Live from Studio D

Listen to the "Empire Builders" Broadcast of December 22nd, 1930 and January 5th, 1931

Curator's note: These two broadcasts survive in the form of air-checks of the signal of Chicago's KYW, owned by Westinghouse and operated by the Chicago Herald and Examiner, a Hearst newspaper (NBC had yet to purchase its own Chicago stations). The sound quality is less than perfect. The broadcasts were recorded on aluminum disks at 78 rpm. I've attempted to clean up the audio with maximum intelligibility as my goal. Though fidelity is lacking, the talents of those who produced this show are clearly evident. They are among the earliest surviving examples of network radio dramatic productions. Enjoy!

The "Empire Builders": December 22nd, 1930

A young crippled orphan girl melts the heart of a self-absorbed bachelor just in time for a happy ending on Christmas day. Featured in the cast are Harvey Hayes, Lucille Husting, Bernadine Flynn, Betty White and Bob White. Ted Peason is the announcer.Weak on plot, but great sound effects, musical bridges and audio mixing.

  • Segment 1 (runs 5:27): Following the show open, announcer Ted Pearson delivers the first Great Northern commercial, describing the wonders of the "Empire Builder's" three-day, three night journey between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. The drama begins aboard the "Empire Builder" somewhere between Spokane and Portland where the Great Northern route follows the course of the Columbia River and the adjacent Columbia River Highway. Passenger Virginia Monhahan enounters the "Old Timer" who tells her the story of a bad accident on the highway that had a happy ending.
  • Segment 2 (runs 4:14): Steven Burroughs, a wealthy bachelor, cracks up his car while attempting to negotiate a Columbia River Highway curve. The accident leaves him unconscious with many broken bones. He awakens several days later in a Portland hospital where the doctor tells him he can expect a two-month stay, most of it in a wheel chair.
  • Segment 3 (runs 9:41): In the sun room on the hospital's roof, Burroughs encounters a ten-year-old named Ann. She is in periodic pain, the result of an accident eight years before that killed both her parents and left her severely injured. Since the death of her parents she's lived in the hospital where her aunt is an administrator. But she confides to Burroughs that her most fervent wish is to live in a real house. Burroughs, immediately struck by the little girl's misfortune, tells her she can call him "Uncle Steven".
  • Segment 4 (runs 3:16): Time passes. One day "Uncle Steven", who has gotten into the habit of giving Ann a daily bouquet of roses, announces that he is cured and must leave. But he promises Ann that he will return. Ann is distraught at his departure.
  • Segment 5 (runs 5:58): It's Christmas day. Ann is depressed by the absence of "Uncle Steven". A Christmas gift he's sent her fails to cheer her up. Suddenly "Uncle Steven" appears to the great joy of Ann. He asks her to look through a pair of binoculars at a large house on a distant mountain. He tells Ann that he's adopted her and that the house will be her new home. The "Empire Builders" crew wishes the audience a merry Christmas and the broadcast ends. A KYW station break concludes the air-check.

The "Empire Builders": January 5th, 1931

The Great Depression is over! That's the message of this "Empire Builders" episode. True, history proves that the greatest economic crisis of the 20th century was only gathering steam on January 5th, 1931 when this broadcast aired on NBC's Blue Network. But it's a remarkable show nonetheless, with a fascinating mixture of populism, feminism, elaborate live sound effects, musical interludes, a great script and competent acting.

  • Segment 1 (runs 9:10): Announcer Ted Pearson opens the show (unfortunately he's slightly upcut). The opening musical theme segues into a remarkable steam train sound effects sequence (including an actual engine whistle blown from the Merchandise Mart roof by a technician cued by a flashing light). Pearson reads the opening Great Northern Railway commercial over the continuing musical theme. More train sound effects...and the drama begins.
    Aboard the Empire Builder, the Great Northern's premier limited connecting Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, the broadcast's continuing character, the "Old Timer" (played by Harvey Hayes), encounters Bert Pond (played by Bob White), a friend of many years. Pond, a misanthropic bachelor who owns a large mill, is on his way to corporate headquarters to fire his nephew Jim, manager of the operation. Jim has not only refused to implement Pond's orders to fire half the staff on account of the economic downturn; he's sent his uncle an insulting telegram as well. Pond is also upset because he's learned Jim is keeping company with a social worker by the name of Laura Gray. The Old Timer asks to be excused. He knows Laura Gray. He also knows that Laura Gray is also aboard the Empire Builder! The Old Timer begins to forsee a course of action that will save not only Jim's job but the jobs of those Pond wishes to layoff. He sets off in search of Laura Gray.
  • Segment 2 (runs 5:58): A musical bridge follows more chortling by the Old Timer. Meanwhile, the Empire Builder has briefly stopped in Libby, Montana. A distraught mother (played by Bernadine Flynn who, in a few years, would be playing "Sade" on the legendary "Vic and Sade" show) enters the train and asks Bert Pond to hold her infant daughter (played by Betty White) for a moment. The mother disappears, obviously having abandoned her child. The perplexed Pond wonders what to do as the train pulls out of the station. The scene shifts to another car of the Empire Builder where the Old Timer has found Laura Gray, the social worker and fiancee of Pond's nephew Jim. Laura confesses to the Old Timer that she was behind Jim's refusal to fire the workers at Pond's mill. A porter appears, looking for the Old Timer. Pond, totally unable to deal with the infant, needs his help. The Old Timer sets out for Pond's car.
  • Segment 3 (runs 4:24): A comedic interlude. The Old Timer discovers that the baby ceases crying only when she's grabbing Pond's nose. The infant breaks Pond's pocket watch and then has the inevitable accident. Pond, of course, has no idea how to deal with any of this. The Old Timer tells Pond he knows of someone on the train who can straighten things out immediately: Laura Gray! The Old Timer runs to fetch her a the ever-more-perplexed Pond realizes there's about to be a significant confrontation.
  • Segment 4 (runs 9:02): The resolution. Laura Gray (aided by the Empire Builder nurse) changes the baby's diapers and lays a populist rap on Bert Pond that proves, in the sequel, that the powers of a social worker trump those of a captain of industry. The upshot: Bert Pond decides that instead of downsizing he will hire more workers, including Laura Gray as his efficiency expert. Laura announces she and Pond's newphew Jim will adopt the abandoned baby. A vocal trio sings "Cheer up, good times are coming" at breakneck speed (perhaps because the broadcast is running long). Announcer Ted Pearson reads the closing commercial over the second chorus. "The Great Northern Railway faces this year of 1931 with confidence," Pearson proclaims as the audio engineer brings the orchestra up full. Closing credits and signoff. No chimes. Station break by the KYW announcer who, because "Empire Builders" left the air late, is overridden by the automatic hourly time signal.



1931 was a bad year for the Great Northern Railway. Passenger traffic declined to a little over a million, compared to 8.5 million in 1920. Roughly a month after this January 5th broadcast, the Great Northern discontinued its "Oriental Limited", one of its crack passenger trains. In June it pulled the plug on "Empire Builders".

But good times were coming for NBC's Merchandise Mart studios. Click here if you have doubts.

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