Straight Arrow: Nabisco's Comanche Warrior

by Jack French ©1996

Orange Rule

There is probably no error in OTR lore with greater longevity than the misconception that Straight Arrow was a white man who disguised himself as an Indian. John Dunning has this mistake in his first edition of "Tune In Yesterday" (1976), as does Gary Yoggy in his "When Radio Wore Spurs" (1984), Swartz and Reinehr in their "Handbook of Old Time Radio" (1993), and most recently, Ron Lackmann in his "Same Time, Same Station" (1996).

The correct version is simply the reverse: Straight Arrow was a Comanche orphan raised by the whites, and as an adult, Steve Adams was his "secret identity."

The history of this popular juvenile Western series is an interesting one. In 1947 the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) made plans to challenge the domination of youngsters' allegiance to the cereals of Post, Kellogg's and General Mills. Nabisco officials picked one of their "adult cereals", Shredded Wheat, to promote as a kids' breakfast food by sponsoring a new radio series.

McCann-Erickson Advertising Agency in New York City was given the task of creating this new kids' show. The premise evolved of an American Indian as the hero and Sheldon Stark was picked to write the script. Stark was an excellent choice; he had spent ten years at WXYZ under George Trendle writing episodes for THE GREEN HORNET and CHALLENGE OF THE YUKON.

Stark created a story-line involving a Comanche Indian named Straight Arrow, who disguised himself as Steve Adams (note the same initials), the owner of the Broken Bow cattle spread. His secret identity was known only to his grizzled side-kick, Packy McCloud. The initial script was finished by Stark in January 1948 and turned over to the agency.

A Native American hero would have little dramatic action if written into the low-crime culture of the Plains Indians. They were strangers to money, property rights, and many of their personal effects were held in common with the tribe. Only by disguising this Indian hero as a white rancher would he encounter bank robbers, claim jumpers, stage-coach bandits, escaped convicts, etc. and thus provide the action and excitement needed in a kids' radio series. Sheldon Stark proved a master scripter in this regard.

McCann-Erickson decided the new series would be broadcast from Los Angeles and they quickly chose their cast from West Coast talent.

Howard Culver, who had been the narrator of WE DELIVER THE GOODS and the announcer on CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, was selected for the title lead. At the time, he had a small goatee, which would be later be shaved off before his first personal appearance as Straight Arrow.

Fred Howard, who had portrayed the father of Cass Daley on her radio series, was cast as "Packy", while another veteran performer, Gwen Delano, got the third remaining major role in the series, "Mesquite Molly", the ranch housekeeper.

Milton Charles was signed on as the organist and finally Frank Bingman was hired as the announcer. He had started in radio at age 19 on "Life of Mary Southern" but was best known then as the voice of Cresta Blanca Wine.

Bingman was surprised to find out that Culver occupied his spare time at the studio by knitting. While on the JOAN DAVIS SHOW, Verna Felton had taught Bingman to knit, but he was a "closet knitter" since he was embarrassed to knit in front of other men. "Well, I don't give a damn what they say!" Culver told Bingman, sounding very unlike Straight Arrow. Thereafter, they both knitted in the studio, and later these two buddies donated their time at local military hospitals, teaching wounded vets to knit.

"STRAIGHT ARROW" was produced at KHJ, a Mutual Network affiliate, and by a stroke of luck, three aspiring, but talented, soundmen were assigned to this series: Ray Kemper, Bill James, and Tom Hanley. This skilled trio were doing sound effects on VOYAGE OF THE SCARLET QUEEN. Later these three would achieve greatness when they went to CBS and did sound effects for GUNSMOKE and FORT LARAMIE.

It was decided to give "STRAIGHT ARROW" a lengthy trial run on the Don Lee Network before going nation-wide so it aired on that regional setup every Tuesday from May 6, 1948 to January 21, 1949. The McCann-Erickson official in charge of the production was J. Neil Reagan, whose brother would go on to be elected President of the United States.

When this adventure program debuted, Straight Arrow, like Superman before him, began his series as an adult, with the "origin story" of his childhood to follow. (However, unlike the Man of Steel, the origin story of the Comanche warrior never aired.)

Just as Roy Rogers did, Straight Arrow proudly rode a golden Palomino, but his horse would be unnamed for several months so the sponsor could hold a contest to name him. (All entries accompanied by a Nabisco Shredded Wheat box top.) Howard Culver, much like Clayton "Bud" Collier had been doing for years as Clark Kent/Superman, used his regular voice for Steve Adams and then lowered it for Straight Arrow.

While the Lone Ranger had a secret silver mine, Straight Arrow had a secret gold cave. Here he kept his horse, "Fury", and his Comanche weapons, attire, and war paint. (Apparently, Fury never resented his master keeping him in a dark, damp cavern, instead of the sunny prairie.)

Since Fury's hooves would be clattering in and out of the cave, the KHJ soundmen had to add to their standard "terrain box." For most Western shows, this wooden box was partitioned into three sections: sand or dirt, gravel, and water so that the plungers or coconut halves could imitate a horse galloping on a road, a mountain trail, or fording a stream. For a wooden bridge, they'd use the edge of the box.

To create the illusion of the cave floor, Kemper placed a concrete block near the terrain box and the resulting hoof beats on it were quite convincing.

"STRAIGHT ARROW" was very successful and rapidly built a vast audience of juveniles (and adults.) At the instigation of McCann-Erickson, Nabisco began printing "Injun-Uity Cards" and placing them as dividers in their boxes of Shredded Wheat. These cards, cheaply printed, contained well-researched text and graphics on all phases of American Indian lore, customs, and tactics.

Today, these "Injun-Uity Cards" are collected and traded by "STRAIGHT ARROW" fans around the country as are other radio premiums of that series: feathered head bands, drums, arrowheads,rings, etc.

On February 7, 1949 "STRAIGHT ARROW" went nationwide over the Mutual Network three times a week, alternating with BOBBY BENSON AND THE B-BAR-B RIDERS which Mutual produced in Manhattan at WOR. Neil Reagan was reassigned when the show began airing coast-to-coast, and his successor, Ted Robertson, would stay as producer/director for the duration of the series.

Every episode started out with its distinctive signature: Milt Charles would imitate a tom-tom drum on his organ and Bingman would intone:

Years later, Bingman's son speculated that his father's experience spelling Cresta Blanca may have helped him win the audition as STRAIGHT ARROW's announcer, majestically spelling out N-A-B-I-S-C-O.

The show was produced live for the entire run, although a few episodes were transcribed on disk, if Culver was he was when making rare personal appearances as Straight Arrow. For those shows, a recording would be made prior to his departure.
A West Coast actor, Robert Bruce, in his audio-biography, "Life as a Third Banana", tells of a near disaster early in the series. One day the studio engineer at KHJ did not remember, until almost air time, that he was scheduled to play a transcription disk.
He quickly grabbed the record from storage and raced toward the control room. In his haste, his arm hit a door knob and the disk slipped from his hands, landed on its edge, and rolled rapidly down the hall. Befor e the engineer could prevent it, the record rolled into a pan of patching plaster that a workman was using in the hallway.

In terror, the engineer snatched the disk from the plaster, blasted it at a nearby faucet, and then ran into the studio and slapped it on the turntable. He just got the needle into the first groove as the announcer ran out of local copy.

The broadcast was a little rough in spots because of the flecks of plaster. Neil Reagan, who was listening to the show on his car radio on the way home, stopped to telephone the station to ask what was wrong. The quick-thinking engineer assured Reagan that it was just "atmospheric disturbances."

"STRAIGHT ARROW" was broadcast nationally as a 30-minute episode three times a week until February 1950 and then it went to twice a week until the show ended in June 1951. All 292 scripts were written by Sheldon Stark.

While his script on the childhood of Straight Arrow was never aired, the story was used on the inside cover of an Injun-Uity Manual premium.

Although this entertaining series had a relatively short run (starting after the advent of television, it could not last long) it was popular enough to spawn both a comic book series and also a newspaper strip.

The first comic book came out in the spring of 1950 with Gardner Fox doing most of the writing and Fred L. Meagher as the illustrator. The comic books actually out-lasted the radio version by a full five years; they ended in March 1956.

The newspaper strip, distributed by Bell Syndicate, was well done, but did not equal the duration of the comic books. This news strip, again with story by Fox, was illustrated by the talented duo of John Belfi and Joe Certa. It was syndicated to about 200 U.S. newspapers from July 1950 to August 1951.

Today, some 45 years after the demise of STRAIGHT ARROW, virtually all of the talented people who were in its cast and crew are deceased. Culver went on to play the boy friend of Mercedes McCambridge in her radio series, DEFENSE ATTORNEY, and he had a reoccurring television role as Howie the desk clerk on GUNSMOKE.

Culver died in 1984, but his widow, Lois, is currently active in our OTR hobby and is involved in a vintage radio "chat-room" on the Internet. (See Lou Genco's web site.)

Frank Bingman became a anchor man for ABC-TV and did voice-overs for movie previews of 20th Century-Fox. He died in August 1988 in Northern Virginia, and one month before his death, he addressed the membership of the Metro Washington OTR Club. Bingman revealed that in his 40+ years of broadcasting, "STRAIGHT ARROW" was his favorite series and that Howard Culver had been his best and closest friend.

Regrettably, only six complete episodes of "STRAIGHT ARROW" have been located thus far and are in trading currency. But the memory of the Comanche Warrior is kept alive by Bill and Teresa Harper, 301 E. Buena Vista Ave, North Augusta, SC 29841. This dedicated couple for many years regularly published a Straight Arrow newsletter called "Pow-Wow."

And by the time you finish this article, Post's brand logo will adorn "Nabisco Original Shredded Wheat" boxes on your grocery shelves. (Where's Straight Arrow when you need him now?)

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Jerry Haendiges Productions 1996