These days, only the upper end of AARP qualifiers can remember it first hand. But there was a time, decades before the rise of music-oriented FM radio in the late ’60s—and certainly before the AM dial became known as the dwelling place of bombastic boors—when listening to the radio brought Americans together.
The airwaves danced and shivered and sizzled with all sorts of regular programming: music and variety shows, certainly, but also tales of high adventure, bone-chilling horror, two-fisted action, and comedies of all stripes. Ending at about the time Top 40 radio and the rising tide of baby boomers flooded the format in the mid-’50s, the golden age of radio lies well in our past. But if you know where to look for it, you can still find it echoing across the airwaves.
And if you want to celebrate, or simply learn more about, one of its biggest attractions, the rustic comedy team of Lum and Abner, you barely have to cross the state line.
Ask one of the two proprietors of the Lum and Abner Jot ’Em Down Store and Museum in Pine Ridge, Arkansas, to direct you to the restroom, and he opens the front door and points down the road.
“You wouldn’t want it too close to the store, would you?” Lon Stucker asks, rhetorically. Since retiring from the Navy in 1979 (his last job was loading Poseidon missiles onto submarines), Lon has owned and operated the two buildings—not counting the detached privy—with his wife, Kathy, who now adds her own bit of outdoor-toilet wisdom.
“You know what they say about outhouses,” she laughs. “They’re always too close in the summer and too far away in the winter.”
Turns out that the one outside the Lum and Abner Museum is, itself, a kind of museum piece.
“It’s called an ‘Eleanor,’ ” explains Kathy. “Around the end of the Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt sponsored lots of rehabilitation projects for the country. Outhouses were quite unsanitary, smelly, all kinds of things. Well, if you’d burn your old outhouse, the government, the Roosevelt administration, would provide the equipment and supplies for you to make, according to their plans, a new outhouse. It’s got a concrete base, and a concrete stand, and then behind the seat is this wooden tower with a vent that goes out both sides. So the septic gases, instead of just coming up through the seat and filling the building, go through that tower and out through the side vents.
“The one we have was built in 1940 about a mile down the road, at one of the homestead places. It was in their front yard.” She laughs again. “About twenty years ago, they decided they wanted it out of their front yard.”
It was only natural that those folks would contact the Stuckers. Under their watch, the Lum and Abner Museum has not only become an internationally known memorial to one of old-time radio’s bestloved comedy teams, but also a reminder of the way life used to be for the hill folks of Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains, only a couple dozen miles east of the Oklahoma border. In addition to an impressive selection of memorabilia from the radio show and its movie spin-offs, as well as life-sized effigies of the boys themselves, the Lum and Abner Museum holds ancient tools, patent medicine bottles, class rolls from long-vanished public schools, a bed brought back from Pearl Harbor by an area resident after the infamous bombing, and checks cashed many decades ago, some written in pencil, others with the name of the bank lined out and another scratched in. Also, antiquated appliances, including an ancient woodburning stove.
“That’s from a neighbor,” says Lon. “A lady up the road called us and said, ‘I’m getting ready to get a new stove and some new furniture and stuff . Do you want that old stove of mine?’ I said, ‘Yeah. What do you want for it?’
“She said, ‘I guess I’d have to have a hundred dollars.’
“So I went up there to get it, and she said, ‘Well, you can’t have it yet. I’ve got a pot of beans on it, and they’re still cooking.’ ” He laughs. “When she got done, she called me and said, ‘OK,’ and I went up and got it. It was still hot.”
That list of items may sound like an antique-shop potpourri, but, taken in context, it’s anything but random. The Stuckers, who are both old enough to have listened to Lum and Abner on the radio during the latter part of its original run (1931-1955), know that the program and its particular attitude and angle of vision grew out of the heart and soul of rural Arkansas, surrounded by these sorts of artifacts. What the Stuckers have preserved is not only a history of Lum and Abner, but a chronicle of their people, without whom there would’ve been no radio show at all.
Chester Lauck, known as “Chet,” and Norris “Tuff y” Goff both grew up in Mena, Arkansas, about 20 miles east of Pine Ridge. Becoming pals in grade school, the two earned a reputation as class cut-ups before graduating and heading off to college. Both began at the University of Arkansas, but Goff ended up with a degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Each returned to Mena and married in the late 1920s, and it looked for a time as though they’d become the kind of small-town pillars Sinclair Lewis wrote about in Babbitt and Main Street, working as minor-league businessmen and exercising their penchant for creativity by entertaining their peers at the local Elks Lodge and American Legion Hall.
Minstrel routines performed in blackface were all the rage in that particular time and place, and Chet and Tuffy became locally known for their version of that once-popular form of entertainment. In early 1931, when fundraising efforts to help victims of severe Arkansas flooding grew to include a charity broadcast featuring talent from several different counties, the two were sent to a Hot Springs station to strut their comedic stuff . Although they planned to make their radio debut as purveyors of feigned negritude, Lauck and Goff decided at the last minute to instead do a riff on the old-timey cookstove philosophers they’d been around all their lives.
And so, on station KTHS, Lum Edwards (sometimes spelled “Eddards” or “Edards”) and Abner Peabody were born. Three months later, Lum and Abner made its national network debut on NBC. And while the boys would bounce around a bit during their first couple of years, they would settle in to become one of the top comedy teams of the 1930s and ’40s. In fact, they became so well known in their first five years that they were responsible for an entire town changing its name.
If you decide to experience the Lum and Abner Museum for yourself, don’t bother trying to search Google for “Pine Ridge”—even though, as Kathy Stucker makes very clear, it’s a real place. Google Maps will insist that the museum and Jot ’Em Down Store is in Oden—a town just down the road that definitely isn’t Pine Ridge.
“Right now, we have 21 people in downtown Pine Ridge, including four children,” Kathy says. “You read so often in the histories that the [Lum and Abner] programs are based on the fictional
town of Pine Ridge. It’s the other way around. The fictional setting on the radio was based on the real town of Pine Ridge. It’s been a living community, with, at one time, two general stores, the gristmill, the sawmill, the blacksmith shop. This isn’t a fictional town. These are real people.”
As Lum and Abner, respectively Lauck and Goff , set their bucolic adventures in Pine Ridge, they based many of the supporting characters (which they also played) on actual residents of the town then known as Waters, named after its first postmaster. Although the names were usually changed, one of the major characters was a storekeeper named Dick Huddleston. Impersonated by Goff on the programs, Dick Huddleston was a real man who owned a store in Waters.
After a couple of years, Lum and Abner had gotten so popular that tourists were showing up from all over to check out Huddleston and his establishment for themselves. The fact that there
was no actual Pine Ridge threw a lot of people off, though. Even when they found the store, it seemed to be in the wrong town.
That was all changed in 1936, the year of the program’s fifth anniversary. On April 26, Lauck and Goff returned to their home state to receive a gubernatorial proclamation renaming the Waters Post Office “Pine Ridge.” Several of the townspeople whose counterparts appeared in Lum and Abner, including Huddleston, were on hand for the big event, which included a live broadcast.
“This has never been an incorporated town,” she says, “so the name of the post office is its only official name.”
The renaming festivities were held in the state capital of Little Rock instead of Waters/Pine Ridge. According to Kathy Stucker’s booklet Hello, This Is Lum and Abner (on sale at the store), that was because “electricity was still 10 years and many miles away” from Lum and Abner’s hometown at the time.
The Stuckers still have the original post office window from 1886, and mail still goes in and outndaily from the store. You can buy and send out a picture postcard of Pine Ridge, hand-stamped and
signed by Kathy, from there to anywhere in the world.
From the actual Lum and Abner script for December 7, 1933, in which Lum dispenses political pointers to Abner, who’s running for Pine Ridge constable:
Lum: Now in the first place you want to speak to everbody. Call em by their given names if you know it, and shake hands with everbody you can. Ask em bout all their relations and brag on em.
Lum: Are you puttin them things down like I told you.
Abner: Yea dont go so fast.
Lum: When you go to church Sunday. You want to stand around and speak to everbody when they drive up. If they’re drivin a car step over and open the door for em and hep the wimmen fokes out.
Abner: What if they’re drivin a team and wagon.
Lum: Why thats all the better. You get to tie their team for em thataway. Thats a sure fire vote gitter. Might even brag on their team a little. Tell em what a fine lookin span of mules they’ve got.
Abner: If they’re drivin horses I dont want to say that huh?
Abner: I didn’t think I would.
Lum: Then the thing to do is hep the wimmen fokes down outa the wagon or buggy or whatever they’re drivin and if they’ve got a baby with em hits a lot better. You want to insist on holdin the baby and then talk about what a beautiful child it is.
Abner: Brag on all the babies huh?
Lum: Yea if the mother’s holdin it say how much it looks like her.
Abner: And if the father’s holdin it you want me to say it looks like him huh?
Lum: That’s the idy exactly. And if they’re both standin ther say it looks like both of em.
Until the late 1940s, when it went Hollywood with guest stars and a studio audience, Lum and Abner was a fifteen-minute, low-key, episodic program, with storylines that sometimes ran for several weeks. It’s these shows that are most prized by aficionados, including the veteran Tulsa-based country-music producer, manager, and agent Ray Bingham, a huge fan for many years.
“In those early episodes, you can hear their rocking chairs creaking,” he says. “There’s no canned laughter or anything. Those shows are the best.”
When he’s traveling to a show that’s a good distance away, he’ll often grab several episodes on disc and listen to them all the way up and back. Bingham says that they never get old.
Thanks to the advances of technology, not to mention satellite radio, Lum and Abner programs are pretty easy to access on the Internet, CD, or even cassette tape. The Stuckers say that while many of their thousands of visitors a year are middle-aged and older, a fair amount of under-forties know about Pine Ridge’s most famous citizens. They can hear all the shows they want at the museum, where episodes run more or less constantly on a big, archaic reel-to-reel tape player.
“There are a lot of young people who are kind of turned off by what’s on television and radio now, and with everything being electronic,” says Kathy. “They want to go back to the good old days.”
“It’s nothing derogatory, nothing dirty,” adds her husband, referring to the show. “It’s just clean, honest humor.”
“We have a Mennonite community here, and for those kids and even the adults, this is something they could come in and listen to,” Kathy notes. “Even the old-time hardcore ones, who weren’t allowed to have radios, could come in here and listen to our tapes of Lum and Abner.”
From Lum and Abner and Their Friends from Pine Ridge, a 1932 radio-premium booklet written by Lauck and Go (and available in facsimile edition at the Jot ‘Em Down Store, along with an array of other items): “Each character [in Lum and Abner] stands apart from the rest as a distinct type but there is one outstanding trait characteristic of them all: love for their fellow man.”
There’s precious little love on the radio airwaves these days. A flip through the AM spectrum—where Lum and Abner, The Shadow, The Jack Benny Show, and many others once brought fun and joy to millions of homes—yields a ghastly and depressing parade of sour gasbags apparently devoid of any vestige of restraint. Although, knuckleheads like these have been around since the beginning of radio. Check out the career of the anti-Semitic ranter Father Charles Edward Coughlin, whose cranky broadcasts ran during some of the same years as Lum and Abner. Lum and Abner were the exception rather than the rule. That all changed with the rise of Rush Limbaugh in the early ’90s. Now, the airwaves overflow with Limbaugh manqués, stuffed into the frequencies like so many bloated, diseased sardines.
The impropriety and meanness long ago spread into sports talk, the other bastion of current AM radio, where a syndicated air horn recently referred to the young men on a college football defensive unit as “a big bowl of suck.” Disagree with these people on any point, and you’re an idiot. Or worse.
There is no “love for their fellow man” here, no sense that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s been suggested that programs like Lum and Abner, Amos ’n’ Andy, and The Goldbergs helped Americans live through the Great Depression by reinforcing a needed sense of community. They certainly perpetuated some ethnic and geographic stereotyping as well, but they gave listeners the sense that despite our differences, we were all brothers and sisters under the skin. We could work together to make things better, and we would help one another when it was needed.
“You want to be their friend,” says Ray Bingham of Lum and Abner, “and you think they are your friends.” Try to find some AM radio figure to apply that sentiment to now. Try to find a voice there, a persona, you could reasonably call beloved. Do that for only a few moments, and you’ll probably come to realize why a dusty little museum devoted to a pair of comics who left the ether nearly 60 years ago still draws young and old from all over the globe. Lum and Abner’s heyday may not have been the greatest time for America, but it sure as hell was a better time for radio.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 6. March 15, 2013.