new drama-fantasy series "Once Upon A Time" on Sunday, June 3 (Trans-Canada network, 5:00 p.m.) will be played by GEORGE SECORD, Winnipeg actor of many roles and seasons.
In Ray Darby's new fantasia series "Once Upon A Time" (Trans-Canada network, Sundays, 5: 00 p.m.) GEORGE WAIGHT, veteran CBC actor, will play the important role of the Spider in "Peter Smith and the Bugs," scheduled to open the series on June 3.
In the opening play of Ray Darby's new fantastic drama series "Once Upon A Time" (CBC Trans-Canada Network, Sunday, June 3rd, 5:00 p.m.) two veteran actors of Winnipeg will add another odd touch to their long records of varying roles.
George Waight, stalwart Winnipeg banker, athlete, and painter of charming water colours, made his most remarkable Winnipeg hit in a command performance of "Othello" before the Earl and Countess of Bessborough. George was known as a "natural" Othello. His massive physique, and swarthily-handsome features made the role inevitably his when John Craig produced the play with a Winnipeg cast in the far-off thirties. His role in the repeat of "Peter Smith and the Bugs," first 1n the "Once Upon A Time" series, is a far cry from Shakespeare's tragic hero. He plays the Spider, a whimsical personage with a heart of gold and a tendency to humorous quirks of character.
George Secord, who will play the Beetle in "Peter Smith," wishes he had a dollar for every time he ·has said "Aha! me proud beauty!" on the repertory stage. George has played stock in a hundred towns and cities of Canada and the United States. He is the dean of Winnipeg's radio-acting fraternity, and is heard from CBC Winnipeg in the Thursday dramas, the Farm Broadcast, and many other programs.
And from the Sunday, June 3, 1945 listing from the same CBC Program Schedule:
ONCE UPON A TIME (5:00 p.m.)
A 13-weeks' series of musical and
dramatic fantasies for chlldren from
six to sixty, by Ray Darby, Winnipeg
author, with original music by
Roy Locksley. Tonight's program is a
repeat of Darby's successful play
"Peter Smith and the Bugs," done
originally over CBC on Christmas
Day, 1944. By the magic of a bluebottle's
wing, Peter is "magnified small," and
enters into the fantastic world of the
beetles and spiders. The climax comes
when the friendly bugs lose the magic
wing and can't get Peter "magnified big"
again. But it all comes right in the end.
Kay Parkin will play Peter again, with
Jack Scott as narrator, George Waight as
the Spider. and George Secord as the
From the June 10th 1945 CBC Program Schedule:
Hubert was a hard-working western locomotive and Fifi was a cute little French trick from the far East. When he first saw her, Hubert nearly jumped off the track. But later, when he had puffed clear across the Dominion to learn enough French to woo her, and had come back with such remarks as "Removez la grease" and "danger en avant" -- picked up in the Montreal roundhouse -- it was Fifi's turn to jump off the track. You can hear how the romance turned out by listening to Ray Darby's play, "The Sentimental Locomotive," one of the series of drama-fantasies under the general title of "Once Upon a Time," over CBC's Trans-Canada network on Sunday, June 10, at 5;00 p.m.
From the July 1st 1945 CBC Program Schedule:
The New York weekly "Variety" (Hix Nix Stix Pix), widely advertised as the bible of the theatrical fraternity and the North America sure-cure for academic English, glances occasionally at the Canadia radio scene. Glancing recently, it encountered a CBS Winnipeg origination, Ray Darby's drama-fantasy series, Once Upon a Time, heard Sundays at 5 p.m., and this is what its reviewer, Paul Gormley, had to say about it:
Once Upon A Time, summer CBC replacement for Ozzie and Harriet, is one of the smoothest airers to come over the Canadian webs since the crystal set went out. Displaying exceptional co-operation between writer, producer and the man with the baton, this 13-week series, although designed for the juves, will have the adults leaning on it like Pop plays with Junior's toy train. Slick production, on-the-button timing, boff-scripting and music, blended to a super-silk schedule, make "Once" probably the "something new" the industry has been Sherlocking for, at least in the way of musi-drama. If the rest of the show in the lsit, all written by Darby, hit the standards this one set (3), Canadian dialers are sitting pretty for the hot days.
"Once" teed off with an air version of Darby's juve best-seller, "Peter Smith and the Bugs." Done in easy verse, story told of a six-year-old friend of insects who got a present of a trip through insect land. Reduced to bug-size, he went to a party on an ant hill, heard the beetle band give out, caught a sky show by dragonfly B-29s. The music was cued to play as important a part as any of the characters, and songs were planty but refused to interfere with the general effect. The only clean-up to suggest would be substitution of straight lines for the verse. Dialers will find themselves waiting for the rhyme rather than the story. Vocals were handled by the unbilled but okay warblers. Music, songs, script and story were perfectly balanced.
Waight, Winnipeg banker and vet stock and radio man, played the key spot as the spider for all he had, but not overmuch. Second, top 'Peg air actor, okay as the ancient beetle who settled all problems. The Peter role got a boff doing by Kay Parkin and the narration-in-verse by Scott topped any previous CBC voicing.
Incidentally, sound effects were few, most of them worked into the original Locksley score more by suggestion than by actual sounds. With a happy Sun. p.m. spot and the CBC Trans-Canada net to play on, the "Once" series is due for a pop summer run. There's a sizable possibility radio can find in it a medium for bringing musicomedy to the air in its best form.
And from the Sunday, July 1, 1945 listing from the same CBC Program Schedule:
ONCE UPON A TIME (5:00 p.m.)
Out beyond the sunset, a veil of
shadow across the red and gold, like
a dancing swarm of summer gnats--so
went little Johnny Jones, to a
kingdom of light and licorice candy
and circuses. This is a tale, says Ray
Darby, who wrote "Beyond the Sun-
set," which you won't believe. But
never mind! You may not believe it,
but you probably will enjoy this tender
little story which is the fifth in
Darby's drama-fantasy series, Once
Upon A Time. The music is again by
Roy Locksley, and Esse Ljungh directs
t.he players and produces the
broadcast. "Beyond the Sunset" is
in rather more serious vein than preceding
plays in the series, the story
of a dream of heaven.
Ostensibly conceived for a juvenile audience, that Summer 1945 run (June 3rd to August 26th) of Once Upon A Time--replacing family favorite Ozzie and Harriett for 13 weeks--soon attracted not only the young of age, but the young of heart as well. Within its first three weeks it was attracting larger and larger audiences of adults, as well as children. Indeed, after its initial Summer 1945 run, those thirteen episodes aired in repeats throughout the Dominion for the remainder of 1945.
'Once Upon A Tune' debuts for Columbia Workshop
So popular was Once Upon A Time, that CBC Trans-Canada aired 12 more installments of the series during the Summer of 1946 (July 7th to September 22nd), this time retaining Ray Darby, but replacing composer Roy Locksley with composer-conductor Morris Surdin. The series--and principals--having moved to Toronto for the 1946 Summer run of Once Upon A Time by December 1946, Darby and Surdin had already produced a backlog of twenty-five episodes.
CBS felt the time was ripe to introduce the team of Darby and Surdin to a larger nationwide American audience. Given the creative genius of the team, Columbia Workshop deemed the former Once Upon A Time as the ideal swan song for Columbia Workshop's ten years of exceptionally innovative and--then--cutting edge radio programming.
From the December 29th, 1946 edition of the Trenton Times-Advertiser:
A brand new kind of original music-comedy series, yclept "Once Upon A Tune," defying precise definition yet promising countless ear-thrills, begins on Columbia network next Sunday (CBS, 2:30-3 p.m., EST).
Perhaps the best way to tell about it is to quote what those who have heard trial programs say it is--yet, the authors protest, it isn't:
"Radio's nearest thing to Disney films"; "concocted with dashes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Aesop, and George Ade, Rogers and Hart"; "utterly charming!"
These air products are the result of a mad acrivening-music team who have descended on the United States via Canada with visas made out to aesthetic-looking, prolific-writer Ray Darby and heavy-set, bubbly-humored composer Morris Surdin. By their literary-lyrical alchemy, locomotives conversse and sing fit to burst their boilers, tugboats pridefully declaim their ocean-going propensities in speech and son, an eight-year old Western badman makes Pancho Villa sound like Lord Fauntelroy.
At the outset, the series is slated for three Sundays as showcase presentations before moving to the distinguished proscenium of Columbia Workshop on February 1 for an extended run, Saturdays from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m., EST.
Rebranded Once Upon A Tune, CBS gave Ray Darby and Morris Surdin carte blanche to mount their tried and true formula over American airwaves. Needless to say, with Once Upon A Tune's premiere on January 5th 1947, forward, the Darby-Surdin team garnered equally immediate praise from America's harshest, most exacting television and radio critics.
From the January 28, 1947 edition of the Canton Repository:
The freshest wittiest radio programs to be heard on the American air in many a long year is the Columbia Broadcasting System's new series, "Once Upon a Tune." These broadcasts are a sort of musical satire and fantasy, both rare qualities in radio, which have been delighting Canadians for the last two years. During that period, week after week, the authors, a couple of talented and tireless Canadians named Ray Darby and Morris Surdin, have been turning in new and imaginative scripts each with four or five original songs and lyrics. C.B.S. has taken its pick of the best of the series.
The programs have been compared to Disney's films, Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas and Aesop's fables. They're a little bit of each, which means it's difficult to capture their charm in print. For one thing, the frequent use of singing locomotives or talking horses is not always a happy device to bolster up a tale that has no other reason for existing. Darby and Surdin triumphantly get away with it, chiefly because their owlish lyrics and lilting tunes make almost anything acceptable.
Recently, for instance, the Darby-Surdin team dwelt upon the imaginative adventures of Thomas Jones, age 8. Thomas, who would rather be known as Tortilla, is intimately acquainted with Superman, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy and the Lone Ranger. In fact, several times he has had to help them out of their difficulties. (He's the one who got Superman out of the clutches of the Moon people).
Thomas--or Tortilla--tells a narrator about the time he captured the Spider, the most dangerous outlaw of the West. The Spider had been terrorizing Desert Gulch and the whole community turned out to implore the Sheriff to call in Tortilla Jones, "the bravest Texas Ranger in the world."
"Tortilla Jones," sing the townsfolk.
"He's the roughest ridin' hombre.
"He's Tortilla Jones.
"The biggest, bravest rootin' tootin' hombre.
"In the torrid zones.
"He's the man who singlehanded captured desprit Bill.
"And surrounded 20 rustlers on the Dead Man's Hill."
"Sheriff, I'm the fastest drawing hombre in the whole West," says Tortilla, in a little boy's voice that belies his exploits. "Gee," says the Sheriff. "Gosh," say the townsfolk. Tortilla and his horse Sterling set out after the Spider. Sterling, incidentally, can talk (having learned it from Donald Duck), sing, and is also radar-equipped.
"I'm Tortilla Jones' palomino horse," sings Sterling in a voice not unlike Mortimer Snerd's.
"I'm so clever I can really talk, of course.
"I speak English, French and Latin
"With a tongue as smooth as satin
"And I even sent a message once in Morse."
In spite of their great talents, Tortilla and Sterling run into plenty of trouble with the spider, who has been laying for Tortilla ever since he helped Dick Tracy capture his brother, Grapefruit Face .
The Spider snares Tortilla's jet-propelled horse and buggy with a gigantic spider web and ties him hand and foot, which gives him an excuse to sing a duet with his pal Slug.
SPIDER: I'm a very lucky bandit, that I am.
SLUG: You can say that again.
SPIDER: I have robbed the stage and now I'm going to scram.
SLUG: Me too.
SPIDER: But I've got Tortilla Jones.
And I feel it in my bones
That I'll have no further trouble from that man.
Sterling gets Tortilla out of this by gnawing the ropes off his arms and the youngster subdues the Spider in hand-to-hand combat, employing the same grip he uses on lions and tigers. "You're done for, Spider," pants Tortilla. "Aw, heck," says the Spider. The 8-year old then starts to tell about his adventures in the frozen North at well below zero but is interrupted by his mother who demands that he come in the house and clean up the mud he tracked into the family room.
This synopsis doesn't begin to convey the charm of "Once Upon A Tune." For one thing, music is likely to burst forth at any time -- background music, choral singing and solos. Much of the story is told in song and the authors work a great many sound effects -- pistol shots, the crack of a whip, the thudding of horses' hooves -- into the rhythm of the music.
I don't know how long Messrs Darby and Surdin can keep up the pace but I hope it's a long time. "Once Upon A Tune" was first heard on Sundays at 2:30 p.m., but this week moves over to the "Columbia Workshop" spot, 6:15 p.m. Saturdays.
Copyright 1947, for The Tribune
John Crosby, though usually relatively acerbic and curmudgeonly in his Radio and Television criticism was quite uncharacteristically taken with Columbia Workshop's final cycle. Penned and composed by Ray Darby and Morris Surdin, respectively, Canadian Radio listeners had enjoyed Darby and Surdin's creations for almost two years prior to their incorporation into the Columbia Workshop canon.
To be clear, Once Upon A Tune wasn't simply a rebroadcast of the previous Once Upon A Time, CBC series. Once Upon A Tune was a completely new series, while based on the tried and true Ray Darby productions of the previous two years in Canada. The Darby scripts for "Tortilla Jones" and "The Sentimental Locomotive," while originally airing over the CBC's Once Upon A Time on July 20th and July 27th of 1946, were re-scored and re-performed with American actors for their Once Upon A Tune broadcasts. There may have been others. But if the seven circulating exemplars of Once Upon A Tune are representative of the rest of the series, this was a genuinely innovative series indeed. The concepts, original songs, verse and performers were all top-notch. Though unbilled, the performers behind the series were some of East Coast Radio's finest: Minerva Pious, Parker Fennelly. Everett Sloane, Arnold Stang, Ruth Gilbert, and Joe DiSantis among them.
In a typically unique departure from mainstream Radio, Columbia Workshop fashioned Darby and Surdin's mini-masterpieces into 'Cartoons for Radio,' decidedly aimed at the younger set--or at the very least the young at heart. The cycle marked the end of Columbia Workshop. Though the CBS Radio Workshop would air in the mid-1950s, Columbia Workshop's almost ten years of Radio innovation and education came to an end with Once Upon A Tune. But a fitting end it was. The Workshop had introduced many fanciful and light-hearted juvenile adventures over its ten years. Once Upon A Tune was an entirely fitting and appropriate wrap to the series. Brilliantly scripted, beautifully composed, Once Upon A Tune's Sixteen chapters immediately captured the hearts--and critical acclaim--of North American listeners. The cycle also proved that a highly listenable and entertaining series of quality adventures targeted to the young of heart and years could certainly find an appreciative audience.