Although no one today has even heard of him, Chester J. Gruber was one of the biggest radio stars ever in St. Louis. But few people knew him by his given name when he hit the height of his popularity in the early 1930s. To his listeners, Chester was known as Tony Cabooch.
His act was like nothing else on the airwaves. Chess was 39 years old when his program on KMOX was picked up by CBS and broadcast over the entire radio network. The year was 1930, and hometown corporation Anheuser-Busch heard that another company was courting Gruber for a program based in New York. Gruber told an interviewer he received a telegram while on a train headed to New York. Quoting a St. Louis Globe-Democrat account: “It was from Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis. They told him to sign no contracts until he had seen them. The result was Tony’s return here and his contract for $500 a week for 26 weeks.”
The Anheuser-Busch Antics went on CBS in May of 1930, with the first program introduced by St. Louis Mayor Victor Miller. It was the first regularly scheduled network show to originate in St. Louis. And Chester Gruber was the star, providing the voices of at least 15 different characters, including Singhi the Chinaman, Casey the Irishman, Sam Green the cotton field worker, Abe Cohen, Vittor (Tony’s brother), Lena the parrot, Reginald Tweed from England, Ole Olson from Sweden, Haba Daba the tribesman, and Alvin Larsen the sailor.
Gruber’s dialects would surely have made him the target of the political correctness police today, but in the days following Vaudeville, his entertainment represented the transfer of America’s interest from local theaters to radios in the parlor. Prior to his KMOX debut, Gruber had spent 12 years on the stage, refining his acting dialects. His popularity was such that, in his first 14 weeks on KMOX (before the network show) he received 42,000 fan letters.
And the name Tony Cabooch was something Gruber grabbed while dining in one of the city’s many restaurants. Again from an article in the Globe, “He heard a waiter cry out to the chef, ‘Corn a bif a cabooch.’ Which translated meant ‘An order of corn beef and cabbage.’ The phrase stuck in Gruber’s memory, and when it came time for Tony to appear his last name was Cabooch.”
Gruber described Tony as “just a downtrodden wop who hasn’t got a cent, but he wants to help everyone on earth. He is funny and always human.” In Tony’s own dialectic words “I’m all a time goan work a hard for pleez a you an’ eff I’m can make a you laugh joost a leetle bits, den dat makes a me feel happy an’ I’m hope a you was forget a you trouble.”
No records have been found to indicate how long the show ran on KMOX and CBS. The local program had been heard Wednesday and Friday evenings at 6:45, sponsored by F.C. Taylor Fur Company. The twice-weekly broadcasts continued at the network level Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 9:00.
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 02/2000)