And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

by Raymond William Stedman

Annie and Sandy
Annie and Sandy
Daytime cliffhanging began April 6, 1931, on the Blue Network of NBC. By coincidence -- as it was with the pioneer movie serials -- the afternoon radio genre had as its first principal character a female, and an underage one at that. Well, not much underage, for she had made her debut in Harold Grey's comic strip in 1924, and she then looked to be nine or ten years old. When she reached the airwaves seven years later, Little Orphan Annie seemed not a day older. It must have been disconcerting to Jack Armstrong, Tom Mix, Don Winslow, and the gang that a little child had led them, but that's the way it was. As a matter of fact, she didn't have a single late afternoon competitor for more than a year-- and when he arrived, he too was a child -- Bobby Benson.

Unlike most of the evening thrillers of the time, the juvenile dramas like Annie's were continued stories, divided into fifteen-minute time segments stretching from Monday through Friday. (For a few years they ran into Saturdays, too.) These daytime thrillers were not episodic serials in the mode of nighttime adventures but were open-ended, having suspenseful closings for each daily installment. Only when an adventure that had occupied the regular characters for weeks or months was at last wrapped up might an individual program end on a note of resolution. More often, however, a new mystery was introduced during the same episode in which the old one concluded. This revolving-plot technique was, of course, designed to draw the juvenile listeners to the next installment. Women's serials also employed the device, but soap-opera writers used many more episodes to sneak in the new plot and rarely ended one on the high note of suspense that marked the serials for children.

Shirley Bell
Shirley Bell as Little Orphan Annie

There is a possibility of confusion on the part of some who recall the Little Orphan Annie series, because it was really two, or perhaps three, different programs. First of all, because of the imperfections in network connections in 1931, it was necessary to maintain two complete casts for the dramas, one in Chicago and one in San Francisco. Thus, until 1933, when the network lines were complete and available, listeners in the East and the Middle West heard the Shirley Bell (pictured at left) company enacting the dramas, while those on the Pacific Coast heard a company with Floy Hughes in the title role. The scripts, fortunately, were identical, so the distinction amounted to having the same things happen to different-sounding people on the same days. This variation in aural images in the days before the Chicago cast took over coast to coast may or may not have affected the way the early Orphan Annie program is remembered by those of different areas.

The real dichotomy in Annie's radio existence, however, was chronological, not geographical. She had, if I may give them names, her Ovaltine period and her Puffed Wheat Sparkies period. The former was the longer (1931-40) and the more distinguished. Moreover, it was only in the earlier Ovaltine years that her listeners heard both words and melody of the Orphan Annie song, which began:

Who's that little chatterbox,
The one with pretty auburn locks
The adventures themselves initially corresponded to the kinds of things that went on in the Annie comic strip -- and thus beggar description. Not that they were excessively exotic; in the earlier days they took place mostly in Tompkins Corners or Sunfield and were sprinkled with some American Gothic characters, including Mr. and Mrs. Silo and Annie's little pal Joe Corntassel. But there were those other people, notably Oliver Warbucks, the war profiteer's war profiteer, the capitalist's capitalist, who never had to take the law into his own hands because he had a law of his own. Violators faced dispatch at the hands of the giant Punjab or, worse yet, the silent Asp, Warbuck's favorite executioner. Although Daddy Warbucks was not always around to help Annie, at those times when he was, villains could expect quick liquidation without the fuss of arrest and trial.
Secret Society Code Book Cover
Cover for the Secret Society Book.

When Annie and Joe were on their own, the radio adventures were not so much bizarre as improbable, primarily because the two youngsters did things that real kids could only dream of doing. (For example, explore the logical aspects of, "Follow that cab!" when placed in the mouth of a ten-year-old.) Because the adventures represented wonderful wish fulfillment for a child – just as Warbucks represented the child's concept of the all-powerful adult -- Little Orphan Annie caught on quickly with younger children and remained their thriller when others came along. Announcer Pierre André, not incidentally, has to be considered an important factor in the show's appeal to that age group; he had the youngsters hanging upon every word, whether it was about the day's adventure or the Wander Company's nourishing Ovaltine (whose premium offers are part of another story). Wander should have erected a monument to André(and to Blackett-Sample-Hummert, the advertising agency which packaged the show) atop one of the Swiss mountains whence the idea for Ovaltine supposedly came.

Sometime around the beginning of World War II the makers of Orphan Annie's very own drink decided that they had milked her series for all it was worth and dropped it for Captain Midnight. Annie staggered along on the energy she had stored while drinking Ovaltine, but her producers, faced with the choice of canceling the program or selling Annie's soul, chose the sellout. Deserting Joe Corntassel, Annie became the camp follower of Captain Sparks, an aviator who took the first part of his name from the figure he was imitating, Captain Midnight, and the second part from the sponsor's product, Puffed Wheat Sparkies. Such a hero had no chance of success, and poor Annie had no place at a combat pilot's elbow. Some razzle-dazzle with secret codes and an unusual giveaway of an Orphan Annie Cockpit stirred interest for a while, but the revised series was left behind by shows which could do the sky-spy job better. Even the cereal couldn’t make it and went back to being plain old Puffed Wheat. By then, Annie’s song was only a distant echo:

Always wears a sunny smile,
Now wouldn't it be worth your while
If you could be
Like little Orphan Annie?
Sheet Music Cover
Annie sheet music. Colors by persons unknown.

Little Orphan Annie

Principal Players

Annie / Shirley Bell, Floy Hughes, Janice Gilbert
Daddy Warbucks / Henry Saxe, Stanley Andrews, Boris Aplon
Joe Corntassel / Allan Baruck
Mr. Silo / Jerry O'Mera
Mrs. Silo / Henrietta Tedro
Aha, the cook / Olan Soule
Sandy * / Brad Barker
*(also occasionally performed by the announcer or another actor)
Announcer / Pierre André

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