Jack Armstrong

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Jack Armstrong

In perhaps the longest high school career on record, Jack Armstrong remained an All-American Boy for close to two decades. For the greater part of its radio life, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy was a 15-minute-a-day children's serial. The show began in the summer of 1933 and didn't leave the air until the summer of 1951—although it was considerably modified by then. The sponsor for all those years was Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions. The show originated in Chicago, long the center for soap operas and the adventure serials that filled the 5-6 pm children's hour on radio. The producer of the Jack Armstrong show was an advertising agency headed by Frank Hummert—who with his wife Anne would later produce such long-lasting programs as Ma Perkins, Just Plain Bill, Our Gal Sunday, and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. The writer who developed the idea and turned out the initial scripts was Robert Hardy Andrews, a prolific and supremely self-confident man, and the first actor to portray the clean-cut and adventure-prone Jack was Jim Ameche.

Jack, who attended high school in the Midwestern town of Hudson, excelled as both an athlete and a student. He was clearly inspired by the dime novel hero Frank Merriwell. While every show opened with a vocal quintet singing the school fight song—"Wave the flag for Hudson High, boys, show them how we stand"—Jack spent relatively little time behind a desk or even on the gym floor. Instead, accompanied by his teen friends Billy and Betty Fairfield, he traveled to the four corners of the world and got entangled in an endless series of intriguing adventures. During the early years of the program Jack, Betty, and Billy journeyed to the Northwest to work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, found a lost tribe of Eskimos in the Arctic, outwitted cattle rustlers in Arizona, hunted for a lost city in the jungles of Brazil, and returned to Hudson to round up a gang of counterfeiters. A character named Captain Hughes served as a mentor and adult companion on many of the adventures. Don Ameche, Jim's brother, was the first actor to play that role.

In the spring of 1936 Talbot Mundy, who'd written such successful adventure novels as King of the Khyber Rifles, Jimgrim, and Tros of Samothrace, was having money problems. So he accepted the job of writing Jack Armstrong, and stayed with it until his death in 1940. He took Jack and his companions to such locations as Egypt, Easter Island, India, Africa, and Tibet. Most of those spots had been favored settings for Mundy's novels and stories in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Jim Harmon, it was Mundy who introduced a new mentor in the person of Uncle Jim to the show in the fall of 1936. The uncle of Billy and Betty Fairfield was an industrialist and an inventor. Actor James Goss had a distinctive radio voice that fit "the commanding but warm father figure" he played. Uncle Jim traveled with the young trio on their adventures, many of which stretched across several months. Mundy was able to recycle not just settings but plots from his novels. In an early 1937 story, for instance, Jack and the gang end up in Africa hunting for the ivory treasure to be found in the Elephants' Graveyard. The plot, with considerable changes, was earlier used in Mundy's 1919 novel The Ivory Trail.

The program was a great promoter of premiums. Whenever a portable gadget was introduced into a continuity, listeners could be certain that it would eventually be offered for sale. But first its utility and desirability—emphasized in many instances by the fact that the current villains would do almost anything to get hold of the object in question—were usually romanced for several weeks. All kids usually had to do to get their copy of the gadget was to send a Wheaties box top and a dime. There were dozen of premiums from 1933 to 1948. Among them a Torpedo Flashlight, a Pedometer, an Explorer Telescope, a Secret Bombsight, a Dragon's Eye Ring, a Rocket Chute, an Egyptian Whistling Ring, and Tru-Flite model planes. The more popular items sold in the millions.

The only outside merchandising in the 1930s involved two Big Little Books issued by the Whitman Publishing Co. Both Jack Armstrong and the Ivory Treasure (1937), which once again used the Elephants' Graveyard story line, and Jack Armstrong and the Mystery of the Iron Key (1939) were based on Mundy scripts. These small, fat illustrated novels had pictures by the gifted Henry E. Vallely. His Jack was a handsome fellow in polo shirt, jodhpurs, and riding boots, who looked to be in his early twenties. The Jack Armstrong property didn't seriously branch out into other media again until after World War II. The year 1947 was when several things happened—not only a movie serial but also the start of a comic strip and a comic book. Columbia Pictures produced the 15-chapter serial with John Hart, later to play the Lone Ranger on television for two seasons, as a somewhat older Jack. In the spring of that year, the Register and Tribune Syndicate introduced a Jack Armstrong newspaper strip. Bob Schoenke was the artist and, as one comics historian has pointed out, his "Jack was nowhere near as dashing as Vallely's and looked more like the sort of youth who'd spend much of his time on the bench." The strip was dropped in 1949. The Parents' Magazine outfit started a comic book late in 1947. Like their True Comics, it was rather dull and polite, never capturing the fun and gee-whiz spirit of the radio show. It, too, folded in 1949, after just 13 issues.

Charles Flynn had inherited the role of Jack in 1939 and, except for a year out for military service, he stayed with it to the end. In 1947, with the popularity of daily serials waning, Wheaties transformed Jack Armstrong into a half-hour program heard two or three times a week. Then in 1950 the title was changed to Armstrong of the SBI. Jack had started working for the Scientific Bureau of Investigation some years early and also had acquired a new mentor, Vic Hardy, a reformed crook, who headed up the SBI. Uncle Jim had long since been phased out, Billy went next, and only Betty remained of the old gang in the final days; through all those adventurous years she and Jack had never been more than just good friends.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Dunning, John. On The Air. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Goulart, Ron, editor. The Encyclopedia of American Comics. New York, Facts On File, 1990.

Harmon, Jim. Radio Mystery and Adventure. Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 1992.