Going Wherever the Jobs Were
“There was a joint across the street from KMOX, a tavern. We used to hang out in that tavern.”
The speaker is Harry Gibbs. He’s talking about how he got started in the radio business with the help of his friend Chuck Barnhart.
“Chuck was one of the most talented guys I’ve ever known. He was remarkable. He used to go on the air about 5:30 in the afternoon on KMOX and he would do a one-man soap opera. He played all the parts, and he did it strictly by winging it. He didn’t write it. I used to go down there and bum with him. “He was a copywriter. He was a show producer. Whatever you needed he could do. I needed a job bad and I had narrated this housing show on KMOX with Chuck.”
Barnhart, along with Post-Dispatch drama critic Jack Balch, took up Gibbs’ cause and pitched him to one of their acquaintances.
“They talked to Mike Henry at WTMV and they said ‘You’ve gotta take this guy.’ They bugged him every day. They’d call him and ask if he’d hired me yet. He finally said ‘Okay. Send this paragon of everything over to see me.’”
The broadcast career of Harry Gibbs is usually associated with his many years on KSD-TV (Channel 5) as Texas Bruce, host of the Wranglers’ Cartoon Club. Few people realize he started here in radio in the late ‘40s.
WTMV, at that time, was an interesting place. Located in East St. Louis’ Broadview Hotel on the mezzanine, the station, according to Gibbs, was much more free-wheeling than the business is today. “Mike had employed quite a few people who really needed work. Ray Schmidt, the sports guy, was one of those Mike referred to as his ‘crippled children.’ Ray would get pretty well loaded and he had a habit. In the middle of his sports cast, when he came to a stopping place, he’d put his head down on the table and sleep a little bit.”
Staff members in the small but mighty radio station were expected to wear many hats. “There was a program that I did at 11 in the morning,” says Gibbs. “It was just a sort of a thing where I talked to myself for an hour. It seemed like forever. I’d just open the mic and wing it. I was talking to anybody who was listening.
“I also wrote copy for the whole station. I can still remember writing ‘Merry Christmas’ spots for the funeral parlor. Anything that they were going to put on the air, I wrote. I had a sort of an office right next door to the men’s john and everybody went through there at one time or another.”
The radio business itself was very loose compared with later years. Gibbs’ voice could often be heard on several different stations in the same week, often on the same day. “I’d sit in that little office and write copy and then I’d come back across the river and do ‘Land We Live In,’ and then eventually the Pet Milk program.”
Musicians were the same way, with their groups playing on whichever stations found sponsors for them. And the pay was so low that anyone who had a family to support would take whatever work was available.
So when the opportunity to do a show on a network came along, Gibbs grabbed it. The show, sponsored by Pet Milk, was a conception of Gardner Advertising, headquartered in St. Louis. They wrote all the scripts, hired the talent, bought the time on the networks and produced the show at local radio studios. Mary Lee Taylor was heard on NBC and CBS during its run.
Harry Gibbs remembers that the Mary Lee Taylor Show started out as a women’s program that gave out recipes, but then Gardner decided to expand the offering. “They’d decided that the Mary Lee Taylor thing, which was just recipes, needed to be goosed up, so they threw this 15-minute soap opera into it.”
And that meant more work for St. Louis actors. “I was Jim and Tommye Rodemeyer was Sally. Little Eddie Stemmler played Spud. Sue Cost was Mary Lee Taylor.”
Since the show was heard nationally, the work schedule was a lot more complicated than one might imagine. “We would do a broadcast from the KMOX studios in the morning for every market from St. Louis east. Then we’d come back in the afternoon and do it for everything west. Then we’d go to Technisonic Studios and do one special show for Utah, where Pet Milk was marketed under the name of Sego. That show was transcribed and shipped out.”
And in those days of wearing many professional hats, it was necessary to become a chameleon, adapting to one’s surroundings to meet the needs of station management. In addition to his appearances on a weekly network program, Harry Gibbs also found himself hosting a women’s show on another St. Louis station.
“There was a time when I was doing a morning talk show on KSD. Then I’d head over to KWK for a noon show sponsored by Biederman’s. The concept was that women in the listening audience would come to the studios with the most useless thing they could find in their house and then describe it on the air. The winner would get me for the rest of the day. I did all kinds of chores - whatever they wanted - and then would take them to the Chase for dinner.
“My favorites were two little girls from East St. Louis who won. They wanted to go to the Forest Park Highlands. I rode that roller coaster so much that I could practically drive it from memory by the end of the day.”
After several years of a professional roller coaster in St. Louis radio, Harry Gibbs jumped at the chance to host a kids’ show on the newest medium - television.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 5/2006.)